Saturday, December 22, 2012

Guns In America: The Spiritual Opportunity For Grace

The best way to invest the wave of mass murders we have experienced in recent years would be to repent from social violence. Reasonable regulation of firearms would be the most obvious pragmatic way to back off from our compulsive habit of violence. But gun reform is at once a far, far cry from enough on the one hand, and extraordinarily hard to achieve on the other. I have not read America & Its Guns: A Theological Expose by Jim Atwood and my theological hero Walter Brueggemann. I’ve only read Rick Barber’s review at; but I have just ordered the book and plan to read it soon. If we are going to think and act with wisdom we need to engage violence theologically. Isn’t that what the Cross compels us to do?

At this initial stage, I am wondering if the very difficulty in even discussing guns rationally might be a point of entry into the theological challenge we must confront if we are going to take repentance deep enough to respond to all the bloodshed – not just Columbine, Virginia Tech, the Gabby Gifford shooting; the Colorado Theater Massacre, and Sandy Hook Elementary – but all the the one at a time killings and the 181 school shootings in America since Columbine. A reform that makes such killings less frequent is not an adequate answer. But maybe that’s where we have to begin.

Let’s start with the anti-gun folks. There is something oddly self-defeating in our way of challenging gun violence. It is as if we are more concerned with expressing a feeling and maintaining a moral stance than we are about saving lives. As part of that puritanical separatist sentiment, we do not take into account the people on the other side. We imagine them all to be dumb and violent. That is simply not true. I know any number of kind, decent folks, progressive on all manner of social issues, but they are pretty attached to their guns. In ways -- perhaps the ways I will discuss momentarily -- they feel violated or fear being violated by those who would deprive them of their weaponry. That feeling may or may not be reasonable, but it is real, and if we want to change our society, we have to start with what’s real – reasonable or not. To disregard the concerns of the gun owners is itself a kind of violence.

One year my Diocese (not Nevada) devoted our Convention to gun violence. We passed a resolution forbidding Episcopalians from owning handguns and requiring all church members to hand over their guns to their priests. In Georgia! We lost a few members, but to my knowledge never collected a single handgun. What were we smoking?

Here’s what I mean by puritanical separatism: many Abolitionists opposed the Union war effort and all the political efforts of the 1840s and 50s to stop the spread of slavery. They were perfectly content to see the South go its own way. The Abolitionists would have abolished slavery in their nation without freeing a single slave. They would have accomplished nothing but to keep their own skirts clean. That is the kind of spirit among the anti-gun activists that will perpetuate the violence.

The pro-gun folks are decidedly voicing something deep within the American identity. One pro-gun comment I read this week said, “I am an American. I will not give up the gun in my purse.” Her gun was part and parcel of being an American in her mind. That takes some unpacking. But it must not be dismissed. She is onto something. America has 5% of the world’s population, but we own 50% of the world’s guns. We have lots of guns and we use them. The U S per capita rate of gun deaths is about 20 times the average of other developed nations. No other developed nation has anything like our rate of gun deaths. Only Chile is even in the ballpark. To be fair, several undeveloped nations are worse. But the woman’s point is still fair. Owning and using lethal weapons is wired into our self-concept. I gather Atwood and Brueggemann help us understand how we came to identify with our guns.

For now, I think of a line from a song written by a Nevada singer-songwriter. “Something to do with my pride. Something to do with my fear.” Let’s start with fear. Americans are afraid. We are very afraid. Many people carrying guns are afraid of the other people carrying guns. No surprise. Our crime rate is high. So some of that fear just makes sense.

But I have personally observed that an extraordinary number of people who are not seriously at risk are just as afraid, often more afraid, than are the people who live and work in dangerous neighborhoods or have dangerous jobs. Maybe fear is contagious so we catch it from people who are afraid with good reason. But I am also intrigued by the argument of Lynn Serafinn in 7 Graces of Marketing. She says that marketing strategies for the past several decades have used fear (including fear of scarcity), sex, and a kind of debased humor to sell, sell, sell. Those who are bombarded with this kind of marketing at the rate we Americans are, by her reasoning, are bound to be afraid. If I know Walter Brueggemann, I suspect he’ll make the same connection. We are, in short, afraid. And we have placed our trust not in God or in each other, but in our own access to lethal force.

