Thought Provoking Thursday – In Who We Trust

So, I live in a country where there is much disillusionment with government, aversion to politics and the unthinkable reality that the best candidate put forward by the Republicans is at least borderline racist, misogynist, rude and grandly egotistical.  How did we arrive at this state of affairs in a country that professes a large population of those who ‘follow Jesus’?  In some ways, I get it.  The level of mistrust towards elected officials, an extreme aversion to being told what to do by central administration and confrontational bi-partisan bickering is all too understandable.  Into the vacuum on both sides of the divide step Mr Trump and Mr Sanders.

But, it occurs to me that we might have misplaced our fears for our freedoms and aversion to being controlled in the wrong direction.  Don’t get me wrong, there is little on either side of the current political spectrum to admire.  Even the most ardent supporter would doubtless admit the current President has failed to deliver on the heady promises of ‘Yes We Can’ that so inspired the groundswell behind his election.  The irrational and obstructive behaviour of a Republican congress seems to have been based predominantly on an emotional loathing towards the first African American POTUS.  Carried by the conservative media, we have been subject to the irrational claims that Mr Obama is not a citizen of the US, is a muslim, a communist and dare I say it, is a person of colour?

So, I get why the general population has had it up to here!  But for those who profess a faith in Jesus, the reconciler, an advocate for peace, the despiser of none and one who seemed to have no discriminatory bone in his body (Read the account of his encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4), I wonder if we have drifted far from the core beliefs of our creed.  First of all, our aversion to government involvement in our lives should be tempered by Jesus’ own lack of aversion.  At no time did he express any revolutionary thoughts towards the clearly corrupt and controlling government of the time.  Indeed, the few references we can find to his attitude seem to indicate quite the opposite.  When it came to taxes collected on behalf of the Roman oppressors, he seemed to encourage ‘giving to Caesar what is due to Caesar.’  Perhaps even more radical, he advocated carrying the Roman soldiers’ burden not just the statutory one mile, but to go the second mile.  There were those amongst his disciples who must have wondered at his lack of zeal for uprising against the current oppressive regime, perhaps this was at the heart of Judas’ disillusionment.

Today, we regard any interference by the government as a blanket ‘bad thing’ and a solid tranche of US Christians have gladly aligned themselves with the ‘tea party’ movement and latterly, Mr Trump’s seeming independence from the strictures of central government.  Perhaps our fear is focused in the wrong direction?  We live in an age where real control seems to have been ceded to those with financial power and our freedoms are not so much threatened by greater central regulation, but by those who seek to control more of the world’s wealth and so our own lives.  The most worrying trend concerning our elected officials is the extent to which they are in thrall to the oligarchy that really holds the strings of power.  Indeed, it might well be the lack of regulation and the impotence of any recent government not to reign in this stranglehold on our freedoms that should be our biggest complaint.

When the banks corruptly gambled with the world’s economy, it was the man in the street who lost his job and his house, not the financial leaders, all of whom not only escaped without punishment, but were bailed out by the governments of the day.  When a majority of the population knows that sensible gun regulation would prevent at least some of the tragic deaths caused by firearms, it was the power of the NRA that left the government powerless to act on their behalf.  Despite the overwhelming evidence to suggest that fossil fuels is destroying the environment, the pressure to find alternatives has been painfully slow on the back of the powerful oil lobby.  As for the proliferation of armed conflicts in the world, one can only imagine the benefits to the powerful defense industry.  These are just a few examples of organizations that seem to have the real stranglehold on the lives of the general population.  It seems to me that it is time for those citizens, from whichever part of the political spectrum they belong, to take back their own government and like Wilberforce, Luther King and many others, allow legislative power to be used for the promotion of peace, prosperity and protection for the majority and no longer pander to the whims of the small minority.

Topical Tuesday – Bathroom Rights

I felt the need to weigh in on this controversial subject as soon as I heard about the new laws passed in North Carolina’s House Bill 2.  For those of you, perhaps living in a different part of the world, who have missed the furore arising from this legislation, let me explain.  North Carolina’s legislature took  it upon themselves to pass a law making it mandatory for its citizens only to use public bathrooms designated for their anatomical gender of birth.  The implication of this ruling was clearly designed to target transgender people wishing to use a bathroom associated with the gender with which they most strongly identify.  My immediate reaction to this development was to recall the discriminatory bathrooms of the apartheid era in South Africa, which I witnessed first hand on visits in the 80’s.  The exclusion of people of color from ‘white only’ bathrooms was apparently a feature of the deep south in the US not so many decades ago.  For the record, it is important to point out here that the law only applies to state owned bathrooms and not public bathrooms associated with private businesses.

