Conversations with President Matthew Myer Boulton and friends of Christian Theological Seminary

Jesus, Michael Brown, and the Love We Need Now

“I’m not talking about emotional bosh when I talk about love,” declares Martin Luther King, Jr., his voice echoing down through the decades.  “I’m talking about a strong, demanding love.” That’s the kind of love we need now.  As the country reels in the wake of the grand jury’s decision in St. Louis, we need strong, demanding love more than ever.

It’s precisely the love Jesus had in mind.  When he famously said, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” he wasn’t quoting Hallmark. He was quoting ancient Jewish scripture:  Leviticus 19:18, to be exact, which reads, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself:  I am the Lord.”

No emotional bosh here.  What Jesus had in mind was love for our neighbors in precisely those situations during which we might be tempted to take vengeance upon them, or bear a grudge against them.  This is no domesticated love.  This is wild, difficult, true love. Turmoil is its natural habitat, and so it must be strong and demanding and clear.

We will never know what happened in what the county prosecutor called the “altercation” alongside and inside Officer Darren Wilson’s police SUV.  But we do know that Wilson decided to leave that vehicle, pursue Michael Brown, and use deadly force against an unarmed young man.

Stepping back from the storm of controversy around the disputed details of the case, one of the things that’s most heartbreaking is how awash our neighborhoods are in violence.  Police officers risk their lives every day, and they deserve our continual thanks and respect.  And yet, surely there are alternatives to lethal force in situations like these.  Surely there are other options:  staying in the vehicle; calling and waiting for backup; pursuing at a distance; withdrawing when a suspect turns to approach; firing warning shots; shooting to wound, not to kill; using a weapon other than a firearm; and so on.

The inner genius of Jesus’ call to love is that it is set directly in contrast to vengeance, to the raw impulse we feel in situations of stress and injury to avenge, to inflict injury in return for injury.  In this sense, true love is a species of restraint, of forbearance, of practical wisdom under pressure.  It is not easy.  To act in this way is demanding, and requires great strength.  We’ll never know exactly why Officer Wilson made the decisions he did, but Jesus’ teaching about the nonviolence of love is a lesson for us all.

And so his call goes out to each of us.  Many feel anger about the grand jury’s decision, or about Officer Wilson’s actions, or about the actions of the crowds in Ferguson, or about the fact that our society seems to sanction deadly force against unarmed young men of color, or about the opinions expressed around us with which we sharply disagree.  And as the anger smolders on every side, the temptations to avenge arise yet again.

But precisely in the midst of such temptations, Jesus calls each of us to a strong and demanding love, fierce enough to listen to those with different points of view than our own.  Rigorous enough to speak the truth as we understand it, faithful enough to imagine new ways to respond to violence without escalating it, dedicated enough to continue the indispensable work of building relationships long after the tear gas and the headlines have faded away.

It’s a simple, gritty, challenging commandment:  Love your neighbor as yourself.  “And who is my neighbor?” someone asked from the crowd.  Your neighbor is Michael Brown.  Your neighbor is Darren Wilson.  Your neighbor is that person on the other side of the political spectrum, on the other side of the color line, on the other side of town.

Pray for the neighborhood.  Pray that the Holy Spirit might continue to work with us and through us and for us, turning us away from vengeance, away from grudges, away from violence, away from blood.  And toward love.  Only love.  Strong, demanding love.

The kind of love, put simply, with which Jesus loves us.

A big CTS thank you to Rae Karim and the SALT Project for working in partnership with CTS to produce this short film — a work of love!

Cultivating a Grateful Life

A friend of mine recently told me that if he had one wish for his children, it wouldn’t be that they’d become wealthy, or famous, or prestigious, or influential.  It wouldn’t even be that they’d live happy lives, or healthy lives, or long lives.

He wants the best for his children, of course, but he knows that life’s joys are invariably accompanied by sorrows and sickness, losses and limits – and that sometimes, those trials enrich our lives as much as they burden them.  No, if there’s one thing he hopes for his children, it’s that they learn to live with a deep, abiding sense of gratitude.

