The Simplest Explanation

I woke up this morning thinking about original sin. Nice huh? It’s a theological concept that has fallen out of favor particularly within the mainline or more liberal churches. Some of this is for good reason.

For those not familiar with theological jargon, original sin is the idea that everyone is born ‘sinful’. This is in contrast to the idea that people are born basically good but then become bad under the influence of the world and their experience and the development of their separate selves.

The concept of original sin has been used in many negative ways. Perhaps it is an idea that is beyond redemption. It’s been used to shame people, control people, and disempower people. It’s been used to scare people into believing that they are going to Hell and that God is out to get them. All of these religious abuses are terrible. Maybe these abuses are manifestations of original sin!

In the realm of science, it is understood that models and concepts are useful to the extent that they are predictive. That is, a model is said to be an accurate description of reality if it can predict behavior or help us understand how things work. Scientists understand that the model of reality isn’t reality itself but they also know it’s a good approximation until another one comes along that is better at prediction and description. As one example, genetic theory – the model of genes control traits – developed long before anyone knew anything about DNA because it was good at predicting how traits were passed along through generations.

So I look at our beautiful world. A world that is full of enough. Enough food, enough water, enough space, enough love, enough safety. And what do we see. We see countries that spend more on weapons than on education, health, and food combined. We see an economic system that says, ‘it’s not personal it’s just business’ when it destroys a community or a life. We see the trans-Atlantic slave trade. We see genocide. We see people who seriously believe that more killing will get peace. We see people who support more guns as a way to stop gun violence. We see men who cannot stop abusing women. We see parents who cannot love their children because they are queer. We see epidemics of addiction and poverty and pain.

And I look at all of this and I also see the beauty in every human being and I think, what model best explains this situation? Occam’s razor is an interesting mathematical concept which simply states that when faced with a complex problem the simplest explanation is usually the best and true.

Thus the simplest explanation for the state of our world is original sin. Not the abusive version of this idea. But rather the basic, non-judgmental, idea that we as humans are born into this world such that we will end up with a lot of problems. We are born with our mental and emotional machinery set to ‘confusion’ mode.

A non-abusive version of original sin tells us that this isn’t something to feel toxic shame or dread about, because we all have it and we didn’t ask for it or make it happen. For whatever reason deep in the past it was something given to us.

I think that the real reason we reject original sin, and I see this particularly within American circles, is that we don’t want to think there is anything wrong with us. That’s original sin talking!

But of course original sin isn’t the final answer. Because underneath this problem is also the image of God, the goodness, the love, the beauty waiting to be uncovered and brought to light.

One of my favorite little spiritual life phrases is “revulsion is the foot of meditation.” What this means is that we don’t make any progress along the spiritual path until we are revolted with our lives and our selves as we are. When we really get it that we need to do something different, then we start to wake up.

If you don’t like the phrase original sin, that’s fine, come up with a new one. A friend of mine recently said, “All of humanity has PTSD.” Perhaps that conceptual framework resonates better. Whichever works for you, that’s ok. But let’s understand what we are up against and let’s eagerly seek and practice for deeper transformation.

Mental Health, Mental Illness, Shooters

I’ve watched and read a lot of the conversation related to ‘mental illness’ and gun violence and so far have stayed on the sidelines. However as I sense increasing polarization and confusion around this issue I thought, as a mental health healer with more than 30 years of experience in the field, I’d add my two cents. With my ramblings and a couple of bucks you can buy a cup of coffee.

First, I understand that people with mental suffering face a great deal of prejudice and stigma in our society and they quite naturally don’t want any more crap dumped on them as they see themselves, as part of a group, being ‘blamed’ for our mass shooting problem. Such stigma and prejudice needs to be fought against and rejected.

Secondly, I also understand the somewhat natural reaction by people who say that someone who decides to kill large numbers of people, seemingly out of the blue, is suffering from some sort of ‘mental’ problem. Such a conclusion does appear, at face value, very logical.

Part of the challenge with our conversation lies in our definition and model of mental suffering. While mental suffering is a universal human phenomenon, the models we use to explain and describe this suffering are varied and quite different. Some see mental suffering as a spiritual issue, some as a social issue, some as a disorder of thought or feeling, and, most recently, the medicalized countries of the US and Europe have increasingly adopted the medical disease model to explain such suffering.

