You are hereBishop Spong's Articles December 2010
Bishop Spong's Articles December 2010
December 2, 2010
My grandfather, Augustus Maye Spong, died in the influenza epidemic, which accompanied and followed World War I. He was 57. I never knew him since his death occurred twelve years before I was born. I was told, however, of the cause of his death, as this trauma lived on in our family's history. Recently, drawn by that memory, I discovered and read a massive study of that sickness entitled The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in Human History, by John M. Barry. It was both a frightening and a fascinating literary work and one that made me aware of many things I had not known before, even while it refreshed my memory on many others.
I was not aware, for example, of the world-wide dimensions of this disease, which, according to the best and most reliable estimates, was directly responsible for the deaths of somewhere between 50 and 100 million people. To put that number into perspective, the total number of deaths in World War II, including both military and civilian personnel, is reliably placed today at 100 million. This disease struck this nation with such sudden fury that perfectly healthy people would first experience a slight fever and then be dead in three days. The resources of the medical world were overwhelmed. Calls went out from hospitals and health organizations to anyone who had any nursing training, even including those who had dropped out of nursing schools, and nurses' aides to volunteer to assist the patients, who were flooding our hospitals. Funeral homes across America ran out of coffins, as did those funeral homes' ability to send for and to collect the bodies of the dead. With deceased loved ones, uncollected and, therefore, unembalmed, still at home, the odors of death began to permeate the neighborhoods. Finally horse-drawn wagons were sent out to retrieve the dead, who were then stacked unceremoniously on top of each other as they were carted away. Sometimes small towns in the rural areas set up vigilante squads to guard the entrances to their communities in order to keep strangers who might be carriers of the virus from contaminating their people. Nothing, however, slowed this virus' rampage.
Preachers, assuming that this disease was a manifestation of the wrath of an angry deity, used this epidemic to warn people to stop their evil ways. That idea had wide credibility in the 14th century when the Black Death wiped out one fifth of Europe's population. The scandal of having two popes, one in Rome and one in Avignon, was the most popular reason given for God sending this extreme punishment. Although that understanding of God was not nearly so prevalent during the 1918 epidemic, conservative religious leaders still employed it, citing as the reason for God's anger the acceptance of the thought of Charles Darwin, the rise of Marxism and people in America abandoning the "old time gospel." This kind of theology has all but died today. When Pat Robertson alleged that God sent the earthquake to Haiti as punishment for the Haitians having made "a pact with the devil," to throw out the French, his words only provided fodder for the late night comedians.
On a far more profound level than this, however, Barry's book on this killing epidemic forced me to think about human interdependence more deeply that I have ever done before. One of the characteristics of the American psyche is a commitment to a radical kind of individualism. This comes out of our own frontier history and is today hailed as part of what constitutes the "American Spirit." We see that commitment to radical individualism at the expense of the well-being of society in such ways as when the National Rifle Association appeals to this aspect of our national life to oppose any limit being placed on any citizen's right to bear arms of almost any description; in the recent health care debate, where individual freedom was opposed to corporate need, and in the rising tide of negativity against "the government," which dared to rescue institutions deemed "too big to fail," lest the whole economy collapse.
There is surely a rational midpoint between a totally free market economy that operates without any or very minimal government regulation and a totally dependent society where government regulates all of life, but our political system has a hard time discovering it as each party demonizes the other, producing only gridlock and frustration. Political rhetoric in American today is so extreme that cooperation and compromise have become "dirty words." No sense of interdependence seems to exist.
Nothing reveals human interdependence, however, more than an epidemic. All classes, races and varieties of people are at risk. The influenza virus mutates more rapidly than the vaccinations can keep up. No man (or woman) is an island that is somehow separate from the environment of the rest of the world. The ability of a virus to jump from birds to human beings is what created the influenza pandemic in the first place. The ability of a virus to leap from monkeys to human beings created the AIDS epidemic. New outbreaks that had the potential to become pandemics have occurred more often than most of us would like to know since the great epidemic of 1918. There is little question that another pandemic is in our future. The question is when, not if.
