Saturday, April 24, 2010

The problem isn't in 'Washington' -- it's in our culture and history

Today I learned that a conservative candidate is running for Congress in my district. Two weeks ago, African-American conservative columnist Star Parker announced that she would do the same in the Los Angeles area. Both, in districts now represented by Democrats, say that they want to shake things up in Washington, complaining that the federal government doesn't really work for "the people." However, I would say that they're being a tad naive if they believe that change for the sake of change will truly matter.

I think it comes from an idea that those who live and work in D.C. are completely out of touch with "the people" and are out only for themselves. But in fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

Part of the problem is that Washington, D.C. is represented by 435 distinct regions, all of which send people to Congress to represent "the people." And considering the urban/suburban/exurban/rural divide; our racial, ethnic, class and cultural differences; and the basic political philosophies that shape us as a result, in my view we should be happy that our government works as well as it does. Rather, if we want to blame someone for constant gridlock, we need only look in the mirror.

You see, we have the mentality in this country that government should work for our parochial interests and nothing else and when that doesn't happen we say we'll find someone else who will. However, candidates know full well they can't campaign on side issues and use their office as part of a moral crusade to satisfy a relatively few number of people. That's why abortion simply isn't as big a political issue as its activists on either side would like it to be; only twice have I seen campaign ads about it (the first in the 1994 Pennsylvania governor's race, the second just two years ago with the presidential campaign).

And when you have such tunnel-vision, especially when the only people you associate with think similarly, you start to believe that everyone does and only a tiny elite minority is stopping your agenda from becoming, if not the law, accepted truth. Basically, if you don't get your way you can become resentful of the whole enterprise.

But, as I mentioned earlier, our nation is far more diverse than that. The two candidates mentioned above are running in areas now represented by Democrats; for that reason alone they face an uphill slog. While party affiliation does mean a lot, I think the two candidates will have to articulate why a "conservative" affiliation would improve things for most people.

And I don't see that happening. Based on past history, I assume that conservative activist groups not connected with anyone in those immediate areas will pour large sums of money in support of their respective candidacies -- and remember that Americans don't take kindly to "outsiders telling us what to do." That happened in 1984 when the governor of Idaho vetoed a bill sharply restricting abortion in that state. (In other words, the tactic may backfire.)

I'm not saying that the two conservatives shouldn't run for office -- they certainly have that right. But in doing so, they should consider that they also represent people who don't agree with them, and should they win election but fail to provide appropriate services in and contacts with the community they represent, they can easily be voted out.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Big Ben strikes out

Some years ago, a rookie NFL quarterback caused a stir when the league refused to allow him to write the acronym PFJ ("Play for Jesus") on his game shoes. The next year, his team won the Super Bowl with him at the helm but without him having a good performance; he later said, in effect, "I almost cost us the game."

Just a few years later, he was reported dropping large sums of money in Las Vegas and over the last two years has been accused of not one but two sexual assaults.

I'm of course talking about Ben Roethlisberger, who right now plays for the Steelers (but it remains to be seen if he still will be come July). The obvious question is: What changed? Was he playing around with faith and humility then, or is he going through a stage -- albeit with criminal charges -- now?

Anyway, for those of you who don't live in Pittsburgh, this latest controversy, with Roethlisberger having charges dropped earlier this month, has disgusted probably most Pittsburghers and members of "Steeler Nation." Thing is, we tend to be unforgiving of such transgressions; the Steelers last week shipped talented but troubled wide receiver Santonio Holmes, a former Super Bowl MVP, to the New York Jets for a fifth-round draft pick (and virtually no one complained). Players for the Penguins, Pirates and University of Pittsburgh Panthers also manage to stay out of trouble with the law.

That said, I remember some years ago that Roethlisberger was tapped for a motivational speech delivered during his second training camp. How does a man in his early 20s get the authority to do such a thing? Answer: He doesn't -- he was selected only because of what he does for a living. That's a problem with professional athletics -- players often become "experts" based only on their name.

Perhaps with Big Ben it was a matter of too much, too soon. Let's just hope that he's learned his lesson and can redeem himself.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Bullying -- some things to think about

You have probably heard about the high-schooler in Massachusetts who was hassled by other girls to a point where she committed suicide in January. Right now, the school itself is on trial for doing virtually nothing to stop it.

I know what you're thinking: Can things be that bad in a school that a student might become at risk of taking his/her own life? You bet they can -- as I know from unhappy personal experience.

Over the past couple of years an anti-bullying campaign has run public service announcements on television. When I learned what their definition of bullying was, I realized that I had been a victim of such off-and-on for 15 years, in various places -- one of them a Christian academy, the last place where you might think it would occur. (I'm not going to waste time and space detailing specific incidents, only telling you that it affects me even today.) What's more, in my case one of the bullies was my own father.

