A North American Adaptation of the Lord’s Prayer – for too many Christians
A “Distortion” of The Lord’s Prayer as understood by too many North American Christians
(With interpretive notes)
Pray then in this way: Our* MY Father in heaven, hallowed be MY UNDERSTANDING OF your name. Your SPIRITUALIZED kingdom come, Your SPIRITUALIZED will be done, On earth** AMONG MY TRIBE as it is in heaven. Give us ME this day ourdaily MORE EXCESS bread, And forgive us our ME MY debts, as we I also have forgiven our MY debtor FRIENDs WHO DESERVE IT. And do not bring us ME to the time of trial, but rescue us ME from the evil ones WHO DISAGREE WITH ME. For if you forgive*** CONDEMN others of their trespasses,
your heavenly Father will also ESPECIALLY forgive you;
but if you do not forgive others,
neither will your Father WILL forgive your trespasses ANYWAY. –Matthew 6:9-15
*This prayer is distorted to fit “modern” North American individualistic sensibilities held by many Christians. Toby Keith’s song “I Want to Talk About Me” can be sung after the prayer. It is based on the message preached and believed that all the followeres of Jesus are to focus on is individual salvation. This view forgets any mention of love of neighbor, the Year of Jubilee, Gospel stories about welcoming the outsider and stranger, Paul’s mention of each having gifts needed to be a part of whole community, historic practices of social-justice or ideas of covenant and commonweal.
** Faith in this view is all about heaven and the hereafter. It has little reference to daily life on earth. My current life is to get me ready for the “sweet by-and-by.” God’s will is meant only for those who think like me and believe the same theology and creeds that I hold. In other words, “on earth” is about how I treat those who are part of my tribe. This means, climate change is a myth, any government aid the poor is “evil socialism,” the earth’s resources are to be dominated and used up for my benefit and those who are like me. The earth is not our “Common Home” as Pope Francis proclaims. The United Methodist bishops calling for “environmental holiness” was wrong.
*** Forgiveness in this view is a sign of weakness… unless it is asking for a pardon for crimes. The individual praying the prayer doesn’t need forgiveness because he or she has the right answer on two or three critical issues (e.g., against homosexuality and all abortions) and all else is “up to God.” I don’t really need to ask for forgiveness as my way is the only way to salvation. The story about the prodigal returning home is always about “them” and never about “me.”
Among my summer bouquet of reading — or re-reading, I have put two in my backpack to carry along with others. These are meant to be devotional books. I plan to carry them as devotional resources to be read and re-read as gifts in these challenging days. These are valuable starting points for reflection and meditation… a stopping to smell spiritual flowers.
For persons of faith, or those interested in exploring Christianity, I recommend these two theologian/prophets from the mid-twentieth Century as among the best of the witnesses of their time. First, take a look at a book about E. Stanley Jones and second, a book penned by Georgia Harkness. Both were essential Christian figures writing during our nation’s troubled times of war, depression, racial injustice and rapid social change.
In the recently publishedThirty Days with E. Stanley Jones Jack Harnish offers a fresh look into the life of Jones – the mystic, prophet, missionary, peace activist, evangelist, ecumenist and global ambassador. Georgia Harkness’ Prayer and the Common Life is written for folks in that mid-Twentieth Century, socially moble, economically bubbling and globally expanding culture. Professor Harkness, theologian and philosopher, authored more than thirty books, some scholarly and many others, like Prayer and the Common Life, are meant to be accessible to the lay audience. I believe both have much to teach us, today.
By reading these two together one can see the hoped for seeds of renewal and unity anticipated in the church and society in those years, and at the same time, they point to the troubles ahead for Christendom caught up in narrow cultural understandings. For Christians inclined to devotional reading that comes from an earlier time and yet speaks with profundity to our current dilemmas, I lift these two remarkable people of faith for our personal and common benefit.
For believers, doubters or just plan folks interested, I share these two suggestions as remarkable additions to a good summer reading boquet.
When the student is ready, the teacher will appear. So goes the aphorism. Another version of this idea, attributed to Buddha Siddhartha Guatama, is: “Teachers are like enzymes. Nature’s go-to facilitators of change.” Even if only partially true, there is much wisdom here — at least in my experience.
By the late 1960s, my generation in the U.S. were “teacher-ready.” We watched as young men, many of them friends, were being shipped off to an inexplicable war in Vietnam. Too many returning in body bags. State governors stood in univeristy doorways blocking entrance to African American students. We witnessed the assinations of M. L. King, Jr. and the Kennedy brothers. Riots were breaking out in many cities and the emerging “counter culture” saw a growing interest in drug use. Given the availability of “the pill,” a sexual revolution was afoot.
Like other young men, my name was placed in the military lottery; I was one of the lucky ones with a high number, so after college I headed to Asbury Seminary in Kentucky. There I met Gilbert James. He was teaching courses on The Church in Society, Race Relations and Sociology of Religion. The teacher appeared and I was “ready.”
