Sunday, October 23, 2022

Of Mercy and Banana Peels – Luke 18:9-14


I suspect that Jesus would have liked slapstick comedy. You know, the Laurel and Hardy sort of humor. Remember? Laurel will be eating a banana and throw the peel on the ground. And you know, as soon as you see Hardy walking up the road what’s going to happen. It’s the pratfall, the trip, the rug pulled out from under your feet, the banana peel in the way.

Jesus seems to have had a liking for that sort of thing, continually pulling the rug out from under our feet or tossing banana peels in our path. His parables are often like banana peels tossed on the pathway of our moral self-satisfaction.

This morning’s parable, in particular, is such a banana peel. It’s a familiar story – the Pharisee and the Tax Collector praying at the temple. In fact, it’s so familiar it has lost some of its edge for us. We already know who is the good guy and who the bad guy.

Jesus’ original hearers would not have been so sure. The Pharisees were not known as necessarily self-righteous or righteous in any other way than the way we all hope to be righteous. The Pharisees were part of movement of lay people who had a passion for seeking after God’s heart, for living according to the Torah – for living faithfully so that all Israel might be redeemed. If anything, Jesus had much in common with the Pharisees

Tax Collectors, on the other hand, everyone knew and no one liked. Even under the best of circumstances few people are excited when they see the tax man coming. But in a time when you are occupied and oppressed by a foreign nation, tax collectors are even worse. Not only are they taking some of your money to run the government, but the government they are taking money to run is a foreign occupier. Tax collectors would have been seen as the collaborators with the enemy, with the oppressor. The last thing you would want your son to grow up to be would be a tax collector.

And so in this parable we have the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. The Pharisee prays to God, recounting all the good things that he has done – good things that everybody would have recognized as good things. He fasts. He tithes. He is a regular worshipper. All the things that we hope to be ourselves.

Of course, as he is praying and recounting all the good things, he has one eye open to those around him. The Pharisee prays with peripheral vision, looking to either side at those who might not quite measure up to his standards: all the rogues, the prostitutes, thieves, adulterers, and, maybe even especially, this tax collector (we all know what sorts of people they are). The Pharisee is confident that he is on the right track, that he is dotting all the i’s and crossing all the t’s. Not like so many other people.

The Tax Collector, on the other hand, as everyone would have known, is all undotted i's and uncrossed t's. And he knows it. He prays the only honest prayer he can pray, “God have mercy on me, a sinner.”

The Pharisee is a moral, upright person. He is on the straight and narrow. But it is on that straight and narrow that Jesus tosses his banana peel, and the Pharisee who has every reason to think that he is right with God slips on the peel and falls. Meanwhile, the Tax Collector who has every reason to think that he is out of sorts with God goes home justified.

And I suspect those who heard Jesus tell this parable slipped on the banana peel as well. What kind of a morally uplifting story is that? Not the kind of story you want to tell your children. They might take it seriously. The just person is condemned and the contemptible person is justified? Jesus doesn’t even suggest that the Tax Collector went home to live differently. He only throws himself on God’s mercy.

The point is not that being a tax collecting collaborator is a matter of indifference to Jesus. The point is that the Pharisee is in as much need of God’s mercy as is the Tax Collector. As are we all. And, of course, we all get that now. Don’t we? Don’t we?

There is a third person implied in this parable. This person is praying as well, and watching both the Pharisee and the tax collector. We are the third person. If we’re not careful, there is a banana peel in our path as well. How often do we see this parable and say, “Thank you, God, that I am not self-righteous, like that Pharisee"?

We all slip on the banana peel sooner or later. We measure ourselves against others. Whether it is the righteous and the unrighteous, the holy or the unholy, the mature or the immature, the sophisticated or the unsophisticated, the just and the unjust.We all fall into the trap of keeping score. Thank God I am not like that liberal. Thank God I am not like that conservative.Thank God I am not like that fundamentalist. One way or another, we are usually pretty sure that we are the ones who get it. We are the ones who are superior. We are the ones who are on the side of the angels.

Again and again Jesus tosses a banana peel on our path to moral superiority, our own exalted opinion of ourselves. We are reminded that we don’t know as much as we think we do. We are reminded that we are not as good as we like to think we are. We are reminded that our perspective is not God’s. We are reminded that we often slip into our own version of the Pharisee in this parable. We slip and land on our moral backsides.

By God's grace we are humbled and reminded, yet again, that our only honest prayer is, “God, have mercy on me a sinner.” In fact, the only prayer that is anything other than stammering, and the only deed that is anything other than stumbling, is the one that begins and ends with, “Have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Have heard the story of the man who dies and goes to the Pearly Gates where he is met by St. Peter?

