Thursday, July 3, 2014

On Blessing the Pope, Sarah Palin, and Richard Dawkins

            The story of Balaam in Numbers 22-24 is perhaps most famous for the talking ass.  The Moabite king Balak is nervously watching the approach of the Israelite horde that had so recently laid waste to the armies of Sihon and Og.  Divining that military prowess alone may not do the trick he calls on the prophet Balaam for a curse to deter his enemies.  After the comic misadventure with his famous ass, Balaam arrives and proceeds not to curse but to bless Moab’s enemies.  A distraught Balak tours Balaam around the Israelite host like a real estate agent pointing out the advantages of a new property, but to no avail.  Balaam can only speak blessings, not curses.  Finally the exasperated Balak cries out, “Neither bless them nor curse them at all!”  But Balaam can only bless.

            This passage cannot help but bring to mind the most startling thing Jesus ever said (well, one of the most startling anyway): “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heave.  He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends his rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:44, 45).  Now of course this passage has been sonorously intoned and generally ignored over the first 2000 years of Christian history.  But it stubbornly, uncomfortably remains a command of Jesus, marked out in some Bibles in red letters.  It is the kind of passage, as Wendell Berry puts it, that gives rise to “biblical exegesis.”  By this he alludes to the tendency of my beleaguered discipline to evade or explain away difficult texts.  I would protest, but throughout those aforementioned 2000 years the critique has often been true enough, especially with regard to the Sermon on the Mount.

            And so the question remains: was Jesus really serious about our blessing our enemies?  Sadly (or happily) I think he was.  And this, I think, is a gift that we Christians, that is the church, have to offer to the world.  I fear this gift has often gathered dust in our theological and intellectual closet.  We have been embarrassed to share it; fearful once the ribbon and paper are removed we will be looked at with scorn or bemusement.  But the events of recent weeks in the Middle East have reminded me how desperately this gift of enemy blessing is needed.  Three Jewish boys are kidnapped and murdered in an act of inexcusable brutality.  The cries for revenge are as inevitable as they are understandable.  And then a Palestinian boy is found murdered and set afire.  As I write no blame has yet been assigned for that horror, but the suspicion is that it is yet another revenge killing.  In the face of such crimes to bleat about blessing and loving enemies may sound, to say the least, inadequate.  And yet, I have to ask if the cyclical Jewish/Palestinian story of bloodshed and violence, outrage and revenge has gotten them, or the world, anywhere.  What might it mean for them to step back and refuse to curse, but bless? 

            In the United States our political, religious, and social right and left wings have settled in a mutual mud-slinging contest that is as alarming as it is idiotic.  I say idiotic because it is frequently (or even largely) based on simplistic slogans, purposeful misapprehensions and out and out lies.   We, of course, have different kinds of enemies: political enemies, religious (and irreligious) enemies, and even intellectual enemies.  Depending on where we stand, those enemies have different names.  In his book Unapologetic: Why Despite Everything Christianity Can Still make Surprising Emotional Sense Francis Spufford argues that for Christians especially this means that we cannot look at other Christians and say “no kin of mine.”  He writes, “I find Sarah Palin, for example, ridiculous and terrifying . . . but I can’t just shun her. . . . I have to believe that she’s got something right, that she’s a member like me of the body of Christ, in need like me of the grace of God, and as sure as to receive it. She is, despite everything, a sister.  And I have to recognize her as such, while being very glad that Alaska is a long, long, way away; and to hope that, in the same way she would recognize a brother in me, despicable, gunless, high-taxin’ Euro-weenie that I am.” 

            So we bless our “enemies” even if we think they are wrong.  That is, I repeat, our Christian gift to the world. So God bless Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens; God bless Mark Driscoll and John Piper; God bless the bishop of Rome and the Archbishop of Canterbury; God bless John Boehner and Ted Cruz; God bless President Obama and Nancy Pelosi; God bless Israel and God bless Hamas; God bless the United States and God bless Iraq.  God bless red blooded, gun totin’ Americans and God bless “gunless Euro-weenies”; God bless you and God bless me.  Perhaps Tiny Tim had it right after all, “God bless us every one.”  With Paul, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone.  If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:17).  In other words, bless, don’t curse.

