"I'm what the world considers to be a phenomenally successful man. And I've failed much more than I've succeeded. And each time I fail, I get my people together, and I say, "Where are we going?" And it starts to get better." - Calvin Trager
Yesterday morning, we were driving home from church and Schroedter asked what Memorial Day was -- and it sparked a discussion. Not so much a discussion with Schroedter but a discussion between Robin and I about how to define Memorial Day.
Robin's immediate answer was, I imagine, the one she's been taught her whole life. Memorial Day is the day we remember the people who died fighting for our country, fighting for our freedom. (not an exact quote, probably, but I remember the words "our country" and "freedom" in there).
At that point, I objected.
The "fighting for our country" bit is tricky. Certainly the soldiers in Iraq are fighting under the flag of our country and are commanded their by the President of our country ... and in that respect they certainly are "fighting for our country" the same way Albert Pujols is "playing for the Cardinals." But when a war is not in the best interests of our country, it's hard to parse that.
The "freedom" piece is a no-brainer, though. There is nothing about what is going on in Iraq that is about fighting for our freedom ... in fact it is having the opposite effect.
For me, Memorial Day has always conjured up images of WWII vets, and so "fighting for our freedom" really did fit ... so I completely understand how those words came to mind. But that really hasn't been true in awhile and certainly isn't true, now.
Yet still, the sacrifice of these soldiers must be honored. Our troops in Iraq -- drawn overwhelmingly from the poorer economic classes and young men and women who signed up to be part of the National Guard (a force that, by it's own name, connotes domestic deployment ... and by the way, now that it turns out that in places like Arizona and Kansas we might actually need it, it's not there) ... they need to be honored, the living and the dead.
What did we end up telling Schroedter? I suggested "people who died in war wearing the uniform of our country" is who we remembered this Memorial Day.
Saturday, May 26, 2007 Make the candidates talk about the Millennium Development Goals Do you want to hear the democratic front-runners' answer to this question?
In the Millennium Declaration of September 2000, 150 heads of state committed to halve extreme poverty by 2015. Are you committed to the Millennium Development Goals, and what is your view on the role of the U.S. in global partnerships to extinguish extreme poverty?
On June 4, Clinton, Edwards and Obama will be live on CNN with Jim Wallis of Sojourners for a conversation on faith, values and poverty. Sojourners is giving us a chance to pick one of the questions -- so this is your chance to make the candidates talk about the MDGs and what they will do to make them happen if elected.
Go and vote ... and then go tell your friends to vote. Making poverty history means making our leaders know that we care -- and that we're watching them.
| Mike at 5/26/2007 11:32:00 AM
Saturday, May 19, 2007 Church, State and St. Dunstan
"The Church shouldn't be involved in politics."
I hear this one all the time ... particularly when I'm talking about the ONE Campaign or urging people as part of faithful living, to be in dialogue with their senators and representatives particularly about issues concerning the poor.
Enter Dunstan, 10th-century Archbishop of Canterbury, whose feast we celebrate today. Dunstan led a reform movement that closely bound the monasteries of England to the crown. He was a trusted friend of King Edgar and had a great deal of in the royal court.
Talking about Dunstan today as a positive model is liable to make lots of people nervous. Certainly the kind of merging of the State and a particular institution of the Church that existed in England (and greatly encouraged by Dunstan's efforts) is part of what this country was founded over against. Certainly a great fear with the current administration is that they are repeating exactly what happened with Edgar and Dunstan -- that the Church is being invited into the courts of the State and that the Church is actually doing the ruling.
I'm not arguing a return to the court of King Edgar. But I am arguing that even though it isn't part of our tradition as Americans, it is part of our tradition as Christians not to shy away from involvement in affairs of State. Sam Portaro, in his great companion book to Lesser Feasts and Fasts, "Brightest and Best," makes this point better than I:
"People are sometimes rattled (or annoyed)that I do not often wear my clerical collar. It is not that they need the symbol, but that they resent a religious person who goes stalking their world in plain clothes. Collaring their priest is rather like belling the cat so the birds will hear it coming: clerical collars warn the unsuspecting of a dangerous intrusion of religion into those spheres of life they prefer to keep separate from the church.
