Some Musings on Faith, Flag, and Football (The Power of Symbols)

[This post is part of an ongoing series – you can access first post here.]

Several years ago we were fortunate enough to have a family from our church host an exchange student from Paris. I have many fond memories from her time with us, but there was one particular episode that I have never been able to forget. During one week in the summer, we attended a Christian camp and, as was the tradition each morning, the entire camp gathered around the flagpole and recited the pledge of the allegiance as the flag was raised. Our friend from France leaned over to me a

nd asked, “Why do you guys worship your flag?”

I’m sure my patriotic, Christian friends would be quick to dispel her confusion and assure her we do not worship the flag, but rather honor it and that for which it stands (isn’t that part of the pledge?) A few years ago, I ran across an essay by David Scotchmer entitled “Symbols Become Us: Toward a Missional Encounter with Our Culture through Symbolic Analysis.”[1] It helped inspire an article I wrote which appeared in the Restoration Quarterly journal back in 2010, and has helped me sift through the meaning and power of symbols. One of the early points that Scotchmer makes is, “One of the failures of the contemporary church is its inability to see its own captivity to the rules and norms of Western society.”[2] He focuses on the consumer-oriented approach many churches were having (and continue to have) in addressing spiritual needs, but his comment is just as revealing when applied to politically-infused debates like the one currently raging regarding the national anthem at sports venues.

As I’ve read articles and witnessed the responses by Christians to this entire discussion it is clear to me that for the vast majority of Christians offering their opinions, they are allowing the socio-political system of  the Unites States to frame their response. The responses tend to be binary: the athletes are using their platform to speak out against police brutality and social injustices rooted in racism OR the athletes are speaking out of turn and are providing an unnecessary distraction from actions/discussions that are more likely to provoke healthy dialogue and, hopefully, change. While the binary responses don’t fall definitively down party lines, the vast majority do.

To me, this whole discussion provides the perfect opportunity to talk about the power and place of symbols. Christians in the United States have an easy time pointing out the propagandizing emphasis in nations like China and North Korea, but remain mostly oblivious to the way in which it works in our own country. Go to nearly any toy story in our country and you’ll find plastic versions of fighter jets, tanks, and army men.

A few years ago while we were on spring break, my family went to the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, FL. I was appalled during our time there to see children playing on old, emptied bomb shells. It was like a playground.

One could wonder if the abundance of red, white, and blue in the US is visible from space. Consider our superheroes and cartoons: Captain America, Superman, and Wonder Woman – all dressed in red, white, and blue; Superman fighting for “truth, justice, and the American way.” Too easily do we dismiss these kinds of symbols as harmless and innocent. Make no mistake, the nation has a vested interest in indoctrinating its citizens to the power of its military and the righteousness of its cause. From a humanistic perspective, we can argue this away as a necessary evil of the nation-state, but as Christians called to a different citizenship – a different kingdom – we must be cautious to fall under their persuasive powers.

This brings us back to the vested interested the United States has in the patriotic hubbub that precedes most professional sporting events. Scotchmer states that “symbols embody the meaning of culture and serve as vehicles and repositories of meaning. Symbols express a worldview and join it to an ethos in ways that make it both meaningful and coherent.”[3] That’s why there is such unrest when someone challenges a nation’s symbols – they are calling into question the worldview and the presupposed meaning and order of the said culture.

Those who argue that the protesters have chosen a poor venue for their protest and/or should devote their time to (what they see as) civil discourse are assigning the symbol of the national anthem and the flag as a matter of core identity (which is often

wrapped up in the sport itself – think baseball as the national pastime and football as America’s game – these too function as symbols). Those who kneel or tweet #ikneel desire to bring attention to what they view as the insufficiency of the symbol. For some, the symbol doesn’t mean to them what it means to the other side, and for others, the symbol does mean that, but the manifestation of that symbol is sorely lacking.

Another quote from Scotchmer is helpful here, “Symbols provide powerful models of reality, as well as models for it, by giving meaning – that is, objective, conceptual form – to social and psychological reality both by shaping themselves to it and by shaping that reality to themselves. How people spend their time, money, and energy [in today’s world we might add how they spend their time on social media] reveals dramatically where their loyalties lie and which symbols they choose to preserve and promote.”[4] Which brings me to the point I want to make in this post.

I wrote in the introduction to this series of articles, “As I’ve sifted through comments on social media and listened to countless opinions on talk shows and news

radio, more than the political divide in this country, this whole saga is revealing a great deal about the state of Christianity in the United States.” In my opinion, arguing about kneeling or not kneeling is a distraction from the bigger problem in Christianity in the United States. This has put on display just how infested the US church is with American patriotism. We may give lip service to the church’s presence in the rest of the world, but episodes like this reveal the true scope of the disease.

Contrary to the militaristic symbols of power and might regularly put on display by the US government, the Bible is rife with symbols of its own. The Bible declares that the eternal destiny of the world was brought about by the symbol of a lamb that looked as though it had been slaughtered. Rome is depicted through the Bible with its own symbols of power and might (dragons and beasts), but they are always undone by a meek and mild Savior.

Regardless of your opinion regarding why the kneeling protests are taking place, you should be able to at least acknowledge peaceful kneeling during a nation’s anthem is not an affront against our faith. Perhaps more than anything else, this needs to be said: Honoring a nation’s anthem is not the business of Christians. As aliens and strangers, that’s just not our battle, so those who are quick to argue against those who are protesting should be careful in considering what exactly it is they are calling for. We are often told about those “brave soldiers who have given their life for the stars and stripes and our respect is rooted in them” but as Christians we must be mindful of the thousands around the world who have been murdered by the bombs those brave soldiers dropped. And we must be careful in our justification of the United States as “better than the other nations” – it is a great nation, but it is still not our home! Tony Campolo famously said, “The United States may be the greatest Babylon in the history of the world – but it’s still Babylon!” The kingdom of God is bigger than this nation or any other, and so for us to align ourselves in support of any nation’s anthem puts us on pretty shaky ground theologically.

