November 16, 2016
Dear Mr. Trump,
First let me say congratulations on a winning a hard-fought, difficult campaign against a formidable opponent. The entire world was watching and you managed to pull off a fairly decisive victory.
I voted for you, but I confess I only reached my decision in the final days before the election. There was good, and bad, about both of you as candidates.
I write to point some things out. I have read and studied and listened to people, exhaustively, in the days prior to the election. And I came to some conclusions about why you won. I hope you will, by some miracle, be able to read this and digest what I’m about to point out.
I don’t believe you won on the basis of the standard Republican platform. And your victory shouldn’t be viewed as a total rejection of the Democrats. It should rather be viewed as a rejection of both Democrats and Republicans as we have known them in the past 16 years or so. The increasingly partisan approach to government has long since quit working.
You won because the people are tired of the constant entrenchment from both sides of the aisle. They no longer want business as usual from the Federal government. They want progress on issues that affect their lives. They want Congress to work together, to quit shutting down the government to strong-arm the opposition, and realize that neither Democrat nor Republican are dirty words.
You, a complete DC outsider, steamrolled the Republican opposition in the primaries. Why? Because the people want Washington shaken up. This election boiled down to a complete outsider vs. the consummate Washington insider, and your victory thus comes with a mandate: fix it.
That mandate is really simple at its core. Lead the government in a direction that is not detrimental to the lives of its citizens. Help Congress enact policies that help us, not hurt us. End the pervasive deadlock that keeps bills from being passed. Bring transparency and openness to our governmental process.
When I hear the Republicans want to privatize Social Security and Medicare, that’s one example of what I mean. That would ultimately hurt us in the long run. Those are two of the most successsful government programs ever enacted. It would be political suicide to tamper with them. Far better to fix them than to scrap them or turn them over to people who will take a portion for profit. It’s not believable to listen to the government warn that Social Security is about to be insolvent, when Congress took money from the SS funds on multiple occasions. That’s our money, mind you. Not the government’s.
Obviously, one huge issue is the Affordable Care Act. Of course, it’s been anything but affordable for a lot of people. There are no easy answers here. Let me share an experience I had. Among other things, I worked in EMS, in both 911 systems and private ambulances. One call, private ambulance, had me picking up a German gentleman who visited Raleigh, NC and fell and broke his hip. We arrived and I went to get out basic patient information sheet and insurance information and was told everything had already been paid for. I looked at the nurse quizzically and she nodded, “His insurance has already paid us and the transport costs. Just bill us.”
I was shocked, how did it get paid so quickly? Before he was even out of the hospital? His daughter explained during the transport. “Everyone in Germany has insurance. It’s very efficient. But because everyone has it, the costs are much lower.”
“How low?” I asked.
“About $140.00 a month.”
Yeah, it’s that awful socialized medicine we’ve heard so much about. But at this point, hell, if our insurance could cost $140.00 a month, I’d take that all day long.
But no, I’m not advocating a government-run, single payer system. Point is, while many folks are against being forced to buy insurance, they are really upset at the astronomical costs they’re now faced with. The ACA addressed nothing in the way of cost containment. If you’ve seen The Big Short, with Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale and Steve Carrel, you know how crazy the housing market bubbled before it crashed. Housing costs went up and up and up, and then the crash happened. As a real estate investor you certainly know all about it. I suspect the medical industry is riding a huge bubble at the moment, and there will be hell to pay when it finally bursts. The healthcare industry appears headed in the same direction as the housing market: massively inflated costs with a dwindling supply of new customers and cash, and often very high risks among those buying insurance. When the average savings rate is now negative 1.3% among Americans, you have to ask, exactly how are people supposed to pay insurance premiums that cost more than mortgages, and withstand $3,000-$5,000 deductibles to boot? The money just isn’t there. This is a market reaching critical mass. All the signs are there if one is paying attention.
We need positive steps towards healthcare cost containment. Period. If there’s anything to be gleaned from this election, I’m convinced this was an angry electorate. They don’t need healthcare costs stopped. They just desperately need them dialed back to livable amounts. What we have is simply unsustainable.
There is another thing I think needs to be addressed. There’s a lot of talk about growing the economy via tax breaks for large corporations so they can free up cash to pay for more workers and create more jobs. That’s fine, if they keep that end of the bargain. All too often jobs still wind up going across borders or overseas. My personal feeling, however, is that this is an arrow shot that is a bit off target.
If you really want to grow the economy, focus also on the 80% that is comprised of small businesses. I owned a small business myself, and the taxes I payed in addition to Social Security, Medicare and others were a significant burden. I know guys having to work crazy hours instead of hiring additional workers because the math isn’t adding up. When eighty percent of our economy is driven by small businesses, it’s simply common sense to ease that burden for us. We’re not asking for the moon. My own desire is simple: a lower tax rate that doesn’t stifle my cash flow, and a much simpler way to file and report income, taxes and Social Security/FICA. The cost of paying an accountant is another headache for very small businesses like mine. Make it simple enough that small business owners can do it all themselves.
There are many, many other things I could address, but I’ll content myself with just one more. This is a country deeply divided, and this is a time we need to hear healing words. The racist, sexist, Islamaphobic and misogynistic words and even assaults that have occurred across the county need to stop. And you can prove yourself a leader by directly addressing them in a press conference and other means at your disposal and bring significant shame to those who belittle, insult and abuse our fellow Americans. Yes, you are a divisive figure, for better or worse. But you can, by your words and actions, promote healing.
Steve Bannon as senior counsel is one such example. He’s probably none of the things the liberal media has portrayed him to be, but the very association of him with Breitbart and, by extension, some of the people that cling to it is going to invite that very kind of speculation and backlash. The President simply cannot hire someone who is a lightning rod for controversy. It just creates more fodder for the rabid elements of the press. If you really want him, fine. But he needs to address these things as well, and distance himself from the radicals, decisively.
Of course, almost every administration has hired lightning rods before. It’s hard to avoid. But it’s not hard to work to gain trust, and addressing and condemning the radicals and their acts would be a good way to start.
I hope you read this, and maybe think it over. I hope you understand I’m just an average American joe, who has bills to pay and a life I want to live. I hope you can settle in and begin taking positive steps that will benefit all of us, not just a select few. I hope you realize we elected you precisely because you are an outsider, and we desire significant change in how D.C. does business.
I hope our county will be better off in four years.
November 14, 2016
Have you noticed how home architecture has changed in recent years? We used to have homes with doors to each room. That’s rare these days; we’ve opted for something different, an open floor plan. No longer are families separated by walls and doors, they can see each other and communicate across vast spaces because of the absence of walls separating living and dining and kitchen areas. Only bedrooms seem to maintain the privacy status quo.
I see a direct correlation between this phenomenon and our current social situation. We are no longer a people clustered in private, unseen groupings. Indeed, what was once visible only to a select few is now visible to all, thanks to the advent of the computer age and more specifically, the rise of social media.
Gays, lesbians, blacks, whites, rich and poor, middle class, Native Americans, Latinos, all seem to have a voice in the cacophony of social media. Everything is out in the open. No one is hidden anymore. With that comes the rise of special requests, the demands for change, the plurality of America reaching for a certain singularity.
I was quite surprised watching the election returns, and yet I wasn’t that surprised. Disclaimer: though in my Facebook posts I declined to say who I voted for, I will do so now: I did vote for Trump. And why I voted for him is the result of a very anguished and tortured process that led me to think of Clinton, Johnson and only grudgingly, to Trump. I only made that decision just days before the election. Why? After all, he’s not anyone’s perfect candidate. Far from it, in fact.
And in this election, I wasn’t huddling behind a closed door in my own room. Neither was anyone else. We were walking around in an open-floorplan house, very aware of what our friends and neighbors were up to. This, quite frankly, is a new thing. The revulsion and exasperation we felt is precisely the result of our love of social media, and the stripping away of all that was once quite private. We’re not hiding, anymore.
What follows are my takeaways from this very strange election.
1. Both Parties were repudiated.
Those who are decrying and horrified that such a candidate as Trump could possibly be elected need to realize one thing: This wasn’t a repudiation of Hillary Clinton and Democrat platform ideals. Far from it. This was a repudiation, yes, but it wasn’t just against the Democrats. This was an outright revolt against the Republicans as well. Think about it, Trump defeated 16 seasoned politicians in the primary races, GOP stalwarts all (except Carson), handily. How was this possible? Trump, an outsider, a non-politician!
