Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Defining Progressive Faith

I think progressive faith has at least ten characteristics. It is conscientious, chastened, hopeful, strong, humble, growing, questioning, dialogical, active and interdependent.

1. First, and foremost, a progressive faith is a conscientious faith.

I understand conscience to be an exercise of human understanding or imagination that involves three steps.

The first step is an act of intellectual (mental) distantiation that produces self-consciousness -- it is the ability to step outside yourself (whatever "self" is) and look back at yourself (as though you were looking at yourself in a mirror).

The second step is an act of sympathetic imagination by which you look at the world from the perspective of another.

We often hear this described by the phrase, "Walk a mile in my shoes." My good friend Foy Valentine, now deceased, once told me jokingly that doing this had proven highly profitable for him. He said that, whenever he did it he got a new pair of shoes and was a mile away before the poor guy he took them from knew what was happening. That's one of the reasons why I think conscience formation requires a third step.

It requires an act of reflexive self-consciousness. In simplest terms, this is the ability to put yourself in the place of others and to look at yourself through the eyes of others.

Essentially, this defines progressive faith as a faith that practices the Golden Rule.

Jesus of Nazareth gave the rule a positive formulation when he said "Do to others as you would have them do to you," (Luke 6:31 (NIV)) but the Golden Rule is not unique to Christianity.

Judaism teaches, "What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow man." (Hillel, Shabbath 31a.)

Islam teaches, "No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself." (Hidith)

Even Buddhists, some whom deny the existence of any God, teach, "Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful." (Udana-Varga)

Some formulation of the Golden Rule or some principle of respect for other persons seems common to all religions and philosophies.

2. Second, a progressive faith is a chastened faith.  It is a faith that sorrowfully acknowledges the pain, suffering and injustice that its own community has inflicted on others.

Chastening occurs when persons of faith look at themselves and their faith through the eyes of people of different faiths.

Christians need to look at themselves through the eyes of Jews -- particularly, through the eyes of those who were herded into boxcars and slaughtered like cattle in the holocaust.

Jews need to look at themselves through the eyes of Muslims -- particularly, through the eyes of those who were displaced from their homes in Palestine.

Muslims need to look at themselves through the eyes of Bahai's.

We all need to look at ourselves through the eyes of the hungry and the homeless, the impoverished and the imprisoned.

All of us need to summon the courage to honestly look at ourselves through the eyes of others who are strange and foreign to us and/or who have been injured and ignored by us.

If we do that, I believe that we will begin to view things the way that God views them.

3. Third, a progressive faith is a hopeful faith.

It is a faith that exercises a sympathetic and creative imagination to transcend the past and present realities of self, family, community, and nation to envision a world with a more benevolent, loving and hopeful future.

Guilt, shame and sorrow all summon us to search for forgiveness, reconciliation, restoration, regeneration, renewal, recreation, transformation, a new birth, -- i.e., some better way of living.

If life is just an endless cycle of violence, conflict and strife, then there is not much reason for a hopeful future.

4. Fourth, a progressive faith is a strong faith.

It is a faith that is strong enough to demand both equal rights in civil life and genuine respect in social life for those who have other convictions and different worldviews -- while remaining firmly committed to its own convictions and worldview.

Fundamentalist faiths can achieve power, but they can never be strong. All fundamentalisms are weak faiths that compensate for their inadequacies by scapegoating those who differ from them.

Fundamentalists fear differences and social change and the "other." They react to their fears by fight or by flight. Whenever they fight, they demonize and destroy whatever makes them afraid and insecure.

Faith can never become strong until it overcomes its fears and insecurities and begins to respect the integrity of conscientious difference.

5. Fifth, a progressive faith is a humble faith.

It is a faith that acknowledges the finitude and fallibility of all humanity. It recognizes that all forms of interpersonal communication and understanding fall short of perfect comprehensibility.

Different faiths privilege different expressions of faith as conveyed by different texts, practices, and rituals. Some make absolute claims for the authority of their competing texts, practices, and rituals.

Generally, it is not necessary to directly challenge the authority of these differing truth claims. It should be enough for all to acknowledge that no matter how sacred, perfect and privileged these texts, practices and rituals are believed to be, all historical faiths are subject to differing interpretations and understandings by adherents within their own faith tradition. Humility, therefore, is proper for people of all faiths.

