Sunday, November 22, 2009

What a Visitor at Church Gave to Me

Today, we had a visitor at church.

In and of itself, having a visitor isn't an unusual thing - we have visitors on many Sundays. The congregation tries to greet as many of them as they can, chats with them during the exchanging of the peace, and makes sure that they are included at the altar when it comes time to share in communion. What was unusual today, however, was what I got from this visitor.

It was obvious that he came from a difficult background, and after talking to him for a few minutes and learning a bit about him I couldn't help but think that much of what he owned was in the backpack that he brought in to church with him. He told me about having lived with someone who had more mental problems than he does, how it got to the point where he couldn't deal with it and had to leave, and how he often felt like he had gotten separated enough from church that he just couldn't go on. He didn't say where he was living or how he was getting by - although the answers to both of those questions seemed obvious just below the surface in what he wasn't saying - but he did tell me that he was hoping he would get something out of the service today. I responded by telling him that ours was a great church and that we were very glad to have him there with us.

Then there was a long pause, after which he looked at me and asked, "What do you find the hardest thing about being a Christian?"

I was floored. Here was a question that came from beyond left field, and it hit me such that I didn't have an immediate answer. Had it been anyone else, I might have tried to laugh it off or give a humorous answer just to get through the moment. But I could tell in looking at him that he wanted - he needed - an answer fror me. So I gave him the best one I could.

"The hardest thing for me in being a Christian is that I keep forgetting I don't have to do it all myself. I'm a diagnosed depressive, and it was hard for me to even get help for that because I'm 'the fixer': I'm the one who always tries to fix the problems my kids are having, or my wife is having, or my friends are having. I just can't seem to fix what's happening to me. Being in this church, though, I'm constantly reminded that I don't have to do it all myself, that there are others around to help. Most of all, being with these people is a reminder that that God is there to do things for us when we can't do them for ourselves, and puts others in our lives to help us. Even with that reminder, though, remembering that is the hardest thing for me."

I don't know whether that is what he expected to hear, wanted to hear, or needed to hear, but it was the answer I felt I should give him. Aside from greeting him again during the exchanging of the peace I didn't have a chance to speak to him - and I don't know whether he found what he was looking for when he visited us today. But regardless of what he may have gotten, he certainly gave quite a bit.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Dwight Eisenhower: Advocate for the Poor

Veterans Day is always a time where I surf the 'net for quotes from famous military figures and watch YouTube video of generals like Patton and MacArthur and Bradley. We shouldn't, of course, limit our remembrance of these men - and of every man and woman who has ever served in the military - to just this one day and Memorial Day, but the history and significance of November 11 is conducive to this sort of research.

As you've probably noted in my previous few entries, my attention has turned in a significant way towards much more social issues: homelessness, poverty, elections and the public welfare, etc. In looking through some military quotes this evening, I was stunned to find this quote from Dwight Eisenhower that ties those entries in to this Veterans Day: "Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed."

Eisenhower, the commander of Operation Overlord, Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Europe, and later President, was one I never expected to discuss something as significant as military spending essentially being "a theft" from those who are living without. I, like many, tend to keep him in the military box - talking to the troops the day before the invasion of Normandy, developing the grand strategy for victory in Europe, setting the parameters for the army's involvement in the reconstruction of western Europe. Never did I imagine (partly attributable to a lack of having read enough about him) that he would boil our overwhelming defense spending down to the lowest - but certainly not least sigificant - common denominator.

My respect for him has certainly grown, and while his quote could be taken by some political types as justification for their current calls for a reduction in military spending (some of which has actually been carried out), I think it clearly - and surprisingly - demonstrates a much deeper and plainspoken concern for the poor in this country than I ever expected.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Would Jesus Vote?

Today, as most everyone should know by now, is election day (and if you're reading this in Virginia, New Jersey, or New York's 23rd congressional district and have forgotten to go to the polls, you may still have time). At various points during the course of the day, I was engaged in (read as "started") several debates on whether today's results - no matter how they turned out - would be a referendum on the first ten months of the Obama Administration. The comments were lively, to say the least, and there was a lot of passion from all those who weighed in with their remarks.

At this point, you're probably thinking to yourself that I had limited this blog to discussions of faith and my family, and that I was leaving the political discourse on one of two other sites on which I comment (One Man's Politics and Two Rhodes Diverged). What will surprise you, though, is that faith is involved very much in this discussion.

How? Quite simply, I began to wonder whether Jesus - if he were here today - would vote.

The Gospels of Matthew (22:21), Mark (12:17) and Luke (20:25) all contain the story of Jesus speaking to a crowd and asking for a denarii, at which point he got them to name which person's likeness was shown on the coin. He then responded, "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." As Caesar was (in a very loose sense of the term) a politician supported by the Roman Senate, would the entire realm of politics and elections fall under that same division of "belongings"?

