A Disappointing Week…

…and a frustrating one.

It is hard to explain to people who didn’t grow up in church the kinds of things that go through your mind when it comes to the way you look at the world, and at life.  There’s a culture that develops inside churches and Christian communities that is built on having a religious faith in common.  If you grew up with that, then there are some ingrained beliefs and practices which will, more or less, always be part of your life.  One of the things that I’ve learned from having had that experience is that faith is a powerful force in the lives of people, but its principles and foundational doctrines can be manipulated to fit what people want to do, if they so choose.

Something that came from my early Sunday School upbringing that I have remembered all of this time is the use of the word “Joy” to teach the simple principle of Jesus first, others second, yourself last.  Selfishness is the enemy of Christian belief and it is the opposite of a Christian lifestyle.  Other people and their needs come first, unconditionally.  Grace, I’ve always been taught, isn’t grace if it can be earned, or if it isn’t used.

But in practice, what I find as I observe people who wear their Christian faith like clothing, is that there are ways to put basic Christian principles aside, in order to do what you want to do, and then find something that looks and sounds Christian to use in order to justify what you are doing.

There’s a fine line between judging someone’s action, and feeling conviction about something that is wrong.  In this particular situation, it is a question of drawing a line to create a boundary in the extension of grace.  Where do you draw the line?  And who makes the decision about where to draw it?  The disappointment comes in seeing the claim made that, because some grace was extended, those involved have done their duty, and fulfilled their Christian obligation.  Those who needed the help will still have to consider a painful decision, and will still be left with a need that needs to be met, though it will have to be done by someone other than those with the ability to meet it immediately.  But is a partial extension of grace, in the minds of those who extended it, really grace?  Isn’t the Christian principle of grace a 100% proposition?

The frustration is the result of my own actions.  I allowed the circumstances of the situation to keep me silent when I could have spoken up, and excused myself because the decisions that were made were not part of my responsibilities.  By not speaking up, I am following correct procedure, as far as organizational principles go, but that’s as much of an excuse for not doing what I know is right as what I observed.  However, I’m going to correct that mistake.

There are places in the Bible that are very difficult to understand, and even more difficult to find a way to make the principles that are illustrated fit into the life we live in our culture today.  The first few chapters of the book of Acts describe a church that had been established by Jesus’ disciples beginning at Pentecost.  I have always been taught that the way they cared for each other, ministered to each other, and loved each other is an example we should follow.  It was quite a powerful community, and the combination of relationships linked to other people who shared the same faith, and who were filled with the Spirit, enabled the early Christians to endure and survive the most severe persecution, and attempts to wipe out the church before it had a chance to become what God intended.  Point to that passage now, and people–Christian people with leadership responsibility in the church–will tell you that’s just not practical, or we don’t have the resources to do that, or if you treat one person with grace, you’re going to have deadbeats with their own sob stories lining up for handouts.

So?

 

 

Too Many Candidates?

With new announcements being made almost every week, the announced Republican presidential primary field is up to about 11 or 12 candidates at last count, with five or six more set to announce.  That’s getting close to 20 altogether, quite a few individuals who think that their experience, background and thought process qualifies them to be President of the United States.  Obviously, as usual, there are those who have attracted some attention because of their complete lack of political experience, like Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson, but in reality who don’t really have a chance to win the nomination.  There are others (whose names I won’t mention) who are way too far out in right field, or even beyond in some kind of la-la land, from whom the novelty of ideas will eventually lead to the total collapse of their campaign.  And in the great American political system that we’ve allowed to develop, there are some extremely smart, visionary, gifted leaders who don’t stand a chance because they don’t have their own private billionaire to pump cash into their PAC.

But I still think there are too many candidates.

It seems like the Republicans have not learned that a large, crowded field eventually wears supporters down, and they lose the necessary energy they need when the general election rolls around.  Or, like last time, the right side of the party has moved too far to the right to win a general election, though it is large enough to have an influence in the primary.  In the long run, and in the analysis after the election, Romney didn’t lose because he didn’t motivate enough conservatives to get to the polls.  He lost because, in order to motivate conservatives to turn out, he moved too far to the right, and lost the support of independents who were not necessarily enthused about supporting the President, but picked him by an almost 2 to 1 margin because they were less enthused about the alternative.  The other side already has plenty of material for their ad campaign, from the spitting contest that is already happening among the GOP candidates.

The Democrats, on the other hand, seem to be trying to avoid the appearance of a coronation.  Money will be an issue for any of their candidates except Hillary Clinton, who will raise huge amounts and not have to spend much to win the primary.  She will have the advantage of the largest war chest going into the general election, and since money does make a difference, she is the strongest candidate in the field right now.  With the trend of larger voting blocks showing up and voting Democrat in presidential election years, she has a significant advantage.

There have already been some big surprises.  Republicans seem to have recognized that the name “Bush” is not inclined to draw votes or represent the party’s position.  It was amazing to see the entire field openly critical of W’s decision to invade Iraq, leaving his brother alone to defend his position and then, another amazing occurrence, do a flip flop and criticize the move himself.  Bet that made for some interesting dinner table conversation in Houston.  And in spite of all the rhetoric about ISIS, and what the US should do, most of the GOP field have put forth plans that are right along the lines of the President’s own proposals, but are careful to couch theirs in different terms.  I heard one candidate, when asked, “What would you do differently from the President?”, say that he would do everything differently, and then outlined a plan that is basically exactly what we are doing now.  Well, I guess every now and then someone has to make you smile, or insult your intelligence.

