Friday, June 29, 2007


This may be the post where you conclude that I've lost my mind.

Following a theme from my last post, I've been contemplating the nature of justice. In American culture justice is generally understood as punishment for wrongdoing. Justice is found when the guilty receive equal retribution for what they have done. Not surprisingly we read this understanding of justice into the Bible, and hence we get theories of the atonement where "God's perfect justice" requires that there must be a punishment for sin. This, of course, is not a new development.

What is a relatively new development is the recognition in certain quarters that this isn't the predominant Biblical meaning of justice. It's easy to read the above meaning into the Bible, because it fits well in instances like "David administered justice and equity to all his people" (2 Sam. 8:15), but it's not such a good fit for other uses such as "seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow" (Isaiah 1:17). I'd like to say that the Biblical model of justice means relieving the poor and needy of the burden upon them, but it doesn't seem to be quite that simple -- almost, but not quite.

As a simple start, I did a search for the word "justice" in the Bible. I think that in every instance in this search, a case can be made that the idea of relieving oppression fits better than the idea of punishing guilt. But this could be a trick of the translation.

I tried to get into the Hebrew a little bit, because the concept appears primarily in the Old Testament, but I don't know any Hebrew and am completely reliant on language tools, so my conclusions will be very tentative.

It seems that the primary Hebrew word translated as "justice" is "mishpat". It's translated as "justice" more than any other single word, but this only accounts for 118 of the 419 occurances of this word in the Bible. So what does "mishpat" mean?

It apparently means "justice" but also "judgment" -- it's what the Israelites hoped for from God to vindicate them against their enemies. One interesting use is in Joshua 6:15 where it is translated as "manner" as in "[they] marched around the city in the same manner seven times." In Judges 13:12, it is used to ask about the "rule of life" intended for Samson. Often it is translated "ordinance". And so I get the sense that it means "the way things ought to be" or something like that.

This, of course, leads me right back to the ambiguity between justice as retribution and justice as vindication. Vindication for some people has harsh consequences for others.

The reason this troubles me is that if we approach things from the perspective of justice as providing help to those in need, then the American judicial system has the effect of being almost the exact opposite of justice. That is, it punishes the poor.

We tell ourselves that it's only the "bad people" who are punished, but this is a lie that we have bought into -- the lie that criminals are bad people and we are good people. Now I know that for the most part the people in our jails have done some very bad things. They've hurt people much more than the average sinner would even imagine doing. The problem is that socio-economic factors are just too good as predictors of criminal behavior.

At the beginning of The Great Gatsby, the narrator relates some advice he received from his father, "Whenever you feel like criticizing any one, just remember that all the people in this world haven't had the advantages that you've had." St. Francis of Assisi said, "If God had given the greatest criminal the graces He has given me, he would have used them to better advantage than I have done."

How far can I push this?

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The Good Samaritan

The parable of the good Samaritan is one of the most loved stories of Christianity. It's well known that the story loses some of its edge because we don't feel the tension between Jews and Samaritans. What's not considered as often is the worthiness of the victim.

Ask most Christians, and I suspect you'd find that they have a sort of sentimentalized idea of the man who fell into the hands of robbers. He's an innocent victim, and so we have a soft spot for him. But what if he had been involved in a gang fight instead? Does that change the story?

I'm trying to get my head around the idea of grace and its relationship to the general human tendency to only want to see grace given to those who are worthy of it. I mentioned in a previous post that religious types like repentant sinners, but not sinners.

I think of the story of Jean Valjean and Monseigneur Myriel in Les Miserables as an exploration of the parable of the good Samaritan. Valjean is starving and sleeping on the street. Myriel takes him in. For many this would complete the parallel to the parable. But when Valjean steals Myriel's silverware, is caught and is returned to Myriel, Myriel covers his crime and gives him his candelesticks as well. This pushes the parable of the good Samaritan to the level of loving one's enemies and repaying good for evil. It shows, more than Walter Wink's nonsense about putting people in an awkward position, what it means to go the extra mile.

