Another war in the Middle East

by George Clifford

President Obama, in a speech to the nation on the eve of the thirteenth anniversary of 9/11, declared that the United States is engaged in a war to degrade and then to destroy ISIL – the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. As an American Christian committed to working for peace, I objected to Obama's declaration for two reasons.

First, Obama wrongly characterized ISIL as a terrorist organization. Thankfully, he and other administration officials have since altered their language; they now describe ISIL as an insurgency instead of as a terrorist organization. Unfortunately, the image of ISIL as a terrorist group persists.

Accurate terminology is important. Terrorist organizations are non-state actors who commit violent acts against innocent civilians to advance the group's political agenda by manipulating a government. Insurgents seek to overthrow the existing government and to replace it with their own government or state. An insurgency may begin as a terror group, but, unlike a terror group, an insurgency establishes a government and controls territory. Accurately defining the problem is essential because effective counterterrorism requires implementing a different strategy and tactics than does a counterinsurgency.

ISIL has committed appalling atrocities on a significant scale. In the West, the highest profile examples of those atrocities are the beheadings of two American journalists and a British aid worker. However, those beheadings are only three of hundreds of beheadings that ISIL personnel have performed in addition to their other reprehensible actions that include the attempted genocide of a religious minority (the Yadizis), misogynist policies toward women, etc.

Visceral revulsion to ISIL's horrendous actions is an insufficient justification for waging war. Instead, Just War Theory's jus ad bellum framework provides Christians a paradigm for assessing when war, of which counterinsurgency is one type, is ethically justifiable. There are six jus ad bellum criteria; a just war must satisfy all six.

The first jus ad bellum criterion is that a war must have a just cause. Historically, just cause connoted a sovereign state defending its territory in response to an incursion by another state. More recently, many Christian ethicists have advocated expanding just cause to include defending innocents against an egregiously abusive state, e.g., in the case of genocide.

ISIL, unlike the terror organization al Qaeda from which it emerged, claims to have established a sovereign state (hence the group's name, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant). A caliph, presumably ISIL's leader, will govern the new state; ISIL sees this caliph as the successor to the Muslim caliphs who ruled much of the Middle East and North Africa prior to the European colonial era. ISIL has attempted genocide against people under its rule, establishing prima facie just cause for other nations to intervene.

The second jus ad bellum criterion is that those waging a just war should have right intent, i.e., intend to establish a more just, fuller peace. On this point, the case for waging war against ISIL is more problematic. President Obama in his speech to the nation emphasized the need to protect Americans and American interests in the Middle East. A significant part of the American presence in the Middle East is because of the oil there.

However, other reasons for the American presence and interest in the Middle East are less self-serving. ISIL's agenda includes reestablishing a caliphate and obeying their interpretation of Sharia (Islamic law) that mandates killing all Jews and Christians in Muslim lands and killing all apostate Muslims, i.e., Shiites and moderate Sunnis. The global community has an ethical and legal responsibility to protect the innocent.

The third jus ad bellum criterion is that right authority must declare the war. Right authority connotes a state's political authority, e.g., in the US, the Constitution specifies that Congress alone has the authority to declare war. With the world becoming flat (to use Thomas Friedman's memorable metaphor), Christian ethicists have begun discussing the merit of redefining right authority in international terms.

President Obama claimed that Congressional authorization to hunt down those responsible for the 9/11 attacks and to prevent future terror attacks gave him authority to take military action against ISIL. If ISIL is not a terrorist organization, Obama's reliance on the post-9/11 Congressional action becomes more tenuous. Alternatively, some Constitutional scholars believe that a President has the authority and responsibility, without waiting for Congress to declare war, to defend the nation against possible attack. In either case, Obama requested Congress to fund, and thereby to endorse, his proposed military actions against ISIL. The Obama administration is concurrently striving to form a broad international coalition to participate actively in efforts to destroy ISIL.

The fourth jus ad bellum criterion is that a just war is proportional, i.e., a just war should cause less harm than would otherwise occur. Predicting the amount of harm that military action against ISIL will cause, particularly the harm to innocents euphemistically known as collateral damage, is difficult. However, given ISIL's brutal (though short) record and lengthy list of enemies, battling ISIL would have to result in highly improbable amounts of collateral damage to become credibly disproportional.

The fifth jus ad bellum criterion is that a just war is the last resort. ISIL shows no sign of being open to negotiation. ISIL is committed to the violent overthrow of Iraq and Syria; ISIL is similarly committed to the full implementation of its extremist version of Sharia.

Following its military successes and territorial grabs, ISIL now earns about $11 billion annually selling oil on the world market. Selling that oil requires the cooperation of other nations as intermediaries and buyers. One hopes that no developed nation would buy oil directly from ISIL. Likewise, purchasing arms with funds generated by oil sales requires third party assistance to first purchase and then to deliver the arms to ISIL. Stopping ISIL from selling oil and purchasing arms are two steps, short of waging war, which the US and other states, working cooperatively, can take toward significantly degrading ISIL's war fighting capacity and ability to sustain a viable government. These efforts, even if fully successful, will probably fall short of destroying ISIL.

The final jus ad bellum criterion is that a just war must have a reasonable chance of success. Waging war to end horrendous evil in the absence of a reasonable chance of success simply increases the total amount of harm, death, and suffering without moving the world closer to peace.

The US and its coalition partners do not have a reasonable chance of success against ISIL. This was the second and more basic reason that I objected to Obama's declaring the US would conduct military operations to degrade and then to destroy ISIL. The US invasions and extended occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan underscore the futility of outside forces, even with vast military superiority, attempting to force regime change on an unwilling people.

Only the people of Iraq, Syria, and the adjacent Muslim countries can defeat ISIL. These are the people ISIL threatens most directly and who have the most to lose from ISIL's continuing military successes.