But, to be fair, what were the salient reasons for passing such a law, and do they stand up to scrutiny?  Or is there another agenda at work here, and if so, what is it?  From all the research I have been able to do on what has become a ‘hot topic’ in the news feeds, it seems the predominant reason for this bill, presented by those in favor, is the protection of the general public from sexual predators and perverts able to operate in an inappropriate environment, i.e. a bathroom reserved for the ‘opposite sex’.  The other reason seems to revolve around a socially conservative agenda adopting a ‘bunker’ mentality when it comes to recognizing the shift in definition of gender roles.  As one commentator observed, ‘the train has already left the station’, and North Carolina’s stance simply highlights a rather old fashioned clinging to ‘Christian’ morals and social mores that are clearly not shared by a majority of the population of the US.

First of all, the argument that preserving birth sex only bathrooms provides protection against the actions of sexual predators seems, on the face of it, an admirable measure.  However, on further reflection, it seems to me that the issue we are dealing with here is the act of sexual predation, whether male or female and involving either gender.  What is to stop a man preying on young boys or indeed a woman doing the same with her own sex?  I am as keen as anyone to see the devastating effects of such abuse diminished, and the law, medical profession, social workers etc., who deal with such abuse should receive maximum support for anything that will help in this respect.  However, it seems the incidence of transgender people being involved in such activities is virtually zero, and paradoxically,  it is the transgender community who face far more abuse and even violent discrimination rather than the other way round.

Whilst I respect the social conservative fear of an erosion of so called ‘moral values’, the concern I have over this stance is this recurring theme of control over those who don’t agree or conform to their version of human behaviour.  I have seen the same attitude expressed towards the gay community with the desire to use legislation to prevent gay marriage.  I understand that some parents just don’t want to explain to their 7 year old daughter why a person with a beard is in the ladies bathroom.  But, whilst respecting those who wish to maintain more traditional values, there is no room for condemning or discriminating against those who choose otherwise.  And, we cannot bury our heads in the sand for ever.  Surely it would be better to explain to those who are growing up what the world really looks like and how a culture of tolerance and acceptance would go far in enhancing the world they are likely to grow up in.  I might not understand why someone chooses to reject their anatomical birth gender and prefer to associate with the opposite sex, but the fact is, this is not as rare as many might think.  It is also a dangerous throw back to darker days of discrimination, when any minority gender, race, religion or sexual persuasion are forced to conform to the wishes of those who secretly disapprove and seek to control them through force of targeted legislation.

Sunday Sermon – No Room For Doubt

“Who among us—everybody, everybody!—who among us has not experienced insecurity, loss and even doubts on their journey of faith?  Everyone! We’ve all experienced this, me too. It is part of the journey of faith, it is part of our lives. This should not surprise us, because we are human beings, marked by fragility and limitations. We are all weak, we all have limits: do not panic. We all have them.”  These were the words of the current Pope, Francis, probably the most popular Pope in recent memory.  He is not alone in expressing thoughts on a subject often neglected and yet always present underneath the steely certainty of so many pronouncements on faith.  Martin Luther, John Calvin, C. S. Lewis, Mother Theresa, to name but a few, have all uttered similar recognition of an underlying reality.

If we are honest, many of us would identify more closely with the plight of Thomas, one of Jesus’s close companions when he said that unless he felt the holes in Jesus’s side and hands he would not believe that he was risen from the dead.  There are only two other mentions of Thomas, both in John’s account.  Significantly, the first showed that he was present in the death defying encounter with Lazarus, who was given his life back four days after his untimely death.  The second was his reply to Jesus who told his disciples that they knew the road he was taking; Thomas’s response, “We have no idea where you are going.”  Poor Thomas, it seems no one else was willing to give voice to the doubts they must have had about following their radical friend.  And, having witnessed the powerful reality of the resurrection of Lazarus, he still has real doubts concerning the return of a living Jesus following his brutal crucifixion.

Those who profess to follow Jesus Christ have nothing more to go on than a belief that what was written so many years ago is at least largely true, coupled usually with  an inner response that is logically difficult to define, but we call faith.  For many, this response is reinforced by events and experiences that further confirm these responses and allow a deepening of conviction.  What we don’t spend much time examining, are the many conflicting ideas, experiences and failures that undermine and seek to weaken our resolve.  What do we do with the claims of those who do not share this faith, that we are deluded, weak, needing some reassurance of our immortality?  How do we deal with the countless times our prayers have seemingly gone unanswered?  What do we do when, like Thomas, we feel like we don’t know where this is all going and our past experiences are severely tested by the death of a loved one we thought God would heal?

