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Jul 22nd
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Religion & Faith
THE ROOT OF ALL EVIL? by Rollin Russell
April 22, 2018

The super rich in our overwrought world are awash in money . . . and awash in debt.  Praise the gods of technology for computers which, along with accountants and attorneys keep track of it all, and for banks all over the world to hide it from prying eyes.  Really, is it anyone else's business?   Well, yes, at times . . . like now!

There's Manafort, Gates, Trump, Ichan, Kushner, Mnuchin -- just a few of our very own American fast money hot shots.  They borrow billions (with a "B"), owe billions, hustle for billions, and count anyone not in that maelstrom as lesser mortals and losers.  

So, we have to have other computers, attorneys and accountants, plus prosecutors to follow the money and discern how it was gotten, whence it came and whither it goes.  Thus we try to hold accountable those whose gains were ill-gotten and whose losses and debts put them in jeopardy with other billionaires.

What would we do without investigators and prosecutors to pull away the veil of shady, artful obfuscation?  Now we begin to see it emerge: the vast world of high roller, money hungry persons who are currently using our government to enhance their greedy self enrichment, and in the process, are dismantling our democratic institutions.  The Bible says that "money is the root of all evil."

That may be true, but lust runs a close second, and lust may be the joker that throws a monkey wrench into the gears of the money machine.  Hiding and laundering all that money is complicated.  Lust is not complicated.  But when lust needs to be hidden and covered up, money comes out of the closet.  Track the former and we stumble on the latter.  And, the surreptitious moving of the money is illegal and can be and is being prosecuted.

How wonderfully ironic that the careful machinations involved in hiding and moving tons of money is undone by the base and common reality of high roller lust.

Rev. Rollin O Russell
Hillsborough, NC
A Pivotal Year by Rollin Russell
December 11, 2017

2017 could well go down in modern American history as the pivotal year for a cultural sea change.  The scabs and bandages have been torn off four long term festering sores in the American body politic in 2017.  We need treatment.  

We peeked under the first bandage in mid 2016.  Call it, "male predatory sexual aggression."  Our genitalia grabbing President shrugged off his offenses as "locker room talk."  But numerous women broke the silence, at considerable risk to themselves, and told us that it was a lot more than talk.  Those women emboldened others to begin telling the truth about the abuse  they had received from wealthy, powerful, egotistical men with whom they worked or that they encountered.  This year it was a movie mogul whose gross behavior was exposed, and more and more women began saying, "#me too," and describing the abuse that had been inflicted on them by politicians, entertainers and others.  2017's flood of accusations has placed the issue front and center in our public awareness.

The second bandage was torn away in Charlottesville, VA. and exposed the deep and gaping wound that African Americans, Jews and others have long known as vitriolic racism.  Many have acknowledged and analyzed systemic racism and the ways it is deeply imbedded in our society, but the raw, violent expression of it, veiled and substantially ignored in the last several decades, is now unmistakable in all its nastiness.  Systemic racism has created a social and economic order that stifles the opportunity for thriving of minority persons, even as cries are raised alleging reverse racism against supposedly beleaguered white folks.  Vitriolic racism is now unmasked, an unmistakable expression of the racist fear and hatred at the root of our common life.  We must deal now with both forms of racism.

The gaping wound of gun violence is not new in 2017, but it has reached new levels of unspeakable carnage.  The wholesale slaughter of innocents in Las Vegas, followed closely by a massacre of Texas worshipers and a host of other heinous shootings, show how far down the path of insanity we have come.  It is not as though the sale of guns cannot be regulated effectively, especially to known criminals and the mentally ill.  It is our fear that causes us to buy thousands of weapons and resist any effort to curtail their availability.  Mix that with anxiety and aggressiveness on the part of some, and we have the present disaster.

The fourth festering sore is now unmasked by our convoluted US Congress as it makes dramatic changes to the tax code.  Its name is "Unbridled Greed."  It has been with us before, particularly in the Gilded Age, and now masquerades cynically as tax cuts for the middle class.  Every analysis exposes its clear results: enriching the wealthy while impoverishing the poor, and pretty much everyone else.  Along with the changes in taxation come the removal of regulatory restraints and protections for the public.  This dramatic change is enforced by restrictions on voting rights and gerrymandered electoral districts which protect those who protect the wealthy.  

Predatory sexual aggression, combined with vitriolic racism, the unchecked availability of guns and rigid economic inequality, all point to a deep seated cultural sickness: the compulsion to dominate.  That cancer is fully exposed in 2017, and we will not solve any of its symptoms until we acknowledge the disease.  And, this year will not be pivotal, we will not change, unless we begin to treat it.  That's the diagnosis and the prognosis.  So, what is the treatment?

Curing the compulsion to dominate is not a matter of legislation or elections.  It is a matter of the heart of individuals and the soul of the nation.  As a pastor I might be expected to prescribe religion as a way forward.  It is maddening to acknowledge, however, that the fundamentalist versions of religion are enablers and encouragers of the compulsion to dominate.  They want to dominate and do not hesitate to use politics to try to do it.  

