Thursday, April 26, 2007

Hoisting the White Flag

Shall I tell you what the real evil is? To cringe to the things that are called evils, to surrender to them our freedom, in defiance of which we ought to face any suffering.

- Seneca

Other than reading about the tragic events at Virginia Tech, I’ve been out of touch with national and international news for the past month. I’ve been preoccupied with family affairs. A lot of water has passed under the bridge of history in that time. France will have new leadership in a couple of weeks. The DOW has surged to over 13,000. Boris Yeltsin died a few days ago. Rosie O’Donnell is leaving her daytime show. Katie Couric’s ratings are plummeting.

It all reads like the first chapter of Ecclesiastes. Politicians plea for votes. Money changes hands. People die, even famous ones. Celebrities self-destruct. It’s all so timeless.

There’s very little I read about in the news that’s really newsworthy. As Solomon wisely said, he’d seen it all before. So have I.

In Iraq, too, some things remain as they have for the past four years. There’s violence in the streets and innocent people are dying.

Something needs to be done to break the cycle, someone needs to win this war. A week ago Democratic senator Harry Reid gave us all the answer. On the 20th of this month he declared the war in Iraq lost. He tried for a few days to distance himself from the statement, but he couldn’t. He’d said what he said and that was that.

Republicans were furious. Democrats closed ranks. And, al Qaeda felt strengthened.

Now, this is news that really matters. The United States is on notice from its majority party that it’s time to surrender. The war is lost; it’s time to come home. And, they may get their wish.

Why does this matter? It matters for three reasons. First, the Democrats are now mounting a political offensive built on the foundation of capitulation that might well succeed. Second, Usama bin Laden and the terrorists have skillfully manipulated America’s political left to the brink of surrender and find themselves on the cusp of a cataclysmic victory. And third, the Republicans don’t seem to be offering any counter-strategy for victory for the free world.

There are a few exceptions for the Democrats, the most notable being Joe Lieberman. In this morning’s Washington Post he made the following observation about the Democratic Party’s legislative strategy:

“This reaction is dangerously wrong. It reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of both the reality in Iraq and the nature of the enemy we are fighting there.”

About the only counterweight the Republicans have is a presidential veto.

The terrorists must be dancing with glee. Victory indeed seems to be within their grasp.

This couldn’t be happening at a worse time for America. This is deadly serious business. We need to come together, but unfortunately we’re pulling further and further apart. As Israeli peace activist Ami Isseroff noted a couple of months ago:

“Unfortunately, it is equally true that everyone except those in the Bush administration ignores the disastrous consequences of a U.S. defeat in Iraq, not only for the US, but for European countries who depend on Persian Gulf oil, and for Arab allies of the US. The U.S. administration is playing politics with Iraq. They are denying the obvious facts, because the obvious facts are politically catastrophic for the Bush administration. Everyone else is playing politics with Iraq, in the mistaken belief that a U.S. defeat there will somehow give them an advantage. Everyone is working an angle instead of looking for a solution.”

The most frightening thing about all of this is the fact that if we don’t find a solution to this, the terrorists will certainly implement one of their choosing. And, I suspect it will look something like this:

“The problem of Iraq is not insoluble. I promise you that in five years, and if not in five years then in fifty, order will be restored to Iraq, in one way or another. However, the problem cannot be solved by ignoring it or by standing on the sidelines and watching, like spectators at a fire or rubberneckers at a road accident. If the U.S. leaves, then no doubt others will take over. The people of Iraq will live in peace and harmony, enjoying the benefits of a Mukhabarat (secret police) state, probably under the joint protection of Syria and Iran. Nor will this Middle Eastern paradise be confined to Iraq. With the collapse of U.S. influence in Iraq, Syria, Iran and their new-found Iraqi allies will be at liberty to spread their enlightened rule for the benefit of the editors of Daily Star in Beirut, and Al-Jazeera in Doha. As for the U.S. Democrats, they will be able to gloat that $10 a gallon gasoline is the fault of the Republicans.”
If, or when, that happens, I can assure you most solemnly that there won’t be room for elections, stock markets, or obituaries. I suppose there may even be a silver lining to it all. Rosie and Katie won’t be the centers of our collective attention either.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

How Long, Oh Lord?

