Religion and Politics

Where shoulders once shrugged, fists now shake.  Evangelical, moderate and liberal Christians are mad as hell at Fox TV host, Glenn Beck. His recent comparison of social justice Christians with Nazis and Communists crossed a line. Among other things, it is a reminder that deep down, Glenn Beck is not only shallow but also the king of demagoguery.

His reactionary comments were clearly intended to raise the hackles of moderates and liberals—and he succeeded.

Writing with the outrage of a biblical prophet, Sojourner’s Jim Wallis refused to attack Glenn Beck but challenged him to an open conversation about social justice, what it is and why it’s important. Beck demurred.

That Glenn Beck is a practicing Mormon only makes the story more interesting. Across the religious spectrum, Beck’s comments served as a source of puzzlement to commentators. Especially illuminating is a quote by Kent P. Jackson, associate dean of religion at Brigham Young University in a recent New York Times article: “My own experience as a believing Latter-day Saint over the course of 60 years is that I have seen social justice in practice in every L.D.S. congregation I’ve been in. People endeavor with all of our frailties and shortcomings to love one another and to lift up other people. So if that’s Beck’s definition of social justice, he and I are definitely not on the same team.”

Were he available for comment, Jesus would say much the same thing.

Mainstream biblical scholars have reached a consensus that a definitive portrait of the historical Jesus cannot be painted and that Jesus revealed, looks more like an unfinished sketch. So how did we come to dress up Jesus in these theological silks and satins?

The Mediterranean Jewish Rabbi named Jesus taught with stories, parables and crisp sayings. He evidently spoke with incredible clarity and amazing simplicity. When he preached, performed a miracle, or gave a teaching, he talked about the kingdom of God.

But it wasn’t what he said that got him into trouble. It’s what he did, and how he lived that eventually got him crucified.

What did he do? How did he live?

The Gospels say that Jesus came eating and drinking with people who had leprosy, with sinners, with prostitutes, with the religiously unclean.

Two millennia removed from the folkways and mores of first century Palestine, it is impossible for us to grasp the significance of this. To eat with the leper was to declare ones self to be a leper. To eat with prostitutes, was to prostitute one’s self. To each with the religiously unclean was to become an outcast. In the first century there was no public act more intimate than to share food, share a meal with another person.

The table fellowship practiced by Jesus was a truly revolutionary and subversive act. The authorities took it as a slap in the face to everything that was sacred.

Then as now, those in power sought to protect their authority by crating social and religious conventions that silenced dissenters and the marginalized and favor those in power.

There’s no other way to put it, Jesus was a social justice subversive. 

He was forever surrounded by the outcasts, the unclean—he even spoke to women unveiled, in public—and he was really outrageous in showing affection for hookers and tax collectors.

He was Glenn Beck’s worst nightmare.

Whoever you want to exclude from your table fellowship, Jesus says, “include them”.

The Jesus of history challenged people not with doctrinal questions but about whether they were willing to set a place for everyone at the table of their lives. Jesus asked tough questions, the toughest of which is, “who are you leaving out?  Bring them in”.

Ideologues like Glenn Beck are eager to deny a place at the table for those who prefer a different diet.

But Jesus was no ideologue.  Jesus is the question, not the answer. Jesus asks us how big our circle of compassion is. Who are we leaving out? Whoever it is, bring them in.

To his credit, Jim Wallis wants to sit down at the table with Glenn Beck.

What are you afraid of Mr. Beck? If you’re not a nut, surely you will sit down with Jim Wallis and other social justice Christians and have a reasonable conversation.

I’m only guessing here, but it may well be that at every level, Jesus could actually be Glenn Beck’s greatest nightmare.

Almost makes me hope for a second coming of Christ.

The latest story of the failed “underwear suicide bomber” is one more example that homeland security requires something deeper than a revealing image  from some full body scanner. Full body scanners can’t penetrate body cavities or see under flabby folds of skin. The latest technology has its limits.  This recent kerfuffle reminds us that when it comes to the monster of terrorism–we typically react to the symptoms rather than dealling with the root cause–the  breakdown of human community.

By definition, terrorism is all about the power of coercion that wreaks fear and suffering. Yes, in the short run security must be ramped up. But over the long haul, the power of coercion can finally and ultimately only be overcome by the power of persuasion.

Life is all about relationships. Cultivating and supporting healthy relationships is the only thing that can create a strong social immune system capable of repelling the virus of terrorism. The only real solution is to build up our social immune system.

