Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Unwanted people

Sometimes ruling authorities can be infuriating, but I suppose it is to be expected in this fallen world with “total depravity” on the loose.

Let me cite two examples of how government authorities, operating with full civil powers, have made it clear that there are certain people who are unwanted and should not exist.

Afghanistan: You’ve probably been following the case of the Afghani Christian who was facing death for the heinous crime of following Jesus Christ. Here’s a snippet from an AP article about his being granted asylum in Italy (Whew!):

[Abdul] Rahman was put on trial last week for converting 16 years ago while he was a medical aid worker for an international Christian group helping Afghan refugees in Pakistan. He faced the death penalty under Afghanistan’s Islamic laws.

Notice the details: Rahman was a medical aid worker who was spending his life helping destitute Afghan refugees. How despicable to have trash like him polluting the Afghan society! Right? He simply believed that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior and would not be convinced to renounce his faith.

For several days, therefore, before determined diplomatic efforts secured his release, it looked like Rahman would become yet another Christian martyr, being put to death for his belief. For instance, here is what a leader had to say about poor Mr. Rahman:
"We will not allow God to be humiliated. This man must die," says Abdul Raoulf of
the nation's principal Muslim body, the Afghan Ulama Council. "Cut off his head! We will call on the people to pull him into pieces so there's nothing left." Needless to say, Imam Raoulf is one of Afghanistan's leading "moderate" clerics.
And here is what the prosecutor, Abdul Wasi, claimed: “He is known as a microbe in society, and he should be cut off and removed from the rest of Muslim society and should be killed."

We get the point. Christians are unwanted people in that Islam society.

San Francisco: Such atrocious behavior could never happen in the U.S., could it? Don’t be so sure. Travel now to San Francisco, where the San Francisco Chronicle chronicles the disheartening story of Christians being unwanted people also in San Francisco:
More than 25,000 evangelical Christian youth landed Friday in San Francisco for a two-day rally at AT&T Park against "the virtue terrorism" of popular culture, and they were greeted by an official city condemnation and a clutch of protesters who said their event amounted to a "fascist mega-pep rally…."

That's bad news to Assemblyman Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, who told counterprotesters at City Hall on Friday that while such fundamentalists may be small in number, "they're loud, they're obnoxious, they're disgusting, and they should get out of San Francisco."
Notice that it is an elected official spouting this xenophobia, and we find out he’s speaking to about fifty irate counterprotesters, compared to the twenty-five thousand wholesome Christian kids who have gathered to study “‘God's instruction book’ to guide young people away from the corrupting influence of popular culture” and “to counter a popular culture that … glamorizes violence and sex.”

Can’t have that in San Francisco! One brilliant wordsmith, Peter Cobb, an organizer with Not In Our Name, revealed why: “There is a real intolerancy to homosexuality in a lot of these organizations."

But surely Leno’s just a loose cannon, right? Unfortunately, no.

“Earlier this week,” the story continues, “the Board of Supervisors passed a resolution condemning the ‘act of provocation’ by what it termed an ‘anti-gay,’ ‘anti-choice’ organization that aimed to ‘negatively influence the politics of America's most tolerant and progressive city.’” Apparently the irony of “America's most tolerant and progressive city” being intolerant toward Christians was lost on the resolution’s author, Supervisor Tom Ammiano.

We get the point again: Christians are unwanted people in San Francisco, too.

Hosnia Wafayosofi, who works at the jail where Abdul Rahman was held, told a reporter, "We will cut him into little pieces." Then she made a cutting motion with her hands. Perhaps Supervisor Ammiano and Assemblyman Leno can learn some further techniques from Wafayosofi.

Afghanistan. San Francisco. It’s coming soon to a location near you. Get used to being unwanted people.

It shouldn’t surprise us. We’ve been forewarned. “If the world hates you,” Jesus cautioned, “be aware that it hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world—therefore the world hates you” (see John 15:18-25 for a fuller explanation).

Monday, March 27, 2006

We're-good-because-we-make-them-look-bad ads

My high school had one--the tragically hip teacher who was determined to build his ego-infested popularity by putting down the other teachers. He left town under a cloud after sleeping with a 16-year-old flower child.

Some churches have them, too--the immature youth workers who are determined to build their popularity with the kids by putting down Sunday school: "This isn't stupid old Sunday school any more; this is cool youth group!"

And the mainline denominational community has one, too--the denomination that is determined to build its crumbling popularity with the nonchurched by putting down all the other churches with a bum rap.

Take a look at the United Church of Christ spots that are soon to hit your cable TV stations: on Windows Media, on Real Player, or on QuickTime.

The final voice-over claims: "The United Church of Christ. No matter who you are or where you are on life's journey, you are welcome here"--unlike all those other crummy old churches like the one we parodied in the ad.

