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June 4, 2020

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Religious Leaders Blast Racism & Despotism

Religious leaders are like the rest of us. They’re wearing the who-would-a-thunk-it look. It turns out 1968 was a rehearsal for 2020 – or, as George McKinney put it in a Facebook reply: “Not sure what to do when 1918 (the year of the killer flu epidemic) + 1929 (the market crashed) + 1968 = 2020. Laws of the universe seem askew.”

Those laws were especially frayed on May 25th, when America’s simmering undercurrent exploded into full view upon the death of 46-year-old George Floyd, an African American. Four Minneapolis police officers were involved in Floyd’s fatal restraint after the unemployed bouncer allegedly tried to pass a fake $20 bill. The officers seemed cavalier. Derek Chauvin, the 19-year veteran who knelt on Floyd’s neck, ignored his I-can’t-breathe pleas as well as appeals from video-reeling bystanders. Another officer repeatedly told Floyd to “get up” while Chauvin held him down.

All four were fired and eventually arrested, with Chauvin immediately charged with third-degree murder, now raised to second degree. Violent protests erupted across the country, with some heavy-handed National Guard troops and law enforcement officials emulating the 1968 police rioters.

It didn’t take long for theologians, pastors, educators, and Christian writers to shake off their who-would-a-thunk-it look and file their replies. Fuller Theological Seminary, an intellectual Mecca for post-conservative evangelicals, pinned this statement on its web site:

Fuller, in the strongest of terms, denounces the senseless, brutal killing of George Floyd and the countless instances of abuse and othering of black and brown bodies in a long line of systemic injustice. We have, over the past few months, seen again this rhythm of violence. There is a temptation to view these occasions as isolated instances of radical hatred. But this violence is sadly not unique—it is in the core of our nation’s existence and the expressions of violence against non-white bodies that have been a perpetual rhythm since America’s founding.

The protests and riots of the past few days have elicited a variety of responses. The loss of life is cause for full-throated lament, and it is for that reason that we choose to stand in solidarity with those who have lost loved ones, with those who are seeking justice, and with those who are advocating for drastic and overdue change. We believe this is consistent with the God revealed in our Scriptures, who in both Testaments disrupted established institutions for the sake of justice.

In this moment, we must again turn towards our Savior, who intimately knows the contours of unjust violence. We must fervently ask for the Spirit’s guidance in examining ourselves, our institutions, our theologies, and practices for the ways in which they retain ideologies that disregard the humanity of all non-white peoples. And we must join our God in God’s own solidarity with the oppressed and the marginalized.

This is not an abstract solidarity, but God’s presence in the midst of real pain and God’s concern for the black communities which have suffered devastation after devastation. It is that solidarity that guides us toward action. We urge those in elected positions, those in positions of power, those with privilege, and those who follow the crucified Savior Jesus to resist any justification for unjust killings, to act in bold love for the flourishing of marginalized communities, and, by God’s grace and bold power to create new rhythms that honor human life—rhythms that carry with them justice for George Floyd.

Fuller President Mark Labberton used the occasion to discuss systems of oppression and generational trauma on his podcast with Dwight Radcliff, assistant provost for the William E. Pannell Center for African American Church Studies. Here’s the talk:

Other religious officials pounded their laptops as America leaped from nuts to crazy, with events crystallizing on June 1st. President Trump made a blustering Rose Garden speech as law enforcement officials fired tear gas and shot rubber bullets to disperse peaceful protesters in Lafayette Square. They were clearing the way so the president could walk to St. John’s Church, the basement of which had been damaged by fire, and hold a Bible aloft in a photo op.

Episcopalian Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde said she was “outraged” that the president used her church as a “prop.” He didn’t even notify her beforehand.

Many invited the president to crack open that Bible. The Rev. William Barber III and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove called his gesture “obscene” and a perversion of the Bible itself. They wrote:

The Bible as a talisman has real political power. But we believe the words inside the book are more powerful. If we unite across lines of race, creed and culture to stand together on the moral vision of love, justice and truth that was proclaimed by Jesus and the prophets, we have the capacity to reclaim the heart of this democracy and work together for a more perfect union.

