Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Reader Question: Why all the Politics?

I don't understand why you keep pushing your political views as a pastor. Whatever happened to the separation of church and state?


This question is a combination of questions I have received lately, both in person and on-line. I'd like to make clear from the outset that I would like nothing better than to take a break from the politics. I was hoping to be done when the election came, and did manage to get a bit of a break as Trump secluded himself from the Press (though not Twitter) in the months that followed.

But in the bare handful of days since he took office, Trump has demanded my attention by being more diametrically opposed to the message of scripture than any President in history, and I do not say that lightly.

People are used to religion in politics being primarily issue driven. The most common example is abortion: churches in general have taken such a loud and heated voice on the issue that in many people's minds a candidates take on the issue determines whether or not they are a Christian candidate. I abhor that kind of thinking, not least because I am personally pro-choice.

If I had been a pastor during GWB's Presidency (alas, I was a mere college student/seminary student/intern during those years) things would have been different. I wouldn't have liked a lot of what he was doing, but it wouldn't have been a matter of everyday concern for me, certainly not the sort of thing I would have gone to war over every day. I disagreed with W on a lot of points, but for the most part they were ideological differences, not the sort of thing I would take to my pulpit because part of being a Presbyterian Pastor is a very strong awareness of our own sinful natures... I am not God, and just because I believe a thing doesn't make it true.

Which is why opposition to Donald Trump and his message of alternative truth, ie, just because he believes a thing means it IS true, is so important, the sort of thing I cannot stand down from, especially when people's lives are threatened by those actions.

Trump is not the first politician to lie, but I have never heard an administration so eager, when caught in a lie, to simply claim that all who disagree with them are the real liars, or to claim a concept such as alternative truth. But he claims the sun shone when it was clearly raining, that millions attended when the Mall was clearly empty, that Mexico will pay for a wall while proposing a tax that will be paid by Americans, and it becomes shockingly clear that truth has no place in the man's mind.

Trump is not the first politician to have a beef with refugees, but his thinly veiled Muslim ban (please don't argue with me on this one. The Ban on refugees affects Majority Muslim countries with the exception of their religious minorities, making it a ban on Muslim refugees.) is built on a claim of threat where the threat is wildly overblown, a boogey man to drive fear. A Christian is called to reject that fear, especially in the service of others.

Trump is not the first politician to have personal failings and skeletons in his closet, but he is the first where those failings are held up as virtues. His dishonest business practices are touted as "savvy," his tax dodging is touted as "smart," his treatment of women touted as "good ol' boy." And as his apparent hatred of Muslims inspires attack after attack of our Muslim population, as a Preacher my role becomes clear.

If Donald Trump ever does a thing that I think is in line with the values I am called to preach, I promise I will give him credit for it. But I have been paying very, very close attention and it hasn't happened yet.

As for separation of Church and State, the law requires that the State not give preference to any religion in it's law making. It doesn't say a darn thing about Pastor's speaking against the State so long as we do not try to make our churches arms of a political party. And I'm not. My opposition to Trump isn't about me being a Liberal or a Democrat, but about opposing behavior and policy so antithetical to everything I believe in.

In the meantime, as a Pastor, I will continue to advocate for minorities, for refugees, for the sick, for the wounded, for the prisoners, and for the downtrodden, as Christ commanded us to do. I will give that message to my people, to my family, and to anyone who will listen.

I get that people weary of the politics. As I said, I am, too. But the dangers posed by the Trump Presidency to the very concept of decency in the United States are clear. And I was hired to preach truth. If you don't want me to preach truth to the best of my ability, then you don't want me as your pastor.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Don't Assume That You're The Hero

Folks who follow me in my various social media endeavors might have noticed that I never quoted Martin Luther King yesterday, nor did I share any memes that did so. There is a very simple reason for that... I don't think he's mine to quote.

