Back-Pocket God

This past week, I set aside the Trump revelation books for a while to explore a book about the religious behavior and attitudes of young USA “emerging adults.” They are currently very important AND they will still be here when DT is just an old memory…..

More than fifteen years ago, a group of researchers — directed by Christian Smith, Professor of Sociology at the University of Notre Dame and Lisa Pearce, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — began to study the religious and spiritual lives of American teenagers in what was called “The National Study of Youth and Religion.” They carefully observed these young people and reported on their findings in a series of books, beginning with Soul Searching (2005). Now, with Back-Pocket God, this extensive research project comes to its conclusion.

Back-Pocket God: Religion and Spirituality in the Lives of Emerging Adults by Melinda Lundquist Denton and Richard Flory (Oxford University Press) explores the continuity and change among young people from their teenage years through the latter stages of “emerging adulthood.” Denton and Flory have discovered and documented that the story of young adult religious behavior is one of an overall decline in commitment and affiliation, and in general, a moving away from organized religion. A great many young people are not so much anti-organized religion. They are simply disinterested.

Although the young people in this book – about a quarter of the current US population and already outnumbering the Baby Boomers– are considered within the age range of what is often called the “millennial” generation, the authors do not refer to them as “millennials.” They prefer the term “emerging adults.” The book is a thorough and balanced analysis of their spiritual and religious lives: what they currently think and believe about religion, their religious practices and affiliations, and how these have changed over the course of their development from adolescence to emerging adulthood.

God for emerging adults, the study behind this book confirms, has become increasingly remote from their everyday concerns and rarely enters into their thinking or occupies an important place in their lives. In a way, the authors say, God functions like an app on their phones. God is just one thing among many other things in their lives. One could say that God is really “more of the comfortable feeling that emerging adults have, when they know their Pocket God is with them, close at hand but safely stowed out of sight.”

The top three ranked items that emerging adults identified as very or extremely important in their lives are: (1) to have a good family life (92 percent), (2) a close set of friends (89 percent), and (3) a fulfilling romantic relationship (80 percent). Less than one-half of emerging adults (49 percent) said that having a close relationship with God is very important for them and only 23 percent said that having a close relationship with God was most important.

Perhaps the most dramatic change among the emerging adults in this study concerns attendance at religious services. Attending religious services weekly or more often has dropped to 19 percent of respondents.

Clearly, emerging adults’ views about organized religion are less than positive, with an increasingly negative view of organized religion mirrored across every religious tradition. Many express their dissatisfaction and disagreement with religious institutions, usually around issues like LGBTQ identity and rights, abortion, and gay marriage. Many view the leaders of organized religions as more interested in building their own empires than in serving others. Those who were raised Catholic showed the biggest declines in positive feelings about the religion they grew up in, followed by Mainline and Conservative Protestants. Emerging adults, overall, are moving away from formal religious beliefs, practices, and participation in religious institutions. Even for those who maintain a place in their lives for religion, it tends to be treated as just one part of their lives and not more important than other things they are involved in.

Do I find this book upsetting or depressing? Not really. After researching and teaching about theology and religion for more than fifty years, I find it realistic and challenging. The scope of this book speaks to a great pastoral void. A friend observed that maybe these young adults have not left the church but that the church has left them….What one could call an ecclesiastical failure. Emerging adults are not in general antagonistic toward organized religion. Most just don’t find it all that important. Certainly if the current trends of disaffiliation and lack of interest and participation continue, religious institutions of all types will have a seriously declining membership pool and a big void in their bank accounts. One strong assertion in this book is that – unlike earlier generations — this generation will NOT be returning to church when they start having children.

The future of communities of faith depends on religious leadership observing and listening to young people without judgment and with patience and openness. I still remember, with dismay, the observations of an American bishop acquaintance. He yelled at me that “those young people need to be educated, formed, and forced to obey and observe the teachings of their Holy Mother the  Church.” I told him, much to HIS dismay, that those days are over and that “Holy Mother the Church has to start truly LISTENING to young people.”

These young people – our emerging adults – are neither racists nor xenophobic. They are already multi-racial. They are not anti-gay. They are not motivated by hatred or self-aggrandizement. They are attentive to the environment. They will indeed shape the future. We can help them by encouraging them to love, to search, to ask questions, and to find satisfying answers…..In the process they will indeed reform society and, indeed, reform the shape and focus of organized religion.

Jack

Meditative Moment

September 11, 2020

A very short reflection this week end. Take some time to find a quiet place. Take a deep breath. Slowly reflect on Rabbi Harold Kushner’s “Prayer for the World.”

Let the rain come and wash away the ancient grudges, the bitter hatred held and nurtured over generations.

Let the rain wash away the memory of the hurt, the neglect.

Then let the sun come out and fill the sky with rainbows.

Let the warmth of the sun heal us wherever we are broken.

Let it burn away the fog so than we can see each other clearly.

So that we can see beyond labels, beyond accents, gender or skin color.

Let the warmth and brightness of the sun melt our selfishness.

