Saturday, March 24, 2012

Another weekend, another sermon :)

Tomorrow, I will be giving a sermon...twice ha ha. I shall be visiting a local church on Sunday morning along with some of my fellow students from the Wesley Foundation; as part of this visit I will give the sermon. Then later in the afternoon, as part of the 4:30pm Wesley service at Purdue, I shall give the sermon there as well. 

The two readings from Scripture I selected are from the RCL:
Hebrew Bible--Jeremiah 31:31-34
New Testament--Gospel according to St. John 12:20-33

Since I was asked to come up with a title for my sermon, it shall be: Grains of Love.
Of 'love'?

"Why did you choose this title" you may be asking. Well my dear reader, if you are in the area come and find out. Also, wish me luck. :)



Tuesday, March 13, 2012

"American Atheists" and the "best arguments"

Usually when you listen to some statement, you hear it as a kind of echo of yourself. You are actually listening to your own opinion. If it agrees with your opinion you may accept it, but if it does not, you will reject it or you may not even really hear it.
Shunryu Susuki

Greetings my dear reader!

During my time at Purdue, both my social circle and my ministry has included many brothers and sisters from the Non-Theist community. I treasure the relationships that I have built with my Non-Theists friends, and even when we disagree about certain things, I am confident that some of these relationships will continue for many years and I look forward to that beer, glass of wine, or coffee 20 years from now when one of us will say: "Hey, remember that time at Purdue..." :)

Now my dear reader, let me ask you a question: have you ever heard the expression: the engine's running but there's nobody behind the wheel? The group American Atheists decided to pay to have the following billboard put up in Harrisburg, PA:

As to the reasons for the billboard, I got this from the official Facebook page of AA:

A literal application of a scripture, Colossians 3:22, will enrage communities into full blown anger, voicing personal attack and death threats. The application of this scripture proves that the Bible is barbaric, horrible, awful, repugnant, and racist? Why do people parade the Bible as the best book on planet Earth? The Bible is by far, the worst book ever compiled and adored by countless humans, including the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. American Atheists detests the Bible and the slavery it condones as much as the vandals detest the image of slavery portrayed on the billboard. Maybe the public can now understand our anger and frustration at the House of Representatives' "Year of The Bible" resolution? The unanimous theocratic passage of this resolution was a bigoted, narrow-minded and self-centered act against all citizens in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. On January 24, 2012 at 3:12 pm, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives vandalized the citizenship of Atheists and other non-Christians in this Commonwealth by relegating us to second class status.
Ernest Perce V,
American Atheists Pennsylvania State Director

...the engine's running but there's nobody behind the wheel...

Now, I usually try to speak and communicate in a way that gets me away from receiving "death threats", but true, our country has struggled with the demons of racism for a long time. I have no problem admitting that the Bible was used to justify slavery because to disagree would be to deny history and deny reality. I am also one of the first to admit (and I have done this both in private AND in public as part of my ministry) that the Bible is being used in some parts of the world to discriminate, harass, incarcerate, and kill members of the LGTBQ community. However, if a group like AA wants to point this out and protest a resolution passed by politicians, I can think of a thousand different ways to do this. Yet, they chose this way. The problem with a message that wants to enrage communities into full blown anger, voicing personal attack and death threats is that you can never be sure of how this message is going to be received.

Among the many things that came to mind were message and minorities. When you are a minority (like the Non-Theists) struggling for your rights, fighting against discrimination, trying to advance an agenda, and/or trying to gain respect in society, the type of message you use to advance your goals is very, very, very important.

Now, some of my Non-Theist brothers and sisters tell me that one of the differences between them and me is that while I have crappy (or shitty) arguments as a religious person, Non-Theists always have the "best arguments". The logic goes that the "best arguments" should lead the person to the "right place" with less chances of being misdirected or confused by silly ideas, like my religion and/or my belief in "Sky Gandalf" for example. ;)  Yet, the billboard points to a big problem with this idea.

AA used their "arguments" to come up with a message. And they used the billboard to transmit this message. And like the expression goes, here's the rub:
1) There is message, and there is perception.
2) The "best" argument is not going to work if the person will not listen to you.
3) When a minority tries to make a point that includes something connected to another minority, be careful how you say it.

