Saturday, December 29, 2007

Religion in Politics: Who's a Christian?

On the Christian right, it's common to question or reject the True Christianity of "liberals" and members of other suspect sects or "cults". In this interminable presidential campaign, the candidacy of Willard Mitt Romney has made the issue of "I'm a Christian and You're Not" an important, though carefully and slyly handled, one.

A couple of weeks ago, Mike Hucklebee blandly, with seeming naivete, inserted a Mormon doctrinal issue into an interview with a New York Times reporter. It's reasonable to assume that it was a calculated dig intended to raise the hackles of the Faithful Christian against Strange Unchristian Mormon Beliefs. Similarly, it's reasonable to assume the bookcase cross-effect in a Huckabee tv ad was a consciously crafted effect, suitable for a candidate whose fliers describe him as a "Christian Leader", differentiating himself particularly from the Mormon Romney, as well as from other less than evangelical Republican candidates.

So I've been reading up on Mormonism lately. Long ago, I lived in Salt Lake City for three years and got to know a bit of the basics. I've occasionally read some more about it (out of anthropological and comparative religion interests) and now, with Romney's candidacy, I've been taking another look. With Christianity so much in the public square, the question of who is and who isn't a Christian has taken on heightened political importance.

The arguments are always based on doctrinal differences. But since there are so many differences within Christianity, with doctrines changing throughout its history and with many doctrinal divides of greater or lesser importance existing today, it's difficult for an ordinary person to decide what doctrines should be considered out of bounds and what doctrines are genuinely normative for all who want to be recognized as Christian.

Looking at the problem in purely ideological terms, you see incompatible definitions. How to choose among them?

My suggestion is to chuck all the doctrinal discussions and look at physical behavior, not verbal behavior. The simplest first cut is to look at what books are being used in rituals and in training ritual leaders. We can call them "scriptures". What they contain isn't important to this analysis. It's just necessary to be able to identify the labels on the books.

Using this approach, at the elementary level it's clear that Judaism and Christianity are different religions because they use different scriptures. The Hebrew Bible, the Tanakh, is incorporated into Christian practice, but another book, the New Testament, is added. New scripture, new religion.

Islam, while acknowledging and giving some respect to the Jewish and Christian scriptures, has the Qur'an. New scripture, definitely a new religion.

Consider, then, Christian Science -- with Mary Baker Eddy's Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures being a necessary adjunct to the Christian scriptures. Christian Science ritual focuses on a Bible Lesson, composed of citations from both the Bible and Science and Health. Without the new book, there's no Christian Science practice and no Sunday and Wednesday ritual gatherings. Therefore, although Christian Science is an offshoot of Christianity, it's not Christianity.

With three new scriptures added to the Christian Bible, the Mormons, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), make the decision easy. The Book of Mormon, Doctrines and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price define a new religion, not just a new wrinkle within an old religion.

So, without doctrinal considerations or theological bias of any kind, it's possible to come to a completely objective classification of the LDS as a separate religion distinct from Christianity.

This approach saves the time and trouble that would come with having to read a lot of theological arguments. Of course, one can always go further into it and define a variety of Judaisms, Christianities, Islams, and Mormonisms by looking at the use of other books (like the Talmud in Judaism) and by observing other behaviors. In Christianity, for example, it's informative to see who can take communion with whom.

Considerations of doctrines can then follow later, if one is so inclined. What I find helpful is to be able to make objective distinctions first, without having to ponder imponderables or dealing with charges of heresy or apostasy. Discussions of variant theological ideas, like Huckabee's idea of the Trinity vs. Romney's, can then be descriptive and comparative, without requiring the reader to adopt any particular doctrinal or judgmental stance. Establishing a "value-free" definition of differences might enable people to look at these things more calmly and rationally. (But I don't count on it.)

At the very least, though, it allows people to cut to the chase more quickly -- and, if they're going to discuss religion in politics, have their discussions focus on the impact, if any, of candidates' religious doctrines on policy.

Friday, December 14, 2007

A Helpful Hint from Huckabee

I disagree with most of Mike Huckabee's positions. Still, I find a couple of things about him that I do like.

Big money Republicans are bothered by his candidacy's recent surge. They don't like his moderating touch of economic populism. His concern for the poor does make Huckabee much more of a "compassionate conservative" than most of his colleagues. In his campaign, he criticizes corporate policies, Wall Street, and the damage done to workers by US trade policies. He's even won a union endorsement, from the Machinists.

His platform, however, as displayed at his website, doesn't go into these matters. It's much more conventionally and conservatively "faith-based" as defined by right-wing evangelicals, and more reticent on compassion.

Despite this, his economic populism is a plus factor. And he has an enlightened attitude toward the arts: he supports more arts funding in public education and made music and art education mandatory in Arkansas for every K-12 student. The arts are often the first to be cut either as an unaffordable "frill" or as taking time away for "more important" academic work. Huckabee, an amateur musician, knows they are integral to mental development.

What's more interesting to me is the deft way he deflected a question on Biblical inerrancy. It could be a model for the way Christian Progressives deal with the inerrancy issue. When a young man held up a Bible and asked "Do you believe every word of this book?" this is what Huckabee said when his turn came:

"Sure. I believe the Bible is exactly what it is. It's the word of revelation to us from God himself. (Applause)

"And the fact is that when people ask do we believe all of it, you either believe it or you don't believe it. But in the greater sense, I think what the question tried to make us feel like was that, well, if you believe the part that says "Go and pluck out your eye," well, none of us believe that we ought to go pluck out our eye. That obviously is allegorical.

"But the Bible has some messages that nobody really can confuse and really not left up to interpretation. "Love your neighbor as yourself."

"And as much as you've done it to the least of these brethren, you've done it unto me. Until we get those simple, real easy things right, I'm not sure we ought to spend a whole lot of time fighting over the other parts that are a little bit complicated.

