Thursday, July 31, 2014

Vacation Day from Summer

Here it is, the very last day of July, in the normally hot, arid southwestern cities of Fort Worth and Dallas, Texas.

And the temperature is about 75 degrees.

At 2:00pm.

Now, where you live, having a temperature of 75 degrees at 2:00pm may not be significant.  But here in north Texas, this is downright amazing.  It's wonderful!  It's refreshing and invigorating.

It's also rare.  It's like a vacation day from summer.

To put this in context, consider that the average low temperature for this date is 76 degrees.  And that low temperature would occur at around two in the morning, not two in the afternoon!  Meanwhile, our average high today should be 97.  And the record high has gotten up to 106 on this date.

But not today!

Today, we have overcast skies, a bit of humidity, but some gloriously cool air!  This is more like a typical summer day in, say, Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, which is situated at the mouth of New York Harbor.  Or maybe mid-coast Maine, where my Mom grew up, and where our family used to take summer vacations.

When I lived in Brooklyn after college, this is the type of day I'd choose to walk down to Bay Ridge, a neighborhood in the southwestern corner of the borough.  I liked to hike along streets lined by big homes and towering trees in that tidy, quiet, upper-middle-class enclave, and escape the congestion, noise, and dirtiness of the rest of the city.  The breeze would come up from the Atlantic Ocean, fresh and clean.  Today, I'm not sure how clean our air is here in north Texas, but it can't be as dirty as it otherwise would be if it was blazing hot, with hardly any more breeze than when somebody sneezes.

In Maine, the rugged natives who live in the Pine Tree State would be complaining about the 70-degree heat on a day like today, but down by the shore, or on a pier, if the wind was strong enough off of the water, I'd probably be wearing a light jacket.  Of course, when the sun shines in Maine, just like anyplace else, the temperature can get rather uncomfortable.   But at least things cool off at night up there, whereas here in Texas, temperatures can remain in the 90's well after sunset.

How nice to know we won't have that problem this evening!  Indeed, this morning, it was weird to walk around outside in shorts and feel a tinge of a chill in the breeze.  I pulled some weeds in the backyard, and didn't perspire at all!  This afternoon, I went out in my car to run some errands with my windows rolled down and my sunroof open - and after I finished my errands, I drove around for another half an hour, enjoying the sheer luxury of being a little chilly on a summer afternoon with all the windows rolled down!   The leaves in our trees are rustling in the breeze, and it's not the raspy rustling of dry, dying leaves that typically have begun to fade in Texas' brutal summer heat.  In fact, things have been so mild all season, in comparison to our normal summers, that the trees still have bright green leaves, and the grass is still bright green as well.  We've no leaves dulled by hanging in incessantly hot air, or sprawling yellow patches of parched lawns, where the grass has decided it can't compete with the sun.

At least, not yet.

Sure, here in north Texas, we still have the worst of our usual summertime heat to come.  August and September can drain the chlorophyll out of the hardiest Texas plants, just as it can drain the energy out of the hardiest Texan.

At the end of July, in both Maine and New York, the locals will be starting to lament the passage of summer, a season that goes all too quickly in their parts of our world.  Yet here in Texas, days like today are only a cause for lament because we know they won't last - the heat will return, and sooner than we'd like.  Up north, they feel deprived by cloudy days in their summers, but here in Texas, cloudy days are a gift - especially when they keep temperatures so far below normal.

Summer won't end for us until sometime during the first couple of weeks in October.  All the more reason to soak up days like today.

It's not that the daily weather forecast should hold so much sway over how we feel, or our outlook on the day - but it usually does, doesn't it?  Below-average summer temperatures are enthusiastically welcomed by many Texans, just as above-average winter temperatures are usually welcomed by people up north.  Considering how much of our days we spend inside, and how little time we actually spend outdoors, why should the weather, temperatures, and precipitation matter so much to us?  Lots of office workers don't even get to sit near an exterior window during their workdays.  Yet nice weather is quite important to most of us.  Even when we don't get to enjoy it.  Even when it's as accessible as being on the opposite side of a wall near you.

I haven't gotten to spend a lot of time outdoors today, but what time I have been able to spent outside, I've thoroughly enjoyed.  Maybe that's why good weather is important to us, even when we can't drop everything else and enjoy it to its fullest.

Just like today in north Texas, a little bit of enjoyable weather is better than none at all!

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Truth Driscoll Didn't Intend to Teach

I could begin by crowing, "I told you so!"

But how we say something can be as important as what we say.  So I won't gloat.  Even though I was right.

More's the pity, however.

I've never been enamored by pugnacious Seattle pastor Mark Driscoll.  Driscoll is the founder of Mars Hill Church, which until recently, has been a fabulously successful ministry in a city reputed to be one of the most difficult to evangelize in all of North America.

Driscoll and his staff created a sprawling empire crossing various social media platforms and multiple worship sites, promoting a raw, masculine worldview that purported a relevance attractive to Washington state's rough-and-tumble, Pacific Northwest individualism.  His legions of congregants and fans, both in Seattle and across our evangelical ghetto, gushed about Driscoll's bluntness and no-holes-barred teaching.  He told it like it is.  He wasn't afraid of offending people.  He put the pants back on Christianity, as well as the swagger in Christianity's step.

All stuff that I believe distracted from the Gospel, fed a false understanding of Who God is, and helps to prove why Christian celebrity worship is rarely effectual.

But most people don't care what boring guys like me think.  They cared what the entertaining Driscoll said; and even more, how he said it.

These days, however, Driscoll's ministry is crumbling all around him, as charges of plagiarism, secretly buying a top spot on the New York Times bestseller list, and the vocal defection of disillusioned assistants and congregants have made headlines in our evangelical media for months now.  Driscoll picked a petty scuffle with a far more revered leader in modern evangelicalism, John MacArthur, in the parking lot of MacArthur's California church.  Janet Mefferd, a popular Christian talk radio host, made waves by awkwardly cornering Driscoll on the air about the source material for his latest book.

Now comes word that a former follower of Driscoll's, named Rob Smith, is organizing a silent protest against his former pastor at the site of Driscoll's satellite church campus in Bellevue, Washington.  He's asking other disenchanted Driscollites to show up at the church this coming Sunday, each with a sign to hold that bears their name.  Smith's idea stems from a recent attempt by Driscoll to apologize to people who claim to have been hurt by his teachings, if only those people weren't "anonymous."  Indeed, a Facebook page has sprouted called "Dear Pastor Mark & Mars Hill: We Are Not Anonymous," and it's acquired 500 members since July 24.

I'm not going to get into all of the claims of abuse being alleged about Driscoll and his staffers.  But certainly, plenty of something has been going on that hasn't been good, edifying, and Godly.  Perhaps in Driscoll's drive to build his church, and his rationale for using unorthodox language and attitudes for doing so, he attracted a number of people within whom the Holy Spirit wasn't working His salvation after all.  Maybe Driscoll's charisma and willingness to be unconventional proved attractive to Seattle's unchurched simply because they didn't want a church or a faith that they considered to be frumpy, or that frowned on coarse language, or was careful about what we say, and how we say it.

In other words, to a certain extent, Driscoll may be guilty of simply providing Seattle the kind of church the edgy city thought it wanted.

Regardless of what it was that attracted all of these now disenchanted people to Driscoll, it can't be denied that the main flaw we're now hearing everybody talking about centers not on the explicit doctrine Driscoll tried to teach, but on how he taught it.

He apparently tried to teach about how the father is supposed to be the spiritual leader of the home, but in the process of saying those words, he ended up vilifying women, emasculating men who didn't fit his paradigm of masculinity, and reputedly destroying marriages in his church.

He apparently tried to teach about the immorality of sex outside of heterosexual wedlock, but he ended up projecting a seething hatred of gay people that the Bible never teaches.

He apparently tried to teach about how Christians are involved in spiritual warfare when we allow the Holy Spirit to guide us in holiness while on this planet.  But he ended up constructing a model of church-performed discipline and exorcisms that demonized struggling congregants instead.

And these are just a few of the most frequent allegations leveled against him.  Not just by disgruntled church members.  But by some of his pastoral assistants who helped him perpetrate these misrepresentations of basic theology on their congregation.

I've said it before, and I'll keep saying it:  how we say something can be as important as what we say.  Trying to present the Gospel using tools apart from the Fruit of the Spirit is fraught with peril.

That appears to be the consistent thing Driscoll taught, even though he didn't mean to.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Dementia Doesn't Let Us Forget

My Dad is reading today's newspaper for the third time.  The third time - today.

Usually, he only reads the newspaper twice a day.

After six years of senile dementia, the number of times he reads each day's newspaper isn't strange to my Mom and me.

But it's still sad.

Not as sad as last night, however, when yet again, we figured out that he didn't know he has another son.  This happens regularly.  When we told him the name of his other son, Dad didn't know where he lived, or that he's been married for over 20 years.  Or that he and his wife have five children.

His jaw always drops when we tell him about his five grandchildren.  It dropped again last night.  Mom is usually the one who sits down with Dad and some photographs, and goes over our relatively small family tree.  And whenever she gets to the part about his five grandchildren, his reaction is always the same.

