Archive for January, 2010

What? It’s Not All About Us?

Friday, January 15th, 2010

“The world in which you were born is just one model of reality. Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you. They are unique manifestations of the human spirit.”

Ethnobotanist Dr. Wade Davis

Rush, Robertson, and Ravaged Haiti

Friday, January 15th, 2010

We can agree that an extraordinarily strong earthquake is the very last thing that Haiti, already the Western hemisphere’s poorest country, needed. The death toll is surpassing initial projections of 35,000, there are untold thousands of injured without doctors to care for them or hospitals to bring them to, and relief workers are stymied by an already-weak infrastructure completely unable to handle both the magnitude of the crisis and the magnitude of help available. The physical, economic, social and public health ramifications of this disaster will be felt for decades.

My prayer is that Haitians were too distracted by the earthquake to take note of Rush Limbaugh’s foaming-at-the-mouth racism in commenting that Barack Obama responded to the disaster there because the victims were Black; in Limbaugh’s sick and twisted world, the President’s need to curry the support of other Blacks was what got him jumping in response to the earthquake, which is a cynically bigoted hypothesis of the kind we’ve not heard since, oh, the last time Limbaugh opened his mouth. And I truly hope that in the turmoil, no Haitian, Christian or non-, had to consider 700 Club and Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson’s idiotic announcement that a “deal with the devil” during the French Revolution brought Haiti under a curse from God, the latest manifestation of which is this week’s earthquake. That nugget of pastoral wisdom dealt a seismic blow to the witness of the Gospel in Haiti and beyond, the ramifications of which will likely be felt also for decades.

We have here the unexpectedly polluted waters of the political and the pastoral, gurgling from fonts equally foul and splattering the shoes of all who hear. There’s no question that Limbaugh’s and Robertson’s words are beyond stupid. But how do you account for their influence among religious conservatives? How is it that both men command media empires? How do you describe an American political and theological landscape that’s elevated these two to positions of anything even close to respectability?

I’ll take “Beyond Stupid” for a thousand, Alex.

Limbaugh and Robertson embody two characteristics common to the Religious Right in the United States, neither of which looks at all like Christ or can be defended from Scripture. Limbaugh is the pugnacious bully who hates the same people most “Christian” conservatives do; Robertson is the guy who hijacks Bible study through sheer dint of a vacuous charm that masks an utter lack of smarts, maturity, or judgment. In better times, Limbaugh would be evangelized as an obdurate bigot — if the Church still thought bigotry was a sign of not knowing Christ as Savior — and Robertson would be taken under the wing of a more mature Christian and schooled in the virtues of silence until wisdom and prudence chase out the rash and the reckless. As it is, Robertson reigns as conservative Christianity’s pastor emeritus and Limbaugh lurks as its date to secular festivities of power, and the world outside wonders how devotion to Jesus could possibly allow for devotion to either of them. It won’t change, though, until Christ’s followers start asking themselves the same question and, in answer, showing them both the door. That can’t happen soon enough.

So, This Christian Guy Is On An Airplane, See . . .

Monday, January 11th, 2010

According to Christ Church Elder Dale Courtney’s Right-Mind blog, Christian men on commercial airline flights have a responsibility to survey their fellow passengers to see if anyone looks suspicious and evaluate if they could “take them” — rush, tackle, jump, or otherwise subdue them — should any problems erupt. I’m going to guess that Dale would want all the other guys to open up their own cans of righteous whoop-ass, too, but this appears to be a special imperative for Christ-following men.

What provoked this speculation on my part? Well, in a December 28 post titled “No More Terror In The Skies If Men Take Charge,” he approvingly quotes Christian dominionist and all-around conservative fanatic Gary DeMar:

“So, if you see five or ten Mid-Eastern types, probably traveling without wives and children, be suspicious. If you spot such a group, size them up physically. Could you take most of them, man to man, in a fight?”

OK.

I guess we’re all so far removed from Jesus’ teachings that it feels kind of weird to be reminded of, much less to remind you all of, a song we sang at church just this morning:

“I can see Peter
put away his sword
I can see Peter
put away his sword
For love has come,
love has come,
And given us hope, to carry on”

I don’t recall anything in the New Testament that suggests that the proper Christian response to threats of violence is physical, nor am I clear on any Gospel teaching that a primary obligation of the disciple in closed, public areas is threat assessment. As a matter of fact, there’s a lot about turning the other cheek, non-resistance, laying down of arms, and loving one’s enemies — but all of that was written before 9/11, and so it really couldn’t still be that way, as if even after national tragedy, we still, as Christ-followers, have to be people of gentleness and peace. Could it?

