Archive for March, 2008

Rev. Wright’s rhetoric rankles somewhat and reveals much

Saturday, March 29th, 2008

Rev. Wright’s rhetoric rankles somewhat and reveals much

Sen. Barack Obama has come under heavy fire for his association with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, recently retired pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, where Obama still maintains membership.

Obama has been criticized for not severing his ties with the church where Wright has delivered some sermons during his 36 years of ministry that many have deemed as inappropriate.

Wright is no stranger in political circles. He attended executive prayer breakfasts during Bill Clinton’s tenure as president, and he received three commendations from Lyndon Johnson for his active involvement in the civil rights movement. His connection to people of power in government spans many decades, and only now, when it involves an African-American candidate for the presidency, has it become so contentious.

Lest people consider him anything less than calculated in his choice of words, it should be noted that Wright holds seven honorary doctoral degrees along with his doctorate of ministry, has taught at a number of seminaries and universities and graduated at the top of his class from the two naval academies he attended before serving in the navy, and after his three-year service as a Marine.

Whether or not you agree with his style or substance, he’s no dummy.

This is not to say that some of Wright’s statements haven’t been inflammatory. They were meant to be. His fiery, and even condemnatory, style of preaching actually harkens back all the way to prophets such as Jeremiah, Micah and Hosea, all of whom issued scathing judgments of their homelands at one time or another during their preaching careers.

This similarity aside, Wright’s damning words toward the United States, and particularly his charges that the government was using HIV as a weapon against its black citizens, shocks, particularly in the sound-bite form in which they have made their way into the public eye. In reality, such claims would be hard to digest for many people, even within the context of the services in which they were delivered.

This raises another point of interest, which is a general lack of understanding of something called liberation theology. Though there is more than one form of liberation theology, the strain most closely identified with Wright is “black liberation theology.” Though liberation theology in the broader sense is familiar to many – particularly non-Anglo – ministers in mainline and evangelical Christianity, black liberation theology is associated with, among other groups, the infamous Nation of Islam, where Louis Farrakhan is a minister.

In addition to adopting the fiery delivery of many of the Old Testament prophets, liberation theology particularly identifies with biblical stories about the Israelites, who were extricated from their homeland and enslaved by foreign powers. There is also strong identification with the suffering that Jesus underwent as one falsely accused and executed.

For some decades, liberation theology has provided a necessary outlet for members of oppressed communities, whether by force, under the strain of poverty and disease, or any combination of factors that serve to hold a group back. In some ways, the traditionally African-American churches have served as the most public forum within which to air generations-old anger and sorrow over the scars borne by the African-American collective consciousness.

Perhaps understanding the context within which such seemingly outrageous comments might have been made is more constructive than presuming to understand more than a century of theological expression with which most in the Anglo community have little to no contact.

Perhaps Martin Luther King Jr. was more prophetic than he realized when he suggested that the most segregated place in the United States was in the pews of churches on Sunday mornings.

Perhaps those who stand all too ready to denigrate Obama’s choice to maintain his membership at the church formerly led by Wright indicates an imposition of American secular values on the dynamic of church, namely that if something doesn’t perfectly align with your desires or interests, move on and find another one that does.

If anything, this most recent situation only makes more clear how very far we have yet to go if we are to truly understand one another, both as complexly diverse individuals and cultures, while at the same time, all being similarly loved and valued by the One that created us.

My 100th column: What’s in a number?

Saturday, March 22nd, 2008

My 100th column: What’s in a number?

I realized the other day that today is my 100th column in the Faith section of The Pueblo Chieftain. It caused me to reflect on all of the topics I’ve covered in the last two years, and what I might yet address given the opportunity to continue. For a couple of days, it even felt a little bit daunting to write a landmark column like No. 100, but why?

What’s more important about the 100th of anything, as opposed to the 99th or the 101st? Why is it that the very reality that we have 10 fingers and 10 toes, which then became the basis for our numeric system, somehow makes certain numbers more important than others?

This is hardly an isolated phenomenon. Think about how many buildings you’ve been in where the 13th floor was missing. Are we really that superstitious as a culture? How about the number 666? If you saw someone with that tattooed on their arm, how would it make you feel? What assumptions would you make about them?

Though it carries less symbolic weight, think about the way we price things like gasoline. Somewhere along the way in the business world, people figured out that people would spend more money if prices ended in the number nine, so some discerning entrepreneur figured he or she would take things a step further and trim a tenth of a penny off of their price. Though the reality of gas costing $2.99.9 is hardly any different than $3, our brains are simply drawn to the smaller number. Now, it’s just a gas station tradition no one seems to want to break.

Numerology in the Bible is another curious thing. Though some scholars contend -sometimes aggressively so – that numerology is strictly forbidden, there is no question that fascinating numerical patterns appear throughout Scripture.

Consider the parallels between the 40-day flood, the Jews’ 40 years in the desert, and Jesus’ 40-day fast, also in the desert. One might argue that this is strictly coincidence, but the more discerning reader might pause to think that perhaps the authors of these texts were trying to draw some parallels for the reader.

