Sunday, November 30, 2008

Some thoughts on codependency

Occasionally -- in fact, far more often than I should or I like to admit -- I think about my last girlfriend, whom I left over seven years ago. When a relationship fails the normal person retraces the steps, replaying the mistakes he or she made, the things that should or shouldn't have been said etc. and makes the adjustments to progress to the next relationship.

However, the codependent person, which my ex-girlfriend was, doesn't do that -- he or (more likely) she continues down the same path and ends up with the same results.

In my research, I've learned a few things. One, codependents believe that they have more power than they do to cause change in other people and try to exercise it. Two, and related to the first, they and their emotional needs take prominence and they often use guilt in the process to get them met. Either way, life surrounds what they believe and, as a result, they are often unwilling to adjust to their partners' views. In other words, they cannot live life on life's terms, which is why they often get so frustrated in their relationships; they live to possess.

This worked out in numerous ways with my ex. In our relationship I was supposed to have no real opinion on anything, whether on politics, theology or any other issue that interested me; in fact, the only time she ever solicited it was about our upcoming wedding. That alone, in retrospect, should have told me that a wedding shouldn't take place -- but I hoped that, with maturity on her part, things might change.

Anyway, because I'm somewhat of a traditionalist, where the husband/father holds ultimate responsibility for the family (she had three sons by previous marriages that ended in divorce), in this particular situation I knew that the only way our relationship could survive was that if we as a family attended my church, a metropolitan, multicultural fellowship of around 3,000 through whose singles ministry we met. On the other hand, because she feared both change and the loss of control, she wanted me to attend her small, suburban, mono-cultural neighborhood assembly that, if I did go there consistently, I probably would have split in about a year. That impasse finally caused me to bail out.

But with a codependent willing to get involved with me, what does that then say about me? Apparently I came across to her as someone who could or needed to be "fixed" or otherwise changed to meet her expectations. Though I don't myself drink, my late father was an alcoholic, as are are many members of that side of the family, which means I myself have struggled in my intimate relationships. So after things ended with my girlfriend I took six months off of dating to figure out my mistakes, one of which was not being more forceful about what I was and where I stood, demanding respect and drawing boundaries. (I haven't dated anyone steadily since.)

I've never been married and would like to be; however, today I understand and recognize some behaviors that I will not tolerate. And though I know that no relationship can ever be perfect, I hope that I would be able to work out my difference with my partner so that we can develop a sense of unity and purpose. That's what I believe God intends.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The grace of God -- in practice

One of my favorite books is Philip Yancey's "What's So Amazing About Grace?", which was recommended to me by a former Campus Crusade staff worker who once attended my church and now is a seminary student in Los Angeles.

I was reminded of that book -- and was prompted to reread it -- because last week I was actually banned from a Christian blog for, basically, challenging its established ideological orthodoxy.

This particular blog promotes Reformed theology, which its supporters refer to as the "doctrine of grace" and which happens to be my heritage. But, with the way I was treated by the owner of this particular blog and his syncophants, in this case "grace" remained nothing more than a theological concept that didn't translate into affirming, mutually beneficial relationships with others who think differently.

I guess I shouldn't have been too surprised. After all, the history of Calvinism has always been one of seeking political power under the guise of religion -- indeed, the Protestant Reformation was as much about power politics as recapturing the historic Christian faith. In fact, some extremists of that persuasion subscribe to the "reconstructionist" movement, which believes that nations can and should be governed by Biblical law. (The Puritans came to these shores to do just that, after they were unable to do so in Europe.) Trouble is, such a conviction leads to the idea that "only our side is right" and that we don't even need to talk to anyone else.

That, right there, violates the grace of God, which is a shame.

After all, in my view Calvinist theology is absolutely right at its heart. The acronym TULIP -- which stands for the five primary maxims of Reformed theology: Total depravity (sin entering into every area of life), Unconditional election (God Himself "selecting" whom He will save), Limited atonement (Jesus dying only for the "elect"), Irresistable grace (God eventually turning the "elect" towards Him) and Perseverance of the saints ("Once saved, always saved") -- is as good an understanding of the soteriology of the Christian faith as I've ever seen or read.

However, Christianity is far, far more than just "salvation" -- God always intended to create an alternative community set apart for Himself, originally with ancient Israel but now with the church of Jesus Christ, to bless the world through Him. For that reason God saves not just, or even primarily, for our benefit -- that's just a side issue -- but, ultimately, to glorify Himself by the way we treat others, especially other members of the Body.

That's the part we Calvinists tend to forget. Yes, God is to be worshipped "with all [our] heart, soul, mind and strength"; but the same God also orders us to "love [our] neighbor as [ourselves]" -- which is where "horizontal" grace comes in. This is of course impossible when the focus shifts to ideological and cultural domination and, ultimately, the denigration of other views which ultimately creates resentment. That's why the Reformed were run out of every country in Europe where they had a presence, and whenever they became dominant they themselves became oppressors -- in America, yes, but most notably in South Africa (where Calvinists supported the immoral political system of apartheid).