More than anything else, the nebulous rhetoric about having to “take America back” and about restoring “values” seems to be the top tier issue in many of the campaigns, but nothing practical or substantial as a genuine plan, based on factual information, to really fix something that’s broken.  With the stock market at its highest point ever, business profits up to their highest historical levels, unemployment evaporating like a rain puddle in the Arizona desert, and even a level of increase in savings and prosperity trickling down into the middle class, the tone of most campaigns is still negative.  The gloom and doom predictions and prognostications have failed to materialize, sapping the credibility of those who preach them.  And yet, a presidential primary race with more than a dozen candidates keeps harping on the same themes, which displays their own ignorance, and the contempt they have for the intelligence of the voters.

For about half of my life, I taught high school students in history, government and economics.  I taught them to ignore the rhetoric, and the political bending of the facts, and think for themselves.  It would be a great way to test their knowledge now, to see if they can discern, through all of the fluff and garbage that gets tossed out, which candidate is actually on to something, and then to discern whether they have any kind of a chance at winning the nomination.  My bet is that we are in for more of the same old, same old.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

From Ferguson to Baltimore…A few random observations

Google maps says it is 825 miles from Ferguson, Missouri to Baltimore, but the two cities have suddenly been joined together by common problems.  Baltimore is one of the country’s largest municipalities, with three quarters of a million people inside the city limits, while Ferguson is an outer suburb in a larger metropolitan area.  But both are now linked by responses to deaths of African American men caused by their police department, and both have experienced the tragedy of protests leading to destructive rioting.  Officials in both cities have been roundly criticized in the media, especially on the radio DJ talk show circuit, and in the social media, for their response to the riots.

After reading and watching myriads of reports about both incidents, I would like to share a few observations.

1.  This is not a partisan, political grandstand, and the attempts to turn it into one have not contributed to a resolution of the problem. 

Conservative Daily, which is an oft-cited source on Facebook, blames the riots and problems leading up to them in Baltimore on years of “liberal” political leadership.  Noting that there has not been a Republican administration in the city hall since the late 60’s, they blamed the riots, and the root causes of high unemployment, lack of development, lots of vacant housing, and budget problems leading to an inadequately funded police department on a liberal political and social agenda.  Perhaps, in their haste to hedge their bets and make their point, they forgot that the worst riots in Baltimore’s history took place in the turbulent 60’s, when the Republicans were in control of the city hall, and those riots were directly related to issues that came out of conservative political control.  The chaos was one of the main factors leading to the political turnaround in the mayor’s office and on the city council.

But beyond that, you only need get out of Baltimore to find that many of the same problems exist in large cities all over the country, and not all of those where there are problems are under the control of Democratic administrations.  While Phoenix, Arizona is a much larger city, and doesn’t have nearly the number of African Americans as Baltimore, many of the same problems exist there–high unemployment, poor housing, underfunded police who often use physical violence to make arrests–among the Hispanic minority, which does make up over 40% of the population.  And it is hard to remember the last time a Democratic administration ran the mayor’s office there.

Ferguson, where the rioting and looting was on the same scale as Baltimore, but which is a much smaller city in the suburbs, also had many of the same problems among its African American majority, but was also under the control of a very heavily Republican county administration.  So it would seem that Conservative Daily missed the mark by a wide mile in its assessment of the problem.

Many of the problems that our inner cities are experiencing, Baltimore included, are beyond the scope of the municipality to resolve.  In a democratic republic, the various entities of government are designed to work together to provide services and protect people on different levels.  Baltimore is a city-county government, a model that many larger cities in the US have followed in order to more efficiently provide services like police, fire departments, and infrastructure. The kinds of problems that cities like Baltimore are experiencing result from a combination of circumstances, and a combination of accountability for that exists at all levels of government.

A partisan political perspective is not going to provide a solution to these problems.  But partisan bickering is going to contribute to their continuing on as unresolved problems which produce the kind of frustration and lack of trust that causes riots and violence.

When the protests began to turn violent, it became apparent that the city’s police department was not equipped to handle the outbreak of violence.  City officials, wanting to give legitimate, peaceful protestors a genuine opportunity to be heard, avoided the appearance of anticipating trouble by not going into “riot mode” right away.  The violence and looting happened quickly.  According to the police commissioner, the city requested help from the state as soon as they determined the rioting was turning in a direction that their own police department could not control.  The criticism that resulted from the governor, triggered by the media cornering him with questions about the timing of the response, was neither helpful nor productive in resolving the issue.

2.  What did the Mayor really mean when she made the comment about giving space to those who wanted to destroy?

Perhaps her words were not well chosen, but considering the situation that was developing at the time, in all fairness, I don’t think the mayor was sending a signal to those who were waiting to vandalize, loot and burn the city.  Given her record as mayor, and her own initiatives and programs, including opening the door to private investment and encouraging it, I don’t think she wanted to see the city damaged and destroyed, or something to occur which would discourage development and investment.

I don’t think very many of those people who have blasted her words on social media even knew who she was prior to this incident.  What they saw was an African American female who is mayor of a major city in the Eastern US, and they immediately jumped to the conclusion that her agenda is a socialist welfare state.  That’s the result of the partisan polarization of this country, and it is one of the reasons why government can’t get anything done, and why the problems that lead to people feeling disenfranchised enough to gain attention by violence are still unresolved.  And it isn’t anywhere near accurate in the characterization of the Mayor, based on either her background or her record.

