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Religious Discrimination Restoration Acts

 

There has been a trend in so called Red States where state legislatures are busy working on legislation with a wonderful sounding name, Religious Liberty Restoration Acts. I mean who could be against religious liberty? I mean when I see what the Taliban, the Islamic State and Boko Haram are doing to Christians, Shia Moslems and others I want to climb on that wagon and say absolutely. But then I realize these laws are not about restoring religious freedom at all, because no one is threatening anyone’s constitutional right to worship or even bear public witness to their faith.

What they are, are horrible laws with incredible bad second and third order effects on every citizen. They have nothing to do with religious liberty, but rather are much more like the restrictive sharia laws of the Taliban and the Islamic State. These laws are designed to allow religious groups to discrimate against individuals and groups that they believe that their God hates.

In every one of these states these laws are directed at one minority group. Gays, or the LGBT community, and are a protest against court rulings and laws which allow Gays to marry, to visit their spouse or significant other in the hospital, or basically enjoy the same legal rights that straight people, even those in illicit relationship enjoy.  The laws almost all allow government employees or employees of private businesses to deny services to gays based on a “sincerely held religious belief.” Some laws like one in Arkansas have even go so far as to allow the state to void local non-discrimination ordinances passed by towns, cities and counties. A similar law is being floated in West Virginia. Arizona and some other states are debating bills similar to that of Indiana.

Indiana passed theirs today and Governor Mike Pence, a conservative Christian says that he is looking forward to signing it.  Of course this ensures that the good Christian people of Indiana are free to discriminate against anyone they want. While targeted at gays the same law could be used against, Jews, Moslems, Hindus, Sikhs, or any other group of people. Logically since some Christian sects believe that Blacks are still under the curse of God, the bill could allow a KKK Christian not to serve a Black man or woman based on their sincerely held religious belief.

A similar bill in Oklahoma disappeared last week after a Democrat representive attached an Ammendment mandating that any business wanting to use religious liberty to deny service had to post a sign saying that they did so. I think that is rights anyone who wants to use the law not to serve someone should make that very clear. Just like the days of Jim Crow, where “No Blacks Allowed” was common, or Nazi Germany where “no Jews allowed” was almost universal.

I think that the wording of such signs should be quite clear and explicit. For instance, if it is a Christian business owner who refuses to serve gays the sign should say: “No Gays served due to my deeply held Christian beliefs.”

If a Moslem wants to claim their deeply held beliefs about sharia, claim that their act is a peaceful  jihad against the infidels in order to discriminate against unbelievers just let them say so, I have no problem with that if Christians have that right.

Orthodox Jews should have the same right in such a world, who cares if the Goyum can’t buy their babka bread or bagels at the Jewish bakery, after all it’s the right of the owner, right?

Likewise I think that the Gay florist should be able to refuse to do business with people having their weddings in churches that refuse to allow gays to be married. So what if they are the only florist in town, they should have that right too and be able to claim a religious reason as to why they can, after all fair is fair.

Now, let’s step back and look at the absurdity of such laws. They open the door for anyone to discriminate against anyone based on their religious beliefs regardless of other established laws.

In reality such laws only work in theocracies where a majority religion can in effect use religious law to discriminate and disenfranchise unbelievers with impunity. When governments attempt to apply such laws in pluralistic societies there can be only one result; a Balkanization of society from which no good can come.

These laws are not laws to promote religious liberty, these laws are designed to allow a specific group of people to usurp laws that apply to everyone because of their religious beliefs.

Sadly, these laws are the last gasp of a religious aristocracy that has lost influence in society and that is dying; conservative Christianity. All the polls and studies say so, and sadly it is in large part the fault of churches and people that identify themselves as such. Their younger members are fleeing at an ever increasing rate and non-believers want nothing to do with them. The days of the “God loves you” type of evangelism are over. Instead, what suffices as public witness is that “God loves me and hates you.”  

Why are people fleeing? Evangelical pollster George Barna’s group did a study and the results paint a picture that shows a church that is now described by the majority as Hypocritical, anti-homosexual, insincere, sheltered and too political. The Pew Survey as well as others that survey religious belief and practice in this country back this up.

