August 30, 2006

Katrina: Preview of the End-Times?

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 9:01 am

With the current media focus on the anniversary of Katrina, I’ve been reflecting on all that happened a year ago. I remember reading in the L.A. Times about relief workers being prevented from rescuing patients trapped in hospitals in New Orleans by gunfire. It was reported that New Orleans residents were firing at rescue helicopters.

I remember telling my brother that the one thing I couldn’t understand about the Katrina tragedy was why anyone trapped in New Orleans would shoot at people trying to rescue them from the flood. He told me that the shooters probably felt that “this may be a shithole, but damnit, now it’s my shithole and I’m going to keep it that way.” Very Lord of the Flies-like.

Except that it turns out no one was shooting at the rescue workers. Or shooting at all, apparently.

Reason Magazine debunked this account as a rumor spread by information-starved reporters. Then there were all those rapes and killings at the Superdome which, according to Popular Mechanics, also never happened.

Looking back on it though, we were all primed to believe that, in the absence of armed police to keep order, the poor (and black) New Orleans residents would devolve into violent bands taking advantage of the anarchy to terrorize, pillage and rape. Why do we always assume that, in a crisis where the normal structures of civilization have disappeared, our morality and civility will disappear as well? Some warned that the Y2K bug, where computers weren’t adequately coded to handle the roll-over from the year 1999 to 2000, would lead to massive failures of infrastructure resulting in food riots, anarchy, rampant crime, and the end of civilization as we know it. And look how that turned out.

There is something really titillating about stories of anarchy and mayhem. It’s almost pornographic — there’s a perverse pleasure in thinking about our ability to survive in the midst of a collapsed society, relying on nothing but our wits and our weapons to survive. It’s a recurring theme in science fiction, and was a foundation of the far-right survivalist militia movement from a few years back.

And this theme is a centerpiece of the pre-tribulation rapture eschatology, made even more attractive by the belief that born-again Christians will get to watch it all from plush stadium-style seating up in heaven. It seems that one attraction of the end-times comes from the same impulse as our willingness to believe that those left behind in New Orleans were shooting at rescue workers. It’s a worldview that appeals, like the Jerry Springer show, to our worst natures.

But there is a different way to look at Katrina. NPR aired a segment recounting all the acts of kindness and generosity that took place during Katrina. Instead of spreading rumors of rampant anarchy, we should have been telling stories about the underlying goodness of people and how Katrina brought out the best in humanity, not the worst. In fact, looking back on major catastrophes such as the tidal wave in South Asia or the earthquake in Pakistan, the unifying theme is the generous support the world has provided, and Katrina was no different.

Our desire to believe that we are one catastrophe away from the collapse of civilization and the loss of our humanity is a myth that is propagated by a lurid fascination with the dark side of our souls. This includes the tribulation-obsessed worldview of Left Behind and the Rapture-ists. Instead, let’s remember that catastrophes have always brought out the best in humanity. If there is a tribulation, it will be an opportunity for us all to come together, to aid and comfort each other, and to rise to our most compassionate natures, not our most atavistic.

August 28, 2006

A Conservative's Advice to the Religous Right

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 2:31 pm

I received an email from Ted Haggard of the NAE and New Life Church today with the full text of an opinion piece by Joel Hunter, a conservative pastor in Florida. I am still reeling from the fact that I agree with almost all he says. You must read the whole thing! A quote:

But between the liberal’s panic of a Christian lockstep toward theocracy on the left, and the fundamentalist’s paranoia about America’s persecution of Christians on the right, a growing number of conservative Christians believe we can be more constructive in our political involvement. Intent on dousing the fire in the morning, many of us see a need for more positive approaches and expansion to more oft-mentioned biblical issues.

Could the Christian right, or at least a sizable portion of it, be ready to moderate their tone, end their role as a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Republican party and engage in calm discussions with the rest of Christendom and people of faith? Could they really be ready to talk about issues other than abortion and gay rights such as the environment, poverty, human rights and peace?

Oh Lord, I sure hope so!

