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June 2017

Theology in Congregational Polity


"We have come to declare what we believe about God," so proclaimed Rev. Traci Blackmon during the opening worship of the United Church of Christ General Synod.  And we were down to work to do just that. Committees gathered this afternoon in educational intensives to learn about the issues addressed in the resolutions assigned to them.   This is how the theological work of the church is accomplished.

I'm in committee #14 and we were assigned the resolution on studying gun violence as a public health emergency.  When we arrived for our educational intensive we learned that we had also been assigned the late resolution on climate change, reacting to the President withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accords.

These resolutions were joined together because both cited John 18:37-38 in their theological rationale.  Both were about speaking truth.  In one case, public health researchers are not empowered to pursue the truth regarding gun violence and in the other, climate change and the moral imperatives of the moment are denied.

The climate change resolution was targeted to what we as the church should do, most importantly what we should proclaim. This is a resolution about the power of preaching, the effectiveness of the spoken word of God to advance God’s mission upon the earth.  And the committee discussion swirled around precisely these points, why the author, Rev. Dr. Jim Antal, Massachusetts Conference Minister, had written the resolution this way instead of within the more expected theological framework of our stewardship of creation or God’s sovereignty.

And so we debated.  What were the best words to express our consensus?  Someone would raise a question or critique and the room would move toward them to accommodate them.  Then, someone else would make another point, and we’d move toward them.  And we’d try to keep everyone’s point-of-view included. So, for an example.

In lines 74-75 of the climate resolution, one somewhat conservative member of the Massachusetts conference didn’t like the reference to the administration or the use of the verb will, which seemed to speak for and not to the church (which is what Synod does).  He proposed new wording, that was probably fine with most of us.  Then, someone said they thought his wording wasn’t quite strong enough, so they proposed “any administration” in order to make the resolution not simply a response to Trump.  Many of us weren’t sure about this recommendation.

Then a pastor from rural Ohio spoke.  She had preached on this issue in her conservative congregation.  She needed the denomination to include the political reference because it supported her preaching.  Yes, we were in this committee discussing the role of the spoken word of God to speak truth.

And so we were soon bogged down in multiple wordings of the sentence, so I worked out what I hoped would be wording that kept everyone at the table.  The committee chair, who did an excellent job the whole session, appeared a little frustrated that I wanted to offer another option to the already bewildering array of choices.

My wording was “When the powers-that-be deny or obscure the truth, we followers of Jesus will proclaim the truth to protect our common home.”  Immediately many of the parties liked it.  The Ohio pastor wasn’t convinced it addressed her need.  But after some further discussion it was the overwhelming consensus of the body. 

Here, in theological, even Christological language, we had expressed our mission as the people of God.

And, this is how we do theology in the United Church of Christ, with God’s people talking with one another, learning from one another, holding each other in relationship.  Thereby we declare what we believe about God.

Who Lynched Willie Earle? Preaching to Confront Racism

Who Lynched Willie Earle?: Preaching to Confront RacismWho Lynched Willie Earle?: Preaching to Confront Racism by William H. Willimon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I heard Willimon speak on this issue at the Festival of Homiletics in May. He was angry and sassy and is so in the book. This is a vital text for preachers. A clarion call to preaching as God's weapon to defeat white supremacy.

Willimon tells the story of a lynching in his home county when he was one and how one local pastor preached about it. He uses this to explore the ongoing issues of white supremacy and its corruption of the church and gives encouragement and advice for how preachers must respond.

I'll post some quotes and details later.

View all my reviews

DC Day Two--The Ideals of Our Republic

I awoke early in hopes of securing, via the website, timed entry tickets made available each morning to the African American History Museum, but during an hour of refreshing the webpage I never was able to secure any; someone always beat me to them.

So I enjoyed a delicious breakfast in the inn and chose to spend the morning walking around the monuments and memorials.  I thought that encountering the ideals of our republic would ennoble and inspire me.


Albert Einstein's statue is bigger than I realized.


I always cry at the Lincoln Memorial.

I'm always surprised by my grief that he was killed.  I cry as I read again the words of the Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural.  I cry as I watch African American children joyfully getting their pictures taken.  

Sebastian is at that age where every time he sees or hears an airplane he gets excited.  Watching him I recall my childlike wonder.  But I also realized yesterday he not only possesses a wonder, but a naivete.  The plans approach National Airport are so close; every time I caught one out of the corner of my eye I was startled.  We don't experience planes with wonder anymore but with the possibility of horror.  