One problem is that, with all the theology that we Calvinists study, we often don't allow the Holy Spirit to saturate our being and cause the kind of sea change that God requires, so that we can do the works He has for us. In fact, it seems that everything has to be done "by the book" -- consulting only "approved" sources in order to maintain the tradition -- with the danger being, of course, that we can love our traditions more than the God Who gave them. Worse, we sometimes forget what we were like before God got a hold of us, which can cause us to look down on others not of our party -- however, Paul, who many times talked about his former life, including his persecution of the church, refused to do so.

The people who frequented the blog I mentioned earlier apparently didn't have a clue about any of these things. The owner not only consistently denounced even fellow Christians who didn't follow the Reformed line (even though some of those criticisms were actually warranted) but even posted a commentary from a conservative talk-show host who by position and temperament is at direct odds to the Gospel of grace -- and I got slammed for bringing that up. I was ultimately banned for supposedly "disrespecting God" with an off-hand remark I made and not apologizing for doing so in the time frame in which he wanted.

So much for God's grace.

I pray that, in my walk with Him, He will point out the ways in which I fall short. And that's the point of God's gift of Jesus Christ -- not simply to be the recipients of His grace but also to dispense it toward those who need it. And that could be anyone.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Abortion and the culture war -- why they didn't mix

With not just Barack Obama's rise to the presidency but also Democrats gaining seats in both houses of Congress as the result of the last general election, the anti-abortion movement today has some serious issues -- to say the least. I can only imagine the weeping that took place when those election results were posted, and (since I myself am "pro-life") I confess to being somewhat sympathetic.

I say somewhat advisedly, because it's the movement's own fault for tying its fortunes to the Republican Party in the first place.

Anti-abortion activism really got started in the late 1970s when Moral Majority and similar groups were founded in the wake of the 1960s-born culture war and the then-ascending modern conservatism that was taking hold in the GOP. However, it was in the process sheared off from other issues surrounding the "sanctity of human life" -- things like poverty and racial justice, which don't really raise funds -- and became just one more interest group clamoring for a megaphone and the power it hoped would result.

Moreover, the conservative movement always took a faux-libertarianism to an extreme, leading to a general incompetence in governing, which originally wasn't a problem because the strategy was simple -- let the U.S. Supreme Court overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that obliterated abortion laws in virtually every state and move from there. But as years went on without any significant action frustration set in, with many "pro-life" activists questioning the party's commitment and spawning such radical groups as Operation Rescue. (That was more a function of the political process than anything else.)

Eventually, anti-abortion sympathizers were reduced to symbolic victories. The "partial-birth" abortion bill that President Bill Clinton vetoed (because it didn't contain an exception for the life or health of the mother) always was designed to generate more outrage -- such abortions were already illegal in most states, and the bill that President George W. Bush signed criminalized only about 2,500 abortions annually, a pittance compared to the over 1 million we see today.

But, as I said, conservatives were pretty indifferent to, and thus incompetent in, governing. The ill-advised and badly-prosecuted war in Iraq was the first salvo; the botched response to Hurricane Katrina added fuel to the fire; and, especially, the Jack Abramoff-fueled lobbying scandal that entrapped a number of congressional Republicans who had used their positions for the sake of power and perks, finally woke the populace enough to vote out GOP politicians -- probably most of them anti-abortion. (The situation became so serious in 2006 that Focus on the Family's James Dobson convened a number of ultimately unsuccessful "Stand for the Family" rallies in battleground states.) As a result, the anti-abortion movement today is basically on the outside looking in.

What's obvious to me in light of political reality is that the "pro-life" movement needs a new strategy. It needs to 1) Get back to focusing on the sanctity of all life; 2) Become more ideology-free and non-partisan; and 3) Insist that the politicians it supports actually know how to run a government. That may take more time that folks want to take, but anything should be more effective than the old ways.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Conservatives forgot their history, not their "principles"

With the disaster of the last general election, conservatives are taking stock of their future prospects for success — or at least they think they are. But as things stand now, get ready for the same old, same old.

As New York Times columnist David Brooks pointed out in a recent piece, the traditionalist school believes that conservatism lost because of its hypocrisy, preaching “smaller government and lower taxes” while spending gobs of public money on even their own pet projects and becoming entrenched in the ways of Washington.

That sounds good, except for one thing: It isn’t true.

What really killed the conservative movement was that its tactics of divide-and-conquer, reducing campaigns to class and culture wars as far back as the Nixon years but which found the motherlode in 1980, finally stopped working. Its political class from the start acted as though power and authority were its birthright, and its propaganda machine was exposed about a decade ago. In short, it never intended to answer to anyone else, let alone the public — and that cultural arrogance brought it down.

