Saturday, October 17, 2020

Guest post: Rich Lewis

I'm honored to share a guest post from Rich Lewis, from the blog Silence Teaches Us Who We Are.  Rich is the author of Sitting with God: A Journey to Your True Self through Centering Prayer published by Anamchara.  This post contains excerpts from Rich's book:

Quaker Silence 

In March of 2014, I experienced a Quaker silent service. The church I attended traced its roots to 1699, though the meeting house where I sat in was built in 1823. The service had no minister. I sat in silence for an hour with one hundred others in a simple room with only benches, windows, and wood floors. 

On three occasions, individuals shared a thought. Then back to silence. I heard the rain gently pummel the windows. I heard human sounds: coughing, sniffing, breathing. I heard the wind blow and wood floors creak. I heard my thoughts. Sometimes I had no thoughts, just the spaces between thoughts. The room became a container filled with peace, love, community. 

When we are silent we are naked before God. We empty our mind of its thoughts and emotions. We let God’s gaze shine directly on us. I do this as part of my daily centering prayer practice but had never done it with a group this large. 

At the end of the service, we prayed for each other. We greeted each other and passed the peace. We are meant to experience silence in community with our God. George Fox, the founder of the Quakers, often exclaimed that the most powerful kind of worship is silent worship or what Quakers sometimes call “waiting worship.” 

Because we live and move and have our being in God, whether we realize it or not, we constantly pray (Acts 17:28). I had heard that life is a prayer, but I did not understand how this could be true. Now I understand that I live in God. I am always connected to God. I cannot disconnect, even if I try. God’s presence always remains. Only my own awareness of God’s presence comes and goes, depending on the quality of my contemplation.

Be Open to New Experiences of the Divine 

Richard Rohr wrote that, “Prayer is not about changing God, but being willing to let God change us.” God is not a genie that grants wishes. I need to rethink how I approach God. I need to let go of my desires, dreams, and wishes—and instead, be open to the desires, dreams, and wishes that God has for me. 

In May of 2015, I visited the Won Buddhism Center of Philadelphia. Before I entered the temple area, we removed our shoes. I liked this idea. The first thing I do when I enter my home is take off my shoes. It makes me feel comfortable, relaxes me. Doing this at the Buddhist center, I felt at home. 

We began the service with a five-minute chant. I had never chanted for five minutes straight. It seemed like it would be an eternity. Yet before I knew it, we were done. 

From the chant, we moved to a twenty-five-minute silent meditation. I knew that this would not be difficult. When I practice centering prayer, I do so with my eyes closed. The silent practice that I was asked to participate in was with my eyes open, looking down the bridge of my nose. Similar to centering prayer, we were told to let go of all thoughts. We were told to ignore any itches. Let them pass. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I was easily able to meditate with eyes open. The time passed quickly. 

We moved from silent meditation to walking meditation, something I had never done. Fifteen of us formed a circle fifteen feet in diameter. We walked slowly in a circle, our pace extremely slow. I estimate the movement from when I placed my left heel down and rolled it until my toes finally touched the ground was three to five seconds before I performed the same action with my right foot. It took some time to adjust to this snail’s pace. I needed to focus to maintain balance. Within a few minutes, however, I felt comfortable with the pace and began to enjoy it. Like the sacred word in centering prayer, each step I took during walking meditation was an opening to God. We walked one full circle. I do not know how long it took. It was a wonderful experience. I lost track of time and was at peace. I entered the spaces between my thoughts. I was in the Presence. 

The Buddhist temple experience taught me that contemplative prayer, the pure presence of God, can be found in chanting, silent meditation, and walking. God is everywhere. God waits for us to meet Him in the practice that best suits us. I am certain there are many other forms of contemplative prayer that I can practice, where I will also meet the pure Presence of God.

Rich Lewis

Silence Teaches

Silence teaches us who we are. 

When you subscribe to my web site you will receive my Free Centering Prayer ebook. 

 Sitting with God: A Journey to Your True Self through Centering Prayer published by Anamchara Books is now available!

Saturday, October 03, 2020

 If I still thought along the lines that I did when I was a fundamentalist charismatic Christian I could easily conclude that God was sending judgment upon Donald Trump and the Republican party, except if I actually were a fundamentalist charismatic Christian I would not be able to separate Trump and Republicanism from God's favor, so I would have to instead conclude that it was an attack from Satan.  In other words, whether something was interpreted as being from God or from Satan was very much a matter of personal bias.