Peter says, “Before you get in, you have to pass this little test. You have to make sure you have scored enough points to get in. You have to get one hundred points.”

The man thinks that should not be too hard because he has, after all, led a very good life. So he says to St. Peter, “Well, first of all, I was married for 57 years to one woman and was faithful from the very beginning until the very end.

Peter says, “That’s impressive. Three points.”

Then the man says, “Well, I also was a regular at church, Sunday in and Sunday out."

Peter gives him another point.

The man tries again, “I tithed. I gave 10% of everything I earned to the church and to the poor

Peter says, “Well, good for you. That’s another three points.”

“Did you know that I also volunteered for the youth group for five years? Do you know how many lock-ins that is!?”

“Four points.”

“I was politically active and always voted for the right candidate”

“Another point.”

The points are not adding up very fast. The man begins to despair. He says, “Well, how about this?” “What about that?” But his score remains distressingly low.

Finally, the man beats his breast in despair and cries out, “At this rate the only way that I’ll get into Heaven is by the mercy of God!”

Peter smiles and says “One hundred points!”

The first word for Christians is grace The last word for Christians is grace; and every day, along the way, is grace, grace, grace.

That’s not good news for the Pharisee in us who wants to keep score. It is very good news for the Tax Collector in us who can only pray,

“God have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Watch out for those banana peels.

Monday, August 15, 2022

Lambeth Conference Conversations, Part 3 (sometimes it was about sex & sexuality)

The motto for the 15th Lambeth conference was “God’s Church for God’s World.” As I mentioned in the last post, the bishops gathered talked about many things concerning both the church and the world at this moment in history. One of those topics was Human Dignity, something that seems to be undermined or denied on many fronts, directly and indirectly, deliberately and “accidentally” as the side-effect of developing technologies. It was the document on this topic, made public just a week before we arrived at Canterbury for the Conference, that generated considerable controversy. In that initial document was inserted an affirmation of a resolution passed at the Lambeth Conference in 1998 asserting that the bishops gathered at that Conference “cannot advise the legitimising or blessing of same sex unions nor ordaining those involved in same gender unions.”  It remains unclear how that got included in the document or by whom. In any event, there was immediate pushback from several of the provinces in the Anglican Communion – Scotland, Wales, the Episcopal Church, Brazil. The document was reworked to state,

Prejudice on the basis of gender or sexuality threatens human dignity. Given Anglican polity, and especially the autonomy of Provinces, there is disagreement and a plurality of views on the relationship between human dignity and human sexuality. Yet, we experience the safeguarding of dignity in deepening dialogue. It is the mind of the Anglican Communion as a whole that “all baptised, believing and faithful persons, regardless of sexual orientation are full members of the Body of Christ” and to be welcomed, cared for, and treated with respect (I.10, 1998). Many Provinces continue to affirm that same gender marriage is not permissible. Lambeth Resolution I.10 (1998) states that the “legitimizing or blessing of same sex unions” cannot be advised. Other Provinces have blessed and welcomed same sex union/marriage after careful theological reflection and a process of reception. As Bishops we remain committed to listening and walking together to the maximum possible degree, despite our deep disagreement on these issues.

This, of course, did not make everyone happy, but it did describe the current reality of the Anglican Communion. And this seems a particularly significant statement, “Given Anglican polity, and especially the autonomy of Provinces, there is disagreement and a plurality of views on the relationship between human dignity and human sexuality.”

The Human Dignity document had much that was good and important that was good in it. But all the attention went to this one paragraph. Which was pretty much the opposite of how the rest of the Lambeth Conference went. Though the disagreement about human sexuality was in the air, most conversations, formal and informal were about other concerns. But, I did have some conversations in which the topic came up opr in which I brought it up. Here are some gleanings from those conversations:

·       On the bus from Heathrow to Canterbury, a bishop from an African province expressed impatience with those provinces who chose not to come (Nigeria, Uganda, Rwanda) and indicated that he does not approve of their approach. To the Communion. He did not say anything about his own views regarding human sexuality but criticized the idea of boycotting and neglecting the fellowship of the Lambeth conference.

·       I had a long conversation with a South Sudanese bishop who I know well about the disagreements regarding sexuality in which it was clear that our disagreements on this are profound and deep. I pointed out that he considered me to be faithful, but I had come to a different conclusion. Among other things, I also observed that the church in South Sudan ordains women and has a woman bishop. Other provinces do not, and many, with whom he otherwise agreed, think that that is unbiblical as they interpret the scriptures. So, it is possible for faithful people to read the Bible seriously and come to different conclusions. He did not accept the analogy and asserted that you cannot compare the two. It was also clear that this was connected in his mind with polygamy which is still common in South Sudan. Still, he noted his affection for a gay bishop he knows in spite of his conviction that that bishop is “living in sin.”

