Saturday Night Theologian
4 September 2005

Exodus 12:1-14

Lodge brothers have secret handshakes with which to greet each other. Initiates of fraternities and sororities go through ceremonies and experiences that are designed to make them bond with one another. The Boy Scout induction ceremony into the Order of the Arrow is intended to make the inductees consider the honor being bestowed on them and its implications for daily living. Rituals are good when they draw people closer together and create a sense of community. We cannot relate to everyone in the world, or even everyone in our community, on an equal level, so the existence of small communities (whether physical or virtual) is both beneficial and necessary for human interaction. Rituals can become a problem, however, when they encourage an exaggerated "us vs. them" mentality that pits one group against another. The Passover ceremony was an important part of life within the ancient Israelite community, as it continues to be today. The Passover meal communicated many truths. First, it celebrated God's deliverance from bondage in Egypt. Second, it drew neighbors close together as they often shared a Passover lamb. Third, it reminded the people that they were a community, pledged to one another and to God. Fourth, it looked to the future in expectation that God would continue to deal faithfully with God's people. Fifth, it emphasized the importance of being prepared for a new work of God. Christians have traditionally adapted a portion of the Passover celebration as a remembrance and celebration of Christ's sacrifice, but many Christians today are looking again into the larger Passover celebration and finding meaning for their lives. There is great value in examining ancient Jewish rituals like Passover and celebrating them in our modern contexts, as long as we don't Christianize it so much that it loses most of its original meaning. I've seen Christian Passover celebrations in which a Jew would probably have had difficulty finding much value, because of the exclusive emphasis on the sacrifice of Jesus rather than the original exodus experience. Christians should certainly feel free to adapt the Passover celebration to our needs and beliefs, but at the same time we should remember that our Jewish brothers and sisters, who represent the tradition of our spiritual forebears (including Jesus), still find meaning in God's deliverance of their people from slavery, and we can do the same. God is still in the business of freeing people from oppression--physical, spiritual, emotional, and economic--and celebrating Passover can both give us hope of deliverance from our own woes and remind us of our obligation to side with God against the evils of oppression, wherever it might be found.

Psalm 149

When we lived in South Africa in the late 1980s, some of our friends used to sing a song, "Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrica," or "Lord, Bless Africa." Originally written by Enoch Contonga, a teacher at a Methodist mission school in Johannesburg in 1897, it was adopted by those struggling for freedom from the evil apartheid system of government and became a de facto national anthem for those in the movement. At the time, the official national anthem was an Afrikaans song called "Die Stem van Suid Afrika," or "The Call of South Africa." It, too, contains the language of prayer, but it wasn't a prayer that most in the country could relate to. After the apartheid regime was overthrown by massive, peaceful demonstrations, the country struggled to overcome its violent past and have citizens from different backgrounds be reconciled to one another. One step in that direction was the creation of a new national anthem, which incorporated portions of both "Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrica" and "Die Stem," in effect creating a new song of unity which all South Africa's children could sing. The psalmist says, "Sing to the Lord a new song!" As someone who likes to sing and listen to the classics, I have to ask myself, what is the importance of singing a new song? It's important to sing a new song because new songs bear testimony that God is doing new things in the world today. It's good to remember the past through traditional songs and rituals, but it's also vital to see God at work in the present. In the midst of the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, we can also see God at work. Many lives were lost, but many more were saved. People continue to die because aid hasn't reached them yet, but others have been transported to safety. While many have suffered great personal and financial loss, many more around the world are reaching out in love to help those in need. God was in Gulfport and Biloxi and Mobile and Slidell and New Orleans when the hurricane hit, and God is still there among the living and dying. Sometimes we think that the songs we sing must be songs of joy, like Psalm 149, but sometimes it's more appropriate to sing songs that express our grief, our pain, our sense of loss. Can we sing such songs? The psalm suggests that we should always be looking for new songs to sing: songs of joy, songs of pain, songs of love, songs of sorrow, songs of hope, songs of despair, songs of triumph, songs of defeat, songs of justice, and songs of mercy. Sing to the Lord a new song, one that expresses your innermost feelings and reflects your insight into what God is doing in your life and in the world around you.

