Tuesday, November 25, 2014

What We Know About the Shooting of Michael Brown

What do we know about the shooting of Michael Brown? Not much. Every time there is an incident that makes national news we feel like we know what really happened. We've all seen enough of the news that it seems like surely we have enough information to render a verdict. But we don't. The most informed people are the members of the grand jury that chose not to prosecute. They don't know exactly what happened either, of course. Without having a camera on the police officer, which Michael Brown's family is endorsing, nobody can know for sure exactly what happened.

But there's something much bigger going on here. The question that needs to be asked is why doesn't the community of Ferguson, and communities across the country, trust that the right verdict was reached. That's the reason for the protests, right? If there was trust in the system then the protests wouldn't be needed. Regardless of whether or not charges should have been filed, what we know about the shooting of Michael Brown is that it isn't just about Michael Brown.

It's about the guy who called in on the radio today and said that we can't blame African-American's problems today on slavery anymore since it ended 400 years ago. Only 250 years off.

It's about the fact that 100 years after the end of slavery we still had "white" and "colored" water fountains. 

It's about the embarrassing truth that unemployment remains twice as high for African-Americans than for white Americans, and has ever since the Civil Rights Movement.

In short, the story of Michael Brown, whether or not he was ever a real threat to anyone the day he was shot, is a story of institutional racism. This is the reality - not just theory - that there are biases so deep that most of us who are in the majority aren't even aware that they exist. What makes it so pernicious is that it is invisible to us because of our social location. That doesn't mean it's not real.

There's a helpful metaphor for those of us who believe in God - God is like the wind. We don't see God directly, we see God by how God effects others like the wind blowing a leaf. In the same way, we don't see institutional racism directly - we don't hear racial slurs as often or see "white only" signs. Instead we see it by its effects. Protesters in Ferguson, unemployed adults and under-educated teens, citizens ignorant of basic history.

Michael Brown's death is tragic. Even more tragic is that it won't be the last. We have unquestionably made progress, but we unquestionably have a long, long way to go.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Thank you Kaci Hickox

You likely have heard the story of Kaci Hickox even if you don't know the name. Here's a refresher and an update.

Long story short, Kaci is a nurse who recently returned to the U.S. after treating Ebola patients in West Africa. Instead of being welcomed back, she was immediately quarantined because she had a slightly above normal temperature. She continued to be quarantined even though

  • Subsequent temperature readings showed that her temperature was normal.
  • She had NO symptoms of Ebola and a person is only contagious if they are symptomatic
  • She soon TESTED NEGATIVE for Ebola not once, but twice.
That's right, she was in quarantine to protect the community from a disease that she never had and couldn't have spread even if she did have it. Exactly 4 people have been diagnosed with Ebola in the United States. Only 2 people have contracted it in the United States. There are three countries in Africa where Ebola is truly a crisis. Every place else, including the other 44 countries in Africa, are doing just fine.

Ebola is scary. Any virus that kills is scary. But when a woman is quarantined for the sake of public safety even though there is conclusive evidence that she is not ill we have allowed fear to control us. 

So why should we all thank Kaci Hickox? Because this otherwise ordinary person resisted the absurd rules that were put in place and fought for her right to live freely. From time to time we need to remind public officials and private citizens of how easy it is for those rights to be taken away.

In 1985, a Los Angeles Times poll showed that 51 percent of Americans were in favor of quarantining AIDS patients. 48 percent believed those with AIDS should have to carry ID cards and 15 percent wanted to tattoo AIDS patients. Today those notions seem absurd, but 20 years ago when people were scared it didn't seem like such a bad idea. Think something like that can't actually happen? It was a different kind of fear but fear nonetheless that led to the internment of more than 100,000 Japanese Americans during World War II. Fear is a powerful motivator, but fear as a motivator must be resisted. That's what Kaci did. Others will benefit from her willingness to take heat in the media and from residents of the town she lives in. 

So thank you, Kaci Hickox. Thank you for caring for your fellow humanity in serving the people of West Africa and thank you for resisting injustice here at home by standing up to those who tried to shut you down.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Get Past the Video

The video inside the elevator was not as jarring to me as maybe it should have been. It just provided a grainy image to a story that I have already heard too often from women who have come to my office speaking (or too afraid to openly speak) about domestic abuse. Seeing the video shouldn't really have made any difference - the NFL should have been criticized for not taking stronger action than they did regardless. Domestic abuse is an unseen epidemic in this country that negatively affects generations.

