Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Annie (Andy) Git Yer Gun!

I’ve always wondered why the NRA backs Republicans for political office. Every time a Democrat wins the Presidency – or is re-elected – gun sales increase dramatically and dealers can hardly keep enough ammunition on hand to meet demand. It would seem to be in the interests of the NRA and gun suppliers to support Democrats and rake in the profits.

The stories in the media the days after Barack Obama was re-elected, are the same as they were four years ago when he was elected to his first term; the same as they were each time Bill Clinton was elected. Sturdy looking men are shown on TV adding more rifles and handguns to the ones they already have, on the assumption that the government will soon be coming around to take away “our” guns.

I know – the motivation is fear. Anyone who listens to Fox News or conservative radio knows how nefarious the President is, and how all-powerful, too. Why, in an instant he could, as Commander-in-Chief, send the Black Hawk helicopters into our neighborhoods and confiscate our hunting rifles, pistols, and sub-machine guns, leaving us defenseless. Only those quick enough to throw their arsenal in the bed of their pickup truck and head for the hills will survive to fight back and restore our great land to its Christian traditions.

That seems to be the idea. Although it is beyond my understanding why Bill Clinton, and then Barack Obama allowed three terms of the Presidency to pass without mounting that assault on our Constitutional right to arm ourselves to the teeth. I’m sure someone can tell me; Clinton and Obama – cunning creatures that they are – are very likely waiting for the correct moment when Al Qaeda will be strong enough to step in and take over the reins of government. That tragic moment may not even come during Obama’s second term but it is sure to come. That’s how I’ve got it figured out, at least.

But I may be wrong. What we are seeing may be much simpler and less sinister. It may just be that those sturdy macho, gun-lovin’ men we see at the sporting goods store, stripping the shelves of guns and ammo, are really just pussy cats; macho men in public but wimps at home. They’d like to add another dozen guns to their collection but Ma doesn’t see the sense in it. So they tell her they need more guns to protect her and the kids from that sinister alien man in the White House. “Well, now,” Ma says, “If that’s the reason, then buy an extra dozen.”

Of course we know the real reason for the buying frenzy; common corporate greed. There are millions upon millions of dollars to be made, making and selling guns and ammunition. And there are plenty of people who, for some reason or other, are susceptible to the fear mongering of the National Rifle Association and the manufacturers whose dollars support the organization and pay for the campaign of misinformation against the government. And there are the Prophets of Coming Doom who, for money, or for the sheer joy of spreading lies, feed into the fears of trigger happy Americans.

It is probably true that most Americans, like me, do not own a single gun. And it is also probably true that most who do own guns would never willingly (plan-fully) use their weapons against the government or their neighbors. But it is also true that more Americans die of gunshot wounds in this country each year than have died in our last two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan put together. Some of those deaths are due to tragic accidental shootings but many more murders are committed in anger, under the influence of drugs or alcohol, in the commission of a crime, during riots or drug warfare, by urban gangs, or in other well-planned situations.

Or even consider the situation in a Milwaukee Aldi’s store last year. A customer bearing a concealed weapon discovered that an armed robbery was occurring in the checkout line. After attempting to use his weapon and discovering that the safety was on (thankfully) he fumbled until he got it off and fired off more than a half-dozen shots, only one of which slightly wounded the robber. Thankfully (again) the other shots found no humans to injure although each had the potential of killing someone.

There are reasonable things that can be done to reduce senseless killing. They do not have to infringe upon the “rights” of responsible Americans to own and use guns for legitimate purposes. But they won’t be done as long as the NRA and its supporters continue to fuel the fears of a significant minority who insist on believing that the government – particularly during Democratic administrations – is out to get us.

Am I afraid that the government is plotting to take away my vital freedoms? Not really. Am I afraid that some trigger happy customer in a Aldi’s store will shoot me in the back using his concealed weapon in an attempt to stop an armed robbery? Not really. But if I had to bet on going one way or the other I’d bet that the chances are greater that I’ll go with a vigilante bullet in my back long before Bill Clinton or Barack Obama figure out a way to get me.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Suits and Ties, Starchy White Shirts, and True Worship

Those preachers I heard in the late 1940s and early 1950s were a rowdy bunch. They made up for their lack of formal education with additional unction or “anointing” as some of them called it. The story was frequently told of the new preacher hired by a backwoods congregation. To the dismay of some of the parishioners he not only chewed “tabaccy”, he spat it out while he was preaching. When confronted by the board of deacons his response was, “Ah cain’t hep it; when ah gits anointed, I do spit.”

Fortunately I lived far enough north, and in a large enough town, that such lack of refinement was uncommon. The gospel quartets that came to sing routinely took a break, allowing the local pastor to preach a “salvation sermon” while they grabbed a quick smoke out back of the church, but they didn’t bring their sins into the church.

