Saturday, June 24, 2017

Scripture's mandate to provide universal, single-payer government funded health care

Let's start off with a simple premise. No Christian, especially a Christian holding public office, can in good faith and with moral integrity support a health care act that offers significant economic relief to the wealthy while at the same time stripping health coverage from the poorest.

The Bible has no patience with immense wealth disparity, and calls it out time and again as one of the greatest moral failures of a society.

So we can add: a Christian community that allows medical providers, health insurance CEOs, and even doctors themselves, to become wealthy off the need of the sick, is equally perverse.

By contrast, as just one example (and we will offer more later), Jesus is abundantly clear about the mandate to offer healing, and to do it at low cost--that is to say, for free. "Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those with skin diseases, drive out demons. You have received free of charge; give free of charge.” (Matthew 10:8-9) Notice, remarkably, that the one thing Jesus absolutely DOES NOT encourage in any of his healing or instructions to heal is the goal of wealth and income creation as a part of healing the sick.

The Bible does not, on average, dictate once and for all time the system whereby health care will be provided. You do not have in Scripture any form of neoliberal free market capitalism, or representative democracy for that matter. So not only did the biblical writers not have in their imagination the possibility that people could buy and sell health coverage in a (relatively) unregulated free market, they also did not have in their imaginations that the people themselves through a (relatively) representative democracy could establish laws protecting the "right" to health coverage for every citizen of a given nation.

The next illogical step taken by many modern Christians reading the Bible is to assume that since the Bible doesn't imagine these things, therefore it is not the Christian responsibility for a government (or a health insurance network, or a national church system, etc) to do such things. But this simply doesn't follow. The Bible no more argues for a hyper-individualistic model of health care supply than it does for a government-funded universal one.

And in point of fact, although Jesus himself went around healing the sick as an individual, he was himself a rather unusual individual, the community formed in his name assuming that somehow corporate it was and is his continuing bodily presence in the world precisely as community.

And the church, founded in his name, includes as part of its imagination a mandate in Scripture directly to a nation (or the equivalent of a nation in its day, namely Israel) to provide care for the poor and sick.

To be really clear, what this means is that all the instructions you read instituting laws, or giving commandments in the Old Testament are not given to individuals, or to the church, but to a nation as a whole, the closest equivalent we have to nations today. God's care for the poor and the sick was illustrated through the laws given to Israel--a nation--and God expects nations to care for their sick and poor.

So you get, for example, in Deuteronomy a mandate given not to individual Israelites to follow out of the goodness of their hearts, but a mandate to an entire people, given as law: "Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land” (15:11).

Many Christian commentators on universal health insurance seem also to overlook the plethora of biblical texts that argue against wealth disparity. Apparently God cares about the problem of some being too rich and others being too poor, and goes to great length via the prophets proclaiming such.

So Amos 5:11 notices that the rich use systems of taxation to consolidate their wealth and build immense homes:

Therefore because you trample on the poor
and take from them levies of grain,
you have built houses of hewn stone,
but you shall not live in them;
you have planted pleasant vineyards,
but you shall not drink their wine. 

We might be reminded at this point that one of the most frequent causes of bankruptcy in the United States are health care costs. So it is literally the case that federal plans for health coverage that give relief to the rich at the expense of the poor fulfills the warnings of Micah 2:2:

They covet fields, and seize them;
houses, and take them away;
they oppress householder and house,
people and their inheritance. 

And if that weren't enough to convince the average reader of Scripture, I can go on, with examples from other biblical prophets.

Hab. 2.9    “Alas for you who get evil gain for your houses,
setting your nest on high
to be safe from the reach of harm!” 
Zeph. 1.13 Their wealth shall be plundered,
and their houses laid waste.
Though they build houses,
they shall not inhabit them;
though they plant vineyards,

they shall not drink wine from them.
Hag. 1.4 Is it a time for you yourselves to live in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins? 

