Sunday, February 26, 2012

A Brief Explication of Christianity

Each Friday morning at 7 AM around 30-50 religious leaders and peace activists gather at the Immanuel Presbyterian Church in LA and try to figure out how to promote peace and justice. One of the joys of this gathering is hearing members of our group share reflections on theological and political concers. John Forney, an Episcopal priest, is a former president of Progressive Christians Uniting (see He brought to our table this week a witty and thoughtful reflection on Ash Wednesday that I felt was well worth sharing. John is what I call a "Matthew 25" Christian, i.e. Christianity is not a set of beliefs, but a way of life grounded in justice and peace.

I also want to announce a new blog:  This blog will contain reflections and think pieces by members of ICUJP on a wide range of theological and political concerns.

A Brief Explication of Christianity
for the Ideologically Confused

It’s the Economy, Stupid. No, it’s actually, it’s the Culture Wars of Pat Robertson revisited.

To wit: recently, on the campaign trail Rick Santorum wrote off all of mainline Protestant Christianity with a dismissive, “I don't think there is such a thing," he said of Obama as a liberal Christian. "To take what is plainly written and say that 'I don't agree with that, therefore I don't have to pay attention to it,' means you're not what you say you are. You're a liberal something, but you're not a Christian."

Now I can see how it is that with all this multitude of religious denunciations by the self-promoting gate keepers of religious propriety and certainty – all claiming to have the inside scoop on who counts and who doesn’t in God’s eyes -- I can understand the confusion of many of my non-Christian friends on what my faith as a progressive Christian is. In fact all this religious hypocrisy and self-promotion is enough to drive any humble Christian right out of the pew.

So, for my sanity’s sake I’ve written this brief reflection to remind myself (and you can listen in) of the essential the core of my faith that I do affirm.

Last Wednesday is a good starting place. For many Christians it was Ash Wednesday. Ashes are imposed with the words, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” I still remember many years ago imposing ashes for the first time on my oldest son Jonathan. He was about four at the time. After repeating the ancient words and making the sign of the cross on his forehead I heard an audible gasp and the protest, “No, not me!”

Yes, you, my son. All of us. Life is fleeting, and then like the morning dew we are no more. This realization imposes two essential imperatives: first, humility. There is a great democracy in the grave. King and pauper, scholar and illiterate, none of us is immortal. This reality compels an empathy and understanding for my fellow travelers in this brief life. We are all in the same boat, none better than another.

And that realization leads to a second imperative: to figure out why we are here and what it is that is asked of us. For me, this is where Jesus comes in. Historically, Jesus never asked us to believe things about him. Those notions crept into the gospels, especially John’s gospel, in the second and third centuries. No, Jesus asked us to follow him, not to believe things about him. He invites us to understand the world in a new way, relationships in a new way.

Thus, I understand the injunction to follow to suggest behaviors like compassion, sacrifice, justice and mercy -- the core of what Christianity is about -- not any literal reading of the Bible, not any doctrine, not any penitential attitude, as my brother Santorum and his ilk claim, produces divine acceptance. There are absolutely no requirements, no spiritual SAT score needed to merit full incorporation into the very heart of Mystery that many call God. BUT, as one does allow this compassionate and gracious Mystery to take root in the heart, mind and spirit, it will make a difference. Friends will notice. Family will notice. As a Christian, I rely on Jesus as my guide in doing this. There are other ways through which God invites and receives. The Jesus way is the way I have been born into and affirm.

The Parable of the Last Judgment as found in Matthew 25 gets at what is critical. In this metaphor, when all the nations are assembled before the judgment throne before the “Son of Man,” they are separated into those on the left hand (the goats) and those on the right hand (the goats), to which Christ says, “Come, you that are blessed by the Creator, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world (you know, I just never understood why it was that God didn’t like the goats); for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.”

Then those on the right hand (the sheep) began to protest, for they did not remember doing any of these things. And the king answers them saying, “As you did it unto the least of these, you did it unto me.”

Now, look at this most radical proclamation. There is no, absolutely no religious test. It says “all the nations.” Some of these will be Hindus, some Jews, my God…even atheists. Did anyone notice who might have been gay or straight? Even short people are fully accepted – are there no standards at all?

