Tuesday, July 20, 2010

What is Social Justice?

This post will certainly live up to the moniker I've chosen for my blog, "A Wreck of Ramblings."

In recently posted a link on my Facebook page (always dangerous, I know) and commented on the link. The link concerned Glenn Beck and his continuing attempt to scare his viewers/listeners into challenging their churches and clergy on issues related to "social justice." Here is a link to my Facebook post. In addition, here is a link to a separate story where Mr. Beck more explicitly condemns the notion of "social justice" as anti-Christian, socialist, and several other worse things.

Many have spoken out, across every conceivable outlet, in the weeks and months since regarding Mr. Beck's attack on the idea of social justice. The question posed to me in my Facebook post is "What do you mean by social justice?" This is a fair question. For Beck, it would seem he merges the idea of "social justice" with the Christian "social gospel" movement of the early twentieth century. In his rantings, Mr. Beck doesn't really seem to distinguish between the two. However, while I certainly have some sympathy for those such as Walter Rauschenbush, the social gospel movement became more social movement than gospel. I have tended to find myself connecting much more with those such has Reinhold Niebuhr, his brother H. Richard Niebuhr, and Martin Luther King, Jr., all of whom critiqued the social policies of both the right and left very aggressively. However, Mr. Beck is perhaps correct about one thing: the term "social justice" has come to mean many different things to different groups of people.

As a minister, my interpretation of scripture is my foundation for understanding social justice. In the Old Testament, we find a variety of expressions of justice. In Torah, we find admonitions to never deny justice to "the stranger" or the "orphan" fairly pervasive, especially in Deuteronomy. While these instructions were always given communally, one could, perhaps, make a persuasive argument for their intended application as lived individually, while in community.

However, once we arrive at the Psalms and the prophets, the call for social justice becomes even clearer. Throughout the prophets and words of the Psalter, justice refers to social relationships. This is particularly clear in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, and Micah. These prophets provide stinging critiques of the interactions between different social strata, those marginalized or oppressed and those doing the marginalizing and oppressing. Isaiah and Jeremiah speak of the oppression of the widow, stranger, and orphan as one of the primary sins of the people -- collectively, not individually. These groups (widows, strangers, orphans) are representative of all those marginalized by society. These prophets describe sin, and the repercussions of it, in communal terms, not individualist terms. Thus, in the OT, one finds strong reinforcement for ideals of both personal responsibility regarding holiness and communal responsibility for social justice.

These themes continue in the New Testament, in both the words of Jesus in the gospel accounts, and books such as the Epistle of James as well. When Jesus overturned the tables of the money changers in the temple, he was challenging the socio-economic norms which abused the people, causing poverty and suffering. Christ's teaching harshly criticizes the social norms of his day, showing how entitlement claims to honor, status, and wealth while neglecting others are how the kingdoms of the world operate, not the kingdom of God.

When the apostle Paul writes to early Christian communities such as those in Cornith, he is speaking to communities, and instructing for both individual and communal action. Proof-texting from Paul's letter to the church in Rome regarding personal responsibility is a favorite of those sharing ideological perspectives with Mr. Beck, and I have some disdain for proof-texting as a way of reading and studying scripture. However, if we want to read Romans as emphasizing personal righteousness as essential to faith, at the very least we shouldn't ignore texts such as the second chapter of James. And I haven't even mentioned Matthew 25, the Sermon on the Mount, or Jesus' teaching on kingdom ethics in Luke.

My point is this: Social justice, to me, is recognizing that our responsibility to seek justice does not end only with the individual. We bear communal responsibility as well, and such a notion is very biblical. Conservatives often want to shout about "personal responsibility" from the roof tops; I would never deny, as a Christian, personal responsibility as a vital component of a faithful life. But this in not the entirety of our faith.

When Jesus said all the law and the prophets can be summed up in love of God and love of neighbor, he was not endorsing a human political, economic, ideological, or social construction or perspective. I believe our faith should cause a healthy skepticism of the "kingdoms" of the world. Communism, taken to the logical end, becomes firmly anti-Christian; liberal theologians of the early 20th century often failed to realize this. However, capitalism, taken to its logical extreme, unrestrained by prophetic voices, becomes just as anti-Christian. Human injustice, including seeking power and wealth at the expense of others, is evil regardless of the cloak it wears.

This means we can and should have vigorous debate on the role the government should play in accomplishing social justice. Personally, I've always believed we need a balance of personal and communal responsibility. Sometimes we need government to protect the minority from the oppression of the majority (on occasion, we need to protect the majority from a powerful minority as well). Other times government can be the very agent of oppression we fear. That's why I continue to consider myself a political moderate. However, to deny the need to pursue social justice, and worse to claim it is somehow anti-Christian to make authentic justice for all people our pursuit, would force us to ignore the prophets and the largest portion Christ's teaching.

