Sunday, January 31, 2016

What Do We Do about Gretta Vosper?

I just preached a sermon about the Gretta Vosper controversy in the United Church of Canada. She's been in the news, a lot, lately, for her "soft atheist" beliefs. I sat down with her for a cup of coffee last week, and this is what I think, riffing off Luke 6:37-39, just a bit.

           I just finished reading The Illegal, by Canadian author Lawrence Hill, who also wrote the acclaimed Book of Negroes. It’s about a black illegal immigrant, Keita Ali, in a rich white country.

            The book is a terrific read. I won’t give away Keita’s story. But I do want to describe one of the book’s central characters—John.

            John is a good but irritating person. For his high school graduation project, John decides to film a documentary about life in AfricTown, the slum where he, as well as many illegal immigrants, live.

            John is irritating because he is incredibly smart and cocksure about it. He never asks permission. His devotion to his project is so single-minded that people get hurt along the way and he doesn’t seem to care. For example, at one point he hides himself in a closet in order to secretly film what it is like to be a prostitute in AfricTown. He accidentally films a tryst between the white Minister of Immigration, who is trying to deport all the illegals and a black prostitute. Worse, when John is discovered, the prostitute—who is a citizen—is secretly deported anyway.

            This setback doesn’t slow John down. For the rest of the book John follows the Minister of Immigration everywhere, which the minister finds very threatening. In fact, everyone who encounters John feels irritated by him, even though, in the end, he turns out to be a hero.

            We all know people like John—people so devoted to their vision, and so good at getting that vision “out there” that they get under our skin. Gretta Vosper is like that. She’s a United Church minister just east of here, in Scarborough, and she’s an atheist—or as she likes to say, “a soft atheist.” Soft atheism is a lot like the post-theism that Ken Gallinger used to preach from this pulpit. Gretta doesn’t believe in a God who, when asked through prayer, intervenes in our lives. She thinks that the god-stories in the Bible are myths—important, insightful, but not factual. What matters to Gretta is not the God of tradition but more the lifestyle Jesus taught through his words and actions.

            This irritates a lot of people. Some people in the United Church—important people, mind you—would like to remove her from the ministry. Whether they succeed or not, the whole process looks heavy handed and coercive to anyone who isn’t a Christian; and it has created a lot of negative controversy within the United Church too.

            Now, this is where it all gets a bit personal for me. I’ve had my own struggles trying to be a minister in a denomination I didn’t agree with. I tried, for several years, to stay in that denomination, papering over differences and conflicts. I eventually realized that I couldn’t do it. So I sought sanctuary in the United Church. And, I have to say, I’ve found a home here.

            In the United Church I’ve come to experience doctrine not as a rigid set of required beliefs, but as a playground, as an imaginative and inspiring conversation about the meaning of life and how God fits into that—or doesn’t. Unlike Gretta Vosper or Ken Gallinger, I’m a theist—a weak theist in the mold of John Caputo, I’d add—though that is a discussion for another time. Still, my experience of doctrine as a playground is enhanced by Gretta’s questions and perspective. I came to the United Church for just this sort of openness and play, and I’ve found it.

            In anticipation of this sermon, I sat down for a coffee with Gretta last week. We talked about her journey, how it has caused both conflict and growth in her local congregation, and a little bit about her vision for what a church should be. I enjoyed our conversation. Gretta listens well, she’s interesting, and she’s smart. Along the way I learned that her legal costs will be considerable. The Toronto Conference of the United Church—in spite of the denomination’s current financial crisis—is probably paying a lot too. Not much of a playground—this is an intense conflict. I’m really sad about that. And I could tell from my conversation with Gretta that it is taking a severe toll on her, too.

            But, in all fairness, I also see that there is something about Gretta that is really irritating too, in the same way that John was irritating with his gung-ho filming. I think the root of it is that Gretta sometimes sounds less like she’s interested in a conversation and more like she’s an evangelist or proselytizer. Sometimes, in interviews or on her blog, she seems disdainful of those of us who disagree with her. For example, last year she wrote an open letter to the United Church’s moderator at that time, Gary Patterson, after the horrific Paris terrorist attacks.

            In the letter she objects to a prayer for peace on the United Church website, because she blames faith in God for the Paris attacks. She argues that such faith is idolatrous, and we need to be freed from it. She further argues that our religious values have no place in the public square, and that we need to be freed from them. In this letter, she’s not content to be an atheist minister who offers her congregation an atheist model for being a church; no, Gretta insists that her brand of atheism is the one way. It comes off as more confrontational than conversational.