Living a grateful life – now there’s a laudable goal.  And as we enter this fall’s season of thanksgiving, it’s worth asking how we might more nearly approach that goal in our everyday routines.

One ancient practice for cultivating gratitude is to intentionally make time to “count our blessings,” as we say, in a diary, a gratitude journal, or some other method of reflecting and recording.  The sheer discipline of considering on our days with an eye to what we ought to be grateful for can be a wonderfully illuminating exercise, helping us see aspects of reality we might otherwise miss, distracted as we often are by our difficulties and complaints.

But there’s another practice that’s even more elemental.  If you want to cultivate a grateful life, many thoughtful teachers have said, try daily prayer.

When it comes to prayer, one of the oldest theological conundrums is this:  if God is all-knowing, then why do we have to inform God about our needs and wants, our struggles and requests?  Why pray at all?  Over the centuries, many Christian theologians have answered this question along these lines:  You don’t pray for God’s sake; you pray for your own sake, to help you have a felt experience of what’s actually going on whether you pray or not, namely, that God is graciously, generously providing for your daily needs.

How does prayer work in this way?  Well, suppose tomorrow you are going to eat a sandwich for lunch.  For many of us, the experience of eating can become something we do without thinking, as if consuming a kind of fuel, or simply laying claim to our own property, something we pulled out of the fridge or ordered off a menu.

But the deeper reality of our situation, these theologians insist, is that in and through the sandwich, God is providing for us with love and grace.  The food in the fridge or on the restaurant’s plate is a divine gift – but we miss this fact in our entitlement or obliviousness or distraction.

But suppose we begin the day tomorrow with the Lord’s Prayer, which includes the line, “give us this day our daily bread.”  This wouldn’t guarantee that we’d experience our sandwich as a gift, as an answer to our prayer, but it may well increase the likelihood that we do.  More to the point, consistent daily prayer may increase the degree to which we cultivate a life of conscious, grateful acceptance of the many blessings in our lives.

We might say, then, that daily prayer is a discipline of noticing, a practice that helps us be mindful of our actual situation as children of God whom God cares for every day.  Praying daily for our basic needs helps us receive whatever provisions come our way not as our own achievements or property, but as God’s loving gifts.  And receiving our lunch this way will make us more thankful, infusing our day with a palpable sense of appreciation.  It also promises to make the sandwich even more enjoyable!

So this Thanksgiving, let’s count our blessings.  But let’s also commit or recommit to daily disciplines that help cultivate one of the greatest gifts of all:  a grateful, gracious life.

TIME’s 100

This week TIME magazine’s “100 Most Influential People”  issue hit the newsstands. These are TIME’s nominations for the leading influencers in the world, leaders and innovators and visionaries who – according to TIME’s editors – set the tone and the pace for human life today. Of this list of one hundred, how many are figures primarily associated with religion? A grand total of: four.

Here they are, in order of appearance in TIME’s unranked list. First is Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe, a Ugandan nun who works with young women scarred by war. Second is a trio of clerics from Central African Republic – an imam, Omar Kabine Layama; an archbishop, Dieudonné Nzapalainga; and a pastor, Nicolas Guérékoyame-Gbangou – working tirelessly for peace and unity in their country. Third is the American Episcopal writer and former pastor, Barbara Brown Taylor. And fourth is Pope Francis.

That’s it. Four out of one hundred. 4%. How should we understand this?

One initial possibility, taking the list at face value, is to be struck by the apparent lack of influence wielded by religious figures today. Think of it: if we made a list of the 100 most influential people of all time, what percentage would be clearly associated with religion? 30%? 40%? More? Surely 4% pales in comparison to similar lists for even relatively recent history. Name your “top ten influencers” of the twentieth century, for example, and you’ll scarcely be able to leave out Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., John Paul II – and that’s just getting started.

To put this in perspective, in TIME’s list published this week, the largest group is governmental officials, who make up more than 25% of the overall one hundred. The second largest group is “artists/art entrepreneurs,” who together comprise another quarter of the whole. The group from the business world is three times the size of the religious quartet, as is the group made up by activists.