So that we can share the joys and feel the sorrows of our neighbors.

And let the light of the sun be so strong that we will see all people as our neighbors.

And let the mountains teach our hearts to reach upward to heaven.

Amen.

[Harold Samuel Kushner, born 1935 in Brooklyn, New York, is a prominent American rabbi and a popular author. He first caught my attention in 1981 when he wrote the best selling book on the problem of evil, When Bad Things Happen to Good People.]

The 2020 Campaign: A Theological Observation

It will probably be at least two more months before we know the winner of the US 2020 presidential election. So far the campaign has broken all historic records with its promotion of polarization, violence, and deceptive rhetoric. So far it is certainly the most chaotic and consequential in USA history. Many observers see it marking an historic turning point in US identity and social behavior. I agree with them; but as an historical theologian I also see a major theological issue underlying the current presidential campaign.

The contemporary reality is that the GOP presidential candidate has successfully tapped into significant white disaffection, racism, and fears that “their” America is disappearing. The contemporary populist movement, with strong use of religious symbol and sentiment, is actually a form of “Christian nationalism,” which is neither Christian nor patriotic.

Fundamentally, Christian nationalism ignores the historical reality that, right from the beginning, America was pluralistically multi-religious: with native American religions, Judaism, Islam, and of course Christianity. The other historical reality, that is so often either unknown or simply ignored, is that the religious and philosophical perspective of the “Founding Fathers” was more Deist than Christian. Deists argued that reason and human experience, rather than religious dogma determine the validity of human beliefs. The 1776 Declaration of Independence is a great and important national document but it is not a Christian inspired document.

Christian nationalism denies and rejects our pluralistic society. It stresses a political ideology that holds that Christians (especially white ones) have the right to rule over everyone else in US society. Christian nationalists, believe that “religious freedom” means the right to impose their beliefs on others. Christian nationalists reject authentic US American history and advocate a narrow revisionist kind of history. They insist that the “Founding fathers” were devout Christians who never intended to create a secular republic. Separation of church and state, according to this revisionist history, is a falsehood perpetrated by God-hating (usually called “leftist”) subversives.

Christian nationalist ideology advocates a fusion of American civic life with a particular type of Christian identity. It uses and often manipulates scriptural texts to promote its perspective. Vice President Pence did that on Wednesday, August 26th, in his RNC speech from Fort McHenry in Baltimore. Using the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews, Pence dropped the name “Jesus” and in its place substituted “Old Glory” i.e. the American flag. Paraphrasing the text from Hebrews 12:1-2, which states: “And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith,” Mr. Pence re-worked the text. “Let’s run the race marked out for us,” Pence said and continued, “Let’s fix our eyes on Old Glory and all she represents. Let’s fix our eyes on this land of heroes and let their courage inspire.”

The “Christianity” of Christian nationalism includes assumptions of nativism and white supremacy, along with divine approval for authoritarian control and militarism, often under the banner of “law and order.” Christian nationalism uses violence and created chaos to enforce its rule. The authentic American democratic social system, however, depends on people’s ability to disagree peacefully and still work together for the common good. Communication, compassion, and collaboration are necessary virtues.

Christian nationalism relies on far-right Protestant as well as far-right Catholic supporters, who are anti-abortion (but not really pro-life) and anti-gay. They are strongly linked to what Mark Lewis Taylor, Professor of Theology and Culture at Princeton Theological Seminar, describes as the US “corporate-warrior elite.”

The Christian nationalist corporate-warrior elite prioritizes the corporate interests of a small percentage of the US population (the wealthy 1% controls 35% of the country’s wealth) and then reinforces those interests with military-type force and surveillance. It is an old concept that President Eisenhower (a Republican remember) warned about in his January 17, 1961 farewell address to the nation. Eisenhower warned citizens about an emerging “military-industrial complex,” that was already beginning to erode democratic rule in the United States.

Today of course, the current US president has installed his corporate friends in government agency after government agency. They are now working with presidential authorization to undermine protections for ordinary people in favor of giveaways and rollbacks for big business. A shipping heiress runs the Department of Transportation. An oil lobbyist runs the Interior Department. A coal lobbyist runs the Environmental Protection Agency. A pharmaceutical executive runs the Department of Health and Human Services. An investment banker runs the Treasury Department. The Defense Department has been led by a who’s who of executives from the largest defense contractors.

Please note: the corporate-warrior elite are strong supporters of far-right, white, Christian nationalism.

Unfortunately most critics of the GOP presidential candidate limit their focus only to issues of his racism, misogyny, and narcissism. All these are worthy points of critique, but they fall short of the bigger issue. The most important issue today, in fact, is not simply critiquing presidential behavior but revitalizing a vigorous prophetic tradition that resists the corporate-warrior elite’s self-promoting and self-protecting narcism, racism, and injustice.