Ignorant extremists on either end of the political spectrum (yes, Glenn Beck is a great example, entertainer or not) are dangerous. Those with authentic faith should continue to speak prophetically against these extremes.

While others have responded more eloquently than I, "that's all I have to say about that."

Grace and peace,

James

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Hurt by Church

This post originally appeared in the April 15 edition of our church newsletter, The Southwest Spirit.

This week I came upon a troubling, though unsurprising, study recently released by the Barna Group. According to the Associate Baptist Press, the Barna Group’s research reveals that “nearly four of every 10 ‘unchurched’ Americans avoid worship because of negative past experiences in churches or with church people.”

The survey revealed some other truths, which we should also take to heart: More unchurched identify themselves as Christians than not, and by a significant margin. However, the overwhelming majority of those surveyed felt they did not have any real understanding of purpose and meaning in life.

Over the next two weeks, I will be sharing a brief, two-part sermon entitled “When Religion Becomes Evil.” I referenced this series last Fall, and it finally fits into our schedule. It is inspired by Charles Kimball’s book of the same name. However, this study released by Barna will be on my mind as well. We already know the majority of the people in all of our communities around the country are not participating in worship on Sunday mornings (or any other day of the week). However, it should sting us all the more to know that for so many, it is their experience with their local church itself (and her people) which keeps them away.

What will this mean for the way we conduct ourselves when reaching out to the unchurched around us? A new kind of genuine sensitivity may be the call of the day.

Thank You!

I want to pause for a moment to share a few words of thank you which seem appropriate during this season.

First, to all of those worship leaders who helped make our Lenten, Maundy Thursday, and Easter worship services so meaningful and complete, I say thank you. The number of hours of preparation which various individuals and groups put into preparing drama, music, and developing our worship plans would surprise many. Our church appreciates and treasures the talent in worship leadership which is God-given, as well as the time and effort returned, which is our sacrifice of praise to God.

Second, to all of those who worked so hard on special children’s and youth activities in the past weeks, we say thank you. We canceled the Easter Fair this year for fear of bad weather, which falls at my feet (not the weather, but the canceling part). However, the effort put into preparation has not been lost on our church family and we look forward to having a substitute family event in the very near future.

Finally, I want to say thank you to our church staff. Larry Smith and Michael Hodges are two fine Christian gentlemen, one who, through his work at the university is serving to mold a new generation of worship leaders and servants, and another who is a part of this next generation of servants. Both are as committed as any church staff with whom I have worked and neither let the term “part-time” compromise their commitment to our church and her ministries.

There are so many more I could thank, and I’m sure I have missed a few. However, we also need to remember to thank those behind-the-scenes as well. So my last “thank you” will be for Mrs. Judy Fussell, our church secretary. Many of you do not know Judy, but you get to see and enjoy the product of her labors every week.

What a wonderful Easter and pre-Easter season at Southwest Baptist. Truly God is good.

Grace and peace,

James

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Heroes Fall...Always

This article originally appeared in the Feb 4, 2010 Southwest Spirit church newsletter.

Recent days and weeks have reminded me of something all of us, as a culture, find it so easy to forget. Heroes and heroines never quite live up to our expectations. Inevitably, those who are admired, sometimes even placed on pedestals, come crashing down. Some of this has to do with our heroes and heroines, but mostly our expectations are at fault. There is nothing new about this cycle; after all, scripture gives us dozens of individuals who follow the same pattern.

What seems so odd to me are the extreme reactions to heroes which fall. Those who have a position which bends the public ear seem to take only one of two extreme positions toward a fallen "hero." Either (1) the former hero in question is now the greatest villain the world has ever seen, or (2) the former hero was the victim of circumstance, certainly not at fault and likely taken advantage of. He or she should be restored to his or her formerly heroic status. To these two extreme reactions I say, HUH?!?

Here in St. Louis, Mark McGwire provides the perfect example. In recent days, McGwire has admitted to using steroids (something most of us suspected), explained his thinking back then, and apologized. Some have found his apologizing lacking, but I do not believe this has been at the heart of the reaction to his admission. I'm less concerned with his motivation than ours.

The first extreme reaction has come from many sportswriters and a handful of former players. These seek to paint McGwire as the most extreme of villains, who should be banned from working in baseball, slashed from the record books, and marked with a permanent "S" tattoo on his forehead. Ok, this last one isn't true, but I think they might be for it if they thought they could.

The second reaction is equally as puzzling to me. This reaction seems to come from die-hard fans, with a smattering of voices from former players as well. These voices seek to dismiss McGwire's failings as irrelevant, providing excuse after excuse for why this honorable man did something which really is not all that bad. The voracious cheers seem to me to rise above the tone of "we forgive you" to a fevered pitch of "you're our hero no matter what you've done or will do." I wonder if these same voices would find a way to explain away the actions of one of their heroes who was found to be pushing down old ladies and tripping children on the street in his spare time.

