A Word to the President

Words-Matter-People-Development-NetworkPresident Trump denouncing all forms of racism and violence is like an arsonist denouncing the fire he poured gasoline on. Please, Mr. President, stop the cruel, hate-filled, demeaning rhetoric. You’re fanning the flames of hatred, racism, and violence that are spreading like wildfire across our land. Words matter!

Advice from a Long-time Champion for Justice

Gil Caldwell is a friend with a life-time commitment to justice and compassion. He knows firsthand the pain and suffering inflicted by hate, prejudice, and exclusion. He also knows from experience the power of the Christian gospel to transform human hearts and communities. Below is a reflection on the current challenges within The United Methodist Church.

“African United Methodists and African American United Methodists; Important To The Future of a United – Not Divided United Methodist Church”

Years ago these words have guided me as a now 84 year old Black United Methodist; “We have no permanent friends-no permanent enemies-just permanent interests”.

The separation of immigrant children from their parents in today’s immigrant struggle in the USA reminded me of another time of parent-child separation: the selling and separating of the children of African slaves in the USA.  And during racial segregation in the American south black children were separated in school buildings and classrooms that Grace and I attended; inferior to those of white children.

Black children in the USA and Africa have suffered in negative ways because they are black. The United Methodist Church many of us believe should be the world’s “Racial Justice Church”.

If we go back as James Baldwin suggested; “Go back to where you started from and tell the truth about it”. (From “Go Tell It From the Mountain”) We who are black Christians remember how a son of Ham- Simon the Cyrenian carried the cross of Jesus to the crucifixion. Countee Cullen the poet son of a Pastor of Salem Methodist Church in Harlem wrote this;

“They twisted tortured then hung from a tree
Swarth victim of a newer Calvary.

Yea-who helped Christ up Golgotha’s track
That Simon who did not deny-was Black”

My bonding as a black American with my black African brothers and sisters started early. When I was a student at all black North Carolina A. & T. College in Greensboro North Carolina 1952-55 I with other students made a class trip to Washington DC. While there we met the brilliant and gifted young Kenyan politician-Tom Mboya. Years after that he was assassinated in Kenya. It was said of him-“He was the best President Kenya never had”. Mboya’s intellect and character made an impression on me as a college student I have never forgotten.

In the summer of 1971, I with United Methodists Cornish Rogers and his family and Thelma Barnes traveled with others to Dar Es Salaam Tanzania for a Consultation of African and America American Church and Government leaders. The late Dr. James Cone was with us. We who were black from the USA were deeply impressed by how President Nyerere and his government had established Umoja Villages where persons as the Bible states; “Shared all things in common”. We from the USA said why not do the same thing in the USA?

And then the month Grace and I spent at Africa University with Dean Yemba-now Bishop Yemba and the students and faculty at Africa University was a beautiful reminder of our student days at our black colleges in the American south. Grace at Bennett College and I at NC A. & T. How sad it would be for the black United Methodist educational institutions in America and in Africa if the United Methodist Church weakened its mission and ministry by dividing!

The February 1988 Circuit Rider magazine published my article; “Courage-Confession-Creativity; Essentials for an Inclusive UMC”. At the time I was Pastor of St Daniel’s United Methodist Church in Chester Pennsylvania. The article was focused on racial inclusion; “Recognize our God-given uniqueness-and embrace our Christ-given oneness!” But the article is timely for this God-given moment in the history of our denomination.

COURAGE: We who are black United Methodists are present as members of all of the Groups that are being described by some as being traditionalist or moderate or progressive. But our experiences as black United Methodists in America-Africa or anywhere else in the world have helped us realize that in each of these groups there is recognized/unrecognized racial insensitivity-at times anti-black racial prejudice; even racism. We therefore in all of these groups pray and work for deeper understandings of the importance or racial justice. Often it takes courage for our sisters and brothers who are not black to resist racism-but many of them do. It will take a United Methodist Church to confront the racism that tragically still exists all over the world. A Divided UMC cannot do that. Only a Church that is United can.

