Friday, February 17, 2006

Escapism of the Highest Order

Ezra 3:10-13 (New Living Translation)

10”When the builders completed the foundation of the LORD's Temple, the priests put on their robes and took their places to blow their trumpets. And the Levites, descendants of Asaph, clashed their cymbals to praise the LORD, just as King David had prescribed. 11With praise and thanks, they sang this song to the LORD:
“He is so good! His faithful love for Israel endures forever!”
Then all the people gave a great shout, praising the LORD because the foundation of the LORD's Temple had been laid.
12Many of the older priests, Levites, and other leaders remembered the first Temple, and they wept aloud when they saw the new Temple's foundation. The others, however, were shouting for joy. 13The joyful shouting and weeping mingled together in a loud commotion that could be heard far in the distance.”

For the past week or so I haven’t watched the news, read the newspaper, or blogged. I’ve apparently missed the really important things going on while I was trying to take a break from all the madness. I’ve been back in the real world since yesterday and I’ve found out that Dick Cheney accidentally shot a hunting partner last Saturday and failed to notify the Washington press corps in a timely manner. It was a sin of the gravest order. It was big news, about as big as it gets. David Gregory was outraged. Hillary Clinton was miffed. And, Dick Morris and a chorus of left wingers accused Cheney of being drunk when the accident occurred.

While that was going on, Saddam was cavorting around a Baghdad courtroom in his pajamas, protesting his inhumane treatment. He’s even embarked on a hunger strike to let the world know of his plight. I suspect it won’t be long before the press is drawing comparisons between Saddam and Mahatma Gandhi. An ocean away, Zacharias Mousawi spent a day or so trying to shout down the court where his trial is being held. Give it a bit more time and the pro-Zacharias pickets will be forming outside the courthouse. I can even seem them in my mind’s eye – “Free Zacharias” – “End the Unjust Imprisonment of Terrorists.” It’ll be grist for the media mill. Who knows? He could wind up being their next cause celebre.

Here in Emporia the big news hasn’t caught hold yet. I’m sure it will in time. I have no doubt that right now Patrick Kelley is absolutely salivating over all the important things going on in the world beyond exit 130. He’s just trying to find some way to make it all a bit more palatable for the less enlightened here in town. Once he finds the language suitable for us rubes we’ll find out.

Last night I opened the Wednesday and Thursday editions of the Gazette and found out that the really big news in Emporia has been land use. One of the city engineers bought a considerable amount of acreage a while ago, and now he wants to parcel it out into smaller lots, to be sold, I assume, to the highest bidder. It seems innocent enough. But, one of the facts that Brandy Nance, the Gazette’s intrepid cub reporter, missed in the story was that the landowner was also the city’s zoning administrator. An interesting fact that Brandy, to her credit, did get right was that one of the commissioners considering the landowner’s request, couldn’t, wouldn’t, or was prevented from voting because of his “personal involvement” in the project. A vote was taken and the landowner’s request was denied.

On the surface it seemed like a small victory for the people. I guess that should have been the end of the story, but to a rube like me this has a bit of the smell of nepotism and conflict of interest to it. While I can’t say for sure, it does look and smell fishy. I realize that I’m a bit unpracticed at these sorts of things. I’ve only taken a few journalism classes in my life, but I think that if I were part of the Gazette’s team I’d be snooping around city hall to see if there might be a dead fish or two or ten the good folks running the city could be trying to hide from the rest of us. As I said, though, I’m unpracticed in these matters. While I’d be inclined to snoop, though, the Gazette is inclined to tout. In their editorial opinion published the same day, they seemed quite sympathetic to the landowner’s plight:

“With abundant open spaces as far as the eye can see, one would think that developing housing developments would not be a challenge. Unfortunately, that is not the case.”

It’s hard to argue with the logic. I’m as much a capitalist as the owners of the Gazette.