Contrary to what media reports infer, ISIL has significant support among Sunnis in Syria and Iraq, as its military successes demonstrate. ISIL's repeated defeats of Iraq illustrate why success against ISIL is unlikely. Iraq has a large standing army and a small air force. The US has spent billions of dollars equipping Iraq's military and a decade training them. Theoretically, Iraq's military has strong motives for defeating ISIL at any cost. Iraq's fate as a nation hinges upon ISIL's defeat. More importantly, a disproportionately large percentage of Iraqi military personnel are Shiites whom ISIL considers apostate Muslims deserving of death. Yet ISIL, in spite of fighting without an air force, without billions of dollars' worth of modern equipment, and without the benefit of foreign military advisors and training often defeats Iraq in battle. Indeed, ISIL's forces consist primarily of fighters ISIL recruited locally in Iraq and Syria. ISIL's few hundred volunteers from Europe and North America are not decisive for ISIL's military successes. Similarly, ISIL initially scrounged most of its weapons and munitions locally in Iraq and Syria.

Arab nations (e.g., Saudi Arabia) agreeing to provide air power in the fight against ISIL represents a positive development. The US has sold billions of dollars' worth of warplanes to Saudi Arabia and trained Saudi pilots and maintenance personnel. If Saudi Arabia is ill prepared to fight ISIL, this exposes the hypocrisy of US arms sales. If Saudi Arabia is reluctant to play a prominent role in the fight against ISIL, this bodes ill for the odds of success and stability in the Middle East. Air power may retard the pace of insurgents' victory, but air power alone has never defeated any insurgency.

190px-Territorial_control_of_the_ISIS.svg.pngEnding the evil of ISIL represents an opportunity for Sunnis and Shiites, and Sunni and Shiite dominated governments, to cooperate in opposing a common threat. Also, the US should enlist Iran, the world's most populous and powerful Shiite state, in efforts against ISIL. This might constructively expand US-Iranian engagement, lead to progress in efforts to limit nuclear proliferation, allow Iran to exercise positive hegemony among Shiites, and, in time, diminish Iranian support for Shiite terror groups. Diplomatic overtures along these lines arguably incarnate what Jesus meant by loving one's enemies.

The sine qua non for defeating an insurgency is that the governments and peoples the insurgency threatens must have the will to win. Otherwise, the insurgency continues to expand, gaining military strength as it gains control of territory, people, and other resources. Obviously, the will to win has been lacking in Iraq. Arab nations who succumb to US pressure to join the fight against ISIL will generally lack the will to win. No war is just unless those fighting for justice have a reasonable chance of success.

As a Christian actively working for peace, I find myself repeatedly humbled in the face of situations, such as the insurgency waged by ISIL in the Middle East, for which I can see no viable, ethical solution that will speedily end or prevent great suffering. So, what is a Christian to do?

First, pray fervently and daily for peace.

Second, openly endorse and aid faithful Muslims who denounce ISIL as an aberrant and evil expression of our shared Abrahamic tradition.

Third, oppose government actions that may appear well intentioned and expedient but are unjust when measured against Christian ethical traditions (both pacifism and Just War). US Christians can lobby their members of Congress to oppose waging war against ISIL because the war is unjust. Concurrently, US Christians can advocate humanitarian aid for refugees fleeing ISIL and policies to encourage nations directly threatened by ISIL to act to end the insurgency.

Fourth, trust God. Julian of Norwich usefully reminds us that All shall be well, all manner of things shall be well.


George Clifford is an ethicist and Priest Associate at the Church of the Nativity, Raleigh, NC. He retired from the Navy after serving as a chaplain for twenty-four years and blogs at Ethical Musings.

"Territorial control of the ISIS" by NordNordWest, Spesh531 - BBC's recently updated map of ISIS controlled areas (This is the most recent source)BBC's map of Syria.Noria Research's map of Syria.Map and information on claimed areas.Some info in Aleppo and Ar-Raqqah Governorate (Jan 19, 2014)Derived from:File:Saudi Arabia location map.svgFile:Jordan location map.svgFile:Syria location map.svgFile:Iraq location map.svg. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Spiritual Fitness

by Derek Olsen

Most of the things that we do in life—especially our modern lives—take up our time. However, I am firmly convinced that there are two things that actually give us time back: prayer and exercise. I find that when I’m doing these regularly, I can think more clearly, am more focused, and am better able to stay on task. (Not coincidentally, I also find I’m a better dad and husband then, too…) Of course, trying to fit these things in around an overcommitted schedule—day job, side jobs, church work, and chauffeur duty for the girls’ activities—is never easy.

Our schedule has just made its great Autumn Shift as the girls are back in school and ballet is back in full swing. As usual, I’m trying a new exercise routine to pack it all in. Early mornings consist of a 50-minute block for tai chi, speed rope jumping, and stretching. Then, my lunch hour alternates between a strength workout or running. It’s been moderately successful so far… (Translation: I haven’t gotten a single strength workout in within the past week and only ran two days!)

One of the issues that fights against the success of this program is keeping different physical activities in play. Some folks say that it doesn’t matter what you do as long as you get yourself moving. That’s entirely true, if you’re getting yourself active, but at this point in my life that doesn’t work best for me. I just hit the big 4-0 this summer. I find myself creaking and joints crackling more in the morning when I go up and down the stairs in the morning chase to get hair and teeth bushed, lunches and schoolbags packed. I know I need to work on my mobility and flexibility; the stretching and tai chi help with that. The jump rope and running help with the two kinds of cardio, anaerobic and aerobic. The strength training helps me to keep what muscle I’ve got. (Yes, I’m finally mature enough to accept that I’ll never be buff, and I’m better off trying to preserve what’s actually there!) Because they are all targeted on different body systems they’re not interchangeable. Tai chi doesn’t do what running does; jumping rope can’t replace strength training.

And this same principle is just as important in my spiritual life too.

