Darwin, Jesus and Christians in the United States

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It seems as if many people in the United States have fallen in love with Darwin and his “survival of the fittest” evolutionary discoveries. Now I am not talking about the debates between creationism and evolution – I am one of those who believes that the two are not mutually exclusive – but how this idea seems to have infiltrated American politics and culture when it comes to how we treat the poor and struggling in our society.

For some reason, extreme wealth, power and privilege has become the norm to which we should all aspire and if you are on the other side of the equation, you are blatantly ignored, at best, and publicly castigated, at worst. With the ways in which our congress spends money on our military, the idea that some institutions are too big to die, assumptions about people’s motivations in life and and the ways in which money influences our politics, Darwin would be proud of the United States of America.

When I am my least hopeful self, I look at the world and the country of my birth and it seems as if he was right, the strongest: militarily, economically and politically will survive . . . and those who are weaker will slowly, painfully, invisibly go extinct. But then I remember that this is not the lens through which Jesus would have view the world and live our lives, in fact, I believe that he has something to say to Mr. Darwin and those Christians who ascribe to his evolutionary mentality when it comes to life in the United States and around the world.

Only the strong will survive . . . the more you have: strength, wealth and power the better off you will be.

Jesus might respond with Luke 16-21 

16 And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. 17 He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’
18 “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. 19 And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’
20 “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’
21 “This is how it will be with those who store up things for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

Not only do we Americans hate to be perceived as unsuccessful or to have less than our neighbor, our thirst for unlimited wealth, power and resources has become an idol that is only widening the socioeconomic chasms between the rich and poor. Our need to feel superior to the other, accumulate wealth and exercise power creates a context in which we will do anything we can – vote, work, act – in order to reinforce those things that maintain divisions that most benefit the building up of our own kingdoms.

The weak deserve to go extinct . . . it’s their own fault, we do not need to help them, they deserve what they get.

Jesus might respond with Matthew 25:37-40

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

Contrary to what many Americans believe, the quote, “God helps those who help themselves is not a passage from the Bible. The idea that all anyone has to do in order to succeed and achieve the “American Dream” is to work hard is a fallacy that ignores generation after generation who have both helped people succeed, as well as have been unjustly hindered in their struggle to achieve. Born out of this belief is an American individualism that manifests itself in a short-sighted “every man for himself” attitude that dishonors those who have come before and constrains those who will follow. We not only perpetuate this cycle, but we institutionalize the barriers by the ways in which we disproportionally incarcerate our citizens, care for senior citizens through the end of their lives and fail to educate all children across our socioeconomic spectrum.

Self-preservation is the ultimate success . . . death is bad and our ultimate goal should be survival.

Jesus might respond with Mark 8:31-33 

31 He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. 32 He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.

33 But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said.“You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”

Of course it is one thing to talk about our own physical death and our natural inclination to survive, but quite another when we think about the death of institutions, systems or status. The idea that some things are “too big to die” is not just about bailouts and economic recovery, but a mindset that perpetuates unhealthy systems throughout our society. As Christians, death plays an important role in how we experience new life and hope. I fear that, as a people who believe in resurrection, our constant stream of energy directed at keeping withering institutions – ecclesiastical and governmental – alive might do more damage than healing and ultimately be an obstacle to experiencing who God intends for us to become.

There are many things about Mr. Darwin’s legacy and contribution to science that I very much appreciate, but when absorbed into the fabric of our culture and society in unhealthy ways, not so much. And while it is hard to be hopeful when it does seems as tho the biggest sticks and the fattest wallets are going to win out again in church, politics and life I lean on some very wise words from Dr. Stephen Ray when he said, “You either trust God, or you don’t.” It is through this lens of trusting that the goodness of God is somehow woven into all things that I live and, yes, survive, in the world today.

My Sunday Sermon, “Would Jesus Have Said Vagina?”

