Sunday, December 28, 2014

Why it’s not enough to say ‘I’m not a racist’


While I was interviewing for a roommate about 30 years ago a Chinese student asked me, “What is your opinion of Asian people?” I told him in all honesty that I didn’t have one — nor could have I developed one since I knew, and still know to this day, very few Asians of any nationality and thus would be speaking out of utter ignorance.

I wish that were the rule for others.

I understand that a lot of people believe that race relations have supposedly worsened since Barack Obama became president in 2009. To a certain extent I agree with that — but not for the reasons some believe. Rather, I think that they resent that a worldview that they passionately oppose and wish to squelch now has a voice at the highest levels of political power.

That is to say, some say, “Can we not talk about race?” No, we cannot, at least not now.

For us African-Americans, the race issue is never far from us, although I personally don’t think about it much. When you consider that recent encounters with police that have left black males dead are seen generally from a prism of oppression by authority, you can thus understand the suspicion that we have.

But many choose not to understand. They say that if those folks simply had behaved properly they wouldn’t have gotten into trouble or even might still be alive.

The truth be told, they don’t really know if that’s truly the case — no, they really don’t. They don’t understand what it’s like to be stopped by cops for being in the “wrong” neighborhood. They also don’t understand what it’s like to be followed around a store by staff because of the assumption that you might steal something. They don’t understand what it’s like to be awarded a job or promotion on the suspicion of “affirmative action.”

Which is why rants that begin “I’m not a racist, but … ” get little traction from us.

And if you really, really desire racial harmony, it’s not possible to be passive about it. We need to talk and listen to each other, non-defensively, about each other’s perceptions, and not assume that the other person is whining. I also appreciate that many whites who aren’t affected directly are identifying with the “underdogs” — that will do more to combat racism than anything else.

When I was a child a group called Think recorded a song with the recurring refrain “Things get a little easier / Once you understand.” The song comprised a number of strained conversations between old and young where the people involved were merely talking past each other, and it ended when the cops called one man to inform him that his son died of a drug overdose, and the man began weeping. Perhaps he realized that his intransigence cost him his son.

Let’s try to avoid such situations.

Monday, December 1, 2014

The Dathans in our midst

Many of you remember the character of Dathan, a “chief Hebrew overseer” played by Edward G. Robinson in the movie “The Ten Commandments.” One Egyptian official mentioned that he was “willing to sell [his] own mother” to remain in power, as he was assigned to find a prophesied deliverer among the Hebrews in order to keep them in bondage to the Egyptians. Of course he correctly identified Moses as such, and Moses ended up being banished.

And when Moses actually came back demanding the release of the Hebrews, guess who opposed him to the end? Dathan — even though he left with them during the Exodus.

I bring this up because folks are wondering why blacks aren’t rejoicing in the election of Tim Scott and Mia Love, the first black Republican U.S. Senator elected since Reconstruction and the first black Republican woman to get elected to the lower chamber of Congress respectively. They understand that the political right that runs the party and that both subscribe to today has always opposed their progress, so they really don’t care. Moreover, Love has said that, when she gets to Washington, she intends to undermine the Congressional Black Caucus.

Good luck with that, Mia.

One thing that shouldn’t need to, but apparently must, be said: The first African-American to achieve high office has always — always — been politically liberal. So by the time a black conservative gets anywhere the novelty has worn off. Moreover, when an African-American gets to such a lofty place it's assumed that things will change, that the halls of power will be more accessible to people of color.

So what does this have to do with Dathan? Well, consider that black conservatives often make a lot of noise about challenging the black establishment, which is probably how they get attention in the first place. But they prove ineffective because blacks don't put up with them for a second, not to mention that if they even try to engage other African-Americans they would be chewed up and spat out.

So what does the ascension of Love and Scott mean? Nothing, whether short- or long-term.

Friday, November 28, 2014

No Republicans in my family

I spend most holidays with my mother, my brother and his family and occasionally with his in-laws (my sister-in-law is one of seven children). Things can get loud, with all their children, and occasionally you’ll hear debate among the men on college and professional sports. We come from all walks of life, whether coming from the ‘hood or having gone to college and attained professional positions. Most of us attend church somewhere.

However, if you attend one of our family gatherings you’ll never, ever hear any debate on politics, and when the subject does come up we’re pretty much on the same page. To make a long story short, we all maintain a healthy contempt for the right-wing worldview.

In other words, there are no Republicans in the family.

Does that sound strange? Well, consider that we’re all African-American except for one white man who also married into that family (and even he’s with us). And if you understand the history of the black man in America, you’d understand why modern conservatism is so extremely radioactive.

For openers, we tend to be a cynical lot, rarely taking anything at face value — in other words, we assume that people are trying to do a snow job on us. Yes, we pretty much recognize propaganda when we see it, and as a consequence our trust has to be earned over time. We need to be engaged, to learn how a particular issue would benefit or hurt us. (Just like anyone else, the truth be told.)

We are very suspicious toward people who would try to remove power from us because historically we haven’t had all that much, if any at all. It’s why we react so strongly when groups try to keep us from voting, especially when they know they won’t get our votes.

When folks denounce black leaders as “stirring up racial trouble for the sake of feathering their own nests,” we roll our eyes; that empty charge is as old as the hills because it represents a distraction from the reality that they don’t want or intend to deal with us on equal terms. (By the way, that charge was also directed toward the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., especially during the campaign to desegregate Birmingham, Ala. in 1963.)

We no longer routinely call people racists just because they disagree with us, but when they promote policies that harm us down the road our collective antennae go up.

When people hear us complain about being victimized by police, keep in mind that we have a history of such; many of us have been stopped for no good reason except “suspicion.” Rapper Ice-T did the controversial song “Cop Killer” — including the line “I’ll get you before you get me” — in response to the abuse of Rodney King by Los Angeles officers. Although I’m not justifying rioting, that’s the kind of thing that often happens when, as Dr. King once said, people “are not being heard.”

When black conservatives are touted as potential Messiahs, we shake our heads because we suspect they’re being paid. (In 1997, I learned that to be true.) When folks try to insist that the Republican Party fought for civil rights and the Democratic Party opposed them or that Dr. King was a Republican, we scorn those tidbits of misleading revisionist history.

When people arrogantly say that we overwhelmingly voted for Obama in 2008 and ’12 just because of his color, we look at them cockeyed, as if to say, with apologies to John McEnroe, “You cannot be serious.” Were Obama white and his opponents black we still would have supported him.

We can forgive but are not about to forget these things, for as the late philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.” Not for nothing do the Jewish people say — justifiably — “Never again” in response to the Holocaust.

Most people probably don’t understand what I just wrote, but only because they haven’t spent much or any time with us. They don’t know our history or perspective, which we will gladly share if they would sit down and talk with us. We wish that people would get to know us as individuals within our cultural framework and understand that there are certain things that we cannot and will not accept. Perhaps they need to join us for one of those gatherings and really connect with us.

Although I can’t tell you just where we’re holding Christmas dinner.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The payback

I just learned that the city of Houston has demanded that church pastors turn over any sermons pertaining to homosexuality in light of a non-discrimination ordinance that the city approved in June and also in reference to mayor Annise Parker, who is a lesbian.

Far be it from me to suggest that the city or any government agency should have the authority to do something like this under the First Amendment, and I would think that the American Civil Liberties Union might weigh in, in favor of the churches.

There’s a bigger issue here, however — an unbiblical focus on homosexual conduct that goes way beyond what the Bible says about it. Many Christians have isolated it as especially heinous and, as a result, become persecutors in their own right. Numerous media “ministries” have over the years used gays as a political piñata to raise money and outrage.

What we’re seeing here is thus a backlash, which I understand because at some point you do get tired of being picked on.

Well, doesn’t the Bible say that it’s morally wrong? Yes — and no. In the Bible God’s people are to avoid it — in the Old Testament, on pain of death — to distinguish themselves from other nations, but nowhere is it mentioned as especially bad. In this fashion the understood cultural context goes too far.

Canada, which doesn’t have a First Amendment, does have “hate speech” laws, and many Christians fear we might go down that road. However, according to a Canadian pastor whom I met online a few years ago, you are allowed to preach against homosexuality so long as you include it as part of a litany of sins. Which is the correct Scriptural position anyway.