Most people are not aware that the advance of the medical model of mental illness has largely been driven not by evidence or data or even because it’s the best model, but rather by the pharmaceutical companies which have reaped billions of dollars in profit from the adoption of this point of view. One of the most blatant examples of such advocacy is that in Japan there was no word for ‘mild depression’ until a drug company invented one so that they could sell more anti-depressants. Suddenly, out of the blue, the Japanese were being told they had an ‘illness’ that didn’t exist a few months earlier.

The medical model of illness has certainly been very helpful to us in many ways. Identifying the biological underpinnings of distinct disorders have allowed us to mitigate much suffering. However we are also finding that this model has many limitations. Nowhere are these limitations more clear than in the realm of mental suffering: because mental suffering simply doesn’t function and behave in the same way that the flu does.

For the VAST majority of mental disturbance, diagnosis of an ‘illness’ is a very vague process that is done by matching a group of symptoms and behaviors with a category of disturbance found in the DSM (the diagnostic manual for mental illness). Such a process is fraught with numerous complications of bias, inaccuracy, the desire to label and control, and is often of little value to anyone other than, again, the drug companies who are making billions from this process while we have little to show for it in terms of greater mental health.

I would suggest that it is our adherence to this problematic model of mental suffering that is causing us such difficulty when we discuss something like a mass shooter. From the diagnostic point of view, there actually are categories of diagnosis for which the symptoms are anger and violence. Numerous, mostly male, teenagers are diagnosed with ‘conduct disorders’ every day. Anger, violence, and the refusal to obey social norms of behavior are some of the key diagnostic features of such an ‘illness.’ PTSD, Schizophrenia, and major depression, just to name a few more, are also ‘illnesses’ that have anger and violence as possible symptomatic manifestations.

Yet one of the biggest problems with the medical model of illness when it comes to mental suffering is that it leaves out all of the very important issues and arenas that we know effect our mental health. Moral issues, spiritual issues, socialization and family behavior, culture and social history are all basically left out of the equation when it comes to ‘mental illness.’ If we cannot address these questions when it comes to a person’s suffering and behaviors then we are stuck with, for example, the two poles of ‘mentally ill’ or ‘not ill but angry’ which I’ve seen splashed across my FB feed.

In my life and healing practice I basically reject the medical model of mental illness. That doesn’t mean I’m not up on my brain biochemistry! (I am) But what it does mean is that I have a much more holistic view of mental suffering that draws from a myriad of teachings and models that seek to explain human suffering and behavior. From this vantage point it seems obvious to me that anyone who uses humans as their own personal shooting gallery is in the grip of deep suffering and delusion. And it seems equally obvious that most people who experience anxiety or depression or any other number of states of suffering are NOT going to grab a gun and kill a lot of people.

I hope that we can broaden our discussion horizon on this very vital issue.

Defunding the Public Square: When Those in Power Have All the Goodies

There is one day where the images imprinted on my brain crystalized my understanding of the decades of relentless assault on funding for the public square. Why has there been this unending cry for defunding of parks, schools, universities, roads, trains, waterlines, healthcare, anything that is good for the ‘public?’

It was a day of kayaking on Leech Lake, a fairly large, popular lake that is both full of tourists and also surrounded by the Leech Lake Native American Reservation. We pulled into the boat launch which was across the street from the ranger station for the local national forest. A sign on the door of the station said that is was closed due to funding cuts. These are the sorts of cuts that are promoted because ‘we cannot afford them’ and ‘taxes are bad’ and ‘government is bad,’ you know the drill. We headed out into the lake.

Our trip covered 17 miles that day and took us around a large peninsula near Walker, a popular tourist town. In addition to the beauty of the lake and the shore, we spent our day looking at white tourists playing in their private playgrounds. We saw giant ‘lake cabins’ (most far bigger than my house), giant boats, giant jet skis, giant pontoon boats, giant floats of all sizes. Hundreds of people playing on their private lake shore lots. And it occurred to me, these people have no need for the public square, they have all the goodies.

The current iteration of the public square in America, the public square that is being dismantled, is one that was built for the development of the white population, the population in power. The cheap universities, the good roads, the public schools, the national parks; these were all built to create a wealthy and powerful society for those in power. And it worked. However now, as huge numbers of those people have grabbed enough wealth to privately fund their nice lives, those same people are defunding the public square for others, including many of the poorer white folks who helped create the wealth in the first place but were left behind in the race to the top.

