Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Can the Church Survive in a Post-Consumer Culture?

The United States, and for that matter, the world, is not really post-consumeristic. All living things consume and if we stop consuming what it takes to sustain life, then we die.

However, the current economic meltdown is causing some economists to question the sustainability of economic systems (like that of the USA) that rely significantly on consumer spending. As evidenced this holiday season, when consumers spend less at Christmas, the growth of the economy suffers. The Christmas spirit is viewed less by worship and reflection on the birth of Jesus, and more on how to part with money we don't have for more things that we don't need.

The current crisis is significant and has to be addressed. But for we who follow Jesus, this may also be the time to self-critique; to have the courage to dismantle what we think has sustained our church systems and learn in fresh and new ways what it means to be the church for the sake of the world.

In highly developed societies (again, like the USA), there is an increasing lack of awareness of the relationship between production and consumption. Ask a young child where eggs come from and she might name the local grocery store rather than the chickens in the back yard. We work jobs and then spend money on things that have no apparent link to the work we produce. Very few of us grow the crops or raise the livestock that feed us. There are so many levels between production and consumption that the relationship between the two is often foggy.

That's why we can continue to demand more and more without regard for the price to be paid when consumer demand outpaces the ability to produce (not to mention that much of what we demand is non-essential. Guitar Hero and iPods may be cool and entertaining, but they are not essential to life. iPhones, yes. iPods, no).

If we begin to look closely at how that perception has leaked into the church we might be disturbed. People shop churches as though they are buying cars. The church experience is seen as the meeting of a demand, whether it is program for kids, sermons that inspire or entertain, music that is appealing and little or no requirement for participation. People leave churches with the same kind of consumer mentality that characterizes our shopping-oriented life. If the church up the street is more attractive, has better music, spicier programs, then we move, dismissing the significance of Christian community with no more concern than when we choose to shop at Target over WalMart.

This is a systemic problem in the church (of course, I am over-generalizing here in order to make a point or two), in that churches have often come to see themselves as vendors in a competitive marketplace. We construct "services"* in order to attract more people, and we don't really care where those people come from, and most of them come from other churches. 
We too often develop highly-produced musical aspects of worship not because we seek to draw people into the beauty of worship but rather in order to keep and attract our customers--I mean, members. We think we are somehow creating environments that will draw people seeking faith, but most of our movement in church membership comes from with the ranks of people calling themselves Christians who find it easy to move from one church to the other. 

In seeking to find needs and fill them we easily pander to consumeristic tendencies that have already created a massive problem in the culture--and the world--at large. And for all our efforts, we find that much of what we do is simply for us and not the world. In fact, the world out there doesn't really care how cool and trendy our "services" are (Click here for one atheist's view of the nature of Christian mission).

Brothers and sisters, this is not sustainable. And it has little to do with the essence of what it means to be the church.

What if, during these difficult times, we as the church began to look deeply at who God has called us to be, and then prayed for the courage to act on some newly discovered convictions (look here for a creative challenge to holiday consumerism)? What if we ran the risk of losing attenders by searching out God's desires and intentions for us and then forming our corporate life around those intentions? Would we consider our churches to be successful if we had smaller, more deeply devoted members who understood that we don't "do church" for ourselves but for the sake of the world? That to be a worshipper of God also means that we are lovers of the world?

If we USAmericans are waiting for things to get back to "normal" economically so we can get back on our debt and spending machines, then we have learned nothing. If the church at large doesn't use this opportunity to re-evaluate and reform both its inward and outward life, then we also will have learned nothing.

Returning to normal is not what we need. What we need is a new normal. 

*Note: Worship gatherings are not called "services" because they serve us. The idea is that we serve God in our worship. From there we go, as many churches include in their weekly benedictions, to love and serve the world.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Thinking about the Birth of Jesus

Christmas is about a week away. All the rhetoric about whether or not we can say "Merry Christmas" in public continues to bless my dark little heart. Yes, indeed--why would we ever say such a thing? Why not say "Merry Shmerkins"? BECAUSE IT ISN'T SHMERKINS DAY, THAT'S WHY! Check the calendar. You'll see that I'm right.

Nevertheless, Christmas time it is. This is supposed to be a big deal for we who follow Jesus. And yet, we get sucked into the same cultural non-Christmas stuff as much as anyone else. We need to work on that. We might start by reflecting on why celebrating the birth of Jesus is important to us.

Of course, it's important to us for a lot of reasons. It causes us to think about what it means that such a one would be born in a very human way, yet conceived, we are told, by God. We think about the amazing things that will come in the ministry of Jesus. We consider what sorrow will come to him and to all who come to love him.