CONFESSION: Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his “Life Together” reminds us of James 5: 16- “Confess your faults one to another” My preacher father used to say; “The Church is not a Rest Home for saints. It is a Hospital for sinners”. We can be so focused on what we deem are the sins of others that we ignore our own sins. We separate/segregate those whom we view as “incompatible with Christian teaching”. Martin Luther King in his Letter From Birmingham Jail” writes this about segregation; “It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority”. A Church that would be authentically “United” understands that “The ground at the foot of the cross is level”. Bonhoeffer reminds us “The message of liberation is through truth. You can hide nothing from God”.

CREATIVITY: James Russell Lowell reminds us “New occasions teach new duties. Time makes ancient good uncouth”. A United Methodist Church for the 21st century stands on the shoulders of the Church of the past. It could not had there been no Church on whose shoulders we could stand. But we will cease to be if we seek to become the Church of the past rather than the Church for the present and the future.

Black Liberation Theology enabled me to remain in a predominantly white Methodist/United Methodist Church. It transcended the theologies that were abstract rather than concrete. It allowed me to affirm a God who through Jesus understood the particularity of Black History and Experience with its tribulations and triumphs. I spoke at both the North Carolina and Virginia Conferences in June about the need for a “Southern Liberation Theology” that addresses God’s presence amidst the tragedies of slavery-segregation-lynching and the triumphs that transcended those atrocities. Black and white southern United Methodists have a “God Story” that all of United Methodism ought embrace.

I end these words with a quotation from Janes Cone’s “The Cross and the Lynching Tree”. What he writes about blacks and whites applies as well to United Methodist “traditionalists” and “progressives”.

“No gulf between blacks and whites is too great to overcome-for our beauty is more enduring than our brutality. What God joined together-no one can tear apart”. Amen and Amen!

Gilbert H. Caldwell

A retired member of the Mountain Sky Conference
He retired from the active ministry as Senior Pastor of Park Hill UMC
in Denver in 2001. He retired because of physical disabilities resulting from two operations to remove a non-malignant brain tumor. He says of himself: “Although I now walk with a cane sometimes a walker and drive with a left foot accelerator-I as the old folk say-each morning I “wake up in my rightful mind’ and “Write On And Write On!” We must be United Methodists rather than divided Methodists if our “permanent interest” is to “Make disciples for the transformation of the world”. Amen and Amen!

Prophetic Civility

I’m in awe of Amos, that farmer-turned-prophet from Tekoa publicly denouncing the sins of Israel from the steps of the temple at Bethel. I can hear his thundering words of judgment:

Thus says the Lord: For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals–they trample the head to the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way; father and son go in to the same girl, so that my holy name is profaned; they lay themselves down beside every altar on garments taken in pledge; and in the house of their God they drink wine bought with fines they imposed”(Amos 2:6-8).

Every generation needs women and men who courageously, publicly, and unequivocally expose injustice, oppression, idolatry, hypocrisy, and corruption.

Prophets offer an alternative to present realities by articulating God’s dream for the world and announcing God’s judgment on the principalities and powers that threaten the divine vision.

Amos provides a model of such prophetic confrontation!

But an additional model is desperately needed today. In this harshly polarized and rigidly partisan world, civility and dialogue represent a prophetic way forward.

Prophetic civility requires courage, humility, vulnerability, persistence, and patience. Ongoing relationships and risky conversations provide the context for such prophetic work.

Rather than in public pronouncements and tweets, prophetic civil dialogue is likely to occur around the dinner table or living room, in Sunday school classes or small group gatherings, and in neighborhood conversations.

Prophetic civility preferences probing questions over dogmatic answers. Listening prevails over speaking. Shared personal experiences are encouraged over correcting others. Self-awareness of one’s own complicity and vulnerability temper all responses.

Empathy borne of entering the hurts, struggles, and convictions of others softens judgments and eschews condemnation. Understanding the other’s perspective precedes advocating one’s own.

Prophetic civility requires incarnation, entering the world of others with attentiveness, humility, and love. Incarnational presence is risky, painful, and hard work.

