Thursday, April 17, 2008

Cornerstone Festival Line-Up Announced!

As many of you know, bluechristian (a.k.a. Jon Trott) is part of the community Jesus People USA, in turn the sponsor of Cornerstone Festival. This year's line-up of outstanding speakers can be found on the official CornerstoneXchange Seminar program page. Cornerstone Festival, by the way, has been Christianity's premier arts festival for nearly three decades, and we're just getting started.

A few of the speakers include:

Miroslav Volf on Identity, Otherness & Reconciliation
Shane Claiborne (& the "Jesus for President" Tour)
William Cavanaugh on "The Theopolitical Imagination"
Michael Spencer (aka Internet Monk)
Anthony Smith (aka Postmodern Negro)
Karen Sloan (Flirting With Monasticism)
Andy Whitman (Paste magazine) on Music
Crystal Downing (How Postmodernism Serves [My] Faith) and (A Good War is Hard to Find)
Gordon Melton on "Witch-Hunters & Cult-Busters"

And then there's Mimi Haddad, who happens to be the President of Christians for Biblical Equality as well as a dear friend to my wife Carol and I, offering "Mama Don't Preach."

There will be some dozen or two other speakers (a few listed below in the tags, many more on the afore-linked pages) and the usual mass of bands and musical troubadors of every style and substance artistically known to humanity (they may or may not have the kazoo artist back this year). Carol and I sure hope to see you at Cornerstone Festival this year!

For more on the music, the Flickerings 2008 film venue, and so much more, see the main Cornerstone Festival site.

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Last Night's Debate Loser? ABC News!

ere I thought it was just me, screaming at the television set as ABC News -- hosts of the debate -- proved they were FOX News' long lost twin. Did Rupert Murdoch buy Disney, or what? No substantial questions for at least the first hour of the debate, and the ABC "moderators" (Charlie Gibson and former Clinton Communications Director George Stephanopoulos) adopted a "gotcha" questioning style that focused almost exclusively on Barack Obama.

Hillary Clinton happily dove into the tabloid-style topics provided to her gratis, which included important-to-every-American questions such as why Obama doesn't wear an American Flag lapel pin (patriotism is measured by a pin the way Christian faith is measured by a "Jesus Saves" T-shirt!), why Obama didn't walk out of church when Rev. Wright spoke after 9/11 ("I wasn't there for that sermon," said Obama, rather wearily, for about the 1,000nth time, an obvious reason for not walking out), and then more questions about Wright's own patriotism, all delivered by ABC's dynamic duo of "yes, we are totally out of touch with the American public, and we don't care" hacks.

[photo: ABC Washington Bureau Chief George Stephanopoulos back in his days as President Clinton's Communications Director]

Then came questions regarding Obama's relationship to a former Weatherman Underground member. Hillary seamless picked up the baton from her co-participants, contrasting herself to a man who would hang out with such dubious characters. This farce had for Obama gone on long enough. He reminded Hillary and her ABC friends that Bill Clinton had given two Weatherman a presidential pardon, far more questionable a call than having been on a committee with a former Weatherman (who's crime was committed when Sen. Obama was eight years old).

After they and Hillary tag-teamed Obama for around an hour, I did start feeling really bitter, and did in fact both pray and reach for my handgun, only to find that it wasn't there because I don't have one. Otherwise I'd have plugged the TV set, shrieking "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it any more!" As it was, I sat there with my dear wife, smoldering away in impotent indignation. She was no help, as after one particularly dubious bashing of Obama by Hillary, my dear sweet and kind lady muttered in a strangely gutteral tone, "SHUT UP!"

This morning I went to ABC News' website, just to see if anyone else felt as cheated and disgusted at the partisan and useless excuse for a debate as my dearling and I had. Lo and behold, over 13,000 (and counting) comments had been left regarding the debate, and an absolutely astonishing number of them -- from both Obama and Clinton supporters -- bashed ABC's horrendous pretense at a debate.

A few samples should offer the flavor:

"Fed Up and Bitter" wrote:

George Stephanopolis and Charlie Gibson should be fired. This debate is a meaningless waste of time....right along the lines of the newspapers you see at the checkout stand that feature batboy.
"mustafadream" wrote:

Thank you for driving public discourse into the ground. Bring me my bread and circus! Hooray!

"politipsych" brought up the still-brewing controversy regarding possible connections between George S's questions and right-wing commentator Sean Hannity who -- surprise! -- works for FOX News:

"Evidence described this morning [revealing] that Stephanopolos' questions we not just metaphorically derived from the likes of Hannity, but were literally given to him by Hannity, underscores two things. First, Stephanopolos and his ilk (in which I include Hillary) are more comfortable with the right-wingnuts than they are with the traditional positions of the Democratic Party. And second, Stephanopolos is no journalist and should never be mistaken for one. This was simply disgraceful."

Did I mention that 13,000 plus comments have been posted at ABC? Please, if you haven't left one yourself, and you watched what I watched, do yourself a favor. Go get a user name and account on and leave them another comment.

