This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Friday, June 17, 2016

BDS and Sabbath.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, one way to look at Sabbath is as a practice of intentional non-participation in the economy in order to give glory to God.  That is, in Sabbath the people lift up God’s mishap (justice) and shalom (peace) by stopping for a period of time all economic activity, or “work.”  It embodies the Lord’s statement that we cannot serve both God and money (Matthew 6:24), by carving out periods of time when money is explicitly not to be served.  Perhaps it is also a time when we render to God what is God’s, as distinct from the other times when we are compelled to render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar (Mark 12:17).  

In addition to the weekly Sabbath, every seventh year was also a sabbath.  (See Leviticus 25.)  Even the land got a rest from economic exploitation.  And the sabbath of sabbaths, after 49 (7x7) years, was the Jubilee.  The Jubilee was a way to press the “reset” button to in effect reboot the economy. Debts were remitted, and property reverted to the original family of ownership.

All of this was a way of socially and economically practicing Psalm 24:1, 
“The Earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof, 
the world and all who dwell therein.”

Thus the sabbath is, in a sense, a “boycott” of the whole economy, like a controlled and regular system of general strikes, designed to apply a brake to the pervasive demands of economic existence.  It was a release valve intended to relieve the social pressure of economic injustices, which invariably build up in an otherwise unregulated economy.   

In the Jubilee, the whole society intentionally “divests” from economic demands and domination; this corrects the longer term corrosive effects of economic predation and “growth.”  Those who accrued wealth in the previous half-century are required to give back a portion of their gains so that balance may be maintained.  

We might also understand the sabbath/Jubilee system as involving “sanctions.”  Commercial interests certainly would have felt sanctioned by sabbath and other religious brakes on profitable economic activity.  The prophet Amos notices this (Amos 8:4-6).  The main opposition to sabbath and Jubilee would have been from those who stood to lose the most: the wealthy and “successful.”       

Put another way, 
boycotts, divestment, and sanctions 
are simply selective and targeted applications 
of the sabbath/Jubilee principle.  
Instead of being applied according to a regular schedule, 
we resort to them 
when we perceive the need arising 
in particular situations
of injustice, abuse, and inequity.  

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Why ACSWP's Opinion on Fossil Fuel Divestment Isn't Helpful.

GA2016 - Fossil Fuel Divestment. 

The Presbytery of San Francisco has offered an overture to the General Assembly asking our denomination to divest from the fossil-fuel industry.  This means basically taking almost all our money out of these companies as soon as practical and prudent.

The reason for this action is that these companies are among the prime culprits in creating and exacerbating the dramatic increase in greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere, which is the direct cause of the climate-change crisis.  The Presbytery of San Francisco, along with at least twenty-nine other presbyteries, are suggesting that perhaps supporting and benefiting from such activity is not appropriate for a church that worships the One who created the planet and left it in our care. 

Part of the process at the General Assembly is that overtures are reviewed and commented upon by various official interest groups in the church, giving the commissioners advice from their particular perspectives.

One of these groups is the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy, known as ACSWP (pronounced “A C Swap”).  ACSWP issues responses to anything that relates to our political, economic, and social life.  Some conservative folks are chronically angry with ACSWP because their views are invariably in tune with the Progressive left.  There is even a movement to rein in ACSWP, led by Foothills Presbytery in South Carolina, who feel that ACSWP is extremist and one-sided, and responsible for much of the anger and divisiveness in our denomination at the local level.

In any case, I almost always agree with ACSWP’s analysis of things, since they are generally reflective of stances actually taken by the General Assembly, not to mention the teachings of Jesus Christ.  The downside of ACSWP’s work is that it tends, in my view, to involve a lot of statement-making and position-paper-writing, and the issuing of dramatic and righteous communications of our opinion to the government, and rarely is there any practical guidance about what the church or Presbyterians might actually do.  Too often they imagine they are solving the problems of the whole world, when more attention needs to be paid to what we can effectively accomplish. 

ACSWP’s response to the overture 
about divestment from fossil-fuel companies 
attacks and undermines 
the work of climate-change activists.  
It ends up being a mealy-mouthed, 
incrementalist, impenetrable, 
paternalistic, and delusional  
attempt to issue a sweeping pronunciamento 
on climate change...
but really just says that 
only a carbon tax will work, 
but that’s not going to happen, 
so everybody should just keep doing what they’re doing.  

