The Church Ought to Be the Seat of the Resistance: A Manifesto

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By Derek Penwell

In the twenty-four hours following the recent presidential election, I received three messages—none of them from church people. I’m not talking about people who don’t go the church I serve, but people unassociated with any church.

One message came from a very recent Syrian refugee, whose family our congregation co-sponsored as they made America their new home. He wanted to know if the election meant he and his family would have to return to a refugee camp in another, more dangerous part of the world.

Another message came from a lesbian with whom I’d gone to grad school, wanting to know if I would perform her wedding before the inauguration. She and her partner had been planning a June wedding in England, but now they didn’t feel like they had the luxury of waiting.

The third message came from a Pakistani Muslim friend who’s a doctor here in town. He said, “What do I do Derek? Today at work the other doctors were high-fiving because of the election … right in front of me. These guys are my friends. I was devastated to think that they never stopped to consider how I might feel after last night. They know my two nine year-old sons, who today I’m very frightened for. I don’t know what to do. I’m not sure what’s going to happen to us.”

I’m a Christian pastor, for God’s sake. Why call me?

I’m nobody special, so I suspect that the reason they called has something to do with the assumption that the church (writ large) will not stand for the kinds of terrorizing acts my friends were certain was to follow from this administration. That’s a pretty powerful assumption about what the church at its best represents to people afraid that the powers and principalities are now arrayed agains them.

I spoke last week as a faith leader at a Pride rally. I began my remarks by noting that in a state like Kentucky a lot of violence has been done to LGBTQ people by Christians. But, I went on, LGBTQ people have historically been the very kinds of social outcasts Jesus had a habit of hanging out with. Consequently, those people who claim to follow Jesus ought to be the first to repent and be accountable for the harm that’s been done in our name. Furthermore, I argued that moving forward, people of faith ought to be among the loudest to advocate for justice on behalf of those who’ve too long seen injustice against them baptized in the service of some misguided doctrinal purity.

If we’re doing it right, the church, it occurs to me now—even more than it did at this time last year—should be the seat of resistance. We should be the folks people think of first when it comes to standing up for those most threatened by a politics that multiplies inequity and reifies greed.

Having said that, I imagine someone will be quick to object, “That sounds awfully political. The church needs to stay out of politics.”

I want to be careful to say what I’m about to say as pastorally as I can: “Where did you ever get a stupid idea like that?”

There is no truthful way to read the Bible—especially the Hebrew prophets and the Gospels—and come away from that reading and still say that following Jesus is somehow an apolitical endeavor. Laying out an argument about how the poor or the sick should be treated, or about how those in power should use that power to benefit the most vulnerable (instead of in some systematic attempt at self-aggrandizement) is absolutely a political argument.

What I think people generally mean they they reject the commingling of religion and politics is the belief that religion should refrain from partisan politics. It is probably more correct to say, however, that Christianity should never become the religious auxiliary for any political party, using its influence to justify partisan positions that have been arrived at prior to engaging with Jesus.

Fine, I have no quarrel with that. But I think it should be pointed out that both sides tend to argue that it is the other side that is guilty of such theological rationalization. What I think the question ought to be is whether this political position or that more nearly captures the heart of the good news announced in the unfolding reign of God. The story we tell ourselves about who God is as expressed in Jesus should always animate our politics.

Here’s the thing: Partisan political parties are imperfect tools to help us realize that story; they are by no means, I hope it goes without saying, the best tools or the only tools. We shouldn’t be married to them any more than we are to our favorite hammer. But if the job is pounding nails, only someone who knows nothing about carpentry would say that a screwdriver is just as good as a hammer. And only a fool would say that all tools have flaws, and therefore we shouldn’t use any of them—regardless of the job in front of us—because God doesn’t like tools, and doesn’t approve of us using them, or because we don’t see Jesus using those tools in his life and ministry. (Jesus didn’t use antibiotics either, but that doesn’t mean he’s opposed to them.)

Another objection will almost certainly be summed up something like this: “Okay, but half of my church voted for Donald Trump. I’m the pastor to everybody, and if I start taking political positions—even though I have some fundamental problems with the president—I’m going to alienate half of the congregation. It’s better for everyone if I stay out of politics and focus on things like teaching, preaching, and pastoral care.”

Such a reaction prompts a couple of thoughts. First, if you don’t say something about some of the racist, xenophobic, misogynistic, homophobic, plutocratic, transphobic policies being championed, your preaching is lousy and you’re liable to alienate the other half of your congregation anyway. They’re looking to you to preach the truth. Your unwillingness to be “political” or “controversial” is seen by many of them as an abdication of your primary responsibility to interpret the world truthfully … in love, yes. But the truthfully, nevertheless.[1]

Second, teaching and preaching the truth of the Gospel is pastoral care. In Matthew 9:35–36 we have a 30,000 foot view of Jesus’ ministry: “Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”

This passage gives a rather traditional Matthean formula for the work of Jesus’ ministry: teaching, preaching, and healing. But then Matthew tells us that as Jesus was perambulating over the countryside doing his pastoral duty, he ran into crowds, for whom he had compassion. Now, compassion is literally the act of feeling another’s feelings, usually suffering of some sort—in this case the feeling of being “harassed and helpless”—and then being compelled to act to confront that suffering, and work to change it.

So, if Jesus is feeling compassion on the crowd because they are “harassed and helpless,” we have to ask ourselves what exactly this harassed helplessness refers to. Most likely, according to Warren Carter, this phrase “harassed and helpless” refers to the beleaguered masses who find themselves under the thumb of Roman state oppression, as well as their fellow Jews who are collaborating with the Romans at their expense.[2] Jewish peasants were especially vulnerable to the economic and political pressures Rome imposed on the countries it conquered and occupied. Jesus, therefore, feels compassion toward them because they’ve been on the receiving end of the violent caprice of their Roman overlords.

In response to this injustice Jesus describes the “harassed and helpless” as “like sheep without a shepherd,” which is a historical reference to the relationship between the sheep that make up the flock of God’s children, and the shepherds to whom God has entrusted the care of God’s sheep. These crappy shepherds, in short, are the priests and the religious bigwigs who’ve betrayed God’s flock, at least in part, by not protecting them—in an attempt to try not to appear threatening to the politics of Rome. Ezekiel, in another context, spells out nicely the failure of the shepherds:

Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fattens; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them (2–6).

What’s interesting is that Jesus lays responsibility for the continued abuse suffered by the flock at the feet of the shepherds, whose pastoral duties seem to extend to protecting the sheep from the abuse of political predators who endanger them. When the shepherds neglect this duty in an attempt to stay politically neutral, they betray their sacred vocation. Apparently, then, their responsibilities consist of more than just petting the sheep. Identifying dangers to the flock, it would seem, is more important than placating the sheep and convincing the wild animals that you pose them no threat.

Someone might interject here that even if the job of a pastor is to speak truthfully about the powers and principalities that imperil the harassed and helpless, to say that the church should be the “seat of the resistance” sounds merely like an oppositional strategy—one that’s focused on the negative.

I understand how it might sound that way to the average white parishioner in a mainline congregation, who doesn’t feel particularly threatened by those running the current political show. To those people resistance sounds like a radical call to arms, one that risks turning the world, as they know it, on its head. But when people react negatively to the use of the word resistance, they rarely say it’s because the stable world they take for granted is in jeopardy. They tend to say things like, “Such an extreme posture will cause division.” Or they say, “We want everyone to be treated fairly, but what you’re describing would drive people away. And aren’t we in the job of bringing people into the church?”

