Thursday, October 06, 2016

Politics and the Problem of Truth

A clergy friend of mine recently posted a question on Facebook regarding the minefield of clergy or churches making political endorsements.  I responded that I have no respect (or fear) of the law that says that churches, like other 501 C 3's risk losing their tax exempt status if they make an endorsement.  I would argue that the 1st amendment says that churches can do what they feel they need to do without fear of reprisal from government agencies... but that is another discussion.  I went on to say that churches still should not make endorsements.  Here's why.

First off, even the most homogeneous of congregations still have some diversity of thought.  To endorse a candidate will certainly disenfranchise anyone who supports another candidate or even those who are questioning. 

Most importantly though, every candidate will at times make stands or statements that fly in the face of commitments that we must make as followers of Jesus.  If we have endorsed a candidate, it can be very difficult to stand against those actions.  That will damage any claims of credibility we have in the world.

I was particularly struck by this in the recent VP debate.  Mike Pence calls himself an evangelical Christian and is the darling of the conservative Christian political movement, often being touted as a future presidential candidate.  Again and again, he responded to challenges from Kaine with "that isn't true" or "we never said that" when there evidence is right there on the web for all to see. 
We expect politicians to exaggerate and even to make promises that they have little intention of keeping... but to flat out deny reality, to lie bold faced, is another matter.  For people who call themselves followers of the one who is The Truth to so readily abandon that commitment to truth telling only tells us that they are not really so committed to The Truth as they claim.

We can argue whether one candidate is less truthful than another.  There are websites that track such things, as biased as they may be.  In any case, that only supports my argument that churches need to avoid endorsements.  If facing the truth makes us squirm at our chosen candidate... then maybe we need a different one.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

mini book review The Sex Lives of Cannibals

I listen to books in my car as I commute back and forth to work and have listened to some wonderful books.  Today I finished The Sex Lives of Cannibals by J. Maarten Troost, read by Simon Vance.  It is a wonderful book that I highly recommend.  It is hilarious but also plants some questions underneath your skin that you'll think seriously about.  And Simon Vance does an astoundingly good job of reading the book.  I'm sure it would be wonderful as a book book, but as an audio book it is really, really worth your time.  I highly recommend it.

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Book Review - Live Like you Give a Damn

I listen to books in my car as I commute back and forth to work.  I had just started through This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein for the second time when I received notice about Tom Sine's book Live Like You Give a Damn.  I was really excited.  Klein in her book tells us that the current economic system is not sustainable without destroying the earth (rightly I think) and talks a lot about what a new system might look like if we abandoned the kind of capitalist system we currently have.  The spiritual implications where everywhere.  I listened and kept thinking that her message fits so well with the demands of the gospel.  This Changes Everything is, I think, one of the most important books I've read in a long time.  I hoped that Sine would do a similar exegesis of the problems we face while providing that faith based understanding of what new directions we as followers of Jesus might pursue.  I was disappointed.

If I was to try to give you a condensed version of Live Like You Give a Damn, it would be this: "The world needs to change. We older folk in the church have stunted imaginations. Millenials want to make a difference.  Millenials have good ideas if we listen.  We should follow their lead.  Here are some examples of churches and/or millenials who are making a difference."  All well and good but what I was hoping to read was a diagnoses of those problems from a faith standpoint and some idea of what the big picture changes might be that we see manifested in those various examples.  I didn't get what I hoped and as I read Sine's book, I wasn't able to divorce myself from Klein's excellent analysis... and I was left wanting more... a lot more.

I don't want to be unfair to Sine.  He does provide some challenging analysis... but I wanted more.  He does call us to question the values of our culture in a personal way but I wanted that plus the corporate questioning as well.  He calls us to use our imaginations as foundations for faith as we devise a new narrative that leads us to our best tomorrows.  He does remind us that the gospel is always contextual but I still wonder whether there must be a larger narrative under which, those contextual ones fit.  It felt to me though as if he wanted the church to become a city on the hill kind of Anabaptist example for all to see while I wanted the Mustard Seed conspiracy that invades and changes everything.  Perhaps if I had read Sines first and then Klein, the book would have sat better for me and Klein would have helped to fill in the blanks.  Should you chose to read it, I'd recommend you do that.  If you only have time/energy for one or the other, I'd recommend Klein's book given the caveat that while I think the implications of her work have a lot to say for people of faith, she does not frame any of her challenges in spiritual terms.  In either case, you'll need to do some work... and that I guess, is a good thing.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