While there is absolutely no test about belief, there is one test. The only test is one of humility. Did you help your neighbors bear their load? Did you wipe a tearful eye? Did you fill an empty stomach? Did you hold an old person’s hand? Did you give a young person a hand up?

And as you have done so, you have entered into the blessedness of the living Spirit of Life. God in you and you in God – and whatever one means by Heaven, it is meant to be a living reality here and now. And life is GOOD.

I close with a poem by a Jesuit priest, “We are Simply Asked.”

We are simply asked to make gentle our bruised world,
To be compassionate of all, including oneself.
Then in the time left over, to repeat the ancient story,
And go the way of God’s foolish ones.
With the fresh remembrance of ashes on my forehead, this is the way of Jesus I affirm and will attempt to live, by God’s grace, as I enter the forty days of my Lenten journey.

Monday, February 6, 2012

"Moral injury": one of the often overlooked psychological effects of war

One of the highlights the Friday morning meetings of ICUJP (Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace) are the insightful and thought-provoking reflections by members of this remarkable group.

During a recent Friday Rev. Ignacio Castuera, a retired Methodist pastor  deeply involved with process theology, gave a reflection connecting the Gospels to recent psychological research relating to war.  Alluding to this week's Christian lectionary, which lifts up passages in Mark describing Jesus as a healer and exorcist, Ignacio made the following observations about demonic possession and the psychological and moral damage that war inflicts on soldiers:

Demon possession is understood today by most progressive scholars as a natural reaction of occupied and oppressed peoples. The Palestine of Jesus time experienced the brutal presence of Roman forces and demoniacs often refer to the demons in their heads and hearts as "us" and in a very specific case in Mark 5:9 as "Legion."

What has not been so clearly understood is that demon possession also happens to the occupying forces, be they US soldiers or Israeli forces in Occupied Palestine. Recently we are seeing more interest in the demon possession of the people who have been forced by combinations of personal circumstance and governmental policies to be in living hells, issuing unjust orders and enforcing cruel dictates.

Rita Nakashima Brock and Gabriella Lettini are about to publish a book that gathers years of research on what they now identify as "moral injury."

 An article in the Washginton Post describes this syndrome:
Every day brings us new stories of soldiers affected by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which the VA posits as affecting one in five soldiers. What is less known is that in December 2009 a group of VA clinical psychologists, led by Dr. Brett Litz, identified moral injury as a wound of war, distinct from PTSD, that is rarely addressed.
The groundbreaking study suggested that PTDS does not fully capture the moral and spiritual distress of moral injury, which is especially connected with a sense of transgression of the moral order. While PTSD may accompany it, moral injury is not a medical or pathological condition, but a spiritual and moral issue.

The Litz study defines moral injury as resulting from "perpetrating, failing to prevent, or bearing witness to acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations." The long-term impact can be devastating at the emotional, psychological, behavioral, spiritual and social level, wounds that can last an entire lifetime. Moral injury can be found in internal conflict and self-condemnation so severe that the burdens become intolerable and lead to suicide. People may lose their core system of beliefs and values and reach a point of not being able to make sense of life and human relationships. What people believed about the world, humanity and themselves no longer rings true. (For more, see .com/onfaith/guestvoices/2010/11/the_moral_injuries_of_war.html
Ignacio Castuera was born in the State of Puebla in Mexico. At 13 was the first member of his family to "convert" to Methodism. Migrated to California in 1960 and holds a doctorate in Religion from the Claremont School of Theology. He is currently the Director of the Latin American Project of the Center for Process Studies in Claremont.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Christian peacemaking: a biblical and practical perspective

Are you interested in exploring the biblical and spiritual basis of peacemaking from a Christian/Quaker perspective, and how we can put these principles into practice?

Jill and I will be facilitating a Christian peacemaking discussion group at our home during the month of February. Included here are some of the readings for this discussion, all of which are available online. I'd be very interested in your responses to these topics. (If you'd like to take part, please let me know and we'll send you an invitation.)

Some questions we will be considering include: What is the biblical basis for "just" war, "holy" war, and pacifism? What are the alternatives to war? Can the "Golden Rule" be applied to international relations and conflicts? Is it necessary to use violence to combat "evil" in the world, as theologians such as Niebuhr insist? We may also consider specific ethical questions: Is the use of drone warfare justified? Is the killing of Osama Bin Laden and other "terrorists" justified?