In fact, what we call modern conservatism had four distinct pillars that normally didn’t mesh: 1) libertarians, who really do believe in less government; 2) social conservatives, including the “religious right”; 3) business groups; and 4) neo-conservatives, including Cold Warriors. That coalition hung together as long as the Federal government remained the target, but things started to crumble with the Berlin Wall and the fall of the Iron Curtain.

As a result, libertarians became at odds with the neo-cons, who were often former liberals who believed in using governmental power to promote conservative ideals; the business groups, who contributed highly-paid lobbyists to subvert the process; and the social conservatives who, they believed, wanted a theocracy. Corporate honchos ran afoul of the social conservatives because of their tomcatting. And so on, and so on…

That’s why Bill Clinton became a threat when he ran for president in 1992.

Chairman of the business-friendly Democratic Leadership Council, Clinton managed to shear off the business wing of the Reagan coalition, causing no end of consternation for the conservatives desperate to regain dominance. They thought they had succeeded with the gimmickry of the 1994 “Contract On” — whoops — “With America” during the midterm election and became sure that they could build on it. However, the next year Clinton booby-trapped the freshman House Republicans in a showdown over the Federal budget, offering a balanced budget but saving the social programs they wanted to be cut, the standoff leading to two government shutdowns for which the GOP was blamed. That skirmish ensured Clinton’s reelection and prompted the conservative apparatus to trigger a failed impeachment, in part because it now understood that the populace really wanted Social Security and Medicare, among other programs. Eventually, thanks indirectly to Hillary Clinton’s complaint about the “vast right-wing conspiracy” (which was true for the most part), the right-wing media machine was exposed.

Ultimately, however, it was conservatives’ failure, especially under George W. Bush, to govern properly that has driven them into exile — the debacle of the war in Iraq and the botched response to Hurricane Katrina, plus the Jack Abramoff-fueled lobbying scandal and James Dobson’s ineffective “Stand for the Family” rallies in battleground states during the 2006 general election. Still reeling, the early “October surprise” of the September financial meltdown not only finished off John McCain but, perhaps more importantly, gave more seats in both houses of Congress to the Democrats.

Former Bush speechwriter David Frum was quoted in an article, “The Fall of Conservatism” published in May in The New Yorker, as saying that “the problems in the Republican Party will not be fixed.” I think he’s right, because the political right is now in denial — trying to figure out how to sell its ideology to a public that has clearly rejected it. Incredibly, congressional Republicans have hunkered down and remained committed to the cause, evidenced by their unanimous opposition to the financial bailout — but for the foreseeable future they will continue to be little more than irritants with no real power. Serves them right.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

A spiritual stronghold broken? Maybe

During services this morning and in response to the election of Barack Obama to the U.S. presidency last week, the pastor of my interracial church invited all the African-Americans, myself included, to stand. He then directed the rest of the congregation to lay hands on us because he believed that a spiritual stronghold had finally been broken with Tuesday's result.

I need to chew on that for a bit, but I think he may be right.

There's no question that racism, especially against African-Americans in this country, has been a social and cultural problem throughout its 400-year history. But because it has affected the church of Jesus Christ, it also became a spiritual issue as well. Especially my church, which 30 years ago froze out every black person who tried to visit.

Indeed, racism has been a large, if generally unspoken, issue in evangelicalism in general. Theologically conservative churches were virtually nowhere to be found during the civil-rights movement, which of course was born in the historically black church, and those few evangelicals who supported it (most notably evangelist Billy Graham) caught considerable heat for doing so. Even as recently as the last decade, Bill McCartney, founder of the Promise Keepers movement and a staunch anti-racist, experienced the cold shoulder for bringing up the subject at PK rallies; he was quoted in Christianity Today as saying that attendance actually dropped because of it.

However, I see positive signs in the generation behind me, not simply that folks are learning about racial and cultural differences but also looking past them to see -- and judge -- people by the content of their character. More frequently they seem to be crossing those lines in intimate relationships as well, including dating and marriage, which I see as a positive sign. My white senior pastor has a Filipino son-in-law, and from what I can tell no one cares that they belong to different races. That's as it should be.

More importantly, "salvation" is becoming less and less the be-all and end-all of the purpose of the church. I see a movement toward building community; a concern for the health and welfare of the world that, while fallen, God created for His glory; and a desire to break away from self-centered "boomer" theology, in many cases by recapturing a sense of the holy.

I hope I'm around in 20 years to see what the evangelical church looks like, which I hope will be more like heaven (I'm not ready to go just yet). And should another black man, or even a black woman, become president it won't be a big deal -- and that what happened in church today will and should never happen again.