I like to believe that, if I had been living and working when he was, that I'd have been an ally for him. But I can't be sure. I am accurately described as a moderate white protestant minister, a demographic frequently condemned by King as far too passive, hand wringing "allies" who were ultimately more hindrance than help to his cause.

It's nice to assume that if we were there when this stuff went down, we'd have been on the right side of history. But we are who we are because of where we stand in history, and looking at my own family in that point in time, I simply cannot assume that I would have seen the need to push for Civil Rights now, even if it came at the expense of public peace. I might have been an idle fretter, wringing my hands and urging people to just "get along."

I'll never know.

It's similar to the sentiment I get in Churches around Easter time, when everyone wants to cast themselves in the role of the allies who were horrified at Christ's death. It's nice to believe, but in the end, it seems far more likely that we'd have been among the ones shouting for him to be crucified.

There is far too much eagerness among white people in general to claim King as Their Hero. In the heated political climate of today, the spirit of King becomes co-opted as a patron saint of "the good Black Protester," with those perpetuating that image unaware of how the very thought is completely and totally racist.

Doctor Martin Luther King was a powerful figure precisely because he wasn't sweet and quiet. He was powerful, provocative, and impossible to ignore. If he were to suddenly be brought to today, if we got to meet, I'd hope he'd see who I am and how I work and consider me a victory of his movement.

If he is my hero, it is not in how he fought for Civil Rights, but rather in how he grabbed comfortable white moderates by the throat and DEMANDED that we stand for Justice, or stop calling ourselves his allies, a kick in the pants that I hope I am a small testimony to, even if the state of rhetoric from ministers today means he didn't entirely overcome old prejudices.

When it comes to Civil Rights, when it comes to how we protest and how minorities make their voices known, he does not belong to me, or any other white person, no matter what side of his battle lines we feel that we stand on. Because it is EASY to assume we'd stand with him.

But if we use him as a reason why others shouldn't stand, or as a metric to show that their standing is wrong, or even worse, to claim that there is no longer a need for people to stand at all... then we are, unequivocally, standing against him. And while that is our right, basic decency would demand that we not quote him as an ally while we do so.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Reader Question- So What Do We Do Now?

I have had a small army of people ask that question, in one form or another, ever since the election. I've left them unanswered thus far because I really didn't know, either. There's no precedent for this, no historical guide we can follow. No President in HISTORY has ever been as underqualified as Trump, no President in history has ever been so defined by negativity as Trump, and no President in History has ever been as unPresidential as Trump.

It seems like every day we get new news of Trump's shocking behavior, and then, for those who read between the lines, we see the shocking behavior of Republicans in Congress whom I can only assume are using Trump's antics as a smokescreen. It is disheartening to say the least.

But as President Obama says Goodbye, it's time to move past the stages of grief, and into action, and here is what we do.

1- Ignore Trump. The greatest threats that Donald Trump poses are beyond our ability to control until the next election. This is NOT to say that he is harmless, far from it, but the biggest threat that Donald Trump poses is his amazing ability to command media time in one theater when our attention really should be in another. Trump is a Zaphod Beeblebrox... his job is not to hold power, but rather to distract attention from it.

2- Call your local politicians. Ask for statements. QUOTE those statements. Trump is untouchable to the average voter for four years, but congressmen and some Senators only for two. Let them know that we aren't watching the orange idiot, but rather them, and that when he is behaving like a child, we expect them to act like professionals, or they will be replaced.

3- Find Allies. I KNOW it seems like we're alone, but we're not. We're actually a majority, and more and more Republicans who voted for Trump for reasons beyond thinking he would make a good President are starting to regret those decisions. When you find a sympathetic ear from the other side of the aisle, try not to castigate them, but instead find the common ground (we are all in a terrible, terrible mess,) after all, and try to get them to join their voices to ours. They won't agree with you on many things, or even most things, but if we can agree that we have a calamity of a President and that Congress is behaving poorly behind him, that is enough to start with.