A strong element in that vigorous prophetic mission must be the repudiation of Christian nationalism, because Christian nationalism is a religiously sanctioned vision that defends, affirms, and protects the ruling elites’ nationalist projects. Contemporary Christian nationalism has the strong support of far-right militant groups like Qanon who use the politics of fear to whip up their supporters. Unfortunately the current US president supports them and calls their opponents “Anarchists, Thugs & Agitators.”

Christian nationalism is a corruption of “Christian” and “nation.” It has come to signify something mean-spirited, exclusionary, and oppressive. In theology, this is called blasphemy: a desecration of something sacred. There are strange configurations in today’s Christian nationalism: owning a gun is a right but having health care is a privilege. Anti-abortion is a key value but putting immigrant children in prison camps and cutting off health care and funding for the poor and hungry are also key values. Christian nationalists ignore the Sermon on the Mount and the story of the Good Samaritan.

One further clarification about Christian nationalists. It is neither appropriate nor correct to call them, as often happens, “evangelical Christians,” because that term indeed describes people who are committed to the authentic Jesus Christ. We should call Christian nationalists what they really are: people committed to a fabricated and false “Christianity” which has no link with the divinely inspired man from Nazareth. Their “theology” is based on distorted cultural and political beliefs rather than the Word of God.

In this 2020 election campaign it is essential that we help people distinguish Christian faith from the authoritarian ideology of the Christian nationalist movement. Christianity is a religion. Christian nationalism is a political program. There is nothing sacred about it.

Jack

[For further reading, I recommend: Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism by Michelle Goldberg]

R&R

ANOTHER VOICE is back and online again….

For many people, a vacation is a time of R&R: Rest and Recuperation. For me my days of R&R were that but also another kind of R&R: Reflections about Religion – with serious concerns about contemporary religious distortions, like QAnon.

QAnon is particularly alarming. The QAnon conspiracy movement uses overt religious language linking itself directly to the Bible, to Christianity, and to God’s work in the world. The current US president does not question the truth behind the claims of the QAnon conspiracy movement but offers them his help, praises them for “loving their country,” and for supporting him. QAnon members in fact are a politically-focused religious cult and they believe the current US president is a divinely-sent Messiah who is working at great personal cost to defeat “leftist evil” people and to usher in a great golden age American Utopia. QAnon, like a contemporary virus, is unhealthy religion.

All religions are organized systems of beliefs and practices (symbols, rituals, codes of conduct, etc.) that, ideally, point people to the Divine and help them find answers for the ultimate questions of human life. Ideally, religion interprets and strengthens authentic faith experiences. Sometimes however, religion focuses more on ideology than faith and becomes a an unhealthy cult that worships its leaders and controls people through emotionally-charged rhetoric, falsified information, and unquestioned obedience to authoritarian leaders.

The signs of healthy religion and unhealthy religion are very clear. Healthy religion maintains a balance between belief and moral behavior. When this balance is lost one risks slipping into a form of religion that becomes an impersonal and dehumanizing ideology.

Some R&R : “Reflections about Religion” for contemporary consideration:

1. Healthy religion is grounded in contemporary Reality with all of its ups and downs. Unhealthy religion is grounded in fantasy and longs for the good old days, which of course were only good for a select segment of society. Consider, for example, nineteenth and early twentieth century white, Anglo-Saxon, male-dominant, Protestant America.

2. Healthy religion builds bridges between people. Unhealthy religion builds walls and creates barriers separating people into qualitative classes of people.

3. Healthy religion promotes a basic sense of trust and relatedness to people and to the universe.

4. Healthy religion stimulates and encourages personal reflection, questioning, and responsibility.

5. Healthy religion promotes human sexuality as a mutually affirming way of living and being with self and others. It does not use and abuse others just for personal (“Grab ’em by the pussy”) genital gratification.

6. Healthy religion encourages intellectual honesty and a serious examination of doubts and uncertainties.

7. Unhealthy religion stresses feelings rather than thoughtful reflection. It is afraid to question.

8. Healthy religion supports and empowers people.

9. Unhealthy religion imposes power OVER people in often dismissive and demeaning ways.

10. Healthy religion promotes hope-filled love, compassion, and collaboration.

11. Unhealthy religion demonizes one’s opponents and validates hatred, cruelty, and violence.

12. The historical Jesus practiced and advocated healthy religion. Healthy and genuine Christians follow his example.

THE COURAGE TO BE

One of my Covid-19 lockdown activities has been sorting books in my home library: deciding which ones to keep and which ones to give to the university library. Something I do each year; but this year I was a bit more aggressive, thinking other people could use the books that now simply gather dust. As I was dusting and sorting, one book slipped off a shelf and fell on the floor: The Courage To Be by Paul Tillich. I picked it up and immediately said to myself: “That’s it!”

Paul Tillich (1886 – 1975) was a German-American theologian and philosopher who moved to the United States after fleeing from Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Tillich taught at Union Theological Seminary, Harvard Divinity School, and the University of Chicago. He is recognized as one of the most influential theologians of the twentieth century. In his 1952 book, The Courage to Be, Tillich stressed the phrase I had underlined years ago: “courage is directly tied to being, or a self-affirmation of one’s being.” In his book, Tillich explored the conquest of anxiety and the meaning of courage in the history of Western thought.