I decided since I've never walked around the Tidal Basin, I'd do that.  It was a very pleasant morning.


At the George Mason Memorial, which honors his role in assuring our rights, philosophy makes a good appearance with books by Cicero, Locke, & Rousseau.  He seems like a pleasant fellow.


I had read that the Jefferson Memorial was in bad shape, but I was still surprised.  Throughout the day I was struck by the number of turned off fountains, crumbling plazas, algae filled pools, and obnoxious security fences. You can see the rot at the heart of our democracy.

The African American History Museum sure makes statement boldly sitting next to the monuments to slave owners.

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My grandfather fought at the Battle of Anzio where he was so severely wounded that for a time they thought he was dead.  He spent six months in the hospital recovering.  In a recent podcast I shared this story.  Ordinary people like he are honored here for the roles they played in defeating tyranny and advancing the cause of liberty.

When I set out in the morning I hoped that encountering the ideals of our republic would be ennobling and reassuring, but the morning had only made me sadder, for we have failed to live up to our ideals. 

And all this before I learned that while I was re-reading quotes about sacrificing self-interest for liberty and the common good, the vile occupant of the White House was again acting like petty adolescent bully.  David French of the National Review wrote, “It’s a sad symbol of our times that one feels compelled to actually make an argument why the president is wrong here.  The pitiful reality is that there are people who feel like the man who sits in the seat once occupied by George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Dwight Eisenhower, and Ronald Reagan should use his bully pulpit for schoolyard insults and vicious personal attacks.”  That’s what has always bothered me about Trump—not him so much, for his is a pathetic, little man, but the millions of people who have voted for him, people who somewhere along the way failed to learn what the moral ideals of our nation are or were willing to risk them for an imagined short term gain.

For lunch I met up with Chris Rempert who was in my youth group in Dallas fifteen years ago. At the time he was a middle school kid.  Now he’s spent years in advocacy work for progressive causes


This was my first visit to the National Museum of the American Indian, and I did not expect that I would spend the entire afternoon, but I greatly enjoyed the exhibits and leisurely took my time to read and experience them, particularly the exhibit on Native spirituality and philosophy.


I spent the evening with Christie Platt whom I befriended at Yale in 2014.  What a delight to catch up with her and finally meet her husband.  Seeing her was one reason I had come to DC ahead of General Synod.


And so this morning I’ll take the train to Baltimore and weekend of colleagues and work on behalf of God’s people.

Observations and Reflections on a Day in the Nation's Capital

Mid-day I arrived in Washington, D. C., and I thought of my first visit in 1990 when I was sixteen.

I was traveling with the Akers family; their eldest son Rob was my best friend, even though they had moved to Dawson Springs, Kentucky.  Bob, the father and a Pentecostal Holiness pastor, was thrilled to show me the city, knowing my fascination with government, politics, and American history. We stayed in the suburbs and traveled in my metro, so Bob had us stop at Smithsonian station and emerge into the middle of the Mall.  I was giddy with excitement.  That day I took six rolls of film as we walked all over the city.

1990 was a vastly different era in Washington--far less security for one thing.  You visited the White House by getting tickets that morning and then going on a tour.  You could wander freely into and around the Capitol.  On that trip, when we separated to do different things, I sat in the Senate for three hours watching the debate.  Howard Metzenbaum's speaking notes were in such a big font that I could read them from the gallery.

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I'm on my way to Baltimore for the United Church of Christ's General Synod.  I decided to spend two days in D. C. just wandering around and catching up with friends. None of those were free today, so I had the afternoon and evening to myself. So I dropped the luggage at the Tabard Inn--where I'm staying near many embassies and the HRC national headquarters--ate lunch and had a chat with an Egyptian about the weather in his country and in Nebraska, and then I began walking down Connecticut Avenue.  I've got a pretty good map of Washington in my head.

I've only been in D. C. three other times--that tourist trip with the Akers in 1990, with the United States Senate Youth Program in 1992, and part of a day in 2011 with Rob Howard when we saw many of the new monuments and memorials on the Mall after a trip in the region visiting battlefields and before flying out.  The reason I have a pretty good map of the city in my head is because as a kid I puzzled over maps.  When I was here in '92 with the Senate Youth Program--a group of politics geeks--my fellows were amazed by my knowledge of the city, based not on experience but study of maps and history.

