Release the hostages

So here's the bottom line. Paul, in the book of Romans, makes it clear that God appoints government to protect those who do good and punish those who do bad (Romans 13). If we are faithful, we have nothing to fear from government.

According to the Christian Right and their political wing, the Tea Party, government punishes good people and rewards the bad, which is why they have shut it down. And who are the bad? Those in need of health care, those in need of retirement benefits, and the poor.

This is the supreme irony, that the Tea Party would shut down health care and care to widows and poor in spite of scripture's injunctions to heal the sick, feed the poor and care for widows and orphans. But the Christian Right has shown no need to heed the injunctions of scripture, to show compassion, or even to show humility—all of the benchmarks of faith.

If they would take care of the poor and sick in the private sector they praise it might not matter, but, of course, they don't.

They are fortunate that God will forgive them, although I doubt they will ever feel the need.

The rest of us can only pray enough Republicans will come to their senses that the Tea Party block will cease to matter.

 

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.

 

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.

 

Jesus loves a thrifty tipper

One of the great stories of the internet a few weeks ago involved a preacher, a waitress and a meal receipt.

A St. Louis minister dined at an Applebee's restaurant with 19 parishioners and when presented with his check refused to to honor the mandatory 18 percent tip. He wrote that he gives God ten percent so why should he give her 18? Then, instead of giving ten percent, he gave her nothing. She posted a copy of the slip to the Internet, the post got thousands of hits and she was fired for her efforts. Finally, the pastor apologized.

There is a lesson here on Christian charity. Not just because Jesus admonished his followers to “Give to every man that asketh of thee.” (Luke 6:30) There seems to be a fundamental lack of understanding of generosity and service.

When I was in college and working at the Morningstar Coffeehouse in San Marcos, my fellow worshippers and I would often go out in large groups and at the end of the meal they would tip the waitress with Bible tracts. Their rationale? The waitress needed Jesus more than she needed money. It never dawned on them that Jesus may have sent us to meet the waitress' financial needs.

Nor should we forget that Jesus holds those who serve in higher esteem than those who are served.

There are other realities that we overlook should we refused to tip our severs. When we tip, we don't just tip the server. She has to share with the host, bartender and bus staff. The server isn't provided by the restaurant as a courtesy. We are his employers. When we place an order we are contracting with the service staff. They are not serving us for free because they have nothing else to do. This is how they earn their keep, and to fail to tip is to steal from them. We are now entering into the territory of Old Testament, ten commandment transgressions.

To refuse to tip is to be more than simply ungrateful. It is to be a thief. We are robbing them of time and money they could have earned serving someone that would have tipped them.

The ten percent rationale is also faulty math. Wait staff used to get ten percent too. But tips have been adjusted for the cost of inflation. First to 15 percent and now to 20 percent. And servers do more than serve the food we pay for. They lay down plates and utensils, clean up our messes and even continually offer free bread, condiments, water and drink refills. So it is far from unreasonable to give a waitress 18 percent when God only demands a tithe.

We should count ourselves fortunate. If God adjusted our tithes for the cost of inflation over the three thousand years since the Torah was passed down, we would be giving 600 percent or more of what we earned. Compared to that, 18 percent is a pittance.

 

Government is not the enemy of charity

Consider the following passage from Mark 10:

And when he was gone forth into the way, there came one running, and kneeled to him, and asked him, Good Master, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life? And Jesus said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God. Thou knowest the commandments, Do not commit adultery, Do not kill, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Defraud not, Honour thy father and mother.

And he answered and said unto him, Master, all these have I observed from my youth. Then Jesus beholding him loved him, and said unto him, One thing thou lackest: go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, take up the cross, and follow me. And he was sad at that saying, and went away grieved: for he had great possessions.

And Jesus looked round about, and saith unto his disciples, How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God!

And the disciples were astonished at his words. But Jesus answereth again, and saith unto them, Children, how hard is it for them that trust in riches to enter into the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.

And they were astonished out of measure, saying among themselves, Who then can be saved? And Jesus looking upon them saith, With men it is impossible, but not with God: for with God all things are possible.

We are currently in the middle of a debate about the best way to make government solvent. According to many in the Christian Right, the best way is by sacrifice. Not self-sacrifice, in which, we pay more taxes, but the sacrifice of others we don't care about who receive benefits from government.

