Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Practicing Progressive

“You never ask questions when God’s on your side.”

Since Bob Dylan wrote those lyrics back in the early ‘60s he’s gone through a few transformations, religious and otherwise, but his words still resonate and seem even more appropriate today.

There was a gathering this past Wednesday in Pretoria, South Africa to celebrate the Day of the Vow by thousands of descendents of the racist Afrikaners. It was on December 16, 1838 that a group of white settlers from Europe promised God to remember the day forever if God would only allow a little slaughter of the natives to take place. And so it happened! Over 3000 black warriors were killed as they attacked the settlers. Only 3 Afrikaners were injured in the battle. And, as promised, the annual commemoration takes place complete with the recitation of the ancient vow. The news report I read in the New York Times included this comment: “We believe it was God’s will to have Christians lead the way in this land,” said Lukas de Kock, one of the leaders of Wednesday’s worship. “On that day, the Day of the Vow, God made a clear statement that this was his will for South Africa.”
It must be very comforting to the folk who still think apartheid was a good policy to know that God is as angry at Nelson Mandela as they are.

In like manner, our allies in Israel who continue to maintain the belief that God ordained their occupation of that sliver of land in the Middle East adamantly, even violently at times, defend their belief in God’s unquestionable mandate for their people.

And when one more Muslim suicide bomber detonates his body while crying out: "Allahu akhbar" (God is great), those who survive are reminded, once again, that some of the most dangerous people in the world are the ones who believe God is on their side.

Oral Roberts died this past week at the grand age of 91. Oral was a most successful purveyor of this same theological principle. Indeed, Roberts was so convinced that he and God were in such close communication that he once told his millions of followers that God would smite him dead if they didn’t come up with a substantial amount of cash by next Tuesday. The fact that they did what they were told and God subsequently didn’t do what he threatened only underscored everyone’s conviction that Oral and the Alpha-Omega were the best of buddies.

There have been many news reports that the U.S. Air Force academy in recent years suggested a similar alliance between the almighty and America. Some cadets even complained that they had been subjected to systematic campaigns to try and convince them that Christianity is a prerequisite for patriotism. A U.S. Air Force investigation in 2005 revealed that many of allegations were justified including a disturbing verification that the commandant made no apologies for his Christ and Country alignment, even introducing a “Jesus…Rocks” call and response chant to all the cadets. Those of you who follow football may remember the AFA’s coach calling his players the “Jesus’ Team”.

It makes sense, I suppose, to make sure the most powerful part of your arsenal is God, but it does seem more than a little self-serving to assume that the Great God Almighty always liked you best. Such thinking wouldn’t be of much comfort to the millions of innocent men and women, boys and girls, who have been obliterated by armies marching in the name of God.

With Christmas right around the corner, it may behoove those of us who claim to be Christians to stop and ponder another verse from Dylan’s perceptive musical poem:
“In a many dark hour
I've been thinkin' about this
That Jesus Christ
Was betrayed by a kiss.
But I can't think for you
You'll have to decide
Whether Judas Iscariot
Had God on his side.”

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Practicing Progressive

It used to be one of my favorite anecdotes. It concerned a confrontation many years back between Henry Kissinger, then Secretary of State, and The Reverend William Coffin, then chaplain at Yale University. They were arguing over the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. The discussion was growing more and more heated until finally the Secretary said, “OK Bill, you tell me how to bring this war to an end!” Whereupon the noted cleric announced, “My job is to proclaim that ‘justice must roll down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.’ Your job, Mr. Kissinger, is to work out the details of the irrigation system.”

I always liked how the role of the political critic or in this case, the religious prophet, left the resolution of the particular problem to others and was free to go on his merry way pointing out other issues with equal contempt for the difficult details of resolution. I still think there is a role for the critic/prophet in today’s world but I am less inclined to allow them the luxury Pastor Coffin claimed. Although I continue to want to be made aware of the many injustices that plague our planet, I am giving less credence to those who only complain and much more to those willing to find solutions.

I suspect most Americans are growing tired of the endless stonewalling of legislation by the nay-sayers in Congress. Countless childish strategies are being employed by those who didn’t get their way in the last election to make sure that no progress is made in solving our national problems by those who did. One can’t help but wonder if such partisanship is really the way our democracy is intended to work…with one side seeking constructive remedies and the other side precluding any progress. A nation that ranks 37th in the world in health care should, it would seem, be eagerly involved in rectifying the situation. Instead we have such dispiriting tactics as this one reported by Alan Grayson (D-FL) who describes how Congressmen/women vote with electronic voting cards. In recent weeks, many from the minority party have claimed to “lose” their cards and so slow the voting process down to a crawl. Grayson says, “They’d all walk to the front of the House and, laughingly and jokingly, put their arms around each other’s shoulder like it was some kind of clownish fun. And they did this over and over to make sure every vote took half an hour. That’s how low things have gotten. I could give you countless examples just like that. They’re simply obstructionists and there’s nothing you can do about it.’’

