Render Unto Caesar…and Then What?




There are a number of potential key points that Homer may have wanted to spotlight in his famous tragedy, “Antigone.”  Without a doubt, one of those was the tension faced by someone who believed that she had responsibilities both toward her government and the toward her gods. All was well until each of the two demanded conflicting prominence.  

In such an event, which would went out?  Should governmental laws always take precedence over religious principles? Or should religious convictions and related moral standards always take precedence over law if there is a conflict?

Supposedly in a country that prides itself or has prided itself in the separation of temple/church/mosque and state, citizens should infrequently if ever be faced with a conflict between a demand the government makes on them, and their desire to fulfill their absolute devotion to their deity or deities.  Yet, the conflict isn’t as infrequent as the founders and framers hoped and anticipated. Fairly often, there are conflicts between the demand of law and the demand of absolute morality based in whatever theocentric religion you might want to consider.

Both of Antigone’s brothers died needlessly in battle. In fact, they killed each other in the dispute over whose turn it was to sit on the throne. The king who replaced both of them was their uncle, Creon, also Antigone’s uncle. Hence, Creon, flexing his muscle as a new autocrat makes this stupid ruling that the one who most recently sat on the throne, Eteocles, even though he was supposed to have given it up to his brother, Polynices, so that Polynices could have his turn to rule, was still officially the king (though he had not lived by the shared-throne agreement). Therefore, said King Creon, Eteocles should have a fancy ceremonial state funeral while his brother’s body could not be buried and must be left out to rot in the sun.  Anyone who tried to bury the body would be executed.

Antigone said that her devotion to her gods demanded that she give every human being a decent burial. Furthermore her duty to her family demanded that for family members even if the gods had not thought to decree it. Therefore, whatever the punishment Creon might order for her she would be willing to face because the laws of the gods, Antigone said, were greater than the laws of humans.

The law of the land violated her personal morality.  She had, up to this point in her life, kept the laws of the land to a tee–rendered unto Caesar all the way.  In this instance, however, she had a crisis of conscience.  It was a life or death decision weighing on her shoulders.

     Yea, for these laws were not ordained of Zeus,
  And she who sits enthroned with gods below,
  Justice, enacted not these human laws.
  Nor did I deem that thou, a mortal man,
  Could’st by a breath annul and override
  The immutable unwritten laws of Heaven.
  They were not born today nor yesterday;
  They die not; and none knoweth whence they sprang.
  I was not like, who feared no mortal’s frown,
  To disobey these laws and so provoke
  The wrath of Heaven. I knew that I must die,
  E’en hadst thou not proclaimed it; and if death
  Is thereby hastened, I shall count it gain.
  For death is gain to him whose life, like mine,
  Is full of misery. Thus my lot appears
  Not sad, but blissful; for had I endured
  To leave my mother’s son unburied there,
  I should have grieved with reason, but not now.
  And if in this thou judgest me a fool,
  Methinks the judge of folly’s not acquit.

I’ve been thinking for several years that tax collectors as villains sort of went away after the time of Jesus and such crooks as Zacchaeus.  Zacchaeus was an IRS supervisor in the time of Jesus who ultimately repented of his extensive legally-sanctioned thievery and repaid all his victims several times over what he had originally taken from them.

Yet, tax collectors living above or around the law are still alive and well.  I was completely un-moved, as in not surprised in the least, when the news came out officially in the last several days that the IRS not only had a list of conservative religious groups who were on a list to get as much scrutiny as possible in all the ways the IRS can give scrutiny to groups, but also a similar list for progressive religious entities. My contention is, as I expressed to a staff member in Senator Coons’s office, that I believe not only organizations–conservative and progressive–are getting unwarranted attention from the IRS, but also individuals. T party types, yes. Progressive Christian types, yes.

So, Jesus said, “Render unto Caesar that which is Ceasar’s and unto God that which is God’s,” and then what?  It is important to keep in mind when we are thinking about anything monetary or of material value in Jesus’ day that most of the people who sought out his advice and who followed his counsel were poor people. And the Romans taxed them mercilessly. The Romans were as hard on the Jews in this regard as they were on other people whom they held in subjugation–and not because of religious leanings or lack of same. They were an equal opportunity police state.

“Rendering unto Caesar” in our context does not mean that people on either end of the religious-commitment continuum should pay more or be under greater scrutiny than middle-of-the-road people or organizations, religiously speaking, or people or organizations  with no religious commitments at all.  Appeals, even a democracy, are difficult, though.  Render unto Caesar and then what?

DOMA’s demonstrated purpose was to “ensure that if any State decides to recognize same-sex marriages, those unions will be treated as second-class marriages for purposes of federal law,” the Supreme Court majority ruled this week as the Defense of Marriage Act was defeated.

     This raises a most serious question under the Constitution’s       
     Fifth Amendment. DOMA humiliates tens of thousands of    
     children now being raised by same-sex couples and makes it
     even more difficult for the children to understand the integrity
     and closeness of their own family and its concord with other
     families in their community and in their daily lives.

That’s an interesting part of the argument that struck down DOMA a few days ago.  

A same-gender couple wanting to be united in a formalized love relationship is hardly a new thing, and it’s certainly time we caught up.  The first known reference to the performance of same-sex marriages occurred during the early Roman Empire–a beginning date for that era being fifteen or so years before the birth of Jesus. Two Roman emperors, at least two, were in same-gender unions; emperors, of course, could do whatever they wanted.  Thirteen of the first fourteen Roman Emperors claimed to be bisexual or homosexual.

The first Roman emperor to marry a man was Nero, who appears to have married two men along the way.  First, one of his freed slaves, Pythagoras, to whom Nero took the role of the bride in the ceremony.  Second, Nero married a teenager named Sporus.  In that ceremony, FYI, Emperor Nero was the groom.  Their wedding ceremony was very public and very elaborate.  

An emperor by the name of Elagabalus referred to his chariot driver, Hierocles, as his husband.  Elagabalus also married an athlete, Zoticus, in a posh public ceremony in Rome as his subjects celebrated wildly.

