Friday, February 28, 2014

Sputtering at Arizona Veto Isn't Helpful

Evangelicals, thou dost protest too much, methinks.

I borrow this phrase from Shakespeare's Hamlet after reading two scathing condemnations of Arizona Governor Jan Brewer's veto of SB 1062.  One of them is by World magazine, written by Leigh Jones, and entitled "The Vetoed Bill That Never Existed."  The other, by Jennifer Marshall for the Gospel Coalition (TGC), is entitled "When Tolerance Turns to Coerced Celebration."

Both pieces claim that Arizona's bill wasn't about denying service to gays.  But at the same time, both pieces screech alarms about Christians having to give up their rights for gays.

Frankly, the duplicity on display here is embarrassing.  If Arizona's SB 1062 was merely the i-dotting, t-crossing legal formality to an existing law, like both Jones and Marshall want their readers to think it was, then why are they so upset that it didn't become law?

"Contrary to opponents’ claims," Jones writes for World, "the bill would not have given restaurants or retail stores, businesses open to the general public, the right to refuse to serve gay customers."  And then she goes on to describe how Christian businesses could now be left open to lawsuits by dissatisfied gay customers.

"Minor clarifications to existing law got lost in an avalanche of gross mischaracterization," Marshall writes for TGC, "as national pundits predicted the bill would usher in a 'homosexual Jim Crow' regime with rampant denial of services by business owners to gays and lesbians."

And then she goes on to admit that yes, in fact, "one reason for the clarification was to protect Arizona citizens from the kind of government action brought against Christian businesses elsewhere when they declined to use their talents to celebrate same-sex weddings or commitment ceremonies."

So... which is it?  Was it a bill that never existed, or was it a bill that coerced gay wedding celebrations?  Was it an innocuous bit of legislation, or was vetoing it a horrible miscarriage of religious liberty?

Both writers appear to be basing much of their consternation on the same bit of evidence that was proffered by a group of legal scholars at the 11th hour of Governor Brewer's deliberations over the bill.  That evidence is a letter discussing various aspects of SB 1062's legitimacy as an amendment to Arizona's current Religious Freedom Restoration Act.  But even the authors of that letter admit they didn't all agree on whether the governor should sign it or veto it.

Now, I'm no fan of Governor Brewer.  I'm no fan of any politician.  Neither do I believe Christian business owners should be forced to provide services in the cause of something their faith teaches is morally wrong.  But with all due respect to the people who put SB 1062 together, it was too open-ended and ambiguous regarding its legal ramifications, and the extent to which people could manipulate such ambiguity.  For all of the protestations World and TGC are raising after the fact, claiming that the media distorted the legislation's true nature and intent, it seems even more likely that evangelicals who hoped it would pass are fomenting a similar level of distortion over what its veto means to people of faith in Arizona.

My dear brothers and sister in Christ:  this is a debate for which legislation that is obviously open to interpretation simply cannot suffice.  Isn't it?  Why is that such a hard thing for God's people to admit?

Okay, so now we know what the governor - and a lot of other people, like me, who opposed SB 1062 - are looking for in such legislation.  In their complaints about Governor Brewer's veto, neither Jones nor Marshall really address the fact that one of the primary reasons Brewer ruled against making it law was that SB 1062 was too broadly-worded.  That means we're looking for a fine-tuned statement of protection for people who do not want to be forced into providing a service that conflicts with their religious beliefs.  Going back to the drawing board shouldn't elicit such howls of protest, should it?

If Arizona's lawmakers can't come up with something like that, then we all will have the right to be righteously indignant.  Otherwise, since open-ended ambiguity isn't exactly a hallmark of our faith, why should we get all bent out of shape when open-ended ambiguity haunts laws that get vetoed?

Protesting too much makes us appear to be poor losers.  But losers of what?  SB 1062 wasn't our last stand.  However, it's our integrity that we stand to lose if we keep kicking dust up onto the gay marriage lobby's shoes.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Does Racism Spike Lee's Urbanism?

In case there was any doubt, Spike Lee wanted to eliminate it completely.

He hates gentrification.  And he went off on a profanity-choked tirade during a Black History Month event at Brooklyn's Pratt Institute, my Dad's alma mater, to prove it.

"You just can’t come in the neighborhood," Lee bellowed to his audience.  "I’m for democracy and letting everybody live, but you gotta have some respect.  You can’t just come in when people have a culture that’s been laid down for generations, and you come in, and now s--- gotta change, because you’re here?"

Suffice it to say, this was about the longest stretch of his soliloquy that was devoid of an f-bomb.  The man may know how to make popular movies, but his personal vocabulary leaves a lot to be desired.

Nevertheless, he got his point across.  He resents all of the wealthy interlopers into neighborhoods that have been struggling to survive for decades.  Particularly in Brooklyn, where the tidal wave of gentrification has caught many of the borough's crime-worn residents off-guard.  For years, they assumed gentrification was something that happened in Manhattan, or maybe on the fringes of Brookyn Heights, the borough's historic silk-stocking district, where gas lamps still light brick-paved streets.  Having wealthy white folks suddenly snatching up property and paying unheard-of sums for rent in neighborhoods like Bedford-Stuyvesant, Fort Greene, and Bushwick - neighborhoods whites abandoned more than half a century ago -  is more than bizarre.

Lee, and plenty like him, think urbanism's latest twist is unfair.

But is it?  No matter how marginalized a neighborhood may have been, or for how long, gentrification is a product of supply and demand, and incorporates both benefits and drawbacks.  In a city like New York, where most of its poorest residents rent, gentrification can seem particularly punitive, since property owners benefit most from rising property values.  The trick is to make a neighborhood's transition worth the extra costs for those who paid their dues in other ways, back when nobody else wanted to live there.

After all, gentrification indicates opportunity.  It's what happens when, for a variety of reasons, an aging neighborhood becomes attractive to newer residents who are richer than the ones currently living there.  Taken as part of a city's cycle of life, gentrification is usually the flip side of deterioration and dysfunction, two phenomena that became a hallmark of white flight more than fifty years ago across urban America.

Back then, after World War II, and the invention of the mass-market suburb, inner city neighborhoods that had been home to many white Americans experienced an unprecedented transition in their social, political, and racial composition.  As a combination of racism, classism, and the desire for more space to raise one's family helped to spur middle-class whites out of cities, the neighborhoods they left behind filled with poorer blacks and Hispanics, who have now spent multiple generations in those same neighborhoods.  These are neighborhoods that have generally decayed more than they've thrived, with crime, unemployment, public assistance, slumlords, and political corruption holding sway over sustainable economic and social vitality.

Now, however, as younger generations of mostly white twentysomethings from the suburbs have grown up on TV shows like Seinfeld and Friends - shows that portrayed city life as vibrant and trendy - the inner city has become hip.  Bored with suburbia, and educated for white-collar professions, they're flocking back in droves to the crumbling cores of the cities their parents and grandparents fled decades ago.

Upwardly mobile Americans, after all, are rarely content with ordinary used stuff.  It's one reason they left America's aging city centers to begin with.  Things have to be either really, really old and kitschy to be trendy and desirable, or completely new and fresh.  And with suburbia having mostly been built dispassionately and cheaply, hard-coded with design motifs that became dated quickly, there's a lot for young strivers to dislike about their parents' subdivisions.

It's worth pointing out that while those dated subdivisions and strip malls lose their allure to whites, they're being back-filled once again by people more desperate for housing than prestige.  The poorer blacks and Hispanics who've been populating urban America have, to a certain extent, begun their own migration from those old city neighborhoods into what are now the aging cores of America's original suburbs.

Problem is, not enough poor folks are leaving those inner cities and creating more space for wealthier whites who want to move back downtown.  So, while gentrification itself shouldn't intrinsically be a bad thing for urban neighborhoods, it tends to be when it creates an imbalance between what newer arrivals with more expendable income can pay for housing, and what the same neighborhood's current residents can afford.

However, as far as Spike Lee is concerned, it doesn't sound as if he's particularly upset by the money being spent by gentrifiers, as much as he's upset about their skin color.  He complained about whites infiltrating Harlem, but he conveniently ignored the affluent blacks who've rechristened many of the dilapidated brownstones in the originally Jewish neighborhood with far more opulence than they've ever had.  Now it's the brownstones in Brooklyn's tattered outliers newcomers are after, but it's the skin color of these newcomers that apparently prompted the vulgarity contained in Lee's unscripted speech at Pratt.  The introduction of a greater level of prosperity into an existing neighborhood seems distantly secondary to him.