Friday, October 02, 2020

 My theological beliefs are such that I don't believe God controls viruses or changes outcomes if lobbied by enough people.  I do believe that God (for lack of a better term) is constantly "nudging" all of us toward goodness, and it is up to us to position ourselves to be able to discern those nudges and respond.  So my prayer for Donald Trump is that this experience (of contracting coronavirus) helps him to become more empathetic and circumspect.

Saturday, September 26, 2020

 I remember in 2008 when Republicans began attempting to smear Barack Obama, and ruin his chances of becoming the Democratic nominee, by attacking his faith. Specifically, they went after Obama's association with the fiery pastor Jeremiah Wright of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, and the teachings of Liberation Theology. The media jumped on board, fanning the flames of controversy. Lots of misinformation was thrown around.

I hope the same thing doesn't occur with Amy Coney Barrett, Trump's presumptive Supreme Court nominee. Yes, she apparently is a long-standing member of a somewhat fringe ecumenical charismatic Catholic group called People of Praise. They are a lay community within the Catholic fold. Like many other Catholic lay communities, they seem to have an orientation toward social justice. They are an intentional community--including communal living for some members--with some internal practices that look remarkably similar to socialism. They follow the teachings of Ignatius of Loyola in practicing discernment. Like several other charismatic Christian groups that started up in the late 60's and the 70's and 80's, they are internally hierarchical and practice a form of "shepherding," in which members submit to more senior members for direction in their lives. Although they are non-partisan, they are conservative on matters such as abortion, a wife's submission to her husband, and limiting women's authority within the church (in other words, they're in step with the official positions of the Catholic Church).

They are not a cult. Personally, People of Praise is not a group I would want to belong to. I have experienced first hand, over the course of many years, how damaging charismatic Christian groups like this can be. But at the same time, I think we have to respect a person's religious choices (including the choice of no religion).

So, as much as I don't want Republicans to confirm a Supreme Court Justice mere weeks before the election, I really hope Democrats don't take the bait on this one. By all means challenge her positions, her public statements, her legal and constitutional views. But leave her faith out of it.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

"Abortion" is a word that can make some Christians vote contrary to everything Jesus talked about, because of something he never talked about.



Friday, August 28, 2020

The prurient scandal surrounding the Falwells causes me to reflect back on the 25+ years I was a fundamentalist evangelical charismatic Christian. 
The culture of fundamentalist Christianity inculcates in its adherents that those in authority (pastors, televangelists, self-proclaimed prophets, etc.) are not to be challenged or scrutinized, lest one be branded as rebellious and ostracized from the church community or be guilty of attacking "God's anointed" and incur the wrath of the Almighty. I was once called a "son of Absalom" for questioning a pastor's authority (Absalom was David's son who committed rebellion against the king and was summarily executed for it). A common epithet applied to a woman who questions authority in the church is that she has a "Jezebel spirit" (named after the wicked biblical queen who worshipped pagan gods and suffered a gruesome death). 
This authoritarian culture within the fundamentalist Christian world results in a serious lack of accountability among its leaders. And then when a leader's transgression does come to light--be it financial or sexual or whatever--the response is "let he who is without sin cast the first stone." In other words, a demand for grace cheapened to the point of worthlessness is called for (unless the fallen one is a women and the matter is sexual, in which case she will never be allowed to forget or rise above her transgression). 
The end result is that the fundamentalist evangelical Christian world is riddled with sin and scandal and cons and scams perpetrated by leaders, and the "flock" gets fleeced over and over again. I've seen it with my own eyes so many times...

Sunday, August 23, 2020

In my faith journey, I've come to the place where I consider myself a follower of Jesus but not a Christian, a Buddhist who eschews ritual along with speculative ideas like reincarnation, a lapsed Quaker who is wary of faith community, an agnostic because I consider it the most honest position, someone who understands and respects and in some ways embraces atheism, a person with a Master's degree in Religion who can say without irony that I'm spiritual but not religious, someone who finds he no longer fits into the categories and silos and sects. This is sometimes liberating and sometimes disconcerting, but it's my journey and I'm happy with it.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

This morning I find myself pondering what's happened here in the U.S. over the last four years. The presidency of Donald Trump is not the thing I find most disturbing (and when I say "disturbing" I really mean "horrifying"); he is an anomaly; a political and sociological and statistical quirk; a polyp in the long intestine of history.