A final note... it should be said that they also asked Hillary about her Bosnia comments. I don't care much about her response (which was to me unimpressive), because I don't think the question should have been asked any more than the ones Obama was asked. American voters care this year about issues. The media, and possibly their multinational corporate heads, seem to care more about making sure a Republican ends up in the White House.

Still bitter... and still clinging (minus my gun) to God...


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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Republican Race-Bating: Forty-six Year Old Senator Obama Called "Boy" by Forty-Nine Year Old Congressman Davis

That would be Kentucky Congressman Geoff Davis, not Danny Davis of Chicago, Illinois. The latter, after all, is black. The former is white.

What made the comment particularly classic was that it took place at a self-described Kentucky "Lincoln Day Dinner." Davis compared Obama to a "snake oil salesman," and claimed Obama participated in a "highly classified" national security simulation with Davis. (That claim, as of this writing, has not been verified, by the way.) But here's what Geoff Davis said:

"I'm going to tell you something: That boy's finger does not need to be on the button... He could not make a decision in that simulation that related to a nuclear threat to this country."

The comment was enthusiastically applauded.

Later, Davis did apologize to Senator Obama in a written statement. "[M]y poor choice of words is regrettable and was in no way meant to impugn you or your integrity. I offer my sincere apology to you and ask for your forgiveness."

Uh, it wasn't meant to impugn Senator Obama or his integrity? Come, come now. A real apology would have said,

"Senator Obama, please forgive me for race-bating. I opened my mouth and nearly 400 years of white history came popping out. I hate it when the subconscious mind betrays one like that! I hereby pledge to enter therapy in order to deal with what is obviously a big problem for me, and to shut up for the remainder of this election season about your candidacy. Or, if you'd rather, I can continue to speak out, which will probably help you among thinking Americans.

Sincerely, Congressman Geoff Davis"

I wish.

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Fundamentalist Atheists and the Christian Right: Birds of a Feather?

Sometimes, there's a truth hovering just outside one's own consciousness. Chris Hedges, a harsh critic of the Christian Right, has taken the conversation in a new direction by examining the "New Atheism" in his book, I Don't Believe in Atheists. By "new atheists" Hedges refers to the currently popular voices of Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins, among others. An interview with Salon reveals that Hedges first grew interested in doing the book after frosty public encounters with Hitchens and Harris -- the interview reveals less about his critique of Dawkins.

I first found Dawkins irritating not for being an atheist -- a position which has a long and not unrespectable history -- but for his rather fascist approach to poor Ted Haggard in this YouTube video confrontation. Dawkins calls Haggard's church service "reminiscent of a Nuremberg rally." That comment had no foundation in rationality; it was a comment from a fundamentalist not different in aspect from a right wing Christian accusing Barack Obama of being a Muslim. (In fact, Dawkins' comment was worse; most Muslims have no interest at all in terrorizing or gassing non-Muslims.)

But what I had not done was to make the connection between Dawkins and the larger "New Atheism" movement, such as it is. And I am still not totally convinced that Dawkins -- despite what I have long recognized as his own fundamentalism -- pushes rightist social agendas. I hope Hedges' book -- not yet read by me -- will reveal more on that score if it exists.

What of Hitchens and Harris? In Salon, Hedges says this:

I write in the book that not believing in God is not dangerous. Not believing in sin is very dangerous. I think both the Christian right and the New Atheists in essence don't believe in their own sin, because they externalize evil. Evil is always something out there that can be eradicated. For the New Atheists, it's the irrational religious hordes. I mean, Sam Harris, at the end of his first book, asks us to consider a nuclear first strike on the Arab world. Both Hitchens and Harris defend the use of torture. Of course, they're great supporters of preemptive war, and I don't think this is accidental that their political agendas coalesce completely with the Christian right.

Is Hedges merely a provocateur, or is what he has to say more pertinent than we might imagine? I don't imagine myself a fundamentalist, but the idea that it is not dangerous not to believe in God seems rather silly to me. I think that is dangerous. I also think, though, that believing in God is dangerous. Why? Because we far too often baptize our own opinions, actions, and evil with the name of "God" as we create that god. I wish I didn't believe this was also true of Christians... but I do so believe, because I've seen my own fellow believers and even the guy looking back at me in the mirror do *just* that.

So, I'll be paying close attention to this discussion as it continues, and when and if I get hold of Hedges' book will check in again with a review.

Meanwhile, just so my non-believing friends won't be too mad at me... I do believe in the historic life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, as well as his identity being that defined in Scripture: fully human, fully Divine. I also, however, realize there are many atheists who do not have any interest in the rather rabid approach and mentality of this "fundamentalist" version of atheism. Sitting down over a cup of coffee with such a person and reasonably discussing our respective life journeys and differing experiences is a pleasure.