There is little room given to these often unspoken fears and doubts, and yet Thomas and those I mention earlier, point to a healthy realism we might all do well to emulate.  I have the feeling that a greater acknowledgement of our inner fears and doubts, especially from those who lead the Christian community, might release so many of us from a feeling of letting the side down, from somehow disappointing the God in whom we have put our faith.  So much contemporary theology has centered around our level of faith determining how prosperous we might become, how effective our prayers might be, that to have any doubt will simply negate any positive outcome from our petitions and desires.  If we pray harder, fast longer, never doubt, then the healing will come, but when it doesn’t, somehow we have failed to move God enough as our faith fell short.

As I think about Thomas and his open acknowledgement of not knowing where this story was leading, and his stubborn refusal to say the right thing in the absence of proof, I think of the response of Jesus.  Far from chastising Thomas, he invites him to experience the proof he craves.  Surely, the mere presence of the physical Jesus should have been enough?  But Jesus allows him to experience tangible proof through touching the very wounds he said were necessary to restore his faith.  He then goes on to address the rest of us who have never had the benefit of the physical Jesus and encourages us with the promise of how much more encouraged we will be for believing without touching.  There are moments when we all have doubts about everything we believe.  Open acknowledgement does not have to undermine our faith, but, like Thomas, allows us to further our journey and deepen our faith for there was no condemnation for Thomas and so also not for us.

Thought Provoking Thursday – Certain Ambiguity

Well, I have spent quite some time over the last week pondering the issue of ambiguity and with particular reference to religious dogma.  I use the word religious dogma advisedly, as although my treatise will focus primarily on Christianity, the insistence that most beliefs are black and white seems to be common across the religious landscape.  So where am I going with this?  For a long time, I would describe my own position on what I believed as somewhere between right and arrogant!  Despite the overwhelming number of different views on so many aspects of my belief system, I somehow persuaded myself at an early age that my views were the correct ones.  For example, back in my days in the Anglican church, when I took issue with the whole premise of infant baptism, I was unable to compromise my views for the sake of remaining in communion with friends I had made there, and subsequently ended up starting a new splinter group or as we called it, ‘church’.

Since the reformation, and the advent of the overarching ‘authority’ of the ‘word of God’, the number of splinter groups and denominational groupings has swelled to almost infinite proportions.  As I journey down the streets of the US, the plethora of church names sported gives testimony to the strength of division arising from diverse interpretations of this ‘word of God’.  Perhaps one of the most divisive and fundamental of these divisions revolves around two competing ideologies known as Calvanism and Arminianism.  The first posits a lack of individual freedom to choose but puts the onus on God himself to be the arbiter of our salvation, the latter affirms the opposite and claims the individual is in full control of their eternal destiny.  Rather than attempting an impossible reconciliation of these two tenets of faith, the Christian world is largely divided between the adherents of one or the other.  I once attempted to explain this dichotomy with a picture portraying the journey of the seeker responding to these words ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved’ on one side of a bridge.  As this same individual walks under the bridge, they turn round only to see written on the back side, ‘You were chosen before the foundation of the earth’.

Yes, you are right, this does not adequately explain a logical co-existence of the two, but attempts a clever visual to accommodate and unite them.  But what if they are both true, its just our human logic is unable to incorporate them into our black and white logic.  Frankly, I struggle to understand how entities can exist in more than one place at the same time, a fairly recent phenomenon belonging to the expanding physics of quantum theory.  What gives us the idea that we can somehow define the being/concept we call ‘God’ in our own terms and especially through the oh so limited words of the bible.  How do we accommodate the expanding knowledge of scientific discovery with the seeming contradiction of what we read in the scriptures?

What if, instead of an attitude of black and white insistence that we ‘know the truth’, we adopted an acceptance of ambiguity that acknowledged our inability to define everything in black and white terms and gave credence to those with whom we might have a difference of opinion?  Would this not give way to a much greater humility towards others, and a broader more encompassing acceptance of those we don’t understand.  Just as Darwin’s ‘Origin of the Species’ was never intended to deny the existence of God, but open our eyes to just how our world might have been ‘created’, embracing ambiguity allows us to expand our horizons and incorporate so many fascinating new discoveries about the world we live in.  It would also open the way for greater unity and acceptance in our relationships with others, surely one of the greatest positives deriving from the teachings of Jesus himself.

