Marcus Borg: R.I.P.

Marcus Borg (1942-2015)

Marcus Borg (1942-2015)

I let go of the notion that the Bible is a divine product. I learned that it is a human cultural product, the product of two ancient communities, biblical Israel and early Christianity. As such, it contained their understandings and affirmations, not statements coming directly or somewhat directly from God. . . I realized that whatever “divine revelation” and the “inspiration of the Bible” meant (if they meant anything), they did not mean that the Bible was a divine product with divine authority.”

The person who wrote those words died last week. His name was Marcus Borg. He also wrote that he “takes the Bible seriously, even if not literally.” I appreciate those words and have taken them for my own mantra. Borg was controversial – some would say radical. He was an author, an academic, a scholar, and an internationally revered speaker. Having said all that, I realize that the name Marcus Borg may not be a household word, except, that is, unless you are like me and dabble in biblical and/or theological subjects. A 2007 article on Borg began with these words: “Oregon’s leading theologian walks his dog down the trendy streets of the Pearl District. His neighbors know Henry, the shaggy gray Glen of Imaal terrier, whose short legs set the pace. But few recognize Marcus J. Borg, the graying guy in the wool cap, as the spokesman for a different approach to Jesus Christ.” I suspect that most people could not pick him out of a lineup.

Marcus Borg was a liberal Jesus and biblical scholar. He, along with noted scholars Paula Fredriksen, John Dominic Crossan, and N. T. “Tom” Wright helped create a resurgent interest in the historical Jesus – a quest to retrieve a historically accurate portrait of Jesus – and for two decades shaped and reshaped its discussion.

Borg was a prominent leader of the Jesus Seminar – a group of about 150 critical scholars and laypersons who attempt to reconstruct the life of the historical Jesus by asking who he was, what he did, what he said, and what his saying meant, using a number of tools such as voting with colored beads to decide their collective view of the historicity of the deeds and sayings of Jesus of Nazareth. In other words, these scholars attempt to separate fact from myth in the gospels.

Borg was especially interested in maintaining the Jewishness of Jesus, a subject that is dear to my heart. He argued that Jesus was a prophet who wanted to replace Jewish holiness codes with an ethic of compassion. Following many liberal renditions of Jesus, Borg denied the historicity of the Virgin Birth of Jesus and his Resurrection. Yet unlike many liberal scholars, he was sympathetic to the spiritual and the miraculous.

The youngest of four children, Marcus J. Borg was born on 11 March 1942 in Fergus Falls, Minnesota and reared in a traditional Lutheran family. He attended Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota where he majored in philosophy and political science.

While at Concordia, Borg became fascinated by the New Testament, however, and accepted a fellowship to do graduate work at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where he was able to delve deeply into the Jewish background of the Gospels in general and of Jesus of Nazareth in particular and studied with some of the major theologians teaching there. Borg apparently first gained enlightenment through the liberal theology at Union Seminary. He recalled that he once believed in the Christmas story as literally involving a virgin birth, a “magic star,” and Wise Men, when he lacked the “mental equipment” in his youth to think otherwise. Only with education and post-adolescent critical thinking did he reject “childlike literalization of the personifications of God.”

From Union Theological Seminary, Borg went on to further studies at Oxford University and taught at various Midwest universities on his return to the United States. In 1979, he joined the faculty at Oregon State University where he held the Hundere Endowed Chair of Religion and Culture at the time of his retirement in 2007. His long career has included appointment as Canon Theologian at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Portland, Oregon, where he frequently lectured and was given the title of canon theologian. With self-deprecating humor, he said his wife Marianne, an Episcopal priest, informed him that “canon” meant “big shot.” He was chair of the Historical Jesus Section of the Society of Biblical Literature and co‐chair of its International New Testament Program Committee, president of the Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars, and a Fellow of the Jesus Seminar.

Borg did not believe in the kind of personal deity, or “supernatural theism” as he derided it, who provides a kind of direct comfort to individuals. Borg’s deity did not hear prayer, forgive sin, exude grace, inspire love, or offer heaven. Instead, he advocated an impersonal deity understood through panentheism, which asserts that all creation is a part of God. Rejecting God as a personal creator who presides over creation, Borg hailed panentheism for recognizing “we and everything that is are in God. God is not something else. God is right here and all around us. We are within God.”

I wish that I had personally known Marcus Borg, but I only knew him through his books. He wrote twenty-one books, beginning with 1984’s Conflict, Holiness and Politics in the Teachings of Jesus and ending with Convictions: How I Have Learned What Matters Most, published last year. Of all of Borg’s books, The Heart of Christianity, published in 2003 is probably the one that most clearly expresses the kind of Christianity with which most of us want our lives to be associated. I would also recommend Jesus: A New Vision (1987), Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time (1994), The God We Never Knew (1997), and The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions (1999), co-authored with N.T. Wright, an Anglican biblical scholar and bishop who took a more orthodox view of the gospels. Even though he and Wright differed on many issues, Wright nevertheless recommended many of Borg’s books and lectured alongside him on several occasion.

Many words have been written about Marcus Borg since his death. He has been eulogized in countless blogs and articles by admirers acclaiming his spiritual insights. Others, especially those from the evangelical wing of the church, have taken the opportunity to criticize his ideas and to denigrate him, yet still recall him personally as kind, thoughtful, and gracious.

But this lively, institutional, intellectual scholar holds great appeal to me and people like me. Why? Why was Borg such an attraction to me and to those like me who look for, and seek to bring about, a more just and generous Christianity?

