Thursday, September 17, 2015

Ahmed's Explosive Clock

So this teenaged kid in Irving, Texas, builds a clock from scratch* and takes it to school.  He wants to show it off to his teachers.

Instead, he triggers a bomb scare and gets handcuffed while the police try to figure out whether he's a terrorist.

It's become the sensation of the week:  a Muslim boy ends up getting invited to the White House by President Obama because a digital clock he manufactured out of bits and pieces of wire and stuff scared officials at his school.

This story is making big waves because it is so frustrating on so many levels.  On one level, parents demand that schools have zero tolerance when it comes to violence, but when a school reacts to a suspicious object, suddenly administrators are guilty of a litany of faults, from overzealousness to stupidity to racism.

On another level, in an era when teenagers are portrayed as flaunters of entitlements and seem exceptionally hostile to authority, we have a geeky kid bringing an unsolicited contraption into a school facility and then, at least as school officials have suggested, becoming belligerent when questioned by big, bad, enemy adults.

Then there's the racism angle, with the teen, named Ahmed Mohamed, being of Sudanese descent and a practicing Muslim.  He's a skinny, slight, bespeckled boy of 14 years who winds up getting handcuffed, of all things, hours after school officials first learned of his home-made clock.

Police officials claimed handcuffing the small teen was for the safety of their officers.


Meanwhile, when a story like this breaks about a juvenile, don't we need to ask:  WHERE WERE THE PARENTS?  So their kid makes this contraption and wants to take it to school.  Okay, fine.  Hey - do you know how to make an alarm clock out of some wires and a metal briefcase?  Neither do I, so to his credit, Ahmed deserves the right to be proud of his creation.  His desire to show it to his teachers is legitimate.

But still; shouldn't his parents have said, "Hey, cool stuff, son!  We're proud of you!  However, to the untrained eye, it kinda looks a bit sinister.  We think you need to ask your teacher first before you take it to school."

Turns out, Ahmed's technology teacher did warn the teen about making a big deal about his contraption to others in the school.  It was his English teacher who, later in the day, confiscated the clock after it beeped annoyingly during class.  Ahmed's day went downhill fast from there.

Topping things off was none other than the President of the United States, who jumped on the anti-cop bandwagon by Tweeting Ahmed an invitation to visit the White House.  Talk about exploiting both a school kid and a particularly hot social media frenzy!

Such child's play.

Indeed, all of this took place within approximately 48 hours, testifying more to the speed at which social media can foment people into hysteria rather than the ability of rational news consumers to properly digest what otherwise could have merely been a story about an abundance of caution gone awry.

And things did go awry.  For example, the technology teacher should have suggested he protect the homemade clock in his classroom while Ahmed finished out his school day, instead of letting him cart about the contraption.  Another big "fail" hit when the school district dragged its feet before contacting Ahmed's parents.  Isn't that a pretty egregious violation of parental rights?  Even if officials considered Ahmed to be a sinister terrorist intent on blowing up his high school, wouldn't you want to contact his parents immediately?  If for no other reason than to detain them as well as their son, so as to make sure whatever evil plot they'd hatched didn't fully deploy?

For the folks crying unbridled racism in this case, the lack of urgency on the part of school officials to quarantine Ahmed's family may be a fairly substantial alibi.  It seems as though they were mostly being sloppy and prejudiced against Ahmed and his geeky persona, not his Muslim background.

Of all the ways this incident could have been handled differently, all of us second-guessers and armchair quarterbacks still expect a lot of school officials - generally under-paid officials who are apparently expected to act perfectly and appropriately all the time.  Despite the fact that we're living in an increasingly complex and dangerous world.

Some like to think that latitude should be given to parents like Ahmed's, since they're probably naive to the expectations, presumptions, and apprehensions that govern American school protocols these days.  But perhaps this episode should show ethnic minorities like Ahmed's family that they need to respect the burden of proof our society still expects from them when it comes to being beyond suspicion in cases like this.

No, ours is not a perfect society.  But can we simply blame school administrators for over-reacting here?  If they over-reacted, perhaps they did so because Ahmed's parents didn't have enough foresight to see how their son's clock could cause problems before he set off to school Monday morning.

