Category Archives: Justice

Take the BOTH AND Pledge

“If I spend all day reading Facebook and social media and rant mindlessly over things

about which I know almost nothing and over which I have even less control,

I will either get off Facebook so I can keep my job or seek professional help.”

After what has been pretty much a media-frenzied locust plague over the last three weeks, I began to think, “Hey, what will happen after the election? We’ve been told that if we choose wrong, the apocalypse will come, the sea will turn red and the zombie-takeover will begin. Don’t get me wrong, it matters, but a lot of nutty people have access to the media. I’m at the beach at the moment, and I try to remember that the water is only as sanitary as the least sanitary person sharing it with me. The pool is pretty polluted at the moment with Chicken Littles, convinced that they, alone, know how dire things are if we don’t think just like them. Whew.

A friend sent me a pretty good picture from Oregon. I’m guessing it was a church sign, but I don’t know. Unfortunately, my fellow preachers are all Be coolriled up at the moment, apparently having taken care of local sin and now ready to wipe it out globally. I myself resist this, since I’ve been around to watch a good bit of human foolishness. There’s plenty to take seriously, but there’s so much chaff out there that you need a microscope to find some wheat.  Well, this picture inspired me, so I created my own pledge. I decided to make a pledge for AFTER the election. When we have to carry our shame for all the stupid and ignorant things we’ve believed, forwarded, said and argued. Unfortunately, most of us will NOT get appointed to a new job or, like consultants, get a big fat contract out of it if their guy wins. We have to go back home and eat dinner with Uncle Ernie, who thinks your views are sending America straight to hell. And you yelled at him that he was a racist neanderthal and he looked wounded and looked up “neanderthal” on the web and then stopped speaking at dinner.

And people will have to get offline, and go back to work. And congresspeople will have to do whatever it is they are doing up there, or not doing. So here is a pledge for all of us. I call it the BOTH AND PLEDGE. I am the first signer. Read the rest of this entry

Forgiveness: Enough Already!?

NRS Matthew 18:21 Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

How much forgiveness is enough? It’s relevant at the moment, since one Presidential candidate says he has never asked anyone for forgiveness and the other one seems to be unable to get any from the public because of past sins. What does forgiveness mean?

Jesus said, “Seven times seventy is enough.” Peter is seeking Jesus’ approval.  He has heard Jesus talk about forgiveness. I’m sure the question must have occurred, “How long do I have to do this?”  He thought it might be virtuous to forgive seven times, the number of perfection in the Jewish faith.  If some one does the same thing to you seven times in a row and you forgive them, you’re a pretty good person.  I’ve always thought, “On number eight, could I slap the daylights out of them?” I’ve had my troubles with anger. I’m a man. Read the rest of this entry

Be Like The Samaritan

How providential that today’s lectionary text is the story of the Good Samaritan and my children’s sermon on the book Amazing Grace, about a little African American girl named Grace who is told that she cannot be Peter Pan in the class play because she’s a girl and she’s black. Thank you, God, for divine nudges to our hearts.

I am a long way from the events in Louisiana, Minnesota and Dallas, but I want to do something. I offer this prayer from my book, “A Prayer for Justice” POEMS, PRAYERS AND UNFINISHED PROMISES,” p. 63. If you would like a copy of the book, I intend to give all that I receive from the book this week as a donation to the families of the slain officers in Dallas, and the two shootings in Baton Rouge and Minneapolis. To order go to my page on facebook. May the God who brings peace from all hate and pain bless all those hurting today and bring the justice that is blessing for all.

Mighty God,
Whose eyes see into our deepest motives
and whose justice is without exception in requirement,

we come as those who have tasted mercy
And now are asked to live it in truth—
People of forgiveness, in the sojourn to wholeness
And learning to live as real neighbors with one another.

Today we listen to what You ask of us all—
To love You truly and with all that we are
and to love our neighbors as ourselves

We need Your help
To see our neighbors, beyond our own self-preoccupation;
To hear cries of pain that are sometimes hidden
by respectability or ignorance or indifference
Make us people who do what is right
beyond what is required and in spite of what we fear.

A children’s book of the Good Samaritan we read our children ended with Jesus saying to his hearers, “Be like this Samaritan.” I want to help. I’m going to do what I can. I hope you will.

