March 2008

The Religion News Service sat down recently with the president of the United Church of Christ, the Rev. John Thomas, to ask about the controversies in which the UCC has been caught up in the last few weeks.

Q: What are people around the UCC saying about the controversy surrounding [the Rev. Jeremiah] Wright?

A: Some people are quite upset and outraged at what they heard on these brief little clips on the news. Others are angry because they feel Rev. Wright’s views have been taken out of context — it doesn’t reflect the man who’s so well known in the UCC. By and large, there’s a lot of pain for what he’s going through and anger that he’s not being treated fairly.

I have no doubt that there are a lot of people in the UCC who are responding in the latter fashion. What’s predictable is that Thomas barely  acknowledges the existence of people who think that Wright is a bigoted conspiracy-monger who makes the UCC look to the rest of the country like a collection of crackpots (you can see lots of their comments in response to UCC/Thomas propaganda about Wright here and here).

Q: Do you think there are legitimate reasons to be concerned over some of his remarks and the fact that he’s been a longtime spiritual leader to a major presidential candidate?

A: You have to assess the whole body of his preaching and not phrases here and there, like what you’ve heard on the television. You want to listen to the entire sermon and also look at the congregation he’s shaped over the years. It’s not shaped around hatred, it’s been very supportive of a predominantly white denomination. It’s fair game to assess the background of a candidate’s spiritual life, but it needs to be a fair assessment.

Thomas persists in the fraud that all that’s out there is a handful of brief video clips, no doubt taken out of context, that are being twisted by those who are either out to get Barack Obama or who dislike liberal Christianity. What he ignores is the growing body of evidence taken from Wright’s sermons, his column in the weekly Trinity Church bulletin, and his actions (giving an award to Louis Farrakhan says a lot to me, for instance) that the YouTube videos are by no means isolated instances of bizarre stuff. To its credit, RNS goes straight for the jugular, asking about the AIDS/genocide allegations:

Q: Do you agree with Rev. Wright’s remarks about AIDS — that it was invented by the U.S. government to oppress minorities?

A: While I’m reluctant to comment on any one sentence in a sermon lifted from its context, and particularly reluctant in light of the clear intent of many in recent days to attack the integrity of Dr. Wright using this kind of citation, if the question posed is “Do I think the U.S. government invented AIDS to oppress minorities?” my response would be “no.”

The only word of that answer that was necessary was the last one. The rest is a combination of obfuscation, attack on the messengers who brought this particular piece of lunacy to light, and vocalized pause.

Q: Had you ever heard him say things as controversial as those now circulating in sermon blips, such as the AIDS reference?

A: No, I never heard that kind of language firsthand.

Q: What was your first reaction when you heard it on the news?

A: My first reaction was: This does not reflect Jeremiah Wright or his preaching. It’s so clearly taken out of context. I’m more shocked by the attempts to discredit Rev. Wright than I am shocked by the language (he) used.

If Wright had mentioned the AIDS nonsense in the context of discrediting it, I would agree. As it is, he passed along that piece of twaddle (as well as the equally ridiculous idea that’s been floating around the African-American community for twenty years now that the U.S. government is deliberately channeling drugs to inner cities to kill off blacks) as if it was a accepted fact. Thomas is more shocked–shocked, I say!–by the “attempts to discredit” Wright than he is by the full-throated moonbattery the latter served up to his congregation, the largest in the UCC. What that says about the head of a major mainline denomination is what I find really shocking.


Forget what happened earlier this week in Tokyo. Today is opening day for major league baseball. The Washington Nationals open their new park (the wife and I will hopefully get there within the next few weeks) by hosting the Atlanta Braves. With the start of a new season comes the inevitable predictions (you can check out those of the leading Sports Illustrated baseball writers here), but here are the ones any real fan should be satisfied with–mine:

NL East: Atlanta Braves
NL Central: Chicago Cubs
NL West: Colorado Rockies
Wild card: New York Mets

AL East: Boston Red Sox
AL Central: Detroit Tigers
AL West: Los Angeles Angels
Wild card: Cleveland Indians

World Series: Detroit over Atlanta

NL MVP: Mark Teixeira (Atlanta)
AL MVP: Miguel Cabrera (Detroit)
NL Cy Young: Johan Santana (NY Mets)
AL Cy Young: Erik Bedard (Seattle)
NL Rookie of the Year: Kosuke Fukudome (Chicago Cubs)
AL Rooke of the Year: Evan Longoria (Tampa Bay)
NL Manager of the Year: Clint Hurdle (Colorado)
AL Manager of the Year: John McLaren (Seattle)

Remember, you heard it here first.

Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, president of the UCC’s Chicago Seminary, thinks that all the attention Jeremiah Wright’s preaching has gotten lately is a threat to freedom of religion. Really:

A member of Trinity United Church of Christ, the church once led by Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright and where Senator Obama is a member, told me there are “spies” among them in the pews, strangers who take notes during the service and try to record the message.

I’m not sure why there should be “spies” in the congregation, given that they put their bulletin on the Web and sell DVDs of the services in their church bookstore. However, given that such items are made publicly available, I’m also not sure why the church should complain about people taking notes.

The freedom of the pulpit, the freedom of religion itself is imperiled in this feeding frenzy about Senator Obama’s pastor and his church. As a fellow member of the United Church of Christ and a UCC pastor, I am concerned about what this is doing to this church of our denomination, but the issue is also much wider.

Challenging your pastor’s freedom in the pulpit is bad. Spying on people at prayer is reprehensible.

I agree with both of those latter statements, but neither is applicable to the Wright situation. As to the latter, all the stuff that’s been making the rounds in the national media was obtained from church-sold DVDs, not from “spying on people at prayer.” As to the pastor’s “freedom in the pulpit,” no one is saying that Wright shouldn’t have the right to rant in the pulpit all he wants. The question is why Obama stayed there for 20 years listening to those rants. In truth, there is no threat to either freedom of religion or of the pulpit here–just a pastor whose bigotry and paranoid conspiracy-mongering has been exposed for the nation to hear. If it can’t stand the light of day, that’s a bigger problem for both the church and the UCC than the public scrutiny.

Is this what the assaults of the past decades on the wall of separation between church and state has led us to? Is there no such thing as sacred space anymore?

Huh? What in the name of Thomas Jefferson does church-state separation have to do with this?

“Obama isn’t running for God,” was the title of a well-written letter to the editor in this morning’s Chicago Tribune. Exactly. These attacks on a candidate’s church and pastoral leadership are way, way out of bounds for a country founded on the principle that there is “no religious test for office.”

Piffle. I have no doubt that Thistlethwaite was among those who roundly condemned George Bush for speaking at Bob Jones University during the 2000 campaign (you can be certain that Wright did). If a candidate’s choice of campaign venue is a legitimate target, I would think a twenty-year-long personal association is as well. As for the “religious test” argument, let’s just say that her understanding of that constitutional clause is nil, and leave it at that.

The liberty of which we are so justly proud as Americans is itself in peril in these vicious attacks. The “founding fathers,” on the other hand, were fierce in their demand for freedom of religion, because they knew what happened when religion is used as a political weapon. They had seen it happen in Europe and in Europe’s endless religious wars. Samuel Adams wrote “Neither religion nor liberty can long subsist in the tumult of altercation and amidst the noise and violence of faction.”

She’s hauling out the big guns here. Trouble is, they’re loaded with blanks. What she seems to be suggesting is a variation of the Islamist attack on freedom of speech, the one that says that any criticism of a given religion is a grave offense against human, or at least civil, rights. Given how much she’s had to say that is both critical of, and at times flat wrong about, Christian conservatives, I’d say she almost threatening to turn that big gun on herself.

A church is sacred space and to violate that space by engaging in “Swift-boat” type distortions and even spying is un-American. This is not us, this is not the bedrock principle of our founders and those leaders we have most respected. Our churches and our faith commitments are out of bounds in the tumult of political contests.

Sorry, that doesn’t wash, not even a little bit. I took a look back at some of Thistlethwaite’s previous writing at the Washington Post, and came up with a few gems:

As Rev. John Hagee said, the same John Hagee who recently endorsed John McCain and whose endorsement was gratefully received by McCain, “The war between America and Iraq is the gateway to the Apocalypse.” (March 6, 2008)

McCain recently and gratefully received the endorsement of Texas megachurch pastor and televangelist, John Hagee. Hagee’s book Jerusalem Coundown: A Warning to the World uses selective biblical citations to predict that Russia and the Islamic states will invade Israel and be destroyed by God….

This “transcendent” view of world politics is dangerous and extremely volatile. It may in fact be a more dangerous ideology than the one that led us to attack a country that had not attacked us and has kept us at war for the last five years. (March 17, 2008)

I’ve got no brief for either Hagee or McCain, but apparently McCain’s getting Hagee’s endorsement warrants attributing everything he believes to the candidate, whereas even hinting that such might be the case with Obama is The End of the First Amendment As We Know It.

