Christianity in America

But I Say to You

By Rev. Joseph Pusateri

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt 5:27-28, NRSV).

I have been hearing a horrifying thing a lot lately.

Since the rise of Donald Trump’s popularity in the GOP primary race, a significant number of people have been saying in the media (and to me personally): “He’s saying what we are thinking, but afraid to say because of political correctness.”  Now what is horrifying to me is that I had no idea there were so many people with outright hatred and contempt for Mexicans, Muslims, African Americans, the Chinese, Democrats, Republican rivals and whoever else has inspired Mr. Trump’s wrath.  Now, I treasure political diversity in our community.  I think it is a gift that we have conservative, liberal and independent people in our congregations and neighborhoods.  I have no desire to tell people how to vote and I think that to do so—especially as a minister—is distasteful and inappropriate.  But it is nothing short of sinful for anyone—especially a disciple of the crucified Jesus—to remain silent about a disturbing phenomenon in this country in the 21st century.

I can think of no plainer way to say it: Jesus commands us to love God and each other, especially those we consider our enemies.  Period, amen.  Whether you believe that larger or smaller government, far-reaching or less intrusive foreign policy, progressive, regressive, flat, low, high or no taxes are better for a self-governing democratic republic as the United States of America strives to be, wonderful.  That is your right and I encourage you to exercise it and engage in a robust and civil debate on how we shape a more perfect union.  But bigotry, xenophobia, religious, gender, racial, orientation or ability-based discrimination is uncivil, sinful, demonic, wrong, evil, un-American and un-Christian.  Even for the Christian who believes only she/he and people exactly like them are going to heaven, and that everyone else is going to hell, is not justified by a single word Jesus ever speaks in scripture to treat anyone on the planet with anything other than love, even to the point of giving one’s life.  Which is, by the way, exactly what Jesus did for people—even those (and especially those) who hated him. 

This is why I do not like so-called political correctness: it hides who the bigots are.  If there are lots of people who hate immigrants, women or people of other races, by God I think we should know who they are.  It gives us a more accurate picture of reality and the work we need to do to repair deep wounds in the social body.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus goes through a litany of “You have heard it said… But I say to you,” phrases, which inform us of the high moral standard Jesus expects us to abide by if we are to be faithful.  He says, “You have heard it said that you should not murder.  I say to you, don’t even have hatred in your heart.”  In other words, of course we shouldn’t murder people, but if we are all wanting to kill each other and simply not doing so in order to be compliant to the law, so what?  What God is after is your heart.  Don’t hate people.  At all.  That’s what God wants.  And if you don’t hate anyone, not murdering people takes care of itself.  The same goes with lust.  Let’s not wear out our arms patting ourselves on the back for not committing adultery.  Big deal.  The point of God’s intention for faithful, human behavior is to not have lust.  When lust is absent, adultery does not happen as a by-product.  

What has been called “political correctness,” or the rules about what you can/should say or not say about other people is like what Jesus calls the law.  But if we want a civil and prosperous society, the rules about speech (like adherence to the letter of the law) are not the point.  We shouldn’t have bigotry in our hearts.  Imagine Jesus saying, “You have heard it said ‘do not say the n-word.’  But I say to you, love black people like you love your own family.”  The horrifying perversion of this is what we are seeing right now.  People who have been resenting the politically correct instruction not to slur Muslims, immigrants and minorities are celebrating the right to hate openly.  That would be like the people Jesus was preaching to only hearing the first part of the teaching on murder:  “What did you say Jesus?  The old murder law is out?  Great!  Because I can’t wait to kill some people.”

We have a lot of work to do.  Whether Mr. Trump becomes the president or not, the lid has been torn off and what was festering underneath is not pretty.  To be fair, I love Trump supporters.  I really do.  I love them because they are human beings, my neighbors, and God’s kids.  I think most of their grievances are legitimate and deserve to be heard.  But because we have stifled sane, civil dialogue across boundary lines, this horrifying spectacle is the result.  I am pleading with those of you who follow Jesus, to help lead this community, nation and world to a place where the law of love might bind us together.

Can Evangelicals and Christians Coexist in America?

