Some Month-Old Thoughts on Politics and Patriotism

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America picture 2A month ago today, our country celebrated the 241st anniversary of the day the Declaration of Independence was signed. As is fitting, I spent much of the day contemplating the meaning of patriotism, the quintessentially American rhetoric about liberty and freedom, and the relationship that those concepts have with morality in general. (Does patriotism make you a good person? If someone loves America, does that make them complicit with the shortcomings and injustices that exist in our society? Can an individual be proud of their country but yet dislike their government?) This is why I take ridiculously long showers, y’all. I had intended to blog about that topic later in the day and had even mentally formulated much of the content of that blog post. It would have been long, philosophical, and maybe a little bit boring. So I never got around to finishing it. But now, upon opening the Word document containing the very beginning of a very rough draft, I’d like to go back and use some of that content. What follows is a slightly edited version of what I wrote a month ago.

In the grand scheme of history, 241 years is an extremely short period of time. But since it is significantly longer than the human lifespan, every twenty-first century American views the Declaration of Independence as distant history and takes for granted (to some extent) the ideas it expressed.

Of course, those ideas weren’t completely new and original even at the time. The founding fathers were inspired by Enlightenment philosophy, perhaps most notably the writings of John Locke. And the quintessentially American emphasis on rights traces its roots to the Magna Carta of 1215. But 800 years is still only a small fraction of the millennia that organized government has existed. Besides, the Magna Carta was only about the relationship between the monarchy and the nobility, not the rights of the common people. And until the eighteenth-century, the concepts of equality and human rights didn’t play a large role in politics.

I think that we modern Americans don’t often think about just how new our “unalienable” rights are. It is certainly a beneficial thing that we have things like anti-discrimination laws, the freedoms laid out in the Bill of Rights, and the opportunity to vote for our leaders, but none of those things are universal throughout human history. That’s why we’ve made a holiday of the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. As Americans, we’re proud that our national identity is all about freedom, equality, and democracy.

Or is it? Take a look on social media or the news, and you’ll see lots of complaints about rights being denied, demographic groups being marginalized, voices not being heard, and needs not being met. Some of it may be petty or even inaccurate, but much of it will be valid. Despite our rhetoric about “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” the United States of America is not a utopian nation. At any given time, few if any American citizens are satisfied with the government, and most politically-informed Americans have feelings of animosity against fellow Americans with different political opinions. It certainly seems as if Americans hate America.

I would argue that this is a side effect of a democratic government. Because we elect our leaders and thereby have some degree of influence in our government, we pay much closer attention to politics than the average person in, say, medieval Europe. Most of us are more informed than we probably would be if we didn’t have any voice in our political system. All of us who make an effort to be well-informed are qualified to form and express stances on at least a couple specific issues, and many of us are to some extent emotionally invested in those issues. That’s not because we’re jerks who like to argue, it’s because the outcome could affect us or our family, friends, and neighbors. If I’m strongly against a particular proposed bill, or I actively dislike a certain candidate, it’s probably because I anticipate a negative impact on my day-to-day life, the life of someone I care about, or society as a whole. So when others support that bill or that candidate, it’s going to bother me. Personally, I try very hard not to be judgmental, but it’s hard not to question others’ morals or intelligence when they’re “wrong” about politics.

I believe that, in general, most political debates are far more complex than we tend to think, and that our opinions are less about right versus wrong than about assumptions that we don’t even realize aren’t shared. A lot of it comes down to the fact that, when our political ideology promises us all such broad rights and freedoms, there will be situations where there’s a conflict between one person’s rights and another’s. For instance, where does “freedom of speech” go too far and become discrimination or hate speech? At what point is “self-defense” too preemptive to be justified and lawful? Is it better to regulate immigration as much as possible to avoid letting dangerous, “un-American” people into our country, or do our American values dictate that we should welcome newcomers without discrimination and gladly grant them those rights we’re so proud to have?