This seems to be a failure of the “Golden Rule” more so than political correctness or a prophetic word — after all, too many of us have forgotten the truth “There but for the grace of God … ” I have no obvious solution, but it’s clear to me that we’ve set the table and now may have to eat the meal.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Anti-Christian persecution? Not so fast

You may have heard that the California state university system has banned Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship from its campuses because it wouldn’t open up its leadership to non-believers, likely active gays. On the surface this appears to be a clear case of persecution of Christians for not being, as one might say, “politically correct.”

However, upon further inspection, there’s a historical context. And it doesn’t make Christians look good.

What is the context? Well, beginning in the 1980s many secular, elite campuses fell victim to right-wing student activism. I say ”fell victim” because many of these students were rude, crude, disrespectful, slanderous, arrogant, smug and downright insulting toward anyone who disagreed even a little bit. Not only that, but they also targeted certain professors and campus groups — I understand that decades ago the Dartmouth Review, an alternative right-wing campus newspaper, published a confidential list of gay students. Meanness was their stock in trade, and they despised anything that smacked of “diversity.” (It was here where the derisive term “political correctness” arose.)

I saw this up close and personal during my time at the University of Pittsburgh in the 1990s, when a cadre of rightist students from there and nearby Carnegie Mellon University decided to create similar havoc on both campuses. When I wrote a letter to the editor of their newspaper in response to an inaccurate story, its editor went after me, doing a Bill O’Reilly on his campus radio show on which he had me as a guest. (Which I figured would happen.)

Among other things, the paper regularly attacked Pitt’s Black Action Society and Campus Women’s Organization — which it referred to as “C.O.W.” — and campaigned to eliminate the student activities fee at both schools, ostensibly to put out of business the organizations it opposed. (It actually kept a lawyer on retainer, probably to shield it from libel suits.) How did it get its money? Through foundations that founded conservative activities at all levels.

If you wonder why we have such a ruckus today in Washington, D.C., there’s a great place to start.

The sad part is that innocent folks like those in IV, where opposition to homosexual conduct is not so much a political as a theological matter, are caught in the middle. I was involved in that organization, which is focused primarily on missions, at both Georgia Tech and Pitt, and in neither case were the chapters politically active.

The conservative group on Pittsburgh university campuses disbanded around the time I graduated from Pitt in 1997, but the damage had been done. I’m sure that Cal State was trying to nip that kind of thing in the bud in banning a group that might be considered hostile to gay students by not allowing them to take part — an unfortunate move, perhaps, but an understandable one.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

‘In God we trust’ – oh, really?

Last night Allegheny County Council — Pittsburgh is the county seat — voted down a bill that would have allowed posting of the clause “In God We Trust” in the county courthouse, especially after the county executive threatened to veto it because he said that it threatened religious diversity.

As a severe critic of American civil religion, I completely agreed with that vote because I thought that the bill was inappropriate and, according to my councilperson, “unnecessary.” From a purely theological sense I just don’t get it.

We need to answer first the question “what does it mean to 'trust in God?'” To say that there is a God? Sounds weak to me because of the multiplicity of deistic religions.

And by “God,” what is the reference? Of course what people really mean is God as Christians understand Him — a sponsor of the bill was a self-identified evangelical but can’t specifically say that because … well, you figure it out.

It also represents bad history. Many evangelicals take the tack that America was founded on so-called Biblical principles, but that’s meaningless for a number of reasons.

One, you can mechanically follow “principles” but miss their context and meaning — we know this because the Pharisees loved the principles but, as Jesus said, didn’t really know the God Who gave them in the first place. To paraphrase my favorite Christian author John Eldredge, you can see and apply principles but if you go there what do you really need God for?

Two, when this nation was founded the “generic Christianity” that we say informed it just didn’t exist — all but one of the original 13 colonies had their own state churches, and the theology of many of the Founding Fathers was unorthodox to say the least. (Christians in that day paid a great deal of attention to theology.)

Bottom line, God wants to be experienced and intimately known as a loving Father, not as a mere lawgiver or judge. I don’t see how a bill referring to a generic God fosters that.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Both ends against the middle

[The devil] always sends errors to us in pairs — pairs of opposites. And he always encourages us to spend a lot of time thinking which of these two errors is the worse. You see why, of course? He relies on your extra dislike of the one error to draw you gradually into the opposite one.

— C.S. Lewis, “Mere Christianity”

If you wonder why I don’t get involved in any moral crusades, whether against abortion, gay rights or Islamic extremism, and criticize people who do, that’s the reason. Such have a tendency to compromise spiritual goals and, to use a sports analogy, get people off their game.

I have come to believe that what I call playing “both ends against the middle” is the Enemy’s favorite tactic. He raises up an issue that’s clearly wrong from a Christian standpoint but gets people focusing upon that issue to the point of obsession — and away from God. Which is the devil’s real goal.

In the late 1970s, when the religious right was ascending, many Christians probably hoped for a resurgence of Christian influence and cultural dominance. On the other hand, I smelled trouble.

I didn’t realize at the time that Moral Majority and other groups actually partnered with secularists who had no interest in faith for the sake of political power. Once I understood that, however, I saw how things couldn’t but deteriorate because “the entire counsel of God” was nowhere evident with only certain issues considered biblical. Today, of course, as a result evangelical faith has undergone intense criticism from a resurgent political left, which I understand.

As a media person, I also noticed just how people and organizations were willing to distort the truth — and, in some cases, tell outright lies — about their opponents for the sake of outrage, which also helps to raise a ton of money. Please explain to me how doing so reflects the Kingdom.

There’s a reason why the civil-rights movement under Martin Luther King Jr. worked well: It focused not on simply defeating an enemy but possibly turning that enemy into a friend. While the Jim Crow system in was trying to overturn was certainly evil, it never openly trash-talked the opposition, letting the “bad guys” look like bad guys. The contrast was striking.

And perhaps we could use some of that humility in our modern political discourse — rather than hating some “them,” perhaps we would reach out to them in true Christian charity and thus “not give the devil a foothold” (Ephesians 4:27).

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The coming race wars?

I originally hadn’t planned on writing about the goings-on in Ferguson, Mo. — I really hadn’t. But one of my Facebook friends made reference yesterday to a “race war” taking place on that social media site and which I’ve personally witnessed. And I think William Pannell has proven to be a prophet.

Who’s he? The African-American author of the 1992 book “The Coming Race Wars? A Cry for Reconciliation,” during which he refers to the history of racism in this country and especially in evangelical Christian circles.

I’m not going to get into the specifics of the book because that would take way too long. I will say, however, that if we don’t deal with the war among ourselves we won’t have the authority to model the kind of reconciliation that Jesus died to provide. I’m not a fearful guy, but if I were that would scare me to death.

The basic facts are beyond dispute: A black man in his late teens took six bullets from a policeman, causing unrest in that community — and the local police, complete with military hardware coming from the Department of Homeland Security, rolled in. In such an atmosphere that’s asking for trouble, especially given history of African-Americans’ longstanding, even historical, beef with police.

Beyond all that, the incident has exposed yet another instance of a power imbalance between black and white, in this case in that suburb of St. Louis, with two-thirds of the citizenry being African-American but virtually all the political power in the hands of whites — not to mention the police force being virtually all-white and armed to the teeth.

Let me say something that may anger or insult some of you but needs to be addressed: If you’re getting most of your information from the Fox News Channel or conservative blogs, you’re part of the problem. Such media have always played into the narrative that, among other things, poor blacks are violent, drug-addicted miscreants who don’t want to work and thus slant their stories that way for the sake of ratings. They especially are culpable in this ongoing conflict.

And as for the accusations that the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton came in to “stir up racial strife,” give me a break. They don’t go anywhere without being invited, if you hadn’t heard, because people listen to them to determine what it can do to cause change. (Perhaps that’s a threat, especially considering that they’re independent operators. Keep in mind that, two generations ago, the same charge was leveled against Martin Luther King Jr.)

The Rev. R. Loren Sanford, a white Pentecostal pastor in Colorado Springs, wrote last year on charismanews.com in response to the George Zimmerman trial that he had previously prophesied increasing racial strife, which he attributed directly to white Christians not being willing to listen to their African-American brothers and sisters in the LORD. Based on what I’ve seen over the past couple of weeks, he was absolutely on the one. I know what some people are already thinking: “Why can’t they just …?” But if you understand that history, it’s not all that simple.

I had hoped that Pannell was wrong in his bleak assessment of the state of evangelicalism when it came to race relations, but as Malcolm X said on the assassination of John F. Kennedy, because we live in what he considered a violent society, “The chickens are coming home to roost.” Maybe this is the wake-up call we need to start rethinking our relationships with people of color — maybe.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

A woman’s ‘touch’

Probably the person I remember most in the campus Christian fellowship I went to while attending the University of Pittsburgh in the early 1980s was a woman I’ll call Mimi.

