Monday, August 10, 2015

Political Correctness

I have been doing some thinking this week about “political correctness” for obvious reasons, as if “political correctness” were something new. It is not.

Speech, or at least safe speech, has always been politically correct. No one wants to get on the wrong side of the political powers that be. That is because there are negative consequences to doing so. I need not cite examples. What has happened to Donald Trump this week is that in his disparaging remarks about menstruation, he has gotten himself on the wrong side of the powers that be. The only thing that has changed is who the powers that be are, not the basic concept of power and the danger in offending it. What has disturbed Mr. Trump, I think, is not the concept of political correctness but the reality is that he is no longer part of the only class entitled to it.

 When people complain about political correctness, or at least when wealthy, white men complain about it, I think what they’re really complaining about is who holds the political power and not the idea of placating political power in general. After all, when people who look like me held all the political power, it never occurred to us to create a pejorative expression called “political correctness.” It’s not that we don’t like deference to power. It’s that we don’t like not being the sole object of the deference because we are having, albeit painfully slowly, to share the power with the rest of humanity.

As I have been thinking about all this this week, I came across quite a wonderful pamphlet published by the American Friends Service Committee in 1951 called, imperatively, Speak Truth to Power . Just when I began to fear I was too concerned with the political as opposed to the spiritual, I found these words: “Our truth is an ancient one: that love endures and overcomes; that hatred destroys; that what is obtained by love is retained, but what is obtained by hatred proves a burden. This truth, fundamental to the position which rejects reliance on the method of war, is ultimately a religious perception, a belief that stands outside of history. Because of this we could not end this study without discussing the relationship between the politics of time with which men are daily concerned and the politics of eternity which they too easily ignore” (p. iv). And also this: “The urgent need is not to preach religious truth, but to show how it is possible and why it is reasonable to give practical expression to it in the great conflict that now divides the world” (pp. iv-v).

And finally, at the risk of inundating you with quotations, the Quakers’ pamphlet also put me on to these words of Arnold J. Toynbee, which have something important to say about political correctness. “[O]ur age will be remembered chiefly neither for its horrifying crimes nor for its astonishing inventions but for its having been the first age . . . in which people dared to think it practicable to make the benefits of civilization available for the whole human race” ("Not the Age of Atoms, but of Welfare for All," The New York Times Magazine, October 21, 1951, quoted in Speak Truth to Power, p.1).

In other words, our time will be remembered, faith hopes, for exactly what Mr. Trump decries, that the deference he refers to as political correctness will be due to all and not just a few, will be due not because of some characteristic like skin color, gender, intelligence, or sexual orientation, or even because of what one achieves or deserves or possesses, but simply because one is human to begin with. That’s why it is not appropriate for Mr. Trump or anyone else to make disparaging comments about women or for that matter politicians who disagree with whom one disagrees. It is not about political correctness. It is about respect for other human beings. If it is disrespectful, it is not truthful. I am compelled to speak truth to power by my faith, as politically incorrect as that has always been. The issue, though, is truth, and truth does not reside where the dignity of all human beings is not respected.

Solomon, when contemplating the burden of government, asked God, “Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people? (I Kings 3:9) I am impressed by Solomon’s humility, as great a king as he was, as much an object of political correctness as he must have been. What Solomon knew is that humility is an essential part of humanity, the root meaning of both words being “of the earth.” I am also aware that it “pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this” (v. 10). No wonder.

Political correctness is nothing new. The only thing that has changed is who gets it. From God’s perspective, it is the human; in other words, all of us and not just wealthy, white men. The more wealthy, the more white, and the more male, the more disturbing that admittedly is. God, who is none of those, is not so bothered.


Monday, July 27, 2015

A Vermont Wedding

I did a wedding last week for a young couple who lives in Massachusetts.  The bride was from Lexington.  She and her new husband attended the University of Vermont at the same time some years ago and then both received Master’s degrees from Columbia.  They only met later, though, while living and working in New York.  She wrote for the New York Times. He is a writer of children’s books.  They later moved to the Boston area to pursue another course, Teach for America in his case.  She plans to enter Harvard Divinity School in the fall.
I first knew the bride as a very engaged and inquisitive high school student at the Episcopal camp in Lexington.  She had lots of questions.  She still does.  And a lot of them, both then and now, have to do with faith.  And, both then and now, a lot of them have helped me understand my own faith better.  The Vermont wedding was such an occasion. 

She has good Episcopal instincts, even if she is more enamored of Buddhism at the moment than Christianity.  She worked with me to construct a service, in accordance with the rubrics of the Prayer Book, mind you, that was respectful of guests of many different faith traditions as well as those of none at all.  None of it was inconsistent with Christianity.  It just wasn’t always explicitly Christian.

The final blessing, however, was.  I suggested using the Nuptial Blessing from the Prayer Book.  It is quite beautiful in its realism about married life, and it is distinctly Christian, Eastern Orthodox in origin.  But the bride wanted to make one final change. 

