Jesus and “Obama-Care”: Christian Socialism Inches Forward

No, Jesus was not a socialist (viral FaceBook images notwithstanding). But he did preach a radically prophetic message and he also lived it, including all those stories about miraculous physical healing.

The current brouhaha over healthcare in the United States is not “just” a secular, public policy issue. It is a deeply Christian one. A deeply spiritual one. And therefore a deeply human one. How we treat our own bodies and how we help others treat their bodies and how we structure our “body politic” so that no one need suffer just because they don’t have money or just because they don’t have a job or just because they are not legally married – all of this cuts to the heart of nearly every worldwide spiritual tradition and practice, including Christianity.

For those who think Christianity cares mostly or only about “saving souls,” reading gospel accounts of physical healing and restoration might be a good idea – perhaps especially when vilifying access to healthcare these days so often relies on describing it as “atheistic socialism.”

Christians using the Revised Common Lectionary this coming Sunday will hear not just one but two among many such healing stories – and both about women! (Yes, that mattered then just as much as it matters today.) The snippet provided by the lectionary from Mark’s gospel presents a bold and audacious woman reaching out for help – Jesus provides it (somewhat despite himself, one should note), and a grieving religious leader whose daughter had died.

There’s lots of intrigue to read between the lines of this short passage – politics (who has access to the healer); religion (circumventing proper clerical hierarchies); and culture (who counts, what matters, and how power is distributed).

Let’s just focus on the “access” part. The audacious (and, sadly, nameless) woman in this Markan passage (5:21-43) tosses aside political, religious, and cultural taboos to get what she needs – access to healing. Now this could be an isolated, stand-alone story with no further implications for our own political, religious, and cultural climate today. But St. Paul suggests otherwise.

The lectionary this Sunday also includes a snippet from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians (and if you ever despair over today’s ecclesial culture, just read both of those letters and imagine the community Paul was dealing with!). On the surface, this is a strange and even rather boring little passage from Paul’s letter. But I think it carries a wallop (2 Corinthians 8:7-15).

Paul is apparently dealing with a community marked by uneven resources (sound familiar?). Some have lots of “means” while others have none but lots of “eagerness.” Paul wants them to work together to complete the good work they started. (And I can hardly resist reading this passage from his letter through the lens of the recent Supreme Court decision regarding healthcare reform: “it is appropriate for you who began last year not only to do something but even to desire to do something– now finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means.”)

Paul is crystal clear in this passage. Those who are blessed by abundance and those who are in need must work together as a single body, each providing what the other lacks. Paul cites his own religious tradition for this by noting, and I quote: “The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.” So, “Occupy Rome,” anyone? I mean of course, ancient Rome…oh, okay, today’s Rome, too. Who has “too much””? Who doesn’t have enough? These are not “socialist” questions only; these are profound biblical, Christian questions. Why aren’t we asking them in our churches?

I love this passage from Paul. Abundance is not a sin. Neither is need. The point is that all work together so that all have what they truly need.

Ordinarily I would feel like I’m beating the proverbial dead horse to connect the dots here. But given the vitriolic rhetoric over healthcare reform in this country, I think it’s worth doing.

So herewith I connect the dots: If you’re wealthy and you know it, clap your hands. Then make sure that access to healthcare is available to everyone, like Jairus in Mark’s story. If you’re middle-class or poor and you know it, clap your hands. Then make sure that your insightful gifts are offered boldly and audaciously, like the woman with a hemorrhage in that same story from Mark.

So, no, Jesus was not a socialist. But Paul clearly was, and he was a socialist because of his encounter with the risen Christ.

People waiting for health services at a “free clinic.”

Worried about that label “socialist”? That’s okay. Just read his letters to the Corinthians. Oh, and his letter to the Romans, too. Read those letters in their entirety, not just snippets. But don’t miss this: We are all members of a single body. If anyone weeps, the whole body weeps. If anyone rejoices, the whole body leaps with joy. No member is expendable. No member is better than any other. We’re all in this together. That’s called “socialism.” Or rather, that’s called the Gospel – Good News.

