Monthly Archives: September 2009

Another Chance to Get It Right

I’m ashamed to say it, but the last time this happened I was not marching in peace rallies or launching off letters of outrage to editors and Congressmen. I was glued like most Americans to the TV screen watching my country perpetrate “shock and awe” against a people who had done us little wrong, while the media cheered and waved the flag in the corner of the screen. Hurray for the U.S.A.!

Well, it’s happening again. Both the President and the American media are ratcheting up the rhetoric and locking and loading over Iran’s recent missile tests. A threat to peace, we’re told, these enemies of mankind. Actually, Iran was merely doing what any self-respecting nation would do when it is threatened with attack: making a show of force, demonstrating that it can protect itself if provoked. Some nerve.

Don’t get me wrong. I am no fan of the repressive Iranian regime. I believe the Holocaust really happened. And I believe Israel has a right to exist. But if I had to choose which country was the greatest threat to peace in the region and the world, it would not be Iran. They haven’t invaded and occupied two neighboring countries. (We did. Ooops.) They haven’t bombed their neighbors killing thousands of women and children. (We did. So did Israel.) They are a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, with which they are currently in compliance. (Israel is not.) They are also within their rights under international law to pursue peaceful nuclear energy.

Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric against Israel is crazy. But that’s all it is, rhetoric. So far there is no firm evidence that Iran is preparing a nuclear missile system, so say the experts who have spent their lives studying the Middle East. So what’s the big deal? Hmmm. Where have we seen this before?

Let’s play devil’s advocate and pretend they are planning such a system. Why would they launch nuclear weapons at Israel, which has such a stockpile they could easily wipe Iran off the face of the earth? Talk about suicide bombers. And what if Iran did become a nuclear power? Having a little balance of power in the region would be good for peace. It might make bullies like the U.S. and its ally Israel think twice before launching another war. Think of it. It might actually save American lives and save the taxpayers billions.

It’s easier to understand how quickly we could forget Vietnam after 40 years. That’s a whole generation after all. But forgetting all that happened leading up to Iraq, all the lies and propaganda, after only a couple of years? That’s not forgetfulness; that’s Alzheimers. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

Okay, church, now is our chance to get it right this time. To speak out with one voice and to pray, pray, pray that cooler heads will prevail in this conflict. A chance to show ourselves to be worthy of the name, servants of the Prince of peace. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Mt.5:9).

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Old Whine in New Whine-skins

I don’t know about you but I feel exasperated by the whining of the religious right in this country. Over the past decade I must have received thousands of forwarded emails complaining that this nation is going to the dogs spiritually speaking, that the government is planning to take away our religious liberty, that a conspiracy is afoot to turn America from its Judeo-Christian roots. Let me offer a few corrections.

The United States of America has never been what some call a strictly “Christian nation,” let alone a theocracy. It has always been a secular state. (Truly Christian nations do not enslave people, nor do they practice ethnic cleansing. They do not steal land that belongs to others nor oppress their neighbors. They do not go to war at the drop of a hat nor show little to no concern for the poor among them.)

In 1797 during Washington’s second administration, the U.S. made a treaty with the Muslim-ruled Barbary state of Tripoli in North Africa, assuring them “the government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.” The Declaration of Independence does mention “the Creator” or “Divine Providence,” but such language is rooted in Deism, not orthodox Christianity. The Constitution begins “We the People…” but does not go on to mention God at all, and its various references to religion are “exclusionary,” that is, they merely limit what the government can do in respect to religion (such as the First Amendment).

Perhaps what people mean by “Christian nation” is that Christianity, more so than any other religion, has had and continues to have a profound impact and influence on this nation. This is undeniably true, and I thank God for it. Many things that today we take for granted have had their roots in the Christian faith and experience: the abolition of slavery, civil rights, child labor laws, women’s suffrage, Social Security. Even some aspects of our form of government and Constitution can be traced back to Reformed Christian theology and polity.

Perhaps also people are mourning the loss of a simpler and more homogeneous time even not so long ago when Protestants still formed an overwhelming majority. Since 2006, however, Protestants have actually slipped to minority status (below 50% of the population). This gradual decline is the result of the great influx of immigrants from Catholic countries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as well as more recent immigration from Asia and the Middle East– not to mention the increasing number of the population that identifies itself as agnostic, atheistic, non-theist, or unaffiliated with any religion. In short, the U.S.A. now comprises the world’s most religiously diverse population.

