Friday, February 7, 2014

How Would Jesus Lobby?

Isaiah 58:1-9a (9b-12)

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Isaiah 58:6

The passage from Isaiah provokes us once again to do what Karl Barth suggested: read the Bible with one hand and a newspaper in the other.

(Actually, no one has been able to find where Barth said this, so he probably didn’t, but it’s a good idea anyway.)

On Thursday, the U.S. Senate failed by one vote to extend unemployment compensation for 1.7 million Americans who lost benefits when the program expired in December.

Opponents of the bill, Republicans and a handful of Democrats, complained the measure would increase the deficit by $6 billion in three months. 

Others cited an unproven theory than unemployment benefits encourage people to stay unemployed. 

As to the second point, advanced by high-net-worth Tea Party Republicans, I offer the immortal words of Colonel Sherman T. Potter: Horse Pucky. 

I have received unemployment benefits twice in my life when the mercurial tides of non-profit church organizations dumped me out of the ecumenical boat. At no time did I think the unemployment check was to be preferred to a real job, and neither did millions of my fellow Americans struggling to keep our heads above water in the swirling eddies of joblessness.

For those who have shared this experience, as well as millions of other persons of good will, the refusal to extend unemployment benefits seems mean spirited.

And many Christian organizations, including some that hurled their employees into the jobless briny to solve their own budget crises, chastised opponents of the unemployment benefits extension bill.

“With 10.4 million people unemployed and three job seekers for every job opening, a moral obligation exists to help protect the life and dignity of unemployed workers and their families,” Christian leaders told Congress when the benefits expired in December. 

Some even raised the question that is as familiar as the answer is elusive: “What would Jesus do?”

Most people expose their own prejudices when they answer the question. Some believe Jesus would provide loving shelter and sustenance for the poor and despised, while others convince themselves he condones picketing funerals to protest homosexuality. (The latter folks have neither the wit nor the insight of the great Dorothy Parker, who observed, “Heterosexuality is not normal, just common.”)

But, clearly, the WWJD question does not advance the political debate over whether supporting the poor is a “moral obligation” or an encouragement of idleness and indolence. 

The problem is, the Jesus we see in the Gospels is not always a clear model for behavior. 

In an essay in The American Scholar, which became a chapter in his book, What Jesus Meant,  Professor Garry Wills offers a warning:

But can we really aspire to do what Jesus did? Would we praise a 12-year-old who slips away from his parents in a big city and lets them leave town without telling them he is staying behind? The reaction of any parent would be that of Jesus’ parents in Luke: “How could you treat us this way?” Or if relatives seek access to a Christian, should he say that he has no relatives but his followers? We might try to change water into wine; but if we did, would we take six huge water vats, used for purification purposes, and fill them with over a hundred gallons of wine, more than any party could drink? If we could cast out devils, would we send them into a herd of pigs, destroying 2,000 animals? Some Christians place a very high value on the rights of property, yet this was a massive invasion of another person’s property and livelihood. 

The basic question, what would Jesus do, has been debated for centuries as imitatio dei, the imitation of God. In 1897, Charles M. Shelton published In His Steps, a novel about middle-class Americans who were challenged to ask themselves the WWJD question before they made life decisions. Often the characters make decisions you or I might consider dubious, but the book sold 30 million copies. Unfortunately for Mr. Shelton, the original publisher failed to register the copyright. Other publishers, perhaps asking themselves what Jesus would do, reprinted the book without paying royalties to the author. 

The answer to “What would Jesus do,” perhaps, is the same as Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of pornography: we know it when we see it.

And, personally, I don’t think it’s difficult to discern that Jesus would be dismayed by the gridlock on Capitol Hill over the issue of what should be done to help persons struggling for survival below the poverty line.

This week, as the unemployment insurance extension act failed in the Senate, millions of Americans dependent on the SNAP program (formerly food stamps) may have less to eat. On Tuesday, the Farm Bill passed by Congress cuts the SNAP program by $8.6 billion.

On Thursday, Speaker of the House John Boehner said immigration reform legislation is unlikely to pass this year. He blamed the impasse on Americans’ distrust of President Obama, though critics suggested Boehner’s own party does not want to be in the position of voting against a popular bill prior to midterm elections.

These are just the latest examples of Congressional wrangling over bills to support working class and poor families, or provide paths to citizenship for 11 million persons living in the U.S. without visas or green cards.

I suppose some will make the case that this is what Jesus would do: cut benefits for the poor and disenfranchised while offering tax breaks to the rich, and opposing legislation that would guarantee equal pay for women and men in the workplace.

But that’s not the Jesus most of us know. The Jesus we know loved the poor, and spoke on their behalf out of a tradition that existed thousands of years before he was born. 

No doubt he knew the passage from Isaiah by heart:

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. Isaiah 58:5-9

Jesus spoke the words plainly for all who wonder what he would do: 

Truly I tell you, just as you did it to the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me. Matthew 25:40

Jesus’ words are so transparent that the least discerning of lobbyists should be able to figure them out. Yet a lot of people don’t think they apply to government.

