Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society

Some readers may recall that one of my brothers responded during the family discussion by mention of Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society.  In the next preceding post, His Spirit Is Crying Out and Yearning, the reader will hopefully recognize that the issues of homosexuality and transsexuality, when considered in the light of actual lives, aren’t so easily identified or judged.

Why do I juxtapose these two statements?   Because Niebuhr understood that one cannot do theology in the abstract.  His prayer, known as the Serenity Prayer, has been an inspiration for those confronting addictions based upon 12 Step programs.   It recognizes that when one “does theology” in the flesh, one must struggle “to know the difference” between what we can change and what we cannot change.  He has been cited by both extremes of the political and religious spectrum and all points between.  In the 2008 presidential election, he was quoted by both President Obama and Senator McCain.

For an excellent discussion of Niebuhr’s teaching and influence, particularly as relating to his book, Moral Man and Immoral Society , see http://www.onbeing.org/program/moral-man-and-immoral-society-rediscovering-reinhold-niebuhr/feature/five-conversations/2253.  That National Public Radio website describes Niebuhr’s contribution: “We explore the ideas and present-day relevance of 20th century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, an influential, boundary-crossing voice in American public life. Niebuhr created the term “Christian realism:” a middle path between religious idealism and arrogance.”

Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society

Memorial to the Norwegian Victims of Judgment, Hate and Fear

In this blog I have emphasized the Christian command to love.  I have noted the bad fruits of judgment, hate and fear of the GLBT community which Christian aggressors have tried to justify as God-approved, even God-directed.  Grief and loss, the bad fruits of judgment, hatred and fear, is expressed in many ways.

Picasso addressed such pain and loss in the context of the war in Guernica:

The painting may be accessed at my original source, http://www.artchive.com/artchive/P/picasso/guernica.jpg.html .  I also included it and discussed it in the context of violence in Tucson and Omaha in my post on a related site, The Bible Through Artists’ Eyes, which post you may find at https://bibleartists.wordpress.com/2011/01/22/remembering-recent-victims-of-violence/ .

For an excellent and sensitive journalistic photo presentation by Time, which honors the victims, those who were killed, those who survived and the many who grieve, see http://www.time.com/time/photogallery/0,29307,2084743_2295860_last,00.htmlhttp://www.time.com/time/photogallery/0,29307,2084743_2295860_last,00.html

I note that the Associated Press reported today, July 28, 2011, that the Prime Minister of Norway, Jens Stoltenberg, “called on his country to react by more tightly embracing, rather than abandoning, the culture of tolerance that Anders Behring Breifik said he was trying to destroy.”  Now that is a faith statement that is sure to bear good fruit.  That is what true forgiveness is about: a refusal to be bound by the wrongs, evils and fears of the past as proper governmental authorities hold Breifik accountable.

Memorial to the Norwegian Victims of Judgment, Hate and Fear

“Fundamental” Problems

I am thinking of the awful fruits of the massacre of innocents in Norway by a Christian fundamentalist gunman.  How is this evil different from that of the Muslim extremists in the 9-11 atrocities?  How is it different from the attacks of the Christian fundamentalist and political right against the GLBT community?

At least in my lifetime, “Christian fundamentalism” has been used in reference to Christians who believe the Bible to be dictated by God to humans who wrote it into books that, by Divine guidance, came to compose the present Bible.  Being God-dictated, they believe the Bible to be literally true, both historically and scientifically.   Catholic fundamentalists may expand that dictation to include the Appocrapha and Mormon fundamentalists may expand it further to include the Book of Mormon.  Likewise, fundamentalist Muslims and Jews consider their scripture sacred and literally true as they read it.

“Fundamental” is perhaps an unfortunate choice of words.  I would consider that the word, fundamental, would describe my own view of the Bible, the “word of God,” and the “will of God.”  I seek to get to the core of the messages of the Bible, some of which might be a mix of history, reflection of the  writer or editors’ observations, inspiration, ignorance or even prejudice.

To my mind, the core of Jesus’ teaching that is fundamental to my Christian belief and practice is expressed in these statements which provide: 1)  a simple command: “Love God and your neighbor as yourself;” 2)  A measure by which you can recognize the validity of actions on the claim of faith: “By their fruits you will know them.”  3) how we show our love of Jesus: “Inasmuch as you did it to the least of these, you did it to me;”    and lastly, 4) the present and eternal reward: “The kingdom of Heaven is at hand . . . enter into your reward.”

