Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Go With Throttle Up

“We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals, now we know that it is bad economics.”
- Franklin D Roosevelt

The terms being tossed about in this global crisis are mind boggling – mark to market, credit default swaps, collateralized debt obligations, teaser rates, ARM’s, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, sub-prime, derivatives, Sarbanes-Oxley, Gramm-Leach-Biley, negative feedback loops, mortgage backed securities. With each passing day come new terms and increasingly frightening news about financial exposure. A month ago, the Fed began injecting billions of dollars into the “system.” A while after that regulators hoped that $85 billion to prop up A.I.G. might solve the problem. A few weeks ago public exposure was about $700 billion. Shortly after that, in testimony before the House, we learned that exposure in credit default swaps is somewhere in the neighborhood of $60 trillion, more than the entire world’s annual G.D.P!

While the exposure numbers reach into the stratosphere, the stock market is flirting with a crash. In the past month the Dow has lost between fifteen to twenty percent of its value. In some parts of California entire communities have been foreclosed on and abandoned. Here in Lyon County, Kansas, foreclosures for the first nine months of this year have increased by 57% from the previous year. Credit markets appear to be seizing up. Inventory needed for production hangs in the balance. The well of credit desperately needed to meet payroll is running dry. As business leaders meet in board rooms to slowly hammer out solutions and our Congress holds hearings, the crisis spirals downward, moving at the speed of the internet.

Is it any wonder, then, that we’re every bit as angry as we are confused? A Pew survey taken a few days ago revealed that 54% of us are paying a lot of attention to this crisis, yet 43% of us are confused by it. In fact, the more information we get, the more confusing and conflicting it seems to be.

The strange mixture of interest and confusion is becoming every bit as toxic as many of the sub-prime mortgages entwined in this crisis. The only avenue many of us feel we have left is to express our outrage. Democrats blame Republicans; Republicans blame Democrats. Proponents of regulation blame laissez-faire capitalists and vice versa. The cycle of blame seems to stretch to infinity, but it may only be the tip of the iceberg. As the anger mounts it’s becoming more personal, more visceral. As author/futurist Francis Fukuyama noted this past Sunday, “The quality of political debate has been coarsened by partisans who question not just the ideas but the motives of their opponents. All this makes it harder to adjust to the new and difficult reality we face.”

One of the constants in this crisis has been our uncanny ability to hold ourselves guiltless. We assume that we had nothing to do with this mess. Yet, many of us took second mortgages on our homes to fund that dream vacation we just couldn’t live without. We bought meals at Applebee’s and trendy bistros, Hummers and SUV’s, or designer clothes and shoes using plastic, to the collective tune of $2.4 trillion!

Warren Buffet, the sage of Omaha, once observed “it is only when the tide goes out that you find out who’s been swimming naked.” Well, the tide has gone out on the global economy and we’re finding out that there an awful lot of naked people flopping around in the driftwood and seaweed that’s been left behind.

There’s a sad truth at the heart of this mess - lies. In 2006, author/risk consultant Satyajit Das described it as a hierarchy:

“There are salespeople – they lie to clients. Traders lie to sales and risk managers. Risk managers? They lie to the people who run the place – correction, think they run the place. The people who run the place lie to shareholders and regulators. I remembered the quantitative colleagues. ‘I forgot the quants – our fabulous rocket scientists! When last heard from, they we trying to develop a model for lying.’”

While it would be easy to blame it all on a chain of skilled liars, the truth is we’ve also lied to ourselves. We’ve bought into the naïve notion that consumption built on a mountain of debt and bull markets were inalienable rights.

It all sounds eerily familiar in the light of history. Many in the 17th century mortgaged their homes so they could buy a single tulip bulb for $75,000, betting that their investment would reap huge rewards. During the “roaring twenties,” millions bought stock “on the cuff,” certain the only direction was up. On January 28, 1986, after days of delay, internal wrangling, and public impatience, NASA mission STS 51L lifted off from Cape Canaveral. About a minute into the flight mission control issued the command, “Challenger, go with throttle up.” At 73 seconds, Challenger disintegrated.

Since the early nineties it has been, economically speaking, “Go with throttle up.” In the wake the economic disintegration we’re confused, angry, trying to make sense of it all. We’re groping in the dark, hoping that there is a Churchill, an F.D.R., or a Reagan who will help us navigate the troubled waters. We hope, but no one seems big enough to answer the call. John McCain was clearly no match for the problem. And, I suspect time will tell that this crisis is well above Barack Obama’s pay grade.

In the face of crisis and recriminations I think back to stops made at mile marker 109 on the Kansas Turnpike a few years ago, gazing out along the tallgrass, keenly aware of my smallness and vulnerability, yearning for the consolation of the ages, realizing there are places where “moth and rust don’t corrupt.” In this age of Fukuyama’s “new reality” I find myself once more crying “Maranatha,” clinging to the age old hope of the eastern sky being split at dawn by the Parousia.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

The Persecution Complex

“While we seek mirth and beauty and music light and gay
There are frail forms fainting at the door.
Though their voices are silent, their pleading looks will say.
Oh, hard times come again no more.
‘Tis the song, the sigh of the weary.
Hard times, hard times, come again no more.
Many days you have lingered all around my cabin door.
Oh, hard times, come again no more.”
- Bob Dylan – “Hard Times” (Stephen Foster) - 1992

The election is over. In keeping with American tradition, rampant speculation has become the order of the day. Will President Obama govern from the left? The center? Will America become a socialist state? Will the Democrats start sending out the goon squads to squelch any signs of dissent? What will Obama’s agenda be? Not to be outdone, some Evangelicals are speculating far into the future. In a letter that’s making the internet rounds, a Christian, circa 2012, laments the impact Barack Obama’s presidency has had on people of faith, particularly Evangelical Christians. A few samples follow”

“I can hardly sing “The Star Spangled Banner” any more. When I hear the words,

“O say, does that star spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?”

I get tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat. Now in October of 2012, after seeing what has happened in the last four years, I don’t think I can still answer, “Yes,” to that question. We are not “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” Many of our freedoms have been taken away by a liberal Supreme Court and a Democratic majority in both the House and the Senate, and hardly any brave citizen dares to resist the new government policies any more.”

“Personally, I don’t know how we are going to get through tomorrow, for these are difficult times. But my faith in the Lord remains strong.”

Heart wrenching, wouldn’t you say? Well, be strong my brother…be strong!

I don’t know whether the author of the letter was prompted by some special prophetic insight or was projecting his/her fears for the future. I profess no special insight into the future, nor do I harbor an overwhelming sense of dread. I can say that as I walked the dogs this morning the sun still rose in the east. I can also say that my wife, Nancy, still loves me. She even told me so before she left for Topeka at 6:30. It’s now about 11:00 A.M. and no one from the thought police has descended on my home to confiscate my Bible. I’d even read from it a couple of hours ago, from Paul’s second letter to the Church in Corinth, in which the apostle provides some valuable insight into what one of his average days looked like.

“Are they servants of Christ? I know I sound like a madman, but I have served him far more! I have worked harder, been put in prison more often, been whipped times without number, and faced death again and again. Five different times the Jewish leaders gave me thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked. Once I spent a whole night and a day adrift at sea. I have traveled on many long journeys. I have faced danger from rivers and from robbers. I have faced danger from my own people, the Jews, as well as from the Gentiles. I have faced danger in the cities, in the deserts, and on the seas. And I have faced danger from men who claim to be believers but are not. I have worked hard and long, enduring many sleepless nights. I have been hungry and thirsty and have often gone without food. I have shivered in the cold, without enough clothing to keep me warm. Then, besides all this, I have the daily burden of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak without my feeling that weakness? Who is led astray, and I do not burn with anger? If I must boast, I would rather boast about the things that show how weak I am.”

Who really had the tougher road to hoe, the first century apostle or our hypothetical Christian in 2012?

Do we really believe we’re being persecuted? Can we really convince ourselves that a three percent hike in taxes rises to the level of being beaten with rods? If our hypothetical Christian is be believed, apparently so.

Well, I guess if our future Christian can engage in flights of fancy, I can to.

I wonder what things might look like in an imaginary meeting room for martyrs in heaven designed so that new arrivals can get a taste of what things are like just beyond the pearly gates. The year is 2009, a short time after the election of Barack Obama, liberal Democrat. Several new American arrivals have been ushered into the meeting room. There, seated before them, are men and women dressed in garb from the first century all the way to the 21st. They are an amalgamation of nations, ethnicities, races, and ages. There are even children.

