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June 2018

Court's Green Light to Discriminate

This article at The Atlantic reveals part of what was wrong with the Court's ruling on the Muslim Ban and how the ruling gives the administration a green light to discriminate.  The author demonstrates how for Justice Roberts the only discrimination that is illegal is when it is explicitly stated, discriminatory effects alone don't count.  By this logic of Roberts's, most of the Jim Crow laws banned by the 1965 Voting Rights Act would be okay.

Also, the strange inconsistency (hypocrisy) of the last month:

1) Vaguely "anti-religious" statements of a minor public official in Colorado mean the baker didn't receive due process and his religious freedom was denied, yet

2) Explicitly Islamophobic statements by the President are not relevant, so no one's religious freedom was discriminated against.

Lincoln in the Bardo

Lincoln in the BardoLincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Given the rave reviews and awards, I expected to relish this novel and simply did not. The book exhibits great craftsmanship and ingenuity in how it is written, but the story itself did not capture me, even repulsed me at times. One thing that repulsed me was its mythology of afterlife which bears no resemblance to anything in Christian thought. Maybe that was on purpose, but it seemed to me that a rich meditation on death and loss (if that was the actual goal) would have made more sense within some more recognizably conventional understanding.

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People of the Word

People of the Word

2 Chronicles 34:15

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

24 June 2018



    A few years ago a Bible was rediscovered here in America. As the collection of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture was being formed, the curators were contacted by a white family in Virginia who said they had the Bible of Nat Turner and would the museum like it.

    Nat Turner was the rare enslaved person who could read, and he read the Bible, which turned him into a prophetic preacher. Fired by his dreams of freedom, he led a revolt of enslaved persons in 1831 that was violently suppressed but deeply rattled the slaveholding states of the nation.

Turner had been carrying the Bible when captured. It then was on display in the Southampton county courthouse until 1912 when it was given to the Person family, descendants of some of the slave holders killed in Turner's rebellion. A century later the family realized the Bible belonged to the nation and in the new museum of African-American history.

It is now a centerpiece of the exhibit.


Last year when I was in Washington, I was unable to get into the new museum—it is that popular—but during a winter snow storm Fred Nielsen and Sue Epperson were able to. I asked Fred this week for his thoughts on seeing Nat Turner's Bible.


The museum is filled with exhibits that conjure deep feeling -- of thoughtfulness, sorrow, anger. Nat Turner's Bible stands out because of its particularity, its influence, and its size.


Fred points out that it is quite small. Roughly 5 inches by 3 and half by 1 and a half.

    Fred came upon the Bible shortly after the exhibit on Thomas Jefferson and the tension between his owning slaves and his views on human freedom. Fred wrote of the experience:


Turner's Bible is close by, a rebuke to anyone who thinks the Founders bequeathed full freedom to their descendants. When I came upon it, though, it was almost disappointing at first. Everything about the Jefferson exhibit was big and shiny and new. Now, here was an old book, badly worn, a Bible smaller than expected, smaller certainly than its place in American history would seem to warrant. And yet. There's a power in it, a surprising power given how small it is. Or maybe its smallness is part of its power. Mangers aren't big, either. I stood there a while, walked on, and then walked back, drawn by this small battered volume. This wasn't a safe Bible, one that had been stored in a hotel room drawer, or placed on a lectern in a church sanctuary or on a bedside table. This book of the ages, containing old words of freedom, had been a direct inspiration to the man who owned it. It's all of him that remains. I was in a museum, but this was a book that radiated life.


And then you remember what happened to the man who owned it, and you cry again.



    In today's scripture lesson we have a story of a rediscovered Bible and the transformation it brings about. Let's look at this story in three parts. First a little background, then let's examine some of the details in the story, before we raise some critical questions. After we've examined the story, then we'll think about what we might learn from it.

    First, the background.

    Last week I preached from the book of the prophet Hosea. Hosea was a prophet to the northern kingdom of Israel in the 8th century Before the Common Era as the nation was besieged by the empire of Assyria. Not long after Hosea's time, the nation of Israel was defeated.

    That left the southern kingdom of Judah. Judah too was attacked by Assyria. According to Bible scholar David Carr, "The Judeans lost approximately 70 percent of their population and 85 percent of their towns and villages." I don't think we can even begin to imagine that kind of loss and destruction.