The issue is that these broader concerns are new for Evangelicals and the movement the political Religious Right built has not gone away—it has morphed into the Huckabee campaign and seems to be a great source of votes for this candidate. (February 10, 2008)

As a person of faith, however, I want to “save God” from the religiously self-righteous such as Mike Huckabee who claim to know “God’s standards” and who have no trouble using the name of God to advance their political and social agendas with the divine name. (January 25, 2008)

When you look a little deeper, however, you can see that freedom is not his creed. Beyond the buzz words, he is clearly ascribing to the ‘Christian America’ idea that is, at bottom, the rule of the state by religion or what we call “theocracy.”…Underneath the buzz words, however, the legacy of theocracy in the Mormon faith is visible in Romney’s speech. (December 6, 2007)

You get the point. (I didn’t even look for any snarky remarks she may have made at the expense of George Bush’s faith.) On the one hand, she’s proclaiming the death of liberty because people are criticizing Jeremiah Wright for saying that AIDS was invented by the U.S. government to kill off black Americans. On the other, she’s taking on Republican presidential candidates because of their association with conservative pastors (or, in Romney’s case, because of his own faith). I guess the fate of the Republic is all just a matter of whose ox is being gored.

It occurred to me this morning that there are lots of readers of The Reformed Pastor who have been praying for the launch of my church plant, Redeemer EPC, and that I really should give you an update on how things went last weekend. So here it is, and thanks to all of you for your prayers. I believe they were answered with an outpouring of grace from the Lord.

It was really a launch weekend, and started on Holy Saturday with an Easter egg hunt at the elementary school. We had nearly perfect weather, and a turnout of 56 children in all, only nine of which were members of Redeemer mission team households. So 47 kids and their parents came for a first-time event, to a church meeting in a public school that they’d never been to before, and I think they had a wonderful time. My wife told the story of Passion Week and Easter, and to all appearances the children ate it up. We had lots of opportunity to interact with the parents as well. They then sallied forth to find the 600 eggs we’d spread around the schoolyard. Everything went off without a hitch–it was amazing to me (and a testimony to my wife’s organizational skills and the dedication of our team) that we were able to pull off something like this with nary a problem. Maryanne then spent all afternoon and into the evening making greeting cards to send to the families that joined us for the hunt. I’d like to think that getting a home-made card with a handwritten message conveyed to the participants how happy we were to meet them and how much we’d like to see them again.

Easter Sunday worship likewise went as well as we could have hope. We have 101 in attendance, many of whom came in response to personal invitations, many of whom came as a result of our advertising (though we don’t know exactly how many there were of the latter, we know there were a good many people there who weren’t connected in any way to either the mission team or our mother church, Faith EPC), and all of whom came because of a prompting, acknowledged or not, from the Lord. The music was excellent, the hospitality warm and genuine, and the atmosphere electric with the sense that the Holy Spirit was at work. I believe the sermon accomplished what I set out to do, which was answer the question, “Did Jesus really rise from the dead, and what difference does it make?” (That subject is the first in a series I’m doing on the most frequent questions that people ask as they are exploring the Christian faith; our advertising was based on the catch-phrase “Got Questions? There ARE Answers!”) We’ve been contacting those who attended and left contact information this week, and getting some interesting responses, all positive so far. We’ll see this coming Sunday how many return to explore further questions, and perhaps get to know us a little better.

All together, it was a marvelous weekend, one in which we saw the Lord at work among us, and one that has got us energized for what He’s going to do in the future. It was a lot of work, but unquestionably a labor of love on everyone’s part. All I can say is, praise God from whom all blessings flow!

Ever use the expression “rule of thumb”? If you have, I discovered this morning, you’re sending a subliminal message that you support wife-beating. I kid you not.

This amazing piece of linguistic nonsense came to me by way of Georgetown professor Katherine Marshall, who had the misfortune of using the phrase in the hearing of two misinformed female pastors, according to her column at “On Faith” in the Washington Post:

I had blundered, bigtime.

Speaking at an interfaith assembly, I had made the case that women’s welfare would improve much faster if more women were in decision-making positions. A “rule of thumb,” I said, should be 30 percent women among leaders of any institution. With less than that, women are too often fighting tokenism. When the numbers of men and women are balanced, agendas and tone change.

Two women pastors, quite independently, drew me aside right afterwards. The term “rule of thumb”, they told me, came from an ancient common law that limited the size of the switch a man could use to beat his wife: no larger than the diameter of his thumb. Since I was arguing for religious leaders to take action against domestic violence, my use of the phrase was particularly jarring.

