Today’s New York Times (September 28, 2016) asks if our national psyche has reached a “peak craziness” with regard to our penchant for accepting conspiracy theories. “Peak Craziness” was a new concept for me. A search shows that it is not a widely used idea; however, I find it a helpful one. It suggests a reaching of a distorted, foolish summit or high point in human experience and discourse.
Upon reading the NY Times commentary it was clear that while conspiracy theories aren’t a new phenomenon in our society, the changes in the way we receive our news and the power of social media, give a credence to conspiracy theories that is dense in saliency and reach. Our “news” comes at us fast and furiously and these theories become an ordering mechanism for the hurried, anxious or fearful.
One couldn’t help but chuckle on Tuesday morning when Donald Trump complained that his microphone had malfunctioned during his recent debate with Hillary Clinton. Trump went on to say that “he didn’t want to believe in conspiracy theories” and wondered why he had microphone problems and Mrs. Clinton did not. It is no surprise, I guess, that the candidate who has been the most active in bringing our nation to a peak craziness around conspiracy theories would suggest that any failure on his part is the result of some conspiracy. Truth is, that both Mr. Trump and Secretary Clinton have painted pictures of “vast conspiracies” as part of their election narrative.
While I give more credence to Ms. Clinton’s concerns — whether about the crazed conjecturing about Benghazi, White Water, missing emails, etc. — it seems that she gives too much attention to some vast plot or “hidden hand” that determines present and future circumstance. Of course, Mr. Trump’s conspiracy theories are more pernicious — filled with racism and xenophobia. In fact, the record is clear, Trump’s “birther” conspiracy comments, freighted with bigoted attempts to undermine Barack Obama’s legitimacy as president, was a major factor in his staying in public consciousness. We will no doubt hear of other “conspiracies” as Mr. Trump plays a kind of ideological bumper cars with the truth and our national psyche.
Thinking about the idea of Peak Craziness reminds me of our recent visit to Maligne Lake in Jasper National Park. Mary Schaffer is said to be the first person of European ancestry to “discover” Maligne Lake. Using a map provided by Samson Beaver, a First Nations chief of the Stoney People, Mary Schaffer’s small party found this nonpareil site. The glory of the lake and the surrounding peaks filled them with wonder. An artist, Mary Schaffer, spoke of this as a place beyond ever fully capturing by words or brush. Depending on where one stands there are peaks and glaciers in every direction surrounding the lake.
Near the glacier-fed headwaters is Spirit Island. The island is a sacred ground for the First Nations people who spoke of this as the temple of the gods.
One wonders if the humanly constructed “peaks of craziness” in our national psyche are blocking our view, preventing us from seeing the genuine peaks of wonder all around. Perhaps we need to spend more time on our own Spirit Islands to to see the true beauty of this election season. There they are, towering beyond all our conspiracy theories, the peaks of shared humanity, the remarkable wonder of democracy — even when messy — and the towering responsibility of citizenship.
Let’s live as a Spirit island people, who work and vote in a world as free of conspiracy peaks as possible.
Autumn is in the air. Just a touch in some places. Still enough to know change is ahead. So, change. I awoke this morning with five questions about change on my mind. As the leaves turn color and the fresh garden tomatoes dwindle, it seems right to wonder about the future. These are my provincial, idiosyncratic musings in mid-September. Call these my “dancing with irony” questions. Both autumn and anomaly are in the air. So, here goes:
1. Will it jinx the Chicago Cub’s chances for a world series victory, after waiting over a century, by talking about their great year with marvelous pitching and fine young players? Woops, I may have just done it!
2. Should Simone Biles, the astonishing 19-year-old gymnast, be given an additional gold medal (or two or three more, and a lot more press coverage) for just being an extraordinary athlete and remarkable human being in a world where Ryan Lochte captures more headlines?
3. Why are so many of the folks eager to protect the United Methodist Church from changing the Book of Discipline, the very same ones who take any mention of being United Methodists out of their congregation’s names and off their websites and church signage?
4. Are the people who believe President Obama is a secret Muslim the same folks who believe Donald Trump is a practicing Christian?
