Connected Criticism - Religion and Politics

Are you not like the Ethiopians to me, O people of Israel? says the LORD. Did I not bring Israel up from the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir?
Amos 9:7

weeklyThe cliché about polite conversation is that there are two things never to discuss: religion and politics. And yet you can read and hear plenty about both in the Media.

Late last month columnist William Galston from the Wall Street Journal (Feb. 24) asked his readers to open their Bibles to the Prophet Amos, as if he were one of my professors from seminary (one of whom, by the way, looked like an Old Testament prophet with a long gray beard). He wrote his piece in response to New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani comment that the president does not love America, adding “He doesn’t love you. And he doesn’t love me.” In quoting an obscure passage from a less-well-known prophet Galston was on to something.

The following commentary on this editorial is from one of my favorite websites called Sightings from the Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion and written by Marty himself, who is one of the most beloved Lutheran in our country. He is a church historian and highly sought after for his excellent and wise thoughts and analysis of religion and politics.

[The editorial] has to do with the concept of “exceptionalism” as it applies to the United States. The reference is not to the fact that America embodies and exemplifies exceptional features. No, listen to the debates and you will see that it is designed to indicate that America is unique, superior to other nations.

Here is where Galston, with the Bible and Amos, comes in. He writes: “In the Bible, God warns his chosen people through the prophet Amos not to expect special treatment: ‘To me, O Israelites, you are just like the Ethiopians, declares the Lord. True, I brought Israel up from the land of Egypt; but also the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir.’ By the same token, no one is exempt from judgment—or punishment. Israel surely was not.”

That took most of the fun out of exceptionalism in the eighth century B.C. and really would zing American exceptionalists today. But Galston does not leave us in zingdom. Instead: “The Hebrew prophets are the classic examples of what the political theorist Michael Walzer calls ‘connected criticism.’ This is criticism from inside a tradition, not outside, moved not by malice but by special affection for the object of criticism.”

Edmund Burke, Martin Luther King Jr., and Abraham Lincoln are called to witness. Amos is judgmental, but he also inspires hope. “Connected criticism” meant, for Burke, to make a lovely country lovelier still. MLK Jr. “appealed to Americans not to live up to others’ standards, but to their own, set forth in the Declaration of Independence and nourished by the Bible.” Abraham Lincoln’s “connected criticism” combined profoundly searching criticism of “our side” in the Civil War, but he connected that with a vision of America as “the last, best hope of earth.”

Deliciously, on the subject of exceptionalism, which, if we listen closely, has become the modern working out of “chosenness,” we are reminded of Abraham Lincoln’s reference to Americans as God’s “almost chosen people.” This is connected criticism. People who live with it really enjoy and love their tradition and people and country, but they also take on special burdens.

In a Jewish sort-of joke, we get to listen in on a praying Jew who is very much aware of judgment, responsibility, and suffering where there is failure, so he prays with a wink to God. Next time, he hopes, the Almighty, when looking for a people to choose, might look somewhere else for someone else.

Amos does not speak for a withdrawal of chosenness nor do Americans have to regard themselves merely negatively. He simply engages in “connected criticism” which sees that Israel and Egypt and Caphtor (wherever that is) are all under judgment, but that is not the end of their stories. If politicians, opinion-voicers, and citizens in general would get in the habit of insisting on criticism that looks “inside” as well as to others, we’d have a different and more promising discourse.

If the Amos class would come to order, we’d have an alternative to the disorder that now rules between factions, parties, faiths, and nations. Galston and Burke and King and Lincoln all were betting for versions of that in their own times.

To read more on religion and politics at Sightings go here

Check Your Bias

It was no surprise to me that the Justice Department called on Ferguson, Mo. to overhaul its criminal justice system.  It has become so tainted by racial bias that they would need to abandon their entire approach to policing, according to the New York Times story about the findings this week. 

Last Saturday night 300 local citizens gathered in Arlington Town Hall for a forum entitled Unequal Justice: Consequences of Race and Class in our Criminal Justice System.  There were about two dozen sponsoring organizations, half of which were religious communities including St. Paul. 

I was greatly impressed with the four speakers: two well-informed and thoughtful professors, a parole reform activist who has spent much of his life in prison and Arlington’s well-respected police chief, Fred Ryan.  I admired their ability to speak about very sensitive matters of race, class and fairness.

