Saturday, March 11, 2017

The following is a seriously revised version of the Feb. 10 post.

Religions are, by definition, metaphors, after all: God is a dream                           
a   hope, a woman, an ironist, a father, a city, a house of many
rooms, a watchmaker who left his prize chronometer in the desert,
someone who loves you --- even, perhaps, against all evidence, a
celestial being whose only interest is to make sure your football
team, army, business, or marriage thrives, prospers, and triumphs
over all opposition.

   Religions are places to stand and look and act, vantage points
from which to view the world.

    -- Neil Gaiman, American Gods.[i]

      What does God have to do with social and political spirituality?  And, why is God in the last, rather than the first, chapter if God is the most important thing we could know about – the source of  ultimate mystery, more-than, power, meaning and goodness?

        God belongs here because ninety percent of Americans say they not only have spiritual or religious experiences but believe in God, and that can have implications for how they live their lives.[ii]  People who say they don’t believe in God, may also feel there’s a “higher power,” or spiritual reality.  Theists often look to (their understanding of) God to know what’s good.  But, people who are not theists embrace goodness without God, and theists do evil in the name of God.  So, “God” and good have a complex relationship that deserves our attention.

      On the question of why last rather than first, many theologies assert the nature and intentions of God, and then derive moral and political calculations from that understanding.  Some of those theologies invoke scriptures, traditions or the “laws of nature,” which presumably reflect the God who set them in motion.  But scriptures and traditions vary, even internally, as we have seen.  Nature creates and destroys.  If we take our God-clues from the “laws of nature,” is God both the creator and Shiva, the destroyer of worlds? 

      Those formal theologies can filter down to become practical theologies by which people live, encouraging them to heal or kill, create or destroy, dominate or serve, live or die.  This chapter posits that that Good/ness is a standard by which theologies should be judged, not the other way around.  Deductive theologies are upside down.  Goodness, broadly conceived, with an emphasis here on moral goodness, is a criterion used to decide which theories and claims about God make sense.  It matters whether God is good or Good is God.  The question is: does a God-theory or -statement promote goodness, as in “you shall know them by their fruits?”  So, we began with goodness and just now are getting to God as a metaphor for goodness.

      The chapter also argues that God as the humanized face of Goodness helps many theists thrive best because there is nothing more personal than human contact, so that a personalized God can be more meaningful than an abstract concept or numinous presence.

      We begin with a story from Sulawesi, an Indonesian Island east of Borneo, which highlights differences in practices among people who, nominally, subscribe to the same God but understand their religion quite differently than Western Christians.  This raises the question “what does it mean to be a Christian (or Jew, Buddhist, Hindu), if beliefs and practices are so varied within a single tradition?” 

      Then, we trace some personal experiences of a commonly shared trajectory from pious affirmation, through skepticism to a different kind of affirmation, in this case, inspired by a street-corner panhandler and a woman who cried out for God to heal, or if not, then, to kill, her.  Though perhaps extreme examples, they illustrate that many people need God, often a God that is more-than, not less-than, and at-least human . . . ish.

[i] Neil Gaiman, American Gods.NY: Harpertorch, 2001, p. 508.
[ii] The Pew Forum.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

I ♥ Ujung Pandang   

      I’ve regretted not buying the “I ♥ Ujung Pandang” T-shirt in Sulawesi as a reminder of the incredible God-event our Fulbright Summer Faculty Group was about to see.[i] Our leader heard that a public funeral was in progress among the upland Toraja people, so we clambered aboard a bus for a grueling ten-hour ride.  Going full speed as he approached blind curves with vertiginous drop-offs, the driver blasted his horn to warn vehicles coming from the other side, and yet come to a full stop for a chicken crossing the road (presumably to get to the other side, even in Indonesia).