5. How is it that a recent CNN/ORC poll found 50% of respondents asserting that Donald Trump was “more honest and trustworthy” and only 35% thought Hillary Clinton was “more honest and trustworthy,” when careful analysis by PolitiFacts says that 53% of Trumps statements should be rated “false” or “pants on fire” and only 13% of Secretary Clinton’s statements should have this rating?
Might misogyny have something to do with it? Forgive me, sorry, I promised only five questions.
It is a clarifying moment… The x-rays are back from this laboratory. These hypothetical x-rays come from Super Tuesday of the 2016 presidential primaries. And what can be seen in these images? There it is — the often hidden, not-so-attractive, practices and support of racism. Surprisingly this racism comes from those who call themselves Evangelical Christians. It is painfully clear.Support for racial bigotry and discrimination is all too apparent in the way they vote and self-identify.
The voters have spoken: Donald Trump won seven of the twelve primary elections in states. He claimed the largest percentage of the so-called white Evangelical voters. Just hours before these elections Trump dodged questions about support he was receiving from the Ku Klux Klan and David Duke, a well known white supremacist. In what has become a typical media ploy, after he winked his appreciation for the racist support, Trump then changed his tune, saying that he had always opposed racism and, in typical form, he attacked the media saying that he was again being mistreated.
Can there be any doubt that behind the scenes and often breaking into the open racism has been employed to weaken the presidency of Barack Obama? Like many things, few people are as articulate in identifying such realities as is poet, novelist, conservationist Wendell Berry.
Berry writes: “A good many people hoped and even believed that Barack Obama’s election to the presidency signified the end of racism in the United States. It seems arguable to me that the result has been virtually the opposite: Obama’s election has brought about a revival of racism. Like nothing since the Southern Strategy, it has solidified the racist vote as a political quantity recognizable to politicians and apparently large enough in some places to decide an election…
Nobody can doubt that virtually all of the President’s political enemies would vehemently defend themselves against a charge of racism. Virtually all of them observe the forms and taboos of political correctness. If any very visible one of their own should insult the President by a recognized racial slur, they would all join in the predictable outrage. But the paramount fact of this moment in the history of racism is that you don’t have to denominate the President by a recognized racial slur when his very name can be used as a synonym.”(Wendell Berry, Louisville Courier-Journal, September 15, 2015. See more at: Berry, Revival of Racism.
I was stuck by a recent report from the Southern Poverty Law Center that provided the recent history of active hate groups in the United States. During the first eight years of the twenty-first century there were roughly 150 groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, White Nationalist, Racist Skinhead, and Neo-Nazi. Their numbers changed very little in the period between 2000 and 2008. However, in 2009, following the election of our president, the number of hate groups rose to over 500 — and today there are nearly 1,000 such groups in the United States!
I am not saying that white Evangelicals are all racists. Still it is more than a little suspicious that there is not more resistance among these folks to Mr. Trump’s dog whistle to the racist fringe. I still remember visiting a family farm, shortly after the election of Mr. Obama. These were good people, church going folks, active in state politics. I have known them for years. As we talked my friends began to share email “jokes” about our president. The language was crude, ugly, bigoted and demeaning projections. It was raw, blatant racism in the depiction of our president. I was stunned — didn’t join in the laughter and spoke only a halting word of disagreement. In hindsight, I wish I had said more. In hindsight, I understand there are such “God fearing” folks and how they could vote for Mr. Trump.
In his insightful study One Nation Under God Kevin Kruse of Princeton University outlines the way the Christianity shifted in the twentieth century to become a public spiritual spectacle, useful to politicians and corporate leaders to pursue their goals of power and wealth. Kruse cites William Lee Miller of Yale Divinity School who spoke of the American people who followed their president, Eisenhower, and “had become fervent believers in a very vague religion.” (Kruse, p. 68) Or, as Robert Bellah put it, “Is this not just another indication that in America, religion is considered a good thing but people care so little about it that it has lost any content whatsoever?” (Kruse, p. 68) This vague religiosity has been filled with many things — and as Evangelicalism has gained ascendancy too much of the “vague” content has been long on self concern and short on self criticism.