My point this week is not to get into a philosophical discussion about Paul Tillich’s perspective but rather to stress the absolute necessity of maintaining and helping others to maintain the “courage to be” in our pandemic and chaotic days.

Courage affirms who we are. It enables us to maintain our sense of dignity and self worth. Courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The courageous person is not the one never feels afraid, but the one who conquers that fear. It is an individual and a group effort. Courage, compassion, and collaborative action create a hopeful tomorrow.

As Christians we draw our strength from the teaching and action of Jesus of Nazareth: the courageous man of God. The Gospel portraits speak loudly and clearly. Today I stress just a few that have always touched me:

– As I write a couple weeks ago, Jesus courageously worked against an ingrained prejudice against women. He defended the woman about to be stoned to death. He ignored the taboo about men speaking to women in public. And he welcomed women as his disciples. Later women were the first to announce that he had bern raised from the dead.

– Jesus courageously combatted the ingrained prejudice against foreigners. This of course is the focus of “The Good Samaritan.”

– Jesus courageously denounced religious hypocrites. He called them “blind guides” who “disregarded the more important matters of the Law: justice and mercy and faithfulness.” (Matthew 33 and Luke 11)

– And something that certainly has a contemporary ring: Jesus courageously struggled against angry and violent protesters. Recall for example the scene in Matthew 26: “At that time Jesus said to the crowd, ‘Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me? Every day I sat in the temple courts teaching and you did not arrest me. And the reaction from the crowd: “Then they spit in his face and struck him with their fists. Others slapped him….”

– It is important to remember as well that Jesus knew fear. As he realized his violent death was immanent, he experienced terrible anxiety and fear. After the “Last Supper,” he went to the olive grove Gethsemane with disciples. He began to be “….greatly distressed and troubled and he said to them: ‘my soul is very sorrowful, even to death’….and he fell on the ground and prayed that if it were possible the hour might pass from him.” (Mark 14) The,portrait in Luke is more dramatic. There the fearful Jesus begins to sweat drops of blood. (Luke 22:24)

– My favorite images of Jesus the courageous are in the Fourth Gospel. The Jesus who stands before Pilate is strong: “…the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone the side of truth listens to me.” Later as he carries his cross to calvary, he needs no help and he doesn’t fall down. The strong and courageous man. (John 18)

Courage is fortitude, strength, endurance and the ability to confront fear, uncertainty, and intimidation.

Courageous people strengthen and enCOURAGE others.

In our Christian faith, hope, and love may we continue strong and supportive of others.

Jack

P. S. I am taking a couple weeks away from my computer for R&R and will return at the end of August.

Remember the Serenity Prayer attributed to the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892 – 1971)

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.

Courage to change the things I can.

Wisdom to know the difference.

“Religion and Values”

“Religion and values” in U.S. society has been a special focus for my research, writing, and teaching for many years. I am hardly an expert; but I do have an informed historical understanding and a keen interest in socio-cultural movements and trends. And I continually ask critical questions. Those questions certainly go beyond the United States of course. Right now, however,  much  of my attention is on an authoritarian cult group that goes under the name “QAnon” or simply “Q.”

“Q” followers yearn for another Great Awakening. They believe the current U.S. president, their Messiah and savior, is waging a war against an elite group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles in government, business, and the media. Key among those evil people, they believe, are former U.S. president, Barack Obama, former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, and billionaire philanthropist George Soros. Using apocalyptic religious imagery, “Q” cultists believe that through an imminent event of “biblical proportions,” a kind of domestic military action known as “The Storm,” thousands of people will be arrested, taken prisoner, and eventually executed. This will bring in a new age of utopia for faithful “Q” followers. And DJT will make it happen.

Wild fantasy? Perhaps. “QAnon” does have thousands of supporters and it is growing. It is a well organized, and a well financed authoritarian cult.

In chaotic times, authoritarian cults flourish because they offer simple answers for complex situations. They focus on feelings more than thinking. And they surrender body and soul to the all-wise and all-knowing cult leader who – often after creating chaos — promises salvation out of chaos. My reading of history confirms that, far too often, in  chaotic times, freedom, democracy and human rights are easily lost, because people begin to focus just on themselves. They loose their moral consciousness, or they simply stop thinking.

The transition from democracy to an authoritarian cult begins when the leader lies all the time and discredits truth as such. In Orwellian style, words get reversed meanings: “lies” become “truth.” “Facts” become “fake news.” That transition is complete when people are no longer able to distinguish between truth and feeling, between facts and fantasy. They begin to celebrate their own blissful ignorance.

In our turbulent socio-cultural and pandemic times, regardless what one thinks about “Q”, I thought it might be helpful to review the main characteristics of authoritarian cults:

Authoritarian cults assume religious dimensions because they are systems of belief, practices, symbols, and rituals, that propose answers for the big questions about life, meaning, and security.