I just read an article entitled, “Can Gays and Christians Coexist in America?” Once again, I find myself annoyed by the presumption--the enduring arrogance present in unself-critically asserting that the “Christian position” with respect to LGBTQ people is by definition condemnatory.

This just in: There are Christians who actually believe God created LGBTQ people the way they are. So, I propose a title more representative of reality:

“Can Evangelicals and Christians Coexist in America?”

Oh, now I’ve got your blood boiling--at least some of you. Such a title sounds like heresy to a significant portion of the American Christian population, since in many people’s minds “Evangelical” is but a placeholder for “Christian”; which is to say, in many people’s minds the Venn diagram of “Evangelical” and “Christian” is a single, round circle. And therefore, anything not in that circle, anything not suitably “Evangelical” enough is suspect tout court.

But, I’ve got to tell you, I’m much less sympathetic to the outrage my title elicits from that particular segment of the population than I used to be. After repeatedly seeing evangelicals refer to their take on faith as “Christianity”--unqualified by even the slightest trace of humility that, you know, there might be other ways of reading the Christian faith that don’t necessarily correspond to evangelical interpretations. There’s always a subtle presumption at work among these folks that evangelical theology is the uncut dope, straight from the dealer--no fancy “interpretation,” no ostentatious hermeneutical parlor tricks (like the liberals employ), no “politically correct” weasel words that say “bad is good” and “down is up”--just the unalloyed stuff God intended for us to know and believe all along. Traditional means always and forever--as in, “We stand for ‘traditional marriage,’ one man and one woman, the kind God laid out in the Bible. We don’t go in for all that stupid contextuality stuff. God’s word is unchanging.”

But that is such a craptacular lie! Or if that’s too strong for you, God’s word may be unchanging, but our ability to read it correctly sure as hell isn’t.

Tradition. Orthodoxy. Precedent. These are not fixed theological quiddities, despite all the indignant howls to the contrary; they’re all much more fluid than Evangelicalism seems comfortable acknowledging. For example:

  • There was a time when baptizing people most likely meant dunking them under water, until it didn’t …

  • There was a time when fighting in the military was an unprecedented affront to the peaceful example of Jesus, until Constantine and his heirs came along and a new precedent was set …

  • There was a time when the mother of Jesus was deemphasized, until she wasn’t, but then the Reformation happened and (among Protestants) she was again …

  • There was a time when torture and forced conversion satisfied the rigorous demands of orthodoxy, until it didn’t …

  • There was a time when tradition permitted the owning of slaves, until traditional Christianity opted for a new tradition …

  • There was a time when it seemed clear to a number of the religious forbears of today’s evangelicals that interracial marriage was a grievous strike against God’s unchanging will for humanity, until it wasn’t …

Tradition, orthodoxy, precedent … all have a nasty habit of changing over time, and thus disappointing those who so vigorously contend that “God’s word is unchanging.” So, it seems a more plausible reading of the history of faith to argue that one of the constants of Christian theology over time is not some fetishized constancy expressed in a vacuum, but an ability to engage an ever changing world in new ways that honor the unfolding reign of God’s desire for peace and justice for all God’s creation.

Consequently, if one of the central components of Christianity is the tradition of thoughtfully embracing new traditions when those new traditions seem more fully capable of expressing God’s character and will in new and previously unheard of ways, then one is prompted to ask the difficult question: Can evangelicals and Christians coexist in America?

Our Great Big American God: A Review

By Derek Penwell

When teaching history, I tell my students about the exciting worlds we will inhabit for just a little while. Some of them give an almost silent “ugh!” complete with glottal stop. A couple of students will sit up a bit straighter, and look expectantly at me, as if I’m the storekeeper who’s just gone into the back and returned with a slightly dusty box of candy bars for which our earnest young inquirer’s have been searching, and about which they have despaired of ever finding. Some of them duck back down behind their laptops, doubtless sharing another YouTube video about a man on a motorcycle riding headlong into a fountain or a precocious armadillo who’s learned to play Fur Elise on a Snoopy piano. But most merely stare straight ahead, the vacuous look of sufferance or indifference; I always find it difficult to tell which.

Then, I ask, “How many of you find history boring?”

