Monday, December 28, 2015
Monday, December 21, 2015
Sunday, December 20, 2015
The True Spirit Of Christmas
by Rev. Paul J. Bern
This week as we celebrate the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, I want to pause and reflect on the true meaning of Christmas, and on how Christmas has been twisted and perverted by the dying economic system known as capitalism that we're all stuck living under. Here in the 21st century, people all over the world are in a holiday feeding frenzy of buying ridiculous amounts of unneeded consumer goods. The only sure outcome of this is for every shopper to wind up even more deeply in debt than they were before Thanksgiving, and to be increasingly insolvent as well. Too many people have collectively forgotten the true reason for the season, the birth of Christ, and they have traded His sacred birth for the blind pursuit of material gain. Instead of worshiping the Son of God, people everywhere are worshiping the almighty dollar and all the goods that it can bring home with them. This is idolatry in its purest form, and as a minister of the Gospel I stand against it!
This rampant money-worshiping has been carried to such extremes over the years that it has carried people from all walks of life past the point of insolvency. As I write this, the average level of indebtedness for any given American is well in excess of 120% of their net worth. In other words, the majority of working Americans are bankrupt, a condition that continues to get worse as time marches on. Clearly this trek into the economic wasteland of bankruptcy is unsustainable. A full two-thirds of the US economy is powered by consumer spending. The true unemployment rate in this country stands at around 15% or more here at the end of 2015, because the government doesn't count those who have given up looking for work as well as those who are working part-time when full-time employment is required. While all this is happening, the US government continues to spend $12 billion per week (see the Defense department or GAO websites) on overseas military excursions, which is similarly unsustainable. The bottom line here is that such obscene levels of spending, which is exacerbated by the Christmas shopping season, will eventually cause the American economy to implode on itself due to corruption from within and crushing debt levels from without. And this may well happen sooner rather than later, so be warned!
We call the day after Thanksgiving "Black Friday". This ominous sounding moniker, which reminds me of the 1970's Steely Dan song by the same name, is actually a forecast of good tidings, especially if one is a retailer. No matter how poorly retail sales have been throughout the year, the giant retailers whose CEO's and top managers rake in millions and millions of dollars per year for themselves can count on Americans to put themselves, their families and other loved ones at risk by spending money that they don't have on gifts that people don't need. Consequently, the wealthy captains of retail can be certain that their profits will be in "the black" starting on the day after Thanksgiving through December 25.
Many Americans who call themselves Christians claim that they place themselves more deeply in debt starting on the day after Thanksgiving as a way to celebrate the birth of a very special Man. As with all religions, not all Christians practice their faith in the same manner. Not all Christians see the full month before the day on which this man was supposed to have been born as a time to fret over the equity with which they part with the money they borrow. Not all Christians use this time to become agitated, depressed and even angry because of the internal and external conflicts they suffer over the distribution of gifts purchased with borrowed money. However, the man, obviously the man that people today refer to as Jesus Christ, was an extremely special Man. This Man is so special that we began counting time once again based upon the year in which he was born. Therefore, many of those who call themselves “followers” or “Christians”, feel the need to become more reckless, not only with their financial standing, but with the Earth's natural resources like the water we drink or the air we breathe. I have had a belly full of this worldwide consumer insanity! Moreover, this consumerism is consuming the consciousness of my fellow Americans as we lose our fiscal minds more and more each year!
It's really not that important, however, to debate the historical narrative of the life and times of Jesus Christ. What's important is that the part of the Word that's dedicated to that life and time emphasizes what many would today call "democratic socialism" (see 2nd Corinth. 8: 13-15; Acts 2: 42-47 and Acts 4: 32-37). Although it's written that, at times, Jesus Christ warned anyone who would listen that they'd better believe in his words and follow his lead and direction lest they spend eternity experiencing unimaginable torture, torment and agony, the bulk of the writing about Jesus Christ describes giving to those less fortunate, plus social and economic inclusion, and world peace. What a different outlook we would have if, every day, from the day after Thanksgiving until Christmas, the goal for those with an overabundance was to search for those who don't have any and, when they find them, give them what they need! Why, it would be just like the unconditional love and peace that Jesus Christ taught us about! You know, being more Christ-like, not hoarding money and goods for oneself, and putting the needs of others ahead of ourselves. That Jesus. The real deal.
