Thursday, January 26, 2006

A President Who Can Do No Right

Once again, the New York Times has put forward a brilliant Op-Ed piece that crystallizes how I feel about the arrogance, incompetence and downright criminality of this Administration. Why pen your own blog when others are saying it so well for you?

by Bob Herbert
Op-Ed Columnist
The New York Times
January 26, 2006

We should be used to it by now.

There are a couple of Congressional committees trying to investigate the tragic Hurricane Katrina debacle, but the Bush administration is refusing to turn over certain documents or allow certain senior White House officials to testify before the committees under oath.

Senator Joseph Lieberman, a Democrat who is by no means unfriendly to the Bush crowd, said this week, "There has been a near-total lack of cooperation that has made it impossible, in my opinion, for us to do the thorough investigation that we have a responsibility to do."

Once again the president has, in effect, flipped the bird at Congress. He's amazing. Forget such fine points as the Constitution and the separation of powers. George W. Bush does what he wants to do. He won fewer votes than Al Gore in 2000 and then governed as if he'd been elected by acclamation. He dispensed with John Kerry in 2004 by portraying himself — a man who ran and hid from the draft during Vietnam — as more of a warrior than Mr. Kerry, a decorated combat veteran of that war.

Reality has been dealt a stunning blow by Mr. Bush. The administration's high-handedness with the Katrina investigators comes at the same time as disclosures showing that the White House was warned in the hours just before the hurricane hit New Orleans that it might well cause catastrophic flooding and the breaching of the city's levees.

That was early on the morning of last Aug. 29. On Sept. 1, with the city all but completely underwater, the president went on television and blithely declared, "I don't think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees."

This guy is something. Remember his "Top Gun" moment aboard the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln? And his famous taunt — "Bring 'em on" — to the insurgents in Iraq? His breathtaking arrogance is exceeded only by his incompetence. And that's the real problem. That's where you'll find the mind-boggling destructiveness of this regime, in its incompetence.

Fantasy may be in fashion. Reality may have been shoved into the shadows on Mr. Bush's watch. But the plain truth is that he is the worst president in memory, and one of the worst of all time. Many thousands of people — men, women and children — have died unnecessarily (and thousands more are suffering) because of his misguided and mishandled policies.

Brent Scowcroft, the national security adviser for George H. W. Bush, counseled against the occupation of Iraq at the end of the first gulf war. As recounted in a New Yorker article last fall, he said, "At the minimum, we'd be an occupier in a hostile land. Our forces would be sniped at by guerrillas, and, once we were there, how would we get out?"

George W. Bush had no such concerns. In fact, he joked about his failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Like a frat boy making cracks about a bad bet on a football game, Mr. Bush displayed what he felt was a hilarious set of photos during a spoof that he performed at the annual dinner of the Radio and Television Correspondents Association in March 2004.

The photos showed the president peering behind curtains and looking under furniture in the Oval Office for the missing weapons. Mr. Bush offered mock captions for the photos, saying, "Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be somewhere." And, "Nope, no weapons over there, maybe under here."

This week, as the killing of American G.I.'s and innocent Iraqis continued, we learned from a draft report from the office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction that, like the war itself, the Bush plan for rebuilding Iraq has been crippled by incompetence and extreme shortages of personnel. I doubt that this will bother the president any more than any of his other failures. He seems to truly believe that he can do no wrong.

The fiasco in Iraq and the president's response to the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe were Mr. Bush's two most spectacular foul-ups. There have been many others. The president's new Medicare prescription drug program has been a monumental embarrassment, leaving some of the most vulnerable members of our society without essential medication. Prominent members of the president's own party are balking at the heavy hand of his No Child Left Behind law, which was supposed to radically upgrade the quality of public education.

The Constitution? Civil liberties? Don't ask.

Just keep in mind, whatever your political beliefs, that incompetence in high places can have devastating consequences.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Too Small to Ignore: PART II

In the time it takes you to read this blog, 13 people died of tuberculosis, 20 people died of AIDS, and more than 5,500 babies died from preventable respiratory infections. Fatalities from HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa create 100,000 new orphaned children each month. One child dies of malaria in Africa every 29 seconds, one person with HIV every 6 seconds, one person with TB every 18 seconds and a pregnant woman from complications with childbirth every 60 seconds. We rush too help victims of natural disasters when malaria alone is an natural disaster that kills 80,000 people every month.

Fully 6,000,000 children (not even counting adults) die every year from preventable diseases.

My wife and I have a wonderful friend named Bethany. She's one of those rare souls who you are convinced you are a better person for knowing.

She spent a few hours with us before Christmas, sipping tea in our living room while on her way home to Minnesota from Peru. She'd been living in Peru as a staff member for The Hope Alliance, an organization started by a Joe Mitchell, one of our pastors, and dedicated to dramatic, positive and lasting impact on children and families in the third world.