This question places them in an awkward position, since I’ve just told them that history is a large part of what we’re going to be doing. If they say “yes,” they can feel good about their honesty, but risk annoying, and thus potentially alienating, me. If they say “no,” in their minds they get to stay on the good side of the professor, but will be actively lying—a thing I believe most people still have a difficult time doing casually.

I want them to feel the awkwardness. Part of teaching centers on confronting the inertial challenges of boredom and resistance to learning. Awkwardness upsets the stasis, if only a tiny bit, allowing opportunities to engage their minds.

“History,” I continue, “is really only professional storytelling. Historians tell stories not just about dates, and battles, and great men, but about the stuff that made up the life of a particular people, in a particular time, in a particular place in the past, stories that attempt to disclose a glimpse of what things looked like, and to give a plausible account of why things turned out the way they did. Boring history amounts to poor story-telling. A good historian can tell the story in such a way as to make the Irish potato famine gripping. My job is to try to be a good story-teller, so that you get a sense not only of what happened, but why, after all these years, it’s important for you to know about it.”

Matthew Paul Turner, in my estimation, treats history the way I enjoy history to be treated—that is, as a good storyteller. In his book, Our Great Big American God, Turner traces the evolution of the American perception and presentation of God through America’s history. Beginning with the question posed by a friend, “Where would God be without America?” Turner’s sets himself the task of exploring the many ways that God has been used to advance various American projects, from the God of the seventeenth century Puritans all the way through the God of the Moral Majority.

Like Stephen Prothero’s, American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon—which surveys the way Jesus has been a giant screen, upon which different eras have projected their ideals, Turner details the ways that God has been portrayed at the hands of American theologians and crackpots (sometimes indistinguishable) over the years. Turns out, God has had a pretty rough go of it in America, suffering the indignities of apparently having such a protean nature.

And while projecting onto God the desires and fears of a culture is nothing new, Americans, because of their enduring association with all things divine, have been amazingly adept at the marketing work of doing God’s branding work for the masses. God in the hands of angry sinners like Jonathan Edwards, for instance, gave us a vindictive and petulant deity, whose antipathy to human sinfulness was so pronounced that God apparently spends most of God’s time waiting expectantly to administer ever more creative methods of punishment and torture. In the hands of D.L. Moody, on the other hand, God became a commodity that, when properly advertised, was available for purchase by the hoi polloi.

Throughout the history of America, Turner examines the extent to which God has been called upon to fortify the spiritual and political prejudices of God’s followers. Those prejudices, as I’ve indicated, are varied and numerous. What remains consistent, however, is the theme “that God and America are usually sleeping in separate bedrooms. And it’s always America’s fault.”

This last quote brings me to my favorite aspect of the book: Turner’s voice. As I suggested in the beginning, good history is the product of good storytellers. Turner is just such a storyteller, one whose voice sounds both conversational and acerbic. His sarcasm (which I love) is always in the service of his story, not just a device to draw attention to itself—a common problem for those who employ it. The manner in which Turner tells his story never loses sight of the seriousness of its subject matter, but nevertheless communicates a playfulness that engages. While some folks won’t cotton to their history of the American God being served with a twist, Turner’s wit will be exactly the thing that draws in others who wouldn’t ordinarily spend time reading, what amounts to, a theological history of God in America.

And though I know it seems like in every “serious” book review some space needs to be set aside to establish the reviewer’s objectivity by providing at least some quibble, I don’t feel any particular need to do that … at least for its own sake. I will say without equivocation: I liked this book a lot, and you should buy it.

I will say, however, more for the purpose of edification than anything else, there was one thing I found slightly jarring. Presumably, the primary audience for a book like this is mainline clergy and the people who teach them in seminary. Oh, I know that the book will be read by Evangelicals and by laity; it will be read by atheists who have no particular theological dog in the fight, other than to observe with a modest amount of opprobrium the way American Christianity has put a hammerlock on the divine—and, by extension, the rest of a culture heavily influenced by that God. But for the most part, if we’re honest, the book’s biggest appeal is to my colleagues and me.