Same-gender marriage was not outlawed until 342 CE by Christian emperors even though we have not a word, not a hint, of condemnation of same gender love in anything that has been attributed to Jesus.  A violation resulted in what the written law referred to as “exquisite punishment,” which typically, from what can be pieced together, meant execution of the same-gender couple trying to make a relationship for themselves.

A same-sex marriage between the two men, Pedro Díaz and Muño Vandilaz in Rairiz de Veiga in Spain was solemnized on April 16, 1061. They were married by a priest in good standing with the Church in a small Roman Catholic chapel. The historic, proof of marriage documents were found by archaeologists at the Monastery of San Salvador de Celanova.

In late Middle Ages in France, it seems to have been legal for a same-gender couple to enter in a legal contract of betrothal, a  civil union between adult males who pledged to live together sharing  “one bread, one wine, and one purse.” This legal category may represent one of the earliest forms of sanctioned same-gender unions.

Same-gender couples in our country waited a long, long time for this breakthrough, and the High Court’s vote was not a shoe-in ruling;it was one of those nail-biting 5 to 4 votes.  The best same-gender couples have been able to do in many states was a private affirmation, which is nothing to sneeze at when it comes to commitment, but same-gender couples were typically denied spousal rights not the least of which I’ve observed is denial to visit as family when one of the two is hospitalized.  Can Caesar tell us whom we can love?  Really?

The Mennonites have never become Caesar renderers any more than absolutely necessary.  Formally, they say.


As Christians we are to respect those in authority and to pray for all people, including those in government, that they also may…come to the knowledge of the truth.  We may participate in government or other institutions of society only in ways that do not violate the love and holiness taught by Jesus and do not compromise our loyalty to the teachings of Jesus. We witness to the nations by being that “city on a hill” demonstrating the way of Jesus.  We also witness by being ambassadors for God, calling the nations (and all persons and institutions) to move toward justice, peace, and compassion for all people. In so doing, we seek the welfare of “the city” to which God has sent us.


Howard Zinn wrote:


If patriotism were defined, not as blind obedience to government, not as submissive worship to flags and anthems, but rather as love of one’s country, one’s fellow citizens (all over the world), as loyalty to the principles of justice and democracy, then patriotism would require us to disobey our government, when it violated those principles.


In the end, Jesus could not render under Caesar all the way because he would not give control of his conscience to anyone.



Hot, Cold, or Lukewarm?

maybe yes



An oldie but goodie in the repertoire of Ella Fitzgerald:


First you say you do
And then you don’t
And then you say you will
And then you won’t
You’re undecided now
So what are you gonna do?
Now you want to play
And then it’s no
And when you say you’ll stay
That’s when you go
You’re undecided now
So what are you gonna do?
I’ve been sitting on a fence
And it doesn’t make much sense
‘Cause you keep me in suspense

Being undecided is a pain for the person who can’t decide as well as for all of those affected by her or his indecision.
Sometimes there’s a humorous twist to wishy-washyness, as in this excerpt from an Ellen Degeneres standup routine:


Start thinking positively. You will notice a difference. Instead of, “I  think I’m a loser,” try, “I definitely am a loser.” Stop being wishy-washy about things! How much more of a loser can you be if you don’t even know you are one?

If anything much is at stake, though, it’s not so funny.  And in some instances indecisiveness can be dangerous or destructive.  It can contribute to auto accidents, permanently broken relationships, and at the very least energy-draining frustration.
Why are we some of us unable to say with consistency who we are, what we need, and what we want to accomplish?  Ekhart Tolle has an opinion on the subject that I believe Oprah published in her magazine:


When we can’t make up our minds, it’s because of our minds, or what I call “the voice in your head.” Many people don’t even know they have this voice. But it’s talking away, creating a never-ending inner monologue….During tough choices, this voice isn’t very helpful. Often it criticizes, keeping a running commentary about you and all the things you did wrong or you just didn’t do. It criticizes others as well. It’s like living with somebody who can’t stand you, much less anybody else. You wouldn’t want to live with a person like that. You would walk out of the relationship. But since you can’t get free of your mind, you’re stuck. The result? You get discouraged. You can’t see the positive side to what might come from your decisions.

It isn’t possible to get through much of life without making decisions unless there are those in our lives who make decisions for us.  That leaves us living someone else’s life, not our own–which sounds to me like an incalculable loss.
The maximum, “Not to decide is to decide,” is traced back to Harvard theologian and American Baptist minister, Harvey Cox. One of Dr. Cox’s niches in the theological world is the convergence of religion, culture, and politics. “Not to decide is to decide.”  That is a very powerful insight, though disconcerting for those who hem and haw.  If I do not decide to take a stand against environmental abuses, I’ve decided that environmental abuses are A.O.K.  If I can’t decide when and how to confront instances of racism I witness, then I’ve decided that racism perhaps unfortunate but acceptable.
If not us, who?  If not now, when?
On the topic of racism, the Food Network is apparently not wishy-washy.  Poor Paula Deen.  Back in May, she was deposed as part of a $1.2 million dollar lawsuit alleging that she used foul and inappropriate language at making it impossible for one of her employees to have any level of comfort at work. In the the deposition, Chef Deen admitted she had used the n word probably several times, but the only one she could pinpoint was when an African American male had put a gun to her head during a 1986 bank robbery. Unfortunately, she also chatted up about the time she  tried to hire African American waiters to pose as slaves for a wedding.  A couple of days ago, Food Network announced that it would not be renewing its contract with Paula Deen when her current agreement ends, which happens to be on June 30. She’s fired!  Decisively!

The book of Revelation, as a handful of you know, is my favorite book in the Christian scripture collection; it has early on in its mysterious contents letters presumably written by Jesus, now alive and dwelling in heaven, to each of seven churches in Asia Minor. The churches probably were actual churches, but because everything in the book of Revelation is symbolic, the number 7 could very well be an indication that the author meant to signal a glimpse at the whole of Christendom.  In other words, all seven churches taken as a group have experiences, strengths, and weaknesses that reflect what’s going on in the whole of Christendom at the time.
Most of the words in the 7 letters are nurturing. Sometimes there’s a mild reprimand, but since the book of Revelation, or actually the drama of Revelation, was written for people under great threat of punishment or execution for having owned their faith, generally it is encouraging. A summary of the book as a whole could be:  evil is surely powerful and destructive, but is evil will not have the last word in human history.  Good will finally overtake evil first in the context of Roman abuse of Christians by evil Emperor Domitian and ultimately in the whole of human experience.