And more broadly, what does the government owe citizens? Is education a right? And if so, how much can the government reasonably do to ensure the quality of public education? Is quality, affordable health care a right? And if so, what can the government reasonably do to ensure the quality and affordability of health care? To what extent does the government owe us financial assistance if we need it? And is it a good or bad thing if the government cuts funding to public services, financial aid for education, welfare programs, scientific research and the arts, etc. in order to lower taxes and/or decrease debt?

These are some of the questions that create partisan divisions and turn us against our fellow citizens. They are examples of the issues that cause us to dislike particular leaders and fear for the future of our nation. And all of these questions ultimately come down to our interpretations of freedom and rights. So how does patriotism fit into the picture? How can we love America if we can’t even agree on what exactly our American values are?

The initial plan was for this blog post to actually answer that question. I was going to have a lot to say about the history and ideologies of nationalism, populism, and globalization. It was going to touch upon the difference between cultural identities and officially delineated countries. It was going to include a tangent on separation church and state, as well as a very long and involved tangent about the relationship between church and state. It may have discussed topics relating to American superiority, ranging from the “city on a hill” rhetoric of very early colonial days to the controversies about current American military presence in other countries.

And it was somehow going to come to a nice, neat conclusion that would tie all of those threads into a surprisingly small and pretty little knot. I don’t know exactly how that would have happened, but it would have had something to do with the idea that both patriotic fervor and political vitriol are often motivated by goodwill for people in the society around us. Thus, it’s all good. No one is in the wrong except Hitler. It’s going to take a few more generations before it’s socially acceptable to include Hitler in any overarching statements about human goodness.

(By the way, the answer is no, if I could go back in time and kill baby Hitler, I wouldn’t. Instead, I would go back in time and tell teenage Hitler what a great painter he is and how important it is that he never, ever give up his art. Don’t let the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna crush your dreams, Adolf. Just keep painting and the world will thank you.)

But that would have taken much more time than I had available and much more research than I was prepared to do, not to mention that it would have been far too long for a single blog post. Maybe I’ll come back to some of those topics later. But probably not. Those long showers of mine mean that I will always have more blogging ideas than blogging time.

The Price of Democracy

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blog-picture-2If you’re anything like me, right now, you’re pretty sick of politics. And by “sick of”, I don’t mean “bored with”. I don’t mean that the Superbowl or the upcoming Oscars are being cheated of the attention they deserve, or that I’m annoyed with my Facebook friends who frequently post reactions to current events or links to political articles. No, I mean that I’m sick of politics because current events are so significant. I’m sick of watching upsetting things happen in my country and not being able to do anything about it. I’m sick of hearing antagonistic, even hateful, rhetoric from people that I care about. I’m sick of watching people gobble up and repost not only content with opinions that I disagree with, but often blatant propaganda or “alternative facts”. (For the record, I’d like to point out that I’ve been jokingly using the phrase “creative truth” for years prior to this new terminology.) I’m sick of feeling like there’s nobody out there who has the same set of political values and priorities that I have. And I’m bothered by the realization that all of this vitriol is inevitable.

I expect that history will recall the late 2010’s and early 2020’s as a momentous cultural crossroads in America’s history, and by extension, in world history. The events of these next few years will determine many things about the future of our country. Naturally, Americans are very emotionally invested in politics right now, and naturally, we’re all upset about the problems we see and angry at those who are causing or perpetuating the problems that upset us the most. That’s not very pleasant for any of us. I, for one, would feel much more comfortable ignoring politics completely, or at least spending my life in a bubble that no one can enter unless they have the same political and social priorities, values, and opinions that I do. (Also, there’s a password, just because. Yes, I’ve already chosen the password. No, I’m not going to tell you what it is.)

