The Politicians Stopped Inviting Us to the Dance

For decades, when people spoke or wrote about the intersection of religious belief and political action, it was natural to refer to it in a kind of shorthand, “religion and politics,” with religion getting the more important seat at the table. More recently, though, it has become common to reverse the order: “politics and religion.” Perhaps it’s not a big deal, but it seems to suggest that the influence of religion has waned even as interest in politics has surged.

Religion and politics have squabbled forever, and sometimes gone to war against each other. Each has seen the other as a potential ally or at least an enemy that could be leveraged. At one time, every politician wanted to be thought of as religious. Harry Truman was a Baptist, as was Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. Ronald Reagan and Dwight Eisenhower were Presbyterians. So is Donald Trump. Kennedy was a Catholic, H.W. Bush an Episcopalian, and W. Bush a Methodist. In the presidential campaign of 1992, the three principal candidates eagerly announced themselves “born again” (though, clearly, a couple of them had no idea what that meant).

Today’s politicians no longer see religious affiliation as a prerequisite to success. In some places, it is even regarded as a detriment. Though he called himself a Christian, President Obama did not attend church services – and suffered no political consequences. Investment in religion is, seemingly, paying diminishing returns.

The previous administration seemed to think religion was important, and its defense obligatory, but it belonged behind church doors. Take it home, if you must, but don’t take it into the streets. And, for crying out loud, keep it out of legislation! Religion is a private preference and should have no voice in the public square.

Even after eight years of shushing religion, when candidate Hilary Clinton warned that “deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs and structural biases have to be changed,” it sent chills through faith communities. Who is Hilary Clinton (or any other politician) to tell Americans that our religious beliefs have to be changed? Changed to what?

For modern Americans, at least religious ones, all this is new and unsettling. We liked it when the politicians were calling and inviting us to the dance. Now the phone isn’t ringing, and we’re worried. Maybe we’re getting old. Maybe we’re not pretty enough anymore.

But such is the long, strange story of religion and politics. For a thousand years in Europe, there was no clear line between the two (as is the case today in places like Iran and, to some extent, Egypt). Religionists were political and politicians were religious. That has changed, at least in the U.S. and in Europe. For a growing number of people today, politics is religion. It is their principal credo and their only hope for making life and society better.

Readers often overlook the role that politics played in the biblical narratives. Jesus was born into a world rife with political controversy. Rome allowed people to practice the religion of their choice, but only if it didn’t threaten Roman hegemony. If it did, it would be crushed. Jesus had friends (one was even part of his inner circle) who were affiliated with an opposition movement that sought to unseat the Romans from power.

The strange (and often strained) relationship between religion and politics is nowhere more evident than in an incident that happened during the week before Jesus’s execution. He was approached by some religious professionals, with political operatives at their heels, and asked a politically-explosive question: Should people pay taxes to the foreign occupational government?

Despite their mutual dislike, the politicians and the religionists were working together to achieve a common goal: get rid of Jesus. If Jesus answered, “Yes, people should pay taxes,” an outraged public would abandon him. If he answered, “No, people shouldn’t pay taxes,” the government’s representatives would arrest him. Instead he brilliantly replied, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

Since he was not beholden to politics or religion, Jesus could speak truth rather than manage it. As politics and religion wrangled for power, and the world suffered on, Jesus (ignoring politics and religion) changed the world forever.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, July 1, 2017

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Heaven Does Not Have an EB-5 Visa Program

In recent weeks, many of us learned for the first time that the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services offers an employment-based visa with permanent resident status to foreigners who are willing to invest large sums of money in commercial enterprises in the U.S. –commercial enterprises capable of employing at least ten full-time U.S. workers.

The program, known as the EB-5 Immigrant Investor Program, offers foreigners with at least a million dollars to invest the possibility of receiving preferential status, compared to foreigners who wish to immigrate to the U.S. for other reasons (like their safety or the safety of their families).

In an op-ed for Roll Call, Senator Diane Feinstein wrote, “simply put, EB-5 sends a terrible message to the millions of immigrants patiently waiting their turn to enter the United States legally…It says that American citizenship is for sale, and that’s not what our country stands for.”

It’s not often I agree with Senator Feinstein, but this time I think she’s right.

My daughter-in-law is an immigration attorney working for a non-profit in Texas, helping (mostly) Spanish-speaking people from Mexico and Central America seeking to enter the U.S. These people are often trying to escape drug violence or domestic abuse (sometimes at the hands of American citizen husbands). She frequently sees their applications for status denied.