And consumers of social media need to stop taking sides without considering all of the sides to a particular story.

Oddly enough, this story did what Ahmed's clock couldn't:  it blew up.

* Of course, this is all predicated on the presumption that Ahmed is correct, and that he did indeed build this clock on his own.  There's no proof of his claim, is there?  For all we know, somebody else could have built this and gave it to him to take to school and claim as his personal handiwork.  But that's just me being cynical, right?

Update:  A large Muslim advocacy group has warned against blaming the police in this case.  Instead, they blame the culture of fear politicians have incited in our country.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Drama or Duty? Morality's Davis Dilemma

Like many items that swamp mass media today, Kentucky's Kim Davis controversy is not as black and white an issue as many want to think it is.

Davis recently spent a brief period of time in jail for refusing to sign marriage certificates as a county clerk, since the Supreme Court has ruled that same-sex marriage is now legal in the United States.  Davis professes to believe that same-sex marriage is a violation against God's design for covenantal wedlock, and did not want to appear to be validating such a religious violation by affixing her name to an official marriage license for a same-sex couple.

At first glance, it appears that Davis is merely protecting her religious rights by not wishing to participate in something she believes to be wrong.  Many evangelicals have come out in support of Davis for taking such a stand, and one of the best explanations of the evangelical perspective is here, by famed Baptist minister John Piper.

Of course, many liberals have been howling from the opposite end of the sociopolitical spectrum, claiming that Davis is ironically being immoral by not obeying the laws she was sworn - as an elected official - to uphold.  Perhaps not surprisingly, either, is the liberal fury over Davis being accorded as much press time as she's been, since she's been able to single-handedly prove something gay marriage advocates have long denied:  that gay marriage rights wouldn't interfere with religious rights.

Oops!  Turns out, they can.

Nevertheless, isn't there a bit too much exaggeration from both sides of this conflict?  Liberals, for example, say that Davis should simply quit her job if she can't comply with its demands.  But such a position ignores the fact that gay marriage was not legal when Davis took office.  How fair is it to switch tables after the fact and then demand compliance with a new paradigm?

Conservatives, too, fail to acknowledge that Davis was not elected to personally approve of the marriages she records.  How many marriage certificates she signs for heterosexual couples will end up appearing in a divorce court someplace?  Besides, just because a government official's signature appears on an official document, that is no certification that the government official is ascribing their personal endorsement, support, affirmation, happiness, and moral satisfaction upon the action being certified.

An evangelical building inspector, for example, does not have to personally approve of building plans for a brothel or abortion clinic.  A building permit is simply given when a construction project meets safety and zoning standards - standards that themselves, by the way, may or may not be ethical, adequate, or effective.  The morality of such a bureaucratic document - or even the efficiencies the document allows - is beside the point.  What matters are the laws and public debates that have taken place before the enactment of whatever building permits, zoning rules, and land use plans a community has already enacted.

For a more scholarly explanation of this view, read this by evangelical Baptist university professor Kevin Bauder.

For her part, Davis is responsible before God for the actions she has - or hasn't - taken in this case.  And considering the depth of angst the Supreme Court's legalization of gay marriage has triggered among professing Christ-followers, I'm not going to say that Davis has done the wrong thing.  Besides, she doesn't appear to be trying to get any personal gain out of her actions, except her ability to keep her job.

Frankly, I'm glad she's taking seriously the parameters of her job and the extent of her official responsibilities.  And she's forced out into the open one of the fallacies of the liberal agenda by proving that gay marriage rights can indeed compromise religious rights.  Indeed, Davis' case is but the newest chapter in what promises to be an ever more contentious future for religious rights in the United States.

By the way, if there was anybody left in the religious right who still believes that America's legal system and the Constitution itself are supremely righteous, that bubble should by now be well and truly burst by the de-facto legislation created by the Supreme Court regarding gay marriage.  There is nothing completely righteous or perfect in this life except the One who gives life to begin with.

Meanwhile, to the extent that she's made her point - much to the chagrin of liberals - perhaps Davis' best move now would be to go back to work.  We all now know that she does not approve of the gay marriages her official signature will certify!  However, it's not for her to personally approve of any of the marriages she certifies anyway.

