Friday, June 13, 2014

Marriage Equality Comes to Pennsylvania

When U.S. District Judge John E. Jones, III, recently issued his decision overturning Pennsylvania’s ban on same-sex marriage, reactions from religious communities were quite varied.  The morning after the ruling was made public, and even before Governor Corbett announced that he would not appeal, Pastor Anne Mason of the Unitarian-Universalist congregation in Lancaster appeared on the front page of the morning paper offering free weddings to any couple who contacted the church office that day.  Interfaith minister Rev. Kelly Jo Singleton soon followed with a similar offer.  They greeted the news with unequivocal celebration.
Following publication of these expressions of support, the U-U church office received several phone messages decrying their action and stating, among other things, that they were all going to hell.  Though no specific threats were included in any of the messages, the congregation requested the presence of Silent Witness Peacekeeper Alliance members on the day of the weddings just in case any protesters showed up and tried to disrupt the events. 

Saturday, April 05, 2014

I Believe

“I Believe” is an inspirational popular song from the 1950s that managed to express faith without evoking any particular religion.  Frankie Laine took it to the top of the U.K. charts for 18 weeks in 1953, and artists as diverse as Mahalia Jackson, Perry Como, Tammy Wynette, and Elvis Presley produced recordings of it in the following years.  Based on the number of versions posted on YouTube, I conclude that it is still well known and loved more than sixty years after its first release.
I found myself thinking of this song, even humming it quietly to myself, as I read numerous news articles and commentary about the suits involving Conestoga Wood Specialties and Hobby Lobby which were argued in front of the Supreme Court last week.  Clearly the suits are about belief, and how beliefs drive action.  But the more I read, the more I realized that “I believe” can have a number of different meanings and different kinds of meaning, both religious and nonreligious.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Digging in the Archives

Moravians never throw anything away.  This is sometimes said with a tone of mild frustration.  Do we really need to keep 67 frayed and tattered copies of an anthem that no one in the current choir can remember singing and which, if a director did decide to put it back into active repertoire, is now available in a much better edition?  Far more often, however, this habit of saving everything is noted with pride and delight when a dusty box or storage bin yields an unexpected treasure.
In recent years the archives at Lititz Moravian have been the source of a number of surprising finds.  The most recent one, featured in several news stories in the past few months, has been the identification of an 18th century hand-written book as Volume I of the diary and church records maintained by Bishop Mattheaus Hehl while he served the Lititz congregation.  It, along with Volume II, which was located in the Provincial Archives in Bethlehem and is now undergoing restoration and preservation, will soon be digitized and translated.  Those who are fascinated by early Lititz history eagerly await the completion of this project, wondering what forgotten details of life in Revolutionary War era Lititz might be revealed.

Saturday, March 01, 2014

What's in the Bible? - Part Three

In part two of this series, I focused on the first four books of the New Testament, the gospel accounts of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ.  It is now time to turn attention to the remainder of the New Testament.  Following the four Gospels is The Book of the Acts of the Apostles, often referred to simply as Acts.  As I mentioned previously, Acts is a companion volume to the Gospel according to Luke.  Beginning with the ascension of Jesus, it continues with an account of events leading to the formation of the early church.  Pivotal to the story is the conversion of Saul, persecutor of early Christians, into the believer Paul, fervent preacher of the word.  Acts provides details of Paul’s three missionary journeys into Asia Minor and beyond, ending with his imprisonment in Rome.
One of my favorite passages in Acts occurs in Chapter 16.  The narrator tells how Paul chose Timothy to join him in the work, describing their travels.  Verses 7 through 10 read, “When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; so, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas.  During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’  When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.”

Monday, February 03, 2014

Turning Back to Injustice

Several weeks ago our local newspaper ran a front-page story about the efforts of Gordon Denlinger, a Lancaster County state representative, to introduce a state constitutional amendment he calls “The Freedom of Conscience Amendment.”  As reported by the newspaper, “The proposed amendment would ensure that the beliefs held by private business owners exempts them from anti-discrimination laws pertaining to employment, housing or service based on race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender, education or disability.” 
Denlinger gave as an example of how the amendment could be implemented: “An elderly woman has an apartment she wants to rent out. If the lifestyle arrangements of the applicant were not in line with her beliefs, she would be able to deny him a lease for that reason.”  What Denlinger appears to be saying is that if his hypothetical “elderly woman” believes that inter-racial marriage is wrong, or that Jews or Hispanics maintain a “lifestyle” with which she disagrees, she may ignore the anti-discrimination laws now in force in Pennsylvania. 
In response, I sent a letter to the paper, an edited version of which appeared on January 24.  A number of editorial comments and other letters took a position similar to mine.  Sadly, there have also been letters from people thanking Denlinger for his move to “protect Christians from persecution.”  The weekly People Poll, an unscientific call-in poll published by the newspaper, indicated that 68% of respondents opposed the amendment, while 32% supported it.  An expanded version of my letter follows:

