Jesus the Blasphemer

But Jesus remained silent. The high priest said to him, “I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.” “You have said so,” Jesus replied. “But I say to all of you: From now on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.” Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “He has spoken blasphemy! Why do we need any more witnesses? Look, now you have heard the blasphemy. What do you think?” “He is worthy of death,” they answered. (Mat 26:63-66)

[Jesus said,] “I and the Father are one.” Again his Jewish opponents picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus said to them, “I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which of these do you stone me?” “We are not stoning you for any good work,” they replied, “but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God.” (John 10:30-33)

This week a mob in Pakistan attacked three college students accused of blasphemy, killing one and injuring two. According to Al Jazeera, vigilantes have killed 69 accused blasphemers since 1990, while the government has killed 52. Last year, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (PDF) reported that there were 40 Pakistanis on death row or serving life sentences for blasphemy. Some of them, like Asia Bibi are Christians. Most are not.

Until recently, modern Americans could close their eyes to the violent passions that religious speech and identity can trigger. Progressive Christians tend to see the violent opposition to Jesus in economic, social or political terms. The empire did it. Indeed, it did. That, however, is not the primary lens through which the Gospel authors viewed the crucifixion. In the eyes of many of his coreligionists, Jesus was a blasphemer. He claimed to be one with the Father, at whose right hand he would soon be sitting. Jesus’ opponents considered this to be blasphemy, and for that he deserved to die.

Especially the Household of Faith

So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith. Galatians 6:10 

Among those in need, can Christians prioritize their brothers and sisters in Christ? The United Methodist Church teaches that it is not only permissible to do so, it is officially required. The General Rules we inherited from John Wesley direct those who want to belong to the Methodist societies to do all the good they can, specifically:

By doing good, especially to them that are of the household of faith or groaning so to be; employing them preferably to others; buying one of another, helping each other in business, and so much the more because the world will love its own and them only.

Wesley is alluding to Paul’s writing in Galatians 6:10. Paul’s word “especially” (μάλιστα) could also be translated “most of all” or “above all” or “to the greatest degree”.

The General Rules demand that members of Methodist societies help the poor, spread the gospel to everyone and live within their means, all while at the same time giving preference to their Christian brothers and sisters. The Rules are one of the United Methodist Church’s unalterable standards of doctrine.

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How I Pray at Military Ceremonies

I offer a lot of public invocations. Here are some brief, practical thoughts on how I approach the task.

Introducing the Prayer. I say why I am offering an invocation and gently invite people to participate in their own way. The introduction recognizes that a time of prayer is important on this occasion for many people, but not for all, and it gives the listeners freedom to adapt my words for their own use as they see fit. A couple of examples.

“We are rejoicing today with John and Kathy Jones as John is promoted to Colonel. I invite you to take these moments to give thanks in your own way, in your own heart, as I offer this invocation.”

“Retirement is a momentous occasion is every person’s life. As we gather to honor Sally Smith on her retirement, I invite you to take a few moments for your own prayer or reflection as I offer this invocation.”

Praying in the First Person Singular. When I am directly addressing the deity, I try to speak in the first person singular or in the imperative. In other words, I say “I” instead of “we”, or I completely leave off the pronoun. In a government ceremony, I cannot assume that everyone prays as I do. It would be inaccurate to put my words in their mouths. Since I can only speak for myself, I don’t ordinarily say “we ask” or “we pray” or other words that presume to speak for others. I only use the word “we” to describe the obvious sentiments of the assembled group. A couple of examples:

“O Lord, I pray to you for all who are grieving. We’re all feeling the pain of Sam’s death. I ask you to comfort all who mourn, especially Sam’s family and close friends. Let the love that brings them sorrow today also bring healing to their souls.”

“God, I ask you to bless this food we’re about to share. We’re all happy to have a day out of the office at the company picnic. Keep us safe and use this time to refresh our spirits.”

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Pluralism or Non-Sectarianism: The Supreme Court on Government Invocations

Town of Greece v. Galloway, 2014

On the issue of invocations at government ceremonies, the most relevant Supreme Court decision is Town of Greece v. Galloway (2014). Two citizens from the town of Greece, NY objected to the sectarian nature of the invocations given at town council meetings. They sued the city, demanding an end to sectarian prayers at the assembly. They wanted the town to adopt a policy that only inclusive or non-sectarian prayers were acceptable. In writing the opinion of the court, Justice Kennedy provided a description of the facts of the case. The following is an abridged version of that portion of the decision.

The town followed an informal method for selecting prayer givers, all of whom were unpaid volunteers. The town at no point excluded or denied an opportunity to a would-be prayer giver. Its leaders maintained that a minister or layperson of any persuasion, including an atheist, could give the invocation. But nearly all of the congregations in town were Christian; and from 1999 to 2007, all of the participating ministers were too. [The town] neither reviewed the prayers in advance of the meetings nor provided guidance as to their tone or content, in the belief that exercising any degree of control over the prayers would infringe both the free exercise and speech rights of the ministers. The town instead left the guest clergy free to compose their own devotions. The resulting prayers often sounded both civic and religious themes. Some of the ministers spoke in a distinctly Christian idiom.

[The suit against the town] did not seek an end to the prayer practice, but rather requested an injunction that would limit the town to “inclusive and ecumenical” prayers that referred only to a “generic God” and would not associate the government with any one faith or belief.

The town won the case in U.S. district court, lost in the court of appeals, and won again in the Supreme Court.

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The Supreme Court, Civic Prayer and Chaplains

Earlier this week, the Supreme Court decided that the city council of Greece, New York does not violate the constitution by opening its meetings with prayers provided by local clergy, the majority of whom are Christian. The complainants had sought relief in the form of a requirement for “non-sectarian prayers.” Howard Friedman at Religion Clause quotes Justice Kennedy writing for the majority.

An insistence on nonsectarian or ecumenical prayer as a single, fixed standard is not consistent with the tradition of legislative prayer outlined in the Court’s cases…. To hold that invocations must be nonsectarian would force the legislatures that sponsor prayers and the courts that are asked to decide these cases to act as supervisors and censors of religious speech, a rule that would involve government in religious matters to a far greater degree than is the case under the town’s current practice of nei­ther editing or approving prayers in advance nor criticizing their content after the fact….

Respondents argue, in effect, that legislative prayer may be addressed only to a generic God. The law and the Court could not draw this line for each specific prayer or seek to require ministers to set aside their nuanced and deeply personal beliefs for vague and artificial ones. There is doubt, in any event, that consensus might be reached as to what qualifies as generic or nonsectarian….

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