Moral Integrity

There was a recent story in the news about Republican Governor Baker falling in line behind Trump’s administration by not condemning the appointment of Stephen Bannon, a so-called Alt Right politico whose media group publishes white supremacist and white nationalist articles. Governor Baker had previously condemned Trump’s racist rhetoric and now is dutifully falling in line. His defense was that the commonwealth of Massachusetts depends on federal grants and contracts.

I posted this story on my facebook page with the comment that this should not be surprising.  In my comments on this post I stated, “Very few people have the moral integrity to hold fast in the face of evil.”

I want to expand on this notion of moral integrity and why it is vitally important to fortify it in order to save American democracy.  Moral integrity is not a solo action. It is not developed in a vacuum and it cannot be maintained in an isolated realm.  Those who attempt to do so are betrayed, imprisoned, and ultimately killed–sometimes figuratively–sometimes literally.  You can begin to see why Governor Baker reversed course in his stance of condemning Trump’s racist rhetoric to taking the more supportive desire “to have an open dialog” with Trump’s administration. He caved to save his political standing in the new regime that is coming to power in less than 90 days.  He knows that this is an administration that will retaliate with vengeance against any who stand in its way. His response is self-protective.

After the cast of Hamilton spoke out to Mike Pence for their hope in the future of America, Trump condemned such a statement as “harassment.” Once Trump is in power, expect Nixonian style enemy lists and attempts to decimate them. Governor Baker’s cave in was in realization of this new reality, where civil discourse is harassment.

Remember when Jesus was arrested not one of his disciples remained except John, Mary his mother, and Mary Magdalene. Maintaining moral integrity in the face of evil is difficult even for the founders of the Christian faith. The Roman Empire was a cruel and evil force that crushed any who exerted self-differentiation.  The disciples only found their footing again by supporting one another, by affirming their values and nurturing one another to remain firm.

This is the only way one can maintain moral integrity. Just as they supported one another, we must support one another. Just as they met with one another, we must meet with one another. Just as they loved one another, we must love one another. They became the resistance and showed the world another way. That is our task today. To love one another with a radically subversive love that transforms hearts. It means we form collectives and coalitions of love to resist the authoritarian fascism that we see happening.

And even doing all of that, maintaining moral integrity is a hard road to travel.  We only need to look at the history of Christianity to know that most of its 2000 year history has been anything but moral. So to maintain moral integrity also means being willing to call out and call in those who break covenant with one another. We must align ourselves with truth tellers not those who promote truthiness or post-truths; those things that we want to hear and believe because they feed our bigotry and biases. But truth tellers that remind us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Truth tellers who remind us that actions that hurt people who do not look like us, do not act like us, do not live like us; those actions also hurt us as well because we are all one body, called the United States of America.

There is truth in the Christian Scriptures, when my hand is cut, am I not going to grasp it and tend to its wound? I am not going to say, it is only my hand, I can live without it. The leg cannot say to the eye, I am not an eye so I do not need you. We are only strong when all of our different parts are working together, and we are only a force for good when we have the courage to speak up against evil in all of its forms.  Right now we have a section of our body that is hurting and is diseased with hatred.

The hurt is real. The pain is real.  But to appease the pain by supporting the gangrene of white nationalists to move into power is not the way to move forward. That only teaches those in pain that their acting out is validated.  It only reinforces their hateful rhetoric and amps up their behaviors to attack others who are different than they are. We need to be able to resist their attempt to make us cower in fear and rise up to say this behavior is not acceptable in a nation that proudly proclaims, E Pluribus Unum –Out of Many, One.

And that is going to take all of us to strengthen our moral integrity so it will remain strong to act in the dark days ahead. And it means contacting those in political office, who often look to expediency and compromise rather than moral integrity, telling them that we have their back when they act with moral integrity.

All of our bluster today must not disappear when Trump is in full power. That is the temptation awaiting us on January 2oth. The temptation for us to also fall in line and succumb to the new reality of a white nationalist government. We must not, the lives of too many people are at stake. Protecting and strengthening our moral integrity is the order of the day. We must encourage one another to remain strong in the face of evil.  We must encourage one another not to hide and act as if nothing is happening.  We must encourage one another to continue to love one another and support their moral actions of resistance.