The vague content of American Christianity — Evangelicalism in this case, has been filled with patterns of thought and behavior that have almost no connection with the message or life of Jesus the Christ. In fact, the vague content has been filled with shabby self indulgent understandings that are amazingly at odds with the Sermon on the Mount or the Lord’s Prayer.
I do not seek to salvage this word “Evangelical.” The damage, the identity theft, has been done. Such a project belongs to others. Thankfully, they are already at work and know it will take generations to correct what has gone amiss. As suggested in an earlier post, these elections provide an x-ray into the flawed theological and faith perspectives of such Evangelicals. Sadly, the x-ray comes back saying the illness is at a critical stage. This religiosity is shaped more by culture, history and prejudice than it is by the scriptures or sound theology. Honestly, it is more a folk religion than a coherent faith practice.
What are we to do? What is the church to do? In his column, “The Governing Cancer of Our Time, ” David Brooks speaks of the rise of authoritarianism (Brooks, Governing Cancer). Over forty years ago, I served as part of a national research project on the church and racism. In this work we discovered the connections between authoritarianism, status concern and racism in its various forms. The question became how should the church, the People of God, respond?
We learned three important things:
The church — especially the leaders in the church — must say NO to racism. That which is obvious and that which is more subtle. I wonder what difference it might have made if religious leaders and political leaders had stood up against Mr. Trump’s “birther” comments in 2008, or every year since? One can’t help but think that the current dilemma of the Republican Party was brought about by their own silence and disrespect all along the way.
Sermons and study groups alone have little effect on changing racist attitudes or behaviors. (Sorry about this preachers and teachers.) However, when sermons and education are combined with activities that engage parishoners with persons of a different race, especially activities that seek cooperatively to address racism, real change is possible. We saw it in Chicago, South Bend, Fresno, Dallas and Los Angeles.
Finally, a denomination’s commitment or congregation’s commitment to battle racism can be measured by the way budgets are made and expended. In 1974 we found that almost all congregations reported they spent more on toilet paper or light bulbs in a year than they did on efforts to address racism. Nothing much has changed over these four decades in this regard!
Silence. Vague content to our faith. Low commitment to change as evidenced in our practices and budgets. These things, good reader, may be among the reasons for our current embarrassment.
The presidential primaries of 2016 are an embarrassment — to our nation, to thoughtful public discourse and, perhaps most tragically, to the witness of people of faith. This trend has been underway for quite some time. In an earlier post, I wrote of “Christian identity theft.”
Today is the so-called Super Tuesday, March 1, 2016. Primary elections are being held in twelve states with hundreds of delegates in play for both political parties.
Over and again it is reported that the Evangelicals are a crucial and determining voting block. The New York Times this morning says that “Donald Trump’s success with evangelicals is expected to help him dominate” in several of these elections. REALLY?
The vileness and ugliness of this primary, especially on the Republican side, is so full of meanness and junior high potty mouth jokes as to make mud-wrestling look like a noble enterprise. But most troubling for me is the use of that word “Evangelical.”
Sadly, this primary has proven to be a DNA test, or an x-ray image, showing the actual make-up and inner organs of many who claim to be Evangelicals. Really? Donald Trump represents the best hope for the future among people of faith, the desire to have a God-fearing nation? Really? Or, the juvenile, divisive and snarky comments of Mr. Rubio or Mr. Cruz — are these the marks of an “Evangelical?” Thank God, there are Mr. Kasich and Carson who represent something better; but they seem to have little appeal to those who call themselves “Evangelicals.”
For Evangelicals the whole of Scriptures was 0nce the guide
Wavebreak Media, stock photo
Evangelical at one time spoke of a person who believed the good news of God’s love for the world, each one and all. An Evangelical once was a person who sought to follow Christian scripture, especially the major themes. Today it has been distilled down to a test on two or three current cultural issues, abortion and gay marriage mostly.
The x-ray machine which is the 2016 Republican Primary, shows that the core of the Biblical story is either ignored or little understood by this group, who claim the name Evangelical. Things like the care of God’s creation, the welcoming of strangers and refugees, sharing with the poor or living a life of service have dropped out of the body. These organs critical for life have disappeared. In its place, Mr. Trump and others have substituted fear, racism, xenophobia, distrust and envy. Good news has become bad news. This look inside those who call themselves Evangelicals suggests a perhaps incurable soul sickness, a brokenness. I fear it is a sickness unto death.