Dunstan believed that such separations are false, even contrary, to God's reality. There is no place in this world where God is not, and no place where we should not be. For him, politics and government were as much a part of life in God as his monasticism.
...God formed the earth and made us keepers of the chaos, co-creators. Dunstan brought this conviction to everything he did, closing the gap between religion and government, between religion and the arts, between religion and labor. He believed that the work of reconciliation entrusted to us is more than bringing affections together, uniting sentiments; it is also bringing the physical world back into union with its Maker. Doing just that, nothing more nor less than doing the work God has given us to do, here and now, is as sure a recipe for blessedness -- happiness -- as any."
The separation of Church and State is a critical thing to maintain ... but it is up to the State and the vigilance of the people to maintain it. It is about avoiding a merging between the State and the official structures of religion. It is about avoiding a State that is coterminus with the Church, where participation in the State mandates participation in the Church. It is not -- as it has developed into in much of the public consciousness -- a prohibition of the faithful from public life and discourse.
When we say "The Church shouldn't be involved in politics," we're perpetuating a dualism that not only bankrupts the Church but cuts the legs out from under the State. If there is a clear demarcation from the sacred where the Church should be and the secular where the Church should not, then what relevance does the Church have as a transforming force for the world. Likewise, if we eliminate from the State all vestiges of theological thought, all words and actions motivated by faith, we rob the public sphere of not only some of the great thinkers of human history but of some of the best motivation for positive change.
'...A large survey in 2001 found that more than half of American Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, and Presbyterians believed that Jesus sinned—thus rejecting a central dogma of their own churches...'
'...Surveys by the Barna Research Group, a Christian organization, have found that most Christians don’t know who preached the Sermon on the Mount...'
The article in question is called "Atheists with Attitude" -- and it's a pretty good read. It gets its kick-start from people like Christopher Hitchens who has been making the rounds hawking his book, "God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything." So far I've seen him on the Daily Show and Real Time with Bill Maher.
Maher, of course, has been Hitchens long before Hitchens - and George Carlin was Maher before Maher ... and then there was Karl Marx, of course. Point is, taking shots at organized religion is nothing new. But there is something new happening -- and it's a natural progression of a society shaped by the freedoms of the Bill of Rights -- particularly freedom of religion and freedom of speech.
And I think it may be the best thing to ever happen to religion.
Look through history for when it was acceptable to criticize the dominant religion. You're not going to find a lot of instances. In many (most?) cases the dominant religion was so intertwined with the power of the state (the Marx argument) that to criticize the religion was to be a revolutionary. Even when our country was founded with the separation of Church and State, Religion -- particularly Christianity -- was so much part of the dominant culture (check what's written on your money) that criticizing it was risking social and economic ruin.
But something happened. The history of this country has been one of the people continually discovering what the freedoms guaranteed in the Constitution really mean, continually pushing the envelope. And that's a good thing.
In many ways the U.S. is entering its teen years -- and we're acting like it. We've gotten a sense of what freedom is, and we're reveling in it. We're putting "question authority" buttons on our backpacks and radical quotes in our .sig lines. Combine this with the flattening of systems globally and the increasing ease to make our own communities rather than have to fit ourselves into the ones that happen to exist in our neighborhoods and there is much greater freedom to explore -- and to reject.
And so we're rejecting. As new generations come of age, and as a Boomer generation that pretty much thought it was God incarnate anyway moves into retirement, people like Bill Maher and Christopher Hitchens are slowly moving from cranky voice on the margins to the voice of the people.
Of course, the Bush administration and the neocons have hastened this to worp speed. Take an administration that has so closely aligned itself with a cariacature of Christianity that is easiest to tear down to begin with ... and then have that administration be incompetent in just about everything it does ... and then have them stubbornly not only deny their own incompetence but also attest that -- inexplicably and with a wink and a nod toward the religious right -- history will prove them wise beyond reckoning some day in the future after we're all dead, and it doesn't take a lot of talent to prop up and tear down this straw man of faith.
