Thursday, May 31, 2012

Lack of Laws or Edwards' Morality?

You can't legislate morality.

You want proof?  Here it is:  you can't prosecute immorality.

The acquittal today of disgraced senator John Edwards on one count and a hung jury on five more represents yet another misguided attempt to hang a politician by his belt - or perhaps, his lack of one that got him in trouble in the first place.

Edwards, a Democrat, was found guilty on one charge of violating a technicality in our complex campaign finance laws.  Conservatives were hoping to send him to the slammer for fudging and lying about an affair that produced an offspring, both of which Edwards vehemently denied while he was running for President in 2008.  Oh yes - and all while his longsuffering wife was battling cancer.

Ostensibly, the government prosecuted this case based on the altruistic claim that laws had been broken during Edwards' campaign, and justice needed to prevail.  On its face, that's reason enough to bring a defendant into a court of law.  Although breaking a law is indeed immoral, a campaign finance law is a quantifiable entity that can be either proven or disproved based on objective criteria.  As we saw today, apparently the government didn't even have enough of that objective criteria to nail Edwards on more of the counts against him.

Courting Laws?

From how this case has been reported, it appears the government was banking on the sensational influence of subjective evidence to sway the jury.  Prosecutors made a great deal of the former candidate's unfaithfulness to his sick wife, but in the end, while it wasn't irrelevant to their case, they couldn't prove it was incontrovertibly pertinent to the legal code they accused Edwards of violating.

Of course, we don't need anybody to prove that Edwards is a cad, a miserable father to his illegitimate daughter, an adulterer, or a liar.  But unfortunately, none of those things are illegal, for the simple reason that they can't be legislated against.  Well, perhaps somebody could make a law outlawing adultery, but it would be like Prohibition - and look how effective liquor laws were.

Maybe in the coming days, we'll learn more from the jurors in this case about their deliberations, and the sticking points over which they couldn't all agree.  Even Edwards' defense team never bothered to deny that he was having an affair, that he played shell games with a wealthy donor's money, and that he lied about the paternity of his lover's daughter.  But hardly any of it was illegal - only one charge was proven to be so.

And it's quite possible that the technicality in campaign finance law on which the jury convicted Edwards is a common technicality that many politicians violate.  It's just that Edwards got caught.  Perhaps if he hadn't been so irresponsible with his libido, he wouldn't have found himself needing to violate any campaign finance laws in the first place.  But by then, it wasn't just federal law he was violating, but God's.

God's moral law.  The same law with which Republicans tried to dethrone President Bill Clinton, after his dalliance with Monica Lewinski.  Sure, they got Clinton impeached, but what difference did it make?  He came on stronger than ever - in more ways than one - and won a second term.  Today, he's still remarkably popular.  Even conservatives look back wistfully on Clinton's administration as "the good ol' days," at least in comparison to the current Obama administration.

Tell It To the Judge

What should these two tawdry episodes be telling us?  That morality is ultimately the responsibility of the individual, not of government.  As our post-Christian culture lurches into a future of gay marriage, abortion rights, steadily rising unwed maternity rates, and other sexual perversions that are consuming traditional virtues, evangelicals need to remember the lessons we're supposed to be learning from cases like Edwards'.

We're called to be salt and light to a dying world.  We're called to live out the truth of the Gospel in everyday life.  We're called to model a moral code that speaks of Christ's holiness.  And we're to do all of this with love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, meekness, and self-control.

We can't rely on laws to set a moral example for us.

Roughly half of the world's lawyers live and practice in the United States.  That should be testament enough that our laws can't make people moral.  The answer to America's social ills won't come through laws, lawyers, and even legalistic Christianity.

We can hope that people who live without Christ will somehow see the incentive they have to live as morally as possible so they can benefit from morality's broad amenities, like peace, a beneficent prosperity, security, and justice.  But other than that, honoring Christ is the only true motivation producing the lifestyle that benefits everyone around us.  Just as you can't force people to love someone, you can't force people to abide by laws.  They have to want to behave in a certain manner whether the force of law exists or not.

But let's not cluck too much at Edwards and his sins.  Or our government's apparent waste of a trial.  We may not be able to legislate morality, but neither are we entirely moral ourselves.

Which means it's probably just as well that we can't legislate morality.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

When Death Snakes In as Sin

It doesn't get much cornier than this.

Or more tragic.

Mack Wolford died after waiting too long for medical care for a rattlesnake bite this past Sunday.  The West Virginia Pentecostal preacher had been hosting a homecoming-style worship service in a state park for family and friends of his signs-and-wonders ministry when Sheba, his pet rattler, decided she'd had enough.

According to the folklore of religious snake-handling zealots, if one of the faithful is bitten while handling a snake, they are to refuse medical treatment and pray for God to heal them.  The snake bites are a sign of unrepented sin, or, more conveniently for them, an affirmation of the power of God.  It's unclear when a snakebite is one or the other.  But God either spares their life, or He doesn't.

And in Wolford's case, He didn't.  The deceased pastor leaves behind a wife, three stepchildren, and a mother who'd resigned herself to his ministry years ago.

Of course, the international press is having a field day with this story.  And it's hard to deny them that pleasure.  Although one member of Wolford's family did eventually call 911 after he'd spent several hours in excruciating pain with no relief in sight, by the time he'd arrived at the hospital, it was too late.

Ironically, Wolford died the same way his daddy'd done, as they say in West Virginian parlance.  The elder Wolford had been a snake-handling preacher, too.  And had been killed by one of his snakes years ago.

Or to put it more accurately, he'd died after refusing life-saving care for a snake bite wilfully incurred during a wholly unBiblical religious practice.  And although saying both of these men died in vain would be impolite to their survivors, it would nevertheless be true.

Or would it?  In one way, yes, they died in vain.  But in another light, it could be said that they died proving some basic teachings of scripture.  Just not the scriptures they intended to prove.

Among them are:
It should be pointed out that the passage of scripture from which snake handlers like Wolford derive their mandate is itself disputed* by some theologians, and has been under dispute since the Second Century.  It has been argued that since some original texts appear to omit the verbiage with miracles involving devils, serpents, and deadly drinks, this portion of Mark's Gospel should be separated by qualifiers from the rest of his book.

The interesting thing about the people who literally believe this obscure reference to devils, serpents, and deadly drinks is that they don't drink deadly drinks.  They handle snakes, like it's some sort of perverse pleasure, or they're boastful about their ability to capture attention by doing something so foolhardy.  But you never hear about them drinking Clorox or some other deadly drink, do you?

And why is that?  Because they know that even though handling snakes is risky business, snakes don't bit them every time.  And sometimes, they don't inject enough venom to severely injure or kill their handler.  But drinking Clorox is virtually guaranteed to severely injure or kill the person who drinks it, except for a literal, immediate miracle from God.

And you'd really be foolish to tempt God that much.

As if tempting Him in lesser things isn't also a sin.

*In the King James Version, this is Mark 16:15-20:
15 And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. 16 He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved ; but he that believeth not shall be damned. 17 And these signs shall follow them that believe ; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; 18 They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover. 19 So then after the Lord had spoken unto them, he was received up into heaven, and sat on the right hand of God. 20 And they went forth, and preached every where, the Lord working with them, and confirming the word with signs following. Amen.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

When Politics Are Black and White

"I don't know how anybody could call themselves 'born-again' and vote for any Democrat."

"As long as you're pro-life, that's the only issue that counts."

I've heard both of these claims from people at my evangelical church in Dallas.   But how true are they?  Maybe more to the point, I should ask:  how "white" are they?

After all, I know pro-life evangelicals who vote for Democrats, and most of them are black believers.  None of these brothers and sisters in Christ are any less "saved" than I am.  In fact, if we're talking sanctification, some of them are probably further along down that road than I am.

So how can they admire somebody like Barak Obama?  Somebody many white evangelicals loathe?

After all, Obama is decidedly pro-choice, since anybody who does not advocate for the overturn of Roe v. Wade is not considered pro-life.  But is abortion the single issue upon which conservatives should center their political ideologies?  How can people who claim the name of Christ vote for political candidates who are pro-choice?