Gilbert James: Free Methodist pastor, sawdust revival preacher, boxer, university professor, union organizer, poet, brilliant social researcher, friend of the poor, worker for racial justice, comfortable in a corporate board room and on skid row. Great “teachers” are not limited to the classroom. Fortunately, for many of us, Gilbert offered graduate-level insights wherever you found him. He challenged us to learn, whether in a classroom, on a Chicago “L” train, in a Congressional office, or, on a street corner in Harlem. Socratic in approach, he would ask probing questions, frame a situation so that those within earshot began to teach and learn from one another. How does one cipher the complexities of this man?
Not far beneath the surface was Gilbert James’ commitment to an historic Wesleyanism that encouraged vital piety, valued knowledge and sought social justice. He was one of several teachers at Asbury Seminary in those years who found ready students. I think of Bob Lyon who helped us explore serious Biblical interpretation and modeled a faith that included deep commitments to nonviolent action.
Gil James spoke easily of personal conversion and Christian experience; after all, he had come to faith by such a personal spiritual journey. However, he was critical of an individualism that ignored the Biblical mandates to love God and the neighbor. He spoke of a church that might live in terms of a “Jubilee sharing” of resources with the poor. He was suspicious of fanaticism and cautioned against the abuses of those seeking power for power’s sake – especially in the church. He had seen enough chicanery in the church and beyond. He knew the dangers of fanaticism when mixed uncritically into the religious life.
Gilbert encouraged us to be “both faithful and forward leaning.” At the same time he wanted us to know our ancestry. James reminded us of the insights of Eighteenth Century Methodists (including Free Methodists, Wesleyans and others). Our legacy included those who opposed pew rentals privileging the wealthy, who supported abolitionist struggles against slavery, who welcomed women in leadership, who encouraged ecumenism and unity, and who practiced peacemaking — often as pacifists.
Gilbert knew of the dangers of individualistic theology and the drift away from a balancing of personal conversion with social justice. In my next blog, I will share a letter from Gilbert written 52 years ago in the midst of an extended revival at Asbury College (a neighboring undergraduate institution to the seminary, seperate in curriculum and faculty).
James knew of the marginalization experienced by religious conservatives and foresaw a time when greivance would spill over and could lead to a insatiable hunger for power and status unmoored from Biblical ethics. He noted the transformation of Fundamentalism into Evangelicalism — that brought a sophistication in the use of political power. It might result, he suggested, in danger for our nation and the ruin of our churches. I remember thinking, as we were reflecting on the writings of Reinhold Neibuhr, that James was being overly grandiouse. Today, I see how on target he was about this threat that faith could to be compromised by a lust for approval and blind acquisition of institutional power these fifty years later.
Over coffee in the seminary cafeteriaI, I recall many informal “debates” with other faculty and students. Such exchanges were common and truly a gift. Students might be asked to “grab a cup and join the conversation.” I recall, one well-known faculty member offering up a common trope used at the time. Assuming the notion that there were two camps in American Protestant Christianity, this faculty member said that “Evangelicals were always rooted in ultimate authorithy of scripture, but Liberals always let the dominant culture set the agenda for their theology.” I recall Gilbert wriley smiling and responding, “Your culture does not set the agenda for how you read the scripture?”
Other exceptional teachers followed (Jackson Carroll, Earl Brewer, Gwen Neville) at Emory University. I then went on to my days of university teaching and Gilbert stayed in touch. In Atlanta, at Candler School of Theology, I helped him bring a group of Asbury students to that city, just as he had brought me as a student to Chicgo, Detroit and New York a decade earlier. He was still learning, teaching, making connections and demonstrating to students the ways a life of faith might be practiced among the institutions of the powerful and the gifts in low-wealth communities that were often hidden.
Gilbert James touched many lives and shaped the work of pastors and laity in diverse places. We found him to be a READY teacher and friend. Still, his concerns about the corruption of Evangelicalism ring true; and, are more applicable than ever. At his funeral in 1982 the great African American pastor and theologian James Earl Massey stood to speak of Gilbert and his influence. Massey summerized my teacher’s greatness in these simple words: He was a “practitioner of intelligent love.” It is my sense that we have a whole new generation of students ready to find such teachers today. May it be so.
Juneteenth is officially a national holiday. Good. Great even! It is an annual remembrance of when news of the Emancipation Proclamation ending slavery finally reached Texas, 1865. It had taken two and a half years for the news to arrive from 1863. Today, it has taken 156 years for our nation to make Juneteenth a national holiday. Check out the poem by the Rev. James Forbes (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Aafi3a9-eS8).
