On Being “Too Political” (353)

My last eCrozier addressing the massacre in Las Vegas prompted a lot of responses from those who received it via email and those who read it on social media. I’m used to this. The responses were as varied as I’ve come to expect leading a diverse diocese. I’m very appreciative of people who engage in a thoughtful “give and take” over the profoundly complex moral issues we face as Christians today (I try also to be appreciative of the less thoughtful remarks that tell me I’m an “idiot,” which happen regularly).

One recurring concern people share is that what I write sometimes is “too political.” They suggest I “stay in my lane” limiting my writing to things purely religious. While I understand their concern, it’s impossible to avoid the issues of our common humanity without driving a bit in the “political” lane. I agree that as a bishop I should stay away from political partisanship (I try to be careful to avoid it). I don’t belong to any political party (I confess that I’m not deluded enough to be a Democrat while I’m not rich enough to be a Republican). I also try to avoid ad hominem criticism of elected officials, but I believe it’s imperative that I challenge public policies when those elected officials advocate something that will create an injustice for the poor or fail to “respect the dignity of all people,” to which our Baptismal Vows call us. Of course, I could be wrong about a particular topic I address. That should hardly be a news flash. The potential for any of us to get things wrong is, as the Bible might say: “legion.”

Bishops have a public role as part of their ordinations. There’s a long tradition of this being “political” (look up St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, and his excommunication of the Emperor Theodosius for his violent excesses in Thessalonica in 390 AD). At the 1966 Annual Convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Georgia, Bishop Albert Rhett Stuart, the 6th Bishop of the Diocese, said these words: “Is the Church sent to be a refuge from the world or to transform the world? Is the Church sent to maintain the status quo or to protest evil in this culture or any other? The Church is not a religious club organized by man for pious sentimentality or personal status.” Amen!

For example, recently when I’ve written about our gun violence epidemic, some people replied: “You’re just a liberal Democrat so of course you’re going to say that.” My reply, which often is ignored, is that “I’m not a liberal Democrat. I’m a Bishop of the Church. I don’t take moral positions based on any political party. Gun violence is a sin. Therefore, I must speak against it and try to prevent it. It’s not about being conservative or liberal (whatever those terms even mean these days). It’s about listening and being obedient to the Scriptures and Tradition of the Church.” They usually have stopped listening by then.

Our Anglican tradition teaches that the Church can’t hermetically seal herself off from what goes on in the world. The Church “is not a religious club,” as Bishop Stuart stated. But it’s not a political party at prayer either. The Church and her bishops then, as our tradition teaches, must speak out clearly from the sources that shape our identity. That may make us appear as “too political” for some observers who believe the Church should remain a “religious club” for “pious sentimentality.” So it goes.

+Scott

 

Here we are again (352)

Like most people (but clearly not all – more on that below), I’m still emotionally and spiritually reeling from the massacre that occurred in Las Vegas last weekend. I have been writing my weekly eCrozier now for nearly eight years. I spent a few minutes this week going over the file that contains them. Unfortunately and tellingly, there are way too many past statements I’ve written about previous gun massacres. Part of me just wants to cut and paste sections of those previous eCroziers, insert them here, and be done with it. What does it say about us as a people that a bishop of the Church has to keep writing about such events; that I actually have a hefty file of previous public responses to mass murders done by Americans to their fellow Americans? Shouldn’t it strike us as more than absurd that I actually have a file of past responses?

Well, it strikes some as absurd. For others, it’s become the new normal. And for even others, they see it as the price we all must pay so some folk can have almost limitless access to all sorts of weapons, weapons not for sport or self-defense, but weapons designed specifically to kill as many people as possible in the shortest possible time.

Earlier this week I listened to a guy call in on a radio show. He proudly said that he’s a gun-owner and a former Army riflemen. He then said this about the weapons used in the Las Vegas massacre: “there’s only one reason these weapons exist, and that’s to kill masses of people.” He said it was “absurd” that these kinds of weapons could be in the hands of anyone other than the military or law enforcement. He ended by saying: “There’s no way that should be allowed in a civilized country.”

