Orlando, part 2: Seeing the people

One of the things I observed in Orlando on Monday, a little more than 24 hours after the Pulse shooting, was the people. The feeling was different. Even in the restaurant where we ate lunch, about a mile away, the staff was waiting tables, but you could tell their minds were distant… numb. The traffic was horrendous, as a main arterial through the middle of the city was closed for several blocks, yet people were patient. Courteous, even.

I was struck by who was there.

The first people I noticed were the locals. People who had this occur, in some cases literally in their back yard. Most of the time, catastrophic news happens in a place on TV. It’s not a real place; it could be a movie set in Hollywood as far as we know. But for these people, this was in their neighborhood, their place of work, at the Subway where they buy their lunch every day. It is their home. And it had been invaded, not just by a gunman, but by the world.

The next group of people I noticed were the media. Satellite trucks were everywhere. Miles of cables strung through the streets. Power inverters hooked to the batteries of rental cars for blocks in every direction. Enough pop-up tents to equip the infield of a NASCAR race. I’d already seen the Facebook posts about the “truth” that the media is keeping from us. You know, those plastic-faced souls who are trying to brainwash you into believing their version of America? Lies. All of it. Am I biased? You could argue that, since my son is one of them. Or, you could consider that maybe, since I know one of them, I have a better perspective on reality than most people. As I watched these reporters, producers, photographers, and others work and sweat, trying to make sure every detail was correct, to uncover truth and provide accurate details without spreading inaccuracies, I was struck by their determination. In horrific conditions, they were sweating it out, suppressing personal emotions, sleep deprivation, and technical frustrations. They weren’t doing it to control minds, nor to get rich. They were doing it because presenting the truth is important to them. Hear me on this one: The media plays an important role in our free nation, and these professionals perform their duty with the same gravity as law enforcement or military does. We owe them respect, and the benefit of the doubt.

It was impossible not to notice the law enforcement presence. What was most surprising was the number, and the variety. Local, county, and state police, but that was just the beginning. Federal agents from multiple agencies, mobile crime labs and command trailers from cities hundreds of miles away, some of which made no sense for them to be there, until you consider the enormity of the task. Again, I was impressed by their professionalism in horrific circumstances and in incredibly difficult conditions. The heat and humidity were brutal. Cops controlling closed roads who had to answer the same insistent plea to go down that street, from a different person every three minutes, for whatever brutal length of time their shift covered. Men and women who had spent hours working through the carnage of a crime scene that can’t be comprehended. All with a calm, patient presence that concealed their exhaustion, tension, and …pain. These men and women were there to “protect and serve.” The law enforcement profession has been battered lately in the public eye. But they deserve our respect and appreciation for their work on this day. All of them face death on a daily basis, much more often than most of us ever realize.

Then there were the volunteers. Christ Church Orlando  is just 5 doors down the street from Pulse. They opened their doors in the first hours after the shooting, providing a needed respite for the first responders and law enforcement, offering A/C, food, water, and a place to rest, 24 hours a day. As a general rule, Christians haven’t done the best job loving the type of people who frequented Pulse, but Pastor Paul impressed me with one thing he said: Since starting the church, they have always stayed true to their call to remain in the heart of the city. I didn’t get the impression that they had much of a connection to Pulse or its customers, but they were there, and they went to work, ministering to their community the best way they knew how.

If your news feed has an evangelical Christian channel to it, you’ve seen the posts about the Chick-Fil-A that opened on a Sunday to feed the first responders. If you don’t know, this is a big deal, first because Chick-Fil-A never opens on Sunday, because their owners are Christians who make it a corporate policy to allow all employees to have Sunday to be with their families (and go to church, if they choose). Chick-Fil-A has received bad press in the past on LGBT issues, so Christians are trumpeting it from the rooftops that no one has heard about this act (often with an air of self-righteousness because it’s not being reported by the biased media). Here’s the thing: It’s probably not making the news for several more legitimate reasons:

  • I get the impression they didn’t do it for publicity, but because they were serving a need in their community
  • EVERYONE was serving. Businesses were donating whatever they could to help out. The Target store just a few blocks away gave pallets of bottled water. Grocery stores were donating food. Restaurants were donating meals. Chick-Fil-A was just one business among many. ALL deserve to be appreciated for their selflessness, yet no one was doing it for appreciation. People needed to serve one another, to put their love into action.

I saw thousands of people. Straight and LGBT; community leaders and the impoverished; multiple ethnicities, and most likely multiple political parties. People who want to abolish guns, and 2nd Amendment loyalists. There were rednecks and illegals. Muslims, Christians, and atheists. But on this day, something was different:   There was a respect being shown, by everyone, to everyone. Suddenly, we were once again aware of the humanity of each one, even those who were different. It felt much the same as the feeling I had in DC, near the Pentagon, in the days after 9/11.

That day, no one was a them. Every person I encountered was a we. Someone who mattered, who hurt, who was a son or daughter, a sibling, a friend, a spouse… Most importantly, EVERY person there was a PERSON, with intrinsic value, which I believe is because they are first and foremost an image-bearer of God. God gives every person value, and no one has the right or authority to take that value away. On that day, in Orlando, each saw the value of the lives around them. My prayer is that we will all be changed by this event… that we will see that value for the rest of our lives, and even in those that we dislike, disagree with; and that we will think and act differently.

I’m not asking that each of us hold hands with a Muslim, or a transgender person, or an NRA Life Member, and sing Kumbaya. Start with your next door neighbor. Or the jerk that just cut you off in the grocery store parking lot. How about just changing your political rhetoric–not your opinions, but the words you use to state your opinions? Because, like it or not, Hillary, Donald, and Barack are people too. Once we start dehumanizing them, we are well on our way to hating them. And as I wrote a few days ago, that hatred is the evil that resides in each one of us, that is the root cause of this tragedy.

For my readers who aren’t followers of Jesus, you can jump out here.  The rest of this post is a family talk with my brothers and sisters.

