Thursday, January 28, 2016

RIPE FOR DESPOTISM








“An elective despotism was not the government we fought for; but one which the powers of government should be so divided and balanced among the several bodies of magistracy as that no one could transcend their legal limits without being effectually checked and restrained by the others.”
-          James Madison – From “The Federalist Papers” (February 20, 1788)

I’ve been reading a lot about the widening gap between the world’s rich and poor. The data is startling. Oxfam, for example, recently published a series of reports on that growing gap. The overall conclusion of the reports – “the wealth of the richest one percent is equivalent to the rest of the world’s combined.”

I don’t know for sure how accurate Oxfam’s claim is, but I tend to believe that there’s at least some validity in what they’ve written. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. 

Not many people are willing to argue about the alarming data, but finding a solution, or solutions, to the problem is another matter. Once the discussion about fixing the problem begins, the fur begins to fly.

The 2016 election cycle is still young and the rhetoric about inequality is getting heated. By the time we get to the fall it’ll be white hot.

Will we elect someone who knows how to solve the problem? I don’t think so. In fact, if history is any indicator, the candidates who claim they can solve the problem will almost certainly make things far worse.

Why is that so?  After all, aren’t we electing our friends and neighbors? Don’t they care about our well-being? Haven’t they told us they want to represent us?

Yes, they are our friends and neighbors. They seem to care about our well-being and I think they’re even sincere when they tell us they want to represent us. But, we’ve been electing our friends and neighbors for a long, long time and none of them have ever solved the problem of wealth disparity. 

There are reasons for this. First, sincerity is a powerful campaign tool. It works. Once the election results are tabulated, however, things change. The candidate who oozed sincerity in September has now been elected. The outsider who was once looking in has now become in the insider looking out. The pre-election sincerity has been supplanted by power and privilege. In his 2010 book “The Ruling Class,” Boston University professor Angelo Codevilla described the dramatic shift this way – “Hence, our Ruling Class’ first priority in any and all matters, its solution to any and all problems, is to increase the power of government, meaning of those who run it, meaning themselves.”

Power and privilege seem to come with the office. It’s bestowed on city and county commissioners, state representatives and senators, then to representatives on the national stage. The higher one goes in politics, the more pronounced the sense of power and privilege becomes. By the time an American politician gets to Washington, D.C., that sense has become acute. It’s so overpowering that it clouds sound judgement.

To be fair, not every politician operates from a sense of power and privilege. But, the ones who really do try to serve their constituents are scarcer than hen’s teeth, as the old expression goes.

There’s something else that almost always seems to come with political power and privilege. It’s money!

How is it that so many politicians start out poor and retire filthy rich? Are they just luckier than the rest of us? I’ll leave the answer to that question with your imaginations, dear readers.

So, the question of who is going to fix the problem of wealth disparity is once again going to be put to the public in the current election cycle. Republicans and Democrats have already started pandering for all their worth.

The Republicans, for example, are pandering to the masses, with a lot of talk of taking Washington, D.C. back from the fat cats and Beltway insiders. The most acute manifestation of this phenomenon is Donald Trump. It’s hard to believe, but we’ve got a billionaire fat-cat masquerading as a populist, which makes him a living, breathing oxymoron.  He rambles incoherently about making America great again, insults anyone who disagrees with him, and threatens to bomb our enemies back into the Stone Age. The con seems to be working. He’s done it by what columnist Charles Cooke recently described as “stunning the audience into dumb submission.” It shouldn’t be working, but, the more he rambles and blusters, the more the ham and eggers love him.

The Republicans don’t seem to have an answer. How about the Democrats?

Not too long ago, multi-millionaire Hillary Clinton appeared to be the heir to the throne. But then, Bernie Sanders came out of left field, proclaiming himself to be the revolutionary who will set America straight. Who would have thought that a middle-aged rabble rouser who channels Huey Long and Vladimir Lenin simultaneously could force Hillary to keep steering further and further to the left? But, he has. Pretty soon now and she’ll be singing, “Every Man a King.”