There is another thing that is wandering through my mind this season: That Jesus' birth signals the unimaginable claim that God, in entering fully into human existence in the person of Jesus, will experience all the inevitabilities of that existence: Life, joy, sorrow, pain, suffering, and ultimately, death. Jesus is born--it is now a guarantee that Jesus will die.

Sometimes we think that the Romans and Jewish leaders who condemned Jesus to death on a cross were responsible for his death--that without them, Jesus would not have died. While it's true that they were the instigators of his death at that point in time, it was God who embraced the inevitability of human death when Jesus was born. For every birth announcement there will one day be an obituary.

Jesus did not come as an innocent "other" who stands between God and the human race, somehow shielding us from what God really wants to do to us. No, Jesus came with all the fullness of God, so that it is God himself who lives, loves, suffers and dies. Remember that Jesus is linked with the ancient Jewish title Emmanuel--God is with us.

Christmas is good. Buy some presents that mean something for people you love, but don't go into debt and don't be dopey about what you buy. Bless your neighbors and co-workers. Find environments of worship and reflection that draw you deeper into the mystery that is the incarnation. Learn about Advent. Live in the story.

Merry Christmas. Hang on for Easter.

Friday, November 28, 2008

What About Homosexuality? Part 3

There are a number of studies in the areas of anthropology, psychology and medical science that suggest the normalcy of homosexuality, in both genetics and the history of human societies. The scientific studies seem to be in continuous debate, but the anthropological studies have many levels of history on their side. It appears that homosexuality has always been present in human societies. For various reasons, people with homosexual inclinations were often marginalized, sometimes for antagonistic reasons and other times because such behavior does not add new members to the tribe or village through procreation.

In western culture today, the need to add new human beings to societies is less of a concern than it might have been in history past. Yet, homosexual people and communities are still often marginalized, at least because they remain a small minority of most populations.

The tension and paradox then, must deepen. I follow Jesus, who is shown in my Scriptures to have reached out to the marginalized and declared that the kingdom of God had come to such as these. Jesus reached out to all kind of people on the margins of his particular society and was personally marginalized to the place of execution when his own countrymen demanded his death.

The people I have know who claim a homosexual inclination have not been sexual predators or abusers (that I know of). They are not people who woke up one day and decided to take a walk on the wild side with members of their own gender. They claim a drive within them that they do not control. Some claim that drive has been evident since they were children. Most of the homosexual people I have known have also shared with me stories of deep relational pain, sexual abuse and neglect. These confessions make them like others I know and love who do not claim to be homosexuals. 

Defining homosexual persons as immoral en masse requires me to assume that those persons have made a conscious and willing choice to pursue such behavior when they were not compelled to do so, as a deliberate act of transgression against the rules of God. But I do not believe that homosexual persons can be so easily dismissed. If so, then I must dismiss myself and all others on planet earth.

No matter the cause of homosexuality--a normal, genetic variation from heterosexuality or an expression of sexual deviance arising out of deep relationship brokenness--I have to ground my relationships with homosexual persons the same way I must ground my relationships with heterosexual persons: As co-humans, made in the image of God. As such, I am compelled to point them to Jesus, that their lives might be transformed by the Spirit of God just as my life must be transformed.

In addition, no matter my opinion on the rightness or wrongness of homosexuality, I must still go to them and to others who are needy and hurting, and serve them in the name of Jesus.5 That is at the heart of the true Christian vocation. Our vocation is not to rain condemnation on anyone, but rather to both proclaim and demonstrate the present reality of the kingdom of God.6 

5 See the article by the well-known British atheist Roy Hattersley, "Faith Does Breed Charity." Accessed 11/23/08.

6 Dr. Ray S. Anderson deals with this question in a more comprehensive way at

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

What About Homosexuality? Part 2

The question about homosexuality is linked more to the issue of morality than to that of fitness. Is homosexuality wrong in that it runs counter to a moral standard? In order to think about this, I have to explore in what ways homosexuality might be framed in a category of morality.

1. Sexual practices that are predatory or forced upon an unwilling person would be considered, generally, immoral. If homosexual behaviors are acted out in such a way, most societies would consider them immoral. However, most societies would consider heterosexual activity immoral as well, if acted out under the same circumstances.

2. Sexual practices that use another person without regard for that person's well-being or dignity, even if by mutual consent, would be considered by many to be dehumanizing at the least. Again, that would apply to both homosexual and heterosexual behavior.

3. Obsessive sexual behavior (sometimes labeled "sexual addiction") of any nature is generally considered aberrant (note the recent celebrities whose treatment for sexual addiction has made the popular press).

I suspect that the question moves beyond even these categories and into the realm of the transcendent. In other words, is there a higher moral law that is breached when a person claims to have an innate attraction to people of the same gender?

