It isn’t supposed to be this way

29 Jul

Danny Glover speaks this line in the 1991 movie, “Grand Canyon.” Glover is a tow truck driver, who has driven into the heart of a Los Angeles black ghetto, where Kevin Kline’s car has broken down. A group of gang bangers arrives at the same time and threatens Kline. Glover challenges the gang leader, insisting that the gang back off and allow him to tow Kline to the garage. The gang leader protests and in the course of the exchange, Glover looks squarely at the gang leader and says, “It isn’t supposed to be this way. We’re supposed to be able to go about our business.”

Why have these words have remained with me all these years? Because they carry a powerful message of confidence and hopefulness. Confidence, because Glover was saying, “this city we live in, at this very moment, is grounded in possibilities of peace—rapacious violence is not our destiny.” As a longtime Chicagoan, and a Southsider at that, with the issues of violence, poverty, and injustice that face all cities, Glover challenged me to see the city as God’s creation and, as such, founded in an intention of goodness. “God looked upon creation and said ‘it is good’.”

There is also a message of hopefulness—that the gang and the whites who have oppressed them can actually fulfill their created goodness.  As I look out over the south side of Chicago from my ninth floor apartment, I am challenged to say for myself, this city, created in the image of God, can fulfill its creator’s intention.

Danny Glover is making a statement of faith—in the face of empirical evidence contrary to his belief. So am I. 

Our world is indeed full of evil—unspeakably so. But it is not destined to Hell and damnation. Its destiny is goodness. There is no situation anywhere that is beyond the reach of love, including God’s love.

“It isn’t supposed to be this way”—a belief that is deeply rooted in human life and human history. Traditions of apocalyptic cry out, “It isn’t supposed to be this way.” When the cosmic monster of the New Testament’s Book of Revelation is slain, the message of hope is at work. 

Traditions of eternal life focus on God’s will to  transform the world. We also read in the New Testament “In accordance with the promise, we wait for new heavens and new earth or righteousness is at home.” (2 Peter 3:13).

Both of these traditions—the apocalyptic and the yearning for eternity—consider the miseries of living in this world to be temporary, provisional. They do not represent the “really real.” Things are not supposed to be like this.

How are we to live our lives in this “between the times,” when things are not the way they are supposed to be? In the movie, Danny Glover negotiated with the gang leader for safe passage for Kevin Kline. Judaism teaches “tikkun olam”—work however we can to repair the broken world in which we find ourselves.

Franklin Clark Fry, who was presiding bishop of our church during the 1960s, my theologically formative years, said:

“All that we Christians are called upon to do, all we can do, is to be an open watercourse for the divine love. We do not create any part of it; it would be an arrogant illusion to think that we did. We must not blockade it; if we did, we would be the adversaries, not the children, of God. We are simply to reflect it, back to God and out to God’s world. Our calling is to give it free flow.“

(c) Phil Hefner,  28 July 2019

Preferential Option for the Poor—Part III

19 Jul

My blog posting on poverty engendered two responses that reframed the issue, particularly redefining the term “poverty.” I conclude the discussion with excerpts from these responses. Each response was much longer than what appears here—I have edited their material substantially, I hope, without distorting their intention.

From Stewart Herman—theological ethicist, college professor, retired.

I’ve never been smitten by the idea of a ‘preferential option for the poor’, no doubt mostly out of moral insensitivity, but partly out of confusion.  How to define poverty? I think of poverty dynamically in terms of inaccessibility—the inaccessibility of resources.   That is, I am poor when I am unable to acquire and use what makes for a healthy, materially comfortable life.   This line of thinking gets me to two terms that struck me from Kurt Hendel’s prophetic reflection: oppression and hoarding.  These are actions that make resources inaccessible.   So poverty is not only relative but relational.  It is relative in that what counts as being poor in one setting may not in another.  I have seen many contexts where people without much in the way of material possessions still seemed to have fulfilling lives.  But poverty is also relational in that it exists where people are prevented from, or simply not enabled, to secure the resources needed for a decent human life.   Call this a dynamic definition of poverty—pointing to the dynamics involved.

From Mark Hoelter—retired Unitarian-Universalist minister and therapist.

We do better to speak of “people who are experiencing poverty” or “people who are poor” rather than categorically of “the poor.” In the USA the largest number of people who are experiencing poverty are people of color. So I submit that we do well to use “Black Lives Matter” as a current translation to “preferential option for the poor.” It is what that movement has been about.