Once the new arrivals are seated, a short, balding man comes to the podium. He clears his throat and announces, “It’s good to meet you new arrivals. Make yourselves at home. I’m Paul. I’m told I’ve been here a couple of thousand years now, but, to be honest with you, I’ve lost all track of time.” After a moment or two of polite laughter, Paul goes on. “I’m going to begin by telling you how I got here, then letting a few others describe their entry. Once they’re done, we’ll open the floor to you new arrivals to acquaint us with the circumstances surrounding their arrivals. Does that seem good to you all?” Everyone nods in agreement. “Good, then. I’m Paul. I spent a good part of my life getting whacked around like a piñata for professing my faith in Jesus. Why, once I got thrown on a pile of garbage and left for dead. The Romans finally got me and lopped off my head.” The new arrivals begin to feel lumps forming in their throats. Paul goes on. “I’m going to ask young Mary to describe her circumstances for you.” A young woman, circa fifteenth century, stands. “Hi, I’m Mary. I lived a quiet life of faith and contemplation in Spain until Torquemada got a hold of me and thousands of others like me. He had me ripped from limb to limb and here I am.” The new arrivals feel the lumps in their throats getting bigger. Paul then introduces a couple of young children, a boy and a girl. “We were thrown to wild beasts.” The lumps in the throats now seem to inhibit the breathing of the new arrivals. But, on and on it goes. One martyr recalls being covered with grease and lit up as a torch to light the Appian Way for Nero. Another describes being burned at the stake for reading an unauthorized translation of the Bible in the 16th century. A recent arrival, a 20th century North Korean woman, recounts how she and hundreds of her fellow Christian villagers were run over and flattened by tanks and bulldozers. Paul caps it all off by reminding the new arrivals that there is Someone with nail pierced hands in heaven who’s suffered more than all those assembled.

By now the new arrivals can hardly breathe. Paul encourages them to calm down so that they can tell their tales of woe. It takes a few minutes, but the testimonies begin. A fortyish man, dressed in an Armani suit, describes, in lurid detail, being taxed to death. “Early in 2008 my marginal rate was 36%. By 2009 it was 39%. The minute the first deduction hit my paycheck I had a heart attack and keeled over, dead.” The testimony is greeted with stunned silence. Next, a man dressed in bib overalls, apparently a farmer, defiantly declares, “I tried my best to live life under “librull” rule, but I could only hold out for a few months thinking of life without a gun before I blew my brains out. Yup, the librulls got me.” Icy silence follows. A woman, dressed to the nines, Ann Taylor, I think, tearfully describes how the interruption in her life of conspicuous consumption led to her untimely death. “Why, money was so tight I could only shop at Bloomingdale’s three or four times a week. I died of a broken heart.” By now, Paul and the others have heard enough. “Do you mean to tell me that you believe that a three percent jump in taxes, a liberal Democrat, and a shortage of money for high-end consumer goods got you here?” Knowing now that they have no good reason to be in a room full of martyrs, the lumps in the throats of the new arrivals now appear to be the size of softballs. They are gasping for breath. All they have to say, in muffled tones, at this point is, “Get us outta’ here, things are feeling very uncomfortable.”

I don’t know what things are going to be like in this country four years from now, but I can’t work myself into a state of hysteria because of a change in political administrations. I just can’t do it. I don’t believe that Barack Obama is the end of the world. I’m no candidate for martyrdom, but neither am I in any frame of mind to embrace a persecution complex for what seem to me to be trivial reasons. History has shown that we Christians can be a pretty hardy lot if we put our minds and hearts to it. Why, on our collective paths to heaven we’ve been burned at the stake, bludgeoned, torn into pieces, flattened like pancakes, sawn in two, thrown to wild beasts, drowned, beheaded, hanged by the neck, drawn and quartered, cooked in boiling oil, suffocated, and stretched on the rack. Knowing this, I find it less than amusing to think that having a liberal Democrat and his family occupying the White House will undo our faith in Jesus Christ. I’d like to think our faith is made of better stuff than that.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The Winds of Change

“Don’t use foul or abusive language. Let everything you say be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them. And do not bring sorrow to God’s Holy Spirit by the way you live. Remember, he has identified you as his own, guaranteeing that you will be saved on the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander, as well as all types of evil behavior. Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you.”
- Ephesians 4:29-32 (New Living Translation)

There’s a stiff breeze coming up from the south this morning. I hear the occasional rattle of my windows and the rustle of the few remaining sycamore and mulberry leaves as they’re blown from their respective branches. Seasons come, seasons go, and another season is changing. Summer has passed. Fall is slowly giving way. The winter snows will soon follow, to then be trailed by the blessed relief of spring in March. The sycamore and the mulberry will once more come to life. The crocuses will break through the sleepy ground. The sights and sounds of life will be everywhere.

As it is with nature, so it is with nations. The winds of change have swept over America. Barack Obama is our President-elect. The poet has won the day.

Change always strains at the status quo. This election cycle has had its share of vitriol. For months the internet and the airwaves have buzzed with slander, rumors, and lies, reflecting the deep sense of bitterness and anger that has descended upon us like a death shroud. For far too long we’ve embraced the bitter and refused the cup of brotherhood. We have gone beyond division; we have begun to tear ourselves asunder.

But change has come and with it, I believe, hope. The man of my choosing did not win this election, but the man who won is now my President-elect. It is time for the season of bitterness and hate to end. It is time for the balm of healing to be poured out on this wounded land.

Shortly after the electoral milestone was passed, Senator John McCain graciously accepted the will of the people. He seemed to understand the historic nature of what had happened and he rose to the moment. His words overflowed with grace, seeds for the grace we will all need in the months and years ahead:

“I urge all Americans who supported me to join me in not just congratulating him, but offering our next president our good will and earnest effort to find ways to come together to find the necessary compromises to bridge our differences and help restore our prosperity, defend our security in a dangerous world, and leave our children and grandchildren a stronger, better country than we inherited.”

In victory Barack Obama was equally gracious. Echoing the words of Dr. King he called us to embrace a difficult, yet promising future. “The climb will be steep,” he said. “We may not get there in one year, or one term, but I promise you as a people we will get there.” He reminded us of Lincoln’s words – “We are not enemies but friends. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection”

While the road ahead has become overgrown with the weeds of bitterness, hate, and self-indulgence, it is clear that our task now is to pluck them up by the roots and make straight in the wilderness a highway of brotherhood and common grace.

It has taken us a long time to get to where we are, and it will take time to undo what we have done. We who profess faith must now set our hands to the plow. For far too long we’ve sown the seeds of discord rather than plant words of healing. We’ve used our freedom to speak as a license to slander rather than as an avenue of blessing. As the apostle James observed:

“But no one can tame the tongue. It is restless and evil, full of deadly poison. Sometimes it praises our Lord and Father, and sometimes it curses those who have been made in the image of God. And so blessing and cursing come pouring out of the same mouth. Surely, my brothers and sisters, this is not right! Does a spring of water bubble out with both fresh water and bitter water?”

The winds of seasonal change are still rattling my windows. The leaves of the sycamore and the mulberry continue to fall. Change is coming. We cannot fight its inevitability, any more than we can hold the winds in the palms of our hands. We must embrace them as part of God’s righteous plan. And so it is with these winds of political change in America. We must now shed the outdated notion that we, as people of faith, are this nation’s sole arbiters of what is right and wrong and clothe ourselves anew with humility and grace. Only in walking that path can we become the people of faith and servants we have been called to be.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Mad Prophet and the Media

Isaiah 30:8-11 (New Living Translation)
“Now go and write down these words. Write them in a book. They will stand until the end of time as a witness that these people are stubborn rebels who refuse to pay attention to the Lord’s instructions. They tell the seers, “Stop seeing visions!” They tell the prophets “Don’t tell us what is right. Tell us nice things. Tell us lies. Forget all this gloom. Get off your narrow path. Stop telling us about your ‘Holy One of Israel.’”

I’ve been steering clear of the goings on in the political arena for over a month, but events have overtaken me and I once again feel the stirring in my soul. As we Evangelicals put it, I feel the “unction.”

In the early days of his failed presidential campaign Mike Huckabee spoke to a gathering of Evangelicals, noting that he’d come to them as one speaking the language of Zion as a mother tongue, not as one who’d recently learned clever Christian catch phases so that he could benefit politically. As his campaign lurched between the giddiness of success to the inevitable defeat he became a center of media attention, often misunderstood, sometimes mocked, occasionally disdained. When it was all over the media never could fully understand what the point was. They failed to see that the real point of Mike Huckabee wasn’t about him. What his campaign revealed was that there really is a significant Evangelical culture or sub-culture, or perhaps even a counter-culture in this country, that there is real value in being a smooth stone or a widow’s mite.

I think the media must have breathed a collective sigh of relief when John McCain went over the top and secured the Republican Party’s nomination. The talk of Zion, smooth stones, and widow’s mites was past. It was time to settle in to politics as usual.