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The Baptist Minister Knocks on the Unitarian Universalist Minister’s Door

The other day a Baptist minister and a congregant came to my apartment door.  They were passing out tracts and alerting the neighborhood of a revival his congregation is hosting.  After exchanging a few pleasantries, he found out that I was a Unitarian Universalist minister. He launched into a series of questions of what if I am wrong in my faith and damnation awaited my eternal soul after death.  I assured him I had faith that was not the case for me or for anyone. He suggested I was making a huge gamble.  I assured him my faith was sure.  He requested that I read the tract he was passing out and I told that I would not because I already knew what the tract was going to state and was not interested.  He told me I was afraid of the truth.  I reminded him it was as he perceived it and not truth as I perceived it.  He continued to challenge me on reading it.  And after I stated again I was not going to read it, he told me I was pitiful.  And continued to call me pitiful as he walked away.

I found it quite interesting that he could not accept an honest answer to his question therefore he had to resort to insulting me.  The difficulty that I have with Christianity as it is presented here in the Deep South is that it is based on fear and contradictions.  That fact alone should be a red flag for any would be converts.

The Baptist minister and I agreed that God is love.  Yet, the Baptist minister also believes that if Jesus is not accepted as Lord and Savior then that God of love will condemn the person to eternal damnation of fire and brimstone.  This is a contradiction.  A god of love does not condemn the beloved. A skilled parent may punish their child for doing something harmful to themselves and others but the parent never condemns their child to everlasting punishment.  The parent seeks to protect the child.  The parent seeks to nurture the child.  The parent seeks to instruct the child. The skilled parent does not use fear of condemnation to achieve instruction.  Condemnation destroys and removes all hope of reconciliation.  The God the Baptist believes in is an abusive manipulative parent who uses fear, intimidation, and condemnation to oppress and control his people.

As a society, we try to remove the child from such abusive parents because we recognize the damage such brutal relationships causes within the child’s maturational development. Is it any wonder given that sort of relationship with a god who requires being fearful of eternal damnation in order to achieve loyalty results in state laws that are punitive on those less fortunate?   This is not the teachings of Jesus.  His teachings that refer to damnation are aimed at his followers who become smug in their salvation and do not recognize the divine in each other.  ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of You?’ (Matthew 25:44 New American Standard) This is a parable.   Jesus is not referring to an actual location one will be sent but rather is referring to how far a distance one might be in following his teachings when they only take on the shell of his teachings and not embody them.  How different the world would be if we recognized the presence of the Christ, the Buddha, the divine in each other and nurtured that to blossom to full bloom and then to seed?

The Baptist minister in promoting fear and coercion to convert others is likened to another teaching of Jesus’ “Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but on the inside you are full of greed and evil.” (Luke 11:39 International Standard Version).  Having the appearance of salvation but not the spirit of love within is no salvation at all.  If he was truly a follower of Jesus, he would not have needed to resort to insults as he parted. I am sure he felt very smug and good at his ability to cast dispersions on my honesty in telling him ‘no I will not read’ his tract.  His behavior does not speak well of his religion.  He did not impress me with his arrogant stance.

To be honest, I have difficulty with a faith where the message is, ‘See what you made me do to your elder brother because you would not listen to me? You made me torture him and crucify him in the most horrendous fashion all because you refused to obey my commandments.’    This is the abusive parent.  And since the church is considered the bride of Christ, this is the abusive spouse.  ‘It is your fault because of your sinful nature that I strike Jesus with the lash and drive nails into his body.  If only you would just do what I ask and not make me so angry, I would not have to beat up Jesus. Can’t you see how much I love you? I crucified my son for your evil behaviors.’  This is the abusive message the Baptist minister was preaching to me the other day.  Every victim of domestic abuse has heard this rationale for why their spouse struck them. The only difference is that instead of striking the victim, the abuser strikes someone else in their stead with the warning ‘this will happen to you for all eternity if you do not do as I say.’  I was already all too familiar with the subtext of the tract he passed out to have a need to read it.