      We arrived in time for the final “sending out of breath” or maqkaruqdusan day, of a three-day funeral.  The deceased person, “the one whose head is sick,” (tomasaki ulunna) had been dead for the three years it took to complete the funeral preparations and re-assemble the widely-scattered family.  It is their custom to store a “sleeping” corpse in a backroom casket with a small bamboo tube that drains outside, or they bury the deceased in a temporary grave.

      Locals watch from batik-bedecked bamboo booths surrounding a dirt plaza.  Some sit while others shuffle back and forth in murmured conversations.  A water buffalo, tied to a tree, shifts uneasily side to side over red-stained ground, perhaps smelling the blood of siblings.  There’s just one buffalo, so the deceased was not super rich.

      There are speeches in Sa'dan Toraja.  A eulogist, rises and speaks, curiously repeating a word that sounds like “Jesus,” though that seems unlikely, so distant from Christian culture as I have known it.  Then the choir rises and sings “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so” – not in English, but unmistakable to anyone who has done hard time in Sunday School.  Ah, the Christian missionaries have been here.

      The choir sits.  Young men prance around the water buffalo and pull its tail.  It roars with indignation as it falls, but they boost it back up, for it has not fallen on the ritually prescribed side.  They tug and push, finally getting it upright.  A dancing youth waves a machete-like knife in airy circles, and then with a sudden single swipe slices the buffalo's throat.  Its last startled wild-eyed roar turns into a ghostlike rush of air as esophageal cartilage pops free of the neck muscles and lung-breath rushes skyward without passing through vocal cords.  The dead man’s soul is now released to ride his faithful water buffalo, so necessary for survival, to Puya, the land of souls.  When breath ends, the spirit departs.[ii]  

      The men use bamboo tubes to catch the blood spurting from the buffalo’s severed arteries as its heart continues to pump.  The women keen at the departure of their husband, grandfather, father, cousin, uncle, friend.  The buffalo is skinned and cut into huge chunks.  Black-clad mourners skewer the stringy meat with bamboo pikes and heft them onto their shoulders to begin the trek homeward.  Everything is shared.

      The horns will be mounted on the center post of a two-story thatched hut, along with those of its’ ancestors.  The batik banners are stripped from the temporary huts and draped over the casket, topped by a giant Mai-Tai parasol.  Men shoulder the funeral bier, move downhill, wade through a watery rice field nearly dropping one end, and climb the facing hill to a burial crypt. 

      Not your typical Euro-American funeral.  When’s the last time you butchered a bull in your church, synagogue, mosque or temple?  And, yet the ceremony was as meaningfully Christian to the people of Tanah Toraja as the funeral of a beloved member of the First United Methodist Church in Corsicana, Texas. 

      What sort of God/religion/spirituality do the Christian Toraja people have, and is it important that it is different than that of Euro-American Christians?  Western Christians who might denigrate the animism in a Torajah funeral, are oblivious to the ways non-Christian cultural themes and memes, such as consumer individualism, fold seamlessly into their religious experience.  Do Euro-American and Toraja Christians worship the same God?  Can it be said that traditionalist Roman Catholics and snake-handling Protestants worship the same God?  Even people sitting cheek by jowl in the same pew have differing understandings of who or what God is as well as what God expects of us.  How can there be a single meaning of the word “God,” let alone a single understanding or worship of the Being represented by the word?

[i] Funded by a Fulbright faculty summer grant.
[ii] Similar sacrifices can be found on youtube.

Friday, February 10, 2017

That which follows is the most unfinished of all the draft chapters so far.  And, probably the most controversial.  Also, I still, obviously, haven't taken time to straighten out font and spacing problems.
The God Merry-Go-Round

Religions are, by definition, metaphors, after all: God is a dream  a  
hope, a woman, an ironist, a father, a city, a house of many

rooms, a watchmaker who left his prize chronometer in the desert,

someone who loves you --- even, perhaps, against all evidence, a

celestial being whose only interest is to make sure your football

team, army, business, or marriage thrives, prospers, and triumphs

over all opposition.

