Donald Andrew Henson II

Posts Tagged ‘Politics’

Christians Should Shut Up, Calm Down, and Listen

In American Society, Blogging the Bible, Blogging the New Testament, Religion and Government on March 2, 2014 at 12:49 am

Before you get too wound up, you should probably have a look at James 1:1-21, paying particular attention to verse 19. While my headline addresses Christians in general, I’m thinking mostly about that vitriolic group of Americans known as the Tea Party. Of course the groups are not one and the same, but I don’t think anyone can argue that the vast majority of Tea Partiers would self-identify as Christians. So if you’re not the angry, White, American Republican variety of Christian, please forgive my generalization; headlines can only be so long, you know.

James’ letter was probably written around 46-48 AD, a couple of years before the Council of Jerusalem put Gentile believers on equal footing with their Jewish Christian brothers. Hence, it is addressed to “the twelve tribes scattered across the nations”, referring to the Jewish communities that existed in almost every city across the ancient world. These communities often practiced a form of Hellenistic Judaism, meaning that they combined their Jewish religious traditions with elements of Greek culture. As they were open to new ideas and philosophies, they were among the earliest adherents to the new faith of Christianity. Because most of the New Testament was originally written in koine Greek, instead of Aramaic, some historians think the early Christian church may have been composed almost exclusively of Hellenistic Jews; the fact that many Old Testament quotations in the letters of the disciples appear to come from the Septuagint strengthens this argument.

James tells believers to be happy when they are facing trials, as these will serve to perfect their faith. In an earlier post dealing with Paul’s discussion of persecutions in Thessaloniki, it wasn’t clear what he might have been referring too. However, there would have been lots of friction between Aramaic-speaking, traditional Jewish believers and Greek-speaking, Hellenistic Jews at the time of James’ writing. The recipients of his letter would have been subject to the disdain of their own Jewish brethren, perhaps ostracized from the synagogue for their belief in this person called Jesus. It is probably this religious persecution that he refers to.

According to James, God will give wisdom to anyone who asks for it, as long as they really, really believe when they ask. If you doubt – forget about it. God will give you nothing. Over the years, I have seen so many Christians beat themselves up over this verse. What they ask God for seems reasonable enough – the wisdom needed to sort out their marriage or their children, or direction in a financial decision – but they receive nothing. When their marriage or finances fall apart, they tell themselves (or are helpfully reminded by more successful Christians) that they just simply don’t have enough faith in God. Many of the largest evangelical churches across the US preach this kind of doctrine. The church leadership, enriched by the tithes of the faithful, tell the less fortunate among the flock that they need only the tiniest bit of faith, and they too can be rich and successful. If you are struggling in life, it’s your own fault for not being able to muster up enough faith. It has nothing to do with the fact that the economic system is rigged against you or that you were never able to complete college. No, your life is a mess because Jesus thinks you don’t believe in him enough.

It’s ironic that most of the TV preachers are telling us that we should all be rich; James doesn’t have many nice things to say about the wealthy. This is one of the major inconsistencies evident between a literal reading of the Bible and modern American Christianity. Americans all want to be rich – who doesn’t? – while Jesus, James, Peter, and other New Testament writers see wealth as a detriment to the Christian life. In fact, the wealthy are viewed as oppressors, not ‘job creators’, not as men of great faith. A great deal of rhetorical acrobatics is required to twist these teachings into something that supports our acquisitive, materialistic American lifestyle.

In fact, James thinks it is the poor who should be proud, as their lives are not focused on the material. At God’s table, the rich won’t get the best seat – if they are invited at all. In most American churches, the wealthiest members hold the coveted positions of leadership. In God’s kingdom, Tom Perkins certainly wouldn’t get a million more votes than you or I.

Phidippides

Two metaphors in verses 12 and 18 show how skillfully the writer weaves together ideas from both Jewish and Hellenistic worldviews. He compares the Christian life to an endurance race, something that can be won with perseverance. Marathons, the glory of victory, laurel crowns – these are Greek ideas that are not found in Old Testament writings. Christians today talk about “running the race”, “fighting the good fight”, and “wearing the whole armor of God”, little realizing that these ideas are all drawn from Greek legends, not Jewish or Christian ones. James was likely reminding his readers of Pheidippides, using that story as a source of inspiration for living the Christian life. Note that in Merson’s rendering above, the hero has truly laid aside every weight to run the race.

