An Open Letter to Roy Moore

Dear Roy,

I’m against the death penalty.  I like to say, “God loves people on death row”.  I’ve said this about people who’ve committed some horrific crimes.  If I can make such a pronouncement about them, I can do it about you.  Here goes:  “Roy Moore, God still loves you!”

In various ways, shapes, and forms we’ve all fallen short of the glory of God.  Some (like you and Louis CK) have fallen in far creepier ways than others.  Whatever happened is between you and the Lord to work out.  It is also an issue for the criminal justice system if any laws were broken.  But I’m not a lawyer.  I’m a pastor.  I can see that you’re in trouble.  If you had come into my office here’s what I would tell you:  I believe that while we’re all working our way toward our perfection, perhaps the best place for you to work out God’s plan for the rest of your life is not in the United States Senate.  Roy, you need help.  You’ll not get the love, care, and support you need from your friend Steve.  He’s using you.  It won’t end well.

I believe in both individual and collective sin.  We, as people, can miss the mark.  It’s also possible that as a people, even as the body of Christ, we can commit sins as a group.  The Old Testament is replete with examples of Israel, as a nation, falling away from God.  The individual sins of leaders and priests could collectively taint the faith and morality of a whole people; even when those leaders were convinced they were acting with the best of intentions.  The Senate, as they struggle with issues of health care and immigration reform, is wrestling with policy issues that also reflect deeply on the morality of our nation.  Roy, this is not the place for you.  You need to be at home, in prayer, working on you.

Clearly, there are people in Alabama who love and care about you.  Many in your home state believe in you.  They have voiced a willingness to forgive you.  Let them do this from a place of prayer, humility, and grace.  Step back and read the words of Jesus in Mark’s gospel, “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?”  How is it with your soul today Roy?  I don’t think things are well at all.  Is a Senate seat worth all of you’ve already lost?  It’s not, Roy.  Please stay home.

Peace,

Richard Bryant

 

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The Decolonization of Sin (John 9:1-41)

Do you see the blind guy?  He wasn’t always blind.  Can you imagine every conversation, for the rest of your life, being preceded by questions and statements of that nature?  And those questions must be accompanied by the inevitable explanations.   Here’s how the story of my disability transpired, he would say.  There was probably a long version and a short version.  What you heard might have depended on the day of the week or hour of the night.  Who knows?

It’s hard to tell the story of someone with a disability of without it being exploitative.  Because the blind, deaf, or challenged person isn’t the one who is usually telling the story; a person with a perspective not available to the central character retells the events, actions, and emotions.  Everything is going to sound and look different when a person without a disability tells their story.  A blind or deaf person, even someone who regains those abilities after years of darkness or silence, will have a completely different sensory experience.

My question is, when we read John 9, whose story are we reading?  Are we reading the one we impose from above or one that is told from within?  There is the story of the man who is healed, the story Jesus wants confirmed, the account of the parents of the blind man, and the Pharisees version of events.  In the melee that follows, does the blind man’s story matter to anyone, or is he a pawn in the larger religious battle between Jesus and the Pharisees?  What is the political and social value of a miracle when your culture’s social blindness is more important than your literal blindness?

The disciples believe, like some people in our churches today, than sin is passed from parents to children.  If a child is troubled, it’s because mother and father were cursed.  Of course we don’t come right out and say it in so many words, but we do say it, in fewer words and backwards glances.   Will gossip confirm what theology is unwilling to say, is this man blind because his mother or father were low down, rotten, dirty, no good sinners?  Look at the theology, the religion underlying the disciple’s question:  those children who are pure, healthy, and alive must come from parents who are free from sin and spiritual impurity.  That’s the first exploitative implication in this passage.  If we are blessed, it must be because God made us so.  If we let this belief become the dominant view in our religious life, anyone who is weak, sick, or disabled is viewed as sinful, less than, and inferior before God and man.   For Jesus to be zeroing in, time after time, on the weak, sick, and disabled, this must be a tremendous problem in 1st century Palestine.  What is the problem:  telling God’s story from your one sided; I’m loved because I’m blessed perspective.  The problem is denying that God blesses the weak, sick, and the disabled.  The problem is identifying sin as something we pass on through our chromosomes.  The problem is seeing God’s love as something which gives people power over another.

