Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Evidence and Reason

Mountain Justice by paynehollow
Mountain Justice, a photo by paynehollow on Flickr.

In the previous post, the suggestion was made that I incorrectly conflate the parable of the Good Samaritan with the historical account (they say) of the Hebrew people leaving Egypt. The suggestion was made that I erred because I treated the historical text as a fiction, although it was okay to treat the parable as a parable.

Some considerations...

Good Samaritan:

1. The story of the Good Samaritan, told in Luke 10, Jesus answers the question "who is my neighbor?" by telling the story of the Good Samaritan.

2. The text does not identify the story as a parable. It is a story that Jesus tells. If I understand my actual history of the area correctly, the story could very well be based on an actual event - the Jericho Road in the story was known to be plagued by violent robbers.

3. The point of Jesus' story stands whether or not it was based on an actual event. The historical veracity/accuracy of the story is irrelevant to the moral lesson. We have no reason I can think of to worry about whether the story is fiction or not.

Hebrew slaves in Egypt:

1. The story of the Hebrews in Egypt is found in Genesis and Exodus. The story has a feel of a historical story, but not necessarily a strictly factual historical story.

2. In fact, in the time period from which these stories come, there is no historical record or known evidence (that I've heard of) of people telling historically accurate histories in the manner we would tell such stories today.

3. Additionally, there is no/very little in the way of archeological evidence to support the story taken literally. In the Bible story, the Hebrew people are enslaved by Egypt for ~400 years and the Egyptians were very dependent upon these Hebrew slaves.

And yet, there is no archeological evidence to support the claim (or maybe very little - I don't know enough to state definitively, but the general consensus appears to be that there is no serious archeological evidence to back it up).

4. Which is not to say that the story is not based on at least some factual points. Clearly, after all, there was a Hebrew people. Clearly, they came from somewhere and had a beginning in the region somewhere. I'm just saying there is no (little?) hard physical/archeological evidence to support the claim.

I'll stop there for now.

My question (or one of them) is this: On what basis do we feel we need to insist the Exodus story is a literal history, told more or less in modern literal historical style?

It does not identify itself as a literal history. The Samaritan story does not identify itself as a parable. Nowhere in the Bible is there any insistence that these stories must be taken in a specific style.

Why could it not be more of a period-appropriate epic story teaching moral lessons (which would seem to at least some folk to be the obvious style it is written in, given the textual and contextual evidence)? Why must it be considered a literal history?

Don't answer too quickly, please. Just consider: Is the sum total of the reason to take it as a literal history that, this is the way it's traditionally been considered?

And, if that is the sum total of the reasons, do you think that is enough?

Maybe more later, that's all I have time for now.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Charity vs Justice

MTR Jeff St by paynehollow
MTR Jeff St, a photo by paynehollow on Flickr.

My church and other churches in our city are part of a Direct Action Justice group called CLOUT (Citizens of Louisville, United and Organized Together). The premise of these sorts of organizations is that churches/faith groups are called to at least three things: Do Justice, Love Mercy and Walk Humbly with God (the reference being to a passage from the book of the prophet, Micah, in the Old Testament of the Bible).

As I've pointed out in the past on these pages, we tend to think that the church does at least a passing decent job of Loving Mercy - of doing acts of loving charity for those in need. We don't do it completely and we spend an AWFUL lot of money on things that are not acts of charity (bigger buildings, softer pews, larger parking lots, etc), but we at least take it seriously, by and large.

Churches also, perhaps primarily, focus on walking humbly with God - ie, seeking after God's Ways, worshiping God, etc. While perhaps not always humbly, one can see that churches at least try to do this part of "being Church."

On the other hand, we tend to rarely think about or do much about "doing justice." What acts of Justice do you see churches involved in? Many churches were involved in the civil rights movement, right? Okay, that's a good one from decades past. What else? Some of us have taken part in protesting unjust wars, although that's probably a minority group.

What else?


Exactly. We just don't focus on Doing Justice, collectively as church.

For most churches, I'd hazard to guess that they don't really even give much thought to what that would be.

