Ten (or more) Lessons from Ferguson


    Recently I read an article by Jeremy Smith, in United Methodist Insight, in which he wondered why more  clergy did not speak out on the events of Ferguson, Missouri.  In the article, Smith insists that when we don’t speak out about injustice, we make it seem that we aren’t responsible for things that happen far away from us.  In his words, “When I don’t speak up, I help turn the response into a pocket and not a whole garment of the human experience crying out for justice. “  He’s right of course, but I have a hard time speaking out about events like those in Ferguson because I am so personally ignorant, confused and conflicted by them.
    I’m a white guy and I grew up with the privileges that come with that.  Our family was far from wealthy, but I haven’t suffered from the subtle or overt discrimination that my non-white friends did.  I have not been pulled over by the police for “Driving While Black.”  I have no idea what that must be like. 
    I know that because I am white I do not fully appreciate all of the issues in play in the mess that is Ferguson, MO nor do I feel the impact of those events personally, as people of color undoubtedly do.  I know that anything I say about these events will lack understanding.   But Jeremy Smith is right, keeping silent allows injustice to continue and so I feel like I have to say something. 
    As followers of Jesus Christ we are called to stand against injustice, and there has been plenty on every side.  Not long ago, a colleague of mine posted a link to an article (to which I will not provide a link) that was so filled with hatred of hate and racism that it became hateful and racist itself.  In opposing racism, it named anyone who disagreed, for any reason, or for any principle, as a racist.  That sort of language is unhelpful and it doesn’t help any of us to think clearly.

    So here are ten lessons that we can learn from the mess that is sorting itself out (and will be for years) in Ferguson, MO:

1)      There is never an excuse to hate someone whose skin is a different color, simply because their skin is different color.  It isn’t okay to hate someone because they are black but neither is it okay to hate someone because they are not.
2)      In a town that has a population with a majority of African Americans, it is inconceivable that the police department can’t find African American recruits or that the imbalance should be so substantial.  As I understand it, the federal government is investigating this disparity, and they should.
3)      When there is injustice it should be okay to protest that injustice. Peacefully.

4)       Protests about injustice should not devolve into riots in which property is destroyed and innocents are put in the hospital, and worse.
5)      It’s not okay to use injustice as an excuse to cause injustice.
6)      It’s not okay to hurt someone who is on your side, just because they are the wrong color.
7)      It’s not okay (nor is it helpful) to destroy the businesses that have supported an abused community to make the point that the community has been abused.
8)      To say that it’s NOT okay doesn’t go far enough, it is flat out wrong, offensive, and even criminal, for the police department to try to disperse a riot by showing up dressed and equipped for a war.  Uniforms and weapons of war have no place on our streets.  I have no idea why anyone thought that showing up with M-16’s and armored personnel carriers was going to bring peace.
9)      While it is important, even necessary, for the media to have access to the story and for the story to get a wide distribution, there is a point at which the media becomesthe story.  From several stories that I read, from several very different media outlets, a point was reached when most citizens had gone home and rioters appeared, many from out of town, simply because the media was there.  I don’t know how we could, and we probably can’t and shouldn’t place restrictions on media access, but when the media’s presence makes the violence worse, something needs to be done.  Perhaps the media outlets themselves can agree on some sort of code of conduct, or organize a media pool as is often done in wartime, to share stories and prevent an area from being mobbed by reporters.
10)   As to who is guilty in the original event that triggered this mess, I have to admit that the conflicting reports in the media make me unsure.  A young man is dead and shouldn’t be.  I don’t know who is at fault, but I am sure that a careful investigation is needed.  I am also sure that the Ferguson Police are not the ones who should do the investigating.  In Ohio, it is standard procedure for accusations against social workers to be investigated by a neighboring (outside) social service agency.  Perhaps police departments ought to do the same with any officer involved shooting.
    Ultimately, there is plenty of fault to go around.  Ferguson may not be a “Perfect Storm” where everything went wrong, but a whole lot still went wrong.  The police got it wrong, the protestors got it wrong, the media got it wrong, and probably a few others as well.  But in every case, we, the people of God, the church, need to find a way to fight against injustice. 
All injustice. 
    We need to speak up against institutional racism.  We need to speak out against a police force that is preparing and equipping to fight a war against its own citizens.  We need to speak out against rioters who overshadow legitimate protestors and also against a media machine that makes problems worse instead of better.
    As followers of Jesus Christ, we are called to be salt and light to the world.  We are called to stand against injustice.  We are supposed to be doing all we can to make things better.
    The events of Ferguson, MO make it clear that no matter where we live, regardless of our race, we have a LOT of work to do.

