It has been just over two weeks since we all heard the terrible news of explosions in Boston. In a timeline that seems too familiar these days, a few panicked reports of an explosion, then two, near the finish line of the Boston Marathon bloomed across the internet and television news channels into cellphone video of the destruction, clouds of debris billowing and screams of terror, then an increasing number of images of the injured being rushed to medical tents, first responders running bravely toward the chaos still unfolding around the blast sites, numbers of suspected dead. As the hours passed the news coverage was all-pervasive, every channel showing the same clips, the same still photos, as on camera reporters did the journalistic equivalent of treading water with the limited facts available, grabbing at anything that seemed like it might give some insight into what was happening, something that might even start to break open the question of why.
One of the most indelible memories Sesame Street has left in my mind is that of the letter and number of the day. I loved, “Today’s episode is brought to you by the letter Q and the number 12.” As a child I always longed for the day the episode would be brought to you by the letter K. As I sat down to read and review “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg, this memory of Sesame Street came to mind. I felt like I should begin this piece with the bold and italicized statement: “This Review brought to you by my husband, John!” In fact, I feel like most all of my sermons and ministry should carry this pronouncement. Boldly. Front and center. We are the pastors and people we are because of the love and support of those around us: our spouses, children, coworkers, friends, parents, and family. I think one of the reasons I enjoyed Sandberg’s book was simply because she is aware of the fact that none of us is an island. We can work together to promote our collective best; we can lean in to create change.
“Washington is the problem and no good can come from politics.” As someone whose career is in political issue advocacy, this is a sentiment I hear with some frequency. In many ways the greatest obstruction we face in our national politics isn’t a party, or a philosophy, or even apathy, but our own overwhelming sense of disillusionment in the ability of our leaders to accomplish anything. The most recent failure to avoid a self-inflicted penalty of massive, economy-suppressing cuts to the federal budget (known in DC as the sequester), serves as a prime example of our political dysfunction.
Without question our politics needs fixing, but there remains another question worth asking: How much of our disillusionment is self-inflicted? Are there times when we are victims of our own ideals?
Here is what I mean. Just a few months ago, President Obama stood on the steps of the Capitol and delivered his second inaugural address, a stirring speech that many viewed as Obama returning to the ideals of his 2008 campaign. Obama, perhaps more than any other politician in recent time, has risen to the level of a symbol, and inspired hope for who we want to be as a nation. To many, Obama is a type of prophet. And it’s not just the President to whom we affix these expectations. We want our political leaders to be better than ourselves, to be a voice crying out in the wilderness, to be the courtyard prophet speaking words of truth, justice, and compassion. And then, when they make compromises, when they play the political games, and bow to the constraints we would see them overthrow, the disillusionment envelops us. We grow cynical towards government and despairing of the power of our political voice.
Politicians are not prophets. How much of our disappointment could we avoid if we viewed that simple truth with sober eyes and honest judgment? Politicians do not run to overturn the tables on Capitol Hill. And while that’s exactly what many of us may want them to do in our heart of hearts, holding on to that hope ignores the political realities and constraints placed on those who hold public office and fails to understand the primary motivations of politics and politicians. I repeat, politicians are not prophets.
The role of the prophet is to call us back to who we are meant to be – individually and as a society. At times politicians can assume this role, casting a prophetic vision that appeals to our nation’s better angles. But prophetic vision is just one tool in the politician’s toolbox and not the soul of his identity. The role of the prophet is different. The prophet must ever stand apart from power structures, from the people, from everything and everyone but God. That’s not to say that a prophet never finds herself in favor with the political structures or the people; she can be. But she can also just as easily be unwelcome anywhere, including her hometown. And so the prophet must establish an identity that is not dependent on anyone’s favor or disfavor but God.
The job of the politician, however, is wholly dependent on the favorability of the people and the power structures at play. A politician can buck them, certainly. He can make a moral stand for one reason or another, but there’s always a political calculus involved about whether that stand will ultimately harm or benefit his chances of staying in office. A politician’s primary motive is staying in office.
