Saturday, August 23, 2008

American Prayer

I was very moved by this video. I cannot support a candidate in my role as a clergyperson, but, as many other members of clergy have done, I can do so as an individual.

As a progressive Christian, I long for the actualization of many of the planks in the Democratic platform, but I know better than to equate any political agenda with God's commonwealth. Many people I know and love support McCain; I understand their reasons, but I can't agree with them.

I have in times past, supported third-party candidates, particularly those of the Green Party, as their priorities are much closer to my own than those of the Democratic Party. Although I knew they had no chance to win, I thought that, by supporting them, pressure could be exerted on the Democratic Party to move to the left. This election cycle, however, I have become active in progressive movements within the Democratic Party.

Although Obama doesn't match up with my priorities as well as someone like Cynthia McKinney, the Green Party candidate, I feel that supporting the Democratic Party's progressive movements means supporting Obama for president. Even the Democratic Socialists of America, as leftist an organization one can find in our country, has come to the same conclusion. In its Declaration on the 2008 Presidential Election, the DSA says:

We have little hope that over the next three months the media will focus on the policy differences between Senators John McCain and Barack Obama. That is tragic, because there are major differences between the commitments of both candidates and their respective parties that need to be aired and understood, even if these differences are not as great as the democratic Left might like. Obama promises to restore to American workers the right to organize; to renegotiate international trade agreements so they enforce and do not retard labor, environmental, and human rights; to re-regulate the financial sector and end speculative excess; to bring troops home from Iraq and invest the saved funds in domestic needs; and to move toward universal health care. That’s a program worth electing a president on– or fighting for in the event the president and his party renege.
I know that there is a wide spectrum of political views among people of faith and among people of goodwill; I honor those differences and respect those who hold views different from my own. However, the current social positions of the Democratic Party, even when not fully lived up to, are much closer to my own progressive theological stance and to the social positions of my denomination, The United Methodist Church, than are those of the Republican Party.

Generally untrustworthy to fulfill their promises, politicians and political parties waver in the wind like a shaking reed in comparison to God's unshakable plumbline of justice. In all honesty, so do I. I waver, I shake, I tremble. I know that I could be wrong; I fear that he is just another politician, tricking us with rhetoric, but I am inspired and moved by his rhetoric. I think Obama is our best choice.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Network of Spiritual Progressive's Open Letter to Obama

Tikkun to heal, repair and transform the world

A note from Rabbi Michael Lerner Join or Donate Now! Visit:

July 27, 2008

Dear Friends,

Even if you don't personally connect to any particular religious community, you might still have friends or contacts who do and who know some clergy who'd want to sign the letter below. If you do, would you please contact them and ask them if they'd like to sign. And if they do, ask them to send their name and how they'd like to be identified. Because this particular effort is specifically for clergy, we won't take students at seminaries or leaders of religious communities who are not formally ordained, except leaders n communities like the Quakers which don't have any ordained clergy so there we'll take leaders of the local Meeting. Tell them to contact me at

Meanwhile, if you'd like to sign this letter and slightly revise it to your needs, please send it on your own to the Obama headquarters in Chicago.

Warm regards,


Rabbi Michael Lerner Editor, Tikkun


Do you work with or know people who might be interested in being part of an ongoing effort to change the ethos of their profession or the context in which that profession is forced to operate--from materialism and maximing money and power and fame to a New Bottom Line of generosity, caring, love, kindness, ethical & ecological sensitivity, and awe and radical amazement at the grandeur of creation? If so, would you tell them that the interfaith Network of Spiritual Progressives is sponsoring a conference at the University of California Berkeley for these professional on Sept. 21, 2008, but that if they can't make that they can still be part of it by contacting Tell them first to check our website for detailed information on how to register.

Would you be interested in working with me to help create a week long interfaith encampment for the summer of 2009 aimed at people ages 20-40 as a spiritual alternative to Burning Man (the annual event in November that draws 40-50,000 young people--check it out by Googling it, and if you don't know how to do that, well, you aren't the right person to help us build this event). Our gathering would be a celebration of spiritual progressives whose commitment to God, Spirit, or Love brings them into or sustains their work in Tikkun Olam (the healing and transformation of the world). If you are interested in helping to shape and build this, contact me please. We aren't 100% sure we can pull this off in 2009 and still do our Washington, D.C. conference in the Spring (which we must do), but if we get the financial backing, people-energy backing (but tell us what your skills are that would be helpful to building this and/or recruiting people to it).