I had the honor of working for the late Bob Edgar, a Methodist minister and six-term member of Congress. He was also a seminary president and, when I knew him, general secretary of the National Council of Churches. Bob was president of Common Cause when he died suddenly last April.

Bob was the first of the Watergate generation of Congressional representatives elected in the wake of President Nixon’s resignation with the aim of restoring integrity to government.

He and the Rev. Robert Drinan, a Jesuit priest, were the only clergy members of Congress in the seventies, and they shared Father Drinan’s political philosophy: “It goes back to the fact that you’re a Christian and a Jesuit,” Drinan said. “It means you have to love each other and that you can’t persecute people. It means you have to be compassionate to everyone in the world.”

Both Edgar and Drinan opposed the Vietnam War. Both were concerned about the rampant expansion of poverty and political injustice around the world. Both were advocates of human rights. And both received the same score from a Jerry Falwell lobby that evaluated representatives on the basis of their support of war and opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment: Zero.

“We were both proud of that,” Bob said.

Clearly Falwell perceived a bizarre answer when he asked himself what Jesus would do: support war and oppose the rights of women.

Bob was frequently in trouble with the National Council of Churches governing board because he waded hip deep into political and moral issues that made persons-in-the pew uncomfortable. He helped negotiate the return of Elian Gonzales to his father in Cuba, co-authored “Deny Them Their Victory” after the 9/11 terror attacks and urged the U.S. not to respond with military action. He opposed war against Iraq, and went to George W. Bush’s Texas ranch to invite him to join mothers of soldiers killed in Iraq in prayers for peace (the President declined). He raised money for the rebuilding of Indonesia when it was struck by a murderous tsunami, and he established a “Special Commission for the Just Rebuilding of the Gulf Coast” after Hurricane Katrina. Bob led boycotts of food companies that treated their farm workers poorly. He established an eco-justice program to maintain “God’s beautiful Creation,” and personally lobbied former Congressional colleagues who were voting to cut programs for the poor. He was often controversial, but few persons I knew had a clearer notion of what Jesus would do – or what Jesus wanted us to do in the name of peace, love, and justice. (See my web tribute to Bob when he left the Council.) 

For me and many others, Bob set a high standard for Christian conduct in society. There have been many times since last April that I have missed his voice and moral leadership as politicians face off with widely divergent views of what Jesus would do. Shoved aside in the process are the poor, the under-represented, the under-paid, and the unemployed.

Even before Jesus walked the earth, the prophets were setting the stage for the message God wants each of us – our leaders included – to hear.

“If you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.” Isaiah 58:10-12.

All too often, that message is falling on deaf ears in chambers of government. 

Our prayer is that the prophet will nudge them closer to a more logical understanding of what, in circumstances such as these, Jesus would do.

We don’t know the answer to that precisely because Jesus never had to watch modern democracies in action. 

But he was very much aware of the cruel dominance of the rich over the poor. And one of the best jokes in his repertoire invoked comic images of the corpulent rich squeezing through a needle’s eye.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Light, Body, and Soul

 (Luke 2:20-32)

“ … my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel ...”

Sunday is Candlemas, the presentation of Jesus in the Temple. 

We Baptists don’t observe Candlemas, so the symbolism requires a bit of explication. 

For candle, read light. 

Candles seem mundane enough now, even inconsequential. As an old Disney buff, my first candle-oriented thoughts are of Lumière, the comical figure voiced by Jerry Orbach in Beauty and the Beast. If I want to think of candles in a grandiose way, I envision the candelabra on Liberace’s piano.

But in darker ages candles were a primary source of light and a vivid symbol of Jesus, “a light for revelation … and for glory.” 

The Lutheran liturgy, courtesy of Augsburg Fortress Press, summarizes the passage in Luke as follows:

This story is a study in contrasts: the infant Jesus with the aged prophets; the joy of birth with the ominous words of Simeon to Mary; the faithful fulfilling of the law with the presentation of the one who will release its hold over us. Through it all, we see the light of God's salvation revealed to the world.

And there is an even starker contrast. Mary, the virgin mother, and Jesus the son of God, are in the temple to purge a contaminate that makes them unpresentable in polite society. They are there to wash away the uncleanness of a mother who has given birth to her first male child.

Given who they are, this seems an unnecessary rite, just as Jesus’ baptism by John seems unnecessary. Who could be more perfectly immaculate than the virgin mother and God’s own son?

Yet Mary and Jesus conducted themselves as good Jews throughout their time on earth, and they gladly embraced the cleansing rituals of their religion.

Of course we Christians have rarely questioned these rituals because so many of us think the body is impure, hedonistic, and unsuited as a vessel for the soul. 

That’s one reason some well-meaning Christians – even today – scourge their bodies to deny them pleasures that tempt their spirits away from God.

