Saturday Night Theologian
4 March 2007

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18 (first published 7 March 2004)

In 1992, as plans were made throughout the Western Hemisphere to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Columbus' arrival in the New World, Native American groups from North and South America rose up in protest, as did some people of African descent. Whereas European Americans generally view Columbus' adventures in a positive light, descendants of those who were already in the land do not, and African Americans (and Afro-Brazilians, etc.) were reminded again of the ways in which European slave traders exploited their ancestors. Various groups of descendants of the aboriginal inhabitants of the inhabited continents--primarily from North and South America, Australia and Oceania, and part of Asia--have joined together to discuss issues and work together under the name "First Nations." As those whose ancestors migrated to previously inhabited lands, either peacefully or with force of arms, begin to encounter the First Nations movement, we are reminded that history can be viewed from many different angles, many of which have certain amounts of validity. In today's reading from Genesis, Abram is promised that his heirs will inherit the land in which he currently resides as an alien. For Abram's descendants, the ancient nation of Israel, God's promise to Abram offered a sense of identity and destiny in the land in which they lived. Even after the disaster of the Babylonian captivity, Jews throughout the world looked to Judea as their spiritual homeland, so much so that the modern Zionist movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries encouraged Jews to move to the land of their ancestors. Many contemporary Israelis use God's promise to Abram as justification for their attempts to get Israel to annex more and more land in the West Bank. Of course, this particular view of history is not the only one available. Others who trace their roots to Abram, the Arabs, also believe that God's promise to Abram applies to them, and many modern Arabs think that they, not the Jews, are the rightful heirs of Jerusalem and the rest of Palestine. It is instructive to see which verses were included in today's lesson and which were omitted. Those who chose the lectionary reading specifically omitted verses 13-16 and 19-21, passages which remind the reader that the land offered to Abram's descendants was not empty in the first place, but inhabited by the Canaanites and their kinfolk. A proper understanding that different groups interpret the same historical period in different ways tells us that people living today also have different views of the future. Some of those views may be mutually exclusive, so it is clear that expectations may have to be modified at times. As we who consider ourselves descendants of Abram, either physically or spiritually, reflect on God's promises to him, we need to be aware that almost half the world's population appropriates that promise as their own. And as the First Nations remind us, there is another half of the world that, while not claiming any sort of descent from Abram, believes just as strongly in their own traditions and values. It is important for Christians to work together with Muslims, Jews, and people of other faiths to develop dreams for the future that are acceptable to all.

Psalm 27 (first published 7 March 2004)

Spring arrived this week in my neighborhood. Japanese cherry trees are in full bloom, the white flowers of the dogwoods are just beginning to peep through the buds, and life is returning after what was a very mild winter, at least here. If you live in the northern hemisphere and have seen no signs of spring yet, don't worry, it's on its way. The psalmist says, "One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple." As the earth comes to life again after the barrenness of winter, what better time to reflect on the beauty of God? When we think of God's attributes, we most often think of concepts such as God's holiness, power, justice, love, or mercy. The beauty of God is perhaps the least appreciated characteristic of God in many churches today, particularly those that put a lot of emphasis on doctrine. Doctrine is very important, of course, but if it is separated from aesthetics, religion becomes dull and dreary, like a cold winter's day. God's beauty is not something that we can observe directly; it is something we infer from the beauty of the natural world and from the beauty that humans are able to create. That the universe is beautiful might seem to need no expression, but countless numbers of people seem to go through life with little awareness of the beauty of a butterfly, a rock formation, or the Milky Way. The problem is that we too often focus on ourselves and our problems. Looking at the beauty around us can remind us that God creates beauty, and God wants our lives to be beautiful, too. Humans sometimes ruin the beauty of nature, as when we strip-mine land and don't restore it afterwards, or when we pollute rivers, or when we drop bombs. But we're good at creating beauty as well. Who can look at the Taj Mahal, or Michelangelo's David, or van Gogh's Starry Night, or listen to the finale of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, without some appreciation of the aptitude for beauty that lies at our core? Just as humans should be about imitating God's justice and mercy in the world, so I think we should commit ourselves to imitating God's beauty. Run-down tenements are not only an affront to God's compassion and justice, they are also a rejection of God's beauty. Capital punishment is not only state-sponsored murder, it is also the destruction of a person created in God's image an innately beautiful, however flawed. War is the ultimate affront to God's beauty, because it destroys human lives, communities, and the environment, all of which are receptacles of God's beauty. As you celebrate the coming of spring, either this week or whenever it reaches your door, remember to thank God for the beauty of the earth, and commit yourself to spread that beauty to the world around you.