One thing we mainline clergy have been taught (at least those of us who began our theological education after sometime in the 1980s) from the first day in seminary is the theological problems with assuming divine masculinity as the standard for our own (at least as it appears to those outside the guild) parochial form of discourse. That is to say, we had it drilled into us that since referring to God with masculine pronouns serves to underwrite patriarchy by making normative a particular way of speaking, we should never—on pain of having our essays and exams graded severely with all the disapproval a red pen can muster—refer to God as “he” or “him.” It’s now a reflex with most of us, on the order of, but not quite as acute as, a racial or ethnic slur or a positive claim that Justin Bieber is a musical genius.

Objecting to the use of masculine pronouns for God sounds so very P.C. (I know. Get off my back already.) And I swear I don’t want to sound all fancy pants by bringing it up. However, I actually do think it’s theologically important. And, if the audience for a book is largely made up of folks sensitized to a particular way of speaking, it makes sense to observe slight adjustments to vocabulary, if only for the sake of etiquette.

[Update: I was alerted to a note on the copyright page in which Mr. Turner writes: "I have elected to use the masculine pronoun for God, not because I think that God possesses a gender, but for the sake of narrative flow and because all of the people I write about in this book refer to God using male pronouns." From this, it seems, we can conclude that while seminary taught me inclusive language, it didn't do enough to ensure my ability to read thoroughly. My apologies to the author.]

Having said that, though, let me once again enthuse: Matthew Paul Turner’s book, Our Great Big American God, is worth your time. As history goes, it’s good work. Not only does he get the facts right, he gets them right in a way that makes you care about the story he’s telling—a story he tells exceedingly well.

I Don't Think Jesus is the Same Thing as a Big Mac

By Dr. Mark Poindexter

Being a Disciple pastor for the past twenty-five years means that I have been a pastor during the time of the “mainline decline.”  A time when our congregations have been dwindling in numbers of people and amount of resources.  Smaller congregations have led to struggles in denominational structures as well.  There are no longer funds to support the structures that were erected over the years.  Back in 1991, when I first returned to Indiana, we had five full time ministers in our regional office.  We are now down to two full-time and one 2/3 time; effectively half of what our ministerial staff was twenty-three years ago.  Most people reading this article are familiar with this “mainline decline.”  There is no need to review the multiple opinions/causes for what has happened.  I simply want to tell you about a decision I came to as pastor who has spent his career in the midst of this decline.

In the beginning of my life as a pastor, I spent a lot of time attending Church Growth seminars designed to help congregations turn the decline around.  These events were most often designed to help congregations understand how to become “seeker friendly.”  The appearance of the building and proper signage were often topics of discussion.  Workshops about marketing strategy involving how to advertise the congregation were usually on the agenda.  I once attended such a workshop where we spent a good portion of time talking about how McDonalds continually develops new commercials to entice people through the golden arches.  I suppose the point was it didn’t matter if the product was a Big Mac or Jesus, what mattered was how fresh was the advertising.  Of course, how to introduce contemporary worship and use the latest technologies were subjects taught to packed rooms of pastors all hoping to turn around their declining congregations.  Saddleback and Rick Warren, Willow Creek and Bill Hybels, Southeast Christian and Bob Russell were the mega-churches and celebrity pastors who were cited as success stories.  Somewhere along the way, however, it occurred to me that most of what I was encountering in these seminars was about how to numerically grow an organization and not how to be the church, the living body of Christ in the world.  The diagnosed problem was the declining number of people in the pews and the declining funds in the offering plates.  So everything was developed to turn around that situation.  Success was measured with increasing numbers. 

Well, over time, the decision I made was that I didn’t want to spend any more energy trying to become a church marketing expert.  There is something that is quite unsavory to me when Jesus and a Big Mac are lumped together. I decided that as a pastor the most important thing I can do is help the church to live as the church.  That is, to focus on being the living body of Christ in this world; spending our energy on living as a community of grace and love.  Seeking to be the kind of community that others would want to join – not because of our slick advertising campaign, or because we have the best praise band, or because we have theater seats or a family-life center (gym), but because we care for each other and seek to care for all others.  Because we try to practice radical hospitality where everyone is truly welcome – which, in my experience, is quite different than being seeker friendly. 