This phenomenon isn’t unique to our society. Every powerful elite has done the same thing. Once they solidify their power, they get rid of the public benefits which lifted their group up out of poverty or misery or simple hardship, and they focus on their own private good. We see this in Rome, in ‘let them eat cake’ royal France, in the British Empire, in the enslavement of 45,000 people to build a King’s wife’s tomb that we call the Taj Mahal, in the Chinese dynasties, in the Mayans, the Incas, the Egyptians, the list is endless. And of course, all of these Empires collapse. The weight and the obscenity at the top is just too much to bear. It’s not sustainable and either people rise up to overthrow the powerful, or they just become so lazy and decadent that they are easily destroyed by the next hungry group or tribe.

Of course now the stakes are higher. With nuclear weapons and climate change and globalization we aren’t just talking about the collapse of one country or empire, but rather the whole world. Furthermore, within our country, the availability of stronger drugs to numb pain, and every greater distractions available online, is leading to a steady increase in despair, child maltreatment, and mental illness. Cat Steven’s words, penned in 1970, “I know we’ve come a long way. We’re changing day to day. But tell me now where do the children play,” could not have been more prophetic.

This long repeating human process reveals why the spiritual life has always been about the giving up of power by those with it and the empowering of those without. Once one group has enough to live, they must pass the rest on to the next group who doesn’t. They don’t just keep taking.

Giving back to the public square over time thus becomes a spiritual practice. How many school bonds have been voted down by rich older people because they would pay for kids who are a different color or community? What does it mean to want to pay taxes for a park you may never visit, to pay for a child you will never meet to go to college? There is more than enough wealth to pay for our public domain. What seems to be lacking is spiritual wisdom to do so.

The Electoral College and Rural America: What’s our vision?

Since the election we’ve witnessed quite the outcry from the left against the Electoral College (EC) and the unfairness, or brokenness, or problem with this system of choosing a president.  Leaving aside the obvious, that these same people would be defending the system with all their might if Clinton had won by a few electoral votes, such an outcry rarely seems to talk about what the ever widening gap between the popular vote and the electoral vote means regarding our national relationship with rural communities.

Having now lived half my life in very rural areas and half in urban areas I’ve seen not only the radical changes in rural America over the past decades, but also how generally unaware urbanites are of these changes and transformations.  Perhaps urban dwellers have heard the statistics about the de-population of the countryside but what I think they don’t get is how this demographic change is part and parcel of the corporate takeover of America, and how destructive such a makeover has been to rural societies; deeply scarring those who still remain.

Logging mills that used to employ a 1,000 people can now get by on fewer than 100 due to automation.  Farmland in northwest MN that used to have one family per 80 acres is now lucky if there is one family per 800. West Virginia, an extraction point for natural resources of all kinds, has been loosing population since the 1950s.  Animal husbandry that used to be in the control of small farmers is now governed by corporate managers.  The list goes on and on.  Behind everyone of these changes is a Monsanto, a Cargill, an ADM, a Tyson Foods, some huge conglomerate that is benefiting from the de-population as human costs go down, automation goes up, and control of the countryside increases. Also behind these changes are decimated main streets, closed schools, churches, grocery stores, and social networks.  Not surprisingly these are the communities that voted for Trump by huge margins.

Looking at the arguments regarding the electoral college, one of the main statistics that stands out is the disproportionate value of a vote from a small state verses a big state.  One electoral college vote in Wyoming requires only 142,000 popular votes, where as one electoral college vote in CA requires 560,000.  Thus these rural states that are being depopulated and destroyed have far more power in the electoral college than the urbanized high population states. As a result this is another way in which the oligarchic class can control our electoral process.

One approach to this problem of power imbalance is to change the way the EC works.  Such a change seems highly unlikely right now.  Another approach though is to have a deeper conversation about what we want our rural areas to look like.  Do we want them totally depopulated as resource extraction centers run by a few companies?  Is that good stewardship?  Are we OK with abandoning them and their people to a depressed and demoralized social state?  Do we want to disempower them further by taking away their EC vote, or might we consider empowering them by actually paying attention to them and appreciating the value that they bring to our lives.  Urbanites can make fun of ‘hicks’ all they want, but their food, water, gas, oil, electricity, and building supplies come from areas populated and worked by those same hicks.