Dad's sister moved from Brooklyn to Florida a couple of years ago, but Dad still tries to call her apartment in New York.  Sometimes, he ends up reaching a telephone operator there, which makes him begin to worry that something bad has happened to his sister.

What else can't he remember?  Well, he doesn't know his right from his left.  He can't remember what month we're in, or which kitchen drawer holds our everyday silverware.  He can't remember where he and Mom, for over a decade, have attended church.

He used to have hobbies, like gardening, painting with watercolor, crossword puzzles, and jigsaw puzzles.  Now, he either has zero interest in them, or simply can't process how to do them.  His paintings hang throughout our house, but he thinks he only painted the biggest one.

His mobility has declined significantly after a fall last month, and when a friend from my parents' church brought over a walker to help him get around, Dad couldn't figure out how to use it.

But he can usually remember our street address and ZIP code.  Due to his fondness for ice cream, he has already learned to ask for Klondike ice cream bars, which Mom bought for the first time on a whim over this past Fourth of July weekend.  He also has a couple of Bible verses he can recite with remarkable accuracy, including his favorite, Isaiah 41:10.

He can still dress himself, brush his teeth, and accomplish most of the steps in preparing his lunchtime ham-and-cheese-on-a-bagel sandwich.  He usually remembers who Mom and I are, and even occasionally, the names of a couple of our long-time neighbors.

His physical therapist rates his dementia as "mild," in comparison with her other patients, but that's little comfort to Mom and me.  All things considered, we still know we have things easy, at least as far as not having to deal with all of the additional burdens Alzheimer's brings.  Dad's neurologist continues to insist that Dad does not have Alzheimer's, and for that, we are grateful.  But knowing we have it easy, compared with other families, still doesn't make it easy.

I chatted with a couple of fellow choir members at my church last week who are caring for their elderly parents with similar problems, and we all agreed that until this whole responsibility of elder care entered our lives, we had no idea what it involved.

"You know what drives me nuts?" one of the women laughed.  "When people tell you, 'Be sure to take care of yourself.  Be sure to take some time off.  Go on a vacation to get away from things!'"

"Yeah, right," another woman lamented.  "Take care of yourself?  When?  Take time off?  And spend that whole time worrying about your parents?  Besides, you notice how other people who say this stuff always offer to step in and take over your parents' care so you can take that vacation!"

Another friend recommended a book about caring for people with dementia, and the author of that book tried to make a convincing argument for adult day care, saying that it's good for people with dementia to get out of the house and into an environment with their peers.  But that makes little sense to me.  After all, the whole point of dementia is memory loss - particularly short-term memory.  Dad already doesn't like to leave the house for any reason.  His horrible memory gets him anxious and agitated easily enough already, thank you!  It's bad enough trying to get him to attend church, an activity upon which he used to insist.  Why bother tormenting him with an experience with a bunch of strangers at an adult day care he can't understand or whose benefits - whatever they may be - he can't appreciate?

Earlier this year, Dad's neurologist wanted to do a brain scan on him, and a nurse came to the house to attach electrodes to his scalp with surgical glue.  They were going to record his brain activity at home for three days and then analyze it.

To the electrodes, the nurse attached wires that coiled down his neck into a battery pack.  The whole process took over an hour.  Dad kept asking what she was doing, and the nurse would patiently explain to him about the brain scan each time.

After she left, however, Dad couldn't remember she'd just been working on him, and he blamed Mom for trying to pull some sadistic joke on him.  He was almost crying, he was so frustrated, not being able to remember what all of these nodes were doing glued to his head, and the battery pack dangling from his back.  Before the next hour was out, he had ripped every one of those electrodes off of his scalp - along with some of his hair, and some skin.  And frankly, Mom and I couldn't blame him.

There are many things in life upon which I consider myself as qualified as anybody else to comment.  And then there are other areas of life where I realize my opinions hold very little weight, and I shouldn't expect them to.  Parenting is one of those areas, and how to be a good spouse is another.  Sports.  Molecular biology.  The movies.

Meanwhile, although I didn't ask for it, don't want it, and certainly don't enjoy it, I'm acquiring quite an insight into elder care and dementia care.  One of my friends says I should write about this experience more than I do, but I find that doing so is difficult, because it's so personal for me - in a negative way.  Besides, I want to respect my father's privacy, and wonder what he'd think about me telling his story online, if only he understood about blogging and the Internet.

I also understand, however, that dementia is one of those topics where helping other people see what it's like may help expand our society's dialog in relation to it.

I'm no expert on dementia care, and I don't want to have to be.  Part of me also continues to resent God for putting my family in this situation to begin with, which means I'm still struggling with accepting what God has allowed, which means I'm no paragon of virtue or faith.   And even though Dad has had this condition for a number of years now, Mom and I still can be caught off-guard by some of the ways it manifests itself.  Oftentimes, I wonder if we're learning much of anything!

Yet we're thankful that things aren't worse.  We're thankful that so far, we've been able to care for Dad at home.  We're thankful for doctors and clinicians who seem to be quite competent, and who give us good direction for Dad's care.  And we're thankful he's still with us, even though large chunks of his memory aren't.

He spends a good portion of his days reading his Bible, and we can't think of a better way for him to be using his time.  Although God tells us that His Word is "profitable" to its readers, we're not sure how much of the Bible he's actually reading, comprehending, and retaining.  We suspect he's re-reading the same portions over and over again, since he might not remember having already read them recently.

After all, he can't remember having read the day's paper an hour later.

Nevertheless, Dad still remembers that he's a child of God's.  And that's something I need to remember through all of this, too.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Religion as Ammo for Atheists

There are reasons atheists mock religious people.

Religion can serve as the ammunition that shoots holes in our theological pretensions.

Just last Friday, for example, over in Dallas County, one of their county commissioners was arrested and charged by the FBI on 11 counts of bribery and fraud.

Yesterday was Sunday, however, and Commissioner John Wiley Price was in church, being praised by his pastor as somebody to believe in.

"Jesus, justice, and John," proclaimed Rev. Frederick Haynes III of Friendship West Baptist Church, located in Dallas' mostly-black southern sector.  "That's a hot combination."

Oh?  And what is your scripture reference for that, reverend?  Isn't believing in John Wiley Price about as effective as believing in anybody in addition to Christ for redemption, or justice?  Even if he's white, like Billy Graham?  How about Ronald Reagan?

Either Christ is sufficient, or He's not.  That's authentic Christianity.  And justice?  Hadn't we better be careful for what we ask from our holy and righteous God?

For several years, the FBI had been conducting an investigation into alleged corruption by Price, the county's first black commissioner.  Long an eager firebrand, Price has been a popular figure among the county's poorer blacks because of his often-controversial politics.  In 2011, after a contentious hearing at Commissioners Court, in which somebody called him a "mullah" (an Islamic term for a paid community organizer), he infamously jeered towards a group of white conservatives, telling them that because of their skin color, they should all "go to hell."

Unfortunately, Dallas has a long and bitter history with racism, and the FBI's investigation had already raised the ire of many blacks in north Texas who see it as nothing more than a racist witch hunt to bring down an outspoken civil rights activist.

On Friday, plenty of conservative pundits were crudely crowing over the indictments against Price, but Sunday, his pastor stepped into the fray, assuming a familiar posture for a black church with a prominent member in the public's crosshairs:  unwavering support, buttressed with theological bravado that is technically not supportable by a holy text.

White pastors have probably done the same thing for their downfallen congregants, but when black pastors do it, it generally makes news.  Whether it's Al Sharpton with Tawana Brawley or Trayvon Martin, or Frederick Haynes and John Wiley Price, grace has a tendency to trump the law in a cultural pastiche of protectionism and religious doctrine that elicits howls from atheists.

Granted, Price should be presumed innocent until proven guilty, but religion can be such a convenient crutch, can't it?  And a false one, at that.  What happens, for example, if Price is found guilty?  What if the evidence against him is overwhelming?  What if Price is eventually brought to the point of confessing?  What then for the people of Haynes' church?

You believe in Jesus, justice, and who?

This enthusiasm for false doctrine isn't a black church thing.  Or a white church thing.  Consider the fighting between Hamas and Israel, where politics and land ostensibly represent valid things over which human beings should kill each other.  Their's is the war that won't die, no matter how many people do.

Or what about Yoo Byung-eun, the late South Korean multi-millionaire?  Officials believe Yoo was behind the bizarre sinking of the ferry Sewol in the Yellow Sea earlier this year.  Religion was part of his schtick, too.

Yoo started a Baptist sect in South Korea and manipulated his thousands of followers, called "Salvationists," into giving him money to develop a multinational business enterprise which included ships like the Sewol.  Authorities claim Yoo personally directed practices within his companies that caused the Sewol to capsize, killing 304 passengers.  Yet even today, after Yoo was found dead near one of his many properties, his followers blame the South Korean government for pushing the public's vitriol over the tragedy onto his religious and economic empire, to hide systemic failures in South Korea's civil bureaucracy.

Religion strikes again.

