Is It a Prayer, or Isn’t It?

The Arizona State House

This little news item calls for brief theological reflection…

The AP reported last week on an incident in the Arizona House of Representatives. State representatives take turns offering a prayer of invocation; Rep. Juan Mendez– described in reports as an atheist– took his turn and “asked House members not to bow their heads but to instead look around at each other ‘sharing together this extraordinary experience of being alive and of dedicating ourselves to working toward improving the lives of the people of our state.'” (from Juan Cole’s Religion Clause)

The following day, Rep. Steve Smith– described in reports as a Christian– expressed his judgment that Mendez’s offering on the previous day did not count as a prayer. (The full report and link are below).

I take Mendez’s offering as authentic prayer for the following reasons. First, it is life-affirming: his words regarding the “extraordinary experience of being alive” evoke the gift and mystery that life itself is. Second, the gesture of looking at other humans can be reasonably interpreted as a gesture pointing us to the sacred (even if, from the atheistic point of view, it does not point us to the divine). Third, his words call people out of narrow self-regard, to consider the larger whole.

Smith is right that Mendez’s invocation was not Christian prayer; it is also obvious but worth mentioning that, at the end of the day, there are irreconcilable differences between an atheistic and a Christian way of experiencing and acting in the world.

One might also plausibly think, however, that the Christian way of engaging difference– especially in this diverse and pluralistic nation– would be to seek common ground when possible. Followers of Jesus have a special obligation, in this age of fear and in this culture of death, to ally when possible with all who affirm life, and who desire to care for all people– as expressed in Rep. Mendez’s prayer– even if they don’t believe in God. This does not mean softening the gospel, or selling out to syncretism.

On the contrary, such Christian engagement comes from a deep trust in the One whose ways of working towards the fulfillment of history are mysterious: a deep trust in the God whose ways are not our ways. It is faithful, Biblically-grounded Christian practice not to put limits on how, and where, the Holy One is working out the purpose of the world.

AP today reports on an unusual controversy in Arizona over the opening prayer offered by one member of the state House of Representatives. Members of the House rotate in offering the invocation. On Tuesday it was Rep. Juan Mendez’s turn. With members of the Secular Coalition for Arizona in the visitor’s gallery, Mendez, an atheist, asked House members not to bow their heads but to instead look around at each other “sharing together this extraordinary experience of being alive and of dedicating ourselves to working toward improving the lives of the people of our state.”

The next day, Rep. Steve Smith complained that Mendez’s remarks did not qualify as a prayer. He asked other House members to join him in a second prayer in repentance for there not being one the prior day. Smith said that Mendez’s remarks were analogous to someone leading the Pledge of Allegiance by pledging “I love England.”

via Religion Clause.

via Member Page.

So You Still Believe in Life?

“So you still believe in life; thank God, thank God!” says Dunya to her brother Raskolnikov, in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.

That belief, that affirmation of life, is not a given– not in Dostoevsky’s novel, not in our world today, not in the lives of people we know, not even in our own lives. The catalog of outrageous suffering is long, and believing in life will always will be something of a leap, a jumping out over a deep, dark chasm. Time is a mercy: temporal distance softens the stabs of shame, grief, regret and loss that accompany our days. Compassion is an even deeper balm, the salve (salvation) of shared burdens and pains.

Raskolnikov’s answer to his sister is equivocal: “I did not believe in it, but just now, as I stood with my mother’s arms around me, we both wept; I do not believe, but I have asked her to pray for me. God knows how that comes about, Dunechka; even I don’t understand any of it.”

He can’t affirm life intellectually (“I don’t understand it”), but he has believed in life through his body– with his mother’s arms around him, and in tears. Sometimes that’s all we can do, and it’s the best we can do: to hold and be held, and weep.

Sex and the Roman Catholic

Commonweal is a fine periodical, filled with closely-reasoned and finely-nuanced essays. Jo McGowan’s essay “Simplifying Sex” is another instance of this thoughtfulness.

