The Anti-Solomon

Most of us have heard of the wisdom of Solomon, exemplified in his adjudicating the custody dispute of two women over a baby. The women were roommates who both had recently had newborn babies. One baby died in a tragic accident, and then both women claimed the surviving child was hers. Solomon said “cut the baby in two,” and one woman agreed; the other said, “No, let her have it.” Old King Solomon ruled that the one who would give up the baby to let it live was the true mother.

A couple of centuries later, King Jehoram in Israel faced a problem no wisdom could solve. The capital city of Samaria was under siege from Syria and people were starving to death. A woman cried out to the king, “Help my, my lord!” and he said, “How can I help you. Let the Lord God help you.” Then he asked what her problem was.

The two women each had a son, and the previous day that had agreed they would eat the children, one day, and one the next. “So, we boiled my son and ate him. But now, she has hidden her son and won’t give him to me!” The king had no wisdom to solve this one. He tore his clothes as a sign of mourning and cursed the prophet Elisha, whom he assumed could have helped. Elisha did show up later, and said the siege would soon be over and food would be available again.

There are tragic, horrible situations in life, where people have to make desperate decisions. In this case, perhaps if the two women had waited, it would have been alright for all of them. But there was no way they could know that. Maybe all four parties would have died had they not chosen to sacrifice the one child. Maybe the other mother was wrong to break her promise—but we can’t fault her loyalty to her child. Life is even more sacred than a contract or a promise. Who was right? What was the right decision? Even the king couldn’t decide.

There are tragic situations in life. Sometimes they involve pregnancy. When women for social, economic, medical, or emotional reasons are convinced they cannot handle an unwanted pregnancy, they usually seek an early abortion. Most abortions are done at around 8-10 weeks into pregnancy. I believe individuals, charities, churches, and other groups can offer alternatives to women faced with a difficult pregnancy, and the number of abortions can be reduced. I think there are even support services the government could provide that are truly pro life.

About 1% of abortions occur after 21 weeks of gestation, and a very small number closer to full term at 40 weeks. The thought of a fetus at a late stage of development being destroyed is gruesome and disturbing. It is understandable that people are outraged at the idea. But do they ask, “why would a woman want to go through an abortion at this late stage?”

The answer is disturbingly simple: severe medical abnormalities that present a grave threat to the life of the mother or the prospect of a baby that is born that will gasp for a few breaths and then die, or perhaps grow up without any chance of having a fully human life. Or maybe a baby that will grow up completely dependent on 24-hour care and deprive siblings of their mother’s attention or the income she could bring in for the family.

Legal minds want to know: what defines severe and life threatening? What kind of disabilities are you talking about? Maybe a better question is, “Who is qualified to answer those questions?” Would we rather have a king decide, or a judge, or a politician? Who best understands the total context and the needs of the family?

Some states have recently decided these are questions best decided by the family: the mother in consultation with the best medical advice and the advice and support she may seek from family and friends.

I still believe the government and private organizations and individuals can offer alternatives. No one should have to make a heart-rending decision for financial reasons. It would be expensive to guarantee a lifetime of medical care to a person born with severe defects. But if we are a pro-life nation, we have to do that. I know there are people willing to adopt a severely handicapped baby. But if that option is available, there has to be a framework for it to happen and to let people know about it.

A woman who carries a fetus 21 weeks wants to hold a baby in her arms, wants the child to live. Think of how heartbreaking it must be when she receives the bad news. We can provide options. But who is best qualified to make the final decision?

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The Constitution as Written

The creators of the Constitution wanted to create something: a more perfect union. They wanted to establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty for themselves and future generations. So they wrote a constitution. The Constitution should be interpreted according to the goals it was created to accomplish.

Is the Constitution a living document? If you are averse to metaphors, no. The constitution was written on the skin of a dead animal. After 200 years the parchment is probably pretty stiff and dry; it’s not very flexible.

But the drafters of the Constitution wanted to accomplish something for future generations. They understood that there has to be some flexibility in the interpretation and application of the provisions they created.

So they wrote the Ninth Amendment: The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people. The constitution does not create our rights, nor does it create an exhaustive list of them. For example, the right to privacy is not listed as such, but it is assumed by the Fourth Amendment: the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects. The protection against homeowners being required to quarter soldiers in time of peace assumes the same right.