If gentrification is purely an economic conundrum at its core, and if greater levels of prosperity instigate corresponding increases in social expectations by the people holding that greater level of prosperity, then perhaps some of the problems Lee identifies could be resolved through greater intra-neighborhood dialog.  For example, if a street party celebrating Michael Jackson is something longtime residents want, what's the harm in newcomers simply chalking up such events as part of the price they pay for urban living?  After all, nobody's ever claimed Brooklyn is as quiet as the 'burbs.  However, if Lee is going to claim that a Michael Jackson memorial street party is a black versus white issue, then how much have we progressed since the days of white flight?

Oddly enough, not all neighborhoods experiencing new waves of wealth are experiencing gentrification.  Some neighborhoods, like Manhattan's Upper East Side, have been in a perpetual state of ever-increasing affluence since they were initially built, so the term "gentrification" doesn't apply to the stratospheric rise in the cost of apartments there, even despite the new class of super-luxury condo towers commanding prices of up to $100 million.  Few current residents of the Upper East Side may be able to afford such trophy apartments, but they're not exactly being displaced by such developments, nor is their standard of living being pinched economically by them.

Of course, most current Upper East Siders are white, and most of the people purchasing those high-dollar apartments are also white, so there's a lot less tactile acrimony for agitators like Lee to work with in pitting people groups against each other.  Skin colors come in many more shades over in Brooklyn.

Even so, Lee did have one good point to make.  He called out the city's real estate professionals and developers who've taken it upon themselves to unilaterally re-name gentrifying neighborhoods that used to have woefully negative reputations.  Simply applying artificial new nomenclature to these transitioning 'hoods is supposed to make them more appealing to newcomers willing to pay inflated rents in what used to be crime-washed ghettos.  But what about the folks who still live there, and have called the neighborhood by its original name for generations?

Neighborhoods have enough on their plate sorting out all of their new racial and economic diversity without Realtors arbitrarily changing their names as well.

When it comes to the questions Lee asked about the uptick in sanitation, police, and public education attention that gets paid to a black neighborhood after whites start moving in, however, the answers nobody voices are ominous.  Precisely because nobody says them out loud.  There are elephants in the gentrification room that people don't really want to talk about, and part of the reason is because people like Lee already have their prejudices about prejudice, and have the temerity to infuse their prejudices with obscene diatribes that only inhibit rational discussion.

Meanwhile, how much gentrification would be taking place if black property owners weren't selling their homes and businesses for top dollar and moving on to other parts of the city, the suburbs, or a long-desired retirement?  Nobody's forcing beleaguered property owners to sell out, after they've spent decades trying to protect their property so they could raise their families and run their businesses as best they could during urban America's dark days.  Blame the newcomers for their arrogance if you want, but if gentrification is as vile as Lee claims it to be, it's not white folks who are cashing in and moving out.

Oh, so has the race card suddenly become unwelcome, Mr. Lee?

Then drop your use of it, and let's start this dialog again.  Otherwise, it looks like history may be repeating itself, only with the colors reversed.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Another Look at Arizona's Gay Marriage Bill

The more I learn about Senate Bill 1062, the more I understand why Arizona Governor Jan Brewer is taking her time to render her verdict on it.

The mainstream media, along with a lot of right-wing pundits, would like us to believe that this proposed legislation is about protecting Christian business owners in Arizona from gay marriage lawsuits.  The specter of Christian photographers and cake bakers in other states being sued by gay couples plays vividly in everybody's mind.

But is there more than gay marriage at stake here?

For those of us who've actually bothered to read the bill, doing so obviously doesn't answer a lot of the questions we may have about it.  The bill is a study in perfunctory legalese that seems to be deliberately obtuse and opaque in conveying its ramifications.  When you get to the bottom of the page, the legal novice still has few clues as to how significant or insignificant the changes indicated by different-colored typeface are.  Mostly, it just looks like a digital document that has been edited by several different committees.

What SB 1062 appears to do is provide just about any organization in Arizona the rights previously held exclusively by religious institutions.  Those rights allow them to use the teachings of their faith as a legal defense if they were ever sued for acting upon those teachings in a manner that appeared discriminatory to somebody else.  SB 1062 doesn't expressly guarantee anybody the right to perpetrate what they claim to be faith-based actions against somebody else, and it doesn't expressly prevent somebody else from suing the business or organization that they're accusing of discrimination.  At it's core, it could be argued that this legislation merely offers another avenue of protection in the event of a lawsuit based on perceived discrimination.

In fact, that's one of the arguments being proffered by a group of eminent lawyers and legal scholars in a letter to Governor Brewer.  This letter is intended to dispel what these lawyers claim are egregious misrepresentations of the bill by its many critics in the pro-gay-marriage lobby.  Signatories of this letter base their views on other interpretations of Religious Freedom Restoration Acts (RFRAs), of which at least one of the signatories, Douglas Laycock, is a national expert.

Frankly, since I don't claim to be any sort of expert on this topic, I would be inclined to disavow everything I've already written about SB 1062 and rally around the advice being given by these esteemed legal minds.  I think that some sort of protections need to be provided for people of faith who might otherwise be forced to endorse - however unwillingly - certain issues that conflict with what the Bible teaches about morality.  Particularly when it comes to the bedrock of society:  marriage and family.

However, even the writers of this letter admit that they're not unanimous in their support for SB 1062.  They mostly want to clarify what they believe to be inaccuracies in populist descriptions of what the law is, what it will do, and who is going to be affected.  They also go into the differences that they see between Arizona's SB 1062 and its legal cousin from Kansas that was recently scuttled, HB 2453.  Then there are a few paragraphs explaining the role RFRAs played in the drafting of Arizona's proposed law.

And maybe I'm missing it, since, as I said, I'm no lawyer.  But my main point of contention with SB 1062 remains unresolved, even with this letter written by experts on the subject.  And that main point of contention is that it allows anybody of any religion to use that religion to justify what amounts to discrimination.  Now, maybe I'm wrong, but when I read the text of SB 1062, I see all sorts of wide-open doors.  Look, if you will, at 9.D., which requires that a person who wants to use this law to protect themself from a discrimination lawsuit must establish all of these things:

1.  That the person's action or refusal to act is motivated by a religious belief.

2.  That the person's religious belief is sincerely held.

3.  That the state action substantially burdens the exercise of the person's religious beliefs.

With everybody focused on gay marriage right now, it's easy to forget that we have lifestyles and personal characteristics with which people from all sorts of religions have theological problems.  For example, what would happen if, say, a radical Muslim store owner decided he didn't want to serve Jewish or Christian customers anymore?  What is the extent to which a deeply fundamentalist Christian could decide not to serve customers who willingly pronounced themselves gay, or were festooned with tattoos, or weren't wearing appropriately modest clothing?

Where would it end?

Meanwhile, this afternoon, here in Texas, a federal judge in San Antonio ruled that the state's ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional.   But advocates of gay marriage can't get hitched here just yet - there are several other similar cases pending in the state, along with what will inevitably be a series of appeals.  It's virtually guaranteed that the Supreme Court will be deciding the issue, further reinforcing my fear that marriage laws and how they're crafted are facing a whole new world of legal skulduggery.

Maybe this is how we evangelicals need to be fighting for what we believe is right.  However, I can't help but look back over the life of Christ as He walked on this Earth, and marvel at how little He involved Himself with legislating morality.  He was pro-human-rights, pro-life, pro-fairness, pro-respect, and pro-faith, but even as His disciples thought He would somehow become a political champion for them, He was crucified, resurrected, and eventually ascended back into His heavenly home without once advocating any political platform.

Not that we evangelicals should extrapolate from Christ's example that we should simply sit by and watch our nation plunge into moral turpitude.  Especially since, as Americans, we are blessed with a Constitution that gives us an equal voice in our governance.

But I'll go back to what I wrote yesterday:  Our advocacy for Biblical morality and demonstrating the Fruit of the Spirit shouldn't be mutually exclusive.  Besides, Christ didn't die on the cross so we could rid ourselves of having to do business with gay people.  He died on the cross to save us from sin, including the sin of thinking we're better than ordinary sinners.

Perhaps Arizona's SB 1062 is as ambiguous as it appears to be for a good reason.  Perhaps the legal eagles are right in their letter to Governor Brewer, and that gay marriage advocates are exaggerating the bill's potential.

