A Big Negative on the Negativism

I’ve noticed lately that there are activist pastors who seem to be making a cottage industry of bashing everything in the 21st century church. Now I’ve done plenty of complaining myself. I know it. But every now and then, it is a very good thing to stop, take stock, breathe a little, and praise those Christians who are indeed trying to live by the code of Jesus, i.e., other-centered, sacrificial love. I know they are out there. I’ve seen them. I have been moved by their words and their actions.

I know. They may be thinking this is tough love. We need to be whipped into shape and fast. But why would anyone want to be a part of any group where their leader never offers praise, never asks blessings on the “good-doers”? Didn’t Jesus open the Sermon on the Mount with a set of sayings called the beatitudes, each one beginning with “blessed” or as some might say, “happy”?

There is no doubt much to be ashamed of among the high-profile ministers and the celebrity “Christians of convenience.” But I heard something this past Sunday, Christmas Day, that made me stop and ask myself if I had ever before heard the same sentiment in any place I have ever traveled. A man prayed before the collection basket was passed at a small country church, and he was thankful for the blessing and privilege of earning a living to provide for his family, that the offering we give as contribution to the church treasury was in recognition of that blessing. It was a simple expression, nothing flowery, I don’t even remember any “thee’s” and “thou’s,” but it was real and heart-felt.

Why can’t some of the marquee ministers who are always up in arms take a few beats and praise those who are doing what they can with what they have?

I know there are problems in the vast array of groups that are expressions of a Christian heritage. But there is good, as well. There is quiet decency and dignity. Maybe a dose of good news–isn’t that the meaning of the word “gospel”?–would do more than the constant negativity against all things Christian from people who are supposed to be leading their fellow Christians. Read the short Letter to the Philippians to see how Paul treated these people who were so dear to his heart. He had instruction for them like being quick to settle disputes, but the letter is steeped in so much love that the correction is more like a gentle persuasion.

Like any group, Christians can most often benefit from being led by example. The office of overseer was instituted to be filled by those with a good reputation, men of age and experience, who could provide a good example to those in their charge. Ministers as the most visible of church posts are in a unique position to lead by example, as well. Again Paul urged his readers, his friends, to follow his example as he strove to emulate Jesus.

Christianity has enough detractors outside its ranks. It doesn’t need constant berating from inside. Instruction, yes; correction, yes, but with love, not vitriol.

Do we need to show greater love for the poor and the oppressed? In many cases, the answer is most likely “yes.”  But rather than berate us for a lack of caring, help us find our voice. Show us the way. Don’t condemn us all. The wise man said in Proverbs 15 that “a gentle answer turns away wrath, but harsh words stir up anger.” If we could ever stop being so angry all of the time, maybe we would see more opportunities to live as Jesus did.

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Living in a Messed Up World: Creation, Fall, Character and Commitment

It’s a messed up world.

Not that that’s any big news. But it really is. And it’s only getting worse, according to many observers.

Why am I thinking about this?  Because almost everything we see today is some sort of alteration, revision or perversion of how things ought to be.  One group fights for their rights, while another group wrings its hands and brays on about how awful things are, and offers no real solution.

And it’s been this way for a long time.  If you accept the Judeo-Christian scriptures, since not long after humanity came on the scene.  The lust of the flesh, the lust of the eye, the pride of life…and the Fall.  Not just any fall but the Fall.

I am far from being a theologian.  I am fascinated by it from an academic perspective, and I have tremendous respect for those who can engage in it objectively, non-dogmatically, and from a doctrinally neutral perspective.

But the Fall was perhaps the single most devastating event in human experience.  From the idyllic setting of perfection, a paradise of fellowship between God and all his Creation, a single act, followed quickly by another effectively broke the Creation.  Not just a little piece of it, but all of it.  The perfect became imperfect.  The complete became incomplete.  And all of Creation groans for redemption from that brokenness.

I have thought long and hard about this story.  Obviously, if God had intended for this never to happen, he could have denied mankind its free will.  But he did not, which suggests that although he suspected it would happen, he was willing to give humanity a chance.

Over the succeeding few generations, things got progressively worse.  By Noah’s time, evil had reached a peak and even God was sorry he had created such as mankind.  But he wasn’t ready to give up.  The slate was wiped (almost completely) clean and Creation started over.

Only to repeat the process of failure and loss and descent into imperfection.

And then, after generations of failure and partial restoration and deeper failure, he presented humankind with a new way of being: while the concept had been there from the beginning, the way of Love was cast in no uncertain terms as an alternative to the depravity of a broken, fallen system.  The coming of Jesus into the world restored a sense of goodness and directed any and all who would accept it into a life beyond the self, into a life that would channel the perfection of the original perfect Creation into a corrupted world.  And it was then as it is now based on Love and Service and Sacrifice.

So many who claim to follow that Way do little to show it.  When we complain about everything and condemn all that we disagree with, we are not children of a loving God, but instruments of a vengeful one.

If God made the world as perfect, is it not logical to conclude that it would be his will that it be restored?  The beautiful and moving passage in the Revelation of John declares, “Behold, I am making all things new.”  I saw where someone once said that he didn’t say “I am making all new things,” but the emphasis was on the restoration of what had been from that elusive, singular point of origin, the Creation.  In fact, the same could be said of how he handled the restoration of the Creation after the flood:  the Earth had not been sterilized or cleansed of all evidence of a previous state.  It was restored using pre-existing materials—i.e., living things, species including humans.