    Yet, the nation of Judah survived. The Assyrians devastated the nation, but did not capture the capital of Jerusalem. The Bible gives us four different accounts of that siege and how it failed. Clearly the people were determined to understand this significant historical event. The Biblical understanding of the episode came to be that God had rescued the people because of their faithfulness to God's covenant and because they were governed by Hezekiah, descendant of David. It was during this time that the nation began to develop an understanding of God's covenant with the house of David and the idea that a descendant of David would forever reign upon the throne.

    History is, of course, probably more complicated than this. The Assyrians kept good records and according to their chronicles the siege of Jerusalem ended when King Hezekiah paid a heavy tribute and swore allegiance to them. And every year after the kings of Judah had to reaffirm their loyalty to the invading power and pay the heavy tribute.

    In the time between the surprising survival of Jerusalem and Josiah, the nation was under the boot of Assyria. The children of the elite would be taken away from home and educated in Assyrian schools and returned to Judah having lost their native culture, all in an attempt to assimilate and destroy the Judean people.

    And Judah was governed by kings that the Biblical chroniclers judged as unfaithful to God and God's covenant.

    And so we come to the time of Josiah. Suddenly, as he came of age, Josiah benefited from a great change in the world situation—Assyria's power was waning. Egypt had overthrown the Assyrian overlords and was leading a coalition of nations pushing back the Assyrian powers. Also Babylon was on the rise in the east, challenging Assyrian hegemony. So, Josiah benefited from the opportunity to spread his wings, throw off Assyrian domination, and reaffirm the culture of the Judean people.

    This story of the discovery of the Book of the Law, presumably Deuteronomy, is a great story. One of those I learned in Sunday school as a child. Josiah has entered into a renovation of the temple. The workers find a book that had been hidden during the years of foreign occupation and wicked kings.

When they need to understand the book, they go ask for a prophet to interpret it for them. Interestingly, this is the first biblical commentator in our tradition, and it is a woman, the prophet Huldah. Of course, as a Southern Baptist kid, we didn't learn that part in Sunday school. I only learned that in college. The very first interpreter of the biblical tradition was a woman, which should have easily settled all those debates about the role of women. Also interesting to note, some of the famous guy prophets, like Isaiah, were alive at this time, but they don't get called upon to interpret the book.

When the book was read, the people were shocked to realize that they had broken the covenant and therefore would be judged by God. They were frightened that what had happened to the northern kingdom of Israel would happen to them, so immediately Josiah engaged in nationwide reform of religious practices. The people returned to faithfulness to the law of God.

This is a great story.


Of course, it's probably more complicated than this. Modern scholars wonder how much of the Book of Deuteronomy was discovered at this time and how much of it was simply written at this time, as the book bears the cultural markers of the eighth century.

Scholars wonder how authentic this story is or whether it is mostly royal propaganda to get the people to go along with Josiah's policies.

For Josiah's reforms were not innocuous. The Bible presents them as ending polytheism and reinstituting a clear monotheism. But it seems that some of what Josiah was doing was centralizing worship at the royal-controlled temple in Jerusalem, ending ancient practices. The Judeans had long worshipped at local shrines and altars. Some of these were devoted to gods and goddesses other than Yahweh, but some of them were shrines to Yahweh.

Imagine if the President suddenly closed down all worship sites except the National Cathedral in Washington and commanded that all of our religious rituals should occur only in that one place, and with a tax of course. This is similar to what Josiah was doing, and this centralization of worship under state control is among the reasons that Jesus spoke out so strongly against the Temple.


The Jewish historian Simon Schama writes, "The Josiah story is a fable of recovered innocence." In his two volume The Story of the Jews, he gives this story a prominent place for it did succeed in shaping the identity of the Jewish people, who became a people of words, a people of the book. And this identity shaped around words and stories is one reason that Jews have survived through human history. So, over the very long term, Josiah's reform and storytelling worked to give shape to the identity of the people and give them resilience through trauma.

Theologian Shelly Rambo writes,


Modern studies of trauma speak to the impact of violence on each of us—interpersonally and collectively—and challenge assumptions of linear time, progress, and interpreting events in isolation. Trauma teaches us that we live precariously in the world. It tells us that the effects of violence and violent histories live on in ways that deeply inform the present and blur the lines we have neatly delineated as past, present, and future. Trauma tells us that our bodies hold pain and that it will take a multisensory intervention to release these body memories. Events that we thought were "over-and-done" live on within us, long after a traumatic event.


