The Achilles Heel of American Christianity, Part 2: The Enemy in the Culture War

“You have heard the law that says, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.  But I say, love your enemies.  Pray for those who persecute you!  In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven.  For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike.”  Matthew 5:43-45 NLT

Are there exceptions to this teaching of Jesus?

The Christian school that I serve as administrator has made a commitment to live up to the expectation of being “distinctively Christian.”  That is one of the adjectives we use to promote our ministry.  The first thing that most people think about when they hear that, in relation to a Christian education institution, is that we integrate Biblical truth into the curriculum, and teach from a Biblical worldview.  And it does include those things.  But one of the other commitments that we determined to make at the time that we adopted that adjective was that we must be consistent in the example we set for our students, parents, staff, and for the community, in everything we do.  That means our conduct on the athletic field, and in the bleachers.  It means the bus ride for students to and from school.  It particularly means our financial policy, the conduct of our business, balancing consistency with grace, which required the discerning of God’s direction through the Holy Spirit.

It means being completely unselfish, thinking about the needs of others ahead of our own interests, understanding that what we do will be measured against our words, and that the example we set will have a direct impact on the impressionable minds of our students, and their spiritual formation.  The school’s leadership must adopt the same servant attitude expected of pastors and church leaders, because this isn’t about us.

To be honest, I never really thought that the bakery business would become a focal point of controversy over constitutional rights, but it has.  There are multiple instances around the country of Christian-owned bakeries refusing to provide wedding cakes for same-sex marriage ceremonies.  On the one hand, there is the question of the extent of the religious freedom of the bakery owners.  On the other hand, there is the issue of discrimination and the freedom of expression of those desiring to marry someone of the same gender.  Of course, there has now been a court ruling, in Colorado, which sides against the bakery owner and with the same-sex couple.  The court determined that the bakery owner’s religious freedom does not extend to his business in the public arena, and that the business is obligated to comply with anti-discrimination laws.  The court, in essence, said that the owner’s religious freedom is not violated, since he can continue to be opposed to same-sex marriage, and can openly express his opinion to the customers, if he chooses.  They determined that baking a cake doesn’t constitute an endorsement of anything for which it might be provided, and that the “endorsement”, if there is one, rests with the person who paid for the cake, and will serve it.

Let me make it clear that I don’t support same-sex marriage.  I also don’t support a marriage in which the husband and wife will be “unequally yoked” in terms of their faith, either, meaning that one or the other isn’t a believer.  And I don’t believe in divorce, unless it meets the criterion allowed by scripture.

Having said that, if I owned a bakery, and a same-sex couple came in and ordered a wedding cake, I’d provide them with the same quality and level of service that anyone else would get.  I certainly wouldn’t consider that an endorsement of their marriage, any more than any other cake I’d ever baked constituted an endorsement of any other previous customer’s marriage, including those who got divorced later on, or those in which one partner wasn’t a Christian.  As far as the business goes, I’m the believer.  But the business isn’t a person, and as its owner, I am free to operate it under Christian practices and principles, including honesty, integrity, treating customers fairly and in setting a good example for Christ to the community that I serve.

“For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”  John 3:17-18, ESV

Think about that passage from the perspective of a Christian bakery owner.  If you’ve determined that two people of the same gender who come into your business with plans to marry each other, and order a cake from you, are not believers, but are part of the world that is already condemned, refusing to serve them will only confirm their unbelief.  What they will see, and experience, from a self-identified Christian, will look to them like bigotry and discrimination, judgment, and condemnation, and will serve to strengthen their already negative opinion of Christians and the Christian faith.

What they need to see is Jesus in you.

American Christians are really good with condemnation, criticism and judgment of the flaws and sins of others.  Pastors preach sermons that point out why their congregation, or denomination, or perspective, is right, and why the churches down the street and around the corner, are wrong.  We throw terms around like “conservative,” and “liberal,” and get angry at those who don’t readily agree with, or accept our premises and our list of “dont’s” to define Christianity.  The passage I cited from John says that those who believe in the name of the only Son of God are not condemned.  In light of that message, if I own a bakery, am I doing more to advance the Kingdom of God by refusing to provide a cake for a same-sex marriage, claiming that doing so violates my personal religious liberty, or do I provide the cake and my best service out of gratitude for the fact that I am not condemned because of the blood of Christ, and I don’t want to prevent someone else from seeing that in me?

