Pope or Anti-Pope?

How can I top Pope Francis, who this week stunned liberals and the religious right by claiming that the Catholic hierarchy had to sop being “locked up” in “small things, in small-minded rules?” Those small minded rules included abortion, homosexuality and contraception.

Being raised Baptist Preacher's Kid (BPK) I was always taught the pope was the anti-Christ, and I'm sure many Baptists have had their worst fears confirmed.

Mercy isn’t so bad after all.

Mind you, Francis wasn’t saying abortion, homosexuality and contraception have the Jesus seal of approval. Yesterday, he went out of his way to make that clear. But he stressed that these were but a small part of a larger gospel and needed to be tempered with mercy.

As for me, I’m going to shut up and give him a thumbs up. He’s going to come under a lot of heat now, and I’m sure the bishops will be looking for every little clause to repeal the Popehood or maybe rethink the Papacy for life. But for now, we’re stuck with him, so God bless Pope Francis and God bless us all.

 

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Put your Deity where your mouth is

In a bizarre twist of political opportunism, both the Republican Party and Obama joined forces recently to file briefs with the Supreme Court in support of the city of Greece, New York in their Supreme Court appeal over a federal ruling that their council meeting prayers endorsed the Cristian religion. Both feel the lower court overstepped its bounds and that Christian prayer hardly constitutes an endorsement.

Essentially, according to Obama's Solicitor Gen. Donald Verrilli, having Christian prayers isn't an endorsement simply because most of the speakers are Christian and the prayers are sectarians. Otherwise, he argues, the government would have to police all prayers. But, even to my Christian ears, the arguments seem lame. More than lame. They sound like something dumped into a final essay by a college kid pre-occupied with other matters and, forced to take the final or finding his funding cut off, knew he had to write something.

Nor does the Greece council's argument that they occasionally invite a speaker from another denomination hold water. Throwing a scrap to the other dog doesn't mean you don't favor yours.

Think of it like this. In a movie, when you see the hero drinking Coke all the time, or finding the bad guy using a Mac Book Pro, this is considered a product endorsement. It doesn't matter if one of the extras can be seen with a Pepsi and a Dell in the back of the food court during the chase scene. Comedian Mike Meyers made this point very clear in his Wayne's World movies.

In the same way, a news organization's endorsement goes to the candidate blessed with the most positive coverage. In fact, Republicans harp on this constantly when they claim the media, which covers them constantly, has a liberal bias. It doesn't matter if Ron Paul gets a story here or there. When Mitt Romney is featured front and center in the news, he has the media's endorsement as the favorite to win, if not necessarily as the best choice.

So why does it matter who opens prayer? Because, like it or not, opening prayer is a compulsory exercise. People in attendance don't get to opt out. The people who schedule prayer can deny it all they want, but they deceive only themselves.

One person praying in public is not compulsory. It would not be compulsory for someone to approach the podium and say to an audience, “Would you give us a moment of silence?” But to say, “Please take a moment while we pray,” forces everyone to join in the exercise. And Jesus never made anyone do anything. Jesus was about free will.

To compel people to pray, and then set the agenda by endorsing one faith, albeit a broad faith like Christianity, violates the establishment clause of the Constitution and it violates the spirit of Christianity which leaves each of us free to follow Jesus or choose a different path.

So if Greece, or any city council, insists on prayer, how can they avoid endorsement without Verilli's government police at their shoulder? Open their prayers to all. Every week invite someone from a different faith entirely. This week invite a Rabbi, next week an Imam. Don't forget a Shaman, and your Universalist/Unitarian. I'm sure there are some Pagans out there glad to lead solstice prayers. And I know a few atheists who would lead prayers on principle. Once every six weeks, just have every one in the audience throw their name in a hat and draw. Have an entire meeting of open mike prayers once every six months.

You can even follow the example from the Friends. Sit in silence for a minute. Or conduct the entire meeting in silence. You might even get something useful done.

 

Not just tax shelters, but tithe shelters too

A Wisconsin Federal Judge recently ruled that it was perfectly legal for churches to shield church funds from laws suits. In this particular cast, the funds were more than 50 million dollars transferred to shield a Catholic diocese from victims of sex abuse lawsuits and resulting bankruptcy.

The case is complicated, but as I understand it, former Archbishop Timothy Dolan, facing millions in legal settlements, transferred the money to a trust for maintaining cemeteries. He has since been promoted to Cardinal and elected President of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, which means the other bishops like his thinking (although not necessarily on the money dump).

Dolan now denies that he made the transfer to shield the money from lawsuits, but he wrote a letter to the Vatican in 2007 explaing that he transferred the money for precisely that purpose. Federal Judge Rudolph Randa has now ruled that churches' Constitutional rights shield them from bankruptcy laws to such an extent that the money is also shielded.

