Thursday, August 17, 2017

Hate, Conscience, History, and Ugly Truth

I'm floored by how effective these racist displays of violence and hate seem to be at accomplishing the exact opposite of their intentions. Granted, lots of hate-filled racists are being emboldened by these moves and the words of the President, but it's also become an impetus for the removal of statues all over the South, in the same way the Charleston shootings precipitated the removal of the confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse. While the Republican Party does still have a troubling racist element in its ranks, for the first time in my memory it's leaders are largely stepping up to the plate to denounce hatred, bigotry, and violence.

This all has to be said in the context of exasperation that we're in 2017 and this is what we're happy about. It shouldn't take 150 years to get to this point, but we are where we are. The words that people like Lindsay Graham, who's accent sounds like a caricature ripped from Django Unchained, use to condemn the President of the United States from his own party are pretty amazing. The critique that these words mean less than the votes these GOP leaders tend to cast in the opposite direction is entirely true, but the words aren't meaningless; it's progress, albeit small.

We like to think that the world which changes so quickly in some areas, should easily be transformed by truth and justice. It should. It really should, but it isn't. Love is patience; it takes time - painful, frustrating, unjust time. And despite the ease with which we see war and violence and hatred and racism rear its head around the world, there are plenty of signs that love does change people. It's not much, but it's something. Even if this show of conscience is, in its skeptical extreme, entirely politically motivated, the very fact that politics is playing in this direction is, sadly, progress for the United States.

For many white people, it seems like things are getting worse, but the reality is we've just largely isolated ourselves from the national racial tension, ignored it, and avoided the discussion that is now being thrust before us. The reality is, most of us haven't faced up to the prejudice that lives inside each of us because we just haven't had to do it.

That prejudice is real. The implicit bias test, conducted by Harvard researchers, shows that just about every person - black and white - has at least a subconscious bias against dark skin. We react differently to black people than to white people. The cliche shortening of breath, clutching of purse, walking to the other side of the road is not perception, but reality. Regardless of how we act, think, or speak, we should be able to say, "Sometimes, my first reaction is not one I'm proud of."

The difference between that - between you and me - and those lunatics rioting in Charlottesville is that they lean into it, they embrace it.
While I do believe the world is changing - and for the better - there is a reality with which we must deal before we can move on. There will always be prejudice; there will always be outsiders and "other," at least for the forseeable future - but the battle of prejudice doesn't have to be about race. That can change, but it's got to be dealt with.

Rarely, if ever, in the history of civilization, did the losing side get to keep its culture and identity relatively unchecked. There have been thousands of volumes written that analyze the aftermath of the Civil War, but the truth is, enforcing a culture change, resultant from war,
would've been a more difficult task than a still fledgling nation was willing to bear. The South got left with a don't ask/don't tell racial policy for generations as the can was kicked down the road.

Southern culture has made 150 years of gradual improvement - much as was expected (and hoped) when the nation left it to its own devices - but that underlying culture of racial superiority still exists in some measure and it's not just going to walk out the door on its own. I'm a student of history (literally - I've got a degree to prove it), more than anything I rue our current inability to understand historical context.
Well, I guess I thought I rued that more than anything - now it appears, even worse is the understanding of historical context poorly.

There might - and I say 'might' with the generosity possible understanding that this is merely hypothetical and not at all reflective of reality - be some case for statues or monuments erected in the 1860's, commemorating fallen loved ones with historically and culturally appropriate descriptors. That's an at least defensible use of historical context. When it comes to statues and memorials erected during the most intense periods of racial strife, celebrating "heroes" with incendiary and inaccurate descriptors, it's hard to make any sort of respectable defense. Real historical context, at least in the case of the vast majority of southern monuments, includes a lot of facts that don't appear on the plaques. That's reality, too.

Robert E Lee may have been a paragon of manners and civilized society, acting in accordance with a disciplined code of perceived honor, especially in contrast to many of the other less educated, less refined personalities we associate with the confederacy. That doesn't make him a saint. Maybe Lee really did fight for the South entirely because of his belief in States' Rights, and his association with those virulent racists was simply because of a common foe - that's best case scenario, right? Still, he didn't free his slaves to prove his position - and there's certainly evidence to the counter the long-held perception of the man that's worth looking at.