In Luke 6:27-49 Jesus issues what is arguably the most difficult commands in all of his teachings.  He tells us to love everybody–not just those who are loveable, or who are in our circle and meet our standards.  Because everybody does that.  His followers are to be different, and to show that difference by loving those who hate them.  And he’s not commanding us to have warm feelings from afar–he’s talking about real, sacrificial action, without expecting anything in return.  Then he puts some teeth in his teaching:  in v 35 he tells us that in doing so, “then (we) will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked” (including me).  He goes on to tell us that we will be judged, condemned, and forgiven with the measure we use to judge, condemn, or forgive others.  We get this backwards.  We want God to forgive us as we forgive ourselves, and judge others the way we judge others.  He talks about the fruit in our lives coming from what is stored up in our hearts, either good or evil.

He then drives the point to a non-negotiable conclusion with his parable of the wise and foolish builders.  He starts in v 46 with a question that should cut each of us to the bone: “Why do you call me , ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?”

The answer is, “because we don’t want to, Jesus.”  We want to do things our way, with your blessing, so we parse and interpret the words of this passage and others like it, to give ourselves loopholes to avoid doing what he plainly says.  But looking back at the logical implication of v 35 above, if we are children of the Most High if we obey him, then when we choose not to obey, or twist his words to make his commands more suitable to our liking, then the converse is true–v 49 tells us that like the house without a foundation, we will collapse, and our destruction will be complete.

Love.  It’s how we’re known as his disciples.

Orlando

My wife and I spent Monday in Orlando, on Orange Street, looking for ways to help in the aftermath of the Pulse tragedy. The day was emotional, exhausting, and difficult to process. I tried to take everything in… the people, the emotion, the activity. I spent much of Tuesday writing, and trying to distill what I sensed, and what I’m feeling. Most of those words will probably not leave my notebook. There are several blog articles that I’m not certain if I’ll ever publish. Some because I just needed to get my thoughts down on the page, and some because, well, I’m not sure they will mean anything to others. I’m also hesitant because so much has already been said, and I can’t seem to write fast enough to not be rehashing the thoughts of others.

I have to publish this one. I’ve been wrestling with it since Sunday. My (small) audience covers a really broad spectrum politically, philosophically, and theologically. I can bet that all of you disagree with me on something, which is OK, because there are some issues that I have trouble finding consensus with myself on. I work to write in a way that doesn’t compromise my deeply held beliefs, but at the same time encourages constructive dialog, or at least meaningful thought, even in those who hold core values that differ fundamentally from my own. But today I am writing from an unabashedly Christian viewpoint, yet with the same desire to cultivate meaningful dialog or thought amongst those who might disagree.

Much has been written to attempt to explain why. Hundreds of investigators are interviewing thousands of connections, exploring terabytes of data, all for clues as to what motivated the shooter. Some want to blame religion. Or hatred of homosexuals. Or repressed sexuality. Or ethnicity, mental health, or some other cause that we can find reprehensible. Donald Trump wants to blame Muslims and Syrian refugees. Hillary wants to blame guns. Some want to blame the FBI for not recognizing “warning signs” that are only perceivable after the fact. The reality is we all want to blame something. We’re looking for an external cause, a them, or a that, which we can then abolish, hate, or kill to make this stop.

Carey Nieuwhof is a Canadian pastor who teaches about leadership in the church. He wrote a blog Monday morning that contained a thought that rattled me. He offered up several thoughts on how churches should respond in this “age of terror,” and point #2 gave me trouble. He talks about the importance of confession and humility, two Christian staples that may have lost some of their importance in our Western church culture. In that discussion, he made a statement that I flat disagreed with, when I first read it. He said,

“The opposite of confession is blame…and that’s an instinctive reaction most of us have.”

I don’t disagree with the “instinctive reaction” part–we all are good at blame, and it comes from deep inside, without effort or conscious thought. My issue was with the “opposite” part. I have a fundamental issue with people creating dichotomies  and this one seemed to be stretching quite a bit. I read enough stuff that I disagree with that I didn’t dwell there much, but as I thought and pondered throughout the days, it kept bubbling back to the surface. And I started to consider the significant truth packaged there: Blame is an attempt to ascribe cause to the other… Confession is the admission that “I did it.” Not “I did it because…” or the original casting of blame that followed the original sin, in Genesis 3, where Adam blames Eve (“The woman you put here with me, she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” See how he did that, not only was it Eve’s fault, but it was God’s fault for putting her there!).

But, what do I have to confess? I didn’t shoot anyone. As I considered all the different angles being explored as we all seek a satisfying answer to the question “Why?”, I crashed into this confession thought again. Because the Christian concept of confession starts to point to the answer to the question. There is one common denominator to all of the tragic events that have dominated our news in recent years (and all of history, for that matter). It’s not religion, race, ethnicity, or weapon. It crosses every boundary. It is most often a silent killer, destroying from the inside out. It is a blackness of the human soul called evil.

We can all agree that the actions of the shooter in Orlando were evil. Our desire to blame is simply looking for an external locus for that evil. What made him evil? Was it his religion? Was it his upbringing? Was it defective brain chemistry? Repressed sexual urges? Any one of those causes can be a viable explanation, so long as we don’t share that same defect.   That last phrase is important. As long as it was them, we can accept an explanation. But when the explanation includes us, we react with vehemence. I am not in any way blaming this tragedy on guns, but observe the response of gun owners: When the expected call to in some way blame guns for this tragedy came, the shouted challenges and impassioned memes exploded across the ether. In this case, I have to agree: guns didn’t cause this, and banning guns won’t stop it. Because guns aren’t the problem.

Many want to blame religion, or Middle Eastern culture as the source of the evil we see, but that explanation doesn’t fly in the case of the Charleston shootings. Guns can’t explain away Timothy McVeigh’s actions. The Bible tells us the problem lies within each of us. Evil is inherent in the hearts of men and women. We don’t like to hear that, and mankind has pursued multiple philosophies to refute this claim. My purpose today is not to defend the claim, so much as to encourage us to consider it. We don’t want to, because if the shooter’s motivation was evil, and evil is inherent, then the logical implication is… we are all capable of similar atrocities.