The congregation I presently serve has experienced the effect of the decline.  Thirty years ago, back in the early 80’s, the church averaged close to 350 in attendance for Sunday morning worship.  That would fill the pews for two services.  Now we hover right around 200 people on Sunday morning which means there are a lot of empty seats in both services.  We have spent some time recently talking about what that means for the future, especially as we have reaffirmed our commitment to stay downtown in our small community.  I try to be honest with the folks.  I could tell them that if we tried “this program or this marketing strategy or this new worship idea” then we would see things turn around.  But the truth is, most of the congregations I know who tried all the “church growth strategies” continued to decline.  So I try to be honest and tell folks that I don’t know what the future holds, but I know that our focus should simply and only be on living our faith as completely as possible.  Our energy needs to be spent on ministries of compassion and justice, of caring for the weak, feeding the hungry,  providing shelter for those in need, welcoming the stranger and the one who is different.  Our focus in worship shouldn’t be on musical performance or technological wizardry, but the common human need to realize we are part of Something bigger than ourselves. 

A blessing in all this for me has been that I think the folks in this congregation also believe that this is the way we should proceed.  The decline is real and it means decisions, sometimes difficult ones have to be made, but there seems to be a focus in the church on living our faith as authentically as possible for as long as possible.  Recently, a young leader in our congregation said, “If we die staying faithful to who we understand God has called us to be, isn’t that what following Jesus to the cross is all about.”  I thought that was a pretty good observation.

Now don’t get me wrong.  I love to see new faces in the pews.  When they come they even get a visitor letter, a welcome packet, and a doorstep visit with chocolate chip cookies. (The Church Growth seminars weren't all bad.)  We work hard at making those new folks aware of the many ways that are available for them to get involved, the various learning and service opportunities.  But I try not to be anxious about it all anymore, that anxiousness takes away from the energy that is needed to live as the body of Christ in this world.  That’s where I want all my time, energy and resources directed.  For the truth is, that is where I have found life.  Honestly, that’s where I think the church will find it too.       

Staying With My Religion: Hope

By Rev. Mark Poindexter

This is the last in a series of articles that have been written concerning my decision to stay with the life of faith.  I titled this series, “Staying with My Religion: The Risk and Rewards of Sticking it Out.”  It has been written in response to a book by a former pastor called, “Leaving My Religion: The Risk and Rewards of Becoming Non-Religious.”   After twenty-five years, this former pastor left the ministry, the church and his faith.  He felt that life “no longer worked for him.” His book has become a workshop and he recently led a sold-out session.  I don’t want this series of articles to be seen as a judgment upon this former pastor’s decision.  His story is his own.  I simply wanted to offer a different perspective. 

I have worked in congregations for nearly thirty years, and there have been a few times when I was ready to throw in the towel.  I have also had tragic losses in my own life and been present with many people in their own difficult circumstances.  Times when the shallowness of the simplistic answers offered by too much of the religious world become so easily apparent.  Times in which I have learned that a silent presence with one who is hurting may be the most powerful gift we have to offer.  Yet, neither those tragic times nor the difficulties of congregational life have led me to leave my faith behind.  They have led to periods of deep questioning in which I thought I might walk away, but I haven’t.  My faith is different than it was thirty years ago when I began in ministry, as well it should be.  But my belief in the Sacred and Holy continues to be central to who I am.  My trust that life has meaning and purpose, that there is a Reason behind it all, has only grown stronger over time and through my experiences.  For anyone who was interested, I thought I would share at least some of the reasons why this is so.  Not in judgment of the other pastor, but as an alternative.

I have written about what I call the Sacred Realities of love, joy, hope and beauty.  Realities that cannot be empirically proven to exist, but are the Realities that give life its deepest sense of meaning.  I also wrote about the importance of the community of faith as a place of both comfort and challenge, a place where our relationships help us to understand what it means to be fully human.  In ending this series, I want to point to religious faith as being a word of hope for our world.

In her book, “A People’s History of Christianity” Diana Butler Bass quotes Sojourners founder Jim Wallis:

From the perspective of the Bible hope is not simply a feeling or a mood or a rhetorical flourish. Hope is the very dynamic of history.  Hope is the engine of change.  Hope is the energy of transformation. . . . Between impossibility and possibility, there is a door, the door of hope.  And the possibility of history’s transformation lies through that door.