Here are a just a few reasons – and they are important because they function as a sort of mirror to us.

First of all, Borg was hopelessly Jesus-centric. Nothing in the history of Christianity or its present-day institutions could turn him away from this Jesus of Nazareth. Not the great ideas and theologies of intellectuals, not the debates over the historicity of the New Testament, not the frustrating trivialities of bureaucratic functionaries could sway him from his unwavering attraction to the Jesus of the gospels. If the entire institutional side of the Christian church should go down in flames – and many think that it is – Borg’s faith would be untouched. From what I know about Marcus Borg, I suspect that he could not imagine building his life around anyone else.

Secondly, Borg’s unencumbered Christianity did not negate other religions and spiritual paths; it was a Christianity without exclusion or intolerance. Borg’s Christianity did not tell us that we have to hate gays or proselytize Buddhists or be wary of our neighbor’s doctrine of Scripture. Love was not a zero-sum game for him. For Borg, following Jesus was not about propositions – of stacking up true ones on our side and attacking the false ones of our enemies. For Borg, the Christian faith was built around Jesus’ radical way of compassion first, with everything else a distant second.

And third and lastly, Borg knew that we have to pare Christianity back down to the basics – or else. The age of the Christian Empire has passed (thank God). That the Church is no longer the center of American society is clearly shown by the Harvard Pluralism Project, whose mission is to help Americans engage with the realities of religious diversity through research, outreach, and the active dissemination of resources. The fastest growing religious group in America is not any particular denomination, but the non-affiliated. A few years ago, the well-known theologian John B. Cobb Jr., spoke to the annual conference of the United Church of Christ, a mainline Protestant denomination. He offered a perceptive analysis of the situation in American churches today:  “The more progressive denominations on the whole have been losing members and resources. There are many reasons. But I think the deepest one may be that what we do and say does not seem to be terribly important. This is true with regard to our children whom we bring up in the church. They may have a positive attitude toward it, but they do not see any reason to give much, if any, of their time and energy to its support.” Retired Episcopal Bishop John Selby Spong says much the same thing in his book, Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers in Exile.

Like the doomed RMS Titanic, the Christian Church in America continues to list further and further, and most theologians and denominational administrators seem preoccupied simply with rearranging the deck chairs, as the saying goes. Borg was among a smaller number who realized that the damage was too great and the necessary changes were too radical for minor adjustments. A Christianity that wishes to speak to today’s world must be rebuilt from its core outwards. While others work to revise an ancient doctrine, or to produce an inclusive hymnal, or to write a more relevant ritual, Marcus Borg wrote of Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time. That provocative title, that radical spirit behind it, that willingness to start over again with what matters most, infused the work of this scholarly man with the graying hair, who used to walk his dog down the streets of the Pearl District of Portland, Oregon.

Prophets come in all shapes and sizes; they often do not look the way we expect. Borg, for example, was an academic – a New Testament scholar, no less; an open, out-of-the-closet liberal. (He even used the word!) But he was a prophet to our generation nonetheless. There are lots of reasons why some might want to disregard Marcus Borg – or even to vilify him, as our more evangelical or orthodox sisters and brothers are want to do, both while he was alive and now in his death.

But I recommend that we do not do that. It is time for Christians to get back to basics, even to start over again if we have to. And Marcus Borg is an awesome place to begin that journey.

Requiescat in pace, Marcus Borg.

Marcus Borg and Henry

Marcus Borg and Henry

The Man Who Dared To Dream

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He was a man who had a dream of a vibrant, multiracial nation united in justice, peace and reconciliation – a nation that has a place at the table for children of every race and room at the inn for every needy child.

He was a man whose vision filled a great void in our nation and answered our collective longing to become a country that truly lives by its noblest principles. He was a man who knew that it was not enough just to talk the talk; he had to walk the walk for his words to be credible. He was a man who put his life on the line for freedom and justice every day, a man who braved threats and jail and beatings and who ultimately paid the highest price to make democracy a reality for all Americans.

He was born Michael King in 1929, but his father changed his name to Martin Luther King in honor of the seminal figure of the 16th century movement known later as the Protestant Reformation. It was a fitting change of name for this man who dared to dream.

In his Birth of a New Nation speech in 1957, Dr. King articulated that dream in these words: “And so today I still have a dream. People will rise up and come to see that they are made to live together as brothers and sisters. I still have a dream today that one day every person of color in the world will be judged on the content of their character rather than the color of their skin; and everyone will respect the dignity and worth of each human personality . . .”

On the occasion of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, Dr. King reiterated that dream when he famously said: “I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. . . . I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character . . .”

One can only imagine how different life in this country might have been had not Martin Luther King’s life been snuffed out by an assassin’s bullet on that infamous day in 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee. For me, several imaginings appear to be certain.

For instance, I imagine that he would not have allowed this nation to forget its calling, a calling summed up in the words of a hymn: “My country, ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.” And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.

Further, I imagine that he would not have let us delude ourselves into thinking that there was little or no fundamental difference between Barack Hussein Obama II and John Sidney McCain III in 2008 or Willard Mitt Romney in 2012.

Still further, I imagine that he would not have permitted us to interpret the deaths of more than 2,300 Americans in a war in Afghanistan as “achieving peace.” Or if he were alive today to interpret the deaths of over 4,400 American Forces and the deaths of over 150,000 Iraqi citizens as a “mission accomplished.”

The years of revolutionary rhetoric and expectation politics might have been better spent, and perhaps we would be much further down the road toward the realization of his dream of universal fellowship had he lived. As he once said, “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.” One can only imagine what life would have been like if this man who dared to dream had lived longer.

