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Whose ‘principles of faith’ are being manifested on Trump’s watch?

 

White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney declared at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast this week that faith drives the Trump administration’s policy proposals, arguing that “the principles of our faith (are) being manifest” under the president’s watch. My shock threshold is high, but I reeled when I read Mulvaney’s remarks. As a Christian and a theologian, I believe the torrent of hateful words, brinkmanship executive orders, racist dog whistles, sexist behavior, malignant deceit and national idolatry are uneasily linked with anything we might call Christian.

Yet President Donald J. Trump’s popularity with evangelical Christians persists, and to their delight, he consistently says things out loud that they think but – with a few notable Baptist pastors among the exceptions – are too self-protective to say.

“When Trump mused that he could not remember ever asking forgiveness for anything, he basically forfeited any claim to Christian identity.”

Last month, Pew Research Center found that Trump had a 69 percent approval rating among white evangelical Protestants, compared to around 40 percent among all Americans. This is astonishing. Indeed, the willingness of Trump’s base to overlook the absence of a moral compass, much less Christian values and practice, only seems to grow with each passing month. With Trump’s judicial appointments and a flurry of policy changes and legislative proposals, moral traditionalists see their ends-justifies-the-means long game coming into view. For this, they will put up with reckless leadership that cares little for an authentic Christian theological vision for life.

In one sense, I concur with Mulvaney’s statement. The “principles of faith” that drive the Trump administration and its Republican sycophants in Congress are, indeed, manifest. But the principles on my list are different.

One clear principle is xenophobia, fearing and reviling the stranger, which is a stark contradiction of a prominent biblical theme. Welcoming the stranger is a way of remembering God’s providence in the life of an insignificant people; it is also a way of being enriched by holy presence. A corollary principle regularly manifested is racism, as we witnessed when Trump referred to nations where persons of color predominate with an epithet.

Immigration policies reflect both of these principles. Honoring every person as created after God’s likeness, bearing the image of God, is absent from the insulting rhetoric employed and actions taken.

Egregious in its impact, another principle is protecting the rich at the expense of the poor. The Bible’s prophetic literature and the ministry and teachings of Jesus accent justice for the poor and warn of judgment upon the rich who will be “sent away empty.” Current tax law is a windfall for those who least need it. The widows and orphans of our day are ground underfoot in wage disparity, lack of educational privilege and shrinking access to varied health and social services.

“Perhaps the most glaring of the principles I find to be antithetical to Christian theology is the arrogation of power to one individual.”

Similarly, the attempts to marginalize sexual minorities are growing. LGBTQ rights are in the cross-hairs, and for the foreseeable future case after case will wind its way through the appellate system on the way to the Supreme Court. A conservative majority will be predisposed to beat back recent gains as this central issue draws untoward attention in the current culture war. Clearly the New Testament makes space in the reign of God for non-traditional expressions of human sexuality, as the story of the Ethiopian eunuch attests.

Incessant saber-rattling and projected military growth ignore the biblical admonition to “be at peace with all, so far as it depends upon you” (Romans 12:18). Threats to bomb nations into oblivion go far beyond national security; these bellicose words are more about presidential swagger. Even the attempts at negotiation with other nations are so full of ego that every encounter is a win-lose drama rather than a genuine pursuit of common ground. Further, the “America first” quest arises from a distorted doctrine of exceptionalism, which includes claiming divine preference for national interests.

Policies that roll back environmental protection also defy God’s directive to humanity to care for this creation as God’s own representatives. Demonstrating an incomprehensible, dismissive attitude toward the consensus of climate scientists worldwide and the dire warnings from the United Nations and other international bodies – namely, that environmental disaster looms unless radical action is taken in the next two decades – this administration is accelerating its support of destructive practices. The unwillingness to curtail pollution of the atmosphere, to participate in global environmental accords or to prevent rampant oil and gas drilling and fracking, are having a deleterious effect. These profligate actions are tantamount to humanizing the eschaton, i.e., bringing about the destruction of the earth.

Perhaps the most glaring of the principles I find to be antithetical to Christian theology is the arrogation of power to one individual. While in humility Christ Jesus gave power away, the current president presumes to be the final arbiter on most matters of governance in our system of democracy. With Caesar-like imperiousness, this administration claims a kind of sovereignty that eschews bowing the knee to any higher authority.

When Trump mused that he could not remember ever asking forgiveness for anything, he basically forfeited any claim to Christian identity. The very heart of authentic faith is knowing the gap between what God’s righteousness calls us to do and what we actually do. Forgiveness is that shattering experience that acknowledges our sinfulness and the grace of God that draws us near.

Mercy, justice and humility are the marks of authentic Christianity. I see none of these in the principles of faith by which the president of the United States operates. Indeed, the only thing worse than the failure or refusal of people of faith to see this reality is to remain silent.

