The Forgotten Victims of Clergy Sexual Abuse

As the sex abuse crisis continues to unfold in the church we are learning it is the one interfaith thing we share.  There is no church or denomination that is exempt. While the Roman Catholic church has a higher percentage of pedophiles and child molesters than any other church, there are plenty of instances of child abuse in other denominations and traditions.

What is often overlooked is another population of victims: adult women.  These are women who go to their pastors for help and get sex.  These women go to their pastors for pastoral care and their pastors allow or initiate sexualizing the relationship.

This is often dismissed as an “affair.”  Nothing could be further from the truth.

First, the relationship between a clergy person and his/her congregants is professional in nature. This means that clergy have a responsibility to use the special knowledge, skills and gifts of their call for the benefit of those they serve, namely their congregants. It also means that clergy have a responsibility to establish healthy professional relationships. Because clergy carry moral and spiritual authority, as well as professional power it is ALWAYS their responsibility to maintain an appropriate professional boundary.

In practical terms this translates into clergy not pursuing or initiating sexual relationships with congregants (regardless of marital status of either party) and not responding to the sexual advances of congregants who may be interested in a relationship with their pastor. It also means that clergy will not engage in sexualized behavior with congregants. Sexualized behavior includes jokes, inappropriate touching, pornography, flirting, inappropriate gift giving, etc.

Since the ministerial relationship is professional in nature, it is inappropriate to call a sexual encounter an affair. “Affair” is a term used to describe a sexual liaison between peers, or equals. In addition, the term affair focuses attention on the sexual nature of the behavior rather than the professional violation. It also places equal responsibility for the behavior on the congregant. Since clergy have a responsibility to set and maintain appropriate boundaries, those who are violated by clergy’s inappropriate sexual behavior are not to be blamed even if they initiated the contact.

This is a difficult concept for many people to grasp. We want to blame the congregant (usually but not always a woman) for the sexually inappropriate behavior of the minister (usually but not always a man). As tempting as this may be, it is wrong because it is always the responsibility of the minister to maintain the integrity of the ministerial relationship. The temptation to blame the congregant is also a reflection of the difficulty people have believing that a person who carries moral and spiritual authority, who is respected and trusted, can also be guilty of misusing the power and authority of the office. This denial and confusion causes tremendous damage to victims who need understanding and support as well as to churches that need clear, ethical, theological and faith based intervention to understand their betrayal. Blaming the congregant also means a failure to call the abusing pastor to genuine accountability. The focus needs to remain on the violation of the ministerial relationship.

The term “consenting adults” also reflects a misunderstanding of sexual behavior between clergy and congregants. It is assumed that because two people are adults that there is consent. In reality, consent is far more complex. In order for two people to give authentic consent to sexual activity there must be equal power. Clergy have more power because of the moral and spiritual authority of the office of pastor. In addition, education, community respect and public image add to the imbalance of power between a clergy person and a congregant. Finally clergy may have the additional power of psychological resources, especially when a congregant seeks pastoral care in the midst of personal or spiritual crisis, life change, illness or death of a loved one. This precludes the possibility of meaningful consent between a congregant and their pastor.

During the years I worked with adult survivors of professional misconduct I often ask the question, “Would this have happened if he/she was your neighbor and not your pastor.” Overwhelmingly the answer is “no.” The witness of survivors underscores the truth that the clergy role carries with it a power and authority that make meaningful consent impossible.

When speaking of sexual contact between clergy and congregants, the term professional misconduct or sexual exploitation is more accurate. It keeps the emphasis on the professional relationship and the exploitative nature of sexual behavior rather than placing blame on the victim/survivor. “An affair between consenting adults” is never an appropriate term to use when describing sexual contact between a minister and congregant. Accurate naming of the behavior is an important step to reshaping our thinking about this troubling reality in the church, how we name it reveals our belief about it. Holding clergy accountable with compassion and purpose and providing healing resources to churches and survivors is dependent on an accurate starting point. Only when the behavior is named accurately can there be a healing outcome for all.

