Tag Archives: government

An #Election2016 Afterthought

I was stunned to see states fall to Trump one after another…. but not surprised. The working-class rage and the palpable fear of white (especially Christians) drove voters far more than any rational discussion could.

I did not want to get out of bed this morning in Trump’s America. But here we are. And I’ll have none of this #notmypresident bullshit. Trump is your President come January 20. That’s how democracy works. Take your lumps, recognize where things need to change, and work for the good of the whole country.

The difficult work of community development always happens on the local level. The working class / poor of America said last night, “That’s it, we’re done, break the system, make it work for us because right now it isn’t.” ….Except that the federal government isn’t a magic wand. Neither is the state government.

NO government is a magic spell. Good gvernments restrain wicked men and support social structures that (hopefully) promote and enable human flourishing. Government is a powerful tool of Grace. (Don’t believe that? Spend November reading the major/minor prophets.)  One of the most toxic narratives ever to emerge from the alt-right and ultra-conservative edges of the Republicans and Libertarians is this idea that government is evil. That’s a dangerous idea and it needs to be confronted and disarmed. We can argue over “how much” government is a good or bad thing, but we should not dismantle the structures that restrain humans from acting out every desire or that provide incentive to act against our selfish individual interests for the good of the whole.

Regardless of who could have won the election, the poor/working class who are marginalized by the power-holders will likely not benefit from that power. The poverty of rural America emerges from global forces none of us can stop – not even Trump via blustery rhetoric of how he’s going to challenge global free trade. (Good luck with that, when Americans realize how high the prices go when we don’t participate in the global economy.) Neither Trump nor Hillary can make life in a poor, rural area much less bad than it is right now.

Who can? You can. I can. Our churches can. Civic organizations. Non-profits. And local governments (and state) working close to the issues, in conjunction with concerned citizens.

Stop being a once-every-four-years American. It takes 2 seconds to find out your state and national representatives’ phone numbers and email addresses, and save them to your address book. Contact them. Tell them what’s important to you and how you think your community’s needs can be met.

And get off your butt and go help the organizations in your community who bear the brunt of the work to make life better for people. Loving your neighbor is hard work much of the time. Put up or shut up.

In the meantime, the past year was one of the ugliest things I’ve ever seen. If you read that sentence and thought, “Yeah! Those jerks!” then you’ve missed my point. We all need a dose of civility and grace, and it can begin today with some honest soul-searching about how I am called to love my neighbor – especially the ones I disagree with – and how to season truth-speaking with grace so it can be heard (for the racism and misogyny and xenophobia I’ve seen this year breaks my heart).

Bob Jones, the G.R.A.C.E. investigation, abuse…and theology

Everyone from the New York Times to the Chronicle of Higher Education, in addition to local news outlets, have picked up the story of Bob Jones University dropping the G.R.A.C.E. investigation into how the University responds to claims of abuse. 

This article from  gives an even-handed overview of the inciting incidents, the ensuing PR debacle for BJU, and the reasons  alumni are so angry:
Why Did Bob Jones University Terminate Its Sexual Abuse Investigation? | Political Research Associates.

[Update 2/15/14: BJU announced a meeting with GRACE next week to decide whether they will restart the investigation.]

In short:  Alumni have realized, now that the Internet allows people to compare their stories, that they aren’t alone, that most of the counseling offered to students when they were at BJU has been extremely poor when dealing with victims of sexual abuse.

Many of these cases involve students who brought tales of past abuse to the dorm staff, only to have their stories doubted, blamed on their own actions (what a girl was wearing, for example), chalked up to bitterness and a lack of forgiveness, and swept aside by the excuse, “We don’t want to dishonor the body of Christ by bringing an accusation against your [pastor / youth leader / parent / teacher]. Your responsibility before God is to forgive your abuser and move on, not to report this to the police.”

I wish I were making this up, but I’ve been reading these stories from alumni for almost a decade now.  A vibrant discussion form for BJU alumni used to exist on Facebook (before their new Groups pages killed the forum option) where many “survivors” met one another online and shared these stories for the first time.   I wish I could say, this is not as bad as it sounds… but actually, it’s worse.

Mandatory reporting laws have regularly been ignored, and an institutional culture of handling everything internally, and blaming girls for unwanted sexual attention, continues well into recent years. Fifteen years after college, I’m still “processing” my thoughts on life in the girls’ dorm and my work as a hall leader. I saw a rough underbelly of abusive practice that I didn’t have the experience or maturity or even education to recognize at the time, but the patterns are clear to me now.  Maybe sometime I’ll unpack that whole box of memories, but I’ll move on for now.