What’s more, in the brief written pieces introducing each of the hundred influencers, even the four religious figures themselves are not described in terms that are particularly, well, religious. Sister Nyirumbe is labeled an “activist”; the most unlikely of the four, Barbara Brown Taylor, is labeled an “author” (I say “unlikely” because Taylor, whom I very much admire, is hardly on the same playing field as, say, Pope Francis, or indeed any number of other religious leaders today, in terms of influence). The three African clerics make the list because of their peace work. And President Obama, who wrote the brief blurb describing Pope Francis, extols the pontiff for his humility, inclusive style, and moral clarity with regard to serving “the least of these.” Though nearly all of these people are Christian, the name “Jesus” appears only once in these four descriptions, a brief cameo at the end of Obama’s remarks – another indicator that even these four were chosen not for reasons related to tradition-specific religious content or mission, but rather because of ways in which their work is broadly humanitarian.

So a first possible reaction to the list is to be struck by the apparently plummeting line on the chart of religious cultural capital today. Religion matters relatively little at the moment, the list seems to suggest, and when it matters, it matters primarily in humanitarian or artistic-literary terms. For those who care about religious communities and leadership, this is an important, challenging, constructive way to read TIME’s list, and it raises provocative questions such as: “If religious figures are not a major influencers in today’s world, what does that say about religion?” And: “How can we expect talented young people to consider religious leadership (or indeed religious involvement at all) as a potential pathway for serving and changing the world?” And: “If we can’t expect them to do so, then whither the church?” And: “If this is as troubling as it would seem – what can be done about it? How can we change key conditions such that religious figures become more well represented in the ‘influential’ mix?”

Without sidestepping or discarding these important questions, there is another way to read TIME’s list. Namely, it can be read as saying less about the world’s influencers and more about the magazine’s editors. After all, globally speaking, we are living through an explosion of religious life today – though much of that growth is in the Global South. The overwhelming majority of the human race today is religious, often actively and profoundly so, and so the idea that only 4% of world’s most influential people are religious figures is surely suspect. Even so, however, this alternative way of reading the list also raises the issue of religion’s declining cultural prestige, at least in the West: How is it that, in a deeply religious age such as ours, TIME’s editors would see fit to publish a list such as this one? And: Now that the list is published, won’t it perpetuate the idea that religion matters relatively little? If mass media trend-spotters and tastemakers like TIME see and present religion as markedly less influential than politics, arts, business, activism, and humanitarianism, won’t they thereby contribute to the decline of religion’s cultural standing and influence?

Whether we think religion has an influence problem or a PR problem, or indeed both, TIME’s list makes clear that those who care about religion and religious leadership today have our work cut out for us. In fact, religion matters, deeply and widely. But creating conditions that help religious figures break into the ranks and networks of perceived influencers, and getting the word out about that influence, are two crucial tasks that will help define the future of religion.

Christian Theological Seminary is a journey.

Dear CTS community,

Christian Theological Seminary is a journey.

At the core of our identity, we are not a campus or a single group of people, since so many have participated in our common work over the seminary’s nearly 160-year history.  CTS is a journey, a pilgrimage we can only travel by continually listening for God’s call, and for how we can best live out our historic mission “to form disciples of Jesus Christ for church and community leadership to serve God’s transforming of the world.”

Every journey has its stages and stations along the way, and the CTS Board of Trustees has discerned that we have come to one of those key junctures.  Like other seminaries, we face new realities in 2014, both on campus and in the surrounding world.  The shifting North American religious landscape calls for new programs and educational formats.  While the CTS student body is now half the size it was 20 years ago, our faculty size is the same, resulting in a student/faculty ratio that has reached an unsustainable level.  Higher education is in significant transition, creating new opportunities for innovation and institutional partnerships.

