Monday, April 26, 2021

“My Bible Says…”

 

…has become a favorite go-to introductory phrase for many who are not initiated into the complexities of intense, in-depth study of Scripture. And they could be right. There are more than 450 English translations of the Bible, and none of them are identical. Search long enough and one probably can find a version that says what one wants it to say.

American Christian lay persons, especially in some more conservative groups, have been led to believe that Bible study is simple: just draw your chairs in a circle and each one read a verse and say what it means to me. And a growing attitude in conservative Christianity—parallel with an increasingly prevalent attitude among American conservatives in general—is that education is a detriment to faith. Theological seminaries, says the attitude, are “theological cemeteries.”

Biochemist and “Sci-Fi” author, Isaac Asimov, wrote, “There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

In a recent interview, FOX host, Tucker Carlson, said college education “diminishes us,” and “everyone should opt out.” He indicated the only real value in college education is “discrete knowledge” applicable to specific professions and careers. Medicine and engineering are two that he mentioned.

Always a dangerous idea, disregard for knowledge is never more dangerous than when applied to the study of ancient Holy Writ. Such a warped genre of faith expression is a spin-off: Calvinism gone amok. Faith is replaced with knowledge (Oral Roberts used to say, “I know that I know that I know…”), and questions are no allowed. Trust is replaced with certitude, and “being right” is the goal of all spiritual endeavors (because, while grace is preached, the actuality of that strain of Christianity is a “works righteousness” that says our relationship with God and our eternal destinies are determined by the correctness of our doctrine. ). And intelligence and integrity are measured largely by whether one “agrees with me.”

But here’s the thing: there are multiple doctrines claiming to be “right,” although virtually none of them are identical. Somebody has to be wrong! (Which is precisely why we need grace!)

What we must realize at the very beginning is that when we open any version of the Bible, we are reading a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy… ad infinitum.

Did somebody just play the “divinely inspired” card? With more than 450 English versions, and thousands of older (even ancient) manuscripts, scrolls, and fragments of various parts of the Bible written in multiple languages and dialects over several hundred years, none of which are identical, which is the divinely inspired one? And just because it’s “easy to read” doesn’t mean it’s true to the divinely inspired original documents, none of which exist today.

I don’t introduce all these issues and challenges just to stir the pot or to raise doubts. There is a valid, dependable way to arrive at a trustworthy understanding of Scripture that sustains the intent of the One who inspired it. But note: the understanding will be “trustworthy,” not certain. “The Word” is true—absolutely. But, limited as we are by the clay of which we humans are made, we do not possess the ability to know anything absolutely. At best—AT BEST—we will read and understand by faith, the opposite of which is not doubt, but knowledge.

I am not a medical professional. I don’t understand the mechanics of genetics or infectious diseases or immunology; therefore, I have to trust those who have devoted their lives to the healing arts. Of course, there are a few proverbial bad apples in every barrel, and while some medical professionals are seduced by the siren music of questionable applications and practices, and while others succumb to the temptations of profiteering, and while non-medical sources may politicize certain aspects of health care (e.g., immunizations), the overall consensus of reputable professionals almost always is the best path to follow.

I seriously doubt that any of those who comprise the overall consensus have dedicated their lives to the study and practice of healing just so they can mislead the public. I trust the consensus of mainstream medical science, and I accept its recommendations by faith.

The same holds true in any profession. I have a friend who is a petroleum engineer. He tells the oil companies where to drill. He studies multiple factors, such as the history of an area and its geological structure. He uses seismic technology. He reads samples collected from trial drillings. Then based upon “the preponderance of the evidence” (his words), he says, “Drill here.” Evidence produces faith, not certitude. Some holes will be dry.

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. (Hebrews 11:1 NRSV) Speaking of God’s future time, Paul wrote, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” (I Corinthians 13:12 NRSV, emphases mine)

Most people are not professional theologians or biblical scholars. I have some training in both fields, and am conversant with the terminology; however, I have not engaged in the depth of investigation necessary to find “the preponderance of the evidence” within Holy Writ. I am dependent upon the work of those who have been thus engaged. In that regard, the primary difference between the general public and me is that (1) I am trained to use the resources produced by a consensus of mainstream theologians and biblical scholars, and (2) (maybe more importantly) I trust them.