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This is not Barbeque Day

(Reprinted from Memorial Day 2012)
    
    Today is not barbeque day.  It is not “just” a part of “just another” long weekend.  Today is not dedicated to automobile races and baseball games.  Today is not another excuse to go camping.  Today we have gathered here to remember.  We have not come to thank our veterans; we do that in November, but to remember those who have fallen, those who have given their lives, so that we might have freedom and liberty.  We gather to remember men and women for whom words like duty, honor, and country have meaning and because of whom, these words are themselves more meaningful.

    During the War in Vietnam, Marine Private First Class Gary Martini, braving intense enemy fire, raced through an open field to drag a fallen comrade back to a friendly position.  Seeing a second fallen Marine just 20 meters from the enemy position, Martini once again risked his life to bring the man back to safety.  Upon reaching the fallen Marine, Martini was mortally wounded but continued to drag his comrade back to his platoon’s position, telling his men to remain under cover.  As he finally struggled to pull the man to safety, Private First Class Martini fell and succumbed to his wounds.

     Sergeant First Class Paul Smith, while under enemy fire in Iraq, organized the evacuation of three soldiers who had been wounded in an attack on their vehicle.  Sergeant Smith manned the machine gun mounted on their vehicle, maintaining an exposed position as he engaged the enemy forces, allowing the safe withdrawal of wounded soldiers.  He was mortally wounded in the attack but not before killing as many as 50 enemy fighters in order to save his injured comrades.

    During the Second World War, First Lieutenant Jack Mathis, flying a bomb run over Vegesack, Germany, was hit by enemy antiaircraft fire.  His right arm was shattered above the elbow, and he suffered a large wound on his side and abdomen.  Knowing that the success of the mission depended upon him, Lieutenant Mathis, mortally wounded, dragged himself of to his sights and released his bombs on target before he died.

    These few examples give us only a flavor of the sacrifices that our men and women in uniform have made for our freedom and for the freedom of others, often total strangers, in other nations.  So highly do we value this gift we call liberty, that we are willing to expend the blood of our own sons and daughters so that others might enjoy this gift also.

    Brave men and women wearing the uniform of the United States have fought and bled and died in places like Bunker Hill, Yorktown, Concord, Lexington, Saratoga, Bazentin Ridge, Belleau Wood, Manila Bay, Guantanamo, Gettysburg, Antietam, Chancellorsville, Beruit, Okinawa, Pork Chop Hill, Hamburger Hill, the Chosin Reservoir, Pusan, Inchon, Bastogne, the Ardennes Forest, Pearl Harbor, Midway, Saipan, Medina Ridge, Al Busayyah, Wadi Al-Batin, Baghdad, Kandahar, Khaz Oruzgan, Musa Qala and thousands of other places most of us have never heard of as well as places so remote that the places don’t even have names.

     On November 19, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln spoke at the dedication of the Soldiers National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania four and one half months after the Union victory over the Confederate Army in the Battle of Gettysburg.  On this day or remembrance, it is good to remember the words that President Lincoln spoke.

    Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.


    Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

    But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

    This day is very much like the hallowed ground of Gettysburg.  There is little that our feeble efforts or words can do to consecrate this day beyond what the blood of patriots has already done.  As we gather here today our task is to heed the words of Abraham Lincoln.  It is for us, the living, to dedicate ourselves to the unfinished work for which these brave men and women have given their lives.  We must be resolved that these patriots did not die in vain.  It is too painful for us to remember their sacrifice each day, but on this precious and hallowed day we should take the time to remember.  We should honor their sacrifice by appreciating the things that they have purchased with their blood. 

     Be sure to avail yourselves of the freedoms that their sacrifices have purchased on our behalf.  Vote.  Don’t just vote for the politician that promises to give us the most stuff, vote for the men and women who hold dear the ideals of freedom and liberty.  Honor the flag that they fought for, it is more than just a piece of cloth because it stands for the things those patriots fought and bled and died for.  Stand when the flag passes by, sing the national anthem, and teach your children to stand, teach them to take their hats off and to hold their hands over their hearts.  It seems that lately I have been at sporting events where I see far too many people who are oblivious to the ceremony of the national anthem, while others are standing, they sit, while others are standing at attention with their hats held over their hearts, these others are busy talking on their cell phones.  We honor the blood of heroes by being courteous and respectful. 