Whoever You Are and Where Ever You Are on Life’s Journey, You Are Welcome Here

When it comes to churches, look for the rainbow or the Open and Affirming sign.  It is the church’s proclamation to the world that it is welcoming of GLBTQI people.  It is the radical statement of the United Church of Christ. Not every church in the UCC is open and affirming, sadly there are homophobes and bigots in every tradition.

In the United Church of Christ Open and Affirming stance we acknowledge, without exception, that every GLBTQI person is a beloved child of God.  Nothing can change that.  It is the nature of who God is, to love all the people God created. There is nothing “wrong” or “sinful” about being gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgender, queer, inquiring or non-binary.  All sexual orientations and expressions are welcome.

The over-arching message of scripture is God’s eternal love for all people and all creation. It is the thread that runs through all of Scripture and weaves the big picture of who God is and what God is all about. We are one human people, knit together in divine love and excluding no one. Sure, it is possible to take scripture out of context and make it say whatever anyone wants.  But the consistent message is unwavering love for all God has created.

In a practical way what this means if you are GLBTQI, cis-gender but not narrow, if you believe that all  people should have equal human rights and be treated with dignity, you are welcome in body of Christ in the expression that is the United Church of Christ, Open and Affirming:

  • You are welcome at our table for the Sacrament of communion, the sacred sharing of memory and hope.
  • You are welcome at the waters of baptism. In this Sacrament there is no original sin from which to be absolved.  Rather, baptism is the acknowledgement that God lays claim to your life and calls you a life of discipleship and service.
  • You are welcome at our altar to pledge you love in the covenant of marriage.
  • Your children are welcome to the waters of baptism. Your family is welcome.

The only change you will ever be asked to make is to grow in discipleship and service to the realm of God as embodied in Jesus.  Jesus hung out with the poor and dispossessed, the marginalized and ignored. He was committed to living a life that healed and loved and extended an unconditional welcome to all people and invited them to live as God’s people in the world.

What underlies much of the “welcome” in some churches is the notion that it is some kind of sin or disappointment to God if you a LGBTQI, but the church welcomes you in the spirit of “love and tolerance.”  Tolerance is a very low bar for God’s people.  Nothing short of radical inclusion and unfettered acceptance will do.

In this age of growing right wing religious expression and decreased acceptance, there are pockets of welcome and care for the GLBTQI community and those who support equal rights for all. The United Church of Christ is one such place. As a denomination it has been on the growing edge of every important social issue since its inception in 1957.  The first gay pastor, The Rev. William R. Johnson was ordained in 1972.  Since then the United Church of Christ has recognized the leadership skills and the call of God regardless of sexual orientation. 

As Gay Pride Month unfolds around the country, I encourage people who support and welcome the GLBTQI community in their church to march in or at least attend parades and other events. Roman Catholic bishops are united in their voice against the GLBTQI community, stating that Roman Catholics should not attend Pride events.  And it doesn’t stop there.  Bishops are openly stating that gay individuals and couples will be denied the sacraments, including the rite of Christian burial.  Repentance from the gay “life style” is the gateway to receiving the sacraments again.  And all heaven just weeps. 

Churches are free (at least until the Occupant obliterates the line between church and state) to express their religious convictions any way they choose.  While Pope Francis has taken a more pastoral stance toward the LGBTQI community, the bottom line is that it remains a sin. The Roman Catholics are joined by conservative and fundamental Protestant churches which are increasingly vehement in their rejection of anyone who isn’t heterosexually married, with 2.5 children and a wood sided station wagon.  And all heaven just weeps.

  Gay Pride month began in response to the Stonewall riots in New York City.  In June of 1969 patrons and supporters of the Stonewall Inn staged an uprising to resist the police harassment and persecution to which the LGBTQI community was subjected and still face to this day. The loudest voices claim God’s judgement against the LGBTQI community.  There are other voices, voices of acceptance and welcome.  It’s high time we made our voices the loudest.  Let’s make some loving noise and drown out message of hate and bigotry.

Whoever you are and where ever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.

On Memorial Day and Mascots

In the mid-size town where I live, the Annual Memorial Day parade is a big deal.  It is a grand event with scout troops, horses, floats of varying kinds, fire trucks, police cars and red, white and blue bunting everywhere.  In my town there are several boroughs and villages, and each has their own fire department.  Many of them are staffed completely by volunteers. Women and men donate countless hours to keep our community and villages safe and I am deeply grateful to all who give so tirelessly.