"And as the only person here on the stage with a theology degree, there are parts of it I don't fully comprehend and understand, because the Bible is a revelation of an infinite god, and no finite person is ever going to fully understand it. If they do, their god is too small."

The two things that I see as significant here is that first he both asserts inerrancy and recognizes that what he believes to be inerrant meanings are beyond complete understanding. Then he sets out what I think is the important idea that's shared by both theologically conservative and theologically liberal Progressive Christians: "love your neighbor as yourself" and "as you do unto others, you do unto Jesus." That's a powerful notion, regardless of how metaphorically or literally anyone takes the "doing unto Jesus" part.

What Progressive Christians need to be reminding each other, as well as reminding the Unprogressives, is "Until we get those simple, real easy things right, I'm not sure we ought to spend a whole lot of time fighting over the other parts that are a little bit complicated."

Programmatically, those simple things aren't that easy. But the words themselves don't need interpretation. Progressive Christians of whatever stripe will spend their time better in thinking together about how to be faithful with those words than in fighting over the other parts.

Although I will oppose Huckabee if he's the nominee, I thank him for a helpful hint. I expect to find myself reminding Progressive and Unprogressive Christians of the need to do the simple things first.

Thanks, Mike.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Romney's sad speech

I wasn't going to write about Romney, but my local paper printed a column about it which riled me enough to spur me to write to the columnist. If I were starting out to write a blog entry about Romney, I might have written a different kind of piece. Maybe I will later. But this is what I have now:

Dear Kathleen Parker,

I'm afraid the point of his speech and the point of your column are both not in accord with historical facts. Freedom and religion are not inextricably linked. All you have to do is remember the obvious: the Inquisition, the Salem witch trials, Franco's Spain. As a Jew, I can't help but think of a long series of oppressions by Christian nations, as well as their own religious wars and mutual oppressions. And as one who had intellectual contempt for Christianity, I can assure you that my passion for freedom was no less when I was non-religious than it has continued to be since my baptism as an adult.

Romney's mention of the "ancient traditions of the Jews, unchanged through the ages" is laughable. The old temple religion is gone and the rabbinic tradition is cumulative and varied. I was bar mitzvahed in a Conservative temple that had a Reform rabbi; it was quite different from the Orthodox synagogue down the street.

Take a look at Christian Reconstructionists if you want a clear idea of how intense religious commitment can be linked to a desire for domination and the absence of freedom. Gary North, for one, is enthusiastic about the benefits of death by stoning. In his view, when Reconstructionists become the overwhelming majority, death by stoning will be a normal punishment for adulterers, homosexuals, rebellious children, and religious apostates, not to mention witches, blasphemers, and many others. He's enthusiastic about it because it's cheap, it builds community since everyone can participate, and it symbolizes God's ultimate "breaking open the head of Satan".

Perhaps his most famous line is this: "We must use the doctrine of religious liberty to gain independence for Christian schools until we train up a generation of people who know that there is no religious neutrality, no neutral law, no neutral education, and no neutral civil government. Then they will get busy in constructing a Bible-based social, political and religious order which finally denies the religious liberty of the enemies of God."

Freedom from religion helps keep freedom of religion honest. Romney, in effect, would rule the non-religious out of order and somehow dangerous to freedom. In addition, he papers over the immense differences in religious values in the USA by overstating the existence of shared values among the religious. Just try to reconcile Quakers and Christian Reconstructionists!

All in all, I think it was a very poor speech. But what would a Jewish Episcopalian know about religion?



Saturday, December 01, 2007

Praying for rain

Sonny Perdue, the Governor of drought-stricken Georgia, caused a bit of a stir a couple of weeks ago by holding a public prayer meeting to intercede with God for rain. His prayers on the Capitol steps in Atlanta, along with those of Christian clergy, were heard by hundreds of Georgians, including many state legislators.

One Methodist minister prayed "We've been so busy industrializing that we've forgotten how to spiritualize. We've been so busy with our economy and what we can have and what we can possess that we've forgotten that you possess it all. Great God, this is your land. We till it for you. We are entrepreneurs for you, dear God." As if in response, an entrepeneur who had traveled from New York for the event distributed leaflets promoting his company's Wataire Atmospheric Water Generator, a device to make pure filtered water from the air.

Amidst the amens, many secularists complained about the mingling of church and state: "the government needs to take action, not call prayer meetings. Let the churches call prayer meetings." But Dave Ross, a liberal CBS radio commentator, had a different and interesting take on this prayer, and on prayer in general. I couldn't find a transcript, but what I was able to make out was this:

The governor prayed ""Father, we come before you today to acknowledge that we are needy. We acknowledge our wastefulness. We acknowledge that we haven't done the things we need to do." Another of the ministers prayed "We acknowledge that we have not been good stewards of our land."

Dave Ross, who, according to what I've read, is usually quite cynical, then commented: "Wow, that's some serious truth-telling, because people who believe in God know that He wants us to acknowledge the truth before He acts." He went on to suggest that if the prayers weren't answered, maybe God was waiting for a little more truth.

So Dave suggested that the next prayer could go like this: "Lord, we acknowledge that we your children have mocked the idea of climate change and ridiculed the idea that our desire for wealth and comfort could affect your delicate balance."

"You may disagree", he said, "but try it, and if that doesn't work then try something like "Lord, we realize our selfish development practices have threatened the very water supplies we are praying for --and just keep going, keep telling God the truth until the drought finally ends. Because that's the real power of prayer, that it gets you to proclaim the truth loudly enough that even the people who are doing the praying can hear it."

Something to think about there: truth-telling prayer is like the prophets' words of truth. Without truth, prayer becomes a con job, conning the self, conning the people. Only if we face the truth do we have a chance of coming to our senses and dealing reasonably with our messes.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

A day of national thanksgiving; a day of repentance?

If I had the talent of Sam Clemens, I'd write a scathing prayer to match the famous Mark Twain prayer for victory in war. Prompted by the jingoism of the Spanish-American War, it went unpublished until after his death.

