Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Bali Agreement: The First Step Towards the Stewardship of the Earth?

In a total U-turn on U.S. policy, the United States signed the Bali agreement, pledging to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. This is landmark because up until now, the United States had snubbed the Kyoto treaty, refusing to be held accountable for their large contribution to carbon dioxide emissions. Even in the signing of the Bali agreement, the U.S. qualified their signature saying that other developing economies must follow suit and be held to similar standards. On one hand- this is a fabulous turn of events- that the U.S. has finally seemingly recognized it's role in the climate crisis.

The disappointment about Bali is that it is essentially non-binding. There are no real sanctions or punishments for failing to follow through on the protocols listed. So how does a country like the United States, who in the last seven years has alienated itself and refused to be accountable to anyone, suddenly become accountable for climate change while still under the direction/leadership of a President who insists that global warming has been greatly exaggerated and scientifically flawed? I. Don't. Know.

What I do know is this: the environment has been a "wedge" issue between conservative and liberal Christians for quite some time- and the reasons for this absolutely confound me. It seems to me that no matter your stance on the political spectrum, destroying the earth that both parties claim God created is a fundamentally bad idea.

My understanding of the conservative perspective is that because God created the earth, and ultimately "takes care" of the earth, then we have nothing to fear. Usually paired with this theology of a literal "God created the earth" is a "Man (gender intentional) has dominion over the earth". It seems then, if the religious right is to say that man has dominion, then the care for the earth is the responsibility of humanity.

Being stewards to the earth does not have to be a wedge issue. Being stewards to the earth can be just that: a stewardship issue-- giving back to God what God has given us. Stewardship is defined as "taking personal responsibility for another person's property." If this is the case, then for conservative Christians, who claim that "This is Our Father's World", and humanity has been given dominion, then we are most definitely responsible for what happens to this property-- and in their theology, God really doesn't like screw ups.

The Bali treaty is a step in the right direction, but it's only one step. Let us take up the spirit of stewardship and care for our earth in a way that is sustainable and that honors the creation that God has put forth for us.

Christmas is Played Out

This Christmas is shaping up to be a Christmas that looks like all the others-- and I'm here to say it: Christmas is played out. I don't just mean that Christmas has become overwrought with consumerism. That message is definitely played out- and we all know it's true anyway- it's not a new message. I don't just mean that we hear far too often "Jesus is the reason for the season"-- 'cuz that's played out too-- and from my perspective, the people who say "Jesus is the reason for the season" (in that annoying rhyme), are usually saying it as they swipe their credit card for that $400 game system their kid has *always* wanted. In fact, even this post feels played out. Because at Christmastime-- you feel like you can't talk about anything else but Christmas.

Being in seminary kind of kills Christmas too. I can't read the Christmas story and not think about textual criticism and interpretation. Hell, I can't even hear a Christmas carol like "In the Bleak Midwinter" and not think "People- it was the desert- it WASN'T SNOWING". I feel like Christmas has reached a new low when even a seminarian wishes it would just go away.

I've tried to reframe Christmas. I've tried to think of Christmas differently this year. Instead of Christmas being about the season of giving, the season of cocoa and cookies... I've tried to frame Christmas as radical presence. Radical presence of God. If God is in the mess and muck and brings life out of chaos (like in Genesis)-- then Christmas seems like the perfect environment for God to be present. So, do I mean that God is with us as we swipe our credit card? Do I mean that God is with us when we scramble to get the Ipod? Do I mean that God is with us when we skip church to go Christmas shopping? Quite simply: yes. I feel like we need to stop framing God as only being with us when we are doing "good things". God being "with" us does not mean God is applauding us as we swipe our credit card or feed more consumerism. But I think it's inaccurate to say that God somehow steps away from us when we aren't living up to our potential. God is with us when we are at our best... and when we're not.

I believe that God is in all of us. I believe that we sometimes ignore the presence of God to make our lives easier... we don't want our conscience to be awakened-- and THIS is where I feel like Christmas has lost its meaning. Our conscience is awakened in that we are giving to others... but it is also shut down in that we've made Christmas such an event as to see giving as a "once a year" type of endeavor. I recently learned that a local non-profit receives the vast majority of their donations during the Christmas season. This certainly suggests a good trend-- a trend that people are seeing outside of themselves for the benefit of others. But to truly claim the radical presence of God, is to practice this more than during the Christmas season.

