Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Tea Parties and Wal-Mart: Where Is Conservatism Going?

Yesterday's Wall Street Journal included an opinion by respected neoconservative Norman Podhoretz entitled "In Defense of Sarah Palin." The point of that editorial is that just because Palin is being attacked by the intellectual elite as being dumb is not a reason not to vote against her; in fact, the author embraces those attacks as a reason to vote for her.

I don't want to write a blog about Sarah Palin. Please do not comment here with your personal views for her or against her - there are plenty of places on the web to do that.

Instead, I want to address the question of the value of gravitas , that often indefinable "something" - quality, depth, substance - that only the giants and heroes have.

Noting that Palin's attackers come from both the right and the left, Podhoretz quotes a satirical attack on the "unsightly hordes of Wal-Mart untermenschen typified by the loathesome Tea Party rabble" with their "base enthusiasms and simian grunts." Podhoretz concludes by saying that since high-IQ types like Carter, Clinton, and Obama have been (in his opinion) poor presidents, he would be happier with the grunting Tea Partiers.

Podhoretz writes well, but I must confess that I am skeptical of the argument that boils down to “smart people have done badly, so let’s elect a dumb-dumb.” That is not exactly what he is saying of course, and I don’t think that Palin is a dumb-dumb. But I am skeptical of the position that says that - because many intellectuals are (1) liberal, like the MIT and Harvard faculty (William Buckley is quoted by Podhoretz as saying he would rather be governed by the first 2000 names in the Boston phone book than by these faculties); (2) embarrassing, like Biden; (3) failures, like Carter; or (4) morally questionable, at best, like Clinton – we should therefore elect someone who is not very smart.

I admire some things about Sarah Palin. I liked her speaking during the campaign, and I admire her carrying the banner for what she believes is a principled message. I wish she had been better prepared for Katie Couric, and I wish she were not quite so quick to embrace the “Wal-Mart untermenschen” persona that is being thrust upon her.

I believe we can find a conservative who has the gravitas that Palin does not. Yes, given a choice, I might vote for her over President Obama. But I would rather have Ronald Reagan. I don’t see another Reagan on the horizon. Frankly, though, I think the time is ripe for one to arise.

Here is what I mean. The Republican Party in the late 70s was (or would have been, but for Watergate) the world of Nixon, he of wage and price controls and appeasement of China. It was the party of Ford, a middle of the road nice guy with no real conservative credentials. Conservatism was still exemplified/lampooned by the failed and over-the-top Goldwater. The party was in trouble. The only thing worse was the stagflation, Iranian hostage world of the Democrats. Not a clash of the titans. Out of that morass arose someone who could visualize, who could dream, who could articulate what was not apparent. In short, a man of faith (here, I mean faith in what American could and should be, not Christian faith (although he was also that)), a person who could preach the substance of things not seen.

I am no more a fan of today’s Republican party than I am - in retrospect - of the Nixon/Ford party of the 70s. I have not given money to the party in years. McCain and W were not, by any stretch, my choice as excellent candidates. I voted for them only because I could not stomach the alternative... but being better than John Kerry or Al Gore is no great prize. Dole would have been a reasonable candidate if he had been 20 years younger, but of course Kemp was a much better choice. In other words, yes, I am saying conservatism's best national candidate since Reagan has been a losing vice-presidential nominee from 14 years ago.

The time, like in 1979, is ripe for the rise of a true conservative statesman or stateswoman. Somebody is going to ascend. Sarah Palin is trying, but she is not the one. I really think she is laying the groundwork for somebody else. I don’t know who that is. It could be Mitt Romney. It could be Bobby Jindal. It could be Condolezza Rice. It could be Eric Cantor. I don’t think it is Tim Pawlenty. It might be Charley Crist. It is not Gingrich or Huckabee or Giuliani.

It may well be somebody I have never heard of. But whoever it is, I believe that our present political arena is speeding up his/her appearance. The trick will be if this person can rise above the mess the Republicans have made of conservatism – all about hatred, abortion, yelling loud, racist junk about President Obama, and personal attack – to become a leader. If President Reagan could rise out of Watergate/pardon, then it can be done again.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Social Justice and the Better Choice

On his radio and television shows a couple of weeks ago, Glenn Beck set out to convince his audience that "social justice," the term many churches use to describe their efforts to address poverty and human rights, is a "code word" for communism and Nazism. Beck urged Christians to leave their churches if leaders would not reconsider their emphasis on social justice.