Photo by joethedork - San Francisco Bay to Breakers, 2005

[Photo By joethedork]

Okay, I am not preaching anywhere this Sunday, but feel free to “liberate” the idea, should you need a sermon starter. That said, I do hope that more than a few preachers out there are going to somehow use the recent Michigan State Legislature vagina kerfuffle as fodder for some good conversations on power, community and discernment.

For those of you who have no idea what I am talking about but have noticed an increased use of the word “vagina,” you are not imagining things. The increased volume of verbal vagina usage can be attributed to Thursday’s rebuke of Michigan State Representative, Lisa Brown, after her use of the word “vagina” during a debate on abortion the day before. According to the Detroit News, at the close of her argument about an abortion bill she said these words,

“Finally, Mr. Speaker, I’m flattered that you’re all so interested in my vagina, but ‘no’ means ‘no,'”

The result was that she was barred from speaking the next day.

“What she said was offensive,” said Rep. Mike Callton, R-Nashville. “It was so offensive, I don’t even want to say it in front of women. I would not say that in mixed company.”

This was apparently not out of character for this particular legislative body as Rep. Barb Byrum was also barred from speaking because of what she said during her failed amendment to the abortion bill banning men from getting a vasectomy unless the procedure was necessary to save a man’s life.

“If we truly want to make sure children are born, we would regulate vasectomies,” Byrum told reporters Thursday.

Wow. Just wow.

While there are many directions one could go with this, I think this situation raises some good questions for bodies of people who strive to engage in debate, discernment and decision-making. There have always been people who seem to cross the lines of appropriateness, decorum and social norms, but in this case we are again reminded that part of the discussion always has to be about who gets to determine those rules and to what end.

I am all for appropriateness in large groups and helping people to avoid unnecessarily over-sharing about their lives and the lives of their loved ones. I still remember during one meeting that I was leading when, during a debate on sexuality, a father shared with the body – and webcasted community – about his daughter’s sexual activity. He was trying to make a point, but I am not sure that it was very effective NOR did it get to the heart of his position. Instead, attention was drawn away from the point he was trying to make and the energy of the whole body was deflected away from debate.

Now some might say that Brown’s and Byurms’s comments did the same thing, but I would disagree. I do not think that their use of “shocking” language drew attention away from the debate, instead, their comments got the heart of the actual debate on abortion AND challenged the enforcement of random rules like “decorum” and “civility” that are meant to stifle voices and preserve power. There are few things about which I agree with the Tea Party, but one thing that I have appreciated is that they have used their place of authority to speak into systems that have lost touch and/or have used sets of unspoken rules to control and maintain power. I rarely agree with the content or tone, but they get it. Sometimes, you just have to call horse manure when you perceive it being unnecessarily spread. There may be repercussions for those actions, but speaking truth to power, by it’s very nature, will illicit reaction and rebuke.

So the burning question for me and I hope for preachers the world world over this Sunday is, “Would Jesus have said, ‘Vagina’?”

Jesus healed in the Sabbath and said to those in power… Mark 3:1-6

4 Then Jesus asked them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they remained silent.

Jesus was a tad bit bold, shocking even, and said to those in power… John 6:25-59

48 I am the bread of life.

Jesus sometimes had enough, got pissed and said to those in power… Matthew 11:20-24

20 Then Jesus began to denounce the towns in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent. 21 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22 But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. 23 And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted up to the skies? No, you will go down to the depths. If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. 24 But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.”

All of this goes to say that there are times when shocking words that defy decorum and civility are needed in order to hold accountable the very people who have the power to define the rules of decorum and civility. These acts help bodies to reflect on whether the rules and expectations of behavior help move a body forward with a sense of integrity or if they are a means to maintain power, silence the minority and lessen the positive influence of the body.

Jesus was not always about speaking shocking words to power, just as I am sure that not all of the representatives involved in this case are always the inappropriate or uptight caricatures that they are made out to be. But at the same time, just as Jesus called us to prayer, compassion, service and love . . . in order to make a point about an issue and to speak truth to power when needed, he did so with a prophetic and often shocking word.

So yes, Jesus would have said, “Vagina.”