Dear Senator Obama,

As strong supporters of your campaign to become President of the U.S. in our own peronal lives and as leaders in the religious communities in the U.S., we understand well the pressures you must be facing to tone down your message so that you can win the election and then later be more courageous in challenging major assumptions in American public discourse that have been inserted there by a powerful conservative assault for the past thirty years by conservatives and champions of the elites of wealth and power in this country.

Others have articulated elsewhere why "toning down" or "moving to appeal to the Center" is a politically disastrous strategy, not only because it passivizes the youth who momentarily thought that something new was happening in American politics and who might otherwise return to apathy when they see you "playing the game" the same old way, but also because it generates despair among all sections of the population that had momentarily allowed themselves to hope that America might become under your presidency a society that unequivocally supported a politics of peace and justice. People who thought that they would vote for you as their peace candidate who seemed more unequivocal than others about ending the war in Iraq, for example, may become less enthusiastic about a candidacy that now calls for escalation of the war in Afghanistan and talks about giving Iranians ultimatums to be followed by green lights for military attacks.

We are writing you from a different angle, not as your election strategists, but as people of faith whose primary allegiance is to be prophetic witnesses to the ethical vision articulated in the holy texts of our religion and the elaboration of those religious traditions over the course of the past two thousand years. It is our view that America needs "a New Bottom Line" so that both corporations and non-profit institutions, social practices, legislation, government activities, and even our own personal life activities should be deemed "rational, productive, or efficient" not only to the extent that they maximize money, material security, power or gratification of our sensual desires but also to the extent that they maximize love and caring, kindness and generosity ethical and ecological sensitivity, enhance our capacities to see others as embodiments of the sacred and enhance our capacity to respond to the universe with awe, wonder, and radical amazement at the grandeur of Creation.

It is from that perspective that we appeal to you to fulfill the promise and the hopes you raised in the early months of your campaign, and to sharpen the distinctions between you and past politics by articulating new principles that would govern your presidency. In particular, we call upon you to (unequivocally and persistently in your public appearances and ads) call for:

*Replacing the strategy of Domination or Power Over others that has shaped American foreign policy in the past with a new approach that gives at least equal weight to "A strategy of Generosity and Caring for others" (for example as manifested by the Global Marshall Plan suggested by the Network of Spiritual Progressives You should not allow the public discourse to push you into having to prove who will be the most effective candidate for running the next set of wars, but instead insist that the entire stragtegy of getting Homeland Security is seriously flawed unless it is based on two legs, one the strong military defense of our interests, and second on the strong commitment to ending global (and domestic) poverty, homelessness, hunger, inadequate education, inadequate health care, and repairing the global environment (please see House Res. 1078 introduced by Keith Ellison and endorsed by nineteen other Congresspeople for some helpful language in this regard-it endorses our version of The Global Marshall Plan).

*Rejecting the notion of armed struggle with Iran and opposing any military blockade of Iran that would then given the Iranians a reason to attack (in response to actions that are universally understood as acts of war), which in turn would provide the pretext for a war, either before or after the U.S. elections. You should publicly call on the Bush Administration from taking any provocative actions that might lead to military conflict before the next Administration takes office.

*A presidential Order that forbids and criminalizes torture and the direct or indirect aiding or abetting of acts of torture on the part of the U.S. , directs the U.S. military to abandon Guantanamo prison and end the activities of the School of the Americas related to training people in South and Central America in the techniques of counter-insurgency and torture, and directs the next Attorney General to explore ciminal charges against those who have violated US or international law in regard to torture.

* A commitment to make saving our global environment a top priority not only through encouraging individual and corporate environmental responsibility, but by alerting the American public to the full scientific evidence about the degree of threat to the survival of the planet that is likely unless we make major changes in the way use the resources of our planet, how we decide what products should be produced and how, and how we decide what items to consume. Tell the American people what the planet faces if the US and oather countries including China don't make a huge global effort to reverse the patterns of destruction that are already endangering our planet.

