Monday, January 25, 2010

What Can You Do for Haiti?

Maybe just watch this and get some ideas:

With the Haiti earthquake and devastation still on all of our hearts, Bethany Christian Services is inviting you to attend a national webinar called "Haiti & Beyond" to learn more about what you can do to help the many children of Haiti and other countries around the world. We have been overwhelmed and are so appreciative for the thousands of people who have contacted us and are interested in donating, volunteering, taking children into their homes, and so much more to help the children in Haiti.

In response to all of this interest, we will be conducting a webinar from 3 to 4p.m. EST on Wednesday, January 27. There is no charge for this webinar and the login instructions are below. This webinar is open to the public and will be recorded and available to watch online at a later date. As our focus is on finding families to help children, please invite others who may be interested.

If you are unable to attend and would still like to donate to help make sure orphans in Haiti are having their basic needs met, please visit the above website to donate to the Haiti-Earthquake Recovery fund.

To login for the webinar please go here to view the instructions. It will be helpful for you to login by approximately 2:45 p.m. EST. We look forward to having you join us Wednesday afternoon!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

What Gets In Front of Your Gospel? Or, the answer to the perennial question, "Who is buried in Grant's Tomb?"

Question, "Who is buried in Grant's Tomb?"
Answer, "Who cares?'

I have lived in the South for 14 of the last 16 years, and in the deep South for 9 of those years. So, I know about, and have experienced a bit, the race issue. I know, for instance, that not all Southerners are racists, nor were they in the past. I know that all racism is not of one kind, either. And, I know that many, if not most, Southern white folk would love to leave the race issue far in the rear view mirror. It is an embarrassment, a blot on an otherwise fine region of the country.

But, then there is always the sad spectacle of what happens on and around Martin Luther King Day. And, I am trying to understand that. The news headlines inevitably and appropriately focus on the King day celebration. Flawed prophet that he was (as all prophets are flawed), he led a movement that ended segregation in the South, and elsewhere.

Living in an impoverished city that is majority African American, I know that post-desegregation history has not been all sweetness and light, for white or black. Officially desegregated whites often segregated themselves by income into suburbs and private education.

But, as a suburbanite, I rejoice that my children had an African American principal, and my son had a fine African-American teacher. It does my heart good to go to a school and see not only black children and white children, but Asians and Indians. And, this in Mississippi. This is good.

But, the jarring reality of life in the New South still includes the matter of race and history. How bizarre that, while many gather to celebrate the achievements of Dr. King and those who followed him, a small group of Southerners get misty eyed around the Confederate battle flag, and commemorate Robert E. Lee?

The South, more than any other region of the country, is a place captivated by wispy, romanticized myth --think Gone with the Wind, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, and almost anything written about New Orleans. Southerners romanticize the past. That is not to say that most people long for the days of manorial estates, hoop skirts, cotillions, and Negro spirituals wafting up from the slave quarters. No, we live in the twenty-first century, but southerners do look at the past under a romantic patina --glossing over the ugliness of slavery, and fire hoses, and murdered children without justice for decades.

Just as in our own lives, we need to look deep into our own hearts, and come to terms with our own sin, I think that each region of the country needs to look its past full in the face. We need to understand our presuppositions, our opinion-forming myths, and be able to look at these in the light of the gospel.

The Southerner immediately protests that the North was godless, Unitarian, heartless, and just as racist, and that the federal government grew tyrannical. The case can be made. What's the difference? The North doesn't celebrate U. S. Grant. Even the celebrations of Lincoln are not pseudo-religious in nature any more. He gets (rightful) credit for freeing the slaves. Nobody weeps at Grant's tomb.

And, they will also often protest that the Civil War was not about slavery. That claim is not completely without merit. The Civil War was the product of many influences and much history, and not about one thing. Mostly, it was about wounded honor, I think, as I hope to demonstrate below.

One of my college history professors explained the Late Unpleasantness in terms of the civil strife between the Cavaliers and Roundheads in Merry Olde England. England was not so merry in the seventeenth century. Kings and Queens rose up and slaughtered Protestants, Protestants beheaded kings. The Roundheads were the followers of Cromwell --Puritans, merchant and middle class, untitled rising wealth. They were, in short, Yankees. They settled Massachusetts, Connecticut, and all of New England. The kings were ready to be rid of them --let them have their Holy Commonwealth. The Puritans developed (or were heir to) a culture built on justice --it is not hard to see where John Adams got his sentiment "A republic of laws, and not of men."