What is the available alternative to this? Last year, two people were trampled to death on "Black Friday" as they callously stormed into the money changers' temples. Refusing to participate in this annual orgy of consumption is much more in line with the teachings of Jesus Christ. But the ugly truth is that this behavior is in large part due to American culture, similar to gun ownership. America is the world's top arms manufacturer. There are more guns in American homes than in all the other countries of the world combined. We as a people, as I've written in the past, have some serious soul-searching to do about what it is we really value. As you read just above, America has now become so violent that we can't even go shopping on Black Friday anymore without risking accidental death! And, all this is happening within what is supposedly the greatest country in the world! Lately I've begun to wonder about that. Hey, I'm just one guy trying to turn the time of year that's always fallaciously referred to as a time of "peace on earth and good will toward men" into entire years of "peace on earth and good will toward men."
Sunday, December 13, 2015
The Bible and the State of Political Dissent in America
by Rev. Paul J. Bern
For the last few years I have been watching as political dissent has unfolded worldwide, first in form of the Arab Spring, then the Occupy and 99% Movements, and most recently the rage that has boiled over in Ferguson, Mo. and numerous other places, with the greatest of interest, maybe even fascination. I have written and published two books about these worldwide political and social movements, with more in the works (stay tuned). It is captivating to watch all of the demonstrators stand up and make their voices heard, and it is inspiring to see thousands of Davids going to battle with the government Goliaths, especially knowing that “we the people” will win again just like David did. One by one, the world's dictators and America's racial barriers are falling, and it all started with one man in Tunisia setting himself on fire. One guy! And now the civil unrest over what amounts to the extreme abuse of authority has spread all across the US, as I pointed out above. Today as I write this there are organized demonstrations or grassroots organizations in all 50 states and in Washington DC. All these protests highlight the need for authentic equality, more economic opportunity, the right to decent housing and to a living wage, the right to unqualified access to health care and higher education, and for the elimination of poverty, hunger, crime and disease. Lately this has also begun to include an end to all wars, and of the extreme abuse of power by a few firmly entrenched bigots and haters. This, my dear readers, is the stuff that really matters to real people, the ones who are caring and compassionate and who show empathy and mercy towards others by putting aside personal differences. What is needed today is more people who are focused on the needs of others, and a lot less on themselves.
In order for workers throughout the world to make the case for their right to organize without fear of reprisal, it is essential that they be completely unified. To live and work in unity means that relatively large groups can organize and demonstrate globally for the common good, particularly in matters regarding basic human rights. United we stand and divided we fall, so it is always in our best interests to stand united with a common purpose. Unity is what enabled the early thirteen colonies to throw Great Britain off the North American continent and back home to England. Unity is what repaired the United States after the American Civil War and paved the way for a reunited America that established the remainder of the 48 contiguous states by the turn of the twentieth century. Unity is what allowed America to win two world wars. We have since lost some of that unity, partly due to apathy, ignorance and fear, but largely due to being intimidated by abusive authoritarians of the US military-industrial-incarceration complex. People have become tired of getting pushed around and being told what to do by cold, uncaring political and economic systems whose sole purpose for existence is profit. Jesus himself made a timeless comment about this at the 'sermon on the mount' when He said, “No man can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money”. (Matt. Chapter 6, verse 24) Meaning, anyone who is devoted to the pursuit of profit despises God whether he or she realizes it or not.