So, there you have it. The Democrats’ cupboard is as bare as the Republicans.

God help us! America’s in trouble. The air is ripe for despotism and we may actually get it.

Saturday, January 02, 2016

DONALD TRUMP AND THE BLACK HOLE

I’ll say it at the outset, lest I be misunderstood. I’m not a Donald Trump supporter.

I support many of the ideals he seems to mock with alarming regularity. I’ve argued against some of his harebrained ideas in my columns (No Room for Xenophobia, for example). I detest everything the man stands for!

It would be very easy to think we could laugh him off the stage, but we’re well past that point. He’s not the clown some of us seem think he is. As Roger Cohen put it in the New York Times, “He is in earnest. And he’s onto something. It is foolish not to take him seriously.”

Just what is he on to? The mood of the country, that’s what!

This is how Cohen described the way many Americans feel these days — “A near perfect storm for his rabble-rousing is upon the United States. China is rising. American power is ebbing. The tectonic plates of global security are shifting. Afghanistan and Iraq have been the graveyards of glory. There is fear, after the killing in California inspired by the Islamic State, of an enemy within. Over more than a decade, American blood and treasure have been expended, to little avail. President Obama claims his strategy against Islamist jihadist terrorism, which he often sugarcoats as 'violent extremism,' is working. There is little or no evidence of that.”

The fear, frustration and anger are real and they’re widespread. We’re looking for leadership and all we see is a massive black hole. Almost everyone in the Western world is sensing this. The Los Angeles Times recently described how Frenchman Joseph Camus felt after the recent Paris attacks that killed more than a hundred: “Frustrated by the government’s failure to revive a moribund economy, fearful of rising immigration from the Middle East and North Africa, and convinced that recent terrorist attacks in Paris won’t be the last, Camus says he has lost all faith in the country’s mainstream leaders.”

Camus lives an ocean away from us, but his fear and loss of faith are every bit as real to millions of Americans as they are to him. We’ve lost faith in our leaders and Donald Trump has jumped in to fill the void.

His rhetoric is reckless: “I’ll build a wall.” “I’ll bomb the shit out of ISIS!” “I’ll put the Chinese in their place.” “I’ll refuse to let Muslims into the country.”

Like a gunman running amok in streets, he lets the words fly. They sound like the ravings of a madman, but they’re striking home. The adoring throngs seem to be growing.

Why is it working? Is our leadership deficit that bad?

This past summer, ISIS was still in the business of beheading Christians, Yazidis or anyone else they considered to be infidels. They were expanding their caliphate into Libya, Afghanistan and Pakistan. They were more than likely in the final stages of planning their attack on Paris. The Iranians were launching mid-range ballistic missiles, in violation of the agreement they’d signed in Lausanne. Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeeen Malik, who killed fourteen and wounded 21 in a terrorist rampage a few weeks ago, were more than likely discussing jihad over candlelight dinners.

What was the President of the United States doing this summer? He was cavorting around Alaska with Bear Grylls, preparing for an episode of "Running Wild.” According the British tabloid the Independent, he was sipping tea made from a wildflower called catkin and eating the remains of a salmon that a bear had left behind.

Thankfully, the President was adequately protected during his great adventure. He and Grylls were accompanied by a food taster (shades of the Old Testament cup bearers), 50 Secret Service personnel, helicopters and a few snipers, just in case ISIS was lurking around. According to Grylls, Mr. Obama said it was “one of the best days of his presidency.”

Good God, what was the President thinking? Did he give any thought to the optics of his adventure? The world is on fire. ISIS and other enemies are moving on our flanks and the President is cavorting around Alaska. It’s like being a passenger on a jumbo,jet and seeing that the engines are on fire while the captain is heading for the exit wearing a parachute.