4- Don't waste your energy. We've all been in internet matches with people who wear blinders and sling angry memes rather than engage the conversation. Don't be one of them, and don't allow them to distract you. We can't browbeat people into being allies, and feeding the Trolls just gives them the jollies while wasting our time.

5- If/When the time comes, stand. I've said before that the worst part about Donald Trump, even more than his own crimes and the way he shields other politicians from scrutiny, is his effect on other people. The deplorables who use his election as an excuse to bully, or to sling hate at those they fear. When you see it happening, stand up to it. Defy it. Even if it is done with the flag of our government, defy it.

I hope it never comes to that. I hope the voices of Sanity in the GOP will join the Democrats in protecting Americans regardless of race, creed, or ideology. We just spent eight years under a President who was dedicated to justice, and it was nice. But the executive branch is now, at best, worthless to us.

So if it happens, we will have to stand ourselves.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

There is No Compromise with Hatred

I've been hearing a lot lately about how Donald Trump, as a constitutionally elected President, deserves a chance to govern, that we should rally around him. Then the plan for his first 100 days came out. Then his cabinet picks. Then his deferring of Security briefs to Mike Pence. Then his staff.

I know, I know. I probably wasn't going to be jumping for joy for any Republican picks, and even some of Clinton's picks likely would have irked me, had she won. Trump doing everything in his power to affirm for me that he shouldn't have any power whatsoever doesn't make the "rally around the President" thing any easier, though.

I'll deal with it, as will other progressives and liberals, by going along with the things that we have to and compromising where we can. Hopefully we'll be better about that than Republicans ever were with President Obama. But there is one thing that the folks pushing for "patience" seem not to understand, and so I want to make it abundantly clear right now.

There will never be any compromise with hatred.

Ideological points, policy positions, differences in philosophy on governance, these are all ideas that can be altered, softened, or tweaked in order to make them more palatable to everyone. Compromise, "we'll give you this, and you'll give us that..." used to be the lifeblood of governing in the US.

But you can't compromise on hatred. You can't just "half" hate something, a lesson we have learned repeatedly over the course of our history.

One of the great talking points against Clinton during the primary was her previous support of DOMA and DADT. At the time, they were seen as compromises, and actually embraced by many as a way to advance the rights of the LGBTQ community. They didn't work for a very simple reason: they were based on accommodating hatred,  and so in the end what we found is that whatever gains the LGBTQ community received from them were negligible because what we were left with was empowered hatred.

When it comes to hatred, you cannot compromise. You either join in it or reject it.

So here is my final answer for myself, which I hope will be echoed by others. Compromise IS important, and I will try to allow myself to see the good the Trump administration will try to accomplish.

But if he pushes to register Muslims? I will reject that out of hand with extreme prejudice. Likewise if he attempts to take away hard earned rights from the LGBTQ community. Racially motivated laws will also be named for what they are. There will be no compromise with them, they will not be amended to a form suitable for everyone, they will be named, rejected, and opposed in any way we can, and the proponents of it marked, remembered, and held accountable.

Because when you compromise with Hatred, all you end up doing is enabling and empowering it.

If we claim to serve a God of love, that is simply something that we cannot do.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Reader Question- The Role of Atonement

David lived before ever seeing the most important in event in all of history. Does it make spiritual sense, let alone logical sense, to discount the atonement? He can uproot the sycamore tree and move any mountain. Are we to believe some things are impossible for God?

Why didnt Paul have at least an entire letter talking about being tormented night and day by remembering his sins "despite" the finished work of the atonement. The church was hesitant but God arranged his acceptance! -Richard


Thanks for writing in, Richard.

I read your question a couple of times and was uncertain of what exactly you were pushing at... if you were implying that -I- was discounting atonement, or society in general, or what. I often feel like I am in an ongoing conversation with people who I read regularly, and so I suppose it is possible that this is a continuation of a conversation you've been having with me through reading my posts... in which case, thanks for reading, but I'm not dead sure where we are at.

