Thursday, February 25, 2010

Good News Doesn't Make Everyone Happy, Part 2

by Rev. Dr. Tim Moore

My children have been in our public schools for the past 6 years at Cotswold Elementary, a diverse school, where their classmates have been almost even numbers of white and black students with a smaller portion of Hispanic immigrants. My children are richer because they have friends who immigrated from Venezuela and Guatemala, because they’ve had the chance to befriend a Muslim boy from Russia, because they’ve attended parties just across the street from this sanctuary and their own birthday parties have looked like the world King dreamed of from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

This is an example of what can happen when parents and teachers from different racial and ethnic and economic classes come together for the common good of all. Unfortunately, I’ve watched Cotswold become a rare school in [Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools] during these six years as the school system as a whole has virtually resegregated. Most schools in our system now either have high concentrations of white students or black students.

When we did away with busing to integrate our schools we gave up the idea that we should all share the responsibility to educate the at-risk student, the child who lives in poverty, the student with behavioral issues, the pupil whose parents do not help her with homework and leave the TV on all day and let her stay up till midnight. All of us, black, white, Hispanic, rich, poor, we used to share in that responsibility. Now, it’s every school for themselves, every neighborhood out to protect their school boundaries. And more and more white and upper income families are just opting out for private school.

What is even more alarming is how this has happened with hardly a word of protest. The school board is even considering doing away with the citizens council for school equity. One board member simply called it a relic.

If Dr. King were alive today would he drive through our city of beautiful churches and ask, “What kind of people worship here? Who is their God?” Where were they when public school resegregated and relegated thousands of students to a poor education with inexperienced teachers and rowdy classrooms?

Every child deserves a quality education, but that good news must be carried on a cross by all of us. And that’s not going to make everyone happy.

We have to will things to be different. The privileged have to be willing to sacrifice some of their perks. The poor have to be willing learn new ways. If we are not willing to sacrifice some things for each other, then noble ideas and lofty hopes will just be artwork hung in a museum for us to admire.

We have to stop caring just about ourselves and our people – however we define our people – and start working for the betterment of all of us. We have to become less tribal and more open to our neighbor.

This is a task that has confounded humans for centuries. The prejudices that continue to divide our nation and the body of Christ are as wide as the earth is round and as old as human nature. It seems there is an innate tribalism within human beings. We mistrust the outsider, the other. Xenophobia, fear of the foreigner, runs in our veins.

This sin of tribalism is within all of us. I have to confess that I am a recovering racist and a recovering male chauvinist pig, a recovering nationalist and a recovering elitist. I cannot claim a cure, but like the recovering alcoholic, everyday I have a task – to love my neighbor as myself. This is not easy. Everyday we hit moments where we might prejudge people based on their gender, race, age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or any other matters that group people.

Just the other day I was in line at a lunch counter and I was in a bit of a hurry and right in front of me were two Hispanic women who I soon realized were struggling some with their English. And I thought why did I have to get behind these women on a day when I’m in a hurry?

Well, a moment later another worker came to the counter and started taking my order, so now I was between the these Hispanic women and I could easily hear everything that was going on between them and the workers taking their orders. One of the women was having problems understanding how much her sandwich cost, which I could understand. I have three college degrees and a solid command of the English language and sometimes I can’t understand the menus at this lunch place. But the worker, who was actually the manager, was clearly annoyed with her and began being rude to her.

A couple minutes later after we’d all paid, the women sat down at a table and I prepared to leave with my to-go order. I looked back up at the counter and noticed no one was in line at the moment. So, I went back up, and told the manager that he’d been very rude to that customer. He apologized, but I said, “I’m not the one you should apologize to.”

I could have left the store feeling a little self-righteous, if I hadn’t realized something. I should have also thanked him. Part of my anger at his rudeness was caused by my shame for the impatience I had with the women in the first place and my apathy of minding my own business when I should have offered to help her understand the menu. He reminded me that I’m a recovering racist and recovering elitist and I’m called to everyday to love my neighbor as myself.

Jesus stood before his hometown people and said:
"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor."

And they loved hearing him say those things until they realized he meant that good news for them and for people not like them and then they turned on him.

