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 Revs. 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 … than 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.