Yet, here we are again. Other, more civilized countries (it appears) have found a way to balance the “right to bear arms” with the basic “right” to not have one’s life ended in a barrage of machine gun fire. The 2nd Amendment is important. People who so desire should be lawfully allowed to have weapons for sporting purposes and for self-defense. But there must be rational limits to any freedom, especially when one amendment’s excesses can be deadly to the lives of others.

Guns handled responsibly aren’t dangerous to the public. Just as cars operated responsibly aren’t dangerous to other motorists, and yet we require licensing, skill-testing, and insurance for those who wish to own and operate a vehicle. We even put limits on the kinds of vehicles we allow on public roads, that is, we make it illegal to drive rocket-propelled vehicles on public thoroughfares. It seems reasonable and wise to require similar measures for gun owners as we do for motor vehicle owners (licensing, testing, and insurance). No responsible gun owner would be threatened by this just as responsible vehicle owners aren’t threatened by similar requirements.

And yet, I have no illusion that there will be changes to gun laws even after yet another gun massacre. The people who make such laws are controlled by powerful forces that will prevent any such changes. My hunch is my hefty file will be added to again in the near future.

+Scott

 

 

“God will not play our games” (351)

Today is the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels. The Gospel appointed for this Feast Day is from John (1:47-51) where Jesus begins a conversation with Nathanael by saying: “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Upon hearing that rather mundane observation, Nathanael declares: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God.” John’s Gospel doesn’t indicate Jesus’s facial reaction to this, but Nathanael’s reply must’ve amused Jesus. All Jesus said was that he saw him under a fig tree and this so impresses Nathanael that he confesses that Jesus must then be the Son of God. So, maybe Jesus had a smile on his face with a slight shake of the head when he responds to Nathanael, asking: “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree?” Without waiting for Nathanael’s response, Jesus simply says: “You will see greater things than these.” Yes, indeed, “greater things than these.”

There’s something in the human psyche that longs for (and, possibly, needs) the spectacular, even the mundanely spectacular, that’ll help us, maybe even convince us, to believe. Nathanael was impressed by Jesus’s apparent clairvoyance (or at least his ability to see around corners!). Because he saw him under a fig tree, that was enough. Nathanael was convinced. This Jesus must be the Son of God if he has that magic trick up his sleeve! This was a recurring challenge for Jesus during his earthly ministry. Whether it was water into wine or healing a man born blind, the crowds just ate that stuff up. He’d be trying to teach folk about the merciful nature of God and how we, too, must learn to be merciful, but everybody would be saying: “That’s all well and good, Rabbi, but how about one of them spectacular signs to bring down the house? Maybe water into beer this time?” This must’ve frustrated Jesus. In some ways, his miracles were getting in the way of his message.

Lest we think we’re beyond that, just read about those who see the image of the Blessed Virgin Mary on a water tower or those who react to a miraculous healing by some religious divine, and see how many flock and respond to such occurrences. We humans apparently need such things for us to muster belief. And because of that need, the simple, straight-forward declaration that God has saved us sinners in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus will always get somewhat lost in our need to be entertained and impressed by a show-stopping extravaganza. But we must not lose that truth. It is, if we ponder it, far more spectacular than anything our imaginations could cook up.

Anyway, mustering up enough belief so we can convince ourselves to believe is beside the point. Do we really think that our belief (or unbelief) sways God one way or the other? God isn’t like Disney’s Tinker Bell whose continued reality is predicated on us mustering up enough belief. God didn’t take a Gallup Poll to field test our belief before God acted. God didn’t deploy focus groups to discover what miracle was necessary to capture our imaginations. Without our permission or participation, God just saved us from our sin through Jesus on the Cross. As Vassar Miller writes in her poem:
God will not play our games nor join our fun,
Does not give tit for tat, parade His glories.

+Scott

 

The Past is Never Past (350)

If the dead could speak, what would they say to us? That’s a conceit of more than a few books and films over the years. Charles Dickens used it in A Christmas Carol. Jesus used it in the Parable of the Rich Man & Lazarus where the rich man begs to return from the dead so he can warn his still-alive brothers to change their greedy ways.

