Wednesday, February 14, 2018

It's Not the Economy, Stupid: Communism and Dignity (Part I)

We can talk about the economy in traditional political terms if we want.  To do so, we could talk about what I've mentioned in Facebook posts immediately after the election of Trump in 2016: leadership lag time.  In many cases, when a new leader takes charge of an organization, be it a business, church, or government, the policies and general leadership of the new executive take awhile to have an effect, positively or negatively (likewise, new positive or negative effects of the previous leader may be seen for awhile after his/her departure).  Often I talk about that in church terms: if a pastor works for ten years to create communal events that everyone attends, and in the ninth and tenth year those events finally become successful, and then after the tenth year the pastor leaves but attendance at the communal events and membership in the church continue growing for a couple of years after the new pastor arrives, we can't attribute much of the success of the events or membership growth to the new pastor.  Likewise, since the economy and unemployment numbers were improving steadily under Obama, a continuation of the upward trend cannot be solely attributed to Trump.  We also should mention that the president has little effect on the economy in the first place, other than working with Congress.  Certainly there are hopeful signs in the economy that can be attributed to Trump: the stock market, for instance, while gaining steadily under Obama, did spike noticeably because of optimism surrounding the tax cuts.  There are also concerning signs, however.  The deficit will balloon and my generation will pay for it.  Little to no talk about the debt and deficit and curbing the burden they will place on future generations has occurred.  Traditionally, 'small government' and 'conservative' legislators and officials, whom I firmly affirm, have cut government spending in order to cut taxes in order to energize the economy.  Instead, under Trump, we have raised spending and cut taxes.  That makes little sense.  Regardless of our position here, these are the traditional elements of an 'economy discussion.'

If we want to talk about the economy, we can talk about all of those elements.  With that, we traditionally ask the question, "Who can we credit with the good?  Who can we blame with the bad?  How can we jumpstart the economy, generally?  How can we cut taxes?  Whose taxes should we cut, and whose should we increase?"  Those are the questions we ask.  Above I answer some of those questions in brief fashion.  I don't intend to discredit Trump or the Republican Party with my answers but, instead, do want to imply that our thinking on the subject of the economy cannot be as cut and dried as we desire.  Yet we have so politicized discussion on the economy (and, by the way, I love politics--politics is simply the civil engagement of what is best for the polis, the city, or state, and its citizens, so politics is good.  By 'politicized,' I do not mean that politics is bad.  Instead I mean by 'politicized' that we have 'partyified,' a term I am now coining, hoping to claim for one political party or the other the good or bad that occurs without any admission of the good that members of the opposite party have done), and the parties and members and associates of the parties are so divided, that we cannot fathom wading into some of the murkiness and admit that, maybe, our side is not always right.

The back and forth party fighting obsessed with the general state of the economy has blinded us to what truly matters about the economy.  Using the catch-phrase, "It's the economy, stupid," has made us think that if the economy is good, then all is well; if the economy is bad, then all is clearly not well.  We have thus become a country who wants to know the answer to two questions: 1) Which party will benefit the economy more? 2) Which party will benefit the military more?¹  Here I focus on the first question.  While I have a number of responses to which party will benefit the economy more, I want to point out the main response now: All of our traditional discussion topics on the economy are misguided because "It's the economy, stupid," is a terrible, terrible catch-phrase. 

Want to know why?  We have been brainwashed by capitalism and have misunderstood the criticisms of Marxian communism.  Hear me out.  Please, hear me out.  I know that 'communism' is a nasty word.  I will address why in part two of this essay.  For now, note that I am using the philosophical and spiritual understandings of communism more than the economic/political understandings.  Also note that I, myself, am staunchly in favor of liberty, and therefore am a capitalist in practice because, as a form of economic development, capitalism does, in my mind, practically favor individual liberty.

With that said, let's dig into why our current understandings of the economy, in partyified form, are misguided and how we might better process our thoughts on the economy.

First, as soon as you reflect on the economy in any form, one has to acknowledge that it is separate from the government.  The Federal Reserve is the government's economy watch-dog with a variety of tools at its disposal to slow down or speed up economic development and inflation.  Even the Fed, as it is called, is mostly independent, though, from the elected officers that we put into the government.  We can barely equate the Fed with what we traditionally think of as the government.  Still, who is appointed to the Federal Reserve matters, so the government has an impact there, as well as through taxes, the accumulation of debt, and regulations.  All these have an affect.  Each party and their positions on the limited roles a government can have on the economy do matter somewhat.  Perhaps not the impact we typically think, but enough of an impact to acknowledge the government's role.

The problem, however, with partyifying economic choices is that our thinking of which party is better for economic development and stability is emotional and misguided.  One piece of evidence is playing out right now, as I've mentioned above.  The Republican Party is, traditionally, the party of small government and low deficits.  Suddenly, with control of the executive branch and both houses of government, the Republican Party has become the party of spending and high deficits.  Why?  For emotional reasons.  Everyone likes a tax cut and everyone likes the results of government spending--may not like the concept of government spending, but the results of it, such as roads, Medicare, Meals on Wheels, housing programs, etc. are popular.  What is happening now is proof that whichever party is in power seeks most to make as many people happy as possible right now in order to stay in power rather than follow through on principles.  Our political parties understand that wen the economy is doing well, or when we perceive that it is doing well because we are receiving tax cuts and bonuses, we will think that the party in power is doing a good job.  Various forms of amnesia and memory suppression take control and what is happening right now, and our perceptions of it, matters most.  Principles be damned.

