Thursday, December 30, 2010

Keeping the "soul" intact

A recent column by Lynn Varner of the Seattle Times, inspired by the recent death of soul singer Teena Marie, suggested that she wasn't better known in part due to her genre.

I'm not willing to say that.

For openers, according to many folks, Marie was the first white act to be signed by Motown Records. That's not exactly true -- the Detroit-based band Rare Earth, while on its own label, had its records distributed by Motown (best-known song: "I Just Want to Celebrate"). Besides, there have been white soul acts since the 1970s -- two of my all-time favorite bands are Tower of Power (which I will see tomorrow night) and the Average White Band. Heck, even Elvis borrowed heavily from African-American culture and never hid that fact, though by today's standards his act was fairly corny.

Rather, the musical separation has to do with radio formatting, which became more of a factor in the early 1980s and is a fact of life today. And let's not forget MTV, which was launched in 1981 as Music Television and where image became as important as, and in some cases more so than, musical skill. (Many folks believed that it didn't play black artists due to racism -- the reality, however, was that it was a rock-pop channel that leaned toward British new wave which was already focused on videos.) In the 1970s, when I came of age, any good song of any genre and performers of any race were likely to pop up on Top 40 radio, with ABC's "In Concert," NBC's "The Midnight Special" and "Don Kirschner's Rock Concert," broadcast here in Pittsburgh on the CBS affiliate, also showcasing talent across the musical spectrum.

But there's a cultural separation as well which, when and where I was growing up, also had political implications; to this day I still don't see African-Americans similarly crossing over to play rock (read: "white folks music"). When the Bus Boys, a new-wave band with only one non-black member that broke out in the early 1980s, hit the scene few noticed, and the hard-rock Living Colour never made much of a splash either. More to the point, I was about the only African-American kid I knew who listened primarily to progressive rock and Top 40, eschewing a steady diet of soul music, simply because I didn't want to be limited, whether musically or socially. However, as a result I did get the reputation of being an "Oreo cookie," and I guess I became one.

So I think it's not just a matter of "who's stealing from whom" -- after all, many white performers have embraced not only soul but the blues, jazz and even hip-hop. As far as I'm concerned, we need to learn to appreciate each other's music as well as the culture from which it comes. Perhaps it behooves us African-Americans to get into rock, classical or even country -- not that we have to stay there but simply to appreciate how they do it.

Back in 2003 I began working a lot with an all-white "oldies" vocal band that I had profiled for the Post-Gazette the year before, and on one gig the other two horn players also were African-American -- before we got started that night the trumpet player noted that irony because with such acts often the singers were black and the musicians were white. We all knew that it didn't matter because everyone was having a good time and we were being paid. And that's the way it should be.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

More random thoughts ...

-- Foxnews.com recently reported that African-American candidates for mayor in Chicago have asked former president Bill Clinton not to campaign for former Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, who is seeking the same post. The story referred to him as "the first black president," borrowing a statement by writer Toni Morrison.

However, that phrase has to be placed in context. Morrison actually meant that, during his "scandals" and subsequent impeachment, he was "guilty until proven innocent" -- just like many African-American men accused of a crime. It had nothing do with his popularity in the black community, which to be truthful wasn't all that much until the impeachment; it rallied around him only due to the contempt that most African-Americans have always had for the conservative movement, which runs the Republican Party and led the charge to try to have Clinton ousted for having the gall to get elected in the first place.

-- It seems as though such movement has found another "cause" -- suggesting that too many people are in college and should forgo the price tag, which I will agree is ridiculous. And perhaps there actually is a glut of students attempting post-secondary education that may not need it; although I do have a degree, two generations ago I would not have needed college to become a writer.

However, guidance counselors back in the 1940s tried to steer my father and his sisters away from a college-prep curriculum in favor of trade school even though they were indeed college material -- and that had to do with their race and socioeconomic background. My grandmother paid a visit to Schenley High School in Pittsburgh, where they attended, and fought to get them admitted to classes for the college-bound, and all of them eventually did get some post-secondary education.

I'm reminded of a speech that Abigail Thernstrom of the Manhattan Institute made some years ago, telling an audience, "You don't need to send your kids to Harvard." Someone in the audience responded, "Then why do you send your kids there?" There was no response. Take that for what you will.

-- Those of you who read my blog on a regular basis know that I've always been extremely hard on the conservative movement; not only do I believe that it's usually wrong on the issues and subscribes to bad data and history but also tends to be extremely defensive, dogmatic and inflexible. However, of late I've had a number of conversations with a few members of my congregation whose politics lean right but who nevertheless come from an honest place and are willing to admit that they may not have the whole story; I'd even be interested in starting a political discussion group, perhaps a Sunday school class, with one of my "opponents." (Heck, I need to learn, too.)

But this is what can happen when you attend as diverse a church as I do; you realize that you have to make room for people not like yourselves. I would argue that such diversity is essential for the survival of the greater church.

-- Today I realized just why so-called "word/faith" theology is so heretical. The idea, of course, is that if something doesn't happen that you want and even prayed for fervently your faith must be lacking.

Ephesians 2:8-9 reads: "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith -- and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God [emphasis mine] -- not by works, so that no one can boast." In other words, the faith you have in Jesus Christ in the first place actually comes from God. Essentially, that theology is saying that the faith that God gives is insufficient and that you have to generate it yourself and thus defeating the purpose of faith, which A.W. Tozer defines as "looking to God."

Saturday, December 25, 2010

The REAL story of the Nativity

Today is Christmas Day, of course, when we mark the birth of the Savior of the world and Head of the Church. As such, we spend most of the previous 40 days recalling the story surrounding the birth -- the circumstances and even the political implications.

That said, let me give you the lowdown on what really happened, culled from several sources -- it may be very, very different from what you've lived with for all these years.

What's not subject to debate is the obvious -- Jesus the Messiah was born in a Bethlehem stable some 2,000 years ago to a engaged teenage girl named Mary who had never had sexual relations and that she and her fiancé Joseph had gone there to be counted in the Roman census.

Virtually everything else, however, is wrong.

For openers, she really didn't have to go, legally; however, he took her anyway because tongues were likely wagging in their hometown of Nazareth due to her "condition" -- in fact, had they been caught in the act they could have been stoned to death. And they were likely in Bethlehem for weeks or even months before the birth.

Why was there "no room in the inn"? Bad translating.

Joseph and Mary would have been taken in by at least one of his relatives and not have to have gone to a commercial inn in the first place. Homes in that part of the world consisted of two rooms -- one, where the family lived, and two, the guest room (mistranslated as "inn") -- but keep in mind that other relatives were also in town for the census.

So what about the stable? Well, it was on the first floor of the house, the humans staying on the second floor. It's very likely that Mary went downstairs to give birth because she wanted some privacy, again with all of Joseph's kin running around; the feeding trough -- er, manger -- was built into the side of the house and thus made a natural crib.

Another inaccuracy: Angels did appear to shepherds; however, they spoke, not sang, their message. Although no one knows specifically the date, it's pretty well established today that it wasn't in December -- and, by the way, it doesn't snow very often in the Middle East! (So much for "The First Noël.")

As for the Magi, they probably came from Persia. How would they have known to look for the baby Jesus? Well, remember when Israel had been taken into captivity about four centuries previously one of their choice young men was -- the prophet Daniel, who had told the story of the coming Messiah of Israel, and it was kept alive all that time amongst a pagan people. (It's interesting that the story of the Magi appears only in the Gospel according to Matthew, which was written to Jews -- implying that He would also be the Messiah of the Gentiles.)

They're not numbered, either -- three refers only to the number of gifts they brought. Nor were they present at or shortly after the birth; recall that when they arrived Jesus, Mary and Joseph were in the house where they were staying. And also remember that Herod had all the baby boys ages 2 and younger killed, which should give you a idea of just how old Jesus was when the Magi arrived.

That said, as festive as we make His birth today, recall His ministry, death and resurrection 30 years later -- and also His bodily return (not even He knows when that will be).

Friday, December 24, 2010

Gays in uniform

Earlier this week President Obama signed into law legislation that allows gays and lesbians to serve openly in the armed services, with predictable outcomes. Progressives are hailing the new policy, which replaces "don't ask, don't tell," enacted during the Clinton Administration and which itself replaced an outright ban.

Meanwhile some conservatives are apoplectic, right-wing columnist Star Parker writing, "I cannot think of anything more dangerous to our national security and the ongoing strength of our nation than the collapse of our sense that there are objective rights and wrongs."

The truth is, as in many cases, is probably somewhere in between.

It's naive to believe that gays haven't served in the military even when they were officially prohibited -- I haven't myself, but those that have can tell you of fellow soldiers/sailors/airmen who they knew were, though closeted. And they'll tell you that it probably wasn't an issue -- they were there to do a job. Simple as that.

On top of that, hundreds, possibly thousands, of servicemen and -women were discharged once their sexual orientation became known, even though they wanted to serve and despite the chunk of change spent on their training.