No system of communication is adequate to fully express the meaning of the Divine. No language is perfectly transparent.

While some interpreters of religious traditions may be considered authoritative, infallibility is an attribute that is best reserved for the Divine.

6. Sixth, a progressive faith is a growing faith.

It is a faith that is growing, expanding, striving for depth and never satisfied with its progress. It is a faith that is incomplete, unfinished, and has never arrived.

Progressive faith does not lay claim to human perfectibility in this life.

7. Seventh, a progressive is a questioning faith.

It is a faith that is undaunted by critical thought. It is not a blind faith that expects adherents to surrender their intellect.

Instead, it practices what Paul Ricouer calls the "hermeneutics of suspicion" because it desires to be more than a projection of human wishes and desires, more than an opiate for the masses, and more than merely a slave revolt by which the weak seek to gain power over the strong.

Progressive faith welcomes doubt and raises questions because it knows they are necessary for the extension of understanding, for spurts of growth and for the testing and strengthening of genuine faith.

8. Eighth, a progressive faith is a dialogical faith.

It extends itself both by random acts of kindness and by deliberate acts of compassion and mercy.

It refuses to extend itself by force of law or arms.

Whenever it seeks to convert others, it seeks to do so by persuasion and example shared in moments of genuine dialogue.

9. Ninth, a progressive faith is an active faith.

It gives more than lip service to love.

It puts love in action by waging peace and working for justice.

It is faith with the courage to put itself at risk by publicly opposing injustice and by actively resisting it by non-violent means.

10. Finally, a progressive faith is an interdependent faith.

It recognizes both the value and the interdependence of all life on this planet.

It is a faith that affirms and honors the claim that future generations have on the present by responsibly stewarding the resources that make life possible on this planet.

(This is reposted from a July 15, 2006 blog from the Progressive Faith Blog Conference.)

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The State of Our Society

The State of Our Society
By Dr. Bruce Prescott
First Congregational Church of Norman
November 12, 2017

1 John 3:11-18
For this is the message which you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another; not as Cain, who was of the evil one and slew his brother. And for what reason did he slay him? Because his deeds were evil, and his brother’s were righteous.
Do not be surprised, brethren, if the world hates you. We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love abides in death.  Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer; and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.  We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.  But whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him?  Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth.

Near the beginning of every year it is customary for members of both houses of congress, members of the Supreme Court, and other high ranking government officials along with a national audience over radio, television and the internet to gather to hear our nation’s President give a state of the union address.  The new year is a good time to make an honest appraisal of the decline or improvement in the health and progress of the nation that took place the previous year and to project a vision and a plan of action for the ensuing year.  I think this is one of the healthier rituals of our democracy and I think something like an annual state of the congregation sermon would be a good practice in our churches. 

I don’t know enough to make comment on the health and progress of this congregation over the past year, but, as you are looking for your next pastor, I know that you are turning the page to a new chapter in the life of your church.  And, I have some comments to make about some drastic changes that have taken place this past year in the state of the society in which the members of this congregation must live and worship and provide a Christian witness. 

Eleven days ago the American Psychological Association published the results of the 2017 poll “Stress in America: The State of Our Nation.”  The survey was conducted in the month of August.  This year’s poll revealed that:

Nearly two-thirds of Americans (63 percent) say the future of the nation is a very or somewhat significant source of stress, slightly more than perennial stressors like money (62 percent) and work (61 percent).

More than half of Americans (59 percent) said they consider this the lowest point in U.S. history that they can remember — a figure spanning every generation, including those who lived through World War II and Vietnam, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Clearly, a broad majority of the people in our society are apprehensive about the future of our society.  I share their concerns and I suspect that, whatever your political persuasion, most of you do too.

I was a child during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  In grade school I was taught to duck and cover under my desk in the event of a nuclear attack.  At home, my father talked openly about putting a fallout shelter in the back yard.  Eventually, he just decided to stock the basement with saltine crackers, canned spam, and water.  I was a child at the time, I did not fully comprehend the gravity of that situation.