Evangelicalhas been a word of richness and diversity. Many won’t understand, but Hillary Clinton, as a United Methodist, stands as much (or more) in the classical definition of Evangelicalism as do any of the Republican candidates. As a United Methodist her heritage links her to the work of John Wesley and Martin Luther. While both were men of their age — I think it is clear that neither would recognize what has been going on in these primaries as in any way “Evangelical” in its basic theological DNA structure.
John Wesley (1703-1791) Engraved after original artwork by J. Jackson
Having served as president of a school called “Garrett-Evangelical” I have sought to understand this word and place it in its historical and proper theological context. The categorization that has been done in recent decades has resulted in a division that seems to allow no breadth of understanding. I consider myself a “progressive-evangelical,” a place to stand that is, I believe, consistent with Luther or Wesley in their day or millions of Christians outside the U.S. today.
It is tragic that the word has been turned inside out, upside down and backwards in contemporary American thought. Too long the word has been defined by Fox News and talk radio — too long certain preachers have used the word to divide rather than to heal. Too long, well meaning pastors and bishops have remained quiet, allowed others to commit identity theft. Too long, well meaning pastors have said, “It is in God’s hands, you don’t have to worry, it will all work out.” Perhaps it is their own fear that prevents them from speaking against the ugliness of this mean-spirited time. And now, not surprisingly, “we have sown the wind and are reaping a whirlwind.”
Of course, all of this didn’t happen over night. In his excellent column, The Governing Cancer of Our Time, David Brooks speaks of the distance we have traveled from our political and civic heritage and speaks of our current situation as “anti-politics” (Brooks, Governing Cancer).
In this column, Brooks notes that politics as a constructive art is in retreat and authoritarianism is on the rise world wide. What might the church say in such a situation? Where might Evangelicals seeking to be true to the deeper and richer meaning of the tradition find a constructive voice? Stay tuned — more to follow.
One year from today — January 20, 2017 we will be watching the inauguration of the next President of the United States.Trump? Clinton? Cruz? Sanders? One of the others? All flawed. Some seem to threaten the very fabric of our democracy. I am often asked by younger folks (you know, folks who are 40 or 50 are YOUNG to me) if I can remember a time when political conversation was this, well, nutty, this far off the rails, this unhinged from facts.
The honest answer is NO. Absolutely not. I remember well the campaigns of George Wallace, Gene McCarthy, Ross Perot, John Anderson, and I remember my high school infatuation with Barry Goldwater. None of these are comparable. This is a time when facts seem to matter little. Anger, make that rage, is in vogue.
It is as if our national identity, our political assumptions about integrity and well reasoned analysis of the national and world situation has gone down a rabbit hole. We have entered a period of UPSIDEDOWNING. What once was up is now down and…
Ridicule of others is now the currency to win votes. Wealth is either a measure of ones value or decadence. No space is left for the virtues of thoughtful dialogue, learning, humility. Intemperate statements are valued by the electorate. Reasoned and careful action by the current president is seen as weakness. No, I don’t recall a time like this in my memory when behavior like that of a junior high school bully is seen as a positive credential for a future president.
Of course there is a history as to how we got to this place. Persons, it seemed on all sides, decided it was better to demonize others than find common ground. You add the complexities of a modern world with 24/7 news coverage and throw in a large dose of racism, bank malfeasance (see or read THE BIG SHORT) and economic uncertainty and you come to the presidential race of 2016.
So, what’s a person to do? Honestly I don’t know — I have no big idea. I do remember the bumper sticker that read “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance!”
Here is my small modest proposal. You and I, good reader have one year, 366 days (its leap year) to engage persons at a local level with good caring but critically factual conversation. My pledge is to every day speak to at least one person, preferably someone whose opinions differ from mine, and see what I can learn. What do I need to know to be a better citizen? And, of course, what can I share that encourages another person, perhaps a stranger, to understand that we are neighbors – even when we disagree. This might do a little bit to lower the temperature on the language that continues to boil over into vitriol.