Sure Trump is an awful person, stunted in empathy, morality and intellect, but he would have remained a ne'er do well reality television personality if not for the people who enabled him. And this is the part that truly horrifies me: that politicians and bureaucrats promoted him and swore fealty to him, and carried out his toxic policies, and defended his indefensible actions; that federal law enforcement agents--average men and women--put children in cages, and tried to turn back people arriving on flights from countries that Trump had suddenly and capriciously banned with the stroke of a pen, and brutally attacked U.S. citizens peacefully protesting in U.S. cities (even violently clearing the streets of the U.S. capital so that Trump could have a photo opportunity in front of a church he doesn't attend holding a bible he doesn't understand).

When Trump is gone, his appointees that can be sacked will be sacked, his policies gradually reversed, his behavior scrutinized under legal microscopes for years to come so that he will spend the remainder of his life fighting to stay out of prison. Trust will slowly be rebuilt with our allies around the world. Loopholes will be closed and new laws will be enacted to prevent in future some of the most egregious acts perpetrated by Trump and his administration. His former cronies and sycophants and enablers will write books attempting to exonerate themselves, or become Fox News hosts, or fade into quiet obscurity.

But what will remain will be neighbors and friends and family members who accepted Trump's rank racism and misogyny and xenophobia and corruption. The revelation won't soon fade that an expedient moral equivalency lurked under the skin; a willingness to turn a blind eye to egregious acts and rhetoric and attitudes; a pharisaical moral brittleness that missed the teachings of Jesus by miles; a tribal willingness to welcome authoritarian violence.

Those are the things that are going to haunt me for a long time.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

When I was a conservative Evangelical Christian, I went along with the party line (on any number of issues) because I was constantly given a very warped picture of the world. It was inculcated in me that the "other"--be they liberals or Democrats or academic intellectuals or people from other cultures or people who practiced different religions or people who were in other ways different--were hopelessly (and Satanically) misguided at best, and intentionally nefarious at worst. Thus, there was a constant undercurrent of fear and paranoia and defensiveness about living in the world surrounded by those misguided and/or wicked liberals and Democrats and gays and professors and abortionists and Muslims and Buddhists and Mormons and Wiccans and foreigners and feminists and scientists and secular humanists, etc., etc. I recall being in a Christian rock band and we sang a song with a chorus that went "Foolish hearts, blackened foolish hearts, are destined to die." Yikes. 
In our fundamentalist culture, the wagons were always circled, the walls up, the basic orientation always exclusionary (while we simultaneously spoke and sang about how Jesus loves everyone--except, I guess, for those foolish blackened hearts destined to die, which meant pretty much everyone who didn't believe as we did). The solution was to get everyone to believe the way we believed or, failing that, to at least get them to behave the way we thought they should behave. That was the criteria of any outreach (I recall, a few years ago, I mentioned on Facebook that I was going to go hear a Muslim Imam give a speech at a church on the topic of Muslim-Christian interfaith dialogue, and an old friend from my fundamentalist days responded by asking if I was going in order to try to convert the Imam, and if I wasn't going to attempt to convert him then I had no business going). 
The thing we were conditioned to fear most was openness and inclusivity. Acceptance of "the other" (without an agenda to convert them) and learning to listen to and understand and appreciate the viewpoints and experiences of "the other" was considered a dangerous proposition because doing so would weaken the walls of our fundamentalist ghetto and dilute our scrupulous doctrinal purity. We had to be vigilant about not allowing "sin in the camp." The senior pastor of a megachurch I attended for several years referred to seminary (in other words, rigorous theological education) as "cemetery" because he believed that learning too much would kill our fundamentalist faith. That is a pretty typical viewpoint in the fundamentalist Christian world, and it chillingly echoes Orwell's totalitarian slogan in his book 1984, "Ignorance is Strength."
The prioritization of purity and separateness eclipsed empathy and compassion. But we couldn't see that (which, I now suspect, is why Jesus called the Pharisees "blind").
I've been out of that conservative, fundamentalist, Evangelical Christian bubble for a number of years now, but current events cause me to reflect: If I were still ensconced in that environment, I imagine would probably be a Fox News and conservative talk radio devotee. I would, quite possibly, support Donald Trump (in part out of hope that he would appoint conservative Supreme Court justices who could impose the lifestyle choices I believed to be correct upon the general populace). I would more readily imbibe conspiracy theories and the sketchy claims of prosperity preachers and self-proclaimed prophets. I would tend toward insular protectionist/isolationist ideologies and policies. I would see the larger world as filled with scary ideas and scary people intent on destroying my godly and "right" little world--a world in which the lines were clear and the explanations were simple.
A couple of years ago my wife and I were back in Arvada, Colorado--the place where we both had once belonged to that fundamentalist Christian megachurch. We were doing a little shopping in the neat little "old town" area, and we came upon a store selling Buddhist, Hindu and "metaphysical" goods. We went inside and had an enjoyable browse. The proprietor behind the cash register, it turned out, was a recent immigrant from Tibet, and thus a Buddhist. We had a lovely chat, including some talk about spiritual things. But the thought never crossed our minds to try to convert him, nor--apparently--he to convert us. It was genuinely interesting to hear his perspective and he appeared equally interested to hear ours. As we left the store, my wife remarked to me, "You know, for so many years, I would have been afraid to go into a store like that or to have an agenda-free conversation with a person like that. It's nice to be free."