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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Incandescently Clear: Why the Mainstream Media Loathed Martin Luther King on Viet Nam

I'm treating myself to another exploration on God damning America, what is "correct" critique of a nation vs. "incorrect" critique, and why so many find it necessary to react as they have -- largely in ignorance of either history or theology -- to Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Folks expect Wright to be Obama's biggest "burden" as far as reaching mainstream America. By "folks," what I really mean is the media. And that pretty much frosts my cookies, especially the more I think and read about Dr. Martin Luther King and the media.

For a little context, let's see what the media was saying about Martin Luther King in 1967, just months before he would be gunned down in Memphis... and why they said it.

King had seen his biggest victories in the Civil Rights movement already. While those victories were being achieved, he'd felt that commenting on the building Viet Nam war was a bad idea. His advisors tended to agree with that sentiment.

But King could not remain silent any longer. April 4, 1967, exactly one year before his assassination, Martin Luther King spoke at New York's Riverside Church, entitling his comments "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence."

Life Magazine labeled it "demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi" and that Rev. King had moved "beyond his personal right to dissent." [1] (That an American could move "beyond his personal right to dissent" is a horribly fascinating idea -- and perhaps a sign that then and now are not as far apart as we might imagine.)

The Washington Post wrote about this same speech, "Many who have listened to him with respect will never again accord him the same confidence. He has diminished his usefulness to his cause, to his country and to his people." [2] King had become acceptable to mainstream media, if in part because his non-violent approach to achieving social justice was definitely preferable to increasing violence rooted directly in racial tensions.

So what did Martin say? He drew attention to the fact that pursuing "civil rights" within a nation involved in committing international violence against the poor worldwide was a self-defeating proposition. He pointed to the fact that his insistence upon non-violence in pursuing civil rights was in fact something he could not in good conscience promote as only the right of those within his own country. He underscored the unjust nature of the war in Vietnam as a war against a people who'd fought for their independence for decades. And finally, he called upon the power of love against violence (italics and bolding mine):

Let us love one another; for love is God and everyone that loveth is born of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love. If we love one another God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us.

Let us hope that this spirit will become the order of the day. We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate. As Arnold Toynbee says : "Love is the ultimate force that makes for the saving choice of life and good against the damning choice of death and evil. Therefore the first hope in our inventory must be the hope that love is going to have the last word."

We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity. The "tide in the affairs of men" does not remain at the flood; it ebbs. We may cry out deperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is deaf to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: "Too late." There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect. "The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on..." We still have a choice today; nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation.

And MLK's remarks were blunt:

Now, it should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war. If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read “Vietnam.” It [America] can never be saved so long as it destroys the deepest hopes of men the world over.

Of course the media objected to all this. The uppity black man King had stepped out of his proper place. Time Magazine's April 28, 1967 issue, carried "The Dilemma of Dissent," in which King was criticized for his comments two weeks earlier as well as new comments he made while speaking to the United Nations:

[King in his U. N. speech] called the U.S. "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world" and compared its use of new weapons in Viet Nam to Nazi medical experiments. Bunche and the N.A.A.C.P. had already criticized King's shift as a "serious tactical mistake." The Urban League's Whitney Young warned that "limited resources and personnel should not be diverted into other channels."

Bayard Rustin, who organized the successful March on Washington, voiced a disappointment felt by many Negroes. "There is not going to be a tremendous rush of Negroes into the peace movement," said Rustin. In fact, many Negroes have found service in Viet Nam valuable in proving their courage—a quantity whose fierce abundance has never before been tapped in American armed combat quite so effectively.

Long the nation's most respected advocate of Negro advancement, King—a Nobel Peace Prizewinner—had held himself aloof from such demagogic "Black Power" advocates as S.N.C.C.'s Stokely Carmichael and CORE's Floyd McKissick. Indeed, King once vowed never to stand on the same platform with Carmichael as long as he spouted an anti-white line. By joining the Spring Mobilization, King reneged on that vow —and possibly on the entire cause of nonviolent Negro advancement.

At the U.N., King admitted that 10 million Americans at most "explicitly oppose the war," but said that they included many of "our deepest thinkers in the academic and intellectual community." Building to a sonorous peroration, he cried: "Let us save our national honor—stop the bombing. Let us save American lives and Vietnamese lives-stop the bombing. Let us take a single instantaneous step to the peace table—stop the bombing. Let our voices ring out across the land to say the American people are not vainglorious conquerors —stop the bombing." Through it all ran the theme that America, "which initiated so much of the revolutionary spirit of the modern world," is now "an arch counter-revolutionary nation."

King, despite the media critique, did not stop. He did not stop his fight against the Viet Nam War. He did not stop with his plans for a poor people's march on Washington, that would have enlarged the Civil Rights vision to include what has always undergirded racism in America: economics. He did not stop until on April 4, 1968, he was stopped forever by one bullet.

Today, Martin Luther King has become an American icon, and justly so. But in making him an icon we also have white-washed his critique of America, of our adventurism and Imperialism, of our forgetfulness of the poor and dispossessed. We have forgotten just how harshly he was treated by our nation -- the majority of us and majority of our media -- while alive.

