Tuesday, April 30, 2013

What's Happening to Faith in Our Military?

"Hey, Mikey!"

Remember that old television commercial for Life cereal?  "Give it to Mikey - he'll eat anything," we heard some kids say as they wonder whether or not this new breakfast cereal is any good.

"Hey!  He likes it!" they exclaim after we see Mikey quietly eating spoonful after spoonful of the cereal.

The whole "Hey, Mikey!" schtick became a popular colloquial expression on the order of "try it, you may like it."  But of all things Mikey might like, there's one Mikey who doesn't like evangelical Christians.

Michael Weinstein is a graduate of the Air Force Academy, a former judge advocate general, author, and Washington policy wonk.  He used to be a lawyer for Ross Perot, and has been called one of America's 50 most prominent Jews and one of the 100 most influential people in America's defense department.

And contrary to that formidable resume, he likes to call himself "Mikey."

Mikey is also the founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, which asserts that the military's only religious symbol is the American flag, and the military's only sacred document is the Constitution.

Sounds oddly like some right-wing evangelical fundamentalists, doesn't he?  Except Mikey Weinstein is no evangelical.  In fact, he's doing everything he can to strip the military of anything with the faintest odor of Christianity.  Inhibiting evangelism within the ranks is a goal that has been kicked around a few liberal organizations since about 2008, but only recently has it gained serious traction.

Well, as serious as Mikey claims to be.

On April 23, Fox News is reporting that Weinstein met with Pentagon brass in an effort to convince our military leaders that proselytization and evangelism are tantamount to treason in America's armed forces.  He called for courts martial for the "tidal wave of fundamentalists," service members who try and share their faith within the ranks.

“Someone needs to be punished for this,” Weinstein himself explained to Fox News. “Until the Air Force or Army or Navy or Marine Corps punishes a member of the military for unconstitutional religious proselytizing and oppression, we will never have the ability to stop this horrible, horrendous, dehumanizing behavior.”

To evangelicals hearing somebody level such charges and foment such rhetoric against our faith - and our faithful - it all seems bizarre, and we're easily tempted to write off Weinstein as some nut case with an ax to grind.  Sure, he may have friends in high places from his own years working in and around the Pentagon, but how likely is it that Christianity is suddenly going to be banned from America's armed forces?  Considering our legendary history of military chaplaincy, the presence of historic Christian chapels - not to mention chapels of many other faiths - at all of our academies, and the role faith plays in many of the mottoes, slogans, rites, and traditions in all branches of the service, Weinstein can't be serious.

Can he?

Here's another question:  was gay marriage on anybody's radar 10 years ago?

Considering the vitriolic swagger with which Weinstein conducts himself before the media, it's entirely likely that he badgered some generals so incessantly that they finally caved and met with him to simply get him off their backs.

But if you believe anything Weinstein has posted on his website, how relevant is his claim that 30,000 members of our armed forces have come to his organization as "spiritual rape victims/tormentees?"  With over two million active and reserve personnel, our military may not consider 30,000 people a significant number.  But our media would.  And so would politicians, don't you think?

“The armed forces are on the verge of falling apart,” Larry Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Colin Powell, recently told a Washington Post reporter, characterizing proselytization as “absolutely destructive of the bonds that keep soldiers together.”

According to Wilkerson, a chaplain's role “is to minister to spiritual needs. You don’t proselytize. It’s a workplace violation.”

Which, of course, betrays a woeful ignorance on the part of Wilkerson regarding the purpose of genuine Christianity.  Unless, of course, the proselytization taking place under the guise of Christianity really is more about badgering people with religion instead of modeling Christ to one's fellow soldiers.  We shouldn't have to shove salvation down peoples' throats; aren't they supposed to be able to see the difference Christ has made in our own lives, and desire the same thing?  Unfortunately, just as we evangelicals have cultivated a poor image within our culture by our self-righteous politics and hypocritical indifference towards people unlike us, if our witness within our military bears any resemblance to our conduct among civilians, no wonder people like Weinstein appear to be gaining a foothold at the Pentagon.

The less we focus on Christ, the less our positive influence in our world.  Is Mikey capitalizing on that reality?  Hopefully, it's not too late to start living out our faith, instead of our religion.

After all, if you thought Christianity was already coming under attack from our culture, what will happen if our own military turns on us?

Monday, April 29, 2013

Apologizing to the Central Park Five

Did the cops commit theft themselves?

New York's finest responded swiftly and decisively upon learning that a white woman had been brutally raped and left for dead in a notoriously dangerous region of Central Park.  A ragtag group of teenaged scofflaws had earlier been brought in to the department's precinct house, a dilapidated outpost within Manhattan's legendary green space.  Might there be a connection between this savage crime and these teens' self-professed "wilding" that evening?

A homeless vagrant had been assaulted, as well as several joggers and bicyclists.  All of the incidents had taken place in the northern reaches of the long park, far from the relatively safe and more heavily used recreational spaces clustered in Central Park's southern "white" zone, near all of the exclusive hotels and luxury apartment buildings.  Whereas few New Yorkers with common sense ventured into any part of the park after dark, those who did had less to fear if they stayed close to its outside borders.  But a lone, young, white, female jogger took the risk of going deeper and further north.  She was a privileged stock broker from Pennsylvania who perhaps didn't truly appreciate the grim realities of 1980's New York City.

Not that what happened to her was her fault.  But plenty of idealistic young people coming to the big city to make money underestimate how some people without it live.

Darkness Deeper Than the Night

It was after 9:00 pm on April 20, 1989.  A darkness more pervasive than the nighttime sky had swallowed the socioeconomically distressed slums teeming in uncomfortable and paradoxical proximity to Manhattan's impressively elite neighborhoods.  For better or worse, stretching more than 50 blocks, Central Park can't help but link Manhattan's have's and have-not's.  And it does so with a seductive canopy of marvelous trees, romantic winding pathways, and a pervasive - if misleading - atmosphere of tranquility.

Entering this realm was not only the successful Wall Street broker, jogging through for just another night of exercise, but five bored and restless teenagers from a world completely opposite that of the accomplished Pennsylvanian.  Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Kharey Wise were kids, a mix of blacks and Hispanics, mostly from the projects, and of somewhat disreputable conduct, who decided to go out for a bit of adventure.  Neither hard-core criminals nor choir boys, they tagged along with a larger group of more hardened punks who caroused along and into Central Park looking for trouble.

And they found it.  McCray, Richardson, Salaam, Santana, and Wise would soon become known to New Yorkers as the "Central Park Five," but they were not the hooligans cops assumed them to be.  Their group's pouncing on a disoriented homeless man disturbed the Central Park Five, and they began to have second thoughts about those with whom they were associating.  As some of the others began targeting additional victims who had ventured too far north into Harlem's domain, these five kids started backing away.  But it was too late.  Before they knew it, cops were swarming over them, and the Central Park Five was formed as the boys were rounded up and dumped at the precinct house.

New York then wasn't the same New York most tourists know today.  New York then was a city of incessant muggings, murders, rapes, Crack cocaine, and a pervasive fear among residents and visitors alike.  And everyone wanted the cops to do something about it.  At first, when the five hapless teens were brought in, police were simply interested in getting a handle on that evening's crime spree.  Just another night of mild mayhem - by Big Apple standards, anyway.  However, when the rape report came in, everything changed.