The eighth amendment prohibits “cruel and unusual punishments.” This is an appeal to a community standard. They did not define cruel and unusual. They knew that such standards would change over time. Public flogging is no longer common; it would now be very unusual and considered cruel.

The constitution is a broad and general legal document. It was meant to be interpreted and applied by people who shared a commitment to its goals of liberty and harmony, people of good sense and judgment, people with the flexibility to understand how changes in conditions, attitudes, and knowledge call for changes in the law.

Go Set a Watchman

I just finished listening to the Audiobook of Go Set A Watchman, read very effectively by Reese Witherspoon. The manuscript was written in the 1950s but never published until it was discovered in 2014. The story is set after To Kill A Mockingbird, when Jean Louise (Scout) is a grown woman of 26. Go Set A Watchman was written before the more famous book, the main theme of which is summarized in a brief section.

Mockingbird was a gentler and more effective way of dealing with racism. Had she published the Watchman manuscript in the 50s, it would probably have been banned and its author blacklisted.

Mockingbird is probably a more perfect artistic accomplishment. Go Set a Watchman, though, has its literary moments, with some colorful characters and amusing scenes.  The scenes of the motherless child reaching puberty and the anxiety it causes should be required reading for every teacher or youth worker who deals with middle school children.

The last few chapters resemble a platonic dialog more than a dramatic story and consist of a series of intense exchanges between Jean Louise and those closest to her.  Her angry speeches against racism are countered with genteel defenses of the way things are and why it is necessary to go along and get along. It is this social commentary that we need now.

You remember back in November when everyone warned us to avoid politics and religion at the family gathering for Thanksgiving? Jean Louise’s speeches are the models for what we should have said.

Why I Am a Small ‘c’ catholic

The word catholic comes from the Greek phrase kath’ holen ten oekoumenen, “throughout the whole inhabited world.” To be a catholic Christian means you follow the faith that is accepted and practiced throughout the whole world. The word ecumenical comes from the same phrase. To be catholic and to be ecumenical mean the same thing. It means you share the faith Christians down through the ages and throughout the whole world have followed.

That faith centers in what God has done for the world through Jesus Christ. God sent his son into the world to show us the way of peace and love, to bear our sins on the cross so we can be forgiven and reconciled to God and to one another, to rise again conquering death on our behalf so we can be assured of eternal life, and to give us the Holy Spirit to empower us to live lives of love and peace, anticipating the final transformation of this world into the kingdom of God.

This faith is summarized in a confession known as the Apostle’s Creed. It contains the words, in addition, “I believe in the one, holy, catholic church.”

All followers of Christ belong to that church. It is not perfectly one or holy or universal as we see it now. But because it is claimed by Christ and because he works through those people, it is one, holy, and catholic.

I say small ‘c’ without meaning any disrespect to large ‘C’ Catholics or Orthodox. In fact, I have a growing respect for the Roman Catholic Church and the various Orthodox churches who are also Catholic. I have a lot of respect for the popes I have known in my lifetime, especially St. Francis. Some of his recent predecessors did not do enough to deal with a horrible problem in the church, and I don’t excuse that. But that is a problem the authorities in Rome and in America and other countries will have to deal with.

I keep a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on my desk and receive a lot of benefit from it. The catechism gives better answers than some of my conservative Protestant and Evangelical brothers and sisters (I have to say and sisters, although women theologians are fairly new in those circles) to questions about science, sexuality, economic justice, ecology, world religions, human rights, and the modern historical study of the Bible.

Once I had a student who freaked out when he heard the term “free church catholic” at a conference. I could use that term to describe myself. I remain free to follow my own conscience and hold my own convictions. In other words, I remain free to disagree with the catechism or the teachings of the church. For example, when I say Rome gives better answers on sexuality, I still disagree with its teaching that celibacy is the only option for those who accept a religious vocation, for those who have been divorced and remarried, and for others. But the place for that conversation would be at the Boji Stone (our local coffee shop), in a friendly, respectful atmosphere.

The Reformed theologian Jürgen Moltmann has spent his life engaging in dialogue with Catholics, Protestants, Marxists, atheists–anyone who will sit down and talk to him. He says you don’t have to give up beliefs that are important to you to have a conversation. In fact, he says, if you suppress your differences, you deprive the other person of a genuine conversation partner. Today I am emphasizing what I have in common with all followers of Christ, and why I am a catholic Christian.