These laws show how desperate and increasing irrelevant that church has become. It is a sad commentary and they should know better, but like cultural suicide bombers they will destroy themselves to hurt those that they hate. It is short-sighted, and tied more to the political power of conservative Christians and to preserve their influence than any demonstration of the grace, love, mercy or even the justice of God.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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American Church Greed: By Their Budgets Ye Shall Know Them

 

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Back on October 31st 1517 a little known Monk and Professor of Theology and Bible at the University of Wittenberg proposed a theological debate regarding a practice called “Indulgences” where preachers from Rome came up to Germany and basically shook down the population for donations to help built the now majestic Saint Peters Basilica in Rome. Promises of spiritual blessings, to include time out of Purgatory for those that donated had an affect on German churches and the local political leaders.

What happened that day in Wittenberg was one of the most monumental events in Christian and Western History. Luther charged church leaders in his 95 Theses:

“Lastly, works of piety and charity are infinitely better than indulgences, and yet they do not preach these with such display or so much zeal; nay, they keep silence about them for the sake of preaching pardons. And yet it is the first and sole duty of all bishops, that the people should learn the Gospel and Christian charity: for Christ nowhere commands that indulgences should be preached. What a dreadful thing it is then, what peril to a bishop, if, while the Gospel is passed over in silence, he permits nothing but the noisy outcry of indulgences to be spread among his people, and bestows more care on these than on the Gospel!”

However, it seems that Christians and especially ministers of all times and traditions often forget the lessons of history.

The church in the United States is at a critical point in history, but for the most part its leaders don’t understand this. The American church is fast losing its credibility due to the arrogance and excess of many church leaders in matters related to personal behavior, financial accountability, and accountability before the law concerning clergy sexual abuse cases. The common view of many inside and outside the church is that American ministers practice a “do as I say, not as I do” lifestyle holding others, especially non-Christians to a higher standard than they practice themselves.

Likewise there is the nearly incestuous relationship between many ministers and those holding political and or economic power in which quite often one cannot tell where the “gospel” ends and the politics begin.  This spans the denominational spectrum.

The practical fallout is stunning: The Barna Group, a highly respected polling organization surveyed people 18-29 years old asked what phrases best described Christians: The top five answers “Anti-homosexual, judgmental, hypocritical and too involved in politics.” This view was held by 91% of non-Christians and a staggering 80% of young churchgoers. But the vast bulk of conservative American clergy and their devoted followers don’t seem to care, probably because the facts do not fit their narrative.

The point I am making is that many clergy in the United States, especially those in influential pulpits and ministries have forgotten the dangers of “clericalism” and the abuses of clerics who use their office as clergy to gain political, financial and personal power.  Jesus told his disciples that they wanted  to be great in God’s kingdom they had to be servants of all.  Jesus, as well as the apostles, other new Testament writers and the Ante-Nicene Fathers warned about the dangers of seeking wealth, status or position. Of course that changed after Constantine when the church became the Imperial Church, something that despite the attempts of some that it has found a way to do throughout history, our American experience included.

Money is a big part of this, and one way to tell what a church, a denomination or a ministry values is to look at their budgets. As my Church History Professor at Southwestern Baptist Seminary said “By their budgets ye shall know them.

By their budgets ye shall know them….Reverend Robert Schuler’s “Crystal Cathedral” megachurch declared bankruptcy in 2012. It was $43 Million dollars in debt and embroiled in an internal power struggle and losing money.  Schuler asked “tithers to double tithe” and those that do not tithe to “start tithing.” He talked about what the church has given to them and why it earned their support.

It was a rather pompous plea from a man who had the ear of Presidents and other political and business leaders. Southern California had been terribly hard hit by the economic downturn and recession of 2007-2011. This affected many parishioners that worshipped at the Cathedral as well as those who watched Schuler’s “Hour of Power” show.

The Chrystal Cathedral tried to live “month to month on $2 Million dollars a month.” It cut back staff, curtailed programs and sold property to try to make ends meet. The efforts failed. The church collapsed and the Church Campus was sold to the local Roman Catholic Diocese. I wonder how many more megachurches built on piles of debt are facing what happened at the Chrystal Cathedral. Of course since their books are well guarded we won’t know until they collapse.

I’m sorry but those that live off of other people’s money should never be presumptuous and assume that  faithful givers should have to bail them out.