When he refers to his fellow believers as “a kind of firstfruits”, James is alluding to a type of agricultural offering that had existed in both Greek and Jewish cultures for centuries. He appears to be changing the significance of the offering – instead of humans giving the first part of their harvest to a temple, James seems to be saying that the first group of believers are offered to God as the first of many more believers to come. Modern churches, however, prefer the ancient meaning – every religion in every culture has rituals that are meant to sustain – and often enrich – the priesthood.

While partisans from all parts of the political spectrum are guilty of lowering the quality of the debate in our country, I offer this next verse as Biblical instruction to the Tea Party in particular. James says, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.” If a godless, reprobate secularist won’t listen and spouts off all the time, at least he isn’t breaking his own moral code – you, Mr. Tea Partier, are. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it is the anger of the Tea Party that is driving the greater part of the rancor and real ugliness in our politics today. I didn’t think George Bush was very bright, but I didn’t call him a subhuman mongrel. I wish evangelicals didn’t always vote Republican, but I certainly don’t hope they burn in hell when they do.

We can’t solve any of the many serious problems our nation faces as long as we think and act this way. We have to respect each other – talk to one another – to get things done. So, Mr. Tea Partier, it’s not just me who thinks you need to shut up, calm down, and listen every once and a while. No, your friend James – Jesus’ brother – thinks so too.

The road to getting our country back in shape is likely to be a long one – we need to put our energy into running that race.

If it’s ok with you, I’ll be keeping my clothes on.

Be sure to ‘like’ americansecularist on Facebook to get posts as soon as they’re published.

Advertisements

8 Ways to Fix America

In American Economy, American Society on August 19, 2012 at 2:50 am

I just ran across an article from a year ago entitled Eight Ways to Fix Our Politics, which was posted in Newsweek and the Daily Beast. There are some excellent ideas that would get rid of the gridlock we currently have, namely –

  1. Stop letting the political parties determine how congressional districts are divided.
  2. Change the way elections are funded.
  3. Eliminate party primaries in favor of open primaries.
  4. Let the popular vote determine the outcome of elections.
  5. Change the way congressional committees are put together.
  6. Eliminate secret holds on appointees.
  7. Change or eliminate the filibuster.
  8. Eliminate the debt ceiling.

Most of these have something to do with weakening the present two-party political system, something that I am very much in favor of. Did you know that political parties are not even mentioned in our constitution? Why do they play such a big role today in our politics? It seems that the GOP and Demos are locked into an endless cycle of fighting and one-upmanship, where the goal is for the party to win – the country itself be damned. The others have to do with money arguments – and that got me thinking about some of the larger problems in politics and in the country in general.

Our capitalist economic system – when working well – is the best system the world has ever seen.  However, it does have its flaws, which have been on display the last 2-3 years. Democracy is the best political system in the world. When these two systems are working as they should, operating in a check-and-balance sort of competition, America is hard to beat. The problem is that over the last decade or more, the two systems have been involved in a destructive, incestuous make-out session, a Wall Street / Washington love-fest, in which the interests of anyone who doesn’t have power or money haven’t mattered very much.

Because of this neglect, there are a lot of things that are broken in this country, not just our politics. This got me thinking about how to fix some of the other ills we are facing as a country as well. I agree with the fixes in the Newsweek article, but I think we can do even better.

Get the money out of our political system – all of it. CNN’s Jack Cafferty reports that Congress’s wealth has increased by more than 25% during the height of our current recession. Peter Schweizer’s recent book Throw Them All Out  details how almost everyone in the legislative branch is using insider trading, cronyism, and land deals to enrich themselves at our expense. We can’t really have a democracy – and we can’t really accomplish any of the other things we need to accomplish – as long as our government servants are not looking our for our interests. Federal elections should all be federally funded – all donations or use of personal wealth should be illegal. PACs should be transparently funded. We all need to realize that a dollar and a vote are not the same thing – everyone, no matter how rich they are – has only one voice in our political forums; no one should be allowed to have thousands.

Congressional Elections are Fixed in America

(Photo credit: davemakkar)

Require that everyone vote. Australia, Belgium, Singapore, and at least two dozen other countries around the world make voting mandatory. It’s ridiculous that a country with as much international power as ours often elects its leaders without even a majority in this country participating. Both political parties are constantly trying to disqualify certain voters, or qualify certain others to their political advantage. If everyone voted, these kinds of shenanigans would come to an end, and the politicians would have to promote ideas that appeal to everyone, not just partisan wingnuts.