The three Abrahamic religions--Judaism, Christianity, and Islam--have within their scriptures prohibitions against homosexual behavior (Islam is probably the strictest in this regard, with capital punishment as a legal consequence in certain middle-eastern nations). This is not to say that all adherents of these faith traditions denounce homosexuality, but rather that their sacred texts do not support such sexual behavior.

So, as a Christian, a former pastor and now a theological educator, what do I think? Again, my thinking on this subject cannot be purely objective--I bring my own history, learning and biases into the analysis.

1. I am heterosexual. I do not desire a sexual relationship with another man. It is not a matter of choice--I simply have no inclination in that direction. It is, therefore, difficult for me to understand that inclination in others since it has not been my experience.

2. I was raised in an era when homosexuality was considered aberrant behavior by the psychological community2 and immoral behavior by most religious groups. The possibility of the acceptance of homosexuality as normative has some significant imprinting to challenge, as it probably does for many boomers and their ancestors.

3. I have had (and have) relationships with co-workers, business associates, and friends (both inside and outside our common faith communities) who were or are homosexual. Only one of those persons would be characterized as sexually aggressive toward others, myself included. The rest I have considered as valued relationships.

For me, this creates a paradox. On the one hand I have sacred texts that I deeply value which speak against homosexuality3; on the other, I have texts in those same Scriptures that call me to love all people--those who are like me and for me, but also those different from me and even antagonistic toward me.4  I combine this tension with friendship and love I have shared with homosexual people in my life and I find abstraction to be an impossibility.


2In 1973, homosexuality was moved from DSM-II's category of mental issness and into the category of sexual disturbance., accessed 11/23/08.

3Even if all the texts of the Old and New Testaments that specifically refer to homosexuality were eliminated as culturally obsolete, the Bible would still teach that the image of God is reflected in men or women individually, but also in the relationship between a man and a woman in the bond of marriage (see Genesis 2).

4See Jesus' words about the completeness and perfection of God's love in human relationships in Matthew 5:43-38.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

What About Homosexuality? Part 1

I have been asked recently to give my opinion on homosexuality: Is it wrong? What I can offer is only an opinion, and as such it will be flawed and in need of correction. Nevertheless, I will offer it. 

I must begin by confessing a lack of so-called objectivity. As the scientist-philosopher Michael Polanyi claimed, there is no possibility of pure objectivity when it comes to the way human beings analyze the things of the world. Even the most learned scientist brings her own worldview and material expectations to the microscope.1

I also lack objectivity because there have been people in my life who tell me that homosexuality is the proper category for their sexual orientation. These people have not been in my life in a casual way--they are people I have loved and valued as friends. It will be impossible for me to approach this topic abstractly, theoretically, philosophically or theologically without seeing the faces of the friends I have known.

The question on the table, again: Is homosexuality wrong? I am a Christian, I have been a pastor and I now work in the field of theological education, so the question behind the question is likely about what I believe God, the Bible, church tradition, etc., claim about homosexuality.

To attempt to address this complex question, I have to start by turning back and asking: What do we mean by wrong? There are at least two ways to approach that question.

1.  Something can be deemed wrong because it is incorrect or misplaced. Chili powder is the wrong seasoning for lemonade. "Five" is the wrong answer to "What is the sum of two plus two?"

2. Something can be deemed wrong because it violates a moral or ethical standard within a communal system, like a nation, a state, a city, a religious community, and so on. In this sense, wrong is determined by a standard that transcends, or is above and outside, human preferences. Murder is considered wrong because most human communities place a high value on human life, for a variety of reasons. Diverting funds from a charity into the pockets of the charity's executives is considered wrong because the act violates a trust and puts the declared recipients of the charity's gifts at risk.

I sat in a public high school classroom a few years ago as a group of honors students discussed the issue of same-sex marriage. The opinions differed as the group worked through their questions and thought process. More than one student suggested that homosexuality presented a problem because of the "lock and key." Suspecting I knew what they meant, I inquired further. The claim was that they found homosexuality to be puzzling because, to put it crudely, the parts didn't seem to fit. For these students there was something wrong anatomically. They understood that males and females had sexual organs that were designed (by God, by evolutionary processes, and so on) to have intercourse which had the potential to foster reproduction. One organ was a giver and the other a receiver, with particular reproductive (and pleasurable) results.

These students were claiming that homosexuality was wrong because of the incongruity of the sexual organs. In this sense wrong would be akin to being different. It would be an issue of fitness.

But the question at hand is linked more to the issue of morality than to that of fitness.


1. Michael Polanyi sets the stage for his argument by claiming ". . . that complete objectivity as usually attributted to the exact sciences is a delusion and is in fact a fast ideal" (p. 18). He states later, ". . . Personal knowledge in science is not made but discovered, and as such it claims to establish contact with reality beyond the clues on which it relies. It commits us, passionately and far beyond our comprehension, to a vision of reality. Of this responsibility we cannot divest ourselves by setting up objective criteria of verifiability . . . For we live in it as in the garment of our own skin" (p. 64). Personal Knowledge: Toward a Post-Critical Philosophy. University of Chicago Press, 1974.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Is Marriage a "Right"?