Some say the Juneteenth holiday is only symbolic. The challenge of addressing racism requires more than a holiday, or two if you count ML King Jr. Day, every year. Each of us, each of our communities, must determine our responses to persistent racism. As an ole White guy who acknowledges my own struggles, who has worked to address racism and thought much about it, let me offer three suggestions for predominantly White folks to consider: 1) Being a friend; 2) Defining the problem; 3) Acting our way to new ways of thinking.
Friendship. Dr. William Pannell is a friend; a longtime friend with whom I have spent too little time. It was in the late 1960s when we first met. Bill’s book “My Friend, The Enemy” was published in 1972. Over the years while our paths have occasionally crossed; the message of his book has remained as a companion with me. Bill is Emeritus Professor at Fuller Theological Seminary for whom that seminary’s African American Church Studies Center is named. Bill wrote of our “Pigmentocracy” where “whiteness” was automatically, often unconsciously, given a higher status. He said if our national dilemma were given a color, that color would be white. Bill valued the paradoxes of racial engagement in the United States. He was an early teacher of the value of moving past easy dichotomies — one could at the same time be both friend and enemy when ensnared within the dominant culture. He noted that the challenges of racism aren’t going to be solved by simply changing the hearts of individuals, one at a time. Bill, who was a professor of Evangelism, believed in conversion and also noted that an individualistic proscription (changing hearts) was inadequate. Something deeper and more substantial was needed.
The friend might also be an enemy, or at least live and work behind enemy lines. Friendship, based on an honest knowing of the other and an honest awareness of the matrix of systemic brokenness, was critical, if racism was to begin to be addressed. Bill spoke of a gross ignorance of one another exhibited across racial lines — especially the ignorance folks like me have about persons of color in our society. Bill wrote “my White brother taught me to sing, ‘Take the World, But Give Me Jesus.’ I took Jesus. He took the world.”
Racism Defined. “There is not a racist bone in my body.” I heard these words again just last week. Typically, they are spoken by a person who would define racism around the single notion of prejudice or personal bigotry. Can one be racist and still believe that they view all persons equally, no matter the race? Well perhaps, but racism has a larger definition. For now, let’s simply begin by saying understanding racism needs to include both individual prejudice as well as systemic discrimination. There are cultural inequities as well. The person who said “there is not a racist bone in my body” also attended schools that were racially segregated. That person also benefited from national housing policies preventing Blacks from the mortgage support offered to whites, from educational and health advantages and from employment options over the years. Benefits offered to one generation accrue and are passed on to the next. The ways racism shapes our everyday lives, over the years, is wide and profound. If one thinks racism is only about individual attitudes, he or she, is ignoring the benefits accrued to and for them over generations.
Acting our way to new ways of thinking: Last Juneteenth, as our nation was reeling in the wake of the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Brianna Taylor and George Floyd, I watched with some discomfort as well-meaning folks made plans to address the persistent racism in our nation and in my denomination. You see, almost fifty years earlier, I had been involved in research on racism and how it might be best addressed by the church. (My research drew on research of over 1,100 persons in six cities and over forty congregations, and also included studies that went back decades further.) I remember having some blow-back last year when I advised pastors “don’t preach that sermon on racism now.” If they did, it was probably too late; but certainly a sermon alone was inadequate. If you are going to preach it include some action as follow up.
We like clear and simple formulas for success. You know, the “five things that will make your life better” type of things. In the church this has been particularly true. I have often thought that church growth, or solving the dilemmas associated with the broad national move away from Christendom in our time, would better be labeled “the Church’s one fixation.”
So, when I suggested that there were better things to do than preach a sermon or hold a book study, I knew my counsel would not be heard or would be misunderstood. I kept saying it is more important to make friends with people who are of a different race. It is important to work together on some project to address racism than have a book study. At the time, I knew such counsel was futile. After all, a book study is so much easier to organize — and be counted. Don’t get me wrong, there are some very good books out there. Read them; even better, read these books in a racially diverse setting where the likelihood of some substantial change is much greater.
Last summer, within a few weeks, I watched as study programs on diversity and efforts to teach cultural competencies were offered. It is all well and good… but these efforts are insufficient and can even be counterproductive as folks think, “We’ll now I have the cure.” Again, this is about more than educating an individual or changing hearts and minds one at a time. Until we walk alongside persons living in a different racial reality, we will have difficulty understanding the breadth of white privilege. Until we establish lasting friendships we will miss the necessary struggle to establish meaningful, structural ways to address generational racial inequity. Go ahead, name your friends… or, make some new ones.
The weather was as good as it gets – one of those days I have been waiting for well over 475 days. My grandson, Colin Murray was graduating from Whitney Young High School. Where better in Chicago for such an event than at Soldier Field on the shore of Lake Michigan? June 16, 2021. Most of us in the large crowd of proud friends and relatives were wearing masks. It was great to be in a public place doing “almost normal things.” Lots of sunshine and cool breezes and reason to celebrate the 515 students were graduating. These 2021 grads were off to the next passages in their lives. The graduation bulletin listed their destinations to places around the world. Impressive. I confess to choking back some tears as I watched this diverse, talented group of youngsters. These graduates represent the future of our great multicultural society. Huzzah for them, and for our nation, and our world!