One take away for me was the mention of a test I had heard of but never taken.  A presenter mentioned the Implicit Bias test and the moderator urged us all to take it and brace ourselves for some unpleasant discoveries.  It’s not one test but 14 because our biases fall into many categories. 

From the instructions:  “The categorization task you completed is called the Implicit Association Test (IAT). The task assesses associations between concepts by measuring how quickly a person can categorize, for example, GOOD words with White faces compared to GOOD words with Black faces. The idea is that the more strongly associated the two concepts are in memory, the more quickly you will be able to categorize words into those paired categories. Your score is reported as an implicit preference for White people compared to Black people if you were faster at categorizing Good words with White faces compared to Black faces. The test often reveals associations that are different than one's conscious beliefs. For example, even people who have no conscious preference between Black and White may still have implicit associations that White is better than Black.”

I’ll tell you three of my results to encourage you to take the test.  The first two didn’t surprise me too much.  I have slight automatic preferences for European Americans compared to African Americans and moderate automatic preferences for Abled Persons compared to Disabled Persons.  Those biases are the result of a lifetime of experiences and culture worthy of reconsideration.  In the third I had a slight automatic preference for Arab Muslims compared to Other People.  I wondered if that third bias is partly the result of one powerful experience after 9-11, spending two weeks in Turkey traveling with a Muslim couple my family came to respect and adore a few years ago. 

In this season of Lent, a time of self-reflection and turning toward God, consider the test as a way to assess your attitudes and biases toward all who are created in the image of God.

Snow and Lent

Snow and Lent

            I was tempted on Ash Wednesday morning to jump out the window (again).  Any second floor window was suitable given the height, depth and width of the snow bank below. But the risk of injury on the first day of Lent kept this pastor safely inside. I had work to do. Such attention seeking behavior was already old news with a Globe story of a man in a bathing suit diving into a drift for a "swim." And the mayor of Boston was warning against such foolishness, even if one could claim being a "fool for Christ" (I Cor. 4:10). The pressure to jump came by virtue of the plush pile's imminent removal.

            I noticed a kind of tipping point this week in which people were trying to laugh at the misery brought on by 8 feet of snow in half as many weeks. A friend and colleague who also happens to be the president of Andover Newton Theological School sent out an Ash Wednesday announcement postponing Lent by a week: In a proclamation that stunned the world of theological education, President Martin Copenhaver said, “Part of our mission as a school is to be ‘radically open to what God is doing now.’ Well, we have no idea what God is doing now, except this: Snow. Lots of snow. We have had to cancel classes on six days already — that’s already a whole week (minus Sunday, of course). In other words, we are already a full week behind. Therefore, we feel obliged to respond. Moving Lent seemed the least we could do. Might it be controversial? Yes, but we are not only the oldest, we are also the boldest seminary in the country. Here we stand. We can do no other.”

            On the first day of Lent I wanted to canonize as saints our facilities manager Dennis O’Brien and our snowplower and landscaper Chris Manfredi for all their hard work in the recovery of our parking lot so that we can safely come to church in this now-frozen, holy season. Never in local history have parking lots been more appreciated. Saint Paul is blessed by all our space for vehicles and by these two men who are surprisingly joyful and enthusiastic in their work at Saint Paul. Our primary task as a community is to Gather, so it helps if you can park.

            I wish we could fast from the snow but it will likely be with us until Easter and beyond. Pope Francis's has a better idea. Penance and self-denial are good disciplines for lent, but rather than giving up sweets or alcohol he reminds us that fasting should be for the benefit of others. And so he calls us to fast from indifference toward God and our neighbor.   Describing a phenomenon he calls the globalization of indifference, Francis writes: “whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades.” He continues that, “We end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own.”

            I will take those words with me through lent as we gather here to worship a God who cares, who comes to us in Word and Sacrament so that we can care for others.

Faithfully, Ross

Finding God in All the Wrong Places

"Do not follow other gods, any of the gods of the peoples who are all around you."   Deuteronomy 6:14

A New Yorker cartoon depicts a man and a woman leaving worship. The sign outside the church announces that the sermon topic for the day was the Ten Commandments. The man says, "Well, at least I haven't made any graven images lately."

If the man in the cartoon is anything like us, he HAS made graven images—that is, idols, false gods. Today, no longer are we tempted to worship gods by the name of Zeus or Aphrodite or Apollo. Now we are enticed by gods named Education or Success or Family or Money.

