Maher and Persecution

Bill Maher recently said: “I’d like to tip off law enforcement to an even larger child-abusing religious cult. Its leader also has a compound, and this guy not only operates outside the bounds of the law, but he used to be a Nazi and he wears funny hats.”

Of course the Catholic church is protesting these comments, and they probably should, just not too strongly or vehemently. I’ve heard and read several comments that we should imagine if he had said such derogatory things about a particular race or another religion, like Muslims. Many of them noted that Christians are the only targets left that it’s OK to attack.

That may be true, but we’re also the only group of people whose Leader told us not only to expected it but that we were blessed when it happens, and He also told us how to handle it.

Matthew 5:11-12, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

John 15:20, “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.”

First Corinthians 4: 12-13, “When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly . Up to this moment we have become the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world.”

Second Corinthians 4:8-10, “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.”

Second Timothy 3: 12-14, “In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil man and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. But as for you, continue in what you have learned and what you have become convinced, because you know those from whom you learned it.”

In Second Thessalonians, Paul says that he boast to all the other churches about the perseverance and faith of the Thessalonians in all the persecutions and trials they had been enduring. In the Parable of the Sower, Jesus explains that the seed that fell on rocky places represents the one who hears the word and receives it with joy, but lacking root, when trouble or persecution comes he quickly falls away.

Persecution is to be expected. People know they can get away with it with Christians, not just because we are acceptable targets, but they also know we’re not going to threaten to kill the person saying it. In fact, we’re not going to put up much protest at all. It’s really only when they try to keep us from the public square that we protest. As long as you don’t try to hinder our voice proclaiming the Word, for the most part, with some exceptions, we’ll take all the insults you throw at us and bless you.

I hope the Catholic church doesn’t overreact.

The Lord is My Shepherd

The fourth Sunday in Easter is traditionally Good Shepherd Sunday, with readings from Psalm 23 and John 10 especially prominent. Today I found a brief essay that Kenneth E. Bailey wrote on Psalm 23. Dr. Bailey is a voice crying in the wilderness of Christian Middle East studies.

“Dr. Bailey spent 40 years (1955-1995) living and teaching in seminaries and institutes in Egypt, Lebanon, Jerusalem and Cyprus. For 20 of those years Dr. Bailey was Professor of New Testament and Head of the Biblical Department of the Near East School of Theology in Beirut where he also founded and directed the Institute for Middle Eastern New Testament Studies. From September 1985 to June 1995, Dr. Bailey was on the faculty of “The Ecumenical Institute for Theological Research” in Jerusalem, with the title of Research Professor of Middle Eastern New Testament Studies. ”

I first discovered him when I bought a copy of The Cross and the Prodigal: Luke 15 Through the Eyes of Middle Eastern Peasants, Honored in 2006 as a “Year’s Best Book for Preachers” by Preaching magazine. This is a fantastic book, which challenges the Islamic notion that this parable shows that the cross is not necessary to forgiveness.

Dr. Bailey brings that same direct experience to his explanation of Psalm 23, explaining that “In the Holy Land, pastures are green each year for a maximum of two and a half months in the middle of winter. The rest of the year the fields are brown. Sheep are afraid to drink from a moving stream lest it hide deep water into which they could fall and drown. Still waters and green pastures are, for a sheep, the best of all worlds.” (Which makes one wonder where people get the notion that Jesus could not have been born in December because the shepherds would not be in the fields with the sheep. Not that it matters when he was born.)

What I liked best about this article was this:

Scene one opens with the familiar words, “The Lord is my shepherd.” Had David written, “The Lord is my King,” the reader would have looked to a political institution for security. Had he affirmed, “The Lord is my commander,” the military would have been an image for God. Instead he writes, “The Lord is my shepherd.” Shepherds lead their sheep into uninhabited places in open wilderness. With no cell phones, helicopter surveillance, or desert patrols, the appearance of a lion or two, or thieves with heavy sticks, would threaten the flock with great danger. The language David chooses is worthy of serious reflection. It means, at the very least, “I do not rely on police protection for my security.”

If I may make a plug for myself, I said much the same thing last summer in a post about religious freedom. What Dr. Bailey didn’t say, not did I, is that David also did not say “The Lord is my investment manager.” Sometimes it’s hard to trust God when you feel economic uncertainty, but He is our shepherd and we shall not want.

The McCain Brand

A story today in the “Washington Post” reports that John McCain “has been steadily gaining in national polls against Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, and he holds a lead in many of the swing states that are likely to determine who wins the presidency.”