At the same time, I couldn’t help but think of anti-mask protesters who attended other large gatherings over the past year. Otherwise intelligent persons consciously choosing to display their “liberty” by NOT wearing masks. And, too often, a few weeks later, the community where these “liberties” were displayed saw a spike in the number of COVID-19 related illness and deaths! It’s a crazy world, isn’t it? There is recent legislation allowing firearms to be carried in the open in some states, with few restrictions on weapon sales, and at the same time significant new limits are being placed on when, where and how persons can vote. Seems more than a little upside-down. All of this while the number and frequency of mass shootings in the U.S. is increasing.
We have been down a similar road before. There was the debate over seat belts back in the 1970s and the opposition to the polio vaccination, or adding fluoride to the water when I was a child. I certainly understand the need to be cautious and wise with regulations. Still, even with measures in place to protect the larger population, there is a desire by some to see conspiracy instead of a desired well-being-for-all that is intended.
I am far from being a constitutional scholar. Even so, the preamble to the U. S. Constitution is clear: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” The idea of “promoting the general Welfare,” seems straight forward and a good foundational basis for healthy and enduring civic life. The framers of the Constitution understood the inherent competing interests of individual liberty and social responsibility. Public health measures sing in harmony with Constitutional intentions. Things like face masks, vaccinations, quarantines, building codes, safe food and drug production/sales, licenses as to who can operate an automobile, practice medicine are all part of the general welfare.
We will find our way forward from this I do believe. Even in sensible gun measures one day soon, I pray. At Indiana University there was a regulation students arriving in the fall would need to display proof of a coronavirus vaccination. Sadly, the state legislature tried to intervene and claimed such basic public health efforts were illegal. There was a recent small protest at the university against such a requirement. I loved the way the university acted like the “adult in the conversation” by saying, “Okay then, we won’t be policing the students. But guess what? We will offer incentives.” There will be a drawing open to all who provide evidence of their vaccination that includes great gift cards for the book store and other purchases around town. There will be electronic devices and for at least one lucky student, a year of free tuition. Now that is promoting the general welfare in a creative way.
It seems to me that what has been unmasked during this pandemic is the way some have believed their individual liberty trumped the promotion of the general welfare. In a word, it is a way of seeking to justify self-centered-ness. It was all about the “ME” with an absence of any sense of the “WE”.
Micah 6:8 is a fine summary of what is expected (make that required) of God’s people. It is to “seek justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.” One of the great unmaskings coming out of the pandemic is the way bad theology shaped the practices of many in our churches. One day in the future, we will be able to see the relationship between political and religious gatherings where masks were discounted, even ridiculed, and the outbreaks of COVID-19 related damage done in a community.
A “religious” anti-masker protesting outside a grocery store challenged me for wearing a mask as I entered. The challenge was, “Give me one good reason you are wearing that thing.” I wanted to respond “I can give you over 600,000 good reasons. Those who died.” I didn’t. Parking lot debates are usually not very productive! Already, today, the evidence is clear. In city after city, and health care facility after health care facility TODAY those hospitalized with COVID are all folks who refused or for some other “reason” were not vaccinated against the virus.
Early in the pandemic, St. Andrew United Methodist in Highlands Ranch, Colorado offered masks with the Micah text. It has become my mask of choice over the past fifteen months. While my prayer is that we can be sufficiently past the pandemic, just in case we are not, I am looking into finding a mask that simply reads, “Promote the General Welfare.”
I find this moment hope-filled. A time to believe there is a better future is possible. Why? Because yesterday I saw 515 reasons to be hope-filled… and this is just at one school in a nation where millions of our children and youth have struggled through the pandemic and I believe the vast majority have witnessed an important unmasking. They no longer believe there are easy answers to complex public challenges but there is a path forward.
First, a confession. As important as protecting sea turtles is, I hadn’t thought much about them. I didn’t intend to make a gift to this charity in 2020. In fact, saving turtles was not on a top ten list in my charity giving. Why, then, did I just make a gift to the National Save the Sea Turtle Foundation? (http://savetheseaturtle.org/.)
Why sea turtles? There is a young woman behind it named Eleanor. She is seven and lives in Oakland, California. Sea turtles? Why? Eleanor Amerson, you see, is my grand daughter. We asked our grandchildren what charity they wanted to support this Christmas. Eleanor’s older brother, Gus, said give to a group that helps feed hungry people. Good on you, Gus. So a gift is sent to Phil’s Kitchen at the Beacon Center (Shalom Center) in Bloomington, Indiana (http://beaconinc.org). Phil’s kitchen is named for Dr. Philip Saunders, a friend and former economics professor at Indiana University. Phil, now deceased, left the legacy of a commitment to feeding the hungry.
