Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The State of the Onion...

This one isn't going where you think it is, either.

The Onion is a satirical "news" site that pokes fun at top stories circulating around, lampoon-ees ranging from politics to religion (you know, those things you aren't supposed to discuss in polite social circles), science to Wall Street. I usually catch up with their latest "story" on Facebook, where convenient links to "The Onion," in proper satirical fashion, look like real news sites. Sometimes FB cruisers get "caught" by "Onion" stories, thinking them to be real, and posting indignant commentary. A "friend" points out the nature of the story, and the errant poster does one of those Emily Litella "Never Mind" retractions. Occasionally, though, the protesting poster sticks by their "real" critique to a story written as entertaining "fake news." I say all this to take us to a discussion of First Amendment freedoms and the "mess we's in" concerning "fake news."

It is coming into vogue to label factual stories written by responsible journalists as "fake news" if one simply doesn't agree with them. And, also, fictitious stories or blatant opinion, neither backed up by facts, and written by fantom or unnamed authors, are given a pass as legitimate articles. We are told this is one way a foreign power attempted to influence elections--by posting paid "stories" on Facebook--lots of them--that had no basis in fact, but that were made to appear quite genuine, and cast by a "real" news source. It is important to note, here, that more than one political party and various religious "lobbying" groups are using this technology. Just saunter about Facebook and look at what liberal, conservative, evangelical, progressive, Druid, NASCAR, NRA (you name the cause) are posting as "fact," and you will see hundreds of bogus stories being posted right alongside the "real deal" news sources such as the Associated Press, Reuters, The New York Times, or The Wall Street Journal. I did "Google" fake news sources recently, and quite a long list came up of sites and origins some panel of "experts" has identified as illegitimate, or at the very least, pure opinion masquerading as news. Google "fake news sources,"  and see what I mean.

As one with a degree in journalism and communications, I have a special respect for the First Amendment and freedom of the press. I accept as the journalist's creed the slogan from the masthead of The Washington Post: "Democracy Dies in Darkness." A free--and legitimate--press is foundational to a free state. "Legitimate" means writing stories based on as much fact as the reporter can glean using the "mantra" of the five Ws and the H--Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How. Quotes must be exact and not paraphrased; sources must be corroborated with at least one other source. Any "theory" or conjecture must be clearly labeled as such, but was never admissible in a news story before the days of "New Journalism" as advanced by Thomas Wolfe, Truman Capote, Hunter S. Thompson, et. al. Editorials should be properly relegated to the editorial page or the opinion page opposite it (hence "op ed"). Readers should know beyond doubt whether they are reading a news story or an opinion piece. Those lines are increasingly blurred, even in some "real" newspapers, and on TV, all bets are off, basically. Still, there are great varieties of genuine news sources practicing the profession of journalism. Personally, I try to read three or four newspapers a day--The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The New York Times, The Washington Post (all of which I subscribe to), and as much of The Wall Street Journal as I can read online "for free." I also like to listen to NPR and the excerpts of the BBC which they feature, or occasionally I listen to BBC America on my satellite radio. When cruising Facebook, I very carefully examine the "byline" of any "story" posted or linked by one of my friends. Unfortunately, some of my "friends" are far less than discriminating as to the legitimacy of the sources of stories they post, so I must be! And, I never "believe" a story until I have found it reprinted or followed up by another legitimate news source.

Why am I harping about this? Several reasons:

1. Accurate, truthful information is essential to forming opinions, voting my conscience, and even in responsibly leading my congregation to engage in the kinds of justice and peace seeking ministries to which Jesus calls us. We need to be properly informed, people! And nobody is doing the screening for us!

2. Journalism and the First Amendment are under attack in our time, and not just from politicians and presidents. When people become less discriminating in their "taste" for news and information, "wolves in sheep's clothing" may slip in, sometimes to intentionally misinform or sway opinion in accordance with a selfish, power, or profit motive, sometimes just to sell something. In these days of the Internet and social media, if a site gets lots of "hits," it becomes an advertising and "click bait" cash cow, whether the content of the site is real or total drivel (or worst-case, intentionally deceptive).