Bethany was in our living room because her time in Peru was finished. We thumbed through a wonderful photo album and lived the life of a tireless aid worker vicariously through her eyes. They were images of extreme poverty, extreme need, but also extreme love and devotion.

She described the reverse culture shock of coming home and being awash in guilt at the sheer opulence of our American lifestyle. She wandered superstores and megamarts in a daze. Confronted by closets of clothes she hadn't even seen since leaving for South America, she gathered them all up and gave them all away. The smallest picture in a magazine or shortest news story on the third world brought her to tears.

We were naturally curious what she intended to do next.

“Nursing school,” she said with the sort of broad, radiant smile only she can pull off. “I'm going to build on my pre-med degree, get my nursing licenses and get back to the third world as soon as I can. I know I can make a difference there.”

I couldn’t help but cry.

* * *

The perception that the United States is the most generous country in the world is one held by a majority of Americans. While the United States gives the most foreign development aid in terms of dollars, it ranks lowest among wealthy countries in terms of official development assistance as a percentage of gross national income.

A recent poll by the Program on International Policy Attitudes, which compiles and examines public attitudes toward various international topics, found that the average American believes that the U.S. spends almost a quarter of its budget on assistance to developing nations.

The truth? Less than a quarter of 1%!

“Among advanced countries,” TIME magazine revealed in a recent issue focusing on poverty, “the U.S. ranks last in foreign aid development giving as a percentage of national income.”

Following the tsunami that devastated Asia, the U.S. donation was a measly 12 cents per capita, putting it squarely at the bottom of all developed nations. While it is true that the U.S gave somewhere around $2.4 billion in humanitarian relief and aid in 2004, it also, by conservative estimates, spends that much on the war in Iraq every 20 days!

America's perception of itself as the most generous country in the world is sadly contradicted by reality.

* * *

While few would accuse the West of somehow causing third-world poverty (though there are certainly compelling arguments both for the genesis and sustainment of poverty by superpowers throughout the past couple centuries), many would insist that the West, because of the very nature of its splendid affluence, should do more, should, in fact, lead the way in humanitarian relief. With great power and wealth comes great responsibility. Or as the Scriptures put it, "To whom much is given, much is required."

It's not hard to argue for more when most of us do nothing at all.

In this global society, shrinking more and more each day, bringing us closer and closer to pain, who is our neighbor if not the small child dying of malaria in Cambodia, the Indian man perishing from AIDS, the Haitian couple who have yet to give their five-year-old child a name because the likelihood of it reaching its fifth birthday is so slim, or the young mother barely keeping her children alive in a refuge camp in the Sudan. No one is postulating a world in which "our neighbor" is taken care of at the expense of our own families. Obviously, it is to our own families that we bear the first and primary responsibility. However, there is a vast difference between enough and overabundance. Once our needs are met, do we not have a responsibility to then alleviate the burdens of others--the homeless man across the street and the refuge across the ocean?

The opposite of poverty is not wealth. It is sufficiency.

"Providing for our children is important, but it isn't nearly as crucial as many American couples seem to think," says Wess Stafford. "Enough really is enough. Trust me on this: there actually is a type of poverty on the far side of "enough"; wealth and possessions often bring a misery and emptiness all thier own. Beyond "enough" can be lost opportunity..."

Many cite Biblical passages such as Christ's words that "the poor will always be among you" as an excuse to throw in the towel before the battle has even begun. They would rather twist Scripture to support their lack of empathy and action than roll up their shirt-sleeves and get dirty. Others feel that overwhelming poverty and the systemic death that it brings are unfortunate but unavoidable facts of the world in which we live. But, if aid workers could get across only one thing, I think it would be that that is simply not true!

No, we will not be able to entirely eradicate poverty from this planet, much as many well-meaning people have claimed. But there is so very much we can do. And for those, we have an obligation to do it. Millions die every year from the sort of preventable diseases you and I in the West consider a part of ancient history. Where we can help, we must help. To say that the need is overwhelming is understandable. But to do nothing is unconscionable. To do nothing is sin.

The good news seems to be that, while our government fails to recognize or care about the need, ordinary Americans are becoming energized to enact real change. Donations among the U.S. citizenry is way up, especially after the enormous tragedies of recent years and months. While helping the less fortunate has always been a sincere, if misunderstood, American tradition, it seems, of late, to have taken on a greater urgency.

The Bible contains over 2,000 verses relating to the poor and the Christian's duty toward them. Why then do Christians not do more to aid the poor? Obviously the poor are on God's heart. Why do we ignore clear Scriptural mandates in favor of railing against obscure peccadillo sins? If the church is the body of Christ, then that body has lost its hands and feet. The mouth sure works fine. Why is it that the church is known more for what it is against that what it is for?

