Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Social Media, Perception, and Lack of Critical Analysis

In a social media-saturated culture we are offered any number of stories and photos insisting that certain events or images are indisputably true. Take, for example, the following pair of photographs:

The captions suggest that there is something lacking in the 2015 photo. Is it simply the lack of American flags? Or is it something deeper, something more sinister—like a lack of patriotism in the current US president and the people who rally around him? Hmmmm . . .

There is clearly a lack of American flags in the lower photograph. That photo, however, has been cropped. When you search around and find a more expansive shot of the same scene, you get this:

There are, indeed, flags present. Instead of being waved in victory in the crowd, they are proudly displayed at the front of the buildings along the street. The first photograph is a celebration; the second is a memorial. Both have flags.

Only two things would keep people from making this discovery:

1. A desire that the dark, sinister version of the story would be true; and/or
2. A lack of critical analysis.

We see this kind of thing all the time on social media. I’ve recently seen social media threads expressing dismay over the dismissal of employees at Christian organizations in three different states. The comments that follow the stories are overwhelmingly supportive of the seemingly wronged employees and offer harsh criticisms of the offending organizations.

From what I can tell, the comments come from people who are bright and well-educated. But the streams of comments appear to lack two important elements:

1. A voice at the conversation table by someone who expresses an alternative view.
2. Any sense of critical analysis

Consequently, the story ends up offering only one side, and that side may or not be accurate. We could be looking at a cropped picture, but it’s difficult for us to tell.

Which is why the lack of critical analysis is so alarming to me.

I’m struggling to understand how these intelligent people would read an account of conflict on the Internet and offer unbridled support without making some attempt to understand the larger picture. As I’ve looked over these threads of discussion, I have not been able to find anyone speaking who suggests that there might be a more to consider before making a judgment on the situation. I’m troubled by that. I’m troubled at the absence of healthy, well-intended critical analysis.

I’d hate to be arrested for a crime, and then sent to trial, only to discover that the judge and jury have decided to only allow the prosecutor to speak, giving the defender no opportunity to make a case on my behalf. But in our social media world, we get to do that all the time.

And the whole world listens in.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

What Emanuel AME Church has to teach us about the way forward

Now that same-sex marriage is woven into the national legal fabric of the US, Christians and their communities of faith are considering how to respond. Some are angry, decrying the imminent demise of the nation; others are celebrating this progressive move.

This isn’t the first time that churches in the US have had to deal with changes in legal requirements that relate to marriage. Up until the 1970’s there had to be some provable violation of the bonds of marriage for a divorce to be granted. Since the creation of no-fault divorce, however, the process has been streamlined and made easier for everyone (except, of course, the children).

This was a challenge for people of faith, who trusted the authority of that part of the wedding ceremony that proclaimed,

“What God has joined together, let no one separate.” (A quote from Jesus, to be clear)

The State made a ruling on divorce, and churches had to live with it. How did many churches respond? Many realized that marginalizing or excluding divorced people from their fellowships was not the way of Jesus. Divorce recovery ministries sprang up. There was even a growing acceptance of those who divorced and remarried. Most didn’t do a particularly good job of exploring the theology of it all, but there was still a response that resulted in acts of ministry.

Now the State has made a ruling on marriage, and churches have to live with that as well.

So, now what?

I think that the good people at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, have helped us with the way forward.

After nine worshippers were gunned down in their church, the members of Emanuel probably recognized that the rest of the world would sympathize with them if they called for retributive justice—the death of the perpetrator that might somehow set things rights. They might have called for a violent response from their community.

Instead, they sent the world a message. They said, in effect,

“In times of pain, sorrow, and grief, we begin with worship, and then we forgive. That’s how we do it.” And the world, including the media, marveled.

And now, the Supreme Court has laid claim to a time-honored tradition for religious folks of all kinds: Marriage. And, as a majority, the citizens of our nation are on board with that change. The times, indeed, are a-changin’.

So, my Christian brothers and sisters, how do we do it?