Before we take too cynical a view of that, consider that this can in fact be a noble motive for many. There are good people in office, public servants who sacrifice any number of other paths in order to serve their country and make a positive difference in people’s lives. But the only way to do that is by getting elected, and all that that involves. Call it moral relativism, the reality of sin, or the simple fact that our leaders are constantly negotiating competing claims for how to promote the common good, very little in politics is black and white. At best, the goal any politician can have when elected is to do the most good as possible for the people who sent him there. And that means doing what is necessary to continue to serve.
But the reflection doesn’t end there. Instead, it puts the onus back on us to have realistic expectations about what can and cannot be accomplished through our system of government. Government can be a powerful agent of good in our world. Through it, we can achieve noble goals and construct a society that appeals to our better angles and promotes the common good. Government cannot bring about the Kingdom of God. It is not flawless. In fact, part of the genius of the Framers was that they understood all too well the nature of sin and the power of power to corrupt. So they set up a system that assumes humans are a complex mixture of sinner and saint. They put in safe guards to protect us from our baser selves while allowing our capacity for justice, mercy and compassion to flourish.
In many ways our system of government is a theological statement on the nature of sin (and a bit on redemption too). Politicians operate from self interest – sometimes a self interest driven by a thirst for power, sometimes a self interest in preserving an office that enables them to try to do some good. In the face of this reality, we are called to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. We have to be honest about human nature, our limitations, our mixed motivations, as well as our capacity to aspire toward justice, compassion, and love of the Kingdom of God. We must be wise enough to understand that in a world mired in sin, we are subject to systems of power and self-interest beyond our control. And we must be innocent enough to believe that despite sin, despite the disillusionment we can experience at the hands of our leaders, love and justice will prevail.
It’s not every day you get to read a seminal, formative work in a still-emerging field of theology. But that is exactly what Making Paper Cranes: Toward an Asian American Feminist Theology by Mihee Kim-Kort is. If you ever find yourself agreeing with the writer of Ecclesiastes, “There is nothing new under the sun,” pick up Making Paper Cranes and see if you can still say that when you are finished.
It’s not that feminist theology is brand new. And while it is relatively new on the scene, this isn’t the first volume of theology written from an Asian American perspective. It’s not even the first book to combine the two.
Kim-Kort’s work is formative and important to the entire world of theology because the way she pinpoints where her experience and the work of God intersect models the way all of us might undertake embodied theology—theology with meat on its bones. In this way her theology is neither a majority theology or a minority theology—it simply is authentic theology for a Korean American Presbyterian young woman in dialogue with all of the traditions in which she happens to be rooted. As such, it is a model of how all of us might undertake similar theological pursuits authentic to each one of us as children of God.
Sitting down on a recent Sunday evening with Downton Abbey on in the background, I carefully sew the Anglican Communion’s Compass Rose and the Episcopal Shield onto my new tippet[i]. This seemingly simple task does not begin to capture the last decade of my life and the journey I have been on.
As a cradle member of the Church of England, passionate about working with youth and helping marginalized communities know the unconditional love of God, it should not have been a surprise when my priest asked me if I would consider becoming a priest – but it was. My family includes prominent supporters of women’s ordination, but I had never imagined it as a path for myself, because I had almost no female role models to follow.
My husband was running just a few minutes late, the church rummage sale having exhausted all the spaces in the parking lot. My office is just down the hall from our older daughter’s preschool classroom, so when I noted that it was time for pick-up, I quickly saved my document and stepped out to get the girls. On Thursdays, we baby-sit twin sisters before and after school. It was originally just Ben’s job. He is, after all, the stay-at-home dad. But then we discerned that it was finally time for him to enroll in a certification program to become an addictions counselor, and he started taking a class on Thursday nights. The babysitting has shifted to my docket of responsibilities so that he has time to study and drive to campus. We were doing the toddler/vehicle hand-off at church, which is how my narrow office, lined with theology books and biblical commentaries, came to be inhabited with three preschoolers, one toddler, one husband, and one seriously harried associate minister.