·       I had a similar conversation with another South Sudanese bishop who was equally clear that he did not see much room for disagreeing on how to faithfully understand same-sex marriage. I again explained how my own thinking had changed. We did not exactly “agree to disagree” but we remained on friendly terms.

·       A Sudanese bishop observed that the people on the ground in the villages of his province cannot wrap their heads around the idle of same-sex relationships. It is culturally foreign. He also noted that his church exists in a tenuous position under an oppressive government shaped by a radical version of Islam. The threat of violence and perhaps being declared an illegal organization are not idle concerns for them. He and other Sudanese bishops (and other bishops from particular provinces) were concerned about the ramifications and potential backlash their people would face back home depending how things went at the Conference.

·       An American bishop observed that part of our dilemma is that we hear from the bishops of some provinces that being associated too closely with those provinces that celebrate same-sex marriage and allow for those who are so married to be ordained puts their people and churches at real risk. But GLBT+ people in America and elsewhere also feel threatened. The concerns of both are real.

·       Most Sudanese and South Sudanese bishops and perhaps some others did not receive communion with the rest of us as a matter of conscience which was painful. But they remained otherwise engaged. This was disappointing and frustrating. In one conversation a Kenyan bishop said that this was no way to treat the holy Sacrament. A South Sudanese bishop replied that his archbishop had told him to. It is also clear that there is a range of views of Holy Communion ranging from a more catholic, “high” understanding, to a more Protestant, “low” understanding (just another of the important things about which we disagree in the Anglican Communion).

·       At our formal session on Human Dignity, the Archbishop of Canterbury read his letter to the bishops of the Anglican Communion (Here). He elaborated on that letter in what I believe to brilliant and significant remarks (found here). The letter and his remarks charted a course for a Communion marked by unity and plurality, a Communion of provinces which are autonomous, yet interdependent. He affirmed that there is a plurality of understanding of human sexuality faithfully arrived at. Toward the end of his remarks, he made this significant statement, “I am very conscious that the Archbishop of Canterbury is to be a focus of unity and is an Instrument of Communion. That is a priority. Truth and unity must be held together, but Church history also says that this sometimes takes a very long time to reach a point where different teaching is rejected or received. I neither have, nor do I seek, the authority to discipline or exclude a church of the Anglican Communion. I will not do so.”

·       When we formally discussed the issue in our small group conversations, a South Sudanese bishop said, “God forbid that hate would come from my heart, but I hold with the tradition.” He also observed that the majority of the Anglican Communion holds a traditional view on human sexuality. Then he paused and noted reflectively, “But, Elijah was in the minority. . .” He trailed off, leaving that a thought to be pondered.

In that same small group conversation, I explained briefly how I had come to change my mind on the topic. 

One of the South Sudanese bishops wondered, “At what point do we decide a disagreement is too deep and too basic to maintain communion?”

·       A Tanzanian bishop, as we talked over a meal, said that he and others need to do their homework, looking at the biblical and biological arguments regarding human sexuality before judging the conclusions to which others have arrived. He noted that some Tanzanian bishops opted not to come to the Lambeth Conference, but he believes most bishops of that province are where he is.

·       A bishop from the Indian subcontinent said that he believed that in 10 years the disagreement about sexuality will be like that of the ordination of women.

·       After the session in which the Archbishop of Canterbury read his letter and we discussed sexuality in our small groups, a bishop from the Province of Western Africa told me that this Lambeth Conference was the defeat of those (like the leaders of ACNA and GAFCON) who have wanted the Communion to be divided because of the disagreements regarding human sexuality. It had become clear that however broad or deep the disagreement is, the majority of bishops in the Anglican Communion were committed to remaining in communion (even if to varying degrees). He said that he thought those who were choosing to set themselves apart from the majority of the Communion should change their name to something other than Anglican. He also noted that he knew there were bishops from the provinces that boycotted this Lambeth Conference – Nigeria, Uganda, Rwanda – would have liked to come but were forbidden to do so by their archbishops.

I knew in my head that there was considerable diversity in Africa and the rest of what is commonly called the Global South. But the conversations I had brought that diversity home. No one person or entity speaks the “Global South” or even for all those who by conviction do not think Same-sex relationships can be blessed. The Anglican Communion is much more complex than that. It also became more clear to me than I might have thought before that it would be a mistake to underestimate the strength of the bonds of affection that exist in the Anglican Communion and our connection to the See of Canterbury.