Thursday, August 04, 2016

The Destruction of the Evangelical Witness

I wouldn't call myself an Evangelical these days... at least not in the conventional sense of that term but that movement plays a significant role in my background.  There was a long time when I would have identified myself as such.  My tradition - the Baptist movement - and my denomination - The American Baptist churches, USA - both include significant proportions of folk who would call themselves "evangelical."  I know the theology and have good friends who are evangelicals.  While it is a branch of the Christian Church that I no longer call home, I do have deep appreciation for the best parts of that movement and often tell my church and my more liberal friends that I and we have much to learn from our evangelical brothers and sisters.

All that said, I am very worried that the evangelical church is in serious danger of destroying its witness and damaging the Church perhaps permanently.  At the very least, they are convincing a lot of unchurched folk that they do not really believe what they say they believe and that they are more concerned about cultural influence and power than about following Jesus.  How so?  By endorsing Donald Trump and clothing it their faith.

I have no right to judge Donald Trump's faith or lack thereof, but if, as many evangelicals are saying, he has recently had a conversion experience, then somebody out to be helping him figure out what following Jesus looks like.  All of these big name evangelical preachers like Jerry Falwell Jr. ought to be sitting him down and telling him that a follower of Jesus ought not be making fun of differently abled folk, ought not to be lying almost as often as he opens his mouth, ought to think more carefully before denigrating women and/or treating them as sex objects, should not be inciting his followers to violence... the list goes on and on.  Of course, there is the problem of his past which seems to fly in the face of every value these evangelical leaders claim to hold... bad enough in itself, but he hasn't said a single word that shows any repentance from any of it.  Indeed, he said that he does not need any forgiveness.  These folk should be coaching him at the least or calling him out.  For years they questioned Barack Obama's faith and are doing the same to Hillary Clinton when both of them were/are good members of local congregations and speak squarely from the Christian tradition.  It is true that both Obama and Clinton are pro-choice... but as more than one person has argued, they both present policies that are more effective at lowering the rate of abortion than any recent Republican candidate.  See here and here.

Instead of calling him out, some very visable prominent evangelicals have doubled down arguing that voting Trump is the only moral option, that his behavior regarding the Khan family was appropriate, and even comparisons between Trump and Ronald Reagan (as close as conservatives have to a saint).  It is true that many evangelical leaders have spoken out in opposition to these leaders, it is these who have gotten the most press and the polls seem to indicate that white evangelicals are among the most faithful supporters of Donald Trump.

So... to my evangelical friends, distance yourself from Trump and from those evangelical leaders who are supporting him or at least call him on his behavior or forever be resigned to the fact that you have abandoned your values and sullied the cause of Christ.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Jill Stein and Gary Johnson Are Trying to Make Donald Trump President

Ok... the title is click bait... but it is pretty close to accurate.

Here's the deal, in order to win the presidency, a candidate must get 51% of the electoral votes, i.e. 270 electoral votes.  The presidency does not go to the candidate with the most electoral votes if none get to that threshold.  The House of Representatives chooses the next president.  Let me say that one more time... in caps... so that everyone gets it. IF NO CANDIDATE GETS 270 ELECTORAL VOTES THE HOUSE DECIDES THE NEXT PRESIDENT.  They have to choose from among the top three of electoral college vote receivers but they make the decision with each state delegation getting one vote.  This has happened twice in the history of the US - 1800 & 1824.  AND FWIW, no 3rd party candidate has ever won the presidency.

Now, if you believe that Gary Johnson or Jill Stein can get 270 electoral votes... then... don't bother reading this because there is no way to get through your bubble.

If you believe that voting your conscience regardless of any possible outcomes is morally superior, again don't bother reading this because one can't reason with fundamentalists (and that simply is what you are).

Let's play out some scenarios... Here's a ridiculous one but say Gary Johnson unbelievably gets 49% of the electoral votes, Hillary gets 20%, Trump gets 25% and Jill Stein gets the last 6%... Trump likely wins.  The House won't give the presidency to a Democrat and that means they'll need to come together.  They'd never get all of their states to vote for a libertarian or a Green which leaves Trump.  Oh, and by the way, if they can't make a decision, the current Vice President acts as President... giving the office to a Democrat.