(It almost makes me reconsider the attitude of the Foothills overtures towards ACSWP.  Not really, but I ask you….)

It appears to be the strategy of those opposed to this overture to kill it by replacing it with a supposedly fair and balanced response to the whole issue of climate change.  The goal is for the General Assembly to squeeze out a lot of verbiage, making everyone feel like we've accomplished something, and by the way, ensuring that we still get our checks from Exxon.  Sadly, this is the same kind of argument that was used to oppose divestment from South Africa 40 years ago.  It’s called “constructive engagement.”  And no, it didn’t work back then either.   

This is a very practical overture.  
It is not about 
“making a difference in combatting climate change.”  
That’s not going to happen.  

It is only about what we do 
with the money God has entrusted to us.  
The overture demands the General Assembly’s response to one very basic question:  

Should the PCUSA underwrite and profit from 
the fossil fuel industry?  

-Is it a moral, godly, beneficial, and just way to invest God’s money in coal, oil, and gas?  
-Or does such investment make us complicit in doing catastrophic damage to God’s creation?  

-Does investing in these companies make the world a better place for all?  
-Or does it perpetrate and perpetuate injustice, inequality, and ecological degradation?  

-Or, to put it in the language of the NFOG: 

How is giving our money to these companies missional?  
How is it an expression 
of our discipleship of Jesus Christ?

In other words, the only authentic reason to vote against this overture is because you believe global warming is either not happening, or not caused by human activity, or not that important.  In effect, ACSWP is in league with global warming deniers.   

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Why Church Membership Isn't What It Used to Be.

Once upon a time, we could measure the health of a church by simply counting the active members on the rolls. Or so they tell me.

At some point we realized how inadequate that was.  A church could have lots of members, but not all of them actively participated in the church’s mission.  Plus, churches with fewer members tend to have a higher degree of commitment per member, and so on.

So we decided it would be a more assessment of a church’s health to count the number of regular attendees at worship.  

But that isn’t working any more either.  

Today, it is not unusual for even very active members to attend worship no more than once or twice a month.  

Indeed, someone may be very active in the life of the church, and actually show up at worship only sporadically.

For instance:
  • Someone enthusiastically leads a mission trip in every summer, but barely shows up the rest of the year.  
  • Someone may volunteer regularly and frequently at the Food Bank, but only come to worship every few weeks.  
  • Someone may be very active in a Praise Band, but not attend when the Praise Band is not playing.  
  • Someone may come to Bible Study, send their teenager to Youth Group, and bake for the Bake Sale, but only come to worship a few times a year.  
  • Someone may come to worship every Sunday without fail… but do nothing else in the church except take up 20 inches of pew space.  
  • Someone may have moved away but still send in a generous donation to support the church’s mission.  
  • Someone may attend and even organize a weekly Taize service on Wednesday nights, but go to another church on Sunday mornings.
  • Someone may be very active, but in two or more faith communities depending on what the Spirit moves them towards on any given day.  Sometimes they need a Pentecostal experience; sometimes they sit quietly with Quakers.  
I can think of many, many more examples of this sort of thing.  

These days, 
people’s spiritual life is not always centered exclusively around one congregation.  Increasingly, many express their faith 
in ways that do not include weekly worship attendance at the same church.  

Many active, faithful Christians want to live their faith out in terms of hands-on service projects, and corporate worship is lower on their list of spiritual priorities.

People are finding different kinds of worship experiences in different places.  

The one-size-fits-all church is over! 
What to do?
  1. Relax!  The church’s mission in the world is primary.  If you sent a group of 60 on a mission trip, don’t get depressed that only 20 people are showing up for worship.  Hey, you sent 60 people on a mission trip!  
  2. Tell the hysterical denominational officials who think your church is “dying” because they are looking at your plummeting attendance numbers, to get off your case.  Like Jesus, show them what other good things are happening (Matthew 11:2-6)! 
  3. Find ways of articulating and lifting up the spiritual meaning of the many things people connected to the church are doing in the world.
  4. Appreciate and learn from the other kinds of worship styles that are touching people.
  5. Focus, and do what you do well.  Be the place people will come to who need what you have.