What about the folks who felt squeamish about bunking with or showering in front of someone who might be gay? The assumption here, of course, is that gays can't or won't control their impulses. (Perhaps they ought to have more sympathy for women whom men ogle with impunity.) I've played on sports teams with fellows who might have been gay -- I don't know for sure, nor do I care to -- but don't obsess over it.

However, I don't see it as a civil-rights issue per se. Even now too much focus is on sex -- and American society is arguably the most puritanical in the Western world -- and not enough on serving the country.

My own personal position, formulated as I write this, would be to have left DADT in place. After all, if sexual orientation didn't really matter we wouldn't need to talk about it and if incidents happen they should be handled on a case-by-case basis.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

No special interest

I find it amusing when, during campaigns, political candidates for a legislature talk about fighting unnamed "special interests" whenever they get to Washington or (insert the state capital of your choice). It's not simply that they're entrenched in the power structure.

The reality is that just about everyone that belongs to any organization is connected to at least one "special interest."

Are you part of a trade union? A professional organization? An industry group? A Christian ministry, whether liberal or conservative? If it maintains offices and lobby groups in a capital -- sorry to say -- it's a "special interest" that's protected by the Constitution. In that context, "special interests" are bad only if they aren't yours.

And isn't that the way things go? The "tea-party" movement made a lot of noise this fall in large part due to complaints over "government spending," but when pressed to specify what should be cut its adherents can't. And doing so would be hypocritical anyway, considering that they actually benefit from it. A high percentage of tea-partiers have college degrees, likely paid for at least in part out of government largess; others are on disability (which means more government aid). I seriously doubt if such folks will pay any of that money back.

But I digress -- if just a little. Do you ever go to an arts festival or construction site and see a sign with "Rep./Sen. So-and-so" as one of the sponsors? Well, guess what, folks -- that's your tax dollars at work. And it turns out that the lobbyists we say we hate are responsible for either your entertainment or someone else's ability to bring home a paycheck. Does it sound ridiculous that even the late liberal lion Ted Kennedy would support the building of military aircraft that even the Pentagon said it doesn't need? Not if doing so would provide jobs in Massachusetts.

So you can complain about "special interests" if you want to. But as the old saying goes, "Be careful what you wish for -- you just might get it."

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

New boss, same as the old boss

Those of us who tend toward cynicism wondered how long it would take before "tea-party" candidates would break their promise to "change Washington" and succumb to the siren song of lobbyists and earmarks.

According to Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank, it's already happened. Here's the story:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/12/14/AR2010121405602.html?hpid=opinionsbox1

Therein lies the problem with political rhetoric. Either these folks were deluded into thinking that they could overcome such "special interests" or they were simply telling people what they wanted to hear to get into office in the first place.

Suckers.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The seduction of American evangelicalism

Has anyone noticed the secularization of the modern conservative movement -- that is to say, that the leading lights of today's political right are no longer evangelical Christians? With Moral Majority, Jerry Falwell and D. James Kennedy all dead and the rest of the "religious right" virtually irrelevant, it seems that "Christian influence" on that side of the political fence has waned.

There's one problem with that outlook: Consistent, comprehensive, historic Biblical Christianity, especially acting as an independent prophetic voice, never truly existed there. Ever.

That sounds nutty except for one fact of history -- the modern conservative movement, which has existed since the mid-1950s, was secular from the word go; evangelicals, generally apolitical, weren't involved until the late 1970s, when they were recruited by conservative fundraisers. And that had the effect of compromising what it truly meant to follow Jesus Christ, suggesting that doing so could be reduced to a few "cultural issues" that -- coincidentally -- could raise a lot of money for the sake of Christian "values."

Of course, it never occurred to us that the secularists would concede on such things as abortion and gay rights, which they really don't care about, in order to win our votes on economic issues and "big government," which have little or nothing to do with authentic Biblical faith. The truth be told, the secular right would have never bothered with us it we didn't have money ourselves and thus had interests we felt we needed to protect.

And therein lay the seduction.

It's become clear that non-believers are now telling us what being a Christian really means. These days we don't need to watch Christian TV to get our daily dose of "Christian" propaganda -- the Fox News Channel will do nicely. Some years ago a friend told me about a conversation she had with someone who had suggested that Richard Mellon Scaife, the right-wing financier and publisher of the Tribune-Review, was a Christian; I assured her, "Scaife's no Christian." This is also why Christian involvement in the "tea-party" movement is so problematic.

So what does that mean? Well, we need to rethink, revisit ... and repent. II Corinthians 6:14 warns us not to "be yoked with unbelievers," and we've clearly violated that maxim. But what about "values?", you may ask. What about them? The devil will give us those -- so long as people don't see Jesus.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

A new identity

Today's message in church came from the book of Genesis, specifically the 35th chapter, when God changed name of "Jacob" (roughly translated "slick") to "Israel" (one who strives with God). The idea, of course, is that a person's identity is transformed when he or she meets God.

I understand the concept -- and not just because I've been an evangelical Christian for 31 years.

Indeed, the first time that I recall that happening to me was in 1974.

That year, when I was in seventh grade, I transferred from a Christian academy, where I was being bullied regularly and had major issues with that teacher, to a Catholic school. For a number of reasons which I won't get into, that turned into an excellent move, both in the short- and long-term. The short-term was that I was away from him, whom my parents and I all knew hated me.

The long term: The Catholic school offered two things the Christian school didn't -- music and sports programs, both of which not only benefited me immensely but also helped to change my identity.

That fall, I started doing something I'd always wanted to do since I was six years old: Play the saxophone. (And, of course, except for my college days, I've never stopped, getting more serious about it in the late 1990s.)

The other was connected to playing basketball, as one of the cheerleaders had asked me for a one-syllable name to use during cheers. You see, my legal name is Derrick, which back then was somewhat synonymous with "a problem to be solved"; I later became "Rick" and still use that name today, even professionally.

But that's the way God often works -- He brings out vital things that were always there but that we weren't even aware of. And, if we let him, He also will you away from that which would destroy you. Praise be to Him.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

More musings on Washington ...

-- House Democrats would have done themselves no favors by jettisoning Nancy Pelosi from their caucus leadership the way some suggested. She, of course, was blamed for the debacle of losing so many seats to the Republicans earlier this month. Here's the problem: She would never have been targeted had she not been so effective, especially with the health-care insurance bill that GOP conservatives did their level best to kill largely out of spite. Those more conservative members, especially Heath Shuler (N.C.), who opposed her to "prove" their independence from her were only playing politics.

Anyway, Newt Gingrich probably wished he had her luck in the mid-1990s, and I don't see John Boehner (R-Ohio), the incoming Speaker of the House, doing much better. Many of the freshman Republican congresspeople simply aren't in the mood to play the political game, working across the aisle on the "people's business"; they certainly weren't in 1995. Trouble was, they walked right into a Clintonian trap later that year in wrangling over the Federal budget that insured then-President Bill Clinton's reelection the following year. Take that for what you will.

-- Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D.-W.Va.) recently called for the Federal Communications Commission to revoke the broadcast licenses of the Fox News Channel and MSNBC for causing a toxic political climate. As a First Amendment devotee, I'm not sure such a move is feasible or even desirable, but I understand and sympathize with his frustration because these days it seems that you can broadcast anything you want regardless of consequences for the sake of ratings, which means $$. (For that matter and for that reason, I never watch cable TV news.)

Of course, many Fox apologists retort that the mainstream media are biased -- against them -- in their own right. Sorry, but that represents the height of hypocrisy, especially considering that Gingrich, Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum all draw a paycheck from Fox for serving as "political analysts." They would pillory any network that hired active Democratic candidates in the same fashion, and rightfully so.

-- Take note that Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) will apparently retain her U.S. Senate seat after a write-in vote, defeating tea-party candidate Joe Miller, who won the primary and was endorsed by Palin. I don't think that's a coincidence, as the two women have had a running feud for some time, and I also see that as a sign of Palin's political weakness in her own state.

-- I think that President Obama is making a mistake in not allowing the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy expire. One, it will increase the deficit, which everyone understands is a major problem but that no one seriously wants to tackle because it will mean cutting popular programs. Two, the opposition has no agenda except to roll over him by any means necessary; Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) has said that the conservatives in the GOP want to make Obama into "a one-term president." Read: They respect nobody.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The real meaning -- and the implications -- of the parable of the 'good Samaritan'

Then Jesus laid into him and said, "A man was going from Atlanta to Albany and some gangsters held him up. When they had robbed him of his wallet and brand-new suit, they beat him up and drove off in his car, leaving him unconscious on the shoulder of the highway.

"Now it just so happened that a white preacher was going down that same highway. When he saw the fellow, he stepped on the gas and went scooting by.

"Shortly afterwards a white Gospel song leader came down the road, and when he saw what had happened, he too stepped on the gas.