To the Editor:
Last week our nation marked the 50th anniversary of the Woolworth lunch counter sit-ins, significant actions in the civil rights struggle of the 1960s.  Yesterday the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., one of the greatest leaders of that struggle, were celebrated across the country.  Today (January 21, 2014) the Lancaster News has given front-page coverage to Rep. Gordon Denlinger’s effort to roll back all the gains made since that time.
Denlinger wants to privilege “sincerely held beliefs” over the anti-discrimination laws which now govern public accommodation.  Theologian Rachel Held Evans, in a recent blog post, provided examples of “sincerely held [Christian] beliefs,” which have supported discriminatory behavior in the past.  Two of these are especially relevant to Denlinger’s efforts. 
In 1960, in a tract titled “Is Segregation Scriptural?” Bob Jones Sr. wrote in opposition to integration: “Wherever we have the races mixed up in large numbers, we have trouble….These religious liberals are the worst infidels in many ways in the country; and some of them are filling pulpits down South. They do not believe the Bible any longer; so it does not do any good to quote it to them.  They have gone over to modernism, and they are leading the white people astray at the same time; and they are leading colored Christians astray.  But every good, substantial, Bible-believing, intelligent orthodox Christian can read what the Word of God and know that what is happening in the South now is not of God.”
In 1982, in defense of Bob Jones University’s policy banning inter-racial dating and marriage, Bob Jones III stated: “The Bible clearly teaches, starting in the tenth chapter of Genesis and going all the way through, that God has put differences among people on the earth to keep the earth divided.” Rep. Denlinger’s official biography states that he is a 1985 graduate of Bob Jones University.  It appears that, along with his Accounting Degree, he absorbed the segregationist views of his Alma Mater’s leaders.
No law prevents U.S. citizens from holding discriminatory beliefs, nor from expressing them publicly.  What we may not do is act on those beliefs in such a way that others are denied rights or services.  Denlinger proposes to grasp the arc of the Moral Universe about which Dr. King spoke so eloquently and bend it back toward injustice.  This must not be allowed to happen.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Thinking Biblically about Climate Change