Engaging people around the issues of fairness using John Rawls’s thought experiment is another avenue, noting that Rawls at one time contemplated becoming an Episcopal priest, so there is some Christian moral thinking in the background. To simplify his exercise: Imagine you are not yet born; you are about to be born into a world with societies and disparities much like our own. You do not know into which country you will be born, with what color of skin, with what degree of family wealth or poverty and social support, as what gender or sexual orientation. Assume that you will not be born as you find yourself now; you could be born into wealth and privilege, but by statistical reckoning you well might be born into poverty; you could be born to white parents and a white family, but you might well be born as a child of color. You do not know into what religious milieu you will be born either; maybe it will be Christian or Jewish, but maybe it will be Muslim or “None” or Buddhist or Hindu. Given all this, what laws and structures would you want to be guiding the society (and world), to give yourself and everyone fair opportunities and protections?

We know all too, that awareness and enlightenment do not lead automatically or easily to actual change. There is in fact the phenomenon the social scientists, Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey, call “immunity to change.” It happens at the family level, as family therapists well know (see the works of Murray Bowen and Edward Friedman); it happens at the corporate and society level (see the works, of Peter Senge and his group). Both the divine and the demonic, god and the devil, are in the details. To go back to Christian texts, Jesus’s use of what was probably a popular aphorism in his day still fits: “Be innocent as doves and wise as serpents,” where “wise as serpents” means equipping ourselves with as much social-scientific knowledge and community organizing savvy as we can for effective social transformation.

Preferential Option for the Poor— Part II

27 Jun


Last month, I reflected on the millennia-long persistence of poverty. I asked for responses, and three profound reflections arrived—I am including them here as they came to me.

Kurt Hendel reflects from his position as a Church historian and a Christian theologian. He sees the poverty’s roots, not first of all in economic systems or politics, but rather. in our sin and self-centeredness. Here is his statement:

“Other than the ecological crisis, which, of course, also affects the poor in the most direct and detrimental ways, I consider poverty and hunger (the two are, of course, intimately related) to be the most tragic realities that have affected humanity persistently throughout recorded history. While the church and other agencies have often responded to the needs of the poor, our Christian tradition has also idealized poverty in the past, and the poor were considered to be necessities so that those with economic means could do good works that were meritorious in God’s sight. Thus the rich ultimately benefited from the existence of the poor, not only economically but also spiritually. Scripture surely gives us a different understanding of the poor and of poverty, especially as the Bible highlights the radical generosity of God.

“It seems to me that the persistence of poverty and the suffering of the poor, which is so intimately and directly related to our human tendency to be incurvatus in se (curved in upon ourselves, hubris), is ultimately a striking indicator of the reality and power of sin. Of course, that human reality does not excuse us human beings, especially people of faith, from our inclination to continue the patterns of oppression, hording, and inequality that those of us in power and with economic means have fostered. Jesus is not only the ultimate example for Christians of what it means to have true empathy for and to walk with the poor. He is also God’s radical good news that we have been rescued from the power of sin and are, therefore, free to serve God and God’s people. That promise provides us with hope that we can change our patterns of behavior and manifest our faith in love. After all, we also have the promise that the Holy Spirit is present within and among us because of Christ’s redemptive work and the divine gift of faith, and, as Luther reminds us persistently, the Holy Spirit and faith do it all! So, hope for change persists.”

Esther Shir brings a Jewish perspective to bear on the issue of poverty, as well as her work with asylum seekers. Justice is a central value. She writes:

“Oh my! What a timely and very prophetic blog you’ve written this time around!!! As you may know, here in New Mexico and in Albuquerque in particular, assistance for asylum seekers is the top agenda for the synagogues and most of the churches with which I’m familiar.  Our Sisterhood has been focusing all year on projects and… programs to get congregants more involved and informed about the plight of the migrants, especially in our own state.  The quotes you have stated already are a powerful indictment and an equally powerful call to action (along with all the other commandments about treating the stranger in your midst fairly, and leaving the corners of the field for the poor).  But the  phrases that have been running through my head since January of 2017 from Deuteronomy 16: “Justice, justice shall you pursue” and Micah 6: “and what does Adonai require of you? Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.”  And in Hebrew the word tzedakah which is usually translated as charity also means justice.  It has felt to me like justice in the sense of our legal system and in the sense of doing the right thing has been lost and almost forgotten in the past couple of years.  By corrupting our legal system, ignoring the rule of law, and the disregarding any sense at all for “the common good”,  the basic ethos of the nation is being destroyed!  For me, the only reason our nation is exceptional are these basic values (however imperfectly they are applied): equal justice, compassion for the stranger, etc and, of course, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”  Without justice, there is no hope for the poor among us (or anyone else).”