A second reason why our understanding of the economy is askew, and now we are getting to the heart of the matter, is that we have forgotten what capitalism is.  Capitalism is a form of economy engineered to put as much capital in people's hands and let them do what they will with it.  Freedom and liberty in capital terms is the rule of the day.  In terms of justice and morality we defend such an economic plan because, essentially, of Adam Smith's century-and-a-half old ideas.  Adam Smith claimed that when each person is given the freedom to do whatever they choose with the capital in their possession there will be an invisible hand, of sorts, indirectly navigating the general economy for the betterment of all people in general.  Famously, people like John Nash, of A Beautiful Mind fame, have made improvements to that general concept, but anyone who has interacted with other human beings knows that such optimism concerning what people may do with capital is misplaced.  Yes, a business, for instance, must address public sentiment or else be boycotted, so in a way in order to make more money a business must do what is good for its customers, not just for the owner of the business.  That is true.  But on the whole, human nature is such that if there were a way to accumulate capital without worrying about what is best for others, we would do so.  Even the most generous among us would excuse ourselves to say, "I need to protect my interests, and those of my family, because otherwise I wouldn't be able to help others." 

In other words, when a person has capital, there is nothing saying that they wouldn't seek to keep it for themselves.  A business owner could use his or her capital to lobby the government to, say, reduce regulations on workers' safety, making it easier to accrue more capital while harming employees and caring little for customers.  If that business owner has a monopoly or nearly so in a certain market, enforcement of such deregulation would have no impact on business because people would be forced to buy from that business.  This is human nature.  Earn capital, work to keep capital.  I know I do it.  When I earn more money than I absolutely need, I invest it in companies that will provide the highest return, with no consideration for the morality of such investments.  I want to give my family a comfortable path through life, if not luxurious.

Adding to that, thirdly, the idea that businesses and business owners that have more capital will create more jobs is patently false.  Again, we have a concept that if the economy, generally, is good, then businesses will hire more, and therefore a strong economy is good for all.  This is true to an extent.  Some businesses, for example, may have a market to expand but are afraid to take the risk of hiring more in order to expand business.  For these companies, usually small businesses, more capital will probably lead to more hiring.  But stop to think for a second about how business works: the fundamental of all business is supply and demand.  We all know this.  If there is greater demand, a business will need to create more supply, hence hire more workers.  If there is not greater demand, however, then hiring won't happen, even if more capital is available.   Again, taking me as an example, if I have more capital because of a tax cut, I am not necessarily going to consume more.  I may save it.  If I do save rather than consume, I have not increased demand for anything and therefore I have not increased supply or led to hiring.

We should keep in mind here that bigger businesses, who already possess more capital, are more able to increase supply in the hopes of meeting an unrealized growing demand.  In other words, an economic boost through a tax cut or subsidy would benefit a small business more in terms of hiring.  Since that is true, though, we are talking about many fewer jobs created thanks to economic development initiatives than we think, as small businesses obviously hire fewer workers.  Bigger businesses are able to respond to demand without necessarily needing any boost, hiring more regardless of whether they receive a boost or not.  For a bigger business, an economic boost is most likely to take the form of a one-time bonus for workers rather than a permanent job.

We cannot deny that many businesses are offering pay raises along with bonuses.  But that is as related to low unemployment as to economic development initiatives.  When unemployment is low, businesses need to work hard to retain workers.  This would be true whether the economy, generally, were growing or growing super fast. Supply and demand and the pressures of the workforce apply all the time regardless of the strength or perceived strength of the general economy.

What we should be noticing here from these points is that a strong general economy does not necessarily mean stronger personal economies, for you and for me--personal economy defined by our financial stability, flexibility, and purchasing power.  We could have a strong personal economy in a weak general economy or a weak personal economy in a strong general economy.  The two are not necessarily in a direct relationship.  More than that, a strengthened general economy does not proportionally strengthen personal economies.  If in a certain time frame the general economy grows by 3%, the average median personal economy will almost certainly not grow by 3%.  Again, the two are not necessarily in a direct relationship, and certainly not proportionally.  And that's the point I've been leading up to: we have to make a choice between whether we desire the general economy of the country to be strong or if we desire personal economies to be strong.  Do we want to emphasize strong personal economies for as many people as possible, or emphasize a strong general economy?  Of course, the two are indirectly related, so strong personal economies will strengthen the general economy, though not by much; and a strong general economy will strengthen personal economies, though not by much.  Which do we want to emphasize?

Recent events and comments by Vermont's governor, Phil Scott, have highlighted the importance of this question.  As you probably know, the stock market hit a patch of volatility and downward movement after the Labor Department released strong job numbers.  Unemployment hit a new low (though unemployment for African-Americans actually rose) and wages grew.  That scared investors and many decided to sell off some of their investments.  Higher wages are not good for profit, you see.  It would be better for most businesses to operate within a weaker general economy to keep wages low, without fear of losing employees because they know new employees are waiting in the wings, and thus reap greater profits rather than share those profits with employees.  Phil Scott's comments affirm this trend.  In response to California's wildfires, Scott said that the future of global climate change would be good for Vermont because, if we protect our resources, we can then take advantage of our water resources by selling water to those displaced by or confronted by climate-induced disasters.  While Scott may have a point, the obvious issue here is that he is looking forward to capitalizing on a majority of other people's pains and suffering in order to develop one small state. By nature, if we think about this logically, capitalism encourages the exploitation of persons if necessary.  To accumulate more capital here, someone there needs to be exploited.

Clearly I have simplified the matter.  I don't think that there's such a black and white choice before us.  I have laid matters out this way because, at least for Christians, we should acknowledge that it's not the economy that should win our attention.  Rather, it is the average median personal economy, the financial well-being of our brothers ans sisters, that most matters.  We shouldn't concern ourselves mostly with the state of the economy; we should concern ourselves mostly with the living conditions of our neighbors.  Again, there is an indirect relationship here, but the emphasis should be on the least of these, not on the economy generally.  As a Christian, we should prefer a weaker general economy that provides for all people rather than a stronger general economy that leaves many people behind.  Taking our faith seriously in the marketplace requires a certain perspective.

