August 2010

Burn a Koran--Let's think again

Although the website for the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida lists ten reasons for burning the Koran, it basically comes down to one: the Koran is not the Bible and so it is not consistent with Christian teaching. Well...

In 1960, Stanley Kubrick directed a superb film entitled "Inherit the Wind". It is based on a 1955 play of the same name that fictionalizes the famous "Scopes Monkey Trial" of 1925. The trial involved a high school teacher accused of teaching Darwin's theory of evolution in his science class contrary to Tennessee law.

The most dramatic scene in the film occurs when defense attorney, Henry Drummond, calls the prosecutor, Matthew Harrison Brady, to the stand. In one exchange, Drummond says the following: "The Bible is a book. It's a good book, but it is not the only book." Far from being a gratuitous comment (Drummond was not commenting on the mere existence of other literary volumes), his declaration attempts to identify that the Bible is not the only source of truth in our lives. This idea should be self-evident. After all, no new writings have been added to the Bible in almost 2000 years, yet new discoveries continue to impact human life on a regular basis. Nonetheless, it is still difficult for fundamentalist Christians to grasp this fundamental concept. It is far easier to reside in a simplistic world of easy answers to complex questions, especially if one can attribute those answers to God's revealed word. The fact that those who claim to interpret the Bible literally are, themselves, given to an interpretive process need not disturb the simple-minded.

The basic truth for such people is that any religion other than Christianity is false. In spite of the fact that Jesus was, himself, a Jew, even modern day Jews are expected to convert to Christianity or be damned. Recently, at a wedding reception for a Catholic who married a Buddhist, I sat next to a Missouri Synod Lutheran who blatantly told me that anyone who was not a Christian was going to hell. From this perspective, not only are other religions false, but it becomes an easy leap to claim that they are the work of the devil, as Dove World Outreach has claimed of Islam. Never mind that there is wonderful truth in Islam that is quite in keeping with the principles of Christianity or that there are millions of Muslims who coexist peacefully with non-Muslims.

One obvious problem is viewing Islam only as an Arab religion and identifying it only with the Middle East Even worse, is suggesting that Islam is coterminous with terrorism. As others have pointed out, the largest Islamic country in the world is Indonesia, half-way around the world from the Middle East, and in that country Muslims have coexisted with Christians, Buddhists and Hindus for generations. It is true that Islam does not acknowledge Jesus as the Son of God, reducing him, as Christians would call it, to the stature of merely a prophet. Yet Islam traces its roots back to Abraham and the Koran teaches much of the same morality found in the Bible.

I suspect that Dove World Outreach and similar groups are not really afraid that Islam engenders and supports terrorism or even that it is the work of the devil. The real fear is that Islam challenges their Christian faith, a faith that is as superficial as it is bigoted. Having long ago surrendered their intellects to a literal interpretation of the Bible, they no longer have a reason to think and so have no response to people of other faiths. This uneducated and myopic vision of Christianity prevents them even from engaging in discussion and dialogue. Such fear of ideas eerily recalls the Nazis burning any books that did not adhere to the "German spirit" and the ideology of the Third Reich. Perhaps it is not so surprising that Dove Outreach should use the same strategy. And just as in the book-burning campaign of the Nazis, the press will dutifully be on hand to broadcast the Koran burning as if it were real news.

What concerns me most about Dove World Outreach and similar groups is not their fundamentalism, their ignorance nor even their bigotry. What concerns me most is that campaigns such as "Burn a Koran" take place in the United States, a country that was founded on religious freedom. These actions allow fear and ignorance to triumph over tolerance. Left unchallenged, they destroy the basic ideals of the American Constitution.

Women Priests and Pope Benedict's visit to England

Much to the chagrin of certain Church officials, the question of the ordination of women is not going away. Indeed, at this point in our history the Vatican and other Church officials should realize that conversations and movements cannot be ended by fiat. As might be expected, this issue does not divide neatly along sexual lines, although it is interesting that the most stringent defenders of the Church's teaching are men--most of them clergy!