What I remember most, though, about those early preachers – early in my lifetime – was the gleaming white shirts and handkerchiefs. Every sermon began with a fully clad preacher, suit coat on and pants pressed to a razor sharp crease in front. The suit coat lasted through the introduction and perhaps through the scripture reading, although the scripture reading often never got finished before the sermon took over and superseded it. In any case, as soon as the “anointed” part of the sermon began, the suit coat came off and the handkerchief came out. And what wonders they were. Pure white, starched, and pressed without a visible wrinkle.

Buildings were invariably warm – hot in summer, over-warm in winter – so it was not long before the shirt’s sleeves were rolled up and patches of perspiration showed through on the shirt. The handkerchief served as both a face mop and a prop to be waved at appropriate emotional moments in the sermon.

And the preachers weren’t the only ones suffering. Every male above 10 years old was likewise dressed in their Sunday best, even if it wasn’t Sunday; made uncomfortable by the scratchy starched collar and a placket made so stiff with starch that one could hardly bend over.

Of course things have changed radically in the 65 years since I sat, miserably attired, watching with little sympathy, the sweat rings grow under the preacher’s arms and down his back. I did wonder, though, at the tenacity of those men. The misery they put themselves through bore testimony, to me at least, of their sincerity and determination to fulfill their Divine calling.

But as I say, things have changed; we now have year-round air-conditioned buildings. No preacher need raise a sweat except through nervousness, and few do. Sermons have become more conversational; less theatrical and athletic. My childhood fascination with those fire-breathing prophets has given way to a preference for more reasoned discourse. And now, of late, our preachers and ministers (and congregants too) have adopted casual, comfortable, starch-free attire. Blue jeans and loosely fitting shirts, out at the waist, have replaced the suit, shirt, and tie. The handkerchief has given way to a Kleenex box tucked away in the podium. The minister preaches, anchored in one place and needs no gleaming white banner to wave.

All these thoughts came to me on Thanksgiving Day as I watched the Houston Oilers defeat the Detroit Lions by a single field goal, in overtime. (Detroit was robbed by a very bad call that resulted in an Oiler’s touchdown, but that is beside the point I’m making here.)

It struck me, as I watched the priests and high priests of the church of professional football (the announcers and commentators), that they are the reincarnation of my old-time preachers. In their expensive suits, and their gleaming white shirts, and their fashionable ties; in their sincerity and their enthusiasm; in their certainty, their authority, they fall not one whit below those prophets of old.

If only their broadcast booths were not air-conditioned; if in their enthusiasm they had to strip off their coats and roll up their sleeves; if they had to mop their brows with genuine cloth handkerchiefs, and if the sweat stains grew under their arms from quarter to quarter, I’d almost think I was back in church again.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Time Is A Tattletale

Some things – most things – can only be measured in reference to some “marker.” It is said that when Dorothy Parker of the New Yorker was told that Calvin Coolidge was dead she replied, “How can they tell?”

Our recent election is a “marker” against which the character of the men and women who sought our votes – the winners and the losers – can be judged. How does the winner wear the mantle of victory? With how much magnanimity does the loser receive his or her defeat?

There were, thankfully, “markers” along the way that allowed us to see the candidates’ potential if we were willing to look past our biases (and their self-serving pronouncements). And we hope that, in the majority of cases, the voters judged aright; chose the best person for the office. But it is only in victory and defeat that we see the true nature of the person. They are the “markers” against which the stature of the candidate can be measured. If victors go on to serve ably and humbly: if the defeated return to honorable and constructive endeavors, they will both be granted history’s approval.

History gives us examples of the greatness, and the smallness, of our American politicians; a Richard Nixon, grumbling to reporters after his defeat in the California gubernatorial election, “You won’t have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore,” only to come back again and prove his smallness in the Watergate debacle; or an Adlai Stevenson, graciously accepting the bitterness of his second loss to Dwight Eisenhower in 1956, but returning, nonetheless, to serve his country again as its ambassador to the United Nations during the Kennedy Administration.

Time is a tattletale; it eventually spills all that it has observed. Patience is a virtue in short supply among those seeking places of leadership, but those who practice patience, along with humility and magnanimity, will prove their worth and often be granted places of honor, sometime greater than those they sought but failed to gain.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

A Case For The Apolitical Church

There are essays that should never have to be written. This is one of them. It should be clear from a reading of the New Testament (even including the Book of Revelation) that the Apostles and early disciples of Jesus eschewed secular politics as a means to the accomplishment of their mission on earth.

The New Testament is unique in its single-minded focus on the Gospel (good news) of Jesus Christ. It is also insistent upon the separation of that Gospel from secular systems of thought and power. God didn’t choose the powerful or the elite through which to build his church, Paul tells us. Instead he chose the lowly – the discredited in the eyes of the world – to carry a message so simple that it has become the laughingstock of the “wise”, who believe that mankind is too good to need a savior, and a stumbling block to those who believe that mankind can lift himself through intense religious observances. And why did God choose to accomplish his aims through a rag-tag army equipped only with the Gospel? Again Paul tells us it is so that, in the end, no one can boast that they, or their philosophy saved the world; only God will receive the glory for the work accomplished.