Religious traditions that teach love for the neighbor and seek justice for the poor; religions that believe that all persons are children of God, beloved by God, and deserve to be respected and cherished: they hold the antidote for our disease.  May they thrive and speak their truth boldly.  They may be our best hope to pivot toward the nation of justice, compassion and unity that we aspire to be.  2017 will turn out be a pivotal year only if we begin to address these four crises.  It requires confession, contrition and conversion:  starting with ourselves and advocated to all, especially our cultural and national leaders.  With regard to predatory sexual aggression we have at least made a start.  We must begin to address and reverse the other three as well.

The Government We Deserve by Rollin Russell
December 6, 2016

Numerous sages have said it: "In a democracy you get the government you deserve."  People on both sides of the "dividing wall of hostility"  (see Ephesians 2) that now separates us can agree, one side with satisfaction, on the other with disdain.

On the reddish side of the wall, many feel they have been ignored, manipulated, discounted, taken for granted and left to scramble for existence as the economic rug was pulled out from under them.  The election was, to them, an upsetting of the apple cart of the elites and power brokers, political, financial and cultural, that made their lives miserable for decades.  Trump will change the system, so let the chips fall where he decides.  They feel they deserve this dramatic reversal.

On the bluish side of the wall, the election outcome was unthinkable.  Their pollsters and commentators told them so.  Their sense of justice, mutual respect and equality, their assumptions about a bright, multi-cultural American future told them so.  And now all those values seem endangered.  The xenophobic, misogynist, racist, arrogant narcissist won the election and his victory unmasks those characteristics in millions who supported him.  The nation deserves this painful reality check.  

It is a rude awakening.  So, now, instead of dozens of email requests for political contributions, each day we receive the angst filled or, on the other hand, gloating speculations about the political, economic and social future.  I have found two articles that provide some insight and perspective (and that clearly reveal the side of the wall on which I stand).

Two professors from the University of Texas point out how closely Donald Trump and his campaign rhetoric resemble the political Superman of Friedrich Nietzsche's writings.  They write:
The title of Nietzsche's book about a superman, who could be a super-president, is usually translated as The Anti-Christ (1895).  A more accurate translation from the German is The Anti-Christian.  The values of Nietzsche's anti-Christian are the opposite of Christian values: strength, not weakness; pride, not humility; impulsive passion, not controlled reason, war, not peace; and egoism, not altruism.  In short, the creed of anti-Christians is this: "What is good? All that heightens the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself."     (The Daily Texan, November 18, 2016)

The second insight is not really new.  It is from an Alternet article that describes why 81 per cent of Evangelical Christians voted for the President Elect. (Pugh Research, 2016)  It sights the ideological rigidity of the white, fundamentalist, Christian population that is dominant in the American heartland.

Religious fundamentalism is what has shaped most of their belief systems.  Systems built on a fundamentalist framework are not conducive to introspection, questioning, learning, change.  When you have a belief system that is built on fundamentalism, it isn't open to     outside criticism, especially by anyone not a member of your tribe and in a position of power.

Rational arguments about qualifications for the office are futile.  Citations of gross behavior, sexism, misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia are to no avail.  The crucial issues are abortion, homosexuality, male dominance and the makeup of the Supreme Court, which has authorized 'unthinkable' change in all these areas.

So, we acknowledge the supreme irony of fundamentalist Christians overwhelmingly supporting a candidate who plausibly can be described as the anti-Christian, would-be superman.  The "dividing wall of hostility," thus, seems impregnable.  In Ephesians the dividing wall is broken down by a peculiar and powerful sort of love that embraces the poor and outcast, defies the pretentions of power and empire and envisions the reign of justice and peace.

There are still Christians, Jews, Muslims and persons of other faiths and of no faith who are committed to this authentic biblical/ethical vision.  Their voices are currently drowned out by the noise of self-appointed and self-anointed fundamentalist preachers.  But, in them is our best hope for a future of unity and mutuality.  Let those who "do justice, love mercy and walk humbly" (Micah 6) raise their voices and act on their convictions, and let the walls come tumbling down.  One day we may get the government we need rather than the one we deserve.

Rollin O. Russell

The Purple Crown by Rollin Russell
July 6, 2016

The slaughter of innocents at the Pulse night club in Orlando, FL  reminded many of the murder of Bible study participants at Emmanuel AME Church just one year ago.  The circumstances of the two atrocities were very different but the fundamental act is the same: a hate filled person slaughtered  unresisting victims because they were Black or LGBT.

Christians since the third century have called martyrdoms like the one at Mother Emmanuel the Purple Crown.  It applies to Orlando as well.  The term was first used during the persecution of Christians by the Emperor Valerian, and it has been honored by the pacifist traditions, many of whose faithful were  martyred during the Middle Ages and the Reformation.  

In his book, The Purple Crown, Tripp York contends that we need only look to the martyrs to see the most heinous evil in any age or society: it is the one that makes martyrs of its saints.  The partiers at Pulse were not saints by any traditional definition, but they were martyrs of a life style non-the-less.

We now see racism and homophobia unmasked in all their stark hideousness.  The only appropriate response to new insight is new action.  If we seize his second moment of clarity, and if we use it to make changes in the way we think and live, we might eventually be able to say, as Joseph did to his brothers in Egypt, "You meant it to me for evil, but God has turned it to good."