I’m waiting for THAT sermon, and I have a gut-wrenching fear it won’t be long, and it won’t come from too far away.

Lord, have mercy.

"Sovereign Citizen Movement"

Monday, January 11th, 2010

Here’s a group of people who really need to be reached with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It should be easy to find them, as most of them are in “Christian” churches every Sunday morning.

“Members of the sovereign citizen movement subscribe to an ideology, originated by the anti-Semitic Posse Comitatus of the 1980s, that claims that whites are a higher kind of citizen, subject only to “common law,” not the dictates of the government. Blacks are mere “14th Amendment citizens” who must obey their government masters. Although not all sovereigns subscribe to or even know about the theory’s racist basis, most contend that they do not have to pay taxes, are not subject to most laws, and are not citizens of the United States. Authorities and anecdotal evidence suggest that sovereign citizens — who, along with tax protesters and militia members, form the larger Patriot movement — may make up the most dramatically reenergized sector of the radical right.” (Utne Reader, from Larry Keller in Intelligence Report, January-February 2010)

A Divinely Inspired Constitution?

Friday, January 8th, 2010

Context is everything, and the geography of politics is even more.

It is Idaho, after all, that I write from, and so there’s a conservative, Western, Mormon, and not-so-subtly racist context that informs much of the local politics I comment on from my home of eight years. North Idaho is only now shaking off the filth from the Aryan Nations, even as small cells of racist thugs still litter Couer d’Alene, Sandpoint, and Spokane, Washington, with nasty anti-Semitic, anti-Black, and anti-immigrant fliers. Moscow, in the north-central part of the state, is home to an energized band of paleo- and neo-confederate classicists who have married Rushdoony Reconstructionism to an odd — some Reformed teachers say heretical — theology of Covenant and salvation. These men, steeped in the white Western canon, revere the virulently racist theologian R.L. Dabney and condemn devoutly Christian abolitionists as “haters of God” while defending the “harmonious” and “affectionate” institution of race-based slavery.

Southern Idaho, meanwhile, is awash in a peculiar tea-party hybrid of Constitutionalism and Mormonism that isn’t officially a part of Mormon theology but nonetheless attracts rabidly conservative LDS men and evangelical Christians who normally would eschew any alliance with the Mormons. An influx of Mexican immigrants in the Boise suburbs has stoked fierce anti-immigrant sentiment, and throughout the southern part of the state a Western frontier ethic, rabid conservatism, overt racism, and syncretistic Mormon and Christian alliances fed more by politics than by either group’s theologies have commanded microphones, airwaves, and platforms.

This isn’t to say that conservatism, Mormonism, bigotry and the Western frontier ethic are synonymous, nor that Idaho is only conservative or only “Western” in its cultural leanings; after all, even Moscow tends to be more blue than red in some things. It does, however, explain in part how a guy like Rex Rammell, an Independent candidate for governor who made headlines late last year when he snickered about the fun he’d have with an Obama hunting tag, is actually taken seriously by anyone other than his wife and a half-dozen other cranks at the local diner.

Rammell is an odd one. In Idaho, you’ve really gone off the Right end of things when the GOP won’t have you or when you’re so conservative you can’t abide them. I’m not sure which is the case with Rammell, but I do know that not even veteran conservatives — I, of course, am not one of them — would have expected Rammell to invoke Mormon folklore, a Constitution “hanging by a thread,” and revolution in a recent campaign stop. He and 100 other Mormon men will meet later in January to discuss the “white horse prophecy” allegedly given by LDS founder Joseph Smith, a foretelling not recognized as part of the LDS canon but embraced by the church’s more conservative members. Smith predicted that “during a future time of great confusion and chaos, the U.S. Constitution would hang ‘like a thread as fine as a silk fiber.’” According to Smith, only elders of the church, presumably including Rammell, can intervene to save it. How the governors of 49 other states will be involved in the rescue isn’t covered by either Smith or Rammell.

What was covered by Rammell is his belief that the United States Constitution is a “divinely inspired document,” and it’s at that point that the Christian must object, and object as vigorously as possible. There are three reasons why an assertion like this is dead wrong and worthy of strong, immediate rebuke from evangelical Christians.