You get the point. I hope. The Bible is a big book, with lots of content, but if there is one long-standing social ethic that weaves its way through the entirety of Scripture from beginning to end, it is a concern for grave wealth disparity that leaves the poor oppressed and burdened while the wealthy give comfortably on the backs of the poor.

In fact, the vision of Scripture includes God's direct intervention and reversal of this trend. Mary sings about it in the Magnificat, the rich brought down and the lowly lifted up. Or as the Psalms have it, God raises up weak and lowly, and gives the people as a whole instruction to do the same.

Psa. 82.3 Give justice to the weak and the orphan;
maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. 

There's a lot to talk about in our nation as we seek to implement a health plan that offers real health and healing resources for all people. But if the Christian voice is going to be in the mix, it needs to operate out of some of these basic principles: the fundamental responsibility to heal and provide relief for the poor; the clear moral concern in Scripture about wealth disparity; a deep concern about health care being a source for getting rich; and the call for the community of faith to align itself with God, who raises up the widow and the orphan AND brings down those in high places.

The warning is clear. God's going to do it, and when God does, you want to be on the right side.

Luke 1: 52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly; 
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,

and sent the rich away empty. 

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Stand with Refugees June 12-16

Stand With Refugees Campaign, June 12-16 

Join the movement. 

In coalition with Refugee Council USA, LIRS is participating in a call-in week leading up to World Refugee Day. We encourage you to post this on your website, social media, and share with your networks including volunteers and supporters. We are trying to get over 100,000 people to call in support of refugees.

World Refugee Day is on June 20. So, in the lead up to this important date, from June 12th to 16th, let’s join together to call our lawmakers and send a powerful message: We welcome refugees.

Call 1-844-4STAND5 (1-844-477-3255) and we’ll connect you directly to your representative and senators.

1) Share the campaign info with your affiliate offices
            a. Ask your affiliates to print out the flyer and post it prominently in your office
            b. Highlight the campaign in local office online newsletters, email communications, and on your social media feeds 

2) Spread the word via email and social media NOW– work with your communications team to schedule social media posts ahead of time
            a. Ask people to text “STAND” to 313131 to get a reminder to call on June 12th 
            b. Remind people to call on June 12th-16th 
            c. Share about this campaign at any events, picnics, fundraisers, etc.

3) Ask local businesses/employers to partner in the campaign by sharing info with their employees and on social media. For any organization or business who wants to partner, they can email

• Ask people to text “STAND” to 313131 until June 12th
• Call 1-844-4-STAND5 from June 12th-16th
• Celebrate refugees on June 20th- World Refugee Day

(Note that on the evening of June 11, we will switch the landing page’s call-to-action to be a form that when filled out, will automatically patch the user through to their representatives.)

The communications/social media toolkit is downloadable via the Stand With Refugees Campaign website which includes posters, social media graphics, etc.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Pentecost for Everybody (The Holy Spirit Explained)

Early in my call to Arkansas, I walked the neighborhood around our church and met the neighbors. One morning I stepped into an organic paint store. The clerk was curious about Lutheranism. As a Pentecostal, she had visited a couple of Lutheran churches, but hadn't observed any of the dramatic manifestations of the Spirit typical in Pentecostal communities.

So she asked, "When the Spirit visits churches, does it look down and see that a church is Lutheran, and just pass over?"

Good question!

To be fair, not all Lutheran congregations are cut of the same cloth. There are "Luthercostal" and charismatic congregations. But they're the minority. Of the vast majority of ELCA congregations the old joke is true, The pastor told such a hilarious joke it was all the congregation could do not to laugh.

We associate Pentecost (and so Pentecostalism) with demonstrative forms of worship and audible speaking in tongues. Highly spiritual worship is emotional, passionate, and noisy. Lutheran worship tends to be more cerebral, liturgical, calm.


Let me offer an alternative construal of Pentecost (and just so also an alternative construal of Lutheranism). Pentecost is better understood as the continuing presence of Jesus Christ made manifest in the apostolic community. It is the Spirit of Christ who shows up at Pentecost. This Spirit is an extension of Christ, or perhaps one might say his new presence. But the Spirit, she is is also her own person, her own "thing," as it were (and yes, if the Spirit is Christ in community, then there may be some gender-bending going on).