I've been pro-life for many years now, but I've never been comfortable with making abortion the deal-breaker or deal-maker for my politics.  Yes, it's been a significant factor in how I view political candidates, since abortion is a form of murder.  But frankly, most people who view abortion as murder also hold other views which closely align with my own.  I suspect that's how it is for many conservative voters.  So we tend to vote for people who also happen to share our belief that abortion is murder.

But what about my black evangelical friends who vote for candidates whose platform includes a pro-choice position?  Does the legitimate faith of my black evangelical friends suddenly evaporate when they step inside the voting booth?

I've mused before on this blog about the answer that I suspect exists.  And while I always invite your feedback, I'm particularly curious to hear from those of you who might have a particular insight on this question.

But first, let me try to figure this out myself.  Abortion is murder, right?  Yes.

Is there something else that God tells us is murder?  How about hatred?  Hate is a sin, but what else is it?

Murder, right?  1 John 3:15 says, "anyone who hates his brother is a murderer."

Now, obviously, America's system of jurisprudence does not equate hatred with murder, but does that mean God doesn't either?  To Him, sin is sin, right?  So might evangelicals who vote for pro-choice candidates do so with both a fundamental disagreement on abortion, but an understanding that the various other sin issues pro-life candidates have in their lives makes morality a wash?

When you boil politics down, other than abortion, conservatives of faith have precious little Biblical ground upon which to accurately vilify liberal political policies.  This helps explain why abortion has become the main issue white conservatives use to attack liberals.  However, might our insistence on making abortion the Christian voter's litmus test also hold arbitrary legitimacy?

Remember, I doubt any liberal evangelical would say that abortion is OK.  Or that it's not an important issue.  It's just not the determining factor that many conservatives (who are white) claim it to be.

You'll have noticed that I seem to be making this some sort of racial issue.  And you'd be correct, because I wonder the extent to which we whites in the United States ignore the pain of hatred that has been seared upon the black consciousness from our country's history of race relations.  Perhaps our brothers and sisters in Christ who happen to be black don't blame us directly for whatever discrepancies they perceive in our society, but perhaps we whites have not appreciated how advances in civil rights have yet to bridge the gap between our perceptions and the realities of our racially diverse society.

And yes, maybe there are threads of hatred - or even vast swaths of bigotry - which remain in the fabric of our increasingly pluralistic society that remind blacks there's still work to be done before old misgivings are buried for good.

If this is indeed the case, then it could help explain why black evangelicals can vote for pro-choicers like President Obama with a clear conscience - or, at least as clear a conscience as white conservatives have when we vote for pro-lifers.  After all, let's admit it:  whether they're black or white, the slate of candidates our society is producing these days is hardly virtuous, is it?  In this election, neither liberals nor conservatives seem particularly excited about their choices.

When Obama was sworn into the Oval Office, I won't deny that I felt a warm surge of pride and accomplishment, that after all our country has been through, we'd been able to elect a black person as President of the United States.  No matter your political affiliation, you must admit that Obama's presidency has been a profoundly historical milestone.

Evangelical blacks who voted for Obama then, and will be voting for him again, may be wanting to savor this milestone in race relations, since in many ways, it still represents a sort of validation of African American history, and a repudiation of the hatred that has been such a plague on our nation.

It could even serve to remind the rest of us that the very hatred lying at the root of bigotry is even more evil in God's eyes than the evil we mortals see in abortion.

And shouldn't that unsettle us even more than the political policies Obama hopes to carry into a second term as President?

Friday, May 25, 2012

Getting Drunk on Freedom?

It's a curious thing about our modern evangelical Christianity:

Alcohol consumption is suddenly expected of all of us.  Or at least it sure seems that way.

I can't have helped but notice how consistently the posts several of my Christian friends make on Facebook involve alcohol consumption.  As cohorts, my unsaved friends hardly ever mention alcohol on Facebook, but if you didn't know any better, you'd think these evangelical friends of mine are alcoholics.

And of course, I can't really say that out loud, because then I'd be branded a legalist.  I'd be denying my brothers and sisters in Christ their freedoms.  I'm the one who has unBiblical views regarding alcohol, not my friends who seem to talk about it all the time.

But isn't regularly talking about alcohol one of the tell-tale signs that you might be an alcoholic?

Then again, isn't regularly talking about Christians who drink alcohol one of the tell-tale signs that you might be legalistic?

So for the most part, I keep my mouth shut.  You already know that I personally don't drink, but not because I believe the Bible teaches that drinking is a sin.  Drunkenness - and, by extension, alcoholism - is a sin, but the reason I don't drink is because my father's father was a drunken sot whose inebriation destroyed his family.  I'm not convinced alcoholism isn't at least partly genetic, and since I already have an oral fixation with food and am struggling with the sin of gluttony, I hardly need to flirt with disaster when it comes to alcohol.

Yet the grace I'm supposed to show fellow Christians who may sin with too much alcohol somehow seems to evaporate when it comes to my ample girth - a dead giveaway that I have an overeating problem.  So, am I simply jealous that my sin is harder to hide?  People can joke about other fat people - it's socially acceptable.  But to suggest somebody has a problem with alcohol is somehow a violation of grace.

I have other family members who don't drink, either; again, not because they view it as sinful behavior, but because they're frugal, and they're already embarrassed by the amount of money they spend on soft drinks.  They've commented on how even in the sermons at their evangelical church, more and more references to alcohol consumption have been noticeable.

A couple of other evangelical friends have decided to give up alcoholic beverages, but not because they think it's sinful.  They're both trying to lose weight, and wine, and especially beer, are surprisingly loaded with stuff weight-watchers should be avoiding.  One of them mentioned that it's kinda put a crimp in his socializing - he hadn't realized how often he went out with friends from church to bars.

Back when I lived in New York City, I remember attending parties with church friends where there was no alternative to liquor but water from the kitchen faucet.  One of my former bosses, a Christian who's now retired, told me recently that as far as she knew, besides her own husband, I was her only friend - either saved or unsaved - who didn't drink.  She and her daughter used to have lunch dates regularly, but since her daughter began drinking a few years ago, they hardly ever get together anymore.  At her daughter's 50th birthday party, my friend and her husband - her parents - weren't even invited, since it was being held at a piano bar.  My friend's husband, who is a fanatical golfer and is used to be ribbed about his tea-totaling (or is it tee-totaling) from his golfing buddies in the clubhouse, tells her that's just the way it is.  Don't say anything.  As far as everyone else is concerned, we're the odd ones out.

And he's right.  Alcohol has come out of the Christian closet, and is the new normal.  And for the most part, I'm OK with that.  It's just that at those moments when you realize some of your Christian friends seem to have a preoccupation with alcohol, and you realize if you say something, it's you who's immediately at fault because they'll accuse you of legalism; what then?

Are some evangelicals using the threat of accusing us of legalism as a way to prop up what may be a not-so-innocent problem with alcohol?  Some evangelicals seem to be particularly focused on enjoying what used to be a forbidden freedom, at least in fundamentalist American Christianity.  And they think they have more rights to flirt with abuse than those of us who more strongly respect the dangers of alcohol.

No-win situations like this can't be what Christ expects for His people, which actually, in addition to my alcoholic grandfather, may be becoming yet another reason to validate my wariness of drinking.  And drinkers.

If I'm being the one silenced at the price of your exploitation of our freedoms, how free does that make you?  How is this any progress from the fundamentalism that refused to acknowledge that plain, old, ordinary, non-drunken drinking isn't a sin?

Shouldn't we all know our limits?

Why should my even suggesting that be off-limits?

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Dissing Crippled Veterans Cripples Valor

War is hell.

Apparently, so is coming home.

As the United States accelerates the return of our military veterans from our war theaters in Iraq and Afghanistan, we're beginning to learn the true cost of these failed excursions into political fantasy and hawkish recklessness.  Because aside from the costs associated with equipping our military with planes, ships, trucks, tanks, Humvees, helmets, goggles, guns, boots, and all sorts of other war materiel, we're seeing the cost in terms of damage done to human beings themselves.