* Affirming the need for an American health care system that is based on the principle that we have an obligation to care for each other, not on the need for the health care profiteers to make a good return on their investments.

*Affirming as a guiding principle for American society in the 21st century that we have an obligation to care for each other, and that this obligation requires a rethinking of many aspects of American law, American corporations, government programs, education, and persona life, and that you will use your time in office to encourage this new ethos.

* Calling on schools to actively engage in teaching students the skills of caring a.for each other b. for those stuck in poverty or homelessness or hunger c. the disabled d. our senior citizens. e. for their own health and their bodies g. for the environment. This should include teaching about "non-violent communication" and positive negotiation skills, but also teach about the various religious and secular traditions that have made "caring for others" central to their teachingts, or have made awe and wonder at the grandeur of creation part of their approach to protecting the environment.

We are firmly convinced, Senator Obama, that these are ways of thinking about what is needed in America that are unlikely to succeed unless you build a strong foundation of support for them during your campaign when your statements have a chance of reaching the American people in a less filtered way than they will once you are elected. By articulating this kind of thinking now, you will not only strengthen the possibility of mobilizing parts of the electorate who have given up on politics altogether, but you will also be serving God in a way that is necessary at this historical moment.

Your advisors may warn you of political dangers. We think the opposite. But as we say, our calling is not to be your political practitioners, but to provide you with the kind of ethical and prophetic voices that you need to hear.

Finally, if you are elected, as we very much hope you will be, and as we ourselves will try to help make happen by building support for you, we urge you to meet with us during your presidency to hear the voices not of religious cheerleaders, but of those who dare to speak truth to power even when that power, as your own, is mostly for the good and mostly in service of the God of the universe. It is precisely because we believe in you and your strong ethical and religious commitment that we are daring to write this to you, even though we know that its impact might be to make it less likely that your advisors will ever allow us to connect with you directly once you are elected.

With respect and blessings,

(all organizations listed for identification purposes and do not imply organizational endorsement of this letter)
Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun and Chair, The Network of Spiritual Progressives and author of The Politics of Meaning and of The Left Hand of God
Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister, Executive Director of Benetvision: A Resource and Research Center for Contemporary Spirituality, and author of Welcome to the Wisdom of the World, and of The Gift of Years, and dozens of other books on Christian Theology
Rev. Tony Campolo, Chair, The Evangelical Association for the Promotion of Education, and author of dozens of books including Red Letter Christians and The God of Intimacy and Action.
Father John Dear, S.J. is a Jesuit priest and author of Jesus the Rebel and A Persistent Peace
Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Chair, The Shalom Center and author, Seasons of Our Joy and These Holy Sparks

(above are the initiators of this

(The Rev. Canon) John C. Fowler Episcopal priest
Donald Moore, S.J.
Rev. Dr. Bobbie Groth
Rev. Jarrod Cochran The Progressive Christian Alliance
Rev. James Willems, associate pastor Our Lady of Light, Ojai CA
Rabbi Jay Heyman Kol Hadash Community Albany, CA

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Notorious Behavior

I have just watched the classic Hitchcock thriller Notorious again. Ingrid Bergman plays Alicia Huberman, the daughter of a German-American convicted of treason in 1946. Cary Grant plays American intelligence agent Devlin, whose assignment is to convince Alicia to go to Brazil and infiltrate a group of neo-Nazis with ties to her father, with whom she has severed ties because of his treason.

Alicia agrees to cooperate with the intelligence agency, and she and Devlin have an affair as they travel to Brazil. Devlin learns that her assignment is to seduce Alexander Sebastian (played by Claude Rains), who had previous ties to Alicia's father and who had shown romantic interest in her in the past. Devlin protests to his supervisors that Alicia would never agree to such an arrangement but is told to let her decide. He does just that, declining to give Alicia any reasons not to take the assignment. It is obvious to the viewer that both are hoping the other will put a stop to it, but neither does. It is only after Alicia marries Sebastian that Devlin admits to himself that he has been in love with her.