Well, to put the lid on the jar, yesterday Emporians were treated to even more news. The city’s budget shortfall, which a few months ago was “only” $450,000, has now ballooned to $700,000. The original shortfall was explained as some sort of administrative error. The quarter of a million heaped on seem to defy explanation. According to the Gazette’s story, it’s either a matter of bad projections, lack of oversight, or Topeka’s failure to provide more state aid.

My rube nature tells me that reason number two bears some looking in to. There’s money being lost. There’s money floating around and there’s a lack of oversight. For a rube like me it raises questions. Is the best that can be said about this is that we’re being governed by incompetents? Or is there more to the story? I don’t know, but this sure seems like time for good journalist to do some digging. The Gazette, however, seems unconcerned. As Scott Rochat noted:

“That does not mean the city is bankrupt. Money from the water and sewer funds has been transferred over to cover the difference, something the city has done frequently.”

Whew! Emporia has escaped a crisis. That’s swell! It appears that the city can just keep shuffling money around to make up for the mysterious disappearance of hundreds of thousands of dollars. That’s what I call real world government. I’m absolutely overjoyed!

Knowing that we can keep shuffling money around to keep the wolf away from the door, I suppose I should feel better about the situation. It’s just the reality of small town life. In a week or so, Patrick Kelley will be picking up on really important stories, like hunting accidents in Texas, and this will all be forgotten about until next year when another seven or eight hundred thousand bucks comes up missing.

I spent a few minutes this morning digging through one of my old journalism texts to see if there was something useful I could glean about Emporia’s current state of affairs from it. There, on page six, I found this nugget:

“In a number of small towns today the local editors deliberately follow a comfortable, “don’t rock the boat” policy in covering hometown news. They thus avoid antagonizing advertisers and officials and keep the profit margins sound. But they also neglect their chief reason for being: informing the people fully and honestly.”

Here in Emporia, in practical terms, it means that we’ll continue to read more about hunting accidents in Texas than we will about conflicts of interest, nepotism, or missing funds. Why antagonize the city commissioners, zoning administrators, or other city officials when the Vice President or some other far away government bureaucrat is such a convenient target? All we rubes here in Emporia need to do is to allow this network to continue operating as it has for years. Why look more closely at the problems when a tax increase, a shift in funds, or a Patrick Kelley editorial about some national figure seems to make them miraculously vanish?

With all of this going on I decided the current stories and priorities being jammed down my throat weren’t to my liking. It became clear to me that a bit of escapism was in order. I realize that even thinking so makes me a bad citizen. I should be concerned with what’s going on around me. But, like many rubes in these parts I find that escape in my religion is far more profitable than reading the newspaper or watching the news on television. Thus, on Wednesday Nancy and I made our escape up to Lawrence, Kansas, to see the Soweto Gospel Choir perform at the Lied Center.

In case you haven’t heard of them, the following brief biographical sketch should give you some idea of who they are:

“The Soweto Gospel Choir was formed to celebrate the unique and inspirational power of African Gospel music. The 26-strong choir, under the direction of David Mulovhedzi and Beverly Bryer, draws on the best talent from many churches around Soweto. The choir is dedicated to sharing the joy of faith through music with audiences around the world.”

Soweto, the home city of the choir, is also the cradle of the movement that overthrew the apartheid system in South Africa. There, in the nation of their birth, their homeland, blacks were segregated and oppressed in cruel fashion. They were forced, by law, to live in “homelands,” a euphemism that meant blacks lived in homes without plumbing or electricity, in a culture that deemed that one tenth of the money spent to educate white children was more than enough for the children of blacks, and had their South African citizenship revoked and replaced with citizenship in a “black homeland.” Anyone who attempted to cross the legally imposed limits was dealt with ruthlessly.
The under-reported reality of life in South Africa back then was horrible.

It took generations for things to change. It was an epic struggle of good versus evil. It was filled with travail and pain. But, it was so much more. It was a struggle won by the power of a people’s faith. Journalists and politicians didn’t fix the problem. People exercising faith did. In the end, because of a people’s faith, right triumphed and the evil of apartheid was dismantled.

