Skip navigation

Monthly Archives: July 2020

“It’s the Economy, Stupid!”

 

“It’s the economy, stupid.” James Carville, a strategist for Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign, uttered the phrase in 1992, pointedly reminding voters that under current President George H. W. Bush, the economy had gone into a recession and their lives were much worse as a result. The phrase hit a chord in the American public and Bill Clinton easily won the election for President.

The economy is God in the U.S.  Everything revolves around the “Almighty Dollar.” The economy has its own Bible, the Wall Street Journal. The economy has its prophets and priests. The economy is America’s Idol.

This has been true from the beginning.  The first settlement at Jamestown, VA, established in 1607, was an economic venture called the “Virginia Company.” It’s goal was to make money. Period. Slavery was brought to this county to provide free labor to ensure that landowners made money. Our nation is built on the foundation of capitalist pursuit of wealth.

In a series of sermons delivered to the Ebenezer Baptist Church in 1953, Martin Luther King, Jr. identified “money” as America’s false God.  Initially, his civil rights work focused on voting and access to education, but after the Civil Rights Bill and the Voting Rights Act were passed, King shifted his attention more and more to the ways that American worship of the false God of money was at the root of the evil of oppression.  The capitalist economic system was the noose tied around the neck of poor, the low-wage workers, the migrant farm workers, and the chronically unemployed.  This belief led him to form the Poor People’s Campaign to demand an “economic bill of rights” that included the right to full employment, the right to a guaranteed annual income, and the right to affordable housing.  We know what happened next. The prophet was killed.

Since his death on April 4, 1968, the economic disparities in America have only widened and the worship of wealth has only increased.  We see our national devotion to the god of wealth and money clearly in the midst of the pandemic.  The economy is the giver of life. The economy is the sustainer of the American way of life. “It’s the economy, stupid,” the prophets of the economy cry out.  “If the economy fails, we will all die,” the priests of the economy warn. “We must reopen the economy and make the sacrifices required,” say the acolytes.  And so we reopen schools and sacrifice our children. We reopen factories, sacrificing low-wage and immigrant workers. We sacrifice our grandparents. We sacrifice communities of color. We sacrifice the air we breathe. We sacrifice the water we drink. We sacrifice the land.  And we make the sacrifices because the Economy demands it.  In return, the Economy promises to make a few worthy people excessive wealth, and the rest get just enough to survive.

It was true in 1607. It was true in 1953 and it is true today. And all the while, we print “In God we trust” on the currency of the economy. And we say, “God bless America.”

But God does not bless idolatry. The prophets of the Bible again and again speak of God’s curse on the people who turn away from YHWH, the Maker of Heaven and Earth and their deliverer. But again and again, the people turn to the worship of false gods with names like Molech, Baal, and Astarte.  These gods were economic gods. The people trusted in these gods to grow their crops and improve their lives and protect them. The people sacrificed whatever was expected–including “passing their children through the fire” to get the promised benefits. This is the nature of idolatry. It is what believe to be the source of our   survival and wellbeing.

The Biblical stories of the people of Israel show us that idols ultimately fail to deliver. The power of idols is limited and temporary. They cannot save. They will ultimately disappoint and we will look back and realize too late that all the sacrifices we made were wasted.

God did not bless the people of Israel for their idolatry and God will not bless the people of America.  Every Old Testament prophet condemned the economic oppression they saw in the nation. From Amos to Zechariah, the prophets spoke against the economic systems that deprived the poor of life.  Their words are relevant to us today at a time when the economic systems are designed to create and maintain income and wealth inequality and when our leaders legislate for the interests of the profiteers over the poor.

But prophets also offered a word of hope and encouragement.  For instance, while God announced a curse on those who put their trust in human strength, military might, unjust gain, and any other false god through the prophet Jeremiah; God announcer blessing on those who make the Lord their hope and confidence and calls them to return to God for healing.  The prophet Jesus called us away from pointless accumulation and worship of things that are temporary to the pursuit of things that are eternal, treasures in heaven—treasures that come out of pursuit of justice and righteousness.