Thursday, December 05, 2019

"Practicing silence to empty all kinds of noise within you is not a difficult practice. With some training, you can do it. In noble silence, you can walk, you can sit, you can enjoy your meal. When you have that kind of silence, you have enough freedom to enjoy being alive and to appreciate all the wonders of life. With that kind of silence you are more capable of healing yourself, mentally and physically. You have the capacity to be, to be there, alive. Because you really are free - free from your regrets and suffering concerning the past, free from your fear and uncertainty about the future, free from all kinds of mental chatter. Being silent in this way when you are alone is good, and being silent in this way together is particularly dynamic and healing."

- Thich Nhat Hanh, in “Silence”

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

"Stupidity is a more dangerous enemy of the good than malice. One may protest against evil; it can be exposed and, if need be, prevented by use of force. Evil always carries within itself the germ of its own subversion in that it leaves behind in human beings at least a sense of unease. Against stupidity we are defenseless. Neither protests nor the use of force accomplish anything here; reasons fall on deaf ears; facts that contradict one’s prejudgment simply need not be believed- in such moments the stupid person even becomes critical – and when facts are irrefutable they are just pushed aside as inconsequential, as incidental. In all this the stupid person, in contrast to the malicious one, is utterly self-satisfied and, being easily irritated, becomes dangerous by going on the attack. For that reason, greater caution is called for than with a malicious one. Never again will we try to persuade the stupid person with reasons, for it is senseless and dangerous.

If we want to know how to get the better of stupidity, we must seek to understand its nature. This much is certain, that it is in essence not an intellectual defect but a human one. There are human beings who are of remarkably agile intellect yet stupid, and others who are intellectually quite dull yet anything but stupid. We discover this to our surprise in particular situations. The impression one gains is not so much that stupidity is a congenital defect, but that, under certain circumstances, people are made stupid or that they allow this to happen to them. We note further that people who have isolated themselves from others or who live in solitude manifest this defect less frequently than individuals or groups of people inclined or condemned to sociability. And so it would seem that stupidity is perhaps less a psychological than a sociological problem. It is a particular form of the impact of historical circumstances on human beings, a psychological concomitant of certain external conditions. Upon closer observation, it becomes apparent that every strong upsurge of power in the public sphere, be it of a political or of a religious nature, infects a large part of humankind with stupidity. It would even seem that this is virtually a sociological-psychological law. The power of the one needs the stupidity of the other.The process at work here is not that particular human capacities, for instance, the intellect, suddenly atrophy or fail. Instead, it seems that under the overwhelming impact of rising power, humans are deprived of their inner independence, and, more or less consciously, give up establishing an autonomous position toward the emerging circumstances. The fact that the stupid person is often stubborn must not blind us to the fact that he is not independent. In conversation with him, one virtually feels that one is dealing not at all with a person, but with slogans, catchwords and the like that have taken possession of him. He is under a spell, blinded, misused, and abused in his very being. Having thus become a mindless tool, the stupid person will also be capable of any evil and at the same time incapable of seeing that it is evil. This is where the danger of diabolical misuse lurks, for it is this that can once and for all destroy human beings."

-Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from ‘On Stupidity’ (Letters and Papers from Prison)

Wednesday, November 06, 2019

One of the things I loved most about attending Quaker churches--including ones that had pastors--was that plenty of space was made for anyone to speak.  The hope was that those who spoke had done some personal due diligence of discernment so that they weren't just expressing their own thoughts but were relaying something they had received from Spirit.  Things didn't always work out that way, but there was plenty of grace and patience extended.