About a month ago I signed up for my first try at on-line learning.  The course that intrigued me sufficiently to take that step is Climate Change in Four Dimensions, offered by the University of California – San Diego and made available through Coursera.  According to course statistics announced at the conclusion of the first week, there are over 12,768 enrolled in the course, with 5595 actively participating.  A fee-based option with additional required work and the opportunity for personal interaction with the professors is available.  The number of students who have chosen that option in order to earn academic credit has not been disclosed.
The “four dimensions” in the course title refers to the examination of the issue of climate change from the points of view of natural science, technology, social science, and the humanities.  The first two weeks of material have concentrated on the natural science undergirding the study, but have also drawn in considerations of social science.  Natural science and social science necessarily intersect as soon as the question is raised about opposition to the current scientific consensus.
Two papers that were presented for our reading (Oreskes 2004; Cook et al 2013) both conclude that the scientific consensus about the reality of climate change and anthropogenic (human-caused) global warming is about 97%.  The most recent report (AR5 – 2013) issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that “[i]t is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.  The evidence for this has grown, thanks to more and better observations, an improved understanding of the climate system response and improved climate models.  Warming in the climate system is unequivocal and since 1950 many changes have been observed throughout the climate system that are unprecedented over decades to millennia.”
Polling consistently shows that attitudes and beliefs of Americans regarding climate change lag substantially behind the scientific consensus.  The 2012 ecoAmerica report “Trends in America’s Climate and Ecological Attitudes” indicates that belief that global warming is happening declined from a high of 70+% in 2007 to 57% in 2010, then edged up to 61% in 2011.  Depending on how the question is asked, various polls taken in 2011 and early 2012 show that 40% to 60% of Americans believe that global warming is human caused.
Needless to say, this disparity between what the best scientists studying global warming and climate change understand and what the American public believes is quite disturbing.  It is axiomatic that a community must acknowledge that a problem exists and have a working comprehension of its origins and scope before significant steps can be taken to address it and begin to find solutions.
There are multiple reasons for this gap in understanding and knowledge.  One explanation is that in the current economic climate a large proportion of the populace is focused primarily on day-to-day living.  Another factor is political affiliation.  Surveys completed by Brookings and Pew Research in late 2011 revealed that 78% and 77%, respectively, of Democrats say that there is solid evidence of global warming, while the percentages for Republicans are only 47% and 43%.  A more recent (March 2013) Pew Research survey indicates that the percentage for Democrats has risen to 87%, while for Republicans it remains nearly unchanged at 44%.
A third influence is the organized, deliberate campaign of disinformation that has been mounted by those persons and corporations who perceive they have much to lose if the actions necessary to slow climate change and mitigate its effects were to become national policy.  Using many of the tactics that were employed by the tobacco industry to forestall accountability, this campaign of climate change denial has steadily increased in subtlety and ubiquity since the 1990s.  Drexel University sociologist Robert Brulle, in a major study published in December 2013, concluded, “The anti-climate effort has been largely underwritten by conservative billionaires, often working through secretive funding networks. They have displaced corporations as the prime supporters of 91 think tanks, advocacy groups and industry associations which have worked to block action on climate change.”
In light of all this, I have been asking myself the question, “What insights might we gain from studying the Bible?  What passages might help me better to understand, and perhaps in some way to counter, the forces that are keeping us on the path toward potentially devastating social and ecological disruptions due to our rapidly changing climate?”
Though I am just beginning to follow this train of thought and have reached few conclusions, three passages have so far suggested themselves.  The first is the idea that children are punished for the sins of their parents, even to the third or fourth or seventh generation.  This appears in Exodus 20:5, specifically as punishment for idolatry, and is expressed in more general terms in the saying quoted in Jeremiah 31:29.  Reading this as descriptive rather than prescriptive, we can see how perceptive the ancient Israelites were in understanding how the harmful actions of one generation can negatively affect succeeding generations.  Too often we think only of immediate results of our actions.  We need to adopt the practice of considering generations yet unborn in our decision making. 
A second is the exchange between Jesus and the rich young ruler, as recorded in Luke 18:18-25.  The teaching we can gain from this story is recognition of how very difficult it is to give up the riches and comforts that we are used to enjoying.  The young man sincerely wanted to do what was necessary “to inherit eternal life,” but he was too attached to his belongings to take the final step of selling everything and giving it to the poor in order to follow Jesus.  The decision to adjust our industrial-world lifestyle to the degree that science indicates is necessary if we are to maintain a livable planet requires both individual and collective action.  It will not be easy, but it is possible if we all resolve to share our resources so that the burden does not fall unfairly on the backs of the poor.
The final incident which I am presently considering is found in Acts 16:16-24.  Paul and Silas encounter a slave girl who is possessed by a spirit of divination and whose owners are exploiting her because of it for their own gain.  When Paul heals the girl by casting out the spirit, her owners are furious at losing their money-making capability.  They drag Paul and Silas before the authorities and falsely accuse them, so that they are thrown into prison.  The parallels with the behavior of climate change deniers are quite apparent.  Accumulation of wealth is valued above the wellbeing of the exploited, and any opposition is met with lies and vicious retaliation.
The course has eight more weeks to run.  I’m eager to continue learning and to seek more insight from scripture to add to my understanding.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

