Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Specter conumdrum

The political world was rocked today with the news that Arlen Specter, U.S. Senator representing Pennsylvania, had decided to switch from the Republican to the Democratic Party, possibly giving the Democrats a filibuster-proof margin. Most people probably believe that he did so to save his political hide because he had virtually no chance of being re-elected as a Republican or even an independent.

That may be true, but here's the real reason: His power base has shifted.

Although Pennsylvania has a reputation as a "swing state," in fact its voting habits tend to be quite static, with Philly and Pittsburgh (and Pittsburgh's inner-ring suburbs) staunchly Democratic/liberal and much of the rest of the state heavily Republican/conservative; that being the case, whoever won southeastern Pennsylvania, the only true swing region, would win a tight statewide race. Specter, a former district attorney in Philadelphia, was and still is very, very popular in that part of the state; however, the suburbs around that city, generally Republican when he was first elected 30 years ago, nevertheless always leaned ideologically more liberal and began during the Clinton years to trend Democratic.

Specter had to notice this. Since that region of the state has seen an marked increase in Democratic registration and because of the state's closed primary system, many of his former supporters simply could not vote for him in next year's primary election unless he switched. And with former GOP congressman Pat Toomey and former gubernatorial candidate Peg Luksik, both staunch conservatives popular with that wing of the party, already seeking the Republican nomination, Specter's GOP goose was certainly cooked.

Curiously, however, that represents a major-league problem for the Republicans, national as well as state. Because the electorate has seen an upswing in Democratic registration -- due largely to disgust with unyielding conservative ideology -- Republican candidates face serious obstacles in winning elections anywhere outside the South. Trouble is, the party is generally oblivious to the reality that a lot of people hate what they stand for.

Which, to be truthful, is establishing the conservatives, who dominate the GOP, as a permanent semi-aristocracy in it only for the power but not the responsibility of running the government properly.

But there's also a bit of hypocrisy in Republicans' chastising of Specter for switching parties -- after all, more than a few Democrats, most notably in the South, became Republicans primarily because of Ronald Reagan (or perhaps more accurately, his supporters in their respective electorates).

Bottom line, as things stand now Arlen Specter is the odds-on favorite to retain his seat because if the two Republicans now in the race refuse to moderate their rhetoric -- and I have no reason to believe they will -- the winner will be clobbered next November. Besides, Specter has plenty of cash on hand to fund a campaign, certainly enough to dwarf the war chest of any Democrat who might consider running against him. The Republican Party would do well to understand that politics is the art of compromise; if they don't they'll continue to be on the outside looking in. Specter switched parties because he understood that.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Pitt vs. Penn State -- it never was all that

When this former basketball player was growing up in Pittsburgh, I learned the history of high school hoops and especially its great players. (I won't mention any of their names here because they won't mean anything to most of you.) Up until the 1980s the Dapper Dan Roundball Classic, originally pitting the best players in Pennsylvania against the best of the rest of the country, was played here at what is now the Mellon Arena; I knew two guys, one of which was a junior-high teammate, who played in it. When it came to college they went to the University of Pittsburgh, Duquesne University, some schools in Philadelphia and even others across the country.

But one place none of them attended: Penn State. And that's why I think the "rivalry" between the two schools has been overhyped.

Recently, Penn State football coach Joe Paterno signed for a home-and-home series for his school to play Rutgers University in New Jersey, stoking the anger of Pitt fans because Paterno decided long ago not to renew the rivalry in football. Paterno has given all these excuses -- "we need more home games, we need to recruit in other areas" -- but won't come clean on the real impetus for his refusal to play Pitt.

And men's basketball was at the heart of it.

In the early 1980s, when Paterno also was serving as State's athletic director, he applied for membership in the young but already-successful Big East Conference, then-basketball driven. The hope was to get State on TV and play top teams on a consistent basis, thus making it more attractive to potential recruits.

You see, State's main campus, which literally is in the geographic center of Pennsylvania and very rural, has a reputation, deserved or not, of being inhospitable to African-Americans; according to the College Board, in the late 1970s only 3 percent of State students were minorities. As a result, it has a hard time recruiting not only in Pittsburgh but also in Philadelphia, where most of the good players are, and the program has always languished in relative obscurity with very few fans outside of its immediate locale.

Trouble was, the conference -- all of whose members even today are in major television markets or steeped in basketball tradition -- didn't see State as a good fit because it fit neither category, so a majority of schools said no.