I had just looked at my to-do list. It would have been fine – full, but fine – if I hadn’t signed on for way too many extras. I am a sucker for extras, especially if they involve writing. Generally speaking, writing gigs are an easy complement for my pastoral work. For instance, I have a great head start on my sermon for the Sunday after Easter in 2014, thanks to a writing assignment for a devotional book. But I’ve learned that I can handle only so many writing deadlines in any given month, and I suddenly found myself staring at three in one week. Thankfully, one of those deadlines included a review of blogger Anne Bogel’s recent e-book, Work Shift: How to Create a Better Blend of Work, Life, and Family.
A few weeks ago, I sat in a room with church members for our church’s Theology on Draft small group. Our setting in Washington, DC encouraged that this round of study be focused on religion and politics and what might be a responsible, Christian response within the teeming mess that is the presidential election as well as our individual responses as people who live and work in Washington, DC and cannot escape it. Sure, we spoke of the need to understand the religious right and what the word evangelical means within religious and political spectrums. And we even discussed how we’d be approaching the study of Amos in correlation with our discussions. We even asked the big picture questions about being Baptist and our baptist distinctive of religious liberty and separation of church and state.
We’ve all seen it. We’ve all groaned, or objected full-throatedly, or taken to our blogs to protest. Pat Robertson did it in 2005, the Rabbinical Alliance of America did it in 2010, and the mayor of Tokyo did it in 2011. The members of the Westboro Baptist Church do it so often it doesn’t even make the news anymore. Maybe we’ve even been guilty of it ourselves, especially lately.
It is bad theology and lazy humor. So can we all stop blaming folks we don’t agree with for calling down God’s wrath in the form of natural disasters?
“Have you seen it? It’s gigantic! And who’s that golden guy on the steeple?”
“I think that’s the man they worship. I’m not sure how I feel about them being in the area…”
With every brick, every coat of paint, every pane of glass placed into the new LDS temple, these conversations grew more insistent, more frantic. Confronted with such a large and visible building project, my congregation members couldn’t help but wonder who these Mormons really were. Would they be good neighbors? Do they count as “real Christians”? Could one of “them” be trusted as our President? And again, what was up with that golden guy with the trumpet on top of the temple?
My church folk had big questions, and in order to quell their fears and be better neighbors, they needed good information. I knew a fair amount about the LDS tradition, but only in an academic way. So, when the opportunity arose to tour the temple, I jumped at the chance.
Before ever setting foot on the temple campus, I was struck by the scope of the PR campaign run by the LDS church. Months prior to the May 2012 temple dedication, faith leaders from around the Kansas City region were mailed formal invitations to meet with LDS leaders and tour the facility. And it didn’t stop there: in the weeks leading up to the big dedication day (after which only Mormons in good standing can enter the building), thousands of volunteers were brought in to handle the public tours that took place several times a day. It seems the LDS community here knows what is at stake; because their beliefs are so often misunderstood, in order to get along with their surrounding community and perhaps obtain a few new members, they must make a special effort. Consequently, they have made hospitality an art form.
Thanks to a friend whose congregation did a Lenten study on Mormonism with the local LDS Bishop, I was able to get a spot on one of the VIP tours, led by the Bishop himself. When we arrived together, it was clear that everyone including the Bishop thought that my friend was the pastor and I was his girlfriend or wife. This awkward situation was made differently awkward whenever he introduced me as one of his clergy colleagues – but the Bishop recovered swiftly and throughout the rest of the tour made a point of addressing the role of women in the LDS church, always while making sure to catch my eye. My sense of this is that he wanted to make sure I was comfortable, and he wanted to address my presumed concerns about LDS womanhood while also being clear about his beliefs. Though awkward at first, it was also a relief to have some of this out on the table.
The tour started in the new LDS church building that sits next to the temple. Weekly worship takes place in these local meetinghouses as the temple is reserved for very particular ceremonies and rituals, including weddings, sealings and baptisms. On this day, the meetinghouse had been turned into a welcome center with rooms set up for basic introductory classes on Mormonism and reception areas readied for post-tour snacking and fellowship. We settled into one classroom and watched a rather slick video on basic Mormon history and faith as well as the history of temple building. The video stressed the Abrahamic roots of the LDS faith, as well as the strong family focus that is often a hallmark of Mormonism. As one of the leaders in the video teared up while talking about his family (“It wouldn’t be heaven if I couldn’t be with my wife and children.”), I could see a bit more clearly why the idea of a “sealed marriage” that lasts beyond death into eternity is such a cherished belief in the LDS faith.