I cannot help but agree that the world is indeed broken.  And I cannot help but think that so much of what we see today is more related to a disconnect from the perfection of Creation and the perfection of that Way that Jesus so eloquently lived.  Of Jesus, Peter said in Acts that “he went about doing good.”

Consider a few examples.  Because of generations of systematic oppression and suppression, when a young black man is killed at the hands of law enforcement, a movement arises that declares, “Black lives matter.”  I fully concur: black lives matter, and so do white ones, and brown ones…. We all matter.  But when white people, and people of faith at that, automatically take up the unconsidered position that the anger brought about by a questionable or at least questioned killing is completely unfounded and unjustified, they essentially telegraph the view that black lives don’t matter.  This is an unloving expression of racism, and it is not consistent with a drive toward the restoration of a perfected Creation.

When a furor erupts over who can use a restroom assigned to be used by people of a specific karyotype, we are not displaying any understanding of how a broken world has affected a small minority of people who are not comfortable in their own “birth-bodies,” for lack of a better term.  The transgender restroom debacle may one day be seen as a point where people who claim to follow the precepts of love failed, not because they were trying to maintain a perception of God’s intent in the distinction between males and females, but by failing to lovingly deal with those who have from a very early age experienced a manifestation of that imperfection that happened as a result of that fateful event so very long ago, that rippled and echoed throughout all of Creation, darkening what was once bathed in light to a shadow of its former perfect glory.  To pledge violence and violation in response to a supposed danger from transgendered individuals is not in any way consistent with a restoration of a perfected Creation.

When people of faith support systems and measures that not only promote but ensure inequality, that allow wealth and power to be centralized in the hands of a few while the poor are oppressed, repressed and suppressed, this is inconsistent with a view that purports to herald and welcome a restored Creation.  Those with wealth have responsibilities to help those who have less.  It’s a principle from scripture, from the Old to the New Testaments.  But the Neoliberal co-opting of the socially and politically conservative element of the population has been so insidious and so complete that its anti-Christian foundations have been recast as being Biblical, effectively reversing the moral polarity and calling evil “good.”  (And no, Neoliberalism has nothing to do with what is commonly called Liberalism today.  For an excellent and thoughtful primer on Neoliberalism, see the article from The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/apr/15/neoliberalism-ideology-problem-george-monbiot?CMP=share_btn_fb .)  The hopelessness of an unending cycle of poverty, the broadening gap in life span between the rich and the poor, the worship of wealth and its celebration through conspicuous consumption are all contrary to living by principles of love and goodness.

So what is a solution?  Should we close down, wring our hands in dismay, mutter curses in between expressions of disbelief, dig our heels in and vow to fight no matter what?  Should we acquiesce to any and every trend, allow our principles to be compromised, accept all social changes?  Some see these diametrically opposed sides as the only possibilities.  But like it is with so many things in life, the solutions are not cut and dried.  And trust me, I don’t claim to have all the answers.

But I do know that for every action that is launched in spite and anger, the cause of love and peace is harmed.  For every threat made to inflict harm on a person or group with whom we disagree, nearly irreparable damage is done to that cause.  For every sin we angrily or arrogantly accuse another of, our own are hovering in the shadows, waiting to condemn us.

In the 20th Century, there were two great leaders of the non-violence movement whose thoughts fit well with this argument:  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “At the center of non-violence stands the principle of love.”  Mahatma Gandhi revealed, “Anger is the enemy of non-violence and pride is a monster that swallows it up.”  Love cannot be expressed in anger, nor can it be extended in pride and arrogance.  For a refresher on the characteristics of love, I Corinthians 13 is the place. Indignation precludes understanding.  Only by patient, rational consideration can we ever hope to understand that which opposes our values. If a quiet answer turns away wrath, shouting insults and threats will only engender it.

Here is the hardest part: we are conditioned to believe that since we are confident down to our very cores that we are in the right, we will always win when confronted with the social and moral dilemmas that accompany the moral entropy that is so evident around us. This is not always so.  Even though we want to believe it, there is a good chance on many issues that the opposition is insurmountable and we will lose.  How we respond to losing speaks volumes about not only our commitment but our character. If after losing on some point, we give up and refuse to face defeat again, we are not committed to our cause.  If we meet failure with anger and violence, we display a deeply and tragically flawed character.

Fretting over social changes, politics, and cultural drift will do little to maintain the central mission of doing good and giving hope by restoring even a small portion of a fallen Creation.  Contrary to what we may believe, today’s society has not sunk to the depths of 1st century Rome. We are not powerless in the face of change as long as we have faith and hope and love.  And continuing to do good in whatever way we can brings a little more of Heaven’s light to fight back the darkness.

So, yes, it’s a messed up world.  But we can make it better.  Like Jesus says in the parable of the talents, doing nothing, hiding the resources entrusted to us in the ground, is unacceptable.  The good we can do may be a little or it may be a lot.  But no matter what, we are expected to do something.

Beware the Sin of Sodom

Sin is a tricky thing.  It is always easier to see it in someone else than in ourselves.  A case in point is found in the Genesis story of Abram/Abraham and Lot.  You recall in the Abraham story that Abraham split the land with Lot.  Lot took the best, well-watered ground and Abraham was left with less desirable holdings.  Lot wound up living in the city of Sodom, whose rather prophetic name may be translated as “flaming” or “burnt.”