I think that when liberals bash the rural folks and their unfair balance of power in the Electoral College, they play right into the hands of the corporate titans who are using those people and places as a way of locking in political power.  Rather we should be reaching out to these people and places, forming partnerships between inner cities and rural communities and finding ways to work together and find political, social, and economic solutions that benefit both groups.  Not only might this be of value in the political arena, but it would also help us perhaps begin to regain some control over huge swaths of land and all the value it gives to us.

America’s getting Punk’d

For those who aren’t familiar with the title’s reference, Punk’d is an American hidden camera-practical joke reality television series that first aired on MTV in 2003. It was created by Ashton Kutcher and Jason Goldberg.  In the show,  Kutcher sets into motion elaborate pranks aimed at Hollywood stars and other celebs.  At the end, the prank is revealed and the person understands that they’ve been Punk’d.

This year, the entire presidential election has been hijacked and we are all getting Punk’d.

As we wring our collective hands over Hilary and The Donald, here’s what I think is actually happening:

About 18 months ago, Hilary and Bill realized that Hilary didn’t stand a chance against any ‘normal’ Republican candidate.  This realization began an elaborate scheme to get The Donald to run on the GOP ticket.  Conveniently ignored in media coverage of the election is that these two families are friends.  Chelsea and Ivanka are frequently described as best friends.  So Bill meets with Donald, and although we know nothing about the content of the meeting, shortly after it, Trump announced his candidacy.

Then using their vast connections with the ‘billionaire class,’ who would want the Clinton’s back in the White House, they conspired not only to impede the Sanders candidacy (once it arose as an unexpected threat), but also to get the media to turn the GOP race into a circus where Trump was treated as a comedy fixture and not a serious candidate.  This allowed him to avoid all scrutiny, get gobs of free media, all the while trashing the other candidates.

Now that he’s become the candidate, we see that he is being destroyed by the same media that all but gave him his wonderful ‘outsider’ ‘tough guy’ status during the primaries.  In addition, we see Donald becoming more and more reckless, bizarre, almost a caricature of himself.  Everyone is mystified.  But it makes perfect sense if the plan all along was for him to lose.

This work has paved the way for Hilary to win, although she is such a challenged candidate that she’s having a hard time, and making it seem like a real race.  What does Trump get out of this?  A lifetime of free marketing, endless publicity, and even more power and access to the world of ‘business.’  Someone who’s not an extreme narcissist might wonder how and why you’d ever subject yourself to such abuse and humiliation.  It’s hard to appreciate that a person with a narcissistic personality disorder doesn’t feel humiliation and never views their actions in a negative light.  They can spin anything they do as a positive.

Thus the overreach and power of the entrenched oligarchs has now become so massive that they can turn the presidential election into a reality TV show.  We are getting Punk’d and the powers that be are getting what they want, a Democratic president and a GOP Congress, the balance that has worked exceptionally well for them these past 8 years.

Now for those of you who think Hilary is wonderful, this is all great news and you are very happy.  However in my lifetime:

  • The military budget has done nothing but increase, gobbling up an ever growing percentage of our resources, and fueling a massive military industrial complex which continues to wreak havoc and death around the world.  The Trillions spent on the war crime which was the Iraq war, the thousands killed by drones, the hundreds of bases around the world, the 22 vets who kill themselves every day, the hundreds of thousands of innocents slaughtered, these policies have been supported by Democrats and Republicans alike and continue unchecked regardless of who’s in the White House or Congress.
  • The prison-industrial complex has continued to wage war on POC decimating communities and families.  We now enslave more people than were enslaved when slavery was the law of the land.  This too continues regardless of the administration’s party.
  • The mental health of our population continues to decline.  The meaninglessness of jobs in a global economy, the crush of debt, and the emptiness of the consumer life style has fueled the rise of an epidemic of anxiety and depression, opiate use, and chronic pain illnesses.  These trends also continue unabated by those who support and promote a predatory global capitalism.
  • The wealth gap continues to grow due to these same capitalist forces.  This economic system is fully embraced by both parties and is unquestioned American doctrine.  Meanwhile people work more hours for less and a permanent underclass continues to grow.
  • Global warming and the destruction of the environment continues unabated.  Again, despite some recent lip service as to the importance of this issue, world-wide emissions of carbon dioxide continue to grow and our climate may have reached a point where we can never return to the stability of a pre-industrial era.
  • Our country continues to take advantage of ‘illegal aliens,’ using them as fodder for wage depression and refusing to treat them as human beings or create serious immigration reform.  Obama has deported more people and destroyed more families than any recent GOP president.