I know the levels of study and research in which those professionals engage. I know the intensity of their dedication, and I don’t believe they have devoted their lives to their profession just to mess with people’s faith or to make us all liberals or communists.

There are two basic approaches to the study of Scripture. The first is to dig out what the Scriptures are saying. This is a clean slate discipline that endeavors to set aside all previously held ideas. It examines the available ancient texts in their original languages, and places them in their original cultural, historical, and religious contexts. They consider the placement of particular passage within the context of the broader reading. The general question is, “What was God saying to a particular people in a particular historical and cultural setting?” The task then becomes one of applying the ancient truths in our language, in our historical and cultural setting.

That approach is called “exegesis:” reading meaning “out of” the text; letting the text speak for itself.

The second approach is to assume the Bible’s message applies as is, de facto and en toto, to our time and to our culture, and to use the Bible as a tool for confirming ideas, creeds, and practices already in place. This approach is called “eisegesis,” reading meaning “into” the text. It sometimes is called “proof texting.”

It likely is evident that I advocate the former. I say, trust the mainstream theologians and biblical scholars. There is consensus among them, and the resources they produce are plentiful and useful.

If I may exercise a bit of self-indulgence, I suspect the most common reason the laity has difficulty with Scripture is not that it is so difficult to understand (although it is not easy!), but that the laity is not sufficiently motivated to dig into the study resources that readily are available. Devotional and inspirational sources sell; but in-depth study resources gather dust on book store shelves. Many also are reluctant to participate in studies led by those with competence in those resources.

I’m not concerned with what “your Bible” or “my Bible” says. My concern is with what “The” Bible says. And within the community of faith are those with the skills and resources I trust to guide me to the Bible’s truth.

That’s the way it looks through the Flawed glass that is my world view.

Together in the Walk,

Jim

Saturday, February 6, 2021

A National Dip Stick

 I am, by undergraduate degree, a scientist; a social scientist, in fact. I deal with data different from that of physicists, chemists, medical scientists, etc.; nevertheless, I use the same scientific method as they. I also have two postgraduate degrees, so I know something about research. And I have a smattering of training in statistics, so I know how to test the data I discover through research. I also know how to check out the conclusions drawn by others, and can usually recognize a red herring.

The upshot is that I’ve learned that I don’t really know much of anything absolutely. I gather a preponderance of evidence that creates a level of confidence in what I think I know. Bottom line: everything I do or say is based upon faith: trusting the process, whether I’m researching human behavior or a passage from the Bible.

In recent years I’ve grown increasingly concerned about the proliferation of belligerent partisanism in our culture, especially as demonstrated in the level of animosity on social media—what amounts to a pooling of ignorance and a glut of misinformed (or outright Uninformed) opinion and counter opinion (Hey, somebody’s gotta’ be wrong!)

I’ve tried to determine when, where, and how the hostilities began, hoping to find clues to how to bring some sanity to 21st century humanity. I’ve reviewed what I think I know, and I’ve done research (not nearly enough to justify another doctoral thesis), and I conclude it’s not a new reality. Man’s inhumanity to man[1] is as old as, well, humanity.

Partisan animosity enveloped the Continental Congress during the composition of the Declaration of Independence and on into the early years of the nascent United States. One need only recall numerous duels: Aaron Burr vs. Alexander Hamilton, Andrew Jackson vs. Charles Dickinson. Even some women got in on the action.

Some blame social media. I find no convincing evidence of that; although, some data suggests that social media has brought to light what already existed below the surface of social awareness. Social media basically is a dip-stick that measures the mood and attitude of our rampant partisanism.

I do, however, locate a significant “flash point” in America’s political mood swing toward angry intolerance. 1968 was a year not easily forgotten by those who lived through it and were politically aware. Riots triggered by Vietnam protests erupted in Chicago during the Democratic National Convention. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated. All this and the Vietnam conflict itself were brought into our living rooms via television. Public awareness was raised to unprecedented levels, and essentially never receded, although it remains tribally opinionated.

