Tuesday, July 12, 2016

A true 'community of reconciliation'

In my late teens and early 20s my family attended the Community of Reconciliation, an interracial, interdenominational, left-leaning church at the edge of the city’s university district. And for me, in many ways it was a poor fit.

My previous church was conservative theologically, in that it really studied the Bible thoroughly, and before long I felt on a spiritual level that I was dying on the vine. Furthermore, COR was pro-choice on abortion and gay-affirming, stances I couldn’t accept, and I ended up leaving at the end of 1983 (by this time, my family had already broken up).

Two things came from that, however: One, a member of the choir was on the editorial board of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette — and it’s because of him that I work there today.

The other is that COR got the race thing exactly right.

I don’t recall any discussions of “white privilege” — this was well over 30 years ago — but when it came to such relationships nothing was off the table. By definition the leadership was split down the middle between black and white. (There weren’t enough Native Americans, Hispanics or Asians in Pittsburgh, let alone in the church, to make a difference.) I recall no attempt to “spare” the feelings of white members but, by contrast, no resentment toward the white race from its black members.

For the longest time I wished for an evangelical congregation that had a similar commitment to racial reconciliation because the Gospel, as I have come to understand it, is all about reconciliation. One obstacle to that, however, is the “individualistic” way in which American evangelicals often read the Scripture, focusing on “fire insurance,” personal holiness and cultural issues.

But while we’re “saved” individually, we’re saved into a Body — the Body of Christ, that is — and as such we belong to one another. As I Corinthians reads, “But God has put the body together … so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it” (v. 24b-26).

That passage should have an impact on race relations in the church, but sadly it often doesn’t. In fact, racial reconciliation has been an issue in the evangelical church only in the last quarter-century and largely because Bill McCartney of the Promise Keepers men’s ministry made it one — and hurt the ministry financially in the process because folks didn’t want to hear about what he called a “spirit of racism,” which he personally witnessed in his previous life as a college football coach.

Thing is, he was right.

Now, people may say, “I never owned slaves. I didn’t live in the South. I really don’t see color.”

All true, perhaps, but the effects of racism still exist especially in or near most major cities, where many of your black “brothers and sisters” live. They may be stopped by the police for no good reason. They may have trouble finding jobs, in part because the people doing the hiring don’t live in their neighborhoods.

In other words, the effects of past racist practices have yet to be overcome. I hope people can hear that and not complain that African-Americans are simply whining.

By the way, I eventually located an evangelical church that is committed to building bridges — right here in Pittsburgh. I’m honored to say that I’ve attended that church for nearly 18 years, and I knew that God called me there because I was at first resistant as I thought it might be too good to be true.

I’ve met people who aren’t really on board with it, but that’s OK. It has the potential to be a true “community of reconciliation,” where differences aren’t emphasized or papered over but transcended. Moreover, other churches in the area are doing the same.

Remember the old chorus “They’ll Know We are Christians by Our Love.”


Sunday, July 10, 2016

Admitting America’s — and the church's — race problem

About 20 years ago Steelers linebacker Gregg Lloyd wore a T-shirt in training camp with the slogan "Real Men Are Black." In that day it was a takeoff on the Oakland Raiders' saying "Real Men Wear Black."

But Lloyd's T-shirt caused consternation because others interpreted the saying as racist, which didn’t make sense to me. And only recently did I understand why.

A number of people of late have denounced the “Black Lives Matter” slogan and the group behind it that protests police abuse of African-American citizens. They seem to believe that it means “Only Black Lives Matter” when it’s really saying “Black Lives Also Matter.”

And the reality is that black lives often don’t matter, which is their point. (I’m not endorsing the movement, by the way.) That was also Lloyd's point.

I’m writing primarily to a Christian audience, and it pains me to say that we do have a race problem even in the church that, if we don’t address it, will compromise our witness for Christ (and in fact has already done so at times). Trouble is, most of us won’t see it because doing so might make people uncomfortable.

But isn’t that what we do when we tell people about coming to Jesus? Indeed, too often we complain that non-believers persecute us because we make them uncomfortable.