Before long, cops who were either overzealous, or indifferent to justice - or both - had gotten the Central Park Five to individually confess to a crime they didn't know anything about.  Their videotaped confessions were not consistent, nor did they align with pertinent facts, but they were enough to help police officials convince New York's voracious media machine that the Central Park Jogger's rapists had been caught.  That the enraged city could relax.  Everything was under control.

Any rape is a heinous crime, of course.  But the rape of the Central Park Jogger came to represent an apex of the city's anger towards its criminal element.  The case also became a sort of rallying point for not only recognizing the depravity of its collective conscience, but a determination that New Yorkers could not allow things to get any worse.  Its symbolism and the arrest of the Central Park Five resonated throughout New York's spectrum of people groups:  rich whites were relieved by it, poor blacks were resigned to it, and everyone hoped it was a turning point in the right direction.

Blinded By Racism's Power

I wasn't living in New York in 1989, but I was by 1990, and I remember the brou-ha-ha in the media over the Central Park Jogger case and the much-hyped trials of the Central Park Five.  Not that I followed the trials very closely, however.  For one reason, I was preoccupied with the mechanics of working and living in one of America's most stressful environments.  But for another thing, I was young, naive, and apparently, more of a racist than I am today.

Late this past Friday evening, I was surfing television channels before going to bed, and I stumbled upon a Ken Burns documentary on our local PBS station here in north Texas.  It was about the Central Park Five, a case that this past Friday, I barely remembered.  But I quickly caught on, and recalled how the five punks had been found guilty and sent to prison.

"Ken Burns is doing a documentary on these guys?" I thought to myself.  "I wonder what his angle is?"

The show started with personal interviews of the Central Park Five, and they were admitting to being in the park, and to being a part of the pack of teens that beat up some innocent visitors to the park.  So I assumed that Burns wanted to explore how these thugs have been able to turn their lives around after serving their time for such wilding.

But Burns caught me completely by surprise.  As each of the boys - now, thirty-something-year-old men - kept insisting they didn't rape the Central Park Jogger, I was reliving the same "I'm not buying your sob story" mentality I had back when the trials for these five boys were taking place.  Burns lined up the videotaped evidence each boy gave prosecutors so we viewers could see how they didn't match, but still, I was sold on their guilt.  It wasn't until Burns' show was more than half-way finished that he introduced Matias Reyes, a serial rapist in the city back then, and then the shocker:  Reyes did it.

Several years after the trials, Reyes not only confessed to raping the Central Park Jogger, but DNA evidence proved it.  No DNA evidence from any of the Central Park Five was found at the rape crime scene.  Reyes was able to corroborate details about his crime that cops had never released to the media, and which none of the Central Park Five could confirm.  Reyes' infamy was also already known to the cops before the infamous rape in Central Park.  However, as Burns tells it, New York's district attorney's office and police department appear to have intentionally stolen the youth of these five boys.

In order to avoid an embarrassing, public-confidence-busting, and legal-Pandora's-box backtrack from that fateful night in the Central Park precinct house, city officials pressed forward with their original yet utterly contrived version of what happened to the Central Park Jogger.  Officials did not want to publicly second-guess the cops.  The district attorney's office refused to admit that, aside from those videotaped confessions, extracted through duress and outright lies told by cops to the teens, they had a flimsy case. Instead, city officials placed their trust in the public's reliable racism and the jury's likelihood of rendering a verdict based solely on whatever videotaped evidence is presented to them.  Apparently, it's well-known in legal circles that juries will place greater weight on anything they see and hear on a videotape, even if it contradicts hard facts in a case.

Compounding matters, remember, was the city's boiling-point anger against roving gangs of minority boys and men, and the impunity with which people with threatening demeanors could terrorize neighborhoods.

Granted, it didn't help anything that activists like Al Sharpton were organizing protests against the trial, the district attorney's office, and the police.  Parents of the Central Park Five had appealed to anybody who would listen to them - and that consisted only of people like Sharpton - because of how the evidence had been so egregiously compiled against their sons.  For all the rest of us, even other impoverished minorities in the city, it proved far easier to assume the cop's case against these teenagers was as true as it seemed.  And we were content to let them be found guilty and go to prison.

For something for which, I learned Friday night, however, they weren't guilty.

Oh. No.

I'm So Sorry

The Central Park Five today:  From left, Antron McCray,
Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam and Kharey Wise
Of course, I'm leaving out a lot of details from this story, and for those, you'll have to watch Burns' special.  After all, I'm not here to steal Burns' storytelling thunder.  My purpose in this essay is to do something that is uncomfortable, and sad, but something that is also rather freeing.  Freeing, at least, for me.  Ironic, since it's the Central Park Five who should have gone free on the rape charges.

For what it's worth, to Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Kharey Wise, I respectfully apologize for being one of those people who automatically assumed you were guilty because of your race, your family's economic situation, and the stereotypes I held - and still hold - about how kids like you behave.  You were not innocent until proven guilty.  I figured that since the cops said you did it, and since you seemed to be the type of kids who would do it, you had done it.  I am so very sorry, and ashamed.

I don't pretend to be the most righteous person out there, and like most of us, I struggle with varying degrees of racism.  But it was too easy for me to let the pieces of this case fall together against you based more on my own racism than the facts - or lack of them.  Granted, I was not on your jury, and I didn't hear all of the evidence, nor did I know then what I know now about what the police knew - but didn't tell the public.  And there's nothing I can do now - or could have done then - that would have made any difference in how your case turned out.

Yet I was a member of the New York City community during those years when your parents wanted somebody to listen, and hardly any of us did.  One of the reasons why New York's media did not stop and listen to your families was because people like me thought putting people like you in prison would help the city's crushing crime problem go away.

Instead, you were put away, along with your youth, and whatever potential you might have been able to build upon without the psychological stigma both you and society hold about prison time.

You'll probably never hear me make this confession, and offer this apology, but hopefully, as Burns' film lends credence and publicity to you, your ordeal can stand as a testament to the ugly power of racism.

Indeed, there were five more victims than cops realized in Central Park that night.  Six, if you count justice as one of racism's casualties.

Update 6/19/14:  The exonerated Central Park Five settled their claim of false imprisonment by the City of New York for approximately $40 million, to be split amongst them.

Friday, April 26, 2013

So... I Guess We're Ignoring the Bangladeshis?

So... I guess we've answered the question.

The question is:  how should evangelicals respond to yet another factory disaster in Bangladesh?

And I guess the answer is:  "ignore it."

Two days after the partial collapse of a garment factory, the death toll rose above 300 in Savar, Bangladesh, amidst the rubble of what used to be an eight-story structure.  This morning, about 50 survivors were found alive in a pocket of air buried in the debris, and it was learned that two pregnant women who'd been working in the factory had successfully given birth while waiting to be rescued.

Can you imagine the horror?  The trauma?  The chaos?  Most Americans can't - so that's why our media machine has been slow to ramp-up coverage of what would otherwise be an epic tragedy - if it had happened here on our shores.