But there's even more happening. As the flattening trend happens around the world. As people are experiencing more than the world outside their front door and are discovering their own freedom ... there's a backlash. It's a backlash of religious fundamentalism/extremism. A backlash that, using the worst of the religions they purport to embody, claims that it is cosmic forces of evil that are behind this new emerging world. And so what is happening is what always happens in times of extreme change -- those who resist it are circling the wagons (and in some cases, are going on the offensive) and trying to keep the sun from rising and the tide from coming in. The Bush administration and Al Qaeda are merely two sides of the same coin in this regard -- only the former has at least outwardly clung to some veneer of being civilized (though that truly is only a thin veneer).
So why is this a good thing?
I loved working in campus ministry. I still love being around young adults. I love being with people when they are taking the beliefs (or lack thereof) that were instilled in them in their formative years, and taking them out for test drives. I love that because what they end up with will truly be theirs ... and there's a chance for there to be a depth to it that can really change their lives -- and even change the world.
That's the opportunity if we don't fear this time of questioning and rejection of religion, but embrace it as an opportunity.
Does it surprise me that mainline Christians are ignorant of a basic historical tenet of faith? Does it shock me that a majority don't exhibit the slightest sign of Biblical literacy? Not at all. Because in this country the days where being a person of faith (particularly a Christian) was necessary for social and economic survival are fading fast.
The church, by and large, sees that as bad -- after all, it's harder to get people into church and there are definite financial rammifications to that. But I see it as good. Because when you really have a choice whether or not you want to be a part of a community of faith, saying yes has a much better chance of actually meaning something.
Either way, the world is what it is ... and The Church (broadly speaking) has several options for responding:
First, it can go the route of fundamentalist extremism. Hey, it worked for the Essene's right? We're the righteous remnant and we will be vindicated in the end. Problem is, when's the last time you saw an Essene? Sure, in the short term, the're going to be the ones who will answer Barna's questions correctly. But the forces that are reshaping the world are not the command and control of fundamentalism -- and churches that are fighting against them are just shouting against the tide. (BTW, this represents the right wing of the Episcopal Church)
Second, it can go the route of accomodation. Frankly, this is the one I find the most disturbing. This is when the Church sees that culture is becoming more secular so the Church mimics culture ... becoming more secular itself to the point where it becomes indistinguishable from the culture around it -- thus eliminating any real reason for being a part of it! It's this group that is the reason for those ridiculous statistics -- because in rigorously avoiding the traps of fundamentalism, they're so de-emphasizing the substance their faith does have as to become vapid and void. It's the church that says that what it stands for is "inclusion" ... without any sense of what they're including people into. (BTW, this represents the left wing of the Episcopal Church)
But then there is a third, middle way. A way that I think Anglicanism is uniquely poised to take, historically bent as it is toward via media. That's to do what my brother has been doing -- going back and really looking at scripture, but also looking at how God has worked through the life of the Church throughout the centuries and at the experience of God in our lives today. Honestly wrestling with the questions that honest engagement with those texts raise. Asking individually and corporately -- where are we being invited into a new incarnation of this faith? One that is not about the command and control Church of Empire. One that is not about a feel-good Gospel of "everyone's OK just the way they are, so let's join hands and sing Kum Ba Yah 'till blood spurts out of our ears."
There's a third way that isn't as easy for Bill Maher and Christopher Hutchens and even Karl Marx to tear into and tear down. About intelligent engagement with mystery. About rejoicing in beauty and the power of self-giving love. About the refining fire of discipleship that doesn't just leave us fat, dumb and happy where we are but which shapes us into something better, something that makes not just our lives better but makes the world better. An antidote for selfishness. A true hope for the hopeless.
Because Bill Maher and Christopher Hutchens and the rest of the "Athiests with Attitude" (though, Maher does say he's not an atheist, just an apathetic agnostic) have a point - religion has been used to poison a lot of things. But where they're wrong is that it doesn't mean religion is bad. It means human beings are broken and fallible (no news flash there) -- and it means religion that has been used to manipulate and control and be about one person trying to restrict another person's freedom for their personal gain is probably something we want to avoid.
But somewhere there is that place where faith and freedom meet. Where people can be invited of their own free will into a place where they see the good in giving up themselves for the sake of the other. Where they see the transforming power of self-giving love -- God's and ours -- and of their own free will may choose to embrace it.