Jesus’s words call us to decision: which God will we trust? Which God we will worship? Which God we will devote ourselves to? Our choice is between Jehovah-Jirah and Capitalist Economy; between the Provider God of community and justice and the enslaving “god” of oppression and exploitation; between God’s economy of grace and the world’s economy of greed.  Our future will be determined by the God we choose and we cannot choose both.  Blessing comes when we “seek first the kingdom of heaven and God’s justice and all these things will be added to you.”

Let us be the prophets of the true God in this time. Let us call out our nation’s idolatry that is ruining us, and call our leaders to a new economy that puts people above profit and the environment above wealth.  Only then, will we be like the tree planted by the river that will survive and bear fruit even in the midst of a drought. Let us renounce the old “god” and trust in the true God who calls us to the beloved community where God’s abundance is shared by all.  Let it be. Amen.

“How God Feels About Foreigners”

 

Last Sunday, I led you in expressing grief over how the church in the United States—specifically the white church—has historically provided the theological support for slavery and white supremacy. Together, we confessed this sin and made a commitment to challenge patriot pastors and patriot parishioners by raising our prophetic voice.

This week, knowing that God is also grieved by this co-mingling of white nationalism and faith, I found myself asking, “What would be required of a people to receive God’s blessing?” As I was asking the question, I heard more disturbing news from our government that just added fuel to my grief.

This week, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was in the news twice.  First, the news reported that ICE had changed the rules for international students, announcing that students enrolled in schools that will only offer online classes this fall will lose their visas and will be required to return to their home countries. If they don’t leave, they will be subject to deportation.

And while the news media was busy reporting about at-risk students, ICE quietly sent out letters to Chicago area citizens, inviting them to enroll in a pilot program called, “Enforcement and Removal Operations Citizens Academy.” The 6-session academy curriculum will introduce participants to ERO staff and give them an understanding of ERO processes.  In addition, AND I QUOTE,  “Attendees will participate in scenario-based training and exercises conducted in a safe and positive environment, including, but not limited to defensive tactics, firearms familiarization, and targeted arrests.”  Thankfully, some immigrant organizations got copies of the letter and raised the alarm!  The Interfaith Committee on Latin America posted, “This program trains citizens to perpetuate race-based violence and further normalizes hate crimes that already devastate our communities.” Other groups expressed concerns that ICE could use these trained citizens to spy on their neighbors and alert ICE about anyone who may be suspicious.

I have to tell you, this is upsetting.  And for those who are already at-risk, it is terrifying. It added to my grief, but my grief led me to Deuteronomy 10—a word of hope and a word of challenge that was read this morning.

Deuteronomy 10:18 says clearly says that God “shows love to the foreigners living among you and gives them food and clothing.”  Hear that loud and clear: God loves foreigners. God provides for foreigners.  In Deuteronomy 10:19, God commands his people who were once oppressed foreigners themselves: You must love the foreigners too.  In Leviticus 19:34, God commanded the people, You must treat the foreigner as you would treat one who is native born. You must love them as yourself.  God does not tolerate the abuse and oppression of foreigners.  For God, there is no exclusion and no division. God rejects the language of “us” and “them.” God commands equal treatment. Jesus confirmed the command when he said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  TO CARE FOR THE FOREIGNER IS OBEDIENCE TO GOD.  TO ABUSE THE FOREIGNER IS ANTITHETICAL TO THE LOVE OF GOD AND IT IS A REJECTION OF THE COMMANDMENT OF CHRIST.

Hear this: God, the God of gods and the Lord of lords; God, the mighty and awesome God; God, the deliverer is our God. OUR GOD DOES NOT RECOGNIZE THE AUTHORITY OF ICE, AND OUR GOD WILL NOT BLESS A NATION THAT MISTREATS AND OPPRESSES THE FOREIGNER. 

Back to Deuteronomy.  God says in Deuteronomy 10:12, that God requires those who fear the Lord to live according to God’s commands.  Jesus said that obedience and love are connected. Our love for God is evidenced through obedience,  And Jesus promised a blessing: The father and I will love them and make our home with them.  (John 14:23) God’s blessing is contingent upon just treatment of those made in God’s image. God will bless the people who liberate the captives, defend the vulnerable, and protect the foreigner. But be sure of this: God will oppose the people who exalt themselves and use their power to exclude and abuse.