But we can’t really do that. Not only is it impossible to live inside a literal password-sealed bubble, but it’s also impossible to ignore politics. Sure, you can refrain from participating in any type of political activism, arguing about politics, mentioning politics on social media or even casting your vote on election day. But even if you don’t participate in politics in any way, you can’t entirely ignore it because it defines the world around you. Technically, even the most obvious laws, like the ones about murder and theft, are defined and enforced via government. And it’s the government that ensures every right and freedom you have. Regardless of which laws you do or don’t agree with, which things you do or don’t believe should be considered “rights”, and whether you agree with how your tax money is spent, it’s undeniably true that those things are all factors that impact your life. One freedom that our government does not guarantee you is the freedom from politics. Since our country believes in freedom of speech, it cannot guarantee you freedom from hearing. And since the government cannot control your thoughts, (at least not entirely, at least not yet) you are not free from caring about political issues. The result of this is that you are also not free from political disagreement. That’s the price of democracy.

blog-pictureDuring this 2016-2017 campaign/ election/ inauguration season, I’ve avoided posting much about politics on social media. Not only have I not expressed my support or enthusiasm for any particular candidate, but I haven’t said much about specific issues or discussed which ones are most important to me. Admittedly, that’s partly because I’m an extreme people-pleaser; I don’t want to say things that could damage relationships, even those kinds of not-really-relationships where we haven’t talked in years and never knew each other well, but we’re still Facebook friends. But it’s also because I’m realizing more and more that my political views don’t even come close to aligning with any one political party, and I don’t want people to assume that I agree with stance X just because I expressed my support for an unrelated stance Y that happens to be associated with the same political party. But I’m guessing that most people who have read this far are curious about where I stand, unless they are assuming that they already know. So I might as well finish this post by making a few things clear.

I don’t trust or like Donald Trump. I didn’t like any of the candidates in the 2016 presidential election, but I ended up voting third party because it was, in my opinion, the least bad of several bad choices. I’m decidedly pro-life, but also very anti-misogyny, and I’m pretty horrified at some of the things I’ve heard people say about women and justify with “because I’m conservative” or “I guess I’m just old-fashioned.” I’m anti-illegal-immigration but pro-legal-immigration, so I want to see policies that facilitate legal immigration rather than policies that block entire demographic groups from crossing the border. I definitely agree that “Black Lives Matter,” but there have been some unacceptable things done in the name of that movement. I believe that the Muslim religion is incorrect, but I also consider it contrary to foundational American values to discriminate or segregate based on religion. I believe that any economic system (communism, socialism, capitalism…) would work well if everyone was honest and moral, but no economic system works perfectly because there will always be some people who find ways to take advantage of the system for personal gain. In general, I think history shows that there are more advantages than disadvantages to international trade and minimal restrictions and regulations, especially on small businesses. I agree that it’s positive for the government to play some role in ensuring quality of education, labor conditions, and health care, to provide some types of welfare for the underprivileged, and to offer funding for things such as scientific research, arts, and (obviously) public libraries, but I also think that most of those systems and programs are either overly-regulated, inefficiently-budgeted, or seriously flawed in some other way. I could go on, but I’ve already said enough in this paragraph to risk defeating the point of this blog post.

You can agree with me or you can disagree with me, and you can ignore me or discuss these things with me. (If you do, I’d appreciate if you’d keep it relatively polite and non-aggressive, please and thank you) Maybe, you can even cause me to reconsider some of my political views. But one thing that you cannot do is live in a society where we all have the right to be involved in politics and we all agree and get along. That just isn’t the way it works.

Coffee and Our Culture

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coffeeThe other day, I happened to notice a book on a library shelf that was about Starbucks and what it says about our culture. I didn’t have time to look at the book much, but I got the impression that the book was mostly concerned with the topics of economics and business. It looked like it discussed aspects of consumerism and marketing from the perspective of one ubiquitous company and then explained that the experiences of that business are representative of the way our economy works, on the level of individual consumers and individual products. If my impression of the book’s subject matter and tone was correct, it probably discussed the value of coffee only in terms of supply and demand, and not in terms of what coffee means to people in a more abstract and personal way. It got me thinking about what the coffee industry says about our culture if you leave the economic and commercial details out of the equation.

