It’s not the gauntlet so much as how you throw it

Father Krysztof Charamsa caused quite a stir when he announced he was gay on the eve of the Synod of Bishops, which was scheduled to address Catholic family issues. His announcement came at the tail end of a whirlwind of bad publicity unleashed across the world after American Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò hijacked a papal reception, claiming Pope Francis met personally to support same sex marriage opponent Kim Davis.

If anyone expected Charamsa to survive his announcement unscathed, least of all Charamsa, they doubtless broke into the Vatican wine cellar and polished off most of the reserves.

I’m not saying Charamsa should never have come out, but I do question his timing, and I question the theater behind his announcement. Pope Francis was still recovering from an embarrassing broadside by the right wing of his administration. He didn’t need a bigger broadside from the left. Nor do I think Charamsa really considered the fallout from his announcement.

Charamsa announced three things to the world:

  1. He announced he is gay. This alone would be enough to bring the conference under the same sex radar just after the Pope’s visit to America did the same. Same sex advocates scored a moral victory when Davis and Viganò’s backhanded scheme blew up in their faces. My personal opinion is that waiting a few months to come out might have shown more grace and brought more momentum to the movement, but I certainly think I would have stopped with the outing. For Charamsa that wasn’t enough.
  2. He announced that he was sexually active with one of his parishioners while practicing his priesthood. This admission took the affair (pun intended) to a new dimension. Charamsa’s declaration abandoned any question of identity. Few church scholars would deny it bordered on impropriety if not outright immorality. Not for the sexual activity, but because a priest should not exercise such influence over a parishioner. Even worse, Charamsa shows no signs of penitence. Instead,
  3. He intends to surrender his vows and take up residence with his lover. No doubt, intending to migrate to America and marry (although this is unspoken). If that doesn’t provide the conservative wing of the Pope’s administration with the ammunition they need to dismantle any momentum same-sex advocates might have gained, I can’t imagine what would.

As an American, I welcome them to our country. I wish them all the happiness in the world. But as a Christian I feel that Charamsa crossed several moral boundaries his lack of remorse renders him unsuitable for the priesthood.

American Christians recognize this moral crossroad every day. As citizens we have liberties we don’t enjoy as Christians. The Christian Right believes our repsonsibility is to deny every American the right to make those choices. But that is the opposite of the exercise of faith. Our responsibility is to make choices that we allow others to make differently. In fact, we should rejoice that others can make different choices that we do.

As to the belief that God is against same sex marriage, well God changes is mind all the time. Read your Bibles. How many times does it say in the Bible that God repented of his decisions? You don’t know? Look it up.

It’s easy to say that God stopped writing the Bible so he obvioulsy has nothing new to say, but I find that answer facetious. I think the Bible stopped being written because we stopped listening.

I think Charamsa stopped listening too. I think he listened too much to his heart and too little to God. Not about being Gay. Not about loving this man he loves. But about choosing to orchestrate this particular moment to come into the light in so dramatic a way when God could have been better served in penitence and good faith.

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If it’s textbook, it must be wrong

It used to be that people respected textbooks. We referred to “textbook examples” as the ones that were the most reliable. If someone was skeptical of something we said, we could tell them to look it up in the textbook.

But not in Texas. In Texas, the Textbook must be wrong, and we can thank Jesus for that. Or at least Texas Jesus.

Texas Jesus is a different breed of Jesus than the Jesus I read about in my Bible. Texas Jesus believes that if people don't do what you want, bully them into submission. Rick Perry preaches his message when he turned away federal health care dollars and vetoed an equal pay bill. The Texas Board of Education preaches this message when they use their purchasing clout to dictate science.

It's a familiar story, but in this round of textbook adoptions the Texas Board of Education assigned creationists to the textbook review process. If the books don't score high enough, schools don't adopt them in Texas. If they don't adopt them in Texas, they don't get adopted. So publishers are forced to concede to some dubious content changes, including:

  • No transitional fossils have ever been discovered (sure, we would always like more, but none?)
  • No evidence that the fossil record implies evolution occurred.
  • No evidence that climate change has affected the environment.