I recall one Sunday morning when a dear woman from a Charismatic Christian background stood in the midst of a Quaker meeting and began excited recounting a story about a miracle: a person who's amputated arm grew back, while up on stage at a Pentecostal revival meeting in Africa.  The woman at our meeting recounted the story with great passion, almost as if she had been there and seen it herself.  But she hadn't been there and didn't see it.  The story came to her from a well-known evangelist who's local revival meeting she had recently attended.  The evangelist had likely heard the story from someone else, who likely heard it from someone else.  The tale was likely embellished along the way.  Who knows what actually, originally occurred (or even if there was an original, actual occurrance).  But our dear Friend was excitedly telling us the tale, as if she had seen it herself.

This is an example of what has been labeled as "Anecdotal Christianity."  Anecdotes are passed around and accepted with little scrutiny.  To question, to critique, to ask for proof or compelling evidence is looked upon as having a lack of faith.

This anecdotalism is particularly prevalent in the Charismatic and Pentecostal sectors of Christianity.  As a result, wild claims are made and then swallowed whole and then later regurgitated and spread around.  Skilled tellers of tall tales (aka bullshit artists) can draw crowds and build ministries for themselves.  Doubters tend to keep their doubts to themselves, not wanting to suffer ostracization for having "little faith."

These anecdotes aren't just tales of amazing, physics-defying miracles (always occurring somewhere far off where cell phone videos aren't yet available).  They also often spill over into urban legends, political rumors and conspiracy theories.

I've often wondered why (based on my experience of 25+ years in that subculture) Charismatic/Pentecostal Christians seem to be so prone to imbibing and repeating tall tales and outlandish conspiracy theories.  Did these folks become Charismatic/Pentecostal because of their susceptibility to uncritically believe anecdotes?  Or did their tendency to uncritically believe anecdotes develop as a result of being in a Charismatic/Pentecostal form of Christianity?  Or is the correlation merely a product of my own perception?  I don't know, but please don't ostracize me for asking.

Saturday, October 05, 2019

One of the great enigmas of history is that of how a population turns en masse to evil. For example, how did the Germans--an educated, religious, cosmopolitan society--fall into the thrall of Hitler's Nazi party and commit horrific atrocities that will forever be a stain on their nation? Reading accounts of individuals (Jewish and gentile alike) during the rise of the Third Reich during the early 1930's, a common refrain is that of complacency: people thought things would soon return to normal; it wasn't all that bad; a brutal fascist system couldn't happen here. A similar refrain--"it can't happen here"-- echoes in subsequent decades in Poland and various eastern European nations, in China, in Chile, in Argentina, in Bosnia/Herzegovina, in Rwanda, etc., etc. Relatively stable societies rapidly went off the rails into authoritarianism and brutality. There were always a few bellwether voices of warning, but the Cassandras were too often ignored.

I've studied enough history to be horrified at what I'm seeing here in the U.S. The latent tribalism that resides in all human groupings is boiling over. People, especially those who proclaim most stridently to represent morality, seem to have lost their moral compass. As the prophet Isaiah complained, they "call evil good, and good evil; and put darkness for light, and light for darkness; and put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!" Power acquired (dubiously) must now be held on to at any cost. If that requires jettisoning one's own ethics, so be it.

It looks to me like we are quickly coming to a "tipping point" moment in the U.S., as the Trump administration's corruption becomes blatant and they respond with scorched earth antipathy against the rule of law. Will our better angels prevail and pull us back from the brink? The used-car-salesman-of-a-mega-church-pastor Robert Jeffress proclaimed on Fox & Friends this week that if Trump is removed from office "it will cause a civil-war-like fracture in this nation, from which this country will never heal." Why? Why this conclusion, unless one is unwilling to look at the facts of Trump's utter unfitness for the office? And why would one be so intent on looking the other way as norms of democracy and decency are trashed by the current occupant of the White House? Is protecting the hold on power of a zombified Republican/conservative tribe really worth it? Is there a better way forward, pointed toward by men like Mitt Romney and Jeff Flake and the late John McCain? Or will their voices be drowned out, and the descent into realizing Jeffress's bleak prophecy be made certain?