"Then a black man traveling that way came upon the fellow, and what he saw moved him to tears. He stopped and bound up his wounds as best he could, drew some water from his water-jug to wipe away the blood and then laid him on the back seat. He drove on into Albany and took him to the hospital and said to the nurse, 'You all take good care of this white man I found on the highway. Here's the only two dollars I got, but you all keep account of what he owes, and if he can't pay it, I'll settle up with you when I make a pay-day.'

"Now if you had been the man held up by the gangsters, which of these three -- the white preacher, the white song leader or the black man -- would you consider to have been your neighbor?"

If you're wondering what you just read, that was the "Cotton Patch" rendition of the parable of the "Good Samaritan"; I had come across that paraphrase of part of the Scripture when I was in Atlanta over 30 years ago.

I bring this to light because there's more to the parable than we often believe. Much more.

For Jesus' purpose in telling the story was not simply in telling people that they should be merciful in a purely personal sense. Rather, the religious "leaders" mentioned in both this version and the "legitimate" Scriptures were part of the cultural establishment of their respective days and had no contact with those who were "beneath them," which is why Jesus made the a Samaritan -- who in that culture was considered "less than" -- the hero.

And precisely because the Samaritan was considered "less than," he understood from personal experience what it was like to be ignored, marginalized, pushed to the back of the bus; he knew what suffering was about and what it took to alleviate it.

Thus, Jesus' real message in the parable was: "Identify with those who are up the creek; get in touch with your own suffering and help those as you would want to be helped."

I bring this up because of the entire "justice-vs.-charity" debate when it comes to how best to help the poor. Those on the political right have tried to convince folks that private charities rather than political action represent the best way to do that. While I'm all for private charity, it just doesn't, and in some cases can't, go far enough. (Note that the Pharisees in Jesus' day made a show of the alms that they gave to the poor.)

While in many cases the poor are where they are because of bad choices, in others the conditions in which they live make things difficult, if not impossible, to change. Much of the African-American community, for example, simply didn't have access to the same opportunities for education, jobs and social contacts as everyone else and in fact aren't even aware of certain things that many of the rest of us take for granted.

The issue then becomes "What do they really need?" as opposed to "What do we think they should have?" or "What can we spare to give them?" (Notice where the emphasis is placed.) Ultimately, "identifying" with the poor may lead to political change, which usually is resisted by the "establishment." That's why the streets of the South flowed with blood during the civil-rights movement. That's why the late newspaper editor and anti-apartheid activist Donald Woods was forced to flee South Africa. That's why right-wing blogger Andrew Breitbart and Fox News Channel talk show host Glenn Beck teamed up to take down ACORN (which was registering the poor to vote -- and guess with which political party).

You see, justice the way the Scripture teaches it is threatening to the status quo. It's one thing to give of your excess to those in need; it's another entirely to give of your core -- the things that give you status. And that's why the parable of the Good Samaritan would have jarred Jesus' audience -- and, properly understood, would do the same today.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

"Is that all you got?"

Over the last couple of years a number of women have approached me on-line -- in most cases through some dating/introduction service I didn't realize I'd signed up for but also on Facebook; I usually don't respond because I don't like to meet them like that. Recently, however, two women I didn't know sent me messages with profile photos that were at least partially nude. (I blocked them from contacting me further and deleted their messages.)

But that raises a bigger issue. I don't care for nudity anyway -- I've seen my share of pornography but have no desire to see any more -- but, well, what about these women, most of who are young enough to be daughters if I had children, who feel they need to advertise in that fashion? Do they really think that they can get the attention of men by baring all?

Well, maybe that will work with some guys. But certainly not me.

For what it's worth, I'm certainly as visually-oriented as any man; however, I like to see women fully clothed because how they dress is a true reflection of how they carry themselves and thus their ability to maintain a relationship. My own preferences lean toward "elegant" and "flirty" (for the sake of any women reading this, I won't be any more specific than that). And, deep down, I think most men feel the same way -- they may "look" at cheesecake but prefer to settle down with someone more substantial. There's something to be said about "leaving something to the imagination."

So, ladies, please -- no more nude photos. They may look enticing but represent sizzle, not steak -- and I like mine medium-well.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

African-Americans and the "tea-party" movement

Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page noted that one of the "underappreciated, overlooked" stories coming from last week's election was the number of black candidates who ran as conservative Republicans and even as "tea-party" sympathizers; two even won. ABC News aired a similar story, and my right-wing former colleague Ruth Ann Dailey, who still writes for the Post-Gazette, was giddy that the Democratic Party might finally be losing its stranglehold on black voters.

Don't be fooled one bit, however -- because it won't change a thing. These two new black Congressmen were elected from majority-white districts, which means that, while they may represent their respective districts, they likely didn't have many fellow African-Americans voting for them.

And here's where it's important to understand that, contrary to popular conservative opinion, blacks do not vote for black candidates based simply on color; like everyone else, African-Americans vote their interests, which are rarely -- if ever -- aligned with the conservative political agenda. The black community isn't really enamored with the Democratic Party or doesn't hate the Republican Party, truth be told; it just has a deep contempt for the political right dating back to the 1960s. Keep in mind that the political ancestors of today's conservatives, North and South, opposed the civil-rights movement, and they still have not dealt with the latent racism that even today is considered part-and-parcel of the political right.

And, to a certain extent, conservatives actually understand this. Over the years they have been willing to pay top dollar to African-Americans willing to ally with them and try to sell their program -- not to other African-Americans, mind you, but to white "moderates" not well-versed in history to demonstrate that, well, they don't deserve that reputation of racism. Twelve years ago a right-wing group reached out to me after I wrote an op-ed for the PG that not only espoused a "conservative" position but was also critical of the NAACP, which the right hates with a passion. (I never responded.)

However, just because conservative organizations may hire and promote blacks (ironically, practicing a form of "affirmative action" that they say they oppose) doesn't mean that they have actually repented. One example was the American Enterprise Institute, which had hired African-American economists Glenn Loury and Carter Woodson as fellows; however, they quit in 1996 after Dinesh D'Souza, another fellow, published the book "The End of Racism," which they considered racist in its own right. Black conservatives are often considered by other African-Americans to be "sellouts" because, in practice, they often are; if you see or hear any African-American spouting the conservative line, you can bet that he or she is being paid. Handsomely. (It doesn't matter whether he or she actually believes it, only that he or she says it.)

That's the backdrop of last week's election results -- and why this supposed breakthrough shouldn't be taken all that seriously; African-Americans already know or suspect what's behind it, so don't look for many to cross the line. Former congressman J.C. Watts Jr., who once represented a largely-white Tulsa district and had risen to the No. 4 position in House leadership, eventually understood that; before the 2008 election he announced that he was considering voting for Barack Obama because the Republican Party had ignored black voters and their concerns. Cynicism? Not really, because that history can't be ignored.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The fallout from yesterday

The general election took place yesterday, and based on the responses I've seen on Facebook no one is sure what that all means of what we have to look forward to; my conservative friends are rejoicing because the Republicans retook the House of Representatives in what they feel is a rebuke to President Obama, while liberals and Democrats are all gloomy. That said, I think we should all take a deep breath and wait to see how things shake out. Really.

My concern is that in past years when conservatives gained power they have displayed a tendency to misinterpret their victory as a mandate for their policies and thus run roughshod over their opponents. That might change now because, even though they lost on balance this time around, for the first time Democrats actually took the fight to Republicans and, so to speak, "played their game." Joe Sestak, who was a prohibitive underdog and narrowly lost to Pat Toomey for the Senate race here in Pennsylvania, actually cut into Toomey's double-digit lead in part by emphasizing Toomey's support of financial derivatives (saying, inaccurately, that he pioneered them) and special trade status for China (which I understand to be true).

Basically, the political left has finally taken off the gloves and fought for its positions and, while it was largely unsuccessful, it will be ready for the next fight -- er, election.

All this might very well cause the parties to work together in Washington for the good of everybody, for the first time since the 1990s. Might, I must emphasize. Some X-factors:

1) The conservatives who run the Republican Party have to demonstrate that they know how to govern. They lost in 2006 in large part because, as the majority party and also holding the White House, they put the actual practice of such on auto-pilot and focused upon consolidating their own power, leading to the lobbying scandal; if they want to avoid a repeat of such hubris they need to realize that if they mess up again they might lose -- permanently. To do that, however, will require compromise on the part of everyone, which to many conservatives is anathema. (Bill Clinton got this, which is how he was able to use two government shutdowns to his advantage in 1995 and ensure his reelection the next year.)

2) Ideological purity must be de-emphasized. Last year Neal Gabler, a biographer for the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, in a piece published last year in the Los Angeles Times referred to conservatism as "religion" -- and it's not hard to see how. The problem is that ideology transformed to orthodoxy ignores basic facts. (This doesn't apply to "liberalism" because it isn't hard-core in the same way.)

3) The influence of talk-radio needs to be minimized, in large part because it has skewed the discourse, often promoting wild charges against its targets because -- surprise! -- doing so drives ratings. Many conservatives complained about the Obama Administration's "unwillingness" to negotiate concerning the health-care bill that passed in March; however, David Frum (who was fired by the American Enterprise Institute for saying that its passage was a disaster for the conservative movement) suggested that Republican leadership couldn't afford to negotiate in good faith because the like of Rush and Hannity, whose listeners are engaged, would accuse them of selling out. (Again, the likes of Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann don't rise to that level.)