To recap before we await the next installment: there are logical, objective facts and data we can debate about 'the economy' and how persons are affected by the general economy.  Capitalism is, let's agree, a great form of economic development.  But all of those arguments we traditionally have are missing the point from a Christian theological and faithful standpoint.  Capitalism and how it works does not necessarily entail universal and wide-ranging benefits of capital for personal economies because, partly, humans are not naturally good without God's grace.  Personally I have a higher understanding of human goodness than most Christians do, believing God did create us good/divine and we have simply been taught otherwise, but even so, trusting in human goodness to benefit the entire community is not a realistic dream.

For Christians, anyway, the emphasis needs to be on our neighbors, on the least of these.  Traditional capitalism and arguments about capitalism versus socialism miss that entirely.  That's right, even socialists miss the point.  Socialists are, generally, utilitarians, wanting the most good for the most people from a rational basis.  But we shouldn't want the most good for the most people simply because that sounds reasonable.  We should instead hear the word of God: essentially, "I don't care how good your economy is if you're not caring for the oppressed, the marginalized, the disabled, the elderly, the sick, and even those of you who appear to be 'lazy.'  I care that all my people are lifted up."  There is no substitute, for Christians, when addressing the economy--it should be a matter of personal economies for the sake of each person's dignity.  God created and loves each person, so each person deserves dignity and dignified concern.

1. This essay does not address this second question.  However, it should be noted that military spending has increased under the watch of both parties because support of defense spending has been equated to supporting the military and its personnel as well as patriotism.  It is a false equation.  We can of course support those in the military without needing to spend three times as much on defense spending as any other country; we can support the military without sending our men and women into harm's way all over the world with a vague notion of security.  Yes, as a pacifist, I think we should more clearly process our reasons for building up our military, generally, but as a realist I understand that we are not going to abolish the military because I ask us to.  With a full sense of realism I, as a political being, ask us to disengage from the false thinking that increasing military spending means we are more patriotic and support our military personnel more than those who want to curb defense spending.  If we continue along that path, our government can never be small and can never be fiscally responsible, since defense spending already accounts for around 60% of our federal government's spending.  If we force political parties to vie for the award of most supportive to our military via support for higher spending, then we are lost.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Invitation to Observe a Holy Lent

(This post is directed at Christians, or people of faith, generally, but if you are not either, feel free to contact me at or through the church Facebook page on which this blog link was posted to discuss how a secular person may still find Lent worthwhile)

Most Ash Wednesday services include a segment titled something like, "Invitation to Observe a Holy Lent."  As Ash Wednesday is the official beginning of the season of Lent, this is, obviously, most appropriate.  Since nowadays many of us miss Ash Wednesday services, either because of timing or misunderstandings of what the ashes are all about, I figure it is appropriate to outline what the invitation typically means as we approach the start of Lent on February 14th (and, by the way, how appropriate it is to celebrate Ash Wednesday on Valentine's Day, to renew our commitment to the relationship that matters most in our lives).

First, Lent is the most holy of seasons.  We typically want Advent to take center stage but traditionally, with good reason, Lent has been the focus.  Indeed, Lent was the first liturgical season to mark Christian calendars.  It is a season originally focused on preparing new converts for baptism and initiation into the life of the church on Easter. 

For those already baptized, Lent is still a season of preparation.  We journey with Christ throughout forty days (notice that there are more than forty days in Lent.  Sundays never count because Sundays, every Sunday of the year, are and should be mini-Easters and feasts/festivals), mirroring his forty days in the wilderness and the days Moses spent preparing the law and the forty days Noah spent on the ark, et cetera, in order to repent and be cleansed for the joy of Easter and the life of the kingdom ahead--again, the repent to be cleansed to live a holy life of joy mirrors the path of Christ and others.  Lent, then, is a season of repentance, meaning 'to turn.'  To whom do we turn?  Back to God.  During Lent we are called to spend time in reflection and prayer in order to return to God and the holy life that He has provided for us and calls us to, gospel living that brings us peace and enables us to bring peace to others through the grace and love of Christ. 

Often, because Lent is a season of repentance, we think of the season as a time of self-denial.  Without question self-denial is a part of repentance, but to think of Christianity generally and Lent specifically as calls to self-denial is to misinterpret the meaning of repentance.  Again, repentance means to turn or return to God.  Insofar as we humans often stray away from God by living in ways that are not holy, such as indulging in harmful lusts or injustices, or living to excess that inhibits your ability to serve God and neighbor with gifts or time, or ignoring that your body is a temple of the Lord who created you, et cetera, then yes, self-denial can be and is useful as a means of returning you to God.  But repentance, returning to God, can also in a sense mean self-promotion.  What is good for me?  Perhaps, rather than denying yourself of something, you can add an activity to your schedule that is good for you: a time of silence and prayer to slow yourself down; carve out exercise time to make yourself feel good and remember that God created you to be healthy; spending more time with family and enjoying the life God has given you; serving others at a food shelf or homeless shelter or prison or through your church and see that which is God in our brothers and sisters; and on and on.  Returning to God and the life He intends for you is good and will promote health, physical and emotional and spiritual, so we should also think of repentance as a form of self-promotion and other-promotion.  Indeed, repentance is only ever self-promotion and other-promotion, because even self-denial, to the extent that it is necessary, is good for you, to cut out those behaviors and habits that are unhealthy.

To observe a holy Lent, then, requires that we ask ourselves the question, "How can I best journey with Christ, my Savior, and return to God during these forty days?"  I would add that your answer to the question should also look forward to the year/s ahead.  As an example: last year I took up the spiritual discipline during Lent of writing letters of affirmation to family and friends.  I took up the discipline because I knew that I wanted to write more letters to my family and friends than I had up to that point.  Since Easter last year, I cannot say that I have been writing a letter a week as I did during Lent 2017, but I have been writing significantly more to family.  That is my way, or one way, of spreading God's love to my family and friends. 

