Monday, June 27, 2016

June 24, 2016 Column Four from the Shelbyville, KY Sentinel-News Series on Belief and Unbelief

Note - I write a column for the Shelbyville, Kentucky newspaper, the Sentinel-News, every other Friday.  On June 3rd, the Sentinel began publication of a series of columns about belief and unbelief, written by myself and a member of our community, who is an atheist.  I thought it would be an interesting conversation and I appreciate the Sentinel-News and my co-author for participating.  For the privacy of the other person I am not including their name in the columns as I publish them each week on this site.  Even though the person has publicly agreed to have them published in the Sentinel-News, I am not assuming they want their columns or name published on this site.

How sweet it was in years far hied

To start the wheels of day with trustful prayer,

To lie down liegely at the eventide

And feel a blest assurance he was there!
And who or what shall fill his place?

Whither will wanderers turn distracted eyes…
From God’s Funeral, by Thomas Hardy

One of the more difficult parts of a conversation about belief and unbelief comes when pointing out what one understands to be the shortcomings of the opposite belief system. In this column that is what Ms. Allewalt and I will do – list our objections to the point of view represented by the other. In spite of our disagreements, I appreciate that Ms. Allewalt is willing to do this publicly, as I imagine that being an outspoken atheist in a largely religious community has neither been easy nor without its share of challenges.

This was the most difficult of the columns in this series for me to write. It was not that I find any arguments from the side of atheism convincing. On the contrary, I find the usual list of accusations – that religion has been responsible for more wars and more deaths than any other factor throughout history (an accusation that represents an incredibly bad reading of history), that logic and faith are incompatible, that science and faith cannot coexist, etc – to be badly reasoned and not at all challenging. These accusations are, in my opinion, based upon so many false assumptions and such bad reasoning they do not merit discussion. My difficulty in writing this column was in keeping to the agreed upon 1,000 word limit per column.

In stating my objections it is important to note that they are not, of course, representative of every atheist, as people who express no religious faith do not represent a monolithic block of views, just as religious people do not. My disagreement is primarily with those who write and speak in the public sphere, the group most commonly referred to as the “new atheists,” and represented by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, the late Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett in what might be called the more intellectual side of the unbelief spectrum (though not very intellectually impressive, in my opinion) and the likes of Bill Maher in the field of pop culture. “New” is, in my opinion, a rather erroneous label, as they offer nothing that is actually new in terms of thinking and are rather shallow intellectually. I have read some of what they have to offer and found it very unimpressive, either in reasoning, supposed factuality, or depth of insight. In comparison to what I would call the more “classic” atheists – Bertrand Russell, Friedrich Nietzsche, Albert Camus, Jean Paul Sartre, et al – the new atheists are a very shallow lot. The classic atheists had a much greater sense of the consequences of their beliefs – or lack thereof – and would probably be puzzled by their modern cohorts, who would find a particularly harsh critic of their thinking in Nietzsche, who was critical of a good deal of atheism because, in his opinion, it shared many of the philosophical underpinnings as Christianity. Thomas Hardy, as evidenced by the quote at the top of this column, at least understood that the absence of belief in God would, in fact, leave a longing in much of humanity that could not otherwise be satisfied and would imply also the death of a moral basis to life.

I would also fault atheism for being rather derivative, and not at all the free-thinking and liberating force it purports to be. Atheism is, in a sense, a product of religion, or at least a reaction to what is seen as the excesses or faults of religion, particularly the institutional variety. Many atheists’ arguments, it seems to me, have less to do with the question of God’s existence as with their objections to what they see in the history of religion (the Inquisitions, the Crusades, etc.), in a fundamentalist/literalistic reading of the Bible (which, ironically, is how many atheists also read the Bible), and in the hypocritical lifestyles of some religious leaders and their followers. Valid points though they might be, those points really have little to do with the question of God’s existence.

