Wednesday, November 29, 2006

No Longer a Black and White World

I've been ruminating quite a bit about actor Michael Richards' recent rant, trying to find an appropriate context for both the intensity of the outburst and the sincerity of his apology. None of us likes to think of ourselves as harboring secret prejudice, and so generally we don't (think about it, that is), at least until we do (often because we can't avoid thinking about it any longer). So I guess on that level "Kramer" is no different than anyone else I know or know of. We all are, after all, only human.

The problem is not so much that human beings are instinctively xenophobic and suspicious of "the Other," or that we create stereotypes based on limited impressions, and then "discriminate" on the basis of those stereotypes in order to protect ourselves from the unknown threat of the unfamiliar, or even that we occasionally lose our tempers and say things we later wish we hadn't. That's just what people do.

The real question is whether or not we can find the courage to outgrow our prejudice, through better knowledge, broader personal experience, improved communication, sincere forgiveness, and ultimately real understanding. And the key to all of this is mutual trust, which (as we all know) doesn't exactly grow on trees. Yet Trust is also essential for forming the kind of honest and authentic interpersonal relationships we need to allow us to overcome our prejudices in the first place, and become better people than we are.

Intellectually, I've understood for a long time now that the whole idea of "race" itself is simply a social construction: a despicable fiction created to justify the "Peculiar Institution" of buying and selling one's own brothers and sisters as if they were chattal property. But Racism itself is very real, and deeply woven into almost every aspect of our social fabric and our cultural institutions. And so skin color becomes a "marker" of social class, our mutual ignorace of one another evolves into fear and suspicion, existing inequalities of wealth, power, and opportunity are reinforced, and the pervasive threat of violence which lurks just beneath the surface, both keeping everyone in "their place" and threatening to turn the entire unjust system inside-out, remains a constant part of the landscape of our everyday reality.

And I freely admit, I don't know what the answers are. If the answers were easy, this wouldn't still be a problem, would it? But the Good News is, when we finally do figure this all out, our shared wisdom will be a great benefit for us all. That's the day I'm praying I'll live to see. God willing, it won't be far away.

Friday, November 24, 2006

An Ecumenical Thanksgiving homily

“First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth....” [First Timothy 2: 1-4]

I know it’s a little silly, and more than a little naive, but when I was young I always kinda felt like Paul’s epistles to Timothy were addressed personally to me. And even now that I’m older, and realize that these so-called “Pastoral” epistles of Timothy and Titus were probably written by someone else perhaps a century or more after Paul’s own death; and that they probably weren’t actually written to anyone actually named “Timothy” either, and are among the most socially and theologically conservative documents in the New Testament (tonight’s lesson, for example, comes just a few verses prior to that notorious injunction about women “learning in silence with full submission”); even knowing all of that, it still feels kinda special to open the Bible and see my name there on the printed page, along with all sorts of centuries-old advice (some of it better than others) about how to be a better pastor.

And there are several things about this particular reading that I have always found particularly intriguing.

Why, for example, does Paul (or at least the author of this epistle) make such a big deal about singling out those in authority or “high position” as the beneficiaries of our prayers? Is it just that he feels that they need it more than the rest of us? Or is there something intrinsically worthwhile about a “quiet, peaceable life,” and those in high positions are somehow in a more influential position when it comes to nurturing or disrupting our “dignity” (σεμνοτητι) and “godliness” (ευσεβεια)?

But it’s actually the next part of the lesson that intrigues me most, because historically this is one of the classic “proof” texts for the doctrine of Universal Salvation. Yet often it gets translated and interpreted in such a way it is made to seem to say just the opposite. “For this is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires EVERYONE to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” The passage continues in the next verse with a confessional formula “For there is one God [and] there is also one mediator (μεσιτηs) between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself as a ransom for all.” And it’s this last phrase in particular, αντιλυτρον υπερ παντων, that I particularly want to draw your attention to this evening. A ransom “hyper panton.” For All. For Everybody. Not just a few. Not just those who believe, or are powerful or in positions of authority. Hyper Panton. For Everyone.

Of course nowadays, because of all sorts of subsequent theological speculation surrounding a doctrine which became known as the “Substitutionary Atonement,” the word “antilutron” or “ransom” has taken on a whole suitcase full of other connotations that influence our contemporary reading of this passage, in many instances essentially turning its meaning upside-down. And yes it’s true that the word λυτρον in ancient Greek is often used in the sense of “ransom” or “recompense” -- especially in the context of money paid, for example, to redeem a hostage or even a slave, such as in the case of a family member who might have been captured by pirates, and was either going to be ransomed back to their loved ones or sold into servitude -- it didn’t really matter which, since the pirates were going to get their "lutron" in the end regardless of who paid.

At the root of the word is the Greek verb λυιεν meaning “to loose” or to release, to liberate; a word that is very familiar to every first year New Testament Greek student because it’s the one we had to memorize in order to learn the proper conjugations of those regular, first declension verbs: λυω, λυειs, λυει, λυομεν, λυετε, λυουσι and so on.