A new believer if I remember correctly, she was not by any means a stereotypical raving beauty — more pixie-cute, if anything — but it probably would not be an exaggeration to suggest that about half of the guys in the fellowship wanted to date her. (And even I, who tried to resist, eventually became one of her admirers.)

Since she was in a long-distance relationship with a football player attending another college, we all knew that was pretty much out of the question. Yet from what I could tell, she treated all the guys who approached her with an extreme grace that really affirmed us as men.

One guy told me later that he gave her roses and she responded with a hug. On the 1982 fall retreat I asked her to dance with me — the song was Kenny Rogers’ “Lady” — and she lit up like a Christmas tree. (And yes, I got the dance.)

I don’t pretend to know or understand Mimi’s motivation or whether she just had this natural charisma that attracted men like flies, but I don’t recall her being all that flirtatious. Rather, I prefer to think that she generally liked us as people, not just as potential partners, and it showed.

In an earlier entry I mentioned the social pressure that we Christian men, especially today and especially those men in their 20s, face in trying, and often failing, to date because of unreasonable expectations. We’re supposed to “have it together” before we even approach a woman because the focus often is “Is this the man/woman I’m supposed to be with forever?”

The trouble is, of course, that if you don’t come from a Christian home and/or didn't grow up with blood sisters — both applied to me — you’ll generally be left out socially; in such an atmosphere men are often looked upon as worthless or with suspicion just because of their gender. Which goes against the Scripture.

More than that, however, I really wonder if a lot of these young Christian women who say they want to marry but don’t want to date the “wrong man” really like or appreciate men for their own sake, and I would suggest such a dismissive attitude toward men contributes to their lack of maturity. Women should understand that even the guys that they may not care for may be called to be fathers and husbands at some point and wounding them unnecessarily would sabotage that process. (I would think that the “Golden Rule” applies.)

Looking back, the times I grew the most were when I had a consistent positive female presence (but not necessarily as a date). I would say that goes the same for most men, since a woman often brings a new dimension to a man’s life. Mimi brought that to a number of men she came into contact with, which is why we probably all remember her.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Why young Christian men might be confused about dating

I don’t know what to do, the rules are new …
— “Ain’t It Blue?”, Chicago

In a recent article “Are Single Men Afraid of Dating?” written by Tim Laitinen and recently published on Crosswalk.com, the question was raised about many young men’s unwillingness to commit romantically — that is, to enjoy a woman’s company without going out on a date. Laitinen quoted Christian blogger Matt Walsh, who blasted them for what he called “vicinitizing.”

If my experience is any guide, however, the men they’re criticizing are simply being normal given the atmosphere in which they live.

With all due respect to Laitinen and Walsh, they either don’t understand or have forgotten that, especially at that age, asking a woman he likes on a date is already one of the most nerve-wracking things a guy can do and, if she declines, his entire world has fallen in. (And even at the age of 53, I still feel like that sometimes, especially since, like Laitinen, I’ve never married.) Repeat numerous times, likely if you’re not an athlete or don't have other social status, and you begin to question your self-worth.

In the Christian realm, the relational pressure upon boys and young men has become even worse because of the renewed focus on “purity”; things have gone so far that people are saying that you shouldn’t even date anyone you wouldn’t marry. Since we men tend to learn through experience, taking a shot in the dark like that can simply be too risky and not worth the effort — and no amount of spiritual discipline or building relationships with other men can help in that regard.

Then you have the realistic situation today where many male college graduates are often still living at home with Mom and Dad because they can’t afford to strike out on their own due to their indebtedness. (They have no shot with women anyway.)

I think the real issue is: How does a man begin to build a relationship with a woman in a non-threatening and God-honoring way (and not “play with her heart” in the process)? One possible way that has recently resurfaced for me: Partner-dancing, because you learn the rules on how to participate properly.

In May of 1980 I attended my first square dance, in the gym of the Atlanta church I was attending during my year at Georgia Tech, jointly sponsored by two fellowships where I knew people. That night the spirit of “family” was so strong that, at the beginning, I invited what some might have thought of as the homeliest woman there to be my partner — because she was the one closest to me. And over the past four or five years I’ve gotten into line, swing and ballroom, something I did during my last relationship at the turn of the millennium.

Then, in my view women also need to encourage men in a general sense. But I’ll address that in a future entry.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Some political prognostications for 2014 — and beyond

If I were the national Republican Party today, I’d be afraid — very afraid. Reading the tea leaves, I’m seeing disaster for the GOP in the immediate future.

Or perhaps I really don’t need to read the tea leaves; I think it’s that obvious that the party is on the ropes. It doesn’t really have any guiding principle at this point except defeating the Democrats in general and President Obama in particular, and that’s a harbinger for defeat.

Here’s one thing that should put a scare into the Republicans: I regularly receive fundraising emails from the Democratic National Senatorial Committee — I haven’t contributed anything to the Democrats in over 20 years, but I’m still in their database — which has started a “Paint the South Blue” campaign to encourage Democratic candidates and recruit volunteers in that part of the country. That’s significant because up until a few years ago pouring money into those races would have been a waste of time and resources.

In fact, its own internal polling suggests that five of its candidates are ahead, albeit by only single digits, of even GOP incumbents. Of course those polls may be inaccurate and could change between now and November, but if things hold up the Senate may very well remain with the Democrats.

It didn’t help matters that Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann made noise earlier this year about impeaching the president and in the process handing the Democrats yet another issue on which to run. Some conservatives are now accusing the Democrats of turning that into an issue where none was intended; however, that now represents a “walking back” because, frankly, the votes just aren’t there anyway. It reminds me of Bill Clinton, who during the 1996 presidential campaign charged that the GOP would cut $270 billion from Medicare, and that helped swing the election toward him, especially in Arizona and Florida. (For the record, the actual figure was correct but represented, really, a cut in the proposed increase; however, he got away with it because of the Republicans’ propensity to cut any program that benefited their opponents.)

But what if the GOP were able to hang on to those Senate seats this year or even win it outright? That might mean even more trouble down the road.

More trouble? Yep. Because when Republicans win they always become arrogant; some people are already insisting that, with every minor victory, “conservatism is coming back” and their extremist, triumphalist rhetoric as a result will only increase, turning people against them — just like 2012. (They still don’t understand that people voted not much so for Obama and the Democrats but against them.) And then there’s Hillary Clinton, who, if she runs for president in two years as expected, will have coattails the likes of which we’ve never seen before.

It seems to me that the GOP has two choices if it continues on its present course: Lose small this year or lose bigger in 2016.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The prophet: An analyst, not just a prognosticator

I have to thank Sydney Harris, the late columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and the person who inspired me to become a writer in the first place, for labeling my primary spiritual gift.

I never knew his spiritual leanings or even if he had any, but late in his career, I think in the early 1980s, he commented about prophets, especially in the Bible. Previously I had been taught that the prophet was a glorified fortune-teller, and in my theological heritage the prophet is non-existent. Upon reading his piece, however, I realized that he was talking about me.

The prophet, I now understand, does far more than “tell the future” — he or she has the ability to see where things are headed but based also upon what’s happened in the past. He or she gathers information, understands human nature and takes a great interest in history to detect patterns and thus will say, “If this … then that,” predicting what will happen with uncanny accuracy.

In other words, the prophet is essentially an analyst who, as the Rev. Charles Stanley once put it, “sees the big picture.”

People in authority in that day thus lived in terror of the real prophets because they gave it to people straight based on what they knew to be true. Not just believed — knew. In other words, the big shots feared being busted, which is why so many died violent deaths when they were found out.

That hasn’t changed.

My primary interest, and the general theme of this blog, has been evangelical Christians’ involvement in the political realm. Since early 1980 I’ve been disturbed by our pursuit of political power at the expense of authentic Biblical faith, and I think it’s hurt us over the years — a different issue from simply trying to be a “voice.” In fact, too many of us in practice desire worship, something that God isn’t about to tolerate, and I’m convinced for that reason that our attempt to implement “biblical values” sabotages God’s Kingdom purposes.

I’ve lost some close friends over the years because of my willingness to “call out” those who I believe are acting contrary to the will of the Father, and I do mourn the end of those relationships. But I wouldn’t be faithful to the ministry that He set me apart for if I didn’t address such issues; besides, I always knew that being a follower of Jesus will cost something.