   Religions are places to stand and look and act, vantage points

from which to view the world.

-- Neil Gaiman, American Gods.[i]


      What does God have to do with social and political spirituality and why are we only getting to God now if, as billions believe, God is the most important thing we could know about – the ultimate mystery and the absolute more-than, the source of meaning around which we should shape our existence?  Because we have limited knowledge and power, God is often described as all-knowing and all powerful, the Almighty, especially for tribal people who knew so little about their world and were radically subject to fierce animals and other random forces of nature.  Because we are finite and die, God is believed to be infinite and bring eternal life in one form or another.  Whereas our thoughts and actions are a mixture of good and evil, God must be the supreme good, the source of morality.  The gods of ancient Greece and Rome – gods of wine, war, wisdom and wild things; trade, time and truth – mirrored and magnified the daily lives of ancient peoples, or at least the wealthy class.

      Statements about God (theologies) are extrapolations from, interpretations of, experiences of burning bushes, sacred texts, charismatic individuals, or induced by meditation, incense, gongs or ecstatic visions.  We may not be sure about which theology is “right,” but ninety percent of Americans still say they not only have spiritual or religious experiences but believe in God.[ii] 

      There are historical as well as empirical reasons why “the God question” needs to be part of a discussion of social and political spirituality.  That which people believe about God often leads them to act in certain ways – healing or killing, creating or destroying, dominating or serving, dying or living, informed by their understanding of God.  What they believe counts, regardless of  theological speculations about the existence and nature of God.
     A Sulawesi experience, described below, illustrates differences in practices among people who, nominally, subscribe to the same God.  After the story, a series of personal experiences trace a not uncommon trajectory from pious affirmation, through skepticism to a more grounded affirmation, inspired by a street corner panhandler and a woman who cried out for God to heal, or if not, then, to kill, her.  Next post, to Sulawesi, an Indonesian island east of Borneo. 

[i] Neil Gaiman, American Gods.NY: Harpertorch, 2001, p. 508.
[ii] The Pew Forum.

Friday, January 27, 2017

A second helpful Niebuhr contribution addresses the question of why people who individually are moral, often commit immoral acts when banded together in groups, in the words of the book’s title, Moral Man and Immoral Society.  While for Niebuhr, this observation had theological significance, it’s essentially a formulation that could have been made by any cultural commentator about moral and political culture.  Over time, many have asked and addressed this issue.

A third Niebuhr contribution, in response to political idealists of his day, is his exploration of the depth of evil (“sin”) inherent in the human condition and thus the need for political realism, e.g. that it takes power to offset power – again, an observation that was not original and had been made by other observers of political life.  Niebuhr was driven by his understanding of God.  But, the lasting significance of his life is in the realm of recovery groups and his popularization of other people’s moral and political theories.  Insofar as these make a good contribution to the human community, they can be thought of as in some sense the working of the spirit of god; just not exactly the God he was thinking about.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Thirty percent of people say they practice religion “to help you be a better person and live a moral life,”17 percent say “to find peace and happiness,” 10 percent say “to connect with something larger than yourself,” 8 percent say “to give your life meaning and structure,” and 3 percent say “to be part of a community;” all. sensible, pragmatic reasons.  The laity are better theologians than their clergy.

It’s interesting that well-known theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, whose fifteen books have been appreciated, by tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of people, is probably best remembered for  pragmatic observations that could stand independent of his systematic theology (itself an oxymoron).  The first is the serenity prayer, used with slight modification in thousands of twelve-step groups, and could be affirmed by atheists if you substitute something for the word “God.”

            God (i.e. Higher Power) give us grace to accept with serenity the

            things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things which

            should be changed and the wisdom to distinguish one from the other.  


The prayer is not specifically Christian, though Niebuhr was a Christian neo-orthodox theologian.