Good news doesn’t make everyone happy, because God’s good news must be carried on a cross. AMEN

This is the conclusion of a two-part series that began Tuesday (scroll down to see Part 1). Tim Moore is the pastor of Sardis Baptist Church in Charlotte, NC. This series was adapted from a sermon Rev. Moore delivered on January 31, 2010. This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Greensboro and Winston-Salem sit-ins of February 1960, where black and white students sat at Woolworth's lunch counters and refused to move. Let us take this time to renew our commitment to social justice as an outward expression of love for our neighbor.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Good News Doesn't Make Everyone Happy, Part 1

by Rev. Dr. Tim Moore

Our story today tells us of Jesus’ return to his hometown of Nazareth [Luke 4:16-30], of how he went to his childhood place of worship and how initially the people were amazed at the changes in him, but how ultimately the reunion ended badly. Thomas Wolfe, the popular North Carolina novelist, once wrote, “You can’t go home again.” And that was the hard truth Jesus experienced that day.

Jesus has just started his ministry; he hasn’t even selected disciples yet, according to Luke. He was preaching in villages all over Galilee and the verse just before our passage today says, “He… was praised by everyone.”

By the time he returns to his hometown; people have already heard the rumors about Jesus and he is asked to speak in their synagogue, in his childhood house of worship. No doubt his mother, Mary, was as proud as she could be that day. His brothers and sisters and their families were there to witness their brother’s return, I’m sure as well. His neighbors and playmates. His teachers and mentors.

At the appointed time in the service he is handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. He stands and reads: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor."

Good news. The Spirit of the Lord anointed Jesus to bring good news.

Everybody likes to hear good news. We want to hear inspiring sermons, idealistic speeches, messages of hope, stories of a bright future. We want to believe that things will be better, if not for us, then for our children and grandchildren. Everybody likes to hear good news.

Jesus said he’s been anointed to bring good news to the poor; that he’d been sent to proclaim freedom to those who are captive, to give sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free and proclaim the year of the Lord’s Jubilee.

This is lofty good news, inspirational good news. Freedom for those who are captive. Sight for those who are blind. Freedom for those who are oppressed. Forgiveness for those who are debtors. This is good news for the poor!

And who could not wish freedom for those who are oppressed? Who could not wish for sight for those who are blind?

It is not surprising that Jesus’ hometown folks spoke well of him upon hearing his words. Who could not wish for such good news?

Everybody likes to hear good news in the abstract. We dream of peace on earth and of all peoples treating each other like sister and brother. We proudly proclaim our nation’s ideals that all are created equal and have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Is there a person of good will in America, today, who would denounce Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream,” speech?

When he said, “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood,” who could oppose such a hopeful vision.

The problem with lofty ideals, with inspirational messages, the problem with good news is that it has to be lived in the real world in order to make a difference. They look pretty on paper; they sound wonderful over a speaker system, but if all we do is admire them like artwork at the Mint Museum or the Harvey Gantt Center they haven’t fulfilled their purpose. And the problem is that when we take lofty ideas and noble good news and try to live them out in everyday life they get messy.

Jesus said he’d been anointed to bring good news to the poor. This is all well and good, people will say, as long as this doesn’t mean bad news for the rich.

Jesus said he’d give sight to the blind. This is all well and good, people will say, as long as this doesn’t require us to give up something to help him.

Jesus said he’d been sent to release the captives and bring freedom to the oppressed. This is all well and good, people will say, as long as this doesn’t mean that the oppressors might have to sacrifice their privilege.

Jesus said he was coming to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, meaning the year of Jubilee, the year when debts are forgiven. This is all well and good, people will say, as long as we’re not stuck with the defaulted loans.

Everyone is for good news as long as it doesn’t cost him something. Everyone loves inspirational speeches as long as she doesn’t have to sacrifice anything. Everyone admires noble ideas as long they favor his people and not the other people.

When the townspeople found out that Jesus’ gracious words and amazing speech wasn’t going to favor them and in fact would bring good news to their enemies, they quickly turned on him. Drove him to the edge of town to hurl him off a cliff.

Noble ideals usually come with a cost. Good news when you try to live it out doesn’t make everyone happy.

