Saturday, February 19, 2011

Will you forgive your enemies?

HOMILY FOR THE SEVENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, February 20, 2011:
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A priest was preaching one Sunday on the theme of “Love your enemies.” After a long sermon, he asked how many parishioners were willing to forgive their enemies. About half held up their hands. Not satisfied he preached for another 20 minutes and repeated his question. This time he received a response of about 80%. Still unsatisfied, he went on for another 15 minutes and repeated his question. With all thoughts now on Sunday dinner, everyone raised their hand except one elderly lady in the front row. “Mrs. Jones, are you not willing to forgive your enemies?” the priest asked. “I don't have any,” she said. Surprised, the priest said, “Ma’am, that is very unusual. How old are you?” “Ninety three,” she responded. “Mrs. Jones, please tell me, how can you have lived to be 93 years old, and not have an enemy in the world.” The sweet little lady, smiled, and said simply. “Oh, Father, I’ve had plenty of enemies. It’s just that, at 93, I’ve outlived them all!”

Jesus said, “ Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Today’s Gospel message to love our enemies is perhaps one of the most difficult parts of the Gospel for us to accept. It offers us a message that is contrary to our human nature, contrary to what the world tells us. So, what do we make of this command today? We probably hear it with some doubts – are we really meant to love our enemies, turn the other cheek, give without expecting repayment, refuse to pass judgment on people, pray for those who are unkind to us? It would be difficult to find another passage in the Gospel that is more at odds with our normal way of behaving. If we turn the other check, after all, won’t we just get hit on that one too? It is certainly a risky proposition.

What is really going on here is that Jesus is trying to get us to move – in heart and mind and soul – away from the ethos of the world and into the Way of the Kingdom. It was well summarized in our first reading from Leviticus. What is the believer to do? “Be holy, for I, the LORD, your God, am holy. You shall not bear hatred for your brother or sister in your heart…Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against any of your people. You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus is calling us to see that we waste so much energy holding on to past hurts, trying to settle old scores, even handing down grudges from one generation to the next. Jesus wants us to embrace the fact that Christianity is a religion of love. And not a superficial kind of love; not a huggy-feely love, not an all-accepting generic love that fails to ask anything of us or the other. Jesus inaugurates a new kind of love – one that is so profound, so deep that it leads Him all the way to the Cross for us; a love so powerful that it is transformative of not only us as individuals, but even of the whole world.

This radical, all-embracing Christian love has its own rules, its own logic, its own way of dealing with people – and it is a way that is counter to what the world prescribes. The most important part is that everyone is to be within our circle of love – even our enemies. No one is excluded; no one is shut out. And that can’t be in theory alone; it must also be in practice. Once we become this radically loving people, we do things differently. If Christianity is to ever change our world; if we are ever to achieve the peace of the Kingdom that God promises us; it won’t be by spreading doctrine on paper, or changing laws, or preaching harshly – it must be and can only be accomplished by the noticeably different behavior of Christians. In our world today, do the believers of Jesus Christ stand out in stark contrast as recognizably different than the rest of the world; or as the hymn reminds us, “They will know that we are Christians by our love.” Or, rather are we indistinguishable from the rest of the world?

Jesus calls us, His followers, to rise above the pettiness of the world; to never be satisfied with the sad state of the world; to be constantly striving with all that we are, for all that God promises. And so, the one who was struck on the cheek should rise above the attack or insult and to show who really prevailed in the situation. The one who lost the tunic was directed to act in a like manner and to relinquish even the cloak. It is a matter of saying: I can outdo your violence toward me with my willingness to give freely much more than you sought to take from me. They overcome evil with a double dose of good. An evil response only creates even more evil. The insight and brilliance of Jesus is to recognize that the only real, lasting, long term antidote to the violence and evil in our world is the love and forgiveness of God – as expressed by those who believe in Him.

