Thursday, May 14, 2009

Jack or Jesus, Fox or Faith

Almost daily it seems that the American public and wider world learn more about how people were tortured and subjected to other inhumane treatment during the Bush administration. Most recently, President Obama reversed his previous position favoring disclosure of information about what has been done. At the urging of his military commanders, Mr. Obama now has ordered his administration to continue the policy of the Bush administration which concealed photos about that mistreatment, despite a recent decision by the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit that ordered the photos released. Sadly, religious leaders have not publicly urged Mr. Obama to obey the court decision, release the photos, and condemn the policies and practices that produced the inhumane treatment depicted by them in the spirit of repentance.

Meanwhile, a recent poll of regular churchgoers that was taken by the Pew Research Center revealed that 54% of the respondents consider torture "often" or "sometimes" justified. As the world ponders that finding and President Obama's decision to continue a deliberate policy of concealing proof about the torture that the Bush administration denied while committing it, I am reminded of Oscar Wilde's statement that "life imitates art far more than art imitates life."

Jack Bauer is the protagonist in "24," the American television series produced by Real Time Productions and Imagine Television in association with 20th Century Fox Television. In the series, Bauer is an anti-hero who disregards human rights, due process, and anything else in the name of U.S. national security. "24," which is beginning its seventh season, has been nominated for 57 Emmy awards. By commercial television standards, "24" and Jack Bauer have achieved iconic status. Judging from the Pew Research Center poll results, Jack Bauer has replaced Jesus Christ as high priest and savior for many Americans who profess to be Christians.

If 54% of regular churchgoers consider torture often or sometimes justified, then half the people who regularly attend Christian religious services either do not understand or care that the values of Jesus Christ are not respected by or reflected in Jack Bauer's actions and motives. After all, the gospel of Christ calls on us to pray for those who persecute us, and do and say evil things to us (Matthew 5:9-12). Jesus Christ calls on us to love our enemies. As the Message puts it, "I'm telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true best selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best … to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. In a word, what I'm saying is, Grow up. You're kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you." (Matthew 5:44-48, The Message).

I do not expect Fox Television to affirm and cherish Christian ethics of love, mercy, and justice. I do not expect Imagine Television to offer programming that extols Christian generosity towards strangers and enemies. It would be admirable for that to happen, but I am not surprised that it is not the case. Fox Television is part of the commercial broadcasting industry which has long defined excellence and virtue by commercial profit-making, not justice, truth, and mercy. So I do not expect Fox Television to create a Jack Bauer who lives according to the grace and truth of Jesus Christ.

But I do expect worshippers who answer to the name of Christ to recognize that Jack Bauer is not Jesus. I expect people who fuss about biblical inerrancy to respect the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ enough to know that torture violates the essence of Christianity. I expect people who claim allegiance to the Great Commission (spreading the gospel of Christ throughout the world) to first honor the Great Commandment (love God and love neighbors—including enemy neighbors). I expect Christians to grow up in Christ when faced with terrorism, not become disciples of Jack Bauer.

Jesus described religious people who neglect justice, mercy, and faith with one word: hypocrites (Matthew 23:23). Rather than celebrating and concealing Jack Bauer-like conduct, followers of Jesus should condemn, expose, and repent about it. If we won't, we either pervert the gospel of Christ or have allowed the forces of empire to hijack it. We have no excuse when the world questions whether we truly know and believe the love and truth of God revealed in Jesus that we preach and sing about.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

A National Day of Prayer worth Observing

On April 17, 1952, President Harry S. Truman signed a bill proclaiming a National Day of Prayer to be declared by each succeeding president at an appropriate date chosen by that president. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed an amendment to that law that provides that the National Day of Prayer shall be held on the first Thursday of May. Hence, May 7, 2009 is the date designated for the 2009 National Day of Prayer. The original intent was for this to be a day when persons of all faiths could pray for the nation in their diverse ways.

Sadly, this intended time of inter-faith prayerfulness, humility, and unity appears to have become a victim to religious imperialism and Christian fundamentalism associated with Focus on the Family, the Colorado Springs, Colorado-based organization founded by James Dobson. The National Day of Prayer Task Force (NDPTF) is a non-governmental organization created by the National Prayer Committee. However, its stated purpose is to coordinate events for "evangelical Christians." When one visits the NDPTF Internet site, one learns that Mrs. Shirley Dobson is chair of the event, and that prayers are urged to be offered for U.S. government, military, media, churches, family in keeping with the Judeo-Christian tradition.