I read with great interest the article posted the other day on The Lead about diminishing silence in modern life. The writer is spot-on that our schedules and gadgets make it too easy to drown out the silence that used to appear in spaces in our lives and that we need to intentionally cultivate it as a discipline.

Now—my fear is that some enterprising clergy person reading that article will decide that the best way to do it is to put more intentional “quiet time” into the Sunday Eucharist. And that won’t cut it.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with some silence in the Eucharist, but there is a pernicious notion that if Episcopalians are going to do something “spiritual” then it has to occur between 10 and 11:15 on a Sunday morning. This defies both logic and the prayer book.

The Eucharist has its own rhythms and purpose: we join together publicly as the Body of Christ to participate in his own self-offering to God the Father through the Holy Spirit. We are privileged to get plugged into the internal dynamics of the Trinity.
But we also have the Daily Office. Here we lift our voices in prayer and praise at the hinges of the day, and make our own sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving to recall who God is and what God has done for us in our own person and through our ancestors in the faith.

And we are called to read and search the Holy Scriptures. Yes—we hear these in the Eucharist; yes, we read them in the Daily Office. But those times are not and cannot be a substitute for our own engagement with the Scriptures where we, with the aid and guidance of the Spirit, play hide and seek with the Word amongst the words.

And too we must engage in holy silence. We must shut our own mouths, still our own thoughts, and open our own hearts to the Holy Other whom we meet in the quiet.

Our spiritual lives need to incorporate a variety of exercises; one is not enough. The Sunday morning Eucharist is not a catch-all where we try to cram all of our spirituality for the week into a single hour and a quarter (or half…). You can’t substitute one for the other and expect to have a balanced spiritual life. That’s specifically why the Book of Common Prayer has continued to insist, communicating to us the wisdom of centuries, that our wholeness is found by opening ourselves to God along many channels, not just one.

It takes a routine to accomplish it; it takes discipline. As I struggle to keep my own routine, the Eucharist is pretty easy to manage—it shows up once or twice a week and in public. There’s a certain community accountability built in. But meditation, Scripture, and the Office: they’re important too. I find that I’m—literally—not all there when they’re not a regular part of my life. Like my running and my lifting, I can’t pretend I get to them every day. Sometimes a week will go by without me cracking my devotional Bible. Sometimes an apologetic prayer on the way out the door will have to take the place of the Office. But I know that the pieces have to be in play.

As the run up to General Convention starts and as voices start getting louder presenting various plans and platforms for fixing the Church, I think this is going to have to be mine… The Church can’t be the Church only on Sundays. The Eucharist is glorious—but not sufficient. It’s an important piece of a balanced spiritual diet—it can’t be the only dish on the table. Reading the Scriptures, praying the Office, embracing holy silence, these aren’t things we can delegate away or farm out to contractors. We—us—the great mass of laity, this is what we’ve got to be about. I know it’s not easy—believe me! But there’s no way we’ll get anywhere towards accomplishing it if we don’t make these activities priorities—in our personal lives and in our common life. Our clergy and bishops should be helping us with this, helping us towards this. A full and balanced spiritual life for the laity bolstered by the clergy is not a distraction from the Church’s work but the foundation of it. Justice, mercy, loving-kindness are most fully enacted when we are in constant contact with their source, the true Fountain of Virtues. Only then can we fully be who we are called to be—the Body of Christ united in our on-going pilgrimage to inhabit the Mind of Christ.


Dr. Derek Olsen is a layperson in the Diocese of Maryland where his wife is a priest and his daughters are an acolyte and boat-bearer respectively. He serves as Secretary of the Standing Commission on Liturgy & Music and is the Liturgical Editor of the newly revised edition of the Saint Augustine's Prayer Book. An IT specialist by day, Derek created and maintains the online Daily Office site The St. Bede's Breviary. His reflections on life, Anglo-Catholic identity, and liturgical spirituality appear at Haligweorc.

Reading Scripture Creatively

by Kathy Staudt

A good deal of my teaching this fall turns out to require some open reflection on the way that I read the Bible . I keep discovering that my habitual way of reading Scripture is not obvious to everyone, though it comes naturally to me as a reader of literature and poetry ( It is probably no accident that some other thinkers about the contemporary church and the Bible – including Verna Dozier and Brian McLaren and probably others, started life as English teachers – and that is also my background, training, just my way of reading Marcus Borg gets us to this approach when he writes about taking the Bible “seriously but not literally.”

220px-Bible.malmesbury.arp.jpgTaking Scripture seriously, not literally, means that I am always coming to a Biblical text, in daily meditations or in small group, with the assumption that there is something that I can learn about God by engaging with this text, simply because, as Scripture, it contains the record of someone’s experience of God, or of what it means to think of ourselves as in some sense “God’s people.” So I’m always trying to read the text in some ways “faithfully,” even when I don’t completely accept or believe – indeed even when I might be appalled by -- the ‘plain sense’ of what I’m reading. This assumption that the text has something to teach us is the difference between approaching a Biblical text simply as a “message” to accept or reject and approaching it as “Scripture,” a text that has been given to us, as the prayer book says, “for our learning.” So – here are some questions I’ll bring to a text of Scripture that I’m reading for a class or for my personal meditation. ( I’ve just written these questions down off the top of my head, as I begin to prepare some of my fall teaching around creative, engaged, thoughtful reading of Scripture. I wonder what readers of the café might add to the list that would help “common readers” of the Bible without requiring too much additional reading beyond the text).

1. What kind of text is this? Is it poetry, or history, or folk story, or is it a parable or lesson to be learned? The Bible contains a lot of different kinds of texts and reading it faithfully requires having a sense of where we are. It makes a big difference, for example, whether we read the opening of Genesis as a poetic text (which it is closest to being) or as a scientific treatise (which it can’t be because they didn’t write them back then).