Is it possible to forgive our enemies in a world torn by war, discrimination, economic disparity and exploitation of the vulnerable? We are not expected to overlook these evils, but to always remember that we are called to “be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy.” We are called to forgive and not retaliate. We are called to be merciful, and not vengeful. I like to say that there are no asterisks in the Bible. After Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” There isn’t an asterisk that says, “See below: Unless your enemy is really, really mean; or really, really, deserves it.” Our Lord and Savior says simply, “Love, and bless and pray.” This is a type of Christian heroism that does not merely respond to evil in the world, but transforms it – through Christ – into goodness and holiness. But it takes real courage to practice it. This is the only way that the Kingdom of God will ever reach its fulfillment; if it begins in the converted hearts of believers.

There was a young man one time who was incredible in the way He loved people. “Love one another,” he urged, “as I have loved you.” He had a particular love for people on the margins – the sick, the sinners, the Samaritans, outsiders of all kinds. As a man, he was no weakling. He stood up forcefully to people especially those who tried to impose burdens too heavy to carry upon the so-called Little People. He urged a woman caught in adultery not to sin again, but refused to condemn her. He managed to turn the other cheek even when innocently nailed to a cross. Even in that moment, He said, “Father, forgive them.” He had an enormous impact on the world. In fact, He’s the sole reason that all of us are here today. Would we like Him to be any different? He’s not just the author of the Gospel, He’s also the product of it. He lived by the very rules that He urges us to follow. He is the outstanding example of Gospel-lived life. And today, He is urging you and me to join Him on a journey. We’ve all come a certain distance and now He wants us to move just a little more.  Can we give a little more to those in need, forgive a little more those who hurt us, love a little more? He says today, “You have followed me this far; and now join me for the extra mile.”

Love, give, pray, forgive – even just a little more; and you will transform the world. And so, I ask you today, how many of you will love your enemies?

May God give you peace.

Friday, February 18, 2011

How Facebook Killed the Church

NOTE: This is a thought-provoking article from another blog, Experimental Theology.  It highlights a number of thoughts that I've been pondering for some time about these issues of relationality, youth culture, traditional parish modality and the ever-increasing polarization and politicization of faith by Church members and clergy, both local and at the highest levels. This quote touches upon a lot of what I've been thinking about: "Young Christians and non-Christians tend to feel that the church is 'unChristian'. Too antihomosexual. Too hypocritical. Too political. Too judgmental. That's how young people see 'the church'. And it's hard to blame them." I know my feeling in the midst of all of this is often the simple question, "Where is the Gospel in all of this?"  I would love to hear your thoughts on this article.  Also, I'm not lost on the irony that you're probably reading this after seeing the link in my Facebook news feed!  ;-) 

There has been a great deal of hand wringing in the Christian community about the onset of Web 2.0 relationality (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, blogs, MMOGs). The concern you often hear is that "virtual" relationships are no replacement for "authentic" relationships.

No doubt this is true. But I've done some research in this area and here's my general conclusion: Facebook friends tend to be our actual friends.

No doubt, the vast majority of the people in a friend list on Facebook are strangers, acquaintances, or old school friends you haven't seen in years. But no user of Facebook is confused enough to think that she is "in relationship" with any of these people. These are just the penumbra around the core of our Facebook interactions, connecting with people we actually know and are friends with.

In short, Facebook isn't replacing real world relationality. Rather, Facebook tends to reflect our social world. For example, in a soon to be published study some ACU colleagues and I used Facebook to predict student retention at our school (i.e., which freshmen return for their sophomore year). We found that on-campus Facebook activity was significantly correlated with measures of "real world" relationality. Further, on-campus Facebook activity also predicted who would come back for their sophomore year. For example, if you had a lot of Facebook Wall Posts you felt more socially connected and were more likely to come back to ACU for a second year. Which makes sense. Who would be posting on your Wall day to day? Sure, old friends might give you a shout out from time to time on your Wall. But for the most part Wall posts come from people who you'll actually see today. Or at least this week, month or year. The point is, you know these people. Talking with them via Facebook is authentic relationality. It's staying in touch, coordinating plans, offering up encouragement, saying a prayer, working out misunderstandings, and sharing a moment.