Yeah, that’s a rhetorical question.  But think about this.  When we decide to move away from the church’s mission and purpose, and protect our own rights and entitlements while fighting the culture war, every “war” has an enemy.  And what does Jesus say we are to do for our enemies?

Something to Think About

My Mom, born and raised in rural West Virginia, didn’t have the opportunity to get too much of an education.  Her wisdom was gathered from her parents by observation, and by her respect for, and observation of the other adults around her.  She was not particularly articulate, but she expressed her wisdom quite often by quoting her version of some old sayings.  I heard many of them over and over, and of course they are committed to memory.

“Don’t criticize someone else until you’ve walked a country mile in their shoes.” 

And, if you can imagine this being spoken with a West Virginia accent, “Them that don’t remember their history are doomed to repeat it.” 

Much of what I see and read on social media about Islam, Muslims, and the Middle East has convinced me that most people, or I should say most of those who express themselves politically on social media, know very little history, very little about interpreting it, and very little about either Islam or Christianity.  Read on, and give some thought to what I’m writing.  We’ll get back to this discussion at the end.

Let’s try putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes for a while, and while we’re in them, lets talk a little bit about history.

How would we feel if the victors of a major world war came in, sliced off the South and the West and created six or seven countries or political units out of the territory based on their economic interests, not ours, occupied the land with their military to make sure we followed their rule, set the various ethnic groups and religious groups against each other for their own benefit, and displaced thousands of people from their homes, cities and provinces?  How would we feel if a few privileged leaders turned the mineral wealth of the nation over to foreign developers to extract, and received massive amounts of money for doing so, while the majority of the people, already suffering under the weight of poverty, were at the mercy of their own corrupt leadership and the occupying military?  The few elite rulers, privileged by tradition and heritage, become fabulously wealthy, while the bulk of the wealth and resources benefits foreign investors, companies and countries.

I don’t think many Americans would sit still for that.  We’d do whatever we could to throw the foreign invaders out.

That’s a very unlikely scenario for the US, but it is everyday reality in the Middle East.  From the Turkish border to the bottom of Saudi Arabia, and from the Mediterranean Sea to the Persian Gulf, the mostly desert sub-continent of the Middle East was under the control of one or another Islamic nationality from about 1200 right up to 1917.  The Caliphates, during which the various sects of Islam developed, eventually gave way to rule by the Ottoman Turks.  As the power of the Ottoman Empire waned, and the emperor decided to side with the Germans in the First World War, mainly against his traditional enemy the Russian Czar, and against growing British imperialism, the price they paid in the peace settlement was the loss of the territory that is now occupied by Israel, Jordan, Iraq and Syria.

The area was really never stable.  Strong, dictatorial, absolute rule by shieks and royal families was the main means of peacekeeping.  But for most of the Arabic inhabitants of the region, absolute rule was at least in the hands of other Muslims.  The uneasy relationship between the various sects of Islam, such as the Sunni and Shi’ite groups, along with the non-Arabic Persians, Kurds and Turks, and Christian minorities like the Armenians, often flared into violence and war.

All of that changed when the British took over in 1917, gaining control of the area through the ill-fated Treaty of Versailles.  Now, the Middle East was under foreign control.  The British saw the economic potential of developing the oil resources, and building transportation over the trade routes to India.  There are those who could argue that British rule was a humanitarian improvement, and maybe the case could be made that the British were probably less oppressive than some of the previous rulers of the region had been, and that their intentions were honorable, desiring to bring democracy and freedom to oppressed people, but that’s really not what happened, and it certainly isn’t how it was perceived.  The British priority was economic, not political, and the people of the region didn’t see their presence as a positive thing, nor different in any way from their previous experience.  Their way of fighting back, since they did not possess the means to face a well-equipped and well-trained army straight up, was to do as they had always done, and that included sabotage, duplicity, corruption and terrorism.  That’s not justifying those things, mind you, it is simply explaining why things are the way they are.

