Saturday Night Theologian
28 September 2008

Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32

Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told the U.N. general assembly this week that "American empire in the world is reaching the end of its road," blaming U.S. interference in places like Iraq and Afghanistan for the nation's reduced influence in the world. Whether Ahmadinejad is right--and the economic problems Iran has endured on his watch may spell the end for his rule as well--his words clearly struck a nerve with other nations. Russia is refusing to cooperate with the U.S. on further efforts to get Iran to end its nuclear program, North Korea has said it will restart its nuclear reactor, and Bolivia and Venezuela have both expelled the U.S. ambassadors from their countries. Meanwhile, back at home, the stock market is melting down, both investment banks and regular banks are going under, and unemployment is on the rise. Optimists will say that these events are merely temporary setbacks and that the economic problems are part of the normal cycle of economic ebb and flow. I don't think it's that simple. I think that it is indeed likely that the U.S., while it will continue to be a major power for a long time, is no longer the lone superpower that some of our leaders like to present us as. The fiasco in Iraq, the ongoing problems in Afghanistan, the government's inability to capture Osama bin Laden, and the financial chaos that is currently engulfing Washington reveal that the U.S. is far from omnipotent. Even our allies believe that the U.S. has overstepped its authority and has been foolish to cast aside the international community in its attempts to have its own way in the world. So who's to blame for our current problems? The prophet Ezekiel faced a nation that had suffered calamity and minced no words in telling them that the fault was their own. "Don't blame your ancestors' sins for your current problems," he said. "The fault lies within those who are alive today." It's easy to try to lay the blame on others. Throughout the years of the Bush administration, every time something went wrong there were some who would inevitably blame the problem on Bill Clinton (and some are inexplicably still trying to do so, as a recent editorial cartoon in my local newspaper attests), but now that the Bush era is drawing to a not-rapid-enough close, it is clear that the fault lies with those in power today more than with those in an earlier era. Yes, mistakes made under Clinton and earlier administrations still reverberate today in some cases, but it is a waste of time to blame others for the problems we face today as a nation. It is the current administration's fault, and it is the people's fault for letting them get away with doing stupid things. In a democracy, the buck always stops with the electorate, not even with the president (sorry, Harry). So what should we do as people of faith? First, we need to educate ourselves about the current set of problems, their causes, and potential solutions. Second, we need to do all we can to elect people at the national, state, and local levels who will provide the leadership and implement the policies that will benefit the most people around the world, particularly those who are the poorest and weakest. Third, we need to speak out when we see injustice or attempts to grab power, even if it means criticizing people with whom we ordinarily agree. Like Ezekiel, we can't be afraid to speak prophetically anywhere, anytime.

Psalm 25:1-9 (first published 15 July 2007)

Former California congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham was sentenced this week to eight years and four months in prison, after pleading guilty to accepting $2.4 million in bribes. A contrite Cunningham said before sentencing that he would accept without complaint whatever punishment the court handed down. Although none of us has ever accepted $2.4 million in bribes, we should all feel some empathy with the former congressman. We have all done things that we knew were wrong, and we have all been in the position of having to ask for forgiveness. The psalmist asks God, "Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness' sake, O Lord!" Or maybe it should say, "For goodness' sake, O Lord!" There come times in all our lives when we want to ask God, and other people as well, "Please distinguish in your mind my sins from me as a person!" There are certain people who have gone down in history as those who have committed great sins. When we think of Adolf Hitler, Timothy McVeigh, or David Koresh, it is unlikely that we think of anything other than the Holocaust, the destruction of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, or the conflagration at the compound outside Waco. Several months ago I saw a German movie called Downfall about the last days of Hitler, a true story based on the account of his secretary. The movie makes no attempt to mask the evil committed by Hitler, Himmler, or others who were in the bunker during the last week of World War II in Europe, yet it also shows Hitler as a human being, a person who grows tired, feels bewildered as his world come crashing down around him, and even shows affection for some of those around him. One of the problems with demonizing Hitler and others who have committed horrific crimes is that it puts them beyond the pale of humanity. When we cast another human being out of the human race for his sins, we threaten ourselves with the same fate. Maybe our sins aren't as great as a Timothy McVeigh, but who can really foresee the consequences of our acts of greed, selfishness, or xenophobia? Fortunately for us, God is perfectly capable of separating the person from the sin, and though we deserve justice, God often grants mercy. If God grants mercy to us sinners, we need to grant mercy to other sinners as well, for though their sins may be more spectacular, at their core they are people like we are, people God longs to bring back into the human-divine fellowship that we can all share.