I was barely a teenager at the height of the civil rights movement.  I learned the dangers of hate and racism watching the evening news with Walter Cronkite. I saw black students being harassed by angry white adults as they integrated the high school in Little Rock, Arkansas.  I saw dog’s and fire hoses being used on students in Birmingham, Alabama.  Those images registered on me.  I had no trouble comprehending the dangers of white supremacism and it was stressful to know that my maternal grandparents harbored such racist attitudes.

I was in High School when college campuses erupted with protests against the war in Viet Nam.  At the beginning of 1968 it looked like the country was poised for some significant political changes.  Then, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated.  By the middle of 1968 all my naive idealism about the social and political environment in our country had turned to cynicism. 

For a long time, 48 years, 1968 marked, in my mind, the lowest point in U.S. history during my lifetime.  My mind has changed over the past year.  This past year some of my deepest fears and some of my most widely expressed suspicions about the Religious Right have been confirmed. 

I grew up in an Independent Fundamental Baptist church – the kind that labeled Southern Baptists liberals.  They called Billy Graham a graham cracker because he preached to crowds that were racially mixed.  Racism was no secret in those churches.  It was out in the open.  That is why I knew from the beginning that the Religious Right’s embroilment in secular politics had more to do with racism and a lust for power than with a concern morality.  Jerry Falwell may have called his movement “The moral majority” but he was the most prominent leader among Independent Fundamental Baptists and he had a well deserved reputation for being a racist himself.

I left Independent Baptists and joined Southern Baptists while I was in High School, but I found racist fundamentalists there too.  While serving as a police officer in 1974 a fellow officer bragged to me about his church refusing to receive a racially mixed couple into the membership of his Independent Fundamental Baptist church.  That bothered me so much that as soon as I got off work that morning I drove to his church -- which was down the street from my apartment -- and asked the church secretary to give me the name and address of that couple so I could invite them to the Southern Baptist Church that I was attending.  The good news is that after my pastor and I visited the couple, the couple joined our church and invited several of their friends to join the church as well.  For the first time in its history, a church that was within a couple miles of an Air Force base had a sizeable group of members who were stationed at the base.  The bad news is that a few long time members of our church left the church over it. 

A year later I enrolled in a Southern Baptist seminary, resigned from the police department in Albuquerque, NM and moved to Fort Worth, Texas.  When I arrived I gave a resume to the placement office at the seminary.  I was hoping to find a position at one of the hundreds of churches in the North Texas area.  Within a week they sent me to a church in Rockwall, Texas whose pastor had moved on to another church.  No sooner had we arrived -- as I was being greeted by one of the deacons -- a black woman opened the front door of the church and stuck her head in -- only her head.  In an instant, the deacon told her “Your church is down the street.”  After preaching that Sunday, I’ve never been in that church again.  I didn’t preach against racism that Sunday, but I would have if I had ever been given another opportunity to preach to them.  Alas, they were no more impressed with me, than I was with them.

In 1979, the year that Jerry Falwell started the moral majority, fundamentalists started a political takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention.  I knew from the get-go that this movement had less to do with doctrine and theology than with racism.  Key leaders of the movement were racists.  They were led by prominent fundamentalist preachers who were stymied by prominent moderate preachers who for years had used their influence to block the election as president of the Convention anyone who refused to admit African-Americans into the membership of their churches.  In 1975 the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas – the largest SBC church in the nation – finally agreed to admit African-American members into his congregation, and was subsequently elected President of the Southern Baptist Convention. 

But that presidency proved frustrating to the SBC’s racist fundamentalists.  They discovered that the President did not have the power to change the course of the convention in one year.  It took a few more years for an appellate court judge in Houston to show them that they had to elect likeminded presidents for at least six consecutive years to get control of the convention’s institutions.  In 1979 the takeover leaders pledged to do just that as they partnered together with Jerry Falwell to impact secular politics.  Ten years later, Jerry Falwell disbanded the moral majority and joined the Southern Baptist Convention.  The rest is now several chapters of U.S. history.

What about the churches?  Are Baptist churches full of racists?

In 1987, I took my first full-time pastorate at a church in Houston, Texas.  The church was in a blue collar, working class neighborhood. Many of the men worked in oil field related industries like the chemical plants that dot the ship channel. That church was one of the first Southern Baptist churches in the nation to start a daycare for working mothers.  Then, in 1957, a year after the Supreme Court integrated the public schools, they were one of the first Southern Baptist churches in the nation to open a private school.  It was a church that was just down the street from what once was the national headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan.  Among its former members was Louis Beam, Grand Dragon of the Texas chapter of the KKK.  He, more than anyone else, is credited with inventing the strategy of “leaderless resistance” in response to the FBI’s ability to disrupt their racist work by planting informants within their organization.  The church voted to remove Louis Beam from its membership shortly after the FBI placed him on its 10 most wanted list. 

