Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Be careful what you wish for ...

The complaint during the last general election was that Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton was too beholden to the “establishment.” As a result she faced a strong opposition from Sen. Bernie Sanders, not even a registered Democrat until he decided to run; and was ultimately defeated by real estate tycoon Donald Trump.

But in the four months that Trump has been president he’s had numerous goof-ups, most recently and notably allegedly sharing classified information (“state secrets”) with the Russian government.

A number of his defenders over the past few months have said something to the extent of Give him time — he needs it to get things right. They should have thought of that beforehand because rookies don’t make those kinds of egregious mistakes.

They're also saying, He’s got good people around him. But from where will they come? The ranks of the “establishment” which they said they voted against.

This leads to the question: Why is politics, especially in Washington D.C., the one occupation where experience is a bad thing? It seems to me that at that level you would want someone who knows how to legislate, which these days includes making deals with other politicians, and dealing with foreign governments. After all, in any other line of work you need experience and, whether we want to admit it or not, politics is a line of work.

The myth — and it is a myth — of the “citizen legislator” certainly dies hard. The thinking goes that folks would go to Washington [or the state capitol of your choice], stay for a term or two and then come back home. What they don’t tell you is that the only people who had the time to do that were wealthy landowners, especially considering that nearly three-quarter of Americans lived on farms and didn’t have the time or energy to get involved in political matters. Like it or not, we’ve always needed a “political class” that knows what it’s doing, and that’s especially the case since the “Industrial Revolution” at the turn of the last century.

Frankly, we’ve always had an élite class running things at the top, and there’s no reason to believe that that will change now. And, even more frankly, whether we want to accept that or not, Trump has always been a part of that élite class. (Would you have even heard of him otherwise?)

That explains the saying “Be careful what you wish for — you just might get it,” the implication that it might not be all it’s cracked up to be. People demanded a president they perceived as independent from the “establishment” and thus should be prepared to accept more of the incompetence that he’s so far displayed. Perhaps they’ll learn better next time.

Friday, May 12, 2017

The math doesn't add up

My estimation of Bishop T.D. Jakes has risen just a little.

Jakes, long-time pastor of Potter’s House in Dallas, Texas, was caught on a CBN News tape challenging the idea that churches should be in charge of feeding the hungry but also some other diaconal issues in the community rather than government welfare programs that many conservatives despise. He said that he “pulled out my calculator,” the math didn’t add up and the church would go bankrupt in trying to feed the hungry in its zip code alone — not to mention helping to pay for prescriptions for the elderly woman who may have “five things wrong with her.”

Two things we can take from Jakes’ diatribe: 

1) The church of Jesus Christ is not primarily a social-service agency; its primary function is to bear witness to an unseen world and live by Kingdom values and, in the process, draw people to Him. Well, didn’t the early church meet physical needs? Yes, but for one specific reason: Its members had personal experience with destitution, as it originally was an underground, often friendless institution that obliged them to lean on each other.

That’s a far cry from today, especially in America where attending a church is a sign of respectability and discipleship is little more than a private affair having no bearing on what people do with their money and possessions. In many cases churches, particularly larger ones, aren’t even located in poorer areas and are often out of touch with those who are suffering. 

2) In referring to the woman who may need medicine, which can be expensive in its own right, Jakes also critiqued the occasional — and, some would say, systematic — rapaciousness of capitalism, which wouldn’t go over well with some others trying to defend that system against “socialism.” It’s not even about the money, however; it’s about access, which people who worship (and I use that word deliberately) at its shrine never address, insisting that living properly and maintaining Christian “morals” is the key to prosperity. Never mind that Jesus rejected that bad theology, which is why the Pharisees, who “loved money,” couldn’t stand Him.

During President George W. Bush’s first term the idea of “compassionate conservatism” was thrown around, with churches invited to apply for government aid to maintain their programs. But only to churches, not mosques or secular agencies, I suspect because they were supposed to “convert” people and thus stay out of trouble. Thing is, however, that the forces that keep the poor in their state are often systemic — something not to be addressed because the power of the “rich” might be threatened.