For a time things went according to the script. On the heels of Hillary’s tears in New Hampshire, we were treated to the endless math lessons and delegate counts. There was little talk of the issues, and that was alright. After all, that’s what political campaigns and the news business are all about: the shallow and meaningless. I think it was Will Rogers who once asked, “If stupidity got us into this mess, then why can’t it get us out?” That was the operative doctrine in Rogers’ day, and it’s even truer today.

Then, Jeremiah Wright burst upon the scene. For the media, it was a godsend, a ratings bonanza. His sermons, or selected snippets of them, became fuel for the media wildfires. I’m not sure where they first appeared. I think it might have been on FOX. But once it all got started the talking heads from networks and cable outlets began to douse the flames with gasoline. It seemed to subside for a while, but the dying embers have been re-kindled in the past few days. Reverend Wright has decided to speak out and the flames are once again leaping across the airwaves.

I didn’t look too deeply into what Jeremiah Wright had said when this controversy began. Like most Americans I was furious. It was clear from the snippets that this man was unpatriotic, un-Christian, angry and bitter, a distorter of the truth, a megalomaniac. I didn’t need any more evidence; I’d seen enough. He was a guilty man and richly deserved the scorn being heaped upon him. I think my frame of mind back then was that if Sean Hannity, Lou Dobbs, or Joe Scarborough had given me the rope, I’d have hung the man.

But, when the controversy was re-ignited I decided to drop the rope and listen as carefully as possible to everything Jeremiah Wright had to say. Once I did, something in me changed. I didn’t become an apologist for him. I didn’t miraculously find myself nodding my head in agreement with everything he said. In fact, I still disagreed with a lot of his assertions and accusations. But, once I began to peer through the lens he was offering I began to see some of the things at the heart of his message. Once I saw my way past my personal distaste for the messenger I began to understand the context he said he was framing his remarks in.

Just what is that context?

It is, first and foremost, the tradition of the Biblical prophets. One of the things that becomes evident from Holy Writ is that God is the champion of the oppressed, the widow, the poor, the alien, the orphan, the grief stricken, the weary, the hungry, the thirsty, the captive, the blind, the lame, the infirm, the sinner desperately seeking absolution. It’s a rich tradition. It becomes clear early on when Moses, at God’s bidding, stands before pharaoh and proclaims the word of the Lord on behalf of a nation within a nation that is living in bondage. “Let my people go,” he declares. The tradition is powerfully evident when the prophet Nathan confronts Israel’s greatest king, David, when the king commits adultery and has an innocent man murdered in a vain attempt to hide his sin. The tradition carries through the nation’s history, from Isaiah to Ezekiel, from Amos to Micah to Joel. When Israel turned away from her mandate to be a “light to the nations,” the prophets spoke forcefully to the sins of commission and omission being committed. They spoke, as Jeremiah Wright said, the truth to power. They chastised the people for neglecting the poor and needy, for turning away from the widow in need, and profaning holy things. They warned the nation that God was going to use Israel’s enemies as an instrument of justice against them for the sins they refused to turn away from. They rebuked the princes and leaders who enriched themselves while tearing at the poor like a wolf tearing at its prey. They held nothing back. And, what was their reward for speaking the “word of the Lord?” For Moses it was exile and conflict, followed by years of leading an unbelieving nation through the wilderness. For Jeremiah it meant being thrown into a cold, dark well and later being placed in stocks. According the Jewish tradition Isaiah’s reward was being sawn in two. The Old Testament prophet’s lot for telling the truth was universal – scorn, ridicule, abandonment, isolation, and punishment.

The pattern continued in the New Testament as well. John the Baptist trudged up and down the Jordan River, crying out about the coming of a new kingdom. “The axe is laid to the root,” he said. “Let them man with two coats give one to the poor.” The religious leaders of the day followed him with great interest. He spoke a stinging “word of the Lord” to them. “You snakes, you vipers. Who warned you to flee the wrath that’s coming?” He railed against King Herod, only to be beheaded for exposing the king’s sin. Jesus himself came in the tradition of the Old Testament prophets and John the Baptist. He began his public ministry by declaring that he’d come to fulfill what the prophet Isaiah had said hundreds of years before – “The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me; because the LORD hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound.” He held out wonderful promises to all in the Sermon on the Mount. Yet, in that same sermon he challenged those listening to see the world, and themselves, in a new light. “You have heard it said” was followed by “But I say unto you.” He equated murder with anger, adultery with a lustful eye. He said that a man who called his brother a fool was every bit as much in danger of the fires of hell as the man who committed murder. He spoke of turning the other cheek rather than exacting an eye for and eye or a tooth for a tooth. He called those following him to love their enemies and to bless those who persecuted them. The poor heard and embraced his message. The powerful very rarely did. In fact, the air almost always crackled with tension when Jesus and the religious authorities of His day interacted. They tried to trap him with clever questions only to be revealed as the fools they were when Jesus answered their questions with a question in return. His words to them weren’t soothing at all. In fact, He called them children of their father the devil. He overturned the tables of the money changers in the temple and said that the religious authorities had turned what should have been a house of prayer for all people into a den of thieves. When they’d had enough, the ecclesiastical leaders plotted to kill him, and succeeded. In order to kill the message and stabilize the nation, they reasoned, it was necessary to crucify the messenger.

And, so the history and the lot of prophets have proceeded unbroken throughout history. From the Old to the New Testaments, then the Church fathers to Luther and Wesley, from Wilberforce to the abolitionists, from Azusa Street to America’s storefront churches, from Dietrich Bonheoffer to Martin Luther King, the tradition has held. The prophets who came before us spoke forcefully to the evils of their times and paid a heavy price for being messengers of God’s truth

There’s another thread to this context. It's culture. Reverend Wright’s message has been greatly informed by his experience as an African-American. That’s the lens through which he sees the world. It’s a picture painted in part by the history of oppression and slavery his forbearers endured in this country. The pallet of his experience includes Jim Crow and lynching. It includes being segregated in the civilian sphere while being expected to die for all on the field of battle. While I try to look at that experience objectively, Reverend Wright looks through that experience subjectively. While I see it from a distance, it is close and personal for him. For those listening outside of that context it’s difficult to weave through the rhetoric to the message intended. As I listen I feel myself wanting to respond – “Haven’t things improved?” “Isn’t America a better place now for African-Americans than it was a generation ago?” “Why should I feel guilty about things I’ve never done?” But, as I read the words of the Sermon on the Mount or the prophets I realize that I must examine my own heart and ask the difficult questions. What is the lens through which I see the world? How do my feelings as an Irish-American toward the injustice of the British to my ancestors from ages past fit into my scheme of things? Why does the history of the potato famine play such a prominent role in my thinking? After all, I’ve never gone hungry a day in my life. Why is the diaspora that brought the Irish to this country so important to me? Why is it so embedded in my soul? When I ask these questions I begin to understand. While we all, African-American and Anglo-Saxon American, have a common history, we also bring the things long since woven into our genes by personal experience and history. We are who we are by the grace of God and each of us has an important story to contribute to the well being and advancement of the whole community.

Most often in life the rewards we receive come through great difficulty and trial, when we’re provoked into action. This, it seems to me, is the role of the prophet in our midst. It is his/her lot in life to say the things we’d rather not hear, to expose the darkness clinging to the unseen crevices of our hearts. This past Sunday I listened to a sermon that brought me to tears. Jannie Stubbs, our co-pastor, spoke about grace, comparing it to the impossible demands of the Old Testament law and oral tradition. She spoke of how we create self-righteous, legalistic dividing lines between ourselves and those we don’t approve of. The dividing lines may be between left and right, between the ugliness of someone else’s sin and our “righteousness,” or between those we disagree with and ourselves. Once we create these dividing lines we have the uncanny ability to create the highest wall we possibly can between us. It’s a wall of separation that reads “I’m good and you’re bad. I’m saved and you’re lost.” As I listened I found myself wanting to shout, “Stop! In the name of God, stop!” But, the more I listened the more the words pierced. I found myself recalling he words of the Sermon on the Mount, about the equality at the bar of God’s justice between the man who murders and the man who calls his brother a fool. I tried to find comfort in the fact that I hadn’t committed any great sins, but then the words of the Book of Common Prayer from my Episcopal roots came to mind – “We have done those things which we ought not to have done and we have left those things undone which we ought to have done and there is no health in us.” I realized that for every sin of commission I could find in someone else, I could in turn find a sin of omission in me.

What does this have to do with Jeremiah Wright? One of the things he spoke about yesterday was the possibility of reconciliation. While it might be easy to dismiss him as a hate filled fanatic, it’s not so easy to dismiss the reconciliation offered by the prophets and Jesus. While it’s true the message they brought was one seemingly laden with doom, it’s also true that they brought a message filled with hope. “Come let us reason together,” Isaiah said. Ezekiel railed against the sins of Israel, but he also saw the possibility of a valley of dry bones coming to life. Joel spoke of the devastation of the canker worm, but also saw the promise of a time when God would send His people corn, wine, and oil, and a time when God would “no more make you a reproach among the heathen.”