Oh, just one more thing: "You are welcome here in the UCC, unless you happen to be one of those fundie types who carries a big, fat black Bible, worn from constant use. And also if you actually believe historic Christianity or belong to the Biblical Witness Fellowship. If so, prepare to eject, Buster!"

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

The Left Does What It Decries

There is a laughably far-fetched and paranoid conspiracy theory being floated these days by liberal activists. I've seen it now in the writings of such spokespersons as More Light Presbyterian Field Organizer Michael Adee, a group of United Church of Christ hand-wringers (Chuck Currie and John Dorhauer, in particular), and especially the UCC President, John Thomas. I encourage you to take a look at what these people write. They are their own worst enemies.

Anybody who understands anything about renewal movements in general and the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) in particular will laugh out loud at the preposterous claims of these detractors. IRD writer Steve Rempe does an especially good job of pointing out the flock of fallacies in John Thomas's tirade, as inaccurate as it was intemperate.

The gist of the phony indictment of IRD follows these lines:

  1. As in most conspiracy theories, a shadowy and nefarious but extremely powerful group is actually pulling all the strings to work out their will across a vast stage that they direct. In this case, the bad guys are secular conservative political figures with lots of money to spend.
  2. These secular politicos have set up and bought off IRD in order to either (a) destroy the mainline churches or (b) capture all their resources for right-wing political use. It's unclear which tactic IRD is supposed to employ, according to this theory. One hears both.
  3. "Outside political operatives" (often referred to as "minions") from the IRD then infiltrate the holy ground of the mainline denominations to do their dirty work of breaking them apart through so-called "wedge issues."
  4. The denominations are painted as being historically extremely far-left in their very nature (totally ignoring the reality of history as well as denominational demographics in one massively wrong assumption), so that whatever IRD and other renewal groups do is spoken of as trying to wrest the denominations away from their true purpose.
  5. The only desire of these IRD "operatives" is to destroy the church. Their only possible motivation is secular far right-wing politics mixed with greed.
  6. Because IRD is in conversation with other renewal groups and works in concert with them across many denominations where renewal objectives coincide, then obviously IRD is the "hub" of the whole "subversive" movement and orchestrates the actions of all the other groups. Whatever "bad" happens in any denomination is the direct result of corrosive IRD influence, according to this line of reasoning. (Note, for instance, the "eerie coincidence or perhaps non-coincidence" Michael Adee invents between John Thomas's "exposure" of IRD and the immediate PCUSA announcement of a $9 million budget cut, which, in his mind, must have IRD written all over it. Spooky, isn't it--not any coincidence but Adee's apparent paranoia.)

So what's the rap against IRD? IRD is faulted for supposedly being all about secular right-wing politics at the expense of the liberal, social-activist ministry of the mainline denominations. Although the claim is loony to the core, IRD is made out to be in league with the Devil because of its supposed captivity by secular politics.

Interesting. If that were the case, since I'm the only "minion" assigned to "destabilize" the entire Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), one would think I'd know about it. But I don't. All I know about are the straightforward purposes listed in the IRD mission statement. All I know is Christian faith trying to work itself out despite the strange world of denominational polity. All I know is a desire to be faithful to the Lord as he has revealed himself through Scripture.

The rap against IRD is totally spurious, the product of minds too steeped in cynical political maneuvering to be able to recognize unadulterated Christian devotion.

Hold On: Entering Irrational Territory
But here's where the story gets truly bizarre. The same radical gang that wants to hang IRD over things it doesn't actually do has announced with glee its plans to do exactly what it has decried in IRD.

Michael Adee's More Light Presbyterians (MLP) are now proudly in league with the secular, political, liberal National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, which has nothing to do with faith or Christian ministry and everything to do with partisan power politics. And he couldn't be more pleased about being co-opted into secular political affairs.

The fact that he has recently (inaccurately) criticized IRD about being co-opted into secular political affairs seems to escape Adee entirely.

Okay, we need to get this straight. Is being in league with secular politics evil? Then the fact that IRD has no such institutional ties ought to be hailed as a good thing, and the fact that MLP has now so thoroughly wed themselves to a secular political power bloc should be alarming.

Or is joining forces with secular politics okay after all? Then why the gleeful (and erroneous) criticism of IRD by liberal voices, when they merely conjecture that IRD is so joined at the hip with the Republican Party, but in fact IRD desires no such relationship and has kept clear of any such secular arrangement?

If such merging of politics and religion is a cool thing to be heralded, why would it be cool only if the arrangement is radical religious with radical political, but not cool if it would ever happen to be conservative Christian with conservative political? How about some consistency, at least!

Saturday, March 11, 2006

"Jury nullification" in Redwoods Presbytery

Nearly two years ago, after reading a defiant Janie Spahr crowing about doing something she knows full well Presbyterian pastors are not allowed to do, I just wanted to know: What is her presbytery going to do about such egregious defiance? So, being a straightforward kind of guy, I wrote her presbytery to find out. Might as well go to the source.