Mark McGwire, and every other person we exalt to hero or heroine status, is simply human. His mistakes do not make him a villain. He is not worthy of the status of hero, either. None of us are. Both history and the witness of scripture demonstrate this fact repeatedly. And this is why the fault lies with us. I fear these two extreme reactions, neither of which is healthy or helpful, only happen when we insist on creating images of grand heroes who will inevitably disappoint.

Grace and peace,

James

Monday, January 18, 2010

Reflecting on MLK Day

On days like today, on Facebook and many other outlets, we are reminded of the wisdom shared in the wonderful teaching of our country's greatest modern day prophet. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a great theologian and advocate for the world's oppressed. It is easy to be captured by his charisma and powerful speaking ability; we shouldn't forget how brilliant and insightful he was as well. I was reminded of one of my favorite quotes from his writing and I learned another quotation I had not previously known.

"There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think." (MLK from "Strength to Love")

A former professor of mine from seminary reminded me of this quotation today. These words are an accurate, stinging indictment. I think the church culture can be particularly guilty of promoting an attitude of "easy answers" which don't actually mean anything. Empty platitudes, cliche riddled perspectives, and cute aphorisms rarely do much but reinforce a status quote of either injustice or apathy. Nothing replaces thoughtful examination and reflection.

"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter." MLK

I wish I would have had this quotation available to me as I prepared yesterday's sermon. Among other illustrations, I used a portion of Dr. King's most famous speech as I chose the question "Why can't we dream?" as a driving force for my sermon. How can we look at the life of such a man and live with a pessimism or indifference which chokes our ability to dream?

I have truly enjoyed reading through the comments on Facebook and other blogs on this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. His life continues to make a profound difference in the world.

Grace and peace,
James

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Pastors and Congregations, Part II

This post is a bit later than I had hoped - I've been pretty sick the last couple of days. Last week I commented on Bill Wilson's article 7 Things Your Pastor Wishes You Knew, But is Afraid to Tell You. Today I'll turn the tables and comment on Dr. Wilson's article Seven Things Church Members Wish Their Pastors Knew, But Are Afraid to Tell Them. (See last week's post for my introduction to this topic).

These are Dr. Wilson's "Seven Things," from Church members to their pastors:
  • My life is not easy. I need hope, help and healing most days. The idea that everyone you meet is leading a life of quiet desperation applies to the people in your pews more than you seem to know. Some days it is all I can do to show up and appear semi-coherent. When you ask me to serve on the reception committee without even bothering to ask about my troubled son, don't be surprised when I come up with a dozen excuses for declining. It's not because I'm not committed or don't love God. I just need you to see me and notice me and my pain.
  • Challenge me. Despite an over-full life, I crave being part of something bigger than I am. Some days it seems like you are more interested in playing it safe and drawing a paycheck than speaking boldly on behalf of the God of the universe. Please don't make the life of faith sound so trivial. By the way, please stop trying to make us all happy. It can't be done and it runs counter to the gospel. Besides, it will kill you and stunt my spiritual growth. Invite me to get out of my comfort zone and discover the abundance that Jesus talks about in John 10. Push me but always remember point No. 1.
  • Lighten up. The world will not end if we try something new and different. Your inflexibility is not congruent with what you tell us about God and his imagination and creativity. We'd like to get out of some of our ruts, and we need your leadership to help us think and act differently.
  • If I get to church, please do your part and see to it that things are done well. If I get out of bed on Sunday morning, dress the kids, pass up some quiet time with my spouse or come out on a rainy Monday night for a committee meeting, please see to it that you have done your part to be prepared, professional and organized. Nothing is as discouraging or frustrating as the feeling that ministers take for granted that people will just show up, no matter the quality of the program or event. Not true.
  • I'm less and less interested in rote faith. I'm more and more interested in dynamic, world-changing faith. Have you noticed that my eyes glaze over when you drone on about budgets, but light up when I have a chance to actually touch a life and impact the world? You should pay attention to that. Tell me more about the God who transforms life.
  • Get some therapy or coaching or something. This is not said out of pettiness, but out of genuine love for you. You have some blind spots and you are not perfect, so why not ask for help and guidance? You would do yourself, family and our church a huge favor by discovering or admitting your flaws and working on them. We see them but don't really know how to help you with them. Your authenticity is your walking testimony. Thank you for trying to narrow the gap between who you are in the pulpit and who you are in the aisle at the grocery.
  • I wish you listened more and talked less. Please, if you hear nothing else, hear this one.
I think everyone of these 7 are important words for pastors to hear, and it troubles me to think there are pastors serving congregations who are unaware of the first item. Being a pastor should first and foremost mean truly caring. However, each and every one of these are words I hear ringing true. What do you think? Does your pastor challenge you enough? Does your pastor listen enough?