Who has reached for the hem of our garments and we didn’t notice? A Sermon for Proper 8, Year B

By now, all of you have at least heard about President Obama’s eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney on Friday. If you’ve not taken the time to read or listen to it, I urge you to do so. It’s a powerful reflection from the first African-American president of the US on racism, American history. It’s also a powerful theological reflection on the nature of grace.

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Priests, Pulpits, Politics, and the Easter Message

At some point during the height of the political turmoil in Wisconsin during 2011 and 2012, a parishioner told me after the early service one Sunday, “I’m so glad you don’t preach political sermons.” After the 10:00 service that day, another parishioner enthused, “That was a wonderful political sermon.” The two people heard the very same sermon (I almost always preach from a manuscript) but they heard it very differently

I was reminded of that day when I heard of the hullabaloo over the Rev. Luis Leon’s Easter sermon at St. John’s, Lafayette Square. In the presence of President Obama and his family, the Washington Post reports that Leon said the following:

Quoting from John 20:1-18, Leon said in the same way Jesus told Mary Magdalene not to hold onto him, it is time for conservatives to stop holding on to what he considers outdated stances on race, gender equality, homosexuals and immigrants.

“It drives me crazy when the captains of the religious right are always calling us back … for blacks to be back in the back of the bus … for women to be back in the kitchen … for immigrants to be back on their side of the border,” Leon said.
Leon said people instead should use “Easter vision” to allow them to see the world in a different, more “wonderful” way.

This aroused the ire of political conservatives who accused Fr. Leon of “politicizing” Easter.

I make the following observations. First, President Obama’s attendance at the service was a political act. It was a photo-op to demonstrate his personal piety in the context of continued claims that he’s a Muslim.

St. John’s very presence opposite the White House is also a political statement. Perhaps less meaningful now than in previous centuries, its proximity to the White House is a symbol of the close ties between the Episcopal Church and the United States government. It prides itself on the fact that over the decades many presidents have worshiped there. Any sermon preached from its pulpit to a president sitting in one of its pews is a political act. The president’s presence at services offers legitimacy to St. John’s and St. John’s offers religious legitimacy to President Obama.

I would also point out to those who criticize Fr. Leon’s “politicization” of the Easter message that he was targeting a particular religious position. In the summary provided by the Post, he did not mention the GOP, he referred to the Religious Right. Those who complain that he was being political at this point overlook the fact that he is actually debating doctrine. For what is at stake in the issues he raises are  different understandings of human nature, of Jesus Christ, indeed of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. From those different doctrinal positions proceed different political perspectives. Easter has always been a day when preachers have debated doctrine, offering their own perspective on the nature and meaning of resurrection and criticizing those preachers and theologians with whom they disagree.

I’ve not taken the time to listen to the podcast of the sermon but from what the Post reports, I find what Fr. Leon said rather innocuous. I would have hoped an Episcopal priest would have taken the opportunity to offer a prophetic message reminding all of those in attendance, including the president, where they have fallen short of using “Easter vision” to see the world in a new way, rather than taking potshots at others.

I’ve written before about the problematic relationship between the Episcopal Church and the US government, most recently in connection with Obama’s inauguration in January here and here. I’m glad I’m not the Rector of St. John’s Lafayette Square; I find negotiating the difficult terrain of Christianity and politics difficult enough from my vantage point on Madison’s Capitol Square.


Silence on the Drones: Another Moral Failure of Progressive Christianity?

With the release of the government’s memo laying out the case for the extra-judicial assassination by drones of US citizens, the media have finally begun to take a closer look at the whole drone war. Greg Mitchell has a useful summary with links.

Tom Junod’s piece is must-read:

The white paper offers a legal opinion, not a moral one, but the questions that it tries to answer are moral indeed:

Do “informed, high-level officials” have the power to kill their own citizens?

Are “informed, high-level officials” acting in the interests of the state ever liable to the accusation that they have committed murder?

These are the moral questions that the Constitution was written to address by means of a legal framework. The leaked white paper seems to address them in a different way, in a kingly way, in an almost pre-constitutional or perhaps post-constitutional way. And so when we read it, we recognize it for what it is: the kind of document that has always been proferred to power. The kind of document that always ends with somebody dead.

But there’s silence among progressive Christians. Not a word yet on Huffington Post Religion. Not a word yet on Religion Dispatches. Not a word yet from Episcopal Cafe.