Do everything possible to weaken the two-party system. The Newsweek article sort of beats around the bush on this point – it’s time someone came out and said it. George Washington was very unhappy that the nation began to develop two very strong parties right from the beginning. We either need more viable political parties – or none at all. Our country is locked into a perpetual Yankees-vs-Red Sox rivalry that is destroying us. The future of our country is too important to leave it up to political gamesmanship. We’ve got to end the polarization that the parties are encouraging and figure out how to work together again to solve some of our biggest problems.

Fix our ailing infrastructure. Living in Beijing for 3 years before coming back to the US, I got used to roads with no potholes, modern bridges and superhighways, state-of-the-art trains and airports, clean, bright, modern buses that run on natural gas – and a host of other conveniences that make life in an American city downright medieval by comparison. Our business can’t compete in the coming century when our grandparents were the last ones who bothered to pay to build a new runway or port. I think it’s Thomas Friedman who said that if a person who knew nothing of history were asked to look at the infrastructures of Germany, Japan, and the US, and, based only on those observations, ascertain which country won WWII – he’d come up with the wrong answer every time.

Stop empire building / financing expansion of big oil. Many Americans may be unaware of how India became part of the British Empire. There was a joint stock company called the British East India Company that began investing in spices, tea, and other commodities in India and in other places in the Far East. The success of this company made its investors – including many members of Parliament – fabulously wealthy, and provided cheap raw materials to England’s factories. Every time there was a skirmish of some kind between the Company and the locals, the British Army would arrive to pacify the area, and turn it into a ‘protectorate’. The British government ended up colonizing all of India this way – not because there was a public discussion and decisions were made that empire would be best for the country – but because big business decided that’s the way it should be.

Our situation is the same – big oil and other industries make investments abroad that bring enormous wealth to a select few investors – and to countries like Saudi Arabia, Russia, China, and Venezuela, countries that do not share our democratic vision – and then tax dollars are spent to protect our ‘national interest’ in these areas. Why do we stick our military noses into Iraq and Afghanistan, yet ignore similarly belligerent regimes elsewhere? Oil, money, the interests of big business. It’s time we do a bit of nation building here in our own country, if you ask me.

I’ve got a few more ideas that are much more controversial, including making everyone go to public school. But it’s 3am and I have to work tomorrow, so I’ll save those for my next post later this week.

What’s Wrong With North Carolina?

In Current events, Religion and Society on May 26, 2012 at 3:25 am

I wouldn’t own up to enjoying Broadway plays, Cher, Madonna, or Judy Garland if I lived in North Carolina. (Actually, out of the four, I’m pretty keen on Broadway plays, myself.) I certainly wouldn’t admit to enjoying Will and Grace or Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.

The past few weeks have been a heyday for the anti-gay in that state. First it was Pastor Ron Baity who suggested that laws criminalizing homosexuality when our nation was founded should still be in force – and enforced. Then Pastor Tim Rabon explained how allowing homosexuals to be married would lead to laws that permitted bestiality. Not to be outdone, Pastor Sean Harris instructed any father who saw his son with a ‘limp wrist’ should, as he put it, ‘crack that wrist’. In another sermon, he seemed to think a punch in the face would be effective as well.

This week we have the Rev. Charles Worley, who wants a piece of the anti-gay action too, suggesting that gays and lesbians be placed in what sounds like concentration camps surrounded by electric fences. If you haven’t seen this snippet of his ‘sermon’, have a look.

These four men (I want to call them the Four Horsemen of the No-cock-or-lisp  – is that too irreverent?) are only saying what many in their churches already think – that homosexuality is a sin against God. And, I suppose, they have a right to say that – but not a right to suggest beating and imprisoning people who don’t conform to their religious beliefs.

 

I said once before that the gay marriage issue was not one that I felt strongly about one way or another; but every time a Charles Worley speaks, I tend to become more in favor of letting people do what they want as long as they’re not bothering anyone else. I don’t think guys like Harris and Worley should win the day.

But I don’t have to be in support of gay marriage or alternative lifestyles in general to be offended by Mr. Worley; he offends me on a number of levels.

