Category Archives: Politics

Some thoughts on expanding our moral imagination

I’ve written before about my admiration for the work of Reinhold Niebuhr, in, for example, the following posts:

  • The tension between pedagogical caution and honesty
  • Naïve idealism / bitter realism
  • Never Safe against Temptation
  • I was, then, as you might imagine, happy to hear President Obama allude to another Niebuhr quote in his recent speech in Tuscon, and so wrote up some thoughts about it for Jesus Needs New PR, along the way tossing in quotes from Wendell Berry, David Dark, and Frederick Buechner.

    In his address in Tucson on January 12th, for the memorial service remembering the victims of the gunman who opened fire at U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords open meeting, President Obama exhorted those gathered, along with a listening nation, to “use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together.” His choice of words – “expand our moral imaginations” – was deliberate. He has used that phrase at least once before in a speech, in his Nobel Lecture delivered in December of 2009, where he encouraged “the continued expansion of our moral imagination; an insistence that there is something irreducible that we all share.” In both cases, President Obama was undoubtedly referencing the work of the greatest American theologian of the 20th century, Reinhold Niebuhr – whose work has been an influence upon Obama – and his book Moral Man and Immoral Society, where he wrote the following: “The most perfect justice cannot be established if the moral imagination of the individual does not try to understand the needs, interests and feelings of his fellow human beings.”

    Read the full post here

    “Profoundly Disturbed on the Fourth of July.”

    At this point, it’s become a tradition. Almost every year since I first read this essay by Bob Hyatt back in 2003, I’ve posted it on my blog. As much as I’ve changed my views on different things in the intervening years, I still think he hits the nail on the head on this issue.

    Profoundly Disturbed on the Fourth of July:
    God, the Flag and the End of America

    Author’s note: This article was first published in the summer of 2003. …In this era of charged political debate, the evangelical church in America seems to have come down on the side of those who say dissent is somehow unpatriotic and that to be a Good Christian also means being a Good American. I again offer this article in the hopes that those now planning a good ol’ patriotic Fourth of July Service (on Sunday this year) will think twice… and perhaps instead of singing the Star Spangled Banner, will spend time praying for victims of war and terrorism alike, for our enemies and for peace in our world.

    Our call to worship that 4th of July weekend was This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land. After the Color Guard presented the flag, we stood, said the Pledge of Allegiance and then sang The Star-Spangled Banner. Our worship set included The Battle Hymn of the Republic, My Country ‘Tis of Thee, America the Beautiful and God Bless America. We even finished the service by asking the congregation to sing along with Lee Greenwood’s God Bless the USA (“I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free…”).

    And through the whole thing I couldn’t help but think how moving it was with flags draped from the ceiling, how well-done the music sounded with the drums beating a military cadence throughout… and how incredibly wrong that we were doing any of it.

    Read the rest of the essay here.

    “Thar’s “gobs of ’em'”

    You know how you do dumb things when you’re a kid? Here’s one stupid thing I did: had a congressman sign my Bible. Actually, he wasn’t a congressman yet, he was running his first campaign (on the promise he would serve a maximum of six terms-he’s now on his eighth), and he was the special guest a couple of times at a pancake breakfast for the kids and fathers of my homeschool group. He is now, unfortunately, running for governor, and was interviewed on MSNBC a couple weeks ago about Obama’s health care plan. Besides showing a fundamental lack of understanding about the argument over whether health care is a privilege or a right – he said “Listen, health care a privilege…For some people it’s a right, but for everyone, frankly, it’s not necessarily a right…” – he ranted about the “gobs” of illegal immigrants “getting our health care.” Here’s hoping he doesn’t make it past the primary and that we don’t have to hear much more from him. And I wish he had used a pencil when he signed “Zah Wap” in the front pages of my Bible.

    Naïve idealism / bitter realism

    As we enter a new era, I think it is worth noting our new President’s concise summary of the writings of American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. As I’ve mentioned here before, I read Niebuhr’s Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic a couple months ago and really liked his ideas and musings. New York Times conservative columnist David Brooks, also a fan of Niebuhr’s writings, asked Obama almost two years ago if he was familiar with Niebuhr. Obama immediately responded that Niebuhr is one of his favorite philosophers, and when asked what he takes away from his writing, said the following:

    “I take away,” Obama answered in a rush of words, “the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away … the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naïve idealism to bitter realism.”

    You can read Brooks’ NTY article here. And here’s looking forward to the next four years.

