I will grant that our forebearers in the Pleistocene Era survived in part because they learned to assume that the rustling in the grass might be caused a snake rather than merely the wind. This default assumption served them well because in their case a “false positive” resulted in no more harm than to stop them in their tracks for a moment while they assessed the situation before moving on.
By the time of Ancient Israel, human consciousness had progressed to the point that, rather than fear the foreigner, the sojourner, and the alien living in their midst, our forebearers learned to set aside their fears and embrace others from outside their tribe. To minimize risk of harm at the hands sojourners, these forebearers of contemporary Judaism, Christianity, and Islam developed an ethic of hospitality; a reciprocal agreement that the traveler would be welcomed, housed, and fed. The traveler agreed not to plunder the household of the host. The host offered hospitality and protection and the sojourner behaved as a gracious guest, shared news from far away, and did not overstay.
We find evidence of this shared agreement throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. Numerous passages declare that the sojourner and the alien must receive just treatment; be allowed to glean the fields and vineyards for sustenance; and participate in festivals and celebrations.
When the prophets spoke out against the injustice of their day, they warned that doom and devastation would come as the consequence of the unjust acts of an unjust society. They repeatedly listed the mistreatment of the sojourner and the alien among the shortcomings that foretold doom.
Now, I am not naïve enough to think that America has no enemies in the world or that there are not people living among us who wish us harm. What I do believe and would ask our leaders to consider is that fear-based policies such as travel bans, extreme vetting, and refusal to admit refugees creates a climate of unwarranted fear and suspicion. Further, that policies that grow out of this fear and suspicion do more to bring about the radicalization of immigrants, inspire homegrown acts of domestic terrorism, and perpetuate unrest than they do to make us secure.
Unlike the rustling in the grass caused by the wind, the “false positive” of assuming that all immigrants, all refugees, and all Muslims pose an imminent threat causes harm to us. It creates an unwarranted climate of fear. It justifies irrational policies like building a border wall, singling out followers of one of the world’s great peace-loving religions, and denying aid and comfort to honest, trustworthy souls who are seeking nothing more than a safe refuge from war, violence, and death.
If we should fear anything in our current circumstances, we should fear the corrosive effects of our fear-based over-reactions and unjust policies. Instead of fearing the immigrant, the refugee, and the sojourner among us, we should fear the hardheartedness that results from exaggerating the threat of international terrorism, homegrown radicalization, and undocumented immigrants living peacefully among us. Instead of walling ourselves off from our neighbors, closing our airports, and attributing hostility to billions of peace-loving Muslims, we must listen to the angels of our better nature, move cautiously yet boldly toward opening our hearts and our borders, and build our national policies on a firm foundation of justice and righteousness rather than upon the sands unwarranted fear and ignorance.
November 9, 2016
Despite the fact that we just chose celebrity over substance, and promises over a demonstrated record of performance, I am shocked…shocked I tell you to find that my mood this morning is one of optimism, hope, and dare I say, joy.
As anyone who knows me can tell you, I am no fan of the President-Elect, who will hereinafter be referred to as President-Elect T—-, and after January 20, 2017 as President T—-, as I cannot bear to speak his name.
My hope lies, not in an expectation of the wonderful things that will come from a T—- administration; rather, my hope lies in my profound confidence in our government and the enduring strength of our democratic institutions. I am certain that our nation is stronger than any individual who may occupy any office. The House of Representatives is more than the Speaker of the House. The Senate is so much more than an ill-tempered Senate Majority Leader, and the Supreme Court than its Chief Justice or any given member of the court. I believe that the Presidency is more than the words and deeds of the occupant of the Oval Office.
Despite the fact that I just renewed my passport, I have no plans to leave. I believe that no matter what occurs in the next four years, or who occupies the Oval Office, or who President-Elect T—- appoints to high office; our nation and our values will survive. Further, I believe that the T—- presidency will usher in a new golden age of American Democracy and world leadership. Not, I hasten to add, because of the actions and policies of a President T—-, but in reaction to what I am led to expect by his campaign rhetoric and his reported past actions.