But even so, Martin Luther King made his humble contributions. He gave more to this nation in his thirty-nine years than many people of equal talent could ever give. He broke the silent terror of McCarthyism in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955 and gave voice to the plaintive longing for justice in the hearts of ten million black southern Americans. He pointed Americans in the direction of equality without ever giving in to hatred. King said one time: “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.”

King promulgated a method of change that thrived on an organized aggressive goodwill that confronted evil and refused to be drawn into its web of complicity. He demonstrated that truth and love can be mobilized into beautiful, world-changing forces.

The man who dared to dream never despaired of his commitment to nonviolence, but he would always despair of his inability to overcome the violence-prone nature of American society. He dared to confront a nation whose total orientation seemed to be toward violence – cops and robbers, cowboys and gunslingers, bloodletting and death – with the simple notion that the human soul and mind are even more powerful than atomic weapons. In what I consider to be some of his most moving words, Martin Luther King said: “To our most bitter opponents we say: We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey unjust laws, because non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. Throw us in jail, and we will still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you. But be assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom, but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.” Those are very powerful words and exemplify what English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton wrote: “The pen is mightier than the sword.”

His organization and message never had more than a few hundred thousand dollars in the bank, yet he turned around an entire nation in Birmingham, Alabama with a staff of only fourteen people. Had it not been for those efforts in Birmingham, the southern states might have been a bitter and bloody battlefield that would make the violence at Charlie Hebdo in Paris, or the ISIS-linked cells in Verviers, Belgium, or wherever else, pale in comparison. One can only imagine what life would have been like if this man who dared to dream had lived longer.

Even today, his life cries out to us. His warning of nonviolence or nonexistence has been heard by millions who are now ready to say, as the song has it, “I ain’t gonna study war no more.”

Certainly, one would think that his fellow humans would have unanimously acclaimed such a man who dared to dream of a better, a more peaceful world, yet his life and words were constantly harassed by those who would wrap themselves in the cloak of authority of government. For instance, the FBI spread malicious gossip, tapped his phones, and bugged his places of residence. Ironically, both President John F. Kennedy and Attorney General  Robert F. Kennedy informed him of this surveillance. But King made no protest and seemed more concerned about their fear than about his own vulnerability.

The IRS had him indicted for tax evasion, only to have the case rejected by an all-white jury in Alabama. However, his tax problems would be with him until his death. And the reason? King gave away too much of his earnings! You may remember that Martin Luther King was awarded the 1964 Nobel Prize for Peace, a prize that carried with it a sum of over $50,000. King divided that prize money between civil rights organizations, Morehouse College, and the Ebenezer Baptist Church. He would invariably have to borrow money to pay taxes on money that he had given away. No tax shelter or charity depletion allowances were available to him, and he donated his early papers to Boston University with no consideration of deduction.

I suspect that King would be proud of the progress that has been made in the political arena. The election of our first black president, of black mayors in Los Angeles, Detroit, Atlanta, New Orleans, Baltimore, and of the more than one thousand elected officials in the South alone are the fulfillment of the hope of this man who dared to dream.

It is not generally realized how much his movement stressed the power of the ballot. Martin Luther King spent more time working on behalf of voting rights than on any other issue. The most important civil rights legislation of the 20th century was the product of his 1963 Selma, Alabama protest, currently the subject of a major motion picture. I believe that Dr. King would be thrilled by the broadened ranks of citizen groups who seek to perfect our government through peaceful protest, vigorous investigation, and aggressive legal action. These groups are filled with ordinary American citizens of all faiths, creeds and colors who have finally learned the truth that blacks have sung about in a spiritual since the time of slavery:

Freedom is a constant struggle,/ We’ve struggled so long that we must be free.”

Martin Luther King’s faith in America and of the world was a faith of “in spite of.” He saw humankind stumbling toward a better way of life in spite of its weakness and its perversity. He knew the goodwill that is buried deep within us all, and he worked faithfully to create situations that would allow those good intentions to be translated into good behavior through social and legal reform. One can only imagine what life would have been like if this man who dared to dream had lived longer.

Several years ago, I read A. N. Wilson’s biography of the late Irish author and scholar C. S. Lewis. It was a very controversial biography because it revealed many of Lewis’ weaknesses and failings. However, I came away from that reading with a greater respect for Lewis because I discovered that he struggled with many of the same problems that plague me. I feel much the same way about Dr. Martin Luther King. Did Dr. King have feet of clay? Of course he did. Do all of us have feet of clay? Of course we do. But the message of Dr. King’s life was that out of weakness comes strength. Dr. King accepted the burden, the mission that was his to carry, even though the cost was great, even though it would lead to his death.

Let me close with a quote that I believe exemplifies the man who dared to dream and whose birthday we celebrated on Monday of this week. In accepting the Nobel Prize for peace in 1964, this is what Martin Luther King said: “I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits. I believe that what self-centered men have torn down, other-centered men can build up. I still believe that one day mankind will bow before the altars of God and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed, and nonviolent redemptive goodwill will proclaim the rule of the land. And the lion and the lamb shall lie down together and every man shall sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid. I still believe that we shall overcome.”

And so may we also believe. Imagine what life would have been like if this man who dared to dream had lived longer.

No Room at the Inn?

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As I write this, the temperature outside has dipped to the single digits. B-r-r-r-r! As the song has it, Baby, it’s cold outside! But I am inside where a fire is raging in the fireplace, where it is warm and cozy, and where I do not feel the bitter cold.