People on both sides of the same-sex marriage issues (very big in California right now) argue from the position of individual rights. Pro-same-sex people seem to rely quite heavily on what they claim is a constitutional right to do the things that an individual wants to do--like get married.

I was thinking about this issue a few days ago and I recalled two things that occurred in my life in 1972 (when dinosaurs roamed the earth) that had to do with my so-called rights.

In 1972 I was 19 (I turned 20 in September). I was a voting-age citizen of the United States and the bearer of all rights therein. In the Spring of that year I received a letter that began with the word, "Greetings!" It was my draft notice. I learned very quickly that my right to do what I wanted had been suspended. I did not have the right to refuse that summons to serve in the military (as it turned out, I joined the Navy and served four years). Yes, the summons to compulsory military service came with the privilege of being a citizen, but my rights to individual freedom had to be suspended for that to happen.

The second thing that happened that year is that I got engaged. Emily and I made a verbal commitment to each other and it was affirmed by our community and families. We had the "right" to just move in together (which we did not), but getting married turned out to be different. In 1972, three things had to happen for us in order to get married: (1) We had to get blood tests. Presumably we would have been refused a marriage license if something suspect was shown in the test results; (2) I had to get my parent's written permission. In 1972, a woman could marry at 18, but a man had to be 21 (probably a wise recognition of the disparity between maturity levels). I could get married at 20, but my parents had to give me a letter (which they did); (3) A recognized official (clergy, officer of the court, etc.) had to preside over a marriage ceremony, religious or otherwise.

For us, marriage was not really a right--it was a request we made to the state of California that could be denied under certain circumstances. People, for example, who are already married cannot get married to another person--the permission will not be granted. 

In 1972, two people of the same sex could not receive permission to marry. But since that time, other restrictions to the permission process have been lifted: Blood tests are no longer required; people may marry at age 18 (both male and female). Some sort of ceremony by an authorized person is still required, however. It is still a granting of permission and the conferring of legal recognition.

When people get married, I don't think they are exercising a right. It is the receiving of recognition by the larger community (in our case, the state of California) that this relationship qualifies for the protections offered by the legalities of marriage, including ownership of property, rights to income, inheritance, structures for offspring, etc. In an important way, marriage has always been an institution that protects the couple, but also serves the community.

I think the argument about rights in same-sex marriage is misplaced. Perhaps the proponents should talk about how (1) they believe same-sex as a limiter should be simply removed from the list, just as blood tests and parental permission have been; (2) they believe that same-sex marriage, in a recognition by the state, serves the larger community.

Christians should look at the issue a little differently, I believe. For us, marriage is also not about rights. Marriage is about a covenant relationship that is characterized by faithfulness--to God, to each other, and to our community. Marriage is not simply a contract that is characterized by rights. We also believe that marriage is a spiritual and theological reality--it is a reflection of the image of God (we get this from Genesis chapters 1-2 in the Bible). More on this topic later.

If marriage is only about rights, then there can be a lot of movement to remove more and more limiters from those rights: Change the legal age of adulthood from 18 to 10. That would allow a 40-year-old man to marry an 11-year-old girl--it would be his right to do so. Change the requirement that marriage be monogamous--people could have the right to marry as many people as desired. If marriage is only about rights, then that right should be exercised as anyone sees fit. If not, then there must be discrimination afoot.

The argument regarding the rights of marriage is painful because it is misplaced. If there is an argument, at least from the legal side, then it needs to framed differently. 

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Fires in California

Yesterday, upon discovering that Santa Barbara was burning, my co-worker J-Bird and I quickly relocated a group of our students up there who had planned to meet for a church history class right next to the heavy burn area.

This morning I discovered that the sky above my neighborhood was filled with smoke. It seems that major fires are burning (out-of-control) in the areas surrounding my city. The sky is dark enough that the light-sensitive lamps in people's yards are flickering on. The sun is an eerie, dull red disk high in the afternoon sky. Ash is falling everywhere.

My wife left this morning to visit her mother 35 miles to the northeast in a hospital where she was admitted last night. Her mother is 85 years old and her situation appears grave. Both major freeways that my wife would take home are closed because of wildfires. Across the street, my neighbors Kate and Tony are waiting for Kate's mother, who is living with them, to slip away. The hospice people thought she would pass away on Thursday, but she still lingers.

This is turning out to be quite a week. It is interesting how global issues lose their attraction when your local world is in turmoil. It causes me to stop and remember that, at its essence, life is much more about people than it is about issues. And we all live together in a very dangerous world where our only real hope is to trust in God and put our lives into his hands.