Sodom was indeed a wicked place.  God told Abraham that if he found 50 righteous men in all of Sodom, he would not destroy it as he had planned.  Abraham knew that was unlikely, and immediate set out to lower the required number.  To his credit, Abraham was trying to save his nephew and his family.  Perhaps the thought of so much death was frightening to Abraham.  God finally agreed to withhold his judgment against Sodom for the sake of 10 righteous people.

But that didn’t happen.

Most conservative Christians will point to a single issue as the trigger point of Sodom’s downfall: the apparent call for homosexual rape against Lot’s angelic visitors.  But that was merely one facet of Sodom’s sin.  Since not even 10 righteous people were found within its walls, it was a sin–or a suite of sins–shared by a population.  In Ezekiel 16 the prophet relates the words of God, “48 As I live, declares the Lord GOD, your sister Sodom and her daughters have not done as you and your daughters have done.  49  Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.  50  They were haughty and did an abomination before me. So I removed them, when I saw it.”

Of all the pertinent applicable lessons that could be learned from these three verses, I offer this:  Beware the sin of Sodom.  Today more than ever, we need to examine ourselves individually and as a nation.  Are we following in the ways of Sodom?  I am not speaking about the misplaced emphasis on homosexuality.  I am talking specifically about what God said through Ezekiel.

Having only the experience of being born in this country and living here all my life, I can only address my perception of this nation.  From our popular music to our bumper stickers, we are proud of our nation.  “I’m proud to be an American…”  And I can agree with some of that.  But when that pride prevents us from examining our faults and flaws, our policies and laws, our pride has become our downfall.  We are not perfect.  To declare ourselves perfect arrogates perfection: we claim what can never be reality in a fallen universe.

We have excess of food—or at least some do.  We are so careless and uncaring toward the needs of others that we have made food into sport.  We have eating contests where the object is nothing but thinly veiled gluttony.  We support all you can eat buffets, and the majority of the super-sized patrons of those establishments do not need to be there.  (As a person who has struggled with weight all my life, I’m talking to myself.)  We throw phenomenal amounts of food away.  When we have the means and opportunity to help feed a child or a destitute neighbor, our lawmakers opt to save money and cut aid to the needy.

While our people may work a lot, some say more than other industrialized countries, we do still have an enormous amount of leisure time.  The leisure industry spans electronics to motion pictures to sports, to recreational vehicles and travel resorts.  We focus more on our own leisure than on the survival of the less fortunate.

Sodom was prosperous, “but did not aid the poor and needy.”  God’s words.  They were haughty, and in their prideful arrogance, did “an abomination”, which was unspecified in the passage in Ezekiel.

God’s solution: “I removed them.”

That is a chillingly understated comment, if we take the Genesis account as true.  Sodom, and its sister city on the plain, Gomorrah, were utterly destroyed.

When we consider where we are, how we live, what we do, it is so important that we wake up and realize that as a nation, we are precariously close to Sodom.  But there is an answer to this condition.  God told Israel through the prophet Isaiah in the first chapter if his message, “16 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, 17 learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.”

When we cling to our perceived rights to things like firearms and fail to feed a hungry child, we are guilty of the sin of Sodom.  When we allow the sick to suffer because we are reluctant to regulate skyrocketing costs or pay for care, we are guilty of the sin of Sodom.  When we support an economic system that entrenches the poor in abject poverty and sends the vast majority of all of the wealth to a privileged few, we are guilty of the sin of Sodom.

The sin of Sodom was not merely sexual.  It was the systematic, predatory oppression of those without power.

In a favorite passage in Micah 6, the prophet speaks for God, saying, “8 He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”  Justice is equivalent to righteousness in much of the Old Testament writings.  Are we practicing true righteous justice in seeing that the needs of all are met before any take more?  Kindness as rendered here is also seen as mercy, elsewhere.  How merciful is it to allow money to take precedence over people, whittling away at safety nets and forcing the most vulnerable into the darker indignity of poverty?  The humility of walking with God is far from the pride we exude on a daily basis.

God defined the sin of Sodom for us.  And all we have to do to see it is look in the mirror, collectively speaking.

But sin is a tricky thing.  It is always easier to see it in someone else than in ourselves.

On Justice, Kindness, and Walking Humbly with God

As I have revealed in previous posts, I am a fan of country music.  Well, I guess I could refine that a bit and note that I am a fan of country music that was played during my formative years.  That may seem unfair to artists performing today, but so much of their music just seems to leave me cold.  My experiences are different from theirs.  I have little in common with them.  That’s probably why I shake my head in wonder and disbelief when I see a man chasing a woman young enough to be his daughter.  But that is a topic for a different essay.

I reflect on this because I was listening to a song written by Phil Vassar and made popular by Tim McGraw, titled “My Next Thirty Years.” It really captures a feeling that I have been harboring for a long time now.  Obviously the song is written from the perspective of a man turning that landmark 30 year milestone.  While it has been a while (ahem, a long while) since I’ve seen 30, the words always speak right to my heart.  Vassar says,

“My next thirty years, I’m gonna settle all the scores.

Cry a little less, laugh a little more;

Find a world of happiness without the hate and fear;

Figure out just what I’m doin’ here in my next thirty years.”

 You would think that I would have figured that out by now.  And I guess for the most part, I have.  But the future is a moving target, and ideas and aspirations change.