Perhaps most commonly, atheism repeatedly offers the reminder of the faults and excesses of the church throughout history. That point is not without some merit, but it would be going too far, I believe, for anyone to fail to see a fallacy that lies within that accusation, and that is the fact that we are all complicit in systems, structures, and social orders that have caused a great deal of damage to countless members of humanity throughout history and into our present day. While one might make the point of leaving organized religion because of its shortcomings, one would also do well to understand that their own level of complicity is not diminished by such an action. Separating one’s self from religion and religious belief does not absolve one, for instance, from the complicit association with a nation that committed horrible atrocities against the native peoples of this land, enslaved Africans, and imprisoned American citizens because of their Japanese ancestry at a time when we were at war with Japan, and seems to have little concern with the collateral damage of civilians because of the use of military drones. That is on the macro level; there is also the micro level, which speaks to our own community, that not only has failed to pass an ordinance to offer protection to all citizens but seems to protect structures and systems that all but guarantee that such an ordinance will not even be rightly considered.

As a person of faith I will express one point of gratitude for atheists and their arguments. After consideration of their points – and the subsequent rejection of them – I have become ever more convinced of my own faith.

June 26, 2016 The Abundant Life: Faith, Hope, and Love, a Postscript

Last week we completed the brief series of messages on The Abundant Life, a series I defined by the qualities of faith, hope, and love.  Several weeks ago I mentioned that upon completion of that series I would follow it with one titled Stages of Faith.  That series is proving to take more time to prepare than I had anticipated so I am postponing it for now.  I am, however, adding a message to the series on The Abundant Life.  After completing last week’s message it occurred to me that it needed a postscript, and so this week I will offer the message Faith, Hope, and Love – A Postscript. 

The idea for a postscript came after thinking about how the problems of our world are so deeply entrenched that it could seem, perhaps, a bit na├»ve to think that faith, hope, and love were enough to solve the world’s problems.  To say, for instance, that I believe Jesus meant what he said when he told us to turn the other cheek could seem like a very simplistic answer to some very complex questions.  In thinking about this further, the passage of Scripture that I am using for today’s message came to mind.  In that text, John tells us of a day when many of the followers of Jesus were so discouraged after hearing Jesus teach that they turned back and no longer followed him (verse 66).
John 6:60-69 –

60 On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”
61 Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, “Does this offend you?
62 Then what if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before!
63 The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life.
64 Yet there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him.
65 He went on to say, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled them.”
66 From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.
67 “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve.
68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.
69 We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.”

People are often surprised to hear that verse (66 From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him).  We have an image of Jesus preaching and teaching before large crowds and being overwhelmed by people wherever he went.  We think of the image of Jesus as one loved and adored by multitudes.  While those images are certainly correct, John tells us of a day when those crowds dissipated, a day when the people who had gathered to listen to Jesus reacted very negatively to what he had to say.  It was a day when people responded to his teaching by saying, this is a hard teaching.  Who can accept it?  (verse 60).  And then, according to John they turned back and no longer followed him (verse 66).

What was it that was so difficult that many set aside their desire to follow after Jesus and turn away from him?  Reading it, from our perspective, it is difficult to find anything that sounds so objectionable that we would turn away, but many of those who heard Jesus on that day found it next to impossible to continue walking with him.  Honestly, as I have thought about this verse over the years I have struggled to come to any conclusions about why the crowd reacted in such a negative manner, but I will offer an estimation.

Primarily, I think, it was because most of the people could not accept the core principles of the teaching of Jesus.  That some were saying this is a hard teaching, who can accept it (verse 60) was not just a reference to a specific teaching of Jesus, but to his overall message, I believe. 

By this point in his ministry, it was becoming obvious that Jesus was not going to be who many hoped he would be – he was not going to be the political messiah that many wanted, leading them in liberation from Rome; he was not going to be one who would peform miracles on demand, healing every person or giving people everything they wanted or expected (in fact, he explicitly rejected this on several ocassions, such as Mark 8:11-13 – 11 The Pharisees came and began to question Jesus. To test him, they asked him for a sign from heaven. 12 He sighed deeply and said, “Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to it.” 13 Then he left them, got back into the boat and crossed to the other side); he was not going to provide continuous meals, as in the feeding of the 5,000, which took place just prior to this passage; and, while much of what he had to say was certainly good news, much was also very challenging.  Considering this, it’s not a surprise that many people did turn away from following Jesus, concluding, perhaps, that they were better off looking elsewhere for the answers they were seeking to life. 