I spent time earlier this week at Bishop Stephen Elliott’s grave in Savannah. He died suddenly on December 21, 1866, after having just returned from an episcopal visitation. He served 25 years as the 1st Bishop of Georgia from 1841-1866. He’s buried in Laurel Grove Cemetery in Savannah, which isn’t far from my home. He was 60 years old when he died. The same age I am now. To get to Laurel Grove cemetery from my home, one must ride past St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, a parish with a long, strong history in the Diocese of Georgia. St. Matthew’s is also an historically African-American congregation, an ironic gateway to anyone visiting Bishop Elliott’s grave.

In 1867, the year after Bishop Elliott’s death, Thomas M. Hanckel wrote a “memoir” of Bishop Elliott in a book of the Bishop’s sermons. Hanckel’s work is more hagiography than memoir. As I read it again this week, I noticed how carefully Hanckel avoided any engagement with the issues of race and slavery. He preferred to wax on about how Bishop Elliott, like many of his contemporaries, was caught up in the “great political questions of State Sovereignty and Free Trade” that “shook the country.” Hanckel further describes him as “a States’ Rights man in the highest and best meaning of those words. He believed in the simple story of the Sovereignty of the States as he read it in every child’s history.” Well, maybe not in every child’s history. Here we see, just two years after the Civil War’s end, Hanckel’s effort to change the narrative for the war’s cause, which he’d have us believe, wasn’t fought to end the vile and morally corrupt practice of one human being “owning” another human being. No, he argues, the war was about political differences concerning governmental jurisdictions and rights.

Bishop Elliott was a devoted bishop who sacrificed both his health and his family’s fortune as he sought to build up the Church of Jesus Christ in Georgia. His sermons are eloquent exhortations on God’s grace poured out for us sinners on the cross of Jesus. He was also a man who owned many slaves and saw it as his God-given right to do so. We’re still a people trying to sort through our “original sin” of racism in this country. The latest chapter is about monuments to generals who fought on the immoral side of a long-ago war. It’s easy for us to judge them now. Our judgment about them might really be a form of self-justification, thinking that if we simply take all those statues down, then it’ll cure what ails us as a people. I wish it were that easy. The statues should come down, but let’s not fool ourselves into believing that’ll even remotely heal our sickness.

William Faulkner famously wrote: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Maybe we could also say that about the dead? They’re never past as well. Even though we may not want to admit it, they live on as a reminder of just how much we’re like them. We could all benefit from hearing one of Bishop Elliott’s sermons on God’s grace for sinners.

+Scott

 

Hurricanes and Prejudgments (349)

Since Hurricane Irma has passed and recovery has begun, I thought it was a good time for me to check some of the prejudgments I’ve had during and after previous disasters, which seem to be occurring more frequently these days. I’m not proud that I have these prejudgments, which have slowly turned into prejudices over the years (prejudices are just prejudgments that have gone spiritually lazy), but admit them I must.

The first is this: with so many people evacuating, with law enforcement focused on responding to human safety concerns, and with sin being what sin is, there must be lots of theft and looting going on at such times. I’ve always just assumed that’s happened. Rather than continue to rest on those assumptions, I decided to check the data. It turns out the data show that crime actually goes down during and after disasters. Scott Knowles, a history professor at Drexel University and author of The Disaster Experts: Mastering Risk in Modern America, has studied many disasters. He says the data reveal less crime during and after disasters. He attributes this to people, even folk who have criminal inclinations, wanting to help their neighbors. Disasters apparently bring out the best in us, even those who we might not see as the “best people.” He also reports that misleading stories about potential looting can potentially place people in greater danger. They may choose not to evacuate (when they have the means to do so) out of a fear their home or business would be looted. It turns out such fear isn’t well-founded.

The second prejudice I’ve had is about people who chose not to evacuate and then needed rescue. Bill O’Reilly shared my prejudice. After Hurricane Katrina, he said: “Many, many, many of the poor in New Orleans are in that condition. They weren’t gonna leave no matter what you did. They were drug-addicted. They weren’t gonna get turned off from their source. They were thugs, whatever.” His colleague Shep Smith chimed in: “Despite the warnings, lots of people have said they’re not going anywhere. They’re stocking up supplies, boarding up their homes and hoping, which is moronic.” I don’t feel good about having shared the same ignorant prejudices as those two, but I did.