When I was a younger man, I wanted to really make my mark on the world.  I wanted to be involved in making things happen.  I wanted to be next to the captain, if not at the helm.

Then, while you aren’t looking, life happens.  You make choices that change your path.  Dreams shift from visions of grandeur to finding contentment.  And contentment is a biblically commended virtue.

But there is a part of me that can never be content.  I am a man who is impatient and far from content when I see suffering and injustice.  I cannot be happy and content in my comfortable life while others are struggling to exist. 

What bothers me most at times is that choices and consequences and unforeseen eventualities have hedged me in, preventing me from being able to travel to faraway places to help people in need.  It’s hard for me to be able to do as much after hours kinds of activity related to my job.  More directly, being the father of a growing boy on the autism spectrum, I must be ready to jump at a moment’s notice to deal with any of a plethora of problems that may arise.  Any time the phone rings, I wonder if it is word that he has gotten into trouble.  Again.  While most parents look forward to being able to relax a little as their children grow, I almost think the anxiety increases for parents of ASD kids.

Now, I stress again that I am not fishing for sympathy.  Far from it.  I accept my responsibilities, and shoulder the burden as best I can.  But when people wonder why I don’t get more involved in some activities, that is why.  While those responsibilities may constrain me physically, they cannot completely cloud my mind and prevent me from all measures of action and involvement.  That is one reason I teach and more pointedly, one reason I write: I hope that my words may resonate with someone, somewhere, and spur them to action, to greater things.

I have written often about the calls to social justice throughout the Old Testament.  Poverty, oppression, and injustice must never be tolerated as a norm.  That they exist is not a cause for acceptance of some cosmic status quo.  We are not subject to the same laws of entropy as the physical universe: we are more than leaves drifting inexorably downstream.  We have the power to change things.

That is why I have tried in a small way to be a voice for those who have none.  I have deep respect for organizations whose mission is to bring life-saving water to people who desperately need it.  I admire people who leap into action to alleviate suffering when disaster strikes.  I speak out often about the need to fully engage the enemy in the war on hunger.  That any child dies for lack of food makes me sad and angry and frustrated to think that there are people who have plenty who look the other way.  We are better than that. 

One of my favorite verses in all the Old Testament is from the “minor” prophet, Micah.  In Micah 6.8, the prophet says, “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”  How can I do justice if I turn away from need?  How can love kindness if I ignore oppression?  How can I walk humbly with my God if I refuse to share my blessings with others?  There are times that I ache to see and to be involved more in actions to bring help and hope to people in need.

So I have resolved that if I cannot go where help is needed, I can support those who can.  I can call attention to opportunities to join in with others to make change happen.  I know my friends probably grow tired of my solicitations for donations to good causes.  I cannot stop in my efforts, regardless of how weary they may become of my crying in the wilderness.  I hope, however, that they will join with me in giving even a little to these initiatives. Nothing gives me a greater sense of satisfaction than to know I have helped change the world, and to give someone I may never meet from somewhere I may never visit a chance to experience a better future.

I cannot help but think about Jesus’ vision of the Judgment in Matthew 25, where he describes the separation of the sheep from the goats, the saved from the condemned. 

“34  Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.  35  For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36  I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’

37  Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?  38  And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you?  39  And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’

40  And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

As I write this, it is March 22, 2015—World Water Day.  It is a day set aside to remind if not inform the world of how important water is to life.  Millions of people remain in need of basic necessities like clean water and life-saving sanitation.  There are many organizations that are actively working to bring clean water to those desperately in need.  Won’t you learn how you can help them?

http://water.org/

http://www.worldvision.org/

http://www.charitywater.org/

http://www.unicefusa.org/

http://www.savethechildren.org/

Racism

Every church has a history, and the churches of Christ are no different.  Anyone who has even passing acquaintance with this wing of the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement has heard of many of the names of the great leaders of the past, including the father/son Campbell duo, Barton Stone, Walter Scott, Moses Lard, David Lipscomb…the list could go on for quite a few lines.  In the 20th century, there were other famous personalities that were part of a definitive period of doctrinal debate and fellowship lines drawn in the sand.  Names like N.B. Hardeman, B.C. Goodpasture, Fanning Yater Tant, Roy Cogdill and Foy Wallace come to mind.  While these men wound up on different ideological sides of the institutional schism that would forever split the churches of Christ after World War II, through their voluminous writings, their voices still ring with fervor and more often than not, some variation on the theme of righteous indignation and/or condemnation for all who differed with them.

I recently came across a reprint of an article in the Bible Banner by Foy E. Wallace, Jr., dated March, 1941, in which the great warrior for the non-institutional faction poured out his venom on the horrible, soul-damning mixing of the races.

“The manner in which the brethren in some quarters are going in for the negro meetings leads one to wonder whether they are trying to make white folks out of the negroes or negroes out of the white folks. The trend of the general mix-up seems to be toward the latter. Reliable reports have come to me of white women, members of the church, becoming so animated over a certain colored preacher as to go up to him after a sermon and shake hands with him holding his hand in both of theirs. That kind of thing will turn the head of most white preachers, and sometimes affect their conduct, and anybody ought to know that it will make fools out of the negroes. For any woman in the church to so far forget her dignity, and lower herself so, just because a negro has learned enough about the gospel to preach it to his race, is pitiable indeed. Her husband should take her in charge unless he has gone crazy, too. In that case somebody ought to take both of them in charge.”