There would be no need for parachurch relief organizations like Compassion International if the Church was doing its job. And thank God for them. But it is now time for the Church universal to take back what it left behind. It is time for it to lead the way.

The Church is finally waking up to the AIDS crisis overseas, let alone global poverty. Behind the ball on social issues for the past half century or more, it should never have ceded it's place as the vanguard of humanitarianism. Sure, missionaries have combed the planet looking for souls to save--a worthy endeavor if ever there was one--but more often than not, it was done at the expense of those soul's bodies.

This trend seems to be reversing.

At Radiant Church Assembly of God, the church in which I was raised, short-term missions groups no longer go to countries to stand on sanitary street corners and proclaim the gospel. Instead, the church has adopted various villages around the world to which they return several times a year. They spend their time working and sweating, building bridges and cisterns and waterways and clinics and latrines and houses and then and only then do they allow themselves the liberty of sharing the gospel.

That is as it should be.

Rick Warren, author of “The Purpose Driven Life,” and a leading evangelical celebrity has committed himself and his church to reforming the African continent. Warren believes government-driven programs have proven to be ineffective because multiple crises overwhelm their resources. In some instances, billions of dollars in aid and development have created a dependency that has only made vast sections of Africa worse. His "Purpose-Driven Nation" initiative aims to harness businesspeople, politicians, and pastors to combat the world's largest social problems. But it doesn't start there.

"Every revival and spiritual awakening in history starts with the peasants, not with the kings. It starts with average, ordinary people," Warren says. "There are not enough superstars to win the world. It has to be done by average people."

Warren hopes to enlist 1 billion individuals through thousands of American congregations for mission projects.

One of the most active groups in alleviating the suffering of Africa and other impoverished countries is the ONE campaign, popularized by Bono, the lead singer of the group U2. Their purpose statement is, "We believe that in the best American tradition of helping others help themselves, now is the time to join with other countries in a historic pact for compassion and justice to help the poorest people of the world overcome AIDS and extreme poverty. We recognize that a pact including such measures as fair trade, debt relief, fighting corruption and directing additional resources for basic needs - education, health, clean water, food, and care for orphans - would transform the futures and hopes of an entire generation in the poorest countries, at a cost equal to just one percent more of the U.S. budget. We commit ourselves - one person, one voice, one vote at a time - to make a better, safer world for all."

Pretty heady stuff.

"On one side of this international bridge," says Wess, "my role is to minister to the poor, to ‘comfort the afflicted.’ And then I cross the bridge, coming back to the Western, more affluent word, where my role is to speak and write to ‘afflict the comfortable.’ To do that with the same love can be a challenge."

* * *

Like Wess, my mother grew up in Africa in the small western country of Burkina Faso, then Upper Volta. I had the deep honor of visiting Africa with her and my grandparents a few years ago and it had a profound affect on me. Having lived in Europe for years, it was a startling cultural change to transition from grand cathedrals, palaces and boulevards to mud huts, breathtaking poverty and starving children.

If I forgot all else about that trip, the one thing I can never forget are the faces of the children--their quizative faces as they followed this white man through the villages, hiding in mock or sincere fear every time I turned and caught sight of them; their shinning faces as I handed out balloons and candy; their rapt faces as they listened to my grandfather preach in churches he'd built nearly a half century earlier.

I so want to go back. I want to spend more time with those children. I want to hold them once again. And someday my wife and I hope to adopt one.

For now, my adoption is through Wess and his wonderful Compassion team. Divya is 15 years old. She lives in India. I've been sponsoring her since she was eight. We enjoy trading letters back and forth and learning more about each other.

It isn't much and it isn't all I do, but it is a start. Just think of where the world would be if we all made a start.

"God is not interested as much in our ability," says Wess, "as our availability. If you don't have a cause or mission in life, then please take mine! I implore you to join me in this battle for the hearts, souls, minds and bodies of children."

You never stand so tall as when you stoop to help a child.

Too Small to Ignore: PART I

"While you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Most of you don't give a shit. What's worse is that you're more upset with the fact that I said shit than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night."

– Christian author/speaker Tony Campollo to a large Christian gathering

My wife and I were in Ann Taylor shortly before the holidays, looking for some business outfits. While she browsed the racks, I wandered the store captivated not by the clothes but by the people admiring them. Oh, there's nothing wrong with the clothes or even the people interested in buying them. However, I couldn't help but feel that I was watching everything that is sick, twisted and warped about Western society. The racks went on forever, perfect little copies of each outfit parading down in one homogenous blob.

One woman picked up a turquoise top, glanced at it disgustedly and tossed it aside. Another snatched three or four outfits commenting aloud, "I'm not sure if I want one or all of them."

