Saturday, April 27, 2013

Invisible people of Wyoming

Ralph Ellison wrote The Invisible Man. The book’s narrator is a black man who passes through community after another, encountering vastly different expectations of how blacks should behave. Eventually he says, “I have been called one thing and then another while no one really wished to hear what I called myself. So after years of trying to adopt the opinions of others I finally rebelled. I am an invisible man.”
Ellison concludes those who struggle in any society speak on what he calls, “the lower frequencies.” No one else speaks for them. Their life experiences are not shared by those who govern, but only by those who struggle.
That’s a problem in a democracy. Representative government is supposed to allow everyone’s voices to be heard, particularly the disadvantaged. Ellison knew what we are now learning. The sum-total of the special interests does not equal the public’s interest. Our form of government is like the childhood game of musical chairs, designed to assure there aren’t enough chairs for everyone.
Take the recent Reuters investigation suggesting that Powder River Basin coal companies may be under-paying hundreds of millions in federal royalties. Although two U.S. Senators directed the Interior Department to investigate, Wyoming’s governor said he trusted the energy companies. Legislators assumed he was right. They can’t imagine their friends and associates who head these companies would fudge on their tax bills.
Yet elected representatives don’t trust working people who apply for unemployment compensation. They want the state to drug test them. Ellison was right. Elected officials hear only those who communicate on “higher frequencies.”
If you listened to the legislature’s debate on Medicaid expansion, you’d agree. Few members of the legislature know an uninsured person or the fear they feel when they or their children become ill. They get elected to the legislature believing they are there to protect people like them, those who operate on the higher frequencies. After all, those are the people with whom they share their lives. They do business with one another, vote the same, play golf together, belong to the same clubs and churches. They share the same stereotypes of the people they don’t know.
It’s a safe bet most legislators have no personal relationship with any of the uninsured Wyoming people who could have had health insurance if the legislature had expanded Medicaid coverage under the Affordable Care Act. Like the character in Ellison’s book, the working poor in Wyoming face a variety of ill-informed expectations and notions about how they live.
Some legislators assume, for example, that unemployed people and those applying for benefits like food stamps are using drugs and making bad choices. Why else would they single them out? Why only low income folks. Rich people and their corporations get government benefits, lots of them. Why trust them but not the poor?
Those who live on the “higher frequencies” can afford to make political statements with the lives of those on the “lower frequencies.” They and the people with whom they share their lives have the luxury to believe in myths. They don’t really know the poor or how they live, but they do know the prejudices about the poor shared among their close knit business, social and political groupings. It’s easy to disdain unions when the only people you know are those who have been taken to task by one.
As a result, it was easy for them to deny health insurance to the uninsured, deprive workers of safe working places and the right to organize and to use Medicaid and food stamps to subsidize employers who pay low wages. They don’t mind that doing so cost the taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars that could have been saved by representing the working poor rather than the members of their cliques.
The working poor have become Wyoming’s invisible people. The politicians can get elected without their votes and keep their jobs without speaking for them. That’s what they call an oligarchy. It’s not, however, a democracy.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Sunday's sermon at Highlands

A Myriad of Myriads”
Highlands Presbyterian Church
April 14, 2013

There is no book in the Holy Bible that has been more abused, mistreated, misinterpreted and even desecrated than Revelations. And so when it shows up on the lectionary, I cringe. This week, it showed up and as I cringed…it occurred to me that by cringing I am continuing to abdicate to those who have made a good living by abusing, mistreating, misinterpreting and desecrating the book.

In fairness…the book lends itself easily to those who would torture its meaning. I had a professor in seminary who said the only explanation for the book of Revelations is LSD. Indeed it is a writing filled with near hallucinogenic dreams and visions and symbols. But a deeper look discloses a brilliant writer who had the God-inspired ability to criticize powerful of his day in a way that is timeless. In other words, what the writer had to say about the Roman Empire has been equally true of every imperialistic, militaristic and socially unjust government throughout history.