Now, I fully realize that all of us who put on the uniform of the United States did so to defend your rights not to stand, not to sing and not to hold your hand over your heart.  That’s fine.  If you are one of those who takes issue with it, what I ask of you is that you do so respectfully and that while the rest of us are standing and singing, you share a moment of silence and remember those brave men and women who gave you that right.

    Finally, I ask that you honor the sacrifices of our men and women in uniform with your prayers.  You don’t have to pray to the God I worship, feel free to pray to whatever deity you choose, but pray for all of the men and women who, even now, are away from their families, friends and homes.  Pray for those who today, instead of attending backyard barbecues and swim parties with their friends, are far out at sea, standing guard or even laying in a bunk half-way around the world or eating cold Meals Ready to Eat out of a foil envelope while they huddle in a foxhole in the sand waiting for the next mortar round to drop on their heads.  Pray for the families of those who are away from home.  Today wives and husbands of these brave soldiers are doing what they can to hold their families together and their children are growing up wondering when, or if, their father or mothers are ever coming home again.

    Pray also for those who are missing.  Right now, Bo Bergdahl, a 25-year-old U.S. Army sergeant from Hailey, Idaho is believed to be in the hands of the Taliban.  At this moment, Sgt. Bergdahl is believed to be the only American held captive by these insurgents but he has been in their hands since June 30, 2009, almost three years ago.  In that time we have seen video footage that gives us hope that he is still alive, although his condition is deteriorating.  Last December there were reports that Sgt. Bergdahl had made a daring attempt to escape but was recaptured.  Since that time there has been no further information regarding his captivity, whereabouts or status.  Please pray for Sgt. Bergdahl and for his family.

    Today is not barbeque day.  It is not just a part of just another long weekend.  Today is not dedicated to automobile races and baseball games.  Today is not another excuse to go camping.  Today we have gathered here to remember.  Today let us remember the sacrifices that made us what we are and have given us freedom and liberty.  Today has been set aside as a special day of remembrance. 

Let us all pause to remember…

                                                   …and may we never forget.

Top Ten 2012 Blog Posts


    As promised, here are my top ten blog posts of 2012.  There are a few interesting points that I will note along the way, but among these is just the growth of this blog.  While it is still pitifully small compared to some of the mainstream “big name” bloggers with tens of thousands of subscribers (I have five), there is a marked difference between 2011 and 2012.  In the last year, the number of readers has grown enough that of all the posts included in last year’s list, only the number one post from 2011 would have made this list and even then at number eight. Hey, while you’re here, why don’t you click on the “Subscribe to Blog Updates” link in the right hand column?
    In any case, the readership of this blog, however small, has doubled in one year, and for that, I am both humble and grateful.  I hope that my musings make you think, regardless of whether we agree or not.  This year’s list is reversed, David Letterman style, with number ten presented first, so that you have to scan the whole list to see the most popular.
10) As was the case in other multi-part blogs I have written, “Part 2, Politicians, Rape and Bad Theology”, was less popular than Part 1 (which comes in at number 7).
9) In, “Is It Time to End Spousal Benefits?” I pondered the injustices of the way that many employee benefits as well as Social Security and other Federal benefits are calculated.  Several comments showed me that that my thinking was not as clear as I would have liked and made me think that I may need to think this through a bit more and revisit the subject sometime down the road.
8) “Why I Stand With the Catholic Church” discusses why I agree that our federal government is overreaching in its demand that church agencies be compelled to pay for contraception and abortion inducing drugs despite in a clear violation of their religious beliefs.
7) Politicians, Rape and Bad Theology (Part 1) is the first, and most popular, of my reaction to some seriously dumb things that were said by politicians.  Honestly, I sometimes think that this happens every day, but when these same politicians begin to justify their dumb stuff by saying that it’s God’s fault, I have to say something.
6) In John Wesley’s Crazy Rules?, I list the rules that the early Methodists had agreed to live by.  Today, most all have been abandoned and most church members would panic if we even suggested bringing them back.  On the other hand, under these rules the church grew and under ours we’re shrinking.  Perhaps something in this list we ought to learn from?
5) Why is Homosexuality an Argument Instead of a Discussion? Isn’t even my blog post, but a link to a post by Dr. John Byron, one of my seminary professors.  Here we wonder why everyone wants to demonstrate and shout from their polarized positions, but not have an honest discussion about the issues.
4) The blog entitled, “Just How Many Homosexuals Are There?” was taken, by some, as a political post even though I made some effort to deliberately distance myself from making any overt political statements.  The unfortunate truth, as we’ve seen in other posts, is that anything regarding abortion, homosexuality and a few other topics automatically become argumentative instead of the opening of a discussion.  Here, I simply found statistics that indicated that nearly everyone has a dramatically wrong idea of what we are talking about whenever we begin such an argument.
3) What’s the Big Deal About Sex? was written after it was discovered that several Secret Service agents and military personnel had been cavorting with prostitutes during a trip in which they were to be guarding President Obama.  While what they did was immoral, I wonder why all the fuss?  These folks aren’t monks?  Clearly there are national security concerns, but otherwise, in a culture that values sex and money above all else, what do you expect?
2) Censorship is never the answer.  The beauty of our freedom of speech here in the United States is that it allows atheists to blaspheme my religion and my God, but it also allows me to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ.  In Christians are Wrong; Atheists are Right I argue that when Christians lobby for censorship to protect them, they really undermine the most important protection of all.
1) This is the one that makes me smile.  I first wrote, Ahimaaz – Patron Saint of Cross Country Running? , about a man known to King David who loved to run.  When it was written, almost no one read it.  For months afterward… almost no one read it.  And then something interesting happened.  Because I suggested that Ahimaaz ought to be a patron saint of long distance runners (clearly, being Methodist, I have no inside track on this), this blog started to turn up in Internet searches for patron saint of cross country and track.  As track season came closer it began to get a few, but regular, hits each week.  By the end of the year, just like the story of the tortoise and the hare, slowly but surely, this blog had become the most popular of the year (and continues to grow).