Over at my friend Mike's blog there was a recent discussion about why Millennials (also known as Generation Y) are leaving the church. His question was, why are they leaving? Most of the answers took aim at the church. Churches are too shallow, hypocritical, judgmental, or political. Many surveys have shown these attitudes to be widespread among Millennials. Consider the Barna research summarized in the book unChristian. Young Christians and non-Christians tend to feel that the church is "unChristian." Too antihomosexual. Too hypocritical. Too political. Too judgmental. That's how young people see "the church." And it's hard to blame them.

But my argument at Mike's blog was that the church has always been this way. Is the church of 2010 much different from the church of the '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s, or '90s? I don't think so. So, yes, the church is screwed up. Always has been. The church has been a depressing constant over the generations. So the change isn't with the church. The change is with the Millennials. If so, in what way and how has this change related to the church?

The most obvious change is in mobile and Web 2.0 connectivity. Generation X didn't have cell phones. Nor did they have Facebook or text messaging. And you can't tell me that Millennials see the church any differently than Generation X saw it. Look to the right at cell phone subscriptions plotted by decade. Most have Generation X as birth dates between 1961 to 1981. Which has Gen X as college students in the years 1979 to 1999. As you can see, most Gen X'ers didn't have cellphones. And based on the sociological evidence Gen X was much more cynical and anti-establishment when compared to the Millennials. So you can't tell me Gen X'ers didn't see the church as judgmental, hypocritical, or sold-out. They did.

So what happened? Why didn't Gen X leave the church while the Millennials are leaving in droves?

The difference between Generations X and Y isn't in their views of the church. It's about those cellphones. It's about relationships and connectivity. Most Gen X'ers didn't have cell phones, text messaging or Facebook. These things were creeping in during their college years but the explosive onset of mobile devices and social computing had yet to truly take off.

So why has mobile social computing affected church attendance? Well, if church has always been kind of lame and irritating why did people go in the first place? Easy, social relationships. Church has always been about social affiliation. You met your friends, discussed your week, talked football, shared information about good schools, talked local politics, got the scoop, and made social plans ("Let's get together for dinner this week!"). Even if you hated church you could feel lonely without it. Particularly with the loss of "third places" in America.

But Millennials are in a different social situation. They don't need physical locations for social affiliation. They can make dinner plans via text, cell phone call or Facebook. In short, the thing that kept young people going to church, despite their irritations, has been effectively replaced. You don't need to go to church to stay connected or in touch. You have an iPhone.

Sure, Millennials will report that the "reason" they are leaving the church is due to its perceived hypocrisy or shallowness. My argument is that while this might be the proximate cause the more distal cause is social computing. Already connected Millennials have the luxury to kick the church to the curb. This is the position of strength that other generations did not have. We fussed about the church but, at the end of the day, you went to stay connected. For us, churchwas Facebook!

The pushback here will be that all this Millennial social computing, all this Facebooking, isn't real, authentic relationship. I'd disagree with that assessment. It goes to the point I made earlier: Most of our Facebook interactions are with people we know, love, and are in daily contact with. Facebook isn't replacing "real" relationships with "virtual" relationships. It's simply connecting us to our real friends. And if you can do this without getting up early on Sunday morning why go to church? Particularly if the church is hypocritical and shallow? Why mess with it?

Why are Millennials leaving the church? It's simple. Mobile social computing has replaced the main draw of the traditional church: Social connection and affiliation.

Basically, Facebook killed the church. May it Rest in Peace.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Forget About Me, I Love You!