(The whole question of eschewing psychological research as Satanic in favor of practicing nouthetic counseling is its own huge topic.  Others have taken up the discussion; if you have no idea what I’m talking about, here’s a post from The Wartburg Watch that I can corroborate – everything he mentions, I heard in counseling class at BJU.)

Returning to the current BJU/GRACE controversy –  The conversation is muddy. “Camps” emerge rapidly and their arguments are stereotyped by opposing sides, making straw man interaction all the more tempting.  Extremism begins to drown out the conversation on both sides, preventing people in the middle from taking the whole discussion seriously.

It’s easy for the critics of BJU to condemn everyone there as depraved and abusive and bigoted legalists, yet this monolithic condemnation doesn’t match the experience of many of us who honestly value the good that came out of our Bob Jones years. (Probably need to write a post on that too.)   Or to borrow the Kuyperian perspective, the antithesis runs through and not around any human institution, including Bob Jones University. There are good people and bad. The battle for sanctification in this life produces awkward mixtures of failure and grace.

Likewise, the defenders of BJU should be faulted for ignoring mounting and overwhelming evidence that we cannot simply let BJU sort this out in their own time, or blame GRACE as if the investigator is the problem. (It isn’t.)  Whether the critics are “bitter” toward BJU or not is irrelevant.  Abuse has been tolerated, covered up, and mishandled by the administration for decades. The University has a deep racist history – even if you disagree that a particular action was motivated by racism, you can’t overlook the whole arc.

The middle has dropped out of the conversation about BJU and abuse.

My friend's post on Facebook shortly after the story broke struck me as the perfect statement of what I was feeling as I watched the discussion explode.
My friend’s post on Facebook shortly after the story broke struck me as the perfect statement of what I was feeling as I watched the discussion explode.

When the discussion allows you to be a member only of the extremes, I think you get two things:  1) To an extent, clarity of the opposing viewpoints; but also 2) fog of war, which prevents us from seeing underlying causes as clearly as we might.

The question of abuse – how to define it, how to recognize it, how to ensure that victims and those accused of inflicting abuse are both given a fair hearing –  has exploded into popular consciousness.  Whether it’s the nightmare of priestly abuse in the Catholic church (helloooo….. maybe celibacy could go?) or Protestant preachers caught doing the dirty with a kid in the youth group, everyone seems to know now that powerful Christians sometimes use that power to abuse the people under their care.  It’s shameful, and it needs to stop.

The culture of protecting the accused lies at the heart of the problem, but I’d like to point a finger at one underlying theological error that drives this behavior:

Defining government as “that which is evil.”

Conservative political theory has been wedded to Evangelical theology pretty tightly in the past 30 years or so, at least in my Evangelical circles.  I think desegregation and the fight for racial equality galvanized some sectors of Christianity (not just in the South) to link their personal, cultural perspectives on American issues to their theological perspectives.  Fundamentalism certainly shifted into a hardline separatism during the 1960s and 70s as the wider culture looked less and less like Mayberry, a mythical vision of America that looked enough like the way Americans tend to define “Christian living” to fool everyone into thinking they were the same thing.

Throw in the disillusionment of the Vietnam War, the Nixon tapes, the stagflation of the 70s, the decline of American manufacturing, Clinton’s inability to keep his fly zipped, and W’s foolish Iraq war — it’s not like our government has had a great track record over my lifetime for sure.  Oh, and now the NSA spying scandal, the use of drones to kill terrorists without any kind of legal trial, Guantanamo Bay, and a completely inept Congress, and I’d say I’ve dug myself a pretty deep hole for trying to argue that government isn’t evil.

Looks like this needs to be a separate post.  Stay tuned.

If you’re willing to walk just a little further with me on the idea, here is the point I want to make:

Because it’s cool now in conservative circles to bash government, churches / Christian organizations believe with all their hearts that the government isn’t good enough to do its job.

I’d argue that “it’s job” is to bear the sword (Rom 13) to ensure justice against evildoers.  I also think the Old Testament firmly defines a righteous king as one who cares for the poor, defends the oppressed and weak, and defends justice, especially for those who do not have a voice.

We can argue about all other kinds of things the government seems to want to do (Obamacare, taxing, etc) but let me focus in on one major idea:

The institution God created to dispense justice is the State.   That doesn’t mean other institutions (families, churches, schools, businesses) get to be unjust. It means that the state is given the responsibility to make sure injustice gets smashed.

