Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Hearing people's 'stories'

When Martin Luther King Jr. was jailed in Birmingham, Ala. In 1963, he fell into conversation with a number of his white jailers who, while racists, shared with him the difficulty of the system for which they worked and, by extension, their own lives. After listening — remember, he was a pastor by profession — he told them, “You ought to be with us.”

We know of Dr. King as a reconciler, but he was able to do that because of his willingness to listen to those who hated him. I suspect that the root of much of the divisiveness in this country, the degree of which I can’t recall being as bad as it is now, is an unwillingness to listen to those who disagree.

Basically, it comes down to being aware of people’s “stories.” Every person has a face, a name and a history that drives him or her. As such, we don’t always appreciate what our adversaries have to face.

I admit to being more critical of President Donald Trump and his supporters and allies for being hard-hearted toward those they see as implacable opponents. Most notably, when he called protesters playing in National Football League games as [S.O.B.’]s, he was in effect saying, “I don’t give a rip about what you think.” That led directly to an escalation of protests that, in the eyes of many, got out of hand.

The bigger issue, however, is that Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who sparked the protest last year, said that he was trying to draw attention to police brutality against African-Americans (his biological father as black). But his detractors called him disruptive and unpatriotic because he did so during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Couldn’t he have found another way or time?, people asked.

No, and that was his point.

The last couple of days, in response to the Harvey Weinstein incident, we’ve experienced a “me too” campaign primarily from women who were sexually harassed or assaulted. I’ve been sensitized over the past couple of decades, remembering things I saw at my fraternity house but taking no action because I didn’t recognize what was happening.

Some of these brave women have been willing to tell those stories and I salute them because I can’t ever be in their shoes and thus feel exactly as they do.

It’s not about being eternal “victims”; it’s about acknowledging what happened. One thing about sin is that it needs to be exposed before it can be addressed and its repercussions faced.

More to the point, it’s about “[mourning] with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15), and sometimes hearing the stories of others is a part of that. I’m willing to listen — are you?

Monday, October 9, 2017

Rome, not Jerusalem

Since the 1980s I’ve seen and heard a number of Christian leaders insist that the United States was founded on Christian principles that were abandoned beginning in the 1960s and, for us to prosper again, we needed to get back to them — whatever they are. In that they liken us to a modern-day Israel, which indeed was sanctioned by God.

The trouble is that they’ve missed the point.

See, when ancient Israel was overrun by the Greeks and later the Romans it likely never occurred to folks then that the issue then was disobedience to the LORD, likely its mistreatment of the powerless (as many of the Minor Prophets railed about). Certainly the priests and the Pharisees, the lay group that tried to keep those traditions alive, didn’t do all that well in addressing the various power inequities in Jewish society of that day.

I think it's time to recognize that, to use the analogy, we live in Rome, not Jerusalem. Not only do we not run things but we never truly did; the "biblical" principles on which we're supposedly founded were by necessity filtered through Freemasonry, which by definition liberalized the Christian faith especially when it came to public policy. (Churches in those days still paid strict attention to theology, as they should have done, and the theological wars that permeated Europe were in fact transplanted here.) The generic Christianity, often also liberalized by American civil religion, that such people refer to simply didn't exist until the last few decades.

And since we live in Rome, not Jerusalem, we need to understand that we faithful Christians represent a minority.

Unlike Rome, which used its military might to suppress dissenting views, we live in a land where they can be tolerated. But being angry won't cause any lasting change or otherwise lead people to consider the faith, particularly it it's being used as the will to power. You don't want to live in a "pagan" land? Sorry, but you don't have any choice in the matter.

The early church, understanding this, survived by subverting Roman law to display its injustice; for this reason Jesus Himself, when preaching the Sermon on the Mount, actually advocated such subversion. When it came to church/state relations, the Apostle Paul wrote, in effect, "Obey Roman law — but here's how you can get around it and glorify God."

More to the point, however, the church today should stick up for the powerless in this society — the homeless, drug-addicted, people of color and even in some cases non-Christians, often in this case Muslims. It should probably also stand with immigrants, for Israel was cautioned, "Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt" (Exodus 22:21).

Because not only is God not impressed with "ethnic purity" the way Israel was but this would also represent an extension of the "golden rule." That's His real goal for His followers, not focusing upon some faux heritage that seeks only its own safety and comfort.