What's in the Bible? - Part Two

Turning our attention to the section of the Bible called the New Testament (NT), we immediately find several significant differences between this and the Old Testament discussed in my previous post.  First, it is much shorter, containing 27 books comprised of 260 chapters, in contrast to the 39 books of 939 chapters which make up the Old Testament (OT).  In total length it is approximately one-third that of the OT.
Second, it is written in Greek, which, along with Latin, was one of the primary languages for literature and commerce in the Mediterranean world of the first century of the Common Era.  And third, its various books were written over a much shorter time span than were those of the OT.  First Thessalonians, which is regarded to be the earliest of the Pauline letters, was written in 50 or 51 C.E., while the Gospel of John and the book of Revelations are generally dated scarcely fifty years later, to the final decade of the first century.
The first four books are accounts of the life of Jesus and are referred to as “gospels,” that is “good news.”  The first three of these – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – are called the synoptic gospels because they share much of the same material, while John, the fourth gospel, is significantly different from the others in a number of ways.  Of the first three, Mark is the oldest and was probably written before the fall of Jerusalem in 70 C.E.  Matthew and Luke are dated from the last third of the century.  All three are understood to depend on the oral transmission of stories and sayings, along with earlier written collections of the memories of those who had encountered Jesus during his life on earth.
As the oldest, Mark is also the shortest.  The narrative is blunt and direct, told with a sense of urgency.  There is no genealogy or birth story in Mark; rather it plunges right into the heart of the message with John the Evangelist and the baptism of Jesus.  The ending is just as abrupt, with the oldest manuscripts cutting off with the angel’s announcement of Jesus’ resurrection and the women’s fleeing from the tomb in terror and amazement.  While other ancient sources include either a “shorter ending” summarizing the spread of the gospel, or a “longer ending” recounting the resurrection appearances and ascension of Jesus, many scholars believe that both are later additions to the original.
Matthew and Luke are expansions of Mark and clearly addressed to different audiences.  Matthew assumes a Jewish readership and emphasizes the ways in which Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection fulfilled ancient prophecies.  Luke is addressed to “most excellent Theophilus,” a name which can mean “lover of God” or “beloved by God.”  There is much speculation but no certainty among scholars as to who Theophilus was, but the title “most excellent” leads many to the conclusion that he was of high rank and quite likely a gentile.  What we can know is that the gospel of Luke, and its companion volume “The Acts of the Apostles,” are well crafted and of high literary quality.
The gospel of John diverges in a number of ways from the three synoptic gospels.  It opens, not with Jesus’ birth or genealogy, but with a magnificent hymn to the Logos, the Word of God.  Noting the strong correspondence between this hymn and the description of God’s Wisdom in Proverbs 8, Francis Schüssler Fiorenza writes, “John’s prologue is a confession of faith that Jesus, in his person, reveals God.”  John alone of the gospel writers tells of the miracle of water into wine at the wedding at Cana, and he places the cleansing of the temple at the beginning rather than the end of Jesus’ ministry. 
Nearly half of John’s gospel is concerned with the events of just seven weeks, from the day prior to Palm Sunday through the resurrection appearances.  Here again there are differences between John and the other gospels.  While the latter describe the Last Supper as the Passover meal, John states that it took place “before the festival of the Passover.”  (John 13:1)  And where the synoptics recount the institution of the Eucharist, John tells of Jesus’ washing his disciples’ feet.  The best way to understand these differences, I believe, is to recognize that John’s emphasis is not so much on a chronological history as it is a proclamation of Jesus as Christ, the Lamb of God.
As for actual authorship of the gospels, it is important to remember that ancient understanding and practices of attribution were very different from our own.  Attaching a person’s name to a document could just as well mean that it represented the school of thought surrounding that person, or memories by students of what was taught by the named author, or even in honor of the tradition that person represented.  Tradition says that the gospel of Mark was penned by John Mark who traveled with Paul for a time, and that he drew on the memories of Peter for his account. 
A puzzling hint can be found in chapter 15, verses 51-52, regarding the arrest of Jesus: “A certain young man was following him, wearing nothing but a linen cloth.  They caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked.”  Was this young man perchance the author himself?  Why else would this rather curious aside be inserted into the drama?
The gospel of Matthew is ascribed to the disciple of that name, and could well be the work of one of Matthew’s followers.  The author of Luke is assumed to be the Luke to whom Paul refers in Colossians 4:14 as “the beloved physician.”  How many Johns had a hand in writing the various books in the NT attributed to “John” remains a question for scholarly debate.  There are the gospel, three letters, and Revelation.  Since all are dated from the last years of the first century, or possibly even the early years of the second, it is highly unlikely that the disciple by that name was the actual author of any of them.
Having four “official” accounts of the life of Jesus gives us a richer understanding of the diversity of thought in the early Christian church than we would have were only one gospel record to appear in the NT.  The minor discrepancies and contradictions among them are far outweighed by the unified theme of Jesus as the Christ, the promised Messiah, who reconciles God with God’s creation.  This is the heart of the good news that the authors of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all strove to proclaim.