Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Gay Marriage Controversy

Sorting Out the Mess Surrounding
the Gay Marriage Controversy

Growing up in the Catholic church, and recalling my years in Catholic school, I learned the Bible’s stance on homosexuality is clear-cut. God condemns it, I was taught, and those who disagree just haven’t read their Bibles closely enough. You might say that my childhood church community’s approach to gay rights — though well intentioned — is riddled with self-serving double standards.

I don’t doubt that the one New Testament author who wrote on the subject of male-male intercourse thought it a sin. In Romans chapter 1 the Apostle Paul called it “unnatural.” Problem is, Paul’s only other moral argument from nature is the following: “Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory?” (1 Corinthians 11:14-15). Few Christians would answer that question with a “yes.”

In short, Paul objects to two things as unnatural: one is male-male sex and the other is long hair on men and short hair on women. The community opposed to gay marriage takes one condemnation as timeless and universal and the other as culturally relative. I also don’t doubt that those who advocate gay marriage are advocating a revision of the Christian tradition. But the community opposed to gay marriage has itself revised the Christian tradition in many ways. For the first 1500 years of Christianity, for example, marriage was deemed morally inferior to celibacy. When a theologian named Jovinian challenged that hierarchy in 390 A.D. — merely by suggesting that marriage and celibacy might be equally worthwhile endeavors — he was deemed a heretic and excommunicated from the church. How does that sit with so-called “family values” activism today?

Yale New Testament professor Dale B. Martin once noted that today’s "pro-family" activism, despite its pretense to be representing traditional Christian values, would have been considered heretical for most of the church’s history. The community opposed to gay marriage has also departed from the Christian tradition on another issue at the heart of its social agenda: abortion. Unbeknownst to most lay Christians, the vast majority of Christian theologians and saints throughout history have not believed life begins at conception. Although he admitted some uncertainty on the matter, the hugely influential 4th and 5th century Christian thinker Saint Augustine wrote, “it could not be said that there was a living soul in [a] body” if it is “not yet endowed with senses.” Thomas Aquinas, a Catholic saint and a giant of medieval theology, argued, “Before the body has organs in any way whatever, it cannot be receptive of the soul.”

American evangelicals, meanwhile, widely opposed the idea that life begins at conception until the 1970s, with some even advocating looser abortion laws based on their reading of the Bible before then. The point right here is that it won’t do to oppose gay marriage because it’s not traditional while advocating other positions that are not traditional. And then there’s the topic of divorce. Although there is only one uncontested reference to same-sex relations in the New Testament, divorce is condemned throughout, both by Jesus and Paul. To quote Jesus from the Gospel of Mark: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery.” A possible exception is made only for unfaithfulness.

The right-wing conservative community most opposed to gay marriage usually reads these condemnations very leniently. A 2007 issue of Christianity Today, for example, featured a story on its cover about divorce that concluded that Christians should permit divorce for “adultery,” “emotional and physical neglect” and “abandonment and abuse.” The author emphasizes how impractical it would be to apply a strict interpretation of Jesus on this matter: “It is difficult to believe the Bible can be as impractical as this interpretation implies.” It sure is.

On the other hand, it’s not at all difficult for a community of Christian leaders, who are almost exclusively white, heterosexual men, to advocate interpretations that can be very impractical for a historically oppressed minority to which they do not belong – homosexuals. Whether the topic is hair length, celibacy, when life begins, or divorce, time and time again the leaders most opposed to gay marriage have demonstrated an incredible willingness to consider nuances and complicating considerations when their own interests are at stake.