Trump visited the Saint John Paul II National Shrine in Northeast Washington the following day, which prompted an angry reply from Archbishop Wilton Gregory:

I find it baffling and reprehensible that any Catholic facility would allow itself to be so egregiously misused and manipulated in a fashion that violates our religious principles, which call us to defend the rights of all people even those with whom we might disagree. Saint Pope John Paul II was an ardent defender of the rights and dignity of human beings. His legacy bears vivid witness to that truth. He certainly would not condone the use of tear gas and other deterrents to silence, scatter or intimidate them for a photo opportunity in front of a place of worship and peace.

A spokesman for the Knights of Columbus, which runs the shrine, said the White House “originally scheduled this as an event for the president to sign an executive order on international religious freedom,” which he did later that day.

All this comes as Trump’s popularity among evangelicals and conservative Catholics declines. Will they now snap back as he waves the Bible? Perhaps. Some on the religious right rallied to the president, but at least one stalwart colored outside the lines. Pat Robertson made an assessment of Trump’s bluster:

It seems like now is the time to say, ‘I understand your pain, I want to comfort you, I think it’s time we love each other. But the President took a different course. He said, ‘I am the President of law and order,’ and he issued a heads-up. He said, ‘I’m ready to send in military troops if the nation’s governors don’t act to quell the violence that has rocked American cities.’ A matter of fact, he spoke of them as being jerks. You just don’t do that, Mr. President. It isn’t cool!”

Robertson denounced racism. “We’ve got to love each other, we just got to do that. We are all one race, and we need to love each other.”

So Pat Robertson is on the same page as Fuller Theological Seminary. Who would-a thunk it?

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May 27, 2020

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When Fear Is Good

Imagine you’ve achieved the American dream and you’re wandering your middle-class castle, chomping an apple. Suddenly, you smell that tell-tale smell as the smoke alarm blares. Your reaction? You resolve: “I won’t yield to fear. I’ll stuff cotton in my ears and munch my apple and, when I feel like it, I’ll call the alarm manufacturers and scold them on their device’s unbecoming shrillness …”

Stop. Retake. Try again: You smell the smell and hear the alarm and feel the adrenaline surge as the ancient fear of fire kicks in. You punch 9-1-1 on your cellphone as you chase out panic-stricken dogs and cats, then retrieve your all-important laptop and rush outside as the distant sirens howl. You couldn’t care less about the lost apple. Let it burn.

Fear, in this and many other instances, is good. It’s certainly nothing to fear. We share the instinct with countless zebras and wildebeests who wisely stampede at the scent of ravenous lions. Fear guards us against extinction, so thank God for it.

Alas, the ongoing COVID epidemic has kindled what I call “church logic,” which steers us away from a proposal’s merits and freezes us in never-ending speculation over “inner motives.” Superficially, the argument runs, the solution seems easy: Our Sunday-morning gatherings can morph into coronavirus petri dishes, endangering us all and threatening the lives of our high risk congregants, which includes the elderly and anyone ailing from high blood pressure, obesity, cancer, and diabetes. We Christians are compassionate. We frown on killing nearly half our congregants and spreading killer diseases to their respective friends, relatives, and communities, so we’ll gladly yield to governors’ mandates and meet online on Sunday mornings. It’s Zoom all the way for small groups, with no thanks to politicians lofting our “right to worship” in an obvious play for the religious vote.

But that’s so shallow, say the church logicians. It pays no heed to nebulous what-ifs: What if such reasoning is a thin veneer? What if we scratch the surface and discover lurking fear? What if we’re exposed as quivering cowards? That’s hardly the heritage of brave apostles and disciples who risked persecution, so we’d better think again about surrendering to those governors – especially since they might be secret agents in a Deep State ploy to undermine American religion.

