Sunday, February 16, 2014

The 10th Commandment Meets the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Steps

The summer I turned 16 Susie became my girlfriend. She was a wonderful person but I have to admit that one of the reasons that I wanted her to become my girlfriend was that two of my friends were also courting her. When she settled for me - and it was settling - I exulted in my victory.

Those competitive feelings are not at all surprising. We live in a society which might be said to be based on violating the Tenth Commandment - thou shall not covet. Most advertising tries to get us to want something that someone else has, something that will make our lives, if not perfect, a lot better. And it's not only things that we covet. I find myself wishing that I had that person's good looks - these days it's often that person's head of hair - or that person's talents. or that person's prayer life, or that person's reputation.

That kind of wishing, that covetousness is deadly. It saps my energy and it keeps me from seeing how many and wonderful blessings I have received. It keeps me from recognizing that I have enough. When Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, calls us to a deeper righteousness, the righteousness of not committing adultery in our hearts, he is calling to overcome covetousness, to stop looking at the blessings that other's have and wanting them and start looking at the blessings that we have received.

But how am I to do that? Certainly not by any ability of my own. But when I can admit that I am powerless over covetousness and that my life is unmanageable, when I can believe that God's power can restore me to sanity, and when I can turn my life over to God, a miracle happens. I stop thinking that if I had...whatever, life would be perfect. God empowers me to see myself and others around me as God sees us, as beloved and blessed children of God, and to know that I have enough.

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Limits to Religious Freedom

The First Amendment to the US Constitution prohibits the Congress from making any law that would prohibit the free exercise of religion. Americans generally put a high value on religious freedom and there has been a growing recognition that First Amendment protects our freedom from religion. But can there be limits to a person's free exercise?

Courts have held that parents' free exercise of religion can be limited when it poses a threat to their children. Most of us would agree that withholding medical treatment for a child because you believe only in praying for healing is not a protected form of free exercise. We would also agree that having slaves would not be a protected form of the free exercise of religion, even though the Bible allows the practice. The free exercise of religion by Quakers and Mennonites does not include their being exempted from paying taxes to fund the Pentagon, even though my Quaker mother tried to make that claim.

Roman Catholics and others are arguing that their religious freedom is being denied by the requirement under the Affordable Care Act that employer-provided health insurance must include contraceptive coverage. Because they believe that artificial birth control is immoral they assert that providing the coverage would make them complicit in an immoral act. While I have some sympathy with their position, I see some significant problems with their argument.

Health insurance is a benefit, part of an employee's compensation. How the employee uses the benefit should not be limited by the employer's religious convictions. We would reject the idea that an employer whose religion prohibited the drinking of alcoholic beverages should be allowed to stop his employees from using some of their wages to buy beer. Decisions about the use of the medical care covered by insurance, like decisions about how to spend their wages, are the employees' responsibility, not the employers'.

A second problem with the argument has to do with the question of complicity. The argument that my Quaker mother made, an argument that would have been rejected in court if the IRS hadn't raided her bank account, was a much stronger one than the current one about birth control. Stronger because complicity in acts which she considered immoral was not simply a possibility but a sure thing. An employee might not choose to use the contraceptive coverage, but there was no possibility that my mother's taxes would not be used to buy guns and airplanes and bombs and pay soldiers to kill.

If those who object to providing contraceptive coverage prevail in court it might well be seen as a victory for religious liberty. I wouldn't see it that way. Instead I would see it as a victory for a kind of isolationist religious mentality, one that seeks to protect the person from even the most tenuous connection with immoral actions. We are all, in ways both large and small, complicit in actions which we would not ourselves choose to perform. We pay taxes that are used to spy on us. We buy products and services from companies that contribute to politicians whose positions we consider to be immoral. Every day we make decisions that have consequences that we don't like, consequences that we may not be able to foresee, but also consequences that are obvious. We do our best to avoid complicity with actions that we find immoral, but moral purity is an illusion in such a complex society as ours.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Red Sox and the GOP

On the wall outside my grandmother's bedroom when I was growing up there were two pictures. One was of Ted Williams. The other was of President and Mrs. Eisenhower.