But the event that effectively drew the line in the sand happened four years later in the break-in to the Democratic National Committee headquarters in a Washington, DC office complex called Watergate. Implicated in the break-in and subsequent cover-up attempts, President Richard Nixon resigned, and the GOP has been out for revenge ever since. “Worse than Watergate” became a go-to claim every time a political opponent was caught with his hand in the cookie jar:

·         Chappaquiddick (“Bridgegate”) (Democrat): “Worse than Watergate”

·         Rigged Public Opinion Polls (Republican): “Worse than Watergate”

·         The Keating Five (4 Democrats and 1 Republican: “Worse than Watergate”

·         Iran-Contra (Republican): “Worse than Watergate”

·         Whitewater (Democrat): “Worse than Watergate”

·         Bush’s Iraq Coverup (Republican): “Worse than Watergate”

I could go on. And on. Ad infinitum. Ad nauseum. The die was cast at Watergate, and American politics—and the public’s perception of politics—descended into hell.

Revenge and counter-revenge so consume the major parties that constructive legislation is a pipe dream. The overwhelming appearance is that destroying a member of the “other” party, or blocking every legislative effort of the opposition takes precedent over the good of the country.

Truth no longer is based on evidence or documentation, but rather on party affiliation. We just don’t care if our guy or gal is guilty!

Ideology takes precedent over humanity, and any level of compromise is seen as a total surrender of values. (Values? There’s an oxymoron for ya’!)

I have a few Libertarian friends (and I cherish their friendship), and I don’t agree with them that “government” is de facto evil and bad. Government is a tool: no better or worse than those who wield it. But I find it very difficult to deny that the current state of our government totters on the brink of practicable counterproductivity. At best, it is distracted and ineffectual. Those few idealistic souls who enter the Senate or the House with hopes of making the world a better place soon are devoured by the corrupting influence of politics. In its present state there is little hope of constructive, positive, helpful legislation.

Rather than being a tool to actualize “a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity…” the government has become an end in itself.

But see, here’s the thing: we the people are caught up in the same vortex of self-destruction. The evidence I’ve collected suggests that instead of being a tool to produce the ideals of democracy, the government has become just like social media: a dip-stick to measure American culture. And what it measures is the residue of the “Me” generation.

Will Rogers said there are people in congress who shouldn’t be allowed to play with matches. Well, who put them there? Congress has become a mirror. Do you dare look into it?

That’s the way it looks through the Flawed Glass that is my world view.

Together in the Walk,

Jim



[1] Quoted from Robert Burns’ poem, “Man Was Made To Mourn: A Dirge”, 1784. Burns’ statement may have been a paraphrase of an earlier source, viz., "More inhumanity (to man) has been done by man himself than any other of nature's causes." Samuel von Pufendorf, 1673.

Saturday, January 30, 2021

Toward A More Perfect Union

 I’m reading A Promised Land, by Barak Obama, which brings current my process, begun in 2009, of reading at least one book by or about every United States President, beginning with David McCullough’s biography, Truman.

I was getting into Facebook about that same time, and quickly was drawn into the partisan belligerence that so characterizes that medium. I’m ashamed to say that I participated fully in the put-downs and the name-calling.

But something in me (my “God-in-Christ Link”, maybe?) kept bothering me about the animosity manifested in my Facebook posts, something wanting to strike out “in kind” against the negative, degrading posts filled with hostility and disrespect.

The books by and about Presidents called me in a different direction. Within the first few books I became aware that each President had something positive about his term and I initiated a conscious effort to find at least one significantly positive contribution by each President. As one might expect, that effort proved more difficult in some cases than in others; nevertheless, I have been able to find some good in each of the dozen Presidents from 33 through 45.

That effort was partly penance for the animosity of my early participation in the mindless political rants on social media—my indulgence in what, for the most part, remains a pooling of ignorance. 

I wasn't denying the deep problems within in the American ethos—the serious insider threats. But Facebook is not the problem. It’s a dipstick that measures the problem. Furthermore, I’m aware that my own experience there is biased: fewer than 20% of my 400+ online “friends” share my liberal perspective. I rarely see a balanced conversation; nevertheless, the elephant in the room remains: a deeply divided nation, catalyzed by extremist groups and riding the crest of a rigid, tribal, binary mentality created and nurtured by intentional use of distortions and misrepresentations of truth.