So trying to put this into my own life, suppose I'm riding my bike down the street and I come across a car pulled off to the side of the road. The driver yells a request for help. It's nothing extraordinary to stop and help him. It's the remnant of chivalry in our society that makes us want to help those in trouble. But now suppose that I discover that he's drunk and the reason he needs help is that he ran into a curb and blew out a tire. Do I still help him? Or do I call the police and report him for drunk driving? What does grace look like in this scenario? What would Jesus do?

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Five Things I Dig About Jesus

David tagged me for the Five Things I Dig About Jesus meme. I found that I had to really put some effort into this to give my honest, personal response and not just the usual rhetoric. I seem to have ended up with some of the usual rhetoric anyway, but these really are things I dig about Jesus.

1. He hangs out with unpopular people. Growing up, I was one of those not-cool, not-rich, not-athletic, not-terribly-clean kids that nobody really wanted to talk to and a few people actively avoided. And I dig that Jesus doesn't have a problem with that.

2. He touches unclean people. Unclean people are a step beyond unpopular people. There's something about them that causes even good people to be afraid to come near them. I think people with HIV are probably the best example we've got today. If we say that Jesus was miraculously immune to their diseases, we miss the point. I dig that Jesus would touch the people no one else would come near.

3. He welcomes sinners. Lots of religious types are enthusiastic about welcoming repentant sinners, but I don't think Jesus made that distinction. I think he welcomed real sinners, active sinners. Again, if we rush ahead to where he changes their life, we're missing the point. I dig that Jesus isn't put off by sin.

4. He offends religious types. By religious types, I mean those people whose self-image is tied up in the fact that they've got this religion thing figured out and they're doing it right. It's hard to point out where they're wrong, because I'd have to have it figured out to do so. But I don't trust them, and I dig that Jesus rubs them the wrong way.

5. He isn't afraid of the government. I'm a long-time "question authority" advocate, though at times I've been doing it for the wrong reasons. Jesus does it for the right reasons. He sees that those who put themselves in places of authority aren't really the final authority. He doesn't go out of his way to flaunt this, but he knows it and lives it. I dig that about Jesus.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Immigration and Sacrifice

I visited a United Church of Christ congregation this week, and the sermon was almost entirely on the issue of immigration. The pastor said he had intended to give a feel good sermon about God as Father but the events of the week didn't allow for that.

Last week a Del Monte plant was raided in Portland. There were 167 illegal immigrants arrested and sent to a deportation facility. The incident led to a wide spread panic among immigrant workers in the community. For instance, schools were reporting abnormal absentee rates as immigrant parents were afraid to let their children leave home.

The pastor's sermon hit some of the usual points about how those of us present were all descended from immigrants and so on. He said he wasn't so naive as to think we could simply open our borders -- there were issues of civil order and economics which couldn't be ignored -- but he was hopeful that if we truly intend to we could work out a just solution. Overall, it was a pretty good sermon.

I'm much more naive than this pastor. I don't see why we can't just open our borders. I'm not suggesting we close down the customs department completely -- by all means keep asking people why they're coming into the country -- but I don't see why we need to turn away anyone who is coming here looking for work.

People say that it can't be done because of the impact it would have on our economy. The cost of social services is often mentioned. I don't doubt that it would cost us a great deal, but that doesn't mean it can't be done. What it comes down to is this, the people of our country are willing to offer help to the poor in neighboring countries, but only so long as it doesn't hurt.

I would like to suggest that the situation of the wealthy United States closing its borders to Mexico's poor is a direct acting out of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. Lazarus lay at the rich man's gate and longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man's table. And I'm sure the rich man would have been happy to let Lazarus have what fell from the table -- just so he didn't have to give Lazarus something from his own plate.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Ghost Rider

I rented "Ghost Rider" this week. It's not a bad flick, if you like movies based on comic books, which I do. Ghost Rider was one of my favorites as a kid, but I had forgotten pretty much everything about his story.