A Primer on Idolatry

“WELCOME TO THE MUSEUM OF PRIMITIVE RELIGIONS!  Step this way and now look at the peculiar display on the subject of idolatry.  We modern people cannot comprehend how superstitious were the ancients, such that the Hebrews prohibited carving little statues and bowing down to them…”

Since we religious folk have a 3,000 year old tradition and an ancient story crossing several cultures of the ancient world, I thought I would try to explain a word that seems so outdated and dull: idolatry.  The prohibition of it is one of IDOL3the Ten Commandments, and so it would seem rather quaint for our time.  After all, we have a show called “American Idol” and we talk about “idolizing” someone.  The ancients would have been terrified at such casual talk, but since we’re fairly casual about everything, maybe a museum lecture would be interesting.

In the ancient world, people represented their faith all sorts of ways–they worshiped trees, poles, statues, images, rocks, and projected divinities upon all of nature.  Generally, they created these images with the understanding toat there might be a little sympathetic magic possible–to guarantee a good crop, success in life, or victory in war, by appeasing the god with offerings.

The Hebrews were forbidden this luxury.  Only the mysterious God of Moses, a God who would not even reveal his name except as another mystery, was the true God.  They could not control this God, manipulate the Lord for their own purposes or take God for granted as a national plaything or prop for the king.  This God demaned justice, brought them to judgment when they failed and humbled kings when they became too haughty.

Idolatry, or the worship of false gods, is, essentially, confusing Creator and creation. When we elevate anything created into the place only rightly for God, it becomes idolatrous. Thus, Paul in Colossians, moves from concern about greed to idolatry (NRSV Colossians 3:5 Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry).

IDOL2

Modern Usage

It is idolatrous precisely because it rules over our life. Addictions are the idolatry of that which was created good–but not ultimate! Thus, food, sex, work, even family, patriotism, religion, can all be “idolatrous” if we do not live loosely attached to them–that is, understanding our right relationship to them. They and we will pass away. It is not worth ruining one’s spiritual life, for example, simply to feed the bottomless need for affirmation, fame, money or stuff.  Food, sex, work, family, country and religion are all also good.  But they are not ultimate.

It is equally idolatrous to want to be the most spiritual person in the world, to identify one’s own interpretations of God’s word and will with God’s word and will. This is the most dangerous of all. Idolatry is twofold–to lift up the earthly to the place of God and forget God. It is equally and also the desire to bring “god” down to earth, to create a manageable god who doesn’t ask too much of us, who is always just what we want God to be, our “buddy,” and never our judge or mystery. To understand God truly is to never forget that only God is God, and that our attempts to know God are never all that God is. To remember this is the beginning of wisdom.

The only way, then, to rightly live in this world is with contentment regarding what we have and humility with regards to our self-understanding, and for that to be enough. It is to be humble with regards to who we are, and to accept ourselves as God made us, and accept and care for others as they are, not imposing ourselves on them. To demand the impossible of oneself or others is also to stand at the border of idolatry. Truth about ourselves, our lives, and what is right is the aim of life. It is enough to see what God has made and simply say, “It is good. This is enough.”

Healthy self-regard means accurate, balanced, true self-understanding and to accept oneself.  Period.  It is the delusional need to project ourselves upon the world to deny our limits that can lead to wars, violence, self-hatred and hate of others.  And it is precisely here that we understand why both politics and religion are so often destructive.  We elevate our own views, demands and needs beyond criticism, discussion and conversation with God’s other creatures.  Rather than listening to one another and figuring out the best way, we engage in the most expensive and nefarious games to avoid ever telling or admitting another’s truth.  “Spin” is simply another word for deceit, even if it is oneself who is deceived.  The motive for the deceit is the real culprit, and both religion and politicians should spend much more time and energy there, for the good of themselves and the rest of us.  When one is more consumed with preserving ones own position, power or advantage than the good of our neighbor, an idol is nearly complete.

IDOL“Thanks for your patience, folks.  I hope you found this interesting.  That ends our museum lecture from these primitive people so long ago.  Quaint, isn’t it?  Well, back to our progressive, technologically superior world.  Fortunately, we are more evolved.  Our politics more humane.  Someday, we’ll live together in peace and everyone will have what they need.  Humankind never had it so good.  There is no problem we cannot solve, is there?  And if we can just get our people elected, the sky’s the limit…”

Standing Up for Children in Birmingham, Alabama

Several years ago, Dr. Penny Marler approached me about participating in a program where pastors might become

Rev. Arthur Price

Rev. Arthur Price

friends across differences—race, age, denomination—and learn from each other.  Rev. Arthur Price and I decided to make that journey together.  He is the pastor of historic Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, where, 50 years ago this fall, people driven by hate and fear set off a bomb that killed four little girls who had just prayed together.  The episode set off a national revulsion to the radical racists and helped put America in a new direction.