The birth of Jesus is an event-- an important one-- but it was only the first event in a life that would later change the course of history. To truly grasp Christmas is to recognize that it is about beginnings- about presence- about relationship. To truly grasp the Christian message-- is to recognize that beginnings are just that-- the start of something that has the potential to be great. So my message this hackneyed Christmas-- is to say-- let it be the beginning of something great. Let the presents you give, and the presence you give speak to the faith you live and the God you claim to know.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Recently, the news has been a-flurry with the question of torture-- what constitutes torture, and specifically, is the practice of waterboarding, a technique which involves a person being strapped to a table (laying down) and having water poured on their face. There are various methods to waterboarding, but the general theme is that through the simulation of drowning, the person believes they are near death (and they are...), and are thus more likely to give up information. Now, despite the fact that the United States signed the Geneva Convention which prohibits the use of torture (among other things), the topic of waterboarding is still on the table. However, perhaps more disturbing is the attitude that is just under the surface-- a sense that "of course we torture-- but we can say we don't...". It is alarming that despite the US arrogant claim to be the most progressive and morally upright society in the world- the country/government continues to permit violence perpetrated against other human beings.

Even more interesting, is the fact in many cases, the strongest proponents for military action and/or strong aggressive responses to our neighbors throughout the war, are the religious right. Despite Jesus admonition that "those who live by the sword die by the sword" (Matthew 26:52), there are many who continue to act as though the war against terror is divinely inspired.

And how can one be surprised? In one of the largest grossing movies ever, Mel Gibson portrays the passion of Christ in such gruesome detail that anyone who accepts his portrayal of the gospel could hardly know any other type of Christianity. So absent in this movie is the focus on the life of Jesus, that one might think that Jesus life consisted only of torture. It is interesting to consider that most Christians hold the symbol of Jesus' torture, the cross, as the ultimate symbol of suffering and redemption. And yet, if they were to truly take this symbol to its ultimate and serious end, they might see the irony in their insistence upon the torture of prisoners of war. If the Christian symbol is one of sacrifice for a cause at the hands of an imperial power... then what does this say of our decision to torture, and what does this say in regards to those we torture?

I believe that what it says is that the imperials powers have once again found their voice (it was never really lost), and then as we torture individuals, we crucify Jesus once again. It seems to me that Mel Gibson's movie was designed to inspire guilt... if something positive would come out of the Mel Gibson movie (dare to dream...) then it would be a remarkable shaming of our country-- that despite the fact that we claim to be a "Christian" nation-- we have clearly not learned the lesson from our Savior: That the power of Jesus' message is that the imperialist ultimately has no power over the oppressed... that you may try and kill the messenger, but this will not kill the message. While torture may get information from a prisoner, what it ultimately shows is a nation who has purged itself of its soul...

Monday, October 29, 2007

The New Golden Calf

Britney might lose custody of her kids!! Jake Gyllenhaal and Reese Witherspoon are seeing each other!! Brad and Angelina might adopt another child!!

These are just a few of the types of headlines that grace the news networks, blog sites, and entertainment sections of newspapers everywhere. It seems that no matter where you look, celebrity gossip is everywhere. Now- let me first wave my freak flag-- I enjoy celebrity gossip. In fact, I read celebrity gossip with great regularity. However, it has occurred to me in recent weeks that while many of us consider celebrity gossip to be supplementary to our national and world news-- for many Americans, celebrity gossip IS the world and national news.

So prevalent are news stories about celebrities that one begins to wonder-- are celebrities and their high profile, media-addictive lives the new golden calf? Have we found the new form of idolatry?

From my perspective, there are two reasons that people read celebrity gossip. The first is that the lives of celebrities are wildly entertaining-- and for a lot of people, it is entertaining because it allows them to fantasize about what their life could be like. To see the care-free lifestyle of the rich and famous allows people to contemplate what they would do with a gorgeous body and gobs of money. In essence-- they covet their neighbor-- in a BIG way.