After all, shouldn't the next pair of 18-year-olds who, flush with youthful lust and idealism, stumble into her rural Kentucky office probably be denied a marriage license, too?

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Mr. Laurel's Style

During the past nine months, I've met a number of remarkable people.

They're all unique, of course; as people are.  But at the same time, these people I've met tend to be remarkably similar, even though they've been born in different places, have different ages, and have done a variety of different things during their lives.

One similarity these people share is their address:  the Alzheimer care facility where my father has lived for the past nine months.  I've already written about a couple of them, and friends have encouraged me to write more about them.  Yet I've held back, realizing that, the more I get to know these dear folks, they're still human beings of dignity.  To a certain extent, they're entitled to the same privacy we should extend to anybody who isn't aware that their daily actions are being recorded for strangers to learn about later.

When Mom and I drive up to Dad's Alzheimer place, I'm frequently struck by how anonymous a place it is.  From the outside, it could pass for a rambling single-family McMansion.  Within its brick-and-stucco walls, however, are 43 residents representing a vast panoply of life experiences, yet who can barely remember any of them.  There's a whole community within these walls, from nurses and cooks to janitors, and residents who are quite affluent, and residents whose families - like mine - are spending down their life's savings to spare their loved ones the ordeal of state-funded care.

Meanwhile, you could drive down the street, past this facility, and have no idea the significance of what's inside - or who's living inside.

These days, dementia-care facilities like Dad's exist all over the country, yet if you or your family haven't had much exposure to dementia-related diseases, you probably don't understand how remarkable these facilities are.  And they're remarkable because they quietly house, day in and day out, a subsection of our country's population that is profoundly incapable of managing themselves - but who, at one time, could.

I've already introduced you to Shirley, she of red sweater fame.  But she's one of the better-functioning members of this curious community of dementia patients.  Most of these patients, like Shirley, are white Caucasians, but there are several black residents as well.  One of them, Mr. Laurel, has been particularly interesting to get to know.

Mr. Laurel is probably in his late 70's or early 80's, with a head full of dusty-gray hair.  He is extraordinarily tall and enviously thin.  Although his two cloudy eyes tend to aim in different directions, he has a handsome face as well as a disarmingly cavalier disposition.  And like an aristocrat from another generation, he always dresses for dinner!

Oh, boy, how he dresses!

Let's start with his feet, which are long and often quite swollen.  Mr. Laurel rarely wears socks, and his black, puffy ankles, rolling down from under pants that are always far too short, are crusted white from poor circulation.  He also rarely wears the same set of shoes at any one time; almost always, he's got mis-matched shoes on!  Usually they're at least the same color, but one may be a lace-up, while the other is a slip-on.

When he wears his slippers, however, he wears a tan one and a black one.  At least when he's wearing his slippers, though, he also is wearing his silk bathrobe - neatly tucked into his pants.

Yesterday, he was wearing his pants wrong-way around.

And I couldn't count the number of shirts he was wearing.  But they were all tucked into his back-side-to pants, and the collars of his shirts were each carefully folded over each other, like birds' feathers.

Indeed, when he shows up in the dining room, he's usually a sight to behold!

One day, he appeared fairly normal, albeit in a thick wool sportshirt, which was a bit uncharacteristic for Mr. Laurel.  Most mealtimes, Mr. Laurel will sport one of his suit jackets - meticulously turned inside-out.  How he can wear his clothes in ways they were not intended to be worn - yet also look so neat and tidy - baffles me.

At any rate, I commented to him that with his thick sportshirt, he appeared uncharacteristically under-dressed for dinner.  At least, by his own standards.

"I'm not under-dressed," Mr. Laurel happily countered, turning up the cuffs of his thick sportshirt to display a quilted lining.  It was like a padded hunting jacket that guys way up North wear when it's freezing outside.

"See?  This here's black!" he exclaimed proudly, pointing to the shimmering satin quilted lining that, to him, offered an adequate amount of style and panache.

One element of style with which Mr. Laurel is hardly ever without is his ballcap, a black Navy-themed number with colorful embellishments around the Navy logo.  When I first introduced myself to him, he shook my hand with his long, bony fingers, and then immediately removed his cap.