The voters were saying in very clear terms, “Okay, Washington, you’ve had your fun. But you have ignored us, all of us, for a very long time now, and we are sick of it. We are telling you your job is to represent us, not the rich special interest groups who fill your coffers with cash and do so expecting special favors. We are telling you to stop shutting down the government like a bunch of crybabies when you don’t get your way. We are telling you to stop casting people who receive benefits (millions) as leaches when you allow corporations to receive basically corporate welfare (billions) and allow them to avoid paying their fair share. We are telling you to stop giving benefits we paid for to folks who are here illegally. We are telling you to stop raiding the Social Security fund, failing to pay it back, and then claiming the system is ‘broken’ and tell us we need to make do with less in our Social Security check. Less?? (One question, Washington: How?) We are saying, you need to get back to the business of real government, finding real solutions to real problems that affect real people.”
2. Breakdown of the civil order.
The voters were also saying in very clear terms, they are tired of the so-called protests and riots and road-blocking every time a police officer shoots a black person. The nation is weary of these so-called protests–fueled by instantaneous social media–which were in fact riots which led to looting, burning and beatings of whites and others. Many, not all, of these shootings were justified, but I’ll be the first to admit I think our police training is in need of overhaul. There have been those too quick to shoot without working to de-escalate situations, and that is a shame. I think there is ample room for discussion here. But discussion becomes quite limited when half a city is going up in flames and Molotov cocktails are being thrown. This “us vs. them” mentality needs to go. Certainly, there are bad cops out there. And there are bad people who are black, white, Latino, Asian and so on… I’ve said it before, no one has a monopoly on virtue. But America is tired of the rioting and looting and burning of our towns. I don’t see much constructive discussion coming when the police feel the need to double down on people because they’re out of control. And real conversation is sorely needed in this day and age regarding how police respond to threatening situations. The Democrat’s failure to distinguish between legitimate protests and destructive rioting did not go unnoticed by the vast majority of Americans. And sending representatives to funerals of young black men killed while in the process of committing crimes is a slap in the face of all who live their lives peacefully and according to the law.
3. Emotional voting begets emotional responses
Look, I get it. People, especially young people, get excited over their candidates and their issues. But I have to sound a note of caution: Emotive voting is dangerous, because it leads to emotive responses if the beloved candidate loses. In every election, someone will lose. That’s the way it works. I know, it can be bitterly disappointing. Heartbreaking, even. But to have to run to a “safe space” to have a “cry-in” over the lost election is absurd. You are adults. You cast a vote. Your vote counted. If you didn’t win, that’s the way it works. Sure, be upset! Commiserate with your friends, have a drink or two, shed a tear, and then begin planning for the next election. This isn’t a vote for homecoming queen, this is serious business about the future of our country. Getting caught up in a “movement” is fine, but movements come and go. My hope is that young folks will temper the desires of their heart with the logic in their heads.
Corollary to that is the response to the election. Protesting? Burning the flag? Blocking highways? See Number 2, above. Let’s be honest. Protest is something to do when there is an actual wrong committed against you. Your vote was stolen? Protest. Ballot boxes burned or dumped in a lake? Protest. You were turned away from a voting site by bigots determined to prevent you from voting? Yes, absolutely, protest. But you don’t have a mandate to protest just because you don’t like the outcome of the election.
And on the other side, making derogatory comments, spitting, painting “White Power” graffiti and other nonsense is even more repulsive. Celebration is one thing. Spitting on people and calling them names and taunting them with threats of deportation is quite another, and despicable. That just makes those who do those things the very racist jerks they were portrayed to be by the media leading up to the election. Celebration is fine. Celebratory gloating and assault are decidedly not. People like that sicken me even more than the losers of the election protesting.
4. There really is a longing to return to the days of Mayberry and Ward and June Cleaver, but not for the reasons you think…
I read over and over prior to the election that there was an element that wants America to return to the simple old days where we could live like Andy Taylor and Opie, or Ward and June Cleaver and Beaver and Wally, with all that wholesome goodness. Invariably, this was dismissed with scorn and derision as though someone professed they believed the earth was flat. Seriously, those TV fantasies were as fictitious then as now. But that said, there really is a longing to return to those days. But it has nothing to do with women’s place being in the kitchen and and blacks (and other minorities) “knowing their place” and the white man “reigning supreme.” None of that. At all. It has to do with basic economics. Because for all that period’s faults, one thing is very true: One decent job could pay for a house, pay all the bills, buy a car and a TV set and decent furniture, and buy plenty of food, and still have enough left over to save for college and retirement. If there are folks looking back and longing for the good old, days, that is why. Not the racist, sexist, homophobic crap. They want to quit having to work four to five jobs between two people just to make ends meet. My grandfather lived to be just over 90. He and my grandmother were simple folk, they worked in the hosiery mill and farmed a bit (peanuts and other crops) and went to church on Sunday. When they died, well, I don’t know exactly how much they saved, but it was nearly half a million dollars. Yes, you heard that correctly. They lived frugally and socked away nearly half a million dollars in 6o years of working.
That is what people want. They want that kind of opportunity for their lives today. It won’t come, not in this lifetime. But if we could convince our leaders that our lives would be better if we had that kind of economic opportunity once again, well then, imagine what our lives would be like.
Yes, I know, wasn’t Clinton promising that? And would not her ideas be just as likely, if not more so, to accomplish that? Time will tell. She lost because I think people viewed her as a vote for the same old, same old Washington crap. She’s the consummate Washington insider, and this election was about rejecting that.
5. Obamacare hurt.
I suspect that this election turned on one thing in particular: the exorbitant cost of healthcare. The promise of better, and lower costs of, healthcare never materialized for the middle class. In fact the opposite happened. Many on the lower end of the salary spectrum qualified for subsidies to offset the costs, but after a certain point, people were on their own, and the total costs were disastrous. Seriously, deductibles reaching $3000 to $5000 per year? Exactly who has that kind of money laying around? And insurance premiums, once a percentage of, say, a monthly mortgage, are now often way above the cost of a mortgage. Who can afford that? And now, of course, if you can’t afford it, you get slapped with a big penalty. That’s where a lot of the anger came from. Having the insurance companies release figures saying that people’s premiums were going to rise drastically again just before the election probably doomed Clinton more than anything.
6. There really is a great divide.
This election fell along very sharp lines: rural vs. urban. Not white and black, not rich and poor, not gay vs. straight or most any other binary division out there, save one. It was the hip urban areas on the one hand and the poor vast, rural country on the other.A quick look at the map bears this out. And this also corresponds to some extent with education. Fewer folk in rural areas have college degrees, which makes sense. There are fewer jobs that require a degree in a small town in Iowa, for example. But one huge mistake the liberal elite made was to assume “uneducated” actually meant “dumb.” Thus they tended to classify Trump supporters as dumb, racist, homophobic, xenophobic and so on. To their misfortune.
Look, I worked in EMS. In many cases the highest education there is an associate degree from a community college. Most didn’t have that, just the required certification courses to work in EMS. Yeah, I met some dumb folks. But the majority were smart. Very smart, often. I have three college degrees and with all my education, there were people, men and women, I worked with who clearly were smarter than me. You’d better be glad, too. After all, these are the folks who will save your life when your heart stops beating.
All too often, “uneducated” is code among the elites for “dumb,” but I know for a fact that is the most unfair and idiotic classification one can subscribe to. And those who subscribe to the elitist views “We’re right, our views are the only ones that matter, anyone who doesn’t agree with us is just plain racist and sexist, etc.” really don’t understand. Since the mid 1990’s when NAFTA went down, these rural Americans have felt the boot of the American Oligarchy on their necks, and the last thing they needed from the Bush and Obama Administrations was more weight on that boot. But it came in the form of fewer and poorer job choices, outrageous healthcare costs and the inability to ever get ahead. To dismiss the plight of these rural Americans is just plain wrong, and the elites who made light of their situation got a serious wake-up call on Tuesday. Rural America scratched its head and asked, “White privilege? What fucking white privilege?”
7. Trump supporters are a bunch of racist hicks. Not! Hillary supporters are a bunch of libtards who want to give away all our money to illegals. Not!