And suddenly, unexplainably, I was awash in memories of visiting Africa — of naked, emaciated children racing about my legs, of feeble men and women clad in the same tattered rags they had obviously worn since as long as they could remember.

I felt sadness.

I felt disgust.

I felt pissed off.

Throughout the entire holiday season, with each gift exchanged, with each feast to which I sat, I was never able to shake those thoughts, those emotions. Outwardly I celebrated, but inside I was coiled in anger and revulsion.

We live in a wretched society, I thought. I am wretched.

* * *

Wess Stafford is the President of Compassion International, a child-development organization that exists to release children from spiritual, economic, social and physical poverty and enable them to become responsible, fulfilled Christian adults. Founded in 1952 to provide Korean War orphans with food, shelter, education and health care, today, Compassion helps more than 700,000 children in more than 20 countries.

I've known Wess for over twenty years. When people talk of great men, of powerful leaders, of God's heart, they are talking of people such as Wess. My mother worked as Wess's assistant for most of her nearly two decades in Compassion's employ. Wess was always a father-figure to me and someone who continues to mentor me just by being who he is, even though we see much less of each other these days.

Wess has written a book, Too Small To Ignore about his childhood growing up in West Africa and his current calling as an advocate for children the world over. In this profound book, Wess challenges the church, primarily the Western church, to step up and care for the most tiny and vulnerable among us.

“We do not have the option of ignoring poverty.”

Too long, he argues, the church has committed sins of omission by shirking our God-given responsibilities to care for kids simply because they are the smallest, weakest and most easily overlooked segment of the world’s population. Moreover, Wess argues, our action is all the more imperative because children, in particular, feel the brunt of the world’s sin, poverty and abuse.

“No matter what the setting, children seem to be a second-rate mandate. No matter what the ills of society, it tends to spiral downward and eventually land with its cruelest and most smothering impact on our littlest citizens. Small, weak, helpless, innocent, vulnerable, and trusting, they are the waiting victims for our simple neglect and most evil abuse. No matter what goes wrong, the little ones pay the greatest price. We sacrifice children on the altars of our most destructive sins.

“Because children have no political clout or even a voice in global affairs, they can become marginalized. Since they don’t vote, they have little effect on the political powers that should act on their behalf. Every segment of society seems to have figured out how to protest, march, and agitate for its individual and collective rights. But have you ever seen children holding a protest? They have much to legitimately protest, but they are the voiceless and powerless. Our selfishness and greed cause them to pay the greatest price but they suffer silently.”

We must fight for those who cannot fight for themselves. Children must cease being the lowest priority on our individual and governmental hearts and begin taking the place of respect, commitment, and attention that the Bible admonishes they deserve. After all, Christ used some of his harshest language on those who ignored or minimized children.

This is a book that focuses not so much on the great Commission, but the Great Omission. Americans lives such busy lives that we hardly have time for our own children, let only the children of the world. America spends more on garbage bags than 90% of the world’s 210 countries do on everything. We have twice as many shopping malls as schools. A professional basketball player makes as much in three hours as a teacher does in a year.

Something is dreadfully wrong with our values.

But feeding a child or putting him or her through school is not enough for Wess. Recovery from poverty requires a holistic approach. All facets of a child’s life must be addressed.

“We are shaping human lives, with all their wondrous complexity. If ever there was a project that required a multifaceted, holistic view, this is it. People are not a bank of pigeonholes. Their physical health is not walled off from their emotions, their finances, their social relationships, their sexuality, their skills and talents, or their spiritual beings. If we are serious about helping overcome poverty…we must care about all areas of their lives. It is not enough to concentrate on our favorite—say, health or education—and assume this will solve the rest.

“At its core, poverty is a mind-set that goes far beyond the tragic circumstances. It is the cruel, destructive message that gets whispered into the ear of millions by the enemy Satan himself, ‘Give up! You don’t matter. Nobody cares about you.’ Poverty is an inside-out issue. It does its greatest damage on the inside, where it often cannot be seen. When a child in poverty says, ‘I matter,’ he has just taken the first teetering steps out of poverty.”

Wess sees children as the key, not simply the target. He has no illusions that Compassion or any other aid organization can save an entire country. But what he does believe is that saving a handful of children can do exactly that. Because those children--the indiginous children--will transform their nation from the inside out.

“One changed child eventually changes a family. A changed family will influence change in their church. Enough changed churches will transform the community. Changed communities change regions. Changed regions will in time change an entire nation. [A]ddressing the circumstances and conditions of poverty at the community level is not enough. There are simply too many corrupt levels of society for the benefit to ‘trickle down’ to the neediest. It just doesn’t work—or at least not often enough to make it worth life’s effort! But when the poorest of the poor are the ones changed, they come alive and ‘bubble up’ through their community. That breaks the back of poverty and brings a sustainable transformation, by transformed people, that cannot be taken away. While changed circumstances sometimes change people, changed people always change circumstances.”