Nevertheless, if not even all of the signatories on that letter know whether the governor should sign it into law or not, that's yet another spooky sign about its broader legitimacy, isn't it?  What makes this bill so special that pro-heterosexual-marriage advocates need to champion it?  Are we just desperate and settling for quick fixes?  Does the end justify the means?

What happens if those means themselves aren't wholly effective?

I don't know if Governor Brewer has made Christ the Lord of her life, but I'm praying that He gives her extraordinary wisdom on this one.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Using Faith Against Us in Arizona?

All this anti-gay legislation is starting to get me a bit nervous.

I'm beginning to wonder if we aren't, in a way, writing laws that could be later used to make evangelical Christianity illegal.  After all, change out "gay" for "evangelical" as the motivation of these bills, and what would we have?

If homosexuality is a form of sexuality, and evangelicalism is a form of religiosity, then consider this:  Sexuality and religiosity are protected under the Constitution, but if evangelicals are trying to parse out certain forms of sexuality as not being protected, what's to stop somebody from trying to parse out forms of religiosity?

A newspaper in Uganda today outed 200 people it claimed were homosexuals, after the government yesterday enacted draconian laws to further criminalize homosexuality.  Hopefully, at least, if legislation is eventually advanced by left-wingers so that we evangelicals could be blatantly discriminated against, we wouldn't need a newspaper to identify any of us!

As things currently stand, it doesn't look likely that Arizona Governor Jan Brewer will sign Senate Bill 1062 into law.  That's the legislation that's been widely billed as allowing private businesses to deny their services to homosexuals.  Arizona's business community, as well as companies across the United States, strongly oppose the measure, and as much as Republicans fear religion, they worship money more.  Indeed, conservatives joined liberals in Kansas recently to ditch that state's efforts at creating a bill similar to Arizona's because it smacked too much of discrimination.

But that hasn't stopped some right-wingers from claiming that the media is overblowing Arizona's measure.  In an article on today, conservative political scientist Napp Nazworth takes a stab at trying to dilute worries that Arizona's bill actually does allow discrimination of gays.  He argues unconvincingly that technically, the proposed legislation simply tweaks what's already allowed in Arizona's current version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.  But what Nazworth really seems to be saying is that SB 1062 simply endows for-profit businesses with the same protections non-profit religious institutions have.  In other words, an evangelical church can't currently be sued in Arizona for refusing to allow a gay wedding on its premises, but a for-profit catering hall owned by evangelicals could.  What SB 1062 basically does is give the catering hall's Christian owners the same freedom from discrimination lawsuits a church would have.

And sure, if you don't think about it too deeply, that sounds like a good idea.  But take a closer look at the legislation, and you can see how flagrantly open-ended it is.  This isn't just a law that affects homosexuals.  As long as you can claim some sort of affiliation with some sort of religion whose tenets include some sort of prohibition against somebody's distinguishing characteristic, a business could deny that person service and not be subject to a lawsuit.  Now, ostensibly, for the business owner's impunity to be legal, the discrimination would have to be proven not to violate any other laws that might concurrently exist to protect the person who was denied service.  But the implication is that for all practical purposes, the door is wide open for abuse in such a loosely-worded law.

Which means it might be simply a matter of time before somebody concocts some anti-evangelical religion and gets a 501(c)(3) for it - or even incorporates it as a business - and then starts picking on fine, upstanding, church-going evangelicals who thought they'd established themselves as Arizona's ruling class.

How far-fetched does that sound to you?  Probably as far-fetched as something like SB 1062 sounded to gays about a decade ago.  And look at where we are today.

If the main point of contention is the obstinacy of certain gay couples in wanting to force deeply religious business owners to service their same-sex nuptials, then maybe a law could be crafted to remind gays that having their lawyers hounding their moralistic wedding photographer isn't the best way to guarantee the most desirable once-in-a-lifetime snapshots.  If such a law could be written, then better people than Arizona's legislators should give it a try.  Because SB 1062 is just bad legislation.

Meanwhile, American evangelicals need to remember that in our democratic republic, we're a minority group, just like gays are.  In our free pursuit of our religion, we need to remember that our Constitution also guarantees other people groups their free pursuits as well.  And when it comes to legislation, we need to make sure our exercising of our "rights" doesn't come back to haunt us.

After all, our advocacy for Biblical morality and demonstrating the Fruit of the Spirit shouldn't be mutually exclusive.  Besides, Christ didn't die on the cross so we could rid ourselves of having to do business with gay people.  He died on the cross to save us from sin, including the sin of thinking we're better than ordinary sinners.

Again, that's not to say that Christ's followers should be forced to use their skills and their businesses for an activity our faith teaches is wrong.  It's just that trying to legislate morality in the name of religion doesn't exactly sound like faith.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Putting Quotes into Perspective

Lots of people love quotes.

We like to know what famous people say.  We want to know things historical leaders we admire have said.  Quotes from luminaries can help affirm what we already believe, or put a commonly-shared experience into perspective.  A well-turned phrase can become famous in its own right, while the more obscure a quote may be, or the person who first spoke it, the smarter we sound when we repeat them.

Then, too, an expression can come to mean something else entirely after its original context is forgotten.  Or sometimes, we find out years later that a quote we've attributed to somebody actually belongs to somebody else.  Quotes usually derive a substantial amount of their meaning and credibility based upon the character of the person to whom they're attributed.  Political pundits in particular shamelessly mine the dustbins of yesteryear for one-liners from favored politicians that can be recycled for an air of respectable endorsement in our present-day debates.  Indeed, the reason why lots of people love quotes is because the best quotes speak as much about their source as they do their topic.

Yet, in our soundbite-driven world, it's easy to forget that even the smartest, wisest, and most moral of us are still fallible human beings.  Famous quotes may be poetic, or funny, or inspirational, but no matter how true they may be, they're rarely factoids upon which, for example, a legal case can be argued, or a sinner can base their eternal salvation.

If you spend a lot of time in the company of churchified Christians, like I do - since I am one myself - you'll know that lots of us have our favorite preachers and religious personalities, and many of us can rattle off famous religious quotes as quickly as we can recite scripture verses.  Attending a Presbyterian church for as long as I have, I've become especially acquainted with quotes from one of Protestantism's founding fathers, the inimitable reformer, Martin Luther.  Aside from being a pivotal figure within the history of world religions, Luther was highly opinionated, which helps explain his radical chutzpah.  He was also a fairly active drinker, which fueled a loquaciousness that was already uninhibited as a result of his strongly-held beliefs.  What resulted was a robust catalog of quotes by Luther that range from the brilliant to the borderline of profanity - sometimes in the same quote!

He scolded, insulted, marveled, taught, and ruminated with a vigor and a colorful vocabulary that may have been polarizing in his day, but would be downright scandalous today.  Indeed, I suspect that the main reason why some of Luther's less scholarly quotes are as popular as they are today among evangelicals is because they give us the opportunity to say things and use words that, in any other context, we'd feel compelled to ask God's forgiveness for using.

Obviously, the thing to remember with quotes by famous theologians is that everything they say that isn't scripture... isn't scripture.  Whether it's Martin Luther or John Calvin or Billy Graham, no expert on theology can add anything to what God has already said and taught in His holy Word, the Bible.  Theoretically, of course, we know that, but in our culture, where celebrity is worshiped and famous people are expected to say profound things, even well-known and broadly-marketed theologians are sought-out for their personalized soundbites.

And with Martin Luther, about whom so much has been written, revised, chronicled, researched, argued, pontificated, venerated, replicated, and misunderstood, the chances of error when it comes to attributing even famous quotes to him are manifold.

Justin Taylor, an editor for a Christian publishing house, recently posted a list of six rather popular sayings attributed to Luther that experts now virtually are convinced aren't his after all.  I've heard numbers 1, 4, and 6 on this list; with which ones are you familiar?  Because you don't need to be anymore:
  1. If I believed the world were to end tomorrow, I would still plant a tree today.
  2. The maid who sweeps her kitchen is doing the will of God just as much as the monk who prays—not because she may sing a Christian hymn as she sweeps but because God loves clean floors.  The Christian shoemaker does his Christian duty not by putting little crosses on the shoes, but by making good shoes, because God is interested in good craftsmanship.
  3. If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the Word of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Him. Where the battle rages there the loyalty of the soldier is proved; and to be steady on all the battle front besides, is mere flight and disgrace if he flinches at that point.
  4. I’d rather be ruled by a wise Turk than by a foolish Christian.
  5. Justification is the article by which the church stands and falls.
  6. Here I stand; I can do no other.