2. What do I know about the context that gave rise to this text, what it might have said to the people who first heard or wrote it down. What comes right before it in the text? What questions was it answering for people then? How do those questions compare to my own questions? Are they the same?

3. What do I know about this text in relation to other parts of the Bible? Sometimes this can give us some good insights: talking about a passage in a group can be a great source of wisdom around this question

4. What do I know about how this text has traditionally been read? What questions did that tradition bring to the text? Are there insights to be gained by looking at different translations of the same text (often these are clues to interpretive decisions). What questions does this raise for me? All of which leads to. . .

5. What question am I bringing to this text? Where is it speaking to me or challenging me? Identifying these questions can become a good signal to pause for prayer and “listen” to what the text might be saying – what words or phrases jump out or speak to me? What is the process of reading this text telling me about my own search for deeper understanding of the mystery of life with God?

6. After a time of meditation, alone or in a group, I might ask: what am I learning from this passage of Scripture today? About myself? About God? About being part of “God’s people”?


What this kind of approach avoids is simply reading into the text whatever we bring to it, or getting hung up on what we don’t like about a particular text of Scripture and so dismissing it . – It allows us to step back and let the text “speak” first and acknowledge that any act of reading is an entry into a kind of relationship. I like it that the Rabbinic tradition of interpretation or midrash has known this for a long time: that the act of reading Scripture, and especially wrestling with the parts that we don’t understand or like, and trying to make new sense of them, is always a religious activity – a process of drawing nearer to the Mystery regardless of whether we can get an interpretation fully “right” . It is a gift to read the Bible as Scripture in this sense -- as inviting a process of learning, as something organic and “still speaking” --rather than as something fixed and rigid. The approach that these questions sketch out helps us to experience Scripture as “word of God” – as a way we’ve been given to respond to the generosity of a God who for some mysterious reason keeps on trying to get through to us.


Dr. Kathleen Henderson Staudt keeps the blog poetproph. She works as a teacher, poet, spiritual director and retreat leader in the Washington DC area and is the author of two books of poetry: "Annunciations, Poems out of Scripture" and "Waving Back:Poems of mothering life", as well as a scholarly study of the modern artist and poet David Jones.

"Bible.malmesbury.arp" by Anonymous (photo by Adrian Pingstone) - Own work. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The Bible and ecology

by George Clifford

Reflecting on forty years of preaching, I realized that the content of my sermons has changed in several ways. One of the most important changes is that I talk less about experiencing the divine presence in and through nature and more about human responsibility for the natural world. Four theses influenced my homiletical shift.

First, God created the world and thought it good. This thesis is basic Christian theology. Yet, too often Christians (like me) have only paid it lip service. Scripture, tradition, and reason agree that any creation of a good God would possess an inherent goodness and value. Consequently, all nature—whether alive or not—is both good and valuable.

This thesis complements my prior homiletic emphasis on natural revelation. Emphasizing natural revelation does not preclude highlighting nature's goodness and value, but my earlier thinking, preaching, and teaching seldom explicitly addressed those ideas. Instead, I tended to speak of the earth and cosmos as a means of revelation (that is, an instrumental good) ignoring that they also possessed an inherent goodness in their own right.

Second and a corollary of my first thesis, when God delegated dominion over nature to humans, God appointed humans as God's stewards. God thereby entrusted us to act on God's behalf in caring for and preserving nature. I consciously reject the notion that this delegation of authority justifies the unlimited exploitation, perhaps even destruction, of nature. Polluting rivers so badly that they burn (an obviously unnatural condition that happened with the Cuyahoga River more than a dozen times since 1868), air to become so foul that it causes severe respiratory problems for creatures (including humans) whose very life depends upon breathing, and extirpating species at an unprecedented rate is both sinful and indisputably bad stewardship. Even as a youth, while cherishing Maine's scenic beauty that surrounded my home I keenly felt the irony of living less than half a mile from one of the nation's ten most polluted rivers.

The prevalent first century Palestinian concept of stewardship, the concept of stewardship that Jesus presumably had in mind when he talked about stewards and stewardship, presumed that a steward had a right to draw a living from the assets that the owner had entrusted to the steward's care. In other words, good stewardship is prima facie compatible with the general principle of using nature to sustain and to enrich human life. However, this prerogative does not mean that humans have an unfettered, unlimited, unilateral claim to the earth and all that dwell thereon. A good steward cares for and preserves the assets the owner has entrusted to the steward.

The greater the analytical granularity, the less certain are our moral judgments about what good stewardship requires, permits, and prohibits. For example, Christians divide over whether good stewardship of God's valued creation enjoins, allows, or bans humans from eating animal flesh. Instead of wasting time and energy attempting to transform religious resources into pseudo-scientific sources, or to seek uniformity in the midst of ambiguity and uncertainty, Christian communities can more profitably anticipate, encourage, and benefit from discussions of diverse opinions about the specifics of stewardship.

Third, the biblical concept of stewardship presumes a covenantal relationship between God and humans. In that covenant, God both delegates responsibility for stewardship of the earth to humans and commits to joining with humans in caring for and preserving nature. I am hopefully optimistic about the earth's future primarily because of God's involvement and secondarily because I think that humans will eventually fulfill their stewardship responsibilities with the requisite wisdom, commitment, and perseverance. Incidentally, covenant engagement with God as earth's stewards constitutes an initial step toward reclaiming an essential ethical principle that the Church too often has marginalized by equating stewardship with giving God gifts of treasure (and sometimes time and talent) in the annual pledge campaign.