Today Is Not Barbeque Day

   
This morning I got up and continued our weekend festivities, packing.  My goal was to finish packing most of our den/office with all its books and our desks.  Patti’s desk can be taped shut and moved whole but mine must be disassembled.  While doing these things I kept an eye on the clock so that I wouldn’t miss my appointment to speak at our village Memorial Day service where I was to be the keynote speaker.  I stopped work, got dressed and left so that I would be a little early (but not too early) only to discover that while my calendar said the service started at 12:00, it actually had started at 11:00 and I arrived just as it was ending.  I am terribly embarrassed at my mistake but in any case, here are the words that I had prepared for today.  Despite my error, I still think that they are worthwhile…

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    Today is not barbeque day.  It is not “just” a part of “just another” long weekend.  Today is not dedicated to automobile races and baseball games.  Today is not another excuse to go camping.  Today we have gathered here to remember.  We have not come to thank our veterans; we do that in November, but to remember those who have fallen, those who have given their lives, so that we might have freedom and liberty.  We gather to remember men and women for whom words like duty, honor, and country have meaning and because of whom, these words are themselves more meaningful.

    During the War in Vietnam, Marine Private First Class Gary Martini, braving intense enemy fire, raced through an open field to drag a fallen comrade back to a friendly position.  Seeing a second fallen Marine just 20 meters from the enemy position, Martini once again risked his life to bring the man back to safety.  Upon reaching the fallen Marine, Martini was mortally wounded but continued to drag his comrade back to his platoon’s position, telling his men to remain under cover.  As he finally struggled to pull the man to safety, Private First Class Martini fell and succumbed to his wounds.

     Sergeant First Class Paul Smith, while under enemy fire in Iraq, organized the evacuation of three soldiers who had been wounded in an attack on their vehicle.  Sergeant Smith manned the machine gun mounted on their vehicle, maintaining an exposed position as he engaged the enemy forces, allowing the safe withdrawal of wounded soldiers.  He was mortally wounded in the attack but not before killing as many as 50 enemy fighters in order to save his injured comrades.

    During the Second World War, First Lieutenant Jack Mathis, flying a bomb run over Vegesack, Germany, was hit by enemy antiaircraft fire.  His right arm was shattered above the elbow, and he suffered a large wound on his side and abdomen.  Knowing that the success of the mission depended upon him, Lieutenant Mathis, mortally wounded, dragged himself of to his sights and released his bombs on target before he died.

    These few examples give us only a flavor of the sacrifices that our men and women in uniform have made for our freedom and for the freedom of others, often total strangers, in other nations.  So highly do we value this gift we call liberty, that we are willing to expend the blood of our own sons and daughters so that others might enjoy this gift also.