Once more it is Paul who reminds us that the Gospel of Christ is the power of God, capable of bringing salvation to all who believe it. Not giant computers tracking voters thoughts and feelings and actions; not banks of telephones ringing daily into the homes and lives of millions attempting to persuade them; not “foot-soldiers” ready to knock on every door and give out information to reluctance voters; not sermons preached from pulpits telling, without actually saying, who to vote for; not marches from the church door to the early voting booths; not even “Voters Guides” distributed in thousands of Churches saying, again without saying, who to vote for. When all of those things are done they may have won an election – or not – but they have not won a single heart over to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Jesus said of his disciples that they were in the world (cosmos) but not of it. The world – the cosmos – is the social, economic, and political system that mankind constructs and uses to govern the everyday affairs of this world. Christians are a part of that cosmos; they are business people, neighbors, even mayors, governors, judges, legislators, and Presidents. They are a light in that cosmos; they are salt in their world. But they do not draw their inspiration for the work they do as citizens of the cosmos from the same well as non-Christians.

There are those, making the claim to be followers of Christ, who do seem to draw their inspiration from the well of human understanding; whose motivations and methods appear to be indistinguishable from those who make no claim to Christian faith. The sad result of such an approach is that, to the observing world, their actions, and the actions of their non-Christian allies, reflect negatively on the Church of Jesus Christ. The Church becomes salt without taste and a light hidden in the darkness.

I’ve reached the point in my faith life where I cringe when the terms “Christian Right”, or “Conservative Christian”, or even “Evangelical Christian” is mentioned. Seldom – almost never – do I hear them spoken beyond the walls of the Church with any reverence or respect for what they stand for. Instead, at best, they designate another political party, or wing of a political party. At worst they have become bywords indicating a sour (or too often paranoid) anti-government, anti-immigrant, anti-indigent, anti-gay, anti-ad infinitum  political force in American politics.

The fundamentalist – and to a lesser degree, the Evangelical – church has always leaned toward negativity. The church I attended as a youth was far better known for what it was against – movies, dancing, bowling, skating, cards, etc. – than for what it revered, i.e. the Risen Son of God. To a very large degree, for good or ill, that “wing” of the Church has shed its holiness-bred objections to those kinds of lifestyles. But it has replaced them with a virulent political negativity that is just as off-putting to non-believers (even non-believers who may otherwise share their negativity regarding government, gays, etc.).

Jesus asked, at one point, “When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?” I believe he will. He may find it in places that would surprise many who claim to be his followers. On another occasion Jesus’ disciples came to him, worried because they had found people, not of their group, who were preaching and working in Jesus’ name. Jesus simply told them, “I have sheep that you know not of.” I’m looking for those sheep, and when I find a group of them it warms my heart and renews my faith in the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

It is too much to expect that certain elements within the Visible Church will change their ways. The Church had barely entered its second century when, already, the infection of secular power had begun to spread. It has flared and waned over the centuries but never disappeared. Thousands, perhaps millions, of believers in Christ have died at the hands of other “Christians” who were convinced that the powers of the state were appropriate instruments in the hands of the Church. There have always been those who believed that the tools of human wisdom (and cunning) were sufficient to accomplish the aims of the Church. And to the extent that the Church aimed to be a power broker in this world, they were right.

But Jesus aimed at something else. He came to reconcile sinful men and women to His Father. The Church would do well to re-focus its efforts and its message on that Good News. The Gospel of Christ is the power of God! It doesn’t seek to control sinners’ behavior – that is the role of government. But the Gospel is the power of God, bringing salvation to those who believe – that is the role of the Church.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Let Him Up Easy

Many commentaries are being written, attempting to understand what Mitt Romney’s feelings are these days after the election, and predict what his future may hold. Advisors and close friends are being “pumped” by reporters for any bit of information they can build into their scenario.

I say, “Let him alone for a while.” It hurts too much for him to even know what he will do next. His first response will likely be to feel he was dealt a rotten hand, or his opponent didn’t play fair, or even that Sandy robbed him of his prize. It will take time for the truth – as he is able to see it – to sink in.

The truth is – as I see it – that he forsook himself very early in the electoral process and tried a tactic that political strategists have decided is the required route to the White House, i.e. move to the far extreme of your party to gain the nomination and then work your way back to a more centrist position to win favor with the wider electorate. Consequently no one, in the end, knew for sure who he was. Columnists, both liberal and conservative wasted barrels of “ink” describing the kind of President he would be and none of them had anything firm to base their opinions on. One thing is certain; he could not have followed the course all of them laid out for him unless he were granted unending consecutive terms in office.

Now the pundits are telling us that the Republican Party must “Re-Brand” itself if it hopes to regain its position as a leading party given the changed demographic which includes blacks, Asians, and Hispanics.

