Why the Government Shutdown Makes Me So Mad

1_photoI think about health care a lot. We are blessed with three healthy children – but not so healthy that there haven’t been scares and emergencies. We’ve been to the hospital at least once with each child in the last five years, not to mention the hospital visits to actually give birth.

So I think about health care a lot. Because many families are not as lucky as we have been. Their children need many more hospital visits, or round-the-clock care, or expensive medication taken every day. And that’s expensive, more than they can afford.

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Pope Francis and the Progressives

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The defining moment in the papacy of Benedict XVI, at least for this Protestant, was in January 2012, when the Obama administration was getting set to release its regulations for what insurance companies must offer in basic health care plans as dictated by the Affordable Care Act.

It was no secret that contraceptives likely would be among those required to be fully covered; their role in reducing unwanted pregnancy, protecting women, fighting poverty and ultimately reducing abortions was too great to be ignored.

Yet Pope Benedict chose a different emphasis when addressing American bishops in Rome, decrying alleged threats to religious freedom, including what he called attempts to “deny the right of conscientious objection on the part of Catholic individuals and institutions with regard to cooperation in intrinsically evil practices.”

Two months later, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a letter they asked all priests to read in their Sunday mass, criticizing the mandate and painting it in the stark hues of religious freedom – this despite support for Obamacare by Catholic nuns, whom the bishops then attempted to muzzle. Later in the year, when Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan proposed budgets that would cut services to the poor to pay for defense spending and tax cuts for the wealthy, the response from the bishops was much more muted.

The message was clear: Under Pope Benedict the church would go to much greater lengths to protect its own power than it would the powerless.

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The God who Flees

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Richard Beck the other day posted this incredible painting by Luc Olivier Merson, Rest on the Flight to Egypt (1879). Joseph is sacked out on the desert floor with the donkey grazing nearby, while Mary uses the now-famous Sphinx to prop herself up with her baby – the only source of light – in her arms. Her feet dangle off the edge of the Sphinx, whose nose, you’ll notice, is still intact.

What I like most is how it properly contextualizes the recent blogosphere debates over the historicity of the flight to Egypt. Because we don’t need to say the scene portrayed in this evocative painting probably didn’t actually happen. That’s not the point.

Likewise, as someone who enjoys getting behind the text of scripture to learn the actual history – Did this happen? Could it have? What really happened? How did the text come to say what it does? – it’s a useful reminder that no matter how the text got to the point where we have it, it’s what we have. In the end, after all of the historical criticism and analysis, we must arrive at the position of Walter Brueggemann, Brevard Childs and others: What we have is from what we must learn.

So the flight to Egypt may have happened, as Tony Jones and any biblical literalist argues. It may not have happened, as James McGrath, myself and any revisionist liberal argue. But in the end, what can we learn from the story, which is what we’ve got?

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Justice for All

Last night was fun. For those of us who voted, donated or volunteered to re-elect President Obama, it was thrilling. It was rewarding. But it was so much more.

Because the way we vote determines our values as a society. And in 2012, our society chose compassion.

We chose health insurance for those who cannot afford it. We chose a softer approach to those seeking a better life within our borders. We chose – at least I hope we did – to begin healing our suffering planet. We chose the candidate who promised to protect the people who didn’t have a seat at the table of power, whose voices struggle to rise above the lobbyists, special interests and money that have flooded our political system.

Almost as important as what we chose is what we rejected.

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The Day Politics Seemed Trivial

The day our faith community found that Rex does not have long to live was the same day as the third presidential debate. One of my friends, who is very close with Rex’s family, and is not anti-politics by any means, tweeted: “Unless either candidate has a cure for cancer, I’m not really interested in what they have to say.”

I saw this after I’d spent the requisite 90 minutes yelling at the television screen every time Mitt Romney said something that was either completely untrue or completely the opposite of what he’s been saying since he started running for president in 2007, guffawing over President Obama’s “bayonets and horses” line and basically root, root, rooting for our household’s home team.

It was a sobering reminder that for some people that day, politics was simply not important.

Nor should it have been.

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John Chrysostom: Ahead of His Time – and Ours

This might be John Chrysostom week here on the blog, but if I have to read a whole book about him, I may as well take you along for the ride.

Chrysostom was by no means a liberal, at least not as defined by our modern context. He frequently called his Antioch congregation to forsake the customs of the secular culture and embrace a separation that recalled more the radical teachings of Jesus and Paul than the compromising practicality that arose in subsequent centuries. Consider his description of dancing:

For where there is dancing, the devil is also there. For God did not give us feet for this purpose, but for us to walk with discipline: not for us to disgrace ourselves, not for us to leap like camels. [159]

Any quotes from or summaries of Chrysostom’s sermons come from Jaclyn Maxwell’s Christianization and Communication in Late Antiquity: John Chrysostom and His Congregation in Antioch.

Even more entertaining, Chrysostom’s decision to go after fancy shoes. As Maxwell notes,

Chrysostom promotes a very puritanical Christian aesthetic in this section, condemning paintings and decorations, and especially the gaudy shoes some of the sandal-makers were producing. Weaving was fine, but not when it was too fancy, because shoes decorated so elaborately caused men to become irresponsible and effeminate. The audience’s reaction to this condemnation was evident in Chrysostom’s defense of himself:

“I know that to many I seem to be concerned with petty matters, meddling in other people’s affairs. I shall not stop on account of this. For the cause of all evil is this: that these sins seem to be petty and because of this they are ignored. And you say, ‘What sin can be more worthless than this, of having a decorated and shining sandal fitted on one’s foot, if it even seems right to call it a sin?'”

Either Chrysostom had heard his audience’s opinions, or he merely expected that the average Christian considered fancy shoes to be a very negligible sin, or maybe not a sin at all. The preacher even expected the congregation to be angry at him for denouncing these shoes. He later explained that their refusal to acknowledge that wearing fancy shoes was immoral had forced him to expound upon the subject. The possession of such shoes was cruel, not only because unnecessary luxury was sinful, but also because they were wasting money that could have been given as alms to the poor. [153-54]

So that’s a long way of saying Chrysostom was not particularly liberal. Yet he was ahead of his time, at least in a couple of key areas, where he remains a voice the church could use today.

One of those areas, as discussed previously and glimpsed above, is his overriding concern with the poor and how Christians should sacrifice much to help them. The other is rather surprising, given the excerpts quoted above.

John Chrysostom was rather liberal when it comes to sex.

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John Chrysostom and the 47 Percent

There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it – that that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what. … These are people who pay no income tax. … [M]y job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.

This week for class, we had to read Christianization and Communication in Late Antiquity, by Jaclyn Maxwell, a book summarizing the many preserved sermons of John Chrysostom, the famed fourth-century preacher from Antioch, and using them as a way to describe how early Christian preachers attempted to “Christianize” their congregations.

One thing that stood out is that the Christian mandate to care for the poor has never been particularly well received – or easy to carry out. And whether we’re in fourth-century Antioch or 21st-century America, the demonization of the poor to relieve our own consciences is an ever-present temptation.

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