I have been a born-again Christian since October of 1992, and I received my baptism of the Holy Spirit in 2008. And so I no longer identify with the Catholic church of my youth. The community gave me many fond memories and sound values but it also taught me to take the very human perspectives of its leaders and attribute them to God. So let’s stop the charade and be honest. Opponents of gay marriage aren’t defending the Bible’s values. They’re using the Bible to defend their own. They are also forgetting that the Bible repeatedly warns us about judging other people. Judgment isn't our job, it's God's job, and I will give you several examples. In the Old Testament it says, “I will deal with them according to their conduct, and by their own standards I will judge them. Then they will know that I am the Lord” (Ezekiel 7, verse 27, NIV). And in the New Testament Jesus said, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Matthew 7, verses 1-2, NIV). And the apostle James wrote, “Brothers, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against his brother or judges him speaks against the Law and judges it. When you judge the Law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you – who are you to judge your neighbor?” (James 4, verses 11-12, NIV) So, before we rush to judgment or jump to conclusions about homosexuality, gay marriage or abortion, we all need to back away from our judge's podiums and get down off our high horses and quit doing the very thing that could get someone sent to hell when they die. “Work out your own salvation”, Paul wrote, “with fear and trembling before the Lord”. And that right there, everybody, should be “job 1” for Christians everywhere. If it's not, or if we hold certain others in contempt, anyone doing so is missing the mark, falling short in their walk with the Lord, and inviting judgment upon themselves.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Truth About Holy Week and Jesus' Crucifixion

Misunderstanding Jesus’ Crucifixion: a Kernel of Truth

Over the centuries as Christianity bent to the interests of the rich and powerful, the story of Jesus’ fateful week in Jerusalem was reshaped to minimize his overturning of the money tables at the temple, a challenge to the merging of religious and political power. It was this very event that took place the day after he arrived that set the stage for his arrest and crucifixion.

Palm Sunday celebrates the entry of Jesus into the city of Jerusalem, even though our modern calendar gets the date wrong. Remember that Jesus walked the earth as a Jewish man, and since the Jewish Sabbath extends from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, by the western calendar he would have had to enter Jerusalem on a Friday during daylight hours. Good Friday, which in historical context actually took place on a Wednesday by our modern calendar, takes us through his mock trial and his death of horror on a Roman Cross. Easter is the Christians’ triumphant celebration of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. Except, of course, that Jesus didn't rise from the dead on Easter Sunday. He rose on the morning of the traditional Jewish Sabbath, which would be a Saturday morning by today's calendar. Since he was in the grave for three days and nights, and he rose on a Saturday, that's how we know that Jesus was actually crucified on a Wednesday. Good Friday is a man-made institution, nothing more.

But there is a missing piece to the puzzle. The incident that is the missing piece to the week’s climactic events is Jesus’ overturning of the money tables at the temple. Tradition says that the incident was a ceremonial cleansing of the temple of its commercial enterprises because those in charge of the temple had turned a house of worship into a commercial enterprise, just like the modern-day “prosperity gospel” and those “ministers” who demand 10% of everyone's income because the Old Testament says so. Jesus disrupted the commercial operation by upsetting the tables where the temple lackeys sold required animals for sacrifice. Actually it was far more intense than that. The tables and chairs that he overturned weren't from Wal Mart. These were hand made objects of solid wood and so they weighed a good bit. Those solid wooden tables likely weighed in excess of a hundred pounds, maybe even more. Even the chairs would have weighed as much as 40-50 pounds, so Jesus was nowhere near being a wimpy little guy who talked a lot and said nice things. He was picking up those tables and chairs, throwing them around like match sticks, and I have no doubt whatsoever that he personally removed the money changers as well, not just the furniture. However, modern scholarship is putting an emphasis on understanding this historical incident in context. The first piece of the puzzle is the temple itself.