As Pope Benedict XVI prepares to visit England in September, the Catholic Women's Ordination Movement is preparing to put up posters calling on the Pope to "Ordain Women Now." In response, Fr. Stephen Wang, Dean of Studies at Allen Hall Seminary in Westminster, has responded to the campaign with an attempt to defend the Catholic Church's position. Not surprisingly, the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales has distributed Fr. Wang's statement, clearly making it their own. Wang's statement is a retread of Papal teaching that is made no more persuasive simply by its repetition. Both the historical, and, even more so, the theological arguments are deficient.

One of the core teachings of Christianity is that Jesus is fully God and fully human. At the same time Jesus is the individuated Second Person of the Trinity. Jesus is one person with two natures--what theologians refer to as the hypostatic union. No one can argue that in his humanity Jesus was born, lived and died as a male human being. It seems, though, that the Catholic Church's position on women's ordination plays a little loose with the divinity of Jesus and the fact that God transcends sexual identity.

The term "Christ" is most accurately applied to Jesus after his death and resurrection, for it was not until some time after his earthly existence that Jesus' followers came to recognize him as the savior. It took many years of a living faith and theological debate for the Christian Church to settle upon belief in the hypostatic union, as ultimately defined the Council of Chalcedon in 451.

The argument advanced by Fr. Wang, that women cannot stand in the place of Jesus who was a man, may appear appealing at first. However, a priest does not so much stand in the place of the human Jesus, as he (or she?) stands in the place of the resurrected Christ. In theory, at least, the priesthood does not exist for its own sake or that of the individual priest. The Catholic Church has long referred to the priest as an "alter Christus", another Christ, not an "alter Jesus". Therein lies the crux of the ordination problem.

We believe that Jesus is both God and Man, and, although I despise the triteness and superficiality of the WWJD ("What would Jesus do?") campaign, we do look to the earthly ministry of Jesus for examples of how we, both men and women, should live with and respond to one another. On the other hand, it is not the earthly Jesus, but rather the risen Christ who lives among us. It is the risen Christ whom we receive in the Eucharist. And it is the risen Christ whom the priest represents in ministry.

St. Paul guides our understanding and helps to ground the argument in favor of women priests in his Letter to the Galatians. In chapter 3 he states definitively, "For all of you who were baptized into Christ Jesus have clothed yourselves in Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus." This term is applied to Jesus only after his resurrection, and it is this oneness in Christ Jesus that should be reflected in the priesthood.

The determining identity of the priest is not a sexual one. Women can, and do, represent Christ by virtue of their baptism. To deny them the opportunity to serve the Church as priests can only be seen as a form of bias and discrimination. In those churches that do ordain women, the people properly respond to them as representing the risen Christ among them. Although some may disagree with me, it sounds as if that persistent ringing in the background is the Holy Spirit calling women to the priesthood. Maybe it is time for the Catholic Church to answer!

Rebuild New Orleans

So much has been written about the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, it need not be repeated here. Yesterday was the 5th anniversary of this disaster. However, in those intervening 5 years, the government has failed in its response and commitment to the people of that great city. You can do something today to foster awareness of the needs of New Orleans and the failure of the government. The Hip Hop Caucus is a movement founded in 2004 to educate young people about a host of issues on which they can make a difference. They have designed a petition to the President and to Congress to fulfill their responsibilities in the face of a natural disaster made all the worse by the ineffective and irresponsible response of the government. Sign the Hip Hop Caucus petition calling the rebuilding of the City of New Orleans.

Updated Sections

Website Updates: Recent Questions section in "Questions and Answers" (8/24/10). Homily added in Funeral section on "Homilies" page (8/24/10)

Updated and Newly Designed Website

My newly designed website is now up and running. Thanks to the generous work of Charity Tran Happy, and her html skills, the problems are fixed and everything is working according to plan. I hope it provides some valuable information.

What is a Christian? Someone should tell Glenn Beck

From the time of the Reformation to today, the Christian faith has been fractured and has had to contend with competing theologies. To be sure, there were divisions before the Reformation, most notably the splintering of Christianity between the Eastern Church (Orthodox) and the Western Church (Roman), but this separation was more about power within the Church, and less about theology. The Reformation changed all that. There were many issues that the reformists identified as corrupting within the Church of Rome. And in the counter-Reformation, with the Council of Trent, many of these issues were corrected, albeit too late to prevent lasting division.