You see, it is the role of the prophet is to provoke and be provocative, of living and speaking in the tension between judgment and reconciliation. It’s a message whose context is, if we can hear it, love and grace.

In the end, the message I think we’ve had great difficulty hearing in all the media sound bytes these days is that message of reconciliation. As I said earlier, I’m not an apologist for Jeremiah Wright, but I do think the message hidden from us in the media’s rush for ratings and profits is that reconciliation is possible. This is the message from heaven, that God was/is in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself and wants us to reconcile ourselves to one another. At a time when the dividing lines and walls have been so skillfully drawn and erected and the airwaves are crackling with hate it’s almost impossible to hear. I think it’s understandable. The business of reconciliation is difficult. If it weren’t so, there would have been no reason for Jesus to die on the cross to open the door to grace and absolution to all of us.

I believe, then, that the task before us in the wake of Jeremiah Wright is to open that door and begin the long process of reconciliation and healing in our time.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Whither To, Iraq?

“In the presence of a relentless pageantry of hideous behavior, something in the moral imagination shuts down, or acquiesces, or else denies that all of this gaudily squalid awfulness should be described as evil at all. We absorb more horrors than our systems can tolerate. We overdose on horrors; eventually, inevitably, horrors begin to cease horrifying us. The moral system, and with it the capacity for outrage, shuts down.”
- Lance Morrow – Evil: An Investigation (Page 84)

Like no other writer I’ve read in the past five years, Lance Morrow described much of the thinking that gripped the world in 2003. The horrors of World War II were becoming ancient history. America had passed from Korea to the Cold War to Vietnam, from the Gulf War in 1991 to the Balkans, then to Rwanda, and, finally to the horror of September 11, 2001. By 2003, most of the world had had enough. Afghanistan was one thing, but Iraq was a step too far. Few doubted the evil going on in Iraq, but it seemed to be an acceptable level of evil. While the debate about weapons of mass destruction raged, fewer still asked whether the oppressed people of Iraq preferred a diplomat or a gunboat to come to their rescue. The brutalization of the Sunnis, the Marsh Arabs, and the Kurds was an evil the world had just come to accept. In fact, we’d come to the place where we could watch it all unfold casually while pitchmen sold us Pampers and the Dow soared into the stratosphere. In the face of all that, what argument could those being run through Saddam’s shredders make? Thus, when America and its coalition partners invaded and weapons of mass destruction weren’t found, international anger mounted. Then, as a brutal insurgency and terror attacks followed the liberation of Baghdad, fueled and perpetrated by Osama’s faithful, the moral question that should have been considered in the run-up to the war got turned on its head. America, and its coalition partners, became the embodiment of evil and the practitioners of terror began to gain cult hero status. From then, till now, George Bush and America haven’t been able to shed the mantle of the bad guy.

Earlier today I read a piece penned by E.J. Dionne on the heels of the testimony of Ambassador Crocker and General Petraeus a few days ago. He’s an excellent writer, appropriately provocative. In the piece he posits the idea that it is the war’s supporters, and not its detractors, who are caught in the past, justifying a war that could never be justified.

Upon reading Mr. Dionne’s piece I decided to send him a response. In closing, that response follows.

Mr. Dionne

I just finished reading your op-ed.

I've been a supporter of our effort in Iraq from the beginning. My support wasn’t/isn't based on whether or not Iraq had weapons of mass destruction or geopolitics. It was based in the principle that Saddam's genocide had to be stopped. It was clear to me from the beginning that the United Nations wasn't going to act on behalf of the Kurds, the Marsh Arabs, or the Sunnis, and that someone had to.

While I don't believe I'm “stuck” in the past, I do think there is an element of truth in what you say. The past means something to me. The history of unchecked aggression and its consequences also means something to people in my generation. I was born a year after the Pearl Harbor attack. I remember nothing of the war and its consequences until the early fifties. My first encounter with that cost came one morning as I was walking. I noticed a window with a gold star placed on it. When I got home I asked my mother what the star meant. She explained that it was one of the country's ways of honoring a mother whose son had died in the battle to protect the world against fascism. As time passed I read about the war and its toll - hundreds of thousands of American lives lost, the millions lost on both sides, the millions of Jews, Gypsies, Poles, Russians, homosexuals, religious dissenters who had died in the concentration camps. Even at that young age questions occurred to me. Why didn't we just leave the fascists alone? Could this terrible war have been avoided through diplomacy and containment? After all, they weren't directly threatening us. Questions also came from the other side of my thought process. If what the fascists were doing was so terrible, why didn't someone stop them earlier? If we knew what was going on in the early thirties, why didn't we confront them when the human cost wouldn't have been so staggering?

I suppose they’re not fair questions to ask. We can't turn back the clock. The history has been written. The battles have been fought; the bombs have been dropped. The death toll has been calculated. The crosses, stars of David, etc mark the graves of the fallen. As they say in New York, “it is what it is.”

But those who lived through those days have passed on a great lesson to us - unchecked aggression has deadly consequences.

As I listened to the testimony the other day I thought one person, Barack Obama asked one half of the really important question - How much al Qaeda influence are we willing to accept in Iraq and how much Iranian influence? The senator assumed, correctly, that even in a best case scenario there would be some. I agree.

But, as I watch the Democrats, particularly Hillary Clinton, pull to the left, I realize more clearly that the Democratic plan will almost certainly be a rapid withdrawal from Iraq, and consequences would follow from that.

That brings me to my questions. How much al Qaeda influence are the Democrats willing to allow under a worst case scenario? What will the Democratic thinking be if we withdraw rapidly, al Qaeda and Iran then sweep in to fill the power vacuum, a new cycle of genocide in Iraq begins, the region is destabilized, and Israel is placed in real danger of annihilation? What do you suppose the next move might be on the international stage once all that takes place? What expectation will you and the Democratic president have of America's sons and daughters if/when that scenario plays out? What will our strategic, geopolitical, and moral obligations be in such a circumstance?

That scenario seems improbable right now, but I suspect that thinking is grounded in wishful thinking. I'm sure that in the early thirties Hitler's evils seemed containable through dialog. The world was so fearful of confrontation it was willing to cede sovereign nations to Germany. By the time all the compromising was done Hitler and his fascist allies were powerful beyond measure. The six years that followed Germany’s invasion of Poland were the bloodiest in human history.

I do think Senator Obama asked crucial questions. If we can't eliminate all the evil forces arrayed, how can we best contain them? Just how much are we willing to accept? How do we measure it? What is our best case scenario?

The questions are fair.

I also think it's fair to ask what the consequences of withdrawal would be in a worst case scenario. Would the eventual consequences of rapid withdrawal too terrible to imagine? What would the eventual cost of inaction be?

Neither you nor I nor anyone in power can fully answer those questions. In that regard, the lessons of history and our collective consciences are all we have to guide us.

In a few months the question of direction will be answered. I'm certain that a Democrat will be elected to the presidency, and that Democrats will gain enough seats in the Senate and House to form a filibuster-proof majority. That will mean, almost certainly, that we'll withdraw from Iraq unconditionally. When that happens I will hope and pray for the best. I'll do my utmost to support the decision. I'll even be there if the worst case scenario plays out. When the call comes to my sons and my grandson to stem the tide, I'll be loyal, as will they. If God forbid, they were to fall and my wife was given a gold star in the name of a Democratic president and a grateful nation, I'd say all the right things. But in the recesses of my aching heart I'd be asking, “Why did it have to come to this?” “Why didn't we act before it became so bad and the cost of purging the evil was so great?”

Under those circumstances, what would you, as a journalist, tell my wife and me that would soothe our grief?

So, I labor under the burden of history, as I see it. As you put it, I'm stuck in the past. I'm torn between the costs of current action and plagued by what history has taught me about the terrible cost of inaction. I've tried devising geopolitical and moral equations to come up with some certain, mathematical answers to the questions. Unfortunately, this is not a circumstance like calculating the time of convergence at point C if John leaves station A at 9:00 going east at 25 MPH and Sally leaves station B at 9:12 going west at 31 MPH.

I wish for all the world, as do our senators, congressmen, and journalists, that I could see the end with certainty. But, none of us can. In the end, this war's opponents will in all likelihood get their wish. I hope and pray that point C will be success. But if point C is disaster what would you ask of me, my sons, and my grandsons? What will you say to me when I ask the inevitable questions – “why did you let it come to this?” “Why are so many more going to have to die when we could/should have acted before the unthinkable happened?”