You'd think that at least America's Christian media would be covering the story - especially the feel-good stuff about two brand-new lives coming into our world while so many others left it.  But no, World magazine, which regularly features "secular" news, has nothing about it on their homepage today.  The NFL draft takes precedence, as does their continuous memorializing of Edith Schaeffer, who died in March.  The only death story on Christianity Today's homepage is country singer George Jones' passing.  Crosswalk.com and the Gospel Coalition's website really never have much current event content, and today is no exception.  Ditto for Patheos and the Baptist Press.

Ironically, on the Religious News Service website, they do have a story about Bangladesh's factory disaster, but get this:  the story is about an organization of atheists.  These God-deniers are postponing some protests they'd scheduled at Bangladeshi consulates around the world over the Muslim country's arrest of four atheist bloggers who are being charged with blasphemy against Islam.

Leave it to the atheists to let Muslims mourn in peace.  Hmm... maybe that what our Christian media outlets are trying to do?

Granted, it could be said by the editors of these Christian-themed media outlets that news like a factory collapse half a world away is what CNN and network news is all about.  And for the nuts and bolts of a disaster story, that's mostly true, of course.  World and Christianity Today don't have bureaus in Bangladesh, and nobody really expects them to.

And it's yet to be determined if any of the clothing being manufactured at this factory - actually, the building apparently housed a number of independent garment makers - was destined for the United States.  News outlets often have to remind Americans about why we should care about stuff happening so far away.  But we already know that 23% of the clothing made in Bangladesh comes just to our country, making us, by far, the largest single customer of what amounts to sweatshop labor in that poor country.  Even if we've become clever at twisting such inconvenient economic realities in our favor.

"They should be grateful for the work," we Americans rationalize.  "Nobody's forcing them to jeopardize their lives in those dangerous factories."

And then there's the kicker:  "I don't want to pay any more than I have to for clothing.  If my low prices are the result of marginalized labor in countries like Bangladesh, I can't do anything about that."

I see.

We Americans are entitled to cheap clothing, but Bangladeshi workers aren't entitled to safe working environments.  Yes, I can see why Christian media outlets don't like covering these types of stories.  It's extremely difficult to see how the logic many Americans - and indeed, many religious conservatives, I suspect - use to justify our own materialism and need to economize has any basis in Biblical morality.

So, I guess we're just going to let the people in what we call the liberal media worry about the Bangladeshi's, then?  We don't need to concern ourselves with any responsibility we might hold in our clothing industry's push for ever-lower labor costs?  Easy enough, I suppose.  After all, even if we say we're willing to pay more so the folks who make our clothing don't need to slave away in dangerous factories, how could we possibly make sure the clothing industry won't keep the status-quo overseas, and just pocket the difference?

We think we can make a difference when it comes to abortion, gun control, immigration reform, and government handouts to lazy people.  I guess we've got too much on our plate to tackle labor injustice overseas.  Yeah, Bangladeshi's, the Vietnamese, the Laotians - they may be made in the image of God, but not in the image of Uncle Sam!

So we're going to let this crisis of human misery slide by us under the radar, huh?  I guess that is more economically expedient than actually doing something about it.  After all, it's all about saving our hard-earned money.

Except... I don't know about you, but something still puzzles me.  I don't know that I'm willing to risk death for subsistence wages.  So, please remind me:  why are we saying it's OK for other people?

Update:  The death toll as of Monday, May 6, is now 622
Update:  Some Western retailers use semantics to absolve themselves of liability

Thursday, April 25, 2013

What Would You Do With $2 Billion?

You're not gonna believe this.

If you attend a church, take a guesstimate at how much it's worth.  If you don't attend a church, pick the biggest one in your community, and go a little wild with how much you'd guess it's worth.  Go ahead:  add it all up.  Property, buildings, vehicles, cash-on-hand, parsonages, religious icons and custom artwork, sound equipment, musical equipment... throw it all in and add it up.

Does it add up to $2 billion?

Billion.  With a "B."  Actually, does it add up to MORE than $2 billion?  Because that's how much New York City's mainline Episcopal Trinity Church estimates its worth to be.

Incredible, huh?  I'm laughing out loud as I type "Manhattan Church Worth Over $2 Billion."

Liz, Phil, and Anne

Now, granted, it's hard to put a pricetag on the church's historic worship spaces.  These include St. Paul's Chapel, one of the oldest continuously-used religious buildings in the United States, plus the congregation's flagship space, an elegant jewelbox of a miniature Gothic cathedral built in 1846, anchoring the head of Wall Street.  What its main sanctuary lacks in size - compared to its massive European cousins - it more than makes up for in lush hallowedness and hushed venerability.  You can practically smell its ancient auspiciousness as you enter off of cacophonous Broadway, walking right over the threshold embellished with a plaque commemorating Queen Elizabeth II's royal visit in 1976, during America's Bicentennial.

The Queen, of course, is the figurehead of the Church of England, from which Trinity's Episcopalian denomination is an offshoot.  So even though I've always thought it unusual in multiple ways for a church to have a brass plaque in honor of Her Royal Highness, perhaps what's genuinely goofy about it is what's immortalized on it:

9 JULY 1976

Again, I find myself laughing as I type this out, even though I'm glad having the Queen's husband in such close proximity to her hallowed ground was worth being acknowledged in such grand fashion.  He's certainly played second fiddle all his married life.  Considering how theologically and socially liberal Trinity has been for years, perhaps referencing a royal spouse this way was a bold - albeit contrived - form of gender equality.

Indeed, since Trinity has a legacy of liberalism, doesn't it seem odd for the church to be one of Manhattan's largest landowners?  All of that $2 billion isn't tied up in their sanctuary, chapel, and cemeteries along Broadway.  Trinity owns 14 acres of land in Manhattan, which is some of the world's priciest real estate, regardless of what's built on it.

When it comes to money and wealth, however, everything is relative, isn't it?  Although Trinity owns 14 acres of highly-coveted city property, it used to own a whopping 215 acres, mostly farmland north of what is now the Financial District.  England's Queen Anne donated the land in 1705, back when Trinity was part of the Church of England.  Imagine the church's worth today if it still held even half of those 215 acres!  In a way, Trinity could be considered poor by comparison.

Putting On Airs

It's not even as though Trinity is the only church with extraordinary finances in New York City.  Several churches, particularly those on Manhattan Island, have been able to parlay their real estate portfolio - as meager as most are - to their financial advantage.

The new St. Peter's Lutheran Church (in red circle)
sits underneath a corner of the Citicorp Center tower

St. Peter's Lutheran Church, for example, used to be housed in a grand old Gothic edifice at the corner of 54th Street and Lexington Avenue.  In the late 1960's, when Citicorp Bank was putting together parcels of land to construct its new skyscraper east of Lexington, in what used to be a residential part of Midtown, the congregation decided it couldn't fight change.  Rapidly shrinking in size from white flight to the suburbs and Midtown's rapid conversion to high-rise office space, the church sold out to the bank in exchange for a smaller, modernist, yet opulent facility tucked underneath the new "floating" skyscraper.

Just this past February, the legendary Zeckendorf family of developers paid over $40 million to Christ Church, a Methodist congregation, for the air rights over its prime Park Avenue sanctuary.  In New York City, air rights refer to the volume of space that exists between the amount of construction the city's zoning laws allow, and what is currently built on the site.  In other words, if you own a parcel of land in Manhattan, and it's about five stories high, but zoning for that parcel of land allows something of up to 30 stories, you could sell the air rights for 25 stories to a developer to use on another project that needs air rights.  So Christ Church sold the air over its sanctuary for $40 million to developers who plan on using those air rights to increase the allowable size of a residential skyscraper they're building next door.

