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.