3. I fear there are parallels between the erosion and denigration of news sources and how people will react to and "hear" something that is an essential "source" of my Christian faith--Scripture. How can I possibly preach and teach the efficacy and message of the scriptures, helping my congregation extract  and apply its inherent truths, in a world where less and less printed matter is deemed trustworthy? And, because I am a liberal interpreter of scripture (not meaning politically liberal, but theologically--applying the tools of historical-critical biblical scholarship and analysis to the Bible), I must help guide congregants to "best sources," "most accurate translations," and broadly agreed "interpretation" among scholars and commentators. As one scholar once said, "We liberals take the Bible too seriously to take it literally."

Might I suggest that we begin to apply some of these historical-critical skills when vetting our news? Don't believe what you hear or read just because someone sends you a link or you hear it on a TV show. Do some "sourcing" yourself. See if other trusted news sources are running the story. Oh, and try to BEGIN with a trusted source to begin with. I reject the thought that great news oracles like The Washington Post and The New York Times are "fake news." They are not, and they DO present balanced opinions, even if their editorial policy may sway liberal. (Some of the best conservative commentators such as George Will  or Charles Krauthammer write for The Washington Post, for example.) I find it interesting that so many who are buying the "fake news" argument with which our free press is being attacked are often persons who may tend to use the Bible in ways that harm or judge other individuals by taking things out of context and using ill-advised literal interpretations of scripture.

So, what is The State of the Onion? Things are beginning to smell a bit. May we turn our personal, collective, and national vigilance toward respect for professional, legitimate media and factual reporting, with the aim of being an informed people again, not one that is being manipulated and used to advance a tightly focused agenda that robs our diversity and fogs our senses. 

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Least Racist...

Recently, a national figure made the statement: "I am the least racist person you will ever interview!" Frankly, I would have been bamboozled just by the audacity of a white person making a statement like this, let alone a person clearly of such huge privilege. I could not make this statement, despite it being my overwhelming desire to be able to, and to have it be true. Here are a few reasons why.

First of all, I am a white racist. This is a confession that is not shocking to anyone engaging in the prodigious task of dismantling racism in America. I am a white racist because I am a member of the majority race in this nation (at least it currently is), and because we live in a society that is still far from conquering racism, and one that so privileges members of the majority race--especially males--I am guilty of institutional racism. I faced no extra scrutiny or lack of enthusiasm from either my real estate agent nor my lender because of the color of my skin. Getting a mortgage was easy, even considering that I hadn't had one in over 30 years. No one even looked askance at us when we moved into our home in Adams Ridge. I have purchased 10 brand new automobiles in my lifetime, with nary a question about my ability to get financing. I have applied, enrolled in, and graduated from three institutions of higher learning with no one questioning my intent or ability to complete a degree. I have been pulled over by the police on, well, let's say a few occasions and have never been treated in any way but politely, and in a couple of the cases, was just given a mild warning instead of a citation. I have never even been asked to exit my car by an officer. I obviously have not been stopped because of the color of my skin, even by a black policemen when I was driving late at night in a predominantly African American section of the city. A number of ethnic friends of mine cannot echo many--if any--of these experiences. The fact that persons of color are more typically questioned, or doubted, singled out, or made to provide extraordinary proof of credit when making a major purchase is a clear sign of the continued institutional racism in this country, and while it is a nationwide phenomenon, it is much worse in some parts than in others. The fact that a young African American and a young caucasian going out looking to rent an apartment in the same week, in the same town have a very, very different experience is another sign. And, because I am part of this privileged, majority race--due to no merit on my part--I am a white racist, and will be until we tear down all of these institutional walls "erected" simply by skin color.