I believe that the message the church is called to share with our world is ultimately one of hope. Hope that the darkness of the ways things so often are, are not the way things have to be.  Hope that things can be different.  Hope that the people who live as enemies can live in peace.  Hope that the blessings of this world, which are abundant, can be shared with all in need.  Hope that every human being is treated with dignity and respect, for we recognize that all are created in the Sacred image.  Hope that selflessness can overcome selfishness, that love can overcome indifference, that understanding can overcome prejudice.  This is the hope-filled message of the church.  This is the gospel; that in Christ an alternative way to live has been shown to us, a way that shines light into the darkness. 

Suzanne Collins’ trilogy, “The Hunger Games,” has become quite a cultural phenomenon, especially now that the books are being made into movies.  “The Hunger Games” are a stinging critique of our society’s fascination with media, celebrity, and violence. The disparity between the “haves and have-nots” and the insidious nature of power also play a central role in the future dystopian society that Collins has created.   She holds a haunting mirror up to us so that we might see that our ways are costing us that which is most precious, our children.  

In her story about the country of Panem, there is a revolution that is beginning to take place, a dissatisfaction with the way things are is beginning to brew.  The leader and symbol of the revolution is a teenage girl named Katniss Everdeen.   In the second book, “Catching Fire” it is decided by the President of Panem, who is invested in keeping things just as they are, that Katniss must be eliminated.  When he is asked why, the President responds, “Because she gives hope to the revolution.  Without her, they have no hope and the revolution is over.”  In this series of books, both highly popular and highly critical of our culture, hope is understood to be that power which can change things.  Hope can make a difference.  Hope can bring down the oppressive structures and create a more just society. 

I understand that the church doesn’t always live up to what it should be.  I know religious doctrines and dogma can often sound hollow amidst the complexities and tragedies of life.  I seek not to judge someone who has experienced the church’s failures and meager attempts to explain the unexplainable and then decided it isn’t for them.   I simply wanted to share another perspective.  I still find the life of faith, and life lived in the community of faith, to be a life of blessing and worth my commitment.  I am deeply grateful to be part of a tradition where we proclaim the hope that the power of love is greater, by far, than the love of power.   

I haven’t stayed with this life of faith because “it works for me.”  I actually find such a utilitarian approach to life to be very dangerous.  I have stayed with the life of faith because I believe in things that can’t be seen, but can experienced – love, joy, hope and beauty.   I have stayed with this life of faith because I believe our most important journey in life is toward becoming a more complete human being and this can only happen in the relationships of a community, a community that is about so much more than just “me.”   And I have stayed with this life of faith because I believe it is through our faith that we provide the hope of different possibilities to our world. 

These are some of reasons that I have stayed at it for the past thirty years.  And I plan to keep staying at it.  I hope that maybe something I have written over the past month has given you some reason to think about the place of faith in your own life.  I encourage you to stay with it.  I believe both you and our world will be blessed if you do.       

No more Either/Or; Now Both-And

By Rev. Mindi 

“The world has changed.”

I hear this all the time in the church: “The world has changed.” And of course it’s true, and of course it’s the same. Nothing new under the sun. World without end. And we don’t like change.

I think one of the most difficult changes for people, however, has been this shift from Either/Or to Both-And. This is within the church and within society in general. And perhaps the shift has come in waves across generations, through Women’s Rights, Civil Rights and in GLBTQ equality; and this wave of Both-And is just finally smacking the shore and changing the Either/Or landscape forever.

Church doesn’t look like it used to. Church was in a big building with a big committee and the most important thing were two-parent-heterosexual young married couples with children coming through the door.

Churches now have a building and don’t have a building. Churches now have heterosexual and homosexual couples and single people and no children and children and couples not married and older people bringing their grandchildren and animal blessings for pets in October and they meet in traditional buildings and coffee shops and movie theaters and homes and schools.

Even in the SBNR (Spiritual-But-Not-Religious) debate the wave has drawn over the conversation: Church now is full of religious and spiritual people, and so are coffee shops on Sunday mornings and bars on Tuesday nights. The either/or dichotomy is not working.