She is a Democrat, and in fact is the Secretary of the Democratic National Committee. She is also the vice-president of the national conference of mayors. But her agenda isn’t socialist, not even in the twisted and incorrect definition of the word as it is currently slung around, and she’s no “welfare queen.”  Her mother is a highly regarded physician, and her father is a lawyer with a long career in the Maryland state house.  She is a highly respected attorney in her own right, and has a national profile, including having served on the panel of mayors and law enforcement officials of both parties on a task force convened in the wake of the Ferguson riots.  Maryland’s current Republican governor praised her efforts in handling the situation in Baltimore, telling CNN “she has done a terrific job.”

There’s nothing in her record as mayor that would remotely identify her as a “liberal socialist.”  Her budgets reflect conservative fiscal practices, and initiatives to encourage business development are most definitely pro-free enterprise.  She is open to criticism because of a specific incident that ignited smoldering resentment and frustration that has been around for many years, long before she became Mayor.  Nothing happened in Baltimore that couldn’t happen in virtually any large, American inner-city given the right conditions and the right event to set it off, and Baltimore was no less prepared, nor competent, than any other in dealing with something it rarely has had to deal with.

3.  There is a real problem, not just in Baltimore, and it needs to be addressed.

The record of the Baltimore police in dealing with situations, especially involving the African American community, isn’t stellar.  In fact, if you look at it with fairness in your evaluation, you can see why frustration blew up into a riot.  The city’s police department has paid out over $6 million in damages related to claims involving loss of life, or injury, in handling some people during arrests in recent years, and has a higher than average number of investigations going in similar situations.  The racial divide, in a city where 64% of the residents are African American, is most definitely a factor, as is the fear and frustration of serving as a police officer day after day in an environment that can be quite dangerous, hostile, and in which both a higher than normal amount of illegal drug use and a high level of organized gang activity is in play.  But, and I will say this more than once, this is America.  All citizens, even unruly ones, have civil rights, and the police force is constitutionally prevented from assuming power and authority it does not have.  The instance of police brutality claims, and deaths caused in the course of an arrest is higher in Baltimore than most other cities of its size.  That is a problem that must be resolved.

When problems developed in Ferguson, the police department mobilized an arsenal of riot gear and equipment that was mind boggling.  It looked like they were getting ready to invade a small country, rather than protect property and stop a protest that got out of hand.  That’s part of the problem.  Police departments have become para-military organizations, and among some officers, there’s definitely an attitude that goes along with that kind of force.  It’s also hard to make a case when complaining about budget constraints and lack of resources when you haul out an arsenal like that.  Admittedly, sometimes crowds can get out of hand, but this is America, and its citizens, at whom all of that para-military equipment is aimed, have rights.

I’ve heard, and seen, comments from people suggesting that if the police were even more brutal and suppressive, and perhaps shot a few looters with their stolen goods in hand, the riot would stop pretty quickly.  Perhaps.  Perhaps not.  Ultimately, in a country where you have citizens that are as well armed as the police, and gun ownership is a cherished, and enthusiastically encouraged, civil right, the riot may disperse, but you’d have a war of attrition on your hands, and given the numbers, the police wouldn’t come out on top of that, nor would those individuals who were caught on the battlefield that the streets would become.  That’s how they do things in North Korea, perhaps, or Iran.  Not the United States.

Whether it is more professional training, or a better grasp of individual civil rights, police departments need to make sure their members understand their role in enforcing the law, and the rights of the citizens it is intended to benefit.

4.  Resolving the root causes of deep-seated problems.

One of the clearest themes that has come out of protests generated by the death of African American men at the hands of police forces is “black lives matter.”  If you look at the specific cases that prompted protests–Michael Brown in Ferguson, Eric Garner in New York and Freddie Gray in Baltimore–it is easy to see where that theme came from.  In each case, an African American man lost his life in the course of an arrest for something that was relatively insignificant if compared to the value of a human life.  Any life.  Michael Brown allegedly stole some cigars.  Eric Garner was peddling cigarette butts outside of a store.  It’s unclear what Freddy Gray was doing, running when he saw the police was the original story.  There doesn’t seem to be anything involved that warrants their death, except a physical struggle that ensued when police caught them.  But I have to ask, in each case, was a chase, and a physical confrontation necessary?

If these men were dangers to the public, and at risk of taking someone else’s life, then the police would be justified in using deadly force.  In the Ferguson case, the officer put himself at risk by initiating the physical confrontation, and was the one who ultimately pulled the trigger.  The other two cases turned deadly as a result of the way that officers handled them, and in both cases, failed to call for medical assistance soon enough.  The other fact of note here is that in cases where the suspects are white, physical restraint is not used nearly as frequently, nor are there nearly as many deaths that result from handling during the arrest.

The mistrust of police comes from some context.  I think that is the message that protestors are shouting at the top of their lungs, but which is not being heard, and in some cases, is deliberately being turned around and shouted down.  A majority of African Americans in this country do not trust the police, and for them, police officers represent something that is not the same as it is in other communities.  They see them as agents of oppression, and that feeling is reinforced when a police officer, especially if he is white, is not indicted or prosecuted when he is directly responsible for an African American man’s death.  The logical conclusions of that are pretty easy to draw.

5.  Baltimore on the rebound.

Along with Washington, DC, Philadelphia and Chicago, Baltimore is one of my favorite places to visit, and I’m talking about the city itself, and not necessarily the suburbs.  In its own, very unique way, it is a beautiful city, and while its architectural style is similar to that of DC or Philadelphia, it has some neighborhoods that, when you are in them, you know it is Baltimore.  Handsome row houses, closely built, neighborhoods with clusters of stores and eating places in their heart that smell wonderful because of what’s on the menu, and a street layout that makes it relatively easy to get around are all part of the charm.  The scars of inner city decline and decay are also very visible, and there are larger parts of the city which are in disrepair and decline than in Washington, or in Philly.  Of the four that I mentioned, one of the things that makes Baltimore unique is that it has the larger percentage of African Americans among its population, almost 65%.  And that’s not a bad thing.

