Saturday, December 28, 2013

Paulum o Christianus? Literalis o Christianus?

Meeting every Monday evening from 5:30 until 6:30 in the upstairs loft at Uncle Charlie’s, a group of Christians (conservative and progressive), Jews, Muslims, skeptics, agnostics and even an atheist or two, comb slowly through Biblical texts seeking their meaning. There are those around the table who read it all quite literally, while others read it metaphorically, and others with a rather jaundiced view.

Tolstoy said that what makes Christians crazy is how they feel the need to reconcile it all; Hebrew scripture with the Gospels and the Gospels with Paul’s letters. He thought we’d be better off to stick to the words of Jesus.

In the 4th century, Jerome translated the Latin Bible based on Greek New Testament manuscripts. Jerome’s work became the Vulgate. Jerome became a saint.

One night Jerome, a religious skeptic, suffered a nightmare seeing himself before God. Asked whether he was a Christian, Jerome said yes. The Judge said sternly, “You lie; you’re a Ciceronian, not a Christian. (Ciceronianus es, non Christianus!)” Jerome awoke and set a new course.

On judgment day we Christians may be asked the same. If we say, as did Jerome, “We are Christians,” the Judge may respond, “Paulum es, non Christianus.”  

Consider how Christian’s claims have deeper roots in Paul’s writings than in Jesus’ teaching. Our dogmatic dogfights arise frequently, not from what Jesus said, but from Paul’s legalistic teachings. Disagreements over slavery, the role of women in church and community, equal rights for homosexuals, use of musical instruments in worship, even social welfare policy, and so much more have arisen from giving greater meaning to the words of Paul than to those of Jesus.

Paul taught that salvation comes through faith, not works. But Jesus (and now Pope Francis) says that on judgment day we’ll be asked pointblank what we did for the least of our brothers and sisters.

Paul’s words are often given strict interpretation even when at odds with Jesus’ words. In Mark 2 Jesus is found at a table dining with tax collectors and sinners. The Pharisees asked his disciples, "C’mon, why does he eat with unworthy people like tax collectors and sinners?"
The lesson was clear. Right? Not for Paul. In his first letter to the Corinthians (5:10-13) Paul advised followers “not to associate with immoral men…not to associate with any one who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber -- not even to eat with such a one.”
So…do we follow Jesus or Paul? “Paulum es, o Christianus?”  
This is not simply a minor inconsistency. Following Paul leads us in one direction. Following Jesus leads us in another. Some of Paul’s teachings brought Christians into line with contemporary political and cultural norms.  Following Paul led Christians to support slavery, marginalize women and discriminate against the GLBTQ community. Following Jesus led to a justice-vision and altogether different choices.

The Bible Jesus read was what we call the Old Testament. Those who criticized him read the same Bible. The literalists among them became exorcised when he healed on the Sabbath. They interpreted scripture literally, which in the Book of Numbers, includes an account of a man violating scripture by gathering sticks on the Sabbath. “The LORD said, ‘The man shall be put to death; and all the congregation brought him outside the camp, and stoned him to death with stones, as the LORD commanded Moses.”
Jesus confronted the literalists when, while walking through fields on the Sabbath, his hungry disciples gathered a few heads of grain just as the man brought before Moses had gathered a few sticks. Literalists claimed the disciples were violating scripture. Literally, they had a case. But Jesus explained that what’s right isn’t determined by literal interpretation of scripture. As a compass always points true north even when we think north is another direction, so the needle on our moral compass should always point toward mercy and love.

Paulum o Christianus?  Literalis o Christianus?

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Kafka would love US immigration law

Franz Kafka’s writings describe seemingly pointless and disturbing situations, developing plots in which bureaucracies overpower people, creating nightmarish situations of senselessness and helplessness. Kafka’s characters struggle to escape their predicament.

Kafka could appreciate America’s immigration laws. They are as Kafkaesque as the politics creating the current inability of Congress to do anything to reduce the pointless and disturbing situations those laws create.

Both the arbitrary nature of enforcing current immigration laws and the congressional stalemate preventing reform seem senseless and disorienting unless one confronts the extent to which racism and stereotyping are interwoven with America’s foreign policy to create this mess.