First, Christians believe that the totality of God-inspired writings is found in the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments, although some non-evangelicals — the Roman Catholics and Greek Orthodox — also accept the Apocrypha. But the Apocrypha, when accepted into the canon, is considered part of the Bible; it’s never afforded equal status, as a separate collection, to Scripture, but is recognized, and only by a minority of Christians, as inspired Scripture itself. No other writings have been recognized by the Christian Church as authoritative, inerrant, and unchangeable. While Mormons recognize not only the Bible but the Book of Mormon, the Doctrines and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price (the Journal of Discourses is not considered part of the official canon, whatever its place in Mormon history and tradition), the option of adding to the Christian canon is not available to the Christian.

Second, the arrogance of pronouncing Divine origin and design of this nation’s, and only this nation’s, founding documents of governance is astonishing. Certainly the U.S. has been blessed by God, and just as certainly it’s received God’s chastening. But to suggest that the Almighty swept aside all the other nations in his eagerness to build this one and formulate its Constitution is an appalling example not only of historical ignorance, but unimaginable bigotry. God is calling forth a people, to be sure. That people’s name is not “Americans.”

Finally, the deficiencies in the United States Constitution make it clear that its author is human, not divine — or, if divine, a being nonetheless as trapped in sinful imperfection and excused as “a product of his time” as we are. It makes no provision for sin, repentance, redemption, or salvation; neither does it make provision for women or Blacks to vote, or for slaves to be freed. Only after amendments made, in some cases, almost two centuries after its signing has the Constitution reflected the civil liberties of equality and justice that the Christian must hold dear. Jesus is Lord over every realm of life, including government, but he is not a heavenly legislator, and it’s more than a little unwise to co-opt him as one.

There are extremely conservative Mormons and extremely conservative evangelical Christians, and they share, as would be expected, common political concerns. But each group’s theologies must claim greater allegiance on the part of the believer than do mere politics, no matter how noble the political cause is perceived. Evangelicals involved in or simply supportive of constitutionalists, the Constitution Party, the Patriot Party, and other far-right groups must keep in mind that certain alliances are not effective, not edifying, and not especially helpful to the cause of the Gospel. If the cause of the Gospel is the ultimate concern of the believer, he will examine his political alliances to see if what energizes them is in any way in conflict with the Spirit who energizes him.

And if that group whose beliefs seem to meld so easily with yours takes as gospel that God has favored the U.S. in an exclusive way and inspired its very Constitution, you can be assured that they are then opposed to the Gospel that ought to be your only inspiration and concern, and are instead objects of your evangelistic efforts, not allies in your political concerns.

December, 1999

Sunday, January 3rd, 2010

Even writing “1999″ seems so archaic, like some long-lost era represented in signs and figures we barely now recognize. But I remember it well; it’s when I met my friend and sister in Christ, Lupita Rocha, who is the person I admire more than anyone I’ve ever met.

Lupita, at the time, was director of a small Bible college in Torreon, Coahuila, a state in north-central Mexico where her denomination, the Evangelical Methodist Church, had benefited from her work as a pastor, preacher, and teacher before and at times during her 15-year tenure at the college, the Bible Institute of Life and Truth. The EMC has a network of small churches in Chihuahua, Coahuila, San Luis Potosi, and Durango; I’ve preached in one in Durango, and she’s pastored and counseled several. Lupita is a gifted teacher, preacher, musician and church planter whose work in Spain, where she’s been the last few years, has been set aside now for her to return to Chihuahua to care for her elderly father. Some of you may know that Ciudad Juarez, where her father lives in one of its poorest barrios, is the most dangerous city on earth for women — hundreds have been killed in the last decade, mostly single women, like Lupita, but who were caught in a backdrop of a drug cartel frenzy of violence that keeps police distracted, even when it became clear that one or more serial killers of women was operating in the midst of the chaos. She arrives home this week, and I ask your prayers for safety.

But in December 1999, she was visiting Duvall, Washington, to see her old friend and ministry partner Ferol Elam, with whom I pastored a Spanish-language church sponsored by the denomination. Lupita and I hit it off, and I came to understand that Lupita doesn’t take vacations — she visits new areas to evangelize, and my town of Monroe, Washington, was where we focused. We spent two weeks together; the length of our friendship mirrors now the duration of my ministry work in the Monroe area. I wish there had been more than a one-year overlap; in very many ways, I’d been waiting for a Lupita in my work for years. She felt the same.