Whether those denials are just or not, I don’t know. It probably differs from case to case and, even then, is open to debate. But place the abused and exploited undocumented immigrant from Guatemala alongside the millionaire from China, witness the different treatment they receive, and one can’t help but feel something is wrong. The EB-5 applicant leaves his Mercedes with the valet and eats in an upscale Shanghai restaurant while his lawyers handle his visa application. The Central American mother of three sits alone in a detention center, afraid and confused, with no one to plead her case.

There are, of course, arguments to be made for and against EB-5, and good people will come down on opposing sides. But this I think I can say without fear of contradiction: the kingdom of heaven does not have an EB-5 program. No one can buy their way in. Heaven is not selling citizenship status to would-be investors, and its economy has no need of a boost.

Yet there’s no shortage of religious hucksters selling entrance visas in the name of the king of heaven. Some are blatant about it, like the old-time evangelist who kept an enormous register on a table in the front of the meeting hall, which he called the Book of Life. For a donation to the ministry, he promised to write a person’s name in the Book of Life.

Even without the hucksters, the idea that entrance into heaven can somehow be bought remains popular. Many people think of religion as a currency God accepts: performing rituals, attending church, lighting candles, saying prayers – it all adds up to a hefty investment that may just translate into citizenship status in heaven. People assume there must be some logical connection between such things and heavenly citizenship, but what that connection could possibly be remains (to their minds) inscrutable.

Other people believe God deals in good deeds. With so many religions, they conclude, it can’t possibly matter which you hold. The important thing is human kindness. It has purchase power. Pilgrimages and fasts and baptisms – they’re not legal tender everywhere; but charity is. Good deeds add up. Get enough of them and heaven will issue a green card.

The biblical writers, however, are surprisingly nonchalant about religion. The primary word for religion is only used three times in the entire New Testament. Likewise, biblical teaching denies that good deeds have any buying power at all. Good deeds characterize the lifestyle of people who already have heavenly status; they are not a means for procuring it.

In fact, heavenly status is not procured at all – it is received. It is a gift, gratis. To enter the kingdom of heaven, a person need only acknowledge the king. One’s sins can’t keep a person out, and one’s good deeds can’t get a person in. Faith in heaven’s ruler (the biblical word is “Lord”) is the sole criterion.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, June 24, 2017

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The Spiritual Myopia Pandemic

There are about 97 million myopic people in the U.S., according to the American Optometric Association. I’m one of them. I was fitted for my first pair of corrective lenses in second grade. Because my vision continued to deteriorate (and because I was always finding new ways to break my glasses), I saw the optometrist often.

I changed to contact lenses in my later teens, but when I started work at the Ford Motor Company Assembly Plant in Lorain, Ohio, I was forced to wear safety glasses. With their coke bottle lenses, they were almost too heavy to wear.

The myopia continued to worsen and, when the optometrist added astigmatism correction to my prescription, contact lenses were no longer an option. My vision is bad enough now that without corrective lenses I can’t drive, can’t read the clock, and can’t be certain that I know the person sitting across the table from me.

If I had lived before corrective lenses were available, I would have been in trouble. I would have gone through life Mr. Magoo-like, mistaking people, running into obstacles, and unable to join in favorite activities. It is interesting to think what it would be like to live that way for 60 years, and then to receive corrective lenses. What could be better than the gift of sight?

Christians believe that all people need a kind of vision correction. Myopia of what St. Paul calls “the eyes of the heart” is pandemic. “Now,” as he puts it, “we see through a glass darkly.” Humans have trouble recognizing what is important, they hurt themselves on obstacles they could have avoided, and routinely get lost in the tangles of everyday life.

The gospel writers want people to know that God restores sight, and they convey this important idea through the stories they tell about Jesus, who has “come into this world, so that the blind will see…” Each gospel tells stories of how Jesus gifted people with sight, rounding out the Old Testament’s promise that God’s servant would bring “recovery of sight for the blind.”

The Gospel of Luke provides a particularly brilliant presentation of Jesus as the sight-giver. The Evangelist juxtaposes two stories, set side by side, representing very different kinds of blindness. To make sure we don’t miss his point, he employs Greek verbs meaning “to see” so often a reader would have to be blind to miss them.

The first story features a blind man who sits begging on the side of the road as a noisy procession nears. The man, hearing that Jesus is in the procession, begins shouting, “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me.” Bystanders order him to be quiet, but he shouts all the louder.

Hearing him, Jesus stops and asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” and the blind man answers, “Lord, I want to see.” Jesus restores his sight, and he immediately becomes a follower of Jesus.

This story is immediately followed by another story about blindness. This time, though, the man’s blindness is not physical but spiritual. His commitment to making money has blinded him, and he has injured himself in frequent run-ins with the people around him.