The argument is simply that sex and sexuality can be life-promoting and life-enhancing– and therefore in harmony with the God revealed in Christian Scripture– without requiring the sexual act necessarily to lead to procreation. Earlier in his career, Rowan Williams, the soon-to-become-former Archbishop of Canterbury, used similar reasoning to offer a broader theological context for homosexuality. (A treatment of Williams’ thinking on homosexuality is here:

Jo McGowan’s essay is a defense of contraceptive use, within the context of marriage, written by a Roman Catholic. While Roman Catholicism helpfully reminds us that sex and sexuality is a gift of God, the restrictions that the Church places on sexual expression need revision. Roman Catholic teaching does not as yet encompass many of the ways that sexual relations can be redemptive and sacramental.

Here is a piece of McGowan’s essay:

To defend contraception within marriage is not to defend sexual license. Married couples who have pledged a lifetime of commitment to each other and their families have the right and the duty to make their own decisions about contraception. The church’s role is to help them arrive at the decision that is right for their lives. It is not to dictate one-size-fits-all rules that have no foundation in practical experience.

via Simplifying Sex | Commonweal magazine.

The Expression of a Hope for a Different Ending

Does the Occupy Movement Have a Future?

As income inequality in America has grown over the last 30 years (for a detailed account of how this has happened, click here or see Hacker and Pierson’s “Winner Take All Politics”), the prevailing sentiment is that such income inequality is inevitable– the result of globalization, or the ultimately fair and benevolent outcome of competitive markets at work. Hacker and Pierson challenge the prevailing sentiment in their book; the “Occupy” crowd is challenging the prevailing sentiment by protesting.

My personal interest is not to see Wall Street come crashing down (I’m too much on the “winner” side– by luck, not skill– to hope for that); nor am I interested in the equality of economic outcomes (people who are uncommonly creative or industrious ought to be rewarded)– but I am interested in the good of American democracy and the long-term viability– if not flourishing– of American society. Too much income inequality skews the democratic process (as moneyed interests buy disproportionate influence); a government too far removed from the needs of the many leaks the legitimacy it needs, in order to maintain the political stability that fosters creativity and innovation in the longer term. While income inequality can be socially useful, too much income inequality creates a braking effect, as economic insecurity and its resulting anxieties erode the trust, confidence, and hope of all but the few at the top, and those connected to them.

Parallels have been drawn between the “Occupy” crowd and the Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia. These comparisons should not be overdrawn; still, one virtue is shared by these movements at their best: the virtue of hope. The God of the Older and Newer Testaments is a God who continually works surprising and life-affirming new beginnings for people who have labored in a world where the future is no different than the monotonous, enervating present. Hope, in this God, opens possibilities for a different future.

It would be irresponsible and foolish for anyone to say what, if anything, God is doing in Egypt, in Tunisia, or on Wall Street. God reveals Herself in Her own good time. The hope, then, is that in the fullness of time– when the account is made– we can say that we chose life: life shared and life generous; life in abundant and life unafraid– life with creative possibilities for all.

via Paperback Charlie Brown: Occupy Wall Street Charlie Brown.

Owning God: More Assassination in Pakistan

Christians Are Pakistan's Second Largest Religious Minority

We wrote about the assassination of Salman Taseer last January: about his call to reform Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy law; and about the assassin (Taseer’s own bodyguard) who believed he was carrying out God’s will in killing Taseer. I characterized such misguided fundamentalism as “owning” God. When God is yours, you can justify doing anything– including murdering others.

This sad story continues with another assassination, earlier this month, of Pakistan’s only Christian cabinet minister, Shahbaz Bhatti. The BBC reports that Mr. Bhatti was killed in an ambush by Taliban gunmen as he drove away from his mother’s home on March 2nd. Mr. Bhatti, like Salman Taseer, had spoken out against Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy law.