The billboard was vandalized. And AA reacted this way:

Our thoughts on the "Slaves" billboard in Pennsylvania that was vandalized during the night...

You SHOULD be offended! You should be VERY offended! You should be offended at the racist caricature used by newspapers of the time to sell the pictured item to slave owners. You should be offended at southern preachers who used this verse to justify slavery, the Civil War, and the continued denial of rights to freed slaves after the war. You should be offended by the Bible that promotes slavery and gave slave owners rules on how to treat and properly beat their slaves. You should be offended that slaves adopted the religion of their slave masters. You're damn right, it's offensive! But hey, let's shoot the messenger instead.

AA concluded that their message was correct, people are upset because their message was correct, and those same people should not "shoot the messenger" since AA is pointing out the truth and for example pointing out how "southern preachers" used the Bible (and the verse they quote from the Bible) to justify horrors like slavery and how slaves themselves adopted the religion of their slave masters.


While AA was ready (and perfectly happy) to be criticized by theists and religious people like myself, it is clear to me that they never expected to get the type criticism they got...from their own community. And this goes to the complex reaction in the Non-Theist community.

Some Non-Theists see nothing wrong with the billboard, some approve but not of way it was done, and others simply do not approve. This is to be expected. When you have multiple groups with many different people you will have different messages with different opinions on those messages. In fact, the debate in the Non-Theist movement regarding this billboard has been very robust and trust me on this one: they certainly have no problems in disagreeing publicly with one another.

Hemant Mehta saw it this way and he quotes AJ Johnson, Development Director of AA. Johnson gives his own personal view of the reasons why AA was justified in using the billboard:

As an African American and an atheist, the recent stir caused by the PA Nonbelievers/American Atheists billboard is both surprising and disheartening. While I expected a negative reaction from religious African Americans, I was disturbed to find dissent from Black people within the Secular Movement.

The quote presented, “Slaves obey your masters,” was not taken out of context and is only one of the MANY locations in the Bible that you can observe a pro-slavery message. The image used was not created by American Atheists for this purpose, but was reprinted to illustrate the brutality that the Bible condones — and the reality of the conditions my ancestors endured. I am deeply saddened that the purpose of our billboard has been labeled as racist or as an “attack” on African Americans or a particular PA community. This vitriol is sorely misplaced, and should be directed at those who peddle Scripture as fact — or toward the PA House of Representatives that successfully sought to legislate it as such.

If you are rightfully upset by the Bible passage or the image used to represent it, do not take it up with American Atheists. We don’t agree with them either! The only difference is that we refuse to deny the reality of what is in the Bible, and its role the historical & ongoing oppression of African Americans. If that is controversial, then so be it. As long as 2012 is the “Year of the Bible” in PA, we will be providing even more samples of the “Good Book” to show the folks of Pennsylvania what their government thinks is important. Maybe 2013 will be the “Year of Improved Infrastructure” or the “Year of Job-Growth” instead.

AJ Johnson
Development Director
American Atheists

However, Sikivu Hutchinson (also an African American and an Atheist) did not see it this way:
The black body has always been an object of deep and abiding obsession in the American imagination.  Be it cavorting in “funky” abandon on a dance floor, vaulting off a basketball court in dunk mode, suckling apple-cheeked white babies, trotted out in a police line-up, or greased down, poked, prodded and staged on a slave auction block, the black body occupies that mystical place between corporeality and supernaturalism. Recently, American Atheists, a predominantly white group with a largely white leadership, slapped up a billboard in a Harrisburg, Pennsylvania neighborhood featuring a picture of a shackled naked black slave and a bible quote that said “slaves obey your masters.” The ad was intended to protest Pennsylvania’s boneheaded declaration of 2012 as the so-called “Year of the Bible.”  Much to the “astonishment” of AA reps, the billboard was reviled, defaced, and labeled a hate crime by some in the African American community.  Apparently offended black folk just weren’t intelligent enough to grasp the sage lesson that American Atheists, prominent champion of anti-racist social justice, was trying to teach them. Instead, some “misconstrued” the message as racist, concluding that, in a country where white nationalists have issued a clarion call to take back the nation from the Negro savage/illegal alien in the White House, “slaves obey your masters” probably still means them.