For nearly half a century, including the time of Jesus’ birth, Herod the Great had ruled Palestine as an ambitious king appointed by Rome’s Caesar. Herod was of mixed racial background and claimed some Jewish blood. He wanted to be known as King of the Jews, but acceptance by the Jews was difficult to attain. Herod the Great also was a builder. Under his reign, he built civic buildings and ports, but his greatest building project was the rebuilding, expansion and refurbishing of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. It was known as Herod’s temple or is sometimes referenced as the Third Temple. Because of that history, the reign of Herod and the operation of the temple were linked and locked. It was the near inseparable joining of government and religion. To offend one was to offend both. Herod the Great died in 4 CE, when Jesus was still a child. During the years of Jesus’ teaching ministry, Herod’s son, Herod Antipas, was the ruler. The joining of kingdom and temple continued.

Jesus grew up and taught in a rural area 70 miles north of Jerusalem. His faith was shaped, not by Jerusalem and the temple, but by weekly gatherings of the community elders as they read the Torah (Jewish law of Moses) and discussed its meaning. Jesus and his followers had limited contact with Jerusalem’s social, political and religious leaders, mostly through the retainers (enforcers) of Herod’s Roman rule who also represented the Jerusalem temple. Retainers made regular trips into the rural north to collect tithes and taxes.

To understand Jesus, one must realize the depth of his contempt for both the rule of Herod and the religious rulers of the temple. To further understand Jesus and the last week of his life, the student needs to realize that the Old Testament contains not one religious tradition, but two. One is called the great tradition, the other is called the small (or lesser) tradition. The great tradition is the definition of society laid down by those who rule and enforced by their collaborators. The great tradition is centered in cities in which the controlling institutions are located. For Jesus, that place was Jerusalem. On the other hand, the small tradition is a critiquing and competing interpretation of life. It almost always arises with devout believers who have escaped the burden of the great tradition and its demand for conformity.

Northern Palestine, 70 miles removed from Jerusalem, was a hotbed for the small tradition. The leaders of the small tradition found heroes in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Micah, Daniel, Joel and other Old Testament prophets. Almost every one of the Old Testament prophets was a critic of those who controlled the temple in Jerusalem. John the Baptist was the first of the little tradition prophets presented in the Gospel narratives. His harsh criticism of rulers led to his death. Jesus took up the mantle.

As modern New Testament scholars have reconstructed the context in which Jesus lived and taught, they have realized that Jesus was far, far more than simply a religious figure. He was a severe critic of those who controlled the temple, those who controlled the empire, and those who controlled the economic systems that starved and robbed the poor and left the orphan and the widow to fend for themselves. To Jesus, these issues were all tied together. Jesus was a largely unknown and harmless critic as long as he remained in his northern rural setting. He was clearly an apocalyptic preacher. He advocated overthrow of a corrupt system. He believed the days of the oppressors were numbered. But he believed the overthrow could be accomplished by love, mercy and kindness.

Jesus took his apocalyptic message to Jerusalem. However, to call his arrival a triumphal entry is to miss the point completely. He chose to enter Jerusalem riding on a donkey as mockery of the ruler’s horse. It was an ancient form of street theater that Jesus and his followers used to make their point. The great tradition that was accepted by Jerusalem’s masses was being publicly taunted by a figure of the small tradition. But the real starting point of Jesus’ visit to Jerusalem came when he visited the temple, not so much his triumphal entry into the city. In no sense had he come to worship and make sacrifice. Om the contrary, He came to disrupt and to make pronouncements about the judgment of God on the whole operation. Jesus did not go to the temple to cleanse. He came to the temple to announce the destruction of a whole way of life. Those who operated the temple had no power to silence Jesus and put him to death. Those powers were held by the Roman rulers.

The charges that were leveled against him can be summed up as insurrection or even outright sedition. There were three specific charges: encouraging non-payment of taxes, threatening to destroy property (the temple), and claiming to be a king. It was the temple incident that took Jesus from being an irritating, but harmless country rebel from the rural north to a nuisance in a city that controlled the great tradition. Rome’s rulers killed him on a cross, only to see Him risen from the grave on the morning of the third day after his crucifixion, conquering death itself.