The “Affordable Care Act” just affirmed by the United States Supreme Court is not a panacea. We have much more work to do. And here’s the truly peculiar thing: Both Jesus and Paul gave us the theological reasons to do that work.

So let’s do it.


Pride Also Comes After a Fall

Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and stride on with dignity. Wouldn’t you take at least some pride in that? I would.

After far too many years of trying to make up for what I thought was a fatal flaw in who I am as a human being – after, that is, falling prey to hateful rhetoric from both civil and religious leaders – I’m proud to take my place among so many others who struggle to hold their heads high and make a contribution to their communities, to the Church, to the world. After falling so many times under the weight of shame and humiliation, I’m proud to join in solidarity with all those seeking to express their God-given dignity. After falling for the lie that gay is sinful, I am so terribly proud of all those whose lives bear courageous witness to something entirely different.

Pride does sometimes come after a fall.

The correct biblical version, of course, is that pride goes before a fall. Here’s the full verse: “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18). That’s a classic in ancient wisdom literature and rather troubling to those of us who want to celebrate “LGBT Pride Month,” and for those of us here in the San Francisco Bay Area who will witness the largest LGBT pride celebration in the U.S. this Sunday.

Isn’t pride a sin? Or at the very least, isn’t pride the condition for the possibility of sin? Generally speaking, yes, I think that’s true. Nearly every classic work of western literature has this theme lurking around somewhere in the background if not explicitly in the foreground of its plot.

We’ve certainly seen ample evidence of arrogance and hubris leading to spectacular falls in our lifetimes and even just recently. Moammar Gadhafi comes to mind, and so does Jonathan Edwards.

Add to those indicting examples some recently thought-provoking pieces out in the blogosphere about why all these “pride” festivals are messed up:

  • Sara Miles makes a persuasive case for embracing the themes of liberation, freedom, and justice of the day and not the pride. I mostly agree with her.
  • Mia McKenzie makes the same point as Miles does but in a much more pointed way (white gay men not accustomed to this kind of reflection should pour themselves a cocktail before reading her piece, but it is a must read). I mostly agree with McKenzie, too: unless and until all these “pride” festivals deal seriously with the critical intersections of race, ethnicity, class, economics, sexuality, and gender, we probably don’t have a lot of reasons to be proud of ourselves.
  • David Halperin (a scholar who often makes me kind of crazy) has a great op-ed in today’s New York Times about the risks of losing a distinctive gay style for the sake of prideful assimilation. (Since Halperin is a historian, I was a bit surprised that he stressed “style” so much at the expense of, well, history. I’m constantly amazed by how little the younger students in my classes know about the struggles of the 1960s and 1970s, but I digress…)

So yeah, I get it. And that said, I’m still a fan of speaking about LGBT pride. Like everything else, pride is contextual. The term is way too blunt to cut through much of anything in our complex socio-religious and political culture.

A huge part of the problem here is Christianity. There’s a lengthy tradition in Christian circles of contrasting “pride” with “humility.” The former is the devil’s playground; the latter is the divine homeland. Left unspoken is how often pride circulates as code for describing oppressed populations trying to express their God-given dignity, and how often humility’s spiritual benefits should soothe the humiliation of a community seeking basic human decency.

Younger generations, take note: this is not a new conversation. It wasn’t so long ago that white people regularly derided “uppity” people of color when they asserted their rights; some still think similarly about the President of the United States. It wasn’t so long ago that pious men perpetuated the subjugation of women by extolling their spiritual “humility”; and some still do so today under the guise of “traditional family values.”

It’s one thing to worry about pride among the powerful and quite another to worry about it among those whom the powerful systematically crush.

In 2010, this gay pride marcher embraced a Christian who was displaying a sign apologizing for the harm the Church has done to LGBT people. I’m proud of this moment, this photo, this idea.

In short, I’m not ready to let go of the importance of “pride” for this month or this weekend, not even when the drunk drag queen falls off the Absolut Vodka float in the parade, or when someone’s grandmother is scandalized by men wearing leather harnesses and very little else, or when all those dykes on bikes rumble through San Francisco streets with their breasts gloriously exposed and bouncing about.

