Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Time to "Cut Bait" with Evangelicals

When I was growing up, my Dad often used the expression “Fish or cut bait.” Seeing as neither I nor my father were big fishermen, it wasn’t until I was much older that I understood what the expression meant. To “cut bait” is essentially to cut your line, let your bait go free into the water and give up fishing. Dad would use this expression when it was time for us to act, rather than wallow in indecision.

This saying came back to me recently when I learned that Rev. Richard Cizik resigned from his post as vice president of governmental affairs for the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). His resignation was prompted by criticism that came after an interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s program Fresh Air. In the interview he was asked his position on gay marriage. He responded by saying that while he did not endorse gay marriage, he was open to the notion of civil unions. He also talked about his efforts to reverse global warming and his support for Barack Obama in the Democratic primary.

Apparently, Cizik’s remarks did not represent the views of the powerbrokers within the NAE. Cizik’s remarks prompted NAE president Leith Anderson to write a letter to the NAE board of directors that Cizik’s positions did not represent the positions of the NAE. Mounting pressure eventually forced Cizik to resign, even though he is widely credited with being a fresh voice for the new evangelical movement and someone who is trying to engage evangelicalism and U.S. culture in a meaningful way.

I learned of Cizik’s resignation from blogs by Jim Wallis and Tony Campolo, both long time progressive evangelicals who I deeply respect. Both Wallis and Campolo have had a significant role in shaping my understanding of how Christians should and can relate to the wider U.S. culture. Wallis expressed that he was “deeply saddened” by the NAE’s action but went on to say that he had trust in the NAE’s “commitment to the wider evangelical agenda beyond just abortion and gay marriage.” Campolo for his part said that Cizik’s resignation provided “one more reason why many of us are calling ourselves Red Letter Christians instead of evangelicals.” (For those not familiar with the term “Red Letter Christians,” it refers to the practice in some Bibles to put the words of Jesus in red letters, as opposed to black. Thus “red letter Christians” are those who follow the radical teachings of Jesus first and foremost). At the same time Campolo affirmed the common ground he has with evangelicals in regards to beliefs and the need for a “personal relationship with Christ.”

In spite of my respect for Wallis and Campolo, I have gone a step further, and “cut bait” with evangelicals. I first encountered the word “evangelical” when I attended Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in the late 1970’s. After trying to figure out what constituted an evangelical, I asked my advisor and New Testament scholar, Dr. David Scholer (recently deceased), what an evangelical was. I have never forgotten his response: “An evangelical is a person who another so-called evangelical considers to be one.” In other words, evangelicals are a club, a social group, a political entity. As much they like to define themselves in terms of doctrinal and theological positions, evangelicals first and foremost are a socio-cultural group that determine who they like and don’t like. Many African American and Hispanic Christians share the same doctrinal beliefs as evangelicals, but are not considered “evangelical” because they didn’t make the club. Evangelicals are overwhelmingly white, middle class, and politically conservative. People like Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo, Shane Claiborne and Ron Sider see themselves as a “progressive” wing of evangelicalism, but how can the likes of these be seen in the same “club” as James Dobson, Joel Osteen or the Southern Baptist Convention, who continually rail against everything from global warming to the anti-war movement to a concern for the public education to gay marriage and abortion?

For years, like Sider, Campolo, Wallis and others, I considered myself an “evangelical,” but several years ago, I decided that was a club I didn’t want to be associated with. It is not because of their views on certain issues, because in fact in many cases I share their views or am close to them. It is their arrogance, self-righteousness, and intolerance of any dialogue. Had I wanted to stay in the club, I am sure there would be many who would want me out, just as they wanted Rich Cizik out. I simply saved them the trouble; I “cut bait” with the evangelicals long ago.

Stanley Hauerwas, theologian/ethicist at Duke Divinity School, says that one’s perspective on any given issue can not be divorced from virtue, or what I take to mean certain traits of character. For me the primary Christian virtues are servanthood, humility, and a willingness to listen. The NAE, and I fear even people like Jim Wallis and Tony Campolo, assume that Christianity can “make an impact” on US culture and government policy. Like Hauerwaus, I hold out no such hope. Rather as Hauerwas says our first task is to model justice and freedom in our relationships to each other, and by our life together as Christians bear witness to a different way of life and community possible in Jesus Christ. In other words the virtues of servanthood, humility and a willingness to listen first must be exercised by Christians with one another. I don't see any trace of that in the NAE.