The Spirit is both Christ and the community, and more than that, just like other kinds of spirit. Think, for example, of how you might say, "There's a good spirit at this church." Or, "We've got team spirit." Or "that group of toddlers sure is spirited!" The spirit of which we are speaking in such instances is both the community itself, grounded in the identity of the founder... and it is also more than that, its own hypostasis.

Pentecost and the Spirit are worth our consideration. But to get beyond some of our tired and flaccid notions of the Spirit, we need new perspective.

It might be worth hearing a recent account of how another religious tradition, Islam, thinks about the Holy Spirit. Amy Frykholm's interview with Zeti Zaropratik is an excellent start:

In your book you say that in Islam the “comforter” of John 14:16—who Christians understand to be the Holy Spirit—is interpreted to be Muhammad. Is there a place for the Holy Spirit in Islam? How is God’s continuous presence known? 
The Holy Spirit is mentioned several times in the Qur’an. The second chapter of the Qur’an, for example, says that God supported Jesus with the Holy Spirit. Muslim commentators are split on the meaning of Holy Spirit. Some have said that it refers to the angel Gabriel. A group of early Muslim scholars thought that when the Qur’an refers to the Holy Spirit, it means the gospel. In this reading, God supported Jesus with the power of the gospel. Thus the Qur’an and the gospel are “ruh Allah” or the spirit of God. 
Another group of early scholars understood it as the greatest divine name through which Jesus was able to bring the dead to life. Other interpretations have said it is “the pure spirit of God,” while still others have said that it is a feeling of the presence of God. The difference of opinion on the topic attests to its importance as one of the most powerful concepts in the Qur’an.
I'm actually not surprised that some Muslim commentators have interpreted the Holy Spirit as a reference to angels, because honestly much of what we ascribe to the power of the Spirit has also been in Christian theology ascribed to angelic powers. So to the presence of the Spirit, the breath of the Spirit in community, is in fact good news, that is, Gospel. The further definitions of the Spirit in Muslim theology (name of God, the feeling or presence of God, the pure Spirit of God) are quite definitely proximate to Christian understandings of the Spirit.

So a community is spiritual, and the Holy Spirit is present, inasmuch as it continues and exemplifies the presence of Christ. One aspect of the presence of the Spirit pentecostal churches in particular call us into is genuine emotional abandonment in the presence of the Father. My impression as a fascinated onlooker into that religious tradition is that pentecostalism (at least in some of its expressions) encourages "letting yourself go." 

Jesus clearly let himself go, frequently, in the presence of the Father, AND in the presence of the neighbor. Just off the top of my head, I can think of his whipping of the money-changers in the temple, taking off his robes to wash the disciples feet, weeping at the death of Lazarus, cries of despair from the cross, frequent laments about the hard-heartedness of his hearers, etc.

So Pentecost for everybody would at the very least include wild abandon... sometimes. The primary form of wild abandon, however, would be so freely letting ourselves go that Christ might be seen in and through us. 

I'm thinking here of Ephesians 1:11-14: "In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory.  In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory. "

Live for the praise of his glory.
Live for the praise of his glory.
Live for the praise of his glory.

That already sounds like Pentecost. 

Returning to Lutheranism, however, most of us raised in the liturgical traditions would remind those of the free churches there is a reason why memorization is called "learning by heart." When you memorize a prayer and repeat it, it has literally become a part of you. The repetition of such prayers is one kind of abandon.

Speaking in tongues is another. Both are equal in glory inasmuch as they are manifestations of living for the praise of his glory.

But it's in the living that we either do or don't get Pentecost for everybody. If the community doesn't look like Christ--that is, if it doesn't engage in spirited neighbor love birthed out of the freedom that comes from life in God--then it doesn't matter whether the community prays in tongues or in the traditional version of the Lord's Prayer.

Either or both as the spirit wills, but Pentecost for everybody looks like Jesus. Being spiritual means living the bodily life of Christ as a community. 

