Category Archives: Politics

Balance of Power?

Three branches of government? Balance of power? Each branch with its own distinct role in preserving our democracy?

Every school child in America learns that the United States Constitution established three branches of government: “legislative Powers” in Article I, “executive Power” in Article II, and “judicial Power” in Article III. Continue reading Balance of Power?

The Emperor’s Parade on Gun Violence

Even when we see the carnage in Las Vegas of 58 victims dead and 527 injured—in yet another “deadliest shooting in U.S. history”—our leaders fail to believe their eyes when they see gun violence. In a prepared statement, Trump studiously avoided acknowledging the truth of the divisions in our country, insisting that, “In moments of tragedy and horror, America comes together as one—and it always has.”

Each time I hear him deny another reality of the division in our country, I wonder whether Donald Trump ever asks himself the age-old question the Emperor asks himself in Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes”: “I can see nothing! This is indeed a terrible affair! Am I a simpleton, or am I unfit to be an Emperor? That would be the worst thing that could happen.”

Each time I hear voices suggest that Donald Trump is unfit for his office, I wonder if we’re becoming a modern day version of a very old story. Continue reading The Emperor’s Parade on Gun Violence

(Un)Christian Blame for the Poor

Quote on FDR’s Memorial: “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much, it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”

Quoting the Bible out of context as the authoritative Word of God is a uniquely American phenomena—one that is, sadly, becoming the primary tool of Christians who want to ignore their responsibility to the nation’s poor. Continue reading (Un)Christian Blame for the Poor

Was Trump’s Prayer a Photo Op?

Johnnie Moore, @JohnnieM, runs a public relations firm.

Praying for Trump is good. Using that prayer as a photo op? Not so much.

Johnnie Moore, who once managed communications for Liberty University and who now runs a public relations firm, tweeted an image on Tuesday of evangelical pastors laying on hands and praying for Donald Trump in the Oval Office.

Trump is, as evangelicals like to say, “standing in the need of prayer.” He is having a difficult time on all fronts—with the lowest approval rating in history at this point in a presidency. His agenda has stalled in Congress. The Russia investigation is taking its toll. His son’s contacts with Russians are currently being scrutinized.

The prayer itself isn’t the problem, though some Americans do view it as a blurring of the line separating church and state. However, we have a long history of leaders seeking support from their faith community, and Congress and our military have chaplains to minister to their spiritual needs. And unless our country changes a great deal demographically, that isn’t likely to change soon.

Almost every president, like Trump, has had a spiritual adviser among his support network, and presidents regularly attend the National Prayer Breakfast, hosted annually by members of Congress.

The problem here is that Johnnie Moore isn’t a pastor. So why was he invited to attend? According to his website, he has been featured in the Washington Post and named by a P.R. news publication as “one of America’s top young P.R. executives.” The first sentence on his Who Are We page proclaims, “We are the go-to personal counselors for leaders and those interested in them who want to sharpen their public image.”

Johnnie Moore was in the room with a group of pastors, all of whom had their eyes closed as one of the pastors prayed. Johnnie, or whoever took this picture, was not praying. The photographer, eyes wide open, snapped pictures, ensuring that Johnnie had an image that could be posted on Twitter on Tuesday morning. As of this post, it has been retweeted over 7000 times.

This is yet another example of the type of hypocrisy Christ abhorred. Over and over again, he condemned religious leaders who put their piety on exhibit for the world to see while they ignored the plight of the elderly, the sick, the poor.

Every Christian alive believes that Jesus taught us how to pray, and the Lord’s Prayer has tumbled from Christians’ lips millions and millions of times in the past 2000 years. According to the Gospel of Matthew, here is how Christ introduces that prayer:

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven…And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Pray then in this way…” (Matthew 6: 1, 5-9, NRSV).

Yes, we Christians do pray in public. Yes, we Christians do pray behind closed doors with small groups of friends, believing that, as Christ said, whenever two or three are gathered in God’s name, the Spirit is in our midst.

But having a public relations firm record a prayer to show off piety seems to be exactly the kind of behavior Christ condemned. A thinking person has to wonder who invited Moore to be a part of the gathering and why.

