Body count in the culture war

And the body count mounts in our culture wars.

The godsend of a vaccine took our nation from 4,000 Covid deaths daily in January to under 100 in July. It’s back above 1,000 again and climbing fast as the virus races unchecked through the unvaccinated.

Consider: 1,000 precious lives lost every day because people have been convinced their lives are nothing more than fodder in someone’s culture war.

I used to wonder how in heaven’s name Jim Jones got his “Christian” cult members to feed poison to their children – their children! — and then drink it themselves, leaving 918 dead. Or how “religious” leaders convinced devotees to blow up their bodies and end the sacred lives of those around them, too.

Now we know. We watch it in our society day after day.

Political, social, religious, and media figures declare a culture war and rouse their constituents, congregations and viewers to engage in a fight to the death – their own death. They see their followers’ lives as nothing more than collateral damage.

And for what purpose? So the warmongers can amass yet more power, influence and money. They lust for better ratings, more votes, fuller collection plates, and more sway over their masses.

Treating precious lives as collateral damage

The “religious” war mongers trouble me the most. Preaching that “true believers” won’t get sick spreads death and misery among the people they’re supposed to love and nurture.

The various warmongers have one thing in common. They know people will react strongly if they’re made to feel they’re under attack from someone or something, and whether it’s true doesn’t matter. Truth is always the first casualty of war, including culture wars.

Of course, they never actually enjoin the battle themselves. Other people wind up on ventilators, not them. They’re vaccinated and out of harm’s way, with access to treatments their followers can’t get. They want to benefit from the war, not die in it.

And so we see people drink the poison and pledge allegiance to a lethal denial:

  • Denial that vaccines work.
  • Denial that life matters — their lives and the lives of everyone around them.
  • Denial that the doctors and nurses who have already saved their lives countless times are trying to do it again.
  • Denial that we have responsibility to love one another.

And the body count mounts.

I’m out of words for it, but one theological term comes to mind: evil.

Evil us using our free will to harm ourselves and others by making choices that devalue life. It’s rejecting the gift of life-saving medicine. It’s demonizing medical professionals who put their lives on the line daily to keep God’s breath stirring inside Covid-ravaged lungs.

Faith redeems and reconciles cultures through love

Remember that Jesus emphatically rejected the culture war mentality. He invited everyone – especially those who were targets of the culture warriors — to join his movement of truth and love and healing. Put down those swords.

Real faith is counter-cultural that way. It seeks not to incite wars within cultures but to redeem and reconcile cultures through love. It counters lies with the truth that we’re all God’s children and have a responsibility to love and look out for one another.

We know the warmongers won’t call a truce. The pandemic has been a goldmine for them, and they have no intention of stopping even as the bodies pile up. They’ll fight over medicine, masks, vaccines — anything they can conscript into their war — for as long as long as they can.

It’s up to everyone else to reject the poison and stop turning sacred life into collateral damage. More than 1,000 lives are being snuffed out each day in our society alone – more every day than died in Jim Jones’ mass suicide.

No more. No more drinking from the cup of poison. No more sharing lies that produce Covid-scarred lungs incapable of embracing God’s breath. No more devaluing life in the name of winning someone’s ungodly war.

(Image courtesy of Ben.Harper @CreativeCommons.org)

Shamrocks, triangles, and our many-ness

Trinity Sunday was never one of my favorites growing up. We’d hear references to shamrocks and triangles and the nature of God, and I’d wonder: What do any of these theological lessons have to do with me?

 Well, everything, actually!

 Trinity Sunday – celebrated a few days ago – is one of my favorites now, a necessary reminder of who we are, whose we are, and how we’re meant to live together amid our differences. 

The lesson of many-yet-one starts with the truth that the diversity around us and within us is a sacred reflection of our Creator. Each of us is a beautiful piece in a masterful mosaic, one moving body out of many in this collective dance of life.

What holds it all together? Love, of course.

Loving relationship is the glue that centers everything in its perfect place, the thread that binds us snugly together, the gravity that prevents our heavenly bodies from drifting apart. It’s been that way from the start.

Our faith tradition begins with the poetic lesson that diversity is at the heart of the divine nature Itself. God says let us create in our image and likeness. Plurality, not singularity. And it’s all good!

Thus, we get not just one kind of tree, but many. Not just one type of fish or bird or forest or mountain or planet or … you name it. There are countless versions of everything, each uniquely radiating the same divine image.

Plurality, not singularity

So, too, for us humans. There’s great diversity within our human family. Each unique face is another sacred reflection of our multifaceted Maker.

And it all coalesces around love.

In John’s description of the last supper, Jesus prays to God that we, his beloved friends – we the many, we the different – may be one as they are one, living within and through each other. That oneness forms from our many-ness when love is present.

When there’s love, there’s no need for division or suspicion or competition or recrimination or insecurity or fear or privilege or superiority or violence or partisanship.

As we’re reminded, love drives out fear. Relationship grounded in love recognizes diversity as a blessing rather than a threat. It seeks to work with the other for the common good.

Our diversity leads us to our God.

Of course, we’ll never have the depth of love that eliminates all fear and competition and insecurity – not on this side of heaven, anyway. But our call is to work at building and nurturing such relationship in our lives and our societies.

Diversity at the heart of the divine

This work starts by recognizing we’re caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., puts it so beautifully. Our many, varied relationships with God, one other, and nature are intertwined. They can’t be teased apart or separated.