Wess doesn't believe that it is the church's apathy alone that contributes to its lack of action. Sometimes, the problem seems so large that we don't know where to start...


Friday, January 20, 2006

Wayward Christian Soldiers

This article, published today in the New York Times, does a fantastic and compelling job of reflecting my feelings and frustrations with the way in which Christians in this country are all too eager to jump into bed with pro-war politicians, even if it means warping the commands of Christ to do so.

Wayward Christian Soldiers
New York Times
January 20, 2006
Op-Ed Contributor

IN the past several years, American evangelicals, and I am one of them, have amassed greater political power than at any time in our history. But at what cost to our witness and the integrity of our message?

Recently, I took a few days to reread the war sermons delivered by influential evangelical ministers during the lead up to the Iraq war. That period, from the fall of 2002 through the spring of 2003, is not one I will remember fondly. Many of the most respected voices in American evangelical circles blessed the president's war plans, even when doing so required them to recast Christian doctrine.

Charles Stanley, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Atlanta, whose weekly sermons are seen by millions of television viewers, led the charge with particular fervor. "We should offer to serve the war effort in any way possible," said Mr. Stanley, a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention. "God battles with people who oppose him, who fight against him and his followers." In an article carried by the convention's Baptist Press news service, a missionary wrote that "American foreign policy and military might have opened an opportunity for the Gospel in the land of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob."

As if working from a slate of evangelical talking points, both Franklin Graham, the evangelist and son of Billy Graham, and Marvin Olasky, the editor of the conservative World magazine and a former advisor to President Bush on faith-based policy, echoed these sentiments, claiming that the American invasion of Iraq would create exciting new prospects for proselytizing Muslims. Tim LaHaye, the co-author of the hugely popular "Left Behind" series, spoke of Iraq as "a focal point of end-time events," whose special role in the earth's final days will become clear after invasion, conquest and reconstruction. For his part, Jerry Falwell boasted that "God is pro-war" in the title of an essay he wrote in 2004.

The war sermons rallied the evangelical congregations behind the invasion of Iraq. An astonishing 87 percent of all white evangelical Christians in the United States supported the president's decision in April 2003. Recent polls indicate that 68 percent of white evangelicals continue to support the war. But what surprised me, looking at these sermons nearly three years later, was how little attention they paid to actual Christian moral doctrine. Some tried to square the American invasion with Christian "just war" theory, but such efforts could never quite reckon with the criterion that force must only be used as a last resort. As a result, many ministers dismissed the theory as no longer relevant.

Some preachers tried to link Saddam Hussein with wicked King Nebuchadnezzar of Biblical fame, but these arguments depended on esoteric interpretations of the Old Testament book of II Kings and could not easily be reduced to the kinds of catchy phrases that are projected onto video screens in vast evangelical churches. The single common theme among the war sermons appeared to be this: our president is a real brother in Christ, and because he has discerned that God's will is for our nation to be at war against Iraq, we shall gloriously comply.

Such sentiments are a far cry from those expressed in the Lausanne Covenant of 1974. More than 2,300 evangelical leaders from 150 countries signed that statement, the most significant milestone in the movement's history. Convened by Billy Graham and led by John Stott, the revered Anglican evangelical priest and writer, the signatories affirmed the global character of the church of Jesus Christ and the belief that "the church is the community of God's people rather than an institution, and must not be identified with any particular culture, social or political system, or human ideology."

On this page, David Brooks correctly noted that if evangelicals elected a pope, it would most likely be Mr. Stott, who is the author of more than 40 books on evangelical theology and Christian devotion. Unlike the Pope John Paul II, who said that invading Iraq would violate Catholic moral teaching and threaten "the fate of humanity," or even Pope Benedict XVI, who has said there were "not sufficient reasons to unleash a war against Iraq," Mr. Stott did not speak publicly on the war. But in a recent interview, he shared with me his abiding concerns.

"Privately, in the days preceding the invasion, I had hoped that no action would be taken without United Nations authorization," he told me. "I believed then and now that the American and British governments erred in proceeding without United Nations approval." Reverend Stott referred me to "War and Rumors of War, " a chapter from his 1999 book, "New Issues Facing Christians Today," as the best account of his position. In that essay he wrote that the Christian community's primary mission must be "to hunger for righteousness, to pursue peace, to forbear revenge, to love enemies, in other words, to be marked by the cross."