If anyone seriously think that a Clinton administration is going to make a major reversal in these trends, well we can just wait and see.

The hegemony of the global elite is both depressing and disempowering.  In the face of it I believe we should continue to advocate for sane, human policies as hard as we can, without much expectation of success.  However these times also remind me of other points in history when huge Empires ruled the world and were in the process of grinding themselves, and anyone in their wake, into the dust.  During such moments, people of faith often responded to their relative powerlessness by deciding to invest in small local communities of deep spiritual practice and service as a way of investing in the long arch of history.  We are in such times, and if we invested even a fraction of the energy we put into this charade of an election into small scale, human alternative communities, I think we would do humanity and ourselves a great service.

And it always feels better if you’re not getting Punk’d.

We Are All West Virginia Part 2: Theological Reflections

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A week after leaving West Virginia, I read Matthew 21: 18-22 for our weekly MICAH meeting.  It’s a familiar passage:

In the morning, when Jesus returned to the city, he was hungry. And seeing a fig tree by the side of the road, he went to it and found nothing at all on it but leaves. Then he said to it, ‘May no fruit ever come from you again!’ And the fig tree withered at once. When the disciples saw it, they were amazed, saying, ‘How did the fig tree wither at once?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only will you do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, “Be lifted up and thrown into the sea”, it will be done. Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive.’

The last few sentences are often quoted either to encourage people to have more faith, or to chid people that they don’t have enough faith.  When we pray and ‘get things’ then we clearly have mountain-moving faith but if we don’t then the implication can be: Jesus said you could move mountains so if you can’t get what you want then you just don’t have enough faith.  The first part of the passage is usually ignored or seen as a bit weird: Jesus being grumpy about being hungry doesn’t seem so nice.

But having just returned from our trip, suddenly the passage took on a whole new meaning.  What if this isn’t an encouragement for faith, but rather a warning about not using our faith wisely?  Because, well, we now can cause plants to die in an instant and we can move a mountain and throw it down into the sea.

Perhaps we don’t think of weed killers and mountain top removal as being similar to ‘asking in faith,’ but what is prayer but an expression of our intentions and a desire for action in the world?  If we can obliterate a 200 million year old mountain in 20 years or less, that certainly looks like an instant from the perspective of the mountain.  Or if we can wipe out thousands of plants in an afternoon because we designate them as ‘weeds’ and we are hungry for the ‘good’ plants, that also demonstrates our power over the rest of the natural world.

Jesus indicates that we can do these incredible things, yet he doesn’t say that they are good or that we should do them.  And now that we can throw a mountain into the sea we know definitively that it’s not good.  Our power is tremendous and if we don’t recognize this we are in danger of doing many many bad things, for our intentions carry great weight.  Yet most of the time we read this passage and think, “Nah I can’t do that,” and this lack of awareness causes us to choose poorly.

Yet what if we accepted our power?  What if we realized the responsibility given to us because we can actualize our almost every thought?  Would we not tread much more lightly?  Might we not embrace humility rather than hubris?



I’m still wearing the green string I was given when we visited the mountain top removal site.  Paul, our host, asked if we would wear it to remember what was being done to his home.  So I still have it on and it does remind me of him and the people whose lives are being destroyed.

But now it also reminds me of something else: our power.

What do we use this power for?  We can blow up the world thousands of times.  We can spray hundreds of bullets into a crowd in a second.  These are expressions of our rage, our desire for power over others, our will to conquer, our hate.

But we can also use this power for love.  This is what we, people who claim to follow Jesus, are asked to do.  How much faith and intention do we put towards that aim?  What if we asked to move mountains of hatred instead of mountains covered with forests?

Do we believe we could do that?  Do we even try?

We are all West Virginia, Like It Or Not

As I write I’m sitting in a hotel room in Atlanta where I’m participating in a Forum on Christian Leadership sponsored by the Forum for Theological Exploration.  It’s a powerful Spirit-filled event.  It’s also 90 degrees outside and there’s a bad air pollution warning.  Inside though the cool air wafts through monstrous air ducts so that we can all think straight and not be drenched in our own perspiration.  This will become important in a few paragraphs.

Two weeks ago I set out from Drew Seminary in New Jersey, a co-teacher on a pilgrimage with several bright, wonderful seminarians.  We were doing a Cross Cultural Immersion class on Appalachia and our specific focus during our time in West Virginia was water as seen through the lenses of Art, Education, and Energy.