I'll content myself with giving thanks for the bounty of this great land and for the opportunity our European founders were given to steal it from its original unworthy inhabitants who didn't know how to exploit its resources to the maximum; and for the means of accomplishing that great transfer -- the guns, steel, and germs that made genocide feasible and a continental empire possible. And the Bible that was used to bless it.

Lest in our tales of Pilgrims and Savages we forget the other great member of the trinity that provided the material foundations of our great nation, I also give thanks for the slavery that enriched both North and South -- the one through wise, enriching participation in the great trans-Atlantic Triangle Trade of slaves, molasses, and rum; the other through the clever use of unpaid labor to build the region's wealth.

Thanks are due, therefore, for theft, genocide, and slavery -- the means to opening up the vast resources that were previously unknown to Europeans, and the foundations for our later prosperity. And for war, to secure our blessings.

I give thanks that the past is past, allowing many to remain serenely indifferent to these things while watching parades and football games and eating overbred birds that are maladapted for living free -- a nation giving thanks and resting up for the ominously named "Black Friday" of extreme shopping.

And I give thanks for the possibility of repentance. Without inward examination, reflection, and repentance, untroubled minds never learn; they, we, keep repeating the old patterns in new ways. Confession is good for the soul: that holds true for the nation, too. A day of national repentance would offer up the possibility, for the clear of mind and contrite of heart, of following a new path. The unexamined life, as a continuous repetition until at last the point of terminal exhaustion is reached, is in the end not worth living.

Words to hear and inwardly digest:

Sherman Edwards, the composer and lyricist of "1776" put these words in the mouth of Edward Rutledge of South Carolina:

Molasses to rum to slaves, oh what a beautiful waltz
You dance with us, we dance with you
Molasses and rum and slaves

Who sails the ships out of Boston
Ladened with bibles and rum?
Who drinks a toast to the Ivory Coast?
Hail Africa, the slavers have come -
New England with bibles and rum

And its off with the rum and the bibles
Take on the slaves, clink, clink
Hail and farewell to the smell
Of the African coast

Molasses to rum to slaves
'Tisn't morals, 'tis money that saves
Shall we dance to the sound of the profitable pound
In molasses and rum and slaves

Who sails the ships out of Guinea
Ladened with bibles and slaves?
'Tis Boston can coast to the West Indies coast
Jamaica, we brung what ye craves
Antigua, Barbados, we brung bibles and slaves!

Molasses to rum to slaves
Who sail the ships back to Boston
Ladened with gold, see it gleam
Whose fortunes are made in the triangle trade
Hail slavery, the New England dream!
Mr. Adams, I give you a toast:
Hail Boston! Hail Charleston!
Who stinketh the most?

Sam Clemens wrote: "O Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to battle -- be Thou near them! With them, in spirit, we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it -- for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.

(After a pause)

"Ye have prayed it; if ye still desire it, speak! The messenger of the Most High waits."

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Let us now praise famous men

On the Sunday after Hallowe'en, when I got to church I was surprised to find out that I wasn't reading the passage that I thought I was going to read. I had used the old Lectionary to prepare, forgetting that the new edition had been revised to recognize All Saints Day and All Souls Day and thus the designated readings had been changed. So instead of Isaiah 1 and "your hands are full of blood", I read the tamer and elegaic "Let us now sing the praises of famous men" passage from Ecclesiasticus 44.

Instead of the message of "More Woe" which I had expected to project convincingly for them, the congregation heard an evocation of community -- a hymn in honor of our notable ancestors.

Granted, only men were mentioned, and they weren't "common men", but at least they were diverse. The word was that all of them, from the rulers of kingdoms who had made a name for their valor, down to those whose names have been forgotten, had been apportioned "great glory" by the Lord. Even those whose names and lives, and children's names and lives, have been forgotten are not forgotten. Their righteous deeds and their name live on "generation after generation".

I take this as a celebration of continuity and community. And I take some pleasure in noting that in the list of types of famous men, with its implicit hierarchy, the rich men were last. Composers of music and poets came before them. Rulers led the list, followed by intelligent counselors to the rulers, then prophets, then wise instructors of the people, and then the musicians and writers of verses, and only then the rich, "living peacefully in their homes". We should, perhaps, be concerned that our rich, in our day, have moved up too high on our current list of famous (and powerful) men. Would that they would stay more peacefully in their homes.

It's significant that this eulogy comes after a long hymn (the second half of chapter 42 through the end of chapter 43) that praises the Natural World, Sun, Moon, Stars, Rainbow, and other Marvels. And it comes before a very long series of praises to the great names beginning with Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and ranging through the great kings and prophets (with brief condemnations of a couple of bad kings along the way).

Thus, the hymn to the unnamed famous men of Ecclesiasticus 44 fits into an even grander sequence of hymns, revealing continuities and an evolving community. The really big-name famous, like Moses, are rooted in this more ordinary community of honored ancestors, a community that goes way back in time and geography and will go way forward in both. And this more ordinary human community is in turn rooted in the natural, material world and universe.

Our praise of famous men here in Ecclesiasticus is in this way a part of a poetic expansion of the creation stories of Genesis. The larger set of hymns implies or prefigures a holistic view of creation and our place in it -- a view that sees everything as connected. Or perhaps as nested, each manifestation of reality sited within the next, from the cosmic down to the human. Linked. Or, as texts in the web, hyperlinked. Everything's connected. I like to think of this section of Ecclesiasticus as an early example of systems thinking, a foreshadowing of systems theory and the study of interconnectedness in all realms of nature.

Connectedness is essential. But community, under the great stress of impersonal economic and political forces, is ever harder to find, create, or sustain. Many cliches are on target: it does take a village; we are standing on the shoulders of giants, even unknown ones. And even those who appear to be the giants of the ages are standing on the shoulders of others. And all stand on the shifting structures of natural systems. Unfortunately, the village, the "human pyramid" of standers-on-shoulders, and our natural life-support systems are all in danger of disconnecting on a grand scale.

