Monday, September 18, 2017

'Make Israel great again'?

I’ve always had a theological problem with the existence of the modern state of Israel. It’s taken President Donald Trump, then the GOP candidate, to understand why.

More accurately, his slogan “Make America Great Again.”

About a century before Jesus came on the scene, what was left of Israel entered into a phase of “super-patriotism.” It had repelled the Greeks, who had tried to overrun it (resulting in the celebration of Hanukkah) but later on failed to deter the Romans, who became the great political power in His day and whom Israel deeply resented. Gradually the centuries-old prophecy of a Messiah was linked to the one person who would eject Rome and, shall we say, “make Israel great again.”

The trouble was that there was still a demand for ethnic purity among the Jewish people of that day. Samaritans, who lived to the north, were seen as compromisers for abandoning parts of the faith and intermarrying with Gentiles. Of course Jesus, considered the “super-rabbi,” scandalized much of the nation by, among other things, touching dead people and bringing them back to life and, in one case, going right through Samaria, which good Jews didn’t do (and encountering the “immoral” Samaritan woman).

We know today that Jesus’ focus was the Kingdom of God, which not even His disciples got; even after His resurrection, “Then they gathered around him and asked him, ‘Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’ ” (Acts 1:6). To which He responded, in effect, “Never mind.”

I take two lessons from this.

One, no nation can become “great” in marginalizing those who come from a different viewpoint or have a different history. The president has exploited long-standing divisions and pitted people against each other to get elected, confounding even those in his own party, and modern Israel has long been accused of discrimination against the Arabs in its midst. (That subject is too long for this post.)

More importantly, if we believe that “making America great again” represents a Christian worldview we’re fooling ourselves — indeed, it’s a form of idolatry. To wit, the idea that ending abortion, driving gays back into the closet and other things deemed “biblical” can and will lead to God’s blessing approaches heresy because the focus is on us, not God.

So let’s call it what it is.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

No, it's NOT 'both sides'

Today President Donald Trump again blamed “both sides” for the fracas between white nationalists and anti-fascist demonstrators in Charlottesville, Va. a few weeks ago that ended up costing one woman her life. (He made the same comment after the original demonstration.)

Trump is wrong about that. Dangerously wrong, for the following reason:

These days many on the political right don’t want to address the reality that the very rhetoric of folks on their side of the political fence is inherently violent — note the president’s comment during his campaign last year that people who protest him should be “punched in the face.” (And people cheered.) Rather, they have railed against what they believe to be endemic “left-wing” violence since Trump’s inauguration, never mind that the anti-fascist demonstrators, some of them who belong to the loose confederation “Antifa,” don’t advocate violence for its own sake.

I understand that in this case that the demonstration by the white nationalists, also Trump supporters and some who came as far as California, was actually their third in Charlottesville that summer and that the people who came against them were locals. The Ku Klux Klan, Nazis and their sycophants clearly were there specifically to cause trouble.

Recently one person has said online that Antifa wouldn’t simply go away if the KKK and Nazis did the same. I’m not convinced of that because at some point you’re going to react when people start picking on you. That’s what we’re seeing today, and “blaming the victim” won’t cut it now.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Hillary Clinton — what REALLY happened

Hillary Clinton is on a tour right now, hawking her latest book “What Happened.” It’s her explanation of why she lost the last presidential race to Donald Trump in what was supposed to be a slam-dunk victory. Of course, people have their own opinions of that — she was a flawed candidate beset with baggage courtesy of her husband Bill; she sabotaged Bernie Sanders; she was incompetent and corrupt; she was overconfident and entitles. Her Democratic Party is supposedly alarmed that she’s fighting that same battle all over again.

The reality, however, is much more straightforward than that. And it has precious little, if anything, to do with her.

Since 1980, the Republican Party nationally has done an excellent job speaking to people’s fears — and nothing motivates people to vote more than fear. In the 1980s it was communism, adjusted in the 1990s to “liberalism”; more recently, it’s become “Islamofascism” and illegal immigration from Mexico, which at best are greatly overstated. Even the Trump campaign motto “Make America Great Again” had a basis of fear that we were “slipping” in world stature (when that certainly wasn’t the case).

Of course, Bill Clinton signed what was considered a draconian crime bill when he was president (and for which he and Hillary later apologized) that incarcerated a disproportionate amount of young African-American males. But at the time the bill did have bipartisan support, even from the Congressional Black Caucus. And in 1996, up for reelection, he did claim that the GOP planned to cut Medicare by $270 billion (the figure was right but referred to the cut in the proposed increase).

But I digress. When you’re driven by fear you seek an easy scapegoat, and she turned out to be it — and flatly lying about her wasn’t off-limits. “Benghazi” and her use of a private email server for official business were willfully played up for the specific reason of damaging her candidacy even though folks knew full well that they didn’t rise to the level of corruption or incompetence. And then you had Trump constantly referring to “crooked Hillary” amid chants of “Lock her up” because he understood that’s what his base wanted to hear. It turned out that people really did want someone that crude.

