Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Bible, The News, and the President-Elect

“Take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.”

This advice is usually attributed to Theologian Karl Barth. It should be read and re-read by all laypersons who harass their pastors and complain politics has no place in sermons or church.

Barth’s advice makes good theological sense. If all Germans had interpreted reports of Kristallnacht from their Bibles, they might have banded together against the looming horror.

But does the advice still work in our electronic age? Can we detect God’s will by reading the Every Man’s Bible NLT on our iPhones while watching Fox News?

News reporting is not what it used to be. Walter Cronkite is long gone and journalists with his credibility are either dead or retired. Both network and cable news outlets tend to choose stories to increase ratings so it’s hard for serious viewers to separate truths from delusions. What would be Barth’s advice today?

There is, of course, a news program that raises its standard of journalism far above the current crowd – so far above, in fact, that it has to be fiction. That show was HBO’s Newsroom, written by Aaron Sorkin. 

In Sorkin’s idealized but improbable world, news is not diluted by duplicitous  efforts to be “balanced,” e.g., “Republicans said red, Democrats said blue, experts disagree…” Nor is news dominated by shallow celebrity shenanigans. The fictional network’s daily news budget is determined solely by which events withstand serious investigative vetting and will have the greatest impact on the greatest number of people.

Throughout the 2016 campaign, the bibles we held in one hand weren’t doing us much good because the news media we watched on the other hand gave us little idea what the hell was actually going on. Each time a Matt Lauer pressed Hillary Clinton to shorten her answers on policy issues, or CNN spent an hour covering Donald Trump’s promotion of a new Trump Hotel, I yearned for Sorkin’s fictional news anchor, Will McAvoy, played by Jeff Daniels.

Daniels had already played a character who jumped off a screen in The Purple Rose of Cairo to become a real man and I wished he could do it again. Will, I told myself, would not mistake a hotel promo for a news event and he would know it was disingenuous to compare Hillary’s email debacle with Watergate.

But it was one of Will McAvoy’s more memorable lines – a tribute to American democracy – that showed his flaws. “Every two years,” he told viewers. “we drive to a fire station and overthrown the government and there isn’t a policeman in the street.”

That idealistic claim was belied as soon as the Electoral College results were in.

This time when Americans drove to the fire station to overthrow the government, law enforcement was indeed in the streets to intervene in protests in Oregon, California, New York, and elsewhere.

The big news that emerges from the 2016 election is not who won, or why, but the fact that the United States is more divided than it has been in 150 years. And not just philosophically divided but viscerally divided. If Mitt Romney had been elected in 2012, or John McCain in 2008, or John Kerry in 2004, there wouldn’t have been a police officer in sight. Some people would cheer, others would frown and shake their heads, and life would go on.

Why did things fall apart this year?

I can’t imagine Will McAvoy resorting to any of the more hackneyed explanations of pundits on the left and the right: that both candidates were disliked by voters, that Hillary was not trusted and was the victim of misogyny, that Trump was not trusted and flaunted his misogyny, and more. 

Nor can I imagine Will McAvoy not scoffing at theories that some voters thought Trump was more Christian than Hillary. Evangelical pastor Ted Haggard, whose blog “The Pastor’s Pen” I follow, saw the candidates’ real faith distinctions:   

“The confessing Christian, Hillary Clinton, who carries a Bible, forgave her one and only husband’s infidelities and says she stayed in her marriage because of her Christian faith, who regularly quotes Scripture with accuracy and familiarity, and who is an active member of the Methodist Church, lost. Politically, she’s liberal. 
“Donald Trump, on the other hand, who has children by all three of his wives, who claims to have never asked God for forgiveness, who is an inactive Presbyterian who attended church with regularity only when his father took him as a child to hear Norman Vincent Peale’s messages on positive thinking, and who does not know the meaning of the bread and wine at church, won. Politically, he’s conservative.”
Time will tell whether Trump is a bona fide conservative (and Norman Vincent Peale’s Church was affiliated with the Reformed Church in America), but Haggard opens the door to a Barth-like examination of the bible’s interpretation of the news.