Our other grandchildren, Colin and Zach Murry will let us know soon their preferences as to charities they wish to support. I suspect one of them will be the Lincoln Park Community Services in Chicago where their mom serves on the board. (https://lpcschicago.org/)
In recent years, each year, we have selected the gift to charity in honor of our grandchildren. We have given to Heifer International (https://www.heifer.org) which assists persons around the world toward food security and the acquisition of live stock or The Land Institute (https://landinstitute.org) where research is underway for more sustainable agricultural models around the world.
This year, we are asking our grandchildren what they want to support. And, we are being schooled by them as to what is important — for them.
You get the point!!
There are many worthy organizations. Most (many) need our attention and support in the economic realities emerging in the wake of the COVID pandemic. I understand the limits of charity and the ways a systemic reordering of our political, religious an service institutions is needed. I do. We must move away from such a heavy dependence of fossil fuels. There is no reason for persons in the United States to face homelessness, food insecurity or the deficits we face in educational resources. Of equal importance is the climate crises and tragedies related to immigration and refugees around the world. There is much to be done — systemically, long-term and immediately through charities. Turtle saving is one of these.
At this juncture I have learned that the temptation for many is to allow “the perfect to be the enemy of the good.” Okay — right. This doesn’t mean we stop giving effort to make deep change in our systems, in our communities and even our personal lives. We do what we can, now and at the same time aspire to a more just and sustainable world.
Sea turtles were not top of mind for me when December 2020 came. Thanks to Eleanor, I will be more attentive and learn more about sea turtles. What lessons will you learn during this holiday season?
Today, consider please, the presumed dichotomy between the personal and the social, the individual and community. For too long our politics, religion, economics and charity have been misshapen by this fraudulent binary. At a fundamental level, there is a web of mutuality between one’s self and others. Americans tend to live with a heavy focus on individualism and “individual rights.” This is a good thing — however, if this is the sum total of what is valued or the singular basis for action– it will lead to trouble.
Social Psychologists George Herbert Meade and George Cooley posited decades ago the understanding that every human being is a Social Self. From the beginning, we learn who we are by interacting with others, as if in a looking glass. The language we learn, the games we play, our habits and our pains are fundamentally shaped in social contexts. It was from these insights that H. Richard Niebuhr wrote the ethics classic, “The Responsible Self.” Niebuhr suggested that the reflexive self could act as the responsible self.
In 1947, Mahatma Gandhi gave his grandson a slip of paper listing “the seven blunders that human society commits, and that cause all the violence.” These were:
Politics without principles.
Wealth without work.
Pleasure without conscience.
Knowledge without character.
Commerce without morality.
Science without humanity.
Worship without sacrifice.
(see Donella Meadows, Gandhi’s Seven Blunders — And Then Some, Sustainability Institute, August, 18, 1994)
In the United States this week (10/25/20), a young man, the president’s son-in-law and advisor, stood on the White House lawn in an interview on “Fox and Friends.” He dismissively suggested that in response to the George Floyd “situation,” individuals “in the Black community” were unwilling “to break out of the problems they were complaining about.” He expressed doubt that African Americans “want to be successful.” Upon hearing the interview with Jared Kushner, I thought of Gandhi’s Seven Social Sins.
As abhorrent as Mr. Kushner’s words are, I recognize their ideological fountainhead. It is the reductive belief that only “personal responsibility” is required for the thriving of a community or nation. Individual liberty is the supreme goal and good and personal responsibility is the tool. Fix individuals and everything else will fall in line.
At this juncture, I have sat beside too many persons who worked hard, risked much, withstood adversity and still were crushed by immoral constructs in the social order. A wise front-porch, neighborhood philosopher, named Doris Danner once taught me, “You can build a crocked wall with perfectly straight blocks.” In a pandemic, is “personal responsibility” sufficient? Shouldn’t there be a societal expectation, even a mandate, that everyone wear a mask? Sadly, we are seeing, living with, and many dying from, the results of a mistaken notion of individual freedom as the ultimate and exclusive good.
I recognize Mr. Kushner’s perspective. You see, as an adolescent, my religious understandings were focused on personal salvation. I had to want to have a personal relationship with Jesus and that would fix everything else. Personal salvation was separate from justice. Yes, I was taught that if I was saved, I should be compassionate toward others. It was however, always with the motive that I could see that they were a saved individual, just like me. Whether I would admit it or not, racial segregation, economic or educational discrimination, or poor health care were best overcome if persons were saved and then “wanted to be successful.”
In my individualistic understandings, my paternalistic role was to see that others were “fixed” like me. There was little awareness that others, who saw things differently, might have something to teach me; nor was there the sense that God was at work for the the common good, for the realm of God.