And if you think $40 million for empty air is a hefty price for the church to charge, consider that the Zeckendorf family plans on charging up to $48 million per apartment in their new tower.  Prices are that crazy in New York.

But, even so:  a church holding a portfolio worth two billion dollars?

Some say such an eye-popping amount is really only due to the city's unprecedented explosion in real estate values.  Trinity Church didn't set out to amass such a windfall, even if they have administered their properties adroitly.  If the church truly was money-hungry, would they have allowed their real estate holdings to dwindle so significantly over the centuries?  Plus, it's not Trinity's fault that Manhattan property values are ridiculously high.  Neither is it like the church has been on a buying spree, snapping up properties for profit.

In addition, this two billion dollars could be considered a form of endowment to help hedge the church against lean economic times.  Granted, two billion dollars represents a veritable concrete fortress instead of a lush hedge, especially for an organization whose enterprise is generally believed to be a break-even charity.  And considering the wealth and prestige many of its well-heeled members individually enjoy, it seems most unlikely that Trinity's collection coffers are going to run dry anytime soon, necessitating a run on the parish's rainy day fund.

A Billion Here, A Billion There...

The question has arisen, however, as to what the church plans on doing with its wealth.  It's been the type of question most congregations never get to ask, or if they do, the amount of money they're bickering over totals far less than two billion dollars.  But New York City is anything but normal, average, or conventional.  Except in one aspect:  at Trinity, the question has sparked what's turning into a good-old church split of sorts, and so far, one lawsuit.

Who says money can't buy happiness?  Many people in Trinity's membership, apparently.  They're not pleased that out of the church's $38 million operating budget for 2011 - yes, I'll let that sink in:  2011's annual budget was $38 million - less than 10% was spent on philanthropy.  True, Trinity funds the usual social programs expected of liberal churches, such as an AIDS walk, letter-writing to prisoners, an anti-racism campaign, and a community center, but these are mostly low-budget initiatives churches much smaller and poorer than Trinity also run all over the country.

And that's what galls an increasing number of Trinity congregants.  Most of Trinity's budget gets put back in the bank.  Shouldn't that money be out in the community, working on whatever churches traditionally are expected to do - but on a grand New York scale?  We evangelicals wouldn't expect a church with the type of theology as Trinity's to develop evangelistic programs and church planting efforts around the world.   But Trinity already spends some money helping Anglican churches in Africa, and some of Trinity's members think they could do far more of that.

Then there's New York's grinding poverty that Mayor Bloomberg may have been able to conveniently hide during his extraordinary three terms, but still stubbornly exists.  What two billion dollars couldn't do to help provide affordable apartments for indigent senior citizens!  Or run comprehensive transitional shelters for abused women and children, or fund scholarships at private schools in neighborhoods with sub-standard public schools, or even help subsidize late-night mass transit routes so the working poor can get safely home from their off-hours jobs in a reasonable amount of time.

It's not rocket science:  money talks in New York City.  It talks louder there than anyplace else in America - other than Washington, DC, of course!  In fact, it's the very same loud money that has helped Trinity to realize the stunning valuation of its 14 acres.  Fourteen measly acres - how many mega-churches across suburbia sprawl over so much more land that's worth a fraction of Trinity's two billion dollars?

Meanwhile,  Trinity is facing a revolt within its membership over whether hoarding money is helping to serve its community.  What about "the least of these," the folks for which limousine liberals usually sympathize?

Are they quietly standing nearby, negligible, an afterthought, just like the Queen's husband?

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Good News, Bad News in Gosnell Trial

Do you want the good news first, or the bad news?

The good news is that the media has really begun reporting on the Gosnell trial in Philadelphia, in which an abortionist has been charged with multiple counts of murder.

The bad news is that the number of charges against Gosnell are dwindling.  Whereas he was initially charged with eight murders, he's now charged with five.  The Washington Post is confirming this afternoon that the judge in his case threw out three murder charges today for lack of sufficient evidence.  Gosnell now stands accused of murdering four infants and an adult patient of his who had sought an abortion.

But hold on a minute - is it really bad news that the number of murder charges against Gosnell are dwindling?  As news spread of the judge's ruling in three of the disputed cases, some pro-life advocates began to complain that our criminal justice system was failing us.  The knee-jerk reaction consisted mostly of suspicion that somebody is pulling strings to the benefit of pro-choice liberals.

So let's look at the circumstances surrounding these three charges Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey Minehart had to evaluate.  For the most part, evidence provided in court supporting claims of murder on these three cases consists of anecdotal testimony based on visual or aural proofs which might have a hard time withstanding continued prosecutorial scrutiny in the courtroom.  In other words, these claims could undermine the legal integrity of the entire case against the disgraced doctor.

Remember, Gosnell's trial appears to be far from over, and no matter the verdict, it's hard to imagine there being no appeal of any kind.  Justice is well and truly served when any trial proceeds with the truest charges and strongest proofs available.  Frankly, Judge Minehart may be helping to buttress the case against Gosnell by removing clutter in the trial that could distract from the stronger case Pennsylvania has against the abortionist.  Besides, if we evangelicals are supposed to be all about justice, what's to complain about if three of these charges could distort justice in this case?

Let's not react to headlines, but to facts.  Apparently, in those three cases, medical proof cannot be found  that the fetuses were viable before birth or alive afterwards.  So, do you want these charges thrown out now, even though it's the middle of the trial, or towards the end, when doing so would be much more dramatic in favor of the defense?  Regardless of the charges - and however many they are - he deserves a fair trial like anybody else.  Besides, a verdict that can't stand up to the inevitable appeals process isn't worth much.

Yes, it's easy for us to vilify Dr. Kermit Gosnell.  According to what we've been told, he's not only a pro-choice advocate, or even an abortionist who gets paid for taking life some liberals say doesn't exist, but he's been charged with murdering babies that have come out of the womb as viable human beings.  That's disturbing even to many pro-choice advocates.  Seeing the photographs of his tiny little patients that had been killed almost made me physically sick.

But it took the challenge of a friend before I seriously thought about how I should view Gosnell.  My friend asked me if I'd prayed for Gosnell.  After all, he definitely needs the Lord, right?  Unfortunately, I had to confess that I hadn't.  It hadn't even occurred to me to pray for him.  But I pray for him now.  I've heard some people say they're praying for the little lives Gosnell took.  Why pray for them?  They're in Heaven, right?  Instead of praying for people who are already in Heaven, why not pray for people who will need to be?  It's hard to believe that Gosnell already professes saving faith in Christ, and since he probably doesn't, shouldn't we be praying for his salvation?

Then too, consider that the crimes with which he's charged may be more heinous according to our mortal judicial system than anything you and I have done, but they're equal in God's eyes to the sins you and I have committed.  Eerie, huh?  He needs Christ as much - but not any more - than we do.  We can mourn for the lives he took, advocate sociopolitically on behalf of life, and hope that justice is served in his case, but even then, vengeance is the Lord's, not ours.  And we shouldn't be thirsty for it, but we should be thirsty for grace.  Plus, the same grace for which we thirst in our own lives should be something we hope Gosnell may one day have for himself.