In a brief sermon…not a lot of interpretation can be accomplished but I am going to try this morning to open the door for reclaiming the book from those who have used it to predict the Apocalypse and identify Barrack Obama as the anti-Christ to those who use it to encourage war in the Middle East to trigger the Second Coming.

The book contains three literary genres: letters, apocalyptic literature, and prophetic writings. It’s not the kind of apocalyptic and prophetic writing that predicts how the world will end…it’s the kind that tells how the world controlled by exploiters and oppressors and war machines should end…if Jesus truly becomes Lord.

Revelations begins with an epistolary address to the reader followed by an apocalyptic description of a complex series of events derived from prophetic visions the author claims to have experienced.

There are appearances of a number of figures and images that have become important in Christianity. The Whore of Babylon and the Beast, and culminate in the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. The imagery has led to a variety of interpretations. Some have seen in Revelation a broad view of history; others treat Revelation as mostly referring to the events describing the end of times although some believe it refers to the end of the Roman Empire while many others say it predicts how our own world will come to a violent end.

Still others believe that Revelations describes future events; and idealist or symbolic interpretations consider that Revelation does not refer to actual people or events, but is instead an allegory of the spiritual path and the ongoing struggle between good and evil.

This is the point at which the misuse of the book gains speed. There are any number of writers and preachers who have used the books metaphors, symbols and allegory to warn their followers that the Second Coming of Christ cannot happen without a massive and violent collision between the forces of evil and the armies of the good.  The choice is between that interpretation and another that reads the metaphorical apocalypse of the Book of Revelation as that battle you and I wage everyday between good and evil, a battle that will only end the day that individual's life comes to an end.

This is an example of how the book is preached by those who see the book as predicting a literal apocalypse. They say the world's darkest period of tribulation and horror will come under the Antichrist. The end will begin, they say, with the brightest dawn as Jesus Christ returns to gather His children to be with Him!

Lights, trumpets, thunder, earthquakes and gigantic meteor showers will all herald this climactic event! God's children who have died throughout the ages will be resurrected in new miraculous bodies, and will burst forth from their graves and ascend to meet Jesus in the air.
144,000 Christians will rise from the earth, floating through ceilings & buildings & cars & up into the clouds to meet the Lord as He snatches His children out of reach of their evil Antichrist persecutors & whisks them away to the grandest, most glorious mansions and streets paved with gold.
And then, back on earth, all hell will break loose shortly after Jesus' 2nd Coming. Down from the sky will come the great hosts of Heaven with Jesus leading the armies of truth to destroy the Antichrist and his one-world empire in the awesome Battle of Armageddon.
This great slaughter of the Antichrist and his armies will take place in and around the valley of Megiddo near Haifa in Israel. It will mark the end of man's cruel rule on earth, as Jesus and His Heavenly forces forcibly take over the World to rule and reign and run it the way it should have been run if man had not disobeyed God and gone his own selfish way! This slaughter, they argue, will usher in a period known as the Millennium, a thousand years of peace and plenty and paradise on Earth.
In other words…these folks believe that in order to save the world, God must first destroy it.
Now…a lot of people have made a lot of money and gotten a lot of mileage off of that version of Revelations. Fear sells. But it apparently never seems odd to them that the God who created us and the God we believe so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son…it apparently doesn’t seem odd to these folks that that God would send his son as the commander of a ruthless army to destroy the earth. Likewise, it apparently doesn’t seem odd to them that the God of grace would save only 144,000 of his humans.
That’s a problem…even for Presbyterians. There are 75 million Presbyterians on the planet and 2.5 million Presbyterians in the United States. I don’t know if there will be a quota system or first-come-first-served…but if only 144 thousand make the cut…well…not all of you are going.
There is an alternative view of Revelations. Yes…I think it is clearly a polemic of good vs. evil…but it’s not about an apocalyptic battle with Jesus leading the slaughter…it’s about what we do with our time on earth. It’s not about the Second Coming as much as it is about the first coming and whether or not we learned anything by it.
The writer of the book was actually very clever. He knew what it cost Jesus and John the Baptist to confront Rome and the other powers directly. When John said bluntly that the King was unjust and evil, he lost his head. When Jesus refused to lead an uprising while boldly judging those who ignored the needs of the poor…they hung him.
So the author of Revelation wrote in code. He used symbols to make the same case. Revelations embodies the Bible’s most forceful attack on imperialism, militarism and the concentration of economic power. Its most remarkable symbols are the whore of Babylon, the beast and the dragon. The dragon is understood as Satan. The beast and the whore…it hurts my ears to say that word…they represent the political, military and economic power of Rome at the time or any imperial power of our time.
Revelations is a satirical attack on the idolatry and exploitative nature of Rome…and there are those theologians of the Third World who read it today as a critique of the way in which America uses its political, military and economic power.
But the most powerful symbol of the book is the lamb…the lamb of God…Jesus…who stands in book as a model for our call to challenge the inevitable oppression that comes with the abusive exercise of political, military and economic power.
It’s always an easier choice to read the Bible as being about someone else, about some other time about how to get to heaven and who gets to go.

