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WEEKLY REFLECTIONS

~ Boldly Naming Our Demons ~

"Only 40 percent of Americans can name more than four of the Ten Commandments, and a scant half can cite any of the four authors of the Gospels. Twelve percent believe Joan of Arc was Noah's wife...Three quarters of Americans believe the Bible teaches that 'God helps those who help themselves.' That is, three out of four Americans believe that uber-American idea, a notion at the core of our current individualist politics and culture, which was in fact uttered by Ben Franklin, actually appears in Holy Scripture. The thing is, not only is Franklin's wisdom not biblical; it's counter-biblical. Few ideas could be further from the gospel message, with its radical summons to love of neighbor."

The above is a quote from an essay by Bill McKibben, published in Harper's Magazine (August, 2005), a Christian scholar at Middlebury College and the author of many books. His premise is, "And therein is the paradox. America is simultaneously the most professedly Christian of the developed nations and the least Christian in its behavior." Citing statistics (and not opinion), 18 percent of American children live in poverty, among the highest in first world nations. McKibben: "In fact, by pretty much any measure of caring for the least among us you want to propose -- childhood nutrition, infant mortality, access to preschool -- we come in nearly last among the rich nations, and often by a wide margin."

Americans who proclaim, "We have the best justice [or other] system in the world!" typically have not researched that of other nations. (Of course, let us not compare first world nations with third world ones. Let's compare apples to apples.) The US, for some reason (and it's not because we are "tougher" on crime or that Americans are more criminally inclined than citizens of other nations), have prison populations seven times greater than our counterpart nations. The US is the only first world republic that still executes its citizens, including (in some states) children.

Our divorce rate is about 50 percent. Godless and irreligious Holland's rate is 37 percent, and the US exceeds that nation and all others in rates of murder, teenage pregnancy and abortions.

We pride ourselves on our generous foreign aid. However, the US ranked only above Italy (second to last) in per capita distributions to poor nations. Regarding taking care of our own, McKibben writes, "The US Department of Agriculture reported last year that the number of households that were 'food insecure with hunger' had climbed more than 26 percent between 1999 and 2003."
 
As I write this I can hear the detractors from the facts chiming, "This is anti-American! America is the greatest country on earth!" I am the first born generation of Americans from parents who immigrated to this county over fifty years ago. They were eager to become citizens, and went through the study and process in those days when immigrants had to do it in English. I am very happy and fortunate to have been born here rather than in the Eastern block or in Europe, and my parents agree. European spirituality is decadent. I love this country and its heritage. 

And its heritage includes dialectic about and protest against violations of God-given rights. Are we not happy about the emancipation of slaves, the progress of the civil rights movement, the provision of voting rights to women, and even the Vietnam "war" protests which hindsight proved were valid? (The Native Americans, who are still unhappy with our government's engagement, persisted in making all decisions in the context of "how will this affect the seventh generation?" What will our seventh generation think of the US government's decisions concerning our occupation of Iraq, how we addressed the poverty of our children and the plight of our elderly? What will our seventh generation think of the Christian behavior of this professed Christian nation?)

McKibben has some remarks: "It is another competing (though sometimes overlapping) creed, this one straight from the sprawling megachurches of the new exurbs, that frightens me the most. Its deviation is less obvious precisely because it looks so much like the rest of the culture. In fact, most of what gets preached in these palaces isn't loony at all. It is disturbingly conventional. The pastors focus relentlessly on "you" and your individual needs. Their goal is to service consumers -- not communities but individuals: 'seekers' is the term of art, people who feel the need for some spirituality in their (or their children's) lives but who aren't tightly bound to any particular denomination or school of thought. The result is often a kind of soft-focus, comfortable, suburban faith.

"A "New York Times" reporter visiting one booming megachurch outside Phoenix recently found the typical scene: a drive-through latte stand, Krispy Kreme doughnuts at every service, and sermons about 'how to discipline your children, how to reach your professional goals, how to invest your money, how to reduce your debt.' On Sundays children played with church distributed Xboxes, and many congregates had signed up for a twice weekly aerobics class called Firm Believers. A list of bestsellers compiled monthly by the Christian Booksellers Association illuminates the creed. It includes texts like "Your Best Life Now" by Joel Osteen -- pastor of a church so mega it recently leased a 16,000-seat sports arena in Houston for its services -- which the normally tolerant "Publishers Weekly" dismissed as 'a treatise on how to get God to serve the demands of self-centered individuals.'" Are we impressed with such mega attendance? Is this not a sign of the Holy Spirit's blessing" Many professing Christians would say so.