It is natural for Christians to look back to the early history of this nation, when one could almost assume one’s neighbors were Protestant church-goers. But America, which the world often sees as a “beacon of liberty” and a “haven for religious and ethnic freedom” in a world increasingly torn by religious and ethic strife, has become the victim of her own success. With increasing diversity comes an increasing need for tolerance on all levels. If Christians want to see their rights and religious freedoms protected, they will have to start respecting and protecting those of others. It’s part of the package. Removing Christian language and symbols from public places may make us sad and wistful, but it is part of the cost of being a nation that respects religious freedom and diversity. Some countries outlaw certain religions; others blend religion and state. Our Founders wisely resisted both tendencies and sought a via media that remains officially neutral toward religion, a principle that favors no one and protects every one.

I often suspect that what motivates some believers to whine is not only a xenophobia but also an assumption that borders on laziness. There seems to be an expectation that it’s the government’s responsibility to make this a Christian nation and restore “religious majority rule” to its “rightful owner.” That would certainly be hard to achieve legally or even justify logically, given the First Amendment, and especially since Protestants no longer comprise the majority. Consider also that the Founders so constructed this nation as to protect minorities from the tyranny of the majority. The original motto on our Great Seal and coinage, chosen by the Continental Congress, was one that celebrates unity in diversity, E Pluribus Unum (“One out of many”– i.e., one nation out of many States).

If Christians want to “take this country back,” then they will have to do it the hard way, Jesus’ way: on their knees, with sacrificial service and loving hearts, and in the power of the Holy Spirit –not by winning elections but by winning souls, not by legislative fiat but by converting and discipling people one by one. The Kingdom of God is inclusive, not exclusive. So instead of moaning about Muslim prayer services being held at the U.S. Capitol, why not do something about it, something biblical, like trying to win Muslims in our community through love and acts of sacrificial kindness, showing them the face of Jesus. Instead of complaining about the growing ranks of non-Christian immigrants in our communities, how about taking a more biblical attitude: “Hot dog! Since we did not go to them, the Lord has brought them to us!”

Instead of kvetching about the exploding secularism of our society, how about cleaning up our own front yards and making them more attractive to passers-by. Looking at the behavior of the religious right in this country over the past 30 years, one can hardly blame its critics for accusing it of being power-hungry and intolerant. If that is the only face of Christianity that they see, who would want to become a Christian? Perhaps the greatest factor in the growth of atheism in America in recent years is the power of the religious right, specifically its aligning itself with a single political party and its influence over government policies that have proven disastrous. Atheism has been on the rise since the 1960s, as has witchcraft, but the recent sudden surge in growth for both (Wicca is now the fastest growing “religion” in the U.S.) can be understood as a reaction to 30 years of the fundamentalist religious right’s attempt to dominate and exclude and its rigid inability to accept diversity.

The words of the apostle Paul seem particularly apt here: “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who being in very nature God did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death– even death on a cross.” (Phil. 2:5-8)


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Michael Moore on Jesus and Capitalism

This week Capitalism: a Love Story, a new documentary by Academy-Award-winning filmmaker Michael Moore, debuted in New York. Moore has frequently been demonized by the religious right for being a socialist, pinko, atheist, and anarchist. But in an interview today with Democracy Now‘s Amy Goodman, he talked about his faith (something he has rarely done) and his new film…

AMY GOODMAN: There is a section of your film on religion that is very important, I think will speak to a lot of people, “Christianity and Capitalism,” and the film that you use to illustrate this, Jesus of Nazareth.

MICHAEL MOORE: Well, you know, this is the first I’ve ever really talked about this in any of my films, because I’m kind of loath to talk about religion. I think it’s a private matter, and I’m sick of hearing everybody discuss it or shove it down our throats. I’m not a proselytizer. I was raised Catholic. I am a Catholic. I have a lot of problems with the institution known as the Catholic Church, all the obvious ones that we don’t need to go into right now.

But the lessons that I was taught as a child, I’ve always felt were very good lessons, that we would be judged by how we treat the least among us; that the first shall be last, the last shall be first; that the rich man is going to have a very hard time getting into heaven. And one day, when someone asked Jesus, like, what’s the password to get in through the pearly gates, and JC said, “Well, actually, I’ll give it to you,” and he said, “This is what you’ve got to do. We’re going to ask you a series of questions when you get up there, and these are the questions. When I was hungry, did you feed me? When I was homeless, did you give me shelter? When I was sick, did you provide aid and comfort? When I was in prison, did you come visit me? If you did any of these things for the people who are the least among us, who have the least, then that means you did it for me, and you can now enter. But if you are thinking that you’re going to—if you’re going to live your life making as much money as you can and then using that money for your own purposes, for your own pleasure and enjoyment, and not share it with others, not help others, then, I’m sorry, that’s not going to—that’s not going to work.”