A second is his observation that people who individually are moral, band together in groups often commit immoral acts, in the words of the book’s title, Moral Man and Immoral Society.  While for Niebuhr, this observation had theological significance, it’s essentially a formulation that could have been made by any cultural commentator about moral and political culture.

A third, in response to political idealists of his day, is his exploration of the depth of evil (“sin”) inherent in the human condition and thus the need for political realism, e.g. that it takes power to offset power – again, an observation that was not original and had been made by other observers of political life.  Niebuhr was driven by his understanding of God.  But, the lasting significance of his life is in the realm of recovery groups and his popularization of other people’s moral and political theories.  Insofar as these make a good contribution to the human community, they can be thought of as in some sense the working of the spirit of god; just not exactly the God he was thinking about.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

It has been hard for me to stick with the church.  Most of what I had been taught now seems wrong, not because I had been lied to but because the teachers simply did not know any better, though sometimes they knew better but were afraid to share it.  I believe the latter is true of a lot of local clergy who are vulnerable to wholesale desertions if their congregations knew what they really think.  While I cannot be angry with some of my seminary teachers and colleagues because of what they taught, for indeed, most of what I’ve written or said is probably just as deficient.  The annoying part was that they made absolute claims absolutely.  More tentativeness, expressions of uncertainty, more biblical and theological humility would have gone a long way.  The problem is not religion per se, but absolutism in the name and practice of religion. 

The church’s moral, as opposed to biblical or theological, failings, however, did and do provoke anger.  In the late 1960’s, invited by a friend to preach at a congregation on the South Side of Chicago, I ended a mild and moderate sermon with: “And so, everyone who has God as his father has Martin Luther King as his brother.”  The church summoned the pastor when he returned and took away his right to invite supply pastors unsupervised by a committee of the board.  Like many others, he soon left the parish.  I quit giving money to the church and started giving to the NAACP, SNCC and CORE because if God was anywhere, “he” was in the movement.  

As I became more aware of the Holocaust, I began to doubt  that God  is in charge, that God answers prayer, indeed, that God  intervenes, or does anything in real social-historical time.  At the same time, the good and evil, the pain and pleasure, experienced in family realities became more and more salient as did the importance of politics – 1954 Brown vs. The Board of Education, 1964 The Civil Rights Act and The War on Poverty, 1971 School Busing as a way to reduce inequalities.  The “God question” didn’t seem nearly as important as the human question.

Even though some of what I hear in church makes very little sense, I continue to cast my lot with religious institutions because they do more good than harm and because I do not see other institutions that, day in and day out, century in and century out, continuously promulgate goodness.  Thus, my commitment to religious institutions is has pragmatic, aesthetic (music, art, architecture), ethical and communal elements along with personal reflection and meditation.  The Bible makes a contribution, but “the Bible says so” is, by itself, no longer an adequate guide.

Monday, January 2, 2017

      Too often, social activists rush to congregations with causes but have not done the strategic homework necessary that takes into account where people already are, how much they might move over time and what it takes to get them to change.  I once visited a small congregation in Louisiana where a handful of activists said they were going to get the whole congregation involved in Bread for the World’s Offering of Letters.  I advised them not to push the church council too hard because if they got a strong “no,” it might block participation for years.  If they got turned down, they should at least write their own letters to Congress.

A year later I returned to that congregation and asked how it had gone.  “Oh, that blankey-blank church council….”  But, “Did you write letters as part of the Bread for the World annual campaign?”  “Well, yes, five of us did.”  While there that year, they had arranged for me to teachs an adult class at the end of which, participants were invited (INVITED!)  to write a letter.  Most did.  A year later the whole congregation was participating in the Offering of Letters.  It took three years.  But, change happened.  The changes described here require long term planning and, ultimately, a change in the culture of both seminaries and congregations.