And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write:  “The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the origin of God’s creation:  ‘I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth. For you say, “I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.” You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. Therefore I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire so that you may be rich; and white robes to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen; and salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see. I reprove and discipline those whom I love. Be earnest, therefore, and repent.  Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me. To the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down beside God sitting on his throne. Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.’”

Tepidity.  Lukewarmness.  Not cool.  Not real.  Not honest.  Lemuel Washington said, “Honesty is never seen sitting astride the fence.”  We have to fish or cut bait, folks.

On Saturday April 13, 1861, the day after Fort Sumter was attacked, Dickerson decided he could not preach, the next morning, the sermon he had planned to preach. He went to his study at the church that Saturday afternoon and wrote out a full manuscript for a new sermon to be preached in its place. He went with “a heart fired with loyal zeal and fully alive to the character and magnitude of the struggle that had commenced between freedom and slavery, loyalty and treason, government and anarchy” (James Stokes Dickerson: Memories of His Life, p. 104). The sermon, entitled “The Duties of the Hour,” went down in history. In a long and colorful preaching career, that sermon would be remembered more than all the others Dickerson had or would preach.
On Saturday evening, Pastor Dickerson met with several of his congregants whom he knew shared his perspectives on the slavery issue. Not all members did, and certainly not all of the political leaders of Wilmington supported his antislavery stance. Dickerson asked his supporters to see that the pulpit, the next morning, would be draped with an American flag. Even his most ardent supporters were unsure of the wisdom of taking that step, but before the sermon was preached on Sunday April 14, 1861, some brave parishioner or parishioners saw that it was done. “A few, and but a few, rallied nobly to his support. Some of his members, knowing the excitement that prevailed in the community, asked him if he would like to have an armed guard by him in the church. He declined the proposal, preferring to trust God and the right for his protection. Some of the brethren, however, without his knowledge, arranged that an armed force should be present, both to shield him from attack, and the church from threatened injury” (James Stokes Dickerson: Memories of His Life, p. 106).
A large crowd gathered the following morning to hear J. S. Dickerson’s sermon; plenty of those in attendance were enemies to Dickerson and his cause, some, his “violent opposers” (p. 106). Dickerson prayed fervently for his country and sang with high energy the patriotic hymns of the day. He preached his sermon eloquently. A few of the listeners walked out on him as he preached against slavery. He paused as each one exited “in recognition of their withdrawal” (James Stokes Dickerson: Memories of His Life, p. 107).  There was no violence.
We have no transcript of the sermon itself, nor any other reference to the content of the sermon beyond what Mrs. Dickerson mentioned in the biography she wrote of her husband’s life. We know that the duty of the hour in his mind when he preached the sermon was to call people to take up the dual causes of standing against slavery and implementing the freeing of the slaves. Though the controversial stand taken by Rev. J. S. Dickerson bought him the antagonism of several church members, many of whom were lost to the membership of the church, Dickerson did not mince words, and he did not back down.
James Russell Lowell:


Once to every [person,] nation,
comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood,
for the good or evil side;
Some great cause, some great decision,
offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever,
’twixt that darkness and that light.

Then to side with truth is noble,
when we share her wretched crust,
Ere her cause bring fame and profit,
and ’tis prosperous to be just;
Then it is the brave [one] chooses
while the coward stands aside,
Till the multitude make virtue
of the faith they had denied.

Some of those decisions we do have the grit to make can cost us–rejection, humiliation, attack even despite what Adlai Stevenson once said, I think, with compelling insight, “My definition of a free society is a society where it is safe to be unpopular.”
Sadly, there are those individuals and institutions who decide to deny who they really are and what they truly want for fear of losing out on popularity.  If that were the only consequence of decision-making based on truth-telling we could call them vain, but a person who claims to be someone too unpopular to this group or that runs the risk of being terrorized while the organization that decides to admit to an unpopular identity may be torched.
That is tragic, but it is also tragic to be lodged in a perpetual cycle of indecisiveness causing us to deny truth thereby crippling us.  We render ourselves rather useless to ourselves and others when we keep life lukewarm.

The Gospel According to Mark Twain





So much blood has been shed by the Church because of an omission from the Gospel: “Ye shall be indifferent as to what your neighbor’s religion is.” Not merely tolerant of it, but indifferent to it. Divinity is claimed for many religions; but no religion is great enough or divine enough to add that new law to its code (Mark Twain: A Biography).

Samuel Clemens, Mark Twain, was a biting satirist who, having been reared in Presbyterian fundamentalism, left behind biblical literalism and organized religion.  He was not able, however, to walk completely away from religion; thus, he was left to critique it.  Appropriately, he primarily challenged Christianity of which he had been a part; thus, he knew the faith inside out.
Clemens also saw in his distinctively American context the fatal blending of religion and politics.  He realized that both institutions were ultimately self-serving, and when they joined forces the dangers were doubled.  “So much blood has been shed by the Church,” he wrote; whatever followed paled in comparison to that damning historical notation.  Indeed, how could the Church have shed any blood at all?
If there are to be religious movements, then there must be absolute respect for anyone else’s decision to be related to a religious movement as long as it’s not hurting adherents or enemies.  Toleration won’t do the trick; we have ample evidence of how two religious groups become all-out enemies when one claims to tolerate the other.  Indifference is the key.
If I am indifferent to your religious commitments, I will not be trying to convert you to mine.  We have to wonder how much respectful proselytic activity is going on anyway based on a Gallup poll that has been conducted every year since 1973.  The results for 2013 are just in. Confidence in 16 organizations is analyzed by this survey.  Organized religion as an institution is trusted by less than half of the American people although confidence in organized religion did go up four percentage points this year compared to last year, from 44 to 48 percent.  The number one institution far and away that Americans trust more than any other is the military, which 76 percent of all Americans believe is the most trustworthy institution in American culture. And the institution with the lowest possible rating, with maybe 10 percent of Americans expressing any confidence whatsoever in it, is the US Congress.
Born in 1835, Samuel Clemens died at the age of 74 in 1910.  His humor, rarely haha humor except for some memorable scenes in his novels, did not betray the difficulties and tragedies he weathered from poverty during his growing up years to the untimely deaths of two of his four children.  His critics notwithstanding, he did not hold his tongue or his pen.
Writing to his older brother, Orion, he described his religion in this way:

I have a religion–but you will call it blasphemy. It is that there is a God for the rich man but none for the poor….Perhaps your religion will sustain you, will feed you–I place no dependence in mine. Our religions are alike, though, in one respect–neither can make a man happy when he is out of luck (A Letter to Orion Clemens).

I consistently remind my preaching students that unless we have a gospel for tragic times as well as for triumphant times, I doubt we have any gospel at all. This is precisely what Mark Twain was talking about. If one reads the Bible closely, and I mean Hebrew scripture as well as Christian scripture, she or he will indeed find a God who claims to be a champion of the poor but  really rewarding the wealthy, the already prosperous.
Despite the exaggeration about God being around only for the privileged and the lucky, Clemens believed in some kind of divine reality whose presence could be experienced.  Of his dear friend Helen Keller, he said that when with her he felt the presence of God.  This God whose presence he felt, though, was not the God of the Bible–as he referred to God, making no distinction between ancient Hebrew perspectives and those of Jesus.
Ann Reese loaned me a book titled The Bible According to Mark Twain. In the book, there’s a much worse heresy or series of heresies than he confessed to his brother.  For example, in one place he writes,

To trust the God of the Bible is to trust an irascible, vindictive, fierce and ever fickle and changeful master; to trust the true God is to trust a being who has uttered no promises, but whose beneficent, exact, and changeless ordering of the machinery of his colossal universe is proof that he is at least steadfast to his purposes; whose unwritten laws, so far as they affect man, being equal and impartial show that he is just and fair….

Not everything Mark Twain wrote was humorous.  Case in point, his “The War Prayer.”  His exclusive publisher initially rejected the short, short story, and, in the face of that almost unheard of rejection, he told his friends to try for publication again, but only after his death because, as he reasoned, “Only dead folk can tell the truth.”
Written by during the Philippine-American War in the first decade of last century, “The War Prayer” tells of a patriotic church service held to send an unidentified town’s young men off to battle. During the service, an elderly stranger enters the sanctuary and with the pastor’s permission addresses the patriotic congregants.  Quoting verbatim now from “The War Prayer”:

I come from the Throne – bearing a message from Almighty God….He has heard the prayer of His servant, your shepherd, and grant it if such shall be your desire after I, His messenger, shall have explained to you its import – that is to say, its full import. For it is like unto many of the prayers of men, in that it asks for more than he who utters it is aware of – except he pause and think.  God’s servant and yours has prayed his prayer. Has he paused and taken thought? Is it one prayer? No, it is two – one uttered, the other not. Both have reached the ear of Him who heareth all supplications, the spoken and the unspoken. Ponder this – keep it in mind. If you beseech a blessing upon yourself, beware! lest without intent you invoke a curse upon a neighbor at the same time. If you pray for the blessing of rain upon your crop which needs it, by that act you are possibly praying for a curse upon some neighbor’s crop which may not need rain and can be injured by it.  You have heard your servant’s prayer – the uttered part of it. I am commissioned by God to put into words the other part of it – that part which the pastor, and also you in your hearts, fervently prayed silently. And ignorantly and unthinkingly? God grant that it was so! You heard these words: “Grant us the victory, O Lord our God!” That is sufficient. The whole of the uttered prayer is compact into those pregnant words. Elaborations were not necessary. When you have prayed for victory you have prayed for many unmentioned results which follow victory – must follow it, cannot help but follow it. Upon the listening spirit of God the Father fell also the unspoken part of the prayer. He commandeth me to put it into words. Listen!
O Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to battle – be Thou near them! With them, in spirit, we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it – for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.

It was believed afterward that the man was a lunatic, because there was no sense in what he said.

In the “great American novel,” Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain has his major character, Huck, saying, “Just because you’re taught that something’s right and everyone believes it’s right, it don’t make it right.”  That is a powerfully counter-cultural comment in many contexts.  When we study the history of ideas and their impact on various societies, one of the very first facts to awaken us to reality is that ideas have shaped and still shape how many people think and live even if the truth of those ideas is never investigated.  The societies believe that majority rules and that might makes right.  If our predecessors have passed along something to us as truth, we tend to take it uncritically as such.  If the majority of those around us act with a given idea as truth, we tend not to question our group.
In tribal societies, to question the clan was an invitation to be excluded if not excommunicated.  Today, with all the news sources available to us for verification of facts in freedom-protected nations, many individuals will tend to join in with what the larger group believes to be truth.  If media groups publish or pronounce it, then we have the truth.  Americans, for example, largely believed the details printed in Twain’s obituary; the only thing was, he wasn’t dead so he sent a cable from London with his famous quip, “The rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”
On a much more serious note, destructive values such as racism pass, in any number of places, from generation to generation because they are unquestioned.  Twain confronted in several places the racism that permitted the institution of slavery to continue, most notably in the experience of his most famous character, Huck Finn.  The adults in his life who try to offer Huck parental guidance since his mother was long since deceased and his father, Pap, a drunk, are religious fundamentalists and slaveholders; and in their defense, the Bible does not question, much less condemn, slavery.  Particularly the Widow Douglas and Miss Watson have taught Huck all about heaven and hell as well as the legalities of slaveholding; any slave who would try to run away  from an owner and any non-slave who would try to help her or him.  Huck believes them because he knows they care about his well-being.  The crisis of conscience for Huck grows, however, because of his deep friendship with Jim, a slave owned by Miss Watson.  Eventually, Huck can’t bear for anyone–especially his beloved Jim–to be denied the freedom he so prizes.
The Broadway musical version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is called “Big River.”  I quote Huck’s soliloquy at this point in the plot from the play rather than the novel, though there is little variance.

