Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Why I'm giving Phil Robertson a pass concerning his comments on race

As the result of an interview with GQ magazine that was published last week, "Duck Dynasty" star Phil Robertson was suspended by the A&E Network, where the show aired, for making allegedly "anti-gay" comments. That's not the only controversial thing he said, however.

He also said that, where he was, he "never" witnessed African-Americans being treated any differently due to race, even when he was a youth during the civil-rights movement; those remarks caused a lesser firestorm.

This may surprise you, but on this one I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt. "How could he not see it?" you may be wondering.

Because of one fact that people often overlook: The civil-rights movement was almost exclusively an urban phenomenon. Certainly a number of atrocities did take place in rural areas, but virtually all the action was in Southern cities, where Robertson didn't live.

That should make sense, because the obvious problems were there.

And it wasn't simply about rich vs. poor, either, as many of the foot-soldiers of the movement were wealthy professionals, academics and merchants who had the wherewithal to support it financially. The Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s first pastorate out of graduate school, was a "seditty" congregation that had community status in Montgomery, Ala., and when things began to spread only the cities were involved. (Indeed, Montgomery wasn't even the first bus boycott; Baton Rouge, La. had previously experienced one a couple of years beforehand.) Being from the country, Robertson simply wouldn't have first-hand knowledge of these things.

If Robertson is guilty of anything, it would be gross insensitivity toward his black neighbors and occasional co-workers; perhaps he ought to have discussed with them the challenges of being black in the rural South. That wouldn't be confined to people like himself, however -- all of us ought to be willing to address such or similar things. So before we point the finger at this one man, perhaps we all ought to consider our part in the conflict.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Phil Robertson: What goes around, comes around

About 35 years ago the TV series "Soap" was cancelled due to a well-organized threat of a sponsor boycott in response to an openly gay character on the show.

Earlier this week Phil Robertson, a star of "Duck Dynasty" and apparently an avowed Christian, was suspended by the A&E Network for making what some considered anti-gay remarks in an interview with GQ magazine.

The obvious contrast to your average culture warrior would be "See how society is becoming coarsened and hostile to religious faith." I have a different view, however: When you seek authority and money by turning people into scapegoats they or their allies will respond -- maybe not next month or next year, but they will respond eventually.

Folks may remember the very first anti-gay-rights campaign with singer and former Miss America runner-up Anita Bryant in 1977 in Miami as the focal point. After her side "won" she shared a long kiss with her then-husband and said, "This is how it's done, fellas." (Her marriage fell apart soon after that.)

From the outset I felt that the campaign displayed arrogance and focused on pushing folks around, which to me always contradicted Biblical principles; though I did and do believe that homosexual conduct is indeed sinful, in this instance I sided with the gay community. In a poem I wrote in 1979 and published in the high school newspaper, I warned that they'd be back, angry.

But a funny thing happened over time: The gay community actually gained sympathy. Perhaps because folks thought as I did that gays were being bullied. Perhaps gays were being more reasonable in their demands. Perhaps many of the people who were anti-gay began to get to know gays -- who may have been in their own families and even in churches.

By the 1990s things began to shift, with a local gay-rights organization disbanding about 20 years ago because it believed that its objectives had been reached. Today no one bats an eye at a "gay-straight alliance" in high schools in response to bullying of gay teens.

So when Robertson's interview was published, most of the resultant vitriol went against him. (Now, you can argue that the A&E Network was concerned only about the money it might lose if it didn't suspend him -- but then again, so was ABC in 1978.)

The point, however, is that too often Christians have isolated homosexuality as a particularly gross sin when the Bible doesn't even go that far. There's no indication that gays were ever considered an existential threat to society and culture; if anything, during the writing of the New Testament it was considered "normal" among Gentiles. (That's why Paul wrote to the early church saying that Christians should avoid it -- in essence, "We as believers don't want to be associated with that.")

That misunderstanding, and not merely contempt for the Christian faith, is what got Robertson in trouble. I think we need to rethink the entire enterprise -- and get it right.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Finally ... some sense out of Washington

You might not believe this, but a budget deal has been struck in Congress.

More amazing, it was Democrat Patty Murray and Republican Paul Ryan who hammered out the details.

No one is happy -- and that's the point.

Interestingly enough, House Speaker John Boehner blasted conservative politicians and their backers for denouncing it before it was even released.

In doing so, Boehner admitted publicly what, according to conservative Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker, he has apparently believed privately -- the political right should shoulder the blame for gridlock in Washington. And he's right.

The biggest problem with the tea-party movement, among the folks that Boehner criticized, is and always has been that it expects political goals but not to be involved in the process. Politics by definition means compromise -- which to ideological purists represents surrender.

But you can't run a government that way.

It remains to be seen if this means the end of the partisan war, but at least the budget deal might serve as a start.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Watch whom you call a 'Marxist'

It seems that Karl Marx has been in the news lately -- through some of his alleged disciples.

I'm speaking about Pope Francis, who recently delivered a scathing denouncement of the abuses of capitalism, specifically "supply-side economics"; and Nelson Mandela, the recently-deceased former revolutionary and political prisoner who later became president of South Africa. Both of them have been accused of being Marxists because they called for a restructuring of the prevailing economic and political order.

My reaction to the "haters": Is that all they got?

The charge against the pope is especially spurious, given that Marxism ignores the spiritual -- as Martin Luther King Jr. said, in that view "matter is all there is" and that he hasn't changed Roman Catholic social teaching one bit. Also consider that Mandela, informed by Bible student Gandhi, became quite the conciliator after being released from prison after nearly 30 years, especially when most folks expected (and some were hoping for) bloodshed.

Both men, on the other hand, have called for "justice" -- and that seems to be threatening to those who have or lust for power. The trouble is, of course, that they equate "justice" with "equality" -- read: equal outcomes and/or, cynically, "equally poor." But that isn't at all what they're talking about.

Rather, they refer to the basic dignity of all men and women. Equal opportunity. Fair treatment regardless of economic station in life. The same opportunity to participate in public life. And so on ... and those are Marxist?

Well, it could be seen as such if, again, your goal is aristocracy, but in doing so you play right into Marx' hands. He never declared "class warfare," only that it already existed -- the rich declaring war on the poor. And in 19th-Century Europe the church was a willing pawn in the political power game, working hand-in-hand with the nobility to remain in power. Have you noticed that Europe is largely secular today? Do you think there's a reason for that?

Here in America, the history of organized labor demonstrates that you don't have to be "Marxist" to believe in, for example, fair treatment of workers. Many Catholic priests were supporters, because their parishioners were involved, and the American labor movement regularly purged Communists from its ranks.

So the next time you're tempted to refer such men and those who think like them as Marxists, think again. They in fact may be closer to God's intent than you realize.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Can Christians eat crow?: The unintended legacy of Nelson Mandela

Yesterday Nelson Mandela, once the world's most famed political prisoner who later became president of South Africa, went to his reward. Because of his persona as one who faced what some might consider an impossible task of uniting a divided country, he was held up as larger than life.

It wasn't so long ago, however, that Mandela was considered a dangerous man. (Understandably so, but not in the ways you might think.)

Back in the 1980s, when the anti-apartheid movement was in full swing and he had been in prison for 20 years, many evangelical Christians spoke out against him without understanding the context under which he operated. Because these people were swayed almost exclusively by Cold War politics, he was regarded as a terrorist and a Marxist.

I wonder, however, how they would have reacted were they in his shoes -- a black man in a place where whites had all the political power and most of the economic power. Somehow they never got that apartheid was a unjust system that certainly did need to be overthrown.