Revelation 22:1-2 (Contemporary English Version)

“The angel showed me a river that was crystal clear, and its waters gave life. The river came from the throne where God and the Lamb were seated. Then it flowed down the middle of the city's main street. On each side of the river are trees that grow a different kind of fruit each month of the year. The fruit gives life, and the leaves are used as medicine to heal the nations.”

This is truly an age of terror for America. The rage and hate in the air are palpable. It’s apparent on our highways as we commute to and from work. It’s apparent on our airwaves and it’s becoming more and more pervasive in our neighborhoods. The smallest perceived slights all too often bring new terms to our lexicon; hence we now have road rage and drive-by’s and father-son sniper teams and gangsta’ rap and shock jocks to deal with as part of our daily lives. Less than ten years ago our schools appeared to be safe. They appeared to be institutions of learning and life, but now our collective memories are filled with names like Columbine, Pearl, Mississippi, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and now Blacksburg, Virginia. So, in this age of terror it’s twelve lives cut short here and thirty-two there. It’s innocent children caught in the crossfire of rival gangs. It’s classrooms bathed in blood.

Of all the frightening components to this arc that has joined one century to another, the most terrifying of all is the power the individual has gained to randomly inflict pain and misery on the many. Some of these individuals have grown up living lives privilege, like Osama bin Laden. Some lived their formative years in America’s suburban cul de sacs. Some spring up from families trying to claim their part in the American dream. They hold one thing in common – rage. It may spring from a real or perceived slight or from a desire to rid the world of infidels. The rationale for the evil is almost always expressed in a crude fatwa or a rambling manifesto.

In the aftermath of the evil we’re trying to make sense of it, but few answers come, and those offered don’t seem to help much. I find no solace in hearing that this latest iteration of evil was just an isolated act, nor do I find any comfort in our feeble attempts to analyze the minds of the killers. The acts are becoming less isolated and more and more commonplace. The actors have acted out their gruesome thoughts and that’s that. I doubt we’ll ever really know why. It’s all so incomprehensible and those upon whom the evil is being inflicted seem so powerless to stop it.

And so in the end we all will find our ways to go on with our lives until the next random act of terror paralyzes us all once again. The cycle of mourning and explanations will follow just as surely. The purveyors of hate will crawl out of the woodwork and picket the mourners. The philosophical lines will be drawn, left versus right. Laws will be enacted; politicians will make promises. Little will change, though. The foundational issues, the issues of the heart which trigger these evil deeds, will remain every bit as constant. As the prophet said, it’s the heart that is deceitful, desperately wicked, and un-knowable.

Yesterday afternoon I spent an hour or so attending a service organization luncheon at Emporia State University. As I approached the Memorial Union I noticed a group of senior citizens gathered at the entrance. I’m not sure why they were there. Some may have been visitors. Some may have been grand-parents of students. Others might have been professors. There were also students scurrying from one place to another, trying to make a class in economics or English composition perhaps, or just making their way to meet a friend at an appointed place. Some looked sullen and downcast. Could a poor result on an exam have triggered that? Some looked joyful. A fellowship or a scholarship offered, possibly? Some appeared to be contemplative. Most appeared to be hurried. I couldn’t tell the good from the bad or the chaff from the wheat. How could one? How could one sort out the ticking time bomb from angel of mercy? There’s no way to tell at first glance.