Bottom line, Hillary lost because she belonged to the wrong party at the wrong time; she’d have beaten virtually any other Republican in the field, but the populace was in the mood for an “outsider” who spoke directly to their fears. After all, not for nothing is Trump still holding campaign rallies — it’s a way to let his base know, “I’m in charge.”

Friday, September 1, 2017

Getting over ourselves

You’ll never hear me denounce “anti-Christian bigotry” in the United States of America.

There are reasons for that. One it that it’s, at best, overstated. More importantly, the people who make that kind of statement identify with Christianity so much that no other affiliation matters — which is incorrect.

You see, I’m also African-American. I’ve worked in media for much of my adult life, 20 years at the same major metropolitan newspaper. I belong to two labor unions. I’m a native and lifelong resident of a major northeastern city. These connections not only color my experiences but expand my worldview.

I bring this up because of an excellent piece, “In Praise of Equipoise,” in today’s New York Times by conservative columnist David Brooks. As he puts it, “We live in an atomized, individualistic society in which most people have competing identities. Life is more straightforward when you’re locked into one totalistic group, even if it’s imposed upon you. When you’re disrespected for being a Jew, a Christian, a liberal or a conservative, the natural instinct is to double down on that identity. People in what feels like a hostile environment often reduce their many affiliations down to just one simple one, which they weaponize and defend to the hilt.”

That’s something I’ve always refused to do because it leads to racism and other types of prejudice, resentment toward some “other” and the resultant arrogant delusion that eliminating certain types of people will lead to justice and prosperity. That’s the real reason why the white supremacists backing President Donald Trump are so extremely dangerous and need to be repudiated tout de suite — in that context it becomes addictive religion where people can’t change their minds or the subject. (As things stand now, the political left isn’t yet equally guilty but if the “alt-right” continues to pick at it, watch out.)

Basically, we need to get over ourselves and lose the navel-gazing tunnel vision that leads to complaints about constantly being persecuted. (Indeed, too much focus on “persecution” represents “crying wolf” — there may come a day when there really is persecution but no one will hear it.)

Over the years I’ve been blessed with friendships across ideological, racial and theological lines and intend to continue them; the only times when those relationships have been threatened or even broken is when I speak my piece and say, “This is why I believe you have it wrong.” It’s happened from time to time and I do mourn those losses, but I don’t intend to be anyone’s sycophant because truth means more to me than telling people what they want to hear.

As I mentioned, it’s not that I don’t have any allegiances at all — in fact, I have several. And it’s likely that you do as well, so don’t discount them.

As Brooks writes, “The person with equipoise doesn’t feel attachments less powerfully but weaves several deep allegiances into one symphony”; quoting a James Q. Wilson, “it is a life lived in balance.” “Achieving balance,” Brooks continues, ”is an aesthetic or poetic exercise, a matter of striking the different notes harmonically.”

That’s the reason that, when people accuse “the media” of hostility toward Christians, I get in their face and try to shut them down. The truth is, we don’t have the time or energy to try to discredit the faithful; more accurately, they do it to themselves with their bellyaching because it actually makes them look weak. (Not to mention God.)

I can’t argue with Brooks’ final words, so I’m making them mine: “Today rage and singularity is the approved woke response to the world — Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders. But you show me a person who can gracefully balance six fervent and unexpectedly diverse commitments, and that will be the one who is ready to lead in this new world.”

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Trump's racism

I have come to the sobering conclusion that President Donald Trump is a racist.

This isn’t something that I can or would say lightly because as a preteen I used to make such accusations without provocation. Since then I call no one a racist until he or she does or says something that makes it clear.

That point came for me two weeks ago during the fracas in Charlottesville, Va., in which sympathizers of the “alternative right,” including the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazi groups, marched onto the campus of the University of Virginia — from what I’ve heard, for the third time this summer — and one counter-protester ended up dead when one of the white nationalists plowed his car into a crowd.

Note: The "alt-right" marchers were all Trump supporters, and when the news about the carnage reached his ears Trump actually complained, falsely, about an analogous “alt-left” and that were “good people on both sides.” No, Mr. President, white supremacists are never good at any time, certainly not when mobilized. Even notorious white nationalist David Duke, formerly of the KKK and American Nazi Party, was pleased with him for not coming out strong against them.

I contrast this with Ronald Reagan’s rejection of a presidential endorsement from Bill Wilkinson, a Klan leader in Georgia who said in 1980 that “the Republican platform could have been written by a Klansman.” In those days a lot of people called Reagan a racist for a whole host of reasons, but I refused to do so. And other conservative Republicans have simply refused to go in that direction, whether due to their own convictions or because it wasn’t “politically correct” (read: It was uncouth).