Authoritarian cult leaders often proclaim goals anchored in ‘”law and order.” In fact, however, their goals are more often self-promoting personal goals: promoting their own wealth, gaining power over followers, and satisfying their personal need for adulation.

When the authoritarian cult leader wants something to be true, he (usually a “he”) simply announces that it is true. Anyone takes issue with his thinking is accused of being part of an evil plot against him.

Politically, the authoritarian cult leader works to create an autocracy: a regime in which the authoritarian leader is above the law and the leader’s words in fact become the law.

The cult leader speaks the “Truth,” while the media,“trouble-making protesters,” and intellectuals spread “fake news” and “lies.”

In an authoritarian cult group, all questioning, all doubts, and all dissent are not just discouraged but strongly punished, in one way or another.

The authoritarian cult leadership dictates how members should think, act, and feel. Feelings are important.

For cult leaders and followers, “Law and Order” becomes secretive, right-wing domestic terrorism, or “vigilante justice.”

An authoritarian cult group is elitist. It claims a special exalted status for itself and for its leader. The leader is considered the Messiah, with close to limitless power.

The authoritarian leader’s special mission is to save humanity from leftist intellectuals and other dangerous people and groups.

Authoritarian cult groups have a polarized, “them” and “us” mentality. “They” are the evil and satanic enemy. Xenophobia and racism, and often misogyny and homophobia, become virtues.

The authoritarian cult leader is not accountable to any other “authorities” because the leader is the all-wise and the only real authority.

Authoritarian cult followers are stiff necked and hard of heart. Their only interest is safeguarding their own position and power. Compassion has no place in their values system. They want to be strong. For them, compassion is weak.

Cult followers, therefore, believe their exalted ends justify whatever means deemed necessary to achieve their goals: lying, violence, and killing.

Authoritarian cult leadership induces feelings of shame and guilt in wayward followers in order to influence and control them.

Subservience to the cult leader or group requires members to cut ties with family and friends. The cult group becomes the new family.

The most loyal cult members (the “true believers”) believe there can be no worthwhile life outside the context of the cult group. All other people are dangerous and should be eliminated.

Well, we can read and find this interesting…….. Or we can Observe, Judge, and Act.

Christianity is not a cult.

Authentic democracy is not a cult.

Take care, Jack

THERE IS HOPE

A very brief reflection this weekend……We already have so much to think about.

In 1975 the Catholic bishops from across 13 states issued a remarkable pastoral letter: “This Land is Home to Me.” It touched me back then and still does today. The letter was written in a free-verse poetic style.

Although the focus in 1975 was overcoming the economic hardship and political powerlessness of the people of Appalachia, it still speaks to all of us in 2020.

The concluding lines of the letter ring so true, in our days of pandemic health crises and socio-political disorder and conflict. They are a reminder of what we are really about. A reminder that living together and working together bring hope and healing.

Jack

Dear sisters and brothers,

we urge all of you

to be a part of the rebirth of utopias,

not to stop living,

to recover and defend the struggling dream.

For it is the weak things of this world

which seem like folly,

that the Spirit takes up

and makes its own.

The dream of the mountains’ struggle,

the dream of simplicity

and of justice,

like so many other repressed visions

is, we believe,

the voice of Yahweh among us.

In taking them up,

hopefully the Church

might once again

be known as

– a center of the Spirit,

– a place where poetry dares to speak,

– where the song reigns unchallenged,

– where art flourishes,

– where nature is welcome,

– where little people and little needs

come first,

– where justice speaks loudly,

– where in a wilderness of idolatrous

destruction the great voice of God still cries

out for Life.

The Nonviolent Feminist

A feminist is someone who supports equal rights for women: someone who believes that women should have the same political, religious, social, and economic rights as men. It has absolutely nothing to do with putting down men in order to elevate the status of women.

Despite the strongly negative understanding of women and women’s rights in his day, the historical Jesus refused to treat women as inferior to men in any way. In his prophetic speech and action, Jesus — Yeshua — was a feminist.

Earlier it was perhaps better but, by the time of Jesus, religious attitudes and behavior toward women had drastically changed. In theory, women were held in high regard by first-century Jewish society, but in practice, this was not always true. First century Jewish culture was strongly patriarchal; and women in Palestine, suffered various forms of ingrained prejudice against them.The daily prayers of Jewish men, for example, included this refrain: “Praised be God that he has not created me a woman.”

The woman’s place was to be in the home: to bear children and to rear them. Men were not even to acknowledge and greet women in public. Some Jewish writers like the Jewish philosopher Philo (20 BCE – 50 CE),  taught that women should never even leave their homes, except to go to the synagogue. Women, back then, had a very restricted position. They had little access to property or inheritance, except through a male relative. Any money a woman earned belonged to her husband. Men could legally divorce a woman for just about any reason, simply by handing her a writ of divorce. A woman, however, could not divorce her husband.