Each person had been putting the other to the test, hoping that the other would say no to the notorious behavior that the agency was expecting Alicia to engage in. Each was secretly longing to be loved by the other but was afraid to express this longing. Devlin was almost daring Alicia not to go along with this, and Alicia was almost daring Devlin to tell her not to do it. There were many references by the other agents about Alicia's lack of character, and it was simply assumed that she would do what they wanted.

I think about love that puts the beloved in the position that almost forces scandalous behaviour in order to prove that love is being returned. We do that all the time in our human relationships: "Prove to me that you love me by doing this or not doing that." This dynamic was unspoken but very well communicated to the viewer by the master visual artist Hitchcock.

The biblical book of Hosea tells about a very different kind of love that God has for Israel. Hosea says that God has told him to marry a prostitute named Gomer in order to symbolize Israel having been unfaithful to God. The two have children, with symbolic names of judgment; the last is apparently not Hosea's, as he names a Hebrew word that means "Not mine."

God tells Hosea to divorce Gomer as a symbol of the heartbreak God has at Israel's unfaithfulness. As time passes, God tells Hosea to find Gomer and take her back. He has to pay for her, as she has either fallen into slavery or a lover demands payment to release her. Hosea exhibits scandalous behavior to symbolize what God is willing to do to regain the love of Israel, even though convention demands a divorce and judgment. Hosea is the "talk of the town" for marrying a prostitute who unsurprisingly ends up being unfaithful to him and for then buying her back after divorcing her.

I am drawn to the similar relationship between two other movie characters, that of Forrest Gump and his Mama. In order to get Forest into "regular" school, even though his IQ is below the cut-off, Mama beds the school's Principal. She is willing to be scandalous or notorious for the benefit of her son.

The Incarnation has such a notorious ring to it. For Greeks and Jews alike, a god who becomes flesh is scandalous. The Jewish understanding of God had been thoroughly monotheistic for centuries at the time of Jesus; it was unthinkable that a human being could be God in the flesh. The Greek philosophical understanding of God was not like the popular mythological conceptions; rather, God is that which is perfect Form, Ideal. Anything in this world is a shadow of the perfection of the world of Forms or Ideals, God being the highest in that world. An incarnation of that God was unthinkable. The God revealed in the New Testament engages in this notorious behavior and, in the words of the Nicene Creed:
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven;
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and became truly human.
International Consultation on English Texts

(I'm not trying to say that the God of the New Testament is not the same as the God of the Old Testament but that the Incarnation was a new way of understanding that selfsame God.)

In the early church and still in the Eastern Orthodox Church, this doctrine of Incarnation was closely tied to that of Theosis: God became human so that humanity can become divine. In this understanding, salvation is not simply getting into heaven; it is rather being transformed into what God is. The philosophical scandal was that earthly things could be perfected like Forms, like God. God engages in notorious behavior in order to save humanity, and Jesus lives this mission by likewise engaging in scandalous behavior: eating with sinners, touching lepers, talking to women, letting women sit at his feet as a rabbi would let his disciples.

Salvation—theosis—consists of loving people enough to be notorious, enough to break conventions for the sake of people, in order to challenge the existing order for people and for their salvation. Remember that I'm not talking heaven when I use this word. I'm not talking about converting people to Christianity but to the way of Christ, which exemplifies God's scandalous behavior for the sake of humanity. The aspects of Christianity encompassing human relations emphasize
acts of personal compassion and social justice. I'm certainly not living this way perfectly, but I'm looking for a community, even a virtual one, in which we can help one another walk in this way, even when it makes other people talk about us behind our backs.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Responses to Supreme Court's Gun Control Ruling

Religious groups are responding to the Supreme Court's recent ruling that Washington, D.C.'s, ban on handgun ownership is unconstitutional. My own United Methodist Church, long a proponent of gun control, in its 2004 official statement on gun violence, "call[ed] upon all governments of the world in which there is a United Methodist presence to establish national bans on ownership by the general public of handguns, assault weapons, automatic weapon conversion kits, and weapons that cannot be detected by traditionally used metal-detection devices." Although the statement provides no spiritual or theological rationale, it makes reference to a program entitled Communities of Shalom, whose own website has a section on a "Biblical Understanding of Shalom":

The Biblical understanding of shalom (Hebrew word for peace), is not merely the absence of conflict but everything that makes for people's highest good. It works toward hope and wholeness in which people, individually and collectively, experience health, prosperity, security, oneness with nature, and spiritual renewal. In John 14:27, Jesus, in one of his final moments with his disciples, offers peace....not as the world gives but as God gives (NRSV). Shalom is the transforming power of God at work through the church in individuals and the community.

