Thursday, April 29, 2010

Arizona and Goldman Sachs – What They Say About our Nation’s Soul

Two recent events have gotten me thinking about the soul of our country. While I have never been accused of being a patriot, I do value the ideals of “liberty and justice for all” at the heart of the pledge of allegiance. Every time I go to the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia (a place I always recommend to visitors, and take my students) and hear the how US Constitution came to be and continues to evolve, I am reminded of how much my view of the world has been shaped by the inspiring vision embedded in our nation’s founding document.

So that is why this week I have been deeply troubled by the news coming out of Arizona and Wall Street. Last week Gov. Jan Brewer of Arizona signed a new immigration law (or should I say anti-immigration law) that will make it more difficult for people seeking livelihood in this country and penalize those who seek to help them. There is no doubt that immigration reform is long overdue, but profiling people, rounding them up and shipping them out of the country without due proces is not the way to go.

In justification of her action Gov. Brewer said she “wanted to take our country back.” I could not help but wonder “back to what?” back to Jim Crow? back to segregation? back to Japanese internment camps? back to the Know-nothing party of the 1850’s that opposed all Catholics, blacks and Jews? back to when being a full-fledged American citizen meant you were a white male with property? You go “back” far enough, and even Gov. Brewer would not be allowed in. And who are you taking it “back” from? By 2040 white folks will comprise less than 50% of all citizens and Hispanics will be the largest minority group. These are all legal citizens. So who are you taking it back from and where are you taking it back to? Such language is ignorant of history, racially exclusive, and against the best that our country can offer in terms of opportunity, hope and community.

Then there have been the hearings in Washington about Goldman Sachs and the other Wall Street financial institutions, who it now appears were betting against the very advice they were giving their customers and shareholders just before the 2008 stock market crash and the mortgage crisis. From what I have heard and read, these arrogant bankers did nothing “illegal” because the financial regulations are written so they can go off with their profits no matter how fraudulent their advice. Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein has categorically denied any wrongdoing even as he has admitted to going against the very advice his firm was given his clients. As New York Times columnist William Cohan wrote “Goldman Sachs’s long-held devotion to its clients has been replaced by lust for short-term profits.”

This last sentence got me thinking about soul. Thomas Moore in Care of the Soul writes that “Money is simply the coinage of our relationship to the community and environment in which we live.’ (p. 189) He goes onto say “When money no longer serves community exchange, it becomes an obstacle to the communal flow” (p. 192). Both Gov. Brewer and CEO Blankfein’s words and actions show an utter and complete disregard for community and creating a healthy and hospitable environment in which to live. Their words reflect a racially-based, ethnocentric selfishness that rips at our sense of community and contributes to an environment characterized by hate, suspicion, exclusionism and fear. Their words rip at the soul of who we say we are as a nation.

Earlier in the same book, Moore describes soul this way: “Soul is not a thing, but a quality or dimension of experiencing life and ourselves. It has to do with depth, value, relatedness and personal substance” (p. 5). Now while he was primarily speaking of individuals in that passage, his words also speak of neighborhoods, communities and whole nations. When political leaders (like governors and Congressional representatives) and “successful” people (like Wall Street CEOs) can talk and act so callously, arrogantly and exclusively, what does that say about our substance as a nation, about the values we choose to live by, and the way we choose to relate to the people and the world around us?

One of the good things that may come from these actions is that Democrats might finally step up and put forth the immigration reform bill they have been talking about for years. Likewise, Congress might finally get serious about financial reform. If we do not openly and vigorously work against the actions of people like Brewer and Blankfein, by our silence we are allowing them to speak for us. If we give in to their statements and say there is nothing we can do, we give credence to the callousness and arrogance of the words and actions.

I speak out against people like Brewer and Blankfein, and the “take our country back” rhetoric of the Tea Party-ers because what they represent rips at the soul of what I hope at its best our country can be, and will become. The soul of this nation is a place of welcome, a place of respect for diversity, a place of equality of rights and opportunities, and a place where there is "liberty and justice for all. I ache for the soul of our nation, and keep working that we might actually become who we say we are and want to be.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Good Friday, Guns and the Cross of Christ

Today, (April 2) is Good Friday. For me Good Friday has always been the most significant point in the Lenten-Holy Week-Easter drama. I remember as a college freshman sitting alone in the Duke University chapel on Good Friday, and feeling like the world was going on as normal even though for me time seemed to stand still. While I was frozen in time remembering Jesus dying on the cross, the people around me went on like it was just another day. Ever since I have approached Good Friday as a uniquely significant day, even though for many folks it is simply "business as usual."

As important as the day is for me, I must admit I have struggled with its meaning; why did Jesus die on that cross? For years I simply accepted the commonly professed theory usually referred to as “substitutionary atonement”: that Jesus died on the cross as a sacrifice for my sins so that I might have salvation. This theory assumes that all human beings are hopeless sinners, that God is completely holy and righteous, and that God can only have his righteousness satisfied by a perfect, unblemished sacrifice: Jesus. This view sees God thru the lens of the Old Testament sacrificial system, and professes Jesus to be the last and final sacrifice.

In recent years I have come to view this explanation as portraying God as arbitrary and petty – that God requires a human sacrifice before he can offers us grace, love and forgiveness. Such a view seems totally out of sync with the image and message about God which Jesus embodied and proclaimed. Moreover, as Anabaptist theologian J. Denny Weaver points out, the substitutionary atonement theory depends on the idea that God requires violence in order to satisfy God’s justice, and that justice depends on punishment in order to be secured. Like Weaver, I find this violent view of God to be inconsistent and small.

Several years ago I came across a little book by Alan Walker called the Many-Sided Cross of Jesus. Walker points out that the substitution theory is only one of many explanations of the cross that have been put forth over the centuries. One of the alternative theories, known as “Christus Victor,” focuses on the fact that Jesus was a victim of violence and injustice. It also assumes that the cross was not part of God’s plan for Jesus, but when the crucifixion occurred “God took hold of it…and made it the occasion of salvation.” (p. 75). Through the resurrection Jesus gains victory not only over death, but also the powers of injustice that put him to death.

Walker then explains another theory (which it appears Walker himself affirms) which he calls “the cross of identification” in which the death and suffering of Jesus is an example and a “point of identification” whereby we who follow Jesus are “invited to share in his suffering” (p. 92). This view transforms what true power is and calls all people to live in service on behalf of those who suffer from injustice, war, violence and poverty around the world.

These days I take a position that integrates Walker’s models Christus Victor and the Cross of Identification. This afternoon I will join a large group of folks in a prayerful witness outside a gun shop in the Kensington section of Philadelphia. This shop is known to be the source of many guns used in street crimes. Just yesterday ago a 76 elderly woman in this area was shot in the cross fire of a gun battle while sitting in her car. At this vigil will be a large group of kids who every day live in fear walking to the store or school. I will be there to stand with them, to in some small way identify with them and proclaim that Jesus too, himself a victim of legalized violence and injustice, also stands with them.

On this day Jesus died on a cross. The power and the mystery of that event may never be fully comprehended. However, to the degree that I do grasp its meaning, that cross stands as a call to stand with and work with those who suffer oppression, injustice, and marginalization in our society and our world.