Friday, February 17, 2006

Dreamin' II

My previous post demands more room for conferencing (and it will make much more sense if you read "A Bit More Dreamin' to Do" before you read this post)

What follows is part of an exchange in the comments section of the previous post.

I'm moving it up from there to this place so that it might offer a way to think about who we are, why we are, and what our responsibilities to God's creation are.

Here's a comment from a good man, husband and father who is seeking to live his life with faith and conviction -

So, is Cone telling me that, through no choice or fault of my own, I am racist because I was raised by white parents and taught by white church leaders? If that is the case, it seems that the cycle of racism will never be broken. Is Cone telling me that because I am white, the children I raise will be racist, no matter what I teach them? How does Cone suggest we deal with racism?

My response -
This is a conversation best suited with a couple of good ales and Miles Davis in the background (preferably with Coltrane).

Your response was just like mine the first time I encountered Cone.

Cone has several interpreters that range from a theology of liberation that reverses the role of white and black folks in culture to a transcendent view of the world in which parties in power acknowledge the propensity to advantage by nothing more arbitrary than their birth (what color they are, where they live, etc.), and then choose not to exploit that advantage for self - rather, make it an instrument through which mutuality in the church, society, the world can emerge.

But Cone is right, I think, to say that as one of the advantaged, by definition, I can't be the one to offer the "fix"to the problem. Otherwise I'm still in power. Rather, by hearing from the "other," and he would say, "oppressed," I voluntarily suspend my power position for the sake of the greater good that is beyond me.

I can live with that - in fact, I find distinct Biblical parallels and directives.

One of my favorite non Gospel New Testament readings is Philippians 2.

It's known as "The Hymn to Christ."

"If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself,taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross."

One of the key elements of what I was writing about, though, is to acknowledge with honesty that the self-protective tendency in me would use my status and place to maintain an advantage if pushed into a corner. I believe that understanding that about those of us who are advantaged is the first step to not doing it.

Folks who declare they aren't racist, and can't admit their capacity to be, are on thin ice, I fear.

A Further Reflection
But if I approach my life,
and every relationship I have,
and every one of the "isms" and "phobias" that pervade the world in which I live
and the inner parts of my being with pursuit of the mind of Christ,
I'm on a path that transcends my "bent toward sinning," and moves me into a fuller vision of God's beautiful creation in all its diversity.

Of the Hymn to Christ, there is an interpretation that intrigues me.

In particular, the "though" (which I highlighted).

We typically think of that word as something that could mean "although," almost as an aside to what everyone should know already.

But one commentator suggests that the "though" more accurately means "precisely because." That is, Jesus, "precisely because" he was in the form of God, didn't count the power of that reality to be exploited for the sake of self-advantage.

All of which declares the nature of God, of Jesus, and those of us who fancy ourselves Jesus' companions (I'm indebted to John Dominic Crossan for the distinction between disciples and companions).

If I'm seeking the mind of Christ, then, precisely because of who Jesus is, I will yield any advantage in every relationship for the good of the "other."

There are no boundaries that I can use to segregate, discriminate, or exclude.

So maybe what we teach our kids is the truth about what they are going to encounter as they grow up in this society and, by our example, show that any advantage you have over someone else by virtue of their race, orientation, gender - must be surrendered as an act of faith.

It seems to me that Martin's dream needs to have the last word here:

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character...

And when this happens, when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:

Free at last! Free at last!

Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!

Monday, February 13, 2006

A Bit More Dreamin' to Do

There are two events that occurred last week that I wish to comment upon. One was on the national stage, the other, more localized to the Memphis media. Each, though, gives rise to the point that, in the manner of MLK, we've got some dreamin' to do yet.

First, some theological back drop.

I was introduced to the work of James Cone when I was at Vandy.

Cone is an African-American theologian.

He's a pioneer in articulating a liberation theology for African-American Christians that parts company with patronizing tendencies of the "white" church (of which, The United Methodist Church has been been a part during her history - and if not patronizing, even oppressive at some points).

In short, white folks don't need to be the architects of black folks' theology. Black folks can do that for themselves. And if white folks do get involved, they will only to a point, because they will never concede their power, position or privilege they enjoy for the betterment of the "other," or, even be honest that they have these advantages in the first place.

If the white Christian community is to participate in an inclusive theology, he suggests, it must first come at the question in silence and listen well to the black Christian community (or the one being oppressed at any point in history), and be willing to enact whatever remedy the oppressed group believes will make an injustice right. (If my Christian ethics professor, Walter Fluker, reads this, how'd I do, Doc?)