I've prattled on far longer than I originally intended to, wrenching words out of my gut. I can only imagine how difficult it must be to engage in this task daily as a journalist. I doubt that you'll have time to read this, but that's alright. It's been cathartic for me. The questions I've asked come from a sincere heart, much like Senator Obama's questions the other day. We all have a stake in the outcome in Iraq. I believe your thoughts come from a sincere heart as well. We're all grappling with the questions and a very uncertain future. Mine are rooted in the moral lessons passed on to me through history. Perhaps my thinking is archaic, with roots tangled in history that is slowly being choked out by weeds of “now.” I have no power to carve out our course. I leave that to generals, politicians, and journalists who do, and will. In the end, I'm going to go where the tide of history takes me. Unfortunately, I see disaster on that horizon. I hope and pray that I'm wrong.


Phil Dillon
Emporia, Kansas

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Hillary's Last Stand?

“Since you have chosen to elect a man with a timber toe to succeed me, you may all go to hell and I will go to Texas.”
- Davy Crockett

Tradition has it that Saint Jude, the patron saint of lost causes, was clubbed to death, then beheaded, early in the first century. Little is known about him in Evangelical circles, other than the fact that one New Testament book, Jude, originally penned as a letter of encouragement to fellow Christians, is now part of protestant canon.

The letter ends with these words – “Rescue any who need to be saved, as you would rescue someone from a fire. Then with fear in your own hearts, have mercy on everyone who needs it.”

If any politician is in desperate need of rescuing and mercy these days it’s Hillary Clinton. Not long ago she was cruising along, assuming that the presidency was hers as a matter of divine right. Then something happened. Actually, Barack Obama happened. Now her campaign house appears to be on fire and there may not be any fire extinguishers or firemen around to put out the flames. She’s lost eight primaries in a row, which in baseball parlance means that she’s had a long string of Golden Sombreros. In last night’s contests she was soundly trounced, by over twenty percent in each state. Even more ominous was the fact that Hillary lost significant ground in her core support groups, white men, women, Hispanics, blue collar workers, and older voters.

I don’t know if Hillary’s been clubbed to death yet,but she and her campaign have the look of someone who’s been badly battered and wants no more of the other guy.

This coming Tuesday the people of Wisconsin and Hawaii will cast their primary ballots, with a total of ninety-four delegates up for grabs. I’d have to say, based on what’s happened thus far, that it’s advantage Obama. Senator Clinton seems to be conceding as much. Rather than stay on the east coast to lick her wounds, she made her way to Texas, hoping that an overwhelming victory there will turn the tide in her favor.

Will the tide turn? It could, but I doubt it. The old Clinton baggage of crass conniving, lust for power, and dirty tricks won’t be able to put of the fires of hope and change that Obama has set in the bones of the Party faithful. She may win some delegates in Texas, but I think she’ll realize when all is said and done that Texas is the home of the Alamo and Davy Crockett’s last stand.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Other Side of the Coin

“Liberals, it has been said, are generous with other peoples’ money, except when it comes to questions of national survival when they prefer to be generous with other people's freedom and security.”
- William F. Buckley

While the Republican Party leadership is trying to rally the troops around John McCain, Hillary Clinton, who once assumed she was the Democrat’s “anointed one,” may just be getting obliterated by tidal wave of popular support that is increasingly mounting in favor of young Mr. Obama.

As reported by the New York Times this morning:

“Mrs. Clinton held a buck-up-the-troops conference call on Monday with donors, superdelegates and other supporters; several said afterward that she had sounded tired and a little down, but determined about Ohio and Texas.”

“They also said that they had not been especially soothed, and that they believed she might be on a losing streak that could jeopardize her competitiveness in those states.”

“She has to win both Ohio and Texas comfortably, or she’s out,” said one superdelegate who has endorsed Mrs. Clinton, and who spoke on condition of anonymity to share a candid assessment. “The campaign is starting to come to terms with that.” Campaign advisers, also speaking privately in order to speak plainly, confirmed this view.”

The Clinton camp is really getting nervous. Patti Solis Doyle is out; Maggie Williams is in. The talk of inevitability has evaporated, having given way to campaign conference calls about “firewalls.” Even Clinton bean counters are getting into the act. Hassan Nemazee, one of Hillary’s national finance chairmen is telling donors

“Not to get caught up in the headlines about Obama. “I’m telling donors and supporters: Don’t be overly concerned about what goes on in the remainder of the month of February because these are not states teed up well for us,” Mr. Nemazee said.”

Mr. Nemazee had better hope, for Hillary’s sake, that she’s teed up a bit better a month from now than she currently is in Virginia, Maryland, the District of Columbia, Wisconsin, or Hawaii. If she can’t do any better there than she did the other day in Washington, Louisiana, Nebraska, and the Virgin Islands, then she just might face the prospect of getting smacked around by the Tiger Woods sized driver Obama will be pulling out of his war chest in Texas and Ohio.

I’m a Huckabee supporter, so I do believe in miracles, as does my candidate. Hillary’s problem is that she has presented herself as the candidate of reality while Obama has been the messenger of change and hope. It’s no contest.

This morning, Governor Huckabee was asked by a group of reporters why Barack seems to be winning against Hillary. His response was one of those classic Huck-isms:

“The American people are not looking for someone who can fix a carburetor. They’re looking for someone who can drive the car.”

I’ve said from the start of this campaign that the issues of vision, hope, and change really matter. That’s why I’ve supported Mike Huckabee from the beginning and will till all the delegates are counted. I believe his message of vertical politics, hope, economic revitalization and populism, and strength in the face of international terror is right for America. It’s become his political currency. Fear and division have been replaced by hope and vertical politics as his coin of the realm.

In one sense, Barack Obama is the other side of that coin. One of the principle reasons so many Democrats seem to be flocking to him is that message of hope and change. His slogans ring true; they hit their mark. When he rails out against the influence of lobbyists in American politics and tells his followers that change is coming they all respond in unison, “Yes we can…Yes we can…Yes we can! When Hillary talks about the need for experience in the White House, Obama counters by reminded all who will listen that twenty years of experience and two political dynasties have gotten us to where we are.

In his victory speech after sweeping the primaries and caucuses on Saturday night, Senator Obama spoke to his younger supporters. He promised them help with what has become the huge financial burden of a college education. The crowd roared as he put forth the idea of a $4,000 college tuition credit that would be granted to America’s young. Years earlier Bill Clinton had made the same promise. I remember the drumbeat of those days. “I’ll give you a college education.” “It’ll be free.” “It’ll be free.” “It’ll be free.” But there was something different in the Obama appeal. Along with the promise of financial support, America’s young were told that they would have to agree to serve the nation in some capacity in order to get the financial aid.

Therein lies the difference between the two Democratic candidates. One panders to the baser elements of our nature; the other calls out to the noble and altruistic.

That stream of altruism flows deep within Obama’s veins. During his 2004 keynote speech at the Democratic convention he spoke eloquently to the sense of shared moral responsibility we Americans share with our fellow citizens:

“If there’s a child on the South side of Chicago who can’t read, that matters to me, even if it isn’t my child. If there’s a senior citizen somewhere who can’t pay for their prescription and having to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it isn’t my grandparent. If there’s an Arab-American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties. It is that fundamental belief – I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper – that makes this country work.”

One doesn’t have to agree with the Senator’s rhetoric, but one should see that it comes from the heart. When compared to the other side of the coin, Hillary Clinton’s cold political calculations, it soars above the crass and mundane that has made Americans sick of the political process.

Odds are that John McCain will be the Republican nominee, and if the momentum keeps building Barack Obama will be his opponent. What then?

It’s well know that economics is not McCain’s strong suit. Bread and butter conservatives love his resistance to the profligate spending that has turned the surpluses of 2000 into the huge deficits of 2008. But, they are also well aware of his previous opposition to the Bush tax cuts that triggered the post 9-11 economic boom. His current promise to support them isn’t being received warmly. The level of trust in his pronouncements is low. By the time November rolls around he’ll be plagued with a mixed economic message, like the ancient mariner wearing an albatross around his neck, while Obama will be appealing to those caught in the grip of the mortgage meltdown and plant layoffs. In such a case, what is perceived to be Wall Street Republicanism will lose hands down to Obama’s message of “social justice and equity.”

Does this mean that an Obama presidency is inevitable? Certainly not. There is another side of the Obama coin which could easily be exploited to expose the glaring gap in his altruism. The issue would be national security, Iraq, and the War on Terror.