The next 14 days was spent wandering that beautiful jewel of a state.  Our other co-leaders, the Rev. Dr. Heather Murray Elkins and Rev. Jeffrey Allen had arranged a magical tour.  Up and down hills we went, surrounded by green.  Forests, fields, ‘hollars, these unfolded before our eyes like so many hidden gems.  And as we wandered we met people.  Lots and lots of wonderful people.  People who loved the land, loved storytelling, loved their place.

Here are some of the things we heard and saw.

West Virginia is treated as a third world  country in the sense that it is mostly used for extraction of resources.  Timber, coal, and now natural gas are extracted from the state, with little objective gain to the population, and sent elsewhere to be used by urban and suburban populations.  Mountain top removal (MTR), the latest and greatest mining technology, has resulted in the desolation of enough land that if you laid out all the areas of wasteland end to end you would have a tract eight tenths of a mile wide that stretches from Washington DC to San Francisco.  Fracked gas is eviscerating entire communities with its 25 acre drilling platforms, mining roads, thousands of miles of pipeline, and tens of millions of gallons of radioactive, toxic frack water.

And what has this left the population with?  You now can no longer safely eat the fish out of any of West Virginia’s thousands of streams and rivers.  The average life expectancy of a person living near an MTR site is 15 years less than the national average due to the toxic water and air created by the mining.  West Virginia ranks at or near the bottom in numerous categories of health and wellness for its citizens.  And two years ago 300,000 people were suddenly left without safe water when a chemical tank ruptured and spilled two toxic chemicals into the river upstream from the Charleston water plant.

Yet this story of environmental devastation is largely invisible to the rest of the country in part because the stereotypes of Appalachia are so devastatingly negative.  Our students encountered this full force as they went to the student health center to get their trip forms filled out.  There the staff told them that they needed special immunizations to visit the state.  They were told not to bathe during the trip because the water was so toxic.  They were told to fear the people and not walk alone.  The staff said they would never go there.  All of these ‘facts’ and ‘concerns,’ as we learned from our experience were wrong.  Yet they serve as a powerful force to keep West Virginia isolated and separated, an invisible space for exploitation.

But are we separate?  The gas and coal from the leveled mountains, where does it go?  Well much of it goes east to power the East Coast electric grid.  I’m cool in Atlanta because a mountain got blown up in West Virginia.

And then where does the coal and gas go?  Into the air.  And as it does, we are warming the planet and creating an ecological devastation that we cannot even comprehend.

Both the Cross Cultural Class and the Forum are related to the training of spiritual leaders.  Historically the dominant Christian narrative in relation to the environment has been that creation is ours to use and throw away.  God created humans as special, separate beings and gave them the earth to have “dominion” over.  Ironically Dominion is the name of the company that builds the biggest fracked gas pipelines.

Thankfully there has been another stream of theology, one that is growing, which refutes this narrative.  It recognizes that God has created an interdependent ecology of billions of beings who all depend upon each other for life.  Human aren’t separate from nature, we are nature.  And everything we do with and to any part of the natural world effects every other part.  Spiritual leaders who will lead differently will recognize this reality and work to overcome the barriers and stereotypes and lies that keep us from knowing and caring about the whole of creation.

Because like it or not, every time we turn on our lights or our gas, we are all West Virginia.


Reflections on Re-hiring a Police Chief: The Dynamic Triangle of King, Prophet, Priest

Tomorrow Minneapolis is set to decide if it will rehire it’s police chief, as well as several other important figures related to civil rights and the legal system.  Last week, as part of that process, I went to give testimony before the City Council Committee charged with making that decision. It was a fascinating experience.

In a government room filled with the symbols of history and power, the City Council members, and the mayor, sit behind a huge wooden array of desks, more of a barricade than a piece of furniture.  All of the political figures past and present come to give their support, to pay homage, payment for their spot at the table.  Then there are those there in protest, those who speak out for the wrongs done to the people who have no voice.  And of course, there are the cameras, and reporters.  It’s designed to be intimidating, and it works.

Sitting there listening and watching, I could not help but think about the view of society presented in the Hebrew Bible, what Christians call the Old Testament.  In story, song, and wisdom parable, those pages present a vision of a social order held together by the interaction between King, Priest, and Prophet.  Each has their own role in the formation and stability of the social order, and the people, who hover somewhere outside this dynamic triangle, rise or fall depending on whether these relationships move towards Good and Wisdom or Foolishness and Ego. Ultimately all three of these roles are responsible to God for their decisions, and they forget this at their peril, although it is always the lowest of society who suffers most when they ignore their divine mandate.

