Sunday, August 30, 2009

The revolution will not be televised

We worship an awesome God in the blue states ...
-- President Barack Obama

Lately I've been rereading the book "The Jesus I Never Knew" by Philip Yancey and noticed something I hadn't before. It's almost a truism that Scripture suggest that God is closest to the poor, but he noted that the poor had an easier time with the Christian faith than the wealthy.

Reason? The poor, in his view, already lead a life of dependency on others -- which would translate into a relationship with God -- more so than wealthier folks.

And that is why, I believe, that any sort of spiritual revival in America will take place not in the halls of Congress or in well-scrubbed churches that focus on "doctrine" or "cultural issues." It likely will happen in ideologically "left-wing" urban centers, among the forgotten, the ignored, the scapegoats -- in short, the kind of people to whom Jesus ministered in His earthly life. And most of those people will not understand the concepts of predestination or be concerned with the fight against gay marriage -- they have more immediate issues. Like survival.

And it is that single-minded focus on God that will give the poor spiritual strength once He gets a hold of them. Not only that, but eventually prophets will emerge from that community that will challenge the status quo -- including the Christian "establishment."

There's precedent for that. Many of the biblical prophets were just that -- ordinary men who nevertheless heard the voice of God and delivered His message of inconvenience to people who didn't want to hear it. (After all, no one wants to hear from "those people" because they remind folks that they share some responsibility for their state of deprivation.)

More recently, the civil-rights movement was sparked by prayer and revival meetings in conservative black churches in the South; God gave its adherents the strength to withstand beatings by police, bombings of churches and incarceration of pastors for a much greater redemptive purpose. However, it's important to note that the movement took place almost exclusively in cities, where the distinction between the "ins" and "out" were, and still are, most pronounced.

Today, even many of us Christians look down on the urban poor and blame them for their state, not realizing that much of that had to do with political decisions out of their control. I wonder just how many of us might change their minds if we spent time with them, especially with fellow believers. You know, we might learn not only compassion but also to become their advocates -- which would please God.

But that kind of life-transforming ministry usually doesn't make headlines. It doesn't raise a lot of money. It rarely gets attention from media or politicians. It only forms bonds among people and reaffirms the line from the classic chorus "They'll Know We are Christians by Our Love." Not by our doctrine or our stances on morality.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The blues

Earlier this week I spent some time clearing out the storage space in my apartment. Among the items I found there, and had hoped to find, was a notebook containing some songs I wrote in the 1980s. That decade represented easily my most creative period.

As well as -- and I don't think that's a coincidence -- my most difficult period.

Those of you who read my blog regularly or know me personally have an idea of what my particular issues were then, so I won't go into them in this entry. I bring this up because it was only then that I began to develop an understanding of "the blues." No, not necessarily the musical style which to this day informs every other style of music that originated in America -- the feeling of loss and desolation common to every person who has walked this earth which such music represents. Suffering, the Bible tells us, is part of life and we ought to accept it as such. In fact Bono, lead singer of the group U2, once said that the Psalms represent ancient Israel's version of "the blues."

That said, the blues -- while accurately expressing the brokenness of life -- always sees a light at the end of that dark, seemingly interminable tunnel; its ultimate message is "I'm down -- but not out." And it is that hope that keeps a person going in the midst of inner (and sometimes outer) turmoil.

Lately I've re-reading the book "Finding the Groove: Composing a Jazz-Shaped Faith." The Rev. Robert Galinas, the author and a "jazz theologian," noted in the chapter on "Singing the Blues" that a certain vocalist he was listening to, while conceding that her performance was pure and pristine, lacked a sense of sorrow. I get that -- only recently have I begun to realize that it was my own pain that gives me the ability to make a saxophone cry.

And it was that sense of pain which gave the lyrics I wrote then the redemptive power they contain even now.

I think that's what's wrong with much of the evangelical church -- it's out of touch with what a pastor-friend calls a "theology of suffering." When you look at these humongous, sterile mega-church buildings; hear a message about "prosperity" or self-esteem; or subscribe to right-wing power politics masquerading as "protecting the culture," don't you notice something missing?

The thing is, the Good News of Jesus Christ has zero meaning without the bad news -- of sin, yes, but also of lack, abandonment and disappointment. After all, who has suffered more than He? Didn't He also have his heart broken, experience betrayal?

But get this -- He rose above all that; thus we're also supposed to. But not by ourselves. That's one reason He gave us His mystical Body, the church, where we can bring our messed-up lives to be redeemed for His glory by ministering to each other. We can't do that properly if we're trying to put up a front, saying that nothing's really wrong.

