The debate about religious liberty has been all over the news this week. The Supreme Court’s decision to allow closely held corporations to be exempt from certain provisions of the Affordable Care Act on account of religious reservations has caused a firestorm in the media, social media, and blogosphere. No doubt you’ve had some time to form your own opinions, or at least be shouted down by someone else’s. In the case, Hobby Lobby won the provision to not provide payment for things they say go against their conscience as religious believers. I’m not going to get into the specifics of that case or what I think of it here. I will say that I have good friends, whose intellect and faithful discipleship I respect, who fall on both sides of the debate . . . welcome to America! I believe we can discuss these things with both passion and patience, with reason and respect. And hope to see more of that across the board on potentially divisive issues within the church and in our culture more broadly. What I do want to ask here is, by way of thought experiment, if Christian corporations (if there are such things) may be allowed certain exemptions from the law based on their sincerely held religious beliefs, what other exemptions besides contraception coverage might one ask for?

If I were a Christian corporation, I might ask for an exemption from the laws that treat undocumented immigrants as “illegal” (Leviticus 19:34; Deuteronomy 10:17-19; Exodus 22:21). I might ask that any undocumented employees of my company not be rounded up and deported after languishing in “processing centers.” I would ask that they instead be treated with the dignity and respect due all humans created in the image of God. I would ask that instead, my corporation be allowed to show them warmth, hospitality, and provision of good work.

If I were a Christian corporation, say a Christian bank or Credit Card company (if it is possible for us to imagine such a thing), maybe I would ask for an exemption from the laws governing debt (Leviticus 25:1-17; Matthew 6:12, 14-15; 18:21-35; Luke 16:1-15). I would ask that all who have fallen into ruinous debt could transfer it to my company and then have it forgiven. I would ask that those who work for me and those whom my company serves be free from the foreclosure laws that say because you owe money to someone or some entity that you are no longer worthy of basic human needs like shelter, food, and community.

I might ask for an exemption from the lax gun regulations in this country that allow handguns, assault rifles, and blood to flood our streets (Matthew 5:43-48; Romans 12:14-21; Matthew 26:52). My corporation, and those connected to it, would then be enabled and encouraged to live more peaceable lives, freed for peace and unconstrained by the incursion of governmental approved violence in our lives.

If I were a Christian corporation, say a Christian chain of grocery stores, I might ask to be exempt from laws that limit the amount of monthly nutritious food that poor mothers and families can purchase in the Food Stamp program because some of my sincerely held religious beliefs as a Christian corporation would be that everyone should have enough to eat, no one should go hungry, and food should not rot on the produce shelves or sour in the dairy aisle while people languish from malnutrition and starvation (Isaiah 11:1-9; 49:8-10; 55:1-2; John 6:1-14; Rev 7:13-17).

I might perhaps, as a Christian corporation that makes a lot of profit, ask to be exempted from the tax code that inequitably taxes the middle class and poor to the benefit of the wealthy. I would ask to be exempt in order to pay more toward the common good because as a corporation called to follow Christ I would believe deeply that we are called to give generously, with glad and sincere hearts (Luke 12:35-48; Acts 2:42-47; 4:32-37).

As a Christian corporation I would ask for an exemption from the part of my taxes that go to pay for war and violence overseas (Isaiah 2:1-5; 9:6-7; Micah 4:1-4). As a Christian organization, I would sincerely believe that violence is not the answer to the world’s problems and that the way of Christ is the way of peace.

If I were a Christian corporation, say, a Christian for-profit prison (bear with me), I might ask for exemptions of mandatory drug sentences that can send people making mistakes spiraling off into lives of crime and hardship. I would also ask for exemptions to the utterly cruel parole laws that set people up to fail and therefore be re-imprisoned. As a corporate follower of Christ I would believe it better to proclaim release to captive peoples than to be seeking ways to keep them locked up (Isaiah 42:1-9; 49:9; Luke 4:18-21).