I found a different mentality in the easy camaraderie between the five (now four) living former presidents, including both Bushes, Carter, Clinton and Obama. A recent story relates a request made from President-elect Obama to President Bush during the transition between their respective tenures. Obama requested a get-together with the other four still living Presidents.

Mr. Bush cordially granted the request, and set up a luncheon at the White House. For two hours the three former Presidents and the outgoing one shared their wisdom and experience with the new kid on the block. I marked the reported cordiality and candor with which those five men related to one another. The disagreements that typified their political affiliations did not lead them into the mutual condemnation so common in political exchanges today.

Then, late in the afternoon of January 20, three of the remaining four from that White House luncheon (President Carter was ill) gathered to offer their support and availability to the new POTUS. In their interview, President Obama shared that they indeed had had their disagreements—even bitter disagreements, but they never forgot their common commitment to building “a more perfect union.”

That theme appears in the early pages of Obama’s book, A Promised Land. As Mr. Obama describes his first days as a United States Senator, he notes of a kind of collegiality that transcended the ideological differences. He writes:

“The old bulls of the Senate—Ted Kennedy and Orrin Hatch, John Warner and Robert Byrd, Dan Inouye and Ted Stevens—all maintained friendships across the aisle, operating with an easy intimacy that I found typical of the Greatest Generation. The younger senators socialized less and brought with them the sharper ideological edge that had come to characterize the House of Representatives after the Gingrich era. But even with the most conservative members, I often found common ground: Oklahoma’s Tom Coburn, for example, a devout Christian and an unyielding skeptic of government spending, would become a sincere and thoughtful friend, our staffs working together on measures to increase transparency and reduce waste in government contracting.”[1]

While I am conversant with Generational Theory, I hadn’t made any application specific to political styles and character. After reading that paragraph, I remembered the bitterness with which Robert Taft and Harry Truman fought during “working hours,” only to leave the bitterness on the table when the working day was over.

That same generation spawned people like Bill Buckley Jr., whose verbosity and wit could rip a guest to shreds during his television talk show, then he’d take his victim to dinner (Gore Vidal notwithstanding)..

But then came the “Me Generation,” AKA the “Entitled Generation”, and Generation X, and somewhere in that transition we the people lost our ability to remain civil in our disagreements.

Disagreement, when approached with the right spirit and information and communication skills, can produce positive and effective resolutions. But a significant portion of the current generation doesn’t want resolution, it wants confirmation and absolute conformity.

A thin line separates commitment and obstinacy, conviction and arrogance, assurance and blind dogmatism. That line is all that separates civility and barbarism. Some of today’s ideologues are oblivious to that line and unwilling to accept any possibility that they may be wrong about anything. When presented with facts, they simply declare alternative facts and continue their merry way. Truth and reality have no meaning for them. They simply fabricate their own truth and reality.

And so we have a raid on our nation’s capitol on January 6—a mob in full tantrum mode because they didn’t get their way.

In conflict resolution I always begin by asking both parties, “Do you really want to resolve the issue between you, or do you just want to win the fight?”

The January 6 riot was the residue of three generations of letting somebody else take care of the nation—three generations of apathy that produced a frighteningly large population of entitled people who just want to win the fight. They may be unreachable.

OF COURSE they don’t represent an entire generation. OF COURSE they don’t represent mainstream conservatism or liberalism. They represent the apathy and complacency of a reasonable majority which is capable, when we set their minds to it, of resolving almost any disagreement. The conservative English statesman and philosopher, Edmund Burke, wrote, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” We the people have done nothing far too long.

We have been reminded a number of times since January 6 that Democracy is fragile, and that it is, and always will be, a work in progress: a work toward “a more perfect union”. If our “more perfect union” ever is realized, it will be completely bi-partisan, acknowledging that there is some good in virtually every person and group and ideology.

That’s how it looks through the Flawed Glass that is my world view.

Together in the Walk,

Jim



[1] Barak Obama, A Promised Land (New York: Crown, 2020) p. 57.