Speaking of the lethal weapons of his day, the Psalmist wrote: “Some trust in chariots and some in horses; but we trust in the name of the Lord.” (Ps 27). When Judah turned to the death dealing power of Egypt for defense, Isaiah said,

“Woe to them that go to Egypt for help, and trust in chariots and stay on horses for they are many; and in horsemen for they are very strong; but they look not unto the Holy One of Israel; nor do they seek the Lord. Because you have said ‘We have made a covenant with death, with Hades we have an agreement, . . . .’ I lay in Zion a foundation stone, a tried stone, a precious cornerstone . . . “ (Is. 28: 14-16)

Our level of fear, though understandable, says something about our faith. Our trust is not in the foundation stone, the tried stone, the precious cornerstone. Instead when we say the answer to “a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” we have made a “covenant with death.” We trust our ability to invoke the death of another to save us from death. “Something to do with our fear.” “

But also “something to do with (our) pride.”  What constitutes human worth? What makes a person a hero? How do we establish our status? Is it who we are, what we have, or something we can do? Culture defines the criteria of human worth. In our culture, if a person can amass great wealth, he or she is worthy. Second, best is the ability to kill people. There is an axis of value here. There is a horizontal axis of good versus bad plus a vertical axis as pride versus shame. On the good versus bad axis, it matters who we kill – good to kill Osama bin Laden (not the Christian view – I’m talking about the cultural value), bad to kill innocent children. But on the pride versus shame axis, the thing is to be able to kill – anybody, preferably a lot of people. The strong person may refrain from killing, especially if restraint justifies him or her on the good-bad axis; but the ability to kill is what counts. Unless we are physically very formidable or have terrific martial arts skills, the best way to be lethal is to pack heat.

Where do I get the idea that our capacity to kill is a measure of our worth? What makes us a “great nation?” It isn’t our education system, which we don’t fund. Neither is it the purity of our democracy, which we spend a fortune to corrupt. It’s our ability to inflict shock and awe – impose our will by force.

Who are our movie heroes if not the rugged individuals who can dispatch large numbers of people in just a few minutes of screen time?  The ability to kill carries cred. It gets respect. If we aren’t rich and we can’t kill, what good are we?

We have lost more people to gun deaths in the United States since 1968 than in all our wars. People in other developed nations, and even many undeveloped nations, think of us as “violent.” Why is that? “Something to do with our pride. Something to do with our fear.”

When puritanical separatism faces off against pride (more specifically its corollary of shame) and fear, there isn’t much space left in the room for reason. Reason would find the right tool for the right job. Because mass shootings account for a statistically insignificant percentage of total gun deaths, restricting the right to own semi-automatic weapons to law enforcement, the military, or others with some legitimate need to kill large numbers of people very fast will not actually have a major impact on the rate of gun deaths. But if we want to stop mass shootings, restricting the right to own semi-automatic weapons would save lives.

Requiring background checks to prevent criminals, terrorists, and dangerous mentally ill people from buying guns would not necessarily stop a random crazy person from getting a gun and committing mass murder. But it would reduce the number of individual gun deaths each year.

We don’t have to repeal the 2nd amendment or ban all handguns to make a difference that would save lives. But it would take reasoned negotiations taking into account the concerns of both sides. The good thing about needing to come together is that in order to have reasoned negotiation; we must first engage the spiritual issues underlying our puritanical separatism, our pride, and our fear. What if in the course of discussing legislation there were actual conversions of heart? What if we turned to each other in God, found our worth in God’s eyes, entrusted our well-being to God? What if we actually beat our own weapons into plowshares, not because the other side forced us to do so, but because we as a culture redefined the measure of human worth in such a way that the ploughshare carried more respect than the weapon?