The unfortunate professor was unaware of the urban legend status of this, and so simply took the pastors at their word. Turns out that this is one of those “fake but true” stories so beloved of those who like playing “gotcha”:

This has been said to derive from the belief that English law allowed a man to beat his wife with a stick so long as it is was no thicker than his thumb. In 1782 Judge Sir Francis Buller is reported as having made this legal ruling. The following year James Gillray published a satirical cartoon attacking Buller and caricaturing him as ‘Judge Thumb’. The cartoon shows a man beating a fleeing woman and Buller carrying two bundles of sticks. The caption reads “thumbsticks – for family correction: warranted lawful!

It seems that Buller was hard done by. He was notoriously harsh in his punishments, but there’s no evidence that he ever made the ruling that he is infamous for. Edward Foss, in his authoritative work The The Judges of England, 1870, wrote that, despite a searching investigation, “no substantial evidence has been found that he ever expressed so ungallant an opinion”.

So the connection that exists in some people’s mind between the expression and domestic violence is no more valid than the belief of some people that the moon is made of green cheese. But Professor Marshall has been duly chastised:

Embarrassed about my blunder, I consulted Google about the rule of thumb. I learned that I was in plenty of company, much of it good – for example the columnist Nicholas Kristof, who has written powerfully against gender violence, has used it too. And scholars think the phrase probably did not originate with wife beating at all, but with an ancient carpenter’s measure. But I, for one, will not use it again.

Why not? Because some silly people believe something that is patently false? Are we to now have our linguistic freedom curtailed because the purveyors of urban legend will take umbrage? This is not, as one article I saw on this subject this morning said, a “matter of etiquette.” This is a matter of allowing the ignorant to scold people for the exercise of their free speech, claiming that they are being victimized by people with no intention of offending, and who are not in fact doing so except in the minds of the misinformed. I’m all for not offending people, but it degrades discourse when ignorant political correctness is allowed to trump freedom of speech, not to mention reality.

On the one hand, we have this:

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.

Then there’s this:

I have often heard theologians say that all creation “fell” when Adam and Eve disobeyed God by eating of the fruit of the tree that was forbidden them. That seems to me an utterly simplistic and useless understanding of what has happened….

The first is Romans 8:18-21 (NIV), words of the Apostle Paul. The latter are the words of an Episcopal bishop, Carolyn Tanner Irish of Utah. Make of it what you will.

(Via T19.)

Since this is the holiest and most joyful time of the year for Christians, that means it’s also time for various non-believers and political activists to make the holiday their own, with a bit of help from the media, of course. From Down Under, David Ould reports on Stand Firm that the Dean of the Anglican Cathedral in Perth wants us to leave all that physical resurrection stuff behind:

The Resurrection of Jesus ought not to be seen in physical terms, but as a new spiritual reality. It is important for Christians to be set free from the idea that the Resurrection was an extraordinary physical event which restored to life Jesus’ original earthly body….

Jesus’ early followers felt His presence after His death as strongly as if it were a physical presence and incorporated this sense of a resurrection experience into their gospel accounts. But they’re not historical records as we understand them. They are symbolic images of the breaking through of the resurrection spirit into human lives….

Jesus lived … as a transformed spiritual reality.

The effect of this is to reduce Jesus to the level of any other inspiring person–Gandhi, George Washington, Joan of Arc, whoever floats your boat–whose “spirit” continues to live within us. For me, that person is Groucho Marx, who I guess is therefore as much a “symbolic image of the breaking through of the resurrection spirit” as Jesus was for Peter and the gang.

Then there the Washington Post, which in its “On Faith” section featured four “Easter Voices:

1) The Post‘s own Claire Hoffman, whose “Under God” column was entitled “Easter Sunday in Mexico City,” but was mostly about Good Friday and the bizarre things some Mexicans do to observe the day, including a mock crucifixion that she found hard to take

The crowd was quiet and mostly riveted. It was high decibel and gory and hard to watch. Fay and I slunk away after 20 minutes of screaming and moaning. “I guess that’s what they call living religion,” I said to Fay. We went to the market and bought neon colored Virgin candles and went had a beer.

Among other religious activities, she went to a wrestling show that evening, and wrote of the crowd, “The audience was equally passionate and captivated and it was hard not to see parallels of the passion play and the wrestling match.”

2) Rock star and theologian Melissa Etheridge, who talks about painting Easter eggs with her children:

My spiritual path has been an amazing and rewarding one for me. I have opened my heart and mind to the thought that we create our reality. I believe we are on a beautiful heavenly planet that is spinning in perfect balance with the rest of the universe. I believe we all have the capacity to open the Christ consciousness within each of us….