Sadly, America is in that kind of shape right now. Our ship of state is about to go down in flames and our captain is donning a parachute while the rest of us wait anxiously for the next shoe to drop.

Is it any wonder, then, that a lunatic like Donald Trump is gaining in popularity?

Thursday, December 17, 2015

TRUE BELIEVER


“And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” 
     Matthew 18:3-4 


I just started reading Mary Eberstadt’s “How the West Really Lost God.”  I’m finding it very sobering. Christianity seems to be in steep decline in the West. A recent British survey concluded that “only two in five British people now identify as Christian.” The survey also noted that “the proportion of people who do not follow a religion has risen from just under a third in 1983 to almost half in 2014.” Not too long ago, Keith Wood, a staff writer for the Independent, got to the heart of what more and more Britons are thinking – “It is undemocratic for these representatives to make laws binding on a population that largely considers religion to be irrelevant.”

The story in the United States is much the same.  


The prospects for Christianity in the West do indeed seem grim. Unbelief seems to be waxing; belief seems to be waning. If Nietzsche were alive today he just might be crowing with delight - “See, I prophesied it over a hundred years ago. The great Christian cathedrals have become tombs.”


Not long after I wrote the op-ed about Advent, two “radicalized” Muslims killed fourteen and wounded twenty-one at a Christmas function in San Bernardino, California. Terror is once again afoot in America. The threat of more attacks should unify us, but we’re polarized. Some say they’re praying for the victims, while their detractors tell them to shut up. “God isn’t going to do anything!” they say.


It’s really strange. Prayers are being scoffed at, just when they’re needed most.


This coming Sunday is the final Sunday of Advent. In many churches, a fourth Advent candle, representing peace, will be lit. Christians will be thinking of Jesus, who came to us as the Prince of Peace. It was a peace that some tried to cut off as it was being born into the world. Herod and his inner court, fearing that they would lose their grip on power, ordered the killing of all of Bethlehem’s male children two years old or under.


It seems like things have always been this way. Terror, in one form or another, all too often tries to snuff out the message of peace.


The terror and fear are very real and they seem to be growing in strength. There doesn’t seem to be a way out, particularly at a time when unbelief seems to rule the day. Given the state of the world and America’s polarized society, peace seems more like a pipe dream than a promise.


At the end of his earthly life, Jesus told his disciples, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.”


The words, while comforting, also beg two questions. Can we truly believe them? How do we put them into practice? 


A few months ago I came across an interview on YouTube of a 10 year old Iraqi Christian girl named Myriam. You can access the video at the following URL - https://youtu.be/_ige6CcXuMg

Myriam and her family fled their home in the Iraqi city of Qaraquosh when ISIS captured it in 2014. She was living as a refugee in the Kurdish city of Erbil when the interview was conducted. When asked what she would like to do to ISIS she replied, “I will only ask God to forgive them.” She was also asked if she was angry with God because she’d lost her home. She answered, “I’m not angry at God because we left Qaraquosh. I thank Him because He provided us, even if we’re suffering here. He provides for us…If you are a true believer, He will never forsake you.” Then, the interviewer tried to cheer her up by telling her “I hope you go back to a home that’s better than your first home.” She responded, smiling and looking heavenward as she did. “If God so wants.”


At the end of the interview, the reporter asked Myriam if there was a song she’d like to sing. One short stanza from that song follows:


“How beautiful is the day on which I believed in Christ; my joy was made complete at dawn, and my voice sang with gratitude… A new life, a joyful day, when I reunite with my Beloved.”

As we Western Christians ponder the possibilities of living in peace and expressing vibrant faith in an unbelieving world during this Advent season, Myriam’s powerful testimony speaks to us. Even at her tender age she’s shown us what it means to be a true believer in times of unbelief and great tribulation.  