Ever since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and more recent actions of terrorists, the relationship between Muslim and non-Muslim Americans in the US has deteriorated. As events and stories unfold, many American Muslims are feeling defensive, depressed and marginalized.

Although many American Muslim leaders have spoken out against terrorism, the conventional wisdom and perspective of the mainstream media is that American Muslims are too timid.

Offering up a plethora of commentaries, non-Muslim pundits often share opinions that imply if not insist that the American Muslim community is at worst supportive, at best ambivalent about the violent actions of extremists who carry the Muslim banner.

With disturbing regularity the American news media carries headlines about the latest action of a “Muslim terrorist” or “Islamic jihadist” who shouts “Allahu Akbar” while committing some violent act. The 24/7 news cycle contributes to this feeding frenzy. Generalizations and stereotypes about American Muslims and the “world of Islam” abound among the non-Muslim American majority, prompting some to coin the term “Islamophobia.”

While many American Muslims confess feeling marginalized and powerless, non-Muslim Americans are given precious few opportunities to look upon their neighbors as anything but the latest iteration of “the other”. This complex dynamic creates a sense of powerlessness for each.

Taken together, these combustible narratives create an accelerating dynamic of fear and suspicion among Muslim and non-Muslim Americans alike. Comparisons between the current public mindset toward American Muslims as “the other” and the climate that allowed the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, as the “other,” gives one pause.

This fearful and complicated reality reflects the breakdown of the American community

.Everyone is focusing on what has gone wrong.

But focusing on what’s gone wrong only takes us back to the past. It is only as we focus our attention upon what is already working (our assets) that we develop the capacity to create a future lived on higher ground. This proven methodology is known as Asset Based Community Development.

Only as we engage in a new conversation based on building capacities of new understanding, new relationships and community will we transform the old grievance stories (on both sides) of the past and create a new future. The creation of a new community begins with a new conversation.

Let us begin by writing together a new narrative by focusing on where and how Muslim and non-Muslim Americans are working together to live out the American dream. It is time to write a new American map—let’s call it the cartography of the heart.

Please share your awareness of local and national groups, eg. peace and justice organizations, secular groups committed to human rights, organizations committed to peaceful conflict resolution, colleges and universities, religious and inter-religious initiatives like United Religions Initiative Cooperation Circles, Interfaith Youth Core, the Interfaith Alliance, local Baptist-Muslim, Jewish-Muslim and Catholic-Muslim dialogue projects, etc.

Do you know of a grassroots effort that could  help us to change this tired, old conversation?

It is time to move from fear to hope, from problems to possibility.  New conversations have the power to create new relationships and new relationships have the power to re-create the world.  I invite you to join me in this new conversation built not on problems and fears but strength and possibility.

I nearly floated as I walked home from dinner on the small Pacific island of Miyake a few weeks ago.

The location was special: an island of stunning black beaches, gentle temperatures, and ragged cliffs, towered over by one of earth’s liveliest volcanoes. The food had been superb: thinly sliced meats grilled at the table and dipped in scrumptious sauces, supplemented by an array of pickled dishes, salads, and sparkling beverages.

But it was the conversation that had made the evening exceptional. For three hours, the four of us, all teachers, paused only to fill our mouths. We talked about Japanese politics, about the island economy, about Afghanistan, about sumo wrestling, about families and travel. We laughed; we sighed; we agreed; we disagreed; we heard each other–and felt heard–with both heart and head.

I experienced that night what we mean when we speak of the oneness of the human spirit. Our religions varied. We were single and married, old and young, Japanese and American. None of us was wholly comfortable with the others’ language. Yet the mutuality was magical. I understood what Bob Thompson means when he says that “the idea of a separate self is a construction of the mind.”

My euphoria, however, was punctured soon by a sobering note. If the dinnertime oneness was satisfying, the walk home got me to thinking about the price that mutuality exacts, about the fact that when I start empathizing, I start seeing things from my companions’ perspective. And when I do that, I have to take new, even uncomfortable, ideas seriously.

The topic that stirred the unease around the table was Okinawa. Obama was coming to Japan that week, and the hot issue was the presence of dozens of American bases–and 20,000 GIs–on Okinawa. Japan’s new government had begun discussing possible policy changes regarding the location of one of those bases, and U.S. diplomats had countered with a threatening line, warning that change might threaten the entire U.S.-Japan alliance.