I was hoping to see a couple of others on the list, since they're used by some Christians to justify doing things with which I disagree.  For example, Luther's quotes about sin get bandied about as proof that if somebody as important to Christianity as Luther can be free to willfully sin, so can we: 

"Sometimes we must drink more, sport, recreate ourselves, and even sin a little to spite the devil, so that we leave him no place for troubling our consciences with trifles. We are conquered if we try too conscientiously not to sin at all." 

Huh?  A little bit of sin spites the Devil?  Where's that in scripture?  We're defeated if we try too hard not to sin at all?  Again, where is Luther's proof text for that audacious claim?  This isn't simply extra-Biblical, it's blatant falsehood, isn't it?

And when it comes to our modern observance of Halloween - celebrated by many evangelicals, which I simply find bizarre - there's his quote about jeering Satan upon which they rely for approval:

"The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn.”

Which, again, is a quote that is totally bereft of scriptural support, but it sure sounds logical, and even fun.  So since Luther said it, it has to be right.  Right?

Okay, so maybe evangelicals feel justified in using Martin Luther quotes as their justification for doing things they probably would go ahead and do anyway because we know that Luther wasn't intentionally saying things he expected his listeners to add as an appendix to their Bibles.

He said as much about his own infallibility in one of his famous quotes:  "no great saint lived without errors."

That's why I try to treat quotes for what they are:  things mortals say.  No matter how clever, or witty, or humorous, or provocative, or insightful they may be, they're things mortals say.

Meanwhile, the Bible is truth from God.  Since He's given His word to us, should we Christians be so enamored by what other people also say?  No, there aren't a lot of snappy one-liners in the Bible, but maybe the thing that makes us comfortable with quotes from mortals is the same thing that helps inhibit our deeper familiarity with God's Word.  With quotes spoken by mortals, we're pretty much free to accept or reject them, based on how much we agree with the message of the quote.  But with the Bible, we know that if we reject God's teachings, we do so at our peril.  How winsome is that?

There's a place in the world for sound bites and iconic cliches, and it seems like the best ones come from people, movies, and books that aren't even trying to add trendy new quotes into our lexicon.  But when it comes to theology, I'm not terribly interested in one-liners by any famous Christians, even if a lot of other evangelicals are.

I'm still working on the original material.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Law and Marriage and Gay and Arizona

Arizona's at it again.

First, they drafted legislation in the hopes of combating illegal immigration.  But their result was so poorly-written, many experts feared it gave law enforcement agencies an open invitation to racially profile Hispanics.

Now, they've sent to Governor Jan Brewer's desk a bill that would allow business owners to deny service to homosexuals if the business owners believe having gays for customers defiles their religious scruples.  It's a piece of legislation about sex, religion, and money that yet again represents a state's response to a broader debate in our national narrative.  Which means it won't really solve much of anything.

This broader debate in our national narrative began after disturbing news reports emerged about photographers, cake bakers, and other professionals in the wedding industry being sued by gay couples who wanted their services for their same-sex nuptials.  Where's the line between respecting freedom of religion, conservative small-business owners are asking, and the expectations of people whose morality doesn't match the religion in question?

And frankly, it's a good question.  If I was a wedding photographer, for example, while I would not be able to ensure that all of the weddings I photographed would be God-honoring, I'd at least know that if I had two people of the same gender exchanging vows before my camera lens, it would not be honoring to God.  Why can't the law protect me from violating a basic tenet of my faith?

Now, this Arizona legislation is unclear about how far any denial of service can extend.  For example, if the same gay couple wanted me to do their generic portraiture, instead of their wedding, that could be quite different.  Two people in the same photo?  Wouldn't I be discriminating in an illegal fashion by refusing to take their portrait, since while the photo may be capturing a reality with which I might not agree, photographers capture plenty of images with which they might not personally agree?  Can I deny their request to take a photo of two people sitting next to each other, simply because they're both in love with each other?  It's like the Southern Baptists protesting Disney:  When should morality be used to demarcate appropriate business decisions, and when doesn't it matter?  I may believe homosexuality to be a sin, but what about fat people, for instance?  If they're fat because of gluttony, which is a sin, should I refuse to photograph them, too?

However, if a gay couple wanted me to photograph them having sex, couldn't I decline that commission as legally as I could any heterosexual couple asking me to do the same thing?  Doesn't personal conscience already come into play in some of these decisions already?

Indeed, how are discrepancies currently resolved between what a client may want some small business to do for them, and the rights of refusal that small businesses have for complying with what their customer wants?  If a bakery owned by modest people received an order for a cake shaped as some sort of phallic symbol, surely they'd have the right to turn down such a request.  I understand it would be illegal - as well as immoral - for those bakers to deny a heterosexual, bi-racial couple's commission of a wedding cake with little statuettes of contrasting skin tones.  But what if a Jewish couple walked into a bakery owned by a devout Muslim and asked for a cake shaped like the Star of David?

Okay, now we're getting a little bit off of the topic, aren't we?  Or... are we?  Why would a Jewish couple walk into a Muslim bakery and expect the owner to bake them something with which the owner might feel uncomfortable?  Why would a gay couple ask a staunchly Christian baker to create a wedding cake for their wedding, other than to try and make a point?  A mean-spirited point?  How much of this whole debate is more vitriol than virtue on the part of gay marriage lobbyists?  Aren't there any gay bakers in the business?

But... just letting gays planning their wedding use gay wedding professionals sounds like the same argument lots of liberals shoot at conservatives who complain about sex and violence on TV and at the movies.  "Well, just don't choose to consume entertainment you consider raunchy," they retort to our sensitivities.  But if we told gays to do that with their weddings, that would be allowing the Christian bakers to legally perpetuate their bias, wouldn't it?  Their hatred?  Their discrimination of gays?  And there's no bias, hatred, or discrimination of faithful Christians on the part of gay marriage advocates here, is there?

And that's the rub, isn't it?

No matter what happens with this Arizona legislation, it still comes down to which is more important in our society:  the rights of people to honor their religious beliefs, or the rights of people to deny religious people their rights.  Gay marriage isn't the issue as much as intolerance.  Only, whose intolerance will win?  The intolerance of people who consider faith crucial to their worldview, or the intolerance of people for whom faith is of secondary importance at best?

How you answer the question is based entirely on the answer you choose, isn't it?

Meanwhile, has it ever occurred to anybody that forcing somebody to do something against their personal beliefs isn't the best method of ever bringing them around to your way of thinking?  Whether it's Arizona's Republicans, who are trying to legislate protections against gay marriage, or gay marriage advocates, who say Arizona's proposed law violates their civil rights.  If anything, this debate proves we can't legislate morality, doesn't it?  Unless gay marriage advocates really don't care about the message of intolerance they convey to heterosexual marriage defenders, and simply want the law to say what they want it to say.  And if that's the case, then with public sentiment apparently turning in favor of allowing gay marriage anyway, the laws may soon tilt that way as well.

With liberal anger over Arizona's maneuvers to the contrary fueling the charge.

But forcing people to comply with a law isn't the same as affirmation, is it?  Maybe with more mundane civic issues, such as DWI laws, legislating morality doesn't need to be affirming.  But when it comes to your wedding, isn't that what you're really after?

Would you hire an exceptionally grieved, joyless photographer to be in the same room, taking your picture, as you exchange vows with the love of your life?  Would you stick a gun to the head of your baker and force them to bake you a cake for your wedding?

I doubt any heterosexual couple would.  Why would gay ones?

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Whose Freedom Is To Die For?

Is democracy inherently righteous?

If it is, then we should fight to the death for it, right?

But we don't, do we?  Look at all of the misery being inflicted upon the citizens of North Korea, for example, a country full of people who have no idea how enslaved they are to their ruling family's despotism.  If freedom by democracy is so virtuous, why aren't we signing up to go over there and fight for the freedom of North Koreans?

Okay, so maybe we're not obligated to provide every resident of this planet with democratic freedom.  At least, that's what we seem to be reminding ourselves when we consider our options regarding places like North Korea.  It's kinda hard to free a people group who don't know what freedom is, right?  Besides, there's plenty of other action to watch around the world, as different societies seem to be struggling for the same thing:  freedom.  Democracy.  Human rights.  From Venezuela to Ukraine to Thailand and beyond, people are protesting against their established governments, arguing for their version of freedom.

There are, after all, at least two sides to every story.

Yet, if we're not careful, might we risk oversimplifying these conflicts?  And if we're born-again, evangelical Christians, might we risk ascribing to the fight for freedom and democracy an imperative God never Himself bestows?