Instead the NAE’s action in relationship to Rich Cizik is only the most recent of a variety of ways in which evangelicals have shown that they have absorbed our culture’s intolerance of difference, and taken on an attitude of arrogance that gets played out in our culture every day between groups of differing views. Moreover, this intolerance has played itself out on the world stage and involved us in two wars and alienated the US from many of the nations of the world, including our so-called allies. Instead of being a model of a different way, evangelicals have shown they are as much a part of the problem as anyone else. Other than the fact that both evangelicals and I share the label “Christian,” I’m not sure there is much else we share. For that reason I disassociate myself altogether – I cut bait.

The recent presidential election shows that declining influence the “Christian right” and evangelicalism are having in our culture. I suspect that Rich Cizik was not the only “evangelical” who voted for Barack Obama, despite his positions on abortion, gay marriage, global warming and the like because any thinking person can not be a one-issue voter. Moreover, any thinking Christian will recognize that on any one of these issues, there may be a variety of positions even among devout Christians. The ability to listen to one another and to interact in a compassionate and humble way requires an approach to dialogue that the NAE has neither understood nor accepted. I have no time for a group that is so rigid and close-minded that they automatically expel one of their own, when he happens to rethink his views on something. The Spirit of God is not contained in doctrinal statements or theological positions, but in the ongoing work of trying to engage the world with the love and justice of Christ found in the gospel. I feel badly for Rich Cizik, but in the end he is better off being set free from the rigidity of a group who has lost the Spirit of the One they say they serve.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Living the Questions for the New Year

For many people, the beginning of a new year is a time of reflection and prognostication. We look back on the year that has passed and note the highs and lows, & the good, the bad and the disappointing. Then we look ahead to the new year. Some of us even make personal resolutions. The new year is also a time for us to project our hopes for the world at large for the coming year.

Yet this year in the midst of an economic crisis, ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, pirates seizing ships on the high seas, continued foot-dragging on global warming and so many other things, I find myself asking questions of the new year rather than expressing hope. And so I share with you my questions for 2009.

First, how will Barack Obama meet the challenges of the presidency such as the global economic crisis, the inequities in health care, a foreign policy in a polarized world, global warming, and the plight of the truly poor both in the US and across the world? Not since John F. Kennedy has someone entered the Oval Office amidst such high hopes and expectations. Since Nov. 5, Obama has been acting presidential even though he does not actually take office until January 20. Yet he enters the presidency facing multiple challenges that require not simply some quick fixes, but rather a complete paradigm shift as to how we think of ourselves as U.S. citizens and citizens of the world. I wonder, is he committed to the dramatic change he called us to in the campaign? Obama campaigned on a platform of change, and yet his appointees to the cabinet thus far seem remarkably similar to what has gone before; in fact many of his appointees served in the Clinton administration, and at least one (Defense Secretary Robert Gates) in the Bush administration. Now I realize that no matter who is sitting around the table Obama will be directing the conversation, and overseeing major decisions, and that in itself is a major change. in his second book, The Audacity of Hope, Obama makes clear is that he is not an ideologue of the left or the right, as much as he is a pragmatist. His mantras are “whatever works” and “whatever it takes.” In a time when there is a great deal of fixing to be done, will he be able to convince Congress and the American people, that the lifestyles we have been living need to be simplified, that the wars we have been fighting need a different approach, and the way we relate to the world needs to be significantly altered. Can he pull it off? That’s my first question.

My second question is this: How far down will the U.S. and global economy go? All the “experts” say 2009 will continue to deteriorate until it begins to turn around. However, these are the same guys who a few months ago were predicting we had hit bottom and the various government bailouts would turn us around. In other words, nobody knows. To add insult to injury to the increasing economic troubles, Bernard Madoff was caught running a billion dollar pyramid scheme, just highlighting how fragile and illusory our economic well being was and is even if you are filthy rich. As Thomas Friedman recently pointed out ,the Wall Street, mortgage and bank collapses came about based on loans where no money actually passed hands and where no one was willing to reveal the financial slights of hand that characterized many of the loan, stock and mortgage deals. Friedman concludes his analysis of the financial crisis by saying “we’re all going to be working harder for less money and fewer government services --- if we’re lucky.” That’s not very encouraging. My worries are pretty mild compared to most (how will I pay my daughter’s college tuition, will students be able to afford to come to Eastern University, what will the value of my house be), but others are facing economic collapse and some painful and difficult choices, and I wonder how will we as a people manage?

Third, how deep and severe is the damage that has been done by the Bush administration? The Philadelphia Inquirer recently ran a series of articles about the undoing of EPA regulations by the Bush administration. There have also been articles on the legacy of Dick Cheney’s vice presidency in which his disregard from public opinion was made clear. What concerns me is that we have yet to really see the extent to which the decisions of the Bush administration have handicapped the US image around the world, hampered the care of the environment, promoted the deregulation of the oil and financial industries and who knows what else. In my adult life I do not recall an administration that operated with such impunity as this outgoing administration. Even those who worked in that administration speak of the lack of commitment to honesty and truth. I fear the next few months will reveal just how much we have been duped.