Now, I’m being a little facetious here, because, you know, the whole issue of the afterlife, I think, has always been used by those in power to get us just thinking about the reward that’s some place off in the distant future, like when we’re dead, so for right now just go ahead and, you know, suffer through whatever it is you’re suffering through.

But I believe—I’m just, you know, so tired of hearing this term, this idea that Christianity is somehow—or this is a Christian nation or whatever, and it’s like—well, first of all, there shouldn’t be any kind of a religious nation. But it’s also a lie, too, because what part of what Jesus said relates to what we’re doing now? I mean, I can’t see this guy, if he was here, you know, being part of a hedge fund. I can’t see, you know, Jesus trying to claw his way into the one percent so he can punk on the rest of the people. You know, I just—these people say they believe in him; I wish they actually would, frankly, because we’d be living in a kinder and gentler society.

(Incidentally, when pressed by Goodman as to whether he is a socialist, Moore declined the label. Perhaps his films give the answer: We’re a great country; we can do better.)

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One Solitary Voice

In the days following the deadly attacks of September 11, 2001, Congress, like the rest of America, was in the grip of fear and rage. Both houses voted to pass a bill giving vast war-making powers into the hands of then President George W. Bush. In light of today’s partisan squabbling, the House vote was remarkable: 420 to 1. Here is what that one lone voice said:

“Mr. Speaker, I rise today with a heavy heart, one that is filled with sorrow for the families and loved ones who were killed and injured in New York, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. Only the most foolish or the most callous would not understand the grief that has gripped the American people and millions across the world.

“This unspeakable attack on the United States has forced me to rely on my moral compass, my conscience, and my God for direction. September 11 changed the world. Our deepest fears now haunt us. Yet I am convinced that military action will not prevent further acts of international terrorism against the United States.

“I know that this use-of-force resolution will pass although we all know that the President can wage a war even without this resolution. However difficult this vote may be, some of us must urge the use of restraint. There must be some of us who say, let’s step back for a moment and think through the implications of our actions today — let us more fully understand its consequences.

“We are not dealing with a conventional war. We cannot respond in a conventional manner. I do not want to see this spiral out of control. This crisis involves issues of national security, foreign policy, public safety, intelligence gathering, economics, and murder. Our response must be equally multifaceted.

“We must not rush to judgment. Far too many innocent people have already died. Our country is in mourning. If we rush to launch a counterattack, we run too great a risk that women, children, and other noncombatants will be caught in the crossfire.

“Nor can we let our justified anger over these outrageous acts by vicious murderers inflame prejudice against all Arab Americans, Muslims, Southeast Asians, or any other people because of their race, religion, or ethnicity.

“Finally, we must be careful not to embark on an open-ended war with neither an exit strategy nor a focused target. We cannot repeat past mistakes.

“In 1964, Congress gave President Lyndon Johnson the power to ‘take all necessary measures’ to repel attacks and prevent further aggression. In so doing, this House abandoned its own constitutional responsibilities and launched our country into years of undeclared war in Vietnam.

“At that time, Sen. Wayne Morse, one of two lonely votes against the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, declared, ‘I believe that history will record that we have made a grave mistake in subverting and circumventing the Constitution of the United States … I believe that within the next century, future generations will look with dismay and great disappointment upon a Congress which is now about to make such a historic mistake.’

“Sen. Morse was correct, and I fear we make the same mistake today.

“And I fear the consequences.

“I have agonized over this vote. But I came to grips with it in the very painful yet beautiful memorial service today at the National Cathedral. As a member of the clergy so eloquently said, ‘As we act, let us not become the evil that we deplore.'”

–Rep. Barbara Lee
California 9th Congressional District
September 15, 2001

(Hegel was right. The only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.)

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Die Große Lüge

I realize this probably comes under the heading of “Tell Me What I Don’t Already Know.” But driving to work the other day I heard a radio commercial for Fox News, which touted itself as the “only fair and balanced” news broadcast on the air. I laughed so hard I almost lost control of my vehicle. (I never watch Fox News if I can help it, except once at the dentist while under anesthesia or when waiting to have my tires rotated. So I had never heard their motto.)