Hutchinson also said:
In the Harrisburg incident some black residents spewed anti-atheist slurs and labeled the AA group the Antichrist.  Vandals tore part of the billboard down and it was removed shortly after it was mounted.  But AA’s ahistorical paternalistic approach to “secular” public service messaging is one of the main reasons why New Atheism is still racially segregated and lily white.  Clearly AA doesn’t give a damn about the reality of urban communities of color in the U.S. vis-à-vis the institutional role of organized religion in a white supremacist capitalist context. 

PZ Myers took notice of this when he said:
All the religious fanatics and Christian and Muslim weirdos who criticize atheists can take a flying leap — and when Bill Donohue rants and raves about atheist billboards, it’s a vindication and a triumph. But when one of our own, the black atheist Sikivu Hutchinson, speaks out in criticism, it’s a message that must be taken seriously and addressed.

As you can see my dear reader, Myers is NOT exactly what one could call a diplomat in the Non-Theist community. So when someone like him tells the following to David Silverman (president of AA) it shows a legitimate concern on how the message of the billboard was received:

David Silverman, are you listening? I know this is not the message you want to send, but it’s what people are hearing. Fix this. Don’t tell people of color what they want, listen when they tell you what they need.

...this is not the message you want to send, but it’s what people are hearing....

Again my dear reader:

There is always a huge gap between what a person wants to say, how she/he communicates that message, and what the other person actually hears. This is nothing new, is just the nature of communication. And sometimes the "best arguments" that make 'us' conclude that 'we' have the 'truth' are useless if the message to communicate this 'truth' is faulty and it blows up like this.

Will this be a learning experience for AA? Only time will tell. So far, this is what they said:
We want to thank everyone for sharing their opinions with us about the "Slaves, Obey Your Masters" billboard. While we certainly respect the opinions of those who disagree with our tactics, we respectfully disagree with that opinion. We are unapologetic about the billboard and stand behind it 100%. There will be no apology from American Atheists for saying what needed to be said: sometimes the truth is offensive.

By all means, continue to talk about it and hash it out among yourselves, but we have said all there is to say on the issue and will say no more.

We are moving on to our next project and look forward to putting up more billboards!

Thank you for your support!

"...sometimes the truth is offensive..."

Sorry AA, but the tree has fallen and there are many who are not around to hear it. And when you have people in your community telling you that there is a problem here to say to them hash it out among yourselves does not sound (again, perception) like you are listening and it does not sound like you care about the truth. This sounds more like:


AA this makes you sound like the same people you are trying to criticize and not because you are racists but because instead of using the "best arguments" it sounds like you are simply saying to everyone else you don't get it! And while you wanted people to think "Wow, I never thought of that" or "Yeah, the Bible is horrible", all of that gets lost in the sea of "Atheists said what!?!?" Because to many people this billboard was not done by "American Atheists" but by ALL "Atheists". And many of them don't see things exactly they way you do and they don't necessarily want to be called racists, REGARDLESS of you thinking that the billboard was not racist.


Of course I could be wrong and I may not be getting it....then again...message...perception...

Too bad. The good news is that I personally know people in the Non-Theist community that understand that this is issue is more complex than AA is willing to say or admit. AA was at the table of this fact, it was a conversation they started with this billboard but they have left the table. So now, it is up to others to continue the conversation without them. As a member of a minority myself, I understand that this type of conversation is a serious business.

My dear reader, I hope you are having a great week. Untile the next time. :)



Saturday, March 10, 2012

"There is so much concerning Christ..."

There is so much concerning Christ that can be made more profound, since he is such an abundant mine with many caverns full of rich veins, and no matter how much we tunnel we never arrive at the end, nor does it ever run out; on the contrary we go on finding in each cavern new veins and new riches, here and there, as St. Paul witnessed when he said of the same Christ: "In Christ all the jewels of of wisdom and knowledge are hidden."

--St. John of the Cross

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Pat Robertson and John Piper: God sending tornadoes?