It’s also the active verb in one of the first verses of Scripture I ever learned by heart, and still one of my favorites: John 8:32 “For you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” Ransom, Redemption, Freedom, Liberation -- it’s all basically the same idea in Greek, and it all comes from the knowledge and understanding of Truth.

Which brings us to the complicated part. Whose “Truth” are we talking about? And this is where (in my mind, at least) the Scripture sometimes gets turned on its head. Because in this particular verse (and so far as I know, this is the ONLY example of this anywhere) the preposition "anti" has been added to the noun lutron as a prefix, to form the word antilutron -- also translated as “ransom,” but interpreted (at least by certain theologians of the more conservative persuasion) to mean that Jesus substituted HIMSELF as a ransom “as opposed to” allowing humanity to remain in captivity, and it is only everyone who believes that this is true who are going to be “ransomed,” and not “everyone” everyone (like the Scripture itself plainly says).

Now I want you all to appreciate that I personally, after all, am a Unitarian and a Universalist, so I tend to believe that any God truly worthy of the name who really WANTS us all to be saved is going to save us all anyway, regardless of what we personally may believe about it, or what it may or may not say in the Bible, in any language. But there is one more word I would like to draw your attention to tonight, and this is the word “Thanksgiving” itself , or ευχαριστιαs -- a word with which I’m confident the Catholics here this evening are intimately familiar.

The Eucharist is above all else an expression of gratitude: gratitude for the gift of life, gratitude for the many blessings we have received in life, gratitude for the good fortune being part of the family of God, and therefore brothers and sisters to one another.

And I especially want all of us here in this room, whether we are Catholic or Unitarian or just sorta here out of curiosity or family obligation, to think about “Thanksgiving” in the context of tonight’s Gospel lesson from Luke 17, where ten were healed but only one, the Samaritan, the foreigner, the outsider, returned to offer thanks. And in that act of Euchariston he was not only healed of his affliction, he was also made “whole” (σεσωκεν ) through his faith, his “trust” (πιστιs).

We have much to give thanks for here in this community, not the least of which is that we CAN come together as members of different faiths living in the same community, and give thanks together for the blessings we all share with one another as human beings, regardless of who we are or where we come from, or even what we believe. It’s a blessing not known in many parts of the world. And for it, may we this day be truly Thankful.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

This WILL be on the Midterm...

By now George W. Bush's legacy as one of the worst Presidents in United States history is relatively secure. Warren G. Harding. Ulysses S. Grant. And then the competition starts to get a little thin. Maybe Millard Fillmore, James Buchanan, or Rutherford B. Hayes. I mean, even Hoover and Nixon look good by comparison!

Not only was Dubya caught with his pants down on September 11th, 2001 (after first setting in motion the greatest transfer of wealth from working people to the obscenely rich in the history of the world), but the policies of his administration in the aftermath of those attacks have been both cynically self-serving and singularly ineffective. Osama bin Laden is still at large, while the war to change the regime in Iraq and rid Saddam of his imaginary weapons of mass destruction has simply led to the proliferation of nuclear technology to other "rogue nations," while at the same time creating a "new front in the War on Terror" which has tied down our military in a no-win civil war between irreconcilable religious fanatics, while at the same time making American soldiers easier targets for terrorist insurgents of every ideology. Secret overseas prisons, government-sanctioned torture, the dismemberment of the Bill of Rights: when you actually step back and take a good, hard look at what is really happening, the reality is MUCH worse than the partisan political rhetoric.

Stocks (and Oil Prices) are at record highs, but real wages are stagnant and a collapsing housing market threatens to rob many middle class Americans of their only real source of financial security. And then of course there was Katrina. But the real travesty of the Bush administration has been its utter disregard for the problem of Global Warming, and its refusal to take seriously our nation's dominate role in the creation of that problem. Our children and our children's children have far more to fear from out of control climate change than they do a terrorist attack. Yet if controlling carbon emissions threatens to cut into oil company profits, the idea might as well be dead on arrival.

The Bushies stole an election in Florida in 2000 to come to office in the first place. This is not just my opinion; it is an objective, historical fact. They quite likely stole another (in Ohio, in 2004) in order to maintain their grip on power. We know that they will lie; we know that they will suppress voter turnout; we know that they are willing to race-bait, gay-bash, appeal to religious prejudice and spend massive amounts of money in order to polarize our nation through fear-mongering and jingoism and maintain their places of wealth and privilege. And it really does need to end. Soon. Like next Tuesday. Rome wasn't built in a day. But the Roman Republic collapsed in less than a generation, to be replaced by a brutal system of autocratic, authoritarian government in which a handful of unimaginably wealthy individuals dominated the known world, and treated its entire population as their slaves. Don't be distracted by Bread and Circuses. Regime Change truly does begin at home.