True Texas science (courtesy of allposters.com)

For all of their complaints about being abused and maligned, the religious right, especially those in my home state, are an especially arrogant lot. They suffer under the delusion that society must cater to them and they should dictate what others are taught to believe.

The Christian Right constantly whines that it isn't the government's responsibility to feed the poor, or regulate health care, but they seem to believe it's the government's responsibility to make sure children are taught the world according to Jesus. That is the world according to Texas Jesus.

There is an essential arrogance in the Christian Right that was lacking in the real Jesus or the original Christians. It never occurred to Christians that the government would be responsible for teaching the faith to their children. That was their responsibility. The government was the enemy and the world was hostile to them. It was only when they seized control of empire that their attitudes changed.

In Texas Christians control the empire, hence our lack of humility. But to lose our humility is to lose an essential element of our Christianity. The government isn't responsible for teaching our children or making our textbooks Jesus friendly. The Bible says God appoints government for the care of everyone. That includes those who don't believe. So get over it, and teach your kids the right way yourself.

 

Under siege or seeking attention?

In 2006, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council swore to Chris Matthews that eighty percent of evangelicals agree that religion in this country, in particular, Christianity, is under attack. He was citing a 2005 Defamation League poll, and, to be honest, these results are about the most skewed in that direction I recall seeing. But it's a sentiment I hear over and over again.

It goes hand in hand with the rabid anti-American rhetoric that accompanied the Tea Party coup that shut the government down for more than two weeks. And it was an anti-American coup. So let's be honest about the pictire being painted here: Christians in America, not all Christians, but a select handful, are a remnant of the faithful standing guard against a corrupt society hurling every possible abuse and temptation and they alone will be found worthy at the end of time.

This is, to be honest, a sentiment right out of the book of Revelations, a view that the righteous were a select few who earned their way to salvation by remaining pure through trials and tribulations that others are too weak to withstand. A view rejected by many Christians as running counter to the message of grace that dominates the Gospels and Paul's letters. A view that was one of the main reasons the Eastern Orthodox churches wanted Revelation to be kept out of the New Testament Canon.

It is also a view that persists in spite of the fact that Christians in America, even Evangelicals, have it better than Christians any where in the world. Considering the physical attacks on Christians in Egypt and Syria, I would think American Christians, especially evangelicals, would be publicly praising God for the liberty to worship, pray and preach in public.

Yet we still read outrageous claims such as: Christianity in America is coming under attack like never before. While Islam and other religions get a free pass, it’s open season on the Judeo-Christian faith, or Christianity is under attack by this administration. Not religion, but just a particular brand of religion. If you're Muslim you get special consideration. But not if you are Christian.

In the post Christians under siege Dr. James White made the more reasonable statement that, “The developing fear is that government will make people choose between obeying the law and following their faith.” Unfortunately, in almost every example I've ever explored, that choice has been a misunderstanding of what the government is asking, or, more often, a misunderstanding of what Jesus demands of believers.

Most often evangelicals assume religious liberty means their right to practice lazy faith. They believe they should never be asked to be required to deal with people who disagree with them, inconvenience their own beliefs, cater to the beliefs of others, or even practice the rigors of their own faith. Their concept of religious freedom is their right to practice Christianity in a vacuum in which their communities, schools, businesses and airwaves support their beliefs and never give them reason to be aware that others believe differently.

In other words, they want America to be like the one they think existed in a past that never was, when there were no Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists or free thinkers.

White offered four examples where Christians were asked by government to violate the principles of their faith (all having to do with same sex couples). He doesn’t explore them in detail, but I think we should:

  • Catholic Charities in Illinois shut down its adoption services rather than place children with same-sex couples (as the state required).
  • A Christian counselor was penalized for refusing to advise gay couples.
  • A court clerk in New York was told to issue same-sex marriage licenses, despite religious reservations.
  • A wedding photographer was sued for refusing to shoot a same-sex wedding.

Let’s start with a principle outlined in Matthew 20:1-6. I'm not going to cite it, you should know it (or you can look it up). Basically, A vineyard hires workers to work the fields for the afternoon for ten dollars (let’s say they're migrants). An hour later he hires more for ten dollars, an hour later still more for the same rate and with an hour to go still more for the same rate. The workers who work longer think they'll get a bump, but Jesus says they should be willing to accept the work they agreed to.