I expect a President T—- to inspire the next generation of national leaders to seek office with higher goals and higher values than we have seen so far from President-Elect T—-. I hope that the T—- presidency will finally put an end to the notion that politics is the last refuge of thieves and scoundrels; a profession unworthy of our best and brightest. And I hope that as a result of his time in office, men of his ilk will no longer show their face in public let alone seek an office of high public trust.
December 16, 2016
I will not protest the election of Donald Trump although as anyone who knows me can attest I am not a fan of the President-elect. It is, after all, a founding and necessary principle of a functioning democracy that the losing party gracefully accept the results of an election as Secretary Clinton did as soon as the results were announced and as Governor Mitt Romney did in 2012.
Further, although I have my doubts about the actual business savvy of the President-elect since his adult life seems to have been devoted to creating and perpetuating an image, first of the rich playboy, then of the successful real estate tycoon, then the reality show star; images that remain cloaked in a secrecy that prevents the public from knowing any facts that would substantiate the claims he makes about himself; In the face of my doubts, I will not give into my fears that we have elected a vacuous parody of a man.
If, however, the darkest implications of the campaign rhetoric, the cabinet appointees, and the midnight tweets come to pass, I hope that I have the courage of my convictions and that I will speak out when the illusion of a populist champion of the disillusioned working family falls away and the authoritarian regime emerges in all its fascist fury.
And that I will stand with the immigrant, the LGBT and gender non-conforming members of my community, and the Muslims, and all followers of faith traditions not recognized by triumphalist Christians, and all whose ethnic heritage threatens the alt-right.
And that I will not only stand with but also suffer alongside those who are disenfranchised, dismissed, and oppressed when all the hateful rhetoric that energized the campaign rallies and victory tours activates the basest demons of our shadow selves and unleashes a rage and fury not seen on our shores and in our streets.
If these are the final days of our democracy, and I hope and pray that these are instead the beginning of a new realization of the ideals and dreams of our founders, if these are the harbingers of our final days then I commit my life, my fortune, and my sacred honor to those who stand up and say no to Trump’s vision of a great America.
Just before Easter this year, someone posted to Facebook a picture purported to be the Houston area mansion of Joel Osteen. Superimposed on the picture were the words “Jesus died so that Pastor Joel Osteen could purchase a $10.5 million home in Houston Texas.”
Needless to say, this post evoked a flurry of comments, among them,
Joel Osteen is nothing but a crook
You think that home is helping the homeless?
He’s not guiding them to salvation, he’s bleeding their bank accounts dry to line his own pockets. When will people wakeup to the biggest scam that has ever been perpetrated on mankind, by mankind…
A chart showing the six- and seven-figure salaries earned by Osteen and various other televangelists followed that post a few weeks later. I always find it interesting when this topic comes up. I also must admit to a degree of ambivalence when faced with the popularity of the many televangelists and their attempts to feed the insatiable appetite of the media for content. Further, many of the disparaging comments resonate with my own reactions to the high-profile ministries of the more well-know televangelists. However, I think it is time we give Joel a break. After all, behind the aforementioned comments are some assumptions that are interesting to unpack.
Joel Osteen is nothing but a crook
Is Joel a crook? Well, he was not one of the six televangelists targeted by Senator Grassley’s Senate Finance Committee investigation in 2007 – 2011. He does seem to be scrupulous in his handling the complexities of his finances and in navigating the subtleties of IRS regulations regarding the tax status of 501(c)(3) organizations. Further, it is not clear how profiting from the sale of his feel-good books constitutes “stealing form the poor.” In fact, the profit from the sale of his books is the source of his income, as he does not take a salary from the Lakewood Church. There remains a question of whether he inappropriately promotes his books on his telecasts; but that gets into some murky subtleties in tax law. So, a crook, I think not.