I cannot prove this statement to be correct, but the more I consider it, the more I believe it is true. I suspect that each of us, if we were bold enough to take the time and consider the deeper recesses of our souls, would come to a similar realization. I’m not blaming here, I am confessing. I am capable of incredible evil. I wouldn’t shoot up a gay nightclub, because that’s not where the objects of my hate are found. But there is hatred in my heart, and it can cause me to consider unthinkable actions against my fellow man. I would humbly submit, based on both my knowledge of people and my study of the Bible, that we all have that same capacity. I further submit that if you haven’t seen that level of hate in your own soul, it’s because you haven’t met the object yet, not because you don’t have the capacity.

This post could become book-length, and not exhaust the consideration of this thought. My goal isn’t debate. Today, all I want to do is confess. I am capable of hating, and that hatred has the potential to judge a person bearing the image of God as a sub-human that I have the right to destroy. I believe that is the essence of the shooter’s action, whether his target is eventually determined to be because the victims were gay, or because they were Americans complicit in the bombing of his claimed country, or some other reason that we will probably never know.

I believe for each of us, there is a them. Them are the people that we don’t see as human. It might not start that way. It may just be a disdain for an action, or an origin, or a belief, or a characteristic. As we allow that disdain to separate us from them, the disdain can strengthen. As the chasm grows, their humanity shrinks, and eventually we can quite easily see them as not worthy of… You may not have pursued that thought to the point of being willing to take a life, but I believe we are all capable.

Before you think I’m just making this all up, let me point to someone who most agree was at least a great philosopher/ethicist/teacher. Jesus said that anyone who is angry with another person is subject to judgment the same as one who murders. Without delving into a deep parsing of the Greek word translated as “anger” in Matthew 5:23, he’s not rewriting the Ten Commandments. He’s pointing out that murder starts in our hearts as a judgment of another. John affirms this interpretation in 1 John 3:15 when he says “anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer…”. The rest of that verse tends to answer the next question: “What is the solution?”

John goes on to say “and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him.” Christians will tell you that Jesus is love, and that having Jesus residing in you provides eternal life. For the sake of time, let me jump a few steps in this logical process–the antidote to the evil and hatred in each of us is LOVE. That’s the ONLY thing that is going to stop the atrocities. Gun bans wont. Walls wont. Bombing the Middle East into a parking lot wont.

 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

 Love never fails….

 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.- 1 Corinthians 13:4-8, 13

I’m not asking you to believe–just consider “What if?”

Fewer and fewer people are doing anything outside of their normal Friday routine today.  As the US becomes less bound to the Christian tradition, less of its people recognize that this week is the most important week on the Christian calendar, and that today is known as “Good Friday.”

As a kid, that name boggled my mind.  Now that I’m older and wiser, it still boggles my mind.  Shouldn’t it be “Good Sunday” and “Really Bad Friday?”  Now, before you start going all theological on me, I’m going to ask that you take off your spiritual glasses for a moment, and look at this story like most of the world would.  Jesus, the focal point of the Christian faith, is nailed to a cross (don’t gloss over that, just because you’ve heard it a million times–let it sink in for a minute) and he dies.

How can that be “good?”  As a kid, well-meaning family members and Sunday School teachers explained to me how it was necessary to satisfy God, to make up for all the bad things I had done, for Jesus to die.

“Why?” young Greg asks.

“Because that’s the way the penalty is paid.”

“So the guy who didn’t do anything wrong had to die to make up for me telling lies and stealing cookies?”

“Well, yes…”

“Who made those rules?”

“God did.”

“Jesus’ dad?”

“Yes.”

“Well that’s a dumb rule… But Jesus is dead, and that’s why we call it ‘Good Friday?’ ”

“I think I hear your mother calling you…”

Dead Jesus certainly didn’t seem to make sense to 10-year-old Greg.  It didn’t make sense to Peter, James, John, or the rest of Jesus’ followers.  In fact, it was so far from logical, let alone “good” that it had to be the worst day of all of their lives.

Today, no one gives a lot of thought to the execution of Jesus on the cross.  Christians might acknowledge it when they say “Jesus died for me,” but most don’t think about it any more deeply than they do “2+2=4.”  We tend to focus more on the resurrection of Jesus than the death.  Non-Christians probably don’t give it much thought at all.  Most non-Christians, if they take the time to consider the death of Jesus, are apt to write it off as either myth, or a relatively insignificant historical event that’s been blown way out of proportion by the deception of his early followers.

That’s unfortunate.

As Christians, we tend to demonstrate more gratitude to someone who finds and returns our lost wallet (with cash and credit cards intact) than the one who died a horrific death on our behalf.  What if Christians showed their gratitude for Jesus’ death by loving others the way Jesus loved those around him during his life?

For non-Christians, its doubly unfortunate in that their disbelief in the historicity of Jesus’ death, or their dismissal of its significance, causes them to not seriously consider a crucial question:  What if Jesus really did die on a Roman cross in Jerusalem?

The historicity of Jesus’ death on the cross is one of the most accurately established facts in all of history.  Refuting his death as a made up story that was manipulated by his followers into a grand religion has as much credibility as refuting the Apollo moon landings.*  And if his death was so significant that the Roman cross went from being a symbol of oppression, torture, and disgrace to the most recognized religious symbol in the world in a few hundred years, perhaps it is worth more consideration, not just from a historical standpoint, but from a personal one as well.

IF the accounts of Jesus’ death are true, if Jesus and his first followers believed he died for a purpose, and that purpose crosses the boundaries of history and includes you and me today–isn’t it worth at least exploring?

And if you believe, as I do, that the event is not only true, but that it occurred for the reasons Jesus said it would, then shouldn’t his willing sacrifice of life for my eternal benefit, cause me to live differently, as he asked?

 


*I use the analogy of the Apollo program very deliberately.  The writings which became the New Testament are strongly established to have been written within the first 50 years after Jesus’ death.  Today we would quickly dismiss as insane anyone who claims that the Apollo landings didn’t happen (approximately 50 years ago).  There is insurmountable evidence that it happened.  In much the same way, the truth of the death (and life) of Jesus of Nazareth is insurmountable, and is only dismissed by those who choose to consider only the evidence which supports their predetermined conclusion.