    Brave men and women wearing the uniform of the United States have fought and bled and died in places like Bunker Hill, Yorktown, Concord, Lexington, Saratoga, Bazentin Ridge, Belleau Wood, Manila Bay, Guantanamo, Gettysburg, Antietam, Chancellorsville, Beruit, Okinawa, Pork Chop Hill, Hamburger Hill, the Chosin Reservoir, Pusan, Inchon, Bastogne, the Ardennes Forest, Pearl Harbor, Midway, Saipan, Medina Ridge, Al Busayyah, Wadi Al-Batin, Baghdad, Kandahar, Khaz Oruzgan, Musa Qala and thousands of other places most of us have never heard of as well as places so remote that the places don’t even have names.

     On November 19, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln spoke at the dedication of the Soldiers National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania four and one half months after the Union victory over the Confederate Army in the Battle of Gettysburg.  On this day or remembrance, it is good to remember the words that President Lincoln spoke.

    Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.


    Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

    But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

    This day is very much like the hallowed ground of Gettysburg.  There is little that our feeble efforts or words can do to consecrate this day beyond what the blood of patriots has already done.  As we gather here today our task is to heed the words of Abraham Lincoln.  It is for us, the living, to dedicate ourselves to the unfinished work for which these brave men and women have given their lives.  We must be resolved that these patriots did not die in vain.  It is too painful for us to remember their sacrifice each day, but on this precious and hallowed day we should take the time to remember.  We should honor their sacrifice by appreciating the things that they have purchased with their blood. 

     Be sure to avail yourselves of the freedoms that their sacrifices have purchased on our behalf.  Vote.  Don’t just vote for the politician that promises to give us the most stuff, vote for the men and women who hold dear the ideals of freedom and liberty.  Honor the flag that they fought for, it is more than just a piece of cloth because it stands for the things those patriots fought and bled and died for.  Stand when the flag passes by, sing the national anthem, and teach your children to stand, teach them to take their hats off and to hold their hands over their hearts.  It seems that lately I have been at sporting events where I see far too many people who are oblivious to the ceremony of the national anthem, while others are standing, they sit, while others are standing at attention with their hats held over their hearts, these others are busy talking on their cell phones.  We honor the blood of heroes by being courteous and respectful. 
Now, I fully realize that all of us who put on the uniform of the United States did so to defend your rights not to stand, not to sing and not to hold your hand over your heart.  That’s fine.  If you are one of those who takes issue with it, what I ask of you is that you do so respectfully and that while the rest of us are standing and singing, you share a moment of silence and remember those brave men and women who gave you that right.

    Finally, I ask that you honor the sacrifices of our men and women in uniform with your prayers.  You don’t have to pray to the God I worship, feel free to pray to whatever deity you choose, but pray for all of the men and women who, even now, are away from their families, friends and homes.  Pray for those who today, instead of attending backyard barbecues and swim parties with their friends, are far out at sea, standing guard or even laying in a bunk half-way around the world or eating cold Meals Ready to Eat out of a foil envelope while they huddle in a foxhole in the sand waiting for the next mortar round to drop on their heads.  Pray for the families of those who are away from home.  Today wives and husbands of these brave soldiers are doing what they can to hold their families together and their children are growing up wondering when, or if, their father or mothers are ever coming home again.

    Pray also for those who are missing.  Right now, Bo Bergdahl, a 25-year-old U.S. Army sergeant from Hailey, Idaho is believed to be in the hands of the Taliban.  At this moment, Sgt. Bergdahl is believed to be the only American held captive by these insurgents but he has been in their hands since June 30, 2009, almost three years ago.  In that time we have seen video footage that gives us hope that he is still alive, although his condition is deteriorating.  Last December there were reports that Sgt. Bergdahl had made a daring attempt to escape but was recaptured.  Since that time there has been no further information regarding his captivity, whereabouts or status.  Please pray for Sgt. Bergdahl and for his family.

    Today is not barbeque day.  It is not just a part of just another long weekend.  Today is not dedicated to automobile races and baseball games.  Today is not another excuse to go camping.  Today we have gathered here to remember.  Today let us remember the sacrifices that made us what we are and have given us freedom and liberty.  Today has been set aside as a special day of remembrance. 

Let us all pause to remember…

                                                   …and may we never forget.

* Special thanks go to the Disabled American Veterans (www,dav.org) who provided some of the stories of bravery and patriotism contained in these remarks.

The Nightmare of Democracy?

    The founding fathers of the United States often referred to it as an experiment in democracy.  These men knew that democracies often self-destruct and as I noted last week, at least one of these men (John Adams) felt that democracy required for the people to be both moral and religious in order to be successful.  In that light, I have been wondering about the current upheaval in Egypt.  Much of the world and many of my friends are rejoicing at the victory of the people in Egypt but I find many reasons to be cautious.  
   