Yes, my children and my wife and I will be decorating eggs. See, I believe in traditions; and the tradition of the vernal equinox is the celebration of the earth coming into the newness and everlasting life of spring. It has been celebrated every year by every culture of people who have ever walked this earth….I know that the winter equinox is when the sun stands still on the horizon for three days and then is “resurrected” on the third. I also know that we are coming to the end of this Piscean age and rolling into the next one, the Aquarian. And I believe that we will all come together in our beautiful differences to discover we are all one.

3) Then there’s the sage of Newark, John Shelby Spong, who writes about “Jesus for the Non-Religious”:

I do not believe that the deceased body of Jesus was resuscitated physically on the third day and was restored to the life of this world as, at least, the later gospels assert, but I do believe that in him and through him people found a way into that which is eternal and so they portrayed him as breaking through and transcending the limits of death.

Whatever that means. There’s a lot more about what Spong doesn’t believe, but you knew that already.

4) Finally, there’s author Anne Rice, a former writer of horror stories whose return to the Catholicism of her youth is serious and intense:

Look: I believe in Him. It’s that simple and that complex. I believe in Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, the God Man who came to earth, born as a tiny baby and then lived over thirty years in our midst. I believe in what we celebrate this week: the scandal of the cross and the miracle of the Resurrection. My belief is total. And I know that I cannot convince anyone of it by reason, anymore than an atheist can convince me, by reason, that there is no God.

A long life of historical study and biblical research led me to my belief, and when faith returned to me, the return was total. It transformed my existence completely; it changed the direction of the journey I was traveling through the world. Within a few years of my return to Christ, I dedicated my work to Him, vowing to write for Him and Him alone. My study of Scripture deepened; my study of New Testament scholarship became a daily commitment. My prayers and my meditation were centered on Christ.

And my writing for Him became a vocation that eclipsed my profession as a writer that had existed before.

She’s now in the midst of a series of works on the life of Christ that, because of her name, may well open up the road to Christian faith for many people who have never before considered it.

So the Post‘s “Easter Voices” include a reporter with an eye for the weird, a New Ager, an atheist in a collar, and a committed Christian. Imagine a  similar line-up discussing the deeper meaning of Eid.

Also celebrating Easter by issuing a commemorative message was the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, who jumped from a perfunctory reference to the resurrection into Goracle territory:

Your Easter celebration undoubtedly has included lots of physical signs of new life –– eggs, flowers, new green growth. As the Easter season continues, consider how your daily living can be an act of greater life for other creatures. How can you enact the new life we know in Jesus the Christ? In other words, how can you be the sacrament, the outward and visible sign, of the grace that you know in the resurrected Christ? How can your living let others live more abundantly?

We are beginning to be aware of the ways in which our lack of concern for the rest of creation results in death and destruction for our neighbors. We cannot love our neighbors unless we care for the creation that supports all our earthly lives. We are not respecting the dignity of our fellow creatures if our sewage or garbage fouls their living space. When atmospheric warming, due in part to the methane output of the millions of cows we raise each year to produce hamburger, begins to slowly drown the island homes of our neighbors in the South Pacific, are we truly sharing good news?

The food we eat, the energy we use, the goods and foods we buy, the ways in which we travel, are all opportunities – choices and decisions – to be for others, both human and other. Our Christian commitment is for this – that we might live that more abundant life, and that we might do it in a way that is for the whole world.

I’ve gotta say, the ability to go from the resurrection of Jesus Christ to cow emissions in the space of a couple hundred words is truly extraordinary. I believe she may have a future as a speechwriter for politicians. Or perhaps for these people, who according to the Chicago Tribune:

Six Iraq War protesters who were arrested on felony charges for disrupting Easter services at Holy Name parish had minimum $25,000 bails set Monday by a Cook County judge.

The six disrupted the beginning of Cardinal Francis George’s homily Sunday to shout their opposition to the Iraq War.

They began squirting packets of fake blood over themselves and nearby parishioners, drawing the ire of congregants and the attention of the media stationed in the auditorium to cover the services.

All six are charged with felony criminal defacement of property and two counts of simple battery for defacing church property and the worshipers’ clothes with the fake blood.

The protesters, part of a group called Catholic School Girls Against the War despite their male and female membership, could each face up to 5 years in prison if convicted.

Way to win friends and influence people. These people are clearly disciples of the Country Joe McDonald School for Public Policy. Country Joe, you may remember, told the crowd at Woodstock during a sing-a-long of his “Fixin’ to Die Rag” that “I don’t know how you expect to ever stop the war if you can’t sing any better than that.” Me, I wonder how the Chicago 6 are going to stop this war if they can’t find a better way to influence decision-makers than to throw fake blood on church-goers during Easter Mass. Next time, maybe they’ll use the real thing. Yeah, that’s the ticket.

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