You might ask: Why didn't he, and the African National Congress for which he served as deputy president, go the nonviolent route? Well, at first they did. That changed as the result of a massacre in Sharpeville in 1960, the government's response to a demonstration against the hated "pass laws." But rather than dealing with the issue, the government simply banned the ANC. (The South African Communist Party was also officially underground as of 10 years earlier and thus made a natural ally.)

Mandela was convicted of sabotage and given a life sentence in 1964, and perhaps the powers that be thought that they would be done with him and the government continued to regard him as, perhaps, Public Enemy No. 1. Instead, however, his stature grew -- especially around the world.

With a change in the presidency -- F.W. de Klerk replacing the hardline P.W. Botha -- and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, he was finally released, de Klerk perhaps believing that, without help from a defunct Soviet Union and East Germany, he could control the process. That didn't happen, of course, and the rest became history.

Disappointing to me, however, was the reaction back then of certain Christian media leaders to the plight of black South Africans. Jerry Falwell openly expressed support for the Botha government, The 700 Club in 1985 interviewed Ian Smith, the last white leader of what was Rhodesia expressing contempt for Mandela -- that was the last time I ever watched that show -- and evangelist Jimmy Swaggart going to South Africa and declaring that he "didn't see any problems."

So you can imagine folks' shock when not only did Mandela not only didn't take revenge on whites but even sought to include them in his administration upon succeeding de Klerk as president in 1994. I saw the movie "Invictus" when it came out four years ago, and in it he was depicted as telling people "Reconciliation starts here" and "Forgiveness starts here." He hired whites for security detail -- because they had the experience -- and stopped the Ministry of Sport from retiring the Springbok nickname for the national rugby team, considered a reminder of apartheid.

Are these not "Christian" values and virtues? These are the actions of a committed Marxist terrorist?

I think it's time for us Christians to admit that we were ultimately wrong him, but I don't think that we will -- we still have too much at stake defeating some "enemy." Shame on us.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Christian "persecution?" Pul-leez!

About 30 years ago, when I was watching the 700 Club on a regular basis, host Pat Robertson once made a comment about an "anti-Christian conspiracy." Considering that Jesus said that "if they hated me they will hate you," such a statement would be understandable.

But that's not what Robertson really meant -- the context was that we Christians were losing our privileged status in American society. Trouble is, that isn't something to be concerned about because when you are you often end up becoming a persecutor in your own right.

Let's remember that this took place arguably at the height of what I refer to as media evangelicalism, where the message of the Gospel often ended up being muddied because programs needed to stay on the air -- and the easiest way to do that is, of course, to identify an enemy and try to defeat it. Muddied because the message of the grace of God through Jesus Christ was pushed aside of favor of a more lucrative "culture war."

And that's an issue of theology, as it demonstrates a lack of trust in God for anything except "fire insurance."

Furthermore, political freedom simply isn't addressed in the Word of God; Christians in other countries understand this, so they simply do what they do regardless of what the authorities say. The church in mainland China is growing as an astronomical rate -- in a climate that's hostile to any form of religious faith. (Indeed, it seems to thrive in those conditions.)

On top of that, if American evangelical Christians were undergoing legitimate persecution they would back anyone regardless of faith affiliation that also suffering. I can't think of one instance, however, in which we have.

A couple of generations ago a social movement, inspired by prayer and revival meetings in churches, arose, in the process changing an entire region of this nation. The opposition became so fierce that participants were being killed, churches were being bombed and pastors were being jailed -- and yet the movement stayed strong and prevailed. Most "Christians," however, in that day ignored it, many even opposing it.

I guess you know by now that I'm talking about the civil-rights movement, challenged not just because of racism but that the movement threatened -- yep -- some folks' privileged status. It's one reason for the racial divide in the church.

Early in my Christian life I learned the acronym JOY -- Jesus, Others, Yourself -- as to where our focus should be. Also remember that He said that persecution is inevitable, so we shouldn't worry about it.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Quinn & Rose: Has hate reached its limit?

In 1996 a then-coworker challenged me to listen to Jim Quinn, then a morning-drive DJ at a local classic rock station, give his opinions about politics in general and President Bill Clinton in particular; I did, for one solid week, and became nearly physically ill. It wasn't just that he was a conservative; after all, I had listened to some Christian radio a few years previously and knew what to expect. But the vitriol and the insults that he delivered just didn't sit well with me.

Years later, I realized why: I might have well been listening to the devil himself.

It wasn't merely his ideological agenda I had problems with; more to the point, it was the plainly mean things he said about people he disagreed with. There was no grace or peace in his speech, just pure bile. He actually made Rush Limbaugh sound sweet and kind.

Last week Quinn and sidekick Rose Somma Tennent -- whom I met a few years previously at a local Christian radio station where she was on staff and I was doing commentary -- lost their jobs as commentators at a local talk-radio station in what I suspect to be a contract dispute. Their show had been syndicated to seven other stations around the country and even on Sirius XM satellite radio. (I didn't bother to find out what they were saying about President Barack Obama because I knew it couldn't be good.)

My reaction? "Thank you, Jesus."

Two things come to mind.

One, if you want to find the reason there's so much political polarization in this country, start with folks like Quinn & Rose, who stay angry seemingly for its own sake. No solutions, no addressing issues in depth -- just rage against a "them." We know just what they were against, but we never knew just what they were for; and God help anyone whom they targeted. I understand why they did such -- for the sake of ratings because they had to know that people were hanging on their every word. They likely became fairly wealthy in the process; after all, hate sells. (You can't blame "liberals" for this because -- and the conservatives will tell you this -- left-wing talk-radio has never taken hold.)

Two, not forever because eventually people are going to react if you keep treating them like piƱatas. Around 2005 I noticed that a progressive populism was becoming evident, initially due to the war in Iraq going bad but ultimately a backlash against the conservative enterprise, and it was fighting fire with fire. By last summer, around the time of the Sandra Fluke controversy, it developed enough clout to cause sponsors, I understand about 70 in all, to drop Limbaugh's show. That wouldn't have happened even five years ago.

But there's also a spiritual principle afoot here. You see, listening to Satan's lies and accusations deadens sensitivity and leads directly to a decline in discernment. Again, the actual agenda doesn't matter; it's the idea of scapegoating people for who or what they are or what they believe that God cannot tolerate. That's why such contempt isn't perpetual; it wears you out and down. In other words, attitudes and behaviors are ultimately more important than worldview, and when you refuse to be confronted about them communication breaks down. Even with God.

I have been saying for quite some time that an awakening is taking place in this country, and one of the signs of such is a rejection of the world's way of thinking. Quinn & Rose's show was definitely "of the world," and they are now receiving the world's reward for their actions. I haven't seen Rose in a while -- I don't know Quinn's religious leanings -- but when and if I do I will remind her that God calls us to a better, more excellent way.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Name-calling -- the result of bitterness, envy and resentment

My mother left my father in 1983 because of emotional abuse; after she had remarried she told me that she had heard that he was going around calling her a lesbian. That was confirmed to me when he called me one night and made that same accusation. After I listed to his rant for a while I hung up on him. (And he never called me again.)

I understood just what was behind that: His identity was wrapped up in having her; when that became no longer possible he tried to find someone to blame. The trouble is that he never looked in the mirror to find the true culprit as to the demise of the marriage.

I bring that up because in light of the implementation of the Affordable Care Act I see the same reaction to President Obama -- "incompetent," a "tyrant" and other names, some of them too vile to publish; the folks who make those comments don't appreciate that he was legitimately elected president. When I hear them, I always consider the source.