My particular village is staffed by a volunteer department.  I am proud of those who marched and were part of the parade.  However, I was deeply troubled by their mascot.  It is a blow up figure of a caricatured Native American holding a fire ax.  The sight left me speechless.  All their uniforms, hats and paraphernalia bear the same cartoon image. 

What were they thinking?  Is it that people have become so numb to the insult this is to Native Americans that folks don’t notice?  Have we so fully appropriated cultural images that we think we are entitled to use whatever images we choose? After all there are teams like the Cleveland Indians, Washington Redskins, Kansas City Chiefs, Chicago Black Hawks and Atlanta Braves that make use of Native American caricatures of mascots.

Pockets of protest erupt periodically to encourage sports teams to change, but to date such protests have fallen on deaf ears.  I don’t know what my little fire department was thinking, but I wonder if it’s the notion that if it’s okay for multimillion dollar sports teams, it’s okay for them.

Rhode Island has a long and proud tradition of Native American peoples. The Narragansetts, Nipmucs, Pequots and Wampanoag tribes were predominant when white European settlers arrived.  Within a few generations war, genocide and disease decimated the Native peoples. Chances are good the story is much the same where you live.

Many people see the use of Native American mascots as a harmless act, but it continues a system of domination and marginalization. It perpetuates stereotypes of Native peoples and minimizes the systemic prejudice that abounds to this day. And for the record, we who are NOT Native American do not get to decide what is appropriate and what is marginalizing.  We who are NOT Native American do not get to decide what contributes to cultural bias and prejudice. 

The Society of Indian Psychologists wrote, “Stereotypical and historically inaccurate images of Indians in general interfere with learning about them by creating, support and maintaining oversimplified and inaccurate view of indigenous people and their cultures.”  The American Psychological Association issued a resolution “recommending the immediate retirement of American Indian mascots, symbols, images and personalities by schools, colleges, universities, athletic teams and organizations.”  Similar resolutions have been adopted by the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport, the American Sociological Association, the American Counseling Association and the American Anthropological Association. A host of religious organizations have also called for the ban of Native American mascots.

Unfortunately, the calls often fall on deaf ears.  The economic cost of designing new mascots, making new uniforms and changing all advertising media creates tremendous resistance.  My little fire department would surely be challenged by the enormity of changing their mascot.

This does not in any way relieve them of the responsibility to do so.  There is a striking double standard in the world of mascots and identity.  No one would consider using black face as a mascot, or wearing black face to a sporting event.  However, war paint and cultural appropriation of Native symbols at sporting events is common. We have some cultural sensitivity to learn.  We have some advocacy skills to put to use in the ongoing subjugation of Native peoples.

It may not bother YOU, but it is painful to those who are minimized by the images.

Corporate and Political Entanglement in an Age of Consumer Awareness

Last week Alabama passed the most restrictive ban on abortion in the United States.  Other states (as noted in last week’s blog) have similar legislation pending.  What flies under the radar are the corporate dollars that flood into these politicians and their political positions.  Since corporations do not regularly advertise their political contributions or perspectives, this week’s blog is a public service announcement made in the interest of helping you become a more informed consumer.

This is a partial list of corporations that supported the ban through their contributions to the political campaigns of the legislation’s authors (all white men). The corporation’s CEOs and addresses are in parentheses.

Coca-Cola: Donated $2500 to legislator Will Ainsworth’s campaign. (James Kent, CEO, PO Box 1734, Atlanta, GA 30301)

AT&T: With a workforce of thirty-one percent women and management team of thirty-five percent women, AT&T donated $10,000 to Will Ainsworth, $5,000 to Clyde Chambliss, $2,500 to Nathaniel Ledbetter, $2,000 to Mac McCutcheon and $2,500 to Greg Reed. (Randall Stephenson, CEO, 208 S. Akard St. Dallas, TX 75202).

Exxon: While publicly advocating for women’s control over their own bodies, Exxon donated $1,000 to Ainsworth, $1,000 to Mac McCutcheon, $2,000 to Reed and $500 to Nathaniel Ledbetter. (Darren Woods, CEO, 5959 Las Colinas Blvd. Irving TX 75039).

