Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Manhattan Declaration: A New Revelation and A False Gospel?

What if some of the most prominent Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant leaders in the world reduced the Christian faith to three tenets absent from the Bible ... and then announced to the world that the fate of Christianity will stand or fall based on these three (non-biblical) tenets?

Imagine no more. It has happened.

This past Friday a coalition of fundamentalist Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants (Timothy George, Tony Perkins, James Dobson and Al Mohler are among the Protestant signers) staked Christianity on "the three most important issues" (according to Chuck Colson) in the world (the "first principles," according to Southern Baptist leader Richard Land), none of which are even referenced in the Bible:

1) Opposition to "abortion, embryo-destructive research, assisted suicide, and euthanasia."

2) Homosexual marriage, because "marriage is the original and most important institution for sustaining the health, education, and welfare of all."

3) Freedom of religion and rights of conscience for conservative Christians above all others.

You can put down your Bibles now. Faithful Christianity, according to the Manhattan Declaration, is summed up in the three non-negotiable, non-biblical statements listed above. That abortion (and modern end-of-life issues), homosexual marriage, and special rights for conservative Christians are not even mentioned in scripture is irrelevant. The Manhattan authors have replaced the Bible with their own scripture.

Perhaps a new "god" has emerged in the 21st century, and we are now blessed to hear his spokespersons offer a new revelation? Perhaps "Manhattan" is an apt metaphor for this new revelation? Whereas the Manhattan Project of the last century ushered in the very real prospect of global annihilation, perhaps the Manhattan Declaration ushers in the era of a new, politically correct deity whose job is to "unify" Christians around ... what?

If the creators and signers of the Manhattan Declaration had chosen to use the Bible as their moral and ethical guidebook, they could have easily done so.

The Bible is quite clear, for example, that championing and advocating justice for the poor, oppressed, marginalized, and sick is the very essence of the valuing of "human life," as thousands of scripture verses testify. However, the Manhattan Declaration pays lip service to "special concern for the poor and vulnerable" while arguing, at length, that a zygote cell is a human being. Declaring the meeting of sperm and egg to be a human person does injustice to the serious ethical and moral dimensions of abortion and the sacredness of humanness.

In terms of marriage, instead of sticking with the whole story of what the Bible says about homosexuality (unfavorable by most interpretations) and marriage (arranged nuptials, polygamy sometimes allowed, childless widows commanded to bear children by their brother-in-laws, Paul's admonition that singleness is better than marriage, etc.), the Manhattan folk fuse contemporary Western marriage norms with covenantal, full-quiver theology as validated by "vast human experience", philosophy, and rationalism. Furthermore, civil unions between homosexuals will (it would seem) destroy the world, and clearly violate the religious liberty of conservative Christians.

Speaking of religious liberty, the Manhattan signers insist that those who oppose their religio-political views are not deserving of equal rights under the law.

In short, the Manhattan Declaration's willful ignoring (if not disrespect) of scripture is breathtaking. But why? What do the authors of the Manhattan Declaration want? To whom is their self-righteous anger directed?

For starters, the Manhattan signers proclaim themselves the saviors of society, the defenders of life and truth in the face of barbarianism that is threatening today's Western world. Who are these modern "barbarians"? The Obama administration ("present administration" within the Declaration) and Democrats at large ("secularists" according to Chuck Colson), it seems, aided unwittingly by many young evangelicals whose holistic views of justice are ... well ... too biblical (not to mention that many voted for Obama).

One Manhattan supporter explains the political nature of the Manhattan Declaration this way: "It is very well written and calls out many of the liberal policies our current administration is pushing on us." In a similar fashion, one supporter labels the statement simply as a "political Christian declaration."