I am not saying we need a change of heart instead of a change of law. But we cannot achieve a change of law without some change of heart; and if that change of heart just kept going, it would achieve more than legislation ever could. It might achieve something worthy of the blood that has been spilled.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Looking Back On A 10 Year Long Conversion Experience: Was It Mine Or Ours?

Reading N. T. Wright’s Jesus and The Victory of God has sparked some reflection on how my religion has changed during the past decade. It’s a fundamental shift in what I believe and what I do – a change in how I find meaning and value in life. Oddly, it tracks a shift in our scholarly understanding of Jesus that I was not aware of at the time.

I came back to Christianity about 1980 from several years of pretty serious Buddhism. I still value my Buddhist experience and could not have found my way back to Christianity except by that path. But for reasons that will become clear, I now find the historical focus, the narrative structure, and the hope for change in this world offered by Christianity is more helpful -- at least in our cultural context. I am quite content to let Buddhist be Buddhists. I just hope Christians will be Christians. It has taken me a lot of years, step by step, to actually engage the distinctly Christian hope in this world and for this world – in fact, I’m pretty sure I am not there yet. It’s a process.

In the 1980’s and 90’s, the in vogue view of Jesus was “wisdom teacher.” Most of what Jesus taught was about “the Kingdom of God.” But what does that mean? It definitely isn’t where we go when we die. The Jesus Seminar folks and others who gave us Jesus the Wisdom Teacher interpreted the Kingdom as a spiritual state already available to anyone who got their mind right. That’s what I believed and that’s what I taught. The Kingdom Jesus proclaimed did not have any implications for the existing power structures of the world, like the Roman Empire, the Temple theocracy, local authorities like Herod, etc. The crucifixion of Jesus either did not happen at all or it was a big mistake. Jesus was a wise teacher like Lao Tzu. He was no threat to either Pilate or Herod. If they killed him, it was because they didn’t understand that he was harmless.

My religion in the 80s and 90s was about getting my mind right and helping others to get their minds right too. What about crime, economic injustice, poverty, disease, etc.? I thought Christians should do kind acts here and there as evidence of our right-mindedness. But for the most part, I saw secular society as hopelessly corrupt and believed the Church should stand apart from it. I wanted to prophesy against society from a removed position of purity. I talked about living by the Church Calendar instead of the Hallmark Calendar. My religion in those days was “spiritual but not political.” Wright’s word is “escapist.” I had washed my hands of humanity.

9/11 was the turning point. The religion I had on September 10 was not up to what happened on September 11.  That day brought home to me that religion can be a horribly destructive force in this dusty flesh and blood world where we live. We can go to work one morning and be killed by someone’s religion. Or religion can do good in this world. It can feed the hungry, teach the illiterate, heal the sick, even liberate the captive. The meaning and value of our lives turns on which kind of religion we practice – but only if we actually practice it with our feet on the ground here, now -- in this time and this place.

It wasn’t just watching the Twin Towers fall. A lot of things went into my conversion process – a sabbatical semester at Harvard Divinity regrooving my theology, hitting the age for a “generativity crisis,” reengaging racial reconciliation work in Georgia, and the ONE Campaign for the Millennium Development Goals. I changed what I did before I changed what I thought. Praxis first. Theory later. I know that sounds like some other philosophies, but it’s also Anglican.

So now I am learning that Jesus was not a “Wisdom Teacher” in the mode of Lao Tzu et al. – not that it’s bad to be a Wisdom Teacher – that just isn’t who Jesus was. Jesus was doing two things: (1) he was offering hope that
God will intervene in the socio-economic-political world we live in and turn the apple cart upside down – like in the Magnificat. (2) He was already bringing that new reality into being. He was already turning the apple cart upside down with his teaching, his way of life, and his healing miracles. When God happens in the world it looks like Jesus.

