Faith in Public Live returns with an exchange between Dr. Bob Edgar, General Secretary of the National Council of Churches and six-term Congressman, and Pastor Dan, proprietor and blogmaster of Street Prophets. Bob opens the conversation with his take on Middle Church.
Part 9: Dr. Bob Edgar Closes with a Prayer
These exchanges have been invigorating, and I have enjoyed them. I hope readers have enjoyed them, too. (For those who’d like to keep the discussion going, may I add with disarming modesty: read my book, Middle Church.)
It seems fitting that we bring our exchanges to a close on a day celebrated by our Abrahamic camps for millennia. A new spiritual year is upon us. Let’s pray all of us children of Abraham will figure out how to embrace each new day as new beginning, starting with Rosh HaShanah.
As I scan the morning headlines, it seems we badly need a new beginning.
The common thread running through all these headlines is a relentless estrangement of viewpoints, exacerbated by the use of illogic, innuendo, litigation and violence to defend dubious positions. It all amounts to what you call the E-Bomb.
Evil has so permeated our lives that we no longer feel awkward in its presence.
We shake our heads in resignation when Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah defies the U.N. cease fire accord by proclaiming Hezbollah will not disarm.
We shrug as the IRS threatens the tax-exempt status of All Saints Church in Pasadena because it preached Jesus would have condemned President Bush’s policy of pre-emptive war.
We snicker at GOP accusations that the Democrats founded the Ku Klux Klan and Democratic assurances that Republicans want to replace democracy with an oligarchic theocracy.
We cluck our tongues as the chaos escalates in Iraq amid doubts that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has the competence to impose order.
We smile sardonically as hysterical threats are hurled between Christians and radical Muslims over a misunderstanding of Pope Benedict’s historical musings.
We snicker at the unintended oxymoron when a Thailand general announces a “pro-democracy coup.â€
In short, we have gazed into the face of evil and yawned.
And for Middle Church, that ennui is the greatest threat it faces.
As we begin a new year, my prayer is that we will all awaken to the demons in our midst. The first goal of the Evil One, I suspect, is not to make us devils; it’s to make us bored and unresponsive when the devil sits in our pews.
But today is a new day, a new year has begun. Let’s all of us commit to using the time God has given us to hear Jesus’ sermon again, this time with our ears wide open:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.â€ (Luke 4:18-19, NRSV).
If we can do that, what a great year this will be.
Thanks, Dan. Blessings on you. Le-shanah tovah tikatevu.
Part 8: Pastor Dan’s Dirty 4 Letter Word
You ask how we can get across the prophetic truth to people who don’t care about it. That, my friend, is the $64,000 question. There are numerous barriers to communicating the prophetic truth, not least of them a corporate mass media that doesn’t want to hear it.
That’s a long-term challenge, and a stiff one. But there are ways to get the message out. To explain how, I’d call your attention to one of the comments at the end of this thread:
I’m not big on obsenity…meaning I’m not big on pinning specific words themselves as being obscene. I’m with George Carlin with this. It’s not the words that are hurtful, it’s the meaning behind the words that can hurt, it’s the intention.
But I understand now wanting to drop the F-bomb. Hey, sensibilities and all that. What I don’t get, is why the Middle Church, as they put it, don’t want to drop the E-bomb. Another 4-letter word.
Look how much people mock the Democratic party for being percieved as being weak, for using meek language and sending weak messages.
And not to open up a can of worms, it’s why I see where people like Sam Harris is coming from. Even though it’s going to offend and turn off most people here (including myself), there’s a lot of people who respect shows of strength. A LOT of people.
They believe strength is power. And power is rightousness. And rightousness means that you might actually be right. Unless you’re willing to fight for your beliefs…why should they listen to you?
I have to say I agree with this commentor. Why should people listen to folks like you and me if we’re not actually willing to stand up for what we believe in? If we’re not willing to call evil that which is transparently evil?