Richard Niebuhr's succinct summary of the purpose of the Church and its ministry (to promote the love of God and neighbor) has shaped my ministry. Connecting the purpose of the Church and its ministry to the principle of stewardship begins to identify loving God and neighbor with practical steps. Good stewards of the resources entrusted to their care (time, talent, treasure, and the earth itself) seek to promote the love of God and neighbor in the most efficient and effective ways possible. Efficient denotes using the fewest resources to achieve a specific goal; effective denotes achieving the goals likely to produce the greatest gains. The criteria of efficiency and effectiveness are one of way using human reason, in light of scripture and tradition, to discern God's calling. These criteria advantageously offer more practical, and potentially more reliable, heuristics for discerning God's will than do alternatives such as taking the first opportunity that presents itself, doing what feels right or appears appealing, etc. Efforts count, but so do results.

Finally, I consciously situate this stewardship ethic within the context of ecological science, because science is the only reliable lens for understanding earth's condition and the dynamics that affect it. Unlike religion, science proceeds by articulating a theory, testing the theory's reliability and validity, and then revising the theory as appropriate. For example, science alone provides the best prognostication about the amount of water that humans can annually draw from an aquifer without depleting it. Astrology, crystal balls, and prayer are no help in answering such questions. The Bible, ethics, and theology are completely silent on these topics. Instead, religious and spiritual resources, unlike science, point to the mysterious author of existence (the Creator God), offer value judgments (nature is good), and call/motivate people to be good stewards of this earth, "our fragile island home."

Indeed, ecology's capacity to illuminate potentially efficient and effective ways in which human stewards can best fulfill their covenantal responsibility to care for and preserve the earth is a vital dialectical intersection between science and religion. More broadly, the rapidly accumulating scientific evidence about the earth's deteriorating condition and diminishing capacity to support life underscores the urgency of this dialogue. Additionally, Christian scientists and activists concerned about earth's well-being have repeatedly told me that our political leaders not only welcome, but particularly listen, when people of faith speak out about ways in which we can better care for and preserve the earth.

Thus, I now intentionally and consistently strive to weave these four themes into my ministry:
(1) God created and values all nature;
(2) God appointed us stewards of the earth and all that dwell thereon;
(3) God assists us in fulfilling that stewardship;
(4) Ecological science identifies ways in which we can be good stewards by most efficiently and effectively caring for and preserving the earth.
These themes have opened the windows of familiar scripture texts in fresh ways, allowing God's light to shine with unexpected intensity and clarity.


George Clifford is an ethicist and Priest Associate at the Church of the Nativity, Raleigh, NC. He retired from the Navy after serving as a chaplain for twenty-four years, has written Charting a Theological Confluence: Theology and Interfaith Relations and Forging Swords into Plows: A Twenty-First Century Christian Perspective on War, and blogs at Ethical Musings.

Psalms for difficult days

by Maria Evans

Hold not your tongue, O God of my praise; *
for the mouth of the wicked,
the mouth of the deceitful, is opened against me.

They speak to me with a lying tongue; *
they encompass me with hateful words
and fight against me without a cause.

Despite my love, they accuse me; *
but as for me, I pray for them.

They repay evil for good, *
and hatred for my love.
​--Psalm 109:1-4 (Book of Common Prayer)

​​Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so move every human heart [and especially the hearts of the people of this land], that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

--Prayer for Social Justice, p. 823 Book of Common Prayer

Link to US Census demographic data: http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/29/2923986.html


The small crowd that regularly attends Morning Prayer at my home parish on Wednesdays is an interesting bunch. Of most interest is the fact that the after-service chit-chat frequently lasts longer than it does to say the Office. That was certainly the case on a recent Wednesday in the Lectionary when Psalm 109 pops up. It's a Psalm that's really hard to hear and even harder to say. "Let his children be waifs and beggars?" Really? "Let the creditors seize everything he has?" Whoa!

That week, most of the after-service chit-chat was about Psalm 109, and the internal discomfort it causes from physically uttering its words. After a bit of discussion and a pause, I looked at the others and said, "You know...I've been THAT angry. There have been times I needed this psalm so I could say what I couldn't say to someone's face." Our vicar also added that this was a psalm about injustice, and the anger that comes from injustice. This discomfort we feel, has a purpose, she added.

As I watch the situation in Ferguson, MO unfold, part of that purpose is being revealed. People are THAT angry--and I believe this anger is justified. A quick check of US Census data shows that the city of Ferguson is 67.4% African-American--clearly the majority population. It's almost mind-boggling to realize that feelings and values and perceptions held by a MAJORITY of the citizens in a community have been able to remain beneath the surface as long as they have, even if they are just below the topsoil of the community. It reveals just how powerful unseen privilege is.

Part of our Anglican tradition is that when we devote ourselves to the Daily Office, we rotate through the entire Psalter several times a year--and we don't skip the icky Psalms, either. We say aloud the despair of Psalm 88, and declare the joy of Psalm 103. We cringe at the angry curses of Psalm 109, and we shout with joy all the blessings in Psalm 24. We get a break with the brevity of Psalm 117 (why, it's so short we can easily knock out three psalms that day!) and we return again and again to Psalm 119 over several days, wondering if we'll ever get through all of it (and we always do, somehow.) We sense our own panic in Psalm 69, and gain strength in Psalm 46.

We say all of them, and we listen to others say them alongside us, when we choose to recite them in community. It's how we begin to hear things differently when we choose to live into this tradition. It calls us, I believe, in the Episcopal Church, to seek out the places where the words are uncomfortable, hear those uncomfortable words being spoken aloud, and pray alongside of them. Not over them--the angry words, the fearful words--all the words and the emotions that accompany them--have value, and they must be spoken, just as we somehow stumble through saying and hearing those ickier Psalms. I'm heartened to hear several voices in the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri who are encouraging all in Ferguson to remain in conversation with one another.

What Psalms do you hear emerging from the difficult and tense places in our nation and in our world?


Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, is a grateful member of Trinity Episcopal Church and a postulant to the priesthood in the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri. She occasionally finds time to write about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid.