CTS is in a strong position today, but the path we have been on for decades is not organizationally and financially sustainable into the future.  The Board is committed to ensuring the school’s sustainability so that we can continue to accomplish our mission with excellence for generations to come.  With all this in mind, at the Board’s direction and authorization, CTS is today taking decisive steps to move onto a sustainable path – while we are still strong.

  • Allocate substantial resources toward innovative recruitment of graduate students and other learners, focusing especially on new constituencies;
  • Continue progress on enhanced CTS fundraising;
  • Offer faculty members generous and appropriate voluntary separation packages in keeping with their valued service to the seminary;
  • Explore creative partnerships with appropriate institutions; and,
  • Continue to design and reconfigure seminary programs with financial sustainability in mind.

This plan will put the seminary on a new and sustainable path, strengthening our financial stability and capacity to live out our mission in fresh and creative ways, and repositioning the school on the verge of a new leg on the journey in our long history of visionary theological education.

Change can often be difficult and painful, even when it’s motivated for sound reasons, and always when it impacts the lives of beloved colleagues.  It is fitting that we take time – with heavy and grateful hearts – to honor the lasting contributions of our colleagues, even as we look ahead to what long-term financial strength and stability can mean for Christian Theological Seminary.  Farewells and greetings, sorrows and joys, trials and blessings intertwine.  In view of all of this, we are making pastoral care available to our faculty, staff, and students, with the capable guidance of Rev. Mary Harris, our Dean of Students and longtime friend and colleague of many of us at CTS.

At times on the journey, things change and transform.  And as we look to the road ahead, the Board’s actions will result in enhanced student scholarship programs and recruitment initiatives, increased capacity to financially support the educational innovations of our faculty, more robust community engagement, and the ability to properly care for our campus.  Most importantly, however, this plan will result in a new and sustainable path for CTS into the future, enabling us to accomplish our historic mission for generations to come.

The journey continues.  CTS is strong.  What the Board of Trustees has done is direct and authorize the CTS administration to make this strength sustainable, so we can journey into the twenty-first century.

If you have any questions about this important announcement, please don’t hesitate to be in touch with me.  Please keep our entire CTS community, as well as those communities we seek to serve, in your prayers.  We give thanks, especially in times of change, for the One who always travels with us on the Way.

God’s peace,



much ado about “nones”

If you’re a reader of the New York Times, or a listener to National Public Radio, or a follower of the Religion News Service, you’d have good reason over the past week or so to come to the conclusion that the United States — and indeed the world — is becoming less and less religious.

The Times recently ran an article on atheism in which, almost in passing, the author cites a Pew Forum study to support the claim that “roughly 20 percent” of Americans are “secularly inclined” as opposed to religious. National Public Radio ran a series this week entitled “Losing Our Religion.” Religion News Service ran a story that The Christian Century published under the headline, “Unbelief is world’s third-largest ‘religion'”.

And yet all of this is misleading, subtly but decisively. Each of these stories, in various ways, combines and collapses three categories:  “Atheist,” “Agnostic” (these two combined currently constitute only about 5% of the U.S. population), and “Unaffiliated,” that is, those who do not claim a particular religious affiliation (the so-called “Nones,” who constitute about 15%). But if you read the Pew Forum’s report on the rise of the Unaffiliateds, you’ll find that 70% of them believe in God; 60% call themselves either “religious” or “spiritual,” and 40% of them pray. Lumping together this group with atheists and agnostics, or calling their increase a rise in “unbelief” or a case of “losing our religion,” is sloppy analysis at best.

Worse, this kind of categorization lends support to the false impression that U.S. society, and world society with it, is turning away from religious convictions and toward atheism or agnosticism — a conclusion the data simply do not support. Affiliation patterns are changing, it’s true (this is also true of political affiliations:  “Independents” are on the rise in the U.S.).  But we also live in a breathtakingly religious age:  in percentage terms, religious belief and practice are basically holding steady in the U.S. overall, and globally, no less than 84% of the world’s 7 billion people claim a particular religious affiliation — and a great many of the other 16%, while they may not identify as members of a particular brand of religion, nevertheless call themselves “religious” or “spiritual.”