Well, let me tell you, I was good at Cone, but I didn't like it.

See, I'm an open-minded, progressive (oh, the hell with it, I'm liberal and proud of it) man of faith, a clergy person - I'm "out there" and surely I can contribute to the conversation to make this a better place, a more inclusive world.

Cone says, "no."

Because if push comes to shove, I will use my liberality to insulate myself not from the realities of racism in the world, but racism in me.

Like I said, I don't like it.

And one of the reasons I don't like it is because deep down, I know he's right.

So, I offer comment on these two events as one who understand his own capacity to be racist, and that the people of color who are more directly affected by any and all of this are the ultimate teachers and I am to be their student.

The Funeral of Coretta Scott King
If the white "Christian" community thought that her service was going to be nothing more than singing "In the Garden," weeping and wailing, some of that good "black" preachin' and then go on with the status quo, it shows how oblivious we white folks really are.

See, what made Coretta's husband such a threat was that he spoke the truth in the moment. And what many white folks are content with is the truth that is trapped in the late 50's - early 60's.

It is the truth of another time. Rosa Parks, Selma, "I Have a Dream," - an historical commentary on history buffers us from the discomfort felt by white, religious folks back then.

But for God's sake, please don't talk about issues of now.

WMD, wire-taps, ('sup NSA), the plight of the poor, Iraq, homophobia, homelessness.

It's just not "appropriate."

Especially with W. in the audience.

In the great tradition of the prophets, Truth was spoken, at Coretta's "great gittin' up mornin'," and even emperors and kings must bow to the Truth of the Kingdom of God.

So, that blowhard Rush, O'Reilly, and the local Rushwannabe, Mike, talk how you're not supposed to be like that at a funeral.

Their outrage is so superficial and predictable.

It's so, "white." By that I mean, it is the position taken by anyone who cannot claim their own capacity to use their status to keep people in their place.

Of course, these guys have been to many "black" funerals, and I'm sure they know exactly what their talking about.

Truth is, the folks who mounted the pulpit would have dis-graced Coretta's legacy had they done anything less than what they did. Anything else would have been to sanitize a prophetic word, and the folks in power are always wanting to do that.

As we were reminded by our recent trip down Civil Rights Memory Lane, after Martin was killed, and when, by all accounts, no one would have blamed Coretta if she sought to raise her children and move on with her life, she, instead, came to Memphis to carry on.

Those who spoke, and the congregation who gathered, honored that tradition by carrying on, and so should we all here on.

The Birth of D-Wash III
Another mention of Geoff Calkins in my blog, that ain't right.

Last week Geoff wrote, with admitted trepidation, the story of the birth of Darius Washington, III. He's the son of Bianca Brunetti and Darius Washington, Jr., starting point guard for the Tigers.

The story did not glorify having children out of wedlock. But neither did it run from its reality in our culture. And if anything, Geoff highlighted the role of the father in the African-American family in a way that was encouraging and hopeful.

But man, he caught all kinds of hell in the letters to the editor. Which, being in the "Bible" belt, is to be expected. Nothing quite like white, self-righteous religious folks making moral judgments about everybody else.

It's more than predictable.

It's tacky.

And yes, I'm talking about you too, Bill Bougknight.

Of course I believe in the institution of marriage (and I've got some thoughts on that one, too, but that's another post), that's not the issue.

But when folks who don't know these people talk about this child as illegitimate, I can't stand that.

There is no such thing as illegitimacy in the eyes of God. And anyone who calls Jesus "Lord" not only should know that, but be in solidarity with those women, men and children who need not to be judged, but loved.

And if predominantly "white" church folks can't get that, then it's pretty obvious that James Cone is right, again.

And I still don't like it.

Guess I've got a bit more dreaming to do.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Did You Hear the One About the Irishman and the President Who Had Breakfast Together?

What must it mean to have the opportunity to speak to those who hold the reigns of power? If called of God to speak "truth," to be infused with prophetic fire and vision, to be the one to say it - without fear, without judgement, only in conviction and the assurance that God stands with you.

Bono's remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast are just that. It is as good sermon on the nature of God and the obligations of God's people as any you will ever hear or read. I've included the text in full for you to digest.

Who would have thought that we would count Bono's name among the great prophets of their time - Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Nathan, MLK, Bono?

They say that politics makes strange bedfellows. That's true, I'm sure.