Even in the long shadow cast by the Reformation, declaring oneself to be a Christian is not a matter of personal definition, i.e. one cannot be a Christian simply because he or she claims to be. There are some objective standards that are non-negotiable. For example, anyone who does not believe that Jesus is divine, that he is the Son of God, or anyone who does not believe in the Trinity, cannot be a Christian no matter how strenuously they make the claim.

At least since last Spring Glenn Beck has been telling Christians to leave those Churches that preach and promote social justice. Well, by now it is fairly well established that the Gospel of Jesus Christ IS about social justice. It is too lengthy to deal with in a blog, so let me cite one example.

In Matthew's Gospel, Jesus takes a clear stand against divorce. What many people do not realize, however, is that his position is intended to advance social justice, specifically, to support the rights of women. In Jesus' time, women could not own land, they were themselves property; owned first by their fathers and then sold to their husbands at the time of marriage. Women were not permitted to divorce their husbands, though husbands could divorce their wives. In that case, unable to return to her father's house, her only means of support would be to turn to prostitution. Jesus' prohibition against divorce was a direct challenge to this social injustice.

The whole idea of being a follower of Jesus should be about bringing Gospel values to bear on society, establishing the kind of equality that Jesus lived and that our Constitution enshrines.

On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. It was an appropriate venue for envisioning a future America that might embrace the equality that consumed Abraham Lincoln and led him to deliver the "Emancipation Proclamation", bringing about an end to slavery. It would, of course, be a long time before the Civil Rights Movement would further advance the cause of equality and justice for all Americans.

As a Christian minister, Martin Luther King, Jr. looked to the Gospel to ground his commitment to civil rights; the same Gospel that Glenn Beck has been seeking to distort and hijack for lo, these many months. Glenn Beck has a right to his opinion, and even to his speech. He does not, however, have a right to the name "Christian". Whatever he is, he is not a follower of Jesus Christ. As I said in the beginning, that is not a title that people can own simply by claiming it.

Glenn Beck's bigotry is a corruption of the Gospel and insulting to Christians. To spew it from the Lincoln Memorial on the 47th anniversary of the "I Have a Dream" speech, is also a betrayal of Martin Luther King and the civil rights he gave his life to achieve.

Hopefully, the majority of Americans will tune out to the hatred and division that have come to define Beck. Although, given the 24 hour news cycle of modern America, it may be difficult to avoid it altogether. As I said, Glenn Beck has a right to his opinion and speech, but does he really need a microphone?

Manhattan Mosque

In recent years commentators have noted the degree to which fear drives many political campaigns. Perhaps it has always been an element of electioneering, but it has reached a new pitch in this heated and divisive election year. What does not get as much press, is the degree of hysteria that has gripped so many people of all stripes and persuasions, most notably those on the far right. Some of this is clearly rooted in the economic troubles of our society and world, in the uncertainty of our future, in the longing for a past that exists mostly in our imaginations, and, of course, in the over play of the term "War on Terror" (thankfully, the use of that phrase has subsided somewhat). Even more so, it may be rooted in the need to identify a scapegoat for all our problems. Almost by definition, this hysteria finds expression in inaccurate language that does not serve dialogue or the common good. For example, the proposed construction of a mosque in lower Manhattan has been incorrectly referred to as the "Ground Zero Mosque" or "WTC Mosque." Such terminology is anything but innocent, especially since the mosque is slated for construction blocks away.

The term "Ground Zero" has become ubiquitous as a designation for the site where the Twin Towers collapsed following the 9/11 attack. So be it. Given that there is a new tower and museum in construction on the Twin Towers site, one is left to wonder about the lack of integrity among those who refer to Park 51 as the "Ground Zero Mosque". I, myself, would merely marvel at the term if it were not so insidious. By design, some political leaders and commentators have used the term to fan the flames of hatred, mistrust and ignorance. Sarah Palin is intellectually vacuous and does not deserve any more press. However, Newt Gingrich is an educated and intelligent man. What could possibly possess him to weigh in on this issue from such a distorted and legally deficient position?