Paterno then came up with the idea of an Eastern all-sports conference that would include State, Pitt, West Virginia University, Rutgers, Temple -- and Boston College and Syracuse, two charter Big East members and the only ones at the time with Division I football programs. The conference didn't like that, so it successfully courted Pitt, which of course is in a major TV market, and in the process collapsing Paterno's plans.

Paterno has had it in for Pitt ever since. After he got State into the Big Ten in 1993, he announed that there was "no room for Pitt" on the football schedule. (The two schools last played in 2000.)

In the nearly nine years since the schools last played football it finally hit me, who grew up a Penn State fan but attended Pitt and now a Pitt basketball season ticket-holder, that the rivalry was never that strong in the first place. You see, a good college rivalry -- say, Michigan-Ohio State, Georgia-Georgia Tech, Southern California-UCLA, Texas-Texas A&M -- should include grudge matches in every sport; that's what makes them compelling. Having also attended Georgia Tech, I saw up close that even a game of tiddlywinks with UGa would draw a crowd. (And to this day I root for whomever Georgia plays.)

But Pitt's primary men's basketball rival has always been Duquesne, and you can't simply build history over a period of just a few years; as I mentioned, State's basketball program has always been an afterthought because few players came from the Pittsburgh area. (It cancelled its own series with Pitt because the last five games weren't competitive, Pitt winning each game handily.) Other sports also don't generate the fan interest.

In December 2004 I made my one and only visit to State College for the basketball game. I was able to buy a ticket at the gate (the attendant, seeing me wearing Pitt gear, said, "Enjoy the game -- but not too much"), and when I got into the Bryce Jordan Center (which is as nice as, if not nicer than, the Petersen Events Center) I noticed thousands of fans disguised as empty seats. And even today, while Pitt is now fielding top-20 teams in an always-sold out arena and went to the Elite Eight, State is still struggling to get players and establish a fan base -- and this despite winning the National Invitation Tournament last month.

So maybe trying to rekindle this rivalry is not worth the hassle. Pitt has something going with West Virginia, which is closer anyway, even a catchy nickname ("the Backyard Brawl"). Besides, due to Big Ten rules, any football game against Penn State would have to come very early in the season. Yes, Pitt vs. Penn State football does have a history -- and that's apparently where it will remain. And probably should.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Moving toward -- ?

In an early chapter of his book The Way of the Wild Heart, John Eldredge describes several ways that men react to their fathers. One sample, which closely correlates to mine, was the following: "An evil man. May God deliver me from his legacy."

At a 12-Step recovery meeting I attended earlier tonight, I realized something: I've spent much of the past four decades running from my father. (Never mind that he's been dead for over 15 years.)

In retrospect, that started early. He derided Martin Luther King Jr. because of his commitment to the Christian faith; I became not only a Christian myself but also an admirer of King and supporter of his attitude of nonviolence. He resented the white race; meanwhile, most of my friends are -- and almost all of my dating partners have been -- white. He wanted me to study engineering; when that didn't work out I turned to writing, which displeased him.

But even my conversion, nearly 30 years ago, and subsequent discipleship were driven in large part by not wanting to be like him. I received Christ as Savior and LORD the day after he informed my brother and me that my mother had threatened to leave -- and I knew why. Just over four years later, when she made good on that threat and I moved out with her, I went into counseling and entered 12-step recovery because of a specific situation that showed me that, even though I was a believer, I had not changed sufficiently to be able to live effectively on life's terms. (The Program, based on Alcoholics Anonymous, has actually helped me to be a better Christian.)

Basically, I understood how not to live. But -- what's the alternative?

I think that illustrates one of the problems with the way Christianity is "sold" in this country -- primarily as a way to avoid eternal punishment. While that is certainly a fringe benefit of "salvation," I'm no longer convinced that doing so represents God's intent. He created ancient Israel to separate a people for Himself to live by His law in order to glorify Himself and bless the rest of the world; He sent his Son Jesus for the same ultimate purpose. In other words, His intention was always positive.

That's the challenge that I -- and every serious Christian -- face. When Paul instructs believers to "crucify the flesh," he was referring to the process of suffocation that eventually brought death to a physical body. That said, the "flesh" has to be replaced with something else rather than just killed. Which is why spiritual discipline is so important.