            What is more, the thesis of Gretta’s letter is too simple. She wants to condemn all people who believe in God, and keep their values and beliefs out of the public square, because the terrorists believed in God.

            But the terrorists also had political beliefs and values. Should all political beliefs and values also be excluded from the public square, then, since political beliefs and values are also held by terrorists? Of course not.

            The problem is not “faith in God,” or “faith in a political ideology.” No, the issue is what you believe about God or what you believe about politics—the theological or political values that guide you.

            It is impossible to avoid the fact that everyone’s actions are always going to be rooted in personal experience and learning and values—and so why should, or how could, theism be somehow uniquely excluded from playing its part, while political ideologies or economic realities are not sanctioned?

            In any case, atheism unavoidably comes with its own values too.

            Finally, the letter also ignores the scholarly consensus here, well argued by Karen Armstrong in her book Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence. Armstrong makes the point that it is only very rarely that religion or belief in God leads to violence. Rather, Armstrong argues that political powers use religion—as they use race or weapons or economics—to get their way. In fact, at root, most religions are decidedly not violent however individual adherents sometimes act.

            The bottom line is that Gretta’s letter irritated people. It seemed to step beyond the, “let’s talk about this,” circle into the, “I’m right and you’re badly mistaken,” circle. Irritating—even threatening.

            So what do we do about Gretta Vosper?

            Nothing, I think. With respect to her letter to the moderator, I’d say that every minister stirs the pot about something or other, once in a while. Even playgrounds can get a bit rough sometimes. And when they do it is time for the adults in the park to help us kids step back, cool off, and start the game over. It isn’t time to shut the playground down. What do we do about Greta Vosper?

            Nothing, I hope, unless it is to offer her pastoral support and to ask the United Church hierarchy to stand down.

            Why nothing? For a few reasons, but they are deeply imbedded in the attitude of our text. For starters, Jesus says: “Do not judge,” and I think I could make a case for leaving Gretta alone—and perhaps for Gretta not writing her letter the way she did—on the basis of those words. When it comes to the issue of post-theism or soft atheism or weak theism or even fundamentalism, we ought to keep in mind that most of us have logs in our eyes when it comes to almost everything in the Sermon on the Mount.

            But what really sings for me in today’s passage is its central concern with doing right rather than believing right.  Jesus says, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you?” And he goes on to explain that anyone who hear his words but does not do them is like someone who builds a house without a foundation, so that when the floods come, it is swept away.

            For Jesus, in other words, calling him or God “Lord, Lord,” isn’t the main thing. An orthodox Doctrine of God isn’t what saves the house—the church. Not at all. Rather, trying to put Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount action priorities into play is what Jesus really wants.

            So the kind of house I’d like to build here at LPCC is a Sermon on the Mount House. Our house should be refuge for all, especially during storms that threaten us: racism directed against First Nations or immigrants comes to mind. The kind of house I’d like to build here at Lawrence Park is one that is a sanctuary for people with challenges: parents struggling with special needs kids, or poverty, or students struggling to figure out what sexual morality is all about. The kind of house I’d like to build here at Lawrence Park is one where people who are lonely, who are dying, who are angry, or who are confused will be embraced, and who will in turn embrace others. The kind of house I’d like to build here at Lawrence Park is one where all present are allowed to be unsure about God while being focused on being better people.

            If you want to make the ideals and values of the Sermon on the Mount, which transcend any single religion but are firmly rooted in our faith too, then you are welcome here—whether you say, “Lord, Lord,” or not.
            Listen, I’ve left a lot unsaid in this sermon, even if I’ve preached on such themes at other times. For example, I have not explained, today, my own theistic views on God. I have not explored the practical skills we need to enjoy and benefit from each other’s company at Lawrence Park, even if we have large doctrinal disagreements amongst ourselves. And I have not explored here what we are to make of scripture, or its presumption that there is a God, if some of us don't think that scripture is right on that score. Gretta has written tons of stuff and it would take a year of sermons to go through it all and we can’t do that today or even this year.

            But this much I know. Even if Gretta isn’t crying out, “Lord, Lord,” she is trying to follow the best of the program that Jesus laid out. Like us, she’s doing so imperfectly. I won’t –can’t—judge her for that. But as long as she’s trying like I’m trying to do what Jesus did, I’d like to keep her and her friends in the playground. I hope that in the end, the United Church agrees, and remains a sanctuary for both of us.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Two Two Party Problems: Voting the Issues and Donald Trump

         I’m really interested in politics. Have been all my life. I took out nomination papers to run against Ontario Premier Bill Davis when I was only seventeen. I took out American citizenship so that I could vote for Al Gore (that turned out well). I (privately) considered a run for congress as a Democrat in 2002.