Bad theology– of any religious brand– will lead to bad consequences. While I write about events in Pakistan, the truth is that bad theology leading to bad consequences can– and does– happen anywhere. Destructive, life-denying ideas about who God is, and what God wants, can take root in people’s hearts. Assassination in God’s name is a dramatic enactment of bad theology; chronic guilt or debilitating shame in a person, that comes from a theology built on an imprinted Disapproving Parent, is a less dramatic– but still life-robbing– enactment of bad theology.

The answer to bad theology is good theology. Here’s some good theology articulated by Roman Catholic Bishop Joseph Coutts. This good theology was spoken at Shahbaz Bhatti’s funeral:

Our grievance is against the wrong use of this [blasphemy] law. If murderers go to heaven, then what good is the heaven. Pardon me, but we cannot worship a god who rewards murderers.

Nobody is ready to listen to our argument, or accept our innocence. Shahbaz Bhatti’s message is, rid Pakistan of prejudice and hatred so that a culture of mutual respect and tolerance takes root.

And let the people say: it’s not just Pakistan. Amen.

The Importance of Describing the World: Maan News Agency and the Jerusalem Post

Compare the following reports coming out today, regarding settlement construction in Israel/Palestine. The first is from the Maan News Agency, a Palestinian news source; the second is from the Jerusalem Post, an Israeli news source. You don’t need to understand the intricacies of the current conflict to see how descriptions construct reality. Language is not neutral. (In the following citations, the emphasis is mine):

BETHLEHEM (Ma’an) — After Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu approved Friday more settlements in occupied East Jerusalem, the PLO’s top negotiator said Israel had all but declared an end to negotiations.

via Maan News Agency: Netanyahu `chose settlements over peace`.

Compare the above, with this from the Jerusalem Post:

Palestinians reacted negatively to the Housing Ministry’s announcement to build 240 housing units in Jerusalem neighborhoods Pisgat Ze’ev and Ramot and accused Israel of attempting “to kill” any chance to reignite peace negotiations, AFP reported on Friday.

10/15/2010 12:51

The Palestinian news outlet calls a particular piece of land “occupied East Jerusalem;” the Israeli news outlet calls the very same particular piece of land a “Jerusalem neighborhood.” The descriptions are different not because one description sees something factually, physically, materially, different than the other. The descriptions are different because one ascribes different meaning to that piece of land than the other. And that makes all the difference.

Several points could be made here; I will simply say this: the religious (broadly defined) calling of our day, is to pay attention to how meanings are ascribed; to expose meanings that are ultimately destructive, life-negating, empty, or exploitative; and to proclaim a word that has the power to shape a new world grounded in a hope that all can participate in. That’s the calling of the peacemaker in the Middle East; that’s the calling of leadership in an imperial America that has lost its way.

Where a Conservative Case for Gay Marriage Needs to Go

A January 2010 Newsweek article by Ted Olson makes what is entitled “the conservative case for gay marriage.” You can read his case here. His attempt is good, but he doesn’t go far enough. A truly conservative case for (that’s right, for) gay marriage is actually stronger than what Mr. Olson proffers.

He makes a two-pronged argument. First, since (as conservatives maintain) marriage is the foundation of a stable society, so all the more should marriage be extended to those people (homosexual couples) who want to be married. The more marriages, the better. Second, he identifies equality before the law as a bedrock American principle; marriage equality must inevitably follow.

As I pointed out in a recent post here, the deeper conservative argument on this question has to do with God’s nature as Creator, and humanity’s special relationship with that God. While nodding in that direction, Olson doesn’t go there.

What the conservative case for gay marriage needs to show, is that the union of two committed, loving, same-sexed humans has a place in the divine life: that there are ways to manifest the life of God in and through homosexual unions, and that those ways are life-producing and life-affirming, even if they don’t include begetting children. Rowan Williams, currently the Archbishop of Canterbury, reflects theologically on sexuality in a piece called “The Body’s Grace.” His reflections are directly relevant to a truly conservative case for gay marriage. We’ll look at “The Body’s Grace” next time.