McCain’s advisers attribute this seeming contradiction to what they believe is McCain, a political brand that for over a decade has stood for strength, experience, straight talk and independence, qualities they believe help buffer him from many of the ills of his party. The attacks from conservatives that McCain withstood during the Republican primaries served to enhance his brand and bolster his position among moderates and independents, who are critical to winning in November, they contend.

“John McCain has an identity that’s well established with the American people,” said Steve Schmidt, one of his top political strategists. “He’s a person who stands up and fights for what he believes in. It’s appealing to independents. It’s appealing to conservative Democrats. It’s appealing to Republicans.”

Exactly. In 2000, I was living in SC and writing a twice-a-month political column for Newsguy, back when they could afford to pay “feature writers” for content. I was a McCain supported then, and I am now. Here is one of my columns from that time. I was wrong that Bush could not win, but I wasn’t wrong about the Republican party being “Bushwhacked,” nor was I wrong about McCain’s cross-party appeal. This, more than empty rhetoric of change, is what the nation needs.

Bush Whacked

I live in South Carolina, and we need rain desperately—the mud has been slung from the low country to the mountains and all parts in between. As we prepare for our primary next Saturday, this horse race is too close to call, but if McCain loses on the 19th the Republican Party will have been Bush whacked.

I have nothing against Bush; actually, I have many fundamental points of agreement with him, but if he wins this battle he’ll lose the war. I know this isn’t conventional thinking, but while Bush may be the candidate best in step with typical Republicans, it’ll take more than Republicans to put one in the White House.

Bush’s father had a 92% approval rating after the Gulf War, the highest since they began keeping score, and he lost to the Governor of Arkansas. In 1996, Dole was unable to even put a significant dent in Clinton’s bid for re-election, and his campaign almost took Congress with it. There are two reasons for this: Ross Perot and tax cuts.

Perot took 19% of the vote in 1992 by attracting independent and reform minded voters, the same kinds of people who handed McCain a resounding win in New Hampshire, the same kinds of people whom McCain needs to turn out here on Saturday. Bush can’t motivate them.

McCain has already proven that he can not only get independent votes but that he can get Democrats to vote for him as well. Thanks to the rampant cynicism of our time (due in large part to the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave) many Republicans see this as a reason to not vote for McCain. They forget Ronald Reagan and his Democratic supporters.

In SC Democrat leaders are in fact telling some to vote McCain since the primaries are both open because no incumbent president is running, but it will backfire on them. Bill Bradley is proof of this: McCain is taking his supporters. Far from being a sign that the Democratic Party is lining up behind Gore, Bradley’s failing numbers are evidence that McCain has crossover appeal. The Republican Party can’t win without it even if Bush happens to be a so-called better conservative.

McCain appeals to independents and some Democrats; he has passion and character; and he has a positive progressive message.

South Carolina always proves to be the corrective to insurgent campaigns that gain momentum in New Hampshire. We dashed the hopes of Buchanan against Bush, Gore against Clinton, Bush against Reagan. Right now it’s a photo finish, but the stakes are high. If McCain wins, Republicans have a chance to regain the White House and keep the Congress; if he loses, they lose it all.

God Bless You, Mr. Vonnegut

In Howard’s End, E.M. Forster wrote that “Death destroys a man, but it’s the idea of death that saves him.” Death is usually an ending, but death has been so instrumental in the intellectual and emotional development of so many writers in the twentieth century that it has become a beginning. This story begins like this:


Kurt Vonnegut was an absurd man.

It ends like this:

“I know, I know. I know.”


Kurt Vonnegut was an absurd man.

In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus described the absurd person as someone who has seen through the ridiculous repetitions of daily life and “At certain moments of lucidity, the mechanical aspects of their gestures, their meaningless pantomime makes silly everything that surrounds them.” The imagery of a mechanical pantomime (or dance) is very close to Vonnegut’s use of the metaphor “duty dance with death” to describe life in Slaughterhouse-Five. Vonnegut used the author Louis Celine and his writings to bring this metaphor to life. Celine, who wrote Death on the Installment Plan (another metaphor for life), once wrote that “No art is possible without a dance with death.” Celine described it this way: “The truth is death. I’ve fought nicely against it as long as I could, danced with it, festooned it, waltzed it around.”

Camus began The Myth of Sisyphus by writing that “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.” In other words, “The truth is death.”

For Camus, man is a stranger in exile in the universe devoid of meaning. Life must be, and can only be, infused with meaning by mankind. “What the hell are people for?” Vonnegut asked. His answer seems to be: To give meaning to this duty dance with death. How is that done? Since we cannot evade death, we must entertain death and keep it busy. We must waltz with it.

