Monday, November 18, 2013

Picking and choosing

I have a friend who likes to claim the moral high ground whenever we talk about the Bible.

It doesn't matter if we're talking about something like gay rights, the conquest of Canaan, or nomial covenantism. Whenever the discussion centers on hermeneutics, his conservative views trump my liberal views, because he considers his views to be rooted in Scripture and mine in opposition.

"You can't simply pick and choose which parts of the Bible count," he invariably says in a clear signal that discussion is over. "You have to take the Bible as it is."

And that's that. His views are what the Bible actually teaches, while I'm taking a lazy way out and twisting the Bible around to support my own liberal views.

I've always found that a little insulting, honestly. I didn't just wake up one day and decide that same-sex relationships are morally equivelant to heterosexual relationships, or that God was not in favor of the Canaanite genocide. Anyone who knows me well also knows -- or should know -- that the positions I have came after a long, tough slog.

I've spent hours in study and in prayer, wrestling with deep issues like Scriptural inspiration and progressive revelation, socio-historical and literary context, divine justice and authority, the history of Christianity and Judaism, and everything else. And I've had to do a lot of this carefully and slowly precisely because of judgmental reactions like the one my friend keeps having.

If that's the lazy way out, I wonder what it says about people who read two or three verses of Scripture that mandate the death penalty or genocide, and decide "Well, I guess that's OK, then" and never take their inquiry any further, except maybe to rationalize.

As in politics, too often differences of faith aren't a question of being traditional or nontraditional; it's a case of which tradition we want to follow. The Bible itself expresses a broad range of views that aren't always in accord with one another, and questions of how to interpret it are at least as old as the books of the Bible themselves.

In other words, if you look around, you may find some of the most liberal and progressive ideas are actually pretty old, and hold a place of high esteem in church history.

Copyright © 2013 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Shadrach, Meschach, Abednego and Daniel

Did you ever notice, in the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, that they are the only three people in the gathering who did not bow down and worship the golden image that Nebuchadnezzer had made? Why wasn't Daniel mentioned?

I know some will find that thought offensive and even horrifying, since it suggests that Daniel failed a test that all of us consider to be a no-brainer. Personally, I find it reassuring, because it means that Daniel is like me. He fails, sometimes spectacularly, but he finds forgiveness, discovers a new beginning, and when the test comes along later on, he shows that he has learned.

God has staked everything on a people who are quick to anger, slow to listen, and far too willing to set convenience before principle, and principle before people. He is far more gracious to us than we expect or allow ourselves to be, and that should give us comfort.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Knowing your own voice

It happened late last Wednesday night as we were driving along a country road that seemed to be a thousand miles from anywhere. The girls in the backseat asked where we were, and my wife answered: “Driving through Whykickamoocow.”

Whykickamoocow. It's a word my wife picked up from me, and a word I picked up living in New Zealand 25 years ago. It means “out in the middle of nowhere,” but it says it so much more picturesquely than “Podunk” or “the boonies,” and it says so without the condescension in those other two phrases. It's one of a handful of linguistic and behavioral tics I've held onto all these years that still say how much my AFS experience meant to me.

I keep thinking of language as a way to communicate with other people. That Wednesday night I realized, that's not the whole story. My words aren't just how I communicate, they're my voice. They literally are a record of where I have traveled and the experiences I have had. They show who I am.

I grew up outside Pittsburgh in the 1970s and 1980s. You won't hear me say “warsh,” except as a joke; my parents both came from outside the area, and as a consequence, the added R always has sounded wrong to me. Still, you can be sure I'll order a hoagie if we go to Subway together, and I just might wash it down with some pop.

And if yunz tell me that “Kennywood's open,” I know you want me to check my zipper, because you sure aren't talking about the amusement park.

I lived in New Zealand for all 1987, and it left its mark on me in ways other than having a pastoral word for remote locations. Thanks to the relentless teasing of my younger brother, I no longer use British words like “boot” and “bonnet” for the rear and front of the car. On the other hand, I still pronounce my host country's name as New Zilland.

Also, to this day I will not let anyone in my family eat a kiwi. A kiwi is a small, flightless bird, and a Kiwi is a native New Zealander. Those green fruits with a brown skin? Those are called kiwifruits. Calling them kiwis in my presence is a big no-no.