It’s not working among families where dads stay home and moms go to work or *gasp* both parents share parenting and work roles. Or parents partner with other adults to co-parent and form relationships beyond traditional models. Or among people who are genderqueer and do not claim a traditional male or female identity. Either/Or thinking does not work in families or churches anymore.

And while we have a long, long way to go, many of our churches are starting to look different among the younger generations as multiethnic families grow up. We all have heard the statistics: White-Euro-Americans will no longer be the majority racial/ethnic identity among those under 20 by the year 2020. Everything is changing. Our identities are going to be changing, and this will be huge for traditional White-Euro-American churches. Some of our traditions and cultural practices will change and I don’t think we’ve recognized that yet. But it’s coming.

Either/Or isn’t working anymore.

And in fact, I’m not sure it’s never worked, if we believe in the fully-human-*and*-fully-divine Jesus. Jesus was not Either/Or. Jesus was Both-And.

Jesus ate with the leaders as well as with the poor. Jesus welcomed the children and welcomed the adults. Even when Jesus said, “You cannot be my disciple if you do not hate father and mother,” we know James and John loved their mother and Peter his mother-in-law and we know they were flawed people who still were Jesus’ disciples. Even when Jesus used either/or language with the disciples, we know that Jesus still came to that group who had utterly abandoned him to the cross and said, “Peace be with you.”  Even Jesus cannot be bound to the Either/Or. It’s Both-And.

Both-And gives us room for tradition and innovation.  Both-And gives us room to teach our history and embrace the newness of change. Both-And says all people are welcome, whatever kind of family or no family.  Both-And says traditional pastoral ministry and new community ministry are needed by the church.  Both-And says yes to traditional church at 10am on Sunday and yes to new ways of being spiritual community. Both-And says that our understandings of gender and sexual orientation and race and culture are all being challenged and are more fluid than we had thought. Both-And says we have more than one option when it comes to challenging the human rights abuses in Syria and in other parts of the world. Both-And says there are many options for peace.

We’re moving to a Both-And world. That’s not to say it isn’t scary. The things we once knew we don’t anymore. The world is changing. I don’t have all the answers. And I won’t say it’s always a good thing, but it is what it is.

Everything is changing. Let’s be sure we’re alert, aware, and ready for the wave coming. World without end.

Wondering About Syria

By Dr. Mark Poindexter 

The CNN headline today reads, “Obama Gets Key Support for Syria Strike: House Leaders Back Obama.”  I wonder if this is a good thing or not – the one place our political leaders can apparently come together in non-partisan co-operation is in the use of our military power.  Please understand, I am not asking that with a sarcastic tone at all.  I truly am wondering if this is a good thing or not.  Let me explain.

 Before I was ever “Pastor Mark,” which is what my present congregation calls me, I was Sergeant Poindexter, United States Marine Corps.  I served in the armed forces from 1980-86, which was fortunately a time of relative peace in our nation’s history.  I never had to serve in combat or even travel overseas and for that I am grateful.  But I was trained to fight in defense of our country by one of the oldest and most elite fighting forces in the world.  And if called upon in those days to go to battle, I would have gone.  And during that time, I honestly did not give much thought to the relationship between military service and the Christian faith.  I was 17 when I enlisted and the concepts of pacifism and just-war theory were not even part of my vocabulary.  I would imagine such is the case for most young people who join as enlisted personnel today.

 As I grew older and found myself being further and further immersed in the Christian faith and more and more intrigued with the life and teachings of Jesus, as my understanding of faith grew in a way that helped me to understand that God’s love is for all people and that God’s pleasure is not just found in the American idea, when I was confronted with Jesus’ words that his followers should be different than others and love even their enemies, when I learned of Gandhi’s and Dr. King’s non-violent revolutions, I began to question whether or not war could ever be justified.  Could a follower of Jesus ever say “Yes, our nation going to war is the right thing to do in this situation?”    Or in the instance of Syria, “Yes, it is the right thing for our nation to fire cruise missiles into that country as punishment for what that government did to its own people with chemical weapons.”