Sunday, September 22, 2019

After having spent 35 years in religious circles (mostly Evangelical Christian, but also in recent years Buddhist and non-Evangelical Christian) and after having earned a Master's degree in Religion, studied and read and researched extensively, I've ultimately concluded that the most honest form of religious belief is agnosticism: to humbly say, "I don't know." Agnosticism doesn't require letting go of beliefs but it does mean holding those beliefs loosely, knowing they are merely beliefs--not facts; being cognizent about what is actual and what is speculative. A danger I've observed in nearly every religion is the tendency to treat beliefs as facts. From that error flows a tremendous amount of foolishness and harm.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

There is an archaic word that is being resurrected of late: apostasy.  Apostasy means to abandon one's beliefs (religious or political or, in the case of U.S. evangelicals, both).

A few weeks ago, Josh Harris, who was a darling of the evangelical world in the late 90's due to his best-selling book "I Kissed Dating Goodbye" (which promulgated "biblical" sexual purity standards) and who went on to become a pastor, announced that he no longer considers himself a Christian (he also disavowed the things he taught in his books, apologized to the LGBTQ community and separated from his wife).  "I have undergone a massive shift in regard to my faith in Jesus," wrote Harris. "The popular phrase for this is 'deconstruction,' the biblical phrase is 'falling away.' By all the measurements that I have for defining a Christian, I am not a Christian. Many people tell me that there is a different way to practice faith and I want to remain open to this, but I’m not there now."

This week a new kerfuffle has emerged as Marty Sampson, a worship leader and songwriter in the powerful Hillsong evangelical movement, mused on Instagram, "I’m genuinely losing my faith, and it doesn’t bother me. Like, what bothers me now is nothing. I am so happy now, so at peace with the world."  Sampson later clarified that he hasn't renounced his faith but that it is "on incredibly shaky ground" in part because he is “struggling with many parts of the belief system that seem so incoherent with common human morality.”

When I saw Sampson's Instragram post, I was impressed by his honesty.  In fact, honesty was a major theme in his post. "I want genuine truth. Not the 'I just believe it' kind of truth," Sampson wrote.  He lamented that there are many tough and relevant questions about Christianity right now--such as immorality among Christian leaders, compatibility between fundamentalist Christian teachings and science, etc.--but, "no one talks about it."

There used to be a guy named Hank Hanegraaff (who billed himself as "The Bible Answer Man") with a nationally syndicated Christian phone-in radio show.  People would call and ask him questions, and he always had an answer (that conformed to fundamentalist evangelical doctrine).  Sometimes people would call and ask Hank about friends or loved ones or celebrities who had "fallen away" from the faith.  Hanegraaff's answer was that if one is truly saved it is impossible to fall away.  Therefore, he reasoned, those who fall away were never really Christians in the first place.  That's pretty dumb (and arrogant) logic, rooted in Calvinism and steeped in tribalism.  Hanegraaff's answer was, essentially, "well, they never really were one of us, so we don't need to grapple with why they eventually rejected their, and our, belief system."

I've learned (from observation and from personal experience) that leaving a tribe you once belonged to incurs far more rage and retribution than having never belonged to the tribe in the first place.  Leaving a tribe stirs up troubling questions about the legitimacy of the tribe (or the tribe's leaders).  And questions coming from those within the tribe--honest and tough and challenging questions--cannot be abided, as they are perceived as a threat.  So honest seekers of truth must often make the painful decision of either leaving the tribe to continue their quest for answers, or shut up and fall into line.

In the fundamentalist Muslim world, to renounce Islam and embrace a different religion (or no religion) is considered an unforgiveable sin.  But a person who has always been a Christian or Jew or Buddhist is generally viewed in the Muslim world with respect (or at least with far less contempt than a former Muslim).  Fundamentalist Christians aren't much different in their attitudes toward apostates.

A few years ago, Vicky Beeching, a prominant British worship leader/songwriter (and Oxford educated theologian), came out as a lesbian.  She remained an evangelical Christian.  "God was still my highest priority and my greatest love," she says.  But her songs were systematically erased from the evangelical world and the invitations to lead worship at churches and gatherings abruptly ceased.  She was shunned.  Her wonderful and heartfelt songs of worship, which had been sung by thousands, were now considered tainted.  "She was never really one of us" was the message.  The same pattern will undoubtedly occur with Marty Sampson.

The Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, coined the term "fallen from grace."  It's the only place this phrase appears in the Bible.  But, interestingly enough, when Paul used the phrase he was castigating the Galatian Christians for embracing legalism and turning their backs on grace.  "You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace," he told the Galatians.  In other words, it was the religious legalists who had fallen from grace.