We are allowing ourselves to get sucked in and divided by arguments and discussions that just aren’t kingdom matters. Justice is – and if someone kneels for that reason, we should be pretty slow to cast judgment as Christians. If anything, the act of kneeling or protesting during a nation’s anthem could be one of the most Christian things a disciple can do! Truth be told, we need more of that, than less. At the same time, wouldn’t it be nice to see some of the same fervor wrought  by this issue applied to how communion is observed, the sacred assembly, and the reading of Scripture. Christians should be much more concerned with flippant attitudes during moments like these than getting wrapped up in defending the traditions of the national anthem at a sporting event.

I ended my article in Restoration Quarterly with the following anecdote from Robert Coles’ book: The Political Life of Children, and it seems to be a fitting way to conclude this article. He describes a twelve-year-old Hopi Indian boy who wrestled with his identity living amid a nation that was not his own.

The Indian boy will learn to bow to America’s power, even as his grandfather did: Horses are not Sky Hawks and Phantoms . . . [He] will only smile and shrug his shoulders when asked about presidents, congressmen, governors; they exist, he knows, but they belong to others, not him, though he has not the slightest doubt that the decisions those leaders make will affect him . . . They are they, we are we; their leaders are theirs, ours are ours; yet, of course, we are all part of some larger scheme of things – America.[5]

It’s about time for Christians in the United States to act like they are part of some larger scheme of things – the kingdom of God.

The next post will look at the challenging realities of living in the midst of a challenging and fallen world, particularly in matters like these.

                [1] David Scotchmer, “Symbols Become Us: Toward a Missional Encounter with Our Culture through Symbolic Analysis,” in The Church Between Gospel and Culture, 158-172, edited by George R. Hunsberger and Craig Van Gelder (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996.

                [2] Ibid., 159.

                [3] Ibid., 163.

                [4] Ibid., 165.

                [5] Robert Coles, The Political Life of Children (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986), 47-48.


Some Musings of Faith, Flag, and Football (A History Lesson)

[This is the first post in the series, you can read the introduction here.]

The over-the-top militaristic parades put on by nations like North Korea and China broadcasted on their state-run television networks have always struck me as oddly NKOREA-SKOREA-MILITARY-ANNIVERSARYimpressive. You can’t help but be impressed by the thousands of soldiers lined up in perfect formations and surrounded by the heavy militaristic symbols of flags, tanks, and warplanes. The United States has its own pomp and circumstance surrounding Presidential Inaugurations and  Fourth of July celebrations, but even they tend to lack the military luster of the North Korean parades. There is, however, one venue in American society that does rival the militaristic and patriotic hype of these other counties – sports.

Progressive Field Indians Opening Day  My family has attended every Cleveland Indians Opening Day game for over a decade. Patriotism tends to be on steroids for these games. There’s always a flag so large it nearly covers the entire field, red, white, and blue balloons are released, fireworks are shot off, and the military provides a deafening flyover by their war machines. The climax of the pregame pomp is when a local celebrity comes out to sing the national anthem. For those of us who have grown blue-angels-flyoverup in the United States over the last 50 years, this is our reality in sports. It is difficult for us to know where patriotism ends and sports begins. The poster child for the prominent connection between “The Star Spangled Banner” and sports is Whitney Houston’s rendition from the Super Bowl in 1991 (her version of the anthem has been a Top 20 hit twice – after that Super Bowl and again after September 11, 2001). It may be difficult for us to imagine a sporting event without the anthem, but how many people know the actual origin of the practice?

Luke Cyphers and Ethan Trex describe the pivotal role that the national anthem played in the 1918 World Series between the Chicago Cubs and the Boston Red Sox (fourteen years before the anthem was officially adopted by the United States government). You can read the interesting article in full here, but I’ll provide a short synopsis. In a game that was moved across town from the Cubs home field (Weegham Park) to Comiskey Field to accommodate an expected large crowd (Comiskey had double the capacity of Weegham Park) only 19,000 people showed up. Unfortunately, the day before Game One the Chicago Federal Building was bombed, killing four and injuring 30. This added to an already-dismal atmosphere across the country as the nation was already entrenched in World War I. Needless to say, interest in the World Series was an immediate casualty.


On the diamond, Babe Ruth pitched the Red Sox to a 1-0 shutout win over the Cubs in front of a crowd that the Tribune described as “perhaps the quietest on record.” The exception was when the military band played “The Star Spangled Banner.” The scene was described the following day in the New York Times leading, not with a description of the game itself, but the patriotic outbursts during the seventh inning: “First the song was taken up by a few, then others joined, and when the final notes came, a great volume of melody rolled across the field. It was at the very end that the onlookers exploded into thunderous applause and rent the air with a cheer that marked the highest point of the day’s enthusiasm.” The spectacle caught on and each night the Cubs ramped up the pageantry, only to be outdone when the Series moved to Boston. At Fenway Park, the anthem was moved from the seventh inning to before the game. As Cyphers and Tex conclude: “Other major league teams noticed the popular reaction to “The Star-Spangled Banner” in 1918, and over the next decade it became standard for World Series and holiday games. In subsequent years, through subsequent wars, it grew into the daily institution we know today.”

Today, it seems unusual to watch a sporting event at any level (with the exception of local, neighborhood recreation leagues) without the preemptive playing of the national anthem. It has become a practice so widely entrenched in sporting culture in the United States that any deviance from it is worthy of headline news. For example, when the small Mennonite college in Indiana, Goshen College, considered breaking from its pacifist-inspired tradition of not playing the anthem, it was covered by the New York Times.[1]

Considering the fact that Major League Baseball maintained its color barrier until Jackie Robinson played in his first game 28 years later in 1946, it is safe to say this practice originated almost exclusively under the auspices of White America’s sports experience. We should not be surprised then, to learn that the playing of the national anthem has often provided a platform for protests by African Americans. Tommie Smith and John Carlos provided what, historically, has been the most prominent racially-motivated protest during the anthem when they raised their closed, gloved fist during a medals ceremony in the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico. Smith and Carlos provided a most dramatic image of protest (they were, by the way, subsequently kicked off the team and sent back to the United States), but there have been many others as highlighted in an article in Monday’s New York Times.