A group of concerned citizens has been fasting in Washington to make that point. People in Cheyenne will now join them.

During the final week of this year and the first week of the New Year, people in our community will hold a fast in the atrium of the Herschler Building on December 26, 27, 30, 31, 2013 and January 2, 3, 2014 from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. During those times, we will listen to the stories of those who have experienced the Kafkaesque nature of American immigration laws and give people an opportunity to email or call members of Congress to express concern.

Why are we fasting? We fast to raise public awareness of the suffering and sacrifice immigrants face in our country. As people of faith, we are called to stand with the vulnerable and the oppressed, to love our neighbors and welcome the stranger.

We fast to say that America’s immigration system takes children from parents and removes promising students from the only country they’ve ever known. A system that breaks up families is broken. The inhospitality and cruelty shown to immigrants weakens our nation’s soul and violates our scriptural heritage.  As neighbors, we must offer refuge to weary travelers, not declare that there is no room at the inn.

We commit to sharing the truth that US foreign policy and trade treaties contributed significantly to the migration to this country. We fast in order to give a voice to the voiceless people who are the victims of these laws.

We call for an end to human rights abuses perpetrated against migrants, an end to laws that promote racial profiling and punish foreign-born individuals living in this country, and for the passage of humane, comprehensive immigration reform that offers a pathway to citizenship for undocumented individuals in this country.

A Kafka quote describes the surreal circumstances surrounding this issue. “I write differently from what I speak, I speak differently from what I think, I think differently from the way I ought to think, and so it all proceeds into deepest darkness.”

When it comes to immigration, American’s cultural history differs from its contemporary political attitudes. Elected officials speak differently from what they know must be done. Politicians act differently than they would if they hadn’t spoken differently from what they think, “and so it all proceeds into deepest darkness.”

If you have any knowledge of the real-life of undocumented workers and their families and then you listen to our congressional delegation talk about pending reform efforts on local talk shows, you can only conclude they have one foot on a banana and the other in a Kafka novel.

Using political talking points and buzzwords the seek to assure their base they oppose “amnesty,” and believe we “should secure the borders” before solving the problem and that “people who break the law should pay the price.” Either they don’t know, don’t care, or believe it would be bad politics to speak about the lives of those who suffer from their decisions to refrain from acting because the stories collide with their talking points. We fast believing they are good people who simply don’t know.

Google Read and compare their stories with your own notions and what you’ve been told by politicians.

It’s time for Congress to act. Join us in these days of fasting. Be the message Congress needs to hear.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

"Bibles and Beer" and Understanding

My New Year’s resolutions tend to be repetitive but one is new. I resolve to think more kindly about my evangelical brothers and sisters and to work harder to understand how their worldview. If God had wanted us to think alike, God would have created us with like minds and like experiences. But God chose to create a diverse humanity so we are all guessing.

The way one interprets scripture, e.g. literally or metaphorically, impacts more than our own personal lives. It is frequently at the crucible of many public policy debates. The climate change debate, for example, is infected with varying views of the Bible’s creation and flood stories as well as the tilt between those who read these stories as myth and those who read them as infallible history.

The same can be said of contentious issues ranging from the longstanding civil wars over abortion, same-sex marriage, income inequality, religious freedom, and so many others.

Providing for a more perfect Union, establishing justice, insuring domestic tranquility, providing for the common defense, promoting the general welfare, and securing the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, depends more than we might like to think on whether people of good faith can reconcile their views of scripture; Christian, Jewish, and Muslim.

I want to tell you an uplifting Christmastime story, an important story of religious diversity, tolerance and acceptance. Dr. Paul Bomais is from the African nation of Uganda. In Uganda, 85% of the population is Christian, 12% are Muslims, and 3% are “other.” Bomais is a Christian, his wife a Muslim. He’s a veterinarian with the Uganda Ministry of Agriculture.

Dr. Bomais and five others from Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda came to the US to study brucellosis, its diagnoses, epidemiology, and control. The delegation spread out around the western United States. Dr. Bomais was dispatched to Wyoming where he was assigned to work with Dr. Walt Cook, the Brucellosis Coordinator for the College of Agriculture and Natural Respurces at the University of Wyoming.