But not everyone is as fortunate as I.

Mickie “Red” Roquemore, a fifty-eight year old Pontiac, Michigan man was a charming, “great guy” who was well liked and did not cause problems at a homeless shelter where he often stayed in the past. Last year, he even secured housing with the help of an agency. But Roquemore was found dead on New Year’s Day on a porch where he had recently been sleeping apparently due to temperatures dipping down to 15 degrees overnight.

Around 10 am on the morning of New Year’s Eve, the body of a homeless transgender woman was found on the bench in front of the Castro’s Peet’s Coffee & Tea on San Francisco’s Market Street. According to neighbors, the woman identified herself as “Anastasia.” Anastasia had been a neighborhood fixture over the past year in the Castro. People who knew her said that she frequently was seen with a scarf over her head, wore high heels, and had been known to sport a fur coat. She could often be seen outside of Peet’s in the early mornings and would move on after receiving a cup of coffee from willing cafe-goers.  She had also regularly been seen outside the nearby Cafe Flore and the Harvest grocery store, or walking around the neighborhood. She was usually talking to herself.

Anastasia and Roquemore are just some of those homeless individuals who have perished simply because they had nowhere to take shelter when temperatures dropped.

Homeless Korean War veteran, Thomas Moore, 79, speaks with Boston Health Care for the Homeless outreach coordinator, Romeena Lee on a Boston sidewalk. Moore, who describes himself as having a “nervous breakdown” when as a 17-year-old serving on the front lines in Korea, he accidentally killed his best friend with a phosphorous grenade during a firefight and spent months afterward at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. He also said he has no interest in getting a government-subsidized apartment. He said he was willing to accept a blanket from the social workers who visit him, but when they broach the idea of housing, “I try in a kind way to back off.”

Homeless Korean War veteran, Thomas Moore, 79, speaks with Boston Health Care for the Homeless outreach coordinator, Romeena Lee on a Boston sidewalk. Moore, who describes himself as having a “nervous breakdown” when as a 17-year-old serving on the front lines in Korea, he accidentally killed his best friend with a phosphorous grenade during a firefight and spent months afterward at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. He also said he has no interest in getting a government-subsidized apartment. He said he was willing to accept a blanket from the social workers who visit him, but when they broach the idea of housing, “I try in a kind way to back off.”

It is estimated that more than 154,000 Americans, many of them veterans, have no shelter on any given night and will sleep under a bridge, or in an alley, or on a doorstep, or in a box. With extreme cold hitting the Northeast and Midwest this winter, even more homeless people will be at risk. An estimated 2,000 homeless people died on the streets last year, and this year will not be any different.

Hypothermia sets in when the body temperature drops below 95 degrees, something that can occur even in 50-degree weather. Yet many cities do not declare a hypothermia alert, triggering additional shelter options, until it hits 40 degrees or lower. Baltimore, for example, waits to issue a Code Blue hypothermia alert until temperatures, including wind chill, are expected to be 13˚F or below. This threshold can be reached by having a temperature at or below 20˚F with 5 mph sustained winds or a temperature at or below 25˚F with 15 mph sustained winds.

And even those who may have opened up emergency shelter across the country are reporting that it is already filling up. For instance, in Pontiac, where Roquemore died, there are not enough shelters to house the city’s homeless population. One was shut down over ordinance and code issues in April of last year, while another where Roquemore had previously stayed is often at capacity this time of the year. Shelters and homeless services were hit hard by automatic budget cuts in 2014.

And if the country does not spend enough on shelters, it certainly is falling down on spending enough to get people into actual housing. There was a 300,000 surplus of affordable housing units in 1970, but after federal assistance fell by 50 percent between 1976 and 2002, there was a 5.5 million shortage come 2009. But spending enough to put the homeless into housing, as has been done in three cities so far, is more cost effective than leaving them on the streets.

It is a real problem and one about which a Delaware couple wanted to do something creative and caring.

In early December, Matthew Scott Senge and Deb Bennett decided to give six people currently living underneath the Amtrak bridge – two men, a woman, and her three children – the gift of a night in the city’s finest hotel, the elegant and luxurious, Hotel Du Pont. The group had been living in “deplorable” conditions under a bridge, Senge said, and the couple wanted to provide them with a warm place to stay for the holiday.

An area under a Wilmington, Delaware bridge where a group of homeless people stay.

An area under a Wilmington, Delaware bridge where a group of homeless people stay.

“I used to be one of them,” Bennett said in a recent interview, noting that she had lived under a bridge after losing her house to a fire in 2012.

Senge, too, has had problems in his life.

Before coming to Delaware, he had three felony fraud convictions for crimes including theft by deception and passing bogus checks. He served half of a 46-month prison sentence in Alabama and was also convicted in Florida and Pennsylvania.

After getting out of prison in 2012, “I turned my life around,” Senge said. He largely credits Bennett – whom he calls “my better half” – for his new life.

That new life is reflected in the thoughtful gesture that he and his “better half” had planned for the homeless half-dozen people living under the Amtrak bridge.

Senge spoke with the reservation desk at the Hotel du Pont, one of just two five-star hotels in Wilmington, Delaware to make sure it would be okay to book the room for his guests. “They thought it was a wonderful idea,” said Senge. After talking to hotel management and getting approval, Senge paid $639 to book a two-bedroom suite for Christmas night.

He then gift-wrapped the confirmation letter, put a big red bow on it, and gave it to the six people living beneath the bridge. “They were blown away,” Bennett said. “One woman just cried.”