But I suspect, many people read celebrity gossip for the same reason that I do-- a sort of sad escape. While part of me feels deeply troubled by the blatant excess of celebrity life- a greater part of me feels a sense of escape when we read the tabloids. When our news stories are so predominantly negative, when it seems absolutely certain that our world is going to hell in a decorated handbasket-- the ridiculous and over the top lives of celebrities-- well-- they make us stop for a moment and just contemplate a life that is based on matters of hair dye, excessive dieting, and wearing underwear in public (something many young celebutants seem to forget to do...). Yes- hearing celebrity gossip makes me sad- because it points out so thoroughly the haves and the have nots. But celebrity gossip also makes me appreciate more real news. It makes me able to digest real news... it's like watching "Will and Grace" after you watch the evening news. It just helps it all go down easier.

But that's the problem. In the United States (and much of the western world), we have the option of digesting the slop of hatred, oppression, and despair that we find in our world-- in tiny teaspoon doses. Many of us get to pick and choose how much pain we actually see- while the rest of the world experiences that pain.

Yes, celebrity gossip has become idolatrous-- because it seeks, and we allow it, to distract us from true meaning-- from seeing God or asking for God in everyday life. We use celebrity gossip to numb us, to give us something to worship--- because we are in despair about how to worship God in a world where so much suffering exists. How do we destroy this new golden calf? How do we eliminate idolatry and still live in the world in which we live? How do we find hope?

I believe the answer to finding hope is by eliminating that which distracts us from hope-- the pieces of news or the pieces of celebrity gossip- for these pieces detract our attention away from despair-- and isn't it true that so often- we find hope out of despair? Isn't it a claim in our faith, that before Easter, comes Good Friday? Perhaps it is only through staring our world problems straight in the eye, that we can finally tap into the compassion that exists, and reach towards true change. Easter for the world, will only come after we acknowledge that suffering exists, and that we (the human community), with the help of God-- are the change agents through which to fix it.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Ann Coulter is not in MY ideal world.

You may have heard about Ann Coulter's recent comments on Donny Deutsch's show, "The Big Idea" in which she states that in her ideal world, Jews would become "perfected" by becoming Christians and the world would look like the Republican National Convention from 2004. I'm sure you'd be shocked to learn that in Ann Coulter's ideal world- everyone would look and act just like her (that was sarcasm, in case you missed it). You can watch her comments here.

Now, for me, the most obvious reaction to Ann Coulter is one of disgust. Her comments are indisputably offensive, inaccurate of the Christian tradition, and frankly, anti-semitic. She states that Christians have the "fed-ex" version of salvation and she infers that Christian's hope for Jews to come to their senses and convert. Not only does it degrade the faith of our Jewish brothers and sisters, but it also speaks broadly and inaccurately about Christians who do not hold this belief.

However, perhaps it is not simply our disgust at Ann Coulter's words that grate on our nerves. Perhaps there is something more. Maybe we see ourselves in Ann Coulter and we are embarrassed. Ann Coulter talks about what her ideal world would look like, which was essentially, white, conservative Christians, ie. people who agree with her. While we can justly criticize Ann Coulter's remarks, can we also justly hold a mirror to ourselves? How many of us, when asked about their ideal world- would have people like Ann Coulter in it? In some way, however, covert, we may think, "In my ideal world, everyone would believe the same things I believe, because my beliefs are the best ones." To be frank, we all have visions of our "ideal world", and they usually don't include "the other"- particularly when they differ from us on political and social issues.

If we can be honest and acknowledge that we are about as forgiving of Ann Coulter as she is forgiving of liberals--- then we can allow the bigger question to emerge- if we hold that all people are made in the image of God- and we are to honor God's creation-- how do we respond to people like Ann Coulter in a way that both honors their perspective and yet bears prophetic witness? If both of our images of the "ideal world" don't include the other (Ann Coulter is not in mine, and I'm damn sure I'm not in hers...)- then how do we communicate? And finally- the most pressing question-- how do we communicate when we have fundamentally different perspectives on what it means to be Christian or faithful? Do I even want peace with Ann Coulter- a person whom I consider to be bigoted and prejudiced? Does she want peace with me- a person who she would probably see as a bleeding-heart liberal? These are just a few of the questions that emerge after I hear the words of Ann Coulter and feel my blood pressure rise and my embarrassment of her description of Christians emerges.

