Friday, October 27, 2006

The Whole Gospel

This entry is part of a response I wrote at work to someone who wrote the following:

"I am glad you see yourself as working for the good of humanity. It does not do them much good, however, to fill their bellies but then be unable to give them a satisfactory answer to this most basic of questions and, of course, satisfactory answers to all of the many questions that any thoughtful person is going to have about life."

I have one last comment to your response, and it concerns the nature of the Gospel itself. As you likely know, the Greek word for Gospel is best translated as “good news.” As Christians, the core of that good message is Christ’s salvific act for us on the cross. However, I think a sound theological reading of the Bible reveals that the Gospel is so much more than simply admission to heaven when we die. That “good news” is not just for life in the world to come, but it is also for this life. It is the beginning of the Kingdom of God on earth, a dominant theme in the Gospels. Two passages I love so much are Luke 4, when Jesus introduces his earthly ministry by reading from Isaiah, and the Beatitudes. Both speak of good news and blessings, but it is good news for the poor, good news for the captives, and good news for the oppressed. I think the 2,000 scriptural references to the poor and oppressed indicate to us that God is not simply concerned with the eternal destination of our souls, but He is also desperately concerned with the poor and forgotten of this life as well. You ask what good is food for those who are perishing, but I ask what good is a message of heavenly salvation for those who are starving on this earth? (It is easy for us, the well-fed and comfortable, to answer this too quickly; I wonder if we would feel differently if we were hungry and it was our children who were dying). They are not mutually exclusive – we are called to BOTH ministries, and Jesus himself spent much of his earthly ministry giving veiled and cryptic references to spiritual truths (making it “hard” to enter the Kingdom) while freely healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and playing with children. I think we do a practical and theological disservice when we divorce or separate the inextricably linked dual nature of the Kingdom, the corporal AND spiritual. The Incarnation itself is a testimony to God’s redemption of the physical, and the rejection of the corporal is one reason why the Gnostics were considered heretical in the early church. Additionally, the entire book of James is a good reminder that we must meet people’s needs in this life as well as the next or our faith is worthless and may not be faith at all. He also tells us that pure and undefiled religion is one which cares for orphans and widows. Thus, I encourage you to consider that the “Good News” – the biblical Good News – is a two-sided coin of this life and the next. That is again why we at Sojourners do what we do; as our mission says, we believe there is an overwhelming biblical mandate to social justice and peace, and we are happy to come together from across the Christian spectrum to join hands in our united efforts to see that God’s Kingdom – one of love, justice, and peace – comes on earth as it is in heaven and that we ALL have this day our daily bread.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Who Is Really Protecting Family Values?

In the weeks leading up to the election, Focus on the Family and other conservative groups will be calling for Americans to get out to the polls. And when they motivate people, they will use a familiar refrain: the future of the American Family depends on you. If you let the “liberals” convince you to stay home, Dobson says, “the consequences for the country could be grave.”

But who is really protecting family values? As Randall Balmer points out in his book Thy Kingdom Come, if the Religious Right were really intent on protecting the nuclear family, why aren’t they pushing for legislation to make divorce difficult and rare instead of focusing on these so-called “activist judges” and “liberal courts”? My Bible has much more to say about divorce than homosexuality. God says He hates divorce (Mal. 2:16), and while Jesus is silent about homosexuality, he makes clear his strong stance against divorce in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5: 31-33). And while America’s gay population has been estimated at 5% or so, divorce now affects over half of our population, and the effects of divorce on children is demonstrably negative. By any measure, biblical or sociological, it seems that divorce is much more of a problem. So why all this talk about the threat of homosexuality to the American family?

The reason is because the selection of homosexuality is politically strategic, and that is the same reason you won’t hear vitriolic anti-divorce rhetoric leading up to the vote in November. The reason why Focus and others only concentrate on gays instead of divorce is obvious, according to Balmer; divorce hits too close to home, and railing on that issue would certainly splinter their own political base. As the saying goes, you don’t bite the hand that feeds you, and since over half of evangelicals have divorced at one point, attacking that issue with the same force as they do with homosexuality would be political suicide. So instead, the Religious Right’s strategy involves identifying a moral vice – regardless of the proportion of biblical support for it in relation to other things – and localizing that vice in a small group. You externalize the fear, and then rally your base around it. Projecting this fear onto a small out-group has been fabulously effective in history (in fact, gays have been used before), and it continues to be effective in American politics. An attack on divorce – about which the Bible has more to say – hits too close to home, a talking point one won’t find in the Religious Right’s mobilizing leading up to the November election as they seek to “protect traditional family values.”

Regardless of what one thinks about gay unions, can anyone make a serious case that a smattering of gay couples wanting to marry is really the problem with the American family? The America family is undoubtedly in crisis, but I hope that thinking Americans are digging deeper than the sensational language surrounding gay marriage. Real protection of family values comes – not from constitutional amendments and marriage protection acts, which do little to affect the lives of a large majority of Americans – but from policies that genuinely support parents, support children, and support schools. Disintegration of the family and poverty are often closely linked, so if the Religious Right really cared about families, shouldn’t they be willing to invest in our impoverished inner-cities, under-resourced rural tracts and failing public schools? Wouldn’t increases in the Earned Income Tax Credit and the minimum wage help provide economic stability to our working poor and their struggling families? How about funding day care, lunch programs, and Head Start to support children and families? Instead, we find cuts in all those initiatives while money goes elsewhere, leaving the magic fingers of the market to care for our families. And how about sensible legislation to make abortion rare, not election-time rhetoric followed by years of inactivity?