In the end, though, even Lee felt holding on to the culture and memory of the Confederacy was detrimental to the healing of a nation. He specifically spoke out against the kind of monuments so many towns would one day dedicate to and of him. The families of these "heroes" don't want the statues to remain, neither do the majority of the populations in most of the municipalities where they reside.

Some cities have changed the plaques to better represent the reality of the Civil War; sometimes they've added statues of civil rights heroes alongside to tell a more fleshed out story of our nation's history. There are ways to do this that really do keep history front and center, but which also avoid the whitewashing (now there's a word that's right on the nose, am I right?) or avoidance of the realities of race in the US.

I can't finish this overlong post, though, without at least mentioning the difficulties these kinds of considerations create for our future. People have gotten mad at Trump for asking if George Washington is next. I'm not sure why - it's a fair question. The man had no more forward-thinking or enlightened opinions about slavery than General Lee - he was a generally selfish and belligerent guy who was unfairly lionized due to some accidents of timing and his refusal to become king.

That doesn't make George Washington a "bad" guy - although I wouldn't want him as a role model to my kids. He's like just about everyone else in history: unfailingly human. We've got few true saints out there - and they'll be the first to argue there's none. We've got no real saints when it comes to people of power and influence - those things just don't go hand in hand.

I'll admit its difficult. Princeton has been dealing with the legacy of Woodrow Wilson for years now. The guy was smart - PhD, Ivy League President, Governor, President - he served through WWI and is generally listed among the 5 or 10 best Presidents we've ever had. He was also pretty darn racist, in overt and activist ways - an above-average racist at a time when average (or even below average) was still pretty darn racist. How do we deal with people who aren't just imperfect, but seriously flawed?

I suspect old George Washington gets a pass because we all agree on the value of the country he helped to found, we've all bought into the mythos well enough to leave things be. Would the mythos around Washington or Jefferson (or, God-forbid, Andrew Jackson) be any different than that surrounding Lee if Native Americans had survived in the same numbers and with the same voice as African Americans? Or if they'd simply lived a hundred years later?

I'm in total support of our difficult embrace of the racial problems in this country. Let's take down the statues and take a second look at the history books and the mythology and the stories we take for granted about who we are. We just can't stop when our liberal comfort is comfort is challenged or our white guilt starts to fade.

The world is a mess. Life is a mess. We are a mess. The solutions will not be easy or pretty or fun. We're gonna have to be okay with that and we're going to have to sacrifice as much, if not more, than what we're asking "those others" to sacrifice right now.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Charlottesville and Christian Counter-Culture

I'm against nationalism, not just white nationalism. Trump's statement that Americans of every color salute the same flag is just as dangerous as the hate-filled bigotry shouted by the Klansmen and Nazis in Charlottesville last week, even if its morally less-repugnant. I know it's important to state opposition to racism and violence, to call out specifically organized hate-groups by name and denounce their position, but I'm not sure we're doing it with much real thought to what we're saying and its effects.

I recently read this fantastic book called The Patient Ferment of the Early Church. It's essentially an otherwise stuffy religious history focusing on the first 200-300 years of Christianity, but the thesis is unique and powerful. Alan Kreider argues that the sole, key distinctive of early Christianity was patience. The first Christians were actively discouraged from what we might call evangelism today - they were convinced that faithful Christian witness was all that was needed. If they lived in the mode of Christ, people would be drawn to that lifestyle without the urgency or outcome oriented focus that's marked Christianity in the 1500 years since.

The moral quandry most prominent for Christians in this time was the exposure of infants. Unwanted children born in the Roman Empire of the time were simply left at the dump - exposed on the trash heaps. Christians took a stand against this moral outrage. They refused to expose their infants and they often wandered the trash heaps, rescuing and adopting those babies left to die. They did not make this a cause, protest, or fight. They simply lived differently.

I recognize that things are different 2,000 years later. We live in a world with free speech and the ability to share it widely and easily.
We live in a world with long traditions of activism. We live in a world where the established morality, at least in large part, aligns more closely with Christian morality than it did in Rome. Violent racists are now the minority and rejected by polite society. Things are different.

At the same time, listening to the rhetoric of opposition in Charlottesville, it was very difficult to differentiate the sides of the debate.
"These ideas aren't representative of the America I know and these people don't belong here." In our attempts to denounce racism, violence,
and hatred, we're exhibiting the same exclusionary ideas we're protesting (or at least, it's easy to do).