National boundaries, essential to our individual tribal consciousness, offer no protection against the invasion of viruses. A disease born among the poor does not stay in the poverty community. Inner-city plagues do not stop at the boundaries of suburbia. African viruses do not remain in Africa. The idea that health care is the privilege of those who can afford it is nonsensical, when we realize that human health is so deeply interdependent. The libertarian protest against requiring healthcare assumes that disease can be contained once an infection is loosed upon the world. Preserving individualism in a radically interdependent world is a balancing act that requires genius and sensitivity. It does not lend itself to politics as it is played in partisan circles today.
So is there an answer besides "do nothing and hope for the best?" Yes there is, but I see no reason to believe that anyone in this nation or around the world has the will or the courage to do what needs to be done. First, limits must be placed on population growth. Second, the World Health Organization must be given the power to deal with pandemics and to act across national boundaries. Third, health care, including preventive medicine, must be democratized and become available to every human being. The cost of not doing this will be far more expensive than the cost of doing it. Fourth, willingness must be found on the part of all parties to put the preservation of our environment ahead of individual needs or corporate profits, and that in turn would inevitably lower the standard of living for everyone in the developed world. Is any of this likely to happen? No, because no one will surrender individual power for the sake of the good of the whole, until they are driven to do so for fear of losing all that they have.
Capitalism almost died in the Great Depression of the 1930's. It was saved by the willingness of Western governments to temper capitalism with an adequate safety net for the poor, through which no one would be allowed to fall. It involved expanding the graduated income taxes, which are in reality a "Robin Hood" program of taking from the rich for the benefit of the poor. It also involved social security, welfare programs and vast amounts of money being invested in public education, which has traditionally been the doorway out of poverty for the masses. By tempering individualistic capitalism to provide for the well-being of all, capitalism was not compromised, but saved.
In the 2008 economic meltdown another world wide depression was averted, but only by a whisker. The economies of the developed nations of the world continue to be fragile. Nations like Greece, Ireland, and Portugal are still on the edge and nations like the United States, Russia, Great Britain, Germany and Japan carry a crippling national debt. Despite that frightening moment, there are today loud political voices calling this nation to return to the very attitudes and practices that brought us to this alarming edge, because the common good appears not to matter to those who cannot see beyond what they naively assume is their individual well-being. The public debate sounds incredulous. To cut social security and benefits for the poor because of the huge national debt and at the same time to give the wealthy of America a tax break is crazy, no matter how it is packaged. To dismantle public education while at the same time allowing off-shore tax shelters for American business is ludicrous. I have no desire to destroy capitalism, but I do have a desire to create basic fairness in our economic choices. How that is to be achieved in our present political climate I do not know, but I do know that it must be done, because the destiny of each one of us is ultimately bound up with the destiny of all of us. That is what reading a book on the influenza epidemic of 1918-19 did to my thought processes.
– John Shelby Spong
With John Shelby Spong
Peggy Goldsmith, via the Internet, writes:
You wrote in one of your columns recently "One reads the writings of some of the figures of history like Irenaeus, Polycarp, John Chrysostom and even Martin Luther for documentation of the deep anti–Semitism that has marked Christianity over the centuries." In those writings, Jews were described as "vermin" and "unfit for life." How do you think those writers reconciled the fact that Jesus is a Jew?
Prejudice is never rational. I grew up in a southern Christian church, Holy Comforter Episcopal Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, where I was taught that segregation was the will of God, that women were by nature inferior to men, that homosexuals were either mentally sick or morally depraved and that Jews were all Christ killers. Interestingly enough, the Bible was quoted to justify each of these prejudices.
Most of my anti–Semitism I actually learned in that church through my Sunday school material. I never met a good Jew in Sunday school. Jews were always pictured as dark, sinister figures who had names I was taught to dislike, such as Annas, Caiaphas, Sadducees, Pharisees and Judas Iscariot. Jews were only portrayed as the enemies of Jesus and of Paul and the ones who brought about the crucifixion of Jesus and the persecution of Paul.
No one in my Sunday school ever told me that Jesus was a Jew. When I looked at pictures of him, he did not look like my image of what Jews were supposed to look like. He had blond hair, blue eyes and fair skin. I thought he might have been a Swede!
No one also ever told me that all of Jesus' disciples were Jews, that Joseph and Mary were Jews, that Paul and Magdalene were Jews or that all of the authors of the various books in the Bible were Jews either by birth or in the case of Luke alone, by conversion.