Unfortunately, discussions about sensible policies that can help real families are not effective in drumming up fear and outrage or getting people to the polls, and that it is indictment upon us, the thinking American public. It is our duty to see to it that fear-mongering, demonizing out-groups, and ignoring real policy solutions do not win. Again, regardless of what one thinks about gay marriage as an issue, we owe it to ourselves and the millions of other American families to not let the Religious Right’s rhetoric obscure the need for a more robust discussion of what real, biblical family values looks like and what policies actually protect American family values.

What's Still the Matter with Kansas?

There is a consistent refrain that is rising up as we creep closer and closer to the November elections: the current political climate is poisonous, and we are in desperate need of an antidote. Gridlock is as bad as it’s been in a generation, and there is a keen absence of space in the political sphere for rigorous yet sensible dialogue about real policy issues that Americans care about and that affect our lives most intimately. (A recent study by the Center for American Values ranks abortion and gay marriage as two of the least important issues to Americans in the 2006 vote, but you wouldn’t know that by listening to the loud voices of the Religious Right.)

Because of a strong-armed hijacking of Congress by a few key leaders and a hostile takeover of the nation’s political dialogue by the extreme right, civil political discussion has been replaced by caustic attacks and ridiculous characterizations. For example, Dobson has expressed his displeasure with the Republicans, but he calls the Democratic alternatives “downright frightening,” as though they plan to hand over control to Al-Qaeda in their first few hours. Granted that there may be very real political and philosophical differences between the parties on certain issues, but the Religious Right treats someone who has a different opinion as a national security threat or a godless buffoon. What ever happened to sitting down at the same table, talking about the merits of our ideas in intelligent and respectful ways, being willing to admit that none of us knows everything or always has perfect policies, and working together for the common good of the country? Am I up in my sleep for thinking that’s how a two-party democracy is supposed to work?

But instead, civil dialogue and compromise are dead in the face of ideological zealotry and a thirst to be right at all costs. Rather than calls for constructive dialogue, humility, and compromise, we only hear demonizations and unthinking over-simplifications. Those (of either party) who support comprehensive immigration reform are accused of wanting to fling wide our gates to terrorists. Calls for an admission of failure in Iraq and a new tact are seen as weak, unpatriotic, and unsupportive of our troops. Criticisms of our gutting of the Geneva Convention are seen as wanting to hand over control of our own security to the international community. Mention of the separation of church and state means you are godless and see no place for faith in public life. Liberal, instead of being used according to its true political meaning, has become the new Communist; it has become a sinister foil, equated with giving handouts to everyone, instituting socialism, and driving God in America underground for good.

Americans are smarter than those gross over-simplifications. We want the restoration of a reasonable political dialogue about ideas, evidence, sensible values, and the common good for all Americans, not the monologue that continually throws the political hand grenades of abortion, gay marriage, and xenophobia, which only sidetrack us from making real progress. Such land mines are great for generating fear and getting people to the polls, but they provide little help in producing thoughtful, reasoned and evidenced ideas for our domestic and foreign policy, aside maybe from building multi-billion dollar fences. And while those “wedge” issues may carry weight and be genuine concerns for some people, Americans are hungry for sensible legislative solutions to those issues, not just election-time sloganeering to keep the Religious Right’s marionettes in power followed by years of inactivity.

But it isn’t just Democrats who are complaining. In Kansas, which hasn't sent a Democrat to the Senate since the 1930s, many GOP candidates are defecting because there is no longer space for moderate Republicans in the fold. So far, nine Republicans have crossed party lines to run as Democrats just to find a place to fit within this poisonous and polarized atmosphere. Not caustic or divisive enough for the right-wing zealots of their own party, these nine have found a home running as Democrats. And the Johnson County Sun, which has only endorsed a handful of Democrats in its long history, is endorsing eight in this election alone. It seems that anymore, the traditional “right” and “left” are now both within the Democratic Party, and moderate Republicans are on the verge of extinction.

We don’t need all Democrats or all Republicans in Congress; our diversity of opinions should lead to vigorous discussion and ultimately, better policies. What we DO need to wrest control from the handful of right-wing extremists so that sensible politicians from both parties can run on real platforms that address issues like jobs, the economy, poverty, social security, immigration, health care, and national security without resorting to fear-mongering, divisive “wedge” issues, and a desire to legislate a narrow morality. While the Religious Right says that a Democratic vote is an “unthinkable alternative” for any well-meaning Christian, nine Republicans in Kansas are willing to take those chances in a decidedly red state because there is no longer a place for them in their own party.

What’s still the matter with Kansas is the same as what’s bothering the rest of the country: we are absolutely exhausted of the tactics of the extreme right, who may speak loudly but who speak for fewer and fewer of us. We will be best served as a nation to push out that extreme voice so that members of both parties can return to a rigorous yet civil discussion about public policy. We are tired of sensationalism and the contrived culture wars; we want respectful and thoughtful dialogue in the town square.