Grandmother would be very pleased with her beloved Red Sox this summer. Sitting in first place with the Yankees seven games back in fourth place, it doesn't get much better than that. But I'm not at all sure that she would be pleased with the Republican Party this summer.

Grandmother and I didn't agree on matters of politics. She once demanded that I remove a political button when we visited her in the early sixties. It was, as near as I can remember, an indication that I was supporting, even though I was not old enough to vote, H. Stuart Hughes, a peace candidate for the Senate in 1962. A Ted Kennedy button would have been only slightly less offensive. The only acceptable candidate would have been the Republican George Cabot Lodge. Years later I learned that my mother had voted for Kennedy in 1960, but had kept that a secret.

Today I am not at all sure how Grandmother would view the Republican Party. As the granddaughter of a Congregational minister and the daughter-in-law of an Episcopal Archdeacon, she would, I think, be very disturbed by the recent actions of some in the GOP - passing the Farm Bill in the House without any money for Food Stamps; threatening a government shutdown unless the Affordable Care Act is defunded; passing state laws that make it harder for people who are poor to vote; and opposing any policy simply because it has the President's support. 

Grandmother wouldn't recognize today's GOP. It is not the party of President Eisenhower who warned us about the military-industrial complex. It is not the party of the first President Bush who understood that providing nutritious food to children saves us money in the long run. It is, sadly, a party that appears to have no interest in governing responsibly, in working to craft solutions to the nation's problems. Perhaps in five or ten years the Grand Old Party will be one grand once again, but I'm not holding my breath.

But we still have the Red Sox.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Unfinished Business

Progressives - liberals - call us whatever you want - but know that we have a great deal of unfinished business. 

Two pieces of business are fairly obvious.

  1. The section of the Voting Rights Act that was struck down by the Supreme Court needs to be rewritten and enacted. I don't hold out a great deal of hope for this, given the intransigence of Republicans in the House, but not trying is not an open. Until a new section is signed into law, legal challenges need to be made to every attempt by states to deny people the vote. Challenges cost money and that means that all of us who care about the right to vote should be prepared to write checks.
  2. The pathway to marriage equality continues to run through the state legislatures and the courts. We have had remarkable success in the past year, but those successes didn't happen without significant work. Those of us who live in places where marriage equality is already achieved need to support the work on other states.
Reducing gun violence is a more complicated piece of unfinished business. Passing new federal legislation is not the only challenge. As Attorney General Holder pointed out in his address to the NAACP, laws like Florida's "Stand Your Ground" have not made America any safer. Repealing those laws is a daunting task and it will take time, but the overly broad interpretation of self-defense in these laws cannot be allowed to stand.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Who Is My Neighbor?

It's Sunday morning and in a little less than an hour we will begin celebrating the Eucharist. The Gospel for today is the very familiar story of the exchange between Jesus and a lawyer who asks, "Who is my neighbor?"

That, of course,  is the wrong question and it is our constant focus on that question that has led us into so much trouble. We want to know how closely we can set the limits of our love for the neighbor. This person is my neighbor whom I am commanded to love, but that person over there is the Other, the Stranger, the Enemy, and I don't have to love that person. 

It is the asking and answering of that question that led to the death of Trayvon Martin. Whether George Zimmerman is guilty of a crime or not, he, like all the rest of us, is guilty of deciding that some people aren't neighbors and we don't have to love them.

In challenging the lawyer with what we call the Parable of the Good Smaritan, Jesus focused on what it means to act with neighbor-love. Jesus shocked his hearers by saying that it was the Outsider, the Other, the Enemy, who showed neighbor-love, who fulfilled the commandments. 

Jesus challenges us as well. If we are to be a blessing to the nations, to all people, we need to stop asking, "Who is my neighbor?" and ask, "How can I love my neighbor more extravagantly?"