You think that home is helping the homeless?
This is perhaps the easiest of the allegations to dismiss. I dare say that few if any of us routinely share our homes with the homeless in our midst, so why might we expect Joel and Victoria to open their doors to the homeless of Houston?
He’s a thief stealing from the poor by using God
His telecasts stand apart from those of the televangelists that drew the attention of the Grassley investigation in that he never asks his television audience for money. In fact, he might be better thought of as a successful author and motivational speaker than as a Christian evangelist. In that light, I have never heard such criticism leveled at the likes of a Zig Ziglar or a Wayne Dyer. No one seems to care about the number of bathrooms in Zig’s house, nor of the amount of his net worth. No one accuses Dyer of stealing from the poor or of failing to help the homeless.
Who is Joel Osteen?
Joel studied radio and television production in college but dropped out before graduating. He got his start at Lakewood Church producing the television broadcasts of his father’s Sunday services. His father encouraged him to begin preaching at Lakewood shortly before his father’s untimely death from a heart attack. At his mother’s insistence, Joel took the reigns at Lakewood Church. If anything, Osteen is a dutiful son who took over the family business when his father died.
Joel hasn’t attended seminary and there was no mention in the articles I read of his ever being ordained. Parenthetically, historically among Baptists, neither college nor seminary attendance are prerequisites for ordination. Likewise, ordination is not a prerequisite for public preaching. So, if education and training are to be considered, Joel clearly has what it takes to oversee the production of a television broadcast, conduct an appealing Sunday experience, and run a profitable enterprise. He also has a talent for tuning into the zeitgeist and offering a message that soothes anxiety and inspires hope in his followers.
Lacking formal training or the ambition to be a minister, it is little wonder his sermons are often criticized for their lack of depth or theological content. He is usually lumped in with the preachers of the prosperity gospel (topic for a future post). In an interview with the Orlando Sentinel, “Osteen agrees, offering his own definition of the prosperity gospel: ‘I never preach a message on money,’ he said. ‘I do believe that God wants us to be blessed, to have good marriages, to have peace in our minds, to have health, to have money to pay our bills. I think God wants us to excel. But everyone isn’t going to be rich — if we’re talking about money.’” (Nov 29, 2007)
Osteen does not preach the traditional “Jesus died for our sins” evangelical message. This fact makes the accusation that Jesus died so Joel could purchase a mansion ludicrous on the face of it. As a matter of fact and content, Joel has more in common with a motivational speaker than with a Christian evangelist. So what are we to make of Joel Osteen? I think it is clearly unfair to lump him in with the thousands of women and men who are out in the world doing God’s work in the churches, temples, synagogues, mosques, and places of worship of the myriad religious traditions in this country and then criticize him for having an expensive house and a large net worth. In many significant ways, he has more in common with a best-selling self-help guru, a successful motivational speaker, or an Oscar/Emmy/Tony/Grammy award-winning entertainer. Judged by the standards of those icons in our culture, Joel looks rather modest and responsible in all aspects of his life.
While his sermons may not be intellectually rigorous, or particularly Biblical, I’d rather his be the public face of Christianity than a hate monger such as the late Fred Phelps or a fear monger like Pat Robertson. And although his lifestyle may have more in common with oligarchs, celebrities, and the 1% of capitalists than with the majority of his followers; he does seem to stand for marital fidelity, hope, optimism, and positive aspiration.
Don’t get me wrong, I’d rather go skinny dipping in a lake of burning sulfur than to attend one of Joel’s feel good rallies he calls a worship service. That said, I am keenly aware of the Biblical admonition not to judge and condemn others. For, who of us can say with certainty who is and who is not doing God’s work in the world (see Matthew 25)? After all, in a time of declining church membership and attendance, he has managed to put church on the weekly agendas of 16,000 Houstonians, and that can’t be all bad. Further, what tends to happen in mega-churches is that they experience rapid growth then settle onto a plateau. New members continue to arrive, while others leave in search of a deeper and more fulfilling experience. So if Joel is nothing more than a gateway into the Christian conversation, he is indeed doing God’s work. So, lest that burning lake of sulfur become my eternal destiny, I say, “Let’s give Joel a break.”