What will it take for evangelicals in the United States to recognize our mistaken loyalty? We have increasingly isolated ourselves from the shared faith of the global Church, and there is no denying that our Faustian bargain for access and power has undermined the credibility of our moral and evangelistic witness in the world. The Hebrew prophets might call us to repentance, but repentance is a tough demand for a people utterly convinced of their righteousness.

Charles Marsh, a professor of religion at the University of Virginia, is the author of "The Beloved Community: How Faith Shapes Social Justice, from the Civil Rights Movement to Today."

To read some anti-war sentiments delivered by some of this nation's finest pastors and theologians, click here or here.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Mile High Hopes

All of our friends know who the true sports fan in the family is.

Sure, I enjoy a good football game, but generally I can think of several other things I'd rather do first. Stephanie on the other hand, lives for football season. Especially Bronco's football. (I live for the Olympics! More on that in a couple weeks.)

As Colorado's collective guts begin twisting in anticipation for this weekend's AFC Championship game in Denver, Stephanie wanted me to share her joy in letting you know that not only was she in attendance at the game last weekend when the Bronco's rode over the New England Patriots, but she'll also be at Mile High this Sunday to cheer on Denver as they sweep the Steelers aside on their way to the Super Bowl.

Go Broncos!

Monday, January 16, 2006

America's King

On this day in which we celebrate the life of one of the greatest Americans, I thought, rather than add to the well-meaning glut of things being written about him, I'd let him speak in his own words--the very words that changed a nation and perhaps even a world...

I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law.

Like an unchecked cancer, hate corrodes the personality and eats away its vital unity. Hate destroys a man's sense of values and his objectivity. It causes him to describe the beautiful as ugly and the ugly as beautiful, and to confuse the true with the false and the false with the true.

Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.

The hope of a secure and livable world lies with disciplined nonconformists who are dedicated to justice, peace and brotherhood.

I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. That is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.

Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time; the need for mankind to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence. Mankind must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression, and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

Now, I say to you today my friends, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: - 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.'

Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men.

The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.

Was not Jesus an extremist for love -- "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you." Was not Amos an extremist for justice -- "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream." Was not Paul an extremist for the gospel of Jesus Christ -- "I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus." Was not Martin Luther an extremist -- "Here I stand; I can do none other so help me God." Was not John Bunyan an extremist -- "I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience." Was not Abraham Lincoln an extremist -- "This nation cannot survive half slave and half free." Was not Thomas Jefferson an extremist -- "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." So the question is not whether we will be extremist but what kind of extremist will we be. Will we be extremists for hate or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice--or will we be extremists for the cause of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary's hill, three men were crucified. We must not forget that all three were crucified for the same crime--the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thusly fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment.

Our nettlesome task is to discover how to organize our strength into compelling power.

A man who won't die for something is not fit to live.

If a man is called to be a streetsweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the host of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lived a great streetsweeper who did his job well.

I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become reality. I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.

Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral. It is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding; it seeks to annihilate rather than to convert. Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Christian Exodus

Our local, weekly paper, the Independant, always carries a fun article each issue in which Kenneth Cleaver writes to various and sundry organizations and purports to be an interested party while obviously doing so very tongue-in-cheek. Then the replies from that organization are posted alongside his original letter. They are always hilarious, especially when the party involved doesn't see through the incredibly thinly veiled veneer to realize that the letter is, in fact, a joke. The latest one was especially funny and I couldn't agree more. Let's throw in Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Benny Hinn and a few others while we're at it.

August 2, 2005

Mr. Cory Burnell
Chairman & President
Christian Exodus Inc.
P.O. Box 1401
Valley Springs, CA 95252

Dear Mr. Burnell:

I recently learned of your campaign to create a Christian Homeland in South Carolina and I want to do ANYTHING I can to help.

My understanding is that you believe America has become so inhospitable to Christians that only a separate state can provide a bulwark against militant secularism and its accompanying moral freefall.

I couldn't disagree more, but who cares? What's important is what we have in common, which is this: You don't want to live in the United States as it is, and I don't want you here, either. This is something we can build on!

South Carolina is a lovely state. I've heard Charleston's colonial architecture is something to behold. However, I'm quite willing to write it off as collateral damage in the culture war. It's not like you're asking for California.

Here's what I propose: Let me fundraise to defray the costs of relocating leading Christian theocrats to South Carolina. This will enjoy popular support in liberal left and libertarian circles. The possibility of putting Dr. James Dobson, Sen. Sam Brownback and other religious extremists on a one-way bus is enough to give me the vapors.

In fact, there's a word for this sort of thing where I come from; it's called progress. Please let me know how I can help.

By the way, if you're leading this exodus, what're you still doing in California? Hello?


Kenneth Cleaver

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Proving the Unprovable

I read something interesting over the Christmas break.