It's one thing to oppose a president's policies; after all, people do have that right. Let's keep in mind, however, that he did gain a majority of popular and electoral votes in both 2008 and 2012; as such, going out of their way to sabotage his constitutionally-mandated obligation to carry out the laws of this country is simply beyond the pale.

Well, we don't agree with him. Fine, but you didn't make your case in the election.

We think his policies are dangerous. A lot of people obviously don't agree.

We think he's leading this nation toward socialism. You'll have to do better than that.

If the media had just told the truth ... They did. You just didn't want to hear it.

We think he should be stopped. By any means necessary? At the cost of your own soul?

I mean that -- if you're that focused on defeating him you end up only defeating yourself. That was a major factor in his reelection last year despite the bad economy and a persistently unstable labor market.

Dad never remarried, as I didn't think he would, and likely harbored bitterness toward Mom to the day he died; that's no way to live and he didn't. Moral of the story, at the risk of sounding arrogant: If you feel that way about the president, you need to get over it and move on because you can't change the election results. Not doing so might very well kill you.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Bridging the racial divide: Breaking barriers by building relationships

Today's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ran an op-ed piece by local resident Irene Wynn about the racial divide that existed in 1942. She was responding to a letter by a white man who wrote that he didn't see one back then; she mentioned that African-Americans in those days weren't permitted, among other things, to swim in public pools, skate at roller rinks and go to dance halls because of their color. (Keep in mind that Pittsburgh never had Jim Crow laws.)

Reading that piece made me realize just how much of a pioneer I was, especially in the 1970s. And how and why I was.

In 1974, when I was 13, I was "recruited" to play basketball at the Catholic parochial school near me; it turned out that I would be its first black player ever. That said, I wore that status lightly; while I realized that I was making a statement I never felt the burden of being the "first." Having by this time removed any racial resentment that might have caused any problems with my schoolmates, virtually all of them white, I got along with them beautifully and was invited to all of the dances and parties (though, being a tad socially backward, I rarely went).

I didn't realize until the next year, as a high school freshman at a prestigious Catholic prep school, that the barrier had fallen.

I wasn't playing basketball at the scholastic level, so I asked my father about playing Catholic Youth Organization ball for the same parish. Dad waved it off, saying, "They don't allow blacks." A week or two later, the CYO coach called to ask if I were interested in playing. (I didn't.)

At that school I began trying out for plays. Having developed a singing voice the summer between freshman and sophomore years, as a sophomore I made callbacks for the fall play and the director promised me a part in the following spring production. (I ended up with two.) There was one other black kid, a junior, who also was part of the cast; we may have been the first two African-Americans to grace that stage. I developed some popularity at that school as well.

I learned a valuable truth from those experiences that has stayed with me to this day: The best way to "integrate" is not to force your way in but to get to know people on the inside who can vouch for you -- that way folks don't feel put upon and forced to accommodate for the sake of being "politically correct." I took the opportunities that were afforded me at that time, and everyone grew as a result.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Race, conservatism and the evangelical church

After George Zimmerman was found not guilty of second-degree murder in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, a number of people I know simply gloated. That was bad enough.

What I found disconcerting is that many of them were supposedly Jesus-loving Christians but clearly hard-core conservatives. It reminded me why we still have a major race problem in the church -- denial.

No, I'm not calling them racists, but they were clearly insensitive to the indignities, great or small, that some of their "brothers and sisters" have had to deal with on a consistent basis.

And I believe that their commitment to a myopic conservative worldview, which seeks comfort for itself but couldn't care less about anyone else's suffering, is the primary culprit here.

Frankly, most of my friends outside my diverse church and the local music community are white. This is especially the case among the three local Christian singles ministries that I've been involved with; I'm one of only two African-Americans who participate, and neither of us are militants who demand to be heard.

But sometimes I wish they would ask me for my perspective on things.

You see, many of them focus on Christian "morality" and "liberty" at the expense of everything else; as you can imagine, they vote Republican. They don't see how or why the conservative agenda that now controls the GOP is considered insulting and injurious, at times even willfully, to African-Americans, who vote Democratic for that reason.

How so? Well, let's consider the phrase "big government." You may not know this, but it originally had a racist connotation -- recall that it was the Federal government that took down Jim Crow laws in the South, specifically through laws and Supreme Court decisions that irritated a lot of people and led to what became known as the "new right," which started in the 1950s and gained steam in the '60s. Propagandists over the years have sought to blame the "Great Society" for the ills of the black community, never mind that it doesn't have the same access to education and employment opportunities (I realized this when I got to college) as everyone else.

Over time these folks have sought to reverse the progress that we've made, especially when it comes to important issue of voting. The Supreme Court's invalidation of a major tenet of the Voting Rights Act didn't help, and right-wing radio's quasi-racist ramblings have inflamed the discourse. Not to mention the voter-ID laws implemented in many states that are reminiscent of laws in Southern states that essentially barred blacks from voting. (Voting will always remain an issue.)

But my "siblings" don't see that we as African-Americans are often treated differently in the world. While I personally have never experienced being stopped by a policeman for no good reason -- "driving while black" -- or ignored by restaurant waitstaff, I know people who have.

And sometimes it spills over into the church. When I was in college I began attending a campus Christian fellowship that was otherwise all-white. I soon found out why it was that way; a couple weeks after coming -- and becoming chummy with one of the women -- a staff member asked me to leave; it turned out that the ministry actually operated a separate group for black students and she said that I would "fit better" there, my actual church background notwithstanding. (I didn't.) Later on another staff member tried to drive me out but failed.

At the beginning of my last committed dating relationship in the summer of 1999 -- my girlfriend was white -- I had a week off from playing at my church, so I visited hers. In the church was literature from the "Conservative Chronicle," which one of her sons would bring home on a regular basis; upon reading it I detected a spirit of racism. (Which turned out to be correct; I learned long after the relationship collapsed that it was the newsletter of the Council of Conservative Citizens, formerly known as the White Citizens Council, which formed in the South to oppose desegregation.)

I'm privileged to attend a church where some of these issues have been addressed; however, I know full well that it's an anomaly. And even there, some folks still often don't "get it."

We took this on most recently in my Christian Leadership Concepts small group -- CLC is a two-year men's leadership course that ended for me in February -- in which racial reconciliation was one of the last things to be taught. Because the other guys know that I have a passion for and considerable knowledge and experience in that, one of the co-facilitators asked me to lead the first session. As part of the curriculum we used the book "Strength to Love" by Martin Luther King Jr. However, I told them flat-out that Dr. King's opponents were conservatives. I didn't get a handle on how they reacted.

One song that's now being played in heavy rotation on smooth-jazz radio is a cover of Michael Jackson's "Man in the Mirror," whose message I heartily agree with. But I wish that my conservative friends would heed it -- that when it comes to issues of race in the church they may recognize that their attitudes may be part of the problem.

The same Bible that causes me to oppose abortion and homosexual conduct also despises racism and obliges me to identify with those of lower status. (Not just help -- identify with, for you can't do the former without the latter.) We simply won't solve this problem unless hearts are softened, and may God do so.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Some (hopefully) helpful answers to some unhelpful questions surrounding the Zimmerman case

In light of the recent racially-charged murder trial of George Zimmerman, I've noticed that quite a few people reacted to his acquittal with glee, almost gloating in the process. This post is directed towards those folks who unwittingly have deepened the racial divide in this country with their insensitivity and by their attempt to ignore it. To engage them I've formulated a few questions they might ask, with some answers.