It was a thoughtful gesture, made in the spirit of the holiday. Unfortunately, the management at the Hotel du Pont had second thoughts.

Three hours before check-in time on Christmas Day, as the couple was assembling gift baskets and food for the intended guests, Senge’s phone rang. It was a staffer at the Hotel du Pont calling to cancel the reservation.

According to Senge, the staffer told him, “What if one of those people rapes or robs one of my guests?”

Hotel du Pont spokesman Brendan McEvoy said, “I think all of us were purely focused on the safety of our hotel guests, and that was why the decision was made.” He elaborated that the issue was that the hotel “wouldn’t allow a guest to check in if they did not have photo ID.”

Even though homeless people in general are less likely to have photo identification than the population at large, it is certainly not the case that no homeless individuals have ID. Indeed, according to Senge, his guests actually did possess photo IDs.

As the story gained attention in the Wilmington area and then nationwide, Hilton’s Christiana Hotel management in Wilmington stepped in.

Brad Wenger, general manager of the Christiana Hilton, chimed in saying that his hotel would offer ten rooms to homeless individuals at no charge. He said that he had “been working with local shelters to identify individuals in need. I will provide dinner and breakfast for them, I will give them a hospitality room where they can relax and not feel like they have to stay in the room all night, and make them as comfortable as possible.”

Indeed, with frigid temperatures in the northeast causing many local shelters to be over capacity, Wenger did not expect to have trouble finding people who could benefit from his offer. Wenger said the Hotel du Pont’s decision not to honor a reservation for the homeless cast a black mark on the hospitality industry that they must rise above.

So as it turned out, there was room at the inn after all!

Hotel Du Pont Wilmington, Delaware

Hotel Du Pont
Wilmington, Delaware

UPDATE:

After the media firestorm over the matter, the Hotel du Pont reversed its course and offered lodging to the homeless individuals, free of charge and issued the following statement: “We apologize for the misunderstanding regarding a hotel reservation under Mr. Senge’s name, which was cancelled on December 25, 2014. Respect for People is a core value of the Hotel. That extends to everyone, including the homeless. Like all major hotels, we have a policy of requiring IDs from guests, and our employees followed that policy. We have invited Mr. Senge’s guests to the Hotel, as early as this weekend. If the guests do not have IDs, we will work with them to address that.”

Senge related that the hotel offered three or four free rooms for the group for the entire weekend.

Religious Right Religion is Scary

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Unless you are deeply involved in Evangelical Protestantism, you probably never heard of Francis August Schaeffer (1912-1984). But I hope to correct that oversight with this post because Schaeffer was one of the most influential Christian leaders of the twentieth century, shaping both evangelical Christianity and American politics.

Francis August Schaeffer was one of the major figures in the rise of the religious right in the United States and is credited with helping spark a return to political activism among Protestant evangelicals and fundamentalists in the late 1970s and early 1980s, especially in relation to the issue of abortion. Schaeffer called for a challenge to what he saw as the increasing influence of secular humanism and expressed his views in two works – A Christian Manifesto and Whatever Happened to the Human Race?

By the early 1980s, Republicans were laboring under the weight of a single-issue religious test for political heresy: abortion. It was in various meetings with Congressman Jack Kemp, Presidents Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, when the unholy marriage between the Republican Party and the Evangelical Reconstructionist-infected “pro-life” religious community was gradually consummated. Schaeffer, his son Frank Schaeffer, and other evangelical leaders, such as Jerry Falwell met one on one or in groups with key members of the Republican leadership quite regularly to develop a “pro-life strategy” for rolling back 1973s Supreme Court Roe v. Wade decision.

And that strategy was simple: Republican leaders would affirm their anti-abortion commitment to evangelicals, and in turn the evangelicals would vote for them. And they did – by the tens of millions. Once Republicans controlled both houses of Congress and the presidency, Roe v. Wade could be reversed, either through a constitutional amendment and/or through the appointment of anti-abortion judges to the Supreme Court or, if need be, through civil disobedience and ultimately through violence, though this was only hinted at first.

In 2016, this strategy will become a reality unless concerned Americans wake up. In the mid-to-late 1980s, the issue was about taking away a woman’s right to choose. In 2015, the issues are about gay bashing, denying climate change, and the nakedly racist anti-immigrant movement threat due in part as a reaction to having a black president in the Oval Office. As I write this, Republicans now have a majority on the Supreme Court to back them up. They now control both Houses of Congress. All that remains is the Presidency.

No one seemed to notice (or mind) that the Republicans were not really doing anything about abortion other than talking about it to voters. And by the mid-to-late 1980s, the cause shifted:  Evangelicals paid lip-service to stopping abortion, but the real issue was keeping Republicans in power and keeping evangelical leaders in the ego-stroking loop of having access to that power.

The volume and tone of the anti-government “debate” and the anger in reaction to the Obama presidency originated with the anti-abortion movement. To understand where that anger came from and who first gave voice to it and why it has a level of religious fervor to it, Francis August Schaeffer enters the picture. Consider a few provocative passages from his work, A Christian Manifesto.

Schaeffer published A Christian Manifesto in 1981. It was intended as a Christian answer to Karl Marx’s and Friedrich Engels’ The Communist Manifesto of 1848 and the American Humanist Association’s  Humanist Manifesto documents of 1933 and 1973. Schaeffer’s diagnosis was that the decline of Western Civilization was due to society having become increasingly pluralistic, resulting in a shift “away from a world view that was at least vaguely Christian in people’s memory toward something completely different.” Schaeffer argued that there was a philosophical struggle between the people of God and the secular humanists.