For that matter, I'm as likely as not to remind my girls that they need to wear their gumboots when they go outside during the rain.

After I graduated college, I moved to Haiti, where I lived and worked with a cast of missionaries from the Twin Cities. In their company, I learned to stop asking “Do you want to come with me?” and just ask people, “Do you want to come with?”

Among its many other gifts, Haiti itself gave me my first second language. From Haitian Kreyol I took the word “degaje,” meaning “to make do with what you have.”

I use that word often; my children also hear other phrases with stunning regularity: Ban-m men ou when I want them to give me a hand before we cross the street, or Tann ti momann, oui, when I want them to wait a moment.

And none of this even considers the bits of accent that flavor my speech and the speech of my children.  Sometimes, but usually only when we've been visiting her friends or her brother, I can hear the Southwest in my wife's voice. Often I've heard the city in the tones and cadences of my daughters' speech.

The way we speak can speak worlds about where we come from and where we've been. And as my wife inadvertently demonstrated last week, our words even can say something about whom we've been with and the company we keep.

Do you ever wonder what your words reveal about you?

Copyright © 2013 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Stand with the Outcast

I want to start by saying something that should be obvious: Religious discrimination is an awful, awful thing.

It is a horrible thing to demean someone because you don't like her religious beliefs. It is a horrible thing to demean someone because you don't like what you assume her religious beliefs to be. Religion is one of those things that define us as individuals and as communities. Belittle a person's faith, and you are not only belittling and demeaning them, you are belittling something that defines them, inspires them, and connects them not only to the Transcendent but to the teeming masses of humanity.

Mocking that, belittling that, or discriminating against a person because of their religious beliefs is wrong, wrong, wrong. I wish everyone could see that.

Which is what makes what is happening in Washington state right now so aggravating.

Washington state Sen. Sharnon Brown (R-Kennewick) is sponsoring a bill that would grant an exemption to the state's anti-discrimination laws, so that business owners could refuse to serve customers if doing so would violate their religious principles. As reported by Rachel La Corte of the Associated Press, the bill has its genesis in a lawsuit the American Civil Liberties Union has filed against florist Barronelle Stutzman.

Stutzman, you may recall, made national news on March 1 when she refused to provide flowers for a same-sex wedding, because she believes homosexuality to be sinful, and gay marriage immoral. (Stutzman has told TV station KEPR that she is a Christian. I regret that this disclosure does not surprise me.)

Of the law that Stutzman ran afoul of, and that Brown is trying to amend, Joseph Backholm, executive director of the Family Policy Institute of Washington state put it like this: "The government is now saying if you have a conviction about an issue that we happen to disagree with, then you as a business owner are going to be fined or shut down because of that. People should and do have the right to their own convictions."

Well, yes; people do have a right to their convictions. There is nothing in the law that says that people can't have their convictions. Our Constitution guarantees all of us the right to our convictions, and even our right to express those convictions. That's a cornerstone of our free society, and it's been put to the test repeatedly; only last year, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right of Westboro Baptist Church to proclaim its virulent hatred of gays even at funerals.

It's really hard not to appreciate the irony here, that Brown essentially is arguing that Stutzman has a right to discriminate against gays and lesbians, and that denying her this right is discriminatory. But let's be clear about this: No one's convictions give them the right to decide who they'll do business with. If Stutzman and her attorney want to argue that she has that right, then they're on shaky ground. Deep-South segregationists also wanted to decide whom they would and wouldn't do business with, and they also claimed that their convictions were based in Scripture.

I'm also really curious to know what Bible Stutzman and her supporters are reading from that give divine sanction to take this stand. It's safe to say that Jesus encourages his followers to stand by their convictions, but it's also plain to see that the most basic conviction Jesus wants us to have is one of compassion.

See a man who's blind, heal him. Bump into a woman who has been bleeding for years, then you not only heal her, but you also stop and pay a little attention to her. Hug a leper, commend the faith of a heretic, eat and drink with gluttons and drunkards, love the hookers, and welcome the outcasts. Whatever Jesus' view on the righteousness of any given behavior, the gospels make one thing clear time and time again: Jesus valued people more than he was bothered by their sin.

It's worth noting that there was one group in the gospels that was really offended by the sins the people committed, and they were shocked that Jesus allowed prostitutes to come near him. They would go to great lengths to make sure that people knew what God thought of their sin, so that they could repent and be forgiven. I suspect they would approve of Stutzman's decision not to serve a gay couple. This group was called the Pharisees, and Jesus had some harsh words for them. Their words were even harsher; and, in the end, they had him killed.