From a Christian perspective, protest and counter-culture means more than just choosing a different side; it means choosing a different means of fighting altogether. In general, it means being more creative with our words and actions. This has been a struggle for US Christians in most of the last century and probably the Church as whole over its entire existence. We protest consumerism, but end up with huge chains of "Christian"
stores, full of useless trinkets covered in crosses and music that's more worried about making money than facilitating real worship. The same goes for our approaches to violence, voting, and evangelism.

In Charlottesville, we're rightly outraged that so many people feel free to openly and publicly proclaim ideas and actions so entirely contrary to that of Christ - sometimes in the name of Jesus - but the response cannot be to isolate, condemn, and dismiss the people themselves. Showing up to protests with counter protest might be the right move, but it's got to be done differently. Opposing a mob with a mob - even one committed to non-violence, is still playing games of power - our numbers trump your numbers. It's an invitation to violence. Our voices don't need to be louder or angrier if we're embodying a counter-cultural presence. There is no point to spewing hate at the haters.

Saying, "I stand against racism" is better than saying nothing, I suppose, but it might not be if those of us with privilege aren't willing to sacrifice a bit of it to make our actions match our words. That's where much of the problem comes from. When the only times in which we white people interact with more than token members of the African-American community is when we drive 20 miles to volunteer somewhere for a few hours, we're not making much of a statement.

Early Christians change their entire lives, rejected respectability, often embraced poverty, simply to live out the counter-cultural gospel of Jesus Christ. Earlier this year I read the graphic-novel trilogy, March, that tells the story of John Lewis, one of American's Civil Rights heroes, as he engaged the movement and eventually participated in the famous march across Selma's Edmund Pettis Bridge. One of the things that struck me, was how much emphasis those books put on training for non-violence. It was not a movement where anyone could show up - they endured long periods of practice in non-violence and not everyone had the discipline to make the cut. It was a lifestyle change, a personality change - it was more than just falling in line.

Part of the reason the Early Church put so little emphasis on making converts was because the process was so long and arduous - catechumens endured years of training and observation before the Church deemed them worthy of baptism and the name of Christian. This wasn't so the movement could be exclusive, but because counter-culture is hard.

It's not enough for us to simply say, "Racism is bad. Violence is bad. Hatred is bad." We've got to understand what it means to live that out - not just in our safe little, privileged enclaves, but in the wider context of a very troubled world. We've got to work diligently to shape and form ourselves and our creativity to react differently than even those with whom we agree on some particular issue.

I've resisted giving specifics about ways in which Christians can faithfully engage in issues of immediate and ultimate importance in the world -
issues of race, violence, justice, life, and death - because I do think those ways exhaust and expand beyond my realm of vision. I do think,
though, that Christians must work to fully embody not just the emotion of the moment, but a truthful and fair representation of Christ. In this instance that includes the insanely difficult task of embodying true equality - not just in words or moments, but for the long haul.

Kreider recounts that Christianity lost its emphasis on patience when it adopted the mindset of ends justify the means. Instead of waiting for the truth to win out over time, heretics were persecuted, prosecuted, and executed. Politicans were brought in to use their power to favor one faction over another, to make decisions of right and wrong when it came to Christian thought and practice - this has been our habit ever since. We adopted the mode and means of the culture around us, but because we did so with a religious veneer, we've failed to see the compromising error of our ways.

I am continually troubled by the challenge to use my body, my lifestyle, to make statements of truth and justice, while also remembering the words of Paul, that I too, was once an enemy of God, and recognizing that my transformation was not wrought by violence, anger, or shame, but by the love of Jesus Christ. This is not a pushover faith, but it's also not a popular one; results are slow and it requires suffering - may I have the wisdom and creativity to make it my suffering before the suffering of others.

In the end, I don't have answers, but I pray that I'll have a gospel-infused patience that manifests itself in sacred, selfless action. Lord, have mercy.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

What I Learned on My Summer Vacation

It's been a crazy summer for me. I made the last second decision to head out to Indianapolis for the Church of the Nazarene General Assembly, an every-four-years meeting of my brothers and sisters from (literally) around the world. A lot of important stuff happened, but perhaps the most lasting impact were the workshops I attended, each informative and important for my future life and ministry. I learned a lot.