[Editor's note: Spring arrived this week, the last week of February 2007, in South Texas, just as it did in Georgia three years ago when I wrote this piece. Different trees are blooming here--redbuds instead of dogwoods--and in fact various wild plants (usually called weeds) have been growing pretty well for more than a month, despite one last cold night a couple of weeks ago. As I read over this description of the beauty of nature in Georgia, and as I observe the beauty of nature in Texas, I'm more convinced than ever that the beauty of the created world is a pointer to God.]

Philippians 3:17-4:1

On Ash Wednesday, Roman Catholic leaders in southern California, including Cardinal Mahoney of Los Angeles, called on Christians to pray for immigration reform during the Lenten season. Specifically, they urged the faithful to fast for at least one day between March 26 and 30 as a reminder of the many difficulties faced by immigrants to this country, both documented and undocumented. The Los Angeles Times reported that Jim Gilchrist, the founder of the Minuteman Project, rejected Mahoney's call, even though he is a Catholic himself. "The church should stay out of government business unless it wants to lose its tax-exempt status," he said. The Minutemen, as they call themselves, are committed to expelling all 12 million undocumented immigrants from the U.S., preventing new immigrants from crossing the border into the U.S. without papers, and opposing even a guest worker program that would allow foreign nationals to work for a time in the U.S. If the Native Americans had had such a policy, Gilchrist wouldn't be in the U.S. today. More to the point, the Minuteman Project is both racist and xenophobic, and its views stand in sharp contrast to the teaching of the Bible concerning loving one's neighbor and providing for the poor and oppressed. The problem that Gilchrist and his ilk have is that they think of themselves as Americans first and Christians second (if at all). Paul reminded the church in Philippi that their citizenship was in heaven, and their behavior should reflect their true "nationality." "Many live as enemies of the cross of Christ," Paul said, and his statement unfortunately continues to be true today, sometimes even among Christians. The cross of Christ is the ultimate symbol of reconciliation, between God and humanity, and between people of all different stripes. Those who set one group up as superior to another, or as having rights that the other group does not, purely on the basis of such ephemeral qualities as race, nationality, gender, or sexual orientation, are opposing what the cross stands for. As Christians, we are called to stand with the oppressed, not against them. For that reason, even though I am not Catholic, I support Cardinal Mahoney's call to fast for one day between March 26 and 30, and I intend to do so. Will you join me?

Luke 13:31-35 (first published 7 March 2004)

Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners magazine, wrote an editorial in the New York Times on 28 December 2003 entitled "Putting God Back in Politics." He notes that "according to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, people who attend church more than once a week vote Republican by 63 percent to 37 percent; people who seldom or never attend vote Democratic by 62 percent to 38 percent." As a person who espouses social justice, care for the environment, nuclear disarmament, and abolition of the death penalty, among other progressive/liberal causes, these statistics make me wonder what is going on among American Christians. I hold the positions I do specifically because I believe them to be consistent with the overall message of the Bible in general and with the life and teachings of Jesus in particular. Why, then, do so many religious people read the Bible so differently? It wasn't always this way. The antislavery movement and the civil rights movement were led by people of faith, and Christianity was seen as a progressive force in politics. Why today do the majority of people with a vital faith seem to drift in the other direction? I am the first to admit that people read the Bible differently, and I know that many believe that the teachings of Jesus lean more to the right than to the left. But wait, maybe that's the problem! As a progressive Christian, I'm usually perfectly happy letting others think for themselves and believe what they want, even if I totally disagree with them, but fundamentalists aren't like that. Fundamentalists marshal their troops around certain basic doctrinal tenets and certain conservative political positions. Fundamentalists tend to let their leaders dictate their beliefs to them, on politics as well as theology, and as a result, they tend to lean strongly in the same direction as their leaders, to the right. It's time for progressive Christians to be more vocal about our beliefs. We need to borrow a page from Howard Dean's playbook and energize people who haven't been involved in either religion or politics before. Dean said that he represented the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party; I believe that progressive Christians represent the Christian wing of Christianity. It's time for progressive Christians to stand up and be counted, because the world is going to hell in a handbasket while we sit around and let others espouse right-wing views without confronting them with our own beliefs. Have you ever noticed that conservatives have little compunction about sharing their beliefs in any given situation, while progressives tend to sit back and just listen? In today's reading from Luke, some Jewish leaders warned Jesus to stay away from Jerusalem because Herod wanted to kill him. Jesus replied, "Go and tell that fox for me, 'Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work." Jesus wouldn't be turned away from his work even by the threat of death. How much more should we be willing to share our progressive vision of the world when threatened only by ridicule?