Sunday, December 27, 2020

A Law of Medes and Persians?

Senator Robert Taft was a unique politician. Although a Republican—and a formidable political opponent of President Harry S. Truman—he wasn’t a cookie-cutter party clone; indeed, he had some serious disagreements with some of his own party members. If his principles were at stake, he chose principle over party.

In Profiles of Courage, John F. Kennedy said of Taft,

“Those who were shocked at these apparent departures from his traditional position did not comprehend that Taft’s conservatism contained a strong strain of pragmatism, which caused him to support intensive Federal activity in those areas that he believed not adequately served by the private enterprise system. Taft did not believe that this was inconsistent with the conservative doctrine; conservatism in his opinion was not irresponsibility. Thus he gave new dimensions to the conservative philosophy: he stuck to that faith when it reached its lowest depth of prestige and power and led it back to the level of responsibility and respectability.”[1]

What a concept! A politician whose principles embraced human need. I suspect he believed the oft-quoted axiom, “That government is best that governs least, because its people discipline themselves.”[2] In the simple eloquence of the sentence, I agree; however, I suspect few people recall, if they ever acknowledged, that last part: “because its people discipline themselves.”

Henry David Thoreau took the phrase further in “Civil Disobedience:”
“Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which I also believe, – ‘That government is best which governs not at all.’” However, Thoreau didn’t advocate his dictum as a rigid “law of Medes and Persians.” He qualified it thus: “…and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have. Government is at best but an expedient; but most governments are usually, and all governments are sometimes, inexpedient.”[3] (Italics mine)

In my lifetime the Medes and Persians have infiltrated America’s political right and are gaining increasing influence, plowing ahead without any semblance of Senator Robert Taft’s pragmatism. Today’s right would jerk the rug out from all who are dependent upon government relief, without regard to circumstance or to the validity of need. Indeed, the hell-bent drive to remove government pays scarce attention to any human vulnerability—or even worse, dismisses it carte blanche as the result of laziness and poor decisions, and thus unworthy of assistance. (“Let ‘em eat cake.”) To say the political right has prioritized principle over human need would be a gross understatement.

It seems obvious to me that the primary focus of the current Republican party is to remove all boundaries and limitations from the corporate world and to allow American economy to free-fall into abject oligarchy. In doing so, they totally disregard the second part of their beloved maxim, namely, “…because its people discipline themselves.” There is no indication that corporate American has any interest, intention, or ability to discipline itself. But, the political right expects the poor to discipline themselves.

I appreciate the few Republican Senators and Representatives who have refused to accept the ring through their nose, and who demonstrate some degree of free-thinking ability; but, alas, they are a shrinking breed.

What bothers me most about the sell-out to oligarchy is that some of its most visible and verbal spokespersons are Bible-thumping self-proclaimed evangelicals. I emphasize the term, “self-proclaimed,” because their behavior doesn’t align with the “evangel” (good news) from which the term originates.

Where does their evangelical oligarchy reflect, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me”? (Matthew 25:35-36 NRSV)

Where does it reflect, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (Matthew 19:21 NRSV)

Where does it reflect,

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

The clich√© cop-out is “But Jesus was addressing individuals, not the government. Let the individual philanthropists and the churches and the non-profits take care of that. Leave the government out of it.” (Meanwhile, let the government bail out the largest and wealthiest corporations in the world. You see, they want to be very selective about what areas the government should “govern least.”)

The cop-out misses a very important reality: philanthropists, churches and non-profits already are operating pretty much at full capacity, and their efforts and resources don’t begin to touch the enormity of need. Indeed, churches are in serious decline.

Which brings me back to John F. Kennedy’s comment about Senator Robert Taft, namely, that he believed in “intensive Federal activity in those areas that he believed not adequately served by the private enterprise system.”

I agree: “That government is best which governs least, because its people discipline themselves.” I agree: the current system of government assistance tends to foster dependence and parasitic abuse (although such examples are relatively rare). So, change the system to foster growth toward independence! It’s been done before—briefly! THEN let the government “govern least.” Such a radical suggestion is beyond the capacity of today’s blog. But stay tuned. There’ll be more.

That’s the way I see it through the Flawed Glass that is my world view.