In his 1925 autobiography Mein Kampf, Adolph Hitler coined the expression die Große Lüge, or “the big lie,” a propaganda technique that makes use of a lie so “colossal” that no one could ever believe that someone “could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.” The idea quite naturally came to my mind when I heard Fox’s advertisement.

Last week a Fox news associate producer, Heidi Noonan, was identified on camera whipping up a crowd at the “massive” Sept. 12 anti-Obama rally in Washington, an event highly promoted by Fox news anchor Glenn Beck. A spokesperson for the news channel admitted the producer had erred and had been “disciplined.”

Now I would love to have been a fly on the wall when that disciplinary action was taken (I’m sure there is no shortage of flies on the walls at Fox). I wonder, was she taken straight out to lunch or perhaps sent on a two-week sabbatical to Cancun? –you know, just to give her time to think about what she had done.

Next time, Heidi, work behind the camera. Remember, you’re fair and balanced.

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Dear Mr. President

Dear Mr. President:

I have to say that as an American and a Christian pastor I am deeply disappointed in your administration’s decisions to continue so many of the notorious Bush era policies. The latest of these are the shocking policy of “preventive detention” and the DOJ’s attempt to circumvent the Supreme Court’s decision in Boumediene v. Bush, basically shifting all that was evil in Guantanamo to Bagram.

In regard to preventive detention, you said last May that you would “work with Congress” to make sure this was done “legally.” But we know from the experience of the last eight years that the Courts, not Congress nor legal memos, are the final arbiters of what is constitutional. In regard to Guantanamo, transferring detainees and the whole system to another site thousands of miles away is hardly “closing Guantanamo” and all it represents.

I used to be a proud American. I used to think my country was different, that though attacked, we would rise above the level of those who attacked us because of our commitment to liberty, the Constitution, and the rule of law. Instead, we have sunk lower, much lower than our enemies, as they hoped we would, and so we have justly earned their hatred. For these are the policies of the very dictatorships we have condemned in the past, not of a republic that values justice and fairness. I shudder to think what our Founders would say, they who were so committed to rising above the tactics of their enemy, even when the odds were so viciously stacked against them. I ask you to consider them and the example they set, even in the direst of circumstances.

Only a year ago you spoke of “rejecting a false choice between fighting terrorism and respecting habeas corpus.” I plead with you, please remember this promise.

Like so many of my fellow Americans, I had hope in your campaign commitment to “change.” But I confess, the only change I see so far is the name plate on the Oval Office door. I hope the years ahead will prove me wrong.

Respectfully yours,

Rev. S.J. Munson
Long Island, NY


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Our Tax Dollars at Work

On Friday Israeli soldiers fired tear gas at a female correspondent reporting for Arab news network Al-Jazeera on a peaceful demonstration of Palestinians in the town of Bilin. This is how Israel spends some of the 4 billion we send them annually. You have to see this to believe it. What’s next? Old grannies in babushkas?

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What Kind of Country Have We Become?

As always political analyst and journalist (one of very few left in this country) Glenn Greenwald hits the nail on the head in his Thursday Sept. 3 blog post “The looming political war over Afghanistan.” Here is an excerpt:

“A country that turns itself into a war-fighting state, a militarized empire, is choosing what kind of country it wants to be. And as long as that continues, everything else — wild expansions of executive power, the explicit rejection of the rule of law for elites, a continuous erosion of civil liberties, ever-expanding secrecy justifications, supreme empowerment of a permanent national security class whose power transcends elections — are all necessary and inevitable by-products. As Thomas Jefferson observed in an 1810 letter to Ceasar Rodney: “In times of peace the people look most to their representatives; but in war, to the executive solely.” Jefferson was assuming “war” was a temporary state of affairs; where, as with us now, it’s the permanent reality, the effect is far greater. As long as a President is waging wars and trying to control the world through military force, he desperately needs the CIA, the military, the entire National Security State apparatus, and thus cannot “change” policies of secrecy, civil liberties, privacy and the like — even if he wanted to.

“That’s why being in a state of endless war doesn’t merely raise discrete questions of this policy or that; it changes the character of the nation. Whether to continue our massive National Security State and general imperial behavior (unsustainable in any event) is at least as important a question in the debate over Afghanistan as specific questions raised by the war itself….