Kings and Priests are tasked with stability of the social order.  They are the ones focused on rules, and regulations, and the smooth working of the common sphere.  In the testimony in favor of the Chief, people talked a lot about safety and order, and processes and procedures.  Prophets, on the other hand, are the disrupters.  They are the ones called to point out when order has become oppression, when regulations do not serve common good, but rather serve to enrich the court and the temple.  The cry against our prison industrial complex is such a prophetic witness.

Each role also has its inherent strengths and weaknesses.  The insulation of the high courts can lead to blindness towards injustice, even as the people who are attracted to such roles are often those who can ‘get things done’ and create the systems of function that a society needs to run well.  On the other hand, the emotionality and passion of the prophet is attractive and has a heart for justice.  Yet prophets are notoriously bad at doing much of anything concrete, and they often fail miserably or loose interest when given a seat at the table of power.  It is hard to imagine John the Baptist running a City Council Committee.

Somewhere, out of sight in the metaphysical dust of the universe, God hovers around these trifold relationships.  In the Scriptures we are told that God has all the answers.  If King, Priest, and Prophet would truly listen to God, then a good social order would arise.  But we wonder if such a Divine reality is true.  The speed of our interactions, and the ego needs of greed and self preservation dull our senses and prevent those in the roles from seeing clearly.

As I listened, it occurred to me that it would help to see and understand these roles better, to appreciate each one, to see the value, and necessity, and danger inherent in each.  When someone rises to speak, we often ask about their skin color, or background, or class.  What if we also asked:  Are they a King, a Prophet, a Priest?  This might help us better understand where they are coming from.

And of course today, who are these roles?  They are Queens – Hilary’s cry of “I can get things done,” they are the entertainers and purveyors of myth and story.  They are the queer, the trans, the oligarch, the radio host.

On balance, the Scriptural witness tells us that society is always failing those on the margins.  The King and the Priest are always falling short in their job, for the human being sides with themselves at least as much as they live in service to others.  The Prophet, although a bad bureaucrat, is the one who draws society in the direction of the Just Kingdom.  They pull the triangle in the direction of God and it is the job of the Kings and the Priests to recreate the new systems that become progressively more inclusive.

Whatever gets decides tomorrow, I hope that greater Wisdom prevails sooner rather than later.

#Wheaton’s Move Should Not Surprise

This past week, Wheaton College, one of the most prominent evangelical Christian Colleges in the world, suspended tenured professor Dr. Larycia Hawkins.  Dr. Hawkins had decided to wear a head scarf until Christmas in solidarity with Muslims in America.  Dr. Hawkins is also female and black.

However, these aren’t the stated reasons she was suspended.  Rather Wheaton declared that she had violated the school’s statement of faith because, as part of her explanation for donning the scarf, she declared  that Muslims and Christians worship the same God.

The firestorm of criticism directed at Wheaton has been swift and brutal.  People have declared that Dr. Hawkins is being singled out for particular humiliation because she is a woman and black.  While many have used words such as ‘shameful’ and ‘disgraceful’ to decry such a negative response to an action of compassion and solidarity in our turbulent times.  Even the Chicago Sun Times, not usually a theological journal, has waded in with an editorial against the school’s action.

While I have no doubt that Wheaton’s actions have something to do with Dr. Hawkins race and gender, and that a white male professor might not have been publicly humiliated in this manner, I think that the current rash of criticisms are missing a more profound, more important point: namely that we as a species are at a crossroads as to how we understand the relationships of all religions.

No one should have been surprised by Wheaton’s actions.  A bedrock theological doctrine of evangelical Christianity is that Jesus is the only way to salvation.  Some evangelicals present a ‘kindler, gentler’ version of this doctrine, while some are much more militant about it, but it is there none the less.  The particularism of Christianity is sacrosanct in this branch of the faith (and some of the commentators who have suggested that Wheaton’s statement of faith doesn’t make this clear and thus have no grounds for Dr. Hawkins suspension are splitting hairs because anyone who’s been anywhere near an evangelical institution knows full well the emphasis on particularity).