In the following excerpts, bear in mind what took place in the so-called “health care debates” in 2009 over what came to be disparagingly known as “Obamacare” thirty years or so after this book was published and read by hundreds of thousands of evangelicals. The anti-health-care-reform rhetoric of “Death Panels!” “Government Takeover!” and “Obama is Hitler!” that the far right spewed in the policy debates of 2009 and beyond seemed to be ripped right from the pages of A Christian Manifesto. Note the ominous rhetorical shadow the book casts over an unenlightened and divided American landscape, a backdrop that produced the climate of hate that eventually spawned the murder of at least four abortion providers including Dr. Barnett Abba Slepian II and Dr. George Tiller, whose deaths made national headlines.

Here is a bit from A Christian Manifesto on how the government was “taking away” our country and turning it over to liberals, code-named in the book as “this total humanistic way of thinking”:

The law, and especially the courts, is the vehicle to force this total humanistic way of thinking upon the entire population.”

Or this:

Simply put, the Declaration of Independence states that the people, if they find that their basic rights are being systematically attacked by the state, have a duty to try and change that government, and if they cannot do so, to abolish it.”

And then there is this:

“There does come a time when force, even physical force, is appropriate. A true Christian in Hitler’s Germany and in the occupied countries should have defied the false and counterfeit state. This brings us to a current issue that is crucial for the future of the church in the United States, the issue of abortion. It is time we consciously realize that when any office commands what is contrary to God’s law it abrogates its authority. And our loyalty to the God who gave this law then requires that we make the appropriate response in that situation.”

Thank you, Francis Schaeffer for such inflammatory rhetoric! Is it any wonder that the evangelicals running the far-right Republican Party these days see themselves as the children of a revolution? Shutting down the government is nothing to these people. They see our government as the enemy, and now they are running it! As W. C. Fields would say in his euphemistic, near-profanity expletive – “Godfrey Daniels!”

Schaeffer’s son, Frank Schaeffer, initially supported his father’s ideas and his political program, but as early as the mid-1980s has distanced himself from many of those views and has even converted to the Eastern Orthodox Church, which is about as far as one can get from evangelical Protestantism! Schaeffer is considered to be a traitorous prince by many on the religious right, because, as he notes, he was considered as royalty because of his father. But Frank Schaeffer does not seem to care about any of that. His latest book, for instance is entitled Why I am an Atheist Who Believes in God: How to give love, create beauty and find peace. I highly recommend his book to all of my readers.

In a recent article, Frank Schaeffer wrote:

The leaders of the new religious right were gleefully betting on American failure. If secular, democratic, diverse and pluralistic America survived, then wouldn’t that prove that we were wrong about God only wanting to bless “Christian America?” If, for instance, crime went down dramatically in New York City, for any other reason than a reformation and revival, wouldn’t that make the prophets of doom look silly? And if the economy was booming without anyone repenting, what did that mean?

What began to bother me was that so many of our new “friends” on the religious right seemed to be rooting for one form of apocalypse or another. In the crudest form this was part of the evangelical fascination with the so-called end times. The worse things got, the sooner Jesus would come back. But there was another component. The worse everything got, the more it proved that America needed saving, by us! Plus, it was good for fundraising.

Schaeffer’s relatively brief piece makes clear the agenda that our country will be confronting in the new 114th Congress just sworn in this week, although to be completely fair, the Republican leaders of both the House and the Senate will also have to confront it.

So the question remains: Is this about the pessimistic zealotry that underlies the religious right?

This zealous negativity has a long history. The 1970s evangelical anti-abortion movement that Francis Schaeffer, C. Everett Koop (who would be President Ronald Reagan’s Surgeon General) and Frank Schaeffer helped create seduced the Republican Party. Almost single-handedly, they turned the Republican Party into an extremist far-right party that is fundamentally anti-American. There would have been no Tea Party without the foundation that Schaeffer and others built. The difference between now and then is that back then they were the religious fanatics knocking on the doors of normal political leaders. Today, the fanatics are the political leaders!

I know that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a recent interview, “I don’t want the American people to think that if they add a Republican president to a Republican Congress, that’s going to be a scary outcome.”

But it is scary. At least for me.

For starters, if you are like me and think that Steve King, Louie Gohmert, Michele Bachmann, Jim Inhofe, and Ted Cruz are the only “crazies” in the United States Congress, we need to think again.  This year’s mid-term elections brought not only a rout of the Democrats but also a new standard for just who can be a national Republican these days. Here is a quick look at some of the new House and Senate conservatives most likely to rise to unintended prominence in the next two years. Consider these new names that will grace the halls of Congress:

Glenn Grothman, former Assistant Majority Leader of the Wisconsin Senate, who believes that days off from work are “a little ridiculous”; kindergarten program for 4-year-olds should be defunded; sex-education could turn kids gay; supports legalization of concealed carry; Planned Parenthood is racist;  Martin Luther King, Jr. Day should not be a state employee holiday; anti-smoking campaigns do not work, and are no longer necessary; and Kwanzaa is a conspiracy;

Jody Hice, a Southern Baptist pastor and talk radio host who alleges that the gay community has a secret plot to recruit and to sodomize children; likens local law enforcement to “the Gestapo”; claims homosexuality causes shorter life spans and depression;  insists that same-sex couples cannot raise healthy children; offers an extreme interpretation of the Constitution, claiming states can nullify (that is the operative word) federal laws and take up arms against the federal government if they consider a federal law unjust; and compares reproductive rights advocates to Nazis;