The theological meaning of the series of events remains in our own hands. Jesus Christ was a revolutionary, a nonconformist who thought outside the box well over 1,900 years before the term was ever coined, as well as being a social and political critic who stood against oppression and inequality in all its forms. So, if anyone finds themselves going through the same old, tired ritual of Sunday morning church – regardless of faith or denomination – just because it's the “right” thing to do, Jesus has the remedy for that. How do we apply this today in the early 21st century? Jesus would have, and indeed does, stand up for the poor, the homeless, the mentally ill, the prisoner, the sick and infirm, the widow and the orphan. He stood for the most vulnerable and defenseless people at the bottom of the pecking order of so-called society. He stands against those who wage war and the murder of millions for sport, he stands in favor of those who endure persecution for the sake of their faith, he stands against those who incarcerate people for profit, and he stands especially against those in the top 1% who hoard the retirement savings of the masses, who labor to take away our pensions and liquidate our retirement savings, and against the legalized looters who have established fortresses for themselves on Wall street and in the halls of power in Washington, DC. He stands with “the 99%”, and his Spirit is with those who dare to “occupy” as I do. Sure, he's the Son of God who is seated at his Father's right hand, never forget that and never stop believing no matter what. But he was and is the advocate of the working class, the poor, the hungry, the homeless and the lost. Like an attorney who shows up in court on our behalf at the last minute, winning what would have been a losing legal fight, Jesus is our advocate, and the world can't touch him or any of his followers like myself and the numerous others who will no doubt read this by this time tomorrow. Jesus is everyman, so let's all take this to heart and endeavor to follow His example. Have compassion and empathy. Practice being a good listener and being gentle and Christlike. Don't judge people who you may view as not kosher, or as being unwanted, untrustworthy or undesirable. Embrace other people, cultures, races and nations, knowing that the same God who made you in His image and likeness made them too. Practice tolerance, kindness, and being merciful even if you don't think the other person or party deserves it. That's how I celebrate Easter and the other 364 days of the year, because when we embrace God we embrace all that he has made just the same.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Has Christianity Lost Sight of Jesus?

How Christianity Lost Jesus

It is one of the conundrums of religious history: How did Christianity, a religion based on the teachings of a pacifist who said love your enemy and who defended the poor and vulnerable, become so twisted into nearly its opposite? Why did dominant Christian institutions, like the Vatican, amass obscene wealth and immense power? How could individuals – the likes of George W. Bush and Barack Obama – who claim to be devout followers of Jesus unleash the fearsome might of modern military technologies to slaughter peoples in faraway lands? This latest essay of mine traces this Christian mystery to the chronology of when the books of the New Testament were committed to writing.

We call Chapters 5, 6 and 7 of Matthew's gospel the Sermon on the Mount. It is without question one of Jesus' finest summaries of his teachings. While the gospels about Jesus are filled with the stories that he told and others about what he did, the Sermon on the Mount is different. The Sermon on the Mount is a collection of his teachings, aphorisms or short sayings. Under the critical analysis of our best Bible scholars, the Sermon on the Mount stands as authentic Jesus material. I have concluded that if people want to follow Jesus, they need to do 2 things; accept Christ as your Savior, and read and digest the Sermon on the Mount. Near the end of Chapter 5, the great challenge of Jesus is laid down.

You have heard the saying ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth;’ but I say to you, do not resist one who is evil. If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other side. And if someone sues you and takes your coat, let him have your cloak as well. You have also heard it said ‘love your neighbor and hate your enemy;’ but I say to you love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Nothing was more basic to the society in which Jesus lived and taught than the declaration “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” The saying is a clear expression of the understanding of sin as a debt to be paid. This concept was commonly applied to God. Break one of God’s rules and God will repay insult for insult. In the prevailing understanding of Judaism in Jesus’ day, sin was a debt that must be paid.