4) All bets are off if the economy, the No. 1 issue, doesn't improve. And I don't think it will because the problem isn't the amount of government involvement; it's, as I suggested in a previous post, an unwillingness on the part of those with the means to means to do so to invest for the long haul. A recent segment on CBS's "60 Minutes" profiled the town of Newton, Iowa; one person who was interviewed couldn't get credit, which he would have needed to start a business. He said ruefully that the only time that he could get a loan was when he didn't need the money.

We Americans are often schizophrenic in our voting habits; we say they want change but aren't sure what exactly we mean. Obama gave it to us -- and we rebelled. Now the Republicans are offering change, back to the way things used to be, and I submit that won't work either. So what will that mean? I guess we'll find out in 2012.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Prognostications on politics

Here's how I see things going -- for the long haul:

-- The "tea-party" movement will be history by 2013, if not sooner. I say that for one reason: It's really a religious movement masquerading as a political one, which is why you have so many evangelical Christians involved. Of course, "religious" movements by their very nature reject outside counsel, so even if you try to "talk some sense" into such people no matter how nicely they will cry persecution; on top of that, tea-partiers don't talk or listen to anyone else or participate in the actual political process of give-and-take with those not with them. The result is that they will eventually turn people against them because they simply can't deliver what they promise.

-- The anti-abortion movement will finally gain steam when, and only when, the modern conservative movement collapses. Since the latter's inception it has hypocritically split abortion from other legitimate issues of the sanctity of human life, which leads directly to its general ineffectiveness in reaching folks who might be allies, specifically African-Americans disproportionately affected by abortion.

-- I'm somewhat surprised at the showing of Democratic candidates in Pennsylvania, my state. The races for governor and senator, in which the Republicans once held commanding leads, have shrunk to dead heats, with Democrat Joe Sestak even slightly ahead of Republican Pat Toomey in one poll in the Senate race. But that points to a basic weakness in the GOP platform that the Democrats have exploited: Lower taxes on businesses don't necessarily or automatically create jobs, so the Democrats have been hammering the Republicans on "derivatives" and outsourcing. It's working.

-- For some of the same reasons I've mentioned above, should Barack Obama decide to run for president in 2012 he will walk to victory. The Republicans will again try to catch lightning in a bottle by conjuring up the spirit of Ronald Reagan and trying to find his doppelganger; the trouble is that they still haven't figured out that people voted for him, not necessarily them. Every candidate the GOP can come up with right now is either insufficiently conservative for its base or revolting to the rest of the country; however, because of its insularity and unwillingness to consider other viewpoints it can only drive people away.

-- If you oppose the health-care insurance bill passed in March, tough luck because it's not going to be repealed. Ever. A number of things to be considered: First, even if a bill were up for a vote and passed it will never survive a veto. Second, by the time some of its provisions kick in folks won't want it repealed anyway. Leading to the third point: As I mentioned, Obama will be a shoo-in for reelection anyway.

-- Lately the conservative movement has promoted Alveda King, niece of the late civil-rights movement leader Martin Luther King Jr., as his rightful heir, even having her speak at Glenn Beck's "Restoring Honor" rally in the 47th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. They often ask the question: Why don't people support her? Well, let me give you two things to think about: Her uncle was very, very critical of "Northern right-wing whites" in general and, after the 1964 presidential election, called defeated GOP candidate Barry Goldwater "the most dangerous man in the country" at the time. (That should put the lie to the statement that he was actually a Republican being persecuted by Democrats.) Furthermore, I met his son Martin III, then a commissioner in Fulton County, Georgia, which incorporates much of Atlanta, in 1992 -- when he was stumping for Bill Clinton.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Creating conditions, taking responsibility and double standards

An episode of the classic television situation comedy "All in the Family" featured Edith slapping Archie over his playing the horses and Archie demanding an apology in the process. She gave him one, all right -- one that he had written to her years previously repenting of a gambling habit that cost them their car that he ended up signing again.

I was reminded of that when the news broke that Ginni Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence, had left a message for Anita Hill, who had testified during his confirmation hearings that Thomas has sexually harassed her when he was her boss at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, demanding an apology for giving him the business. (Hill, who said that one would not be forthcoming, called the Federal Bureau of Investigation.)

It's a mystery why Mrs. Thomas even made that call, after his 19 years on the bench -- because it turns out that Hill wasn't the only person who made that accusation. A segment of ABC News "Nightline" identified three other women to whom he had made lewd comments. Recently, a woman Mr. Thomas had previously dated came forward with additional information. Going further, the Wall Street Journal published a front-page article, "Strange Justice," that was so detailed that, according to David Brock's book "Blinded by the Right: The Conscience of an Ex-Conservative," it caused Ricky Silberman, one of his patrons and wife of right-wing activist judge Laurence Silberman, to freak out, roaring, "He did it, didn't he?"

Contrast that to Bill Clinton, whose sexual peccadilloes while president caused his enemies to impeach him. What was the difference? Well, for openers, Clinton knew that no meant no; when Paula Jones turned down his request for oral sex, she said no and -- as far as he was concerned -- that was the end of it. (In fact, it later came out that she was possibly interested in being his paramour.) Let's also remember that his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky was consensual. Anyway, for what it's worth, Clinton apparently sought counseling for his inappropriate actions and hasn't been in trouble since.

Don't you find it interesting that Clarence Thomas complained about a "high-tech lynching" while never addressing the allegations against him? Perhaps he was trying to rally folks, especially the African-American community that he basically had abandoned, to his side; as it was, he was confirmed as an associate justice by what I think was the closest vote ever. But his wife's action, just like Archie's, spoke of entitlement, that there's a different set of rules for her side of the political fence. That won't fly.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

A culture of hoarding

As per usual, political campaigns make a lot of noise about why their candidates will promote policies that will induce companies to "create jobs." This is especially the case with Republicans, who blame the Obama administration and the stimulus package for not doing what they promised.

Aside from the inaccuracy of that statement, the rhetoric is basically irrelevant.

You see, the problem goes much deeper than that. More accurately, what creates jobs more than anything else is companies and other entities willing to invest for the long haul. Which means, in essence, taking risks that you won't get your money back. It's not happening -- and, if the folks with the bucks have any say, it never will happen. Reason? Because they're afraid of just that.

Today we're dealing with what I call a "culture of hoarding" -- basically, a form of social Darwinism focusing almost exclusively on the bottom line; someone I knew about 20 years ago called it the syndrome of "can what you get and get what you can." Whatever makes to most amount of money the quickest has to be good for everybody -- except that, in the long run, it isn't.

In our country, this goes back to the period immediately following World War II. The American economy was going great guns because ours was virtually the only economy still standing. Here in Pittsburgh, the steel industry had no problem keeping people employed and its plants were humming. However, attributing to its shortsightedness, it didn't invest in new technology; companies in other countries built more modern plants with which the Americans just couldn't compete. (And then the companies blamed union contracts for their demise.)

In the 1980s, "supply-side economics" became quite the fad, the idea was that were businesses to have controls taken off them they would invest the profits to employ more people. At the same time, however, anti-trust rules were relaxed, which allowed companies to swallow each other, building more of a economic engine for the folks at the top but costing jobs for those in the middle. (The resultant recession pushed then-president George H.W. Bush out the door.) Anyway, today's economy is based more on speculation rather than on making quality products, which is why, for example, large pharmaceutical and health insurance companies maintain high costs for whatever they produce -- for the sake of maintaining stock prices. That's were the easy money lies.

Unfortunately, the church of Jesus Christ has been compromised on this issue, in large part because industry has gotten its tentacles into many of its media outlets. One of the first episodes of the 700 Club I ever watched featured a segment promoting what turned out to be sweatshop labor (called "working at home"), and I understand that a top executive of the Halliburton Co. sits on the board of Focus on the Family!

Basically, we simply can't afford for too much longer to have such economic imbalance, where those with the money figure out how to make more while the rest of us suffer. While I don't expect our nation to adopt consistently Biblical principles, it might be a good thing for wealthier Christians to model less-greedy behavior by hiring more people and being more socially responsible. For if you bankrupt your customers, eventually you'll go out of business.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The ultimate 'outsiders'

Over the last few years many folks uninterested in social justice for the poor have suggested that the church of Jesus Christ should operate primarily as a charity for their benefit. I'm guessing that such people believe that, if the poor would improve themselves morally -- whatever that means -- and the church helped with that, they would no longer be poor.

Aside from the classism inherent in that statement, another issue exists that we need to address: Meeting temporal needs is not the primary purpose of the church. It isn't? No.

"Well, what about the early church -- didn't it feed the hungry, clothe the naked and all that kind of stuff?" Yes, it did, but not for the reasons we think of.