A friend sent me a forward titled, "Are the Odds in Your Favor?" which proceeded to outline the historical, logical and quantifiable reasons why Christianity is true and provable and for these reasons, to ignore it imperils one's life.

The forward read, "Science has developed a method of studying odds. It is called the science of compound probabilities; a mathematical study of situations and the odds of possible outcomes. One of the most amazing studies conducted using this method was recorded by Professor Peter Stoner in Science Speaks. The purpose of the study was to determine the odds of one man in history fulfilling all the prophecies, recorded in the Bible, that point to the Jewish Messiah. (There are 300 different messianic Bible prophecies.)"

This study began by focusing on eight specific prophecies and argued that that compound probability of these eight prophecies being fulfilled is 1 in 1017 or 1 in 100,000,000,000,000,000. The chance of any one man fulfilling 48 prophecies is 1 in 10157. The chance of any one man fulfilling 300? The odds stagger the imagination.

"Jesus did not fall victim to the odds, nor did he beat the odds," the forward concluded. "Jesus shapes the odds! Now that the odds pertaining to Jesus and the Bible prophecies have been literally fulfilled, they are no longer odds. They are facts that have become established realities. These are realities that cannot be ignored. Each person reading this article is left with a choice to respond to the facts about Jesus: to receive or reject Him."

I've always been bothered by these sorts of arguments. I guess I feel the logic is flawed. While I agree with what is being said and do indeed believe in God and the Bible, it is the way the author argued his point that I find indefensible.

You can't use a thing to prove itself! And yet I find that is how most Christians practice apologetics. Anyone can write a book, predict a few things and then write them coming true later on in that same book. That doesn't make what is being written about true—it just makes the author good at minding his details. Provide corroborating and outside citations and then you have something.

I guess I'm also just not into the whole "I can prove the Bible" thing. So much of it you can't. And I wouldn't want you to. If you could prove it all and answer every question and solve every mystery, you'd be God. Either that, or else God is very small.

There is far more unplumbable mystery in the Scriptures than any of us are willing to admit. The secret, I think, is to being OK with that.

I said as much when I "replied-all" to the forward, interested in what others thought of the article. Another reader replied with a lengthy and literate response in which he primarily focused on the scholastic veracity and pain-staking attention to detail given to Bible translation throughout the millennia. Anything less than a total belief in the literal interpretation and utter inerrancy of Scripture, he argued, is unfathomable.

Truth is, I agree with the author of the forward and with my friend and his readers. The Bible is indeed a gift from God, used to describe His attributes and to be a guide from which we can learn to become ever more like Him. And becoming like Him and taking on His Lordship, scandalous grace and heavenly adoption is the single most important thing any of us will ever do with our lives.

However, I cannot embrace their view of the Bible.

I was never arguing for a low view of Scripture or for a stance that the Bible was somehow a lesser thing because it can't be proved. I feel quite the opposite. The more unprovable it is, perhaps the greater it's authenticity in my eyes.

What I take issue with is not the source, but this particular author's adopted defense of that source. Again, you cannot use a thing to prove itself. To say, “the Bible contains eyewitness accounts from those who knew of the events personally” cannot be used as proof of the veracity of the Scriptures. In court, you don't release a defendant simply because he says he is innocent. You first examine outside eye-witnesses and outside evidence. To say that a thing is its own best proof is like me saying that flying reindeer exist, but when you ask me to prove it, I say, it's so because I say it's so and you accept that. That is not proof, though thankfully it doesn't make it any less true. (The Bible, not the reindeer!)

Facts are so important for modern Christians. We see them as the ultimate insurance against ambiguity. Westerners (including Western Christians) detest ambiguity. We like everything tied up with neat bows, everything in its place, every “i” dotted and every “t” crossed, every ending an artificially happy one. Compared with most global societies, we are unique in this mindset. Mystery and the unknown scare us and show us how very much of life is far from our control. We want everything to be solvable, rational, quantifiable, knowable, decipherable. We are the children of our enlightenment ancestors, whether we like it or not.

Within Christianity, we look upon mystery, for a large part, as either a hindrance to faith(something that must be accounted for so that there can be no question as to whether or not God is real and more importantly to us, our salvation is valid), or, it's a problem to be solved (we believe, though we rarely say, that God, like our world, can be explained, given enough time, effort and perhaps even prayer). And we erroneously believe that the Bible gives us the tools by which to do it.

There is a modern epistemology that insists, "If you don't accept all of the Bible as authoritative and infallible, you have to throw the whole thing out because it is flawed." As a result, adherents of this belief will throw all their energies into preserving the integrity of Scripture. But that kind of either/or logic is fallible and again, Western-centric. Furthermore, such a stance inherently assumes that uncertainty is cruel. Modernism prizes clarity and linear reason over mystery and holistic thought. Sadly, if certainty is paramount, mystery will always lose.