This election was dominated by social media. And it was by far the craziest I’ve ever seen. I saw some of the ugliness really come out in 2012, when people were actually calling President Obama a n****r and a coon. No holding back, there. Really, there’s no excuse for that shit. But it cut both ways, especially this time around. And the mainstream media played right along. “Trump is a racist!” people would scream. But consider the source. A mainstream news outlet reported Trump wanted to deport illegals. True, he said that. Then liberal bloggers and websites started with, “Trump is against Latino/Hispanic people!” And then the Facebook posts start, “Trump is a racist!” Then, “If you support Trump that makes YOU a racist, too!” See how quickly one statement turns to dirge? Consider the sources, folks. If your only source of info is the echo chambers of like-minded liberals or conservatives, you will never get a clear picture of the truth. And the truth is so sorely needed in this day and age. Yes, Trump has said some deplorable things. But so has Hillary Clinton. Remember the book from one of her Secret Service detail describing how rude and nasty she was to the people under her? You get a good measure of how a person really is by how they treat those in a lesser station than they are. And it’s not very good ethics to treat those who serve you with contempt. So yes, both candidates got a lot of mud slung at them via Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and the biased news sources. Oh, screw that. They got a lot of shit slung at them! To me, it was childish, immature, and ultimately unnecessary. The truth is, Donald Trump is a compassionate man who is well aware of his good fortune, and has helped people from all walks of life in countless situations. And Hillary Clinton really cares about people and especially helping minorities and those of various nationalities find a place in this country, as well as helping lower income Americans rise above their stations. There is good about both of them. The election didn’t need the level of vitriol it obtained to determine that. Ultimately, none of that mattered. What did matter is that the people rejected a Washington insider and chose to elect a Washington outsider. They spoke to him clearly: shake it up. In a big way.
8. The Electoral College really is needed
I’ve seen so many posts on Facebook lately that the Electoral College needs to be abandoned. Why? Take a look at the map. An ocean of red with tiny islands of blue. And yet if the vote count remains true, Hillary won the popular vote. So why don’t we just do away with the Electoral College and just accept the popular vote? Sounds reasonable, right?
Almost reasonable, but no.
Look at the map. The red areas totally dominate. It’s not even close. And that’s important. For if we did away with the Electoral College, the entire election would be determined by people living in a very small geographic area. As one of my friends put it, if you did away with it, the entire vote would be determined by the State of California. Not exactly my recipe for a fair election. It seems our Founding Fathers knew what they were up to. They foresaw this very kind of situation happening. It would be mighty tiresome watching to see who the cities would elect, year after year, and the resentment would grow, and grow, and grow. Because no one else would ever have a voice. Ever.
9. Yes, Virginia, there is a conclusion
We have so much work to do. Our education system is in shambles, our infrastructure is crumbling, banks and Wall Street rake in billions in bubble economies which leave people effectively broke, there is a massive salary divide between top level managers and the average worker, our healthcare system is a joke, the list goes on and on and on. I began this essay with the observation we’re no longer living in blocked off rooms, so to speak, but in a new reality of open floorplan living. Our lives are no longer private, by choice. We tweet and Facebook everything from meals to bowel movements. We create memes to destroy our neighbor’s candidates and we tweet false facts. Just like the housing crisis was a bubble that destroyed America’s economy, we are living in an inflated sense of our own words.
But just because we have a voice doesn’t mean we have, or deserve, an audience. And that inflation of many people’s own words crashed in a big way Tuesday. So many folks never saw it coming. In the last days before the election, I began to suspect the tide had turned for Trump. One Facebook post did it for me, from a guy I know who was shocked at his new insurance premiums. His wasn’t the only such post, but the level of response to his statements made me think, this is a very angry America.
All of us were wrong to so blindly trust the Federal Government to solve our problems. Of course, the Native Americans knew that a hundred years ago. So, how do we fix it?
Communicate. Tell the corporations you disagree with their prices, and why. Or their cheap products, and why. Tell the boards of directors of corporations you disagree with their failure to pay decent wages. Tell the banks you will take your business elsewhere if they continue to charge exorbitant fees. Tell the grocery stores we will not purchase poisoned and dangerous food products. And so on. This election isn’t over. Every time we venture outside with credit card in hand we are voting approval of our current system, or not. Tell your Senators and Congressmen and Congresswomen you like or don’t like what they are doing, and more importantly, tell them what you think needs to be done. You get the idea. You aren’t dumb. Speak! Shout! Let your voices be heard from the Capitol Hill rafters!
All I know is, our system really hasn’t been working for a very long time, but Donald Trump is only one person. Real change begins with us.
November 23, 2015
I’m an infrequent blogger, something I hope to correct in the coming year. But when something weighs heavily on me, I tend to write it out. Thus, this entry.
I have struggled of late with the proper response to the Syrian tragedy and the threat of ISIS and the plight of the refugees. Make no mistake, I see ISIS as a threat to all peace-loving people everywhere. Their penchant for bloodshed and carnage leaves no doubt they cannot co-exist with anyone except like-minded Muslim fundamentalists. They are not only fond of waging war in their quest to form a caliphate (they believe they and all other Muslims are living in sin if the caliphate isn’t formed), but they are also fond of beheading those with whom they disagree, including children.
There has been a lot of talk about how the Bush administration’s questionable entry into Iraq precipitated the growth of this group. And there has been a lot of talk about how the Obama administration has failed to intercede and deal decisively with the growing threat. Both, I think, are valid points.
But we are here, and this is now.
I will state this simply. I am a Christian. I have known no other faith, though my articulation of that faith has taken me down some interesting roads at times. I have not only been baptized as a Christian, but I am also a minister, ordained as a Baptist minister, complete with the requisite seminary education. I take that very seriously indeed.
My own faith journey has led me to the Episcopal Church, where I am quite happy, indeed. I have had many conversations with other Christians, many of whom speak glowingly of the treasures of heaven. At the risk of theological unorthodoxy, I’ll say this. I’m not that interested in the heavenly aspect right now. If we go to heaven, fantastic! I look forward to it. But living my life as a ticket to the pearly gates is, to me, to miss the fundamental truth of living as a Christian. I have work to do now. And I don’t do it because I hope for a reward. I do it because I am a changed person, a new creation, in Christ.
I want my life to be focused on following Jesus’ commands, to love my neighbor as myself, to show compassion and mercy, to live justly, to give to those in need. I look at it like this. If salvation were the only aspect of our faith, Jesus could have been handed over to Herod as an infant and killed then, and then the whole salvation question solved right then and there. But that isn’t what happened.
Instead, he lived thirty-three years, the last three spent teaching, preaching and turning the Jewish world upside down with his common-sense approach to God. In a nutshell, instead of pointing to specific scriptures to support this position or that position, he forced his fellow man and woman to think, and ask the question, what does your heart tell you? What is the right thing to do?
It is those teachings and approaches to problems that convince me that Jesus’ way was—and is—the true way of life for believers. Indeed, one doesn’t even need to be a believer to adopt the Christian precepts of charity and good will, though it helps to have a thorough understanding of who Jesus was, and from a spiritual perspective, following Christ is certainly a whole lot more than just good works. But those works are very much part and parcel of the Christian—the true Christian—experience.
Which brings us back to our current problem. I read on Facebook many folks arguing we can’t allow the Syrian refugees in the US. And I read also many others clamoring for us to accept them. Those who want to refuse them point to the fact that ISIS has said they intend to sneak their fighters in with the refugees. That is a valid point.
The other point is that these people are for the most part trying to escape ISIS. Many of them are actually Christians. And regular, everyday Muslims who want nothing to do with ISIS. They simply want to escape the war and bloodshed and build a new life elsewhere.
Is it possible there is a middle ground here?
I’m not sure. But I want to raise a few points. As Salman Rushdie has pointed out, Islam has changed. It used to be, we were free to go visit places like Iran and Iraq, and they were welcoming people. Even William Peter Blatty’s brilliant novel, The Exorcist, opens with Father Lankester Merrin overseeing an archaeological dig in Northern Iraq. Photos from the sixties and early seventies show a population wearing both traditional garb and more western/European clothing. The hijab was either worn or not. But in 1979, the Shah of Iran was deposed and the chilling Ayatollah Khomeini took over. Instantly, the super-fundamentalist Muslims were in charge and thus began a transformation that continues to this day, in the form of severely curtailed rights for women, a mindset that views anything western, especially British, American, French and German, as evil, and the need for jihad against all perceived enemies.
Mind you, not all Muslims follow these tenets. Many have not changed over the years. Their views remain more or less the same. But the fundamentalist, hard-line Islam we have seen again and again on the news is something to be concerned about. This type of Islam truly is incompatible with our western views and ways.
The average, ordinary Muslim, on the other hand, does not possess such radical views.
Take a look at this humorous and true video of normal, everyday Muslims, the ones you are likely to encounter in the US:
There are no easy answers to the Syrian crisis. But this I do know. To turn a blind eye to these people is not the Christian response. My mind is permanently seared with the image of a headless child, just a little girl, who was unfortunate enough to belong to Christian parents and who had the ill fate to run into ISIS members, who beheaded her. The picture, gruesome and horrifying, shows her father holding the girl’s body up while weeping, a tragic, horrifying image.