I'm including the sacrifice of money to educate other people's children, money to take care of veterans, money to support the families of soldiers, money to insure the health care of those most in need. The message of the Republican Right, and that includes the Christian Right, is of the preservation of wealth. And those who are willing to pay more in taxes to make sure that the needs of others are more adequately met are considered to be anti-Christian and even anti-American.

I find this message ironic coming from the mouths of those who profess that America was founded as a Christian nation.

Nowhere do we hear the rich and powerful consider sacrificing their wealth. Not even offering the sacrifice in the manner of Isaac and his son. They are not even willing to put their wealth on the altar with faith that God will return it to them.

No, they insist wealth is their god given right. Which it may be, but according to Jesus that wealth was given in order to take care of the poor.

It is easy to claim that care of the poor should come at the hands of private charities, not bloated government bureaucracies. Yet private charities are also bureaucratically top heavy (I know, having worked for them) and often depend on government funding as much as private support.

I am all for a balanced budget, but I am willing to pay my fair share rather than carve it out of the backs of the poor. And I think I am following the path set out in the Gospels to suggest as much.

The subversion of Christmas

Why is it that no one wants to talk about the subversion of Christmas? We're so focused on the war that we forget the real danger is the Fifth Column, a subtle and insidious element at work to erode the foundations of our faith.

What is that Fifth Column? We are. Every time we drop a dime on a Christmas gift. Nor do I mean Santa Socks, Angry Bird Ring Toss, Star Wars 7 Pre-release Action Figures with Working Prototype Weapons, or the Ultimate iPad Christmas App and its Android knock-off. Or shopping at Wal-Mart where your dollars are recycled to China and Union-busting anti-labor initiatives instead of paying the workers a living wage.

I'm talking about buying things from Christian vendors as well, many of well-meaning, and others out to make nothing but a buck and all geared for the cash crop that is Fifth Column Christmas. I browsed the lists of recommended Christian gifts and most of them boiled down to Bibles (you can never have too many of those, even though you need only one and early Christians managed to get along without one at all), CDs, DVDs and Christian books, most of which have more to do with promoting agendas (even agendas I approve of) than Jesus.

Here are a couple of suggested Christian gifts:

Perhaps my favorite recommended gift would be the Christian Weekend Retreatfor $150.

It doesn't matter where you turn, Christmas is about spending money. As much and as often as possible. Christians can fool themselves into believing that a genuine leather Scofield Reference Bible with Concordance, Maps and authentic photographs of the crucifixion and resurrection is a Christian act and not an act of consumerism, or that a red and green sweater with wreaths and Christian cross patterns is a gift Jesus would give, but the Gospels suggest differently.

To Jesus, the act of giving requires a sacrifice. And it was something you do year-round. The Christmas holiday we celebrate was actually campaigned for by businesses to boost sales, much like Thanksgiving, Easter, Valentines Day and parent days. This may sound cynical, but you can't imagine any of those holidays without their connections to commerce. Each, in fact, has its own commercial symbol whether it be bunnies, cupids, turkeys or men in red suits.

This doesn't mean that charity isn't associated with Christmas. It's just that charity is an afterthought. For Jesus charity was first and foremost.

There are charitable gifts available. Oxfam allows you to give sustainable gifts to people in developing countries in the names of your friends and family members.

Redefining Christmas allows you to donate to friends' and family's favorite charities.

There's no guarantee the money will be spent completely as you want. For instance, giving to Samaritan's Purse for their sustainable as well as evangelical projects. But they also donate monies raised to undermining gay marriage rights. Would I give a present to my evangelical family through them even though I wouldn't even buy a chocolate peppermint Christmas shake from Chic-Fil-A? In a heartbeat. They still do good work. I can give an equal amount in support of same-sex marriage to another organization, and my evangelical family members would appreciate it far more than they would a gift through Oxfam.

Unfortunately, even special charitable gifts miss the point. Spending money you would have spent anyway requires no sacrifice, even if it is to a good cause.

I would like to be positive about this. The real truth, however, is that the Fifth Column forces of consumerism, sponsored in part by the Corporate Christian Complex, have too strong a grip. Our kids don't understand the gift of sacrifice. If they haven't received every disposable, breakable junk item on their list, they feel they were sacrificed to a higher principle. And too many friends do as well.