Religious figures don't even have to do anything bad to be ridiculed.  Consider the case of Meriam Ibrahim, who was tortured and threatened with death in Sudan for marrying a Christian, and refusing to claim that she is Muslim.  Evangelicals in the United States complained loudly that President Barak Obama's administration wasn't doing enough to free their sister in Christ from such an evil government as Sudan's.  Last week, however, the Italians managed to win her political freedom, and flew her to Rome, where she met with Pope Francis.

Turns out, Ibrahim isn't Protestant, but Roman Catholic.  Conventional evangelicals should be wondering if she's as much of an unbeliever as her Sudanese captors are.  But a lot of evangelicals were both unaware of her true faith, or unaware of the profound theological difference between Roman Catholicism and evangelical Protestantism.  American evangelicals hear the term "Christian" used in multi-cultural contexts around the globe, and assume everybody who's a Christian is just like them.

Except they're not.  In many parts of the world, especially where Islam is dominant, the term "Christian" is used to differentiate cultures, heredity, and people groups.  Many "ethnic" Christians may indeed believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God Who died on the cross for their sins, but certainly not all of them.  It's just like the term "Christian" in the United States today:  most evangelicals know that everybody who calls themselves a Christian here isn't really one.

Not that Ibrahim should have been left to become a martyr to Roman Catholicism.  Freedom of religion is a basic human right, and Americans of all political stripes and religious affiliations should be concerned for Ibrahim and the countless people like her who are being denied the chance to worship their deity without fear of persecution.  Even atheists should be glad that the Italians were able to win Ibrahim's freedom, and they should remain concerned for the many ethnic Christians in places like Sudan, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria who still face death for refusing to bow to Allah.

You've probably seen the bumper sticker with the word "coexist" spelled out in the symbols of our planet's major religions.  On the one hand, cynics are correct in pointing out that for all religions to truly co-exist, many of them will have to deny a significant part of their doctrine, since the whole point of a faith-based belief system is choosing what you believe to be true.  And everything can't be true, since all religions eventually contradict each other in some form or fashion.

Yet, on the other hand, true Christianity of the Holy Bible's variety is one of the few world religions that actually teaches its New Testament adherents that while we believe ours to be literal truth, our faith can still exist with others.  At least in the sense of us not being commanded by our Deity to slaughter those who don't believe in Christ.  We're to obey our government leaders, regardless of whether they share our faith, as long as they don't force us to do things that directly oppose God's Word.  And even then, we're not commanded to kill or persecute.  But we are instructed to resist.  And perhaps even die for the sake of Christ.

If and when we're persecuted, we don't suffer for our own merit, or some works-based, rule-bound, performance-oriented religious construct.  Religion, theology, and doctrine exist to help explain the mechanics of our faith.  But true believers in Christ believe in Christ, not on traditions, formulas, or methods.  And we let His Holy Spirit create within us a worldview and lifestyle that please Him.

We're taught in the Bible that, whatever we do, God is looking at our heart, to see our motivation.  Are we acting in His truth, and is the Fruit of the Holy Spirit evidenced by our attitude?  Once His people receive His salvation, God wants us to honor Him, and while certain patterns will develop among us, those patterns and shared convictions won't save us.  But they will be different from the belief systems of  Roman Catholics, and Muslims, and Jews.  And atheists.

That's why it's easy to categorize a faith in Christ as a religion.  And name it "Christianity."  Yes, it's a sloppy way to define Christ-based faith, and misleading.  But part of the misleading sloppiness comes from the way self-professed Christ-followers live their faith.  They live it like it's a religion, and they put their faith in the religion.

Maybe it sounds like semantics to you, but if you're going to take your faith seriously - whether it's faith in yourself, or in Christ, or in Mohammad, or whomever and whatever - won't you want to know what you're putting that faith into?

Do you want your faith to rest in a religion?  Or a cultural system that looks like a religion?  If you do, you're simply giving atheists plenty of ammunition to prove their point.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Obama's Disconnect a Grand Illusion?

Maybe it's an illusion?

Maybe he's secretly networking with world leaders to try and confidentially resolve some of these issues.  To the public, however, maybe the White House is tricking us by conveying the appearance that he's disconnected and ineffectual.

If President Obama really is hard at work behind the scenes, trying to broker stability, humanity, and the rule of law where precious little currently resides, then he's a master at casually projecting a low profile.

And if Oval Office staffers are actually trying to hide the President's stressful schedule, they're doing a spectacular job.

After all, simply from the way people are acting at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, you'd never know our world is in such turmoil.

Yesterday in Iraq, ISIS blew up the tomb reputed to have housed the remains of a famous religious figure for both Jews and Christians.  Do you remember the Biblical account of Jonah and the whale?  Well, the traditional site of Jonah's grave had been revered for thousands of years in Iraq's Nineveh province, until the ultra-radical Muslim extremists raided the area, and forced all Christians to leave during the past week.  Now that the Christians have fled - after having all of their belongings and property confiscated - ISIS is in the process of either destroying or converting churches and other Christian facilities into extremist mosques.

And the White House has been silent as these ancient antiquities have been seized, and minority groups stripped of their rights, and forced to relinquish everything they'd owned.  Yes, Christians have been a minority in Iraq for centuries, but does this White House regularly ignore the plight of the world's minority groups?  Earlier this week, the President signed an executive order that ostensibly will protect the civil rights of the three percent of our population who may work for government contractors.  He says we can't ignore even the smallest of minority groups.  But he figures Iraq can?

ISIS has also ordered that millions of women in Iraq undergo female circumcision, a barbaric form of torture that the United Nations technically forbids.  Yet again, the White House has been silent, even as Democrats in the Senate this week began another push for ratification of a UN treaty that could undermine parental authority and encourage the practice of abortion.

Apparently, we really can pick and choose which UN mandates we want to embrace.

Meanwhile, over in Gaza, Hamas continues to store its weapons near schools, hospitals, and safe houses, as well as in tunnels running under private property owned by people who have no idea they're sitting ducks for Israel's air defenses.  For his part, Obama's secretary of state has been plotting with Egypt on terms for a cease-fire between Hamas and Israel, but with so much of this current administration's foreign policy in disarray, nobody's expecting much of anything good from Cairo.  Like the Egyptians are an authority on peace, stability, and human rights anyway.

In Ukraine, reporters are still marveling that the nine-mile-long debris field from flight MH17 remains virtually unguarded, even as aviation experts are marveling that the Malaysian plane's black boxes have been secured without any apparent sabotage.  But while the President has wagged his finger at Russia's Vladimir Putin for possibly having provided anti-aircraft weaponry to an under-trained insurgency in Ukraine, America's expertise in protecting the world's commercial air space is going without a voice in the Executive Branch.

Maybe it doesn't matter that President Obama hasn't come out as the lead critic of Putin's puppeteering in Ukraine, since the conflicts between Russia and its former republics have festered for centuries, meaning that one politician today won't win peace in that region.  But didn't the rest of us get dragged a little closer to Russia's machinations for power when a civilian plane got shot out of the sky in an area rife with Russian military hardware?  Maybe the black boxes are for the Dutch to decode, but is somebody like Putin going to respect such minority governments on the world's stage as the Netherlands and Malaysia?

Funny how Obama was so keen to aid the rebels in Syria and Egypt, and is now so quiet.  Has he suddenly become an isolationist?

Maybe he's just scaling back his sphere of influence.  Over in the West Wing today, President Obama appears to be concentrating on our newly-arrived juvenile guests from Central America.  He's playing host to the presidents of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador; three countries whose youths are swamping America's border with Mexico.  According to the White House public schedule for today, their meeting is scheduled to last for approximately 45 minutes, followed by a press conference.

Here again, however, the President's enthusiasm seems strained.  Does 45 minutes sound like a lot of time to hash out some workable solutions for staunching the flow of illegal juvenile migrants to our country, addressing the humanitarian crises that ostensibly are forcing these kids from their homes and families, and arranging to get these kids back to their home countries, all while making sure they have good opportunities for growing up safe and healthy in Central America?

There are only two items on the White House agenda for today, so doesn't it seem as though the President should have been able to find more time to tackle these tough issues, especially since politicians from both the Democratic and Republican sides of the political aisle says this is all about protecting these poor children?

Maybe the President figures he already knows what these Central American leaders are going to say.  The Washington Post interviewed Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez yesterday, and he was dismissive of the illegality of crossing national borders without permission, focusing on the human toll of treating children like they are criminals.  He also complained about the United States forcing the migrant children to turn around and return to countries like Honduras.

"From Mexico, they come in buses, in big numbers," Hernandez bemoaned, talking about the children being repatriated into his country.  "We’ve had to triple the size of our centers in order to receive these people.  They’re coming en masse, but we’ve said that we need to be careful in order to respect their human rights."

Oh, isn't that magnanimous of the Honduran president?  Trying to teach us about human rights when he presides over a country apparently awash in corruption, human trafficking, and violent crime, that these kids say they need to flee to stay alive.

Of course, President Obama has refused to visit our border with Mexico to witness this humanitarian crisis first-hand, even though he's been invited to do so by both Republicans and Democrats in Texas.  So even though his visit today with Central American leaders may be more photo op than anything else, perhaps he figured it would be a waste of time to listen to these guys pontificate on their own hollow rhetoric so they could all avoid dealing with the core issues creating this crisis.