He went on later in the article to relate an incident experienced by the great N.B. Hardeman:

“When N. B. Hardeman held the valley-wide meeting at Harlingen, Texas, some misguided brethren brought a group of negroes up to the front to be introduced to and shake hands with him. Brother Hardeman told them publicly that he could see all of the colored brethren he cared to see on the outside after services, and that he could say everything to them that he wanted to say without the formality of shaking hands. I think he was right. He told of a prominent brother in the church who went wild over the negroes and showed them such social courtesies that one day one of the negroes asked him if he might marry his daughter. That gave the brother a jolt and he changed his attitude!”

In another memorable illustration, Wallace drew from his own experience at a gospel meeting:

“In one of my own meetings a young negro preacher was engaged by the church as a janitor. He made it a point to stand out in the vestibule of the church-building to shake hands with the white people. When I insisted that it be discontinued some of the white brethren were offended. Such as this proves that the white brethren are ruining the negroes and defeating the very work that they should be sent to do, that is, preach the gospel to the negroes, their own people.”

Now before you go off on the “It was a different time” speech, I’ve already thought of that.  And there is still no excuse for any of that sort of thought in any Christian, of any tribe or splinter group.  But I’m pretty sure that some of it is still there.

I am shocked at the apparent disgust that these preachers held for even shaking hands with a black man.  Were they so worried that the black would rub off?  Did they see dark skin pigment as a kind of inverse leprosy that required one not to touch?

I remember standing at the doorway of a church building one evening while two elderly white gentlemen were talking about the old days, and liberally using the “N” word.  I was shocked.  I was disgusted.  But I held my peace, to my own shame.  Both of those men are dead now, and I never rebuked their racism.

But I will not hold my peace any longer.

Wallace was wrong.  Hardeman was wrong.  Every person who listened to their racist diatribes and agreed with them was wrong.

Why would I say that?  It’s that pesky little old book called the Bible.

Maybe Wallace and Hardeman and every other racist church member had read the account in Acts where Peter was having his moment of doubt about delivering the gospel message to the Gentile.  In Acts 10, Peter’s vision culminates with the pronouncement from on-high: “15 And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has made clean, do not call common.”  (emphasis dlr)  Peter was perplexed by the vision, but the meaning finally dawned even on an uneducated Jewish fisherman.  “And he said to them, “28 You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean.” When Cornelius relates his story of answered prayer, Peter says, “34 So Peter opened his mouth and said: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, 35  but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” (emphasis dlr)

Yes, they had read it.  And they had read into it, too.  They had read “separate but equal.”  But that is not what God had said.

In Galatians 3, Paul—whose Jewish pedigree and training were second to none, who should have known that associating with another race was wrong if indeed it was wrong—wrote,

“23  Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed.  24  So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. 25  But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, 26  for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.  27  For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.  28  There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  29  And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.”     

If we indeed believe the words of the Bible, we must not be so selective in our readings as to allow institutionalized racism to continue in our churches.  The bile that Wallace spewed was truly disgusting.  The attitude of Hardeman in not shaking hands with an African-American was loathsome to the point of contemptible.  That Wallace would hide behind the Jim Crow laws in another part of the same article was despicable, and placed him on the wrong side of Peter’s declaration in Acts 5.29, “We ought to obey God rather than men.”

There is no way around it: racism is sin.  But as I think about it, while it may have been danced around in a discussion of James 2, I’m not sure I can recall if I have ever heard it specifically called such from a pulpit.  I do not know if Wallace or Hardeman ever repented of their overt racism.  I can only hope they did.  I know their influence likely had far reaching and very negative impacts on the African-Americans who were by choice, by faith and by the acceptance of a color-blind God their brothers and sisters.

In the tiny congregation where I maintain my membership, I have seen good and Godly African-American brothers come to be a part of our family—come to be accepted, loved, respected and honored as any brother should be.  One of those men was paralyzed, but not in his heart and mind.  One wanted more than anything to preach the Gospel and serve his God in the best way he knew how.  Both of those men died well before their times.  I cried many tears when they passed away.  I would love to hear their strong voices again, shake their hands, and worship together with those gentle souls with no regard for color or disability.  We were brothers.  I loved them.  I miss them.  And I look forward to a time when we shall all be together again, though not in imperfect bodies in this fallen and decaying world.

I hate the thought of racism anywhere.  But in the church, it must not, it cannot be tolerated.  There is no “separate but equal” in the body of Christ.  There is only equal and precious.  Let there be no whispered epithets.  Let there be no “us” and “them.”  In God’s eyes, we are one.

Jesus said to his disciples, “You are the light of the world.”  Physics tells us that visible, “pure” white light is actually composed of all the colors of the spectrum.  Without all of them shining together, the world could never look quite right.  As I see it more and more every day, this tired old world needs pure, bright, unified light, maybe more than ever.  Maybe we should really listen to Jesus, take our place in that great spectrum of light and shine on.   

…and another thing: further thoughts on the dangers of extreme conservatism

As I was thinking about my recent posts on conservatism, I remembered I had written a few short pieces as Facebook notes during the 2012 election cycle, and I dug one out that seemed particularly relevant.  It may become more so as Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan is likely weighing a run for the White House in 2016.  Only time will tell if his twisted philosophy will play well with what I hope will become a more enlightened and compassionate public.  What can I say? On the other hand, this is a lightly edited but shameless attempt to create blog content in my race to 100 posts.  