Our resources for building up good connections are small in comparison to the resources devoted to destruction. There is, however, a large place where the Bible and humanism, where anthropology and ecology, and dissidence of many kinds, all meet. I see that place as a staging area for movements of resistance and justice, raising hopes for community and peace.

Whatever commitments move people to that staging area are to be applauded and nurtured. Finding and keeping their connectedness, and developing it further will not be easy. Doctrines that would restrict access to the staging area will always abound, be they religious or secular in their assertions of various orthodoxies. Splits and diverging movements will always arise. The way is definitely difficult -- and narrow.

So, in the immortal words of a character who led a football cheer in Walt Kelly's ancient comic strip, Pogo, "fight on, chartreuse and plaid!" That should rally us.

No? Then let's try "blessed are the peacemakers."

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Values - Christian? Secular?

The Green Party promotes "10 Key Values". Two things strike me. First, they're popular. They come close to representing an American consensus on many points. They would probably poll pretty well. (As an example, in 2000, in trial heats between single pairs of candidates, in what's called "Condorcet polling", the Green candidate, Ralph Nader, beat each of the other candidates, Bush, Gore, and Buchanan.)

Second, they're not "religious", but they appear to me to be generally consistent with the "true religion" (or true worship) which is described and prescribed in the Epistle of James, and with the equivalent charitable love of Paul's epistles.

They raise the issue of whose values are more Biblically defensible -- the Christian Right's or those of at least some of the secular left's?

An amusing question. Think about it.

Here are the more or less definitive definitions from the national Green Party site. Some states have variant versions. I rather like the California version which is in the form of "how can we..." questions rather than statements of what we should or must do. That way, the CA version raises some interesting specific questions.

Rather than explain and comment, I'll leave it to you to ponder, comment, and ask questions.

Ten Key Values of the Green Party
Originally ratified at the Green Party Convention in Denver, CO, June 2000.

Every human being deserves a say in the decisions that affect their lives and not be subject to the will of another. Therefore, we will work to increase public participation at every level of government and to ensure that our public representatives are fully accountable to the people who elect them. We will also work to create new types of political organizations which expand the process of participatory democracy by directly including citizens in the decision-making process.

The California questions:
-- How can we develop systems that allow and encourage us to control the decisions that affect our lives?
-- How can we ensure that representatives will be fully accountable to the people who elected them?
-- How can we develop planning mechanisms that would allow citizens to develop and implement their own preferences for policies and spending priorities?
-- How can we encourage and assist the "mediating institutions"--family, neighborhood organization, church group, voluntary association, ethnic club--to recover some of the functions now performed by the government?
-- How can we relearn the best insights from American traditions of civic vitality, voluntary action and community responsibility?

All persons should have the rights and opportunity to benefit equally from the resources afforded us by society and the environment. We must consciously confront in ourselves, our organizations, and society at large, barriers such as racism and class oppression, sexism and homophobia, ageism and disability, which act to deny fair treatment and equal justice under the law.

The California questions:
-- How can we respond to human suffering in ways that promote dignity?
-- How can we encourage people to commit themselves to lifestyles that promote their own health?
-- How can we have a community controlled education system that effectively teaches our children academic skills, ecological wisdom, social responsibility and personal growth?
-- How can we resolve personal and intergroup conflicts without just turning them over to lawyers and judges?
-- How can we take responsibility for reducing the crime rate in our neighborhoods?
-- How can we encourage such values as simplicity and moderation?

Human societies must operate with the understanding that we are part of nature, not separate from nature. We must maintain an ecological balance and live within the ecological and resource limits of our communities and our planet. We support a sustainable society which utilizes resources in such a way that future generations will benefit and not suffer from the practices of our generation. To this end we must practice agriculture which replenishes the soil; move to an energy efficient economy; and live in ways that respect the integrity of natural systems. [A current statement of this would also emphasize climate change as an issue.]

The California questions:
-- How can we operate human societies with the understanding that we are part of nature, not on top of it?
-- How can we live within the ecological and resource limits of the planet, applying our technological knowledge to the challenge of an energy efficient economy?
-- How can we build a better relationship between cities and countryside?
-- How can we guarantee the rights of non-human species?
-- How can we promote sustainable agriculture and respect for self-regulating natural systems?
-- How can we further biocentric wisdom in all spheres of life?

It is essential that we develop effective alternatives to society’s current patterns of violence. We will work to demilitarize, and eliminate weapons of mass destruction, without being naive about the intentions of other governments. We recognize the need for self-defense and the defense of others who are in helpless situations. We promote non-violent methods to oppose practices and policies with which we disagree, and will guide our actions toward lasting personal, community and global peace.

The California questions:
-- How can we develop effective alternatives to our current patterns of violence at all levels, from the family and the street to nations and the world?
-- How can we eliminate nuclear weapons from the face of the Earth without being naive about the intentions of other governments?
-- How can we most constructively use nonviolent methods to oppose practices and policies with which we disagree, and in the process reduce the atmosphere of polarization and selfishness that is itself a source of violence?

Centralization of wealth and power contributes to social and economic injustice, environmental destruction, and militarization. Therefore, we support a restructuring of social, political and economic institutions away from a system which is controlled by and mostly benefits the powerful few, to a democratic, less bureaucratic system. Decision-making should, as much as possible, remain at the individual and local level, while assuring that civil rights are protected for all citizens.

The California questions:
-- How can we reduce [ie: devolve] power and responsibility to individuals, institutions, communities and regions?
-- How can we encourage the flourishing of regionally-based culture, rather than a dominant mono-culture?
-- How can we have a decentralized, democratic society with our political, economic and social institutions locating power on the smallest scale (closest to home) that is efficient and practical?
-- How can we redesign our institutions so that fewer decisions and less regulation over money are granted as one moves from the community to the national level?
-- How can we reconcile the need for community and regional self-determination with the need for appropriate centralized regulation in certain matters?