A younger generation of leaders in the church repudiated the racism of the past and before calling me to be their pastor agreed to work with me to get the school integrated and accredited – which we did.  We even hired an African-American teacher at the school.  We were also successful in getting a few very faithful and brave African-Americans to join the church.  Then, to my surprise and theirs, I discovered that the man who for years had been teaching the Senior Adult Bible Study class was propagating the beliefs of the white supremacist Christian Identity cult.  We moved him out of his teaching position within a month. 

Christian Identity uses coded language to teach that all people of color are the spawn of Satan who must be exterminated in a great race war to make the nation pure and safe for God’s chosen people – White Christian Americans.  It is the doctrine of Timothy McVeigh’s handbook, “The Turner Diaries.”  It is also the doctrine of many in the “alt-right” movement that has come out into the open and using less coded language this past year.

So, one reason why this past year has been so discouraging for me is that racism has been openly ascending again in our society.  It is a message of hate that actively opposes the message that we as Christians have been called to proclaim.  That is what our text for the sermon this morning says. 

John returns to a familiar message.  It is a message that is familiar to all of us because we have heard it from the beginning of our pilgrimage as Christians.  The message is simple and direct -- even the smallest child can understand it.  The message is that we should love one another.

But there is a competing message, a message that is anathema to all of God’s faithful children, and a message that has also been around from the beginning.  It’s as old as Cain and Able.  It is a message that sows discord and division instead of welcoming and affirming acceptance and community.  It is a message that is spawned by fear and insecurity, that is nurtured by envy and resentment, that hardens the heart to produce hatred, then explodes in anger, and, that sooner or later, leads to homicide and/or genocide.  It is the way of death. 

“He who does not love abides in death.  Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer; and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.”

The way of life is the way of love and genuine Christian love is not some sentimental feeling or a fleeting emotion.  The love John is talking about is defined by the cross:

“We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.”

And, just to make sure that we don’t think we are off the hook until we are face-to-face with a martyr’s death, John gives a practical, everyday application of what it means to lay down your life for the brethren:

“But whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him?” 

“Sees a brother in need” – that is the crux of the issue.  Some want to define brother as narrowly as possible.  Is it a blood brother?  Or a Christian brother?  Or a conservative fundamentalist brother? Or a straight white anglo-saxon brother?  Just exactly who is the brother we are commanded to love?

I think if John were here today he would be asking, “How does the love of God abide in those who support a vote to limit disaster assistance to our brethren and fellow citizens in Puerto Rico?”  In American society, I think that at the very least fellow citizens ought to be counted among the brethren – or, since the people in Puerto Rico are predominantly of Hispanic descent, is this just another example of the ascent of racism in our society?

If John were here today I think he would be asking “How does the love of God abide in those who support a vote to limit and cut off financial assistance and services to those who are impoverished, elderly, sick and disabled in our state?”  At the very least fellow citizens of our own state ought to be counted among the brethren -- Or, is this a sign of the pharisaical attitudes that prevail in our society. After all, it was the Pharisees -- not Jesus and his disciples -- that viewed poverty, illness, and disability as evidence of divine punishment for sin. 

Didn’t Jesus say that inasmuch as you have ministered unto the least of these – his brethren – you have done it unto him.   

Matthew 25:37-40
 Lord, when did we see you hungry, and feed you? or thirsty, and give you drink?  When did we see you a stranger, and take you in? or naked, and clothe you?
And he answered them saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

The least of these – that’s who Jesus calls his brethren.  Those who are strangers at the gate, poor and sick, down and out, outcast and neglected.

The truth is, for Christians the command to love is universal.  We are not commanded to love only those who are close to us, those who look like us, those who think like us, or those who share the some exclusive, narrow band of faith.  We are commanded to love everybody – particularly those who are strangers, impoverished, widowed, disabled, and outcast. All people are our neighbors – even our enemies.  Yes, Jesus commanded us to love even our enemies.