I believe that will be the faith of the future. And that is why I hope and do not despair.
| Mike at 5/17/2007 12:52:00 PM
Friday, May 11, 2007 Stephen Colbert explains the proper etiquette for requesting disaster relief Perhaps the scariest thing about the Bush administration (now that would be a debate) is that we've moved so far past the point of hoping for competence that normal, everyday, run-of-the-mill incompetence doesn't make us blink. After all, there is so much off-the-chart, no-freaking-way incompetence that anything that falls beneath, let's say lying to Pat Tillman's family, or political motivated firings at DoJ or the clusterconsumation that is Iraq gets virtually ignored. The result is that the Bush administration can get away unnoticed and unscathed with ridiculous negligence and incompetence under a cover of its even greater incompetence.
Take the recent tornadoes in Kansas. Especially in the wake of Katrina, you'd think the administration would want to be pro-active (or at least active) in terms of disaster relief. But no. Not only were they not proactive, they were pretty well nonresponsive. Turns out at least part of the reason was that some of the equipment needed to move rubble off people in the Sunflower State is moving rubble off people in Fallujah.
The union that binds the members of Christ together is not the union of proud confidence in the power of an organization. The Church is united by the humility as well as by the charity of her members. Hers is the union that comes from the consciousness of individual fallibility and poverty, from the humility which recognizes its own limitations and accepts them, the meekness that cannot take up on itself to condemn, but can only forgive because it is conscious that it has itself been forgiven by Christ.
The union of Christians is a union of friendship and mercy, a bearing of one another’s burdens in the sharing of divine forgiveness. Christian forgiveness is not confined merely to those who are members of the Church. To be a Christian one must love all people, including not only one’s own enemies but even those who claim to be the ‘enemies of God’. ‘Whosoever is angry with his brother or sister shall be in danger of the judgment. Love your enemies, do good to them that hate you, pray for them that persecute and speak calumny of you, that you may be the children of your Father who is in heaven.’
The solidarity of the Christian community is not based on the awareness that the Church has authority to cast out and to anathematize, but on the realization that Christ has given her the power to forgive sin in his name and to welcome the sinner to the banquet of his love in the holy Eucharist. More than this, the Church is aware of her divine mission to bring forgiveness and peace to all men and women. This means not only that the sacraments are there for all who will approach them, but that Christians themselves must bring love, mercy and justice into the lives of their neighbours, in order to reveal to them the presence of Christ in his Church. And this can only be done if all Christians strive generously to love and serve all people with whom they come into contact in their daily lives.
With all this talk about "instruments of unity" that is really nothing more than a misplaced attempt at a technical solution to the adaptive challenge of living in Communion, Merton offers something wonderful. What binds us together is not a common confession or an organizational structure or even a way of doing theology. What binds us together is our shared consciousness of our individual and corporate brokenness -- of our deep inadequacy and even deeper need of God. What binds us together is our common call to forgive because we ourselves have been forgiven of so much.
Our power lies not in drawing lines of who is in and who is out. Not, as Merton says, in our "power to anathematize" but in the power of hospitality. The power of welcoming. And not just welcoming as virtue in itself (as the left has inexplicably elevated "inclusion" to a high virtue often without considering word itself exactly what it is we are "including people into"!) but welcoming one another (for we are all sinners) to "the banquet of (Christ's) love in the Holy Eucharist."
Our welcome is not extended to something of our construction. Our welcome is only an extension of the the welcome we have received. Our love is only an extension of the love we have received. Our forgiveness is only an extension of the forgiveness we have received.
Of course there is room for people on both sides totally not to get what I'm driving at here. There's room for people on the right to feel self-righteous in that "love the sinner and hate the sin" kind of way and disguise through flowery phrases and high-sounding rhetoric the very anathematizing Merton rails against. There's room for people on the left to feel morally superior as more forgiving, more open and more loving -- even though such self-righteousness cannot coexist with the humility to which Merton (and Christ) calls us.
And, of course, there's plenty of room for me to feel self-righteously above the fray, to let my own anger at the conflict and the major players in it consume me and to bask in the glow of my own supposed wisdom in knowing better than them all.
And yet, as always, all these things bring all of us back to the same place -- convicted by our sin and brokenness, in deep need of forgiveness and love, and bound together most profoundly not by that which we fight over but by the brokenness that keeps us so deeply entrenched in the foxholes.