After the video, we walked across the parking lot and prepared to enter the temple by putting protective booties over our shoes. This is not normally the protocol when entering an LDS temple, but because they were anticipating as many as 70,000 visitors in the month leading up to the temple dedication (ultimately, more than 91,000 came), this step was added in order to protect the new hand-carved carpets that weave throughout the building. Once our shoes were covered, we entered the space.
The temple was, in a word, overwhelming. The detail and craftsmanship of the woodwork, the vastness of the space, the grandiosity of the baptismal font (which sits atop twelve life-sized sculpted bulls), the dazzling light reflected through thousands of crystal droplets in the chandeliers found inside the holiest of rooms – on their own each of these facets would be impressive, but together they made the building difficult to take in. Though pictures do not do justice to the space, you can see some of the interior by clicking here: http://kcur.org/post/inside-new-mormon-temple.
There were many moments when the aesthetics of the space simply did not suit me. The most sacred of rooms, which Mormons believe is one of the closest reflections of what heaven will be like, struck me more like a luxurious funeral home with its brocaded couches, golden lamps and mirrored walls. But the blinding light from the large chandelier and the humbling devotion spread across the Bishop’s face as he silently stood watch in the room reminded me that beauty and inspiration are in the eye and heart of the beholder. This was not my sacred space, nor were these sacred symbols etched into my heart from childhood – so I was not touched in the same way as those guests who share the Mormon faith. I left the room wondering how unchurched visitors regard our sanctuary – a sacred space that I find so wrenchingly beautiful.
As we wound our way through the temple, the Bishop continued to describe the Mormon faith and ceremonial practice. In a sealing room, where marrying couples kneel facing one another and stare into mirrors that provide the visual effect of eternity, we learned more about the practice of celestial marriage. In the bride’s room, we were told more about the role of women as leader of the home and family (according to the Bishop, this is a more important role than his own because Bishops only serve terms in leadership but women are leaders of the home and family forever). In these discussions, it became all the more clear to me that I find portions of LDS doctrine deeply troubling – and yet, as the Bishop shared his heart with us, I also felt a growing respect for him and his faith.
As a result of the tour, I’ve been able to better answer my congregants’ queries, as well as a few of my own:
-Yes, the Mormons in our area will be good neighbors.
-Do they count as “real Christians”? That depends on your definition – but they sure do love Jesus!
-Could a Mormon be trusted as President? Of course! It all depends on the Mormon in question, just as it would depend on the Christian or Jew or Muslim or Buddhist in question.
I’m still not certain what I think about many of the LDS beliefs, and I am still wary of their understanding of womanhood – but I’m also very certain that these Mormons in our midst are our brothers and sisters. The more we know about one another the better – and these tours were a fantastic beginning of a conversation that should continue regardless of who wins the 2012 election.
As for that golden guy with the trumpet? That’s the Angel Moroni. And no, they don’t worship him.
I was wearing a hospital gown and trying to ignore the stirrups I would soon be placing my feet into when I found out about the Supreme Court’s health care decision. I found out about it by text (3 texts, actually) before I heard about it through the news. My boss (the head of a middle judicatory) texted, “Health care law affirmed! Hallelujah!” A seminary friend texted “Court rules 5-4 in Obama’s favor!” And my favorite text was the text from a Missionary Baptist colleague of mine in Oakland who wrote, “Yeah don’t you love it when the right thing prevails? Now let’s get single payer health care!”