As part of our local organizing, we had a meeting this week and we were pointed to a good biblical contrast between justice work and charity work that I liked enough to want to pass on. Consider the biblical stories of the Good Samaritan and Moses, Egypt and the Children of Israel:

In Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan, the titular Samaritan happened upon an Israeli man (keeping in mind that Samaritans were the bitterly hated enemy of Israel and the feeling was mutual) who had been beaten, robbed and left for dead. What did the Samaritan do? The Samaritan went to him (keeping in mind that a Jewish priest and then a Levite passed by him without stopping to help the wounded man), bound up his wounds, carried him to town, took him to an inn and left him in the care of the innkeeper, paying the innkeeper for doing so. Truly, a good Samaritan.

This is an act of charity - he saw someone in immediate, obvious, desperate need and he met those needs.

In the OT story of Moses, the nation of Israel was enslaved and worked harshly by the Egyptians. Moses began a process of appealing to Pharoah to do the right thing and release the children of Israel from slavery to freedom. Moses and the Israelites were met with great opposition to such a crazy idea (why would Egypt release their work force, changing the system on which they relied?), but eventually, by increasing pressure on Egypt, Pharoah relented and Israel was set free at last, free at last.

This is an act of Justice - Moses and his crew of collaborators saw a systemic injustice, in this case at the national level, and they began a process of applying pressure to the powers that be to secure justice for an oppressed people.

Acts of charity and acts of justice are both needed, both biblical, both part of what we should be doing. If there is someone in immediate, pressing need, taking action to meet that need is a reasonable act of mercy, of charity.

If there is a problem of oppression or other injustice needing a systemic change, working non-violently to secure agreement to a just solution is a reasonable act of justice.

Acts of charity tend to be (although aren't always) smaller, specific, on-going, responses to crises situations. They can be done individually or as a community response.

Acts of justice tend to be (although aren't always) larger, specific, completed, thought-through responses to RESOLVE crises situations. They tend to be done (by necessity) by groups, rather than individuals.

Why is it that despite the models found in the bible, faith groups (and others) tend to shy away from the Call to Do Justice? Is it because doing charity "feels good," and there's an relatively easy personal investment? "Oh, that child needs food, I'll send money so they can get food." Boom! Problem solved! Done and done.

Like that?

Whereas working for just solutions to problem situations requires more thought, more effort and more organization? And it's not always clear what the best, most just answer is, right? And even when you figure out something to do, people will criticize you for being too "confrontational..."? As Brazilian Archbishop Helder Camara said, "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me communist..."

Of course, doing acts of charity can be involved and require great personal effort and sacrifice, too. This is in no way to criticize acts of charity. The point is, we need both. It simply isn't enough to do charity and leave justice alone. And doing charity is not the same as doing justice.

It just seems like justice should have equal effort applied as our works for charity. After all, oh humanity, what are we called to do but to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God?

Friday, February 15, 2013

Poetry and Prose and Professors

Christmas Lights by paynehollow
Christmas Lights, a photo by paynehollow on Flickr.
I ran into an old teacher of mine yesterday. Lee Pennington was a professor at the Junior College I once attended (and a former Kentucky Poet Laureate!). I had him for a creative writing course probably back in 1992. It was a class I enjoyed tremendously.

In seeing him, I was suddenly shaken to realize what an incredible impact this teacher had upon my life. Before that class, I did not write. Oh, the occasional letter or other functional sort of writing, sure, but otherwise, I just did not write. Not for pleasure, not for reflection, not for joy, not for communication of ideas, not for discipline... nothing.

On the other hand, since that class, I have written nearly continuously. Hundreds (thousands?) of poems, stories, essays, reflections and not a few silly limericks have crept out of this mind and these hands in the years since taking his class. This blog, for instance. Or poetry and songs for worship and reflection in my own life and at my church.

This poor writer has even been published in a magazine, newspaper and book or two over the years.

Now, all of that is not to say that I've become a good writer (there is too much evidence to the contrary to suggest that), but for better or worse, I am a writer... it is part of my self-identity, of who I consider myself to be.

And prior to meeting this man - this great teacher - and taking his class, receiving his criticism and supportive encouragement, that was not who I was.

Not only that, but I don't think it's too far a stretch to say that my writing life and example has, in turn, influenced my children - at least a little bit - to be readers and writers, themselves, and now, they are writing songs and in a band with a CD produced by a local record label and are making appearances at concerts, on TV and on the radio.