Getting our minds right is part of joining the Kingdom movement. It takes prayer, meditation, and study. Without spiritual practice, our service to others isn’t grounded in God but in our own egos, so it goes awry. But the Kingdom Movement is also practice. It takes rolling up our sleeves and engaging in Kingdom work in our time and in our place. We don’t build the Kingdom with our own hands. We can’t fulfill it in its wholeness, but we can live the Kingdom in a world dominated by the ungodly forces Paul called “the powers and the principalities of this present age.” We can get on the right side and widen the fissures so grace can break in. We can enact the Kingdom in the midst of a world that has gone so dreadfully wrong.

I knew as I watched the Twin Towers fall that my religion would have to grow or die. It grew. I wrote God Of Our Silent Tears (my book on how God responds to evil and suffering), worked with racial issues in Georgia, raised money for the ONE Campaign, and now am working to organize communities in Nevada to restore the quality of our common life.

So here’s what I am wondering: N T Wright portrays a Jesus who is making a real difference now; that difference is more important than it looks because it also opens the door to a whole new reality dawning in God’s time. Reading Wright makes me ask whether this change in my religion is just a personal thing, just the natural adjustment of religion to another stage of life – or is the Church waking up to an earthier pragmatic faith that can change the world?

I don’t know the answer to that. I have a hope but it is not “sure and certain.” I am not hoping for a nice political correctness that calls itself religion. I am hoping for a spiritual movement that has boots on the ground, a movement to challenge the status quo from a strong theological stance of faith, a conviction that we are following God’s call, making straight the way for the Savior. Are we ready to do that? Are we ready to lay aside our nets – even if those nets look like the pastoral maintenance religion that has defined the Church for centuries – in order to follow Jesus and change the world into the Kingdom?

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Posted On The Passing Of Dave Brubeck


I want to dream
            in jazz
            – not short fiction
                        with banal story lines..
I want to dream instead
            in riffs of sound
            – notes, hot, cool, sweet, and blue.
No more dramas         
            like last night’s tired script
            with characters better forgot
            and plots devoid of charm.
No, henceforth,
            I shall dream
            in jazz alone
Wes Montgomery’s reflective chords,
            the musing melodies of Thelonius Monk,
            and Cal Tjeder’s
                        nuanced vibes.
When the story has been told 
            or grown too stale for telling,
it’s time to close
            even the inward eye
and drift on Coltrane’s
            “Russian Lullaby”
            time to dream
            in jazz.

Wrote this for a reading at a jazz bar in Macon, GA. It was still on their wall when I left. it doesn't mention Dave Brubeck, but I like to think he would have enjoyed it or at least the sentiment.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Real Reason People Who Have Left A Church "Can't Go Home Again"

Story 1

John Smith walks from the parking lot toward the church door. He hasn’t been here in several months. I don’t know why. Something at church upset him. Something at home drew him away. A spiritual crisis. No one knows. No one asked. But today John Smith walks from the parking lot toward the church door.

The ushers spot him. They watch him approach. When he’s close enough to hear, one usher places both hands against the inner wall and calls out loudly, “Everybody hold up the walls. They’re gonna fall in if John Smith comes to Church.” The other ushers laugh heartily.

John Smith makes his way through sheepishly, participates quietly in the service, leaves quickly at the end, and never comes to church again.

Story 2:

Joe and Mary Wilson have been away from church for about 6 months. I don’t know why. No one knows why. No one asked them. But they show up one Sunday, sing the hymns, say the responses with good energy. At the peace, the lay worship leader says, “Well where have you two been? I haven’t seen you here in nearly a year.”

“We were here a couple of months ago.”

“No you weren’t. I have been here every Sunday and I didn’t see you. If you were here I’d know it.”

That was their last time to worship at that church.

Story 3:

Alice left the church some years ago to pursue other spiritual paths. But an old friend from the church has died, so she attends the funeral.

At the reception, Nancy, a church regular approaches Alice, “Do you recognize me?”

“Uh, I think so. Can you help me?”

“I can’t believe you don’t remember me. I was at your wedding.”

Another church regular joins in, “How about me. Do know who I am? What’s my name?”