So it is easy for me to understand how it was that Christians through the centuries, out of a deep, rampant and uninformed hatred, simply repressed the Jewishness of Jesus in order to continue their persecution of the Jewish people. It is also embarrassing and regrettable to realize that so much of our cultural anti–Semitism has been nothing less than the gift of the followers of Jesus to the world.
Once we raise history to consciousness, it is imperative that we act to dismantle it. That is the only way I know to be faithful to the Jewish Jesus.
– John Shelby Spong
An Adventure At a Law School
Recently, I spoke at the Law School of Marquette University, a Jesuit institution in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. My topic was "Homosexuality and the Law." It was in many ways a fascinating experience. I was introduced by an attractive, bright second year law school student, who, I gathered, had worked very hard to have me invited. She was raised in the Roman Catholic Church and is an out of the closet lesbian, who plans to be married next summer in Dubuque, Iowa, where gay marriages are both recognized and legal.
My purpose in this address was to demonstrate how changes in cultural norms occur in all branches of knowledge, certainly including science, law and religion, and that this is what makes it possible to dismiss yesterday's inadequate understandings and to find both the courage and the ability to embrace new realities. There is no such thing, I asserted, as unchanging truth since truth must always be expressed in ever-changing human propositional statements. Whenever any understanding or perception of reality is put into words, these words are captured by the level of knowledge and even the always subjective words of the one speaking and, thus, inevitably that person's words share in a time-bound and time warped view of the world. There is no possibility that human propositional statements could ever become eternally true.
People do not seem to recognize that there were many scientists in the 17th century who challenged the new insights of Galileo and who regarded Galileo as a disturber of settled truth. There were also many biologists in the 19th century who challenged the new insights of Charles Darwin. The great Albert Einstein was himself unable to adapt to the idea of quantum weirdness developed by fellow physicist Niels Bohr. Knowledge is always growing and expanding. There are no such things as inerrant formulations of truth, not in the scriptures or in the presumed infallible proclamations of any ecclesiastical figure, despite what people have claimed for both.
I listen today, sometimes with despair sometimes with amusement, to passionate, but naïve politicians who want to defend something they call a "strict constructionist" view of the Constitution of the United States. Both my despair and my amusement come from their apparent inability to understand how time-warped the Constitution is. When politicians hear that statement they react exactly like biblical fundamentalists do when someone says that the Bible is filled with both human and divine negativity. These politicians are not aware that the Constitution defined slaves as three-fifths of a human being. They do not realize that the Constitution refused to allow women the privilege of voting until it was amended in 1920? Another of our sacred national documents, the Declaration of Independence, proclaimed that "we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." These powerful words were written, however, by a slave holder who quite obviously used the word "men" as a synonym for "human" and then defined "human" as being both white and male. A "strict constructionist" in political circles is what a biblical fundamentalist is in religious circles. Their words sound good, but they consist of uninformed, empty rhetoric. "Strict constructionism" really means "I want to be assured that the Constitution confirms my present prejudices." Biblical fundamentalism regards the Bible in the same exact way.
It is this idea of "strict constructionism" in regard to the Bible that has caused that text to be used in the cause of homophobia just as it was previously used in defense of racism and the sexist oppression of women. No biblical scholar today could ever mold the nine obscure passages in the entire Bible that homophobic people quote so regularly into an intelligent and credible argument to oppose today equal rights and justice for the lesbian, gay, transgender and bi-sexual members of our society. Such an argument would simply carry no weight in any court of law. Yet in religious circles of our society these nine texts are still used without embarrassment by religious spokespersons as if they still had some claim to either credibility or respectability. The undoubted facts are that all of the objective medical and scientific data available in our world today asserts that no human beings choose their sexual orientation, they simply awaken to it. To discriminate against homosexual people because they are not heterosexual makes about as much rational sense as our culture's historic discrimination against women because they are not men, our racist discrimination against people of color because they are not white, or our discrimination against left-handed people because they are not right handed. Each of these arguments once employed to sustain each of these long dead prejudices is now simply being recycled to sustain our irrational attitudes toward the homosexual population today. As such they are little more than expressions of prejudiced ignorance.