Bradley Mark Walker, a businessman and pastor who would impeach President Barack Obama if given the chance, and who believes the answer to undocumented immigrants is to start up a little war with Mexico;

Thomas Bryant “Tom” Cotton, former member of the United States House of Representatives, representing Arkansas’ 4th  congressional district, who proposes that ISIS and Mexican drug cartels are teaming up to attack the United States across our border;

Ryan Zinke, a former Navy SEAL who told a Republican group that Hillary Clinton is Satan’s bride and is the “anti-Christ”; and finally,

Joni Kay (née Culver) Ernst, former member of the Iowa State Senate who backs a right-wing theory that Agenda 21 – a non-binding, voluntarily implemented action plan of the United Nations with regard to sustainable development – is a conspiracy by the United Nations to deprive individuals of property rights; suggests that states can somehow nullify (there is that word again) laws passed by the federal government; believes there were weapons of mass destruction found during the United States’ invasion of Iraq; holds a “makers vs. takers” view toward social welfare programs; claims she does not possess the scientific knowledge (no kidding!) to weigh in on whether humans are causing climate change; suggests that President Barack Obama should be impeached; expresses openness to privatizing Social Security; calls for abortion providers to be punished if a fetal personhood bill is passed; and opposes a federal minimum wage hike.

Frank Schaeffer notes that the Republicans depended upon people like his father to rile up the base in order to achieve other goals – think about the ALEC (The American Legislative Exchange Council) agenda, for example. ALEC’s agenda includes rolling back civil rights, challenging government restrictions on polluters, infringing on workers’ rights, limiting government regulations of commerce, privatizing public services, and representing the interests of the corporations that make up its supporters. We see some of this agenda in state legislatures where the likes of the Koch Brothers use this approach to weaken regulation of business and the environment.

I have to admit that Frank Schaeffer paints a rather stark conclusion.  He writes: “The Republicans are still depending upon that riling up: Mark my words, the subtext to the GOP assault on us in 2016 will be religious extremism – again. And now it has a racist twist. Look at the right’s reaction to the events in Ferguson. Look at the continuing anti-Obama ugliness far past mere political difference. For the Republicans, the next election won’t be about politics. It will be a holy war – again.”

I suspect that if one were to go digging, one might find signs of this “holy war,” which is basically a theocracy by any definition.

We have seen this “holy war” in Sarah Palin’s anointing. “Sarah is that standard God has raised up to stop the flood. She has the anointing. Back in the 1980s, I sensed that Israel’s little-known Benjamin Netanyahu was chosen by God for an important end-time role. I still believe that. I now have that same sense about Sarah Palin.” As best as I can discern, that text was originally written by Jim Bramlett, an author and former vice president with the Christian Broadcasting Network.

We have seen this “holy war” in the New Apostolic Reformation and the event they did several years ago to “anoint” Rick Perry – and remember, Perry is running again, and it looks as if Mike Huckabee might also run. The New Apostolic Reformation is a movement that seeks to establish a fourth house within Christendom, distinct from Catholicism, Protestant Christianity and the Latter Day Saint movement, largely associated with the Pentecostal and the Charismatic movements. Its fundamental difference from other movements is the belief that the lost offices of church governance, namely the offices of prophet and apostle need to be restored.

We have seen this “holy war” in the continuing perversion in how curriculum that pushes a particular view is being mandated through requiring curriculum that is a biased representation of our national history, and through the promotion of the work of David Barton, an evangelical Christian conservative political activist and author who endorses the view that it is a myth that the United States Constitution insists on separation of church and state. Barton is one of the foremost Christian revisionist historians who believes that the United States was founded as an explicitly Christian nation.

We see this “holy war” in false representations of our founding documents, attributing non-existent quotes to various founders, and the demonization of those whose religion differs, not merely on questions of abortion and gay rights, but on the very nature of Jesus of Nazareth himself.

But be mindful that there are those who will seek to claim Jesus for their own political purposes, and those purposes are alien to any honest reading of the Gospel accounts, which is perhaps why some of those who follow in the footsteps of Francis Schaeffer read those accounts very selectively, if at all.

As Frank Schaeffer, who helped to create this monster, reminds us: “the American right is not about politics as most people understand it, but about religious absolutes.”

But, I ask, whose religious absolutes?  And I hate to sound ominous about this, but to ignore Schaeffer’s point is to put at peril all that we hold dear.

From Bethlehem to Bedlam

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For weeks now, all roads have led to Bethlehem, at least metaphorically. All our thoughts were of joyful anticipation and hope. Bethlehem was the focus of “the hopes and fears of all the years” as Phillips Brooks penned it. Bethlehem, it seemed, was the destination of everyone.

But now, as a new year is upon us, the movement changes. Christmas is over and rather than go to Bethlehem, we will “get out of town” and leave Bethlehem. And that is pretty scary!

What happens to us when we leave Bethlehem? What happens to us when we turn from the loveliness and promise of Christmas to a world of uproar and confusion? Bedlam – that is what happens.

“Bedlam,” incidentally, is a term derived from the Bethlem Royal Hospital in London. In its long history, this great psychiatric facility has been known by various names, including Saint Mary Bethlehem, Bethlem Hospital, Bethlehem Hospital and, informally and most notoriously, “Bedlam.” From Bethlehem to Bedlam!