Do we spew vitriol on the Internet, drawing lines and investing ourselves in the polarized screaming matches that have too long characterized people in our society? Do we simply embrace the decision of the court and cheer for what we’ve thought was right all along?

Or, do we stop, take a breath, and consider who we are. We who follow Jesus are not called to be ideologues that live or die based on the rulings of the Court or the preferences of our culture. We are called to be God’s people for the sake and blessing of the world.

The most appropriate response to the drama of this week is, I believe, to come together in worship. I think the noble people at Emanuel AME have shown us the power of such a response. Regardless of our views about the Court’s decision, we should intentionally and vulnerably place ourselves in a posture that demonstrates the lordship of Jesus Christ and recognizes that the church in America is a church in exile.

And then we open our eyes and ears and ask ourselves: What does the ministry of Jesus look like in this time and place? In challenging times, how is the love of God made known? I’m pretty sure it won’t be made known in political posturing and venomous denunciations.

So, how will we do it? The world is watching.

Friday, June 26, 2015

The Supreme Court and Same-Sex Marriage

The Facebook posts regarding the Supreme Court’s decision to declare the legality of same-sex marriage across the US have been predictably interesting. Like many others, I’ve been thinking about this topic for quite some time, and I am going to weigh in with my own observation and recommendations, at least for those who operate in the realm of the Christian community.

For a very long time, clergy have officiated at weddings in a dual representative capacity. On the one hand, they represent the Christian church; on the other hand they represent the State (as in , The Government). We often provide evidence of this dual representation by closing the ceremony with words like these:

“By the power invested in me by the church of Jesus Christ and the State of XXX, I now pronounce you husband and wife.”

Whether those words are spoken exactly that way or not, the dual agency is real.

I’ve officiated at quite a few weddings, all in the state of California. It is humbling to me that when I say the words that declare the marriage of the two people standing before me, it has the power of law. Upon my word, at that moment in time, those people are married to each other. The Church and State both back me on this.

This is a powerful reality because I sign the marriage license sometime later in the day, mail it off a few days later, and the County Recorder enters it into some computer within the following weeks. Nevertheless, those folks were married the second I said they were married. The Church and State both grant me that authority.

Church and State in the US have had this complicit relationship for many years and everyone’s been pretty much okay about it.

Until now.

We religious folks have long believed that marriage is our business. That is, we see marriage as a sacred bond and, therefore, part of our turf. Up until recently, Church and State have been in agreement about what constitutes a marriage (we have had some conflict with the State about what constitutes a divorce, but we somehow got comfortable with that one).

As of this morning, the Federal government has sent all religious people—regardless of their views on same-sex marriage—this message:

“We own marriage. You do not.”

And, apparently, they are right.

So maybe this is an opportunity for Christian leaders to reflect in some new ways about our relationship with the State and with the culture at large. Perhaps we’ve been complicit with the State when it suits us, but have expressed outrage when the State reveals its true character as the dominant power structure in the US.

So here’s what I’m thinking. Consider these words of Jesus:

“ . . . if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.” (Matthew 5:40)

I know this text is addressing the issue of retaliation, but perhaps we can allow it to inform our thinking on the issue of marriage. The State has taken our coat—the definition of marriage—as its own. Maybe its time for us to hand the State our cloak as well—that is, our role as agents of the State in the performance of marriages.

In other words, maybe we need to get out of the marriage business.

The State already owns that business. People have long been able to go the courthouse, pay for a license, and have a court deputy perform a brief ceremony, resulting in a legal marriage. It’s quicker, easier, and a lot less expensive than a big, fancy church wedding with a reception.

Maybe it’s time for us to look at what a train wreck marriage has been over the years in this country, and rethink what we do to solemnify and bless this union that we have traditionally referred to as “marriage.” Maybe we need to revisit the concepts of covenant and faithfulness and reframe them under the lordship of Jesus Christ, and let the State do its job of deciding who gets married and who doesn’t.

We can be for or against this Supreme Court decision, but in the end it doesn’t really matter. Religious groups in general and Christians in particular don’t own marriage. That coat has been taken.

It might be time for us to weave a new cloak.