And so, I am free to participate in the long-established participation of Ash Wednesday and Lent. To some extent, participating in a season of fasting, self-denial, and reflection also reflects a bit of solidarity with Jews, who observe Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, and other fasts; and Muslims who fast during Ramadan and other times.

The deprivations we catholics undergo during Lent are pretty mild compared to the fasts the other children of Abraham endure. During Lent we can choose what to give up. I suggest either giving up something you don’t need anyway, or something you enjoy but that is not really essential. I visited with a lady yesterday who told of a friend who gave up smoking every year during Lent. She said he was aware of it every moment, constantly reaching for his empty shirt pocket. But that constantly reminded him of Jesus and what he suffered for us. (I wondered why he didn’t just stay quit–but that is another story).

There is one other kind of fasting, mentioned by the prophet Isaiah. It’s not really giving up something ourselves, but it is thinking of others in need.

Is not this the fast that I choose:

to loose the bonds of injustice,

to undo the thongs of the yoke,

to let the oppressed go free,

and to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,

and bring the homeless poor into your house,

when you see the naked, to cover them,

and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

I Don’t Want To Be a Goat (Matt 25)

There is a valley south of Jerusalem that was once famous for being a center of toxic religion—idolatry is the name the Bible gives to toxic religion.  Seven centuries before Christ the place was called Tophet and a shrine was there, where the practitioners of various toxic religions sacrificed their children.  Tophet was in a valley once owned by the son of Hinnom.  Ge-ben-hinnom  is “valley of the son of Hinnom” in Hebrew.  Over time the name of the place was shortened to Gehenna.

King Josiah, the best king Judah ever had, destroyed the shrine of Tophet.  After that, the whole Hinnom valley was used as a garbage dump.  Jesus used the imagery of Gehenna, the rotten, smoldering, stinking center of toxic religion, as a warning.  Those who prey on children, those who slander others in their arrogant self-righteousness, are in danger of ending up in Gehenna.

Matthew 24 and 25 tell about the Day of Judgment, using several parables.  These parables give several disturbing images of the fate of those who fail the judgment.  In one parable a servant who got drunk and beat his fellow servants is punished by being “cut to pieces” and given a place with the hypocrites, where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth.  That one is puzzling.  If he is cut to pieces, it sounds like he is dead–but there is wailing, so it sounds like the hypocrites being punished there are still alive.

In another parable the punishment is being excluded, shut out.  Those who are not prepared miss out on the joy of the wedding.  They show up too late, the gates are closed and locked, and they are left outside in the darkness.  In another parable a lazy slave is thrown out into “outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  Then in the parable of the sheep and the goats, the goats are thrown into the eternal fire, the place prepared for the devil and his angels, the place otherwise called Gehenna.

Jesus used imagery and he used hyperbole to make a point.  The point was always serious.  C.S. Lewis said we should be careful about being too certain about the geography of heaven or the temperature of hell.

In the late 1700s and early 1800s revivals swept across the frontier.  There were tent meetings that lasted for days and weeks.  And in the preaching there were always vivid descriptions of hell.  And people were terrified.  And worse, many of the preachers had a theology that said, “You are probably going to hell and there might not be anything you can do about it,” because God has already chosen those who are going to heaven.  Some people got saved and others just got scared.

In the 1800 hundreds, several new religions arose as a way of dealing with the revivalist teaching of Hell: The Seventh Day Adventists teach extinction.  Those who are not saved are just dead forever.  The Mormons teach there are several different degrees of afterlife, some get to live on the earth, and then there are lower and higher heavens that others go to.  The Jehovah’s Witnesses teach that a few will go to heaven, many will be resurrected to a good life on earth in the Kingdom of God, and those who refuse to repent will be destroyed.

The Disciples taught nobody has to go to hell, anyone can be saved.  You are not saved by belonging to the right church but by trusting your life to Jesus.  He has given us easy ways to tell if we belong to the elect or not.  If you are willing to turn from your sins, declare your faith in Christ, and be baptized in his name, you can have confidence that you are saved and on your way to heaven.

