Tuesday, January 24, 2012

More than 'Courageous'

On Sunday I finally got to see the film "Courageous," produced by the Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Ga. and released in September. I admit that I found myself rooting for the lead characters, a quartet, three white and one black, of sheriff's deputies in Dougherty County, Ga., which includes Albany; and a Hispanic man who started out as a laborer and, by the end of the film, had worked his way up to management of a textile mill. The film culminates in a shootout between some deputies and street gang members, including a leader, who end up being arrested for drug possession and distribution.

The underlying message of the film is that men need to step up and reclaim their rightful roles as fathers -- which, of course, is a worthy goal. That said, however, I detected a number of weaknesses in how that message was portrayed.

1) There were no grandfathers in the movie; indeed, the only reference to any of the men's own fathers that I recall was Deputy Hayes' biological father, whom he said he never knew or even met. As a result, you never got a sense of what their own dads may have or hadn't taught them, whether actively or passively; you best believe that their own upbringing would have a major impact on who they became. It seems to me that, in pledging more responsible fatherhood, the men in question should consult with some older men, perhaps their own fathers if they're available, to learn how to become not just fathers in particular but men in a general sense. It was good that the men committed themselves to Biblical principles; still, they needed to see them worked out in the lives of other men that they respected.

The larger issue is the lack of true community that's required for children to develop, in times past usually including extended family such as uncles, aunts and grandparents. Since the 1950s our culture has focused on the nuclear family as being the be-all and end-all of what we call "family," and I don't think that the dissolution of our culture, which began then, is a coincidence. The old African proverb still applies: "It takes a village to raise a child." (We Christians don't always realize this because almost all of us are involved in such a community -- the local church.)

2) The legitimate Biblical concept of economic justice was totally glossed over, most noticeably with the one deputy who, it turned out, had been stealing drugs that had been seized as evidence with the intent to sell them and ended up being arrested. I caught that he noted the difficulty of raising a family on an annual gross salary of just $36,000, which is a little less than what I make for a job that's far less demanding and has less prestige. (And I'm single and childless.)

In times past in the African-American community, in large part due to racism, men were often unable to find work that paid enough to feed, clothe and shelter their wives and children; to make ends meet, in many cases the wives had to get jobs, often as domestics. Needless to say, that caused friction in the home and the men, feeling useless, either left or ended up getting kicked out. Situations like that cause children to lose respect for Dad; as a result he can neither teach his sons to become men nor "cover" his daughters so that they don't fall for the charms of the lech up the street.

Bottom line, a man needs work that pays well enough so that not only his family can survive financially but also that he doesn't always have to take second or third jobs that would take him away from them. Indeed, the very concept of "sabbath" represents, really, a guard against workaholism.

At the end of the movie, Hayes asked one young man who had shown interest in his daughter but was caught up in the shootout with the gang why he got involved with it, and he responded, "I don't have anybody, man." Sorry, but that also is a tad simplistic -- drug-dealing has always been a lucrative business and many in some areas see it as the only way to make any money and thus gain status. "Family" has little to do with it.

3) Being that this was the Deep South I was stunned, for reasons I've already mentioned, that racism was completely ignored. Christianity Today reported that Sherwood Baptist Church has thankfully been involved in racial reconciliation efforts in that city and thus has the authority to speak about that but chose not to; however, Albany was one of the first cities after Montgomery, Ala. that Martin Luther King Jr. attempted to integrate during the civil-rights movement. Furthermore, according to that same article, some of those same racist attitudes from back then still exist today. (One of my roommates at Georgia Tech, who was white, came from that city; he told me over 30 years ago that it experienced "white flight.")

4) One scene that jarred me was the promotion of Javier, the Hispanic man, who was asked if he would fudge a shipment -- when he said he wouldn't, he was offered the position because management said was looking for someone with integrity. It's more likely that companies would look for someone who would lie to make more money and believers certainly aren't immune; let's remember that Bernie Ebbers and the late Ken Lay, both CEO's of their respective corporations and who were supposedly devout Christians, were busted for unethical behavior.

5) There was virtually no mention about the men's marriages in "Courageous," a problem because a strong marriage is virtually a must to raise Godly children; I recall the saying: "The best thing a man can do for his children is to love their mother." The deputy who was caught with the contraband was divorced; another, who had just finished his rookie year on the force, had fathered a child out of wedlock. (In fairness, the same church also produced the movie "Fireproof," which focused on marriage but which I haven't seen.)

Basically, the producers of the film tried to make things as black-and-white -- no pun intended -- as possible. But in the process they isolated fatherhood from issues that surround it and thus, I believe, ultimately sabotaged the message they were trying to convey.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Some thoughts on persecution

"You let them cut you? You let them hurt you?"

I heard those words in 1996 from a then-retired, now-deceased African-American pastor who was attending my largely-white church. He was infuriated when I told him that, when I was a student at a mostly-white Catholic prep school, the N-word was directed toward me on a daily basis and I didn't react. Part of that was because I acted as though I was one of them and simply didn't cower the way other African-Americans likely might.

In light of the recent celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, it's important to remember that, when you stick your neck out for the sake of truth, you might very well pay a price. And it was one I -- and he -- was willing to pay for the sake of racial reconciliation.

In his case, in the South it meant being arrested on trumped-up charges, irritants such as the cancellation of insurance and, ultimately, threats to his life. In mine, in the North it also meant rejection by "my side" of the relational fence -- being considered an "Oreo," a "race traitor."

The bigger picture, however, is not about the abuse we had to take; rather, we both kept our eyes on the prize in that we truly believed that reconciliation was the right way to go. Dr. King has not lived to see the fruit of his labors; I'm blessed in that I have -- today I'm even friendly with some of the people who tormented me in those days because I think they finally understood what I was about.