I will do other things, of course, to help the candidate I believe who can best move us out of these mean-spirited times and contribute to our being a place of honest and constructive disagreements. It is what is called democracy. Depending on how high the stakes may be, I may do a lot besides talking with my neighbor and stranger trying to bring more light than heat to the political dialogue of our time. But for the next year (or until next November’s elections) I pledge to work toward honest, factual dialogue… that builds up rather than destroys.
My sense is that our nation can ill afford to elect a president who will encourage us to try ignorance. The stakes are too high — the world is too complex. We need cool wisdom and not hot revenge to make it through the challenges ahead. Meanwhile, I tell my young friends, those under 50, that “NO, I have never seen a political season like this; and, it is time to seek factual information and to speak honestly and respectfully.”
This is the stuff (honest dialogue and respectful disagreements) of a healthy democracy. This is the way to RIGHTSIDEUP our national life.
How will church nativity pageants be different in 2015? Should we check the visas of Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus before they process down the church aisle? Or, should they be detained before they sit beside the manger scene in the chancel? After all, these three family members were “outsiders” threatened by terror. They were vetted by the authorities and found to be dangerous. As a result, they became refugees.
You remember this part of the story, don’t you? As a nation we in the United States seem to forget or perhaps simply say, “Well, that was then and this is now.” Right? Well, no, not really.
The fears generated by tragic events in Paris this past week have resulted in U.S. political leaders loosing their ability to think clearly. To call the response “knee-jerk” is disrespectful to knees everywhere! The ignorance and intolerance displayed by folks like Donald Trump are not worthy of a great nation like ours.
Suddenly, our greatest fear is the 10,000 Syrian refugees who are being forced by terror to seek new homes? While Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey are accepting millions of displaced refugees, we proud Americans, who are an ocean away, can’t welcome 10,000 who have been screened for nearly two years — and these are persons who are going to be placed with resettlement organizations most of which are religious groups with long histories of working with such refugees.
Members of the House of Representatives quickly pass a bill that is designed to target persons based on their religion. It is an astonishing nod to the bigotry and ignorance of the cheap seats in the American electorate. It has been said by many and it is true — “we are better than this.”
However, rather than writing a screed on the small mindedness behind the statements and legislation that has been proposed, I choose to believe that these events just might be an early Christmas present, waiting to be unwrapped. An early Christmas gift to be shared at our Thanksgiving dinner tables. There is the opportunity here for imagination, for those who will be guided by thought, prayer, a clear-eyed view of our history to offer another version — not of who the Syrian refugees are, but who we are, especially if we are persons of faith.
I think of heroes like Colorado Governor Ralph Carr, who was faced with the demands of the Roosevelt administration to set up detention camps for Japanese Americans in his state. Carr, a conservative Republican was shaped more by his Christian faith than political expediency. He said, “No, not here, not on my watch” and he paid the price of losing an upcoming election to the U.S. Senate. Today if you visit Denver you will see that the state judicial building is named for Ralph Carr in recognition an ethical clarity, drawn from his faith, that allowed him to stand for justice against the popularity of bigotry on the march.
If you watch the news carefully, you will see politicians already coming to terms with their reactive bigotry. News speak is that they are “walking back statements made about Syrian refugees.” The mayor of Roanoke, Virginia is an example of one who had to change his suggestion that we go back to camps like those used to detain Japanese Americans during WW II. Presidential candidate Ben Carson now says he regrets speaking of the refugees with a rabid dog analogy. Fear is a powerful emotion mixed with self-interest in which human beings sometimes get lost in the worst of our impulses.
These events, put together, provide the occasion to think more holistically and imaginatively about how to proceed. Should we accept Syrian refugees that are carefully screened. Absolutely, YES… and I think we should welcome even more.
HOWEVER, this is only a start — there are dozens of other things that might be done in the United States and in other parts of the world to humanely address this crises. How do we assist those in Jordan and Lebanon and Turkey who have borne the brunt of the tragedy in Syria? How do we assist those in Europe facing these challenges? Now is not the time to play the tortoise by hiding inside our shell.