Now, you can respond to bullying in two ways: You can become a bully in your own right or you can use your experience to take the side of those who have similarly suffered. Generally, I've chosen the second option, which has led me into some strange alliances because I was willing to stand up for the underdog.

I grew up in a household where Dad harbored deep resentment toward the white race, and much of the African-American culture in the 1970s maintained similar feelings. However, in those days my chief tormentors were themselves black and virtually all of the people who "had my back" were white, so not only were most of my childhood friends white but I also began to react to anti-white rhetoric. That unnerved my parents, who thought I was trying to run away from my heritage; however, it was simply a matter of emotional safety. During my teenage years the issue of "gay rights" became a hot topic and I saw homosexuals as specifically being unfairly targeted; as a result, as a young Christian I even considered becoming a gay-rights activist. (This is not to say that I have ever condoned homosexual behavior or believed it's morally OK -- I simply saw gays as scapegoats.) In fact, in my 20s other Christians -- and I mean leaders -- picked on me, and at least twice they tried to freeze me out of a fellowship.

Today, most of the bullying I see comes from the political right, especially when it comes to the "culture war." When I returned to Pittsburgh from a year in Atlanta I noticed a campaign to rid the nations of corrupting influences -- the media, "liberals," the government -- and that if we elected the "right" (pun intended) people to office God would bless our nation. (A lot of groups raised a ton of money doing that.)

However, when I consider the life of Jesus, I saw a man who actually chose to be around the outcasts of His day -- tax collectors (considered traitors), prostitutes, women, Gentiles, the poor. See, those people had no status in Jewish society and the "high and mighty" looked down upon them; indeed, there was a "health-and-wealth" gospel which suggested that adherence to God's Word would lead to riches and status. The "super-rabbi" who turned out to be God in the flesh turned that convention on its head, which is why the priests, leaders and Pharisees hated His guts.

This is why I see the "religious right," as much as it tries to paint itself as defending our "Christian culture," as sabotaging our witness instead. I stopped subscribing to most Christian media long ago because of its propensity for blaming outsiders. Going further, I've gotten into more than a few arguments with people who constantly attack President Obama because he doesn't govern according to their worldview. I see today's "tea-party" movement as trying to intimidate those who don't agree with its myopic agenda.

Yes, I consider all of that "bullying" -- and I for one won't put up with it anymore. I would think that the serious Christian, following the example of our LORD, would run to the side of the wounded. But when you're too worried about your own status to do real ministry to the "last, least and lost," the Gospel itself becomes "last, least and lost." It comes down to the "Golden Rule" -- "Do to others as you would have them do to you."

Saturday, April 3, 2010

But for the grace of God ...

Yesterday was Good Friday, the day we Christians commemorate the death of Jesus Christ, and on the Sojourners blog yesterday a couple of the discussions centered on the old question "Who was responsible for His death?" Of course that's a thorny issue because the issue is murky and fraught with political and religious implications. (I have to watch my words carefully here because I belong to a historically-Jewish fraternity and some of my brothers may be reading this.)

This much we do know. Jesus was born during a time of super-patriotism among the Jewish people of that day similar to today's "tea parties" and, while they understood the Old Testament prophecies about the coming "Messiah" (translated "anointed one"), they believed that he would overthrow the then-occupying Roman government. (This is why he rarely used the word.) And there was precedent -- after all, a couple of centuries earlier they had stood up to the Greeks, which is why to this day they observe Chanukah. That said, His fresh teachings, outreach to the outcasts in that society and withering criticism of the religious establishment certainly didn't endear him to the leadership of that day, which understandably saw him as a threat to its authority.

Only at that point did Rome get involved. Some time earlier the Jewish religious leaders had cut a deal with the Roman government, which had outlawed execution for all but civil charges, so the religious leaders were actually finding an excuse to hand Jesus over to the Romans to have Him taken out -- when He started referring to Himself as a king, that gave them the opening. Add to that His refusal to take on Rome directly and it's obvious why virtually everyone had turned on Him. (There's a delicious irony in that, when Pontius Pilate asked if He were their king, some of the people responded, "We have no king but Caesar.")

But here's the rub. While on that cross Jesus said, "Father, forgive them -- because they don't know what they're doing." I get that. And it would be arrogant for me to assume that, had I been a Jew at that time, I would have recognized who He was. (Those people who have said that such things as the Holocaust represent judgment on the Jewish people for rejecting Jesus are not only dangerously wrong but miss the point.)