It’s much harder, much more challenging, much more confrontational to read the Bible as being about us, about doing now what God asks, about confronting injustice and evil, and about the here and now rather than the hereafter.

The Book of Revelations, like most of the Bible, is trying to get through to us that if we focus only on what happens to us after we die, our preoccupation with death prevents us from living life abundantly…but that if we focus on doing what God calls us to do now, treating one another and all of God’s creation with justice and generosity while we are alive…what happens when we die will take care of itself.

Then, as Revelations says, we will look, and hear the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they will number myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, singing with full voice, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” Then we’ll hear every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing, “To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” And all living creatures shall say, “Amen!”

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Biblical interp: a game anyone can play

After twenty years practicing law, I left the profession to attend seminary and become a pastor. When new friends hear of that career path, there’s an immediate twinkle in their eyes. I know what’s coming. A joke follows questioning how a lawyer can become a minister. Truth is, there isn’t much difference between the two professions. People still come looking for the loopholes.

Perhaps there is nothing more emblematic of that than the contemporary debate over marriage equality. Those who support the right of same-sex couples to marry focus on the law and the construction of the constitution. Those who oppose same-sex marriage work to conflate the law with their interpretation of the Bible.

Having grappled with difficult moral and social issues both as a lawyer and as a theologian, it occurs to me that the great difference is that the law has, over the years, created well-defined rules of engagement placing limits on legal debates. The law imposes strict rules on who is allowed to interpret it using recognized boundaries on statutory construction, evidence, and constitutional interpretation. Lawyers often try to move those lines to the left or the right but they know they exist. They realize that if they want to move the lines, they have to craft an argument that passes the straight face test.

Biblical interpretation has few, if any, such rules or boundaries. In order to become qualified to interpret the law, one must go to an accredited law school for three years and then pass a demanding bar examination. In order to interpret scripture, one need only offer his or her interpretation. While some denominations require their ministers to meet certain educational qualifications, a growing number do not. Thus in many faith communities, if you can read the Bible, your are allowed to teach it.

This is not without significant consequence. People who attend religious services don’t only sit in the pews. They agree in some measure to grant authority to the person at the pulpit. If the denomination has no strict rules for ordination, they may be granting authority over their spiritual lives to someone of questionable qualification. Yet we know that no matter what a preacher says, some are going to believe it and repeat it.

The “ah ha” moment for me came early in seminary when we were taught the difference between “exegesis” (exe-Jesus) and “eisegesis (ice-e-Jesus).” Basically, the latter is a process by which readers look to the Bible to prove what they already believe. Divided into hundreds of numbered verses, the Bible is ready made for those wanting to employ it that way. A verse can be found to support nearly any argument one seeks to propound. That is eisegesis. It requires little knowledge or analysis of the historical or cultural context of the original author or understanding of the language in which the text was initially written.