After the crowd left, Jesus turned to the twelve disciples and asked you do not want to leave too, do you?  It is not difficult to detect the note of sadness in the voice of Jesus, as he almost sounds as if he expects them to leave as well.  At such times, there is always someone who is the first to speak, and as is the case in general in the gospels, in this instance it was Peter.  It is easy to misread Peter’s response, so be careful how you read his words.  Some hear his words as a note of resignation – Lord, to whom shall we go? – as though he is saying we don’t have any better options, so lacking a better choice we’ll just stay here with you.  No, Peter, however, really nailed it when he offered his response, especially in his words you have the words of eternal life.  Peter knew, in searching for the ultimate answers in life, that there was only one place to turn, and that was to Jesus.

So by way of that introduciton this morning I want to again affirm faith, hope, and love as not only the core values of our faith, but really as the only way forward for our world.

I don’t know how many of you have taken the time to read the series of columns I have written for the Sentinel-News in recent weeks about a conversation between belief and unbelief, and I don’t mention them to give them a push, but to say that I have thought about faith and its implications for a long, long time.  And I’ve thought a lot about the perspective of no faith as well.  Today’s skepticism is very frustrating to me, not because I find in it particularly challening or because it is at all intellectually comprehensible, in my opinion, but because I find it to be so shallow and badly reasoned.

Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens are representative of what we might call the more intellectual strand of atheism today, while Bill Maher, Ricky Gervais, and Penn Jillette represent that point of view on the pop culture end of the spectrum.  As I read and listen to them, however – and the other public proponents of that point of view – they strike me as philosophical lightweights and it’s very difficult for me to take them seriously.  If I want to learn about the point of view of no faith, I read the classical expressions of atheism, such as Bertrand Russell and Friederich Nietzche.  They knew the implications of their beliefs, or lack thereof.

I believe that faith really matters, for many reasons, and one of them is because it attaches itself to something that is eternal, which makes all the difference in the world.  If there are no eternal values, if there is nothing beyond this world, what foundation is there for anything beyond a bleak, Darwinian approach where the strong and the powerful always prevail (which is what has happened for enough of history as it is).

But faith brings something very different to this world, and to humanity.  It brings a glimpse of the eternal, where the powerful and the strong do not rule, but love rules.  It reminds us that we are called to care for one another and to work for justice and equality.  It reminds us that we are not alone in this vast universe, but are created with meaning and with purpose.

When the crowd turned away from Jesus they made a decision to go back to the same old, same old, to return to the status quo, and to accept that things really can’t change.  Human history tells us that the status quo often wins and that things often do not change, but hope is daring because it tells us this – things don’t have to stay the same.  In fact, things are not meant to stay the same.  This world was not created so that a few could dominate and rule the many.  This world was not created so that so many would live under oppression and live in want while some live in abundance.  This world was not created to have some enjoy the status of first-class citizens while others are relegated to second-class status or worse.  This world was created, humanity was created for something far better, and that is represented by the kingdom of God.

But hope is not only necessary; it is also frightening and unsettling, because the hope that reminds us of the gap between what is and what should be is a hope that asks and begs for change, and change means a lot gets upended and the status quo and the powers that be don’t want anything upended.  It was this hope that turned the religious leaders against Jesus and this hope that brought the full, crushing weight of Rome down upon Jesus with a cross.

But it is a hope that endured, and continues to endure, and it is a hope that endures because Rome did not have the final word, and to this day, and all days, power and force and evil do not have the final word. 
There are many days in our lives when it’s tough to hold to hope.  There are days when we feel as though we are hanging by that final thread and our grip is slipping away.  We feel that not only is there no hope in the world but as though the world has rolled over on top of us.