HOMILY FOR THE SIXTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, February 13, 2011:
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I received an email this week with some children’s one-liners for Valentine’s Day. Here are some of the gems. What did the caveman give his wife on Valentine’s Day? Ughs and kisses! What did the boy sheep say to the girl sheep on Valentine’s Day? I Love Ewe! What did the stamp say to the envelope on Valentine’s Day? I’m stuck on you! What did the boy owl say to the girl owl on Valentine’s Day? Owl be yours! What do farmers give their wives on Valentine’s Day? Hogs and kisses! I know, those are bad!

Of course, Monday is Valentine’s Day. The big day for couples to express their love for one another in traditional external ways – chocolates, flowers, a nice dinner, perhaps a gift. Valentine’s Day is celebrated almost everywhere in the world. But in much of the world it is celebrated very differently than we do here in the West. Where in our country, people focus their attention on only one person as their Valentine, in many other countries throughout the world, the focus of this day is celebrated in a more expansive way. In these places, people give Valentine cards and gifts to their parents, their sisters and brothers, their teachers, friends, and even their priests. In these places, it’s a broader celebration of the many kinds of love we celebrate moment-to-moment and day-to-day, not exclusively a celebration of romantic love.

So, what does today’s Gospel have to say to us about Valentine’s Day? Well, even though today’s readings are not intended for Valentine’s Day, they do have something to say to us. We heard in Matthew’s Gospel today, “If you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother or sister has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” This passage reminds us that all of those we love are our spiritual brothers and sisters and that because of that, we have a shared responsibility for holiness and righteousness to one another. Those who we love and who love us are also our brothers and sisters in faith and companions on our spiritual journey to God. A good love relationship should recognize this spiritual dimension and make room for its adequate expression.

I’m generally not a regular viewer of Oprah Winfrey, but I remember a show last year that she did focused on women trying to find a husband. Many of them said the things you’d expect – they wanted someone rich, or important, or good looking or funny. But one woman floored me. When asked what she was looking for in a man, she said, “I’m looking for a man who knows that he needs to love God more than he loves me.” So many couples, and not just couples, tend to share everything in their lives except their spiritual lives. Many people on Monday will make arrangements – some of them quite elaborate – to wine and dine in a good restaurant, or to go and watch a good movie together, but they rarely think of going to church or taking a few moments of prayer together as part of their Valentine’s Day celebration. When we recognize one another first and foremost as brothers and sisters in faith, then there is always room for praying and sharing faith together to support each other spiritually.

We also heard in the Gospel, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” This passage invites us to reflect on how we approach love. Is our approach focused on ourselves, “What have you done for me lately?” Or is our love focused on the other, “What can I do for you to make you happy?” One is selfish, one is self-giving. We can all probably name countless examples of the selfish form, but we are called to live love in a way that is self-giving. Jesus on the cross is the ultimate example of a totally self-giving love, and we are called to emulate that in our own lives and relationships.

There is a famous O. Henry story that talks about this spiritual love focused on the other. It tells the story of two young people deeply in love, Della and Jim. Their Anniversary was quickly approaching, but the couple was desperately poor. There were only two possessions that they took pride in. One was Jim’s gold watch that had been his father’s and his grandfather’s. The other was Della’s hair. As the author describes it, “Had the queen of Sheba lived in the flat across the street, Della would have let her hair hang out the window some day just to depreciate Her Majesty’s jewels and gifts. Had King Solomon been the janitor, with all his treasures piled up in the basement, Jim would have pulled out his watch every time he passed, just to see him pluck at his beard with envy.” To commemorate their anniversary, Della dreamed of being able to buy Jim a beautiful gold chain to hold the watch he treasured so dearly and Jim hoped to buy a beautiful scarf that Della could wrap around her beautiful hair. Neither had the money, but their love impelled them to find a way.

Della’s plan was to visit the local hairdresser and asked how much they would give for her hair. In mere moments, her beautiful hair was gone, but she had $25 dollars in her purse to buy her special gift. At the same time, Jim also had a plan to buy his wife the beautiful scarf that he knew she would love. He would sell his watch, as precious as it was to him, so he could surprise Della with the gift. As they exchanged their gifts, they realized what the other had done – given that which was most precious to them because their love was so great. Each one had only one question in mind: What can I do to make him or her happy?