Turning aside from these people and saying, you’re not welcome here, isn’t a Christian response. It isn’t a humanitarian response. It’s a selfish response. We aren’t letting good people draw water from our well.
But, scream others, didn’t ISIS say they were planning to send jihadists posed as refugees into our midst? How can we possibly trust them, when 9/11 is still way too fresh in our memories and we might be attacked again? How can you justify allowing people to come here?
* * *
I don’t know if I have an answer. But I am recalling a quote from Teddy Roosevelt. Though it is oft attributed to his time in office in 1907, it’s actually from a letter written in 1919. He said,
“We should insist that if the immigrant who comes here does in good faith become an American and assimilates himself to us he shall be treated on an exact equality with every one else, for it is an outrage to discriminate against any such man because of creed or birth-place or origin.
But this is predicated upon the man’s becoming in very fact an American and nothing but an American. If he tries to keep segregated with men of his own origin and separated from the rest of America, then he isn’t doing his part as an American. There can be no divided allegiance here. . . We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language, for we intend to see that the crucible turns our people out as Americans, of American nationality, and not as dwellers in a polyglot boarding-house; and we have room for but one soul loyalty, and that is loyalty to the American people.”
These are telling words, though I know some who would dismiss them outright as nationalistic poppycock. To those I would say, read it again, and read it carefully. Roosevelt wasn’t saying one need to drop one’s culture. One need not change one’s religion. But he is saying, unequivocally, that being here entails becoming an American, and one’s devotion must be to this land and it’s people. The immigrant must assimilate, and become part of the fabric of America.
I think this is where we have failed, grievously, in generations past. We must, in some way, form or fashion, rethink how we do immigration. As it stands now, we have many, many people from Central America coming over our border and living illegally, and this is not a good situation. It should be assumed that terrorists will try to slip in this way, and probably already have. But more to the point, many of the ones coming across have no intention of learning the language and being a part of the American culture.
I understand Jeb Bush’s plight; he separated himself from the rest of the GOP early on in advocating a plan to seal the border, and work on a path for citizenship for those already here. Everyone else was screaming, “No, deport them!!” But what he said seemed to me the best all-around solution. I know, they are here illegally. They are breaking the law. But to tear apart families via deportations is going to create a logistical nightmare. And again, it’s not the humanitarian thing to do. A long road to citizenship, being fully vetted in the process, makes the most overall sense to me.
And that is where I see the Syrian problem leading. If we bring in a large number, no, we should not grant automatic citizenship to them en masse. George Bush had an earlier proposal, also shot down, for a gradual, ten-year process for illegals to prove themselves and work toward citizenship. Again, it seemed to make sense. The conservatives would get the southern border wall built, and those already here would have a long road to citizenship with thorough vetting in the meantime. I never thought it was a bad idea. Similarly, I think we should establish a criteria that would allow the Syrian refugees to work towards citizenship, including learning the language, finding work, and so on. And yes, thorough vetting of the refugees. If they have ties to extremist groups, no, they can’t stay.
We should have, from the outset, created an immigration bureaucracy that works to foster developing citizenship in the best sense of the word. Learning about the US, its customs and traditions, its laws, and its language. At best, immigrants are required to pass a citizenship/civics class today. That is not nearly enough. The dangers we face from terrorism demand a more thorough approach and careful evaluation of prospective citizens.
I have met immigrants who immediately set out to become productive citizens of this country, and are doing so today. One was my partner in EMS, who came from Bulgaria. And I have met others who stay in hiding, afraid of a visit by ICE and being deported, never really tasting the freedom of this country.
There is no easy answer, but any pathway to citizenship must be exactly that, not merely a stamped piece of paper but a thorough grounding on what it means to be a citizen, and what it doesn’t. It is a long path, and it must be taken step by step.
I mentioned I was a Baptist early on. I also would have been described as a fundamentalist at one point. It is interesting, the rise of Christian fundamentalism also coincided with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. I found the Christian fundamentalism to be fraught with anti-intellectualism and frequent disdain for truth in its zeal for emotional spiritualism. It came to power in the Baptist churches in 1979, when the Southern Baptist Convention elected a fundamentalist as president. That was the same year the Ayatollah Khomeini took power in Iran, as I recall. I understand one thing, emotional religion has mass appeal. That kind of emotional excess is what turned me off in the end, and I sought my faith expression in a tradition that wasn’t grounded in emotion, but in service to others.
I say that to bring up this final point. Not everyone can be welcomed here. If there are people who have ridden the jihadist roller coaster and screamed “Death to the USA” and have been involved in terrorism at any level, no, we should not grant them safe harbor here. We have freedom of religion. But that also means freedom from religion—you may not deny me any rights because of your religious beliefs, as I may not deny you yours. Again, that key word, assimilation. To some that sounds ominous, like saying you must be a WASP clone before we accept you.
No, that isn’t what it is. It does mean that I’m not going to have much patience if you start demanding my favorite restaurants no longer have bacon to satisfy your religious beliefs. That is crossing a line and I’m not going to have it. To assimilate means you must let go of certain expectations and focus your efforts on becoming a citizen of this country, in the best sense of the word. If you don’t want bacon, fine. But in America, that means you don’t eat it. But I retain my right to.
* * *
Being a Christian and doing the right thing by the refugees does not mean at all simply saying, “Welcome all, come on in.” Nope. If anything, I learned as a pastor that there are many who will try to get money from the church, not because they are hungry but because they want to buy drugs or get drunk. Charity doesn’t mean “fool.” It does mean we do what we are called to do, regardless of our feelings. But we do so with a watchful eye, careful to keep a look out for things that seem amiss.
We can be ready to act if we sense something wrong. We can defend ourselves if our worst fears are realized and some turn out to be terrorists. (But chances are, if they are ISIS terrorists, they are already here.) Even a major metropolitan police chief (was it Washington, DC?) stated the obvious, if citizens see a terrorist event unfolding before their eyes, they are the best option for stopping it, if the police aren’t already there. Unlike many Christians, I am not a pacifist. I believe in the right to defend myself and my neighbor. I just want to be sure that’s my last option before doing so. That said, I wouldn’t hesitate to defend myself or another if I was certain we were about to be victims of terrorism.
So no, we should not be turning a blind eye to the refugees. It isn’t humanitarian or the right thing to do. I might not like it, but I’m not called to like it. I’m called to do right by my fellow man. And yes, I reserve the right to be cautious and defensive as I learn more about them. Some may settle here, or not. But you can bet, I’ll be as cordial and polite as I know how. And as cautious.
July 3, 2014
It’s inevitable, I suppose, but Facebook is a major factor in our lives. So much so, that it has become our de facto news source, entertainment center and water cooler. And much more.
That being the case, we’re wont to notice trends as they appear in our news feeds, given enough attention. And really, certain trends require little attention at all. They are simply plastered all over our news feed, often in flashing neon and Day-Glo orange.
“OVOMIT NEEDS TO BE IMPEACHED!!!!”
“GAYS ARE A BUNCH OF SINNING A$$HOLES AND WILL BURN IN HELL!!!!”
“CONSERVATIVE A$$WIPES ARE DENYING OUR RIGHTS AGAIN!!!!!”
“THE GOP IS FULL OF HATE-FILLED GASBAGS WHO ALL NEED TO GO TO HELL!!!”
“DEMOCRATIC COMMIES ARE GOING TO TAKE AWAY OUR GUNS!!!”
“WE WILL REPEAL THE SECOND AMENDMENT, SO HELP US GOD!!!!”
Nice, isn’t it, when you open your news feed to see the rainbow on fire? That’s pretty much it, as I have folks from every persuasion on my friends list, every color of the rainbow, so to speak, represented. And instead of that rainbow being a thing of beauty, it has become a menace. A glowing, radioactive, angry menace. They have erupted into verbal wars on my page before, once when I was on a trip without a computer and my earlier smart phone was incapable of deleting the offending parties until I got back thirty hours later. My page was smoldering when I did so.
The above examples are the kinds of things I see daily on my feed. If you have any divergence in your friends list, you probably do, too. Or perhaps you cater to only one viewpoint among friends, and you only have one type of diatribe that shows up regularly.
But here’s my question. Doesn’t it feel, well, wrong, somehow?
Whatever happened to jovial, good-natured conversation, where points of view could be debated with politeness and civility? Is this what it has come to? Imaginary lines drawn in imaginary sand over the issues? I’m no idealist. But honestly, this trend of bashing the hell out of those who disagree with us is alarming and confusing to me. We don’t have a history of decimating those who disagree with us outside of war. We just disagreed and didn’t worry too much about it. I don’t get it.