Over and over again, Americans ask how 81% of evangelicals voted for this man who was recorded saying horrible things about many people but particularly about women. How it is, they ask, that the video destroyed the career of Billy Bush but had no effect on the man who actually said those things?

Not all evangelicals defend Trump or his policies, of course. Jim Wallis and his team at Sojourners spend their lives advocating for the least among us. Jonathan Merritt, at the Religious News Service, calls out hypocrisy in his writing and shows strength and courage when he is attacked for trying to bring about change in the Church. But for now they and those like them are a minority among evangelicals.

As a former evangelical, I am deeply troubled that these pastors would participate in a campaign to change Trump’s image instead of his heart.

But I’m not surprised. In my own experience, which led me to choose another faith tradition as a young adult, I saw many examples of men who used the Bible as a club to beat down those who dared question them.

It has taken me most of a lifetime to have the courage to challenge such thinking. But if I would call myself Christ-like—which these days I prefer to the label of Christian—then I must follow Christ’s example. He challenged authority, once even losing his temper in the temple over the hypocrisy of religious leaders.

I lose my temper. I rant sometimes. I find it hard, though, to call on the wisdom and courage of Christ in speaking truth to authority.

But if I would call myself Christian, I can do no less.

The Single Story that Threatens Appalachia

Like people in every culture, Appalachian people are complex. Why, then, do we insist on clinging to the single narrative that plagues its people and obstructs solutions to its overwhelming problems?

In my 30 years of living in southern West Virginia, I had many friends and acquaintances who fit the stereotypes. But I also have lifelong friends, still living there, who do not.

My favorite teacher is an avid reader and a gardener whose manicured lawn and radiant flowers were the envy of my mother, who struggled to get anything to grow in her stereotypical dirt yard. My mother’s best friend is a female lay minister in a progressive church who uses her skill to advocate for the poor and the elderly. One of my best friends is a former teacher turned small business owner, who is married to a lawyer. Another was the office manager for a United States congressman who was voted out of office when the once blue state turned red. I attended a progressive church there where the wife of a doctor spent her life engaged in philanthropic projects, not the least of which was to establish a shelter for victims of spousal abuse. The pastor at the time was a learned man with a PhD in theology—a man who later became one of the first leaders in the Presbyterian Church to advocate for LGBTQ persons.

These are not the people we hear about—the people who have the credibility and the knowledge that could bring about change if given the right resources.

The single narrative we hear has changed little over time. Consider that defining narrative of the early years, the story of a bitter feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys. The drama of the bloody battle between two families that threatened to engulf two states has been re-enacted at an amphitheater in West Virginia’s Grandview State Park for over fifty years. For many years, summer visitors from out of state carried that single view of the passion and violence of Appalachians back home with them as a memory of its people.

Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle, first published in 2005, told a similar story of the poverty and mental instability of the people. Her tale of her own grit and her escape from this world remained on the New York Times’ bestseller list for over seven years, and it is scheduled to be released this year as a movie.

Most recently, J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy tells the story of the author’s escape from abuse, addiction, and poverty. It is a tale of admirable strength in the face of adversity, but, to me, the people in his family sound much like the characters in the Hatfields and McCoys saga. He concludes, “I believe we hillbillies are the toughest goddamned people on this earth. We take an electric saw to the hide of those who insult our mother.”

As a child of Appalachia, I have lived among the vulnerable, those who, despite their faith in God, can’t pull themselves up by their bootstraps—those whose voices are not heard in the most well-known tales about my culture. Though the men in Vance’s story sound somewhat familiar to me, the women bear no resemblance to most of the Appalachian women I know.

Even my experience is only a single story. A personal story is just that—one person’s story. The danger is when the stories we hear follow the same basic plotline and create a single perception of an entire culture.

Chimamanda Adichie, a Nigerian writer, says in her famous TedTalk, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

Yet even Adichie is guilty of stereotyping—as are we all. In her novel Americanah, she creates one character who hails from West Virginia. That character argues with the narrator’s professor boyfriend about white privilege: “How can I be privileged? I grew up fucking poor in West Virginia. I’m an Appalachian hick. My family is on welfare.”

This story of Appalachian people is the single greatest barrier to finding solutions to poverty, not just in Appalachia but across our nation.

