Friday, March 30, 2018

Good Friday in America today

It was, of course, an injustice.

Police found Stephon Clark in the back yard of his grandmother's house after he reportedly had climbed over the fence to get there. They were looking for someone who had been breaking car windows on the street, and when they caught up with Clark they ordered him to show his hands. An officer shouted “He has a gun!” and Clark was struck with a hail of bullets.

He was holding a cellphone. There was no gun.

According to an autopsy, Clark was shot 8 times from behind or from the side. Police have yet to provide any evidence that Clark was the window-breaking vandal they were looking for.

Fatal incidents of police violence have been a matter of routine horror in the news for years, compounded by our rush to assure ourselves that, while unfortunate, there's really nothing we can do about it. It's just part of the cost of having a safe society.  Sometimes people get killed, but it's their fault anyway, because they didn't follow orders, because they acted aggressively, or because police felt threatened. And besides he had a rap sheet.

That reaction should chill the very marrow in our bones. I can think of no reaction further from the heart of Christ and the heart of the Good Friday story that we celebrated in our churches today.

Even those outside the Christian faith know the Good Friday story. Jesus Christ, an innocent man, was arrested under cover of night. Denied the due process of law, he was deprived of his basic human rights, brutally tortured and finally executed.

Preachers often play up the story of Jesus' trials and execution for the moral affront that they were. To convict, all the priests needed was for two witnesses to agree on a charge. The gospels note that they couldn't even manage that. For his part, Pilate, the Roman governor, couldn't find any basis for a charge. Neither could Herod.

So why was he executed? The chief priest was afraid that Jesus was disturbing the peace and getting people riled up. Pilate wanted to maintain order. Herod just didn't care.

Christianity used to be a religion of the powerless, but after 1,700 years of holding the reins of imperial power, we've become far too comfortable with the way those reins feel here in the West. We treat the execution of Jesus as though it's an aberration, a once-in-history occasion when the justice system failed in its duty and killed an innocent man. The effect is that we treat the Crucifixion as a one-time failure, an especially heinous act of evil. We always stress the innocence of Jesus to stress how shockingly unjust his death was.

I wonder, if we were to survey his contemporaries, how unusual they found it that Rome would kill an innocent man. I wonder how many peasants, carpenters and bricklayers there were who felt they couldn’t get a fair shake either. I wonder how many people could point to the mountaintop of Jerusalem, to Mount Gerzim in Samaria or to the rolling hills of Galilee and tell the story of family members, neighbors and friends who had been unjustly executed by the state.

It wouldn’t have been hard. After the riots that followed the death of Herod the Great in 4 BCE, when rioters burned the city of Sephoris, the Roman legions restored order through the process of decimation. One man in every 10 was pulled out of the crowd, taken outside the city and crucified as a warning against unrest, without benefit of trial.

Good Friday wasn't a once-in-history event for the people whom Jesus lived with and walked among. It happened all the time.

It's the same in America now. Remember the names of those who have been denied justice by the authorities and killed without a trial. Can you even remember them all?

Michael Brown.

Eric Garner.

Walter Scott.

Philando Castile.

Alton Sterling.

Tamir Rice.

Terence Crutcher.

Sandra Bland.

Freddie Gray.

Laquan McDonald.

Unarmed. Shot by police, their murders justified just as the execution of Christ was. They were disturbing the peace. They were resisting arrest. They had a history. There were extenuating circumstances.

We were afraid.

When we in our fear excuse, allow or approve the death of the innocent, we take the reins of Caesar in our hands, give them a familiar grip, and we say to ourselves, “This isn't so bad.” When give approval to their deaths, let us remember the words of Jesus.

“Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me.”

Copyright © 2018 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

This is the sermon on guns you probably won't hear

There is a sermon you probably won't hear in church tomorrow, and that's a shame, because it's a sermon that needs to be preached from every pulpit in this nation, from coast to coast, from North to South, from city to city, from the highest mountain to the lowest valley, until we understand and our leaders finally listen.