We need to remember that, in those days, much of the church of that day was on the run -- hiding in caves, subject to consistent persecution, nearly friendless. In such an atmosphere, especially with people who had literally abandoned their families -- which said something back then -- to follow a Jesus that most of them had never even met in the flesh, you learn to stick together because your very life might depend on it.

Remember, some members of the Body of Christ, then the ultimate "outsiders," were cut off from family, friends, centers of political and economic power and probably even unable to find work, even though they were following the Ultimate King. Irony? Well, He was full of irony -- "the last will be first" and comments like that.

It should be clear by now just why "followers of the Way" were willing to do those things -- they understood from personal experience just what it was like to be hungry, naked and forsaken. They knew from the outset, because He said so, that belonging to Jesus meant suffering but considered doing so worth the cost. Moreover, like their LORD, they were willing to identify with "the least, the last and the lost."

I worship in a church that belongs to a missionary denomination, and in one country (I don't remember which one and probably wouldn't tell you if I did) becoming a Christian meant that you lost your livelihood almost immediately. At my church you might see someone wearing a sweater with the denomination's logo woven into the fabric. Those sweaters were imported from that country and represented the only source of income that the people had.

Contrast that with modern American Christianity. Millions upon millions of dollars for buildings in comfortable suburbs. Radio and TV programs, books and assorted doo-dads. Preachers, congregations and even denominations lobbying politicians. The "worship wars." I sometimes wonder how a Christian living in one of those countries where the church is outlawed would react if he or she came to this country.

Moreover, folks, mostly frightened "culture warriors," talk without any evidence of a day when Christianity itself will be outlawed in the United States, but even if that were to happen it might actually improve the spiritual commitment of the church because it would be forced to cling to Jesus even more. A couple of months ago a fellow musician wore to big-band rehearsal a Christian-themed T-shirt that said that it would be "banned in 51 countries."

I commented, "Maybe it should be banned in this country."

He looked at me quizzically at first but then responded, "To purify the church?"

"Exactly."

The purpose of the church is to herald the coming of the King of Kings, to demonstrate (albeit imperfectly) a preview of the New Jerusalem. Martin Luther King Jr. said that, in order to maintain its integrity, that "it must conform only to the demands of the Gospel" -- the Good News that, because of Him, things will be different and made right. However, we can't do that if we're enamored of earthly power and authority -- after all, if you have that, then why rely on the power of the Holy Spirit? And when you rely on the Holy Spirit -- well, you'll be out of step with the world. Which should be a compliment, because that's the goal.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Newsroom, 9/11/2001

Rather than writing a full commentary on the anniversary of the terrorist attacks nine years ago, I want to offer you a poem I came up with last year at the writers' conference I attend every year.

The story of the millennium, not even ten months old.

Instantly the space became a New World wing of Madame Tussaud's, everyone -- everyone -- staring at the TVs, in shock.

We made phone calls, tried to write --

But what did it matter? We knew something had fundamentally changed.

At the end of the day we stepped into nuclear winter, a city completely deserted, as if a giant vacuum had sucked all the life out of it, the rays of the setting sun going everywhere and nowhere at once -- as if it too was confused.

Everyone had already gone home -- except us, of course. We were compelled to stay, to see this through.

You see, as we watched and re-watched replays of the planes hitting the Towers we instinctively knew what that meant.

Our role, for the next few weeks and beyond, would be to make sense of the horror that had befallen us.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

They'll know we are Christians by our ... rage?

For the past three years I've led a prayer meeting at work every Tuesday afternoon, originally in response to contract negotiations but which has since become more general in focus, and we pray regularly for the state of the nation and the church. After today's meeting one of my co-workers, in reaction to the anger demonstrated by some who call themselves believers, made the above comment.

I have to agree. For the past 30 years, I've noticed that many of us who claim Jesus Christ and Savior and LORD have nevertheless seemed to get very, very hot at a moment's notice. First, that rage was directed toward the "secular humanists"; later it was "liberals" and the Democratic Party, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, the U.S. Supreme Court, Congress, Muslims and others have become targets of our ire. You may have heard about the church in Gainesville, Fla. that intends to hold a Qur'an-burning ceremony on Saturday -- of course the ninth anniversary of 9/11.

Why is this?

Well, I would say because we've become too "worldly," believing that everyone else owes us allegiance -- to our culture, our values, our ways of doing things to a point that we expect everyone to bow down to us and when they don't ... Indeed, a story in Psychology Today last year focusing upon right-wing pundit Ann Coulter brought out that the people who tend to blow up so easily are those who feel entitled (as opposed to the trod-upon). Frankly, it sounds as though people want vengeance.

We should understand, however, that demanding our rights -- and especially since we generally don't agitate or work for the rights of anyone else -- can actually turn people against not only us but also Jesus; in fact, I think it's already done so in many cases. Already Gen. David Petraeus has warned that the church's plainly foolhardy stunt might, and probably will, cause problems for American troops in the Middle East.

This is also why I have grave concerns about Christians' participation in the "tea-party" movement, which has always had a tone of anger and blame to it. It's not that they don't have a right to their opinion, but I don't seem them doing anything but venting -- no specific plan, no consultations with those who disagree to try to work things out. (Some have even denounced the "Coffee Party" precisely because it calls for civility in political debate.)

Anyway, what's missing is a sense of grace. You know, that five-letter word without which we don't get into the Kingdom of God in the first place and consequently how we're supposed to regard others. It's easy to do that with people you're already close to, but what about those we see as enemies?

Well, what would Jesus do? Well, we have in idea. Remember that He was unjustly executed for sedition because He claimed to be a king -- and took the punishment. Yes, ultimately for our sins, but keep in mind that on the cross He also said, "Father, forgive them, because they don't know what they're doing." And I'm not so arrogant to believe that, were I a first-century Jew, I wouldn't have been calling for His death.

I think that's what we need to reconsider. One of the slogans in 12-step culture is "But for the grace of God ... " If we would become a people of grace, the kind that Jesus demonstrated toward people who just didn't "get it right," perhaps we would get people to consider the claims of Christ on their own. (Or perhaps more accurately, let God draw them.) Displaying constant rage, on the other hand, just won't cut it.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Imagine ...

Three weeks ago I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Herbie Hancock, the legendary jazz keyboardist who was in town the next week with what he called the "Imagine Project." The concept of the album, which included a cover of the John Lennon classic "Imagine," and subsequent tour was about global community, and he recorded with artists from every continent and in different languages other than English.

With all his talk about everyone living together on this planet, which I can certainly understand and appreciate, one thing of which the interview with Hancock, who was at one time a practicing Buddhist and still might be for all I know, reminded me: Without Jesus Christ, all that is ultimately futile because He is absolute, unconditional LORD.

But what would that mean, in practical terms? After all, we Christians have the only message of redemption and reconciliation that actually counts. We know the Way to peace, contentment, justice, truth ... so, why haven't we been more effective?

I think it's because we've become too much a part of the establishment. Especially in the West.

Let's remember that the early church was often on the run, had few friends and faced persecution on every side. Its members thus had to cling to not only Jesus but also each other, which is why they were so willing to share their possessions. They were willing to identify with the dispossessed because they themselves were such.

Today, however, we make the rules and ally ourselves with the powerful, assuming -- arrogantly -- that if people lived by our rules our nation would prosper. (Except that following Christ is not routine; He has to call you.) And of course, we're quite divided these days, among theological, racial, cultural, economic and ideological lines. The civil-rights movement, for openers, essentially, pitted one set of Christians against another set of Christians. Sad.

So, I'd like to take this time to imagine: What would happen if we actually dropped all our campaigns and took unity seriously? I have an idea. Some years ago I wrote a song called "A Call for Reconciliation"; in those days when you wrote a song you also thought video, and I came up with a concept for that as well.

It came in three parts: One, a mostly white church service that was already underway when a choir of African-Americans saunters down the center aisle, clapping all the while; they go up front and embrace others in the choirloft. A blond woman sings a solo; a young Asian man preaches a message; an older, bearded man in vestments holds up a wafer and breaks it.

Two, an after-church picnic, with people playing games, a wedding (with people of different races) and children riding piggyback on adults. Three, people singing at a campfire, a passing gang member tossing his guns away and a Ku Klux Klansman stripping off his robes and throwing them into the fire. Imagine that ...

Well, we in Christ can do these things, or something similar. If we did, we wouldn't need Herbie Hancock to tell people how we should live; we'd already be doing it.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Olasky vs. Wallis -- who's really the divisive one?

You may have heard about the recent flap between two Christian magazine editors -- World's Marvin Olasky and Sojourners' Jim Wallis. As reported by ChristianityToday.com, Olasky recently asked Wallis if he had received money from George Soros, the Hungarian-born billionaire who has financially supported liberal and progressive causes since 2004 (and, of course, since has been designated a bête noir by the political right). Originally Wallis said no but, after consultation from Sojourners' staff, later admitted that his D.C-based ministry to the poor indeed had.