Our local newspaper asked a day or so whether or not something like the tragic events of Monday could happen here in the Heartland. Most agreed that it probably couldn’t. After all, Emporia is too nice a town and Emporians are too decent a people. I hope and pray that’s true, but I can’t help but think that Blacksburg, Virginia is a nice town and its people are eminently decent too. They didn’t deserve or expect what happened, but it did.
Holy Writ says encourages us not to fear the terror by night nor the arrow that flies by day. I know it’s wise advice, but I find myself still asking the age-old question. “How long, Oh Lord, how long.” At a time when the brutish things seem to command the world’s stage and attention, when the good seems so elusive, I find myself longing for citizenship in that city nestled by the clear, crystal waters. I long for healing and restoration and the time when peace and harmony will be the order of the day. That day will come; I’m certain of that. But, in the light of the events of the past few days it seems so far off.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Bristling With Hostility

“In contemporary American culture, the religions are more and more treated as just passing beliefs – almost as fads, older, stuffier, less liberal versions of so called New Age – rather than as the fundaments upon which the devout build their lives. (The noes have it!) And if religions are fundamental, well too bad – at least they’re the wrong fundaments – if they’re inconvenient, give them up!”

- Stephen Carter – “The Culture of Disbelief” (1993)

There have been a lot of discussions about censorship and free speech over the past few days. Imus is in the national news. Here in Emporia, commentary about Somali refugees on the local newspaper’s internet forum has prompted heated discourse about free speech and its limits.

Free speech is often messy. The lines between decency and filth aren’t always as clear as they were in the Imus case or in the cases of child pornography. Almost all of us know that we don’t have the free speech right to libel another person. We know that we don’t have the right to yell fire in a crowded theatre when there is no fire. But what about the person who publicly calls another a fool? What about the person who says he doesn’t like Somalis? What about the person who says he doesn’t like another’s religion? Should they be censored because they say unpopular things? At what point do we cross a line and censor all thought that’s not in keeping with the current “mainstream?”

I looked back through my archives and found the following piece from August, 2006. I wrote then about a judicial decision that all but censored Prison Fellowship Ministries from the public square. It was subtle; it was legal. But was it right? It seems there’s a great appetite in this country to squelch opinions and beliefs that aren’t considered “mainstream.”
The original essay follows.

Sometimes bad news comes under the radar like the attack on Pearl Harbor. In a June 2, 2006 decision, Robert Pratt, Chief Judge of the Des Moines, Iowa circuit, ruled against Prison Fellowship Ministries in a lawsuit that had been filed against the ministry by Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

The net effect of the ruling was to declare Prison Fellowship’s faith based ministry unconstitutional. Judge Pratt has given Prison Fellowship sixty days to vacate its work, pending an almost certain appeal.

Judge Pratt’s primary rationale for the ruling was that:

“The program was “pervasively sectarian,” requiring participants to attend worship services, weekly revivals and religious community meetings. Participating inmates also were ordered to “engage in daily religious devotional practice.”

Barry Lynn, American’s United for Separation of Church and State’s executive director, couldn’t contain his joy over the rendered decision:

“There is no way to interpret this decision as anything but a body blow to so-called faith-based initiatives.”

The decision, if upheld, will have a major impact, there’s no doubt about it. For example, out nation’s prison recidivism rate is, according to Prison Fellowship’s president Mark Early, currently running at fifty percent. With 600,000 inmates being released from prison annually, it means that we can count on 300,000 doing something within three years to merit re-incarceration. The recidivism rate among those inmates who have worked their way through Prison Fellowship’s program is, while it’s still functioning, running at eight to eleven percent. The potential of that number is enormous. Think of it. Prison Fellowship’s number, applied to the current release rate, could mean that thousands fewer former prisoners would find their way back into the prison system. It could also mean that thousands and thousands fewer Americans might become victims of crime.

And this is the kind of decision that Barry Lynn is hailing! Apparently, higher recidivism was a much more favorable outcome in his mind than excoriating a fellow Christian. Its anti-faith bias is much in keeping with the 2000 Santa Fe School Board vs. Doe decision that brought this withering dissent from Chief Justice William Rehnquist:

“The Court distorts existing precedent to conclude that the school district’s student-message program is invalid on its face under the Establishment Clause. But even more disturbing than its holding is the tone of the Court’s opinion; it bristles with hostility to all things religious in public life. Neither the holding nor the tone of the opinion is faithful to the meaning of the Establishment Clause, when it is recalled that George Washington himself, at the request of the very Congress which passed the Bill of Rights, proclaimed a day of “public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God.” Presidential Proclamation, 1 Messages and Papers of the Presidents, 1789—1897, p. 64 (J. Richardson ed. 1897).”