In my reflections since I posted my thoughts on gun violence last year, I have reached the perspective that addressing gun violence by enacting new and more restrictive gun laws is rather like addressing climate change by issuing snow shovels and air conditioners to every household in the country.
More effective ways of addressing climate change include accepting the scientific method for analyzing the problem, gathering data relevant to the problem, and collectively agreeing on reasonable and effective changes to our ways of living and doing business that will not further aggravate the problem. (This, of course, assumes we can agree that there is a problem in the first place).
With over 100 million gun owners owning over 300 million guns, (not to mention the tens of thousands of individuals who earn their living in the arms industry) any action to address the issue of gun violence that alienates and demonizes these individuals is doomed not only to failure, but to create a backlash that will only make matters worse.
I think a recent Gallup Poll (October 28, 2013) points the way to a more productive direction to focus our concerns. When gun owners were asked why they purchase guns, the number one reason (60% of respondents) answered, “fear”. This immediately raises the obvious question: Why are so many people so fearful?
Some of us are fearful of a changing world; others of new ideas and new ways of being in the world. Yet others fear unfamiliar cultures and religions.
In any case, many of us have no place to turn with our fears, except to turn inward and reject new technologies and new ideas; to reach for our chosen symbols of power and autonomy such as our firearms; or retreat to the certainty and security that fundamentalism (whether religious, economic, or political) offers.
We believe that if we surround ourselves with like-minded individuals who share our fears and gravitate toward our idea of a safe haven we can shout down those who disagree with us and create a utopia for ourselves where we don’t have to concern ourselves with the needs, desires, hopes and fears of anyone else.
During the Christmas season just passed, you may have heard these words from the Prophet Isaiah of the Hebrew Bible:
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.
These words, familiar to many, are set in the context of a vision of a new and transformed world in which all of the nations of the world come together in search of a new way of being together in the world.
In this prophetic vision, the change comes when the people are confronted with the judgment of God on the status quo of their world. I think it may be useful if we think of the judgment of God not as coming in some future time as envisioned in these writings with the coming of a Messiah; or in the end times as some believe. I think it will be useful if we see the status quo of our own time as the judgment of our time and our ways.
Since the horrors of the school shootings at Columbine High School, we have seen shootings at Virginia Tech; a political rally in Arizona; a theater in Aurora; and Sandy Hook Elementary School; not to mention, in the same time frame, wars that have produced not peace but a perpetual state of chaos and violence. Surely these are judgments on a society that lives in fear and turns to armaments (read gun rights) and violence (read war and militarism) and coercion (read legislation) to allay our fears.
The answer lies, I believe, not in praying for the end times to come when a God will intervene from on high; nor waiting for a Messiah in the form of a political leader who will lead us into a new ways of being; nor in turning to our legislators to enact new laws and restrictions on how we may choose to live our lives.
I am quick note that in the Biblical vision from Isaiah it is not through legislation that the people turn away for their love of armaments and violence. It is not through confiscation of their swords that the people seek a peaceful and safer world. It is the people, themselves, empowered by a new vision of a transformed world who beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.
The answer lies, I conclude, in a change of heart; a decision on the part of each of us, the fearful and the proud, to cease our worship of power and of arms. It is a change of heart that comes when we, the people, are confronted with a new vision of righteousness, and justice, and mercy; when we cease to find comfort and safety in our arguments and our isolation and turn instead to find safety in a new vision of community and dialog with each other. It comes from acknowledging that we are all in this world together and that security for each of us is found in an ongoing pursuit of the common good for all of us.