“Re-Brand!” What a terrible idea. It is like suggesting to a pharmacy, just ruined by marketing contaminated medications, that it should change its name and location and go on marketing the same tainted stuff. It is the cynical solution of a capitalist market driven ideology. We don’t need a re-branded Republican Party. We need a chastised Republican Party rededicated to the principle that all Americans have equal value and deserve equal representation and opportunity. We need a Republican Party that espouses the honesty, humanity, wisdom and decency of Dwight Eisenhower, Bob Packwood, Colin Powell, to name only three.

Something in me tells me that Mitt Romney will come to that same conclusion. Something in me tells me that the Republican Party will not.

The reason for my faith in Mr. Romney is that I think I see, in his past, attitudes far more liberal (meaning, more able to see issues in other than black and white) than those he adopted in order to win the Republican nomination.

The reason for my doubts about the Republican Party is that I see it controlled by the Glenn Becks, the Rush Limbaughs, The Fox News crew, and a large contingent of dour Evangelical leaders who have equated the Republican Party with their version of the Church of Jesus Christ.

Those Evangelical leaders should, long ago, have sensed that their marriage to the Republican Party had corrupted their souls. But they have not come to that conclusion and apparently feel that given just one more election they can accomplish, by politics, what Christ has already accomplished through his death and resurrection; what He commissioned the Church to preach before he left this earth.

So, the evangelical wing of the Republican Party will not voluntarily detach itself. Therefore the Republican Party needs to clearly and openly walk away from it; declare that the Party is just that, a political party – a political entity – and not a religious organization. It must cease to portray itself and its members as more righteous than the opposition; recognize that there are multiple paths to the good ends that government is established to accomplish, and devote itself to working to convince the American people that their way is the best way but, when no clear consensus can be reached, to work together with the opposition to achieve a compromise that allows government to continue to function as the society sorts out its difference and works toward a consensus.

As I say, Mr. Romney strikes me as a man who probably already holds those views and, as the pain of his defeat lessens, may very well return to those pragmatic conclusions. How he will chose to live that out is unclear. It certainly isn’t the place of the Party, or of pundits, or the American people to tell him what he should believe or do in the future.

It will surprise me, though, if he continues to play any significant part in the future re-branding of the Republican Party. It is up to the Party to do that work for itself. For the sake of our nation I hope it will take the task seriously, forsake the idea of fooling some segments of the population into thinking it is something that in reality it is not, and begin to build itself into an honest expression of those Americans who stand to the right of center but who wish to work amicably with their brothers and sisters who stand to the left. How it can ever shake itself free of the Becks, and Limbaughs, and Fox News ranters is beyond me. But it will need to do so before it can make any claim to being a Party dedicated to governing for all the people.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

I’m Being Profiled

I remember thinking, at the time of the attack on the world trade center how frightening it must be to be a person of eastern or middle-eastern extraction living in the United State; to have a Muslim-sounding name, to wear a Sikh headdress or a beard, to speak with an accent, or have connections to a Mosque. I remember thinking that I must reach out in reassuring ways to any American I know whose roots were Arabic, Muslim, or far eastern, particularly the many doctors and other health care providers I encounter regularly.

I remember, sadly, those subtle fears, pushed back more or less successfully, that there could be, among us, those who sympathize with the killers of 911 and are simply waiting for their opportunity to strike a blow against “us”. By “us” I meant “real Americans.”

It is difficult to live in a pluralistic society. For most of U.S. history it has been difficult mainly for the immigrants and “native minorities” – blacks and Native Americans. The White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestants had little to fear. They were real Americans and enjoyed status, whether wealthy or poor, that minorities did not. There was plenty of discrimination within the WASP ranks. I knew because our family was at the lower end of the socio-economic pool. But better to be “poor white trash” than to be a Whop, or a Pollock, or a Jew, or a Kraut, or a Mackerel Snapper, or a Chink, or a half-breed, or worst of all a “nigger”.

But all of that is changing now. The WASPs are out-numbered, or soon will be. We used to sing, in Sunday School:

Jesus loves the little children,
All the children are his care,
Red and Yellow, Black and White,
They are precious in His sight;
Jesus loves the children of the world. 

But somehow we knew, deep inside, that He loved white children better than the rest. And more to the point, when all those “colored” children grew out of childhood, WASP society had no Sunday School songs to celebrate their inclusion in the family of God.  Instead we thought of our Christian role in militaristic, us against them, terms. We sang: 

I may never march in the infantry
Ride in the cavalry
Shoot the artillery
I may never fly o'er the enemy
But I'm in the Lord's army!
Yes Sir! 

I'm in the Lord's army!
Yes sir!
I'm in the Lord's army!
Yes sir!

It occurred to me this morning that I am now in the profiled class. First I’m White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant. But even more telling, I’m an “old white male.” Further, I am Evangelical in my religious identifications. Well! There can be no doubt, then, where I stand on any number of social, economic, political, and theological issues. I just have to be anti-gay rights, pro-life, anti-gun control, anti-big government, fearful of Obama and other Liberals, anti-science, anti-evolution, young earth, pro-Israel. The list could go on. It makes me want to duck and hide when I’m among people who are younger than 40 years old.