It hit me all of a sudden that here was the hand of God, letting me know I’d been watched all along from above…and people who helped [an n word] like I’d done were the ones who went to the everlasting fire.  I decided to pray and see if I could stop being the kind of boy I was.  But you can’t pray a lie, I found that out.  I’ll write a letter – then see if I can pray.

     “Dear Miss Watson.  Your runaway [n word] Jim is down     
     here two miles south of Hillsboro and Mr. Phelps will give   
     him up for the reward if you send.  Huck Finn.”
I felt light as a feather, washed clean of sin for the first time in my whole life!  But then I got to thinking about [my trip with Jim] down the river and we a-float along, talking, singing and laughing.  And him saying I was his only friend in the world…[tearing up letter and flinging the pieces to the wind, Huck continues]. All right, then, I’ll go to hell! I’ll take up wickedness again. And for a starter, I’ll steal Jim out of slavery again.  And if I can think of something worse, I’ll do that too:  because as long as I’m in, and in for good, I might as well go whole hog!

According to Roy Blunt writing a 2008 Time magazine article titled “America’s Original Superstar,” Mark Twain’s issues with religion or what put Mark Twain off about religion was its “bossiness and its alignment with corrupt community values that people–though standing to profit–insisted on calling a higher power.”
Evidently Mark Twain had a special concern about Christian missionaries, and in a piece called The United States of Lyncherdom, his original version not published until the year 2000, he says to the missionaries in China whom he believed were spreading the “malady of [Christianized] Western civilization abroad”:

…almost every convert runs the risk of catching our civilization….We ought to think twice before we encourage a risk like that; for, once civilized, China can never be uncivilized again….O compassionate missionary, leave China! Come home and convert these Christians!


Can Heretics Go to Heaven?



Some of you, my very astute listeners, have already noticed something possibly incongruous about the title of today’s sermon, “Do Heretics Go to Heaven?”.  Indeed, to deny heaven in some circles is to invite being named a heretic more or less instantaneously.  Besides all of that, practically, if there is no heaven, how can anyone go there, heretical or solidly orthodox?  Clearly, as the Pharisees tried to trip up Jesus and others, so also did the person who gave me today’s sermon try to trip me up.  Let’s see how well my mitt gloves this curve ball.
If there is a heaven, I can name you a few people regarded as heretics in this world who certainly made it to the next world, the land that is fairer than day, shall we say.  Priscillian, Marcion, Arius, Joan of Arc, Martin Luther, Felix Manz, Galileo, Jan Hus, Anne Hutchinson, Father Ned Reidy, Father Tissa Balasuriya, Will D. Campbell, and by the way, Jesus.
Wade in the water here with me.  Let’s work on the key word, “heresy,” a bit.  There’s a difference between “blasphemy,” “heresy,” and “sacrilege.”
“Blasphemy” is any one of several types of utterance that defame God or what has been attributed to God in terms of teachings; blasphemy is the height of irreverence.  “Sacrilege” is any abusive word or act directed toward a sacred practice or object.  “Heresy” is the rational rejection of a belief that has been formalized as necessary within a given religious system; the opposite of heresy is orthodoxy.  The Vatican at this very moment as far as I know defines “heresy” as “the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth that must be believed with divine or catholic faith, or it is likewise an obstinate doubt concerning the same.”
Defenders of orthodoxy throughout the history of the Jesus Movement seem to have had a great deal in common. We see this in their responses to those whom they, by personal assessment, regarded as heretics or those who have already been officially condemned heretics by some voting body.
In order to be a full heretic somebody has to vote you into to the heretics club. You can’t wake up one day and just say, “I’m a heretic.”  I realize that bit of news is extraordinarily disappointing for some of you, but I’m not just whistling Dixie when I say one of these days we are going to have an election here at Silverside Church so that all those who desire to be known officially as heretics may purchase their t-shirts.
Defenders of orthodoxy, according to a pattern I see, have initially wanted to humiliate the person whom they thought was unorthodox. This typically centered in some kind of ecclesiastical court where the person accused of orthodoxy is forced to stand trial. In Roman Catholic tradition, heresy trials can be convened at the Vatican or in a diocesan court. Second, defenders of orthodoxy have they wanted to banish if possible that person considered unorthodox.  Finally, they were eager to kill the person whom they are utterly convinced has the wrong set of beliefs.
In my reading this week I stumbled across somebody who referred to a faith based solely on correct beliefs as a cognitive Christian. That has stuck with me and not in a comfortable way. Cognitive Christianity, thinking the right things. Of course, there’s always the assumption that if you believe the right things you will act in the proper manner, but that is not the case at all. So people have lost their lives all through the history of the Jesus Movement for a number of reasons the most stunning being that they didn’t believe the right thing or things according to whomever happened to be in power at a given moment in time.  Yet, how is it possible to know exactly what someone believes or doesn’t believe; some people can articulate what they believe while others simply can’t.
There have been those in the history of the Jesus Movement whose full-time jobs have been to hunt heretics.  Adam Ellis wrote:
Whenever I see heresy hunts, I ask myself whose behavior this resembles in the Gospels.  It isn’t Jesus.  It’s the people who crucified him. Character is a powerful apologetic.  Always ask yourself who displays the most Jesus-like character in these situations. If that suggestion bothers you, ask yourself why.