Sr. Sally Duffy O.S.C. of the SC Ministry Foundation observes that when a parish begins to take social justice seriously, it transforms other aspects of a congregation’s life, e.g. liturgy and bible study.  Seminaries can lead, or at least catch up with, local congregations such as those Roman Catholic parishes that engage in “Just Faith” study programs.

Note that in the above examples, the approach to moral sensitivity and political action was taken, purely voluntarily, by individuals, not the congregation as a corporate entity.  It is not possible for a pastor or congregation to become expert in all, or even many of the critical social issues that face our cities, nation and world.  So, seminaries would be asked to explore how clergy and laity can become interpreters of the larger issues and know how to help congregants to connect with organizations and movements that will feed and sustain their desire to make a difference in the world.  Congregants not only have a lot to give, but a lot to gain and the public square can benefit from an infusion of religious values.  Particular focus should be given to sustaining and strengthening the core institutions of democracy, beyond specific issues.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

I'm thinking of re-naming this chapter from "The 66% Solution" to "Religion with Benefits"

This political involvement by a religious organization is a public value added.  It is also a value to the religious group itself as it begins to see itself as a public entity in conversation with other public entities.  Religion is not merely private, and public engagement affirms the public character of religious and theological commitments.  When we choose not to engage, we are ratifying the status quo. 
Congregations should be loci where political concerns should be discussed, members are supported in public engagement and the congregation itself may occasionally take a stand.  My concern is more that individuals within congregations become empowered to take a stand and become active than that congregations themselves become active.  Exactly how congregations and denominations should be involved requires a separate discussion, but at a minimum, they must be nonpartisan and allow ample room for legitimate and principled dissent.  When I was doing organizing at Bread for the World, I encouraged congregants to write letters opposing Bread’s agenda if they disagreed with it.  Since congregations are public institutions enmeshed in the life of other public institutions, including the political sphere, will it be involved effectively or randomly?        
An important, but neglected, role of most congregations is to empower individual members by providing education about politics and policy, by discussing current situations in the light of the tradition’s values.  This can be accomplished by encouraging participation in such efforts as the Industrial Areas Foundation organizing efforts, and by encouraging participation in nonprofits such as RESULTS, Bread for the World, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Oxfam, MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, that are focused on policy and advocacy efforts to improve public policies and services in the United States and in developing countries. 
Today's religious congregation is faced with enormous cultural challenges – competing religions, secularizing trends, diverse worldviews, the implications of globalization. The challenges are both external and internal.  What kind of culture is fostered in congregations, and, therefore, what kind of culture is fostered by lay and clergy education in seminaries?
In the long term, it is necessary to effect some changes in congregations.  Seminary faculty who raise consciousness or advocate issues without teaching how to handle disagreements in the parish may make students less fit for parish life.  Parish pastors fear the controversy potentially involved in addressing policies and acting politically. We should not run away from the slow but critical task of transforming the culture of congregations.  Changes can and will happen if approached strategically.

      Most congregations are not ready to jump into the types of activities described here, so academics from a variety of disciplines will need to focus on the question of how clergy and lay leaders can, over time, transform the culture of local congregations.  Some years ago a pastor approached me with a concern about how his congregation would accept the gay couple who had suddenly shown up on Sunday morning, especially since one of the partners was a member of the clergy in that denomination.  The pastor said that he didn’t have a problem with their participation, but said that the congregation wasn’t ready for this.  I agreed that the congregation wasn’t ready, but asked what he was going to do to get them ready?  “Think of it as a multi-year plan.  Think of it like you think of a building program, stewardship program or an educational program.  What is your long-term plan to get them ready?”  When I visited that congregation a few years later, there was a table near the entrance with pamphlets and books about homosexuality.  Things had changed and continued to change over time because social concern had become a priority, not a residual, “when we have time to get to it,” activity.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Mea culpa.  Family concerns, including the recent death of my 105-year-old mother have led me to be neglectful of this site.  I'll try to do better.  Dick

Thousands of clergy who might consider it inappropriate for religious people to get involved in politics apparently contacted their members of Congress when they learned that the clergy housing tax exemption might be revoked.  Whether or not religious individuals are involved in politics is sometimes a matter of fear of whose ox is being gored.  On the other side, in the days following 9-11, it was mostly the religious organizations that called for restraint and suggested the violence often leads to more violence.