I can’t help but think of an acronym for the word FAMILY that sums up the type of love we’re meant to share and celebrate. FAMILY stands for Forget About Me, I Love You. This is what our Gospel is about; this is what our common faith – the faith that makes each of us brothers and sisters in Christ – is all about. Let our prayer be as we celebrate Valentine’s Day, as we celebrate the many loves in our lives, that God help us to be truly loving men and woman who live a love that says, forget about me, I love you.

May God give you peace.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Archbishop Gomez reminds Catholic business leaders Christ was an immigrant


Archbishop Jose H. Gomez speaks at the Legatus Summit in Naples, Fla.

.- Immigration is a “religious and spiritual issue” as much as it is a matter of politics and economics, Los Angeles Coadjutor Archbishop José H. Gomez told Catholic business leaders Feb. 3.

He recalled that as an infant Jesus himself, along with Mary and Joseph, were forced to flee into Egypt and lived for a time as immigrants and refugees.

Christians, he said, must ponder the mystery of “why did Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God, choose to experience the conditions of an immigrant?”

The Feb. 3-5 meeting of Legatus drew more than 500 top Catholic executives and business owners from around the country to pray and hear talks from a variety of Church and other leaders, including Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

In his address, Archbishop Gomez, head of the U.S. bishops’ committee on migration, acknowledged that Catholics are as deeply divided over immigration as their fellow citizens.

But he insisted that whatever their political or economic concerns, Catholics are obliged to consider immigration in light of the teachings of Christ and the Church.

“We cannot separate our faith in Jesus from the policies we advocate as citizens,” Archbishop Gomez said.

“Right now in this country, there are a lot of people – a lot of good people – who are saying things they know they should never be saying about immigrants,” he said. “Their anger and frustration is understandable. But their rhetoric and many of their political responses are not worthy of the Gospel. And they are not worthy of America’s proud history as a beacon of hope for the world’s poor and persecuted.”

Archbishop Gomez devoted much of his 35-minute talk to exploring the roots of the Church’s teaching on immigration.

“We care for the immigrant because Jesus commanded it,” he said. “Because he told us that we must seek him and serve him in the least of our brothers and sisters. This is why our Lord endured the humiliations of the immigrant and the stranger.”

Archbishop Gomez also noted that in his parable of the final judgment of souls, Jesus said love for God would be judged by love for the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, and the immigrant.

“Jesus calls us to true love,” Archbishop Gomez said. “Not love in words alone. But love in deed. A love that reflects the love that God has for each of his children. We cannot say we love the God we do not see unless we love our brothers and sisters whom we do see.”

Archbishop Gomez said current U.S. enforcement policies – including workplace raids and deportations – do not measure up to the standards of the Gospel and Christian love.

“We are destroying families in the name of enforcing our laws,” he said.

“It is true that many immigrants are in our country illegally. That bothers me. I don’t like it when our rule of law is flouted. And I support just and appropriate punishments. But right now, we are imposing penalties that leave wives without husbands, children without parents. We are deporting fathers and leaving single mothers to raise children on little to no income,” Archbishop Gomez said.

“We are a better people than that,” he added. “We have always been a nation of justice and law. But we have also been a nation of mercy and forgiveness.”

Archbishop Gomez said that Catholics should lead the way in changing the way immigrants and treated.

“We need you to help remind our neighbors that we are all brothers and sisters, children of God – no matter where we come from, or how we got here, or what kind of documents we possess,” he told the business leaders.

He said that the nation’s Hispanic immigrants are people with “strong traditions of family and faith, community and hard work.” In addition, he said, most are Catholic and hold “deep conservative values.”

“I believe that the more we get to know them, the more we would want them to be our neighbors, friends, and fellow citizens,” Archbishop Gomez said. “That’s why I believe that today’s immigrants – like generations of immigrants before them – are the hope for tomorrow’s America. We need to find the political will to make them our fellow citizens. If we can, I know that together we will build an America that is stronger, more religious, and more moral.”