But also given Trump’s overt persecution of Muslims and Latinos, with the travel ban and threat to build a wall with Mexico respectively, not to mention his contempt for former president Barack Obama, it’s now impossible for me to believe that he’s not being driven by authentic racial hatred or, at the very least, that of others.

What’s worse, this divisiveness has seeped into the evangelical church, over 80 percent of whose white adherents voted for Trump. It’s become an issue in even my church, which is quite racially diverse and where folks of all colors have for decades broken bread together, a sign of real intimacy and unity; I had hoped and thought that the Trump phenomenon wouldn’t affect it as much as it has, but I’m now hearing complaints on social media. And furthermore, much of Trump’s “evangelical advisory committee” has been completely silent, apparently too tied to the status quo to make prophetic statements and challenge him.

Fortunately, some pastors have spoken out, with one white pastor in Modesto, Calif. ranting about “stupid white people” supporting white supremacy, saying correctly that “God is not in this.” (He said in retrospect that he should have chosen a different word other than “stupid.”)

I told a friend years ago that one thing we needed to do to spark spiritual revival was to “deal with our racism.” Unfortunately, it turns out that I wasn’t using hyperbole, either, so we’ll need to take our lumps and deal with the issue.

And since such leadership will not becoming from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., we have to do it. God help us if we drop the ball.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Reaping the whirlwind

The fracas that took place last week in Charlottesville, Va. brought to light a generally unknown confederation known as Antifa, a contraction of “anti-fascist” and dedicated to fighting the “alternative right,” these days known as the “alt-right.” Of course, supporters of the now-more resurgent white nationalist movement have noted Antifa’s willingness to mix it up as proof of left-wing violence.

There’s a difference here, however.

See, the “alt-right” is inherently violent. Let me say that again — inherently violent — and has been for some time. And it didn’t start with the inauguration of Donald Trump, either; you need to go back to the advent of right-wing talk radio in the late 1980s to determine just where this whole thing started.

And when you bully a group of people, as the “left” has been for decades by the right, eventually they will rise up and fight back. That’s what we’re seeing today.

Moreover, the alt-right has never taken responsibility for its own collective resentment toward “others,” believing that things would be fine if they were somehow eliminated. That attitude is sure to cause alienation and divisiveness — and it has done so.

“Well, can’t people just lower the temperature?” you may ask. I’d like to think so, but the alt-right has no interest in that. None. In a surprising twist, unlike what I thought was most white nationalists, many of its adherents are 20-something and thus have the energy and passion to keep things going for years, if not decades. That’s problematic because they can’t see down the road and take the long view, considering just how much their crusade hurts the nation. And then it will be too late.

Hosea 8:7 reads, “They sow the wind and reap the whirlwind,” the context suggesting that they are thus headed for destruction. And that’s why you see “Antifa” now — and it’s not going away.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Some thoughts on leadership, part 2 — how not to lead

If there’s one thing that the administration of Donald Trump has shown me — and it’s shown a lot since he was first inaugurated in January — it’s how not to lead.

Perhaps most books on leadership understand that leadership requires cooperation, not coercion. Standing up saying “Follow me or else” simply doesn’t inspire most people toward trust without reason, nor should it. You have to have a track record because, frankly, you can’t lead where you’ve never been.

Two examples:

A quarter-century ago jazz pianist Bob James called two of his friends, guitarist Lee Ritenour and drummer Harvey Mason, to work on a new album; he asked them for a recommendation for a bass player, and they both suggested Nathan East. That group clicked exceptionally well, so seeing an opportunity, James asked they others if they would be interested in forming a band, and they agreed.

But since he recognized that these were all top-notch musicians and, since at the time Ritenour and Mason had music recorded under their own names, when it came to compositions, arrangements and production James decided to give them equal say in how things were run. The band, dubbed Fourplay, is in fact on tour as I write. (East, at their encouragement, has recorded his first two albums in the last three years, the first up for a Grammy two years ago.)

I also do West Coast Swing, a very versatile but demanding partner dance which takes a lot of work, especially for a lead. It’s unique among such dances in that it allows the “follow” a lot of power to “hijack” a pattern and take it in another direction, which as a lead I do appreciate from time to time. I’m not that great a dancer, truth be told, which is why I still take lessons.

It was thus the height of hubris when President Trump declared upon securing the Republican nomination for president, “I alone can fix it” — hubris because he had never been part of the political scene and especially since he hasn’t leaned on more experienced hands to help him through the process. More to the point, allies are getting tired of his “America First” shtick, his rejection of the idea that “we’re all in this together” not going over at all.

For decades people have complained that “government should be run like a business.” Uh — no, especially in our bottom-up political culture where (at least in theory) the people at the top should answer to the folks at the bottom, and even in business you have to hire good people and let them play to their strengths. But Trump is so power- and attention-hungry that he can’t, or won’t, share the spotlight and — important — he’s not mentoring anyone.

Bottom line, effective leadership takes a lot of humility. We’re not seeing it in the White House right now, nor do I expect to see it over the next couple of years.