Only our government doesn't want to pay those costs.  And so far, ambivalence from we the people is tolerating this travesty.  Even though these veterans have survived real warfare.

By now, we're familiar with post-traumatic stress disorder, and many of us have a hazy understanding of what it must be like for our men and women in uniform to return from utterly bizarre battlefields in the Middle East to our post-modern, materialistic, coddled world of cars that don't explode, streets that aren't mined, and neighborhoods without snipers behind every house.  OK, except maybe the veterans returning to Detroit and Miami, who don't have much readjusting to do at all!

But returning veterans are often a stubborn lot.  That stubbornness is partly why they joined the military to begin with.  And why they stuck it out.  They thought they could make a difference in our world.  They thought they were serving their country.  They assumed the military would be a job that could provide them with life skills they could use later on in the private sector.

Many of them don't want to believe they've suffered brain injuries.  Many of them don't seem to understand that even if they look OK outwardly, things may be seriously messed-up inside.  They seem uncomfortable with admitting that even though they're returning home with all of their arms, legs, hands, and fingers, their brains have been walloped in these wars in unprecedented ways.  In most of our previous wars, soldiers were killed far more efficiently because they lacked today's sophisticated armor and front-line medical technologies.  In some ways, perhaps the old days served soldiers better, in that the mortal injuries they received on the battlefield spared them from the bureaucratic nightmare that would await them at home.

And if they have received physical scars as well, so much the worse for them.

These days, soldiers needing medical attention after their discharge from the service are facing an ever more complex and dangerous enemy, one that is disgracefully as effective as some of the insurgents and other enemies they faced in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Only this time, it's their own government, here on American soil.  Multiple stories in the media have described the absurd delays veterans are encountering as they file for disability services and payments.  And many of us civilians assume that our government is scrambling to take care of everybody in the same manner in which we would expect to be treated by our private healthcare providers.

Of course, some Americans say that injuries - whether to the brain or body - are the price soldiers pay for willingly joining an all-volunteer military.  Recruits should understand that there are no guarantees, that war really is hell, and that the American taxpayer can't be expected to fix every problem you might encounter if you're injured in battle.  It's all about risk, they say; you're risking your health and your life, so why do you come home and complain that our government isn't getting you back to your pre-war condition?

Veterans have been through this before, unfortunately.  Remember the Vietnam War?  And the fight its veterans had to wage to get our government to admit they poisoned our own soldiers with Agent Orange?  Thirty years ago, that fight was waged in relative secrecy, compared with the ubiquitousness of today's social media, and a press corps far less willing to be cowed by terse rebuttals from the Pentagon and the White House.

Indeed, recent problems with the military's former flagship hospital, Walter Reed, were widely reported, as have stories about military families forced to hold fundraisers to purchase bullet-proof vests for their soldiers serving overseas.  Public outcry helped convince the Pentagon that new vehicles with armor plating to deflect IEDs were needed in Iraq.  But our government's refusal to adequately respond to and budget for post-war costs is becoming the newest military scandal.

Literally adding insult to injury, in an article today on exploring the plight of several families struggling with obtaining benefits from the Veterans Administration, a commenter posting their feedback to the story basically wrote it off as imbalanced.  Others have said it before, and it seems to be the unwritten code of the Pentagon:  these soldiers should have known what they were getting into.  Many of them were greedy for the academic scholarships and other benefits available through the military.  America can't pander to all of the veterans who suffer wounds in defense of our country.  Life isn't fair.  Suck it up and move on.

Granted, not everyone who joins the military does so with a full understanding of what modern warfare is like.  Not everybody who joins the military has a realistic appreciation of how the things they experience in battle are going to change their worldview, their health, their finances, and their families.  It's also no secret that the military is full of people lacking the marketable skills that would otherwise provide them better and safer employment alternatives other than the military.  And no, nobody serving in the United States military has been conscripted.  Sure, military service may have been their best option, but it's not anybody's only option.

So does that mean that we as a country should turn our backs on them when they come home with physical and mental disorders?  Doesn't a person's willingness to go and risk dying for their country count for anything?  Are soldiers who die from their wounds that much less of a bother?  Nobody thinks our armed forces are staffed with saints and altruistic martyrs, but how many of us benefit from the fact that because they've gone, we don't have to?

Perhaps what's so disturbing about how we're treating these forgotten veterans is that their plight echoes what's bad about America.  We do many things well, but cleaning up after ourselves isn't necessarily one of them.  We take a lot of things for granted, and when we're done using something, we have a bad habit of simply moving on, looking for something else to exploit.  And then we complain and bicker when somebody else has to call us on the carpet for doing so.

In this case, for to be pointing out the growing financial crises being experienced by so many of America's veterans speaks volumes about how disconcerting this situation is becoming.  For one thing, America's economy does not benefit when anybody is forced to declare bankruptcy, especially when their reasons for doing so stem from their military service.  And for another thing, American society does not benefit when systemic failures in our government's response to such situations threatens to cause people considering military service to second-guess the idea.  Who wants to risk their lives for a country that is apparently so ungrateful?

Couldn't this even imperil national security in the future, if enough prospective soldiers decide that their own government might not support them if they return home alive - but injured?  Even those ungrateful clods who shrug their shoulders at the medical problems our veterans are facing should realize that the cost of properly addressing these injuries and treating our veterans with dignity today can pay bigger dividends tomorrow.  After all, threats to our national security aren't going to go away anytime soon.  Besides, shouldn't we be civilized enough to treat our veterans respectfully simply because it's the moral thing to do?

This coming Monday is Memorial Day, and most Americans will barely stop to honor the memory of the millions of servicemembers who've died for the honor of our country.  In a way, maybe that's some sort of affirmation of the success our military has had in securing our freedoms for our United States.  But don't we still owe more than nonchalance to our veterans?  Isn't caring for our sick part of what defines us?

Hopefully we can stem such institutionalized disrespect for our retired warriors before military servicemembers literally become a dying breed.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Which Beast Should We Fear Most?

Does it need to be said?  Yet again?

Greed may be the undoing of capitalism in the United States.  It's our country's financial beast.  Yes, I've explained the dangers of greed several times before, but it's difficult to watch the implosion of Facebook's celebrated IPO these past several days and miss the point:  something went nefariously wrong here, and it didn't have to.

Of course, we've just entered the early stages of unpacking the fallout from Facebook's spectacularly fumbled initial public offering.  Lawsuits were filed this morning in New York City.  The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the state of Massachusetts, and the United States Senate have each opened inquiries into NASDAQ's handling of its electronic management of the stock offering and how banks managed information critical to the IPO's launch.  The stock itself has fallen 16% since it's debut.  All this, in just four business days.

Experts from across the financial media spectrum have already pounced on this historic debacle, analyzing what they think it means and extrapolating dire consequences and scenarios from what little is known at this early point in the incredibly short history of Facebook's stock.

Some analysts say this is all proof that the stock was wildly over-valued from the start.  Others accuse the big banks underwriting the IPO of staging last-minute briefings to protect some of their largest clients from potential disaster, while allowing smaller investors to wade out into the IPO frenzy and get gobbled up by devaluation sharks.  Still others want NASDAQ's corporate head on a silver platter for being unwilling to admit that they couldn't handle the unprecedented trading activity for which they should have been better prepared.

Could Facebook's tainted $100 billion IPO spark a new recession?  Were the big banks in collusion to stage a crisis that may have netted them $100 million in additional trading fees?  Were NASDAQ's electronic failures a smoke screen to obscure behind-the-scenes shenanigans with the stock?  These have all been questions that Wall Street gurus have asked, and are questions whose answers may not be as far-fetched as they seem.

Coming, as it does, on the heels of J.P. Morgan Chase's $2 billion loss earlier this very month, Facebook's IPO may be just the thing that convinces even conservative Republicans that Wall Street has lost its last shreds of incentive to police itself.  It's almost like instead of being the heart of New York's pinstriped financial district, it's become the Wild West down there at Wall and Broad streets, just a block away from Trinity Church, and miles from Main Street USA, where most of the debris from these financial bombshells usually falls.