When I was little, I mostly associated coffee with my father, because he was the only one in the household who drank it. I remember a few occasions when he let me take a sip, and I thought it tasted pretty disgusting. My mother drank a hot beverage made from a mix that was something like hot chocolate and something like instant coffee. She called it coffee, but it was clearly a very different type of concoction from the bitter-smelling black coffee that my father made in his coffeepot. Although I don’t specifically remember it, I’m sure I also saw people drinking coffee before church on Sundays and at other church events. I do remember one time when I had a rather disturbing dream in which a member of the congregation randomly turned into a giant mug of coffee.

Before I drank coffee myself, my connotations were very different from prevalent cultural images of coffee. My father would drink coffee while sitting at the dining room table, or he would have it in his hand as he left the house in the morning. I’m not sure if I was aware that there were such things as coffee shops, that some people liked to go drink coffee from paper cups in public places that had a specific ambiance revolving around the personality and attributes of coffee. That idea would have puzzled me. I also don’t think I knew when I was little that coffee is characteristically high in caffeine and that the acquisition of the caffeine is the primary reason for drinking coffee. All of the things that people say half-jokingly about the necessity of coffee were lost on me when I was little.

Remember that time when a flying squirrel got in my dorm room and I got a picture of it on the coffee machine? Ah, good times.

Remember that time when a flying squirrel got in my dorm room and I got a picture of it on the coffee machine? Ah, good times.

I myself started drinking coffee in my sophomore of college. At first, it was a strategy for coping with a busy schedule on Wednesdays, but as it turned out, I really loved coffee. Back when I only drank one cup of coffee a week, that was one of the highlights of my week, and it didn’t take long before I increased my coffee consumption, first to twice a week, then to three times, and then to every day. Now, I drink a cup of coffee every morning and often will have a second cup later in the day, especially on evenings when I have class. I’m actually starting to get to the point where I don’t like it anymore; I just keep on drinking it for the caffeine. My brain runs on caffeine. You could say that I’m addicted to coffee, but you could say that about a significant portion of the population of this culture. Our culture puts a lot of emphasis on coffee.

As far as I can tell, there are three prevalent reputations that coffee has. One is that it is helpful in getting people going, especially in the morning, and that it is therefore an essential element of the lifestyle and daily routine of busy people, lazy people, and people who are really not morning people. A second reputation associates coffee with relaxation, peacefulness, and intellectualism, as can be seen in the coffee shop trend associated with people who are both nerds and hipsters. Thirdly, coffee has a reputation as being a dangerous habit; it’s just one more unhealthy chemical that we dumb stereotypical Americans put in our bodies without putting any thought into the impact it can have on us. (Alternatively, many studies, including some reliable ones, show that coffee does in fact have significant health benefits, which can be used to back up both of the first two reputations.)

The first of those three reputations is the one that I relate to most, and the one that I hear people talk about most. Very few people drink coffee because of the flavor; we drink it because it makes us alert. Twenty-first century Americans need help being alert because we live an exhausting lifestyle. For one thing, hardly anyone actually gets eight hours of sleep every night. Why go to bed when we can just turn on the conveniently electrical light, and there are so many things that we can do with that extra time? But besides that, we spend a lot of time staring at computer screens, which actually tires people out just as quickly (although for the opposite reason) as physical labor. Our not-so-distant ancestors who worked in the fields or built railroads had a better excuse to be tired than we do, but we are subject to fatigue anyway. Our culture also has an obsession with speed and instant gratification, which means that most jobs (as well as non-job-related tasks) are fast-paced, and that makes us collectively stressed. I think that some people exaggerate the effects of this, but it’s definitely true to some extent. (Just don’t go complaining to those aforementioned ancestors, because we sure have things easier than they did in most respects.) Even without taking into consideration the fact that caffeine is addictive, we need caffeine in order to live our exhausting lifestyle.