Here's my e-mail:
From: Jim Berkley

Date: Thursday - March 18, 2004
Subject: same-sex marriage by Rev. Spahr

Dear Joan Runyeon, Brian Tippen, and COM Chair,

(Please forward this also to the chair of Committee on Ministry. I could not find the chair's name or e-mail on the presbytery website.)

The following news item appears on the That All May Freely Serve web page:

After twenty years loving and honoring one another, Dr. Douglas Potter, co-Moderator of our TAMFS board, and Gregory Partridge, our newsletter co-editor, were legally married in a ceremony in Ontario Canada on February 28th. Participating in her first legal same-gender marriage, the Rev. Dr. Janie Spahr assisted the Rev. Dr. John Mayer, a Unitarian minister from Canada. Read more of Janie's reflections on this mile-stone event in our soon-to-arrive newsletter. A service of blessing celebrating Greg and Doug's marriage will be held at the Downtown United Presbyterian Church in April."

You will notice that Rev. Janie Spahr helped preside at that service which is definitely, even joyfully, declared to be a "marriage." As you well know, Rev. Spahr is a member at large of the Presbytery of the Redwoods and thus is under the ecclesiastical authority of your presbytery.

What Rev. Spahr did in performing a same-sex-couple marriage service is in defiance of our church law. Specifically, the 1991 Authoritative Interpretation reads in part: "...since a Christian marriage performed in accordance with the Directory for Worship can only involve a covenant between a woman and a man, it would not be proper for a minister of the Word and Sacrament to perform a same sex union ceremony that the minister determines to be the same as a marriage ceremony. (Minutes, 1991, Part I, pp. 55, 57, 395)"

Further, in Benton v. Presbytery of Hudson River (Remedial Case 212-11) the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission states that: "ministers and sessions should take special care to avoid any confusion of such services with services of Christian marriage. Ministers should not appropriate specific liturgical forms from services of Christian marriage or services recognizing civil marriage in the conduct of such ceremonies. They should also instruct same-sex couples that the service to be conducted does not constitute a marriage ceremony and should not be held out as such." Yet Rev. Spahr traveled to Canada to specifically officiate at a service held out as a marriage service, which could hardly be considered "taking special care to avoid" it!

My question is this: given this ample evidence of Rev. Spahr's defiance of church law, what is Redwoods Presbytery planning to do about it? What are your plans to bring a defiant minister of Word and Sacrament into compliance with the will and practice of our denominational? Such ordinary discipline is best accomplished informally, collegially, relationally, and locally. What might you be planning to do to see that it happens?

I await your reply. Thank you.


James D.
Minister Member
Presbytery of Seattle
Bellevue, WA

That inquiry--concerning Rev. Spahr's scofflaw activities that the presbytery obviously knew about already and had been just winking at--set off an actual investigation by the presbytery, the filing of charges, and, nearly two years later, a trial.

ALL of that process, by the way, was the presbytery's business, the presbytery's doing. As is the proper procedure, I have played no role in that process, other than briefly answering questions posed by the investigating committee of the Redwoods Permanent Judicial Commission. I have followed the trial in the news, like everyone else.

Still, former stated clerk Joan Runyeon and Rev. Spahr's self-serving publicity pieces have frequently tried to make it seem as if I were the one pressing the case. I am not, but they must have felt it to their advantage to make it look like some "outsider" were pressing the case and not Rev. Spahr's offended presbytery colleagues, as was the case.

Well, the question my curiosity first caused me to ask in the e-mail has been answered. Redwoods Presbytery felt it right and necessary to charge and try Rev. Spahr. Six of the seven members of the Permanent Judicial Commission, however, must have felt it right and necessary to nullify the law in order to exonerate Rev. Spahr.

I find it truly amazing the lengths some people will go in twisting plain meanings to get the result they want. The radical rationalizations of the majority of the PJC are astounding in their magnitude.

Presbyterians are not happy about this obvious "jury nullification." The law was never on trial; Janie Spahr was. The Presbyterian Coalition has written a fine response. Members of Redwoods Presbytery are disturbed with this turn of events.

What remains to be seen is if our judicial system can be so flagrantly misused. As of last June because of a newly approved constitutional amendment, a presbytery PNC prosecuting committee may file an appeal. It will be interesting to follow what Redwoods Presbytery will do in this case.

In the mean time, it is fortunate that this rogue decision holds absolutely no weight of precedent for other presbyteries or sessions. Only decisions at the General Assembly PJC level become precedent. Our law remains, despite the best efforts of some Redwoods PJC members to negate it with the bold disregard previously displayed only by Rev. Spahr.