By their budgets ye shall know them….Other churches at denominational and local levels have often become embroiled in financial scandals that tarnished the reputation of those churches, their leaders and disillusioned their membership.  The Roman Catholic Church had to deal with a major scandal involving the Vatican Bank in the 1970s and 1980s and Pope Francis has been having to unscrew the latest mess that occurred during Pope Benedict’s watch.

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By their budgets ye shall know them: If a ministry spends the bulk of its time and money working as surrogates for a political candidate or party it is highly likely that it has forgotten the basic mission of the Church. I cannot remember anything in the New Testament even remotely suggests we do this nor can a single time in Church history that it turned out well for the church, or for regular people in general.

By their budgets ye shall know them….I worked for a fairly reputable Television ministry while I was a seminary student. The common plea of these types of ministries is that they “are on a mission from God” and need the money.

Most of these ministries not part of any denominational structure and have little oversight.  Most are presumptuous and assume that they entitled to the financial support provided by the often poor people who give them their last dime.

These ministries  do not ask their audience for actual input into their “mission” strategy.  Their leaders make the call, say that is “God’s will” and use shame and guilt to squeeze the money out of their viewers. This happens in churches as well and if someone questions the church or its financial accountability they are accused of “being unfaithful,” “not hearing God,” or being “disobedient to God’s will or to the church.”

Many churches and ministries suffer a terrible lack of accountability and oversight, so be assured these abuses are more widespread than we would want to believe.  In regard to television ministries in particular the amount of money required to keep their programs on the air is beyond exorbitant.

The bulk of the money used by such ministries comes often from those that are barely surviving financially even in “good times.” Often it comes most vulnerable and desperate people. The elderly, the sick, the poor, and the lonely.  Such people are “believing in God for a miracle” and trust that the smiling preacher will help get them their miracle. Such vulnerable people respond to these ministries by obediently shelling out of their meager incomes to ministries in response to persuasive pleas by ministers that should know better.

The motivation, love and obedience of these often wonderful people is exploited by unscrupulous ministers in order to support air programs that have little impact on the world.  However, those funds have a great deal of influence in the political aspirations of these preachers. Money equals influence and influence equals power.

By their budgets ye shall know them….If money was the only thing it would be a manageable problem. But money and power is the root of the problem and problem extends to lifestyles of ministers and other church leaders which are hardly supported by the demands of the Gospel. The shear opulence of the lifestyle of many clergy is not just off-putting but obscene. When times get tough for their churches or ministries these charlatans demand more money from their flocks rather than amending their lives and budgets. If members of flock object they are the ones that are vilified.

In my old church those clergy who could not meet their tithe for whatever reason were told that they were being “disobedient to their vows.” For some of our bishops and clergy vows to the Church were less concerned with doctrinal orthodoxy, or even being good Christians, but were narrowed down to if you paid your tithe on time.

I remember one Bishop who left the church to go elsewhere who told the assembled priests in his diocese that the tithe was the “essential test of obedience, and what bound us together.” Families and parishioners were described by another Bishop as “tithing units” and not people. When I was in the Army Reserve and contemplating a mission parish start up I was told by the bishop that in order to be “successful” the church needed at least “x-number of tithing units.” I was offended and decided not to do a  mission as I was recalled to active duty soon after.

In such churches people and families are reduced to an economic resource to keep the ministry afloat and support the lifestyle of the minister. Doctrine or even other forms of public witness are secondary to paying the tithe.

By their budgets ye shall know them…. If churches spend more money on the salaries of their pastors than they do on outreach to the poor or missions something is severely out of order. I am a historian and I know that the Apostles of those Ante-Nicene Fathers who suffered poverty and persecution never advanced such ideas. Even those that advocated a firm hierarchy in regard to matters of faith and doctrine never advocated for policies that benefited them financially. When leaders of a church, get together and dine in luxury on the monies donated by their often impoverished flocks it is denial of the Gospel and lack of respect and care for the people of God.

By their budgets ye shall know them….When church building programs and plant maintenance are extravagant and require massive amounts of money to sustain without demanding more from their parishioners than something is out of kilter.  When chandeliers, or massive high definition video monitors cost more than the mission budget, or benevolence ministry something is wrong.

