Light in our darkness

The local paper printed a commentary about the Hoosier native who was beheaded in Syria last week. It was a tribute to the man and his family. It ended with this thought:

But Abdul-Rahmin Peter Kassig and his parents, in a time of tragedy, reminded us of the only forces that can warm and light the bleakest of days – the humanity that links us all and the love that can sustain us in our darkest moments.

Reading that left me struggling for the proper response.

I got taken to task a bit on Twitter not long ago for getting into quibbles over words. The Rethink Church Twitter account had published a quote by Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

I asked a genuine question: Was Mead a Christian? (She was.) My question was born of concern that her quote is singularly mistaken about “the only thing” that has ever changed the world. Jesus Christ changed the world. God changed the world. The Holy Spirit changes the world. That word “only” struck me as theologically myopic.

The Rethink Church Twitter account suggested I was making too much out of one word.

So, here I am again. I read this nice tribute to a man who was butchered, and I can’t get past that word “only.” The story says, “the only forces that can warm and light the bleakest of days” are our common humanity and the love that sustains us.

Maybe the author of these lines would permit me to read “love” theologically. That would take some of the edge off my unease.

But I am not sure he means the word to refer to God.

And so I’m stuck wanting to argue with this pronouncement in a way that will come across as church-y and all the other things we are supposed to avoid in this post-modern moment. That the young man in question converted to Islam, rejecting the Christianity nurtured by his family in a United Methodist Church, makes what I want to say even less palatable in this day and age.

I want to say to the author of that piece that there is a source of light much brighter than the feeble glow of our shared humanity. We are not condemned to huddle around our TV screens baffled by the barbarism and darkness of the world. There is a light that is brighter than death. In the approaching season of Advent, we celebrate that light as the world engages in an orgy of man-made commercialism and excess.

But I don’t know how to say those words in a way that will be heard in a world that imagines we have nothing more than our humanity to warm the cold winter night.

Fitting Hays with a black hat?

I hope I am wrong about this, but I wanted to share some thoughts about the controversy at Duke Divinity School. The facts at the heart of the controversy are contested right now, and I have no first-hand knowledge of the events, so rather than attempt to summarize the matter here are a couple of news stories about it: 1, 2.

Some of my colleagues in the Methoblog and Twitterverse have reacted as if this is no big deal and will blow over. Richard Hays is a respected scholar. All he did was quote the doctrine of the United Methodist Church as dean of a United Methodist seminary. This is Duke, after all.

I hope so.

What I have seen among those who call themselves moderates and conservatives in the UMC in recent years, however, is a shocking lack of understanding how political and protest movements operate. One of the first goals of a successful protest is to have a clearly defined enemy. This is often a person, someone on whom the protest can focus attention and use as a symbol. Dean Hays has been nominated for that role. Whether he seems like a villain to many Duke alumni or the many pastors who read and admire his books is beside the point. He is being nominated to wear the black hat in a drama that will play out mostly before people who have no idea who Richard Hays is and have never read a word he has written.

Perhaps he will succeed in declining the invitation.

Another rule that I fear is not understood at the moment is that in politics the norms of academic debate and discussion have no authority. Dean Hays appears to be attempting to respond to the crisis as if it were merely an internal seminary concern. If he succeeds in keeping the controversy on that ground, then he will likely resolve the crisis with little long-term damage to himself or Duke. But already the engines of political action are in gear. People are spreading versions of events designed to provoke outrage. People are throwing around words like “abuse of power” and other people are repeating them. People are reading the letter Hays wrote and accusing him of attacking the woman who asked the question that led to the controversy: A white man with power using his power and privilege to attack and silence a dissenting female voice. The narrative builds this way.

One of the news stories linked above says Hays has invited key student leaders to sit down and talk about the issue. If the students — or others — demand a public spectacle in the place of personal conversation, you can rest assured that the demands of the protest are driving the agenda.

I hope I’m wrong.

I recall a story at another United Methodist seminary where a successful pastor was lambasted for sharing his honest efforts to honor his convictions about biblical morality and pastoral care. Interestingly, that story also involved the quotation of the United Methodist Book of Discipline. The school responded by apologizing.

Hays has not apologized. Indeed, he has been criticized (in a post Tweeted by the Reconciling Ministries Network) for seeking to clarify rather than apologize. I hope he and Duke are able to work on the issues internally, but I worry that such hopes are naive.

What people with Down syndrome are worth

It appears women will soon have a better test to determine if their unborn babies have Down syndrome.

This story about the new test speaks of the $6 billion market that the test will create as women who can “afford to be choosy” pay for the testing.

The story does not mention the likely outcome of those tests.