I would never tell you what you should do at Christmas. It is your holiday to celebrate as you choose. Even if you choose not to celebrate at all. But before we continue to escalate the war on Christmas, perhaps we should ask ourselves if the holiday has anything to do with Jesus at all.

So the real question, I suppose, is WWJD? And the surprising answer is probably that he wouldn't celebrate Christmas. His birthday, after all, was most likely in the spring and, as far as I can tell from the Gospels, he never celebrated when he was with us.

It isn’t generosity when it’s required

Once again I was prepared to discuss the Higgs-Boson particle, which is essential to the mystery of Jesus (at least according to some blogs). But then Ann Romney spoke up. In the wake of the controversy about her husband's falsifying records about his stint at Bain Capital, she said Mitt was one of the most generous men she knows. Her example? Mitt gives ten percent of their income to the Mormon Church.

First of all, let me explain to Republicans and members of the Christian right why Romney's record at Bain is so important in an election that will be primarily about the economy. First, he lied to the government about when he ran Bain. When you lie to the government, you are officially, on the record, lying to the American people who are the government.

What did he lie about? His economic record as CEO. This should send a warning flag when he says that he will do as President what he did as CEO.

It should also send a warning flag since he oversaw massive layoffs and outsourcing to maintain profitability. This is the clearest indicator of his economic policy's effects since his policy is pretty much to cut corporate taxes and let them create jobs elsewhere.

It's hard to be upset about the lying part since we already know the Christian right has pretty much struck that off the ten commandments to make room for their abortion plank.

But I'm interested in Ann Romney's claim that giving ten percent to your church is generous. Jesus pretty much said the opposite. Tithing is not an act of generosity, it's an article of faith. You aren't being generous until you give more than asked.

Romney may be generous (even though his employees might not feel that generosity). But it isn't for paying his bills to God.

My family had a hard time getting a handle on this, but I was raised Baptist Preacher's Kid (BPK) so it may have come with the territory. My family loved to ask us to be generous with each other, so much so that we twisted each other's arm until the spirit of generosity overwhelmed us.

It would begin simply and innocently. With a suggestion like, “Wouldn't it be nice if you…?” Innocent to people who don't speak Baptist (or Stephens). To those of us who speak the language, it meant “You will.”

Nor was a gift really a gift so much as an obligation in its own right. The master of obligatory gift giving was my grandmother, who wan't Baptist but a conservative Presbyterian raised in the heart of John Birch country in Ohio. My sisters and I learned to keep our gifts still wrapped in our closets so we could return them whenever she said, “How can you be this way when I gave you such a wonderful present.”

Perhaps the best example of this was the fifty dollar gift an uncle gave to a family in need who were also in his employ. He had just hired the dad, so he floated him fifty dollars to get by until the first pay day. We learned about this gift at the next family dinner when he complained that he spotted the family at Kentucky Fried Chicken that very evening. Even worse, when he saw his employee in the grocery store later in the week, he was buying beer.

That ungrateful lout. It seems my uncle expected his employee to spend the money on baloney sandwiches and milk because that's what poor people should eat to stay on budget.

I thought it might be useful to touch bases on a few tips that you might not be a generous as you think. From what I read in the Bible, you aren't being generous if:

  1. You have an obligation to give.
  2. You give but you don't want to.
  3. You give less than you tell people you do. (This actually got some people killed by the Holy Spirit.)
  4. You do it because someone twists your arm.
  5. You complain about it.
  6. You have to tell everyone how much you gave.
  7. You have to remind them constantly that you gave.
  8. You have a plaque with your name mounted on the gift.
  9. They have to wear it or put it on display whenever you're around or you make them feel guilty.
  10. You expect something back.
  11. You expect it to be used differently than the recipient wants it to be used.
  12. You claim it on your tax returns

By my calculation, Romney's tithes aren't really generous by counts 1, 6 and (most likely) 12. Oh, and, by the way, it isn't generous if you feel you're being generous. That's pride. (So maybe we should add 13 to 1, 6 and 12).

And my hyperactive dog Pearl tells me it isn't being generous to give your dog a ride on the roof so she can share your vacation.

I don't claim to be a generous person myself, by the way. Generosity is difficult by any measure. Grace allows us to slide when we fail to be generous, and we shouldn't jeopardize grace by proclaiming our generosity.

Would Jesus rent a homeless hotspot?