I wish I had the chance to tell Harris, who died in 1986, that he was my favorite writer. Anyway, understanding who I am is his legacy to me.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

The obstacles to racial reconciliation -- from both sides

When God laid on my heart a passion for racial reconciliation in the 1970s I knew it would be a tough sell. And despite all the progress that's been made, especially since the early 1990s when it finally came on the evangelical radar screen thanks to the Promise Keepers, it still is today.

One the one side you have political conservatives who want to ignore the history of racism in this country. While I won't call them racists, the reality is that the racism that we needed to fight originated almost exclusively from that side of the fence -- and for the most part they won't confront it because doing so might cost them power. Many display an almost blind hatred for President Obama, and I'm not going to get into just what they say about him.

On the other you have black radicals who still maintain a healthy -- that is, unhealthy -- resentment toward white society because of that history. These people label anyone who doesn't support their desire for authority without relationship and are willing to "cross over" as a "sellout" or "uncle Tom" -- and that includes people like Martin Luther King Jr. and even Nelson Mandela. (As you can imagine, I've heard those a few times.)

Let me say here that I have no patience with either side and no tolerance for anyone who subscribes to either "absolutist" view, and if you try to push either down my throat I will fight you to the death. Because that kind of rhetoric is, and has always been, extremely divisive and compromises the spiritual goals.

For my part, I had to walk away from the African-American community for nearly 20 years and have been dropped as a Facebook friend by about 30 conservatives. Ironically, both sides have pretty much the same attitude in many cases.

You see, reconciliation requires a give-and-take, an ability to say, "Well, perhaps I was wrong about this." It comes from a desire to make things right for everybody, not just "my side"; that "because you are my brother/sister, I want to work this out." I've done this in my life, and there's no better feeling. Regarding someone who doesn't think the way you do as an enemy, especially due to color, long ago became too much of a burden for me to bear, and having laid mine aside I encourage others to do the same.

I have come to see racism as an addiction -- many want to hold onto it because it defines them (which is why ending it has become at times bloody). But as Dr. King always pointed out, the non-violent demonstrations that he spearheaded in the 1950s and '60 kept the bloodletting to a minimum.

Sadly, I still believe that race war is possible in this country, and I was recently accused by some black "radicals" that I'm an apologist for whites -- something that my white friends know to be nonsense. On this one I'm on nobody's side but the LORD's.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Impeaching Obama? A waste of time

So Sarah Palin and John Boehner are now calling for the impeachment of President Obama.

I hope people understand that they’re just making noise, because he’ll never be impeached. And even if he is, he’ll never be removed.

For openers, to convict him of “high crimes and misdemeanors” requires a super-majority — that is, two-thirds — of the U.S. Senate to remove him from office. The Democrats will never agree to that, not primarily over party solidarity but also out of respect for the political process. (Besides, they know full well that any Democrat will get the same treatment.)

How do they know this? The last president to be impeached: Bill Clinton.

Now, if you seriously believe that he was impeached simply because he lied under oath — truth be told, that was a set-up that turned out to be illegal anyway — you really need to reconsider.

During the summer of 1992, in the heat of the election campaign, conservative activists filed suit in Federal court in Little Rock, Ark., to have Clinton removed from the presidential ballot. See, they understood full that if he were successful they would be toast. (The suit was thrown out almost immediately.)

Then right-wing media went to work, alleging “corruption” but never proving anything of substance; when Clinton outfoxed Newt Gingrich on the Federal budget in 1995 Clinton’s reelection was virtually assured. On Election Night 1996 Grover Norquist vowed to have Clinton taken out.

And you know the rest of the story.

So what’s the point about Obama? Well, it seems that folks have this nutty idea that, if they merely remove an irritant, things will improve. But they got their wish in 2000 with George W. Bush and, eventually, a GOP-dominated Congress, and things went into the tank, costing it the Senate in 2006. True to form, when Obama became president two years later, they did what they do best — start sniping.

Hate may make people feel better at first but leads nowhere; you have to offer a positive alternative and none is forthcoming. That’s why talk of impeaching the president is just that.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Yes, blacks CAN be racist

In 1982, when I was attending the University of Pittsburgh, a white friend said that another black friend was breaking off their relationship. Reason? "My black friends are getting on my case." Needless to say, I hurt for my friend.

On the other hand, I wasn't at all surprised. I had years ago detected a considerable amount of "closing of the ranks" among African-American college students on white campuses and always refused to cooperate with that. It thus shouldn't surprise you that I had myself few black friends at Pitt, ironically almost all of those through the white fraternity to which I belonged.

Bottom line, I left the community before I could get "kicked out," which I knew I eventually would be. Indeed, I grew up in an atmosphere of "whitey this, whitey that," which as a teen I got fed up and wanted nothing to do with.

So it gave me quite the surprise when I first heard the ridiculous idea that "blacks can't be racist." The thinking goes that racism has to be "institutional" -- that is, a power problem not necessarily centered in people's hearts and having nothing to do with attitudes toward those of another race. Of course, that definition conveniently exempted African-Americans from being racist because, according to that narrative, they don't have power.

I noticed immediately a flaw in that argument: Everyone knows that the Ku Klux Klan is racist, but it hasn't had any real power since the 1960s. (Thank God for that.) And besides, if the people who run a certain institution repent of racist attitudes on their own, won't the institution change? That's why I was never convinced that blacks having more seats at the table would cause change, and I don't think it did.

On top of that, concerning my friend's mourning the loss of that relationship, was that not using the social power of ostracism to keep people in line? After all, that was in part how segregation in the South was maintained, with boycotts of stores that attempted to serve a "diverse" clientele.

In the last 20 years I've noticed that people of all colors have been crossing lines to build intimate relationships, what I've always done. That's the only cure for racism that has ever worked.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Suits = Sex?

I never thought I'd see the day when my sartorial choices would cause women to lust after me. And that day still may not have arrived yet - or maybe it has and I'm just not hip to it.

Yesterday I saw an entry, "When Suits Become a Stumbling Block," on "The Salt Collective" blog in which one woman initialed L.P. confessed that she gets sexually aroused whenever she sees a man in a suit.

That for me would become a bit problematic especially on Sunday mornings because, except during the summer, I almost always attend services wearing one. (I explained years ago that "I'm going to see the King and should be appropriately dressed.")

Now, I've been told that I look good in a suit, and I tend to agree. Twenty years ago I even bought a tuxedo - as a musician, I could justify the expense by saying that I might use it for gigs, which I in fact do - but which I've found that women appreciate. I last wore it in June for the banquet at the end of my annual writers' conference; indeed, one of its highlights has become just what I wear to it. (Most conferees are women slightly older than I, 53.) Many women wanted to take a picture with me after the banquet.

http://thesaltcollective.org/modesty-whensuitsbecomestumblingblock/

Keep in mind, however, that the larger point of her tongue-in-cheek commentary was that, when it comes to dress especially at this time of the year, the idea of causing someone to "stumble" is always addressed toward women, never to us men, with the idea that we men have to learn to control our desires and not depend on women to do so.

And it's more than just women's dressing habits; I understand that a large number of men even in the church, including some pastors, are consumers of pornography - an addiction I've managed to escape only by God's grace. (When I was in high school my dad had some hard-core stuff, so I know just what it is.)

But no matter. It's up to each of us to take control of our own God-given sexual impulses and not leave that up to the other person.

Although I will admit to some satisfaction when a longtime woman friend whom I've never dated apparently liked to hug me whenever she saw me in my tux.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Ben Carson fetish

My stepfather, James Kelly Jr., who would be 94 were he here today, was a man that most African-Americans could be proud of.

He grew up one of five boys in a single-parent household; his mother died when he was 12. Despite that hardship but encouraged by their father, he and his four brothers all got educations.

My stepfather ended up with eight degrees, including, if my facts are correct, two earned Ph.Ds. Previously a pastor, he finished his active career as dean of the School of Education at the University of Pittsburgh, my college alma mater, and while in that position he helped a lot of people get through school — including myself, never using his authority for mere aggrandizement.

At one point he even faced down the university’s Black Action Society, which at the time was militantly making demands for more black presence. (He later told me that the BAS suffered constantly from “poor leadership.”)

Even though I never lived with him — I was 24 when he married my mother — it was through him that, looking back, I learned true masculinity.

Two things, however: He was a life member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. And when he was pastoring a church in the 1960s, in West Virginia, he marched for civil rights.