The thing that became clear in the evening’s conversation was that policy specifics were less important than tone, in particular the impression American officials gave that they were not interested in Japanese nuances or sensibilities. The American bases, I was reminded, are on Japanese soil. Japan bears a significant share of their expense. American GIs are perceived to get special treatment when they commit crimes on Okinawan soil. And yet, Americans lecture the Japanese about what must be done–in the authoritarian tone of stern parents.

As I talked with my Japanese hosts, I saw–no, I felt–how humiliating it can be to deal with bullying partners. Even when those partners consider themselves friends.

And as I thought back over the conversation, I realized, quite painfully, that empathy is not always the easiest way. Feeling loved and accepted had prompted me to love back. When I loved back, I was drawn into my companions’ perspective. And when I entered their space, my easy certitudes began to fall away.

What was more (and what was hardest!), that moment of empathy sent my mind spinning off in broader directions. If empathy impelled me to take my companions’ views seriously on this matter, what if I did the same with even hotter, bigger issues? What if everyone took this idea of oneness seriously?

Is it possible that some Palestinians’ hatred of Jewish Israel stems from an inability to get beyond their own (justifiable) sense of victimhood to an understanding of the Israelis’ own sense of threat? Or that many Jews hate Palestinans primarily because their preoccupation with personal vulnerability prevents them from looking at the world as Palestinians experience it?

And is that the way it is everywhere? Americans, smug in our own wealth and power, have no interest in seeing through the eyes of those affected by our actions. Moslem extremists, feeling ignored and marginalized, ask how to bring the infidel down but not how the infidel feels as a fellow human being. Rich nations, focusing on profit lines, shut their ears to the worries of poor countries who will bear the brunt of global warming.

Listening to others will not make solutions easier. It may make them harder, because it will force us to take competing claims seriously. Feeling a sister’s hurt will not necessarily make me agree with her, but it will refuse to let me ignore her position. And that will make my own intellectual struggles more complex, and thus more difficult.

But empathizing will change our interactions. It will drive us to discover ways of living together, to choose love and respect over hatred and alienation. And that will make the complications worth the struggle. It is, after all, the only way to justice.

Professional Christian Science practitioner Phil Davis argues that the healthcare debate is not only about politics and economics but also an opportunity to embrace the mind/body connection. “It’s about the possibility that one’s relationship to God is a redemptive process and that physical well-being is an aspect of that spiritual growth and salvation,” Davis says.

“Disease is an experience of a so-called mortal mind. It is fear made manifest on the body,” said Mary Baker Eddy. The matriarch of Christian Science wrote these words out of her own experience. In 1866 she suffered a severe fall that caused a major injury. She reportedly turned to Matthew 9:2 and read these words, “And just then some people were carrying a paralyzed man lying on a bed. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.’”

Once viewed by mainstream American religionists as a peculiar Christian brand, Christian Science is no longer a lonely voice crying out in the wilderness.

From quigong to yoga, from insight to transcendental meditation, the rising tide of Eastern spiritual practices has raised the collective Western consciousness to a new awareness of the relationship of mind to body. Prodded perhaps by the Eastern healing currents and fueled by the latest scientific research, an increasing number of physicians and neuroscientists are pushing old boundaries while asserting new mind/body paradigms—is this the a new secular spirituality?

It turns out that Christian Science practitioners are more like trail blazers than drifters.

While mind/body proponents articulate different versions of the story, most agree that a peaceful mind is a great benefit to the body. Contending that the physical body is not an island unto itself but an externalized expression of the mind, Christian Scientists take the next step and assert that every disease in the body is the manifestation of the mind, says Christian Science. As May Baker Eddy put it, “Disease is an image of thought externalized.”

Given the larger context of the healthcare debate it comes as little surprise that some Christian Science practitioners are requesting that healthcare reform reflect this growing awareness by allowing for reimbursement of mind/body practitioners.

Religion aside, this is should be a no brainer. Even if you are skeptical about the relationship of mental prayer to physical wellness, there’s no denying the placebo effect. While there are limits to the power of positive thinking (no one has yet been able to resist physical death through positive thinking) the research is itself a reminder that what is in the mind can significantly impact the body.

If nothing else, the placebo effect is cost effective. And if you are convinced that mind/body healing is rooted in a deeper truth than mere positive thinking, you might even be willing to consider that yoga, meditation or other spiritual practices are worthy antidotes for many of the ills that beset us.

As Ben Franklin famously put it, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

Even conventional medicine is beginning to embrace prevention as an economically efficient and compassionate model. In the healthcare reform debates few question the importance of a primary care physician as a basic way to build in accountability and competence into the existing healthcare system.