It's not a bad back story. It might seem a bit cliche, but legends like this need to build on fundamental archetypes, so you ought to expect that. It's presented as a recurring myth -- a man sells his soul to the devil and as a result he's the devil's bounty hunter. OK, so this is cool, we get a little pseudo-theology in our comic book movie. Then one of these ghost riders decides not to do the devil's bidding. That's the back story.

The demonology of the movie is a little confused as there are some issues over the devil and his son having varying strengths and weaknesses, not to mention the son being a little more evil but for some reaosn being described as not having fallen. But all of that easily fits in the suspension of disbelief any movie asks of the viewer.

So the protagonist, after becoming the latest ghost rider, finds himself struggling with the possibility that maybe, just maybe, he can get a second chance, and he decides to use his powers for good. OK, so we've got a nice redemption/grace thing going there, but somehow the story can't avoid the vengence model of religion.

The Ghost Rider's greatest power is his "penance stare" -- as his opponent looks into his eyes, he feels the pain of all the innocent souls he has wounded and is reduced to a quivering mass and presumably remanded to hell.

In the final scene, when the devil is about to release him from his curse, he refuses, informing the devil that he intends to fight against him, saying that whenever innocent blood is spilled he'll be there fighting fire with fire.

So...the Ghost Rider will chase down the wicked with hellfire and damn them by revealing their sins to them. Excuse me? How is that different from the devil? It all seems to come down to the fact that people just aren't willing to go past the idea that God likes innocent people and wants to see bad people punished. A motorcycle named "Grace" isn't going to fix this storyline.

Summary: fun movie, bad theology.

Music Meme

Via Lutherpunk.

Disclaimer: My MP3 player has a lot of storage, and I went with a play list that includes everything I have on there for any reason. I can't be held responsible for the quality of these selections.

Why are you taking yet another shuffle quiz?
Song: But Anyway
Artist: Blues Traveler
Comment: Why not?

What’s currently in your fridge?
Song: Still Remains
Artist: Stone Temple Pilots
Comment: It's kind of green and fuzzy. Whatever it is, it's been in there for a long time.

Your biggest nightmare?
Song: T-R-O-U-B-L-E
Artist: Travis Tritt
Comment: I better not comment on this.

What place would you like to visit?
Song: Down In It
Composer: Nine Inch Nails
Comment: Actually, I'm not sure I would want to visit there.

A reason to commit suicide?
Song: Keep On Loving You
Artist: REO Speedwagon
Comment: It becomes publicly known that I have REO Speedwagon on my MP3 player.

Why are we here?
Song: The Approaching of the Disco Void
Composer: John Fahey
Comment: Someone has to stop disco.

Something you never dared to say to anyone…?
Song: Custard Pie
Artist: Led Zeppelin
Comment: OK, so when I actually said it it didn't really make any sense to anyone anyway.

One thing the world really doesn’t need?
Song: Hellhound On My Trail
Composer: Robert Johnson
Comment: No one needs a hellhound on their trail.

What’s your biggest unfulfilled wish?
Song: Daniel
Artist: Elton John
Comment: Clear all the sappy music off my MP3 player.

If you could invent something, what would it be?
Song: Cross-Eyed Mary
Composer: Jethro Tull
Comment: Rock and roll flute. Oh wait, someone's already done that.

The last thing you say before you die?
Song: Girl, You'll be a Woman Soon
Artist: Urge Overkill
Comment: Hopefully, I'll be saying this to an as yet unborn granddaughter or great-granddaughter, and not one of my daughters, who are growing up fast.

What’s your destiny?
Song: Never
Artist: Gravity Kills
Comment: I refuse to face destiny.

What do you do when you’re alone in an elevator?
Song: Strength Beyond Strength
Composer: Pantera
Comment: I marvel at the fact that I am the strongest man in the elevator.

Why do people go fishing?
Song: Baby Come Back
Artist: Player
Comment: It beats listening to 70's music compilations.