Shame on Falwell

A few days ago, the president of Liberty University, Jerry Falwell, Jr., encouraged his students in a mandatory weekly gathering of all undergraduate students, to enroll in a free concealed carry course, and to carry concealed weapons on the campus.

“I’ve always thought that if more good people had concealed-carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walked in,” he proclaimed to the loud unrestrained applause of students. “I just wanted to take this opportunity to encourage all of you to get your permit. We offer a free course,” he said. “Let’s teach them a lesson if they ever show up here.” (Huffington Post, 12.07.15)

Headlines and editorial pages are exploding, and the Facebook memes won’t be far behind.  Both sides of the political and Second Amendment arguments are stridently taking positions, and classifying the opposite side as subhuman, in intelligence level, if not in actual DNA composition.

As usual, my thoughts on this particular incident are complex, and have enough nuances to offend everyone.  I wish I were able to condense my thoughts on significant issues to the size of a Tweet, but I work hard to see the complexities and to consider the positions and concerns of all sides of a disagreement.  That unfortunately leads to long posts.  Fortunately for my readers, I don’t charge by the word.

I am a Christian, and a pastor.  A survey of my key theological beliefs would match up well with the Evangelical camp that Falwell calls home, and to which Liberty University caters.  I’m also a firearm owner, and believe that properly trained and qualified individuals should be able to carry firearms (more on the qualifiers in a moment).

With that introduction, let me tell you that I have a few problems with Falwell’s statements.  As in, I gave myself a bloody nose with the facepalm.

Let’s start with the practical:

  • Concealed carry licensing requirements in EVERY state in the US are a joke.  I was unable to obtain the details of the free training that Falwell is offering Liberty students, but I did check what is required in the Commonwealth of Virginia.  Basically any firearm or hunter safety course, including those that consist only of classroom instruction, or an honorable discharge from the military, suffices to meet the state requirement that the applicant “has demonstrated competence with a handgun.” I’m not a hunter, and have never attended a hunter safety course, but I am retired from the Army, and can assure you that an honorable discharge from the US military in no way demonstrates “competence with a handgun.”  Many soldiers will go their entire enlistment without ever even handling a handgun, let alone demonstrating competence.
  • Beyond basic weapons proficiency, or lack thereof, the more important issue is that most people carrying handguns today neither train regularly to maintain basic skills, nor do they spend time developing the proper mindset and muscle memory to be effective in an active shooter scenario.  Despite the claims of the NRA and most gun rights advocates, most people carrying concealed today are a hazard to those around them, because they aren’t trained well.  College students, and presidents, shouldn’t assume that because they’ve hit a paper target, they’re effective gun-fighters, no matter how many video games they’ve played.
  • Security at a large institution should not be left to several hundred independent operators.  Imagine being a first responding law enforcement officer and arriving on a scene with two bad guy shooters, and 200 good guy shooters–who are your legitimate targets?  For that matter, even before the law enforcement arrives, assume you hear shots, draw your concealed weapon, look up and see several people with handguns drawn–who is the bad guy?  Most concealed carry permit holders don’t consider these scenarios.  Adding more untrained, armed people to the mix won’t help.
From an “influential leader perspective:
  • “ending those Muslims before they walk in”– yes, I know he clarified the next day in a press release that he meant the terrorists, but that’s not what he said…  This whole phrase is STUPID (to borrow Trump’s terminology).  It’s inflammatory, insensitive, and wrong.  How about we decide, and state, that we’re going to defend against terrorists, who are the problem, instead of an entire religion?
  • “Let’s teach them a lesson if they ever show up here”–more ignorant, harmful blustering.  I love John Wayne movies more than most, but cowboy bravado has no place in public leadership.  Taking lives, even terrorist lives, shouldn’t be about “teach(ing) a lesson.”  It should be about defending innocent lives.  And it shouldn’t be spoken of cavalierly by the leader of the largest evangelical Christian institution of higher learning in the world.  It sounds like high-school bluster.
  • IF you feel it is necessary to ignore all the thoughts above, and you choose to run your mouth, and IF you feel it is necessary to announce to thousands (millions, really) of people that you carry a concealed weapon, at least be well-trained enough to know whether or not pulling it out on stage, in front of thousands of people, when there is no imminent threat, is legal!!! (In case you missed it, Falwell said, “Is it illegal to pull it out? I don’t know.”)  If you don’t know, you have no business carrying it, and you just acknowledged your lack of competence to the world.
  • As the leader of the largest evangelical Christian institution of higher learning, you bear an incredible responsibility to set a good, Christ-like example.  Pandering to the audience’s fear, and in so doing, a) encouraging your considerable audience to judge an entire religion by the actions of a small minority, and b) giving further credence to radicals’ claims that Americans, and Christians, are out to kill them, is grossly irresponsible.

Finally, from the Christian perspective:

  • Before Falwell, or anyone else who professes to be a follower of Jesus for that matter, starts advocating armed action against others, it would be wise to examine what God’s word says.
    • First, throughout much of Old Testament history, we see the Israelites being instructed by God to wage war.  Of note is that they were instructed by GOD.  In at least one instance where the Israelites decided on their own to take up arms against others, it didn’t go so well for them (Numbers 14).
    • Luke 22:36 is the only passage where we see Jesus advocate any form of taking up arms; a passage that Falwell’s supporters are quick to point out.  However, in just a few hours Jesus rebukes his followers for drawing their swords (22:49-51).
    • More instructive to what Jesus expects from his followers is the following 50 years of history recorded in the New Testament, where his followers are attacked, imprisoned, and even killed, but never respond with violence.
  • I don’t believe that Jesus was the pacifist that many want to portray him as; neither do I believe that he wants us to take up arms to defend him, or advance the Christian religion.  I do believe that the body of Scripture supports defending innocents against evil.  That doesn’t justify a religious war against opponents of Christianity.  The Apostle Paul identifies the opponents of Christianity not as humans, but as spiritual forces of evil that set themselves up against God.  The weapons Paul proscribes for the follower of Jesus in this fight against spiritual forces are not physical weapons, but spiritual weapons.
  • Revelation 19 is pointed to as a justification of physical violence against the opponents of Jesus, but one must interpret the book of Revelation with caution.  Even with the most literal of interpretations, the reader must recognize that the followers of Jesus are just that: followers.  Getting out in front of Jesus is probably not wise; it certainly isn’t Biblical.
  • Given this quick examination of Scripture, I would propose that while it is not imprudent for Jesus’ followers to arm themselves, they should do so with caution, that they not be tempted to take lives cavalierly, or in aggression.