One thing I do get, with crystal clarity: We are becoming a nation of extremists.
All it takes is a few folks who rant and rave on FB, and the rest tend to nod along like so many bobblehead dolls, without really thinking about what the ranters are saying. And it seems to me the rants and raves have become increasingly polarized of late. Louder, more hate-filled, more passionate, more suggestive. And I suppose the point is not that this is so much accepted communication, but in a world where everything is a status update away from being changed, only the loudest and most obnoxious and most vile posts will be noticed.
I can’t really blame them, though. Attention hounds will always be loud and obnoxious.
Shame on us, instead, for giving them an audience. We should know better.
March 12, 2014
“What did you just say?”
I was talking to myself, but I almost wished I wasn’t. It was two years ago. One of my friends had posted something extremely derogatory about Christian faith in general and Christians in particular on Facebook. I don’t remember the post but I do recall my reaction. After I said “What did you just say?” to his imaginary face (appropriate, after all Facebook is an imaginary world, you know) I frowned and shook my head and went about my day.
But I couldn’t really shake it. This was more than just a “Sorry, but I don’t believe that” kind of post. This was close to downright vilifying those who believe in God. It was as close to hate speech as I’ve ever experienced, unless I count the number of times blacks have called me “honky” or “cracker.” (Relax, I’m joking.) But the post really was quite hateful.
It bothered me–a lot–but I really didn’t have an answer or a comeback at the time. So I pushed it away, filed away for later action, set on the back burner. The problem is that similar posts, hostile to Christianity, keep showing up in my feed. These well-meaning liberals, intent on freeing minds from the burden of religion, have resorted to attacking religion, specifically Christian religion, in their quest to ridicule those who profess a set of beliefs.
I came to a conclusion: It’s also known as bullying.
And it occurred to me, yes, I am a Christian. But those posts were not about me, and never were. Those posts were actually directed toward a very small minority which unfortunately has become the unwitting poster people of Christian excess. I’ll identify them in just a moment.
Let’s go back, first. It’s important to realize, no matter what your background, that you don’t have a monopoly on virtue, on rightness, or correctness, or orthodoxy, intellect or achievement, I don’t care where you come from. You aren’t the best, you aren’t the greatest, you’re not the smartest, and you sure aren’t the only path to salvation, either spiritual or scientific. People are people, and there are a whole hell of a lot of us, no pun intended. The chance of you being the equivalent of a Jesus, a Mohammad, a Gandhi, an Einstein, a Russell, a Whitehead, or a Bach or Beethoven just isn’t very likely. So, understand this, if you aren’t all that, then neither am I. So take what I say with a grain of salt. I’m surely going to do the same for you.
Going back, faiths have splintered and broken and splintered again for as long as there have been faiths. Christianity includes Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Catholics, Church of Christ, Free Will churches and many, many, unconnected and unorthodox believers. And Christianity itself is a splinter of Judaism, don’t ever forget that. That is why the Old Testament is part of our Scriptures. Personally, I think we would do well to include a healthy dose of Hebrew studies and Talmud studies alongside the studies of Paul and Jesus.
The point is, there are many, many, many interpretations of the Christian faith. And that’s the rub. There are many of us. Some of us are liberal, and believe strongly in equal rights for all people, caring for the planet, helping those who are less fortunate, and so on. Some of us are of a more conservative stripe, with more emphasis on worship and piety. Others find themselves in-between, a solid mix of doing good, and spiritual communion.
And then there is Fundamentalism. Those who know me well, know I have little taste for nor patience with Fundamentalism. If you aren’t sure of the definition, I’ll provide a brief one: it is a belief system which depends upon extremely rigid doctrinal beliefs, with a central document such as the Bible as it’s authoritative source, The theology is often simplistic, and often uses verses of the Bible (or whatever book is central to it’s beliefs) out of context as opposed to in context in support of certain tenets of belief. Fundamentalists prefer to avoid the more difficult aspects of faith and stick to the basic fundamentals (the source of the name). There is an absolute belief in heaven and hell, and in God and Satan. The Fundamentalist belief system is in fact a duality belief system. For every positive, there is a negative. For God, there is Satan, for angels, demons, for Christians, heathen, for believers, non-believers. Its adherents often stress isolation from the material world, and listen to Christian music as opposed to popular music. They associate with other believers as opposed to non-believers. They stress devotion to the world above and disdain the world in front of them. This duality is almost mathematical in it’s purity, though I doubt this mathematical quality to faith is recognized by the believers. Another facet of the fundamentalist faith is that is an emotive faith as opposed to an active faith.
Let’s look at that. Emotion is the part of us that allows to experience fully what we are feeling. It lowers the guard to allow us access to feelings and emotions. In this, the Fundamentalists can shout, exhort, cry, and feel great excitement. Other faiths disdain this emotional excess. They don’t bother with the feeling aspect. They are much more concerned with doing. Thus they will spend a lot of time and energy raising money, sending folks on mission trips, and in general acting out their faith–action–to follow Jesus’ commands to help the least of these our brethren.
Jesus never struck me as a particular emotional fellow. Except when he got pissed off. He didn’t mind knocking tables over and kicking butts when the moneychangers were at the Temple. That aside, he seemed pretty level-headed for the most part. But intent on his mission, oh yes.
The point is, these Fundamentalists have cornered the market on emotive religion, and that is much to the chagrin of the rest of us. An emotional approach to faith allows one to speak his mind, and boy, do they. Over the years, the Fundamentalists, from Jerry Falwell, to Jim Bakker, to Oral Roberts and many, many others, have made so many pronouncements from their pulpits that make the rest of us cringe. Just a few days ago that Pat Robertson made another such gaffe, telling folks it was okay to marry your cousins as long as you don’t have “Mongoloid children.”
I was stunned when I read that, and then I suddenly had my answer.
No, all those posts on Facebook weren’t directed at me, a guy who quietly worships at a Lutheran church and feels no need to shout and stomp my feet when I do so. No, they aren’t talking about me. I don’t beat people up and demand they believe like I do or they will go to hell. I don’t point out there is only one possible way to interpret the Bible. And so on.
Those posts were directed at the Fundamentalist Christians, folks who are known for an emotionally rich but intellectually poor theology. Folks who are prone to select leaders who make outrageous pronouncements time and time again. Folks who insist theirs is the ONLY way to salvation, the ONLY truth, and if anyone tells you differently, they are from Satan!!!
You see the problem? This type of polemic is best reserved for schoolyard gang brawls, but somehow we’ve allowed it infect our most sacred institutions and as a result this loud, obnoxious and utterly spiteful brand of faith is allowed to flourish, giving rise to such intellectual giants as Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church ilk.
And I don’t need to point out something. Surely most of you are aware: Fundamentalism isn’t limited to the Christian faith. Islamic Fundamentalists are the ones that brought down the World Trade Center. It amounts to an almost fanatical, unreasonable approach to faith, full of emotion, but no logic and no reason alongside it. One can holler and wave arms and Bibles and shout “Praise Jesus!”, or one can holler and wave AK-47’s and shout “Praise Allah!!” It’s all the same. It has nothing to do with the majority of Christians or Muslims.
The problem is those of you who insist on belittling Christian faith do so on the flimsiest of pretexts, claiming moral and intellectual superiority when in fact you are simply practicing what you accuse so many others of doing: bigotry. Intellectual superiority? Puh-lease. See above: you aren’t intellectually superior. Nor morally.
The fact is, if you’ve been belittling Christianity, most likely you are belittling the Fundamentalists, not the serious rank and file Christians who make up the majority of the denominations. If you have a serious enough question about faith, then you owe it to yourself and those you question to at least put your objection into a serious form. Posting a pseudo-intellectual meme or bumper sticker on Facebook tells me you are quite serious about being the class clown, and not serious at all about an honest conversation of faith.
Look, I don’t care if you are an atheist, a Holy Roller, a devout mainstream Christian or whatever. You happy? Then good. I’m happy. But if you start posting things which show up on my news feed about how Christians have no intellect at all and are a bunch of idiots, I’m going to call you out for being the bully you are.
If you are pointing out something Westboro Baptist does, then great, say that. Or if you want to point out something Pat Robertson says or does, great, point it out. But don’t do so and say, “See, Christians are a bunch of idiots.”
We’re not. Trust me. We range from high school graduates to post-doctoral graduates. We have myriad approaches to faith, and your lumping all of us into one pot isn’t doing your argument any favors. If in fact, you are responding to comments made by Robertson or any others like him, just say instead, “See, Fundamentalists are a bunch of idiots.” I’m not going to argue that point, I agree. Just don’t ever cast me or include me in the same grouping as them.