This is hardly the only example of this. Patterns of three, six, seven and 12, to mention only a few, appear throughout the Bible. So what do we make of this, especially if we agree with the claim that numerology is a mystical practice to be avoided?

This question is particularly relevant during the Easter season, which of course is one of the most important holidays of the Christian year. Most folks have noticed how strangely early Easter is this year, but why is that? Why not just make Easter the second Sunday in April and be done with it?

The reason Easter moves around every year is because the date on which it falls is determined by the lunar calendar; the same calendar followed by the ancient pagans. We aligned religious holidays such as Easter and Christmas with pagan rituals, and we even incorporated many of those symbols – evergreens, eggs and the like – into our own traditions.

Was this because we wanted to appear more pagan? Not exactly. Christians have quite a storied history of borrowing from so-called competitors in order to draw people toward our faith. Use symbols and dates that other people outside of your circles identify with, and it stands to reason that the stories will start to make more sense in their own context.

The same thing goes for the employment of numbers in Scripture. It’s not so much that authors of biblical passages were mystical numerologists in disguise, but they were writing at the time to a culture deeply rooted in the practice of numerology. So it makes sense that they would try to speak the language of the culture around them.

Does this mean that it didn’t literally rain for 40 days, or that the Jews wandered the desert for 40 years, no more and no less? Who knows? But does it really matter?

Perhaps more important is the desire of ancient biblical authors to connect in meaningful ways with others with whom they did not automatically relate. They reached out, employing metaphors and symbols the world around them would understand.

Too bad we seem to have forgotten in the 21st-century church how to do the same.

Mormons’ valley vandal issue points to deeper woes

Saturday, March 15th, 2008

Mormons’ valley vandal issue points to deeper woes

By now, most folks in Southern Colorado know about the recent story of three Mormon missionaries apparently photographing one another mocking various elements of a Catholic chapel in the San Luis Valley, along with the suspicion that they also are the ones responsible for vandalizing property, including a statue of a saint.

That the missionaries went through the effort to scale the hill where the statues and chapel are located suggests not only thoughtless youth gone awry, but a more conscious act of volition. Folks in the area are upset, and justifiably so.

It will be a while before any young missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will return to the valley, and even then, it may be years, if not decades, before they can expect to sway people in a positive direction about their faith. The rift, now a prominent part of the public forum, indicates some significant missteps, and not simply by the Mormons.

The most obvious blunder was by the missionaries themselves. Not only did they encroach on someone else’s sacred turf, but they were brazen enough to photograph themselves doing it, and then post the pictures – with captions, mind you – on the Internet.

Where the man in charge of the missionaries in this area fell short was in not being more proactive about holding the young men accountable for their actions. Though he issued an apology on behalf of the church and even had one of the missionaries issue an apology, he balked at publicizing their names, and didn’t take even more assertive steps to calm the waters such as taking the young men back to the scene of the crime for an in-person apology.

Thus far, the Mormon Church apparently has made no public offer to restore the damaged statue, another significant error in judgment. Though the statues themselves may go against the Mormon position on so-called “graven images,” they should offer to make things right out of respect for their neighbors, and to make public a point that they respect the religious views of those who do not believe as they do.

There were missed opportunities on the other side as well. First off, the members of the local chapel in the valley had an opportunity to demonstrate grace in action by not filing charges against the Mormon missionaries, but they voted to do so anyway. To what end? Do they honestly believe that dragging this issue into court will make things right?

In my humble opinion, this is the kind of thing against which Jesus preached: sitting back and letting the courts determine right and wrong for us, rather than dealing with one another directly. No one was harmed in the course of this offense, and by making a legal issue out of something that should have presented an opportunity for constructive dialogue, a door was slammed shut.

Finally, the mayor of the town of San Luis demonstrated his own religious unfamiliarity by labeling the Mormon Church, in a letter to the newspaper the “Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-day Saints.” It may seem like a minor mistake to substitute an “and” for an “of,” but battles have been waged over as much in religious circles.

If we’re going to be critical of one another, let’s at least get to know each other by name.

The best hope for this situation is for someone, and hopefully at least one from either side, to be bold enough to call for a public forum. The missionaries should be there to take their lumps and to do what they can to make amends, and the offended parties should take this opportunity to show they don’t need to verbally flog the foolish young men, though they may feel entitled.

We Christians should be better than all of this.

What the heck is a carbon footprint?

Saturday, March 8th, 2008

What the heck is a carbon footprint?

I read a piece recently in The New Yorker about the latest environmental buzz phrase: your “carbon footprint.” Though I’ve had some vague idea before now what it was, I didn’t realize how complicated it really can be to figure out what my carbon footprint is, or how to do anything about it. 

Though environmental sensitivity, in its many manifestations, has been an ethical issue for some time, churches are increasingly aware of the importance of conservation as a matter of stewardship. What would Jesus do? Probably recycle. So if we’re going to get honest about our lasting effect on this Big Blue Marble we call home, it seems like good discipleship to at least try and figure out thins carbon footprint thing a little bit better.

Now, I did know that things like changing my light bulbs to the more energy-efficient compact fluorescents and turning down our thermostat helped shrink my carbon footprint, as do walking and mass transit over automobiles. But there is a whole lot more to it than I ever considered. 