So as we pray about what our Lenten practice could be this year, I encourage you to reflect on what unhealthy habits and behaviors God may be nudging you to let go for your entire life, not just for forty days; or on what healthy habits and behaviors and disciplines God may be inviting you to pick up, not just for forty days but for your whole life.  That is what Lent is ultimately about: preparing ourselves to accompany Christ on the life journey of Christian disciples who have been resurrected to new life on Easter after dying to self on Good Friday.  It is not to deny ourselves for forty days to say that we did it or feel good about ourselves for an accomplishment, or so that we can complain for forty days, but return us to the full life that God has in store for us: "Abide in me, and I will abide in you."

As such, here are some specific tips and questions to help you work through, pray about, and decide what habits to let go of or what spiritual disciplines to pick up during Lent.

-Obviously, giving up chocolate, sweets, ice cream, TV, social media, and the like are common Lenten practices, and you may be considering giving up one or more.  That’s not a bad thing.  But ask why you are considering it and what good giving up that thing will do for you.  Further, do you think it would be good to continue giving up that thing, or using/eating it in moderation, after Lent is over?  If the answer is ‘no,’ or if you don’t have a good reason for giving it up in the first place, then perhaps it’s not a good Lenten practice.

-If you do let go of or give something up, remember that Sundays are mini-Easters, even during Lent, and should always be feast days of rest.  As such, you should not sacrifice on Sundays.

-Since Lent is about returning to God and preparing for a life of journeying with Christ, who practiced and calls us to both acts of piety and acts of charity, consider praying about picking up one of each.  Examples of acts of piety: prayer, fasting, reading the Bible, private and corporate worship, meditation, etc.  Examples of acts of charity: those letters of affirmation, serving with a church program, serving a meal at a homeless shelter, visiting a nursing home or local shut-ins, increase giving to approach or hit the target of tithing, etc. 

-Or, perhaps, consider praying about giving up one thing and picking up one spiritual discipline, whether it be an act of piety or charity.  For instance, maybe you do give up watching Netflix and then pick up praying for thirty minutes every day; or maybe you give up checking social media every day (limit yourself to once a week, maybe, on Sundays) and pick up visiting someone in the hospital or nursing home once a week. 

-Of course, you should also ask: Will this practice bring me closer to God?  You may reach the end of Lent and answer that, no, it didn’t bring you closer to God and you don’t think it ever will.  Okay, fine, but the answer at the beginning of Lent, at least, should be yes.

-Lastly, you should ask: Do I have intentions to continue this practice in some form after Lent?  Even if, in the back of your head, you know you won’t continue the practice on throughout the year or throughout your life, or won’t do the practice as often, the intention or the hope should ideally be there.  We shouldn’t limit what God can do for us and with us to forty days of the year.

With all this in mind, I hope and pray that you have a joyful and holy Lent that brings you closer to God of all grace and mercy. 

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Sports on Christmas

As the Christmas holidays are approaching (‘holidays’ because they are ‘holy days.’  You should never be upset if someone says “Happy Holidays,” because at least they are recognizing the holiness of these days, and holy not only to Christians but also to Jews and maybe other religions, too, I don’t know), I am forced to reflect on how Christmas Eve is on a Sunday.  For pastors, that fact makes Christmas Eve a hard day for their families, because a Christmas Eve Sunday means worship services all day long and a ton of preparation.  I, for one, won’t be able to spend any time with my family from 8 in the morning until about 8 at night on Christmas Eve.  Yes, that is a plea for your pity.  The more I have reflected on the pressure of having Christmas Eve on a Sunday, I realized that the real problem is not with multiple worship services or that I have to work, but the approach that our society takes to holidays on Sunday.  Essentially our approach is, “Who cares if a holiday is on a Sunday?”

With many declining churches across the country, but especially here where I serve in Vermont, pastors often hear a common refrain, that schools need to stop allowing sports games or practices on Sundays.  Back in the day, people say, we didn’t have a problem with church attendance or youth attendance at church because there weren’t competing forces.  Then the schools started having sports functions on Sunday and all hell broke loose.  That’s what people in church say.

Recently, however, I discovered that the common refrain we sing to ourselves is short-sighted and, probably, entirely wrong.  Both of my churches held Church History Nights in the past couple of months and, at one of them, old pastor’s reports were out and available to read.  In the pastor’s report for 1930, the pastor at the time described church school (Sunday School) attendance to be unacceptable—the number had dropped below thirty on occasional Sundays.  Thirty kids!  Many churches in Vermont would bend over backwards to have thirty kids in Sunday School.  But to this pastor, thirty on any given Sunday was unacceptable.  Clearly, the trend of losing kids had started long before twenty or so years ago, days that we look back on with such gilded reminiscence because we had ten to fifteen kids.  The trend is bigger and more far-reaching than sports on Sunday in the last twenty years or so.

Indeed, extending our perceptions to see the trend of declining adult and youth attendance beyond the past twenty years will show us that school sports on Sunday is not the problem but a symptom.  Schools started to have sports on Sundays because they could, because parents and families had already lost interest in keeping Sunday as a holy day dedicated to God.  For some families, this is because one or more of the parents work on Saturdays and Sunday becomes the only time in which a family can ‘have to themselves,’ and parents no longer see church as life-giving to the family.  And there we have the crux of the problem that I want to flesh out here: what is life-giving?