Let me tell you another reason why I am a white racist, and it has nothing to do with the institutional racism of the wider society. I was raised that way. I grew up in a small, Northwestern Pennsylvania town that was about as diverse as a bag of Stay Puft marshmallows. We had only two African American families in town, and two persons of color in my whole high school, a girl and a boy (and with 392 in my graduating class, it wasn't exactly a small school). Both of these persons of color were wonderful individuals, loved by most of their peers, or so I thought. It wasn't until years after high school that I learned of the kind of scorn and oppression they faced from many in the student body, and most especially when they excelled in some area. I do remember how many of us used to tell the girl (I'll call her Jessie) how we appreciated that she acted so white, fitting in and not bringing up the whole "civil rights" thing all the time. (I can't believe we did this, even as I am writing it now, but this is, after all, "true confessions.") I'll also never forget how shocked we all were when Jessie, toward the end of our junior year, began to assert her racial heritage. I guess that is when I began to have my consciousness raised as to just how racist my attitudes had been all along. How sad that this really didn't "start" until my 17th year! There's more...

Except for one white, male teacher, I don't ever remember having our small town racism being challenged by the faculty of our school. This one teacher who did confront all of us was a social studies teacher who had attended a vastly diverse college, and who had developed numerous friends of different ethnic and national origins. He met our parents at visitation nights and at sporting events, and heard us parroting their racial prejudice all week long at school. In numerous ways, he attempted to disrupt the small town cycle of racism and to stimulate our brains to recognize it for what it was. I remember a time when he held his own "assembly" by calling together his class sections and having an African American friend of his speak to us. This gentleman intentionally began "acting" the part of a black "activist," accusing us of oppressing black people and maintaining and perpetuating the stranglehold white people had on power and privilege. He was playing a "part" in this little drama, and it worked. The roomful of white kids almost went "postal," defending ourselves with verbal catcalls and slurs aimed back at him. We guys were the worst; a few of our more sensitive and enlightened female classmates began to turn on us, calling us bigots and jerks. (Honestly, I don't think we were using the term "racist" much in our peer group at the time.) The women were right--we were bigots and jerks. And when that speaker stepped out of his incendiary "act" and began just to talk with us about what had happened and why, I remember feeling ashamed--very ashamed--but not wanting to admit it, especially among my white, male friends. I still, to this day, get sick to my stomach at the thought of how I thought and acted on that Thursday afternoon back in 1971. There's more...

When our all-white high school sports teams played teams from more diverse towns, racial slurs became part of the unofficial "cheerleading." And many of the parents were in on it, too. Most of us in that small oil industry and manufacturing town grew up in conservative, white families where racism was taught and defended--sometimes intentionally, sometimes not so much--but it was still the norm. "Oh, Mr. So-and-So who works down at the Post Office is so nice--too bad all of them aren't like that"--statements like this could be heard around almost every supper table in my town. The N-word was seen as "impolite" at best, but often used in casual conversation. You could have grabbed any five students from my school and asked them to make a list of attributes of "negros" (again, the term African American wouldn't make the lexicon of that town for a decade or two), and a codified list of stereotypes would have been forthcoming. There's more...

When I was in junior high, not too many people I knew had kind words for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Even in my home church, he was largely ignored, except by a youth pastor, who came fresh out of Yale Divinity. Encountering him and paying attention to his take on Dr. King and the civil rights movement was another consciousness-raising event in my life. Rev. Mike sniffed out the foul smell of racism ten minutes into hitting town, and he began a methodical "attack" on it aimed at us youth, figuring our elders were a lost cause. While Dr. King was often seen as a "rabble-rouser" by people in this small Pennsylvania town (and our only contact with him was via TV), I remember listening to our youth pastor and then to some of the speeches of Dr. King and hearing the same message of love, redemption, forgiveness, and transformation from each. I can remember thinking "I hear no violence in this man, only a plea for acceptance and love" when Dr. King gave his "I Have a Dream" speech. Still, the power of my upbringing kept fighting against the rising tide of personal "enlightenment," and it was so easy to "backslide." There's more...

