Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

With the 2018 midterm election just days away, I offer the following recommendations for the voter’s consideration:

  • VOTE! Just do it! Yes, your vote matters. Our democracy is based on our right and responsibility to vote.
  • DO NOT LET ANYONE SCARE YOU INTO A DECISION ABOUT WHERE TO CAST YOUR VOTE! Fear is used to manipulate voters. Do you want to let yourself be manipulated? Get a well-rounded view of the issues that are most concerning.
  • Ignore political advertising, propaganda, etc. on social media. Most of the time we don’t know where the content originates. Social media is where the Russians messed with the 2016 election by originating hot-button postings.
    Remember, if you pass something along in Facebook, Twitter, or whatever, you have taken ownership of it. Do you want that responsibility?
  • Ignore TV advertising by PACs and SuperPACs (those ads with fine print saying something like, “by XYZ and not affiliated with any candidate,” or related language). The rule of thumb is–ignore any ad in which you cannot determine who has created it.
  • VOTE!
  • Ignore TV advertising by candidates. Whether a candidate says good things about themself or slings mud at an opponent, what they say will almost surely be cherry-picked bits bereft of the context that fills in the whole story.
    Also, we live in an age in which we no longer need joke about politicians’ dishonesty as lying is now in fashion and made quite acceptable by example. How can any of us watching a candidate’s TV ad know that they are truthful?
  • VOTE!
  • The choices we make should reflect our ethics. Therefore, take a moment to decide what kind of ethics you want to be remembered as having. You have two choices:
    a. Utilitarian Ethics — at its best, this ethic can be described by asking the question, “What decision leads to the greatest good for the most people?” However, most of the time our natural selfishness and short-sightedness leads us to practice this ethic under the rubric, “the end justifies the means.” Over the last few years, utilitarian ethics has acquired the crass description of “hold your nose because what is promised is worth it.”
    b. Virtue Ethics — this ethic asks, “what kind of person do I want to be and what decisions do I make to reflect this?” In other words, the end does not justify the means and it matters how we get from a concern or desire to a reality. Virtue ethics makes it unnecessary to hold one’s nose. Typically, virtue ethics seeks the good always, but prioritized the common good.
    Each of us will vote informed by our ethics, therefore it might be wise to take a moment to make sure you can live with them. If you have to hold your nose, can you defend the smell?
  • If you want to be known as a person of integrity, vote consistent with your ethics.
  • VOTE!
  • Be open-minded and willing to cross party lines if the best candidate is on the “other side.”
  • When discussing the election, or anything related to governance and politics, unload your pre-determined proclamations, shut-up and listen, and give the other person respect enough to constructively converse with them. This is a lot more difficult than simply presenting a list of your hardened opinions or refutations, but the work is worth it.
  • VOTE!
  • The news media IS NOT the ENEMY OF THE STATE. Historically, it has been totalitarian and fascist regimes who either denigrated or manipulated the media in order to control public opinion and hide the worst of their offenses against their own people. A vital and unencumbered news media is a crucial safety feature in our democracy as it provides transparency into the government who exists to serve us.
    Take a critical look at all news media to understand any bias, but make your own analysis–don’t let anyone else make it for you.
  • VOTE.
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Evangelical Christian support for President Donald Trump, while a political phenomenon, is also a fascinating study in Christian ethics, or, more specifically, the complexity of mixed ethical systems.  In an interview aired on NPR’s Morning Edition on August 29, the Reverend Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Dallas, a Southern Baptist megachurch, did a fine job of articulating the complex ethical calculus Evangelicals apply to President Trump.  And before getting into that calculus, we need a brief refresher on Christian ethics.

There are two major ethical systems that we use to guide our decision making.  One is Utilitarian Ethics, in which the primary question to be answered is, In a given situation requiring a decision, which will lead to an outcome expected to yield the greatest good for the most people.  On the up-side utilitarian ethics is practical.  On the down-side it easily leads to the ends justifying the means.  The other ethical system is Virtue Ethics, which asks, In a given situation requiring a decision, which is most consistent with the virtues and values that express one’s understanding of who one wants to be.  Its up-side is a consistent correspondence with one’s understanding of the ethical example of Jesus Christ and the New Testament writers.  Its down-side is a possible lack of practicality and a danger of placing principle over the needs and common good of people.