I prefer a religion that invites me to be more than I am today.  There are versions of Christianity, albeit rare in the Deep South, that  invite others to grow beyond where they are today.  I prefer a religion that calls me to love my neighbor.  I prefer a religion that calls me to make straight the path, to encourage justice to roll down like waters, to be a river of righteousness, to be an up-lifter of people. Such a religion will also lead me to lie down in green pastures and to drink from still waters to restore my soul. Such a religion will place a yearning in my heart to create justice, love mercy, and to walk humbly through-out my days.  That is a religion I can follow, not because it ‘tickle’s my ears”  with words I want to hear as the Baptist minister suggested, but because such a religion confronts my prejudices and biases, chastises my false convictions, and reveals where I have fallen short in my relationships with others.  Such a religion makes me think long and hard on how my life affects the lives of others.  It also reassures me of my humanity when I miss the mark and invites me to begin again.  Such a religion reaffirms my inherent worth and dignity with the love that is offered me not because of anything I have done but simply because I, too, am a child of the universe/god.

My chosen faith, Unitarian Universalism, is not the perfect religion either.  We have our own issues with racism, classism, and other isms as they are manifested within our congregations and denominational structures.  But I believe we strive to not be coercive with fear mongering. I believe we strive to honor our principles and struggle on how to live those principles in our daily lives.  May we seek to fulfill our covenant with love and affection and leave fear behind.

 

 

 

Reframing Christianity

What if we got it all wrong about Christianity?  What if the crucifixion and resurrection is not the cornerstone of the Christian narrative?  What if the meaning of Jesus’ life is not the sacrificial lamb that has been slain for the redemption of the world?  What if there was a different meaning, a different purpose, a different narrative that Jesus was trying to teach humanity?  What if we have been distracted from that message by trying to find meaning in his death?

What if his torturous death on the cross was an attempt to kill an idea, akin to Gandhi’s assassination, or Martin Luther King’s?  When Michael Servetus was burned at the stake in the late 1500’s, Sebastian Castellio wrote “To kill a man is not to defend a doctrine: It is to kill a man!”  It was true with Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. their ideas were sought to be killed with their death. What if the ideas that Jesus taught were diminished in significance by glorifying his death on the cross?

The message that Jesus taught during his life was that God is love. Love one another. Be holy / be loving as your God in heaven is loving.  Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Place first the realm of heaven/ love above all else and everything shall be added unto you.  Be generous in all things; if someone asks for your coat, give them your shirt as well.  If they ask you to walk a mile, walk two. Love your enemies.

Contrast this message with God sacrificing his son to break the power of sin, the evils of the world in humanity.  God putting his beloved son in whom he is well pleased through torture, barbaric grueling torture for the salvation of humanity that is weaker, feebler, unable to measure up, unable to even come close to the love that Jesus exemplifies.

What parent would seek to punish a beloved child, perhaps a stronger, well meaning child for the wrongs committed by a younger, weaker, perhaps even physically feeble child?  What parent would then be called loving by doing such an unjust act against their children?

Rob Bell in his controversial book, Love Wins writes:  “If there was an earthly father who was like that, we would call the authorities. If there was an actual human dad who was that volatile, we would contact child protection services immediately.”  My comment on this quote was: “We [would] do the same for a father who punishes his older, stronger, more able son for the shortcomings, the wrongs committed by the younger and feebler son.  This is what God is doing when Jesus is crucified on the cross for our sins, for our wrongs committed.”

Now to be fair, the quote is taken out of context from Rob Bell’s text.  He is not talking about Jesus being punished for the sins of humanity.  He is talking about millions of people who have been taught that if someone does not accept Jesus in the ‘right’ way and they were then killed that very day, then God would have no choice but to punish them eternally with hell fire. Bell writes, “God would, in essence, become a fundamentally different being to them in that moment of death, a different being to them forever.” Such a god who portrays as being loving that would then become vindictive at the moment of death is no loving god. I agree with Rob Bell on this point.

I remember in high school, one of my classmates dying in a horrible car accident. The story went around the school that moments before his car accident he was being witnessed to about Jesus; he became angry and stormed off and consequently died.  The moral of this story was exactly what Rob Bell is saying.  My classmate because he rejected Christ was now in hell.  See what happens? God will take us out too, if we reject his son. How in heaven is this good news?

