Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Re-think Corporations

So obviously the recent Supreme Court ruling on the Hobby Lobby case, as well as previous rulings such as Citizens United are not universally popular.  Personally I find a lot in them that I do not agree with; however, since I have yet to be named to the Supreme Court and see little immediate avenue for change, rather than just lament I figured to try and make some lemons out of lemonade ... or maybe the other way around.

Corporations are people too, at least right now there is no getting around this fact.  Recent rulings have made it quite clear.  We can fight it and joke about it, but what if we actually did something positive about it?  What would it look like if we started treating companies MORE like people instead of less.  If companies can have religious beliefs, maybe we should be working to help them have good ones.  Should a good Christian company tithe from its income (not profits)?  What would a good humanist company look like?  Would we prefer these sorts of companies to strictly profit-based ones.  I mean, they are not holding beliefs you don't agree with, except maybe the belief that they should have your money and not you.  We often find fault with companies for NOT caring about their workers, so maybe we continue to work on an understanding of what it means to care.  Outside of birth control, Hobby Lobby seems to be making some good steps in that direction (above minimum wage pay, Sundays off, etc), but there is always room for growth.  What if we found ways to teach an understanding of business that was not just about the money but instead was a reflection of our values.  Too often, good people hide behind the veil of corporations to justify their bad actions.  Maybe we need to start creating a climate that is different.  Companies, like all other people, need to start acting like good citizens.  And if the company is Christian, they had better be in church on Sunday, I don't care how nice it is on the lake!

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Speaking of God

A recent ruling by the Supreme Court has raised once again the issue of prayer in the public sphere (perhaps more accurately the civic sphere).  While the ruling itself arguably does not have a huge impact, it does a lot to create a national dialogue around how we talk about God.  One of the issues in the case (and a point of contention between the majority and minority opinions) was how neutral the language around a divine figure needed to be a public prayer.  Given that many of the prayers in question clearly used Christ-centric language did they alienate non-Christians and serve to implicit create a sense of a government backed religion?

Those who disagree with the ruling might still find themselves divided upon the solution to this problem.  Some would argue that the solution is simple to use a more generic form when praying.  Rather than assuming a Christian audience and using Christian terminology as was done in the town meetings at issue, perhaps simply using more generic terms like God, or Divine, and avoiding references to specific religious views and values (like Christ's death) would solve the problem.

Another solution would be to argue for a clean break between religion and the civic sphere.  Since even prayer itself assumes a level of religious value not universal in our nation and since we are dedicated to being an a-theistic state, it would be better to not pray at all.  People are free to offer their own prayers whenever they like, but an official prayer at the start of a meeting still creates a government sanctioning of some sort and potentially creates a normative behavior that is not universally held.  Even this has consequences since NOT praying before a meeting is creating its own cultural standard and pattern of behavior.  It is awkward to be the only not praying AND it is awkward to be the only one praying (try it in a restaurant sometime and see what I mean).

There are real benefits and dangers to allowing space for prayer in the midst of civic meetings.  Some of us might be comforted by the idea that Congress (with its single digit approval rating) was consulting some sort of higher power for help.  Others however might feel that their approval of Congress is based on the fact that its members seem beholden to a religious agenda instead of one that benefits the country.  I think it is safe to say that almost no one wants to be the Jews in Nazi Germany, but most of the Germans did not start out thinking they would be the bad guys either.

Can we protect the freedoms of both the religious and the non-religious?  I have strong concerns about state sponsored religion, but I also think that the notion of separation of church and state was created with a poor understanding of faith in mind.  Faith is not simply allegiance to a particular denomination or religion, nor is it something that can be turned on and off like a cell phone on an airplane.  It is an important part of people's identities.  Denying that is to ask people to deny and hide part of who they are.  I am not sure I am okay with the government prohibiting prayer in the civic arena because that feels equally unwelcoming.  I am also aware that my own views on the importance of prayer influence my views on this issue.  For me I see the value of prayer and also communal prayer.  Believing in the benefits it is easy to overlook the harms.  By the same extension I can see that those who find no value in prayer might simply be concerned with the harm it does.  It is not an easy impasse to get around but I think we achieve it by leaving space for everyone.  We do not mandate prayer in our civic organizations nor do we prohibit it.  We don't require prayers to be made in a certain way nor do we forbid them from being done in another format.  We cannot live into the idea of "out of many one" by denying religion a space in the civic sphere but nor can we do it by simply establishing a civic religion of the majority.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Agnostic Christianity