Here’s the deal:  I’m not opposed to well-thought out security measures, including appropriately trained private citizens carrying concealed weapons.  I’m not opposed to the university president carrying a concealed weapon.  But talking smack on a stage in front of thousands of people, who are forming their own political and spiritual beliefs based in part on what you say, is no place to play cowboy.  Advocating violence based on a religion (and that’s what he said, whether or not it’s what he meant–and if he can’t communicate more accurately and effectively than that, he needs to find a new vocation) and pandering to the fear and mob mentality of a crowd of college students, is foolish, unprofessional, and not Christ-like.

Falwell screwed up.

We won’t win a war with jihadism, but we can sure lose one

One week ago, terrorists attacked multiple locations in Paris, killing 132, and wounding hundreds more.  The Islamic State (IS), which isn’t really a state, regardless of what they call themselves, claimed responsibility, and has since released at least two other videos claiming plans for future attacks in the US.   French President Hollande declared, “We are in a war against terrorism, jihadism, which threatens the whole world.”  While it is an appealing sentiment, and probably necessary to galvanize his nation, declaring armed combat on a tactic, or even an ideology, is absurd on multiple levels.

Just identifying a definable enemy makes the declaration ridiculous.  While IS has at least made identifying them a little more feasible with the creation of a flag and by attempting to occupy and govern territory, IS certainly is not the totality of “terrorism, jihadism,” or the popular term “radical Islam.” The reality is that since President Bush declared a “War on Terror” on September 20th, 2001, we have been engaged in a mostly military campaign against an ideology that isn’t constrained to a nation or specific people group, and has seen mixed results, at best.

Besides the lack of an identifiable enemy, combatting an ideology (radical Islam, or jihadism) or a tactic (terrorism) with military force is illogical from the simple fact that you cannot shoot, bomb, or kill an idea.

The ideology of radical Islam, or jihadism, has proven a formidable foe to military attack.  Since 9/11, this ideology has been under constant assault from the most formidable military force the world has ever known, and much like trying to punch a mist, it seems to give way to force, only to regroup again.  History is replete with failed attempts to defeat an ideology with military force.  Successful examples are rare, and limited.  If one considers the fascism of Nazi Germany an ideology, then the true defeat of the ideology occurred not on the battlefield so much as in the decades of occupation and reconstruction that followed military success, that controlled the culture until a new ideology was formed.  Perhaps more appropriate for this discussion would be consideration of the Cold War defeat of Soviet Communism–which was not won on the battlefield at all.  Fighting against an ideology that is rooted in religion becomes even more difficult, particularly when the religion rewards martyrdom.

Terrorism itself is not constrained to use by jihadists, as the British (Irish Republican Army) and Germans (Red Army Faction) can attest.  Terrorism is a tactic adopted by many different minority groups in an attempt to elevate their cause.

Before all my brothers in arms write me off as a pacifist, let me affirm that there are instances where military force is appropriate, and arguably this one.  But first we need to identify an enemy that can be defeated by military weapons.  As we witnessed in Afghanistan, military force can be successfully applied against a combatant organization such as the Taliban or al-Qaeda.  The Islamic State presents itself as a viable military target–they are a specific group of people who are generally occupying a distinct physical territory.

OK, so we can attack the IS militarily.  Note that this is not the same as warring against terrorism, or jihadism.  Rather, it is attacking the most recent organization representing these concepts. Several questions must be considered before we start loading the C17s.

  • Do we have the national will to engage in this fight?
  • Do we have sufficient international support, or lacking it, are we willing to accept the international opposition?
  • Will battlefield success solve the larger problem?

I could expound on each of these questions for days, and still not adequately cover all the nuances.  Instead, I want to focus on the last one, because it is the key to my assertion that we can’t win a war with jihadism, but we can lose one.  Because the problem isn’t IS; the Islamic State is just the most recent symptom of the true problem.  President Hollande rightly identified the problem as bigger than a belligerent organization; the problem is an ideology that approves of murder, fear, and compulsion to advance its agenda.  Complete military defeat of the Islamic State won’t solve the problem presented by jihadism.  Quite the opposite, it is likely that military success will only serve to reinforce the narrative that helps drive this ideology.

Am I advocating doing nothing, or cowering in fear?  Certainly not.  But before we take action, we should decide what our desired outcomes are, and what actions are feasible to achieve those outcomes, then if we as a nation are willing to fully commit to those actions.  You see, our original goals in Afghanistan and Iraq were achievable, but we did not have the will as a nation to achieve them.  To truly achieve the defeat of jihadism would have required a long-term commitment to the occupation and transformation of those two countries, much as we demonstrated during our post WWII reconstruction of Germany and Japan.  While to many it seems like we’ve been engaged in those countries for a long time, our efforts pale in comparison to our work in Germany and Japan in both duration and level of engagement.  The jihadists were banking on the fact that we would grow weary of our efforts, and would redefine victory in a desire to disengage.

The atrocities committed by IS in Syria and Iraq make most of us want to wipe IS off the planet.  But we aren’t going to do that with airstrikes; it’s going to take conventional and SOF forces on the ground, for years.  That is complicated further in the case of Syria, where we would be trying to destroy a non-state entity in the midst of a civil war in which the national government is supported by Russia and Iran.  Just sorting out the allegiances of the various players can become an insurmountable task.  Do we, as a nation, have the will to take on the war necessary to destroy IS militarily?  I would submit that recent history indicates that we do not.  And anything less than total victory will result in our defeat.

Most importantly–defeating IS won’t solve the root problem.  The root problem is a conflict of ideology, and that conflict is not resolved with military force.  As we learned in the Cold War, military force is necessary to shape the ideological battlefield, but the weapons with which we will win are not operated by armies, and the victory will go to those willing to play the long game.

