The GOP & the Perils of Talking to Yourself

When I was in college, I was firmly convinced that the Dave Matthews Band was the greatest musical act of all-time and that Jack Kerouac’s On the Road should be canonized as the Great American Novel. Many of my friends agreed with me and we would spend countless nights into early mornings defending our position and expressing our incredulity that anyone would dare think otherwise. We’d whip ourselves up into passionate frenzies and then go out into classrooms where we were shocked and horrified to find that not everyone thought that way! (I’ve eased off my Kerouac claims, but I’ll still put up a lukewarm battle for pre-Everyday Dave Matthews Band.)

I was thinking about this the other day as I was scrolling through tweet after tweet of conservatives who are so passionate about defunding the Affordable Care Act. Just yesterday, Senator Ted Cruz ended his 21 hour filibuster which originated in an attempt to defund or at least delay the implementation of the law.

As I watch conservatives whip themselves in a frenzy over healthcare and liberals do the same over the [deplorable] cuts in SNAP benefits, I’m reminded of my friends and I sitting in a coffeehouse on campus late into the night debating the nuances of Kerouac and Dave Matthews. And here’s the thing that keeps coming up.

It is pointless to even attempt meaningful conversation when we remain staunchly opposed to what people who may think differently are saying.

This is true no matter what side of any debate we’re on. If our only conversation partners are people who agree with everything we say, then we become convinced that everyone thinks like that. They don’t. It’s why Karl Rove had that embarrassing election night meltdown over at Fox News. Everyone he was talking to thought that Obama would lose. So he refused to accept anything else.

But it’s not just with politics that this is the case. This happens all too often in the church as well. Within world religions or Christian denominations, we spend so much time talking to ourselves — or to people who think like we do — that we can become disconnected from the broader public conversation.

In these big conversations about things that impact public life, we need to make space for all people to express themselves and their opinions, and then wrestle through these issues together. Otherwise we become so entrenched on “our” side — which is almost always synonymous with the “good” side — that we not only lose touch with the broader conversation, but we lose touch with our neighbors, friends, and those in our community who may think differently.

I’ll be the first to tell you that I don’t have this figured out. I’m just as guilty of this as anyone. My main sources of news are the Huffington Post and Jon Stewart. I need to remember this just as much as everyone else.

But in light of the big conversations that are happening in our culture right now — healthcare, government shutdowns, military intervention in Syria, how we fight poverty and hunger — we need to make space for everyone in these conversations.

Otherwise we risk whipping ourselves into a frenzy only to be disappointed by, and ultimately alienated from, the people in our lives who think differently than we do.

Instead of only talking to people who agree with us, or demonizing those who think differently, we need to turn our attention to positive, constructive work in our world. It no longer works to sit by and simply tear things down. It’s time build bridges across our diverse ideologies and opinions, so that ultimately we can spend our lives building a better world.

And not simply talking to ourselves.

Cheers,
Eric

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Penn State & False Idols

“Every one of us is, even from his mother’s womb, a master craftsman of idols.” – John Calvin

It seems like this Penn State story just won’t die. Every week there is a new angle to take, or another press conference to cover. First, we had the Sandusky verdict. Then we had the release of the Freeh report. Then the statue was taken down. Now, the sanctions were issued by the NCAA . At some point in this process, I am sure many Penn State fans were hoping for some sort of vindication for the longstanding face of the football program, Coach Joe Paterno. But at every turn, those fans are disappointed. The Freeh report concluded,

The most saddening finding by the Special Investigative Counsel is the total and consistent disregard by the most senior leaders at Penn State for the safety and welfare of Sandusky’s child victims….

Not good. What it says is that the most powerful people in at the University, and apparently that region of Pennsylvania — University president Graham Spanier, Athletic Director Tim Curley, and coach Joe Paterno — did absolutely nothing to protect the dozen or so victims from a child sex predator. They exhibited an incredible lack of empathy by failing to inquire about the safety of the victims, and even allowing Jerry Sandusky to have continued access to official university facilities right up until his arrest.

If this had happened at any other University, the statue would’ve been torn down like it was the statue of Saddam Hussein in the center of Baghdad. But the residents of the — now, fairly ironically-titled — town of Happy Valley, PA have protested tooth and nail every repercussion of these incidents.

This leads to the question, what is it about Joe Paterno and the football program at Penn State that makes covering up 12 years of sexual abuse okay?