September 4, 2013
I posted a picture on my Facebook page the other day of a dead copperhead I ran over on my riding mower. I never saw it but it was in a field behind my house that had not been mowed all summer. One section is still unmowed: a pile of dead limbs someone put there. And I suspect there may be more snakes hiding out. I will approach with caution when I clean it out.
Still, I was curious about the snake, and looked it up to be sure of the identification. Definitely a young copperhead. I also got curious and read a bit more on the snakes found in North Carolina. Too many to list here, but I thought I’d give a rundown on our venomous species.
The most commonly encountered venomous snake in the state is the copperhead. Found virtually everywhere, it is a pit viper with a pretty good dose of venom. However, as I read, the copperhead’s poison is too weak to kill a person, but it will seriously injure, producing necrotic (dead) tissue and severe pain, and often infection. The poison contains no neurotoxins like other pit vipers.
Though it is not a lethal snake, more snakebites occur from copperheads than other snake, for two reasons. One is they are more common, but the second reason has to do with their method of defense. Rattlesnakes will rattle their rattles, of course, as a warning. The Cottonmouth will stay very still but open its mouth and display its fangs. The copperhead will sometimes vibrate its tail and make noise in leaves or brush. I nearly stepped on one as a child and it behaved exactly so; coiled, ready to strike, and vibrating its tail like crazy. But often, there is no warning; the snake will simply bite. Interestingly, the bite is sometimes a “dry bite.” Little or no venom is released. In other words, for the Copperhead, the bite is the warning. This makes sense; the venom is used to kill prey, and the snake would not likely waste it on defense once a threat is howling and jumping in pain. It can then escape. Other times, they inject a good bit of venom. In any case, a Copperhead bite can result serious injury and will require medical attention.
Less common, and much more dangerous, is the Cottonmouth, also known as a Water Moccasin.
The way to distinguish this snake is the stripe along the side of the head, as well as the white mouth. Very rare in the Piedmont region but more common in the eastern part of the state. It is fairly docile and more likely to flee rather than engage someone who disturbs it. This snake is highly dangerous, though, and its venom can be fatal. They prefer swamps, streams, lakes and creek areas.
Next we have the Pigmy Rattlesnake. This is a small, fat snake found in Southeastern NC as far west as the Charlotte area but not generally found too far north of Charlotte. Not very aggressive, and not commonly seen. Generally found near water, such as creeks, marshy areas and pine forests.
The snake’s rattle is tiny and emits a buzzing sound which is hard to hear unless you are within 2-3 feet. Not known to be particularly aggressive, and will flee rather than attack a larger human, unless cornered. Can be seen crossing roads from time to time, but many have never seen one. Maximum size for these is two feet, so it is not a big snake. Its venom is more like a copperhead’s: devoid of neurotoxins and this snake is unable to produce much of it. Its bite will be quite painful, however, and requires medical attention.
The most common rattlesnake in North Carolina is the Timber Rattlesnake, or Canebrake Rattler. Found almost everywhere in the state, it is a medium-sized rattlesnake of fairly docile disposition. Will rattle its tail when approached but is more likely to flee than attack. But one caveat: individual snakes can be wildly aggressive when encountered, while others will not even attempt to rattle a warning. They will simply move away.
Given its unpredictable nature, it is best to steer clear of these. Unlike the Pigmy Rattlesnake and the Copperhead, the venom in the Timber Rattler is very strong and contains potent neurotoxins. Deaths have occurred from these snakes’ venom.
This snake prefers unpopulated areas and is often more active at night than day in the summer months. Can grow from three feet to five feet in length, though most will be in the two-four foot range.
Next up is the Coral Snake, which is only rarely seen. I may have seen one as a child on my grandparents’ farm, though I cannot remember the markings well enough to state with certainty it was a Coral Snake. This is a highly dangerous snake, the only venomous snake in North Carolina that is not a pit viper. It is instead related to a cobra, so that alone should give anyone pause when encountering one. Another reason is this: there is no longer any antivenom being produced in the United States, simply because drug companies have determined it is unprofitable. In other words, you get bitten by one of these babies, you’ve got real problems.
There are other snakes which closely resemble the Coral Snake, but it’s easy to remember the distinction: “Red touches black, it won’t hurt Jack, Red touches yellow, it kills a fellow.”
Fortunately, this snake is quite docile and not very likely to strike. And it is so adept at keeping away from humans most people never see one. They grow up to three feet on average.
The final venomous snake found in North Carolina is, of course, the granddaddy of all venomous snakes in America, the Eastern Diamondback Rattler. This is by far the most dangerous snake in the United States. I have not seen one, but my father did on his farm growing up. He killed two that I know of. Their habitat has been so encroached upon that they are now considered endangered. Note: It is against the law to kill this snake in North Carolina.
This is a very large and very dangerous snake. Its venom is exceptionally potent, containing powerful neurotoxins, and hemotoxins. The hemotoxins will literally destroy red blood cells, while the neurotoxins can result in paralysis (including breathing) and heart stoppage. A bite from the Diamondback is a true medical emergency, and up to 30% of its victims die, though I suspect that number is more like 10-20% given the better and rapid care available today. The venom is also hemorrhagic and causes local tissue necrosis.
That said, the magnificent Diamondback is a very rare snake, hunted and killed to near extinction. Some authorities are not sure there are any left in the state, but I find that unlikely. Still, they have only been seen in the Southeast portion of the state, though, as I mentioned, my father killed two on the farm in Montgomery County, which is part of the Piedmont region of the the state.
This is the heaviest venomous snake, according to one source, but it is unclear if that means in the world or in the US. It is definitely the largest venomous snake the US. It also grows to an impressive size, up to a whopping eight feet long, and fifteen pounds. It also has a long strike distance, up to half his body length, though some say a third. But that means that three feet away is not a safe distance! Best thing to do if one is encountered is to back away slowly, snap a picture if you can, and walk away.
There really isn’t a need to kill venomous snakes. They do not bother humans (running in fright because you have a snake phobia does not qualify as bothering humans) and prefer to live away from most humans, the copperhead being a notable exception. It’s like this: if you happen upon a hornet’s nest in the woods, you steer clear of it, right? Same with a poisonous snake. Steer clear and keep your eyes open.
June 13, 2013
My last blog post, on the passing of Rev. Will D. Campbell, brought a flood of memories to me. Mainly of my time in seminary and the work I did to answer God’s call, all in the context of a looming shadow slowly drifting over the Baptist landscape of the time.
A bit of history. In the 1970’s, two prominent Baptists viewed with alarm at what they considered “liberal” teachings at our Southern Baptist seminaries. They, Judge Paul Pressler and the Rev. Dr. Paige Patterson, helped engineer a conservative takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention, beginning in 1979. The church I went to was very conservative and my pastor warned me about the evils of liberals in those institutions. Especially at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY, and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, NC. I chose to go to Southeastern, calmly assured my faith was strong and unshakable. Naturally, I believed in the inerrant and infallible Word of God.
It didn’t take long for my professors to start making an impression on me. I began realizing when you start adding doctrines and theories such as the writers of the Bible merely being “human pens” so that God could write his Word, it didn’t make a lot of sense. I can’t find a theory or explanation of the inerrancy and infallibility of the Bible in the Bible. Thus, it is merely a human idea, and thus, not one worthy of my time or energy to defend or promote. I considered it a lesser theory because it leads, in my opinion, to faith being built on shaky ground. My faith is built on the Bible, not theories about the Bible. It is, I think, crucial to understand the difference.
So, I tossed inerrancy and those related theories out the window. But the conservative movement had continued to grow, fueled by Reagan’s presence in the White House and the near-hysteria of the proponents of the movement in insisting on the removal of the “liberals” from our churches and seminaries. And believe me, these conservatives most certainly did believe those theories. In their entirety.
The stage was set then for a major clash.
When the conservatives finally gained a majority on Southeastern’s Board of Trustees, students and faculty alike staged massive protests. We painted signs, wore ribbons to signify “courage” and vowed to sit in the trustee meeting and not move if they made a move to go into executive session. The conservatives lashed out at us, deriding us for creating “an orchestrated climate of intimidation.”
You betcha! I was in the thick of it, being on an ad-hoc steering committee that worked to get the signs painted, prepare responses and spread the word to those around us. We wanted the conservative trustees to understand how we felt, that this intrusion into academic freedom was not a welcome thing. As baptists, we don’t believe in creeds. Our guiding principle is the preisthood of the believer, the belief that God will work miracles in his own way in his own time with each individual, and that does not depend on following a rigid belief system for it’s efficacy. Faith is not a pick-and-choose menu. Our little movement spread to all the seminary campuses, but not for long.