As an ordained Baptist minister, I certainly agree that prayer is urgently needed for the United States and the rest of our world. With so many people in vulnerable situations on so many levels (physically, financially, emotionally, socially, legally, and otherwise), prayers of confession,intercession, and repentance are desperately needed. We should be coming together to pray for healing, humility, and reconciliation. We should be praying for our planet, people throughout the world who are suffering, and for wisdom to be instruments of hope, unity, justice, and healing rather than agents of violence (including militarism), self-centered materialism, and imperialistic opportunism.

Yet, the efforts of the NDPTF are disquieting for several reasons.

First, the NDPTF appears more interested in using the National Day of Prayer for recruitment to its fundamentalist notion of Christianity than unifying Americans of all faith and social backgrounds. Media Matters reports that in 2004 Shirley Dobson barred Mormons from conducting services during National Day of Prayer ceremonies. Wikipedia reports that the 2008 application for volunteer coordinators required that applicants affirm their belief in biblical inerrancy, and that a previous application for Task Force coordinators included being "an evangelical Christian who has a personal relationship with Christ" and an acknowledgment that the applicant was "working for the Lord Jesus Christ ..." Such emphasis on Dobson's brand of Christianity is plainly off-putting for persons who are not Christians. It also discourages Christians who respectfully disagree with Dobson about what the Christian faith is and means from participating in National Day of Prayer activities.

The Christian fundamentalist emphasis appears elsewhere in the NDPTF website. At various points, one reads that prayer is needed because the traditional notions of family and marriage are under attack. One wonders how persons who are divorced, single-parents, and how unmarried cohabiting persons (whatever their sexual orientation might be) can comfortably consider themselves invited to join in prayer for their families alongside people who openly deny that their families are legitimate.

I do not recall that the National Day of Prayer Task Force called the nation to prayer in 2000 after the Florida vote recount was mobbed by what we now know were political operatives determined to elect George W. Bush even if it meant disenfranchising hundreds of thousands of Florida voters. I do not recall the NDPTF calling the nation to pray for forgiveness after President Bush launched the nation into war in Iraq without any provocation from Saddam Hussein or threat to the security of the U.S. from his regime. I recall no calls by the NDPTF to confess that the U.S. led invasion of Iraq converted the suffering of that society from Hussein's dictatorial brutality to U.S. imperial brutality by occupying of that country with foreign soldiers based on reasons that were ill-conceived, if not deliberately fabricated. If the NDPTF called on the nation to confess the violence--including murder--against homosexuals, I am unaware that it did so.

One searches the NDPTF website in vain for the slightest hint of repentance about torture and other inhumane treatment perpetrated against people of South Asian ethnicity and/or Islamic faith during the Bush administration's so-called "war on terror." Similarly, there is no evidence that the NDPTF considers the tragedies suffered by immigrants (including children of immigrant parents) because of state and national immigration policies and practices worth mentioning, let alone worth being prayerfully repentant about.

Thus, it appears that at some point that the NDPTF forgot (assuming that they ever believed) that the National Day of Prayer is not a sectarian or partisan observance, but a time of prayer for people of all faiths, political ideologies, and social situations. Given such glaring evidence of sectarianism, we should hope that most people of faith will not confuse the National Day of Prayer with James and Shirley Dobson, Focus on the Family, the National Day of Prayer Task Force, and an imperial Christianity agenda that tramples and marginalizes people who are poor, vulnerable, immigrant, or otherwise different from the majority of our population in the name of God and democracy. The National Day of Prayer is an American observance for people of all faiths and situations, not a forum for religious apartheid.

Finally, I agree with what Cornel West wrote in Democracy Matters when he warned that what he termed "Constantinian Christianity"--meaning a version of Christianity based on love of empire rather than a love of God for all humanity--"must not be the model of American Christian identity." As West observed, "Even the most seemingly pious can inflict great harm. Constantine himself flouted his piety even as he continued to dominate and conquer peoples.... [I]t is only with a coalition of the prophetic Christians of all colors, the prophetic Jews and Muslims and Buddhists, and the democratic secularists that we can preserve the American democratic experiment."

On May 7, I will join Americans of all faiths, colors, and backgrounds, family situations, and political ideologies (including ideologies I oppose) in prayer. I hope we pray humbly, reverently, and honestly. I hope we pray together in confession and repentance about our egregious ways of perpetrating injustice against the poor, weak, vulnerable, and unpopular. I hope we repent about our sins against the Earth and the other creatures that inhabit it. I hope we repent for our refusal to repent in years past of our glaring and our covert national sins. I hope we are thankful, hopeful, and unified in asking God to inspire our leaders to be wise, humble, compassionate, and devoted to peace through justice for all persons.

However, I have nothing but contempt for efforts to pervert the National Day of Prayer into an exercise in religious segregation, whether those efforts are taken by the NDPTF or anyone else. On May 7, I intend to be part of what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. often termed "the beloved community" in prayer, not part of a neo-Jim Crow imperial version of Christian fundamentalism.