There are so many things I’d love to say in response to that sort of moral reticence, but that would be another article. What I most want to say, however, is that that kind of reluctance to speak against the things Jesus spoke against doesn’t take seriously the “harassed and the helpless” as subjects for whose cries of injustice we bear any responsibility. If you were to ask my refugee friend, or my lesbian friend, or my Muslim friend about whether they’d like the world that threatens them turned upside down so that they might live without fear, I know how they’d answer. If you asked them to choose between justice for them and their children or peace in a congregation afraid of division, I can tell you what choice they’d make.

Issues of congregational conflict and division aren’t small matters, it’s true. They require thoughtful time and attention. But the question for the church and for its pastors is, “Why are we more afraid of upsetting some parishioners than in offering a truthful word about the injustices that produce people who are harassed and helpless?”

How can we who call ourselves by Jesus’ name look at the imperiled sheep and say that our job as shepherds only permits us to speak in soothing tones that mollify those who are too easily put off by talk of politics?

The church should be the one place where those who face a potentially hostile world feel safe, where the harassed and helpless have confidence that our moral commitments prompt us to resist any politics that terrorizes the powerless.

The world should have confidence that—whenever families are put at risk, whenever young black men find themselves disproportionately and systematically penalized because they’re black, whenever dead refugee children on distant shores evoke grief, but refugee children in our own country evoke fear, whenever LGBTQ people are bullied and discriminated against, whenever poor people are belittled for needing help to eat or to take their children to the doctor, whenever women have to remain vigilant against the humiliations launched by insecure men, whenever creation is threatened by our rapacious plunder of it—the church will stand together with the embattled.

The church should always, without qualification, without mumbling about “congregational division,” without convenient theological fudging be a voice for the voiceless in the face of the threat of oppressive laws and executive orders.

“But it could cost us everything.”

True. But we follow Jesus, and look what having compassion on the harassed and the helpless cost him. Why do we think we’ll get by with anything less?

  1. If you think Donald Trump is God’s guy in the White House, then this piece is obviously not written for you.  ↩
  2. Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, (New York: Orbis Books, 2005), 230.  ↩

Not Created for Shame

By Bentley Stewart

“We were not meant to live in shame…” Richard Spencer, white nationalist who popularized the term ‘alt-right.’

I agree.

Let me state that again. I AGREE. We are NOT meant to live in shame.

Notice that I limited Spencer’s quote. There is a very limited amount upon which I can find agreement with him. Even in this limited quote, he and I understand “we” differently.

When he says “we were not meant to live in shame,” he means that white people are not meant to live in shame. His “WE” is white.

I speak as a person of faith. God did not intend for humanity to live in shame. In Genesis 3, God beckons the first human family out of hiding in shame. We are not meant for shame. Humanity, which includes white people, is not meant for shame. Shame robs us of the abundant life that God desires for us and Jesus proclaimed.

I agree with another thing that Spencer said in this edited clip. Here’s the other comment of Spencer’s with which I (mostly) agree:

“America was until this past generation a white country designed for ourselves and our posterity,” Spencer said. “It is our creation, it is our inheritance, and it belongs to us.”

Here’s how I would state it: “America was designed for white people.”

When I use the term “white supremacy,” this is what I mean. “America was designed for white people.” (Some use the term differently and I have much to learn from those nuances.)

“White supremacy” is the version of racism that is endemic to the United States. In other places, there are other versions of racism. It is also important to note that white supremacy exists beyond our shores.

Before I explain what I mean that “America was designed for white people,” let me define racism.

One problem is that the term “racism” has become a shaming pejorative. Remember, I profess faith in a God who desires that we leave shame behind. Calling someone a racist does not have a good track record for liberating people from racism. When I am shamed, I have two default responses. Accept the shame and wallow in it or reject the shame by breaking relationship with the messenger. Wallowing in shame is not only miserable for me. Wallowing in shame serves no one.

My working definition of “racism” is informed by the Reconciliation Ministry of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), my ordaining body.

Racism = Race Prejudice + Misuse of Institutional Power

We, all of humanity, have prejudices and biases. Don’t believe me? Take a test on implicit biases and prove me wrong. We all have prejudices. It is part of the survival strategy of mammals. In any given moment, we are experiencing too much stimuli to make conscious decisions about all of it. We have prejudices. We pre-judge, in part, to filter our experiences. Without these prejudices, we would be overwhelmed by the number of decisions we would be forced to make in any given moment. Part of what it means to be human is that we have the freedom and responsibility to question our prejudices so that we are not limited by preconceived notions.

Having prejudices based on appearance is not racism. It is part of what it means to be human.

Instead of unpacking the phrase “misuse of institutional power,” I will return to Spencer’s quote:

“America was until this past generation a white country designed for ourselves and our posterity,” Spencer said. “It is our creation, it is our inheritance, and it belongs to us.”

European settlers claimed the land that Indigenous Peoples had lived on for generations. Their relationship with the land was forged through generations of loving and learning from the land as they struggled to survive and thrive. The First Nations people were claimed by the land as much, if not more, than they claimed the land.

This week used to be my favorite holiday. For me, there is no greater spiritual discipline than the corporate practice of gratitude. And, it is becoming harder and harder for me to reconcile my appreciation for this holiday and the genocide it sanitizes.

Please do not stop reading there. Remember, I do not believe that we were created for shame.

A quick distinction between shame and guilt:

Guilt says I did something bad.

Shame says I am bad.

Guilt is about behavior and shame is about the person.

In order to face the legacies of the displacement and genocide of this land’s indigenous people and the enslavement of people from Africa, we need to confront our historic guilt over this behavior. However, we must not wallow in shame. We were not meant for shame. Shame serves no one. In fact, the insidious pathology of shame allows us to avoid our guilt. If I am a bad person, then all I am capable of is bad. I am incapable of anything good. I am not accountable for my behavior. From the place of shame, I bypass my guilt, which means I forfeit my agency to engage in any new behavior.

When we use the sickness of shame to bypass our guilt, we then seek ways to self-medicate the shame with all sorts of numbing agents to desensitize ourselves from the pain of one another. If I collude with the lie that there is nothing I can do about how racism oppresses people, then I will strive to maintain willful blindness about racism.

Perhaps, you are thinking. Hey, I didn’t do any of that. I didn’t own slaves. Why should I feel guilty? I strive to treat everyone with dignity and respect.

Again, I speak as a person of faith.

“The Lord is slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children to the third and the fourth generation.” ~ Numbers 14:18

God loves us. God did not create us for shame. And, God loves justice. God loves us so much that God cares about our behavior. God wants us to love as we have been loved.

The verse above has been used by some to talk about “generational curses” and by others as way to talk about “systemic sin.” Whatever your preferred nomenclature, our country’s original sin is racism. The soil of our land, from sea to shining sea, is soaked in the blood of racism. We still eat the poisonous fruit from this blood-soaked soil.

For this reason, I try to avoid referring to people as “racist.” Again, it is a shaming pejorative. Shame serves no one and God never meant us for shame.

Rather, I say that we live in a country struggling with the insidious systemic evil of racism. We all suffer from how racism misshapes our God-given identities as beings of dignity and sacred worth. God wants to liberate us, ALL of us, white people too, from racism. We are meant for so much more. We are meant for the abundant life of becoming the beloved community.

As a citizen of this nation, I am confronted daily, multiple times a day, with the choice to resist racism or to collude with the powers and principalities. Other citizens, such as Spencer and other white nationalists, have decided to publicly profess their allegiance to this evil.