I'm not sure what that means exactly in my present state. I know only that a "negative" view won't help me personally, let alone help to establish the Kingdom of God as far as I have influence. May I -- and we -- live more positively.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Misguided activism

This month marks the 25th anniversary of a pivotal moment that helped to determine my views on activism. More accurately, it showed me how not to go about it.

On Easter Sunday 1984 two groups of pro-labor activists -- the lay Network to Save the Mon/Ohio Valley and the Denominational Ministry Strategy, comprising pastors -- disrupted the later service at Shadyside Presbyterian Church, a prominent congregation I had joined just weeks before. When I arrived there a little late a tall, heavyset man dressed in flannel shirt, workboots and jeans was shouting at the congregation amid the singing. The offficiating pastor allowed him to deliver his message, which was full of invective toward members of the congregation who were involved in upper management of steel companies that were shutting down operations, putting many of those men out of work. Many of us greeted them afterwards, a close woman friend taking me by the elbow as we made our way forward.

That wasn't the end of it, however. Over the next couple of years the groups, among other things, placed dead fish in safe deposit boxes in certain bank branches, insulted the pastor the church later called (as if he had anything to do with it) and bombed with skunk oil attendees of a post-Christmas pageant reception in the fellowship hall. I'm sure that, to many of my church fellow members, it felt like a constant siege. The activists were certainly committed to the cause -- one of the Lutheran pastors affiliated with the DMS, who ended up going to jail, had his ministerial credentials revoked.

But the groups' ultimate demand, to take the church's entire endowment, then about $6 million, showed their real colors. The message: "You owe us." In other words, they cared only about getting what they wanted no matter how it affected other people -- just what they were accusing the execs of. Well, they didn't get a penny from the church and the effort eventually petered out largely because of justifiably bad press.

Since then I've witnessed other similar demonstrations, specifically the anti-abortion Operation Rescue in 1988 during which two people I personally know were arrested for blockading abortion clinics. Civil-rights marches were still also taking place for reasons I don't even remember right now. And so on, and so on ...

Amazingly, all these groups claimed the "nonviolent" mantra of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whom I've studied for years. I saw immediately, however, that there was no connection between them.

King would never had insulted the other side, much as he personally would have liked to, because he knew full well that the opposition was trying to draw him into a tit-for-tat that would have sabotaged any moral authority he had. He also even invited his enemies to join them, witness conversations he had with jailers in Birmingham, Ala. who were complaining about the very same "system" that had imprisoned him.

That spirit of gentle confrontation didn't exist in the Network/DMS; their goal from the start was to humiliate the "enemy." Instead, the campaign against SPC became the church's finest hour, as its leadership consistently conducted itself with grace and humility. Indeed, I'm sure that some of the people reading this have all but forgotten about those demonstrations.

And that's the point. There's a way to confront perceived injustices -- with communication and relationship, not just making demands.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

'Gay marriage' -- what's really behind it

If you haven't heard, two more states -- Iowa and Vermont -- have this month legalized same-gender matrimony. And unlike the last few years, it hasn't caused much of a stir among Christians (at least from what I've seen). Which is probably a good thing.

I say this not because I support "gay marriage" (I certainly don't) but because perhaps we need to rethink the whole marriage enterprise.

The problem, since the last few hundred years, is the way marriage is conducted in Western culture. How are partners chosen? Really, primarily based on physical attraction in the hope that the inside matches the outside; even in evangelical churches, where we should know better, we routinely engage in what I refer to as "spiritualized lust." This being the case, it was only a matter of time before persons similarly attracted to the same gender demanded the same rights. You may notice that even the way the issue is framed focuses on the sexual -- "gay marriage," as if marriage is primarily about sex.

When people "fall in love," they put on blinders as to the faults of the partner, as though pure, overwhelming passion is the only thing that matters. And while I know from personal experience even as a single man just how intoxicating romance can be, at some point it does wear off. With such a poor foundation you either have to find ways to continue to "pump it up" -- which can lead to affairs and/or pornography -- or else split with the partner because "the magic is gone." (That's one reason why divorce is so prevalent even in the church.) Such same-gender relationships by definition fit into this category.

Moreover, David Blankenhorn of the Institute for American Values, who describes himself as a "liberal Democrat," considers same-gender matrimony a bad idea -- but for a surprisingly different reason than normally argued. In an op-ed published in the Los Angeles Times, he mentioned that he had spent a year studying marriage and wrote in response, "Among us humans, the scholars report, marriage is not primarily a license to have sex. Nor is it primarily a license to receive benefits or social recognition. It is primarily a license to have children." Blankenhorn believes that "For healthy development, what a child needs more than anything else is the mother and father who together made the child, who love the child and love each other."