While I prayed the “Lord’s Prayer” in those years; I failed to hear that it was a communal prayer. It was a prayer filed with the corporate words, “our,” “us” and “we;” a prayer about our neighbor and our world.
Years after receiving the note with the Seven Blunders listed, Arun added an eighth: Rights without responsibilities.
Dr. Donella Meadows was an environmental scientist and early writer on sustainability who added to the list of social sins. A professor at MIT and McArthur award winner, sadly, she died too young, in 2001. Still her words fall in line with the call of H. Richard Neibuhr that we are to act as a Social Self — a Responsible Self!
“Somehow our public discussion has become dominated by either-or simplicities... This simplistic thinking seems incapable of embracing the idea of BALANCE, which was Gandhi’s central point. He wasn’t calling for work without wealth or humanity without science, he was calling for work AND wealth. Science AND humanity. Commerce AND morality. Pleasure AND conscience.
Life is full of unsolvable problems. Pretending to have solved them by choosing just one or another of profound opposites can generate even more blunders than the ones Gandhi listed. Justice without mercy. Order without freedom. Talking without listening. Individuality without community. Stability without change. Private interest without public interest. Liberty without equality. Or, in every case, vice versa. Listen to our public debates about health care, crime, taxation, regulation. You will hear the Gandhian blunders, the frantic search for a permanent simplicity, the passive violence that leads to active violence. There’s no point in taking sides in these debates. There’s only an opportunity to point out that balance, discovered through love, is what we should be seeking — and what we will always have to be seeking. (Donella Meadows, Sustainability Institute, 1994)
October 21, has been designated Global Ethics Day by the Carnegie Council for International Affairs. It’s a good and timely thing to give attention to virtue as we approach the selection of leaders in our nation. In this fortnight we reflect on virtue or ethics. What is “the best” way forward? What values, principles, intentions should be reflected in our personal and corporate actions? Where do we see evidence of the good, the true and the beautiful?
Virtue is born of our deepest beliefs, values, attitudes and desires. It finds expression and shape in our habits, our learned behaviors as these are repeated over and again until they are taken-for-granted as the “right” way. In this second fortnight post, we focus on the care that needs to be given in challenging what some believe is to be normative. I would ask, where is the virtue of immigrant children who have been separated from parents? What is valued in the denial of climate change? Should wearing a mask be a political statement when others may face harm by a neglect? Can any ethical person, let alone a Christian person, ignore the value of the health and well-being of another?
Aren’t these critical questions for all persons of faith — who is my neighbor? — how shall I therefore live my life? Will deception or lie be seen as normal? Will perpetual shading or spinning of the truth, or “gas lighting” (offering false stories) become appropriate for our leaders?
Aristotle offered four virtues: prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude. These have become known as the “cardinal virtues.” The church later added the three “theological virtues:” faith, hope and charity (from I Corinthians 13). These became “the seven virtues.” Others have said virtue is evidenced in that which is good, true and beautiful. Okay — nice overview — but how will we therefore live? And what is the test for these seven virtues or this this triad? How will we know the good, the true, the beautiful?
Few ethicists have shaped my thoughts more than Glen Stassen. He spoke of the guidance offered in the Sermon on the Mount where over and again Jesus points to the fruit borne in lives well-lived. In his work Living the Sermon on the Mount he writes: “I am suggesting that even though we do not know all there is to know, and we do not have the certitude of a universal viewpoint, we can see within our own history what kind of ethic comes through, which is truer because of the fruits it bears.” The theme throughout the Sermon on the Mount is “doing,” “producing,” “acting.” Here is joy and deliverance from deceit. (See Living the Sermon on the Mount, pp. 192-199).
Ivan Illich spoke of virtue as the “habitual facility of doing the good thing.” With a sharp and critical eye on our institutions (schools, hospitals, church and our politics), Illich notes a failure to accomplish primary stated purposes. Other values, he suggests, are given preferred over that which is truly the good. The love of neighbor is somewhere lost in the maze of social interaction. Some are excluded. “No category, neither law or custom, language or culture can define in advance who the neighbor might be.” (see David Cayley’s The Rivers North of the Future, p. 30). Illich often points to the parable in Luke’s Gospel spoken of as “The Good Samaritan.” It is the “expert in the law” who says he has kept all the customs and rules who challenges with “And who is my neighbor?” There is a rupturing of traditional categories in the answer Jesus gives. There is a call to conversion, to change.
Theologian Nancy Bedford calls on Christians “To Speak of God from More than One Place.” When leaders are reluctant to speak against White Supremacy or suggest that other nation’s and peoples are to be disrespected, there is an effort to link God’s purposes to my small, small world of my self interest… to my unwillingness to share. There is a signpost along a country road not far from my home. I chuckle each time I pass. It simply reads “Entering-Leaving Gatesville.” A single sign, same message, front and back, all on one post. For many, the reach of virtue, of ethical concern, begins and ends in one place.