The last stand in the battle against all prejudices is seen in the almost inevitable suggestion by those resisting change, that these issues should be submitted to a referendum of the voters. The hope here is that there is still enough latent homophobia in the culture that a majority can be achieved in opposition to the constitutional rights of this minority. They also know how to manipulate the electorate. Public relations firms will be hired to frame the issue in such a way as to maximize fear. Hate money will pour from wealthy, but uninformed sources and be used to demonize gay people with both weird stories and veiled innuendos about how gay marriage will "weaken traditional marriage." No one ever quite says just how that weakening will occur, but the seeds of fear are planted. That is why equal protection under the law can never properly be the subject of a popular referendum. No benefit, including the benefits of marriage that has been extended to one citizen can be arbitrarily denied to another. That is the guarantee of the Constitution. People fail to realize that if a vote is allowed on a constitutional right, that vote by itself would transform this nation from a constitutional democracy, which guarantees the rights of the minority, into a "mobocracy" in which the rights of any minority could be submitted to the will of the majority. That is the prescription for tyranny.
To my audience at Marquette's Law School I stated my conviction that the time has come for religious leaders, from the Pope to Pat Robertson, to take responsibility for the uninformed and uneducated homophobia, which emanates from their lips on a regular basis. Homosexual persons are not deviant, as the Pope continues to state, nor are they sinful as Pat Robertson regularly asserts. There is a huge difference between being a minority and being abnormal! Homosexuals are a minority that is all. So are left handed people, red headed people and at least in the western world, people of color. Yet many religious leaders continue to proclaim them abnormal. Ignorance is no less ignorant when it is either spoken by religious people or perfumed with pious rhetoric. No one should hesitate to confront any persons who seek to shape public opinion when those persons reveal how hopelessly out of date they are on the subject about which they continue to make public pronouncements.
When I finished this address one person, who identified himself as both a law professor and a Jesuit priest, sought to defend his church's position that homosexuality is "deviant." It does not mean, he said, that homosexual people themselves are deviant; it means that they deviate from the norm, which is that the purpose of human life is to reproduce itself. This has been the church's consistent position, he stated, as it stretches from Aristotle to Thomas Aquinas. Since homosexual persons, he continued, cannot or will not do that they are therefore "deviant."
It was as weird a line of reasoning as I have ever encountered. First, the idea that because it comes from Aristotle through Aquinas means that it is consistent, does not rule out the possibility that it has been consistently wrong. Second, for anyone to suggest that truth has been captured in the writings of Aristotle who lived some 2400 years ago or in the work of Aquinas, who lived about 700 years ago is patently absurd. Third, I asked by what act of hubris comes the power to define the norm as that which has been bequeathed from Aristotle, to Aquinas and thus to the Roman Catholic Church? Fourth, I pointed out that such an argument would also call childless couples deviant and since most of us will ultimately reach the place in life in which we can no longer reproduce ourselves biologically, such a position would suggest that the end of every human life is to become deviant. Fifth, I wondered out loud how it was that this church, which requires celibacy for the prie sthood, could define the norm for non-deviant humanity in such a way as to suggest that celibacy itself participates in deviancy. I read this line of argumentation as that coming from a person embarrassed by his church's position and seeking a way to make its unacceptable quality palatable. Once again, it was apparent to me that arguments designed to defend prejudices are never rational. That is why they must be wrapped inside the convoluted language of most "religious reasoning." That conversation alone was worth the trip to Milwaukee.
Prior to my lecture, I attended a class on the legal issues facing gay and lesbian married couples. It was a "matter of fact class" where the exercise of the day was to develop a pre-nuptial agreement between a wealthy lesbian and her much poorer potential mate. So while the Jesuit professor defended the definition of homosexual people as "deviant", the Marquette Law School was quietly preparing its students to live in the world where gay marriage and gay equality before the law are both inevitable. The time has come to say so boldly. This debate is old, tired and increasingly irrelevant. Let's be done with it.
– John Shelby Spong
Question and Answer
With John Shelby Spong
Swmbo via the Internet, writes:
It is more and more becoming my belief that Jesus shows us more about what humanity truly is than what divinity is. As I hopefully expand my Christian understandings, I am now 74, I find I am expanding my humanity. I call myself an existential Christian. Is this too limiting a theology?