On the home page of today, there's a huge banner with a dominant graphic containing the definition of "inversion," which, according to the White House, is "a type of corporate tax loophole."

Under the "Popular Topics" section of their home page, the White House has promos for the US-Africa Leaders Summit, and something called "My Front Porch," where the President invites people to share "how their days look."  Whatever that means.

There's also a blurb about "President Obama is committed to making this the most open and participatory administration in history."

Hmm.  Really?

Open and participatory?

In all fairness, plenty of conservatives have complained for years that they wished President Obama would simply do nothing, because they feared anything he'd do would be bad, or immoral, or wrong for our country.  So to a certain extent, as our world continues to experience some pretty unsettling crises, conservatives should be glad that Obama isn't trying to claim the spotlight and foist his opinions and objectives on our country and our planet.  Perhaps Obama figures that no matter what he does, his critics will never be satisfied.

Yet, if he's committed to an open and participatory presidency, his distance from the world stage must be an illusion, right?  We're simply not seeing all that he's doing.

That's some trick.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Does Happiness Have a Cajun Drawl?

Are you happy?

Chances are, your happiness depends on where you live.

At least, that's what a Harvard professor and his colleagues claim.  They've analyzed some data from the Centers for Disease Control to chart, by city, the places where Americans are the happiest.

Generally speaking, according to this study, people who live in and around the San Francisco Bay area tend to be the least happy, along with people living around Seattle, Chicago, Indianapolis, Detroit, and from Boston all the way down to Washington, DC.  Alternatively, residents of Montana, Arizona, Texas, and the deep South tend to be the most happy.  Along with a pretty good chunk of Delaware.

Of course, happiness is a profoundly relative concept, isn't it?  "Happiness" is a mixture of contentment, satisfaction, ease, peace, and harmony, at least in proportion to what we know, expect, and experience.  Our happiness is also affected by our personality and our health.  And to a significant degree, we evaluate whether we should be happy by pegging ourselves against the people we consider to be our peers, or with whom we want to be associated.

Throughout all of this, our faith plays a core role in how we view our life, our circumstances, our relationships, our aspirations, and the things in which we place our trust and upon which we peg our chances for inner peace.  And we all have faith in something, whether it's in Jesus Christ, or Mohammad, or ourselves.

Not that this particular happiness study is trying to prove that geography is more important than anything else in how happy we are - or aren't - but it is an interesting snapshot of where we Americans tend to be the most content, and where life apparently is best lived.

Perhaps not surprisingly, then, the New York metropolitan region ranked dead last in terms of its happiness quotient.  It's the most densely populated region of the country, with some of America's highest taxes, housing costs, and insurance rates.  Normal daily work commutes can stretch into two hours one way, competition for employment is fierce, and political corruption is a way of life.  Sure, it's a spectacular place to visit, but even though they may live cosmopolitan lives there, few New Yorkers truly derive deep satisfaction in doing so.

On the other hand, it's surprising to learn that one state holds the top five metropolitan areas with the greatest proportions of happy people.  It's Louisiana, a state more often associated - especially by New Yorkers - with rural, backwater rednecks and a simplistic way of life.  Then again, consider the cable TV show Duck Dynasty, proudly filmed on location in Louisiana's infamous swamps.  The show's mantra is "happy, happy, happy," so maybe there's something to it.

And of these top five cities from Louisiana, not one of them is New Orleans.  The number one metro area is Lafayette, covering two parishes (or counties), with less than half a million people in the city and its suburbs.  The city's main attraction appears to be an exceptionally low unemployment rate of 3.3% in Lafayette proper, which by itself likely accounts for a significant amount of its residents' happiness.  It's a generally conservative place politically, and its economy is based mostly on blue-collar and service industries.

Lafayette does have a symphony orchestra, a regional airport, several colleges, and a couple of museums, but nothing prestigious enough for any of us to have ever heard of - unless we'd lived there before.

The other four cities from Louisiana that top this happiness list are all similarly unremarkable.  Unless, however, you consider how remarkable it is that such unglamorous, unexciting, unsophisticated, and relatively unknown cities can claim the top five spots for being full of so many happy people.

Of the top ten on this list, nine are Southern cities, with Nashville being the largest of the lot, and the most famous.  The one northern city is Rochester, Minnesota, which is home to the highly-regarded Mayo Clinic, as well as a major facility for IBM.  Minnesota is known for its brutal winters, so balmy weather obviously isn't a major priority for Rochesterites, most of whom must be pretty well-educated to work for employers like the Mayo Clinic and IBM.

And as far as big cities are concerned, Nashville has grown so much over the years, its traffic congestion can rival anybody's, and its Tennessee summers can be downright sweltering.  It is, of course, a dominant player in the music industry, but it's also got bragging rights as a prestigious college town, and it's home to Hospital Corporation of America, the largest operator of healthcare facilities in the world.

So what does all of this mean in terms of how legitimate "happiness" is?  We've got the "happy, happy, happy" bubbas down in Louisiana, and it would be easy for coastal sophisticates to write them off as a bunch of simpletons too swaddled by southern breezes and Cajun jambalaya to know how much better life can be beyond their mossy bayous.  But in stark contrast to Louisiana, Rochester and Nashville boast world-class corporate and cultural features with which the stereotypical bayou city can't compete.

Of course, the stereotypical Louisiana bubba likely wouldn't want to compete for jobs in Rochester and concert tickets in Nashville anyway.  Which probably helps explain why they're so happy.  If Duck Dynasty is any guide, they don't even mind being called "bubbas," either, since to many of them, being one is a point of pride, not derision.

Hey - they're not the ones commuting to jobs that stress them out and pay just enough to cover atrocious rents and income taxes.  Louisianans don't go to sleep every night to the lullaby of ambulance sirens and utility company jackhammers.  Not outside of New Orleans, anyway.  Nobody in Lafayette has to stuff themself into an aluminum tin can and rocket through underground subway tunnels with the smell of somebody else's urine turning their stomach.  If anybody in Louisiana wants to subject themself to an assault on their senses, they can visit New York City as a tourist, soak up the bedlam, and then return home, happy that they don't have to put up with that chaos on a daily basis.

Meanwhile, people from all over the world continue to stream onto Manhattan Island, and spill over into the boroughs, thinking that Gotham is where they can find true happiness.  Sexual happiness, economic happiness, artistic happiness, cultural happiness, political happiness... when all the while, where they probably should be going is likely more mundane than the hometowns they've left.

So, is true happiness found in the ordinary?  In the unexceptional, uncrowded, and inexpensive?  Do skyscrapers, an aging mass transit system, historic bridges, ultra-liberal politics, and 24/7 congestion result in happiness?  Or do the people who willingly subject themselves to such things their own worst enemy for figuring that's the price they pay for some sort of urbane significance?  Are they a lot of realists, and cynics, who compete with each other to be the best at whatever jobs they're doing, but who also know that onerous rents will only continue to rise until dangerous crime also rises - one of the city's more perverse balancing acts between boom and bust?

No, New Yorkers aren't very happy people.  It appears that most urbanites across the United States are not.  But they'd probably be even more miserable if they had to live in Louisiana.

Which likely makes Louisiana's bubbas even happier, knowing they won't have to share their idyll with all 'em obnoxious city slickers!

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Second Time Still No Charm for UN's CRPD

Play it again, Uncle Sam.

Well-meaning senators appear ready to make another attempt at passing a controversial United Nations treaty.  It's the same treaty that failed to win enough votes two years ago, even though it would ostensibly help improve the legal rights of handicapped people around the world.

Who would be against such a thing, right?

Actually, nobody is against improving the legal rights of the world's handicapped population.  But plenty of American conservatives have a problem with the language contained in the UN's treaty.  It's called the Convention On the Rights of Persons With Disabilities (CRPD), and at face value, it reads like an unobjectionable declaration of support for the disabled.  What could be sinister about that? After all, it's based largely on the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), and you'd have to be pretty selfish and mean-spirited to oppose such humanitarian legislation.

Unfortunately for everybody, however, there are several obscure problems with how the UN's CRPD is worded, and, as they say, the devil is in the details.  Besides, it's a valid question to ask why the United States needs to ratify a UN treaty regarding human rights.  Think about it:  If other governments around the world need a treaty from the UN before they'll protect their disabled populations, then how will a diplomatic document change their mindset when it comes to the logistics and expenses of treating the handicapped with respect?

American conservatives have also questioned the long-term efficacy of signing any UN treaty, regardless of how altruistic it may seem.  Remember, UN treaties generally supersede the laws of any sovereign nation, and why does our ADA need to be superseded?  We're already the world's punching bag.  Nevertheless, to try and overcome this objection, some senators say new language they've attached to their second ratification attempt should neutralize the convention's authority in the US.  But again, if that's the case, then what's the point of the UN treaty to begin with?

Remember the Kyoto Protocol, that massive 1997 UN treaty that was supposed to save our planet from harmful greenhouse gases?  Guess what?  Canada pulled out in 2011.  Russia and Japan have pulled out, too.  What does that say about the political import of UN treaties?  So why do so many Americans still think it's so important that we keep feigning our diplomatic support for such fickle documents?