Even President Obama, who I believe cared deeply about the poor from all cultures, stereotyped people in rural America during his campaign: “It’s not surprising, then, they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” This grave mistake allowed his opponents to use his stereotype to stoke the anger of the people he hoped to help.

Over and over again, the single story threatens to become our national narrative. We generalize about every culture. We generalize about immigrants. We generalize about sexual orientation. We generalize about religions. We generalize about the media. We generalize about our elected officials.

And in the end, because of these stereotypes, we can do nothing more than stand on opposite sides and lob insults at one another.

We need to begin to listen to one another’s stories—to all the varied perspectives that make us a colorful and complex people. The storytellers need to avoid the urge to editorialize—to allow the stories to speak for themselves without pushing a political agenda. The story-hearers need to listen to hear, not just to respond with their own political views.

This is a tall order. Like Adichie, we will not always be able to live up to this ideal. But if there is an American story, it is one with thousands of subplots.

If we want to avoid a tragedy, we must outgrow our need to believe in a simple story in a picture book with an unrealistic rescue at the end.

The American story is an epic, not a fairy tale.

Are Evangelicals Endangering Democracy?

“Don’t you believe that God inspired the Bible?”

“Yes,” I said, “but I don’t think God stopped inspiring people when the Bible was in its finished form. I’ve read some great books by women that I think were equally inspired by God, and they give me a perspective that the Bible doesn’t, since every book theologians decided to include was written down by a man.”

My hands on the wheel, I glanced sideways at my friend, who views God very differently than I do. She raised her eyebrows and then leaned back against the headrest, looking exhausted.

I went on at length to name some of the current books I’ve read and to say why I got more out of them than a lot of what I read in the Bible, especially those pesky chapters in Paul’s epistles that tell women to shut up. That doesn’t mean that I don’t read the Bible, I told my friend; in fact, I’ve read the entire Bible in three different translations, and I still read it every day, following the Common Lectionary.

My friend listened for a while and then said, “You’re making my head hurt.”

I laughed. “Is that because of my argument or the concussion?”

My friend had taken a tumble in a parking lot that resulted in a concussion, and I was driving her home from a check-up.

“Both,” she said.

That was a few months ago, and this week, now that she’s well again, we continued the conversation. Though she doesn’t agree with many of my views, we both find it interesting to discuss them, and we respect each other’s views.

I’ve also seen that concussed look, though, in the eyes of evangelicals when I try to explain to them why I do not believe the Bible is meant to be read literally. Having grown up in the Bible Belt, I have many family members and friends who do believe the Bible is both literally and historically accurate. When I have these conversations, they often end with a confused look and the pronouncement, “The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it.” Those who love me fear for my soul, but they are usually respectful enough to simply shake their heads and walk away.

Recently, though, a cousin who was frustrated with my argument finally gave up trying to reason with me. He resorted instead to telling me that much of what I say and write sounds “dangerously close to the apostate church.” For those who are unfamiliar with fundamentalist beliefs, Nathan Jones, an ordained minister who graduated from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, describes the apostate church in this way:

The Church has become so seeker sensitive, and that can be a good thing in that we want unbelievers to come to know Jesus as their Savior, but we have ended up chasing the believers right out of their churches. We have filled our churches with unbelievers and now are putting unbelievers into the church pulpits. These new church leaders are not saved. They have no fruits of the Spirit. They have no signs in their lives that show that they are saved. These unbelievers in the pulpits keep writing their apostate books and they keep leading their apostate churches saying every kind of doctrine that has nothing to do with the Bible whatsoever.

Jones believes, as many evangelicals do, that apostasy is one of the signs that the end times are near and that Christ will soon return. My cousin—and many other fundamentalists—essentially believe that progressive Christians are the “apostate church.”

People like Jones are vocal, and they have learned to use social media to broadcast their message to a widening audience. Though I am a Christian and an elder in my church, when I try to engage them in conversation on social media, they openly and loudly doubt my salvation and the salvation of some of the most Christ-like people I know.