I find your definition "spot on" as the English say. It is actually amusing to see how religious people through the ages convince themselves that they knew what divinity was and that they could actually define it. I wonder where they saw divinity, how they knew it was divinity and why they believed that the realm of the divine could actually be accessed by the human mind.
Divinity is a human word, created to describe a human experience. It is not a concept revealed from on high. It took me a lifetime to break this standard religious understanding, but I finally did and came out quite near to where you describe yourself as being. I now believe that divinity is a word we created to describe the fullness of humanity when we escape its limits. I have also become convinced that the way into divinity is identical with the journey into the self and that the way to be divine is to be fully human.
When I wrote Jesus for the Non-Religious, I took that concept and definition and used it as the lens through which I looked at Jesus of Nazareth. The result was, at least for me, salutary.
– John Shelby Spong
Thursday December 23, 2010
To My Subscribers
On December 24th, 1974 I delivered in my Church in Richmond, Virginia, a sermon, which sought to put the Christmas story into a modern context through the medium of poetry. It was based on an earlier poem I had written, entitled Christpower. In 1975 this Christmas piece was incorporated into and published along with other poems of mine in a limited, coffee table size volume, all of which were arranged by a gifted Richmond poet named Lucy Newton Boswell Negus. When that printing was sold out, like so many other books, it became little more than a memory. When I published Jesus for the Non-Religious in 2007, however, I decided to frame the content of that book between a new poem (my first in almost thirty years), entitled The Lament of a Be liever in Exile, and the original Christpower poem. These two pieces, acting as bookends for the new book, told the story of my own theological growth and development. That book then created new interest in the original CHRISTPOWER volume, causing St. Johann's Press in Haworth, New Jersey, to bring it out again in an edited, revised, updated and inclusive language version. This happened in November of 2007. For my Christmas column each year since I have offered the updated version of that Christmas story in poetry. I hope it brings with it the meaning of this season for all my readers.
I thank you for being part of this growing community of people who through this column seek the eternal meaning beneath the traditional symbols of the ancient Christ story. A blessed Christmas to you all.
– John Shelby Spong
Far back beyond the beginning,
stretching out into the unknowable,
unfathomable depths, dark and void,
of infinite eternity behind all history,
the Christpower was alive.
This was the
power of life itself: Christpower.
And it was good!
all things that we know
began their journey into being.
light separated from darkness.
Christpower began to take form.
life became real,
and that life spread into
emerging new creatures
into ever higher intelligence.
There was a sacrifice here
a mutation there.
There was grace and resurrection appearing
in their natural order,
and always driven by the restless,
life force of God, called the Christpower,
which flowed in the veins of every living thing
And it was good!
In time, in this universe,
there emerged creatures who were called human,
and the uniqueness of these creatures
lay in that they could
this life-giving power.
They could name it
and embrace it
and grow with it
and yearn for it.
Thus human life was born,
but individual expressions of that human life
were marked with a sense of
and a hunger
that drove them ever beyond the self
to search for life's secret
to seek the source of life's power.
This was a humanity that could not be content with
And once again
in that process
sacrifice and mutation,
grace and resurrection
now in the human order,
And it was good!
Finally, in the fullness of time,
within that human family,
unique and special human life appeared:
In that life was seen with new intensity
that primal power of the universe,
And it was good!
Of that life people said: Jesus,
you are the Christ,
for in you we see
the living force of life
He was hated,
he was never distorted.
For here was a life in which
the goal, the dream, the hope
of all life
A single life among many lives.
among us, out from us,
and yet this power, this essence,
was not from us at all,
for the Christpower that was seen in Jesus
is finally of God.
And even when the darkness of death
the power of life resurrected him;
for Christpower is life
It is the secret of creation.
It is the goal of humanity.
Here in this life we glimpse
almighty life-giving force
of this universe
in startling completeness
in a single person.
Men and women tasted the power that was in him
and they were made whole by it.
They entered a new freedom,
a new being.
They knew resurrection and what it means to live
in the Eternal Now.
So they became agents of that power,
sharing those gifts from generation to generation,
creating and re-creating,
making all things new.
And as this power moved among human beings,
once more separated from darkness.
And it was good!
They searched for the words to describe
the moment that recognized the fullness of this power
living in history,
living in the life of this person.
But words failed them.