That's why I'm grateful that God allowed -- no, inspired -- me to write that music 20-some years ago. Not only did I grow my relationship with Him in the process, but He also also used that, as well as the background circumstances, to foster the healing that only He can provide.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Abortion, eugenics and ideology

About a quarter-century ago, I noticed that the car of one of my then-church's sextons sported this bumper sticker: "American abortion -- Hitler would have loved it!"

Not long afterward while playing basketball in the church's Parish Hall, I told him, "Hitler wouldn't have given a damn" -- which I knew to be true. If you don't believe me, here's a quote from the man himself: "The idea that a woman's body belongs to her is absurd."

The issue came up for me during a discussion on "Obamacare" on another blog where one of the other posters accused "Democrats," especially those who support abortion rights -- I don't, by the way -- of supporting the extermination of certain racial groups due to innate "inferiority." When I first heard that years ago it sounded ridiculous -- and, upon examination, it turns out to be.

Rather, it represents yet another campaign from the political right to marginalize those who don't agree with all of its tenets, shifting the blame from its own policies to its opponents. More to the point, this is one situation about which it's just plain lying.

As I mentioned, elective abortion is often linked to the notorious German dictator who caused World War II, but the truth about what he believed, said and did doesn't square with the legend. Hitler had actually banned abortions by "Aryan" women while encouraging or forcing them on those of "darker" hue. One of the reasons Germany conquered other nations was so that "Aryans" could populate them, even going so far as to encourage them to marry women in, say, Scandinavia.

However, the people who hold analogous views today are are on the right, not the left. I got a glimpse of that in the 1980s when Pat Robertson, of course no liberal, said on the "700 Club" that evangelical Christians should increase their birthrate. It's also a concern of white racist groups such as neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan and (I believe) the Council of Conservative Citizens.

One long-time anti-abortion target is, of course, Planned Parenthood, whose founder, the late Margaret Sanger, has been painted as a vicious racist and Nazi sympathizer who supported forced abortions.

Sanger, however, actually wrote during WWII: "All the news from Germany is sad [and] horrible and to me more dangerous than any other war going on [anywhere] because it has so many good people who applaud the atrocities [and] claim its right. The sudden antagonism in Germany against the Jews [and] the vitriolic hatred of them is spreading underground here [and] is far more dangerous than the aggressive policy of the Japanese in Manchuria.."

She also wrote, "The campaign for birth control is not merely of eugenic value but is practically identical with the final aims of eugenics.... We are convinced that racial regeneration, like individual regeneration, must come 'from within.' That is, it must be autonomous, self-directive and not imposed from without."

Doesn't sound like she believed in the concept of a "master race," let alone using political means to produce it.

And here's a shocker: In the 1920 book "Woman and the New Race," which came out at a time when abortion had already been illegal for a generation, Sanger wrote, "While there are cases where even the law recognizes an abortion as justifiable if recommended by a physician, I assert that the hundreds of thousands of abortions performed in America each year are a disgrace to civilization." (Keep in mind also that she died in 1966, a little over six years before Roe v. Wade.)

All this forces me to question the motives of people who accuse PP and similar organizations of placing abortion clinics in black neighborhoods for the purpose of racial "genocide." Here in Pittsburgh, PP's office is actually Downtown -- my bus to work goes within a block -- where few people actually live, most of those white. Also, three abortion clinics are located in East Liberty, an impoverished city neighborhood also largely black; however, two of them have been there since at least the early 1980s, when it was "in transition" (and probably long before that).

But as I was saying, the folks who have tended to promote "eugenics" as culture or policy have come from the right. It wasn't "liberals" who fought to preserve slavery. It wasn't "liberals" who implemented Jim Crow laws. It wasn't "liberals" who exploited migrant Asians on the West Coast in the 19th century. It wasn't "liberals" who strategically placed bombs to intimidate (or even kill) civil-rights figures or called Martin Luther King Jr. a Communist. It wasn't "liberals" who displayed signs saying "Hang [Nelson] Mandela" upon his release from a South African prison.

And if you need any more proof, consider that one of PP's largest benefactors is billionaire right-wing financier Richard Mellon Scaife, publisher of the Tribune-Review and best known for funding the "vast right-wing conspiracy" against President Bill Clinton in the 1990s.

This kind of mischaracterization may be a reason why the anti-abortion movement hasn't gone anywhere since 1973. If we believe we have "truth" on our side, we'd better get our facts straight.