Martin Luther King told us things we did not want to hear, and right when we'd half-swallowed down his message (which was spoken in truth but also love), he'd enlarge the message to include more painful things we didn't want to hear.

Only a month or so before his death, Martin Luther King gave another speech, more like a sermon really. It was called "The Drum Major Instinct," and is a profoundly Christian speech. But -- again -- he spoke to our nation's coming judgement before the Lord:

But this is why we are drifting. And we are drifting there because nations are caught up with the drum major instinct. "I must be first." "I must be supreme." "Our nation must rule the world." (Preach it cries someone from the audience.) And I am sad to say that the nation in which we live is the supreme culprit. And I'm going to continue to say it to America, because I love this country too much to see the drift that it has taken.

God didn't call America to do what she's doing in the world now. (Preach it, preach it) God didn't call America to engage in a senseless, unjust war as the war in Vietnam. And we are criminals in that war. We’ve committed more war crimes almost than any nation in the world, and I'm going to continue to say it. And we won't stop it because of our pride and our arrogance as a nation.

But God has a way of even putting nations in their place. (Amen) The God that I worship has a way of saying, "Don't play with me." (Yes) He has a way of saying, as the God of the Old Testament used to say to the Hebrews, "Don’t play with me, Israel. Don't play with me, Babylon. (Yes) Be still and know that I'm God. And if you don't stop your reckless course, I'll rise up and break the backbone of your power." (Yes) And that can happen to America. (Yes) Every now and then I go back and read Gibbons' Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. And when I come and look at America, I say to myself, the parallels are frightening.

I'm frightened, too, Dr. King, these forty years after your death. I'm saddened and disheartened. I see in the Jeremiah Wright controversy -- and especially the media's treatment of that controversy -- the same sort of wide-eyed, dangerous naivety being exhibited by the mainstream media as was exhibited forty years ago. I live in a country where an unjust war kills American soldiers by the thousands and Iraqi civilians by the tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands. I do know God is not mocked, as the Word says, and whatever a man or nation of men sows, that shall they also reap. Will we not be judged, and harshly, for these crimes, which had nothing to do with others attacking us on 9/11?

No, I do not think Jeremiah Wright is on the level of greatness Martin Luther King was. But neither do I think King was the simple, meek-and-mild man we've turned him into via the American mythos. Martin Luther King's last few years were years of increasing depression and realization that the civil rights marches had only begun a process rooted in realities far deeper and more pernicious than his younger, more optomistic self had imagined.

Why are the Jeremiah Wrights still angry? Why, for that matter, are white blue collar workers in Pennsylvania angry and even "bitter" about what has happened to them? Why are young people in this nation so energized against a self-professed Evangelical Christian President? Because of his faith... or because of the lack of his faith? Perhaps it all goes back to President Bush stating, not long after 9/11, that America was going to destroy Evil. That manifestly non-christian concept, that evil lies outside of us, somewhere else, became the cornerstone of the so-called "War on Terror," a war in which many Iraqi mothers of dead children, dead husbands, and dead hope view as a war on humanity. Or perhaps it is the same deafness Washington and much of the media display toward true poverty and marginalization of people of all colors, those whom Martin wanted to march on Washington all those years ago before he was cut down.

Martin Luther King and Jeremiah Wright rooted their comments in a biblical vision which ultimately critiques any and all nation-states. So, when we celebrate Martin Luther King Day, we must not celebrate him exclusively or even primarily as a comfortable, optomistic hero. The man was a man, and spoke words that -- except for the name of the war being "Viet Nam" instead of "Iraq" -- could be respoken today verbatim and carry nearly the same meaning and impact. Would he have said, "God damn America"? No. But Dr. King certainly would, and did, basically say that God will damn America if she does not turn. And the terrible truth is, we have not turned. We are still, as Dr. King charged then, "criminals in that war" and "the supreme culprit."

Can we hear this great prophet, and other lesser prophets who echo to us the same message we have yet to truly hear or heed? I pray so... otherwise, it won't matter much who is the President of our nation.

[I may or may not post further on this topic; it seems to have me by the short hairs, but there are some other things I need to blog -- and to do elsewhere.]

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Friday, April 04, 2008

"They Got Him!" What I Learned Forty Years Ago Today

Forty years ago today, I was four days short of my eleventh birthday, a young boy in an unusually loving family growing up in Fort Benton, Montana. Fort Benton was a beautiful tiny microcosm of rugged individualism and American middle-class values. It was also virtually an all-white town, as were most towns in Montana then.

The day I remember was cool but not coat weather; I stood in our front yard near a Box Elder tree, shading my eyes against the sunlight. My child heart knew perfection.

I stood, at that moment, in the heart of the American dream. Everything around me had meaning, and all that meaning was good. It was Springtime, the fresh scent of pollen and mown lawns in the air. There was peace, order, tranquility, the quiet morning streets and bright houses mirroring back to me my own place in things. The bright sky spoke of a God who Loved me, loved me by default because I was me and existed in this throbbing good heart of my family, my town, my country.