Jean Vanier, Stanley Hauerwas, and Amos Yong have taught me to see such stories in a different light than I might have at one time in my life. The popularity of such tests reveal to us that we live in a society that declares people with Down syndrome of no worth. We would, if we could, prevent them from being born.

How does the church witness to God’s love for all his creations in the face of a secular discourse that decrees it is more merciful to eliminate people rather than care for them?

Do not ignore sexual abuse in church

My father is a psychologist. He told me once that any church that has children in it and is not looking for signs of sexual abuse is asking from trouble.

I thought of this after I learned of Bob Jones University firing an investigator it had brought in to investigate sex abuse on its campus.

The story led me to this blog by Boz Tchividjian, a former child abuse prosecutor who writes about sexual abuse in the church and investigates it. Here is the message he delivers at the end of one of his recent blog posts:

Perhaps the most important lesson to be learned from this ruling has nothing to do with who is or who is not an “actual supervisor”. It has everything to do with the urgent need for the Church (Yes, I mean both Catholic and Protestant) to expend itself in placing the value and safety of children above all else, including institutional reputation.

If we fail to embrace this fundamental Gospel lesson, not only will there be more prosecutions (as there should be), but the beautiful lives of those made in the image of God will continue to be devastated and discarded. Jesus demands that we learn this lesson and begin living it out.

The United Methodist Church has formal policies and programs in place that are meant to protect children. Reading Tchividjian’s blog reminds me that these are not merely bureaucratic rules, but the living gospel.

Delmar’s baptism and Phil Robertson’s repentance

One of my favorite scenes in O Brother, Where Art Thou? is Delmar’s baptism:

Delmar comes up out of the water and declares his sins washed away to the point that neither God nor man has any claim on him any longer.

I thought of the scene while reading one of the less newsworthy parts of the GQ interview with Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson.

During Phil’s darkest days, in the early 1970s, he had to flee the state of Arkansas after he badly beat up a bar owner and the guy’s wife. Kay Robertson persuaded the bar owner not to press charges in exchange for most of the Robertsons’ life savings. (“A hefty price,” he notes in his memoir.) I ask Phil if he ever repented for that, as he wants America to repent—if he ever tracked down the bar owner and his wife to apologize for the assault. He shakes his head.

“I didn’t dredge anything back up. I just put it behind me.”

As far as Phil is concerned, he was literally born again. Old Phil—the guy with the booze and the pills—died a long time ago, and New Phil sees no need to apologize for him: “We never, ever judge someone on who’s going to heaven, hell. That’s the Almighty’s job.

Robertson may not follow in the church of Delmar, but it sounds quite similar to me.

And that got me thinking. Is this correct? Doesn’t repentance require an effort to make right the damage we have caused others?

For some folks that could be an impossible task, of course. We cause so many hurts and wounds that we cannot even count them all, much less repair each injury. But there is still something here that sounds wrong to me. Even if we hold to a strong reading of Paul’s words that we die to the old self and rise as a new self, it seems to me that repentance toward God does not mean we have truly repented of the harm we have caused other humans. It feels to me, rather, that using our baptism as a way to absolve ourselves of wrongs we have done to other people is trading on God’s grace in ways God did not intend.

This is a complicated, pastoral question that probably does not lend itself to absolute rules. But I wonder how others understand it. To what extent does repentance require seeking to undo or heal the damage we have done to other people?

It is official: Feel free to ignore the Social Principles

For a few years now I’ve been trying to get a handle on the status of the Social Principles of the United Methodist Church. The introduction of the Principles says they are not law, but the Judicial Council has ruled in the past that an Annual Conference could not pass a resolution that voided them.

In a ruling Saturday, though, the Judicial Council — with a strong dissent — agreed with a United Methodist bishop that it was not a violation of the Book of Discipline to treat a section of the Social Principles as if they do not exist. The opinion of the council makes that valid point that United Methodists at all levels of the church do, in fact, act as if parts of the Social Principles do not exist.

There are many facets of the Social Principles that individual United Methodists and their various organizations choose to ignore, and there is no unanimity among United Methodists about the merits of the denomination’s Social Principles on health care, gun control, and other matters. But to ignore those statements in the Social Principles, while doing so might theologically imperil or weaken the church, is not an illegal action under Church law.

As I understand it, the Book of Discipline is being reviewed by a committee charged with making recommendations for revisions that will make the book more relevant to a global church. Perhaps one of those recommendations should be to move the Social Principles into the Book of Resolutions. The Social Principles appear to be neither doctrine nor law of the UMC. Maybe it is time to move them out of our book of doctrine and law.