Sunday, April 24, 2011

Easter People and Lo Lat

Yesterday, a Jewish friend of mine in Taiwan took his song to a nursing home near his home. The song he composed is part of his effort to recover an old way of saying “Thank you” in Taiwanese. His song is “Lo Lat” and sung to the tune of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” He went with an elementary school teacher who is Tzu Chi Buddhist and who goes every Saturday to play his harmonica for the people in the home.

My friend sang “Lo Lat” to fifty very old and very sick people, he said. He wondered if any of the many comatose people even heard his song or the harmonica played by his friend. It reminded me of the experience of a friend of a friend several years ago.

Early in her ministry, Jaime Potter-Miller served as chaplain in a retirement community. She determined that one way of loving the people was to bring her guitar and sing. There was one patient in particular, however, for whom even singing seemed a waste of time. A brain-stem stroke had left this woman virtually comatose, with not even a twitch of response to any stimuli in years. Her family had tried everything they could to reach her, but nothing evoked even a semblance of recognition.

Unable to bypass this woman’s bed, Jaime bent down with her guitar as close to the woman’s face as she could get, and began singing. “I wonder what she sang when she went to Sunday School?” Jaime asked herself. She begin to sing “Great is Thy Faithfulness.” During this song, Jaime thought she heard a groaning sound. Then she watched in amazement as this stroke victim began to make guttural noises. She stopped singing, afraid that the woman was having another stroke, and called the nurse.

The nurse examined the woman, and found her no different than usual. “You had to be imagining it, Jaime. This woman hasn’t had any bodily response to anything or anyone in years.” But Jaime wouldn’t let her go.

“Listen to this,” Jaime insisted. Once again she sang, “Great is Thy Faithfulness.” And once again the woman began making those signs and sounds “too deep for words.” The nurse bolted out of the room, collected every other medical staff person she could find, and brought them to witness a miracle. A simple song of love had reached into this woman’s soul and touched her where nothing else could.

Today, many will be singing “Easter People raise your voices!” Maybe this will be a day when Christians can remember that "Easter People" are in fact people of any race or creed who are so taken with a spirit of love that they take their guitars, harmonicas, voices, and whatever skills they have, often at considerable risk, into the most unlikely places to sing, play, teach, or cook their ways into the most unlikely of hearts.

Happy Easter! Lo Lat!

- Milo

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Untruths in My Religion (Part 4)

From the beginning of this exercise that began almost a week ago on Thursday, April 14, when I began reflecting on the practice of sharing “untruths” in their religions by the “Interfaith Amigos,” I invited you to share what you felt were untruths in your religion and said that I would share them in Part 4.

On April 15, I said I believed it untrue that God required Jesus’ death as a sacrifice in order to forgive our sin.

One of you wrote what many could have said,
Your blog about Jesus not having to die for our sins is another 'truth' that I grew up thinking. I thought He was the sacrificial lamb for us, just as in the Old Testament they sacrificed animals. The more I hear the more at sea I am . . .sigh

Jim wrote from another perspective:
God's need for a blood sacrifice creates a fear of God that unless Jesus is in the room to intercede God becomes vicious in holiness and consumes us out of vengeful purity. Jesus literally becomes greater than God… Your blog makes me wonder who is working through new understandings of the cross and salvation?

On April 17, I said the claim that Christianity is the only way to God I believe to be untrue.

One Julia wasn’t so sure it is an untrue claim:
I can certainly see your point, but I have also found validity in the explanation for the TRUTH of this has to do with why the Lord "tarries" so that all WILL have an opportunity to hear of Him, believe in Him and receive Him as Savior.

Charles spoke volumes with one line about his ancestors,
I find it hard to believe early Inupiaq (pre-contact) had no chance of going to be with their maker.
What audacity to believe by accident of birth they couldn’t be with their maker! And yet that is often exactly what they were told. I can only hope they were wise enough not to believe it!

Bill wrote,
You have to admit that holding an exclusive path to salvation is a great recruitment tool. I can identify with Christianity because Jesus, through his ministry, showed me a path towards God. But for this white, western, man to think that this path is the only path is pretty arrogant.