Many today are still disturbed by the idea of hell or eternal punishment after death.  What is most disturbing is that it sounds cruel and it seems arbitrary and unfair.

C.S. Lewis said “the Bible is meant for grownups,” by which he meant people who knew how to read literature.  Lewis was troubled by the idea of hell, but he also believed it was important.  He believed it was important to say that the choices we make in this life have consequences that extend throughout this life and beyond, even into eternity.  One of Lewis’s influences was G.K. Chesterton, who taught that “hell is a tribute to the dignity of man.”  Another influence was George McDonald, who was a universalist.  McDonald believed that Hell is a devise God uses to bring the lost to repentance.  It is like the pigsty the prodigal son found himself in. 

C.S. Lewis was a professor of Medieval and Renaissance literature.  He also loved the Divine Comedy and Milton’s Paradise Lost.  The Inferno, the first part of the Divine Comedy, is a depiction of hell.  It is a place God in his mercy prepared for those who chose to reject God’s love.  Sinners get the choices they have made.  The sin one chooses is the punishment for sin.  Those who chose in life to be swept away by passion and lust, are swept off their feet forever in the Inferno, driven by relentless cold winds.  In Milton’s Paradise Lost, again, hell is the result of human choice, God’s gift of freedom.  Satan describes himself as one who brings

A mind not to be changed by place or time.

The mind is its own place, and in itself

Can make a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n.

What matter where, if I be still the same?

C.S. Lewis wrote his own book on heaven and hell, called the Great Divorce.  It is a dream about a visit to the “gray world,” a joyless, lifeless place that is either Purgatory or Hell, depending on how long one stays.  A tour bus takes a group of the residents to heaven, which is a beautiful, joyous place; but they don’t like it.  It’s too real.  They are too used to their own alternative reality, they can’t handle true reality.  All but one of the tourists voluntarily get on the bus and go back where they are comfortable.

I think we have to say a few things about Jesus’ parables of judgment.  First, they use imagery.  The imagery points to something real and terrible: exclusion, missed opportunity, living in the land of toxic religion, fire, pain, and weeping.  The imagery points to end result of a life of blind self-indulgence as well as a life deceived by toxic religion.  Hell is “a place with the hypocrites.”  Judgment begins in this life.  The choice of sin is the punishment for sin.  The punishment for selfishness is loneliness, self-imposed exclusion from the joyous celebration God invites us to join.

Second, judgment is a reality.  We are responsible for how we live and we will be required to give an accounting.  The choices we make in life are serious, and we have no guarantee of a  second chance.

Third, God desires the salvation, the well-being and joy of all people.  God is love.  There are several ways Christians have tried to reconcile the biblical imagery of hell with the Love of God.  One way is that hell is the most gracious accommodation God can make for those who refuse his grace.  Hell is the painful refuge.  Rather than destroy his creation, God gives them a place where they can continue in the existence they have chosen. 

Another way is to say hell is redemptive punishment, meant to bring lost souls to repentance.  It is a second chance.  Is there a hint of hope in Jesus’ words, “you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.” 

Another way is to say hell is a warning.  It is a picture of what the hard-hearted deserve, but God has already provided the alternative.  Hell was not created for any human being, God does not desire anyone to be lost in this life or in eternity, and God has provided a way anyone can have the assurance that they are God’s children and nothing can separate them from his love.

There is one more issue that may trouble us.  What about those who have never heard of Jesus?

The parable of the Sheep and the Goats gives us an answer if we reframe the question.  Make it, “What about those who have never met Jesus?”  And the answer is surprising. 

There is no one who has never met Jesus.  It’s just that he comes to us in disguise.

He comes to us in the form of those we consider least important.  He comes to us disguised as the hungry person we meet, or one who is thirsty, or in need of clothing, or homeless.  He comes to us as the refugee, the immigrant, or the one in prison.

You have probably heard that if you want to go to heaven, you have to accept Jesus.  It’s true.  But what if he already came to you and you rejected him or ignored him?  You’ll meet him again.

Jesus is so gracious, he comes to us in many forms.  He comes to us in the word, the word in the Bible or in the sermon.  He comes to us in the form of his body the church.  He comes to us in the bread and the wine.  And he comes to us in the people we meet in the street.  But make sure we understand: If we have prayed to accept Jesus into our hearts–we are missing something if we don’t accept him when we see him in the street.