39 lives were lost last weekend when tornadoes devastated areas of five states. Here in Indiana we are told that of those 39 lives, 13 were from southern Indiana. These tornadoes not only took lives but also took homes, business, and other buildings. Death, suffering, and broken the years go by every March 2nd will be a day to remember for many people.

My dear reader, allow me now to tell you about two responses that I have seen from some of my Christian brothers and sisters in regards to this latest tragedy: Response #1, and Response #2.

Response #1: Christians like John Piper and Pat Robertson.
In his website, Evangelical theologian and pastor John Piper said the following regarding this tragedy:

“Why would God reach down his hand and drag his fierce fingers across rural America killing at least 38 people with 90 tornadoes in 12 states, and leaving some small towns with scarcely a building standing, including churches?
(from Fierce Tornadoes and the Fingers of God)

When I read this opening paragraph I admit I almost lost control. But I kept reading. Here are the next paragraphs: "If God has a quarrel with America, wouldn’t Washington, D.C., or Las Vegas, or Minneapolis, or Hollywood be a more likely place to show his displeasure?

We do not ascribe such independent power to Mother Nature or to the devil. God alone has the last say in where and how the wind blows. If a tornado twists at 175 miles an hour and stays on the ground like a massive lawnmower for 50 miles, God gave the command."

"...God gave the command..."

After this Piper engages in biblical exegesis to justify and explain what he said in the the opening paragraphs. He then ends his blog entry with the following:"Therefore, God’s will for America under his mighty hand, is that every Christian, every Jew, every Muslim, every person of every religion or non-religion, turn from sin and come to Jesus Christ for forgiveness and eternal life. Jesus rules the wind. The tornadoes were his.

But before Jesus took any life in rural America, he gave his own on the rugged cross. Come to me, he says, to America — to the devastated and to the smugly self-sufficient. Come to me, and I will give you hope and help now, and in the resurrection, more than you have ever lost. You can show your partnership in suffering, and help lift the load, at Samaritan’s Purse."

"...God's will for America..."
"...Jesus rules the wind..."
"...The tornadoes were his..."

The last line of the entry is the only place were he tells people to "show your partnership in suffering, and help lift the load" by donating to the group he recommended. So, the whole article could be summarized this way: God (and Jesus) sent the tornadoes, repent.

The TV evangelist (and an icon of the Christian Right) Pat Robertson has been known for making many controversial statements in the past. So when I heard that he said something about this latest tragedy I said "Oh no..." After all, this is the same Pat Robertson who said that Haiti suffered an earthquake in 2010 because of a pact with the devil. This is also the same Pat Robertson who back in September 13, 2001 had the late Jerry Fallwell in his show the "700 Club"(only TWO days after the tragedy of 9/11) and the infamous "you helped this happen":

JERRY FALWELL: And, I know that I'll hear from them for this. But, throwing God out successfully with the help of the federal court system, throwing God out of the public square, out of the schools. The abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked. And when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad. I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way--all of them who have tried to secularize America--I point the finger in their face and say "you helped this happen."

PAT ROBERTSON: Well, I totally concur, and the problem is we have adopted that agenda at the highest levels of our government. And so we're responsible as a free society for what the top people do. And, the top people, of course, is the court system.

"...Well, I totally concur..."

However, while Piper speaks of God dragging "his fierce fingers across rural America", Robertson said that God did not send the tornadoes; this in itself was different from what he said about Hurricane Katrina. This is what he said:

“God set up a world in which certain currents interfere and interact with other currents. If enough people were praying, He would intervene. You could pray. Jesus stilled the storm. You could still storms.”

"...If enough people were praying...
"...Jesus stilled the storm..."
"...You could still storms..."

There is a lot I could say about their "response". I could give my own theological counterarguments to their theological arguments. I could write 2 or 3 paragraphs and engage in some sort of exegetical battle regarding the use Piper's use of the Book of Job, or Robertson's use of the Gospel according to Matthew 8:23-26 regarding his comment

Yes, I could respond this way. But instead, to this response by John Piper and Pat Robertson I say:

How dare you?
How could you?
Did it ever occur to you that perhaps you should have kept all this to yourselves?
Did it ever occur to you that a better way to "show your partnership in suffering, and help lift the load" was NOT to say these things?
Did it ever occur to you that saying these things could cause MORE suffering and pain to the victims?
Did it ever occur to you that the victims of this tragedy do not want to listen to "Repent!", and instead want to hear you say "How can we help"?