For each of those “scandalous” persons we see on cable television there are thousands of others who see those images and catch a glimpse of how their lives could be different – enjoyed, loved, embraced. I mean all those in rural Wyoming, uptown Manhattan, and suburban Atlanta who might at last pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and stand with dignity before God, amazed and grateful that they have survived and wish to thrive.

I mean all those “different” teenagers who might otherwise kill themselves but for that one glimmer of hope that they need not be ashamed.

I would call that “pride.” And I am profoundly grateful for it this weekend.


Salvation Aims Too Low: Christian Insights from a Multimedia World

What do LGBT Pride Day, the lectionary for Proper 7, and the New Media Consortium have in common? Probably more than just one thing, but at least this much: Salvation aims too low.

Of course “salvation” enjoys a rich and multilayered history. I have in mind here how so many U.S. Christian churches have obsessed over who is “in” and who is “out” – who, in other words, is saved?

To me, the Gospel answer to that question is resoundingly clear: everyone. By hook or by crook, God will ensure that no one – not a single one – is lost. (If you have trouble with that claim, I recommend reflecting on the gospel parables of the lost sheep in Matthew 18:12-14, the lost coin in Luke 15:8-10, and the pearl of great price in Matthew 13:45-46, among many others.)

I know there are multiple ways to read the meaning of “salvation” in Christian history. I draw on many of them for my own spiritual practice, my reading, writing, and teaching. I’m grateful for them all. But I truly believe that the divine salvation train is bigger than any of us can imagine. It’s bound for glory and everyone has a ticket.

So let’s stop worrying about that. In my experience, letting go of my anxiety about my personal and individual salvation has enabled me to focus on what matters just as much and often more: changing the world.

Everyone has a ticket for that train bound for glory. Period. Now, what do we do about the “station” and everything around that train?

All of this came to mind just recently when I attended a wonderful conference on educational technologies. No, it wasn’t just for “techno-geeks” (otherwise, I wouldn’t have attended). It was much broader than that, including some inspiring visions for what in the world “education” even means.

So here are the “dots” I want to connect moving forward. I don’t how to connect them yet in much detail. But I’ll post ongoing reflections on all of this:

  • LGBT Pride Month: So when did an annual occasion for insisting on common human dignity and civil rights become a moment for advertising vodka? Been to a “gay pride parade” recently? You’d think queer people are the poster children for Abercrombie and Fitch. The commodification of social justice is certainly not new to LGBT people (just ask any African-American, Asian-American, or Latino/a person about that!). But if “salvation” means I can buy a cocktail, acquire a cool wardrobe, or buy fancy gadgets with rainbow emblems then I’d say “salvation” is aiming far too low.
  • Lectionary Proper 7: This is obscure to most people but urgent for most preachers who follow the Revised Common Lectionary in their churches. The biblical texts for this Sunday, June 24, offer a familiar story (David slays Goliath) and a familiar miracle (Jesus calms a storm). But I’m particularly struck by the reading from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians (6:1-13). To the Christians in Corinth at least, Paul had an urgent message: stop waiting for salvation; salvation is now. Right now.
  • The New Media Consortium: That sounds geeky. And it is. But that’s not all it is. I enjoyed being on a steep learning curve at the consortium’s annual summer conference last week. There I was spurred to reflect not on education (a static, pre-packaged product) but instead on learning (a dynamic, iterative process) and of course I couldn’t help but think about Christianity and salvation. Amazing speakers prompted me to consider that imparting information belonged to a bygone century and I was confronted at every turn with thinking about learning as a “social construction of knowledge” (faith) relying on a collaborative effort for “creative innovation” (social justice ministries), and still more on “open networks of divergent opinions” (church).

So how do I connect all these dots? Here’s one way: Get rid of products. We’re overloaded and bloated these days, not just with information but with a gazillion products. Do we really need spirituality, let alone salvation, added to that list? No more religious products. It’s time for religious and spiritual process.