What I needed to realize (and I now have) is that there are complex reasons for why some people don’t evacuate. Some people are simply physically unable to leave their homes due to disability or illness. Others don’t have cars or access to transportation. Some live so on the edge that they’re afraid to miss work and lose even one day’s paycheck. And many poor people live in a part of town where the land values are less because they’re in flood zones. Like many other people (maybe you, too), I’ve assumed my privileges in life and superimposed them on everyone else and asked myself: “Why won’t those people just do what I would do,” implying “what I would do” is both what everyone else can and should do and, of course, it’s the right thing to do as well.

Responding to hurricanes brings out the best in the us, mostly. Neighbors unselfishly help neighbors. Strangers just pitch in and lend a hand, thanks be to God! But such disasters also bring out our prejudices about others. We shouldn’t be spiritually lazy. We should confront our own prejudices holding them in the light of truth.

+Scott

 

The Ignorance of Our Own Ignorance (348)

God is not counting on us to keep ourselves stupid, closed off to the complexity of the world we’re in.
David Dark in his book, The Sacredness of Questioning Everything

We must remember that we are not God.
Vaclav Havel

David Dark is a questioner, an embracer of uncertainty, and his wonderful book helps us question everything from our religion and passions to our media choices and use of language. He sees our questions and uncertainties, not as signs we lack core convictions or beliefs, but as indicators of our dependency on God alone, which lead to our humility before the One who created us and more wonderfully redeemed us in Jesus Christ. Uncertainty is a good thing. If it doesn’t lead us to a detached irony or a caustic nihilism, then uncertainty helps us question our assumptions about ourselves and the world. A healthy questioning of things makes us work harder to see things more clearly and understand things more deeply. It can help us avoid overly simplistic answers to questions that are truly complex. Even questioning God is healthy. The Prophets of the Old Testament did it regularly as did the Psalmist. Anyone who believes questioning God would somehow diminish God must believe in a pretty scrawny, petty God.

There are few things of which we can be certain. At best, we can listen, learn, and form good judgments about what “is” based on the collective wisdom of smart people who’ve studied a question for a lot longer than we have. In other words, we must grant the premise that there are indeed people who are, on certain subjects, likely smarter than us. That humility appears to be in short supply these days as we grow in the ignorance of our own ignorance, mistaking our passions for what they clearly are not: objective truth, even when the preponderance of data tells us otherwise. We feel something should be true, so it must be. There’s a truthiness to it (thank you, Stephen Colbert).

As I write this, we’re waiting to learn (from really smart people) the path of Hurricane Irma, mere days after witnessing the destructive power of Hurricane Harvey. Climate scientists, many who are Nobel Laureates (really smart people), have been telling us for over a generation now that our human activity, particularly the burning of carbon, is changing the climate, heating the oceans and raising their level, and creating a greater likelihood for more extreme weather, like the kind we’re now seeing. It’s appropriate for us to question their conclusions about climate change. They don’t mind. In fact, they welcome it since they have the preponderance of the scientific evidence on their side. Thus, it’s perfectly fine to be “climate change skeptics;” to question scientific models and their conclusions. But at some point, humility must lead us to conclude that if these smart people have been researching this for a generation and 95% of them warn that we must limit the human activity that’s contributing to climate change, then we must humbly admit that they’re right and then do something about it.

So, I must then ask: when did we stop listening to smart people? When did we begin to glory in our own ignorance, even seeing it as a virtue?

+Scott

 

Nuclear Weapons Lead to a Devil’s Bargain (367)

There is no need to insist that in a world where another Hitler is very possible the mere existence of nuclear weapons constitutes the most tragic and serious problem that the human race has ever had to contend with. Indeed, the atmosphere of hatred, suspicion and tension in which we all live is precisely what is needed to produce Hitlers.
– Thomas Merton, writing on February 6, 1962

The monk, Thomas Merton, wrote these prescient words 55 years ago. They’re as relevant today as they were then. From the tradition of our Christian Faith, there’s no possible moral justification for the use of nuclear weapons. By the consequences they produce, the use of nuclear weapons is immoral and any nation who would use them would be guilty of shocking immorality. One only need to look at the devastating, long-term aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagaski to confirm that historic truth.