If we want a disability treaty with bite to it, why not let our ADA speak for itself as the international guide for respecting the rights of the disabled?

Seriously!  When it comes to the rights of people with disabilities, our ADA, passed in 1990, is already the most comprehensive document of its kind.  If anything, the ADA should be the world's prevailing standard when it comes to protecting handicapped people.  Or maybe America's Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504) should be the standard?  Or the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1990?  Or the 1988 amendment to the Fair Housing Act?

We know why none of these would be embraced by most UN member countries.  And it's because America's legislative efforts encode specific standards for basic mobility and accommodation that, in most countries where human rights are decidedly marginalized, would be virtually unattainable.  Non-handicapped citizens of such countries can only dream of the rights and privileges Americans want for the differently-abled among us.  It goes back to the motivation other countries have when it comes to respecting their citizens who are differently-abled.  A motivation that, frankly, won't materialize simply because of a UN treaty.  Not only that, but this UN document is just vague enough to let countries off the hook if they can't - or won't - provide the social and physical infrastructure necessary to meet the needs of their disabled citizenry.

And it's the CRPD's vague language that poses significant concerns among even advocates for the handicapped in the United States.  No less than the international and influential Christian ministry Joni and Friends, run by quadriplegic Joni Eareckson Tada, has come out against the CRPD.  Not because the basic intention of the UN's convention is wrong or bad, but because of the way its nuanced language creates ambiguous challenges to life in the womb, parental authority, and our country's current ability to protect all of its people.

In particular, language like "empowerment" and "autonomy" in Articles 6, 16, and 23 could be manipulated to the advantage of pro-abortionists, along with the phrase "sexual and reproductive health" in Article 25.  The lack of language acknowledging parental responsibilities in Articles 7 and 14, combined with granting children "equal rights" in Article 23, could be manipulated to the advantage of social welfare agents of the state seeking to undermine the wishes of parents.  Also in Article 23, an amusingly-worded paragraph authorizing "competent authorities" to override the wishes of a handicapped child's parents could result in extraordinarily troubling government interference in interpreting what's best for that family.

After all, does the phrase "competent authorities" describe any government bureaucracy you know?

If all of this sounds like the reasons for opposing the CRPD are based on moral grounds - which in and of itself isn't a bad thing, of course - consider that in the Preamble of its convention, in Section E, the UN asserts "disability is an evolving concept."  What government body worth its salt would ratify a document with such unstable language?

Okay, maybe that's a bad question, considering all of the bad legislation that comes out of Washington.

Nevertheless, if, as the UN claims, "disability is an evolving concept," doesn't that mean the CRPD is holding in advance certain interpretations to its document that nobody knows yet?  How unsettling does that sound to you?  Doesn't it sound like a legal foothold, or placeholder, into sovereignty rights?

"We know we want to tell you what to do," the UN is saying, "but we don't know how many ways the future will provide us for intruding into your nation's sovereignty, so we're going ahead and claiming that power now."

The only real argument that advocates for the disabled have been able to push in favor of our Senate's ratification of this convention is that it appears to provide handicapped Americans traveling abroad new safeguards in countries where today, accommodations for the disabled are poor or non-existent.  But if you read further down into the CRPD, you will learn that no concrete timetables for providing even the basic ADA-style expectations exist in this convention.  Physical aids like braille plates on elevators and wheelchair ramps require money and initiative that many countries simply lack, whereas philosophical rules can easily be subverted by attorneys working to introduce expanded practices like abortion within a society.

Can't America still model its compassion towards and inclusion of disabled people without ratifying the United Nations' Convention On the Rights of Persons With Disabilities?  The CRPD may be well-intentioned, but it doesn't achieve anything for the people it's supposed to benefit.  Besides, it's unnecessary for us, potentially intrusive and immoral, and certainly counter-intuitive for a nation of laws like ours.

Yesterday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee once again approved this treaty, making it eligible to once again be brought before the full Senate for a vote.  Political pundits guess that vote may take place either before Capitol Hill's August recess, or after the November elections.

Two years ago, ratification failed by only five votes.  Today, its supporters again doubt it will pass, but with eager grass-roots advocacy once again gaining steam from disabilities groups across the country, the tide may be shifting.  Over 800 of these social service organizations have officially endorsed the treaty, along with conservative business interests like WalMart and the US Chamber of Commerce.  Meanwhile, opposition to CRPD has been widely derided as the obstinate, uneducated troublemaking of extremists who want to make mountains out of molehills.  It's the "Party of No" once again being its redneck, belligerent self.

But unlike some of the other issues Republicans block, the concerns being raised over CRPD are not insignificant, are they?  And since when should an organization that can't control Hamas, or protect civilian aircraft over Ukraine, or help Sudan, or thwart Boko Haram, or pick the right side to champion in Syria - or Iraq, or Iran, or Afghanistan - be allowed to bully America into ratifying anything, let alone a sloppy piece of nice-sounding yet trap-infested rhetoric like CRPD?

Please contact your senators and ask them to vote against CRPD.  Not because you're hard-hearted towards the disabled.  But because you're not.

Click here for information on how to reach the senators from your state.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Walsh Should Resist Copying His Foes

He accuses left-wing progressives of being hateful.

And then he goes on to call one of them a "pompous, pasty white carnival barker."  And a "sycophantic hack."

Matt Walsh is quickly garnering fame among young conservatives as a no-holes-barred, tell-it-like-it-is blogger.  Some people find his writing refreshing, as if somebody younger than Rush Limbaugh is finally speaking their language.

But is it the language of the Gospel of Jesus Christ?

Not really.

In this particular instance, Walsh is venting his rage against the liberal media machine.  It seems that a lot of professional sports writers and fans are excoriating retired NFL coach Tony Dungy over Dungy's lack of enthusiasm for football's first openly gay player.  When asked whether he'd have wanted draftee Michael Sam on his team, Dungy opined that all of the associated distractions over Sam's sexuality would be counter-productive for the team as a whole.  And it appears that many football fans are aghast that Dungy, now working as a network television football analyst, displays what they consider to be blatant bigotry against gays.

In sports circles, Dungy is known as an ardent evangelical.  So even though his quote was not about the morality of Sam's sexuality, liberals have translated it into one.

Walsh's main point in taking on Dungy's critics is that the former football coach did not specifically denigrate homosexuality generally, or Sam specifically.  Dungy merely pointed out that as a coach, he wouldn't have wanted a player's sexuality - which is not a primary consideration when it comes to winning football games - to so dominate his overall team.  And nobody can deny that having the NFL's first openly gay player on their team isn't going to be a significant distraction.  Just look at how Dungy's innocent comments have exploded in the media.

But Walsh doesn't leave it there.  He's not content to merely point out that Dungy's comments have been grossly taken out of context by hard-line gay advocates.  He wants to take things further, and try to prove how the firestorm over Dungy's comments represents an obfuscation of Dungy's First Amendment rights.  If you're not going to be gung-ho about the homosexual lifestyle, Walsh argues, then you're Public Enemy Number One.  And to a certain extent, Walsh is correct.

Walsh believes that liberals hate anybody who does not profess unequivocal support for homosexuality in every facet of society.  If you express hesitation regarding the appropriateness of homosexuality in any form, such as gender distinction when it comes to public restrooms, or whether churches should be able to consider sexual preference when hiring their employees, Walsh says left-wingers will try to discredit you.  And again, for the most part, Walsh is correct.

It's a hard enough point to make in our day and time, with the society we have that, as Walsh accurately portrays, believes traditional morality is now immoral.

But then Walsh goes and blows his whole argument.

Not only does he describe sportswriter Dan Wetzel as the "pasty white carnival barker," but he blasts cable TV talking head Keith Olbermann's own hollow viciousness towards Dungy.

"I’ll say this for Olbermann," Walsh gloats.  "Once he’s fired again, he can look back at his stints on Current TV, MSNBC, and ESPN 2, and take pride in being the only guy who wasn’t good enough to hold a job at the three most irrelevant networks in the history of television."

Aw, shucks, Walsh.  What a mature thing to include in your blog post.

Ironically enough, Walsh catches himself in his own net.  While he blames liberal progressives for wanting to "punish the transgressor for his scandalous lack of progressive piety," and that they're "willing to say anything to make sure that he feels your rage," isn't Walsh doing the same thing?

Meanwhile, if Walsh is writing from a Christ-honoring point of view, should he be so concerned about matching hate for hate?  What about the Fruit of the Spirit?  Doesn't he understand that the core reason people don't like what Dungy may have been insinuating lies not in their personal decision to hate sexual moralists, but in their sinful perversions that manifest themselves through hate?

Not that followers of Christ shouldn't get angry when we see sin, but in our anger, should we ourselves sin?  Sure, Christ twice called the religious leaders of His time on Earth a "brood of vipers," but was He being petty or juvenile, insulting them for dramatic effect?  In both of the instances when the Bible records this phrase, in Matthew 3:7 and 12:34, Christ was contrasting Eden's serpent from good fruit, and He clarified what He meant by teaching how the mouth reveals what is in our heart.