Pfizer: While spouting a party line of equitable healthcare for women, Pfizer donated $1,000 to Chambliss and $500.00 to Reed. (Albert Bouria, CEO, 1 Burtt Rd. Andover, MA 01810)

Walmart: Long known for its conservative religious and political stances while publicly stating they seek to “empower women,” Walmart donated $2,000 to McCutcheon and $1,000 to Reed. (Doug McMillon, CEO, 702 S.W. 8th St. Bentonville, AK 72716).

State Farm: The insurance mogul is proud to say it is recognized for its commitment to diversity and inclusion.  However, State Farm donated $5,000 to McCutcheon and $1,000 to Chambliss. (Michael Tipsord, CEO, One State Farm Plaza, Bloomington, IL 61710).

Eli Lily: A 2015 initiative to understand the experience of women and minorities in their workforce did not stop them from donating $3,000 to McCutcheon and $1,000 to Reed. (Dave Ricks, CEO, Lily Corporate Center, Indianapolis, IN 46285).

Caterpillar: Their website has a page devoted to gender equality, specifically citing male privilege as a barrier to understanding the experiences of women.  This did not, however, stop the equipment manufacturer from donating $2,500 to Ainsworth. (Jim Umpleby, CEO, 501 Southwest Jefferson Ave. Peoria, IL 61630).

Comcast: A $2,500 donation to McCutcheon subverts any claim they may make to caring about women. (Brian L. Roberts, CEO, 1701 JFK Blvd. Philadelphia, PA).

CVS Caremark: started in Alabama in 1993, donated $1,500 to McCutcheon. (Larry J. Merlo, CEO, One CVS Dr. Woonsocket, RI 02895)

Anheuser-Busch: $1,000 to McCutcheon and $1,500 to Reed effectively silences any notion about caring for women’s rights. (Carlos Brito, CEO, One Busch Place, St. Louis, MO 63118).

In a time when it is easy to feel powerless in the face of the machinations of government and big business, we tend to forget we have tremendous power. By refusing to support businesses whose ethical stances run counter to our own, and voting out those individuals who vote against the things we hold dear, we have the power to effect change.  What corporations understand is profit for shareholders and CEO’s.  What politicians understand is votes and longevity in their political careers. We have the power to impact both.

Granted, these donations are small considering these companies make billions every year.  However, such donations often curry political favor when it comes to corporate interest at a point in the future.  Politicians and corporations are comfortable bedfellows.

It’s not enough to simply shop somewhere else, it’s important to let the CEOs know of your decision and the reasons for it.  None of us singlehandedly keep any of these corporations in business, but critical mass comes when we impact their bottom line which is profit.

It is complicated to be an informed consumer in this day of entangled political and corporate agendas, but there is a lot at stake.  Women and men need to unite to protect women’s right to choose. Buy wisely. 

It’s a Pregnancy, Not a Potted Plant

Representative John Becker (R) Ohio, introduced a bill that includes a clause for moving a fertilized ovum from the fallopian tube (called an ectopic pregnancy) into the uterus.  That’s not medically possible.  A fertilized egg cannot be transplanted like a geranium.

This is just one instance of an alarming number of bills being introduced around the country that limit women’s access to reproductive health, even in the most heinous of circumstances.  Here is a partial listing, all in various stages of the political process:

  • Missouri: Representative Tina Hubrecht (R) stated that pregnancy as a result of rape is a gift from God, the silver lining of the cloud. The House passed Resolution 98 which gives constitutional rights to fetuses. It is a trigger bill which would ban all abortions if there is a change or reversal of Roe v. Wade.
  • Alabama: A bill that outlaws almost all abortions at every stage of pregnancy and criminalizes the actions of doctors who perform abortions. There are exceptions for the life of the mother, but not for rape or incest.
  • Georgia: Women who abort face prison or even the death penalty.
  • Ohio: An 11 year old girl who survived rape and is pregnant is being forced to carry the baby to term.
  • Kentucky: Blanket abortion ban once there is a heartbeat, usually at six weeks. This is frequently before a woman even knows she is pregnant. It is called a Heartbeat Bill.
  • Louisiana:  Heartbeat Bill
  • Mississippi: Heartbeat Bill
  • Ohio: Heartbeat Bill
  • South Carolina: Heartbeat bill with an exception for the life of the mother, rape or incest.
  • Arkansas: Trigger Bill that would outlaw abortion if Roe v. Wade is overturned. Other legislation bans abortion after eighteen weeks.
  • Oklahoma: The Senate approved a constitutional amendment which inserts a clause stating the constitution does not guarantee rights protecting abortion.
  • Rhode Island: A bill that would protect women’s reproductive health choices and access to abortion failed to get out of committee and reach the floor for debate.