Archbishop Gomez, a U.S. citizen born in Monterrey, Mexico, is the highest-ranking Hispanic member of the American Catholic hierarchy. He will assume leadership of Los Angeles, the nation’s largest archdiocese, when Cardinal Roger H. Mahony retires on Feb. 27.

Archbishop Gomez reminds Catholic business leaders Christ was an immigrant :: Catholic News Agency (CNA)

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Salt and Light already!

HOMILY FOR THE FIFTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, February 6, 2011:
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Three people were viewing the Grand Canyon one day. One was an artist, one a priest and the third was a cowboy. As they stood on the edge of that massive abyss, each one responded to the wonder before them from their own particular perspective. The artist said, “What a beautiful scene to paint!” The priest cried, “What a wonderful example of God’s handiwork!” Finally the cowboy sighed and said, “Heck of a place to lose a cow.”

Perspective matters. In our Gospel today, Jesus proclaimed, “You are the salt of the earth…You are the light of the world… Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.” Perhaps the most common perspective preached on this Gospel focuses on our failure along with an encouragement – in other words: You are supposed to be the salt of the earth and light of the world; so get to it!! But, as I reflected on this Gospel this week in my own prayer, what kept coming to me were images of different people. These weren’t people who are failing at their mission as salt and light, but rather people shining brightly and bringing the full flavor of the Gospel to bear.

I kept thinking about my grandfather and in particular the night that he returned to Heaven. When he passed, of course, there was sadness, but it wasn’t the same kind of sadness that we often experience with a loss. And that was because we knew where he was going. My grandfather lived his life as a deeply prayerful man, devoted to God; devoted to the Church; devoted to his wife and children; devoted to service. He was a man that everyone knew and loved. We always said he should run for mayor and he would win in a landslide. Always a smile on his face, a joke to tell (that he never told correctly), a joyful song to sing (whether or not he could carry a note), and a kind word to share. For me, he was a model of how a good, holy, Christian man lives his life. And as I held his hand surrounded by family on the night he returned to Heaven there was in that room even a sense of joy because we knew he was receiving the reward that God had prepared for him from before time began. For me, he was the salt of the earth and the light of the world.

And you know, as I speak of him, I’m sure you’re thinking of someone in your family or in your life who was also salt and light. We all know people like my grandfather and all of them go to Heaven. We can be tempted to think that sanctity or holiness is something abstract or simply an ideal. But, I know that holiness is something real and tangible. We can be tempted to think that holiness is like caviar for the privileged few, like St. Francis, St. Thomas Aquinas or soon-to-be Blessed John Paul the 2nd. But, I have come to see that holiness is as common as salt. When Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth and the light of the world,” he was of course reminding us, His followers, of our obligation to live and spread His Gospel. He was telling His followers what they might become through His grace. But, I think He was also paying them a compliment. He was telling them that He already knew how good they were; how holy they were.

As I said, any homilist today has a choice between a homily that is a pat on the back or a slap on the cheek. I think this is a good day to offer ourselves a pat on the back. All of us here today are, to one degree or another, the salt of the earth and the light of the world already. In the short time that I’ve been with you here at St. Margaret’s and St. Mary’s, already I have met holiness in you each and every day. I see it in the devotion of those who come to daily Mass; those who have reared their families and taught them to share a devotion to God and His church. I see it in the innocent faces of our young people joyfully coming to church with a smile on their face. I see this holiness in those who care for the needy of our community, whose ministry brings them to prisons and nursing homes; I see this holiness in the face of the sick and the dying facing the greatest challenge of their lives with tremendous faith.