Lambeth Conference Conversations, Part 1 (it was not all about sex)

Lambeth Conference Conversations, Part 2 (it was not all about sex)

Thursday, August 11, 2022

Lambeth Conference Conversations, Part 2 (it was not all about sex)

Archbishop Justin Welby's 3rd Plenary Address

“The heart of the church is deeply relational”

– Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury

You might think from some of the reporting that the Lambeth Conference which ended last Sunday was preoccupied with disagreements and debates about human sexuality. That is actually far from the case. Aside from a lot of worship, we formally engaged things like Evangelism & Mission, Discipleship, Climate Change, Interfaith Relations, and better addressing the scandal of abuse when it happens in the church and committing to preventing it. Informally, the conversations were mostly about these and other issues. Here are more gleanings from conversations I had while at the Lambeth Conference:

·       There was an announcement at our first gathering letting us know that the water from all the taps at the university where we were staying had drinkable water. It was a reminder that many in the world cannot take clean water for granted, even from the faucets in their homes when they have them. It also reminded me of the scandal it is that it is not true for everyone in America, not least in places like Flint, Michigan.

·       A bishop of Bangladesh said there are fewer legal restraints on the church than in some other places, but his church has had to be careful not to make too many converts. Converts’ families (Muslim or Hindu) often abandon them, leaving them needing support from the church which is committed to doing so but is already strained financially and otherwise.

The wife of this bishop is a native of India who splits her time between India and Bangladesh. She has worked for an aid organization. She spoke of the frustration when she is in Bangladesh of having her clothing choices challenged in public. 

They also spoke of the devastating effects climate change is having on their country, e.g., more and worse storms, flooding, etc. 

This was a recurring theme in conversations with bishops from around the world. Those of island nations spoke of rising sea levels that lead to shrinking islands. Others spoke of less reliable rainfall and drought. Many spoke of increasing number of storms of increasing severity. Others, of an increase of damaging wildfires. This is one of the issues we discussed formally and about which we issued a call to action.

·       When, in our Bible study, we looked at the relationship of suffering and rejoicing, our South Sudanese bishops spoke of dancing and singing in refugee camps with tears of grief while still rejoicing in their faith in God and hope for the future.

·       We heard of the church in Jerusalem and the Middle East which runs schools and hospitals for anyone regardless of their religion.

·       We heard from a bishop of the Church of England who was born in Iran. Her father was an Iranian who had converted from Islam and married and English woman. He became the Anglican Bishop of Iran for nearly 30 years. She has warm memories of her Muslim grandfather, “a godly man”. After the Islamic Revolution there were threats and an assassination attempt against her father. Then, her brother was assassinated, and the family went into exile in England. In Iran, today, the church is not officially acknowledged to exist and Christians are considered apostates. There is currently no bishop of Iran. But the church does exist and Christians living under threat are none the less able to exercise hospitality and generosity.

·       Interfaith relations was one of the topics we formally discussed. While acknowledging the hard realities that some live with in countries where a particular version of radical Islam prevails, we heard stories of cooperation between Christians and Muslims in Kenya and elsewhere. The Archbishop of Alexandria, “My neighbor’s faith and mine do not simply coexist, they interact and corelate.” And in India, the various faith’s cooperated in addressing Covid-19.

·       We heard the story of a mechanic who contacted his local Church of England parish church to enquire about being baptized. A man who needed some work on his car had spoken to him about Jesus and faith and he wanted to be baptized. It turns out, unbeknown to the mechanic, that it had been the bishop who needed some car work. Evangelism and Mission were other topics we discussed formally.

A bishop of South Sudan and I discussed the challenges of forming disciples in our relative contexts. I spoke of complacency, the plethora of distractions, and a wariness of commitment. He spoke of the lack of Bibles and the reality that concerns about food and fuel for cooking were uppermost in peoples’ minds.

·       We heard from a bishop of New Zealand about the growth of congregations of young people based on discipleship in small groups of shared life, worship, and mission. Discipleship was another topic we formally discussed.

·       In several conversations with bishops from South Sudan to Australia, it was clear how closely the rest of the world pays attention to American politics. Several expressed concern.

·       In a conversation with a bishop of England, we both noted the negative phenomenon of shrinking and aging populations in many of our small towns and villages as more and more people move to urban centers. We compared the negative effects of this on our communities. He observed that in many English villages the parish church is the last remaining institution.

·       The wife of a Scottish bishop spoke of her work as a visiting nurse to expectant and new mothers for the National Health Service. The NHS of Scotland guarantees at least one prenatal visit and at least 11 visits in the first five years after the child’s birth. This is a proactive, prolife policy it seems to me.