It was reported today that Neelie Kroes, Digital Agenda Commissioner of the European Union, has proposed a draconian set of initiatives for establishing a glorified human bar code system to facilitate, among other things, the more efficient transfer of money electronically.  Kinda like a "mark of the beast" some end-times theorists have been warning us about.

Except that Kroes' efforts may be too little too late.  Thanks to Wall Street's unbridled greed, we may all be bartering with sea shells and pretty rocks like hunters-and-gatherers before her beast ever makes it across Europe.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Can You Love God and Preach Bigotry?

"Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father in heaven."  - Matthew 7:21

And what is the will of Christ's Father in heaven?

To do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.  Right?

To love our neighbors as ourselves.  To love our enemies, and do good to those who hate us.  To speak the truth in love.

But what is the easier way?  All to often, the easier way involves lambasting a group of people possessing different viewpoints from our own.  We Christians have a bad habit of cloaking our disdain and lack of love in a righteous posture of free speech.  We pervert our First Amendment privileges by heaping scorn and derision on fellow human beings whose political perspectives we don't like, whose lifestyles we love to hate, and who exist just far enough outside our personal spheres of influence where we don't incur any personal responsibility for our invective and pious rhetoric.

We don't often see the faces of those we mock.  We rarely intermingle with them socially.  We get together with others of a similarly calloused mindset and assume democracy rules in our favor as we slander - through jokes and gossip - those who don't share our values.

And we think God is pleased with us for doing so?

Trash-Talking Preachers

Just a few days ago, a video of Charles Worley, pastor of Providence Road Baptist Church in Maiden, North Carolina, went viral on the Internet.  Apparently he's come up with the solution to homosexuality.  Worley wants to build two huge pens and confine lesbians in one of them, and gay men in the other.  He thinks that doing so would cause homosexuality to eventually die out.

Worley says he's responding to President Barak Obama's recent endorsement of homosexual marriage.  However, he's probably simply playing catch-up to other North Carolina preachers after their state's recent vote to affirm heterosexual marriage.  For example, Ron Baity, pastor of Berean Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, recently told his congregation that homosexuals should be prosecuted based on their sexual orientation.

Not to be outdone, Sean Harris, pastor of Berean Baptist Church in Fayetteville, North Carolina, exhorted fathers to physically assault their "limp-wristed" sons.

This kind of talk is abominable.  How can preachers claim to love God and preach such bigotry?  Have gays ever been more vilified, and so publicly?  Wild accusations have been hurled by people invoking God's authority without any proof to substantiate them, which only undermines the true message of sexual sin.  For a while now, so-called Christian activists like Bryan Fischer and Scott Lively have been claiming that homosexuals were responsible for starting Germany's Nazi party.  Yet how can spouting such uneducated hyperbole lend credibility to Christianity?  Pro-gay organizations are watching all of these pulpit pontificators and keeping score on websites like Huffington Post and Right Wing Watch, where some of the videos they've posted of mostly southern, mostly redneck preachers railing against homosexuality are even offensive to me.

Indeed, I'm compelled to apologize to the homosexual community, on behalf of we who believe in the full Gospel of Jesus Christ, for the ridiculous vitriol that some people claiming the name of Christ are spewing.  Frankly, I never used to believe it when gay activists claimed Christianity was out for their blood, but now I see what they're saying.

Let's Review What Sin Is

Not that I endorse homosexuality.  Even though many gays claim otherwise, and consider this hate talk too, the Bible does clearly teach that homosexuality is a sin.  But the Bible also teaches that it's no more heinous a sin in God's eyes than any other sexual perversion, like adultery.  And adultery is no worse than lying, gossiping, stealing, idolatry, speeding, overeating, bigotry, and more.  Contrary to popular Christian opinion, homosexuality is not an unpardonable sin.  For that matter, abortion isn't, either.  The only unpardonable sin is denying what the Holy Spirit teaches about Christ's divinity.

I couldn't help but noticing that Worley, who advocates penning-in homosexuals, has a huge gut.  Doesn't he realize that gluttony is as perverse a sin in God's eyes as homosexuality?  Harris, who gave fathers in his congregation a special "dispensation" so they could punch their non-masculine boys, claimed later to the media that he was simply joking, but even if he was, coarse jesting is as bad a sin as homosexuality.

Perhaps even more disturbingly, however, is that each of these supposedly Godly people displays a blatant disregard of the very Gospel they claim to champion.  Sin is evil.  God abhors sin.  Grace is only available through faith in His Son.  The very homosexuality that may exist in somebody else's life carries the same penalty as the sin in your life for which Christ died.  That's why, when we're forgiven of our own debt, we're not to turn around and unlovingly berate somebody else for their debt.

We can point out sinful behavior, because we're supposed to be discerning.  We should confess our sins and encourage others to do the same.  We have the opportunity as Americans to be vigilant in safeguarding the integrity of public policy and legislation in our country.  We have the right to proclaim the truth as it has been revealed to us through God's Word and His Holy Spirit.

God has commanded us to abstain from sin.  We are compelled to seek Christ's freedom from sinful behaviors.  But not only does that mean we are to seek freedom from the sin of homosexuality, we are to seek freedom from the urge to demean others whose sin patterns we've arbitrarily decided are worse than our own.

But don't take my word for it:

Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: "The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in pagan revelry."  We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did--and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died.  We should not test the Lord, as some of them did--and were killed by snakes.  And do not grumble, as some of them did--and were killed by the destroying angel.  These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come.  So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don't fall! - 1 Corinthians 10:7-12

See?  Idolatry, sexual immorality - including lust, testing the Lord, and grumbling were all punished with death.  Not just sexual immorality, and not just homosexuality.  Sin is punishable by death.  Any and all sin.

Take Heed Lest Ye Fall

Woe to those of us who forget that simple fact!  We should never view our salvation from sin as a license to commit further sins, and ignore Christ's expectation that we preach His truth in love.  Sure, some people in the homosexual community revile believers in Christ, but we're still supposed to love them.  And how much of their disdain for us has been instigated and perpetuated by our hateful rhetoric against them?

Even if no gay person comes to Christ after we model His love and compassion to them, is salvation our goal anyway?  How can it be, since the Holy Spirit is the One Who convicts of sin, and Christ's death is what has paid the penalty for that sin?  Instead, shouldn't our goal be to honor our holy God by following the methods He's given us for interacting with others in this fallen world?

Indeed, how many of us call Christ our "Lord," but refuse His lordship over our lives?  We know homosexuality is a sin, but we've been conditioned by eons of bigotry based on sexual orientation because it's an easy sin to revile.  Can you imagine anybody preaching a sermon about penning up all of the obese people in America?  Or punching all the gossips?

Someday we'll find out how many of us who've preached hate in this life will be spending eternity living it out apart from the One in Whose Name that hate was preached.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Good News about The Good News

Theologically speaking, it was the only conclusion they could have reached.

And I'm thankful - and relieved - that they did.

The committee charged with investigating the Insider Movement for my denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America, has posted the first part of its two-year report online.

Here's a synopsis of their conclusions, in their own words:

"Christ’s divine Sonship suffuses the New Testament... The glue that binds the biblical text together is not only the kingly Messiah; it is the condescended, loving presence of God the Son, fully God and fully man who is both Agent of salvation and Object of worship... In other words, we cannot think properly of Christ properly apart from his eternal Sonship... Substitution of sonship language for Christ and his disciples distorts the way things are in creation (according to revelation), the way things are in salvation (according to revelation), and the way things will be in the Parousia (according to revelation)."

As you can tell, there's a lot of content in this report.  Indeed, my splicing of particular sentences together to make the paragraph above took content from almost three pages of carefully-worded text (pages 71-73).  Then again, perhaps I shouldn't be too surprised; Presbyterians love committees, and committees love verbose reports.  Even the title of this report is almost as long as the report itself:  "A Partial Report (Part One of Two Parts) of the Ad Interim Committee on Insider Movements to the Fortieth General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America."