In January of 1984, the lowest point of my life, I attended a church retreat at which Christian singer-songwriter Michael Kelly Blanchard, who was friends with the previous campus pastor, was the speaker. The only thing I really remember about it, however, was the pre-lunch communion service, during which I completely broke down; afterward, I returned to my room and sobbed some more. What happened? For the first time in my life, I got a glimpse of the gravity of my own sin. (Keep in mind that I had already been a Christian for not quite five years, so I already had an intellectual understanding that it would no longer be held against me.) Later on during a small group discussion one of the women, who understood my tears, referred to Jesus "whom we killed."

I think that's the point. Trying to find a "scapegoat" for His being nailed to the cross isn't really the issue -- it's the recognition that He represented the ultimate sacrifice to pay for the sin of mankind, which was God's plan all along. Rather, let's consider the grace that He showed us in the process, realizing that we fall short of His standards and that he has the right to zap us at any moment but doesn't, because He has a greater purpose.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Evangelical, Reformed ... and progressive?

When in 1998, after over 20 years away, I temporarily returned to my childhood church where I first heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ, one of the now-deceased elders immediately extended the "right hand of fellowship." "We know what you believe," he said.

I wish I had thought to say then, "You taught me well."

Indeed, I'm certainly grateful for that background. Even though my current church doesn't subscribe to Reformed theology and I have no plans to leave, I've always considered myself such. The sovereignty of God, irresistible grace and other core doctrines of what is commonly called "Calvinism" just make the most sense to me even after studying other schools of thought.

That said, I have never subscribed to the conservative ideology that often is considered part and parcel of the Reformed faith. Even when I read the Scriptures as a child I could see justifications for a more progressive interpretation of social and political issues, but I never brought them up because the atmosphere I grew up in the 1970s wasn't conducive to such partisanship.

Anyway, we need to remember that all theology is ultimately man-made. If that sounds like an insult, consider that fallible man, despite the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, still doesn't -- indeed, cannot have that much of a handle on Who God is. As I said earlier, I personally believe Reformed theology to be the best, most comprehensive explanation of Scripture; however, it does come with some historical baggage often ignored by its apologists.

We Protestants recognize the Reformation as a watershed moment in recapturing the original witness of the early church. The trouble was that it has as much to do with power politics as anything else, especially since the Roman Catholic Church in those days was itself in practice also a political entity; thus, that's where the battle was often fought. Even nations that had become Protestant maintained official churches. (This was even the case in what is now the United States; all but one state of the original 13 had a government-recognized sect, and "freedom of worship" as we understand it was a novel concept.)

French theologian John Calvin was the first to introduce "separation of church and state," which meant that the church should operate completely free of political constraints. However, Calvin also introduced the concept of "theonomy," which means that a nation should be governed by Old Testament law and believed -- wrongly, in my estimation -- that the state had the mandate to enforce it. Moreover, the Calvinist mentality of that day meant a destruction of the nobility which, as you could imagine, wouldn't go over too well in the Europe of that day; as a result, Calvinists ended up being run out of most countries.

That's where I part company with my theological heritage. The early church was an insurgent movement that didn't have and never sought political authority; rather, it focused on not simply teaching but also living the Kingdom of God in a culture that was clearly hostile. That made it more able to challenge the status quo, whether passively or actively. When faith becomes part of the "establishment," which conservatism seeks by definition, it almost always becomes watered down to become acceptable to its surroundings but in the process sacrificing the power to change lives. It's no accident, then that the European church is all but dead and the American church is by contrast more vibrant but still struggling; meanwhile, the Holy Spirit seems to have caught fire in much of the Third World where Christianity doesn't have that much hold on institutions there. (I mean, when you have political and economic power, what good is the power of the Spirit?)

So what does this have to do with a "progressive" ideology? Well, consider the immortal words of our LORD, "Love your neighbor as you love yourself." That is, if he is suffering from some wrong it should be challenged -- even in the political realm if necessary. And that is where the controversy begins.

My deepest shame as a Reformed Christian surrounded the fight over apartheid in South Africa, which was implemented in 1948, codifying into law what had been custom for centuries -- and the folks who did this were, for the most part, Reformed (in fact, it seemed that the more theologically conservative they were the more committed to the system). The primary justification for that stance had to do with a fear of Communism, which I understand; however, I posit that it was a fear of change were apartheid abolished, which of course it was in the early 1990s. I don't think it was a coincidence that, in the book "Nelson Mandela: In His Own Words," a collection of his speeches, the former political prisoner and first post-apartheid president, who I understand grew up Methodist, gave props to every religious group except the Reformed.

As much as I appreciate theology, I realize that it just can't stay there; at the judgment Jesus is going to ask us not how much we know but what we did with the truth He gave us -- and especially how we used it to make this world resemble His Kingdom. The Christian Gospel, after all, isn't about the "afterlife" so much but what God wants to do here to bring a sense of "shalom" before He returns. In other words, theology is something to be lived, not just studied.