Religion deeply, widely matters, and will continue to do so, both at home and abroad.  Thinking otherwise will lead our thoughts astray, whether we are within or without religious communities.  And the stories we tell about religious trends matter, too.

The more we mislabel data and suggest that “roughly 20 percent” of the U.S. population are atheist or agnostic (to take the New York Times example), the more we run the risk of concluding that religion is on the way out — the “secularization thesis” that has come and gone, and now has come again, on the American scene.  What’s more, this misunderstanding runs the risk of actually contributing to the trend it falsely announces, since it conjures visions of a stampede for religion’s exit door (“20 percent!”) — and as every antelope knows, stampedes attract followers.  On the other hand, the secularization myth may be especially tempting for historically mainline churches today, since it provides a handy excuse for any failure to attract or retain younger generations (“well, it must be them, not us”).  In other words, for churches, too, mis-telling the story leads us to misinterpret our situation.

The point here is not that Christian communities should be complacent about the rise of the Unaffiliateds, or simply rest assured that religion is alive and well.  Rather, the point is that we should read the data rigorously and wisely, resisting the “secularization” interpretation as long as the data do not support it, and instead working to be nimble enough to engage Unaffiliateds according to their own cherished values:  independence and flexibility, to be sure, but also, in many cases, a genuine, vital interest in religion and spirituality.


sorrow and hope

It’s Christmastime, and our hearts are broken. Our prayers go out to our brothers and sisters in Newtown, Connecticut – and to our brothers and sisters around the world who suffer unspeakable violence each and every day. When children are killed, we mourn in a special way. And we must do all we can to do justice to our grief with our actions and our life together: reexamining not only our gun laws, not only our mental health and social practices, but also the weapon-ridden fantasy world to which the lost, angry, or ill have too often turned in recent American life. We all have work to do.

It’s Christmastime, and our hearts are full. This weekend, CTS hosted the Gifts of Grace program here in on campus, an event bringing together hundreds of families to enjoy a bounty of gifts, food, and fellowship. When children smile, we rejoice in a special way. And those smiles, along with those on the faces of their mothers and fathers and grandparents and guardians, were beyond counting. Thank you to the CTS volunteers who represented our community so generously and so well, and to the CTS facilities staff who so kindly and professionally made it all possible.

Hope and sorrow, sorrow and hope. The truth is, Advent and Christmas aren’t about glittering lights alone: they’re about the light shining in the darkness, “and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5). In other words, every glittering Christmas light is best understood and experienced as a light shining against the encroaching shadows all around us. That’s what Christmas lights are for. The season, then, is surely one of joy and wonder and delight – but always over against injustice and heartbreak and despair. After all, it’s no accident that we celebrate Christmas morning amidst the longest nights of the year. It’s no accident that King Herod’s anxious rage is right there at the center of the story, that even as “unto us a child is born,” at the same time children are ruthlessly slaughtered and lost, and their parents refuse to be comforted (Matthew 2:16-18). And it’s no accident that God’s Incarnation is a vivid act of solidarity with the vulnerable. God arrives as a poor peasant baby in occupied territory. The Maker of Heaven and Earth comes as an infant, utterly defenseless, a soft spot on his head.

There are no easy answers here. Theology is often about knowing when to say, “We don’t know.” And yet, this season as always, we can pray together, act together, struggle together, and learn together. We can wait and watch for the mystery of Christmas morning with a special urgency. We can reach out to each other, mourning with those who mourn, rejoicing with those who rejoice. And through it all, we can give thanks for God’s presence in our sorrow, God’s presence in our hope.

I read that at one of the candlelight prayer vigils in Newtown this weekend, the assembled sang, “Silent Night.” Round yon virgin, mother and child. Holy infant, so tender and mild. A voice is heard in Ramah, Rachel weeping for her children.

Our hearts are broken. Our hearts are full.

Christmas blessings,

losing our religion?

One recent front-page Star headline, “Shifting Away from Religion,” was prompted by a new study just released by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Do the study’s findings really indicate this kind of shift? There are important reasons to question that conclusion.