Remember — we live in Rome, not Jerusalem.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

'Patriots' dividing the country

“We are America. Those people are not.”

Those words, spoken at the 1992 Republican National Convention by its chairman Rich Bond, exemplify the problem we have in this country — the unwillingness on the part of one side of the political aisle to grant legitimacy to a view that it doesn’t share.

Of late that’s led to the fight over silent protests by National Football League players during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner”; and, more recently, reaction to Sunday’s massacre in Las Vegas, most notably toward those who favor more gun control as being, shall we say, “un-American.”

To me, however, they speak of a form of bullying, in this case by exclusion. It doesn’t matter if you were born here or have adopted citizenship — if you don’t believe in our principles you’re not really an American.

I suggest that it’s bullying because of the focus on power, specifically the military and the sale of guns.

Concerning the protests against racism in general and police brutality in particular that caused now-former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick to drop to one knee during the playing of the national anthem last year, he himself said that it was never a slam against the military — indeed, his stance was actually recommended by a Green Beret — but that hasn’t stopped the naysayers from attacking him. Two weeks ago President Trump referred to protesters as S.O.B.’s, which caused even more players and even some owners to take a knee. (The owners, some of whom donated to Trump’s presidential campaign, recognized that the players, over two-thirds of whom are African-American, are the product.)

And last weekend’s carnage in Las Vegas has put the issue of gun control front-and-center again. The “patriots” are saying, of course, that the focus should be on the mental state of the shooter[s], not that he had weaponry. (Never mind what he actually had; you’d really have to stretch the Second Amendment to suggest that he had the right to a machine gun.)

It seems to me that the dissent that we say is part and parcel of American political culture doesn’t always apply. In any nation, let alone America, politics should lead to compromise for the greater good. But when there seems to be only one way of “approved” thinking it leads to the kind of divisiveness we say we don’t want. Because not everyone is going to fall in line, and if we want a truly united country dissent must be understood, addressed and honored.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

The true legacy of Hugh Hefner

He’s loved in seven languages.

— Sade Adu, “Smooth Operator”

The world lost Hugh Hefner, age 91, last week. Of course he was best known as the founder of Playboy Enterprises, named for the flagship magazine which was considered, among other things, a forerunner of the sexual revolution because of the topics it covered and, especially, its originally topless, later fully-nude female centerfolds, which many people said exploited women.

But I think that definition too facile.

Indeed, Hefner was in fact selling what he called “the good life” — that of what might be called the “leisure class” (as opposed to the “working class”). Well-heeled, erudite and sophisticated, he and the magazine catered to those tastes. Remember that it conducted legendary interviews, most notably with President Jimmy Carter, and featured well-written articles on numerous topics. (When people say that they read the magazine for the articles, I found that plausible.) It also sponsored jazz festivals and even featured an annual readers’ poll of the best instrumental musicians and, in some cases, groups.

The message it delivered seemed to be: Here’s what you can have if you get to this level. Basically, Hefner was selling not so much sex but hedonism.

From a Christian perspective, of course it’s a false narrative on its face but nevertheless very seductive. After all, it gives the idea that having the girl is about not so much the money but the power that comes with it. Trouble is, such men often have little centering and no soul.

The biblical archetype of the type of man that Hefner thus related to was King Solomon, conversant on many subjects and the wisest man who ever lived — but who had 300 wives and 900 concubines. And they sabotaged his relationship with the LORD.

I see President Trump as trying to embody that “Playboy philosophy,” which is another reason I can’t understand why so many Christians voted for him last year. Of course he’s rude, crude and crass, something the magazine really isn’t; it appears that he’s tried to buy his way into some club that won’t have him. (Note: He was a driver of the upstart United States Football League back in the 1980s and has since tried to buy a couple of NFL teams.)

But all this is “striving after wind,” as Solomon put it in Ecclesiastes. This is why I'm not convinced of Trump's supposed faith in Christ — he'd be willing to leave all that behind if it were genuine.

Considering the lyrics of the song mentioned above, the “smooth operator” appeared to have an empty life — “Coast to coast, L.A. to Chicago, western male / Across the north and south, to Key Largo, love for sale” — in that there seemed to be no point to it.