And John finishes by getting right to the point.  He tells us to stop giving lip service to love and make sure we put love into action.

“Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth.”

There’s a lot of lip service to love in American Christianity.  Many modern Christians, particularly those who call themselves Baptists and evangelicals, have lowered the bar until the Christian faith is losing its credibility.  They are turning the “good news” of the gospel into bad news.

We need to make the message of the gospel “good news” again.

Sacrificial, self-giving love in action is the bar.  Lip service love is worthless. 

John didn’t belabor the point and neither will I.  We all know what we need to be doing. 

Loving in deed and in truth is where the rubber meets the road.  It’s time that we get going and get busy.

Just do it.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

How we are saving money by reducing our carbon footprint

When we moved to Oklahoma we bought a house on the outskirts of Norman that was built in the early 1970’s.  Energy efficiency was not a priority in the early 70’s and the house is all electric.  The amount of the electricity we used and the size of our electric bills shocked us. 

Within a year we had to replace the aged air conditioner.  Though the savings only accrued in summer months, improvements in the energy efficiency of the new unit were so significant that it paid for itself in three years.  Our winter electric bills, however, remained exorbitant. 

Could we see as significant changes by replacing the heating unit?  The answer was no.  Not if we merely replaced it with a system with ordinary heating elements.  The only way to match the savings we got by upgrading the air conditioner was to install a geo-thermal heating and air unit and those systems are expensive.  We put that upgrade on hold for more than ten years – the reasonable life expectancy of our new air conditioner.

Five years ago we borrowed $22,547 and had Waggoner’s Heating and Air of Norman install a geo-thermal HVAC system.  That involved drilling two wells 350 feet deep in the yard and laying a loop of pipe five feet underground from the house to the wells.  Pumps circulate water to the wells and back from the HVAC unit which is fully contained in the house.  Ground temperature keeps the water in the closed loop returning to the HVAC at a constant 55 degrees.  The air handling unit of the HVAC cools in the summer with 55 degree air without using refrigeration and heats winter air from a 55 degree base temperature.

Was it worth it? 

Rebates helped lower the system’s cost.  Our electric company gave us a $3,000 rebate check a week after it was installed.  An IRS tax deduction of $6,737 came the next year.  That covered nearly half of the expense of the unit.  That still left $12,720 to work down before the system would pay for itself and we could not count on significant savings on our summer electricity bills because the energy efficiency of our twelve year old air conditioning unit matched that of the geo-thermal HVAC.

Five years out here is where we stand.  From October 2008 to September 2012 we used 123,753 kilowatt hours at an average cost of 8 cents per KWH and paid $10,498 for electricity.  According to the EPA’s Household Carbon Footprint calculator (https://www3.epa.gov/carbon-footprint-calculator/), that resulted in producing 19,844,907 pounds of CO2 emissions.  From October 2012 to September 2017 we used 60,687 kilowatt hours at an average cost of 11 cents per KWH and paid $6,611 for electricity.  According to the EPA calculator, this resulted in producing 9,731,707 pounds of CO2 emissions. 

Assuming that had we not upgraded the HVAC system we would have continued to use the same amount of energy in the last five years as we did in the previous five years, we saved 63,066 kilowatt hours of electricity and reduced our carbon footprint on the environment by 10,113,201 pounds of CO2 emissions.  That is the equivalent of 46.9 metric tons of carbon dioxide which is about the same as driving an ordinary car 115,036 miles.

From an environmental standpoint, it was definitely worth it to us. 

What about the money?

Taking 63,066 KWH and multiplying it by 11 cents per KWH, we saved $6,937 on our electric bills over the past five years.  That’s a savings of $115.62 a month and $1,387.45 a year.

How far are we from breaking even on this investment? 

Our out-of-pocket cost after rebates and tax deductions was $12,720.  Subtract $6937 from $12,720 and we are still out $5,783. 

Assuming utility rates stay the same and that there is no need to replace what would now be a 45 year old heater and/or a now 17 year old air conditioner, we still have nearly four more years to go before breaking even.  