    Quote of the Week: Never Safe against Temptation

    “Americans are never safe against the temptation of claiming God too simply as the sanctifier of whatever we most fervently desire. This is vanity. To be effective in the world, we need a sense of modesty about the virtue, wisdom, and power available to us and a sense of contrition about the common human frailties and foibles which lie at the foundation of both the enemy’s demonry and our vanities.”

    ~ Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., paraphrasing Reinhold Niebuhr in the New York Times article, Forgetting Reinhold Niebuhr.

    Profoundly Disturbed on the Fourth of July

    Back in 2003, I came across an essay by Bob Hyatt, Profoundly Disturbed on the Fourth of July: God, the Flag and the End of America. Every year since then, I’ve looked it up and posted it on my blog (except for last year, when I ended up working a 20 hour day on the 4th). Here’s the beginning of his essay.

    Our call to worship that 4th of July weekend was This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land. After the Color Guard presented the flag, we stood, said the Pledge of Allegiance and then sang The Star-Spangled Banner. Our worship set included The Battle Hymn of the Republic, My Country ‘Tis of Thee, America the Beautiful and God Bless America. We even finished the service by asking the congregation to sing along with Lee Greenwood’s God Bless the USA (“I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free…”).

    And through the whole thing I couldn’t help but think how moving it was with flags draped from the ceiling, how well-done the music sounded with the drums beating a military cadence throughout… and how incredibly wrong that we were doing any of it.

    Read the rest of it here on opensourcetheology.net.

    What hope is there for democracy?

    After reading James Dobson’s comments on a speech Barak Obama gave back in 2006, I read Scot McKight’s blog post addressing a few of the ways in which Dobson distorted what Obama actually said.

    I hope you can listen to Dobson’s talk; listen to how he represents what Obama was saying. Listen carefully. Judge for yourself…

    Here’s my take: Dobson and his companion commentator routinely distorted what Obama was saying by rephrasing and capturing what he said in their own context and for their own agendas. For instance, Obama hypothesized (Dobson didn’t get this) what would happen if we moved all nonChristians out of our society. Even then, he was suggesting, we’d have diversity. Then, Obama asked, if we lived out the Bible which parts would we choose? Would it be Leviticus or Deuteronomy — and he brings up shell fish and stoning one’s son — or would it be the Sermon on the Mount, which Obama stated would be difficult for the Defense Dept to apply. Dobson and his guest got into how the OT laws aren’t for today.

    What they miss here is that Obama is talking about how to live in a pluralistic society…

    My big point is that Dobson is doing Christians, evangelical Christians, and the country a disservice in misrepresenting the intent of Obama’s comments.

    Look, this is not about my defense of Obama for President; I still don’t know who I will vote for. This is about public civility and discourse, and we’ll never get anywhere if we don’t represent the other person accurately.

    While reading Scot’s comments, I thought again of David Dark’s book, The Gospel According to America: A Meditation on a God-blessed, Christ-haunted Idea. The further I get into David’s book, the more I think it is essential reading in an election year. In the opening pages, David writes, “If we lose the ability to disagree without vilification, to refrain from slandering each other like poorly raised children, what hope is there for discussing real problems and real solutions intelligibly? What hope is there for democracy?”

    And a couple pages later, there’s this.

    In view of the reigning, obsessive haste to characterize a position as biased or agenda driven, I want to state at the outset that this work simply aspires to be a prayerful meditation upon odd times. In my conversations, I strive to keep people from too quickly jumping to a “So what you’re really saying is…” and myself from an angry “What I really meant was….” What seems to be required is an armistice in which we agree to refrain from assuming we know what’s been said before we’ve had time to listen to or think about it. A conversation void of willful misconstruals is indeed a rare thing, but it might also be a way of witnessing to the coming kingdom. We get to have different thought habits and communication skills from that which is modeled for us on the news networks of our entertainment conglomerates, and we get to be more interested in loving well than in putting someone in their place (whatever that might mean) or making sure everyone knows (through joke, bumper sticker, or mass e-mail) where we stand.
    Authentic witness, confession, and testimony might not be easily transmitted through the medium of television or easily discerned amid the slogans and mantras that characterize too much of our public discourse, but we have to try for it anyway as we attempt to make sense of our worlds. Careful thinking and listening might threaten entertainment networks that advertise themselves as news outlets while dreaming up new methods of branding our anger to better sell themselves to a fractured populace, but such care is essential for the general welfare of our American culture.