Heading down Connecticut I soon passed the Mayflower Hotel (much in the news a few weeks ago when Jeff Sessions testified before the Senate).  I stayed there for a week with the Senate Youth Program, so I have fond memories.  That program is funded by the Hearst Foundation and takes two kids from every state each year and brings them for a week of public policy engagement.  That week I saw President Bush, heard Colin Powell and Antonin Scalia speak, met with my Senators, had lunch with the ambassador in charge of protocol in the State Department dining rooms, and dined with diplomats from Russia at the Mayflower where we talked about the dramatic changes occurring since the Soviet Union's demise only five weeks before.  As I said, fond memories.

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I made my way past Saint-Gaudens masterful statue of Admiral Farragut and St. John's Church, which I attended one Sunday morning in 92, fortunately during a service where they explained all the elements of the liturgy, given that as a Southern Baptist I was not familiar.

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Then to Lafayette Square.  I had enjoyed the Square a quarter century ago and wanted to see it again.  Unfortunately much of it was closed off to construction.  In 1990 I had enjoyed the statue of Kosciuzko, so admired it again.  I believe there is a powerful statement in this park at the heart of our capital which honors the foreigners who helped us win our liberty.  Unfortunately the genocidal bastard Andrew Jackson has a statue in the center of the park. 


As I approached the White House, I struggled to refrain from crying.  The patriotic values that have mattered to me since childhood are under assault by the current, vile occupant.

The last time I stood in this spot, Pennsylvania Avenue was a busy street.  Now there is so much more security in this city.  It makes it uglier, all the barriers.

As I rounded the Treasury and headed toward the Mall, of course I admired the Washington Monument and then was shocked by how stunning the new National Museum of African American History and Culture is.  I was unable to reserve tickets for this trip, though I'm hopeful that I can get day of tickets tomorrow.  Knock on wood.

I decided to wile away my time visiting museum I hadn't seen in a quarter century.

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In the National Museum of American History I enjoyed seeing artifacts of American life, though overhearing conversations was dispiriting.  There was the woman who, looking at the chairs of Archie and Edith Bunker said, "I don't know who they are."  Or the child with her family who said "A wedding cake topper" which happened to be one of two men.  A parent said, "Don't look at that."  Ugh.

 I skipped the Natural History Museum, chatted with a cute volunteer from the HRC discussing the Equality Act, and walked through the Sculpture Garden to visit the National Archives.  I thought it would be reassuring in this era of national catastrophe.  When I last visited you walked up the steps into the front doors and saw the documents in the rotunda.  Now, there is an entrance through the basement and lots of 0ther exhibits. When I saw the very long line through turnstiles to see the documents, I decided to pass.  I have seen them before, but I did purchase a cute t-shirt for Sebastian in the gift shop.

I wandered through the National Gallery of Art, skipping the exhibits of non-American art and relishing my favourites in the Hudson River School (favourites despite James McClendon's accurate theological critique of them).  When I walked through in 1992 with a couple of other Senate Youthers (one from Massachusetts, I remember, but don't remember who the other was), it was my first exhibit to a serious art museum.  I was a Philistine. Today I thought of my 17 year old self and giggled.

The cast of Saint-Gaudens' Robert Gould Shaw Memorial confirms in my mind that it is the greatest of American sculptures--and I've never seen the actual thing in person.

I enjoyed the East Building more than I expected, maybe for the first time finding some connection with the paintings of the mid-twentieth century as we too experience the threat of nihilism.

I admired a Helen Frankenthaler painting I've used in my teaching in my Ethics class (as part of an exercise illustrating an Iris Murdoch essay on The Good) and thrilled to encounter Wassily Kandinsky's Improvisation 31 (Sea Battle).  I've owned a print of that painting since 1996 and it currently hangs in Sebastian's room.  I'd never seen the original.  It is marvelous.

I wanted to see the Grant Memorial again, as I had admired it so in 1990, but much of it was blocked off, so I only skirted the reflecting pool adjacent to it.  I was thrilled that my memory still worked, as I saw a statue ahead and thought, "I think that's Garfield."  It was.

The museums were now closing, so I wandered through the National Garden and then skirted the National Museum of the Native American (I plan to visit it tomorrow, as I've never been) on my way to the L'Enfant Plaza Metro stop.  I noticed a community garden across the street from the Air & Space Museum and enjoyed the juxtaposition.