Rev. Rollin O. Russell
Hillsborough, NC

Off the Rails by Rollin Russell
May 17, 2016

Our state elected leaders have really gone off the rails this time. No, I am not referring to the beleaguered legislature's bizarre HB#2. This time it's Lt. Gov. Dan Forest. He has sent a letter on his official state letterhead inviting himself to churches to "share my faith story, as well as share how my relationship with God impacts my family, career, and everyday decisions." He says he has done this previously and is happy to give other churches the opportunity to hear and converse with him. It is a finger in the eye to federal law, which bars tax-exempt groups from intervening in partisan politics.

Forest goes on to suggest a format for such a visit: "invite me to attend a Sunday service at your church, . . . have me on stage side-by-side with you (the pastor) and you conduct a Q and A session." Never mind that he is running for re-election. Does he not know that to do as he suggests would place any such church in possible violation of the Internal Revenue Code and endanger its tax exemption? Doesn’t he know that churches, like most non-profit groups, are forbidden to engage in partisan political activity? Of course he does. He and the church groups to which he panders want to have their tax-exempt cake and eat it too.

I doubt that any Episcopal, Presbyterian, Methodist, Mennonite, Lutheran, United Church of Christ or Unitarian churches will receive Forest's letter, much less Jewish synagogues or Islamic mosques. He is wooing a particular evangelical-fundamentalist constituency, not the majority of Christian churches or religious groups. The former all know the truth that was recently so well expressed by their national leaders in "A Statement of Faithful Obedience:"
When entering the public sphere, faith leaders must take care to avoid being used by politics or politicians, or to allow their faith to be exploited for partisan causes or their faith communities turned into mere political constituencies."
Perfectly stated. The lieutenant governor has gone off the rails and should be ashamed.

Rev. Rollin Russell
Orange-Durham Chapter
Americans United for separation of Church and State

The North Carolina Legislature Reconvenes by Rollin Russell
April 20, 2016

Hide the children and the silverware.  The North Carolina Legislature is returning to Raleigh for its Short Session.   The good news is: they probably cannot do as much damage to the character and reputation of our state as they did in just one day in the special session which rammed through House Bill #2.  Companies are cancelling plans to locate facilities here.  Entertainers are cancelling their concerts here.  Professional sports leagues are reconsidering their commitments to hold headline events in North Carolina.  Cities, counties and organizations are protesting and filing suits to strike down the law.

Contrary to our beleaguered and rattled governor's retort, it is not just a matter of "bathroom etiquette."  The legislature used their feigned horror at a Charlotte City ordinance to strike down all municipal and county ordinances that protect the rights of LGBTQ citizens which go beyond the protections already in state law which are, for these particular  neighbors, in a word, . . . none.  

It is not as though they were oblivious to the furor they might incur.  Indiana passed a similar law and had to walk it back in light of outraged protest.  Georgia passed a similar law and it's governor was smart and courageous enough to veto it.  Mississippi has now joined in with its own version.  It is a race to the bottom in a clear effort to strike back at gay rights in general and marriage equality in particular.   

The legislators base their actions on the claim to religious liberty, the "free exercise of religion" guaranteed in the First Amendment to the US Constitution.  They are really violating that very clause in the Bill of Rights, namely its other half: we are to "make no law regarding an establishment of religion."  The Legislature and the religious conservatives to whom they pander clearly want to establish in law the precepts of their own narrow gauge religion.  It is unconstitutional and will be struck down.  But in the meantime, it is creating havoc.

So, here they come again.  What new travesty will they try to impose on us?  Like other reactionary state legislatures, they take their orders from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an organization funded by zillionaires who want to hold and increase political power.  It is time to get them and their legislative lackeys off our backs.  It is time to take seriously their attempts to establish their religious precepts in law and government, in gross violation of the principle of Separation of Church and State.   

Rev. Rollin Russell, Hillsborough, NC
Americans United for Separation of Church and State  
Orange-Durham Chapter

TAX RIP-OFF by Rollin Russel
March 6, 2016       

Word of God Christian Academy in Raleigh could receive $563,800 from your tax dollars for this academic year.  Mt. Zion Christian Academy in Durham could get $550,200, all from the state budget intended for public schools.  This money is funding religious instruction all over our state thanks to North Carolina's so-called Opportunity Scholarship Program.  

Students receive vouchers for up to $4,200 for tuition to attend "any non-public school."  For 2015-16 there were a total of 6,697 applications, 139 applied to go to Word of God Academy, 131 have applied for Mt. Zion Academy.  Do the math.  The vast majority of the 245 schools which the applicants choose to attend are evangelical or fundamentalist Christian schools of recent vintage, founded by churches or religious groups, run by religious leaders and teaching religious doctrine.

These schools are not subject to state standards for testing, curriculum or teacher certification.  Unlike public schools, they are not accountable to our elected school boards nor to the Department of Public Instruction.  They do not have to report corporal punishment and so may use it with impunity.  They are free to use government funds to teach their religious views and beliefs.

A majority of North Carolinians do not want their tax dollars used for religious instruction and do not want to see our public schools robbed of the funds intended for them.  Indeed, 72 of the state's 115 school districts are on record opposing this program.  The voucher program is not supported by North Carolinians, and it should be stopped.