    One of the tools that helps build resilience is storytelling. The imagination of a traumatized person often gets trapped in a playback loop, reliving the moment of violence and trouble. Serene Jones, in her book Trauma and Grace, writes that recovery and healing can occur through storytelling and witness. There are three basic steps.


First, the person or persons who have experienced trauma need to be able to tell their story. . . . Second, there needs to be someone to witness this testimony, a third-party presence that not only creates the safe space for speaking but also receives the words when they finally are spoken. . . . Third, the testifier and the witness must begin the process of telling a new, different story together: we must begin to pave a new road through the brain.


Jones believes that church people are particularly skilled at this, as we have already been trained to be those who testify, those who witness, and those who "reimage the future by telling yet again the story of our faith."

    We are, of course, a people of the book. A people shaped by words and stories.


    In a Smithsonian magazine article by Victoria Dawson about Nat Turner's Bible, I read the reflections of museum curator Rex Ellis.


How . . . did [Nat] Turner come to imagine—to believe in—something more than the confines of his particular time, place and lot in life? "When you are taught every day of your life, every hour of work that you produce, that you are there to service someone else, when every day you are controlled by the whims of someone else, and you are instructed to do exactly what you are told to do, and you do not have a great deal of individual expression—how do you break out of that?" Ellis asks.


But, atypically for an enslaved person, Turner knew how to read and write, and in the Bible he found an alternative: a suggestion that where he had begun was not where he needed to end. "That Bible didn't represent normality; it represented possibility," Ellis says. "I think the reason Turner carried it around with him, the reason it was dog-eared and careworn, is that it provided him with inspiration, with the possibility of something else for himself and for those around him."


    Fred Nielsen had a similar reaction seeing the Bible in the museum. Fred wrote, "Turner's Bible shook the nation. Words matter. Those words mattered. They meant freedom to Turner, and for them he was willing to risk all."

The Nature of Doctrine

The Nature of DoctrineThe Nature of Doctrine by George A. Lindbeck
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of those classics I finally read. And one that was part of the milieu of other theologians who have deeply influenced my own thinking.

For Lindbeck, learning a religion is like learning a language, a skill that you develop. Take this sentence for instance, "In short, intelligibility comes from skill, not theory, and credibility comes from good performance, not adherence to independently formulated criteria."

I long ago adopted this basic framework--skill and communal practices and not propositional belief. And the non-foundationalist epistemology.

I'm glad there are people who think so deeply as this and develop the basic theory that undergirds what I do.

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On Sessions & Scripture

In my reading this week, I came across this discussion of the truth of religious statements in George Lindbeck's classic The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age.  Reading it made me think of the recent debate around Jeff Sessions's misuse of scripture and why we can call it a misuse.

Thus for a Christian, "God is Three and One," or "Christ is Lord" are true only as parts of a total pattern of speaking, thinking, feeling, and acting.  They are false when their use in any given instance is inconsistent with what the pattern as a whole affirms of God's being and will.  The crusader's battle cry "Christus est Dominus," for example, is false when used to authorize cleaving the skull of the infidel (even though the same words in other contexts may be a true utterance).  When thus employed, it contradicts the Christian understanding of Lordship as embodying, for example, suffering servanthood.

God’s Passionate Love

God's Passionate Love

Hosea 11:1-11

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

17 June 2018



    Imagine that over a few years a foreign power invaded Nebraska numerous times killing tens of thousands of our citizens, devastating our crops, and forcing us to swear allegiance to them and pay a heavy tax. What would be the traumatizing effects upon our psyches? How would we make sense of the world?

    Just such a situation did face the people of the nation of Israel in the eighth century before the Common Era. And one of the people who responded to the catastrophe and tried to help the people was the prophet Hosea.

    Hear now these words of the ancient prophet of Israel:


When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
The more I called them,
the more they went from me;
they kept sacrificing to the Baals,
and offering incense to idols.


Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
I took them up in my arms;
but they did not know that I healed them.
I led them with cords of human kindness,
with bands of love.
I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks.
I bent down to them and fed them.


They shall return to the land of Egypt,
and Assyria shall be their king,
because they have refused to return to me.
The sword rages in their cities,
it consumes their oracle-priests,
and devours because of their schemes.
My people are bent on turning away from me.
To the Most High they call,
but he does not raise them up at all.