The roll back in women’s rights is something about which all people, women and men should be deeply concerned.  These bills allow the state to essentially regulate women’s child bearing and make the private decision of a woman, her doctor and her God a matter of law.  We have fought long and hard to protect women’s right to choose.  It is in jeopardy now.

Make no mistake; these laws in various states have a direct impact on every person in the country.  They are part of a larger strategy to get one or more of these bills before the Supreme Court in an effort to overturn or essentially gut Roe v. Wade.  The ACLU and Planned Parenthood have brought numerous suits in numerous states but the appeal process is going to take time in each state.  It may be years before it reaches the Supreme Court.  And that may not bode well for the Pro-Choice movement.  In the current climate of politics, the Court is becoming more conservative and more politicized.  If one more liberal justice no longer serves, the court will most likely swing fully to the right and we will see changes that should terrify us all, and not just in reproductive rights.

People are free to believe whatever they want.  They are NOT, however free to make me believe the same thing OR institute laws that limit my practice of my religion. I should be free to act on what I think is right and what I believe about controversial issues without state or national interference.

Only someone who has never been raped can state so unequivocally that pregnancy as a result of rape is a gift from God.  Only someone who has never been molested can think carrying a molester’s baby to term at age 11 is a good idea. 

It is primarily old white men who are making these decisions.  How about some bills suggesting vasectomies?  The legislative world would go ballistic.  But, it’s a thought.  Why is this just a women’s issue? It takes two to get pregnant and men are not held accountable.

Here’s the thing. If you are against abortion, don’t have one.  But don’t tell everyone else in the country they can’t have one either.  It’s not the business of legislators, the courts or the political process. It is a private medical decision between a woman, her health care provider and her own faith which may be very different from the dominant voice.

Restrictive reproductive health laws fail to acknowledge a woman’s sovereignty over her own body.  Women have a unique understanding of their situation and the reasons for making the choice.  It is not the business of anyone else.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote, “The emphasis must not be on the right to abortion but on the right to privacy and reproductive control.”  For years women have fought for the right to keep the government out of their uterus.  The fight is far from over.  And it needs you to add your voice.

An Open Letter to Franklin Graham

Dear Mr. Graham,

Asking presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg to repent being gay is like asking you to repent breathing. You do not choose to breathe. Gay people do not choose to be gay. Both are endowments by the Creator.

Maimonides, the great Torah scholar of the Middle Ages, compiled a list of commandments from the Old Testament.  There are 613.   A few deal with homosexuality.  Trotting out these few passages invites a biblical pissing contest that is neither helpful nor unifying for the body of Christ.

To argue that you take the Bible literally does not hold water.  When was the last time you admonished someone for gossiping (Lev. 19:6)? What do you do with people in your community who have tattoos (Lev. 19:28)? When was the last time you told women they could not wear slacks because women should not dress as men (Deut. 22:5)? You may also need to discard some of your clothing since the mixing of linen and wool is forbidden (Deut. 22:11).

And let’s not forget the Big Ten (included in the 613). I find it curious that the current occupant of the white house has broken at least four of the Ten Commandments and you seem to have no problem whatsoever with this. 

In the New Testament there are 1,050 commandments that are roughly divided into 800 headings. A very few deal with homosexual behavior. You may remember Jesus (he is big in the Christian tradition). In his ministry he never said a word about homosexuality.  Not. One. Word. Zero. Nada. Zilch, Zip.