Politics used for religious purposes and religion used for political purposes undermine the integrity of both.

Marriage Equality: The Bible and the Believers by Rollin Russell
July 24, 2015

I was elated, along with millions of other American Christians, at the Supreme court's decision on Marriage Equality.  As a 70-something retired protestant pastor, that may seem strange to those Christians who vehemently object to that ruling.  I was never strongly opposed to homosexuality or to gay persons, but accepted the conventional wisdom of my younger days: that they were psychologically maladjusted or an unfortunate quirk of nature.  My mind changed over the short period of a decade.

The United Church of Christ, in which I served for 40 years, began dealing with this issue in the 1970's.  The General Synod, the UCC's national governing body, adopted a Pronouncement in 1975, "Civil Liberties Without Regard to Sexual Orientation."  In 1983 the Synod adopted a resolution authorizing the ordination of gay and lesbian candidates for ministry if they were fully qualified.  In 2005 the Synod adopted a resolution supporting marriage equality.  There were numerous resolutions through those years that expressed theological support and pastoral concern for LGBTQ persons and their families.

I participated in each of those Synod meetings and in the process gained a new understanding of the issues and of the LGBTQ people who have suffered painful, thwarting discrimination.  I also spent all those years trying to help Christian folks who had grown up with the same assumptions I did about homosexuality understand why our church was taking such positions.  These were faithful church members who never dreamed of such developments and could not imagine accepting them.  Every conversation was painful, and some were enlightening as those who had open minds and hearts began to see that God's love extends to all people, without exception.

The crux of the matter has always come down to the authority of scripture.  The division, to over-simplify, can be seen as: the Bible as the Word of God, versus the Bible as the Words of God.  Many denominations, scholars, pastors and Christians have for decades understood the Bible as the testimony of faithful Jews and Christians from the 6th century BCE to the 2nd century of the Christian Era, not actual words of God, dictated and recorded by those witnesses.  They are best understood in light of their historical, literary and cultural context.  Others have held the view that every word of Scripture is literally inspired, and to think otherwise is apostasy.  Their voice has been increasingly loud and is near deafening since the marriage equality ruling, and it comes basically from the spiritual shackles of biblical literalism.

There are six passages that have traditionally been read as condemning homosexuality.  The story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19, when read against other references to it, seems to have nothing to do with sexuality at all: Ezekiel writes: "this was the guilt of Sodom, she had pride, excess of food, prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor."  [Hmm, . . . is America a modern Sodom?]  Isaiah and Jeremiah make similar references, none having to do with homosexuality.  There are two such condemnations in Leviticus 18 and 20 where homosexuality is seen as an abomination, but so is eating shell fish and blending different fibers in weaving cloth.  Leviticus is a holiness code; its about purity in all things, and is generally ignored by these same Christian literalists.

The condemnations in the Christian scriptures are in the letters of St. Paul and occur in lists which include "murderers, fornicators, sodomites, slave traders, liars . . ." (I Timothy 1).  There was no concept of sexual orientation in that era, and Paul was reacting to common practices in the Greco-Roman world, including temple prostitution of all sorts.  Many Christians were taught from infancy to adhere to all these admonitions as God's will without regard to their cultural context.  It is understandable that they have difficulty stepping away from their traditional views and accepting what seems to them to be the profligate cultural norms of a corrupt social order.

It will take time, but the fundamentalist view of faith, life and society based on biblical literalism is fading.  That is why they fight so fiercely.  In the meantime, supporters of marriage equality and LGBTQ rights should back off a little, celebrate but don't gloat or ridicule, and trust the steady and inevitable movement toward full equality.

Rollin O. Russell
Hillsborough, NC


THE PURPLE CROWN by Rollin Russell
June 28, 2015

We have not yet heard from Wayne LaPierre, the NRA president, regarding the horrific slaughter at Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston.  A member of the South Carolina Legislature, though, was clearly channeling him and his constant trope:  "If someone among the church goers had been carrying a gun there would have been fewer deaths."  Dylann Roof talked to his victims as he methodically shot them, reloaded  and continued his killing.  He could have been taken down numerous times.  

So, . . . blame the victims?!

What few people seem to understand, especially the rebel flag waving, gun toting, hyper conservatives among us, is that there is no way on earth that these prayer and Bible study Christians would carry a weapon, much less respond to any such assault with violence.  It is not that they are historic and theological pacifists like Mennonites and Moravians.  These AME Christians at Mother Emmanuel undoubtedly sent their sons to the military to defend our country and went themselves.  Rather, they had grasped, and been grasped, by the core principle of the Christian Faith: love conquers hate.  

So they talked and reasoned and prayed for their assailant, even as he methodically shot them, reloaded and shot again and again.  The forces of darkness and hatred will never understand that.  Most of the rest of us don't get it either.  But when we witness love, grace and forgiveness in the face of raw evil, we begin to see and sense its powerful truth.  Our eyes can open to the deeper truth of our history and our lives, and our hearts can be moved in new ways.  We have witnessed the wave of compassion and love that followed.  President Obama put it accurately: the grace that was in them elicited grace in abundance.  It is Amazing: blind, but now we see.