Of course, they did what they came to do. Within five years, all but one professor had left. The seminary and its marvelous faculty was gone, dispersed like seeds in the wind. Some have passed away now, and a few are still teaching. I count it a great tragedy that the conservatives sought the ouster of these talented and compassionate men and women. Oh, and by the way, I only met one professor at the seminary I could call a “liberal,” and even that is debatable.
And we all moved on. Graduated, moved out to begin ministry in all kinds of settings. I am proud of my involvement in those days. I don’t relive it much, though.
And here’s why. With the fighting of a certain movement, labels became necessary. Conservative, Fundamentalist, Liberal, Moderate. Thus I was a moderate Baptist or moderate Christian, not holding extreme views, but not subscribing to the fundamentalist doctrine of biblical inerrancy. That doesn’t mean I think the Bible is false, for crying out loud. It just means I don’t agree with their theory of inerrancy, at least the way they present it.
So we became a carefully labeled Baptist society, conservative Baptist, modern Baptist, and so on. In due time, I’ve come to realize something. That’s not workable.
“What am I?” is the question that occurs as I wonder what appellation to ascribe to myself. More and more over the years, such designations make me increasingly uncomfortable. Am I, or is anyone, less or more of a Christian, a follower, by qualifying such appellations with words such as liberal, conservative, moderate, fundamentalist?
I think not.
And I suspect the question itself might be part of the problem. What am I? or Who am I? Maybe it is better without the qualifier.
Or am I not?
I am a follower of Christ. I am living my life in accordance with his teachings, revealed in the Bible. As a person of faith, I am cogent of the workings of the Holy Spirit to guide my thinking and help me better understand my place in this world. I am ready to act on my faith when presented with a situation that calls for it.
Or, I am not. I think it is that simple, when we get right down to it.
I AM, of course, is the answer God gave Moses at the burning bush, when Moses asked who he was. And that problematic answer seems to make a lot more sense when I quit trying to qualify it with modifiers. In other words, God is saying to Moses, “Moses, quit beating around this here bush and get your ass in gear! Because I AM.”
I am either a follower of Christ or I am not. Anything beyond that is to invite something besides faith to live within us. And that troubles me mightily.
June 9, 2013
I was greatly saddened to learn this week of the passing of Rev. Will D. Campbell, the renegade preacher whose life and ministry were shaped by the tumultuous changes that occurred in the landscape of 1950’s and 1960’s America. Perhaps no other writer or theologian helped shaped my views more than he did.
Campbell, often dismissed as a flaming liberal, a rabble-rouser or agitator, was in fact not so easily pinned down. He worked in the area of civil rights, yes. He denounced institutions that denied civil rights to poor, non-white Americans. He denounced churches that by wink and nod, allowed the perpetuation of the disenfranchising of the less fortunate and those of different skin color.
But he also was right at home with Klansmen, redneck society (he gladly admitted to being a redneck himself) and staunch conservatives who either shared or rejected his views, but loved him just the same. His easy movement between both worlds, liberal academia and redneck conservatism, earned him many detractors. I can think of One who also had similar criticisms.
There are many whose words are similar. They too, have, spoken forcefully for change and a better life for those affected by racism, economic disadvantage, and other societal pressures that break the backs of those Jesus called “the least of these my brethren.”
But Campbell didn’t preach his words from an office in an ivory tower. He found it impossible to work in any conventional churches. The steeples, as he called them, too often existed as repositories for exclusiveness and institutional demagoguery, in spite of the creeds which commanded them to love all people, and do unto others as they would want done to them.
As such, his congregation consisted of his farm, his animals, and the many who called upon him for advice and counsel. He was at times a profane man, quite able to to let loose a string that would make a sailor proud. He appreciated a fine sipping whisky, and was known to make a batch of moonshine from time to time. He chewed and spit tobacco.
He was also a brilliant writer and theologian. His star rose following his ouster as chaplain at the University of Mississippi, and during his appointment as race relations specialist with the National Council of Churches. He met with leaders in the civil rights movement far and wide, and even met with Robert Kennedy and other leaders in the White House to help the young attorney general form a picture of what needed to be done. Kennedy mentioned to the men present that the government was beginning to use the new wiretapping technologies to gather information on those committing the crimes. Campbell writes, “Most of us in the room were thinking the same thing. But none of us said it: Doesn’t this man know that our telephones are already being tapped–and for the precise reason he was suggesting–national defense, subversion?” Following his tenure with the National Council of Churches, he began a long career as a writer, writing a veritable armload of delightful fiction and non-fiction alike.
My acquaintance with Rev. Campbell began in 1984, I believe. I went on a mission trip to Comer, GA, with our Wingate College campus minister, Dr. Jim McCoy. We had some great discussions on faith and practice during the week. At one point, our speaker was discussing the death penalty (with a definite left-leaning approach). I thought about it and ventured a view that the punishment really isn’t the issue. At heart, to me, is the issue of forgiveness according to Jesus’ words. Whether death or life in prison, a criminal is nonetheless removed from society. The question to me was, are we capable of being forgiving to those who do us wrong, even an ultimate wrong? I recall Jim looked at me and raised an eyebrow, and smiled. I knew he had something up his sleeve for me.
After the group broke up from discussion, he went over to a library on site and pulled Campbell’s incredible memoir Brother to a Dragonfly. (Proceed directly to Amazon and order a copy for yourself. It is that good, and that worthy, the kind of book you want to grab people by the lapels over to let them know it’s there).
Jim found a passage related to what we were discussing and asked me to read it. I immediately grasped that this was no ordinary book. It was astonishing. I proceeded to read the entire book over the next three days, returning it only with great reluctance when we left. As soon as we returned, I purchased my own copy.
In short, Campbell upended my own naive, thou-shalt-not, Sunday School lessons-based faith and forced me to realize how pitiful were my own shallow attempts to follow Christ. He never saw the need to use Church Talk, constantly sprinkling conversation with “Praise the Lord!” or “Amen!” to let people know he was a Christian. His life was his faith. Acted out, performed, lived, and Will Campbell couldn’t care less what you or anyone else thought of him, especially when he went contrary to social norms and mores of the day.
Oh yeah, leftist and liberal on some issues. But I know many conservatives who would be nodding and grinning at his recounting the days of the New Deal in the 1930s when his father got fired from a WPA job, and the brutally painful opening of one’s private life to government agents so they could receive assistance. The assistance was mostly food, but they lived on a farm. They had plenty of food. At the height of the Great Depression, they needed money to pay the bills with. As he pointed out, government programs were inefficient, wasteful and begun at the wrong end of need.
Gradually, as the narrative unfolds, we see Campbell’s own understandings of the world around him take shape. Unlike so many who complacently accept it without question, Brother Will would begin to wonder why things were they way they were. Would they, could they, not be different?
A quick glance at the book, if that’s all right.
Brother to a Dragonfly is a memoir of Will’s relationship with his troubled brother, Joe, who died of a drug overdose. And a memoir of his work in the civil rights era.
P.D. East was a like-minded liberal who didn’t believe much in the way of God. Not surprisingly, Campbell was his friend. The two of them and Joe were drinking one evening, and P. D. had pushed Campbell for a definition of Christianity in ten words or less. Because he, P. D. East, didn’t understand it. Ten words.
Campbell mulled it over and came up with, “We’re all bastards but God loves us anyway.”
Earlier in the day a preacher and civil rights worker Jonathon Daniel and his friend were shot to death by a rural deputy, Thomas Coleman, for no apparent reason than the fact they were civil rights workers. Campbell knew Jon Daniel, and called connections in the Justice Department and other government offices, using words like “cracker, backwoods, wool hat, Kluxer,” and many others. He as angry and distraught. But P. D. saw something else.
So P. D. pursued him. “Come on, Brother, let’s talk about your definition…Was Jonathon a bastard?”
(Campbell) I said I was sure that everyone is a sinner in one way or another but that he was one of the sweetest and most gentle guys I had ever known.
(P. D.) “But was he a bastard?” His tone was almost a scream. “Now that’s your word, not mine. You told me…that everybody is a bastard. That’s a pretty tough word. I know. Because I am a bastard. A born bastard. A real bastard. My Mamma wasn’t married to my Daddy. Now, by god, you tell me, right now, yes or no, and not maybe, was Jonathon Daniel a bastard?”
(Campbell) I knew that if I said no he would leave me alone and if I said yes, he wouldn’t. And I knew my definition would be blown if I said no.
So I said “Yes.”