Ten years ago, the retired bishop of Capetown, South Africa, put it this way:

“Long, long ago, very clever people decided that the human body, flesh, all material things, that all of these were in and of themselves, evil, intrinsically, inherently and always,” said Desmond Tutu in a sermon prepared for Candlemas. “So there was no way that the good, the pure, the sublime and, by definition, the perfectly good spirit could be united with the material.”

In modern times, we Christians still tend to regard the pleasures of the body as threats to the soul. 

“Have we not sometimes been embarrassed with our physicality,” Tutu asks, “when we have found it attractive to engage in the familiar dichotomies as between the sacred and the secular, the profane and the holy? When we have thought that Original Sin, must somehow have had to do with the facts of life, we snigger a little bit, wink, wink, as if when God said to Adam and Eve, ‘Be fruitful and multiply,’ God meant that they would do so by perhaps looking into each others’ eyes!”

Tutu, who with his wife Leah has brought four children into the world by means other than eye gazing, also warns of dangers that arise when the body and soul are kept separate. 

This artificial dichotomy of body and soul is too often interpreted as “never mix religion and politics,” Tutu said. This leads to pure evil as good people and politicians fail to recognize God’s will in society. 

“The Jesus I worship is not likely to collaborate with those who vilify and persecute an already oppressed minority,” said Tutu in words now famous. “I myself could not have opposed the injustice of penalizing people for something about which they could do nothing – their race – and then have kept quiet as women were being penalized for something they could do nothing about – their gender, and hence my support inter alia, for the ordination of women to the priesthood and the episcopate. 

“And equally, I could not myself keep quiet whilst people were being penalized for something about which they could do nothing, their sexuality … To discriminate against our sisters and brothers who are lesbian or gay on grounds of their sexual orientation for me is as totally unacceptable and unjust as Apartheid ever was.”

Tutu makes it clear that the spiritual and physical dimensions of life are inseparable. God’s light for revelation enlightens our souls to the truth of God’s justice, and the same light calls us to oppose injustice, even when it means putting our bodies in its way.

Until Christ returns, the burden is on each of us to assure God's justice for all people.

Saint Teresa of Avila made the same point in verse nearly 500 years ago:

Christ has no body but yours,

No hands, no feet on earth but yours,

Yours are the eyes with which he looks

Compassion on this world,

Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,

Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.

Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,

Yours are the eyes, you are his body.

Christ has no body now but yours,

No hands, no feet on earth but yours,

Yours are the eyes with which he looks
 compassion on this world.

Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

But the human body is an uncomfortable thing to carry around with you, and the time we spend keeping it washed, fed, and satisfied often distracts us from the needs of others.

Candlemas – the presentation of Jesus in the Temple – is a a time to sort out all the challenges our bodies and souls face in a lifetime. 

We will all, if we are granted the biblical span of three score and ten, pass through all the life stages represented by the dramatis personae in this temple scene: the baby and the old man; the teen-age mother and the old woman; the hopefulness of joy in new life; the pang of knowing how quickly injustice and mishap will bring suffering into all our lives.

Which brings us back to the basic purpose of the presentation of the baby in the temple: to purify the new mother from the physical contamination of having born baby boy. 

The ritual was thousands of years old. Yet the ceremony also reminds us that if the body is the source of all sin and corruption and physical pleasure is damning, God would not have taken on flesh in the first place.

Indeed, in contrast to many other religions, Christianity welcomes sensuality as a signpost that points to the joys of the spirit.

Jesus did not scourge or starve his body to purify his soul. He loved to eat and drink, and he loved to be with people who were eating and drinking. He talked of heaven as a banquet. He used humor and irony to make people laugh during his sermons. His disciples thought he spent too much time schmoozing with women. He luxuriated in the pleasures of fragrant oils when they anointed his feet or his brow. 

But when Jesus was presented in the temple in the first few days of his life, where his existence was celebrated amid warnings of a turbulent future, it was clear to both Simeon and Anna that he was the manifestation of God’s light in the world. 

And it was also clear that this incandescence would require living a life that combined body and soul with a fullness unmatched in human history. For it is only through this partnership of body and spirit that we can fully comprehend why God created us as physical creatures for a earthly pilgrimage that leads to eternal life of the soul.

That pilgrimage includes joy and sadness, pleasure and pain, ecstasy and agony. And in comes with some caveats, as C.S. Lewis wrote in The Weight of Glory:

“Indeed,” Lewis wrote, “if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. 

“We are,” said Lewis, “half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

The sin in sex and prestige is not in their intrinsic evilness but in their power to distract us from the fullness of life that leads to the rewards God has promised us.

Nor, as Simeon warned, will divine prerogative or sex and prestige insulate us from the suffering, grief, and injustice that infiltrate all our lives.

But as we behold the modest candle flames on our altars today, let us rejoice in the coming of God’s light into the world, and repeat together:

“ … my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”