You’ll thus have to excuse me if I’m not jumping on the Ben Carson bandwagon.

Dr. Carson, the retired neurosurgeon whom most people heard of for the first time when he blasted the Affordable Care Act during last year’s National Prayer Breakfast, has since been touted as presidential material — by, of course, conservatives, who have since touted him as a black professional that everyone should emulate. A lot of people are even suggesting that he run for president.

How arrogant of such folks. Really.

I’ve come to recognize over the past few years that we as an electorate are transfixed by narratives — that is, "stories" — that have nothing to do with qualifications for public office. Although we don’t have an actual monarchy or nobility in this country, we often look toward our president as such. Perhaps Dr. Carson is seen as someone who will “transcend race” and not even bring up the issue as if it wouldn’t matter anymore.

However, most African-Americans, myself included, simply aren’t that naïve, especially considering last year’s George Zimmerman trial — which, contrary to popular opinion, didn’t simply stir up long-dormant racial strife (folks just hadn’t bothered to notice it).

In addition, it appears to be another attempt for conservatives to tout their own choice of black “leaders” who don’t challenge that worldview, especially since the vast majority apparently does. In doing so, however, and in also refusing to listen to anyone who takes issue with their attempt to whitewash the race issue, they in fact deepen the racial divide in this country. That’s why no conservative regardless of race, “story,” social standing or qualifications can and will ever have any standing in the black community.

It would be clearly slanderous for me to say that all, or even most, conservatives are racist; however, the movement does have a stain of racism in its history that they have never, ever addressed.

I’m sure that my stepfather, who died in 1999, would have beamed with pride had he seen Barack Obama become president. I doubt he would have had the same feeling about Dr. Carson, who represents an ideology he fought in West Virginia.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The real legacy of Richard Mellon Scaife

One might say that I owe my journalism career to Richard Mellon Scaife.

In 1996, as a media communications major at the University of Pittsburgh and when I was applying for an internship at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, I had placed in my portfolio a column from The Pitt News referring to a "right-wing conspiracy" against President Clinton that pointed to heavy involvement from Scaife, publisher of the competing Tribune-Review.

While I was at work the internship coordinator, noticing whom I had written about and where I was applying, left a message on my answering machine saying, “Make sure they see that.”

Why?, I thought, because to me it was simply a good story; I didn’t find out until I got to the PG why it was such a big deal -- I came to realize that we were his number-one target. (I did get the internship that summer, was hired on full-time the following February and still work there today.)

Scaife passed away July 4, the day after his 82nd birthday, after releasing a statement some weeks earlier that he had inoperable cancer. And his legacy, especially for us in Pittsburgh, will be the partisan divide we see in this country today, not just the newspaper war.

Remember that “Vince-Foster-may-have-been-murdered” non-story of the mid-1990s? Well, Scaife had hired Christopher Ruddy, canned by the New York Post and now editor of Newsmax, to try to dig up something, but the stories were exposed by CBS’s “60 Minutes” as an elaborate hoax. In my investigation, I also learned from The Wall Street Journal that Scaife, worth over a billion dollars, was also funding a large network of conservative think-tanks and media as part of an elaborate machine that gave the impression of a groundswell of conservatism but in fact represented in this case an attempt to overturn an election.

So when, right before Clinton was impeached, his wife Hillary complained about a “vast right-wing conspiracy,” I knew she was telling the truth.

It finally hit me just how low some people were willing to go to get their way.

If you wonder why I argue with people so much about politics, especially when they quote partisan sources to support their opinions, this is the reason. I know for a fact that such sources are suspect and millions of dollars, many of them Scaife's, have been spent over the past 40 or so years on propaganda. I also know that the political left doesn't have that kind of organization, so when folks insist that it's "both sides" I tell them that they don't know what they're talking about.

It particularly bothers me that so many Christians read the Trib, especially considering his actual stances on issues that Christians find important, because the paper's editorial page is considered conservative (really, hard-core libertarian). Scaife was a financial supporter of Planned Parenthood and was in fact pro-choice on abortion (the national Republican Party vainly pleaded with him to change his position); indeed, he even wrote an op-ed in favor of government funding of PP. On top of that, his second wife was a paramour during his first marriage and, a couple of years ago, he came out in favor of "open marriage."

On top of that, if you do read that paper, did you notice that it contains no liberal opinion? I would want a give-and-take on the issues of the day.

I'm not happy that Scaife is now dead; after he released that statement about his condition I actually prayed for his salvation, which would have meant repentance; I would have loved to have seen him walk away from his former life à la Charles Colson. We will know only in the judgment were Scaife's soul ended up, but I have my suspicions.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Why Hobby Lobby's stance isn't really about 'religious freedom'

If you believe that Hobby Lobby merely wanted to preserve “religious freedom” by opposing a contraceptive mandate of the Affordable Care Act, you really, really need to think again.

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act, signed by President Bill Clinton two decades ago and upon which the company’s claim was based, really was intended to protect certain rituals that had been declared illegal (such as certain Native American tribes using peyote, a controlled substance).

The company, which top management claims to run by consistent Christian principles, complained that under the ACA it would be forced to cover certain types of contraceptives that it considered tantamount to abortion. I understand and, to a certain point, agree with that.

Here’s the problem: HL imports a lot of goods from China, which only recently has relaxed its notorious “one-child-per-household” policy, which resulted in millions, if not billions, of abortions through the years. It seems to me that, if it wanted to make a religious statement, it wouldn’t do business in China in the first place unless and until that policy was abolished.

Some people have said that HL wouldn’t be able to stay in business if it took that stand. And that’s where the whole “religious freedom” defense falls apart — because operating by consistent Christian principles in this case would represent an inconvenience, in this case affecting its bottom line.

Pardon me for being a tad cynical, but in over 30 years I don’t recall any conservative Christian group that has argued, fought or worked for the freedom, religious or otherwise, for anyone except conservative Christians, whose real goal appears to be cultural authority. That, however, isn’t delineated anywhere in Scripture.

Liberal groups, on the other hand, appear to be more willing to put their money where their mouth is. In the 1980s many encouraged businesses and governmental entities to divest from companies doing business in South Africa due to that country’s unjust-by-any-standard apartheid system over the objections of many conservatives, some who said that doing so would hurt blacks and others fearful of a Communist takeover. Earlier this year, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) voted to divest from Israel because of its political treatment of Palestinians.

Whatever your stance on those issues and whether their actions would have any effect, they decided that they weren’t going to be a party to what they saw as immoral actions on the part of governments — even if doing so cost them money or stature.

I’m sure that Hobby Lobby has taken some heat for its stance; I know that others have defended it. But don’t think for a second that it’s the result of purely religious convictions.

Monday, June 9, 2014

The REAL existential threat

If you’re continually concerned about "existential threats," chances are that you are one in your own right. That is to say, if you say “We need to defeat/kill/eliminate so-and-so because if we don’t our nation/culture/way of life is in danger,” you’re the problem.

There are two reasons for that. One, even if you were able to do so, without a change in attitude you’ll simply start looking for another target. Two, such an attitude allows you to do or say anything against whatever you hate – and that includes lying and gossip.

In other words, your own character will be corroded.

Politicians understand this, which is why we had something like the Holocaust. We can talk about how horrible that was, and it was, but let’s not forget what led to it: Resentment toward some other, tough times and a certain nationalistic pride that became a defense of indefensible behavior.

And do you know what’s behind that? Fear, primarily of losing control or power.

For the last few decades we’re witnessed a lot of hand-wringing about the civility — or the lack thereof — in our political discourse. However, it’s the unrepentant absolutists, to whom compromise is akin to defeat, who create the problem in the first place — people who refuse to see things from another’s viewpoint or admit that they don’t have all the information.

None of this is to say that people aren’t allowed to hold ideological views. But if you’re not willing to adjust them in the face of new information, you have a real problem.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Understanding 'Uncle Tom' remarks

A couple of weeks ago Missouri congressman Bennie Thompson denounced conservative Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas as an "uncle Tom" -- a derogatory term for a black who sides with who is seen as an oppressor, a reference to the days of slavery. And he refused to walk it back.

Some folks want to call him and those who believe similarly that he's a racist or, at the least, engaging in unnecessary racial rhetoric.

Here's the problem: Thompson has a point.

I've known since 1997 that the conservative movement actually pays African-Americans well to support its policies, whether they believe them or not, the point to appear to "white moderates" that the movement has cleaned up its hard-earned reputation of racism. But the attempt has fooled virtually no one, especially these days due to the extreme polarization we see today.