Previous: Lambeth Conversations, Part 1 (it was not all about sex) 

Next: Lambeth Conversations, Part 3 (some of it was about sex)

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Lambeth Conversations, Part 1 (it was not all about sex)

My Lambeth Conference Bible Study Group

The 2022 Lambeth Conference ended this past Sunday. I am still putting together my thoughts for a more general assessment. But here are some gleanings from conversations I had with other bishops from around the Anglican Communion. Interactions like these were as much as anything what the Lambeth Conference was about.

·       A bishop of the Church of North India told me of the challenges of being a church in the context of Hindu nationalism. When they start a new church, for example, they have to be careful not to call it a church so they call them community centers. There are also legal restrictions on evangelism and conversion.

·       From indigenous Canadian bishops, two women, one man, I heard stories of despair and suicide, especially among young people.

·       At the retreat before the Lambeth Conference formally began, we were invited to share a story of suffering in our life with our neighbor. I was sitting next to a South Sudanese bishop. We introduced ourselves. I asked if he had anything he wanted to share. He did. His mother and two of his brothers were killed last month in a raid that was part of a conflict between herders and agriculturalists. His mother's home was burned. He has been unbale to bury these family members. Rather than share whatever I might have offered as an example of personal suffering, I prayed and laid hands on this brother.

·       In our Bible study, the question was asked why it is hard to love others. We might have talked about how some personalities are hard to love or disagreements about this or that. But a South Sudanese bishop offered, “Maybe this person killed your mother or your father. How can you love them? But with God’s help people do when the person confesses and repents." This was not a theoretical statement.

·       Another question in Bible study was what the church might do in your context that would get people’s attention and attract them. Again, one of the South Sudanese bishops (a different one) said, “In the church we belong to one another and support and encourage one another. For example, maybe your mother or father has died and you are left an orphan and unable to bury them on your own. The church helps you with the funeral and supports you in your grief.

·       Many bishops of South Sudan are unable to live in their dioceses full time due to instability, violence, and lack of infrastructure. So, they live elsewhere and visit as they can. One bishop in my Bible study is only 36. When I asked him how he became a bishop so young, he simply said there was no one else in the area with theological training. His diocese has been devasted by civil war – schools, health centers, and churches destroyed.

The wife and baby daughter of this young bishop in South Sudan left the Lambeth Conference to return to a refugee camp in Uganda. The bishop divides his time between living and ministering to his people in the camp and crossing the border to minister to those who remain in his diocese.

That same young bishop spoke of negotiating with rebel leaders who control part of his diocese so he could cross into “their” territory to serve the people.

The challenges many of these bishops and the people in their dioceses face are hard to fathom. Their focus is on the most basic of needs and they have almost no resources or infrastructure to address them.

·       Another bishop of South Sudan talked about the problem of women being illtreated and disrespected. There need to be more women leaders, including more priests and bishops, he said. There is one woman bishop in South Sudan, but he thinks there should be more.

·       Another South Sudanese bishop shared that his diocese is growing by 10% a year and his concern is that he cannot train leaders fast enough.

·       I had a conversation with a bishop of Kenya whose diocese is mostly rural and agricultural and borders Lake Victoria. We talked about how much our dioceses are alike.

There is so much hardship and suffering in the world. And the church in the thick of it supporting and encouraging as it can. And preaching the gospel. Every bishop I have spoken to has spoken of the goodness of God and they express a generosity of spirit in spite of all the challenges they face.


Lambeth Conversations, Part 2 (it was not all about sex)

Lambeth Conversations, Part 3 (sometimes it was about sex & sexuality)

See also my reflections going into the Lambeth Conference:

Lambeth Conference 2022

Sunday, July 24, 2022

Lambeth Conference, 2022

Canterbury Cathedral

Lambeth Conference, 2022

Leslie and I are on our way England to participate in the Lambeth Conference in Canterbury. The Lambeth Conference is a gathering of the bishops of the Anglican Communion which is made up of 41 provinces around the world of which the Episcopal Church is one. It has been held approximately every 10 years since the first one in 1867. Due to a covid delay and other things it has been 14 years since the last one.

I am excited to be a part of this. The connectedness, the sense of belonging to something bigger – the catholicity – of the Anglican Communion is one of the things that drew me to the Episcopal Church. The Anglican Communion is a reminder that to be a Christian is not an individual affair. It is to be a member of the body of Christ, the church. It is to be bound to allegiances that transcend national boundaries as well as other loyalties. Episcopalians in Wisconsin are fundamentally united to members of the Anglican Communion around the globe by a common heritage of faith, by bonds of affection and by the water of baptism which is thicker than blood. We belong to one another. The gathering of bishops at the Lambeth Conference is a sign of that belonging.