Exegesis is different. It’s why seminary is a multiple year, post-graduate experience during which some learn Hebrew and Greek and all spend countless hours studying not only the scripture but also the commentaries of learned theologians over centuries.

Just as understanding the law requires more than simply reading the words of a statute or the constitution, Biblical interpretation demands that teachers and learners to go deeper. Exegesis is a process that opens our minds to the Holy Spirit and the continuing revelations of God. Eisegesis, on the other hand, limits our interpretation of scripture to our own notions and prejudices.

One requires only the ability to read. The other demands we take the time to listen to God.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

“When we were children we thought like children.”

Clarence Jordan preached a radical version of the Gospel. It’s not so radical today but in the 1950s in South Georgia, a preacher who welcomed blacks to the pews was radical. Jordan was removed from more than one pulpit for those teachings. Segregationists threatened not only his livelihood, but also his life.

Following one fiery sermon about how all people were welcome at the table, an elderly southern belle approached him. “My granddaddy fought for the Confederacy,” she screamed, “and I will never believe a thing you say.” Jordan calmly responded, “I didn’t say it. Jesus did and now you’ll have to make a choice between your granddaddy and Jesus,” his way of saying, “You have to choose between what you’ve been taught and what we’ve all learned is the truth.”

The pathway to justice is characterized by choices between what we’ve been taught and what we have learned is the truth. Jesus of Nazareth often taught by saying, “I know you’ve heard it said…but I say to you.” Then he’d explain the choice his listeners had to make between their granddaddy’s teaching and his. Truth and justice are always matters of choice.

Students weren’t always taught the sun is at the center of the universe. The “granddaddies” taught it was the earth. In the 16th century Copernicus suggested it was the sun. It took a couple of centuries, long after most thinking people conceded Copernicus was right, before some of the religionists accepted the new idea. Why? Because the church was as angry with that as some of it is today with the idea that people who love each other should be allowed to marry even if they happen to be of the same sex.

During the 19th century, granddaddies taught grandchildren it was right to enslave people of color. They used scripture to defend the institution of slavery. Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy argued slavery was “established by decree of Almighty God” and “sanctioned in the Bible, both Testaments.”  A prominent southern Presbyterian minister, Robert Dabney, preached that, “the existence of church and state hangs on our arduous effort to defeat the doctrine of Negro suffrage.”  As Martin Luther King said it would, the arc of history bent toward justice and slowly we made a choice between what our granddaddies taught us about slavery and what was right.

Things change. Truth changes. What passes for the truth evolves as people and cultures mature and experience one another in new ways. Seems that every generation has to make those choices. It began long ago, even before the early followers had to decide whether they would open the doors to gentiles. Those who came of age in the 1950s were faced with new choices about the rights of African Americans and women. People whose granddaddy’s taught them blacks were inferior and women were second-class citizens experienced life differently. What they had been taught to believe no longer made sense, no longer seemed true as their own life experiences gave way to a deeper understanding.

Our generation is now in a process of making new choices with respect to gays, lesbians, bisexual, transgendered and questioning folks. As children, many of us were taught that homosexuals chose their lifestyle and their choice was an abomination. But as the Apostle Paul said, “When we were children we thought like children.” Now we are adults and we are expected to deal with difficult ideas in an adult manner. To adults in a free society, discrimination against people on the basis of sexual orientation seems not only childish but also wrong.

Take notice of how fundamentalist religious beliefs and literal interpretation of scripture were the heart of all of granddaddy’s teachings. That may explain why the march toward justice, though inevitable, is always slow. People who learn from those standing in pulpits cling to ideas long after the rest of the community has discarded them.

That may explain why organized religion is increasingly irrelevant in the lives of many.