I'm not saying that praying for Gosnell is easy.  It seems counter-intuitive at first.  In fact, speaking of being counter-intuitive, following this line of thinking, we're supposed to be praying for Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.  We're also supposed to be praying for whomever is responsible for the massive explosion at the fertilizer facility in West, Texas - a blast so powerful some officials now say underground utilities were damaged. 

If you stop and think about it, praying for all of these people for whom we wouldn't ordinarily think to pray could take up an awful lot of time, couldn't it?  I mean, there are a lot of people who do things with which we don't agree.  Then again, I figure that if I spent half as much time fretting about the bad stuff other people do, and pray for them using the other half of that time, I'd probably get less stressed-out over some of these things.  And I'd have actually brought these people before the throne of the only One Who can really do anything of eternal value for them.  

The bad news is that I have such a hard time living with a heart of grace.

The good news is that God doesn't!

Friday, April 19, 2013

Beholding the Beautiful People

They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Apparently, so is some advertising.

You may have already seen the "Real Beauty Sketches" video from the Dove soap company in which a trained sketch artist - who's a male - draws women he's never seen simply by verbal descriptions of them.  First, a woman sits down behind a screen, and tells the artist what she thinks she looks like, and he draws the portrait she verbalizes.  Then, another person, who's been introduced to that first woman, comes in, sits down behind a screen, and tells the artist what the first woman looks like.

After both sketches have been drawn, the woman who was the subject of that pair of sketches comes back and evaluates the difference between what she's told the artist she looks like, and what the other person recalls her as looking like.  Usually, there's a stark contrast between the two interpretations, with the sketch drawn in accordance with the stranger's perspective looking perceptibly more appealing by comparison.

Dove's objective is to encourage women with the likelihood that how they think they look isn't necessarily as negative as how other people see them.  "Women are their own worst beauty critics," Dove claims.  "Only 4% of women around the world consider themselves beautiful.  At Dove, we are committed to creating a world where beauty is a source of confidence, not anxiety."

Of course, Dove is also committed to creating a world where people care about beauty and will buy their products in order to stay as beautiful as possible.

A Woman's View of Dove's Comparisons

And that's where feminist writer Jazz Brice has a problem with Dove's little beauty project.  In an essay on Tumblr, entitled "Why Dove’s 'Real Beauty Sketches' Video Makes Me Uncomfortable… and Kind of Makes Me Angry," Brice points out that Dove's project simply reinforces "the message [women] constantly receive...  that girls are not valuable without beauty."

Indeed, Dove's video is all about looks, isn't it?

"Brave, strong, smart?  Not enough," Brice deduces.  "You have to be beautiful.  And 'beautiful' means something very specific, and very physical."

She catches a troubling quote in the video that bothered me, too, when I watched it.  It's near the end, and one of the women who's been encouraged to think more highly of herself - since she's not as ugly as she thought she was - tries to justify this project for Dove.

“I should be more grateful of my natural beauty," this participant explains.  "It impacts the choices and the friends we make, the jobs we go out for, they way we treat our children, it impacts everything.  It couldn’t be more critical to your happiness.”

How beautiful you are "couldn't be more critical to your happiness?"  Isn't that a woefully troublesome assumption?  Sexist, even?

Instead, Brice warns, "don’t let your happiness be dependent on something so fickle and cruel and trivial.  You should feel beautiful, and Dove was right about one thing: you are more beautiful than you know.  But please, please hear me: you are so, so much more than beautiful."

Of course, that's a self-professed feminist's take on the video.   And I was fairly content to leave it at that the other day, when I first saw the video and read Brice's comments a friend had posted on Facebook.  Our society is too focused on looks and other superficial qualities.  It doesn't take a feminist to point that out.  So I didn't really think much more about the video, and assumed that since it was nothing but a glorified commercial, the general public wouldn't fall too deeply for it, either.

A Man's View of Dove's Comparisons

But I was surprised to see Tim Challies, an evangelical pastor and blogger, taking up the same topic today. Challies?!  What's he doing giving this video any publicity?  And then he pointed out it has been viewed on YouTube more than 10 million times.

People are more gullible than I thought.

And then it struck me that, lately, I've noticed a lot of "beautiful" fluff in Christian media these days.  Several youngish, evangelical, male married friends on Facebook have appeared to be part of a trend involving a husband's proclamation to the rest of us that their wives are beautiful.  It almost makes me wonder what mistake they've made that their wives are holding over their heads - like it's the digital version of chocolates and flowers.  Plus, I write some music reviews for Crosswalk.com, and even in my latest review, I commented that it seems contemporary Christian musicians feel obligated to write at least one song saying their spouse is beautiful.  Is there really that much negative self-imagery out there poisoning Christian womens' minds?

Now, I'm a single never-married, so you'll understand why all of this talk about how beautiful one's wife is sounds a bit dorky to me.  And me saying that may help explain why I'm a single never-married!  And no, not all of the compliments these Christian husbands are paying their wives are exclusively about physical appearance.  But appearance is a major part.

So at first, I thought Challies, being a more objective and straight-laced evangelical writer than others, was going to take Christians to task over this popular beauty trend.  I expected him to point out how we concentrate too much on subjective anatomical and biological attributes.  But he didn't.

Instead, without endorsing the commercial aspects of Dove's video, or dwelling too much on it's obsession with physical attractiveness, Challies takes the more nuanced road and muses about how we believers in Christ usually tend to be harder on ourselves and our faith walk than other people are in their estimation of us.

Frankly, I'm not sure what to make of that.

Christian "Beauty" and the Beholder

"In all of life there is a conflict between who we believe we are and who other people believe we are," Challies posits, "and in this conflict we tend to believe that we are the ones with the better and more accurate assessment."

OK, I'm tracking with him so far.  But there's more.

"What always stands out to us is that the areas in which we think we are weakest are the ones in which other people identify grace." he continues.  "We are so aware of our sin that we blind ourselves to the grace of God which is slowly but consistently putting that sin to death."

I don't know about you, but I thought we believers generally don't have a very accurate picture of all the sins we've committed.  True, sometimes we're pretty hard on ourselves, but we are wretched people without God's grace.  Challies isn't saying that we're not as bad as we think we are, but he does appear to be trying to hammer sanctification into the flimsy grid of Dove's overly-subjective hypothesis.

At the end of the day, it doesn't really matter what other people think of us.  What matters is what God knows us to be, and whether or not His grace is active in our lives.  Observers should know that we are His people by our love for Him and for each other, but how much of our sanctification other people may see in us isn't necessarily a harbinger of God's salvific work.  Besides, we're a lot better at presenting certain sides to other people and hiding other sides from them.  What others see of us in churchy settings isn't necessarily what they're getting.

Meanwhile, our "Beholder" isn't anybody we can see, but the One to Whom all is revealed.  To Him, in Christ, we're all beautiful people.

This probably isn't that big a deal, and as a blogger myself, I know we writers don't always make the most logical arguments.  So I'll give Challies a pass on this, because one of the points he makes is quite valid:  we don't need to beat ourselves up over our sins, and we do need to welcome more of God's grace into our lives.  Amen?  I'm just not convinced that many believers truly understand the depths of their depravity, which is the reason God's perfect Substitute, Christ, had to die in the first place.  Nor am I convinced, at least with the artificial and contrived ways we control how our lives are displayed to those around us, that other believers can accurately gauge what God's doing inside of us.