(And yes, theology geeks out there, that’s not a new idea. But it’s high time we retrieved that ancient insight for today.)

The Apostle Paul wrote passionately to the Corinthians about his own “open heart,” a heart with no restrictions on affection. And he urged the Corinthians to “open your hearts wide also.”

That message sounds no less relevant today than it did nearly 2,000 years ago. For those uncertain about including LGBT people in all aspects of our civil and religious life, consider erring on the side of an “open heart,” with affections unrestricted. For educational institutions still rooted in a traditional university system – detached, isolated, exclusionary, and with protected domains – consider the “open heart” of social media networks, with free affiliations, collaborative problem-solving, and networked innovations for the benefit of all.

No, I didn’t drink the techno-Kool-Aid. I’m not naïve about the challenges LGBT people face nor the real tendency toward commodification in social networks. But I am hopeful. I’m hopeful about the prospects for LGBT people on nearly every front; and I’m hopeful about institutional Christianity, which has morphed and adapted continually for centuries; and I’m hopeful about theological learning in seminaries, where amazingly creative and thoughtful people can seize the moment and change the world.

Change the world? That sounds like “salvation” – the kind a whole lot of us would gladly seek.


Apocalypse Kind-of-Now: A Brown Green Season?

Ecological “issues” are an annoying interruption of the stuff that matters now. I don’t really believe that, but my blog posts would suggest otherwise.

I had a plan. Write about the war on women’s bodies in Lent and write about ecology in Easter – the new creation, totally tied to women’s bodies and gender. Lovely plan, but current events intervened.

And that is precisely the problem.

I totally support full marriage equality for all couples; the end to poverty and racism; full agency for women in decisions about their bodies. So why does the very framework that makes any of those possible in any way get such short shrift? I mean the planetary environment upon which each of relies for every breath.

Here’s the thing: “Apocalypse” is nigh; if not “now,” then soon, within my lifetime (if I’m lucky enough to live another 30 years). Hyperbole? Not really. Read just this one among many accounts of what we’re facing right now (here’s the lede of that story, which you shouldn’t read if you are prone to insomnia because of fretting: “The Earth is within decades of reaching an irreversible tipping point that could result in ‘planetary collapse’, scientists warned yesterday.”) Read yet another alarming account here.

Important digression: I adore my ten-year-old godson (oh, God, could he just say ten forever? No…not good. But he rocks my world right now). Okay, my point: Will he be able to live on this planet 30 years from now? Probably, but not likely in the same comfortable way that I am living on it now. That breaks my heart.

But let’s say, just for the sake of argument, that my adorable godson is not the only reason why any of us should care about the environment, and passionately, with urgency. So why should we?

In some Christian circles (very similar to the one in which I grew up), there is no reason. We actually don’t have to care. The theological logic goes basically like this: God created a good world; humans screwed it up; God sent Jesus (oh, after that Israel interlude, of course) to save us; those who believe all this will go to heaven, a literally disembodied, unearthly place where we don’t have to fret about things like nuclear power plants, plastic choking our oceans, massive extinction events, or potable water.

I’m really not making this up. Evangelical and fundamentalist Christians of a certain type truly believe that Earth is disposable; God will create a new one.

Let me be clear: I have no desire to set up an “us versus them” scenario here in which us good liberal Christians save the planet while those fundamentalists destroy it. That would be easier to write about, frankly. More accurately, there are some Evangelical Christians who are far more passionate about the environment than many of the liberal, “progressive” Christians I know.

Now that’s peculiar. And I take a great deal of hope from it. Decades ago Lynn White, Jr., wrote a devastating essay about religion and its deleterious effects on the environment (read about it here, and yes this is a Wikipedia link). Taking his critique seriously means that we need compelling religious and theological reasons why priority #1 right now is the planet itself. Thankfully, those reasons are ready-to-hand. (Check out this, and this, and this.)