This is a problem with feet in many different areas of our nation’s collective life. On a political level, the reluctance to perform basic moral evaluation in public forces elected officials to support shameful policies. Our economic and military programs get more and more insane by the day. When will someone stand up and say enough is enough?
Or, to rip an example from this morning’s headlines, when will any leaders of our nation stand to declare that torture is flat-out wrong? That it is evil?
Another political consequence of the refusal to speak out is that it convinces the average person that leaders don’t really believe much of anything. We hear about this most often in the context of the electoral woes of the Democratic party. Because Dems allow their position to be defined in terms of attracting swing voters, those voters conclude that there is no principal behind those positions. I can hardly blame them for that.
But this also affects our religious life, I believe. The roots of the decline of the mainline denominations are complex, but if I had to choose one reason among all the factors under our control, I’d say it was the inability to stake a clear moral vision of our life together. There’s an amazing – and blessed – diversity among religious progressives, but I think there are principles that unite us as well. We believe that the poor should be taken care of before the rich get richer. We believe in the stewardship of the earth. We believe that there should never be an unnecessary war, and we regret the costs of even the necessary conflicts. We believe – I pray we believe – that torture is everwhere and always wrong.
That we are unable to communicate such beliefs is frankly a failure of mutual leadership. The appointed leaders need to lead, to take chances and to pull the people in directions they don’t always want to go. And the people – the leaders we have been looking for – need to press their formal leadership to exert more moral guidance.
Part of the work of the progressive netroots has been to push the leadership of the Democratic party to actually lead the party. Many of us in fact came to the blogs exactly because we were outraged that our leaders cowered before conservative bullying. I have always thought that Street Prophets should continue that work with religious leaders.
So I’ll leave you with a cordial challenge. Will you – can you – step up to the plate and say in so many words that the “compromise” coming out of the Senate on coerced interrogation is in fact evil? Can you “drop the e-bomb” on that despicable plan?
I can guarantee that if you do, people will care. They may not like it. They may not like you. But by God, they’ll care.
Thank you for your time, your warmth, and your insight. This exchange has been an honor and a pleasure.
Part 7: Bob Edgar on the Difference between Prophetic Truth and Hugo Chavez
You make some interesting points. I recall President Nixon’s election night plea to “lower our voices.â€ The White House transcripts show how that came out.
But I agree that there are times when people have to speak plainly. Jesus called the Pharisees a “brood of vipers,â€ which is a harsher phrase than suggesting one’s descent from canines. His use in the temple of the phrase “den of thievesâ€ was probably cleaned up so it could appear in family bibles. And we can only guess what he really called the fig tree that bore no fruit. There’s no question that Jesus didn’t mince words — and I don’t think he expects us to obscure our prophecy in diplomatic nuances.
Even so, non diplomatic language sometimes confuses folks. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, after he called Bush “the devil,â€ walked down a Harlem street and told a group of passers-by: “Bush is an alcoholic, a sick man with a lot of hang-ups.â€
“He walks like John Wayne,â€ Chavez added. “He doesn’t know anything about politics, he got there because of Daddy.â€
The first person to rise up in Bush’s defense was Rep. Charles Rangel, the liberal Democrat who represents Harlem in Congress. “You do not come into my country, my congressional district, and you do not condemn my president,” Charlie said. “If there is any criticism of President Bush, it should be restricted to Americans, whether they voted for him or not.” My old friend Nancy Pelosi, minority leader in the House, simply called Chavez a “thug.” I’d say Chavez’ rhetoric was pointless because it wasted valuable media time and missed a chance to speak the prophetic truth in a way Bush could hear it. (Well, maybe he does walk like John Wayne, but the rest was nonsense.)
The prophetic truth, as Middle Church people are increasingly understanding, is that Mr. Bush and members of Congress on both sides of the aisle led us into an unnecessary war for the wrong reasons and thousands died — 2,693 Americans according to today’s Defense Department count, and unknown tens of thousands of Iraqis including innocent children and other noncombatants.