Another Julia wrote in response to both of my untruths:
I have never believed Jesus is the ONLY way to God, just one of many paths up the mountain. That's one way in which I identify as a progressive Christian. But Jesus is MY way to God, as Jesus "saved" me, not by being the sacrificial lamb that gets me into heaven, whatever that is, but because he taught me the true nature of God, who gives me a new chance every day to forgive myself for my sins, and thus begin again to try to be the best person I can be. Jesus saves me from myself, from my self-condemnation, and frees me to start each day a new sin-free person, thus I can enjoy heaven right here on earth.
I think it's so important to let people know that... there are MANY Christians out here that believe in the message of Jesus, but not in all the mythology that humans have added to his story. I have been tempted many times to leave my faith because of Christian atrocities, such as bigotry, righteousness, intolerance of God's beautiful diversity, but have always come back to Jesus, and have decided to work from within the church to make change and to invite people to think and experience for themselves what truths their own hearts can embrace.

Sandra said
it can't be because I think God allows EVERYONE into heaven, because not everyone had the chance to know Him on earth.

Dan, who ignited this exercise, wrote:
We must take the exclusivity claims and triumphalist claims OUT OF CHRISTIANITY's doctrines, if those doctrines and faith are to mirror the essence of the real Jesus…
Thanks to all of you who took time to participate!

For those observing Passover, I wish for you a renewal of the sacred memory of a God who cared about a slave people and freed them, and who still cares about suffering people whoever and wherever they are.

For all observing Lent, I wish for you a re-discovery of Jesus, perhaps for the first time, as one who died because of his identification with politically oppressed and religiously disenfranchised people, not because of some cosmic chess game God was playing.

And for those not at home in either Judaism or Christianity, I wish for you new friends in both traditions.

- Milo

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Untruths in My Religion (Part 3)

On April 14, inspired by an article I read about the “Interfaith Amigos,” I began what I hoped would be a conversation in which participants would share the “untruths” of their religion. It is only natural that we would rather talk about untruths in religions other than ours, but three clerics in Seattle – a Muslim, a Jew, and a Christian – found that by having the courage to confess what they believed to be untruths in their own religions helped them in their dialogue and in becoming friends.

On April 16, I offered this: “The claim that God required Jesus’ death as a sacrifice in order to forgive our sin, I believe to be untrue.”

Today, I offer this: The claim that Christianity is the only way to God, I believe to be untrue.

The claim echoes through much of what Christians call the New Testament. John 3:16 is perhaps the best known:

“For God so loved that world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” And if there remained any question about what the author meant, the next verse was even more explicit: “…those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only son of God.”
The next best known perhaps are the words of the apostle Peter to the Jerusalem Council in Acts 4:12:
 “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.”
I don’t know why it was so important to make exclusive claims about believing in Jesus being the only way to God. Other religions, especially monotheistic ones, have made claims about their being the only way. Maybe they too think that the validity of faith would somehow be diminished if they admitted theirs might not be the only way.

It matters to me that I find no serious evidence of Jesus making such a claim for himself. I have never considered the claim in the John 14:6 – “No one comes to the Father except through me.” - to be anything other than the author’s belief. And when I look at the consequences of such claims, I can only shudder.

In the fourth century when Christianity was made the religion of the empire, and in the process, irrevocably separated from Judaism, claims of exclusive access to God are married to claims of absolute political power, creating the ideological rationale for the persecution of Jews and every other non-Christian religion, the Crusades, the Inquisition, and a unique blend of politics and religion that came to be called “Western Imperialism.”

Down through the centuries, there were always Christians who did not embrace the exclusive claims of the institutional church. D.T. Niles of Ceylon, and to my mind one of the great Christians of the twentieth century, was fond of saying that our witness to Christ is not in presuming to speak for God; rather, we are like “one beggar telling another where we have found food.” If we are honest that’s all any of us who believe can say. This is not the same thing as saying that “all roads lead to God.” We’ve no more knowledge to make that claim than that our way is the only way.