And then I heard a door slam open, saw a man -- our neighbor -- run into his side yard. "They got him!" he screamed, hands upraised in obvious joy. "They shot that commie nigger Martin Luther King!"

My eyes took in this event, trying to understand it. Who was he talking to? He didn't even glance at me, it was as though he were in his own rapturous world. I stood, still as a deer in the woods, while he slowed his dance and then re-entered his home.

This was not a thing I could categorize. Why would Mr. Corman* be glad that someone had been shot? I was not shocked; I was puzzled. This was an odd event, I decided, and needed decoding.

I had heard of Dr. Martin Luther King, and I had picked up from my mother that she thought he was a good man, but a bit too extreme, perhaps even being used by forces less naive than he was. And I again went to her to discuss what I had seen. I do not remember what she said about Mr. Corman. I remember, though vaguely, her saying that what had happened was sad and wrong.

I felt nothing, but replayed over and over in my mind's eye the leaping, springing body of our neighbor, his mouth shrieking in joy. "They got him!" and "commie nigger" and the dance of ecstasy.

There was no sorrow for me then, only curiosity. I did not actually weep over this incident until over two decades later, while recounting it in a church service.

That day I was a child, on the verge of awakening to sex, death, and all the deep things that torment and break a human heart. And when I remember that day, April 4, 1968, I remember it as the day when I had my innocence taken away, the dangerous innocence of a child raised in a nation that denies its own tortured past and present.

I mourn the child, and mourn the racial hate and ignorance that wounded him that day. I mourn the man who was both purveyor and victim of his own hatred. And I mourn the man who, even in his death, started me on a journey into the complexities, horrors, and suffering of encountering the wounds and sins of America. Sins, I slowly discovered, that I shared in, benefited from, and helped maintain by my unexamined assumptions.

Today I honor Martin Luther King in my own heart not primarily for what he did for the nation or for black people or even for white people. I honor him for taking away my innocence and for becoming the catalyst of a quest that led me back in history and forward toward belief in a meaning beyond the American dream, which I discovered was terribly deficient at its heart. I discovered Christianity, and through King and others like him, also discovered (and am still discovering) how to untwine Christian belief from American mythology.

My innocence I began to lose that April day had been based upon the idea that America was God's Chosen Nation, and that God loved America by default and smiled upon the choices made by our leaders. All I had to do, I thought as a child, was to embrace the goodness of the world I had been gifted.

What I had not realized was that my white skin, my gender, even the language I happened to speak, served as tickets for me while simultaneously excluding Americans who did not have these characteristics. I had never seriously thought of race until that day; I did not have to think of it, because I was its beneficiary.

Today, I realize we all think about race. But I am less sure we really understand our racial history. To understand it, we need to study our history together, and for white people in particular it will break our hearts.

I personally do not believe that any white person can say they are free of racial naivety. I do not think I am free of it, after all these years and all the reading, praying, thinking, dialogging I have done.

I have wept over what happened that day, wept for the child I was and for the dreamer whose love was snuffed out in a moment. You see, I thought as a child that love was what we all wanted and that the world was a good, safe place. But what I learned that day was that love and suffering are bound together, while hate is always with us, always working its poisonous way, and always finding a way to destroy love's messengers. Though not love itself...

The Christian message is that love rises up again, just as it literally -- literally being very important! -- rose from the grave on that first Easter. Martin Luther King was a man, a suffering, imperfect, but called out by love man. He paid the price for daring to love a world which did not want to be confronted by love.

And I, the 10 year old going on 11, did not want to be confronted by the cost of love. I wanted love but did not comprehend the truth about love. A child that young could not have been expected to carry such a burden; it would have crushed me. (Yet thousands of black children had that burden forced upon them from the day of their birth! Think on that!) That day, I learned the truth. Each day, I must choose again whether or not I will embrace the cross of truth and do my tiny tasks on its behalf.

I most likely will never be used by God as Dr. King was. I will almost certainly not be shot because I loved. But I was injured that day, forty years ago. I am still bleeding from the injury. And I will continue bleeding until the day I die, and am healed at last in Love's Presence.

I stood in that yard, and I heard the hateful rantings of a demonic joy that was and is a part of America. And, also a part of me. There are sins we have sinned for which we cannot atone, cannot expect forgiveness as though it is a right or privilege. To think we can expect such forgiveness is to mock not only history, but also to mock Christian theology and the meaning of the Cross. As Kierkegaard reminds us in his "Training in Christianity," to embrace the Word of God is also to embrace the offense to others that Word embodies. That is why Martin Luther King died. His message of love carried the offense of the cross with it, the offense that making visible the oppressed, dispossessed, and marginalized always creates in an unjust society in an unjust world. Better for one man to die...