What would you do with your slaves?
Song: Watching You
Composer: Melissa Etheridge
Comment: You just can't trust those slaves.

Is there a man on the moon?
Song: Not Dark Yet
Artist: Bob Dylan
Comment: I'll look when it's dark, and then I'll know.

What does hell look like?
Song: Lil' Devil
Artist: The Cult
Comment: I swear, that's just what came up.

About what would you like to write a book?
Song: Cotton Eye Joe
Artist: Rednex
Comment: I'd write a book about sex and violins.

The best thing ever is…?
Song: So Alone
Artist: Offspring
Comment: Sartre was right, "Hell is other people."

Why did the chicken cross the road?
Song: Go Outside and Drive
Artist: Blues Traveler
Comment: He was parked on the other side of the road.

Why do you listen to music?
Song: Jumpin' Jack Flash
Composer: The Rolling Stones
Comment: 'Cause it's alright now. In fact, it's a gas.

What do you do when you’re alone and nobody’s watching?
Song: Coma
Artist: Coroner
Comment: If nobody's watching, am I really here?

Why are other people so stupid?
Song: Whores
Artist: Jane's Addiction
Comment: Sorry, I seem to have poor impulse control today. That just came out.

Last thing you ate?
Song: 99 Ways to Die
Artist: Megadeth
Comment: Remember that green fuzzy stuff in my fridge?

Why is grass green?
Song: Wonderful One
Artist: NewSong
Comment: Grass is green because God is love!

Your phone is ringing, but who’s on the other end?
Song: (I'm Always Touched by Your) Presence, Dear
Composer: Blondie
Comment: It's my wife. No one else calls me. Really.

What should you stop doing?
Song: First Time
Composer: Styx
Comment: I should stop admitting to the sappy music on my MP3 player.

A word of advice to the readers of this quiz?
Song: Can't Get It Out of My Head
Artist: Electric Light Orchestra
Comment: Too much music clouds your thinking.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Wesley and the Nature of Faith

In beginning Kenneth Collins' book John Wesley: A Theological Journey, I've received new input to my recent exploration of the nature of faith. Apparently, Wesley was beginning to explore this same territory at the age of 22.

In a letter to his mother in July of 1725, Wesley wrote, "As I understand faith to be an assent to any truth upon rational grounds, I don't think it possible without perjury to swear I believe anything, unless I have rational grounds for my persuasion."

Collins notes that this represents an early stage of Wesley's thinking on the matter. At this stage, he was basically equating faith with belief that some proposition is true. As I've said in recent posts, I think this is a very common error -- an error committed by believers and opponents of religion alike.

John Wesley, however, had no ordinary mother, as is perhaps apparent already from the fact that he was writing about theology in a personal letter to her. In her response to this letter, Susanna Wesley wrote, "You are somewhat mistaken in your notion of faith....The true measure of faith is the authority of the revealer, the weight of which always holds proportion with our conviction of his ability and integrity. Divine faith is an assent to whatever God has revealed to us, because he has revealed it."

Paraphrasing to try to wrap my mind around what she's saying, I think this means that we don't believe the specifics of our religion, for instance, because we have been convinced of them by rational argument, but rather we believe them because we have previously accepted the authority of God and we take these things to be revealed to us by God. I like this, though it has some problems.

In the previous example I was working with of the Mormon missionary coming to believe the story about Joseph Smith and the golden plates while on mission, I would analyze it this way. He initially accepted the story without quite believing it. He granted it on credit as it were. Then later, seeing God at work in his life, he tapped into a new sort of faith in God's authority and accounted this as making good on the previous credit. And so his faith subsumed belief in the story of the golden plates.

The problem is, how do we make the connection between faith in God's authority, what God has revealed to us, and the foundational stories of our religion? Does God actually reveal to us that these stories are true? If not, why do we act as if this were so?