But the hope of God is a hope that will not only continue to endure but will usher in the promises of God.  It is a hope that reminds us not only that things can change, but that things will change.  It is a hope that will help us regain our grip, climb up that last thread by which we felt we were hanging, and claim the promise that God is ever with us!

While hope is the fuel that upends the status quo, it is love that fully ushers in God’s kingdom.  And it is a far deeper love than any kind of mere greeting card sentimentality, not that there is anything wrong with that kind of love.  The love to which God calls us is more powerful than anything this world could possibly imagine.  The love of which Jesus told and demonstrated reminds us that any love which does not work for the benefit of those outside of our circle of friends and family is not fully the love of God.  A love of friends and family is a wonderful and beautiful experience, but God calls us to a love that is all-inclusive, even, as we spoke last week, of our enemies.

Now, it is important to understand that kind of love is not an emotional state of being but one of will and action.  When we talk of the agape love of God, we are not talking about manufacturing an emotional feeling.  When we are called to love our enemies we are not being asked to have warm feelings toward them.  C. S. Lewis wrote that the rule for all of us is perfectly simple.  Do not waste time bothering whether you “love” your neighbor; act as if you did.  The love of which Jesus speaks is far more than just an emotional state of being; if means to work for the good of others, to work to see that they are treated justly, equally, and fairly.  To work to see that they are fed, clothed, and sheltered.  It is a love that says to an enemy even though you might hate me and mistreat me, I’ll keep loving you in return and working for your good!  To do this does not require an emotional feeling towards others; it requires a commitment to the agape love of God.

Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, DC, recently wrote about an experience he had when speaking at a conference at Harvard University. At the conclusion of his presentation an attendee asked: What do you people think you bring to our society?  I like his response, and include it this morning –
The reference to “you people” was to the front row of the audience, which was made up of representatives of a variety of religious traditions, all of whom were in their appropriate identifiable robes.
I answered with questions of my own: “What do you think the world would be like if it were not for the voices of all of those religious traditions represented in the hall? What would it be like if we did not hear voices in the midst of the community saying, you shall not kill, you shall not steal, you shall not bear false witness? What would our culture be like had we not heard religious imperatives such as love your neighbor as yourself, do unto others as you would have them do to you? How much more harsh would our land be if we did not grow up hearing, blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, blessed are the merciful, blessed are the peacemakers? What would the world be like had we never been reminded that someday we will have to answer to God for our actions?”
To his credit, the man who asked the question smiled and said, “It would be a mess!”

I like that response, and I agree that without faith, the world would be an even bigger mess than it already is.  But let us not lose hope, but hold to our faith and continue to live the love of God!

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

June 19, 2016 The Abundant Life: Love

This morning we complete the brief, three-message series called The Abundant Life.  Taken from John 10:10, where Jesus says I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly (NASV) it forms around what I refer to as the foundational values of the Christian faith – faith, hope, and love.

In this final message we will consider love, and my first thought in considering this topic was to wonder what I could say about love that has not already been said, and probably said better.  As I considered a message on love, it brought to mind an article I read some months ago on The Beatles, where the writer began by asking what is there to say that hasn’t already been said?  That is certainly a legitimate question when coming to the topic of love.  So much has been said and so much has been written that it is difficult to bring anything new or original to the subject.  It is not, however, always necessary to bring a new insight to a topic, as some things simply bear repeating, and a call to love is a theme that is always worth repeating.

In choosing a Scripture text for the message my first thought gravitated to I Corinthians 13, which I read for the Call To Worship.  I Corinthians is rightly deserved as one of the most beloved passages in all of Scripture and has earned its name as the love chapter.  After some reflection, however, I decided upon Matthew 5:38-48, which comes from the Sermon On the Mount. 

Paul, in I Corinthians 13, presents us with a beautiful portrait of love.  It is a passage that is very well suited to occasions such as weddings and other times of beauty.  It is what we might call more of an ivory tower approach to the topic of love, as Paul considers his topic in a more poetic, philosophical manner. The words of Jesus, however, are more street level than they are ivory tower.  Paul writes of a beautiful ideal to which we aspire; Jesus speaks of the messy reality of how our highest ideals can be tossed aside as our various opinions, perspectives, and ways of living clash.