I’ve spent some time reading back through Senator Obama’s messages on Iraq and national security. The net result is mixed. Once the layers of the onion are peeled back one thing becomes clear – that the Senator’s message of hope and altruism ends at the water’s edge as he promises to begin what could be the long march of retreat in the face of international terror. While his constant reminders of the fact that he is the only Democratic candidate who was against our involvement in Iraq from the beginning play well to the Daily Kos set, they also reveal that his principles of domestic social justice and equity are less than a layer of the onion deep, if that deep at all. How can one so principled say that he cares about the children who can’t read, senior citizens facing difficult economic choices, the targets of religious bigotry, and the least of us, when he tosses the dreams, aspirations, and hopes of millions who’ve seen their loved ones run through Saddam’s shredders, seen their developmentally disabled children used as walking bombs, or have had an education denied them because they were women, as if they were little more than international flotsam and jetsam? How can he speak convincingly about the responsibility of the powerful to the weak and needy domestically when he demonstrates an alarming willingness for the strong to abandon the helpless in Iraq, Afghanistan, North Korea, Iran and other victims of political violence crying out for help from the centers of violence and terror in the world?

If Barack Obama is to be true to his principles, he must be held to a standard of consistency. He can’t have it both ways. He can’t be a man of compassion because it plays well to the laid-off worker or single mother in Peoria and then ignore the cries of help from the veiled woman pleading for a new way of life in Baghdad or Kabul. He cannot be allowed to portray himself as a classic, caring Democratic liberal in America’s rust belt at the same time he practices a Nixon-like realpolitik and appeasement on the international scene. It’s not only inconstant, it’s also very dangerous. This inconsistency, this weakness in principle, would be no match for the twisted Vladimir Putins, Mahmud Ahmadinejads, or the Kim Jong-ils of this world. Obama’s rhetoric may soar in this campaign, but it will never convince Iran’s leaders to stop developing nuclear weapons, nor will it woo Osama from the cave where he hatches his evil plans. If Obama is elected, this will be America’s central problem in 2009 and beyond. As Thomas Sowell once said, “If the battle for civilization comes down to the wimps versus the barbarians, the barbarians will win.” .

Every coin has two sides. Obama’s problem in a general election is that his dollar of hope on the domestic side is worth little more than a penny when it’s turned over to the international side. If he can’t overcome that glaring inconsistency in his message, he might win against John McCain if he is the Republican nominee, but he would not win in November against the domestic and international consistency of Mike Huckabee if he becomes the Republican standard bearer.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Mathematics and Miracles

“Do not worry about your problems with mathematics; I assure you mine are far greater”
- Albert Einstein

“Miracles are a retelling in small letters of the very same story which is written across the whole world in letters too large for some of us to see.”
- C.S. Lewis

Mike Huckabee made the rounds this morning, flitting from FOX to CNN to MSNBC. When asked why he isn’t dropping out of the race he responded, in classic Huckabee style, “As long as my guys are waving their pompons, we'll stay on the field.”

Give ‘em hell, Mike!

The Republican powerful are saying that it’s over. In fact, they’re saying it over and over and over. It’s like watching a bunch of politicians singing the “Anvil Chorus.”

Mike Huckabee is well aware of the mathematics involved. So are his supporters. We all get it, but we’re not giving up. There’s no reason, nor is there any incentive to.

While winning eighty-five to ninety percent of the remaining delegates is a daunting task, winning less than fifty percent of the remaining delegates and then participating in a brokered convention is far from impossible. John McCain must win fifty percent, plus one, of the total delegates in order to secure the nomination. That hasn’t happened yet, and until it does I’m not going to relinquish my pompom. I like Mike!

Many Huckabee detractors have now begun to resort to fear tactics. They seem to delight in taking us back to 1976 when Ronald Reagan decided to take on a sitting president. When all the smoke cleared from that convention, Gerald Ford won a narrow victory, Ronald Reagan left with the support of the Party’s conservative/grass-roots wing, the Republican Party left divided/wounded, and Jimmy Carter won the presidency. Many of the powerful in the G.O.P never forgave Reagan, even though he was to four years later propel his Party into power and return the country to its natural, historic conservatism.

Governor Huckabee has also been accused of splitting Republican conservatives, thus enhancing the chances for a Democratic victory in the general election. Well, I don’t believe it, nor does history seem to validate that point of view.

I spent some time this morning re-reading chapter seven, titled “The Revolution of 1860,” of Jim McPherson’s The Battle Cry of Freedom. The chapter is all about the political upheaval taking place in America in 1860. It seems that one man, Abraham Lincoln, much like Mike Huckabee today, wasn’t nearly as interested in electoral mathematics back then as he was in miracles. The Illinois rail-splitter, and friend of the common man, knew he faced a daunting task. He well understood that William Seward had come to Chicago as the presumptive nominee of the Party. But Lincoln, who once said, “Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed is more important than any one thing,” pressed the issue of the nomination to the convention floor. History has recorded the outcome of that convention. Lincoln won, the Union was preserved, and slavery was abolished. Many scholars now believe that Lincoln, in addition to being our greatest political poet, was our greatest President. Thank God that we don’t have to concern ourselves today with a different history, one that might have been written had Lincoln given in to the mathematics he faced.

Some quotes from McPherson follow for your edification and enlightenment. I believe they demonstrate that, while some make assumptions, a few chart their courses to the stars, swim against the collective tide of the naysayers, and then go on to make history:

“Coming into the convention with a large lead based on strength in upper-North states, Seward hoped for a first-ballot nomination. But Republicans were sure to win those states no matter whom they nominated.”

“This left Lincoln. By the time the convention’s opening gavel came down on May 16, Lincoln had emerged from a position as the darkest of horses to that of Seward’s main rival.”

“Yet so obscure was Lincoln in certain circles before his nomination that some pundits had not included his name on their lists of seven or a dozen or even twenty-one potential candidates. Several newspapers spelled his first name Abram.”

“The first ballot revealed Seward’s weakness and Lincoln’s surprising strength. With 233 votes needed to nominate, Seward fell sixty short at 173 ½ while Lincoln polled 102.”

“From then on, Lincoln the rail-splitter became the symbol of the frontier, farm, opportunity, hard work, rags to riches, and other components of the American dream embodied in the Republican self-image.”

“None of the forty thousand people in and around the wigwam ever forgot that moment. All except the diehard Seward delegates were convinced they had selected the strongest candidate.”

We now have the hindsight of history, so we know that Abraham Lincoln was the right candidate for the right time. Some day, when this generation is pushing up the daisies, the history of the 2008 campaign will be written. It may be about John McCain, Barack Obama, or Hillary Clinton. And, improbable as it may seem now, it may be about a preacher from a small Arkansas town who was too stubborn to give in to the cackling voices around him calling for his surrender.

So, the campaign goes on. Mike Huckabee is still standing, reaching out to the grass-roots, continuing to make his stirring stump speeches. The shuffle of pompoms can still be heard across the land. It’s not over yet. As Mike has said so many times, the people, the voters, and not the pundits, will decide!

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Irreduceable Simplicity

“We can say with confidence and a clear conscience that we have lived with a God-given holiness and sincerity in all our dealings. We have depended on God’s grace, not on our own human wisdom. That is how we have conducted ourselves before the world, and especially toward you.”
II Corinthians 1:12 (New Living Translation)

There’s been much talk about the impact “values voters” have had in Mike Huckabee’s success in these presidential primaries. Most media experts who dissect the Huckabee phenomenon assume that his appeal is to a small band of narrow minded religious fanatics. It’s been a consistent anti-Huckabee bias ever since he launched his campaign.

Nowhere is this bias more evident than in the line of questioning the governor has been subjected to – his skepticism about the scientific mantra of our time: evolution. He’s been asked to clarify his beliefs in this area more often than he has been asked his views about taxes, the War on Terror, or national defense. His answer has been as consistent as the question has been persistent. God created the heavens and the earth. He could have done it six billion years ago. He could have used whatever process He cared to. But, whatever the process, the governor is convinced that everything we see in creation is not a matter of time and blind chance.

So do I!

Like many of Mike Huckabee’s supporters I’ve been called a “values voter.” While I should be flattered by the designation, I’ve come to see that the term has become a 21sst century euphemism masking the vitriol behind the words. When the term is used these days the inner image being conveyed is all too often that of an unenlightened, uneducated buffoon. I think you understand what I’m trying to say. The current, trendy image of the “values voter” is the guy who believes the world is flat, was created six thousand years ago, eats squirrels for dinner, and walks around like a knuckle-dragging Neanderthal.

There was a time when I winced every time I heard the term, knowing the venom behind the words. But I don’t any more. I’ve been proven a fool by far better than my political and philosophical critics. Many times in my life I’ve had to utter these words in silence - “O God, you know how foolish I am; my sins cannot be hidden from you.” I’ve lived long enough to accept the fact that I have from time to time played the fool. I suspect that many of Governor Huckabee’s critics, and mine, are young and haven’t had the time to explore their own foolishness and vanity. Perhaps experience, and a reading or two of the second chapter of Ecclesiastes, might change that.