Finally, what will become of the major places of conflict in the world: Zimbabwe, Congo, Sudan, Israel/Palestine, Pakistan, Iran, and North Korea (just to name a few)? The prevalence of poverty and civil war around the world is a matter of grave concern. Any one of these places could be the staging ground for a broadening global conflict. There are certain interests that would like nothing better than more war, be they weapons manufacturers, mercenaries or governments, because war is good business. War also allows us to divide the world into “them” and “us” rather than look to our common needs and interests. As I look out on the horizon, I hope for peace and justice in these places, but I am continually troubled by our inability and unwillingness as a human race to pursue that peace. I am sure that all of these conflicts have a history and a set of circumstances that justify the conflicts from the combatants’ perspectives. Yet the ongoing decision to choose war over reconciliation only perpetuates needless suffering and death.

These are heavy questions I bring as a world citizen into 2009. By asking them, I am not throwing up my hands in despair. Rather, I see these questions as informing my prayers and to a certain extent shaping my actions. I am not without hope, but that hope is not built on a Pollyanna notion that “everything will be all right.” That hope is informed by the difficult choices all of us must make, if we are to act constructively in and on the world in which we live. And so in the words of the German poet Rainer Rilke I will “live the questions” as I enter the new year

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A Christmas Prayer

In his book, Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama tells the story when he was running for the U.S. Senate of flying from Chicago on a private jet to a fundraising event on the west coast. He describes the comfortable chair, the wood paneling, the crab salad, and the constant attention he received from the wait staff. He then goes on to tell of a car ride with his campaign manager from Chicago to the western Illinois city of Galesburg. In a Galesburg diner he met with the town mayor and some Maytag workers who were concerned that their plant was being relocated to Mexico and they would lose their jobs. He contrasts the two trips by saying that when you are flying high in a private jet, it is very easy to lose touch with the struggles and needs of the everyday American. That’s why when possible he chose to drive rather than fly privately.

Recently, we have been reminded how some self-styled elite in our country seemed to have lost touch. Take the case of Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, who has been trying to sell President-elect Obama’s former Senate seat to the highest bidder. Now he is resisting calls for his resignation and may be impeached, so that Obama’s seat can be replaced. As disgusting as that action is, more disgusting is that all the people around him and many in the Illinois Senate knew he had done this sort of thing before, but looked the other way. Somehow the standards of honesty and decorum don’t apply to the governor or other Illinois officials – or so they think..

Or take the case of the former CEO of Merrill Lynch and Co., John Thain. In the twelve months he has held that post, the company lost more than $10 billion dollars and then was sold to Bank of America. For his stellar efforts Mr. Thain requested that he be granted a $10 million bonus on top of his $750,000 salary, $15 million signing bonus, and a long term pay package valued between $50 million and $120 million. Merrill’s compensation committee denied Mr. Thain’s request, but what kind of gall and hubris does it take for a person to even ask?

We could go on about the AIG executives who got bailed out and then took a luxurious corporate junket, or the auto executives who came to Washington expecting to be bailed out without any plan or the athletes who in spite of these hard economic times still get millions of dollars for throwing a ball or catching a pass – it is all obscene… and it has to end

One can only hope that as Obama ascends to the highest, most powerful position in the world that he won’t forget the lesson he learned en route to Galesburg. Likewise, one can only hope that the likes of Gov. Blagojevich and Mr. Thain can be humbled and cut at the knees to the point of recognizing how incredibly out of touch and arrogant they really are.

During this Advent season I am reminded of the words of Mary, the mother of Jesus when she proclaimed:

"God has performed mighty deeds with his arm
And scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
God has brought down the rulers from their thrones
But has lifted up the humble
God has filled the hungry with good things
But sent the rich away empty." (Luke 1.51-53)

Now I wish I could say that I see evidence of this great reversal of fortunes in our day, but I don’t. I will admit I am disappointed, angry and a bit cynical at the way the so-called leaders have handled the financial crisis. What I see is the poor being forgotten, and top 5% of the income bracket expecting their banks and finances to be bailed out. What I know is that I have tried in various ways to ally myself with those the passage calls the “humble” and the “hungry.” What I hope for is that not only will the poor and lowly be lifted out of their struggle, but that the arrogant of the world will be faced with their own shallow hubris either by personal reflection or circumstance.