Where is he from?  The Pharisees are big on “origins”.  They claim to be Moses’ disciples.  Incredulous that a sinner from unknown origins could perform such a miracle, they lose their tempers with the man’s parents.  “We know that God spoke to Moses, but we don’t know where this man is from.”  Power needs a location.  The British needed to tell the Indians and Africans, the Queen resided in London.  From there, armies of white men would come to rule the subcontinent.  From a place, even a faraway place, power could rule and subjugate many people.

Locations matter to those using exploitative stories.  If you’re going to build your power around a narrative of lies, it must be centered on a locus of control.  The Pharisees controlled Moses’ history, the texts, the story, the places of worship, and all the elements of Israel’s past.  They made myth into reality.  Like Nelson at Trafalgar or David and Goliath, the story of empire became intertwined with the one approved version of God’s interaction with human history.  God had a definitive location, on Sinai, with Moses.  The Pharisees had a roster of all in attendance.  Jesus wasn’t there.

Jesus decolonized the very idea of sin.  He broke the imperial, exploitative hold the religious authorities maintained on God’s location.  If no one knew where God was from, no one group of people could make moral claims on God’s behalf.  God was no longer a distant colonial power making decisions for subjugated peoples through religious administrators.  Now, God was from everywhere, lived in each village, spoke all the languages, and addressed the spiritual and physical needs of all people.  Contrary to prior religious practice, Jesus gave gifts (i.e. sight) instead requiring gifts be offered to the distant God (i.e. religious/spiritual taxation).  Jesus’ actions subverted the colonial model at every turn.  As the psychiatrist and revolutionary Frantz Fanon wrote in The Wretched of the Earth, “Decolonization, which sets out to change the order of the world, is obviously, a program of complete disorder.”  Jesus brought complete disorder to the established colonial order centered in Rome and the religious (colonial) order based at the Temple.

“You were born completely in sin,” the Pharisees say.  No matter what he’s done or how he’s lived his life, his lack of sight has marked him as being “completely in sin”.  Even as the blind man is healed, filled with the ability to see, distinguish colors, and perceive depth, the old presuppositions will not let go.  We will not grant you independence or cede to you the possibility of God’s love because our stereotypes about sin are more powerful than the realities we are witnessing.  If we, as the Pharisees, admit we are wrong, our power over the lives of others vanishes.  This is not about being wrong.  It’s about losing control.   We won’t know who we are if we can’t name and shame sinners.  Labeling people as wrong, especially across generations, has become our stock and trade.  How will we survive without the power to condemn others in the name of God?

Blindness is a two way street.  Blindness is both physical and spiritual.  One of the Pharisees asks the best question of all, “Surely we aren’t blind, are we?”  Surely, we’re not missing the point, are we?  Surely, we’re not caught up in judicial council decisions, are we?  Surely we’re not rearranging Methodism’s deck chairs while the planet Earth self destructs, are we?  Not us.   We’re way too self-aware to fall into this trap.

Putting the Genius Who Knows The Most About Sin in Charge of Salvation

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Somewhere Between Mathew 4:9 and Matthew 4:10

“Yes,” said the tempter.  “I took full advantage of my knowledge of temptation and sin in order to test you.”  He paused for dramatic effect. Satan was a very good method actor.  “As was deemed fully legal and appropriate in my arrangement as the wandering adversary with your father,” he wanted to make the boy seem stupid and ill informed.

“I know what your deal was with my father and Job.  I also know how long you were able to deduct those temptations,” said the boy.

“Exactly,” he exclaimed!  “Why do think I’m the guy here today?”

“So why don’t you tell me?”