Many people seem to assume the playing of the national anthem before sporting events is some kind of official legislative decree by the United State government when it is instead a longstanding, albeit it unofficial, tradition. In sports, which demand conformity (conformity to team rules, team uniforms, and the rules of the game), the playing of the national anthem provides a unique opportunity for athletes to make contrarian statements. This most recent iteration of protest was prompted by Colin Kaepernick during last NFL preseason. (Read the response of his fellow protestor Eric Reid here.) What seems to be often overlooked is that Kaepernick and Reid (as well as many others) have been motivated to conduct their protest because of their Christian faith. In the next post, I’ll examine the significance of symbols and the way that empires utilize symbols to indoctrinate and control their people. The national anthem is a prominent symbol, along with flags and war machines, and the United States government has a vested interest its propagandizing power. All of this should be  more unsettling to Christians than we often realize.


[Click here for Next Post in Series]

Life in a (THE) Swing State

If you’re following the political trail of the Presidential race, then chances are you are pretty tired of hearing about Ohio (and Pennsylvania and Florida) . . . but mainly Ohio.  Unless you’ve lived here during one of these very closely contested races, it is difficult for you to imagine the deluge of political propaganda that is thrown at us Ohioans.  Television, radio, Internet, door-to-door, posters, billboards, yard signs . . . it truly is incredible how important my vote has become.  One of the candidates is within a few miles of my house just about every week.  It’s a great opportunity for political education for my children – but what to teach them?

Really it’s just my son who’s old enough to pay attention to this election season and we’ve started fielding his questions – “Are we Republicans or Democrats?  Why are they saying those mean things about the President?  Are those things about Mitt Romney true?  Why do we have elections?’  and on and on we go.  While the challenges of explaining the electoral college to my seven-year-old go without saying, the real challenge I’m having is how do I help frame his reference through the perspective of a sovereign God who is control of everything – assuring him that no matter what happens, God is in control, while at the same time, encouraging biblically informed opinions and feelings about political matters.

I haven’t figured out the answer to this one, but I have been getting a lot of “how not to . . .” illustrations from other Christians in the media, on Facebook, among other places.  This is such a complicated issue, and I don’t have the energy to get into the complexity of it, but there is one specific shortcoming that has been really highlighted in this year’s Presidential election.

When Barack Obama ran for the highest U.S. office in 2008, one of the conversations I found myself having regularly with Conservatives had to do with their fear of his “liberal” Christian connection to people like Jeremiah Wright and his membership within the United Church of Christ.  Were they even Christians?  I talked to more than a few Christians who had serious doubts about that – and that really concerned them.  They were fearful of the idea of social justice (a specific target of a particular Glenn Beck episode I remember watching), of the politicizing of the UCC, among other things.  What has been particularly interesting in this year’s election is how that narrative has changed.  Granted, I have seen a speckling of concerns over Romney’s affiliation within the Mormon Church  here and there by Christians, but it has in no way been to the extent that Obama’s Christian heritage was attacked four years ago.

Obviously, the narrative has been altered in order to best benefit the candidate chosen by the GOP.  This year, perhaps more than any other, highlights how sticky the situation becomes when a religious groups become bedfellows with a particular political party.  Romney’s people know they have to give great care to the public image of his faith convictions.  They strongly state publicly his personal moral convictions about personal matters of morality that will resonate with the broader conservative Christian base, but keep the particulars of his ties to the Mormon church on the back page.

I’m not too interested in having a discussion about the awfulness (or greatness or indifferent-ness) of having a Mormon President.  What concerns me is how easily politically engaged Christians allow themselves to be duped by the media and spinsters – often while they are decrying the impact of the “liberal media” at the exact same time.  Shaking your fist at the established media outlets can give this sense that “I have done due diligence of not getting fooled by those mainstream liars,” and have a comrade with everyone else who says the same thing.  It has become the new rallying cry and the new uniter.  At the end of the day, though, the fact of the matter is we still allow our political ideology to dictate our feelings about things rather than an overflowing faith conviction.  Christians watch political news outlets and listen to their radio programs and then sprinkle some Scripture on top and feel we have a completely biblically justified political position.  Perhaps it is unfair to disconnect the two . . . however . . . in order to be as supportive of a President whose faith is based on, what most conservative Christians, at least, would say, a myth while challenging the faith of an Orthodox (though liberal) Christian illustrates this point poignantly.  We’re allowing ourselves to be united over political arguments that become more and more distant to biblical foundations.  It is easy to deceive ourselves and think that God is of a certain political persuasion (though we’d never admit that) and end up demonizing others – after all, that’s what all these political ads in Ohio do.

As I seek to provide political guidance for my children, I am working to show them the folly of image and hype.  That very image and hype of President Obama that Republicans believed won him the election in 2008 was sorely lacking during the last debate, and, ironically, many Republicans found themselves basking in the same conversation – “He looked great!’

The Christian narrative is one of peace, non-violence, loving the other, considering others before ourselves, taking care of those in need, providing for those who need provision . . . these concerns are all overtly political – unfortunately, seldom does the Christian allow their political narrative to BEGIN here!

Book Review: Who is my Enemy?

We all have a tendency to consume media and interact with people who make us feel comfortable and conform to our current patterns of thinking.  Republicans watch Fox News and listen to Rush, Hannity, and Beck while Liberals watch MSNBC and listen to . . . well, no one since liberals don’t tend to do radio well.  We like to be pushed and challenged, to an extent, but we usually prefer that to happen in extremely sanitized ways.  We tend to write people off the moment they register on our “not-like-me radar.” Whether we admit it or not, our subconscious is on a constant quest to discern certain key words or phrases from those we are talking with or reading to know whether or not we should dismiss them or listen intently to them.  What kind of language do they use?  What key phrases do they refer to?  Who do they reference and quote?  We all have our circles of comfort.