The Cavaliers were the landed nobility, the warriors of the status quo. And, cavalier culture was built not on justice, but honor. Losing face was the cardinal sin. The loss of honor was a stain that lasted throughout generations. And, the Cavaliers shaped the cultural mythos of the South --though they themselves were soon outstripped in numbers by the Scots and others. People are at a loss to explain the contradiction that was Thomas Jefferson --against slavery, but holding and profiting from and likely fathering children with, slaves. Or to explain the contradiction that was Strom Thurmond --an outspoken segregationist who carried on a torrid love affair with an African American.

But, these are no strange things in an honor culture. Look at Italy and omerta, or the Middle East with its ancient grudges and self-immolating zeal for honor , and one will again see similarities. Justice societies think in terms of guilt or innocence, right or wrong. Honor societies think in terms of offense or shame --why Arab fathers will murder their own daughters for dressing too provocatively. Sin is not guilt measured by an impersonal standard so much as it is betrayal against a person.

All of this explains why the War of Northern Aggression still sits so heavily on the Southern heart. It is not just a matter of a lost war, but the overweening vengeance of the victor in the period after the war. Grant and Lincoln were far more favorably disposed towards rebuilding the South than the Radical Republicans were --and they did no Southerner, black or white, any good.

And, it also explains the Klan (which was despised by most patrician Southerners, and opposed heroically by some) and George Wallace (who, again patrician Southerners despised), and why Emmett Till and Medgar Evers didn't get justice for thirty years or more, and why a Detroit housewife named Viola Liuzzo was shot in the face.

So some Southerners nurse the wounded pride of the lost cause. But, let's be clear about what that cause was. It was a cause of building wealth off another man's labor. It was the cause of breeding humans like livestock, of stealing children from tribe and family, of splitting up families, of opposing evangelization of the slave population, of rape and beatings. And, in the twentieth century, it was the cause of bombing churches and murdering little girls in a church, and murdering anyone working for change, and barring entrance to universities because they had the temerity to eat at a lunch counter or not move to the back of the bus or enroll at Ole Miss, that halcyon and hallowed institution.

And, the question, after all this, is, "Christian, is Robert E. Lee worth putting in front of the gospel?" Lee was a man of sterling character, a person worthy of esteem in many regards, a true gentleman and a Christian. But, none of that matters now. If the white church holds him up as some sort of paragon of Christian virtue, what are our chances for reaching our African-American neighbors with the gospel?

Some will protest that this is "their" problem, if it offends "them." Scripture says we ought not to eat meat if by our eating we destroy our brother for whom Christ died. And, more pointedly, Scripture says that race pride is a practical denial of the gospel, and that those who practice it within the church may just forfeit the kingdom.

I love the South and its history. I labor to understand it. I think it needs to look its history square in the face, and by the power of the gospel, turn away from it.

What Gets In Front of Your Gospel? Or, the answer to the perennial question, "Who is buried in Grant's Tomb?"

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Controlling the Narrative, or the Winner Gets to Write the History

Mr. Billy Flynn sings the Press Conference Rag. Notice how his lips never move....almost

One does not have to be a literary deconstructionist to realize that formative sentences can shape people's opinions almost subconsciously. Think of Satan in the garden. What did he do? He seized the narrative from Eve. What do I mean by narrative? Simply our recollection of events, and our interpretation of those things --culture shaping myths, etc.

So Satan says, "Did God really say you may not eat of any of the trees of the garden?" Satan was not stupid. He knew what God said, and he knew that Eve knew. What he was doing was introducing doubt by sneaking past her intellectual defenses, getting her to buy his presupposition.

And Eve buys it, hook, line, and sinker. "We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, 'You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die." God is not really good. Who is God to hold back on me? Who does he think he is, to put a tree there, and tell me not to eat of it. I mean, we can't even touch it. And it is so beautiful, after all. Surely a good God would allow me to have that.

So, she reaches out and grabs it. So she shall be like God --see, he's not much of a God after all, if he puts his godhood on a tree to be grabbed by any passerby. It is so ludicrous when one looks at it now --and yet, this is precisely what happens when someone seizes control of the narrative. Good, sensible people lose all contact with reality.