And a double "whew!" to their affirmation of Trinitarian theology.

Technically, this first part of their two-part report deals with the controversy over familial language substitutions Bible translators have been using when referencing "God the Father" and "God the Son."  Their report detailing findings related to the broader Insider Movement is due out next year, but from their conclusions so far, it doesn't seem there will be any surprises in Part Two. 

Sure, I could blather on about my personal reactions to this recent report, and maybe in a few days, I will.  But in the meantime, the committee itself urges careful reading of their report so that we understand how they came to make their decision.  I've read and re-read parts of it, and skimmed over other parts, but I'm going to end today's essay here and simply encourage you to join with me in reading their document for a fuller appreciation not only of what some translators have gotten wrong, but that for which other translators have been arguing.

And indeed, the very mystery of God's holy Personhood, the extent to which He's giving us all of eternity to comprehend.

Click here to read the report.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Modeling Fashion Passion for Preachers

Oh!  You've GOT to be kidding me!

This is way, waaayyyy too easy!

But hey - it's Friday!  We all need a good laugh every now and again, don't we?  Only, if you're like me, you can't laugh for long at this before you start shaking your head in disgust.

What is it?  It's the inimitable pastor Ed Young of Fellowship Church in Grapevine, Texas.  And his latest endeavor for the Kingdom of God:  pastor fashion.

No, I kid you not.  Pastor fashion.  As in

This is not a joke.  Well, OK, yes; it IS a joke, but not according to Ed Young.  The same guy that trotted out a caged lion for Easter Sunday services this year also thinks his peers in the pulpit set need a wardrobe consultant.  And he thinks he's the perfect guy to dispense fashion advice.

Hey - I can't make this stuff up.  The same guy I've faulted for prancing around in clothes that are too young for him now claims that the skimpy-suit, cuffed-jeans look needs to be taught along with the doctrine of grace.

Actually, I thought the doctrine of grace means we shouldn't be concerned about how we think other people look.  We're not to assume things based on outward appearances, because God looks at the heart, right?  To hear Young tell it, however, the right shirt colors, tie knots, and accessories are pretty important.  Of course, preachers of Young's ilk have been accessorizing the Gospel for years, so I guess this is the next logical extension of the seeker/contemporary mindset.

If you're gonna preach, you've gotta have swag.  Don't believe me?  Take it from the self-appointed expert:

In his defense - and yes, he's serious - Young told the Houston Chronicle that his latest venture is “not just about fashion. It’s about looking presentable as we present the timeless message of Christ. It’s about having a healthy self-esteem, which starts with God. That’s why we’re doing this.”

It could be said that the people who worry the most about their looks are the people who lack self-esteem.  Young's concern about appearance also lends significant - almost overwhelming - support to the practice of more liturgical churches like the one I attend, where the men who preach do so wearing a simple black robe over their clothing.  That way, distractions that may be caused by a curious shirt/tie combination or an ill-fitting suit are negated, and you find yourself concentrating very little on the preacher himself.  Which is a good thing, right?

Does Young even offer good advice on his site?  Not really.  A blue shirt he wears for a video - in which he touts his knowledge of matching colors with skin types - looks awful against his complexion.  A complexion which is tanned to perfection, which means a more pastel blue makes for a more complimentary shade.

In another video, Young raves about the white sportcoat being modeled by one of his fellow pastors, but the sportcoat's fit is abominable, with the lapels puckering outward as the garment is buttoned in the front.  Obviously, the back panels of the sportcoat have been taken in to within an inch of its life.  Young claims that if a sportcoat's fit is comfortable, it doesn't fit.  They're supposed to be tailored on the skimpy side, according to him, which is an absurd assertion - for anybody who has to spend time in a suit - to make.

Granted, my education in men's fashion took place decades ago at a proper gentlemen's clothier, which helps illustrate yet another flaw in Young's thinking.  For the most part, fashion is arbitrary, relative, subjective, and trendy.  The Gospel of Jesus Christ is, thankfully, none of those things.  Yet there are some basics about fashion upon which most reasonable people generally agree.  So, as long as we're on the subject, here's what really works.

A good suit is a suit you're comfortable living in all day long.  Its jacket needs to be tailored to match the contours of your shoulders, back, chest, and belly.  Its pants should be lined to the knees, to maximize comfort around the crotch when you're sitting and minimize wrinkles, and its seat and waist need to have just the right balance between roominess and snugness.  A good-fitting suit is really a work of art, and depends more on the tailor than the fabric, which means they don't have to cost a king's ransom.  But of course, the better the fabric, the longer it will last.

Young is probably the first man I've heard complain about having too much fabric in his shirt sleeves.  That's probably because the guy works out, and he wants to show off the gain from his pain.  Real people appreciate the roominess properly-crafted shirt sleeves afford.  They shouldn't be flouncy like those girlie bouffant sleeves, but they should not constrain movement, either.  At least Young is right about sleeve length:  sleeves that ride up on the wrist look as uncomfortable as they feel.

And I'll go ahead and proclaim this truth:  there's no such thing as a short sleeved dress shirt!  Just as there shouldn't be any such thing as, frankly,

Shouldn't congregations be more concerned about how the Gospel fits in their pastor's heart?  Here's a hint:  the Gospel should overflow from it, not fit nicely into it, like Young's wardrobe.

And if a congregation cares about how tight his jeans need to be, that pastor has far graver issues confronting him than which color of shirt to wear today.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Dark Islam and the Trinity's Light

All of a sudden, evangelism to Muslims has exploded onto the Christian stage.

What once was a topic for missionary experts and denominational seminars has surged past conventional (read: benign) cross-cultural awareness in North American churches to an anxious debate over evangelism theories, and more than a subtle threat to some basic orthodox theology.

Most notable have been an increasingly skeptical response to the disturbingly popular Insider Movement, and Wycliffe Bible Translators' controversy over "God the Father" and "God the Son."  These dangerous conflicts derive most of their potency from questions that they raise about how important it is to believe in the Trinity.

In other words, is it vital that our theology never waiver from depicting God as Father, Son, and Spirit?

How much weight do cultural interpretations carry when it comes to describing Who God is?  How much accuracy should we expect when the Bible is translated?  Can a person be saved and not profess an orthodox belief in the divinity and paternity of Christ?

And as if all of these questions weren't enough, a new Islam-connected controversy has been brewing.

For a while now, e-mails, news stories, and Facebook notices have been circulating about the imminent martyrdom of Iranian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani.  During the past several months, we've been told that Nadarkhani could be killed at any moment, and then we hear that yet another reprieve has been granted.  As far as we know, Nadarkhani is still alive, albeit still in an Iranian prison, and refusing to recant his faith in Christ.

But what is his faith in Christ?  As evangelicals monitoring Nadarkhani's case are discovering, his faith may have been shaped in part by the Oneness Pentecostal movement.

Never heard of it?  According to Watchman Fellowship, an evangelical ministry specializing in cult awareness issues, Oneness Pentecostals expressly deny the Trinity.  They believe that God exists as one entity who reveals himself to humanity in various ways.  It doesn't help matters that Nadarkhani himself has been videotaped admitting that he doesn't believe in the Trinity.  In fact, he doesn't know who issued his theology diploma!

These revelations have caused some evangelicals who've been pressing for Nadarkhani's release to second-guess the whole situation.  Is he really born-again?  Is he an apostate, a wolf in sheep's clothing?  Or might there be huge discrepancies in the translations of his faith?  Might Western audiences simply be getting an inaccurate version of his beliefs?

Whether Nadarkhani genuinely believes that Jesus Christ is the Son of God Who died for His sins is, of course, a vital question that needs to be addressed.  However, it appears that the reason he's being held by Iranian authorities involves his refusal to deny that he believes in Jesus Christ at all.  Surely that's reason enough to support his pleas for life, if for nothing else than basic religious freedom.