Thursday, December 03, 2015

ADVENT



Last Sunday marked the beginning of Advent, one of the most important seasons on the Christian calendar. In many Christian churches, the season is commemorated by keeping an advent wreath, with its four candles, in the sanctuary. On the first Sunday before Christmas, the hope candle is lit. On the second Sunday, the Bethlehem candle, a visible reminder of the manger and prophecies of Jesus’ coming to earth, is lit. The third Sunday in advent is called Laetare (Latin for “rejoice”) Sunday. Biblical accounts of the shepherds’ joy at Jesus’ birth are read and the third Advent candle is lit. On the fourth Sunday, the Angel’s candle is lit. In many churches, the Magnificat of Mary (Luke 1) is often read. Some churches also have a fifth candle, called the Christ candle, which is lit at traditional Christmas Eve services.

Advent meant absolutely nothing to me for many years. From the time I was about fourteen till I was twenty-five, I considered myself to be an atheist, an angry one at that. I lashed out at religious people. I mocked them all, especially Christians.  I believed they were hypocritical or intellectually weak. It wasn’t until 1965, when I was serving a tour of duty in Vietnam, that the walls of hate I’d built over the years began to crumble. I’d come to Vietnam believing that, when all is said and done, life doesn’t have much meaning. You live…you die…then you rot. With that as a guiding philosophy, I had no room for God. I was too strong for that. Then, a fellow soldier told me about Jesus and said he was praying for me. I mocked him like I’d done to so many other religious people, but, this man was different. No matter how much I mocked him, he kept telling me that God loved me and he did too. “I’m praying for you, Phil.” In early December of that year, his prayers began to haunt me. “What if he’s right about this Jesus?” “If there is an after-life, what does that mean to me?” “Was I really going to be judged in the end?” Just before Christmas I got to watch Bob Hope’s annual Christmas show at Tan Son Nhut Air Base. When the show concluded with Anita Bryant singing “Silent Night,” I began to silently plead, “Are you real?” “Did you really come to earth to save us?” “If that’s true, does that include me?” “If you’re really there and you’re really alive, please show me the way.”

Over the next two years, events proved to my complete satisfaction that what my fellow soldier had told me was, indeed, true. I became a Christian in August of 1967.

It’s been almost fifty years since my conversion and I still find the Advent season one of the most meaningful in my life. Jesus’ advent two thousand years ago opened the door to an advent in my life.
I’ve tried my best over the years to tune out the noise that tries to overshadow the meaning of Advent to me. I wish I could say that I always succeed, but that wouldn’t be true. There’s always a lot in this world that can be distracting and I’m always tempted to get into the fray.

This year is no different. There are, as there always have been, wars and rumors of war. We’ve got church scandals galore. Our political and civil discourse has become a sewer. No one seems to care about bringing us together. As author Brad Gregory put it in his most recent book, “The Unintended Reformation” – “Neither politicians nor journalists nor academics nor celebrities appear to have any answers about how to reverse the trajectory of polarization. Instead, the American public square seems to grow ever coarser and angrier.” In terms of faith and belief, we are witnessing what author Mary Eberstadt recently described as “a sea change from a civilization that widely fears God, to one that now often jeers him.”  It’s true. The ranks of the faithful are thinning. 

With belief on the wane, many pundits, humanists like James Haught (the November 27th edition of the Gazette), and even atheists are now trying to squeeze Jesus into their political or philosophical mold at this special time of the year? Why are we endlessly bombarded with Jesus the radical, Jesus the defender of the status quo, Jesus the Democrat, Jesus the radical, or Jesus the Republican? What’s their agenda?

The truth is, the real Jesus can’t be pigeon-holed. The Christian advent is about Jesus, God wrapped in human flesh, not his politics or philosophy. He’s unique in human history.  His mission wasn’t politics. It was salvation for humanity. That’s why the prophets longed to see him and it’s why the angels, the Magi and the shepherds worshiped him. And, that’s why, in spite of the distractions, I intend to focus on him during this wonderful season.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

COMING FULL CIRCLE


I’ve got more than enough grist for my writing mill these days. We’ve got our hometown university squelching freedom of the press. A few weeks ago, Representative Don Hill lost his heath committee assignment when House Speaker Ray Merrick, in a fit of pique, pulled the rug out from under him. Our city commissioners are inching ever closer to giving the Emporia Pavilions developers what they covet, at taxpayer expense.