During this Advent-Christmas season, we are often reminded to remember the things that are really important in life such as friends, family and good health. I do value these things, but there has to be more. This season I also remember that we celebrate not the birth of a cute baby in manger, but rather One who came to turn the world and its value on its head. This is my prayer and hope and what keeps me going.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Plaxico Burress and the Gun Laws

As a Philadelphia Eagles fan who by nature should take delight in any mishaps befalling opposing teams like the New York Giants, I should take some pleasure in seeing Giants star receiver Plaxico Burress being charged with illegal possession of a handgun after accidentally shooting himself in a nightclub. However, not only would such a reaction reveal a sick delight in another’s demise, but also would mask a much deeper sadness that grips me about the Burress event.

Burress shot himself in the leg with a loaded gun when he tried to grab it as it slid down inside of his sweatpants. At the time he was in an upscale night club in midtown Manhattan – not exactly a place where shootings generally occur. However, because Burress’ gun was not purchased legally (i.e. he did not have a permit to carry the gun), he is now facing 3 ½ years in jail for the possession of an illegal weapon. According to New York City law, the penalty for carrying an unlicensed gun carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 3 ½ years, the same minimum penalty as one would get for burglarizing a home. Before the law was enacted in 2006, Burress would have gotten a slap on the wrist and a year of probation for his act; now the stakes are higher.

Yet for me there is yet another depressing side to the story, which is how Burress got the gun and from whom. Currently, I am working with a group of folks planning an action in January to highlight the huge loopholes in Pennsylvania gun laws that allow for the illegal purchases of guns like Burress made. Right now in my state, illegal guns are largely secured through a process known as “straw purchasing.”

Here’s how the process works. An underground gun dealer, who is often a convicted felon and has served time, hires someone to purchase guns for him/her. This hired person is called a “straw purchaser.” The purchaser can buy as many guns as possible at one time, and so usually buys several. A simple background check is done, and if the person has no major crimes on his/her record, the purchase can be completed in less than 45 minutes. Once outside the store, the straw purchaser hands over the guns to the underground dealer for a commission, and the guns are untraceable to the new owner, the underground dealer. Those guns are then sold on the streets to petty criminals as well as law abiding citizens like Burress. If the gun is used in a crime, and the gun is traced back to the straw purchaser, they can simply say they lost the gun or that it was stolen, and no further questions are asked and no penalties are given.

The group I am working with is seeking to promote two laws. The first would limit handgun sales to one gun a month (thus restricting the bulk buying practice). The second law would require that anyone who has a handgun lost or stolen would be required to report that loss to police within 24 hours of discovering the loss or theft. Failure to do so would bring anywhere from a $500 fine up to 5 years in prison. The intention of this bill is to significantly discourage the process of straw purchasing. Similar laws passed in New Jersey and New York state have significantly reduced the straw purchasing practice in those states, with the result being that Pennsylvania has become a major supplier of illegal handguns to those and other surrounding states, as well as it own. Most often when violent criminals are caught they are found to be using these guns, so that passage of these laws is a key to reducing violent crime.

Despite the fact that Governor Ed Rendell, mayors and representatives of all Pennsylvania’s major cities, and most city police chiefs support these laws, they have not been able to get sufficient support. The major reason is that outstate representatives whose constituencies contain many hunters and gun collectors have not come on board, even though the proposed laws have nothing to do with hunting rifles or collector guns. Behind this resistance is a major effort by the National Rifle Association (NRA) to obfuscate the issue by claiming any gun laws limit legal gun owner’s rights and using phrases like “guns don’t kill people, people do.” So the NRA has poured tons of money into the political coffers of these representatives, thus binding them to the NRA position and blinding them to a simple set of laws that could reduce death if not violent crime. Behind the NRA are the gun manufacturers themselves who know that the illegal market is a huge business opportunity they can not afford to lose. Am I implying that the NRA and the gun manufacturer’s are complicit in the illegal market? Absolutely, I think their actions are criminal.

However what is sad in the Burress case is how far the illegal market spreads. Burress is a multimillion dollar athlete who can not only purchase a gun legally, but also can afford to hire bodyguards if he feels threatened (which is a reality for many celebrities). Yet for whatever reason, he chose to go on the underground market; and he is not the only one. The illegal gun market issue reaches the highest levels of society, and reveals not only our duplicity about the gun issue, but also how wedded we are to resolving conflicts violently. Furthermore, it reveals how far gun company corporate executives will go to make a buck. And it is shameful.

So as I watch the Eagles play the Giants I take no joy in Plaxico Burress’ absence, even though every time he plays, he burns my home team. His absence will create a hole of sadness in me for a world gone mad, and a society unwilling to take the practical, necessary steps to keep people from needlessly hurting and killing themselves through the use of illegal guns.

For more information on current efforts to change gun laws in Pennsylvania, go to Ceasefire Pennsylvania. For information about national efforts to change gun laws, and to learn about laws in other states go to Freedom States Alliance