One can, now, by reading William Shirer, or watching snippets of Leni Riefenstahl's The Triumph of the Will, see a prime example of this. How could one of the most technologically advanced peoples in the world, the home of the world's greatest universities, its greatest composers, and many of its greatest authors --a culture built upon the good, the true, and the beautiful, believe the fantastical lies of a vagabond Austrian peasant. His very visage was a contradiction of all he endeavored to promote --Hitler didn't look Aryan in the least. By force of his will, he seized control of the narrative. He got people thinking: the cause of the depredation of the German state in the first world war was not a delusional kaiser, but the exploitation of the western powers, in collusion with the Jews who held the economic reins and destroyed the economy. Germany is great, and deserves greatness, but to achieve that, we must execute vengeance on our enemies.

Now, this is pure poppycock. But, it illustrates the point. Good, thoughtful, earnest, and even Christian people (several prominent orthodox Lutheran theologians, and Abraham Kuyper, Jr. among them) bought the narrative, and closed their eyes to the atrocities (one can see this reality powerfully portrayed by Burt Lancaster in Judgment at Nuremberg).

What happens on the world stage happens in every smaller aggregation of humanity, too. It can happen in families --witness Tennessee Williams masterful, haunting, and disturbing Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, or Kazan's On the Waterfront. Lies told so often, or the truth twisted so subtly that everyone buys it without considering for a moment that it all might be a sham.

Satan is the master of subtlety --that often seems to be his chief talent. Most can recognize outright lies if they are told boldly. But, Satan lays careful groundwork for his big lie --he is the father of lies, indeed. He does not tell Eve the big lie --"you surely shall not die, but you shall be like God" --until he has hooked her unawares.

Cultures that prize honor often rest on a bed of lies --both Williams and William Faulkner made their living off their firsthand experiences with a tragic Mississippi upbringing. I can know something bad about you, and you can even know that I know it, and as long as neither of us speak of it, then all will be well. But, if one of us does, then we must duel....which explains everything from the Klan to the murder of Emmett Till, and why the outside world acted with such incomprehension that these things could happen in this country in the modern era, and justice be delayed till decades later.

At the same time, it explains the untold heroism of many in the South, and their ability to use status and position to counter in part the baleful effects of the honor system upon an oppressed race. LeRoy Percy, uncle of Walker, and Southern statesmen, used his patrician clout to turn back the Klan from the most Southern of Southern places. The courageous press of several Delta towns did, as well. Good men can triumph over bad narrative.

The current health care debacle is a similar effort by its partisans to control the narrative. They have made a wager --as much bad press they will receive (they reckon), it is far less than they would receive if such deliberations were made bi-partisan, or opened to public scrutiny. This is always a gamble, but history proves that broken political promises and the gory details of the sausage-making process are quick to dissipate simply because of our short cultural attention span. All massive social change eventually becomes status quo --who in the public sphere today questions the existence of social security, Medicaid / Medicare, or the existence of the welfare state. Some quibble, some want reform, some want to cut back, but no politician who wants to win would ever argue for their dismantling --liberal or conservative.

And, sad to say, this phenomenon happens in churches. Historians have long puzzled how Jonathan Edwards, the leading light of his or any subsequent theological era, a famous pastor, and one of the three most notable preachers of his day, was summarily dismissed from his pulpit. No historian has adequately explained why. It could just be that a narrative started in the church against him.

Paul himself was the victim of this narrative robbery in Corinth. He was accused of profiting from the gospel, called a coward, and a man with no pulpit talent. The narrative was seized by his enemies.

And, I have seen this happen to at least one very good man, and I am sure that it happens again and again. Just like old Horton the elephant, the whispering campaigns of the one Jane Kangaroo can end with the extermination of an entire species.

Why talk about this? So we can try to be objective when it begins to happen. How can it be stopped? First, it is stopped by treating gossip as serious sin. Gossip is not just slander, but the passing of information with implied judgment (wink and nudge), the subtle introduction of a person's inadequacies, the magnification of their faults (and everyone is open to this, because, alas, there are no super-human church leaders), and an interpretation of events that lends support to ones cause until it all ends up in one toxic mess.

And the worst result is not the dismissing of a pastor, but the downfall of a church. And, I have heard of churches very sorry for what they had done when they woke up and realized it. But, alas, there is no turning back.

Satan is subtle, and we must never give him a foothold to shift our thinking. We must control the narrative --or, even better, listen ardently to the Spirit of Truth.