Together in the Walk,

Jim



[1] John F. Kennedy, Profiles in Courage (New York: HARPERPERENNIAL MODERNCLASSICS,1956) p. 195.

[2] The quote is most frequently credited to Henry David Thoreau in Civil Disobedience; however, it appears earlier in “United States Magazine and Democratic Review,” founded in 1837 by John O’Sullivan.


Sunday, December 6, 2020

A Cult of Denial

 

Beyond COVID-19 (as if that weren’t bad enough!), we’re enduring a pandemic of denial. I have no corroborating data, and my sources are limited to social media, personal conversations, online or radio/TV sources, and the op-ed pages of a few printed sources. Nevertheless, within that limited scope, the denial pandemic is contained almost exclusively to the right of socio/political/economic center, and the farther right one goes, the more widespread is the pandemic.

Within my limited field of observation, the infecting virus seems to be “thuh guv-uh-mint.” If any manifestation of government is related in any way to any issue, there will be opposition and denial from the right of center. It makes no difference whether the issue is beneficial or destructive. If government is involved, it will be rejected.

I seriously wonder, had the government issued a prohibition against wearing masks, would we have seen . . . Oh, never mind.

An article in a recent edition of the Washington Post began,

Americans heard the pleas to stay home. They were told what would happen if they didn’t. Still, millions traveled and gathered during the Thanksgiving holiday, either doubting the warnings or deciding they would take their chances. Now, like any partygoer waking from a raucous weekend — feeling a bit hung over and perhaps a tinge of regret — the nation is about to face the consequences of its behavior and will need to quickly apply the lessons before heading into the doubleheader of Christmas and New Year’s.”[1]

Denial. It’s too early to determine the article’s accuracy; however, evidence from the overwhelming majority of leading medical scientists has been confirmed many times over since the pandemic began. Still, the cult of denial asserts its doctrine of liberal conspiracies, saying “leftists” are using the pandemic to seize power and to pad the pockets of the pharmaceutical industry.

Denial. Then there’s right-wing denial of the recent election’s validity. A question occurs to me: If the Democrats were going to “rig” the election, don’t you think they’d want to rig the senatorial votes, too?

The Post article concludes:

“Public health messaging needs to be retooled, as whole swaths of the country are simply tuning out the warnings from officials and experts.

“We have to rethink how we’re communicating. Blaming people, yelling at them, stigmatizing them — clearly it’s not working,” said Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Georgetown Center for Global Health Science and Security. “We have to show compassion and empathy. Understand where people are coming from and persuade them to do otherwise.”[2]

Improved communication always is a valid goal; moreover, I like the way the quoted virologist takes responsibility for trying to resolve the obvious impasse, rather than simply blaming the denying public. It's a good model for all of us! Still, if communication is to be dialogical, both sides must decide to listen—LISTEN—as well as to articulate their points. When minds are made up, …you know the rejoinder: “don’t confuse me with facts.”

And already, before a vaccine is ready to be dispensed, the deniers are up in arms. The anti-vaxxer cult published a recent meme on Facebook saying, “We have the flu vaccine; but we still have flu.” The implication is clear: it’s the antivaxxer theme song.

Yes, we still have flu. It’s a viral infection that needs annual vaccination because it mutates. The same likely will be true regarding the coronavirus. Moreover, only 40% of Americans utilize the influenza vaccine on a yearly basis,[3] thus diluting the vaccine’s overall effectiveness.

Furthermore, antivaxxer logic loses credibility totally when one considers vaccines for smallpox, diphtheria, polio, and other historic pandemics.

Moving on: consider the rampant denial of racism. Within my small circle of acquaintances, those who deny racism seem to take every comment about racism as a direct accusation that they, personally, are racist.

Hand-in-hand with the denial of racism is the denial of “white privilege.” White privilege does not imply that whites don’t encounter difficulties; but white people’s difficulties do not result directly from their skin color. It simply is not enough to be non-racist. We need to move toward a cultural climate of anti-racism.

The cult of denial is just one of many clearly identifiable characteristics of the deeply entrenched tribalism that divides our nation into antagonistic factions. The hostilities are accelerating, and I fear armed confrontation is inevitable unless the trend can be reversed.