In the Temple in Jerusalem, women were restricted to the outer forecourt, the “women’s court,” which was five steps below the court for men. In synagogues women were separated from the men and not permitted to read aloud. They were also not allowed to bear witness in a religious court.

All four Gospels, however, portray Jesus as boldly moving beyond the religious and cultural misogyny of his days. There are many examples, but here are three sets I like to stress:

First: Jesus spoke to women in public, which was a religious and cultural taboo.

Recall for instance when Jesus arrived at the village of Nain during the burial ceremony for the son of a widow. Breaking the socio-religious taboo, he spoke with the widow and raised her son from the dead. (Luke 7:11-17) On another occasion, when Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath, he encountered a woman who had been crippled for eighteen years.

He touched her and cured her. Publicly reprimanded for curing the woman on the Sabbath by the local religious leader, Jesus called him a hypocrite and then used a surprising title for the woman. He called her a “daughter of Abraham.” (Luke 13:16) The expression “son of Abraham” was often used to describe Jewish males but women were never called “daughters of Abraham.” With this title, Jesus boldly challenged the contemporary religious prejudice against women.

In the Fourth Gospel, we see Jesus again ignoring restrictive codes of behavior on behalf of women. One day on a journey, he had to pass through the Samaritan city of Sychar. Jacob’s well was there. Worn out out by his journey, Jesus sat down by the well. It was about noon. A solitary Samaritan woman, on her way to get water, approached him. Normally women drew water only at dawn and at dusk. A woman appearing at midday, and alone, was considered improper. The woman had probably been ostracized by the “reputable” women in her town, perhaps because she had had five husbands and currently did not have one. Jesus spoke to her. A lengthy conversation ensued. The woman herself remarked on Jesus’ impropriety. “How is it that you, a Jewish man, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” Jewish people disliked and shunned Samaritans. Remember as well that it was considered inappropriate for men to speak to women in public. Jesus, however, respected the Samaritan woman at the well and acknowledged her thirst for religious truth. He revealed TO HER his identity as the Messiah. (John 4:4–26)

Jesus also rejected the anti-woman blood taboo and refused to view such women as unclean. Women who were menstruating or had any “flow of blood” were considered ritually unclean. Anything or anyone touched by an “unclean woman” was also considered unclean. In the Gospel of Luke we find a dramatic story about such a woman. She had had had a flow of blood for 12 years. (Luke 8:43-48) Due to the constant bleeding, this woman lived in a continual state of uncleanness which brought upon her social and religious isolation. Against the taboo, she touched Jesus’ cloak. Jesus cured her and he said absolutely nothing about her ritual impurity. Surprisingly, he addressed her as “Daughter,” said her faith had saved her; and told her to go in peace. Jesus recognized the dignity of women in situations that, according to religious codes, demanded a condemnatory judgment. Think for instance about when one of the Pharisee leaders asked Jesus to eat with him. Jesus went into the Pharisee’s house for the meal. But then a “sinful woman” heard about Jesus being there, entered the house and then washed his feet with her tears, dried them with her hair, and anointed them with perfume. To the amazement of his host and all at table, Jesus then said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” This account is not anti-Pharisee per se. Jesus was stressing that even religious leaders can be blind to human compassion, forgiveness, and support. (Luke 7:36-50) Recall as well the woman caught in adultery. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. (Had they set her up?) They confronted Jesus and asked whether the punishment for someone like her should be stoning, as prescribed by Mosaic law. (They were trying to trap Jesus….) Jesus began to write on the ground

as though he did not hear them. When the woman’s accusers continued their challenge, Jesus stated that the one without sin should cast the first stone. All of the accusers then walked away, leaving only Jesus and the accused woman. Jesus then asked the woman who had now accused her. She said no one. Jesus did not condemn her. He told her to go and sin no more. (John 8:3-11) In both cases Jesus stressed that women have dignity and deserve compassionate understanding.

Second: Jesus moved beyond the sexist boundaries of his days by accepting women as his disciples.

Contrary to rabbinic practice, Jesus taught women about the Scriptures. The women with whom Jesus spoke were very likely illiterate, since the rabbis did not consider it appropriate for women to learn to read in order to study and read the Scriptures. The well-known Martha and Mary story, however, highlights Jesus’ acceptance and blessing of Mary’s desire to learn and be a disciple. She “sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak” (Luke 10:39) This was the typical position for a male disciple. To sit at the feet of a rabbi meant that that person was one of the rabbi’s disciples.

In Luke 8:1-3, Jesus is described as journeying from village to village, preaching and proclaiming the Reign of God. Male disciples were with him but also several women disciples: Mary the Magdalene, Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward, Susanna; and others. Jesus, by calling women disciples, did something startlingly new.

Third: Jesus not only had women disciples, but the Gospels assure us that these women were prominent recipients of Jesus’ self-revelation. Directly from Jesus and not via one of the men.

Jesus, as mentioned earlier, told the Samaritan woman at the well that he was the Messiah. He told Martha, the sister of Jesus’ friend Lazarus, “I am the resurrection and the life.” (John 11:25) And….in all four Gospels, women disciples were the first witnesses to the Resurrection.