For that reason, marriage in Eastern culture even today is never left to the persons involved -- they are arranged, usually by parents, to strengthen families and communities. And romantic love has little or nothing to do with it. (And those unions last.)

I know what you're thinking: Doesn't the Bible strictly forbid homosexual marriage? Not really -- just homosexual conduct, as marriage between "one man and one woman" is considered propositional truth that doesn't require defending. And that's fine with me.

I've heard some apologists for same-gender marriage say "Can people help whom they love?" That's not the point, because, as I said earlier, that kind of "love" is often blind. I'd like to be married someday and I will probably do so in the traditional way, but I will make that decision not so much on how she makes me feel but on issues of character and maturity. If enough people did that, "gay marriage" will be exposed as the oxymoron that it is.

Monday, April 13, 2009

And if that be true ...

Yesterday in church, my pastor made a reference to black swans in Australia. Up until the the time that Westerners set foot on that island in the 1700s it was assumed that swans were by definition white, so finding black swans caused zoologists to rethink everything they had previously believed about the species. He was making the point that the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which most of the church celebrated yesterday (Orthodox Christians will do so next week) "changed everything."

I agree, but I don't think much of the church understands that. And I think that's because we haven't fully grasped the implications of the astonishing miracle that He nevertheless prophesied when He was here on earth.

I say that because of the way the "gospel" has often been preached in this country. Too often it's a reference to "fire insurance" -- that "accepting Jesus Christ as 'personal savior'" (a phrase I now know is nowhere found in the Scriptures) is primarily a way to avoid eternal judgment. I would go so far to say that He didn't necessarily need to die for that to happen.

Part of that, of course, has to do with His use of the phrase "born again" in John 3 in his conversation with the esteemed Pharisee Nicodemus; we've constructed an entire theology around that phrase. (I did use it for a time after I became a Christian but never really liked it.) However, when He used it He wasn't necessarily talking about the afterlife; rather, His focus was on what God was doing on the here and now.

You see, while God sent Jesus to earth to pay for the sin of mankind, His greater redemptive purpose was to separate a people for Himself that would live by alternative, Kingdom values and thus glorify Him. After all, that's why he brought ancient Israel into existence (but it got so caught up in the minutiae of the Law that it generally forgot the One Who gave it and its ultimate function).

So, what does that have to do with the truth of the resurrection? I'm convinced that, if we understood its ramifications, Christians would avoid much of the behavior we engage in now. We wouldn't have all these independent megachurches, especially in the suburbs, to preach a Jesus more concerned with our "felt needs" and escaping the hard truth about our sin, both personal and corporate. We wouldn't have to address our divisions of color, culture and class because, in the Kingdom, they wouldn't exist. We wouldn't worry about maintaining our traditions, which would be lost in the light of the Son. We wouldn't need to impose our "morality" on others; our lives would suffice to show the world, "You guys have missed the boat." (Persecution will come only then, but so what?)

Most importantly, we wouldn't say "Thus saith the LORD" unless we know full well He did. And we would remember something that I first heard in a 12-Step recovery program in 1983, "The first thing you need to know about God is that you ain't!"

In short, we need to regain a sense of humility, that we exist for Him and not He for us. Because people have risen from the dead only by His hand, He alone holds the key to life. And also life the way it should be.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

The 'teddy bear' gives up -- for now

Yesterday I made a decision. I'm suspending my six-year search for a spouse, at least for the time being.

This is not to say that I've given up on marriage, even at my advanced age (48 next week) because I still believe I have something to offer a woman. But I was reminded earlier this week why I don't see myself doing things in the normal way. So I won't be going on any Internet introduction sites or approaching a woman I'm attracted to but don't know.

What happened? Well, I took a Facebook quiz, "What do people think of you at first sight?" -- and came up with a shocking answer, "You are cute," complete with a photo of a kitten with its head cocked to the side, indicating vulnerability. That may not sound like much until you consider my relationship history.