Jeremiah models prophetic ministry characterized by incarnational presence with its vulnerability, self-awareness, courage, and persistence. His pronouncements are basically the same as those spoken by Amos. Yet, he lived among the people, wept for and with them, and suffered abuse and even exile with and on their behalf.

Several years ago, L. Harold DeWolf, prominent theologian and mentor/friend of Martin Luther King, Jr., spent the weekend in the local church I served. At the time,  Dr. DeWolf was actively involved in criminal justice reform. I shared that the local sheriff had barred me from visiting in the jail because of my public denunciation of the inhumane conditions in the local jail.

Dr. DeWolf cautioned that I may have to decide in particular contexts between public policy advocacy and personal pastoral ministry within the facility.

“Both are needed and legitimate,” he said. “The tragedy is people often pit one against the other as to which is more faithful. Both are faithful when done with integrity and courage; and they need to be mutually supportive.”

Amos and Jeremiah were not enemies! They both were faithful to their prophetic calling. They spoke on behalf of the same God and we are the beneficiaries of both expressions of faithfulness.

The current situation in American needs both Amos and Jeremiah. But I suspect that the model most needed today is Jeremiah, the who was pastorally prophetic and prophetically pastoral.

We need prophetic civility formed in humility and solidarity with the wounds and hurts of others coupled with a clear vision of God’s present and coming reign of compassion, justice, hospitality, and peace.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Easter Living in a Good Friday World

It’s a Good Friday world! Hatred, bigotry, division, anger, violence, suffering, and death dominate!

Injustice, poverty, disease, exploitation, oppression, political expediency and corruption, religious power plays, and war abound.

Cries, “Crucify him, crucify him,” ring out across the lands.

  • “Deport them!”
  • “Execute him!”
  • “Lock him/her up!”
  • “Bomb them!”

Most of the cries for crucifixion are less explicit. They are in the form of attitudes and policies that create disrespect, suffering. and death.

  • Vilifying survivors of school shootings for their advocating an end to gun violence
  • Making unlimited access to guns more important than human life
  • Tax policies that favor the already rich at the expense of the desperate poor
  • Healthcare systems that deny the most vulnerable access to treatment
  • Churches fostering division, exclusion, hatred, and rejection in name of doctrinal purity
  • Tearing families apart under the guise of “protecting our borders”
  • Claiming superiority because of our race, nationality, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or religion
  • Trusting armaments for security while ignoring God’s justice and mercy as paths to peace

The Crucifixion dramatizes the intrinsic consequences of individual, institutional, and systemic evil. All the forces wreaking havoc in our world were present on that first Good Friday. And it appeared evil had won!

But we know the rest of the story! There is more at work in the world than the evil, suffering, and death that surrounds us!

In Jesus the Christ, God took on all the powers of sin and death. . . .and God won! Easter celebrates God’s everlasting  “NO!” to hate, bigotry, exploitation, oppression, deceptive religious and political maneuvering injustice, and violence.

The Resurrection is God’s eternal “YES!” to compassion, mercy, truthfulness, hospitality, generosity, reconciliation, forgiveness, integrity, humility,  justice, non-violence, and boundless love!

Easter is a way of life more than a one-day of celebration. It is living God’s “Yes” in this Good Friday world!

  • Countering hate with compassion and love
  • Welcoming the stranger with hospitality
  • Treating ALL persons as beloved sons and daughters of God with inherent worth and dignity
  • Seeking reconciliation and unity while shunning division, vengeance, and violence
  • Working for policies and practices that enable the least and most vulnerable to flourish
  • Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned
  • Protecting and nurturing “the least of these” from violence, deprivation, and premature death
  • Practicing integrity, honesty, justice, and compassion in private and public life

We can courageously and hopefully live Easter in a Good Friday world! God has already won the decisive victory!

God’s reign of compassion, justice, hospitality, joy, and peace is on its way! It’s already here for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear and courage to act!