1) Why do you follow such grandstanders as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, who go places for the express purpose of stirring up racial strife?

Well, not really -- a lot of us aren't completely sold on either of them for different reasons. Keep in mind, however, that they're not part of the "system" and thus maintain sufficient independence from it to be able to speak prophetically to the nation at large -- and they must be somewhat effective, otherwise you wouldn't be complaining about them. By the way, the very same charge was often made toward Martin Luther King Jr.; 50 years ago this spring the campaign to desegregate Birmingham, Ala. began, and a lot of people then and there complained about "outside agitators" even though he had been invited in.

Oh, and contrary to popular opinion, they're not "stirring up racial strife" where none had previously existed -- you don't realize that it already had been stirred up; at the time of Trayvon Martin's death there had already been marches and rallies nationwide then. Hear me, people -- nationwide.

2) Why don't African-Americans spend more time on righting the wrongs in their own community, such as black-on-black crime, bad schools, broken families etc.?

In fact, we do. Here in Pittsburgh, never a year goes by without at least one "Stop the Violence!" march -- which often makes the news -- and it's a common complaint at the funerals of black boys and young men who were shooting victims. Moreover, we've done numerous things to foster change, with all kinds of programs and initiatives that are in fact known to the public, too many to list in this post.

But here's what you don't understand: We also want the same kind of access to education, employment and such things as anyone else, which we can't always get for a number of different reasons. That's why mere "hard work" and "personal responsibility," which we do believe in and practice, don't suffice to effect change.

3) Why focus on race so much? Didn't Dr. King say that he hoped to "live in a land where my four little children are not judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character?"

He did say that, but if you listen to or read the rest of that speech you'll notice that he made abundantly clear that it certainly wasn't the case on Aug. 28, 1963, the day he delivered it. And based on other reports I've heard, Zimmerman didn't believe it, either. Besides, virtually all African-Americans of or above a certain age have what we colloquially called "lynching stories"; I could share with you mine, but I won't go there right now.

4) Can't you just "forgive and forget?"

Many of us African-Americans are Christians, which means that we do believe in and practice the doctrine of forgiveness. However, you have to understand what forgiveness entails: It's not about ignoring, minimizing or condoning evil acts; it's about removing them as obstacles to reconciliation, not exactly an easy process if you've ever had to go through it.

"Forgetting," on the other hand, is neither practical nor desirable; remember the old adage "Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it." Even after the back of Jim Crow was broken in the South, laws were passed against segregation to make sure that it didn't return. Also, remember that two of the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous refer to "making amends" -- which means fixing, as much as possible, the damage that had been done. (No, I don't mean "reparations.")

And that's ultimately where I'm going with this. I'm pleading for a spirit of repentance on everyone's part so that we can build together the "beloved community" that Dr. King so eloquently spoke of, but that simply won't be possible with the type of hardened hearts that many of you have displayed in this situation. I invite you to listen to our historic pain so that you can get a better sense of what we have to struggle with in the hopes that you can truly identify with it and understand our mourning, of which Trayvon's death is but a symbol. That was in fact the real lesson of Jesus' parable of the "good Samaritan."

May God have mercy on us all.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Fighting the wrong war

You may have heard of or seen the video of the Christian protestor at a recent gay pride march in Seattle being attacked by sympathizers. Some believers are saying that the incident proves "intolerance" toward Christian witness.

I have a different view; however. For openers, spouting Bible verses or holding up signs denouncing homosexuality in such at atmosphere is akin to a Ku Klux Klansman hassling African-Americans -- it's just not a smart move. And while I don't personally countenance such a violent reaction, I understand it.

As often happens, the anti-gay demonstrators actually go beyond the parameters of Scripture by insisting that "God's judgment is imminent" because of homosexuality. In other words, their singling out gays as particularly deserving of His wrath is unbiblical in its own right.

Bottom line, they're fighting the wrong war -- they have confused spiritual warfare, which God tells us to fight, with cultural warfare, which He doesn't. The reason is simple -- when you're focused primarily on real or perceived sin you're not focused on Jesus, and when you're not focused on Jesus more sin is inevitable.

The devil gets this, believe me. One of his favorite tactics is to "play both ends against the middle"; he starts something on one side that might be clearly wrong but then often influences a reaction that potentially causes more damage to the cause of Christ than the original issue. Now, the only way this can work is if the reactionaries don't recognize the Enemy's involvement. (Most don't.) That's why "culture wars" always fail -- they try to make the culture "safe" for Christians to live in and thus eliminate the idea of trusting in God to preserve His people in a dark world.

I know what you might be thinking: Doesn't the Word of God speak about His judgment against gays? Yes and no. The Scripture identifies homosexual conduct as belonging to the "world system," which is on its way out anyway. Besides, telling gays that they're in danger of judgment is something that, according to Philip Yancey's book "What's So Amazing About Grace?", just about every gay person has heard already so the words simply aren't convicting.

Specifically denouncing homosexuality may raise funds and bring out demonstrators; however, it's a distraction from real spiritual issues. Bottom line, we need to our -- and God's -- priorities straight.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Telling the truth: The limits of 'civility'

Promoting "civility" in our political discourse these days is all the rage. No one who pays attention to the scene these days can deny that we as a nation are as polarized as we've ever been -- that is, in my just over 52 years of life. "Why can't we just come together, compromise and 'split the difference'?", you might ask.

That sounds nice, but it's not necessarily desirable or even realistic.

A number of evangelical Christians have complained that we live in an age of "moral relativism," where there are no absolute truths and everything is driven by worldview and/or personal opinion. To a certain extent I agree, because often missing from these discussions are actual, hard-core facts not subject to debate.

Trouble is that many of these same Christians emphasize certain Scripture passages and ignore others -- because, again, they want to promote a certain ideological agenda which may or may not represent the heart of God, thus exacerbating the problem they say they want to solve.

And that's why the church, as well as the nation, is divided.

Basically, we need people who are willing to tell inconvenient truths and ruffle feathers, which is something that may of us are trying to avoid. But we can't avoid it if we want to.

Last year the book "It's Even Worse Than It Looks" placed almost all of the blame -- in my view, appropriately -- for the dysfunction in Washington squarely upon the conservative wing of the Republican Party. Authors Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Orenstein gave specifics of how and when former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich was able to sabotage the institution and reputation of Congress for mere political gain. When that book came out, however, they were never invited to discuss their findings on the Sunday morning talk show circuit -- because they went against conventional wisdom that both sides are to blame.

But the evidence is overwhelming that such isn't the case. Republican leadership generally opposed anything that Bill Clinton did, though they were able to cut deals at one point. It's become even worse under Barack Obama, what with the distractions of his citizenship or lack thereof, his alleged ties to former Weather Underground figure Bill Ayers and former pastor the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, their blocking appointments of Federal judges and Cabinet positions -- the list goes on. (No, liberal Democrats do not do this -- one, they don't have the belly; and two, they still respect the political process.) Right-wing talk radio, with all its lies and distortions, certainly doesn't help matters.

Anyway, there are theological implications to telling, or not telling, the truth no matter who's offended. We can't tell people that "Jesus is the only way" and not try to be fair, just and honest in our dealings, overlooking facts that don't jibe with our opinions and calling anyone who challenges our worldview as "biased." (Of course, they don't consider that they themselves might be biased.)

I was once accused of suggesting that conservatives often act in bad faith, and the person who said that was frankly right. Until that's addressed, we have no chance of establishing "civility."

Monday, June 17, 2013

Is Keynesian economics actually Biblical?