In spite of all the raw greed in today's world, I have observed that many other people everywhere are finally beginning to wake up, and they're figuring out that we can get our country back from the crooked Wall Street bankers that robbed the US Treasury via the 2008 government bailout (but only after cleaning out the retirement savings of millions of innocent Americans beforehand). God has already given us the power to resist evil through the power of His Word, and so has the US Constitution and its predecessor, the Declaration of Independence. If we pray to God for this Holy Spirit power of resistance to evil, and do so believing that we will receive it while maintaining a thankful heart, He will give it to us freely. Remember what Jesus taught us? “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Matt. Chapter 7, verses 7-8 NIV) When Jesus gives, that means without limits, people. By the same token, if one will not bother to seek, ask or knock, that person should not be surprised when they find themselves destitute, homeless and hungry. Just as surely as people have united in the Arab world against tyranny, as Labor Unions and affiliated workers in Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana stood up against the attempted liquidation of their political and economic clout, and as surely as Ferguson Mo. burned last summer, so will there be massive civil unrest right here in the United States because of the tyranny of capitalism of, by and for the very rich, and because of the tyranny of consumerism and materialism that has us all completely infiltrated! Not to mention the fact that the police these days are shooting at anything that moves. But if we don't start fighting back, we will wind up with zilch at best, or cooped up in some FEMA camp somewhere, or maybe even dead.
It is disturbing to see the apparent lack of unity that still remains in the US, particularly regarding the negative slant that the mainstream media is showing on cable TV. It makes me wonder what is happening to America? Why are we yelling and screaming at each other in town hall meetings? Why have television and radio talk shows degenerated into shouting matches? Why do hate-filled messages permeate the Internet on all sides? What has happened to us as a people? There is a poison flowing through the body politic of America, it will torpedo and sink our democracy unless the flow is shut off, and that poison's name is corruption. Those on the far-left accuse the far-right of being fascist Neanderthals while those on the far-right accuse the far-left of being heathen Communists. This kind of immature stereotyping and deliberate polarization of America threatens to tear the fabric of our country apart. Actually, the far-left and the far-right have more in common then they would ever want to admit. Both sides are absolutist in their ideology and uncompromising in their politics. They see no shades of gray, only black and white. Each side believes that they possess absolute truth and each side refuses to compromise on its beliefs. That's why I identify with neither, which is why I'm a political independent and always will be. I refuse to identify my Internet church with any church denominations for similar reasons.
What particularly troubles me in today's political environment is the level of anger and even outright hatred that is being displayed. I have been trying to figure out the source of this anger and hatred for some time now. Some of today's rabid emotionalism can be traced to old-fashioned racism but I think for many people it goes deeper than that. I would suggest that this anger and hatefulness is really a response to the fear of change. Fear is an emotion we don't like in ourselves and anger is a way of covering up our fears with an emotion that makes us feel more powerful. Anger, then, is like a drug, and like a drug it can become habit-forming. The antidote, then, is to face our fears and see them for what they are: being afraid of negative outcomes that either never happen, or that get negated by some other positive force, person or event. We live in a world where society, technology, the economy and demographics are rapidly changing and this change is deeply threatening to many people. They are frightened that the world they have known is disappearing. This deep internal fear of change produces an angered response that is directed toward an outward target such as Wall Street bankers, the government or even immigrants. We repress our fear by directing our anger toward someone or something outside of ourselves. If we want American democracy to survive, some of us need to grow up. We need to stop yelling at each other and learn to start listening to each other. Everybody can't be right about everything all of the time! We need to accept the reality of change and begin working together to find productive ways of dealing with a world that is constantly changing, and doing so for the mutual benefit of all. The needs of the many, Mr. Spock once said, outweigh the needs of the few. You see, the future in which this idyllic truism exists has already arrived.