    How to hate a stranger

    One of the best songs I’ve heard recently on the radio is the Dixie Chicks Not Ready to Make Nice (which just received Grammy nominations for Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best Country Performance By a Duo or Group with Vocal) from their last album Taking the Long Way. In the second verse, they sing: It’s a sad sad story / that a mother will teach her daughter / that she ought to hate a perfect stranger. / And how in the world / can the words that I said / send somebody so over the edge / That they’d write me a letter / saying that I better shut up and sing / or my life will be over.

    Ken Morefield just posted a review at lookingcloser.org of Shut Up and Sing, the new documentary about the Dixie Chicks and what has happened since lead singer Natalie Maines said she was “embarrassed” that the President of the United States was from Texas. Ken calls it the the best film he’s seen this year.

    Here’s the closing paragraph from his review:

    … my moment of clarity while watching the film came not from something said by Natalie, Emily, or Martie, but by Bill O’ Reilly who opines that the Dixie Chicks just need to be “slapped around.” Strange, isn’t it, how that statement didn’t seem to offend anyone, how it’s not a big controversy to this day, and how nobody is threatening to boycott Fox News if they continue to play his work? Perhaps it’s just understood that his words were not meant literally. Perhaps his words were borne of frustration and strenuous disagreement. Perhaps he simply made a poor choice of words and ought to be allowed some slack for the occasional blunder given how much time he spends in front of a microphone. Perhaps advocating violence against women really isn’t thought to be as serious an offense in this day and age as expressing disdain for the President of the United States. Perhaps Toby Keith’s “boot in your ass” is not just America’s answer to other nations that don’t bow before it but also to its own citizens who don’t toe the ruling party line. Perhaps he really just meant what he said.

    All of a sudden, Natalie’s lyrics don’t seem quite so melodramatically exaggerated, do they?

    HT: Looking Closer

    Morality = Holiness?

    One of the many books I’m currently working my way through is Walter Brueggemann’s Hopeful Imagination: Prophetic Voices in Exile. After blogging recently about Christianity vs. Morality, Brueggemann’s caution against reducing God’s Holiness to mere moral categories caught my attention.

    The Holiness of God

    Ezekiel’s portrayal of Jerusalem is a tale of God’s holiness. The question I raise is how holiness is a ground for hope. We should not rush to hope, however. Ezekiel is not preoccupied with hope but with holiness. Perhaps hope will follow when holiness is rightly discerned.

    The holiness of God, as Ezekiel understands it, may be considered in two dimensions and then in two stages. The two dimensions of holiness are important to distinguish. First, it is possible, and attractive to us, to take God’s holiness as a cognate of righteousness, that is, as a category of ethical concern. This is not remote from Ezekiel, as in chapter 18. God’s holiness requires obedience to the commandments. Where there is disobedience, there will surely be punishment. But if the holiness of God is experienced only in disobedience, it is not a force for hope. Then holiness only permits the newness that is wrought by obedience, and the obedience available in Judah is not an adequate obedience. It is important that God’s holiness yield hope not measured by Judah’s obedience.

    More elementally, holiness is not an ethical but a theological category. It concerns not God’s will but God’s person. Or, if one may put it so, it concerns God’s Godness. Under this rubric one is more likely to speak about God’s unutterableness, God’s massiveness, rather than God’s fidelity. We are so preoccupied with God’s relatedness, God being for us, that we do not attend enough to God’s hiddenness, God’s weighty concern for God’s self, God’s own way in heaven and on earth. As pathos is Jeremiah’s critical insight into God, it is holiness which marks the God of Ezekiel. That, of course, is why Ezekiel is less congenial to us, because this God attends only to God’s own way in creation and is not noticeable for us. We must take care not to reduce and translate God’s holiness solely into moral categories, because that draws God too closely into the orbit of good and evil, which in the first instance does not really touch God. [emphasis added]

    This passage came to mind again today while reading Kurt W. Peterson’s excellent article at The Christian Century titled American idol: David Barton’s dream of a Christian nation. Toward the end of his article, he addresses this subject of Christianity = Morality.

    Examining Barton’s misunderstanding of the relation between Christianity and public life might help us develop a sounder conception of Christian citizenship.

    To begin with, Barton reduces Christianity to individual morality. Absent from his historical and theological writings is a full notion of God’s justice. For Barton, a righteous God is primarily concerned with abortion, divorce, public displays of the Ten Commandments and homosexual sex—not with poverty, racial oppression, environmental degradation or global hunger. Any notion of Christian citizenship must have a fuller concept than his of God’s dominion over all things and God’s desire to redeem all of creation.

    Read the full article here.