A Bit of Good News (Chelsea Manning)

​https://youtu.be/iEAhkZsKx38

Amid the flood of “alternative truths” spewing forth from the inaugaration, it’s easy to lose track of one President Obama’s last good deeds as President: he commuted Chelsea Manning’s sentence. 

Now,  I’m not saying she should have served the time she already has, or that Obama shouldn’t have done this sooner. 

After all, Obama’s administration put her in prison in the first place and kept her there all this time. I’m not saying he’s a hero. I’m saying that he did the right thing as of 2017.

There have been a number of people tirelessly working for Chelsea Manning’s release since day one. Most have never even meet her face to face. They’re the real heroes here.

I hope that she’s able to build a life in or out of the spotlight,  whichever she chooses. 

Hope for Syria?

My last post about Syria was critical of President Obama, but let me give the man his due. When presented with an unexpected diplomatic option, he went for it. The possibility that the Assad regime might put its chemical weapons under UN control really is a game changer.

I know this won’t end the Syrian civil war. But right now there is nothing that will end that war, short of barbarically slaughtering one or both sides. This could beginning a real diplomatic process that could lay the groundwork for meaningful peace talks.

Even if it does nothing to hasten the war’s end, it still takes chemical weapons off the table. It goes without saying that enforcement will be the hard part, but it’s a good plan with a good chance of accomplishing something.

And if Assad changes his mind and rejects the peaceful option, President Obama’s in a stronger position for having tried diplomatic options. I’m not saying that everyone will suddenly be on board, or even that I will, but his position will be stronger and the skeptics will be at least willing to listen.

And there are other options, even if this fails. New Jersey Congressman Chris Smith proposed a human rights and war crimes tribunal to hold both sides accountable.

He’s worked on the Yugoslavia, Sierra Leone, and Rwanda tribunals, and he thinks a Syrian tribunal could be a “non-lethal way of holding people to account.”

There are risks with all these options, and nothing is guaranteed. But the chance to do more than just pile more Syrian bodies onto the pyre is worth taking.

Toxic Worship (The Imposters of God, Chapter 1: The Mystery of Idolatry, Part 2)

Sculpture of a Family

Photo by J. Lord, Creative Commons

This is part three of my series on William Stringfellow’s The Imposters of God. You can read my first post on Chapter One and my introduction to the series.

As you recall, Stringfellow pointed out that an idol is anything we use to define ourselves, to give significance to our lives, other than God (of course). All such things – money, family, church, reputation, country – are doomed to fail us, of course.

But did you know that so long as we put them in the place of worship, that we are doomed to fail them?

As Stringfellow put it, “Where idolatrous patriotism is practiced, the vocation of the nation so idolized is destroyed.”

How far from the lofty ideals of civil rights and democracy have the super-patriots (with their super PATRIOT Acts) taken us?

I’m old enough to remember when torture and indefinite detention were things the bad guys did, not things two successive openly Christian Presidents would undertake, to the applause of their mostly openly Christian supporters.

“When the family is idolized, the members of the family are enslaved.” (Stringfellow). How many times have we seen parents living vicariously through their children? Whether Tiger Moms pushing their kids into depression  or washed-up high school quarterbacks and homecoming queens reliving their youth, it never ends well.

I’m reminded of the controlling mother from C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, who’d rather have her son with her in hell than leave him in heaven.

Even within our churches, the extreme focus on the family has left the unmarried feeling unwanted. It’s made us political animals, white-flighting our way into the “best” schools.

It’s led us to forget that the Apostles who spread the Gospel to the known world were themselves single, and that they focused not on their families, but on the Gospel.

“Every idol, therefore, represents a thing or being existing in a state of profound disorientation” (Stringfellow).

Idolatry ultimately brings death.

Sometimes literally, as in our persistent worship of war.

Sometimes figuratively, in the dehumanization of a culture that views everything and everyone as a commodity.

And sometimes both, as in the dysfunctional relationships and vicious social structures that drive the young to depression and sometimes suicide.

Perhaps Idolatry is at the heart of the decline of America’s churches. We’ve grown so entangled with the idols of respectability, growth, and politics that we find ourselves reduced to merely a social function. A social function that offers precious little to the constantly-connected Facebook generation.

What is the answer? I’m not certain. But I know this. We fail, again and again, to keep the very first commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:3).

And to even detect our idols means turning the rusty knife of self-examination on the things we hold dearest. The pain may be akin to amputating a gangrenous limb without anesthetic, but it must be done if we are serious about serving Christ.