We are without excuse. The sooner we realize we are without excuse, the sooner healing can begin. Will we ever admit that the death of Martin Luther King was intrinsically part of the American Dream, that the two were woven together in a way that too many of us still want to hang onto?

I do not know the answer. All I know is that, as much as I loved that child, as much as I remember his cool and analytical reaction to what he experienced, I also know I cannot and would not return to the world from which he came. I am awake, and I am awakening. Love demands I stay vigilant. Tears are good; confession cleanses the soul. But deeply dwelling upon and considering these things is better. And acting on them is better yet. There is still so much work to be done, as the recent lack of comprehension over the Jeremiah Wright sermons illustrates.

I do not hate Mr. Corman. Rather, the older I get the more I realize just how hard it is for a single person to battle his or her culture's wisdom, its preconceptions and self-protective blindness. I do not hate myself for my naivety. But I do hate the naivety itself, and I pray that Love continues to strip it from me so that I might be at least a mildly adequate container for a drop or two of love in this broken and terrified world.

God bless you, Dr. Martin Luther King. I miss you every day of my life.

* Not his real name

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Obama, Race, and Hope: Some High Schoolers Speak Out

One of many reasons I personally am drawn to Barack Obama is how he affects those younger than I am. I often forget I am fifty years old. I still feel young, full of hope, even if hope is seasoned with sorrow. The Obama folks recently posted the below discussion among some Bronx high school students, which says better than I can why there's just something different about Barack Obama. It's a little long, and maybe a little naive in spots. But the "thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts" said Longfellow, and "dreams that cannot die." In the end, these thoughts touch on the deep things for all of us, young and not so young.

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Thursday, April 03, 2008

About that "Woman of the Year" Contest...

As I mentioned a few weeks back, my dearling Carol was nominated as a finalist for Chicago's "Woman of the Year" contest, one of ten finalists out of some twelve hundred entries. Well, the results are in....

Drum roll....

And she did *not* win the award... dangling chads, lawsuits and court battles pending.

[Audience reaction: AAAAWWWWWWWWWWW...]

But seriously, I think she's relieved. I embarrassed her with this whole episode as only a husband can (yes, I started the ball rolling). But she did get, as a finalist, a $100 gift certificate from Macy's, which she will spend on clothes more than likely. So that's some fun!

Thanks for voting for her, anyone who did...

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Tuesday, April 01, 2008

"God Damn America" in Biblical Context: Reminding ALL Christians Who They Are

When it comes to religion, Barack Obama just can't seem to win. First he's attacked for allegedly being a Muslim, despite overwhelming evidence that he's a Christian. Then he's attacked for being a Christian... a black Christian with roots in a church tradition few whites (including me, mind you!) fully comprehend. (If you want to try, I suggest reading for starters James Baldwin's searing and painful novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain.) Or maybe better yet, try Richard Wright's Black Boy (no idea if he was part of pastor Wright's family tree), or his more bombastic Native Son, a Chicago story based on real events in 1940s Chicago -- the neighborhood Pastor Wright's church currently stands in.

For historical background, try a dose of Thomas Jefferson's writings on how blacks smell bad (I'm sure his slaves, after a day in the field, did smell pretty funky); then consider his slave / concubine / rape victim Sally Hemmings. (I guess she smelled good enough to Tommy.) Read the passages from our founding documents regarding blacks' designation as 3/5s persons -- a designation given so the Southern states would have greater representation in the House of Representatives, among other things!

Then take a long, cold drink of water. Calm down.

This post really isn't about Barack Obama. Barack has repeatedly distanced himself from his pastor's more incendiary comments regarding 9/11 and God's judgment on America. I'm not even going to further comment on Barack Obama's involvement with all this, because I don't think he is involved. Period. Obama never agreed, never said he agreed, and the comments made are specifically disavowed even in the content of Barack's own words during and after the 9/11 era, up through the present, and in his two books. At least this mess produced a great Obama speech (see my two previous blog entries.)

But let's leave that. And let's talk about the comments his pastor made, comments which are often made by urban black pastors, -- and a few white ones. These are comments rooted in the private intimacies and urgent secret murmers of slave churches over centuries of time, comments rooted in the music of a persecuted and oppressed people, comments rooted in Old Testament prophecy and New Testament Hope.

Empires (Egypt, Babylon, Rome, and even Israel itself), warn the biblical prophets and preachers, are not going to last. They are too often kingdoms built on gold and iron and enslavement, built on the cruel strength of men. But there is a kingdom coming which will crush that earthly might with the awesome power of a Holy God, intent on rescuing his people. That God goes to any length, whether parting a sea or dying Himself on a cross as a common criminal, to rescue and redeem. And redeem he will; judge he will; condemn the proud kingdoms of this world he will.

Have we so quickly forgotten that Christianity is not the Kingdom of America, but the Kingdom of Heaven? And can we imagine going to church to not just figuratively, but literally, lay down our burdens and expose our inner souls to one another in what is a mingled time of worship, mourning, and declamation of the works of the world (our oppressors' world!), the flesh, and the devil? Can we imagine a pastor who cries his or her sermon out in mingled anger, prophecy, mourning and praise?