This last week I preached on the story from the Gospel of John about how after Jesus heals a blind man the Pharisees get into a heated debated over how this was even possible.  My main thesis was that part of our faith is being open to not being right.  The Pharisees were so sure they were right that they were unable to see the miracle that God was doing right in front of them.  By contrast the blind man was open to the possibilities of God's miraculous work in the world and so in turn was able to see.  This got me to ponder if maybe the term "Agnostic Christian" would be a good one for me to try and claim.

One of the central problems we are facing in our culture right now is a lack of healthy agnosticism.  On almost every issue people are rooted firmly in one camp or another.  The idea that a person could not have a position or be clearly uncertain about their position is seemingly foreign and such a voice is rarely welcomed in a debate.  Whatever you believe it seems to be clear that you need to be certain about it.  Unfortunately, as we see from the story in John, being certain you are right is not really a good way to learn anything.  In fact it seems to be a sure recipe for missing the obvious signs of things all around you.  For that reason I like the idea of being an Agnostic Christian.

Now I am not saying I think of myself as being agnostic in the strictest definition of the word.  Rather what I am saying that as a Christian I think it is important to embrace the faith aspect of faith.  What I believe is based solidly on my experiences of the world but it also contains within it assumptions and the possibility that I could be wrong.  Scientists have been working to understand the effects of religion and faith on the brain.  Simply knowing these effects does not prove something.  It could be that my experience of God happens because of the way my brain is firing OR my brain is firing the way it is because of the presence of God.  I believe the philosopher Hume is one of many who points out that our belief in causality is rooted in faith. (Intro to Philosophy was a long time ago) If we try and work only about what we know for certain we cannot really do anything or function in the world.  We have to take some things on faith.  At the same time it is important to remember that things we take on faith exist with a certain degree of doubt ... we can be wrong.  Holding this in tension is a necessary challenge for us but one that I think we need to work on as a culture.  We need to find ways to be much more agnostic about matters of faith and life than we currently are.  In my mind the Christian faith is really rooted in agnosticism, the acknowledgement that God works in ways beyond our understanding and all we know about God really gets filtered through the lens of our experience.  That is part of what makes the incarnation so powerful it gives us a more direct and tangible understanding of a God beyond comprehension.  At least I think it does, I could be wrong.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Diluting the Sacred?

There was a great article yesterday on MPR about another church doing a "Beer and Hymns" event.  While the story focused around one church in Fargo/Moorhead, I know it is something that a variety of churches all over have been trying recently.  On the one hand it is not something new, for years we have been adding coffee to our worship to make it a more comfortable and familiar experience for people.  I wonder though if we are helping by making the sacred more accessible through things like beer, coffee, couches, and casual clothes, or if we are diluting the sacred.

I am big fan of casual; casual liturgy, casual clothes, and sipping a beverage while you make yourself at home in worship.  That being said there can be something powerful about the ways that we create the sacred space for worship.  Are we doing ourselves a disservice by watering down the holy and making it too mundane?  I remember talking once about having communion more than once a month and someone commenting that they liked it less often because it made communion feel special. Do things like beer or coffee with our worship turn it from something special into something ordinary.  Monday night is football night, Tuesday is trivia night, and Wednesday is hymns down at the local pub.  Do we run the risk of turning worship into just another event that shares time with everything else in our week?