In both stories, the (physically and spiritually) blind men faced obstacles when they came to Jesus for “vision correction.” The poor beggar was treated as a persona non-grata by the crowd, and ordered to be quiet – why would Jesus be interested in him? The rich man suffered similar treatment. People despised him, and refused to make room for him.

Surprisingly, the people who made it difficult for these sight-challenged men to get to Jesus were religious. Those who might be expected to facilitate a meeting with Jesus obstructed it. How often that proves to be the case. The judgmental church-goer, the holier-than-thou Bible-thumper, and the lapsed believer are blurry obstacles on the path to Jesus, and to restored vision.

John Newton famously wrote of that vision: “I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see.” I’m not sure I could go that far. What I can say is, “I once was blind but I see better now, and have every reason to expect complete vision restoration in the future.”

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 6/17/2017

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Better Off Dead: Life Beyond the Grave

Death has always been hard to understand – just try explaining it to a child. How strange it is to be speaking to a person you know one minute and find them absent the next. Their body is still present and looks the same, but the person is gone. What has become of them? Did they leave their failing bodies and go elsewhere? Or did they, somehow, cease to exist?

In attempting to understand death, ancient people turned to story and myth. In Norse mythology, the god Baldur descends into Hela’s abode, the place of the dead, and finds it dark and gloomy, its residents mere shadows. Sheol is the place of the dead in Hebrew literature. It, too, is a place of darkness and from it, the poet said, people do not praise God. The Greeks believed the dead went to Hades, where even heroes were empty shells, their voices incoherent mumblings, and their bodies transparent shades. The place of the dead was a place of deepest shadows.

The Christian era brought a sea change to the way people thought about death. Jesus taught his followers not to fear it: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” He likened death to sleep, and consoled his students with the promise they would neither taste death nor see it.

Hours before his own death, and knowing what awaited him, Jesus comforted his disciples. Even though he would soon be crossing the threshold of death, he told his friends they should be glad for his sake—he was going to the Father.

The early Christians took Jesus’s teaching to heart. They spoke of death as if it were no more than pulling up the stakes of a tent and moving on. They said things like, “I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task…” They echoed the sentiment of the biblical poet: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of death, I will fear no evil.” Death had lost its terror for them.


St. Paul, following the lead of Jesus, looked at death as the door to eternal life and considered it a marked improvement over his current situation. Facing a possible death sentence, the apostle told his friends, “For me to live is Christ, to die is gain.” He fully expected to be better off dead. And this was not because life was so terrible (he was full of joy), but because the life to come was so wonderful.

Paul went on to muse about what awaited him. He might be released to resume his work or he might be convicted and executed. Because he wasn’t afraid to die (he considered it a promotion), he found himself torn by conflicting desires: He would like to go back to work and serve the people he loved, but he would like even more to “depart” (by means of the executioner’s sword), “and be with Christ.” The latter, he wrote, “is better by far.”

Christians of later generations also learned this lesson. When Europe was rocked by plague, and the dead left unburied because their families were afraid of becoming infected, the Christians came to the rescue. They buried the dead, their own and others, because they “were not enslaved by their fear of death.”

For the Christian, the other side of the grave is not dark, shadowy or indistinct. Christ has “destroyed death and brought life and immortality to light.” Death does not portend the fall of night but the breaking of day.

Some years ago, the maker of the allergy medication Claritin launched an ad campaign featuring allergy sufferers who found relief from their symptoms by taking Claritin. Viewers wouldn’t realize the picture was indistinct until the slogan “Claritin Clear” was spoken, a film was peeled away, and the scene became distinct.

This is analogous to the Christian’s experience. After a lifetime of seeing “through a glass darkly,” death will usher in a clarity that will surprise, delight and relieve. We now see dimly; then we will see face to face. Our current knowledge is patchy and fragmented. Then it will be complete.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 6/10/2017

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The Tie That Binds Can Also Tear Us Apart

Most Christian churches include a ritual meal in their worship liturgy. They refer to it in different ways – participating in the Lord’s Supper, taking Holy Communion, celebrating the Eucharist – and they take part in it with varying frequency. Some have a weekly observance, some a monthly, and a few “take Communion” quarterly or annually. But the vast majority of Christians, excepting the Quakers, the Salvation Army and a few others, include the Eucharist in their worship.

Around the world on any given Sunday, tens of millions of Christians sip wine (or grape juice) and eat a piece of bread. They do this in response to instruction that Jesus gave. It is done differently in different traditions, to be sure. Nevertheless, it is a practice that Christians around the world share. It transcends race and ethnicity, gender and language differences. More than almost any other practice, it ties us together.