I would submit that we are seeing an apostasy in our day and age.  It is a terrible falling away.  But it is a falling away from grace.  Like the "foolish Galatians" (as Paul called them), a great many evangelical Christians have abandoned grace and instead embraced legalism and tribalism.  They have rejected the truth-seekers, the question-askers, the agents of grace (not to mention the immigrants, the refugees, the outcasts and the poor).  They have become like the Pharisees depicted in the Gospel of Matthew, for whom Jesus had few kind words, despite their stringent religiosity.  It seems that if folks like Beeching and Harris and Sampson and millions of millenials are indeed "falling away," they are actually falling away from legalism and toward grace. 

Many evangelicals believe that there will be a "great falling away" at "the End-Times."  I, and many other Christians, don't subscribe to that "End-Times/Left Behind" theology, but I do see a great falling away.  As in the days of Jesus and Paul, the ones who are falling away--the real apostates--are often the most religious ones; the ones who claim loudly to be doing God's will while they contradict God's heart.

Friday, August 09, 2019

There have been several books that have changed or shaped my outlook on life. One of them is Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland by Christopher Browning. The book is a masterpiece of historical research that focuses in tightly on a relatively small contingent of German soldiers. But in doing so it reveals some very disturbing universal truths. 

Reserve Police Battalion 101 was comprised of middle-aged working-class men who were drafted into service in the latter part of WWII. Their job was to go through Poland, village-by-village, round up the Jewish residents, and execute them. The men in Reserve Police Battalion 101 were not rabid Nazis or even particularly anti-semitic. They were just "ordinary men" following orders and doing their job. They killed tens of thousands of Jews.

There is a quote, falsely attributed to filmmaker Werner Herzog, that goes like this: "Dear America: You are waking up, as Germany once did, to the awareness that 1/3 of your people would kill another 1/3, while 1/3 watches." Although the origins of the statement are murky, the statement itself rings with clarity. As the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment demonstrated, a majority of people will go along with evil and injustice if it is mandated by "the authorities." Only a minority possess a strong enough internal moral compass to enable them to refuse to participate, or to speak out against it.

U.S. history is filled with atrocity, if one chooses to not gloss over it. The perpetrators of atrocity usually do their best to keep their actions out of the general public view. Germans who lived in the lovely village of Dachau claimed that they had no idea of the depravity that was occuring at the concentration camp on the outskirts of town. Throughout the 20th century we average Americans have generally remained ignorant or apathetic about the atrocities in Central and South America, the Middle-East, Africa, Asia and elsewhere, committed with our government's backing.

I suspect we are witnessing the seeds of atrocity within our own borders and it is in plain sight. The immigration raids this week at food processing plants in Mississippi were, from what I've read, the largest in U.S. history. The Obama administration used to go after the business owners, with the overarching concern being prevention of the exploitation of undocumented immigrant workers. The Trump administration has shifted the focus to go after "the least of these"--the workers themselves and their children who are separated and left abandoned. The immigration raids in Mississippi were intentionally designed by the Trump administration to be highly visible media spectacles. The goal was to please Trump's base of supporters and to terrorize undocumented immigrants throughout the U.S. The message was clear: get out or likewise risk being rounded up and incarcerated and deported and have your children traumatized and your home and all that you've worked hard to attain left behind.

Hannah Arendt, who reported on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, coined the term "the banality of evil." Eichmann, and others like him, she observed, tended to not be sadistic arch-villians but rather "terrifyingly normal" bland bureaucrats who managed to disengage themselves from the reality of the evil they were responsible for. Eichmann, Arendt observed, was actually a rather shallow person, a joiner, a follower rather than a leader, an unimaginative and somewhat ignorant person more concerned with job security than with ideology. This description also applies to the men of Police Battalion 101 and, I suspect, to many of the men and women of the department of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Border Patrol and their parent bureaucracy, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Sunday, August 04, 2019

“This attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas. They are the instigators, not me. I am simply defending my country from cultural and ethnic replacement brought on by an invasion.”
--From the "manifesto" of the El Paso shooter

"We cannot allow all of these people to invade our Country."
--Donald Trump

"I just got back [from the southern border] and it is a far worse situation than almost anyone would understand, an invasion!"
--Donald Trump

"People hate the word ‘invasion’ but that’s what it is. It’s an invasion of drugs and criminals and people.”
--Donald Trump

"More troops being sent to the Southern Border to stop the attempted invasion of Illegals, through large Caravans, into our Country."
--Donald Trump

"To confront this crisis--you saw that, it was a big deal two months ago--I declared a national emergency, which is what it is.  This is an invasion!  When you see these caravans, starting out with twenty thousand people, that's an invasion.  I was badly criticized for using the word 'invasion.'  It's an invasion!"
--Donald Trump

On May 8th, 2019 at a rally in Florida, Trump spoke about the "invasion" of people at the southern U.S. border. He asked the crowd: "How do you stop these people?"