That’s a lot of grist, to be sure, but, it’s all been overshadowed by Paris… ISIS…and the Syrian refugee crisis! Good Lord. The more I think about it, the more I feel like my head is going to explode!

In the wake of the Paris attacks, columnist Peggy Noonan spoke for many of us when she said she didn’t feel surprised as she watched it unfold. Then she admitted she couldn’t conjure up much of a response. She didn’t feel anger. Her feeling was one of gravity, as if she was seeing that “something huge and terrible had shifted and come closer.” Asked what those of us who aren’t “blinkered by status” thought about the attacks and the state of the world, she concluded, rightly, that we now believe “this isn’t going to stop.”

The barbarians are inching their way toward the gates. It’s not our collective imaginations. Like Peggy Noonan, many of us feel the shifting. And, worse yet, our leaders don’t seem to have a clue. It’s no wonder we feel so helpless, like thirsty wildebeest at a watering hole full of hungry crocodiles.

Things are so bad that even some of what we once viewed as cherished and safe is under attack. In a National Review op-ed, Kathryn Jean Lopez wrote about a recent episode of ABC’s “Scandal.” The heroine of the piece was getting an abortion. As the “procedure” begins, the strains of the hymn “Silent Night” play in the background. What was ABC trying to tell us? “Happy holidays, everyone?”

But, the producers weren’t done. As the “procedure” began in earnest, the heroine’s father droned on in the background and we got the real point of what ABC was forcing down our throats - “Family is a burden . . . a pressure point, soft tissue, an illness, an antidote to greatness. You think you’re better off with people who rely on you, depend on you, but you’re wrong, because you will inevitably end up needing them, which makes you weak, pliable. Family doesn’t complete you. It destroys you.”

Salon and Huffington Post called it “daring” and “brave.” Planned Parenthood applauded it.

So, while we have barbarians pressing the gates from the outside, we have some who are already inside.

Saturday morning as I was walking around the track at the Rec Center my frustration boiled over. I decided to take it all out on God. “Is all this evil escaping your eye, Lord?” “I can see it…why can’t you?” I wanted to scream, like Habakkuk of old – “How long, Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? – Or cry out to you, “Violence!’ but you do not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrongdoing?”

I spent most of Sunday fighting off the despair. I tried my best to hide it from Nancy and Karen, our young guest from Colombia. Nancy left early in the afternoon to prepare for her part in the “Harvest Home” choral concert at Sacred Heart. Karen and I got there about a half hour before the concert began. I waited in silence, hoping something would calm my anxious soul.

The concert began with the words, “Praise His name. Sing with the tambourine and harp.” Then, as one song of praise followed another, I felt something else shift within me. The despair gradually gave way to an overwhelming sense of gratitude and anticipation. My eyes began to glisten with tears, tokens of my thanks to God. My catharsis was completed as I breathed in the words of Steven Paulus’s “Pilgrim’s Hymn” –

“Even with the darkness sealing us in
 We breathed Thy name,
 And through all the days to follow so fast,
 We trust in Thee;
 Endless Thy grace, O endless Thy grace,
 Beyond all mortal dream.”

As I listened I would occasionally look around at my neighbors, many of whom I don’t know. Yet, I sensed we all had something in common. We were seeking hope and solace during this dark time. We found it, thanks to the various choirs, accompanists, and Jake Narverud, the conductor.

I’ve now come full circle. The darkness may be descending, but, in the end, I still know that the light will prevail. There was a first advent in the midst of darkness two thousand years ago. There will be a second at a time of God’s own choosing. The crooked places will be made straight and the valleys will be exalted. For that, I am truly thankful.