And the thing that struck me was, prior to seeing Mr Pennington yesterday, it had not sunk in what a greatly profound impact he has had - continues to have - upon my life.

After seeing him and briefly saying Hi and introducing myself, we parted ways again. After this divergence is when his impact upon my life began roaming large through my mind and it saddened me that I didn't tell him that. The more I thought about it, the more it troubled me.

And so, I began looking for him, tracking him down again and ran up to tell him...

"Mr Pennington, Hi again. You know, I just wanted to say what an impact you made on my life. I... I just wanted to let you know, I still write, all the time, and I owe it to you. Thanks for all that you are and have been to people like me over the years..."

Or words to that effect. He probably gets that all the time.

Or at least, I hope he does.

Thanks be for all of those who give of their lives to teach others.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Just because...

All You Need... by paynehollow
All You Need..., a photo by paynehollow on Flickr.

Wisdom randomly snatched here and there from the Book of James

Consider it all joy, my dear ones,
when you encounter various trials,
knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance.

And let endurance have its perfect result,
so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

But if any of you lacks wisdom, simply ask of God,
who gives to all generously and without reproach,
and it will be given to them.

The sister or brother of humble circumstances is to
glory in their high position;
and the rich ones are to
glory in their humiliation,
because like flowering grass
they will pass away.

For the sun rises with a scorching wind
and withers the grass;
and its flower falls off
and the beauty of its appearance is destroyed;

so too the rich ones in the midst of their pursuits will fade away...

Let no one say when they are tempted,

“I am being tempted by God”;

for God cannot be tempted by evil,
and God's own Self


But each one is tempted when they are carried away
and enticed by their own lust.

Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin;
and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth

Do not be deceived, my beloved family...

Every good thing given and every perfect gift is
from above,
coming down from the Creator of lights,
with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow...

This you know, my beloved family.
But everyone must be quick to hear,
slow to speak and
slow to anger;
for the anger of humanity does not achieve the righteousness of God.

Therefore, putting aside all filthiness
and all that remains of wickedness,
in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls.

But prove yourselves
doers of the word,
and not merely hearers who delude themselves.

For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer,
they are like one who looks at their natural face in a mirror;
for once they have looked at themselves and gone away,
they have immediately forgotten what kind of person they were.

But one who looks intently at the perfect law,

the law of liberty,

and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer,
they will be blessed in what they do.

Who is wise and understanding among you?
Let them show it by their good life,
by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.

But where you have envy and selfish ambition,
there you find disorder and every evil practice.

But the wisdom that comes from heaven is
first of all
then peace-loving,
full of mercy
and good fruit,
and sincere.

Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.

If anyone THINKS they are religious,

and yet

does not bridle their tongue but deceives their own heart,
this person’s religion is


With the tongue we praise our Lord God,
and with it we
curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness.

Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing.
Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring?

My brothers and sisters,

This. Should. NOT. Be.

Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this:
to visit orphans and widows in their distress,
and to keep oneself unstained by the world...

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone
to have faith but has no deeds?

Can such faith save them?

Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food.

If one of you says to them,

“Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,”

but does nothing about their physical needs,

what good is it?

In the same way, faith by itself,
if it is not accompanied by action, is

Listen, my dear brothers and sisters:
Has not God chosen those who are poor
in the eyes of the world

to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom God promised...?

But you have dishonored the poor.

Is it not the rich who are exploiting you?
Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court?
Are they not the ones who are
the noble name of God, to whom you belong?

Now listen, you rich people,
weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you!

Your wealth has rotted,
and moths have eaten your clothes.
Your gold and silver are corroded.
Their corrosion will testify against you and

You have hoarded wealth in the last days.

The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields
are crying out against you.
The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty.

You [rich ones] have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence.
You [rich ones] have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter.
You [rich ones] have condemned and murdered the innocent one,
who was not opposing you.

Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister
or judges them speaks
against the law
and judges it.

When you judge the law, you are not keeping it,
but sitting in judgment on it.

Speak and act as those who are going to be
judged by the law that gives


because judgment without mercy will be
shown to anyone who has not been merciful.


There is only one Lawgiver and Judge,
the one who is able to save and destroy.
But you

who are you to judge your neighbor?


Don’t grumble against one another,
brothers and sisters,
or you WILL be judged.

Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another.

God opposes the proud,
but gives grace to the humble.