As Gingrich and others know, the correct name for the project is "Park 51," and it is not just a mosque. It is an Islamic community center that includes a fitness center, auditorium, pool and a restaurant. It will provide a much needed interfaith program seeking to advance dialogue and understanding. It will also include a memorial to the victims of 9/11. I wish it were simply a question of misunderstanding, but the deeper truth can be seen in the calculated and ultimately treacherous effect this kind of speech has. But that is what the right intends.

A significant part of the U. S. population is ignorant about Islam, and for that matter, the 9/11 attacks. Over 60 countries lost citizens in the terrorist attacks. Muslims were killed in the attack and they also participated in the emergency response and rescue. Major Islamic groups in the United States were quick to condemn the terrorism. President George W. Bush took great pains to state we are not at war with Islam, and a number of Islamic governments have joined the efforts to defeat terrorism. Yet for many Americans, particularly those who choose not to think or to be informed, 9/11 was the work of all Muslims and the Islamic world is at war with us. Sadly, Gingrich, et al, are counting on such ignorance to advance their self-serving agenda.

For the rest of us, freedom of religion cannot exist only for a few nor only for those we approve of. The First Amendment is remarkable for its inclusiveness and breadth of equality. It is clear that if the proposed center were Christian or Jewish, Buddhist or Hindu, there would not be this outcry. Just how "American" are those who oppose Park 51 because it is Muslim? Without the Constitution, this would not be the United States and the freedoms we treasure so deeply, including the freedom of religion, would still be only a dream. How ironic that descendants of the American colonists should turn that dream into a nightmare!

U.S. Judge rules against Obama stem cell policy

Yesterday federal district Judge Royce C. Lamberth, ruled that President Obama's 2009 executive order expanding stem cell research violated a federal ban on the destruction of such embryos. Whether or not the ruling by Chief Judge Royce C. Lamberth is good law, is for legal scholars and appellate judges to determine. It is rooted in the Dickey-Wicker amendment (an appropriations bill rider) that Congress passed in 1995 and continues to renew annually. Generally speaking, it prohibits the use of federal funds for research on human embryos that will be destroyed.

The underlying problem is the amendment itself, and how it came to be law and continues to be renewed. Stem cell research has become another missile in the abortion war. Most of those who oppose abortion also oppose stem cell research due to the destruction of the embryos which they consider to be tantamount to abortion. At issue is a serious lack of scientific, philosophical and even theological knowledge. On this front, even some religious organizations, such as the Catholic Church, widely miss the mark. To be fair, there has been little attempt to address the real issue of human life and the embryo.

Theology is a proper discipline in its own right. However, when a theological subject intersects with other disciplines, it must consider what the empirical sciences contribute to the discussion. Unfortunately, in the United States today, many people seem to think that their "faith," whatever it is, trumps everything else. This explains the relatively uninformed (at least unenlightened) approach to evolution among those who want the Biblical myth of creation taught as a competing understanding of creation.

In the case of stem cell research, a strong argument can be made for the fact the human life begins at conception. Nonetheless, the real issue should be personhood, and that simply cannot be claimed to exist at conception. This is not simply a semantic distinction. Scientifically, we know that a fertilized egg can split into identical twins up to 14 days after conception, on rare occasions even later. That would suggest that from day 14 both medical science and theology can agree that the embryo is a human person, at least insofar as the process of individuation is complete. Prior to that time there may be human life, but there is no sustaining argument for calling it a person. This should raise some question about the wisdom and even legitimacy of the Dickey-Wicker amendment, since laws should be enacted to protect persons, not some ethereal concept of human life.

Since scientists want the stem cells much earlier than 14 days, with 5-7 days being optimal, the process of individuation should silence the anti-abortion lobby. But this is the United States, and at this time in our history, people prefer to remain in the dark regarding real science. Perhaps part of the blame rests with elements within the government that have advanced what has been called "junk science" to the fore. Science and religion are not, or should not be, competing disciplines. It is possible for them to work together in the areas of human life where they intersect. For now, however, we are likely to continue to be led by people who refuse to let die a now tired cliché: "My mind's made up--don't confuse me with the facts."