Friday, November 30, 2012

Nattering Nabobs of Negativism

Sounding distinctly above the jet-engine-like roar of the cappuccino machine was the booming voice of a silver-haired man who wore a large chrome cross around his neck.  Although his companion signaled (repeatedly) for him to lower the decibels and use his “inside-a-small-coffee shop voice” instead of his “outside drill sergeant voice” he paid no attention and transformed the cozy atmosphere into a torture chamber. Instead of whips and chains, this guy used words, lots of negative, vitriolic words and attitudes on everything from fellow church members to the government to society in general.

All the other customers left after it was apparent he wouldn’t shut up and it seemed no one thought it worth the effort to engage him and ask him to pipe down. I was stuck there, waiting for a ride thinking about what an awful witness for faith he was as he said “everything is going to hell in a hand-basket.”  I wished that he would at least have the decency to remove the cross from his neck.

Many people of faith (conservatives and liberals) truly believe that the world and American culture is getting worse every day. They look for evidence that reinforces a fundamentally negative worldview. Some give up trying to make positive change and simply adopt an attitude of looking forward to the end when God will straighten everything out.

I’m reminded of the famous line written by William Safire and spoken by then vice-president Spiro Agnew in which he talked about the press. The same could be said of way too many church folk.

“In the United States today, we have more than our share of the nattering nabobs of negativism. They have formed their own 4-H Club… hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history.”

Spiro Agnew

As I look around the American church today, I think it’s clear that the Nattering Nabobs have taken over and are killing the church because we all come across sounding like angry old grumps who don’t offer one bit of credible good news.

Many Things are Getting Better, not Worse

According to a recent CNN article by Steven Johnson:

Over the past two decades, what have the U.S. trends been for the following important measures of social health: high school dropout rates, college enrollment, juvenile crime, drunken driving, traffic deaths, infant mortality, life expectancy, per capita gasoline consumption, workplace injuries, air pollution, divorce, male-female wage equality, charitable giving, voter turnout, per capita GDP and teen pregnancy?

The answer for all of them is the same: The trend is positive. Almost all those varied metrics of social wellness have improved by more than 20% over the past two decades. And that's not counting the myriad small wonders of modern medicine that have improved our quality of life as well as our longevity: the anti-depressants and insulin pumps and quadruple bypasses.

Steven Johnson

Americans enjoy longer, healthier lives in more stable families and communities than we did 20 years ago. But other than the crime trends, these facts are rarely reported or shared via word-of-mouth channels.

There’s Never Been a Better Time to Live

There is not idyllic past where everything was perfect. Think about the past, torture, slavery, inequality, slaves, the horrors of child labor, the nonrecognition of human rights, mistreatment of those with mental and physical disabilities, etc. Things are not worse but our expectations are greater, for the very good reason that the seed that faithful people have planted which calling for more user-friendly world have taken root.  There have been famines and droughts; earthquakes and tsunamis; recessions and depressions; hurricanes and tornados but there has been so much goodwill and outpouring of support from across the globe whenever something likes this happens.

Mr Johnson says the media has to find ways of better telling the story of the good that is happening and find ways to accentuate it. I think the same is true for the church.

Positive People Doing God’s Work

Yes there is still much work to be done, there is much wrong with the world and it would be naive to think we are on a march of steady progress to utopia. It seems the first job of a person of faith is to focus on the positive action that can be accomplished instead of becoming just another Nattering Nabob.  (I don’t really know what a nabob is, but I’m fairly certain that it doesn’t have much to do with discipleship).   The mission statement of the church I serve was developed prior to my arrival and it helps us re-frame our thinking. Instead of believing that the world is falling apart, we can endeavor to be: Positive People Doing God's Work.  

Friday, November 23, 2012

Lincoln Movie: Does the End Justify the Means?

The Moral Conundrum of Spielberg’s Lincoln.

After the brutally long season of political campaigning where standards of truth-telling were constantly butchered and ignored, I hoped that spending 2 1/2 hours soaking in Steven Spielberg’s movie about “Honest Abe” would purge some of the cynicism about American politics from my soul. I watched the movie in a crowded Texas theater and during the previews, wondered what it would be like to watch Lincoln in a location where many are actively petitioning to secede from the union and some still seem to be fighting the Civil War--er “War of Northern Aggression.”  How uncomfortable would this experience be for them? Would they boo when the slaves were freed or cheer when Lincoln was assassinated?  Did they know what they were getting into?