While I have no doubt that Prison Fellowship will survive this battle, regardless of the outcome of the appeal, I’m troubled by this decision. I read the full transcript of the decision earlier today and I can now see clearly just how hostile our courts and culture are becoming to religion, particularly Evangelical Christianity. Having read the decision I can now see that, beyond the logistics and rationales for recent anti-faith decisions, some within our judiciary and other organizations (Americans United, for example) are using the nation’s courts as a testing ground to decide which religious beliefs are normative and which aren’t. The circuit court in Des Moines made what amounted to a theological decision, enshrining its view of normative religion and subtly declaring that Evangelical Christianity was not in the mainstream of any religion, particularly Christian religion. Lest you think I’m a conspiracy theorist I’ll cite some examples directly from the decision. The first, written early on in the decision follows:

“Throughout this Memorandum and Order, the Court will describe Prison Fellowship and
InnerChange’s theological position, as reflected in its public statements, curriculum, and in practice at the Newton Facility, as Evangelical Christian rather than simply Christian or Non-Denominational Christian.”

About a page later the following judicial opinion was rendered:

“As will be evident from the facts set forth, the religious nature of the InnerChange program is not only distinct from non-Christian religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Native American practices, and Judaism, for example) as well as atheist or agnostic practices, it is also quite distinct from other self-described Christian faiths, such as Roman Catholicism, Mormonism, and Greek Orthodoxy. Evidence shows that the Evangelical Christian message is also distinct from the beliefs held by self-described Protestant Christian denominations such as Lutheran, United Methodist, Episcopalian, and Presbyterian, again, to name only a few.”

What was so egregiously out of the mainstream of current Christian thought? The court cited Prison Fellowship’s statement of faith:

“We believe in one God, Creator and Lord of the Universe; the coeternal Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
We believe that Jesus Christ, God’s Son, was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, lived a sinless life, died a substitutionary atoning death on the cross, rose bodily from the dead, and ascended to heaven where, as truly God and truly man, He is the only mediator between God and man.

“We believe that the Bible is God’s authoritative and inspired Word. It is without error in all its teachings, including creation, history, and its own origins, and salvation. Christians must submit to its divine authority both individually and corporately, in all matters of belief and conduct, which is demonstrated by true righteous living. We believe that all people are lost sinners and cannot see the Kingdom of Heaven except through the new birth. Justification is by grace through faith in Christ alone. We believe in one holy, universal, and apostolic Church. Its calling is to worship God and witness concerning its Head, Jesus Christ, preaching the Gospel among all nations and demonstrating its commitment by compassionate service to the needs of human beings and promoting righteousness and justice.”

“We believe in the necessity of the work of the Holy Spirit for the individual’s new birth and growth to maturity and for the Church’s constant renewal in truth, wisdom, faith, holiness, love, power, and mission. We believe that Jesus Christ will personally and visibly return in glory to raise the dead and bring salvation and judgment to completion. God will fully manifest His Kingdom when He establishes a new heaven and new earth, in which He will be glorified forever and exclude all evil, suffering, and death.”

Once you’ve read the statement of faith I hope you’ll find it eerily reminiscent of statements the Christian Church has made throughout human history, such as the Nicene Creed, which follows:

“I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.
Who, for us men for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.
And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceeds from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets.
And I believe one holy catholic and apostolic Church. I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.”