I haven't studied much economic theory, but of late I've come to appreciate the writings of Paul Krugman, a columnist for the New York Times and an economics professor at Princeton University. Krugman has identified himself as a disciple of John Maynard Keynes, the 19th-Century British economist who, if I have my facts straight, supported government (read: political) involvement in the economy. Needless to say, Krugman gets a lot of flak from conservatives for that belief because of their dogma that government "meddling" can make things only worse.

But one thing that Krugman consistently writes is that the biggest threat to American economic well-being is the stubborn rate of unemployment, especially among the young. And his argument that present-day "austerity" programs that cut government spending are simply counterproductive in the long run makes sense to me.

Why is that? Well, one thing that cannot be denied is that a healthy economy has money circulating through it on a consistent basis, which is why Keynesians support government spending -- what's known as "priming the pump" -- when times are bad. Indeed, the primary difference between poor and rich neighborhoods is the number of times money "turns over" in a community before it leaves.

Of course, that doesn't go over well with critics of Keynesian economics -- "folks have to live within their means, and that includes government." But it misses the point that those with the means to do so need to invest -- to take risks, in other words -- for the sake of economic growth.

That simply isn't happening, however, especially with the 1980s advent of "supply-side economics" -- which not only didn't work but, I would submit, was never really supposed to work. It just allowed those with more means and power to sit on their cash and not release it for the sake of making more. But when you focus only on the bottom line you end up with a stagnant economy and the sclerotic politics that results from people focusing only on keeping whatever they have.

So what does this have to do with the Bible? Well, let's consider the year of Jubilee that was instituted in ancient Israel, at the end of the book of Leviticus. Every 50 years all debts were to be cancelled and land returned to the clan that originally owned it, so that no one became obscenely rich or, more importantly, desperately poor for long stretches. (There is no evidence, however, that this system was actually carried out.)

The basic principle is that long-term concentrated economic power is eventually ruinous to a society because, well, the more you get the more you want and you'll manipulate the system -- and pervert Biblical justice -- to keep it.

And in this country a lot of Christians are filthy rich. I'm not knocking that per se, only that the wealth can actually become a spiritual snare because then you can feel entitled to what only God gives for specific purposes. This is why "charity" doesn't suffice to help the poor, who under such a system are still at the mercy of the rich.

None of this is to say that the Scripture favors one economic theory over another, but Krugman and, by inference, Keynes hit on an important truth that we need to consider: Our culture of "hoarding" doesn't do anyone any good. So perhaps we need to change policy so that people who don't have can possibly "get."

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The weaknesses of 'courting'

About a decade ago I became aware of a new trend when it comes to building relationships with the other gender: A new "courting" movement, the primary proponent of which is one Joshua Harris, just out of his teens when he published the book "I Kissed Dating Goodbye" that became a hot seller in Christian circles. A follow-up, "Boy Meets Girl," really went "old-school" in which a girl's prospective suitor asks for her father's permission.

So what's wrong with that? Well, from the perspective of this perpetual "outsider," the concept smacks of more rules that you have to abide by as a Christian "ideal."

Some assumptions that the "courtship" movement maintains: You come from a strong, close-knit Christian family, especially with a strong father figure, and attend a good church where your parents are active and with lots of teens and young adults at your disposal and "safe" ways to get to know people in that age group. In that context it's thus likely that you would already know a potential partner.

But if none of these apply to you -- for example, if you're a convert, especially a male who doesn't come from that kind of background -- you're frankly handicapped. In many cases you can't spend time with other guys because they're already involved in relationships, and the girls often can't be bothered.

Having read the former book, I'm wondering how you can build such a relationship with females in that context when you just don't have the chance and you're not even around them. In most things men and boys need practice, and if you don't get those opportunities early on you might not get them later.

As you can imagine, I'm speaking from my own experience. The first woman I dated more than a couple of times I met at a small-group Bible study during my first year at my second college; although that relationship never "went anywhere," we've remained friends -- even after all this time and her marriage of 29 years. (I knew her husband before they started dating, and I did attend the wedding.) She didn't come from an ideal situation either, with her parents being divorced and none of her three parents, including a stepmother, being believers.

I understand that Harris is trying to keep young people, especially girls, from heartbreak. But I'm not convinced that more rules would do it.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

The Koch brothers' day of reckoning

Many of you are aware of the political activity of Charles and David Koch, septuagenarian industrialists reportedly worth $62 billion between them. But if you're not, here's a short rundown: The American Legislative Exchange Council, a pro-business lobby which essentially, and in some cases, literally wrote legislation. Americans for Prosperity, which ran a successful campaign to take down Van Jones, an aide to President Obama for environmental concerns. The "tea-party" movement, for which they contributed much of its financial infrastructure. In addition to all of these, they're involved in building the controversial Keystone XL pipeline -- from which Americans will not receive even one drop of oil -- potentially "buying" the business school at Florida State University and looking into purchases of large newspapers, most notably the Los Angeles Times. All of these to promote their staunchly conservative (read: aristocratic) ideological agenda. (Indeed, half of the Times staff has threatened to quit if the sale goes through, fearing a loss of journalistic independence.)

However, to my knowledge neither of these two ultra-rich men have never produced a credible testimony as to their faith in Jesus Christ. And that should trouble you, at least in part because in the absence of a true American aristocracy the businessman has become the "Christian ideal."

Two things that need to be considered: 1) When they go to meet their Maker, what will happen to all that money that they must leave behind? Of course by then they will no longer control it. 2) Do their present activities glorify Him, building His Kingdom of love, justice and "shalom?"

Far be it from me to say that folks who run businesses don't have a right to make a profit, but to use their financial heft for the sake of political power -- well, that's another thing entirely. What's worse is that much of the Church of Jesus Christ has allowed itself to be bought off and, as a result, we've lost the ability to speak truth to power; we can't effectively preach against the "love of money" and, more ominously, the power that comes with it. Let us not forget that the rise of the "religious right" in the 1980s was achieved with secular funding, which allowed us to address such cultural issues as abortion, homosexuality and prayer in public schools but never greed or economic exploitation. This is one reason that we have a hard time witnessing to such people -- we identify certain agendas as inherently Christian when they have absolutely nothing to do with the Gospel of Jesus Christ and His reconciling power.

On top of that, the world works only in a certain way. I saw a kind of poetic justice in Obama's reelection last year despite all the money the Kochs spent. (Part of that was funneled into some of the 501(c)(4) "public welfare" groups that were, but are not supposed to be, involved in the political process -- which the Internal Revenue Service was looking for last year and that has recently come to light.)

In the end, we will have have to answer to God for not only our relationship to Him but also for the resources that He gave us. All of us. Even the Koch brothers.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Gosnell case: Why it won't make any difference

Anti-abortionists have been transfixed by the current criminal trial of Dr. Keith Gosnell, a Philadelphian who performs abortions, and have complained about media coverage -- in their view, the lack thereof, because of their perceived pro-choice bias. I suspect that they want to force a national conversation on the morality of abortion and that if they covered it properly more people would support their cause.

I think that they're wasting their breath.

The reality is that most Americans really couldn't care less about abortion -- one survey I saw a number of years ago noted that the percentage of people who based their vote primarily on a candidate's stance on legal abortion was in single digits, and two-thirds of those were pro-choice. And when was the last time you ever saw abortion as a campaign issue? It almost never happens.