For two hours Wednesday night I saw the source of the people of Soweto’s power. It was their faith in God. It was very evident and very alive in their music and dance. As I listened and watched I could sense the pain born of years of abandonment and oppression, but I could also feel the joy and sense of triumph fill the auditorium. Faith had moved the mountain of apartheid and the Soweto Gospel Choir's message was clear, filled with the joy of a people who have overcome.
It was a great lesson for me to re-learn. Faith is the most powerful instrument of change in the world. It can move mountains and it can dismantle unjust systems. South Africa is living proof of that fact.

What does this have to do with American national politics, the American press, and events here in Emporia, Kansas? Everything! Call it escapism if you will, but there are a lot of us who’ve built our lives on a promise far more important than any politician or journalist could ever offer us. So often, in this time when oppression in one form or another seems to be the rule, we’ve found that faith is the only thing that makes life meaningful or sensible.

For those who make the rules, rule the airwaves, or rule the local newsrooms the life of faith must seem like a futile attempt to escape the realities of the world. They’d like to believe they’re the movers and shakers, the instruments of power and change in the world. They’d like to believe that as they move and shake we should blindly follow, living as if our lot in life is to place our faith and affection in them.

It would be nice if in some small way we could. Society works better in an atmosphere where trust prevails. But, what we rubes have found, based on bitter experience, is that when we set our affections and hopes in the wrong things our faith is misplaced. If we were to blindly follow the world’s lead we’d wind up in the ditch with them. Nothing would really change for the better. Life would consist of nothing more than following blind guides, as Jesus said it would be.

The state of affairs in Washington, D.C. and Emporia, Kansas serve to illustrate the point the Master was making. The real truth is that rightly placed faith is the only thing that can really move mountains or shake institutions. The Soweto Gospel Choir is proof of that. The politicians, journalists, and power brokers would like to think they can, but they can’t. All they have to offer is more and more of the same old things we’ve grown so weary of. It’s a world in which paper is shuffled around from copy desk to copy desk in the same way the city fathers shift money from account to account.

What I find really fascinating about this is that those who don’t follow the lead of the self-anointed among us are branded as either escapists or religious fundamentalists. Well, if we are escaping anything it’s the clutches of those who cling to the illusion that the world revolves around them.
So, for us rubes this is really a matter of trying to escape the insanity all around us. I say, given the reality I see all around me, that it's escapism as it should be.

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Dick Cheney

Emporia, Kansas




James Fletcher Baxter said...

It should be repeated again and again: racism is just another variety of collectivism.

Collectivism always measures human value - and non-value - by the group. It is not based on the reality of individuals regardless of whether it is promoted by unprincipled politics, religion, or ethnic willfulness, or...

Additionally, faith alone is not sufficient to replace tyranny with individual freedom and dignity. The object of that faith is the determiner. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the Messiah Jesus, is the only God. Beside Him there is no other.

Man-made gods are non-existent gods.

"We have the gift of an inner liberty so far-reaching
that we can choose either to accept or reject the God
who gave it to us, and it would seem to follow that the
Author of a liberty so radical wills that we should be
equally free in our relationships with other men.
Spiritual liberty logically demands conditions of outer
and social freedom for its completion." Rev. Edmund A. Opitz

That's one way we have of knowing whose God is the real One.

Semper Fidelis

columbia said...

Nice to see you back! I starting to get tired of your Valentine's picture. ;-)

Gone Away said...

Amen. Interestingly, God's chosen instrument of change in South Africa was a man named Frederik Willem de Klerk. An ardent conservative in his early political career, something changed his mind completely before he became President in 1989. He set about dismantling apartheid immediately and ultimately served as Deputy President when Nelson Mandela became President. I must be one of the "escapists", for I see the hand of God in the changes in one man that ultimately altered the destiny of a nation.