It's the sermon that says that a society that claims to value life and freedom but brushes off death as casually as it puts on a new coat, is a society that has shaken off all semblance of morality and justice, and values nothing but power. It's the sermon that says that our nation has come unmoored. It's the sermon that says our guns have become an idol, the NRA has become the priesthood of a false religion, and our government has been bought lock, stock and barrel.

It's the sermon that says "In Christ's name, enough."

Seventeen students died at Parkland school in Florida earlier this week. Add those to the 58 murdered at the Las Vegas Strip last October, to the 49 mowed down at the Pulse Night Club, the 20 first- and second-graders at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Remember the 33 college students killed at Virginia Tech in 2007? How about the 15 killed at Columbine High School in 1999? That number seemed so large at the time; now it almost seems like it's barely worth mentioning. There have been so many mass shootings in America that it's almost impossible to remember a time when they weren't routine, when Aurora, Colo. (2012, 12 dead); Jonesboro, Ark. (1998, 5 dead); and Erie, Pa. (1998, 1 dead), would be burned into our psyches forever.

Why do we tolerate this?

A long time ago the Phonecians worshiped a god name Moloch. Moloch wasn't a genteel god who liked to collect baubles, hear a few rhyming prayers and let people go about their business. He was a god of power. His priests promised the people wealth and good crops, military might and protection from their enemies. If you followed Moloch, you didn't have anything to worry about when other people came into your country and tried to take your place, they promised. You didn't need to be afraid of thieves, or home intruders or any threat to your well-being. If you worshiped Moloch, he had your back. All he wanted was your children.

Moloch was a right bastard of a god, but the Phonecians trusted him. There are remnants of their architecture, their literature and their art. The Israelites, when they came to the land, were appalled at what they found, and did their best to eradicate all trace of Moloch and the other gods of his ilk. The ruins we've found indicate that he had a tremendous appetite for the blood of humans, especially children.

The stories that his priests told are the same ones the NRA tells today about guns. There's a lot to be afraid of, but if you have a gun, you'll be safe. There's no need to worry about immigrants, inner-city gangs or even your own elected officials if you're armed enough. The bigger the gun, the better off you are, so why not own the kind of hardware professional troops use in combat zones? And if someone comes to town and massacres a dozen or more children? Well, that's just the price of being free. Anyone who opposes the exaltation of firearms is someone who hates freedom.

The Israelites didn't get rid of Moloch. He just hung around a while and opened shop under a new name with a new priesthood.

Our national religion makes a big deal about guns, and it's managed to convince a number of people that our embrace of gun culture is something that squares well with Christianity.

It does not.

The NRA and its acolytes spread an atmosphere of fear. There are bad people out there, and no one is coming to help you. The only way to stop them is if you are armed yourself. If they are armed, you need to be too. Put guns into every church, into every store, into every school. Fire first, and don't back down. When everyone is afraid and everyone has guns, and everyone is on edge, then we will know peace.

Jesus warns that those who live by violence will die violently, and he tells his disciples to put away weapons of violence. Rater than fearing the alien, the outsider or the stranger, he encourages us to take the risk, welcome them, and befriend them.

This is a message the church needs to shout, and that it needs to live out as loudly as it can. I don't expect to hear it.

This Sunday, most churches are going to offer noting more than an anodyne prayer for the latest victims of the latest horror show. Some will offer even less. There may be a few churches that collect an offering, but that's as far as it will go.

Six years ago, Trayvon Martin was murdered by a vigilante who stalked the teen to the point that he feared for his life and felt the only chance he had was to fight back. (Zimmerman, who was armed, shot Martin and killed him.) Few churches said anything about it that Sunday; my own pastor made a throwaway comment about it in the beginning of the sermon where pastors usually use their bad one-liners as warm-up material, and seemed surprised that anyone responded negatively.