But mystery is not something to be feared! Uncertainty is not something of which to be frightened. Indeed, in my view, uncertainty and mystery make God larger, less contained in a human-fashioned box. Those people who tell me that we can figure God out or understand the entire Bible literally and perfectly lead me to believe that they worship a pretty narrow and small God. The God of my Bible is so very vast and unplumbable that to be able to fully explain Him, His attributes or even His means of communication with us borders on the ludicrous.

Do I believe in the Bible? Yes. I believe more so in the God of the Bible.

Do I believe the Bible is infallible and uncorrupted through time. No.

Just in my own lifetime the Bible has been altered, abridged, modified, paraphrased and manipulated. And I am supposed to believe this is a new thing in history? All of these versions sit side by side with the supposedly unadulterated texts that can trace themselves back to the very hands of their authors. Am I supposed to believe that centuries or a millennia from now this trend won't have continued and added further corruption with each alteration?

I don't buy the infallibility bit. I can't accept the argument that God has shepherded this book so at no time was there ever anyone who injected their own beliefs, greed, power plays, machinations or even genuine good intentions into it—though I wish I could. It certainly would make life and apologetics easier! But if the Bible was unalterable, why does Revelation speak against those who would remove or alter one jot or tittle. Biblical inaccuracy doesn't make me suspect of God (though at one time it did), it makes me suspect of man.

The gospel is primarily relational/missional, not informational. Raw information is the least of its powers. Imparting information about how to be individually saved is secondary to inviting people into relationship with a king and with members of a kingdom whose foremost concern is wholeness for a broken world, rather than an insurance policy for eternal destiny.

The Bible was not written as an encyclopedia. If we could divide the complexity of our reality into grids and categories, God would have communicated through the Bible in grids and categories. But there are mysteries that cannot be explained logically. There are things we cannot know, things that are beyond our finite minds, things that are unprovable.

I'm not saying there isn't truth. I certainly believe there's Absolute Truth. But I think that, to a vast degree, it is unknowable by us. Aside from certain elements which God, in His mercy and grace, has chosen to reveal in Scripture, most of it belongs to the privy of God alone. And speculating that we can or do know it is not only arrogant, it is sin. And it has led to hundreds of bloody wars fought in God's name.

Making absolute truth claims is so important to evangelism in the modern era. I would rather recruit people who follow Jesus by faith (without claims of certainty or absolute knowledge) with the goal of being transformed and participating in the transformation of the world. Perhaps it is our very lack of example in speech, behavior, love, faith, and purity which may explain why we feel we must rely so heavily on arguments. Faith is relational not logical.

Generally, believers fall into two categories: those who use scripture as proof-text and those who plant the Bible's stories and guidelines in their hearts so it can grow into a life that looks more and more like Jesus. Sure, there are hard words in the Bible, but taken in context we treat them and those they speak toward very differently. The Bible is a love story, not a debate file, a source of heavenly codes, or a battery of scriptures to wield like a weapon. When we see the Bible as a repository of facts and proofs, it is too great a temptation to see it as the ultimate trump card—the “I told you so” of evangelism. Until one perceives it as a love story—a grand, overarching meta-narrative—it cannot become truly alive.

Modern Christianity is obsessed with rules rather than relationships, intent on creating an impossible theocratic utopia on earth. We feel the most important questions are those that focus on biblical authority and the rules by which we live our lives. And while these may be important, even critically so, this is a love relationship, not a court case. Besides, whose rules, or more importantly, whose interpretations of those rules do I follow? Many love to preach against homosexuality (today's pet sin) but say nothing about the consumption of shellfish, the wearing of mixed-fiber clothing, women speaking in church, gluttony, slaves defying their masters, or storing up things on earth. Yet each of these are Biblical mandates. The fact is, Biblical inerrantists ignore hundreds of biblical rules every day. The high-view of scripture set doesn't believe in biblical authority any more than those with a low view do.

An interesting thing begins happening when we are more interested in the Bible as a weapon of proof than as as a love letter—we begin worshiping the Bible instead of its author. We become guilty of what a friend of mine dubbed, biblidolatry.

We care more for the words than He who wrote them. We care more that every jot and tittle is followed than that we actually resemble Christ. We care more that everyone around us is living by some moral code we've extrapolated than that we are loving our God with all our heart, soul and mind and our neighbor as ourselves.

I think it is important to remember that the Bible itself is not holy, though we frequently call it so. The God it describes is holy. The text merely points to Him. In heaven, our Bible will be as useless as toilet paper—a thing to be thrown away and forgotten. One does not hold onto a reflection of light and warmth when one can bask in the real thing.
Ut In Omnibus Glorificetur Deus