So they lapsed into poetry:
When this life was born,
a great light split the dark sky.
Angelic choruses peopled the heavens
to sing of peace on earth.
They told of a virgin mother,
of shepherds compelled to worship,
of a rejecting world that had no room in the inn.
They told of stars and oriental kings,
of gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
For when this life was born
that power that was
the endless beginning,
even in a baby
in swaddling clothes
lying in a manger.
Jesus, you are the Christ.
To know you is to live,
O come, then, let us adore him!
– John Shelby Spong
Question and Answer
With John Shelby Spong
Romella Hart O'Keefe from Mills River, N.C. writes:
In a lecture series last spring in Hendersonville, North Carolina, I noticed that you were wearing a cross, one of the symbols of Christianity. In light of your spiritual evolution, what does the symbol of the cross mean to you today?
Yours is a frequent question especially when people hear me try to deliver Christianity from the idea that "Jesus died for my sins." I am not moved by stories of salvation in which the cross becomes the symbol for human sacrifice and a blood offering that God requires, according to this point of view. I am not interested in a God who is the ultimate child abuser, who requires the death of the divine son to be able to forgive. I am not impressed with the masochistic Jesus who appears eager to mount the cross in order to endure the pain that only Mel Gibson seems to enjoy. I am not interested in the guilt message that emanates from this theology and becomes the coin of the realm of the traditional Christian life. The cross is identified with these ideas in many people's minds. I find these ideas repelling.
I see the cross very differently. It represents to me the depth of the love of God that is known by one's ability to give life away. The cross is a symbol of a life so whole, so free and so complete that this life has escaped the human drive to survive, which makes human life inevitably self–centered. The portrait drawn in the gospels of Jesus on the cross is one in which the victim becomes the life giver even as he dies. In his dying, he is portrayed as giving forgiveness, hope, consolation and assurance to those who are still the living. I wear the cross because its meaning to me, and therefore its message, is that nothing any of us has ever done or ever been can finally separate us from the love of God. Even when we kill God's love, God continues to love us. It is thus for me a powerful and a transformative symbol and I want to define it in this new way, which I assert was its original meaning. I cannot do this unless I wear it and so I do, and beyond that. I treasure its meaning.
Thanks for asking.
– John Shelby Spong
Thursday December 30, 2010
Thoughts at the End of 2010 - Darkness Ahead
Momentarily a new year will dawn. 2010 has been difficult economically for this nation and the world. Now is a traditional time both for looking backward and forward.
When I watch our politicians discharge their duties at year's end, I find myself despairing for two reasons. First, few people in public life seem eager to accept accountability and to recognize their role in creating the problems that this nation now faces. It is always someone else's fault. Second, when one listens to the political rhetoric, it becomes apparent far too often that many of our lawmakers are either uninformed or dishonest. I cite these data that lead me to these depressing conclusions.
Many political voices bemoan publicly the out-of-bounds growth in the national debt, but few of them are willing to take any concrete steps to address this issue. Clearly solving the fiscal crisis is not the path to political success. The fact is that this country has been living beyond its means for sometime now. There are three ways only to bring the nation's finances under control. We can raise taxes, we can cut government spending or we can adopt a combination of both. While that is fairly obvious, the fact is that there is no political constituency developing around any aspect of this equation.
How did the debt grow to such threatening proportions? There are four primary, easy to document causes. Two of them are our current wars, neither of which was provided for in the national budget. To finance these wars by calling for sacrifices on the part of our citizens was just too painful politically. No one on either side of the aisle was willing to raise taxes or to cut non-essential spending to spread the sacrifice. To do either ran the risk of eroding support for these wars and so a decision was made at the highest level that the only Americans who would have to sacrifice for these foreign policy initiatives would be the members of the armed services and their families, and sacrifice they did with their lives, their limbs and for many, we are now recognizing, their long- term mental health. No one else had either to pay a nickel or to see his or her life style inconvenienced. War also creates new sources of wealth. Certain businesses seize the war opportunity to make enormous profits. These businesses are primarily in security, construction and oil and each has powerful friends in high places. It is also the case, inappropriately enough, that many of these war profits made abroad find ways of escaping taxation at home. If a nation's freedom or survival is at risk most would be willing to sacrifice the economy. Can anyone, however, honestly say that the wars in either Iraq or Afghanistan represented a response to either our freedom or our survival? One could argue, I believe, that invading Afghanistan was an act of self-defense, since the Taliban government of that country had sheltered Al Qaeda when they attacked the United States. The Iraq war, however, the far more expensive of the two, was begun on trumped-up charges about that country's possession of weapons of mass destruction. Those charges turned out to be first blatantly false, second politically calculated lie and third covered up. It is also a fact that neither war has yet achieved popular support.