Christians since the third century have called such martyrdoms the Purple Crown.  The term was first used by Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage during the persecution of Christians by the Emperor Valerian, and it has been honored most consistently by the pacifist traditions, many of whose faithful were  martyred during the Middle Ages and the Reformation.  In his book, The Purple Crown, Tripp York contends that we need only look to the martyrs to see the most heinous evil in any age or society: it is the one that makes martyrs of its saints.  

Now, clearly, we see racism unmasked in all its stark hideousness.  The only appropriate response to new insight is new action, new ways of living and relating to each other.  If we seize this kyros moment of clarity, this moment when grace broke into our common life, and if we use it to make changes in the way we think and live, we might eventually be able to say, as the patriarch Joseph did to his brothers in Egypt, "You meant it to me for evil, but God has turned it to good."

Rev. Dr. Rollin O. Russell
Hillsborough, NC

RELIGION RUN AMOK by Rev. Dr. Rollin O. Russell
May 22, 2015

The three Abrahamic faiths have much in common.  Judaism, Christianity and Islam all honor the Hebrew scriptures alongside other texts that they regard as authoritative.  All three proclaim the importance of devotion to God or Allah and concern for the neighbor.  All three reverence Abraham, the patriarch, Moses, the law-giver, and many of the same prophets.  Islam honors Jesus as a prophet and takes some of his story more literally than do many Christians.

All three also have differing and competing versions of their faith, each characterized by its own interpretation of the texts, and some within each household are quite similar to and affirming of the authenticity of others.  Some of the differences are the result of accidents of history: different national traditions, or controversies that once seemed crucial but are now seen as irrelevant.  Unfortunately, each also has fundamentalist expressions: deeply invested believers who adhere fanatically to literal understandings of a select set of their sacred texts.

The fact that all three of these world religions have fundamentalist wings does not, in any way imply equivalency -- far from it.  Their key texts are different, their aims are very different and mutually opposed, and the present context is dramatically different for each.  Yet, there is a strange similarity to their purposes and their respective visions of the future.  

Though the fundamentalist wing in each religion has many sects and expressions, each and all of those sects, have one thing in common: they envision the rise of a holy nation, righteous, invincible and dominant, and their triumphant visions involve the figure of a messiah.  Plus, in all three, a period of corruption, apostasy and conflict are expected to precede the Messiah, and in many versions, a cataclysmic war will follow, in which the righteous will be victorious and the nation will be established.  

Fundamentalist Jewish Messianism, while vague and allegorical for many Jews, and seen as irrelevant by others, is a lively expectation by the most militant fundamentalists.  While most Jewish people envision the establishment by the Messiah of a "peaceable kingdom," the fundamentalist sects long for the establishment of a powerful, unassailable Holy Land from the Tigris and Euphrates in the north to the Nile, to be established by force if necessary.  Other nations and peoples will flock to Jerusalem because it will be clearly the true, righteous people of God.

Fundamentalist Islamic Messianism is also focused on a worldly dominion, the re-establishment of the ancient Caliphate, which will stretch over the entire Muslim world.  It will be, however, a constantly expanding Caliphate as more and more peoples are brought into acceptance of, or submission to, Islam.  The new Caliph will arise from within, will draw all true Muslims to his banner, will sweep all opposition before him, recognizing no national borders or other creeds as legitimate.  Of course, the Jewish and Islamic fundamentalists are talking, in part, about some of the same land!

Fundamentalist Christian Messianism builds on the Jewish Messianic tradition, but anticipates the return of Jesus as the Messiah from the heavens, with a host of angels, to establish the Kingdom of God.  Following their literalist reading of select passages of scripture, this event will take place after Israel has regained dominance in the Holy Land and the temple has been rebuilt on Temple Mount in Jerusalem.  But, oddly, for Christian nationalists, America is to be the righteous nation!  It is seen as a nation founded by their Evangelical forebears and stolen from them by modernism and culturally depraved secularism.  America is seen as the bastion against Godless communism and socialism, and now must aid Israel in conquering the Holy Land and building the temple so that Jesus can return.  In this vision, all who are not born-again, fundamentalist Christians will be converted or destroyed, leaving America as the Holy and dominant nation.

Again, many of these strains in the fundamentalist wing of all three religions envision the rise of a messiah, the establishment of a holy nation, and an apocalyptic conflict in which all but the righteous, like themselves, of course, are vanquished.  The inspiration for all three religions' versions of fundamentalism is a literal reading of selective ancient texts.   Further, each of these apocalyptic visions is very dangerous in a variety of ways, but taken together, they pose an extraordinary threat to any hope of peace, justice and stability, as current events so graphically demonstrate.

