Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The payback

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Anti-Christian persecution? Not so fast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

‘In God we trust’ – oh, really?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Both ends against the middle

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

— C.S. Lewis, “Mere Christianity”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The coming race wars?

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

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

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

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

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

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

And as for the accusations that the 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.