While nearly everyone loves Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, the same cannot be said of his “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” or of his sermon, “A Time to Break Silence,” which he preached on the Vietnam War exactly one year before he was assassinated.

In the Birmingham letter, King said that he had almost reached the conclusion that the greatest stumbling block to Civil Rights was not the Klansman, but white moderates who were more devoted to “order” than to justice. “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

Pointing to the hundreds of steeples in Birmingham King continued, “In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon [African-Americans], I have watched white churches stand on the sideline and merely mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities… I have looked at her beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward… Over and over again I have found myself asking: ‘What kind of people worship here? Who is their God?... Where were they when Governor Wallace gave the clarion call for defiance and hatred? Where were their voices of support when tired, bruised and weary [black] men and women decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest?’”

There is no good news that hasn’t first been carried on a cross. Good news when you try to live it out doesn’t make everyone happy.

Part 2, the conclusion, will be posted on Thursday. Tim Moore is pastor at Sardis Baptist Church in Charlotte, NC. This series was adapted from a sermon Rev. Moore delivered on January 31, 2010. This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Greensboro and Winston-Salem sit-ins of February 1960, where black and white students sat at Woolworth's lunch counters and refused to move. Let us take this time to renew our committment to social justice as an outward expression of love for our neighbor.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Don't Rush to the Cross

by Rev. Laura Barclay

We are entering the season of Lent, a 40-day time of reflection and spiritual growth for Christians in preparation for Easter. This sacred time has been observed in some form since the 2nd century and more uniformly since the 5th century when Pope St. Leo preached of its importance. The 40-day length of time was most likely based on the days Jesus spent in the wilderness, fasting during his temptation. Throughout Catholic history, it was customary to fast or only eat small vegetarian meals during the Lenten days and have feasts every Sunday (Lent excludes Sundays, which are seen as miniature celebrations of Easter). Participating in Lent was required throughout all Christianity until the Protestant Reformation. Now, all denominations view participation during this season to be more of a voluntary event. Traditionally, Baptists did not celebrate Lent. More recently, some Baptists are trying to renew the observance of the liturgical year, realizing that cutting all ties with Catholic spirituality was a bit like throwing the baby out with the bath water. Christian reflection and spiritual growth are necessary components in one’s faith journey, and essential to absorb the meaning of the holidays and rituals our religion holds so dear.

One tradition that developed among Christians was to give up certain things they liked during this time, sacrificing a treasured routine in remembrance of Jesus, who sacrificed his life by speaking truth to power and demonstrating a new way of being in his ministry. A more recent practice has developed that has helped me in my spiritual journey—taking on a discipline like praying, meditation, volunteer work, etc. Last year, I took on wearing a cross necklace everyday for Lent. I have always struggled with the use, or rather misuse, of the cross. Instead of symbolizing the depth of love that Jesus had for humanity, it came to symbolize war and violence during the Crusades. In America, crosses became associated with terrorism and hate crimes committed by the Ku Klux Klan, efforts of some churches to exclude persons who may be different than others, and as a way to define “who’s in and who’s out” rather than the inclusive and boundless hospitality of Jesus. The 40 days I wore that cross gave me an opportunity to explore what the cross means to me, and gave me a chance to have deep and meaningful conversations with some of my friends, both Christian and non-Christian, who expressed the same reservations. The practice also forced me to slow down and reflect on Jesus’ life and ministry, which is full of meaning and instruction on human relationships toward one another and God, rather than skip to the end of the story. Rushing to Easter is something we all have the urge to do, but meditation on his life gives context and understanding to his death and resurrection.

This year, I am going to work on prayer. I have always found it hard to still the chatter and commentary on activities of the day inside my head. If you’ve seen the TV-show Scrubs, the main character’s never-ending thoughts that supplement the dialogue might give you an idea of my overactive brain. I also have a family history of high blood pressure, which silent prayer and meditation have been scientifically proven to lower. I will use, an online resource provided by Jesuit priests that CBFNC’s Executive Coordinator, Larry Hovis, used during one of our staff devotionals. It allows you to meditate on scripture, which is read several times, and think introspectively about spiritually related questions. I have found that focusing my mind on Scripture rather than trying to meditate in complete silence helps to keep my mind from wandering too far off topic.