Remembering how Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) bragged, "If we’re able to stop Obama on this (Health Care) it will be his Waterloo. It will break him." We cannot be blamed for thinking that the once noble concept of “loyal opposition” has devolved into schoolyard bullying. I am not so na├»ve to think that such despicable behavior hasn’t been perpetrated by politicians from both parties but in this time of national crisis we all should demand something better.

And speaking of crises, President Obama announced that we will be increasing our Afghanistan troop involvement by 30,000 shortly. (Troop involvement, by the way and just in case anyone is confused, means actual men and actual women in uniform…sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, many just boys and girls.) As many have already commented, the president had to make a difficult choice from a list of bad alternatives. The careful and prolonged process he used to reach his decision, although it frustrated many, was a welcome relief from the impulsive and irresponsible actions of his past predecessor. Nevertheless, the president’s decision is a disappointment especially for those of us old enough to clearly remember the political rationale employed that eventually brought us to our knees in Vietnam. Although no one can predict the outcome, many fear that this response only delays the inevitable political chaos that will come to Afghanistan when American troops finally pull out. I certainly hope President Obama continues to listen to constructive and helpful criticism as he carries out his plan.

Like Bill Coffin, I do believe it is government’s job to “work out the details of the irrigation system” but unlike Bill, I’m not so sure just quoting a religious prophet is all that we critics need do.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

The Practicing Progressive

Bah! Humbug!

One does run the risk of being called “Scrooge” for offering a critique of the sacred cows of our culture during this season of the year but, for reasons that may be apparent to some, this year especially, I happily pursue the gamble.

Our nation’s growing numbers of atheists are making their presence known this Christmas with campaigns in various cities promoting a different approach to this time of year. Displayed on buses and billboards in Washington D.C., for instance, is the following: “No god?...No problem! Be good for goodness sake.”
Such secular sentiment is sure to raise the ire of many religionists who understandably, if mistakenly, assume that Christmas should be reserved for Christians. But it appears those who don’t share the same doctrinal understandings, or any doctrine for that matter, want a share of the holiday spirit.

According to Roy Speckhardt, the executive director of the American Humanist Association (quoted in the New York Times 12-1-09): “We don’t intend to rain on anyone’s parade, but secular people celebrate the holidays, too, and we’re just trying to reach out to our people. To the degree that we are reaching out to the godly, it’s just to say that you can be good without god. So their atheist neighbor down the street shouldn’t be vilified as though he is immoral.”

The idea that someone can be good without God seems especially galling to some folk who have managed to manipulate their particular divine into declaring that there is only one way of being in God’s good graces and they just happen to have a monopoly on it. But to those who believe the heavenly life is experienced more by doing good deeds rather than just believing good thoughts, the atheists have a point. Santa was right. Being good is its own reward.

Recent studies are indicating that the altruistic impulse is not just morally compelling but physically healing as well. In one, it was found that elderly people who volunteered four hours each week were 44% less likely to die during the study period. (Buck Institute for Age Research). In another, reported in Psychology Today, surveys of over 3000 women who volunteered regularly revealed these women experienced a sense of well-being similar to vigorous exercise or meditation.

The opportunity this year to get up close and personal with Ebenezer Scrooge at the Lake Dillon Theatre has offered me insight into the transformation of this woefully unhappy man. Scrooge’s conversion is instigated not by religious doctrine, as noble as it may or may not be, but through a confrontation with his own humanity. His recognition of a wasted life is not a capitulation to a particular creed but the recognition of a universal truth. Our lives grow in value as we value the lives of others.

Back when I spent my days counseling Christians, I would occasionally be taken aback by someone expressing their chagrin over a God who welcomed everyone into the heavenly family. “What’s the point in being a Christian then?” some would ask indignantly and thus reveal their failure to understand the spiritual truth that doing good is its own reward. Any system, religious or not, that promotes the value of altruism understands the true meaning of Christmas…which is why I find the current campaign by our atheist friends and neighbors to be a most appropriate approbation of our culturally conflicted Christmas season.

“God (or not) bless us, everyone!”