Well, that was all World and other conservatives needed to brand Wallis as not only a liar but also someone who shared responsibility for the political polarization that we see in this country today. Trouble is, that description is completely unfair -- and I would also say that World, not Sojourners, deserves more of the blame, if not all of it, in this case for such "polarization." I mean, can't a guy make an honest mistake from time to time?

Apparently not if you're ideologically progressive, if you read World (which is ideologically hard right and even leans toward heretical "dominion" theology) on a consistent basis, which I used to on-line until about six years ago -- it seems that the magazine targets even Christians who stray from the standard conservative line. The magazine damned Wallis' 2004 best-selling book "God's Politics" as "Democratic talking points" and for not being sufficiently evangelical, never mind that its intended audience was other Christians alienated from the "religious right" for not addressing what Wallis might consider a consistent Biblical vision.

Some years ago interviewer Gene Edward Veith tried to paint Evangelicals for Social Action's Ron Sider, who had recently published "The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience," as a "socialist" for similar reasons. (Ironically, 90 percent of what Sider actually wrote would have gotten an "amen" from those same conservatives, and Veith made no mention of the contents of the book in the interview.) Also some years ago, an article also chided students and faculty at Calvin College for protesting an appearance by President George W. Bush.

Now, that last item is more problematic than at first glance. Olasky, a longtime journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin, has regularly attacked the media for liberal bias; however, Olasky himself served as an adviser to Bush when he was governor of Texas. Ten years ago, in the midst of the presidential campaign, the late New York Times columnist William Safire reported that a copy of World -- with what he considered an unflattering, front-page story about candidate John McCain -- was sent to every member of Congress; Safire, a McCain supporter, called it "religio-political sleaze." The magazine's response? Essentially, "Shove it." It certainly appeared that the magazine was a shill for Bush, all the while conservatives have complained for years -- without merit -- that the major media are in the pocket of the Democratic Party.

On the other hand, Wallis has had to weather other attacks from the political right, such as the late Jerry Falwell insulting him as "as evangelical as an oak tree"; however, on Sojourners' "God's Politics" website he even eulogized Falwell as a man who brought issues to the table. (I doubt that World will be so charitable when Wallis goes to his reward.)

Interestingly, had the reviewer from World read the book "God's Politics" more closely he or she would have noted a story of reconciliation, which to me was as important as anything Wallis has ever written.

In the 1970s, due to a story that Sojourners had published, Wallis had a falling out with the late Bill Bright, the founder of Campus Crusade for Christ International whose politics leaned right; the resultant feud lasted for decades. But it was Wallis that made the first move toward Bright to heal the breach -- and those men, after sharing each other's conversion stories, became fairly close friends.

One day Wallis received a check for $1,000 from Bright, who wrote in a note that "I wish I had the means to add three more zeros" -- and learned just moments afterward that Bright had died. He said that he couldn't hold back the tears, not just because a friend was dead but because he personally witnessed God at work bringing former enemies together for the sake of the Gospel. (In fact, I'm also tearing up as I write this.)

I have never seen any of that desire for reconciliation from either Olasky or World -- it seems that they would rather be right (in both definitions) than reconciled. Remember, World has a theonomist streak to it, which means that, from their perspective, "compromise" is not only unwarranted but undesirable. Which I find to be sad, because while the magazine may maintain a loyal readership base by taking on "enemies" it may miss what God really wants to do with His Body. Such as turning "enemies" into friends.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

More on the 'mosque' ...

Last week CBS News brought up that 10,000 Muslims live and nearly 90 Islamic organizations exist in the immediate area of Ground Zero in Manhattan, where planes "piloted" by Islamic extremists flew into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, collapsing both buildings and causing thousands of deaths.

And that got me thinking, especially because of the controversy over Cordoba House, the Islamic-oriented community center planned for an old Burlington Coat Factory store 2 1/2 blocks away and not even visible from Ground Zero: 9/11 happened in their own neighborhood.

It seems to me that, if those Muslims really were terrorists, they would have participated, or at the very least rejoiced, in the act -- but they didn't; as Jim Wallis of Sojourners mentioned, 59 Muslims were known to have also perished in that disaster. Moreover, more than a few Muslim leaders, including one I interviewed in the aftermath, denounced the terrorist attack as opposed to the message of Islam; that message, however, seems not have gotten through to much of the public.

And perhaps that's why Cordoba House, whose planners seek interfaith understanding, really needs to be built.

We can debate all we want as to whether Islam is a religion of peace or violence, but it should be clear that American Muslims are indeed Americans; two-thirds of American Muslims are African-Americans, most of which have no direct ties to the Middle East. (In fact, they followed the late Malcolm X right out of the Nation of Islam, now led by Louis Farrakhan and which most orthodox Muslims consider a cult.)

Anyway, it also seems to me that, as long as we treat Muslims with the respect and dignity they deserve as fellow human beings they would not likely turn on us.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Now, about that 'mosque' ...

I need not remind you that the "mosque" going up at Ground Zero in Manhattan, site of the World Trade Center that was destroyed by Islamic extremists on Sept. 11, 2001 has been a hot topic in today's news, with all kinds of concerns about "terrorism," "appropriateness" and "sensitivity."

As they say, the first casualty with such controversies often is the truth, and that's certainly the case here. Some facts:

1) There is actually no mosque being erected at Ground Zero -- it's a Muslim-oriented community center called the Cordoba House, which is named for the city in Spain where Muslims, Jews and Christians lived together in peace several centuries ago and, if my facts are correct, on whose board non-Muslims also will sit.

2) The location is an old Burlington Coat Factory store which is two blocks away. There actually is a mosque in the vicinity, four blocks away, and I understand that there used to be three.

3) The group building it comes from the peaceful Sufi sect of Islam, not the violent, radical Wahhabis that blew up the WTC; in the process the Sufis actually consulted with Jewish and community groups beforehand.

Oh, and if you haven't heard: This process has been going on for about a year; it became an issue only when it came before a zoning hearing board in New York City last month -- and suddenly the Fox News Channel, among others, smelled blood. Does anyone suspect that some folks are trying to turn it into an election issue?

Well, what about Muslims putting of what would amount to being a "signal" to the rest of the Muslim world? Well, that might have some validity if it were being built on the very same site, but it isn't (an Episcopal church is located even closer). Or that it would become a haven for terrorism (not likely). Or that it would insult the families of the victims of 9/11 (some of whom actually support it -- after all, other Muslims died too).

And it's not only Muslims who have done the kind of thing they're being accused of. Let's remember that Jerusalem was itself a conquest by King David and didn't originally belong to ancient Israel. In Northern Ireland, part of the "Troubles" were connected to several Protestant groups, the Orange Order the best known, sponsoring an annual march in Catholic neighborhoods on the anniversary of their victory.

Some Christians have even said that it shouldn't go in because Islam is a "false religion." Well, I agree that Islam is a false religion -- but, the last time I checked, we do have freedom of religion here and not everyone will subscribe to Christianity. Besides, cultural supremacy should never be the goal of any follower of Jesus, the danger being that we Christians end up acting just like we say the Muslims do, whether true or not (and in fact become more of a danger to our faith than they ever could).

So, let's not get all heated up about such things for the sake of making a cheap political point. The zoning board overwhelmingly approved it, and I think it's time to turn the rhetoric down. If we don't, we'll actually give ammunition to the radicals who do want to kill us. But even if they try, remember that God will preserve His people.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Time for the truth

It's finally time to say something unpopular but necessary: Many conservative media are, and the Fox News Channel in particular is, influenced by Satan.

Last week's imbroglio concerning right-wing blogger Andrew Breitbart, who posted a heavily-doctored video that made U.S. Department of Agriculture official Shirley Sherrod, speaking to the NAACP in Georgia, appear racist -- and picked up by Fox -- was the last straw. You may recall that she ended up losing her job over the manufactured controversy -- but for no other reason, really, than to harass the Obama administration for being in power. And that wasn't the first time Breitbart had done that; last year's ACORN flap, with conservative activists supposedly going to an affiliate in Baltimore and exposing "corruption" and the video being shown on Glenn Beck's show (it's come out recently that ACORN was completely exonerated). Why ACORN? Because during the 2008 general election it was registering people to vote -- mostly Democrats.

Now, saying that anything or anyone is consorting with the devil is a strong charge, some would say irresponsible, and a lot of people will come right out and say that's I'm making it due to my "liberal bias" (an overstatement). But if you understand just how the devil works, it's obvious that his fingerprints are all over this, especially since many evangelical Christians, the people he wants the most to seduce, vote Republican. We're dealing with, basically, the sin of gossip, which by definition is used for destruction, not for edification, and Satan would love nothing more than to sabotage the church's witness by dividing its members along racial, class, cultural and ideological lines.

Quoting Jesus in John 8:44, "He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies." Indeed, his very name means "accuser," slinging distorted or often false charges toward any target that could be used of God.