While this news is challenging to our status quo, put your faith and hope in God.  God will rise up to protect and provide for the foreigner.  Indeed, God is rising up!  God is demolishing the dividing walls built on the foundation of arrogance.

And God is doing it…literally.

On January 29 this year, shortly after the President stood along his dividing wall and praised its beauty and declared that it would stand forever, a strong Santa Ana wind blew over a section being constructed near San Diego, CA.

Then, on July 2, The Texas Tribune published pictures of another section of the wall along the Rio Grande that was completed just months ago that is on the verge of collapse.  The pictures reveal gaps forming under the foundation due to rain runoff and soil erosion. Engineers that have inspected the wall say that it will eventually fall into the Rio Grande.

Are these just coincidence or is the God of the whirlwind and the God of the storm making a statement?  Is the God of gods and the Lord of lords speaking out of the wind and the thunder reminding us that nations are not blessed when they trust in militarism?  Is the God of Liberation announcing to Presidents and Pharaohs and kings: “You can build, but I will tear down?  Be assured of this: If the wind can blow away walls; If the flood can erode the foundations, then the fire of God’s justice has the power to melt ICE.”

As God rises up, so God’s people who fear the Lord and love the Lord with heart, soul and strength and obey the command of the Lord, also rise up to resist evil.  We have the power to rise up and speak. We have the authority to tear down the strongholds and break the chains.

This year, our power is in the census—making sure that every person counts.  This year, our power is in the election—making sure that our vote speaks our voice. This year, we must vote God’s values. This year, we must vote God’s heart for the oppressed, the vulnerable and the foreigner.

Let the walls fall down! Let the walls that divide us fall down! Let the walls built by arrogance and white supremacy fall down! Let love destroy what hatred builds. Let love welcome and protect those whom God welcomes and loves.  Let us tear down the strongholds by the word of the Lord and the power of the Spirit, and let love grow and bear the fruit of the beloved community and peace.  Amen.

“Sins of the Fathers”

Message given by Pastor Bruce Ray on July 5, 2020

 

Yesterday, I received an email with the subject line: “In God we still trust: Books for the American Patriot.”  The email was from a Christian book seller promoting an Independence Day sale.

I’m a sucker for sales. I couldn’t help myself. I took the click bait to see what books were being offered. Among the titles on sale were “100 Bible Verses that Made America,” by Robert J. Morgan, and “God’s Promises for the American Patriot” by Jack Countryman. Yes. It’s his real name.  But then there was Stephen Mansfield’s book, “The Faith of Barak Obama” which was highly recommended by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. I was tempted. After all, it was 30% off. But I resisted.

But there was another book that captured my curiosity:  “The American Patriot’s Bible: The Word of God and the Shaping of America,” on sale for $22.99 – reduced from $44.99 – a 50% savings. It was cheaper than Amazon and Barnes and Noble!  Intrigued by the savings, I investigated further.

Here’s the synopsis:

“THE ONE BIBLE THAT SHOWS HOW ‘A LIGHT FROM ABOVE’ SHAPED OUR NATION. Never has a version of the Bible targeted the spiritual needs of those who love our country more than The American Patriot’s Bible. This extremely unique Bible shows how the history of the United States connects the people and events of the Bible to our lives in a modern world. The story of the United States is wonderfully woven into the teachings of the Bible and includes a beautiful full-color family record section, memorable images from our nation’s history and hundreds of enlightening articles which complement the New King James Version Bible text.”

 

I wondered who could possibly see the story of the US woven into the teachings of the Bible.  The Bible was edited by Dr. Richard Lee. I “Googled” him and discovered that he was the founding pastor of a 5,000-member church in suburban Atlanta – First Redeemer Church. He recently left the church to become President of “Here’s Hope America,” an Atlanta-based broadcasting company. His biography mentioned that he is frequently called, “America’s Patriot Pastor.”

