Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The Ten Commandments in Public Spaces

A couple of weeks ago Steven Colbert caught Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, sponser of bills to promote the display of the Ten Commandments in public spaces, in two gaffes. The first was that Rep. Westmoreland couldn't think of a better public building than a courthouse to display them in (how about a church?) and the second was that he couldn't name the Ten Commandments.

I learned them like this:
Number one, we've just begun: God should be first in your life.
Number two's the idol rule: Those graven images aren't nice.
Number three: God's name should be never taken in jest.
Number four: The Sabbath's for God's worship and for rest.
Number five: We all should strive to honor father and mother.
Number six: Don't get your kicks from killing one another.
Number seven: Life is heaven when you're true to your mate.
Number eight: Don't steal and break these rules for goodness's sake!
Number nine: Don't be the kind who goes around telling lies.
Number ten: Don't covet when you see your neighbor's house, or wife.

Hard to see why four commandments about worshiping God and six commandments for getting along with others which (we should have learned as children) need to be more promenant in the nation's concience. Especially when those ideas aren't present in the own congressman's head.

Oh, wait. We must be talking about the *idea* of the Ten Commandments. This imagines that the Ten Commandments are a set of rules that 1.) I'm already living and 2.) if others also lived by, society be perfect.

Notice the things the Ten Commandments do not talk about: Feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, providing homes for orphans and widows, charging only a reasonable amount of interest on loans, not taking away livelihoods when developing a business interest, being hospitable to all immigrants -- illegal or not. Perhaps these items, which the Bible spends a whole lot more time on than the Ten Commandments, are a bit inconvenient for our legislatorial friends. Perhaps they are more comfortable with telling others what to do with their Sunday than they are asking themselves if their actions are making people poorer.

Also notice that the Ten Commandments do not prohibit flag burning, or homosexuality, or speech criticising the king. They do not tell women they should be subordinate to men and they do not tell men they are justified in taking home a larger paycheck. They do not tell people to read the bible or to go to church or to keep their hair short or long depending on gender. They don't mandate a nuclear family, or make English the national language. They don't require prayer in schools or at the beginning of baseball games.

One thing they do tell us, though: Thou shalt not use the name or images related to God in a way that does not honor God. To my mind, this includes trying to post copies (usually graven) of the ten commandments in places where it makes the stranger or the outsider wonder if they're going to get a fair trial.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

"Christmas Under Attack"

This weekend, at dinner, our sever wished us "Happy Holidays" when he returned my dad's credit card. As the server walked away, my mom muttered under her breath, "Merry Christmas. You could wish us a Merry Christmas."

I've been ignoring the "Christmas Under Attack" tempest in a teapot, but my folks are intellegent, educated, and generally thoughtful... except for those areas where their church or other Christian media has packaged up an opinon for them. And it seems like the "Christmas is under attack" opinion has taken hold.

So, given that it's become personal, I want to crack this frame.

Christian leaders like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson are urging their congregations to be vigilant about the disappearance of the word "Christmas". They called for a boycott of certain stores who've chosen this year to avoid the word in their advertising.

But I think this is just a "have your cake and eat it too" action on the part of these leaders. When I became a Christian in the mid-80's, the big movement among evangelical churches was to insist that "Jesus is the Reason for the Season." In other words, don't say "Christmas" unless you honor Christ. They were reacting to an increasingly secular use of "Christmas". After all, "While Christmas" has nothing to do with the manger. "Silver Bells" is more about shopping than salvation. "Happy Xmas (War is Over)" is a holiday version of "Imagine".

So, granted. People who are thoughtful about their Christian heritage are probably justified in recapturing the name of this Christian holiday.

What has resulted from that recapture is a new secular language for the holiday and the season. "Happy Holidays" is intended as nothing more than a respectful stance for the multiple religious meanings of the holiday. I know my parents would like to be recognized as Christians, but over the course of a dinner, why would anyone know that? And how would they feel if they were mistaken for Muslims or Buddhists or Pagans or Jewish and wished the corresponding holiday? They would be offended. So the non-sectarian route is probably the best course for these businesses.

I know what's motivating my parents and their leaders. They remember a time when Christians were all there was. Sure, there may have been other groups, but they kept quiet. Stayed in the closet, so to speak. The majority got all the priviledges of being the majority and bent the language to their pleasure. And that time is gone.

But I think there's also a deeper anxiety. There's a good chance that in America today, Christians, or at least that kind of Christianity, may now be in the minority. The language may be an indicator of that. And I think there's a very real reason to be worried about that. For at least the last 40 years, the church has failed to live the values of the manger.