All Walsh does is launch a few petulant zingers to entertain his audience.

Yet Christ never calls us to make fun of our adversaries.  We should pray for them, and pity them, and correct them in truth and love.  Yes, this is a battle, and it's a battle between righteousness and evil.  But don't forget:  it's Christ's battle, and He's already won it.

So what are we to do?  Honor Him by testifying to His goodness, truth, power, and authority.  Oh - and His love.  How?  By modeling the Fruit of the Spirit, so that the world around us will know that we are Christians by our... love.

Not our hate, or mean-spiritedness, or our snappy come-backs, or even our subconscious assumptions that Christ can't possibly use us in the ministry of His grace and reconciliation that He may be working within our enemies.

This battle over homosexuality's political correctness isn't going away any time soon.  So pace yourself, Walsh.  And if you're going to copy anybody, emotion for emotion, don't copy the liberals you like to lambaste.

Copy Christ, the One Who died to pay the debt of your sins.  As well as the sins of any liberals He deigns to redeem.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Border Kids Face Murrieta Syndrome

Not in your backyard?

What types of things don't you want in your community, or near your home, or close to where your family lives?

None of us wants crime, or pollution, do we?  We don't want an unrepentant, self-confessed murderer who somehow got out of jail living next door, do we?  We probably wouldn't want a brass band playing 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  We wouldn't want an open garbage pit, or a crematorium with a faulty smokestack, or a chemical plant that encourages its employees to smoke on the job, either.

Depending on how righteous or affluent you consider your community to be, you might not want bars, or alcohol sales of any kind, or convenience stores, or fast-food restaurants, or used car lots.  You wouldn't want anything that brings down your property values.  Or doesn't bring up your self-esteem.

But what is it about a bunch of kids who've been shooed out of their native countries by their own parents?  Suddenly, all these adolescents have automatically become as undesirable as a halfway house, or a prison for juvenile offenders.  Sure, they're here illegally, but it's a bit more complicated than that, isn't it?  Nevertheless, as word spreads of our government's plans for temporarily housing these children from the border, communities across the country are beginning to flatly refuse to cooperate.

It started in the obscure town of Murrieta, California, earlier this month, when a brazen band of conservatives blocked buses of migrant children from reaching a facility set up to hold them while their petitions for entry into the United States are processed.

Now, the sentiment reaches from Iowa to Michigan and Virginia, in small towns and public statehouses, as local activists and governors alike complain about and defiantly protest the prospect of temporarily housing young detainees from the border.

Call it the "Murrieta Syndrome."

It would be one thing if these communities were reasoning that they didn't have the medical or educational facilities to properly address the critical needs most of these children likely face:  physical illnesses, malnutrition, psychological traumas of all sorts, mastery of a language other than English, and almost certainly a deficiency in scholastic acumen.  These kids might not be unintelligent, but how likely is it that they can perform at their grade level in even a remedial American classroom?

These would be legitimate concerns, especially in states further away from the border, where Spanish-speaking teachers, clinicians, and social workers are in relatively scarce supply.  Plus, some of these communities being targeted by our government for hosting the detainees are pretty small, and some of them are rural.  Even if every one of these children will be deported soon, scattering them to parts of the country that aren't used to visitors who are so utterly different from the locals doesn't sound helpful for anybody, least of all the migrant children, who are already probably in culture shock.

Then there's the question of how dispersing what may end up being 90,000 kids is cost-effective?  Or efficient?  Especially if President Obama thinks we need to be spending nearly four billion dollars on special immigration courts to expedite the processing of these kids?  Shouldn't we be centralizing these processes, and concentrating our resources?  Especially since we don't really know the total scope of this situation?

Yes, that means states like Texas and Arizona would likely bear the brunt of these logistical concerns, but if the emphasis is on exercising a measure of control over this situation, then perhaps it can be resolved that much quicker.  And can't we all find value in an expedited resolution?

As it is, however, there's not a lot of our government's initial response to this crisis that seems to be well-thought-out.

To make matters worse, such rational considerations of sympathetic logistics aren't at the top of the lists being given by communities who adamantly oppose hosting these kids.  Instead, it's more ugliness.

Conservatives may like to belittle President Obama for not taking this current border crisis seriously, but some of them are using these kids as pawns for a much larger battle over illegal immigration.  To these people, the children from Central America are probably all diseased, probably a dangerous risk to the pure young white women in their patriotic American towns, and an unwanted drain on their meager school and public safety resources.  Maybe these people are hardened racists; maybe they're just unsophisticated at couching their opinions in altruistic jargon; or maybe they have legitimate concerns about how order can be maintained with an infusion of unwanted children into their relatively sheltered communities.  But it sure sounds like they're mostly simple racists.

And if that's the case, then no; these children don't belong near people like that.  Personally, I believe that these children need to be returned to the countries  - and, more importantly, the families - from which they came.  And the sooner the better.  Not because we can't afford to house them, or don't want to, but because every day that's used for our intranational bickering is a day lost for each of these kids, and their journey of recovering from this awful episode in their young lives.

Not in your backyard, all you Murrietas of America?

Considering the acrimony you've displayed to "the least of these," the rest of us don't want them in your backyard, either.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Good Politics is Bad News for Border Kids

It's no secret:  good politicians don't necessarily enact good policies.

And in an election year, elected officials believe making risky decisions is bad politics.

For proof, all we need is the dearth of official action regarding the tens of thousands of juvenile immigrants coming across our southern border with Mexico.  A planeload of these kids was flown back to Central America yesterday, but whether you're for deportation or asylum, one plane full of them is a drop in the bucket, numbers-wise.  It's not a sign that comprehensive action is being made to stem the crisis.

Texas governor Rick Perry, a Republican, has been joined by none other than the state's Democratic nominee to replace him this fall, the much-celebrated Wendy Davis, in calling for President Barak Obama to visit our border with Mexico.  Although they may have different designs on the President's proposals, both liberal and conservative politicians in Texas want Obama to see the urgency of the situation for himself.  But the President refuses to do it.

He's asked for billions of dollars to ramp-up our immigration agencies so that these kids can be processed faster through the system, but Republicans are balking at both the pricetag - approximately $41,000 per child, if 90,000 are processed, as experts predict - and the lack of specifics in his request.  Meanwhile, from both left-wing and right-wing corners, the media is having a field day at the expense of all these kids, blasting their partisan opponents for being intransigent while so much is at stake for such vulnerable youngsters.

Of course, it's not just politics that has people playing to their constituents.  

Here in Dallas, two prominent pastors have publicly taken two opposing sides of the debate, with a white pastor from a wealthy, conservative Baptist congregation arguing for a strong border policy, and a black pastor from a liberal Baptist church on the poor side of town trying to shame his white colleague for his lack of compassion.

It's also been argued by some liberal Christians that the Baby Jesus was a child migrant fleeing violence in his hometown.  But this is simply bad theology mixed with inaccurate history.  For one thing, Christ never broke any laws, particularly since immigration laws did not exist when He lived on Earth.  For another thing, the infant Christ did not travel alone, but with His parents, who had been warned in a dream to flee Herod, before any violence had erupted.

From a political angle, the Washington Post today published the results of a poll they conducted with ABC News that indicates upwards of 60% of America's electorate disapprove of the President's handling of our current border crisis.  Roughly half of the voters questioned said they support spending the $3.7 billion the President has proposed to throw at the problem.  And Republicans were roundly faulted for being too vociferous on the deportation issue, and therefore, too uncaring about the plight these children likely face if we simply send them home.

This is July, and our mid-term elections are coming up in November, which doesn't leave a lot of wiggle room for politicians to actually take a stand - a stand that could strongly impact their electability quotient this fall.  Especially since illegal immigration has been a hot-button can they've been kicking down the proverbial road for years now.  Confounding almost everyone seems to be the fact that we don't know how many kids are still in transit, still working their way through Central America, planning to come into our country seeking assistance - or asylum, as some are now calling it.  It will be months before the true scope of this tragedy can be grasped, except by then, we might be deep into election season.

Which situation is more important to politicians?  Those unaccompanied kids at our border, or re-election?

Currently, many politicians may simply be holding their breath, hoping they can wait it out a little while longer before having to commit to something that their constituents may find unpopular.  And to what might they eventually commit?  Well, conservatives will likely lean towards supporting an expedited deportation process, and liberals will likely lean towards blanket amnesty.  Unfortunately for everybody, however, our otherwise liberal President's big-budget plan, as it's currently understood, is geared towards deportation, not amnesty.  And he can't get the support he needs because he's a lame duck, and increasingly, a sitting duck for every politician of both stripes who thinks they can better woo voters apart from him than with him.

So, as is usually the case, these kids are in political limbo.  Right now, as you're reading this, if you're reading this close to its posting date.  If you have kids, what are they doing right now?  And how hard are you needing to work and plan to provide for their food, shelter, education, protection, clothing, exercise, health, socialization, and transportation?  Now multiply that time, expense, and energy by the approximately 60,000 kids who are being babysat by border patrol officials and contract social workers.  How long can this tenuous childcare operation last before resentment, anger, and frustration become rampant?  Both among these kids, and their caregivers?