More recently the General Conference of The United Methodist Church, the body that speaks for the entire denomination, in April of this year updated the official statement to say:
No appeals to individual autonomy are sufficient to justify our church’s ignorance of this threat. The need to prevent the incidence of firearm-related injury and death is an issue of increasing concern and a priority public health issue. The United Methodist Church is among those religious communities calling for social policies and personal lifestyles that bring an end to senseless gun violence.
Based on the official position on gun violence, the denomination's Board of Church and Society and Board nf Religion and Race, have issued a joint response, decrying the Supreme Court ruling.

I myself was raised in a household with guns. My parents owned shotguns, rifles, and handguns. I was given a small .22 caliber rifle at the age of twelve or thirteen, and I occasionally would use my father's shotgun when I would go hunting with friends. I never killed anything, and I did not particularly enjoy the activity.

At the age of sixteen or seventeen, I was shooting targets with a friend. I was using the hood of my parents' car as a surface to reload
a small handgun belonging to my friend. As I was loading it, the gun went off, denting the car's hood as the bullet struck it with a glancing blow. I was very shaken at this and was uncertain exactly how it had happened; I had been around guns all my life and knew how to handle them, yet an accident had occurred, thankfully with no real consequences.

At some point, my father gave me a shotgun that had been owned by his father. The gun was certainly old, and it was uncertain whether it could be fired. I never attempted to find out.

When I turned twenty-one, I was preparing to marry less than a month away. On my birthday, my father gave me a handgun, a .357 magnum, saying that I needed to be able to defend my family. Indeed, I can recall getting the gun and checking out my lawn, one night when I heard something outside. I found nothing amiss in the lawn and hesitate to consider what might have happened if it had turned out otherwise.

I started seminary at the age of twenty-five, having been exposed to and delighted with a critical study of religion that caused me to reconsider the conventional faith of my Bible Belt upbringing. In seminary I encountered lots of different Christian perspectives and wholeheartedly became a liberal Christian, both theologically and socially.

My wife and I decided that our young son would not be allowed to play with guns. One day, when he was old enough to think about such things, he asked me whether I owned any guns. I thought for a moment and said, "Not any more." I immediately gave my guns back to my father. He said he would hold them for me until I decided I wanted them back. That was almost twenty years ago, and I have not seen fit to bring guns back into our household.

My son is in college now, and he has his own ideas that challenge those he has learned at home. That's perfectly fine, but I have never regretted the decision my wife and I made to remove firearms from our home, which was always a place where our family has striven for shalom.

The Relevance of War and Other Domination Paradigms

As part of its "Seven Burning Issues" series, Relevant magazine's web site has asked several well-known Christian leaders the following questions: "As Christians in the midst of a nation at war, how do we respond?" Respondents include Jim Wallis, N.T. Wright, Brian McLaren, Nancy Ortberg, Steve Brown, Shane Claiborne, Cindy Jacobs, and Church Colson.

Wallis's answer includes the insight that "[f]inal judgment over whether or not a war is just should never be left to governments. It should be left to the moral discernment of the global Body of Christ." He points to American evangelicals' initial support of the war with Iraq and claims a "disconnect" between the American church and the rest of the Christian world. He blames this difference on "the cultural captivity of the Church in America."

McLaren wants to reframe the question by broadening it: "Knowing that America is the richest and most powerful nation in history, what special concerns should we have about how our nation uses its power? What does Jesus say about power and how it should be used? Would we like to give [our children] a world where our nation has gone to war and killed thousands or millions of Muslims in an effort to increase our own security?"

Claiborne reports that the overall message of Christian soldiers having experienced war in Iraq is that "I feel like I’m trying to serve two masters, the cross and the sword, and my arms are not big enough to carry both of those."