What I like about Lee Camp is that he tends to bring all of us to places of discomfort – probably one of the reasons a lot of people don’t bother with him.  Camp teaches at my alma mater, Lipscomb University, and is really one of their brightest and most audacious professors.   Having studied under John Howard Yoder at Notre Dame, Camp is on a lifelong quest to embody the pacifist, non-violent principles articulated by his academic mentor.  He says as much in his first book, Mere Discipleship.  There, he brings to life issues that are most often left to academic ramblings.  There, he teases out the practical implications of a Yoderan social politick in the life of the Christian.

Camp’s latest effort, Who is My Enemy?, is really a case study in following Jesus’ way of loving your enemy.  He begins by sharing his experience of delivering a lecture at a seminar on conflict resolution at Lipscomb University which addressed the relationship between Christians and Muslims.  Some of Camp’s comments, rightly or wrongly interepreted, set off a firestorm directed at Camp accusing him of everything from ignorance to cowardice.  This experience drove Camp to learn more about Islam and wrestle with Christians’ relationship with Islam (and Muslims, specifically).  The result is a jarring and, often, center-shaking work that all Christians should read – whether they think they’ll ever speak with a Muslim or not.

There is so much good in this book that I want to offer a few posts in which to share my reflections.  For full disclosure, I’m a big fan of Lee Camp and believe that he provides a very important voice among Christians, even though many people would be extremely troubled by his teaching (more on this later).  As a fellow Church of Christ-ite, he also represents my particular background underneath the Christian umbrella well.  While there certainly will be those who question Camp’s philosophy and some of his conclusions, it is difficult to ignore someone who actively pursues those who are different to humbly and peacefully engage in dialogue and share Christian love.  That may be what gives Camp’s words such power – a strong mixture of humility and Christian audacity.

Here’s a (not-too) brief first reflection . . .

One of the most compelling aspects of Camp’s book for me was rooted in an earlier work by William Cavanaugh in The Myth of Religious Violence.  We have all been taught that religions are insatiably violent by nature – at least in dealing with those who think differently than they do.  Their constant warring is largely to blame for many of our world’s problems.  In the West we are taught that Western civilization has solved the riddle to these problems: make religion a private concern.  That’s what has created our great nation of freedom.  The Muslim states, so we are told, have never figured that part out.

The question Cavanaugh raises in this pointed critique of what many take as “common sense,” is what constitutes religion?  How do we so easily assume that Islam is all tied up in the war-making rhetoric and actions of nations like Iran and Iraq, but Western nations like ours are freed of any religious integration?  Cavanaugh’s theory here is that “religion” was a creation of modern Western civilization.  Throughout history, there was no separation from religion and the rest of life.  Although we’ve tried with all of our might, it’s awfully hard to claim that the Bible makes any such claims.  Thus, the more we have attempted to make Christianity a “private religion” in our evolved Western state, the more we have neutered the Gospel as it was given to the first Christians.  The earliest persecuted Christians didn’t seem to think they had been converted to some kind of private personal piety, how could this have become the “common sense” articulation of the Gospel today?

Camp summarizes Cavanugh and makes the following point: “the ‘myth of religious violence’ posits that the violence of religion is unacceptable, but the violence of the secular state is either ignored or seen as legitimate.  The violence of religion is always necessarily irrational, but the violence of the state is seen as necessary for peacemaking.  Once this assumption is swallowed, the violence of the state is justified, overlooked, ignored, or even celebrated by Western Christians, all while believing that the solution is for Islam to become more Western.”  (113)  The end result is that the church has often become nothing more than what Camp calls a “lapdog for the state” and “chaplain for America.”

I know this is a bit jumbled (and long), I’ll try to engage in a little more succinct matter late this week.  I’ll end with this parable in which Camp further makes this point:

“A king went out to conquer, amassing great wealth and power.  There came to him a people who asserted that some other was king, whom they called ‘Lord of Lords.’  The king replied: you may freely worship this one you call, ‘lord,’ you may freely build your buildings and write your books and seek your converts to this one you call, lord,’ while I am your public king.  I shall make the laws, and you shall obey them.  I shall tell you what enemies to kill, and you shall kill them.  I shall give you a marketplace, and you shall seek to maximize your profits and keep all your profits, even at the expense of the poor, or the widow, or the stranger, and thence you shall pay taxes with which we shall wage war against all who threaten your freedom to worship your personal ‘lord.’

“And the people replied: We will gladly do as you say, O king.  Indeed, we shall obey your laws.  And we shall seek great profit and keep all for ourselves.  And we will kill your enemies, for you, O king, have allowed us to pray to our houses of worship, in the privacy of our closets.  Even more,  O king, because you have allowed us to worship thus, we will denounce all those who do not exalt you, and we will proclaim that you have granted us the right to worship, and we shall profess that any who do not obey your laws or maximize profit or kill your enemies are no servants of the private Lord of Lords.  We will hang your standard in our halls of worship, we will honor those who fight your wrars, and we will celebrate those who heedlessly maximize profit.  Oh, grand us such liberty as this, O King!

The king was pleased, and his new subjects served him well and were happy and satisfied.  (115-116)





Superman Not an American???

This little frame from the most recent Superman comic has created quite the platform for discussion.  My previous blog, God, Superman, and the Buckeyes, seems to be the perfect repository for much of recent big news (scandals at Ohio State, and now this??)  This is right in my wheel house.

A couple of years ago I published an article examining the ways in which media portrayals of heroes are little more than an extension of the state seeking to glorify national interests and solidify patriotism in children (think G I Joe, Superman, etc.)  The authors Jewett and Lawrence have done a lot of work in this regard from the perspective of American history.  It seems that this latest turn in the Superman saga sparks a potential follow-up article (which if I can find some time I’ll work on some day , but here are some initial thoughts).

There is little doubt that Superman is the archetypal American “mono-myth” (a term from Jewett and Lawrence).  After all, he has always fought for “truth, justice, and the American way.”  Created by Siegel and Shuster in 1938, the comic had World War II and the Cold War to foment Superman in the American psyche as extension of all that is good in American foreign policy.  2011, however, is a much different time than the 40’s and 50’s.  The global political landscape has changed so drastically that Superman is having to reinvent himself to make sense in today’s global world.