Many factors have combined to create this tragic dilemma.  And one of those factors involves politicians who have become good at their craft, which means they've become an expert at staying in office.  They become an expert at politics that may be good or bad for the rest of us, but ultimately, is beside the point to them.  And this applies not only to America's politicians, but the politicians in the countries from which these children have come.

A lot of Republican politicians like to claim that we're a country of exceptionalism.  Well, this is one of those times where our politicians on both sides of the aisle can put that exceptionalism into practice.

Of course, Congress has pretty much given itself the entire month of August off.  Hey - it's the Great American Summer Vacation.  Surely the kids will understand, right?

Monday, July 14, 2014

Poor Border Kids? What About Chicago's?

This past weekend, four people were shot to death and 29 others wounded in Chicago.

Over the July 4th holiday weekend earlier this month, 82 Chicagoans were shot within 84 hours, and fourteen of those people died.  Last year, over the Independence Day holiday, those numbers were 70 and 13.

Clearly, the Windy City has a problem with violence involving guns.  And when these weekends are over, the totals are added up, and the media posts them for the rest of America to see, we collectively shake our heads, clucking our tongues , and give thanks for not living in that dangerous metropolis.

But that's about it.  For the most part, Chicago's murderous summers are Chicago's problem, and it's been that way for so long, there's no urgency left to the situation.

Liberals give lip service to gun control, and use the NRA as their handy punching bag, but they can't overcome the reality that even if they banned every gun today, no legislation has the power to stop the shootings, since by now, it's obvious that the city is full of people who have adopted violence as a way of life.  And death.

And conservatives point to Chicago's failed legacy of government-sponsored welfare policies that have created entire generations of families who have been stripped of self-worth and personal responsibility.

Of course, there are many more problems than these at play when it comes to urban crime and violence, but at their core, both sides of the partisan political aisle know that what's going wrong in Chicago has been going wrong for decades, and there are no quick fixes.

Meanwhile, down at the border between Texas and Mexico, America's media machine has become infatuated with the plight of thousands of kids who have been sent here by their parents.  The urgency of this situation is palpable, since most average Americans can't conceive of how parents could intentionally put their children on such a dangerous trek, and have the audacity - or naivete - to expect the United States to welcome them with open arms, no questions asked.

This summer's border children are the media darlings du jour, and on the one hand, they should be.  It's a bizarre story twisted by international strife, parental desperation, political opportunism, and children who are supposed to be sleeping under their watchful parents' sheltering roof every night, not traipsing half-way across a hemisphere by themselves.

On the other hand, however, it's easy to throw out the rules and play on emotions when it comes to kids in crisis, which is what a lot of Americans want to do with these juvenile immigrants.  We look at the immediate needs they face, and we want to fix things for them now, to try and mitigate what we presume to be the most traumatic experience of their young lives:  being in a foreign country with no direct familial resources.   Many of them are sick, some are pregnant, they're almost all undereducated for their grade level, and almost all of them speak only Spanish.

The hardcore cynic could easily find similarities between the children crossing the border, and the children either being killed, or shot at, or even doing the shooting in Chicago.  How many children of the ghetto live in a functional, traditional family environment?  How many of these children live in structurally-sound, fully-code-compliant housing?  How many of them don't face the same type of dangers these kids from Central America supposedly faced in their home countries?  Gangs?  Sexual abuse?  Prostitution?  Drugs?  What's different between inner-city Chicago and Honduras?  Shucks, if you're really progressive and count the street language - or "Ebonics" - in which many urban kids are fluent - you could even say Chicago's impoverished children consider conventional English as a second language.

What's the difference?

A major part of it is the media exposure Central America's youngest emigrants to our border have received.  The saga has everything our media loves to exploit:  children, bad parents, partisan politics, and even sex, considering the young women who've been raped on their journey here.  What do the kids in Chicago have that the media can use to sell advertising revenue?  Guns, violence, rage against the system... nah, we've all heard that before.  Urban violence is old news in the United States.

We tend to pity the kids from Central America.  The kids from Chicago?  Well, it's their own fault for not staying in school, or staying out of trouble, or staying indoors.  Granted, it's not just kids being killed on Chicago's lethal streets.  But a lot of kids are there; watching, fearing, listening, running, ducking, cowering, and seeing loved ones getting shot.  And their angst means less than the anxiety our border kids are experiencing?

Advisers to President Obama say they're going to try and come up with a marketing campaign to tell parents in Central America that all is not golden regarding the chances their children will have regarding a better life in the United States.

Maybe the White House should just send people in Central America some Spanish-language versions of the Chicago Sun-Times.

Update 7/21/14:  This past weekend, one week later, 40 Chicagoans were shot, and four killed.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Armor and the Night Watchman
"Lunch Break with a Knight" by Norman Rockwell, 1962

An early clue that I wouldn't survive architecture school came when one of my studio professors scoffed at the skills of populist painter Norman Rockwell.

"That's not art," this particular professor bellowed to us second-year students, perched on metal stools beside our white drafting tables.  Rockwell wasn't a good artist, supposedly, because he was too literal.  Good art, according to our professor, should be different things to different people.

Reality is relative, right?

Sure, I thought, sometimes art can be interpreted in multiple ways.  But did that mean Rockwell was a bad artist?  Not in my book.

This was one of the many disagreements I had with how my architecture professors wanted their students to view the profession, and our world in general.  Suffice it to say that I never obtained a degree in design.

As far as Norman Rockwell is concerned, however, I'm not sure how anybody can argue that his art isn't compelling.  Take, for example, what's probably my favorite Rockwell work, "Lunch Break with a Knight".  He created it for the November 3, 1962 edition of the Saturday Evening Post, a popular magazine in his day.  And while at first glance, it looks like a literal depiction of a museum security guard having a break in a darkened gallery featuring suits of armor, there's a lot more going on that people like my architecture professor must be missing.

The setting for this painting is attributed to the former Higgins Armory Museum in Worcester, Massachusetts, whose collection has since been assumed by the Worcester Art Museum.  But we don't really need to know the setting from which this tableau has been adapted to understand that body armor has had a long and colorful history.  And that the best armor was usually worn by the most powerful warriors.  And that masculinity, for all of its pretense of aw-shucks simplicity, can be downright audacious in the gaudy spectacle some men make of themselves.  Just look at all of the shiny metal that was worn into battle after being perforated with intricately-designed embellishments, polished, adorned with plumes, and strapped with leather and fabric.

Oh, the poor horses that had to carry those men, clanking about in iron suits that must have weighed a ton!  And even some of the horses were sheathed in matching metal shields.  Towards the latter part of the Middle Ages, some armies were actually breeding special horses that could remain exceptionally agile under such a burden.

And how majestic these horses and riders must have looked!  How invincible they must have felt!  These were the rock stars of their day; the men for whom damsels swooned, and to whom kings apportioned property.  Heroes, conquerors, with the physical strength to carry all of this armor and be mobile enough to be able to protect themselves.  Wimps like me couldn't possibly hope to find any greater satisfaction wearing such a get-up than standing up and not tipping over.

Eventually, as guns and bullets replaced arrows and swords, armor plating became ineffective.  By the turn of the 18th Century, such armor had become more ceremonial than functional, and was used more by commanders and royalty to monitor battles, than by foot soldiers doing the actual fighting.  By the time of America's Civil War, body armor had become so obsolete, neither the North nor the South provided any to their soldiers, although some desperate men on both sides are reported to have personally bought pieces of body armor for themselves.  Interestingly, across the world in Japan, this was about the same time that body armor had its last gasp for Samurai warriors as well.

But all of that is ancient history, right?  How does Rockwell's painting relate to us today?  After all, good art is supposed to be trans-generational and cross-cultural, right?

Well, let's look at Rockwell's composition for this scene, shall we?  We've got a darkened museum gallery, with one armored horse and rider illuminated in the middle, suggesting that the museum is closed for the day, with at least one spotlight left burning to help the watchman do his job.  We also see this watchman's black, industrial-sized flashlight - there, in the pocket of his jacket, that he's carefully draped over the foot and stirrup of our gallant suit of armor, and the finely clothed horse.

The watchman's cap is tilted back, presumably after he's rubbed his forehead in a relaxing gesture to indicate that all is currently right with his world.  He's got his black metal lunchbox at his side, and he's seated on the display, comfortable and cozy.  His napkin is neatly unfolded into a perfect square on his lap, and - instead of his healthy apple! - he's got a delectable slice of chocolate-frosted cake he's getting ready to enjoy -with a steaming cup of coffee from his Thermos.

Okay - so it's a pretty typical depiction of a normal, working man's coffee break.  Which is precisely the juxtaposition Rockwell wants to portray against the backdrop of such armored grandeur.  Imagine the mortal battles through which all of this majestic armor has endured!  How about the mighty men of valor who won wars - or lost their lives - wearing all of this hardware?  Can you hear the noise and chaos of conflict, with clanging swords, stomping horses; the screaming and yelling of strong, muscular men fighting to the death?