We will be joined by Bert Newton, a Mennonite peace activist who (among other things) started the Palm Sunday Peace Parade in Pasadena, where Jill and I met. He is active with the Occupy movement and extremely knowledgeable about the biblical basis for peacemaking. (He has written a book about the Gospel of John which will be published this year.)

Here are some suggested readings. Please feel free to share with me your thoughts about these readings.
Matt Rindge explores the question of "whether — and if so, how — violence can serve as a legitimate instrument of justice. Contemporary debate about this question echoes the diverse and conflicting perspectives within biblical texts regarding the use of violence as a potential force for good. What, if anything, can these texts teach us today?"  Rindge concludes that the killing of Osama bin Laden is "legal" and justified, but the execution of Troy Davis is not. Do you agree?

Glen Stassen, professor of Christian ethics at Fuller Seminary, author of numerous books, and a dedicated peace activist, discusses his concept of "Just Peacemaking"--a biblically based argument calling for all Christians (whether they believe in just war or pacifism) to do their utmost to promote peace.

Walter Wink, noted theologian and author of numerous books on nonviolence, gives a Gospel perspective on pacifism. Wink is perhaps best known for discussing the "myth of redemptive violence," a topic we will explore in a later session.

In response to 9/11, Andrew Gallery provides historical and biblical background about the Quaker Peace Testimony. He also considers peace making from a Buddhist and Muslim viewpoint (a not uncommon approach among Friends who tend to take an interfaith perspective).

Myron S. Augsburger provides a biblical based view of pacifism in Intervarsity, an Evangelical Christian organization:

President Obama called Reinhold Niebuhr his "favorite philosopher" and Niebuhr called pacifists "heretics." Here's an article that provides some background about this controversial and influential theologian who coined the term "Christian realism" to justify wars against "evils" such as Communism and Fascism. (He did not support ALL wars against communism, however; he opposed the Vietnam War, much to the chagrin of liberal hawks like Lyndon Johnson.)

Upcoming sessions:

Feb 7: "Blessed are the peacemakers." What the Bible says about peacemaking, and how we can put these lessons into practice in our personal lives and in the world.

Feb 14: "Pray the Devil Back to Hell." This documentary shows the amazing story of how "ordinary" women in Africa were able to overcome a ultra-violent tyrant and war lords using the techniques of nonviolence. In 2011 three of these women were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize "for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work." We will discuss how people power, and the power of prayer, can make a difference.

Feb 21: "The Myth of Redemptive Violence, and the Reality of Redemptive Love." We will explore some of the ideas of the theologian Walter Wink about the domination system, and how this system can be transformed through the practice of redemptive love.

Feb 28: Alternatives to violence. What Christians are doing, and what we can do, to promote alternatives to war and violence. AVP, Christian Peace Teams, Compassionate Listening, etc.


FYI here are some "advices" and "queries" (open-ended questions) used by Quakers to help further deeper reflection about peace. You might find these useful to help prepare spiritually for our discussion group.


Friends (Quakers) oppose all war as inconsistent with God’s will. As every person is a child of God, we recognize God’s Light also in our adversaries. Violence and injustice deny this reality and violate the teachings of Jesus and other prophets.

Friends challenge their governments and take personal risks in the cause of peace.We urge one another to refuse to participate in war as soldiers, or as arms manufacturers.We seek ways to support those who refrain from paying taxes that support war. We work to end violence within our own borders, our homes, our streets, and our communities. We support international order, justice, and understanding.

Become an instrument of peace. At every opportunity, be peacemakers in your homes, workplaces and communities. Steep yourself in the power of the universal Spirit. Examine your actions for the seeds of violence, degradation and destructiveness. Overcome the emotions that lie at the root of violence and nurture instead a spirit of reconciliation and love. Come to know the oneness of all creation and oppose the destruction of the natural world.

Do I live in the virtue of that life and power that takes away the occasion of all wars?

How do I nourish peace within myself as I work for peace in the world?

Do I confront violence wherever it occurs, even when my personal relationships are involved?

Where there is distrust, injustice, or hatred, how am I an instrument of reconciliation and love?

What are we doing to remove the causes of war and destruction of the planet, and to bring about lasting peace?

Do we reach out to all parties in a conflict with courage and love?

† Some queries are intended for individuals.

Italicized queries are intended for the Meeting collectively.