In other words, is the concept of political freedom truly worth dying for?

Life, Liberty, and Pursuit

We've seen the violence live on the Internet and television from Kiev, where at least 70 protesters have reportedly died just in the past couple of days.  In Venezuela, protesters report that during these same couple of days, at least three young demonstrators have been killed by the police.  In Thailand, four protesters have died, and one police officer died after being shot by a protester. 

As Americans, for whom freedom and liberty are part of our DNA, it's almost instinctive for us to rise in defense of the politically oppressed.  It's what our politicians claim we did in Vietnam, and Korea, and Kuwait, and Afghanistan, and Iraq.  And with communication technology and social media able to instantaneously connect us now to virtually any crisis spot across the globe, we're able to see and hear for ourselves these struggles for freedom as they unfold.

They seem so vital.

Yet a nagging question echoes in my brain:  what role should evangelical believers in Christ be playing in all of this political unrest?  God calls us to honor our leaders, because they're people whom He's allowed to be placed in power over us.  We're to pay our taxes, even if we don't consider them to be fair.  No Christ-follower in Bible times got to vote for anything, so democracy isn't a Biblical mandate, even if it is one of the best systems of government for allowing the Gospel of Christ to flourish.  But then again, Communist China has a flourishing church as well, even if believers must worship at the capricious whim and under the crushing totalitarianism of the state.

Why aren't we fighting for religious freedom in China?  Maybe because too many of the commodities we purchase to make our lives easier are made over there?  What makes Kiev more compelling, aside from the live video feed from their ironically-named Independence Square?  And should we support our Ukranian brothers and sisters in Christ if they decide to die for political and economic freedom?

Speaking as a white male and a lifelong American who has never known what it's like for my government, my police, and my courts to deny me my basic human rights, perhaps it's not my place to evaluate how Christians living in far less democratic societies should approach these questions.  We have the right to protest, and assembly, and free speech, and I confess to taking those rights for granted.  But then again, perhaps being an American, and seeing how hedonistic and morally-corrupt our supposedly "free" society has become, I can offer the perspective of democracy not being the panacea and elixir we like to think it is.  Taken to its fullest extent, which is what some liberals are trying to do now in the United States and much of Western Europe, the concept of human rights can come full-circle and end up actually eroding the very moral fabric of a society.  Free speech, freedom of expression, and freedom of religion can be used against themselves, as is being done right now regarding gay marriage, to create a sort of fruit-basket-turnover when it comes to rights, wants, expectations, and opportunities.
Yes, for all practical purposes, generic freedom usually offers the best model for sustained economic prosperity and cultural vitality.  Just look at the stunning difference between North and South Korea for proof.

But what is freedom, anyway?  It is simply the right to vote?  Was America truly free after the Revolutionary War, even though blacks, women, and people who didn't own land couldn't vote?  The Chinese can vote, even if all their choices come from one party.  And what about the Kingdom of God, which is a monarchy!

Then again, citizens of God's Kingdom are exhorted to fight for the oppressed, which ostensibly includes the politically disenfranchised, whether they're in a democracy, or want to be.  How far should we go in laying down our own lives for political freedom, and expecting others to do the same with theirs?  How far should we go in taking the lives of others who are acting as agents against our political freedom?

Context, History, and Motivation

Platitudes and patriotic rhetoric don't really answer these questions, do they?  Part of the reason may stem from the background we evangelical Americans have with our own country's quest for independence.  It's a quest that has been romanticized over the centuries into a pastiche of religious nostalgia and patriotic civic-mindedness.  But if we're going to talk about dying for freedom, we need to seriously consider the Biblical justification for our American Revolution.

If, indeed, there was any.  Because I have come to believe that since our religious liberties were not under attack, or our sovereignty (which didn't exist then), a war was not an appropriate Biblical response to England's control of the colonies.

Are you shocked?  Well, think about it.  Although the Pilgrims may have arrived in 1620 in search of religious freedom, by the time 1776 rolled around, a plethora of religious perspectives had joined theirs in the New World.  Doesn't that prove that at least legally, if not in practice, religious freedom was already alive and well for the patriots?  What had them literally up in arms involved England's heavy taxes, and the heavy-handedness of the Crown.  If you strip away those significant yet carnal threats to the adventurous individualism for which the New World had become known, however, we can see that the reasons for going to war against England were nothing that inhibited the genuine worship of Almighty God.  Economic prosperity and political expression are well and good, but God never promises them to us, or allows us to countermand His established governments to pursue them.

Now, don't get me wrong:  I'm proud to be an American, and I enjoy the many benefits of being one, but if I had been around in 1776, I'd have been deeply torn over whether to go and fight, and for which side.  Frankly, many colonists during that time were, too.  After all, it's one reason why there was a war to begin with.

Perhaps now you're tempted to think of me as a wussified traitor for saying such things, but believe me:  it takes a lot of guts and conviction to for me to say this about my country and its origins.  It sure would be easier if what I learned in my childhood about the Revolutionary War is what the Bible taught about honoring God and the governments He ordains.

Not that I'm a pacifist.  America's involvement in both of our world's wars were entirely justified by the attacks on our national sovereignty, and - particularly in the second - by Germany's genocide of the Jews.  With regards to national sovereignty, God allowed the nation of Israel to defend itself from invaders who sought God's dishonor.  And by its very definition, genocide denies people the intrinsic value with which God has endowed them.  In fact, it is to our shame that it took American as long as it did for us to get involved against the Holocaust, since there was considerable debate in this country as to whether American lives were worth the lives of European Jews.

Of course, that begs the question of why the world hasn't responded more decisively when governments have perpetuated genocide against certain people groups in Africa, for example.  Perhaps it's because people who are being slaughtered over there don't usually have access to social media?  And live web cams?

It isn't because they're poor, black, and marginally-educated, is it?

Then too, few sociopolitical crises either begin with or can be resolved by outside interference.  Even when we call it "intervention."  It's hard enough for people within a country to solve their problems, and often harder for people outside of it to try.  Just look at Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq as proof.  The last truly just war was America's lead in forcing Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, whose sovereignty he'd invaded back in the first Gulf War.

When it comes to a country's internal conflicts, rights and wrongs become much murkier, while culture and history instantly complicate everything.  Ukraine, for example, dates back from around the 9th Century, and Russia from the 1st, so you can imagine the monumental legacy that exists between those two countries.  It's one thing for us Americans to watch the violence unfold on our computer screens and televisions, but can we appreciate the generations of animosity, broken promises, pride, and fear that exist regarding Russia's dominance over Ukraine?

Meanwhile, in Venezuela, despite what appear to be admirable pleas for support from demonstrators, it could be argued that voters there were given plenty of warning several years ago about the choices they were making in favor of Communism and Hugo Chavez.  When that charismatic leader was wooing the poor with false promises, and manipulating class warfare within a country of extraordinary economic stratification, we anxious Americans were told that we were meddling imperialists who only wanted their oil.  So they elected him anyway, and may now be realizing that they made a horrible mistake.

That's not to say that we shouldn't help Venezuelans today, but with Americans alternately decried as villains and then beseeched as saviors, it's not hard to wonder when a nation we've tried to help in the past has to start taking long-term responsibility for its own choices.  Even if we have a hard enough time being responsible for ours!

Peace, Patience, Self-Control

So, where does that leave believers in Christ who may be watching the violence and bloodshed unfold across the world this week as demonstrators call for freedom?

Well, no matter what side of any conflict we're on, we're to pray for peace.  We're also to pursue it, though, aren't we?  And that's where the rubber hits the road.  If pursuing peace means standing in allegiance with one side of a debate or another, do we support the governmental authority, or the demonstrators? 

Personally, I don't feel I know enough about any of the demonstrations taking place this week to confidently tell anybody else who they should or shouldn't support.  As an American, I suppose it would be my patriotic duty to reflexively cheer on the demonstrators who say they want freedom, but as a follower of Christ, I'm not sure anybody protesting this week is facing a revocation of their ability to worship the God of the Bible.  It does appear that in Ukraine and Venezuela, the police are brutalizing the demonstrators, but like a lot of violence which we're not present to witness in person, we don't truly know what provokes the actions of anybody in those pressure-cooker situations.

But God does.

So I simply pray that God will guide His people in these places in His ways for His glory.  Sure, it sounds like an easy-out for me, since my life isn't on the line, nor is my personal freedom.  But God looks at the heart - and not just mine, but of everybody in every place in His Creation.  He knows our motivations, and our fears, and where our true loyalties lie.