The prophetic truth is that God’s beautiful creation is choking in greenhouse gases and about to be drowned by melting glaciers and the president and members of Congress on both sides have failed to do anything about it. Mr. Bush pulled the U.S. out of the Kyoto treaty to control greenhouse gas emissions because he was afraid it would hurt American business, and the Congress has done little to stop the steady warming of the globe.
The prophetic truth is that poverty is killing people around the world, and no one is doing anything about it. Hurricane Katrina blew away the veil of American poverty, and the government has not managed to come to grips with it.
The prophetic truth — well, you get the picture. How do we get it across to people who don’t care about it? Go on Hannity and Colmes and shout, “Damn your eyesâ€?
Certainly the answer is not to whisper for help. But I hope Middle Church folks will find their voice in a powerful way — and learn how to communicate God’s truth to our leaders in ways they can hear it.
Part 6: Pastor Dan Flips a Table Over (almost anyway)
I too have enjoyed our exchange here. But I think you and I both know there’s a time for civil discourse, and a time for – well, not so polite language. What we’re doing here is great. Outside this venue, it doesn’t work so well.
In fact, that’s been one of my greatest learnings from the blogosphere recently. Bloggers are often faulted for using profanities or insulting language directed at public figures. Sometimes that criticism is warranted – sometimes abuse is just abuse – but often, it misses fundamental points. There’s nothing nice about unnecessary war. There’s nothing nice about torture. There’s nothing nice about corpses left for days in the hot Louisiana sun because the Federal Government couldn’t respond to a crisis it had been warned of, and in fact had recently prepared itself for. There’s nothing nice about any of that stuff, so why should we speak about it in “nice” terms?
I was outraged to hear Bill Clinton on NPR this morning proposing retroactive warrants for torture of terror detainees. In the name of Christ, that is an obscenity. There are already cases where innocent people have been tortured, and Clinton wants to put the US stamp of approval on that. What are we supposed to say, “Sorry, our bad”? But if I were to respond to this story with the full fury and contempt it deserves, I’d soon get an e-mail from my parents telling me my language was a distraction from my argument. I certainly wouldn’t be invited on any talk shows. Why not? Well, because our mass media has decided that being civil is more important than the underlying moral issues in a debate.
Now, let’s be clear. I am not advocating for Middle Church leaders to start dropping the “f-bomb” in sermons on the Sunday morning talk shows. That would be simply counterproductive.
But if I have any one criticism of the current leaders of the progressive faith movement, such as it is, it’s that they’re too hung up on being civil and constructive. They’re too interested in finding the moral and political center (as one wag at Street Prophets put it, “I wonder if it’s like a jelly donut”).
Again, I don’t think we have to be obscene or abusive. But there are real differences in our nation today that deserve not to be papered over. In fact, they deserve to be judged, and harshly. Pres. Bush wants the unfettered freedom to torture as he pleases. Some members of Congress are happy to go along with him, others want a slightly different measure enacted. But why are we having this “debate” at all? Why is there any question at all about whether we’ll attack Iran? I think what the people in Middle Church are looking for is someone who has the prophetic temerity to step outside the bounds of polite discussion and question – sharply – the scandalous drift of our nation. They’re looking for leaders, in other words. And as you noted in our last exchange, if they don’t find them, they’ll have to realize that they are those leaders themselves. That’s all to the better, but I worry that in the meantime, we religious leaders have convinced more and more people that our faith doesn’t really matter, because we don’t really believe anything too strongly. That’s the price of civility.
Let me close with a story I delight in telling about Woody Guthrie. It might even be true. It goes like this: Woody, along with Son Terry and Brownie McGhee, was invited to play a war-bonds dinner in then-segregated Baltimore. So he came and did his thing, and afterwords, the organizers seated him at the head table.
Where’s Son and Brownie? he asked. It’s segregated here, he was told. They’re eating in the kitchen.
Bring them up here, he said. I want to eat with them.
You can’t do that, people said. This is Baltimore.