It is a city worth saving, and protecting from destructive violence.  But it is also a city whose people are willing to do their part to lift up and turn into a better place to live.  That was evident after the rioting, when a large group of its citizens turned out to clean up the mess and help repair the damage.  It is clear in the media reports now coming out of the city, that there is a desire to make sure the message they are sending gets heard, and acted upon by the appropriate officials while, at the same time, pushing their city forward instead of trying to bring it down.

Baltimore is America.  We need to be keeping a close eye on how this issue is resolved, and pray that the city sees no more dark days like they had this week.

How Should Christians Respond to Diane Sawyer’s Interview of Bruce Jenner

My perspective of Diane Sawyer’s interview with Bruce Jenner comes from other media sources.  I’ll say that up front because I wasn’t able to watch it when it aired, and I’m not sure I’d have made that choice anyway.  Jenner was the Olympic hero of America when I was in high school, and I’m not really entertained by watching someone disclose something about their life that was obviously painful and difficult.  I’m more into gathering information by reading, and there’s been plenty to read since the interview aired.

Of course, there have been plenty of judges and critics, just look at Facebook and Twitter, and you’ll see plenty.  There are plenty of self-identified Christians among them.  Of course, most of them are reflecting what they believe to be a Biblical perspective of the matter of gender and identity, and of the nature of God, but lack the sympathy that is also expressed as a Christian ideal in the scripture, since “all have sinned…” and in the story of Jesus confronting the woman caught in adultery.  Regardless of whether Jenner ever had any kind of an understanding of the Christian faith or not, I don’t think judgement or criticism is the best reaction to the interview, or to Jenner, especially from those who are recipients of God’s grace through their faith in Jesus.

Jenner was an American hero, an Olympic medalist, and an all-around athlete who embodied all that was positive for American youth in the turbulent 70’s.  And of course, the media lens through which we observed him did not allow us to look at his flaws, struggles, imperfections or problems.  That’s one of the problems we have in our culture.  The fact of the matter is that no human being is perfect, everyone carries baggage that is either the result of choices that other imperfect humans made which led to our consequences, or the result of our own choosing.  We certainly understand this concept because we live with our own imperfections every day.  And that’s why we admire people like Jenner, because their success provides us with an illusion.

“There is no one righteous, not even one.  There is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God.  All have turned away; all alike have become useless.  There is no one who does what is good, not even one.”  Romans 3:10-12, HCSB

I was raised in a Christian family, and in a relatively “strict” church environment, and as a result of that, I became very good at learning how to hide my own lack of righteousness.  My primary motivation during most of my school-aged years, through high school and into college was fear; not necessarily the kind of respect of which the Bible speaks, but being afraid.  Faith was my “fire insurance policy,” because I wanted God to answer all my prayers (the way I wanted them answered) and I didn’t want to go to hell,  and at home I wanted to avoid being deprived of privileges by my parents as punishment.  Criticism of the behavior of others is part of the act.

That kind of thinking isn’t easy to change.  It is still difficult to see a situation without being tempted to use it to measure my own righteousness.  But I’m pretty sure, from a Biblical perspective, that’s not consistent with the example that Jesus set for us.  I have some understanding of the pressure that results from high expectations, though nothing close to what a celebrity like Bruce Jenner must experience, especially after setting the bar as high as he did.  I don’t really know any of the circumstances that have occurred in his life since his Olympic performance in the 70’s.

“Be careful that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit based on human tradition, based on the elemental forces of the world, and not based on Christ.”

Without over-use of the term “worldview,” this particular issue is an excellent illustration of the basic philosophical differences that exist in our culture.  In a perspective where there is a strong belief that an identifiable, imminent God created the universe, and with it, knowledge of its inner workings that is revealed to humans created in his image.  That includes an understanding of their own identity, and their own purpose, and how to reconcile the free will that is the result of being created in God’s image to the will of God.

Human wisdom, on the other hand, lacking the direction and guidance of the creator, fails to understand the concept of God’s image in human existence, and arrives at solutions to resolve problems that seem counter to what has been created, including the drastic measure of altering the gender of a human body.  The science that supports it is flawed, since it is incomplete, and can rely only on what has been revealed or discovered up to the present time, and lacks the insights of spiritual illumination.  It cannot fully recognize what is right or wrong, and therefore draws conclusions about things that are mistakes, like someone’s gender identity, that are based only on what knowledge is currently available.  If you look at human history, you can see the flaws in that kind of thinking.  History is full of examples of problems that were considered solved, and answers that were considered final, only to discover, in most cases in just a few generations, that wasn’t the case.

Bruce Jenner is a celebrity, who got a lot of media attention.  Rather than pontificating on what is wrong with his choice, and the decisions he is making in his life, Christians should use this as an opportunity to recognize that we are surrounded by a sea of human beings, each of whom is dealing daily with their own struggles, of all sorts and sizes, including each one of us, and figure out how to be salt and light while, at the same time, “working out our own salvation with fear and trembling.”

Yeah, it’s been a while…

While I do enjoy writing and leaving thoughts here, my professional life has occupied much of my time lately.  Between work, volunteer work, and a busy spring break, I haven’t made it over here for a while.

I’ll get back here soon, I promise.

You Have Heard That it was Said…

‘You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you:  Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your faiher in heaven.  He causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”  Matthew 5:43-45, NIV

When I first learned those verses, as memory verses in Sunday School, I could only imagine that my enemy might be other kids in my class or school with whom I didn’t get along.  There were a few kids in my class who were more or less everyone’s “enemy”, some more than others, and it was difficult to practice this principle with them in that situation.