When the Church absorbs the responsibility for determining justice and wrong-doing into its own mission, we get certain problems.  Churches who stop trusting the government to do its job take justice into their own hands.   So when a kid accuses her youth leader or parent of sexual abuse, pastors feel like it’s ok for them to “make the call” whether this is a “real” case of abuse.

I get it.  I do.  As a teacher, I lived in a world where word-against-word accusations could end someone’s career, often unfairly.  Make a teenager unhappy and you find yourself facing a series of lies about your actions, your character, your motives  It was a real risk and my only defenses were common sense and a lot of prayer for protection from El-Roi, the God Who Sees.

I’m not pretending that our state agencies get things right.  You can pile up examples of child protective services bringing cases against parents because, for instance, mom swatted the toddler on his butt during a grocery store tantrum.

I get it.

But God didn’t establish the spheres of human institutions on a whim, and I don’t think you can succeed in arguing that American government is so broken that we have no hope of justice.  Church courts do not supersede legal rulings.  The DSS workers I know in South Carolina work very hard to protect children from horrific abuse. They don’t relish pulling children into the state’s hands. They see first-hand how much damage it does to a child…. but abuse is a serious charge and must be investigated seriously.

This is why pastors and teachers (and others) are required to obey mandatory reporting laws.  Biblically, all of us are responsible to see that the weak and voiceless are not smashed by the strong, and we are bound to obey the government we live under unless it violates biblical mandate.

The real problem with trying to handle abuse accusations in-house is that neither the victim nor the accused will actually get justice. (I realize that the legal system sucks at sorting out these cases too — Dylan Farrow’s renewed accusations of sexual abuse by Woody Allen make this point well).  [Excellent post on this point: Why Young Sexual Assault Victims Tell Incoherent Stories – Atlantic Mobile.]

But the Church cannot marshall  the resources of the institution given the biblical mandate to uphold justice — the forensics, the investigators, the laws of evidence and testimony established within our legal system to look at questions of abuse and bring things into the light.   Further, the Church can never impose the level of penalty that justice requires for a wrongdoer.  God forgives and Grace heals, but sin carries penalty.

Alumni were happy because the G.R.A.C.E. investigation was going to bring light to the dark corners of BJU policy and administrative action.  Realistically, that could result in civil and criminal charges.   But when sin has been committed, if you’re going to argue that you follow a biblical theology, you can’t step back from the civil consequences of immoral actions.

We Protestants have no business smirking when another priest abuse scandal hits the TV news.  Our own churches are awash in buried accusations of sexual impropriety, domestic violence, emotional abuse, educational neglect, and other crimes.

The PCA [Presbyterian Church in America], the denomination to which my church belongs, refused last summer to take up a resolution urging churches to implement wise policies within child care programs and church events to reduce the chances of abuse.

Let’s get back to the basics.   Government isn’t evil; people are evil.  God instituted the State to protect people from one another, to ensure justice, to penalize evil. Christians and people in the church can be evil. Outside eyes are good.  Accountability is good.  Following the law, even if you don’t like it, is biblical.  Hurting children is bad.  Withholding justice from both victims and those accused is bad. Trying to keep accusations of abuse “in the family” by handling a matter internally is bad – whether you’re a church or a Christian college.

Why I can’t buy into Ayn Rand (Part 2)

Yesterday I began a discussion of the recent uptick in interest in Ayn Rand’s economic ideas among conservatives.  With half of my friends reading Rand’s novels and discussing how awesome her ideas of individualism are and how well that fits into their libertarian or highly-conservative political views, I felt like it was time for me to do a little more thinking on the topic.