But if ever there is a universal truth about the nature of God, it is this - God calls from the diversity of God's creation voices of all walks and flavors to announce the Kingdom of God coming into being.

Give this a read and offer a response, and if you have broadband, you can watch it here -

Bono's Remarks at the 2006 National Prayer Breakfast

If you're wondering what I'm doing here, at a prayer breakfast, well, so am I. I'm certainly not here as a man of the cloth, unless that cloth is leather. It's certainly not because I'm a rock star. Which leaves one possible explanation: I'm here because I've got a messianic complex.

Yes, it's true. And for anyone who knows me, it's hardly a revelation.

Well, I'm the first to admit that there's something unnatural...something unseemly...about rock stars mounting the pulpit and preaching at presidents, and then disappearing to their villas in the south of France. Talk about a fish out of water. It was weird enough when Jesse Helms showed up at a U2 concert...but this is really weird, isn't it?

You know, one of the things I love about this country is its separation of church and state. Although I have to say: in inviting me here, both church and state have been separated from something else completely: their mind.

Mr. President, are you sure about this?

It's very humbling and I will try to keep my homily brief. But be warned - I'm Irish.
I'd like to talk about the laws of man, here in this city where those laws are written. And I'd like to talk about higher laws. It would be great to assume that the one serves the other; that the laws of man serve these higher laws...but of course, they don't always. And I presume that, in a sense, is why you're here.

I presume the reason for this gathering is that all of us here - Muslims, Jews, Christians - all are searching our souls for how to better serve our family, our community, our nation, our God.

I know I am. Searching, I mean. And that, I suppose, is what led me here, too.
Yes, it's odd, having a rock star here - but maybe it's odder for me than for you. You see, I avoided religious people most of my life. Maybe it had something to do with having a father who was Protestant and a mother who was Catholic in a country where the line between the two was, quite literally, a battle line. Where the line between church and state was...well, a little blurry, and hard to see.

I remember how my mother would bring us to chapel on Sundays... and my father used to wait outside. One of the things that I picked up from my father and my mother was the sense that religion often gets in the way of God.

For me, at least, it got in the way. Seeing what religious people, in the name of God, did to my native land...and in this country, seeing God's second-hand car salesmen on the cable TV channels, offering indulgences for fact, all over the world, seeing the self-righteousness roll down like a mighty stream from certain corners of the religious establishment...

I must confess, I changed the channel. I wanted my MTV.

Even though I was a believer.

Perhaps because I was a believer.

I was cynical...not about God, but about God's politics. (There you are, Jim.)

Then, in 1997, a couple of eccentric, septuagenarian British Christians went and ruined my shtick - my reproachfulness. They did it by describing the millennium, the year 2000, as a Jubilee year, as an opportunity to cancel the chronic debts of the world's poorest people. They had the audacity to renew the Lord's call - and were joined by Pope John Paul II, who, from an Irish half-Catholic's point of view, may have had a more direct line to the Almighty.
'Jubilee' - why 'Jubilee'?

What was this year of Jubilee, this year of our Lord's favor?

I'd always read the scriptures, even the obscure stuff. There it was in Leviticus (25:35)...
'If your brother becomes poor,' the scriptures say, 'and cannot maintain shall maintain him.... You shall not lend him your money at interest, not give him your food for profit.'

It is such an important idea, Jubilee, that Jesus begins his ministry with this. Jesus is a young man, he's met with the rabbis, impressed everyone, people are talking. The elders say, he's a clever guy, this Jesus, but he hasn't done much...yet. He hasn't spoken in public before...

When he does, is first words are from Isaiah: 'The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,' he says, 'because He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.' And Jesus proclaims the year of the Lord's favour, the year of Jubilee (Luke 4:18).

What he was really talking about was an era of grace - and we're still in it.

So fast-forward 2,000 years. That same thought, grace, was made incarnate - in a movement of all kinds of people. It wasn't a bless-me club... it wasn't a holy huddle. These religious guys were willing to get out in the streets, get their boots dirty, wave the placards, follow their convictions with actions...making it really hard for people like me to keep their distance. It was amazing. I almost started to like these church people.

But then my cynicism got another helping hand.

It was what Colin Powell, a five-star general, called the greatest W.M.D. of them all: a tiny little virus called AIDS. And the religious community, in large part, missed it. The ones that didn't miss it could only see it as divine retribution for bad behaviour. Even on children...even [though the] fastest growing group of HIV infections were married, faithful women.

Aha, there they go again! I thought to myself judgmentalism is back!