Jews traveled long distances to Jerusalem to make blood sacrifices to pay God the price of their sins against him. Yet Jesus argued against the prevailing system. Jesus did not believe that punishment cured the problem of sin. Instead, he taught passionately that the antidotes for sin were love and acts of kindness. And he gave the ultimate example of exactly that by being crucified on a cross and dying for all our sins, from our biggest and most egregious right on down to the little accidental ones. Jesus paid for it all. An eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth no longer applies.

It has been my observation that in the 21st century the vast majority of Christians have embraced “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” once again. Not only have Christians embraced what Jesus denied, the western world has adopted the standard of “a debt must be paid.” This is what capitalism has done to our souls. Everything revolves around money, interest and usury, and Christ has been left behind by the majority of people, many of whom are professing Christians. Penalties are supposed to “fit the crime” and an offender must “pay his/her debt to society”. In the process of acquiring our economic sophistication and all the trappings of comfort, Christians have become what Jesus despised and rejected. It's a lot easier to say, “Pay what you owe”, than it is to forgive and move on.

How did this happen? Look no further than Paul, the author of about half of the material that we have in our New Testaments. Paul had a supernatural experience with Jesus. It happened a few years after the death and resurrection of the man from Galilee as Paul traveled on the road to Damascus. Paul’s experience with Jesus took place decades before any of the parables, aphorisms and stories about Jesus were put in written form. They existed only as oral traditions. Paul was Jewish by birth, training and conviction. He was steeped in the tradition of sin as being debt. Paul wrote a theology for the early church. The book of Romans is the center piece of his theology. Paul embraced the idea that the debt of sin must be paid. The problem is that Jesus’ death on the cross was the lump sum payment for the transgressions of all. The debt has already been paid in full.

All of Paul’s letters were written and were being circulated at least a decade before any of the four gospels were put in written form. In the history of Christian churches, there have been many ardent followers who have advocated a return to the teachings of Jesus, but Paul’s concept of Jesus’ crucifixion as the payment of the debt of mankind’s sin became imbedded in the central ceremony of Christians, in the Roman Catholic Mass and the Protestant Communion.

Human beings have a long history of behaving badly. They lie; they cheat; they steal; and when pressed, they kill one another with abandon. They actually believe they can fight with honor. There is no evidence that the practice of “eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” ever produced an honorable result, made people more whole with lives that are more satisfying, or produced a society that is good for all. The good news is that Jesus is still looking for followers, who want to go on a different kind of a journey.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Let's Pause and Take a Self-Inventory

What Kind of Person Am I?

I was having a casual conversation with someone just recently, and there came a point where I was asked, “What to you do?”. I replied that I was a minister and a writer, as well as a political activist. “What denomination are you from?”, she inquired. I explained that I was nondenominational, and that I was not aligned nor affiliated with any other churches, be they virtual churches like this website or brick-and-mortar. I talked to her about my views regarding being set aside, or standing alone, pledging allegiance only to Jesus Christ. By that time, it was time for me to get off the train, and we bid each other warm goodbye's (I saw a wedding band on her ring finger, so I dared not take the conversation any further than that). But it got me to thinking: What or who am I? And so I took an internal, in-between-the-ears inventory of myself. The following is about as good a description as I can give.

I am a Peacemaker, I stand against war and violence wherever they are found. “Blessed are the peacemakers”, Jesus said at the Sermon on the Mount, “for they shall be called 'sons of the living God'”. So I concluded that being a peacemaker was a good starting point. The apostle John wrote about this topic in his first Epistle nearly 2,000 years ago, and I quote: “If anyone says, 'I love God', yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother” (1st John chapter 4, verses 20-21, NIV). People who are devoid of love can never be peacemakers because they are inherently selfish individuals. But if we are true Christians and followers of Christ, we sow seeds of peace and unconditional love wherever we go. If you want to be a man or woman of peace, the first step in learning how to do that is to worship the Prince of Peace. Let Jesus be your example to follow, your coach and your mentor.