 

 

 

 

 

Means and Ends (Neither Kant nor Machiavelli)

Kant in black & white, Machiavelli in shades of gray

Kant in black & white, Machiavelli in shades of gray

Niccolo Machiavelli famously said, “In judging policies we should consider the results that have been achieved through them rather than the means by which they have been executed.” The ends justify the means.

Immanuel Kant argued in favor of the old Latin maxim, “Do what is right, though the world should perish.” The means justify the ends.

But I don’t believe we can, in good conscience, stand by either maxim. As moral beings, especially as people of faith, we have a responsibility for both our means and our ends. We must balance the rightness of our methods with the most likely outcomes.

It’s easy to brush off Machiavelli. “The ends justifies the means” sounds like something a movie villain would say.

Until national security is on the line.

Until George W. Bush is talking about “enhanced interrogation” and “indefinite detention” (without a trial, of course)

Until Barrack Obama is talking about (or rather, trying very hard not to talk about) using Predator drones to blow up civilians in nations we aren’t even at war with.

But as Christians, we can at least try to avoid that one. We can set our feet down and join Kant in defending the old saying, “Do what is right, though the world should perish.”

But what does that mean? Does that mean being so focused on “biblical” roles in marriage that you treat spousal abuse like it’s a matter of the wife’s submission, as John Piper does below (from his entire demeanor, he either has no concept of what an abusive relationship is really like, or he has no empathy. I think both may be true, given his view of God).

When we focus on what is “right” according to scripture, and then use that to justify hurting “sinners” (such as denying them their [secular] civil rights, advocating discredited and medically dangerous therapies, or advocating for harsh criminal penalties against them in African countries),  we are “doing what’s right, though the world perishes.”

When we let our idea of “biblical” gender roles blind us to abuse in marriages, in families, and in churches, we are “doing what’s right, though the world perishes.”

Even if we are not blinded, if we ignore or minimize suffering (as John Piper is doing above), we are “doing what’s right, though the world perishes.”

When we use our interpretation of scripture (without the humility to question whether we might be wrong, reading the Bible in translation, 2000+ years later, in a totally different cultural context) as a weapon, or an anesthetic that prevents us from feeling the pain of others, we are “doing what’s right, though the world perishes.”

But we’re not doing what’s right. Not really. And our means, no matter how righteous we may thing they are, are utterly and totally tainted by the pain we cause.

Our righteousness is like filthy rags to God. That’s not just a redundant restating of Romans 3:23. It isn’t a declaration of Calvin’s “total depravity.” It means that our rightness, our self-justifications, our focus on “doing the right thing” no matter what the cost to others … is just filthy.

And the world sees this. It’s not the gospel that’s offending them. It’s our warped Kantian-Calvinistic logic, our weaponized righteousness. And it should offend them.

I Didn’t Build This

During the campaign, the President made a lot of people mad by pointing out that every business owed its success to factors beyond its founders’ brains and hard work. He used the ill-worded (and frankly insulting) phrase, “You didn’t build this.”

Thanks to the wide availability of video-editing software, we got to hear that clip again and again and again. Well, once more won’t kill you.

Okay, now that you’ve watched it, let me ask a question. I promise it’s related.

We have so much. So why do we begrudge every tax dollar that goes to the poor? Why do we cling so tightly to the idea that we have earned all we have?

Maybe it reminds us that all we have comes from God, that we could just as easily have been born in Sri Lanka, in a village with no clean water, and helplessly watched our siblings, and later our children, die of cholera or dysentery.

We could have been born in Rwanda or the former Yugoslavia, and been caught in the genocide of their civil wars.

We could have been born in North Korea, and been crushed under the boot of a multi-generational dictatorship.

We could have been born to a fourteen year old single mother in an inner city, a girl who might read at a fourth grade level. To a mother that will never finish high school, will have no support from the father, and who may or may not have support from her family.

We could have been that young mother. A mother who will have to live on welfare and what little she can earn without a degree, and who will forever earn the scorn of respectable middle-class American Evangelicals as a “welfare queen.”

But we weren’t. We were born to families that didn’t have to worry about contaminated water, or genocide, or secret police, or grinding poverty and alienation. We were born in a country with the rule of law, modern infrastructure, and functioning social safety nets.

We didn’t choose to be born in the developed world, nor did we build it prior to our birth. And we didn’t build our parents, or choose them. Heh, maybe John Calvin isn’t 100% wrong, after all. We didn’t build these things in our home countries, but we can help build them in the developing world, through organizations like World Vision.

So, yeah, the President’s right (as much as I like to criticize him).

I didn’t build this. God did.

No matter how much hard work I put into, well, anything, I would have had no chance if I’d been born just one continent away. And the ugly truth is, neither would you.

