October 10, 2014
In the realm of American citizenship, a few things have tweaked my “blog spot” this week. The jury duty issue remains unresolved, and won’t be cleared up until at least next Tuesday. But as I have been thinking about my role as a citizen, and a Christian one at that, I have uncovered some reasons for disillusionment with our constitutional democracy. Don’t get all excited reading that statement: I am not critical of our system of government in theory, but disillusionment overshadows my optimism in practice. Some specific indicators:
Many citizens show amazing enthusiasm for the privileges of American life, its constitutional protections, and its success over 238 years, but far too many of those same people complain bitterly about the responsibilities: taxes, jury duty, voting, and advocating for the common good.
Party politics has become so polarized that constructive partnership to solve common problems seems rare. Unfortunately, the two dominant parties have lost common ground over the last few decades, according to the Pew Research Center. A vote cast for one party or the other (creating a majority in Congress, for example) has come to mean that middle-of-the-road issues are not going to be addressed. So few seem willing to move toward the middle of the political spectrum to get those things done.
This year the deceptive ad campaigns for various propositions on the California ballot have already started. I say ‘deceptive’ because a columnist in our local paper goes through the broadcast ads with a fine-tooth comb to check facts. Honestly, the outdated, misconstrued, and accusatory content of these ads is just appalling. But people believe them, and vote accordingly.
Money drives everything, and, in particular, money talks a lot louder than constructive ideas for solving problems. I find this sad and frustrating. Lots and lots of money is required to keep those stupid ads on the radio, TV, and in my mailbox. But when you look at a flyer, for instance, there is not one shred of actual content you can evaluate in order to make an informed decision. What these ads are really doing is saying, “Some of us with some money are mad as heck about [this or that] and for this reason we want you to vote our way.” Great.
Freedom, one of the most highly valued American dreams, does not naturally support national unity. If you’ve got 316 million people in this country all jockeying to get their way, on their terms, you’ve got 316 million people who want to be the center of the universe. Think about it: if I have an absolute right to privacy (one form of “freedom”), for instance, I can create my own little island of self-fulfilling hedonism and close the door to responsibility for fellow citizens. In another context, if you— my CEO, my pastor, my representative, my professor—do not adopt and celebrate my ideas, I can make sure you lose your job and are shamed into obscurity. In one fell swoop, supposedly in the name of freedom many peoples’ freedoms (free speech, free expression of religion, freedom of assembly, etc.) are being intimidated into silence and inaction, dividing the nation and making unity impossible.
Tolerance, demonstrated brilliantly by our forebears in American history, has been reduced to a particular definition of what constitutes tolerance. And great intolerance is shown to those who believe and act differently that that definition allows. Two hundred years ago, tolerance was demonstrated by respect for an opposing point of view even as one argued against it. A vigorous debate was seen as good for problem solving and tension relief, but in the end compromises were made for the common good so that unity could be achieved. In general, I would say that Americans have become very intolerant, unable to conduct civil debate, and blind to common causes. It is only “what’s in it for me.”
You’ve heard a recurring theme in this piece, I hope, of common ground and the common good. I’m going to have to dig up the quotation, but one of the recent popes has said that no political/economic system has any potential unless God is recognized as the ultimate authority under which our laws and practices are ordered. So my conclusion is that the American problem is fundamentally a spiritual problem. As long as human beings must rule their own universe, they are going to be greedy, demanding, and unreasonable people. But when people submit to God, they get practiced at looking outward beyond the realm of self-satisfaction and into the public square where they can be champions of the common good. The unity I believe we used to possess, but have lost, is made possible not by everybody adopting the same specific doctrine but by everybody acknowledging a real dependence upon God, who is good and just and strong and able to help them steward the nation.
October 9, 2014
My husband and I have been hugely entertained and encouraged by the messages received in response to yesterday’s non-rhetorical question: What if a trial attorney were to ask you, “Pastor, would you be willing to put aside your Christian faith in order to be a fair and impartial juror?” My blog today could quote them all and fill this page, and I may still before the day is over. But the question itself deserves and requires some consideration simply for what it says about our culture.
Part 1: Would I be willing to put aside my Christian faith?