I will accept the current use of “fundamentalism.”  Jimmy Carter addressed it and its consequences across various religions when asked by Trista Tippet on National Public Radio’s Speaking of Faith why so much violence in the post Cold War era has a religious dimension.  He responded:

I think it’s because of fundamentalists. Fundamentalism is a characteristic of dominant males who, first of all, subjugate women and derogate women’s rights. Secondly, an aspect of their fundamentalism is that they assume that they have a rare or unique relationship with God Almighty, whatever god they define, and their beliefs, therefore, are ordained by God. And since their beliefs are God’s beliefs, they are infallible. They cannot make a mistake or acknowledge a mistake. Anyone who disagrees with them, by definition, is wrong because ‘the disagreement is with me and with God.’ And being wrong, you are inferior and, in extreme cases, you are considered to be subhuman. And so that’s where violence erupts and condemnation erupts and value of a human life within a person who disagrees with you has little or no value. And that’s where the violence comes out, and that’s where the unnecessary war comes out, and that’s where what we define as terrorism comes out.

I think of the fear and hateful language and acts by American “Fundamentalist Christians” against the GLBT community.  That isn’t so different, other than in lethal scope, than the horror and pain inflicted by that Christian fundamentalist in Norway.

“Fundamental” Problems

Do We Understand and Mean The Hymn Lyrics We Sing?

Particularly in light of the recent Rev. Amy DeLong church trial in Wisconsin, hymns we sang in church recently caused me to reflect on their lyrics, why they were chosen for worship, and why they are so loved by many Christian congregations.   The hymns were “Where He  Leads Me I Will Follow” and “I Love To Tell the Story.”  Do ministers and congregations understand and intend the lyrics that they sing?  For example, what would it mean to sincerely say, “I’ll go with him through the garden?”  “. . .with him to dark Calvary?”  or “He will give me grace and glory?”  Or, to sing “I love to tell the story of Jesus and his love?” or “. . . it did so much for me?”  Why are these lyrics set to music in the style of late Nineteenth Century or early Twentieth Century love songs familiar to the tent meetings of that time?

I have often admired ministers who incorporate the lyrics of hymns in their messages, actually exploring content of the lyrics and connecting song with revealed truth.  These lyrics and their meanings or inspirations were not discussed in the church service.  I suspect they were selected for their “feel good,” appeal to days of some past time when Christians were perceived to have had no doubts concerning their beliefs and future as good “disciples of Christ.”

I remember particularly the bitter irony of “Are Ye Able.”  During the late 1980’s, I left private practice to accept the appointed and to serve as county judge.  I tend to be an idealist and I approached my judicial duties idealistically, as I understood the law and its express intent; I tried to sentence convicted persons in such a way that would demonstrate my respect for them, judging the act, which was my duty under the law, and not the person, and inviting them to a much more rewarding life.  As Gandhi was developing his principles of the soul force which freed Indians in South Africa and ultimately India, itself, he said “My regard for jurisprudence increased, I discovered in it religion.”  I was greatly inspired by my law school professors respect for the life of the law.  Such was my view.  That view was not appreciated by lawyers.  In the spring of 1990, I received pre-release notice of the results of the Nebraska Bar Associations Judicial Survey of my own performance.  I then  braced myself for the release of the news.  But I was not prepared to read that summer the headlines of the Lincoln and Omaha papers that the Bar Association which declared  me and a colleague to be the worst judges in the state.  That fall, I lost voter retention as a judge and found myself without a job to support my family.

The Sunday immediately following that devastating loss of retention, one of the hymns was, “’Are Ye Able,’  said the Master, ‘To be crucified with me?’  Yea, the sturdy dreamers answered, ‘To the death we follow thee.’”  I could see a dreamer, such as “The Rock,” Peter, blithely promising support but then thrice denying Jesus.   Who would claim to be more loyal than Peter?  Then the chorus picks up the same dream, “Lord, we are able.  Our spirits are thine.  Remold them, make us, Like thee, divine.  Thy guiding radiance Above us shall be A beacon to God, To love and loyalty.”  How will the masses distinguish itself from the “sturdy dreamer?”  As a child growing up in my father’s church, I loved the hymn and sang it joyfully.  But this time I actually heard the words and undestood the meaning.  I was overcome with grief.  How easy it is to sing the words  when there are no difficult consequences for following Jesus even to crucifixion, or doing what one sincerely feels is right despite popular objection.  I was devastated by the unexpected consequences of doing what I believed to be my duty.  Could I have done the same had I known the consequences?  I don’t know that I could; I certainly would not early in my life have been able to become free of the shakles of inherited faith to make the commitment to so radical a lifestyle.  I couldn’t sing the hymn.