And yet, the tie that binds also tears us apart. Catholics can’t worship with Lutherans around the Communion table because the doctrines of transubstantiation and consubstantiation divide them. And this is true, even though most Catholics and most Lutherans couldn’t differentiate between the two. Place the Anglicans at the table with them, and things get even more complicated. The Anglicans don’t even agree with each other, much less with the Catholics and Lutherans.

And then there are the dissenting churches and their descendants, who reject such explanations as transubstantiation, consubstantiation, real presence, spiritual presence, and pneumatic presence. They hold that the ritual meal provides Christians with an opportunity to remember what Jesus did for them—period. The other traditions would agree that the Eucharist provides that opportunity, but argue it is also an occasion for receiving grace in the present.

I first came to faith in a tradition that saw the Lord’s Supper (that was what it was usually called) as only a memorial. I didn’t know there were other views until my sophomore year in college and, of course, I took for granted that everyone else was mistaken.

During my junior year, I started attending a nearby Catholic church at the invitation of a friend. I found the liturgy helpful and beautiful. Of course, when it came time to celebrate the Eucharist, I didn’t dare go forward. I did not want to offend, and I had learned the divide between Catholics and Protestants over this practice was deep and the contention bitter.

Years later, I was invited to speak at the funeral of a Catholic friend, which I was honored to accept. But imagine my surprise when the officiant asked me to help with Holy Communion. I told him that I would be glad to help, but I doubted whether his diocese would sanction a Protestant pastor taking – and serving – Holy Communion. I told him I didn’t have a problem, but I thought his church would. He just smiled.

If there is a theologically authentic way for those who hold transubstantiation, consubstantiation, real presence, spiritual presence or memorialist positions to come to agreement, no one has discovered it – and maybe they don’t have to. Maybe it’s okay to disagree about what Communion means so long as we agree about what Christians do when they share it.

Whatever else one may say about it, the Lord’s Supper was intended for people who have sworn allegiance to Jesus. However many layers of meaning the ritual holds, those who participate in it are affirming their covenant membership (“This cup is the new covenant in my blood”) with God as the people of Jesus. By doing this together, they acknowledge and encourage one another’s commitment to Jesus as Lord “until he comes” and establishes God’s kingdom.

Those who “take Communion” – whether in a grand Cathedral in Rome or in an underground church in China – identify themselves to heaven and to each other as members of God’s covenant people. Some of them believe in transubstantiation, others in consubstantiation (or something else), but they all believe in Jesus. By taking part in the ritual, they renew their commitment to be his people and reaffirm their loyalty to his rule.

I can gladly share the covenant meal with people who hold views that differ from my own, so long as they follow the same leader: Jesus.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 6/4/2017

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If Today’s Media Had Reported on Jesus

Everything the President of the United States says is news. If he belches, international stock markets drop. If he bellows, nations flinch. If his speech is aggressive – and how often this president sounds aggressive – ambassadors phone home. It seems his every word is parsed, interpreted, and debated.

I can’t think of anyone whose words have been more closely attended, unless it was Jesus himself. His words have been parsed, interpreted, and debated for two thousand years. But in Jesus’s case, his words have been parsed by experts in ancient languages. They have been interpreted and debated by theologians, whereas President Trump’s words are fodder for the news and entertainment media – and face it, in our day the distinction between news and entertainment has virtually disappeared.

What, I can’t help but wonder, would today’s news media have made of Jesus? How would they have reported on him? If Jesus were their subject, what kind of headlines lines would today’s editors splash across the page? With what kind of lead would they open a news story?

The fact that Jesus, unlike other rabbis of his day, taught women was a source of controversy during his three years of public service. St. Luke tells us that some women (including prosperous, married women) supported his work financially and at least occasionally traveled with his disciples. One can imagine a front-page picture of adoring women gazing at Jesus, with the caption: “Fund-raising Effort Among Married Women Pays Off.”

When Jesus turned water into wine, how would reporters have chronicled it? Would they have called it an ecological disaster or described it as a revolutionary process sure to drive traditional vintners into bankruptcy?

Jesus was widely known as “a friend of tax collectors and sinners,” the two most reviled categories of people in the country. Tax collectors were most despised, and were considered traitors, since they worked for the occupational government. Headlines might include: “Collaborators Throw Support Behind Jesus,” or “Jesus Accepts Fringe Group’s Endorsement.”

Or how about when Jesus “cleansed the temple”? It was endlessly controversial even then, but how would today’s news and entertainment media have broken the story? “Jesus Leads Anti-Clerical Protest,” or “Chaos Erupts on Temple Grounds,” or “Jesus Accused of Assault in Temple Incident.”