To be fair, Hunter isn’t the first to speak out — other conservative evangelicals, such as Richard Cizik or Rick Warren, have been talking about creation care and third world poverty. But Hunter is the first person I’ve seen that has called for a real change in direction as opposed to tweaking at the edges. (Although, there is a lot going on in conservative evangelicalism I haven’t heard about, I’m sure!) The fact that Hunter’s piece is being distributed by Ted Haggard shows that Hunter is not alone, but speaking for a larger segment of conservative evangelicals.

Rev. Hunter isn’t implying that he is going to join hands with Jim Wallis or Randall Balmer to march in anti-war protests. But he is setting himself up in direct opposition to James Dobson, Al Mohler or Tony Perkins who see themselves as Christian warriors and the GOP as God’s Own Party. How refreshing!

August 25, 2006

"I am a Conservative Too"

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 8:54 pm

The founding meme of this blog is that, while I am not a conservative nor a Republican, yet I am a Christian too. It appears there is a negative of this photograph: non-religious conservatives. In a flattering emulation of this blog, Heather MacDonald states:

Nonbelievers are good conservatives, too.

I have said repeatedly that I am a progressive because of, not in spite of, my Christian faith. Ms. MacDonald echoes this when she says:

Skeptical conservatives—one of the Right’s less celebrated subcultures—are conservatives because of their skepticism, not in spite of it

Eerily similar, no? I have a great deal of sympathy for MacDonald. The conflation of Christian faith and conservative politics has created, it seems, two communities of outcasts: Christian progressives and non-religious conservatives.

In fact, I hate to say it, but I have more in common with MacDonald than I do with most Christian conservatives. MacDonald and I both cherish the ideals of the Enlightenment and believe in the separation of church and state. We both understand that atheists and agnostics can be moral people while Christians can behave immorally. We both believe the claim of superior Godliness by conservatives is harmful — she bemoans its harm to the conservative movement, and I its harm to the church.

Much of her article is a well-articulated discussion of the theological problem of theodicy, and she is right to point out the fallacy of much of our relgious thinking in that regard. Here again, I find myself agreeing with MacDonald, even though we ultimately come to opposite conclusions regarding God and the existence of pain in the world.

I may be deluding myself, but if all conservatives were like MacDonald, it seems the political debates in the country would be much more enjoyable. The conservative arguments would be based on rational argument rather the need to demonize, literally, we liberals.

August 19, 2006

A Week in Yosemite

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 4:34 pm

I just returned from a week at Yosemite with about 20 confirmation class youth from four Lutheran churches in our area. We hiked, rafted, rock-climbed, and of course did a lot of Bible study and worship. It was a wonderful week in an incredible place. Herewith, some reflections:

yosemite valleyLiving in community is hard, even for just a week. There was some interpersonal drama among the youth, including cliques, name-calling and all the rest, and that was in spite of a constant message of Christian love and acceptance from the pastors. (We adults weren’t perfect in this regard either.)

God’s community is open and inclusive. While we were having evening worship on a beach next to the river, a young college-age woman walked up and sat down with us. While intellectually I knew we should welcome her, emotionally I felt she didn’t belong and was intruding. Then while the kids were asked to share the highlights of their day, she spoke up and said that finding us was the highlight of her day. She said she was a Christian working in the valley for the summer and had been feeling lonely, and hoped we didn’t mind that she had joined us. I realized she wasn’t intruding, but that God wanted her to participate in our community, which she did for the rest of the week!

We should share communion instead of just receive communion. I had the opportunity to both give communion to, and receive communion from, my 13 year-old son, as well as others in our group. Those of us in liturgically-minded traditions spend too much time merely receiving communion from our pastors. I wonder if communion isn’t meant to be shared among the community of believers rather than just received from the pastor. After all, communion and community share the same root word.

God’s creation is a better worship space than anything we’ve invented. The last night we sat near the foot of Yosemite Falls next to a stream and in the midst of pine trees for our worship. We were sitting on rocks, logs and dirt, covered in bug spray, but it was one of the most spirit-filled worship experiences I’ve had. It makes me think debates about cushy stadium seating vs. hard-backed pews are a bit beside the point.

We can’t live on the mountain-top. As Jesus told Peter after the Transfiguration, as much as we’d like to live on the mountain-top, we can’t stay there. We have to come down and deal with the mundane and minute details of our daily life. But the mountain-top can make us see our life “down here” in a completely different way.

