Calling for Blood

Screenshot 2017-04-24 10.08.30

In this season of Eastertide, the newspaper headlines cause me to remember that my Lord and Savior, the risen Christ, was the victim of capital punishment.  Jesus’ death came at the hands of the State and with the apparent approval of a great many.  Even though he had grave doubts about Jesus’ actual guilt, the Roman Governor Pilate gave assent to his execution.  Jesus’ death was cruel by any standard, but by the standard of the Roman Empire in the first century, it was not unusual.

The blood lust of “the crowd” is a major feature of the Passion story.  Governor Pilate offers to release Jesus, but the crowd insists, “Crucify him!”  On this all the Gospels agree.  Horrible as crucifixion was, it seems to have had the approval of the people Pilate listened to.  By the end of the day on Good Friday, it appeared that the people’s lust for blood had the final say.

I hear echoes of the Gospels in the way the State of Arkansas has attempted to set up a conveyor belt of death.  The Governor in that fair state attempted to kill eight prisoners in eleven days.  Apparently, he needed to fill  all eight coffins before the State’s supply of midazolam had reached its expiration date.  Governor Pilate had a similar propensity to execute people in batches.  That’s why there were three crosses on the hill called Golgotha.

I am thankful that the courts threw a monkey wrench into Governor Asa Hutchinson’s killing machine, but I take no solace in knowing that a majority of Arkansians probably support his effort.  True, a few are aghast, but crowds have not stormed the capitol demanding a return to something approaching sanity.

One wonders where the Christians are.

Nor do I find consolation in the fact that the same thing hasn’t happened (yet) in Florida.  Recently, Orange-Osceola State Attorney Aramis Ayala announced that she would not seek the death penalty in any case.  This is, of course, her prerogative under state law, and she has good reasons for her decision.  She’s dead right when she says that the death penalty serves neither the interests of the community or the cause of justice.  Would that Governor Pilate – or Governor Hutchison — had such insight and courage.

As for Florida’s Governor Scott, he has taken 23 capital murder cases away from Ms. Ayala, and turned them over to a prosecutor who does not share Ms. Ayla’s aversion to execution.  This is no surprise, coming from a Governor who has signed more death warrants than any of his predecessors since the death penalty came back into use in 1977.

In a recent online meditation, Richard Rohr writes about the death of Jesus, and how his death “takes away the sin of the world.”

Jesus takes away the sin of the world by dramatically exposing the real sin—ignorant hatred and violence, not the usual preoccupation with purity codes—and by refusing the usual pattern of vengeance, which keeps us inside of an insidious quid pro quo logic. In fact, he “returns their curses with blessings” (Luke 6:28), teaching us that we can “follow him” and not continue the spiral of violence. He unlocks our entrapment from within. (https://cac.org/)

It’s clear to me that we are indeed trapped in a pattern of vengeance.  As Easter people, we know in our hearts that there is a better way.

Embarassing for the Second Time

TMfestivus_8col TMpasta_8col TMnativity_8colDown the street at the Capitol rotunda, a curious display has been building.  It started with a nativity scene, complete with a white-skinned baby Jesus, and was joined for a while by a menorah, which made a graceful exit when Hanuka ended.  It now includes a couple of displays erected by atheist groups and a “Festivus pole” – a contraption that looks curiously like a column of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer cans.  The most recent addition to this collection is a tribute to the “Flying Spaghetti Monster,” a deity concocted to make fun of people who believe in deities.

The whole business is more than a little embarrassing, not so much for Christians like me, who are used to being embarrassed by fellow believers, but for Floridians in general, who are still trying to live down the “rep” we acquired in the bad old days of pregnant and hanging chads.  It was bad enough to be known as the state that can’t count.  Now we’ve become the state that doesn’t know when a joke that wasn’t all that funny to start with has gone way beyond bad taste.

I am very familiar with the rotunda of the State Capitol.  I spent a fair amount of time there last August chatting with the Dream Defenders as they kept up their vigil in response to the killing of Trayvon Martin.  And when the State of Florida executes yet another prisoner, a dozen or so of us — many from this congregation – will gather there to pray and sing and remind whoever will listen that the death penalty is an offense to justice, which is another way of saying an offense to God.

I regard the rotunda as sacred space.  The current display doesn’t offend me so much as it disappoints me.  Given all the truly important issues facing our state, it seems a shame to waste so much energy fighting over stuff that my grandmother would have called “just plain tacky.”

Fundamentally Speaking

Agnostic Clarence Darrow and Presbyterian William Jennings Bryan at the Scopes Monkey Trial

Fundamentalism comes in all shapes and sizes.  I’m most familiar with the Christian variety, but there are other forms as well.

Recently the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) changed its constitution.  We removed language that functioned as a bar to the ordination of Lesbian and gay officers (ministers, elders, and deacons) and replaced it with language that states: “Standards for ordained service reflect the church’s desire to submit joyfully to the lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life . . .”

This seems to me to be  a very high standard.  You’d think that submitting to Jesus’ lordship in all aspects of life would be challenge enough.  Some brothers and sisters are not happy about this, however.  One session (local governing body) wrote to Florida Presbytery:

We cannot mold scripture into something it is not simply for political or cultural whimsy, nor can we pervert it to accommodate sinful behavior without fear of impunity.  It is imperative that our church clarify in a righteous manner by putting into practice the teachings of the Bible as it pertains to fidelity and chastity for all leaders of our church.  We believe in the infallibility of the Bible and sacred truths it teaches us, both the Old and New Testaments, where we learn that these sins are clearly not the intended design of God’s perfect creation for a man and a woman.

(I think the writer meant either “without fear of penalty,” or “with impunity” but, you get the drift.)

Fair enough.  Don’t tamper with an infallible Bible.  The problem is, the Bible endorses lots of practices that modern Christians reject (beating your wife, killing your children for disobedience, polygamy, Levirate marriage) and forbids others that modern Christians accept (wearing clothing of differing cloth, touching women while they are menstruating, getting tattoos, divorce).

A little interpretation is called for, isn’t it?  But we tend to be rather selective in our interpretation.  Some bits of the Bible we keep in the file folder marked “infallible” and others get filed under “no longer applies.”  Clearly, the writer of the passage above thinks the Bible contains a blanket condemnation of sexual intercourse outside the marriage of one man to one woman.  The fact that it does no such thing is irrelevant.  We must stick to the fundamentals.

There’s also a political form of fundamentalism.  For the majority of the Florida Legislature, capping tax revenue is fundamental.  Thus, if  lawmakers manage to pass a bill requiring internet giants such as Amazon to collect sales taxes, the Governor won’t sign the  legislation unless it’s “revenue neutral.”  Whatever the right hand collects the left hand has to give back.

In other words, the State can’t possibly bring in more money for Early Learning, healthcare, or education, even if it’s money already owed under current law.  “No new taxes”(or even old taxes collected from internet deadbeats).  It’s fundamental.

I recall a bumper sticker:  “The Bible Says It. I Believe It.  That Settles It.”  Replace “The Bible” with “Grover Norquist” and you’ve got a bumper sticker that would sell like hotcakes.

Life among fundamentalists will always been challenging, no matter where you find them.