This holiness is prayer-powered and grace-filled! This much we all know, but we also need remember that this holiness reveals itself to us in human form. It is the sanctity that nods to us on the street, that offers us a bowl of hot soup on a cold day or helps to shovel us out from yet another snow storm. It is in the face of the person who tells us not to worry or that they understand what we’re going through or that they will offer a prayer for us and our needs. If our eyes our open, we can recognize the holiness that surrounds us at nearly every moment not floating high in the heavens out of reach, but right in front of us in the level that we live.

If there is a challenge to be found for us today as we hear these words about salt and light it is this – let us all pledge to expand the area of goodness and holiness in our lives. If we are reaching out this far in goodness, let us agree to reach out that much farther. Let us acknowledge today in this holy place for this Holy Mass that we are holy; let us remember all of the good and important ways that God’s holiness already shines on our faces and in our lives through our idealism, our commitment to faith and family and Church, through our devotion to prayer, our acceptance of the values of the Gospel, our prayerful celebration of the Holy Mass, our continual outreach to the homeless, the hungry, the sick and imprisoned.

I think that Jesus wants us to know today that holiness is not our destination it is our present reality – always in need of purification, of course; but we are already the salt of the earth and the light of the world and our good deeds give glory and praise to our Heavenly Father. Well done, good and faithful servants!

May God give you peace.

Friday, February 4, 2011

What The Flap Over Health Care Tells Us About American Religion

NOTE:  This is a really compelling post that gives language to a lot of the same issues that I have long been perplexed about when it comes to the way that we as a so-called Christian nation treat our poor brothers and sisters.  As Ghandi said, "The greatest measure of a society is the way it treats its weakest members." - FT