Because progressive Christians believe in the separation of church and state and are reticent to proclaim their beliefs in such public ways, any counter-argument to evangelicals is rare. In recent years other evangelicals, who are more focused on social justice and earth-care, have begun to speak up, but rarely does the average person in the pews of a progressive church challenge such thinking by bringing God into the conversation. As a result, extreme evangelicals—those who do not hear the arguments of science or social justice— have become an influence in our public dialogue out of all proportion to their percentage as part of the population, and they are aiming a wrecking ball at the separation of church and state.

Fundamentalists are not just dangerous to our democracy, however; they are even more dangerous to the human psyche of those who walk away from the fiery message of doom preached in their pulpits. I launched this blog five years ago because my mother, one of the most Christ-like people I’ve ever known, revealed to me that she was afraid she was going to hell. When I expressed my astonishment, she told me that even though she knew on an intellectual level that her fear made no sense, it was nearly impossible to reject something that had been beaten into her throughout her childhood.

Almost a year ago, I lost the second of two brothers to an opioid addiction. After a year in jail, my brother received help from a program at a mega-church in the city where he lived. They provided him with a bed in a group home in exchange for his work in the church and their thrift shop. They required that he attend Bible study every day and that he go out in a van with others to seek converts on street corners in some of the worst parts of the city. Church attendance was mandatory, and residents had to commit to six months in the program.

My brother told me that he loved the contemporary music at the church and that he enjoyed his small group Bible study. But he said that the sermons were very hard to listen to because they were meant to instill fear and to scare people straight, and according to their teaching, he was never saved. One of the leaders of the church told him that if he left the program, he was choosing hell and that he couldn’t come back. He left the program just shy of six months but still managed to stay clean for almost a year. Shortly before he died in a car accident with heroin in his system, he had hit a rough spot, and he told me that he felt God had abandoned him.

The reasons for addiction are complicated—and the way out even more so. I am grateful to the church for trying to help my brother. But I believe that message—that if we walk away from God, then God walks away from us—contributed to his death.

My fundamentalist acquaintances would say that I’m cherry-picking when I choose not to believe that women should be silent in church but then choose to believe this verse from Paul’s letter to the Romans:

38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (NRSV)

Perhaps I am cherry-picking. But when I look at the whole of the life of Christ, I can’t see how oppressing women, denying help to the sick and the poor, and lacking compassion for those fighting the demons of addiction are any part of the package. Nor is calling a compassionate Christian an apostate.

Even the early Christians thought that Christ would return in their lifetime. And for over 2000 years humanity has suffered from the doom and gloom of those predicting that Judgment Day is near but who feel they can ignore the plight of others because they will be swept up to heaven when the day comes.

I wish pastors and Christians like those I’ve encountered in progressive Presbyterian (USA) churches had more of a voice. They speak of a gentle and generous God but also a God who is angered when self-righteous religious leaders refuse compassion to the multitudes. And I wish more Christians were like my friend, who is willing to engage in a dialogue with those whose beliefs are different even when it makes her head hurt.

To those who suffer the wounds and bear the scars of judgment from a version of Christianity that Christ himself might not recognize, I would say that those religious leaders sound suspiciously similar to the scribes and Pharisees of Christ’s time.

And I offer you this thought that my pastors often use to end our Prayers of Gratitude and Concern: “In life and in death, we belong to God.”

Indeed, we do.

Can Christians Change the Climate on Climate Change?

This NASA graph provides evidence that atmospheric CO2 has increased since the Industrial Revolution.
https://climate.nasa.gov/evidence/

Christianity isn’t under attack. But some beliefs of Christians are deserving of attack. Christians who deny climate change in the face of all evidence to the contrary cannot be allowed to wave the flag of religious freedom and force the rest of us to accept the misguided notion that God will somehow rescue us no matter what we do to our planet.

According to NASA statistics, 97% of scientists, after analyzing the evidence, have come to the conclusion that human actions are responsible for global warming. Many of these scientists are Christians. But they are being shouted down by evangelicals, led by a small group of powerful men who believe they have God on their side. Continue reading Can Christians Change the Climate on Climate Change?

School Vouchers Law? To Whose Advantage?

 

According to the Winter 2017 of Education Next, public support of vouchers is in steep decline.