But, the court didn’t stop there. It ended with this flourish, which was enough to make what little hair I have on my head stand on end:

“Evangelical Christianity tends to be anti-sacramental, which means it downplays the traditional sacramental Christian events—baptism, holy communion or Eucharist, marriage, ordination, etc.—as appropriate ways to interact or meet with God. Along with initial adult conversion, contemporary Evangelical Christianity emphasizes religious experience—the actual experience of God in the believer’s life. Evangelical Christians, therefore, are receptive to overt, actual displays of this experience much like those manifested in Pentecostal Christianity. Additionally, for Evangelical Christians, everything that happens in the world is understood through and interpreted by religious language. For many Evangelical Christians, the belief in creationism and suspicion of evolutionary theory is also present. Finally, the Evangelical Christian stance toward religious institutions is one of suspicion. This is most obviously seen in the worship style. Whereas traditional, organized religious groups, such as Roman Catholics, the Greek Orthodox, and Lutherans, employ a structured, highly liturgical style of worship, Evangelical Christian worship is free form with individual pastors given authority to determine how services are planned. For instance, Evangelical Christians have embraced contemporary music forms and multi-media presentations.”
I’m sure that Judge Pratt would insist that he made his decision in the matter based on the merits, and would be able to provide enough legal smokescreens to prove his point. I don’t for a moment believe him, nor do I believe in the good will of Barry Lynn and the folks at Americans United for Separation of Church and State. What the decision says, clearly, is that anyone else who takes their faith as seriously as Evangelicals, Pentecostals, Intelligent Design proponents, and others who actually have the temerity to believe in “actual, overt displays” of faith in the public square will have no standing in this nation’s courts. They’re heretics, living and thinking in direct opposition to the prevailing religion, whatever the courts determine it to be. Not only is the decision rendered by Judge Pratt bristling with hostility, it’s bristling with the kind of theological insanity that could effectively shut religion out of American public life and policy.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Censorship in the Heartland

“If all printers were determined not to print anything till they were sure it would offend nobody, there would be very little printed.”

- Benjamin Franklin

In yesterday’s edition of the Emporia Gazette, Christopher White Walker, the publisher, weighed in on some of the public comments that have been made on the newspaper’s website in the past month or so. This is how he put it:

“We want people to be able to post on The Gazette Web site and have thoughtful discussions on community issues, but using the newspaper’s site to make random attacks on people is not OK.”

“We hope the community realizes that this Web site extends beyond our community and is really a bulletin board to the world. We have posted online news for 10 years and the site is heavily viewed by businesses and people wanting to locate to Emporia as well as people who want to stay in touch with their former home.”

“We have to wonder what kind of impression is left by the negative posts.”

“Our staff is looking into ways of handling the negative posting issue and we hope to bring some balance to the posts.” (emphasis added)

“In the meantime, we hope posters will use some restraint and we encourage positive posters to join in the discussion.”

I’ve read some of the commentary and in fairness to Chris Walker I understand his concern. Quite a bit of what was said was personal and negative. I disagreed with much of it, but to think that the solution to the problem lies in squelching public discourse is, in my view, foolhardy. Censorship, whether it’s imposed from without the newsroom or within, is nothing more than a knee-jerk reaction founded in fear. It does nothing to foster the common good.

The story that activated the sometimes heated discussion was about a Somali woman who recently ran her car into a local restaurant, injuring two men in the process. Some used it as a platform to lash out at the Somali refugees who have relocated here. Others, like me, saw it as a public safety issue. This is the second time in six months that a Somali has run a car into a building. It sure seems to me that we’ve got a public safety problem that cries out for fixing. In addition, we have a growing resentment being expressed by a vocal minority against the Somalis. In a city where median incomes are extremely low, people coming to town from another country to potentially take jobs away from someone else at the bottom of our economic ladder is a regrettable, yet understandable outcome of the short sighted municipal policy the city has pursued for years. The problem of how to assimilate the Somalis into our mainstream isn’t going to go away with the flick of the wrist or denial. The problem is very real and the chickens of benign neglect are starting to come home to roost. Denying that reality or attempting to stuff it into a closet so that it will be hidden from view is a task only a tyrant would take on.