The following are two quotes from Ayn Rand, whom the 2012 GOP vice-presidential nominee has credited with being instrumental in the formation of his beliefs.  Mr. Ryan even helped organize the 2005 “Celebration of Ayn Rand” in honor of her 100th birthday, by securing the room for the Atlas Society gathering.  As late as 2009, he made video clips praising her work and for what he called the best case for the morality of laissez-faire capitalism.  In 2012, he began distancing himself from his ideological mentor when he began to be considered as running mate to wealthy business man and former Massachusetts governor, Mitt Romney.   

 “If I were asked to serve the interests of society apart from, above and against my own—I would refuse, I would reject it as the most contemptible evil.”  

 “I swear by my life, and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.” –Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged

The book is chock full of other vicious, spiteful, hate-inspired, self-centered comments that are being hailed by some conservatives–especially of the Tea Party persuasion–as great virtues.  However, for those who are adherents of the Christian faith, so much of the Randian philosophy that has recently invaded the conservative leadership and trickled down to the rank and file is completely and utterly opposite to Christian teaching.  In fact, this may be the only part of trickle-down theory that actually works. 

Perhaps the most directly practical book of the New Testament is the Letter of James.  He put a fine point on what it takes to actually live by a Christian standard.  The following excerpt from James 1:27 – 2:17, I believe, is in direct opposition to Rand’s Virtue of Selfishness.  The emphases are all mine, and serve as an outline of the central arguments of the text.

27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this:  to visit  orphans and widows in their affliction, and  to keep oneself  unstained from the world.

2 My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ,  the Lord of glory. 2 For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, 3 and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,”  while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” 4 have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become  judges with evil thoughts? 5 Listen, my beloved brothers,  has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be  rich in faith and heirs of  the kingdom,  which he has promised to those who love him? 6 But you  have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who  drag you  into court? 7 Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable  name by which you were called?

8 If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture,  “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. 9 But if you  show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point  has become accountable for all of it. 11 For he who said,  “Do not commit adultery,” also said,  “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under  the law of liberty. 13 For  judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.

14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith  but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

We each have responsibilities to help others as we can.  However, the first of Rand’s quotes above is a complete rejection of loving one’s neighbor (what Jesus referred to as the second great commandment behind loving God) and seeing to his or her physical needs.  Government, in a time of tremendous economic upheavel, stepped in to help support the elderly and the poor.  Many see these as good things, others as contemptible.  Are there abuses of the system?  Of course.  Does it need review and revision?  Constantly.

But back to the clash of philosophies and to draw one more conclusion: You cannot accept the selfishness of Randian Individualist/Objectivist position and still hold to the teachings of Jesus Christ.  Remember the story of Satan’s temptation of Eve?  He simply said, “You will NOT surely die.”  A simple negation to supplant authority and plant doubt.  Rand does the same thing: “Money is the root of all good.”  Rand says, “You have no duty to anyone but yourself.” (vs. Ecc 12:13, “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.” ) You could go on for pages finding the contradictions to Christianity, but they’re apparently OK, since this is economics and culture, we’re talking about and not religion. 

Well, I cannot separate my faith from my life.  It informs me.  If I now embrace the objectivist teaching in whole or in part, I have achieved nothing but dissonance with the principles of my faith.  And Jesus said, no one can serve two masters. 

Many people will try to cast this individualism as the ultimate expression of American patriotism.  They will say that we are taking back our country if we follow the Rand-inspired Pathway to Prosperity.  They will turn every bit of vice in the Randian “scriptures” into virtues.  In the Old Testament, Isaiah 5.20,21 raised an alarm that is as true today as when it was penned:    

 20 Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness,who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! 21 Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, and shrewd in their own sight!

I have spent many hours reading, connecting, trying to make a case that this form of self-centered philosophy is far from the character of a Christian.  I have found numerous links that demonstrate the diametric opposition of these opposing worldviews.  I have shown how some of these things are being played out.  I don’t want to live in Ayn Rand’s laissez-faire dystopia.  I would rather live in a world where I could depend on my neighbor, and he can depend on me. 

And contrary to what some people think, money isn’t everything. 

Of Squandered Birthrights and a House Divided

 

It was a hot day, and the young man, elder of a set of twins, came tramping back into camp after an exhausting hunt. He saw that his younger brother was cooking a stew that at the moment seemed to be the greatest thing the older brother could think of. He was starving and he needed to eat, not later, but right then. He demanded food.

The younger twin was a crafty one. He could see that his brother was hungry, but he was in no wise at the point of death. He also knew his brother was impetuous to the point of being frivolous at times. He would use his brother’s volatile nature and the immediate circumstance to his advantage.

The younger brother offered a bargain: a bowl of red stew with lentils and some bread for the birthright promised to the eldest son. No longer would that older brother be the next family priest. No longer would he receive the double portion of the inheritance from their father. Not being able to see into the future or hear any reason above the growling of his stomach, the older brother hastily agreed. One careless oath and he changed his life forever.

In fact, he changed history.

I would imagine that most people reading this essay would be familiar with the story of Jacob and Esau from Genesis 25. So many lessons could be learned from this. I am always amazed at how Jacob came out on top, even though he stooped to subterfuge to secure his father’s blessing. But then, there are many other examples of people being blessed despite their actions: David, Solomon, Abraham….