Something I also notice: Black conservatives never engage the black community, especially its community leadership. (Considering that they'd get an earful from most blacks anyway, perhaps it wouldn't be a good idea.) But even more importantly, how many of these folks are actually crafting policy? None that I'm aware of. That's one reason African-Americans don't vote conservative -- they simply see no way to have any voice.

Thompson's diatribe might be extremely offensive to a lot of people. However, he's also right, and people ought to find out why.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

The fall of the 'American Spring'

I don't know if you heard or not, but some self-styled patriots converged on Washington, D.C yesterday to demand the resignation of President Obama on what they referred to as an "American Spring," aping the "Arab spring" of a couple of years ago that toppled a number of dictators. They bragged that 10 to 30 million people would show.

And how many did? By one estimate, 126. So if you hadn't heard, well, you weren't the only ones. Maybe they didn't get the memo or something ...

But seriously, apparently these folks live in such a bubble that they don't realize that most of the rest of the nation doesn't hate the president as much as they do.

More to the point, the demonstrators in Arab countries were in their 20s and 30s, in contrast to the baby-boomers who were making a lot of noise here, and were demanding good governance, not the head of someone they see as a mere political adversary.

And something more important: The folks who cry "tyranny" at the drop of a hat are the ones most likely to engage in it down the road. Oh, and did you know that calling for the overthrow of the government is considered treason?

So it's probably a good thing that these fellas got little play. They're not worth it.

Friday, April 25, 2014

'Proving' media bias

Of late I’ve been engaging in yet another discussion of so-called liberal media bias, a conservative meme for the last four decades.

One of the people involved posted findings from a professor at UCLA which “proved” that the mainstream media lean liberal because of reporters’ general agreement with the stances of Americans for Democratic Action, which admittedly leans left.

The study, however, assumes something that I, a professional journalist for 16 years, never will: That we who are in the media don’t understand or aren’t exposed to worldviews other than our own. Indeed, by definition we are quite conversant in what other people believe, but we just don’t accept it blindly. And since I’m an evangelical Christian and thus in a world where ideological conservatives dominate, you certainly can’t say that about me.

As such, taking surveys to determine such slant is a lazy person’s way of determining it.

The only practical way to do so is to check actual product — that is, analyze stories by their content. But if you do that … well, you’ll see where the real bias is.

On the right, not the left.

I’ve always been an avid consumer of news, both print and broadcast, even before I went back to school in the 1990s to major in communications. I first began to notice the deliberate slant to the right, in too many stories to mention here, in Christian media in 1983 when I started watching the 700 Club.

One I will highlight, however, was its treatment of the 1984 disruption of an Easter service at my then-church by a group of unemployed steelworkers and some of their pastors. Part of the news hook was that one of the demonstrators was the actor David Soul, brother to one of the pastors — but which the 700 Club failed to mention.

Why was that? It’s likely because the show had interviewed Soul the year before and the anti-union 700 Club probably didn’t want it audience to consider that a follower of Jesus could be a pro-labor activist! After a while I detected a pattern and in 1985 stopped watching it altogether.

And that’s been the case throughout conservative media — leaving out pertinent information or, even worse, adding things that aren’t even true. But many of them don’t even seem to care that the product they put out is flawed; after all, inflaming, not merely informing, appears to be their function.

In 2007 Insight magazine, a publication of the Washington Times, ran a fairly lengthy story on the background of then-presidential candidate Barack Obama. While mostly accurate, the story also mentioned that he had been educated in a Muslim madrassa and that it got that information from someone “in the [Hillary] Clinton camp.” The allegations caused a sensation, CNN even sending a crew to Indonesia to see if that was true, and it turns out that neither was. The response from the Times then-executive editor Wes Pruden? “Sue us.” (As if that was going to happen, given that zillionaire Sun Myung Moon was the publisher.)

Remember the “ground zero mosque” in New York City that caused a sensation on the Fox News Channel four years ago? Well, a Muslim-oriented community center called Cordoba House, which included a worship space, was being built 2½ blocks away. (The closest house of worship was an Episcopal church about a block away.) On top of that, the previous December the New York Times ran a story on a hearing concerning Cordoba House in front of a city zoning board; a regular Times reader, I just happened to find that story right when the controversy broke. The imam who headed Cordoba House had condemned the terrorist attack by Islamic extremists on Sept. 11, 2001 early and often — but that still wasn’t enough to stem the outrage.

It might be that, in the rush to prove “bias,” some people ought to look in the mirror.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The big defeat

Conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks has been saying since at least 2008 that “the big defeat is coming.” That is to say, he’s predicting that in the very near future the Republican Party, if it remains on its present course and committed to right-wing plutocratic principles, is eventually going to be crushed at the polls. I agree with him.

Brooks had enjoyed a long career in conservative journalism, writing for all of the major publications, but noted that year in an in interview in the New Yorker that the movement as a whole hasn’t accepted the reality that its unyielding stances could cost the party elections down the road because of its own bullheadedness (which is why he left the right).

Here’s why Brooks is right: In my own decades-long observation of the movement, I’ve noticed that it operates according to what psychologists call a “closed” information system – that is, if the facts or history don’t support the narrative they’re discarded. And that’s simply dangerous.

You can tell that by just how its acolytes reacted to both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama’s respective ascensions to the White House. To this day they insist that both men, especially Obama since he’s there now, are hopelessly corrupt and managed to hoodwink to public into voting for them as opposed to their preferred candidate; some have even said that they would suspend the Constitution to remain in power beyond their allotted two terms.

Thing is, not only does that kind of hysteria turn people off but also the policies they espouse don’t work – and, I would say, aren’t necessarily even supposed to work. In other words, these days a lot of people are voting against them for legitimate reasons, but you’re not supposed to say that on pain of offense.

Hillary Clinton is a key here, of course; if she decides to seek the presidency she can not only win nationwide but in the process split the South, much of which has been considered untouchable for Democrats since the 1970s. The conservatives get this, which is why they’ve been trying to preempt her by bringing up Benghazi and Monicagate in the hope that people will turn against her. But when you’re reduced to sliming a political opponent preemptively you must not have that much to offer in your own right.

I think Brooks sees this and is troubled because he understands that his party is about to drive itself off a cliff. Maybe in 2016 or even later – but it will happen.

Preaching to the choir for profit – someone else's, that is

Call me a killjoy, but I’m not terribly impressed with the number of biblically-themed movies that have hit major theaters in the last couple of months – “God’s Not Dead,” “Heaven Is for Real,” “Noah,” “Son of God.” I haven’t seen any of them yet, so I won’t comment on their quality.

My concern is that such flicks might give us the impression that Christians have “arrived,” that our values are becoming more accepted in the greater society. In fact, it likely means only that we have disposable income that savvy moviemakers want to separate us from. Anything wrong with that?

Maybe, especially since they may give a skewed perspective on biblical faith and its ramifications. Because they purpose to confirm what we already believe I don’t think they’ll be effective if they’re designed to be “evangelical” and deal with, in the words of Reinhold Neibuhr’s famed “Serenity Prayer,” “the world as it is, not as I would have it.”

To be such, they have to be a certain quality that the world can appreciate – in other words, folks who watch movies for a living have to say, “This is worth watching, and here’s why.” Of the Christian-oriented movies that have been released over the past couple of years I’ve seen only “Courageous,” and the implausibility of some of the scenes and story lines disappointed me.

And I’m not the only one who feels that way. Two years ago at the writers’ conference I attend annually a writer who works in Hollywood – and who has a degree in apologetics — noted that, in her view, such movies just aren’t very good.

I’ve long felt the same way about Christian music, which I haven’t listened to for two decades. You might remember that today all of the major Christian record labels are owned by secular interests primarily concerned about making money. Rarely do you have Christian artists who transcend the genre – Take 6, which has always had a secular recording contract, is one; most remain in that “ghetto.”

Perhaps someday the church will produce movies on par with or superior to those in the world, but to do that we need to support our artists and not handcuff them with a certain “culture.” If we don’t the world will get only our money, not our message.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

A spiritual good-luck charm?

Yesterday yet another mass attack took place in an American high school, this time a stabbing in a well-to-do suburb about a half-hour drive from where I live. Already a number of people are saying that it happened because “we took God out of the public schools.”

And that’s inaccurate, on a number of levels. For openers, you simply cannot take God out of schools because, on an eternal level, He’s not only always around but still in control.