What we will be up to

We will be stayin g at Kent University in Canterbury. There will be a retreat for the first couple of days. The Conference itself will include worship at Canterbury Cathedral, prayer, small group Bible Study (Leslie and I have each been asked to be facilitators of our respective groups), connecting through informal and formal conversations and listening, discussing issues that face the church and the world. The focus will be on exploring what it means to be ‘God’s Church for God’s World’ in the decade ahead. Bishops will discuss several themes that are to result in a set of “Lambeth Calls”. Those themes are:

  Mission and Evangelism


  Safe Church

  Environment and Sustainable Development

  Christian Unity

  Inter-faith Relations

  Anglican Identity

  Human Dignity



We received the drafts of these calls last week. I expect nearly all of them will receive near unanimous affirmation. Controversially, the draft Lambeth Call on Human Dignity includes the suggestion that we vote on affirming Lambeth 1:10 – a resolution from Lambeth 1998 that says Christian marriage is only between a man and a woman. This is a surprise to many of us. We certainly expected to have conversations about a wide range of issues and it is not surprising that this might be a topic of discussion. But voting on it strikes many of us as problematic.

It should be no surprise that many bishops will want to affirm the historic understanding of marriage and this might well be a majority. On the one hand, this would not be news. We know that the position the Episcopal Church and others have come to that that historic understanding can be faithfully expanded to include same-gender marriages is still a “minority report” within the Anglican Communion.

But such a declaration of a majority will do nothing to lessen the threat to the lives and flourishing of LGBTQ people who are members of every province of the Communion. It may well exacerbate it. Therefore, many bishops have expressed concern and are committed to finding a different way. I am committed to finding a different way.

I expect that if there is a “vote” it will reveal that the majority of bishops believe what is generally referred to as the traditional view. But I also expect it will reveal that that majority is not overwhelming, and we are far from one mind. A vote will not change the reality in the Episcopal Church and other provinces like Brazil, Mexico, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Korea, Scotland, Wales that have come to similar conclusions. It will not change the trajectory of other provinces, including the Church of England. In fact, there is a diversity of views on this in every province. I hope that before there is a vote, the language is amended to better represent that diversity of conviction and practice in our Communion.

What does this mean for us?

The Anglican Communion is not like the Roman Catholic Church. The Archbishop of Canterbury is not the Anglican pope. The office is more like Patriarch of Constantinople in the Eastern Orthodox Churches– respected and taken seriously but with no direct authority beyond the Province of the Church of England. Similarly, the Lambeth Conference was never meant to be an authoritative body.

What the bishops affirm together is not insignificant, and we will want to take each affirmation seriously. But nothing the bishops say there will be binding on every province. The dioceses of Wisconsin, including Fond du Lac and Eau Claire have made it clear that LGBTQ people are welcome in our congregations, most of which have declared themselves prepared to celebrate same-sex marriages. It will also not change the fact that we will continue to recognize that many of our members disagree with that position. They, too, are welcome. Nor will it change the fact that we will continue to strive to engage one another with honesty, charity, generosity, and holy curiosity.

That posture of honesty, charity, generosity, and holy curiosity is what Leslie and I will be adopting and practicing while we are at the Lambeth Conference. Perhaps it is fitting that the bishops and spouses will be studying 1 Peter together which includes one of my favorite lines from the Bible, “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence” (1 Peter 3:15-16).

Communion is hard

To be a Christian is to be called together as members of one another in the body of Christ. The body that is the Anglican Communion is made of a wide variety of people from almost every continent with different theological convictions and a profound diversity of cultural and political contexts. That can make belonging to one another challenging. But it is also beautiful. And it points to God's desire that human diversity will be lived as a rich, harmoniuos solidarity. Leslie and I look forward to experiencing a slice of it at the Lambeth Conference.

Wednesday, June 1, 2022

Guns, Myths, Redemption & Conversion


Statue of Mars, Hotel National des Invalides, Paris

The conversion to Christianity of European peoples with strong warrior cultures was slow and convoluted. The hold on the imagination shaped by the pagan mythology of the warrior hero was strong. Myths die hard because myths give meaning. Perhaps the conversion was never complete in the first place.

Those who say America does not have a gun problem, but a sin problem are actually onto something. We do have a sin problem. We have a sinful imagination problem. A sinful myth problem. What those who say we have a sin problem, not a gun problem miss is that guns and our infatuation with guns and the potential violence they represent are a manifestation of the Sin at the heart our imagination/mythology. We are in the thrall of the notion of redemptive violence, i.e., violence is normal, in some situations good, and often necessary to “save the day”. Violence is redemptive and salvific. It presumes that some people who resort to violence are simply “good”. Most of our fictional heroes, from Westerns to superheroes, resort to it and we glory in it. We recount it in our history. It pervades our entertainment. It excuses vigilantism. I admit that I, too, am fascinated by aspects of the mythology of the warrior. I have a sin problem.