Knowing how unlikely these latter assumptions are, I think we are close to breaking even now.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Crooked as a Dog's Hind Leg

On or very near this date thirty-five years ago, the man pictured above was promoted to be the manager of a store in a major retail chain where I worked.  I was working as a security manager while taking doctoral seminars at seminary.  It was apparent from the beginning that the new manager relished having power over the lives of his employees.   When he was introduced to store employees, his first words were, “I’m the boss now, you’ll do things my way or you can get the hell out!”  Then he exclaimed that the store was filthy saying, “I guess you’ve all been here so long that you don’t see dirt.”  You could tell right away that public tongue lashings were his preferred management style and worse, he was a studied practitioner of the “drip, drip, drip” method of employee abuse.    

After my first private conversation with him I knew that my days on this job were numbered.  One of my responsibilities was to maintain records of who had keys and alarm codes for the store.  I also monitored who disabled the alarm whenever the store was closed.  My new boss informed me that he wanted keys to the building and the alarm code.  That seemed odd to me.  The previous manager had neither keys nor alarm codes.  There were at least six merchandise managers who rotated opening the store at 6:00 AM and closing the store at 10:00 PM or later.  The store manager kept office hours.  So, I asked him why he needed keys and alarm codes.  He informed me that he could not get all his work done without working on Sundays (this was during the era when “blue laws” kept most retail stores closed on Sundays).  That too sounded odd to me, so I decided that he must be testing me.  I said, “It is my responsibility to protect your integrity and mine.  If you are in and out of the store on Sundays, then there will be times when I will be watching you as you come and go.”  My new boss was rarely at a loss for words, but for a moment he was speechless and his face turned red.  Then he bellowed, “I’m not paying you to watch me.”

As soon as this conversation ended I was on the phone with the Regional Security Manager hoping to find an opening for a position at a different store in the district.  He advised me to “lay low, play dumb” and keep an eye on my new boss saying, “Company auditors have been trying to catch him for years, but have never been able to find anything.”  I decided that I would keep my eyes open until the end of that semester at seminary and then look for another job.

The next day one of the highest level managers advised me that he heard my new boss on the phone asking the District Manager why he needed a security manager.  At the end of the conversation he heard him tell the District Manager that he would have to use the “drip, drip, drip” method on me.  That meant that, on a daily basis, he would make working for him so miserable that I would quit.  Normally, he made life most miserable for me once a week at the management meeting.  There I discovered that, in addition to my ordinary duties, I was assigned to correct every problem that arose.  Every day, when new merchandise arrived on the receiving dock, it was my job to see that it got out to the floor.  Periodically, when Company shoppers left, it was my job to see that the hundreds of items they bought were cleared through accounting and returned to the floor.  The list went on and on.  On more than one occasion I nearly told him to take his job and shove it, but by that time other people were counting on me to make a case against him.

Within two weeks of his arrival, I began sending Regional Security written reports of my observations of the new manager’s behavior.  It was immediately apparent that every department head was under intense pressure and that pressure quickly transferred down the chain of command.   Mature, long- tenured, high performing female managers and employees were abruptly resigning.  Their replacements were attractive young women fresh out of the manager trainee program.   Low quality jewelry, not approved for sale in Company stores, was coming in the back door and the vendor – once she could extricate herself from his bear hug – was placing the merchandise on display herself.  He promised a single mother who had done some modeling that he would help her land some assignments with the Company’s advertising department.  She agreed to pose for a private photo shoot with him, but was so embarrassed about the kind of photos he took that she never returned to work.

All of that information was of interest to Regional Security but nothing prompted them to action until I informed them of some pictures that I took.  Pictures I took of the store manager entering and leaving the store while it was closed on a Sunday afternoon.

Less than a week before I took those pictures I learned that the new manager had appointed me to be responsible for maintaining security on the firearms that were on sale in the sporting goods department.  The firearms were kept in a high security storage area with the key under the control of the sporting goods manager.  Previously, my duty was only to double check the monthly inventory of the storage area.  Now a shotgun was missing and, after the fact, I was being held responsible.  With federal reporting requirements necessary, somebody’s head was going to roll.  He thought he had the excuse he needed to get rid of me.   So did I.  Fortunately, after searching through weeks of cash register tapes, the missing firearm was found misplaced in an unsecured area in the lay-away department.