Church and worship are no longer seen as life-giving, and are instead viewed as obligations, as time that a family is not actually spending together, as time forced upon us that could be spent relaxing.  Rest days are no longer seen as Sabbath, and Sabbath is no longer seen as rest and renewing, not only for individuals but for the whole family.  Church and worship, as Sabbath, are no longer family activities, despite being the ultimate family activity.  Why is this the case?  Because our answer to, “What is life-giving?” has morphed from being Other-centered, specifically as being God-centered or holy-centered, to Me-centered.  Look no further than sports on holidays—not school sports on holidays, but professional and college sports on holidays.

Last year, I was kind of shocked to see that the NFL held their Sunday games on Christmas, which was a Sunday last year, as normal.  Nothing was different.  The NBA in the last few years has increased their Christmas day slate of games, one of many reasons why I do not like the NBA.  Even the NCAA has asked college students, students who are not being reimbursed in any way for their sacrifice, to play on Christmas Eve and Day.  Our response to this trend may be, “Okay, other than the college kids, so what?  Professional athletes are paid a ton of money so it’s not really much of a sacrifice.”  Maybe, but what about the people working at the ticket booths?  At the concession stands?  In the parking lot?  At the TV studios?  The security guards?  We don’t even give them a thought.  We don’t give those minimum wage workers a thought because, hey, it’s a holiday, it’s our holiday, it’s our day to spend with the family in a special way, these games should be there for us.  The workers who make our means of relaxation and celebration possible become invisible, it matters little that they are not able to spend the holidays with their families in the way they’d like, because, hey, isn’t it awesome that we get to watch sports on a holiday?

I completely understand if sports are some families’ means of bonding and relaxing, of resting and celebrating, but a problem arises when we feel entitled to a day centered around us, when we feel entitled to a vacation and holiday good for us and so what if it’s not good for others.  Perhaps sports, school or professional, on Sundays aren’t a problem, but on holidays they absolutely are a problem.  And, again, sports on holidays aren’t a problem simply because of scheduling; they are a problem on holidays because it means thousands and thousands of people are forced, by those of us who are Me-centered, to tear themselves away from their families and work.  When we take a Me-centered approach to holidays, or any designated Sabbath (Sunday, as a Sabbath, is meant to be a mini-Easter, so it is a holiday), we indirectly or directly ruin that day for countless others.

This is why a God-centered answer to “what is life-giving” matters.  A God-centered approach takes the lives, the hopes and dreams, of other people and other families into consideration.  If we are renewed, as individuals and as families, by centering on God and what is holy, then we can still have our rest, our bonding time, and whatever else, while also not doing harm to the lives of others.  My wife and I try very hard not to do any shopping or eating-out on Sundays for this reason.  When it comes to the holidays, though, John Wesley’s first general rule of, “Do no harm,” comes into clear focus: we should not only care about what we want, what is good for us, what will be relaxing for us.  Me-me-me hurts a lot of others.

Yet unfortunately, the Me-centered approach to rest, Sabbath, and holidays has entrenched itself in our culture, beginning at least in 1930.  It’s not your fault, it’s not the fault of the schools, of the NCAA, or even of the owners of professional sports teams.  While we may say that professional sport team owners are greedy, we are the ones who let them be greedy.  We turn on the TV, we go to the games, we buy the jerseys.  We buy in.  If anyone is at fault, it is the royal we.  We have given permission to anyone and everyone to concoct a fantasy rest day, a fantasy holiday, and then convince us that it is what we want, and there we will be.  We have done this because we think that holidays should be about us. 

Ultimately, though, nothing is about us, individually.  A healthy perspective on life realizes that.  If you are a religious person, life should be about God, about the holy.  If you are not a religious person, life should be about the communal good and welfare.  Jean-Paul Sartre, one of the forefathers of existentialism, a philosophy that is all about the I, was rather emphatic in arguing that rather than existentialism being a Me-centered life approach, existentialism is actually a humanism: the only appropriate way to focus on our own I, according to Sartre, is to simultaneously acknowledge the countless other Is around us, and we can therefore not seek the good of our I by harming other Is.  Religious or not, it does you good to move away from a Me-centered approach to an Other-centered life approach, or a holy-centered life approach. 

As we approach the holidays, then, I encourage you to reflect and pray about what the holidays (holy days) mean to you, the special holidays and the mini-holidays.  How are you celebrating?  Are you concerned that the celebration be joyous to you?  Or meaningful in a holy, communally uplifting way?  Do you want to rest and celebrate in the way that seems right and good to you?  Or are you willing to focus on the holy and find the infinite rest that is God?  Do you, intentionally or unintentionally, directly or indirectly, want others to sacrifice so that you can have a good holiday?  Or are you willing to find rest in God and let others also have a day of rest?

Whatever your answers may be, I pray that Christmas Day and the Christmas season (yes, there are twelve days of Christmas) not only be peaceful and joyous, but are a time of God’s inbreaking into your heart, whether you called Him or not, so that you can see who Christ truly is, what he truly means, and how you might find your calm in him.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

500 Years After the Reformation

Today is the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting his in/famous 95 theses on the doors of the Wittenberg church in 1517.  Usually, the word ‘anniversary’ carries positive connotations: wedding anniversaries, birthdays count as anniversaries, Bruins’ Stanley Cup victory anniversaries, etc.  Sometimes, however, an anniversary is not so positive, like when we remember the passing of a loved one or the raid on Pearl Harbor.  ‘Anniversary,’ after all, simply means an annual memorial, like a commemoration—co-remembering.  Depending on your perspective, the reforming of the Church that Luther intended and hoped for (and other visionaries before him, by the way), which turned into the Reformation and then Protestantism (a word that is probably in need of updating, since we are no longer actively protesting against Rome), beginning on October 31st, 1517, may either be a positive or negative anniversary.