And I think I know why. In its nearly-40-year history the "pro-life" movement has always been dominated by religious types not consistently popular with the public, specifically Roman Catholics and Protestant evangelicals, because of its uncomfortableness with the use of faith as the will to power. In other words, ultimately it's about not "life" but the idea of religious values being crammed down everyone's throat (which Americans despise with a passion, especially today). In this context "religious" arguments simply don't -- can't -- work. Yet the movement keeps trying, wishing and hoping for the cultural change that they have yet to produce.

That hope took root in 1981, when Ronald Reagan became president; I was in college at the time and noticed that fighting abortion was the only acceptable way to be a Christian who sought political involvement. And that led to an unbalanced understanding of what faith was about -- many of my fellow students became flat-out jerks more concerned about "the cause" than the personal character that God wanted to develop in them.

As someone who opposes abortion for reasons having nothing to do with my Christian faith, I see no way that we can have a conversation about abortion unless and until the religious aspect is downplayed. That actually might happen as the United States grows increasingly secular, but it won't happen a moment before. And I'm thankful for that, because fighting abortion has become a form of idolatry.

And that's why the Gosnell trial won't be the touchstone, the turning point, that anti-abortionists have craved.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

A rude awakening: The 'realpolitik' of gay marriage

Earlier this week the Washington Post reported that a number of culturally conservative organizations asked the Republican Party not to support same-gender matrimony in the light of last year's general election, threatening to leave if it reversed course.

I seriously doubt, however, that they will. Reason: From a financial and organizational standpoint, they have always been highly dependent on the secular conservatives who have dominated the GOP since the 1970s. And if they do, which to me would be a surprise, they will find themselves increasingly isolated.

They're headed that way anyway; they stopped being a force in American politics on the national level in 2006. That became clear when Focus on the Family, facing the potential of major GOP losses in Congress due to the lobbying scandal and the increasingly unpopular war in Iraq, sponsored officially non-partisan "Stand for the Family" rallies in several battleground states hoping to turn out its supporters, one of those, essentially a shill for Sen. Rick Santorum, taking place here in Pittsburgh. (Of course, GOP candidates lost every one of those Senate races, Santorum losing to Bob Casey Jr. by 18 points.)

More to the point, however, the vast majority of secular conservatives really don't care about gay marriage, abortion or other social issues of import to conservative evangelical Christians, something that would be obvious if you subscribe to secular conservative media. You won't see discussions on those in secular print or online media or on the Fox News Channel, FNC's bogus "War on Christmas" notwithstanding.

More troubling, however, is just how easily many of us Christians were suckered into the war against "big government," which in essence was always a class war; the movement from its beginnings in the mid-1950s took aim against those of lesser means who may benefit from political action, in my view violating Biblical principles of social justice. (Yes, the Scriptures do support such, contrary to what you may have heard.)

And while there's nothing wrong with making money, too many of us have idolized businessmen as the Christian ideal, ignoring the economic exploitation that they supported that began taking place in the early 1980s and the heavy lobbying to maintain their privileged status that they do today. In the process the church, in failing to confront the greedy then, has lost much of its prophetic power, which is why few are listening to it today when it comes to a clear violation of another Biblical issue.

Indeed, many, many gays are otherwise politically conservative. I was stunned to learn about a decade ago about the Republican Unity Council, a now-inactive organization that sought to recruit gay or gay-friendly conservative candidates, and one survey noted that George W. Bush received about a quarter of the gay vote in 2000. And of course you have today the more-established Log Cabin Republicans and the more recent GOProud that irritate "culture warriors" to no end. Clearly gays are becoming a more powerful force in the Republican Party, whose chief concern is winning elections, not taking moral stances.

With the gay-marriage issue now facing the Supreme Court -- and remember that one of the lawyers who argued for the overturning of California's 2008 Proposition 8 that banned it was Ted Olson, who played a small part in the 1990s anti-Bill Clinton crusade -- it's time for us Christians to understand that secular conservatives were never really our friends. I always was concerned that Christians might be thrown overboard if we were seen as costing them elections.

That day may have come.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

More than just 'white privilege'

Janell Ross, writing in Wednesday's Huffington Post in an article titled "Black Unemployment Driven By White America's Favors For Friends," tried to insist that the jobless rate for African-Americans is double that of the population at large is because of so-called white privilege -- that white America simply takes its opportunities for granted and is inconsiderate of "people of color." She quoted as a source a recent book, "The American Non-Dilemma: Racial Inequality Without Racism" by Nancy DiTomaso, a professor of organization management at Rutgers University who said that most white people admitted that they had little contact with blacks.

I understand that concern, but it's not necessarily the fault of whites. What's really needed is not so much a program to get more African-Americans in the pipeline but a way for black and white to have closer personal relationships -- attend the same churches, live in the same neighborhoods or otherwise associate with the same people.

Trouble is, that kind of "intimacy" was discouraged when I was growing up. And if my experience is any indication, it comes mostly from the black side.

Come again?

I came of age in the 1970s, a time when integration was at least a reasonable possibility. I attended largely white private schools and found myself in an almost-all-white conservative Presbyterian church, so white folks have virtually always been a part of my life. But for reasons I'll never understand this side of heaven, other black kids hassled me, one girl (yes, a girl) abusing me on a consistent basis at one of those schools. I thus decided to build my significant friendships with whites, leading to more scorn from my fellow African-Americans. At that point I didn't care.

As a 10th-grader at a prestigious Catholic prep school, I won two parts in the spring musical and was invited to two graduation parties. I was on the newspaper staff of both the major universities that I attended; at the second university I decided to go through fraternity rush and was extended a bid on the first night from the first house I visited. (I eventually accepted that bid and am a brother today.) In my early 20s I joined a socially prominent Presbyterian congregation; by the time I left 14 years later I had become a deacon and would likely be an elder today had I stayed.

In all of these places there were very few, if any, other blacks. Why was I so accepted, especially when I was often told that it wouldn't happen? I'm not sure I can answer that question so easily; that said, I was not trying to make a statement.

I was simply trying to find a home.

It thus could be that the high unemployment rate for blacks that Ross and DiTomaso refer to is connected to their inability or unwillingness to take risks, leave comfort zones and actually mix with people who don't "look like them"; if you do you risk being labeled "sellout," "honky-lover," "Oreo cookie." Teens who focus on their studies at the expense of a social life are even now often accused of "acting white."

I've worked at the same newspaper for over 16 years, and I got that job indirectly because I used to attend a integrated church with a now-deceased member of the editorial board -- a very fair-minded white man. In 1993 he was my instructor for one of my college classes; I did so well that he put my name in down there.

Maybe instead of complaining about "white privilege," we should be asking ourselves: "Are we connected to the right people, and will they vouch for us?" After all, we all feel most comfortable with those we already know. Perhaps we need to broaden our own horizons and cross some lines -- uncomfortable at first, of course, but well worth the effort down the road.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

More false hope

If you haven't heard, the Dow Jones reached its all-time high, over 14,000, last week. Such indicated to many people that the economy is finally on its way back after a six-year (or thereabout) slump because, finally, people with the means to hire will do so.

I think that such optimism, which will be unfortunately short-lived, is unfounded and shows just how much the mentality of "supply-side economics" has taken hold.

One thing we need to understand: "Creating jobs" is not the primary end of employers -- making money is. That is their right, as no one goes into business for any reason except to make a profit, expanding payroll simply a result of doing well.

Over the past three decades, however, "doing well" simply hasn't translated into jobs, and I don't suspect that will change now.

Productivity among American workers is at an all-time high. Automation has eliminated the need for some kinds of employment. And, these days, companies are doing their best to shed payroll, not least because health benefits cost so much. (Which, ironically, is due to the focus on speculation that caused the shift in the first place.)