It's like yoga except without the part about getting out of your chair

It’s like yoga except without the part about getting out of your chair

Among people of my age and somewhat younger, the second of those three aforementioned perceptions seems to be the most prevalent and the one that contributes most to the popularity of coffee. At least among consumers in their late teens or early twenties, coffee is supposed to be associated with calmness and comfort, like the leisure of having free time and using it to read a good book, or the sensation of being safe and cozy inside on a rainy day, or the sound of James Earl Jones’ voice reading John 1 played over Mannheim Steamroller’s Christmas Lullaby. People, especially in a relatively safe and affluent culture, have a craving for comfortableness, a calm and easy lifestyle, and the illusion of security that comes from placing those connotations onto something as simple and easily achievable as coffee. Of course, that falls apart when people get snobbish about their favorite brand of coffee, especially when their brand of coffee is expensive and rare. Oh self-entitled coffee-obsessed hipsters, we’re just trying to appreciate and be satisfied with the simple joys of life, so don’t try to tell us that your simple joys are better than our simple joys.

Incidentally, when you think about it, it’s kind of silly to associate coffee with calmness and relaxation, since that is the opposite of what caffeine does to our bodies. Both of coffee’s other two reputations, that of a benevolent deliverer of caffeine and that of a harmful chemical, are much more self-explanatory and accurate. It is true, though that, coffee is usually served as a warm beverage, and people experience warm beverages as being soothing. Tea and hot chocolate are also warm beverages, with a much lesser amount of caffeine, but I guess we prefer coffee as our go-to comfort drink because it’s something that so many of us drink on a daily basis anyway.

coffee machineSo what does our relationship with coffee say about our culture? It says that we live busy and tiring lifestyles, hence the need for so much caffeine. It says that we feel an emotional need to be comfortable in our everyday lives. But I think that mostly, it says that, as a collective group, we’re kind of obsessive when we decide that we like something.

Thoughts on the Declaration of Independence

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Declaration of IndependenceOnce upon a time, on July 4, 1776, in the city of Philadelphia, the Second Continental Congress officially finalized the final draft of the document known as the Declaration of Independence. This document, written by Thomas Jefferson and revised by the continental congress, stated that the United Colonies were “free and independent” and “absolved from all allegiance to the British crown,” on the basis of the accusations that the British government was oppressive. The words of this declaration are famous and familiar, especially the first sentence of the second paragraph, and they have often been quoted as the quintessential statement of American ideology. It is perhaps worth noting that the ideas expressed in this document are not original, and the Declaration of Independence is reminiscent of the Magna Carta in several ways. Technically, the Magna Carta is the more historically significant of the two documents. Even within the story of the birth of our country, there are other occasions that held more significance than the writing and signing of the Declaration. Other important dates include the official beginning of the Revolutionary War, (April 19, 1775) the end of the war (in October 1781) the Treaty of Paris formalizing the end of the war, (signed on September 3, 1783, and finalized when the ratified documents were exchanged on May 12, 1784) and the signing of the constitution which we still use. (September 17, 1787) But it is the Declaration of Independence that we remember as the true beginning of the United States of America.

A screenshot from the very end of the musical 1776

A screenshot from the very end of the musical 1776

And this raises the question: What if the Declaration of Independence had never existed? The historical comedy musical 1776 (which is a pretty reliable source, right?) gives the impression that the suggestion of writing such a declaration was made in order to put off the vote and win over more delegates who weren’t so enthusiastic about the issue of independency. If the Declaration of Independence hadn’t been written, if the colonies had declared independence only by waging war and not by writing a famous statement justifying it, what would the historical effect have been?

Would the constitution perhaps have been different if it hadn’t had the precedent of the Declaration of Independence? In particular, would the Bill of Rights have been necessary in order for the constitution to be ratified? Would things such as the freedom of religion, (Amendment I) the right to bear arms, (Amendment II) or the various rights concerning law enforcement trial, have needed to have a place in the constitution if the Declaration of Independence hadn’t been all about the existence and importance of rights? And if not, how long would it have taken for those rights to be officially included in the law, and what repercussions would that delay have had on subsequent historical events and cultural mindsets?