So if Jesus were here today, or if there were such a thing as the election of a Roman governor in the early years A.D., would he have voted, or would he have simply continued his ministry of social justice and the crusade to develop a sense of concern for the least of us by others in the population, and to heal and bring people to a knowledge of God and the imminence of His kingdom here on earth? I'll interject at this point that I first broached this question to a friend and priest to see what his initial thoughts were; his response was, "He couldn't vote... technically he couldn't register because he was from a Kingdom 'not of this world.'"

After giving me time to absorb the humor of that comment, he went on: "You could ask what the political process would look like in the Kingdom of God. I mean, if we're living with one foot in this world and another foot in the next (prevalent theological idea), one might ponder what God would want us to drag over from his Kingdom into ours. Our political system is flawed - and why? I think that it's because there's too much emphasis placed on "mine!" - and not enough emphasis placed on how we can band together and help 'respect the dignity of every human being.'"

So what would God want us to drag over from his kingdom into the one we have been told to prepare for here on earth (leaving aside, of course, the entire debate about whether Jesus himself was the personfication of that kingdom realized here)? One of the most serious attempts to show the role that religion can take in making informed political choices was undertaken by the group Sojourners in the lead-up to the 2004 election. You may recall that they issued a document with the headline "God is not a Republican. Or a Democrat." This paper, which was widely distributed around the country, laid out some key factors when considering which candidate to support on election day - and they are certainly relevant well beyond the Bush-Kerry election. In reading through this again, in Jim Wallis' God's Politics, I heard a 21st century version of the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount. Here are the portions of the document that I think are particularly relevant today, with my own insertion of parts of Jesus' sermon:

We believe all candidates should be examined by measuring their policies against the complete range of Christian ethics and values.

We will measure the candidates by whether they enhance human life, human dignity, and human rights; whether they strengthen family life and protect children; whether they promote racial reconciliation and support gender equality; whether they serve peace and social justice; and whether they advance the common good rather than only individual, national, and special interests.

We are not single-issue voters.

We believe that poverty - caring for the poor and vulnerable - is a religious issue. Do the candidates' budget and tax policies reward the rich or show compassion for poor families? Do their foreign policies include fair trade and debt cancellation for the poorest countries? (Matthew 25:35-40, Isaiah 10:1-2) - Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

We believe that the environment - caring for God's earth - is a religious issue. Do the candidates' policies protect the creation or serve corporate interests that damage it? (Genesis 2:15, Psalm 24:1)

We believe that war - and our call to be peacemakers - is a religious issue. Do the candidates' policies pursue "wars of choice" or respect international law and cooperation in responding to real global threats? (Matthew 5:9) - Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the sons of God.

We believe that truth-telling is a religious issue. Do the candidates tell the truth in justifying war and in other foreign and domestic policies? (John 8:32)

We believe that human rights - respecting the image of God in every person - is a religious issue. How do the candidates propose to change the attitudes and policies that led to the abuse and torture of Iraqi prisoners? (Genesis 1:27)

We believe that our response to terrorism is a religious issue. Do the candidates adopt the dangerous language of righteous empire in the war on terrorism and confuse the roles of God, church, and nation? Do the candidates see evil only in our enemies but never in our own policies? (Matthew 6:33, Proverbs 8:12-13 )

We believe that a consistent ethic of human life is a religious issue. Do the candidates' positions on abortion, capital punishment, euthanasia, weapons of mass destruction, HIV/AIDS-and other pandemics-and genocide around the world obey the biblical injunction to choose life? (Deuteronomy 30:19) - Blessed are the merciful, for they will obtain mercy.

We also admonish both parties and candidates to avoid the exploitation of religion or our congregations for partisan political purposes.

Looking back on all of this, and considering each of these points, I again asked myself: Would Jesus vote, or would he simply continue his ministry of social justice and the crusade to develop a sense of concern for the least of us by others in the population, and to heal and bring people to a knowledge of God and the imminence of His kingdom here on earth?

My conclusion? Both.

For you see, if you vote based on your faith and your convictions, you are doing your part to put others in a position who can contribute to the ministry of social justice. People who are in a position to better address our concerns for the poor, the persecuted, the sick, and all who suffer. For refugees, prisoners, and all who are in danger. And yes, even for our enemies and those who wish us harm.

I think there is a reason that Form V of the Prayers of the People in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer has us pray for our church leaders and those in positions of public trust before praying for our fellow man. I think that if we vote based on all of the areas listed by Sojourners, we will have leaders who will truly work for the public good.

And so Jesus would vote - not because he has suddenly developed a political tilt, but because he recognizes that two or three, or a hundred, or a thousand, working for their fellow man can accomplish more than a single person.

One can change the world, yes - but think of how much change many could bring about. As Isaiah said, "They will not hunger or thirst, Nor will the scorching heat or sun strike them down; For He [US!] who has compassion on them will lead them And will guide them to springs of water."