I first consciously committed my life to Christ forty-four years ago, though I was raised in the faith since early childhood. My faith has been tested through many challenging periods: rejection by fellow students for being the wrong brand of Christian; pressure from clergy feminists to radicalize me; marriage and the bearing of children (Martin Luther himself called the celibate priesthood a piece of cake compared to being married and supporting a family); the attempt of “clergy killers” to undermine my pastorate; theological education, both received and taught; rejection of my orthodox/biblical arguments within the judicial process of my tribe, the PC(USA); and survival of lung cancer, to name just a few. But to quote one of Barbra Streisand’s songs, “I’m still here.”
I have had many invitations to “put aside” my faith, and so far, I have not and I cannot imagine a situation in which I would ever want to, including jury service. Putting aside one’s faith compartmentalizes it (thank you, Debbie Berkley), but my faith is a way of life and as indispensible to me as the air I breathe (thank you, Jim Berkley).
From a theological point of view, is it even possible to “put aside” one’s faith as a temporary gesture? I really don’t think so, because I am not my own and was bought with a price; my faith really is not mine to put aside because God cannot be put aside. I belong to God. My life has been redeemed by the Savior. It would be extremely ungrateful of me to set aside the gracious investment God has made in my life.
If one wants to talk about putting aside one’s faith permanently, that is another discussion altogether, and one we need not get into here.
So, my answer to this part of the question is “No.” (Thank you, Steve Niccolls!)
Part 2: Does my Christian faith make me unfair and partial?
Getting out my dictionary, a few definitions are in order:
“Fair” is “in accordance with the rules or standards; just (based on or behaving according to what is morally right and fair); free from self-interest, prejudice, or favoritism.” “Impartial” is “treating all people and groups equally; not partial or biased.” “Bias” is “a tendency to believe that some people, ideas, etc., are better than others that usually results in treating some people unfairly.” Note that bias is not merely determining that a person or idea is better than others, but that it leads to treating some more harshly or leniently than others. I’ll be the first to claim that there are some really bad ideas out there, and the people who hold them may be ignorant, foolish, or malevolent. But simply holding dumb ideas is not a crime, and holding lofty thoughts does not prevent a person from doing illegal things. One overcomes bias by holding every person to the same standard of behavior, regardless of their background, race, or religious belief.
The same should go for jurors. The only time I have sat on a jury, one of the jurors declared in our deliberation that he “never believed a word a cop said, because they all lie.” It’s one thing to believe that cops lie; it’s quite another to dismiss the testimony of this police witness without running it through the same tests we do for all other testimony. That juror was showing bias and partiality. It took a full day to get him to recognize his prejudice and look at the testimony of all the witnesses consistently.
In the Christian faith, fairness is a tricky concept. We hear about it most often in our unguarded moments of claiming that God isn’t fair. This accusation is slung usually at the moment we didn’t get our own way because God somehow wasn’t treating us the same as others. But I think we can say God is fair and he is good. In fact, the Scriptures claim that God does not show favoritism (Romans 2:11). God has set up the rules and applies them consistently. By all rights, God is justified in holding us all accountable for our failure to live up to those rules. The gospel proclaims that to fulfill that justice Jesus Christ took upon himself the punishment of our sin. If you want fairness from God, then you have to let go of grace, which is unmerited favor!
By “unfair” does an attorney think a Christian juror might be too soft on crime or too harsh in judgment? Or worse, that a juror might not seriously deliberate because everybody deserves forgiveness? An attorney who thinks that about Christians has already shown bias. There is nothing unsavory about a Christian’s approach to the juror’s job, which has everything to do with hearing the evidence and evaluating the arguments of the prosecution to determine whether the accused has actually committed the crime.
So, to answer the question, can I be fair and impartial? Yes, I can!
Part 3: By your question, are you saying that my Christian faith is at odds with the judicial process and the rule of law?
“But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere” (James 3:17).
Seems to me this says that a Christian is an asset to a jury, because heavenly wisdom helps a juror hold to the belief that the accused is innocent unless proven guilty. It enables a clear eye to view the evidence, a patient ear to hear the testimony, an impartial heart that judges all people by the same standard of law, and submission to the civil authorities (Romans 13:1). And you want me to set aside my faith? I really don’t think you want that.