Friday, November 06, 2015

IN DEFENSE OF MILLENIALS



A few weeks ago, I read an interesting column about the millennial generation penned by Ann Friedman. The upshot of the piece was that, like the generations of young people who came before them, it’s now time for millennials to take the blame for what Friedman termed “the downfall of society.”

As Friedman also observed, each generation of young people seems to have an uncanny knack for becoming the targets of the generations that came before them. There are exceptions, of course. Americans from my mother’s generation clawed their way out of the Great Depression, defeated two totalitarian regimes in World War II, and then followed up by rebuilding the defeated powers. They’ve been rightly labelled “The Greatest Generation.”

Having been born in 1942, I don’t fit neatly into that niche, nor do I fit like a glove with the post-war “baby boomers.” For lack of a better term, I guess people like me would be betwixt and betweeners. If I were to pigeon-hole myself, though, I’d most closely identify with the rebellious nature of the “baby boomers.”

Neither I nor the “baby boom’ generation wanted to be rebellious. We began our formative years, the 60’s, dreaming of Camelot and building a world animated by love.  We were innocent and optimistic.  By the time the decade was over, the innocence and optimism were gone. We were cynical and openly rebellious. There were good reasons for this. John Kennedy, his brother Bobby, and Martin Luther King were dead. We’d been ground up by the thousands in LBJ’s foreign policy sausage machine. America’s cities were on fire. Rather than respond to our grievances, our political leaders, especially Richard Nixon, lied so often that we coined the mantra, “Never trust anyone over thirty.”

The generation that followed, Gen Xers, were seen as slackers. They were a well-educated generation, but they were best known for their love of bad music and a “what’s in it for me” attitude. They shunned politics. In fact, they have the distinction of having the lowest voter participation rate of any American generation. They were so tuned out that Newsweek once described them as “the generation that dropped out without ever turning on the news or tuning in to the social issues around them.”

This brings me to millennials. A lot of people seem to believe that they’re taking America down the road to perdition. I don’t.

Nancy and I interact with lots of millennials when we go to Kansas City for our weekend getaways. While there’s no doubt that they view the world through a far different prism than us, we find them quite engaging to be around. They’re almost always far more liberal, politically and philosophically, than we are, but we’ve never had unpleasant conversations with them when we talk about politics, faith, economics, or social issues. Unlike Hillary Clinton and the D.N.C., for example, they don’t think being conservative makes their neighbor an enemy.

Most of the millennials I’ve interacted with have some very refreshing views. When I’m around people my own age, the conversations almost always revolve around colonoscopies, cataracts, or cholesterol, Millennials want to talk about living, life, and their place in this universe. I like that!

They’re less likely than the rest of us to get themselves weighed down by a mortgage, a fancy car, a boat, or some other expensive trinket. They’re also deeply concerned with social justice. In terms of faith, they’ve been labelled “nones” for what their detractors perceive as a deficit of belief. Their detractors are wrong. I’ve found that they don’t have problems with God. It’s the institutional trappings of religion that drive them crazy. You don’t suppose they may be on to something, do you?

The millennials I’ve been around seem to be putting out feelers. They’re not sure they can trust us to love them unconditionally. In his recent book, “The Road to Character,” New York Times columnist David Brooks described the way many millennials feel about their relationships with their parents (and by extension the rest of us) this way:
   
“Parental love becomes merit-based. It is not simply “I love you.” It is “I love you when you stay on my balance beam. I shower you with praise and care when you’re on my beam… Lurking in the shadows of merit-based love is the possibility that it may be withdrawn if the child disappoints. Parents would deny this, but the wolf of conditional love is lurking here. This shadowy presence of conditional love produces fear, the fear that there is no utterly safe love; there is no completely secure place where young people can be utterly honest and themselves.”

When all is said and done, I think millennials are just fine. The rest of us may not agree with their approach to life and that’s alright. They don’t need our approval; they just need our respect and unconditional love.