Protestants now make up 48% of U.S. adults, the study reports, down from 53% in 2007 (and down from 2 out of 3 in the 1960s). The so-called “Nones” – that is, those who check the box indicating “no religious affiliation” instead of any particular one – have increased by about the same percentage that Protestants have declined.

But let’s dig a little deeper into how Nones describe themselves. According to the study, they are not dominated by atheists (only 2% of American adults identify as atheists) or agnostics (only 3%). On the contrary, 70% of Nones say they believe at least somewhat in God or a higher power. That’s right: 7 out of 10 Nones say this. Even more telling, 6 of 10 describe themselves as religious or spiritual. 4 of 10 say they pray.

The takeaway here is that what most Nones seem to value is not atheism or agnosticism or anti-religiousness, but rather a kind of openness, flexibility, and independence when it comes to religious affiliation. Consider a political analogy: an uptick in those who identify as “independent” with respect to political party might indicate a shift away from a certain kind of partisanship, but not a shift away from politics itself. So too with religion.

Part of the problem here is with the word “Nones.” Digging into the data, it’s clear that this group has “no religious affiliation in particular,” but not “no religious beliefs or practices.” “Unaffiliated” is a much better, clearer term.

Two other caveats: in the supposed golden age of American Protestantism (the 1950s and 60s), significant numbers of Christians likely “checked the Protestant box,” so to speak, primarily because it was socially respectable to do so. What may be going on in the decades since is not so much a “shift away from religion” as an increase in clarity and candor about religious affiliation.

Finally, while it’s true that nearly 1 in 3 Millennials (those born after about 1980) are Unaffiliateds, the Millennial generation is also the largest in American history – and so there may well be plenty of Americans interested in religious affiliation in the years and decades to come. Moreover, down the road, the picture changes even more. Just last year, for the first time American hospitals welcomed more babies of color than Caucasian babies, and since religion so often plays such a strong role in African American and Latino communities, among others, an American religious renaissance – a “shift toward religion” – may already be on its way.

The bottom line, then, is that the Pew study has no simple bottom line. What’s really going on today in American religion – an ebb? a flow? a reconfiguration? – remains an open, important, fascinating question.

the heart of life

As you know, from a Christian point of view, one of the most precious opportunities we have to get in touch and keep in touch with the heart of life is when we gather for worship. That prayer and praise, that Word and sacrament, that song and celebration helps remind us of who we really are, and whose mission we are really on. Like lifeblood in the great circulatory system of creation, we are drawn into that great heart, and then sent out again to serve. At its best, worship restores and renews us. It stretches and encourages us. It orients us as a Christian community.

And so I’m writing with a warm invitation for you to join us for worship this semester, each and every Wednesday at 11:30am in Sweeney Chapel. I know (all too well!) that there are many demands on all of our schedules – and for that very reason, we need to come together in worship, reminding one another about why we do the work we do in the first place, and inspiring one another to live and serve with both excellence and grace.

If you already attend chapel regularly – thank you (and do invite a friend!). And if you come only occasionally, consider committing to come every week. We need you there. Perhaps more than anything else, CTS needs to become a vibrant, connected, inspired community, and worship is one crucial way Christian communities grow and thrive.

Last week was Convocation, and tomorrow is the first regular chapel service of the year. Come, taste, and see. If you are a singer (and I know you are!), come sing with the fabulous CTS Pick-Up Choir: we rehearse at 11am, learn the song right then and there, and then sing it in worship that day. What could be better? If you love Scripture, the passage tomorrow that our preacher (yours truly) will be tackling (or is it the other way around?) is from the Gospel of Mark: Jesus’ famous question, “Who do you say that I am?” And during lunch, we’ll continue the conversation: I’ll host a table in the cafeteria at which we’ll discuss the critical question: “How do we understand Jesus today?” All are welcome!