Why not include reimbursement to all mind/body practitioners as a line item in healthcare reform? In addition to helping people cure from disease recognizing the mind/body connection could be a boon to the prevention movement.

Here is the problem. The fascinating topic of mind/body aside, we can’t even agree on how best to best provide conventional healthcare to Americans. The public option, or no? Medical malpractice tort reform, or no? Will procedures like abortions or gastric bypass surgery be allowed, or not? And how do we keep those illegal immigrants out of the ER?

To inject the nuanced topic of “paying for prayer” into this already fractious debate—who gets what and how to pay for it—is nothing if not a recipe for disaster.

And there are other questions—perhaps even more vexing and complex—such as whether it’s even appropriate for insurers (government or private) to reimburse religious practitioners for practicing their religion.

As Gandhi counseled, to take a long journey we must take only one step at a time lest we trip all over ourselves.

Maybe in some future or more enlightened time we as a people will have the wherewithal to ponder reimbursement for the ultimate prevention strategy. But for now, the “pay to pray” option is hardly an answer much less a viable question.

That said, I do agree with mind/body author Dr. Larry Dossey who says,

The major challenge we face is how to spiritualize and humanize medicine, how to infuse it with a compassionate quality that answers to our inner needs as well as to the needs of our physical bodies…(over time) healers will take their places in surgery suites, coronary care units, and emergency rooms, as they are already beginning to do in some hospitals. As a result, it will feel different to be a patient. One will know that “the system” cares about the soul as well as the body. Fantasy? Hardly. These changes are already penetrating some of the major hospitals in the country.

As the writer of the book of Ecclesiastes reminds us, “for everything there is a season.”

When it comes to healthcare reform, it’s not yet Spring.

Sarah Palin said it first, “The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s ‘death panel’ so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their ‘level of productivity in society,’ whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil.”

In this death denying culture, these words struck media pay dirt.  In the minds of government-phobic Americans the health care reform debate morphed into to a Darth Vader moment.

Sounding dark and ominous, “death panel” temporarily cast a huge shadow over the debate.

It wasn’t long before Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA)  jumped on the death panel bandwagon by telling a town hall crowd, “You have every right to fear….a government run plan to decide when to pull the plug on Grandma.”

It is now well established that the death panel that would pull the plug on your grandma is one more phantom of demagogic political rhetoric. Is it too soon to say the death panel is dead?

Health care experts and politicians have convincingly made the case that there is no such provision in pending health care legislation.  In the Grand Junction town meeting President Obama spoke with passion and tenderness about his own grandmother: “I know what it’s like to watch somebody you love, who’s aging, deteriorate, and have to struggle with that.”   Let’s hope this puts the final nail in the “death panel” coffin.

Most of us can identify with Barack Obama’s story. Sooner or later we all find ourselves sitting beside the bed of a loved one who is clearly dying and suffering terribly while we feel powerless and heartbroken.

As a protestant minister, over the years I have spent many, many hours sitting with families while doctors share a dreadful prognosis, appropriate pain medications, the benefits of hospice and how to keep the loved one as comfortable and clear as possible until the moment of death.

As a matter of compassion and human dignity every American should be afforded the opportunity for end-of-life consultations when the moment presents itself.

It is also essential that every one of us complete a living will and advanced directive before our personal crisis occurs. To provide guidance for the medical professionals who care for us and our loved ones who suffer with us is how we can best express love and compassion to those who are intimately involved in our end-of-life drama.

It turns out Sarah Palin may have done us a great service. By speaking of medical consultation in such a draconian way she did succeed in getting our collective attention.

And sooner or later we as a people must get a grip on two fundamental truths: everything is temporary and everyone dies.

The health care reform debate is not only about how we will live together but how we will help each other die. Living and dying are not two separate realities but two sides of the same coin.

Let us hope and pray that when this health care debate comes to a vote we will finally understand that we’re all in this together.

Expressing regret for the prickly comment that Sgt. James Crowley had behaved stupidly in his rough treatment of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, the president has now admitted that his off-the-cuff remark was a mistake.

“I obviously helped to contribute ratcheting it up,” the president said in an appearance in the White House briefing room. “I want to make clear that in my choice of words, I think I unfortunately gave an impression that I was maligning the Cambridge Police Department or Sergeant Crowley specifically, and I could have calibrated those words differently.”

Following his first public statement on the Gates story, media outlets erupted with responses that ranged from support to hyperbolic criticism of the president.