Jesus came as an unplanned pregnancy to an unmarried poor family who because of a government program had been made homeless. He called for compassion for the stranger, the poor, the politically powerless, the weak, those across racial and cultural lines, and for the inclusion of all people in the movement he startes.

But in the past 40 years, the American evangelical movement has been solidly on the side of unjust wars, dismantling the safety net for the poor and the stranger, amassing wealth, revealing in consumption, they have resisted the expansion of civil rights for those who are different, they have stereotyped and stood aside while strangers in our midst are made scapegoats for our crimes.

So, if these people want to agonize about the loss of "Merry Christmas" and wonder how to get it back, why not consider the absence to be a kind of "Wittenburg Door"? I know it's easier to assume your kids are leaving their faith and practicing Paganism because of their own self-indulgence... but maybe instead it is a sign of the gap between the spoken and lived values of the church today.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Taxes -- Part II

You may look at the title of this post and go looking for "Taxes -- Part I"... It's not here yet. That one will contain what I think is the most important message Democrats can have on taxes. This is a secondary issue.

In last year's election, Bush won in the suburbs of big cities. Yes, if the Dems had done a better job of winning the heartland or pitching to NASCAR fans or reduced barriers to minority voting, etc., they might have pulled it out. But Bush won in the suburbs. In Colorado, where I live, the urban centers went blue, the rural counties went red, and the suburbs -- which benefit from the urban center and would not dream of moving away from it -- went red too.

Why is this? Why benefit from a city and then turn around and be in favor of cutting the government spending that city thrives on?

One reason may be that people who live in suburbs face higher costs for living there. (I'm actually trying to track down the new report NPR cited this morning, but that link will work for now.)

So, imagine. You move to the suburb of some city. The lawns are green, the neighbors are happy, crime is low, you can send the kids to the park on their own. But all the taxes and fees are higher than they were when it was just the two of you living in an apartment. Plus, since property taxes don't cover all the costs, you're being hit on every side with fees and fundraisers. It could start to feel just a little bit like the government is after you, couldn't it?

So, when someone comes along with a proposal to cut waste, lower taxes, cap property taxes, and force the State to rebate sales taxes... well that starts to sound pretty darn good. And if that person paints the picture that those cuts... well the money comes from keeping poor people from defrauding the system, and fat cat politicians from getting rich off their government salaries... that looks pretty acceptable.

Well, as this year's version of Federal spending cuts finally makes clear, it's not the waste of inefficiency that's getting cut, it's the "human waste." These cuts, and the imbalance of municipalities carrying suburbs which aren't paying their own way, hurt the poor.

An additional absurdity of this is the suburbs, at least in Denver, are home to our religious right, evangelical mega-churches. These are the churches with the financial wherewithal to sue the city for a presence in the annual holiday parade, but who then turn out votes for politicials who will cut the federal subsidy for food stamps. These are churches who are more concerned with preaching a gospel of compliance and obedience to their star pastor than are concerned with compassion. They will make no bones about being more concerned about people's souls than they are their bodies.... but maybe that's because their target demographic, those suburbanites, have things pretty good... if it weren't for all those darn costs.

So, it's a tangled web. And I haven't thought about this long enough to have a sound bite. But it seems to me we need to start talking about how those who enjoy sprawl need to start paying their own way and stop whining.

Incidentally, there's a parallel to this on the state level. Read more here.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

"Greedy Oil Companies"

In the past quarter, while hurricanes were shutting down Gulf Coast oil wells and refineries, distribution was upset and Iraqii oil stopped flowing once again, while George Bush and his allies (including Pat Robertson) insisted on antagonizing Venezualian president Hugo Chavez, and continuing to ignore CAFTA rulings that would benefit Canada, gas prices soared. Exxon and other major US oil suppliers posted record profits. This week, those oil industry executives are appearing before congress to account for thier profits.

The attempt is being made to paint the oil companies as bad corporate citizens for taking a profit while people are hurting. And to punish those companies for their profits. This is bad, bad, bad.

Here's why:
  • With record prices, all it would take for the industry to record record profits is a constant percentage of the sales price taken as profit. I don't think anyone would (or should) begrudge the industry that.
  • This policy is clearly out of line with congressional response to others with administration connections who are benefitting from the tragedies of our time. Where's the proposed penalty on Halliburton, KBR, a dozen private security firms in Iraq, Carnival Cruise lines, Enron?
  • We shouldn't offer the oil companies a way to get out from under the image of being dirty, rotten scoundrels. The way to reduce oil industry profits is to *buy less oil*. This would be so good for the country all the way around.
Oil prices are now falling. I never thought I'd be happy filling up at $2.27/gal as I did this morning; but it was a lot more comfortable than the $2.80 I had been paying. But even though I feel a relief at that, I think higher oil prices are a good thing.