"This here cap has something on it that will tell you everything you need to know about me," Mr. Laurel promised confidently.  "Let me see... where is that?"  And he fumbled with his cap, mumbling quietly as he inspected all of the stitching and graphics covering it.  Finally, he found what he'd been looking for.

"There!" he exclaimed proudly.  "This is all you need to know about me!"  And his bony index finger was jabbing at a patch with one word on it that read, "Retired."

"Retired!" he laughed in his raspy, tired voice.  "I'm retired Navy! That's all you need to know about me! I survived the Yoo-nited States Navy!"

Hey - good enough for me, right?  If he survived a career in the US Navy, which by many accounts is an admirable feat in and of itself, isn't he entitled to wear whatever he wants to dinner?

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Spoiler Sex and Churchy Grace

As if to validate my personal disillusionment with America's vast evangelical industrial complex, at least two heavy-hitters within celebrity Christianity are making waves for our religious subculture this week.

The first was R.C. Sproul, Jr., who confessed to having an Ashley Madison account, and has been suspended from Ligonier Ministries for a year as punishment.

The second is Tullian Tchividjian, the adulterous former pastor at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, who on the heels of being defrocked by his denomination, has accepted a new position at another Presbyterian church in Florida.

Granted, he won't be the senior pastor for his new congregation.  Still, the title of Tchividjian's job - "Director of Ministry Development" - reeks of hasty improvisation on the part of his new religious employer.  Apparently, he's got friends in high places who figure Tchividjian's notoriety and good looks can somehow help the church, rather than create an illusion that notoriety and good looks are worth more than snubbing one's own denomination.

After all, isn't "ministry development" a task to be directed by all church leaders?  It would have been more credible for Tchividjian's new employer to simply admit his new job is "Something We're Creating On the Fly So We Can Instantly Elevate the Cool Quotient of Our Staff."

For his part, Sproul insists that while he indeed created an account at Ashley Madison, the recently-hacked "have an affair" website, he never actually met any women from the site, either in cyberspace or in person.  And frankly, considering some of the sexual antics within which other pastors have been caught, simply creating an account at a pro-adultery website seems to pale in comparison.  Yes, it's still wrong, but how many other sins do pastors get away with without even a slap on the wrist?

Besides, who decided that being suspended from working for his father's ministry for one year was just about adequate in terms of punishment?  Wouldn't one month have sufficed?  Or would two years be more appropriate?  Or was one year about the length of time in which Sproul could realistically maintain his standard of living without receiving a steady paycheck?

And how many evangelicals created accounts on Ashley Madison using pseudonyms and fake e-mail accounts?  Perhaps Sproul's Achilles Heel is his honesty; honesty for actually using his real name, while more savvy evangelicals have been far more subtle and discrete?  Is the lesson here not to use your true identity if you're going to surf sites like Ashley Madison?

Oh, the contrasts between Sproul's buttoned-down contriteness and the snowballing audacity of Tchividjian's glittery, sexy saga!  The tall, tanned, and open-collared grandson of Billy Graham says his wife had an affair, then he had an affair after learning of hers, and that on the road to redemption, he can file for divorce and flaunt his denomination's strictures simply because he can.  He's a surfer dude and a cool South Florida hipster.  He's worth all the second chances anybody wants to give him, simply from his charisma, looks, and religious pedigree.

Repentance sure looks a whole lot different in the Florida sunshine when you're a hunky spiritual specimen like Tchividjian.  They must wear extra-dark sunglasses there.

Meanwhile, the America living outside of our vast evangelical industrial complex looks on, bewildered at how we can denounce gay marriage yet fritter away our own leaderships' marriage foibles.  On the one hand, Sproul's punishment could be considered overkill, especially since he never used his account.  Yet on the other hand, Tchividjian gets what amounts to a free pass by another church in his own denomination because he's such an admired celebrity.  And despite the fact that he actually, actively, and admittedly cheated on his wife.

Interestingly enough, both Sproul and Tchividjian preach the supernatural benefits of God's grace.  At least God's grace is perfect, however.  The same cannot be said for the type of grace dispensed by our vast evangelical industrial complex.