The ever thoughtful and reflective Obama stepped back and now admits he could have handled it better. He made a mistake. After all, he wasn’t there when it happened. His original reaction was a conditioned response to a truth that has been and continues to be.   It is a fact of American history that people of color are disproportionately harassed by those who wield power.

Any empathic human being can understand that the president, reacting out of not only personal experience but the cultural context of systemic racism might overreact. Borrowing a page from Vice President Biden’s play book—Obama inserted foot in mouth.

Unlike his predecessor, Obama has the humility and grace to admit he made a mistake.  He is modeling not only how to have integrity as a leader, but also as an authentic human being. He freely admitted that his words contributed to ratcheting up the controversy.

His admission that, like Sgt. Crowley and Professor Gates, he too overreacted would have been sufficient to quell the storm. But for this president, it’s not enough to repent and move on. This president seems to know you cannot move on until you have cleaned up the mess.

Conflict is the drama of division. In this story, Crowley and the Cambridge police represent one side, Gates and people of color, the other. By his initial response, the president’s choice of words indicated that he was taking sides. He weighed in on one side of the conflict only to exacerbate it.

Stepping back from his comments Obama listened to other voices–without and within. Stepping back, he gathered more information. Stepping back, he reexamined the situation and realized that this particular situation was such a charged moment that perhaps Sgt. Crowley wasn’t behaving “stupidly” but he was overreacting as did professor Gates. And like the central characters in this story, Obama also realized he got sucked into the drama.   It is all very human and very understandable.

Take sides. Who is right, who is wrong? Draw the line.

But as the dustup settles one sees that the best way to resolve and transform a conflict is by acknowledging that everyone has a perspective—in every conflict there are two sides. More than not resolution and transformation of the clash requires that someone step in and represent the third side.

By doing more than admitting his mistake, President Obama took the third side when he invited Sgt. Crowley and Professor Gates to come together for a meeting.  What was originally an obstacle now becomes a brilliant opportunity for conflict transformation.

The author of the book, The Third Side, Bill Ury, has extensive experience in creative non-violent conflict resolution. Ury says that all forms of violence are comparable to a virus. Like a virus, violence lies sleeping, spreads throughout body of a culture and attacks suddenly–unless we have built up the social immune system against it. 

The best way to deal with violence is to prevent it. Violence flourishes when the social immune system is weak.

Finally, a president who understands what it takes to build up our immune system to forces of destructive conflict and violence.  Bring people together.

The Rev. Rick Warren and the Rev Joseph Lowery were the prominent religious figures at the Presidential inauguration. But, when it comes to the Obama team engaging the diverse American religious community, they are only the tip of the iceberg.

To his credit, throughout the presidential campaign and now in his administration, President Obama appears refreshingly open to engaging diverse religious perspectives as he forges a new relationship between the White House and religious communities.

In policy and practice Mr. Obama is a pluralist, and this fact alone gives the diverse American religious community not only room to breathe but wafts like a refreshing breeze in a country that has been inhaling the toxic fumes of the religious right.

That said, I have continuing concerns about President Obama’s understanding of the role and scope of religion in American life.

Case in point—the invocation and benediction at the inauguration were offered by two Christians. It is true that the predominant religious narrative in this country is Judeo-Christian. It is also true that religion in American life in the 21st century is a rapidly changing landscape.

Diana Eck, scholar, author and founder of The Pluralism Project at Harvard University, says that the American Muslim population, while only a fraction of the American religious community, is roughly equivalent to the number of self identified American Jews. The Project estimates there are 2 to 3 million Buddhists and 1.3 million Hindus and Sikhs. When compared to the estimate of  160 million Christians, the percentage is small. But measured against the available data of the past twenty years, the ratio has shifted significantly.

As Ewert Cousins puts it in his provocative book  Christ of the 21st Century, “When Christians raise questions about Christ, they must now ask: How is Christ related to Hindu history, to Buddhist history—to the common global history that religions are beginning to share.”

The overwhelming majority of Americans may yet define themselves as Christians, but our national religious complexion is getting a makeover.

Much has been made of President Obama’s fidelity to President Lincoln’s understanding of governance as discussed by Doris Kearn Goodwin in her now well known book Team of Rivals:The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.  She writes that Abraham Lincoln had a talent for getting along with “men” of opposing sensibilities.

That Barack Obama regards this approach to governing as not only preferred and pragmatic but a healthy way to govern in a democracy is a breath of fresh air.

But it wouldn’t hurt if Mr. Obama adapted and reshaped this principle to express his relationship with the growingly diverse religious community in America.