My Church History professor, Dr. Doyle Young from who I appropriated the “by their budgets ye shall know them” line used to say that “God is going to get us for our stained glass windows when we neglect the poor.”  Now I appreciate good church architecture including stained glass windows. However it is  highly presumptive and arrogant for churches, ministries and ministers to demand monies when they have failed to be good stewards of what they have been entrusted. When ministries unwisely spend the money given them like drunken sailors and then expect others to pick up the tab while they cry crocodile tears about how “God’s plans will be thwarted” if their ministry fails, it is plain and simple fraud.

By their budgets ye shall know them….Back prior to the Protestant Reformation in Europe there was a large amount of discontent which focused on the arrogance, opulence and financial demands of the Catholic Church.  In fact much of Dr. Martin Luther’s protest in the 95 Thesis dealt with the manner in which Church finances.

Back then the Roman Church used a practice called indulgences and the selling of “relics” to fund the construction of St Peters Basilica in Rome.  People gave because they believed men like John Tetzel who preached in regard to indulgences “a penny into the coffer rings a soul from purgatory springs.”  That is incredibly similar to the collection methods of the big evangelists who prey upon the most vulnerable to fund their ministries. Likewise the Church attempted to use its power to reward or punish rulers of these regions, much as political preachers today attempt to use their influence to push candidates to support their agenda.

However, the chief complaint of many reformers was related to the Churche financial as well as political abuses of its members and nations to buttress its position in Europe.  Unfortunately we have not learned this lesson, American churches are so consumed with power and money that people are fleeing them, much as happened to the Roman church during the Reformation.

By their budgets ye shall know them….Finally there are honest and hard working ministers and churches that emphasize ministry and care for people as part of the Gospel message.  Many eke out support while working full time in “tentmaker” professions in order to fund their missions without unduly burdening those that support them. In my denomination, all of our clergy are “worker priests” including our bishop, who does not take a salary from the church. Likewise, I know many good ministers who give not only their lives but their livelihoods to care for those in their charge. They seek not fame, wealth or power. Some are conservative, others progressive, but they have caring and compassionate hearts and their budgets reflect their priorities.

Until tomorrow.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Ash Wednesday and the Beginning of a Radical and Happy Lent

barmherzigkeit

“Accustom yourself continually to make many acts of love, for they enkindle and melt the soul.”  Teresa of Avila 

Well my friends today is Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the season of Lent. Lent is, for those unfamiliar with the custom is a penitential season in the days leading up to Easter in which Christians, through prayer, fasting and abstinence seek to prepare themselves for Holy Week and Easter. It really is a time of great value if its observance is not done simply out of legalism or even the need to show ones personal holiness as somehow more important than the relationships that one has with both God and one’s neighbor.

If you have read my articles on this site dealing with Ash Wednesday and Lent you will note that Lent is a season that I have struggled with throughout my life, even my life as a Priest. I did not grow up in the catholic tradition, Roman, Orthodox or Anglican. I came to a catholic understanding of faith in a Southern Baptist Seminary and my journey took years and when I finally came over to the “catholic” side of the line in 1995 and 1996 I attempted for a number of years to be more individualistically pious in my observance of the Lenten season and tradition than others.

That did not work well. Instead of finding a depth of meaning and transformation Lent became a burden. I observed it and did my best but without much joy. When I returned from Iraq in 2008, my faith shaken, and emotionally broken my Lenten observance was so painful that mid-way through it I abandoned it. The following year I declared that I was not going to do Lent in the way that I had done in the past, but even in this I struggled. That was not unexpected because by then I was for all intents and purposes an agnostic struggling to believe and praying that God might be real. The only thing that kept me going at times was the belief that my vocation as a Priest mattered, no matter how I felt.

The past few years Lent has been a struggle. I have worked to make it both meaningful and joyful. When I think of the irony that I was attempting to work to experience God’s grace I can now laugh.

This year Lent started out differently. Over the past number of months my life, including my spirituality has been coming back into focus and much more free and integrated than it was in the past.

Today I was part of our hospital Chapel ecumenical Ash Wednesday service. Our small chapel was full, with more people standing than sitting. Working with my two colleagues, a Southern Baptist Pastoral Counselor and an American Baptist Chaplain we served those who came, Catholics and various expressions of Protestants. My colleagues did most of the work for the service. I simply approved their work and though about what I was going to say and do as the primary celebrant during the service.