"Calvary" ...a case of misplaced atonement

By Bonnie Anderson and Dan Webster

The striking austerity and dramatic contrasts of the Irish coast landscape is the setting for this remarkable film. Like the dangerous beauty of Sligo County, Ireland, this film is a masterful study in the juxtaposition of gentleness and violence, humor and seriousness, life and death, sin and forgiveness.

Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson) is the seemingly gentle priest of a Roman Catholic parish in this rural Irish village by the sea. In the confessional, during the opening scene, an unidentified parishioner tells Father James of his repeated and merciless childhood abuse by a now deceased priest. Father James is then told that he has one week to get his affairs in order before the parishioner will kill him. Father James is to be the sacrificial atonement for the sins of an abusive priest and the neglect of the church to successfully address child abuse on a large scale. We do not know the identity of the threatening parishioner, but it doesn’t really matter. This film is not a “who-dun-it” (or is going to do it) but rather a well-crafted glimpse into the depth of the human heart where both love and hate reside.

calvary.jpeg“Calvary,” beautifully directed by John Michael McDonagh, may be one of the ways Ireland is trying to heal from such a catastrophic breach of trust. The church is more part of the social fabric of Ireland than nearly any other country. The church runs the schools, hospitals, and other social welfare agencies that in other countries are operated by local or state governments.

The struggles of faith in “Calvary” are bluntly visible in the lives of the sometimes comical, but tragically vulnerable people of the village. Yet the priest stays aloof, and demonstrates none of his own vulnerability as he attempts to address questions of faith posed to him by the people. We watch as he experiences this same distancing by a church superior to whom he has gone for advice regarding the threat to his life. As Father James explains the threat, the bishop noisily licks his fingers and gives more attention to the delectable edible in front of him than he gives to Father James, who, by the way, doesn’t seem to notice. No wonder Father James is aloof with his own parishioners, he has a good mentor.

After the threat to his life and his visit to the superior, Father James maintains his “business-as-usual” routine, visiting parishioners and gently confronting them with their sinful behaviors, all the while maintaining a profoundly subtle detachment from them that appears as impenetrable as the seaside rocky cliffs they all inhabit. He mourns the loss of his dog in solitude, we see him pray only in solitude, his decisions are made in solitude. No surprise that the parishioners are non-pulsed as they watch the church burn. It appears there is no tended community of the faithful and it is this aloofness that permeates the relationships between the priest and the people and ultimately between the priest and God.

Calvary, also known as Golgotha or the Place of the Skull, is believed to be the site of the crucifixion of Christ and it is in this contemporary Calvary that Brendan Gleeson (Fr. James) and a fine supporting cast, show us the changing social circumstances of practicing religion in the context of a society that appears to have little use for it.

For Fr. James it’s his own passion week complete with blessing bread and wine, harsh words, flawed characters, and his own agony in the garden (well, actually it’s in a pub). There are acts of violence against the church and its priest. But it’s clear that gospel values of goodness, mercy and non-violence are respected as is the gospel story of an innocent victim atoning for the sins of others.

Even with all that, forgiveness appears to transcend the contemporary social context and remain as a common denominator in the language of faith.

“Calvary” should be seen by most anyone who has served in parish leadership, or been the recipient of or given pastoral care. Victims of clergy sexual abuse, however, may wish to consult their therapist before seeing this.

Bonnie Anderson is senior warden at All Saints-Pontiac, Michigan and immediate past president of The Episcopal Church General Convention’s House of Deputies. Dan Webster is a priest in the Diocese of Maryland and former broadcast news executive.

Traditional versus ... Growth?

by Rie Linton

The website Patheos.org posted an article on August 17, 2013 written by David Murrow entitled “Why Traditional Churches Should Stick With Traditional Worship”. The article was very well-written and talked about a church that attempts to be inclusive to all varieties of those worshipping. Once a month it has a more contemporary service and the music is “Praise” anthems accompanied by a guitar.

The writer mentioned that most in the congregation do not know these hymns and few sing along, even with the aid of a giant screen that lowers with the words on it. The writer also said the guitarist did not keep a steady rhythm. Interestingly, one of his compliments about this church [which is not his home parish but is a parish in the town where he and his wife live] was that “the people are friendly, but not overly so”.

Mr. Murrow distinguishes between the praise anthems and hymns so perhaps I should first point out that any song sung during the church service can qualify as a hymn. The national church has directives and each diocesan bishop employs these as he or she sees fit but basically, if a song has been approved to be a part of the Eucharist, it qualifies as a hymn. Apparently the writer is one of the few who attends a church where the entire congregation sings. I can assure him that this is not the norm. Also, rhythms change so the accompanist follows the music and contemporary music has syncopation.

Perhaps I should state at this juncture that Gregorian chants are one of my most favorite forms of music. I also do a mean calligraphy copy of some of the earliest printed music so I am not one to want every Eucharist to be a U2charist. That said, I did arrange and direct one of the first folk masses performed in Province IV way back in the early part of the 1970’s. As a youth minister, the youth group wanted to do something for the parish and they wanted to do a folk mass. Most were neither musicians nor singers but their sincerity and faith made the service a beautiful experience for all.

The writer of this piece compares a church to a radio station and encourages the church to stay within its “genre”, to “do what you do best”. He concludes by stating: “What has this got to do with men? Guys appreciate a quality worship service — but they are not very forgiving of anything hokey or half-baked.”

Liturgical composer and acclaimed folk mass historian Ken Canedo traces the roots of the folk mass back to Gregorian chant, although it received the blessing of the Roman Catholic Church with Vatican II. It began in the Roman Catholic Church and slowly grew in popularity and acceptance. Gospel songs became upbeat and rearranged as churches opened their doors to all of God’s children, not a select few of a particular color or social status or neighborhood.


The writer asked “What has this got to do with men?” Fortunately for mankind, the worship service is not about perfection nor is it only for men. The focus isn’t even humankind. The Eucharist is about God and connecting with Him, recognizing the history and elements of our faith and denominational doctrine. It is a time of meditation, confession, supplication, appreciation, and connection.