But on a broader scale, Nadarkhani's case helps expose an even bigger problem than religious persecution in Iran.  What seems to have been happening is that, during the past couple of decades, a massive disconnect has been working its way between our evangelical North American church and a niche group of missionaries serving within Muslim communities around the globe.  This disconnect has resulted in what appears to North American evangelicals to be sloppy doctrinal teaching and careless adaptations of theology at best, and shocking heresies at worst.

As Wycliffe scrambles to salvage its reputation in the light of its Trinity controversy, and as North American denominations begin reacting to the Insider Movement at the behest of indigenous - and indignant - converts from Islam (who mostly resent the way educated Westerners are patronizing them), those of us sounding alarm bells are told that we don't understand the complexities of evangelizing Muslims.  People like me are belittled as being unsophisticated in the ways of cross-cultural missions work, and therefore in no position to render judgment.  Sure, we have our ways of understanding the Scriptures, but we have to allow for cultural adaptations so that the Gospel works for other people groups.  And it takes real experts to know what parts of the Bible to fudge, and what parts of the Bible Westerners shouldn't expect everybody else on the planet to understand.

Personally, I hope that Nadarkhani's life is spared, that he's released from prison, and that somebody with sound theology can witness to him.  I hope that Wycliffe's controversy can be summed up as one easily-corrected misunderstanding.  And I hope that the Insider Movement simply caves in on itself as the Holy Spirit reveals to its sincere yet misguided practitioners how heretical it is.

Then again, maybe I'm just a stupid American Christian.  Maybe my faith really is woefully unsophisticated, but am I sinning against God when I expect other "believers" to believe that Jesus Christ is the literal Son of God Who died on the cross to satisfy His Father's wrath over our sins?

I believe in God the Father almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth.  And I believe in His holy Son, our Lord, Who was conceived of the Holy Ghost.  If that makes me stupid, then please - please - educate me on the parts of the Bible that contradict the reality of the Trinity!

Sure, the word "trinity" may not exist in the Bible.  But that's no excuse for professing Christians to deny its reality.  What we call the Trinity could be called by plenty of other words, and it would still mean the same thing:  God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost.

And if it's taking Islam to force the utter validity of the Trinity out into the open air of Christianity's dialog, then I thank God for Islam!  Indeed, sometimes darkness helps reveal the Light.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Leading on the Money Trail

Follow the money.

That's what we do in a capitalist society, isn't it?  Following the money makes sense.  Of course, money just doesn't appear, or grow on trees.  Somebody has to make it.  But one of the best ways to make money is figuring out the best places to do so.  And one of the best ways to do that is look at the places where other people invest their money.

The Private Equity Growth Capital Council (PEGCC), an advocacy group for America's private equity industry, has released its second annual report on where private equity is concentrated around the United States, as well as the world.  Basically, it's a summary of locations that are home to companies where private investors believe returns on their capital make the most sense.  Perhaps not surprisingly, here in America, the state with the companies which received the most private equity last year was Texas, which has already been lauded as the most business-friendly state for ten years by Chief Executive magazine.

What's more surprising, however, is the state claiming the Number Two spot as the second most popular place to invest in American businesses.  That prize goes to my home state, New York, which clipped Texas' total by only a couple of billion dollars.

You'll recall that according to Chief Executive magazine's ranking of the best states in which to do business, New York wasn't second from the top.  It was second from the bottom.  Number 49.  Right before the worst state in which to do business:  California.

But guess which state comes in third in terms of private equity investment?  Yup:  the Golden State.  Deemed the worst state in which to do business by Chief Executive magazine.  Ten years in a row.

On the one hand, it doesn't entirely make sense.  Wouldn't you think that the most capital investment would take place in the states business leaders consider to be the most promising?  Sure, North Carolina, Florida, and Georgia made the top ten in PEGCC's list, but their peers include miserable business states like Illinois and Massachusetts, as well as the perennial worsts, California and New York.

Tennessee and Minnesota, other darlings of chief executives, ranked among the lowest in terms of private investments.  Odd.

Maybe part of the explanation lies in the very cost of doing business that makes states like California and New York so reviled among business leaders.  Maybe simply because it costs so much to do anything in these states, the amount of private equity necessary to accomplish even modest goals needs to be extraordinarily high.  That wouldn't explain Texas' top spot in this ranking, since generally, the Lone Star State is considered a cheap place for doing business.  However, the PEGCC breaks out their numbers by Congressional District as well as by state, and the district that attracted the most investment, regardless of state, was New York City's 14th Congressional District, which includes a huge chunk of Manhattan and some thriving neighborhoods in western Queens.  That geography alone helps explain a lot right there.

Of all the things New York City is, inexpensive isn't one of them.

In addition, although New York and California have bad reputations as places to do business, they are home to many international corporations, large population centers, and prestigious universities.  They are places where competitive business types build off of each others' ambitions and successes, where the sheer numbers of residents demanding services help provide quick roads to profits, and where innovation from entrepreneurial college graduates helps attract optimists.  They're also states where, if you've got the money, you can carve out appealing lifestyles that aren't as readily matched in other parts of the country.  Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Manhattan aren't home to the world's most celebrated people because they're awful places for rich people to live.

Globally speaking, it's also interesting to note that 55% of all equity investing took place here in the United States, with Europe following at 29%.  With so much news touting China's explosive economic growth, it's a bit surprising to see that Asia received only 9% of the investment activity.  Perhaps that's partly because even most of the "private" economic growth in China has taken place with the Chinese government's own money, which must have its old Communist leaders spinning in their graves.

And again, perhaps the United States and Europe command the most cash investment infusions because of the comparatively higher costs for doing business in our post-modern countries.

Nevertheless, following the money investors have freely and deliberately channeled to financial opportunities leads us, at least as far as the dollar amounts are concerned, to Texas, New York, and California.  Our three most populous states, and three of our most politically important ones.

That may be some sort of good news for New York and California, which have come to expect more bad news that good when it comes to economic data.  And it's certainly not bad news for Texas, which has come to expect nothing but good economic news about itself.

Except, is it all good news for Texas?  If these numbers really mean anything, Texas might want to hold off on writing-off its two coastal competitors just yet.  Considering the popular notion that these two states are terrible places to do business, the fact that private equity investors still value them so much should mean something.

Texas is the leader right now.  But its competition is still following close behind.  Might that say more about them, than about the Lone Star State?

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Make Morality Run the Rules of the Road

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood loves his job.

Which is too bad for the rest of us.

LaHood's job involves serving in a liberal presidential administration whose mandate includes spending obscene amounts of money on mass transit projects that won't work, and clapping onerous restrictions on the traveling public to the glorification of our increasingly intransigent bureaucracy.

Witness, for example, LaHood's incessant push for what he calls "high-speed" rail, despite the embarrassingly slow speeds he wants to achieve with this boondoggle.  Not to mention the exorbitant costs involved, and his misguided reliance on our much-maligned Amtrak rail agency to run everything.

Ban It?

Now, is reporting that LaHood is growing testy over media reports that he's advocating for an across-the-board federal ban on personal communication devices inside passenger cars.  By way of clarification, he says instead of wanting federal legislation, he wants all states to individually pursue legislation banning all cell phone use and even all navigation devices in all passenger cars.

But still, a ban is still a ban, whether it's on the state level, or the federal level.  Right?

This is the law-creep that conservatives so dislike about Washington.  And it's not like the improper use of telecommunication devices in cars is currently legal.  Laws already on the books penalize drivers for distracted driving, so why do we need more of them?  It's like our laws designed specifically for crimes against women, crimes against children, crimes against certain races, crimes against homosexuals, and on and on.  If murder, robbery, assault, and rape are already against the law, how much more against-the-law should it be to murder, rob, assault, or rape anybody who's not a white middle-aged male?

Maybe LaHood hopes that even his idle threats of additional legislation will help scare us into changing our dangerous behaviors.  But threats tend to sound like cries of "wolf!" after a while, don't they?  So either way, whether he's serious, or simply trying to keep the dangers of distracted driving in the spotlight, isn't he going about this problem all wrong?

Take It Seriously

And distracted driving is a real problem.