With 613 commandments in the Old Testament and 1,050 in the New Testament, it seems to me you have better things to do than focus on a few verses out of context as a way to marginalize people.  It is so not like Jesus. I have been a pastor, preacher and teacher for forty years.  I expect more from you than petty proof texting.

Jesus’ harshest words were reserved for those who made their living off the backs of the poor, those who lived far beyond the means of the majority of people and those who colluded with the Roman occupation.  I imagine these topics are a little close to home.  Your net worth of 28 million dollars, your annual salary of over a million dollars, your private jet and other “perks” of the job do not square well with Jesus’ teachings about wealth and poverty.

You may recall the original biblical languages, Hebrew and Greek.  They are rich sources for exegetical work when doing Bible study.  Further, studying the heilsgeschichte of the time is crucial for faithful interpretation.  You should have learned the word in seminary, but in case you didn’t it means “the situation,” “what was going on at the time,” or “how God was working in the lives of people during that time.”  This may come as a shock to you, but you are capable of failing (Gal. 6:1).  So am I, I mean to suggest nothing other.  However, the Jesus I try to fashion my life after loved everyone, turned no one away, welcomed all people and gave hope to those who were downtrodden.

There are few populations more downtrodden that the GLBTQI community.  Harassment, violence, discrimination, rejection and religious judgement are the daily fare for many. For teens, rejection by their parents (citing religious teaching) contributes to the skyrocketing rate of suicide.  Mr. Graham, your job is to give hope not take it away.

We are, all of us, instruments of salvation history.  Our work is judged by whether we have furthered the love and grace of God in Christ or driven people away because they do not fit our definition of what it means to be “Christian.”

I hope one day you discover someone you love is gay. At that moment your dogma will collide with your love. I sincerely hope that love wins.  In the Jesus Christ whom I meet in Scripture, the last word is always “love.”

Rethinking Resurrection

Though the details vary from gospel to gospel, it is clear that women were the first witnesses to the resurrection. The courage of the women who went to Jesus’ grave early on Easter morning cannot be overestimated.  Jesus’ grave was guarded; even in his death he was a threat to the political and religious systems of his day.    

The women who went to the grave were on their final errand of love. It is often in such heart break that resurrection begins. In going to the grave they bore witness to Jesus’ teaching that love is stronger than death and perfect love casts out fear. And perfect love is not love without error; it is love that trusts its source. 

There are few details given in any of the gospel accounts.  We are given just enough to discern a truth, even though it is not necessarily related to the accounts as presented.

It is a consequence of modernity that we think in linear terms. The dawn of movies and other recording equipment has changed how we understand reality.  The resurrection stories are not intended to be a movie script.  The truth of the story goes beyond the words recorded.   

The empty tomb is not the point.  The point is that somewhere along the line his followers recognized him in the faces of those he loved when he walked this earth.  They recognized him in each other’s eyes when they spoke the words he gave them and when they remembered that following Jesus on the way was the only thing that mattered.

John Shelby Spong, retired Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of New Jersey, suggests in his book, The Easter Moment,  that it was the scared and sacred sharing that transformed this group of confused women and men into a mighty witness to an even mightier truth. They recognized Christ in their midst and were strengthened by sharing a meal in Jesus’ name. 

And IN TIME they found their voices and their courage and carried on.  The truth of the resurrection became real when God’s loving power was felt in their hearts and in their gathering. Whether or not the tomb was empty is beside the point.

They heard the words and followed the simple directions from the angel, but it didn’t become real until they had some time to sit with it. We hear the words and understand them, but Easter does not become real until our own lives are transformed by it. 

Easter is a moment that changes all other moments. We don’t think too much about eternal life until someone we love dies.  We don’t think much about the promise of God’s sustaining love until we are ill and think we might die.   We may not think much about hope until it eludes us; we may not think much about joy until it returns to us on the heels of despair. 

The promise becomes real in the stuff of our own lives.  And it happens again and again as the stuff changes. 

Albert Schweitzer wrote, “To those who would follow the risen Christ, whether wise or simple, he will reveal himself in the conflicts and the sufferings which they shall pass through in his fellowship.  And as an ineffable mystery they shall learn in their own experience who he is.” 