At the turn of the fourth century, an Egyptian priest named Arius gave the Catholic church its first major heretical challenge.  He wasn’t the first heretic, but the first widely known heretic. Arius taught that Jesus was not truly equal to God. That view was diametrically opposed to church doctrine regarding trinitarianism, which insists that God is a single entity though existing simultaneously as Creator, as Jesus, and as the Holy Spirit.  At the first Council of Nicea in 325 CE, which was attended by more than 300 of the early church fathers, Arius’ teachings were condemned, and he was declared a heretic.  His punishment was excommunication.
In 1431, Joan of Arc, who posing as a man had led France to military victory against the English, was convicted of heresy and sorcery for added fun and condemnation.  Her punishment was death by burning at the stake.  Here’s one for the books.  She was “unhereticalized” and canonized in 1920.
One of the best-known heresy trials in history was Galileo’s in 1633. The church found Galileo guilty of heresy for teaching that the Earth revolves around the sun; he was forced to recant those views. Galileo was ordered imprisoned anyway; his sentence was later commuted to house arrest for life, but the ban against publishing his writings was not lifted.
Father Ned Reidy left the Roman Catholic Church in 1999 in order to join a tiny offshoot group from the Roman Catholic Church.  The Ecumenical Catholic Communion differs with the Vatican over several fundamental doctrines. He’s not running around Catholic bashing; he simply says matter of factly that he needed an alternative and so do who knows how many others. His group believes that women should be ordained and equal to men at all levels of church leadership. They believe that married men who feel called to the priesthood after they have married shouldn’t be excluded from ordination.  (This has gone on for a while when the Church was in a pinch and desperately needed clergy.)
Not surprisingly, the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Bernardino insists that Father Reidy is a heretic and has, thereby, disqualified himself from the priesthood.  The diocese says that Reidy “made promises to his religious community and vows at his ordination, which he publicly broke…with the establishment of another denomination.”  For more fun, Reidy was also charged with schism, a failure to submit to papal authority.
Reidy never denied any of the accusations; in fact, he didn’t even attend his own heresy trial!  He says that neither the diocese nor the Vatican have jurisdiction over him. He can live with having been defrocked and excommunicated.
The last official heresy trial conducted by the Vatican itself, as opposed to one carried out by a diocese, was in 1997 when the Church excommunicated a 72 year old Sri Lankan priest, Father
Tissa Balasuriya.  He had written a book that angered the Vatican; it was a little book titled Mary and Human Liberation, which sold a whopping total of 600 copies.  Father Balasuriya is also a sociologist, and his book was the final installment in a trilogy, the other two titles being Jesus and Human Liberation along with The Eucharist and Human Liberation.  He argues in this series that Roman Catholic dogma must adjust itself to the social and cultural realities of Asia.  Even many insiders were shocked with the severity of his punishment.  Ah, but I have a happy ending for you.  He was eventually reunited with the church.

In Roman Catholicism there is a very specific set of have-to-believe doctrinal requirements, and not to affirm them is to be accused of heresy, which also is a rather formal process to which I’ve alluded. In Protestantism, there are some in-charge bodies that function nearly like Roman Catholics in terms of designating heretics or accusing heretics I should say. But in the free church tradition where creeds generally are not affirmed or desired there’s a general expectation that you are orthodox if you “believe the Bible.”
Some of you may know the musical challenge to Huck Finn by many of the adults in his life from the musical, “Big River”:
Looka here Huck, do you wanna go to heaven?
Do you wanna go to heaven?
Well I’ll tell you right now.
You better learn to read and you better learn your writin’,
Or you’ll never get to heaven cause you won’t know how!
Hey, hey ain’t the situation concernin’ education aggravatin’ and how!
You may think that the whole thing is silly;
But it ain’t silly really, and I’ll tell you right now
If you don’t learn to read then you can’t read your Bible.
And you’ll never get to heaven cause you won’t know how.
Looka here, Huck, now you better think it over.
Do ya wanna be a loafer like your pappy is now?
You better learn to read, and you better know your writin’;
Or you’ll never get to heaven cause you won’t know how.
Hey, hey do ya wanna go to heaven?
Do ya wanna go to heaven
If you don’t go to hell?
(lyrics by Roger Miller)
Now, as YOU all know, there’s no one way to believe the Bible. In fact to make a blanket statement saying, “I believe the whole Bible,” is to demonstrate your lack of familiarity with the teachings of the Bible as a whole even taking their historic and literary contexts into account.
So in Romans chapter 13 the Apostle Paul makes the bold and audacious claim that because God has put all political leaders into positions of power; therefore, anybody who is not one of those political leaders is subject to the authority of those leaders. In the context of our country that would mean God chooses our presidents and other elected leaders.  (So does that mean elections are going through the motions?)  By the same logic, the absolute tyrants are in power because God has so willed this. Again in our context to be subject to the political leader is to obey the laws that she or he has taken an oath to uphold. Therefore acting against one of those laws or failing to keep the law is clearly not be believing the Bible.