By and large, the American Christians I have known are indeed, as Wallis charges, "Americans first and Christians second." The rhetoric is the opposite, but living a personal life or supporting social policies that mirror what are evident to me as Jesus' priorities is seen to be unrealistic. More often than not, being a good American and a Christian are simply conflated with nationalistic values purporting to be gospel values.

Americans give more lip service to religion than other so-called "developed" nations, but it seems to me that this religion rarely calls conventional understandings into question. One of Jesus' roles was that of the wisdom teacher, but, rather than legitimating conventional wisdom, he was continually challenging such conventional wisdom and offering an alternate vision.

In many situations, religion functions adequately as the legitimation of existing power structures. In our own situation, however, I believe that religion functions best to challenge existing paradigms, paradigms that are not even recognized as artificially produced, and to offer a new vision for what life can be. Jesus called this life "the kingdom of God"; perhaps a better translation of that for our times would be "God's commonwealth." A commitment to God's commonwealth eschews violence, competition, and domination and denounces any vision of common life that lifts any of these to redemptive status.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

An Open Letter to Senator Obama

A group of Barack Obama supporters, distressed at his support for a FISA bill currently under consideration in the Senate, has created a group on Obama's own web site to mount a protest. Since its inception eight days ago, the group, called "Senator Obama - Please Vote NO on Telecom Immunity - Get FISA Right," has become the largest group on the website, currently with over 18,000 members. Concerned that Obama is supporting the legislation's immunity for telecommunication companies and its broadened powers for warrantless wiretapping, leaders of the group have written an open letter to Obama.

As a United Methodist, concerned about civil liberties, I share the group's intentions (and, in fact, joined the group when it was just a few thousand strong). As articulated in the denomination's Social Principles, the people of The United Methodist Church "hold governments responsible for the protection of the rights of the people . . . to the right to privacy. . . . We also strongly reject domestic surveillance and intimidation of political opponents by governments in power and all other misuses of elective or appointive offices."

Because I think the use of governmental power is a spiritual question, I am reproducing the open letter written by leaders of the aforementioned group of concerned Obama supporters.

An Open Letter to Senator Obama

From the 15,000+ (and rapidly growing) members of the group

"Senator Obama – Please Vote NO on Telecom Immunity – Get FISA Right"

recommended tags: fisa, Obama, myBO, getfisaright
and once you do, please add the link to the open letter repostings page

Dear Senator Obama,

On October 24, 2007, your campaign spokesman said, "To be clear: Barack will support a filibuster of any bill that includes retroactive immunity for telecommunications companies."

On June 20, 2008 you said, of retroactive immunity, "I will work in the Senate to remove this provision so that we can seek full accountability for past offenses."

As the largest grass-roots group on your campaign website,, and in the spirit of your open/responsive government campaign pledges, we wish to share our ideas for how we may work together to further the goal of eliminating retroactive immunity from the FISA legislation scheduled for debate in the Senate next week. Although this is only one of the problems we see with legislation which allows the government to wiretap the communications of its citizenry without a warrant, it's the area we think we can help you with the most.

First, Senator Obama, we ask that you make the same tools that we used to call undecided voters in Iowa and New Hampshire available for us to call our fellow citizens in West Virginia, Nebraska, Delaware, Florida and other states that have Senators committed to voting against the amendment that would strip telecom immunity. You have the tools and we have the people power. Together, we are confident we can bring Change; we can make the government listen to the people instead of the telecom lobbyists.

Second, Senator Obama, we ask that you attend the Senate debate and schedule floor time to speak about the violence done to the rule of law when Congress retroactively immunizes the illegal conduct of a special interest. We know you understand that justice should not be sold to the highest special interest bidder; we also know that you can persuade other Senators that are not so clear on the issue. Of course, if you do this, our committed members will surely capture the video of your inspiring oratory, load it to YouTube and spread your words to our friends and family far and wide. We trust in your ability to bring a new way of doing business to Washington and look forward to helping you make that Change a reality.

Senator Obama, the caption reads, "I'm asking you to believe. Not just in my ability to bring about real change in Washington… I'm asking you to believe in yours." We're ready to put these words into practice

Thank you.

The 15,000+ (and rapidly growing) members of

"Senator Obama – Please Vote NO on Telecom Immunity – Get FISA Right"