What we do in one relationship affects all.

And, yes, it’s very hard work! We are hard-wired to gravitate toward the familiar and the similar. But the wisdom of trinity challenges us to open ourselves to that which is different and to see God present within people, places and encounters that might seem foreign or even frightening on the surface.

Unfortunately, some forms of religion lead us away from this wisdom. They seek to create “culture wars” among God’s equally beloved children and reject the diversity woven into our very nature.

Our refusal to recognize God’s presence within our diversity causes much of the division, fear, mistrust, hatred, and deep unhappiness in our world. If we can’t accept our many-ness, we’ll never know the oneness of Spirit for which we are made.

 Trinity reminds us of this foundational truth and invites us into this loving relationship.

(Photo courtesy of jmccarthy99@creativecommons.org)

Gardeners, not gods

Writers, artists and composers love the garden of Eden story because it works on so many levels and gets to the heart of who we are as humans. The story isn’t about disobedience as much as broken relationships – with each other, with nature, and with God.

The creation stories remind us we’re made from relationship and for relationship. We’re fashioned within a trinity of relationships — with God, with each other, with nature.

Those relationships are interwoven. If one suffers, they all suffer. Everything unravels quickly if we’re ignoring one area of relationship.

We experience that so profoundly in our world today. Our “original sin” or fundamental failure is refusing to center ourselves within the nurturing relationships that are essential if we’re to be happy, peaceful and fulfilled.

Without nurturing relationship, we never experience love.

Made from relationship, for relationship

The parable of the garden of Eden reminds us of who we are, whose we are, and how we are meant to live in harmony. The story places us in the role of gardener, not the garden owner. We’re meant to “cultivate and care for” God’s creation.

It nurtures us, and we nurture it. God is inviting us to become partners in this holy, ongoing work. And the story warns that if we choose not to accept the role and instead focus only on ourselves, we are “doomed to die.”

Of course, the humans in the story aren’t satisfied with the role of cultivator and co-creator. They decide they’d rather assign themselves the role of God – well, their self-indulgent version of a god, anyway – and do whatever they wish.

They delude themselves into thinking the garden belongs to them.

Once their relationship with creation begins to go awry because of their choices, so do all their other relationships. Their relationship with each other quickly degenerates into pointing fingers and assigning blame. They try to hide from God.

Every relationship quickly breaks down. Ultimately, they’re not so much driven from the garden as they’ve chosen to leave it by placing greed and self-interest above the garden and all within it.

I wish we could say that religion helps us refocus and re-center ourselves in the truth of relationship, but we all know that’s often not the case. It has too often been used to divide rather than reconcile.

A web of interwoven relationships

Instead of calling us back to our roles of gardener and lovers, religion has been turned into a weapon for cultural, religious and political wars. Loving relationship has been rejected for power and self-importance. The original sin is repeated.

Sadly, religion also gets misused as approval to rape, pillage and desecrate God’s sacred creation. Some “religious” people insist they can do whatever they want to nature because they, as humans, are all that matter.

Destruction and self-destruction result from this horrid theology.

Last week, we celebrated Earth Day, a reminder of our interwoven relationships with all God’s creation. We need reminders of our call to be in nurturing, loving relationship with nature, one another, and God.

Our faith reminds us that we’re not gods but gardeners. There’s a lot of restorative work to be done. It’s time to get our fingers dirty.

The price of living passionately

In 2004, Mel Gibson directed a film called “The Passion of the Christ.” Perhaps you’re familiar with it. The movie focuses on Jesus’ final hours, depicting his death in gruesome detail.

The rest of his life is mostly edited out.

Some of us were raised in traditions that focus almost exclusively on Jesus’ suffering and death – referred to as his passion – while skipping what he was passionate about. The lessons he taught, the love he embodied, the relationships he established are relegated to verses recited on Sunday but relegated to the cutting floor the rest of the time.

The truth is that Jesus’ suffering and death weren’t his passion; they were the price he paid for his passion. And there’s a lesson in this story for all of us about living with the same passion.

He was passionate about healing and reconciliation, not only us to God but to one another as well. He passionately announced, embodied and created a sacred space where everyone is welcomed and treated as the beloved child of God that they are.

This alternate kingdom was the antithesis of Caesar’s kingdom, then and now.

The price for living passionately

He preached about God’s deep passion for the needy, the struggling, the oppressed – woe to the rich, blessed are the poor, the least are the greatest, help anyone who is bleeding by the side of the road. He made whole again anyone who came to him for healing.

And justice – he was deeply passionate about justice.

Gospel stories describe him staging a provocative Palm Sunday procession that confronts Caesar’s values of power, wealth, dominance, violence, and militarism.

He was passionately prophetic by overturning the tables of those who misuse religion – then and now – to amass power, preserve the status quo, and ignore the needs of those they are supposed to serve.

This was his passion. He lived it. He paid a price for it. And he invites us – no matter what faith or religious background — to do the same and live in a passionate way that challenges the status quo and heals the world. He challenges us to put our passionate lives on the line for those who are being trampled by the many opportunistic political and religious leaders of our world.

Each of us can, in our own unique way, bring love, healing, reconciliation, restoration and resurrection to our world, our society, our relationships. We’re forced to choose between between living passionately or playing it safe and never truly living at all, which is an even greater price to pay.

Jesus knew there would be a cost for his passion– there always is. He lived it anyway. May we, too, live passionate lives sustained by transformative love and daily resurrection.