Walt has been a faithful participant in “Bibles and Beer,” a non-traditional, interfaith Bible study. Bibles and Beer meets every Monday evening at Uncle Charlie’s Pub. Around the table are anywhere from 30-40 people including Muslims, Jews, Christians from both conservative and progressive denominations, an occasional atheist, and several agnostics. Giving careful attention to each verse, participants engage in a lively, enlightening, respectful dialogue about the great stories of the Bible.

Dr. Bomais accompanied Dr. Cook to Bibles and Beer each Monday evening while the Ugandan scientist was in Wyoming.  It was a joy having him participate and bring to the discussion his unique experiences of the Divine and scripture.

When time came for the Africans to go home, they gathered to discuss their varied experiences in America. The facilitator went around the table asking each to talk about what they had learned during their stay in the United States.

One talked about the new approaches he had learned for diagnosing brucellosis. Another discussed the important epidemiological approaches being taken in US universities. Still others talked about the collaboration between scientists and policymakers.

And then it was Dr. Bomais’s turn. It’s important to note the level of religious strife in his home country goes far beyond the “wars of words” generally characterizing American religious debates. Not that long ago Christian rebels of the so-called  Lord's Resistance Army” conducted a civil war in Uganda. They abducted, enslaved, raped and/or killed about 2,000 children a year. Dr. Bomias has personally witnessed how differences over how scripture is interpreted have the potential to leave tragedy in its wake.

When he was asked the most important lesson he had learned while in the US, with no hesitation, the Ugandan announced he had learned it is possible for Christians, Jews, Muslims, and others to sit together and have a respectful, inspirational dialogue about the Bible, their religious views, and lessons that arise from both.

As the renowned 20th century theologian and philosopher John Lennon said, “Imagine.”

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Serving vs. advocating for the uninsured

Brazilian Bishop Camara famously said, "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, I’m called a communist,” a colorful way of saying that while helping the poor earns praise, questioning the policies that keep them poor is not so welcomed.
Recently the trustees at Cheyenne Regional Medical Center voted 5-4 to require full co-payments from insured patients before receiving medical services. Uninsured patients are now required to pay a minimum of $180 when initially seen and $120 for follow-up visits.

After this column objected, CRMC responded with op-eds and letters-to-the-editor making good points about what the hospital is doing to help low-income and uninsured people obtain care. But, their PR machine should be used to persuade Governor Mead, not me. It’s Mead whose decision to forego Medicaid expansion makes the CRMC programs necessary even as his partisan decision forces CRMC to provide millions of dollars in uncompensated care.

CRMC invited me to learn more about their good works. I did and am impressed. I toured the hospital’s new Emergency Room and was assured no one would be turned away for inability to pay. If that happens to you, let me know.

I also spent time at the Cheyenne Health and Wellness Center, largely funded by CRMC, as is its pharmacy. Both are vital safety nets for low-income folks. This year the pharmacy will provide over 6.1 million dollars in prescription drugs to those who would not otherwise receive them. CRMC provides 80% of their operating costs.

The clinic will treat more than 6300 people this year, averaging $231 while an ER visit costs $754. It doesn’t take many ER diversions to save millions of your tax dollars. Equally impressive is the level of preventive care CHWC provides.

CRMC is to be commended for these programs and others, which are part of the maze of state and local programs, created to help the uninsured get care. However commendable those efforts, CRMC’s advocates miss the point. Tim Thorson, whose work with Circles demonstrates his concern for those in poverty, serves on the CRMC community benefits committee. His letter-to-the-editor argued it’s “a mistake to confuse the larger issues around Medicaid with what is a reasonable and necessary change in collecting payments at the hospital.”

Actually the two issues are inextricably intertwined. If the governor and the legislature expand Medicaid coverage, CRMC’s new collection policy wouldn’t be necessary. Those targeted by the policy would have insurance.

Consider the cost of not expanding Medicaid. Last year CRMC spent more than two million dollars funding healthcare programs for the uninsured. They wrote off $23 million in uncompensated care. Hospitals around Wyoming wrote off more than 200 million dollars. Yes, Medicaid is expensive but what we’re doing now isn’t free.

Without adequate insurance, low-income families are now required to bring large cash payments with them before they can walk through CRMC’s doors. Is that a problem? Four of the nine CRMC trustees thought so when they voted against the new policy. My column simply shared some the same concerns they voiced.