    First, I suppose is simply that often times the devil we know is less frightening than the devil we don’t know.  Mr. Mubarak has recently been denigrated as a ‘tyrant’ but not that long ago he was a ‘valuable ally.’  I don’t keep up to date on the current events in many nations around the world so I admit that I may have missed something, but I am left noticing that there seems to be some revisionist history going on.  It is also important to remember that Egypt has technically been a democratic nation and that Mr. Mubarak was a democratically elected leader despite his recently publicized tyranny.
    Second, it is important to recall that democracy does not always end well.  Historically, there are a number of notable democratic elections that resulted in governments that were far worse than the ones they replaced.  Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party were democratically elected and used the constitution of the Weimar Republic to seize even more power.  In our lifetime we saw that the current theocratic government of Iran was democratically elected (sort of) during the Iranian Revolution but is, in many ways, worse than the monarchy that it replaced.
    Finally, we should be reminded that Americans tend to see the world as Americans who live overseas.  By that I mean that we tend to think that people on the other side of the ocean a) like us and b) want to be like us.  Those of us who have traveled abroad or who have even met people from abroad will have no difficulty in saying that in many cases, neither of these is true.  When it comes to democracy, what works for us may not work for everyone.  What we want is not what the people of Egypt want.  As a result, the government that Egypt ultimately ends up with is not likely to look anything at all like ours, democratically elected or not.
    So what do the people of Egypt want?  The Pew Research Center conducted a major survey of adults in Egypt last year and the results were summarized in Investor’s Weekly
84% favor the death penalty for person leaving the Muslim faith.
82% favor the death penalty for adultery
54% believe that women and men should be segregated in the workplace.
54% believe that suicide bombings that kill civilians can be justified.
Half support the terrorist group Hamas.  
82% dislike the United States.
95% prefer that religion play a “large role” in politics.
    If these are the prevailing opinions of adult Egyptians, then despite any claims to the contrary any democratically elected government is likely to mirror those opinions.  As a result, that government will likely not be all that we, as Americans and as Christians, might hope for.  To me, it seems that any democratically elected government that represented a people that held these values might eventually desire the following structures and policies:
          Is likely to be highly influenced by the religion of Islam and may incorporate Sharia law.

          It may not value the personal liberties and equal rights that we assume to be normative.  Women, minorities, and non-Muslims are likely to suffer from discrimination and perhaps even outright persecution.  Under Mubarak, Egypt has not done well in protecting the religious liberties of native Coptic Christians who represent 10% of the population.  A government that openly favors Islam cannot be expected to do better.
          May well lend government support and financial aid to organizations that we see as terrorist groups.
          Will almost certainly not be friendly to the interests of the United States.
          Will likely be hostile to the nation of Israel.
    It is not a foregone conclusion that these things will happen and, in fact, I hope they do not but I realize that what I want is not nearly the same as what the average Egyptian wants.
    Today the Egyptian military officially suspended Egypt’s constitution and dissolved the parliament.  With that, what we have (so far) in Egypt is no less than a military coup.  Our founding fathers knew that democracies often self-destruct.  Democracy was (and is) a dangerous thing.  There are a thousand ways that a democratic government can go horribly wrong and history is full of examples.  Read any newspaper and you can see that it is something that we worry over constantly ourselves.
    I hope that a new government will bring the people of Egypt everything that they hope for.  My fear is that whatever form it takes may not be good news for us, for Israel, and for many Egyptians.
    Please pray for Egypt.

The Death of the Moderate Class?

Some years ago, and continuing today, we heard in the popular media the proclamation of doom for the middle class. In these stories we hear of how the rich are getting richer, the poor, poorer and that ever fewer people (though still a vast number) belong to what we call the middle class. I have no interest in discerning the truth of such claims. The prophecies of doom for the middle class however, point out an area of public discussion that has bothered me lately. In recent months I have written on subjects such as illegal immigration and the proposed construction of a mosque in New York, but in both of these issues (and many others) I notice the same thing, the utter lack of middle ground.

To be clear, I would rarely describe myself as a moderate, but because I am the spiritual leader of a diverse group of people I try to keep obviously partisan thinking out of both my public writing and speaking. For me, although my political beliefs are passionately and strongly held, the need for us to see beyond the world of the political is far more important. Our relationship with Jesus trumps our relationship with any political party, or at least it should.