I love that third one because I think of it as the “already but not yet” text. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, or PPACA (nicknamed “Obamacare” by critics before people actually knew what the content would be), includes a few provisions you’ve probably already heard about. It allows young adults to stay on their parents’ insurance until they’re 26. It expands generic drug options. It increases the income level for people to qualify for Medicaid. By the year 2020, it seeks to eliminate the “Medicare gap.” It eventually eliminates pre-existing conditions as a reason people can’t get insurance. It eliminates spending caps by insurance companies, so that people will get as much care as they need in a year. It requires companies of over 50 people to provide health care to their full-time employees. And it requires people to purchase insurance starting in a couple of years. (The argument here is that if all barriers to accessing health care are removed, people need to participate in the health care system—otherwise people would only get health coverage once they got sick, breaking down the system that relies on people paying in when they don’t need services so that there are resources when people DO need services.)
So what would Jesus think about health care? As a pastor and preacher, what might I say about this from the pulpit? I live in a city with twice the national unemployment rate (and in some neighborhoods, that rate can reach 45%). I thought this would cause me to become more strident in the way I understand politics, justice and God. And yet, it often complicates my analysis, because there turn out to be more “least, last and lost” folks than I used to track. Perhaps that’s why the theological lens of the already and the not yet matters so much to me: there’s never a moment when we can solely dwell in the “We have arrived; God is here; we are delivered,” because simultaneously, we have sisters and brothers longing for and praying for deliverance. And even health care becomes an already-not-yet moment for me in this community.
So while my initial instinct was to dance around in my paper gown in the doctor’s office (which might have proved awkward had my doctor walked in right then), my enthusiasm has been tempered. I find myself caught between two stories which represent the already and the not yet of the PPACA. The first is a story a friend of mine posted on facebook. A woman was in DC walking down the street when she heard a scream, and turned around to see a young woman jumping up and down with utter joy. “The Supreme Court upheld the health care legislation!” she shouted. “Did you work hard to get that legislation passed?” the passerby asked, trying to understand the level of enthusiasm. “No,” responded the young woman; “I just have lupus.” Already, there is hope for people with pre-existing conditions who could not get access to health care. The other story is shorter. “How are you feeling about the health care verdict,” I asked an activist friend of mine the day the news rolled out. “Eh,” she responded. When prompted, she said, “I’m just tired of liberals conveniently ignoring the people whose needs won’t get met. Today’s decision doesn’t provide health care to a single undocumented person, to a single Dream Act youth.”
Not yet have we created a system where the people who do the hardest work in our country, and without whom our economy would grind to a haltcannot get the health care they need, even though migrant farm workers (exposed to high levels of pesticide) have high rates of cancer and day laborers are often placed in dangerous work environments that risk their wellbeing on a regular basis. In Oakland, I know of one organization, Street Level Health, that does not require some form of identification for the purpose of medical care, and they are not allowed to receive state or federal funds for that reason. I received the news of the Supreme Court decision while sitting in a paper gown in my OB-GYN’s office at Kaiser. When I checked in that day, I was told that since my annual cancer screening was preventative, I didn’t have a co-pay. (That’s part of the PPACA.) I have health care because my part-time job at the middle judicatory knew I needed it and made sure that was part of my contract, since my church can’t afford to cover me.
I already have much for which to be grateful. I’m better off than a lot of friends (and congregants and colleagues) whose health insurance is praying to God that they don’t get sick, because their jobs don’t or can’t provide the same insurance that I get, or because a pre-existing condition stops them from accessing affordable insurance. And I am so grateful to my Missionary Baptist colleague for allowing me to celebrate the already on behalf of my brothers and sisters whose lives will be safer and healthier and less fearful. (“Yeah don’t you love it when the right thing prevails?”) And I am even more grateful to him for reminding me of the not yet. (“Now let’s get single payer health care!”) What would Jesus think? I suspect he would think, “I am here not for the well but for the sick.” And he would promptly turn his attention to his brothers and sisters living in the not yet.
Sandhya Jha is co-pastor at First Christian Church of Oakland, where she successfully convinced her congregation to give their building over to a collective of grassroots peace and justice organizations known as the Oakland Peace Center. While she dreams of creating a community based in the south African principle of Ubuntu or interdependence, her actual dreams this last week have all been about armed combat, Xena-style. Sandhya has dual master degrees in Divinity and Public Policy from the University of Chicago, and is ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).