But the fact is that I am not characterized by the list above. I like to think that, in each category my views encompass a range of beliefs; that I can see many sides to the arguments; that I have applied my years of experience to the task of being a nuanced thinker; that no one but God Himself truly understands me; that given a fair hearing I could show that I esteem all God’s people. But no doubt there are many who think they have me pegged, just because of the years that have accumulated on my head, or the degrees that I hold (or don’t hold), or the home I live in, or the church I attend. I’m being profiled, and it doesn’t feel good.

I’m not asking for sympathy. I’m a old guy and whatever discomforts come to me are few and bearable and soon to be meaningless. But I would appeal to any who read this to put themselves in the place of others who, every day, must face the scrutiny of others who think they have them “pegged.” It is quick and simple to characterize someone based on a few observable criteria. It takes time to really get to know someone. But the reward for those efforts is that you then have met a real person; a Red, or Yellow, Black, or White person. But more, you’ve met a person whom God loves just as much as he loves you.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Old Clichés are the Best Clichés

C. S. Lewis wrote an essay which he entitled, “Read the Old Books.” The assumption behind his admonition was that a book that had stood the test of time, and was still in print, or at least readily available, had something about it that was valuable – worth keeping.

It is true even of clichés. I awoke this morning, after a short night, having watched election returns until 2:30 a.m., thinking of the worn old cliché, “Honesty is the best policy.” Just like most of the teaching in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the cliché, “Honesty is the best policy” seems to be an invitation to defeat. When most of the world around you attempts to deceive or manipulate you, being honest only seems to make you vulnerable. It is easier to just play the game – to play it better than all those other guys.

It was impossible to watch Mr. Romney’s concession speech without feeling, and sympathizing with, the pain he was experiencing. At least it was impossible for me. As I awoke this morning I began pondering how things could have ended differently. My mind ran back to the Republican Primary days, and I thought of John Huntsman, like Mr. Romney, a devoted Mormon.

John Huntsman was a former Republican Governor of Utah who served for a few years as the U.S. Ambassador to China in the first Obama administration. He resigned the Ambassador’s post to run for President in the Republican primary. Most Americans may have forgotten him; he was always out on the flanks beyond Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, Michelle Bachmann, Rick Santorum, and Tim Pawlenty. He seldom got to make his point but when he did he stood out from the crowd in a way that impressed me. While all the others were bending themselves into whatever shape they perceived the electorate to want, regardless of positions they had assumed in previous years, or even previous debates, Huntsman remained true to the principles he had espoused for years. Of course, he didn’t win the nomination. Honesty was not in high demand during those debates.

So why do I say that honesty is the best policy? It occurs to me that Mr. Romney could have followed the course that John Huntsman did. After all he was viewed, early in the primary season as a moderate, former Massachusetts governor. I viewed him in those terms and argued that, of those in the primary who had a real chance at winning the nomination, Mitt Romney was probably the best man. But I as watched him twist and turn and morph from one kind of man to another it became clear to me that we could never know, ahead of the election, or even possible after the election, who he really was or what he stood for.

I’m not enough of a political scientist to ascertain all the reasons for Mr. Romney’s defeat but it seems to me that he never became any one thing long enough for the American people to become comfortable with him. His opponent, Barack Obama, on the other hand, despite all that could be said against him by his opponents, remained essentially the same person through his presidency and the campaign for re-election.

So, am I saying that Mitt Romney could have won if he had told the truth about who he is and what he believes? That is impossible to know. My feeling is that he would not have won the Republican nomination. He would have been quietly shuttled off to one side like John Huntsman.

But who would you rather be today, John Huntsman, who has the satisfaction of knowing that he did not sacrifice his principles for the chance to win (or lose) a presidential contest, or Mitt Romney who, as one commentator said last night, will have as the first line of his obituary, “Mitt Romney, who ran an unsuccessful race for the presidency and lost to Barack Obama, died today”?

Bill Clinton, whose lies – and lying lifestyle – were at least as egregious as those of Mitt Romney over the last few months, is testimony that one can rebuild a tarnished reputation. My hope is that Mr. Romney will choose likewise, to use his remaining years to show us who he really is. My gut tells me that there is much potential for good in him. But it would have been a shame if the kind of deception he practiced in the campaign had led to the presidency.

Many may still argue with the contention that honesty is the best policy. It is pretty hard this morning though, to argue that inconsistency and dishonesty is a good policy. Or even, in the long run, a winning one.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

And the Winner Is . . .

Sometime tonight, either early or late, we should know which candidate for President of the United States succeeded in amassing the most Electoral College votes. The media will declare him “the winner.” And most citizens will either joyfully or reluctantly agree.