In one of the best (and most readable) books on Jesus I have ever read, “Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus,” Thomas Cahill concludes with this plea:
“At the turn of the new millennium, it may be time for everyone to reassess Jesus. I hope that the progress of Jewish-Christian reconciliation will soon have progressed far enough that Jews may reexamine their automatic (and completely understandable) fear of all things Christian and acknowledge Jesus as one of their own, not as the Messiah, but as a brother who called God Abba. For Christians, it may be time to acknowledge that we have misunderstood Jesus in virtually every way that matters. [bold mine.] As Raymond Brown was fond of remarking, if Jesus were to return to earth, the first thing we would do is crucify him again."
This paragraph may be worth remembering if you gather with others on Good Friday and sing the old spiritual, “Were you there when they crucified my lord?” especially the words “sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.”

- Milo

Friday, April 15, 2011

Untruths in My Religion (Part 2)

In yesterday’s blog, I asked, “What Are the Untruths in Your Religion? Part 1” I reported on three clergymen of Muslim, Jewish, and Christian faiths who have become known as the “Interfaith Amigos.” They, with their families, have become genuine friends because of their frank and honest confronting not only the differences between their faiths but also “untruths” in their own faiths.

In this holy season for Jews and Christians, their example spurred me to speak directly of what I believe to be “untruths” in my faith, Christianity. I invited readers, of whatever religious or non-religious persuasion, to join the conversation.

You may participate in two ways (I hope you will participate in both!): one, you may enter a “Comment” responding to whatever I said in that day’s blog. Your comment won’t show up until I okay it, but don’t worry, I will approve it.

The second way I hope you will participate is by sending me what you believe to be an “untruth” in your religion. If you are not religious, send me an “untruth” in non-religion. I will take your statements and include them (as you wrote them) in Part 4 which I hope to put together early next week. Please don’t wait until after you’ve seen Part 3, which will be my second “untruth” in the Christian faith, but send them as soon as you can. You can send your message to me by email at Please indicate whether or not I should use your name. If not your real name, give me a pen name.

In one or both ways, please join the conversation. Now, let’s get to today’s untruth.

The claim that God required Jesus’ death as a sacrifice in order to forgive our sin I believe to be untrue.

In nothing do the four Gospels -- Matthew, Mark, Luke and John -- succeed in more than their depictions of Jesus' sufferings -- their careful, step-by-step recountings of his arrest, interrogations, torture, humiliation before hostile crowds, condemnation, the public parade in which he was forced to carry a splintery instrument of his own execution. If this is what is meant by the familiar words from John 3:16 -- "For God so loved the world that he gave his only son…" -- then God chose for this son a time and place to be born in which one might die by the most painful means that human beings ever devised.

Of course, there were those in the decades after the crucifixion of Jesus who hadn’t been actually present who, when they contemplated the horror of Jesus' suffering, concluded that Jesus was not really human and so didn't really suffer. I feel confident that none of those who had actually been there would have harbored such illusions.

Even then those early Christians tried to comprehend the meaning of the suffering. Down through the centuries, Christians tried to give meaning to Jesus’ death with theories claiming that his death was a sacrifice whereby God was enabled to forgive our sins. There were many different theories of atonement, as they are called. No one of them was ever made THE doctrine in Christianity; but at the core of most Christian traditions is the notion that Jesus’ death on the cross makes possible God’s forgiveness.

How does that work? Some said Jesus' suffering and death was the result of a deal God made with the devil -- the death of God's beloved son in exchange for forgiving the sins of human kind. Others said that Jesus' suffering and death was the requirement of a God of justice in order to be able to forgive our sins. There are other theories, but they are improvisations on the same theme.

For me, those images are of a God that I don't know. They depict the image of a God who requires some kind of blood sacrifice, a practice that many of the Hebrew prophets had rejected long before Jesus' time. I believe they also depict a God that Jesus did not know. Jesus knew a God he called "Abba," a familiar term for "Father" that in our time might be more accurately translated "Daddy."

This untruth about Christianity has had enormous negative consequences in our history. First, besides making a monster out of God, it takes away responsibility from humans.