  • less driving = less pollution, lower health care expenses; = more walking, reduction of weight, lower health care costs, more talking to neighbors, less crime; = less US money going overseas, less oil money to fund terrorism.

Friday, September 30, 2005

"I didn't mean that!"

So, William Bennett, education secretary under Ronald Reagan and author of "The Book of Virtues" has a radio program. And on that program this week, he got a caller who suggested that the kinds of people who get abortions are the kinds of people whose kids grow up to be criminals, so shouldn't we keep abortion around to keep crime down?

Bennett attempted to use the age-old device of taking an argument to it's extreme to show the caller the wrong-headedness of his argument. "If you wanted to use abortion to keep crime down, just abort all the black babies. But of course, we can't do that."

The hew and cry ensued, and today Bennet is saying, "My comments have been misconstrued! They've been taken out of context! I didn't mean that! It was a rhetorical device!"

Except, Mr. Bennett, your rhetorical device made an assumption. And that you can't see the assumption means it is so deeply held that we have to question your sanity. You said black babies make crime. And you may try to argue yourself out of the hole, say you have black friends, you know skin color doesn't matter to morality, but in a moment when you had to grab for an illustration of an extreme, you said "black babies make crime." You could have said green. You could have said poor. You could have said babies from parents who are convicts. You could have said babies from illiterate parents. You said "black".

You picked a minority people group with easily-distinguished physical features and blamed a social ill on them. Social ills do not come from physical features! Not from skin color or the shape of your nose, not from whether you eat garlic (Eastern and Western versions of this), or curry, not from the shape of your eyes or the curl of your hair.

I have been a minority a couple times. In elementary school, I was bused to a school that had a hispanic minority. I did not behave any differently there than I did earlier in preschool or later in high school, but I was sent to the office more than any other kid in my class. Why do you think that is? Perhaps because I am trusted in white environments and mistrusted in non-white ones? Perhaps because I didn't understand the cues of how to play nice with these people who'd grown up differently from me?

In college, I was hired by a Chinese church to run the youth program for a retreat. I was taller than most people there, I was white, but my most distiguishing feature was my curly hair. A boy in the 4th grade decided my hair indicated I was a witch.

We make grave mistakes when we conclude that we know what kind of person a person is based only on the apperance of their bodies. Deadly mistakes, Mr. Bennett.

It's time to stop defending and start being ashamed.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

"Culture of Corruption"

Tom DeLay was indicted today by a Texas Grand Jury on a single charge related to money rasing in the 2002 state legislature races. DeLay has stepped down as majority leader, as Republican ethics rules require, but argues that this will turn out to be another "baseless" charge... evidently equating being punished by a slap on the hands -- as the House ethics committee has done three times -- with being "not guilty."

Howard Dean is using the opportunity to tour his "Culture of Corruption" frame around the block again, and it looks like this time more people are willing to pay attention.

I'm going to pencil in a B for this frame and reserve the right to see how it performs on the road test. Here's why:

Dean is treading on thin ice here. Just a scant decade ago, Republicans raised public ire over "dirty politics" and used that anger to fuel a coup, wresting the federal government away from 40 years of Democratic control. If Dean can steer this one carefully, he may be able to keep "Culture of Corruption" from applying to Dems as well as Republicans, but this is going to be a fast ride on a curvy track.

On the other hand, this may be the best encapsulation of a network of suspicious trends... no-bid contracts, secret energy meetings, crony appointments, buried reports, the outing of Valarie Plame, gaming on Indian lands, trumped up Iraqii intellegence, a military unprepared for the moral obligations of invasion and occupation, rewarding the incompetent, and all the rest. All these things exist, and they are outrageous, but they exist in isolation in the American mind. Since I don't care about ANWR, and I've been suspicious of Saddam for awhile, and lower oil prices would help me get through the month, I don't want to think about the whole thing.

The Whole Thing needs a name. "Crooks and Liars" hasn't stuck. Neither has "Lying Liars". "Yellow Elephants" is amusing, but not general enough for a national audience. "Who Let the Dogs In?" doesn't capture national attention. All of these stoke the passion of people who are on to the man behind the curtain, but we need a way to get enough people to care to raise the curtain.

I think "Culture of Corruption" is a promising start.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Francis Schaffer

I started bible college in 1986. Jerry Fallwell's "Moral Majority" was still a fringe group that sent out pins of baby feet. You still heard Tony Campolo's name as much as Pat Robertson's. Amy Grant released a song about committing adultery, but was still married. Leslie Phillips released a Christian album produced by T Bone Burnett. You could buy Charles Williams books at the Christian bookstore and the Bakers were still on TV.