 

 

Open Letter to My Congressmen

To: Senators Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott
Representative Joe Wilson

I received your canned responses to my previous communications of opposition to the tax bills passed by the Senate and House of Representatives. You have made no substantive response to my concerns but, rather, provided an unsupported and deceptive rationale for your support of the bill. I am disappointed in your failure to respond adequately to the concerns, questions, and opposition to the bill by many of your constituents.

The fallacious claims of providing a tax cut for the middle class is intentionally or unintentionally dishonest and misleading. For many of us, both versions before Congress will be a major tax increase as the result of removing important deductions.

One example is the House’s provision for removing the deduction for long-term medical care. My wife of fifty-seven years is in the severe stage of Frontotemperal Dementia and requires full time nursing care. The cost is rapidly diminishing our savings and pension accounts. Removal of the deduction will hasten the depletion or our resources. Additionally, the anticipated cuts to Medicare will add to the financial crisis in our family and millions of others.

Perhaps an analogy is appropriate. The claim that I, and millions who are in similar circumstances, are getting a tax cut is comparable to saying, “We are giving you a steroid injection for your weak arm; but to do so, we are amputating your legs.But don’t you feel good about the steroid injection?” You are crippling me while claiming to strengthen me. Such action is deceptive at best and outright cruel at worst.

There is insufficient data to support your contention that the tax cut for corporations will result in increased wages and job growth; and there are no provisions in the current bills to hold corporations and businesses accountable to use the tax windfall to increase wages and expand employment. Data exist to indicate that the proceeds from the cuts will more likely go to share holders (the already more affluent) and corporate executives. This is redistribution of wealth, taking from the under-privileged and transferring it to the already privileged, a reverse “Robin Hood” approach.

I can give additional reasons for opposing both versions of the bill; but it is obvious that your positions are shaped by the failed ideology of “trickle down” economics and narrow partisan politics.  You seem to be more interested in a quick partisan “political win” than listening to the concerns of your constituents.

I assume you are honorable men and I appreciate your willingness to serve in Congress. However, when it comes to tax policy and approach to economic policy, I feel that your positions fall short of the vision of justice of our Jewish-Christian heritage. The proposed tax legislation demonstrably favors the most economically and politically powerful at the expense of the most vulnerable in our society.

Justice as defined in the traditions of the major religions disproportionately favors the weakest and most vulnerable and enables them to have access to that which is necessary to thrive as children of God. The current tax bills clearly fail the test of our sacred scriptures. Additionally, they fail the test of long-term sound economic policy.

I am readily available to discuss any of this issues with you and/or your staff.

Sincerely,

Bishop (Retired) Kenneth L. Carder
Williams Distinguished Professor Emeritus
Duke University Divinity School and
Senior Visiting Professor of Methodist Studies
Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary
Columbia, SC

Can Doctrines/Beliefs Become Idols?

Our Sunday School class had just concluded a session on idolatry. Martin Luther’s statement had launched our conversation: “Whatever your heart clings to and trusts in is your god.”

We defined idolatry as making ultimate that which is finite and intermediate, elevating the finite to the infinite; or mistaking symbols for the reality they point toward.

We proceeded to name values, practices, and realities that our hearts cling to and which shape our decisions, priorities, and character. You can imagine the “gods” named: consumerism, sports, politics, the media, success, productivity, etc.

After the class dismissed, a member approached with a question. “Can Christian doctrines and beliefs themselves be idols? Can creeds become more important than God?” Good questions!

If the answer is “yes”, the follow-up question is when do creeds/beliefs become idols?

No doctrinal formulation or theological affirmation totally captures the essence and reality of God. The Infinite cannot be compressed to fit into the finite. The best our language can do is point toward God. There is always more to God than can be confined to human understanding and experience.

Therefore, creeds and beliefs become idols when no room is left for mystery and further theological exploration. If no questions remain, growth ceases and dogmatism becomes god. Airtight certainty that we know God fully means we have the wrong god.

When doctrines/beliefs are locked in rigid intellectual compartments with little or no impact on our character, actions, and relationships, they have become idolatrous.