Trouble is, conservative media over the years -- and we're talking at least since the 1980s -- have consistently twisted stories, often leaving out pertinent information, to support that agenda. I stopped watching the pro-business 700 Club in 1985 for that very reason; one misleading story that it broadcast in 1984 actually involved the church I attended at the time (specifically failing to note that someone that it had profiled had become a pro-labor activist).

The 1990s "Clinton scandals" represented the most obvious incidence of dark forces marshaling against someone in power, with one outlet, a magazine, insinuating without proof that Bill Clinton was using Arkansas state troopers to procure women; another, in this case a newspaper local to me, suggesting that he had had aide Vince Foster, who had committed suicide, rubbed out; and Fox driving a new "scandal" every few months. That did a couple of things: 1) Boosted their own readership or viewership; and 2) Forced the legitimate media to spend precious resources chasing down stories that turned out to be bogus and in the process making them appear that they were protecting the president by not "finding anything." Thankfully, all that was exposed during Bill Clinton's impeachment, with the man who gave Hillary the information on what she called the "vast right-wing conspiracy" going public with what he knew.

But that didn't stop right-wing media from their dirty dealings; in fact, things eventually got even uglier. Remember that when the devil is exposed he often fights even harder; after Jesus refused his entreaties in the desert, he turned up the heat: "All these I will give you if you bow down and worship me."

In early 2007 the Washington Times published on-line a lengthy story about Barack Obama's childhood, saying that he was educated in a radical Muslim school in Indonesia and that it got the information from someone in "the [Hillary] Clinton camp." Thanks to CNN, both charges were proven false -- and what was the Times' response? "Sue us." (With publisher Sun Myung Moon worth over $2 billion, that wasn't going to happen.)

Sadly, even Christian "media ministries" have gotten into the act. Before the last presidential election, a friend tipped me off to a broadcast of Focus on the Family during which two women were discussing Obama's vote against a partial-birth abortion bill when he was in the Illinois Senate.

However, around that time the New York Times published a fuller description of the entire situation. It turns out that the bill in question was tied to another one that was specifically designed to challenge Roe v. Wade, and Obama probably didn't want state money spent on a cause that, as a constitutional law professor, he knew to be futile. (If that sounds weak, consider that the late Pennsylvania Gov. Robert P. Casey Sr., a fierce abortion opponent, vetoed a bill for similar reasons.) As a post-script, after Obama left for the U.S. Senate the Illinois Senate passed a weaker bill.

Now, many conservatives would say, "Aren't the 'left-wing' media doing the same to conservative candidates?" No, they're not, because if they were the conservatives would specifically tell you what they were doing instead of making general charges -- the latter yet another diabolical tactic. You see, other media are far more professional in the way they operate and know they would forfeit their authority if they stooped to that level; not for nothing did CBS drop anchor Dan Rather and three others for airing a 2004 story about President George W. Bush's tenure in the Texas Air National Guard that even the producer who was fired said shouldn't have aired because it needed more information. (But how many people have lost their jobs in conservative media for saying stuff that they knew or suspected wasn't true?)

The point is that conservative media exist not simply to inform people from another perspective because in many cases there is no other perspective. Rather, they attempt to inflame because scapegoating draws viewers and readers and causes people to react. Be advised that if you subscribe to any of them you're likely getting a skewed version of the truth. Or no truth at all.

And one specific entity is behind all that.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The NAACP vs. the "tea-party" movement

You may recall that the NAACP, of which I have never been a member, recently called the "tea-party" movement racist. An unfair comparison? Perhaps.

But given history, an understandable one.

According to a commentary in today's New York Times by Matt Bai, the real issue is generational, not racial or even so much political. He notes that "tea-partiers" are most likely to be baby-boomers, while activists for the NAACP tend to be that age or even older and thus remember the fight for civil rights in the 1950s and '60s and are not willing to put up with folks they suspect threaten such gains.

And in fact, the NAACP has long been on the bad side of right-wing groups. In 1998, after writing an op-ed for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in which I was a tad critical of the NAACP for taking what I considered an inappropriate stand, a black right-wing newsletter, "Issues and Views," mysteriously appeared in my mailbox at work, and it advised its readers to "take back power from ... the NAACP." Two years later the NAACP ran a voter-registration drive to counter what they saw as below-the-belt tactics by the conservatives, particularly their impeachment of Bill Clinton for ostensibly political reasons -- and its chairman consequently drawing rebukes from then-House Majority Leader Dick Armey and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.

Small wonder that then-President George W. Bush, arguably the most conservative chief executive in American history, skipped its annual convention until six years into his presidency.

But I was reminded of something in my own life: While I was always aware of the struggle for justice for African-Americans -- how could I not be? -- I never allowed myself to be defined by the struggle. And that caused problems with much of the rest of the African-American community of that day, specifically the 1970s through '90s, as I was always willing to cross such lines to mix with whites. You see, at some point in time you have to move forward and seek reconciliation with those who are, or used to be, opponents. Its failure to do so is one reason the NAACP has little pull among those younger than 40.

I see some of the same issues with conservatives in general and the "tea-party" movement in particular, which is why it has a reputation of racism, deserved or no -- I'm aware of no other groups they work with that don't agree with them on everything. Let's also keep in mind that in 2008 60 percent of the white "youth" vote went for Obama, with even some evangelicals giving the Democratic Party (often considered the "great Satan") a second look.

Bai noted that Gingrich suggests that NAACP members meet with "tea-party" representatives; Bai, on the other hand, suggested that older members of both camps meet with their younger counterparts. I get that -- because the up-and-coming generation isn't inclined to scapegoat their opponents. I think both need to happen.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Going on tour

As many of you know, every summer -- I always wait until then because my musical obligations at my church are finished by that time -- I make it a point to visit other churches, generally in the Pittsburgh area. It actually plays to my spirit of "ecumenism"; as much as I enjoy my church and have no plans to leave, I find it a good thing to know what's going on in other assemblies. (However, I do not go to churches that practice closed communion, such as Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox or some those on some Lutheran denominations.)

God's people are there as well, which means so is He. It's possible that you can get so hooked on your own customs, theology, way of doing things that you can miss what He's doing in those churches. After all, He established them for particular reasons, so who am I to argue?

That said, one thing that I haven't gotten used to, and likely never will do so, is the exclusive use of rock music and contemporary choruses in a service, which has happened a number of times. While I have no problem with rock, having played it myself, I personally have come to prefer a variety of styles, including the classic hymns I grew up grew up learning. And I notice that virtually every church I visit is mono-cultural and dominated by one racial group. I guess that's OK for them.

But that's why I keep coming back to mine. -- it reflects the vision God gave me in the 1970s. I know when I start playing again in September, I'll be home, where I belong. And that's the point.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Libertarianism's imcompatability with the Gospel

Of late I've been involved in a private discussion group with a number of other, equally feisty "progressive evangelicals" who either frequent Sojourners' "God's Politics" blog or used to do so. One of that number recently made the observation that the late writer and philosopher Ayn Rand, a mother of the libertarian movement who subscribed to what's called "objectivism" and has lately become popular again among anti-Obama types, never mentioned any children in her writings. I've never read Rand and have little interest in doing so; however, if that be the case it might explain a lot of things.

Why is that important? Basically, it undercuts one of the biggest pillars of libertarian thought: Authority -- or the lack thereof.

As I understand it, the philosophy of objectivism holds that the primary purpose of life is seeking and maintaining personal happiness and that anything that gets in its way must be pushed aside -- in other words, "it's all about me." Now, that philosophy justifies our consumer-driven economy and culture, but taken to an extreme it actually leads to moral corrosion. I say that because, basically, it allows people to be self-indulgent and never concerned about how their choices affect their families or society at large. Worse, any outside force that tries to hold folks accountable is obliged to be resisted.

And this is one reason so many people hate government, not just its alleged excesses.

All this contrasts with the Christian Gospel, which from the start lays a finger on the human race's biggest problem: Sin. That is to say, a deicidal impulse that says "I want no restraints on or authority over me at all -- certainly not a God." Or in some cases, folks who recognize a deity may say, "The only one who's going to tell me what to do is God."

Well, God as understood in Jesus Christ doesn't work quite like that.

Yes, we Christians are called to have a "personal relationship" with Him; however, that includes being part of a local assembly -- what we call a church -- to which we are expected to yield our rights and privileges and to give of ourselves. As such, we're to be transformed from selfish people concerned only about what we can get to those who are willing to take on responsibility for the greater good. And that's a sign of maturity.

So what does this have to do with Rand's lack of children in her writings? Well, the implication is that, once the artificial "restraints" are cast off, people will simply act maturely and humanely. Any parent knows otherwise, that he or she has to set limits on a child's behavior for his/her own good down the road. Government, business, clubs -- and even the jazz and blues I play as an avocation -- have a set of rules that must be followed for the sake of harmony.

And that's why I believe that libertarianism has scant respect for the doctrine of sin. Some years ago a preacher at my former church mentioned, in another sermon, that children could be seen as sinners in need of a Savior. One woman, believing children to be innocent, objected to his comment.

The wise pastor asked her, "Do you have children?"

"Yes," she answered.