We recognize it is essential to create a vibrant and sustainable economic system, one that can create jobs and provide a decent standard of living for all people while maintaining a healthy ecological balance. A successful economic system will offer meaningful work with dignity, while paying a “living wage” which reflects the real value of a person’s work.

Local communities must look to economic development that assures protection of the environment and workers’ rights; broad citizen participation in planning; and enhancement of our “quality of life.” We support independently owned and operated companies which are socially responsible, as well as co-operatives and public enterprises that distribute resources and control to more people through democratic participation.

The California questions:
-- How can we redesign our work structures to encourage employee ownership and workplace democracy?
-- How can we develop new economic activities and institutions that will allow us to use our new technologies in ways that are humane, freeing, ecological and accountable, and responsive to communities?
-- How can we establish some form of basic economic security, open to all?
-- How can we move beyond the narrow "job ethic" to new definitions of "work," jobs" and "income" that reflect the changing economy?
-- How can we restructure our patterns of income distribution to reflect the wealth created by those outside the formal monetary economy: those who take responsibility for parenting, housekeeping, home gardens, community volunteer work, etc.?
-- How can we restrict the size and concentrated power of corporations without discouraging superior efficiency or technological innovation?

7. FEMINISM AND GENDER EQUITY [Some state parties call this "Gender Equity and Cooperation"]
We have inherited a social system based on male domination of politics and economics. We call for the replacement of the cultural ethics of domination and control with more cooperative ways of interacting that respect differences of opinion and gender. Human values such as equity between the sexes, interpersonal responsibility, and honesty must be developed with moral conscience. We should remember that the process that determines our decisions and actions is just as important as achieving the outcome we want.

The California questions:
-- How can we replace the cultural ethics of dominance and control with more cooperative ways of interacting?
-- How can we encourage people to care about persons outside their own group?
-- How can we promote the building of respectful, positive and responsible relationships across the lines of gender and other divisions?
-- How can we encourage a rich, diverse political culture that respects feelings as well as rationalist approaches?
-- How can we proceed with as much respect for the means as the end (the process as much as the product of our efforts)?
-- How can we learn to respect the contemplative, inner part of life as much as the outer activities?

We believe it is important to value cultural, ethnic, racial, sexual, religious and spiritual diversity, and to promote the development of respectful relationships across these lines.

We believe that the many diverse elements of society should be reflected in our organizations and decision-making bodies, and we support the leadership of people who have been traditionally closed out of leadership roles. We acknowledge and encourage respect for other life forms than our own and the preservation of biodiversity.

The California questions:
-- How can we honor cultural, ethnic, racial, sexual, religious and spiritual diversity within the context of individual responsibility toward all beings?
-- How can we reclaim our country's finest shared ideals: the dignity of the individual, democratic participation, and liberty and justice for all?

We encourage individuals to act to improve their personal well-being and, at the same time, to enhance ecological balance and social harmony. We seek to join with people and organizations around the world to foster peace, economic justice, and the health of the planet.

The California questions:
-- How can we be of genuine assistance to the grassroots groups in the Third World? What can we learn from such groups?
-- How can we help other countries make the transition to self-sufficiency in food and other basic necessities?
-- How can we cut our defense budget while maintaining an adequate defense?
-- How can we promote these ten Green values in the reshaping of our global order?
-- How can we reshape the world order without creating just another enormous nation-state?

Our actions and policies should be motivated by long-term goals. We seek to protect valuable natural resources, safely disposing of or “unmaking” all waste we create, while developing a sustainable economics that does not depend on continual expansion for survival. We must counterbalance the drive for short-term profits by assuring that economic development, new technologies, and fiscal policies are responsible to future generations who will inherit the results of our actions.

The California questions:
-- How can we induce people and institutions to think in terms of the long range future, and not just in terms of their short range selfish interest?
-- How can we encourage people to develop their own visions of the future and move more effectively toward them?
-- How can we judge whether new technologies are socially useful, and use these judgements to shape our society?
-- How can we induce our government and other institutions to practice fiscal responsibility?
-- How can we make the quality of life, rather than open-ended economic growth, the focus of future thinking?

Ten Key Values from other state and local Greens.
There is no authoritative version of the Ten Key Values of the Greens. The Ten (sometimes 11) Key Values are guiding principles that are adapted and defined to fit each state and local chapter. (

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

No mo' woe.

I can't resist the Hebrew prophets. So here's another in this series of riffs on the assigned readings for Sunday services at my church. Here's my take on the one I'll be reading on the Second Sunday in Advent -- December 2, this year: Isaiah 11: 1-10. And I'm afraid it's turned into something of a sermon. But even a lector can indulge in a bit of exegesis.

This is a famous passage -- about lions and livestock lying down together, and a little child shall lead them. It's a vision of a highly stylized utopia, a "version of pastoral", built on very different principles from the normal, natural world.

At one level, it harkens back to the ideal of the Garden of Eden -- carnivores no longer eat meat: "the lion shall eat straw like the ox". The former predators and the former prey shall lie down together and all are tame enough to be led by a child.

But not really. The verses following this excerpt talk of Israel joining together in a new unity, and then returning home from exile while subduing and plundering their old enemies, and then becoming an example to the rest of the world, a sign of what their God can do. If it's Eden-like in some respects, it's not a complete restoration nor is it an End of Days renewal, even though "the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea."

So what is it?

Evidently the lion, wolf. leopard, bear, lamb, kid, calf, cow, gentle vipers, and the children playing near the snakes without being harmed all symbolize the restored Israel, freed from its internal divisions, jealousies, and feuds. They're finally tame enough to be led by a child, which leads me to think of the later saying that unless you become as a child, you shall not enter the kingdom. In this vision, the child not only enters the kingdom, but leads it. The kingdom is that pacified.