What about the Civil War? Would the South have tried to secede over the issue of states’ rights if it hadn’t been for the fact that they were only doing what their ancestors had done less than a century previously? (After all, in both cases, the conflict largely had to do with the geographical distance and cultural chasm been the governing authorities and the relevant sector of the population.) And would the abolishment of slavery perhaps taken a few more decades to bring about if slavery hadn’t been contrary to an important American historical document? After all, the Jim Crow laws existed until close to a century after the end of slavery. I think we can all agree that it’s good that slavery ended in our country a long time ago, but I think we can also agree that the end of slavery was not equivalent to the end of extreme racism, and that the Civil War did little to solve the latter of those two problems. If it hadn’t been for the precedents and principles set forth in the Declaration of Independence, could the Civil War have been avoided? And if so, would the Confederacy be a separate country or would it have remained part of the Union, but also retained its culture, including slavery, for a longer time?

Or was the Declaration of Independence simply a formality, and would the original American ideology have been exactly the same even without the document that first defined and explained it? Is the Declaration of Independence just a famous piece of paper that technically has no more influence than any of the older documents and writings that say much the same things? Was July 4, 1776 really one of the most important landmarks in American history, or was it just a regular day that we arbitrarily selected to observe as the birthday of our country? I guess there’s no way to know for sure, unless we went back in time and somehow prevented the Declaration of Independence from coming into existence. And I, for one, would like to highly discourage that course of action, because I’m in favor of the Declaration of Independence regardless of whether it was historically monumental or ultimately insignificant.

In Which I Continue To Rant About Bad Theology On the Internet

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The picture used in the article being discussed

The picture used in the article being discussed

A few days ago, I happened to see this online article: 10 Political Things You Can’t Do While Following Jesus, by Mark Sandlin. After wondering whether it was meant to be some kind of satire and looking for signs of sarcasm, I have had to come to the conclusion that it was written in all seriousness. It just sounds silly because it misrepresents Jesus so badly. What bothers me about it is that I’ve heard these exact same arguments from so many people on so many occasions. I understand that the people who say and write these kinds of things are doing so out of good intentions, genuine interest in other people’s well-being, and the belief that they are doing what the Bible tells them to do. But the Bible isn’t a handbook on social justice, and if you read it that way, you’re missing out on a lot. Furthermore, many of these arguments just aren’t supported by the Bible anyway. I’m writing this blog post in the format of a direct response, but I’m not so much criticizing that particular article as explaining why I’m frustrated by the common mindset behind it. Here are Sandlin’s ten “things you can’t do while following Jesus” and my response to them.

10) Force your religious beliefs and practices on others

If the point here is that it’s impossible for government to enforce faith, of course that’s true. And if the point is that it’s immoral for the government to try to enforce faith, I agree to some extent. A theocracy based upon Biblical doctrine is a nice idea, but that’s not the kind of government we have, and we wouldn’t be doing any good if we tried to turn this country into a theocracy. But I don’t think that’s what this article is saying, given the fact that it continues, “One of the strengths of the faith Jesus taught was its meekness. The faith he taught valued free will over compulsion- because that’s how love works.” Really? Jesus was so humble that He didn’t care if people believed what He said? And Jesus said that free will is the same thing as love? Where does the Bible say that? I’m finding verses that say things like, “…but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God”, (John 3: 18) and “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” (Mark 16:16) Contrary to what Sandlin says, Jesus talks about freedom less frequently than He talks about belief, and when He does discuss freedom, he says things like, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31-32) I have a feeling that’s not what Sandlin means when he uses the term “free will”. Of course, this doesn’t mean that we can or should try to force people to become Christians. The Bible also says that “this [faith] is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8) and that “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” (Romans 10:17) I am not by any means advocating for a campaign to turn this country into a theocracy. But there is no Biblical basis for the postmodern belief that religious differences don’t matter or that we shouldn’t want people who we love to come to faith.