New York Times reporter Laurie Goodstein recently wrote an article called “Without A Pastor of His Own, Obama Turns to Five.”  She names five Christian clergy who now form what she calls the President’s “prayer caucus.”

Of these clergy, two are white and three are black.

Two are theologically conservative, the others more moderate. Yet it seems that in general they agree that Jesus was committed to peace and economic justice.   Nonetheless, as a group they are opposed to abortion rights and same sex marriage.  All are Christian conservatives (not necessarily the same thing as the religious right) or moderates.

Mr. Obama has every right to decide who will be his spiritual counselors, and they must be people he can trust.

It is not that Mr. Obama has turned a deaf ear to America’s religious minorities, not at all. But compared to the full throated voices of Christians who have his ear, it seems that religious minorities have only a whispering voice.  It’s especially noteworthy that there is not one imam on his White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

What if he applied the team of rivals concept not only to cabinet members but also his spiritual advisors?  I don’t mean “rival” in the strictly political sense.

The art of harmonious living in a religiously plural world is to recognize the unique contribution of each tradition. Diverse religious traditions are rivals because, when taken together, their differences point to a larger truth.

What if the openly gay Episcopal Bishop Eugene Robinson, Rabbi Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus (head of the Central Conference of American Rabbis), Imam Abdul Malik Mujahid or interfaith advocate Dr. Hemlata Pokharna, an American Jain,  were members of his spiritual cabinet?

How about a lesbian or gay Christian plus a few non-Christian women as members of this prayer caucus?

I offer these names by way of suggesting that our religiously diverse world now manifesting itself as a religiously plural America is sorely in need representation not only in America’s policy but as an expression of the prayers of all the people.

“The times they are A-Changin’.” This is change we can believe in. Yes we can.

By identifying the President’s spiritual advisers as his “prayer caucus,” Laurie Goodstein points perhaps to an even deeper spiritual truth.

Most American Christians understand prayer to be a petition, an appeal, a request to find favor with God.  In other words, prayer is fundamentally an act of talking rather than opening up and listening. On the surface it seems this is how Mr. Obama’s prayer caucus understands the meaning of prayer.

In the Eastern spiritual traditions and even within the American Christian contemplative tradition there runs a deeper understanding of prayer than merely asking God to “give me what I want or need.”   Father Thomas Keating could advise our President on how to pray in a different way.

In the Eastern mystical and Christian contemplative traditions prayer is understood not as speaking but learning to quiet the chattering mind.

I can only hope that someone on the President’s prayer caucus will counsel our new President to, as the Psalmist put it, “Be still and know that I am God.”

Based on my experience, I suspect this and other profound spiritual truths may be something  conveyed only if he surrounds himself with a team of spiritual rivals.

When was the last time you walked into a place of worship and worried whether others might be carrying a  concealed weapon? Evidently, if you show up for a church service in Arkansas sometime in the near future, there may be reason to worry.

By a measure of 57 to 42 the Arkansas state House passed the church-guns bill that would allow legal gun owners to take carry their weapons into churches and other places of worship.   Taking a firearm into a house of worship is currently prohibited under Arkansas law. The church-guns bill would allow individual churches to decide for themselves. “Due to many shootings that have happened in our churches across our nation, it is time we changed our concealed handgun law to allow law-abiding citizens of the state of Arkansas the right to defend themselves and others should a situation happen in one of our churches,” argued the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Beverly Pyle, R-Cedarville.

I can see it now.

A gunman enters a worship service, aims a rifle at the preacher and pulls the trigger. Suddenly 30 to 40 people around the sanctuary reach under their coats, open their purses, pull up a pant leg and yank out their pistols. A barrage of bullets follows. Sure, they get the gunman. But their shooting skill is second only to Dick Cheney–oh, sorry about the collateral damage—a.k.a. dead bystanders.

How about this.

It’s the hottest day of the summer. As people sit in an air conditioned sanctuary there is a power surge and loud popping sounds. A handful of people carrying guns think someone has been shot. One of them jumps out of the pew and draws his gun to hunt down the perpetrator. Other gun wielding congregants think this first responder is the perpetrator.  Reacting and reaching without thinking they all shoot at once.

You mean those popping sounds weren’t from a gun? Oh, sorry!

How many other scenarios can you imagine?

It is true that some people confuse Jesus with the Lone Ranger , but this must be some kind of a joke.