How did this happy state come about? It was the work of the messiah -- not the cosmic Christ of later centuries, but the child of the "stock of Jesse", the idealized royal line of the Hebrews. He will lead this now pacified assemblage of predators and prey, and then their God will bring back to their own country the scattered remnants of Israel and Judah.

I could see how the language used to describe this leader could, by the standard processes of royal propaganda and egomania, be hijacked by ordinary kings and caesars to describe themselves. After all, the coronation psalms for the kings of Israel and Judah referred to them as having been begotten that day by God.

But there's some different language here: instead of breaking the nations with a rod of iron, as in Psalm 2, this leader "shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked." That's not as violent as it sounds: it's all done by words.

Just as the story of Creation has the universe created by the right words from the right source, so here the killing off of evil is done by words, not by swords. Perhaps evil is destroyed by the shame of being exposed by the words, or perhaps it's destroyed by being converted. It doesn't matter: the point is that it's done with words alone, by calling things by their right names.

By using the right names, this leader uncovers the inequities done to "the meek of the earth" and then decides in their favor "with equity". He judges the poor with righteousness, not with the oppression that is their normal lot. He can do this because he's not misled by the surface noise of self-serving propaganda. Instead, "he shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear." He shall perceive the deeper realities of poverty and the unrighteousness that causes poverty.

He can do this because of his spiritual gifts of wisdom, understanding, counsel, (inner) power, and knowledge. It's not a result of his impressive military forces or good generalship.

Plus there's one more thing, something that doesn't easily compute for us today: "the fear of the Lord" which is "his delight" (or "his fragrance" -- the perfume of the myrrh with which he is anointed). Much commentary reduces "the fear of God" to reverence, honor, and a kind of generalized awe. Older commentaries dwell more on awe as "dread" and the simultaneous experience of joy and dread that comes from encountering this ultimate greatness and terrible finality.

I think it's particularly appropriate for us to feel that dread nowadays. We're aware that the margins of safety for life are very narrow. There's a universe out there that can break through our flimsy shields of atmosphere and magnetic fields. We've compromised our life support systems of climate, air, soil, water, and food. Our ways of life seem to be more in tune with the destructive rather than the creative forces of the universe.

That's why this passage in the book of Isaiah speaks so strongly to me. There's the model of peace (that will calm a still warring world); there's the primacy of the poor and the meek over the rich and the powerful; and there's righteousness, which is defined as justice for the poor and equity for the meek. And then there's the primacy of spiritual discernment and the special role of "the fear of the Lord".

This is a simple but comprehensive framework for those who would take the Bible seriously. As a later lady was reputed to have said, "He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent empty away." Add environmental protection and restoration as a response to existential dread (and as a necessity if we're to fill the hungry) -- and there you have a skeletal agenda for those who call themselves Progressive Christians, as well as other kinds of Spiritual Progressives.

Isaiah even provides a model for dealing with the schismatic tensions associated with "identity politics". The wolves and lambs, when taken as images of conflicted identities within the body of the poor and meek, can learn to lie down together. That is, identity issues arise from the divisive policies of the high and mighty. If people find ways to confront the truths of war and geopolitics, and of corporate power and its destructive effects on government, on the environment, and on our economic well-being, then they are likely to find that they are actually working on each other's agendas.

So I say "always connect" -- never see people or issues in isolation: these wolves and lambs are really co-dependent, not like the predator wolves of the corporate world.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

More woe.

Again, a reading from the prophets in church. On November 4, I get to read Isaiah 1:10-20. Another go at woe before a cheerier Advent 'lesson' that I've been assigned to read in early December: the one about "and a little child shall lead them".

I'm writing again about my assigned passages from the Hebrew Bible because these words in Ecclesiasticus, Amos, and now Isaiah speak to us quite clearly and disconcertingly, if only we tune in.

First, it's injustice, arrogance, and wealth that will destroy the nation. Then it's the wealthy, wallowing in self-indulgence, who will come to ruin because they don't care about the poor whom they've exploited. And now, as Isaiah sees it in his vision, it's our bloody hands that cause his God to despise all the ways the people worship, to turn away in anger, and to refuse to hear the people's prayers.

"(E)ven though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood."

The bloody hands are excruciatingly visible since the form of prayer in Isaiah's day was with hands stretched out. Their offenses, then, were "in your face" to their God. The metaphorical blood was metaphorically visible, even if they had ritually washed their hands in the usual way.

All is not irrevocably lost, however. Isaiah holds out the possibility of a different kind of hand-washing. It's not a ritual cleansing; it can only come if you stop doing all that bad stuff and learn how to do good. It's a simple formula: "seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow." Those four things, understood in their fullness, cover in one way or another all the issues we tend to think of as separate items on an agenda for reform. They're linked because the problems they address are systemic. They're built into our institutions, into the way we do everything.

After five verses of blistering condemnation of every aspect of the ritual life of the rulers and the people, and after these two verses on how to do right, then come three verses of "reasoning together" or "arguing together". It's in the form of "either-or": do right or else. Do the right thing and you'll "eat the good of the land"; the bloody red of your sins will become white as snow. Persist in doing what you're doing, then "you shall be devoured by the sword".

It's a persuasive argument, but only if you "have ears" and listen to it.

A side issue, as it relates to the Christian Right: in these verses, Isaiah is addressing "you rulers of Sodom" and "you people of Gomorrah". To the Right, these cities are icons of sexual immorality. But to Isaiah, they're symbols of injustice. In the verse immediately following the threat of destruction by the sword, he does use the metaphor of sexual immorality, but the sin he describes isn't sexual.

This is how it goes: "How the faithful city has become a whore! She that was full of justice, righteousness lodged in her -- but now murderers!" And murder is a metaphor, too -- for cheating in commerce (debasing the coinage and watering the wine); for leaders being companions of thieves and takers of bribes and gifts. The fullness of murder lies in not defending the orphan and widow -- those unfortunates who stand outside the economic and legal protections provided by the extended kinship networks which were the social security, welfare, and unemployment insurance systems of the times, as well as the public defenders in law suits.