I returned to my room at the inn and cooled off before Skyping with my family.  The bookshelf in the room included some odd, old texts, including the American Rose Annual 1949 where I learned of Dr. J. Horace McFarland "Rare are the international figures that can compare in world importance to this great American rosarian."  What praise, given that it was the age of Churchill, Gandhi, and Einstein.


After a refreshing shower I had tapas for dinner, including delicious squid.  And now I'm sitting in the lounge of the inn drinking rye whiskey and writing.


Japanese & Boystown

I enjoyed learning this chapter of Omaha's history in this morning's paper.  Father Flanagan of Boystown helped hundreds of Japanese leave internment camps and come live on the farm here in Omaha.  Flanagan objected to the internment.  

“I see no disaster threatening us because of any particular race, creed or color,” Flanagan said around this time. “But I do see danger for all in an ideology which discriminates against anyone politically or economically because he or she was born into the ‘wrong’ race, has skin of the ‘wrong’ color or worships at the ‘wrong’ altar.”

Another example of Flanagan's Christian perspective:

Flanagan wrote to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover about Okura’s case: “Either these people are guilty of subversive activities ... or they are not. If not — they are trying to be decent American citizens.”

Okura eventually was allowed to go to Boys Town and helped more than 200 more detainees leave the internment camps.

SCOTUS & the travel ban

In this CNN article about today's SCOTUS decision on the (immoral) travel ban, the key paragraph is this one:

"That's going to be an extreme headache. Think about how the people at the border, at airports are going to make that decision," said Page Pate, CNN legal analyst. "Who is going to make this decision? If we leave it to the folks on the front line, that's just going to lead to more litigation."

SCOTUS often seems unaware of the real world implications of their decisions.  This could sow unnecessary chaos.  They should have maintained the hold until they ruled on the merits of the issue itself.

I'm reminded of something I read about Sandra Day O'Connor when she retired.  Her version of conservatism was Platonic--that the philosopher-kings should make decisions that maintained order and didn't create disruption.  The author said this is why she ultimately ruled in Casey v. Planned Parenthood for reproductive choice instead of against it as had been anticipated, because she didn't want to create chaos by overturning Roe.  

Also, there's this description of English common law I read this morning in the essay on the life of the mind by philosopher Roger Scruton:

It was there, as a member of the Inner Temple, that I first became acquainted with the common law of England, and I was astonished by what I found. The meticulously reported cases, going back over cen­turies, were not only an eloquent expression of life as my ancestors had known it, but also an illustration of thought in action. The laws governing the English, I discovered, have emerged from the judgments of the courts, and not been imposed upon the courts by government. Those brought up on Roman law or the Code Napoléon find this amazing, since they see law as a deductive system, beginning from first principles and working downward to the particular case. But common law arises as morality arises, from the desire to do what is right, not from the desire to expound the principle that makes it so. And often the principle eludes us, even when the rightness of the act is clear. Readers of Jane Austen will not need to be reminded of this. Like morality, the common law builds upward from the particular to the general. For justice is done in the particular case, and until tried in the courts, abstract principles have no more authority than the people who declare them.

The facts of the case may never have been considered before, and the judge may have no explicit rule of law, no precedent, and no act of Parliament to guide him. But still there is a difference, the common law says, between a right and a wrong decision. Thus it was in the celebrated case of Rylands v. Fletcher (1868) in the law of tort, in which water from the defendant’s reservoir had flooded the mines of the plaintiff and put them out of use. No similar case had come before the courts, but this did not prevent Mr. Justice Blackburn from giving judgment in the following terms: “We think that the true rule of law is, that the person who for his own purposes brings on his lands and collects and keeps there anything likely to do mischief if it escapes, must keep it at his peril, and, if he does not do so, is prima facie liable for all the damage which is the natural consequence of its escape.”

Until Rylands v. Fletcher no such rule had ever been formulated. But in Blackburn’s eyes, he was not inventing the rule; he was discovering a legal truth buried in the heart of things, bringing it to the surface, and clarifying matters that no politician had yet addressed. He thereby set the standard for environmental legislation in my country, and laid the foundations for the doctrines of enterprise liability in American law.

American law is supposed to be based on English common law, and historically common law was used to interpret our own law.  This excerpt shows both the folly of today's decision and the so-called "originalist" position of many of the current conservatives on the court.