People lost their lives, people lost their homes, people lost their business, people lost everything! And you both thought it was a good idea to say to the world, to the families of the 39, and the victims of this disaster:
1) That it was God who sent the tornado that killed your child?
2) That you didn't pray (or din't pray enough) so you didn't calm "the storm" and so your child's death is on you?

Quite frankly my dear reader I prefer to move on. Now please allow me to tell you about how other Christians have responded to this tragedy.

Response #2: Other Christians

As a campus ministry intern here at Purdue, I am happy to say that I know Christians that have responded to this not with words of theological doom, but with words AND actions of love. Last Tuesday night at the Wesley Foundation we heard an update from a student that is connected with a group (created by a Wesley student) that has been training for disaster relief operations. They were trying to see if the group was going to be part of the already massive relief effort going on in southern Indiana. My own church (the Episcopal Church) is using its Episcopal Relief & Development to help coordinate relief efforts in the areas affected by this tragedy.  Many Christians (along with non-Christians) are working together as volunteers with multiple organizations to help.

I know many of these Christians personally. And none of them thought that their response should have been one of "God did this, who is left alive should repent" or "They didn't pray enough, it's their fault".
No. Their response has been love. Love with their words and their actions. To these Christians I want to say thank you.

The American Red Cross is also trying to do what they can. More than 500 trained Red Cross disaster workers have sheltered hundreds of people displaced by tornadoes across 11 states; served more than 42,000 meals and snacks; and handed out nearly 14,000 relief items. (for more details click here) Christians are donating money to the Red Cross and/or becoming volunteers.

And let us not forget the paramedics, nurses, doctors, firefighters, the men and women of the police and others who are helping, along with the members of many churches in the area and beyond who are helping.

My dear reader allow me to end this with the following words: to all Americans (Christian and non-Christians) who are RIGHT NOW helping, I want to say thank you.

Thank you.



Friday, March 2, 2012

Thoughts from my sermon "Who is Christ?"

Hello my dear reader. The following is a short reflection, inspired by some of the thoughts from my sermon last weekend in Chicago, as part of the Province V (Episcopal Church) Campus Ministry Conference. I would like to dedicate this humble reflection to my old and new friends from Province V. :)
Who is Jesus? Quien es Jesús ? Quien es Cristo? Who is Christ?
If you my dear reader are a Christian, how would you answer this?

Why do I ask this? This was inspired by some of the excellent conversations that I had with my Province V comrades this weekend on issues of religion, spirituality, philosophy, Lord of the Rings, etc. This was also inspired by the readings of the RCL that were part of the First Sunday of Lent. One of those readings was the Gospel according to Mark 1:9-15, as it described the scene of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. It tells us that after the baptism there was a voice, a voice that came from heaven and it said You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased. This voice made me think of the Gospel reading from the Last Sunday after the Epiphany when a cloud overshadowed Peter, James, and John (after seeing Jesus transfigured and having a conversation with Moses and Elijah) and there came a voice, "This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!"

In both of these readings it appears that the answer to the questions of "who is Jesus" and/or "who is Christ" is this: he is the Son or more to the point the Son of God. But this "answer" is not the only one given in Scripture and in the 2,000 years of tradition in the Church.

...who is Christ...

In response to ideas about the humanity and/or divinity of Jesus (among other ideas about God and Christian faith) the Church eventually came up with the creeds. Two of these creeds are The Apostles' Creed and the Nicene Creed.

The Apostle's creed states: I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary....

Now, let us take a look at what the Nicene Creed tells us about Jesus: We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father...