This isn't just a principle of Christianity, it's contract law. Speaking of contract law, in the sermon on the mount, Jesus says, if any man will sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well. So it sounds like Jesus expects you to fulfill your contracts as a given. So with this in mind let's look at White's examples.

If Catholic Charities contracted with the state to handle their adoption services, they knew in advance they would be expected to meet all requirements, including new requirements. Since the law changes all the time they had to know they would sooner or later be expected to adopt to same-sex couples. If they could no longer fulfill this requirement, this is not the government's fault. It can hardly be an attack on religion.

But I have to ask why they drew the line at same sex couples. Doesn’t the church disapprove equally of divorce and abortion? Does Catholic Charities adopt to couples who were previously divorced or mothers who had abortions?

Similarly, if a Christian is interviewing for a job as a counselor, he is responsible for finding out if his employer expects him to counsel gay couples not the other way around. The employer does not work for him. If the employer makes it a condition of employment, then he should turn down the job. And before you argue Christian persecution, homosexuality is just as abhorrent to Islam and Judaism, so counselors from those faiths face the same concerns. The same goes for court clerks.

If a wedding photographer is sued for not photographing a same-sex wedding, the Christian thing to do, according to Matthew is to pay. On the other hand, I don't see this as a religious freedom issue. I don't see the court siding with the plaintiff in this case. Unless the photographer took their money and then refused to take the photos. And then the issue has nothing to do with religious freedom. It's theft, pure and simple.

Let’s think this through. Can't have a Christmas tree in your town square? That's sad. In Austin, we can. But you know what, we can all have one in our homes. And we can carry our bibles any where we want, and read them in the open. And we can talk about them anywhere. I have never been thrown out of anyplace but a library for talking publicly about the bible with others (not preaching, but having a conversation). And no one has ever arrested me for praying silently in public, or saying, “Praise The Lord.”

Come to think about it, even non believers say, “Jesus Christ,” out loud in public and they have never been arrested.

You can drive around with bumpers stickers about Jesus on your car. Even really obnoxious ones. And I've seen plenty. You can tell people you're a Christian without going to jail. You can argue with your college professor about Jesus without consequence (even if you're convinced she'll fail you). You can petition your city council about public prayer without being sent to prison. You can march on Washington, you can challenge politicians, you can even call the President a tool of Satan without retaliation.

So if you are a Christian in America, and you get that feeling that you're being persecuted, try something with me. Say, “Thank you, Jesus, that I get to be in America, where we have more religious freedom than anywhere else.”

And quit your whining.

 

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.

 

Health and government for none. Apocalypse for all.

The Tea Party success in shutting down the government is about as far from a victory for Christ as I can imagine.

They have been very good about not dragging Jesus into this debate the way they drag him into everything else, which is ironic. After all Jesus sent his disciples out into the world to heal (read Mark 6) and the Tea Party wants to take a bill away which was designed to provide the health care Jesus wanted people to have.

Do we see these Christians trying to get that health care to the people who would lose it? No more than Rick Perry and his ilk tried to find health care for all those who will be losing it when he closes down every clinic in Texas.

But they want more than that. They want to shut government down completely and this got them what they wanted. Michelle Bachmann even came out an admitted as much the day after the shut down.

The Tea Party is closely tied to the Christian Right who loves apocalypse. The Late Great Planet Earth is usually treated as the Third Testament. The shut down plays into their wildest fantasies. This could even trigger the Rapture. Their rapture over the shut down is undeniable.

Masada, a symbol of the devastation from an intransigent political party

Of course there is a distinct danger to playing out these end game scenarios, especially with so much brinksmanship at stake. The Jews learned this lesson when they took on Nero and his general Titus. The Radical Jews decided they had too much taxation too and decided to shut down the Imperial presence in Jerusalem.

And they brought the government crashing down too. Their own. The Romans ended any semblance of Israel’s home rule, destroyed the temple and the last illusion of Jewish autonomy. But they had their moral victory, and the Tea Party will have theirs.

Unfortunately, Jesus' kingdom is not about victories, moral or otherwise. It's about service. And healing. And the Tea Party is offering neither.

 

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.