But who is the winner in this election? Whichever man is declared the winner has a massive task before him; one that is complicated by unpredictable and almost completely intractable world situations and events, by almost certain domestic calamities beyond his power to prevent or control, by opposition from his past, present, or future political foes, by a public with a patience quotient of near zero, and by commitments made to wealthy donors and political factions that will tie his hands and force him to be inflexible. Who would seek to gain such a prize? Obviously, some do consider it a “prize” and seek it at a cost of millions and millions of dollars.

Only time will tell, or at least appear to tell, if the average citizen was the winner. A great deal of rhetoric has been generated in this election over the question of whether we are better off today than we were four years ago. Taken as a collective whole it seems hard to argue that we are not better off. The economy which was teetering on the edge of a financial abyss, is now improving monthly by most credible indicators.  But any individual, myself included, could make the case that they are not better off than they were four years ago. My retirement checks have been reduced each of the last four years and the projection is that reductions will continue for several years more even if the markets remain at or above their current level.

But “better off” is a rather amorphous phrase. Better off than what? Am I better off today than I would have been if the McCain/Palen ticket had won? It is impossible to know the answer to that. Am I better off today than I feared I might be when the financial world appeared to be collapsing around our heads? My answer is certainly, yes. Am I better off today than I would have been if there had been no government interventions;  if the “markets” had been allowed to “correct themselves”? Again, no one knows.

When the votes are totaled later today an almost equal number of “average citizens” will either feel that their situation in life is more secure, or will be fearful that things will go to ruin. Only time will tell whose fears (or optimism) is justified. But even time is not enough to “tell” conclusively. Historians and economists still argue over the benefits and harms wrought by the election of Franklin Roosevelt, in one case, or Ronald Reagan in another.

But there is another group of citizens who have invested heavily in this election. They will be assessing whether they have won or lost. That is the billionaires whose “generosity” has pushed political spending to its highest level in history. Their millions, given to create negative ads, have made media outlets clear financial winners in this election. Indeed, the media may be the biggest winners of all, at least for now. The benefactors who supplied the politicians with the funds to run their campaigns are hoping to be winners too. Some will be, no doubt. There were big spenders on both sides.

The only way the average citizen can hope to be a winner in this year’s contest is if the Billionaires are perceived to be losers; if they look at the millions they’ve squandered on twisted, lying, character-assassinating ads and conclude that it was money poorly spent. What are the chances of that happening? Miniscule to zero. Negative ads work, the political gurus tell us. They work in the sense that they suppress the vote. Seldom do they persuade someone to support a candidate different than their intuitive choice. They aren’t designed to do that. They are designed to convince voters that a candidate whom they previously thought was an honorable person is actually a devil parading as a saint.

It is a rather depressing conclusion that I come to; that there will be no clear winner in this election. Those who take pleasure in meaningless partisan victories (the Packers beat the Vikings; the Democrats beat the Republicans) will have a sense, if their side prevails, that they’ve won something. But those who are looking for real progress in solving the problems facing our nation and our communities will slowly arrive at the conclusion that not much has changed as a result of this election. The “haves” still have all that they had before; the “have nots” are still left wanting. The obstructionists will still obstruct, although they may be Democrats rather than Republicans this time around. The billionaires will recoup, in a mere few days, the 30, or 40, or 70 million dollars they threw on the gambling table. If their bet paid off, and their side won, they will add multiples of their original investment to their off-shore bank accounts.

But in the end, what will the nation have gained? And what price has it paid for those gains. What if a political party, or a billionaire, or a faction of voters, or a particular candidate, wins an election but loses its own soul? Or what would a man give in exchange for his soul?

Monday, November 5, 2012

Whose Side Is God On?

Since childhood, about this time every four years, I’ve sat (more often stood) in church services and heard prayers offered that God would direct the election of our next President. In the churches I attended that invariably translated into, “Dear God, let the Republican win.” The following Sunday there was either great rejoicing – if the Republican won – that the nation had been spared calamity, or sober submission to the inscrutable will of God, if the Democrat won.

Being a “thinker” – not a particularly powerfully good “thinker”, but a “thinker” nonetheless – I’ve often wondered which side God is on. Abraham Lincoln is credited with remarking that it is better if we seek to be on God’s side rather than recruit him to our side. Our pastor this Sunday reminded us that we should be careful not to pray, “Not thy will, but mine, be done.” Both wise admonitions.

But it is a serious question. I believe I can come close to correctly characterizing C. S. Lewis’ position on the matter. He believed, if I recall correctly, that God entrusted to mankind a certain sphere of activity, in which man is allowed to operate, pretty much as he pleases. He may murder his neighbor, steal from his employer, defraud his customers, invade another country’s territory, invent a bomb to obliterate millions of his fellow humans. He may also contribute to the aid of disaster victims, care for the sick and dying, advocate – to the point of martyrdom – for the oppressed, invent life-saving, life-enhancing medical procedures, serve his nation selflessly and tirelessly, serve his God with humility and faithfulness. Mankind gets to choose.