I’m offended by his obvious pride in his good-old-boy brand of ignorance. He’s not ‘against’ homosexuality, he’s ‘agin’ it. Now he certainly knows how to pronounce the word correctly – perhaps in his day, a North Carolina school teacher cracked his wrist for mispronunciations such as these, or at least made him stand in a corner. I attended public schools in the South, and I can assure you that English teachers there, like anywhere else, teach people what’s correct and what isn’t. But Mr. Worley is making a statement with this kind of speech. He’s identifying himself with the anti-education strain that threads its way through religious circles. To sound educated is to be suspect in his group – everyone knows that real knowledge comes from God. You may think I’m making to big of a deal out of this, but I’ve lived in the South, and I grew up in Southern Pentecostal churches. And I know preachers who pander to the uneducated when they know better.

I’m offended that he called the President of the United States a ‘baby-killer’. Where’s the proof of this? I know he’s referring to the abortion issue, but there’s no logic to follow here. When did President Obama – his wife or previous girlfriends – ever have an abortion? I thought to be guilty of something, there had to be some evidence of a willful act. (Don’t get me started about children being killed by our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – if you want to call a POTUS a baby-killer for initiating military conflicts – well, you’d have to put a lot of names on that list.) Wouldn’t you have to somehow personally be involved in aborting a fetus before you can be called a baby-killer?

Are we talking the sin of omission here? Because the President doesn’t overturn Roe v Wade, he’s guilty by omission – that must be the point. But if that were true, then we’d all be guilty of infanticide. If you have never been a war protester, you would be, by proxy, a baby-killer. If you have never sent Sally Struthers a check to feed those poor kids on the late night TV ads, you are a baby-killer by omission.

I’m offended that he calls the President a ‘homosexual lover’ – whatever that is. President Obama has made it clear that he has struggled with the idea of gay marriage, torn between the teaching of his Christian upbringing and his belief in the rights of the individual. To attempt to slander a person because they are working through a complex issue is insulting; because he doesn’t agree with Mr. Worley’s narrow-minded point of view, he’s subjected to taunting epithets.

I’m offended that Mr. Worley gets to promote his political views – whom he thinks we should vote for, what legislation we should oppose – yet continues to enjoy his tax-exempt status. If he uses his pulpit as the mouthpiece of a specific political group, his church should pay tax. I’m beginning to think that all churches should be taxed on any non-charitable income.

I’m offended from a Christian point of view that Mr. Worley offers no scriptural references to support his doctrine. If he really follows the Bible and believes it is God’s word, why doesn’t he share with us what the Bible has to say about homosexuality? In truth, because it doesn’t say very much. In the few places where it does condemn homosexuality, it also says a lot of other things that most Christians just wouldn’t agree with, like bans on eating all shellfish or killing children by stoning when they disrespect their parents. It’s difficult as a pastor to open up the book of Leviticus and tell people to follow this scripture to the letter – but don’t pay any attention to those other verses in the same book. Wouldn’t want to look hypocritical.

One reader took offense when I said I hadn’t heard a sermon on gluttony in a long time – and it was obvious that churchfolk were struggling with this sin at least as much as they were with latent homosexual feelings. Mr. Worley and the other pastors may or may not be struggling with the fear of their own homosexual tendencies – a la Ted Haggard – but it’s not too hard to see the results of over-eating. I read today that one-third of American are obese – including homeless people! Wouldn’t anti-gluttony make for a good sermon as well? Or how about one of the six other deadly sin? Why is it that fat, lazy, vain-glorious people (all three in the deadly category) want to point a finger at others who are struggling with only one deadly sin, lust, if that?

I’m offended that Mr. Worley and others get to preach in the luxurious surroundings I see on the video, subsidized by you and I, while the buildings in which we hope to educate the next generation of Americans are falling apart. He gets a cathedral from which to spew his nonsense for a few hours a week, while elementary school teachers toil away 50-60 hours a week in rundown buildings.

Finally, I’m offended by the lack of Christian love. What ever happened to ‘love the sinner but hate the sin’. Would Mr. Worley suggest than any other kind of sinner be put behind electrified wire and allowed to die out? Newt Gingrich is a serial adulterer – yet many conservatives hoped he might be the next president. Even if you believe that homosexuality is a sin – seriously, concentration camps? And aren’t we supposed to pray for our political leaders instead of calling them names?

Homophobia isn’t the only problem with North Carolina’s brand of Christianity.