The temptation is to think that just because I am not professing white supremacy that I am somehow free from racism. In my analysis, we are all confronted with choices daily that present opportunities to collude with or resist racism. I mess up all the time. I refuse to let my missteps to be the end of my journey towards liberation from racism.

If you have read this far, I want to thank you. I want to leave you with a word of hope. Before that, I offer an invitation and a practice: begin to examine your known world for the vestiges of racism. Freed from shame, examine the ways in which you resist the powers of racism and the places where you collude with those powers and principalities.  Every morning, ask yourself how will I resist racism today? How will I be an agent of liberation from racism?

From Romans 8: I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.

The soil of our land is soaked in the blood of racism. Our land was subjected to the evil of racism. Creation itself is rooting for us, the children of God, to be revealed. Our liberation will be discovered in celebrating our interconnectedness and seeking justice for all.

May we seek to be better caretakers of the interconnected web of creation and by the grace of God, when we stumble on our way to becoming the beloved community, may we fall forward towards love and justice.

Rev. J. Bentley Stewart is the Director of Student Life for Disciples Seminary Foundation in Northern California. He is an ordained minister with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and has standing in the Northern California/Nevada Region, for whom he serves as one of the anti-racism trainers. He is endorsed as a hospital chaplain by Disciples Home Mission. In his decade of hospital ministry, he specialized in pediatrics, palliative care, clinical ethics, interprofessional communication, and cultural bridging. He holds a B.A. degree from Flagler College in St. Augustine, FL, and a M.Div. degree from San Francisco Theological Seminary. Currently, he is organizing the core team to begin a new Disciples worshiping community in Marin County, gathering-desire, where he resides with his wife, their two sons, and their beloved 95 lb. lapdog, Norman.

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Inclusion Matters

By Rev. Mindi

My husband and I have been working for our child to be included at school and in church. We’ve written about our child here before, who has autism, and have shared our journey as parents. We began Open Gathering as an inclusive church of people of all abilities, but we also work for inclusion in other worship settings.

We argue for inclusion because segregation and integration, which are most often practiced in our education system for students with disabilities, is not sufficient. And it is not sufficient in our churches, either, for any child or adult.

We often make assumptions about children’s ability to understand or comprehend worship, so we send them off to Sunday School and minimize any time in the worship service. We say it is because the children don’t understand, but in reality it is often to appease the adults who find children disruptive. Rather than change the way we worship or how our service or space is structured, we send children out so we feel comfortable.

At Open Gathering, we began doing something different—during our “Work” part of service (based off of Godly Play and the Montessori model), our adults or anyone who wanted to participate in the dialogue sermon were the ones to get up and move, leaving our children and those who wanted to respond to the story in creative ways in the same space we worship in, and we came back together for communion. But for the last year, we have decided to remain in the same space, all together, responding to the story together. We learn and grow, together.

At school, our son is in an Integrated Learning Center, an enclosed classroom designed to help students with severe needs. Integrated is an interesting word, because yes, our son is in public school, but he is in a room with children from kindergarten through third grade. While his other third grade classmates are learning multiplication and adding large numbers, he is still being taught how to count objects that he could count on one hand, and to name his colors and shapes—things he has known for a long, long time, since he was twenty months old, but because he does not demonstrate that he knows these things, he spends a lot of time “proving” to the teacher and paraeducators that he does indeed know these things. For the first two years, while the idea was that he would attend music, P.E., recess and lunch with his typically developing peers, it rarely, if ever, happened.

Some churches do integrated worship, in which children are only in the worship for a short amount of time. Or children, like our child a couple of years ago at age 6 when my husband was visiting another church with him, are taken back to the “crying” room—which literally is a separate room adjacent to the worship sanctuary. Or, when our children become youth, we never involve them in worship leadership or decision making—still not including them in worship.

So we have been arguing for our child to be included in a general education classroom. We know it takes baby steps. We know it’s hard to do something that has not been done before. But last year, after several meetings and having it written in our child’s IEP (Individualized Educational Program), our child began attending a General Education class two times a week for fifteen minutes with other second-graders. And, surprising both his ILC teacher and the general education 2nd grade teacher, he did great. After a couple of weeks, the paraeducator that accompanied him was often able to hang out in the back of the classroom as our child didn’t need reminders to sit any longer.

One day, when I went in to observe, our child made a loud noise as he sometimes does. A couple of kids laughed, and I didn’t think anything of it because, well, they’re second-graders. But two girls immediately said, “Stop laughing! That is not funny!” Those girls saw our child being picked on, saw the beginnings of what could be bullying, and put an end to it right away. Another time, our child covered his ears while the class was singing. One girl spoke up and said, “Some kids with autism have a hard time with loud sounds—AJ might be having a hard time right now, can we be quieter?” They saw him as one of their own. And AJ began counting to one hundred and singing a song that went, “one hundred, one thousand, ten thousand, one hundred thousand, ONE MILLION!” all the way to one trillion. He did not learn that in his ILC class; he learned that from being included in his general education class.

This year, we are struggling again. Brand new teachers who do not know his abilities, but only begin by perceiving his deficits, struggled to get him started in the general education classroom. This year, our child’s name was on the roster for both his ILC class and his 3rd grade general education classroom, but when we went inside his 3rd grade classroom, his name was not on a desk like the other students. His birthday was not listed like the other student’s on the wall. And his teacher did not have a prepared, “Welcome Student” packet for him like she did for the other students. Inclusion was in name only, not in practice. Still, after only a few weeks, AJ has begun to stay in the classroom longer. The other students welcome him and engage with him.

Inclusion means learning happens both ways. His peers are learning that everyone is different and just because someone has a disability doesn’t mean they cannot participate or cannot contribute in their own way. They are learning who AJ is, and AJ is learning from them.

At Burien Community Church, where I serve as pastor and worship on Sunday mornings, we have an inclusive worship service. We do have Children’s Church for those children who want to go during the sermon, but only for the sermon and final hymn. But children are regularly invited to help in worship, lighting the candles, taking the offering, and at times, reading scripture and saying prayers.

At first, AJ did not seem interested in worship. There were some hard moments our first year when others didn’t seem to understand why AJ behaved the way he did. But as time has gone on, AJ has, with help, taken the offering and lit the candles with the other children. Others greet AJ on Sunday morning with hugs and high fives.

We still do a Children’s Message—I know many churches have gone away from this practice, but I enjoy it—and I remind the church that ALL of us are children of God, so all participate and sometimes an adult or two will join us on the chancel. We also close our Children’s Message with The Lord’s Prayer, recited by everyone.

Last Sunday, in which my child was lying on his stomach, head and arms hanging over the steps of the chancel, he clasped his hands and recited the prayer with us. He had never done that before. He surprised everyone, including me. He has probably known this for some time, but this was the first time he chose to say it with us.

Inclusion works, because not only did my son learn how to pray as Jesus taught us; others learned that they cannot judge cognitive ability or understanding based on behavior or age. Yet our schools, and sadly our churches, often do this, and often exclude or segregate rather than include. If we cannot do this in the church, we do not have hope for the rest of the world. Inclusion works, and it matters.

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America Can Be Great, But Not “Again”

By Dr. Mark Poindexter

One of the candidates for the office of the President of the United States has used as his official campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again.”  If you want you can go to his official website and buy a baseball cap with that phrase on it.  Depending on which hat you pick it will set you back anywhere from $3.03 to $25.00.  Of course, you have to pay for shipping and handling too.  Once you buy that hat, you can wear it and promote the idea that America has a former period of greatness that we just need to rediscover.   As for me, even though I love baseball caps because they hide my baldness, I am going to keep my money in my pocket.  And not because I think this candidate has more than enough sources of income already, but because the word “again” is just not something I can buy into.