“This fight against fascism has got to start right here!” Woody insisted, pounding on the table. Not now, the organizers responded. Don’t cause a scene. We’ll take on segregation after the war. Maybe in ten years.
“This fight against fascism has got to start RIGHT NOW!” he shouted. And with that, he turned over the table and walked out.
That’s where we’re at today.
Part 5: Bob Edgar on Attention and Conflict
You’re right: Blogs are a communication oasis. And I’ve been enjoying our dialogue. You have certainly expressed your views with insight, humor and polite civility, and I have done my best to emulate that standard. I’m wondering, though, how many of our readers appreciate it.
Conflict! That’s what editors and producers say they want from us. They tell us that’s why we Middle Church folks are not news. Take the National Council of Churches, for example: 35 communions and 45 million parishioners representing the widest possible range of theological tradition: Orthodox, Anglican, Reformed, historic peace churches, evangelicals, and historic African American churches.
The media say the potential for conflict among us is overwhelming. After all, one editor mused, 500 years ago we were burning each other at the stake.
But today — for the most part, anyway, though we have some very spirited discussions — we are relatively congenial. We work together. Our Governing Board generally agrees on many issues, most recently on the need to eliminate torture as an instrument of U.S. policy, the need to rebuild the hurricane-stricken Gulf Coast with efficiency, speed and justice, and the need to maintain civil and religious liberties in the post 9/11 era.
I wish these pronouncements had attracted more media attention because I think they were important statements on controversial issues. And they represented the common wisdom of Christians of many nationalities, language groups, races, ethnicities and religious heritages.
Conflict! That would have put us at the top of the Wolf Blitzer Report. But we encountered these issues with an eye to scripture and a strong sense that by God’s grace we are members of one family, and there was little discord to report. So the media stayed home and the message was muted.
That’s a shame. Middle Church folks would have a lot to say if people were listening to us. There are so many issues that need urgent reflection: the festering war in Iraq, the genocide in Darfur, the cataclysmic Middle East, the systematic destruction of the earth’s atmosphere, the moral questions raised by advances in human biotechnology, so many more.
But make no mistake! I am not complaining about the civil way we have been exchanging ideas. I look forward to more discussion.
But I wish the media decision-makers would understand: when Middle Church people — when 35 diverse communions can work together on things that matter — that’s big news.
Part 4: Pastor Dan on Finding Leadership in the Netroots
“We are the leaders we have been waiting for”: amen, brother. I don’t know if you only intended those words to be about social change, but they make a rather neat summary of the gospel in some ways. Christ was about nothing if not a people-powered movement toward God.
Like many others, I was drawn to the “progressive netroots” in late 2003 and early 2004 by that same spirit. Everywhere you turned, Republican leaders were pushing the nation in a way that seemed completely opposed to Christian social teachings, at least as I understood them. We rushed to war on transparently flimsy grounds, Rick Santorum was gleefully discussing “man-on-dog” sex, and Congress was passing raftloads of hateful, mean-spirited legislation. Through it all, Democrats were cowed by security issues and Pres. Bush’s high approval ratings. The media seemed disinclined to ask tough questions of the administration or its legislative allies. There was, in short, utterly no leadership against an extreme agenda.
Except on the blogs. They were like an oasis in those days. More than that: they were like lonely prophets, questioning the moral direction of the nation, providing an alternative vision, summoning the people to action. No one else was doing that, and it was sorely needed.
My, ahem, “faith” in the netroots was confirmed by two events. In 2004, a coalition of bloggers and other netroots activists almost single-handedly stopped the proposed gutting of Social Security rather simply. They just spread the message that there was no Social Security crisis, and encouraged their readers to do the same. That translated into many calls and letters to legislators which in turn bolstered opposition to a bad idea. Eventually it killed the proposed “reform”. It was people-power at its finest, in that the bloggers provided information, made a suggestion, and let people chart the course from there on out.