My questions for all those outlets and for the people who write regularly for them: Where’s your moral and religious outrage at this raw use of unconstitutional power? Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize (remember that?). He’s been hailed as a close follower of Niebuhr. His Second Inaugural the manifesto for a new progressive American Civil Religion.

Obama has refused us as a nation the necessary conversation and come to terms with our use of torture. He has refused to make those who permitted, advocated and conducted accountable for their actions. Three days after he was inaugurated in 2009, he began using drones to kill people he and his administration claimed were enemy combatants.

Christians need to challenge his claims and his administration’s actions. We need to hold him account just as many of us want to hold the previous administration to account for all of the evil it perpetrated. We need to remind him–he is a Christian, after all–of the moral and ethical obligations of following Jesus Christ and we need to offer a clear, consistent, and loud prophetic voice against this evil program.

The Washington Post does have a piece from a Roman Catholic exploring the memo’s use of Just War Theory.

And there’s this from Lawrence Garcia (who is currently attending Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University):

We, as the followers of the unjustly-crucified Terrorist, should, of all people, be vocally against this inhumane use of military might. After all, our King was also the victim of such imperial tactics and realpolitik, and he calls his disciples to sympathize with his fellow sufferers-under-empire. Remember, the cross is not only where sin was dealt with and where Satan was defeated, but also where empire revealed itself for what it truly was,  dispenser of injustice; no matter how much Pilate continues to wash his hands

A little cold water to throw on Obama’s speech yesterday

From Tom Junod: The War Obama Forgot:

I am not speaking, of course, of the wars that the president spoke of yesterday, in his second inaugural speech — the ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that he spoke of without naming. I am speaking of the war that is currently being prosecuted in countries where we are not supposed to be at war, like Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. I am speaking of the perpetual war, the shadow war, the invisible war against invisible enemies, the war whose latest manifestation came just two days ago, when three men identified as militants, names unknown, were killed by an American drone. I am speaking of the war that the president did not speak about, even though his Administration has never called it anything but a war, and it has killed thousands of people.

Read every word of it.
But here is the difficulty: the technology is so good that the criteria for using it are likely to be steadily relaxed. That’s what seems to have happened with the U.S. Army or with the CIA in Pakistan and Yemen. The overuse of drones and the costs they impose upon the civilian population have been carefully and persuasively documented in the Stanford/NYU Clinics’ report, Living Under Drones. I will focus on only one striking example of how the moral criteria have been relaxed in order to justify the overuse and the costs. According to an article in the New York Times by Jo Becker and Scott Shane, President Obama has adopted “a disputed method for counting civilian casualties” that makes it much easier to call drone attacks “proportionate.” In effect, it “counts all military age males in a strike zone as combatants.” If the targeted insurgent or terrorist leader is surrounded by, or simply in the vicinity of, a group of men who are, say, between the ages of fifteen and sixty (and even drone surveillance can’t be precise about that), an attack is permitted, and everyone who is killed is counted as a legitimate target. But this isn’t targeted killing.

Meet me in a land of hope and dreams: Springsteen and Obama in Madison

Bruce Springsteen sang “Land of Hope and Dreams” at this morning’s rally. Here are some of the lyrics:

Oh meet me in a land of hope and dreams

This train…
Carries saints and sinners
This train…
Carries losers and winners
This train…
Carries whores and gamblers
This train…
Carries lost souls

As I mentioned in my previous post, I have some issues with President Obama’s policies and by nature and temperament, I’m not much for political rallies. In fact, I don’t know when I last attended one. I went today in part because it was two blocks away from Grace Church. But a greater factor was the promise to see Bruce Springsteen (full disclosure: his performance today is the closest I’ve been to a rock concert in a very long time, too). The Boss came out with a guitar and harmonica. He opened with “No Retreat, No Surrender” and also sang “The Promised Land” and “Land of Hope and Dreams.”

What I find compelling about Springsteen is the way in which he gave (gives) voice to a generation. Although he’s 63, the America about which he sings is not the America of the unbroken promises and possibility of a babyboomer generation that went to college, got good jobs, and are now looking forward to a leisurely retirement. His America is the rust belt, a nation populated by (mostly) men who chased a different dream, a dream of a good job on an assembly line, working for a company that would provide a good pension in retirement. That dream was shattered for the rust belt by the late 70s, and Springsteen became the poet of that lost dream.