In the Morning Edition interview, Jeffress articulated his ambivalence with both ethical systems early on, when he said, “I think evangelicals understand there’s a difference between supporting a president’s policies and supporting individual behavior” — a jump from utilitarian to virtue ethics.  Pressed on which policies Trump has supported that he supports, Jeffress side-stepped a little and said of Trump, “He has been the most pro-life, pro-religious liberty, pro-conservative judiciary president of any president in history . . . that’s why these evangelicals enthusiastically support him.”  When pressed on Trump’s moral failings, vis-a-vis “sleeping with a porn star . . . paying hush money . . . mistruths the president has stated time and again,” all of which Christians generally find reprehensible, Jeffress said, “The Gospel message is all of us have sinned.  We’ve all fallen short of God’s glory.  We are all sinners.  We all need a savior.”  True, but where Jeffress exposes his ambivalence is in failing to offer the same grace in judgment to Bill and Hillary Clinton.  As the interviewer pointed out, evangelicals were critical of Bill Clinton because of his personal faults arguing that “you cannot compartmentalize someone’s morality.”  Moreover, he flatly stated that “I don’t know in what moral universe anybody could argue that Hillary Clinton is more moral than Donald Trump,” and mentions, without identifying “a litany of Hillary Clinton’s offenses.”  If I understand Jeffress correctly, then one who commits adultery, consistently deceives, and often denigrates persons is as moral as someone who does not commit adultery, has deceived, but in frequently, and does not generally denigrate others.  I have to admit that I do not know in what moral universe such an equivocation makes any sense.  Jeffress needed to simply admit that he is willing to overlook some serious and unrepentant sin in order to support someone who puts forth a policy agenda he believes is needed.  He also needs to own up to his political bias that prevents him overlooking the sin of those with whom he disagrees and does not trust (specifically the Clintons).

Another interesting bit came during a shift in the conversation when the interviewer asked Jeffress about the ways he felt that evangelical Christians are “treated as a persecuted minority in this country.”  He responded that Christians have become marginalized, rolling out the trope, in so many words, that America was once but no longer a Christian nation.  Although I want to save a discussion about this idea for another essay, I do want to answer Jeffress basic complaint that Christians are restricted in serious ways from practicing our religion.  I for one have never experienced this restriction, but then I have never insisted that everyone around me, regardless of their religious tradition (or none at all), practice the religion that I do by virtue of imposing Christian practice and symbolism on people in schools and the public square.  For me, evangelism is not a matter of public policy but relationship as the Gospel is passed from one to the next in places where we have earned the respect to be heard (especially by our moral behavior).

I think I now better understand evangelical equivocation and ambivalence.  It is hard for me to accept, coming as I do from a holiness tradition (Wesleyan Methodism) whose ethics are summed up in this question by its founder, John Wesley, “Are you going on to perfection?”

With mid-term elections on the horizon just two years after an election meddled with by Russian hackers and influence operatives (for lack of a better name), I’ve been thinking a lot about how we protect the central process of democratic governance: voting.  If I may be so bold as to advise the American electorate, I have a few suggestions.

(1)  Get over any denial that the fairness of our elections and their outcomes are challenged by gerrymandering, the overwhelming volume of the voice of superpacs, and social media influence and campaign hacking by Russians.

(2)  Advocate for and support legislation that fixes gerrymandering.  Representatives should not pick their voters.  Voters should pick their representatives.

(3)  Vote!  Let me repeat myself—VOTE!

(4)  With regard to political ads on TV, radio, etc.:  Bear in mind that an ad supported by a named candidate (thus speaking with their voice) will skew information to make themselves look better and their opponents look worse.  Political ads are not news nor objective information.

(5)  With regard to ads by superpacs, which do not identify a candidate they support but trash talk another candidate . . . just ignore them.  These ads are blatantly biased propaganda which tend to play fast and loose with the what they purport to inform us with.  Campaign law allows superpacs to hide their membership, thus if we see an ad from an organization named “Patriots for Prosperity” (as a made up example), there will be no way to find out who belongs to it and is funding it.  Think about it—even if you agree with a superpac ad’s sentiments, do you want to allow yourself to be influenced by a group of anonymous political operatives?

(5)  Ignore social media, specifically the stuff we run across that pitches us into a snit so that we pass it on to all of our friends.  That’s where Russian influence operatives work to sway public opinion by stoking our fears and prejudices.  Social media is a lousy place to look for news.