There is nothing I want more in my life to no longer be a white racist. But it is an uphill battle, and one that requires daily attention. Obviously, if I want to help dismantle white privilege and institutional racism, I must join with others, be a part of organized efforts, and become much more political than I am comfortable with as a pastor. But the harder part of my racism is that deep, personal "tape" that keeps playing in my soul, the one "programmed" there by family, my small town upbringing, my school, and my peers, to whom I acquiesced way too often. I have to fight the stereotypes that, while they are fading, are still holed up in some tuck in my gray matter. Years ago, while traveling in Scotland with one of my seminary professors, a Scot himself, he came out of an establishment livid, exclaiming: "THREE DEGREES and a Ph.D. and when I open my mouth here, I'm still the son of a coal miner!", meaning he still spoke with a dialect that gave away his origins. Likewise. Three degrees, a doctorate, thirty-plus years of ordained ministry, and tons of prayer to "let this cup pass from me," I can still harbor a racist thought if just the right conditions prevail. There's more...

The more is grace. Thanks be to God, grace has been transforming my life in many ways, and standing up against racism--institutional, denominational, and my personal "infestation"--is one of the ways that is happening. While this column might sound like self-flagellation, it is more about wanting to bare my soul and honestly share my personal struggle in an effort to engage the reader to do the same. I am a long way from being able to say ANYTHING like "I am the least racist person you will ever see." And so are you, if you are part of the majority race. If your defense is a statement like "I am not a racist--I have black friends," or "I don't care if people are black, white, or purple, I love everybody," then you have an even longer, tougher challenge ahead than you understand. The good news is that there is a spiritual renewal starting to move across the land, and it is focusing on dismantling racism as one of her priorities! As Dr. King said, "Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate can't drive out hate, only love can do that." May it be so in our lifetime, Dear Ones. Signed, a recovering white racist...

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Fire and Fury...

No, this is not about what you think it's about! Sure, the country is cackling about the book, "Fire and Fury," by Michael Wolff, but I'm just borrowing the title for this blog post. Here we go...

As we embark on an unsettling and tentative new year, let us examine a model of "types of Christian faith" that I see making the rounds:

Fire and Fury Christians. These are folk whose faith mirrors the primitive experience of the earliest believers from the pages of the Hebrew Bible. In more simplistic times, the authors of these chronicles posit a loving God, but one who tries to govern by strict "rule of law." Sort of a "Here are some commandments--follow these and we'll be buds" arrangement. Of course, this view isn't an accurate one of Yahweh, the God of the Bible, because it is being told through the eyes and pen of the human experience. Ancient people tend to use ancient lenses, without the benefit of later learning and experience, in describing God and their relationship with God. One doesn't have to use much deeper scholarship to discover the authentic Yahweh--the Yahweh as revealed later in Jesus Christ--in these narratives, but one does have to dig a bit. Taking a lot of things from the Hebrew Bible at literal, "face" value, especially the parts about God's "fire and fury," "smiting," and demands that highly specific commandments be followed to a "T" leads one to posit a God that some have incorrectly labeled "the God of the Old Testament" at best, and one that is strictly cause and effect, meting out punishment rather gleefully when an infraction is flagged. (Since this sounds like a football allusion, let me use another: Fire and Fury Christians often have a fearful relationship with God in the same way that late Ohio State football coach Woody Hays related to passing the ball: "Three things can happen, and two of them are bad!") Responsible scholarship of these ancient texts doesn't allow this theological "boiling down" of what is a pretty complex thing--the relationship between the Creator and the created, between Yahweh and the "children" of Yahweh. Fire and Fury Christians can develop a nasty habit of being judgmental, prepared to cite a text and hammer someone with it. You will hear phrases like "keeping the covenant" and "the Bible is true" being used as signs of faithfulness. And no, I'm not just talking about the current flap over inclusion/exclusion of LGBTQIA persons in my denomination. Much more is at stake here. This goes to our very understanding of the nature of God. In this venue, simple is not a good thing. This is important, complex stuff, and the survival of the people of God depends on us not rushing to judgment. This may be why God--and Jesus in the New Testament--tells us to leave this alone, and up to God, ultimately.