Honestly, I’m rather bothered by the numbers of Christians who are racing to embrace Rand’s economics while supposedly bypassing her philosophy.  I don’t think we can really separate the two.
Let me tackle just a few of her ideas that I find unbiblical….. or at least “sketchy”:
Ardent Individualism
America was built on individualistic pioneers who said “Piss off!” to the British (or Irish or Germans or French or whatever) and came to these shores to build a new life for themselves and — especially — to be left alone.  The Puritans touted a work ethic to make oneself holy; the Scots-Irish fled into the Appalachian hills to find solitude; the wagon trains took hearty adventurers and those hungry for ownership into the West where land was nearly free.
No wonder Ayn Rand found America a balm after she watched communism and socialism eat up her family’s wealth in Russia.  Her Objectivism, steeped in Enlightenment rationalism and ideals, fits here perfectly alongside our Declaration of Independence, social-contract theory of government, and Deistic perspective on man’s “natural” rights.
I’m proud of my American heritage ….  of my Italian grandfather who came through Ellis Island as a boy in the early 1900s to suffer in poverty until he scraped enough to get by …. of my childhood in the Pennsylvania mountains surrounded by people whose ancestors came to the hills in the 1780s and still shot anyone who tried to worm their way into those closed communities.  Well, I’m not “proud of” the mountain people; they were weird. lol  But my point isn’t to be un-American.
However, Americanism =/= biblical morality.  We Americans think the individual is king.
Biblically speaking, that’s just crap.
The Church, the family, the government — these institutions founded by God in the early days of the human race are entirely build on community.  I’m nothing in isolation.  As a Christian, my place in the Body is what helps give my life direction.  As an image-bearer, my humanity is unpacked and expanded only when I am in community with other image-bearers.  A solitary human being is a sad soul. Don’t believe me? Read Into the Wild (or watch the film).
Americans lose so much because we throw our old people into homes to die alone; we move billions of miles away from anyone who matters to us; we live in disconnected little boxes in subdivisions where nobody knows their neighbors anymore.  I remember hearing some Germans describe how sad they were that no one in their Greenville neighborhood would make friends with them.  All we could say was, “Well, that’s America. Everybody drives home from work, straight into the garage, shuts the door, and cuts off the world.”
Make It On Your Own
Self-success is the natural corollary of individualism.  If I’m selfishly looking out for myself above all (as Rand suggests), then I’m going to be able to put all of my resources into making myself successful. Self-development becomes THE goal.
People who latch on to individualism as a core economic principle want to use it for some pretty nasty ends when it comes to economic theory: They beat down those who do not succeed by blaming them for that failure (“If you’d worked harder, you would have made it!”). They condemn those who are poor for being moral failures (“Poverty is the result of indigence, laziness, or maybe bad luck….but mostly laziness.”)
And they violently oppose anyone who tries to make a claim on their economic success.  Some will be generous, but few are willing to have generosity thrust upon them.
Looking at Christ’s intensification of the Law in the Gospels and Paul’s expansion of that theme in his Epistles, generosity should be a hallmark of Christian living. Where God demanded 10% of the Israelite’s harvests in order to support the Old Testament temple system, He now seems to expect that we use all of our wealth and talents for Kingdom living!  Shocking.
Because we are blinded by American values rather than biblical ones, we compartmentalize “ministry” into a little box that fits into Sunday morning (when we work a nursery room) and Thursday afternoons (when we take food to a local charity).  The rest of our lives are “ours”; as long as God gets His tithe check on Sundays we’re home free.
The dust-up about Obama’s “You didn’t build that” speech reveals the bitter truth about our hearts.  If I truly see my wealth and my job and my paycheck and even my ability to earn money in this capitalistic system as gifts from God to be used entirely for making this planet a better place to live in, why would I so violently spit out curses when someone suggests that I didn’t do this on my own?
This is what King David prayed to the Lord after the people opened their hearts (and proverbial wallets) to bring offerings for use in the building of the Temple:

But who am I, and who are my people, that we should be able to give as generously as this? Everything comes from you, and we have given you only what comes from your hand. I Chron 27:14