Moral commitments are most often expressed in acts of charity, which while helpful and necessary, often to address larger causes and structures.  In a Public Religion Research Institute poll, 41 percent of Americans agreed with the statement, “In the Bible when Jesus and the prophets were talking about helping the poor, they were primarily talking about our obligation to create a just society,” while 50 percent agreed with “charitable acts by individuals.”  White Catholics, mainline and evangelicals polled at 36, 33 and32 percent to justice and 54, 57 and 61 percent to charity.[i]

I heard a woman who managed the international aid portfolio of a major Protestant denomination say that she had been to the refugee camps and was shocked that the children didn’t have shoes.  So, she went back and ordered shoes for all the kids in the camp.  Nice gesture and I’m sure it made her feel better, but how did that contribute to long term stability and development?  Charitable acts say “the system is basically okay.  We just need to help the people we can within current structures.”  No, we also need to change the social, economic and political structures that block human wellbeing as well as serve those who have immediate needs.

A congregation sponsors digging a water well somewhere in Africa, but ignores the ensuing war that destroys a thousand wells.  Congregations are more likely to be involved in feel-good rather than long-term do-real-good activities.  They do wonderful acts of charity but balk at seeking political solutions to the same problems, e.g. increasing poverty-focused foreign aid that helps create a more peaceful, democratic, just world that reduces the possibility of terrorism.  We send money to dig a well, send equipment to plough a field, donate some pigs in a developing country, and then civil war breaks out, the wells are poisoned, the fields are laced with landmines and the pigs are slaughtered to feed the troops of a dictator.  Individual efforts which are not tied to larger political structures can be negated by larger forces such that one’s values are not realized; and in reverse, politics is a major way for expressing and achieving the values that one seeks to exercise.

Having said that, there are large charitable efforts and nongovernmental agencies that do a lot of good.  I am not arguing that their efforts are necessarily useless.  Sometime they are and sometimes they aren't.  The point I'm trying to make is that neglect of politics can negate the good they do.

      Religious people, grounded in a utopian vision, and with centuries of experience in addressing social ills, have a vital stake in the common good.  Stated in the imperative, religious people should be involved in politics. Political involvement is a natural outgrowth of religious commitment. Stated in the indicative, religious people are involved in politics whether they want to be or not. The indicative is far more serious than the imperative, for it means that politics is unavoidable, that at some level everything is political, including religious practice.

The question is not whether congregations should encourage their members to engage in politics, but how they are engaged.   People are intrinsically enmeshed in social and political life.  The real question is: “Since religious people are already involved in public and therefore political, life, what is the character and quality of their engagement?  Will they be guided by the best available knowledge or random intuitions?”  Will they engage intentionally, carefully and with humility.[ii]  It is possible to engage meaningfully in “charitable politics” as well as the more familiar “charity.”  How much preferable it is to be trained, know what you are doing and act on effectively on one’s religious values.

[i] PRRI/Brookings Economic Values Survey, July 2013.  Hispanic Catholics, Black Protestants and Unaffiliated people tended to fall on the side of justice (60,54,46 percent).
[ii]  “Gallup polls in the 1960s found that, by a margin of 53 to 40 percent, Americans believed that churches should refrain from involvement in politics, and only 22 percent of respondents believed that it was
acceptable for clergy to discuss political issues or candidates from the pulpit.  By 1996, however these results had reversed: by a margin of 54 to 43 percent, the public thought that churches should express their views on political and social issues of the day, and 29 percent of respondents supported outright politicking from the pulpit.” Andrew Kohut, John C. Green, Scott Teeter, Robert C. Toth, The Diminishing Divide: Religion’s Changing Role in American Politics, Brookings, 2000, pp. 4-5.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

When people say that congregations shouldn’t get involved in politics, they are asking the wrong

question. Religious individuals and their congregations cannot escape involvement.  It doesn’t

take many examples to illustrate this bromide.