Then again, maybe I'm the only believer who puts on his best possible "faith face" when I'm out in the Christian world.

How An Atheist Sees Me

Maybe I'm also still glowing from the surprising words of encouragement I received yesterday from none other than my atheist friend in prison.  I've gotta tell ya - I don't think I've had anybody in any faith community of which I've been a part tell me what I'm going to share with you.  So maybe this helps cloud my skepticism of Challies' interpretation of the Dove video.

"Do you remember the night you called me and confronted me with what you had read online?" my friend writes.  Back before he'd gone to prison, I had no idea that he'd done anything illegal.  I hadn't heard from him in a couple of weeks, and he'd dropped out of all social media.  I finally Googled his name to see if maybe he'd died.  The first result from my search gave me the official indictment against him, and his guilty plea, along with his upcoming sentencing date.  I was floored.

"It was hardly a two-minute phone conversation," my friend continues.  "You said that you were on your way (a half-hour drive) and hung up.  I put the phone down and thought, 'Geez, it would never have occurred to me to extend that kind of compassion and support to another person, to just drop everything and rush over.'"

If you'll indulge me, there's more!  Seriously - I can't remember the last time anybody else outside my family has ever told me this kind of stuff.

"I've always seen you as a creative, intelligent, and 'together' person, with a lot to offer people," he affirms.  "When I'm around you or even just talking with you on the phone, I feel a comfort and peace.  It's been true since the day I met you."

Typing this just now, I have to suppress the urge to laugh out loud in disbelief.  I think my friend has been in prison too long!  Then again, however, this illustrates Challies' claim that we believers sometimes carry too unbalanced an opinion of ourselves around with us.

I'm not sharing my friend's letter with you to pat myself on the back, or to prove to myself that somebody is willing to put such nice things about me into writing, or even to shame any evangelical friends of mine who might read this but have never said such kind things to me.

Although, yeah, I guess I'm ticked that they haven't.  Of course, I haven't done it to them much, either, if at all.

At his church, Challies says congregants make a point of trying to find opportunities of encouraging each other with things they see God doing in each others' lives.  At a Nazarene church I used to attend in college, they'd take a Sunday evening service once in a while and do "affirmations," standing up unscripted and offering short, encouraging words of support to specific people in the congregation.

For whatever reason, what Challies says his church does, and what the Nazarene church did, sound rather stilted.  I suspect that when God commanded us to encourage each other, He intended it to be more organic than "OK, now say something nice about somebody."  Our encouragement of each other should be a normal part of our conversation, don't you think?  Should we be waiting for specific times or seasons to support one another with how we see God advancing their sanctification?

Meanwhile, I'm resisting the urge to copy and paste my atheist friend's letter to my Facebook page!  I have to admit, having somebody say they see beauty in you is rather invigorating, isn't it?

Too bad I keep forgetting that God does it all the time:

"The LORD your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing."  - Zephaniah 3:17

Thursday, April 18, 2013

West's Blast Casts New Light on Rules


Not just the stunning news of a massive industrial explosion in the tiny town of West, Texas yesterday evening.  If you saw the live, televised coverage from news helicopters last night, scattered patches of orange fire all over West gave the scary impression that the entire town had been blown off the map.

What's just as mind-boggling, however, is that any facility of the type that exploded exists within the neighborhoods of such a small town to begin with.

Search and rescue crews continue picking through the rubble, and thankfully, survivors are being found.  The death toll, while unfortunate at any number, is far lower than initial estimates from last night.  New video in the light of day also reveals that the destruction wasn't as widespread as it seemed in last night's chaos.  Among the many things for which West's residents have to be thankful today, including its brave first responders and the overwhelming emergency response from its neighboring communities, is that the devastation isn't as bad as we feared it might be.

Still, doesn't it all seem to have been completely preventable?

Some of us who are physically and emotionally removed from the crisis afflicting West have already begun wondering:  who in their right mind builds an apartment complex, a nursing home, a junior high school, and a senior high school right next to a fertilizer plant?  Even if, as some now clarify, this facility didn't technically manufacture fertilizer, but processed and stored it?  Nevertheless, regardless of what this facility did to the components of fertilizer, how did it come to be located so close to residential neighborhoods?

Would you want to live next to something so dangerous?

Who Knew What?

Technically, the town's official boundaries come right up to - but don't include - the storage area at Adair Grain Inc.'s West Fertilizer Company facility.  So it's likely that town officials had little jurisdiction over what plant officials did on-site.  Besides, it's not like many towns this size in Texas have zoning laws to begin with.  News reports say this plant has existed on this site for decades, and it's entirely likely that when it was built, it was considered to be "out in the country."  As West's northeastern neighborhoods crept up to and around the plant, over years of municipal growth and expansion, the plant was viewed as a benign - if sometimes smelly - native.

That still doesn't answer the question of why anybody would build or buy a house near a fertilizer facility, let alone construct West Middle School, which was destroyed in the blast, and Rest Haven, the heavily damaged nursing home.  Even if everybody knew what it was, were they informed about how dangerous it was?

Now, I'm hardly an expert on fertilizer, anhydrous ammonia, ammonium nitrate, and the other significant dangers associated with this type of industry, but neither am I stupid.  We know what happened in Oklahoma City, and how much destruction 41 fifty-pound bags of fertilizer inflicted to and around the former Murrah Federal Building.  It doesn't take much armchair quarterbacking to point out that town officials in West should have been deeply concerned about a fertilizer plant near their community, much less one squatting right on its border. 

Which brings us back to the stark reality that somebody was either incredibly naive, or deceived.

I'm going with the "deceived" assumption, since it's hard to imagine somebody authorizing the money it takes to construct and run public facilities so close to such a potential liability as a fertilizer plant.  Unless they've been led to believe the fertilizer plant holds no threat.

Last night, the Dallas Morning News quickly discovered that in a report to the Environmental Protection Agency, plant officials in West certified that their facility posed no risk of fire or explosion.  Hmm.  There's also a report circulating around the Internet that the facility was cited in 2006 for having insufficient permits.  Also being rumored is that the local volunteer fire department had not been provided with adequate documentation and instruction regarding how to combat a fire involving fertilizer.

Apparently, as I easily learned online, one should not pour water directly onto a fire involving ammonia.  Rather, if a foaming fire suppressant is not available, a misting technique should be used for applying water to the conflagration.  It's a little different with ammonium nitrate.

Had those valiant volunteer firefighters - and of all people, those who voluntarily fight fires are valiant, aren't they? - been trained in how to fight a fire at this plant?

Should Action Wait?

There are those who will say that now is not the time to be casting blame or criticizing.  Yet I say now is exactly the time when we need to begin constructing a dialog, when the public's attention is riveted to this subject.  After all, this isn't a personal, private tragedy, or even a natural disaster - this was utterly preventable.  West's catastrophe carries profound and urgent implications regarding safety procedures, hazardous material regulations, and the degree of oversight to which companies such as this small plant are subjected.  It's a ghastly social event, yet it's also a depressingly political issue.  And proactive politics only happen when the public is riled up about something.