The Hebrew prophets before Jesus understood the negative consequences of a sacrificial system and could hardly have been clearer in their rejection of it. As Amos spoke for God eight centuries before Christ,
“I hate, I despise your festivals…Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them…But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” (Amos 5:21-24.)
Hosea also said it plainly: “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.”(Hosea 6:6; see also Micah 6:6-8; Jeremiah 7:21-23; et al)

Were those prophets wrong about sacrifice, or did God change God’s mind in the case of Jesus?

The second great negative consequence of viewing Jesus death as a sacrifice is that it obscured the obvious fact that Jesus was executed by the Romans on the charge of insurrection.

At the end of the first century when the books of the New Testament were being written, Christianity was under attack by the Roman government throughout much of the empire. Christians were under suspicion because Jesus had been executed for insurrection and thus their loyalties to the empire were questionable. Because of the threat of persecution, it was better not to acknowledge the real reason for Jesus’ death; and so his death was explained as “a mistake” and called a “sacrifice” that reunited humans with God, completely exonerating the Romans. Given the situation, the response of the early Christians may be understandable, but it didn’t resolve the question of who killed Jesus.

The Jewish leaders in Jerusalem became the scapegoats. Remember, Jesus and the early Christians were all Jews. They were, as it were, “Jesus Jews,” but until the fourth century, most Christians considered themselves Jews, however much they disagreed on Jesus with other Jews. What the Christian Jews did was to hand the Romans and their descendants justification for persecuting Jews. And that consequence is almost incalculable.

If Jesus’ death was not a pawn in some kind of cosmic chess game played by God to be able to forgive our sins, then why did he die? My answer to that question is beyond the scope of this blog series, but I believe the real reasons he died make sense and have relevance for us today.

What do you think: did God sacrifice Jesus in order to be able to forgive us our sins? Or, is it one of Christianity’s “untruths”?

- Milo

Thursday, April 14, 2011

What Are the Untruths in Your Religion? Part 1

You might not think the timing of this question is good. Even though Muslims have no major holy days until August, persons of Jewish faith will begin Passover observance at sundown on Monday, April 18, and many Christians will observe their highest holy day on April 24. Maybe we should wait for “a more convenient season” to ask such hard questions. Or maybe, when the devout are focused on their rich traditions, when the less devout who don’t attend services any other time swell the congregations in this season, and when even the secular press seems to give a pass to religious traditions, just maybe it is the right time to ask some hard questions about religious faiths.

Interfaith dialogue wasn’t convenient after 9/11 but some thought it essential. In Seattle, a Jewish rabbi reached out to a Sufi Muslim, and together they reached out to a Christian minister. After the November 5, 2009 mass shooting at Fort Hood, Laurie Goodstein told the story of “Three Clergymen, Three Faiths, One Friendship.”
They call themselves the “interfaith amigos.” And while they do sometimes seem more like a stand-up comedy team than a trio of clergymen, they know they have a serious burden in making a case for interfaith understanding in a country reeling after a Muslim Army officer at Fort Hood, Tex., was charged with opening fire on his fellow soldiers, killing 13.
“It arouses once again fear, distrust and doubt,” Sheik Rahman said, “and I know that when that happens, even the best of people cannot think clearly.”
They say they became close by honestly facing their conflicts, not by avoiding them.
They put everything on the table: the verses they found offensive in one another’s holy books, anti-Semitism, violence in the name of religion, claims by each faith to have the exclusive hold on truth, and, of course, Israel.