9) Advocate for war

Jesus: An Artist's Rendition

Jesus: An Artist’s Rendition

Interestingly enough, the first actual Bible quotation cited in this article is quoted in order to disagree with it. Sandlin quotes Matthew 10:34 (although he doesn’t actually give the reference in the article), which says, “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” He even acknowledges that there are a couple other verses that say the same thing, but discounts them because “they don’t hold a candle to the more than fifty-some verses where Jesus speaks about peace and peacemaking.” He doesn’t offer any such verses, so I got out a concordance and looked them up. I counted, and Jesus used the word “peace” or a form thereof 24 times in the four gospels in the King James Version. In many of these cases, it is part of the phrases “hold thy peace”, “peace be with you,” or “go in peace.” In the parable being told in Luke 11:21, the word is “safe” in most translations, and it refers to possessions, not people. Luke 14:32 also is part of a parable, and “peace” is not what the parable is discussing, as is made clear six verses earlier. Then there is the aforementioned Matthew 10:34 and the corresponding verse in Luke, and a couple verses in Matthew and Luke in which Jesus tells his apostles to bring their peace to a house that is worthy, but not to a house that is not worthy. That leaves five verses that Sandlin could have quoted. I have a feeling that Matthew 5:9 (“Blessed are the peacemakers…”) is what he had in mind here. (Incidentally, the beatitudes tend to be misused; one ought to remember that a person who is “blessed” is someone who has received a gift, not someone who has earned a reward.)The others are Mark 9:50, (which ends “…and be at peace with one another”) Luke 19:42, (“Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace!”) John 14:27, (“Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you”) and John 16:33. (“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”) There’s a big difference between “In me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation” and “In the world you will have peace because of me.” Jesus said the first one; He never said the latter one, and Matthew 10:34 (“I did not come to bring peace, but the sword”) is not, as Sandlin implies, in contradiction with the rest of the Bible. Of course, war is a bad thing and should be avoided. But it happens, (Matthew 24: 6 and 7) and when it’s necessary, Christians are not compelled by their faith to oppose it.

8) Favor the rich over the poor

This one is absolutely true, and in fact Sandlin could have used Bible verses to back this one up, particularly from the Proverbs (14:21, 19:17, 31:9) and then there’s the Magnificat in Luke 1:46-55, which doesn’t actually include the word “poor”, but it does say “those of humble estate.” And Jesus Himself occasionally talks about giving to the poor.  I’m a little puzzled as to why the author of this article didn’t choose to quote the Bible. I rather suspect, though, that he’s hinting his disapproval at some particular law or practice in our culture, and I’m not even sure what that is, unless, of course, he’s arguing for a communist or socialist society. In that case, it’s obvious why he can’t find verses to go with that idea. Jesus wasn’t a political figure and he didn’t have a lot to say about politics except “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” (Matthew 22:21) which isn’t exactly a radical or controversial statement. Jesus is saying that we’re supposed to respect and obey the government, which applies to any kind of political system and has nothing to do with who is rich and who is poor.

7) Cut funding that hurts the least of these

Who ever said anything about government funding? The government in Judea under the Roman Empire did not, as far as I know, have any kind of welfare system at all, and there is no place in the Bible where Jesus has much to say about that lack. If He had had a choice, perhaps Jesus would have been in favor of a welfare system, but we don’t know because the Bible doesn’t
specifically say. It obviously wasn’t an important enough issue to have a place in Scripture. There’s a reason for that; the Bible is about what Jesus did for us, not about how Jesus thinks the government should treat us. Here, Sandlin finally gets around to quoting something from the Bible to support his argument: “Whatever you do to the least of these, you do it to me.” He doesn’t give the reference, though. I can’t actually find it, but I think that this verse was taken out of context; I seem to recall that Jesus was talking about children, not poor people. If I’m incorrect about that, I do apologize, but either way, this verse isn’t about government welfare and budget cuts.