————————————————————————————————————–

As I have noted in previous reflections, Jesus of Nazareth did not ordain anyone nor did he give any kind of blueprint for how the institutional church should be structured or organized. In his words and personal life example, however, he did clearly indicate how one should live in his Way….in his Spirit. We today, men and women, can not only learn from Jesus but find in his Way as well the encouragement and support for equality, respect, and collaboration in life and ministry. Healthy structures and organizational styles come from that foundation. Structures and organizational styles, however, are also flexible and provisional until something better comes along. They are the responsibility of creative contemporary believers. Let’s move ahead without fear or reluctance to change what needs to be changed.

Jack

About the Man from Nazareth

Over the past three weeks, in response to “Black Lives Matter,” I have seen a number of images of a black Jesus. A print of the Last Supper showing a black Jesus, for example, has been installed in St. Albans Cathedral in England. The artist, Lorna May Wadsworth, used a Jamaican-born model for the basis of her interpretation of Leonardo da Vinci’s 15th Century work, and said she wanted “to make people question the Western myth that [Jesus Christ] had fair hair and blue eyes.”

The name “Jesus” is a Latinized version of a Greek version of the name “Yeshua.” So was “Yeshua” dark-skinned or white? Certainly not Anglo-Saxon white as so often pictured……The average Judean man of his time would have had dark brown or black hair, olive skin, brown eyes and a height of about 5 feet 5 inches. Scholars also suggest that Yeshua probably had short hair and a beard, in accordance with Jewish practices at his time.

So what else do we know about the historical Yeshua…our Jesus?

Two Jesus certitudes that stand out for me, because they are so urgently needed today, are that he was totally non-hateful and totally pro-women.

This week, I offer some historical reflections about Jesus the nonviolent peacemaker (and what happened to that understanding). Next week reflections about Jesus the feminist. The perspectives are historically correct. They still animate and challenge contemporary believers.

I hope you will stay with me on this two-part historical-theological Yeshua journey.

The Non-violent Jesus:

Jesus’ earliest followers felt called by his example to oppose violence. An historical certitude about Jesus was his strong commitment to peace and nonviolence. He preached and taught in favor of the excluded, the poor, oppressed women, the despised, and children. Note well….he did none of this by fomenting an armed rebellion.

Yeshua’s mission was not to establish a new Kingdom of Israel but to announce the Reign of God — the here and now dynamic environment of mutual care and respect, where people begin to consciously experience God’s presence. In the Reign of God people are changed because they understand that God continues to love them without limits, without end, without condition. Reality is transformed. Society is transformed. The Reign of God is not a socio-political violent rebellion. It is a call to live in peace and compassion.

Remember how Jesus chided the armed guards who came to arrest him, saying, “Am I leading a rebellion that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me?” (Mark 14:48) To his followers who tried by the sword to prevent his being arrested, Jesus said, in Matthew, “Put up your sword. Those who live by the sword shall die by the sword.” (Matt 26:52) Further, he famously said, “Blessed are the peacemakers; for they shall be called the children of God.” (Matt 5:9) The entire Sermon on the Mount is a call to nonviolence and compassion for all people. A transformed and transforming human environment. Grace.

Jesus’ nonviolent life inspired his followers to imitate him in seeking justice in a nonviolent manner. In the first three centuries of the “Christian Era” Jesus’ followers were strongly anchored in nonviolence. That changed however when Constantine (272 – 337 CE) became Roman Emperor.

Preparing for the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312, Constantine said he had a vision of the cross in the sky inscribed with words promising that under its sign he would be victorious and become the sole Roman Emperor. After the battle, in which he led a victorious army wielding a sword in the shape of a cross, he legalized Christianity and the cross became synonymous with Christian might and power. Think for instance about the medieval “crusades” (murderous campaigns marked with the cross) undertaken by European Christians in the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries.

Yes. Early historical literature does give evidence of the position of Christian pacifists. After Constantine’s “conversion” to Christianity in 312 CE, however, many Christian bishops and leaders dropped the idea of nonviolence. This trend then moved to the extreme in 391 CE when Emperor Theodosius declared Christianity to be the only religion of the Roman Empire; and Christians no longer objected to becoming military fighters. (Separation of church and state IS a good thing!) When the “Christian” empire was attacked by various “heathen” barbarians, Christian theologians thanks to Saint Augustine (354 – 430 CE), the Bishop of Hippo, developed the “just war theory.”

As a theologian and historian, I have doubts that Constantine was truly a Christian. (He was baptized just before his death in 337) …I think Constantine was simply a shrewd political leader (like some contemporary political leaders) who knew where, when, and how to get popular support for his self-promotion campaign. His distorted Christianity was more Roman than Christian.