When a nation or a government is not convinced of the rightness of its cause, its leaders always find ancillary excuses to justify their actions. The most popular of these in Afghanistan at least, was the Taliban's treatment of its women under fundamentalist Muslim rule. We have all read stories of women being beaten and even executed for such crimes as having too much ankle visible in public, for being in the company of males other than their family and for becoming pregnant out of wedlock. Girls were not allowed to go to school. Greg Mortenson's popular book, Three Cups of Tea, related the attempts by an American to build schools for girls in Afghanistan and touched such a deep place in the American psyche that it remained at the top of American best selling book lists for years, making our citizens feel better about this troubling war. When President Obama supported a surge of troops in Afghanistan he effectively made that war his own. Neither President Bush nor Obama has yet gone to the Congress to secure budgetary support for either war, so their costs continue to feed the increasing deficit.
The third cause of our gigantic current deficit was the second round of what were called "The Bush Tax Cuts." The initial Bush tax cuts early in his first term were judged by most economists to be both reasonable and necessary. The government of the United States had begun to run a surplus in the 1990's. What to do with this surplus had become a hotly debated political issue. One option was to use the surplus or some part of it to guarantee the solvency of Social Security. That course of action was defeated in favor of tax cuts alone. The second tax cut, however, had no such justification and even a conservative economist like Alan Greenspan called them "irresponsible." No cuts in government spending were offered to minimize the inevitable addition to the national debt. There was sufficient opposition to these second tax cuts that the only way the Bush administration could get this proposal passed was to make them "temporary." They were to expire on December 31, 20 10. No one anticipated that when that date arrived this country would be in the deepest recession since the Great Depression.
The fourth reason for the ever-widening deficit was that same recession. In the fall of 2008 reckless greed ultimately received its comeuppance. The "irrational exuberance" finally broke and began to spiral downward toward a world wide depression. Venerable businesses like Lehman Brothers, Merrill-Lynch, Bear Sterns and Wachovia Bank disappeared into either liquidation or fire sales. Giant banks like Citicorp, Bank of American, JP Morgan Chase and Morgan Stanley tottered on the brink of failure. The housing industry collapsed, having been financed by loans based on the premise of continuous inflation on housing prices. Washington Mutual and Countrywide Financial went into bankruptcy. AIG, the world's biggest insurance company was in ruins. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government housing agencies, were no longer solvent. The American auto industry almost disappeared. Chrysler and General Motors received massive infusions of government money. Ultimately Chrysler went private and General Motors went into bankruptcy. Of course, with massive losses in the stock market, government revenues also tumbled, while government spending went on as if nothing had happened. Eventually, this nation itself flirted with bankruptcy.
No president, with the possible exception of Franklin D. Roosevelt, ever took office in a more difficult time than Barack Obama. Recession, a tottering economy and two unfinished and unfinanced wars greeted him. It has not been an easy time for our nation or our people. Of course, if one believed the political rhetoric, no one was to blame for these disasters except one's political enemies. It was obvious, according to Republican talking points, that the way to climb out of this downturn was to cut runaway social programs. Democratic talking points countered by suggesting that allowing the Bush tax cuts on the rich to expire was the clear pathway back to prosperity. As the showdown developed in the Senate the Republican minority clearly proved itself to be more politically adept than the Democratic majority. Taking a position of negativity on all issues, they fought the Democrats to a standstill. They exhausted the administration in the Health Care fight, while prohi biting the public option, which was the one thing in the original Obama health care proposal that had any possibility of lowering health care costs. Once that was defeated they began their attack on "the government's takeover of health care." It was strange logic and observers noted that the price of the stock in the private health care companies went up during and after the health care debate. Then using the recession as the reason for extending the soon to expire "Bush tax cuts" for all Americans including the top two percent of our wealthiest citizens, they added another huge hole to the national debt causing it to spin out of control for the foreseeable future. The Republican strategy is to build their future political victories by campaigning against the very deficit they helped to create. The Democrats, on the other hand, seemed to have been reduced to whimpering in the dark shadows of Washington about how heartless Republicans are. Yet they were unwilling to ini tiate any cuts in the national budget. In a similar manner no union seemed willing to face the fact that their companies can no longer compete against foreign businesses because of the cost of labor, making their only choice to be that that of bankruptcy or shifting jobs overseas. No teacher's union wants to have any teachers judged by the standard of their students' achievements despite the fact that the purpose of education is to educate. The fact is that this nation spends more money on education and achieves lower results than any developed nation in the world.