Now, if I were a Christian corporation, it’s pretty easy to see that I would go out of business pretty quickly. So, it’s probably a good thing that I am not a Christian corporation. But I do belong to the church, an organization in the world whose business is to go out of business. The church is a people who are in the world in order to give their life away because they believe the church’s very life was given by Jesus and therefore was given in order to be given away to others. So while I may not be a Christian corporation, I do not need to be a Christian corporation in order to live in these costly kinds of ways. If I belong to the church, I have been given the life of Christ in order to offer all of it up back to God and to others. It seems, then, that following Jesus is hard not easy; it’s costly not cheap. It’s something for all of us to ponder as we seek to take up our crosses and follow this one, the redeemer of all creation, to a place called Golgotha. May the grace extended to us in the body and the blood of our Lord at this table remind us that we do not get to pick and choose what aspects of our lives get to be costly and what aspects get a pass. We are called to follow Jesus in every aspect of our lives, to let his holiness, his otherness, his strangeness (for that’s what holy means—strange) soak down through our lives leaving nothing untouched. We get consumed. This is the only meal where we don’t consume what we eat, rather it consumes us. May we be consumed and transformed by the holiness of Messiah Jesus.

Pluck O’ The Irish

March 17, 2009

The things you learn from watching PBS:

In St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, there is a stained-glass window paid for by Benjamin Guinness (yes, that Guinness).  Guinness actually funded a major reconstruction of the Cathedral, and I believe this window was part of that. The window offers an interesting bit of allegorical interpretation, or spiritual exegesis: “I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink”!  Indeed.

Ash Wednesday

February 28, 2009

If it is true what Soren Kierkegaard says of the poet, that he or she is one “whose heart is torn by secret sufferings, but whose lips are so strangely formed that when the sighs and the cries escape them, they sound like beautiful music” then Elvis Perkins may be the poet par excellence.  Just a quick glance into the backstory of Perkins’ debut album Ash Wednesday (XL, 2007) shows that he is one well acquainted with sorrow.  Perkins, the son of the actor who played Norman Bates in Psycho, recorded the album over a period of roughly six years.  The recording sessions (like many events in many Americans’ lives) were interrupted by the attacks of September 11, 2001.  But for Elvis these attacks hit closer to home than just his own piece of the damaged American psyche.  His mother was on American Airlines Flight 11, one of the planes hijacked and flown into the World Trade Center towers.  And as if that wasn’t enough, this happened a day before the 9th anniversary of his father’s death, a death due to complications with AIDS.

One can then understand the canvas upon which Elvis paints the maladies and madness of modern society.  In “All the Night Without Love” he imagines loneliness as someone who would actually visit gotmilk.com and portrays our existence as waiting in line to place drive-thru orders and seeking connection in athletic insole displays inviting the consumer to “touch me.”  In “Moon Woman II” he puns on the community forged by the necessity of asking someone else for a lighter and the need for human connection: “Does anybody have a light/I’m cold as a stone/And it’s dark in the night/And I’m up here all alone.”  The album suggests that the root problem is isolation, the horror of being trapped within ourselves, and it voices the longing of human community and contact.  In Elvis’ world we constantly reach out for that touch but we’re always ultimately thwarted.

And so it seems Perkins finally yields to a kind of hopeless nihilism.  On the title track he warbles “no one will survive ash wednesday alive/no soldier no lover, no father no mother/not a lonely child.”  Thus Elvis voices the truth that Christians hold concerning Ash Wednesday.  As the beginning of Lent, the journey with Jesus to the cross, we recognize our utter mortality.  Everyone is equal before the power of death and despair.  And so we mark ourselves with ashes “dust you are and to dust you will return…”  In this we recognize our fleeting attempts and characteristic impotence to build any kind of lasting community.

But that’s not where the Christian confession ends.  For after being reminded that we are dust and ash, we are instructed to “…repent and believe the gospel.”  The gospel, the good news that God, in Jesus, put skin on and reaches out and touches, connects, holds, and ultimately bleeds.  And so it seems that the good news is precisely that no one will survive ash wednesday alive, for in that dying, we are opened to the new life which God brings on Easter, a time according to the Bible when Jesus will again reach out, embrace, touch, and be touched (John 20.19-31).

Elvis ultimately comes to this conclusion as well, as he ends the album with a song called “Good Friday.”  He realizes that the connection longed for on tracks 1-10 of his album, and the connection longed for in our daily lives, are found in the giving of “the body and blood.”  He finishes with the hope that “Though this life is Ash Wednesday…It forever approaches Good Friday.”  And we can travel that far with Perkins, and on to Easter morning.

Monday this week was the Feast of John and Charles Wesley according to the Anglican liturgical calendar. Somehow we always miss this one in the Nazarene Church.