I think the answer to this lies in what many have called the “cult-like worship” of Saint JoePa. For so long, Joe Paterno stood as this irrefutable figure, a pillar of exemplary class and work ethic. He was held up and idolized for hundreds of thousands of Penn State students, alum, and fans. For many, the statue of Joe Paterno outside of the football stadium still stood for this reputation for always doing the right thing. The only problem is, for most people outside of the reach of the Happy Valley kool-aid, that’s not what that statue represents anymore.

And that’s the thing with false idols — they always disappoint.

Early on in the Hebrew Bible — Leviticus for those following along — it says that we are not to turn to idols or make cast images for ourselves. And what’s a statue if it isn’t a cast image? Even though we can think of Leviticus as washed up and having no place in society — which some if it is — this part still hits the nail on its head. For the people of Penn State, the JoePa statue gave meaning and identity to the school and its students.

This is why people in the early days of the Israelites made idols. They couldn’t find God so they created statues and idols to be God’s place. But when we try to pinpoint God’s placement, it often doesn’t work well for us.

But we buy into this all the time, don’t we? We chase things that we feel will give us meaning — the newest technology, a nicer car, a bigger house — but they never do. That’s because it’s a sign of success, but it’s hollow. There’s nothing backing it except pride and desire for approval. There’s no faith. There’s no compassion. There’s no justice. There’s no love.

There’s just the hollow feeling that false Gods leave on their way down.

Cheers,
Eric

God Bless America?

Yesterday morning, the Supreme Court ruled on the Affordable Care Act (labeled Obamacare by its detractors). By the end of yesterday, everyone was claiming victory, either present or future. Every senator, representative, pundit, blogger will make their requisite statements. Idiots will wave behind the reporters just to tell their friends who don’t watch MSNBC that they were on MSNBC.

Here’s the thing…

I’m happy that, as a result of the court’s ruling, more people will have access to healthcare and be able to be covered. But how much freaking longer can we exist like this? Mitt Romney lauded this kind of program as a “responsibility” when he was governor. Now he’s running for president and has completely 180’d from that position simply because his opponent is pushing for it.

The Republicans were longtime champions of this bill until the Democrats were for it too. Then they couldn’t be against it fast enough. What the hell is that? That’s not the point of governing a nation.

We simply have to stop disagreeing with each other just for the sake of disagreeing with each other.

We need to find a way to come together with a responsible way for giving people the care they need. If you have a better alternative, I’m all ears. But we simply can’t keep going like this. Next Wednesday is the 4th of July and with it will come chants of “God Bless America.” But what kind of America are we asking God to bless? We’re in bad shape. These arguments that we make have direct correlations to faith.

Josh Smith over at Everyday Revolutionary sums it up well.

What would Jesus do? Most likely, he would stop whining about paying taxes and pursue the cause which seeks to do the greatest good for the greatest number of people, regardless of power, politics, and money. So you may argue the finer details of this debate—it is, after all, a much more complicated discussion than what time and space have permitted me to write about here—but in the end, for the Christian, it ultimately falls to the simple decision of whether or not we are loving our neighbors with our actions. If your argument is more about splitting hairs than about showing love, you are wrong. Wrong.

It doesn’t make sense to keep fighting. Let’s find a way forward that helps everyone get their basic needs covered, and then we can go from there. Until then, it’s just pointless to keep fighting.

Cheers,
Eric

3 Things I Learned From “Where the Wild Things Are”

“I said anything I wanted because I don’t believe in children.
I don’t believe in childhood. I don’t believe that there’s a demarcation.
‘Oh you mustn’t tell them that. You mustn’t tell them that.’
You tell them anything you want. Just tell them if it’s true.
If it’s true you tell them.”  – Maurice Sendak

I woke up this morning to Steve Inskeep on NPR’s Morning Edition telling me that Maurice Sendak had passed away. Immediately I felt an unexpected, and perhaps unwarranted, bit of sadness. Where the Wild Things Are was, hands down, my favorite book growing up. I wanted it read every night. I learned to read with that book only because I had it memorized and could see what the different words looked like on a page.

As I’ve spent the morning thinking about it, I think I felt so sad because the person who created something so sacred and meaningful for me is gone. And that sucks. But, luckily for everyone who will ever live and read from now to eternity, the books survive even though the author does not.

So here are three of the many lessons I learned from Maurice Sendak, via Max and the Wild Things.

1) A good imagination is one of the most important things in the world.