The truth is, we live in times that are marked right now by profound spiritual darkness. Our federal government has embarked on a relentless campaign against immigrants of color, it has placed abusive and racist men in positions of power, and it is led by a man of vulgar appetites with no regard for the truth, nor for justice. The church in America can choose either to embrace this darkness and call it "light"; to focus on "spiritual things" like truth, morality and principles of clean living; or it can call out evil in high places.

The NRA's tireless advocacy to sell more guns is one place we can start. The casual acquiescence of our leaders to the NRA's culture of death is a second.

It's a sermon our country needs to hear. Let's start preaching it.

Copyright © 2018 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Thursday, February 01, 2018

‘What Would Jesus Do?’ and other things Jesus wouldn’t say

Back when I was in college, there was a trend in the church toward pithy sayings that sounded deeper than they really were.

The big daddy of these was “What would Jesus do?” or “WWJD?” It works like this. Post a question with serious moral overtones, like “Should we deport law-abiding people who entered the country without documentation?” or “Is it all right to vote for a vulgar, adulterous conman with no integrity?” Now ask, “What would Jesus do?” and follow accordingly.

Unfortunately, there are limits. “My girlfriend is pregnant!” one might share with a confidant. “What should I do?”

“Well, what would Jesus do?” comes the helpful rejoinder.

Not get her pregnant in the first place, would come the answer. Not much help there.

Other people tried to overapply it on the grounds that every area of life should be surrendered to God. (Waffles or an omelette — which would Jesus order?) Given the earnestness with which such questions were asked, they soon became incredibly fraught ethical and spiritual quandaries and led to people no longer inviting Ted to join them for breakfast.

As bad as those were, I remember one particularly bad time to ask the question. It was on a trip to LaSource, Lagonav, and it involved a disabled man who had withered legs and could not walk.

What would Jesus do? I leave it to the reader to ask that question, determine the answer and then guess how things went from there.

Copyright © 2018 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Advent: Tenderly

Got a call this evening from someone feeling upset, overwhelmed and anxious. We talked for close to 40 minutes, and I hope at the end of the conversation that things were better than they were at the start.

Truth is, we're all broken; and the pain goes down far below the surface, sometimes into caverns where dark things lurk. Maybe it's an injury a friend once dealt us, maybe it's the fear stirred by the toxic air our president is brewing, or maybe it's the trauma of having to hide our true selves. It doesn't matter; the darkness is real, and so is the pain. "The darkness and the light are alike to you,: the psalmist writes. "I am fearfully and wonderfully made.'

Jesus, it should be remembered, never came for respectable people. He came for hookers and thieves, for traitors and sycophants, for the filthy, for the ignorant and for the unemployed, not to give them better manners or to make them acceptable, but to remind them that God was on their side. He knows where the pain is rawest, and he touches us there tenderly.

God willing, let us remember who his people are, and let us follow his example.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Monday, December 04, 2017

Advent: Presence

My atheist friends may disagree, but I think it's fair to say that we spend most of our life searching for the Presence of God.

In some ways it's like the hour before lunch. Nothing drives us to food like hunger; to water, like thirst; to friends, like loneliness; to justice, like oppression. It's the very absence of God that makes us want to experience his presence. It's that very moment of need meeting satisfaction that glows with the light of heaven.

The gospels tell us that Christmas is when God saw our need and pitched his tent among us, making our life his and his life with us. We enter the Presence of God not when we cloister ourselves away with other like-minded people, but when we follow his example and shelter the immigrant from deportation, speak up for the woman being sexually harassed, reach out to the lonely with a call and offer of friendship, oppose favoritism for the wealthy, and resist evil in places both high and low.

At that moment, a miracle occurs. In meeting the need of another, we experience the Presence, and so do they.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Advent 2017: Open

I've met people (and I'm sure you have too) who claim that by following God, they've been kept from illness, from calamity, from poverty and everything else. Blessed, blessed, blessed, that's the only way they know how to describe themselves. It's like they started sneezing and can't stop,and so they keep getting blessed over and over.