“No one knows sin, temptation, evil, malfeasance, and malevolence like me.  Who better to fix the sins of the world than a guy who is a genius when it comes to using sin laws and codes?  I’m the guy to change the sin codes permanently and forever, so it will benefit the little guys selling tents in Capernaum or silver in Ephesus. I know sin.   I’m a sin genius.  Sin is my first, last, and middle name.  If you want to fix sin, hire a sinner!”

Admittedly, this took the boy surprise.  Hire a sinner to save the world from sin.  All he would have to do was worship this fast talking tempter who claimed to know everything about salvation.

“Kid, you’re perfect.  No one is ever going to believe you when you talk about people sins, especially sins related to money.  Look at all the stuff I’ve done: Persia, Babylon, Rome, and the Egypt.  Tempter University.  I’m a financial and sin success.  You want to be in business with me.  Everything I touch turns to Gold.”

The kid thought for a second.  “Didn’t Babylon collapse and aren’t the Pharaoh’s all dead?”

“Wrong!  Lies told by my Greek competitors.  The Romans and I are working on new permits with Ptolemy and it’s going to be HUUUGE, so BIIGLY.  You won’t believe it.  So what’s it going to be?”

The kid from Nazareth thought about it.  It seemed pretty ridiculous to put a sinner in charge of sin.  The whole thing, this tempter, was really getting on his last nerve. So he said, “no I’m not going to worship you.  You’re not a genius.  I’m sticking with God.”

Food for Thought-Giving Up, Giving In (A Lenten Poem)

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I love Lent,
In more ways,
Than I care,
To hint,
Or even say,
Perhaps it is,
Somewhere within,
February’s days,
My obvious sins,
Are spread about,
Far too thin,
Unable to sing,
Unwilling to shout,
Look at me,
Free of something,
For all to see,
Giving up,
Giving in,
choose a word,
It’s only sin.

–Richard Bryant

Food for Thought-Catharsis or Clean 1 John 1:1-2:2

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Do you want your hands washed or do you want a catharsis? Do you want to take a shower to cleanse your sinfulness or do you want a catharsis which readjusts the very essence of your humanity? I’m reading 1 John in Greek. It’s good stuff. In the first few verses the reader will find lots of solid material about our need to be cleansed from sin. Here’s the thing, the word normally translated as “clean” in New Testament Greek is our modern word “catharsis”. Catharsis is a much stronger word than a simple cleansing. A catharsis goes below the surface; to the soul. People who undergo a catharsis are changed forever. People who are cleaned only stay clean until the next time they get dirty. The other side of a catharsis ought to represent a new way of life. A catharsis carries a degree of permanence. When’s the last time you heard a preacher ask if you’ve had a catharsis with Jesus? I’m betting never.

In the Armenian language, the words “sin” and “cleanse” share a similar root. You can’t have one without the other. There is a clear understanding, in Armenian history and theology, that sin cannot go unanswered, un-cleansed, or forgotten. The verb, to cleanse (մաքրել) is pronounced mak’rel and carries connotations of obliteration and purification. Each word echoes the catharsis John was calling to mind. Sins, մեղք (meghk’) are the unique faults and transgressions produced by a human մարդ (mard). Here the beast of Indo-European linguistics rears its head once again; the Greek word for sin, the one that John uses when telling us we need to be cleansed is amartia. The Greek word for sin and the Armenian word for human being are related on the linguistic family tree-amart/mard. The word for human and the word for sinner are nearly the same; no wonder we need a catharsis.

Food for Thought-Chasing Down a Pharisee (A Poem)

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Chasing Down a Pharisee

I saw a man run from me today,
afraid to speak about the way,
I said forgiveness wasn’t something to be removed,
from how Christians decided with whom to share the room,
What shall I say, shall I do; bar all sinners from the door?
You can’t show your face in this place anymore.
Take your guilt, your sin, and hide with your crimes.
just don’t ask me to talk about any of mine.
Is that the message we’re sending loud and clear?
If my friend goes unchecked this is what I fear.
A church that is run without any understanding,
of the principles found in its book of planning,
cannot be called a church after all,
but a doomed little building about to fall.

–Richard Bryant