How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel?
How can I make you like Admah?
How can I treat you like Zeboiim?
My heart recoils within me;
my compassion grows warm and tender.
I will not execute my fierce anger;
I will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and no mortal,
the Holy One in your midst,
and I will not come in wrath.


They shall go after the Lord, who roars like a lion;
when he roars, his children shall come trembling from the west.
They shall come trembling like birds from Egypt,
and like doves from the land of Assyria;
and I will return them to their homes, says the Lord.



For the Word of God in scripture,
For the Word of God among us,
For the Word of God within us,
Thanks be to God.



One of my college textbooks introduced Hosea this way:


Hosea . . . was raised in a period of opulence, prosperity, opportunism, and scheming during which the rich and powerful availed themselves of all opportunities to live luxuriously. Hosea was God's messenger to a complacent, self-indulgent, and apostate people.


    After the death of Solomon the United Kingdom of Israel and Judah was split in two, with the southern kingdom of Judah and its capital in Jerusalem and the northern kingdom of Israel with its capital in Samaria. Over the next couple of centuries the situations of both kingdoms waxed and waned as a variety of rulers, some good but many bad, governed the countries who sometimes warred with each other and sometimes joined together in warring on other nations.

    In the childhood of Hosea, the northern kingdom of Israel went through its greatest period of peace and prosperity under a relatively stable royal dynasty, but all of that changed dramatically when the great Assyrian Empire began to spread into the territories of southwest Asia. One of the histories of Assyria informs us that "no sovereigns were ever more despotic, more covetous, more vindictive, more pitiless, more proud of their crimes." And that their armies "set forth the most terrible expeditions which have ever flooded the world with blood."

    So, charming people.

    At the time the Assyrians began to threaten Israel, the nation also went through a period of internal instability with a series of weak kings who were often murdered by their associates.

    So, the good times came crashing to a halt. After a series of invasions the nation was eventually defeated and its people carried away into exile where they were assimilated with other populations and forever disappeared into the sands of history, for these are the famed "Lost Tribes of Israel."

    As this catastrophe was unfolding, Hosea appeared as the messenger of God and tried to respond to the trauma in innovative ways to give the people some sense of how to understand and respond to what was happening.

    Hosea had gone through his own personal difficulties. He married Gomer, feeling that God had instructed him to. They had children and gave those children symbolic names, as prophets sometimes did. Then Hosea discovered that Gomer was unfaithful, and he separated from her. She seems to have then descended into poverty and out of desperation became a prostitute. Hosea then received a word from God telling him to take Gomer back, and Hosea did.

    Hosea interpreted his own life experience as revelatory about the character of God and God's relationship with the people. God loved the people with a passionate love and entered into a covenant with them. Yet, the people eventually were unfaithful and became promiscuous, giving their worship to false gods and idols. Despite being angry, God still loves the people and will take them back again, restoring the passionate, covenant relationship between them.

    Hosea appears to be the first person in the history of our tradition to view the relationship between God and the people in this way—as a covenant like marriage. And to view his own subjective experience as revelatory for what Rabbi Heschel called "the inner life of God."


    But if you only read Hosea 11, you miss the terrifying aspects of this text. First, Hosea, and by implication God, are very angry. And their anger is repugnant to us. For example, in chapter 2 the prophet demands that the children plead with their mother to "put away her whoring" or


I will strip her naked

and expose her as in the day she was born,

and make her like a wilderness,

and turn her into a parched land,

and kill her with thirst.


Very different from the compassionate love of chapter 11. And terrifying. The Bible is filled with texts of terror, and we must be careful how we use it.

    Biblical scholar David M. Carr asks, "How . . . can one imagine [God] as such an angry, jealous, violent, out-of-control husband?" Carr also points out that "Hosea's image of redemption—[God] promising to take her back—can look like the cycle of abuse sometimes seen in human relationships." In this story Israel could be God's battered wife.

And so the book of Hosea presents us with both terrifying texts of anger and violence and beautiful words of compassion. What are we to make of it?


    David M. Carr is professor of Old Testament at Union Theological Seminary in New York City and his recent book Holy Resilience: The Bible's Traumatic Origins will help to guide our summer sermon series. Carr contends that much of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures were written in response to trauma—think for example of the New Testament texts as attempts by those writers to grapple with the crucifixion of Jesus.