"Shoot them!" a rally attendee shouted out.

Trump responded, laughing: "That's only in the panhandle you can get away with that stuff. Only in the panhandle."

The crowd laughed and cheered. 

So yesterday Donald Trump retweeted a tweet from Franklin Graham celebrating the five-year anniversary of Dr. Kent Brantly being brought back to the U.S. from Africa for treatment of Ebola. Brantly, who had been treating Ebola patients in Liberia as a missionary when he was infected, was the first Ebola patient to set foot in the U.S.

Franklin's tweet, which apparently is intended to promote a movie, calls Brantly's healing a "miracle" but many commenters have pointed out that highly skilled, highly educated medical professionals at top U.S. medical facilities applying science and research had quite a bit to do with it.

Trump (who Graham stridently supports) seems to have forgotten that five years ago he repeatedly tweeted that Ebola patients (including Brantly) should not be allowed to enter the U.S. for treatment. "Ebola patient will be brought to the U.S. in a few days - now I know for sure that our leaders are incompetent. KEEP THEM OUT OF HERE!" Trump tweeted as plans were being made to return Brantly to the U.S. “Stop the EBOLA patients from entering the U.S. Treat them, at the highest level, over there. THE UNITED STATES HAS ENOUGH PROBLEMS!” Trump tweeted as the air ambulance was on its way to Liberia to retrieve Dr. Brantly. "The U.S. cannot allow EBOLA infected people back. People that go to far away places to help are great-but must suffer the consequences!" Trump tweeted as Brantly was on the air ambulance flying across the Atlantic ocean toward the U.S.

In other words, if Trump had had his way Brantly would have died in Liberia, barred from returning to the U.S. for treatment. And if Graham has his way a man completely devoid of empathy and basic human decency will be President of the United States for another four years.

The hypocrisy runs deep with both Trump and Graham.
"I'm not a racist," we white people tend to say. "I believe all people are of equal value," we go on. We white people, the privileged and empowered ones throughout the history of the United States, tend to personalize charges of racism and quickly exonerate ourselves. Sometimes we get quite defensive at any whiff that the racism label might be applied to us personally.

The thing we white people tend to overlook is that racism in America is systemic and structural. It is deeply woven into the fabric of the United States. We white people often don't notice that this is the case because, frankly, it doesn't effect us personally. That's called privilege: if something doesn't effect us personally we don't see it as a significant problem.

For myself, it is only when I shut my mouth and *listen* to non-white people tell their stories that I realize how pervasive racism is in America and how oblivious I often am to it. Worse, I realize how often I have participated in it and benefitted from it--all while very earnestly defending myself as not being in the least bit racist.

For example, if you proclaim "I'm not a racist" yet you support or make excuses for or refuse to take a closer look at politicians and pundits who propigate racist views (explicitly or implicitly) then yes, my friend, you are racist. If you tell jokes about racial minorities then yes, my friend, you are racist. If you imbibe stereotypes about people of other races (Asian people are smart but bad drivers, Black people are lazy and "low IQ", Hispanic people are violent and simple, etc.) and you allow those stereotypes to shape how you perceive individuals then, my friend, you are racist.  If your response to Black Lives Matter is to say "All lives matter!" and if you think Colin Kaepernick was being unAmerican when kneeling during the national anthem then, my friend, you are racist.  If you immediately respond defensively rather than introspectively when racism is discussed then, my friend, you may unwittingly be racist or be complicit in the perpetuation of racist systems and social structures. And just about every time I wrote "you" in the above paragraph, I could have just as easily wrote "I".

I don't know the answer to how we white people extricate ourselves fully from the miasma of racism that pervades America, except that we need to begin by listening closely and undefensively and ask of those who experience the effects of racism what we can do. And we need to have the integrity and courage to not abide or ignore racist rhetoric or "dog whistles" from others--especially from others who have influence.