The United States became involved through its alliance with Britain, and its involvement in the Second World War.   We supplied the Russians with Lend-Lease goods through a corridor that ran through Iran.  We helped the British keep the Germans out so that the flow of Arabian oil could supply the allies in Europe.  And it was American pressure following the war that opened up Palestine for increased Jewish immigration, leading to the establishment of the modern state of Israel.  And once again, while we insisted that the British grant autonomy and independence to the various states of the region that they created for their economic interest, both Britain and the US maintained a heavy military presence in the area to manage the development of resources, mainly oil, protect the trade routes, and that has always involved favoring and dealing with certain royal families and nationalities with favor, while treating others as enemies.

The paranoia about militant Islam in this country, and the ignorance of the geography and history of the Middle East, is the source of major misinformation about the Islamic faith, and everything associated with it.  The constant complaining and whining about why peaceful Muslims don’t become outraged at the results of the brutality of terrorists, and why they don’t condemn the terrorist networks and organizations that sponsor it, is a symptom of the ignorance about the culture and religion.  These are people who have lived under oppressive regimes for generations, for hundreds of years.  When they have protested injustice and oppression, they’ve been massacred as a result of it.  They believe in an uncharitable, unloving god who holds their fate in his hands.  Protest gains them nothing.  But sacrificing themselves to their god, on the altar of war, is the quickest and easiest path to heaven.  There may be some, among the terrorists, who are aiming at world domination, or the extermination of all “infidels,” but for most, it is simply a matter of defending what is theirs.  They want us out, because they see Christian influenced Western culture as a corrupting influence leading people away from Islam.  And they see an independent state of Israel as an imperialist outpost designed to protect the presence of the Western powers in the Middle East.

We’ve seen how this goes, but it doesn’t seem like we’ve learned much.  Our interference in Iran, and support for the government of the Shah led to a fundamentalist Islamic regime led by clerics, and set Iran back years in its development.  The Assad dictatorship in Syria resulted from support of the regime by Russia, which is now not able to protect its friend, and into that vacuum comes ISIS, or ISOL, founded on the old idea of the historical Caliphates, which represent Islamic political and military power at its peak.  Our interference in Iraq, twice, has helped that country unravel, and open the door for ISIS to roll through Western Iraq.  Because they are Sunni, they have widespread support while the US backed Shi’ite government is trapped and surrounded in Baghdad.

If all of that were happening to us, how would we respond?

That’s not to excuse terrorism.  But understanding it is the first step in eliminating it, and it will take a lot of understanding to bring peace to the Middle East.  It may never happen.  But we need to get out of the business of contributing to its development.

 

Iran: We Can’t Afford to Play Politics With This One

Perhaps the most frightening issue in the world today is the fear that some rogue dictator will get hold of a nuclear device and hold the world hostage by threatening to use it.  That’s a real fear, since the power of religion includes philosophical perspectives which devalue human life to the point where suicidal madness is a real possibility in order to please or appease some imaginary deity.

Scientific development has made the possibility of acquiring nuclear technology a reality in places where the resources allow for it.  Unfortunately, there are some rogue nations whose leaders have the power to diminish the prosperity of their citizens in order to make the development of nuclear weapons a priority.   Hence, the United States, and the other major powers in the United Nations, are working to prevent such a weapon from falling into the hands of rogue nations like Iran and North Korea.

Keep in mind that the reason the sanctions have worked so far, and there is some doubt about the completeness of their success, because they have international support, particularly from nations like Russia and China.  And whether or not the sanctions continue will depend on the level of cooperation that comes from the international community.  There is a lot of interest in keeping Iran nuclear free, but there is also a lot of interest in finding another way to do it, and that seems to be the direction the international community wants to go.  The US is still the most influential power at the table, and our expertise in nuclear technology is an essential element in preventing nuclear proliferation, but it is clear that we will not be able to keep the sanctions in place if several other nations want to take a different path.

Keep in mind that the Republicans made up the majority of the opposition to the sanctions.  That was a major difficulty for UN Ambassador John Bolton, and for President Bush.  Had it not been for Democratic party support, the US would not have supported the resolution for sanctions against Iran.  Ironically, now they are supporting keeping the sanctions in place.  They are playing politics, and using this international issue as another means to put obstacles in the path of the President, and keep him from accomplishing anything.  But while the GOP plays its games, Iran moves closer to a nuclear weapon.  The Republicans are being very short sighted with their predictable opposition to an agreement they didn’t even read before they criticized it.  The stakes are too high here and real solutions will be much more effective than stone-faced opposition.