Another supporter goes into more detail regarding what he views as the political underpinnings of the Declaration: "We are at a tipping point and that something needs to be done to bring about a renewed spirit within our culture and Nation for the very survival of our culture and Nation. Obama has acted as a lightning rod for these new movements and phenomenon and as well he should. He is a man completely divorced from American tradition, culture, history as well as its Constitutional values ... a believer of a grotesque and miserable radical left wing Marxist philosophy and must be stopped before he can implement any more of it on this great Nation any further. These new and non-violent revolutionary movements are exactly what we need at this point in time. American’s realize now that unless we unify and confront this attempt by Obama and this Congress to launch America 50 years further down the path towards a final socialist utopia over the next 1 year, which is what they are trying to do, that something needs to be done."

For the record, many fundamentalist Christians (individuals and organizations) refused to sign the Manhattan Declaration. John MacArthur refused to sign, noting that "The Gospel is barely mentioned in the Declaration." Another conservative sees the Declaration as "blurring the Gospel." And a few signers, such as Ron Sider, are not fundamentalists.

Sider aside, some non-fundamentalist Baptists are criticizing the Declaration, their observations regarding the political nature of the document mirroring that of many supporters:

Bruce Prescott notes that the Manhattan signers claim a lock on God and reserve full religious liberty only for Christians. He also suggests that the signers view a democratic, pluralistic society as "heresy."

Aaron Weaver (The Big Daddy Weave), after noting the Christian nationalistic underpinnings of the Manhattan Declaration, finds "Noticeably absent ... any real concern for the poor and oppressed in society" ... and "Some legitimate concerns mixed in with a bit of fear-mongering, vivid imagery, hyperbole, and apples and oranges comparisons."

In summary, there is little to be thankful for in regards to the politically-oriented Manhattan Declaration. The few helpful portions of the statement (well-noted by Brian McLaren) are overshadowed by the over-arching non-biblical construct, approval of Christian nationalism, and enmity toward religious and political pluralism.

Well, on second thought, maybe the colonial Puritan theocrats would approve.

But one cannot help but wonder: Is this "Christian" response to Obama and the Democrat Party the best that today's religious fundamentalists can put forth? Sure, the Tea Partiers will love it. But where is the Bible, not to mention Jesus?

Perhaps we are witnessing the dawning of Christian Atheism. What term better describes self-proclaimed Christians whose world view is primarily political and self-serving, and exists independent of scripture and Christ?

Friday, November 20, 2009

Jesus in America

A story from Matthew 25, placed within a modern context:

When Jesus comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. Twenty-first century Americans will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

Then Jesus will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was an immigrant and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you made certain I had access to health care, I was in prison and you came to visit me.'

Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'

Jesus reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers or sisters of mine, you did for me.'

Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed. For I was hungry and you told me to get off food stamps and get a job, I was thirsty and you called me a welfare queen, I was an immigrant and you drove me out of your country, I needed clothes and you called the police to get me off your street, I was sick and you spent your time and energy defending free market health care rationing and death panels and multi-millionaire CEOs, and on death row and your pro-life views did not apply to me.'

They also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or an immigrant or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?'

He will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.'

Have too many American Christians lost sight of Jesus?

Monday, November 09, 2009

Why Are Pro-Lifers Praying for the Deaths of American Citizens?

This past weekend the House of Representatives passed a comprehensive health care bill that extends health insurance to tens of millions of uninsured Americans and begins reigning in an industry that kills tens of thousands of Americans each year: private (free market) health insurance corporations. Whether through health care rationing (by denying health care insurance to tens of millions of poor and middle class families who are deemed to sick for health insurance or are unable to pay the exorbitant premiums demanded by insurance corporations) or death panels (administrators who decide whether or not to honor claims filed by health insurance customers), the free market health insurance industry prefers to let Americans die rather than selling affordable policies and honoring life-saving policy claims from their own customers in order to insure that industry CEOs collectively pocket billions of dollars.

The bill passed by the House, however, has not yet become law. The coming weeks and months will determine the fate of health care in America. To be certain, the final version of the health care bill will almost certainly not be enough to significantly reign in runaway health care costs anytime soon. Rather, it will likely be just the first step of many required to truly transition the American political establishment from viewing basic health care as a privilege for those who have enough money or the right kind of job or are appropriately healthy, rather than as an inherent human right.