This is done, like in a dance, through repetition and remembering. In Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, Henri Bergson likened the comic to watching a room full of dancers but with one’s own ears stopped so that one cannot hear the music. He also saw comedy in man being turned into a machine and in the idea of repetition, both themes of Camus and Vonnegut.

For Camus the comic must be turned into the absurd and man must engage in rebellious repetition. He must fight death with Pyrrhic integrity; he must “thumb his nose,” like Bokonon at the end of Cat’s Cradle. The comic is turned into the absurd, and daily routine turned into Sisyphean rebellion, at just the point at which man becomes aware that life is a comic farce, a Slapstick which cannot be evaded.

Vonnegut knew this. Writing for Vonnegut was an act of Sisyphean repetition that infused his life with meaning by forcing him to remember what the hell people are for. In Slaughterhouse-Five he wrote, ironically, though many miss the irony: “People aren’t supposed to look back. I?m certainly not going to anymore.” Just prior to that he told the reader that it is precisely the act of “looking back” which makes us humans. To be human is to remember.

For Camus, Sisypheanism was refusing to forget where one is from; that is, looking back to Eden, remembering that one toils in exile and remembering where one is headed; that is, towards death. One cannot hide behind illusions because that would be, for Camus, “Forgetting just what I do not want to forget.”
The Yaqui Indians believe one should walk beside death like a companion to remind them that he could take them at any moment.

Camus and Vonnegut both understand that. Hemingway, another writer obsessed with death, did too.

Nick Adams, and I think Hemingway by proxy, was terrified of death. In the very first Nick Adams story, “Three Shots,” Nick is trying to sleep alone at camp when “suddenly he was afraid of dying.” A few weeks prior to that, in church, Nick realized he would die someday. “It made him feel quite sick.” Hemingway faced the fear of death and the seeming absurdity of life by shows of manly courage. Face the thing you fear head on and act simply and decisively. But the key was action. He even developed a writing style that was compact, tight and focused on life in the face of death. A style that fit a life of action.

Hemingway chose a life of action, and he wrote in order to try and hold off the increasingly overwhelming forces of meaninglessness that stormed the beaches of his soul. He was trying to keep death at bay. Writing for him was an end in itself. A mode of existence that gave meaning to his life, and when he felt he had lost that barrier between himself and death he gave in to it. Thanatos beat Eros and he killed himself.

For Vonnegut writing wasn’t an end in itself; it was a means to an end. It was an act of remembering and repetition, like dancing.
In an essay titled “A Room Called Remember,” Frederick Buechner wrote that “in the room called Remember it is possible to find peace- the peace that comes from looking back and remembering to remember that though most of the time we failed to see it, we were never really alone.”
John Donne wrote, “No man is an island entire to himself; therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” Hemingway titled his greatest work on this passage of Donne’s, but he never understood that we find purpose and meaning in repetition and remembering and relation: our relationship to ourselves, to others, to our world and even to death.

In writing death lost its sting for Vonnegut; it died, to borrow from Donne again. Vonnegut screamed out to the universe “What the hell are people for” and back came a single word: “Remember.” So he put his back to the repetitious task of moving a boulder of words up a hill only to have to roll back down again and again. He took up his pen and dutifully danced with death. It all sounds so absurd.

“I know; I know. I know.”

A Letter To My Representatives On Oil Prices

Dear Senators Burr and Dole and Representative Jones,

Last week I listened on C-SPAN to the testimony of oil executives from the big five oil companies. As a father of five who is forced to drive a large van, this issue is of great concern to me. I recognize that there are things that I as a consumer can do, and I have been trying to do them. I combine trips, make as few trips as possible, and use one of our more fuel-efficient vehicles when I can.

However, you know there is very little consumers can do when they have to get to their jobs and they have long commutes. America is not laid out like Europe. We often have long drives to church, grocery stores, jobs, and extended family. This is especially true of rural Americans of whom I am one.

There also seems to be very little that citizens can do. The political process has become so layered and policy issues so complex that many Americans feel the best they can do is to get through their day-to-day lives and hope that their leaders are wise enough, diligent enough, and courageous enough to do something about national and global issues that lie way outside the average citizen’s grasp or control.

It seems the only thing that we can do as citizens is write the occasional letter to our elected representatives and give them our input. Here’s mine.

I do not now remember if the hearings were held before the House or the Senate, but one of the Congressional questioners said that we need short-term, medium-term, and long-term approaches to this very difficult problem. Score 1 for wisdom.