I'm always wary of snake oil faith. I can't speak for other religions, but truth is, Christianity presents a danger in being open to the things of God. Up until the point the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary, her life was safe and ordinary. She knew whom she was getting married to, knew where she would live, had a solid reputation, and could comfortably predict what life would bring her.

She could have smacked the angel upside the head with a skillet and told him where to take his announcements, or calmly informed him that he had the wrong address and wanted her next-door neighbor, Bertha.

But she was open, and even if she had the sense not to run down the street excitedly screaming that she was going to have a baby and he would be the messiah; her life still got overturned.

Pregnant before she got married? There goes the reputation.

Joseph insists he's not the father? She'll be lucky to get out of this alive.

In a couple years she'll even be a refugee, running for her life from the king in the middle of the night, hoping they can find someone who will shelter a growing family and not send them away empty-handed.

Being open to the works and wonders of God is a dangerous thing.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Regarding the Nashville Statement

I'm going to say something that may shock you. Being gay isn't about sex.

I swear to God.

That's not the impression you would get from the signatories of the Nashville Statement, freshly released by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. The Nashville Statement -- so called because it was written and signed in Nashville -- is an attempt by certain prominent evangelical leaders to draw a line in the sand over the cultural shifts in the United States the past 50 years.

It makes the sort of strident condemnations that we've come to expect from such groups: adultery is bad, polygamy is bad, premarital sex is bad, transgenderism is bad, homosexuality is bad. The whole thing is couched in a series of 14 affirmations and rejections that focus on what the signatories presume is the "clear meaning" of the biblical texts, all focused on the configuration of people's genitals and what they do with them in private.

"Clear meaning" becomes more suspect once we consider cultural and literary context in an attempt to understand what the biblical authors actually were talking about, and how to apply those principles in our society. But that doesn't seem to matter here.

What the Nashville Statement and its signatories miss is that gay people are, well, people, with the same desires and life goals as other people.

Being gay isn't about whom you have sex with, it's about whom you love. Like heterosexuals, gays want to be with someone they love, to spend their lives and grow old together. The little things that matter in a straight relationship -- reading a book or playing a game together, sharing a meal, having a conversation when you come home from a day on the job, sharing what matters to you, making plans together, the touch of a hand, and having someone to hold you when you're upset, scared or lonely -- those are things that matter in a same-sex relationship as well.

Article X is the killer, though. According to this statement, it's not possible to be a Christian and support your best friend's decision to transition from male to female, nor to affirm the happiness another friend has found with her fiancee. Do these things, and you've left the fold. You're an apostate.

This is some serious stuff. It requires a response.

I thought about all the great times I've had with my best friend, who was born David but is now Jennifer. There's the time Chicken Soup for the Soul threatened to sue us. One afternoon at college as she was listenig to "The Acapella Project 2," I opened her door just to say "This is really cheesy" and then shut it just as quickly. I stood at her wedding, and she stood at mine. We've been there for each other through divorce, head injury, three kids apiece, and even an unfortunate escapade with white Christian rap.

I thought about another friend and our late-night conversations over the Internet when she was working and I couldn't sleep. There's been snark, there's been laughter both out of control and out of bounds, a cascade of puns and an exchange of books. She's been there when I've stood on the brink and the void threatened to swallow me; and I've seen the high cost that can be exacted by the attitudes celebrated in this Nashville Statement, when her family discovered she was gay.

Or there's Darren, one of the friendliest and most drama-free people I've ever worked with in the theatre world. I've found him to be a rock: supportive, professional, flexible and a joy to work with as an actor, as a stage manager and as a co-producer.

These are the people the authors of the Nashville Statement say I have to reject in order to go to heaven with them.

But I think of all that I've been through with them, and the kind of people they are, and I find that I must borrow a sentiment from Huck Finn.

"All right, I'll go to hell then."

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.