I asked some friends what they believed spirit to be, and they said: "Spirit is responsivity to the events of existence and context in relationship" (Kirsten Mebust), and spirit "means an enthusiastic embrace of task/event/play at hand." (Kyle Kellams). And one of my favorite theologians of the Spirit writes, "A community infused by the Spirit of God will display love, a free self-withdrawal and self-giving for the benefit of other creatures" (God the Spirit, Michael Welker).

I love the sense I get from all these quotes that spirit is exuberant giving in and openness to relatedness. That's Pentecost literally for everybody.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

An Open Letter to Fellowship NWA Leadership

When I first moved to NWA, the church I SAW first was Cross Church in Rogers, because it has the giant crosses, and you drive past them between the airport and Fayetteville. They're pretty striking.

But the church I HEARD about first was Fellowship NWA, because when I stopped at the mall to grab some pants at Eddie Bauer, the clerk there was a Fellowship member and VERY happy to talk about it's church and its ministry. Since then, I've repeatedly heard about the widespread impact of this congregation on our community, and its reach around the world.

I've often been impressed with many things about Fellowship, including their distributed form of leadership, their commitment to global mission, and their community groups.

Which is what makes their recent move against the transgender community so unfortunate and worrisome.

Christians, including members of Fellowship themselves, need to have the courage to call out what can be viewed as a politically expeditious message that serves to consolidate a base by denigrating a small and vulnerable population.

Why this population and why now? Feels like an easy (and therefore unfortunate) target.

A public message from such a prominent church in our community (and world) only serves to influence the public mentality of further prejudice against an already vulnerable population.

Here's my letter to the pastors and elders of Fellowship, to which I have not yet had a reply other than acknowledged receipt from one elder:

Dear Pastors and Elders,

I recently had the chance to read your doctrinal statement. To see what I'm discussing here in this letter, I recommend you read the whole statement again briefly:

I’m reminded of the song I learned growing up from Sesame Street: One of These Things (Is Not Like the Others). I’m sure you know it also. It’s a game where you compare objects, realizing one of them just isn’t like the others.

In your doctrinal statement, I believe you have an outlier that, by expressing it in the place and way you have, harms an already hurting and marginalized community.

Your list of doctrinal statements covers the classical loci of Christian theology: Scripture, God (as Trinity), Humanity (which you call “man”, but that’s another discussion); Salvation; the Church; Eschatology, and then the outlier: Marriage.

Now, all those primary loci are shared priorities of the Christian community. They’re historically covered in most church constitutions, and in documents like my own Augsburg Confession (the Lutheran confessional text). We may differ theologically even in these areas, but we all agree they are part of the core doctrinal statement.

However, you include marriage in your list, and focus on same-gender marriage, while intriguingly saying nothing about divorce and remarriage.

Even that falls somewhat within the realm of our shared exegetical and doctrinal heritage. But then you add one more: you call out the transgender community, calling transitioning immoral and sinful. You reference that peculiar text in Deuteronomy about women not wearing men’s clothes and vice versa, which I think if you ACTUALLY applied in your church would be pretty controversial—no women wearing pants, no men with long hair.

But the more significant implication is this: you are singling out a minority community, a tiny community of people, and naming their social issue, while disregarding, at least in your doctrinal statement, the vast array of other social issues one might name in such a document. You do not call out the sin of avarice or gluttony. Nor do you acknowledge that Scripture itself has a much more fluid sense concerning gender (see Galatians 3, Christ’s teachings on eunuchs in Matthew 19, and the dialogue with the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts).

The hyper-focus on transgender does two things: it elevates gender binary to a heretical position in your core doctrines, and it ostracizes, alienates, and harms actual transgender people.

I call on you to revisit your choice of this doctrinal statement. Please do a better job of supporting and loving a community of people who already struggle with so much judgment from neighbors and family. If you’d like to engage in further dialogue, I am open to it, as are many of my transgender Christian friends.

Your neighbor, in Christ,

Pastor Clint Schnekloth