So we were making the rounds, visiting, drinking NesCafe, eating, and answering Bible questions. We were at Santos’ apartment one Saturday, one of hundreds of gray, drab two-bedroom units in a complex filled with people like him — undocumented immigrants working at the factories to support wife and kids here and parents and other family back home. Santos*, whose name means “saint” or “holy,” was pretty much without formal education, but he had an abundance of street smarts and ambition; his ability to rent an apartment came from his finding a job at something other than a dairy, and he was determined never to lose his home. He was a bit of a ne’er do well in his downtime, a bit more like Danny Bonaduce than anyone I’ve met, but he had a kind heart and adored his children, and we were friends. Still, his aversion to religious things was something I had not quite understood — probably because he was too goofy, too jovial, to ever mention anything as serious as that.

His wife was working at her Taco Bell job the day Lupita and I came. I would love to think that he only put up the calendar of nude women when his wife and kids were out of the house, but I’m guessing not. And so there it was, an 11 X 16 paean to the graceless, brassy nudity that separates pornography from the simply erotic and the leeringly objectified from the frankness of art. In the economy of Santos’ messy kitchen — Leonora had obviously been at work quite awhile — the placement of available seating meant that Lupita was situated right under La Senorita Diciembre, as if The Brassy, Hopeless One could read the New Testament over Lupita’s navy-blazered shoulders. I tried in vain to switch seats, but there really wasn’t a resolution — either Lupita faced the calendar, or Santos faced Lupita under the calendar. Either way, this Gospel presentation was going to take place under what fans of The World According To Garp would recognize as a WSB, a pornographic term that means something a little more than “La Senorita Really Should Have Kept Her Legs Crossed.”

I don’t remember how Santos reacted to our discussion of the Gospel or our assurance that we weren’t there to take him FROM his vague Catholicism, but TOWARD the living Christ. I don’t know how his life has turned out; even on my recent trip back to Monroe, I only got to see a couple of my old friends, and he wasn’t one of them. I have every assurance that he’s working hard, providing for his family, and, sadly, that his beautiful son Teodoro was harmed by the pornography as much as, albeit differently, Santos’ wife and daughters.

But I do remember — and will never forget — the cold, dreary December Saturday more than a decade ago when I saw the gifts of the Holy Spirit made evident under even the most glaringly sinful of circumstances. I saw grace and truth poured out from the most God-gifted woman I know to a man who in every way embodied what the Word calls “the least of these.” The irony of seeing a picture of a despised and desperate woman, posing for money and for the pleasure of men, hanging above a poor woman working and living for the pleasure of her Lord, is something that pierced my heart. I saw dignity like I’d never seen before and haven’t seen since in the face of my dear Lupita, obedient unto death and gracious in the midst of humiliation and ugliness she’d never encountered, steadfast in her determination to let this man Santos know that Un Santo Dios cherished him.

Of course it was uncomfortable. And there are some of my readers who think that she and I had no business teaching a man, pastoring churches, or leading mixed-gender studies and services. But the work of the Spirit, I think, is most often seen in the uncomfortable and unexpected, and it will survive the petty hermeneutic that seeks to chain it. As I write this, I fear for Lupita as she moves back to Juarez. In God’s sovereignty, she could die there. And I don’t know how I would survive such a loss, except in knowing that the Spirit worked fully in her, and for a couple of weeks in December and in two or three visits together since, I’ve been blessed to see it.

*Except for Santos’, all other names have been changed

The Base And The Wing Of The Democratic Party

Saturday, January 2nd, 2010

“The denizens of the left blogosphere consider themselves the Democratic Party’s base. But they are not. For Democrats, as opposed to Republicans, the wing is not the base; the legions of loyal African Americans, union members, Jews, women and Latinos are. In the end, the sillier left-wing village practitioners are stoking the same populist exaggeration — the idea that Washington is controlled by crooks and sellouts — that conservative strategists . . . believe will bring the Republicans back to power. The perversity of this is beyond comprehension.”

(Joe Klein, TIME Magazine, January 11, 2010)

Racial Segregation And The Church, With A Nod To Willow Creek

Saturday, January 2nd, 2010

“In an age of mixed-race malls, mixed-race pop-music charts and, yes, a mixed-race President, the church divide seems increasingly peculiar. It is troubling, even scandalous, that our most intimate public gatherings — and those most safely beyond the law’s reach — remain color-coded.”

(David van Biema, TIME magazine, January 11, 2010, in an article on Willow Creek Community Church’s efforts in standing against racism and re-making itself as a racially-mixed congregation)

I’ll be writing more this year on racism in the church, but it’s nice to begin the New Year with something that made me cry in recognition of something really great that evangelicalism is doing. I attend a very small church in Moscow; about a third of my church family was born outside of the U.S., or their parents were. Others have worked in Africa with the Peace Corps, and my next blog post will describe an incident from my 11 or so years of working with undocumented Mexican immigrants. Our diversity is entirely unconscious, although appreciated, but if we were all affluent, native-born Anglos, I think it would concern us.