I have learned over the course of my life that history is always interpreted from the perspective of those who have power.  And the idea that our nation has a former period of greatness which we just have to rediscover comes from the perspective of white male privilege and the desire to hold onto that power.  I am fairly certain if we were to ask some other groups to identify when our period of national greatness was, we would be met with silence.  If we were to ask the Native American population this question about America’s greatness, they might refer instead to the ravaging of the land they hold sacred, the many treaties that have been broken, the genocidal Trail of Tears on which many of their ancestors died.   The mistreatment of Native Americans continues today as the current battle over the oil pipeline in North Dakota shows.  The proposed pipeline will go through a sacred burial ground and also has the potential of devastating local water supplies.  Can you imagine the uproar if a pipeline was planned to run through Arlington National cemetery?  Centuries of our violence and broken promises to Native Americans continues even in our day, as peaceful pipeline protestors were met with attack dogs and pepper spray.  Or what about our African-American citizens?  Is there any period of our history that they want to return to because it was great for them.  Was it the brutal days of slavery when they were held in human bondage?  The humiliating days of Jim Crow laws? The time not too long ago, within my lifetime, when beatings and lynchings still happened without fear of punishment for those white men who perpetrated such atrocities?  Is there an American past that African-Americans want to rediscover because of its greatness?  When it comes to these two groups of people American greatness is not something to be found “again.”  As a former United States President once said about the American treatment of these two groups of people:

What we have done with the American Indian is in its way as bad as what we imposed on the Negroes. We took a proud and independent race and virtually destroyed them. We have to find ways to bring them back into decent lives in this country.

We could mention other shortcomings of greatness as well.  The fact that women weren’t allowed to vote until almost 150 years after the United States began.  The children who filled the coal mines and textile mills for meager wages while the owners gained further wealth. The internment of Japanese-American citizens during World War II.  Our nation’s greatness is not something that lies behind us, except in the minds of those who want to disregard the full history of our nation as they seek to hold onto the power that they feel slipping from their grasp.

If there is a greatness to our nation it is found not in any historical period, it is to be found in the idea of our freedoms which allow us to have a voice about what is wrong with our nation and the opportunity to work and correct it.  Our hoped for greatness lies in continually striving after the foundational idea that “all men are created equal and possess certain unalienable rights given by the Creator – among these rights being life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  When Thomas Jefferson penned those words, he could not have known that 250 years later we are imagining a fullness to his words that he never even dreamt of.  Originally those words meant that only white male, land owners were equal and had certain rights.  Our possible greatness lies in our continual work to expand our understanding that human equality and rights exist for all people.

As a person of faith in America it is the striving after a greatness that lies before us and is inclusive of all people, that my faith and my patriotism can work together.  Every week when I stand behind the communion table and invite people to share in the meal of bread and cup, I say that the Lord’s Supper is for everyone, that all people are welcome.  As an American I believe that equality and God-given rights are for all people – all genders, all colors, all creeds, all sexual orientations, all educational levels – everyone gets to be included in the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness.

Our national greatness doesn’t lie in our past.  It is not something that can be discovered “again.” It lies in our ideas of freedom and equality for all.  Ideas that we have never completely lived out, and at times we have quite shamefully failed them.  Yet, the ideas of freedom and equality are something we can always strive toward and work for.  Any greatness that the United States of America might attain is yet before us.  So may we work ever harder toward fulfilling the great idea of a more just and inclusive nation for all

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Environmental Degradation and Racism

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By Rev. Mindi

I returned to Alaska last week to visit my family and the places I grew up, and inevitably, the conversation turned to climate change.

My brother’s snowmobile sits covered up near his cabin, and he never started it up last year because there wasn’t enough snow.

The change of climate in Alaska has made the national news. In 2016, the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race didn’t have enough snow for the ceremonial start in Anchorage, so snow was brought in by train (however, they did get a dumping of snow the day before). The race for years would restart in Wasilla, my hometown. In 2008, the restart was officially moved from Wasilla to Willow, 30 miles north, because there were too many years where Wasilla didn’t have enough snow.  But in 2015, the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race had to restart in Fairbanks, 300 miles north of Willow—because there wasn’t enough snow across most of Southcentral and Western Alaska.

Sea levels are rising, and entire Native villages are being forced to make the decision to move. This story on the village of Shishmaref aired on NPR days before I returned home.  Houses are collapsing in villages because the permafrost—which is exactly as it sounds, ground that is supposed to be permanently frozen—has begun to thaw, causing sinkholes. Even in areas close to Anchorage, wells and septic systems are failing because the ground is warming up and pipes are breaking as the ground collapses.

Growing up in Anchorage and Wasilla, Alaska (I lived there from 83-95), it almost always snowed by the second week of October, and the snow stayed through April. In the late 90’s, when I came home at Christmas from college, I could already see the changes. One Christmas it was 30 degrees out and we were all wearing sweaters instead of our winter coats (it’s a dry cold, and +30 seems balmy compared to 20 below). One Christmas there was no snow on the ground. Since 2000, the winters have been warmer, and now, my dad and brother told me about how most of the time in January it rains—then it freezes, which is much more dangerous than the snow and cold we used to have.

Summers have been warmer, and warmer for longer—last week, it was in the 70’s by the time we left. There is a beetle that has infested the birch trees—my mother was telling me that scientists are not too worried about it, they believe the winter will kill it, but it is something that traveled north with the warmer weather and infected the trees so the leaves didn’t turn the normal golden yellow—instead, they became brown. But the rest of the land—especially up in the mountains, where in previous Augusts, the tundra shrubs would have turned to brilliant reds by this time of year—are still green because autumn is coming later.

Glaciers that I used to see from driving on the road are no longer visible. Portage Glacier, a famous glacier less than an hour south of Anchorage, receded in eight years what they had expected it to take 25 years to do (hence, a very expensive visitor’s center that was built, along with a boat to go look at the glacier, had to change purposes since you can’t see the glacier any longer, not even from the boat on the lake. When we first moved to Alaska in 1983, there was no lake—the glacier was right there by the road).

Exit Glacier is known outside of Alaska because President Obama visited there on his trip to Alaska. I have been to Exit Glacier three times: 2003, 2010, and a week ago. I have shared pictures here so one might see the dramatic changes over the years.

Climate change must be the church’s responsibility. God gave us the earth, to have dominion over it the way God has dominion over us—and we continue to abuse that gift and deny our responsibility. Our addiction to fossil fuels is not only warming our planet, but is killing the most vulnerable. Environmental degradation is part of racism, as seen in the events in Standing Rock, North Dakota, where currently the Dakota Access Pipeline and Energy Transfer Partners have bulldozed sacred ground, including gravesites, and provoked protestors and attacked them with dogs and mace. Or lead in the water supply in Flint, Michigan. Or the above article on Shishmaref, Alaska. Climate change is affecting Black communities, Native American and Native Alaskan communities in disproportionate ways. Sure, rich folks live by the seashore, too—but generally speaking they have the resources to protect their homes, or to move. Poor folks have no place to go.

Environmental degradation is part of racism, and we must work not only to reduce our own waste and reliance on fossil fuels, but to support the Sioux of Standing Rock and all Black and Native communities affected by this injustice and our continued failure to live up to God’s intention for us: to be the earth’s caretakers, to truly love our neighbors as God has loved us.

Me at Exit Glacier, 2003

Me at Exit Glacier, 2003

Exit Glacier 2003

Exit Glacier 2003

Exit Glacier 2003. This was as far as they would let you walk, but you could walk right up to the face of this glacier and the trail gained no elevation.