The Revised Common Lectionary reading for this week points us in an interesting direction:  

Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a king's son. May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice. May the mountains yield prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness. May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor. Psalm 72:1-4
After the exhortation to give the king God’s justice, the key words that attract our Barthian attention are “poor,” “justice,” and “deliverance to the needy.”

Also, in Romans 15:4-13 we read Paul’s reminder that Christ has come to all people, regardless of race, color, creed, or nationality:

Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written, “Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles, and sing praises to your name.”

How do these verses help us interpret the news?

I think we may detect some dire warnings about the currents of events.

In sharp contradiction to the biblical assertion that Christ has come to all, the results of the 2016 election show deepening divisions between white and non-white Americans. Writers for Bill Moyers – a news source I trust – warn that the white racism that emerged after President Obama’s election has intensified.

Indeed, Trump’s upset in the presidential race has cracked wide open just how persistent and pervasive American racism has always been. This is a point that many black Americans have been making in the wake of the election. Whenever the United States has seemed to bend toward a more racially inclusive brand of democracy — from Reconstruction to the Civil Rights Movement to the Obama era — what has often followed has been an equal and opposite push to reclaim a whiter status quo. We saw it in Jim Crow, and in Richard Nixon’s anti-civil rights administration in the 1970s, and we’re seeing it now. This is America, being America. 
The writers – Brandon Tensley, Michael C. Richardson, and ReJane Frederick – call for a righteous resistance against racism, and that resistance must involve all persons of faith.

There’s a long fight ahead of us. And as Linda Sarsour, the Advocacy and Civic Engagement Coordinator for the National Network for Arab American Communities, drove home on the final day of the conference, it has to be all hands on deck. Our future may depend on it. “All we have is each other. Ain’t nobody got time for part-time progressives,” she said. “Everyone has a role to play in the movement.”

For bible readers who see God’s favoritism toward the poor and rejected, the designated leaders of the incoming administration offer little hope.

Vice President-Elect Mike Pence is a homophobic zealot who believes LGBTQ persons can be scared straight. Chief Strategist Stephen K. Bannon is a far right-wing media executive who has expressed virulently racist and anti-Semitic views. Attorney General designate Jeff Sessions has a background of unreconstructed Jim Crow racism. Education Secretary designate Betsy DeVos has no experience with and little interest in public education. Health and Human Services Secretary designate Tom Price would dismantle the Affordable Care Act and has set his sights against Medicare and Medicaid. 

Persons of faith who favor the protection of God’s earth and who believe the preponderance of scientific opinion that humans are responsible for Global Warning will take no comfort in proposed candidates to lead the Energy Department and the Environmental Protection  Agency, all of whom believe global warming is a myth.

To reiterate:

Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a king's son. May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice. May the mountains yield prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness. May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor. Psalm 72:1-4

I used to actually preach sermons like this before I retired as lay pastor of North Baptist Church in Port Chester, N.Y. The saints there were very open-minded and tolerant of my occasionally eccentric theology.

I imagine they would receive these sentiments today in much the same tolerant spirit.

But I also realize these efforts to sync bible passages with news events would be anathema in most churches. I’m sure pastors and thoughtful persons of faith can see the connection. But in many cases, I doubt they could point it out from the pulpit without ominous political consequences.

Barth probably knew that reading the bible and the news simultaneously would lead to awkward and sometimes dangerous circumstances.

So let me propose this:

Let us pray as the psalmist commands for the President-Elect. Let us pray for his wisdom and good health and open mind. 

And let us pray that God’s justice and God’s righteousness be bestowed upon him.

And let us pray that he will rise to defend the cause of the poor and accept his call to give deliverance to the needy.

In the name of Christ, who came into the world as a helpless baby charged by God to bring salvation and justice to all people.


Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Thanksgiving Myths, Lies, and Grandpa Joe

Thanksgiving is coming up. Apart from all the other virtues of a national day of thanks, this is a great holiday for history buffs.