The fact is that America has been and is built upon compromise. Our great experiment in democracy is founded upon the belief that each issue has many sides and that the most workable solution comes from a compromise that blends together many disparate views. Compromise is the glue that holds America together. Change is inevitable. It's the way the universe is constructed. The fact that time exists means that change must occur. Rather than fear change, we need to make it work for our benefit. Rather than trying to go back and trying to fix the past (why bother?), we need to work together to create a better future, to literally manufacture an entirely new world. If the American experiment is going to grow and mature, 'we the people' have to grow and mature. We have to put our irrational fears behind us and start working together as mature adults in order to deal successfully with the challenges that change presents to us, such as saving our planet and getting ample food and clean water to the 2.5 billion human beings who currently have no access to either. Those who refuse to help the most vulnerable individuals make themselves accessories to manslaughter on a global scale. What am I talking about here? Fifty thousand per day. That's how many children under the age of 12 starve to death each day globally. Fifty thousand. Those who refused to help them helped kill them all with not so much as a second thought.
It's time to refocus and to stop the childish name-calling – from the presidential primaries all the way down to you and me – and to start having rational, thoughtful discussions about the issues before us. It's time to turn away from those in the media and on the Internet who feed our fears and fuel our prejudices. It's time to start respecting each other as fellow Americans regardless of our individual differences. It's time for all of us to become part of the solution. Waiting on the government to act is pointless! Each of us must stand up for a fundamental American truth – united we stand, divided we fall. As Americans we absolutely must stand together. We must totally reject the anger and hatefulness that is dividing us and start using our God-given common sense to work together for the common good. Living in competition only grinds us down, but achieving through mutual cooperation lifts everyone up. Competition may be a good thing in the business world, but it is counterproductive for human relationships. We must either learn to live in harmony or perish. The choice is ours.
Sunday, December 6, 2015
Is Human Equality Ordained By God? Can It Stop the Violence?
By Pastor Paul J. Bern
Since the dawn of time itself mankind has been plagued by violence. The first instance can be found in the Bible in the book of Genesis. Cain and Abel both offered sacrifices to God, and God accepted Abel's offering but rejected Cain's because Cain offered his sacrifice with an impure heart. So Cain became jealous of Abel and killed him in the first murder in recorded history. As time marched on and the earth's population grew, tribes and nations rose up against each other and took prisoners who then became slaves, and the industry of human trafficking was born as master lorded it over slave, marking the advent of mass inequality. This social and societal scourge of inequality grew exponentially throughout the ages, with the beginning of the end of slavery marked by the end of the American civil war of the 1860's, the war with more American casualties than any other. Today the institution of slavery, human sex trafficking and smuggling of illegal aliens continues to thrive, and all are a form of social injustice as far as I am concerned. As such they are absolutely immoral.
In the late 1700's, the French revolution was happening in Europe at about the same time that the American Revolution was unfolding in colonial America. These two separate but related events in human history marked the beginning of the modern concept of human equality. The signing of the Emancipation Proclamation by Abraham Lincoln heralded the next significant step towards social equality as it criminalized slavery. But nothing more occurred for another 80 years, until the US military ended racial segregation within its ranks in 1948. At about the same time, Mahatma Gandhi initiated a new equality movement in India that resulted in India's independence from Great Britain. By the 1950's the US civil rights movement began gaining momentum, led by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Rev. Dr. King was, first and foremost, a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It was from the Bible that he obtained much of his inspiration for the American civil rights movement, although he also used the US Constitution and the Declaration of Independence as frames of reference to add justification to the American social upheaval that he thankfully instigated. And so this week's sermon will highlight three passages from the Bible that Rev. Dr. King no doubt used for his own inspiration, and here is the first one.
“Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. Then there will be equality, as it is written, 'He who gathered much did not have too much, and he who gathered little did not have too little.'” (2 Corinthians 8: verses 13-15 NIV)
“...Your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. Then there will be equality...”. The apostle Paul, who wrote these words nearly 2,000 years ago, is saying that we are to be mutually beneficial to one another when it comes to our physical and/or material needs and wants. Under no circumstances is any one person or group to have significantly more necessities than any other person or group, nor may any one person or group acquire an excess of anything at the expense of any other. There is no reason other than pure selfishness for one person or group to have a surplus of food while another goes hungry. There is no reason for one to have plenty of clean clothes to wear while another is dressed in rags, or to have a warm coat while another has none, except that certain people find themselves excluded from any opportunity they could have to improve themselves, to aspire to be something or someone more than they currently are, just so others can have more. There is no reason other than pure selfishness for one person or group to have a roof over their head while another sleeps in their car, a tent or under a bridge. Even the cave men lived in caves!And in these examples I am only talking about basic necessities. When it comes to luxury items this line of reasoning applies even more so. With so much wealth in the world, especially with such a large percentage of wealth concentrated in the hands of relatively few people, I find it unconscionable to hoard too much wealth and material goods to ourselves while others less fortunate than ourselves go without. Remember what Jesus said, and it's in all four gospels. Don't take my word for it, go and read it for yourself. Jesus said, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man (or woman) to enter the kingdom of heaven”.