Central to Jesus' teachings is to "Love your neighbor as you love yourself." Later, He challenged us with, "Love your neighbor as I have loved you." Wow! So I start with what is possible for me, the first one. When Jesus was asked, "Well, who is my neighbor?" He responded with the well-known story of the despised Samaritan who interrupted his journey plans to attend to a victim of a brutal robbery. Later, Jesus was even more clear: Our neighbors are the poor, poorly clothed, homeless, outcasts, and prisoners. "When you neglected them, you neglected Me" He said He would tell those who argued that they were good Christians, doing good deeds in His Name. Jesus did not refer to the fellow church attendee sitting next to me in good clothes, having had a good meal, and driving to church in a comfortable air-conditioned (or heated) car. Sure, he or she is my neighbor too, and how easy it is for me to comfort the comfortable. I like that kind of neighbor. He doesn't stink up my home and exhibits good table manners when invited to dinner. The others, well, don't we Christians typically remark, along with non-Christians, that the welfare cases, the homeless drinking cheap wine to get them through another night of hopelessness, the prisoners who were "proved" guilty of charges in a court of law (note that term, court of law, and ponder why we never hear the term, "Court of justice"), all got what they deserved? Don't we Christians hear the words of our Christ?

McKibben mentioned how a furor erupted among evangelicals a few months ago when a Colorado jury was discovered to have a Bible in the deliberation room to help them come to a verdict regarding a death sentence and was thus admonished by the judge. These Christians saw this as another attack on Christianity. But McKibben raises a provocative point: "But a more interesting question would have been why the jurors fixated on Leviticus 24, with its call for an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. They had somehow missed Jesus' explicit refutation in the New Testament: 'You have heard that it was said, 'an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also."

What McKibben doesn't note is the basis for the Levitical degree. In the Old Testament days, just like now, most people would not settle for "an eye for for eye." If someone broke your finger in a fight, human nature would have you retaliate by breaking the perpetrator's arms and legs. If someone conned you out of ten bucks, most people would feel the right the getting back by going for a hundred bucks from the perpetrator. (Isn't that what law suits are about?) Levitical law put a break of this kind of retaliation..."Hey, just an eye for an eye, and no more." Leave it to nature rather than from our carnal (base fallen human one) one. How can Christians who cannot rise to that realm expect their governments to do so? They, of course, don't, and therefore support our governments in their practice of Levitical law and beyond it, two eyes and an entire face in response to one eye taken. This is not opinion, but historical fact.

Eastern and Western orthodox traditions and churches have a rich, ancient liturgy modeled after the Jewish worship services in which Jesus participated both as a congregate and as a rabbi. Unlike the megachurches, they all begin with a penitential rite. The priest or minister summons the assembly to reflect upon their sins, individually and as a community. He prays for God's forgiveness and the assembly prays in response as a community. The assembly collectively ends with an "Amen", meaning so be it, this is truth. How can any worship "service" not begin with a petition of forgiveness? With a cleansing and healing of contrite hearts? Jesus proclaimed, "True worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks" (John 4:23b).

Jesus never looked toward the world governments as a source of truth. Shall we? Are we not Christians above all else? Can we "render to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's" without rendering to Caesar what is God's?

McKibben has the final words: "Admittedly, this is hope against hope; more likely the money changers and power brokers will remain ascendant in our 'spiritual' life. Since the days of Constantine, emperors and rich men have sought to co-opt the teaching of Jesus. As in so many areas of our increasingly market-tested lives, the co-opters -- the TV men, the politicians, the Christian 'interest groups'-- have found a way to make each of us complicit in that travesty, too. They have invited us to subvert the church of Jesus even as we celebrate it. With their help we have made golden calves of ourselves -- becoming a nation of terrified, self-obsessed idols. It works, and it may well keep working for a long time to come. When Americans hunger for selfless love and are fed only love of self, they will remain hungry, and too often hungry people just come back for more of the same."

John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
Spiritual Resource Services
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