I’m not saying we don’t engage in this ideological battle.  In fact, I believe we must engage, but we need to know the battle, and we must commit to what it will take to win.  More to follow…

Restarting, with what could be the final post

I am back to writing, and have built a new page design as part of the re-launch.  But the cartoon below may make all future posts irrelevant.

I’ve been reading Wondermark cartoons for a while.  Intellectually irreverent.

2015-11-20-1176politicWondermark

This also explains why I’ve (almost completely) abandoned Facebook.  More on that in another post (if you really think that this was the end, then you don’t know me very well 😀 )

 

The Presidential Speech You Didn’t Hear

 

Recently, President Obama gave a speech that would astound most Americans.  The topic was faith.  He made three points to answer the question,

“So how do we, as people of faith, reconcile these realities — the profound good, the strength, the tenacity, the compassion and love that can flow from all of our faiths, operating alongside those who seek to hijack religious (sic) for their own murderous ends?”

His three points?  Humility, freedom of religion, and the universality of the Golden Rule to most religions and all of mankind.

He strongly condemns those who abuse religion for their own purposes:

“We see ISIL, a brutal, vicious death cult that, in the name of religion, carries out unspeakable acts of barbarism — terrorizing religious minorities like the Yezidis, subjecting women to rape as a weapon of war, and claiming the mantle of religious authority for such actions.”

He quotes Colossians 3:14.

He says, “Our job is not to ask that God respond to our notion of truth — our job is to be true to Him, His word, and His commandments.”

In his closing remarks, he made the following appeal:

“If we are properly humble, if we drop to our knees on occasion, we will acknowledge that we never fully know God’s purpose. We can never fully fathom His amazing grace. “We see through a glass, darkly” — grappling with the expanse of His awesome love. But even with our limits, we can heed that which is required: To do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.”

WOW!  Why didn’t we hear about this speech in the news?

Well, you did.  You just didn’t hear about this part of the speech.  See, these were the key points from his speech at the 2015 National Prayer Breakfast.

Why didn’t you hear about these points that most Americans, and certainly all Christians should be able to agree with?  Because the Twitterverse exploded in real time over a brief aside in his introductory remarks, and the right-wing blogosphere was in full attack before he began his first point.

Bill Donohue, the president of the Catholic League, said in a statement that Mr. Obama was trying to “deflect guilt from Muslim madmen.” He said the president’s comparisons were “insulting” and “pernicious.”  Mr. Gilmore said the comments go “further to the point that Mr. Obama does not believe in America or the values we all share.”

and

“The president’s comments this morning at the prayer breakfast are the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make in my lifetime,” said Jim Gilmore, the former Republican governor of Virginia. “He has offended every believing Christian in the United States.” (New York Times, 2/5/15)

DOUBLE-WOW!!! What could be so heinous as to offend “every believing Christian in the US?” 

Warning:  The following quote can be highly offensive–please don’t read while eating, or in the presence of young children:

“And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.  In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.”

Yup.  That’s it.  The headlines have screamed how Obama has said Christians are just as bad as ISIL!  How the President is defending radical Islamists.  The pundits left out the next sentence, where he condemned violence under guise of religion in India.  They also totally ignored the next words out of his mouth, which led to him introducing his three main points, which were a spiritual (Christian, but watered down for a national ecumenical audience) response to the violence in the name of religion running rampant in our world:

“So this is not unique to one group or one religion.  There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith.”

This point is crucial!  See, I read this as the President saying we should be on guard to ensure that we don’t twist our beliefs to our advantage, at the expense of others.

Me?  I see a great example of introspection and humility.  Jesus spent much of his latter ministry challenging the pious religious leaders of his day to examine themselves–a message which we should all continue to heed today.  Unfortunately, many American Christians today consider ourselves as superior to all others, as God’s chosen people, above criticism.  As the frothing commentators seem to clearly demonstrate, from our high horse, it’s easy to see that the atrocities of ISIL are a whole different level of ugly than anything we could ever do.  How dare the President drag up 1000 year old history and try to call us righteous Christians?  That was then.  We’re better than that now (interestingly enough, the point of typically liberal Washington Post commentator Eugene Robinson).

Bull.

Of all people, Christians should be the first to take a hard look inside, because we have a unique theology that tells us that even when we are inhabited by the cleansing power of the Holy Spirit, we are still fighting a battle against our sinful human nature (see Romans 7:14-24).

Sure, we can point out that Christians such as William Wilberforce led the abolitionist movement.  But read Dr. King’s “Letters from a Birmingham Jail.”  This amazing document was penned in response to CHRISTIAN leaders who challenged his actions in standing up for human rights.  Just a few sentences before his “verbal rape” (yes, Star Parker really said that!), the President made the point that faith has, and is being used for both good and evil:

“…we see faith inspiring people to lift up one another — to feed the hungry and care for the poor, and comfort the afflicted and make peace where there is strife.  We heard the good work that Sister has done in Philadelphia, and the incredible work that Dr. Brantly and his colleagues have done.  We see faith driving us to do right.

But we also see faith being twisted and distorted, used as a wedge — or, worse, sometimes used as a weapon.”

Seems like his critics are doing the latter–they’re playing upon America’s polarization to drum up dissent, by twisting the President’s faith (professing Christian, and demonstrating more Christ-likeness in words and action than many of his critics) as a wedge… or a weapon.

I hate to break it to the former governor of Virginia, but this Christian is not offended by the President’s remarks.  I am in agreement with them.  I’m offended by all the people who are attacking him for speaking truth, while ignoring his broader points.  We American Christians can’t claim any moral high ground here.  Here’s a picture from less than 100 years ago.

jesse-washington-lot13093-no.38

That’s the body of Jesse Washington.  The full account of his lynching is here, but the short version of the story is that, after a questionable murder trial in Waco, Texas, Jesse was declared guilty, grabbed by a mob, dragged into the street to this tree, doused in oil, had his fingers and genitals cut off, was hung from the tree over a bonfire, where he was repeatedly lowered and raised over the next two hours, while he burned to death in the celebratory atmosphere of 10,ooo spectators.