That ended it for me.  I logged off.  “Patriot Pastor” sounds a lot like an oxymoron—like “jumbo shrimp” or “living dead” or “unbiased opinion.”  In my “unbiased opinion”, a patriot pastor is a fundamental piece of the problem in our country. The role of the patriot pastor is to be the State’s cheerleader, not the State’s conscience. The mission of the patriot pastor is to use the spiritual to support the structures of the political without any critical analysis. The goal of the patriot pastor is to preserve the status quo by wrapping the Bible in a flag. The patriot pastor has no interest in reforming the nation or transforming the systems. In the view of the patriot pastor, there is nothing wrong with the way things are. We’re fine.

Historically, it has been “patriot pastors” who have stood hand in hand with those promoting white supremacy. In 1861 (pre-civil war), Rev. James Henley Thornwell, a Harvard-educated scholar and pastor stood in the pulpit of the First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, S.C., and preached, “As long as that [African] race, in its comparative degradation, co-exists side by side with the white, bondage is its normal condition. In itself, slavery is not inconsistent with the will of God. The Scriptures not only fail to condemn [it]; they as distinctly sanction slavery as any other social condition of man.”

100 years later in 1961, it was “patriot pastor” Rev. Henry Lyon Jr., of the 3000-member Highland Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, AL, who gave the local Citizens’ Council a “Christian” perspective after the attack on the Freedom Riders in that city.  He said, “Ladies and gentlemen, for 15 years I have had the privilege of being pastor of a white Baptist church in this city. If we stand 100 years from now, it will still be a white church. I am a believer in a separation of the races, and I am none the less a Christian. If you want to get in a fight with the one that started separation of the races, then you come face to face with your God.” The crowd applauded enthusiastically.

The problem with “Patriot pastors” is that they empower “patriot parishioners” like the people of The Heights Church in Columbus, MS, who, on June 18, 2020, voted out their pastor, Scott Volland.  According to Volland, he was fired because he spoke out publicly in support of Black Lives Matter and the removal of Confederate monuments in Columbus.  He was told by his church, “your agenda will not work at this church,” and “you don’t speak for the church.”

This co-mingling of Christian faith and white nationalism has been with us from the beginning of the nation. It is our original sin.  Patriot pastors and patriot parishioners have justified not only slavery and segregation, but also the relocation and genocide of first peoples nations.  This sin has perpetuated racism, classism, homophobia, xenophobia, sexism, and every other ‘ism’ and ‘phobia’ that denies people full participation in life. This sin has justified the expansion of the American Empire into Latin America, the Caribbean and the Pacific. To this day, Puerto Rico remains under the thumb of US colonialism. This sin has justified coups and interference in democratic elections around the world. This sin has built walls and separated children from their parents and incarcerated innocent people. This sin has justified hate of those our political leaders identify as enemies of the state—even when they are brothers and sisters in Christ. This sin is present today when we hold up the Bible in one hand and an assault rifle in the other. This sin is a cancer that is eating away at our souls.

The church in America doesn’t need patriot pastors. It needs to return to the Shepherd of our Souls, the prophet and pastor, Jesus.  Pastor Jesus told Nicodemus that in order to see the kingdom of God, he had to be born again of water and spirit. Rebirth by the Spirit is only possible when the old life is left to waste away and die—something Nicodemus struggled with.  We know from 2nd Chronicles 7:14 that God rebirths a nation when it turns from wickedness through confession and repentance—something our nation—and the American church—has never been willing to do with our racist systems and policies. Instead we have chosen to cloak ourselves in an individualized gospel of internal change that makes few demands on our collective external life.

Like the people of Israel in Nehemiah’s time, this is a day to come together in sackcloth and confess the sin of our ancestors and our own sin of perpetuating it our generation.  The church must reject the poisonous drug of patriotic religion that weakens it and makes it a puppet of the status quo. The Church must instead drink the water of new life and rebirth by the Spirit to rise up as prophets of God’s kingdom.  Only by rebirth into a people of justice and liberation will the church be animated to act powerfully on behalf of the immigrant, the oppressed, the hungry, the fatherless and the widow, the poor and the captive.

This day of Independence is not a day to celebrate, for the American church is not free. It is held in bondage by the ancestral sin of white supremacy and racism.  It is a day to fast and pray, confess and repent of our wicked ways, and seek God’s forgiveness and healing.  Maybe God will hear from heaven and relent from bringing damnation on our nation and make us a nation that God can bless.

(Following the message, time was taken for collective confession and prayer.)