You can’t really understand Thanksgiving without knowing history. Most of us heard the tales before we started kindergarten: pilgrims dressed in black clothes and buckled shoes, John Alden and Pricilla “Speak for Yourself” Mullins, the harsh wintry coast of Massachusetts Bay in 1621, the mystifying graciousness of the displaced Wampanoag, the original turkey banquet … 

And each year the president of the United States ungratefully dismisses the gift of a free turkey from the National Ungainly Fowl Association and condemns the hapless bird to life in a cage without parole. 

No one knows why presidents think this merciful act is good politics, because God knows the turkey lobby is hell bent on dispatching as many of the birds as possible. Is it unfair of me to presume that a year from now President Trump will support the sellers of turkeys by sending his hapless bird to the frier? 

Historically, Thanksgiving is a feel-good holiday festooned with turkey shaped hand prints pressed by darling children on orange and brown construction paper, pint-sized pilgrims in black paper hats, wicker cornucopias filled with apples and walnuts, and wholesome Norman Rockwell bacchanalias in every home. Well, maybe not in every home, but you get the picture.

These are wonderful and cherished images. With luck, most of us will get through Thanksgiving without noticing that most of them, according to historian James Baker, are “marvelous nonsense.”

But that’s the thing about history. You can never quite trust it. Perhaps the most accurate historical marker in New York State is in the drive way of an otherwise charming bed and breakfast house in Oneonta: “Nothing of historical significance happened on this spot.”

One of the reasons I love history is that the truth is often more entertaining than the story in our textbooks. (Read Lies My Teacher Told Me, Everything Your High School History Textbook Got Wrong, by James W. Loewen.

For example, one of my favorite historical puzzles involves the capture of Fort Ticonderoga by Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys in 1775. Our textbooks report than Ethan and 83 of the boys stormed the fort on May 9 and demanded its surrender. 

Wikipedia asserts: “(British) Lieutenant Jocelyn Feltham, assistant to Captain William Delaplace, was awakened by the noise, and called to wake the captain. Stalling for time, Feltham demanded to know by what authority the fort was being entered. Allen … replied, ‘In the name of the Great Jehovah the Continental Congress!’ Delaplace finally emerged from his chambers, fully dressed, and surrendered his sword.”

Actually, neither the Brits nor the Mountain Boys heard Allen’s theatrical demand in the name of God and Congress. According to Richard Shenkman in his illuminating Legends, Lies and Cherished Myths of American History, most witnesses remembered Allen shouting, “Come out of there, you damned old rat!” I like it better. It has the ring of truth.

Anecdotes like this should make us slightly more skeptical about the legends, lies, and cherished myths of Thanksgiving.

Valerie Strauss, writing in “The Answer Page” of the Washington Post, points out that venison, not turkey, topped the menu at the original Thanksgiving feast in 1621. Pilgrim men and women, traditionally depicted wearing subdued puritan black and white clothes, actually dressed in a wide variety of colors, according to Strauss. Even more shocking, the men did not wear buckles on their shoes.

I grew up hearing several versions of how Thanksgiving became a national holiday. According to one of my teachers, President Lincoln was the first to declare a day of national Thanksgiving, although looking back it seems an inscrutable proclamation to a nation self-disemboweled in a fratricidal bloodbath. 

But actually, President Washington was the first to issue such a decree. Mr. Lincoln was the first to establish the holiday as an annual event. Originally he ordered the holiday be observed on the fourth Tuesday in November. In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving to the third Thursday in November, ostensibly to improve the national economy by extending the Christmas shopping season. 

Lincoln is also credited with pardoning the first White House Thanksgiving turkey, although Valerie Strauss reports the story can be traced back no further than 1989 when President George H.W. Bush told it to a White House gathering. There is a possibly apocryphal story that Lincoln’s son Tad begged his father to save a turkey given to the White House. But even if the story is true, is involves a Christmas turkey.