Thus we now face a critical point in the history of America: are we as a nation going to continue to allow health insurance companies to kill more Americans in order to create yet more billions of dollars in blood-money profits for corporate CEOs, or do we as a nation have enough moral courage and ethical backbone to stop the greed-driven deaths of innocent Americans? Bizarrely enough, many religious persons who have long claimed to be "pro-life" want the killing to continue: they are championing the current free market health care industry with a zeal of biblical proportions.

Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a pro-life Baptist and otherwise seemingly-reasonable guy, said of the prospect of eventual enactment of the House's health care reform: “I hope and pray it doesn’t [pass], because it would be a disaster for the economy and health care.

God forbid that America should choose life for her poor and middle class citizens over exorbitant profits for a handful of health insurance industry CEOs!

Graham's anti-health care reform, pro-profits-over-human-life position is the party line of all Republicans in the House save one (more on the lone dissenter later).

Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, the Republican leader of the House and supposedly a pro-lifer, insists that the House's health care reform is the “greatest threat to freedom that I have seen in the 19 years I’ve been in Washington.”

For Boehner to equate the saving of American lives as the "greatest threat to freedom" in America exemplifies the type of desperate, ludicrous lies that extremist free market apologists are now resorting to in defense of America's wealthy elite.

At the same time, some so-called Christian ethicists such as Southern Baptist's Richard Land are providing alleged theological cover for free market health care rationing and death panels. According to Land (yet another self-proclaimed pro-lifer), God has no problem with health care rationing and death panels within a free market, capitalist health care system, while the possibility of health care rationing underneath a government system is nothing more than Nazism.

So-called pro-lifers who staunchly defend a free market constructed upon the deaths of innocent American citizens, however, would do well to listen to Representative Anh Cao of Louisiana, seemingly the lone Republican in the House who realizes that human life truly is more important than corporate profits. A self-proclaimed pro-life Catholic, he supported the health care reform bill for the very reason that many of his constituents are poor and uninsured, and thus face the prospect of untimely death in America's current free market health care system. Cao, in short, remained true to his proclaimed pro-life convictions.

So why are so many self-proclaimed pro-lifers (and Christians!) praying and advocating for the continuation of a health care system that kills tens of thousands of Americans annually?

Jesus declared that one cannot serve both God and money (Luke 16:13), while the Apostle Paul (1 Timothy 6:10) asserted that money is the root of all evil.

It would seem, scripturally speaking, that the pro-life demonizers of government health care / ceaseless defenders of free market capitalism have (knowingly or not) chosen to worship wealth over God, and, at least in some instances, opted for evil over good (expressed in willing the death of innocent people in order to preserve corporate profits).

Indeed, the future of Christianity in America may be shaped immensely by the ongoing battle between allegiance to Christ and allegiance to capitalism. Although Christ and capitalism can certainly co-exist together if the latter is kept in a proper context, the growing American evangelical propensity to force Christianity into a free market straitjacket must be resisted by followers of Christ, for the sake of everyone.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Biblical Atheism: The Real "New Atheists"?

Much has been made in recent years of the emergence of "New Atheists," outspoken disbelievers of deity and deities who relentlessly excoriate religion. Popular and seemingly everywhere now, these new atheists - led by Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett - are outraged over faith-based science and violence. Targeting fundamentalist religion expressed in creationist theology and violent tendencies, they find no evidence of a deity or deities within or alongside biological processes, and argue that religion itself is dangerous to the human race.

While fundamentalist Christians dismiss New Atheism, other critics (such as Karen Armstrong) contend that New Atheists are arguing against modern religious fundamentalism, rather than religion at large. Creationism, for instance, is a product of the 1960s, receiving thinly-veiled upgrades in the 1990s ("scientific creationism") and the first decade of this century ("intelligent design"). Today's popular conservative Christian view of an earth no older than 10,000 years is a phenomenon of the past 100 years. Only since the late 19th century have many Christians adhered firmly to a literalist biblical interpretative methodology constructed upon modern rationalism, embraced the modern theory about the Bible (yet absent from the Bible) dubbed "biblical inerrancy," and placed their faith in John Nelson Darby's 1820s end-times theological scheme commonly referred to as "the Rapture." In short, fundamentalism (built upon these three modern contrivances) is a novelty of modern religion, not the norm of historical Christianity. In this sense, the New Atheists are indeed swinging their rhetorical blades at modern religion.