Almost inevitably, when I'm driving on a freeway and notice another car slow down for no good reason, when I overtake it, I can see the driver is texting.  Sometimes drivers slow down gradually to text, like they're checking to see if the message they're receiving is worth an immediate response.  Then, when they decide that yes, it's of utmost importance that they respond right then with an "Lol," they begin slowing down drastically.

Maybe they think that slowing down before texting is a good thing.  But is it?  Depending on how heavy traffic is, this can cause other drivers to begin swerving or dodging around them, imperiling all of the rest of us in the process.  Yet as we drive past the miscreant, that person is usually oblivious to the pile-up they almost caused.  I've seen them literally steering with their knees, or with both of their hands clasped around their phone, which is perched at the top of their steering wheel.

As long as drivers get away with it - despite all the near-wrecks their distracted driving may have precipitated - they will continue to do so.  It's like speeding and drunk driving:  they're both illegal, yet plenty of people still speed and/or drive drunk, because only a fraction of offenders ever get caught.  So although it sounds like more laws provide a good fix for preventing drivers from getting away with distracted driving, we already have proof that laws themselves won't work.

Cops can't write enough speeding tickets as it is.  Plenty of drunk drivers never get caught until they've caused a horrible accident.  So somehow, LaHood's laws will be different?

Let's face it:  most of the contraptions people use while driving aren't critical to the driving process.  For example, we've been driving for 100 years without GPS systems, and even as their technology evolves, GPS systems aren't entirely fool-proof.  They don't accurately account for construction, detours, and bad traffic.  And some systems are simply too cumbersome to be used in conjunction with complex driving situations.  Unfortunately, it's the drivers who expect the rest of us to accommodate their bad driving - so they can figure out what their GPS is telling them - that put other drivers who use their devices appropriately in the same negative light.

When it comes to talking on cell phones, most drivers will find it hard to believe that many of their calls can wait.  I know people view their time in the car as an opportunity to finally have those long telephone conversations they've been putting off.  I understand that businesspeople believe that if they don't combine driving with talking on the phone, they could miss a deal.  Unfortunately, being altruistic and trying to wait until you can park to talk only works until you realize nobody else shares your sense of moral imperative.  It becomes too easy to go with the flow.

In some ways, the telecommunications genie has been let out of the bottle, and there's no easy way our hectic society will put it back in again.  Some people even argue that we shouldn't try.  But the families of victims of distracted drivers would argue differently.  And those families have a valid point.  As does LaHood:  safe driving should be our goal.  It's part of being a civil society in which we display common courtesy to others with whom we're sharing a public right-of-way.

Some people claim that inconclusive driving fatality statistics don't merit such an emphasis on regulating distracted driving.  But I'd qualify the disputed results from fatality data with a "not yet," since the telecommunication revolution in our cars has only just begun.  I'd also point out that fatality wrecks likely don't comprise the bulk of incidents in which distracted driving plays a causal role.  How many non-injury fender-benders are caused every day by distracted drivers?  The effects of these relatively minor accidents can still be expensive in terms of automobile repair costs, minor injuries, traffic congestion and police time, and other ancillary considerations.

Calling All Cars

Since yet another law won't be a practical or effective way to resolve the dilemma of distracted driving, that doesn't mean other tools couldn't be.  Here are just three ideas:
  • Encourage automakers to design their in-board GPS devices to be programmable only while the car is in park.  This way, people can't fiddle with the settings while the car is in motion.
  • Encourage car insurance companies to write policies that penalize drivers who cause accidents while using their cell phones.  If you're in an accident - maybe even if the police don't determine it's your fault - and you go to file a claim, your insurance carrier could accept or decline your claim based on their research of your cell phone records.  This way, drivers who never use their phones while driving can be eligible for lower rates, because they'll never be caught violating those terms of their policy.
  • It's not just technology that causes distracted driving.  Encourage car insurance companies to remind their policy holders of the dangers of noises and conversations from fellow passengers.  There probably aren't too many polite ways for drivers to tell other people in their car to be quiet, and parents certainly can't be spending their entire ride screaming at their kids to be quiet.  But the more we become aware of how inappropriate - and even dangerous - things we do in our living rooms become when we do them in our cars, the safer all of us will be.
Make the Right Call

The reason why it's dangerous to simply write another law to combat dangerous behavior is that pretty soon, before we know it, we'll be a nation in which personal responsibility is crippled, ethics and morality no longer exist on their own merits, and liberty itself gets hobbled underneath a crushing grid of constraints.

To the extent that personal responsibility, ethics and morality, and liberty itself are still valued in our society, we need to practice them and model them.  Daily.  Regularly.  Consistently.  And convincingly.  We need to make them the standard, not our reliance on laws.

This is nothing new.  Plenty of more important people than myself have said these same things far more powerfully.  But at some point, we're going to have to start acting on them.

Before people like Ray LaHood are allowed too much pleasure in their job.

Update:  As if on queue, the Los Angeles Times ran a story Wednesday about the upsurge in violators of California's distracted driving laws.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Facebook May Keep California Dreamin'

Might Facebook help save California?

The Los Angeles Times reports that Governor Jerry Brown's revised budget, grasping at straws to help cover the state's pending $16 billion budget gap, anticipates that Facebook's initial public offering (IPO) later this week will pump $1.5 billion in assorted tax revenues back into the state's coffers.

For this budget cycle, anyway.

Perhaps it's not surprising that a state so desperate for revenue turns over every economic stone looking to piecemeal together enough money to stay afloat.  And maybe there are other big companies still headquartered in the Golden State upon which Governor Brown still relies for significant chunks of liquidity.  Certainly California's signature industries - entertainment and technology - are what's keeping the state from shriveling up and withering away from its years of bad fiscal management.  And its fortunate that both industries feature wealthy power brokers who favor liberal high-tax policies over conservative low-tax ones.

But what makes this state budget particularly noteworthy is that a company like Facebook is even mentioned at all.  A company that didn't exist a decade ago, or start in California.  Its wunderkind founder began designing it while still at Harvard University in Massachusetts.  And although Mark Zuckerberg didn't invent the social network industry, Facebook has pretty much come to define it.  With almost one billion users worldwide, it's the newest king of the Internet, and is helping reshape everything from advertising to photography to private mail.

In a way, its IPO's $1.5 billion impact on the state's budget may be under-estimated.  Especially since one of Facebook's founders, Eduardo Saverin, shrewdly yet immorally renounced his United States citizenship in an effort to avoid income taxes.  Saverin obviously believes citizenship in our country has to be worth a fantastically pretty penny.  And that his upcoming windfall can buy him whatever benefits a citizenship, for which other people have died trying to acquire, cannot.

We'll have a better idea of what he thinks our citizenship is worth if Brown's budget crunchers have to re-calculate their figures downward, now that Saverin is betraying his ingratitude.  For those who used to think Zuckerberg was technology's prototypically creepy narcissist, they now have a new villain in Saverin.

After all, you have to credit Zuckerberg - who turns all of 28 today - with a business savvy that prioritized talent over taxes.  He could have located Facebook anywhere, and he needed a good reason to choose pricey Silicon Valley.  Might that reason have been the uniquely potent talent pool he knew existed there, despite the state's already-crushing personal income tax rate? 

Not that average Californians aren't stung deeper by the state's high cost of living.  Part of the reason California is in this fiduciary funk comes from the income taxes they're losing as their modest wage earners have been fleeing the state in droves.  Since 2005, more Californians have left the state than have moved there from other states.  It hasn't been a magnet for conventional corporate expansion and job growth in at least a decade, as confirmed by its consistently dead-last finish in Chief Executive magazine's poll of ideal states in which to do business.  Indeed, today's California finds itself an unprecedented predicament:  it has identified the cost limit people are willing to pay for its ideal climate.  Only it found that limit too late.

Facebook's one-time shot in the financial arm may help pacify the state's cheerleaders who can't imagine living life in the sunset of California's glory years.  But even in our grand age of technology, Facebook may have begun to show its own age.  Within the past year, it has been losing users in the United States and Canada, as its growth comes from poorer countries with less attractive - and riskier - advertising opportunities.  It has stumbled over the personal privacy and interface functionality fronts more than once, with more and more users expressing wariness about the security of its increasingly exotic features.