Alice failed the names and faces test, so she went back to a safer place. The Church was just too hard.

An unorthodox hypothesis:

When I consult with churches whose membership has declined, they often express little desire to attract new members. Instead they say they want to win back the “lapsed.” I generally warn them that the so-called “lapsed” are the least likely demographic group to resume regular attendance at the church they left.

There are various explanations for that statistic. It could be the ex-members have bad memories of the church. It could be the “been there, done that” attitude. But here’s another hypothesis:

Our gatekeepers know the people who used to worship with us, so they are better prepared with solid techniques to drive them away. A new person comes in the door. We don’t know him. It may take us awhile to find his vulnerabilities and drive him out. But the folks we know, we can kick out the door in a New York minute. Something else may be going on consciously. Maybe the church folks just don’t know good manners. Maybe there is some personal pathology at work – but it looks to me as if the church system that tries to keep everything the way it is, knows that to keep things stable you have to keep the outsiders outside – even the ones who used to be inside – maybe especially the ones who used to be inside.

That systemic pathology can always be trumped by Grace and Gospel.  That’s the good news. So maybe some of us want to live the Gospel graciously. If we truly want to offer spiritual support and nurture to the people who used to worship with us, and if we want to receive the spiritual support and nurture they may be bringing for us, here are a few simple suggestions:

First basic suggestion:

Instead of going out and trying to persuade all our ex-members to come back, we could just stop being jerks to the ones who come on their own.

Detailed suggestions on how not to be a jerk:
Do not judge, berate, and chastise someone who is in church for not having been there before. The time to do that was when they were absent. You missed it.

Do not make jokes about someone’s past absence or their return. You don’t know what you’re laughing at.

Do not ask people to justify, defend, or explain their absence. Not your business.

Do not ask people the whereabouts of someone (spouse, child, etc.) who you think they ought to have brought with them.

Do not say, “We have missed you.”

In case anyone missed that, “Do NOT say “We have missed you.”

Do not engage the returning member in discussion of a fight or unpleasantness that was going on when they left.

Do not hit a returning member with guilt, shame, or blame.

Do not put the returning member through an inquisition. Do you remember me? The South has its problems but they also have manners. Good manners dictate that if there is the slightest chance someone may not know who you are, you tell them your name and remind them of your connection. To say, “do you remember me?” in much of these United States is regarded as uncouth. In the Church, it is unkind.
So what might you say to a returning member? There are several good options.

“Good morning.”

“It’s good to see you.”

“Hi. How are you?”

“Thank you for coming. I’m glad you’re here.”

But here’s the best thing you can do. When you hear one of the gatekeepers guilting, shaming, or interrogating the returning member, cast manners aside – courtesy to whom courtesy is due – gatekeepers are enemies of the cross of Christ and deserve no courtesy – interrupt, draw the retuning member away and apologize, apologize profusely, for the unchristian behavior of the gatekeeper and beg forgiveness on behalf of the church.

Wisdom adage: If you want someone to come through a door, unlock it.

Second basic suggestion:

Don’t let the people wander off unnoticed in the first place. I could not begin to count the number of unchurched people who have told me they skipped church for a while for one reason or another, but no one noticed they were gone, so they never returned. You don’t wait for them to return before you notice they are gone!

There are two ways to deal with this. The best is to have a shepherd system so that every family in church is contacted (by phone, e mail, personal chat, however it happens) each quarter. The “shepherd” just asks, “How are you? Anything you need from the church? Any concerns about the church I could report to the priest?” That way if someone has been absent, you make caring contact without shaming him or her for being absent.

The other way is to have someone monitor your parish directory and notice whether anyone is unusually absent and have the priest or a lay pastoral care giver call the person to ask how he or she is.

If we pay proper attention to our people, fewer of them will wander off. If we simply treat them with ordinary courtesy when they return, they are far more likely to stick with us.

All to often when relationship breaks down between the church and a member, a goodly share of the fault lies with the church. I suspect we know that, and I suspect that’s why we are so quick to blame the member.