  • Whether congregations are taxed or tax exempt is a political decision and it states a particular kind of alignment, one way or the other, in relation to government.


  • Congregations expect police and fire protection, whether they contribute toward those costs or not, another political decision and alignment.


  • Religious groups are subject to zoning laws, child abuse laws (in a recent, apparently religiously-sanctioned spanking, case, children were removed from a home), and many, many other laws that are formulated and enforced through the political process.


  • Now and then we read stories of courts ordering medical treatment of children for life-threatening diseases even though the parents hold religious beliefs that proscribe such treatment. 


  • The church where I grew up had the U.S. flag on one side of the altar and the Christian flag on the other and did lots and lots of “flag waving.”  And in the church-sponsored Boy Scout troop, some of us earned the Pro Deo et Patria award.

Imagine the Norwegian Lutheran pastor who innocently enjoins her congregation to go to the polls and vote for “the best candidate, regardless of political party.”  Sounds fair and nonpartisan.  But what if  the congregants are faced with two candidates, neither of whom they know – Lars Christian Olsen or Vladimir Radislov Szkafarowsky.  Which is likely to get their votes?

The sermons, hymns and texts articulated in religious congregations week in and week out invoke justice, love, peace, forgiveness, all of which have political implications, whether directly or indirectly.  No individual, congregation or nation lives up to their values perfectly, and sometimes they do just the opposite, but nonetheless the reminders are always there during both private devotions and public worship.  Morality also exists outside religious commitments, but virtually all religious commitments emphasize moral commitments, and moral commitments are bound to seek expression in social and political life.[i]  We try to organize the world in terms of the values we hold, whether individually or through the organizations in which we participate.  

I’ve heard sermons in which the pastor made disdainful reference to “government taking our money through taxes” or supporting or opposing welfare, war, terrorism or other federal, state or local policies that impact on congregants.  Whether people choose to articulate the connection with politics and policy, those implications are clearly there. 

[i] I disagree with those who say that you have to have God to have clear moral standards.  That’s simply not empirically true.  There are millions who act ethically but are not religious in any discernable way, though it could be argued that their ethical action itself can be seen as a religious act.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

I can't believe that it's been so long since I posted.  Apologies to anyone who's trying to follow this.

Caged Spirituality

      Faith groups try to cage spirituality in rites, rituals, theologies, teachings.  While spirituality can and does exist in our natural, social and political relationships, it is also nurtured in congregations.  Yes, it is possible to be spiritual without being religious, i.e. without linking one’s spirituality to religious institutions.  But, it is at least equally possible, and more likely, to practice spirituality within established religious traditions.  It is very clear that for many, perhaps most, people in the world, participation in faith settings that are established by organized religious organizations promote spirituality.  You may be able to raise your own chickens, but many of us depend on organized supply chains for eggs.  And if you decide to raise your own chickens you are still dependent on the success of breeding programs and accumulated knowledge.

      [In the final version, I will show religious participation in the US around hunger and poverty alone.  It’s hunger as an example of how religious spirituality typically leads to good results]

Why Not at Dinnertime?

      It is said that religion and politics are the two subjects to avoid in polite conversation, because they easily lead to bitter disagreements.  People are willing to go to war over

either.  Religion and politics can such have a powerful claim on our identity, ideology and life experiences that combining them can be dangerous, though I can’t imagine many of the religious people I know being willing to die for their faith.

      When a national government claims grounding in a particular religion, or when a religious organization claims the right to enforce its views through the power of the state, either is on dangerous territory.  No form of human association is so free of ambiguity and the potential for error that it should claim to be a ruling manifestation of the will of the Divine.  That’s especially true of national governments because they have the power of police and armies to enforce their decisions.