Here is the sound bite run by ABC and Fox in particular from a sermon Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the pastor in question, preached:

"The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing 'God Bless America.' No, no, no, God damn America, that's in the Bible for killing innocent people. God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human. God damn America for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme."

Now. Replace "America" with Babylon, or Rome, or Israel (the nation God was arguably roughest on of them all). Has the light gone on yet? America is no less liable to judgment than any of these other kingdoms were. America is not "God-blessed" by default. And, in a very real sense, America as a people risks being "God-damned" for reasons much like those Pastor Jeremiah Wright listed. I don't say that for political reasons, but for biblical reasons. And I would note that his final sentence in the above quote -- this not pointed out by any commentator I've heard -- greatly softens what he said before, and makes his commentary into a call to repentance. Worse, however, is the fact that this sound bite is torn out of a sermon which, when heard more completely, makes the above statement far more understandable and theologically defensible. Here's a large chunk of that sermon:

In short, the sermon entire is a balanced, if intense, call to repentance. We hear these calls to repentance in our white evangelical churches all the time. In fact, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson and others went further than Wright went in saying that God's judgment was meted out on 9/11. Their reasons had to do with homosexuality and the ACLU, among other things. Yet in this election cycle, we see them (or those like them, such as John Hagee and Rod Parsley) used by John McCain and the Republican party. It is written about, but without much heat or even general interest in the media.

But back to theology. There are plenty of biblical examples where God through his prophets and preachers calls his people to repentance. Leviticus 26, for instance, offers one such biblical scenario echoed by Pastor Wright's words:

27 But if, despite this, you disobey me, and continue hostile to me, 28 I will continue hostile to you in fury; I in turn will punish you myself sevenfold for your sins. 29 You shall eat the flesh of your sons, and you shall eat the flesh of your daughters. 30 I will destroy your high places and cut down your incense altars; I will heap your carcasses on the carcasses of your idols. I will abhor you. 31 I will lay your cities waste, will make your sanctuaries desolate, and I will not smell your pleasing odors. 32 I will devastate the land, so that your enemies who come to settle in it shall be appalled at it. 33 And you I will scatter among the nations, and I will unsheathe the sword against you; your land shall be a desolation, and your cities a waste. [New Revised Standard Version]

The words of God's impending judgment crash and clang against our human institutions. Rev. Jeremiah Wright follows in many biblical heroes' footsteps in his denunciation of American sins. I would note that he speaks as an American -- a Black American -- and as a Christian. His words in the larger sermon's context have both compassion and challenge in them. It is a mainstream sermon and I've heard others like it... from even white pastors, I might add.

I would also note that Rev. Wright is speaking from a historic context, one which (among other things) finds one out of nine black males have been or are in jail vs. one out of 106 white males. Deeply consider that the next time you're in church; look around at the males and think of what it would be like to know one out of nine of them had been or would be spending time in jail! (You'd have to imagine ones who aren't there because they are in jail.)

Did ABCNews discuss the legitimate anger, rooted in history, behind the words of Rev. Wright? Of course not. They are busily playing the same game Geraldine Ferraro did a few weeks back. Remember? She said how lucky it was for Barack Obama to be a black male right now. Sure. Ask the black males in this country how lucky they feel to not only see Barack Obama so disparaged, but then on top of it to see a Reverend marginalized who told the truth about their plight, if in terms far more fundamentalist and simplistic than warranted.

Remember.... I'm just a white guy.

Back to Rev. Wright. He also said, speaking of American history:

"We bombed Hiroshima, we bombed Nagasaki, and we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon, and we never batted an eye" (Sept. 16, 2001, sermon). He continued: "We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans, and now we are indignant because the stuff we have done overseas is now brought right back to our own front yards. America's chickens are coming home to roost."

The history is pretty accurate. The quote's underlying assumption that we deserve what happened because we have unjustly treated others is a seeming failure of Rev. Wright to attach his Christianity (specifically the doctrine of grace and redemption) to his message of judgment. But of course, that is only if we accept these snippets -- yanked from their overall context -- as being representative on their own. Again, I have to offer a slightly larger snip from the sermon to give a very different spin on the above quote:

What a stunning difference between an out of context snippet and a man's overall words, reflecting a warning *against* rage and violence, the very things he's being accused of promoting! Rev. Wright is in these quotes following a time-honored tool of preachers, and that tool is to speak prophetically to one's surrounding culture. The Apostle James, for instance, rails on the wealthy, telling them to weep and howl for the miseries which will come upon them. And frankly, there are a lot more verses discussing judgment by God on nations due to their lack of compassion for the poor and powerless than most Christians in this nation seem to be aware of. "Family Values" politics and preaching focuses almost exclusively upon matters of sexual sin, a legitimate but certainly not holistic approach to what the Bible has to say.