Religious beliefs and affirmations can function similarly to the notion of life on other planets. Such life may exist but it has no impact on daily living.  That’s what John Wesley referred to as “practical atheism”— intellectually acknowledging the existence of God but the affirmation has no influence on behavior.

Doctrines/beliefs can become weapons of coercion, manipulation, and domination of others. In so doing, they become idols. The history of Christianity is replete with illustrations of such idolatry.

The Crusades were fought in the name of evangelism. Slavery was defended by idolatrous interpretations of Scripture. Women have been denied equality and subjected to abuse by religious doctrines/beliefs. Scientists have been burned at the stake in defense of an idolatrous doctrine of creation.

Persons of differing sexual orientations and identities have been treated with cruelty, violence, and rejection in the name of faithfulness to the Bible.

When doctrines and beliefs motivate hatred, disrespect, and violence toward others, those doctrines and beliefs are idols. Any belief that denies the inherent worth and dignity of every person as made in the image of God fails the test of true orthodoxy.

Here is the test of all Christian doctrine and belief: Does it promote love for God and neighbor? Any theological affirmation that promotes and motivates hate becomes a form of blasphemy against God made known in Jesus Christ.

The real test of doctrine is the character it produces in individuals and communities. Sound doctrine and strong character are integral to one another.

Christian doctrines and affirmations in the hands of persons with malformed character become distorted and dangerous. And doctrines/beliefs that sanction hate, superiority, and exploitation form persons and communities that hate, exclude, and exploit.

Gore Vidal’s historical novel, Julian, captures the essence of beliefs that become idols. Following a scene in which a violent argument breaks out over the doctrine of the Trinity, the author proclaims:

“Even a child could see the division between what the Galileans (i.e., Christians] say

they believe and what, in fact, they do believe, as demonstrated by their actions. A

religion of brotherhood and mildness which daily murders those who disagree with

its doctrines can only be thought hypocrite, or worse.”

Yes, doctrines and beliefs can become idols!? We would all do well to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (1John 4:1).

What is the test? Do my doctrinal affirmations and beliefs form persons and communities in love, compassion, humility, hospitality, and justice?

A Decisive Moment

I feel like I’m back in the 1950’s and 1960’s! Hateful crowds shouting racist, anti-Semitic insults! Angry whites accusing blacks of being “trouble makers!” Armed police officers trying to keep order! Torches lighting the dark night! Politicians scrambling to justify their silence or outright support of racism and white supremacy! Pastors struggling to know what to say and do! The upper echelons of the churches speaking out against injustice, while most local churches remain oblivious!

But there is a frightening difference this time: the KKK members don’t wear hoods and white supremacists happily show up in the media espousing their hatred and violence. Hatred, white superiority, and moral bankruptcy have gone mainstream.

The politics of hatred and economics of disparity have formed an unholy alliance. White privilege dominates public policy, including medical care, taxation, voting regulations, criminal justice, education, even drug addiction concerns.

In the name of “personal choice” or “individual freedom,” those with economic and political clout further limit the choices of the politically and economically powerless.

There is no overarching vision being articulated by our political, religious, and civic leaders. Moral leadership has gone by a.w.o.l! Rather than contributing to a common vision, peace, and clear moral direction, the President publicly channels and exacerbates the racism, bullying, and disrespect that are poisoning our society.

Mere condemnation, however, is no solution, although naming the evils is an important component of healing. Deeper self-examination and genuine repentance are called for, especially by those of us who are among the privileged, privilege built on the backs and from the blood of the poor, the enslaved, the exploited, and the vulnerable.

Self-examination and repentance are hard work and costly! Confronting our own complicity in systemic evil and facing our personal demons takes courage and vulnerability.

We white folks have a long history of benefiting from oppression, exploitation, and violence. Our forebears came to this land, claiming to “discover” it and with violence and deception took the land from native peoples. We forced them on “a trail of tears” and onto reservations.

Our predecessors from Europe went to Africa, captured men, women and children, ripped them from their families and cultures, brought them on slave ships to this country, and treated them as mere property subject to abuse and discarding. A whole economy was built on the bent backs and steaming sweat of black and brown people.