The reversal of national antagonism depends upon the willingness of all parties to accept their human limitations, including the possibility that their ideologies are not infallible. At best, human ideologies represent partial truth. I repeat here my belief in absolute truth, although I believe it is humanly impossible to comprehend truth absolutely. Truth always is strained through the filters of human perception and circumstance. I refer to St. Paul: “…For now we see in a mirror, dimly…” (I Corinthians 13:12 NRSV)At best, our comprehension of truth is incomplete.

Every position along the left/right socio/political spectrum represents a relative imbalance vis-à-vis the greatest good to the greatest number of people, and about the needs of society versus the needs of the individual.

The Church is in the season of Advent, and I am struck by the parallels of human brokenness addressed by the Hebrew prophets eight centuries before Christ compared to the latest headline of any current newspaper. The words of the ancient trumpets of God remain as valid today as they were 2,800 years ago. The cynical Preacher was right: What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9 NRSV)

I see reality through the lens of a Christian pastor; nevertheless, virtually every major religious faith upholds similar ideals, and the truth, as I see it, is that human brokenness has not yet been surrendered to those universal truths that call us to peace and justice and love.

That’s the way I see it through the Flawed Glass that is my world view.

Together in the Walk,

Jim

Monday, November 16, 2020

Post-Election Reflections

 

Living in a Post-Election World; Leading in a Country Divided

Reflections on an Online Seminar sponsored by Christian Theological Seminary[1]

The Gospel of Mark begins with John the Baptist in the wilderness “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (1:4 NRSV). What strikes me about John the Baptist—is that he was nowhere near a church. And those who insisted on staying inside the church never heard his message—they NEVER got it!

Why the wilderness? because, in the wilderness, there’s only God; there’s no political system, no government, no economic system, no military or police system, no education system, no science, no social security, no insurance, no pensions, no locked doors…

I suspect every one of us has some idea where our own wilderness lies—and we all have long lists of good reasons we should not go there. 

And then, a pandemic hits.

And suddenly—we didn’t choose this; we didn’t plan this—we all are in the wilderness. Our political life is in chaos, our nation is a house divided, and there’s a pandemic that has become politicized and, in some cases, weaponized.

And over the past two weeks our election process disrupted what little was left of “normal” for us. Antagonistic lines were drawn in the sand many years ago, and the animosity and belligerence exchanged across those lines has exploded across social media, increasing daily in intensity.

So, how do Americans respond? And, in particular, how do people of faith respond? I am a Christian, and although I have respect for many other faith communities, I will not attempt to speak for any but my own.

First, we grieve. Grief is not just sadness; although, sadness is an obvious part of grief. Grief is a process that moves through stages toward healing. There is no logical or “normal” order to the stages of grief, even though they are relatively well-defined and observable. They don’t even have the decency to come at us one-at-a-time. And there’s no guarantee that an apparently resolved stage won’t reoccur.

Anger is one of the most disruptive stages of grief. Combined with other stages, its impact is intensified. A sense of numbness reduces one’s capacity for clarity of thought, and shock and denial redirect (often misdirecting) one’s energy and motivation. Other typical stages of grief include loneliness and even clinical depression.

My point is that grief is a normal response to any sense of significant loss, including the loss of dignity, sense of direction, or hope, and that grief is not a good platform from which to make significant decisions or to take significant action. It’s a part of our wilderness.

Second, but related to grief is the anxiety we experience in face of our revealed vulnerability. A part of our culture denies vulnerability as anything other than the result of laziness or poor decisions. Others may recognize the reality of personal and/or social vulnerability, but never expect to experience it.

Even with infections and deaths spiraling out of control, many continue to deny the seriousness of the current pandemic, and their obstinate refusal to take precautions becomes a major factor in our growing vulnerability, as well as the anxiety concerning said vulnerability.

I confess to no small degree of anger at the insensitivity and the willingness of some to use the health and life of my family and loved ones as gambling stakes in betting that their anti-science dismissal of the corona virus is right, regardless of the preponderance of scientific and medical evidence to the contrary--including over 235,000 related deaths, many of which could have been prevented.

And so, here we are in the wilderness.