The nations of the world no doubt will make increasing military responses to ISIS. There are arguments to be made as to what might be done and how. Again there will be dozens of ways to respond. As for me, there will need to be a witness against war and violence — as our continuing “go to” solution to every dangerous and hostile situation. Didn’t we get here by trusting too much in overusing the military as a solution to everything?
This week, let’s join one another in unwrapping an early Christmas present at the Thanksgiving table. Make this your early gift — encourage imagination. Help others remember that our Christmas pageants are more than little parades of children in bathrobes and silly hats. Laugh, play and retell the Christmas narrative in fullness, including the parts about a refugee family driven from their home.
What would you ask? If you could ask only one question of the candidates for the presidency of the United States what would it be?
Tonight we will see the spectacle of the first presidential debates among the candidates of the Republican Party. Several television and newspaper pundits are suggesting the questions that “must be asked by” the moderator. For example, Tom Friedman suggests candidates be asked about an increase in the gasoline tax to pay for our crumbling highway infrastructure. He notes this is something that Ronald Reagan supported upon his election and might help determine which candidates would be able to lead beyond narrow ideological constraints. (See: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/05/opinion/thomas-friedman-my-question-for-the-republican-presidential-debate.html?src=me&_r=0). Friedman also suggests questions on immigration and carbon tax credits. Good questions — just not my question.
There is another group called Circle of Protection that would ask the candidates what they would do to end hunger and poverty in our nation. Several of the candidates, in both parties, have posted video responses to this excellent question (see: circleofprotection.us). This too is a marvelous question — a truly important question. The video responses by candidates that have already been made are helpful — revealing of core beliefs.
However, most of the questions suggested by the pundits are designed to elicit a provocative response, something that will pit one candidate against another. Most of the suggested questions have little to do with policy or vision and much to do with demeaning another candidate. Clearly, the hope is to start a political food fight! Most of the suggested quarries by the television talking-heads are designed to generate more heat than light. These suggestions are a version of the old school yard taunt “Lets you and him fight!” How interesting that on August 6th, Hiroshima Day, our nation’s attention turns to a forum where many are hoping to see a fight.
My one question would be this: WHO IS MY NEIGHBOR?
It comes from my enduring preoccupation with the Gospel parable we often refer to as the story of the Good Samaritan. I prefer to call it the Parable of the Unexpected Neighbor. My preoccupation with this particular parable is shaped by the reading of the social philosopher Ivan Illich. Illich returns to this story again and again as a theme in his analysis of modern institutions. He notes our misguided efforts to provide professional solutions to problems that require, first and foremost, a neighborly community and a commitment to common conviviality.
I believe the story of the Good Samaritan has been domesticated, romanticized and distorted in meaning. I hold that in answering the question “Who is my neighbor?” one will hear from the respondent the core commitments of that person. This is a “template narrative.” It uncovers a human gestalt — points to the baseline of meaning. The answer to this question has shaped the lives of people throughout the ages, from St. Francis to Mother Teresa, from Ghandi to Thomas Merton.
Who is my neighbor? The answer suggests so much — from a compassion for the stranger, to an openness to the foreigner, and a welcoming of the alien, alternative solutions to vexing problems. It is a question that allows the responder to share ideas that might give us larger purpose and expanded hope. Yes, the theme of care for the neighbor challenges our propensity to selfishness, bigotry and violence; I believe it offers us even more, when we grasp the dimensions of how this story and its context might shape our perspectives today.
Ivan Illich was once asked, “Given what you suggest about institutions, what is the best way to make change, violent revolution or gradual reform?” Illich answered, “Neither, the best way to bring change is to give an alternative story.” (in David Cayley’s, The Rivers North of the Future).
Over the next several postings I will expand on the wonder of this parable and the power of the question asked of Jesus by the young man in Luke 10:25-37. I believe it opens us to a remarkably powerful, alternative story — maybe the most powerful alternative story available to humanity!
My plans this evening do not include watching “the debate.” There will be plenty more where these came from. I wonder what questions will be asked. Were I given just one question, it would be — WHO? WHO IS MY NEIGHBOR?