When the King comes he will separate the people of all nations into two groups: the sheep and the goats.  The sheep are those who welcomed Jesus when he came to them in disguise.  They will have a wonderful surprise.  The goats are those who rejected Jesus when he came to them in disguise.

I don’t want to be a goat.

How Conservative Values Unintentionally Undermined the Family

My wife and I did not have insurance when all three of our children were born. Technically, we did when our third was born, but the preexisting condition of pregnancy was not covered. Medical expenses were reasonable enough that we were able to make payments ahead and continue paying afterward. There were complications after the third birth, so it took us a while to pay off the debt, but we did manage to have our youngest paid for before she entered elementary school.

Doctors and hospitals are no longer so eager to make similar arrangements, and the total bills are no longer as manageable. An uninsured married couple facing a complicated childbirth could easily face bankruptcy today.

But we are no so hard-hearted as to turn expectant mothers out into the cold night to give birth in a stable. We do provide services for mothers and children. But our conservative heritage says men should be breadwinners, and there is no free lunch. We will take care of single women and their babies but not male heads of households. Perhaps there have been some recent changes, but for the last thirty years marriage meant financial disaster for a young couple in love facing a pregnancy earlier than they had anticipated.

It’s not just the young either who are forgoing marriage in order to receive benefits. Social Security advisors counsel retirees in some cases to “live in sin” rather than lose benefits they or their late spouse had earned. In other circumstances, on the other hand, they advise couples who hate each other to stay together (at least on paper) a few more years, for the sake of the social security check, rather than getting divorced. (You can find this advice in the book Get What’s Yours.)

All of this comes from the traditional idea that a man should provide for his household and nobody should get something for free.

Yet the widespread conservative hostility to democracy and representation in the workplace has undermined a man’s (or a single woman’s ) ability to provide for a family. Labor Unions are an extension of democracy (or republican ideals, if you can’t support democracy) into the workplace. Corporations are already organized and have most of the power. The only way people gained any advantage was to unite. President Eisenhower understood this. He supported labor unions and the right of the people to organize.

The last forty years has seen the decline of wages follow the decline of union membership. The decline of union membership followed the example of a president from the Grand Old Party who established his legacy by breaking a union. Today a candidate from an economically failing state brags that he took on the powerful teacher’s union.

Some people point to past corruption in labor and to violence that occurs during strikes. Corruption in politics has not lead us to abolish representative government. Instead we try our best to eliminate it, find it where it remains, and prosecute it. As for violence, do you know anything about the history of the labor movement?

I have seen the dismantling of the profession of professor over the last 30 years. Today 80% of college courses are taught be people who are not professors, many of whom are eligible for food stamps and other government benefits. One reason this happened is because professors were not allowed to organize, since they were part of management under the law. However, the other 80% today are not hindered by this law, and we may see more organizing by those who actually do the teaching.

My Tail Light Experience

Here is my experience of being profiled: We lived in Memphis, TN. My dad had found a car for our daughter–bright red with dark windows. It looked like something someone in their teens or early twenties would drive. Some people said it looked like something a gangster would drive.

Our daughter’s friends thought it was cool, but she was a little embarrassed and prefered to drive something a little more demur.

I ended up driving her flashy red car. I got pulled over a block from my house one evening. When the officer saw that I was a clean-shaven, untattooed, middle-aged person, he was very polite, as I was in response.

He said he pulled me over because my tail light was out. I got out of the car and went back and looked at it, and we both saw it was working fine. He said, “Well it must be a short, you better get that checked out.”

Yes sir, officer.

Since he had pulled me over, he had to run my licence plate.

Nashville said my licence was expired.

But officer, it has the new sticker right on it. I just got it last week.

“Well, anyone can get a sticker. I’m going to write you a ticket. If you can proof you have a proper registration and paid for this years tags, the court will dismiss it.”

It took me several days of personal visits and phone calls, being sent from the County Courthouse to the city office, and more calls to Nashville. It turned out it was a simple mistake. Someone locally had not properly notified Nashville. Eventually the problem was solved.

But I learned two things. I saw how profiling works–in my case I was profiled because of a flashy car. Second, I saw how bureaucracy works and learned how frustrating it can be.