The whole passage is powerful. NOTHING I own is mine. I can’t give away a single thing (or pay taxes on it, or invest it, or waste it on hamburgers) that God hasn’t already given to me first.
The idea that I build my own wealth by the sweat of my brow is true to the extent that this sin-cursed world yields profit only by the sweat of my brow. But that’s not the whole story.
Any attitude toward my personal wealth which resembles a toddler hoarding candy and throwing a tantrum on the floor “It’s mine! I don’t have to share!” is an ugly and debased view of economics.  Sharing, charity, and economic aid for those who are in need must be components of any biblical economic system — which directly contradicts Ayn Rand’s worship of the self as highest good.
No-Rules Capitalism is a Good Thing!
I keep saying “no-rules-capitalism” because I can’t spell liaissaiz-faire. lol
We are greedy people at heart.  I can feel the selfishness rising up in my throat anytime someone starts cutting cake and I start watching the size of the slices.
Unbridled capitalism in the 1800s and poorly-regulated in the 1900s gave us environmental disasters, needless destruction of usable land or beautiful places, extinct species, chemical and other byproducts polluting water and air, oppressive labor conditions, no sympathy for people injured at work, virtual enslavement of women and children in Northern factories, actual enslavement of blacks to work Southern plantations followed by a horrific sharecropping system of similar effect, violent clashes between poor and underpaid workers and rich bosses/company owners.  Those abuses were correctly only through anti-trust laws, government agencies like the FDA and EPA, unions, and consumer watchdog groups.  Some of those reactions have now outlived their own usefulness and become problematic too, but the point remains.
I grew up near Pittsburgh; I saw the photos of the smoky city with its black atmosphere in the 60s. I’ve had my lungs burned by breathing polluted air around Moscow, Russia. My dad remembered the union strikes at the Pittsburgh steel mills in the 30s and 50s when workers couldn’t stand the wage differences between the guys doing the work and the managers at the top. He lost his job when he went blind in one eye in 1981 and overnight my family was plunged into economic hardship that never really let up. My parents were born into abject poverty during the Depression and they died only a little better off.
People with power (whether economic, political, military) do not just “give up” that power. It must be taken from them — usually through legislation or policy changes.  Obamacare isn’t just “socialized medicine”; it’s an attempt to staunch the bleeding of billions of dollars of unpaid medical care dumped into insurance premium hikes because people can’t afford to buy insurance.
Right now a tiny fraction of people control the overwhelming portion of wealth and investments. I’m not a fan of wealth redistribution. But historically speaking, things don’t turn out well once the scales get too imbalanced.  Rich people have no incentive to make the poor better off, as this article suggests:
Rand suggests that humans live to please themselves, work to stuff themselves, and become prosperous for their own enjoyment.
Christ said, “If any man would follow me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”  That doesn’t mean I am not allowed to own anything.  But it sure does mean that loving God with my money and loving others with my wealth is the hallmark of a biblical economic system.
…and I’m not hearing that in Ayn Rand.
Combine her selfish economics with basic social Darwinism and you get the same attitude that many have toward the poor, needy, or immigrant:  “It’s your own damn fault. Sucks to be you.”

Why I can’t buy into Ayn Rand (Part 1)

Is it just me, or is everyone I know reading Ayn Rand and nodding soberly, picking up pearls of wisdom to weave into a conservative economics of wealth production?

I first heard of Rand many years ago when I ran across her commencement speech “Who Needs Philosophy?”  which is actually a really good piece. She expounds a solid reason for studying philosophy as part of any course of study because philosophical thinking matters.  Cool.  I dig that.
Otherwise, my brushes with Ayn Rand consisted of staring at the huge copies of Atlas Shrugged on people’s bookshelves or in the bookstore and wondering if those thousand pages were worth my time.  I’ve decided they aren’t.
So I trotted off to learn something about her philosophical system, Objectivism. If you need a refresher, here is a boiled-down version from Wikipedia‘s article on Ayn Rand:
  • Objectivism’s central tenets are that reality exists independent of consciousness,
  • that human beings have direct contact with reality through sense perception,
  • that one can attain objective knowledge from perception through the process ofconcept formation and inductive logic,
  • that the proper moral purpose of one’s life is the pursuit of one’s own happiness (orrational self-interest),
  • that the only social system consistent with this morality is full respect for individual rights embodied in laissez-faire capitalism,
  • and that the role of art in human life is to transform humans’ metaphysical ideas by selective reproduction of reality into a physical form—a work of art—that one can comprehend and to which one can respond emotionally.
Rand herself denies that you can take her economics apart from her philosophy:
 I am confident enough to think that if you accept the importance of philosophy and the task of examining it critically, it is my philosophy that you will come to accept. Formally, I call it Objectivism, but informally I call it a philosophy for living on earth. You will find an explicit presentation of it in my books, particularly in Atlas Shrugged. (from the latter half of “Philosophy: Who Needs It?”)
I have a meaningful memory of politics since the time of Reagan. It seems that Rand’s cheerleading for individualism and no-restrictions-capitalism has colored Republican politics more and more over the past three decades. (Maybe it was a strong theme in the 60s and 70s too; I don’t know.)
I don’t usually watch the Colbert Report, but a friend of mine commented that Wednesday’s show was very good so I caught it on Hulu.  Colbert dug into the topic of Rand’s influence on the Republican party. Yes, I know Colbert is a comedian not a political analyst (though I think his analyses are often very perceptive) and obviously he is partisan.
But still — take a look (links to video since I can’t embed from Colbert’s site):
After beating on Paul Ryan for a bit, Colbert turned to a Stanford University professor who’s recently written a book about Rand’s influence on the neo-conservative movement. Again, watch:
The Colbert Report
Tomorrow:  I’d like to dig into why Rand’s ideas bug me so much.