But Easter is never just about us. It’s also about the passions at work in Jesus’ earthly life, like his love for the ones no one else paid any attention to. Easter is about his willingness to speak truth to power and lay bare the corruption that masqueraded as faithfulness.  Jesus was all about an upside down kingdom where the last were first and the first were last.

Resurrection is at once deeply personal and totally communal. The Easter holiday is not the anniversary of an event, it is the reminder of new life born of discipleship and community.

The resurrection stories are a mix and mess of mystery and human bewilderment, and we do well to remember it is not the empty tomb that made believers of them.  It was their fellowship with one another, their shared doubt and faith, their growing awareness of his presence as they lived the life he showed them.

And so for us, Christ is present in our fragmented lives, calling us to wholeness. Christ is present in our sadness and grief, unfolding a way to healing. Christ is present in the midst of all that comes to an end, with a promise of presence and unfailing love. Christ is present in the struggle for peace, going on ahead of us to show the way. Christ is present in the yearning for justice, calling us to repentance and lives made new. Christ is present in our fear of death, calling us to the hope of eternal life in Jesus Christ. Christ is present in our fear of life, saying follow me.

 

Rethinking Sacrifice

If you grew up within ten miles of a church, you probably heard the phrase, “Jesus died for our sins.”  The ten dollar theological word is “substitutionary atonement.”  The gist is that Jesus had to die to appease an old-pissed off-white guy-with-a-beard-god because all of humanity was so wretched. Sometimes I get the wretched humanity part.  People do some pretty awful things to each other.

The pissed off old-guy god is more problematic.  While many people think that the God of the Old Testament is all wrath and condemnation and the God of the New Testament is all love and light, both are off the mark.  First, it is all the same God. There’s only one God.  That’s one of the important things about the Judeo Christian tradition.  Second, the God portrayed in the Old Testament is the God who created all of everything and then loved it to life.  God is in everything and everyone.  All of creation is filled with the holiness of God. Our essential nature is not original sin, but original blessing (see more on original blessing in the book of the same title by Matthew Fox).  We are God’s beloved creatures. There are instances where God gets angry, but usually with pretty good reason.  Humans have done pretty awful stuff to each other.

The God portrayed in the New Testament (through Jesus) got angry and had harsh words for the Romans and the religious leaders who colluded with them.  Jesus spoke words of judgment to those who put extra burdens on the poor and marginalized people because of their social or economic standing in society.  So the God of both testaments is both angry and loving.

The notion that Jesus had to be the atoning sacrifice for our sin perpetuates two central myths that have wrought misery and destruction throughout human history: redemptive violence and redemptive suffering. 

The myth of redemptive violence undergirds the belief that violence saves, that war brings peace and that might makes right.  According to Walter Wink, it is one of the oldest and continuously repeated stories in the world.  There is a good guy and a bad guy. The good guy suffers and the bad guy appears to be winning.  The good guy eventually triumphs and everyone identifies with the good guy. Violence in this view is a means to an end; good finally triumphs over evil.

The myth of redemptive suffering essentially holds forth suffering as a means to an end; namely a means to salvation.  It holds that Jesus had to suffer and die in order to save humanity from its sin.  Just as importantly, this myth purports that suffering makes us holy.

An aside about suffering itself; it may indeed be a consequence of the life of faith. The powers of the world are still deaf to the message of justice and peace that Jesus and every prophet from every age brought to the people.  The kind of suffering talked about in the bible is suffering because of faith and conviction, and it does not make one holy, it means one suffers. It does NOT mean suffering at the hand of another in an abusive relationship or suffering in an abusive family or work environment. It does not mean suffering brought on by unmet medical needs or symptoms, suffering brought on by any kind of privation or suffering in any of the countless ways humans find to bring pain to their sisters and brothers.

There is nothing holy about suffering. 

I do not believe it was God’s will for Jesus to die. I do not believe his death was necessary to appease God in any way.  I do not believe Jesus’ death does anything except expose the unjust and corrupt power systems that have always run the world.

The death of Jesus was and always will be a tragedy.  Jesus was crucified because he dared to speak truth to power.  He dared to stand apart from the dominant culture and speak a prophetic word about God. Jesus’ death was not a means to an end for us or any previous generation. It was an unspeakable act of violence committed by frightened and fearful leaders who sought to silence the voice that exposed their greed.