It is, in each case, religion run amuck.  So, is religion itself the problem?  World history is replete with wars, persecutions and pogroms, all in the name of religion.  Yet, the three faiths that trace their origins to Abraham, extol peace, justice, compassion, forgiveness and the common good in their sacred texts, and each has exemplified those virtues in countless ways in every generation.  So, what is the disconnect?  What is the problem at the heart of religion that causes this fundamentalist distortion and so much conflict and senseless slaughter?  
At its heart, the real culprit is hubris, pride, believing oneself, one's religion, one's race or culture to be superior to all others and ordained by God/Allah to dominate.  There are passages in each religion which, taken out of context, and constantly emphasized from an exclusionary perspective, can be twisted to promote hatred of any and all others, and to justify suppressing them.  It is the human problem.  But, when mixed with any version of literal, inerrant, religious fundamentalism, this arrogance can be understood as a divine mandate.  The inevitable  result is conflict and the attempt to dominate.

One response is to reclaim the humility and love that is proclaimed by each religion.  But, that love cannot remain silent or inactive in the face of the oppression, much less the slaughter, of innocent people.  Indeed, it demands that we cherish and protect our neighbors no matter who they are.  Christian theologians from Augustine to Niebuhr have pondered this question and proposed rationales for a "just war," the conditions that require peace-loving people to resist oppression through armed response, and the limitations on that response.  But responding in kind to brutal tyranny, no matter how judiciously, still perpetuates the cycle of violence.

Historically, the one lasting protection for everyone is the separation of religion and government so that the civil means of coercion and authorized violence will not be in the hands of any one religious persuasion, much less an aggressive, fundamentalist one.  The genius of the American experiment in constitutional democracy was and is the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution, particularly, the separation of church and state.  Thereby, every religion is free to worship, to propagate its faith and to contribute to human flourishing, and none has a means to coerce anyone else.  This critical "wall of separation" must be guarded against all current attempts to undermine it.

The current situation strains this critical safeguard against violence and chaos.  In the case of Jewish Messianic fundamentalism the structures of governance in Israel are democratic in theory, but a dominant coalition of fundamentalist and conservative factions all but controls national policy making.  Islamic states do not even pretend to separate religion and government, and when a radical fundamentalist uprising like ISIS occurs, though it is a minority opinion among Muslims, it sweeps many into its net and conquers without mercy. America is unique in having a long historic commitment to the separation of church and state, but its Christian fundamentalist movement seeks to undermine that critical separation as it proclaims a triumphalist "American exceptionalism."

Ironically, one of the cornerstones of America's exceptional character is that "wall of separation between church and state."  All real patriots will continue guarding and building that wall and proclaiming its necessity.     

CONNECTING THE DOTS: Fundamentalism's Revisionist History by Rev. Dr. Rollin O. Russell

Evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants have their own version of American history as well as of human history and the cosmos, facts and science to the contrary not withstanding.  Both are being pushed zealously by the political religious right, and most Americans are unaware of the strange ideology that motivates their efforts.  Here is the back story.

The founders of the New England colonies were non-conformist Protestants escaping the religious and civil tyranny exercised by the combined dominance of the British crown and the Anglican Church.  It is sad to note how quickly they established their own brand of religious intolerance once they were in control on these shores.  These Puritan dissenters closely adhered to scripture but were "benign literalists" in that they used a very wide variety of interpretive styles while assuming the scriptures' essential truth.  They did not, however, believe in the "literal inerrancy" of the scriptures in which every word and phrase had to be accepted as the inspired and literal truth.  That doctrine came much later, and the story of its development is central to our current dramatic political and religious divisions.

The framers of the U. S. Constitution, 150 years after the first colonies were established, had seen quite enough of religious entanglement and domination in government.  They still smarted from the historic religious persecution and from fines and confiscation of their own property in old England, and they were frustrated by government favors and support of dominant religious groups in New England and Virginia.  Hence, they specifically and intentionally made the first clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution a guarantee of the separation of government and religion.  As Thomas Jefferson put it in his letter to the Danbury Baptists, there is a "wall of separation between church and state."  In addition, the letter of George Washington to the synagogue in Newport, RI (1780), and James Madison's message on the Virginia Statute on Religious Liberty (1785) make their insistence on the separation of religion and government very clear.  

The colonial founders can be seen as evangelical Protestants seeking to establish a Christian nation, but the founders of the nation most assuredly were not.  Evangelical claims to the contrary are pure fiction.

Evangelical Protestantism continued to be culturally dominant for another century before it came apart at the seams.  Charles Darwin's On the Origin of the Species was published in England in 1859 but was not initially broadly noticed in America.  The nation's focus was on the chaos created by the Fugitive Slave Law, the fracturing of the country over slavery and abolition, and the eventual Civil War.  Darwin's theory was noted in academic faculties of biology and theology, in most cases with fascinated openness, but it went largely unnoticed in popular culture.  In the decades following the war, however, evolution became a major issue.

Clearly, the Genesis story of creation in six days, a generally assumed historical account, could not be taken literally if evolution was accepted.  Biology was liberated; theology, however, was plunged into controversy.  Some religious leaders embraced Darwin's theory and saw that it opened a new theological perspective on the earth's origins and on any understanding of the Creator.  In 1885 Henry Ward Beecher, probably the most notable preacher of his day, published Evolution and Religion, in which he extolled the new theory and declared it entirely compatible with religion.  