The so-called jobless recovery of the Bush II years thus should have exposed as a lie the idea of putting the economy in the hands of "job creators," the closest thing our country has to an aristocracy, being the key to improved performance. "All employers are rich people," you might say. True, but not all rich people are employers, and we began seeing in the early 1980s that the policies that directly benefited them primarily didn't "trickle down" to everyone else.

What we need to do is to find ways to get more money into the hands of people who need it the most -- of course that does mean work, but jobs these days are pretty hard to find. Any suggestions?

Monday, March 4, 2013

The back story on the 'sequester'

As I write we're looking at a major shutdown of parts of the Federal government due to last week's "sequester." I'm sure you, and a lot of people, are a little tired of "Washington" not being able to get its act together and come up with some solutions to the perpetual stalemate between President Obama and Republicans in Congress. "Surely they can come up with something," you insist.

But you need to understand one thing, contrary to conventional wisdom: This fight is not, and never was, about "spending," despite what the Republicans will tell you. It's about politics -- more accurately, just what and whom that money is being spent on. There's a reason why the late Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill, a former Speaker of the House, said, "All politics is local."

That is to say, "What's in it for me?"

I'm serious about this -- after all, that's the way our political system was built so that we feel that we have a stake in the way things are run. Remember that we don't have just one nation -- we have 435 different regions of the country, all with different, and often contrasting, agendas. Plus, we have a culture of telling the government what it should and shouldn't do. Bottom line, the chaos we're seeing now is precisely because of that diffusion of power.

This is why the tea-party movement, which when it got started in 2010 promoted itself as an independent grass-roots force (which couldn't be further from the truth), couldn't but fail. "Cut spending," it demanded.

But it never mentioned exactly what should be cut and by how much. After all -- and this is rarely addressed -- one person's "waste" may be another's livelihood. If you think I'm just blowing smoke, try closing a military base and see just how many folks get up all bent out of shape. (It happens all the time here in Pittsburgh whenever people talk about closing a major base near our airport. Why? It provides jobs.)

The "fiscal conservatives" should have learned that lesson in 1995, when the government ran out of money and shut down, not once but twice. Recall that President Clinton during that budget battle wouldn't knuckle under to GOP leadership's demands, offering a budget that resulted in a surplus but preserved the social programs that it wanted gone. In the end it got most of what it wanted, but Clinton won the PR war and another term in the process (and also got him impeached because he had the gall to be reelected).

Similarly, Obama may have tried to set a trap for congressional Republicans, whom he had to have known aren't inclined to work with him or anyone else; in saying in the fall that this impasse surely wouldn't -- couldn't -- happen, he was either being extremely naive or cunning. It's too soon to tell if this political chicanery, if that's what it is, will work given that few people haven't already taken sides. But as I indicated before, folks will focus on what benefits them personally before anything else. Advantage the president.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

A bad history lesson

The title pretty much said it all -- "A Speech Worthy of Booker T. Washington."

That was the name of a piece by Jonah Goldberg that was published last week in National Review Online concerning a speech that a Dr. Ben Carson, who is African-American, delivered at a recent National Prayer Breakfast. Goldberg likened the contrast to Carson and President Obama, who of course attended, to Washington, who worked and lived in the South; and W.E.B. Du Bois, who lived North.

"Washington believed that blacks should emphasize education and self-advancement and worry about integration later," Goldberg wrote, while "Du Bois favored a civil-rights-first strategy combined with reliance on technocrats, including what he called the 'talented tenth,' or the best African-Americans."

But if Goldberg were to consult any non-conservative African-Americans, especially in the South, he might understand why Du Bois eventually won out.

Because, at first, they actually did take Washington's advice. Even in the midst of Jim Crow, or perhaps because of it, the black community in the South, especially in urban areas, did indeed build its own infrastructure, with businesses and educational institutions and especially churches that defined the black experience in those days. Most Southern cities actually had their share of black millionaires.

Yet Goldberg and other conservatives consistently fail to note that African-Americans in those days weren't permitted to vote or otherwise participate in public life and that their lives might even be in danger if they found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. Let's not forget why we saw the "Great Migration" from the South to Northern cities about 100 years ago. (It's why I live in Pittsburgh and not Virginia or North Carolina, where my ancestors came from.)

This is why Washington barely registers a footnote in contemporary black history -- he was seen as an "accommodationist" or "sellout," someone who maintained his own authority but failed to bring others to the table.

And, indirectly, it was Du Bois that actually helped to break down Southern segregation; he spearheaded the "Niagara Movement," which gave birth to the NAACP -- an organization that is still despised by many on the political right but whose membership generally comprised that day's black bourgeoisie. Although Martin Luther King Jr., who occasionally quoted Washington, provided the moral and spiritual muscle behind the civil-rights movement, the NAACP, driven functionally underground in several Southern states, provided the legal muscle. (Also recall that King received his master's and doctoral degrees from Northern institutions.)

Goldberg also fails to appreciate that African-Americans, even those in the North who didn't experience the political roadblocks of their Southern cousins, also need something to vote for, and Obama eventually became that reason. He may not like Obama's liberalism but doesn't recognize that by its very nature his conservatism is highly offensive to much of that community.

I would be remiss if I didn't challenge Goldberg's comment that Dr. Carson "inveighed against a culture of victimology and dependency," the context likening that to liberalism. Thing is, modern conservatism has from the start complained about being victimized by the likes of "evil liberals" and hostile media, among others, many of its apologists always bellyaching that they don't get respect while simultaneously trashing everyone in sight who doesn't agree with them. And I'd be willing to bet that, as a conservative writer, Goldberg is himself on "welfare" from rich conservatives who pay him a mint to serve as their propagandist. Did you know that, in its nearly-60-year existence, National Review has never made a dime of profit? (Indeed, the only conservative medium that to my knowledge is in the black is the Fox News Channel.)

It seems that Goldberg is trying to tell people that African-Americans need to choose between political empowerment and cultural integrity; however, if he understood the history of the civil-rights movement he would see that both were in play. For example, at the time of the Montgomery bus protest Rosa Parks was not the first choice for someone to rally around; the original symbol was a 15-year-old girl who had been abused by a driver -- until the community learned that she had gotten pregnant out of wedlock to a married man. Besides, maintaining "cultural integrity" in the post-Civil-War, pre-civil-rights South didn't mean that folks would eventually give you a chance as a human being.

This is why Dr. Carson's remarks simply didn't resonate in the black community. It's one thing to "pull yourself up by your bootstraps," but try doing that without any boots. And "getting boots" sometimes means political action, the last thing some folks want.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Seeking validation

"They're not sure that what they believe is true at all. If it were I'd be no threat to them."

Those words came from the late atheist activist Madalyn Murray O'Hair in an interview with conservative journalist Cal Thomas, who asked her why so many Christians hated her and which he quoted in the 1999 book "Blinded by Might: Can the Religious Right Save America?" that he wrote with the Rev. Ed Dobson. She, of course, has long been vilified for, among other things, having prayer removed from public schools. (Which is unfair, since what was actually banned was only sectarian -- in this case, Protestant-based -- prayer exercises conducted by agents of the state -- that is, teachers and principals. And the Supreme Court decision at the time was quite popular.)

But O'Hair's statement speaks to a larger point: It seems that we Christians, far from simply trying to engage the greater culture, have been seeking validation from the culture. Which is something we should never do or have ever done because, when that happens, we end up being swallowed up by it.

