Tuesday, July 23, 2013

More Thoughts about Social Justice and Faith

Written for the August, 2013, church newsletter:

Dear Friends,

An extraordinary event is coming up for the Eggebeens - a reunion of a group of pastors with whom Donna and I began our life in the PCUSA. For all of us, it was our first time in ministry - we were all young, and all fresh out of seminary, and now we're all retired, at the end of our separate journeys, yet out time together in the West Virginia Mountain Project shaped us for the rest of our lives.

With one of the couples, we've been fortunate to stay in touch; with the other two, only marginally. But we're all getting together this September in San Jose where one of the couples live. The other two couples are traveling respectively from Pennsylvania and Virginia. 

We're writing reflection papers, and here's something I recently wrote:

Ever since my first pastorate (1970-71) in the coal fields of Southern West Virginia, I realized that Christianity and justice belong together, that Christianity has the wherewithal to deal with economic questions and the power to challenge the powers-that-be. 

Yet, I also learned, that American Christianity, under the Reformation notion of "salvation for eternal life," has been used to quiet people's unrest in the present order by offering them a sop for some future joy.

For those who lived in the powerful regions of the nation, with large homes and shiny cars, enjoying fine choirs and eloquent preachers, this was a convenient kind of Christianity. They, too, would be going to heaven, but, in the meantime, they were at liberty to enjoy the fruits of their labors - that such fruit was plucked out of the mouths of babes and out of the hands of sweat-drenched workers was of no account to them. Perhaps this is what God ordained.

These experience and observations have been the energy of my theology and sociology throughout my ministry. A Christianity that has the power to do something and chooses not to, opting for some sort of "inner peace with eternal hope" is no Christianity at all. And it's no wonder that most of the Western World, where this kind of Christianity has had the greatest influence, is rejecting it. And it can't happen soon enough.

With that, here are some further reflections: I have spent my entire ministry trying to put one-and-one together - social justice and faith in Jesus. 

Even in seminary days, I recall thinking: strong faith in Jesus equals strong social justice; they walk hand-in-hand with one another. 

To separate them does several damaging things: 1) though social justice can stand on its own - we all know what's right, and what fair means - nonetheless, without a faith-foundation of some kind, social justice can lose its bearings and its energy, though social justice without faith fares a whole lot better than faith without social justice. 2) Faith without social justice is no faith at all, but only Marx's "opiate of the people," mostly used by the comfortable to insulate themselves from reality, and to "calm the rabble," lest they demand from the comfortable their fair share.

No doubt, social justice doesn't need faith to survive, and God be praised for that. God sees to it that social justice can stand on it's own (though I believe social justice without faith is like song lyrics without the music). And if someone asks me, "What kind of faith" I reply, "Just about anything that has a transcendent dimension to it - that of a scientist in awe before the universe or a child's prayer before bedtime, and it's to be found, as well, in all the religions of the world."

As for faith, God designed faith in such a way that it needs social justice to be faith, and without social justice, God sees to it that faith becomes deeply twisted and malignant. Sadly, it creates terrible conditions for those who practice faith without social justice, and does great harm to those who are the objects of faith-preaching without social justice.

Of this kind of Christianity, God is cleansing the world, I believe. The demise of Western Christendom is very much the result of God's housecleaning.

I eagerly anticipate our reunion and hearing from my colleagues their stories of faith, hope and love.

Pastor Tom 

Monday, July 15, 2013

A White-Bread Boy

A White-Bread Boy, that’s what I am … to the core, pure, plain and simple.

Mom was of German ancestry, her family arriving here in 1848.

Dad was of Dutch stock, his family arriving here in the 1890s.

And we were racist to the core … deeply religious, too. We all loved Jesus, went to evangelical Reformed Churches, served the LORD and abided in God’s word … and racist to the core.

That’s how I grew up.