I am referring to "myth" here not a something that some people believe that is untrue though that is certainly the case for much that is part of the myth of redemptive violence. What I mean by myth is a narrative or set of narratives, some more or less historical, some fictional, that are are told and retold to make sense of our lives and the world in which we live. More than just stories, myths are symbolic. They give our lives meaning and shape our imaginations and our sense of right and wrong. Through our myth(s) we understand who we are and how the world works. This is partly what C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien meant when they referred to Christianity as the "true myth".

The myth of redemptive violence is not the true myth. It is but a continuation of the old pagan myth of the violent warrior hero who slays the enemy. It is a bloody redemption. But not the blood of the cross. The myth of redemptive violence is at odds with the truth myth of redemptive sacrifice and love we see in Jesus. But it remains compelling. It continues to shape our imaginations even of Christians. We might go to church. We give thanks that Jesus died so we don't have to go to Hell. But in our heart of hearts we often still worship the quite different god whose name is Ares, Mars, Tyr, etc. Do we really want a savior who looks like Jesus or one like Beowulf or John Wayne or Dirty Harry or Batman? When we imagine ourselves as martyrs in the way of Jesus or warriors- in the way of the warrior? The pagan myth of redemptive violence shapes our imagination and how we engage the world. And it persists.

This is partly due to a bad or at least an incomplete theology of the cross and redemption, i.e., Jesus died only to deliver us from Hell, from God's vengeance. That theology is too narrow to account for the fullness of the witness of scripture and tradition. It also leaves the myth of redemptive violence unchallenged. It misses the point that in the death and resurrection of Jesus Death itself is defeated and with it the fear of Death. If Death itself is defeated in the death of Christ, then protecting ourselves from Death, whether our ultimate physical death or all the little deaths along the way, is unnecessary. Even more, it is an unfaithful witness to what Christ has accomplished. It reveals a lack of trust in the resurrection. Because Death is defeated, we are free from fear and free to imitate Christ, free to turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it (Psalm 34:14) with non-defensive, non-retaliative patience, gentleness, generosity, hospitality, forgiveness, etc. That is where Christian conversion takes us. It is a reordering of our myths, our imagination, our values, our behavior. Otherwise, our conversion is incomplete.

We have a sin problem. But another problem with the myth of redemptive violence is that it does not take sin seriously enough. In fact, it mostly denies that the one exercising redemptive violence on our behalf is all that much of a sinner in any radical sense. In our fantasies, that includes ourselves potentially being the violent savior hero. Either way the hero, however flawed, is the good guy and the enemy is clearly the bad guy. Christianity, though, asserts that even if we get our theology right and are as close to Jesus as we can be and rejoice in whatever healing and forgiveness we have experienced, we will still be infected with sin. This is true even if we are as sure as we can be that our cause is just. Our hearts are still prone to selfishness, greed, deceit (not least, self-deceit), and violence. Our hearts. My heart. Your heart. Not just the “bad” guys. If we believe in sin at all, we believe it is pervasive and universal. There are no “good” guys. Even the best of us is prone to being a bad guy at crunch time. We all need redemption. We all need conversion.

And so, the myth of redemptive violence makes it hard to see the need for repentance and conversion. It allows us to presume that our violence is good and our cause is always just, simply because they are ours. It makes it easy to assume that our security or freedom are all that matters. It excuses, even celebrates, vengeance. It allows us to pretend that we do not belong to one another – even to our enemies. It creates a social environment in which violence is acceptable, to be expected even. It allows us to presume our own innocence. It minimizes or ignores the awesome gravity of the taking of any human life – the very image of God. It minimizes or ignores the savagery, suffering, and trauma inherent in all violence and experienced on all sides. It excuses or pardons whatever "excesses" of violence are committed by our hero. Or denies them. It suggests that some people's suffering and trauma don't matter as much. Or even that they don't really count as people on the same level as us.

And that is where it really gets hard for us. Because the myth of redemptive violence is often interwoven into the way we like to imagine our nation's history. And we are resistant to acknowledge sin and the need of repentance there. But there is nothing redemptive about the violent taking of the land and decimation of native peoples. Or the violence of slavery and racism. Or the violence against minorities and new immigrants. And given the pervasiveness of sin it would hard to argue, from Christian perspective, that every war any country including America has fought has qualified as a just war. Fundamental to Christianity is self-reflection, confession, and repentance. Such things are anathema to the pagan myth of redemptive violence.