We heard the words of Paul for the Call to Worship.  Now let’s hear the words of Jesus –

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’
39 But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.
40 If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also.
41 Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two.
42 Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’
44 But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,
45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?
47 If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?
48 Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

In considering our topic this morning, I want to ask several questions, questions that I hope will get you thinking about these words of Jesus.  The first two questions consider love in the micro context, that is, how we live out love in our own lives.  The third question considers love in the macro context, that is, how we as a collection of individuals live out the call to love.

The first personal question, then, is –

How do I, as an individual, live out these words?
I have said before that I believe Jesus was a pacifist, but I am not.  I believe, however, that if Jesus was a pacifist, then I must ask, why am I not?  I am of a dual nature on this topic.  Intellectually and spiritually, I think I am a pacifist, but emotionally, and probably in the real world of everyday life, I don’t think I am.  If push came to shove, I think I would probably push and shove back.  And if I do, I might find some way to justify my actions but I must remember that those actions will only continue the ageless cycle of violence and retribution that have taken us nowhere for all of history except into more violence and immeasurable heartbreak.

The love that Jesus speaks of is such a tremendous challenge, and is a love that goes so far beyond how we generally define love.  What we call love is often based on the principle of reciprocity – you love me and do something for me and I’ll do something for you and love you back.  But Jesus says that is neither true love nor much of an accomplishment.  In 5:46-47 he saysfor if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?  If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?  Real love, Jesus says, is one that is not predicated upon someone doing something for us or even their willingness to love us.  Real love is so deep, so profound, and so challenging that it brings us to the point of loving an enemy. 

But really, who can do that?  Sometimes we struggle to love those who are kind and helpful.  Sometimes we struggle to love those who love us.  Sometimes we struggle to love those who are easy to love.  And Jesus wants us to love our enemies?  Yes, that is exactly what he asks.  As we have such a hard time loving people who are decent and nice people how in the world can we love someone who seeks to do us harm?

So having said that, there is a second, personal, question for us to consider –

Are their any exceptions to these words of Jesus?
I once heard a story about a boxer who left the sport to become a minister.  One day he was setting up a tent for a revival he was sponsoring when a couple of local troublemakers stopped by to harass him.  One of them said, we hear you used to be a boxer.  How about I challenge you to a fight?  The boxer turned minister said, I don’t fight any more.  I now believe in the words of Jesus that I am called to turn the other cheek.  One of the troublemaker said let’s test that, and stepped forward, took a swing at the minister, connected the punch to his jaw, and the minister dropped to his knee.  But then he stood up, shook his head, rubbed his jaw, turned the other side of his face to the troublemaker and he said, I will do as Jesus commanded and turn the other cheek.  The troublemaker took another swing at the minister, connecting that punch to the other side of his jaw, and down the minister went again.  But as he stood up, the minister took off his jacket, rolled up his sleeves, rolled his hands into fists, looked the troublemaker in the eye, and said, and now, as the Lord has given me no further instruction…

But did Jesus make such an exception?

Years ago, in my first youth ministry position, I was asked by one of the kids if I believed Jesus really meant for us to turn the other cheek.  I answered that I believed he did indeed mean that.  Not long after that conversation, the father of the young person came to see me, and he was not happy.  He did not appreciate me telling his child to be a doormat, and he angrily told me so.  I continue to stand by my belief that Jesus meant exactly what he said in this passage.

Sadly, violence seems to be part of the DNA of humanity.  From the beginning, violence has plagued us, as the story of Cain and Abel set the template for all of history that followed.  To love, especially our enemies, seems to go against the grain of humanity.  But love is the foundation of who we are as followers of Jesus, and he is very plain about what that love entails.  After all, he doesn’t bury this command in any fine print.  Most of us are not readers of the fine print.  How often do we read the fine print on a web site before we click on the agree button?  Does anyone ever read all that information in a privacy policy?  Researchers, in fact, have concluded that if a person read all the policies they encountered in a year on web sites it would take them 25 days to read them all (!  There is no fine print when it comes to Jesus and what he says about love.  In this passage, plainly stated in the Sermon On the Mount, one of the most important sections of his teaching, he offers it in plain sight and in plain language.