“‘Of all the enemies of true liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few…. No nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.'” — James Madison, Political Observations, 1795:

“We have “continual warfare”; Madison couldn’t have been clearer about the inevitable outcome of that.”


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There’s Enough Guilt to Go Around

There is an ancient teaching in rabbinical Judaism that if one knows a crime has been committed and does not speak out, one shares in the guilt of the perpetrator. This principle is one that runs like a thread through the law of Moses. In the New Testament the apostle Paul admonishes us, “Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness; but rather expose them” (Eph 4:11). The context here is that to cover up such deeds would be to share in their wickedness.

Are ordinary Americans responsible for the crimes committed in their name by their government? Yes, we are– and especially, egregiously so if we know about them and say nothing, or if we can do something and choose to do nothing.

What are these crimes? Crimes against humanity: the appalling abuses of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, the unlawful detention and torture of individuals without evidence or trial, the murder of civilians (through drone and other “targeted attacks”), the butchery of two mismanaged wars, our support for brutal dictators and corrupt regimes worldwide (such as in the Middle East and especially our own hemisphere), our unqualified support for an oppressive Israeli regime and its treatment of Palestinians (just ask the widows and orphans of Gaza). And to this day as a nation we continue to profit from the sins of our fathers and mothers in their treatment of African and Native Americans.

Then there are the crimes of greed and corruption which are just now rather rife: the conspiracy of deregulation of the financial markets (thanks to Congress, the Treasury, the Fed, and the White House) that led to the current economic disaster, through which millions of Americans lost homes and jobs. The deliberate targeting of African-American communities in the sub-prime mortgage cabal. Grossly out-of-balance executive salaries and bonuses, the extravagant lifestyles of the super-rich.

If we support these crimes with our silence or our continued support of those who commit them (either through our votes or our apathy), then we share in their sin, and sharing in their sin means we will also share in their judgment. Jesus said “Whoever receives a righteous man because he is a righteous man will receive a righteous man’s reward” (Mt 10:41). Since God is just, the opposite must also be true.

For decades conservative Evangelicals in this country have campaigned to make America a righteous nation. Well, here is their chance. It’s time to get to work. Will the Lord God bless a people that has successfully banned abortions yet allows greed to run rampant? Will he bless a nation that has outlawed same-sex marriage yet permits the poor to be trampled by the rich? Will he bless a nation whose security and prosperity rests on the brutal oppression of its neighbors? The church in America has largely been silent on these issues; our prophets and leaders are like Isaiah’s “dogs that cannot bark” (Isa 56:10).

Even Thomas Jefferson, himself a slave-owner, saw the tragic irony in a nation that celebrated liberty, but only for whites. “Indeed,” he wrote, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever.” His words were prophetic, for within a generation of his death, the cup of God’s wrath began to be poured out– and on the North as well as the South, since Northerners shared in the profits and benefits of the slave trade. “Silence implies consent” is a maxim of the law.

“And with many other words [Peter] warned them, and he pleaded with them, ‘Save yourselves from this corrupt generation'” (Acts 2:40). The apostle Peter was urgent in his message not only because he thought turning to Christ was a good idea; he knew that judgment was coming. And indeed it did come before that generation had died out, fulfilling everything Jesus had prophesied for the nation.

I do not claim to be a prophet. But it does not take a rocket scientist to know that “God is just and his justice cannot sleep forever.” And what of the church? Will we be spared? “You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus told his disciples. That means the people of God are meant to have a salutary and preservative effect on the society around them. But “…when salt loses its saltiness… it is good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot” (Mt 5:13). Perhaps we may be spared if we separate ourselves from these sins and become part of the solution, instead of the problem.

So what should one do? 1. Repent before the Lord for the sins of this nation (Daniel and Nehemiah did just that). 2. Intercede, asking the Lord to bring repentance and cleansing to America. 3. Begin speaking out by writing your elected officials, helping create awareness among those around you, teaching your children, getting involved in trying to right some of these wrongs.

Yes, people may think you’ve gone “political” on them, but these are not just political issues; they are moral ones. Remember, we are Christians first, Americans second. “Our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil 3:20). Indeed, some use this passage to claim that we should not get involved in earthly matters, but that is not Paul’s intention. The context there is that believers should not live as the world lives, but we should live with an eternal mindset, working out our salvation as “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation” (Phil 2:15).

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