Richard T. Hughes


Posted: February 4, 2011 09:54 AM | The Huffington Post
The ruling by U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson that the health care law is unconstitutional may ultimately lead to the law's demise, or it could turn out to be a bump in the road.
Either way, the continued flap over the health care law and the efforts to bring it down speak volumes about the state of religion in America. It tells us much about the state of American Christianity in particular, since that is this country's dominant faith. But it speaks even more clearly about the state of the Christian Right since so much opposition to the health care law comes from those quarters.
Christian Right advocates have seldom based their opposition in the sort of legal considerations that prompted Judge Vinson to rule the law unconstitutional. Rather, they typically advance the ideological argument that the federal government has no business making laws about health care at all. And that is the claim we will assess here.
We begin with the teachings of Jesus, for his message was clear.
He told his followers to care for the poor. In fact, providing for those he called "the least of these" was perhaps his highest priority. He didn't say how to get that job done. He just said, Do it.
But in this richest nation on earth, where 75 percent of its people claim to be Christian, the poor -- even the working poor -- routinely fall through the cracks. One would think that Christians in this country would utilize "any means necessary" to make sure that no one in this country is homeless or starving or naked or without basic healthcare.
It is true that many Christians, as individuals, are profoundly generous. That is beyond dispute. But if the job is too big for individuals, one would think those Christians would turn to their congregations. And they often do that, too. But if the job is too big for their congregations, one would think those Christians would turn to other agencies, including the one agency that has the ability to abolish poverty altogether: the federal government.
Indeed, one would think that the 75 percent of the nation's population that claims to follow Jesus would rejoice when the government creates a tool to provide healthcare for virtually all the nation's poor. And one would think that those same Christians would rise up in furious protest and righteous indignation when some politicians attempt to sabotage that tool -- and thereby sabotage the nation's poor.
But that seldom happens. In fact, many Christians denounce the health care law as a tool of the devil and support its repeal.
In light of what Jesus taught, I find that position puzzling.
In recent weeks, however, some Christians -- especially those aligned with the Christian Right -- have responded to my editorials that have advocated for the nation's poor. And their responses have helped me understand their position a little better.
What their letters reveal is the way they read the Bible through the lens of individualism and limited government and sacrifice the principles of Jesus on the altar of conservative economic ideology. No one has better framed the ideology that drives these Christians than Bradley Thompson, Executive Director of the Clemson Institute for the Study of Capitalism at Clemson University. Thompson flatly rejects the themes that stand at the heart of biblical religion.
"Altruism teaches," Thompson said, "that selfishness is the ultimate form of evil and that selflessness is the highest moral good. It teaches that man's greatest moral duty is to sacrifice one's self to the needs of others."
That, of course, is exactly what Jesus taught but also what Thompson rejects. Thompson therefore blasts President Obama who called on Americans to "reaffirm the fundamental belief that I am my brother's keeper, I am my sister's keeper." The idea that "I am my brother's keeper" means "in practice," Thompson claims, "[that] the hardworking must be sacrificed to the lazy. In other words, the best and the worst should be sacrificed to the lowest common denominator."
For Thompson, the struggle between the ideals of altruism -- which happen to be the ideals of biblical religion -- and the ideals of free-market conservatism define the "epic battle" of our age.
Thompson is right about that epic battle.
But as that battles rages, one would think that Christians would consistently line up on the side of the biblical vision that "I am my brother's and my sister's keeper." But that is often not the case.
In fact, when Christians read the Bible through the lens of American individualism, limited government, and free-market conservatism, there is no way they can acknowledge what the Bible teaches about social justice and compassion for the poor.
A man who responded to one of my editorials, for example, complained, "No where does the Lord, or his Son, Jesus Christ, say that government should take care of the poor and downtrodden."
Another wrote, "You keep mentioning 'justice, justice, justice,' by which you really mean 'social justice' or the government using its political power to create a welfare state."
And still another wrote, "Never did Christ advocate or command that we go out and form secular governments to take care of social needs, using other people's tax dollars." Based on that premise, she offered this rebuke: "That you believe you are doing the work of God when you are advancing the cause of socialism is very sad and very wrong."
And virtually all the people who took issue with my editorials agreed that the poor and the unemployed are lazy people who simply don't want to work. One, for example, wrote, "You mention various scriptures about helping the poor, but you never mention 2 Thessalonians 3:10," a passage that reads, "For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat."
Another put an even finer point on the principle that those who refuse to work should not eat, taking aim especially at "able bodied males." "The [Bible's] specific directions for helping people permanently," she said, "were limited to widows and orphans, never able bodied males, who were considered infidels if they ... didn't support their families."
Do these people actually believe that the masses of poor and unemployed in America really don't want to work?
What puzzles me most about the Christian Right is this: they are more than willing to use tax dollars to kill our nation's enemies, but they reject the use of tax dollars to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, house the homeless, and provide health care for those in greatest need.
Many years ago, in the context of American slavery, the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass drew a stark comparison between two kinds of religion. "Between the Christianity of this land and the Christianity of Christ," he said, "I recognize the widest possible difference -- so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked."
"I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ," he continued. "I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity."
Some 100 years later, in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King raised similar questions about Christians in the American South. "I have traveled the length and breadth of Alabama, Mississippi and all the other southern states," he said. "On sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at her beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward ... [And] over and over again I have found myself asking, 'What kind of people worship here? Who is their God?'"
King continued: "Where were their voices when the lips of Governor Barnett dripped with words of interposition and nullification? Where were they when Governor Wallace gave the clarion call for defiance and hatred? Where were their voices of support when tired, bruised and weary Negro men and women decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest?"
We must raise similar questions today about those Christians who say to their government, "You may use my tax dollars to kill and destroy, but you may not use my tax dollars to feed the hungry, house the homeless, clothe the naked, or provide health care for those in greatest need." Indeed, the contrast Frederick Douglass drew between the Christianity of this land and the Christianity of Christ still rings depressingly true.
But there is hope. For Jesus never asked his followers to embrace limited government or free-market capitalism. But he did ask his followers to care for the poor. That injunction resounds today as loudly and clearly as it did some twenty centuries ago.
The only question is this: how will America's Christians respond?
Richard T. Hughes is Distinguished Professor of Religion and Director of the Sider Institute for Anabaptist, Pietist, and Wesleyan Studies at Messiah College and the author of Christian America and the Kingdom of God.