It will be interesting to watch the conservative backlash from this event (and to see if the comic creates a new storyline where Superman’s American citizenry is once again affirmed), and it is one of those instances where we can learn alot about people from popular culture.  No doubt, the underlying impasse for many will be the presupposition that Superman’s renunciation of his American citizenship is predicated on the idea that his quest for truth and justice (and freedom?) finds him at odds with the American economic and political policies in the world.

There’s much more to come on this . . . but I wanted to throw out some initial thoughts of mine . . .

Letter to my Libertarian Friend

I have a good friend from college who’s now a veterinarian in Northeastern Ohio.  He helps contribute to the website: XEKE.COM – I’m sure they’d appreciate your visit, especially those Libertarians who stop by here frequently 😉 I respect Ryan a great deal and I know he does me . . . we just look at the world differently, and banter back and forth on occasion.  He’s smart and respectful . . . just a little off when it comes to politics 😉  Ha!  Hopefully, this will provoke some helpful reflections from many.

I haven’t spent a good deal there, but as I looked over it today, I was compelled to put some thoughts together to share with him.  Mainly, I find it beneficial for my own thinking as I continually work through my own perspectives and test my own thoughts.  In addition, provided they purport to proclaim the name of Christ through their perspective, I thought I would add a pastoral voice.  After bantering through it a great deal, below is the final product I passed on to him earlier today.  I thought through a bunch of things, so I figured I’d post it here as some of you may appreciate looking at some of the issues I raise.

Hey . . . so I am apparently trying hard not to get any work done today and I, through a strange series of clicks that can only happen through our strangely connected world . . . ended up on your libertarian political website and felt (as you can imagine 🙂 compelled to respond.  The sheer divergence of our perspectives on the matters you address is incredible.  I always enjoy our quips back and forth as I test and trial to my philosophical constructs over against many others whose differ.

With a website like yours, it is especially challenging to engage in dialogue because the real dialogue has to take place at a very philosophical level – that’s clearly where we diverge.  So, choosing an issue or current event to go back and forth like talking leaves instead of the root.

I do have to do something today 🙂  so I’ll try to work through some thoughts on my own.  Maybe you can post them on your Reponses section – ha!
There’s a couple of thoughts just in general I’ll make – just kind of observations from looking at four of five articles on your website.  I’ll tell you first of all the vibe that’s most troubling.  It’s probably a personality thing more than anything, but I am constantly bothered by what I come away perceiving as a, “Everyone is morons and if they would just reason it (ie. if they were as smart as me) these problems would go away.”  I can imagine your response at this point would be, “I never said that,” and of course you didn’t, but it’s the vibe I get from watching most political conversations take place.  Glenn Beck is super good at it.  “I mean, I’m just telling you the facts and they must be blind because here it is in black and white . . .” and those on the Left and Right kind of both move according to that drumbeat.  If it was that easy – if all we had to do was look at the facts, these divisions wouldn’t exist, at least they wouldn’t be so sharp.  But that’s the thing, it isn’t just the facts.  I saw at one point you make the reference that you just were going to deal with the facts and ignore the emotions of one of your responder’s comments, as if the “truth” is more important and objective than the emotional response.  Perhaps it is, but it’s awfully presumptuous to believe that you are more privy to those facts and that truth than those who differ with you or could it be that their understanding of the truth has been forever compromised by a situation or experience.  We can rest assured that your response is free of any kind of emotional presupposition?  Often in your responses in regards to racism, in particular, you seem to say, “Just set aside any kind of prejudice or racism that you’ve experienced and just be reasonable.”  But who can do that?  Who can free themselves of their experiences and provide an objective perspective?  No one.  Those experiences are just as informative and important as any “objective” truth, fact, or statistic.  We are an incredible complexity made up of our experiences, educational background, and upbringing.  “Just stick to the facts.  Just stick to the truth.”  There’s always more than the facts.  There’s always more than the truth.  Conservatives like to drone on about the liberal bias of the media.  Fair enough, but let’s not presuppose, as many seem to do, that they’re offering (or can point us in the direction of) the REAL truth . . . the REAL facts (the rest of the story.)  How about saying it’s another perspective?  Maybe a better perspective?  Instead, it can easily wind up being (and I feel this is the way it often is in conservative outlets – maybe liberal too, but there are just way more conservative) well . . . hey, you’ve just been misled.  We love our little Youtube soundbytes and clips.  Whether it’s that clip you posted the other day about some congress woman being referred to as “Ma’am” or the crazy lady who’s made dumb comments about masturbation and witchcraft (SNL spoof was great by the way) – we can throw out all kinds of tidbits that support or challenge us.  The result is that no one can quote an article they’ve seen here or there, or a program they’ve watched because it’s full of blatantly misleading information  . . .  I’m not proposing a cure here, I just believe we (especially as Christians) have to admit our bias going in and move with humility.  How often can you associate that word in political discussions?  I don’t care what point we’re making or what side were arguing, if we can promote a spirit of humility and love through all that we do, we’d probably be doing pretty well.  What is the real value . . .in the end . . .of being right?  Perhaps God can do more in us when we are wrong.  Maybe God wants us to be wrong – to have our perspective shot to hell.
I, as you probably would imagine, am a pretty serious critic of Rand’s libertarian ideals and their enmeshment with the Bible.  With that said, I do not propose to be all that well informed as to the particulars of her philosophy, so you can disregard my critique as uninformed because it is that, however, I am becoming better educated through the recent surge of the tea party and similar Conservatives disillusioned with the established Republican party.  Also I have a slight familiarity with Alan Greenspan’s affinity to her politics and economics.  Interestingly, upon watching a documentary on PBS awhile back (again, here you can write if off as a product of the liberal media and cut me off at the legs, but I’m going forward as though it was reputable), the editors of Frontline proposed that the financial meltdown of 2008 was largely an identity crisis for Greenspan as it represented a challenge to unfurled individualism and capitalism and seemed to work to their ultimate fulfillment . . . and he was forced to go completely against his political and economic outlook in affirming the need for systemic intervention.  That’s about as deep in the water I can go on that matter for now . . .
I would be probably best labeled as a Christian anarchist who finds in the “kingdom of God” (an overt political image) an alternative society living in the here and now for Christians.  In short, my perspective is that you (and those espousing your ideology) have been co-opted by a political ideology that has polluted the Gospel.  Many Christians in your position (it has been my first hand experience) see more in common with a political ally who is not a Christian than a political foe who bears the name of Christ – illustrated in some of your questioning of Jeremiah Wright and (though I didn’t see it, I’m guessing) Ted Strickland – both ordained pastors.  Getting into all this who is a legitimate Christian and who isn’t is not the most productive conversation, but we’ve got to walk cautiously as we demonize other’s perspectives accordingly to their political labels.  While your website is certainly not even close to being the worst, you do raise questions about the validity of ministers based on a message you believe is “false.”  As an aside, much of what Wright teaches parallels the message of the minor prophets and their prophesying against Israel.  Those books aren’t often studied in white-suburban churches . . . they hit a little closer to home.  They are hard-hitting, in-your-face and have a very similar message to much of Wright’s words.  Overall, I’m not saying he’s off his rocker . . . I’m not saying he is . . . I’m saying he’s a Christian whose allegiance is first of all to the kingdom of heaven and should be judged by that first and not by politically-insensitive words.
Perhaps my best critique of your politic is this . . . Rand’s individualistic-driven libertarianism highlights a Western individualism run amok of the Gospel.  It’s Teddy Roosevelt’s “rugged individualism” disguised as some kind of quasi-Christianity.  It completely sets aside the communal nature of the Eastern context of Scripture.  It elevates individual moral decisions over systemic accountability.  (Ie. Jeremiah Wright is judged by his “racist” statements – thus he’s not a Christian, regardless of any kind of systemic impact that he may have on the kingdom.  “All fall short . . .” you know that spiel . . . one of my biggest critques of conservative politics is that it emphasizes personal moral convictions while often ignoring – or at least diminishing the place of larger systems issues of sin in society.)