Philippians 2:1-13 (first published 25 September 2005)

In schools today teachers teach their students to think positively about themselves. Child psychologists stress the importance of good self-esteem. A popular children's book on the subject is entitled Don't Feed the Monster on Tuesday, where the monster is self-doubt and a bad self-image. These emphases are important, as far as they go. We want children to feel good about themselves, because bad self-esteem can lead to anti-social and self-destructive behavior. Often, however, both children and adults go beyond self-esteem and plunge into feelings of superiority over those around them, resulting in behavior that is just as harmful as that produced by feelings of inferiority. Paul offers us an important, practical solution to the paradox of having a positive self-image and avoiding excessive pride in one's accomplishments. "In humility regard others as better than yourselves." Note that Paul does not say that other actually are better than we are, he just advises us to regard others as better than ourselves. If we have this attitude, we won't look down our noses at others because of their ethnic or national background. We won't shake our heads condescendingly over the plight of the poor. We won't think of ourselves as better than the mentally ill or mentally retarded. Just as importantly, we won't consider ourselves better than other Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, agnostics, or even atheists. When we view others through the lens of humility, we are seeing them as God sees them, as people of worth, indeed, people of immense value. Seeing other people from the perspective of humility will lead us to sympathize with rather than judge those in prison, those without jobs, and those addicted to harmful drugs or alcohol. We need to develop our sense of self-esteem as a child and maintain it into adulthood, but at the same time we need to understand what it means to consider others as more important than ourselves.

Matthew 21:23-32 (first published 25 September 2005)

The simple creed of Islam is "Allah is God, and Muhammad is his prophet." There is more to Muslim belief, of course, and there are differences of opinion concerning Muhammad's successors and the role of Shariah law in today's world, but concerning the core beliefs of Islam, there is no doubt. Debate among Muslims on whether one is faithful or not center around actions, not doctrine. The early church also had a simple creed: "Jesus is Lord." This simple statement gave people hope and sustained them in times of peril. It wasn't long, however, before other doctrines were added, and by the early fourth century the Nicene Creed was promulgated. The Creed talked primarily about the historical Jesus and the relationship between God the Father and Christ the Son. Later Christian doctrine developed ideas about the Trinity, the divine and human in Jesus Christ, and a detailed view of the afterlife. The church split many times over issues of doctrine, most notably in 1054 over the filioque controversy (among other things) and in 1517 over the question of justification by faith (again, among other things). In the early 20th century a group of Christians got together and created a list of "fundamentals of the faith," which they said were the minimum set of doctrines that any true Christian should believe. These fundamentals included the infallibility of scripture, the virgin birth, substitutionary atonement, bodily resurrection, and the second coming of Christ. Not all Christians accepted these "fundamentals," and other modified this basic list somewhat, so many arguments ensued concerning whether particular groups of Christians were really Christians or not. That Christians have differences of opinion on matters of faith and practice is not surprising, since the same can be said of every other major religious tradition. What seems unique to Christianity, at least to many forms of it, is the almost perverse emphasis on adherence to a particular set of doctrines. Whether one is a "true Christian" or not depends, in the minds of many people, on mental acceptance of a rather complex set of doctrines (how people really understand what "substitutionary atonement" is anyway?). Somehow, we've strayed far from the path of that early Christian creed "Jesus is Lord," and from the words of Jesus himself, who taught his disciples that God evaluates faithfulness not on the basis of words but action. In today's reading from Matthew, Jesus tells a parable of a father and two sons, whom the father directs to go work in the field. One son says he will but doesn't, and the other says he won't but does. When Jesus asked which one did the will of God, his hearers had no trouble answering: the one who went to work in the field, regardless of his earlier refusal. Christians, like adherents of other faiths, believe a wide variety of doctrines, and they tend to group themselves into churches and denominations that largely agree with one another doctrinally. This is all well and good. To take the next step and identify true or faithful Christians with those who agree with them, however, is a clear violation of the teachings of Jesus. We have wasted too much time in Christian history arguing and fighting over doctrine and not enough time doing the will of God. It is time to set aside the doctrinal differences that divide Baptist from Methodist, Lutheran from Presbyterian, Catholic from Orthodox, and work together in God's field. There is too much to do to argue over the reasons we're there.