Repentance involves facing the harsh truth that we continue to benefit from being white in a country that has “white-washed” its history.

An immediate question before us is this: Will we use our privilege to work for justice, equality, and peace?  Or, will we continue to protect our privileges by remaining silent and complicit in the face of current bigotry, violence, and injustice?

Will we move out of our economic, racial, political, and religious bubbles and enter into solidarity with the marginalized, the powerless, the pushed aside? Or, will be remain in our exclusive enclaves and demonize those who call for inclusion and belonging?

Will we concede to political partisanship and moral bankruptcy of our current elected officials? Or, will we demand truthfulness, justice, and moral character of our leaders?

Will our churches persist in their racial and class segregation and pursuit of what one historian calls “expansion by evasion”? Or, will congregations intentionally reflect the diversity of the human family and become centers of respectful dialogue and advocacy on the issues that threaten our common humanity under God?

Signs of hope seem remote this week. However, Christians affirm that the decisive victory has already been won in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. May we as individuals and congregations be visible signs of God’s ultimate triumph of compassion, justice, hospitality, generosity, and peace!

 

A Threat Greater than Terrorism

Not since the era of the Civil War has our nation faced such a threat from within, a threat far more insidious than terrorism or a military attack from beyond our borders.

The threat is the erosion of commitment to the common good, especially by the political leadership of our nation.

Partisan political ideology, personal ambition, financial clout, narrow self interest, and lust for power dominate our political process.  Dysfunction, polarization, falsification, and fear mongering determine policies related to healthcare, taxation, the environment, access to voting, financial regulations, and who serves on the courts.

Bullying and intimidation have become preferred images of leadership, and political influence is controlled by special interests of the financially advantaged.

The efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act is emblematic of the loss of concern for the common good.  Flaws in the Affordable Care Act need to be addressed; but opposition to the ACA has largely been based purely on political partisanship and rigid market ideology.

The failure thus far of  divisive efforts provides Congress with an opportunity to move beyond the self-serving, partisan political and personal agendas and work for the good all citizens. Doing so may provide a more effective healthcare system and take a step toward restoring confidence in the ability of the government to function as intended, “to provide for the common welfare.”

We all share the responsibility for restoring a vision of and commitment to the common good. Preoccupation with gaining a personal advantage and advancing our own narrow political, religious, and economic agendas contributes to the problem.  We must be willing to sacrifice personal benefit for the well being of others, particularly the vulnerable and under resourced.

At the heart of the biblical vision is a covenant community in which ALL have access to that which enables people to flourish as beloved children of God. The nations are judged on the basis of what happens to the most vulnerable, “the orphans, the widows, the strangers (immigrants).”

The common good begins with insuring that the poor, the powerless, the marginalized receive preferential consideration when it comes to public policy. Biblical justice doesn’t trickle down from the powerful to the weak; it bubbles up from the weak to all segments of the community.

The church is called to embody God’s alternative community. Regrettably, churches tend to reflect the political partisanship, ideological divides, and class distinctions of the society. We have become conformed to the world rather than being agents of transformation.

How might we contribute to a vision of and commitment to the common good? Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Get in touch with the vision of covenant community portrayed in the Bible, especially in the Prophets, the Sermon on the Mount, and Paul’s image of the New Creation.
  2. Break out of our ideological, political, theological, economic, and racial conclaves and respectfully listen to the dreams and aspirations of those different from ourselves.
  3. Develop ongoing relationships/friendships with the poor, the physically and mentally ill, immigrants, the incarcerated, the frail elderly, at risk children.
  4. Help our local churches to become centers of dialogue on crucial issues confronting the world–economic disparity, poverty, criminal justice, immigration, healthcare, climate change, war and violence, addiction, nationalism, etc.
  5. Proclaim and live the one Gospel with its personal and social ramifications.
  6. Advocate on behalf of the weak, vulnerable, and powerless.
  7. Practice the means of grace with others who will hold us in love and hold us accountable to the common good.

 

 

 

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