The folks of Gatesville are lovely people I suspect. They clearly have a good sense of humor an perspective. This is important. Sadly, when awareness and care for the neighbor is lost, when our beginning and ending is at the edge of our own skin and ego, then we lose an ability to know the gifts we are offered in community, in diversity, in journeying to new understandings.
When thinking about practical virtues of in daily life, I am also helped by folks like Shirley Duncanson, a retired United Methodist pastor in Minnesota. Her posts in “A Pastor’s Heart: Thoughts on Life and Faith” offer clear and practical assistance. Writing on “Recovering Christian Ethics in an Age of COVID-19,” Rev. Duncanson offers cites the work of Barbara Brown Taylor’s pastoral experience in wise counsel: “The only way out of a pandemic is by all of us working together . . . Each of us doing our part . . . Each of us caring for people around us . . . Each of us using the means available to us to protect one another . . . Each of us holding tight, (in our hearts) to one another . . . And all the while, making sure that no one, but no one, is left behind.” (see: https://shirleyhobsonduncanson.com/tag/barbara-brown-taylor/).
“Love does no wrong to it’s neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfillment of the law.” Romans 13:10.
Poem by Linda Ori, 2004
The Time of Truth
The time is now
Let change begin,
Blend heaven and earth
In an endless spin,
Wherever you're going,
Wherever you've been
Now change your direction
And travel within;
The time is now
To take a good look
Examine your life
And the roads that you took,
From cover to cover
You've written your book
Did you swim in the river
Or sleep by the brook?
The time is now
Get your head on straight
No more indecision
To love or to hate,
Since you are the author
Don't blame it on Fate,
Take control of your future
Before it's too late.
It offers insight into the ways human kindness can shape our future. Do more that wait on election returns or some miracle cure. Call a neighbor today, or find a place where you can help, or sponsor a viewing of this film even if it is via an online format.
Among other initiatives it provides a view of the work of The Learning Tree with DeAmon Harges in Indianapolis.
Each autumn, as harvest-time nears, I re-live a surprise. Now, in early walks on crisp, chilled October mornings, I am reminded anew. I look to see if Jack Frost has spray-painted fresh abstract art on meadows. Recollections of other autumns come: hayrides, jack-o-lanterns, golden, maroon and salmon colored maple leaves gathered and pressed in the pages of an old encyclopedia. Or, I recall watching children “bob for apples” in an old wash tub or remember sweet, steaming cider served by a fireplace.
As I gaze to discover if hoarfrost has tinted a field in a crystalline hue, a rime-like shadow reaches across my consciousness. Perhaps the year was 2011; or thereabouts. A lovely autumn day and I am traveling across the nation’s farm-belt from of a distant meeting to my home, several hundred miles away. It promises to be a leisurely drive.
There being no urgency, I think of long-time friends. They work a large family farm. I will pass nearby. Hospitable folks, these. We exchange annual Christmas greetings. Every few years, some special event might bring us together. Each time — scribbled on a holiday card or spoken in a face-to-face visit — is the same gracious invitation: “Please, come visit; just drop by, anytime; no need to plan ahead.” I would nod, saying I would love to see their place; and, mean it. Still, years passed and the visit was never made. This would be a day I could stop. Surprise them.
This visit was the first of several unforeseen miscues that day! Readers familiar with the ebb and flow of agricultural life already know my error, my blunder. My surprise landed right in the middle of harvest. From sunup to sundown, and sometimes longer, combines whirled, rumbled and slashed. Farm trucks carried grain to the elevator cycling back and forth and back again unloading their bounty. This “surprise” visit was a first unforced error of the day.
When I greeted her on the phone, I should have picked up the overwhelm in her tentative voice. “Yes, so good to hear from you. Today? Well, yes, we would love to see you. The fellas will be gathering in the barn at noon. Can you make it by then? It is quicker if you take the county road over to our place. Come to the house first. You can help me carry over the lunch.”
Slow witted me! It was only as the call ended I realized I had bushwhacked them right in the middle of harvest! I was the city-slicker dropping by announced from the outskirts of hell.
I made it to the farm with a few minutes to spare and immediately offered my apologies. My friend only smiled and said, “It’s okay. You can help carry these things to the car.”
Arriving at the barn a half mile away, we pass the Pioneer Seed signs, the fuel pumps and grain storage elevator. Parking by an old John Deere we walk into a large structure with huge sliding doors at each end. It is full of implements: tractors, planters, harrows and several charts and computers along the western wall next to a small office. I am reminded that farming is an ever more sophisticated business.