Reconciling and Loving Christians. The more theology I "do," the older (and hopefully wiser) I get, and the more of the people of God with whom I am privileged to interact, the more I am drawn to a view of faith that participates with God in God's action as stated in II Corinthians 5:

All of these new things are from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and who gave us the ministry of reconciliation. 19 In other words, God was reconciling the world to God through Christ, by not counting people’s sins against them. God has trusted us with this message of reconciliation.
20 So we are ambassadors who represent Christ. God is negotiating with you through us. We beg you as Christ’s representatives, “Be reconciled to God!”21 God caused the one who didn’t know sin to be sin for our sake so that through Christ we could become the righteousness of God.
If this is what God is really up to--and note that it is God's action, meaning that even Christians don't have a corner on HOW God is doing this--we are called to be "ambassadors" of it, not prosecutor, jury, and judge as to whom God is pardoning and including. This is the reconciling part--we are called to find as many ways to include people in the "family" of God on this earth, not build walls to keep out the ones we think have "broken the covenant." And then there is the loving aspect of this particular vision of what it means to be Christian: Many of us Wesleyans believe that what John Wesley meant when he talked about "holiness" and "perfection" was his "primitive" way to say that the ultimate pursuit of Christian perfection is learning how to love perfectly as Christ did. It's not about how "clean scrubbed" we are (Jesus took care of that, anyway), but about how broadly, deeply, inclusively, diversely, and justly we can love others. This is a really hard thing. Really hard. And maybe this is why some give it up as the ultimate aim and fall back on rules, "keeping covenants," and drawing lines as to who is "in" and who is "out," or at least in peril of being "out." I also know that our brains are "wired" differently, with some tending to default to the "rule" thing much more quickly than others because of in innate need for "clear margins." Still, this does not excuse them from righteousness, which, according to Jesus, has much more to do with loving one's neighbor than surveying our property lines and fencing ourselves off from those who disgust us or make us fearful. As one committed to becoming a Reconciling and Loving Christian, I have to admit to not making much progress, and I don't have a lot of time left! It's often one of those "take three steps forward and two-and-a-half back" journeys, at least for yours truly. But I have to say, when I am "successful" at offering an olive branch to someone who feels like God has judged them and found them wanting, welcoming them fully into the presence, grace, and fellowship of God, it really makes me feel more like Jesus than about anything else I do. It's worth the effort. And then I get behind the wheel of my car and the whole thing "goes to hell" in a matter of minutes. See what I mean?

Destiny Christians. I added this category after listing for a radio ad for the "Joel Osteen" channel on Sirius XM radio. God love him, Joel proudly announces in this ad, "Everything you need to realize your destiny is within reach!" What destiny? We have no "destiny"other than the life we have been given, the opportunity to build a legitimate human community of justice and peace, and the offer of God to be part of God's action in "reconciling the world to Godself." There is no specific destiny promised to us as individuals--no promise of success, no promise of wealth or "American superiority" or even perpetual happiness. (Even the Founding Fathers of this nation said we should have the right to pursue happiness--no guarantees of it!) The biblical questions are: "What will you do with what you have been given? And whom will you serve?" Remember all of the arguments among Christ's disciples about which one would sit at his right hand? Or which of them was the greatest? These are destiny questions, and Jesus' answer to them was 180 degrees in the opposite direction of what the twelve were expecting to hear. Servant of all? That doesn't sound like a Joel Osteen theology to me!

I can listen to intelligent arguments about the first two types of "Christian" and possibly even that the "truth" may even be in some hybrid of the two. But if you want to be a Christian, please, please run with all of your might from this Osteen crap. There are no Destiny Christians, unless you count a really bad destination as your ultimate aim.

As for me and my house, I'm going to keep working on the Reconciling and Loving faith. May 2018 be a year when I--and we--take three steps forward, and maybe only ONE backward! Shalom, Yinz!

What's Next?

  What’s Next?   2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19 6:1 David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand. 6:2 David and all the people...