Trustee chairman Joe Evans voted “no” saying, "My concern is that we don't want people not to be seen because of the policy," Evans’ concern is valid. The bottom line is these fees will mean fewer people have access to care in Laramie County.  The Center for Advancing Health researchers found that one in five U.S. adults do not get needed medical care because they were worried about the cost or their health insurance would not pay for treatment.

CRMC is doing yeoman work meeting important community health needs. But where is their voice when the governor says he will not expand Medicaid? Where are the op-eds and letters-to-the-editor? CRMC’s PR apparatus would be more productive challenging Governor Mead’s partisan decision to deny Medicaid coverage to the uninsured rather than questioning efforts to challenge their payment policy.
Maybe they could invite the governor to witness the problems his choices have caused.

Friday, December 13, 2013

What Liz soweth so shall she reap

A wedge is a tapered block, thick at one end, thin at the other, used to separate two objects. A “wedge issue” is a politically divisive issue, used to divide the loyalty of constituencies or political parties. In the Liz Cheney campaign we see what liberals have expected; the inevitable collision between wedge issues and Karma.

Richard Nixon perfected the use of wedge issues. In 1968 he was running for president against vice-president Hubert H Humphrey. Nixon won the popular vote by less that one-half of one-percent.

The difference, small as it was, resulted from Nixon’s use of American’s fear of crime and racial integration to develop what we later learned was his “Southern strategy.” Nixon needed to win somewhere where Republicans had always had a difficult time, the South. Nixon conflated crime with the continuing support among Southerners for racial segregation. His TV commercials showed black men rioting and committing crimes.

Democrats had always considered it “the solid South.” But Nixon used crime and race to drive a “wedge” between those who traditionally voted for Democrats and Democratic Party candidates.

Remember the “Willy Horton” ad in George H.W. Bush’s campaign against Michael Dukakis? It was a not-so-subtle strategy, tying Democrats to blacks that commit crimes. Admittedly, Bill Clinton was pretty successful with this tactic as well.

Republicans have successfully driven wedges between Democrats and the voters on abortion, same-sex marriage, immigration, terrorism, patriotism, and the social safety net.

But now one of the wedge issues Republicans have been most fond of divides the Cheney family. That’s called “Karma.”

The Law of Karma holds that similar actions lead to similar results. explains Karma, “If we plant a mango seed, the plant that springs up will be a mango tree, and eventually it will bear a mango fruit.” This is, of course, not an exclusively Buddhist teaching. The Apostle Paul told the Galatians, “for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.”

Karma is a force working in the universe that makes certain we eventually get what we deserve. Although Mike Enzi is no better than Liz Cheney on gay rights, it is Karma that threatens Liz.

There’s no way anyone could grow up with a gay sibling and believe homosexuality is a choice. One cannot witness the painful realization of a sibling that she is wired with a same-sex attraction and not understand.

The only Cheney sister making a “choice” is Liz.

Liz Cheney chose politics over family, the same choice her father made siding with Liz over Mary. Mary is the acorn that fell farthest from the tree.

Give Liz a break? What? The same break Mike Enzi wants for joining Ted Cruz and the tea party in shutting down the government and bringing the United States to the brink of economic catastrophe. It’s a “break” they want for doing what is politically expedient regardless of the harm it does to others.

Liz’s Karma will be more devastating. It’s one thing to drive a wedge between the voters. They are accustomed to being used as backdrops for political campaigns. If voting patterns are any indication, they don’t mind.

But Liz Cheney has used same-sex marriage to drive a wedge between her political ambitions and her own sister. It’s no surprise that Dick Cheney has driven a wedge between his daughters. One wants to be a senator. The other wants to quietly raise a family. Dick always opted for political expedience, trading the lives of some for the political needs of others, especially himself. Torturing often-innocent people, for just one example, was worth the political gain.

But Karma will not be denied. Eventually it catches up with everyone, most publically with those who live their lives on the front-page.

If the family values crowd had any integrity, it would value family over politics. Liz Cheney doesn’t. Plant a mango seed and eventually you’ll have a mango. But if you plant monkshood, you get poison. What Liz soweth so shall she reap. God bless Karma.