"I beg you, look for the words 'social justice' or 'economic justice' on your church web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words. Now, am I advising people to leave their church? Yes! … Communists are on the left, and the Nazis are on the right. That's what people say. But they both subscribe to one philosophy, and they flew one banner. . . . But on each banner, read the words, here in America: 'social justice.' They talked about economic justice, rights of the workers, redistribution of wealth, and surprisingly, democracy."

I want to set aside Beck’s tortured view of history and political philosophy and ask this question, from the point of view of the church: Why the attack on social justice? After all, the Bible seems very clear on these issues:
• Jesus chastises the Pharisees, saying, “Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You foolish people! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? But give what is inside [the dish] to the poor, and everything will be clean for you.”
• Later in the same gospel, Jesus says, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
• Many of the Proverbs address the issue. For example, “Do not exploit the poor because they are poor and do not crush the needy in court, for the LORD will take up their case and will plunder those who plunder them.”
• It should go without saying that the Torah is clear on the issue: “There should be no poor among you…. If there is a poor man among your brothers in any of the towns of the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother. Rather be openhanded and freely lend him whatever he needs.”
• Jesus’ first public declaration of His ministry was in the context of social justice: “He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read. The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.’ Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.’”
• In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches us to “give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.”
• The sheep and goats passage contains Jesus’ famous line that “whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”
• The Apostle James, the half-brother of Christ, teaches: “Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?”

It is simply axiomatic that the Bible teaches, repeatedly and emphatically, that what most of us call “social justice” – giving to the poor, striving for justice, helping the less fortunate, standing up for those who cannot stand up for themselves – is expected of believers.

So, why question churches involved in social justice? I think there are two answers. (OK, there are more answers than that. These questions could well be cover for all sorts of agenda that fill the blogosphere and the airwaves. If so, the substance of the question is not worth discussing - it is just a tool for opening a pet can of worms. But I think there are two legitimate bases for at least raising the question, and those are what I want to address. The others are not worth a response.)

The first is political. The fact that social justice is a requirement for Christians is not the same thing as accepting that government should be in the social justice business. The calls in scripture are for believers, the church, and the people of God. The calls in scripture are for voluntary service, not compulsory action. Is it really an offering to pay taxes? Does government action answer the demands of scripture?

I understand these political arguments. To take them to the extent of demanding that I leave my church, however, is ridiculous. For Glenn Beck, who as I understand it is a relatively newly-minted Mormon, to deign to tell any of us that we should leave our churches based on his political agenda is insulting. If I disagree with my church on individual issues (and I often do), the answer is to work within the church, not to leave it.

There is a second answer to the question, and it is decidedly not political. It also has nothing to do with Glenn Beck’s rant. It is an issue of competition, of the “good” getting in the way of the “best.”

When Jesus comes to Bethany with his entourage, Martha sets about to prepare food and lodging for the several dozen drop-ins to her home. Her sister Mary, we are told, sits at Jesus’ feet, listening to Him teach. Martha is no dummy – we see in her discussion with Jesus in John 11 that she is theologically deep, and she is the one whom Jesus chooses to hear the critical words “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me, though dead, shall yet live.” Now, she sees a need for service to those who need help, and she sets about to fulfill that need. Mary does not help, and Martha complains to Jesus.

Why? Is Mary a slacker who is once again shirking responsibility? I don’t think so. I think Mary normally is one who pitches right in with Martha on the service front. Today is different, and Martha notices. Today, Mary is leaving the work to Martha.

It is important that Jesus never once indicts Martha’s service. What catches Jesus’ attention is Martha’s distraction. She is “worried about a great many things” while Mary is focused on “one thing.” Jesus refuses to find fault with Mary, for her “one thing” is the most important.

In “City Slickers,” Curly tells Billy Crystal’s character that the secret to life is “one thing.” Crystal spends the better part of two movies trying to figure out what it is.

In scripture, Jesus tells the rich young ruler that he lacks “one thing.” The healed blind man could not answer all of the synagogue leaders’ questions, but he knew “one thing.” Paul had not taken hold of everything that he could have, but “one thing” he knew.

And therein lies the lesson. I don’t think it is a lesson that Glenn Beck had in mind, but it is a lesson for all of us concerned about social justice. We cannot let the good get in the way of the best. When serving in the soup line replaces the inner yearning for relationship with Christ, we have become Martha. When marching for justice or running the yard sale becomes our worship, we are "worried about a great many things." We are distracted.

Jesus approves Mary because she has made the better choice. Sitting and listening – today we might well call it worship and prayer and Bible study – grow out of commitment to “one thing,” and Jesus approves that choice. Never blaming Martha for her honest desire to help those who need help … never hinting that service is wrong … never once suggesting that social justice is the wrong aim … Jesus treasures our attention. He always seeks relationship.