Exit Glacier 2003. This was as far as they would let you walk, but you could walk right up to the face of this glacier and the trail gained no elevation.

Exit Glacier 2010--the viewpoint used to be where you see the river below. The viewpoint has now moved 1/2 mile up the trail on the mountain (elevation hard to make out from this angle)

Exit Glacier 2010–the viewpoint used to be where you see the river below. The viewpoint has now moved 1/2 mile up the trail on the mountain (elevation hard to make out from this angle)

Exit Glacier 2010

Exit Glacier 2010

Exit Glacier 2016. 

Exit Glacier 2016.

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Enemies, Trust, and Dying for Congregational Transformation

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By Derek Penwell

From time to time someone will come to my office, anxiety etched across the brow, looking for a listening ear. When I open the door on these occasions, I don’t know what kind of pain lies on the other side. I summon my best active listening practices from Pastoral Care 101, and I say, “What seems to be the trouble?”

“Well, Gladys and I have been having problems. You may have noticed we haven’t been around much lately.”

Sometimes I have, and sometimes I haven’t. I try to remain noncommittal: “I”m glad you’re here now.”

“Let me cut to the chase.”

(That’s good. I’m pro cut-to-the-chase.)

“I think Gladys has been having an affair with a co-worker…”

And with that we embark on an all too familiar journey into betrayal, fear, and recrimination.

I listen to another sad story, which often ends with a question. It’s a big question, one I never feel comfortable answering. People who come to see me with problems like this ask it anyway:

“What should I do?”

I know the difference between directive and non-directive counseling, between offering a way to move forward and offering the person the opportunity to make those kinds of discoveries and decisions. I often have a hard time keeping my mouth shut about what people ought to do, but in these situations, it always seems better (easier?) to go with a non-directive approach:

“What do you want to do?”

“That’s just it. I don’t know what to do. I lover her, but I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to trust her again.”

There it is. Trust.

Trust. Relationships require it if they have any chance at being healthy. To say that “once lost, trust is difficult to recover” is, surely, to have said something everyone already knows instinctively. How long does it take to quit checking text messages and phone logs? How much time has to elapse before you believe that a trip to the store for milk and bread is really a trip to the store for milk and bread?

Unfortunately, there’s no calculus capable of offering a quantifiable answer about how much time it takes to rebuild trust. However, one thing is certain: If trust is to be rebuilt, it won’t happen just because of the elapse of time. Trust takes work, hard, often tedious, repetitive, mind-numbing work. Showing up when you say you’re going to show up. Being where you said you’d be. Doing what you said you’d do. Going out of your way to reassure the other person.

No matter how strongly a person feels about having recovered, no matter how eloquent the protestations about “turning over a new leaf,” no matter how many genuine tears are shed seeking forgiveness, there’s no short cut to the actual work of rebuilding trust.

Everyone knows that, right?

The other side of it, though, which also seems equally self-evident, but often gets overlooked in the face of the pain is that the wounded party has to want to heal, has to want to find trust again. This too requires work.

It’s possible to bang your head against a wall for someone who appears only to relish the sight of you concussing yourself. It is impossible to heal, however, when the infliction of pain becomes the glue that holds the relationship together.

Betrayal and the Congregation

It occurs to me that many churches have been wounded, whether by promiscuous pastors who took advantage, or by unprincipled lay leadership, or by denominational neglect–or just because the organizational system was set up to fail. Whatever the cause, the first casualty of betrayal is trust.

Unfortunately, the lack of trust in wounded congregations is a self-destructive feedback loop of bitterness and distrust that inhibits healthy growth and creativity. Distrust in a congregational system treats all change as equally menacing, treats everything new (people, programs, ideas) as presumably hostile–until proven otherwise.

A trip to the store for bread and milk is always assumed to be a pretext for something else, something surely more nefarious.

A new Sunday School class can never be just a new Sunday School class; it’s an indictment of the other Sunday School classes or a new avenue for some hostile party to consolidate power.

A change to the worship service or to the worship space is either an attack on tradition or a play to increase the power base of some suspicious constituency–or both.

What gets communicated in a wounded system where trust has been lost is: “We’re not quite sure yet how you’re trying to screw us over, but we’re pretty sure you are. Therefore, we’re withholding approval and/or permission.”

Has your church lost trust? Here’s an informal checklist:

  • Do you regularly have meetings that last longer than 2 hours?
  • Do people bring dog-eared copies of Robert’s Rules of Order to board meetings?
  • Do you hear at least one reference to the Constitution and By-laws at every meeting?
  • Do people bring their own calculators and red pens to the meeting where the budget is being proposed?
  • Do you have meetings where there are arguments about whether everybody on staff “really needs their own stapler?”
  • Does rearranging the furniture in the narthex or switching brands of air freshener require board approval? (Bonus: If really bad, does it require congregational approval?).
  • Do you have a lot of congregational meetings?
  • Does the announcement of a meeting elicit a particular kind of feeling in your stomach?
  • Do you keep an extra bottle of Rolaids in your car for use before meetings?
  • Does recruiting for congregational officers evoke anxiety not for a fear of who will say “no,” but for fear of who will say “yes?”
  • Do you require a doctor’s note from staff who call in sick?
  • Do you have people who regularly drive by the church to see if the pastor’s car is there?

How Can We Trust Again?

I wish it were easy. It’s not.

I wish I could point you toward “7 easy steps to recovering your trust.” I can’t.

It all comes down to this: a wounded congregation must make a decision to begin trying to trust again. You may get burned. But relationship is always a crap shoot.

How about this?

  • Be mindful that each positive step in which you don’t get hurt is a step in the right direction.
  • Call attention to and celebrate positive steps.
  • Give people the benefit of the doubt. Don’t enter every new situation convinced you’re going to get burned.
  • Assume people (even those who feel like the “enemy”) are telling the truth until you find out otherwise.
  • Don’t get into the habit of thinking of people with whom you share the body of Christ as the “enemy.” It’s too difficult to pull back from the precipice.

Even if trust hasn’t been restored, you’re going to have to live like it has. Until you can live together with a commitment to restoring trust, ministry, if possible at all, can only be tenuous and fragile.

And if all else fails, remember, it’s God’s church–not your’s (or your “enemy’s”).

Besides, trusting your enemy is just about impossible–although dying for your enemy has been done before.

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“I Love the Sinner” Is Often What Abusers Say

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By Derek Penwell

“I love her, but she’s got to learn right from wrong,” he said … after beating her half to death. And there she lies, one foot in this world and another in the next—but fully “loved.”

I imagine that’s what LGBTQ folks hear when yet another Christian says, “I love the sinner, but I hate the sin.”

Now, I can imagine that immediately upon reading the connection between those last two thoughts, cries of righteous indignation will rise as a chorus unto heaven. “We’re not abusers, simply because we hate what homosexuals do with their private parts. We’ve never actually, physically struck a gay person because of their gayness.”

Hmmm … Maybe not, I don’t know you. In fact, I’m perfectly willing to believe you’re not part of a roving band of homo/transphobes out trolling the streets for fresh bodies on which to work out your frustrations with the dismal state of America’s godless culture. Nevertheless, I don’t think that gets you off the hook for the violence that is done in the name of your religious commitments for two important reasons.