Mulling this over I was reminded of some remarks Rabbi Lawrence Kushner has made on mystical visions. He says that while Christians who have mystical visions will typically have a vision of Jesus or perhaps of Mary, when a Jew has a mystical vision, it frequently takes the form of Ezekiel's chariot. This is fascinating, but it makes sense. Our preconceptions, it would seem, influence the way God reveals Godself to us.

Back to Wesley, after sharing John Wesley's initial conception of faith and Susanna Wesley's correction (which miraculously her 22-year old son seems to have accepted), author Kenneth Collins points the way forward. Collins writes, "It would take several years before Wesley would comprehend all three elements of the nature of faith aright: as assent, as trust, and as a spiritual sense."

I take this to be a traiditional Methodist view of faith, though it was one with which I wasn't familiar. Assent and trust I recognize as two parts of the traditional Reformed definition of faith, along with knowledge (notitia, assensus and fiducia). In typical Lutheran fashion, I tend to throw all the weight on the fiducia. But this "spiritual sense" was something new to me. As Collins describe it, faith is itself taken to be "an organ of spiritual knowledge" -- a way of hearing God.

I'm not quite sure what I think of this. On first glance it seems to me that this is a foreign element being introduced, as if faith is being conflated with its effects. And yet, it's a powerful concept and would perhaps begin to answer some of the questions I've raised above. I'll have to dwell on it a bit more, I think.

Monday, June 11, 2007

I'm Not Really a Lutheran

I was at a celebration banquet my congregation was holding a month or so ago and as I listened to the long-time members talk about the life stories and how they intertwined with the church I came to the realization, I'm not really a Lutheran.

Don't get me wrong. I think like a Lutheran. I love the Lutheran hymns and liturgies. I was baptized as a Lutheran. I was married in the same Lutheran church where my parents and grandparents had been married and where I had grown up and been taught how to be a Christian.

But I'm not Norwegian or Swedish or German or a descendent of any of the other traditional Lutheran ethnic groups. I joke that I come from a long line of Irish Lutherans. My English/Irish grandfather somehow made his way into a Lutheran church (he was at least Pennsylvanian, so I've got that going for me), and that's how I came into Lutheranism. But as I sat at the banquet and listened to the Norwegians talk about their Norwegian culture, I realized, I'm not really one of these people.

Again, I love Lutherans. I'm endlessly thankful that they let me hang around with them. I've even taken to making an odd joke about lutefisk now and then, though I've never eaten the stuff and don't intend to. Still, I can't help feeling like I'm a wolf that was raised by sheep.

I was born on Reformation Day, so I've got that going for me too, but -- are you ready for this? -- my middle name is Wesley. It's a family name. The side of my family that weren't Irish Lutherans were Methodists -- at least until my great-grandmother lost her bid for control of the congregation to another woman, so my grandfather tells me.

Now I'm not planning to become Methodist any time soon -- I'm quite happy as a resident alien among the Lutherans -- but I've recently come to the realization that I'm almost completely ignorant of the life and theology of John Wesley. So I picked up Kenneth Collins' John Wesley: A Theological Journey and an anthology of Wesley's writings. I started Collins' book last night. So far, I've learned that I also know next to nothing about the history of the Church of England after the 16th century.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

What Penn Jillette Believes

I was thumbing through my copy of the NPR "This I Believe" anthology this morning, when I came across Penn Jillette's essay, There Is No God. Penn's one of those in-your-face kind of atheists who find belief in God to be foolish and unhelpful (at best), but he does it without the pretended expertise of a Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins.

It's a short essay, and so easy to respond to, so I thought I'd take a look. But rather than crow around about where he's wrong, I'd like to look at it from the perspective of seeing what religious faith looks like to an outsider.

Jillette says, "anyone with a love for truth outside of herself has to start with no belief in God and then look for evidence of God." This seems to be a roadblock to faith -- thinking that faith has anything to do with evidence for something or ignoring lack of evidence. But on the whole, I think the basic orientation here might be right. Faith cannot begin with love of God, but neither can we look for it. It's discovered, and discovered within ourselves even. And though it clears develops in response to experience, I don't think it can be properly said to involve discovery of evidence that something is true.