I think my point is this: we find it easy to criticize the other (and sometimes they deserve it)-- but it is also important that we hold the mirror of criticism up to our own face- and examine what beliefs systems we have- what beliefs we privilege and what perspectives we honor. Perhaps this is where we will find- we do not always differ so much from our "enemy" as we might hope.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Flip-Floppers Get My Vote

Last week, San Diego mayor Jerry Sanders spoke out on behalf of gay marriage, altering his long held stance for civil unions for gay couples as opposed to gay marriage. In Mayor Sanders' approximately five minute speech, which you can listen to here, he posits that he could not tell an entire group of people that they did not deserve the same rights as those around them. He also stated that he made his decision after long reflection and felt that it was the right thing to do. Not only is Mayor Sanders' speech absolutely touching, but it also gets to the core message of the gospel- the message of love and justice for all people.

In my experience, I have noticed that politicians often get crucified for their changing perspectives on policy issues. Often, politicians who change their vote or view point in regards to the war, social issues, or any other number of policy initiatives are called "flip-floppers". While certainly, there may very well be cases of "flip-flopping", I suggest that it is far better for politicians like Mayor Sanders to change their mind because they have significantly reflected and have changed their mind in the interest of social justice, then for them to stay stagnant, with little reflection and even less mercy.

"Flip-flopping" seems to me to be contingent upon context. If a politician "flip-flops" in the name of justice- changing their positions on social issues so that the human spirit is uplifted and dignity is restored- then this is a politician that I can respect. In the Old Testament, we may recall times when even God "flip-flopped"- swearing death and destruction but then rescinding when repentance is made, or when justice could be better served. Why then, should humans be any different? Should we not constantly be seeking justice in our world? And should we not expect that sometimes, we will get it wrong and the truly humble thing to do would be to recognize our error and correct it.

I commend Mayor Sanders for his courageous stance, particularly as a member of a political party that traditionally opposes gay marriage. If this is what it means to be a "flip-flopper"- then I'll take it.

Friday, September 21, 2007

"Biblically Based." God Approved?

My husband and I are on a road trip this weekend to Tennessee. As you can imagine, eight and a half hours on the road leaves ample time for scanning the radio waves and we've noticed that the farther south you go, the more religious radio stations there are. Around 10 PM last night, we happened upon one of these channels and we noticed that the vast majority of commercials talked about "Biblically based" programs- mental health programs, treatment programs, churches, schools, Chick-fil-a (i'm not kidding).

I have heard of "Biblically based" programs before--and each time (including this time), I've wondered- what does that even mean? Now- you might think that a seminarian would know what the words "Biblically based" mean. Now- I can infer what it means-usually it is a conservative Christian group- and Biblically based is usually code for anti-gay ("pro-family" as they would say), anti-choice (pro-life), and/or usually involves getting "saved". And quite often, the words "Biblically based" are meant to infer- "GOD APPROVED." But for me- the descriptors listed above (anti-gay for example) are NOT God approved...which is what brings me to my point.

If I, a progressive Christian, were to ever use the words "Biblically based" (dare to dream...), then I would mean something more along the lines of pro-love, acceptance, inclusiveness, and forgiveness (and some other stuff). That is a radically different view of what it means for something to be "Biblically based". The Bible means many different things to many different people. Some people believe the Bible is the inerrant word of God. Others believe the Bible is inspired by God, but fallible because it was written by humans. Others believe that the Bible has no worth whatsoever. Still others consider the Bible a story of a people's experience of God and that these stories can inform us about characteristics of God. Whatever your belief- we can agree that when it comes to the Bible- we may literally be speaking different languages. What we privilege in the Bible (because you can find pretty much anything in there: from violence to peace and everything in between)- depends on where we sit. What do we choose to uphold and why?

I think it's important for all of us to ask ourselves these questions. First- what do we believe about our religious texts? Second, why? We all have baggage with our beliefs-- some of these things yield beliefs that uplift, and others leave us with beliefs that destruct. Knowing that, I feel like it serves us all to examine our belief systems and think about the terms that we use to describe them.