If you want to try to add a discipline during Lent, you can try the website above or: -- This resource is produced by Passport and sponsored by the Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church U.S.A., and CBF. -- This resource is produce by Irish Jesuits. -- This Anglican website has many helpful Lenten resources.

I wish you good luck in your spiritual journey toward the cross and a fruitful path of reflection.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

"Nickel and Dimed" Book Review

by Rev. Laura Barclay

Published around a decade ago, Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich recounts the first-hand story of a journalist who sets aside a year to pursue working class jobs and discover how waiters, maids, and Wal-Mart employees survive on such low wages. This book was assigned by CBFNC’s Wealth and Poverty Task Force as an introduction to the experience of poverty in America through a middle-class lens. The experiences still ring true ten years later with America in the middle of a recession, and the gap between the rich and the poor widening.

The book is divided into three parts for the three different cities and jobs she tackles. For her first job, she waits tables at two different restaurants in Key West. Her co-workers live in hotel rooms with other employees and in their cars parked in the lot behind the restaurant. Waiters are not allowed to enter through the front door because it detracts from the middle class ambiance of the customers, so they have to use the back entrance.

Barbara’s second job finds her at cleaning service in Maine. Backbreaking and demeaning, her job requires her to clean houses, sometimes scrubbing the floors in front of the customers while they watch and critique when she misses a spot. One of her co-workers is pregnant, but cleans through the nausea because her boss does not allow sick days. They barely get breaks, and many cannot afford to buy more than a snack at the gas station for lunch.

The third final job is at Wal-Mart in Minnesota. After a mind-numbing all-day orientation on Wal-Mart procedures and the evils of unionizing, she spends her days under the watch of a critical manager while folding and sorting ladies’ clothes. She lives in a motel where the sewage backs up and mold fills the air. Even with these poor accommodations, she runs out of money and is forced to quit her project. How do those who do not have the luxury of quitting poverty survive?

Throughout the book, she references horrifying statistics that give context to her experiences. Perhaps the most disturbing statistic is that 60% of Americans do no make a living wage—equated by the Economic Policy Institute to be $30,000—and that was almost 10 years before this recession (213). Of adults seeking to obtain emergency food, sixty-seven percent have jobs (219). When polled, ninety-four percent of Americans believe that those who work should be paid enough to provide for their families and keep them from slipping below the poverty line (220). Yet, our country remains one of the few in the industrialized world that do not provide adequate healthcare, childcare, good public transportation and subsidized housing. The private sector is left alone with the impossible task of trying and failing to provide for its workers. The massive layoffs and failures of the recession make it all too clear that the private sector alone cannot support the working class.

She concludes the end of the book with a bleak picture of the low-wage workplace. Workers are forced to find jobs close to home, because they are not as mobile as their wealthier counterparts. If they are lucky enough to have cars, they may not be able to afford the gas. These workers do not have the access to computer resources for resume building and job searching, further restricting their search. When they do find a job, they are subject to searches, drug tests, and strict rules against gossip to keep workers from organizing for better conditions—all borderline violations of civil rights. The constant demoralizing and criminal treatment because of socio-economic status no doubt affects the workers’ psyche and health, not to mention kills their dreams of one day crawling out of poverty.

This is a great resource for translating the poverty experience to the middle class. Barbara Ehrenreich is a fierce advocate for the poor, especially during the last chapter where she evaluates her experience within the greater context of poverty. The discussion questions at the back of the book make it perfect for a church or social book club. Reading this book is a great opportunity to reflect about the poor in our own communities, both employed and unemployed, and think about ways to build relationships with the poor and advocate for their rights.

If you are interesting in advocating for the poor, here are a few places to start:

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Decade in Religious Liberty

by Rev. J. Brent Walker

Dubbed by Time magazine the “decade from hell,” the past 10 years have been ones for which we can say good riddance: September 11, two costly and deadly wars, the economic meltdown. In terms of church-state relations, however, it has been a mixed bag -- some good news, some bad.

The decade saw the Rehnquist Court become the Roberts Court and, after 11 years of the same nine justices, a change in one-third of the high tribunal.