This movement from Bethlehem to bedlam is something that occurs every year. By a crazy quirk of the Gregorian calendar, we turn in one week from Christmas Eve to New Year’s Eve. In a mere seven days, we turn from the serenity of the nativity at Christmas to the carefree bedlam of New Year’s Eve. I must admit that I have never been one to cuddle up to the pious observation of participation in a watchnight service of singing, praying and testimonials, held late on New Year’s Eve in church. I believe that there is a time for gaiety and spontaneous fun, as well as a time for quiet prayer. For me, at least, New Year’s Eve has always meant the former, and never the latter. Therefore, I hope that each of you reading this had a great time on New Year’s Eve. I hope that you had a happy bedlam!

But then, each of us awakened today – New Year’s Day – not only to face at least six football games and as many parades, but also to face a world in bedlam, serious bedlam. For each of us, there will still be all the problems that we had to face in the year just passed. The personal problems will still be there. Some of us will face sickness. Many will face unemployment. Still others will face struggling to find out who we really are. And some will even face death. The world still brings its tough problems and tragedies to us. For us, it is the same old bedlam, the same old world, and the same old madhouse, promising to stretch on in the year ahead as we take the road away from Bethlehem and into bedlam.

But what else should we expect? We know that birth is always a struggle with pain and peril. That statement is true whether we are talking about the birth of a child or talking about the birth of a new idea. For when something new is born, the old never gives up without a struggle. There is nothing unique about a new birth having to face opposition and possible death. We would like to think otherwise, but when something new comes into the world, it always turns immediately from Bethlehem to bedlam.

And that is tough.  We seem to make it even tougher because of our inordinate appetite for utopian dreams, payable on demand. Our roads to Bethlehem almost invariably go overboard in expecting heaven on earth – immediately. We talk piously of the coming of the Prince of Peace as if all we have to do is pray hard enough and take Christmas seriously enough and as a result there will be peace on earth overnight! Voilà!

And yet, deep down, we know that our utopian dreams are impossible in a world such as ours. We still continue to have wars. Perhaps we can avoid a nuclear holocaust because of our fear of mutual destruction, but look at all the brush fire wars, such as those in Yemen, North-West Pakistan, Syria, and the forces of ISIL. Who knows where and/or what will break out in this coming year or in the years following!

Because of the kind of world in which we live, we seem to be committed to the proposition that we must look after ourselves because no one else is going to do it for us. As individuals, this proposition works out fairly well because usually mixed in with it are healthy doses of love and unselfishness. But it seems that when we are gathered into nations, love and unselfishness seem to go out the window. Peace on earth? Don’t bet on it. Mutual understanding among nations? Not overnight, not the way I see it. And I am not by nature either a cynic or a pessimist. (OK, I admit it. I am something of a cynic.)

But as I see it, instead of a growing sense of peace, our world is gripped by a mounting sense of fear and anxieties. We have recently experienced that pervasive emotion in almost every phase of our life. The content of that fear has struck us in successive waves: the fear of a possible worldwide Ebola epidemic; fear of a renewed war in the Middle East; fear of beheadings by ISIL carried out on live television; fear of rising racial tensions in our land and the sad fact that racism is by no means dead in this country; fear of retaliation because our government engaged in brutal methods of torture and then lied about it to the people, to the members of Congress, and even to the President; fear that politics seem to be controlled not by issues or voters, but by big, corporate money; fear of age-old attempts by males to control the bodies of women and to determine what services a woman can receive through her job-related health care insurance; fear of blatant attempts in some states to limit or to curtail the voting rights of minorities by making it more difficult and more expensive to vote; and fear of challenges to freedoms long enjoyed by segments of our population and the potential threat that these freedoms may well be taken away. And these concerns are just the tip of the iceberg.

This is the bedlam that awaits us once we leave Bethlehem and, yes, it is scary, but it also challenges us.

The challenge to us as we leave Bethlehem and head for bedlam is to acknowledge that every life – black, white, Latino, Asian, male, female, bisexual, gay, lesbian, straight, Christian, Jew, Moslem – every person is of worth and this reality must be acknowledged if we are to survive as a species called Homo sapiens (Latin for “wise men”). We live in a deeply interdependent world. Germs, viruses, deadly diseases, tsunamis, earthquakes, and hurricanes, for example, do not appear to recognize national boundaries, racial boundaries, or economic boundaries.

The challenge to us as we leave Bethlehem and head for bedlam is to answer the questions: Are we not yet willing to allow women the freedom to make their own reproductive decisions? Are women human beings or just fetus incubators?

The challenge to us as we leave Bethlehem and head for bedlam is to answer the questions: Can the world survive when some are dieting while millions starve? Can the world endure when some live in tax-sheltered luxury with accounts in the Cayman Islands, while others live below poverty levels? Can the world persist when education becomes so expensive that it no longer offers a doorway to opportunity? Can the world subsist if we continue to deny that climate change exists or that it is even a problem?

Welcome to Bedlam!

In the days just after the beginning of World War Two, King George VI gave his 1939 Christmas broadcast to the British Empire. In that speech, he quoted words that were the preamble to an obscure poem written in 1908 by Minnie Louise Haskins entitled God Knows, (more popularly known as The Gate of the Year). The King began: “A new year is at hand. We cannot tell what it will bring. If it brings peace, how thankful we shall all be. If it brings us continued struggle we shall remain undaunted.” He then went on to quote the preamble of the poem. The words were widely acclaimed as inspirational in those dark and uncertain days of 1939. May they speak to us as we leave Bethlehem and face the bedlam that awaits us in 2015.

The Gate of the Year

And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: “Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.” And he replied: “Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.” So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night. And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.

Happy New Year!

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