Still, California has been a live-in-the-moment place for so long, Facebook's success likely will be charted in eons, at least as far as the state's dysfunctionally short attention span is concerned.  The longer Zuckerberg and his team can keep users hooked on their website's communication conveniences, the greater the chances Facebook can become engrained into our habits, and therefore, more a part of how we interact with others.

Unfortunately, back in reality, California doesn't have time on its side.  And for all we know, Facebook may not, either.  But like the seedy Saverin, who already lives in the tax haven of Singapore, Facebook can move.  Both technologically, and geographically.

The trick for Brown is to keep the creative types happy enough in the Golden State long enough for it to pay its bills.  At least his reliance upon one company to pay 1/16th of the state's budget gap proves that California dreamin' is alive and well.

It's also a testament to the ingenuity of entrepreneurs like Zuckerberg and Saverin that a company like Facebook could explode onto the international technology scene and be such a force in California policy in less than ten years.

Even if what makes Facebook so valuable is as intangible as those California dreams.

Friday, May 11, 2012

When Will Big Banks Learn?

At what point is enough... enough?

At least, before companies realize that sometimes, through their own greed, they're bringing government intrusions into their industries onto themselves?

News from J.P. Morgan Chase Co. last night about their stunning $2.3 billion loss may turn out to be more than just risky business gone bad.  And it didn't even go as bad as it might have:  the storied bank still earned about $4 billion for the quarter.

But it could have been six.  Billion.  With a "B."

Of course, on Wall Street, any time somebody loses, somebody else wins.  And in this case, it may have been our wonderful friends, the hedge funds.  You know:  those beneficent traders who take the risk and bet against their fellow moneymen, in a world where people are pawns and profits exist solely in the eyes of the beholder.  The ones that be holdin' the bag of cash when the music stops, that is.

Sure, few of us really understand how credit default swaps - again, our wonderful friend from the mortgage crisis - work.  We're told that we don't need to; that these financial brainiacs down on Wall Street have everything under control.  Most of us have our 401k's riding on this brave new world of shady profits and illusory money "products," so we'd better keep our mouths shut and let the greedy boys - and they're almost all men - work their sleazy magic for us.

Except that this time, Washington has already taken notice.  Just this morning, word began to wash through the halls of Congress that the 2010 Dodd-Frank legislation designed to reign-in banks deemed "too big to fail" has suddenly acquired a whole new lease on life.  Even up until yesterday, efforts were still circulating to gut Dodd-Frank of regulations and restrictions that could imperil how banks currently like to do business.

Maybe we ignorant masses, as bankers must see us, really do have it all wrong.  Maybe all of these mechanisms our big banks have devised to make money off of money are in our best interests.  Maybe what we don't know really won't hurt us.  But if that's true, why do these big banks keep shooting their own feet?  They obviously don't play their own game well enough sometimes.  And we're supposed to sit by and let the averages work themselves out?  After all, Chase still turned a profit for the quarter.  We're supposed to content ourselves with the assumption that usually, gambling with high-stakes finance does pay off?

If we weren't coming off of our mortgage mess, perhaps banks would encounter a less skeptical audience in the general public, and in Washington.

Even if these banks and hedge funds operated with the fullest of integrity and in support of our national economy, you'd think they'd voluntarily design built-in safeguards against the kind of risks that just backfired for Chase.  To improvise on a phrase, a billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon, you're talking about real money.  $2.3 billion, to be exact.

And now Washington has fresh, new fodder in its campaign to add the dreaded "R-and-R" onto the back of America's banking industry:  regulations and restrictions.

How many times must it be said:  if an industry can't regulate itself, somebody else is going to.  And that "somebody else" is most likely going to be the government.  And how many times must it be said that greed alone isn't a reliable mechanism for regulating an industry?

Granted, like most everything else on Wall Street, Chase's loss was somebody else's gain.  It sounds like plenty of hedge fund managers will be buying those extra beachfront estates along Long Island and the Bahamas this summer after all.  Indeed, the stock market today barely took notice of Chase's $2 billion blunder, treating it as just part of the game.

But what about a bank as internationally leveraged and domestically ubiquitous as Chase?  If a bank like Chase can't keep their paws on two billion dollars, doesn't that create the impression that other risks may not be so solid, either?  And it's not just innocent talking heads like me wondering that.  People who can actually make life even more complicated for commerce - politicians and bureaucrats - are wondering that.

When will the banks - indeed, every industry in the United States - learn that if they don't guard against unbridled greed, our government will be more than happy to do it for them.  Which, in a way, is just transferring the greed from one group of people to a group of people who really can penalize the whole country for their own mistakes.  Doesn't it make more sense having industry insiders fixing these problems, rather than Washington insiders?

No matter how you slice it, if we're not careful, the greed some capitalists claim fuels free markets could prove to be their very undoing.  Then, there would be nothing to Chase... in more ways than one.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Duke and Duchess do the Weather

And now, as they say:  for something completely different!

Charles and Camilla served as the weather people today during their royal visit to BBC Scotland's television studios.  That's the Prince "Chaa-els," as they say in Britain with their stiff upper lips, and his wife who will never be queen.  Giving their neighbors in and around Balmoral the low-down on their local forecast.

Which, of course, isn't a difficult thing to do in that part of the world.  "Cold and rainy" pretty much covers it, as if Scotland really even needs weather reports.  Actually, its impressive all the ways TV producers try to make the weather sound interesting, considering the forecast is pretty much the same.  Well, except for the sunshine expected in the far northern part of the Scottish isles.  At least it will still be cold up there.

By the way, Balmoral, the royal family's favorite ancestral country estate, is expecting snow tonight.  And this is May!  Looks like an ideal opportunity for snuggling up with... on second thought, Camilla, let's just get some extra hot water bottles.

What's interesting about this little bit of pop culture TV weather low-browing by the pedigreed royals is the candid nature it appears to convey about the heir-apparent and his second wife.  Our president sings and jokes on national television, all in the name of PR.  And audiences seem to lap it up.  Monarchists likely would be horrified to see their Queen delivering the weather forecast, but for some reason, it seems to work for her eldest son and daughter-in-law, as campy cameos go.  The normally staid Charles seems bemused by it all, and that initial scene with him gamely glancing at the clicker gives the mistaken impression that he's getting ready to do a comedy routine.  Some might say he was.

Meanwhile, dowdy Camilla comes across with just a little less personality than the clicker she holds in her hands, like some sort of award-winner who's unsure of how to hold a microphone.

Their turn in front of the cameras came during a tour of the BBC's Glasgow studios in celebration of the 60th anniversary of the BBC's presence in Scotland.  In the background one can hear the clicking of what at first sounds like old-fashioned typewriters, which almost certainly is actually the sound of camera shutters as the media in the studio record the scene for posterity.  Not realizing, of course, that the Duke and Duchess of Rothesay, also known as the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall,  also known as Charles and Camilla, are on live television, which itself offers pictorial proof of the event.

But that's life in the fishbowl that is British royalty, isn't it?  Everything's a photo op, whether the royals like it or not.  One would have thought that the BBC could have found something a bit more prestigious for their important guests to perform than the weather forecast - and a lousy forecast at that.  Someday, Charles and Camilla may be showing a scrapbook of photos to their grandkids, and they'll have to explain that on the 60th anniversary of the BBC broadcasting in Scotland, they had the privilege of "presenting" the gloomy weather forecast.

"You mean, all they wanted you to say was that it was going to be cold and rainy, Grandpapa?"

"Wull, yes, dear grandchild," Charles would huff, with his voice still sounding like he was talking with a mouth full of marbles.  "I did a bit of ad-lib at the end, of course.  Did you like that bit about the bank holiday?  Quite clever - appealing to the poor workers I was entertaining"

"Oh yes, dear Grandpapa...  You sounded just like a commoner!"

"And your father's mother said the public would never warm to me!"