Second scenario... Hillary gets 49%, Trump gets 45% and Johnson & Stein split the additional 6... Trump wins for the above reasons.   2/3's of Stein's 3% would have given the election to HRC.  It only takes a very small percentage for the third party candidates to be spoilers while at the same time, it is virtually impossible for them to actually win.

You might say, "But the Democrats will get a majority in the House and it is safe then even if the election goes to the House." Well... maybe.  Maybe not.  Remember, it isn't the membership of the House that votes, it is the delegations and each state gets one vote.  So... if the majority of states send a Republican delegation, regardless of the overall balance of the House members, Trump wins.  There is no way that a Republican House will elect anyone from another party as president and they have shown they have neither the ability or the patience to thoughtfully compromise.  Add that while they're deliberating, Joe Biden is acting president and they will want to put Trump in as quickly as possible.

Just a fun side piece... the Senate chooses the Vice President... so they don't even have to be from the same party.

You might also say, "I live in a safe state so I can vote my conscience without worrying."  Again... maybe... maybe not.  This is a crazy election.  NPR recently had a show where they interviewed a bunch of blue collar Democrats from Monessen, PA who said they were voting for Trump even though they didn't expect he can do any of the things he is promising.  Frankly, I don't know what to expect.  Hillary could win in a landslide... or Trump might beat her outright.  Or the 3rd party spoilers might do just that and the election goes to the House and Donald Trump becomes president.  I don't know what will happen and no state feels safe to me at this point.   Voting for a third party candidate anywhere just seems too risky to me.

So here's the question... if no third party candidate has a snowball's chance in Phoenix of winning what in the world are Gary Johnson and Jill Stein doing?  They have zero influence in the two major parties regardless of how many votes they get. (The people who will have influence in the parties are the ones who do the hard work of organizing within the parties.  That is why the Tea Party was so effective in the Republican Party.)  They cannot win.  They'll never get 270 electoral votes and would never be chosen by the House as it is or will be in 2017.  In Jill Stein's case, is she just trying to punish the Democrats for not being pure enough?   Is this just some narcissistic game where they can demonstrate their purity and encourage others to do the same, damn the consequences?  Or do they really not understand how the process works?  Or are they really just plants working for Donald Trump to make him president?  Regardless of their intent, if they get enough votes, that is exactly the result of their campaigns.

And of course, this is all just the electoral college stuff... there is the closer to the bone results like Florida in 2000 where if just 30% of those who voted for Ralph Nader had voted for Gore, there would have been no questions regarding who won the state, the SCOTUS mess would never have happened and W would not have been president.  You play out the results of that.  It is more likely that a third party candidate will simply influence who wins a given state.  Remember, every state but two is winner take all in the electoral college so Johnson or Stein could receive 30% of the popular vote and get no electoral votes... but they would influence who wins the various states as per Nader in 2000.

So what does all of this add up to?  A vote for anyone other than Hillary is a vote for Trump.  He doesn't need to get a majority of the popular vote or even a majority of the electoral college to be the next president.  All he needs is to keep Hillary from getting 270 electoral votes... and Jill Stein, Gary Johnson, and all those who vote for either are trying to help him accomplish just that.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

fundamentalism and the voting booth

I know about fundamentalists.  I'm a Baptist pastor and if any groups is known for harboring fundamentalists it is us.  (It isn't fair or accurate to label all Baptists as fundamentalists... duh look at me... but there is something about this movement that at least allows room for them to develop).

This post is not about religious fundamentalists and their politics (though it may be).  Instead it is about a new brand of political fundamentalists.

Back when Gore vs. Bush happened and Ralph Nader stuck his head into the fray, he spoke at my church in upstate NY.  As I remember it, one of the things Nader said was that voters should choose a candidate purely from their ideas.  If the candidate had no chance of winning... irrelevant.  Idealogical purity was/is the only criteria.  When pressed whether his candidacy might cause Bush to win, Nader refused to even consider any culpability.  Indeed, when after the election Nader was presented with the numbers... if only 30% of those who had voted for him in Florida had gone for Gore, the questions that eventually took the election to the SCOTUS would never have materialized and Gore would have been the clear winner, Nader basically responded that had the Dems presented a better candidate, that would not have been an issue.  Of course, if everyone voted simply on ideological purity, nobody would ever get enough votes to be elected.  Had the Dems presented Nader, Bush still would have won and likely by a much, much wider margin.

