By Jim Segaar
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.
~ Romans 13.1
When Attorney General Jeff Sessions used Romans 13 to justify separating children from their parents when families cross the southern border of the United States uninvited he was following in a long tradition of using the Bible to justify questionable, some would say abominable, behavior. The same passage has been used over the centuries to support slavery, genocide, and apartheid, among other highpoints of human history.
It shouldn’t be surprising when people in power use the Bible, or religion in general, to justify their actions, to bolster their claim to unquestionable authority. Power politics, after all, has been embedded in Christianity from the beginning.
Fairly early in the gospel according to Luke, Jesus’ disciples get into an argument about who among them is the greatest (Luke 9.46). One can only imagine how exasperated Jesus was by the entire display. I can almost hear Jesus groan when he heard his disciples arguing about who was the favorite, who had more power. But that is hardly the end of power struggles in the Christian scriptures. Paul’s letters are full of references to his conflicts with other early church leaders such as James and Peter. In Corinthians, and elsewhere, he seems to crave credibility:
Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Didn’t I see our Savior Jesus, and aren’t you yourselves my work in Christ?
~ I Corinthians 9.1
Power, and struggles for it, are so prevalent in our tradition that I believe much of what passes for religion is really just about struggling for power. And while I’m not an expert in other religions, something tells me they have similar problems.
Take the whole concept of “heresy,” for example. Have you ever been branded a heretic? Did you ever do that to someone else? What does it mean, anyway? Church leaders over the centuries have held that heresy denotes beliefs that fall outside of God’s will. But in reality, what is considered heresy changes over time depending on who is currently in power. Heresy is more about threatening the current religious power structure, questioning its legitimacy, undermining its authority. Heresy is about power, not absolute belief.
As I write this I am looking out the windows of our little house in the meadow, our second home in the Methow Valley. The sunset was glorious tonight, and darkness is creeping over the valley. In an hour or so the stars will start emerging. If we stay up late enough we will see the constellations, and eventually that white band of amazement we call the Milky Way. Now even if it feels a bit crazy, bear with me and imagine that a supreme being, God if you will, created all this. The sunset. The stars. The galaxies. The universe, or universes. And now imagine that the same supreme being only has one acceptable name. Or insists on belief in substitutionary atonement. Or cares how many angels you think can dance on the head of a pin. Or whether we believe we consume grain and juice or flesh and blood at Communion. It’s ludicrous. Unless it’s just about power.
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest,” Jesus says. “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”
~ Matthew 11.28-29
Gentle. Humble. Find rest for your souls. Jesus doesn’t sound like a power monger to me. Along our southern border, I believe he’s standing with those parents and children being ripped from each other’s arms, not with the demagogues in Washington D.C. and elsewhere who will stop at nothing to divinely justify their inhumane behavior.
By Jim Segaar
What a day…
I’d never design a day like today – actually plan it out ahead of time.
Things started early. We had to take our dog Otto to the vet for dental work, and he needed to be there at 8 a.m. That’s early for us retired (or at least semi-retired) guys. Otto is 11 years old and has a number of medical problems. Addison’s Disease, which requires that we give him prednisone twice a day. A heart murmur. Liver blood tests that are off the charts. And dogs only have dental work under general anesthesia, so there was no guarantee that he would survive the procedure.
After dropping our little old man off we faced several hours of waiting to hear how things went. Jim G headed to church to practice the organ. I got on my bike and started riding, going 38 miles in all. I stopped to answer two phone calls from the vet. In the first one, he said that he’d already removed all Otto’s teeth but one. Should he leave that one? I said no, and he agreed. The second call, a half hour later, brought news that Otto was waking up and the work was done.
I got back on my bike and finished riding home. Then it was time for lunch, a shower, and a nap. I even got in a little work before it was time to pick Otto up. That involved sitting in traffic for a while, and a stop at a grocery store to get some mushy food to feed him. When we got home it was time to figure out how to get Otto – whose mouth was very sore – to take his pain medication. It took me 30 minutes to come up with the answer – pork! I did a little more work, made dinner, and tried to work some more but my brain crashed into my computer screen. At least that’s what it felt like.
What a day! Why do we have days like this? Are they really necessary? Do we choose this stuff?
It so happens that I’ve been reading some journals of Thomas Merton, a well-known Catholic mystic and author. The journal entries I’ve been reading are from the last year of his life. Early in the year he spends a lot of time fretting about how noisy his home in Kentucky has gotten, how many people come by, and how hard it is for him to live a life of solitude as a hermit. He wonders over and over if he should ask permission to move and considers various options. Northern California. Alaska. Chile. Nepal. Then he gets permission to travel to Alaska and Asia. In India he realizes that his home in Kentucky isn’t so bad after all. But in the end none of that matters. Merton died on his Asian trip. He was accidentally electrocuted by a faulty fan in a small cottage near Bangkok, Thailand.
What would Merton have written about in his journal if he’d known that his time on Earth was almost up? Does a question like that even matter? How many of us know our time is running out before it all slips away? I’m not sure I’d want to know.
And yet, how do we choose to spend our days, our hours, our precious time? I didn’t plan to spend a day worrying about doggie dental care. But I’m glad I did. Otto is doing well and should be much healthier than he was with a mouth full of infection. So really, how do we decide to spend our days?
Jesus gave us some advice:
“Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Abba feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?”
(Matthew 6.26-27, NRSV, alt)
What does that have to do with bicycles and dogs and rotten teeth? Nothing and everything. The best we can do is live our lives, one moment at a time, to the best of our abilities. Nothing more. Nothing less.
This blog includes thoughts from various contributors at Seattle First Baptist