This is more or less a link post, but let me introduce it with just a few thoughts. Wesleyan theology, now more than ever perhaps, is crucial for the witness of the Church of the Nazarene within the broader Catholicity of the church and also within the broader culture. We have ceded too much ground to other movements and have become content to call ourselves evangelicals, emergents, protestants or any number of other things. This has led to a forgetfulness of Wesleyan theology (mostly under the smoke and mirrors of saying Wesley wasn’t a systematic thinker). But Wesley was a broad thinker and brought holiness thought to bear on many subjects and phenomena (economics, sacraments, scripture, eschatology, science, to name a few). If we as theologians in the Nazarene Church are to avoid on the one side the banality of generic evangelicalism and on the other side a complete disengagement with the laity of the church, then the Wesleys need to be our starting point, the fountain from which we think the holiness movement and it’s larger place within the Catholicity of the church’s witness.

Let this not be mistaken as a call for a firmer grip on our “identity” as Nazarenes whatever that might be. David Belcher over at Sanctifying Worship has illuminated how Christian pefection has become not only the central doctrine of the Nazarene church but also that by which we have begun to define our identity: “and thus the beginnings of a potential rift are already forming (since inevitably the necessity to form an identity for ourselves is motivated by some kind of claim, some kind of possession…and I think we all know how possession begets competition, and competition division).”

Rather, let this call back to a starting point in Wesleyan theology be a kind of letting go, letting our identity be de-handed, or given back out of the plenitude of the gift already given. For is this not how Wesley thinks the gift in his Plain Account of Christian Perfection? Read the rest of this entry »

This video was brought to my attention via Rusty’s Post.

Stephen Colbert would make the short list of people that I love. Of all the late night talkers he certainly has the most ability to converse intelligently with his guests, which makes for very interesting and entertaining television (and made the writer’s strike almost bearable). One of those recent guests was Dr. Philip Zimbardo, author of The Lucifer Effect (which inexplicably has black and red puzzle pieces all over the cover). I have not read this book, but based on how easily Mr. Colbert shredded his argument I can imagine it would be frustrating to get through.

Zimbardo explains that his task was to understand how good people became evil. Colbert asks if one can’t be good by following authority. Zimbardo then says that’s exactly what authority wants us to think, but there are a lot of corrupt and unjust authorities. And the best solution that he can come up with in light of this is “mindful and critical thinking,” i.e. a hermeneutics of suspicion.

But Colbert objects, “If they are unjust, they wouldn’t be authority.” With that one statement Stephen Colbert demonstrates that he has done his homework on Romans 13 and that Zimbardo’s argument is silly. Is every act of evil committed simply because someone didn’t question their social situation? How then do we measure a standard of good and a standard of evil? From what he says, it seems Zimbardo holds to a “Situation Ethics” without a measuring rod for each situation. This kind of thinking displaces guilt and responsibility from the person and hefts it upon society. It is not that the person has done a bad thing, it is just that they have not thought critically about the evils of the unjust authority before going along with it.

As Rusty points out, Zimbardo seems to hold to a dualism between good and evil, that these concepts are equal in stature and locked in an epic struggle for supremacy. Thus humans, according to this framework, can choose between either option. But Colbert objects to this when he argues that Good and evil started in the Garden of Eden. There was no “choosing” (Bonhoeffer states this well in Ethics) before original sin; to discern a good and evil already points to, in Bonhoeffer’s words, “a falling a way from [the human’s] origin in God.” In other words, in Colbert’s terminology, the devil critically assesses God’s authority and determines it to be unjust and this does not lead him to a choice between good and evil, but to a falling away from the origin of obedience to God’s authority which is the good. Evil is not another option opposed to the Good, evil is the absence or a falling away from the Good. Colbert understands this, Zimbardo does not–and so his argument gets even sillier.

Zimbardo goes on to say that if God were into reconciliation he would have admitted that Lucifer was right and God was wrong (presumably about free will and the ability to question authority) and he would not have created Hell to send the devil and all the evil people to. Colbert again rises to the theological challenge. He demonstrates that this Hell Zimbardo speaks of is not created by God, nor is it prior to the rise of evil but is in fact the human person’s removal of self from God’s love. Again, we have a sense of evil as not a thing, but as a deprivation, an absence or falling away from an origin. God doesn’t send us to hell, we place ourselves there by removing ourselves from God’s love, Colbert states intensely.

At this point, the only thing left for Zimbardo to do (as Colbert has just unraveled the argument of his nearly 600 page book) is to smugly say “Obviously, you learned well in Sunday school.” Normally this would render anything Colbert had said in the argument as irrelevant, but not this time. Colbert responds without a pause with the statement that comprises the title of this post.

This statement from Colbert demonstrates exactly the kind of “militant” Christianity that is needed in this post-modern, post-Christian world. Allow me to explain. Read the rest of this entry »