I am also a crusader for civil and/or human rights, and against social injustice and economic inequality. I have written and self-published two books on these topics and I have blogged extensively as well. I was formerly middle class before winding up on disability. I know what it's like to lose everything and to have to start one's life all over again from scratch. And I know what it's like to wind up homeless. One of the most important lessons I learned from this experience is that we live unfulfilled lives as long as we chase after money, material goods and the trappings of luxury. These are the things that simply don't matter in the long run. But seeing who is in need of whatever, or what contribution can be made, or what innovation can be implemented, that benefits everyone equally, it is all these things that we should strive to achieve. Cooperation, then, replaces competition when it comes to the worship of the Son of God, and this bleeds over into the life of the believer like a Spiritual blood transfusion. Competition is so 20th century. Mutual cooperation for mutual benefit, like a beehive, is the wave of the future, and it resembles God's kingdom on earth much more closely.

That is only part of His directions for those that followed Him concerning how they were supposed to live life in service to others. Christians call it the Sermon on the Mount, but it was lived as a lifestyle until about 300 AD by Jesus' followers. By then some Old Testament teachings on warfare had replaced Christianity as a lifestyle and devalued it to a mere ideology. Jesus also said he came to replace the law because it had not been followed by the Jews, much to their own detriment. Just think of all the false teachers and error-laden churches that ignore these teachings. For those who do not follow his teachings I ask this: Are we all the same peoples despite color or nationality, and all the same citizens despite the unjust nature of government or religion we follow?

Is civilization all about wars and conflict? What about the non-warriors whose gifts to us include all the advances in farming that none should go hungry? Those who devised portable or temporary shelters so that man could venture beyond the close environs of the cave or those who devised ways to bring water to the villages that none might be thirsty or crops perish from the lack of water? Who was the hero or heroine who devised the wheel? Who among our ancestors devised stationary shelters that we now call houses? Who first tamed and rode a horse? All of these people are true heroes, giving us lasting gifts that advanced civilization, even if the gifts were soon turned to warlike purposes. Is someone a danger because of their sex, skin color, belief or personal attributes? Why is it that the gifts given by women to the community are less valued then a man's? Why is a nurse less valued than a doctor? Why is a teacher less valued then a banker? How many can name one person who is not recognized by the community for what they have given?

How will you be remembered by the next seven generations? We are all given a choice and a say in what happens tomorrow, today. A million today’s were shaped by what a million nameless, faceless someones did before. However, tomorrow is always shaped by the decisions made today. Do you go along to get along or do you stand up and demand your say in our future? Do you wait for Jim or Sally or Mohammed or Jane to take the lead, or do you begin hoping that they will say or do something you can agree with? The only person responsible for your decisions and what happens tomorrow because of them, is the one looking back at you in the mirror.

Which brings us back to the community and the growing of support and friendship. Who are your friends? Are they just people you grew up with or work with or go to the club or church with? Are they all men or women or all the same racial background as you are? Are all of your friends the same general age or do you number the elderly and the children among your friends. What is a friend and why? In our society friendship is usually shallow, temporary and based on filling someone's immediate needs. One different outcome and way of looking at friendship is offered in the Native American community. They look at friendship as a choice, a responsibility and that it be long lasting. Jesus said it best when he uttered these words, “Greater love has no man, than to lay down his life for his friends”.

A friend is someone you choose to give your friendship to. It doesn't matter what they do in life, it doesn't matter what happens to you or them. The friendship remains not because of who they are, what they have to offer or anything else. It is your choice of being their friend. The friendship does not depend on them but on you. Now go out and make one new friend this week and go back to your current friends and say you will support them, stand by them and offer advice if they ask for it. Make sure they know that you will help them in time of trouble. Enjoy them at all times and ask only that they accept being your choice as a friend. I know that is against every principle you have seen while growing up, but I repeat it is your choice, it is your life, and it is your friendship that matters. Are you starting to see Peacemaking as something worthwhile now? Is peacemaking something of value in your family, neighborhood, community, state or nation? Are you willing to become a peacemaker or support those who do choose to become one?