Making the sacred accessible without diluting it is a tough challenge.  Part of what makes something sacred is how it becomes special and set apart and yet that same distance can create a barrier for people seeking it.  Perhaps the real challenge is finding ways to make the sacred in new spaces.  How do we build up the sacred without many of the familiar trappings we have been using for hundreds of years (like ornate architecture, fancy robes, and complex liturgy).  Now we are removing some of the props we have used to create the sacred in the past and inserting others in their place.  The challenge for us remains to lead people to the sacred in whatever format we are using and to find ways to give people access to the divine through worship.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Reason for the Season

So maybe it is just my constant desire to be contrary but I keep thinking about how Christmas is really about the "getting" and not the "giving."  Don't get me wrong, I am a huge fan of finding more ways to give during the Christmas season and I appreciate the efforts of the such things as the Advent Conspiracy to help us find new ways to give to others at Christmas ... but is that really the message of Christmas?  Is it really about what give or instead about what we receive.

I have been told that I am hard to shop for.  I never understood this since I can always think about more things that I want.  What I have realized over the years is that while I do a good job of thinking about these things I don't actually do a good job of asking for them.  I know what I want ... but I don't let other people know.  So instead of being easy to shop for I become a challenge.  I don't like to ask for gifts probably because I buy into this idea that is not about what we get but instead about what we give.  Receive things seems greedy while giving is something that is selfless and my parents raised me to be a giver.  Christmas is not really about giving though ... it is about what we receive.

I am not saying we need to give in to companies like Amazon that barrage us with daily attempts to get our money.  I am not saying we solely judge our Christmas by how large a stack of gifts we get.  I am saying we need to do a better job of thinking not just about what we give but what we receive.  Not just about about we can do for others but what we need for ourselves.  If we look at the story of Christmas it is about a great gift and it is not as much about the giver but about everyone who receives it.  In the story of Christmas we are meant to identify with the people who receive the gift (humanity) not he giver (God).  For some reason we forget this at times.  Christmas actually is about getting a gift.  Two thousand years ago I suspect that people knew what God could give them ... freedom from the Romans for one thing.  If you think the IRS is bad, imagine having to travel somewhere else AND then pay your taxes on top of it.  Do we know what we want from God this year?  Have we though about what we need?

Obviously God does not give us everything we ask for (that's what Santa is for).  If we never ask anything of God though, are we letting God be the great giver for us?  If we make Christmas all about what we give to others do we try to replace God?

Now I just need to get around to actually writing my Christmas list ...

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Might and Right

A recent incident on the Miami Dolphins football team has awakened my frustration with a prevailing theme in our culture, the idea that physical might is an answer to problems.  The alleged incident is that bullying occurred over an extended period of time between members of the football team that has ultimately resulted in one member, Martin, leaving the team (because of being bullied) and another, Incognito, being suspended for his alleged role in the incident.  I have read several articles and numerous quotes and comments within those articles that emphasize the same point, that while the bullying was bad, it was wrong of the first player to not stand up for himself, not seek private redress, and instead left the situation and complain to the media about it (only after being asked).  The bottom line for many is that by NOT fighting back the one being bullied was weak.  Over and over people tried to make clear that they do not condone bullying but for a football player it was expected to fight back because that is what will really stop the bullying.  If he had not been so "soft" this would not have been a problem.

There are two things horribly wrong with this whole mess in my mind.  One is that we are still stuck on blaming the victim.  Over and over I see comments and suggestions about what Martin could have and should have done.  Mostly it involves fighting back, standing up for himself, or otherwise "being a man."  Why is any of this Martin's fault?  How is the poor choices and horrible conduct of another person his responsibility?  There are times when both parties in a situation can be at fault but I think by definition things like abuse and bullying are NOT those kind of situations.  From what I can tell it appears that Martin did a very Christian thing, turning the other check and not responding when he was abused.  People try and make a distinction because he is a football player and not some poor kid having his lunch money taken.  I don't think that is a fair distinction, abuse is abuse.  It is also not a fair distinction because we say the same things about kids and other victims of abuse, like rape victims who get accused of wanting it, being at fault for how they dressed, leading a person on, and so much worse.  We need to take responsibility for our negative actions not look to blame the victim of those actions.