"Do they have to be taught to misbehave or do they do that naturally?"

After some thought, she conceded, "Oh."

The libertarian will likely tell you that people will do the right thing if they were left alone, especially by government. This history of this country -- heck, the world -- should demonstrate otherwise. And while I'm not a "statist" or "pro-government," we would be foolish to desire a world without it.

But that leads to a more important matter: Justice trumps freedom -- in fact, justice is the framework without which freedom cannot even exist. Many libertarians I know don't get this because of their obsessive focus on "freedom"; however, not even God grants absolute freedom because to do so would compromise His sovereignty -- which He will never relinquish.

On his album "Slow Train Coming," the then-active Christian Bob Dylan had a song "Gotta Serve Somebody." That concept still applies because there's always some authority over us, and it's time libertarians accepted that their "freedom" is by definition limited.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

'Smooth jazz' -- on its way out?

"Contemporary jazz" -- roughly, an amalgam of rock/funk rhythms, pop melodies and jazz improvisation -- first caught my ear as a teenager. I was predisposed to it because, in addition to the pop music I heard in the 1970s, I was reared on a steady diet of jazz thanks to my late jazz-musician father.

So when the then-novel "smooth jazz" radio format began to gain steam in the 1990s, with Pittsburgh getting a station in 1996, I was enthused. Two years later, I began covering it for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and got to meet a number of musicians.

But Pittsburgh lost its station in 1999, and I've heard that the format is dying all over the country.

In retrospect, I think I know what's been happening. It's the natural outgrowth of a change in radio culture over the past few decades -- more about ratings (that is, money) and less about the music. Ironically, I would say that the focus on ratings actually drives them down eventually.

Have you noticed, for example, that fewer and fewer stations have live DJ's who tell you what's playing? That's often because the music is piped in by satellite and isn't locally-produced. More "efficient," perhaps, but less emotional connection to whatever's being played. (Heck, the on-air personalities may not even know what's being played.)

Then, you'll notice the playlists on smooth-jazz stations. The format ignores good music from the past from folks like Chuck Mangione, Spyro Gyra, Tom Scott and Bob James; meanwhile, you'll hear Celine Dion, Whitney Houston, Phil Collins and Sting, only the latter two with even a tenuous connection to jazz. Many of these jazz festivals started inviting R&B stars, which turned off the people who really wanted to hear their favorite jazz artists.

Another problem is that the format is pretty much here-today, gone-tomorrow anyway, playing few, if any, classic tunes that stand the test of time -- not even Kenny G has come up with anything that has stuck ("Songbird" notwithstanding). I can't think of any smooth-jazz equivalent to "Chameleon," "Mr. Magic" or "Everybody Loves the Sunshine," which not only audiences know but also musicians can and will play. I have a CD in my car with James' "Westchester Lady"; that tune was recorded nearly 40 years ago and he still plays it live.

So maybe the demise of the format isn't such a bad thing after all. Jim DeCesare, the host of the late, lamented local radio show "Jazzz[sic] Impressions," said in an interview with me some years ago, "They didn't do it right." At one time, about two-thirds of the albums I bought I first heard on his show -- and he always gave background information to the listener, which I ate up.

I think that's what needs to happen today -- more connections to the audiences and less focus on ad dollars. The result should be not only better, more appropriate music but also more money because more people would be listening. I certainly would.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The price of disobedience

Lately Charles Stanley, on his "In Touch" radio broadcasts, has focused his messages on obeisance to the LORD. Now, that should be a given, but it's amazing just how many people want the blessings of following Jesus but not to do what He says when He says to do it or not to do something when He says to refrain. (Of course, while heeding the words of Scripture should be primary, at times He may use other means.) Anyway, as part of my spiritual process, He has on just four occasions brought this spirit of extreme heaviness upon me to keep me from doing something I shouldn't.

At this point, I'm about to confess something I never have mentioned before, either publicly or in private conversation: One of the major traumas in my life, if not the biggest, took place in part because of my disobedience.

As a high-schooler I had developed an interest in a girl in a church youth group -- it wasn't mutual, but I still pestered her quite a bit. (I had actually made a commitment to Christ as part of the group.)

Anyway, she attended college out of town, so one day after she left I wrote her a letter asking for a visit -- and that "spirit of heaviness" showed up, in this case for the second time (I had obeyed the first time). But I ignored it, thinking, "What can it hurt?"

I would soon find out. She declined my request and, without getting into any details, let me say that all hell broke loose; the experience left me very bitter and disillusioned for the next two years or so. Right around this time my parents' marriage, which already had been failing, finally collapsed, and it finally hit me that some of the dynamics with that girl were somewhat similar. Having some major character flaws exposed, I decided I needed to make some major changes and God began to work in my life in ways He never had before.

About a decade later the Spirit had me attempt to reestablish contact with her; I hesitated at first because I didn't want things to go the way they did before, but He overruled my objections. I remember that, when I dropped a package in the mail, I said, "If this is You, I'm expecting results." Well, I did get a positive reply and have since reconciled with her, although we're not and likely will never be particularly close friends.

But you best believe that I haven't disobeyed that "spirit of heaviness" since. In 1988 He told me not to take a lucrative job I was offered in my brother's plant; to this day I don't know what I was avoiding, but when I did turn it down I felt a sense of Godly relief. In 1999, at the beginning of my relationship with my last steady girlfriend, a single mother of three sons, I had visited her church on a Sunday morning just to check it out, and the Spirit impressed on me during the sermon, "Do NOT go to this church." (Over the next two years, the time we were together, God gave me three specific confirmations.) Well, she decided she wanted to marry me -- but also for us to attend her church as a family and would accept no explanations for not doing so. Eventually I realized (and others who knew me had already noticed) that we were "unequally yoked," and I left.

Bottom line, eternal God can take even our sins and work them in a way that gives Him glory -- the history of ancient Israel is proof of that. But there's a reason the prophet Samuel told King Saul after the latter offered an unauthorized sacrifice, "Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the LORD? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams" (I Samuel 15:22). And today I'd rather do it right the first time than have Him pick up the wreckage that would result from my failure to listen to Him.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Understanding -- and applying -- the 'Gospel'

On this date in 1979, weeks before graduating from Wilkinsburg High School in suburban Pittsburgh, I received Jesus Christ as Savior and LORD during the school district picnic at Kennywood, an amusement park in the suburb of West Mifflin. In short, I became an evangelical Christian.

That had been brewing for some years, ever since I was immersed in a very strong church and had believers all around me, but it took my parents' impending breakup -- although it would be 4 1/2 years before it actually happened -- to push me over the edge, so to speak. With that "decision" (although in fairness, God came after me hard and left me no alternative), I was assured of heaven and enlisted in the "army" to bring the whole world to Christ.

In the circles in which I ran, evangelism and mission work were the primary Christian activities, and those who went away on trips were held up as the most "spiritual." Beyond that, the "normal" American evangelical lifestyle was, for men, going to school, getting a professional job, marrying a godly partner, having kids and voting Republican.

Thirty-one years later, however, my view on what a Christian should be -- and do -- has changed. I have never been on a mission trip and don't anticipate going and am not aware of anyone who has "gotten saved" because of me. I'm still single and and childless and, though today I think of myself as non-partisan, my politics do lean Democratic. So have I failed? I don't think so.

What happened? Well, eight months after my conversion I was attending a suburban Atlanta church which focused on politics to the exclusion of any spiritual goals (my first encounter with what we call today the "religious right"), and my spirit became queasy. Only finding another church just off the campus of Georgia Tech, where I was attending, revealed to me just what the problem was -- a lack of true trust in God.

Then and there I found my focus -- only later did I realize that my primary spiritual gift was prophecy (which has been known to get me into trouble from time to time, even costing me friends). I see attitudes in the church that shouldn't be there and try to address them. As for career -- I started out as a engineering major -- I finally realized that I had no aptitude for science and mathematics and turned to writing, which fits me quite well.

So what does this have to do with anything? It was in working on a letter to the editor to the Post-Gazette back in 1986 that it hit me what the "good news" was about: Reconciliation. We often talk about the "atonement" for sin that the death of Jesus Christ paid for and that "those who believe in Him will have eternal life" (John 3:16). But before that, we have to admit that there is a breach between not only creator God and fallen man but among people themselves -- what Billy Graham has preached for over a half-century but many of us miss because of our focus on the afterlife.

As a result, as I began to suspect in the early 1980s, following Jesus also means feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, standing up for orphans and widows and encouraging the oppressed. It can mean ministering to the homeless, fighting racism, working with addicts or any other things which might be the outgrowth of a relationship with Him. It means making this life as close to the Kingdom of God as possible -- the Hebrew term "shalom," which roughly means "a comprehensive peace" -- and sacrificing your own plans and dreams for the sake of that Kingdom. At the church I attend, I see all those things being manifest and, while not everyone is called to do these things, those that do shouldn't be seen as less "spiritual."

As Jesus' "Great Commission" says, "Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you [emphasis mine]. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age."