The question of whether or not there are any exceptions, then, is a moot point, as Jesus tells us that we are to do love our enemies, and he lists no exception to his command (and make no mistake, it is a command and not a request).  We manage, however, to find ways to work around this command, claiming that Jesus is not calling us to be doormats and that he would expect us to stand up for ourselves.  One of the reasons we do this, perhaps, is that we don’t always understand the concept of agape love, the kind of love that finds its fullest expression in God.  Agape love is far deeper than simply acting kindly and nice towards others (not that there is anything wrong with acting kind and nice towards one another).  Agape love strips bare the violence and power that the kingdoms of this world use to both keep and justify their existence.  Agape love is a love that refuses to bow to such methods and, when push literally comes to shove, will not retaliate in a way that only perpetuates the cycle of violence and hatred that has dominated our world throughout history.  Agape love, in its willingness to suffer rather than to impose suffering, reveals that coercive power and force is ultimately an empty vessel that can only accomplish its goals because of the fear and force that it inflicts.  People will react to such force out of fear, and even do its bidding – up to a point – but ultimately will rebel against it and seek to be free from its grasp.  Love, however – agape love – inspires people to such an extent they are willing to lay down their lives rather than inflict violence upon others.  This is exactly what Jesus did, and in doing so demonstrated that his love was greater and far more powerful than all the might of Rome.  Although Rome had the power to nail Jesus to a cross, it could not stop his message, his followers, or, most importantly, the continuation of his love.

The third question, then, moves from the micro to the macro, from the personal to the larger world and it is this –

How do we, as a nation, live out these words?
Monday a week ago was the anniversary of D-Day, the day 71 years ago when the allied troops landed at Normandy.  Two of my mom’s brothers landed in that invasion.  It was a battle that turned the tide of WWII, and it came at the loss of so many lives.  D-Day is a reminder that we live in a dangerous, violent world, a world where our nation has, at times, decided upon the necessity of taking up arms against other nations.

Our world continues to be a very dangerous, violent place and, to be honest, I struggle to reconcile these words of Jesus with much of what happens in our world.  These words of Jesus are, in my opinion, the most difficult in all of Scripture.  It is really possible to love our enemies?  In a world where there are very real enemies, such as ISIS, how is it possible to love them?  Is it even wise to do so? 

The early Christians were not welcome in the Roman army because the Romans did not want soldiers who might love their enemies and to possibly turn the other cheek.  They understood the logical outcome of these words of Jesus, and the Romans did not build their empire on such thinking, that’s for certain.

Many centuries ago, not long after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, the great theologian Augustine formulated what we now call the Just War Theory.  The Just War Theory holds there are conditions must be met in order to justify the use of force –

1. There must have a just cause.  To justify the taking up of arms the cause must be one of grave importance.
2. It must have a just intention.  Force cannot be used for the expansion of an empire or for the gain of resources, to cite two examples.
3. It must demonstrate comparative justice; that is, an armed response cannot exceed the harm inflicted by an attack.
4. It must be declared by a legitimate authority, which in almost every case would be a legitimate government.
5. It must demonstrate discrimination, which means that civilians and non-combatants must never be targeted or deliberately put in harms way.
6. It must be used only as a last resort, after every other option has been exhausted. 

But can we ever truly justify war?  I have heard our political leaders refer to the Just War Theory in support of military action, although they have often misconstrued what Augustine sought to clarify.

People often refer to the United States as a Christian nation (because we have not made any official proclamation affirming this – and it is proper that we have not – I have long believed it better to say that we are a nation comprised of many Christians and greatly influenced by Christian principles rather than to say that we are in any formal way a Christian nation).  But if it were true that we are an officially Christian nation, I think it is safe to say we would certainly find evidence of how we have lived out these words of Jesus.  Those words certainly have not formed the cornerstone of our foreign policy.