And I’d call that Hefner’s true legacy. He built a major enterprise based on a false worldview, which also says something about the people who bought into it.

Monday, September 18, 2017

'Make Israel great again'?

I’ve always had a theological problem with the existence of the modern state of Israel. It’s taken President Donald Trump, then the GOP candidate, to understand why.

More accurately, his slogan “Make America Great Again.”

About a century before Jesus came on the scene, what was left of Israel entered into a phase of “super-patriotism.” It had repelled the Greeks, who had tried to overrun it (resulting in the celebration of Hanukkah) but later on failed to deter the Romans, who became the great political power in His day and whom Israel deeply resented. Gradually the centuries-old prophecy of a Messiah was linked to the one person who would eject Rome and, shall we say, “make Israel great again.”

The trouble was that there was still a demand for ethnic purity among the Jewish people of that day. Samaritans, who lived to the north, were seen as compromisers for abandoning parts of the faith and intermarrying with Gentiles. Of course Jesus, considered the “super-rabbi,” scandalized much of the nation by, among other things, touching dead people and bringing them back to life and, in one case, going right through Samaria, which good Jews didn’t do (and encountering the “immoral” Samaritan woman).

We know today that Jesus’ focus was the Kingdom of God, which not even His disciples got; even after His resurrection, “Then they gathered around him and asked him, ‘Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’ ” (Acts 1:6). To which He responded, in effect, “Never mind.”

I take two lessons from this.

One, no nation can become “great” in marginalizing those who come from a different viewpoint or have a different history. The president has exploited long-standing divisions and pitted people against each other to get elected, confounding even those in his own party, and modern Israel has long been accused of discrimination against the Arabs in its midst. (That subject is too long for this post.)

More importantly, if we believe that “making America great again” represents a Christian worldview we’re fooling ourselves — indeed, it’s a form of idolatry. To wit, the idea that ending abortion, driving gays back into the closet and other things deemed “biblical” can and will lead to God’s blessing approaches heresy because the focus is on us, not God.

So let’s call it what it is.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

No, it's NOT 'both sides'

Today President Donald Trump again blamed “both sides” for the fracas between white nationalists and anti-fascist demonstrators in Charlottesville, Va. a few weeks ago that ended up costing one woman her life. (He made the same comment after the original demonstration.)

Trump is wrong about that. Dangerously wrong, for the following reason:

These days many on the political right don’t want to address the reality that the very rhetoric of folks on their side of the political fence is inherently violent — note the president’s comment during his campaign last year that people who protest him should be “punched in the face.” (And people cheered.) Rather, they have railed against what they believe to be endemic “left-wing” violence since Trump’s inauguration, never mind that the anti-fascist demonstrators, some of them who belong to the loose confederation “Antifa,” don’t advocate violence for its own sake.

I understand that in this case that the demonstration by the white nationalists, also Trump supporters and some who came as far as California, was actually their third in Charlottesville that summer and that the people who came against them were locals. The Ku Klux Klan, Nazis and their sycophants clearly were there specifically to cause trouble.

Recently one person has said online that Antifa wouldn’t simply go away if the KKK and Nazis did the same. I’m not convinced of that because at some point you’re going to react when people start picking on you. That’s what we’re seeing today, and “blaming the victim” won’t cut it now.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Hillary Clinton — what REALLY happened

Hillary Clinton is on a tour right now, hawking her latest book “What Happened.” It’s her explanation of why she lost the last presidential race to Donald Trump in what was supposed to be a slam-dunk victory. Of course, people have their own opinions of that — she was a flawed candidate beset with baggage courtesy of her husband Bill; she sabotaged Bernie Sanders; she was incompetent and corrupt; she was overconfident and entitles. Her Democratic Party is supposedly alarmed that she’s fighting that same battle all over again.

The reality, however, is much more straightforward than that. And it has precious little, if anything, to do with her.

Since 1980, the Republican Party nationally has done an excellent job speaking to people’s fears — and nothing motivates people to vote more than fear. In the 1980s it was communism, adjusted in the 1990s to “liberalism”; more recently, it’s become “Islamofascism” and illegal immigration from Mexico, which at best are greatly overstated. Even the Trump campaign motto “Make America Great Again” had a basis of fear that we were “slipping” in world stature (when that certainly wasn’t the case).