Material wealth is a distraction that takes our eyes and our focus off God. The more earthly goods we accumulate, the less we think about our spiritual needs. The less we think about our spiritual needs, the less we think about God. Prosperity, while it can be a good thing when it is in the right hands, is most often that which alienates us from God and from our spiritual selves. When our lives are over and we die, it is our souls that live on while our physical bodies get left behind. The more spiritual we were during our lives on earth, the greater our faith is in Jesus. Our eternity in heaven is directly proportional to our spiritual existence on earth, but too much emphasis on material gain and possessions neutralizes our spirituality. Remember what Jesus said when He taught the crowds that followed after Him, “What does it matter if a man gains the whole world and loses his soul?” In the very next book in the New Testament Paul makes additional comments concerning equality.
“You are all sons of God through your faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3: verses 26-29 NIV)
“ But when the time had fully come, God sent His son, born of a woman, born under law to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons. Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of His son into our hearts, the Spirit that calls out, 'Abba, Father'. So you are no longer a slave, but a son; and since you are a son, God has also made you an heir.” (Galatians 4: verses 4-7 NIV)
All of humankind, then, are equals under Jesus Christ because God has made it so according to Scripture. It is therefore immoral, unethical and sinful to discriminate, prejudge, or to hold in contempt any other human being regardless of their race, nationality or ethnic origin, or because of their religious background and their faith (or the lack thereof), or because of their gender, age, or their marital, social or economic status, or sexual orientation or political affiliation. Any person who does any of the above things that I have just written is guilty of holding in contempt that which God has made, and by extension holds God Himself in contempt. And that is blasphemy in its highest form. The Bible teaches that blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is the only sin that God can't forgive. Any person who deliberately commits this sin will be eternally condemned when they die. I don't know about you, but condemnation is not in any of my future plans. As the prophet Jeremiah wrote, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”
Based on this Scriptural teaching which is the irrefutable Word of God, I know with certainty that any person who hates another for any reason is without excuse. The apostle John said, “Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life in Him.” (1st John chapter 3, verse 15) There can therefore be no racial hatred, nor can there be any hatred of one religion or religious denomination by another (Hey ISIS! Hey Taliban! Hey Christian right-wingers! Y'all go back and read that one more time!!), nor can there be any hatred of those who are economically disadvantaged such as the homeless, nor can there be any hatred of gay people just because one considers them 'immoral', nor can there be any hatred of liberals or conservatives, or any other form of intolerance (such as age and gender discrimination). This is the very essence of true Spiritual belief. God put diverse groups of people and cultures on this earth all together in order to teach us, among other things, tolerance of one another. Once tolerance takes root, it leads to communication. Communication in turn leads to understanding, understanding then leads to empathy and empathy to compassion. And when we have compassion for one another, that invariably leads to peace. Peace will inevitably lead to an end to war, poverty, crime and sickness, and with it inequality. What a wonderful world that would be, and it is all within our grasp if we will only embrace tolerance and renounce violence. Let us therefore join together in tolerance, communication, understanding, empathy, compassion and peace. Since the majority of us claim to be Christians, we proclaim ourselves to worship the Prince of Peace. That means we had better be emulating Jesus Christ by becoming peaceful people. And that is how we will all make the world a better place, starting with ourselves. Shalom!