But what about prayer being banned in the early 1960s? There’s more to that than people remember. What was declared unconstitutional — in my view, properly — were Protestant-oriented prayer exercises sponsored and led by agents of the state, specifically public-school teachers and administrators, which really would challenge the idea that the state shouldn’t actively promote one religion over another. (Catholics formed their own schools for this very reason.)

Ironically, most of the complainers are evangelical Christians, and I sometimes wonder how they would react if another religion were similarly supported by a school district. Check that — we kind of already know, witness the outrage about stories (false or overblown) about schoolchildren being indoctrinated in Islam.

More to the point, however, it smacks of a desire for social control rather than a real desire for folks to know God and then to make Him known. No one will deny that we live in a world that’s full of evil, and assuming God will simply “take care of things” were people — especially schoolchildren — to “turn to Him” is the height of naïveté. Believers are not exempt from the troubles of the world; Christians die in accidents, get cancer, suffer from divorce and undergo other tragedies.

The church I attended in 1991 was full the Sunday after the war in Iraq broke out; the same thing happened at a different assembly, where I am now, right after 9/11. In neither scenario, however, did I suspect that things would last, and true to form, within a month attendance had reverted to normal. I was fine with that, because God is not to be used as a good-luck charm.

As Jesus Himself said in John 6:44, “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws them.”

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Conservatism: A mental disorder?

The truth be told, I don't really believe that.

Now, I do believe that many conservatives get their basic facts wrong, misread history and maintain a worldview that's out of touch with reality. But are they "sick" people in a general sense? No.

That being said, the recent conservative meme "Liberalism is a mental disorder," which I've heard many times, most recently last week from two conservatives I know, is becoming tiresome. It's very hard for me to take seriously a mentality that refuses to engage folks that don't agree with them.

The clause is what's known in psychology as a "thought-stopper," meant to end conversation. "We know what we know what we know ... " without bothering to consider alternative views or explanations.

Do liberals criticize conservatives? Sure they do but based on how conservatives behave, not on what they believe. In fact, it could be said that how you behave is a reflection of what you believe. (Which is why more and more "liberals" are disdaining conservatism.)

Recent complaints about President Obama -- that he's "weak" and/or a "tyrant" -- only inflame, never inform. Worse, they're never specific as to what he does except for the Affordable Care Act (which is law, by the way), his use of executive orders and his lack of what they see as a credible response to the situation in Ukraine. What would you do? they should be asking themselves. But that's beside the point.

Really, those who subscribe to that view ought to think -- think -- about what they believe and not assume that they alone know the right answers. Such arrogance buttressed by fear is what's causing the dysfunction in American political discourse.

"But we need to combat Marxist/communists/socialists ... " No, you don't, because if you knew what they really believed you might realize that they could be right. So stop slinging mud and start talking to people who don't support your ideology; you might learn something.

Monday, March 3, 2014

'You don't know God'

I was at a Bible study on Saturday, and one of the readings was one of many confrontations that Jesus had with the Pharisees.

Keep in mind that these boys had memorized the Scriptures to an extent that many of us never will, but Jesus had something unpleasant, even insulting, to say to them -- essentially, "You don't know God."

And that should be sobering. I've studied a lot of theology over the years -- coming from a Reformed background, I really didn't have much choice -- but realize that "theology" can take you only so far. People have to experience God for themselves, and we need to remember that He wants to be known.

An illustration: Some years ago a close female friend and I attended a New Year's Eve party, and we ended up playing one of those "Mars and Venus"-type games. When it came to the questions, she got every single one right about me and I got every single one right about her. Yes, we apparently knew each other that well.

And it's not by mere "study" or even participation in religious exercises or church activity but also a day-to-day life with God that demonstrates whether someone knows Him. Of course obedience is paramount, but with the wrong attitude it doesn't matter.

My friend gave me a book "Finding the Groove: Composing a Jazz-Shaped Faith" that made reference to the classic John Coltrane album "A Love Supreme." I didn't know until reading that book that Coltrane was referring to God -- in 1957 he had had a four-day encounter during which he heard the "sound of God" and that caused him to abandon drugs.

The author, Robert Gelinas, said that Coltrane never became a Christian as we understand that. Problem? Perhaps. But he understood that mere "religion" won't cut it; he had to find God for himself.

I think that's why Jesus was so well-received by the religious non-elite of His day; He related to people and didn't preach at them (although he did talk about sin). They felt that they were in the very presence of God, and He wasn't threatening, but the Pharisees missed that. And Him.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Another blow in the culture war

You are probably aware that Gov. Jan Brewer of Arizona recently vetoed a law passed in the legislature that would have allowed what some have called discrimination against gays for religious reasons. The law was inspired by a situation in neighboring New Mexico where a gay couple sued because the management of a bakery refused to make a cake for their wedding because of its Christian commitment.

The veto, however, proved surprisingly popular. Economic interests opposed the bill, feeling -- justifiably -- that a potential economic boycott would result and hurt business. Next year's Super Bowl will be held in suburban Phoenix, and the National Football League likely has a lot of pull. Even Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee for president in 2012 and a leader in the notoriously conservative Church of Jesus Church of Latter-Day Saints, came out against it.

So what do folks who oppose same-gender matrimony do? I'm not sure that's the right question.

I think a number of us have forgotten that we live in a fallen world, one that never was really "safe" for Christians despite many of our values becoming an unquestioned and, to a certain extent, essential part of American culture. But while our culture may adopt our values, it will never know the God Who gave them, so when folks turn on us we should not be surprised.

It may be coming to the point where we may need to sacrifice to maintain what we believe to be clear Biblical teaching. Of course that's not a popular word.

According to the late Chuck Colson's book "Kingdoms in Conflict," repackaged as "God and Government," the city of New York passed a law several decades ago that banned discrimination against gays in entities that had contracts with the city. That was problematic for the Salvation Army, the Catholic archdiocese and a conservative Jewish synagogue, which had contracts to provide certain services. What did the religious groups do?

They cancelled the contracts. (And that was a good move.)

But how do we make money? you might ask. Never mind -- if you really trust God He will make a way. He's far bigger than this dying culture, and we're under no obligation to cooperate with it, nor can we always bend it to our will.

Monday, February 3, 2014

More random thoughts ...

Nobody asked me, but ...

-- You probably heard about the controversies concerning last week’s Grammy Awards ceremonies, which Christian singer Natalie Grant, up for two awards, walked out of because of what some may call a glorification of Satan, and also due to a mass gay wedding. Such situations might understandably upset some Christians, and I for one certainly don’t support gay marriage. (I did watch the show for a time, largely because I wanted to see the band Chicago, my all-time favorite pop-rock act.)

I hope we understand, however, that this is the world we live in and a secular show might very well contain such themes these days. Are they doing so to persecute Christians? I don’t believe so; at best, it’s a shot at culture-warriors intent on forcing their values down everyone’s throats so that they can live in this world and avoid spiritual warfare. Sorry, but that ain’t gonna happen and we need to get used to that.

-- You probably heard the recent conservative meme about the hypocrisy of feminists supporting President Bill Clinton back in the day despite allegations of sexual harassment; the truth, however, is that he never really was. Monica Lewinsky, his dalliance with whom triggered his impeachment, made advances toward him — in fact, Linda Tripp, the White House aide and anti-Clinton conspiracy point person indicted in Maryland on wiretapping charges, was recorded as saying, “She’s had affairs with married men before.” And as for Paula Jones, she went to court only because her first name had been dropped, inadvertently, in a story written by then-American Spectator writer David Brock, who mentioned later in a book that she was possibly interested in a relationship with him; her original legal team quit because it recognized that she had no case.

Let’s be honest as to what this is really about: Another pre-emptive strike against Hillary Clinton, who remains the prohibitive favorite for the Democratic nomination for president in 2016. While she hasn’t officially announced, it’s well-accepted that if she does run she’ll not only win handily but, due to her coattails thanks to Bill’s popularity, possibly even destroy the Republican Party as we know it today — and the GOP has to know this. Recall that Anita Hill accused Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment right during his Supreme Court hearings, those charges corroborated by three other women mentioned by ABC News Nightline had they testified. “Well, that was really about politics,” you might say. True, perhaps — no different than today.

-- Scholar and writer Dinesh D’Souza has complained that President Obama is going after him because of his film “Obama’s America: 2016” that was released just before the presidential election of 2012; recall that he’s being indicted for election fraud for illegally funding a Congressional candidate; I notice, however, that few conservative Republicans, none of any stature, are supporting him. That tells me one of two possibly related things: 1) They did the same thing, perhaps being involved themselves; or 2) They know that that the charge against him is legitimate.