kthompson_PKDHAZ6R

Rev. Keith Thompson

Over the course of that few years, we became friends, Arthur much younger, a different personality, a native of the North, me a son of the South.  It was one of the richest experiences of my life, and it is documented on the website of the Resource Center for Pastoral Excellence.   (For more information about the project Rev. Price and I did together, click HERE)

One of the side blessings of that friendship was connecting our churches.  We visited each others’ deacons meetings, had our congregations together for fellowship, and continued our friendship by having breakfast together regularly over the years.  Last year, we began to talk together about doing something positive that would mark this anniversary by affirming that we are in a new day and that the faith community is part of that.  We were joined by another friend, Rev. Keith Thompson of First United Methodist Church downtown.

After the massacre at Newtown in December, our sense of commitment was heightened.  Whatever strikes at our Read the rest of this entry

Lessons in Politics from a Baptist Preacher

I don’t know many people who aren’t generally disgusted with the political process right now.  Left to right, top to bottom, it’s a mess.  I thought I’d put a little advice together for would-be leaders.

Further, Baptist preachers are about the most able politicians around.  They are more like small-town sheriffs, who have to lock you up AND get your vote.  Since Baptist churches are about the purest form of democracy around, where even the least of these can topple the most of those with enough work, a Baptist preacher learns to hone the skills of

We are one in the spirit

diplomacy, bridge-building and persuasion.  We have to run for election every year.  It’s called “the budget.”  A lot of high-handed Baptist preachers take over churches, of course, with dictatorial ways, but it doesn’t last long.  Turns out that once you deceive people they decide, for some unknown reason, to stop funding your foolishness.

So here are some lessons from a 33 year veteran who has survived some titanic battles over camellia bushes, building programs, and even got a church to vote for a letter of apology to an offended church member once who got mad when his name wasn’t read at the centennial celebration thirty years before.  He wobbled back into church on his walker a few months before he died, looked up and said, “Preacher, you reckon the building will fall down if I come in?”  And a good old deacon said, “Well, if it does we’ll build it back.”

A little unsolicited advice:

  1. You have to learn how to build consensus.  Winning 51-49 is not winning.  You don’t need unanimity, but until you accomplish good for all, you haven’t won.
  2. You will learn humility willingly or eventually.  Willingly is much less painful.
  3. Since politicians seem to evidence almost no persuasive ability in the current moment—I add this one:  “Learn to tell a story.  Keep it simple.  Tell the truth.  Truth doesn’t need help.”
  4. The same people you defeat will have to help pay for it in the end.  They are not enemies, so unless you can regain their support, you lose in the long run.
  5. It’s dangerous to claim God is on your side and never leave room for disagreement.  Even if you and your mother think so.  God is not too keen on preachers as court jesters and God is intolerant of people misusing the divine name, so you’ve been warned.
  6. Preaching that doesn’t turn into good deeds doesn’t amount to anything.
  7. You have to trust others to make real changes.  Nobody does it by themselves.
  8. Those who live by demonization die by demonization.
  9. Forgive and move on.  It’s just that simple.  Holding grudges is a waste of valuable energy.
  10. Sometimes you just do what is right and let the chips fall.  There are worse things than losing your job.
  11. Believe in Someone or Something larger than you.  Without a real vision, not only do the people perish, but nothing really happens.
  12. It’s not your church.  It’s not their church.  It’s God’s church.  Seems to me this applies to countries, property, power and prosperity.
  13. If there isn’t any money, you can’t spend it.  It’s not rocket science.
  14. Doesn’t hurt to let someone else take credit now and then, even if it’s your idea.
  15. A good staff makes a poor preacher look great.
  16. Principles matter the most when they are most inconvenient and unpopular.  Lose ‘em and you might as well quit anyway.
  17. No matter how high and mighty you get, the Almighty gets the last word.
  18. Don’t do the Devil’s work for him.
  19. Know when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em.  Even a great idea ahead of its time will lose to anxiety and fear and misinformation.
  20. As a friend of mine put it, “Everything happens for a reason.  Sometimes the reason is you’re stupid and you make bad decisions.”
  21. Love really is the great truth of life.  Politics, even with the noble concept of “justice” will degenerate into darkness without the temper of love.