On the positive side, the Church did reform in needed ways, even the Roman Catholic Church.  Years after the Lutheran Church and Calvin’s Church became entrenched in the West, there was the Council of Trent; and many years after that, as many of us may remember, came the Vatican Councils, most recently and importantly what we now call ‘Vatican II.’  Though the Roman Catholic Church at first dug their heels in opposite Luther, the Church eventually and over time did see that reforms were necessary.  Indulgences, for instance, were not only unbiblical but also corrupting; priests’ withholding reading and knowledge of Scripture and, in many ways, personal access to salvation were also unbiblical and corrupting practices.  As a reformer, Luther did and has had a good influence on the Church in the West, as Protestants and Catholics alike try to return to the Word of God as expressed in the Bible and further salvation for all God’s people.

Some would argue that Luther also freed millions from the tyranny of a spiritual hierarchy.  In the United States, or France, or any country that has had strong democratic movements grounded in absolute freedom may hold this argument more fervently.  Indeed, throughout American history, the Pope has been viewed with suspicion as a meddling foreign influence on our country.  The colony of Maryland, now the state, was founded by Lord Baltimore expressly as a safe haven for Catholics (in honor of his wife, Mary), and even then the Catholic colonists of Maryland were outnumbered and often at risk of persecution.  Whatever our stance may be on the Pope and the hierarchy of Rome’s Church, the supposed benefits of Protestant church structure are, I think, subjective.  I myself am a Protestant and am in agreement with the UMC’s essentially democratic structure with a Council of Bishops, but I can also see and understand the advantages of a more defined hierarchy as in Roman Catholicism.  Freedom from the Pope, then, is a neutral matter of opinion.

Unfortunately, while there are positive and neutral parts of the story, there is also a sad part of the story of the Reformation.  Perhaps the saddest part is the nature of the Church: it is slow.  In recent days I have heard the Church referred to as a giant tortoise and as an Ent, like in Tolkien’s Middle Earth (you know, those talking trees that think and talk slowly).  Both are appropriate metaphors, although slightly incorrect.  An angry tortoise or stubborn Ent may be better.  The story of the Reformation is the story of the Church saying, “No, we’ll shut our ears, because this is what we believe and practice… and now we’re going to believe and practice these ways EVEN HARDER!!”  Though the Church did reform, on both sides of the Protestant divide, at first Rome chose to dig in their heels, as I’ve said; indeed, look at any denomination that has split and you’ll likely see that the original denomination took a stubborn stance for an elongated period of time as a response to proposed reforms. 

If the Church is not in need of reformation, then stubbornness in the face of proposed reforms is not a bad position to take.  The Church is God’s Temple here on earth and we should listen to God for insight, not society or culture.  Yet the nature of the Church is inherently, and unfortunately, linked to the nature of humanity.  Our human instinct is to reshape the Church in our image, or at least an image that is beneficial to us, maybe easier for us, maybe an image that grants us more power and wealth.  When that happens, reforms are required, as in Luther’s day, and stubbornness does no one any good.  A combination of human nature and stubbornness, also human nature, resulted in division when Luther tried reforming the Church, and nearly always has resulted in division when later reforms are attempted in any denomination.  Methodism, my tradition, began as its own denomination unintentionally as well, because the Church of England was slow to respond to John Wesley’s movement.  It is that history of division and enmity that most plagues commemoration of the Reformation.

You could say that the ugly history of division and enmity between the various churches, denominations, amongst God’s Body of Christ, is more felt and apparent now.  We live in divisive times.  Just this week our country’s news has reported on Spain and Catalonia, disputed elections in Kenya, and a spat between our President and Congressional members of his own party.  That spat reminds us of the greater political division present in our country.  Indeed, the division in our country is often not merely division but also hate and mockery.  Members of my own family have insulted others in my family as ‘morons’ simply because of political beliefs, simply because some are worried about the clear rise of white supremacy and nationalism, and anti-semitism and racism.  These are challenging times when we all long for unity, we pray for it, we talk about it, but then our actions separate us even more.  Calling for and talking about unity does not create unity. 

As I write I am ever aware of the difficulty working towards unity presents, because of the national political dialogue, yes, but also because of developments in my church, the United Methodist Church.  Right now a special commission, the Way Forward Commission, is working on a solution to the questions and issues surrounding homosexuality in the church, whether “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian doctrine” or not and whether persons who are homosexual should be ordained or married, to bring before a special General Conference in 2019.  If that special General Conference does not end ‘the right way,’ many in the church on both sides are subtly or explicitly threatening to break away, to create a schism in the church, a new denomination.  All this despite the fact that many in the church are calling for unity, particularly the bishops.  Yet those who feel like their side will not ‘win’ also hear the call for unity as a call to suppress and oppress dissenting beliefs and practices; they hear the call for unity as a disingenuous plea to not reform, to keep the status quo.  Some may say that’s ridiculous, that we need to believe those who are calling for and praying for unity at face value, that they really do care for unity.  Regardless, we should see in the UMC how complicated creating unity and being unified is. 

One of the unintended consequences of the Reformation is that splitting a church has become a part of Church life.  If the UMC does split, it actually won’t be all that newsworthy in comparison to recent church history.  There are now over ten thousand Protestant denominations, in case you weren’t counting.  It seems that any time anyone is not perfectly happy with a church, he or she ups and starts another church, adding yet more division and disunity to God’s family and society generally.

Having established the downsides of the Reformation, particularly in our current climate, what can we learn from even the negative history to help us move forward as God’s people?  First, I do want to repeat that there are good aspects of the Reformation.  Catholics and Protestants alike are more aware and focused on God’s grace, rather than the power of the Church, in working miracles and salvation, among many other things.  With that said, there are at least three lessons as I see it: in the form of questions, 1) Are the issues of discord ever worth the passion invested? 2) What do continued divisions say about us?  3)  What is it that we as a Church stand for?