I wanted to find one matter from your writing that helps illustrate my overarching concern for the perspective you are promoting (in the name of Christ).  Could you please justify the following statement based on a Christ-inspired, kingdom-centered perspective?

“Illegal aliens do not, and should not, receive the same civil rights that true Americans receive. The idea that a pregnant illegal alien can illegally enter our country, give birth to her “anchor baby,” and all of a sudden her child is a citizen is a joke and a fraud. True, we do have THE best medicine in the world. True, our health care system is THE best health care system in the world. True, socialized medicine has failed every where in the world it has been forced upon its people. That being said, a woman who illegally enters our country has no rights, her child has no rights, and tax payers dollars should never go toward health care, education, welfare, etc. to an illegal alien.”
I don’t now which of you wrote this statement (it’s kind of old, but I think the illegal immigrant discussion is a good one to help talk us through some of the ways our kingdom perspective has been co-opted).  By the way . . . the use of inflammatory words (or at least, extreme words) like “a joke” and “a fraud” show that your arguments are not free of emotion either.  But to my point, I find this series of statements disheartening, unfortunate, and, I believe, contrary to the mind of Christ.  To say that anyone has “no rights” is to co-opt the message of Christ for a much more narrow civic message (America).  How does this perspective jive with Paul’s words that in Christ there is “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female”?  I have a suspicion your perspective is that Paul is aiming this perspective at those within the church – whom he no doubt is.  However, it is the life of Christ enacted in the early church.  To be honest . . . I have no side in the argument that “a woman who illegally enters our country . . . tax payer dollars should never go toward health care, education, welfare, etc.”  The Christian has no role in the government – that’s my prevailng thought.  However, I believe it is more in the mind of Christ that my tax dollars go to providing food for this woman than to building another nuclear weapon.  Would you agree?  I think you’d have to do some kind of hermeneutical gymnastics to find a text that would be more supportive of government defense than welfare.  Of course, I completely deny the idea that there is something redemptive in violence – that shows my bias.  There’s some OT texts I struggle with . . . but there’s some NT texts I hope you are struggling with.  As Christians our concern is that the less fortunate and down-trodden are taken care of – I don’t care how it happens.  In the OT, the rich were told to give up what they had so that the poor would be taken care of (leaving gleanings from their fields, the Jubilee year, etc.)  Don’t get caught up in this idea that the Bible eschews socialism at every turn – it’s easier to make a biblical case for socialism than capitalism (consider at an elementary level, which sounds more in line with Christ? a system where the poor and disenfranchised are taken care of by leveling wealth or a system that is based on individualism and competition . . . hard to justify either of these latter on the grounds of biblical texts . . . the argument that the former requires “stealing” from the wealthy . . . well, I don’t know . . . I just know that is the way the entire OT system was laid out . . . and it was never called “stealing.”
OK, I got off topic here for a minute . . . let me make my main point.  I believe the main philosophical underpinning dividing us is that you make a clear distinction between the morals and structure of the civic authorities that I do not.  In order to espouse your position, you have to.  A lot of this comes down to how we interpret Romans 12 and 13.  Chapter 13 is everyone’s favorite passage about submitting to the govt. and right after that we’re told they are given the authority of the sword.  However, right before this in chp. 12 Paul tells Christians not to repay evil for evil but allow God’s wrath to fall.  A clear contradiction – either Christians should be involved in violence or not.  To say they can be under the guise of the state, you have to create that dichotomy – there are things the state can do and has been empowered to do and somehow in the end the means will be justified.  I cannot follow this line of logic.  I believe that the message of Christ completely flipped that mindset upside down.  He said the means must always justify the end.  This means we stand in the face of horrific events like WWII and raise our hands unable to take up swords against what we perceive to be a major evil and surrender our lives trusting that God will move.  God will make it right.  Upon our death, we are left to point the accusing finger at Him for we have refused to continue to contribute to the un-ending cycle of violence.  It largely comes down to our view of the unfolding of history as well.  I believe God is in control of history and that I have nothing to worry about: not the Democrats (or Republicans) or Socialists taking over Washington, not Iran’s nuclear program, not the crisis in Darfur, not global warming . . . I believe the church is called to minister in all these areas . . . the church is the most significant power in our world . . . and it is therefore so disappointing when we give that respect and title over to any government (which many appear to do in their incredibly high view of the U. S. Constitution).