In January 2005, I attended a conference at the Pew Center, an examination of the so-called “moral values vote” in the last presidential election, at which E.J. Dionne was one of the presenters. After the session, I worked my way up to Dionne to ask him what role he saw for progressive faith in the coming years. His response was essentially “your guess is as good as mine.” I came home elated. The experts turned out not to have any better idea of what to do than the “common folk.”
It was liberating. For the first time, it felt like people like me could have a say in the future direction of the nation, however incremental. I had become the leader I’d been waiting for. One of them, anyway. There were many other potential leaders out there, and increasingly so, as blogs and the larger netroots continue to swell with average citizens looking for alternatives to our current social and political mess.
The Holy Spirit doesn’t motivate the progressive blogosphere, of course, at least not any more than any other human endeavor. Nor should we confuse the emerging people-powered movement with the work of the gospel. No matter how nifty the new tools coming out of the netroots, it’s still politics, and politics can’t save our world from itself.
But what politics can do is help us take responsibility for the world. It’s an imperfect device, but then, we are an imperfect people, and the world cannot afford to wait for perfection. When it really gets down to it, we need to convince Middle Church that political involvement is needed, that is possible, and that it can be done faithfully. We need to reformulate politics as a potential good, in other words, and not as an entirely sinful project. I wonder if you have any ideas as to how that might be done?
Apologies for the sketchiness of this post,
Part 3: Dr. Bob Edgar on Overcoming Political Quietism
Thanks for your insights — and for your disquieting (but so true) observation that the Middle Church folks we represent are bogged down in “political quietism.ï¿½? As you put it so well, all of us are “so taxed with the burden of being a good father or mother or assorted relative that it gets to be very difficult to consider issues much beyond that.ï¿½?
I can certainly understand that. A lot of people are attracted to church because of their spiritual desolation. As they struggle to keep their bills paid, their marriages in tact, their children normal and their bosses placated, life can get pretty hairy. Church provides a safe haven. Church provides friendly faces, helping hands, nurseries, fellowship groups, coffee hours and promises of salvation. I would not judge anyone who didn’t want to step outside the church to face the whirlwinds of our frightening world.
And the whirlwinds are so overwhelming. Folks who declare they have the ultimate solutions to hunger, poverty, war and make us suspicious and impatient. It’s hard to know whether that still small voice inside them is a call to prophesy or a paranoid delusion. And just when we suspect God is really calling us to action, we look at the enormity of the world’s problems and decide we’d be crazy to think we could solve them.
Then again, God does call individuals — flawed, uncertain, insecure individuals — to greatness. When I was young, I met Martin Luther King, Jr., a human being for whom God had a special purpose — and a human being who had the courage to hear God’s call and respond to it. Because he did, our nation and our world have been much improved.
The remaining problems, however, are frightening. For example, we know that millions will starve and die because of the crushing poverty that exists on our planet. And who among us would be foolish enough to think we had the power to eradicate poverty?
But then that still, small voice begins to nag at us. We can eliminate poverty. “Ours,ï¿½? said economist Jeffrey Sacks, “is the first generation in the history of the world with the ability to eradicate extreme poverty. We have the means, the resources and the know-how. All we lack is the will.ï¿½?
I hope Middle Church folks will listen to those words: we can do it! But will we?
There are no individuals with a magic formula to end poverty or solve the world’s agonizing problems. Yet the 45 million people who worship in the congregations encompassed by the National Council of Churches would be a powerful force for change. It might take a lot to get us out of our comfortable churches to accept God’s call to do battle with evil and injustice. But my prayer is that we will begin to do it. Even if there are no prophets, no Martin Luther Kings, on our horizon, God will raise up prophets in the most unlikely places. And we in Middle Church will see clearly what God wants us to do. And know that we are the leaders we have been waiting for.
Part 2: Pastor Dan on the Challenge of Engaging Middle Church
I’m honored to be joining this conversation with you. You and I have a little bit of overlap in our lives: like you, I started my career in urban ministry. And like you, I know the pleasures of Pennsylvania coal country, having done long-term pulpit supply in Mahanoy City.