1) If you listen to or read NPR, you might have heard or read a piece on the Reformation five hundred years on.  The piece included a good deal of history as well as an update: Lutherans and Catholics now agree on almost everything, except church structure.  Catholic leaders now thank Luther for initiating much needed reforms.  It seems Pope Francis is going out of his way to acknowledge Protestant leaders, actually, because he also recently thanked and recognized John Wesley for the Methodist movement.  If Lutherans had not spent five hundred years apart from Rome, it is possible that the two churches could now merge together, because many can look back and ask, “Was that worth it, if the difference between us is now minimal?”  If God had been the centerpiece rather than human nature, and passions were not quite so high at the time, then perhaps Lutherans and Roman Catholics would indeed now be one family. 

The Methodists themselves have experienced splintering a number of times.  The major split occurred over slavery.  Though the Methodist Episcopal Church first held a firm anti-slavery stance, in the mold of John Wesley, over time some came to believe that owning slaves was not a great sin; others believed that the church should become politically engaged to fight for abolition; others believed that the church should not own slaves but needn’t go extreme.  Methodism split more than once on this one issue.  Then, after the Civil War, they all came back together, essentially saying, “You know what, this isn’t worth our separation any more.”  After a time, Methodists looked back and questioned the split.

I am, of course, significantly downplaying frustration and disagreement within the Church.  But my point is, will we in the UMC, if we split in 2019 or not, look back in years to come on the division now within our church and say, “Well, that was silly”?  Will we question why we fought over homosexuality, or anything else?  And will we in our country look back on this time and question why we so fervently fought over the rights of immigrants, the rights and health of the poor, of blacks or Hispanics, of women?  Will we look back and question why we didn’t turn to God, turn to God’s Word as written in the Bible, turn to God’s overwhelming message of love and compassion, and live accordingly?

My concern (and thanks to Rev. Greg Smith for putting words to my thoughts) is that we will split, we will continue to live out bigotry without acknowledging it as such and fuel tension and discord, and realize too late our mistake.  Lutherans and Catholics will not merge any time soon because they have spent so much time apart.  Methodists were able to merge because the split lasted less than a century.  Is our disunifying passion worth the risk of formally and forever solidifying division?  Or should we take a more loving, compassionate, upbuilding and sanctifying all people approach? 

At the end of the day, friends, the history of the Reformation, and the various Christian versus Christian wars—let alone the Christian crusades against Jews, Muslims, and atheists—arising from the Reformation, should tell us that fighting one another is not worth it.  Anything that contributes to division and not loving God and loving neighbor should be removed, or at least take secondary or tertiary position in our personal and corporate faith lives.  If indulgences are at issue, let’s review whether the indulgences are biblical; if the corruption of the priesthood is at issue, let’s evaluate and review the role of the priesthood; if slavery is at issue, then perhaps we should remove slavery; if homosexuality is at issue, then perhaps we should remove our stance on homosexuality altogether, or at least not make it a matter of church discipline; if the rights and health of the poor are at issue, then we should turn to the biblical prophets and ask how we might better serve the poor so that they are no longer; if immigration is at issue, then perhaps we can turn to the Bible and see that we should care for the alien, and review how we might better serve those who are fleeing impoverished and dangerous conditions rather than just selfishly kicking them out, and so on.  God, God’s love and God’s Word, and loving neighbor must always be our focus.  Let’s be passionate about that rather than ruled by human nature to serve self, even if we disguise self-service as merely opinion, over non-essential matters.  John Wesley urged the Methodist movement to hold firm only to essential matters of salvation and God’s grace, and let non-essential matters be secondary or tertiary.  Why can’t we?  Nothing that inhibits others from loving God, life, and neighbor should be practiced.

2)  Looking back on the splits and mergers within the original Methodist Episcopal Church, there are some denominations that split that have yet to merge back with what we might call the ‘mother denomination,’ the United Methodist Church.  I do not argue that those other denominations are sowing discord by not merging back.  Rather, I argue that perhaps taking stock of the Methodist denominations remaining separate might tell us something about who we are as a people, within the church and in society generally.

The major Methodist denominations still separate from the UMC are, as you might know, the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) and African Methodist Episcopal-Zion (AMEZ).  I’ve already written enough in this post to discourage you from reading the whole piece, so I’ll keep the history recap of these churches short.  If you remember well the history of African-Americans in our country, you can probably guess the history of the AMEZ. 

Both churches, though, beginning with the AME in the early 19th century, have their origins in the racism of this country.  Some church buildings to this day retain architecture of a checkered past.  The two churches that I currently serve both have two staircases, and one of them has a bar down the middle pews, the other used to have two entrances as well as two staircases.  These features were meant to keep men and women separate.  My churches are in northern Vermont, where there has never been much of a population of African-Americans.  Yet in places throughout our country where there has been an African-American population, if your church building was built prior to the Civil War or during the days of Jim Crow and your building has a balcony, you may want to research whether that balcony was built for black persons.  In what was then the Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC), black persons were more and more only allowed to sit in the balcony as the 19th century rolled along.  After awhile, black preachers were being kicked out of MEC pulpits.  This racism—and, remember, this isn’t even including the splits over slavery as an institution, this is about racism, pure and simple—led to African-Americans starting denominations in which they could worship and serve God in peace.  Of course, AME and AMEZ churches were attacked and persecuted, but at least those churches accepted the people who came to preach and worship and serve our God of grace, mercy, love and compassion.  I think this is all you need to know about the history of these churches to get the picture.