Jillette says, "Believing there's no God means I can't really be forgiven except by kindness and faulty memories." So by grace? But this is a common complaint of opponents of religion. Because God forgives, they say, believers care less about their shortcomings. I don't think this is a theoretical deduction. I think it's derived from observation, and the Christian community should be stung by this. But maybe this is the worst of it, when we proclaim forgiveness of sins, we proclaim forgiveness of other people's sins and say it isn't going to happen until they come to God. We've taken ourselves out of the forgiveness loop, and while he doesn't say this, I think this is the key to Jillette's talk about forgiveness -- he knows that he will be forgiven (or not) in the same way that he forgives others (or not). Didn't Jesus say that?

Jillette says, "Believing there's no God stops me from being solipsistic. I can read ideas from all different people from all different cultures." I believe in God, and I can do that. But again this isn't a specious criticism. I linked to an essay a while ago called What Christians Don't Do. The essence was that Christians don't dialogue. They aren't open to other truths. This is less true in some circles since the late 60's, but it remains true that at nearly every strata of the liberal-conservative spectrum, the liberal side is seen as being too accepting of outside ideas -- at least until you get to the point where they're to closed to traditional Christian ideas, but even there the dynamic looks the same.

Jillette says, "I don't travel in circles where people say, 'I have faith, I believe this in my heart and nothing you can say or do can shake my faith.'" He means this in terms of listening to, and participating in, rational argument. It's a reduction of faith to believing that certain facts are true, and this reduction is happening on the side of the person of faith!

Jillette says, "Believing there is no God means the suffering I've seen in my family, and indeed all the suffering in the world, isn't caused by an omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent force that isn't bothered to help or is just testing us, but rather something we all may be able to help others with in the future. No God means the possibility of less suffering in the future." The first jab here is obviously a commentary on how truly awful most religious attempts to answer the problem of evil really are, but beyond that, do we really come across as not thinking we can do something about suffering? I was a bit taken aback by the idea. But then I remembered something my wife shared with me. She's been involved in a discussion group recently, and when the question of recycling came up, a Christian said that ultimately only God can fix the planet and if God doesn't want to we shouldn't waste our time trying. Ouch!

In his Ethics Bonhoeffer says, "If the hungry man does not attain to faith, then the guilt falls on those who refused him bread." If the skeptic does not attain to faith, perhaps the guilt falls on those who made faith so unappealing. I think maybe it's time to stop refuting the opponents of religion and start listening to them. While their arguments may seem off-base to us, we should think long and hard about why they are making these argument.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

I'm a Book Moocher

A week or two ago I came across an entry over at Eating Words confessing that he is a book moocher. After thoughtful reflection, I must now confess that I too am a book moocher. In fact, I highly recommend it.

Check out The way it works is this, you sign up for a free account. You list the books you have that you're willing to give away. For every book you list, you get a tenth of a point. For every book you give away, you get one point. For each point you have, you can mooch a book. The only cost is the cost of mailing other people your books.

To me, this is very cool. I love to get books. I love to have books. I have six bookcases full of books and with books stacked on top of the bookcases, piled up on my dresser and night stand, in drawers, etc. So I need to get rid of some of my books so I can get new ones. Book Mooch is perfect for this. It gives me an outlet for getting rid of my books that I can feel good about, and I get more books in the process.

I signed up this morning and listed ten books, so I could get one back. Before I was done listing my books, some guy in Washington mooched three of them. A woman in Iowa mooched another one an hour or so later. (There's a feature where the site sends you an e-mail when someone offers a book on your wishlist.)

So, on my first day as a book moocher, I mooched Beginning to Pray by Anthony Bloom, The Early Church by Henry Chadwick, God & Human Suffering by Douglas John Hall, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil by Heiko Oberman and The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel, while giving away four books that were just taking up space on my shelves. Not a bad day's mooching.