One of the things the pundits and critics fail to see is that we are all “values voters” at heart. Barack Obama supporters are “values voters.” So are Hillary Clinton’s. They tend to believe that we need a social order in which wealth is redistributed and class distinctions are broken down. That’s what makes issues like government funded health care and re-instituting higher tax rates on the wealthy so important to them. They believe we should be pulling our troops out of Iraq, not because they have no values, but precisely because they believe in the idea that America has become an international pariah because of our misadventures since the 2003 invasion.

I don’t share many of the values of the Democratic Party, but it would be foolish for me to believe that their views are value neutral.

The same holds true for John McCain, Mitt Romney, or Ron Paul supporters. They send money, make appeals to their friends and neighbors, or conduct water cooler debates on the merits of their candidate versus those of their work mates. They do so because they share common windows on the world.

These values, when calculated by individual, constitute a worldview, a prism through which we all view the world. Mike Huckabee’s prism is his Christian faith. So is mine. It is my window on the world. As C.S. Lewis, the Christian apologist and “apostle to the skeptics once said, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”

How does my worldview play itself out in practical terms? It begins, and ends, with my faith in God. So, for example, when a Darwinist tells me that everything I believe in is nothing more than blind chance plus time I look at the world around me. Each year, in the early fall for example, hundreds of monarch butterflies begin to congregate on the butterfly bush that clings to my back porch. They stay for a while, and my wife and I are treated to days and days of beauty floating around. The colors, the patterns, the delicate, gossamer wings are all cause for amazement. Then, at the appointed time, these wispy visitors take wing, traveling over a thousand miles to Mexico. Once their journeys are completed they congregate by the millions, casting a scene of incredible beauty across a grove of trees, lighting up the Mexican landscape. Each time I see the process begin to unfold as they depart from the Flint Hills of Kansas, I find it impossible to believe that their pilgrimages are just matters of time and chance. The Darwinists can explain it however they wish. I see it all as the hand of God, filled with beauty and mystery, revealing to me that neither I, nor the butterflies, are products of time plus chance. What possible survival instinct would be satisfied with such a long and arduous flight? Why would something so delicate do something so counter-intuitive? When did the first journey take place, and how many undertook it? I ask the questions and there are no scientific answers that satisfy.

Almost always when I consider the mysteries unfolding around me I’m also reminded of my own humanity and frailty. I am not the sum off all things, as humanists would have me believe. I see the mysteries and, like Job, I must conclude that the workings of this world are not dependent on my superior wisdom:

“Is it your wisdom that makes the hawk soar and spread its wings toward the south?Is it at your command that the eagle rises to the heights to make its nest?”

As I consider these things I also consider my place in the world. Where do I fit? What do I believe? What role should I play in this great drama?

I’ve answered that question in part at the introduction to this post. I am compelled by faith to conduct myself honorably in this world. I am, as much as is possible, to live in peace and harmony with all men. This is the core of who I am.

How does this faith play itself out in terms of political philosophy? I am a conservative.

In his masterwork, The Conservative Mind, Russell Kirk outlined six basic tenants of conservative belief. There are two that are noteworthy for me as I consider how my religious faith works itself out in political terms. The first canon is “Belief in a transcendent order, or a body of natural law, which rules society as well as conscience. Political problems, at bottom, are religious and moral problems.” The second canon is “Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence, as opposed to the narrowing uniformity, egalitarianism, and utilitarian aims of most radical systems.”

My thinking has changed over the years. I’ve had a long time to consider my life and what I believe. In my formative years I considered myself a New England liberal. While the roots of altruism still remain, my worldview has evolved over time. I am, today, a Kansas Flint Hills conservative. Winston Churchill once observed that if “you’re young and not liberal you have no heart; if you’re older and not conservative you have no mind.” I am living proof to the truth of that statement.

Do I live my faith out as consistently as I, or my critics, would like? No! Are there blind spots in my political philosophy? Without a doubt! I share these frailties with friend a foe alike.

It would do well for those who debase the public square with epithets and labels to examine their own lives and worldviews. Perhaps they’d discover that folks like Mike Huckabee and supporters like me are not as foolish as they’ve led others to believe.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Faith and Fire

“When the servant of the man of God got up early the next morning and went outside, there were troops, horses, and chariots everywhere. “Oh, sir, what will we do now?” the young man cried to Elisha. “Don’t be afraid!” Elisha told him. “For there are more on our side than on theirs!” Then Elisha prayed, “O Lord, open his eyes and let him see!” The Lord opened the young man’s eyes, and when he looked up, he saw that the hillside around Elisha was filled with horses and chariots of fire.
II Kings 6:15-17 (New Living Translation)

One of my favorite films is “Chariots of Fire.” It’s the story Eric Liddell and his approach to athletics and faith. It’s 1924, and the setting is the Olympic Games. Liddell is scheduled to run the 100 meters, in which he is favored. On the day before the race he finds out that his heat is to be run on Sunday - the Sabbath. Liddell tells the British team managers that he cannot run the heat. To do so, he asserts, would violate his Christian faith. Not even the Prince of Wales can persuade him to change his mind. He’s told that he has a duty to his king and country. He responds, “God makes kings…God makes nations.” Seeing that he is firm in his convictions, he is offered an opportunity to run the 400 meters, a race he has never run, on a different day. On the day of the race the manager of the American team tells one of Liddell’s competitors not to worry, that Riger mortis will set in for Liddell at three hundred yards. “He’ll die,” the American coach declares. Just before the race begins, Jackson Schultz, one of America’s greatest sprinters, slips a note into Liddell’s hand. It reads, “The old Book says, “He that honors me, him will I honor.”

Someone who had run and trained understood what dedication of running the race was all about! Liddell won that race. He went from the glory of the Olympics to spend his later years as a Christian missionary in China. He died there, serving the God he had done his utmost to honor in his life.

There are so many times in life that men of faith and conviction are misunderstood, so many times they are given up for dead, so many times that the ideals they live by are archaic.

The message of “Chariots of Fire” is clear. Principle matters. Faith matters. And, our course and lot in life does not have to be determined by experts or pollsters.

Yesterday I attended a Mike Huckabee rally in Olathe, Kansas, just south of downtown Kansas City. While Mike was staying on message, as he has since he began his campaign, the experts were writing and re-writing his political obituary.

My wife and I went to our local Republican caucus here in Emporia, Kansas this morning. Emporia is one of those small Kansas towns (about 25,000) that is at the epicenter of all that’s converging politically in America these days. About a hundred miles south of us, in Wichita, George Tiller continues to ply his grisly trade – providing late term abortions, violating the strong Kansas belief that life is something that has intrinsic value and moral worth. Here in Emporia, Tyson Foods has announced that almost 2000 of its 2400 workers are being laid off. That’s about twenty percent of this city’s workforce. Payday loan shops and ramshackle rentals, overseen by slumlord who prey on the poor, proliferate.

These are things that matter to Kansans. These are things that matter to Mike Huckabee.

I just spoke with one of our local media outlets to either confirm or deny reports from Fox News that Mike Huckabee has won the Kansas caucuses.

According to our outlet, with about 65% of the vote in, Huckabee has about 60% of the of the total ballots counted to this point. Here in Lyon County, Kansas, Mike won the caucus by 50% to 33% over John McCain. “Huckabee is rolling in Kansas,” said my source.

And, so, the race goes on. The pundits keep declaring that Riger mortis is going to set in, but Mike Keeps running. It’s the chariots of fire, the fire shut up in the bones, the abiding faith that keeps him going.

There are twenty-six states to go. I cannot say how it will all end, but I do know that Mike will continue the race. Faith and fire compel him.

Friday, February 08, 2008


“Fall seven times, stand up eight”
- Japanese Proverb

Having made the assumption that John McCain will be their nominee, Republican kingmakers have begun the vice-presidential sweepstakes. Pat Toomey, president of the Club for Growth, is casting his lot with fiscal conservatives like Mark Sanford and Jim Demint of South Carolina, Mike Pence of Indiana, former Texas senator Phil Gramm, or business magnate Steve Forbes. Commentator Fred Barnes’ short list includes Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Sam Brownback of Kansas, or Richard Burr of North Carolina. Tom Bevan of Real Clear Politics, not to be outdone, invented a political game called “veepstakes,” in which he invited readers to select who they felt would be the ideal running mate for John McCain.When all was said and done, sixty-six hats were thrown into the ring, including Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, John Kasich, Haley Barbour, Charley Crist, Carly Fiorina, David Petraeus, Joe Lieberman (have you noticed him carrying John McCain’s water everywhere these days), Jodi Rell, the White House groundskeepers, Chuck Hagel, Laura Bush’s appointment secretary, and assorted Party loyalists.

The list even included Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani, and my candidate, Mike Huckabee. I can’t say what Rudy or Mitt would do with such an offer, but I feel bold enough to say that Mike would feel compelled to turn it down.