As the plot unfolded, it didn’t take long to realize that I didn’t know what I was getting into, that with every frame of the movie I was growing more and more uneasy and disillusioned with my hero. I had known that our 16th president wasn’t a consistent champion of racial equality. He had even remarked that if he could save the union without freeing a single slave, he’d do it. But that was never a real option. What I knew was that despite his misgivings he ended up on the right side of history and did the right thing when it counted the most and paid the ultimate price for it.

The film hit me in the gut with images of Lincoln intentionally misleading congress, orchestrating a scheme to bribe representatives with government positions to pass the 13th amendment, which freed the slaves. The sense of corruption was palpable. At several points, I yearned for the “better angels” of Abraham Lincoln’s character to rise up and show him a better path but at every point he doubles-down, using every trick up his sleeve. He comes across as being as shrewd and calculating as Michael Corleone from The Godfather. Despite his innate humility, he realizes that as president he is “clothed with immense power” and he intends to use it. Spielberg casts the dirty tricks as comic relief within the darkness of the time, but it was more nauseating than funny.

Do the Ends Justify the Means?

I know of no credible ethical system which suggests that the ends justify the means.  Eventually one goes too far, falling into the delusion that one is beyond the law, beyond the normal rules of ethics. In our time, any politician caught doing what Lincoln did would not only get kicked out of office, he or she would rightly spend time behind bars. Yet, the hard truth is that Lincoln was right. History opened one small window of opportunity in which to pass the amendment prior to the war’s end. If he hadn’t employed sleazeball tactics, he never would have passed the amendment. All subsequent efforts for civil rights and equality rest on the foundation of the amendment to free the slaves. I cannot imagine how worse our history would be without passage of that amendment.    

Maybe the point of the movie is to say: grow up. This happens all the time, it’s how legislation always gets passed. Even the most noble legislation that we’ve ever passed only occurred because our most revered president got down in the mud and played to the worst elements of human nature.  If the old School House Rock commercial showed how a bill really becomes a law, it would have been banned from children’s programming. Yet we have this ideal, this notion that it could be better, it should be better and we should always strive to “perfect our union.”

The Moral Arc of the Universe

Martin Luther King Jr. said that the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice. Over time, change gets made and we improve--justice works its way into our lives. It’s the grand hope that we must have to affect change. Sometimes we fail to act because we know our actions are flawed; our intentions aren’t perfect, we benefit from the labors of someone else, we “reap where we did not sow.”  Lincoln and King are woven together because of Lincoln’s choice to use his political schemes--they bent the arc. The real question that comes to us when we see our reflections in that arc is: what will we do? Will we have the courage to act?

Lincoln’s Warts

The essence of the entire movie is spoken by Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) when he says that the most liberating constitutional amendment in history had been “passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America.”  After watching his methods for 2 and 1/2 hours, “pure” isn’t the first word that comes to mind. His purity wasn’t a moral purity; it was more about his intention to do what he felt was right for the country--no matter what it cost.

As a society, we keep putting people on pedestals where they cannot possibly remain. No one is that good, not even Lincoln. Yes, he accomplished one of the most important triumphs in for the history of humanity, but he also employed morally repugnant means to accomplish this feat. We know there are no perfect people; so why does it hurt so much when we take a peek behind the curtain and see our idols as they really are?

In the movie, Lincoln wishes he could travel to the holy land to walk where David and Solomon walked. It was an interesting twist to remind us of these two biblical heroes who were fundamentally flawed. As my seminary professor said the Bible shows us these men “warts and all.” Scripture doesn’t shy away from revealing that David committed adultery and murder and Solomon subjugated his own people into slavery. Similarly, our history does not need to deify Lincoln, pretending his only wart was on his upper lip. We can walk away from more honest presentations of him still feeling inspired to do what we can to bend the moral arc of the universe toward justice.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Mike Huckabee Picking and Choosing for Political Gain

A telling moment occurred when Jon Stewart interviewed Gov. Mike Huckabee regarding a political television commercial that Huckabee narrated. A tight smile stretched across Gov. Mike Huckabee’s face when Jon Stewart asked him if gay marriage and abortion are the only things that God cares about in American politics. What about poverty and politicians who’d cut programs for the poor? Huckabee tried swat away the pesky question by saying it was only a sixty second commercial and “you have to pick and choose.”  Interview

Why is it that the religious right never chooses to pick out the scripture passages regarding the poor, the vulnerable, the immigrants in our land, those who suffer under oppressive working conditions? The number of times these themes arise in scripture are like a mountain compared to the molehill of verses that link (indirectly at best) to gay marriage or abortion. Gov. Huckabee’s smile conceals the fact that he is well aware of this fact. Instead of following scripture’s lead, he uses hot-button issues in a commercial that is designed to drive Christians to the polls to get them to vote the way that Huckabee wants them to vote.