Weeks after I entered the fifth grade in a Christian academy in suburban Pittsburgh, a first-grade girl, apparently starved for attention, became very attached to me and treated me like a teddy bear (and never having experienced that, I didn't know how to respond). And she was not the last one to do that -- over the years dozens of women, mostly younger, have similarly demonstrated that they felt extremely, extremely safe around me. Cheerleaders fawned over me as an eighth-grade basketball player; during my senior year as an otherwise unpopular member of the high school band I won a school instrumental award and the first people who gave me a standing O were younger majorettes; once while having dinner in Pitt's dining hall during my junior year a freshman woman I had not previously met invited herself to sit with me. I've got stories galore about those kind of experiences.

Yet all that attention has rarely translated into dates -- it's almost as though I'm not a normal guy supposed to be attracted to women. One other woman I met during my immediate post-college days in the mid-1980s who would sleep with someone else at the drop of a hat loved curling up with me but said that she would slap me if I "tried anything." Even to this day women I'm friendly with display some surprise when I ask them out -- even as an escort for just one evening.

So what do I plan to do? Well, nothing, and that's the point. I think there's a message in it for me -- that, even with my frustration, I'm still obligated to treat women as princesses. After all, they are created by God in his image and not my toys to be thrown away when I'm done with them. I could be actually ahead of the game when it comes to marriage, which does require warmth, tenderness and communication -- all of which I do well.

'Liberty' run amok

Today, the city of Pittsburgh said goodbye to three policemen who were shot to death Saturday morning by a 22-year old gunman.

Taking place on Tuesday will be a "Tax Day Tea Party," a protest to be held here -- and, I'm sure, around the nation -- and sanctioned by the national Libertarian Party against "inefficient government."

The two are related.

For Richard Poplawski, now in custody for their murders, subscribed to a similar anti-government ideology based more on fear and resentment than on any historical perspective.

Well, perhaps that's not entirely true, because American political culture from the start was informed in large part by contempt for the English crown courtesy of immigrants from Northern Ireland -- known popularly as the "Scots-Irish" -- beginning in the 17th Century. Individualists to the core and quite militant, they have always maintained at least a suspicion toward any authority, whether economic, political or social, that doesn't answer to them. That has historically caused problems for the efforts to maintain a sense of justice, especially toward those whose rights have been abridged by law or custom.

Let's take the Civil War, which we often teach was fought to end slavery especially in the South. However, in the section of the country known as Appalachia, where many of the Scots-Irish settled and still live, slavery was non-existent and in fact resisted to a point where the state of North Carolina was considering seceding from the Confederacy over it and what is now West Virginia actually did so. Yet, the South had no shortage of soldiers because, according to that narrative, the real issue was "sovereignty" and the enemy was in Washington, D.C. (Try finding a statue of or streets or buildings named for Abraham Lincoln in the South, even today.)

The civil-rights movement similarly faced resistance, particularly because of the "sovereignty" issue; it turned bloody because Southerners, again, felt it was their sacred duty to fight the central government, which they considered the instigator. Some conservatives even tried to link Martin Luther King Jr. to Communists (a ridiculous charge on its face but understandable given that culture).

You see, in that atmosphere the pursuit of "liberty" at the expense of justice -- which is occasionally secured only by changing laws and customs and in which the "state" is often involved -- can lead to the kind of carnage we witnessed in Pittsburgh on Saturday. It is no accident that the Poplawski's victims were police; after all, they were agents of the "state" (in this case, the city of Pittsburgh), which in his view sought to curtail constitutional liberties almost by definition. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that Poplawski subscribed to right-wing "conspiracy theories" and was an ardent opponent of President Barack Obama, whom he felt would eventually abridge his interpretation of the Second Amendment.

That's the connection to the "Tax Day Tea Party." Government, of course, runs primarily on taxes, and what better way to limit government by, in the words of anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist, "starving the beast" of revenue? It's come to the point where many libertarian-oriented conservatives consider taxation "theft" and others insist that we can't "tax ourselves into prosperity." That argument falls short, however, when you consider that libertarian economic policies over the last three decades have led directly to the mess we experience today. Hate to disappoint, but government intervention is, for all practical purposes, necessary at this point.

It's easy to talk about "rights," important as they are; it's something else to talk about responsibility to society and one's fellow man. At some point we need to consider if our shortsighted focus on our own has actually sabotaged the rights of others. Thanks to Poplawski, three men have been deprived of their right to life, and if this "tea party" has any effect the government will be deprived of its obligation to restrain evil and administer justice. And without justice, no amount of "liberty" will make this a sane place to live.