I, for one, do so without hesitation, and I will go to any length to propagate peace. I will continue to insist that all life is precious, with each form of life having a singular uniqueness of its own. I will continue to advocate for the homeless because every human being on the planet has the fundamental human right to shelter. The cave men of 10,000 or 20,000 years ago had roofs over their heads, and none of them ever punched a time clock. I will also continue to stand up against economic inequality, social and racial injustice, and waging warfare. I would endure torture, jail or death rather then compromise any of my beliefs. Perhaps my enduring any or all of the above will bring others to believe as I do. I will speak out against any injustice or any war, and even use my own body to shield victims of injustice, if necessary. I am asking you to do the same, having given you all ample reason to support my stand. No more working for the rich man to make him/her richer. We work for the benefit of all mankind, not just the top 1 or 2 percent.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Is the USA Really a Christian Nation?

Is America A Christian Nation?

A journalist once asked Mahatma Gandhi what he thought of Western civilization. He answered: "It's a good idea. They ought to try it". America is the most religious nation in the industrialized world. More that 90 percent of our population say they believe in God, and that they pray regularly. In his New Testament Epistle, the apostle James expressed the Christian view that "faith without works is dead." In the same way the apostle Paul wrote, “Be doers of the Word, and not just hearers only, who so deceive themselves”. Similarly, Judaism calls for bar mitzvahs. But how do these sentiments translate into action in 21st century America? Let's have a look at our national religious behavior report card. We define ourselves as being a Christian nation, and yet all of the following are happening on our watch:

[1] America is the richest nation in the world. Yet the Census Bureau reports that 50 million Americans live in poverty. That includes over one in five children.

[2] The U.S. poverty rate is the third worst among developed nations according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Demographers say that the poverty rate will rise this year from 13.2 percent to 19 percent which will be the highest percentage since the government began calculating poverty figures in 1959. Fifty million Americans are now on food stamps, the highest number ever since records have been kept.

[3] According to the Census Bureau, 30 million people lived in working-poor families in 2010. The Feeding America network reported that 36 percent of their client households have one or more adults working. Our growing population of working poor often have to choose between gasoline for getting to work and food for their families. Our nation's elderly are also often having to choose between paying for their medicine and buying groceries.

[4] The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty estimates that 700,000 to 2 million people are homeless on any given night in America. A new class has emerged: the working homeless. When the minimum wage won't even pay for rent and utilities on a 1-bedroom apartment, what America has ended up with are multitudes of working homeless, including whole families.

[5] 54.2 million Americans, including 21 million children, experienced hunger or the risk of hunger in 2012. That's right at 24 percent of all households. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, hunger in American households has nearly doubled in the last five years. As this is occurring, American restaurants throw away more than 6000 tons of food every day and Grocery stores discard an estimated thirty million pounds of food daily. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Loss Project estimates that Americans throw out 25.9 million tons of food each year. More disturbing: a University of Arizona study reports that 40 to 50 percent of all food ready for harvest never gets eaten.

[6] The United States is the only industrialized nation that doesn't provide healthcare for all its citizens. “Obamacare” promises to correct much of that but it falls far short of the mark. The 2010 Census Bureau figures show that 50.5 million Americans, including 18 million children, have no health insurance. The reasons are invariably due to economic hardship brought on by poverty.

[7] We have the best medical technology and treatment capability in the world. Yet the United States ranks 37th for health system performance by the World Health Organization. The latest report on life expectancy shows a slight drop in the United States that will place us even lower than the current ranking of 49th among nations of the world-- a lower life expectancy than many less developed countries. A Columbia University study attributes our decline from 11th place in 1950 to the much lower present ranking to our inadequate healthcare system.