Some people demonstrate because they're angry, or naive, or are being misled.  Others demonstrate because something they hold dear is in the balance.  A lot of people talk a lot about freedom, but don't we need to listen to the type of freedom we're talking about?  Especially if we're going to equate human life with it?

After all, one is more valuable than the other.  And I, for one, am only comfortable with God telling me which one, and when.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

What To Do About North Korea?
American Kenneth Bae with North Korean children
So, what do we do about North Korea?

According to a recent report by the United Nations, the isolated Communist dictatorship "has for decades pursued policies involving crimes that shock the conscience of humanity."

Um, yeah - we all knew that, didn't we?  Why did the UN think it needed to draw up a special report about North Korea now?  It says nothing that Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch haven't been telling us for years.  Besides, every year since 2003, the UN's General Assembly ratifies a resolution complaining about North Korea's human rights abuses, and such diplomatic finger-wagging accomplishes nothing.

Things might be a little different this time.  According to the UN report, proof may exist that makes China complicit as a third party in the atrocities committed by the North Koreans.  It's also possible that the UN may try North Korea's current ruler, Kim Jong-un, at the International Criminal Court in the Hague for crimes against humanity.

The UN claims to have documented from first-person accounts of former prisoners and defectors a robust litany of human rights travesties, complete with names, dates, and mortality statistics.  Bleak hand-drawn depictions of torture by people who've experienced it were included in the report, lending it a graphic element of first-person corroboration, even if they're not all that surprising.  Anecdotal accounts have already become widespread about female political prisoners being forced to kill their newborn infants, for example, and other prisoners eating dirt.  And speaking of dirt, there's North Korea's dismal history with its botched agricultural programs, which had been thought to be the primary reason for the country's perpetual risk of national catastrophe via mass starvation.  But it's no longer beyond reason to suspect North Korea of manipulating food supplies in yet another sadistic ploy to maintain their authority over a servile, hungry populace.

After all, it's hard to muster the kind of revolution it would take to oust the Kim dynasty when people don't have full stomachs.

For years, we've been told about how cruel the Kim dynasty has been to their own people.  Yet somehow, we've been able to brush it aside with a "not our problem" air.  After all, there is already so much cruelty, hatred, and totalitarianism in our world.  Governments, human rights groups, non-governmental organizations, international diplomacy, prayer, and even a war have tried to mitigate the suffering of ordinary North Koreans.

Yet it continues, with the irony being that most of its victims may be clueless of their plight.  Generations of systematic brain-washing by the Kim dynasty have rendered most of its subjects automatons of the state.  Since generic diplomacy hasn't changed anything, unilaterally overthrowing North Korea from the outside could be another actionable alternative, but doing so would probably require a hefty amount of conventional warfare, since there is no organized resistance within the country.  Collateral damage would be massive, and resistance on the part of loyal North Koreans fierce.  How would we handle all those millions of people whose personal life experiences have been stunted to serve their rulers?  And look at how successfully our other preemptive wars have turned out lately.  A people group can't necessarily be freed from anything if they don't understand they need to be freed from it.

Indeed, the preemptive use of force against North Korea seems as fraught with dilemmas as our doing nothing has been.  That's the main reason why our political will within the "free" world necessary for a brutal liberation of North Korea simply doesn't exist.

That, plus the fact that there are no vital natural resources there that can't be found in greater abundance in far freer countries elsewhere on our planet.

Then, too, despite the sabre-rattling with which North Korea sporadically and unnervingly engages, experts doubt the country has the military capacity and engineering capabilities of inflicting serious damage to the United States, or Europe.  So it's no genuine, physical threat to us.  At least, right now.  And if it was a military threat, they'd be China's more immediate problem.

Then there's the astonishing ascendancy of South Korea, which has managed to invent a thriving economy and society on its part of the Korean peninsula despite the looming presence of the North, and South Koreans appear to have adapted fairly well to whatever threats their totalitarian sister state may pose.

There's also scant populist pressure in the West for doing anything of substance to force North Korea to change its ways because, in our collective consciousness, the country is more aberration than abomination.  Due to the Kim dynasty's near-total blackout of news and information from their country, most of the Western world remains blissfully unaware of what everyday, real-time life is like for ordinary, everyday, real-time North Korean citizens. We get the censured photos released by the government, showing what Pyongyang wants the rest of us to see of their country.  And occasionally, we get word of bizarre power struggles, such as the the unusually public arrest and execution of Kim Jong-un's uncle recently.  But other than that, the North Koreans have cut themselves so effectively off from the rest of the world, they've become more like the odd, temperamental uncle who only shows up on holidays and boasts of irrelevant photo-ops with people like Dennis Rodman.

As for the UN's scathing report on North Korea, it will be officially presented at a conference next month, after which the question of prosecution will be finalized.  Already, however, the North Korean propaganda machine has flatly denied everything in it, rejecting even the premise that human rights could be violated in their pure socialist state.  For its part, China has also protested, dubiously reasoning that what the rest of us might call "complicity" they see as the cost of doing business in a part of the world where human rights are assumed to be open to interpretation.

For most of us, none of this is really news, is it?  There are no easy answers, and no quick fixes.  None.  International policy experts don't expect any substantive change for North Korea, even with yet more evidence mounting against the regime.  Americans were briefly captivated by the saga of Merrill Newman, the retired California businessman and Korean War veteran who was temporarily under house arrest in Pyongyang last year.  But he was released without incident.  Kenneth Bae, the Christian businessman arrested in 2012 in North Korea under obscure charges, was reportedly relocated by his captors to a labor camp earlier this month, but as is typical of our mainstream media, his plight loses less and less coverage the longer it drags on.

Kinda like our state of mind regarding North Korea in general.

And that's probably the way the North Norean government would want it.

Except they arrested yet another Christian today in Pyongyang - an Australian named John Short.  A cross-cultural missionary of sorts, Short already has an extensive rap sheet in China, where he's been arrested multiple times since 1976 because of his proselytizing.  Currently, not much is known about North Korea's charges against Short, but from the sound of things, his "detention" - as some news organizations are diplomatically calling it - could come at an interesting time.

It may still be a reclusive country, but increasingly, that's only for its own people.

How much longer can it last?

Monday, February 17, 2014

Cruz May Figure He Can't Lose

Feliz did not like having his photo taken
My Dad used to have a big, lovable collie.

His name was Feliz, which is Spanish for "happy."  And he was, for the most part, a happy, pure-breed, thick-haired, long-nosed canine.

Dad rescued him from an animal shelter, and while he got along with other dogs, Feliz didn't particularly seem to desire their company.  He did, however, enjoy stirring them up.  Every evening, Dad would walk Feliz through their quiet, tree-lined subdivision, and he told me that Feliz soon learned which houses also had dogs.  But he hardly ever barked at them.

He and Dad would be strolling along, and as they approached another house with a dog, Feliz would start whining, in a high-pitched whimper through his partly-closed mouth.  If the other dog was outside, it would start barking and barking in an annoying way, but Feliz would never bark back.  He'd simply keep trotting along, no longer whining himself, with what Dad was sure was a satisfied smirk on his emotive face.

Every now and then, I'd take Feliz out for his evening constitutional, and sure enough, Dad was right.  It was uncanny how Feliz had learned which housesholds had dogs, and at each one, he'd whimper as we got close.  The other dogs would create all sorts of racket, but Feliz would walk silently by, sometimes panting with a trace of gusto, smug, and ever so pleased with himself.

You could almost hear him saying, "I sure got them going!"

Listening to the howls of frustration emanating from Washington, DC, last week over Texas Senator Ted Cruz, and what was purportedly his crisis-inducing stalling tactics over yet another debt limit vote, I started thinking about my father's since-departed collie, Feliz.  And how much like him Cruz is.

"Watching the chaos from the side of the chamber," writes Dana Milbank of the Washington Post, "was the man who caused it: Cruz, his hands in his pants pockets and a satisfied grin on his face."

Cruz has intentionally, energetically, and unapologetically positioned himself as the spoiler of whatever placid waters people expect from the United States Senate.  He doesn't need to give fiery speeches, although he does love to grandstand, like he did during his filibuster debacle last fall.  He doesn't grovel at the feet of committee heads or Republican party stalwarts, nor does he tirelessly cajole, persuade, or build consensus behind the scenes.

He knows where the other dogs live, and he knows it doesn't take much to cause a ruckus among them.  Problem is, Cruz isn't just walking by their houses.  And the ruckus won't just die down as his scent fades from the air as he continues down the street.  This is big-time national politics with which Cruz is toying, even if he doesn't see it that way.  He believes he's teasing a more responsible method of governance out of Washington's jaded politicians, regardless of whether he's causing a lot of collateral damage along the way.