Our Old Testament reading out of Isaiah Chapter 58 actually set the tone for me because it has been something that has been zinging my spirit ever since my seminary days and early days as a Priest. In the passage Isaiah was speaking to a very religious people who seemed to take great pride in their external demonstrations of righteousness but whose hearts were far from God and the people that God had placed around them. Isaiah wrote:

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

Likewise Jesus warned his disciples about the dangers of religious hypocrisy in the Gospel reading which was from Matthew Chapter Six. “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.” He then went on to warn them about how to pray and how to fast. In each case he was very much against public displays that would serve to show off an individual’s religious superiority. Instead he talked about prayer being in secret and fasting that did not attract the attention of others. That is actually quite a revolutionary idea if you take a look at the practices of many who call themselves Christian, or for that matter religious people of any religion.

Jesus seemed to “get off” so to speak in confounding the severely religious people of his day. He hung out with, care for, fed, healed and loved people that the people who were more concerned with outward religious displays actually despised. I think that Jesus actually understood the real meaning of Lent than we do. Yes, Jesus prayed, he fasted, actually for 40 days in the wilderness once and was tempted by the Devil who offered food, protection from harm if he jumped off the pinnacle of the Temple and even the whole world, if Jesus would only worship him. Of course Jesus withstood the temptation, but it was real and if we actually take the humanity of Jesus seriously it was a real temptation that actually threatened to destroy the eternal relationship that Jesus had with the Father and the Holy Spirit.

So there is a value in spiritual disciplines of prayer and fasting, but they are not the be all and end all of the Christian faith. Instead, they are important but unless they actually are part of a change in our hearts that turns them from us to God and maybe even more importantly the real people that we meet, especially the least, the lost and the lonely.

However according to the Barna Group, which surveys Christians and their attitudes it seems that American Christians don’t seem to get the message. Barna commented:

“The vast majority of (secularists) don’t need to hear the Good News. They have been exposed to Christianity in an astonishing number of ways, and that’s exactly why they’re rejecting it. They react negatively to our ‘swagger’, how we go about things, and the sense of self-importance we project.” They quote one outsider as saying: “Most people I meet assume that Christian means very conservative, entrenched in their thinking, antigay, antichoice, angry, violent, illogical, empire builders; they want to convert everyone, and they generally cannot live peacefully with anyone who doesn’t believe what they believe.”

Over the past few years I have gotten to the point that I have a hard time simply giving money to causes, ministries and churches but really have a hard time passing up the homeless, the hurting and the despondent people that I see every day.

I just wonder what it would be if people that call themselves Christians would during Lent, instead of giving up chocolate or going meatless on certain days would instead do something kind for a person that can do nothing for them, especially people who may or may not be Christians. I’m sorry but that seemed to be what Jesus did more often than not.

Can you imagine what the practical result of over one billion Christians doing one act of kindness a day to someone that can’t pay them back, that they don’t know, that may even to them seem to be of a class, religion or lifestyle that they do not approve? What if instead of giving billions of dollars to the money pits of self indulgent Christian ministries and churches they simply paid someone’s rent, bought a meal, or a tank of gas for someone in need, took someone to the doctor, or helped someone find a job?  What if instead of giving up something that for practical purposes is meaningless for 40 days, like our favorite food or drink seek out opportunities to do something as simple as walking up to the homeless person on the side of the road who has the “please help” sign and look them in the eye, ask them what they need and then do something to help them?

And let me preach. When we were down and out and losing almost every earthly possession we had when I was in seminary there were regular people who did those practical acts of kindness and mercy that helped us through terrible times. People bought us gas, let us borrow or gave us cars, paid for doctors visits, food and even tuition.  Of course I was working my ass off in two or more jobs at any given time, going to school full time and serving in the National Guard as we attempted to recover from the debacle we had experienced while still moving forward. Thus I approach this with a great deal of gratitude and empathy.

I think that this is a radical idea. Not original by any means, but certainly radical.

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And then there is one other thing, what we do should be done with a happy heart, not with a gloomy one. Saint Teresa of Avila once said “God save us from gloomy saints!”

Have a happy Lent.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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