As public as the Ray Rice incident has been, it would be tragic for us not to make progress as a country on this. And yet, here's the three most visible outcomes that I've seen so far:

1. I've seen a woman attacked multiple times on TV. You can stop showing the video now - we know what happened and the victims of abuse can stop reliving the experience every time they turn on the news!

2.  CBS dropped Rihanna from their Thursday Night Football broadcast. They say it's because it wouldn't set the tone they were looking for, but 1) Rihanna herself has been abused and 2)They never bothered to ask Rihanna about removing her song.

3. Covergirl has become the only NFL official sponsor to be targeted by protests. I should say that in my opinion the protest of Covergirl is very well done. But the only company being protested is...a product for women. Really? How about Anheuser-Busch since alcohol consumption is often a contributing factor to abuse? To be clear: alcohol does not cause abuse. A person chooses to abuse. But alcohol makes a really convenient excuse and may increase the likelihood of abuse.

In other words, other than Ray Rice himself the people who seem to be most negatively effected by this whole thing are...women.

We need more women like Megan MacKay and men like Chris Carter to step up and say it like it is. And we need more people like you and me to say it like it is, too.

If you are a woman, you don't have to stand for the abuse. Megan's video includes helpful links that you can follow for help.

But women shouldn't be abused to begin with! If you're a man, stand up for what's right. If you are a man you are automatically either part of the problem or part of the solution. If you're an abuser you're obviously part of the problem and you need to find a therapist to help you figure out how to cope with the issue(s) that have brought you to this point. You don't have to continue to abuse. But just not abusing someone doesn't make you part of the solution. If you know someone in an abusive relationship and you say or do anything that could be construed as support for the abuse, even staying silent when you see abuse, then you are part of the problem. If you hear another man make a joke that involves abuse and laugh, you are part of the problem. If you hear a man justify Ray Rice or anybody else in their abuse, you are part of the problem.

I have two daughters. I don't want either one of them, or any of their friends, or any of your children or grandchildren, to some day walk into their pastor's office to share a story of abuse. For their sake, and for the sake of their generation, please be part of the solution.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Don't Walk the Talk

Elections are coming up and, like always, I won't publicly take a stand for or against any candidate. But I will vote, and I will consider carefully the various positions that candidates take on a number of issues.

I've been slowly reading a great book (great in quality and size!) by Stephen Prothero called The American Bible. Prothero selected many of the most influential documents in American History. I just read The Speech, Ronald Reagan's 1964 speech that began his rise to prominence that finished with his election as President in 1980. The Speech is frequently quoted or alluded to by Tea Party and other conservative candidates who want to continue the Reagan Revolution.

Here's the interesting thing. Reagan was clearly against tax increases, yet he increased taxes 4 times in  a three year period. Reagan vowed to cut the size of government, but he actually increased the number of government employees and added a new cabinet-level position. He said that government spending would shrink, but he grew it. He was against Social Security but bailed it out.

My point is not that Reagan went back on his word or that he was really a "liberal" instead of a "conservative". I have no reason to doubt that when he entered office Reagan the ideologue really intended to act out the revolution he preached. His early actions back that up. But then reality took hold. He realized that the real world that we live in is not all that friendly to ideologues. In the real world, even in the pseudo-real world of politics, we are forced to compromise all the time (we all know that our family is more important than our job but don't we all occasionally have to put the job first? We balance priorities.) We take new facts into consideration and change our minds (no matter how committed I was to buying a hybrid car after I had all the facts we went standard). Compromise and taking in new information are the kinds of things that mature, reasonable adults do every day. They are the things that ideologues do not do.

To be clear - there are ideologues on the left as well as the right. There is a kind of "fundamentalist liberalism" just as there is a "fundamentalist conservatism". I don't want to vote for someone who once elected will do exactly what they said they would do when running. I want to vote for someone who, like Reagan, understood that times and data change and that compromise for the sake of progress is not always a bad thing. The "talk" that wins elections today may not be the "walk" that moves our country forward.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Hope in the Great Plains

Lovett Weems has wisely said that the United Methodist Church must reach more people, younger people, and more diverse people if we are to strengthen our witness to the world in the years to come. I was privileged to be part of a group the last weekend of June that experienced this very thing.