Here’s another one (sorry, no pics of this one):  According to the Associated Press coverage of her death, “Mary Turner had made ‘unwise remarks’ about the execution of her husband, and that ‘the people, in their indignant mood, took exception to her remarks, as well as her attitude’.”  How did they take exception?

“There, before a crowd that included women and children, Mary was stripped, hung upside down by the ankles, soaked with gasoline, and roasted to death. In the midst of this torment, a white man opened her swollen belly with a hunting knife and her infant fell to the grown, gave a cry, and was stomped to death. The Constitution’s coverage of the killing was subheaded-lined: ‘Fury of the People Is Unrestrained.” (Wikipedia, “Mary Turner”)

Betcha most of those folks went to church next Sunday.

“Yeah, but those stories don’t have anything to do with Christianity!”  Except they came from a time when it was common to teach in church that blacks were subhuman (click the link “carroll.pdf” on the page to download your very own copy of the book “The Negro a Beast…0r…In the Image of God”).

“Yeah, but that was 100 years ago.”  Well, first, the President’s point was that atrocities were committed by people who claimed to be Christians, and claimed to have Biblical justification for their heinous acts.  Second, just Google Christian Identity.  This hosed up, racist hatred is whitewashed “in the name of Jesus” and claims to use Scripture to justify their vile beliefs.  And there are thousands of adherents to this and similar beliefs in our world today.

 “So are you blaming all Christians for these lynchings, Jim Crow laws, and nutball white supremacists?”  No.  But I hope I’ve presented enough evidence to get you off your horse.

Or should we explore all the Jews killed during the Crusades–in the name of Jesus?

 

 

What if it is true?

I’m a white, Protestant, middle class man.  I grew up in a redneck town, attended a predominantly white high school, paid for my own college, have had two successful careers that have allowed me to live a very comfortable life, that I worked hard for.  It’s pretty easy for me to argue that racism is dead, that equal opportunity is out there, and that black people need to quit (fill in the blank) and work hard, and they can be successful just like me.  As a matter of fact, I wrote a paper on that very same subject 20+ years ago in Freshman English at Lincoln University (my undergrad alma mater, and a historically black college).

But I also spent 23 years in the Army and became friends and comrades with many blacks from many different backgrounds from around the US.  I had a Master Sergeant that worked for me who was pulled over multiple times while we worked together in Des Moines, IA, for “driving while black.”  I’ve seen enough similar occurrences to know that it wasn’t an isolated situation.

In my years of leadership I’ve studied human behavior, particularly in situations of conflict, and learned that true progress can only be achieved when we begin by recognizing the existence of positions that may not align with our own.  I’ve also become very aware that a person’s perception becomes his or her reality, no matter how illogical it might seem to an observer.

Many, many black people in our country today are hurt, afraid, enraged, distrusting, and myriad other emotions.  They believe the system is prejudiced against them.  Rather than taking that as a condemnation of all us white folks, what if we stopped first to listen–not to form our argument as to how they are wrong, but to hear their perspective, to seek 1st to understand what makes this perception real to them?   What if, instead of immediately shouting back “You’re WRONG!” and launching into whatever flavor of justification we prefer/believe, we stopped to consider, “What if it is true?”

“Truth” + irrelevance = FAIL

The Christian world is all knotted up right now in a bout of self-torture over a recent New York Times interview with Brian Houston, pastor of Hillsong Church.  The reporter asked Houston to clarify Hillsong’s position on gay marriage.  Houston refused to take the bait, in part because his church has a presence in LA and NYC, and is being effective at ministering to the gay community in those two cities.  His response:

“It’s very easy to reduce what you think about homosexuality to just a public statement, and that would keep a lot of people happy,” he said, “but we feel at this point, that it is an ongoing conversation, that the real issues in people’s lives are too important for us just to reduce it down to a yes or no answer in a media outlet. So we’re on the journey with it.”

The reaction to this response was swift and strong from the evangelical conservatives, led by the Southern Baptist Convention.  In his blog post, Andrew Walker (no relation), SBC Director of Policy Studies for the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, takes Houston to task for being accommodating to culture by not declaring an unequivocal Biblical stand in opposition to gay marriage, and homosexuality in general.  Conservative evangelicals hate the concept of cultural relevance, and believe Christians need to be clear, blunt, and unbending in declaring the “truth” found in the Bible.  In Andrew Walker’s words:

a non-answer is an answer. Let’s be very clear on that. It’s also a very vapid answer. What we’re seeing in many corners of evangelicalism is a pliability that makes Christianity an obsequious servant to whatever the reigning zeitgeist is. With non-answers like this, it isn’t Jesus who is sitting at the right hand of the Father. Culture is.

Apparently Walker and other evangelicals who are offended by Houston’s choice not to reply to a loaded question have forgotten Jesus’ answers to the chief priests in Matthew 21:23-27.  The religious leaders ask Jesus a loaded question:  “On whose authority are you saying and doing what you’re doing?”  Knowing that the question was loaded, Jesus artfully dodged the question by responding with a loaded question of his own.  When the religious leaders dodged Jesus’ question, he refused to answer theirs.

The NYT question to Houston was a loaded one–any answer was going to bring about division and controversy.  Here is where Houston erred in the eyes of Mr. Walker, and most other raging evangelical commentators:  He chose to avoid an answer that, while affirming Biblical truth (as even Mr. Houston interprets it, as indicated in this press release in response to the firestorm) didn’t poke sinners in the eye with a sharp stick.  These critics love to throw about a small phrase from Ephesians 4:15, devoid of context*:  “speaking the truth in love,” as in “The Bible demands that we declare loudly that homosexuals are sinners, and that by doing so we are showing them how much we love them by saving them from Hell.”

News flash for Mr. Walker and his friends:  Pretty much every coherent homosexual in the western world is abundantly clear on the evangelical position that homosexuality is a sin (not just any sin, but an abomination!), and that gay marriage is an affront to God, marriage, and Focus on the Family.  Your friends at Westboro Baptist are leading the charge in communicating the anti-relevance message.  We don’t need Mr. Houston to pile on.