(6)  Try as best you can to educate yourself about what will be on your ballot this fall.

To sum up:
– Don’t be a sucker
– VOTE!

By the way—an interesting article on what the Russians might do to “participate” in our democratic process can be found here.

I wonder what Methodism’s founder, John Wesley, would say if he was alive today.  Not only did he claim that “the world is my parish,” but he also argued the validity and necessity of interpreting the world through the Bible, claiming that he preached with the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other.  Though the bulk of his sermons focused on a myriad of theological topics, he had much to say about wealth, economics, and the plight of the poor.  As a preacher in the Wesleyan tradition, it does indeed feel natural to, like Wesley did, interpret the world through the Bible (and the teachings of the Church).  But in 2018’s world of extreme partisanship and drastic change, in which social and political norms are in radical flux, and those changes are perceived most often through tribal loyalty rather than dispassionate analysis, interpreting the world through the Bible and church teaching has become difficult and dangerous.

The trouble has nothing to do with the source material.  In fact, our Bible’s venerable prophets would be as busy as ever today.  Just today, in fact, the president of the U.S.A. gave an interview to the U.K.’s Sun newspaper excoriating the British Prime Minister, only to claim later in the day, while standing next to the Primer Minister, that he had not uttered any criticism at all.  Such an action by the leader of the U.S.A. begs a reflection on the sin of deceit, the very first one demonstrated in the Bible.  But should I do so, with a call to my congregation to seek a more excellent way of truthful public discourse by our leaders and representatives, I will alienate and surely anger those I pastor who support our president.  The sin will become less relevant than my apparent partisanship.

For the record, I don’t care who is in office or which party they belong to.  If their behavior fails to honor their leadership position or their decisions cause harm, then I will be critical of their behavior or policies.

But the question remains: How do I, as a preacher in the Wesleyan tradition, speak to issues that surround and affect us today and yet continue to be pastor to those whose loyalties and perspectives would be offended by my preaching?  To let anything get in the way of preaching Christ and the Gospel is wrong.  Yet Christ is not divorced from the world.  If we as Christ-followers are to be relevant to the world, then we must engage with it and, if needed, call out that which ought not to be or could be better.  After all, as  United Methodists, we are in the business of “making disciples of Christ for the transformation of the world.”

I don’t have an answer, so I guess I will continue to do as I do now by preaching along the razor’s edge.

Text:  Mark 6:13-29
“I want you to give me John the Baptist’s head on a plate, right this minute.”

The back half of chapter 6 of Mark’s gospel is a recap of the demise of John the Baptist.  He had called out Herod for marrying his brother Philip’s wife in violation of Leviticus 18.16, a ballsy move given that Herod had his brother assassinated, which was typical of his ruthlessness.  Oddly enough, it wasn’t Herod who had it in for John but Herodias, the widow of Philip who married Herod.  To make a long story a short, she asked for John’s head on a platter and literally received the same.

As we read through and past the soap opera we are witness to an account of  much of the worst that can happen when power is horrendously abused.  John had been arrested and imprisoned for no reason other than he had angered Herodias (v.17).  That she manipulated his execution for the same reason is reprehensible, but the way it all went down is chilling and horrendous.  During a feast attended by the movers and shakers around Herod, Herodias’ daughter danced and delighted Herod such that he offered her whatever she wanted as a reward.  Prompted by her mother Herodias, she asked for John the Baptist’s head an a platter.  Surrounded by guests who witnessed his offer to Herodias’ daughter, Herod complied in order to save face.  We don’t know whether he was gutless, sociopathic, or callous to the life of another human being.  Regardless, the all too casual execution of John was a horrendous abuse of power.

It might be a little easier to deal with if we could indict Herod of some form of bigotry that would have distorted his morality.  But Herod, who had John’s life in his hands, disposed of him on a triviality.  Herod was driven more by a narcissistic concern over how he would appear to others should he renege on his offer to Herodias’ daughter than by consideration for a human life.

The account of John’s death should call us to vigilance, keeping an ever watchful eye on those invested with power, especially when they exhibit narcissism (and a near constant need for positive affirmation)  or when much that they do is self-referencing (they perceive the world with themselves at the center of all things).  When a ruler’s power becomes self-, instead of other-serving, the likelihood of abuse is high.

Text:  Mark 4:21-23    “Everything hidden will be revealed.”