As individual followers of Jesus we must remind our government about the importance of making peace.  There is a high cost to war, both in money and certainly in lives.  Our nation has spent a great deal of both in the past 14 years alone, and now our government is recommending a $1 trillion upgrade of our nuclear weapon stockpile.  It is insanity to think that the ability to destroy the world a number of times over is insufficient and so must be increased.

War is a political action, not a spiritual action (David learned this, as he wanted to build the Temple, but God said he could not because he was a man of war and had shed much blood – I Chronicles 28:3).  I believe that as people of faith it is incumbent upon us to remind political leaders that all options must be considered before resulting to force, and if force is engaged, that all proper safeguards are exercised, most especially against civilians.

But let us also consider more recent events.  Our nation was rocked last weekend by the violent action in Orlando.  When I awoke last Sunday morning, like everyone else across our nation I was shocked to hear of the news of the killings in Orlando, Florida.

One of the questions that we must grapple with is this – why is our society, and our world, so plauged with violence?  The causes of violence are many, and because they are, I reject the simplistic answers that are so often given.  Orlando was not caused by religion, as some have predictibly stated.  Having said that, however, I believe that all religious communities must think seriously about the words and the language they use when speaking of other groups of people. 

While I believe that it is far too simplistic to state that religion encourages violence, I would say that some religious people sometimes use language about other people that only serves to create an atmosphere in which bigotry not only exists, but also flourishes, and bigotry can lead to hatred and hatred can lead to violence.  Our country is built upon the belief in free speech – and I support free speech – but personally, I will not use langauge that demonizes any individuals or groups, any language that marginalizes them, or any language that contributes to an atmosphere that results in hostility or bigotry and then hide behind the claim that I am simply exercising my free speech.

We must also resist the temptation to return to life as normal.  Our tendency is, after mass killings, to go back to life as it was before.  We weep over Orlando, and rightly so, but the sad reality is that it is not an isolated incident. While it stands out because of the tragic numbers in one violent event, the violence continues, and is often largely unreported, every day in cities and towns across our country.  In 2014, there were 14,249 murders in our country, about 5 times the number that died in the Twin Towers on 9/11.  Over Memorial Day weekend 69 people were shot in Chicago, a city that is reeling from a level of violence that has reached alarming levels.

Closer to home, in Louisville, from January through April of this year, Louisville experienced 36 murders and 149 shootings, an increase of 44 and 33 percent over the same time period of 2015, which also saw a large increase over the preceding year.  In 2015 Chicago had 468 murders, Baltimore 343, New York 333, Detroit 295, Los Angeles 280, St. Louis 188, and New Orleans 164.  Seven cities, totaling 2,071 victims.  While the large, mass violence grabs our attention, we don’t always hear much about the steady, smaller numbers of everyday violence, but they add up to huge numbers of victims.  The media either overlooks much of this violence or moves on to other stories, and we in turn become preocuppied with other concerns.  After all the pronounciations that things must change, it often seems as though not much actually changes.

On a visit to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, I purchased a rock engraved with the words Never Again.  It’s an important message, but the tragedy of violence is that it does happen again, and again, and again.  Humanity, it seems, is addicted to violence in all its many expressions, and the only alternative, the only answer, is love and not just any love, but the love that is exemplified in the love of God in Christ.