[8] The current minimum wage of $7.25, which was raised from $5.15 seven years ago, still keeps families at or below the poverty line while stripping working Americans of their economic and political power. A more realistic minimum wage here in the US would be about $12.00 an hour. France, Ireland, Luxemburg, the Netherlands, England, the Isle of Man, Australia and many other nations have a higher minimum wage than we do. The Bible says, “The worker is worth his/her wages”. Companies who don't pay a living wage are knowingly robbing their employees.

[9] The latest census figures show the gap between rich and poor widening to the largest margin ever. The top 20 percent of workers earning more than $100,000 a year received 49.4.percent of all income compared with the 3.4 percent earned by the bottom 20 percent.. The richest 1 percent pockets more than 20 percent of total income which is greater than the total amount earned by the bottom 50 percent. The wealthiest segment of the population is fighting tooth and nail for lower tax rates and other tax breaks while joblessness, poverty, homelessness and hunger are rampant in America.

[10] In 1994 a million innocents were slaughtered in Rwanda. We watched and did nothing. Similarly, we did little to stop the genocide in Darfur. Sudan has passed a referendum dividing the country into North and South. Numerous commentators foresee an imminent civil war that could lead to further slaughter and genocide. Will the U.S. intervene on humanitarian grounds? History does not suggest a positive answer. Unless, of course, the country in question has oil. That's different.

[11] There are at least 59 holocaust museums in the United States dedicated to raising awareness of the Nazi genocide and to help prevent similar horrors from happening again. Add to that the numerous holocaust museums and memorials around the world. Yet genocides, mass murders, and other atrocities such as the sex slave trade persist. Who is listening, who is learning? Who is acting?

[12] Americans make up 5 percent of the world population and produce 25 percent of worldwide carbon dioxide emissions, which are raising the earth's temperature ("greenhouse effect") to dangerous levels. Fossil fuel consumption is destroying the planet, but we refuse to develop a "Manhattan Project" for alternative energy. Scientists warn that the environmental doomsday clock is ticking. The icebergs are breaking away and melting before our eyes, revealing islands we never saw before. We watch and debate but do too little to preserve the environment for ourselves and future generations. In our hubris we forget that we are guests on a tiny rock floating – in an infinite universe of rocks – that uniquely supports life in a delicate balance of natural and mysterious forces.

[13] Smoking continues to compromise the health of more than 20 percent of our population who still smoke. The Surgeon General tells us that smoking, in addition to contributing to a number of cancers, increases the risk of almost every known disease. The American Lung Association reports that each day nearly 6,000 children under 18 years of age start smoking. But we refuse to put an end to smoking. (I recently quit myself. Yes you can!)

[14] Leaders of some of our biggest corporations, as well as prominent investment advisers (men and women of "faith"), have cheated, deceived and destroyed their companies and clients, ruining the lives and futures of untold numbers of individuals and families. Bernie Madoff was only the tip of the iceberg.

[15] We have the largest prison population in the world. Currently more than 2.5 million people are incarcerated; and 1 in every 30 adults is in prison, on parole or probation adding up to a total of 7.3 million. The U.S has a greater prison population (in percentage of population) than a number of countries that we consider in violation of human rights.

[16] According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, world military spending for 2009 reached $1.531 trillion, a six percent increase over 2008 and a forty-nine percent increase over the year 2000. The United States accounted for forty-six percent of the total world military expenditure ($661 billion). China was a distant second accounting for 6.6. percent followed by France's 4.2 percent, the UK's 3.8 percent and Russia's 3.5 percent. The proposed U.S. military budget for 2013 is over a trillion dollars.

What is religion? Love, caring, serving, giving, sharing, oneness, brother and sisterhood, compassion and selflessness. Summed up: "Thy neighbor is thyself", so we must continue to “Love your neighbor as yourself”. It looks to me like America has a long way to go before it can truly be a Christian nation.