Others reacted with alarm.  In their eyes, if one cannot accept the literal and historical truth of the Genesis story it calls the truth of the entire Bible into question.  It appeared to be a slippery slope to unbelief, and the more the literalists defended the Bible against evolution, the louder they proclaimed its literal inerrancy.  In 1909, 300,000 copies of Fundamentals, a book written by notable leaders were sent to churches nationwide.  In it one of the five fundamental doctrines which a Christian must believe was that the scriptures are "entirely inerrant."  The separation of the two theological perspectives, one embracing evolution as liberating for theology and the other rejecting it as false and atheistic, has continued to the present.

The origin of today's fundamentalist church bodies and their phalanx of non-profit advocacy organizations can be traced to that late 19th and early 20th century controversy.  But, one particular branch has led the attack on the teaching of evolution: millennialists.  The members of millennialist church groups anxiously and eagerly await the second coming of Christ on the clouds of heaven at the end of history when the dead will be raised and God's Reign established.    They reason, quite rightly, that if people stop believing in a miraculous six day creation, why would they continue to believe in a miraculous, apocalyptic end to history through divine intervention and Christ's return?  The more that fundamentalists insisted on scriptural inerrancy and its historical accuracy, the more they came to embrace the prophecy of the apocalypse.  Another of the five Fundamentals was Jesus' "bodily return to rule and to judge."

In addition, if these events, so graphically described in the Bible, are rejected, then the rigid, male-dominant "divine order" of family and society would also be in jeopardy.  What was and is at stake for fundamentalists theologically is their biblical literalism and their peculiar dogmas of a six day creation, male dominance and the divine social order, and the redemption of the righteous at Jesus' return.  What is at stake personally is their children's faith in those dogmas.  

So, they attack and seek to undermine the public schools where their children are taught the full spectrum of biology, including evolution, as well as a view of human history, U. S. history and democratic society that fundamentalists reject.  They advocate, rather, for vouchers for children to attend non-public schools or be home schooled using curricula that reflect their own contrary views.  They also have succeeded in promoting charter schools in many of which these ideological versions of creation, history and social order are taught.   

So, why are these science denying, history contorting fundamentalists so seemingly successful?  They have entered an unholy alliance with political conservatives who also resist every sign of movement toward a multi-racial, multi-cultural nation which honors its commitment to equality.  It is hard to imagine conservative high rollers knocking on doors in a political campaign, much less ascribing to the fundamentalist's theology.  But, the religious fundamentalists don't mind those efforts at all; it's their modus operandi.

Together the two have advocated their false history of a Christian America as a rationale for their ideology.  They correctly see the First Amendment's separation of church and state as a huge impediment to that claim, so they deny its clear meaning.  Fundamentalist celebrity historian, David Barton, has made a career of misquoting Jefferson.  His books have been condemned by academic historians and withdrawn by publishers, so contrived are his assertions.  The religious right has also attempted to resurrect the 19th Century doctrine of America's "manifest destiny" from the dust bin of history in the form of "American exceptionalism." It is new terminology with which to justify their latter day xenophobic, hyper nationalism.   

This religious-political right-wing coalition has attracted many people who resist and/or are frightened by society's rapid change and who affirm some or all of their literalist religion.  Sufficient political power has been gained in some states and in Congress that they are now proceeding to enact their regressive views, impose them on the rest of us, and have us pay for them with our taxes.  Their policies are resulting in the undermining of public education, rolling back hard-won rights for women and minorities, and seeking privileged treatment for themselves and their financial backers.  Their agenda constitutes a frontal assault on historic values of our nation, and particularly on the First Amendment.

But, there is good news: rigid dogmatism can and usually does eventually collapse of its own self-evident hollowness.  We should nudge the process along by unmasking its falsehoods.

Rev. Dr. Rollin  O. Russell
Hillsborough, North Carolina



December 12, 2014

Why are fundamentalist, Protestant Christians so adamantly opposed to abortion and to freedom of choice for women?  There are several answers to that question, but few commentators have probed the pertinent theological and religious assumptions behind this opposition.  Fundamentalist Christians base their ethical claims on a particular way of reading the Bible.  In regard to abortion they cite the Mosaic commandment: “Thou shalt not kill.”  But nowhere in the scriptures does that commandment pertain to fetuses, much less embryos.  In fact, the words “abort” or “abortion” do not occur in scripture. 

Exodus 21:22 is one of only two references to a miscarriage, and it requires that if two men are fighting and a pregnant woman is injured so that she miscarries, the man responsible pays the woman’s husband what he demands or what a judge determines.  That reflects a time when wives and progeny were a man’s property and injury or destruction of them required compensation.  That is a far cry from murder or manslaughter.  Plus, it reflects a devaluing of women’s lives that our society has, thankfully, moved beyond, with much resistance from fundamentalists. 

The other and much more obscure text deals with abortion (maybe) and is the subject of heated debate among some scholars.  Numbers 5:11-31 describes how a priest must adjudicate a dispute when a man suspects his wife of adultery.  If she protests her innocence he is to administer the “waters of bitterness that brings the curse (5:19).”  If she is innocent the potion will have no effect.  If she is guilty, however, the waters of bitterness will “enter your bowels and make your womb discharge, your uterus drop (5:22).”  The Hebrew text seems clear that this was an induced abortion with the purpose of determining both guilt and paternity.  Some object that the passage does not specifically say that the woman is pregnant, so it is simply a punishment for adultery.  Little wonder that this passage is not cited by right-to-life advocates.