But that’s exactly what Chris Walker’s trying to do. His solution is to ignore the problems because they might give a negative impression of life here in Emporia. He wants to censor out negativity so the bad news doesn’t get past the Taliban vintage tank at exit 130 which guards Emporia from the world outside. It simply won’t work. Does he really think that someone visiting isn’t going to see the payday loan shops, the dilapidated rentals, the closed storefronts? Does he really think visitors won’t be able to feel the tension crackling in the air? Does he really believe that he has the power to change the current reality by denying that it exists? Apparently so, because he now wants to explore ways to “handle” the negative discourse. That’s nothing more than a cleverly disguised euphemism for censorship.

It’s the worst possible response.

Proto-communist Vladimir Lenin once said that “free speech is a bourgeois prejudice.” Everything that followed under communist rule reflected that evil, iron handed worldview. From Lenin to Stalin, from Mao to Pol Pot, communist leaders have squelched dissent and public discourse through fear, intimidation, torture, and murder. The infamous gulags and lobotomies became the preferred instruments of social policy. Anyone who dissented in the communist world was dealt with harshly. The architects of communism claimed that the tactics were necessary to make utopia a reality. The end result was a society built on fear, repression, and millions of deaths.

Tyranny almost always begins with a desire for just outcomes. In its infancy the hallmarks are the cries for bread for the poor, justice for the aggrieved and communal harmony for all. In its maturity it has developed all the mechanisms of tyranny. Dissenters are dispossessed. Free thinkers are lobotomized. Conformity is rewarded. Truth is pulverized. It all begins with one step – squelching the free expression of ideas. Once that’s taken, it’s Katie bar the door.

The answer to our problems here in Emporia lies in bringing them into the light of day, then fixing them. Truth is always better than deception. Free expression for all is always better than monopolized opinion controlled by a few. The city of Emporia doesn’t need folks like Chris Walker sanitizing the news. His views, or the views of his staff, aren’t the only opinions here in town, nor are they necessarily the most valuable. The public here has a right to express itself and nothing Chris Walker says should, or can stop that.

I’m now tempted to give Mr. Walker a layman’s view of the first amendment to our constitution, but I’m not sure it would do much good. I’ll just close with some insights from others who, through history, have valued freedom of expression. Perhaps they can get through to him

“Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground.”
- Frederick Douglas

“All newspaper and journalistic activity is an intellectual brothel from which there is no retreat.”
- Leo Tolstoy

“If the book be false in its facts, disprove them; if false in its reasoning, refute it. But for God's sake, let us hear freely from both sides.”
- Thomas Jefferson

“Censorship can't eliminate evil; it can only kill freedom.”
- Garrison Keillor

“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”
- George Orwell

“Freedom rings where opinions clash.”
- Adlai Stevenson

“Censorship is telling a man he can’t have a steak just because a baby can’t chew it.”
- Mark Twain

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Fire and Rain

Hosea 6:2-3 (Contemporary English Version)

“In two or three days He will heal us
And restore our strength that we may live with Him.
Let's do our best to know the LORD.
His coming is as certain as the morning sun;
He will refresh us like rain renewing the earth in the springtime.”

It seems that new opportunities have come in the aftermath of defeat. Since last week’s election I’ve been asked to apply for a seat on the city’s human relations commission. I completed the application and must now wait on the city to approve me or someone else for the vacancy. I’ve also had lots of calls about forming a grass roots coalition, the one I alluded to in my interview with KVOE and the Gazette on election night. I’ve requessted, and gotten, IRS approval to form a collation. Tomorrow I’ll be meeting with Professor Michael Smith at the university to go over the nuts and bolts of forming and growing the Coalition to Advance Reform for All Emporians (C.A.R.E).

My hopes are high!

The wellspring of that hope is my faith. I believe that God wants change, that He wants the best for this city. That’s more than enough to sustain me.

There is a significant revival going on at the church I attend. Attendance at Victory Fellowship Foursquare Church has nearly doubled in the last year. The thing I find amazing is that we’ve become very attractive to the same types of people who were attracted to my city commission campaign – the disillusioned, the disappointed, and the disenfranchised. The fire and the rain are falling!