Perhaps no one gets to the heart of the issue like Victoria Childress. Back in 2011, Childress, who runs a bakery from her Iowa home, refused to sell a wedding cake to a lesbian couple. As she explained to KCCI-TV, "It is my right, and it's not to discriminate against them. It's not so much to do with them, it's to do with me and my walk with God and what I will answer [to] him for."

Exactly. Christians believe that we ultimately will stand before God and have to answer for the choices we made, including the choice to devalue the worth of another human being because we don't approve of their lifestyle, exactly the choice that Jesus rejected, and exactly the choice he castigated the Pharisees for making.

Discrimination is wrong. Cloaking it in the mantle of religion and claiming divine sanction for it is even worse. We need to stop justifying morally reprehensible behavior, and we need to hold accountable those who want it to be legal.

Copyright © 2013 by David Learn. Used with permission. All rights reserved

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Faithless Google, Google-less faith

My faith is under siege today, because Google honored Cesar Chavez today instead of celebrating Easter. At least that's what I'm told.

Google has a custom of altering the logo on its main page to mark major holidays, significant events and anniversaries, and just because it can. A lot of these doodles are fun, like the time it replaced the Google logo with a functioning Pac-Man game. (My daughter still plays that.) Others are educational, like the time Google honored M.C. Escher. Other times, they're just odd, like the logo honoring the 150th birthday of L.L. Zamenhof, the creator of Esperanto. (For what it's worth, I speak the language, and just shrugged at that one.)

But heck, it's their logo, they can do whatever they want with it. Right?

Apparently not. On Easter Sunday this year, Google honored Cesar Chavez, a labor activist born on March 31, 1927, and not the Resurrection, and that, apparently, was too much. Glenn Beck got all snarky at the imagined disrespect; other Twitterfolk suggested that Google was elevating Chavez over Christ, or even found it a tremendous insult to their religion.

Come on, really?

I fully understand that Christians on Easter may greet one another with cries of "He is risen!" and "He is risen indeed!" But it's silly, it's pointless, it's completely un-Christlike, to demand that everyone else celebrate the Resurrection with us, and to take offense when a corporation like Google, with users who are Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish, agnostic, atheist, Jainist, Shinto, Sikh and Wiccan as well as Christian, does not take the time to affirm our particular set of religious beliefs, or even to celebrate our holiday with us.

The empty tomb on the first Easter is foundational to my faith. It is the basis for my belief that Jesus is the Son of God, the foundation of my hope that one day I too will rise from the dead, and for my conviction that God's dream is for us one day to live in a world free of pain, disease, death and infirmity, for us to walk with him as his people and for him to walk with us as our God. I don't need a Google Doodle to affirm my faith today, and even if Google actually savaged Christians today with a doodle that declared "He's dead, you nitwits," my faith would be unrattled. (Though at least in that case I could understand being upset.)

But, in fact, Google's choice of doodles today is one that affirms my faith, and if you're a Christian you also should find it encouraging.

Cesar Chavez, after all, was a tireless advocate for the rights of poor workers. Himself an American farm worker, Chavez was a leader in the labor movement in the 1960s and also worked for civil rights, encouraging Mexican Americans to become registered voters involved with the political process. With Dolores Huerta, he co-founded the National Farm Workers Association, a labor union that worked to ensure laborers were paid well and treated with dignity. One of the hallmarks of his activism was his strict commitment to nonviolence.

Chavez, it should be noted, was a devout Christian, He drew his inspiration for all these stands and for his actions from the person, the teachings and the life of Jesus Christ.

And isn't a transformed life the best way to honor the man we believe rose from the dead?

Copyright © 2013 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Friday, March 01, 2013

The 'Djesus Uncrossed' flipout

So were you offended by “Djesus Uncrossed,” Saturday Night Live's riff on Quentin Tarantino's latest film?

I wasn't, but judging by the reaction of the nation's culture warriors, I should have been. Once the sketch aired last weekend, the Internet erupted with the predictable cries of foul. Fox News ran an opinion piece by Todd Starnes melodramatically claiming “NBC Declares War on Christians.” Michael Farris, chancellor of of Patrick Henry College called it the “worst possible attack on the person and character of Jesus Christ.” Seriously?