In the face of this changing understanding, I did something that might seem like a small matter to most people but to me it was huge.  I had removed from my arms the tattoos that I had gotten while I was in the Marine Corps.  It wasn’t because I was no longer proud of my service to our country.  I was then and still am.  And it was definitely not because I have moral opposition to tattoos.  It was because the tattoos were of very violent images that I no longer wanted on my body as I grew deeper in my faith.  I wanted more and more to be a person who worked for peace and understanding and reconciliation and the images on my arms were not of that, so I had them removed.   (And yes it hurt much more to remove them than to have them put on.)   Though this was a huge step for me, the matter of war and faith has still not been completely resolved in my mind. 

 I recently read a sermon by Ralph Sockman which is included in the anthology Twenty Centuries of Great Preaching.  He is in the same volume that carries sermons by Paul Tillich, Karl Barth, Martin Niemoller, George Buttrick, Paul Scherer and Reinhold Neibuhr – the theological heavyweights of the 20th century.   Sockman stood with impressive company.  In a sermon titled “The Eternal and the Timely,” which was preached during the early days of WWII, Sockman said:

Take, for instance, the most tense issue of our times, that of the Christian’s relation to war.  No threat of war, no outrages on the part of hostile peoples can repeal Christ’s rule to love.  If the individual feels that his motive of love can be expressed most effectively by helping to kill that some more may be saved, if he can conscientiously participate in the killing process without hating the persons attacked, if he is convinced that love has no alternative means of working its will, then for him it is his “Christian duty” to join the war.  On the other hand, if the individual feels that to speak of “killing in love” is a mockery: that Christ’s absolute to love applies to the methods as well as the aims, since the means eventually determines the ends; that war wreaks more havoc to love than do the evils it seeks to remove; then for him his “Christian course” is to hold aloof from war.  Each is thus testing his motives by the ethical absolute of love and each must respect the right of the other to differ in love.  We must make allowance for the limitations of our own judgment, for even the best of us, like Paul, see the “through a glass darkly.”

The reason I quoted Sockman is because I find myself standing in the middle of this matter and the glass through which I look is very dark indeed.  I know that I don’t share the opinion of those who say “It is their war.  It is their country.  Let them fight it out.  We have no business getting involved.”  When 1,500 people are gassed to death, many of them women and children, I don’t think I can reasonably say “There is no moral obligation on our part to do anything.” I am reminded of 20th century Germany when the systematic murder of Jewish people under the Nazi’s began nearly eight years before our country got involved.  Indications are that much of the world knew what was happening, but chose not to act and millions of innocent lives were lost.  Whatever else my faith calls me to, I don’t believe it ever calls me to neutrality in the midst of innocent death.  Holocaust survivor Eli Wiesel, once said, “One right I would never grant anyone is the right to be indifferent.”

So neutrality is not an option for me.  But is violent action the only other option?  Is that the only “language” that will be understood?  Would diplomacy and sanctions and words of moral judgment upon such behavior produce any results?   Is our potential response because of a real desire to protect life or because we want to show that America can come in with its power anywhere and anytime it wants to? 

I told you, I was wondering.  If you expected me to make a pronouncement about what is right or wrong on this matter, you were expecting too much from me today. What I can offer is this, we should be aware that any decision made about how to respond to the Syrian situation has moral consequences which will certainly cause the loss of life. In the face of that reality, maybe the question to ask is what approach would lead most quickly to the end of the war in Syria.  Also, though I will always have deep respect for those who choose to serve our country, I grieve for the young lives that will be lost, most not fully grasping the reason for which they are fighting.  I have come to realize that beyond all the reasons for war, there is this truth . . . “It is most often the young who fight and die the battles chosen by old men who don’t want to give up their power and privilege.”  

 Finally, I will be a person who prays for and works for peace and reconciliation whenever and wherever I can. Beginning in my own relationships and extending out as far as my reach will allow.  For I do believe the ethical absolute is to love . . . even when we don’t always know how.

 I’ve spent this article wondering about an important matter.  One on which I know there are a variety of opinions.  I invite you to wonder with me and let us reason together about how best to be a people of love and reconciliation in our broken and suffering world.