I found help for the adult Sunday School class I often teach at the local United Methodist Church; I got some seemingly obvious tips about children's spirituality that I never would've figured out on my own - things that I think will definitely help me be a better parent. I was challenged to think and grow beyond some of the hyper-focused and segmented places in which my mind tends to live. I'm not sure exactly what it will mean going forward, but I'm really glad I went - even if it was just for two days.

Getting back, there were just a few weeks until our marathon vacation. I accidentally scheduled myself to be away from home for 23 out of 25 consecutive days. We did a week with my in-laws that was relaxing and enjoyable - the kind of thing that probably should've come at the end of the trip. Not that the ten days spent with my own family wasn't good, but with three small children involved, I'm not entirely sure "relaxing" is the right word. My wife and I did get to take a quick anniversary trip to New Mexico where, in about 36 hours, we visited the Georgia O'Keefe Museum and climbed a very steep 13,000 foot mountain with an awesome night at Taos Ski Valley sandwiched in between.

Between those two trips, I spent a week at Mid-Atlantic District Teen Camp with the Church of the Nazarene. This is my third year here and it's always an awesome experience. The camp's run so well and the staff and kids are great to be around. I truly enjoyed it. There weren't any radically life-changing moments for me, but I did have some dedicated time away from my normal life and schedule to think and pray about the future. I've really felt a draw to be speaking or teaching or preaching more than I do right now.

Early in our time in Middletown, I was filling in preaching A LOT. The Nazarene congregations in the area all seemed to be transitioning between pastors about the same time and I probably preached 20 times a year. The last couple years, though, those congregations have been more settled and it's been more like four or five times. I really feel like preaching is what I "do." It's a strange thing, even for me, but the process of researching and compiling and preaching a sermon is my true art. I do a lot of writing - and those skills are heavily involved in sermon preparation - but it's really the preaching that feels most "true" to me. I wrote about it in my 6th ever blog post (one that's been read all of seven times, which is probably a good thing; I can't even bring myself to go back and read it).

We're also at a point this fall, where my daughter is starting Kindergarten and she'll be on the same campus where my wife teaches. What that means is that this stay-at-home Dad will not have pick-up or drop-off responsibilities for the first time in five years. My schedule's going to change. We're not entirely sure what that means, but I'm thinking perhaps travel is more of an option.

So, what I'm saying is that I guess the big revelation of the summer is that I feel like I should put myself out there a bit for speaking and teaching opportunities. I've done it a few times, been invited to various places, and it's always been a great experience. I'm not sure if there's a lot more opportunity out there or if anyone cares much to hear what I might have to say, but if you need someone to bring his typically unique perspective on God and life and such to your group or congregation, maybe I'm the guy?

Typically summer is a time for me to check out, relax, and avoid deep thoughts - this year, in the midst of fun and busyness, there's been a lot of time for reflection and growth. And that's what I learned on my summer vacation.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Bernie and Condemnation

In my long tradition of dealing with contemporary issues long after they've fallen by the wayside, I'd like to weigh in on the confrontation between Bernie Sanders and Trump nominee Russ Vought from early June. It made a lot of headlines at the time, with people drawing lines and choosing sides and lobbing bombs back and forth at each other.

A transcript of the exchange can be viewed on any number of sites I'd rather not link to, but here's one anyway, since you need context.

The crux of the matter is Vought's comment, in support of his alma mater, Wheaton College, that people of non-Christian faiths (specifically Muslims in this particular case, but it's expanded to all) "do not know God" and "stand condemned." Sanders uses this statement as a means of rejecting (or voting for the rejection) of Vought in a government position because this view might be offensive or fear-inducing in people whom he's referenced.

In my view, both of these guys made real fools of themselves.

Sanders is easy - he falsely equated personal opinion with action. You need to show actual discrimination to justify denying someone a position of power, at least in the US government. Vought's belief that some people are condemned is just a belief, unless there's proof he acted on it. Shoot, this is a position in the Office of Management and Budget, for crying out loud, are there even religious issues that this guy would have power to rule on in the first place? Even if Sanders thought he might act prejudicially, he would be hard-pressed to come up with a scenario where such prejudice could even be possible.