She was not comfortable be with the line, “We give you thanks for your tender love in sending Jesus Christ to come among us, to be born of a human mother, and to make the way of the cross to be the way of life.”  The way of the cross, she said, would not be understood by many of those present, especially her non-Christian friends.  It is admittedly a difficult concept. 

We worked on finding just the right language that would work.  Finally we came up with “sacrificial love” to get at the idea.  “We give you thanks for sending Jesus Christ  . . . to make the way of sacrificial love to be the way of life.”  And that, I think, hits the nail right on the head. 

The way of sacrificial love is indeed something I learned something about from marriage, the most life-giving experience of my life.  It is something I have learned a bit about from being a parent, from which I have found more life than I can say.  It is something I have learned from friendship, which has been a great blessing indeed.  It is something I have learned from being a pastor, as in helping a young couple figuring out life and faith find a way to make a traditional liturgy work for them with integrity (well, fairly traditional). 

I think that is what Jesus says in the Gospel for this week when he talks about the bread of life, another metaphor I think my young friends would have struggled with. Jesus said to the crowd, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (Jn. 6:36).  The bread of life is the way of sacrificial love.  Those who receive it and live it, lack for nothing that matters for life. 

In fact, the Jesus way, over and over, turns out to be the way of sacrificial love.  It is the way of life.  It is a mystery that faith sees.  My young friends had the faith, by whatever name, to see it.  And they found a way to invite others to see it in their own way, too.  And, of course, they gave the same gift to me.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Holiness and Integrity

This week’s Old Testament lesson (2 Sam. 11:1-15) is the story we usually know as being about David and Bathsheba. It is really more about David and Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband. And even then, I think I’ve been looking at this story a little wrongly. I’ve been thinking of it as being about David and Uriah in relation to Bathsheba. And that is partly true. I think I’m coming to see it as really being mostly about David and God. Well, mostly it’s about God.

You remember the story, of course. David, while walking on his roof, observes Bathsheba bathing. Uriah, who was a soldier, was away at the time fighting the king’s wars against the Ammonites. “So David sent messengers to get her, and she came to him, and he lay with her” (v.4). Soon Bathsheba sent word to David that she was pregnant.

When Uriah returned from the battlefield, David first directed him to return to his home and wife. David must have thought Uriah’s timely return to his wife would conceal the child’s true paternity.

Uriah, though, in a show of utter selflessness and honor refused to go to the comfort of his own house while the ark of God resides in a tent and while Uriah’s compatriots were away from home on the field of battle. David is not impressed with Uriah’s thorough decency. He resolved to have Uriah murdered instead.

The story is not so much about David and Bathsheba. Their dalliance merely sets up what is to come.

The story is not so much about David and Uriah, although the contrast between the two is striking.

The story is about David and God, and mainly it is about God’s response to David and God’s unshakable devotion to David. Or really, it is about God’s unshakable fidelity to the promises God has made to David, whether David deserves that or not. It is about God’s unshakable fidelity to God’s own integrity.

Now, to be sure, God will speak a severe judgment against David for David’s evil. That comes next week. But God does not retreat from God’s promise to David, either. That was last week. “Forever I will keep my steadfast love for David, and my covenant with him will stand firm. I will establish his line forever, and his throne as long as the heavens endure. . . . Once and for all I have sworn by my holiness; I will not lie to David. His line shall continue forever, and his throne endure before me like the sun. It shall be established forever like the moon, an enduring witness in the skies” (Ps. 89:28-29, 35-37).

In the end, the point is really not so much Bathsheba’s relationship with David or Uriah’s honor or David’s treachery. It is all about God’s holiness and not nearly so much what we do in response, good or bad. Our response matters, but God‘s integrity to God’s own word is the real point. Samuel is telling us something about God and not so much about Uriah, Bathsheba, or even David.

It is this: God’s holiness is in God’s integrity. So is ours. 



Monday, July 13, 2015

The Flag

It’s difficult, I think, for non-Southerners to understand why removing the Confederate flag from the capitol grounds in South Carolina could possibly be something that arouses such emotion to retain it.  Here’s the thing.  It’s difficult for me as a Southerner to understand, too.  It’s difficult because it requires me to come to terms with some things. 
When my son studied the Civil War in the eighth grade.  As the unit came to a close, all of the students wore Civil War costumes to school one day.  The boys were given the choice of coming as Union or Confederate soldiers.  And even though he lived in Atlanta and had ancestors who fought for the Confederacy, my son chose the Union.  It was not the majority choice.  It made me very proud.