So we enter 2011 facing difficult days ahead. The recession lingers; the unemployment rate remains just under 10%. Instead of working together to solve these critical issues, the primary agenda in Washington seems to be posturing for the next election. We are sowing the seeds of a disaster. It is not a time to be proud of our elected leaders, but this is there we are as we enter 2011.
– John Shelby Spong
Question and Answer
With John Shelby Spong
Mark Dickinson from Ottawa, Ontario, writes:
I have just finished reading Eternal Life: A New Vision. Thank you for writing this wonderful book, and thank you for sharing your vision of life eternal fulfilled. I embrace your vision with enthusiasm and I share in your celebration of our spiritual life.
In the early chapters of the book, you spend some time describing your journey, as a child and as a youth, within the boundaries and constraints and limitations of a conservative Protestant tradition. I can identify with many of your memories, and I can recall (20 years ago or so) sharing many of the "fundamentalist" beliefs and ideologies with young Sunday School students that I taught for 10 years within a Lutheran church outside of Ottawa. The stories of Genesis and Exodus and the narratives of the gospels rolled easily into the empty, hungry minds of the children and, in the spirit of most stories (and especially folklore), left these children excited and intrigued. But now, looking both backwards to where I started and from what I see today, communication or rather education of our young people becomes a little more complex and challenging.
If many (or rather, most) adults have difficulty jettisoning the literal interpretations of the Bible, how do we pursue the important task of presenting allegorical, symbolic stories abut the history of God's journey with humanity in a format and language that our young children can absorb and understand? Consider the following analogy: If we don't learn how to ride a bike before we can balance ourselves on two legs (and hopefully walk a few meters), should we not then continue to educate our very young with the images and stories that capture their imaginations and speak to their intellect (at that age)? Possibly, the problem with our Christian education process is that we never leave "the uncomplicated pictures" that we experience in the early grades of learning and that rather than maturing and growing in our divine-human journey, we remain closed in an understanding that we should have outgrown a long time ago. In other words, is the problem equally as much how we te ach, (i.e. training adults not to remain in a child's thinking) as what we teach?
I think you are correct. I might expand your thinking to include not just that we remain in childlike thinking, but we literalize the stories so that if the child rejects them, the child is made to feel that he or she has done something wrong or that either God or his and her parents will be disappointed. We do not do that with secular myths and stories. We do not teach our children that there really was a Little Red Riding Hood or a Humpty Dumpy who fell off a wall. The stories capture genuine human experiences. In Little Red Riding Hood the story is about young girls entering puberty being urged to stay on the "straight and narrow" path lest they be caught by a wolf and eaten up. The story of Humpty Dumpty points to and illustrates the fact that in life there are some things that once done are irrevocable.
Religion, because it seeks to provide human security, always seems to have a need for certainty and to literalize a supposedly inerrant source, serves that purpose.
Another factor is that so many adults have never moved beyond their childhood religious fantasies, so that they do not know how to cope with hard human realities; hence they seek comfort in the simplicity of yesterday in the protective arms of a heavenly parent.
As a church pastor, I believe the first step in assisting growth into maturity is to open the adults to new possibilities and hope that this knowledge will trickle down to the children. I do not believe in trickle-down economics; that usually is limited to the possibility that the wealth of John D. Rockefeller will trickle down to Nelson Rockefeller and not much further. I do, however, believe in the possibility that good ideas and even good theology will trickle down to a new generation. There is ample evidence that bad ideas and bad theology have done so.
Thanks for writing.
– John Shelby Spong