We set out the lunch on a long table. Slowly others, family and farm hands, gathered. My friends introduce me as “a preacher friend who came by to pray for us today.” Okay, my turn to be surprised. So, I pray for a good harvest, for safety and well-being of all in our world during this harvest. I kept the prayer short knowing folks were eager to get back in the fields before rain might arrive.
Ample portions of chipped ham sandwiches, potato salad and iced tea are served. Some peanut butter cookies followed. There is teasing, talk about the weather, feeding the barn cats, and a few questions about mutual friends and grandchildren. Knowing the need to return to combines and trucks soon, I am amazed when my friend goes to his small office and returns handing me some papers. “Your going to enjoy this,” he chuckled.
It is a printout from an old dot matrix printer. Here before me were a collection of “jokes.” Reading the blue inked words, were some of the most offensive, racist jokes imaginable. They were about the President of the United States. Surprise hardly captures my emotions. It was closer to horror.
Still, I care for these people. My friend thought I would be amused, but this had burst across a divide in our worlds. I was confused, sad, disgusted, tongue-tied. I knew there was racial animus and bigotry toward Barack Obama, but surely not here. These were my friends, my good Christian friends.
I wish I could tell you of my courageous response, of my righteous witness. As I remember it now I didn’t say much, only mumbling “I don’t find this very funny.” A human hoarfrost was now stretching across our faces, our conversation, challenging the core of our friendship.
Soon, I was off, watching the dust of the combines in my rear view mirror. I was on my way home — back to another world, my natural habitat, an urban setting, on a university campus.
This surprising harvest occurred nearly a decade ago. Each autumn its memory returns and I realize it was a harbinger of much that has unfolded in our nation, especially in the last four years. Without any sense of irony, these are “good Christian folks,” at least in the way the see themselves and are seen by others. Even so they had burst open my easy assumptions.
They had reached out with hospitality to me — at least before I made my raid on their assumptions and routines. Racism is not the exclusive property of country folks. Many, many rural folks do not accept such bigotry; but many do. And yes, racism is alive and well in our cities and suburbs too. Still it seems to wait along the corridors of everyday activities to suddenly startle and divide us.
I have thought much about the culture that shapes these friends and their religious and political perspectives. Through study and conversations with many farmers, I know more of the stresses on those who today seek to make a living following a plow. I better understand the racial and cultural divides that can so easily be manpulated into fearful mistrust and misinformation.
I have learned that agriculture is changing dramatically, at an ever more rapid pace. Industrial-style agriculture is extraordinarily expensive and risky. Debt is high and weather is increasingly unpredictable. It is destined to change. It will ultimately be replaced by models more attune to sustaining the land, water and soils. Efforts to farm with perennial polycultures, like those being researched at The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, will hopefully offer new options.
I am sad for my friends who carry the heavy load of racism and fear (and probably economic threat) that limits their ability to see the depths of racism that damage the soul of our nation. I pray they learn — in their church or social gatherings — of the ability to see others as persons of worth and dignity. I am saddened by the urban/rural and cosmopolitan/ localist divides in our nation and world.
I suspect my farm friends think me to be a “latte drinking urban elitist.” Even though, I don’t like latte! And, I am mindful of my own limited vision and fears that shape my understandings.
Richard Longworth’s fine book “Caught in the Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism” offers compelling insights into the challenges of those who currently farm in America. He notes the phenomenon of vertical integration wherein every element of farm activity, from selecting seeds to spreading fertilizer to selling in a market is controlled by a large agribusiness — and not the farmer. As Longworth puts it, “Why own the farm when you can own the farmer?”
I don’t excuse the racism of my “friends.” Not at all. Nor do I miss the reality that a deep social/cultural divide was already emerging on the day I burst in on them. I fear such racism has only taken up greater residence in the minds of good people who now share their “jokes” on Instagram or Facebook rather than on a dot matrix printouts.
Something else was harvested on that October day a decade ago. My unacceptable silence was surfaced. It is the silence of too many of our churches, too many of our cultural and political leaders. What might I do better to express theology that valued all as Children of a loving God? How might I do better at harvesting respect, hope, love for the neighbor AND the stranger?
Perhaps I am overly optimistic, but it appears a harvest is underway in our society regarding racism. In the midst of the tragic deaths of folks like Breonna Taylor and George Floyd a new awareness seems to be possible. I suspect my farm friends don’t see anti-racism activities in the same hopeful light that I do. I see these as a sign of a potential harvest of hope — a sign that increasing racial justice might some day arrive… a time when the frozen assumptions and categories of our common life are thawed. It is not easy, not for my friends or for so many others caught up in the swirl of human distrust.
As I write a national election is only days away. I pray the current patterns of racism and ugly vitriol encouraged by the current national administration will be rejected and fresh sense of respect and the valuing of our common life can be harvested.
No matter the outcome, I will plan to make another visit to my farm friends — it has been too long since I saw them. Be assured I won’t bushwhack them again during harvest!