To Kill A Mockingbird…50 years later

Here in Alabama, To Kill a Mockingbird is one of our great treasures.  You can still go to Monroeville, Alabama and see a live re-enactment of the story every year by the local citizenry.  You start out in the yard, then move inside the courthouse, and it is eerily reminiscent of the movie because Hollywood built a replica of it for the film.  When I went with friends a few years back, I felt a flash of shame and pain when the n-word was uttered while African American locals up in the balcony were in our presence.  I was embarrassed.  So we’ve made some progress, I guess.  As a child in North Carolina the word was uttered around me thoughtlessly, as a part of an unquestioned culture of resentment and vulnerable entitlement. Read the rest of this entry

The Two Cases of Trayvon Martin

When it comes to the painful problem of race, it’s never about one thing…it’s about everything. 

Trayvon Martin

By Gary Furr

The explosion that has occurred in recent days over the shooting of a Florida  teenager has reignited one of our oldest and most enduring debates.  The case of Trayvon Martin has caused outbursts between journalists, demonstrations and a weary “Will we ever be able to move past this?” cloud to hover again over us.  The gulf between the races is painfully obvious.  It sounds as though we are talking about two different cases.  And we are.

In the late 1980s, I listened as an African American pastor friend in South Georgia, a disabled veteran, told me about watching men with pickhandles and baseball bats beat his father nearly to death because his father had disagreed with his boss at work.  As a ten year old boy, he watched through the blinds in terror.  He described a journey of forgiveness and grief over that incident that lasted far into adulthood as he tried to make peace with incomprehensible violence.

In July of 2010, I was a part of a group of pastors from Alabama who traveled together to Israel for a pilgrimage as part of a very generous grant from a foundation aimed at giving us rest, study and spiritual renewal.  Amazingly, since our congregations did not have to pay for it, they all voted to let us go.

It exceeded our expectations, as we all enjoyed a wonderful experience of community and prayer in the land where the founder of our faith walked the earth.  It is also a place of contradictions, of course, and we saw those, too.  We saw the ugly “barriers” that cordoned off the Palestinian people in their towns, born of genuine anxiety for security among the Israelis and yet which only deepens the frustrations between the two groups.  Security is always a concern where mistrust abounds.

If you ever go to the “Holy Land,” as we Christians usually call it, the entry to the airport begins with a clump of scowering, eagle-eyed security people clustered around a narrow doorway where everyone enters, looking you up and down with folded arms and either expressionless or glaring.  We walked past–I had been before and advised everyone, “Don’t joke, don’t laugh, just walk through.”

At one point, I heard something, and noticed that our three African-American pastors had all been detained and whisked to the side.  I started to go back, thought better about, and simply waited until the interrogation was over.  In a little while, they were released and we were on our way.  At first we kidded and joked, but then we fell silent.

Hard to talk about it

It was obvious to me that they were pained about this.  They are three highly educated, holy, respected men, two veterans and one a younger pastor.  Their integrity is as high as I know.  I would trust my life to them.  But in a world of fear and insecurity, all that goes out the window.

Later, we talked about it, and they told us that this was and always had been a part of life.  They were pulled out for no other reason than their skin color.  They told us stories of being pulled over because of the car they were driving or walking down a street.  As we began to comprehend some of what they had been through, our mood about the incident, short as it had lasted, changed to somber and sad reflection.  A world in radical distrust is a painful thing indeed.

Having once lived in a small community that exploded in a racial crisis during the 1980s, I once said in a meeting that when it comes to racial divides that “truth can become a casualty.”  It got a negative reaction and I realize why it was wrong.  It’s not truth that becomes the casualty, it’s the argument about the facts.  It is akin to a debate between a married couple about when the last time he kissed his wife—it is beside the point.

The bare facts of a particular event can miss the point when it is connected to a cosmic or cultural reality.  There is always more “here” and so we end up arguing, in a sense, about a particular case AND a long painful history AND the emotional, experiential and perceptive divide between us.  If we do not understand this, the temptation is then either to say, “Courts, justice and processes should be thrown out” or to say, “This is all emotion, irrationality, fear and overreaction.”

In times like this one, perceptions, experiences, truths, that need, more than anything, to be shared, heard and understood often explode into the moment.  Most of the time, these complexities are ignored, suppressed or unnoticed.   The outcry calls attention, but there is hard work to be done in every place when the protests end and the media moves on to the next thing.

Understanding is hard, hard work.  So is justice.  Facts are the limiting factor of an investigation, but our disconnections from one another are something bigger that deserves some work at the level of our citizenship and “neighbor love.”  If we have solved many of the legal issues of race, we have not overcome the pain of our disconnections and distrust of one another.  We are in the realm of attitude, perceptions, and understanding.