It was almost eerie to hear “No Surrender” at today’s rally. From the 1984 album Born in the USA, in many ways it’s a typical Springsteen song, evocative of a carefree childhood and the gritty reality and broken dreams of adult life. That it was written 28 years ago was even more poignant; for over that time, the gap between the nostalgic past, the hopeful dreams of a future, and the difficult reality of life today, has only widened. I wonder if he was also alluding to the excitement and hope of 2008 and Obama’s election, and what has transpired over the past four years.

President Obama also alluded to that emotional gap between 2008 and today. Because of Springsteen, because of him naming the chasm between hope and reality, there was a very different feel at today’s rally than I expected. President Obama made his case and urged those in attendance to help turn out the vote.

In her remarks, Tammy Baldwin made the case that the two presidential candidates offer to very different visions for America–between Romney’s “you’re on your own” and Obama’s “we’re all in this together.” I think that’s right and I think that if Obama has made a mistake in this campaign, it is that he has failed to articulate what that vision is, what it means, and what the consequences of the alternative vision are. Springsteen did that, both in his music and in his remarks.

One thing that interests me is the fact that over his career, Springsteen has chronicled the lives and ethos of white working class males, a group that seems to be voting for Romney in large numbers.

But that train carries us all, saints and sinners, winners and losers, lost souls. That’s the vision of America that inspires me. And later this evening, I will be serving meals on that train, to more than a hundred homeless people, none of whom probably were at that rally.


What I would say to President Obama if he dropped by Grace Church tomorrow.

Once again, Capitol Square of Madison will be the site of momentous political events. In 2011, there were the protests which brought over 150,000 people into the streets on cold winters’ days to challenge the policies of Governor Scott Walker. It’s likely that the President’s visit will attract a smaller crowd and part of the reason for that may be his silence during those protests. I voted for Barack Obama in 2008 for many reasons—for the vision of an America united around a common vision. I voted for him as well because of his promises to end torture, to close Guantanamo, to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to bring a new era of transparency to government, especially in the area of national security. I voted for him because of his promise to reform our healthcare system.

President Obama will be a couple of blocks away. I doubt he’ll see the church. I know he won’t drop in to say hello, or for a photo op at our food pantry or at our First Monday meal. I wish he would. Here’s what I’m thinking I would say to him if he did drop by.

How would I assess his first term and the prospects of his second? Four years later, where are we? Yes, Obama has struggled with an obstructionist Congress. He has been opposed at every step by those who wanted to him fail. But he has accomplished a great deal. The economy has recovered; healthcare is law. He has ended discrimination against LGBT’s in the military and refused to defend DOMA. He is eager to pass immigration reform. But I struggle.

What I would ask President Obama would have to do with foreign policy, with military policy, with the National Security state. I have grave concerns about the expansion of drone warfare, of the use of these weapons to kill people in far-off countries outside of the legal system with no oversight from any other arm of government. What are the ethics of such actions? What is the legality? The victims of these strikes have no recourse to the legal system, no right to defend themselves. Even US citizens have been killed in such attacks.

And Guantanamo. All those promises to close it and still prisoners languish there, without recourse to the legal system. Apparently for those caught in it, the only exit is through death, most quickly, through suicide.

There is also the assault on civil liberties at home—the prosecution of whistle blowers, the refusal to bring those responsible for torture to account for their actions. There is also the pandering to Israel, the imposition of inhumane sanctions on Iran, and more. In the realm of foreign policy, Obama’s administration is little different from the worst of neo-con excess under Bush

But between Obama and Romney—is there a choice? The foreign policy debates showed no difference between the two, and on torture, only the littlest difference. Obama has ended it, waterboarding, but apparently Romney continues to see its utility.

There are those who advocate not voting in this election, given these alternatives. Among them are Conor Friedersdorf, progressives critical of Obama’s foreign policy and perceived timidity on a domestic agenda. There are pastors who worry about their vote and their congregations.

What would I ask President Obama if he dropped by Grace Church tomorrow? What about the least of these—those we will be serving at our First Monday meal tomorrow night. What about those victims overseas—in Yemen, in Pakistan, in Afghanistan, killed by drones, killed by buttons pushed by American soldiers in comfortable situations thousands of miles away. What about those men languishing in Guantanamo, with no hope of exit, no hope of facing accusers, no hope at all?

To be faithful Christians, to be responsible citizens, we must ask these questions of our political leaders, of our presidents, of those who ask for our vote.

And their answers should help us make our decisions when we enter the voting booth.