Among other things, it is this doctrine that has caused the now centuries old clash between some forms of Christianity and science, a clash now manifest in the unfortunate fact that a significant portion of America is anti-science.  Particularity of faith clashes with the scientific demonstration of the universe as a singular whole (multiple universe theory not withstanding).  If the universe is One, then any God in relation to the universe must also be One.  The universe isn’t something to be parceled out in separate pieces of pie and neither is God.  We cannot, if science is true, have some populations of humans worship the ‘true God’ and some populations worshiping either no God or a ‘different’ God.  The problem that these scientifically discovered facts pose for traditional faith are significant as I’ve discussed in greater detail in my latest book.  But one of the practical issues arising from this clash of science and faith is the question of how to understand, and relate to, other religions.

And at the center of this question for evangelicals looms a great fear of the “Same God” assertion.  This concern is so great that even someone writing in support of Dr. Hawkins and the Same God idea makes the comment that, ” I’m not yet convinced of the Same God theory, but…”  For if indeed Christians and Muslims, and any other religion for that matter, worship the same God, then what is the point of conversion for example, or hanging on to our particularity, or caring if politicians take oaths on Bibles or Korans?  And certainly what is the point of killing each other over faith?

In the 1990s I commented in numerous settings that inter-religious relationship was going to be the key theological issue of the 21st Century.  The world is getting too small and too interconnected for us not to be forced to confront these problems.  Every day convinces me that I was right.

We can argue over whether suspending Dr. Hawkins was proper, or a good sociopolitical move, or racially based, and these are important issues, but I wish that we were more focused on the problem of particularity and the evangelical insistence that our God, or our version of God, is mandatory to related to the God of Creation.

Until we declared that the human species is One, that the Universe is One, and that God/Not God is One, we will find it hard to stop killing each other, and begin to live with one another with compassion, caring, and grace.  All of which are actions that, and we miss the irony every day, all religions hold in the highest regard, because God indeed is One.

How Stupid are We?

This past week in Iowa, Donald Trump asked his audience how stupid the Iowa voters were to believe Ben Carson’s stories about his violent childhood.

Sunday morning, as I read the usual ‘kill the terrorist’ and ‘pray for Paris’ responses to the attacks in France, I found myself asking the same question of all Americans, but particularly white Americans and those at the levers of power:  How stupid are we?  Sometimes even The Donald can ask the right question.

How stupid are we that we believed Bush, Chaney and company that in two months we would wipe out ‘the terrorists’ and be safe?  How stupid are we that we don’t understand by now that we created Al Qaeda to fight the Russians in Afghanistan, that Bin Laden was on our payroll until he was set loose to attack us?  How stupid are we that we don’t understand that we created ISIS by destroying Iraq for no good reason and then installing a leader who alienated and criminalized half the population such that they decided to fight for their own cause?  How stupid are we to not be able to differentiate between fanatics who use religious language for their own cause and the vast majority of people who, no matter what their religion, are just trying to get by and do the best for themselves and their family?  How stupid are we to not understand that when you spend trillions on weapons and war you are going to have less money to care for your own population and make friends around the world?

It seems that the answer, time and again, is: pretty stupid.  Because from the pundits on TV to the Editorial Boards of newspapers, from the blogs on the internet to the letters to the editor, we again are hearing the rattling of sabers, the cry for war and destruction.  How stupid are we?

Sadly, many of the those who seem most intent on pursuing this line of suicidal reasoning claim that they are Christians.  These are the same folks who are ready to ‘kick ass’ when a nativity scene is removed from the town square, or degrade students who march against racism, or threaten to ship every immigrant home.  And yet not only will these folks not listen to reason or facts, they won’t even listen to Jesus, who told his disciples not to fight back with violence because those who live by the sword will die by the sword (Matthew 26:52).  How stupid are we?

The world now has 7 billion people on it.  That number is climbing to 9 or 10 billion within the next hundred years.  There is nowhere else to go.  We have long past the point where we can burn down a village or a city or a country and not feel any repercussions.  When we destroy places, and impoverish whole societies, making large swaths of the world unlivable and filled with misery and death, we will feel the results of these actions; and the response isn’t going to be pretty, or positive, or something we desire.  We cannot want to both make the Middle East uniThe hatred that we visit on another will come back to us and the lag time between cause and effect is going to continue to shrink.

It is said that Nero fiddled while Rome burned.  He and his courtiers were pretty stupid.  And yet is seems that in two thousand years we haven’t gotten a whole lot smarter.  Violence begets violence.  How stupid are we that we don’t understand that yet?