There were two kids in my school, a boy named Ben who was one grade ahead of me, and a boy named Steve, one grade below, whom I considered to be my “worst” enemies.  Ben was the kid who could instigate trouble and walk away, leaving others to catch the punishment.  Steve was the guy who you saw two or three times a week making the trip down the hall to the principal’s office.  I can’t really recall why we didn’t get along very well.  I just remember that they were the only two kids with whom I ever got into a fight.  It was really more of a pushing and shoving match, but the consequences that were handed out were the ones that went with fighting, and I remember that the humiliation and embarrassment of having to go to the principal was moderated considerably by the feelings of satisfaction that came about as a result of seeing both of them enduring the same punishment.  Of course, later on I felt guilty about it, a little bit, but I remember thinking how hard it was to love my enemies, and at that particular time, I wasn’t interested in doing that.

So how does this particular part of Jesus’ teaching fit in with beheadings and immolation that are brought to us through modern electronic images from a part of the world that is as foreign to most of us as the dark side of the moon?

The same kind of cruelty existed in Jesus’ day.  In fact, in Judea, during Jesus’ lifetime, it was probably a daily part of life.  The Romans were, after all, the ones who instigated crucifixion, and they had little humanitarian concern for the people they subjugated.  And it would not be long before many, if not most of the followers of Jesus through the first century of the church would be subjected to horrific torture and murder, for the purpose of deterring any more followers from joining them, and to eventually wipe them out.  We’re talking literally tens of thousands of Christians, over 150 years, being burned at the stake, thrown to wild animals, crucified, tortured, and otherwise subjected to extremely cruel persecution.  Against that backdrop, are the words of Jesus, exhorting his followers to “love their enemies.”

He set the example for doing this.  While in agony on the cross, he prayed to God, asking him to forgive those who were crucifying him, because they did not know what they were doing.  I believe his church is now facing a time during which this particular core teaching of Jesus will be challenged as much as it ever has been in modern times, at least since the Second World War.  In the face of persecution which may not directly affect us, but which will become visible because of the instant transmission of video information and the ease of accessing it, the church will be required to respond in a way that is completely consistent with its claim, and with this particular teaching of Jesus.  How well will it hold up?

Ken Whitaker is the author of a book entitled Murder by Family.  It is the story about how his oldest son conspired to kill all the other members of his family, wound up hiring a guy who was willing to do it, and make it look like a burglary attempt that was foiled when the family members came home.  All four family members were shot, the oldest son a superficial wound to make him look innocent.  Ken, the father, was also not fatally wounded, though his wife and youngest son both died.  Eventually, the oldest son was caught, convicted in court, and is now on Texas’ death row.  During the punishment phase of the trial, Ken pleaded with the jury not to give him the death penalty, and testified that, in spite of the fact that his son had done this horrendous deed, he had forgiven him, because Jesus required it.  Reading his account in the book, Ken writes in such a way that you can see how this has come about, not through his own strength, but through the Holy Spirit.

That’s a very hard concept to understand, but this particular book had a way of explaining it in a way that I could understand.  That’s because I knew this family well.  I had taught both boys in high school.  In fact, both of them had accompanied me and our group from the school on a summer mission trip to Kentucky.  When the youngest son and the mother were murdered, I had trouble feeling any kind of compassion for the murderer.  When I found out who had done it, and why, it was even more difficult.  But after reading what Ken wrote, the kind of forgiveness that was required was understandable.

I think that what’s coming down the road in the Middle East will be a major challenge to this core teaching of Jesus.  But I think that, through these events, the world will have a huge, very visible means of viewing one of the core principles of the Christian faith, up close and personal, so to speak.  It may be, perhaps, one of the greatest witnessing opportunities we’ve ever had.  Imagine the impact of seeing Christians practice a life-enhancing, genuine principle of Jesus that is a demonstration of his absolute love for humanity.

Imagine the contrast that is to the destructiveness and inhumane faith of the enemy.

 

 

In the Name of God…

At the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday, President Obama made reference to the violence and murder being done in the name of religion.  He began with references to various instances of Islamic terrorism committed by the Taliban, and by ISIS, including the Charlie Hebdo headquarters killings, and then expanded his remarks to include religious violence in Africa, waged against both Christians and Muslims, and finished with remarks about the Crusades and the Inquisition.  That unleashed a firestorm of criticism about his “comparison” of the two, and the launching of a variety of apologetics among many Christian conservatives, and non-Christian political commentators like Rush Limbaugh.

Are you kidding me?

“Pure and undefiled religion before our God and Father is this:  to look after widows and orphans in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”  James 1:27 HCSB

The President is not blaming the crusades or the inquisition for either Islamic extremism, or the violence that it brings.  He’s simply making a statement that beheadings, torture, kidnapping, and burning people alive are not characteristic or definitive of any true religion.  And whether you agree with him on much else or not, he’s right about that.  The criticism that is coming from some sources is misplaced, silly, and pointless.  And frankly, it makes those who are making those criticisms look stupid.

Defending the crusades, and the inquisition, doesn’t make the point.  It doesn’t matter that there were hundreds of conquests of Europe and the near Middle East four hundred years before by marauding Muslim armies, and comparatively fewer crusade conquests by armies who believed they were fighting under the cross.  They were not an expression of true religion, as it is defined in the Bible, or revealed by God.  Many of the crusades turned out to be exercises in sacking and burning towns and cities, murdering people and carrying off their belongings for personal gain, not to advance Christ’s kingdom.  At least one crusade lost sight of their cause early in their journey and wound up sacking and looting the city of Venice, rather than going on ahead to Israel.