But we do have a problem: current events will always interrupt us. The latest sound bite, the latest outrage about women’s bodies, LGBT people, the economy, war….all of these will always interrupt what we need to do and say right now about where we live, right now.

I don’t have any solutions to the problem of compelling interruptions. I issue only a plea: Let us please figure out how this long “green season” in the Church year after Pentecost can inspire all of us finally to do something about a planet that is dying, right now – our planet, this “fragile earth, our island home” (The Book of Common Prayer, 1979, p. 370).

Come on. Let’s figure this out – for my beloved godson, your grandchild, your niece, your neighbor, the puppies your dog is about to have, the litter of cougar cubs that will be born this year, the salmon spawning in our rivers, just take your pick  – let’s figure this out for all of us, for all of them, for all.


Just Say Yes

It sounds so easy and so good. Indeed, so much seemed to hinge on what Nancy Reagan advised during the 1980s: Just Say No. She meant of course to say No to drugs.

Okay, sure. That’s good advice. But if all we ever do is say No, we are a sorry species.

One of my best friends ever (T. Michael Dempsey, a theater and philosophy and theology guru) helped me to see some years ago now that the best and most important thing human beings can do is to say “Yes.”

Mike is a genius in many respects, not least in his ability to teach improvisational theater. Among the many exercises he facilitates with his students is the “Yes Game.” This is disarmingly simple and profound. In this game, people take turns suggesting some activity that the whole group can do, like running around the room, or rolling around on the floor, or hopping on one foot while chanting “bacon, bacon, bacon.” It doesn’t matter what it is, when someone suggests something to do, everyone says, “Yes!” And then we all do it.

I cannot describe the profound effect this “simple” game can have. To say Yes to life, to people, to love, to opportunity, to risk, to relationship, to relaxation…to God. This is what we are made for.

Tomorrow on the Christian calendar is Trinity Sunday. Many Churches will be hearing from an ancient Hebrew prophet in their worship services. It will be a portion from Isaiah, the one in which the prophet has an astounding vision of God’s presence and glory (see chapter 6).

In the midst of that praise-filled vision, the divine voice speaks: “Who will go for us, and whom shall we send?”

It’s important to note here that Isaiah’s society at the time was in something of a mess. Isaiah’s account of this moment is signaled rather precisely in the first verse of that chapter, “In the year that King Uzziah died….”

His society was unraveling, in other words. And someone had to do something. Someone had to speak some hard truths. Something had to change. (Sound familiar?)

Caught up in that astounding moment of divine worship that Isaiah describes, when the divine voice speaks and seeks someone – anyone – to make a difference, Isaiah doesn’t hesitate: “Send me!

Isaiah said yes. And that’s all that matters. Whatever comes next, whatever details need to be worked out, whatever plan needs to be negotiated and executed – all of that can come later, and indeed God provides all that stuff, as Isaiah later learned. The most important thing is that Isaiah said “Yes!”

I love Trinity Sunday and I am happily a Trinitarian Christian. That doesn’t mean that I “understand” the Trinity or that I think all other views of the divine life are somehow “wrong.” It means for me what I think it must have meant for Isaiah: the God who is above all things is also in all things; the God who is transcendent also dwells among us; the God who cannot be captured in doctrines nevertheless speaks: “Who will go for us?”

The time is now for all of us to say “Send me!” And I truly believe that worship can help each of us say that kind of Yes, just as it helped Isaiah.

That might be the most peculiar thing of all about Christian faith and life today: worship matters. In an age when “spirituality” trumps “religion,” I believe there is still much to be said for the religious rites of worship. Both Jewish and Christian ancestors attest to the life-changing, world-transforming character of worship. Praising God with others can actually change the world. I believe this. I’ve seen it. And I want to find ever new ways to say “Yes!” to it.

Let us therefore worship the unfathomable mystery of God tomorrow, and may our worship help us to say Yes to the divine call. Our world is in desperate need. Now is not the time to say No. Now is the time to say Yes to that Mystery no one can comprehend but which calls to each of us nonetheless: Will you go? Will you do it? Will you change the world?

May our worship inspire us anew to say YES!