It was the first Candidacy Summit for the Great Plains Annual Conference. 38 candidates for ministry gathered in Lincoln to learn about and discuss their call. It was larger than any group of ministerial candidates that I've ever been around. That's one more than the number of retirements we had this year. I can't say for sure, but I'm guessing it's been several years since we've had more people in Kansas and Nebraska beginning the candidacy process than we have pastors retiring.

The group was not uniformly young (that's a moving target to me as I get older!), but I would estimate that at least half were 1st-ish career, or at least in their 20's-30's. Assuming that the generally accepted rule that a pastor will best reach people who are 10-15 years younger and older than the pastor is correct this bodes well for our ability to reach younger populations.

Finally, our candidates were diverse. At least three different nationalities were represented among the group. In every case, these candidates were well equipped to communicate both with newer immigrants from their countries of origin as well as with their peers at the summit. There was also wide theological diversity. United Methodism in Kansas and Nebraska will not be simply "liberal" or "conservative" it will be a mix of theology held together by the common center of a commitment to evangelism and social justice.

Our UM population continues to decline. It will for some time. But the quality and kind of new candidates for ministry that we have is a leading indicator of our future. I am convinced that our future is bright!

Thursday, May 15, 2014

What We Mean by Authority Pt. 2

Yesterday I looked at two common ways that people interpret the Constitution. They are very different from each other, but in both cases they look at the Constitution as the primary source of authority for law in the United States. Debate on the 2nd Amendment is a good example of how the differences translate into policy.

Now let's look at the same two modes of interpretation - Strict Constructionalism and Living Constitution (or Loose Constructionalism) and apply them to the Bible.

Strict Constructionalism
In it's strictest form this is the "The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it!" bumper sticker. That's not an entirely fair way to describe what many people who follow this model actually believe. A fairer approach is this: The Bible is the Word of God. It is inspired by the Holy Spirit. It is the only reliable guide for orthodoxy and orthopraxy. So while the Bible must be interpreted, we should use Scripture to interpret Scripture, and follow the plain meaning of the text whenever possible. Example: Physical intimacy between same sex partners is explicitly forbidden multiple times in the Bible. Even if isolated arguments can be made that some passages don't say what they seem to say (like Sodom and Gomorrah's sin was hospitality not sex) when we look at Scripture as a whole the condemnation is clear. The words mean what they say and the Bible means what it says.

Loose Constructionalism (another name for Living Constitution used yesterday)
Just as in the interpretation of the Constitution, the loose approach starts by acknowledging that the text has ultimate authority. I hear very few pro-LGBT indviduals talk about just throwing the Bible out because it doesn't say what we want it to say. The Bible is our starting point. But instead of starting with the specific words of the text, we start with the big picture. The Bible is inspired by the Holy Spirit, but it is also written by human hands. For example, when the Psalmist says, "Happy is...he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks" the Psalmist is faithfully recording his own thoughts, not the heart of God. The Bible consists of Spirit-inspired words about God and God's people that point us to Christ, the Word of God (The Bible never actually calls itself the Word of God but in John it does refer to Christ as the Word). It is the most faithful witness that we have to who God is and so can be called God's Word even as we acknowledge it primarily points to something beyond itself. Example: The big picture that clearly comes through the Bible is that God is Love and we are to fully love God and each other. The Bible is the starting point for understanding what love means. Given what we know about humans through both reason and experience it is difficult to reconcile the apparent statements condemning homosexual practice with the life experiences of gay and lesbian partners. Because Scripture is authoritative we do not simply dismiss it. Instead, we read more carefully, search for the core message of what God is trying to communicate, consider the context in which various passages are written, and try to discover if reconciliation of reason and experience with Scripture can happen.

Which one is right?
What we need to notice is that if two people are talking to each other, one coming from each of these perspectives, they will mostly talk past each other. The first will say "This is what the Bible says!" and the second will say "But this is what the Bible means!" and they both may very well be right at the same time. Certainly they will not agree with each other. Just like two Supreme Court justices can look at the same Constitution and come to very different conclusions while agreeing that it is the basis for their decision, so too may two Christians look at the same Bible, or even a particular passage of the Bible, and come to very different conclusions while agreeing that the Bible is the basis for their decision.