It made me very proud even if I had been brought up to believe in something called “Southern pride.”  It made me very proud even if I had been taught in my own childhood that the Confederate flag was a symbol of something noble about a “lost cause” rather than a symbol of racism.  Those are the phrases I’ve been surprised to hear brought out again over the last few weeks as if they made the Confederate flag defensible.  Of course, they don’t.  The flag went up over the South Carolina capitol in 1962 and made its appearance in the state flag of Georgia, my home, in 1956.  They were always a symbol of opposition to racial justice and not of some vague myth of something called Southern pride.  Happily, that symbol has been removed from both, and needs to be removed from the one state flag in which it remains. 

So why all the emotional reaction to what is so obviously right?  I think it’s because Southerners have a hard time coming to terms with the Civil War.  It’s amazing the things I’ve heard this week about the War (Southerners always capitalize this word when referring to the Civil War) and the South’s motivations for rebellion as the flag removal issue was debated.  Here’s the thing I think Southerners have to face.  While the causes of the war are complex and the reason people fought are many, there’s no getting around that the defense of slavery is simply indefensible.  Any way you cut it, slavery had a lot to do with it.  In fact, it’s pretty difficult to get around that that was the main reason for it, or at the very least, that without slavery, the whole thing wouldn’t have happened.

This is what makes it very difficult for us, some more so than others.  It’s difficult for me to conceive of my ancestors who fought for the South as monsters.  I don’t know whether or not they owned slaves, but they may have.  It would still be difficult for me to see them as monsters.  I didn’t know them, of course, but I knew the children they reared as my grandparents, who themselves had a more moderate approach to race (my grandfather referred to the Klan as “fools,” but it may have been for the attire).  And I learned a lot about how to live and love from these people. 

Here’s what I as a Southerner have come to realize.  Try as I once might have, it is impossible to justify my ancestors’ actions in the War, at least to the extent I know what those actions were.  They may have been fighting to preserve a dying economic system.  It was indefensible.  They may have just been fighting to protect their homes and owned no slaves at all.  It is just as indefensible.  They were undoubtedly culturally conditioned and maybe it’s wrong to judge them by the standards of a later day.  Still, though, there’s no defense.  After all, they were capable of moral thought and, although I’m sure there would have been a price to pay, could have dissented from the majority point of view, just like their descendent, my son.  That would have made them the real Southern heroes of the War. 

So that’s what I have to come to terms with.  Most of my Southern compatriots three generations back were conformists in a system of evil.  I’m going to hold onto the fact that they weren’t evil themselves, not because of Southern mythology but because I have personal evidence of the love they passed down in my family.  But it doesn’t mean I can defend their actions in any way, unless there were some I don’t know of back there who had the moral courage to stand up for right. 

I think this is what white Southerners have to come to terms with.  Getting rid of the flag is a good step.  I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that coming to terms with it evokes no small amount of emotion.
And, by the way, I hardly think Southerners are the only ones who have some things to come to terms with.  It’s just that the presenting issues for us, like flags, are less subtle and lend themselves less to denial.  That may the grace of being a Southerner today.


Monday, June 15, 2015

Fear and Living Life

Fear is such a predominant theme in the Bible.  That is so, I think, because it is such a predominant theme in life and such a powerful motivation for us.  It is no wonder that the first words of angels are often “Do not be afraid.”  Both the Old Testament and the Gospel readings for this week deal with it.  “When Saul and all Israel heard these words of the Philistine, they were dismayed and greatly afraid.”  (1 Samuel 17:11)  And again, “[Jesus] said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’” (Mk. 4:40)

I have preached many sermons over the years about fear, all of them dealing on some level with my own.  It is a subject that would be hard to avoid.  I once preached what I’m sure was a bang-up sermon on this subject and the threat fear is to faith.  I think it had to do with the fact that human beings come with few natural fears, really only two—loud noises and falling (although I think there are differences of psychological opinion about this).  A member of the congregation, one I thought would wholeheartedly agree with what I had said, made an observation afterwards that has made me think about fear sermons more carefully ever since.  He reminded me that not all fears are irrational, and indeed, some contribute to survival, which would have to make them beneficial.  Fear, he argued, is not all bad.

I’ve struggled with that idea over the years.  I still do.  Here’s where I am now, though.
Fear, it seems to me, is neither inherently bad nor inherently good.  My parishioner is right.  Fear has its usefulness. 

But the issue isn’t the one he posed, whether fear is rational or not.  The issue is whether it gets in the way of living life to the fullest, living the lives we are called to live, living the lives we desire, in our heart of hearts, to live.  And when that happens, whether the fear is rational or not really is beside the point. 

Facing Goliath on the field of battle does not strike me as an irrational fear.  David did anyway.  To do otherwise would have interfered with the life David wanted to live.  A storm on the open sea doesn’t strike me as an irrational fear for people in a small boat.  The problem is that fear got in the way of the disciples’ relationship with Jesus, and that was the whole purpose of being in the boat to begin with.

Rational or not, the spiritual message is that a courageous life is a life more fully lived than a fearful one.  I suspect that is because it is a more fully human one.  The natural fears of human beings, after all, are few.  And faithful fears are fewer still if they exist at all.