(P. D.) “All right. Is Thomas Coleman a bastard?”
(Campbell) That one was a lot easier. “Yes, Thomas Coleman is a bastard.”
(P. D.) “Okay, let me get this straight now. I don’t want to misquote you. Jonathon Daniel was a bastard. Thomas Coleman is a bastard. Right?”
Joe the Protector was on his feet.
(Joe) “Goddammit, P. D., that’s a sacrilege. Knock it off, get off the kid’s back!”
P. D. ignored him, pulling his chair closer to mine, placing his huge, bony hand on my knee. “Which one of these two bastards do you think God loves the most?” His voice now was almost a whisper as he leaned forward, staring me directly in the eyes…
…Suddenly everything became clear. Everything. It was a revelation. The glow of the malt which we were well into by then seemed to illuminate and intensify it. I walked across the room and opened the blind, staring directly into the glare of the street light. And I began to whimper. But the crying was interspersed with laughter.
“I’ve got to amend the definition…We’re all bastards but you’ve got to be the biggest bastard of us all.”
“How’s that, Brother?”
Because, damned if you ain’t made a Christian out of me. And I’m not sure I can stand it.”
Campbell writes that that moment was a true conversion for him. The point where he finally understood the full nature of grace and forgiveness. For if Jon Daniel, a servant and minister of Christ, was loved, then grace means that the evil Thomas Coleman, who murdered him and his friend–two innocent men–was also loved. And if loved, forgiven. His ministry took a radical turn then, no longer focusing on “liberal” causes such as race relations. He became a minister to all people, focusing his time and attention to bringing the Good News to liberals, conservatives, fundamentalists, rednecks, Ku Klux Klansmen, and so on.
Reading his words was a revelation, and an affirmation, for me as well. I had already begun to be disheartened at what I viewed as lip service to those in need by the institutions purporting to help them. When injustices occurred, where was the outrage? Isn’t following Christ supposed to be a radical experience? Putting us at odds with society when society is engaged in hurting or oppressing those who aren’t exactly like us? All too often, I saw the church as not only complacent in these matters, but actually partners in the kind of evil Campbell resisted. These days my ire has been directed more at corporate America, those bastions of unimaginable wealth who work in harmony to insure the poor and middle class stay appropriately poor and strained.
Unexpectedly, my own path became one quite similar to Campbell’s. Yeah, I preached sermons that some folks disagreed with, and one fellow actually walked out on. Yeah, I was shown the door a few months later. I can chuckle over that now. I figure, if I can preach a sermon that makes folks uncomfortable, I’m probably doing something right. I exited the ministry in the early 1990’s, at least full-time, church-sponsored ministry. But I have continued to do counseling, have performed marriages, funerals and other sundry duties of the office. That is what my calling is, not dressing up in a fancy robe and occupying a plush office in a nice, affluent church. The trappings of the job are never the job, and I’m grateful to Campbell for making sure I understood the difference early on.
It’s funny, I actually communicated with him in the late 1980’s. As my education was nearing completion I was contemplating the ordination process, and wondered who might help conduct the ordination service. I immediately thought of Will Campbell. And I noted with no small amount of glee he was in North Carolina at the time, as a writer-in-residence at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. I wrote to him, care of the University, and inquired if he might be available.
Two weeks later he wrote back, the letter banged out on his typewriter with a heavy hand, complete with smudge marks and correction fluid. After some preamble, he said, “Morris, I thank you for your kind words, but you must understand. I’m not trying to gather disciples, I’m trying to BE a disciple! For your ordination, the steeples do a fine job preparing you for that, and I would encourage you to look closer to home.” I folded his letter and smiled. Once again, he had managed to teach me a lesson.
Grace is something that compels us to look twice and think again, that moment where you suddenly say, “Oh!” That evening with P. D. East and his brother Joe, Will Campbell was given pause to think again over his previously held assumptions on what it means to be a Christian, and to be the forgiver, a true forgiver. He experienced grace, with a capital G.
And in reading his works, he has elevated me to understand that compassion is not a matter of sympathy. I often had little sympathy in treating patients on my ambulance, knowing full well they often brought their misfortune upon themselves. But in practicing compassion, I made sure they received the best care I could give, regardless of my feelings. And I’ve been moved to fill a tank of gas for someone a long ways from home, or hand over a few dollars to a beggar, unsure if they were really needy or if their money had been spent on drugs or whatnot. It doesn’t matter. I want to give, if someone really needs it.
Compassion is what I do, not what I feel. And somehow, I think grace is understanding the difference between the two.
So, I thank you, Brother Will. I thank you for your writings, your lessons, and your kind words to me. I grieve your passing, but I have no choice but to celebrate your life. So, my little glass of Jack Daniels is raised in a toast to you.
Godspeed, good brother.
December 14, 2012
I am saddened beyond belief at today’s news. Yet another school shooting, at last count 20 dead children, 6 dead adults, plus one dead shooter. Appalling and heartbreaking. I spent a solid hour glued to my television earlier.
I know what follows. The grim commentaries on mental illnesses, and lack of care for those afflicted, which might have made a difference. The somber interviews, news anchors apoplectic in their disbelief, B-roll shots of candlelight vigils, and most of all, the face of the shooter plastered all over every channel, and just about every media outlet in the world.
Then of course you’ll find yet another round of 2nd Amendment arguments that we don’t need access to guns. Etc., ad infinitum…
Here’s what I’m doing, and I encourage everyone to do the same. Turn your television OFF. Stop reading every online account of the tragedy. Stop listening to the radio reports that keep you glued to your chair. Why?
Because ultimately, that is exactly what the killer wanted.
Think about it, every killing (and Columbine certainly wasn’t the first, nor will Sandy Hook be the last) like this is followed by hours and hours of news programming designed to capture us and keep us in shock, and even anger us.
Let’s face it, few of us can forego an uneasy peek at a car wreck as we finally go by it, and we relish details of massacres and killings and such. We’re morbidly curious, because death is frightening and shocking, especially in public. Yes, yes, we all get that. But we still keep looking, right?
There’s another, more sinister reason we look, I think. We want to know what kind of sick mind would do this sort of thing. Already, publishers are trying to get a angle to print the first book on the shootings and we’re already preparing to see yet another plastering of the killer’s face on the nightly news, for at least a week, with many follow-up stories after that.
And that’s the rub: the killers know this, and in fact often study this. Yes, they are sick, but as long as they know there will be media coverage of their acts of horror, they will continue to commit them. Over and over and over…. They desire to go out in a blaze of glory.
I might as well tell a dog to quit eating as tell the news media to quit covering these stories. They won’t as long as they have an audience. But just because they broadcast it, doesn’t mean I need to watch it.
And tonight, I won’t. Nor will I in the coming days. I know all I need to know already. Lots of kids dead, and some adults, and it’s a damn tragedy. And I’m pretty sad about it.
What I’m not going to do is give this lunatic what he so desperately wanted: seeing his face on the news. I’ll see it, I’m sure. But I’m not going to be glued to it. Nor will I continue to watch coverage of the details over and over.
It’s insane to give lunatics an audience. Just because they committed acts of horror, doesn’t mean I’m going to get sucked into their melodrama.
Let’s remember these precious victims without giving an ounce of fame or glory to the shooter, shall we? Perhaps in time, it will make a difference.
March 8, 2012
I’m not feeling my best at the moment. Dull, lethargic, uninterested, unchallenged, and unmotivated. Kind of an un-person right now, maybe.
I got to thinking, maybe I’m depressed, or maybe I should see a doctor. But somewhere, deep inside, I knew that wasn’t it. Yesterday evening, though, I stepped outside and noticed the warmer temperatures. My senses perked up, and I felt… better. Like the first stirrings of a long winter sleep being shaken off.
Is that what it is? Simply wintertime? The more I think, the more sense it makes. Funny, I’ve never really noticed it before, but the truth is we all go into a bit of hibernation in winter. We don’t do as much physical activity, we stay cooped up inside and tend to veg out in front of the TV or computer. It’s cold and we would rather stay in where it’s warm.
And that lack of activity slows the blood, makes muscles weaker, and quiets the thinking. And while a good rest following an active summer and fall is a good thing, by the time February and March roll around, we’re ready to get back outside, put on the shorts and tees, and get out in the fresh air.
No, I’m not depressed. I’m just plain tired of winter, even though this winter hasn’t been much of one with the mild temperatures and agreeable weather. I’m ready to fire up my mower, trim the bushes and hedges and start building on my house again.
So, today, I’m thinking on the things I want to accomplish and do this year. And it feels pretty darn good to just be doing that.
Have a great day!