We watch these public discussions in the media (radio, television and internet) and, even though I would not describe myself as a moderate, I often find myself wondering where the moderates have gone. Certainly we’ve seen a rise in partisanship in recent years and, for all the election year talk of bipartisanship, we’ve seen less of it than ever. In fact, public discussions seem to be entirely dominated by radical factions or, at least, representatives from the polar extremes of the political spectrum. To some extent, this has always been the case. In reporting the news it is easier to frame the discussion by showing opposite ends of the debate. Where I have begun to have difficulty is that, increasingly, the opposite ends are all there are. Perhaps it’s because news outlets have fallen in lockstep and report a single point of view. Perhaps everyone has tuned into partisans like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Rachel Maddow, Keith Olbermann or similar partisan talking heads. Honestly, I don’t know. What I have noticed however is that with the discussion no longer framed by the extremes but dominated by the extremes, no one seems to be left to have an honest discussion of what lies in between.

In discussing the immigration debate I noticed that both sides have valid and serious concerns that need to be addressed but everyone is so busy pointing fingers and name calling that virtually nothing is being done. In the New York mosque debate everyone seems to be either for the mosque because the constitution demands it, or against it because they find it offensive for Muslims to worship so close to ground zero. But what about the pesky details in the middle? The world is watching our great American experiment in democracy and constitutional government. The constitution and the freedoms that it guarantees are important.

On the other hand, we are accustomed to the slow pace of progress. St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church was destroyed by the collapse of the World Trade Center and hasn’t yet managed to get permission to rebuild, now almost ten years later. The reasons for this delay are debated, but still, if it has taken the congregation of St. Nicholas ten years to get their project moving (and they already owned the land) why do we think that this Islamic congregation should get permission overnight? Our constitution guarantees certain freedoms, but we still place legal limits on those freedoms. We limit where alcohol can be served in our communities and who may legally own a liquor license. We limit where industry can build and what types of industry can be built. Communities frequently protest construction of mega-churches because of concerns for traffic. A community near where I once lived refused permission to build a hotel because of concerns of how the patrons would affect the neighborhood. These rules and regulations do not violate the constitution but instead allow careful and thoughtful review by state and local authorities as well as allowing the discussion and consideration of local neighborhood concerns and opinions.

My problem with all of these discussions is that no one is being allowed to voice concerns without being attacked and dismissed for being on the “wrong side” of the argument. Once upon a time, it was the moderates that found the middle ground, who considered the arguments of both sides and allowed an orderly and honest discussion that looked at all sides and considered the needs and desires of all the stakeholders involved. Sometimes these discussions took a lot longer than we wanted them to take but still, we had the discussion. Lately it seems that there are no more moderates to bring the two sides together and to consider the claims and the needs of all involved. All we have left is a pile of partisan bickering that heads for the door as soon as they think they’ve buffaloed, bullied and shouted down enough people to form a majority.

I hope I’m wrong.

I hope there are still a few good moderates left because if we’ve lost the ability to have these kinds of discussions, we’ve lost everything and the great American experiment has failed.

Mosques in New York, Discrimination or Deliberate Manipulation?

In recent weeks there has been a controversy playing out in New York City. If you somehow managed to miss it, a group, led by Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf (a religious leader educated in Egypt, Malaysia, England and the United States) has asked for permission to build an Islamic community center and mosque in Lower Manhattan only two blocks from ground zero. Tempers have flared over whether this group, or any group, should be allowed to build a mosque so close to the site where many Americans, including Muslims, were killed by fanatics in the name of Islam. I have been thinking about this and have been following the news as well as a few of the blogs that are being written about this. It has taken me a while to get my hands around this issue simply because I have mixed feelings and I needed time to better understand how I felt before I could say anything.

Part of my problem is that we all, myself included, have strong feelings about what happened on 9/11 and many of us have strong nationalistic feelings as well. I served ten years in the Army Reserve and my unit was called to active duty (in Kentucky) for six months during the first Gulf War. I have always felt that part of what I did as a soldier was to defend the rights of people even when their actions differed from mine. I have friends who are pacifists and who, for religious reasons, refuse to serve in the military. I have been willing to serve in order to protect their right not to serve. Flag burning offends me greatly but I will fight to protect the rights of others to express themselves in this way. Likewise, those who propose to build an Islamic Center two blocks from ground zero deliberately play upon two fundamental principles of our constitution, the right to property and the freedom of religion. The American right to property allows the owners of land or other property to do whatever they desire within the limits that the law allows and so, if you own land, you should be able to do with it as you wish. Freedom of religion tells us that we cannot deny the right to build a place of worship simply because their particular religion is unpopular or even offensive to others. For these reasons, the developers of this mosque/community center/cultural center should clearly be allowed to pursue the necessary permits and contracts to begin building, but the story isn’t really that simple.