Nancy Goede, pastor of Augustana Lutheran Church in Chicago, brings in a perspective from spirituality and a way of living that identifies with the poor.

“My greatest concern is that we as Lutherans don’t hear much about how we benefit spiritually from resisting affluence. I always did like that term “affluenza,” which implies that affluence can lead to spiritual sickness. If sickness seems too harsh, maybe spiritually flabby would be fitting. Affluence is a temptation that can draw us away from self-sacrificing concern for the poor. If we truly can live in the middle with enough, then we are in a much better position to really befriend poor people. I very much admire some members of Augustana for living lives that exemplify their Christian values of community, solidarity and witness.”

All of these statements bring religious insight to bear upon poverty and the poor. They wish for the end of poverty and work toward that goal, to be sure, but insist that the rest of us, who do not live in poverty, must undergo change. This change  require a transformation of our spirituality, our moral outlook, and our behavior. 

Nancy Goede speaks of “community, solidarity, and witness”—what does that mean for us? If you have further thinking about these matters, please write.

Phil Hefner—June 26, 2019

When does the war end?

27 May

This Memorial Day poem honors a cousin and thereby all who served.

When does the war end?

 Remembering a cousin

Short and stocky,

He bounced when he walked. 

Forearms as big as Dempsey‘s,

Whose twelve inch punch 

Could crush a man’s skull.


“You ought to be a boxer,”

His uncles urged.


Guadalcanal in November 

Nineteen forty-two

Changed things. 


The bow of his ship,

The New Orleans,

Blown apart in the Battle of


Name of the burial waters 

Where hundreds of boys—

Navy men—lie sleeping.


A miracle, the doctors 

Told him. “Your life’s been

Spared.” The shrapnel that

Crashed into his eye

Never reached his brain.

But it left a hole.


That wasn’t the end of Leo’s war.

He never sailed a battle cruiser

Again, but his war

Went on and on.


On Armistice Day, back home, 

Parades celebrated on Colfax Avenue

And on every Main Street in America.

Mayors and senators and the President

And generals and admirals declared

“Peace is here, War is over.”

We cheered and waved our hands

Holding American flags.

Leo’s war continued.

He fought the ghosts that haunted

His days and nights. Searched for

Love he never found.

At the end, runaway cancer cells

Found him.

With ninety proof meds

His daily portion,

He fought for fifty years.

His war never ended.

He stopped fighting.

(c) Phil Hefner   5/27/2019


God’s Preferential Option for the Poor

23 May

The more attention I give to Scripture and to the life and message of Jesus, the more I am drawn to the realities of poor people and poverty.

Throughout the Psalms, like a recurring drumbeat, we hear the theme: the poor suffer, often at the hands of the affluent, and God always takes up the cause of the poor. Psalm 12 is an example: “Then the Lord speaks out: ‘I will act now, for the poor are broken and the needy groan. When they call out, I will protect them.’ “  The Magnificat says it clearly: “God has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the humble. God fills the starving and lets the rich go hungry.” 

Jesus lived among the poor, he identified with them, and he preached a message that comforted them and lifted them up.

But the more I reflect on the poor, the more questions arise. Christians—and members of other religions, as well—are commanded to care for the poor, and they have a strong record of establishing institutions that minister to the poor. God’s concern is beyond question. The phrase “preferential option for the poor” was used in 1968 in a letter from their Superior General to the Jesuits of Latin America. It has since been affirmed by popes and is a basic Catholic social teaching. Pope Francis has written that “without the preferential option for the poor, the proclamation of the Gospel risks being misunderstood or submerged.”

Lately, I have run across many images that reinforce the cries of the oppressed poor. In his 2016 book, Making Sense of the Hebrew Bible, Robert Butterfield throws the light of scholarship on the economic inequality in ancient Israel: poor farmers oppressed by the landowners. We should not be surprised that in this context, the great prophets of Israel, like Micah, and the psalms condemn this oppression.

Gerd Theissen depicts the poor in Jesus’ time in his  novel about Jesus, The Shadow of the Galilean, which I re-read every Lenten season. Theissen is a  German New Testament scholar, who has given attention to the dynamics of social class in Jesus’s time. The Zealots, the Essenes, and also Jesus—all appealed to those who were driven off their small farms by the exploiting policies of the landowners.

Pier Paolo Pasolini—in his great film, “The Gospel According to Saint Matthew”—offers the most vivid portrayal I know of Jesus’ compassion for the miserable poverty-stricken Galilean peasants of his time. Those of us who grew up on Sallman’s paintings of Christ find a totally different world in Pasolini’s presentation.