    The writers of scripture were themselves traumatized and were trying to respond to their personal traumas and the collective traumas of the people. Carr believes this is why the scriptures of the biblical tradition survived when the scriptures of many other ancient cultures did not. Triumphal stories of kings and creation narratives abound in the scriptures of ancient cultures, but those stories don't help later humans grapple with the suffering of their own lives. The Bible survived because it did grapple with suffering in complex and authentic ways, and so humans have continued to turn to the Bible over thousands of years in order to respond to the traumas we experience.

    Carr argues that Hosea wants to provide the people with some sense of control over their lives. If they understand all the evil that is befalling them as a people as their own fault, then that gives them a chance to fix the situation by changing their behavior.

    Recent trauma studies inform us that this is a common way for traumatized people to think, but it can also continue the damage.

    Carr believes that the Book of Hosea does, despite its flaws, reveal a difficult truth. He writes, "people often go through life with inaccurately positive pictures of the world and their role in it. . . . But life can show the limits of a worldview and/or theology that is relentlessly upbeat."

    Historian Simon Schama writes that the Hebrew Scriptures are "not a rehearsal for grief but a struggle against its inevitability."

    This summer our worship will focus on how we develop resilience to respond to vulnerability, suffering, and trauma. We'll look at stories from the Hebrew Scriptures to see how our ancient predecessors developed resilience. And what we will discover are both good and bad options.

    The anger and abuse and self-blame of Hosea are common in traumatized people, but they aren't healthy responses. But compassion does build resilience. Compassion is a form of vulnerability to others that creates possibilities for healing.     

    Walter Brueggemann wrote that "Compassion . . . announces that the hurt is to be taken seriously, that the hurt is not to be accepted as normal and natural but is an abnormal and unacceptable condition for humanness."

    And part of why the Book of Hosea is so important in guiding us to a God of love, is that in this very passage God rejects anger and violence and chooses instead to treat the people with an unconditional grace. If we have rejected a notion of a wrathful God and have instead embraced a notion of a deeply loving God, it is because that change in theology has been driven by the text of scripture itself and by our experience of Jesus.


    The last few months Sara has often told me how much Kamaal has been overwhelmed by love for Kate. So, this week I asked Liz if she had any good stories of Kamaal's parental love.

    She told me that before Kate was born, Kamaal prepared a list of colleges she might attend and was ranking them according to various criteria. At the top of the list were various out-of-state schools, because he thought she'd want to move away from Omaha and have an experience of the wider world.

    Then, after Kate was born, Kamaal edited the list, and the University of Nebraska-Omaha suddenly was at the top of the list. Kamaal even suggested that he could build Kate a tiny house in the backyard for her to live in when she attends college at UNO.    


    When we are in trouble, what we require is faithfulness and unconditional love. The kind of love that protects us, comforts us, helps to strengthen us and hold us together. It's the kind of passionate love a parent has for a child. That's the kind of love that will save us.

Resurrecting Wounds: Living in the Afterlife of Trauma

Resurrecting Wounds: Living in the Afterlife of TraumaResurrecting Wounds: Living in the Afterlife of Trauma by Shelly Rambo
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The story of Doubting Thomas from the Gospel of John is the standard gospel lectionary text for the Second Sunday of Easter, and we usually approach it as a text about knowledge, doubt, and faith. Shelly Rambo invites a different reading focusing instead on the wounded body of the resurrected Jesus. What does it mean to carry wounds into the resurrection? Why does Jesus expose the wounds to the disciples and invite Thomas to touch? Why has theology failed (with few exceptions) to explore the wounds in this scene?

These fascinating questions are dealt with in this vivid exploration of the Gospel story. Along the way we encounter a contemporary French television show about ghosts, John Calvin's attempts to ignore the carnal aspects of the story, the healing scar of Macrina and her brother Gregory of Nyssa's struggle to understand it, W. E. B. DuBois in the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto, Delores Williams's concept of wilderness, a smudging ritual in a care group of combat veterans, and Caravaggio's brilliant painting of the Gospel story. Among others.

This is a rich theological account of how we can continue living beyond trauma. We must surface our wounds and engage them safely in community where healing touch helps us integrate the wounds into new life.

Note: This was an interesting read just after De la Torre's Embracing Hopelessness, for I don't think this book succumbed to his critiques.

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