So . . . there’s a long rant that got me out of an hour’s worth of work . . .now I really have to get something done.  I feel compelled to work through some of these issues at times, not necessarily to convince you or anyone else that my opinion is right, but to help me think and pray through my own position.  Much of what I’ve written here challenges you and your perspective fundamentally and I would imagine it will be hard for us to find a middle ground, for the lack of a better image, or even points of contact.  I would encourage you to read some Mennonite and neo-anabaptist theology.  I appreciate your political involvement and concern, I would just encourage you to throw the net out further . . . read from a broader pool, especially when it comes to theology.  There’s an emerging school of theology from the liberation theology camp . . .they’ve been tampering through their emergence in Latin American countries and attempts are being made at shaking out some of its excesses, and I believe, by the time you and I are old, this will be a major perspective among all Western churches.  It’s often called post-colonial theology.  I know we mostly like to read the stuff that agrees with our perspective and ushers us on forward . . . but there is great value for me as I sit and listen to Glenn Beck’s nonsense every few weeks 😉  I make an effort to expose myself only to as much of this that is helpful and upbuilding . . . much of it is not . . . look over much of the writing you’ve done in this camp and ask yourself, where am I most productive?  Where am I building the biggest bridges for Christ?  Don’t get caught up in the addictive realm of politics  . . .

Hope this is helpful . . . at some point or another . . . it has been for me .  . . hope you and the fam are well!  Thanks again for our frequent FB exchanges!
And . . . to something we can agree upon . . . GO BUCKS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!   😉
By the way  .  .  . since I’ve taken so long to type this out, I’ll copy this and put in on my blog for my post this week.  I look forward to the conversation.


Glenn Beck and Dealing in Politics

I have made it pretty clear through my posts here that I believe the American political system has compromised much of the Gospel in the American church. It has become difficult to discern the Gospel from the right wing political alignment of the Religious Right. There is certainly a wealth of disagreement when it comes to the nature of the Gospel and politics. Whenever I have some time, I’ll be taking some time to study and work through some of the more critical matters involved here – I’ve recently just touched the surface. I foresee a discourse on Romans 13 coming soon.

For now, I want to take a moment and post a thought or two about Glenn Beck. I used to tune into his show occassionally just to stay abreast of what his very influential show is teaching. I would get so frustrated in watching it I came to the conclusion that it wasn’t very beneficial for me to participate. However, I went to the gym last week and, his show on one of the televisions, I caught wind of his recent attacks on the “social justice” movement. As someone who has read a good bit in this area, I was intrigued as to what this great conspiracy was holding.

I actually dvr-ed the Glenn Beck show (never thought I would do that!) and, when I later watched what ensued, to say that I was outraged, disappointed, saddened, and appalled all at the same time wouldn’t do justice to the range of negative emotions I felt. What Beck says doesn’t bother me much – he is what he is; an entertainer, a personality, larger than life – all that. What I found so appalling was to see two prominent figures in the American church standing behind his shadow and mimic his agenda. All you conservative friends, keep in mind, I have no political allegiance – what appalled me wasn’t so much the Republicanism (I’m used to that) it’s their compromise and public debunking of fellow Christians . . . right next to Mr. Latter Day Saint, Glenn Beck. Beck’s LDS is another topic for another day . . . what I find so amazing is that, by their actions, the president of the leading Reformed seminary (Westerminster) and wellknown evangelical (from Liberty University) more closely align their ideology and perspectives from someone from a false teaching – the LDS than from a liberal-voting evangelical Christian (though they didn’t come right out and say it).

I have been looking for some perspective in addressing this sensitive matter. No doubt any posting in this regard will stir quite a flurry of comments and downright arguing. Is it possible to avoid that? Perhaps not. I found this blog posting over at Vanguard Church that I think has helped me focus this on the pertinent matter.

Glenn Beck is a false prophet. That’s the title of his post . . . and I think Bob, the blog’s author, is getting at the issue. I keep hearing people – Christians – crying out that we can’t get involved in politics, that we must remain neutral. I know what they are saying. I’m not in complete disagreement. However, Glenn Beck’s false teaching and compromise of the Gospel must be addressed. It is perhaps here more than anywhere else where the church’s Constantinian compromise most vividly comes alive. I just read a book by Alan Hirsch entitled The Fogotten Ways. The point is about how the methodology of the church has been compromised by culture to the point that we can no longer envision another kind of church. At one point he makes the point, “the template of this highly institutional version of Christianity is so deeply embedded in our collective psyche that we have inadvertently put it beyond the pale of prophetic critique.” (p. 51). The point of the book is more about the form and life blood of church but I make the same accusation of the church’s involvement with politics. We have become so compromised by political power and might that we have lost our way – we can have put ourselves beyond the pale of prophetic critique.

I don’t expect most people who read this to agree with me. I know my audience much too well. My hope is that you can take a moment and look inside yourself. What factors have led you to these political ties and perspectives that you hold so dearly? Why do you get so energized in the midst of these conversations? Could you be wrong?

I will share this on Facebook . . . not sure that’s the best idea . . . but I hope you can engage in constructive dialogue . . . no matter what your perspective.

Helpful Fruit #4 – A Tradition of Pacifism

It was a trip to Columbus, OH that sealed my fate as a pacifist. I live in Columbus now, but at the time I was living, working, and going to school in Nashville, TN. I was working for a church in Nashville and had been invited to join a couple other former Buckeye residents to their yearly trek to the Ohio State – Michigan football game. I’ll spare you the details (Buckeyes lost, John Cooper fired . . . really, really cold), but the connection to pacifism had to do with the car ride back to Nashville from Columbus. Two friends from church invited me, and one of the friend’s brothers also came and provided our transportation.