And finally, if you want to share your gifts and get involved in CTS worship this year, please know you are more than welcome to do so. This fall, Professor Tércio Junker is convening a Community Worship Group of students, staff, and worship practitioners, and they will be keenly interested in your “dreams and visions” for the future CTS worship.

Come one, come all! Pick-up Choir at 11am (try it!); worship at 11:30am; and Christological conversation at 12:30pm in the cafeteria!

Looking forward to seeing you there.


Is Religion Violent?

We commonly speak of “this religion” and “that religion,” but in fact, religions are less like clear, coherent objects and more like big, uproarious, often messy family reunions. There’s real kinship under each tent, of course, and common customs, and perceptible family resemblances that allow us to speak generally of “Christianity” and “Islam” and so on. But at the same time, as any careful reading of the daily paper will tell you, these families are constituted not only by agreements and common cause, but also by fierce, longstanding arguments driven by very different points of view.

Your family is probably the same, and so is mine. In fact, in some respects, it is closer to the truth to say that Christianity is a community of debate about Jesus Christ – not a community of lockstep agreement about him. What makes us “Christian” is that we are committed to interpreting Jesus (and therefore to arguing about him from time to time) and following him as best we can.

And this is why a crucial question in religious life is the question of essentials, of boiling things down, of interpreting certain aspects of the tradition in terms of other, more important aspects. In the Christian Bible, for example, though Deuteronomy 22 reads that if a new bride is found by her husband not to be a virgin, she shall be stoned to death by the men of her town (Deut 22:20-21), it is also written that above all, God requires us to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God” (Micah 6:8). And so in Matthew’s Gospel, Joseph, faced with Mary’s surprising pregnancy, confronts an interpretive challenge: which text should govern his actions? Joseph decides to read the law as a guide to mercy, not violence – and so begins the Christmas story.

Joseph gets it. He understands that though certain portions of his own religious tradition may be quite readily interpreted toward violence, the essence that that tradition, the key texts and themes and narrative contours, actually point in the opposite direction. And of course Jesus, the good rabbi, does the same, interpreting the essence of the law in terms of loving God and neighbor. Acting violently in the name of Christianity – or for that matter, in the name of Islam or any other religion that essentially asserts peace – may be historically common, but it is nonetheless mistaken. It misses the center of things, the heart toward which God calls us again and again.

Is religion violent? It certainly can be, and it often is. But Christianity, to take the religion I know best, is at its heart a ploughshare, a tool meant to make for harvest and bounty, and ultimately for nourishment and good health. It’s true that we too often beat it into a sword, and for that we should continually confess and seek forgiveness. But we shouldn’t let such misuse distract us from seeing what Joseph and Jesus saw so well: religion’s blade isn’t for violence. It’s for turning over the earth, so that all may eat together.

From the Wilderness

Whenever the Israelites’ “wilderness wandering” comes up, it presents a golden opportunity – especially in the current U.S. political climate – to talk about immigration.

This kind of preaching and teaching “with the Bible in one hand, and the newspaper in the other” (as Karl Barth is said to have put it) provides at least two major advantages. It’s an opportunity to consider and engage a major political issue in light of the gospel. It’s also an opportunity to consider and engage Christian life in light of a major biblical and theological motif: the idea that every disciple is fundamentally a pilgrim, a “stranger in a strange land.”

As far as immigration from the South is concerned, the reality is that our southern border is everywhere – it’s not just along the far rim of California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. Undocumented workers’ extremely low wages enable low prices in supermarket produce sections across the country, and a similar subsidizing effect is in place in a whole range of homestead industries: construction, housecleaning, landscaping, house painting and so on.

The U.S. standard of living depends on poor people who work for low wages and are often separated from their families for long periods of time because of immigration laws. Becoming more aware of these dynamics means becoming more aware of reality itself – and of the real consequences and costs of our everyday decisions.

It isn’t for nothing that the Bible spends so much time reminding readers that they, too, were (and so in some sense still are) slaves, strangers, aliens in a foreign land. It’s a point that might motivate us again and again to work to reform our society into a more humane, self-aware, graceful place to be.

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