I am a Republican and an evangelical Christian, and I am also a student of history. Capitalism was built on a foundation of integrity, frugality, and standards. Large corporations often provide a lot of jobs, a lot of economic growth, and a lot of innovation, and free trade is not the bugaboo it’s often made out to be. (Auto mechanics, teachers, doctors, lawyers, grocers, dentists, and a host of other jobs are quite safe from the threat of being moved to India.) However, a corporation’s final loyalty is to the shareholder, and the shareholder thinks short-term.

In the early days of capitalism, religious and cultural standards and personal integrity helped offset the desires of personal gain at all cost. Early corporations understood that they had obligations to their employees, their community, and their nation. Today, unfortunately, large multinational corporations need incentives to do what it would have been unthinkable not to do in the past.

With that in mind, Congress needs to realize that while the free market ultimately brings increased prosperity, innovation, and opportunity there is a place for judicious political oversight on behalf of the citizenry.

It seems clear that America must lead the way in searching for, developing, and utilizing alternative energy sources. It also seems clear that a much needed short-term solution to the current rising cost of gas is an increase in supply. How can that be accomplished while encouraging the oil companies to not merely focus on short-term profit? I think Congress needs to immediately pass legislation to allow greater access to American oil sources such as those in the Gulf of Mexico, Alaska, and in the Pacific Ocean.

If you do that, however, what is to stop the oil companies from just exploiting those resources for the short-term gain of their shareholders? I suggest that in the legislation that opens those resources it be mandated that any corporation that develops those resources be required to put 20% of the profits made on those resources into developing alternative energy sources and the infrastructure to accommodate them. Continue reading

Grace to Honor Gifts: A Prayer


I pray today that you give me the grace to honor the many gifts you have blessed me with, those of the physical realm like food, health, shelter and work, but most especially for the spiritual gifts you have granted me.  I humbly pray that I will respond to them with gratitude, contentment, joy and the obedience of faith.  Please enable me to surrender to your love, and give me the power to make godly choices.  In Jesus name I pray.  Amen

Reducing Families to Economics

I was just browsing the position papers at the National Youth Rights Association, where, under the topic of entertainment, they write:

While we understand the need to warn viewers about the content of a show, movie or game, we feel that age-based ratings systems not only fail to do so properly, but deprive young people of the ability to choose their own entertainment with their own money based on the whims of secret ratings boards, accountable to no one.

The National Youth Rights Association supports efforts by young people to use our economic strength to bring about an end to age-based ratings systems. We call for strict enforcement of antitrust and fair business practice laws to prohibit any group from strong-arming any business into following an age-based ratings system.

I see several objections here. First, the language is intellectually dishonest and falsely characterizing. The ratings aren’t based on ‘whims’ nor is the board ‘secret,’ nor is there any ‘strong-arming.’

Secondly, besides the fact that the movie theater can’t be asked to determine who earned what money, those under-18 teens who may actually be paying with money they earned probably don’t realize that if someone else weren’t paying for their food, housing, utilities, health insurance, car payments (most of the time), car insurance (most of the time), etc. that they wouldn’t be able to pay for that movie.

No one has true “economic strength” who is dependent upon others for most of his or her real income, measured in those things received but not paid for.

Finally, “age-based ratings systems” are sub-sets of a general philosophical position that one can only assume they take as axiomatic based on their desire to also lower drinking, driving and voting ages; that is, that there is no sound basis for “age-based” anything. They give a wink and a nod to the idea that there is a justified “need to warn viewers,” but they don’t really expound upon that, nor do they bother to support their conclusion that “age-based ratings systems… fail to do [that] properly.”

Maybe I haven’t seen it yet, but at some point they’re going to have to address the general questions of if and when the state has a legitimate basis for passing laws based on age. They seem to be avoiding that general philosophical line drawing. Either there is to be no line drawn ever or a line is justified. If it’s justified, they have to argue why, say, 16 is better than 18.

But it’s in those kinds of specific, concrete arguments that they’d need something besides high-minded Obamaesque rhetoric.

If a 16 year old–with or without–a job wants to go see an R-rated movie all she needs to do is take her mom with her. Philosophically, they’re trying to reduce family and citizen relationships to ones of mere economics, hoping to cut parents out of the loop. However, if that’s the case, they undermine their very objective, because those who pay for all those others silly things like medical insurance (i.e. ‘parents’) will always have the upper hand economically.

They need some other grounding for the position. If “it’s my money” is the best they have then they have nothing.