Why does any of this matter?
For a number of reasons, many of which are articulated very well in Matthew Vine's new book God and the Gay Christian, I am persuaded that the traditional reading of Scripture as condemning the "practice" of homosexuality is not God's intent. I say that as someone who is equally persuaded that Scripture is our best, most authoritative, and most inspired witness to God. As a United Methodist, my understanding of Scripture is not at all in conflict with our Doctrinal Standards and General Rules. We do have a standard that the Bible "is to be received through the Holy Spirit as the true rule and guide for faith and practice." We do not have a standard about how Scripture functions as authoritative.

The real issue facing the United Methodist Church and many others is not sex, as the media would have us believe. It is not whether or not Scripture is authoritative as the "conservative" wing would have us believe. The real issue is whether or not the United Methodist Church is prepared to now demand uniformity in how we understand Scripture to be authoritative. I don't think we want to walk down that road. I want a Board of Ordained Ministry to ask a candidate "What is the significance of the creation story to you?" without the candidate fearing that believing in a 6-day creation or believing in evolution will automatically disqualify him or her from candidacy. I want to be able to preach on the woman at the well and know that in three more years I may have moved to another church and another pastor can preach that same story in the same pulpit from a different perspective and still be respected. I want to search, explore, and love Scripture without being told that we already know all the answers are - no more questions need to be asked. That's when we stop learning, and learning is a vital part of any relationship - especially our relationship with God. I don't want to be in that denomination. I want to be in this one, where there is space for the non-essentials and fidelity to the essentials. The way that we interpret Scripture is not one of the essentials. It never has been May it always be so.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

What We Mean by Authority Pt.1

"It's about the authority of Scripture!" silently yells one writer on a Facebook forum. "If only the people who don't believe Scripture is authoritative would leave the denomination then we could get back about the business of the Church!" There's only one problem (no, the problem is not that the speaker is a Fundamentalist. We have some in the UMC, I've talked with a few, but I think their numbers are very small). The problem is I haven't met the Christian who says the Bible is not authoritative. There are certainly many who would call Scripture an authority instead of the authority (ultimately I think we all do this, but that's a topic for another day), but we all believe in the authority of Scripture. What the speaker really should say, and perhaps the question that all of us in the United Methodist Church if not all of Christianity should be asking ourselves, "It's about how Scripture is authoritative!" That's something we could have a good Church fight about!

First, let me illustrate why it's about "how", not "if" Scripture is authoritative by analogy with the U.S. Constitution. Every Supreme Court Justice considers the Constitution to be authoritative. They have to - they are sworn to uphold it. But we have lots of 5-4 decisions. Why? Because Justices (and all of us, really) think of the Constitution in different ways. There are several different frameworks for interpreting the Constitution and lots of literature you can find online about each of them. To simplify, let's look at two:

Strict Constructionism
In a nutshell, "The Constitution says it, I believe it, that settles it." The text says what it says and unless an amendment is passed that changes the content of the Constitution the courts must enforce the letter of the law. This view tends to be upheld by more "conservative" justices although if we're honest probably most people will hold to it when it best suits their preferences. Example: The 2nd Amendment guarantees the right to bear arms. No law may be passed that abridges this right, period.

Living Constitution
The opposite of strict constructionism is the Living Constitution. This model says that while the principles of the Constitution remain sound, following the letter of the law can actually sometimes work against the overall purpose. What matters most aren't the words, but the concepts behind the words. As society changes, then, so to must the particular ways that we live out our Constitution. This view tends to be upheld by more "liberal" judges and is why we often hear of "liberal, activist judges legislating from the bench." Example: The authors of the Constitution never could have conceived of weapons that could fire dozens of rounds every minute. The 2nd Amendment is an important protection, but one that has to be understood in the context of muskets instead of machine guns. In the new context the rules must change.

Notice in both cases proponents appeal to the Constitution as their primary authority. They "believe in" the Constitution. But the way in which they appeal to it for authority is different. Tomorrow we'll flip the page and see what happens when we apply these principles of interpretation to Scripture.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

What the UM debate is NOT about

The latest news on the United Methodist Church's future is that 'conservatives" are threatening "withholding funding from the church, advocacy with the Council of Bishops for greater enforcement of the Book of Discipline,  and the possibility of creating a proposal for the division of the United Methodist Church into two denominations." Given the number of pastors who are now violating or threatening to violate the Book of Discipline I can't entirely blame them. But the reasoning is completely disingenuous.