First, when you fight against anti-bullying laws written to keep LGBTQ kids safe from being abused, you are propping up a system of violence that steals the dignity, and often the lives of those children you say you love. If a gay or trans kid commits suicide because you want to retain the right to loudly and repeatedly announce to the world your moral disapprobation, giving energy to a system dedicated to never letting LGBTQ kids forget that they are sinful aberrations for which the fires of hell are regularly stoked hotter, you bear some responsibility for their death. When LGBTQ kids get beaten, when they’re kicked out of their homes and forced to live on the streets and struggle to do some of the despicable things they have to do to stay alive, you may not be raising a hand against them, but you’re certainly massaging the muscles that do the damage. When you support a vision of the world in which LGBTQ people daily have to live in fear for their livelihoods, their homes, their right to a peaceful and flourishing existence just so you can proudly announce your doctrinal purity and your commitment to a world where only your religious beliefs matter, you may not be drawing anyone’s actual blood—but don’t kid yourself that there’s not blood on your hands.

Second, physical violence isn’t the only kind of violence. The abuse that takes place in families, for instance, is often not physical abuse. You can lay claim to having never physically harmed a person, while at the same time being guilty of killing that person’s soul. As anyone who’s suffered abuse by an abuser who claims to love them can tell you, some of the worst things that can be done to you have to do with being humiliated, devalued, dehumanized, made to feel alone and crazy. For how many years, for instance, did we gaslight LGBTQ people, makinghomosexuality a mental disorder? [Answer: Even though homosexuality was removed from the DSM-II as a disease in 1973, it wasn’t until 1987 that it was completely removed as a disorder, “ego-dystonic sexual orientation,” from the DSM. In other words: “Gay people are crazy or, at least aberrant” gave shape to the world we now inhabit.]

Take a casual glance at a list of behaviors considered emotionally abusive in personal relationships; then, read that same list through the eyes of someone who is LGBTQ, and try to persuade them they’re not victims of “loving” abuse. As one of my favorite theologians, Fred Craddock, said, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words … can kill me.”

Now, someone might object: “We really do love them. We just think what they’re doing is wrong.”

Fine. The problem is that if you talk to many abusers, they will say the same thing … and mean every word of it. Punching someone in the mouth because you “love” her and “want to correct” her, can’t help but be heard by the person being so punched as a blatant form of patriarchy (i.e., I know better than you do what’s appropriately “not sinful”; you’re just going to have to trust that I have your best interests at heart), or as a way of justifying the hatred and violence of the puncher, or simply as a cynical lie. Whatever the case, your attempts at “loving” the object of your disapproval always seem to come off as a self-righteous assertion of your moral superiority (at best), or downright antipathy (at worst).

Let me see if I can make this any clearer (and I know it doesn’t feel good): Participating in a system that belittles, punishes and commits violence against those who are often in the weakest position to defend themselves, frames you as an abuser in the eyes of those whom you claim only to be trying to love.

Here someone might wonder: “But how can they not know I love them? I said I love them, didn’t I?”

That’s the whole point. Saying you love someone as you punch them in the mouth, or standing by (while cheering or remaining silent) while somebody else punches them in the mouth or loudly fighting for laws that will continue making punching them in the mouth legal in the name of “religious freedom” isn’t love.

A cursory reading of the Gospels suggests that, for those of us who follow Jesus,love isn’t the perpetual need to make everyone else conform to our understanding of righteousness; it’s the merciful realization that Jesus has freed us from the responsibility of thinking that’s even our job.

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Progressive Fundamentals

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By Douglas Sloan

During the summer between 2nd and 3rd grade, my mother enrolled me in swimming classes at the YMCA – this is long before Village People. Mom showed me the way and thereafter I walked to swimming lessons by myself. I went east two and a half blocks on Spring Street and then 6 blocks south on 12th Street. The YMCA is at the intersection of Church and 12th. I walked to the northwest corner of the intersection and crossed diagonally to the YMCA on the southeast corner.

One week, as I approached the intersection of 12th and Church, I observed that the City was paving 12th Street. The paving started at the south edge of the intersection. Now, I could have gone the long way around the intersection and avoided the new pavement. But, that is not what I had been taught and that is not what I had been doing. I cautiously tested the new pavement – enough time had passed so that it was only warm. So, as I had the previous weeks, I crossed diagonally across the intersection – across the new asphalt – barefoot.

Jim Kinsinger, the manager of the YMCA at that time, would remind me of this story for the rest of his life. Over the years, Jim informed me – repeatedly – that my steps could be followed like a path on a pirate treasure map. Plainly visible little black footprints walked the sidewalk from the corner to the front of the YMCA, up the front steps, across the tile floor of the foyer, down the two flights of smooth stone steps to the dressing room, along the side of the pool, and – into the shallow end of the pool – on the bottom of the pool. By the time I got home, Jim had already phoned my mother and informed her of the situation. I was not allowed to enter the house. I was carried to the bathtub and had my feet washed with turpentine.

In the story of a 7-year-old crossing warm asphalt we see the oblivious faithfulness of every fundamentalist to their particular ideology regardless of the consequences. Never mind the cost paid by others to clean the sticky footprints from the sidewalk, the outside steps, the foyer, the inside steps, the dressing room, the pool perimeter. Never mind that cleaning the bottom of the pool required the entire pool to be drained. Never mind the cost or consequences to myself, to others, or the YMCA for I had not swerved. I had stayed faithful to my path. I was a 7-year-old going-to-my-swimming-lesson fundamentalist.

The danger and appeal of Fundamentalism is not in a particular philosophy. To embrace Fundamentalism is to no longer need and to no longer be concerned with dialogue or discovery, questions or doubts; to no longer need to consider costs, consequences, exceptions, or facts that do not fit or facts that refute the Fundamentalism paradigm. Dialogue and facts and consequences and questions and doubts are pitfalls to be avoided. To engage in any of them is a sign of weakness. They are temptations to be resisted, tests to be endured and passed, obstacles to be met and conquered, enemies to be repulsed or defeated. To embrace Fundamentalism is to no longer consider what is relevant, to no longer consider the specifics or peculiarities of a situation, and to no longer consider that something or someone could possibly be more important than the predefined answer provided by Fundamentalism.

The excruciating difficulty for the rest of us is to not be fundamentalist in our disagreement. We do not oppose either fundamentalists or Fundamentalism. We do this because anything that is not within the world of Fundamentalism is either irrelevant or anti-Fundamentalism. So, our response is to carefully offer an alternative interior view, a different way to be faithful. The most difficult part in our response and our understanding of Fundamentalism is we must first accept that Fundamentalism neither implies nor requires ignorance or hate. Second, we must accept that there are fundamentalists who live constructive lives of love, nurture, compassion, and charity. Third, we must accept that Fundamentalism is ancient, unavoidable, and maybe even necessary.

Our response to Fundamentalism is three-fold:

  1. We celebrate and affirm the seriousness with which Fundamentalists hold their source documents and their faithfulness to those documents and their understanding of those documents. This gives us a possible opening for dialogue by meeting them where they are.
  2. We continuously invite, welcome, and include fundamentalists in community events and community conversations. We do this with eyes and ears wide open and with these publicly proclaimed ground rules:
  3. Nobody owns God, Jesus, the Bible, Christianity or any philosophy or any issue – not them and not us.
  4. Do not mistake graciousness or scholarly carefulness or a commitment to non-violence for a lack of resolve. Willfully and unwaveringly, we will oppose war, oppression, injustice, prejudice, discrimination, exclusion, and language that stigmatizes or belittles and we will oppose them with our minds, bodies, and lives. When we see people being harmed in that way, we will choose to actively engage for justice over sitting still and being quiet.
  5. We do not engage in debates with fundamentalists. To a fundamentalist, a debate is a win-win situation: either it gives them a chance to look reasonable, resolute, congenial, to be seen as a person of strong faith or it makes them look persecuted, justifiably fearful, martyrs.