But as I think about Jacob, Esau and the current political climate, I see an interesting parallel. In a very real sense, we risk selling our birthright for a tainted bowl of someone else’s dreams.

Why would I say that? Because I see a people whose hard fought heritage was won at great cost, the lives of so many brave people, and we are on the verge of selling that birthright that they secured to the highest bidder. Too many of our politicians have been bought by corporate dollars and they try to sell the rest of us to a group of people whose interests don’t range far from their bank accounts.

In a letter to Col. William F. Elkins dated 21 November 1864, US President Abraham Lincoln wrote words that seem disturbingly too close to fruition.

“I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. . . . corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed.”

Like Lincoln, I am frightened by what I see happening in this Republic. I am saddened that so many good people have bought the bill of goods being offered by a misguided conservative movement that is driven by nothing more than conserving someone else’s money. Even though I remember hearing about compassionate conservatism, I see more condescension than compassion in most of the so-called conservative leaders. And I see more corporation than cooperation in their actions and attitudes.

The left is not much (if any better) in that, while they are admirably fixated on social justice and fairness, they attempt to legislate a singular view of morality on all, and often that view conflicts with a slate of traditional values that many moderates and conservatives hold dear.

After many years of consideration, I have come to realize that in politics like in so many other aspects of life (including religion), the better path is not at either extreme. The better path is much more toward the middle ground. Someone may quote the Revelation, and say that it would be better to be hot or cold and not lukewarm. I agree. But that passage does not refer to ideological extremes. I believe it refers more to actions: either be on fire or be cold ashes. That way, we know where you stand. Half-hearted displays are worse than nothing, and may be more counterproductive than a fully negative one.

Why is the middle ground a better place? Let me offer one example. This one will be controversial, I’m sure, but here goes: I believe in a reasonable, mentally stable person’s right to own firearms. But I do not believe an average person needs to own a fully functional assault weapon. I have no problem with well-regulated hunting and carefully monitored target sports. I have no problem with owning a weapon for personal protection. But I do have a problem with a person stockpiling thousands of rounds of ammunition for no apparent reason other than they fear Armageddon or some other socio-economic/political collapse. There is a middle ground where the rights of citizens can and must be balanced with common sense. Your right to own a gun is fair and should continue. But your right to firearms should end if or when my life becomes endangered.

While I find some aspects of conservatism admirable and I dearly love many politically, fiscally and socially conservative people, I am increasingly dismayed at the stark inconsistencies I have witnessed during my years of social and political awareness. I believe I have the right to comment on this, since I made my camp among the ranks of extreme conservatism for many of those years. I supported every conservative candidate who ran for office because I feared for the safety and future of the nation if the liberals won. I remember being extremely depressed the night Bill Clinton defeated George H.W. Bush way back in 1992. I commiserated with my brother when one of us, I can’t remember which, said, “There goes the nation.” But the nation did not disintegrate, despite the apparent sexual escapades of the President. In fact, the economy was robust and expanding, and there was actually cooperation that occurred between the two major political parties in America–when they weren’t fighting over the President’s morals.

Over the years, I have come to see a darker side to the conservative movement in America. I have seen the views and opinions and beliefs of good moral people being corrupted by a corrupt group of conservative leaders, who themselves have been bought and paid for by people who have an agenda that revolves around consolidation of power and the aggregation of greater and greater wealth. What was once a movement based on moral values has become corrupted with a perceptible undertone of greed and a reluctance to support the government’s rendering of assistance to the poor and needy. What was once a philosophy of personal accountability with responsibility to others, like George H.W. Bush’s “Thousand Points of Light”, or George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism”, has become synonymous with what can only be described as a meanness born of greed and indignation despite the needs of others.

Some of the most ardent conservatives are single-issue voters focused on stopping abortion. I understand and respect the sentiment. But perhaps one of my greatest concerns with pro-life elements of the extreme conservatism movement is that many of these people—not all—consider the pro-life stance to stop at ending abortion. However, many of these same people are either actually or coincidentally opposed to supporting children that weren’t aborted, especially if that support is funded by tax dollars. Conservative pundits are on record as opposing government funded summer feeding programs for inner city children because it makes them “dependent” on the government. If they have no other means of support, how can these children ever break the cycle of poverty? Are we really ready to adopt a Malthusian worldview that accepts human suffering as merely a consequence of limited resources failing to meet the demands of a burgeoning population? Are we really ready to embrace the Dickensian paradigm of letting the poor die “to decrease the surplus population”? It is inconsistent to the point of hypocrisy to oppose both abortion and aid for poor children.

I know that some suggest that conservatives merely prefer that the government not take their wealth and “redistribute” it to the poor. They themselves should be allowed to do that—or not—since after all, it is a free country—for now—and their money is indeed their own. If we lived in the best of all possible worlds, and every person took it upon himself to really, judiciously and even (dare I say it?) liberally (that’s a biblical expression, not mine) give to the poor, then such government action would not be necessary.

In reality, this nation had a century and a half to make good on that. But we didn’t. Remember the “Gilded Age”? That was a time when the rich robber barons made fantastic fortunes at the expense of the poor, and little, if anything, was done to really help those who made that wealth possible. Money was everything and human capital was cheap. Wages in America were comparatively higher than in other parts of the world, sparking a flood of immigration, but working conditions were appalling. Industrial safety measures were non-existent; child labor was exploited to the detriment of countless poor children. There was no “safety net” to help people with health care nor was there a “safety net” to help the poor who had reached a point where they could no longer work.