That is the one thing. That is the better choice.

We of course must seek social justice. If your church is using “social justice” as a code word for some political agenda as Beck suggests, then perhaps you need to address that. I don’t think most of our churches are guilty of that.

But in performing your service, don’t get distracted from the one thing. Always make the better choice.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Most Famous Verses that are not Really in the Bible

If we were to take a poll to discover the greatest movies of all time, we would have a lot of choices, but I am sure that my favorite movie would be in the top three. That movie is “Casablanca:” Great plot... Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman and Sydney Greenstreet and Paul Heinreid and Claude Rains and Peter Lorre... Wonderful ending. But the thing about that movie that makes it a true classic is the amazing number of famous lines that are so much a part of our culture.
 “Here’s looking at you kid.”
 “Round up the usual suspects.”
 “Not an easy day to forget. I remember every detail. The Germans wore grey. You wore blue.”
 “We’ll always have Paris.”
 “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”
 “This is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

But, none of those is the line that is widely accepted as the most famous line from the movie. I looked up three different internet polls to see if the answer to that question has changed since I first heard it when I was in college, and it hasn’t. Let’s see if you know. The line comes late one night, when Sam, played by Dooley Wilson, is playing “As Time Goes By” on the piano. He finishes playing, and Rick, played by Bogart, says ...


I am guessing that you have given the same answer I heard in a trivia bowl in college and found on those three internet polls. And you are wrong. The line “Play it Again Sam” is never heard in the movie “Casablanca.” Ilsa says, “Play it Sam,” and Rick says “you played it for her, you can play it for me.” But nobody ever says, “Play it again, Sam.”

That has some gospel on it. Here is what I mean: Just as a great deal of “Casablanca” trivia has grown up around a quote that is not in the movie, a lot of very well-meaning folk build their theology around ideas that are not in the Bible. These folks are just sure that these "verses" are in fact biblical. I hear them all the time in my Sunday School class, when someone will say something like, “it says somewhere in the Bible, I am not quite sure where, but somewhere, that...."

So, with that in mind, I want to mention the most famous "unverses" that are not in the Bible.

1. “I am not my brother’s keeper.”
Now, isn’t this a good basis for theology!? Of the three "unverses" I am going to discuss, this is the one that is closest to the actual words of scripture, but a little change in words creates a huge difference. The actual words are “Am I my brother’s keeper?” God comes to Cain and asks where Abel is, and Cain, perhaps out of smugness, perhaps out of fear, perhaps out of disdain for both God and Abel, says “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?”

From there, we somehow move to this basis of theology – I am not my brother’s keeper. Now stay with me on this. Politically, I am a staunch individualist. I believe in the preservation of individual rights, and I believe that a promotion of individualism is the best system for promotion of the common good. Economically, I am a capitalist. I know that the profit motive and the ability of an individual to move up a ladder are the cornerstones of the best way for a market system to create the best situation for all of us. But, to jump from individualism to “I am not my brother’s keeper” is a jump that I am not willing to make. It is also a jump that the Bible does not make. Not only is it a misquote, but it is a misquote of the world’s first murderer – not my first choice for inspiration.

Instead, let’s see what the Bible does say.
 “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.”
 “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
 “Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food.... It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause you brother to fall.”
 “Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed, but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?”

You see, even as we work in our politics and our economics, we also must understand that we are all created in the image of God, and we have a responsibility to each other.

2. “…and David lived happily ever after.”
Now this is a tough one. We start with David playing harps and leading armies. Then we move to his writing Psalms and serving kings. Finally, we understand that he was a man after God’s own heart.

Contrasted to that we have terrible sin. You know the story of Bathsheba. What starts with David's avoiding his duty as commander in chief of the army moves to invasion of privacy, then to lust, adultery, and murder. Not just a single murder, but instead, murder of many soldiers just to make sure that Bathsheba’s husband is killed. Multiple, horrific sins.

David was forgiven. There is no question of that. He was repentant, he asked for forgiveness, and he got it. He was still a man after God’s own heart.

But sin does not quit affecting us when God forgives us. Most of the book of Second Samuel is given to describing the horrors in David’s life that resulted from his sins. A baby died. His children who grew up alternated between raping each other and trying to steal David’s throne from him. Rather than living happily ever after, the lasting words of David are laments as he cries over the death of his son Absalom.

Forgiveness comes. We continue to seek God. God even restores to us the joy of our salvation. But scripture is clear that your sin will find you out.

My point is not to rail against David or to minimize the importance of his writings or of God’s forgiveness. My point is that many build a theology around the principle that they can do what they want because, like David, they will be forgiven, and then everything will be hunky dory. They are right – they will be forgiven. But it is na├»ve and unscriptural to think that the consequences of sin will vanish.