Amid all the chaos of the new administration, Republicans in the House have quietly introduced a bill to use government funding for school vouchers:

H.R.610 – To distribute Federal funds for elementary and secondary education in the form of vouchers for eligible students and to repeal a certain rule relating to nutrition standards in schools.

All arguments about the worth of vouchers aside, why do our representatives continue to introduce bills that are overwhelmingly unpopular among Americans? Continue reading School Vouchers Law? To Whose Advantage?

Righteous Anger or Inner Peace?

Peace on the mountain

Like many Americans, I am fearful for our country. I am angry—at the so-called president, at the people he’s choosing to fill his Cabinet, at his executive orders, at my fellow Americans who voted him into office—especially those I count among my friends and family.

Some anger is good, I think. Perhaps a little more righteous anger might have prevented a whole host of tragic historical events, from the Holocaust to that darkest period in American history that allowed an entire race to be enslaved.

At times I feel I need an anger translator—the kind comedians Key and Peele provided for President Obama—who will help me compartmentalize my emotions.

During the Christmas season, I was particularly angry at evangelical Christians, 81% of whom voted for a man who represents none of the values of Christ (as he demonstrated in his remarks at his first National Prayer Breakfast). I was so angry at those who share my faith that I wrote in a blog post,

Evangelicals don’t need the Baby Jesus this year.

They don’t even need the Jesus of the cross.

They need, above all, the righteously indignant Jesus who storms into a house of worship and knocks over every object in his path, his anger aimed squarely at the religious leaders of his time—all men.

But I also worry about what our anger is doing to us. Whenever I comment on social media in a way that seeks to understand the people I count among my friends, but who voted for Trump, I invariably get a storm of replies from liberal friends and acquaintances who are angry at me for not being angry enough.

At such times, I think of theologian Frederick Buechner, a Presbyterian minister I admire. At one of the angriest times in my life, I printed out this passage from his book Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC and put it in a frame over my desk:

Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back—in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.

I ask myself on a daily basis these days how I can find a balance between righteous anger and inner peace. I want to make a difference. But I don’t want to become the skeleton at the feast.

Many wise people warn of the dangers of anger. The Dalai Lama, probably the world’s most well-known Buddhist, says this:

Whether we will be able to achieve world peace or not, we have no choice but to work toward that goal. If we allow love and compassion to be dominated by anger, we will sacrifice the best part of our human intelligence—wisdom, our ability to decide between right and wrong. Along with selfishness, anger is one of the most serious problems facing the world today. (How to See Yourself as You Really Are)

Literary giants, too, have warned us about anger:

Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured. (Mark Twain)

Angry people are not always wise. (Jane Austen)

Anger…it’s a paralyzing emotion…you can’t get anything done. People sort of think it’s an interesting, passionate, and igniting feeling—I don’t think it’s any of that—it’s helpless…it’s absence of control—and I need all of my skills, all of the control, all of my powers…and anger doesn’t provide any of that—I have no use for it whatsoever. (Toni Morrison)

As a Christian I remind myself that the Christ I seek to follow achieved that balance, though even he sometimes found it hard. The Gospel of Matthew describes him as so “grieved and agitated” that he went up on a mountain and threw himself on the ground to pray. The Gospel of Luke describes him as praying in such anguish that “his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.” But when he came down from the mountain, he had found a divine peace that helped him hold on to love in the face of unspeakable hatred.

I have to remind myself that even Christ, in his lifetime on earth, did not achieve the justice he sought. But he never gave up his humanity. He never became like the religious leaders who hated him. He was never the skeleton at the feast.

Perhaps I, too, should take more opportunities to walk away from the madding crowd and find my way to the mountain to pray. I can’t stay away too long, but perhaps I’ll come back more ready to go on.

One Percent of Travelers “Inconvenienced”?

“Inconvenienced”? “Inconvenienced”?! This is the word chosen by the government to describe their perspective on those who have been stopped in airports around the world as a result of Trump’s executive order:

The Department of Homeland Security noted that ‘less than one percent’ of international air travelers arriving Saturday in the United States were ‘inconvenienced’ by the executive order… (Washington Post)

One percent. That doesn’t sound like much. One percent of a dollar is one penny. Losing a penny is an inconvenience. Continue reading One Percent of Travelers “Inconvenienced”?