Which, of course, brings us to the strong aversion many conservatives have towards what is perceived as governmental intrusion into commerce, social freedom, and personal liberties.  "Government regulations!  Big government!  Nanny state rules!"  I can hear it now.

Except... the people who would be sputtering these complaints are actually alive to do so.  The people who've been killed in West, obviously, can't.  Even the people in West who've survived, but whose homes have been blown apart, would probably wish that some government official knew what was truly going on at that fertilizer facility on the edge of town, and was forcing it to comply with all applicable safety regulations.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again:  rules and regulations usually evolve from somebody's stupidity or selfishness.  If we took better responsibility for preventing undesirable outcomes, there wouldn't be the push for so many laws when people are impacted by negative consequences.  After all, not all rules are onerous to everybody affected by them, are they?  Don't we often forget how the safety and cleanliness we enjoy today is mostly the result of environmental rules businesses used to consider draconian?

Libertarians Cringe at West's Lesson

What's with all of this incessant anti-government vitriol anyway?  Consider what the apostle Paul tells us about our government, from Romans 13:

Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.  The authorities that exist have been established by God.  Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.  For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong.  Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority?  Then do what is right and he will commend you.  For he is God's servant to do you good... This is also why you pay taxes...  Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.  Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law.  - Romans 13:1-8

Many Texans boast about the minimum regulations our state imposes on businesses.  And to a certain degree, I still believe that fewer rules makes for a better quality of life.  However, some regulations serve a vital purpose, and perhaps this tragedy in West is reminding us what that purpose is.  Especially when there are companies that, either out of greed or negligent ignorance, prioritize profit over humanity.

Am I jumping the gun here?  Should we wait for a government investigation to know how this could have been prevented?  Why does it matter how the fire started?  What matters more is how a town was allowed to grow up alongside such a potentially hazardous site.  Should we assume that people - whether they're home buyers, city officials, or company owners - are always smart enough to make their own decisions?  Sometimes, those decisions are made on faulty information and assumptions.  I'm not saying that governments know best, but I am saying that sometimes governments can provide the information necessary for people to make good decisions.  Maybe the document found by the Dallas Morning News is a red herring, and the company really was honest and open about all of their facility's possible dangers.  But which would you prefer:  to know the company wasn't at fault, and that the officials in the town and county deliberately ignored the dangers they knew about?

And to my fellow Texans:  let's face it.  There is an important role governments like ours plays in the protection of our citizenry, and so far, our Lone Star State doesn't rank well in terms of avoiding catastrophic industrial accidents.

Just up I-35 from West, in the larger city of Waxahachie, closer to Dallas, the Magnablend chemical plant burst into flames in October of 2011, sending a noxious gas cloud into a nearby neighborhood that included - of all things - an elementary school.  Fortunately, nobody was injured in that explosion, but public sentiment for a time questioned the logic of allowing residential development around potentially hazardous industrial sites.

Not that Texas Republicans are always pro-business.  In the far more affluent exurb of Frisco, north of Dallas, wealthy residents near a longtime battery recycling plant were able to force the plant's closure, even though they'd recently bought their new, expensive homes within eyesight of the decades-old facility.  Over 100 workers at the plant lost their jobs.

To a certain degree, one has to sympathize for business owners of these undesirable plants when their operations become the target of newcomers' ire.  Here in Texas, with its robust economy, many towns are growing quickly, eating up what used to be pastureland near long-operating hazmat companies.  To what degree are new property owners responsible for their own due diligence before they purchase a home, or develop a nursing home, or build a public school near an industrial facility?

At the very least, other municipalities across our pro-business state should now take a hard look at potential problem spots in their own backyards.  Additionally, however, it's obvious that all the regulations our EPA could muster could not prevent last night's tragedy.  Therefore, a willingness must exist both on the part of business owners and the community in which they operate to treat each other with respect, and take the proper actions necessary to keep people reasonably safe.

And the definition of "reasonably safe" does not include legally running a fertilizer processing facility in such close proximity to homes, schools, and even other unrelated businesses.

Let's hope West's loss will be our lesson.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Rating the Menu at Death Cafes

So many of us are so focused on it.

Living life.

Yet increasingly, the subject of death is attracting more and more attention.  Perhaps it's the aging of our Baby Boomers, and the dawning realization among many of them that they're closer to death than to their birth.

So I wasn't exactly surprised to read that Los Angeles has seen its first death cafe open.  Frankly, I was more surprised to learn that several others have already opened around the country.  Indeed, the first one opened in England in September of 2011.

What is a death cafe, you ask?  It's actually a simple concept that British web designer Jon Underwood borrowed from a Swiss sociologist.  A group of people get together over dessert items and beverages and discuss mortality.  Underwood is using the original European model of the cafe as a comfortable, safe meeting place where patrons become participants, and conversation is as important as the cuisine.

Therefore, contrary to a cafe's popular connotation as a restaurant, death cafes are not an actual bricks-and-mortar franchise chain of diners, but a loose association of fairly controlled fellowships dedicated to the subject of death.  About 60 cafes have already been initiated, and the concept is spreading fairly rapidly across England, the United States, and Australia.

They're not therapy groups, per say.  Nor are they grief recovery groups, or self-help groups, or for-profit psychotherapy clinics.  Instead, at a death cafe, attendees discuss the dying process and its implications with a view, ostensibly, towards "living each day like they're dying."  Because they are.  We all are, right?  You're closer to death now than you were when you started reading this essay.

Each meeting of a death cafe is moderated by a counselor of some type  Ironically, the first death cafe ever was moderated by a specialist in early life experiences.

By now, at least for those of us churched folk, you may be asking yourself, "why don't these people just go to church?"  After all, conventional religious institutions have historically been the place where a society turns for discussing mortality.  Throughout the world, cultures both primitive and sophisticated have created a faith-based construct for explaining, interpreting, coping with, ceremonializing, and processing the death experience.  Yet for people attracted to these death cafes, organized religion apparently has become a foreign or useless concept.

For people like me to learn that institutionalized religion - whether it's evangelicalism or shamanism - plays no role in how an increasing number of people view mortality is bizarre.  Their desire to talk about death isn't what's bizarre.  Actually, calmly talking about it within a like-minded group represents a pretty healthy approach to something so inevitable.  But how bizarre that their faith in themselves - and how insufficient that apparently has become to them - has consumed whatever religious traditions we churched folk have simply assumed to exist in our society!

After all, it's not that people who seek comfort from death cafes don't have any religion.  Self-worship is a religion, and it's far more prevalent even amongst churched people than we care to admit.  Humanism, relativism, carnality - they're all systems of faith, replete with a god; except the deity is the self, not some revered personage with an identity all their own.  Still, it's pretty weird that even liberal churches that let you believe pretty much anything you want to believe hold no attraction for these death cafe patrons.

Perhaps this is an indication as to how utterly secular our culture is becoming.  At the very least, we may be witnessing the quiet birth of yet another religion; another way of worshiping the self.  If how one dies serves as a vital testament to who that person was in life, which appears to be a major tenet of the death cafe faith, and there's no other significance to death than it being a demarcation between different levels of awareness, there may be substantively nothing new to death cafes, but they certainly seem appealing to people who like to think they have no religion.

