Saturday Night Theologian
21 August 2005

Exodus 1:8-2:10

A survey released this week says that while the majority of Hispanic citizens in the U.S. supports a policy that grants citizenship to undocumented workers and their families, a growing minority favors tougher restrictions on attaining citizenship, as well as stronger enforcement measures aimed at preventing the migration of people north across the border (the worry about Canadians migrating south is apparently not so great). A larger percentage of Anglos favor measures to curb illegal immigration, though wide differences of opinion exist regarding how best to handle the situation. I tend to think of international borders as arbitrary human innovations that may be somewhat necessary for organizational purposes but that often are the cause of great injustice and suffering. In the former communist bloc nations, the borders kept citizens imprisoned in their own countries. In the U.S. and elsewhere today, borders are barriers designed to keep certain "undesirables" out. The undesirables tend to be the poor, those from certain ethnic or national or linguistic groups, or even adherents of particular religions. The first verse in today's reading from Exodus says, "Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph." He looked around at the growing Hebrew population, perceived it as a threat, and took steps to (1) limit its growth and (2) reduce its socioeconomic influence. Actions such as these have been repeated many times over the centuries: in the Americas under the Spanish and Portuguese, in India under the British, in South Africa under first the British and then the white minority, in the U.S. under the institutions of slavery and later Jim Crow, and in the modern state of Israel with regard to the Palestinians and Israeli Arabs. I could go further with many examples of the subjugation of women by men, of people of one religious persuasion by those of a different religious persuasion, of gays by straights, etc. Wherever the powerful use their might to subjugate the marginalized, the situation of Israel in Egypt repeats itself. What is God's response to this situation? God responds by protecting the weak and powerless, and since we know the rest of the story, we know that God will raise up a savior to deliver the people. We'll get to the deliverer next week, but this week I want to focus on recognizing oppressive, unjust structures and identifying "Egypt" and "Israel." (It should be clear to regular readers that my references to the Egypt and Israel in the biblical story have nothing to do with the nations that bear those names today, unless they happen to have certain characteristics that match one or the other of the groups in the narrative.) In particular, I want to focus on the problem of international borders. In Europe today, borders are convenient dividing lines between one country and another, but citizens can cross those borders with a minimum of hassle. Germans can travel to England, Spaniards can travel to Greece, and Estonians can travel to Malta, all without hindrance. However, Mexicans, Dominicans, Salvadorans, and Guatemalans cannot travel freely to "the land of the free" (as the U.S. likes to think of itself), and they are certainly not free to settle here. The rationale is that they will take jobs from U.S. citizens. And they might, but so what? I was born about 130 miles from the U.S. border with Mexico. If I had been born 135 miles to the southwest, would I have been any less worthy of good schools, good jobs, and a good life? When borders cease to be mere administrative boundaries and become barriers to free immigration, they become instruments of injustice. Arguments can be made for using border security to filter out potentially dangerous people, such as terrorists or drug kingpins (another result of structural injustice to be dealt with on another occasion), but those seeking a better life pose no threat to current inhabitants of the country. After all, don't we all want a better life for ourselves and our children?

Psalm 124

The U.S. spends more on its military, including personnel, weapons systems, intelligence gathering, and arming allies, than the combined spending of every other nation on the planet. We do so in the hope that it will make us safe, among other reasons. However, a look at recent history demonstrates that such measures do not bring complete safety. Excessive military spending did not stop the events of 9/11, nor has it brought total victory in Iraq or Afghanistan. Intercontinental ballistic missiles are impressive weapons, but they do little to protect us against terrorist attacks. In fact, many argue that U.S. military spending, coupled with U.S. military policy and practice, actually makes the U.S. less safe than many other countries. How many terrorist bombings were reported in Switzerland or New Zealand last year? From a Christian perspective, the problem we have is that, despite the fact that the vast majority of the population considers itself Christian, and despite the fact that the nation's highest-ranking leaders frequently assert their allegiance to God, the nation conspicuously relies on weapons rather than God for protection. Psalm 124 is a national song of thanksgiving for deliverance in battle. Against seemingly overwhelming odds, Israel prevailed against its enemies, and it gave God the credit for the victory. Too often the god that we credit with our victories is our military strength. If we are a God-fearing nation, for the most part, our reliance should be on God rather than arms. I'm not talking about a naïve assumption that God will save us because we are God's chosen people. As the nation of Judah discovered in the 6th century B.C.E., the doctrine of the inviolability of Zion doesn't hold water. I'm talking about a reliance on God that recognizes that if we as a nation will act in ways that are consonant with the will of God, God will protect us, whether or not we have huge arsenals of weapons. How is that possible? Consider this scenario. Let's say that the U.S. were to reduce its military spending to a figure that was 10% of the current amount. Let's also assume that we redirected the lion's share of that money to international development projects led primarily by people indigenous to the areas served. At the same time, we would stop supporting repressive regimes that we mistakenly assume act in our best interest while oppressing their own people. The result would be a world with less poverty, more socioeconomic development, more freedom, and less violence, including terrorism. Current U.S. military policy resembles a man standing in a fire ant bed with a huge magnifying glass trying to burn the ants that are crawling on his feet and legs. No matter how big the magnifying glass, the fire ants will still bite him, and in fact the magnifying glass only serves to rile up the ants. The psalmist understood something that most Americans, and many people around the world as well, do not: "Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth."