I see nothing wrong with having opinions, even strong ones, as long as we recognize they are just that, opinions.  Much of what is touted as ‘fact’ or ‘truth’ in the mouths of those who speak for so many branches of religion has no basis in scientific or even logical thought, but relies on an inerrant and fool-proof reading of words, though inspired, which contradict themselves at so many turns.  I for one have a growing ease with not understanding everything, but enjoying that which edifies and uplifts, even when it comes from sources with which I would not naturally ally myself.  I continue to have strong opinions about what I believe, but have slowly come to realize that, in the words of my one time Anglican Rector, if you are truly open to ambiguity and have a desire to learn, you may discover ‘All kinds of good things’ along the way.

Topical Tuesday – Strange Allegiance

So, I had a short break to recharge the thought processes, during which time I visited the dentist in Mexico; long story!  Anyway, whilst sitting in the torture room ante-chamber, I was able to hold some interesting conversations with the inmates.  One particular lady was intently reading her bible but took time out to hold forth on her views regarding the US election circus.  She was very quick to convince me of her qualifications in this respect.  She was a doctor with 3 degrees and was convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that, in her words, ‘Donald Trump is the only hope for America.’

Now, don’t get me wrong, I have already made the comment that I understand why there is such a surge of support for this unlikely candidate.  For too many years now, the general public, I believe, has sensed that the career politicians supposedly representing them are generally acting in self-interest.  The recent lifting of restrictions on campaign contributions have resulted in the democratic interests of the masses being subsumed by the interests of the wealthy oligarchy that supports them.  Constant wrangling between the democratically elected president and a hostile congress have resulted in little political change or meaningful progress for many years.  The rise of Donald Trump and the unlikely Democrat, Bernie Sanders stem from a simmering dissatisfaction with the status quo.

What is truly difficult to understand, is the weight of support, typified by the passing conversation in the dentist’s waiting room, given by so many ‘Christians’ to Mr Trump.  Mr Trump recognizes this, and has sought to appeal to this substantial base, resulting in the Pope’s denouncement of his ‘Christian’ credentials.  I spent quite some time over the last few days seeking an explanation for why those who profess to follow a creed that has love and acceptance as its mainstay would throw their endorsements behind a man who represents intolerance, wants to exclude people by race or religion and in many ways stands in complete contrast to the message preached by Jesus.  Jesus himself showed amazing counter-cultural tolerance in his dealings with the woman at the well in John chapter 4 and disappointed his more zealous followers in his tacit support of their Roman overlords.

Unfortunately, since 9/11, it seems that alongside money, the predominant driver behind people’s political choices seems to be fear and self interest and preservation of a way of life.  Mr Trump and others on the right know how to exploit this fear, and use it to drum up support for their political movements.  For a long time now, the Republican right in the US have recognized the huge advantage in courting the church goers of the US with their stance on black and white moral issues that sway this subset of the electorate.  Abortion and gay marriage are probably the two most prominent influencers behind the religious right’s predominant Republican base.  It is remarkable that in eight years of a G W Bush presidency, clearly the religious right’s choice, there was no major change in the abortion laws, and the stage was set for gay marriage to be legalized at a federal level.

Driven by fear of terrorism, we see many on the religious right seduced by the push to exclude Mexicans and Muslims from the US.  Driven by irrational fear of a military government takeover, the protection of freedoms around the ownership of firearms seems completely contrary to the message of Jesus.  He urged his followers to ‘love your enemies’, ‘turn the other cheek’ and even rebuked his friend Peter when he used a sword to cut of the ear of one who had come to arrest him on false charges.  Lastly, a tacit support for the neoliberal economic mores of the Right are slowly eroding the living standards of the poorest and allowing the very small percentage of the very rich to dictate the political agenda.  In many ways, we should be more fearful of their agenda as those who are supposed to represent us all seem increasingly in its grip.

And so, although the famous words of the bible urge us that ‘Perfect love drives out fear’, I am beginning to think that fear does indeed determine much of the current political endorsement.  Unfortunately, most of us are swayed in our political endorsements by our own self – interest.  I see little evidence of a movement that seeks to put the common good above the individual, sacrifices for those who are less fortunate and is driven by a desire to embrace and welcome rather than exclude.  After all, isn’t the whole point of politics to work out how we can all best live together.  I think those of us who profess to follow that young radical from two thousand years ago need to do some serious thinking about where we are throwing our support.