As it happens, Atonement plays a key role in my theology, for the very reasons you posited in your question. David, who never knew Jesus, is believed to have received atonement, and Paul was able to do his work without being crushed by the guilt of his previous life, meaning that atonement played a real part in who he was... his sin wasn't just forgiven, it was removed from him entirely.

I believe both of those things 

For my other readers who may not know, Atonement is the theological code word for the forgiveness of sin, the sealing of the rift that separates humanity from God. There are thousands of variations on how precisely this works, but I have rarely found much value in that particular conversation... the theological details are just that, details. Stuff worked out by God that can be fun to talk about, but since it is by God's action, we don't need to know HOW it works, only that it does.

As I reread your question now it occurs to me that your question might be in response to an earlier comment I made in condemnation of those who commit "sins against the Spirit," that is, use the Word of God to separate people from the Love of God, like those who use scriptural arguments to drive people away from the church or hate others. This is mentioned in three of the Gospels and what exactly they are talking about is open to interpretation.

At the end of the day, I do not believe that any Sin is unforgiveable, and I certainly do not believe anything is impossible for God, but I was working within a worldview where certain sins are treated as differently from others, less forgiveable, etc, and therefore pointing out that the only sin ever described as "unforgivable" is the sin people commit when they use God's message of Love as a vehicle of hate. 

My theology of atonement tells me that judgement belongs, always and only, to God. That people do not need to use or even know the correct names and forms to receive it, and that no sin is powerful enough to remove us from the influence of God's love. But in the end, that isn't my call. I'm not here to tell God how things should work, but to tell people how to behave towards others.

At the end of the day, the people who use the Scriptures as a tool of hatred and division are, in my theological understanding, committing the greatest sin possible to commit, in that they are presenting a version of the church that, rather than being a welcoming beacon to all who seek it, is instead seen as a force of judgement, illogic, and derision.

That sin will probably be atoned for, in the end, though it will be God's call, not mine. But that certainly doesn't mean that I am not called to draw attention to the sin, and where possible, preach against it.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016


It's an old, sad, pattern. Allegations of abuse inside a church's walls begin. People are ostracized, members driven away by the old guard circling the wagons. Counter attacks fly. Character assassination of the accusers spreads through the rumor mill like wildfire, all working to discount the credibility of the victims. People insist that they will withhold justice until they have heard both sides, all the while ignoring the fact that only one side is speaking publicly.

We spent huge amounts of time in school examining these patterns, learning the ways to predict them and subvert them before the call for fair judgement became complicity in abuse. Barring our oldest clergy, I doubt a single pulpit thumper like myself got through school without studying it somewhat, and younger clergy spent significant time with it.

But we still see it. It's rare, but it's there, and every time it comes to the same thing. Abuse is about power, and power gropers in the church always tend to follow the same lines. And there is always someone there to defend them in the name of "fairness," or to protect the reputation of the institution.

Frankly, I think it's time we toss out the reputation of all our institutions. They do more harm then good.

So when I see similar patterns emerging elsewhere... I find them very hard to ignore.

In the same way that a great number of clergy do what we do because we want to do good, a great number of police are the same way. But the power seekers are there, and the thing about power seekers is that they seek power. They establish themselves deep into the bones of the organization, until it becomes a layer of protection around them that the folks just trying to do their job don't get.

In the church, when an abuser comes to light, a lot of people who don't condone the abuse still try to hide it, again for reputation's sake. But in the end, that doesn't work, because the abuser isn't just going to stop. Why would they, having been caught and then PROTECTED? Power is their drug and they WILL pursue it, until like any addict, they go too far, and then when it is impossible to hide, the reputation that would have been tarnished is instead destroyed. You still can't talk about priests in social circles without people bringing up rape and pedophilia. How many generations of good priests will it take to clear that shame? Five? Six? Will it ever be cleared?

We don't know, because it hasn't happened yet.