But the biblical drama of poverty and oppression covers many centuries, despite God’s will to the contrary and Jesus’ ministry. This same drama continues into our own times, bearing out Jesus’ own words, “the poor you will always have with you.”

Why does poverty continue—despite God’s concern and the monumental efforts of the world’s religion to eradicate it? Nancy Isenberg, charts the 400-year history of poverty in America under the title White Trash (2016). Her revisionist history of Britain’s deliberate shipping of its “undesirable” people to the colonies in America gives a radically different picture of our history from what I learned in high school and college. This was the beginning of social class discrimination in our country, regardless of our words about “one nation under God.”

Today’s talk about economic inequality and poverty has a long history. What is the significance of such talk and the conditions it describes? How are we to respond?

I would like to hear what you, the readers of this blog, have to say, so I will break off my reflections. Let me know your thoughts, so that I can pass them on and respond myself—if I am able.

(c) Phil Hefner, May 22, 2019

Grace does not charm

9 Apr

Flowers and birds

woods and furry beasts 

inhabit my world 

at second hand—

in zoos and public gardens.

My world has been 

the city

houses next to each other

you can reach

from wall to wall.

Towers so tall

they pierce the clouds

and obscure 

the night time’s 


Whitman’s people—

progeny of cobalt black 

slave China girl mestizo 

pale white men like me

blue blood and low brow. 

Without the mix my world 

does not exist.

I never knew the road less traveled 

but streetcar tracks

trolley buses 

twenty-four hour streets.

I seldom tramped

through fern and bush—

milked a cow and 

gathered eggs

only as a tourist 

on my uncle’s farm.

My tropes come 

from different corners 

of the world—

without the charm

no cuddling lure.

But grace 

is no stranger 

in my city—

on skid row 

in a panhandler’s face 

a screeching ambulance 

an anxious ER waiting room

even an

alfresco cafe.

Grace does not charm.

It does not cuddle.

Gritty like the city

it liberates.

(c) Phil Hefner   4/9/2019

Hyde Park: City of Imagination

2 Apr

You haven’t really lived until you’ve gone to Jimmy’s, ordered a Swiss burger with double cheese and onions, a pitcher of beer, and spent a couple of hours exploring big questions.

Jimmy’s was an essential part of my life for most of the sixty years that I’ve lived in Hyde Park Chicago—since it is not wheelchair accessible, it is out of bounds for me today. I relaxed there, and I also conducted seminars in the side room. I could play a game with the house chess set and consult the Encyclopedia Britannica that was always handy. Plumbers and electricians had their daily beer there; David Grene, translator of Greek Classics, talked with students over his daily martini.

Fortunately, this hallowed place still exists. You can order a Swiss burger today or even chat with a former Jimmy’s bartender who resides at Montgomery Place, the retirement home where I live.

But many of the places that I count as meaningful from these sixty years are no longer to be found. Bartlett gym and field house, with its two indoor running tracks, adjoining Stagg Field, where the University of Chicago football team played in the Big Ten, where Jay Berwanger won the first Heisman trophy in 1935, and where Enrico Fermi and his colleagues worked in a secret lab to produce the first sustained nuclear reaction—these places have been supplanted by a college dining hall and  Regenstein Library. 

The Swift Hall library reading room, with its magnificent vaulted ceiling, replete with painted faces of angels, as well as the study carrel tucked away in the stacks below, not air-conditioned (not even ventilated)—I spent many sweaty hours there, wrestling with the mysteries of 19th century German philosophy and theology for my dissertation—doesn’t even exist today. That library was eliminated altogether in a merger with the central university library.

There were two other pubs that were essential to my life, where I met for pleasure and also serious conversation with my profs, my colleagues, and my students. One has been displaced by a noisy pizza parlor, the other by a computer business. 

I could go on and on. The point is that these places were Hyde Park for me, and today they do not even exist.

What does it mean that these places are not to be found today? It means I have to locate them in a different dimension—they will never go away, because they are alive in my memory. For me, they are a city of memory and imagination.

In one sense, these places are factually real. I can take you to them and describe them in detail. But in another sense they are real only in memory. There are many Hyde Parks, perhaps as many as there are people who remember.

It also means there is a new Hyde Park emerging before my very eyes, just as the Hyde Park I remember emerged from the pre-World War II village. And the new people coming and going through Hyde Park engage new intimate places that I will never know. Like the Hyde Park of the future, the Hyde Park that came before me can only be imagined. My Hyde Park, too, will be a city of the imagination for those who are coming after me.

(c) Phil Hefner   April 2, 2019