18 months ago I articulated my views on gay marriage, so I’m not going to expound on that point.  Truth is, this post isn’t so much about gay marriage as it is about cultural relevance and the Christian church.  Houston’s critics will tell you, either indirectly or overtly, that their job is to present God’s truths so that everyone who does not know God as Lord and Savior will realize they are sinners, repent, and accept God’s forgiveness.  Any efforts to connect with the culture in a meaningful way is derided as accommodation, and diluting the gospel, most often with the stated or implied motive of attaining or maintaining popularity, which equals dollars.** These critics proudly proclaim that they would gladly see current society burn in hell before they would give up their primary mission of proclaiming “God’s truth.” (Walker:  A church in exile (and that’s how I’d describe the current placement of confessional evangelicalism) is one that is faithful amidst the culture, regardless of whether that culture looks more like America or more like Babylon. It knows that it may lose the culture, but that it cannot lose the Gospel. So be it.”)

There’s a problem with that approach, and it is most clearly seen in the example of missionaries of the past 200 years who left Western churches to “take the Gospel” to the unchurched in other parts of the world.  Whether it was Central America, Africa, or Alaska, those missionaries who refused to be relevant to the culture they were trying to reach, found themselves first trying to convert their audience to Western modernity before they could convert them to Christianity.  Most failed outright; some made initial headway (usually by force) in trying to force the people to change their culture, and in so doing, created long-lasting problems that we are still trying to undo today.  All created a distrust and fear of the Church.  On the other hand, missionaries that realized that you don’t have to be a Western European or American to be loved by God and be a part of his Kingdom have planted churches that are growing and thriving.  Those missionaries realized that the Truth of God is meaningful to all cultures, and does not have to be framed in the context of the culture that sent them.

More simply put:  the SBC’s message that “God abhors your sinful behavior and will send you to hell for all eternity if you don’t stop doing _____” is completely meaningless to someone who has no clue who God is, or why the person should care what God thinks.  Our culture doesn’t know God–they only know the church.  And their primary understanding of the church is that they hate homosexuals.  Somewhere along the way, evangelicals in America have lost sight of the Great Commission to “go and make disciples.”  Making disciples involves building a relationship.  That’s hard work.  Before we can help someone become a disciple of Jesus, we have to get to know them and help them get to know Jesus well enough that they would desire to follow him.  It’s going to be hard to do that with homosexuals when our initial message is “God hates you and is going to send you to hell if you don’t stop having homosexual sex.”

Evangelicals love to point to John 8’s account of the adulterous woman to justify their actions, citing Jesus in verse 11 telling the woman “Go now and leave your life of sin.”  However, they lose sight of the fact that he only made this statement after he saved the woman’s life, and told her that he didn’t condemn her.

Brian Houston chose to avoid a trap, in order to continue building relationships with people who he wants to help know Jesus, so that he can help them become disciples of Jesus.  He is condemned by fellow Christ followers who would prefer that he alienate these people by “speaking the truth.”  While the SBC message may be factually correct, its disdain for cultural relevance means that they will become less and less effective at the Church’s primary mission of making disciples.  To those who feel the need to “speak the truth” on this (or any other) sin issue, I would recommend they consider following Houston’s example.  You see, Houston is choosing to speak Truth–in the form of Jesus himself.  Because, it is Jesus, not the SBC, who takes away the sins of the world.

__________________________________________________________

* Too bad most folks don’t read all of Ephesians 4.  Paul’s discussion about spiritual maturity and church unity might clarify that this oft-quoted phrase is not a license to castigate nonbelievers, but a plea for Christians  to quit acting like babies and instead to treat each other as integral parts of the same body of Christ.

**Many commenters immediately attributed Houston’s approach, despite his clear statement that a simple yes/no answer would diminish the importance of the conversation, to a perceived greed and desire to preserve the wealth of his church.  Their evidence:  Houston’s church is big, and it has a huge influence in the Contemporary Christian music genre.  Therefore Houston’s motives must be greedy, selfish, and devoid of Christ.  I wonder how many of those who grabbed their keyboard and thesaurus to launch their scathing attacks on a Christian brother on Friday, finished their worship set Sunday morning with Oceans (a Hillsong original which is immensely popular with contemporary worship services around the country)?  Their immediate association of Houston’s lack of alignment with their thoughts to the astounding success and impact his church is having around the world is curious, and without further evidence seems to be a glaring fallacy of logic.

Scared of Ebola? Then you haven’t heard about THIS!

People are freaking out–right now my news feed is blowing up because somebody barfed in the Pentagon parking lot, causing officials to seal off one entrance, and quarantine a busload of people headed to some jarhead’s change of command ceremony.

While we’re spazzing out about whether or not to buy online this year, because the person at the shipping dock might have had Ebola (seriously–I’ve seen this concern!  I’m afraid these folks might just starve to death if they figure out the same problem could occur at the store.  “THIS JUST IN:  Walmart might be an Ebola vector!”)-  If we’re taking such drastic action to protect against the spread of this deadly virus, the CDC should be proactive to prevent THOUSANDS of deaths this year alone from a much more heinous killer, that’s already breached our shores.

Barricade all KFCs.

I’m serious!  Ebola has killed ONE person in the US, and TWO MORE are infected because of DIRECT contact with the deceased victim.  Meanwhile, an average of SIX HUNDRED THOUSAND Americans die ANNUALLY from heart disease!  The three leading contributors to heart disease are high blood pressure, high LDL cholesterol levels, and smoking.

Six. Hundred. Thousand. Per. Year.  That’s the equivalent of the entire population of Portland Oregon or Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Wait, you don’t care about people dying, as long as it’s not you?  Ok, then choke on this number:  the CDC estimates that heart disease costs $108.9 BILLION per year!

Now, we can’t outlaw tobacco, because, well, it’s too big to fail.  But the smaller fast food chains like KFC are nothing more than disease-dispensers.

This whole Ebola scare in the US is a prime example of irrational thinking driving imbecilic behavior.   If we really were worried, we’d start outlawing fried foods.  Ebola is a real problem in West Africa.  In the US, it’s just fodder to feed our irrational need for drama.