In Wisconsin and Western Michigan … I’ll not rehearse the ugliness of it all, but ugly it was, and I was pretty damn ugly, too, as were all my high school and church friends - the whole white environment, establishment, and their world of Christian Schools and Churches, filled to the brim, Sunday morning and Sunday evening, with Wednesday evening catechism and prayer meetings. Not a person of color to be found anywhere, except in missionary tales of Deepest Darkest Africa. Everyone was pious, and when I was 15 or 16, I bought me a big ol’ Thompson Chain Reference Bible, King James, of course, and in that Bible, I could find a verse for everything, but especially for proving how right everyone was, and I carried it to church, too. I was into god, and, yes, God was into me, too … in ways I would only much later discern, and for that, I’m grateful. That this innocent/guilty White-Bread Racist Boy was still the object of God’s mercy.

To make a long story a little shorter, it was in college, Calvin College, that I was converted. With everlasting thanks, I note two professors in particular who opened my mind and my heart: Professor Roger Rice, Sociologist, who had us read Michael Harrington’s The Other America. And Professor Donald Wilson, Anthropologist, who told chilling stories of missionary zeal and cultural abuse. To this day, I recall both professors, and give thanks for my conversion to a gospel that I had “known” all of my life, and with hymns, sung and fine doctrinal preaching; but, now, for the first time in my life, I saw a larger world, and the folly of my faith, the harm it’s done and the callous manner in which it sided with the racist patterns of America.

Maybe I’m alone in this - the way I raised, with plenty of religion and plenty of racism - and finally, by the grace of God, beginning to figure it out: that religion and racism do not belong together, and where there is racism, the professed faith is more an illusion than a reality, more about heaven, of course, and so little about this world, other than avoiding its taint, doing what could be done to convert lost souls and persevering to the end. Meanwhile, it’s okay to fear and hate your neighbor, if they’re persons of color, because they’ll come into the neighborhood, and there goes the neighborhood. And if met on the street, be careful - they’re all dangerous.

I’ve learned a lot over the years, and I’m still learning. 

When I was in Detroit, I learned that in the postal system there, well up into the 80s, white supervisors routinely assisted white applicants with the testing, even adjusting scores, while making it virtually impossible for African-Americans to enter the system.

Never once in my whole life have I been humiliated because of my color. Never once. Never once have I been denied anything because of color. Never once.

I now have African-American relatives, and I’ve learned a few things from them.

It’s not a pretty picture, and there’s no end to the humiliation they’ve experienced - centuries of it, to this very day.

Perhaps the Trayvon Martin jury decided correctly - it was just too difficult to prove, either second-degree murder or manslaughter.

But for many African-Americans, it’s just one more humiliation, one more moment in a long and sad history of discrimination - the failure of virtually every system in America - schools, churches and courts.

I was a racist, and though much of it has been removed from my life, the stains remain on my soul and in my memories - stains that can’t be removed, and that’s all right, because then I can never claim innocence. 

So I know racism, because shreds of it still flow around the dark edges of my spirit and mind. I hate it, but that’s the way it is. It’s my reality, and if there’s grace in this world, it can operate only in my reality. Grace, thankfully, doesn’t need a clean environment in which to do its work. Though grace cleanses, not even grace can remove the stains of the past.

So I know racism when I see it in others, because I know it so well in my own life.

The racist looks at the Trayvon Martin story and says, “Justice was done.” That’s that, and like Lady MacBeth, simply washes her hands, endlessly.

But I look at it and say, “It’s one more sad chapter in a story of unrelenting sorrow and humiliation.”

I cannot pretend this kind of hurt isn’t real. It is real, all too real, for millions of people.

I will not close my eyes to the sorrow of others, and though the jury may have rightly ruled, though I think not, many in our nation see this as one more episode of justice denied, a moment filled with all the usual suspects of hoodies, black teens, white women frightened, racist males acting tough with a gun in their hand, nonchalant police and courtrooms where defending white honor is more important than the truth.

That’s how I see it.

And don’t anyone tell me I don’t know what racism is.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

A Post-Trial Statement - Calvary Presbyterian Church, Hawthorne, CA

Sunday, July 14, 2013 … a statement - Calvary Presbyterian Church, Hawthorne, CA

My heart is troubled.