Which is the point of the Magnificat, what Mary recited when she learned she was pregnant with Jesus — and also possibly the point of the Gospel.

Jakes said something that a lot of people don’t want to hear: Following Jesus costs something. And it may cost more than some may want to pay — not just money, either.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Trump idolatry

During the last election campaign I said to a woman on Facebook who supported Donald Trump for president, “You worship Trump.” She became angry and immediately unfriended me, but I was OK with that because I knew that she did.

And despite all of his promises and pronouncements that he has made, not to mention the deflections and evasions that have occurred on his watch — including this week’s firing of FBI director James Comey, apparently for requesting more funds to investigate the probe of Trump’s possible connections to the Russian government and if it indeed interfered in that election — folks are still defending him.

I can thus assume that it’s due to Trump being an idol in his own right, a symbol of their fears not afraid to denigrate any opposition. And from a spiritual perspective, that should be frightening.

They’ve been silent as of late, but some folks were actually predicting a revival due to his “reign,” and frankly I don’t understand why. In order to spark revival you have to admit and confess sins, including the ones you commit or are involved with. And so far that hasn’t happened, nor do I expect it to because he’s apparently so full of himself. Sure, he signed an executive order guaranteeing “religious freedom” but which proved to be basically toothless and, really, irrelevant anyway because revival won’t result from getting rid of gays in society.

Trump has been in the Oval Office for not even four months, and in that time he has yet to demonstrate any respect for his office, the Congress or the bureaucracy that are a part of government. Perhaps he’s aping Louis XIV, who famously said, “L’état, c’est moi” (translated: “I am the state”).

Dude — no, you’re not.

Friday, May 5, 2017

A useless executive order

Yesterday President Donald Trump signed an executive order that would restrict the Johnson Amendment, which restricts churches and other non-profit groups from engaging in direct electioneering at the risk of losing their tax exemptions. Some Christian leaders have claimed — falsely — that the amendment restricts churches from speaking out on political and social issues.

That part is completely bogus on its face, as most churches I’m aware of have that right under the First Amendment and no one is trying to take it away. But most pastors are too busy doing the work of ministry, including visiting the sick, counseling, preparing next week’s sermon or interviewing potential new staff, among other things.

An op-ed in today’s New York Times, “Clerical Speech Isn’t Persecuted,” by Amy Sullivan, described in the tagline as author of “The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats Are Closing the God Gap,” gave a hint as the true intent of such leaders; two she named were Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University and namesake son of its late founder, and Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council. Note that these organizations are not churches; indeed, they operate independently of any ecclesiastical body. (Falwell’s father of course founded the late but hardly lamented Moral Majority, arguably the most prominent group involved with 1980s “religious right” activism.)

How such groups operated back then was to identify a target that they needed to defeat and watch the money roll in — whether the Democratic candidates in particular or the Party in general, LGBTQ activists and supporters or abortion-rights groups. There’s a reason for that; as Cal Thomas, vice-president of communications for Moral Majority who had since sworn off such activism was once told, “You can’t raise money on a positive.” Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition was strong and powerful only when Bill Clinton was president, petering out when George W. Bush got to the White House.

And while they made a lot of noise, they got little, if anything, done that’s lasted, and part of that was due to the oppositional nature of their advocacy, which in fact sought to divide between “us” and some “them.” It seems to me that had people put money into church ministry and worked at the grass-roots level much more could have been accomplished. (When the civil-rights movement, which I did agree with, got away from its overtly Christian roots and became somewhat partisan it too began to lose its punch.)

Let’s admit that this campaign for “religious freedom” was, and is, about nothing more than recapturing an era that never really existed — it’s always been about worldly power. The problem with that is obvious: When you have cultural, political, social or economic power, you often don’t want, or feel that you need, the power of the Holy Spirit.

Sullivan mentioned that most churches and many Christians oppose partisan entanglements, ostensibly because they get in the way of the spiritual goals, and I believe they’re correct. Changing “Washington” won’t happen, so people ought to concentrate on changing themselves and their communities. Which will last.