From the Baptist Joint Committee’s perspective, when John Roberts took over as chief justice, the Supreme Court’s church-state posture was improved. In our estimation, Chief Justice Rehnquist almost always decided church-state cases wrongly. Chief Justice Roberts appears to be more sympathetic to free exercise even though he may be no better than Chief Justice Rehnquist on Establishment Clause cases. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was right most of the time and could be counted on to render carefully nuanced opinions. While Justice Samuel Alito’s church-state jurisprudence has not been fully fleshed out, his replacement of Justice O’Connor is definitely a minus. He authored the court’s opinion in Hein v. Freedom From Religion Foundation (2007), which made it harder for plaintiffs to bring Establishment Clause cases. Finally, Justice Sonia Sotomayor appears from her Judiciary Committee testimony and judicial record to be sound in her church-state views, but Justice David Souter, whom she replaced, was nearly perfect in the 20 church-state opinions he wrote or joined. She has a lot to live up to.

On balance, we have taken a small step backward in terms of the justices’ church-state jurisprudence.

The Establishment Clause jurisprudence, generally speaking, continued to weaken, especially with regard to the issue of government funding of religious activities and organizations. The decade started off with Mitchell v. Helms (2000) in which the court further pared back a key standard set by the 1971 case of Lemon v. Kurtzman (at least for funding cases) and loosened the strictures on direct aid to pervasively religious organizations. In Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002), the court narrowly upheld the constitutionally of a school-voucher program, at least where parents purportedly have genuine choice between schools. As mentioned earlier, the court’s decision in Hein made it harder to challenge government expenditures under the Establishment Clause. The effects of that decision have been felt in the lower courts.

With respect to other Establishment Clause cases dealing with religious speech and sectarian symbols, we fared better. The court continued to rule out government-sponsored student prayer in Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe (2000) and the posting of the Ten Commandments absent a clear secular purpose in McCreary County v. ACLU of Ky. (2005). Under different facts, where the Decalogue is displayed along with many other monuments and has gone unprotested for decades, the rule is different, according to Van Orden v. Perry (2005).

On the free-exercise front, I think we made some significant progress. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) in 1993 restored increased protection -- at least at the federal level -- for the exercise of religion, and its salutary effect continued through the next decade. Many states have passed similar measures. In Gonzales v. UDV (2006), the court properly upheld an application of RFRA that protected the religious-liberty interests of a small religious sect that sought an exemption to the Controlled Substance Act. Moreover, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), passed by the Congress and signed into law in 2000, provides increased protection in zoning and prisoner free-exercise cases. The court, in Cutter v. Wilkinson (2005), upheld RLUIPA’s constitutionality, at least with respect to prisoner cases. Finally, in Good News Club v. Milford Central School (2001), the court embraced the equal-access principle in cases dealing with religious exercise and after-class club meetings in the public schools.

We continued to work on how to ensure the separation of church and state without divorcing religion from public life. The public square has never been as “naked” as some would have us think. For most of the past decade, it was dressed to the nines in talk about religion.

Nowadays, polls demonstrate that the American public has become less enamored of the explicit melding of religion and politics, even though they continue to desire leaders to be religious and even though they show little enthusiasm for banning religion altogether from the public square.

It is also fair to say that there has been a growing sentiment that would banish religion from public life altogether. Here I am talking about those leveling a trenchant atheistic critique of religion generally and religion in public life in particular, including Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. While troublesome, I think this group still pales in influence and numbers against those on the other end of the spectrum who would explicitly and unabashedly combine religion and public life, if not church and state altogether.

In this country, we have not always managed to get the church-state/religious freedom/religion-and-politics equation just right. That is true of the past 10 years. We should redouble our efforts to argue for a stout vision for both religion clauses in the First Amendment, welcome religion in the public square (while arguing against abusing religion for partisan purposes), and provide an example for the rest of the world to see and, hopefully, imitate.

Let’s all hope and pray that the next decade is better than the preceding one -- maybe a “decade from heaven” when it comes to religious liberty.

Brent Walker is the Executive Director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty. A version of this article originally appeared on the BJC's website and was then adapted and reprinted on the Associated Baptist Press' website.