Bill supporters argue the government has no right to subvert the authority of any local congregation. The state should keep its big government hands off the church. They say this legislation would allow individual congregations to ban guns from their premises—if that’s what they want.

But Pastor John Phillips, a shooting victim himself, asked, “Do you want ushers to stop you at the door and frisk you?”

He is right. A church would be required to have male friskers and female friskers—this could be complicated. Maybe dissenting churches should install metal detectors.

One more thing. As a preacher of sermons I confess that I don’t relish the idea of an armed congregation.

Maybe the bill sponsors are asking the wrong question. These zealous followers of Christ might ask themselves this question: Who would Jesus shoot?

One thing I know is that if Jesus were to speak today about this legislation he might well say, “You blind guides and hypocrites.” The problem is not that there aren’t enough people in enough places carrying guns. The problem is there are too many carrying guns in too many places.

Crazy people have always done crazy things.  Crazy people have no grip on reality, no understanding of the consequences or the costs of their behavior.

It will undoubtedly happen again. Some crazy person will enter a house of worship with gun ablaze.  But it’s better not to make a bad situation worse.  Especially in a group of people, firepower only increases the death and suffering.  Crazy shooting behavior is more effectively overcome by physical force—and fewer are placed in harms way.

It would be better for a congregation to be skilled in the art of tackling.  Better to have two or three tackle the shooter than shoot at a moving target while bullets stray. Send the congregation to football camp.  It would be better to have a bunch of football players in the pews than a handful of shooters.

I wouldn’t say that those who voted for this bill are crazy–but their legislative behavior is a reminder that there is more than one way to act in a crazy way.

While hosting a recent holiday party one of our guests, congresswoman  Jan Schakowsky asked me what I thought about Barack Obama’s decision to ask Rick Warren to deliver the inaugural invocation.

I answered, “Jan, I think it’s the wrong call.”  She broke in, “To tell you the truth this decision breaks my heart.  And many people have also told me the same thing.”

Congresswoman Schakowsky’s words sum it up.  The choice of Rick Warren denied the pain of the very lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender people who helped get Barack Obama elected.

But the angst around the selection of Rick Warren was not about political correctness.   It was not about public policy—or making a place at the table for those who have different perspectives.  Rick Warren’s support of Prop 8 and equating same sex marriage with incest and pedophilia  were the presenting symptoms. But resistance to same sex marriage was simply the lightning rod.  The protest was about same sex marriage but it was also about something deeper.

More than anything the controversy erupted because the choice of Warren to pray the invocation was about the power of a symbol.

The theologian Paul Tillich said that symbols are powerful because they are concrete (Rick Warren praying at the inauguration) while also pointing to a larger truth (Rick Warren’s ignorant statements on lesbians and gays).

To many, the selection of Rick Warren painfully lanced the unhealed wounds of LGBT people.   In ensuing weeks the raging protest gave way to the murmur of discontent.

Then, suddenly, the news broke that President-elect Obama had asked the openly gay Episcopal Bishop from New Hampshire, Eugene Robinson, to deliver the invocation at the opening inaugural event on Sunday on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

This is not only a brilliant political move but is also reflective of Barack Obama’s deepest conviction that we are all interdependent and interrelated.

Some argue that it was only after feeling the heat from the left that Obama’s team decided to offer the invitation.  But in a recent New York Times article  Bishop Robinson said he believed the invitation had been under consideration for some time.

Added to the selection of Sharon E. Watkins of the Disciples of Christ denomination who will deliver the sermon at the inaugural breakfast and civil rights leader Rev. Joseph Lowery who will offer the inaugural benediction, Bishop Robinson’s inclusion in the celebration completes the puzzle of unity within diversity.

Or does it?

Here is the problem.  They are all Christians.

Is this a Christian nation?   Is this a Christian world?

The power of a symbol is the power to create a new vision and version of reality.  It’s not only the LBGT community, or women, or African Americans who need healing.

At this very moment the carnage in the Middle East continues. How about an inaugural symbol that points to healing in the Middle East?

Is this a missed opportunity?

What if the Obama transition team had decided to use the inaugural invitation as an opportunity to symbolically heal the great wound in the Middle East?  What if the invocation to this inauguration was shared by a Jewish rabbi and a Muslim imam?  What a powerful statement it would have been had the newly minted Christian president call for a ceremonial prayer to be jointly offered by a rabbi and an imam.  Each could offer a prayer from their own tradition while standing in unity while the whole world watched.