There’s only so much life in sanctions that slow down, but are not completely stopping, Iran’s move toward acquiring nuclear weapons.  There are humanitarian issues associated with strangling the economic life out of a country, and it is not only Americans who are beginning to get uncomfortable with the suffering of the Iranian people, no matter what their government leaders do.  And ultimately, the sanctions will fail.  They have succeeded in buying time for the international community to figure out how to deal with the issue, but sanctions won’t be 100% successful.  What’s the contingency plan in place to be enacted on the day that Iran succeeds in achieving the first major step toward having a nuclear bomb?  Because that is what will happen if there is no change made in the status quo.  At least the proposed plan makes it possible for the UN to “snap back” to sanctions if the Iranians violate the agreement, and it would make it possible for a much closer, up front inspection of the nuclear activity taking place in the country.

It’s not a perfect plan, but no plan of this nature, basically interfering with the sovereignty of an independent nation to prevent them from acquiring something we already have, can be perfect.  Perhaps the best asset we have is Ernest Moniz, the nuclear physicist who is also our Secretary of Energy.  He’s the best nuclear physicist in the world, and that’s who you want in charge if there’s any treaty with the Iranians regarding their nuclear potential.  His presence and involvement in this issue is the one thing that assures its success.  If you set aside your political bias, and read up on Ernest Moniz, including what he’s said about this particular treaty, it will be very reassuring.  The man knows what he’s talking about, and what he has to say makes a lot of the critics look like they don’t.

What’s the alternative?  I haven’t heard one.  Continuing the sanctions depends on the UN security council, and a few countries that have the economic power, and political reach, to make or break any deal.  But the experts tell us that even with sanctions, Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon, or at least the capability to make one, is a foregone conclusion.  Do we take military action?  The security council would never authorize it, and if the US went in alone, the cost, in terms of lives lost and destruction of property, would be staggering, not to mention the trillions of dollars in monetary cost.  Iran is a large, very rugged, desert country.  There’s no assurance of a quick, easy win, and a war could take years to resolve.  It would be a tremendous risk to Israel.  Iran is a large, rugged, mountainous desert country.  Invading wouldn’t be easy, and the risk of getting bogged down for years is high.  Is it worth it?

Congress needs to evaluate this treaty by consulting the experts, and determining whether it achieves the goal of keeping Iran from building a nuclear weapon.  What we are doing now isn’t working to accomplish that, so doing nothing is not a viable plan.  The paid propagandists who are running ads encouraging people to call their Congressmen and derail this treaty are just playing politics and don’t know squat about the treaty, what it would do, or how it would work.  It’s time for some good, old fashioned common sense.  Who’s ready to stand up and show some?

 

 

 

The Achilles Heel of American Christianity

“You have heard the law that says, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.  But I say, love your enemies.  Pray for those who persecute you!  In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven.  For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike.”  Matthew 5:43-45 NLT

Are there exceptions to this teaching of Jesus?

A young man with an Arabic heritage, who is a practicing Muslim grabs an easily procured gun, riddles a military recruiting office with bullets, then travels several miles to a Naval Reserve post and winds up killing five US Marines.  The public reaction to this incident predictably takes both political and religious turns and twists, incorporates a monumental amount of speculation that immediately becomes cited as absolute fact, and includes a Christian element that is not anywhere close to these words of Jesus in their expression.  And while it is not my intention to paint with a broad brush, as many Christians have done with Islam, there is little in the rhetoric that is being spewed over this incident that fits with the words of Jesus which I cited from Matthew 5.

The violence and chaos in the Middle East that is associated with Radical Islam is frightening, and difficult to understand.  The superstitions and lack of factual information in both the news media and the social media contributes to the hysteria.  Oh, don’t get me wrong.  It is very clear that the kind of intensity and depth of emotion that goes in to any religious belief can be destructive to human relationships, and when you throw in beheadings, live burnings, throwing people off high buildings, all because people have not bowed their neck to a skewed religious perspective, there’s plenty of fodder for hysterical reactions, and hateful rhetoric.