These creeds inspired by Scripture and a result of years of fights (some of them violent), debates, and struggles in the Church are recited by many Christians around the world every week. I myself have done this for many years. I can hear the echoes of the first verses of the Gospel according to John, along with other parts of Scripture and the ideas of Christian and Non-Christian thinkers coming together and sometimes colliding with one another. I see these creeds and I see a few more answers to my questions, including who he is, where did he come from and why, his humanity, his divinity, etc. Yet, these creeds speak in a language produced by a reality and a world that is not quite the reality (or the world) of today; this is not meant as an insult or to demean these creeds but rather to point out a fact.

History shows us that these creeds, along with how to interpret Scripture, and what the Church has said in the past and in the present about Christ reminds us that the 'right' or 'wrong' answer has been a serious business. While to some the 'right' or 'wrong' answer has been and continues to be a matter of 'salvation', many times the 'right' or 'wrong' answer can be a matter of life and death depending on where you live...and I do not mean this spiritually and/or metaphorically; I mean it in the physical sense.

...who is Christ...

During the weekend some in our group gladly gave their time to provide meals to the hungry (as part of the great work done by Church of Our Savior) and we had discussions and reflections on issues of social justice, from the problems of income inequality, poverty, discrimination, to many other related issues. As human beings we continue to be divided on how to find solutions to these problems (the private sector and/or the government, the individual and/or society, the Church, etc) but many of our brothers and sisters continue to be hungry and homeless, continue to be discriminated, continue to suffer, continue to cry. And it is this suffering and pain, along with a concern to try to do something about it that was true of the past and it is true now; on this, the reality of the past and of our present are not different.

...who is Christ...

In the book Jesus Christ Liberator: A Critical Christology for Our Time, Leonardo Boff tells us that to ask who is Christ and of course who are you, Jesus Christ, for us today means confronting our existence with his and being challenged by his person, message and the meaning we discover in his comportment. (Page 245). And I ask myself: if Christ asked me "My dear Mario, who do you say that I am", how would I answer?

What would I say? In what language?
What is the 'correct' answer?
Would I respond like St. Peter? (Mark 8:29)
Would I in accordance with the tradition of the Church (inspired by Scripture) think of the creeds?
As a "proper" Episcopalian what does "Scripture, Tradition, and Reason" tell me?
What do I, in the state of being found in the faith that grasps my core, finally say?
Would I instead of saying anything, simply remain in silence and in the power of silence let my heart respond?

...who is Christ...

Dorothee Sölle attempted to answer this question in her own personal way by using a format inspired by the ancients creeds of the Church:

I believe in Jesus Christ
who was right when he
like each of us
just another individual who couldn't beat city hall
worked to change the status quo
and was destroyed
Looking at him I see
how our intelligence is crippled
our imagination stifled
our efforts wasted
because we do not live as he did
every day I am afraid
that he died in vain
because he is buried in our churches
because we have betrayed his revolution
in our obedience to authority
and our fear of it
I believe in Jesus Christ
who rises again and again in our lives
so that we will be free
from prejudice and arrogance
from fear and hate
and carry on his revolution
and make way for his kingdom

...who is Christ...

I will continue asking myself this question. In the meantime, let us try to remember this: while the 'correct' question may be important, orthodoxy should never get on the way of orthopraxis and the love we must show to others and to ourselves. Sometimes when I say this I am told by some of my Christian brothers and sisters that all this talk about 'love' is not really what the Gospel is all about but instead it is faith in Christ that is important. My response is this: that faith in Christ must have love; a love beyond our own dichotomies; a love beyond our labels and categories for everything; a love beyond our fears of 'the other'; a love that transcends ourselves. A faith without this love (or the practice of this love) becomes futile and it alienate us from our fellow human beings and specially those human beings that need us the most.

Perhaps to be Christian and to try to answer the question of 'who is Christ' is to remember the words of St. James: If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them,“Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. James 2:15-17 (NRSV)

...who is Jesus...
...quien es Jesús ...
...quien es Cristo...
...who is Christ...

May our answers, and our new questions to those answers continue to bring all of us closer to each other, away from prejudice, arrogance, fear, and hate, and closer to the way of wisdom, respect, compassion, and love.

Have a great weekend everyone. :)


P.S. Special dedication to the amazing Sue. Thank you for your ministry :)