Today in a society so horribly disfigured by violence and hateful speech and actions, genuine followers of Jesus should focus on his core teaching in word and personal example. The U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, for example, has urged religious leaders to challenge “inaccurate and harmful messages” that are now fueling rising racism, hate speech, and conflict as the coronavirus pandemic circles the globe. (Guterres, by the way, is a committed Christian.)

On July 7th, John Connelly, historian from the University of California, wrote in a pointed article in Commonweal about hateful political rhetoric in the United States: “The president recently labeled peaceful protesters ‘thugs’ and ‘scum’; he has called Bette Midler a ‘washed up psycho,’” …..and on and on….. “Having taught European history for three decades, I believe such words of disdain are unprecedented in the public utterances of an elected leader…..Students of history have to go far to the extremes of right and left to find language so drenched in hatred.’’

The key issue here is not just a problematic president “45” but a danger alert about all who foment violence and torment people with hateful speech and action.

Elie Wiesel (1928 – 2016), the political activist, Nobel laureate, and Holocaust survivor often stressed that “Hatred destroys the one who is hated, but it also destroys the one who hates.” Historically, political leaders who hated always dragged down their states and peoples. “Anger,” Wiesel said in an interview with Bill Moyers, “has some positive attributes to it, hate has none. Even hate of hate is dangerous.”

“Happy are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” (Matthew 5:9)

Jack

Knowledge, Wisdom, Compassion

Whether the concern is the exploding pandemic or systemic and violent racism, there is an urgent need today for leadership. This is not a political party debate issue. This is a pressing socio-culture life survival issue. There is today far too much raw, unchecked power, and unbridled acting out of control.

We need to be visionary leaders. We need to stimulate and help form teams of visionary leaders. One could call them contemporary Christian apostles. Or, change agents….truly anchored in the Gospel.

We are indeed on the edge of a kind of socio-cultural chaos. Covid-19 is spreading wildly. Unemployment is expanding. Fearful and ignorant people are promoting racial violence and hatred. And many religious leaders are not helping at all but stimulating, in fact, even more violence.

Last Sunday, a Catholic priest in Carmel, Indiana, compared Black Lives Matter protesters to “maggots and parasites.” In a written message to his parishioners he denounced the civil rights movement and the destruction of monuments honoring Confederate leaders and other historic figures. The protesters he said are “wolves in wolves clothing, masked thieves and bandits….. maggots and parasites at best, feeding off the isolation of addiction and broken families.” (Fortunately on Wednesday of this week his bishop suspended him from parish ministry.)

Yes. We need to create visionary leaders anchored in Knowledge, Wisdom, and Compassionate Humanity, qualities that stimulate the movement from chaos to social health and stability. Here are my brief thoughts about leadership formation:

KNOWLEDGE: We need to communicate correct and helpful information. Credibility is essential. Facebook, Fox News,“popular understandings,” and political rhetoric are too often phony and deceptive. (When checking the accuracy of quotations I like to use snopes.com.) In difficult times, people need credible information. Be honest, if you don’t know something say so but then do your research. (When people began to disparage him, I had to do my own research about Christopher Columbus. Using reliable historical sources, I did indeed discover that Columbus was a cruel and inhumane tyrant.)

Truth is real. Whether it is about Covid-19, U.S. racial history, sex and gender, the positions and statements of presidential candidates, or Christian, Jewish, or Muslim beliefs, a healthy and stable human society is based on honest and trustworthy information. It cannot be based on adjusted information, dishonest statements, or spontaneous emotional fantasy. We need to be and to promote leaders who seek and promote truthfulness in public discourse.

WISDOM: Trustworthy leaders explain their vision and strategy for a better tomorrow. They are positive. They draw from their own life experiences. They draw from what they have learned from their own ups and downs. They also explain the life experiences of people who have had a big impact on their own life and their own life outlook. Trustworthy leaders explain why they are making the decisions they are making and performing the actions that flow from them. If they have made mistakes, they are honest about that as well…..Transparency promotes trust in uncertain times. Trustworthy leaders ask for input. Dialogue is essential. Without asking for input, one can miss out on vital information. Collaboration reduces the sense of powerlessness that promotes uncertainty. We need to belong to and to form wise leadership teams.

COMPASSIONATE HUMANITY: Trustworthy leaders are visibly engaged as compassionate humanitarians. Like the Good Samaritan. In times of uncertainty, the reliable leader is the solid rock to which people can cling. She or he gives anxious people hope, confidence, and direction. We need good words but, without good actions, they are just pious observations…..As Christians we are all fellow travelers on this human journey. The historical Jesus introduced a major paradigm shift in human understanding. He stressed in words and action that life is stronger than death, that love is stronger than hatred, and people more important than institutions.

Christian moral responsiveness and leadership shape our human life journey. In that journey we do indeed encounter the Divine, the Sacred, the Ground Being — Human life can often be a journey with crosses to carry but it also comes with a transformative resurrection that transforms everything.

Indeed, the Man from Nazareth provides our Vision for the Future. Our faith anchored in the way of Jesus is not naïve. It is honest, strong, and real. A positive and encouraging outlook for tomorrow….

Jack