And yet, some who claim the moral “high ground” argue their use is defensible using what’s classically known as the “Just War Doctrine.” Put forth first by St Augustine and then later elaborated by St Thomas Aquinas, this Doctrine has served as the Church’s moral guide for centuries. The Doctrine’s concluding admonition is this: “the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated.” Using nuclear weapons, as the clear evidence of history has shown, certainly produces “evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated.”

What complicates this (there’s always a complication, isn’t there?) is that we live in a non-Christian world. Until the last century, the western world still held to some semblance of Christian morality, but that’s no longer the case. Even as wars were fought in those years, there was some sense of moral accountability; that some things were simply beyond the pale; that there were some things moral agents should never do. That means it would be a mistake for those of us who attend ourselves to the way of Jesus to assume the war practices of any government today are automatically congruent with the Christian faith. While in some cases they might well be, we should never be “blank check” Christians or assume something must be “moral” because we’re the ones doing it.

Thus, Christians can’t assume that a leader of any government will follow our morality when it comes to nuclear weapons, the use of which produces a consequence so obscene as to render it morally intolerable. And as Merton suggests above, Christians must work to lessen “the atmosphere of hatred, suspicion, and tension in which we live” because that’s the very climate in which fascism thrives. When fear is ginned up and exploited, people are encouraged to abandon their Christian morality in favor of following false prophets who promise that they alone can offer us safety and protection. When such promises are accepted, they almost always produce a bargain with the Devil.

As Christians, staying passive and silent when any leader suggests that the use of nuclear weapons is a morally right thing to do, makes us complicit in the guilt of a potential, unspeakable crime against humanity. May God have mercy upon us all.

+Scott

 

Racism, Uncomplicated, Racists: Complicated (346)

 

Old man, take a look at my life, I’m a lot like you.
– Neil Young

I loved my grandfather. He taught me how to fire a rifle safely and accurately. He taught me how to mix mortar with just the right consistency, not too wet, but wet enough to make it sticky and hold together. He taught me how to “butter” a brick, put it in place, and use the heel of the trowel to tap the brick this way and that, so it would be plumb on the line. He was ever so patient. I never recall a time when he even raised his voice to me. Whenever I got into trouble with my parents and he was nearby, he’d look at me, wink and smile, and then I had the sense everything would be all right.

My grandfather also was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. When I was six years old, sitting on the back stoop of his house on Glenview Avenue in Cincinnati, Ohio, he gave me a Klan pamphlet, and he told me that since I now knew how to read, I should read something important and useful. It was his effort to teach me something else, something much less edifying than how to “butter” a brick; something evil, something repugnant to God and the world God so loved.

No person’s life, however, can be easily explained or neatly pigeon-holed. These days we’re so quick to judge others and label them in a way that allows us to place them simplistically into the “evil” category. Human beings are much more complicated and messy than such simplicity justifies. Although I know very little about him, James Fields the young man who drove his car into a crowd of my former neighbors in Charlottesville, killing one and wounding many more, apparently grew up being fed a diet of racism. That diet was nurtured and supplemented by certain twisted people in his life who took the place of his deceased father.

I’m not asking anyone to absolve James Fields for his heinous act or his abhorrent I lours to give. It comes from God alone. Neither am I excusing anyone’s racist behavior. No just and compassionate society can long tolerate such hate and prejudice. But I am suggesting that we all humbly take a step back from our self-righteousness. I’ve heard many white folk recently congratulate themselves on how they’ve overcome their racism (some actually claim they never even had any). They’re now completely free of it, they say. Their inability to reflect honestly on their lives is quite astonishing to me. No person I’ve ever known has achieved such moral purity as to make that claim honestly.

“Old man, take a look at my life, I’m a lot like you.” People who knew him tell me that I remind them of my grandfather. I guess they’re right, at least in terms of our physical likeness. Am I a lot like that old man? Truth be told, the answer is both yes and no. It’s complicated. Was my grandfather an evil man? No, not entirely. Did he hold evil views that were morally repugnant and broke God’s heart? Yes, he did. And he, just like the rest of us, will always stand in the need of the grace and mercy given us by Jesus Christ.