3. “The Lord helps those who help themselves.”
This is my favorite of all. How many hundreds of times have we all heard this one? Again, I am a capitalist and an individualist, and I believe in working for a living and putting your money in the bank. But, this "unverse" is not scriptural. In fact, scripture is just the opposite. If you want to build your theology on an idea, then make it this: the Lord helps those who cannot help themselves!
 “But God commended His love toward us in this, that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”
 “But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things – and the things that are not – to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before Him.”
 “They will see the splendor of God, who strengthens the feeble hands and steadies the knees that give way; who says to those with fearful hearts, ‘Be strong, do not fear, your God will come to save you.’”
 “I waited patiently for Jehovah; He turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; He set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. He put a new song in my mouth.”

The words of a great man, Jehoshaphat, make this clear, and these words are particularly timely for us today. Listen to these verses from 2 Chronicles: "O LORD, God of our fathers, are you not the God who is in heaven? You rule over all the kingdoms of the nations. Power and might are in your hand, and no one can withstand you. O our God, did you not drive out the inhabitants of this land before your people Israel and give it forever to the descendants of Abraham your friend? They have lived in it and have built in it a sanctuary for your Name, saying, `If calamity comes upon us, whether the sword of judgment, or plague or famine, we will stand in your presence before this temple that bears your Name and will cry out to you in our distress, and you will hear us and save us.' But now here are men from Ammon, Moab and Mount Seir, whose territory you would not allow Israel to invade when they came from Egypt; so they turned away from them and did not destroy them. See how they are repaying us by coming to drive us out of the possession you gave us as an inheritance. O our God, will you not judge them? For we have no power to face this vast army that is attacking us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are upon you."

Jehoshophat was a great king. If anyone could help himself, it was Jehoshophat. But his prayer should be ours. I do not understand. I cannot fix it. I do not know what to do. I am powerless. My eyes are on you, God.

The Lord helps those who cannot help themselves.

Don't rely on things that aren't really there in scripture. Don't live by a "Play it again, Sam" theology.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Is It Worthwhile to Raise a Tiger?

Let me start by saying that I don't know if what the press is reporting is true. I am, for the purposes of this blog, going to use as my example the "Tiger Woods" that has been painted by the press. I could just as easily write a blog about a fictional character that I named "John Smith," but the Tiger story is too much in the news for me to ignore. If the press reports are wrong, then that is an injustice to him.

But just for example purposes, let's assume the following (We will call it "Group A") is correct:

1. Tiger is a serial adulterer.
2. Tiger needs treatment for a "sex addiction."
3. Tiger needs treatment for addiction to pain medication and sleeping pills.

Now again, I don't know if all of that is true, or if any of it is true. But let's just assume it is.

Here is what else we know ("Group B") about Tiger (and these we know, we are not just assuming):

1. He has more money than virtually anybody else short of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.
2. He is the best golfer on the planet, and he is likely the best who ever played.
3. He is world famous. His face and name are known anywhere you go.
4. He is handsome, well-spoken, and smart.
5. His wife is one of the most beautiful women in the world.
6. He has two attractive kids.

So, here is the question: as a parent, would you put up with Group A if you knew you could get Group B?

Tiger's father, Earl, began teaching Tiger golf and drilling him on the game before Tiger could walk. Tiger appeared on TV at the age of 3 to show off his golf skills. His single aim was determined for him by his father, although it seems clear enough that Tiger has embraced and expanded that aim beyond what even his father could have imagined.

I do not for a minute suggest that Group A has to follow in order to get Group B. I suppose there are many successful athletes, actors, musicians, and other celebrities who "make it" without involving themselves in addiction, adultery, abuse, or crime.

Neither do I suggest that Earl Woods had any idea that Tiger would end up with Group A. I have no stones to throw there.

Finally, I do not suggest that the reason Tiger has the Group A stuff is because he is the world's greatest golfer, or because he is rich, or because he is famous.

But there are certainly a lot of "Group B" folks who have their share of Group A.

So, back to my question. If you knew that you could get your child to Group B, but only a cost of Group A, would you? Of course we would sacrifice all sorts of things from our own lives to help our children succeed. But what would you sacrifice from their lives?

It is a real question. Of course, nobody sets out to send their child down the road to addiction and adultery. But if you knew that was a byproduct of the "successful" road you were outlining, would you still do it?

I am not here today with an answer. I am only suggesting that we have more than one certain priority list in this generation, and different ones of you have different lists. Some of you would answer the question "yes" and some would answer "no."

Would you do it?