Of course, Bill Clinton signed what was considered a draconian crime bill when he was president (and for which he and Hillary later apologized) that incarcerated a disproportionate amount of young African-American males. But at the time the bill did have bipartisan support, even from the Congressional Black Caucus. And in 1996, up for reelection, he did claim that the GOP planned to cut Medicare by $270 billion (the figure was right but referred to the cut in the proposed increase).

But I digress. When you’re driven by fear you seek an easy scapegoat, and she turned out to be it — and flatly lying about her wasn’t off-limits. “Benghazi” and her use of a private email server for official business were willfully played up for the specific reason of damaging her candidacy even though folks knew full well that they didn’t rise to the level of corruption or incompetence. And then you had Trump constantly referring to “crooked Hillary” amid chants of “Lock her up” because he understood that’s what his base wanted to hear. It turned out that people really did want someone that crude.

Bottom line, Hillary lost because she belonged to the wrong party at the wrong time; she’d have beaten virtually any other Republican in the field, but the populace was in the mood for an “outsider” who spoke directly to their fears. After all, not for nothing is Trump still holding campaign rallies — it’s a way to let his base know, “I’m in charge.”

Friday, September 1, 2017

Getting over ourselves

You’ll never hear me denounce “anti-Christian bigotry” in the United States of America.

There are reasons for that. One it that it’s, at best, overstated. More importantly, the people who make that kind of statement identify with Christianity so much that no other affiliation matters — which is incorrect.

You see, I’m also African-American. I’ve worked in media for much of my adult life, 20 years at the same major metropolitan newspaper. I belong to two labor unions. I’m a native and lifelong resident of a major northeastern city. These connections not only color my experiences but expand my worldview.

I bring this up because of an excellent piece, “In Praise of Equipoise,” in today’s New York Times by conservative columnist David Brooks. As he puts it, “We live in an atomized, individualistic society in which most people have competing identities. Life is more straightforward when you’re locked into one totalistic group, even if it’s imposed upon you. When you’re disrespected for being a Jew, a Christian, a liberal or a conservative, the natural instinct is to double down on that identity. People in what feels like a hostile environment often reduce their many affiliations down to just one simple one, which they weaponize and defend to the hilt.”

That’s something I’ve always refused to do because it leads to racism and other types of prejudice, resentment toward some “other” and the resultant arrogant delusion that eliminating certain types of people will lead to justice and prosperity. That’s the real reason why the white supremacists backing President Donald Trump are so extremely dangerous and need to be repudiated tout de suite — in that context it becomes addictive religion where people can’t change their minds or the subject. (As things stand now, the political left isn’t yet equally guilty but if the “alt-right” continues to pick at it, watch out.)

Basically, we need to get over ourselves and lose the navel-gazing tunnel vision that leads to complaints about constantly being persecuted. (Indeed, too much focus on “persecution” represents “crying wolf” — there may come a day when there really is persecution but no one will hear it.)

Over the years I’ve been blessed with friendships across ideological, racial and theological lines and intend to continue them; the only times when those relationships have been threatened or even broken is when I speak my piece and say, “This is why I believe you have it wrong.” It’s happened from time to time and I do mourn those losses, but I don’t intend to be anyone’s sycophant because truth means more to me than telling people what they want to hear.

As I mentioned, it’s not that I don’t have any allegiances at all — in fact, I have several. And it’s likely that you do as well, so don’t discount them.

As Brooks writes, “The person with equipoise doesn’t feel attachments less powerfully but weaves several deep allegiances into one symphony”; quoting a James Q. Wilson, “it is a life lived in balance.” “Achieving balance,” Brooks continues, ”is an aesthetic or poetic exercise, a matter of striking the different notes harmonically.”

That’s the reason that, when people accuse “the media” of hostility toward Christians, I get in their face and try to shut them down. The truth is, we don’t have the time or energy to try to discredit the faithful; more accurately, they do it to themselves with their bellyaching because it actually makes them look weak. (Not to mention God.)

I can’t argue with Brooks’ final words, so I’m making them mine: “Today rage and singularity is the approved woke response to the world — Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders. But you show me a person who can gracefully balance six fervent and unexpectedly diverse commitments, and that will be the one who is ready to lead in this new world.”