Monday, December 1, 2014

The Dathans in our midst

Many of you remember the character of Dathan, a “chief Hebrew overseer” played by Edward G. Robinson in the movie “The Ten Commandments.” One Egyptian official mentioned that he was “willing to sell [his] own mother” to remain in power, as he was assigned to find a prophesied deliverer among the Hebrews in order to keep them in bondage to the Egyptians. Of course he correctly identified Moses as such, and Moses ended up being banished.

And when Moses actually came back demanding the release of the Hebrews, guess who opposed him to the end? Dathan — even though he left with them during the Exodus.

I bring this up because folks are wondering why blacks aren’t rejoicing in the election of Tim Scott and Mia Love, the first black Republican U.S. Senator elected since Reconstruction and the first black Republican woman to get elected to the lower chamber of Congress respectively. They understand that the political right that runs the party and that both subscribe to today has always opposed their progress, so they really don’t care. Moreover, Love has said that, when she gets to Washington, she intends to undermine the Congressional Black Caucus.

Good luck with that, Mia.

One thing that shouldn’t need to be, but apparently must be, said: The first African-American to achieve high office has always — always — been politically liberal. So by the time a black conservative gets anywhere the novelty has worn off. Moreover, when an African-American gets to such a lofty place it's assumed that things will change, that the halls of power will be more accessible to people of color.

So what does this have to do with Dathan? Well, consider that black conservatives often make a lot of noise about challenging the black establishment, which is probably how they get attention in the first place. But they prove ineffective because blacks don't put up with them for a second, not to mention that if they even try to engage other African-Americans they would be chewed up and spat out.

So what does the ascension of Love and Scott mean? Nothing, whether short- or long-term.

Friday, November 28, 2014

No Republicans in my family

I spend most holidays with my mother, my brother and his family and occasionally with his in-laws (my sister-in-law is one of seven children). Things can get loud, with all their children, and occasionally you’ll hear debate among the men on college and professional sports. We come from all walks of life, whether coming from the ‘hood or having gone to college and attained professional positions. Most of us attend church somewhere.

However, if you attend one of our family gatherings you’ll never, ever hear any debate on politics, and when the subject does come up we’re pretty much on the same page. To make a long story short, we all maintain a healthy contempt for the right-wing worldview.

In other words, there are no Republicans in the family.

Does that sound strange? Well, consider that we’re all African-American except for one white man who also married into that family (and even he’s with us). And if you understand the history of the black man in America, you’d understand why modern conservatism is so extremely radioactive.

For openers, we tend to be a cynical lot, rarely taking anything at face value — in other words, we assume that people are trying to do a snow job on us. Yes, we pretty much recognize propaganda when we see it, and as a consequence our trust has to be earned over time. We need to be engaged, to learn how a particular issue would benefit or hurt us. (Just like anyone else, the truth be told.)

We are very suspicious toward people who would try to remove power from us because historically we haven’t had all that much, if any at all. It’s why we react so strongly when groups try to keep us from voting, especially when they know they won’t get our votes.

When folks denounce black leaders as “stirring up racial trouble for the sake of feathering their own nests,” we roll our eyes; that empty charge is as old as the hills because it represents a distraction from the reality that they don’t want or intend to deal with us on equal terms. (By the way, that charge was also directed toward the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., especially during the campaign to desegregate Birmingham, Ala. in 1963.)

We no longer routinely call people racists just because they disagree with us, but when they promote policies that harm us down the road our collective antennae go up.

When people hear us complain about being victimized by police, keep in mind that we have a history of such; many of us have been stopped for no good reason except “suspicion.” Rapper Ice-T did the controversial song “Cop Killer” — including the line “I’ll get you before you get me” — in response to the abuse of Rodney King by Los Angeles officers. Although I’m not justifying rioting, that’s the kind of thing that often happens when, as Dr. King once said, people “are not being heard.”

When black conservatives are touted as potential Messiahs, we shake our heads because we suspect they’re being paid. (In 1997, I learned that to be true.) When folks try to insist that the Republican Party fought for civil rights and the Democratic Party opposed them or that Dr. King was a Republican, we scorn those tidbits of misleading revisionist history.

When people arrogantly say that we overwhelmingly voted for Obama in 2008 and ’12 just because of his color, we look at them cockeyed, as if to say, with apologies to John McEnroe, “You cannot be serious.” Were Obama white and his opponents black we still would have supported him.

We can forgive but are not about to forget these things, for as the late philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.” Not for nothing do the Jewish people say — justifiably — “Never again” in response to the Holocaust.

Most people probably don’t understand what I just wrote, but only because they haven’t spent much or any time with us. They don’t know our history or perspective, which we will gladly share if they would sit down and talk with us. We wish that people would get to know us as individuals within our cultural framework and understand that there are certain things that we cannot and will not accept. Perhaps they need to join us for one of those gatherings and really connect with us.

Although I can’t tell you just where we’re holding Christmas dinner.

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 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.