I have experience in such. In the early 1980s I was asked to leave an otherwise all-white campus fellowship and attend a black one that the umbrella ministry offered; I told the staff person making the request that I wouldn’t do that. Fifteen years ago I broke off a relationship with a woman who wanted to marry me in part because her church, which she didn’t want to leave, had literature that I learned later came from what used to be the White Citizens Council, still listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, and I refused to go there.

That being said, we Christians need to confront ourselves and our own attitudes. Too many of us have this idea that mere “conversion” would suffice; if that were the case I wouldn’t be writing this. Indeed, far from being divisive, I'm only exposing the divisiveness that already exists and for which we share the blame.

Keep in mind that Billy Graham, committed to an anti-racist viewpoint, was threatened with the pulling of financial support for putting an African-American man on staff. And Martin Luther King Jr. was denounced as an outside agitator during the 1963 campaign to desegregate Birmingham, Ala.

More to the point, we who follow Christ need a dose of humility and recognize that perhaps our views aren’t the only ones that matter. For this reason we need to build relationships across racial, economic and cultural lines and be willing to confess our own myopia.

I know — I’ve been doing just that since the 1970s.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Trump and 'salvation'

Last week James Dobson and Franklin Graham announced that Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican candidate for president, had become “born again.”

Yeah, riiight …

You would think that Trump would give some kind of testimony as to what happened to him, as anyone else would. But just last week he said that he had no intention of changing his ways—and why would he? His boorish ways got him to the top in the first place, with more than a few Christian believers supporting him despite his adultery, irresponsible business practices and xenophobia. (Were Trump running as a Democrat they’d highlight those with no shame.)

It’s not that I wouldn’t rejoice were that to happen. But the other two men, who fancy themselves “kingmakers,” have clearly political motives in making that announcement, since Trump obliterated every other candidate they would have endorsed or supported.

Moreover, a true commitment to Christ always leads to transformation, which takes years, if not decades. But Dobson and Graham don’t have the luxury of time; the election is just over four months away; clearly they want their clout back.

I don’t think they’ll get it. And I won’t complain, because this isn't about Christ at all.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

You better believe there’s a ‘rape culture’

You may have heard about the Stanford University student who was recently convicted of rape for having sex with an unconscious young woman — but being sentenced to only six months in prison, with half of it to be taken off for “good behavior.” The judge suggested that a longer sentence would have ruined his life.

Come again — ruined his life? What about hers? I can only imagine what such a violation does to a female, suffering wounds that never completely heal.

Over the past few years campus feminists have complained about a “rape culture” in which certain men feel entitled to sexual contact to a point that feel they can simply take it. I’m not prepared to say just how much, if at all, they’re exaggerating, but I can tell you that it does exist. As a fraternity member I experienced it. The point isn't really the sex, of course; it's the feeling of conquest that comes with it, and I've heard what some men have said about women.

Now, I never directly participated in any of that behavior, trying to get women into bed by hook or by crook; indeed, I was the type that were I to see one passed out because she had too much to drink I would have put a sheet over her and let her sleep it off. I had that reputation at the house.

But we’re talking about a culture, which implies mindset. During one of our parties one woman was quite literally being molested near the dance floor, in the living room of the house, and my first thought was, honestly, “Well, she must have wanted it.” If I knew then what I know now …

Here’s the thing: Some years ago one university did a survey on sexual assault, and it turned out that 90 percent of the accused were fraternity members, with most of the rest varsity athletes. In other words, these were the “men’s men” that tended to attract women, which was a problem in its own right because they had enough status that if they didn’t like one girl they could get another pretty quickly. That’s why it’s so hard to deal with.

But deal with it we must. How I’m not sure, but women are not toys to be discarded at whim.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Christians and identity politics

But the fact that [Donald Trump] chose to make the media-driven Christmas wars a centerpiece of his argument to Christians shows that his real engagement is with identity politics, not religion.

Those recent words from Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. demonstrate exactly what’s always been wrong for the last 40 years with evangelicalism in the public square because cultural hegemony, not fidelity to Christ, was the issue.