“One of the problems in the past with interfaith dialogue is we’ve been too unwilling to upset each other,” Rabbi Falcon told the crowd at the Second Presbyterian Church here. “We try to honor the truth. This is the truth for you, and this is the truth for me. It may not be reconcilable, but it is important to refuse to make the other the enemy.”
Goldstein reported that interfaith dialogues were occurring in many ways and many places all over the country. There had been interfaith dialogues for years, but after 9/11 many groups felt it urgent to include Muslims, and Muslims were eager because they didn’t want their faith defined by terrorism. Now there are interfaith Thanksgiving, interfaith college clubs, interfaith women’s groups, and interfaith teams building affordable housing. And for these efforts, I am grateful.
The “amigos” have gone beyond most of the interfaith dialogues with which I am familiar. They make presentations around the country with what they call “the spirituality of interfaith relations.” Goldstein attended one of their presentations:
At the church in Nashville, the three clergymen, dressed in dark blazers, stood up one by one and declared what they most valued as the core teachings of their tradition The minister said “unconditional love.” The sheik said “compassion.” And the rabbi said “oneness.”
But then, Goldstein said, the room then grew quiet as each one stood and said what he regarded as the “untruths” in his own faith.
The minister said that one “untruth” for him was that “Christianity is the only way to God.” The rabbi said for him it was the notion of Jews as “the chosen people.” And the sheik said for him it was the “sword verses” in the Koran, like “kill the unbeliever.”
That’s what really got my attention. Can an adherent of one faith admit that there are “untruths” about that faith? We are usually quick to cite “untruths” in the faiths of others, but in our own…?

In the audience that day in Nashville was Mark Wingate, a computer programmer, who said,
“Talking about the untruths of each tradition is very courageous. It gets it out of the platitude category and into dialogue.”

Mr. Wingate’s wife, Sally, added: “They had to work really hard to get to that point. Most of us are not willing to work that hard.”
Dialogue on the untruths of each tradition is not only needed at an interfaith level, but also within faiths.

I propose that we have a little intra-faith and interfaith dialogue right here; and that we share what we think are untruths in our own faiths. I have two that I want to share, and I plan to do so in parts 2 and 3 of this series over the next couple of days. Part 4 will be made up of your responses about untruths in your faith. If we need more parts to accommodate the responses, we add them.

I hope to hear from you.
- Milo

Friday, April 8, 2011

Picking the Pockets of the Poor

As I await word about whether leaders can cut a deal to prevent a government shut down in another hour, and as I contemplate the battle looming behind it about how to reduce the federal deficit, I want to scream. Even if they cut a deal to keep the government running this evening, what comes to my mind are words of a verse from Woodie Guthrie's song, "Pretty Boy Floyd," that dates back to the Great Depression."
As through this world I've wandered,
I've seen lots of funny men;
Some will rob you with a six gun;
Others with a fountain pen.
Instead of ranting, I want to share the words of Jim Winkler, General Secretary, General Board of Church & Society of the United Methodist Church. Those of you who know me, know I am sometimes in sharp disagreement with the Church. But in this article, I think Winkler accurately describes (factually and theologically) how what is happening now is nothing less than "Picking the Pockets of the Poor" and calls the Church to get on the right side.

Between1947 and 1979 the income of the poorest 20% of people in the United States grew by 116%. The lowest income growth during those 32 years took place among the richest 5%. Their income grew by 86%. In other words, the poor gained a little on the rich.

Just 400 people have as much wealth as half of the population.

This changed dramatically from 1979-2008. During those 30 years, the poor saw their income shrink by 4% while the rich gained 73%, far more than the rest of the population.

The richest 1% in the United States owns 33.8% of the wealth. Just 400 people have as much wealth as half of the population.

The Central Intelligence Agency points out that income distribution in the United States is more unequal than it is in Guyana, Nicaragua and Venezuela. I find this interesting. When I was in college the maldistribution of wealth in Latin America was frequently cited as an example of the failure of that part of the world.

What has happened?

So, what has happened? Have the poor simply become lazy and stopped working? Of course not. It’s rare any longer to run into a couple in which one spouse stays at home. People work more and longer hours than before for less money. The rich are hoarding the wealth and income. God frowns on this. 

Interestingly, to question the growing gap between the rich and the poor is often denounced as an attempt to provoke class warfare. I suppose if I were rich and didn’t want people to raise questions I might try to shut them up by suggesting they were simply envious. After all, who wants to have questions of justice raised?

The minimum wage has been largely stagnant over the past several decades. A superstar pay structure has emerged in the business world. A sense of entitlement exists among the rich. Those who have not succeeded financially are scorned.