Romans 12:1-8

Richard Niebuhr said that the goal of Christians was to follow Christ's example and transform culture. Before we can do that, however, we must first be transformed ourselves. Being born into a Christian family, passing through the baptismal waters, or partaking of communion does not necessarily indicate that transformation has taken place. The word for transformation that Paul uses in Romans 12 is the word from which we get the word "metamorphosis" in English. The picture is of a caterpillar turning into a butterfly: that is the magnitude of the transformation necessary in our lives. Several years ago I wrote a little piece on the transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly, and it seems appropriate to include it at this point in the discussion.

What makes a caterpillar decide to become a butterfly? His early days are happy and contented, spent munching leaves with his fellow caterpillars. Does he look at the passing butterflies and wonder how anyone could ever want to become a butterfly, or does he secretly admire them, even though they are extravagant? Does he even realize that deep inside himself is the potential for becoming the same thing? One day the caterpillar gets tired of the same old leaves--surely there is something better! His discontentedness causes him to do things he had never thought of doing before. He attaches himself to a branch for firm support and slowly encases himself in a translucent shell. Does he think about his old life inside the chrysalis? Does he sometimes long to return, knowing all the while that he never can? After some time he breaks through the chrysalis and discards it, emerging a new creature, not totally unlike his former self, but filled with potential he never had before. His first few flaps of the wings are unsuccessful, but before too long he is soaring over his former haunts, no longer constrained by the limitations of caterpillars, able to enjoy sweet nectar instead of the same old leaves, and in the process cross-pollinating the flowers and enabling more to grow. That is one difference between caterpillars and butterflies: caterpillars, in their ignorance, actually destroy the plants they eat, while butterflies help them to thrive. How many caterpillars are born, live, and die without ever becoming butterflies, without ever realizing their own God-given potential to soar above the ground, bringing life and beauty to the world?
As progressive Christians, we have been transformed, or perhaps more accurately, we are in the process of being transformed. We have left the chains of fundamentalism behind, with its destructive habits and attitudes, and we are in a position to soar, to bring joy and beauty and peace and justice to the world, if we don't develop destructive habits of our own (e.g., arrogance, pride, apathy). May the truths of Christianity and, even more, our encounter with God in Christ lead us to a higher plane of living and serving.

Matthew 16:13-20

Many Christians, including me, see much value and truth in many religious traditions. We have a lot to learn from our encounter with people of other faiths. Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists can teach us about the importance of tradition, the uniqueness of God, the pervasiveness of God, and the value of contemplation, among many other things. Why, then, do we remain Christian? We do so because we agree with Peter's confession at Caesarea Philippi. When Jesus asked his disciples who people said he was, they answered that people said he was John the Baptist, or Elijah, or Jeremiah, or one of the prophets. "So who do you think I am?" Jesus asked. "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God," Peter replied. The word Christ is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew messiah, which means God's anointed. The people recognized something great in Jesus, hence their attribution to him of the characteristics of many of the heroes of Israel's faith. John the Baptist was a prophet of recent vintage who spoke powerfully to lowly and great alike. Elijah confronted seemingly impossible odds in the name of Yahweh. Jeremiah preached a message of repentance to a people he knew wouldn't repent. The prophets spoke boldly the word of the Lord. But while the people saw in Jesus something great, Peter and the disciples saw something unique. Yes, Jesus was God's anointed, but so were Israel's kings, who were also deemed "sons of God," a common title for kings in the ancient Near East. In the years that had passed since Israel's last kings (both Davidic and Hasmonean), the term messiah had undergone a transformation. No longer was it used to refer to an ordinary king. The Messiah par excellence was someone who was uniquely related to God, who would bring deliverance and hope. Today's Christians follow Peter in seeing in Jesus something truly unique, someone whose relationship with God and teaching and example have never been, and will never be, equaled. We have wasted much energy debating the exact relationship of Jesus to God, and ironically the debate itself has brought a great deal of harm to the cause of Christ. Our friends of other faiths don't view Jesus in the same light as we do, and that's their prerogative, but the cornerstone of the Christian faith is Peter's confession, for "upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it."