Christian "culture warriors," including Thomas at times, have long lamented the loss of a Christian consensus as to what's right and wrong, what's true and false. However, in the process -- and especially beginning in the late-1970s, with the rise of the "religious right" -- we neglected to include our own personal and corporate character, not realizing that part of today's opposition to "Christian values" has to do with the way some of us act in the public square.

I first heard that in early 1980, from the pulpit of a suburban Atlanta church; the pastor was consistently preaching against "secular humanism" and punctuated his rant with the phrase from Hebrews, "for our God is a consuming fire." Later on, and not by just that pastor, that list of targets was expanded to include abortionists, homosexuals, the American Civil Liberties Union, the national Democratic Party, Bill Clinton ... the list went on.

So what does this have to do with validation? Well, if you feel the need to force your values down everyone's throat, perhaps you don't really believe that it will win out in the end. It results from what psychologists call "cognitive dissonance," where folks with a strong commitment to a specific worldview encounter evidence that suggest that they just might be wrong and not only dismiss it outright but go to war against it.

This basically describes the conservative movement and much of the Republican Party today. In the wake of electoral losses they have suffered over the last two decades you might hear some of their apologists say, "If we can get back to Ronald Reagan ..., " with scholar Dinesh D'Souza insisting that he had "the winning agenda." Times were different then, however, and besides, they have never faced that the electorate voted for not so much what Reagan stood for but for Reagan himself.

Which is why they hated Clinton so much -- they saw, correctly in my view, that he threatened to undo everything they had worked for. Suddenly personal insults, gossip and innuendo, condemned in Scripture, became part and parcel of Christian political discourse, and the hypocrisy wasn't lost on a lot of non-believers, who began turning against them. (Then again, they still exhibit denial, blaming their loss in last year's general election on the media and other outside forces, never considering the reality that people simply aren't buying what they're selling.)

To me, this points to several things: 1) A practical atheism, a lack of trust in God that He will preserve His people in the midst of tribulation; 2) Self-absorption, in that life revolves around you and you alone and thus the lack of consideration of others, especially those that don't agree; and 3) Idolatry, in that His Kingdom isn't the supreme value.

I am not saying that Christians shouldn't be active or argue for our values in public life. I am saying, however, that we need to rethink our entanglements with non-believers who will cherry-pick what they want to curry favor with us lest we be perceived as just another interest group. Moreover, we also need to act with a certain humility, understanding that if the world doesn't get it, well, it didn't get the LORD Jesus either. He never sought validation from the powers of the world, and neither should we.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

What to do about abortion today

Today marks the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade and, as someone who has always despised legal abortion as well as the excesses done to combat it, I'm still not sure how just how to respond. It seems as though nothing has been effective -- rallies, marches, voting -- in causing a groundswell of grass-roots opposition from the public.

And it's not that folks haven't tried -- I personally know two people who were arrested in Operation Rescue demonstrations in 1988; locally, it was centered in the church that they attended at the time.

It could be that part of the problem with fighting abortion is its prominence in the "culture war" because, outside of some religious types, not all that many people care enough to cast their votes on the issue -- I've seen abortion become an issue in just two political campaigns, ever, and one of those was last year.

I know what you might be thinking -- We're talking about human life here. Isn't there anything more precious than that?

Well, yes, there is -- a walk with God. If your activism no matter the issue detracts from that, it's frankly idolatry and needs to be put away. You simply can't assume that you're obeying God just by being involved because the devil can certainly disguise himself and worm his way in there. Remember that the only thing that Satan cares about is disrupting God's agenda and will use anything, even His Word, to do it.

For that reason it's probably a good thing that abortion isn't even directly mentioned in the Bible, although you can certainly make the case that it is indeed evil.

I do have one prediction: Abortion will not become illegal again unless and until the culture war ends -- with a loss. I say this because only when it's freed from what might be considered its exclusively religious context will folks begin to consider when life truly begins. However, for that to work it also has to be coupled with "quality of life" issues such as poverty and pollution, thus embracing a more comprehensive "pro-life" approach.

And doing that costs time, money and power -- things that folks don't want to give up.

The book "Blinded by Might: Can the Religious Right Save America?", which was published in 1999, mentioned how abortion came to be banned before -- around the turn of the last century, and that had to do with men who played the "use 'em and lose 'em game" and left the women that they had seduced in a lurch. The churches weren't involved in banning the practice, simply counseling people about sexual activity; meanwhile, abortion laws were enacted in every state with popular consent.

Times are different today, of course, with women often now seeking sexual fulfillment for its own sake and abortion seen as a "right," but the premise still applies. Deal with the issues between men and women and you deal with the abortion issue.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Evangelicals and King

I am deeply heartened that we in the evangelical community are beginning to give the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. his due as not only a civil-rights leader but as a man of God. We recognize him as such in my church, which is socially progressive but theologically conservative, and the Christian Leadership Concepts program, an intense two-year course for men which is winding down for me, has as part of its curriculum "Strength to Love," his classic series of sermons that was first published in 1963. On top of that, many of you know that Dr. King is a large part of my Christian testimony; it was he who showed me in a practical sense just what the Gospel of Jesus Christ was about.

That being said, however, it would behoove us to admit that, when he was active, many of us dismissed his Biblically-based efforts toward justice and reconciliation. Now that he's gone to his reward it's easy to see that he was ultimately right, but even today many of us run away from the historical fact that evangelicals for the most part generally ignored him, with many even opposing him. Indeed, in that day only Billy Graham recognized who he was and took a lot of heat for his own commitment to integrate the Body.

I'm hoping that embracing this reality will cause repentance.

Many conservative Christians, for example, will insist that Dr. King was a committed Republican who would by inference likely support the modern conservative agenda were he here today. History and his own words, however, suggest otherwise.

He didn't even get involved in political campaigns until 1964, when he endorsed President Johnson's election to his own full term and, in an interview with Playboy magazine, denounced Republican challenger Barry Goldwater afterwards as "the most dangerous man in America [who] gave aid and comfort to the most vicious racists and the most extreme rightists in America." However, he ended up breaking with Johnson over the war in Vietnam and in 1968 was considering throwing his support to either Eugene McCarthy or Robert Kennedy. (Of course, he didn't live to see the results of that election.)

In his 1956 address "Facing the Challenge of a New Age," he complained, "The Democrats have betrayed us by capitulating to the whims and caprices of the southern dixiecrats. The Republicans have betrayed us by capitulating to the blatant hypocrisy of right-wing reactionary northerners. This coalition of southern Democrats and northern Republicans defeats every proposed bill on civil rights."

I also find it ironic that it was President Reagan, the first candidate whom evangelicals openly supported, who in 1983 signed the legislation making Dr. King's birthday a Federal holiday -- upon doing so he responded to political ally Sen. Jesse Helms, who voted against it on the grounds that King was a Communist, “We’ll know in about 35 years, won’t we?”, referring to FBI files that would supposedly prove his alleged pro-Communist activity. Indeed, according to an editorial in the Boston Globe, Reagan, no fan of Dr. King's, upon his assassination referred to the civil-rights movement as “a great tragedy that began when we began compromising with law and order, and people started choosing which laws they’d break,” never mind that Dr. King broke the law only reluctantly and only when all other options were exhausted.

Clearly, certain folks just didn't "get it," and it's one reason the church is still sadly divided along racial lines (though that is slowly changing). I just hope that we evangelicals eventually begin to abandon our commitment to a socially divisive ideological agenda for the sake of the reconciliation that our LORD and Savior Jesus Christ not only called for but also died to promote.