His reasoning? What would happen to those poor cemeteries if the money was removed from trust and given to the victims who won the suits? There won't be enough money left. He seems to forget that there was plenty of money there before the transfer was made and the Catholics will no doubt continue to use cemeteries to drum up money in future fundraisers.

Randa, a papa Bush appointee, has been overturned so many times that few experts expect this decision to stand. I'm more concerned that a member of the clergy would feel God's call to shield money from victims of their moral indifference and ineptitude.

I have no doubt that Dolan (sorry if I find myself unable to rise to acknowledging his status as Cardinal) felt he was being a steward of God's money, as did his superiors. I'm not sure Jesus would see it that way, nor would many of the faith. This is yet one more example of the symbolic wedge of wealth the Catholic and many evangelical churches have driven between God and the perceptions of many who might otherwise embrace the faith.

In Matthew, Jesus is quite emphatic about the responsibility of the faithful in a court of law. If anyone (Christian or not) sues you, give him more than he asks in damages. (5:40) Jesus doesn't even bother to distinguish whether the claim is legitimate. If someone perceives you wronged them, give them more than they ask.

In the case of victims of sexual abuse, many of the claims are legitimate even if some may not be. For the church to try to shield the money under a bogus excuse such as a cemetery trust is not only the worst kind of sophistry, it is outright hypocrisy. To then ask the US courts to protect them with a Constitutional argument as well is shameless.

Cardinal Dolan, if you want the church to shine its line upon the world, don't try to hide your sins, or your money, behind the Constitution. Christians confess their sins before God and man and then move ahead to set the example they failed to set in the past. But when the church behaves like lawyers and politicians, don't be surprised when so many lose their faith.

 

What if Jesus wore a hoodie?

Several weeks have passed since the Zimmerman verdict and the world has passed on to other matters. Pundits have discussed the political dimensions of the acquittal endlessly, but Christian questions fell by the wayside. Were we to ask what would Jesus have done, an entirely different picture of the evening, and the verdict, would emerge.

Nor is the question whether or not Christians should forgive George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin, however the jury decided, Forgiveness is a decision for Trayvon’s parents, not me. Nor should I, as a white progressive Christian, suggest what scripture dictates should be in the hearts of Black Christians who have suffered centuries of indignities in this country.

Christians should ask what Jesus would have done had he encountered Trayvon Martin in his neighborhood. And, by his example, what should we have done. Would Jesus have patrolled his neighborhood, with a gun, looking for suspicious characters? Would he have followed Trayvon and, had Trayvon attacked him as Zimmerman claims, would he have shot him?

From behind, this might pass as a hoodie.

Quite simply, no. Even had Trayvon attacked, Jesus would have turned the other cheek (a prospect that carries a great deal of irony in a Bible Belt state that proclaims its Stand Your Ground law proudly).

What would Jesus have done? Jesus would have welcomed him. It wouldn’t have mattered if Trayvon was a young Black man with a hoodie, a hooker with visible track marks, a neo-nazi ranting anti-Jewish epithets or a homeless woman reeking of alcohol and covered with open sores.

He would have invited Trayvon home for dinner, and, had he seen Zimmerman stalking them, Jesus would have invited him as well. We can picture Jesus saying, “George, put away your gun. Come dine with us.”

Imagine their dinner discussion. Instead of dwelling on the fears of home invasions and strangers in the neighborhood, Jesus could show them how much they have in common. Or remind George how little it matters when people clutch tightly to their worldly goods only to lose their eternal souls.

Jesus could share with both that the love of little children is more precious to God than the posturing of adults. He could suggest that rather than organizing a neighborhood watch, they could organize a donation drive. To spin the sermon on the mount, if a thief would take your coat, why not give him your wardrobe as well?

This may be asking too much of American Christians. At the very least, however, he would have expected us to welcome Trayvon that night with respect, courtesy and dignity, rather than suspicion, hostility and a gun.

Had we, or George, followed Jesus’ example, Trayvon would be alive today. Many on the Far Right, including the religious right, would scoff, and suggest that we would likely end up dead at Trayvon’s hand for our efforts.

Jesus would answer, “You of little faith.”/When I hear people rattle off the words, “What would Jesus do?” or, as I more often hear it, “WWJD?” I find it mildly irritating. Primarily because it seems Christians say it with little thought or reflection—more as a catch phrase with little more insight than “just say no” or “denial is a river in Egypt.”

When confronted with a moment of national pathos, a moment when a meaningless death occurs with no apparent willingness to address the circumstances, this would be the appropriate time to ask what Jesus would do. His example could lead us away from stereotypes and distrust. Those paths have racked up gun sales and littered our sidewalks with the bodies of too many young people to count.