John E. Phelan, Jr.

Monday, May 26, 2014

To the Methodists, Presbyterians, Anglicans and Lutherans Contemplating Schism: Stop it. Just Stop.

To the Methodists, Presbyterians, Anglicans, and Lutherans Contemplating Schism: Stop it. Just Stop.

            Recently a group of “traditional” United Methodists issued a statement that in effect calls for an amicable divorce over the issue of same sex marriage.  It was a document full of sweet reason.  Essentially it suggested that both parties in this conflict would be better off without the other.  And I am sure in one sense that is true.  I am certain it will be a relief for the advocates of same sex marriage to not have to listen to the biblical challenges of the traditionalists.  And certainly the traditionalists will be relieved to not have to confront the question of gay marriage and gay clergy once again at some local or national gathering.  It is the easiest, most comfortable response to this conflict to peacefully permit the others to go their own way.  And this, of course, is the Protestant way.  We have a long history of refusing to live together if we couldn’t agree on, well, just about anything: theology, sacraments, church order, the ministry, the place of women in the church, musical instruments in worship—the list goes on and on.  And we always have some biblical warrant for our position—whatever it is.

            Stanley Hauerwas once said something like “Catholics need to be more like Anabaptists, Anabaptists need to be more like Catholics and nobody needs to be Protestant.”  I find the proliferation of Protestant schisms shameful and appalling.  I find it appalling because it suggests we find our unity not in Christ but in our theology, or liturgical practices, or organizational structures, or view of the Bible, or hermeneutics, or social location.  I find it appalling because we present ourselves as “ministers of reconciliation” but spend our time refusing to hear each other.  And, let me make it clear, this is a fault of both the “left” and the “right.”  Our behavior confirms the views of Rene Girard that human communities need scapegoats to foster identity.  We need enemies.  And so the “liberals” need the evil “fundamentalists” to mock and scorn.  And so the “conservatives” need the evil “liberals” to denounce and despise.  As Nathan told David, “thou hast given great occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme” (2 Samuel 12:14, KJV).  When we solemnly chide the Israelis and the Palestinians or, for that matter, the Democrats and Republicans, on the importance of reconciliation and living together with differences, our essential hypocrisy is exposed.  Jesus said something about splinters and beams and the Protestant church in North America, both left and right, is blinded by its own need to be right, to be in control.  And this control is foster by despising the alien other. 

            I confess that I have no idea what to do about this.  I have been a part of the Evangelical movement my whole life.  It is my home—not always a comfortable place to be—but my home.  I see a small cloud on the horizon the size of a human hand; a storm of division and despair is on its way.  And of course, this is always our way, isn’t it?  My own denomination began as a renewal movement in the Lutheran church of Sweden that ended up as a group of denominations in the United States.  We couldn’t agree on baptism, eschatology, or ecclesiology so each group went its own way.  Division is in the evangelical DNA.  These days the Internet is filled with evangelical heresy hunters who search for nuggets of heresy like old men scanning the beach with metal detectors for lost watches.  Incapable of living with mystery and ordinary human frailty they insist on no accommodation with what they considered error.  To be fair, the left side of the theological spectrum has its own heresy hunters—although they would not call them that.  The left is as likely to call someone out over incautious thoughts and careless words as the right—because both sides want to win.  If I have any hope it is in young people who want to follow Jesus—the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount and the Gospels.  If I have any hope it is not in national organizations and ecclesial hierarchies but in local congregations seeking to be faithful to our long heritage as Christians and the call to be true disciples.  My hope, you could say, is that Protestants can stop protesting so much and be, well, catholic and Anabaptist.  I am hopeful but, as they say, not optimistic, because the theological terrorists, both liberal and conservative, are fully armed and ready to blow up even more bodies of Jesus followers.

John E. Phelan. Jr.