But trappings aside, the nature of the pilgrims themselves could use a closer examination. They were puritans, a diverse 17th century religious group that included Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of England from 1653 to 1658. Some historians believe Cromwell planned to join the Mayflower pilgrimage to the New World in 1620 but missed the boat. History would certainly have been different if he had disappeared in America; Cromwell was a leader of two English civil wars that led to the execution of King Charles I in 1649 and he led a bloody massacre of thousands of Scot royalists and Irish Catholics from 1649 to 1650. Cromwell is anecdotal evidence that not all the puritans were humble Christian pacifists who fled to America to escape religious persecution. 

To many – including my fellow Baptists – the puritans are remembered as the persecutors.

As soon as they were established in Boston in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, the puritans showed little toleration for other religions. There is a famous – and documented – story of a Baptist leader named Obadiah Holmes who was imprisoned by the puritan establishment in Boston in 1651. His only crime was being Baptist, and following a harsh imprisonment he was brutally flogged in the public square. 

According to historian William Cathcart in The Baptist Encyclopedia, Holmes’ torture inspired him to long-winded eloquence:   “As the strokes fell upon me I had such a spiritual manifestation of God's presence as the like thereof I never had nor felt, nor can with fleshly tongue express; and the outward pain was so removed from me that indeed I am not able to declare it to you; it was so easy to me that I could well bear it, yea, and in a manner felt it not, although it was grievous, as the spectators said, the man striking with all his strength (yea, spitting in his hand three times, as many affirmed) with a three-corded whip, giving me there with thirty strokes.”

Holmes accepted his flogging as if it was a beatific experience, but the news of his suffering was received with horror elsewhere in the colonies. 

One powerful voice that spoke out against puritan persecution was Deputy Governor Joseph Jenks of the Rhode Island and Providence Plantations Colony. Jenks (my ancestor), who became the 19th royal governor of the colony in 1727, was also a Baptist who presided over the colony Roger Williams founded as the world’s first geopolitical entity based on religious freedom. He was the un-puritan, and years later he wrote the tale of the persecution of Holmes into the official record:
“Mr. Holmes was whipped thirty stripes, and in such an unmerciful manner that in many days, if not some weeks, he could take no rest, but as he lay upon his knees and elbows, not being able to suffer any part of his body to touch the bed whereon he lay.”
There are other anecdotes about Grandpa Joe that Jenkses hold in their hearts. According to family lore, the governor was six feet, seven inches feet tall – freakish in the mid 18th century – and he had difficulty finding clothes that fit. The family claims he once sent a handwritten order to England for a “six foot, six inch cloak” to wear in public ceremonies. Months later he received from England a six foot, six inch clock.

Perhaps his handwriting left something to be desired, but Governor Jenks stood for religious freedom. And he stood tall.

I have no forensic evidence that the tale is true, and of course it should be regarded with the same skepticism as any other historic claim.

And I would even go so far as to assert that these uncertainties and vagaries of history are among the many things for which I give thanks.

Did the pilgrims not dress in black, wear buckles on their shoes, eat turkey, or extend loving acceptance to Baptists, Catholics, and Wampanoags?

Perhaps not. Perhaps, even, the pilgrim reality is more interesting than the myth as we consider their fierce intolerance of anyone outside their community. The gentle folks we imagine sharing God’s blessings with their indigenous hosts in 1621 are, after all, the same folks who seven decades later executed 28 accused witches in Salem. 

What can we say? No doubt a lot of pilgrims were nice, Christian folks. But it was clearly not unanimous.

But as Thanksgiving approaches, it is almost reassuring that the legends, lies and cherished myths associated with the holiday encourage us to seek greater substance in the things for which we are truly grateful.

Many of us will, after all, approach this feast with anxieties, uncertainties, and doubts that go far beyond our suspicions about what the pilgrims wore and what they did.
Even so, there are so many things for which we can be thankful. 

And those things were never better described than in Jesus thanksgiving sermon on the mountain so long ago:

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?  
Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing?  
Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you--you of little faith?  
Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6:25-33).

What greater blessings could we possibly imagine? 

Whether the pilgrims knew it or not, our gratitude and thanksgiving to God this holiday and every day should be boundless.