*Rev.Dr. Molly Marshall spoke twice at the Hamrick Lectureship at First Baptist Church of Charleston. She is a congregation favorite.

 

 

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5 things Protestant churches in the U.S. can learn from Eastern Orthodoxy

Easter has come, and the season of Eastertide has arrived.

For Western Christianity, that is. Eastern Christianity, which operates on a different liturgical calendar, observes Holy Week this week and celebrates Easter this Sunday, a week later than churches in Western Christianity.

The difference in liturgical calendars at this season of the church year provides an opportunity to consider some lessons for American Protestantism from the Eastern Orthodox branch of Christendom.

“Beauty is viewed as essential to all dimensions of Christian spirituality, and this value is reflected in Orthodox places of worship.”

In terms of demographic trends, Orthodox churches in the U.S. share similarities with Protestant denominations, but also reflect interesting contrasts. Orthodox membership is in a decline. Retention rates are low. Marriage rates are also falling. At the same time, the most recent “America’s Changing Religious Landscape” study by Pew Research Center found that Orthodox churches have the highest percentage of members ages 18 to 29 among all Christian groups. Orthodox Christianity is tied with Mormons for the highest percentage of adherents ages 30 to 59. On average, Orthodox are the most highly educated Christians. Interestingly, even though Eastern Orthodoxy is largely the antithesis to the Prosperity Gospel, America’s Orthodox are the wealthiest Christians on a per capita basis.

Here are five things Baptists and other Protestants can learn from Orthodox Christianity:

1. Tailoring worship style to popular culture is overrated.

For many American Protestant churches, it has become almost an article of faith that worship style needs to match popular culture. This is an effort to ensure that unchurched people can “relate” to Christian worship. That may be convincing for many church and denominational leaders, but does experience corroborate this widespread notion? While many Protestant congregations bend over backwards to fit their worship to popular tastes and trends, many of these churches are no longer growing. Orthodox churches do not even use any musical instruments in worship, yet they still have the highest percentage of adults under 30 among their adherents compared to other Christian groups.

2. Life is liturgical.

Liturgy, the Eastern Orthodox term for worship, has Greek origins and literally means “work of the people.” A major purpose is to form habits that facilitate a life of faith that is meaningful and good. One does not need to understand all the fine points of Orthodox liturgy to realize that our daily activities mold us. James Smith, a Calvinist theologian influenced by Eastern Orthodox thought, reminds us that even the most casual or ordinary activities, such as going to a shopping mall, attending a sporting event or just hanging out with friends, contribute to our character formation. A better awareness of this contribution can make us more selective regarding the activities we engage in and more intentional about shaping our character. This awareness can shape our spiritual formation, which, in turn, may make our churches more vital.

3. Images matter.

In its zeal to combat idolatry, much of Western Christianity removed images, statuary and art from its churches. Eastern Orthodox Christians chose a different path. Icons reflect what the Christian life is like, and one does not need to venerate them in order to realize the importance of images for worship and spiritual formation. American Christians are constantly bombarded by secular images of the “good life” on television, in magazines and on social media, not to mention shopping centers. We need to be cognizant of the power of images and look for ways to use art and other imagery in our worship and spiritual formation programs.

4. So does beauty.

Unlike Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, Protestants do not have a major female figure to venerate. Although many Protestant churches in the U.S. recognize the importance of art, aesthetics largely remains an acquired language. Often the importance of art is limited to its potential to evangelize, and that seems to lessen the value of Christian art in the eyes of the wider public. Not so in the Orthodox tradition. Beauty is viewed as essential to all dimensions of Christian spirituality, and this value is reflected in Orthodox places of worship. Orthodox Christianity understands that human nature yearns for the beautiful. An appreciation for beauty permeates Eastern cultures as well as Eastern Christianity. Many Protestant churches in the U.S. need to be more purposeful about making our spaces beautiful.

5. It’s not Jesus and me; it’s Jesus and all of us, living and dead.

“Me and Jesus got our own thing going; me and Jesus got it all worked out,” says a popular evangelical song. This individualistic mindset, which seems to reflect much of American Protestantism, relegates the church to secondary importance after individual salvation. If me and Jesus, in this order, have it all worked out, it is not clear why we need our brothers and sisters (or even our pastors and other ministers). The link between this mentality and empty pews on Sunday mornings seems apparent.

In contrast, this individualistic ethos is quite alien to Eastern Orthodox spirituality. According to Orthodox teaching, attending worship is essential for salvation, which has a robust communal dimension. In addition, liturgy is a place where not only the living are present, but the souls of the dead are also there, strengthening worshippers in their journey of faith.

One does not need to share Orthodox dogma to realize that giving due recognition to the communal dimension and other strengths of Christian faith and worship in Orthodox Christianity can have a positive influence on Protestant churches in America. Perhaps more dialogue between leaders of these two traditions could prove fruitful for both.