         So here’s what I think now. I’m still interested, but I’m really frustrated. It isn’t just the tone of this year’s Republican race—I don't need to add to the volumes written on this. Rather, it is that our options as voters are so restricted. I have to vote for a Democratic or Republican.

         The trouble with that is that neither party is right on every issue. So, if I’m prolife, but consistently so, so that I’m also for more gun control, less military adventurism, and a better social safety net for the poor—there isn’t anywhere for me to park my vote.

         Or, if I’m fiscally conservative, and want lower taxes and a balanced budget; but socially progressive, so that I favour choice, gay marriage, and getting out of the drone business—there isn’t anywhere for me to park my vote.

         The two-party system is blunt instrument when it comes to making discerning choices. But consider these two further issues:

         First, there is the problem of how limited voting options actually gives legislators way too much freedom to wreak havoc on lower-case issues. It works like this. During every election parties attempt to focus the discussion on the one or two key themes they think will be winners for them. For example, Bill Clinton’s team famously went with, “It’s the economy, stupid,” in 1992. Severely restricting its messaging (or going negative) is cost-effective, memorable, motivational in a way that drives policy wonks crazy.

         Why? Because ultimately, in single-theme elections, there is no electoral accountability on issues further down most people’s list of key issues. Take me, for example. Some of the issues I care about are racism, climate change, gerrymandering, refugees, immigration reform, and campaign spending. The trouble is, no election is ever going to be fought on these issues when the advertising machine is telling us the election is about the economy, or terrorism, or Washington culture. That means, on the lower priority issues not in the spotlight, politicians actually have carte blanche to do what they want without fear of repercussions. They may be swayed, for example, by special interests or big donors or strong armed congressional leadership on these issues knowing that voters will never hold them to account anyway.

         What’s the solution for problem one? Being a dual citizen of Canada and the USA, I might suggest a viable third party as a way to spice up the options. But the truth is, there really isn’t that much difference between Canada’s Liberals and New Democrats, especially after the Liberals moved left to crowd the New Democrats out of the natural territory.

         Another solution might be major electoral reform. The Liberal party has promised some form of proportional representation before the next Federal election in Canada. The Fair Vote organization ( in the USA promotes similar policies.

         But second, the two party system harbours another deeper genetic defect that is extremely worrisome. When only two parties are leading the charge, the assumption most people will make, I think, is that the rhetoric in both parties is going to have the establishment’s stamp of approval. That is, most of us in a two-party system figure that both parties are necessarily going to be thoughtful, rational options.

         But what happens when one of the parties comes unstuck, because a smaller group within it, or a unique set of historical conditions pushes it to extremes of policy or even rhetoric? That seems to be the situation in the Republican party right now. Trump continues to lead, in spite of his hateful policy proposals and scapegoating everyone from Muslims, Mexicans, women to McCain and Obama (who may or may not have been born in the USA, apparently).

         What happens is that more and more people will think that Trump's policy proposals and scapegoating must be within the realm of thoughtful, rational politics, because after all, he’s one of those party’s leading candidates for president. What happens when Trump can’t be dismissed from the race is that his rhetoric is “baptized,” even if unwittingly, by his participation in that party’s electoral process. What happens is that you create the conditions necessary to subvert the very principles of equality, and the right to pursue life, liberty and happiness that the United States has usually pursued since its creation. 

         Solutions here? A crushing electoral defeat of Trump, should he become the candidate, might suggest that his universe of discourse has no future in America. I’d like that. I also guess  that such a defeat is highly likely should Trump be nominated (though never certain). However, given that most Americans reliably vote for the same party election after election, and that party messaging will try hard to divert attention away from issues that won’t play well for them (like Trump’s excessive rhetoric), the prospects for a truly crushing electoral defeat seems low. Furthermore, the historical circumstances line up for Trump too, since terrorists, and the immigrants largely produced by fallout from America’s wars abroad (or drug wars at home), are not going away anytime soon. And if nothing else, the history of the Jews, or even of America’s Salem witches, suggests that what people everywhere really want when they’re afraid is a scapegoat. Trump is offering scapegoats up wholesale.

         So ultimately, I fear that win or lose, Trump's rhetoric will have a much stronger toehold in America’s conscience than before. Trump is the needle and the damage is done. After this year it will take a long time for electoral rhetoric to move in a more humane direction.

         Which means, I suppose, that if we don’t like what Trump is saying, we better get out there and say our piece too—wherever we can, whenever, as loudly and as civilly as we can manage.