In the presence of our wonderful diversity the ‘yes we can’ spirit calls us one and all to a deeper unity.  The ‘yes we can’ spirit includes women and African Americans.  It includes the LBGT community, all parties in the Middle East, Republicans and Democrats, rich and poor, employed and unemployed—the list is endless—every human being belongs.

What if the opening prayer at the inauguration was used to symbolize that we are all a part of each other in the deepest and most profound way?  What if the invocation to the inauguration served as a profound reminder that unless we learn to live together, everything will fall apart?

It is true that the majority of religious devotees in America identify themselves as Christians. It’s also true that religious minorities are ever more present in American culture.  But in the global community religious pluralism is the rule.  What better time than a 21st century Presidential inauguration to symbolize that this is the change we must believe in.

Symbols in public observances are powerful.  Isn’t it time we acknowledged in our own country what is true in our world?

I agree when our new president says—Yes we can.

Prior to the election there was only one location set up for early voting in my town, the Evanston Civic Center.  I had heard tales of long lines of people waiting an interminably long time to vote. I knew I didn’t want to do that.   So I pondered the possibility of early voting.

Since I would be attending an out-of-town family wedding the weekend prior to the election I worried.

What if something unforeseen happened? What if I didn’t make it back in time? What if my  plane crashed and I hadn’t cast my vote in this historic election? What if…?

I decided to bite the bullet and go to the Civic Center on the next to last early voting day.

I had heard stories of other voters around the country standing in line for four—six—even eight hours.  While approaching the parking lot my fears were realized. There was no place to park in the huge lot and street parking was bumper to bumper. I was not the only driver looking for a place to park.  Had they ever thought of hiring a valet service?  I gulped.

Finally, after fifteen minutes of seeking a parking space I found one.

Feeling aggravated and impatient I open the Civic Center door and just as I had feared the line meandered around and down the long hall.  “How long a wait”, I asked a woman leaving through the same door.  “Well, it took me two hours”.

Okay.  I’ll go for it.

I took my place. The line was not moving. I looked at my watch.

Coming down the hall was a guy wearing an official looking name badge. “We apologize”, he said, “but we are having trouble with some of our machines. Please be patient.”

One woman said she just couldn’t wait any longer. The line moved a few steps.

I saw some familiar faces, waved and smiled.  Then for some reason my resistance evaporated.  That’s when I saw my friend Carl, an ardent and zealous Republican.  When it comes to politics Carl and I have a more or less jocular relationship.

Suddenly, I found myself in a conversation with the woman behind me.  She told me she was an ER nurse at the University of Illinois Hospital and this was her only chance to vote as she would be doing a twelve hour shift on election day.  Her eyes moistened as she told me that her father was black and her mother, white.  You see? I have a lot in common with Barack Obama. I have to stay here and vote, no matter how long it takes!

The African American couple in front of me was accompanied by their 15 year old daughter. They both said that it was such a privilege to stand there and vote for Obama that they’d wait all night if need be.

These conversations gave me pause as I looked at the faces lined up and down the long corridor. They were black and white, Hispanic and Asian, old and young.  We were lined up not only to vote for president (though that was clearly the reason for the long line) but also for senator, congressional representatives, judges, and ballot initiatives. We stood in the queue to speak each in our own voice but to also to stand together as a community of human beings—what Martin Luther King Jr, called the beloved community.

We stood there mostly surrounded by strangers but sharing in friendly conversations not only about politics but about the work we do and the families we have and the things that are on our hearts.

Caught up in this human microcosm I looked up and realized it had been two hours.  We were close to the room with the voting machines.

My friend Carl proudly emerged wearing the little adhesive badge, “I voted”.  He came up to me laughing. We embraced as he proudly announced to me that he had voted for McCain and effectively cancelled my vote.  “Carl”, I said, “no you didn’t, your wife is a Democrat. She cancelled your vote.  My vote put Obama ahead.”  Playfully, we jabbed each other and laughed out loud. This typically light hearted exchange was a  reminder that our friendship runs deeper than our differences.

I will never meet again most of those with whom I shared that corridor.   But there we were, e pluribus unum—one out of many.   Different voices, different experiences and different lives yet we were there living one life together.

The word Guru comes from the ancient language of Sanskrit, the classical language of India.

A Guru is one who dispels darkness by giving light.

We usually associate this word with an enlightened spiritual teacher.  But on that day it occurred to me that the small sample of human beings who gathered to vote that day, were in truth, a guru for us all.

Once I stopped being so self possessed, I saw the light—the light of human community—the light of the beloved community.

Have you ever met this same guru face to face?

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