I’m just about half way through Harvey Cox’s book, “Fire from Heaven.” Professor Cox, who gained fame as one of the proponents of the “God is dead” theology back in the sixties and seventies, has had a change of heart. The source of his hope is the incredible explosion of the Pentecostal movement that began with the Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles at the turn of the twentieth century. From that humble beginning a movement that is now a half a billion members strong has swept over the world. Cox believes it rivals the Reformation in its impact.

What is it that’s so attractive about this movement to so many? Cox put it this way:

“As I have pondered these questions from a more pedestrian perspective, it has occurred to me that there is also another way to think about why the movement has had such a widespread appeal. It has succeeded because it has spoken to the spiritual emptiness of our time by reaching beyond the levels of creed and ceremony into the core of human religiousness, into what might be called ‘primal spirituality,’ that largely unprocessed nucleus of the psyche in which the unending struggle for a sense of purpose and significance goes on.”

In laymen’s terms, the Pentecostal movement, in its multitudes of expressions, has hit a central nerve in the disillusioned, the disappointed, and the disenfranchised. It’s a movement filled with life and expectancy, shaking the status quo. This movement of the neglected subculture has had a profound impact on the sociology, politics, and spirituality of the United States, Latin America, South America, Africa, Russia, and Asia. Yet, as Cox noted, there is no memorial, no great cathedral, no man-made marker acknowledging its Azusa Street roots:

“A carved plaque with an occasional bouquet of cut roses is hardly the memorial those early saints would have wanted. Instead, the Azusa street memorial is something they could never have foreseen. It is a spiritual hurricane that has touched nearly half a billion people and an alternative vision of the human future whose impact may only be in its early stages today.”

The movement is not without its problems. Here in America the biggest of all has been gaining too much respectability.

In its formative stages Pentecostalism was attacked because it embraced racial harmony and integration. It was also derided because its practitioners spoke in tongues, danced, and prophesied. Respectable folk called them “holy rollers.” Religious scholars called them un-learned, or ignorant. Things are different nowadays. Success has, in some cases, led parts of the Pentecostal movement from being a vibrant subculture to becoming a sadly stagnant branch of the mainstream they’d left a century earlier.

This is much like politics in America. Actually, it’s even closer to home. It’s much like the politics here in America’s heartland. The status quo has been acceptable here for some time and we now bear the scars purchased by that benign neglect. There’s a lot of suffering going on here in idyllic Kansas. The politicians and the city fathers can deny it all they want, but the signs are everywhere.

But, while the powerful and influential deny the reality, a new, living reality is emerging to contest the status quo. The dry bones are beginning to rattle. In time there will be sinew and flesh rising from the ranks of the disillusioned, disenfranchised, and disappointed. The fires of spiritual and social revival here in Emporia have been kindled. The waters of refreshing have spilled over the banks. The current reality is not enough to satisfy. To paraphrase Dr. King, “We won’t settle any longer for the stale bread of the status quo we’ve been fed, nor will we be satisfied with the spoiled meat of benign neglect.” The time for change has come!

Wednesday, April 04, 2007


“I am entirely persuaded that the agitations of the public mind advance its powers, and that at every vibration between the points of liberty and despotism, something will be gained for the former. As men become better informed, their rulers must respect them the more.”

- Thomas Jefferson

The 2007 city commission race here in Emporia is over. Bobbie Agler, Jeff Longbine, and Kevin Nelson are our commissioners elect. The Gazette put it this way:

“Emporia voters ventured into the “northwest territory” Tuesday, electing Bobbie Agler, Jeff Longbine and Kevin Nelson to the Emporia City Commission. All three men are businessmen who live in northwestern Emporia.”

That says a lot about our state of local affairs.

I wish them well. I’m ready to support them and I’m also fully prepared to challenge them. The issues that brought me into this campaign a year ago haven’t magically disappeared since yesterday’s election. There’s much work to be done. The twin issues of high poverty and slum lords haven’t gone away. Our property taxes are excessive, and still climbing. Economic development is still as stagnant today as it was yesterday and businesses are still leaving. Payday loan shops are beginning to dominate the downtown corridor. There’s every bit as much disillusionment today as there was yesterday.