If that weren’t the case, then the mixed messages coming from evangelicals — perhaps the majority of writers and leaders in the movement decrying Trump’s lack of consistent morality but a significant portion of the electorate supporting him — wouldn’t make any sense.

Of course, this is a new phenomenon, with arguably, Dionne also writes, “By some measures ... the most secular Republican campaign since the 1970s.”

That begs the question: Are so many of us hungering for victory regardless of a candidate’s actual positions that we’re willing to anoint someone as “God’s man” who clearly doesn’t represent any consistent faith tradition? I guess so.

But such confusion from evangelicals, who really began losing their clout during the Bill Clinton years and have barely registered a blip since 2006, should be a sign that we were chasing the wrong thing all along. Funny, but I don’t recall any outrage when conservative Republicans were engaged in financial or moral corruption — perhaps they naively believe that only liberals were capable of such.

Or perhaps they were simply being blinded by partisanship. And for the Christian, that’s the worst blindness of all.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

I do NOT want an ‘outsider’ as president

We’ve been hearing for decades that the political system in Washington is “broken” due to élites and other special interests not beholden to the electorate and that only folks outside the system can bring it back to what it used to — and should — be.

That’s not only wrong; it’s naïve. Dangerously so.

When it comes to running a country, you should want someone who has some understanding of budgets, foreign policy (the president is also head of state) and the politics of getting bills passed.

Remember that we don’t live in a direct democracy; we live in a republic where we elect people to make decisions for us. Trouble is, doing the right thing for all doesn’t always mean popularity, which is why politicians, understandably, are often categorized as unprincipled.

Too many people thus believe that their parochial interests mirror those of the nation’s.

(So what would result from things like term limits for legislators, so that more people can run? Gridlock and perhaps even more career-oriented politicians. Yes, more, because those lobbyists, the real problem, aren’t going anywhere.)

The real reason a Donald Trump, who has never held elective office of any kind, would be a disaster as president is that he has demonstrated no concept of how to work out those differences; he appeals to those who want, really, a dictator — or, perhaps more accurately, as conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks said, “a superhero.” If he plays the political game he loses his base and becomes “just another politician,” but if he goes in like a bull in a china shop he loses the country — and the world. For those who believe that government can and should be run like a business, you simply can’t set goals and get rid of people who don’t meet them or who won’t follow along.

“Outsiders”? I won’t vote for that kind. Ever.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Trump — the true heir to Reagan

Since the 1980s and especially since the Bill Clinton years, the Republican Party had desperately tried to find the next Ronald Reagan. But it actually has him today — and doesn’t want him. Of course I’m talking about presumptive presidential nominee Donald Trump.

Now, I know this might sound crazy and even offensive to some, because they were temperamentally quite different. But they had two major things in common that are often overlooked: 1) They each possessed a supreme confidence that they could ride in on the proverbial white horse and save the day; and 2) They scapegoated an “out” group to do it.

In Reagan’s case, it was African-Americans. As governor of California, he criticized Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolent resistance upon his death. When he ran for president in 1976 he made comments about “welfare queens driving Cadillacs,” and he kicked off his 1980 campaign in Philadelphia, Miss. — where three civil-rights workers were murdered 16 years earlier — and declared that he supported “states’ rights.”

Trump, of course, has made immigration an issue, claiming that he would force Mexico to build a wall to keep Mexicans out (though in fact more Mexicans are leaving than coming in) and suggesting that Muslims from the Middle East shouldn’t be allowed in due to fears of terrorism.

That demagoguery is part of Trump’s appeal.

Part of it, however, is also that Trump is a political outsider with zero experience in elected office, and that will prove to be his undoing should he get elected (which I don’t anticipate). Reagan, however, wasn’t — he’d been on the scene for a while, knew how to make deals with the opposition and used diplomacy in dealing with other nations, something that hasn’t occurred to those who demand a neophyte.

Which I don’t understand. Truly. A number of conservatives have said that a Trump victory will undo the Reagan Revolution — and they’re probably right. But Reagan did provide a blueprint for Trump to follow, and he’s doing it.