The scripture I cited would be considered one of the most clear and concise teachings of Jesus under just about any other circumstance.  It seems like a much more difficult concept to understand, or put into practice when your “enemies” are radical Muslims.

Ed Stetzer, of Lifeway Christian Resources, made this statement in a post in Christianity Today:

“Nuance is hard, and loud pronouncements are easy in times of anger, but as Christians, we don’t get to shout whatever rage we feel.  Instead, we want the facts, and then we want to follow Jesus in light of those facts.” 

Amen.

The response I’ve seen from Christians, including some prominent and fairly well known ones, to being called out and called to account on this particular issue isn’t good.  There’s quite a following of those who are willing to set aside the principles of Christ in order to advocate a means of dealing with Muslims in general, and radical Islam in particular, that is not consistent at all with Christian faith.  If we are not careful, this could very well be a place that separates what’s popular in American Christian culture with the truth of scripture.

And it won’t be the only place.

Since the Supreme Court’s ruling that same-sex marriage is a constitutionally guaranteed right, I’ve seen much in the way of reaction from the Christian community that is not consistent with the teachings of Christ.  Oh, the bad-mouthing of “liberals” that is prompted by the radio-deejay pundits has been around for a long time.  It’s not appropriate, regardless of how much you might disagree, and it is certainly not evidence of Christlike behavior, nor consistent with what Jesus taught, but the caustic vitriol that has come out since this decision was handed down is just not consistent with the principles of Christ, and neither is the criticism aimed at those who are pointing this out.

The Christian community’s influence in the US is waning, and we know that because the statistics are showing us that it is, and because Christian leaders are bemoaning their loss of influence.  There may be a variety of reasons for the decline, and I’d love to discuss them in another forum, at another time and another place.  If you can’t be consistent in what you say, and what you do, you’re not helping to advance those numbers.

 

 

The Confederate Flag: It is what it is…circumstances and such

The study, and teaching, of history has been the larger part of my career since entering the job market way back in 1979.  In preparation for teaching, and during the course of my classroom career, I have developed an expertise in American Military history, particularly that related to the Second World War.  My personal interest, and passion in history, a subject in which I have written enough papers to author a book (and may eventually do that at some point), however, is the American Civil War.

As a result of my research and study, it is frustrating to engage in conversation, or see people make comments which rely more on popular culture or political correctness than on historical fact, especially when it comes to the Civil War, and especially when it relates to the Confederacy.  We don’t like unpleasant realities, and the Civil War is perhaps the one period of American history which gets glossed over, turned into legend, or completely ignored above any other.  That’s the main reason why the Confederate flag has remained as some kind of “symbol” of “southern identity”.  People have forgotten, or choose not to remember, what the Confederacy represented, in the words of its own founding fathers, represented by its flag.

The Principles on which the Confederacy Rested

Alexander Stephens, the vice-president of the Confederate States of America, provided the most concise and clear statement of principles upon which the government of the Confederacy rested:

“The “cornerstone” of the new government rests upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery—subordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth”.

Stephens, along with Jefferson Davis, clearly placed this statement as the philosophical pillar of secession from the Union, declaring it to be the founding fabric of their nation.  They justified secession and the formation of their nation with rhetoric drawn from America’s founding fathers, regarding the constitution and government as an “experiment” in democracy.  From the position of the Southern leaders, the formation of the Confederacy was simply the result of the “failure” of the experiment.  The issue of states’ rights, with the single exception of how it related to slavery, was clearly not a consideration.

The states which seceded, for the most part, provided a formal list of reasons for their doing so, with the threat to slavery from the federal government being the most mentioned reason for their departure.  Georgia complained that the federal government favored Northern over Southern “economic interests.”  Texas listed the “failure” of the federal government to provide protection for territory it took from Mexico following its war for independence (a treaty that had not been recognized by the United States government), along with asserting that the equal civil rights applicable to white people did not extend to the inferior “African” race.  Two states, Florida and Louisiana, simply declared their autonomy and severed their relationship with the federal government, not citing a reason.