The second thing I object to is this myth that being strong means fighting back.  Jesus preached on and lived the idea of turning the other check.  He chose to NOT fight even when faced with death and yet so many Christians seem to ignore this teaching when it comes to our own lives.  We live in a culture where the correct response when attacked is to fight back, to get revenge and to get that eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, and even life for a life.  The fact of the matter is that I think Gandhi is right, all that leaves us with is world that is blind.  I want my son to grow up in a world where he doesn't have to be violent to survive.  I think this is done NOT by perpetuating a myth that fighting back is the answer and instead by working to create a society where bullying is not tolerated and not seen by anyone as a way to use/abuse their power.  Every day we turn on the news and see the signs of violence in our culture, in the news stories of yet another shooting, to the endless stream of games that let us live out our fantasy of violence and warfare.  When are we going to say enough is enough.  When are we going to stop looking to the victim for what wrong and instead look at the one causing the pain and look at ourselves and wonder what we are doing to let it happen.  There are 51 other players on the active roster for the Dolphins that watched the bullying occur, not to mention the dozens of coaches and staff on that organization that must have had some idea of what was occurring.  Why did they stand by and let it happen?  Why do we all just stand by and watch the violence that surrounds us.  I don't have answers but I do know this ... it starts with me.  It starts with you.  Until we stop buying into this culture of violence it is never going to change.  It is time to say enough is enough.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Minority Rules?

The recent shut-down of the government highlights a continued struggle we have in our democracy ... the tension between the power of the majority and the minority.  In simple playground logic democracy is built on the idea that the majority rules.  If we look deeper into our system of government however we see that all over the place are rules and customs that allow for power to be held not just by the majority but also the minority.  It starts with our elections, where the winner of the popular vote is not necessarily the winner of the election when it comes to Presidents.  It is also possible for the minority to have power when it comes to things like a veto (where the president can over rule 65% of senators and representatives) and the filibuster in the Senate the allows for an individual to stand up and delay the process.  We have seen in it play out nationally where the House refuses to work with the Senate and President, (though they would frame the situation differently) and in Wisconsin, where state senators fled the state in order to stop votes on legislation they were opposed to.  There are clear instances where a minority is able to assert itself over the majority.  Is this really what a democracy is about?  You could also add in the further wrinkle of the will of the voters (or at least a random sampling of their will).  Should the fact that X% of the voters feel one way or another about an issue become a mandate in favor of something?  A majority of senators can easily represent a minority of the population if pulled from small states.  What does the rule of majority look like?

In 2012, The United Methodist Church continued its decades old debate around the issue of homosexuality.  Every four years the church debates about and ultimately votes to change, or not change its stances on any number of issues.  This time one of the suggestions was to add language that United Methodists were not of one mind on the issue of homosexuality.  This vote failed but it raises one of the problems of majority rule ... it can easily be used to erase the voice of dissent.  A majority of delegates decided they felt the "not of one mind" language was not necessary to be added.  Maybe it was because they felt strongly that the church's current stance around homosexuality was good or maybe they felt that adding a voice of disagreement was inappropriate when we don't agree about pretty much anything else either.  A strong minority however wanted that language included.  Under our system where the majority rules this group gets ignored.  They lost the vote, and we move on, but shouldn't the fact that we clearly don't agree on an issue matter?  Is the minority that much less important because they are the minority?  Now I am not saying that the minority is MORE important than the majority, but maybe they are just as important.

I have been a part of several groups that used a consensus model of decision making in order to get things done.  Rather than a simply up or down vote the conversation continues until everyone is in agreement on something.  Can it be abused ... certainly ... but it can also be transformational.  Now it is not just a matter of counting votes and getting to 51%.  Instead we are forced to listen to each other and hear what is causing the other side to disagree.  It moves us from a dichotomous thinking (am I for this or against it) and instead forces us to think creatively: what is important to me, what is important to them, and how do we a find a way for everyone to be happy.  It helps us to focus on the other person's values instead of our own.  Now we are not just thinking about how our side wins, but how everyone does, and that makes things better for all of us.

I love that we are a democracy, but the root of a democracy to me is not majority rules (that tends to be more of mob rule) but instead the idea that everyone voice matters, even the people in the minority.  If its important to them, it is important to all of us