In the meantime, it seems we Baptists and other Protestants can affirm again the joyous refrain of “ is risen!” with our Orthodox sisters and brothers as they celebrate the resurrection this Sunday.

*Andrey Shirin

Andrey Shirin is associate professor of divinity and director of transformational leadership at the John Leland Center for Theological Studies in Arlington, Virginia. A native of Russia, he lives with his wife, Olga, in greater Washington, D.C.

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Resurrection

President Macron of France has committed to restoring Notre Dame Cathedral in five years. That may or may not be possible. Either way it demonstrates a belief in the possibility of resurrection. This terrible fire coming at the start of holy week is a vivid illustration that resurrection is always possible.

Carol and I were two of the 13,000,000 tourists who visited the cathedral in 2002. We stayed too long and our tour group went on without us. I will keep the image of that magnificent structure in my mind forever. Getting lost is part of life’s journey or perhaps it’s just another avenue for growth.

John Carney, the late executive of the Columbia South Carolina Speech and Hearing Center gave me a print of his painting of the Cathedral’s famed North Rose Window which he did from a photograph. He painted the window after he lost most of his eye sight. The people in the art department of the University of South Carolina designed and erected an extraordinary lighting system on pulleys that allowed him to continue to paint. John’s zeal for life was resurrected by an act of kindness. I gaze at that painting several times a day as I descend the stairs from my office. The print reminds me of the great joy we felt in visiting the cathedral and equally of a great friendship.

As my friend, Dr. Monty Knight, says, “I don’t know what happened at the resurrection of Jesus, but whatever it was changed the world.” Resurrection is real. It is all around us. Our earth is in constant renewal and so are we.

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Call It Grace: Finding Meaning in a Fractured World by Serene Jones

Reviewed by Mitch Carnell – ethicsdaily.com – April 15, 2019

“God Will Take Care of You” was a very popular hymn when I was growing up.
Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, makes it clear this is not the case in her new book, “Call It Grace: Finding Meaning in a Fractured World.”
God empowers us to take care of ourselves, she says, in this theological reflection that is as true as the author can make it at the time of its writing.
She is a product of Oklahoma and its broad sweeping plains, burdened by the racist history of the state and especially that of her family – though her father breaks that mold.
Her own struggles with racism play out in a teenage fit of disappointment and anger. She wrestles with her grandfather’s not-so-subtle sexual abuse.
Jones is also a product of the teachings of Calvin, Niebuhr, Kierkegaard, Bonhoeffer, Barth and Tillich and later of feminist theologians. She is steeped in the doctrines of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
There is no doubt that she belongs at the helm of the Union Theological Seminary. They are blessed to have her and so are we.
Her story is so compelling that it is difficult to put the book down. We get to watch as she takes what she experienced in India and processes those experiences to weave her own spiritual formation. She learns quickly from other cultures and other faith traditions.
The one major flaw is that in the story of Freddy (a boyfriend of Jones during high school who dropped out of school), she substitutes what she wishes were the truth for the real truth.
She mistakes raging teenage hormones for true love and then enshrines that image in her brain. She attributes Freddy’s death to his condition of poverty.
In reality, Freddy had all the elements he needed to escape poverty: a motorcycle, intelligence, talent, work, money and the role model of Serene and her family. He made a conscious choice to remain stuck.
She says that it was Freddy’s death that sent her into the study of theology. It was more likely the influence of her father because her younger sister also became a minister.
Despite this shortcoming, her telling the story of Freddy is exquisite and sets the pattern for an unrelenting search for meaning.
Jones also reflects on her marriage, which seems like it never stood a chance of success.
Yet, her love for her daughter and what being a mother birthed in her is truly inspirational.
Her oneness of spirit with her daughter is a case study in mother-daughter relationships.
Her struggles with the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City and how she works through her hatred of Timothy McVeigh to come out of that struggle on the side of being opposed to the death penalty is a lesson in transformation for us all.
As much as Jones loves and respects her theologian father, she neither respects nor adores her mother. who was a bitter, harsh, mean person.
I suspect the mother was sicker for a much longer period of time than anyone suspected. She was brutal in the verbal abuse of her brilliant daughter and later she almost destroyed her adoring husband.
It is against this harsh reality that Jones’ theology is tested and reforms.
Jones comes to the conclusion that we are all held in God’s love. That the space between us and the breath that flows through us and unites us is God’s grace. We are all a part of God and that God is a part of us.
“It also allows us to see God not as another object, distinct from us, but as the air, the flow, the spirit, the life force that moves between us and through us,” she writes.
Her father’s mantra is referenced often, “We are all children of light and children of darkness. We are all children of the same God.”
The concluding lines of the book carry her message: “Love has become a trifling word, but it still, as a theological concept, has the power to redeem if we can grasp that it exists within and yet comes from beyond desire, language, need and want. That is the simple reason, really, why we call that love ‘grace’.”
My summary is found in her words, “Grace is older than sin.”

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