Coming up on Christmas…

So much sadness, so much to do.

Building a nursery, welcoming a new life into this world

Saying goodbye to so many children I never knew

So much sadness, so many questions

Why?

Why did they have to die?

Why do I mourn them so?

Why do I mourn them so much more

Than the ones who die everyday,

Killed in my name by Predator Drones,

Weakened by hunger, claimed by disease,

Poisoned by foul water and dysentery?

Why?

And how do I move on, knowing it could be my daughter someday?

How do I wrap presents and decorate the tree?

How do I cook and eat and feast?

How do I put it all behind me and laugh and love and share?

Should I even want to?

Sometimes I wish I had a river I could skate away on…

Things I DON’T Repent Of

Communion Wine

I’ve been doing a lot of repenting lately, for my own past sins and the corporate sins I was a part of. And I make no apologies for giving those apologies. But I want to be clear on a few things I am not sorry for:

I don’t repent of believing in Jesus as the living, crucified, resurrected Word of God, begotten not made, who is with God and is God, through whom all things are made.

I don’t repent of believing that the Bible is the divinely inspired written word of God. Breathed by God, written by humans, profitable for study and meditation and growth.

I don’t repent of believing in prayer. I don’t know how or even if our prayers change God’s mind, but I know that praying changes me. That’s all I need to know.

I don’t repent in believing in the priesthood of the believer, believer’s baptism, sin, redemption, the Apostle’s Creed, and a God who is both just and merciful.

I don’t repent of my libertarian belief in civil rights and individual freedom. I didn’t leave the Republican Party; the Republican Party left me (right around the time when it embraced torture and indefinite detention without trial).

I don’t repent of my generally conservative/libertarian-ish political ideals. I’m no longer convinced of even the potential adequacy of private charity to replace governmental welfare programs, so I’m not really a true libertarian anymore. And I tend to think that our problem may be less the size of our government and more the corruption and cronyism within it. But I still generally believe that a lean, well-run government is better.

I don’t repent of criticizing President Obama for his indiscriminate use of drone strikes in nations we are not at war with. Predator drone strike he authorized have killed over 1,500 civilians, over 170 children.

And I don’t plan to stop challenging the narrative that he is some kind of compassionate, righteous leader who “cares” about children and strives for peace. He has as much or more blood on his hands than President Bush, and I do not intend to let that go unspoken.

I don’t repent of sharing community with people whose beliefs don’t line up perfectly with mine, either politically or spiritually. If I stopped, how would I ever learn?

I don’t repent of the churches I’ve been a part of, where I’ve had friendships (we call them “church family”) with both the very young and the very old, and everyone in between.

(One dear lady in our church remembers teaching elementary school in 1934. She told me a story from then: when Bonnie and Clyde were killed, the police brought the wreck of their car around so the children could see it. Something that seemed like ancient history to me was an adult memory to her. Where else would I find that?).

I don’t repent of criticizing evangelicalism from the inside. That’s where I am. I’m not an ex-evangelical, a former evangelical, or a recovering evangelical. I am an evangelical Christian with deep concerns that weigh heavily on my conscience and my heart. And I will speak them from within.

Words for the Sandy Hook Massacre

Grieving angel statue

Angel of Grief by Timothy Valentine, Creative Commons

Yesterday I wrote that I had no words, only prayers and mourning for the victims of the shooting in Colorado.

That wasn’t entirely true. As I watched my Twitter feed scroll by, as I browsed through Facebook, as I read comments at blog posts like this one (Rachel Held Evans’ painful yet beautiful post about grieving together), I found that I had many, many words.

Sterile, unhelpful words about the effectiveness of various gun control measures and the appropriateness of bringing politics up so soon.

Resentful, self-righteous words about the massive outpouring of public grief at the death of 20 American children and the collective silence and apathy over the death of 170 Pakistani and Yemeni children at the hands of our Predator drones.

Suspicious, disbelieving words about the President being overcome by emotion at the death of children, despite his culpability in the drone strikes.

Cynical, jaded words speculating as to just what rhetorical use politicians, preachers, and media personalities will put this to.

None of these words is worthy. None of these words is righteous. These words must not be said, must not be written, while the blood is still fresh, the wounds are still raw, and the bulk of the details are still unknown.

And being right is never an excuse for using someone else’s tragedy as a soapbox. They did not live and die so you or I could hammer our righteous talking points home.  The killer already mortally assaulted their humanity. We should not further degrade it.

And so I urge you to cast aside these words, or at least defer them. Take time to respect and share in the victims’ grief. Compassionately suffer with them.

If you can, imagine the inner torment of the killer. Consider what forces, psychological or spiritual, may have driven him to such violent, murderous madness.