This is one I still think about on at least a weekly basis. The importance of imagination cannot be overlooked. All of these events — the island, the wild things, the rumpus — took place within Max’s imagination. That kind of imagination can move mountains. Imagination is the source of all invention and innovation. I’m typing this on my Macbook, which wouldn’t exist, if not for an incredible imagination. Imagination is the power that enables us to empathize with humans — or wild things — whose experiences we have never shared. Imagination is essential for our survival.

2) Even the brave and courageous need love too.

I remember thinking how awesome it was when Max looked the Wild Things straight in their eyes and didn’t blink once. That’s the kind of guy I wanted to be. One who didn’t need anyone, but could stare monsters in the face and not blink. But then, when I was reading this to a pre-schooler while I was in college, a different part stuck out to me. “And Max, the king of all wild things, was lonely and wanted to be where someone loved him best of all.” Even though I fell into the trap of thinking I could be an island, there’s still something missing if you are a king, but have no one with whom you can give and receive love.

3) At the bridge between childhood and adulthood, the best thing you can say is, “Let the wild rumpus start!”

My mom used to always let me say this part when we were reading this through as a kid. When I heard the page leading up to it I would stand up on my bed in anxious anticipation. (Keep in mind this was when I was around 4. This wasn’t last year or anything.) And when those words “‘And now’, cried Max” came out, I would throw both hands in the air and look at the ceiling and yell “Let the wild rumpus start!” Believe me, it was awesome.

When I was standing with my brother getting ready to walk down the aisle at my wedding last summer, we looked at each other and I said, “Well, let the wild rumpus start,” and headed down the aisle. I think it’s one of the best attitudes you can have. Yeah, things will always be a little crazy and won’t be 100% controllable. Some things will go well and some things won’t. But jumping in with both feet is the only way to go.

So, even though it’s with a bit of sadness that I write this today, the news that Maurice Sendak has died is eclipsed by better news than we could ever want: Maurice Sendak lived.

Cheers,
Eric

When Bad Tornadoes Happen to Good Christians

A good way to start this might be to say that tornadoes have terrified me for a long time. I was at a sleepover in middle school when everyone else was getting ready to watch the movie “Twister”. My heart started to race. I knew that if I watched that movie, I would have terrible nightmares. I fought hard for a 50th time through “3 Ninjas”, but no such luck. I didn’t even want to watch a movie about tornadoes because I always feared being caught up in one.

Tornadoes don’t scare me in the same way they did when I was younger. But, as we’ve seen these last few days, they’re still happening and they’re still destroying. The recent storms in through Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, and Kentucky have put huge numbers of people in the midst of the storm.

One way to respond to this, is to blame the people who have just been savaged by these storms and claim that it was some sort of divinely-guided weather judgment. John Piper takes this route. Yesterday, he wrote:

If a tornado twists at 175 miles an hour and stays on the ground like a massive lawnmower for 50 miles, God gave the command…. God’s will for America under his mighty hand, is that every Christian, every Jew, every Muslim, every person of every religion or non-religion, turn from sin and come to Jesus Christ for forgiveness and eternal life. Jesus rules the wind. The tornadoes were his.

I have a number of problems with this. But I think this viewpoint is a symptom of a much larger problem. When we view God as a being who controls every tiny action that happens in the world, then this is where we end up. God sent these tornadoes down because these specific people were so sinful that they needed to be taught a lesson. So God killed 39 people and destroyed countless towns, homes, and lives.

This is one of the most damaging and destructive views I have ever heard.

Weather happens. Anyone who has taken 8th grade Earth science knows that. The weather doesn’t change because Jews or Muslims exist in the world. (Lest we forget that the title of God’s people was bestowed on Jews in the first place.)

This is the type of Christianity that actively detracts from our 21st century world. There is no need for me to tell you why we shouldn’t embrace a 4th century worldview. The world isn’t flat. The Earth is not the center of the universe. And God doesn’t make the weather.

To suggest this is not only embarrassing to religious people around the world, but it’s pointing a finger at the tens of thousands of people who have just had their lives destroyed and then saying that they deserved it. It’s tragic, hurtful, and actively detracts from the kingdom of God.

God pulls life out of death. But She doesn’t kill someone to do so.

Cheers,
Eric

(Yeah. I did the passive-aggressive refer-to-God-as-a-she thing. I’m still a little offended by Piper’s comments from 2 weeks ago. Lord, have mercy.)

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