In the community where I was, we had a wonderful group of leaders, black and white, who had met and worked together to deepen understanding for a long time before the crisis happened.  Without it, no way to work through it would have existed.  That these channels do not often exist in many communities where people of good will intentionally step out of their usual places to offer themselves as listeners is part of the disconnect.  Good relationships don’t happen without an effort on both ends.

The particular case of Trayvon Martin’s death is one thing legally, and another in this larger sense.  When it comes to racial matters, it’s never about one thing—it’s about all the things.  For Christians who have been handed the ministry of reconciliation, this is a fine time to listen, not react.  The calling to Christians in such a moment is to patience, to not reacting, to find a place where something good could be done, to keep our tempers, and to work for understanding and patient agape love.  Listening never costs anything more than a little time, but it can only be given by the surrender of one’s attention and care.  It is fitting in Holy Week to remember Paul’s breathtaking summary that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” (2 Corinthians 5:19).   Holy week is a memory that it is in the most unpromising times that the world can change for the better.

Simple Things and Joseph Kony

I have not been surprised at the diverse and passionate reaction to the Joseph Kony 2012 video, viewed by more than 80 million people as of last night, with accusations of everything from overreaction to his being a “CIA contractor.”  I can comprehend the anguish.  When I went to Kenya in 2007, I was overwhelmed by the sight of tens of thousands of people living in the slums of Nairobi, and the complexities of a country whose history I only began to understand.  I chose a humble approach, assuming I knew nothing and had few answers.  I also know that only the people of a place can finally discover the answers for their nation. Read the rest of this entry

The Ten Commandments of Change (Part Two)

I am not sure why I started this.  I have been thinking, at 57, about how disappointing the world, other people, the church, society, politicians, even myself, are.  And yet, I hope.  I still think things can be better.  This is mysterious.  I went to Mount Thinkaboutit to consider this, and came down with two tablets carved in sand, so they can be easily revised if needed, but these are some things I have thought about in my experiences thus far.  Commandments 1-5, unless I have changed them, are in yesterday’s post.

6.  Let it Begin with Me.  A changed world begins in changed people.  Changed worlds can also change people.  But the most powerful change is when outer and inner converge.  Watch out.  Right person, right time, right opportunity and the right choice is a recipe for something the world is waiting for and doesn’t know it.
7.  Technique isn’t enough.  At some point, there is this mysterious power called, “Inspiration,” which comes from the words for “breathe into.”  Change is part analysis, part prescription, and big part art.  Technicians and engineers are often in danger of attempting to work without value, the artistic, the visionary.  Visionaries, on the other hand, must also be guarded.  They are like the Little Girl with the Curl.  When they’re right, they’re very, very right, and…(see # 1 in Part One, “humility”)
8.  Suffering is Being Alive.  “Passion” is the word that gets used a lot, but now we tend to see it as “overwhelming love for,” and even “desire,” without the medieval meaning so often connected with it—submission, suffering, being subject to something.  Originally it referred to the crucifixion of Jesus, “the passio”, in Latin, thus, “suffering love.”  If the medieval mind was too heavily on the “being subject” part, I wonder if we have severed love too much from it.  Grieve, suffer, ache, long, these are all the aliveness of love.  Change begins when we let ourselves “love” the world passionately, and therefore suffer inevitably with and for it.
9.  Change alone, Rejoice alone.  You will love your neighbor as yourself, a friend of mine used to say.  Self-loathing people loathe others.  People who want to fix the world in an external way never really connect to the human and utterly involved nature of this enterprise.  You can stand at a distance, of course, and lob grenades at the foibles of humankind.  This is called, “commentary.”  It can be a tiny piece of change if it really changes minds, but the object of words to change must be connection and communication and ultimately a summon to understand and join together, not merely celebrate a superior mind in a hopeless world.
10.  Assessment is Necessary and Impossible.  You cannot finally know the good you do any more than the evil that you are doing, not fully.  This is never an excuse not to act.  Christians talk often of “faith”, and too often as a noun rather than a verb.  That is, it is too often a thing they “have,” like a AAA membership in case of a spiritual flat tire.  This “thing” is something they possess, a rabbit’s foot and a lucky charm that can be tossed aside after one freshman philosophy course, because it is not really faith at all.  Faith “trust” is more like a “conviction,” a belief about the way things are that is so deep that nothing so superficial as mountains of consensus and cultural agreement can shake it away.  Results are good.  They are not required to act and sometimes dissuade us from what must be done.   Get busy.  Do something.