R. L. Stollar in his blog, “Overturning Tables” makes this point:

[T]o a fundamentalist, debates are quests for linguistic dominionism. Debate gives fundamentalists the chance to extend their loaded language into a larger context. (Stollar)

To a fundamentalist, a debate is not an opportunity to share ideas, to exchange viewpoints, or to gain new knowledge. To a fundamentalist, a debate is an opportunity to stand tall and be seen. A debate is an opportunity to preach and to evangelize.

Fundamentalism is the valuing of an ideology over everything else. Fundamentalism is not a specific set of beliefs or a specific theology and – again – Fundamentalism is not about ignorance or hate. Just because a belief system is embraced and protected by Fundamentalism does not mean that belief system is inherently evil or harmful. Fundamentalism is a stance, an attitude, a way of rigidly viewing and automatically responding to life in a way that is narrow, singular and exclusionary, well-defined and unquestioned.

The appeal of Fundamentalism is in its comfortable and comforting predetermined answers and responses for every question and every situation – no further thought is required. The danger of Fundamentalism is in the implementation and expression of Fundamentalism as a coping and response mechanism to everything in the life of the fundamentalist. The adoption of Fundamentalism requires the abandonment of critical examination and logical analysis of anything that is outside or contrary to Fundamentalism, the abandonment of diverse relationships and choosing empire instead of community, and accepts the unavoidably harmful – even fatal – injury of others and their environment as justifiable or an inescapable consequence. Choosing to be a fundamentalist is choosing to be like 7-year-old children who walk across warm asphalt because they refuse to walk a different path or because they cannot see any other way.

Yet, in every religion, Fundamentalism is an inherent and inescapable and necessary half of it. The story of a 7-year-old unable to swerve from a single predefined path, the inability to see any other way or the unwillingness to travel any other way is half of the call and message of every ancient enduring well-established religion. It is half of the story of the universal human search for meaning beyond bare existence. Every religion presents a tension between two callings, two understandings. If Fundamentalism is a necessary half, what is the other half?

As we transition from child to adult, our intellect changes. We change from seeing one path to seeing multiple different paths. We begin to see different possible outcomes. We begin to calculate costs and benefits, to make decisions in a deliberate attempt to achieve a specific future. We see the inevitability of death, the inescapable chaos of the universe, and – even if not personally experienced – we understand how others see life as hopeless, meaningless, useless. We seek meaning and purpose for our lives and in our lives. Maybe we are fortunate enough to witness one of those exceptional people who, instead of being consumed by hopelessness, exude hope; who live a life filled with rich meaning and invigorating purpose far beyond the impoverished stasis and putrid stagnation of Fundamentalism. These exceptional people of hope share a message that speaks to our needs beyond our maturation, education, and experience. When queried about “what happened,” they reply about an epiphany-initiated metamorphosis, a personal transformation into a new being – they are not who they use to be. Their transformation enabled a new world-view that differed in scope and detail and interpretation and response. They speak of an experience that was an inexplicable leap across an experiential chasm and forms a discontinuity with their previous experience and existence – and they find that there is no going back. It is a transformation that is so unforeseen and so positive and so profound that it is labeled transcendent, holy, divine. For example, in Christianity, we celebrate it as Easter and we call it “Good News” and “The Way”.

The non-fundamentalist or Progressive Christian message is this: Something happened on Easter. Until that morning, the disciples still saw the message of Jesus as an unassembled upside-down puzzle with no idea as to what image would be revealed by the completed puzzle.

What happened on Easter was a transformative epiphany. The women had it first – a profound comprehensive epiphany. It was the best of epiphanies. When the women shared their insight with the others, the others had the same epiphany and experienced the same transformation.

In the Roman Empire, the intent of crucifixion was oblivion. The crucified person was to be erased from memory, from history, even from conversation. It is not that a crucified person was dead and gone; after their execution, it was to be as if they had never existed. Whatever happened that first Easter, the life and ministry and lessons of Jesus escaped or transcended oblivion. Regardless of whether a body was in the tomb, Jesus was not there. Jesus was resurrected – Jesus was in the world: in gardens, in locked rooms, walking dusty roads, sharing meals, still listening and teaching. That is possible only if Jesus is transformed into a discernable recognizable presence that is familiar, personal, and both transcendent and tangible.

It was as if every piece of the puzzle had been turned upside-right and sufficiently assembled so that the picture could be easily perceived. In those first few years, this same epiphany happened to the Apostle Paul and hundreds of others. Repeatedly, it was such a powerful experience that people were transformed. The isolation and desperation and fatalism of day-to-day living in an oppressive empire supported and legitimized by imperial dominionist theology was replaced by the realization that what is divine is a universal infinite expression and existence of unrestrained love and unconditional grace. The miracle of Easter is not so much about the resurrection of Jesus as it is about the resurrection of the Disciples – a miracle that continues to this day. In this way, Jesus does return – again and again and again and…

If your previous understanding of the divine was expressed as:

  • the piety of the empire elite
  • miles of roman highway lined with dozens – even hundreds – of crucifixions and their rotting corpses
  • blood sacrifices of any kind to appease any god.
  • storms
  • volcanoes
  • earthquakes
  • 50% mortality rate for children under the age of 10 (PBS)
  • housing for peasants and the working class that was so inferior, it is estimated that in the larger Roman cities, one multi-story dwelling collapsed every day
  • plague
  • war
  • angry brutal divine judgements and capricious miracles by a remote detached deity

– if that was your previous understanding of the divine, then there is no hyperbole that can overstate the effect of discovering and embracing the divine as unrestrained love and unconditional grace and as personal, relational, and universal; a better and more humane way of living and a way to live without empire.

The Good News is good. The Way is true. Progressive Christian theology is an understanding that instead of fearfulness elicits fearlessness. Fundamentalist Christian theology tends to have been developed in the last half of the history of the church. Progressive theology tends to align with ancient Jewish theology and, thus, with the theology of Jesus, the Disciples, and the Beginning Church. Progressive Theology is not fundamentalist, it is fundamental. Progressive Theology is not new, isolated, or singular. Progressive Theology is ancient and wide-spread, orthodox and universal, and dangerous. It is an understanding that instead of open opposition or armed insurrection, it elicits an understanding and a way of living that makes empire irrelevant and unnecessary. The Roman Empire knew how to combat armed rebellion. The Roman Empire did not know how to combat being irrelevant and useless.

There is more to the Good News: That which is divine calls us to be a community of peace, justice, and compassion.

Peace means we are non-violent and actively oppose war and systemic injustice.

Justice means repair, rehabilitation, restoration, and – where possible – reconciliation.

Compassion means feeding, quenching, clothing, sheltering, healing, educating, visiting the prisoner and the home-bound, and inviting and welcoming and affirming and including and providing safety and hope and justice for the stigmatized, the marginalized, the excluded, the oppressed. The TV show “The Sisters in Law” says it with alliteration: the least, the last, the lost.

There is more to the Good News: That which is divine calls us to be people:

who are fearless and humbly gracious,

who offer an embracing hospitality and abundant generosity, and

who provide healthy service without pretense and without belittling those being served.

The entirety of all scripture of all ancient religions is filled with questions and layers of meaning:

How do we live a divine life?

How do we not live a divine life?

Is a divine life about legalistic obedience and ritual purity?

Is a divine life about justice and compassion?