Hebrews 12: 1-2 compares a spiritual life to running a race. One gets nowhere in a race by standing still or doing the same thing over and over again. Amos and Malachi also address the issue of stagnant churches and stagnant believers. We are all very lucky that God is open to change and forgiving, since many of our daily attempts at living can end up “hokey or half-baked”.

Where would we be today if medicine had decided not to try new things, new procedures, and new cures? How comfortable would we be in our churches if we had none of the advantages of the Industrial Revolution? How many people would come to coffee hour if you had to brew it over an open fire because there was no electricity? I have worshipped in historic churches dating back to the 1730’s. They are lovely with their box pews, etc. They are also chilly, drafty, and the candles needed for light are a great fire hazard.

When we resist learning new things, we limit ourselves. When we limit ourselves, we limit God. No one is born knowing the Nicene Creed or Lord's Prayer. We had to learn it to love it. When we learn to appreciate the language and music of all God's children, then we will love our neighbors as ourselves. Religion may be traditional but we are called to be contemporary in living our faith. It’s called growth.


Rie Linton is a professional musician and conductor, writer, graphic artist, community family values educator and child advocate, a lifelong Episcopalian who has served as Girls Friendly leader, EYC advisor, church school director/teacher, ECW officer, church musician, EfM journeyer, and member of the Order of Daughters of the King. She hosts the blog n2myhead, is currently developing a curriculum on Diversity and lives in Huntsville, AL.

The Lord Provides

by Will Hocker

Reflection on Genesis 22.1-14 for Transgender, Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Pride Day

On Transgender, Bisexual, Lesbian and Gay Pride Day — or as some of we older, crotchety minsters of the Good News like to call it — Queer Liberation Day, I can only think to tell you what a queer little boy I was. My parents traveled a lot with their work. When I was free from school on holidays and during those gloriously endless summers-

Remember those?!

They really don’t make those any more, do they?

Anyway. When I was not in school I’d travel the Midwest and the Northeast with my parents. My favorite thing to do as got to be 11 or 12 years old was to find a cathedral or large church that was open through the week.

They don’t make those anymore, either.

So. I’d find a church.

My dad took me several times to the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Cleveland, Ohio. You know, I’d get there for the 12:10 mass. Then, I’d sit and say the rosary. The side altars beckoned. I never missed the Lady Chapel. Beautiful. Mary standing on an altar of white marble, looking - you know - both perfect and perfectly empty. Above it, the rose window with a dove at its center. That Holy Spirit. Always roosting. Eternally engaged. Always ready to engage anew.

I wanted to be Mary.

No. Not a girl. Not a woman. I wanted to be perfect. I wanted to stop sinning. I wanted my heart to be white as snow, as were both Mary’s heart and her marble. I wanted there to be room only for God in my heart.

I think my joy in the beauty of church art and architecture had something to do with its otherworldliness. It’s not here and now-ness.

Oh. No. A big ol’ Protestant Church just wouldn’t have cut it with me. No iconography.

No out loud, in your face beyond-ness.

Being of this world just seemed so, you know…dangerous. All those sins. Hundreds of them, right? At least to a 12 year old.

Not surprisingly within a year or two of this time, I was quite aware of my gayness. Painfully aware, mostly. Yet I had imagination. I hoped for romance. For a boyfriend.

There was a great Time or Newsweek magazine cover photograph in the early 1970’s of two clasped male hands. It took my breath away. This new idea that gay might be good. That I might be God’s perfect intention, God’s perfect joy, despite how utterly despicable I felt. I would have given away everything to be not who I was.

Except…..There was this boy…..Terry Kavanagh.
___

I don’t know about you. But, I usually can’t get beyond being appalled that Abraham risks his son’s life for God. Abraham, for all we can tell, soon will take his son’s life in order to demonstrate to God his love for God. Abraham is willing to give it all up for God.

We hear first that Abraham “…chopped wood for the burnt offering and started on his journey to the place which God had indicated to him.” Then, we hear that, “On the 3rd day, Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance.”

So the first seeing is in Abraham’s mind’s eye. In God’s mind’s eye. The next we hear, Abraham finally sees this place way off in the distance. When Abraham finally arrives, he’s already made it. Even though he doesn’t know that yet. Abraham was not led astray by God. Even in such a queer arrangement: to kill his own son.

I am quite pleased to discover, if only deeply so in my older age, that God does not lead us astray. If only we stop working to behave well. If only we begin listening to the Holy Spirit, who swoops down from the rose window to reside in our very own heart.

The Rev. Will Hocker is pediatric staff chaplain at UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital San Francisco, comforter and provocateur, leaning into the interruption of the Gospel.

Overcoming xenophobia ... a Biblical and movie theme

By Bonnie Anderson and Dan Webster

Food fights can get pretty messy, but this film, produced by Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey is one Dreamworks product where the mess is downplayed and overcome by personal dignity, unspoken forgiveness and a “can’t we all just get along” appearance where food is the common denominator.

Steven Spielberg (“Schindler’s List”) and Oprah Winfrey (“Their Eyes were Watching God”) recently produced this film that, in a small, but significant way, belies what many filmgoers think of as their professional commitment to truth-telling and advocacy for justice.

“The Hundred-Foot Journey” for all appearances is a light hearted film that amicably deals with dueling culture foodies.

Set in an idyllic village in southern France, the Kadam family, displaced from India with a son, Hassan (Manish Dayal) who is cast as an ingénue chef, settle across the road from a well established, Michelin-starred French restaurant run by officious Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren). The “immigrants” from India, (although no tasteful French village would overtly label them as such) go about setting up an Indian cuisine restaurant within 100 feet of the established French restaurant.