Jeff O’Dell from KVOE News asked me if I was going to run in the next election, which is about a year and a half away. I told him that I’m going to hold my options open in the long term. In the short term I’m going to begin developing a grassroots coalition of the disillusioned, disappointed, and disenfranchised. Last night’s turnout was only 20%. As I watched the incoming results with other candidates the most frequent comments revolved around that disheartening number. Most said they just didn’t understand it. I told everyone that while I couldn’t justify the low turnout, I could understand it. When people feel that their voices aren’t being heard and that the interests of one part of the community have a stranglehold on power, they just tune out. They’d like to see change, but they’ve been through this so many times it’s become difficult to either believe that change is possible or that there’s even hope for something better. To them, Bette Midler’s words, “Why bother,” ring alarmingly true. That’s the reality of Emporia right now; the numbers bear that sad truth out.

So, where to from here? The practical logistics of this coalition of the disillusioned, disappointed, and disenfranchised must now follow. First, it means working on voter registration, particularly in the Hispanic community, which is grossly under-represented. It’s going to take a massive, grassroots effort to make that a reality. Second, it means developing slates of reform candidates. If the Chamber of Commerce, the powerfully connected, and the business community can put forth slates of approved candidates, so can the disenfranchised and disillusioned. Third, it means keeping the issues that matter before the public. One of the things I’m proudest of in the campaign was the fact that I was the voice for change in this city and brought the issues into the light. That effort will continue. Fourth, it means descending on city hall in two ways. First, there is a need to get people in front of the commissioners. I still have vivid memories of the day the commissioners were considering eliminating the taxi subsidy for elderly, disabled, and poor. The sight of people pushing walkers, carrying oxygen bottles, and pleading their collective case stood in such stark contrast to the powerful, who seemed all to willing to consider abandoning them at a time of need. The only thing that changed that was a massive public outcry. We need much more of that now. The second mechanism is public petition. We have the right to petition our government that right needs to be exercised. Among the issues that need to be looked at is the funding of the Regional Development Authority and a full internal audit of the city’s financial records over the past ten years. There are questions that need to be raised. Why is it that, when city departments plead with the commission to prosecute slum lords, that the request was deferred time and time again? Why does funding for the Regional Development Authority, which now gets a quarter of a million taxpayer dollars a year and yet hasn’t brought a business into Emporia in close to ten years, supersede pay raises for public safety personnel?

This much and more needs to be done from a grassroots level. City government here in Emporia has not been responsive to its citizens. We must now make it responsive.

You may be wondering about the portrait used in the introduction to this post. The man portrayed is William Wilberforce, one of Britain’s greatest statesmen. He was elected to parliament in his youth during the eighteenth century and fought for close to fifty years to eradicate the scourge of slavery from the British Empire. It took him twenty-two years to convince parliament to outlaw the transport of slaves to the New World and another quarter of a century to outlaw slavery in the British Empire altogether. Almost fifty years! He was often vilified as an religious zealot or branded as a traitor. There must have been times when Wilberforce felt like the village idiot. There must have been times when he felt like surrendering to the status quo. I suspect if he’d been a Roman Catholic instead of an Evangelical he might have become the patron saint of lost causes instead of St. Jude. But, he persevered. He believed in the rightness of his cause and refused to give in. In the end he won, and the world is immeasurably better for his effort

The issues here in Emporia may not seem as momentous as those of Wilberforce’s day, but the issues that I’ve raised are, in their own way, parallels. Wilberforce refused to surrender to the status quo, and I won’t either. I’m not sure if I have two generations of life left to me, but I intend to use whatever time I do have to fight for those things I believe are right. The causes are too important for me to just shrink away like some potted plant. I came into this battle for the long haul and it now appears that it will indeed be a long, uphill fight for the right. So, the engagement, the dialogue, the door to door canvassing, the voter registration, the challenging, the listening, the organizing, and petitioning now begin.

I’ll see you on the front lines!