Ultimately, it was the election of Abraham Lincoln that set in motion the political chain of events leading to the secession of eleven states.  Though the ballot box provides citizens with a voice every time they use it, that wasn’t good enough for Southern politicians.  There was, and currently still is, no provision in the constitution for dissolving a union simply because you don’t like the people who hold elective office, but the key term here is “elective.”  The voters can stage a peaceful revolution every two years if they choose.  The fear of the politicians of the South was that Lincoln, a known abolitionist, would ruin their economy by abolishing slavery.  That exhibited a very poor understanding of the way government worked, and a very skewed perspective of reality.  But if the secession, and subsequent war, were over the nebulous and undefined concept of “states’ rights,” the founders of the confederacy didn’t articulate it.

There would have been no Confederate States of America if it were not for the issue of slavery.  The idea of one person owning another for economic exploitation was an old European imperialist one, and it was the only legacy of the South that is wrapped up in the flag.

The “American” Factor

The Civil War, and its outcome, is uniquely American.  There’s no denying it was a long, and very brutal and bloody war, by any standard of measurement.  It was a test of national temperament and emotion from which few other nations would have recovered.  The outcome was the result of sheer determination, and a commitment to preservation of a union that was remarkable given the relatively young age of the country, and the fragile but firm nature of the democratic republic.

Even though there was a strong inclination to punish the former Confederacy for the rebellion, and there was some of that which did occur in spite of the expressed will not to do so, the way history has handled the event has been uniquely American, and exceptionally forgiving.  The lost cause has been generously allowed to retain its cultural and historical identification, maintain its symbols, including the flag, and the states were restored to their former position in the republic long before such action would have been allowed anywhere else in the world, if it ever would have been.  The economic restoration would have also been as lavish and complete as any reconstruction anywhere else, had it not been for the resistance of the Southerners themselves, who still chafed under laws that, in theory, gave former Negro slaves equal rights and status as citizens, and allowed for their participation in the electoral process.  As much as possible, Southern politicians, using the power of the states, resisted this more than anything else, and were willing to sacrifice the benefits of reconstruction and economic recovery to maintain this particular principle.  And they did.

It would have been very easy, and completely justifiable, for the federal government to simply ban the Confederate flag as a symbol of slavery and racial prejudice, and of rebellion and treason, and enforce such a law.  Whether Southerners associate it with slavery and racial inequality or not, secession was an act of both treason and rebellion, as was attacking and firing upon federal troops at Ft. Sumter.  That didn’t happen because of our confidence in the principle of free speech and expression that runs so deep in our democracy.  Those who understand and value this principle also understand that respecting it requires restraint, self-control and discernment when it comes to self-expression.  It is a reasonable expectation that people know what’s behind a symbol before they wave it in someone else’s face, or, before they fly it from a pole on the property of the state capitol, which belongs to all of the people.

A Nebulous Claim

When the Confederate flag is characterized as representing nothing more than history, and “heritage,” the characterization is leaving out definitive terms regarding what principles are couched in those terms.  Regardless of what some people might think, the flag cannot be separated from the racial inequality articulated by the Confederacy’s founders, leading to the cruel and inhumane practice of slavery, nor can it be separated from the outright denial of the foundational principles of American democracy by the leaders of the Confederate states, resulting in treasonous rebellion and a bloody Civil War.

It should not have required the mass murder of nine people inside a church, attending a prayer meeting, by a self-proclaimed white supremacist, to prod the collective conscience of the citizens of the state, and particularly that of their elected representatives, to take the flag down from a pole on property owned by all of the state’s citizens, and put it where it belongs.  The fact that it did says an awful lot about the collective conscience of the residents of South Carolina, particularly given the kind of Christian influences that exist within the state.

The removal of the flag will not end racial prejudice or hatred.  Such an action is, in and of itself, as much of a symbol as a piece of cloth colored to make a symbol called a flag.  It will not ease the pain of the families who were visited with the tragedy of death by murder, or the shock of such an event occurring inside of a building built on Christ’s foundational principles of loving God with all your heart, and loving your neighbor as yourself.  But it did give people the opportunity to demonstrate that kind of love in their response, and it gave others, in a position of power and ability, the opportunity to take a stand and demonstrate their solidarity with their fellow man, regardless of their racial background.

Perhaps, in gathering the courage to take a stand, our union has been strengthened by those who have stood up for its principles, and who are leading us down a more productive path than the one which leads to rebellion, destruction, and death.

Someday…

 

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.