-- I was rooting for the Seattle Seahawks during last night’s Super Bowl, primarily because they would have won their first championship. (In fact I would have done so the previous time they made the game except for one thing: They were playing the Steelers.) I didn’t expect, however, a complete meltdown from the Denver Broncos.

Monday, January 27, 2014

In case you do need to leave a church ...

Earlier today I read an article giving five bad reasons to leave a church, and for the most part the article was right on. Most of the excuses were in fact focused on personal taste and "what's in it for me?" rather than on theology and service -- that is, the worship of God and doing whatever small part people can do to make him known.

That said, of course, there are legitimate reasons to leave having nothing to do with selfishness; in fact, leaving a particular assembly may be necessary for continued spiritual growth and in fact charitable. Here are some:

1) Theological infidelity. If someone stands up in the pulpit and rejects the counsel of Scripture or suggests that knowing Jesus isn't all that important -- that he or she doesn't believe in the supremacy of Christ or that the Bible represents ultimate truth -- run, don't just walk, away.

2) Moral failure in leadership. I'm talking about not just pastors, either; if even lay leadership uses its position in the church for its own benefit the members will reflect that, and no one grows as a result. Inappropriate sexual conduct and misuse of money represent only examples of such.

3) A focus on "traditions." There's nothing wrong with traditions in and of themselves; however, they become a problem when God wants to move away from them, which is His perfect right. I know of at least one church that shut down completely and another that's still limping along because they simply wouldn't -- or couldn't -- move with the Spirit of God.

4) Ministry opportunities. You may be very satisfied where you attend, but God may call you out to do something different (such as a plant or even a foreign mission). In that case, staying in your church represents disobedience.

And even if you do leave, make sure you do so graciously, with malice toward none and, if any of the first three apply, even with tears -- because if you truly love the church you're exiting you will need to grieve. But on the other hand, God will reward your obedience with something better.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Margaret Sanger – pro-life icon?

On this 41st (or, for that matter, any) anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision that stripped states of regulating most abortions, people tend to hyperventilate.

Of course, one particular woman stands out as a villain – the late Margaret Sanger, founder of what’s known today as Planned Parenthood, which I understand is the largest abortion provider in the country. Four years ago a pastor preached a message that she was a racist baby-killer who sympathized with Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party in Germany.

I decided to check her out – and do you know what? Nothing could be farther from the truth; she simply wasn’t the monster she’s been made out to be.

Next thing you’re going to tell me is that she was against abortion, you might say.

And you’d be right – because, it turns out, she was.

(You don’t have to take my word for it; just check out her Wikipedia entry. It’s all there.)

Sanger was a public health nurse in New York City in the early 20th Century and witnessed first-hand the squalid and overcrowded conditions in which many of her clients lived – she noted that many of their children didn’t survive infancy or toddlerhood. Perhaps for this reason she came up with the idea that they needed to find a way to limit the number of children. But for her, the “disgrace to civilization” that she called abortion, which in her day was illegal though common, and infanticide just weren’t options.

Was she a eugenicist? Sure, but so were a lot of people in that day, and she didn’t believe in eugenics as policy – it was always, always to be carried out voluntarily and, important, never for racial or ethnic reasons. She even expressed horror at the treatment of Jews in Germany at the hands of the Nazis in the early 1940s. (So much for her being a Nazi sympathizer.)

Didn’t she speak to the Ku Klux Klan? Not exactly – to a women’s auxiliary, and according to her autobiography, she was “unnerved” by the experience.

Though I have always opposed abortion, I think this is one situation where those of us who are “pro-life” have allowed our hearts to get ahead of our heads. I don’t pretend to know when or why PP began providing abortion services – Sanger died in 1966, six years before Roe – but demonizing her doesn’t help our cause. I would even think that we might have some things in common.

Friday, January 10, 2014

The imminent revival, part 6: Addressing unjust economics

My pastor has often said in his sermons, "God is a good provider, but man is a poor divider." The last decade or so is a prime example of what he's been talking about.

Fifty years ago began President Lyndon B. Johnson's "War on Poverty," which used government programs and political action to help lift those who were suffering from the lack of not only funds but also resources. Of course the debate as to whether the "Great Society" worked is still out there, with its critics spending hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars to insist that the programs were counterproductive.

But its critics often, and deliberately, miss the point that it wasn't about money -- it was about resources. That is, get folks boots so that they could pull themselves up by their bootstraps. They never talk about that, perhaps because they realize that doing so will cost them power.

Which is spiritually ruinous, because when you have economic, cultural, political and social power you won't want, or feel that you need, the power of the Holy Spirit.

I have said many times that so-called religious right groups, led by media "ministries," were in fact in God's way, and I'm glad that they finally seem to be crumbling. With all their emphasis on "cultural" issues, they completely ignored that folks were suffering due to policies instituted by people they supported (and whom I suspect supported them financially). You never heard poverty discussed in Christian media because, frankly, industry -- who for the most part didn't care about abortion or gay marriage -- had basically bought them off. In this way "conservative Christian" groups became in fact theologically liberal.

Let's never forget that economics is a Christian issue and that bad economics, including denying opportunity to the powerless, represents sin.

So what does this have to do with spiritual awakening? A number of things.

First, we will no longer allow non-believers to determine the church's agenda; we will not only encourage people to live by Kingdom values but carry them out ourselves and thus show the world, "This is how it's done." Second, many of us Christians living during difficult economic times -- and who may have been caught up in the American dream-turned-nightmare -- will recognize that they were, in the words of Ecclesiastes, "striving after wind." Third, and related to the second, folks will realize that whatever they have comes from the hand of God and as a result develop humility. Fourth, and most importantly, we will finally identify with those that are suffering and learn what it really takes to minister to the "least of these" -- because we may have been there.

If we do these things in the power of the Spirit we won't be able to build churches fast enough, if only because we will offer something much different from the world.

I won't say that programs are wrong in themselves; they simply reflect a failure of the church "to act justly and to love mercy and walk humbly with [our] God," as mentioned in Micah 6:8. Sometimes that means challenging the powers that be, including ourselves -- and that means we need to be ready to abandon our personal and cultural agendas.

Friday, January 3, 2014

The imminent revival, part 5: Something I overlooked

Those of you who have been following me for a while know that I’ve been predicting a spiritual awakening for some years. But something that I didn’t see until recently: A return to church-based ministry.

Of course ministry should be based in local churches – after all, they’re the ones charged with winning souls to Christ, discipling them and fitting people for service in the assembly.

What happened? Well, in the 1980s we saw the rise of “media ministries,” generally parachurch groups without any responsibility to any larger body. While virtually all of the people involved were churchgoers, there seemed to be on one above the personality out front – and that proved their undoing.

Some fell victim to scandal (e.g. Jimmy Swaggart). Others focused on income to remain on the air and thus focused on the culture war and, thus, political matters, where they were bound for failure. In still some others, the point person died (witness Jerry Falwell and D. James Kennedy). Whatever, in the long run I would surmise that such groups have shown to be ineffective spiritually, though they did have some impact.

I would say, however, that the end of the age of media ministries came with the dismal showing of Republicans in the 2006 general election.

With most of these folks already off the scene by then, Focus on the Family, fearing that the GOP was about to lose big, convened “Stand for the Family” rallies in several battleground states, including Pennsylvania (more specifically Pittsburgh, as it was in practice a shill for the embattled Sen. Rick Santorum, who hailed from here). Not only did they didn’t have any positive effect but they may have even backfired – Santorum lost by 18 percentage points. (James Dobson, who founded and headed the organization, hasn’t been heard from since.)

But shouldn’t we try to remove evil from society? you may ask. Well, understanding that this world is hopelessly full of sin, how do you propose to do that?

This is where the church comes in. God calls us to live by alternative Kingdom values and influence the world that way, not to take the levers of power for our own aggrandizement, and the church is best suited for that role. Hopefully pastors and lay leaders are teaching the Scripture verse-by-verse and focusing on knowing Christ and making Him known in their respective communities.

I suggest that’s what Jesus meant when He said, “The Kingdom of God is among you” – that is, not to be found with any localized movement such as the “Toronto Blessing” or the “Pensacola revival.” Folks won’t need to travel hither and yon to see the “next great move of God”; they can – and should – experience it at home.