Conventional Republicans have become exasperated with his tactics.  After his little sideshow in the Senate chamber last week, which so disturbed his fellow lawmakers that they held their vote under a cloak of unusual obscurity, even the conservative Wall Street Journal chided Cruz for the unconventionally risky way he wields his unconventional influence.

It's been said that as a first-termer, Cruz was expected to take his traditional place along with all the other newly-elected junior senators on the back benches, and submissively engage in time-honored tutorials of developing one's power by watching their established party's operatives.  He was to be seen but not heard, kind of like a child at Thanksgiving dinner.

But part of the Tea Party mindset is that they don't have time to play by Washington's slow-moving rules.  Our country's fiscal crisis is red-hot and boiling over with debt and flagrant over-spending.  Protocols are for the pretentious, not the new patriots.  Committee assignments are for wusses, not warriors.  Building consensus is what got us into the messes we're in.  Belligerence is their new political currency on Capitol Hill, and Cruz is its treasurer.

Old guard Republicans say they're stunned that Cruz and his fellow Tea Partiers show no interest in doing business as usual in Washington.  But if the old guard assumed the new breed was merely brandishing a naive bravado at first, they should realize by now that it's probably their only game plan, much to the delight of Democrats - and, it must be said, of their own die-hard Tea Party fans.  After all, Cruz and his cohort didn't get to Washington without at least a few voters.

When it comes to Cruz in particular, it's hard not to admire his chutzpah.  Who can argue that Washington hasn't spent our country into a deep hole?  Who knows how much longer we can market our debt and postpone the reckoning of its payment?  What conventional politician in Washington isn't more eager to win re-election instead of achieving substantive spending cuts?

Instead, into a world of self-preservation and partisan sanctimony has entered a group of hyper-zealous radicals less interested in power than principle.  Debt is bad, they insist, and spending is perilous.  Whatever it takes, both of them need to be reduced.  And while plenty of politicians before them have won office patronizing a similar mantra, this new group actually has no interest in playing by rules they believe have contributed to our nation's problems in the first place.

And when it comes to not playing by the rules, or at least playing the established rules off of each other to acrimonious effect, Cruz is the big dog in the doghouse.

To a certain extent, Cruz's logic is understandable.  If something is broken, can it be fixed with the same tools that broke it?  And even if it could, does America have the time traditionalists want it to take to get fixed?  Yes, it's admirable that Cruz claims he's not beholden to anybody on Capitol Hill, and that if he only gets one term in office, he's going to do as much as he thinks is necessary to fix things, be he ever so unpopular.  In a way, his is a refreshingly American individualism in a sea of dysfunctional group-think, oblation, and unaccountability.

Unfortunately for Cruz - and us, actually - politics in a democratic republic is not designed to function the way Tea Partiers want it to function.  For all of his individualistic zeal, hearkening back to a nostalgic patriotism, Cruz needs to be building consensus, not division.   However ugly it is, politics is about majority rule, not minority bickering.  If you don't have the votes for something, you may be able to whine and whimper on the periphery, and pull some rules out of the protocols to delay, destabilize, or denigrate, but petulance in politics rarely approximates far-reaching, long-term success.  Sure, the Tea Party is solidifying its reputation among its constituency with antics like Cruz's, but what are they accomplishing relative to their goals?

For one thing, while Tea Partiers may claim the allegiance of about twenty to thirty percent of American voters - depending on the survey, such an allegiance tends to come from the same group of people who'd probably vote for traditional Republicans over Democrats anyway.  So, what's really being gained?  This doesn't make the Tea Party irrelevant in terms of its political influence, but it should make them political realists when it comes to crunching numbers for votes.  Remember, we are an approximation of a democratic republic, and votes are the grease for our political machine.  Not altruism.  No matter how credible the need to fix our economic ship of state may be.

As smart as the Harvard-educated Cruz claims to be, shouldn't he realize that persuasion, not belligerence, would be a more prudent course for him and the Tea Party?  Don't just be mad.  Don't just be reckless.  Don't just stand up to tenured officials because you don't care about committee appointments or incumbency.  If you're as smart as Cruz claims to be, shouldn't you be able to build arguments so you can persuade?  Persuasion helps win votes.  Persuasion, however, is a lot harder than grandstanding.  Persuasion is the process of finding areas of common agreement and shared values among people who might otherwise vote against you, and building off of those shared values to forge new areas of agreement.

Meanwhile, aside from some snarky headlines for himself, what's Cruz been accomplishing lately?

It could almost be argued that Cruz isn't playing the role of a politician because he has no interest in being a politician.  Even bad politicians, if they're genuinely political, understand the need for compromise and working across party lines on at least some legislation.  Cruz, on the other hand, flatly denies any merit to compromise.  Capitulation?  Yes, as long as it's done by his opponents; but not compromise.

In fact, the antics of many Tea Partiers could even suggest that few of them have their sights set merely on politics.  How many of them are actually participants in a dog show, preening before sponsors like the Koch brothers, and fetching legislative sticks for secretive One Percenters in the hopes of winning highly-coveted and profoundly lucrative jobs as lobbyists for them along Washington's notorious K Street?  Would that explain the ambivalence Cruz and his cohorts display towards working for substantive change here and now, deferring signs of any true progress until they're safely ensconced on the payrolls of their corporate benefactors?  Might what the rest of us are witnessing today be merely window dressing while Tea Party favorites test limits and tweak rhetoric while less ambitious Republicans spin their wheels in the sandstorm?

Time will likely be all that will tell regarding whether or not this is one disingenuous ruse by Tea Partiers, or whether there really is some merit to their belligerence.  Anyway, it won't be like conventional Republicans and Democrats haven't also played the "former legislator" card in their new jobs as influential K Street actors.  Perhaps what's most disappointing about Washington today is that even if you're a bad politician, you can still get handsomely rewarded by others who want to play the game.  And in that regard, Cruz's future currently looks pretty bright, regardless of what his fellow Republicans think of him.

Nevertheless, something tells me none of this is the Washington envisioned by the Founding Fathers whom Tea Partiers like Cruz incessantly invoke with reverence.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Love in Tom Perkins' 1% War

It looks like love.

But love of what, or for whom?

Tom Perkins is the highly-educated, incredibly wealthy, and extraordinarily egotistical entrepreneur who wrote the infamous letter to the Wall Street Journal in which he compared society's hatred of America's One Percenters to the Nazi pogrom against Jews on Kristallnacht.

After a miniature firestorm erupted over his short little tirade, Perkins apologized for recklessly sensationalizing his opinions with an insensitive reference to the Holocaust, but he came roaring back into the public's consciousness last night during a forum dubbed "The War on the 1%" at the Commonwealth Club of California in San Francisco.
Tom Perkins on February 13 in San Francisco
Admittedly, some of Perkins' opinions are relatively easy to accept.  For example, he believes that taxation itself isn't necessarily punitive, but excessive taxation is.  Shouldn't most of us, regardless of our tax bracket, be able to agree with that sentiment?  Of course, Perkins used the term "persecution" instead of punitive, which is an inflammatory twist designed to capture his audience's attention.  While it is understandable for a person who has worked so long and so successfully for the money he has to detest a governmental hand dipping deeply into his bank accounts, one would have hoped Perkins learned his lesson with exaggeration and the misappropriation of misery.

Kristallnacht violated the civil rights of Jews, and that's no exaggeration, but the right not to taxed punitively isn't exactly a civil right.  Even taxation rates upwards of a whopping 94% during World War II - the highest they've ever been in the United States - weren't enough to erode the civil rights of wealthy Americans.  But times are different now, and it would be difficult to justify any tax rate of that magnitude.

Today, the highest tax bracket is around 40%* for people earning $400,000 or more per year.  That's probably still a bit steep, but punitive?  Unfair, maybe.  Yet certainly not any sort of persecution.

Of course, for that kind of a tax rate, and the corresponding amount of raw dollars it digs out of One Percenters' income, billionaire Perkins opined last night that if he and his peers are going to be forced to comply, they should be politically rewarded.  He thinks wealthy taxpayers should be rewarded with, oh, say, one million votes for every million dollars they pay in taxes.  At first, when he said that, his audience laughed, perhaps hoping that he was only joking.  Afterwards, however, he tried to clarify his remarks to head off another PR gaffe by postulating that since so few Americans pay any income taxes, "we've gotten ourselves into a mess."