One of my favorite 1980s movies is Broadcast News. In it Albert Brooks plays what he plays best, an intelligent neurotic ... in this case a TV news reporter who is in love with Holly Hunter, who in turn is falling in love with a pretty-boy anchor (William Hurt) to whom Brooks feels morally superior but in every other way inadequate.
But before all this comes to a head, Brooks is musing with Holly Hunter on the phone about relationships:
Maybe he's onto something. Only maybe today we could say:
"Wouldn't this be a great church if our brokenness and failure drew us closer together? If forgiveness and mercy were how we defined progress and victory?"
I think Merton would have liked that. I know I would like that. I wonder if Jesus would like it, too.
| Mike at 5/10/2007 09:13:00 PM
Saturday, May 05, 2007 "O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy the one who pays you back for what you have done to us! Happy shall he be who takes your little ones, and dashes them against a rock!" - Psalm 137:8-9
My silence on this blog hasn't been the usual "too busy" ... but not knowing where to begin.
It's been more than six weeks since I returned from Rwanda, and I feel like I'm just about ready to start talking and writing about it. There is so much to say, and yet there are not words to say it. But over the next week or so, I will try.
The picture you see is the wall of the church in Nyamata. Nyamata is just down the road from Mayange, where lies the Millennium Village I went to Rwanda to visit. It is in Bugesera district -- which is notable because it had the highest percentage of its people killed during the genocide -- nearly 70 percent.
This is no accident. In the decade leading up to the genocide, Tutsis were "relocated" into Bugesera. In the years leading up to the genocide, places like this church were the sites of "practice genocides" -- where the Hutu Power movement would see how many Tutsi's they could kill in an hour. Outside the church are the graves of the clergy who tried to stop them.
When the genocide began to happen, the people flocked to the church for sanctuary, for safety. They did not find safety there. The crowds found them there.
When you walk into the church and look up you see hundreds of tiny holes in the roof made by shrapnel from the fragmentation grenades that were thrown into the packed church. You can still see the bloodstains on the wall from when the crowd entered the church, ripped small children from their mother's arms and smashed them against it.
The church is a genocide memorial now. From behind the benches that once served as pews you can now descend staircases into a room with a large display case filled with skulls and bones -- remains of the dead. Out the back door there are two large mass graves -- mausoleums you can walk down into and stand in narrow passageways with coffins piled up on either side of you from floor to ceiling.
I went to Nyamata in the afternoon of my first day in Rwanda. That morning, I had been to the genocide museum in Kigali ... which I imagine I'll write about another time. In some ways that visit had anesthesized me... dulled the starkness of the skulls and coffins. Or maybe it was just that it was all too overwheming. I walked through it in somewhat of a daze ... with the most powerful feeling being that I didn't belong here. That this place was made sacred by the blood of the people who died there and what connection did I have to that other than being from a country that stood by and let it happen.
The altar stood as it had that morning ... only with a display case on it with some artifacts from people who had died there. Not thinking I walked up behind it.
I have been ordained for 10 years now, but long before then, the sanctuary of a church has felt like home. It's difficult to put into words, but there is a feeling of "rightness" ... of "home" to standing behind the Holy Table wherever it might be. And so it was in Nyamata as I slowly walked behind the altar. I wasn't expecting it, but all of a sudden I went from feeling like an outsider who was too much of a tourist in a place that needed penitents instead of tourists... I went from that to being a priest, a priest where he belonged -- at the table.
It felt right. It felt like home.
And then I looked down. And I saw the fair linen, the same one, I imagine, that lay on that table the day the genocide reached Nyamata. Only it was not a fair linen. It's whiteness was stained with dirt and dried blood ... the blood of those who had literally died on this altar.
I suppose going to Nyamata is a lot like going to Auschwitz. But what if something about Auschwitz was the most sacred place in the world to you ... a place where you have always felt perfectly at home and at peace. A place where even in the worst, most out-of-control times in your life, everything somehow made sense.
That's what it was like to stand behind that altar in Nyamata.
For all its beauty and incredibly hope, being in Rwanda is like staring into the abyss. I wasn't ready for it. I thought I would be, but I wasn't.