      Politics takes its share of hits in the public mind, and all-powerful systems are capable of great corruption as well as tremendous good.  It is dangerous to identify human will with divine will; to say that what a particular organization or party says is undergirded by big-G GOD.  It is possible to start a revolution against a state, to argue with a philosopher, to go to a different temple, but how do you argue against “the will of God.”[i]  So we always have to be careful about overlap between church and state.
     History is replete with examples of congregational involvement in politics, sometimes for good and sometimes for ill.  On September 16, 1810 Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla preached a sermon about the oppression of the government.[i]  Following the service, he charged out of the church with a “motley band of poorly armed Indians and mestizos . . . picking up hundreds of recruits along the way . . .” starting a revolution.[ii]  September 16, dies y seis, has since then been commemorated as Mexican Independence Day.  Some clergy actively supported the Hitler regime, others spoke out against it, but by far the greatest number could not find their voice.  Their involvement was assent by silence.

[i]My children: a new dispensation comes to us today.  Will you receive it?  Will you free yourselves?  Will you recover the lands stolen three hundred years ago from your forefathers by the hated Spaniards?  We must act at once . . . .  Will you not defend your religion and your rights as true patriots?  Long live our Lady of Guadalupe!  Death to bad government!  Death to the gachupines!"
[ii]  Michael C. Meyer and William Sherman, The Course of Mexican History, Second Edition, Oxford University Press, 1983, pp. 287-288.

[i] maybe quote Berger and Luckmann

Monday, June 20, 2016

Congregations Motivate Some to Act

                   ‘Tis written: “In the beginning was the Word.

                        The Word? Impossible so high to rate it;

                        And otherwise must I translate it,

                        If by the Spirit I am truly taught.

                        Then thus: “In the Beginning was the THOUGHT.

                        This first line let me weigh completely

                        Lest my impatient pen proceed too fleetly,

                        Is it the THOUGHT which works, creates, indeed?

                        “In the beginning was the POWER,” I read.

                        Yet, as I write a warning is suggested,

                        That I the sense may not have fairly tested.

                        The Spirit aids me: now I see the light!

                        “In the beginning was the ACT

                        the DEED” I write.

-- Goethe, Faust


Religious institutions motivate many of their members (though not enough) beyond thinking and feeling to actively engage social problems. In the United States, that action primarily takes shape around direct service and charitable giving, rather than public policy and advocacy.  But, congregations that have a fuller understanding of the positive uses of power, i.e. power-with and not just power-over, act as justice-oriented mediating institutions between the big corporate and government institutions and the solitary citizen.  They enable individuals to band together to counter some of the influence of the big structures that tend to run things.

Bread for the World grew out of a Lenten Bible study and the original founder and president was Arthur Simon, a Missouri Synod Lutheran parish pastor and brother of the late Senator Paul Simon.  The group decided they wanted to do something about hunger, but they weren’t sure what to do.  They were driven to act, but did not have the knowledge and skills required for effective action. However, out of their sense of calling, they gradually acquired the arts of political engagement.

      Early Bread for the World really didn’t know much about the complex policies and politics involved in lobbying on hunger. Nor did the organization know much about how to mobilize a grassroots constituency.  Commitment to a hunger-free world drove the organization into the political arena and there it learned about policies and politics.  Religious institutions, like other institutions, often disagree as to which policies are important.  But, that only brings us back to the 66 percent rule. 

      Religious (and secular) NGOs help people express their moral commitments in political forms, i.e. in ways that change structures, polices and funding.  They educate and empower ordinary people to become informed citizens of a global world, citizens of the global polis.  And, that is a valuable public good. It seems likely that, worldwide, the largest driving force for social justice is rooted in religious experience.  [will probably amplify this section in the final version]