It might be, given our broken and sinful humanity, that under certain prescribed and circumscribed circumstances a degree of violence as a last resort is necessary and therefore just. But that violence is reserved for those trained and authorized to exercise it under the law and with discipline and dispassion (there are reason the rest of us are called civilians). We are grateful for their service. Even so, that use of violence the is a concession to tragic human reality shaped by Sin and not something – for Christians, anyway – to bless, revel in, or glorify.

Still, we have a sizable portion of our fellow citizens – in the political society of the Church as well as the political society beyond – who are enchanted by the mythology/theology of redemptive violence and vengeance. That myth won't just go away. Myths die hard because they give meaning. Attacking them head on might not be the most effective strategy. We need to advocate for reform of our gun laws and ensure that weapons are in fact "well regulated". But the problem that needs addressing is much deeper. It goes to the heart of what makes so many think that the idea that sinful unregulated civilians should possess weapons designed to kill humans is a good one. Our hearts and imaginations need healing. The myth of redemptive violence needs to be addressed. And we need to help each other as we wean ourselves from it. It is about conversion.

See also Gun Violence. Again . . .

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Gun Violence. Again . . .


Melancholy Sculpture by Albert Gy├Ârgy in Lake Geneva, Switzerland

On a January morning in 1989, I was with my students in the school library at Franklin High School in Stockton, CA. The librarian came to me looking distressed, her face pale. What school do you daughters attend? she asked in a hushed voice. I told her. She looked relieved. I asked her why? Because there had been a shooting at one of the other elementary schools in town. Eventually we learned that a shooter had killed five schoolchildren and wounded 31 other children and one teacher. The students were mostly of Southeast Asian descent. The killer killed himself as well. My initial relief that it was not my daughters’ school did not alter my outrage and grief in response to this senseless and horrific act. It seemed almost unprecedented at the time. Unimaginable. Sadly, scandalously, it no longer does. I was reminded of that awful day again yesterday with the news of yet another school shooting, this time in Uvalde, Texas. Again. After being reminded of it again, and again, and again in the years since. And again.

I am heartbroken and outraged at yet another mass murder in this country, this time at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. So far, we know 19 children and two adults were killed. And this just two weeks after the mass killing of people at a grocery store in Buffalo. And it is not just mass shootings. Gun violence in our major cities and elsewhere is epidemic. All of this is tragic. It points to a disease infecting our society. And our own hearts.

We pray for those who were killed and those who mourn. We know that Jesus, who entered into the heart of our violent world on the cross, is present in the heart of this horror. We also know that Jesus calls us to something different.

At the very beginning of the Gospel story, in Luke 1:79 and 2:14, we hear that Jesus, and the way of Jesus, are about peace. At his death on the cross, he prayed forgiveness for his killers (Luke 23:34). Between these bookends, Jesus, in his words and actions, demonstrates a consistent pattern of peace (while being anything but passive). He declared that his peace is different from this world’s (John 14:27). From the beginning to the end and in-between Jesus demonstrated a consistent pattern of peace and rejection of violence.

For Jesus and his followers, it is not just about the weapons; it is about the heart and the imagination. It is about reorienting our hearts and imaginations away from a fascination with violence and from violent solutions to violence. The way of Jesus is a pattern at odds with the pattern of this world with its violence and vengeance and self/group-preservation along with selfishness, fear, deceit, and greed which are not unrelated. This is the pattern of the world the Apostle Paul warns us not to conform to in Romans 12. He goes on to outline the same pattern as Jesus. Those who would be his disciples must embrace a peace different from this world’s – in their hearts and imaginations, in their words and actions.

The Church has decided that this does not mean absolute pacifism. But it does mean cultivating a bias for nonviolence. It means being more suspicious of the use of violence than is the worldly mindset. It means a determination to be peacemakers. It means it is not consistent with the pattern of Jesus to endorse the easy proliferation of firearms, especially those designed specifically for war. Society has a stake in assuring that weapons, especially weapons of war, are “well regulated”.

As someone who has hunted with a gun, even since becoming a bishop, I am not interested in banning all guns But, I am a member of Bishops Against Gun Violence. With my fellow bishops, I endorse common sense gun safety measures which polls consistently show enjoy the support of gun owners and non-gun owners alike, such as

·       Handgun purchaser licensing

·       Background checks on all gun purchasers

·       Restrictions on gun ownership by domestic abusers

·       Classification of gun trafficking as a federal crime

·       Encouragement for the development of “smart gun” technology

·       Federal funding for research into gun violence prevention strategies

·       Safe storage of firearms

We need to find a different way. Christians are in fact called to a different way, the way of Jesus with its pattern of peace and peacemaking. Let’s be about that way. Let’s advocate for those things that address our disease and make for a healthier, less violent society. We can reduce the number of mass shootings and gun violence generally. If we really want to, we will, with God’s help.