What Jesus did was certainly newsworthy, but what he said could have kept a scandal-mongering news media in a feeding frenzy. Imagine what a reporter could have done with Jesus’s statement, “Apart from me, you can do nothing.” Something about “…disparaging the working class,” perhaps. A columnist would have raged about his “…chutzpah, his unrivaled arrogance.” The magazine rack at the grocery store would have screamed, “Jesus Manages to Offend Everyone!”

When his adversaries threw a lighted stick of political dynamite at Jesus in the form of a loaded question about taxation, Jesus’s brilliant response was: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” But think what a reporter could have done with that: “Today Jesus, in a highly controversial statement, went on record in support of the Roman occupational forces.”

Imagine the uproar that would have surrounded Jesus when he said, “And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.” Or, “Let the dead bury their dead.” Or, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace but a sword.” Or, “Unless you believe in me, you will die in your sins.”

One could go on and on. People who want to use Jesus’s words against him will find plenty to keep them busy, but those intellectually honest enough to want to know what Jesus really meant will be kept even busier. And the person who goes further and genuinely tries to do what Jesus said, will be busiest of all—busy making a difference in the world (and being happy doing it).

It is easier (for the time being) to make Jesus’s words fit one’s purpose than to make one’s life fit his words. Easier, but disingenuous and, frankly, far less rewarding.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 5/27, 2017

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The Banality of Evil and the Creativity of Good

One of the remarkable moments in the history of the twentieth century occurred near its close: the work of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. South Africa had been embroiled in decades of horrific racial violence. The Commission’s mandate was to discover the truth about politically-motivated violence, provide amnesty for truth-tellers, and reconciliation for the nation.

This was a very different goal from the one pursued in the Nuremberg trials, held fifty year earlier. In Nuremberg, the goal was to render judgment. In Cape Town, the goal was to facilitate reconciliation. When the philosopher Hannah Arendt reported on the Nuremberg trial of Adolph Eichmann, she famously (and controversially) wrote of “the banality of evil.” Had she been present at South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Hearings, I can’t help but think she would have commented on the freshness and creativity of good.

Evil is everywhere driven by the same conventional and monotonous motivations: pride, greed, and selfishness. We are sometimes shocked by its brutality but never by its modality—the predictable misuse of power through deceit and the threat of violence. But goodness surprises us. It is original in a way evil never is.

In his book, No Future Without Forgiveness, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the chairman of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, detailed one surprising story after another from the commission’s hearings. Broken people confessed the evil they had done, while family members of victims found surprising ways to forgive.

In one powerful story, a white police officer confessed to the murder of an 18-year-old black man, whose mother sat in the courtroom. He admitted to celebrating with other officers as they burned the young man’s body. A few hours later, the officer compelled the same woman to watch as he and his partners burned her husband alive. His last words to her were: “Forgive them.”

After the officer’s emotionally charged testimony, a silent courtroom listened as the bereaved wife and mother asked for three things from the white officer. The now-elderly woman asked him to take her to the place where her husband was burned so she could gather up the dust and give it a proper burial. Next, since he had taken her family from her, she asked him to come to the ghetto twice a month to spend a day with her, so she could have someone to mother. And, finally, she asked someone to escort her to where he was seated so she could embrace him. She wanted him to know her forgiveness – and God’s – was real.

The officer, overcome by emotion, fainted. At the same time, someone in the courtroom began to sing “Amazing Grace.” And the world got a snapshot of what goodness – what God – is like.

There are two words translated “forgive” in the New Testament, which connote distinct aspects of forgiveness. The one focuses on the evil deed, and has the idea of sending it away, rather like the ancient High Priest confessed the nation’s sins over the head of a scapegoat and sent it into the wilderness, never to be seen again.

The other word does not focus on the evil deed but on the person who commits it. The evil is sent away, but the one who committed it is not. He or she is forgiven. This word is formed on the stem for “grace.” We are to send away the offence, but grace the offender with love and acceptance, just as the Lord graced us.

Sadly, most of us get this turned around. Rather than sending away the offence, we cling to it. We season it with the salt of resentment and feed on it until we poison ourselves. We do exactly the wrong thing: clutch the sin but send the sinner away. Instead of gracing the person who hurt us, we snub and ignore him and refuse to have anything to do with him. And so evil continues unabated.

But goodness, as we see it in God and in his representatives (like the elderly woman in Cape Town), sends the evil deed to oblivion and surprises the one who committed it with grace. And against all odds, “mercy triumphs over judgment” and real people “overcome evil with good.”

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 5/20/2017

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