Is the divine about indictment, judgment, eternal punishment for a vast majority and eternal reward for an elite few?

Is the divine about relationship, unrestrained love, and unconditional grace?

Is a divine life about empire or is it about community?

Is a divine life about the rugged independent self-sufficient individual?

Is a divine life about family who nourish, shelter, heal and care, support and uplift, forgive, embrace, stand with you through all trials, walk with you on all journeys?

Is the divine life about the eternal there and then?

Is the divine life about the eternal here and now?

All sacred writings embrace and explore all these questions and many others and present many possible responses. Instead of providing specific incontrovertible answers, all Scriptures plead with us to deeply ponder and unendingly explore these questions – both in solitude and in community. It helps us and baffles us to know that these questions predate our recorded history. These questions will not leave us and we must not ignore them. All scriptures are filled with the tension of these questions and we do a grave disservice to any collection of sacred writings unless we acknowledge and embrace that deliberate and inherent tension. When we understand the purpose of the tension and the purpose that Fundamentalism has in creating that tension, we will more easily hear and respond to the divine call to turn away from the poverty, stagnation, and death of Fundamentalism and turn toward a rich vibrant living love and grace as a community of peace, justice, and compassion as lived and exuded and provoked by a fearless people of graciousness, hospitality, generosity, and service.


PBS. “Family Life.” 2006. The Roman Empire in the First Century. Devillier Donegan Enterprises. Web. 19 April 2016. <;.

Stollar, R. L. “Whether or Not It’s Possible to Debate Fundamentalists, Fundamentalists Want to Debate You.” 5 February 2014. Overturning Tables. Web. 8 April 2016. <;.

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Jesus Is the Worst Thing to Happen to Christianity in a While

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By Derek Penwell

Jesus is the worst thing to happen to Christianity in a while.

Want to know how I know?

I got another anonymous letter sent to me today. Actually, it wasn’t a letter at all; it was a tract. Turns out, they still make those. (Which makes sense, because who hasn’t been confronted by a second rate black and white cartoon carrying the grim warning of impending damnation, then fallen down in a tangle of wayward limbs and humiliated repentance?)

The title of this magisterial work of theology? Reverend Wonderful.

In it our protagonist, the sardonically named, Rev. Wonderful (Haha!, Get it? ’Cause he’s really not “wonderful?”) enjoys the untempered adulation of the adoring masses. He’s introduced as the “most loved man in America.”

So what makes the “Reverend” so “Wonderful,” so nationally beloved and respected? He’s theologically liberal, of course. (Because, you know, all the famous preachers are liberals. They all have megachurches and television empires and political machines.)

Unfortunately, though, it’s precisely his theological liberalism that leads God to run Rev.’s sorry butt back through the pearly gates and cast him “into the lake of fire forever.”

So, you might be wondering just what is this liberal poltroon’s great sin against God and the Christianity on behalf of which this tract offers its voice? What has consigned the Reverend to eternal perdition? Why, it’s his preaching, of course. Just listen to the evil spewing from his mouth:

“Yes, God cares about souls, but He [sic] also cares about SOCIAL JUSTICE… the poor and needy! We must UNITE to fight ignorance and bigotry” [emphasis in the original].

That’s right. R.W. gets crosswise with God because he can’t, as Stephen Covey suggested, “keep the main thing the main thing.” Instead of spending his time out hawking Christian bumper stickers and waylaying the unsuspecting with the middle school aesthetic of evangelistic tracts in an effort to “get people saved,” he foolishly pays too much attention to “the poor and needy!” No wonder God has to ice the guy! I mean, come on. All that soft-hearted liberal Jesus-y stuff be damned.

The tract I received in the mail today represents, admittedly, a somewhat caricaturized version of Christianity. But let’s be honest, it is a popular version of Christianity—one in which following Jesus’ commandments about doing “unto the least of these” is seen as a distraction from the true thrust of Christianity, which has to do with making certain that people believe the right things and that they allow Jesus into their hearts. The inescapable irony in this dismissal of tending to the needs of those on the margins is that when Jesus talks about judging those who will “go away into eternal punishment,” he never mentions as a reason for their condemnation any failure to “ask Jesus into your heart.” Instead, when Jesus speaks most powerfully about sitting in judgment on the nations, he reserves his ire for precisely those who fail to care “about SOCIAL JUSTICE … the poor and needy” (see Matt. 25:41–46).

So, back to my original assertion: Jesus is the worst thing to happen to Christianity in awhile. He has a way of completely screwing with a popular view of Christianity in which what’s thought to be important is the finely calibrated modulation of the individual soul, rather than the “works righteousness” involved in actually living like Jesus said to live.

Jesus can’t help but be a disappointment to Christians who would rather not be bothered with the world God created — the one with traffic jams and dirty socks, with ballet and waterfalls, with love and generosity, with the poor and needy — than with the one to which they’ve been promised platinum membership passes at some future eschatological reckoning.

No, if you’re committed to a Christianity in which God is opposed—decidedly, angrily, cast-you-into-the-eternal-lake-of-fire-forever opposed—to any ecclesiastical effort to “UNITE to fight ignorance and bigotry,” the Jesus you find caring for the the poor and needy in the Gospels is going to pose an insuperable obstacle to your Christianity.

The Reverend Wonderful would never say it (because apparently, he’s too inoffensively nice), so I will: Jesus is the worst thing to happen to Christianity in a while. But I suspect the poor and needy are just fine with that.


1. Hey, he’s not my straw man.

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“Dearly Beloved, we are gathered here today, to get through this thing called life.”

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By Rev. Mindi

I was sad when David Bowie died, and Alan Rickman, and Glenn Frey. Each death made me reflect on their contribution to culture and society.

But Prince’s death is still rattling me. Maybe because it was so unexpected. Maybe because he was younger than the other three, although not by much. Perhaps, because, as a late Gen-Xer, his music was the soundtrack of my childhood in the 80’s.

It’s more than that. Prince was an artist that couldn’t be captured in a single genre, an activist through music and art. A hell of a guitar player—one of the best. And someone who celebrated sexuality and faith, writing “Sexy MF” and “The Cross.” Prince transcended social and musical boundaries.

And while I was sad on Thursday, it was the public singing of “Purple Rain” and the purple tributes across the world that got to me. Public mourning is something that brings us together, that unites us.

We have had too many communal tragedies in the last fifteen years, from 9/11 to Sandy Hook, to Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown and beyond, in which we gather in our sadness, but we are also angry. We grieve and we demand justice. We cry out to God and to each other as to how this could have happened again.

With Prince’s death, for now, we simply mourn. And while we ask why and what happened, and we experienced at first the shock and numbness that comes with a sudden death, we are also free to grieve together, and to celebrate his life. The public celebrations and singing, even the thousands of purple balloons outside of Paisley Park, point to a life well lived, something worthy of admiration, and grief at its brevity.

What we’ve learned since Thursday is that we need to collectively grieve, and Prince has given us the freedom to do that, without the anger and shame that has come from so many other collective memorials in the last fifteen years. Think of all the roadside memorials after car accidents and school shootings. Even when we have come together, it has been incredibly tragic, our feelings of grief meshed with cries for justice. We need a public mourning that frees us to grieve, as well as to celebrate, life.

Maybe that’s why so many churches posted the opening lyrics from “Let’s Go Crazy” on their sign boards. But better yet, we ought to have invited folks to public singings of “Purple Rain,” or at the very least, “The Cross.” Because the church needs to be joining in, if not leading, in collective mourning and celebrating life, death and resurrection.

Cause in this life
Things are much harder than in the after world
In this life
You’re on your own.

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