And yet, as God’s people—as people of faith—this is not a strange place. We’ve been here before; we’ve done this before. Turn to Scripture stories of how the people of God were strengthened and led by God. Realize we are children of God, and not only have we done this before—God has done this before.

God is still our refuge and our strength, and this is a time, and these are conditions for us to put our faith into action:

a.                   …to look to value a person, rather than to denounce his or her position,

b.                  …to redirect our energies intentionally away from division. and

c.                   …for religious leaders to model an ability to work together, even across our differences!

Faith communities cannot impact the division until they come together, themselves. In a community I served some years ago there was intense racial friction. Whites were a minority, but controlled everything. The city was zoned so that there were four white and four black city councilmen. The mayor always was white. Every vote was 4 – 4, with the mayor casting the deciding vote. Local chapters of three nationally prominent ethnic gangs engaged in their turf wars. The community was wired for conflict.

There was an incident that threatened to ignite the volatile environment, and a weekly lectionary study group (all white clergy) issued a call for all clergy in the city to gather.

About 75 ministers, equally divided by ethnicity, showed up. After about an hour of polite-but-tense (and virtually impotent) conversation, one of the black ministers stood and said, “In this room I see black ministers who represent the perspective of Dr. Martin Luther King, and ministers who represent the perspective of Malcom X, and ministers who represent the perspective of the Black Panthers. How can we hope to unite across ethnic lines when we in the black community can’t even unite, ourselves?”

So, I repeat: “Faith communities cannot impact the division until they come together, themselves.” One way we can consider that is by developing an ability to communicate faith concepts without using faith language. Instead of demanding that the public understand our faith jargon, we could develop, instead, the ability, through listening, to communicate our message in the public’s language.

And finally, there is that stereotypical scapegoat: “the media.” There is a common, uncritical (let’s even say oblivious and irresponsible) diatribe that suggests “the media” is at the root of all our nation’s problems. The judgment is that “the media” forms our thoughts and opinions, as if we aren’t fully capable of considering evidence and coming to our own conclusions.

“The media” prints and broadcasts what its market will buy. Period. They reflect, rather than form, the values and ideologies of specific American markets. FOX publishes what a very conservative market will buy, while MSNBC (possible the ideological opposite of FOX) publishes what its market will buy. In all cases, the opinions, biases and ideologies of the market form the content of media publications, rather than the media forming the public’s ideology.

Of particular blameworthiness is social media: Facebook, Twitter, etc. These social media form a barometer—a dipstick—by which to measure to pulse and biases of America. And it’s all there in its raw ugliness. But it’s not the social media that is at fault! It is but the medium through which the American public vents its vile and hatred.

DON’T BLAME “THE MEDIA”!

But people of faith are called to a higher level of response. From the Christian perspective, the valid faith response to the allegation that social media (or “the media” in general) is forming our values is two-fold:

(1) we are totally responsible for our own response! Hatred and divisiveness happens only if we allow it. We are not obligated to respond in kind!

(2) self-knowledge is crucial. The issue is simple: who, or what, is the model by which we form our values and our character? Are we limited by the narrowly (and usually erroneously) defined categories that are flung around carelessly on social media? Or are we truly free to choose our own model? Are we responsible enough to study deeply into the roots and origins of the models we choose?

The voice of John the Baptist calls us to turn from uncritical acceptance of social values and character, and to choose responsibly. For me, my conscious choice is the life and teachings and sacrificial obedience of Jesus of Nazareth. My personal spiritual journey through these anxious and uncertain times is guided by this one vision:

“Day by day, Oh, dear Lord, these things I pray:

To see Thee more clearly,

Love Thee more dearly,

Follow Thee more nearly,

Day by day.”[2]

That’s the way it looks through the “Flawed Glass” that is my world view.

Together in the Walk,

Jim



[1] On November 5, Seminary President David Mellott moderated an online gathering of local faith leaders from different religious traditions. Recording available at https://www.cts.edu/cts-responds-to-anxious-and-uncertain-times/. These are my thoughts and reflections related to that event.  

[2] From the musical, “Godspell”, by Stephen Schwartz, book by John-Michael Tebelak. 1970.