People have rightly pointed out that this is, essentially, making a religious test for office - something the constitution forbids. Of course, what we conveniently never talk about in those scenarios are the ways in which our laws already impinge on the freedom of religion for things like child brides or abusive corporal punishment, to name a few. It's not outside the realm of possibility that "condemnation" on the basis of religion, might be one step on that same train Sanders would like us to pursue.

All of those are interesting, but what I didn't hear too much of is criticism for this notion of condemnation coming from Vought. It's terrible theology, to begin with, and just over-archingly anti-Christian to make such a statement. I could see justification, perhaps, for the condemnation of specific actions, but to condemn not just individuals, but whole groups of people, simply for a theological difference, feels like precisely the kind of thing Jesus denounced the Pharisees and religious leaders of his day for doing all the time.

In fact, I feel like Jesus said, at one point, "God did not send his son to condemn the world, but to save the world through him." Time and again Jesus failed to condemn anyone, except those claiming religious authority. We miss that boat a lot, as Christians, and maybe it takes a wildly over-zealous, secular Jew to get someone to notice.

I don't think Sanders was remotely right - at least constitutionally - in his statements and his badgering. In fact, it sounded an awful lot like condemnation in its own right. At the same time, Vought shouldn't be defending those words; he should be profusely apologizing for them.
To use the name of Jesus, the Church - his followers - as the means for doing it just makes me sad. The people most committed to the name of Jesus Christ don't appear to know Jesus at all. Rather they've bought into a dogmatic theology that serves its own internal logic more than the God it purports to represent.

It's intellectual assent taken to its logical conclusion - a person's acceptance or rejection of the idea of Jesus overrules individual action.
No one is saved or condemned based on their religious affiliation - we're saved or condemned by our commitment to love and selfless service -
you know, living in the way of Jesus Christ, whether you're in a position to admit that's what you're doing or not.

Neither of these guys did much to advance their cause in this matter. Neither one showed any real understanding of honor or respect. I'd say those actions - the words and actions of both men - are embarrassingly counter to the message of Jesus. Fortunately, that doesn't devalue them or their identities in any way. There's still plenty of love and hope and grace to go around.

At our very best, we're still more prone to condemnation than grace. I'd say the best we can hope for is to recognize it in ourselves, admit our failings, and work to be different moving forward. The intractable positions we see here are far more alike than they are different and we deserve better than either one from people we've placed in positions of power.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Putin the Feminist

This is a really old quote that's been sitting in my "to write about pile for a few months, but I think it's just interesting enough to bring back. You may not have even noticed when it happened, since we've been privy to a whole mess of ridiculous things said by major world leaders, but let me draw your attention to one Vladimir Putin, who answered a reporter's question about what he does on bad days thusly:

I don't have bad days because I am not a woman.

This is one of those things that relies entirely on context. If you read that line without any indication of who said it, you can take it one of two ways: 1) This guys is a total misogynistic jerk, or 2) This dude is incredibly woke. I don't think there are too sentences that can be interpreted in such different ways. It's a real anomaly.

Now, I imagine that Putin is probably more in the #1 camp, given the kinds of things he's said about less powerful sorts of people in the past and his penchant for macho power games. This is probably not a social commentary on the plight of women in modern society.

However, let's say the quote isn't from Vladimir Putin, but maybe it's the opening line of Louis CK's new stand-up act. It comes across in a very different way. I think it's a laugh line for sure - he tends to put things bluntly and speak in unique ways. The very fact that this line can be interpreted differently makes it something worth laughing about.

You can just see how CK would be able to spin fifteen or twenty minutes out of how terrible women have it in society. He could contrast his shitty life with just how much shittier every part of it would be if he were experiencing it as a woman. It's entirely within character, and he'd probably be lauded for insightful social commentary.

I guess there's no real point to this post - other than to point out just how fraught the use of words really is. All those French post-modern philosophers who spent so much time basically rendering language meaningless and then meaningful and then meaningless again probably have more of a point than we're willing to give them credit for.

Maybe this is just the ultimate example of the medium being the message - in this case the medium being from which pair of chapped, wrinkly lips the line happens to spew.

You know, now that I think about, there is a point: in this world men, like me, get to waste time and energy writing esoteric posts about how some enfeebled misogynist might not be entirely wrong about women if you absent context, while around the world, women are actually dealing with a whole bunch of unnecessary crap just because they're women.