The inquisition was also not an example of the church’s best moment, and is, in fact, part of its worst history.  Those of us in the Protestant and Evangelical traditions of the church should recognize the inquisition for the evil that it was.  It wasn’t the church’s best moment.  The President made his point, that what we are seeing with ISIS is not worthy of the use of the term “religion.” To go anywhere else with that, pull it apart and use this to criticize him is asinine.

When you believe God is holding your coattails and cheering you on in your crusade to run the world, you’re dangerous, plain and simple, and it really doesn’t matter whether you’re Islamic, or Christian, or Buddhist, or Jewish or Hottentot.  You’re also not doing God’s will.  

I heard a long discussion today, on talk radio, about how the Koran is very inconsistent on this subject, and that it actually promotes violent behavior on behalf of Allah.  I’m not familiar enough with it to have read those passages, but I’ll take the word of experts on the subject.  Apparently there are several contradictory verses in the Koran where followers of Allah are exhorted to kill infidels, or to “even the score” against infidels who are enemies by executing in the same manner in which they were attacked, which would explain why ISIS chose to burn the Jordanian pilot instead of beheading him.  But then, without a lot of training or study, or a clear understanding of the difference between the Old Covenant and the New one in Christ, there are a lot of places in the Bible that could easily be misunderstood as God’s universal instruction to believers to act against those who are described as the enemies of God.  And there have been, and still are, people who are quite willing to cite those passages to justify criminal behavior, even in our day and age.

The term “religion” is a rare one in the scripture, in fact, from a New Testament perspective, appears twice in this part of James, and then only one other time, when Paul uses it to describe the people of Athens after looking at what they had.  In the contest of the passage in James, while he is clear in demonstrating that good works do not “save souls,” he is making the point that pure religion is evidenced by righteous attitudes that come from God, and that doesn’t include violence and hatred.

The attitudes that most American Christians have toward their brethren who do not share exact doctrine or interpretation of scripture are bad enough.  But there was a time, in Christian history, when one could be burned at the stake or executed in some other cruel way for not believing and acting the way that church leaders thought they should.  And I think Jesus made is crystal clear that kind of behavior did not belong in his church.

There is a lot of senseless violence in the world, much of it justified by invoking God’s name or will.  Though none of it will be resolved until the Prince of Peace returns, it seems that our time could be better spent doing something to bring people to Jesus, rather than trying to be critics of those who are in a position to address the problem.

Pushing Intolerance has become a Business Venture

Radio.

Growing up in the sixties and early seventies, it was my preferred form of media, and the source of most of the music I listened to.  I must have been about nine years old when I got a portable radio in a blue plastic casing for Christmas.  It could pick up both AM and FM stations, but in the small town in the part of Southern Arizona where I lived, we were too far away to pick up any FM signals.  It did pick up the stronger stations from Tucson, including a couple of them that played “rock” and a few stations in some of the surrounding towns, mostly country music.  The night air carried signals from more powerful stations on the West Coast, and from the Midwest.  In the daytime, I’d switch back and forth between AM stations in Tucson, but at night, I could go from KOMA in Oklahoma City, to WOAI in San Antonio, to KFI in Los Angeles, with a swift twist of the fingers.

But it wasn’t long before FM radio began taking over the airwaves.  By the time I went off to college, there were several FM stations in nearby towns, and even one in my hometown.  AM had strong signals, but they couldn’t duplicate the sharp sound of an FM signal, and a lot of people, including in the radio business itself, thought that the day of AM radio was over.  But while the FM signals could carry music with a much sharper, clearer sound than an AM signal could, change came to the radio business that would allow at least some of the more valuable and powerful AM stations to remain viable.  The change became known as talk radio.  And while there were a few all-news stations in existence during the era of AM radio, a lot of stations found ways to convert their formats successfully, and maintain a large enough audience to survive, and in some cases, thrive.

Talk radio provides a great service, and a lot of valuable information.  However, a lot of station owners realized that even in some of the larger cities, providing traffic reports, a fifteen minute news cycle, the weather, and a sports report every hour on the hour, only required one station.  But radio is a creative business, and over time, the radio stations developed programs that attracted listeners, a sort of “tabloid” approach, or “Jerry Springer meets the CBS Radio Mystery Theater.”  Incorporating entertainment with topics drawn from the news, and building on a foundation of some earlier, similar programming, plus technological advances that allow dozens, and even hundreds of stations to pick up and broadcast a satellite signal, the radio talk show evolved.

Some of the programs have been pure entertainment, like Phil Hendry.  I picked up his broadcast one night while driving home to Texas from a meeting in Nashville.  It was being carried on one of the old AM stations I used to listen to at night when I was a kid, and I picked it up right around Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and listened to it all the way to Laurel, Mississippi where I stopped for the night.  I was delighted when I found out I could pick up the same station in Houston, at night, and even more so when I found out he was carried on a local station.  And of course, there was Larry King.  If you ever had insomnia, Larry, in his earlier years, was a great companion at two in the morning.

Of course, now, in the daytime, and early evening, we have plenty of four hour programs that blend entertainment, of a different sort, with politics and commentary.  We have the leaders in the business, and we have plenty of wannabees.  There are some excellent, local hosts on some stations, who have the job of more or less following up locally with the direction the “big boys” have gone during the day, and then there are others (one in particular that I can think of on one of Houston’s AM talk shows) who have no tact, and very little respect for the intelligence or integrity of their audience.  But this is America, and we do have protected free speech.  The relatively low overhead cost of radio makes it possible for one individual behind a mic to reach a large enough niche audience to pay quite well, and provide station owners with the means for expanding their business.  The lack of tact, and the “nasty little man behind the mic” approach, is actually a means of attracting an audience that would otherwise probably be listening to old ZZ Top or George Jones and Tammy Wynette.