Then I think of Rev. Amy DeLong.  How would she and her supporters sing or feel about these same songs?  She did what she believed was right, knowing the severe consequences.  In reflecting on Rev. Amy DeLong and even my own experience as a county judge, I am reminded of how Dietrich von Bonhoeffer wrestled with the conflict of his sense of duty with his moral conscience and biblical principles he stood upon.  He discussed with others of like mind the evil of Hitler’s genocide wrought upon millions of Jews and other “defective persons” that did not meet his view of the ideal “Arian race.”  It is easy for one to justify killing Hitler as an exception to the Commandment, “Do not kill.”   Bonhoeffer rejected that notion.  Nothing “excuses” violation of the commandments not to kill, but to love your neighbor.  And yet we live in a real world in which  there is no practical solution to the dilemma of living justly and yet following religious commands.  He concluded, “Sin and sin boldly but love Christ more boldly still.”  He joined in the failed  attempt to assassinate Hitler, he was arrested, wrote his Letters From Prison and was executed in the very last days before the collapse of the Third Reich.  How would he approach any of these three hymns?

My father, Rev. Edgar F. Wheeler, once wrote to me, “Many people think that Christianity is about dying and going to Heaven.  I say no.  It is about living a life of eternal significance.”

Rev. Amy DeLong conducted the celebration of the holy union of two  commited womenwith full knowledge of the consequences under an unjust rule of the
Discipline.  That was courageous.  She also was open about her relationship with  another woman; but the jury agreed with her attorney and found that, although she did not deny that she is a lesbian, neither was there evidence that she is a “self-avowed practicing homosexual.”

As to Dietrich von Bonhoeffer, I think that he might have approved of singing, “He will give me grace and glory,” but not to the tune of a nineteenth Century love song.  It would have been to a much more  somber, stately, even transcendent Bach or Buchtehude chorale tune. One observer of his death noted that never had he seen a prisoner face the firing squad with such peaceful calm and apparent assurance.

I leave you with some quotes of Bonhoeffer that summarize my thoughts on this subject better than my feeble attempts:

“Action springs not from thought, but from a readiness for responsibility.”

“To endure the cross is not tragedy; it is the suffering which is the fruit of an exclusive allegiance to Jesus Christ”

As I have quoted Jesus, “By their fruits you will know them.”

Again, God bless you Rev. DeLong.  You have borne good fruits in faithful practice of the Gospel message of love.

Do We Understand and Mean The Hymn Lyrics We Sing?

“Spiritual Violence”

I have been reading Gandhi’s Autobiography and Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God is Within You:  Christianity not as a Mystic Religion but as a  New Theory of Life.  The latter helped inspire in Gandhi the power of non-violent resistance to injustice, even state-sanctioned injustice. Then I thought of my friend who wrote to me of the “spiritual violence” of the organized church against the GLBT community.

I had addressed in this blog physical violence against the GLBT community in the post of February 9, 2011, entitled, “Publications Concerning Hate Crimes Relating to Sexual Orientation.”  The vast majority of the Christian community would not profess that their aversion to the GLBT community would justify criminal action against it.  But how many of us do spiritual violence by denying that God loves and accepts them as they are; that they can reflect the love of God as we hopefully do; that we need them as much as they need us; that they have the right to fully participate in our church organizations, both spiritually and in leadership?

Is “righteous hatred” of the GLBT community consistent with the true spirit of Christ?  Other than the obvious difference in social consequences, what really is the difference between physical violence and spiritual violence against another?  To what degree do our churches see the GLBT community as a threat and respond by marginalizing or even exclude them from the social and the spiritual life of the church?

The established church in all its forms and manifestations has a heritage giving rise to its present state.  Predominantly, it upholds the heritage that castigates members of the GLBT community, and it justifies that position by isolated biblical passages.  Tolstoy addresses this persistent reign of unexamined heritage:

The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow- witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before him.

Have we used our heritage to justify our idolization of God in our own image?  What are the fruits of our treatment of the GLBT community?  Do they fall from the tree of life and God’s love for all?  If the fruits are bitter for anyone, what shall we do with the tree that bears them?

“Spiritual Violence”