But in truth, I was wrong again. The church was slow but the church got busy on this the leprosy of our age.

Love was on the move.

Mercy was on the move.

God was on the move.

Moving people of all kinds to work with others they had never met, never would have cared to meet...conservative church groups hanging out with spokesmen for the gay community, all singing off the same hymn sheet on moms and quarterbacks...hip-hop stars and country stars. This is what happens when God gets on the move: crazy stuff happens!

Popes were seen wearing sunglasses!

Jesse Helms was seen with a ghetto blaster!

Crazy stuff. Evidence of the spirit.

It was breathtaking. Literally. It stopped the world in its tracks.

When churches started demonstrating on debt, governments listened - and acted. When churches starting organising, petitioning, and even - that most unholy of acts today, God forbid, lobbying...on AIDS and global health, governments listened - and acted.
I'm here today in all humility to say: you changed minds; you changed policy; you changed the world.

Look, whatever thoughts you have about God, who He is or if He exists, most will agree that if there is a God, He has a special place for the poor. In fact, the poor are where God lives.
Check Judaism. Check Islam. Check pretty much anyone.

I mean, God may well be with us in our mansions on the hill. I hope so. He may well be with us as in all manner of controversial stuff. Maybe, maybe not. But the one thing we can all agree, all faiths and ideologies, is that God is with the vulnerable and poor.
God is in the slums, in the cardboard boxes where the poor play house. God is in the silence of a mother who has infected her child with a virus that will end both their lives. God is in the cries heard under the rubble of war. God is in the debris of wasted opportunity and lives, and God is with us if we are with them. "If you remove the yoke from your midst, the pointing of the finger and speaking wickedness, and if you give yourself to the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then your light will rise in darkness and your gloom with become like midday and the Lord will continually guide you and satisfy your desire in scorched places."

It's not a coincidence that in the scriptures, poverty is mentioned more than 2,100 times. It's not an accident. That's a lot of air time, 2,100 mentions. (You know, the only time Christ is judgmental is on the subject of the poor.) 'As you have done it unto the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me' (Matthew 25:40). As I say, good news to the poor.
Here's some good news for the president. After 9/11 we were told America would have no time for the world's poor. America would be taken up with its own problems of safety. And it's true these are dangerous times, but America has not drawn the blinds and double-locked the doors.

In fact, you have doubled aid to Africa. You have tripled funding for global health. Mr. President, your emergency plan for AIDS relief and support for the Global Fund - you and Congress - have put 700,000 people onto life-saving anti-retroviral drugs and provided 8 million bed nets to protect children from malaria.

Outstanding human achievements. Counterintuitive. Historic. Be very, very proud.
But here's the bad news. From charity to justice, the good news is yet to come. There is much more to do. There's a gigantic chasm between the scale of the emergency and the scale of the response.

And finally, it's not about charity after all, is it? It's about justice.

Let me repeat that: It's not about charity, it's about justice.

And that's too bad.

Because you're good at charity. Americans, like the Irish, are good at it. We like to give, and we give a lot, even those who can't afford it.

But justice is a higher standard. Africa makes a fool of our idea of justice; it makes a farce of our idea of equality. It mocks our pieties, it doubts our concern, it questions our commitment.

Sixty-five hundred Africans are still dying every day of a preventable, treatable disease, for lack of drugs we can buy at any drug store. This is not about charity, this is about justice and equality.

Because there's no way we can look at what's happening in Africa and, if we're honest, conclude that deep down, we really accept that Africans are equal to us. Anywhere else in the world, we wouldn't accept it. Look at what happened in South East Asia with the tsunami. 150,000 lives lost to that misnomer of all misnomers, "mother nature." In Africa, 150,000 lives are lost every month. A tsunami every month. And it's a completely avoidable catastrophe.

It's annoying but justice and equality are mates. Aren't they? Justice always wants to hang out with equality. And equality is a real pain in the ass.

You know, think of those Jewish sheep-herders going to meet the Pharaoh, mud on their shoes, and the Pharaoh says, "Equal?" A preposterous idea: rich and poor are equal? And they say, "Yeah, 'equal,' that's what it says here in this book. We're all made in the image of God."
And eventually the Pharaoh says, "OK, I can accept that. I can accept the Jews - but not the blacks."

"Not the women. Not the gays. Not the Irish. No way, man."

So on we go with our journey of equality.

On we go in the pursuit of justice.

We hear that call in the ONE Campaign, a growing movement of more than 2 million Americans...Left and Right together... united in the belief that where you live should no longer determine whether you live.