"You are a hiding-place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with glad cries of deliverance." (Psalm 32:7)

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Post-Election Reflection

Now that the dust of the election is beginning to settle, it seems good to me to think about how we, as followers of Jesus, respond to the results. Two thoughts come to mind:

1. If your candidate was not elected, will we pray for our new president and trust God for the welfare of the nation? There are radio talk shows that make a fortune out of attacking presidential administrations that they do not prefer. Is that a place for us? I think not.

2. In California, Proposition 8 passed (51%), seeking to ban gay marriage in the state. The question we must now ask is: Who is my neighbor? Is a gay or lesbian person my neighbor? What does Jesus have to say about our love to the neighbor?

Proposition 8 has resulted in more accusations of hatred (which is a significant ramp-up of the term intolerance) toward its proponents than any issue in my memory. Even though the issue might be important, it is a sad irony that the word hatred would be linked to the Christian community (Mormons are probably taking the biggest hit on this one). Historically, Christians have been accused of being atheists, cannibals, and any number of strange labels. In most cases, these labels were not true.

May the label of hatred also be found to be untrue about us.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Acting Like a Christian in an Election Year, part 6

There is good counsel for us in Jeremiah 29:

"Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare."

This text was apparently written to the Jewish exiles living under the dominance of the Babylonian empire. As exiles, they are still called to live their lives and to pray for the welfare of the larger culture.

We can probably imagine how difficult forced exile would be. The people are taken from their land by a powerful military force and relocated to a place and culture not their own. Over time they adapt and learn how to live in the new culture, all the while striving to keep the memory of their identity alive. Walter Bruggemann, commenting on the song of Moses in Exodus 15, says that the community of ancient Israel . . . "gathered around the memories, knows that it is defined by and is at the disposal of a God who as yet is unco-opted and uncontained by the empire." (The Prophetic Imagination, Augsburg Press, 2001, p. 19)

Aren't we glad that we in USAmerica are not in exile? But we are. As followers of Jesus, as the people of God, we will always live in the shadow of a dominant culture. We may not feel a sense of oppression here, but we do live in a dominant culture that is driven by consumerism (which is the strongest fueler of our domestic economy), militarism and the demand for personal rights. When we forget that we are called to live in the alternative reality of the kingdom of God, then we become exiles without memory. We find ourselves serving a god that has indeed been co-opted and contained by the empire. We end up worshipping a god that is wrapped in the nation's flag.

The idea that we Christians in the USA are a people in exile might seem odd to some. But we are a people (according to St. Paul in Romans 11) grafted into the life of Israel. The Israel into which we are grafted is an Israel in exile (at the time of Paul's writing, the exile was under the dominance of Rome). By our very essence, we are a people in exile, both theologically and existentially.

To recognize that we are a people in exile is not a call to despise the nation. But it is, I believe, a call to speak prophetically and with wisdom into the life of the nation by first of all speaking into the life of the church. The church needs memories--not sentimental memories of the various denominational traditions, but instead memories of the story that God has been writing throughout human history. The story is not national but global and eternal. It is a story of both salvation and mission. It is the story into which our lives are being written. It is the story of the exiles impacting the dominant culture just as yeast permeates bread dough.

Today is election day in the USA. Some may vote out of fear, party loyalty, anger, or the desire for power. By contrast, perhaps the votes cast by followers of Jesus could be given as prayers--prayers for the welfare of the nation, that we might find welfare.

If you are a USAmerican citizen, then I encourage you to vote today. But remember who you are.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Acting Like a Christian in an Election Year, part 5

More anti-Obama messages have come my way via the Internet this week. I wonder why no one ever sends me anti-John McCain information? Most of the things I receive come from people identifying themselves as Christians. I still see things insisting that Mr. Obama is a Muslim (by the way: Regardless of the fact that he claims to be a Christian and has written about his faith in one of his books--prior to the campaign--I wonder if it has occurred to anyone that in the USA it is not illegal to be a Muslim. In fact, a person of any or no faith can run for public office. Just a thought).

People extend great respect to Mr. McCain for his service to his country, and rightfully so. Mr. McCain also says he is a Christian but describes God's relationship to the human race in deistic terms (as the cosmic clockmaker who sets things in motion but disappears, leaving the human race to make the best of things). I guess that doesn't really trouble anyone or I would have received another video or an email with doctored photographs or other incredible pieces of fine journalistic brilliance.

The alignment of evangelical Christian faith with Republican politics is, in my view, wrong. It is just as wrong as aligning our faith with Democratic politics, although that alignment is rarely promoted among evangelicals. American + Republican = Christian, is a very distorted formula.