That’s as it should be. There is an obligation for Christ’s Church to seek healing of the racial divide in the United States and to rend its khakis and golf shirts in repentance for being, in past decades and in some parts still today, the primary enabler of society’s racial prejudices. Beyond the obligation of truth-telling — the Gospel knows of no proper role for racial or ethnic (or gender or class) stratification — there’s an even greater burden for those of us in North Idaho, a place still haunted by memories of violent, backwoods “separatists” and neo-Nazis and grappling today with the reality of educated, affluent racists and defenders of the Confederacy. People expect us to be knuckledragging racists, and as pastors in North Carolina, for example, might discern a greater call to rail against an economy based on tobacco, the pastor and his congregants in North Idaho ought to be especially sensitive in dealing with race, avoiding questionable rhetoric and seeking to reach out to and learn from other cultures.

Dr. King’s observation that 11 a.m. Sundays is the most segregated hour in America is still true, to the shame of the Church, but it’s heartening, with so much wrong in evangelicalism, to read of Willow Creek’s work in combating the cancer of racial bigotry. I knew WC was a leader on issues of gender justice, and while I cringe at the whole mega-church concept, I acknowledge that most of them are racially diverse. There may not be an enormous catalog of lessons we need from the mega-church movement, but on this one, they’re right on.

My Personal, All-Time Favorite Playlist

Friday, January 1st, 2010

OK. I’m on a desert island with one mixtape and a CD player (and an outlet, and electricity — don’t ruin it, now). What have I chosen? Here it is, in no particular order except for the first five. Yes, there are some surprises. No, there is no Amy Grant.

1. Chain Gang, The Pretenders (Sorry, there is no better song in the world)

2. Over The Hills And Far Away, Led Zeppelin (Not a Zeppelin fan, just this)

3. Santo, Santo, Santo (Holy, Holy, Holy in Spanish — A heart-rending hymn)

4. The Tide Is High, Blondie (Auto American is the best 1980s album ever!)

5. People Who Died, Jim Carroll (Catholic Boy, the most underrated in the 80s)

6. Know Your Rights, The Clash (Relevant, even post-Bush)

7. Redemption Song, Bob Marley (We’ll be playing this at my funeral)

8. No Woman, No Cry, Bob Marley (A sort of Kindness Manifesto)

9. Green Pastures, Emmylou Harris and Ricky Scaggs (Longing for home? Play this)

10. Stumblin’ In, Suzi Quatro and Chris Norman (Why, yes, I AM embarrassed . . . )

11. I Can’t Trust No Man, The Dingees (Viva la Ska!)

12. Lord of the Dance, Various (A biography of Jesus — profoundly worshipful)

13. Changes, David Bowie (“And these children that you spit on . . . “)

14. The Times, They Are A-Changin’, Bob Dylan (Better as a poem than a song)

15. Blietzkrieg Bop, The Ramones (CBGB’s is gone, but the Ramones go on)

16. Somebody To Love, Queen (Freddie Mercury was a vocal genius . . . )

17. While My Guitar Gently Weeps, George Harrison (My favorite Beatle)

18. Death or Glory, The Clash (Joe Strummer’s voice is pure punk — a good thing)

19. Eres Tu, Mocedades (From the romantic travails of my youth)

20. Because The Night, Patti Smith (When lyrics, voice, and music all work)

21. The World’s Last Night, The Dingees (Romans 8 and a prophetic warning)

22. Dashboard, Modest Mouse (A really welcome “ear worm” you’ll hum all day)

23. Let My Love, Pete Townshend (So sweet. Who’d have thought it?)

24. Is She Really Goin’ Out With Him, Joe Jackson (It’s all in the beat)

25. Watchin’ The Detectives, Elvis Costello (His aim is always true to me)

Now, suppose there was a CD store or studio on this island, and I could pick three genre to enjoy for my entire stay. I’d go with second-wave ska, political first- and second-wave punk, and bluegrass. (Then my head would probably spin off from the dissonance of my musical choices). Three bands I’d invite over: The Clash, Flogging Molly, and, of course, the Dingees, I’d serve a crisp Viognier with an Indian buffet, and it would be a truly lovely deserted island and, perhaps, a glimpse of heaven.

Minus, I suppose, Blitzkrieg Bop . . .