My friend, Will Campbell, died this week as I shared with you in an eblast.  If you paid any attention to the news this week you know Will was a famous person in many circles though he never acted as if he were of any higher up social status ladder than the down and outs or the barely getting bys. Though reared in Baptist tradition and educated at Wake Forest College before it was University and before it began to let go of much of its Baptists affiliation, Will went on to study at Yale Divinity School, and somewhere along the way he earned a degree in philosophy from Tulane University.
He was an ordained Baptist minister. I don’t know the circumstances of his ordination. I never heard him speak about that.
He embraced me as a friend during my years as pastor of the St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans. Because he had a number friends in the church Will visited frequently, and in those visits I came to know an amazingly Jesus-like person minus every possible modicum of traditional piety.
Will is on my list of favorite heretics because he did not believe Romans chapter 13.  (Also if the Bible forbade the use of strong drink, which might or might not be the case, he completely ignored that!)  He did not believe that every law of the land was of God and was deserving of being obeyed. For example, he believed that the Vietnam War was not a just war; therefore, he smuggled conscientious objectors into Canada. You may not affirm what he did in that regard, but that was Will. He knew he was violating Romans chapter 13, and he knew he was violating any law that forbade that kind of activity.
Will do not believe in limiting the rights of any human being for any reason–for example, because of the color of her or his skin. Therefore, interracial couples from all over the South who wanted to get married often found their way to Will’s and Brenda’s home out in Mount Juliet, Tennessee, not far from Nashville, where Brother Will with his pastoral persona at work would perform weddings for those couples at a time when few others would.
If you read my blast you know that USA Today called him a “giant” in the civil rights movement and that Will was the only white guy present when the Southern Christian Leadership Conference is formed with Dr. King and Dr. Kelly Miller Smith and others.  Will was in Memphis when Dr. King was assassinated, and he was with the inner circle of King supporters after the assassination in that room at the Lorraine Motel a couple of hours after the shooting.  There’s a photograph of that scene with Ralph Abernathy and Will comforting each other.
Not a whole lot of people did as much good for the down and outs, the excluded, the underdog as Will did.  He inspired me heretic that he was. If there is a heaven, and as you know I I think there is, Will Campbell is there today. And I suspect when he arrived Monday night he was not greeted by St. Peter as many have speculated who the greeter at the pearly gates is, but rather by Dr. King.
Jesus was a heretic. This is to say that the established religious order in which he found himself, Judaism, had teachings in it with which Jesus did not agree–at least not in a way that would permit the keeping of law in some literalistic fashion.  The Romans would never have agreed to put a Jewish person to death because of some religious differences he had with a fraction of other Jews, and please don’t believe that all the Jews were running around trying to get the Romans to kill Jesus. There was a little handful of people, 15 to 20 or something to that effect. The people that did want Jesus dead because he brought a new and fresh interpretation to the ancient holy writ said you can’t bring anything new into the traditional teaching; it was always interpreted the ancient way, and it must always be interpreted that way in the future .
Jesus had to live with his conscience though. He knew in his heart that, while the principles behind the ancient religious laws may well have been good ones, they couldn’t, without updated restatements and applications, be meaningful to new generations. Jesus had no other goal than to draw people closer into the reality of God.  So when Jesus would say something like, “You have heard it said of old that you must not commit adultery, but I say unto you if you look at someone with lust in your heart then you’ve already committed adultery,” he made the fundamentalists go nuts.
Obviously there’s a difference between lust and actually carrying through with adulterous acts. But to make his point, Jesus goes to the extreme, which was very typical for Jesus.  Still, the carrying through part begins when you allow yourself mentally to cross the boundaries, when you allow yourself mentally to see yourself in a position of participating in the violation of commitments that you and/or the person with whom you cheat have made. Jesus way is harder to keep more demanding than the literalistic way.  Jesus was accused of heresy by this little group of Jews, and they wanted him dead as a result.
It’s amazing throughout the history of the Jesus Movement how many people have believed that so-called heretics can only be justly dealt with if they are dead; in other words, there should be no such thing as a breathing heretic. She or he should already be dead–and killed of course in the name of God.  Even so, if Jesus were a heretic, may I dare to be such a heretic too.  Amen.

If There Is No Heaven, Why Be Good?




So Ebay had to make a big decision this week, which involved its loss of an opportunity to make a big commission. A guy was offering to sell his place in heaven to the highest bidder, and the bids had gotten up near the $100,000 range. That’s one way to confirm one’s eternal destiny. Ebay told the gentleman, who by the way is ethnically Jewish and theologically an atheist rejecting the ideas of God and an afterlife, that people can’t sell something intangible on Ebay; nor can they sell, just to be clear and comprehensive, a human being like the person who tried to sell her grandmother on Ebay.  In response, he told Ebay to chill, that it was all a big joke.  The more interesting news story may be about those people who actually made bids on this offering.  What was the smallest bid, and what was the largest?
Most people I know who believe in heaven have some sense that getting there is connected to acceptable behavior in this world–whether that behavior is keeping certain rules or more generally just doing good deeds.  What does the Bible say, though?  Well, I don’t think many of the people who believe in heaven want to hear what the Bible says on the subject.
In the beginning was watery chaos, and then according to the great myths the Creator separated the waters with land, a big flat slab of an island. Above the land was the sky also called heaven, and below the land was the original watery chaos. The land was held up by huge columns that went from the base of the land all the way down to the bottom of the chaos.  And tucked in there immediately below the land was Sheol, the abode of the dead.
An ancient Hebrew thought everyone went to Sheol when her or his sojourn on earth was over. There was no doctrine of heaven in Hebrew Scripture, and no thought of rewards and punishments in Sheol. It was a great equalizer. The only thing you needed to be able to go there was the experience of death.  When you went, by the way, your essence was still kinda sorta you come, but you became a shade or shadow of your earthly self. The ancient Hebrews created strong images about what that shadowy existence was like.  For example, in Psalm 88:10, as the Darby Bible translation has it, we read of one of the psalmists asking God:  “Wilt thou do wonders to the dead? Shall the shades arise and praise thee?”
Many folks who look to the Bible for guidance and inspiration find it odd that there is no teaching on heaven in Hebrew Scripture. That, however, is the case.  At most, some seeds are sewn for what later develops in the Second Testament, Christian Scripture, era.
Jesus, parting from his inherited tradition, definitely believed in a heaven, but as I have said on other occasions he was rather in the theological minority among Jews in his time and place.  Only one established group, the Pharisees, at whom Jesus leveled his most severe criticisms believed in heaven. The most influential Jews in the time of Jesus–the wealthy and the aristocratic and the influential–Sadducees, did not believe in an afterlife.
In the Silverside context, as is true on most issues, we have people all over the continuum of possible beliefs about heaven. We have people who believe in no afterlife at all, and we have people who believe in both a heaven of some sort and a hell of some sort. And then there are people like me who believe in a heaven, but not in hell. Only when I arrived at this theological position did I realize that a significant number of people held it before I joined them.
One of the beloved members of Silverside who can no longer be with us because of severe dementia-related challenges is Dr. Hal Barker.  Hal is one in a group of brilliant Ph.D. chemists in our family, and Hal is certainly liberal in his theological thinking.  Perhaps because of early exposure to traditional biblical teachings in the Church of the Brethren Hal kept up his study of the Bible even when he realized he had become a part of the liberal wing.  What Hal said to me one time on this issue was, “We don’t know enough about it to confirm or deny it since nobody ever went there and came back to tell us about it. So it’s not even worth mentioning!”