Light.  It’s a common image in the Bible, from God’s word as “a lamp before our feet and a light for our journey” (Pss. 119.105) to Jesus’ proclamation that he is “the light of the world” (Jn 9:5) and even we who follow him are also “the light of the world” (Mt 5:14).  Light, be it the physical phenomenon or the metaphor for truth, is unambiguous, unequivocal, unbiased, and terrifying to anything that wants to remain hidden, obscured, or obfuscated.  Light does not allow for the negotiation of what it reveals.  It simply exposes what it illuminates without pretense, prejudice, or guile.

Jesus’ call to me to come and follow him as a minister of the gospel came in the form of a jarring revelation of the world as illuminated by God’s light of truth.  For anyone familiar with the movie The Matrix, it was like taking the red pill.  For the first time, I was beginning to see how self-centered “powers and principalities” conspired to operate in the shadows and keep us blind to all but what was being marketed to us for our consumption and their profit at the expense of the common good, be it consumer goods and services or a political party’s ideology.  Exposed by the light of Christ, I was beginning to see what I can only label as systemic evil or sin using deceit and misdirection as its primary tools.

Whether an ad for beer on a beach somewhere or a politician espousing relief and help for the middle-class, I now reflexively listen through the words, sorting out the marketing and manipulation in order to discern what the advertiser or politician wants me to do, what they will get out of it should I accommodate their intent, who will benefit, who will be harmed, and whether it is right based on the ethos of God most clearly seen in Jesus.  This is why I am skeptical of advertising and politicians of all stripes.

Truth can be heartbreaking and hard.  If you don’t want to deal with it then turn off the light and don’t take the red pill.

Text:  Mark 2:23-3:6

“The Sabbath was created for humans; humans weren’t created for the Sabbath.  This is why the Son of Man is Lord even over the Sabbath.”  (2.27-28)

Jesus confronts us with a question.  Which is most important: ideology or people?  My first impulse is to say, “people!”  If I say, “ideology matters most” and even rephrase it as “I stick to my principles,” I run the risk of trading compassion for slavish adherence to rules.  But if I say, “people matter most,” then I’m likely to stumble over the cliff and fall into moral relativism.  Even when rushing one’s pregnant wife to the hospital to give birth, ignoring stop signs and lights is a bad idea.  There is often a strong tension between keeping faith with our convictions and beliefs versus compassion for others.

Jesus lived among a people who defined their identity through Torah–the law given the Israelites by God through Moses and beginning with the 10 Commandments.  To be an Israelite and, by Jesus’ time, a good Jew, was to be a person who lived by Torah.  At the identity-defining center of Torah was the Sabbath law.  Observing a day of rest given to God marked one as a Jew as much as circumcision.  So when Jesus’ disciples were seen casually plucking heads of grain while crossing a wheat field on the Sabbath day, he was asked, in effect, “Why are your disciples violating the Sabbath law? Don’t y’all know better?”  And when Jesus was approached, on the Sabbath, by a man with a deformed hand, his critics watched to see if he would himself break the Sabbath law by healing the man.

Jesus’ critics cared more about the rules.  Jesus cared more about the people.  (Without spending time in dissertation here, I believe that Jesus was faithful to Torah, although not in the slavish manner espoused by his critics.)

As I write this, I am listening to a brief interview with the governor of Kentucky, who has applied to the federal government to place a work requirement as a qualifier for receiving Medicaid.  The ideology behind this is that able-bodied people who can work should not receive assistance if they don’t work lest they fall into a state of dependence that is both unnecessary and an unwanted burden on taxpayers.  Although there are exemptions that allow Medicaid for non-working disabled people, I haven’t heard how people who are unable to find work will fare.  If I heard Kentucky’s governor correctly, it sounds like being unable to find a job is no excuse–no work, no health care.  To me, this is draconian and a good example of elevating ideology over people.

At the end of the day, it all comes down to a question that Jesus implied when he sparred with his critics about the Sabbath:  Who or what is our God?  If we ideology is everything to us then we commit idolatry.  If humanity is everything to us then we commit idolatry.  But . . . if we love God above all things, value as sacred and cherished all who bear God’s image in their creation (i.e. all people), and value God’s will most clearly expressed through Jesus Christ, then we will indeed find a way to be faithful to God’s will yet practice compassion in a way that transforms people’s lives.