Our foray into politics began while we were overnighting Friday at a friend’s house and the topic of the recent election came up. Somehow, (I don’t remember the details of the conversation, but if it was anything like most political conversations I’ve taken part in with Christians, the beginning presupposition of everyone present being a registered Republican probably played a role), the other men found out that I had voted for Al Gore. This (absurd, in their eyes) reality, opened us up to a weekend of political conversation and debate.

Even at that time, I had my suspicions about the benefit of a Christian being involved in the political process (even the less evil democratic political system), but had continued to meddle in the quasi-liberal-slanted perspective of my upbringing. Attending a private Christian school in the South immediately placed me in a smaller minority than the ethnic minorities at the not-long-ago-segregated campus of my alma mater.

It takes approximately six hours to drive from Columbus to Nashville, and that Saturday, after the game was over, our six-hour commute was solely focused on politics. The conservation moved from light joking about the parties, to the serious concern they had over my vote . . . and as I came to find out, my soul. The most tense moment came when the driver challenged anyone to, “Name one good thing Bill Clinton did for this country!” As a college student, that was pretty easy to do because the former President had help sign into legislation a huge college education assistance program that I had benefited from. “He had gotten me a few extra thousand dollars to attend college.” Sounded like something good to me. Turns out, my traveling companion did not see this as in any way “good.” His response began sternly, and grew louder to the point of a yelling crescendo, “It’s my money and I worked my ass off for it, and why should I be paying for your college tuition?” The car sat in silence for quite awhile. Finally, as the tension began to lift a bit, I tried to make the point that I really had no dog in the fight. I wasn’t card-carrying for anyone. My point was simply to force my companions into considering the biblical texts that didn’t easily jive with their political views. “What about Acts 2 and 4 where the Christians met together and sold all they had and shared all they had?” I asked. “And how does the Old Testament practice of jubilee connect with your Right wing political stances?” These were questions they had never been asked before – really, they had never been asked these questions!

I relay this story not to characterize everyone with one broad-sweeping stroke. Certainly, politics are complicated and generalizations are seldom helpful. This experience, however, opened my eyes to the negative side of politics and the divisive and explosive discussions that often result. These events occurred nearly a decade ago, and the United States has grown even more divided along political lines. What a breath of fresh air a church who focused more on kingdom politics than on the tirelessly fallen politics of the nation would be! Never has the world needed the prophetic voice of the church to live out a nonpartisan politic who concerns herself with matters of justice, mercy, and righteousness.

In recent years, pacifism has grown in attention paid by Christian theologians. Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw brought some more academic concepts from people like John Howard Yoder and Jacques Ellul to a more popular-level, lay Christian audience through their book: Jesus for President. Other scholars and pastors like Gregory Boyd, Lesslie Newbigin, and a host of others, are receiving wide readership and extensive exposure. As the West continues to broaden its perspective through the advances of technology and mass media, global concerns are becoming prevalent, and for many Christian traditions, their theological structure is incapable of productive dialogue in this setting.

In my years in seminary at Lipscomb University, it came as a huge surprise that this private Christian school with an overwhelming pro-Republican undertone, actually bears the name of one of America’s most important Civil War-era Christian pacifists (and I don’t think this is overstated): David Lipscomb. In fact, it turned out, Churches of Christ have a ripe tradition of pacifism. Lipscomb’s 1913 work, Civil Government, represents what might be one of the most overlooked and under-appreciated documents produced in America on the topic of pacifism. [The full version of Lipscomb’s work is available online here.]

Scholars in Churches of Christ continue to maintain this longstanding tradition – most notably through the work of Lee Camp (Lee has written the very popular Mere Discipleship, and hosts the Tokens program at Lipscomb) and Michael Casey (“the topic about which he was most passionate and which forms the largest corpus of his published materials was that of pacifism in Churches of Christ . . .” from preface of And the Word Became Flesh, essays written in his honor published this year.) Lipscomb University also has faculty member Richard Goode who teaches in the history department who has been especially formative in my experience, even in my limited interaction with him. In short, the pacifist tradition in Churches of Christ is alive in well . . . at least in the academy.

The challenge before us as ministers within the tradition is to bridge the gap between the isolated tower of academia and the every-day life of the church. In my early years of ministry I see no message as desperately needed in the face of mounting political divisions as this one. At the same time I have experienced the loudest and most acute backlash from conversations in this vein. Nationalism has become the most uniting characteristic of our churches: progressive and conservative churches are equally as likely to sing patriotic hymns in their service and display the American flag prominently in their building.

Certainly, pacifism stands as one of the more hopeful fruits of our tradition. It is also, however, one of the most challenging in teaching and discussing. It is widely said the two topics to avoid in public conversations are politics and religion. What this topic does is jump head first into them both. When it comes to our political allegiances, Churches of Christ are as guilty as any other Christian group of losing our way. It is important for us to rekindle the thoughts and ideas of our pacifist forefathers . . . and be reminded that these are not novel ideas – as the accusation sometimes is made. Not only is there a great history of pacifism within the broader Christian church, closer to home, Churches of Christ share in this rich tradition. We must learn to not be afraid of talking about politics, but we must reframe the conversation. We must overcome the unnecessary obstacles that we have placed in front of those who differ politically and open our minds to a new political reality, a politics of the kingdom of God.

This is not a call for being anti-political (a charge I have been accused of). Quite the contrary, this is a call for a renewed orientation, for allowing God to set our political agendas instead of our governments, and for realizing that our politic is our life, not our vote. We must allow our political agendas to be caught up in the vision of God, not the latest candidate to ascend to power. May Christ grant us some sanity when it comes to charged political matters. May he grant us the confidence and vision of the prophets to speak the Word of God. Those of us in Churches of Christ stand in a great tradition to be able to do so, may we be bold in taking up that calling.