Here's the thing: what does it say about us, Methodists and Americans generally, that the AME and AMEZ churches still exist?  If time plays a role in whether churches are able to reunify, as I am suggesting and seems obviously to be the case since time contributes to the development of new practices and traditions, then how long becomes too long?  If the Methodist churches that split over slavery, an institution, could reunify within a century, why couldn’t the Methodist churches that split over racism also reunify?  Or was racism too inherent in our country, in our systems, even our religions?  Is racism too entrenched in our country, in our systems, even our religions two hundred years later, to reunify?  Or would we rather blame it on time, two hundred years later, and not confront issues that are actually pivotal, as opposed to non-essential, about who we are as individual persons and as a corporate people?  Lutherans and Calvinists (Presbyterians), at least, have five hundred years of history buffering them from reunification.  We don’t have that much tradition as an excuse.

Will we ever be able to acknowledge the racism that still lives in us—yes, you and me—and our institutions and churches?  If we are unable to acknowledge that racism, will we ever be able to conquer racism and unify as a people, whether as a small community, a church, or a country?  I believe in God’s almighty power to transform us through His grace, to make us real disciples of the Christ, but honestly, with so many people unwilling to look inward and to face who they are deep down, choosing instead to declare, “I’m not racist, I’m not sexist, but…”, I have little hope.  God can only renew us in Christ if we rely on Him rather than ourselves.  Right now we are doing a whole lot of relying on what we think is right, on what is right for us, based on only our own experience, and we are not listening either to God or to our brothers and sisters.  That needs to change if hope is to be restored, if the history of the Reformation can redeem itself from ugly to beautiful—from kicking out to accepting and loving those who are different.

3)  The question, “What is it that we as a Church stand for?” is a uniquely Reformation-esque question.  I imagine that before the Reformation church leaders and believers simply said, “Here’s the Church, its doctrine, and that’s that.”  Defining what a church stands for is usually motivated by delineating it from other churches.  So there was no reason to ask or answer the question when there was one Church.

Now, it must be said that for a millennium there has been a break between East and West, Roman and Orthodox.  The rift between the Christian East and West had been brewing theologically for hundreds of years.  Rome and Constantinople did divide over theological matters eventually, not over a reform issue that would rock the Church as with Luther.  Still, it is somewhat West-centric to highlight the Reformation as when the Church split rather than five hundred years before.

With that said, I push back against this notion that a church needs to stand for anything.  Every church should stand for, if we want to use that language, what the Church should stand for: God’s grace and love, and living a life in which loving God and neighbor through Christ is paramount.  We shouldn’t be asking or answering the question of what we stand for because, again, that question is intrinsically divisive, pitting my church against yours, or what I believe against what a church believes to determine whether or not I can join the church.

You may wonder who is asking, “What does your church stand for?”  The answer to that is, a lot of people.  A few weeks ago someone asked me that question in response to a Front Porch Forum post about one of my church’s summer projects.  More recently that, while I was making myself available at what I call Pastor’s Listening Place for prayer and conversation with folk who do not have a church family, someone asked me what my church believes and stands for.  I knew what both these individuals were looking for: here are our positions on God, the Trinity, homosexuality, marriage, the Bible, etc.  And for both of them I avoided the question altogether, which of course disappointed them.  What I did reply to both of them was, essentially, paraphrasing from memory, “Ultimately, Methodism is a movement concerned with holy living in God’s grace, of living in such a way that God’s means of grace are utilized to the utmost as we strive to be perfected in God’s love and live like Christ.  It is not a church concerned with enforcing right belief, or standing for anything, unless what we stand for and what we are believing in is God’s loving and merciful bent towards salvation, justice and peace.” 

Because of the Reformation, unfortunately, such answers, while I think true to Methodism at least, always seem like copouts.  The response is almost always, “Well, okay, but I want to know where you stand on this and that.”  A few years ago, a local radio station refused to bring me on to briefly talk about a book I wrote merely because I am Methodist and the UMC does not share a stance on certain issues with the radio station.  No matter what the book was about or how it might help people live better lives or help end human trafficking.  The funniest part is that the UMC does, if you were it ask the denomination, share the same ideas as the radio station around the issues the station was concerned; the UMC just doesn’t care (or shouldn’t care) to stake its life on every single question of theology and practice.  But this is life post-Reformation: “What does your church stand for?  And, by the way, when you answer, make sure you answer in agreement with what I stand for, or else I’m walking away.” 

Ridiculous.  Here’s a unifying thought for you: persons of all churches everywhere should make evident what it is they stand for in how they live.  Ironically, this is an idea straight from the Reformation and on down to Wesley and the people called Methodist, yet it is an idea eschewed because of the defensive isolationism propagated by the Reformation. 

What I mean is that we should make evident in our lives, by our compassion, that we stand for a Savior who associated with the outcasts, aliens, and sinners; make evident in our lives, by our humility rather than assertiveness and self-righteousness, that we stand for a Savior who died on the cross; make evident in our lives, by our dedication to holiness despite what culture or friends or family may demand or expect of us, that we stand for a God who is powerful enough to make us new; make evident in our lives, by our service to all our brothers and sisters, that we stand for a God who has always heard the cry of the needy, oppressed, alien, and downtrodden; make evident in our lives, by our attention to prayer and worship, that we stand for a God that does not care about political boundaries but longs for His Kingdom made real.  There are seven billion people on this planet, which means there are seven billion people in need of God’s love and transformative grace, so why the hell do we care what a particular church stands for?  And why the hell does each church fight within itself about what it stands for?  Don’t we all stand for the same thing?  To reclaim and paraphrase a Revolutionary War slogan from my home state, we are doing far too much treading on others, as a Church and as a country.

My hope and prayer for you, and for all of us, as we commemorate the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation, is that we rededicate our lives to God and God alone, put our trust and loyalty in God and God alone, to know in God what is essential and what is secondary, and seek God’s perfecting grace in our lives by living holy lives, and drop the weight of all else, so that we can transform the history and legacy of the Reformation from division to unity.