The big question is: when does human life begin?  Fundamentalists cite Psalm 139, “When I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth, / Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.”  And, they cite Jeremiah’s sense of calling from God: “Before you were formed in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you (Jeremiah 1:5).”  Another critical passage on this issue however, and one that is never cited, is Genesis 2:7: “then the Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and he became a living being.”  According to this text, read literally, human life, the sacred gift, begins at birth with the first breath.

So, fundamentalist Christians assert their claim that abortion is murder, and that some forms of contraception cause the abortion of an embryo.  They base their objection on a very selective use of scriptures and then ignore any passages that do not support their conviction.  This brief look at the pertinent scriptural passages only indicates that the Bible is not a very reliable guide in this matter.

The other theological basis for their objection is one that makes them uncomfortable allies with Roman Catholic leaders and doctrine on this matter as well as on birth control. 

Catholic doctrine is based on “Natural Law,” first promulgated by Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), in which any interruption of or interference with “the natural order of things,” presumed to be ordained by God, is sinful and should be stopped.
So, these unlikely partners, who have for centuries shown great disdain for each other, find themselves in the same camp, opposing both abortion and contraception, both of which are legal in America.  These two theological perspectives also provide the basis for their continuing opposition to the equality of women.  The medieval view of God's "Natural Law" made women subservient to men.  Strange bed fellows, nestled in 13th Century theology and highly selective biblical interpretation.  Should this questionable religious ideology control social policy in a free society?  Hardly.

Rev. Dr. Rollin O. Russell
202 Saponi Drive, Hillsborough, NC
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ENTANGLEMENT by Rollin Russell
November 14, 2014

America’s noisy Evangelicals must not have taken Christian Ethics 101.  In response to President Obama’s executive order banning discrimination against LGBT persons by any organization that has a federal government contract, they are hyper-ventilating in their victim mode.  They believe they should be able to discriminate if they want to and if it offends their religious convictions not to do so.  They even have an Evangelical Association of Government Contractors to plead their case, and of course, the National Association of Evangelicals is in high dudgeon over the Executive order.  The obvious alternative seems never to have occurred to them: do not enter into government contracts.

Congress and the last two administrations have been bullied into creating an Office of Faith Based Initiatives, the Bush administration as an apparent pay- off for Evangelical electoral support and the Obama administration piously saluting to keep those folks at bay.  The Faith Based Initiatives makes government grants to churches to carry on their benevolent ministries, and has very few strings attached. The 2002 Bush directive allowed recipients to hire workers whose faith was consistent with its own, stated in terms that are very vague.  These church bodies now seem to feel entitled to discriminate without interference from the government at whose table they are fed.  The new executive order simply requires government agencies and contractors to abide by the spirit and the letter of anti-discrimination laws that protect LGBT employees.

In Christian Ethics 101 it was and still should be emphasized that there are two dangers for religious bodies in a free society.  The first is sectarian withdrawal from culture, the stance of Amish, Jehovah’s Witnesses, some Mennonites and others who decline to serve in the military, salute the flag, pledge allegiance, etc.  The second danger is entanglement, becoming so involved with partisan politics or in government programs, including putting a hand in the government’s pocket, that the government can, in turn, hold the church accountable in ways that it feels might impinge on its freedom.

Evangelical churches with government contracts are experiencing the down side of entanglement: take the money, accept the terms.  Whether or not they have the paper-thin legal basis for their demands, they clearly have no ethical basis for taking public funds and then disregarding public anti-discrimination laws.  Their claim of the right to discriminate on religious grounds may carry some validity as it pertains to their personal lives, but the free exercise clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution clearly does not allow their institutionalized establishments of religion to be exempt from the law of the land.  The First Amendment specifically requires the separation of government from any establishment of religion and such an exemption would clearly show government favor to particular religious establishments. 

Strangely, up until the mid-1950’s many of these religious groups had been borderline sectarians, eschewing participation in politics and trying hard to ignore the government.  Then they decided to get involved through the so-called Moral Majority and other religiously based political groups.  Now they are on the gravy train and still want their religious prerogatives honored.  The USA is a secular society that honors all religious traditions by giving them freedom to worship, teach and propagate their respective faiths.  Tax exempt status for churches and non-profit organizations is predicated on their continuing benevolent work and refraining from partisan political activity.  This arrangement preserves the churches’ independence and allows them to participate freely in public discourse.  If they push the envelope by taking government grants, they should be willing to abide by its regulations.

Never mind that the regulations in question -- non-discrimination against American citizens who have as much right to their opinions and life styles as do Evangelicals -- are a matter of equal justice.  And, never mind that justice for LGBT Americans is established in law, this after many decades of discrimination.  The real heart of the matter for Evangelicals should be that equal justice is a much stronger imperative in the scriptures of the Christian faith than is discrimination against LGBT people or anyone else. 

So, be more concerned about your ethics than about your finances, and get disentangled, or stop protesting the attached strings.

Rev. Rollin Russell, Orange-Durham Chapter of AU
202 Saponi Drive, Hillsborough, NC

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