For its part, the American Family Association, in its official statement, essentially consigned those involved with the sketch to the flames of hell.

Something is missing amid all this outrage: a sense of perspective.

Or, to paraphrase, "SNL's depiction of Jesus as a revengeful man was so blasphemously inaccurate, that he's going to show them that they were exactly right."“Saturday Night Live” hasn't stayed on the air the past 40 years for its biblical scholarship. It is a variety show built around short comedy sketches. Comedy works on its ability to surprise us, and the strength of its surprise often lies in the unexpected juxtaposition of unrelated ideas, especially if the link breaks a taboo.

That is why we laugh at a faux commercial for edible Pampers. This is why it was funny to listen to a Eddie Murphy and a reggae band sing about killing white people, at an American Legion fund-raiser. The images are too bizarre, too contradictory, too exaggerated. They make no sense. So we laugh.

In the case of “Djesus Uncrossed,” the writers at Saturday Night Live link the excessive and gratuitous violence of Quentin Tarantino's movies – “Django Unchained” and “Inglourious Basterds” specifically – to the figure of Jesus. The joke requires viewers the recognize the jarring disconnect between the violence of “Djesus Uncrossed” and the essential pacifism of Jesus in the gospels.

Quentin Tarantino's movies routinely make a spectacle of violence. Compare that to Jesus, who went peacefully when he was arrested, rebuked his disciples when they raised arms, and told his followers “Do not resist an evil person.” Pairing Jesus with Tarantino's love of violence isn't blasphemous; it's humorous. It works because we know that Jesus isn't the kind to cut someone's head in half.

Put simply: The joke would fail if the writers didn't count on us to respect Jesus as a peaceful man. Where's the blasphemy in that?

Is the issue that Saturday Night Live used the likeness of Jesus in a manner that doesn't match the preapproved evangelical manner? That's a narrow attitude to take. Christianity has provided the framework for Western thought for nearly 1,700 years. In America its influence predates the founding of the Republic.

With that sort of legacy, it's only natural to use the language and the symbols of Christianity to communicate and to critique Western thought, civilization and art.

Is the issue that Saturday Night Live portrayed Jesus specifically in a violent manner? Perhaps it is. Either way, I think we have deeper problems than “Djesus Uncrossed.”

Years ago, some people complained that Jesus too often was being portrayed in popular culture as a hippie sort of flower child, powerless and weak, the sort of guy who gets sand kicked in his face at the beach. The Jesus pushed by the Right has the opposite problem. The Right too often has used Jesus to stoke up people's anger, to justify invading Iraq and other Muslim countries, to marginalize gays and lesbians, and even to deny women access to contraceptives. This Jesus is no milquetoast; he's the guy who's going to kick sand in your face at the beach.

The difference is that Saturday Night Live portrayed the vengeful Jesus as a joke, while the Right is completely serious about theirs. Who's committing blasphemy now?

About the only stereotype missing from Harry Hanukkah is that he wasn't a lawyer.
Starnes asks rhetorically why Saturday Night Live never pokes fun at Judaism – I guess he never saw“Harry Hanukkah Saves Christmas” – and never tells jokes about Islam. I'd wager it's not because they're afraid of offending Muslim viewers, nor because they hold a special regard for Islam, as much as that it's rude to pick on the little guy.

Because the truth is, in America at least, Islam remains a minority religion, with only about 2.6 million adherents in a nation of 300 million people. For all the complaints of the Religious Right that Christianity in America is under siege, Christianity remains the dominant narrative of our culture. Christmas is a federal holiday, not Eid al-Fitr. Everyone in America knows what Easter celebrates; I doubt you'll find one Christian in 10 who knows what Shavuot is, or what its relationship is to the Day of Pentecost.

The Religious Right loves to play the persecution card. The message it has been hammering for years is pretty simple: Be afraid. There's a war on Christianity, and we're losing. Liberals are attacking God. Our culture, our heritage, our legacy, are all under attack.

Faith should lead us to reach out to other people and to forge connections with them. If the most it inspires someone to do, is to tell you to be afraid, do yourself a favor.

Tune them out. Their attitude is the most offensive thing of all.

Copyright © 2013 by David Learn. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Resisting grace

"All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful."
-- Flannery O'Connor