I just got back from attending a Mike Huckabee campaign event in Kansas City. I listened pretty intently to his stump speech, and there was nothing in it that hinted of surrender or some latent desire to become John McCain’s buffer if/when things go bad.

Before he suspended his campaign, Mitt Romney was complaining that Mike Huckabee was taking votes away from him. Now the Party powerful, including George Bush, have poured the anointing oil on John McCain. The message seems clear – “resistance is futile.”

Mike Huckabee apparently hasn’t gotten the message. Mike’s still standing tall. Access the following link from this morning’s meeting and you’ll see what I mean:


After his speech, Governor Huckabee was asked whether or not he was, in essence, chasing windmills. “This is about giving people a choice. It’s not a coronation…I’ve spent my whole life fighting my way up from the bottom. I still believe in the impossible,” he responded.

Give ‘em hell, Mike. This movement is still on its feet. To the powerful it looks as if it’s one man chasing an illusory windmill. To those who are following the dream it is something far different. This movement is about us, about having our voices heard. We don’t like the oil being poured by the movers and shakers. We think it may be a bit rancid. So, we’ll just keep dreaming the impossible dream, fighting the unbeatable foe, and trying when our arms are too weary. We won’t give up!

Thursday, February 07, 2008

McCain-Lieberman - A Center Left Republican Ticket?

“We are reformers in spring and summer; in autumn and winter, we stand by the old; reformers in the morning, conservers at night.”
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

In a piece written for the National Review this morning, Bill Bennett, without making an endorsement, mounted a spirited defense for John McCain’s conservative credentials. While conceding the fact that conservative Republicans do have legitimate concerns about a McCain presidency,

“We know the conservative indictment against Senator McCain — we hear it every day, and even recite some of it ourselves some days. We concede much of it. There is a great deal on which the senator and we do not agree.”

Bennett went on to say:
“There is a great deal of difference between Senators McCain and Clinton (and Obama), and those records become important as we recognize a few simple facts.”

The facts Bennett cited are:

McCain’s vote to de-fund Planned Parenthood
McCain’s vote to ban partial birth abortion
McCain’s vote for Justices Roberts and Alito
McCain’s votes against tax increases
McCain’s votes against pork barrel spending
McCain’s support for the surge in Iraq

If John McCain is as conservative as Bill Bennett would have us believe, why is it that he hasn’t been fully embraced by the majority of social conservatives, Reagan Democrats, and values voters?

I think it all comes down to one thing – many of us have a great deal of concern about which direction John McCain would pull the Republican Party. He says he’s a conservative and touts his 83% conservative rating.

But many of us remain unconvinced. We want to know which direction would John McCain take the Republican Party?

In early January, Tom Curry, a national affairs writer for MSNBC, asked an intriguing question“Does a McCain-Lieberman ticket make sense?” Hearkening back to the 2004 election, Curry made the following observation:

“In the spring of 2004 Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry made overtures to Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican, to be his running mate.”

“A Kerry-McCain ticket had a compelling logic: it would have given Kerry a chance to outflank President Bush, to win some Republican voters, and to carry McCain’s state of Arizona and its ten electoral votes.”

“Will McCain, now a leading contender for the 2008 GOP nomination, borrow Kerry’s idea and offer the vice presidency to Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut’s self-styled “independent Democrat”?”

In addition to the close personal friendship of the two men, Curry cited some of the ways McCain and Lieberman have worked together on legislative issues:

“In 2003, they co-sponsored the Climate Stewardship Act to limit emissions of global warming gases by electric utilities, industrial firms, and refineries. They were leading members of the “Gang of 14,” the bipartisan group of senators who devised a way to avert a fight over judicial filibusters that would have shut down the Senate in 2005. They have been two of the prime movers in Senate efforts to restrict donations to political campaigns. The duo led the push for military intervention by the United State in Kosovo in 1998.”

I don’t know whether or not John McCain would take the Republican Party on a wild ride to the far left, but I am concerned that he will move it from the right to center-left. Bill Bennett and others can cite his conservative credentials all they want, but there are more than a few things in McCain’s record that demonstrate he’s not the friend of conservatives he’d lead us to believe he is.

In 2007, John McCain was given an opportunity to address the annual C.P.A.C (Conservative Political Action Conference). He declined the offer. Mike Huckabee, the candidate I support, was invited and did address the convention. Among the things he had to say, I believe this was one of the most important:

“That's why I love this country, and it's why I believe that the conservative movement must stand clear, firm, consistent and authentic in making sure that we preserve—not just winning an election, but keeping a country.”

C.P.A.C. is holding its convention in a day or so. John McCain has decided to come this year. What has changed in the course of a year? Could be that John McCain realizes that he needs the conservative movement a whole lot more this year than last? Could it be that McCain’s decision has as much to do with politics as it has to do with principle?

In his address Mike Huckabee noted that we’re living in a political time where Damascus Road conversions to conservative principles are becoming more and more common. That, as I see it, is the crux of John McCain’s problem. While many of us conservatives, Reagan Democrats, and values voters are willing to find legitimate avenues of common ground in politics, we’re not inclined to throw our principles into the fiery furnace.

Only time will tell about where the Republican Party will go if John McCain is nominated, and that in itself is a problem. How far would he be willing to go in order to move the Republican base in a new direction? His record to this point is mixed. Would gaining the Republican nomination bring on a “ let's now hold firm” Damascus Road experience or would it move the Party from compromise to compromise, then to the center-left? That’s the question.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Some Chicken, Some Neck

Before you read on, please take a minute to watch the following video. It will go a long way toward explaining the hows and whys of the Mike Huckabee’s ability to continue to flourish in the face of insurmountable odds. It will give you some insight not only into what makes the candidate tick, but will also give you a window into the hearts and souls of his supporters.

Ever since the South Carolina primary, pundits and talk radio megastars have either been writing Mike Huckabee’s obituary or digging his grave. One candidate, Mitt Romney did quite a bit of the digging himself. It all became a theme song of sorts – “Give up, Mike, give up, give up! But the Man from Hope refused to give in. He just kept on, true to his message.

Well, the obituaries were premature and all the digging was in vain. The Mike Huckabee campaign is very much alive.
When I was young I recall reading about the tenacity of the British people in the dark days of 1940 and 1941. Western Europe had been swallowed up by the Nazi juggernaut. Only England was left. There seemed to be no reason to hope; defeat seemed inevitable. Under the leadership of Winston Churchill, the British fought on. Some said that if England persisted in its insanity the Nazis would wring their necks like chickens in two weeks. The crisis eventually passed, there was no surrender, nor were the necks of the British people wrung like chickens. In a December, 1941 speech to the Canadian Parliament, Churchill made the following wry observation about the tenacity and resolve of his people. “Some chicken….Some neck!” he said.

As I watched the returns last night I saw the shock registering on the faces of the illuminati. How could this be? How could a man with no money, fresh from two defeats, facing power and money on all sides, do what he did? It defied conventional wisdom. Why, the last few shovelfuls of cold clay were about to be deposited on his grave.

Some chicken….Some neck!

While the pundits were frantically scratching their heads trying to figure it all out, Mike Huckabee thanked his supporters:

“You know, over the past few days a lot of people have been trying to say that this is a two-man race. Well, you know what? It is. And we're in it! Tonight, we are making sure America understands that sometimes one small smooth stone is even more effective than a whole lot of armor. And we've also seen that the widow's mite has more effectiveness than all the gold in the world.”

I’ve been saying for over a month now that there’s something very powerful about widows’ mites and smooth stones. You see, it’s those widows mites and the passion of Mike’s band of brothers and sisters who’ve made this possible. While others were writing his eulogy, he and his supporters kept plugging away. Surrender wasn’t an option.

E.M.Forster once observed that “one person with passion is better than forty people merely interested.
The real keys to the success of the Huckabee campaign can’t be found in how full the campaign coffers are, nor can they be found in the size of the campaign staff, or the length of the limousines, or whether the candidate is flying first class from junket to junket. The keys are matters of the heart. It’s about passion and belief. It’s vertical politics. It’s in holding to one’s principles. It’s about dreaming and not giving in when the hard times come.

Can we win? I don’t really know. But I do know this. We’re not ready to give in, nor are we going to let the naysayers plant discordant rhythms in our hearts. And why should we. Our dreams and ideals aren’t subject to the gravediggers shovels. As Jesse Jackson once said, “No one should negotiate your dreams. Dreams must be free to fly high. No government, no legislature, has a right to limit your dreams. You should never agree to surrender your dreams.”

And, so, we press on. Washington, Kansas and Louisiana are just a few days away. This is how it will be until June when the last primaries are contested in New Mexico and South Dakota. We’ve been bruised; we’ve been left for dead. We’ve been told to surrender, yet we stubbornly persist.

Some chicken….Some neck!