I’ve never understood how Christians could prefer the rich over the poor, but many do. You don’t have to read very far into the Bible to learn that God sides with the poor and the oppressed. By the third chapter of Exodus, God is telling Moses: “The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”

As an African history major in college, I studied the struggles for freedom from the colonial rulers throughout the continent. My heroes included African liberation leaders such as Nelson Mandela, Samora Machel, Patrice Lumumba, Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere. Many African leaders were training in Methodist mission schools! We did a better job of teaching freedom and justice in Africa than we did in the United States.

The budget deficit

On Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., where the United Methodist Building is located, the news is all about the fight over the government’s budget and the huge deficit connected to it. No one is talking about having the rich carry their share of the burden or reducing the vast sums of money spent on war, weapons and spies.

Instead, a new plan has been unveiled by House Finance Chair Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). His plan is to cut health care and food for the poor, as well as education, job training, low-income housing, and Social Security, to name but a few of the punishments designed for those on the bottom. The rich would get more tax cuts. Rep. Ryan would further skew the distribution of wealth and power in favor of the rich.

God sides with the poor, not because they are more virtuous than the rich, but because that is God’s way of healing the pain in the human family. If your preacher is not talking about what is happening in the world around us, it is either because that preacher sides with the rich or is too scared to exercise his or her prophetic responsibility. It’s time for the community of faith to be heard.
Date: 4/6/2011


Friday, April 1, 2011

Chanticleer, the Fox, and House Budget Bill 1

In his “Writer’s Almanac” for today, Garrison Keillor reports on possible origins of April Fool’s Day. He said that the earliest recorded association between April 1st and foolishness is in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. He points out that this may be a misinterpretation rather than Chaucer’s intention, but in any case the story of Chanticleer, a vain rooster being tricked by a fox in “The Nuns’ Priest’s Tale” is believed by many to be the way the date became associated with harmless trickery.

Some of the trickery going on today is not harmless. I was reminded of the foolishness going on in the U.S. House of Representatives by none less than Mark Bittman, the New York Times food columnist. He’s been urging Americans to change the way we eat for decades and published Food Matters which explored the crucial connections among food, health and the environment.

Bittman has been fasting in protest for what I think he rightly sees as an attack on the poor in House Budget Bill 1:
“The budget proposes cuts in the WIC program (which supports women, infants and children), in international food and health aid (18 million people would be immediately cut off from a much-needed food stream, and 4 million would lose access to malaria medicine) and in programs that aid farmers in underdeveloped countries. Food stamps are also being attacked, in the twisted “Welfare Reform 2011” bill. (There are other egregious maneuvers in H.R. 1, but I’m sticking to those related to food.)

These supposedly deficit-reducing cuts — they’d barely make a dent — will quite literally cause more people to starve to death, go to bed hungry or live more miserably than are doing so now. And: The bill would increase defense spending.”
Supporters of these cuts say that everybody has to bear the burden of reducing the deficit. What Beckmann, on his fast, sees is quite different. He sees trickery and outrage on a grand scale:
“In 2010, corporate profits grew at their fastest rate since 1950, and we set records in the number of Americans on food stamps. The richest 400 Americans have more wealth than half of all American households combined, the effective tax rate on the nation’s richest people has fallen by about half in the last 20 years, and General Electric paid zero dollars in U.S. taxes on profits of more than $14 billion. Meanwhile, roughly 45 million Americans spend a third of their post tax income on food — and still run out monthly — and one in four kids goes to bed hungry at least some of the time.”
Perhaps his mental faculties sharpened by the not eating, food columnist Beckmann concludes,
“This is a moral issue; the budget is a moral document. We can take care of the deficit and rebuild our infrastructure and strengthen our safety net by reducing military spending and eliminating corporate subsidies and tax loopholes for the rich. Or we can sink further into debt and amoral individualism by demonizing and starving the poor. Which side are you on?”
Good question for this April Fool’s Day! Many of us are like the vain and unwary Chanticleer. The question is, will we wake up before the trickery does more damage?

If you are angry enough about what amounts to war on the poor, you can let your Representative know what you think. (Click here to locate your Representative. Look in the top left corner.) Let them know that when they come up for re-election in 2012, you will remember how they voted.

- Milo