August 13, 2006

Torture and the Authoritarian Personality

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 8:59 am

Godwin’s Law states that:

As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.

Wikipedia’s entry on Godwin’s Law goes on to explain:

There is a tradition in many newsgroups and other Internet discussion forums that once such a comparison is made, the thread is finished and whoever mentioned the Nazis has automatically “lost” whatever debate was in progress.

As Kevin Drum points out, the mere naming of this practice as Godwin’s Law has led to a reduction in knee-jerk Hitler comparisons.

So John Dean may seem to be on thin ice in Conservatives Without Conscience when he refers to research prompted by Nazi Germany to explain the current authoritarian strain in the Republican party. But let’s dig a little deeper.

Bruce Springsteen: We Shall Overcome

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 12:31 am

God bless Bruce Springsteen.

And read this story from Slacktivist about the power of this hymn.

August 2, 2006

Conservatives Without Conscience: Christians and Earthly Authority

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 7:55 pm

I’ve just finished reading John Dean’s new book, Conservatives Without Conscience, and have found much fuel there for examining conservative Christian worldviews. But before I get into that, a quick explanation of Dean’s main thesis.

Dean is a Goldwater Republican who finds that most beliefs held by Bush conservatives run directly counter to his traditional conservatism (you know, fiscal responsibility, personal freedom, avoiding international adventurism — that conservatism.) When he went looking for an explanation for this tectonic shift, he came across some academic studies trying to understand why so many Germans followed Hitler’s immoral rule during WWII. A lone madman like Hitler is one thing. A large segment of the population willing to follow a Hitler or a Mussolini is another. Where was their conscience?

These psychological studies developed a profile of the type of person likely to participate in immoral actions merely because a strong leader tells them to. These authoritarians tend to be submissive to authority and in favor of punishing the declared enemies of the authorities. Authoritarians conform to conventional behaviors, are hostile to minorities, and view themselves as more moral than others. They also aren’t very self-aware; it’s difficult for them to see their actions from outside the context of the authoritarian structure.

As you might expect, conservative Christians tend to score highly on this scale.

Dean’s explanation of this research reminded me of the theology of Bill McCartney and other founding members of Promise Keepers (it seems that PK has retreated from this view over the past few years):

For God to heal, however, men must take charge. In Seven Promises of a Promise Keeper, popular Promise Keepers speaker Tony Evans offers a strategy for accomplishing this : “The first thing you do is sit down with your wife and say something like this: ‘Honey, I’ve made a terrible mistake. I’ve given you my role. I gave up leading the family, and I forced you to take my place. Now I must reclaim that role.’ Don’t misunderstand what I’m saying here. I’m not suggesting that you ask for your role back, I’m urging you to take it back. If you simply ask for it back, your wife is likely to simply [refuse]…. Be sensitive. Listen. Treat the lady gently but lovingly. But lead!”

The view expressed here is of a hierarchical power structure: men are to obey God and their church, women are to obey their husbands, and children their parents. Each of us is to accept the authority of those appointed headship over us by God, and to provide headship to those God commands us to lead.

Except that Jesus doesn’t seem too interested in this hierarchical chain of command.

Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.

What’s important to Jesus is that we follow him, not the headship of our fathers, husbands, pastors or Presidents.

Which brings us back to the genesis of the research Dean cites. The researchers wanted to understand why so many people would be complicit in immoral acts committed by fascist and totalitarian regimes. When these Germans, Italians, Japanese, Russians, Cambodians, Rwandans, Sudanese and, yes, Americans (Japanese internment camps? Indian reservations?) follow authoritarian leaders, they are rejecting the authority of Jesus Christ in favor of a human leader. Christ commands us to “follow me”. We are to reject any human leader, even our spouses, parents or pastors, if they are leading us away from Christ.

The Holocaust showed us that Paul was wrong when he told the Romans that “whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed”. Instead, our role models should be Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor executed by the Nazis for his resistance to Hitler. Or Martin Luther, who risked his life by defying the Pope. Or better yet, Jesus Christ himself, who defied the authorities by submitting himself to them, thereby redeeming the world.

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