Believe it or not, there was a time when the Christian subculture had room for diversity, for social progressives, and you could be a Democrat and teach at a Christian college.

In my freshman year at school I was required to take a class called "Developing a Christian Worldview." This was my introduction to the writings of Francis Schaffer. I'm not sure why he was presented at that school with such authority, or whether he was presented at other schoold with the same force. But I do know that everything the religious right is known for today is expressed in the writings of Francis Schaffer.

Schaffer wrote to systematically construct a Christian framework that would stand the challenges of Nihilism, epidomized by Kant and Nietzsche.

He characterized Nihilism as a system of thought that made the individual meaningless, making individual life meaningless, individual morality meaningless, and even individual speech and language meaningless.

He argued that this Nihilism had made its way into the common culture of Europe and, to a lesser degree, the U.S. The evidence for this was growing rates of abortion, euthenasia, suicide, and literature that was not classically constructed.

He argued that all faiths except evangelical Christianity are equivalent to nihilism. Because all non-Christian faiths are equal, disparaging terms may be used interchangeably. Buddihism, Communism, and Satanism are all equvalently "Godless". Family planning is choosing not to have children and therefore is equivalent to Nazis who killed people who weren't "good enough."

He therefore concluded that Nihilism was a direct threat to all human life, and Christianity is the only force that can win against it, since all other faiths least irrisitably to Nihilism.

Therefore, US Christians are engaged in an epic struggle against Nihilism and they must not lose the battle.

This struggle entailed the following specific actions:
  • Resisting abortion and euthenasia at every turn.
  • Defunding the federal government so that they could not fund abortions or euthenasia.
  • Resisting following Europe into anything, because all Europe's actions are a decent into Nihilism.
  • Disconnecting the US from the UN, NATO, and other treaties which might require cooperation with Europe.
  • Resisting the slide into Nihilism in the US by raising up a Christian political presence.
  • Using that Christian political presence to make the US a more specifically Christian nation -- defined as no abortion, euthenasia, or suicide and promenant Christian symbols in all branches of government.
  • Pruning the Christian culture of nihilistic messages.

Looking at the culture today, we can see all these things happening. They become overwhelming because there are so many fronts, so many people fighting passionately, and all seemingly disconnected. They are, in fact connected.

But you cannot stem the tide by invoking or discrediting Francis Schaffer. The number of foot-soldiers involved in the battle who have read Schaffer is distressingly small. The number of those who have ever taken a philosophy, logic, or ethics course that presented another view of the same topics is even smaller. This means you can't argue the ideas because the people you want to change don't understand the foundation of the ideas they're fighting for.

"How then do we live?"

Schaffer's entire system is based on the idea that nihilism is a relentless force that is the end of mankind. Nihilism was a system of thought that attempted to make sense of a changing world around the industrial revolution. The more we understand that it expressed the anxieties of an age that could not imagine the future it was creating, the better we will be able to communicate with Christians that one can be modern and life-affirming. We must be relentless in communicating that every action we take is about providing the best possible life for all people in the midst of diversity and change.
  • Family planning increases the value of children.
  • Scientific research leads to longer, happier, healthier, more productive lives.
  • Cooperation across cultures improves the lives of everyone.
  • Happiness is not the result of debauchery, but connection to people and meaningful work.
  • Education allows people to discover meaningful work.
  • Religious systems that motivates people by guilt, fear, or the threat of exclusion does not honor God.
  • Science and math do have room for the wonder of God.
For those of us who are Christians and who want to struggle against this hijacking of our faith, we have a couple more tasks:
  • We must talk about Christianity loudly and often though the lens of the Gospels. We must talk about "inclusion" and "everybody" and "wholeness" and "compassion" and not get sidetracked by exclusion and end-time prophecies.
  • We must raise the standard of Christian education. A person who is speaking for Christianity should be well-versed in the whole canon, not just energetically motivated and in command of some esoteric details.

Creationism Revisited

I spent some time last night with my concordance and a couple translations of the Bible in English looking up references for my "Creationism" post yesterday. They're still sitting on my bed at home, but I was really struck by something. There are hundreds of references to "foundations". Job 38 is the passage I was thinking of yesterday when I mentioned the "God as Architect" creation story, but throughout Psalms and the prophets, the imagery of God building the earth upon some firm bedrock is used. Mountains have foundations which shake.

It's definitely written from the perspective that the earth, the ground, is the stable common element in life and the heavens and events on the earth pass by. How profoundly unsettling the observations of Copernicus must have been in that world view!

Which recalls the emotional content of the struggle over creationism today. The story that most parallels evolution -- the progressive creation of the world -- is a kind of last bastion. No wonder the struggle is so intense.