June 17, 2016 From the Shelbyville, KY Sentinel-News, Column Three From the Series on Belief and Unbelief

Note - I write a column for the Shelbyville, Kentucky newspaper, the Sentinel-News, every other Friday.  On June 3rd, the Sentinel began publication of a series of columns about belief and unbelief, written by myself and a member of our community, who is an atheist.  I thought it would be an interesting conversation and I appreciate the Sentinel-News and my co-author for participating.  For the privacy of the other person I am not including their name in the columns as I publish them each week on this site.  Even though the person has publicly agreed to have them published in the Sentinel-News, I am not assuming they want their columns or name published on this site.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievancesthe First Amendment to the United States Constitution

On October 28, 312, competing Roman emperors Constantine I and Maxentius faced each other in what was to become one of the most significant battles in history, the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. The night before the battle, Constantine purportedly experienced a vision in which he was told by God:  in this sign conquer. The sign was the Chi Rho symbol, taken from the first two letters of the name Christ, in Greek. Constantine had the symbol inscribed on the shields of his soldiers and, after winning the battle and uniting the divided Empire under his rule, began the process of Christianizing the Roman Empire. In doing so, Constantine set into motion the tangling of church and state in a way that remains powerfully felt throughout Western society.

The history of Europe is replete with historical events that further entangled the relationship of church and state, such as the Peace of Augsburg, in 1555, which instituted the principle of cuius regio, eius religio (in the Prince's land, the Prince's religion), effectively allowing a region’s ruler to determine the religion of the inhabitants. As the United States takes many of its governmental philosophies from Europe, where church and state are so heavily intertwined, it is a rather amazing historical fact that, as a nation, we cultivated a governance that not only allowed for, but encouraged, the separating of church and state.

When speaking of the First Amendment, we should note that the freedom of religion – or from religion – was not a part of the original Constitution but came to us through an amendment. Take note also that the phrase separation of church and state does not exist in the Constitution; those words come from a letter written in 1802 by Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptist Association in Danbury, Connecticut, where Jefferson writes, believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.

It is easy to imagine that, after completing the phrasing of the First Amendment, the authors sat back and declared that ought to settle it! But as we know, it has done nothing of the sort. While our nation has sought to build into its governance a system that would prevent the difficulties that have plagued Europe, with state churches and the interference of the church in government affairs (and government in church affairs) the history of the United States is one that is inextricably bound to a vibrant history of religious beliefs and practices, many of which spill over into the civic life of our nation.

Americans, historically, are a profoundly religious people, and that sense of religiosity has so pervaded who we are that it is hardly surprising that we developed civil expressions of that faith. It is a uniquely American development that we have what amounts to a civil religion without having a state church. Prayers of invocation and benediction, as well as other religious symbolism, have for years been a routine part of many civil ceremonies, and the acknowledging of our religious heritage, it should be noted, is not the same as a governmental endorsement of religion. The Supreme Court, acknowledging such, upheld the practice of offering invocations at government meetings in a 2014 ruling (which also granted the opportunity for atheists to offer readings, such as the one given by Ms. Allewalt before the Shelbyville City Council meeting on July 17, 2014). While the Supreme Court’s ruling clarified the permissibility of prayer at civic functions, it did not, however, fully answer the question of what amounts to the establishment or prohibition of religion, and that is a vexing question that will never be adequately answered.

We can, however, make a few affirmations with some sense of certainty, I believe. We can say that, in spite of what many would claim to the contrary, America is not a Christian nation, at least not in the sense that our government has made an official declaration to such an end. That does not in any way denigrate or minimize the religious convictions of millions of Americans. It is simply more correct, I believe, to say that we are a nation of many religious people and that both our founding and our subsequent history were profoundly influenced by faith, and to argue against the religious heritage and history of our nation is to ignore some very basic facts and truths about American history. The Christian faith, in particular, has been such a part of the fabric of our nation’s history that it has become the presumptive national religion, leading to the oft-repeated claim that America is a Christian nation.

We can also affirm that religion belongs in the public square, in spite of the mistaken belief of some that the separation of church and state means that religion is to be relegated solely to the realm of one’s private life or confined to the interior of a place of worship. The heart of our democracy is the freedom of every perspective to be represented in the public square, including religion. Nevertheless, people of faith must tread carefully when it comes to the relationship of church and state. It does faith no favors to be state-supported, as it would only rob faith of its self-perpetuating vitality. Religion in America has prospered because it functions as a free-market enterprise:  It either sinks or swims on its own merits and not because any of its expressions enjoy the status of a state church.