Meanwhile, our docile watchman doesn't appear to have a weapon of any kind, unless you count that hefty-looking flashlight.  He's got no gun, or bullet-proof vest, and why should he?  What's in this museum that's worth his life?  Everything is either insured, or so famous that nobody could steal it and hope to sell it on the black market.  This man's presence in this closed, dark museum is more of a deterrent for bumbling vandals or mischievous teenagers than a front line against a desperate aggressor, or a pursuer of a hardened criminal.

And what of all these suits of armor, anyway?  Sure, we see little placards at the feet of every display, where museum officials have provided some information about who might have worn each particular piece, or when it was used.  But who among us would otherwise know that information, or the names of the men who lived and died in these suits?  In their day, they were men of value, importance, intrigue, and prestige.  But today?  We look at their armor and briefly marvel at how primitive warfare used to be.  Today, our state-of-the-art Kevlar and other sophisticated, high-tech fabrics that serve as modern body armor function amazingly well, even if they don't look as grand as these suits of armor.

Indeed, it's the irony between grandeur and humility that embodies Rockwell's message with this painting.  Grandeur of the past, and forgotten names, contrasted with the humility of a night watchman, taking his coffee break, and a brief, relaxing respite at the feet of armor that once stood between life and death for the person wearing it.  And speaking of feet, a full graphic of this painting shows that the watchman is a rather short fellow, seated on the pedestal with his feet dangling up off of the floor.  Kinda shrimpy and impotent, right?

Okay.  So...  here's where Rockwell's painting hits home.  Four hundred years from now, who's going to remember your name?  How antiquated is what you're wearing right now going to look?  How significant will what you're doing right now for a living have been, even if you think you're saving your country from defeat?

Maybe people who don't think such paintings are art simply don't like what such paintings are saying.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Can Reparations Repair Racism?

It's a question that won't go away:

Is there a case for racial reparations?

The easy answer, of course, is yes, there is - at least as far as the basic definition of reparations is concerned.

According to Merriam - Webster, reparations are "something that is done or given as a way of correcting a mistake that you have made or a bad situation that you have caused."  And in the context of slavery in the United States, in which, for hundreds of years, virtually every black person who arrived on our shores came involuntarily, and was owned as property, or treated as a third-class citizen, it's impossible to deny that the human rights abuses inflicted upon blacks shouldn't somehow be atoned for.

If you don't believe that slavery in America was something for which atonement should be made, then please consider reading "The Case for Reparations," written by Ta-Nehisi Coates for The Atlantic.  Or this article for the Gospel Coalition by Alan Noble.  The way blacks - because of their race - have been treated by individuals and institutions throughout our country's history has been immoral at best, and subhuman at worst.

Most non-black Americans agree that our country's legacy of slavery has been shameful.  And aside from some bigots who continue to deny America's past like some people deny the Holocaust, working towards some sort of reconciliation and interpersonal repair between the races has become part of our collective consciousness.

Yet when most people talk about reparations for slavery, they're not talking about a sea-change in social attitudes against the practice, or improvements in race relations.  They're advocating for financial compensation for slavery, and some religious conservatives are beginning to join the chorus, as the Gospel Coalition article evidences.  The appeal of monetary reparations lies in the assumption that America's blacks have been so disenfranchised by their past, no amount of verbal apologies, white guilt, social change, accurate Bible teaching against racism, or legislation like affirmative action laws can begin to level the playing field between blacks and whites.

Reparations advocates want to see the money, since, at its core, slavery was all about economics.

Some of these advocates claim to have calculated dollar figures for what they believe they're owed.  For example, New Yorker Deadria Farmer-Paellmann and fellow activists claim companies like Aetna, railroad company CXS, and Chase bank owe blacks upwards of $1.4 trillion, and she filed nine lawsuits in 2002 to start that repayment process. In 2007, one of her cases made it to the Supreme Court, where the justices declined to hear it.

In addition to private lawsuits, which haven't been able to gain much traction, there have been efforts in several statehouses to try and get some sort of reparations process started. In Massachusetts, state representative Byron Rushing proposed a bill in 2009 that would force about 10 Boston companies to investigate how much they profited from slavery before the commonwealth prohibited the practice in 1790.  Rushing's state legislation was modeled after others in California and Illinois, although none have ultimately been successful in their objectives.

Yet slavery isn't just about economics, is it?  It's about power, and one group considering themselves intrinsically better than another.  Slavery in America was about inequities of all kinds, as indeed most forms of racism and other forms of social stratification remain today.  In a sense, couldn't it be argued that, at least in terms the laws of the United States, the ability of anybody being able to vote, run for political office, own a home, work, sit wherever they'd like in mass transit, own a business, use a restroom or water cooler, and get an education represents a fairly comprehensive refutation of the mores and mindset that contributed to slavery's existence?

If reparations are all about equity, why concentrate on the money?  And if you're going to concentrate on the money, shouldn't the same equity you're striving to approximate with reparations be present in the way a reparations package is structured?  How credible would an unfair, distorted, poorly calculated, historically inaccurate, and even prejudiced reparations package be, and how much damage might it do to race relations in the United States?

However healthy or unhealthy you think our race relations are these days?

First of all, there’s the issue of who pays.  As we've seen, some people want a few historic corporations to pay.  One of these companies, Aetna, has already admitted that soon after its founding in 1853, it did in fact insure slaves for slave owners, and they have already issued a corporate apology.  But that's not nearly enough for most reparationists.

When it comes to slavery, corporations have been easy targets for reparations demands, but oddly enough, some elite universities - including Harvard and Yale - have been targeted for reparations because some of their early endowments came from slave owners.

For her part, Farmer-Paellmann claimed to have extrapolated her numbers from the precedents set by reparations lawsuits won against the Nazis after World War II.  However, there's a big difference between these two colossal episodes of human rights abuses.  For starters, claims against the Nazis have been based on a far better-documented historical period.  They involved significantly fewer - and more easily identifiable - perpetrators, as well as victims.  Those lawsuits also benefited from the testimony of living witnesses, and include verifiable artifacts like bank statements, insurance certificates, photographs, and widely-known provenances.

Calculations for slavery reparations rely on manifests and other records that are incomplete and cannot be independently verified, as well as names that changed as people were bought and sold.  Or they implicate entire classes of people, such as whites and blacks, when not all whites supported slavery, and not all blacks were slaves.

Has this become murky enough yet for you?

Then there are the reparationists who think our government should pay money for slavery's evils, since slavery was actually legal.  But slavery legislation varied by state, and any talk of government money automatically means it's a talk about taxpayer money, and here again, not all whites supported slavery, or directly benefited from it.  Blacks, too, have been paying taxes for generations, so in effect, using taxpayer funds for reparations could be considered a double-hit for black taxpayers.  How fair would that be?

If the government pays, that means it's paying on behalf of all living taxpayers, not just the ones who supported slavery and institutionalized racism even up to a generation ago.  But how is that fair to our many recent immigrants?  Should just the “Southern” states pay, or should they pay more than Northern ones?  And why stop with our American government?  What about the British, who owned many of the ships that transported the slaves?  Or the Dutch, who initially purchased many of the actual slaves in Africa?  And then there's the sticky question about the African tribes who sold their captured enemies to the Europeans to be slaves in the first place.

And what about white Americans whose ancestors either weren't here when slavery was legal, or didn't live in Jim Crow states?  Although I'm white, neither side of my family participated in or benefited from slavery. My maternal lineage starts and stays in New England in the early 19th Century, when her ancestors sailed over from Scotland, and at least one of my forebears is recorded to have been at Appomattox for the end of the Civil War (don’t hate me, Confederacy buffs!).  My paternal lineage starts and stays in New York City after World War I, from Finns who had nothing whatsoever to do with the slave trade in any way.  Why should any member of my family pay anything?

We haven’t even talked about determining which American blacks or black-centric organizations receive reparation payouts.  Or how dollar amounts are calculated.  Or about other people groups that may line up for their own reparations from the United States government or US corporations.  Or how any of this will help bring any sort of closure to the atrocious legacy of slavery.

After all, two wrongs do not make a right.

Don't we need to be mature about this and admit that the past is in the past?  Wrongs have been done by a variety of peoples for a variety of reasons.  Government endorsement of and complicity with slavery occurred on the local, state, and national levels.  Private businesses were involved, and entire industries incorporated slavery into their business models.  I'm not excusing the past, just explaining it.

At the same time, there were people of conviction who believed slavery was wrong, and they worked to stop it.  Many helped the ones who could escape their bonds through grass-roots organizations like the Underground Railroad.  Painting an entire race with the same brush is just what whites have been accused of doing to blacks, and just as we are wrong to do it, so are blacks.

Blaming today's whites for slavery hundreds of years ago may be some sort of panacea for some people, but it isn't a healthy way to live in our modern world.  And to top it off by expecting some sort of financial payback is illogical and threatens to destroy so much of the progress that has contributed to blacks even being able to advance the idea of reparations in the first place.

Our history is not perfect. However, one of the marks of a modern, progressive society is being able to take what it’s been dealt and moving on with – or despite – it.

If we make something like slavery all about money, where's the moral imperative to do the right thing simply because it's the right thing to do?