But Rob Bell’s argument in my mind is the same.  No loving parent would punish a good child, an obedient child, a child that models the best qualities of virtue for the inabilities, the inherent flaws in the child that cannot live up to those standards. No loving parent would call that love, mercy, or grace.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16) The key is in how we define the word “gave.”  To be consistent with God being love, crucifixion on the cross does not fit the definition.  Jesus tells the parable of the vineyard that a king had leased out.  He sends a servant to collect his harvest and the servant is beaten.  The king sends another servant and he too is beaten. So the king sends his beloved son, and the workers at the vineyard conspire together and kill the son.  The king does not give the son to be killed; it is what the workers at the vineyard do. God did not give his son to be crucified; it is the action that the people chose to take. At best the crucifixion can be seen as humanities abusive tendencies with all of life’s gifts to us.

There is a flaw in the theology surrounding the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.  Now I understand how such a flawed theology could arise.  Humans are meaning makers.  We want everything to have a meaning, a purpose.  We want our lives to be meaningful and not just the drudgery of the day to day indifference.  We have incorporated this meaning making into our clichés and platitudes.  When someone dies, we hear things like “God’s ways are mysterious” or it was “God’s will”. When we go through tough times we hear that “God is working his purpose out” or “God only allows what we can endure.”   We want our lives to have purpose, to have meaning.  So here was this man who lived and taught extraordinary truths on the nature of love.  He is betrayed, he is tortured, and he is crucified on a cross.  We want this to have meaning. We need it to be filled with profound meaning.

What possible meaning could it have?  He lived in a culture that valued the notion of substitution of wrongs through sacrifice.  This is the culture of the scapegoat.  This is the culture that had stories of child sacrifices with Abraham offering up his son to God. This is the culture that believed that blood rituals could bring atonement for sins. It makes sense that this culture would seek meaning in this manner.

But this is meaning that contradicts the very teachings of Jesus.  This is meaning that makes salvation into a three minute sinner’s prayer with no more commitment than that to achieve life eternal.  Salvation becomes marketable and easy. This life is filled with grief and sorrow but there is pie in the sky with Jesus.  All the focus is on the here after and no concern on the here and now.

Rob Bell states in his book, “Often the people most concerned about others going to hell when they die seem less concerned with the hells on earth right now, while the people most concerned with the hells on earth right now seem the least concerned about hell after death.” 

But if the meaning of Jesus’ life is not the atonement of sins to enable our safe passage into heaven, then what is his good news?  How do we make sense of his death?

Jesus saw his life to “proclaim release to the captives and the recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  (Luke 4: 18-19) His life was to show the power of love, justice in the world.  His life was to offer a new way of being that was not caught up in greed, coercion, or power abuse; be it physical, emotional, psychological, or corporate abuse.

This is a harder message to absorb. It is not a quick fix salvation. It sometimes points the finger of justice directly at where we live and convicts us. But it does seek to embody love in a way that is liberating in the here and now. It proclaims that not even death can stop it from progressing forward. Love is more powerful than death.  Love will resurrect in the hearts and minds of those who seek after it. It proclaims that we can be a part of that message if we seek to love one another.

“Perhaps the story of the physical raising of a dead man to life is an allegory of something else like the hope and promise of resurrection in the living of our days.  In the days that followed the biblical story, there was a change in the people who had followed Jesus. We are told they were all in hiding, in fear of their lives when their teacher was killed.  Over the next few weeks, they began to come out of their own self imposed tombs to begin spreading a message they had learned from their teacher. They tapped into the message of Jesus’ ministry of love and justice for others and began to see new possibilities for their lives.  It was as if the words of this man began to live within their own hearts, and created a new perspective on how they viewed life.  The embodied resurrection was empowering them to create their lives anew with the message they had heard. “[From “The Silence of the Resurrection” © 2009 Rev. Fred L Hammond UUCTuscaloosa)

Our focus then should not be on the crucifixion of Jesus. It should not even be on the resurrection. These are just footnotes to the narrative that was Jesus’ teachings. Our focus in this narrative is on what Jesus taught.  How are we to live our day to day lives?  How do we help bring release to the captors and set the oppressed free?  How do we love one another? How do we embody the teachings of Jesus so that they too transform us and the world around us?  How do we love one another, especially the ones who have caused us pain?

These are the vital questions to be asking ourselves. These are the questions that will re-frame  and transform our lives in profound ways.    Blessings,