The question raised by today’s sermon title, “If there is no heaven, why be good?”, was a question that couldn’t have occurred to the ancient Hebrews for reasons that are now obvious.  They never got tripped up worrying about how they might earn their way to heaven.  Instead, thinking of Sheol as the only possible next-world experience, they believed in rewards and punishments in here and now.  They believed that God didn’t wait until the afterworld to settle up, as it were; instead, according to their belief system, God meted those out, reward or punishment, right here on these earthly shores.  Any unsettled business, was passed on to your children–the good or the bad; so that was a very interesting motivation for doing good.
There are plenty of people who only do what is right because they believe there are some potential reward out there for them–whether it’s heaven or something else like material favors or protection from natural disasters.  I’m sure your heart is torn out for the residents of the Oklahoma City area who can’t get out of the way of killer tornados.
The most chilling news report I read was on CNN online Friday evening:


The death and damage wrought by new tornadoes that plowed through Oklahoma won’t be completely known until the sun comes up Saturday morning.  A handful of fresh storms killed at least five people Friday, authorities said, less than two weeks after a monstrous cyclone waylaid the town of Moore, a suburb of Oklahoma City.  At least 71 others were injured statewide.  Two of the victims in Oklahoma died within twenty miles of Moore….Though the tornadoes were not as strong as the EF-5 twister that killed 24 on May 20, fear drove some people into their cars to flee them, some of whom got caught in heavy rains and flash flooding.  A mother and her child were killed when an apparent tornado sucked them out of their vehicle.

My dear friends, Oklahoma is the belt buckle of the Bible Belt!  And, as a result, there are tons of people there who believe God has willed these horrors as a punishment to someone or some group.  In the midst of their fear and grieving, plenty of people I can tell you are trying to figure out how to do good in order to get back in God’s graces.  This is its own kind of tragedy, and there are so many problems with this way of thinking one of which is that doing the right thing by no means guarantees some sort of positive reward. One can do the right thing and end up suffering for it.  In fact, that isn’t unusual at all.
The words of our last hymn today, attributed to St. Francis Xavier, are brilliant.  I quoted them a few weeks ago in a different context, but I can’t pass them by for today even though I referred to them so recently.


My God, I love Thee;

Not because
I hope for Heav’n thereby,

Nor yet because who love Thee not

May eternally die.
Not for the hope of winning Heaven,

Nor of escaping hell.

Not with the hope of gaining aught,

Nor seeking a reward,

But as Thyself hast lovèd me,

O everlasting Lord!

E’en so I love Thee, and will love,

And in Thy praise will sing,

Solely because Thou art my God,

And my eternal King.

J C Watts has said:  “Character is doing the right thing when nobody’s looking.  There are too many people who think that the only thing that’s right is to get by, and the only thing that’s wrong is to get caught.”  Janice Hardy has one of her characters in The Shifter say the obvious:  “Doing what’s right is seldom easy.”  So, if there’s no heaven or even if there is and we can’t buy or earn our way in, why should we struggle with doing what is right?
I don’t think there’s any really good reason to do the right thing other than that it’s the right thing to do, and if something else pushes us to do the right thing other than fear of punishment it’s kind of hit or miss.  For one example, take the death penalty issue.
His Honor H. Lee Sarokin, former US Court of Appeals Judge, wrote an article a couple of years ago titled, “Is It Time to Execute the Death Penalty?”   This is what he wrote:


In my view deterrence plays no part whatsoever. Persons contemplating murder do not sit around the kitchen table and say I won’t commit this murder if I face the death penalty, but I will do it if the penalty is life without parole. I do not believe persons contemplating or committing murder plan to get caught or weigh the consequences. Statistics demonstrate that states without the death penalty have consistently lower murder rates than states with it, but frankly I think those statistics are immaterial and coincidental. Fear of the death penalty may cause a few to hesitate, but certainly not enough to keep it in force…

Maybe thinking about HOW to do the right thing will motivate some to do it.  The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics has issued a list of five ways to do what is right.

The Utilitarian Approach
The right thing to do leads to the greatest balance of good over damage. If someone can make a case for “ethical” warfare, which is what Augustine’s “Just War” theory attempted to do, it would have to balance the good that would come from ending terrorism, for example, with harm done through death, injury, and destruction including environmental destruction.  If we do the right thing for this reason, we are always involved in trying to increase the good and decrease the bad.  Putting this into practice requires a great deal of objectivity and selflessness.

The Rights Approach
Some ethicists have said that the right thing to do always protects and respects the moral rights of those impacted by the course of action chosen.  Inherent human worthy and dignity must be affirmed across the board; otherwise, this approach can’t work.  Human beings are not things, numbers, or nameless statistics.  The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights has this statement at its core:  “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.”  If I am going to do the right thing, I must be willing and capable of acting within these parameters.

The Justice Approach
If I’m going to do the right thing I must be willing to acts in ways that enhance justice.  Am I willing to take a salary cut if it means someone not being paid fairly is brought within a proper pay scale?  Do I protest injustice not just with my words but also with my actions?

The Common Good Approach
“This approach suggests that the interlocking relationships of society are the basis of ethical reasoning and that respect and compassion for all others–especially the vulnerable–are requirements of such reasoning.”  Who deserves health care?  What am I willing to do to promote educational opportunities for those, in particular, who are being overlooked?  George Bernard Shaw:


I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the community, and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live. Life is no “brief candle”to me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for a moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.

The Virtue Approach
Doing the right thing is living by the great principles of humanity at its best.  The motto of my alma mater is:  truth, beauty, goodness.  What about honesty?  Compassion?  Courage?

Common Misunderstandings about “the Right Thing” (ethical behavior).  These are from me, and not the Markkula Center.  It is incorrect to think…


  • That doing good results in rewards in the here and/or hereafter.
  • That the right thing will always be the same as a path chosen in response to some other similar challenge.
  • That the right thing is always a clear, obvious option among available choices.
  • That, once we do the right thing, we can take immediate solace in the knowledge that we did what was right.
  • That those who observe us doing the right thing will applaud what we do.
  • That there can be any ultimate reward for doing right other than making the effort to act ethically.