Does that mean that God has no “will” in the matter? No, he cares deeply. I believe, with all my heart, that “God so loved the world that he gave His only begotten son, that whoever believes in him need not perish but have everlasting life.” Interestingly, the Gospel of John, from which that quotation comes, uses the Greek word cosmos where the English is translated “world”. There was another Greek word that could have been used, geos (earth). But cosmos denotes human society. God so loved (cared about) how humans organize their society that he sent the Divine Son of God to bleed and die for it and for the salvation of its inhabitants.

So, if God cares that much about human society, and human beings in particular, he must care about our elections. I believe he does. But I think there is something he cares about even more. That is our willing participation in his plan for this world. And – this will come as a surprise to some who seem to think all truth and righteousness accrues to one side or the other in our political struggles – it is possible that human beings may, without displeasing God, differ as to how to accomplish God’s will on earth.

An example: The poor must be cared for. It is God’s will as best I can see in Scripture, that God’s children feed the hungry, even if they are the enemy. But how should we feed the poor? Many conservatives believe it is destructive to human character for the poor to be given public assistance through government programs. They prefer depending on private charity to accomplish that. Liberals, on the other hand argue that it is more efficient and equitable to collect taxes from all citizens and then distribute aid through well-managed government programs. Of course neither liberals nor conservatives are all one way or the other. Liberals welcome voluntary non-governmental aid to the poor and conservatives generally recognize the need for some government aid in certain circumstances. But for a hungry individual or a disadvantaged family it is probably irrelevant which side prevails as long as they have food on the table. Whichever system works to feed the hungry accomplishes God’s greater will; that the hungry be fed.

So, does God care who wins this election? Theoretically (or is that theologically), yes. His will is that we have good government. It is probably further his will that “the best man wins.” But he has left the decision up to us. Some of us will believe that the best path to accomplishing God’s will for our nation lies in a Republican victory tomorrow. Others believe it will be achieved through a re-election of Mr. Obama. I’ll presumptuously say that God doesn’t care who does it, just as long as the job gets done. It is righteousness (things done right) that pleases God.

Finally, we usually focus on the good that our preferred candidate will accomplish if elected. We need to humbly recognize that we elect men (someday perhaps women), not Gods. Every candidate I’ve ever supported, Republican and Democrat, has disappointed me in some way. So, if the man you deeply desired to see elected, loses, console yourself that you’ll not have to stand red-faced because of some blunder he might have made if he had been elected.

And don’t forget to pray for whomever wins. Pray harder and more sincerely if the man you opposed wins.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Accepting the New Normal

Twenty-five years ago I began visiting my mother in a nursing home. Her mental and physical condition had deteriorated over the preceding five years or so to the point that Dad could no longer stay awake enough hours to protect her from falling or engaging in some activity that endangered both their lives. Mom never really came to accept her new situation. She knew she was not in her rightful place and she strongly insisted that if she could return to it she would be able to do all the things a mother and wife should do.

A few years later Dad followed Mom into the same nursing home, partly because she was there, and he wanted to be there to oversee and protect her interest, but partly, too, because he understood that he could no longer maintain himself in his own home. He was not particularly happy there but he, at least, had made the decision on his own to be there, and he had the advantage of a clear understanding of his situation and potentialities. Interestingly, Dad died first, followed three months later by Mom, sixty-seven years to the month after they had first set up house-keeping together as a young bride and groom.

Now I’m watching as my only surviving sibling and his wife are separated in the same way. Her health problems, which have accumulated over the years, have reached a level of complexity that she and he – and their adult live-in son – can no longer cope with. She will undoubtedly spend her last days unhappily enduring an existence that will never seem “normal” to her.

These are examples of how, if we are “lucky”, we live beyond our ability to care for ourselves and often beyond the ability of those who love us, to care for us. It is one of the “blessings” of the new longevity that modern science – and the relative security of western culture – have brought us. Few of us would willingly relinquish those “golden years” even when they become fraught with discomfort and uncertainty. We have a strange “animal instinct” that forces us to soldier on even when the odds say there is little ahead of us to please the eye or palate, or stimulate the mind.

These thoughts come to me this early morning as I sense the irregularity of my heart beating and wonder if I should disturb my wife by going into her bedroom (it used to be “our” bedroom) and activate the pacemaker monitor, sending a report of the “heart flutters” to those who claim to want to know about it. I think of the many changes that have come about the last couple of years – teeth implanted, hearing-aids fitted, cataracts removed, the pace-maker installed, a CPAP regimen prescribed, a new sleeping arrangement necessitated.

None of these changes, taken alone, begin to approach the displacement my parents felt those many years ago, or the frustration and despair my sister-in-law is experiencing now. But they point to a new and ever-changing “normal” that one would not wish for. Something in us insists that the changes are only temporary. We are only in “rehab” and will soon be back in our normal place doing our normal things. For some – for a little while – that is the case. But for all of us – eventually – we’ll be required to accept that new and ever changing “normal” whether we like it or not.