Perhaps Perkins' view comes from an updated version of "no taxation without representation," since the people who are purportedly funding a disproportionate amount of our government comprise a single percentage point of the population at large.  Some of this concern over taxation is based on the snapshot statistic that something like 47% of American voters don't pay any taxes.  However, such a percentage doesn't reflect the retirees who've already paid income taxes their whole working lives, the discounts middle-income families get even while they pay other taxes, and the fact that the lower down the income ladder one gets, the greater the tax burden relative to cost-of-living indices.  True, when it comes to income taxes, it would be nice if all taxpayers had some "skin in the game," but it's also true - at least according to the Bible - that "to whom much is given, much is required."

One Percenters fomenting fear about taxes causing them some sort of crisis sounds like the flip side of the class war they blame left-wing liberals of staging.

Sour grapes sound equally bad to the middle class, whether they're coming from the poor folks at the bottom who complain that the government isn't doing enough for them, or the rich folks at the very top, who assume that everybody else wants their money.  And it doesn't help matters that even the income for the top 1% of Americans, while very high, pales in comparison to the uber-wealthy .01% of Americans, which is the stratospheric orbit in which Perkins lives - and from which he grouses about the other 99.9% of us.

Meanwhile, what's overlooked in all of this are some of the other comments Perkins made in his original letter to the Journal.  You may not be aware that new urbanism, the reigning fad of millennials and thirtysomething tech wiz kids, has driven young Silicon Valley employees into San Francisco proper.  And the already expensive, liberal, and stratified city has found itself embroiled in a fresh round of class warfare.  Big luxury coach buses leased by distant tech firms lumber through San Francisco's storied streets to ferry employees living in the city's cramped residential neighborhoods out to the sprawling corporate campuses of Google and other billion-dollar businesses.  Tech employees have practically priced themselves out of San Jose, and now they seem to be pricing everybody else out of San Francisco, and the locals - a hardy band of disestablishmentarians, gay rights activists, and socialists are livid.

It is in this unexpected civic cauldron that Perkins maintains his primary residence, and apparently, he sees what's taking place in San Francisco as representative of what's happening all across the United States.  Small gangs of radical locals protest the tech employees on San Francisco's streets, and have picketed some of those luxury coach buses.  Perkins is horrified at the acrimony being vented towards young, highly-paid strivers by a bunch of people he presumes are layabouts and handout-takers, and his misperceptions are creating for him the specter of mass, forcible revolt by the unwashed masses from sea to shining sea.

Oh - and there's also the bit about some supposedly "libelous and cruel attacks" in one of the local newspapers against his ex-wife, the author Danielle Steel, who also lives in San Francisco, and for whom Perkins apparently still carries a torch.  Somebody in some public context called the wealthy writer and prolific philanthropist a "snob," and Perkins angrily wonders if such temerity against "our number-one celebrity" represents a "dangerous drift" for "'progressive' radicalism.'"

Frankly, it simply sounds more like lovers remorse on the part of the divorced Perkins, doesn't it?  Living the single life as an aging billionaire in a luxurious penthouse apartment in the City by the Bay...

Today is Valentines Day, after all.  Perhaps we should be heartened that romance of the interpersonal variety may still be alive and well in Perkins' heart, considering his valiant defense of Steel in the Journal.

Otherwise, it'd be too easy to suppose that his love is all for money.

And we know what that's the root of, don't we?

*FYI:  Don't assume that Perkins is paying 40% of his income every year in taxes.  Consider this perspective from Bloomberg's Barry Ritholtz:

"The superwealthy pay lots of taxes in actual dollars. On a percentage basis, though, not so much. Indeed, the wealthier you are, the more likely the bulk of your income comes from capital gains. These are taxed at about half the rate of wages and salary for a comparable high earner."

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Monument Command
The Ritze family's 10 Commandments monument
at Oklahoma's state capitol
It's a good time to be in the monument business in Oklahoma City.

Back in 2012, the Ritze family donated a $10,000 granite monument of the Ten Commandments to the Oklahoma Capitol Preservation Commission for installation on the state capitol's grounds.  Their gift stands at six feet tall, on its own patch of concrete, near an entrance to the Capitol that is closed to the public.  It literally took an act of Congress - the Oklahoma legislature, that is - to get permission for its installation, but that was more of a formality than anything else, since its legislation passed with strong bipartisan support.

This is Oklahoma, after all; one of the most conservative states in the country.

Its conservatism, however, is being tested by a recent announcement that a Satan-worshiping group now wants permission to install their own religious monument on Oklahoma's capitol grounds.  It would be a seven-foot-tall depiction of a seated Satan, flanked by two life-sized children, and incorporating symbols representing Satanism.  The idea is that people could actually sit in Satan's lap and experience being part of the monument.

There's even word that a group of Pastafarians want to erect their own monument in honor of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.  Hey - don't laugh; they got their own display at the Florida state capitol building this past Christmas, along with a more traditional Nativity display, and - no joke - a Festivus pole, in honor of the TV sitcom, Seinfeld.

You remember?  "Festivus - for the rest of us!"

Granted, I've never been a gotta-have-the-Decalogue-in-every-government-building advocate.  God's laws have become more political fodder than life application principles for many Christianized people, and the hypocrisy can be glaring to observers who argue for the separation of church and state.  Then Christ-followers like me who also say we should refrain from using the Decalogue as a symbolic bully pulpit get lumped in with all of the heathen unbelievers like the Pastafarians.

But I've asked it before, and I'll ask it again:  if you don't believe in separation of church and state, do you want your children listening to Muslim prayers over their school's public address system?

Perhaps this wouldn't be such a contentious issue if we believers in Christ could actually remove the hypocrisy from our lives that makes our professed allegiance to the Ten Commandments so difficult for the watching world to respect.  Yet too many of us find it easier instead to assume that a granite monument suffices for heart-and-soul allegiance.  Even if one of the Ten Commandments is to not create any graven images.

In fact, let's revisit the Biblical narrative of God's bestowment of the Decalogue upon His people.  The narrative appears in two passages, in Exodus and Deuteronomy, and in both accounts, we learn that the Israelites see and hear the majesty of God as He enumerates His holy laws.  In fact, they are so awe-struck at God's holiness, they ask Moses to recite the laws to them himself, for fear that they could not withstand God's direct communication to them.  Can you imagine?

Probably not, since we are New Testament believers, who have come to God through Christ Jesus, His Son.  We who are saved do not need to be in mortal fear of God, and in fact, He welcomes us to come and communicate with Him.  He even calls Himself our Father.  Yet how often in such familiarity, do we slip into a casual mentality and take for granted that God is still holy?

Indeed, God is not only holy, but His Ten Commandments haven't expired.  This is one part of the monument debate that pro-monument Christians get right.  And yes, our system of laws is based in large part on what God etched into those tablets that He gave Moses.  But how are the Ten Commandments still relevant to us today?  Christ's sacrifice at Calvary demonstrates what heinous sins are represented in the Decalogue, and the perfect Sacrifice that was necessary to atone for them.  But it's not adherence to any of the laws themselves that save anybody, is it?  Christ is our only Savior.

It's not even as though America has laws, for example, against adultery, idolatry, or coveting.  Morality is not something that can be legislated.  It's a matter of the heart, and the will; not a list of rules.

And if the intent of placing the Decalogue in places where people in authority could use them in their dispensing of that authority, perhaps a better section of scripture to monumentalize comes from 1 Kings 3, in which a newly-appointed King Solomon asks God for discernment in administering justice.  God not only responds to such a humble request with His generous gift to Solomon of unprecedented wisdom, but riches and honor that were without equal in the king's lifetime.

Meanwhile, American Christians get all bent out of shape when secularists challenge the Decalogue's display in civic buildings, when none of us follow those laws to the letter anyway.  We assume some monument to that stone tablet from Mount Sinai is a sufficient testimony of our belief in the God Who gave it to us, when in fact, God wants us to serve Him in spirit and truth.  With our lives.  In courtrooms, and statehouses, and living rooms, and bedrooms, and corporate cubicles, and boardrooms, and football stadiums, and factories, and churches.

Hmm.  When was the last time you saw a $10,000 granite memorial of the Ten Commandments in a church?  Or somebody's bedroom?

Granite isn't just what monuments are made of.  Sometimes granite seems to be what our hearts and minds are made of as well.  Maybe if we removed our own hard-heartedness, we'd be a better testimony of God's holiness than any hunk of carved rock.