But, having said all that, here’s the answer that my friend Bruce Byrne would give:
“I’m not sure I could set aside my Christian faith, but if you think it would help me be a fair and impartial juror to assume that the universe (including time and space) came into existence of its own accord, that the universe just happens (against all odds) to be fine tuned for life, that life was and is merely an improbable accident, that intelligence arose from that which was non-intelligent, that consciousness arose from a complex arrangement of unconscious matter, that morality is a relic of a non-moral evolutionary process (thus making moral right and wrong not merely relative, but illusionary), that there is, therefore, no moral lawgiver behind morality, no ultimate judge, no truth beyond brute facts, no grounding for laws beyond social convention and, therefore, no basis for concluding that things like murder, theft and lying under oath are actually wrong, then sure, I’ll give it a try.”
October 8, 2014
After two postponements of my service for medical reasons, finally on October 1 I appeared at the county courthouse for jury duty. The long wait to be called into the courtroom was ameliorated by a pleasant, spacious jury assembly room and the discovery that a friend was also in my group. At 9:45 we were finally brought into the courtroom, “Department 8” to be exact, where we were given the standard civics lesson on the importance of jury service.
And then I found out that the trial for which a jury was being selected was a three-week criminal trial. Oh, no! I had cleared my calendar for three days, but not three weeks! The judge explained what circumstances constituted a hardship, and what did not, and my business trip next week did not pass muster. After all the preambles, and with high expectations that I would be dismissed simply because I am a pastor (assumed from previous experience), I still hoped I would be there only one day. Instead, the judge explained that my group was Group 3 of the jury pool, and the attorneys were still working on voir dire for Groups 1 and 2. Group 3 was instructed to come back the following Tuesday (yesterday, October 7).
Now things begin to get a little wacky in my mind: On the one hand I want to be part of our judicial system and do my civic duty. I don’t even mind dealing with the particular accusations to be evaluated in this trial (it sounds like it could get ugly). But what am I to do with my future plans, which must now be considered “on hold” until I am dismissed from this jury pool (still hopeful thinking)?
I returned to the courthouse yesterday after feeding a ten-hour parking meter with quarters. The hallway outside the courtroom was packed with people. We were told Groups 1, 2 and 3 were all here to continue the jury selection process. It was standing-room only, while the judge explained that Groups 1 and 2 still had not been screened completely, so Group 3 was instructed to go home and come back next Tuesday, October 14. I asked the clerk in the hallway if we would be informed if the selection were completed by the end of the day. She said yes, we would be called if that happened, but then added, “There’s no way, though. This jury selection process is not going well and will take forever. Your business trip next week is [toast].”
So this morning, after giving the court time to call me that they did not need me after all (hope springs eternal), I cancelled my trip to the Common Ground Christian Network meeting outside Atlanta next week. And I am left thinking, okay, could I have gotten out of this civic obligation some way?
The talk around me in the courthouse hallway included speculation about how one could get out of service. I was amazed at how often the option to lie about bias, hardship, or health was mentioned. I was surprised by the number of people who do not want to participate in the judicial system for one reason or another (inconvenience, sense of futility, disillusionment, or financial impacts). Some expressed concern about their employers’ reactions to their absence, even though penalties for jury service are illegal. My overall impression was that jury service never comes at a good time for anyone, it does involve sacrifice, and it seemed socially acceptable to do anything to avoid it.
Despite all this, I came to the conclusion that I didn’t want to get out of jury duty. I want to serve, because I think juries need pastors every once in awhile. Those of you who know me from BC days are aware that judicial process is fascinating (even when aggravating) to me. But aside from that, it is one simple opportunity to put up or shut up, as an American citizen.
Given the difficulties of finding a jury for the present case, the chances that I will be called are pretty slim. But eventually, those attorneys are going to run out of preemptory challenges and a jury pool, and twelve people are going to land in the jury box eventually. Will I be one of them? I still must wait a few days to find out.
In the meantime, I am trying to get my sermon done for October 19. The text is Hebrews 12:1-11, which includes verse 7: “Endure trials for the sake of discipline.” Double meaning aside, even this convoluted process can be used by God to help me learn something, to grow in my faith, to mature in discipleship, and to share in God’s holiness (vs. 10). Now that the hard part is done, cancelling my visit to Atlanta, I choose not to grit my teeth and grouse until the trial thing is over. I choose instead to act responsibly, honestly, and diligently, as difficult as that might become, simply because I am a Jesus-follower who welcomes a challenge as a teachable moment. And since I also believe that nothing is wasted in God’s economy, even this experience will be useful in the future.