I must say though that it was mighty unfair of you to throw the words of Jesus at me in your opening post. How to argue with George W. Bush’s favorite philosopher?
It is beyond arguing, I think, that Jesus calls us to a hard path. Love, as you rightly note, is a difficult ethic to maintain consistently. It takes courage, wisdom, and not a little shrewdness to escape the usual course of history. But that’s exactly what the gospel of that “‘whole’ Bible” calls us to do. We are to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God, to borrow Micah’s well-worn phrase. If you don’t understand that, you haven’t understood the Bible. It’s that simple.
I do wonder how many people get that, though. You say that
Middle Church folks know there will be hell to pay when the world is judged against these standards: a world at war, a world in which millions lie dying in poverty, a world in which human beings revile and persecute one another, a world in which governments sanction abuse and torture.
But I’m not so sure. What I see a lot of, even in the denominations represented by the National Council of Churches, is what Doug Muder called Inherited Obligation families and the morality that follows from that model of human interaction. Not to bore you too much, Muder believes that for many Americans, morality is less about negotiating the ethical dilemmas of the world than it is understanding the niche one has been assigned and fulfilling that role to the best of one’s ability.
That’s morally consequential in that it encourages political quietism, especially in a time when the family seems besieged. Simply put, so many people are so taxed with the burden of being a good father or mother or assorted relative that it gets to be very difficult for them to consider issues much beyond that. I agree that they have a sense that something is dreadfully wrong with the world. But do they have the insight to understand the role they play in larger systems? Do they understand that they are personally called to “bringing war, poverty and injustice to an end”?
And have we, the leaders of Middle Church, done enough to make them understand?
I’m happy to have the chance to join in this exchange with you about faith and politics in America. I’m on the road talking to people around the country about my new book, Middle Church, so I’m glad to have the chance to trade thoughts with you. When I’m asked to describe the folks who worship in “Middle Church,ï¿½? I often reply, “Middle Church folks read the whole bible.ï¿½?
I know laypersons who make it a spiritual discipline to read the Bible from Genesis to Revelation each year. That’s great, but it’s not what I mean by reading the “wholeï¿½? bible. Middle Church folks know that when they hear justice described as “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,ï¿½? a very important phase has been omitted.
Jesus said: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also …ï¿½? (Matthew 5:38-39, NRSV).
The fact is, Middle Church people read enough of the Bible to know that the realm of God described by Jesus sets certain standards of conduct and faith that are difficult to live up to, but are nonetheless expected of us by the Creator of the Universe.
When Democratic and Republican representatives stand before one another to excoriate our enemies, their words can sound very satisfying. The words of Jesus, however, set a different standard. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy,’ï¿½? he said. But he adds: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.ï¿½? (Matthew 5:43, NRSV).
Granted, the commission to love our enemies is not an easy one, and I don’t think you’re going to hear many politicians using the phrase this fall in their campaigns. But if they read the “wholeï¿½? bible, they will know what kind of dilemma they face. The Creator of the Universe expects us — commands us — to love our enemies and turn the other cheek.
Middle Church folks who read the “wholeï¿½? Bible know that the realm of God is a place where the weak are protected, the poor are helped, prisoners are treated justly and the diverse nations and peoples of the world engage one another in peace. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.ï¿½? (Luke 4:18-19).
Middle Church folks know there will be hell to pay when the world is judged against these standards: a world at war, a world in which millions lie dying in poverty, a world in which human beings revile and persecute one another, a world in which governments sanction abuse and torture.
We would certainly rest more comfortably if we could convince ourselves that God does not expect us to play a big role in bringing war, poverty and injustice to an end.
But Middle Church people, in thousands of church schools and churches and congregations across the nation, read the “wholeï¿½? bible. And they know that. In the end, they will be held to a higher standard.
I look forward to your thoughts on Middle Church people, faith and politics.
add a comment »