To some evangelicals, death cafes may seem like a harmless trend that could actually help people deal with grief and trepidation in healthy ways.  But if these death cafes are not dealing with our souls, the eternal purposes of God for each of us, and the significance of dying to self and living for Christ, then it's just another heresy that mocks death's ultimate purpose - to celebrate God's sovereignty as He either brings His people home to live with Him, or sends them into never-ending darkness.

Yes, obviously, death can be considered to be an intrinsically personal experience.  And yes, "living each day like you're dying" is a fairly Biblical motto, whether death cafe fans want to admit it or not.  There's also nothing wrong with pre-planning one's funeral, arranging powers of attorney and other end-of-life legal matters, and taking care to live as long and healthy a life as God intends for us.

But death for believers in Christ is our ultimate opportunity to celebrate His victory over it!  Instead of dreading it, shouldn't we embrace the glorious transition it provides us?  I don't know of anybody who looks forward to the process of dying, but who among us believers should actually fear death?

Maybe some of the folks who are attending these death cafes don't actually fear death, either.  Maybe they simply want to learn what options other people think are available in whatever afterlife they hope may exist.  Kind of like a smorgasbord of post-mortality opportunity.

I'm tempted to wish them a cavalier, if cynical, "good luck with that," except luck is about as real as what these people think they can substitute for dying without Christ.

Of course, they'd likely retort that their faith is just as good as mine.

I hope they don't have to wait until death to find out it isn't.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Boston's Bombings and a Theodicy Contagion

"Stay calm, and carry on."

Did the apparent introduction to terrorism for one of Britain's first colonies freak you out?

Call me a jaded New Yorker, but I lived through worse in 1993, when jihad arrived at the World Trade Center.

Bombings Make History in Historic Boston

Still, I'm not marginalizing the significance of the dual bombings at the Boston Marathon's finish line yesterday.  Three people dead, over 100 injured, and many of the injured needing to have a limb amputated.  How awful - especially considering this happened at an athletic event.  Those bombings were a life-changing crisis for many people in many significant ways, and for those people, I'm truly saddened.  And praying.

Oddly enough, no clear motive has been announced, either by investigators, or by any terrorist organization that might have orchestrated the attack.  It didn't help matters, either, when a fire broke out at the Kennedy Library, also in Boston, at about the same time as the bombings.  Even though authorities now believe the Kennedy Library fire was a random accident, and not sabotage of any kind, it's been enough to light some conspiracy fires.  After all, how often does a fire strike at a presidential museum during a presumably terroristic attack elsewhere in the same city?

It's all been unnerving and disconcerting for many people, especially since sporting venues create well-populated targets that are practically impossible to comprehensively defend.

Not that any of us will be drastically changing our behavior anytime soon.  I think we've all learned our lesson after 9/11, when then-President Bush created the unwieldy Department of Homeland Security and the infamous Transportation Security Administration to combat - and indeed, exploit - fear among the general public.  About the only good thing you can say about either of these big-government boondoggles is that they teach us good lessons about what government looks like when it's running amok.

Still, people across the world are now operating with a heightened sense of alertness.  From London, England, to any of the more than 300 other marathon sites across the world this coming weekend alone, officials are double-checking contingency plans and reassuring participants, even as events continue to  proceed as scheduled.

Meanwhile, we pray for the bereaved in Boston, as well as the injured, the first responders, the investigators, and even the perpetrators.  Well, at least it's popular to say we're praying for all of these folks, with the likely exception of the perpetrators.  Even people who don't particularly consider themselves religious sputter the "pray" word during times like this.  Those of us who follow Christ, however, actually believe that God hears our prayers and answers them, both in the mundane things of life, and in the tragic.  When we don't know what or how to pray, we still voice our concerns to Him, trusting that He'll answer in ways that are for our good and His glory.


The Study of Theodicy

Did you know that the scenario of prayer that I've just described has a scientific name?  It's called "theodicy," which means defending God's goodness and omnipotence despite our witness of evil.  I discovered the term while reading an article entitled "When God Is Your Therapist" by Tanya Luhrmann, a psychological anthropologist at Stanford specializing in religions spanning charismatic Christianity to wicca.

Luhrmann professes to be fascinated with us evangelicals and our captivation of God.  And I use "captivation" in every sense of the word.  She sees our faith as a sort of ownership over the whole "God" idea, to the exclusion of other forms of Christianity - and indeed, other religions - that also claim an affiliation of some sort with the deity conventionally named "God."  Why do we so aggressively assert a proprietary relationship over God, and what gives us the right to deny other faith walks their own claim on Him?

It's as if we have some exclusive relationship with God that gives us familial rights to His attention.

You think she's on to something? 

Unfortunately, she can't see it clearly.  In "When God Is Your Therapist," a quasi-scientific piece she wrote for the New York Times' Sunday Review, Luhrmann frames evangelical Christianity as a cheap form of self-help.

"You can see this therapeutic dimension most clearly when evangelicals respond to the body blows of life," she observes.  "The churches I studied resisted turning to God for an explanation of tragedy. They asked only that people turn to God for help in dealing with the pain."

As a scientist, it's likely Luhrmann intended this as some sort of slam against evangelicals who may like to have reasons for why things happen, but are mostly concerned with having God comfort them.  Which, of course, is a shallow view of faith, both by Luhrmann, and, admittedly, for those believers who use their faith as some sort of cosmic security blanket.  Those of us who've been saved by the blood of Christ have the Holy Spirit living inside of us, teaching and guiding us in God's truths, both despite of and because our circumstances.  We know we live in a fallen world, and that sin corrupts everything and everyone who is mortal.  Success, ease, comfort, and contentment all become esoteric concepts to people walking by faith and not sight.

"It can seem puzzling that evangelical Christians sidestep the apparent contradiction of why bad things happen to good people," Luhrmann writes.  "But for them, God is a relationship, not an explanation."

This Contagion Would Be Nothing Like a Disaster

By George, I think she's got it!  Except, since she refuses to profess faith in Christ, she really doesn't, does she?  When most of us evangelicals got word yesterday of the bombings in Boston, we didn't freeze in confusion, collapse in despair, or lash out in fearful anger.  We may have gawked longer than is healthy for us at the photos of the bloodied victims, or voraciously surfed news sites for the absolutely latest rumors and hypotheses, but for the most part, we know in Whom we have believed.  Amen?  Unless we personally knew somebody running in the marathon, we didn't expend too much emotional energy over the situation, aside for mourning with those who were mourning, and weeping with those who were weeping.

For people like Luhrmann, reactions like these make us some sort of freaks.  Human oddities.  Actually reading her essay helps explain why evangelicals are becoming increasingly ostracized by the humanistic culture in which we're living, since Luhrmann and other non-evangelicals consider God's ways to be foolishness.

Foolishness worthy of scientific analysis, of course.  But foolishness nevertheless.

Say it with me:  "thee-odyssey"  That's how you pronounce "theodicy," or our defense of God's goodness and omnipotence despite our witness of evil. 

May our testimony remain strong and sure during these days of strife, wars and rumors of wars, disasters, disease, and affliction.  And if there is to be any contagion, may it only be one comprised of God's grace.

How do you think psychological anthropology would react to a contagion of theodicy?

Stay calm and carry on, indeed!

PS - also yesterday, 55 civilians were killed in a series of bombings across Iraq...