That incident convinced me that I was not going to last until the end of the semester.   I encouraged my wife to accept a job that she had been offered, hoping that it would pay the bills until I could find another job.  A couple days later, late on a Friday afternoon, she called me at work to inform me that the physical she took for her job revealed that she was pregnant with our second child.  Before I was off the phone, one of the managers was in my office to tell me that he heard the store manager tell another manager that he was going to lay me off the following Monday and eliminate my position.   That meant that I only had one more chance to see what he was up to on Sundays when he was alone in the store while it was closed.

I monitored alarm logs daily throughout the new manager’s tenure.  I knew that he usually spent a couple hours in the store while it was closed on Sunday afternoons.  I took pictures of his coming and going with my 35MM camera and a telephoto lens on one Sunday only.  There was nothing to hide behind but a chain link fence at the end of a long parking lot.  Fortunately, he did not see me as he entered the store.  His hands were clean and his pockets empty when he went in.  Neither were empty when he left. 

As he was leaving and locking the door, he turned his head and looked across the parking lot between us.  His knees buckled when he saw me taking pictures of him.  Once he was in his car, he drove up to the chain link fence I was behind and honked at me before driving away.

The next morning, before the store opened, the manager had an underling ring up a sale for him for candy he took the previous day.  He had also contacted the District Manger to inform him that I had pictures of him at the store when it was closed.   The District Manager then contacted the Regional Security Manager to inquire about my investigation.  By noon that day, I had my pictures developed and both the District Manager and the Regional Security Manager, along with a team of company auditors, were at the store.

Store records listed as in stock three briefcases like the one he carried out of the store.  None had been sold, but none could be found in the store.  The manager did not admit to stealing any briefcases.  He did admit to the Regional Security Manager that he had not paid for several different items that were in the briefcase as he carried it out.

The most incriminating evidence was uncovered by company auditors.  When they interviewed the head of the store’s accounting department, she told them that on the day the new manager arrived he told her, “I’m crooked.  I’m crooked as a dog’s hind leg, but the auditors will never catch me.”  Then, under threat of losing her job, he told her how he wanted her to cook the books – a scheme that chose a different vendor each week and defrauded them of two thousand dollars.

By the end of the day, the new store manager was looking for employment and I was getting an unexpected merit increase.

I have spent thirty-five years reflecting on the different ways that people I knew responded to this incident.  Up and down the chain of command there were scapegoats, victims, bystanders, and perpetrators.   I got a very thorough education in the techniques of employee abuse.  I learned how powerless workers are in the hands of autocratic bosses.  I also observed how lightly those in authority viewed the boss’s handling of people in comparison to their concern for how he handled property.

One Baptist deacon’s response made a particular impression on me.  I was shocked to see a man of seeming integrity so eager to become a willing accomplice to the abuse of employees trying to preserve their dignity under very trying circumstances.  He helped prepare me to see through the pious personas of bullying preachers in both the Southern Baptist Convention and in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

Since that time, I have no use at all for those who practice and/or condone “drip, drip, drip” methods of employee abuse.  

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

On Removing Oklahoma's Ten Commandments Monument(s)

American Christians have been divided over the relation of the Ten Commandments to government since 1635.  That was when a Separatist Baptist minister who fled religious persecution in England was drug before the magistrates in Massachusetts Bay Colony for espousing "dangerous opinions" that threatened the peace and order of the colony.  The charge against Roger Williams, which he freely admitted, was that he proclaimed that civil government should only enforce the "second table" of the ten commandments -- the last six commandments.  The commands of the "first table" of the law -- the commands regarding religion and worship -- were matters of private, individual conscience.  Williams was convicted and banished from the colony.

Roger Williams believed that there should be a "wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world."  Likening compulsory religion to a spiritual rape, he insisted that genuine faith was a conscientious voluntary commitment.  He was the first American advocate for religious liberty for everyone -- whether, in his words, they were "paganish, Jewish, Turkish or anti-Christian."

Williams went on to found the Colony of Rhode Island and the First Baptist Church in the Americas.  The charter that he and John Clarke, another Baptist, secured for that Colony has been described as the first charter in the history of the world to secure "a free, full, and absolute liberty of conscience."  Among other things it guaranteed that no person would be "molested" on account of their religious beliefs.