Just thinking and talking about these murderers makes the God of Isaiah's vision really angry. Forget about "arguing together". Now his wrath is definitely turned on. But, even so, after the destruction that will surely come, the city will be restored as a city of righteousness. Zion, with those who repent and change their ways, shall be redeemed by their new acts of justice. But everyone else? "The strong shall become like tinder, and their work like a spark; they and their work shall burn together, with no one to quench them."

Perhaps to the Right, this sounds like Isaiah is advocating "salvation by works", not by faith -- with faith being defined as fervent assent to a particular belief system about the existence and nature of God, and about the Bible.

Isaiah, however, has God equating faith with obedience in doing justice. Those who don't obey this call of his by doing something about injustices are the real rebels: they are "the strong" who will burn up "like tinder". The strong: presumably, then, the princes and rulers, by whatever title they currently go by.

Stand against the strong, who are the real rebels; reject evil, which is business as usual; be faithful in your weakness and obey That Which Really Matters; do good.

What could be simpler or more direct? The early followers of Jesus called it The Way.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Whoa! and Woe!

Three weeks ago, I read another prophetic word of woe in church, this time from the Book of Amos.

The current translation in the Lectionary begins with "Alas for those who are at ease in Zion" instead of the older "Woe to those who..." Preferring the word "woe" to the tamer "alas", I asked for and got permission to make the substitution. When I reached the lectern, I was so focused on "woe" and on finding just the right tone and emphasis for that opening cry that I forgot the standard introduction: "A reading from the book of Amos, the 6th chapter, beginning at the first verse." Without preamble, I launched into the prophet's attack on the idle, uncaring rich. Later, I was told that I had certainly grabbed people's attention.

I think Amos would have liked that. Leading off with "Woe" is like hitting a jackass with a two-by-four in order to get his attention. The message following that first hit is always one that the hearers don't want to listen to. That's generally because they're the rich and powerful, satisfied with their riches and secure in their dominance.

Amos' word to them is that their Homeland Security is an illusion: "Woe to those who are at ease in Zion, and to those who feel secure in Mount Samaria". The continuation of the sentence makes it clear that Amos is talking to the power elite: "the notables of the first of the nations to whom the House of Israel resorts." The sarcasm of "the first of the nations" continues. Amos asks these "notables" if their little statelet is bigger and stronger than its neighbors. Well-known to his contemporary audience, but not to his modern one, all three of the places he mentions had already been conquered by the Assyrian Empire. So the implication is that despite your pretensions, guys, you're next.

And his warning is clear: "you that put far away the evil day" have put aside any idea that your actions will be judged, will have consequences. And so you "bring near a reign of violence", the retribution for your actions.

And why? Amos runs through a list of decadently luxurious pleasures enjoyed by his targets: lounging on fancy furniture, eating high on the lamb, amusing themselves with idle songs, swilling wine in bowls, anointing themselves with fine oils. And it's not that these pleasures are intrinsically bad -- this isn't a diatribe against gluttony or sexual debauchery, for example. The problem is that with all these perks of prosperity, the notables have forgotten the important things: they "are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!" And exactly what is the ruin of Joseph? It runs all through Amos' book: it's the "trampling of the head of the poor into the dust". (Amos 2:7) Joseph is "the poor of the land" who have been brought to ruin by cheaters, swindlers, profiteers, who buy them for silver or for a pair of sandals. (Amos 8:4)

Because the wealthy are not grieved, they shall be the first to go into exile when Assyria makes its next conquest. Then "the revelry of the loungers shall pass away."

Amos hereby strikes another blow in the unending battle of prophets against the type of prosperity gospels that substitute the wealth of a few for the prosperity of the people. He says "whoa!". Change now! Or it will be "woe!"

And today there are still hardly enough "whoas" and "woes" to go around.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

On Slavery: Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus

Some weeks ago, one of the scripture readings in most of the mainstream denominations' churches was from the Letter of Paul to Philemon.

This letter -- hardly more than a short note or a slightly long memo -- is unusual in that it deals with only one issue, slavery. A practical social policy question, it would seem. Not a theological one.

From the point of view of human rights activists, it's pretty tepid stuff. It's ambiguous enough to have been cited as a support for slavery in the USA, both before and after the Civil War. For fervent anti-religionists, its lack of any condemnation of slavery reveals the morally compromised nature of Christianity. For the Christian Right, this letter by Paul refutes the misreadings of the Bible by liberals, who hypocritically use it to support radical programs of social change that undermine the orderly rules laid down by the governing authorities -- who are, of course, ordained by God.

Martin Luther had a similar opinion and held that Paul was upholding the social status quo, affirming the runaway slave Onesimus' legal status as a slave and upholding the law by returning him to his owner, Philemon.

True enough, Paul doesn't condemn slavery out of hand. He doesn't inveigh against it at all: he makes no criticism of the way it's practiced in the Roman world. He doesn't forbid it as a practice for Christians.

He merely writes to his Christian friend, Philemon, that he, Paul, is sending back to him his runaway slave whom Paul has come to know and love as a son during Paul's imprisonment. Paul asks Philemon, of his own free will, to release Onesimus.

Despite Paul's attempts to constrain Philemon's choice by using heavy rhetorical arm-twisting, guilt-tripping, and double-binding, he doesn't threaten Philemon with any dire sanctions if he doesn't comply. Paul has no power to compel Philemon to give up his legally recognized and culturally legitimate property rights. "The church" at that time being thoroughly decentralized -- literally anarchic, Paul does the only thing he can do. He makes this an issue of love: faith has turned a slave into a brother who can no longer be regarded as a slave.