So, perhaps it is time for us to rethink the whole notion of sacrifice and violence and what they mean.  Perhaps we can see that Jesus’ death and suffering was a tragedy played out at the expense of an innocent man who refused to back down from his deeply held convictions.  Would that our convictions were so deep. 

An Open Letter to Mr. Trump

Dear Mr Trump

Last week in my blog I called you a bloviating buffoon. You can look up the words if you don’t know what they mean.  I am a name caller.  I’m not proud of it, but there it is.  When I was in grade school I called the classmates I didn’t like “poopy heads.”  As an adult I have a far more colorful, if not always appropriate, lexicon at my disposal.  And if the truth be told, that lexicon is most frequently used in relationship to you.  I will spare you the details. I acknowledge, however, that name calling is a juvenile way to address differences and does nothing to further understanding between people who disagree.

In my Lenten discipline this year I have spent some time rooting around in seldom explored recesses of my inner being. Along the way I discovered that I was missing one of the central tenets of my faith, to love all people. Even the ones I don’t like.  So, at this late date in Lent I am making an effort to love you.  To do this I must get connected to God’s love in me. Left on my own, I’m not sure how it would go. Gratefully, we are all conduits for God’s love in the world.  If I am unable to feel love toward you, it is because something is amiss in my relationship with God.

Mr. Trump, you are a beloved child of God.  You are a unique and unrepeatable human being, made in the image of God.  So I am going to delve inside myself and see if I can connect deeply enough with God to feel God-like love toward you.  I cannot continue to call you names and express love toward you at the same time. So, I am signing off on the name calling.

In the Christian faith, however, behavior does not get a free pass.  Without losing sight of you as a beloved child, I will continue to resist most everything you stand for. 

We learned under President Reagan that trickle-down economics does not work. Corporations that receive tax breaks do not pass them on to consumers or to workers.  They line their share holders’ pockets. Tax breaks for the rich, when so many struggle to make ends meet, is nothing short of evil.  In the New Testament Jesus’ most frequent clashes were with the wealthy.  History repeats itself again and again.  We are seeing such a repeat in your performance as president.

Trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act and making health insurance beyond the reach of the working poor helps assure a permanent underclass of workers in our country. We are the only developed nation where the number one cause of bankruptcy is health care.

The minimum wage has not kept pace with inflation and the rising cost of living. This is morally wrong, but it makes money for the company. Those who work full time should be paid a living wage.

Many of your policies are disastrous for our planet. Dumping mining waste into waterways, burning more coal and constructing more coal plants are ecologically unsustainable. You may not personally believe in climate change, but that doesn’t mean the science is wrong.  Your uninformed opinion puts the entire planet at risk.  By surrounding yourself with people who are as uninformed as you are, you insulate yourself from truths that do not suit your purposes.

Your belittling of women, minorities, the differently abled and those of differing religions is morally reprehensible.  I believe that your behavior has pulled the plug on social decency and allowed the worst of human behavior to come to the fore in increased misogyny, hypocrisy, racism and bigotry.  People tend to follow the leader.

I am appalled at the number of children who have been separated by their parents at the Mexico/US border.  Many of them may never be reunited with their parents. As a country of immigrants, the anti-immigrant sentiment you embody empowers people to continue to hate and mistrust people who are different.  The United States is not “full” as you claim.  We have a broken immigration system that you, your administration and the political gridlock of our elected representatives are doing nothing to fix.  Instead, you are spending billions of dollars to build a ridiculous wall when that money would be better spent providing immigration attorneys at the border to help people.   

I sincerely doubt that you will ever see this letter and I further doubt that if you did, it would make any difference. Rather, I have some inner repairing to do so I have clarity about what it means to be a person of faith in this time.  I believe speaking truth to power is one of the most profound needs of our time.  I am taking my place as one who tries to do just that while resisting the temptation to name call. 

With Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, I believe that the “essential work of justice is figuring out what belongs to whom, and giving it back.”  This does not bode well for the United States. The day of reckoning that you and our broken political system are putting into motion will not be pretty.