Tomorrow: What if a trial attorney were to ask you, “Pastor, would you be willing to put aside your Christian faith in order to be a fair and impartial juror?”
October 6, 2014
Quite often I find myself asking the question, “How did things get this way?” particularly in reference to my tribe, the PC(USA), but also to the culture developing around us all. It is safe to say that we are shaped over time, individually and corporately. The way things are now is the result of decades of shaping mechanisms at work in and among us. You could say the same for any culture anywhere in the world, but my experience limits my thinking to American culture.
This weekend I had a chance to air my brains out as I breathed in sea air and enjoyed miles and miles of hiking. My thoughts turned to how my parents, both deceased, shaped me. Though my personality type was quite different from theirs (which is important to note since a lot of their discipline was aimed at producing offspring to be like them), their relentless discipline did shape my mind, my emotions, my musicality, and my faith. There were a lot of baby steps watched and encouraged along the way; they also shut some doors while opening others. Pleasing them required a lot of energy, and I was not necessarily successful; but it wasn’t until I hit my 20s that I really felt that God’s hand in shaping me was stronger than my parents’.
As God shaped the people Israel—starting with Abraham’s call in Genesis 12 and intensifying at the time of the Exodus and wilderness wandering—he did so out of love and desire for covenant relationship. In order for the Hebrews to love and appreciate God, they were going to have to understand the righteousness, justice, and holiness that made God tick. How fortunate they were for God to reveal himself, speak to them, and point them in the direction that would bring them life and prosperity as a people. Deuteronomy 4:32-34 picks up this theme with the comment that YHWH God connected with a called and chosen people, creating a completely unique circumstance for which they should be extremely grateful. The passage goes on:
To you it was shown so that you would acknowledge that the LORD is God; there is no other besides him. From heaven he made you hear his voice to discipline you. On earth he showed you his great fire, while you heard his words coming out of the fire. And because he loved your ancestors, he chose their descendants after them. He brought you out of Egypt with his own presence, by his great power. . .” (Deuteronomy 4:35-37).
God showed his love to Israel by disciplining them, by instructing them, by setting parameters that would keep them safe spiritually. He is still doing this today, albeit by means other than pillars of fire or stone tablets. From a New Testament perspective, we understand that Jesus, the Word become flesh, embodied God’s self-revelation. The Holy Spirit dwells in each believer’s heart by faith, to be God’s voice and instructor and even a loving drill sergeant when that is what we need. To actually know God, to have a relationship with him, and to have his Word is not to be taken lightly! Consider everyone else in the world who worships gods that have no power, that cannot hear or speak, and actually do not care for the well-being of their followers.
But God insists that if we are people of his possession, then we must welcome the discipline he gives. We are given many privileges as children of God, but we are not given the prerogative of determining on our own what is right and wrong. God has been extraordinarily gracious to let us know what is right and to point us toward the life that results.
Unfortunately, ever since Eve, we have been having our adolescent rebellion. Just like I did as a kid, we go off and experiment with some other way of living, if only to irritate our parents and assert our independence. The difference in the spiritual realm is that independence from God is self-destructive.
If only we could truly embrace the love of the Father and trust Christ as Teacher and Lord! With God’s help, we can grow up and find ourselves. The God-centered life is what we were designed to live, and we are most fully ourselves when we are not the center of our universe.
I fear, however, that aspects of PC(USA) life are in active rebellion against God, and the church is going to suffer great damage as a result. We are in a period of ecclesiastical experimentation, trying out new ways of worship, theology, and relationships. The experiments that are not God-centered are going to come back to haunt us. When we lose sight of God’s definition of acceptable behavior and weaken a good system of discipline that holds us accountable to God and to each other, we suffer. When we lose a desire to please God, we get lost in self-orientation. We are so hell-bent on making sure God is pleased with us despite what we are doing, we are dulled to God’s requirements and empowerment to live for him. Consequently, our hearing goes bad as we let the world’s voices blare and drown out the voice of the Holy Spirit in the Scriptures.
What the denomination does is one thing. But what are you and I to do to stay alive spiritually? God calls us to obedience for our own good:
So acknowledge today and take to heart that the LORD is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath; there is no other. Keep his statutes and his commandments, which I am commanding you today for your own well-being and that of your descendants after you, so that you may long remain in the land that the LORD your God is giving you for all time. (Deuteronomy 4:39f)