This year, we're presented with an interesting political quandary.  Neither of the major candidates is generating a lot of love from their prospective parties.  I can't tell you how many leftist folk I've encountered who have said that it doesn't matter that HRC and Bernie come out the same on about 93% of the issues... it is the other 7% that they cannot abide by and so will never vote for HRC.  (OK the percentages were pulled out of thin air, but HRC and Bernie aren't very far apart on most issues.)   It is easier for me to understand a real conservative saying that he/she would never vote for Trump as at best he has been amazingly inconsistent regarding his stand on just about everything other than the size of his... hands.  On that side of the isle I'm fascinated at the number of folk who are willing to overlook basically everything about him in order to vote Republican.

So the question is at what point does one step away from fundamentalism... and ideological purity?  Anyone who knows me knows that I was a Bernie supporter although he was not my perfect candidate.  I've long ago abandoned any semblance of political fundamentalism as my perfect candidate wouldn't have a snowball's chance in Phoenix of ever getting elected so I have long wrestled with the questions of incremental change and the possibility of winning vs. losing because I backed a horse without a chance and getting nothing I hope for. 

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

More Guns?

In the aftermath of the horrors of Orlando, the chorus has begun.  "We need more guns."  "If only someone in that nightclub had had a gun..."  "The only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun."  And on it goes.

The cynic in me wants to completely dismiss all of those speakers but I know there are some folk, probably even most, who say those things actually believe they are offering a real solution.  We have a cultural myth that violence can actually solve problems and that responding with violence is the strong, manly, and usually appropriate response to serious problems.

I don't want to address that myth here although it is central to the discussion and challenging it is key to real solutions to the violence in our society.  Instead, I want to look at the practicality of more guns and imagine just what that might have looked like at Pulse.

First, for mass shooters, the possibility of being killed is not a deterrent.  Most end up dead anyway and go into the situation planning exactly that.  In the case of religious crazies, there is often an overlay of martyrdom.  The fear of death simply is irrelevant in those situations or may even be a motivation of the shooter.

So let's play this out in our imaginations - more guns.  The nightclub is going full bore.  There is loud music, flashing lights, and lots of people dancing.  The room is tightly packed and the crowd is moving.  Multiple people present have guns...  They have been drinking and dancing and enjoying themselves.  Suddenly people hear gunshots.  The first reaction is confusion.  Is it the music?  What is going on? Then the crowd panics and is running in every direction.  Joe Smith pulls his gun and in the craziness shoots at what he thinks is the shooter.   Across the club, Bob Doe pulls his gun.  Through the crowd, he sees two people shooting.  He can guess the one with the AR15 is the person who started shooting first but is the 2nd one an accomplice or a good guy with a gun?  He starts shooting as well just as the crowd closes in front of him... and the crowd is panicking even more, running in every direction.  The first person to draw their gun hears shots coming from another direction and turns.  Is that person another good guy or an accomplice?  At whom do I shoot? Third, fourth, fifth guns are drawn and more people are shooting.  None are trained to use a weapon under the stress of a situation like that.  All are making life and death decisions in seconds.  Most have been drinking.  All the while the crowd is panicking and people are moving in and out of the lines of fire.  someone hits the mass shooter and he goes down... but the bullets continue to fly.  Multiple people have been shot... by whom?  Ten minutes after the first shot,  the police arrive at a scene that looks like the OK Corral.  They see guns drawn, bodies on the floor, and people still shooting.  How are they to know who is a good guy and who is not?  Do they respond by shooting as well?

Were lives saved in this scenario?  It certainly doesn't sound that way to me.  Even in a situation where the people are trained for that kind of situation and someone is in charge, mistakes still happen.  Soldiers talk about the fog of war where reason and training go out the window to be taken over by random instinct.  Indeed, part of the design of assault weapons is meant to compensate for the lessened ability to aim, choose targets, and be completely intentional in battle.  The weapon is designed to spray large numbers of bullets in a general direction in the hopes of hitting as many people as possible.  They have a term for soldiers killed by their own in such circumstances - "friendly fire."  We've also seen recent videos of police shootings where multiple trained police officers shoot scores of bullets at a suspect and at least a significant number of the bullets miss the target.  In a setting like Pulse, where would those bullets end up?

No... I can't see a situation where having more guns would lead to a better outcome.  I can come up with scores of situations where it would make things worse.