Yet somehow, we gulp down this lopsided "Christian Right" message with far less of a reaction than we have to Rev. Wright's more biblically rounded one. For instance, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, on Robertson's TV show, said, soon after 9/11:

JERRY FALWELL: And I agree totally with you that the Lord has protected us so wonderfully these 225 years. And since 1812, this is the first time that we've been attacked on our soil and by far the worst results. And I fear, as Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defense, said yesterday, that this is only the beginning. And with biological warfare available to these monsters -- the Husseins, the Bin Ladens, the Arafats -- what we saw on Tuesday, as terrible as it is, could be miniscule if, in fact -- if, in fact -- God continues to lift the curtain and allow the enemies of America to give us probably what we deserve.

PAT ROBERTSON: Jerry, that's my feeling. I think we've just seen the antechamber to terror. We haven't even begun to see what they can do to the major population.

JERRY FALWELL: The ACLU's got to take a lot of blame for this.


JERRY FALWELL: And, I know that I'll hear from them for this. But, throwing God out successfully with the help of the federal court system, throwing God out of the public square, out of the schools. The abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked. And when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad. I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way -- all of them who have tried to secularize America -- I point the finger in their face and say "you helped this happen."

PAT ROBERTSON: Well, I totally concur, and the problem is we have adopted that agenda at the highest levels of our government. And so we're responsible as a free society for what the top people do. And, the top people, of course, is the court system.

James Dobson, head of "Focus on the Family," nuanced his 9/11 commentary but the judgment on America thread is still there:

"Christians have made arguments on both sides of this question. I certainly believe that God is displeased with America for its pride and arrogance, for killing 40 million unborn babies, for the universality of profanity and for other forms of immorality. However, rather than trying to forge a direct cause-and-effect relationship between the terrorist attacks and America’s abandonment of biblical principles, which I think is wrong, we need to accept the truth that this nation will suffer in many ways for departing from the principles of righteousness. 'The wages of sin is death,' as it says in Romans 6, both for individuals and for entire cultures."

I don't think Christians should be praying God Damn anything or anyone. To do so is to lose our hold on human love. That said, a Mother holding her mangled dead baby, in the aftermath of a smart bomb that wasn't so smart blowing her home and family to bits, might feel like saying "God Damn America." I can understand that. In fact, if she were a Christian Iraqi mother in the above scenario -- and there of course are some -- she'd be no less likely to say that than her Muslim counterpart. As a Christian man on 9/11, I prayed an imprecatory prayer to the Lord re Osama bin Laden and his buddies. I also prayed that the Lord would give me clarity on how to pray a better prayer for them than that, but admitted to Him that I could not at that moment pray any prayer but an imprecatory, raging, angry prayer. And as I prayed, I wept.

What I prayed most for were those innocent fellow humans, fellow Americans and others, who were destroyed in an instant or who had to leap to their deaths because the fire was so hot they had to escape it somehow. I think that Rev. Wright's prophetic voice may have failed most in his failure to mourn these people; a pastor is not only a prophet who speaks from God to the people, but also a priest who speaks to God for his suffering people. But we Christians as a whole tend to fail on that score. Strange, isn't it, considering the Lord's own example? He only spoke prophetically to the rich and powerful, it seems to me. His role as priest was the one that causes us to love him most.

In conclusion, I find Rev. Jeremiah Wright an often inspiring, sometimes rhetorically over the top, but mainstream and highly intelligent Christian leader. And I think those who criticize him in order to get at the man whom he led to Christ are barking up the wrong tree.

For more on Rev. Jeremiah Wright, I suggest visiting his church's website as well as reading Barack's two books, and particularly the second, Audacity of Hope.

Let me add just one more Jeremiah Wright quote to this post. "A government-sponsored religiousity makes you suffer from amnesia." This idea is behind me beginning the blog you are reading right now. Confusing nationalism with Christianity, making Jesus just one more additive to the peculiar Americanism which is not us at our best (putting it delicately), this is death to biblical faith. Christianity by its very nature is about constructing and establishing a Kingdom not of this world. While we may love our nation -- and we should, I believe -- we must not confuse that love with our love for God, His Word, or His Kingdom. Soren Kierkegaard warned of his native Denmark falling into the same trap. "Christendom," he called it. "Christianity without Christ."

Americans of all colors cannot afford to live in denial. That is what nationalism is. It ignores the nation's sins past or present and embraces a ideal best exemplified by the Nazi propaganda film, "Triumph of Will." It requires we close our eyes to history and today. Christianity requires the opposite. We must open our eyes, to our own sins and failings and weaknesses, and to our nation's. That too is love. "Faithful are the wounds of a friend."

Late addition: It should be noted that Reverend Wright's theology does, according to his Church's website, build on Dr. James Cone's ideas re liberation theology. I personally struggle w/ liberation theology sometimes recontextualizing Scripture in ways which seem not to honor the Word's own meaning. That said, there is also much good in liberation theology even for a theological conservative such as myself. The old idea of "eat the meat, spit out the bones" comes into play...

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