We hear that call even more powerfully today, as we mourn the loss of Coretta Scott King - mother of a movement for equality, one that changed the world but is only just getting started. These issues are as alive as they ever were; they just change shape and cross the seas.

Preventing the poorest of the poor from selling their products while we sing the virtues of the free market...that's a justice issue. Holding children to ransom for the debts of their grandparents...that's a justice issue. Withholding life-saving medicines out of deference to the Office of Patents...that's a justice issue.

And while the law is what we say it is, God is not silent on the subject.

That's why I say there's the law of the land¿. And then there is a higher standard. There's the law of the land, and we can hire experts to write them so they benefit us, so the laws say it's OK to protect our agriculture but it's not OK for African farmers to do the same, to earn a living?

As the laws of man are written, that's what they say.

God will not accept that.

Mine won't, at least. Will yours?

[ pause]

I close this morning

This is a dangerous idea I've put on the table: my God vs. your God, their God vs. our God...vs. no God. It is very easy, in these times, to see religion as a force for division rather than unity.

And this is a town - Washington - that knows something of division.

But the reason I am here, and the reason I keep coming back to Washington, is because this is a town that is proving it can come together on behalf of what the scriptures call the least of these.

This is not a Republican idea. It is not a Democratic idea. It is not even, with all due respect, an American idea. Nor it is unique to any one faith.

'Do to others as you would have them do to you' (Luke 6:30). Jesus says that.

'Righteousness is this: that one should...give away wealth out of love for him to the near of kin and the orphans and the needy and the wayfarer and the beggars and for the emancipation of the captives.' The Koran says that (2.177).

Thus sayeth the Lord: 'Bring the homeless poor into the house, when you see the naked, cover him, then your light will break out like the dawn and your recovery will speedily spring fourth, then your Lord will be your rear guard.' The Jewish scripture says that. Isaiah 58 again.

That is a powerful incentive: 'The Lord will watch your back.' Sounds like a good deal to me, right now.

A number of years ago, I met a wise man who changed my life. In countless ways, large and small, I was always seeking the Lord's blessing. I was saying, you know, I have a new song, look after it¿. I have a family, please look after them¿. I have this crazy idea...

And this wise man said: stop.

He said, stop asking God to bless what you're doing.

Get involved in what God is doing - because it's already blessed.

Well, God, as I said, is with the poor. That, I believe, is what God is doing.

And that is what he's calling us to do.

I was amazed when I first got to this country and I learned how much some churchgoers tithe. Up to 10% of the family budget. Well, how does that compare with the federal budget, the budget for the entire American family? How much of that goes to the poorest people in the world? Less than 1%.

Mr. President, Congress, people of faith, people of America:

I want to suggest to you today that you see the flow of effective foreign assistance as tithing.... Which, to be truly meaningful, will mean an additional 1% of the federal budget tithed to the poor.

What is 1%?

1% is not merely a number on a balance sheet.

1% is the girl in Africa who gets to go to school, thanks to you. 1% is the AIDS patient who gets her medicine, thanks to you. 1% is the African entrepreneur who can start a small family business thanks to you. 1% is not redecorating presidential palaces or money flowing down a rat hole. This 1% is digging waterholes to provide clean water.

1% is a new partnership with Africa, not paternalism toward Africa, where increased assistance flows toward improved governance and initiatives with proven track records and away from boondoggles and white elephants of every description.
America gives less than 1% now. We're asking for an extra 1% to change the world. to transform millions of lives - but not just that and I say this to the military men now - to transform the way that they see us.

1% is national security, enlightened economic self-interest, and a better, safer world rolled into one. Sounds to me that in this town of deals and compromises, 1% is the best bargain around.

These goals - clean water for all; school for every child; medicine for the afflicted, an end to extreme and senseless poverty - these are not just any goals; they are the Millennium Development goals, which this country supports. And they are more than that. They are the Beatitudes for a globalised world.

Now, I'm very lucky. I don't have to sit on any budget committees. And I certainly don't have to sit where you do, Mr. President. I don't have to make the tough choices.

But I can tell you this:

To give 1% more is right. It's smart. And it's blessed.

There is a continent - Africa - being consumed by flames.

I truly believe that when the history books are written, our age will be remembered for three things: the war on terror, the digital revolution, and what we did - or did not to - to put the fire out in Africa.

History, like God, is watching what we do.

Thank you. Thank you, America, and God bless you all.