I've spoken to many people, some of them police officers, about the rise in police violence awareness. They protest groups like Black Lives Matter in the name of preserving the reputations, and raise hashtags like #bluelivesmatter in order to protest the backlash against peace officers. But here is the thing... you can't protect good cops if you are protecting bad cops.

Again, look to the church, at all those hard working priests have been tarnished, forever, by the actions of a tiny minority. What if the Church had responded, owning it's abusers and removing them so that the world could see that the safety of parishoners was more important than the church's reputation? We failed to get that right, and I don't know how long we'll pay the price.

The public opinion on police is turning, but it might not be too late for the Cops of the United States to do the right thing, removing their abusers from power and showing that the safety of citizens is more important than the reputation of the fraternity.

But so far, it hasn't happened. So far, all I see are wagons circling and the fraternity looking to its reputation, rather than the safety of the people.

And it feels depressingly familiar.


Monday, October 10, 2016

The Worst Thing About Trump

How could you pick just one, right? He lies so often and so blatantly you start to wonder if he even really has a concept of what truth IS. He regurgitates populist tripe against minorities, he treats women as objects and laughs about it, demands loyalty beyond what any President should receive and, to top it all off, doesn't seem to be a very good businessman, either.

But none of that is the worst thing about Trump. The worst thing about him, by far, is his effect on other people.

I'm not even talking about the people who grow more and more frightened the closer he gets to power, though that is bad enough. No, I am talking about the everyday Americans who go into public forums to stump for their candidate and promptly turn into horrible people.

Yesterday I stared in horror as a member of my congregation posted meme after meme excusing the behavior of Trump while attacking Chelsea Clinton. Chelsea! Not Hillary, not even Bill, but their daughter, apparently for being the child of rich parents, which I always thought would never be a crime according to Republicans.

I've seen Trump Supporters, people whom I love and can vouch for as loving people, attack transgendered people as potential rapists. I've then seen them claim that bragging about sexually assaulting women should be seen as unfortunate, but normal, behavior. (So why are worried about trans people?) I've seen them excuse the murder of young black men as an acceptable, if unfortunate (maybe) consequence of law and order. I've seen them advocate prison, exile, or even execution for political rivals. I've seen them applaud violence against protestors while passionately condemning email use, heard them cheer for "bombing the shit" out of terrorists while claiming to fear refugees from the countries they want to "bomb the shit" out of, and I have even seem them do these things scant minutes after praying to a loving, compassionate God that they claim to believe in!

It's a tough place for a Pastor to stand in. I've seen colleagues of mine forced to tone down their rhetoric in the name of some illusory political "fairness" as they get attacked by Trump supporters in their congregations, wondering if their ability to do ANY kind of ministry might get eclipsed by the demand that they not reveal how the things he does are so antithetical to the Gospel.

It's not easy for politicians, either. I've watched Trump supporters demand other conservative politicians walk in ideological lockstep with the Donald even if it means betraying their core ideals, as if this election was a football game and we could pressure the politicians to support the nominee like forcing players to support the quarterback.

I'll probably get a comment or two about how this post is biased, how it doesn't cover both sides, but this, very simply, does not happen with Hillary Clinton. You don't see anyone out there saying that every Secretary of State should use their own private Email Server, or that Benghazi was a perfect execution of foreign policy. No one holds up Clinton's flaws to claim that they are virtues, no one has ever described her as the perfect candidate, or denied the roll that politics has played in her career. She just isn't that kind of candidate. People support her, not because she is the perfect human being, but because she is the most qualified for the job, or barring that, because she, quite simply, isn't Donald Trump.

And here is my worry... this is just the effect of Donald Trump, the candidate. Imagine his behavior modeled, not by a presidential candidate, but the President of the United States. Imagine the normalizing effect that would have on these behaviors, as people saw their WORST impulses exemplified, EVERY DAY, by the most powerful person in the world?

Don't tell me it wouldn't happen. I already see it happening every day. But this is just the beginning. Donald Trump has to be defeated, because if he isn't, his effect on the American People will only get stronger.