I suppose there are several levels of experiencing horrendous evil. There's hearing about it second- or third-hand from a distance. There's going to the place where it happened and seeing what it has wrought. And there's it actually happening to you.
I thought I'd been to that second place before. I thought I'd been to it in the Western Region of Ghana when I saw starving children literally living on top of a gold mine. I thought I'd been to it in Southern Sudan when I saw the militarization of the heart that had happened with 20 years of brutal civil war. I thought I'd been to it at the AIDS orphanage outside Pretoria.
But I really hadn't. Because as horrible as all those other places were ... the genocide is different and far, far worse. The genocide isn't just people's lives being torn apart and ended by the unthinking, unfeeling forces of corporate greed and the conscienceless marketplace. The genocide isn't even people being brutally tortured and murdered by invaders from another land.
The genocide was people -- from the wisest elder to the tiniest baby and everyone in between -- being raped, brutalized, maimed, tortured and murdered ... by their friends and neighbors. By people who knew them. Sometimes even by people in their own family.
In all the other horrendous evil I'd voyeuristically encountered in my travels, in every case I could explain its existence by our human ablity to demonize that which we don't know and understand. "If we could only see each other face to face," I believed. "If we could only really know each other in a way that would balance out the propoganda we could keep things like this from happening."
Only in Rwanda, they did know each other. The people who came into that church and dashed the children's heads against the stone, who covered that altar in blood, were not strangers from a distant land but their co-workers and friends. People who knew them.
And standing there at that altar, that place of surpassing love that in that love I had always found peace amidst all the unanswerable questions, all I could see was the blood. And perhaps for the first time I said out loud three words I have been saying over and over and over again since that day.
I don't understand.
And that's why I've been unable to write about this. That plus an almost overwhelming feeling of guilt that I should be so torn up over something that didn't happen to me, that it is an incredible almost self-indulgent luxury to feel pain about this when I didn't have to suffer any of it (and in fact by my and my countries inaction was a silent partner in causing it). But that's another story for another time.
Mostly it's because I don't understand. I don't understand how people can do this to each other. I don't understand how this horrendous evil can exist in the world. It doesn't make sense. It shakes the foundations of my life to the core. I have always believed that down -sometimes deep, deep down -- in all humanity, in all creation you will find good.
Standing at that altar for the first time that belief was seriously challenged. And even as I write this now, my head shakes almost imperceptibly, but uncontrollably side to side. No. No. No. I don't understand.
Standing at that altar, I looked into the mouth of the beast. I have seen darkness before, but I have always been able to spot the light shining in its midst. And yet at that moment, my eyes strained and were unsure.
I spend my life these days traveling around the country, around the church talking about God's mission of global reconciliation, about the Millennium Development Goals -- yes, about the horrors of extreme poverty, but mostly about What One Person Can Do about it. It is a message not of death and destruction but of possibility and opportunity. I have always been able to cast it in terms of resurrection ... and not just as spin but really believing that.
But how can that be here? As inexplicable as Psalm 137 has always been to me -- and yes, I realize it was written in anger by a people in Israel who were longing for the day when they could do to their captors what had been done to them -- I never looked at it square in the face. Stood in a place where children were dashed against walls by people rejoicing to do it.
I have a great urge to tie this up with a message of hope. To talk about the wonderful things I saw in Rwanda. To write of the resiliency of the people and how they are coming together to rebuild a country. And those things are true.
But to end like that would be to seem that I don't still scream those three words at God and mutter them silently to myself every day: I don't understand.
And maybe that's where this needs to end. Maybe as much as I want to understand how this was possible there is no way to understand because there is simply no reason to it. What happened happened. Sometimes what was, was and what is, is.
Perhaps it is not for me to understand. Perhaps it is just for me to experience a piece of it, and to let it haunt me, to let it change me, to let it make me profoundly uncomfortable.
EGR resources and connects the church to embrace what one person, one congregation, one diocese and one church can do to make this mission of global reconciliation happen.
Want to find out more ... check our our website at www.e4gr.org.
"Christ's example is being
demeaned by the church if they ignore the new leprosy,
which is AIDS. The church is the sleeping giant here.
If it wakes up to what's really going on in the rest
of the world, it has a real role to play. If it doesn't,
it will be irrelevant."