The Imam heading this project, Feisal Abdul Rauf, claims that his mission is to develop bridges of understanding between our two cultures and his background and education would seem to indicate that he is, perhaps, in a unique position to do that. He has sometimes seemed to be a moderate Muslim who condemned the 9/11 attacks, but in the same interview where he condemned the attacks, he also declared that the U.S. was at fault for those attacks and he likewise has refused to concede that Hamas is a terrorist organization. We are told that this building is to be built by American Muslims and for American Muslims but the estimated cost of this project is over $100 million and there is a very real possibility that it may be funded by radical foreign Muslims who intend to use our system of constitutional law and justice against us in order to demonstrate what they perceive to be our weakness. It is disturbing, in light of our obvious concerns, that the developers have refused to reveal the actual funding sources.

In places like Jerusalem and Mecca, and throughout the Middle East there is a tradition of building mosques to commemorate great Islamic victories. Throughout the centuries, I do not doubt that many Christian cathedrals have been built with similar motives. In light of concerns about offending the families of the victims of 9/11 however, it may well be worth our time to discern whether this building is being built by American Muslims in order to facilitate understanding between out cultures or by foreign radicals who intend for its construction to stand as a testimony to the defeat of American imperialism.

A few other pieces that need to be fitted into our understanding: Two mosques already exist in Lower Manhattan (one built prior to the construction of the World Trade Center) and indeed an Islamic Cultural Center also exists not far away in Midtown Manhattan near Central Park. St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church stood in the shadows of the World Trade Center and was destroyed when those building collapsed. St. Nicholas church is negotiating a settlement with the New York Port Authority but although there has been some difficulty in negotiations caused by demands from both sides, St. Nicholas church, nearly nine years later, has not yet received permission to rebuild. While an Islamic group should not be discriminated against simply because they are Muslims, neither should they get preferential treatment. Just days ago, it was discovered that the developers of this proposed building do not own both parcels of land needed to build. Whether this omission was accidental or deliberate raises a whole host of additional questions.

So where does all that leave us?

Constitutionally speaking, there is no reason that this group should be singled out from any other group that wants to build any legal structure in Lower Manhattan. If the construction is legal then it should be allowed to move forward. On the other hand, a center that desires to advertise itself as a bridge for “cultural understanding” could certainly do better, and should do better than to build in this particular location. Building here would be insensitive in the extreme. It would be out of place for the nation of Germany to build a cultural center within two blocks of a Nazi death camp. The desire to build in this location seems hostile, inflammatory and deliberately divisive.

It is important to remember that Islam didn’t fly two airliners into the World Trade Center. It is unfair to condemn all Muslins for such a crime, but we remember the places where people danced in the street when they heard the news. Perhaps it is unfair to paint with a broad brush and blame an entire religion for the actions of a few, but I suspect that, rightly or wrongly, this is the memory of a majority of our nation. As people of faith, Christians should be well acquainted with the false accusations that other religions have historically directed against us and so we should be sensitive to how this might be happening to Muslims in our nation today. On the other hand, we are called to be wise as foxes and to understand our world and how it works. If our nation is being deliberately manipulated in order to make us look weak, stupid and foolish then we should have every right to say no. If our constitutional system of law and justice is being used against us in order for our enemies to celebrate our defeat, then we should find a way to say no.

I believe that too many questions remain unanswered. The events surrounding 9/11 give us every right to be suspicious and careful. It seems as if the developers of their proposed building are getting a pass so that we can feel good about not discriminating against them. In order to answer the legitimate questions that have been raised, and in order to assuage the fears of the victims’ families and indeed the fears of many across our nation, more information must be revealed and more must be understood before construction should proceed. If the developers should refuse to be straightforward and reveal this information and should they refuse to answer the difficult questions, then let them build somewhere else. Without those answers, construction of this building, in this place, would be an affront to all Americans and would desecrate the memory of the victims of 9/11. If nothing else, things need to slow down while everyone takes a second and third look at the problem and as we search for answers to unresolved questions. Until then, under our system of government, if there exists a proper and legal way for this project to be stopped, then it should be.