Take, for instance, the food we eat. There’s a big “buy local” movement in the United states now, both based on the idea of supporting local economies and also to cut down on carbon emissions. Makes sense, right?  After all, if you buy food produced nearby, it takes less fuel to transport it, so you’re doing right thing.

Not necessarily. 

First, there’s the matter of packaging. Is the food you’re buying packaged in cardboard, plastic, or maybe both? Remember, all of that packaging takes resources and energy to create. We can assume that buying bulk produce is lower-impact for the environment, but what about the cartons it was shipped in? Are they reusable or recyclable, or do they just get tossed? And if the food you’re buying is refrigerated or frozen, well, that’s a whole new layer of energy consumption.

Thinking that going organic is the way to go? Maybe so, and maybe not. Though avoiding using pesticides and fertilizers is kinder to the earth, we know little to nothing about the equipment used to plant, maintain, harvest and clean our food. Could be solar-powered hippie tractors, or they could be diesel-cloud-spewing mammoths. 

The whole “home grown is better” idea gets more complicated, even if we’re literally comparing apples to apples, so to speak. For example, a bottle of wine shipped by sea from the Bordeaux region of France to New York consumes less energy than it does to cart a bottle of Napa red by semi from California to the Big Apple. And who doesn’t like strawberries in December?  If you are measuring your carbon footprint, consider that it may actually take more energy to grow food in a local greenhouse than to ship the same stuff from the southern hemisphere.

Top that all off with what happens to your food once you get it home. You may have bought the most earth-friendly potatoes on the planet, but once you take them home, boil them, squash them up with your electric mixer and heat them up again, you may be using more carbon-dependent energy per potato than they use to make French fries at a fast food restaurant. 

It’s enough to make you want to throw in the dye-free, organically grown hemp towel.

It’s been said that awareness, at least, is the first step. It’s not like we can stop eating tomorrow, but at least knowing what impact the things we stuff our faces with does make us a little bit more sensitive to the long-term effects our lives have on the world. The good news is that, in most cases, the things that are better for our bodies also are better for the earth. With this as a starting point, I might not only cut down on our carbon footprint, but I might drop down a belt notch in the process.      

When information leads to inaction

Monday, March 3rd, 2008

When information leads to inaction

I am a music junkie, with more than 1,000 CDs and countless downloaded music files. There’s a music store in Dallas called Bill’s Records that had the deepest music catalog of any music store I had ever seen. If there was a rare import or limited edition release, I knew Bill’s would have it.

Sometimes, though, I just wanted to browse. The problem was that, unless I had a specific thing in mind that I was looking for, I almost never bought anything there. There was just so much that I hardly knew where to start.

A scientific study considered how we humans make choices. Two tables were set up in a grocery store, one with six choices of jellies, and another with more than 20. Though when asked, people claim to want more options, the study results were quite different; the table with only six samples sold 10 times more than the table with a much larger selection.

Author A.J. Jacobs refers to this phenomenon in his book, “A Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible.” In this particular section, he is wrestling with why the Good Book has so many rules.

“The Bible takes away a lot of those jam jars,” says Jacobs, referring to the study. “There’s something relieving and paradoxically liberating about surrendering yourself to a minimal-choice lifestyle, especially as our choices multiply like cable channels.”

There’s an acronym that’s become indicative of a growing trend within the online community called “wilfing.” The term “wilf” stands for “what was I looking for?” This refers to the tendency to begin looking for a certain bit of information online, only to be consumed by an infinite thread of links to other interesting tidbits. After a while, you’re so far from where you began that it’s hard to remember why you got online in the first place.

In a British study done last year, data suggested that young professionals squander as much as two full workdays a month wilfing. What’s worse: those wilfers probably can’t tell you what they spent their time doing.

It’s enough to raise the question: Although we’re surrounded by more choices and more information than ever before, are we entering into the informational equivalent of 40 years in the desert? It calls to mind the story of the Israelites, after being led to freedom by Moses, who came to realize that their thirst soon took precedent over their previous longing for freedom.

Perhaps our voracious appetite for personal choice, individual expression and freedom comes at a hidden cost. Maybe, although what we think we want are options, what we really need is freedom tempered with structure, and latitude balanced with some limitations, even if our initial reaction is resistance.

As a member of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), my gut reaction is to reject anything that smacks of dogma, or that attempts to proscribe in any way my relationship with the divine. However, if we consider our religious institutions less like high school principals and more like experienced guides, maybe there is some potential benefit in being nurtured into more of a “minimal-choice lifestyle.”

I’m the first to admit that the things I think I want don’t always serve me well in the end. I like to think I can address God more or less on my own terms, but where to begin? At its best, church offers movable, permeable boundaries that allow us room to navigate, while not feeling lost. At its worst, these boundaries become fixed, rigid doctrines that our institutions of faith wield as weapons.

Personally, I don’t want any church telling me which kind of jelly to eat, but I’m also not sure I can handle 20 choices, all at once. Let’s split the difference and start with a handful of options, with the understanding that, just because these are the ones currently on the table, there’s a world full of options we can continue to explore together.