+Scott

 

Heart-sick, Not Surprised (345)

If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.
President Lyndon B. Johnson

‘Cause everybody’s gotta have somebody to look down on; 
Who they can feel better than at any time they please
Kris Kristofferson, Jesus Was a Capricorn

Shocked, but not surprised was my reaction upon hearing the news of what happened in Charlottesville this past weekend. Having lived there for five years, I knew all the parks and streets mentioned in the news. Kelly and I used to take our then young children to play in one of the parks where many of the white supremacists gathered late Saturday. It was right next to the mission church I served. I’m heart-sick and disgusted, but I’m not surprised. This “dog whistling racism” has been emerging for some time now as a replacement for the old Jim Crow. The rise of the so-called “alt-right” in some people’s minds has legitimized what most people (we presumed) thought were by now abhorrent beliefs and behaviors. With their Hitler salutes, proclamations of white racial superiority, and hate-filled xenophobia, they’ve recently found a welcome refuge in too many main-stream political conversations.

Home-grown terrorist groups, which, let’s not fool ourselves, these white supremacists are, were removed from the “terrorist watch list” this February, even though there have been over 30 terrorist attacks by these groups since 2001. During that time, twice as many people have been killed by these groups than by any other religious or ethnic group. Their removal from the “terrorist watch list” clearly has emboldened them.

I’ve seen other white people look uncomfortable upon seeing who these messengers of hate and white supremacy are, while also slowing nodding affirming heads to much of their political message. So, I must ask: Can we really separate the message from the messengers? If a person’s views on current issues facing our society are the same as David Duke’s or Richard Spencer’s, then what does it say about that person’s real convictions? Can they honestly state it’s just a coincidence that they agree with much of the alt-right’s political agenda, but, you know, just not all that hate stuff?

I understand why some white people are angry for being excluded from the prosperity others experience. I grew up in Appalachia where life’s always been hard, and good, safe jobs have never been plentiful. But anger at Jews, African-Americans, and Latinos is misplaced. They’re simply the people white supremacists blame for problems caused by the economic and cultural changes we’re experiencing. They’re just emotionally and politically “picking their pockets.” It’s time for white people to look in the mirror and tell ourselves the truth. We don’t have a problem with religious or ethnic minorities in our culture. We have a white person problem. And white people, especially those of us who call ourselves by the name of Christ, must be determined and truthful enough to fix it.

+Scott

 

Summer Holiday with John Prine (344)

The eCrozier is taking its regularly scheduled summer holiday. While on holiday, it will travel with me to two bishop consecrations, the first this weekend in North Carolina, and then next weekend in Puerto Rico. It will then join me and Kelly on a brief holiday in Dublin (Ireland, not Georgia, although I enjoy visiting Dublin, Georgia as well!). It will resume its regular publication later this summer when it starts making sense again. Just like us all, it really needs a holiday.

Until then, I leave you with the wisdom of John Prine in his song, “Some Humans Ain’t Human.” Mr. Prine is a keen observer of the human condition. He’s also baptized and confirmed in The Episcopal Church, though it might have been awhile since he’s been in church! You can hear and see his humorous account of how he was baptized and confirmed by going to this link

It’ll be worth the brief four minutes of your time.

Let’s all pray to God that our humanity will show itself humanely in this world.

+Scott

Some humans ain’t human, Some people ain’t kind
You open up their hearts, And here’s what you’ll find
A few frozen pizzas, Some ice cubes with hair
A broken Popsicle, You don’t want to go there

Some humans ain’t human, Though they walk like we do
They live and they breathe, Just to turn the old screw
They screw you when you’re sleeping, They try to screw you blind
Some humans ain’t human, Some people ain’t kind 

You might go to church, And sit down in a pew
Those humans who ain’t human, Could be sittin’ right next to you
They talk about your family, They talk about your clothes
When they don’t know their own ass, From their own elbows

Some humans ain’t human, Some people ain’t kind
They lie through their teeth, With their head up their behind
You open up their hearts, And here’s what you’ll find
Some humans ain’t human, Some people ain’t kind