You don’t have to listen very long, daytime or evening, to understand what really drives the business.  Just delivering political commentary would be boring.  And with the number of local and nationally syndicated programs sharing what is really a relatively small audience compared to other media, particularly television, and limited by both time, and geography, talk radio has become tabloid sensationalism.  And mixed in with all of that is an approach that appeals to people’s prejudices and biases, tendencies to believe the worst about others, and permission to be intolerant.  Yeah, I know we are all accountable for our own actions, but when a radio personality can help us vent frustration by name calling those who are on the opposite side of the political spectrum, and using disrespectful terms to characterize “the other side,” they are pushing our buttons.  They are also encouraging the same kind of behavior, in some cases perhaps even prompting it.  But while we are most definitely responsible for our own behavior, don’t think for a minute that one of the radio personalities after whom you’ve modeled your behavior will either accept the responsibility for leading you where you’ve gone, or for something  you may have done at their urging.

Because most of these radio hosts function under the self-proclaimed category of “entertainment,” (loosely interpreted) they have determined that they can take liberties with facts.  To maintain some credibility, they do, at times, put a few of those forward, but not before setting the context in a completely different direction on both sides of the issue.  But there’s also an element of deception and sensationalism woven into the presentation.  In most cases, at least among those that are nationally syndicated, they are careful to avoid actually being completely exact, or clear, in the wording of something they want to communicate.  It’s sort of like saying “Betty White dyed in Hollywood today…”  Unless you were reading the message, and saw the spelling of the word, you might draw a completely different conclusion.  Such is the art of talk radio.

And it doesn’t take much to convince this particular niche audience.  Usually, the distortion of facts and truth, the deceptive tactics, the sometimes outright lies and then later denials of “I didn’t say that, exactly,” and the belittling and name calling makes me change stations pretty quickly.  When I have listened to most of a particular program, I’m appalled at the thought that there is anyone in the world who could not only listen, but actually believe such twisted, inaccurate garbage.  But there are a lot of people who are unable to discern the world as they see it, from the way their favorite radio deejay wants them to see it, and they’re pretty much already on board.  If the guy says the sky is pink with purple polka dots, they agree, and then avoid looking at it because even though they know it’s not, they don’t want to see the evidence that their favorite radio commentator is wrong.

After having listened to several of these guys on a fairly regular basis, as much as I can stand, I’ve come to a couple of conclusions.  1.  These guys have a high level of contempt for the constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech.  They are bottom feeders who are treating the soldiers who fought and died to keep that right protected with the utmost contempt and disrespect, and are selling their integrity for money.  If that’s harsh, so be it.  2.  They have bottomless disrespect and contempt for the intelligence of their listeners.  They must get a lot of laughs when they discover that their fact twisting, and in some cases outright falsehoods, are treated as inerrant and infallible scripture.

I still listen to AM radio.  I’ve found, in Pittsburgh, a great station, in fact, the oldest broadcast station in the US, that carries all local talk hosts.  No national syndicates.  And even though they sometimes get into politics, local, state or national, there’s no contempt, no disrespect for those who hold other views, and their tone of voice is reasonable.  It is also pleasing to note that their ratings exceed the FM talk station that carries some of the more popular national syndicates, as does the local ESPN station, and several of the music stations.  You don’t have to turn your radio off, just switch it over.  It’s radio.  You can listen to whatever you want to.  Get your politics by thinking for yourself, and leave your radio for music,

Too Much Going on in the World…

…for me to comment on the NCAA playoff selections.

I think most college football fans could come up with a better, more fair means of recognizing the best team in the country than what we have.  But in the long run, that’s not really an important issue, worthy of much in the way of cyberspace.  Money runs that show, and it always will.  I can think of thousands of ways that it could be better spent, and the sport returned to its pure state.  I’ll leave it at that.

Back to Ferguson, After the Grand Jury: Is This a Setback?

Leaving the comments on the rightness or wrongness of the grand jury’s verdict in the Darren Wilson case to the media, and the court of public opinion, I’d like to give some of the other elements of this event a closer look, because I think that’s where the real progress can be made, and some real good done.

First of all, I feel the most sorrow for the business owners who placed their trust in the community, and located their businesses in a place where they found themselves in the middle of something they didn’t plan, or expect.  They were serving the community, investing in it, and while they were benefitting from it, they didn’t deserve to bear the brunt of a jury decision they had no control over, nor the wrath of a community blindly lashing out to vent its anger and frustration.  More than any other aspect of this event, they have a legitimate complaint regarding what happened to the protection they were promised, and why the instructions they were given to stay away, and the protection they were promised, did not materialize.

I feel sorry for Michael Brown’s parents and family, because while they seem to understand the differences that come about from being part of a racial minority in a predominantly Caucasian culture, and seemed to know the dangers and prepared themselves and their son for them, they really didn’t expect him to be another victim, and they really hoped that he wouldn’t.  I’m not in a position to judge his character, his parents say he was working to build a better life for himself, and that he “wasn’t a thug” and I’ll take their word for it.  It’s just that everyone, or at least most everyone, does have a measure of hope that things are different now than they were then, and there’s hope that while its still not a perfect world, and it never will be, hope leads people to think that maybe things will be just different enough to be better for them.  There was hope in Michael’s family.  His mom was beginning a new marriage, he was going to school and learning a trade, his Dad had become re-committed to his Christian faith.  And then, suddenly, after making a poor choice in a situation that many kids of his age face, and in which they fail, he was dead on a nearby street as a result.  That shattered all hope, all good feelings about the future, and became a major setback for a community hungry for positive change.