We are witnessing, in other words, a battle over who controls scientific truth in the twenty-first century: religious fundamentalists who wish to conform science to faith, or God-disbelievers who are determined to disentangle fundamentalist religious faith from science. As for me, I side with the New Atheists in this particular battle, while nonetheless agreeing with Karen Armstrong that they are mistaken in assuming fundamentalism is representative of religion at large.

Yet there is another dimension of this battle waged on a different playing field. While many fundamentalists dismiss the New Atheists (and atheism at large) as believing in nothing, the biblical foundation of fundamentalism - biblical inerrancy - is arguably (and literally?) nothing more than religious atheism. In short, although biblical inerrancy rhetorically advocates a perfect biblical text, biblical inerrantists apply textual perfection to ... nothing.

For the biblical inerrantist, there is not a biblical text in existence that is perfect. No one has ever held a perfect biblical text, no one has ever read from a perfect biblical text, and no one has ever preached from a perfect biblical text. For the biblical inerrantist, only the non-existent original fragments of biblical writing (referred to as "autographs") are inerrant, or perfect.

In reality, the origins of any once-existent, primary-composed ancient bits and pieces of writing that reflected the original spoken (oral) traditions handed down for generations, are clouded in mystery and speculative at best. In addition, textual original autograph inerrantists do not view as authoritative the ancient, multi-generational oral traditions from which the "original" text came, begging the question of how a theoretical text can be theoretically perfect if the words put into writing where themselves imperfect? (Many inerrantists do an end run around this problem by asserting that there was no oral tradition, and that instead God spoke directly and verbally to the biblical "writers" and forced them to record his dictated utterances verbatim, a theory referred to as "verbal-plenary dictation". The Biblical writers speak against such a view, however; see Luke 1:1-4, for example).

Furthermore, the larger dynamic of biblical "inspiration" (that is, the belief that the written text is derived from God in some fashion, whether inerrant or not; historically, Christians have affirmed various formulations of biblical inspiration, but not biblical inerrancy) "strictly speaking, applies only to the autographic text of Scripture" (according to the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, the creed of inerrantists).

What do biblical inerrantists actually believe about the Bibles in their hands and pulpits? They "affirm that copies and translations of Scripture are the Word of God to the extent that they faithfully represent the original" (see link above). Not only are their Bibles not inerrant, but they are the "Word of God" only if they "faithfully reflect" ... that which does not exist.

Biblical inerrancy, in short, is much ado about nothing.

Placing blind faith in a non-existent text could reasonably be referred to as "Biblical Atheism," not unlike traditional atheists whose belief system is predicated upon the non-existence of a god or gods.

On the other hand, the New Atheists do believe in that which science has revealed. That is, they believe in that which is scientifically verifiable.

Likewise, contemporary Christians would do well to seek to understand the message of the imperfect (according to biblical inerrantists) but existent Bibles in our hands and in our homes and in our pulpits, rather than the inerrantist's faith in nothing (and instead of inerrantist's efforts, in the face of nothing, to control the message of the actual Bibles we do have).

Our actual Bibles do not claim textual perfection nor do they posit a corner on all truth, but they do tell the stories of imperfect people (foibles and all) seeking (at times!) to understand God-centric truth in a pre-scientific era. The person of Christ is the focal point of Christian scripture. To our historical shame, those who claim to be followers of Christ have often abandoned his teachings against violence, greed, and religious legalism (fundamentalism, in contemporary terms). The New Atheists are thus right in pushing back against such perversions of Christ in particular, and religion in general. Yet let us not respond as Biblical Atheists who place their faith in that which does not exist. Instead, let us reflect Christ by following his teachings and example revealed in the scripture we do have at hand, and by welcoming truth wherever truth is revealed.