I would say that we American evangelical Christians who complain about "persecution" at the drop of a hat really should chill out. For openers, Jesus said that such would happen -- "if they hate you, remember that that hated Me first" -- and we don't want to make Jesus into a liar, don't we? That said, we need to ask ourselves if we're deliberately picking fights to make ourselves look like martyrs; trouble is, the only thing we do in the process is look codependent. Lose friends, families and jobs? That's what you signed up for when you began following Him. There is a time to fight, but there is also a time to suffer. I understood the difference.

It was in understanding that larger picture that I was able to respond to the minister: "They didn't hurt me!"

Monday, January 16, 2012

Just another holiday ....

Another Martin Luther King Jr. Day has come and gone, and I admit I was stunned to notice that a number of retail establishments used the day to promote sales. Or perhaps I shouldn't have been, because that seems to be the American way.

This may surprise many of you, but despite my longtime admiration for him I was never enthused about making his birthday -- he would have been 83 yesterday -- into the holiday that it has become for just that reason. I feared that it would be just another day off and another reason for people to sell stuff. And I find that a tad sacrilegious.

For openers, what was Dr. King's occupation? That's right -- a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which is not for sale at any price. Moreover, he helped to lead a great social movement ignored by many of the Christians of his day and reviled by others but nevertheless was used by God to destroy Jim Crow in the southeastern United States.

And while I understand that God used Dr. King to transform an entire region of the country, let us never forget that God did it. Yes, he had help -- from churches, secular organizations, Congress, the Supreme Court, helpful Northerners and Jews -- but let's keep in mind that the miracle that the civil-rights movement tried to enact represented the pulling down of a spiritual stronghold. Because racial segregation, simply put, was sin and ought to have been considered as such.

So even though much of the church was late on the scene, we Christians ought to remember him as an influential Christian leader. (To its credit, the Episcopal Church has long recognized him as one of its "martyrs.") Indeed, this is one day which fills me with the desire to worship God -- after all, it was through the movement that I first understood the Gospel.

That's why I'm disappointed that even Dr. King's memory has been sold out for the sake of trinkets. Rather, the churches should be packed in gratitude for what God did through him.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Random ruminations on the 2012 election

-- Don't let the results of the Iowa caucus this week fool you -- absolutely nothing is settled on the Republican side. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the winner, of course is the choice of the "establishment"; former Sen. Rick Santorum, finishing a strong second, is the favorite of the social conservative wing; and the curmudgeon Ron Paul, with very, very deep philosophical support, went a close third. Keep in mind, however, that Santorum thus far has escaped media scrutiny in this race, which won't last long -- there are reasons why he was crushed on his second reelection attempt in 2006, and we'll find out why.

-- If there was a loser this week it was the tea-party movement, whose favorite candidate, Michele Bachmann, decided to pack it in. Another social conservative, Rick Perry, probably will, although at this point he hasn't done so yet. Newt Gingrich didn't do all that well either, but that may be meaningless.

-- You want to know why the GOP will have trouble winning elections from here on out? Check out recent remarks that Gingrich and Santorum made about what they would to about poor African-Americans. Such people apparently don't mind offending folks for the sake of their base; the trouble is that they risk turning off undecided voters -- just as the GOP did in 1992 with its "culture war" convention -- in the process.

-- Nothing that has transpired so far has made me change my mind about Barack Obama's being reelected, which I've believed since he was elected the first time. One, the Republicans have always spent more time and energy trying to defeat him rather than telling people what they would do differently would one of them ascend to the top spot. Two, the people who might have a chance to defeat him on those grounds literally can't afford to run against him -- he has already raised $750 million and could push that total up to $1 billion. (Recall that he bankrupted Hillary Clinton, not the easiest thing to do.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Losing the future

Things are obviously getting desperate.

You know that's the case when the Christian political organization "Winning the Future" endorses former suburban Atlanta congressman and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich for the Republican nomination for president.

Think about this for a second: This group is supporting a man who has held only one political office in his entire life. A man who cheated on his first wife with his second and his second wife with his third. A man who sought power for its own sake, going up against Bill Clinton -- and totally lost, resigning his seat after being embarrassed in 1998. A man that, to my knowledge, has not produced a credible testimony as to a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and a changed life as a result.

No, it seems that "Winning the Future" has only one goal: Reestablishing the clout of the "religious right," even if it has to compromise essential tenets of the faith to do it.

And that won't happen -- the 2006 general election pretty much put an end to that, what with the shellacking the Republican Party took despite James Dobson's efforts with his "Stand for the Family" rallies. Let's not forget that conservative Christians never took folks from their side of the fence to task for supporting an immoral (some say illegal) war in Iraq and especially in response to the Jack Abramoff-fueled lobbying scandal.

What's worse from that perspective, it especially has no chance to unseat Barack Obama as president. None of the Republican candidates in the race has the money to compete with him -- it's no accident that the better prospects decided to sit this one out -- nor do they have the temperament to do anything but bash him. In short, they have nothing to offer but the same old, same old culture and class war which that side lost long ago but refuses to acknowledge.

More to the point -- why are Christians endorsing any candidate at all? Do we realize that we're not going to change the basic sin nature of the human race simply by legislation or "changing the culture?" Or is our goal simply to change this world so that we can live in it and avoid spiritual warfare? (Do you really believe that God will allow that?)

That's why I yawned when I learned about the endorsement -- it won't make any difference, either now or in the long run. And when I mean the "long run," I mean eternally.