In his book The Contemplative Pastor, Eugene Peterson calls we who follow Jesus to a different economy of life:

"The methods that make the kingdom of America strong--economic, military, technological, informational--are not suited to making the kingdom of God strong. I have had to learn a new methodology: truth-telling and love-making, prayer and parable. These are not methods very well adapted to raising the standard of living in suburbia or massaging the ego into a fashionable shape." (p. 28)

So, before we pass on the information of:

Rumor--let us reflect on our scriptures and how they counsel us regarding false witness (see Exodus 23:1-3 and Matthew 5:33-37 for starters)

Hatred--let us consider how Jesus describes perfection of love (Matthew 5:43-48) and the way he includes both neighbors and enemies in God's perfect circle of love.

Disastrous Expectations--let us consider how Jesus calls us to both love and pray for those we consider to be our opponents (again, Matthew 5:43-48) rather than to predict (and even hope for, perhaps?) their downfall.

So, my fellow followers of Jesus: Let's relearn what it really means to be the people of God for the sake of the world. 

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Acting Like a Christian in an Election Year, part 4

Today I was talking on the phone with my good friend Princess K of the Milky Way, and our conversation caused me to think about some of the language of fear that continually crops up in our political rhetoric. 

Socialism is a big one right now. Mr. Obama told Joe the Plumber that we need to "spread the wealth around," and Mr. McCain expresses concern that we are headed into socialism

For those of you unfamiliar with the term, socialism refers generally to an economic/social theory that calls for collective or state ownership of the means of national production and the creation of an egalitarian society. In its original conception, it was actually a nifty idea that would provide Karl Marx with free babysitting.

Karl Marx and his wife, Jenny, produced seven children. While only three lived to adulthood, they were apparently a handful when they were little scamps. The Marx's avoided poverty because Karl was making money through his writing, an inheritance, and through the support of his friend Friedrich Engels, whose money came from the profits of his family's business (a vile, capitalist venture, no doubt). The Marx's discovered, too late, the power of Karl's smelly beard to limit the process of conception, but they still had seven little ones to chase. So Marx came up with the idea of the collective, which would require all of his neighbors to watch his kids while he wrote books, talked trash and drank vodka with his hoodlum future-commie friends. Eventually he moved to London, missing the Beatles by 80 years, and died. His distant cousin Groucho failed to carry on Karl's legacy and went on to make a lot of money as an American capitalist entertainer. 

Besides amazingly accurate historical analyses, what occurred to me after my conversation with Princess K, was that we already do various forms of socialism in this country. For example:

Social Security: The first word is a tip off. I pay into the system and it goes to support my retired parents. I'm OK with that. I'm not OK that the punks who follow behind me could be cranky about supporting me. They'd better get busy--I'm not getting any younger.

Medicare: Same as Social Security, only different.

Welfare: It's not about my welfare, it's about someone else's.

These examples are about my money going out of my pocket and into someone else's. We already "spread the wealth." This is nothing new. 

Making a progressive tax is not a substantial change in "spreading the wealth," in my book. Look: If everyone paid a flat 10% tax, then the big dope making $300,000 would pay $30,000 and the poor slob making $50,000 would pay $5,000. Granted, the big dope has more left over than the poor slob. But the big dope's tax buys more highway improvements than does the poor slob's. So does the big dope get to drive on more road than the poor slob? Nope. Again, "spreading the wealth."

OK, so it's obvious that I'm an expert in economics. But don't let that intimidate you. You can think for yourself. In fact, you can go to and buy my book, The Bartender. Spread the wealth.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Acting Like a Christian in an Election Year, part 3

There is a new letter floating through the vast cosmos of the Internet that comes to us from the future. It is written by a Christian leader who tells us what life in USAmerica will be like four years from now if Mr. Obama becomes President. It is a prophecy full of fear and despair. It gives space for Christians to vote for either candidate, but choice is shown to be clear. Vote wrongly and you will incur the consequences of a disastrous choice. 

Here are my thoughts:

1. The most common command in the Bible is "do not fear" (thanks to N. T. Wright for pointing that out). Yet too often we promote fear by warning one another about the obvious error of our electoral decisions. On a national basis we feel we have much to fear, it seems. A vote one way or another will seal the fate of the nation, we are told. But I do not believe that.

I believe that Yahweh is king; that Jesus is Lord. The early church believed that and gave both proclamation and demonstration to that reality in the face of severe persecution. The kingdom of the United States of America is not the kingdom of God. And no President of the US is Lord. 

No matter who wins the election, we are still told, "do not fear." There is much to fear in the world perhaps, but in the shadow of God's wings we need not fear. 