Paul Tillich, an influential theologian of the last century, defined God as a person's "ultimate concern." If you want to know what your ultimate concern is—or, to put it another way, if you want to know what your idols are—ask yourself these questions: Where is your ultimate loyalty? What do you consistently make time for? In what have you put your trust? Where can you be most deeply threatened?

No one ever says, "I'm going to worship an idol now." Instead, idolatry happens when we invest our fullest energy and our ultimate allegiance in those things—perhaps even good things—that are not ultimate. But try as we might to avoid idols, we cannot. Education, success, family, money and many other good things are very important to all of us. We invest a lot of time and energy and money in them. So we are caught. What is one to do?

Referencing the Ten Commandments brings to mind Luther’s two uses of the law in the Bible. The first is the secular or civil use, which works to restrain evil and make life in society possible. You can often find copies of the Ten Commandments engraved in courthouses for this reason. The second use is meant to reveal our sinfulness and lead us to the Gospel, the good news that God in Christ brings mercy, forgiveness and salvation. This is important and often overlooked. Consider that the Commandments are intended to lead you back to God. It’s no wonder then that the first three commandments are about God and how we relate to God. Luther once said that no one ever gets past the first commandment, let alone the other nine! There is a third, but debated-amongst-Lutherans use of the law, as a guide in Christian living, the danger being that we begin to use the law as a way of earning favor with God.

Which brings me to Sunday worship. I find that after battling and resisting idols all week I not only find grace and mercy but I get reoriented and God comes back into clearer focus. And the idols get put back into their proper place, often as good things to use and by which God can be worshipped and glorified.

When we worship idols, instead of the one true God, we will be ultimately disappointed. There is only one God worthy of our worship.

I look forward to our life together as we gather for worship in Lent, Ross

Thoughts on Football and Hunger

Super Synod Challenge New England helmet vs Northwest Washington helmet"An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules." 2 Timothy 2:5

There is nothing in the Bible about football. The verse from Timothy is considered the most sports worthy reference that can be found. Back then there were athletes and rules and winners, but no way to accurately gauge air pressure.

Watching the Patriots has slowly become more of a secret vice for me in the sense that the more I learn about what is really going on, the more it becomes a guilty pleasure. To make matters worse, I keep watching because they keep winning. If their season kept going the way it started, I might have been tempted to do more reading on Sunday afternoons.

My best, but still pathetic, moral reasoning is to compare watching a game to taking the kids to the circus. People have been watching people do dangerous things for entertainment for thousands of years. They do so of their own free will in exchange for fame and glory. And yet I know that there are varying degrees of evil in every system, complex systems that use and abuse people.

Over the years, our three boys played freshman football in high school. It helped them get off to a good start, organize their time, belong to a group, get some exercise. The decision with each son became more fraught with the growing awareness of concussions. Fortunately they all moved on to safer sports. It seems that competitiveness in sports gets fiercer by the year and one sign is the number and severity of sports injuries we see at Children's Hospital where I have volunteered in the chaplaincy department. Many parents just want to know when their child can get back on the field.

When I went to college in North Carolina and cheered for the (formerly Southern Baptist) Wake Forest Demon Deacons (A paradox? Saint and sinner at the same time?), a local pastor would pray before the game in a packed stadium. He (always he) never prayed for us to win but for good sportsmanship, our great nation, no injuries, God's blessing, may the best team win, etc.   To this day I wonder how God thinks of sport, particularly football. It is full of extremes: multi-billion dollar industry, massively popular glorification of violence, uniquely American cultural phenomenon, clinical obsession and possible illegitimate religion for many.

It might be easy for Tom Brady to confuse himself with God. But probably not. I recently read in the New York Times that his personal coach and spiritual guide is an Argentinean Mormon named Alex Guerrero who has a Masters degree in Chinese medicine. Good for Tom. But enough about football.

Our New England Synod/Patriots Nation is having a friendly competition with the Northwest Washington Synod that's cheering for the Seattle Seahawks to see who can raise the most money for World Hunger. The church has often used the super bowl to bring attention to hunger in the middle of winter so I'm cheering and contributing to this effort. To date we are losing pretty bad with a score of $ 7,577 to $3,750. Please see the synod website, make a donation and let's hope (and pray) we win both games. Because we are the best.

Yours, Ross

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