Listen, and experience the sorrow. Don’t think about what you’re going to say next. And forgive those who fail to do the same. Please forgive me if I fail.

And pray, please pray.

We Will Get Fooled Again

Every election cycle, complaints rise about how divided America is. Many bemoan the incivility (which is a problem), others, like Matthew Yglesias, argue that division is a sign of a healthy democracy.  I think I’d feel better about our democracy’s ‘health’ if the divisions were actually real.

Four years ago, my conservative friends and family were beyond worried what would happen if Obama were elected. The pundit-verse was alive with conspiracies, Jeremiads, and dire warnings of socialism, a dismantled military, and persecution of all Christians. A guy with a chalkboard explained how it all traced back to George Soros and Josef Stalin. Clearly, the sky did not fall.  Sure, the economy crashed, but it did its face plant in late 2008, before Obama was even sworn in.

This year, my liberal friends were having similar concerns about Romney. If he was elected, he’d find a way to outlaw contraception, set feminism back 50 years, invade Iran, barbecue the poor and feed them to the rich (ok, maybe they meant that one metaphorically).

We’ll never find out whether Mitt Romney was secretly a misogynist christofascist theocrat or just a big-money businessman who thought he could run his campaign the way he ran his businesses. I’m guessing it’s the latter.

The truth is, Obama’s first term has largely been George W. Bush’s third term. The “indefinite detention without trial” prison at Guantanamo Bay is still open. Granted, he’s stopped waterboarding prisoners, but our Nobel Peace Prize-winning President has replaced that practice with constant drone strikes with massive civilian casualties, and without any outside oversight as to his kill list (ahem, “disposition matrix”).

President Obama’s Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) is congruous with Bush’s new prescription drug benefit for seniors (way to court the AARP vote, there W. And it only cost $400 billion a year). Oh, yeah, and Obamacare was written by Mitt Romney, before he ran for president and had to pretend it was unconstitutional and evil.

Both Bush and Obama are both are military interventionists (Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya). Both are corporate-approved. Both signed massive bailouts to big banks and corporations. Both have done almost nothing about immigration, abortion, or gun control.

Obama has distinguished himself in two areas, however. He’s deported more people than Bush, and he’s done far more raids against medical marijuana growers in California. The nerve of that dirty hippie socialist, deporting illegal immigrants and raiding pot-smoking cancer patients!

Seriously, we will survive. We survived eight years of Bush. Okay, twelve, really. We’ll survive four more. And, if things go as they have been, we’ll survive eight more, probably from a Republican (your turn!) but possibly from “the other” Clinton (tag team!).

Move to Canada if you want, but don’t think you have any real reason to go (except for Vancouver’s Richmond Night Markets. Those are fabulous).

Nothing’s really changed that much, nor will it change anytime soon. As The Who said … “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” But Pete Townsend and Roger Daltrey had one thing wrong: We Will Get Fooled Again. And that’s okay.

It’s not like our Hope is in Washington D.C., anyway.

After the Vote Rush (Wrestling the Partisan Angel)

Well, it’s all over but the shouting now.  The votes are (mostly) tallied, and the victor has been decided.  President Barack Obama has been re-elected, and will be our President for the next four years.

I’m dragging today, because I stayed up and watched the speeches last night.  Governor Romney was gracious in defeat, and seemed far warmer, more genuine, and more likable than he had during the campaign.  President Obama’s acceptance speech was Presidential, gracious, and even a little inspiring.

People predicted the apocalypse when President Obama was first elected. Others predicted a new post-racism, post-sexism utopia.  We got an Affordable Care Act modeled on Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts program, drone strikes against Pakistani and Yemeni civilians, no change on Gitmo, the end of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, continued surveillance, and slow-but-steady economic growth.

Competent, but surprisingly consistent with Bush, down to a similar disregard for civil liberties.

And despite the pundits’ alternate snarling and simpering, that’s what we’re likely to have for the next four years.  Some things will get better.  Some will get worse.  For the  most part, it will be more of the same.  America will survive, just like it would have under Romney.

So what is there to do now?  Only pray.  Pray for God’s guidance for President Obama and his family.  Pray for wisdom for all our elected officials of both parties.  Pray for our nation.  Pray that God will heal the divisiveness that turns us all to broken glass every four years.

Pray that we may be clearer, more compassionate, more insightful, more virtuous. Pray that we the people can model the virtues we want to see in Washington.

Pray for President Obama, whether you voted for him or not. And remember Romans 13:1-7. Pray for President Obama, whether you like or approve of the President’s policies (or abhor them), and remember that God loves him as much as he loves any of us.

Amen.