What does it say about evangelicalism when they never to pick and choose to be on the side of the poor and disenfranchised? Why are they always more motivated by imposing their views of morality instead of living out their own morality in such an attractive way that others will want to become part of it, too?

The evangelical ads could not be more manipulative and I believe should be classified as a case of invoking God’s name to advance a narrow political agenda. Such vacuous uses of God’s name are what is at the heart of the Fourth Commandment in which the Israelites are told not to take the Lord’s name in vain (literally “vaporous manner”). Perhaps those who produced the ad should be more concerned about their own violations of God’s commands than they are about what other people do.

The heart of the Stewart interview was the question of whether the ad implied people who voted for Democrats were going to hell. It’s easy to see how one could view it that way, although Huckabee strongly disagreed saying that any biblically literate Christian would understand that the images referred to First Corinthians 10. The Governor couldn’t have been any more smug in the way he said this. What’s hilarious is that Gov. Huckabee got it wrong. There is nothing even remotely close to those images in First Corinthians 10.

Although he invoked First Corinthians 10 many times, what he meant was First Corinthians 3 verses 10 and following. But the former Baptist preacher certainly stretches the text and uses it out of context for the commercial. First Corinthians 3 seems to be about a divided Christian community learning to tolerate differences amongst them and letting God settle it out in the end. The epistle goes on to urge these quarrelsome Christians to start focusing more on love and community than advancing each one’s narrow agenda. That’s the kind of conversation that seems more productive than a conversation about fire. It might even put a nice smile on the Huckabee’s face.

Friday, November 9, 2012

The Walking Dead

Walking Dead

There’s just something about a good zombie show that forces me to think more deeply about culture, life, death and what we will do to survive. I cannot watch one of these shows without thinking of St. Irenaeus of Lyon who taught that a human being “fully alive” is “the glory of God.” Zombies remind me that being fully alive has to mean something more than shuffling through life uncritically, unaffected by what is happening around me, mechanically pursuing my own appetites at the expense of my neighbor. The classic zombie movie, Dawn of the Dead, effectively employed the metaphor of a shopping mall besieged by the undead as a way of reminding us that absorption into a purely consumerist culture is evidence of being something other than fully alive. What we seek for true life cannot be purchased at the mall.

It’s not the gore and violence in the genre that appeals to me—some directors are so over-the-top with grisly special-effects that they obscure the deeper issues at stake. What does it mean to be alive? AMC’s The Walking Dead is a show with excellent storytelling that embraces the requisite gruesomeness without making killing zombies the point of the show.

A recent episode had characters wondering if “an echo” of the person’s memory and identity might be trapped within the mind of a zombie, that he or she still has some consciousness in there somewhere. It set me to thinking about all the people I’ve loved who had Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia. Was there something of my grandfather still in that shell of his body when he no longer recognized his own name?

I love the concept of “an echo” because I get the sense that sometimes I hear an echo of who I once was rambling around in my head. The adolescent, inappropriate, silly, insecure self of long ago makes his voice heard in my head and I have to remember that he will always be a part of my life, but he doesn’t get to control my life.
The notion of an echo reminded of the funeral poem Afterglow that makes me wonder how my spirit will echo around for a while after I’m dead.

I’d like the memory of me
to be a happy one.
I’d like to leave an afterglow
of smiles when life is done,
I’d like to leave an echo
whispering softly down the ways,
Of happy times and laughing
times and bright and
summer days.
I’d like the tears of those who
grieve, to dry before the sun,
Of happy memories that I leave
When life is done.
~Helen Lowrie Marshall
(From her book of poetry, Close to the Heart )

Of course the trick is to be fully alive while you are still breathing so that there can be something to echo after your gone. Live well my friends, there is a lot of life to be enjoyed.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Election Day

Election Day As we head to the polls today I pray that we may find our way forward and discover a unity that leads us to tackle our real problems together. I heard Springsteen talking about how hard it is for folks who are caught in the gap between the American Dream and their own reality. I believe people will need to come together in new ways to fix the gap. Voting is not the sum of our duty as citizens, it's the fundamental first step. It's up to all of us to be the change we want to see.