In time, Rhode Island's provision against being "molested" for religious convictions would make its way into the charters and constitutions of several other colonies and states.   Among them, Oklahoma, but for more than another century Baptists and other religious minorities suffered for their religious convictions.  As late as the early 1770's jails in Virginia were filled with Baptist preachers whose only crime was "preaching without a license."  By law, only Anglicans or Presbyterians could get a license to preach.

That is why Virginia Baptists refused to ratify the proposed U.S. Constitution until an amendment was added that secured the right to religious liberty for everyone.  When the Constitution with the First Amendment was finally ratified, John Leland the leader of Virginia Baptists, rejoiced that it made it possible for a "Pagan, Turk, Jew or Christian" to be eligible to serve in any post or office in the government.

Baptists support for separation of church and state endured for nearly two more centuries.  With this support states like Oklahoma, populated with numerous Baptists, wrote state constitutions that made separation of religion and government even more explicit than in the U.S. Constitution.  Oklahoma's State Constitution made sure that religion could never receive any tangible support from the government:
“No public money or property shall ever be appropriated, applied, donated, or used, directly or indirectly, for the use, benefit, or support of any sect, church, denomination, or system of religion, or for the use, benefit, or support of any priest, preacher, minister, or other religious teacher or dignitary, or sectarian institution as such.” ( Section II-5)  
How could separation of religion and government be made more explicit?

Baptist support for separation of church and state began to decline after the civil rights era.  During the 1970's and early 1980's Bob Jones University and the IRS were engaged in a law suit over the constitutionality of the IRS's denial of the school's tax exempt status.   In 1970 the IRS ruled that contributions to private schools with racially discriminatory policies no longer qualified as charitable tax deductions under the provisions of the tax code.  The school argued that denying them the right to discriminate on the basis of race violated their  right to religious liberty.

Many prominent Southern Baptist ministers, along with several TV evangelists and conservative mega-church preachers from other denominations were alarmed when the Carter administration supported the IRS ruling.  A number of them determined to organize political activists within their churches and institutions and then use them to exert influence on secular politics.  The result was a fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention and the rise of the Religious Right.

The more successful their political efforts, the more they promoted the union of church and state.  By 1998 Richard Land, then President of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, was telling the New York Times that the Religious Right was tired of being taken for granted by the GOP: "No more engagement.  We want a wedding ring, we want a ceremony, we want a consummation of the marriage."

The Religious Right never got a ring.  Diamonds were too small for a movement this size.  Instead, they settled on granite.  All around the country, large granite monuments became the symbol of an unholy union of pretentious piety and politics.   Erecting Ten Commandments monuments on public property -- preferably at the state capitol or on the courthouse lawn -- became the sign that the marriage of right-wing religion and the local government has been consummated in that community.

Nowhere has the engagement of right-wing religion with government been more prominent than in Oklahoma and both parties have been desperate to effect a consummation.  

The first attempt was a monument on the courthouse lawn in Haskell County, but elected leaders there proved too vocal about their intent to establish religion.  In 2010, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled it unconstitutional and made them remove it.

Before that case was final, lawmakers approved of the erection of a Ten Commandments monument at the State Capitol.  There elected leaders deliberately attempted to circumvent Section II-5 of the State Constitution and key leaders were careful to describe the monument in secular terms as merely a historical artifact related to law.   Public perception, however, has always been that the monument is religious nature.

I, an ordained minister, opposed placing this monument on public property and filed suit with the ACLU because I believe it is bad for religion.  The Ten Commandments is a covenant between God and people of faith.   The text mentions God six times and refers to "the Lord" seven times.  It is obviously religious in nature.  Erecting the monument under sham secular pretenses serves only to trivialize the holiness of sincere religious covenants and undermines religion by negating the significance of the most sacred symbols of religious language.

The Oklahoma Supreme Court recently agreed that the Ten Commandments monument is not merely historical.  The court said it is "obviously religious in nature."  The ruling also accused lawmakers of attempting to circumvent the clear intent of the language of the state constitution which prohibits the government from "directly or indirectly" providing support for religion.

This ruling is good for both religion and the government, but the verdict may not yet be final.  Incensed that their consummation has been denied yet again, the governor is refusing to remove the monument and state legislators are threatening to either impeach supreme court justices or alter the wording of the State Constitution.

Obviously, two of the three branches of Oklahoma's government are firmly in the hands of the Religious Right and now they are aroused again.