So why not try to like it. I have often found inspiration in my father’s philosophy of life. He did not hide his dislike of the situations he often found himself in, but neither did he rail against them. They were, to him, the facts of his life. Those he could affect he attempted to affect. Those he could not, he endured for the sake of those around him and as a sign of his faith in God.

It was the latter, his faith in God, that sustained him through his long life. Without illusion he faced each day with a determination to live it through to its last second, and if another followed, he would give it the same determined faithfulness.

It occurs to me that his stability may well have come from an understanding of life’s ebb and flow expressed by Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath 

Well, Pa, a woman can change better'n a man. A man lives sorta – well, in jerks. Baby's born or somebody dies, and that's a jerk. He gets a farm or loses it, and that's a jerk. With a woman, it's all in one flow, like a stream – little eddies and waterfalls – but the river, it goes right on. Woman looks at it thata way.

Dad never read The Grapes of Wrath but he lived its experiences and he would have said “amen” to Ma’s insightful remark.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

What to Do with Our Media?

How many times do you hear the host of a radio or television news analysis show introduce the “guest expert” with the words, “Welcome back to ___________” (fill in the name of the show)?

Immediately I’m struck with a slight nausea. Sometimes I know the guest expert; more often I don’t. But it is obvious that he or she is one of the “go to” persons whom the host, or the producers, run to when a topic comes up for which they are considered “expert”. They represent the shortest path to an authoritative program.

Certainly we want expert opinion on important matters. In many cases those “welcomed back” to the show are as authoritative as any other guest might be. But often they are not. The listener or viewer would be better served by a greater variety of guest experts. Further, the “guest” is often nothing other than a colleague working for the same media outlet. So we get celebrity hosts hosting celebrity hosts.

To further corrupt (or dilute) the stream of information, media outlets began, as far back as the 80s, bringing on board “experts”, retired (or fired) from government, entertainment, business, or sports whose credentials are less than sterling. The first I recall was the influx of former Nixon aides to serve as TV commentators on governmental issues – John Dean being one of the most prominent examples – some of whom had served prison time, or escaped it by gaining immunity from grand juries by testifying for the prosecution. Then, after the O.J. Simpson trial a number of members of the defense team for O.J. moved into the realm of legal commentators. Perhaps the most egregious example is that of Sarah Palin, a failed vice-presidential candidate and drop-out governor from Alaska who now graces the airwaves as an employee of Fox News and resident expert on politics and family values.

It is the role of our media to inform and entertain us; we are poorly served when it does not do both. But our current media has almost completely forsaken the role of informer, in the scramble for ratings.

Time was when at least the first ten or fifteen minutes of the evening news was devoted to serious news reporting. Now the program begins with dramatic musical underscore, flashing graphics, and ominous announcements of the earth-moving events to be covered in the following half-hour. No event is less than spectacular, and almost always destined to affect the viewer negatively. Guest experts are lined up in their little boxes as each segment begins, waiting for the moderator to give them their turn to spin the story according to the particular outlet’s point of view. And that point of view is so predictable that most viewers (or listeners) know, according to the story being reported, which network to switch to so that their sensibilities will not be offended – or their prejudices fed.

There is little the consumer of media can do to change the situation. But there are defenses against the negative effects of media bombardment. Sadly, the most important defense is skepticism. In the best of all possible worlds humans would be able to trust humans. But we live far from the best of all possible worlds and anyone who tries to navigate our world without a healthy dose of skepticism will become the pawn of ad men, politicians, televangelists, and other hucksters.

A second defense is to disabuse oneself of the expectation of getting a really good bargain, either in products being sold, or ideas being pedaled. There are occasional bonanzas to be had but they are few and far between. (The best bonanzas come unbidden, not offered exclusively on TV for $19.95 plus shipping and handling.) And yes, there are amazing things happening in our world, but if one continues to follow a story it more often than not is less than the hoopla promised. (The new cure for cancer has only been tested in amebas and any human benefit is several centuries off.)

But, in order to make it through the maze of manipulation and deception in our media with some semblance of sanity, one must add to their skepticism a willingness to go beyond the obvious – beyond the punditry of “guest experts” – beyond the promises of the hucksters – in search of the truth. Too often the “guest expert” who is being “welcomed back” has a predictable answer to the questions being considered. He or she has an axe to grind or a pocket to line.

The alert consumer of information knows to put up his guard when he hears the words, “Welcome back to . . .” He’ll go scrambling in search of other sources. And they are available to anyone with a computer and Internet access. It takes some work. It still requires skepticism – be wary of dot com sites, don’t automatically trust all dot org sites, or even all dot edu sites. But if one is willing to search, and compare, and use one’s God-given common sense, he can avoid many of the traps our media sets for him.

Hey, he may, someday, be a “guest expert” himself.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

A Haiku Trio For Truth

by Jim Rapp

Truth immutable
cannot die, but it can be
buried under lies

Truth immutable
will rise someday, but when or
how, no one can say

Truth immutable
outlives all liars and de-
fies their many lies