Such second-guessing in churches is legion. Just file a proposal for systematic neighborhood evangelism and watch eyebrows knit at a thunderous rate: Sure, rescuing individuals from darkness is nice, but what about those motives? What if our real urge is to wrack up numbers? And wouldn’t this suggestion have us launch a “program” (dread the thought)? Are we not tuning out the Holy Spirit and co-opting corporate marketing strategies and, ultimately, selling out in-depth spirituality? We’re not against spreading the Gospel, mind you, as long as those all-important motives remain pristine.

Surprise-surprise: We’re never totally pure; evangelism always bears similarities to secular marketing; and no plan is totally free of programmatic elements. So the proposal remains shelved while Victoria’s Secret hogs the public square, unchallenged.

Perhaps the pandemic has finally escorted us to a turnabout-fair-play moment, when we challenge the church logician’s logic. Think about the lingering assumption bolstering all the second-guessing about fear: Fear is always bad and must be resisted. But does that square with 1 Samuel 21:10? David, Israel’s future king, “fled from Saul and went to Achish king of Gath.” Achish’s servants bad-mouthed David, and David “took these words to heart and was very much afraid of Achish king of Gath” (verse 12, NIV). He played the role of madman so Achish wouldn’t feel threatened, then retreated to the cave of Abdullam and again to the forests of Horeth (22:1-5).

To underscore: David feared, and his fears motivated him to take necessary evasive action. He survived to become Israel’s greatest king and ancestor to the Messiah. We can even say God granted him the gift of fear.

Of course, there are those commendable men and women who act despite their fears: Jesus laid out his fears in Gethsemane but fixed his eyes on the cross; martyrs have followed his example throughout the millennia. There’s the military and firemen and police and, especially in these past months, doctors and nurses and EMTs and other medical professionals. All run toward the proverbial fire. But notice: They never view fear as intrinsically bad. They protect themselves even as they leap into risk: Soldiers sweat in body armor; SWAT teams wear helmets and vests; mask-laden fire personnel rescue babies only after training; health care workers wear their own masks and wash their hands. All display healthy fear even as they dash in, and they’d shoo off non-professionals: “We’re running toward the fire so you won’t.”

We must ask ourselves: Do we have any gallant reason for gathering on Sundays and risking the spread of a dangerous illness? Are babies crying for rescue? Are the sick groaning for treatment? Of course not. We’re only satiating our craving for fellowship and, perhaps, wallowing in vague satisfaction that we’ve poked governors and flaunted their edicts (which are not aimed exclusively at houses of worship, so they cannot be construed as religious persecution).

In the final analysis, fear of fear is a false issue because fear, in this instance, is reasonable.

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April 11, 2020

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Living Through Saturday

Our presuppositions — plagues are a thing of the past — have been strewn on the floor.

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April 10, 2020

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Scenes on Good Friday, 2020

Two brief scenes exemplify Good Friday in 2020, the year of COVID-19. The first is Pope Francis laying prostrate in a near-empty Saint Peter’s Basilica: The second is a service in a near-empty Notre Dame Cathedral, which fire gutted a year ago. There’s life even in the emptiness.

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April 1, 2020

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Flawed reasoning meets sound logic in Tennessee

Some are geniuses at baptizing weird syllogisms.

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March 29, 2020

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Is Grandma worth the price?

Hear the resurgence of Social Darwinism, a discredited 19th-century ideology that baptized rivalry.

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March 26, 2020

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Should we toss out grandma?

Social Darwinism not only violates Jesus’ teaching, its competitive ethos spells economic doom.

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March 24, 2020

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Some Christians Are Actually Behaving Well

Much of the news on the faith beat is all about Christians behaving badly: Jerry Falwell, Jr., defies the medical consensus and welcomes students back to Liberty University; Paula White earnestly declares healing over America; a pseudo television evangelist peddles false medical cures; and a famous health-and-wealth advocate says God strickens America because of Trump […]

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