I am deeply disappointed with George Zimmerman’s acquittal … I believe he was guilty of manslaughter … he provoked the encounter with Trayvon Martin when advised to stand down. Then, in the fight, with Trayvon getting the upper hand, George Zimmerman used his gun to kill the boy.

That’s how I see it!

I know that some feel justice was done.

I know that others feel betrayed by a legal system that has far too often revealed its tragic weaknesses.

While we live in a land of laws, however noble and good those laws may be on a piece of paper, they are good only when interpreted by good people who strive for the common good and not just their own good … and those laws, however noble, are noble only when noble people put them into practice, consistently for all.

There are many questions here that Christians need to ponder … the last thing God needs from us is to retreat from reality, to hide in our prayers and songs. We have to live in this world, as it is, if we hope to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.

No one lights a lamp, said Jesus, and then covers it with a bushel. No, the lamp is lit for a purpose - to let our light shine, that others will see our good works and praise our Father in heaven.

A part of our good works is to bring to the matters of life our very best in faith, hope and love, critical thought and keen assessment … and to live the LORD’s Prayer, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

If we are convinced that God’s will was done yesterday, then so be it. Be at peace.

As for me, I believe the legal system failed God’s will yesterday in Florida, as it has failed for millions of people in this nation - and sadly, it’s has failed miserably for people of color. That’s a fact, and we cannot and must not hide from the truth, ugly as it is.

I pray that calm heads will review these matters, and that Christians will raise up the bright light of justice … and seek the common good … for all Americans, whatever their color, whatever their race, whatever their religious persuasion.

Christians have a chance to set the pace, and hold before the world something better.

May it be so … unto the glory of God!

The Rev. Dr. Tom Eggebeen

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Reality, Greed and Gordon Gecko

I write the following out of my own Christian convictions and Presbyterian history - there is no such thing as "earned" wealth - there is no such thing as "hard work" that elevates one over another; there is no such thing, as I often hear, "The harder I work, the luckier I am."

I heard that once years ago from a successful businessman - I knew then that something was wrong about it, because at the very center of it stood the singular word, "I".

In simple terms: behind all success stands the mysteries of life, stuff we didn't invent, and stuff that mostly manipulates us, for whatever reasons there may be - either of divine purpose, genetic impulse or evolutionary drift.

Behind all success stands, then, a long line of free lunches, gifts from life to us.

The "hard work" touted by some as their own is an illusion of the worst kind. Their values and their health come from beyond themselves. Ask someone who's ill about "hard work." Any attempt to lay personal claim, on any of this, leads only to bragging and pride, and we all know what that does to the core of our being.

Behind all success, the simple mysteries: the family we didn't choose, the values of faith, hope and love, that were given. The schools we attended, and the teachers who believed in us even when we didn't believe in ourselves.

The banker who gave us a loan when no one else would. All along the way, folks who stood by us, helped us, and encouraged us, and a God who made it all possible, who wove it all together that we might find life and do something with it.

I know there are lots of "theological" questions swirling around this right now, but I'm content to speak of "telos," that is, the purpose toward which all life reaches, and it's always greater than the individual, or even a society.

The upshot of this is simple: there is but one response to life - and that's gratitude, and it's sibling, generosity.

Sin creates the Gordon Gecko syndrome. Reality creates kindness. Sadly, Gordon Gecko won the last 30 years of American History: "Greed works."

But it doesn't. It divides one from the other and posits in the soul of the successful unmitigated pride which is deadly to the soul, and nothing deader than a successful person who has consumed large quantities of pride, even when that pride is dressed up in religious language and Jesus-talk - some of the very worst examples of souls deadened with pride.

I return to something I wrote a few days back: "A wealthy person, a successful person, can only say one thing, 'I've been damn lucky!'" To say anything else, as if they had a hand in it, is a lie, an illusion, a deadly sin.