Franklin Roosevelt’s policies, what some would call his radical social engineering, changed America likely forever, but the outcome is hotly debated among the ideological camps arrayed along the liberal/conservative axis. Social Security and federally guaranteed health programs have been a boon to countless poor and elderly who, through no fault of their own, may have never had the opportunity to amass a significant enough reserve to see them safely through retirement in any measure of comfort and dignity.

Ah, but the churches can help. And many do. But there are those churches that do not see a corporate obligation to help the poor, and even grudgingly aid the poor and needy of their own congregations. They place the responsibility fully on the members, who may or may not be involved in helping the poor. After all, we were taught by Jesus not to call attention to our charitable works, not allowing the right hand to know the actions of the left. They fail to read the early chapters of Acts except for compliance with a perceived plan of salvation. They fail to apprehend the example of the collective outreach to needy people, even those among their own numbers, with accounts such as those involving the pooling of proceeds from the sale of personal property to distribute to any who had need.

At the same time, I tend to agree with the conservative caveat, that it is incumbent on the poor to do everything in their power to help themselves. The object of government aid should never be indefinite support for those who can at least in part support themselves. In fact, the object of aid should be helping the able to reach a point of increased if not full self-sufficiency. After all, you can’t pull yourself up by your bootstraps if you don’t have a boot to begin with. A hand-up trumps a hand-out, at least for a person of integrity and possessing at least a modicum of pride. However, there are those who cannot support themselves by reason of age or infirmity. As a caring people, we must not marginalize the most vulnerable.

The modern conservative movement is funded in large part by a small group of very rich business people. They make no bones about their own extreme Libertarian leanings, preferring less, or in some cases, no regulation at all levels of government, including deregulation of the financial industry and relaxed regulation on the environment so that their profits will not be diminished by restoration, reclamation, or rehabilitation efforts and costs. They oppose a proliferation of assistance programs, and would prefer a sharp diminishing if not a full discontinuation of some of those now in existence.

But those regulations are in place to help and protect real people, not corporations’ profits. The global financial collapse of the last decade happened in part because of corporate greed and a lack of appropriate regulations to corral that greed and prevent it from reaching catastrophic proportions. If we allow corporations to put profit above the lives and livelihoods of regular people, we will have sold our birthright. If we destroy our environment for the sake of some rich corporation’s exploding profits, we will have sold our birthright. If we starve the poor to pad a rich man’s portfolio, we will have sold our birthright.

If we no longer “…hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”, we will have sold our birthright. If we fail to respect “…that to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just power from the consent of the governed,” we will have desecrated the memory and achievement of those who sacrificed so much to guarantee those freedoms we were once promised, we now enjoy, but may one day realize we have lost. When we turn over our government and allegiance not to our own lawfully elected leaders, but those selected and bought by would-be plutocrats, we will have sold our birthright for the flimsy promises and self-serving schemes of a small group of self-important men who would be our masters. Money may indeed make might. But money does not always make right. In most cases, far from it.

The politics of extremism, whether right or left, is either too liberating or too restrictive. Neither unyielding conservatism nor inflexible liberalism will ensure the blessings of liberty for anyone. But there is a middle ground where progress and profit are tempered with compassion, where all may benefit regardless of social class or circumstance. That may compromise extremist ideology from either direction, but not genuine reason. Contrary to what conservatives may espouse, life is not always black and white, nor is it only shades of gray as extreme liberals purport. Life is a tapestry that mingles both threads, apparently shading in gradients, but we must be cognizant of all of its constituents and attentive to the subtlety and nuance of each situation.

People embrace extremism for many different reasons. Some believe undiluted conservatism is more in line with their faith, while others see staunch liberalism as doing the same. Both are dangerous, because they lead to judgmental exclusivism and to the unwillingness to compromise on any issue. Some embrace liberalism because they believe it sheds the chains of what they see as antiquated philosophies, beliefs, or a restrictive morality, while others view extreme conservatism as the surest means to increased personal liberty. Again, both of these are dangerous because they lead to an anarchic state in which each person becomes a law unto himself. Ironically, this results in each person being imprisoned by his own circumstance, constantly defending what is his from any and all interlopers.

I like what President George H.W. Bush once said: “I am a conservative, but I am not a nut about it.” In my own experience, I was once an avowedly extreme conservative. Now I am not. But I am not an extreme liberal, either. I truly believe that somewhere in between these extremes lies a place where we can all peacefully coexist, where we can balance rights and responsibilities, and where we can experience personal liberty while protecting and caring for others, not haphazardly and unpredictably as individuals, but corporately and in an organized fashion as a caring nation. While we continue to fear threats from outside agents, perhaps the greatest threat to us as a blended society is really none other than us, as witnessed by our unwillingness to tolerate any view outside our own, whatever that view may be. We should remember that contrary to what some leaders may assert, God has not endorsed either American political party, nor has he shed his grace on only one ideological fraction of this country. We are strongest when we stand together. We are most vulnerable when we tear each other down. If we choose the politics of division over that of respect, good will, and genuine cooperation, we will only reap destruction as a house divided. Liberal, moderate or conservative, I’m not sure any of us really want that.