2. Jesus calls us to love our enemy and pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5). Why? So that we might be called children of our Father in heaven, he tells us. Yet, in an election year, we seem to think that we have the right to hate. If we decide that our enemy exists in the person of the candidate of the wrong party, then we join in on the hatred. Talk show hosts will help us with this if we let them. The rhetoric of hatred will form us if we give it power. But we are to be formed by the Spirit of God. 

There is a call in our culture--a call for tolerance.  As my friend Craig Hovey points out, tolerance is fine if it keeps us from hatred. But tolerance is insufficient if it keeps us from love. I can tolerate you and not care whether you live or die. But if I love you everything is changed. Tolerance is not our high-water mark and hatred is not our arena.

3. Being a Republican or a Democrat has little to do with being a follower of Jesus. Both parties have a lot to do with the pursuit of power and revel in their own atmospheres of jackassery. The letter I mentioned earlier seems to suggest that the Republican way is the only right way (even though the author denounced Mr. McCain during the primaries. No partisan bias there, of course). Equating our political preferences with our followership of Jesus is a big mistake.

I can find things I agree with within both parties and also things that horrify and disgust me. Let me be honest: I hate abortion and pre-emptive military strikes. Greed is always bad whether regulated or unregulated. Either way, Greed fills the pockets of the powerful, both Republican and Democrat. What I'm saying is that we all have preferences and convictions. But they need to be more informed by the Spirit of God than by the spirit of '76. Our hearts need to be formed by the hand of God rather than by the manipulations of the media and political vomiting. 

Of the three Abrahamic religions, only two have geographic specificity. Judaism faces the site of the Temple in Jerusalem. The devout pray through the wailing wall toward the Temple mount. Islam revers Mecca, and the faithful pray toward that exclusive city. But Christians lack such specificity. We are, in effect, a people without a country. We are a people who live in exile no matter where we are on planet earth. We always live within a dominant culture, even in the USA. Don't get me wrong: This is my country and I'm glad I'm here. But the call to live my life in the economy of the kingdom of God is different and higher than the call to be a faithful citizen of the USA. 

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Election and Abortion

For many Christians, a candidate's stand on abortion is the single most important issued of the election. I have heard both candidates claim that abortion is a bad deal (but Mr. Obama still supports the upholding of Roe vs Wade).

I agree that this in an important issue (see Scot McKnight's thoughtful blog on this at But I wonder if our belief that a presidential candidate's position on abortion is really going to make a difference is really valid.

True, it will make a difference in the appointing of Supreme Court Justices, although those Justices are free to change their minds along the way. But it isn't likely that either candidate will stop abortions in our country. I think that horse, so to speak, is already out of the barn. Once the courts have decided that removing a woman's right to choose an abortion violates the constitution, it will be very difficult if not impossible to change the law.

I once heard John Wimber say that we shouldn't be surprised at the embracing of abortion in our country. After all, he said, the world has always had an appetite for sacrificing its young.

So what are we to do if our candidates aren't likely to alter the course of these events? One of the early church fathers, in a debate with a non-Christian thinker, offered up an interesting contrast of the Christian community vs the pagan community. He observed that the pagans routinely aborted the unwanted unborn (a horrific thought in the 2nd or 3rd century) and also abandoned unwanted infants outside the city where the wild animals could consume them. Then he said, in essence, "We don't do that. In fact, we find your abandoned children and raise them as our own." Both Jews and Christians were known for taking in these unwanted infants. They couldn't stop the larger culture from disposing of their young, but they could do differently within their own communities.

I think this might speak to us. Regardless of the choices people are making, we don't do that. Perhaps we should first of all seek to reduce the number of abortions in our country by addressing the practice within our Christian communities. If people claiming faith in Jesus in the US refused to get abortions, the numbers would probably drop somewhat. 

Perhaps being the light of the world and the salt of the earth begins with a commitment to do and not do certain things, regardless of the practices of the larger culture. In doing that, we shouldn't cut ourselves off from the world as though we are enclaves of untouchable holiness, but we should rather shine the light of life in the kingdom of God for the sake of a broken world.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Acting Like A Christian in an Election Year, part 2

As we near the end of the campaign trail, accusations and insinuations about the character of the opponents have emerged. No surprise there; they always do. It's the last flail before the snake dies.

I read something recently that attempted to resurface the idea that Mr. Obama's name is descriptive of a foreign and nefarious nature. That continues to interest me, since pretty much everyone living in USAmerica is from someplace other than here, at least two or three generations back.

The accusation is that Mr. Obama's name--Barack Hussein Obama--proves that he is an un-American Islamic Fundamentalist. So I began to wonder: If they got all that out of a name, what would they do with me?

My full name is Hugh Michael McNichols. Let's parse my name:

Hugh - of German origin, although it's popular among handsome British stars like Hugh Grant and Hugh Laurie. It means "bright in mind and spirit." Of course it does.