The same article that reports the conversation among conservatives also quotes one, Charles Kyker, as saying, "We believe that the Bible is God’s word – inspired by the Holy Spirit in its entirety and authoritative for determining what is spiritually and morally true.  Many progressives see the Scriptures very differently, so much so that they accept some parts as coming from God and dismiss other parts as being uninspired – even flat out wrong," Yet this is not what the argument is about at all..

If the Bible is not authoritative to progressives then why do we continue to quote it in support of a pro LGBT position?
If the Bible is not authoritative to progressives then why do we quote theologians who reflect on it?
If the Bible is not authoritative then why do progressive pastors still use Scripture in every worship service before preaching?

Of course the Bible is authoritative! And it is authoritative only because it is inspired by the Holy Spirit! If the issue was the authority of Scripture then the argument would be over holding to our Doctrinal Standards, specifically Article IV of The Confession of Faith of the Evangelical United Brethren Church.

If the problem is really about the authority of Scripture then conservatives would be proposing resolutions that speak to the authority of Scripture. But that's not the problem.

The problem is that we disagree about what Scripture really intends to say. It's really that simple. But it is so much easier to simply dismiss progressives as saying that they don't believe in the Bible and conservatives as fundamentalists who don't use your brain.

We are engaging in a futile case of talking right past each other.

Article IV says, "We believe the Holy Bible, Old and New Testaments, reveals the Word of God so far as it is necessary for our salvation. It is to be received through the Holy Spirit as the true rule and guide for faith and practice. Whatever is not revealed in or established by the Holy Scriptures is not to be made an article of faith nor is it to be taught as essential to salvation." If the conservative wing wants to hold all pastors to accountability for this passage I'm on board. Then we can talk about what God intends to reveal and establish about sexuality and, hopefully, agree that even if we disagree on what God is revealing we can agree that our opinion on sexuality is not essential to salvation.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Polio, Jim Collins and Racism in America

The November issue of Wired magazine ran a story on the effort to eradicate polio from the world. Long story short, an amazing amount of progress has been made over the last twenty-five years but finishing off polio like we did smallpox years ago will require an incredible an incredible amount of money and human resources. We're talking millions of dollars for every life saved. So there's a choice to make. Polio is not the problem that it once was. We've made incredible progress. Do we commit the resources to eliminate it entirely or do we settle for where we are now and focus on other killer diseases instead?

This is a real world example of the dilemma Jim Collins poses in his classic book Good to Great. Collins says, "Good is the enemy of Great." We settle for what is good enough instead of going all out for what is great. There are times when settling for good is, well, good enough. As a pastor, if I have a sermon prepared that is good but not great and a parishioner dies suddenly late in the week tending to the parishioner's needs may take high enough precedence that the sermon never becomes what it could have been. My time needs to be spent elsewhere. While it would be wonderful to wipe out polio, it is good to debate about the best use of our limited resources to fight disease. I have no idea what the best course of action is. What is important in this case is to understand that stopping at good would only be acceptable because the same resources are being used for a greater good, such as fighting malaria or another fatal disease.

Earlier today I was listening to a local radio program while driving. I heard this snippet:
Host to caller: The biggest problem with racism today is that we can't admit how much progress we've made.
Caller to host: I agree. I tell you what, put me with the blacks. I like watermelon and fried chicken.

You need to know that I did not hear the entire context of the program. I heard a couple previous callers and part of the next caller before I reached my destination. But as soon as the shock of what I just heard wore off my mind turned to Jim Collins and Good to Great. If we compare the United States of 2014 to the United States of the 1800's or 1960's it is undeniable that we have made great progress on racism. It is equally undeniable that we still are a country that has forms of structural racism and individuals that hold overt and covert racist beliefs. If you don't think you some of the covert racism in society has worn off on you you might try one of these tests. I'll admit that I was embarrassed at the results when I took the weapons test.

Racism is entrenched like polio. It is largely invisible until we look very closely (less than 1% of carriers of the polio virus display symptoms), but when we do look closely we see the disease is still with us. Wiping it out will take intentional, hard work. Compared to where we've been, we're doing pretty well. But "good" is not good enough. We can do better. We need to do better.