Austin’s South by Southwest Conference (SXSW) hosted one more innovative event this year: homeless people as wifi hotspots. New York advertising agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH) paid homeless people $20 a day to carry mobile wifi hotspots at festival venues. People could use the hotspots for wireless access for a small donation ($2 suggested).

Wow, what a horrible idea. Exploiting poor homeless people for advertising. Or so we should believe when we listen to the outrage over the idea, expressed mostly by conservatives, including FOX, over the rank hypocrisy (or worse). BBH wasn’t helping the homeless so much as taking advantage of them.

That’s right, the same people who want to get rid of the minimum wage are furious that homeless people were underpaid for offering a service that people would actually give them money for. After all, they would do so much better panhandling.

Critics say the gesture is little more than a callous attempt by a large corporation to appear socially aware. And what do these critics offer the homeless in exchange? Why, they can stay homeless. Marie Antionette at least was willing to give the poor cake. Basically they seem to advocate it’s better to help no one and not be a hypocrite about it than to help someone in need when you have something to gain.

That has to be the most cynical equation I can imagine. I prefer this (and I’ve written it before): It’s better to give for the wrong reasons than to not give for the right ones. Let’s face it, I can’t imagine a blind person asking Jesus for healing only if his heart was in it.

I might say that to my mother or Carol, yes. But family dynamics aren’t an issue in this scenario.

Where are the Christians asking WWJD about homeless hotspots? I suspect Jesus would ask, “What you have done for the homeless recently?” Consider this: People attending SXSW probably needed wireless connections to check in with home and office. After all, a cell phone call will no longer do since they show you are backward on technology. I’m not willing to wander around SXSW with a mobile router. If a homeless person feels it’s worth his or her time to accept donations providing the hotspot, everybody wins.

Would Jesus respect the Qur’an?

Do unto others as you would have them do means acting as they believe, not as we do. Far too often Christians, consciously or not, act out from our own values, even though we would be disturbed should others treat us according to their beliefs. We never stop to consider that Jesus’ command means we should apply others’ values as the basis for our actions toward them.

How would we feel if someone burned our Bible? Many would be (and have been) outraged. When I was raised Baptist Preacher’s Kid (BPK) I sat through many sermons on Bible burning and religious persecution in the Middle East and the Soviet Bloc. Our family donated money to ministers to smuggle Bibles into the Soviet Union. Yet, when Afghans express outrage over NATO’s accidental burning of the Qur’an, many Christians respond with indignation.

We assume no responsibility since we don’t accept the Qur’an as a holy book. This attitude suggests a major disconnect. The Qur’an may not be our scripture, but it is scripture for the Moslems—a scripture based very much on stories in our own Old Testament and written to inspire reverence for our God. Allah is the Jewish God as well, whether we want to deny it or not, and, by extension, the God Christians revere as well.

Moslems may view God in a different light than we do, but we view God in a different light than Jews. To say that Moslems appropriated our God to fashion their own worship is to overlook the fact that Christians appropriated the Jewish God.

Christians are people of faith, Jews are people of faith and Moslems are people of faith. We would be incensed—or should I say, many Christians are incensed—when people of other faiths don’t place our faith on equal (if not higher ground) than theirs. In other words, we demand respect for our beliefs and expect others to step aside when the exercise of our faith inconveniences, or even offends them.

This, then, is one of the implications of the golden rule. We should treat the beliefs of others with the same respect we ask them to treat ours. In fact, since Jesus also said we should go the extra mile, we should be more tolerant of other faiths than we ask them to be of our own.

We know the apostle Paul would not have eaten pork or non-kosher wine in the presence of Jews or Christians who practiced kosher law, even if he didn’t follow kosher practices. I think it is safe to assume he wouldn’t have served alcohol or pork to Moslems (had there been any at the time).

If US or NATO troops burn the scriptures of a country our troops occupy, even if we do so inadvertently, we owe more than an apology. The White House and State Department should be consulting with Imams and Islamic scholars as to the proper way to make restitution to the people of Afghanistan for the disregard we showed to scriptures placed under our care.

We shouldn’t protest that they have killed our troops in retaliation, and believe that gives us the moral high ground. That they did so is criminal and the offenders should be prosecuted under Afghani law. But these offenders aren’t our responsibility. Our responsibility is to make whatever amends Islamic culture would request of us.

If they choose not to accept those amends, we are, as Christians, still compelled to forgive them. Whether we want to forgive them or not.