I am named after my dad, who was named after his uncle Hugh Croft, who drowned while serving in the Navy during World War I (sobriety at the time, unknown). I was also in the Navy, but did not drown. My youngest grandson's first name is Hugh, although he goes by Jack (as one would).

Michael - of Hebrew origin. It is actually a name that asks a question: "Who is like God?" The obvious answer: Not me. In the Bible, Michael was an archangel. Not a run-of-the-mill assistant angel mind you, but right up toward the top of the angel food chain.

McNichols - Probably started in Scotland but then came to Ireland, most likely to pick a fight. The McNichols had vast land holdings in Ireland in the 12th century, but got completely distracted by good ale in the local pubs and failed to remember a certain future McNichols in their will. 

There you have it: Hugh Michael McNichols, by virtue of his name, is clearly a German-Jewish devotee of Kabala and is very likely a druid, or has close associations with someone who is. Or he could be a leprechaun. A drunk leprechaun. Either way, he is trouble and shouldn't be president of the United States. I think we can all agree on that.

By the way: The name Barack is related to the Hebrew name Baruch, which means "blessed." One must be careful about what one mocks.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Acting Like A Christian in an Election Year, part 1

Every election year I hear people declare that Christians should support candidate X. Now that American Evangelicals and Fundamentalists have found their political voice, there can be power in those kinds of endorsements. Wise candidates now understand that they must court the Evangelical vote or suffer mightily on voting day. There is a lot of power in that. We might recall that power, it has been said, has a tendency toward corruption.

In Matthew 20, the mother of James and John (very embarrassing for them, I'm sure) asks Jesus to give her sons places of significance and power when he comes to power. He responds by saying, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you."

I think that we American Christians still have trouble with all of this. We tend toward creating parallels between orthodox Christianity and particular political agendas. We put the American flag and the flag of the church side-by-side in many sanctuaries. But I'm pretty sure that the kingdom of God is not the kingdom of America--or any other country, for that matter.

If we honor our country as many of us claim, then perhaps we would serve it better by taking more seriously our call to be God's people for the sake of the world. I'm convinced that the doctrine of election is not about who God picked to go to heaven and those who are destined to be the presto-logs of hell (sorry Augustine, Luther and Calvin). I believe that election is about God electing a people (via Abraham) to be his special people, orienting all that they are around God, and being that people not for themselves, but for the sake of the entire world (see Genesis 12, 22 and John 3 for some good scoop on this. Also, Lesslie Newbigin has a lot to say on this topic). So rather than see our power as being political in nature, perhaps we could see that God's power is manifest as we live out our destiny as God's people.

At this writing, our nation (our world!) is undergoing a huge economic upheaval. Most economists are saying that things will ultimately stabilize, but much will be different in the future. That could be good down the road.

What if all the Americans who claim an affinity to Christian faith would, for example, stop purchasing useless stuff called Christmas presents in December? What if we said, "From now on, we're going to gather together and thank God of the birth of Jesus. We're going to celebrate by serving the poor, caring for the sick and proclaiming the good news. And we're going to do that in August, which is probably when Jesus was born anyway." That would louse up end-of-the-year retail sales for awhile. Christians might take a black eye or two over that, but (like our current crisis), things would probably stabilize after awhile, probably for the better.

I'm just thinking out loud here (after all, there are some CDs I'd like to get for Christmas). 

What do you think?

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Election Time Sorrow

Elections do not make me sorrowful--irritable and outraged, yes--but not sorrowful. I've come to expect that campaigns make a great deal of noise and then someone ultimately has to go to work and do something. 

What does bring me sorrow is watching how too many people in the Christian community use the Internet to pass on questionable and even slanderous information about particular candidates. I've seen doctored videos, scandalous urban legends and contextless photographs suggesting abominable behaviors, many sent by people claiming to follow Jesus.

I do believe that these people love Jesus. But I fear that some have equated faithfulness to the gospel with embracing the agendas of one political party over another. If one sees the political process as kind of war, then perhaps the thinking might be that any explosive device is permissible.

But I claim that it is not. 

Passing on via email some of the things I've seen looks like bearing false witness to me. I wonder how we square these activities with Jesus' call to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (although few of us in the US know anything about persecution, and many of our enemies are those of our own making). 

Scott McKnight ( offers some fine ruminations about the election. I appreciate that he affirms our role as Christians to be as ones seeking the kingdom of God first, and not expecting candidates, parties or governments to be what only God and his kingdom can be.

I believe that participation by Christians in the political process is important in the same way that our overall engagement with the world is important. Remember that Israel preferred the politics and military mechanisms of the surrounding nations to leadership under the hand of God, and paid dearly for that choice. We must remind ourselves that our role is to be God's people, not for our own sake or for the sake of a particular national agenda, but rather for the sake of the world.