Romans 13:8-14

One of the common caricatures of Christianity is that it is a religion whose main rule is "Thou shalt not!" Unfortunately, this is also sometimes the way that Christians themselves think of their religion. As the old saying goes, "I don't drink, dance, smoke, or chew, or go out with girls that do." The problem with defining Christianity in terms of the rejection of certain types of behavior is that it paints a picture of the religion that is predominantly negative. Some people think that a Christianity that is characterized by a list of don'ts is too hard to follow. I think it is too easy. "Thou shalt not kill" is easy to do; "love your enemy" is not. "Thou shalt not commit adultery" is easy to do; "forgive those who wrong you" is not. "Thou shalt not steal" is easy to do; "give all you have to the poor" is not. A Christianity that focuses on the don'ts can too easily congratulate itself on its paltry accomplishments. "No one in our congregation has broken any of the Ten Commandments in the past year," someone might say. Fine, but how many in your congregation supported politicians who rob from the poor to give to the rich? "Nobody who's a member of our church drinks or smokes." Good, but how many support international policies that result in the deaths of thousands upon thousands of people? A Christianity that focuses on the "Thou shalt nots" is a pale shadow of true Christianity, which focuses on what Christians are called to do, not to not do. Paul understood the problem with seeing religion as a list of things not to do, because he had been there himself. Rather than focus on the negatives, Paul says, we should focus on the positive, specifically, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." When we love our neighbor, how will we act? We certainly won't kill him, but we'll do much more than that. If we love our neighbor, we'll become his friend. We'll talk to her and learn the names of her children. We'll help him take a couch to Goodwill. We'll watch her daughter when she's running late at work. We'll help out if he gets sick or loses his job. We'll send money to help if she loses her home in a hurricane. We'll open the doors of our country and our houses to him and his family if he has to flee a storm, or a dictator, or extreme poverty. It's easier to avoid various vices than to actively show God's love to another person. What kind of Christianity do we follow?

Matthew 18:15-20

In the run-up to the 2004 presidential elections, some Roman Catholic bishops proclaimed that priests should refuse to offer communion to politicians (i.e., John Kerry) who supported abortion rights, apparently regardless of those people's precise position on the subject. Presumably such a pronouncement was based on a passage such as today's reading from Matthew, in which Jesus instructs his followers to admonish a sinner first privately and then, if he doesn't repent, publicly. The problem with the bishops' proclamation was that it focused on one particular position, that coincidentally happened to be one that most Democrats supported, while ignoring numerous ethical breaches that many Republicans favored (e.g., preemptive wars without international mandates, tax cuts for the rich, refusal to provide universal health care). What is the proper role of the church in public policy debates? First, we should acknowledge that almost every public policy involves ethical issues that Christianity should take a stand on. Second, we should admit that not all Christians will agree with our analysis of the issues or of scriptural or ecclesiastical teaching. Third, we should speak out boldly and prophetically, though always with humility, because we understand that we do not have a corner on the market of truth. Fourth, we should never, ever presume to expel people from the church unless a very large majority of Christians agrees with our position; even then, admonition and counsel will usually be preferable to expulsion. I find many of the current U.S. administration's policies, both domestic and international, to be contrary to the letter and spirit of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and I am not afraid to say so (as regular readers have no doubt noticed). However, I would never presume to say that "so-and-so" is not a real Christian, or "so-and-so" should be excluded from the church. On the contrary, I hope that those political leaders and other public figures with whom I sharply disagree with continue to attend church, synagogue, mosque, or temple, because I believe that, if their position on an issue is wrong, God may be able to penetrate their defenses through worship. Another thing to keep in mind when dealing with the implications of religious thought and practice on public policy is that theology is not determined democratically. In the free church tradition, in which I was raised, church polity is congregational, which means that congregations vote and the majority rules. However, the majority is sometimes wrong. Members of the religious right and proponents of extremely conservative and fundamentalist forms of Christianity may outnumber progressive Christians (I say "may," because I don't know the statistics, and I'm not sure anyone really does), but that doesn't make their position right, any more than the election of an absolute Nazi majority in the 1933 elections in Germany made Nazi ideals right. It is time for progressive Christians to speak out. Fundamentalists have no qualms about expressing their views, and neither should we, especially since our views are based firmly (we believe) in the teaching of scripture, in our view of God, and in the message of the gospel.