The film is about the courage and faith it takes for these political immigrants to seek asylum and start over in a new country and the courage for people to welcome “the stranger” into the stayed and comfortable lives of their communities. It is about the ridicule and violence that can be wrought by “respectable people”. And it is about speaking up (or not) about the sins of omission when people of faith witness injustice and racism. To say the least, Madame Mallory could have raised a big stink in the community about the ugly writing on the front wall of the Kadam’s restaurant.

Lasse Hallstrom (“Chocolat”) directs a luscious production with a superb soundtrack, though some of the colorful sets were a bit Disney-esque. And he seems to gloss over the racial antagonism that the Kadam family faces as they start a new life in a new country.

Yet some will see this movie taking its place with “Chocolat” (2000), “What’s Cooking?” (2000), or “The Mistress of Spices” (2005), in using food as a way of tackling xenophobia. Others will see this as a predictable “feel good movie” neglecting the flat out racism and subtle classism. They will need to settle for the romance, the success of Hassan, the turn around of Mdm. Mallory, the lovely food, the beautiful photography and the picturesque setting.

But we can’t help but wonder, given Winfrey’s and Spielberg’s history of strong stands for justice and righteousness, if they have settled for subtlety in action.

Bonnie Anderson is senior warden at All Saints, Pontiac, Michigan, and immediate past president of The Episcopal Church General Convention’s House of Deputies. Dan Webster is a priest in the Diocese of Maryland and a former broadcast news executive.

Why I Believe in God and Not in Santa Claus

by Kathleen Staudt

A piece by T.M. Luhrmann in a recent issue of the Sunday NY Times pointed out that we often clarify our faith commitments by identifying the things that we really don’t believe. That is why arguments between “heresies” and “orthodoxies” can be clarifying (so long, I would say, as they don’t involve politics and violence as they so often have in history). I’ve been doing a lot of reflection lately about what it means to be what I consider to be a reasonable person who is also a person of committed Christian faith – something a lot of people around me seem to find anomalous. Maybe it will help to try to explain a little about what I don’t believe. Perhaps the best place to start is to say that I believe in God, and I pray regularly and joyfully, but I don’t believe in Santa Claus. Nor do I believe in a God who is anything like Santa Claus. Here are some things, following from that, that I don’t believe:

1. I don’t believe that God is always “making a list and checking it twice,” judging us for every mistake and misstep and condemning us for things that our social group would also condemn us for (not being a good person, however that is defined.). I do believe in a God that in some mysterious way desires our thriving and calls us to be our best selves. That’s a different kind of relationship than the Big Brother God who is always watching to see if we have slipped up and expects us to be sorry all the time.

2. I don’t believe that God gives us what we want if only we’re good enough, pray the right way, find the right words. The whole question of why good and bad things happen is, to me, a mystery. I believe that God is in it but I don’t understand it. It is at best magical thinking – left over from childhood – to believe that I can somehow by my good behavior force the universe to do things the way I want them to be done. On the other hand, I do believe that the resources of Scripture and religious traditions and practice give us some clues about how to seek the will of God in some situations, and align ourselves with that – that is behind my own practice of intercessory prayer, a mysterious practice which in my experience does sometimes seem to bear fruit in a powerful way. But I don’t pretend to understand how.

3. I don’t believe that when bad things happen it is because I or someone else has been bad and deserves punishment. That seems to me like a very magical and limited idea – that I can control the universe by my behavior. On the other hand, the religious tradition I have embraced does include many stories of actions that have bad consequences. Usually the stories wind up being stories about the divine mercy – God ultimately returning and restoring the balance that human beings have upset. That story gives me hope.

4. I don’t believe that the Bible is in any sense the literal, dictated word of God, but I do believe that it is “Scripture’ in the sense of giving us a privileged record of human experiences of God that still has much to teach us today. I wish more people knew more about the context and background of the Biblical stories. In my experience, the more I know, the more the stories speak of the mystery of a God – the God of all the Abrahamic traditions – who keeps trying to get through to us, who has some kind of stake in human history and human moral life, and keeps on inviting human beings to grow into their fullest and best selves, despite mighty resistance and ugliness that often comes from the human side. They are stories, giving shape to something that is beyond story and history, but they are a way into the mystery, for me.

5. I don’t believe that people who don’t believe in Christianity – my version or anyone else’s – are going to hell. A lot of Scripture comes out of tribal contexts, and there is a lot of “us and them” language running through it, but if you look at the overarching Biblical story, it is about a God who desires to gather everyone in. At least that’s how I read it, and how many other wise people in the tradition have read it, in different generations. “Us v them,” “Who’s in and who’s out” doesn’t make sense to me.

6. Lately I think the fear of being heard as exclusive or literalistic has sometimes kept people within the Christian tradition from reading the Bible thoughtfully and from embracing the unique and exciting ideas that Christianity brings to the table in the conversation among world religions. I wish we could reflect more about the unique and positive things that Christian faith has to offer, rather than ceding ground to some of these other ways of thinking about God. I long for a deepening of Christian faith among people who have been drawn to it and raised in it, and for honest and thoughtful listening across faith traditions.

MerryOldSanta.jpgI often say to my seminary classes “If there’s anything to what we say we believe, none of us has got it right. “ If there is a God, especially if there is a God who entered history as a human being to show us the way to a greater wholeness, as Christianity claims, then the whole story is ‘way bigger than anything we can grasp or control or understand. But the invitation to live into the story is there. As are the resources of Scripture and tradition. I am grateful for this.


Dr. Kathleen Henderson Staudt keeps the blog poetproph. She works as a teacher, poet, spiritual director and retreat leader in the Washington DC area and is the author of two books of poetry: "Annunciations, Poems out of Scripture" and "Waving Back:Poems of mothering life", as well as a scholarly study of the modern artist and poet David Jones.


"MerryOldSanta" by Thomas Nast - Edited version of Image:1881 0101 tnast santa 200.jpg.. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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