This is a form of radicalism that goes over the head of conventional rightist and leftist perceptions and practices. Perfect love not only casts out fear, it casts out slavery. The bonds of union within the Body of Christ, says Paul, make it impossible to own and exploit a brother (or sister), regardless of the rules of The Empire. "In Christ 'there is no slave or free' " may be a better sound bite. But the Letter to Philemon shows how, even without possessing the state's power of compulsion, the powerless can learn to turn an uplifting slogan into a living reality.

The Letter to Philemon is what the late Mennonite theologian, John Howard Yoder, would call an example of "revolutionary subordination".

Revolutionary subordination extends not only to personal relationships of mutual subordination within the community of faith but also to relations with the civil authorities. In that context the concept is very similar to civil disobedience. That is, the power of the civil authorities is recognized as being, in fact, dominant over us. However, it's not "ordained by God" as the Christian Right would have it (based on what Yoder attacked as a mistranslation of Romans 13).

Accepting the reality of the power of the state merely means that we know it will come down hard on us when we refuse its worst demands, as we often must. When that happens, our punishments are part of our witness to a better way. The way is non-violent, acceptant of subordination in its civil sense, and insubordinate in its rejection of cultures of domination, exploitation and injustice.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

On wealth and Prosperity Gospels

As an amateur actor who hasn't been on stage for a very long time, I like it when my wife and I are chosen to read the scripture lessons to the congregation. I prefer the "Old Testament" reading, particularly when it's from one of the prophets. The texts are so boldly dramatic. I usually talk my wife, a professional actress, into reading the Epistle, which generally calls for minutely nuanced handling of long convoluted sentences. (She's good; she's very good.)

Not long ago, when my turn to be a lector rolled around, the passage was from Ecclesiasticus (or the Book of Sirach), part of the Apocrypha. Not a canonical work in the Hebrew Bible, but still a satisfyingly brilliant tirade against arrogance, injustice, and wealth.

The passage started off strong at the 7th verse of chapter 10: "Arrogance is hateful to the Lord and to mortals, and injustice is outrageous to both. Sovereignty passes from nation to nation on account of injustice and insolence and wealth.* [New Revised Standard Version] (I tried to deliver "and wealth" as a quietly released bolt from a cross-bow, aimed at each forehead.)

But this isn't about personal sin; it's about the rise and fall of nations. This could be talking about us, right here in The Land Between The Oceans. People who are used to the Bible aren't surprised to hear injustice and pride condemned. But wealth? As the cause of the fall of a nation? What about all those passages that say if you do right, you will prosper?

Prosperity, however, is not just a personal thing. It's national. Again and again, prophets rail against the dire consequences to the whole people when the nation gets it wrong.

So, according to this Wisdom of Ben Sira, it must be that in a land of injustice and arrogance, great wealth moves to the hands of the avaricious, the deceitful, the loving idolators of wealth, the breakers of the laws of justice -- as well as to the hands of the merely clever and lucky. Riches in the hands of the few is very different from a well-distributed prosperity that comes from good crops, useful manufactures, and honest trade.

A real Prosperity Gospel would needs be a justice and humility gospel first: one that goes beyond looking for personal prosperity. Otherwise, the Wealth of Nations produces the fall of nations. Thus says the Wisdom of Ben Sira, for one. Among many Biblical writers.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Palm Sunday - Barabbas, violence, and antichrists

The four Christian gospels include in their account of the events leading up to the crucifixion of Jesus the striking story of the crowd choosing a criminal named Barabbas to be the recipient of the avoid-execution-and-get-out-of-jail-free card that the Romans offered the Jews every Passover. Jesus could have been the lucky winner, but the crowd said "Barabbas".

One of the problems with the story is that there's no other written reference to this merciful custom. It's an unlikely custom, out of character for the Romans. But it's a great parable.

That's because Barabbas is the antithesis of Jesus -- an antichrist, if you will. Take his name: Bar-Abbas, "son of the father". Some texts even name him "Jesus Barabbas". That's quite a challenge to the claim that Jesus of Nazareth is the One who is The Son of The Father.

Further, Barabbas is referred to in one gospel as an insurrectionist and murderer, and in another as having been arrested with insurrectionists who had committed murder, and in a third simply as an insurrectionist. Clearly, this Barabbas is a Zealot of some type -- a member of the movement for violent resistance to the Evil Empire.

Jesus, on the other hand, rejected the Zealot option, although his followers included former Zealots, such as Simon the Zealot and Judas the Zealot. Judas Iscariot might have been a Zealot also -- one of the knife-wielding assassins known as Sicarii, after "sicarius", their type of dagger. ("Iscariot" could be a simple garbling of "Sicariot" --but the derivation of "Iscariot" is quite uncertain.)

The novel and movie, The Last Temptation of Christ, showed a Jesus who was tempted to live the normal life of a married man and father. The episode of Barabbas, however, makes it more plausible that the temptation was political: the real issue was peaceful change vs. violent change. The expectation for a Jewish Messiah was that he would lead a movement of successful redemptive violence to overthrow the oppressions of the current Evil Empire. The gospels make much of the disciples' conventional messianic expectations. Jesus keeps trying to disabuse them of that notion. It takes a long time for them to get it.

A foundational element of the Jesus message is peace. No blessings for Redemptive Violence to Save The People. Only blessings for peacemakers. Love the enemy? That would not be the way of the expected messiah or of the other, low-fi Jesus, Barabbas. No wonder a mainline religious crowd would be portrayed as choosing Barabbas and rejecting Jesus.

A more convincing Last Tempation of Christ would not have him flee to the arms of a zaftig Mary Magdalene to beget fine children. The message of the Palm Sunday scriptures and liturgy is that becoming Barabbas would have been the way to win the acclaim of the crowd and avoid the cross -- at the cost of continuing the delusion that violence will then wipe out the evildoers and, in the words of our president, "rid the world of evil".

If Barabbas is the first exemplar of the type labeled "anti-Christ", he's not a perfect one; his religious claims are only by analogy, based on his name. Political leaders who wage Manichean wars in the name of God come closer to the ideal.