I feel sorry for Darren Wilson, and for the entire Ferguson police department.  It will be a long time before he and his family are able to live a life without always looking over his shoulder, and will perhaps never be able to live without worrying about a breach in the security that protects him.  It’s doubtful that he will ever be able to return to his job with the Ferguson Police Department, and perhaps whether he will ever have an opportunity to work as a police officer again.  A civil lawsuit and a possible investigation into civil rights violations and a federal indictment are still possibilities.  As far as the Ferguson police go, their job will now be much more difficult than it was before.  They will be in more danger, and their ability to get the kind of results they need to protect a community will become much harder because of the loss of community respect.  I can’t imagine how their family members will feel, every time an officer goes to work and is out on patrol.  And how many lives will be disrupted as police officers decide Ferguson is just not the place for them, and they look for employment elsewhere, uprooting their families in the process?

This is a setback.  And unless we recognize it for what it is, and are willing to discuss it honestly, the progress our culture and society has made in this area will continue to be set back.  There are voices, some of whom have a prominent platform, that represent interests which represent a perspective on race and culture that is interested in setting back progress, and clings to false ideas about racial inferiority and superiority, and use events like this for whatever advantage they can gain, usually a monetary profit or a political perspective.

Are we willing to consider a genuinely Biblical, Christian worldview on this topic, or is that just lip service we use to gain an advantage or support our own prejudices, which can be conveniently dropped when things need to get real?  I was raised in a relatively conservative tradition of Christian faith, Baptist to be specific, Southern Baptist to be exact, a denomination formed out of a complete misinterpretation of Biblical principles that led to the support of slave owning on racial grounds, and which didn’t have a Biblical worldview of race or humanity for over 150 years before finally repudiating its past.  Even now, I’m pretty sure that a Biblical worldview on this subject is neither accepted by all Southern Baptists.  However, in the church where I grew up, teaching that all people, regardless of skin color or racial background, were children of God, and were equal in his sight.  There was a recognition that things in society were not that way, and that part of the church’s responsibility was to minister to people who experienced the pain and humiliation of racial prejudice, as well as to advocate to change the culture.

Whether we ever get to the facts in the Michael Brown shooting or not, this incident is one of many that indicate there is a problem.  Finding fault with those who have supported his parents, and who advocated for an indictment of Officer Wilson from the grand jury is only ignoring the problem.  Criticizing the protesters is turning a blind eye to the problem.  The reaction to this shooting is built on years of frustration, repeated similar incidents, and increasing evidence that there is a definite pattern of inequality of treatment when it comes to racial origin, particularly if the victim is an African American male.  That doesn’t mean that the police officer was necessarily wrong in making a judgment about how to perform his duties in this situation.  What it does mean, however, is that the system that trained him to do it was flawed, and that’s what needs to be changed.  Michael Brown was followed and confronted by a police officer because he had allegedly stolen cigars from a nearby liquor store, and the confrontation became violent because both individuals involved were operating out of preconceived ideas about the person they were encountering, and out of fear of where the confrontation would go.  It is very correct to conclude that if the victim had been white, the police officer wouldn’t have bothered with the confrontation and that conclusion can be drawn by the myriads of similar confrontations, in America, in St. Louis, and probably even in Ferguson.  The officer’s automatic response that he would have handled it the same way if the kid were white is an obligatory response, not fact.  The fear and mistrust wouldn’t have been the same.

As a Caucasian male, past middle age now, I can’t even begin to pretend to understand the feelings of people of color, or different racial heritage, when it comes to living and working in our culture and society.  I have been privileged because of my racial background, and my gender, and while I strive to understand and care about people, and desire to treat everyone equally, I have accepted the benefits of privilege naturally, in many cases never recognizing them for what they are.  I certainly hope that I do not react as some do, when this status is rightfully challenged as being both unfair, and inconsistent with a Biblical worldview, with anger, accusation of motives, or expressions of hatred simply on the basis that the challenger is of a different race or national background.  I grew up with friends who were of Mexican descent, or Native American origin, and I hope, that as a child not understanding the privilege I had because of my race, I didn’t treat them in a way that was demeaning or condescending, and since several of them have remained close friends into adulthood, I feel better about it.  But I must acknowledge that I cannot understand the frustration and the feelings that come out of growing up in America as a person of color.

As a result, when something like Ferguson happens, it needs to get the attention of everyone in our society, and the voices that are raised in protest need to be heard.  Instead of automatic discrediting, or picking out the flaws and faults in their position, the response should be to listen, and then to hear what is being said.  And in acknowledging that our understanding won’t reach their experience, we still need to be willing to make room for their perspective, and make some changes which will show a level of respect for their feelings, and their experience.  Of course, there are those who are looking for personal advantage amid the chaos, who see an opportunity to loot a store, or vent their anger by setting a fire.  But that wasn’t limited just to the protesters.  Apparently some white supremacists also took advantage of the anonymity provided by the chaos to burn a church and loot the home of the protest organizer.  We are a fallen, sinful people and selfishness will always rise to the surface, like scum.  The real problems, and the real solutions to them, lie well beyond those distractions.

Add this verse to consideration of your Biblical worldview:

“Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all and is in all.”  Colossians 3:11, NIV.

Let the listening, hearing, and healing begin.