6) Let people go hungry

Pictured: Not Jesus

Pictured: Not Jesus

Ooh, now we get a Gandhi quote! Seriously, did he not have his Bible accessible when he was writing this article? Or did he look, and realized that there’s no Bible verse that says, “And Jesus said, ‘When anyone is unable to provide food for his or her self, it is the government’s job to provide food for them.’”? Sorry for the sarcasm, but it’s just absurd to quote Gandhi in an article about what “Jesus-followers” should do. Of course Jesus didn’t want people to starve; in fact, He performed miracles on a couple of occasions in order to feed His followers. But there was nothing political in that act of providence, and He never said anything to indicate that we are required to view it as a precedent for government policies.

5) Withhold healthcare from people

When did Jesus discuss healthcare specifically? Sandlin makes this point on the basis that Jesus healed people. Yes, He did, that’s true. The author goes on to acknowledge that we cannot work the miracles that Jesus could, but says that modern health care is pretty close to a miracle. That statement is dangerous; it sounds an awful lot like he’s trying to put modern medicine and/or government funding in the place of Jesus. There’s a word for something that tries to take the place of Jesus; that word is “antichrist”, and it’s generally considered by Christians (or “Jesus-followers,” if you will) to be a bad thing. Again, I’m not denying that Jesus was in favor of taking care of people, but how do you start from that premise and suddenly insist that this means that Jesus expected the government to pay for healthcare?

4) Limit the rights of a select group of people

Okay… what “select group of people” are we talking about, and what “rights”? I agree with this statement as presented, but I’m pretty sure that it’s a subtle way to refer to some specific issue, and I’m not even sure which one. But anyway, Jesus didn’t talk a whole lot about “rights”, and an awful lot of the things that twenty-first century Americans label as “rights” aren’t discussed in the Bible. The phrase “certain unalienable human rights” comes from the Declaration of Independence, which is a very nice document and one that we, as Americans, should respect. But we ought to recognize the difference between biblical doctrine and American ideology, even where they don’t conflict and we agree with both. And even the Declaration of Independence says that these rights are “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”, which is so vague that you can’t use it to really make a case for many of the political agendas that I think the author may be subtly referencing. I want to reiterate once again that I’m not completely disagreeing with the goodness of the principle, or saying that it’s totally incorrect. But this principle in and of itself is not biblical and cannot be used to support the kinds of arguments that I think are being implied here.

3) Turn away immigrants

Again, where does this come from? Sandlin lists travelers in the Old Testament and points out that “Christian heritage runs through Judaism. We are an immigrant people. Even our religion began somewhere else.” I understand the point, but where does Jesus say that a government is compelled to never deny immigration? Examples do not make a principle. If Sandlin is speaking against racial discrimination, he could build a better case by quoting any of the several verses in the Epistles that talks about Jews and Gentiles, but even then, this in no way indicates that the government doesn’t have the right to turn away an immigrant when those in authority believe that there is good reason. The current immigration issues in our country are problematic, and I personally don’t know what needs to be done, or whether a “liberal” or “conservative” approach is better.  Certainly we shouldn’t make it illegal for people to move, but that doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be any restrictions, or that we shouldn’t do anything to prevent people from sneaking across borders without the approval of both governments. It’s not an issue with only two sides; there are many different things that our political leaders need to take into consideration. The Bible doesn’t give an answer on this issue. It doesn’t specifically discuss the political aspects of immigration.

2) Devalue education

Sandlin says this based on the use of the word “wisdom” in the Proverbs, which isn’t really a valid point because “wisdom” is not synonymous with “education”.  Perhaps that’s splitting hairs a little, but once again, what does this have to do with government funding? The author’s assertion is making the assumptions that a) education is the responsibility of the government and that b) more funding automatically means better education. Both of these are debatable, and neither of these is something that Jesus talked about.

1) Support capital punishment- execution

Christ on the CrossThis is the worst part of this list, and what makes it even more horrible is the fact that it comes in at number one. It isn’t the sentiment itself that I mind so much. Although the Bible doesn’t say anything against capital punishment, in theory there wouldn’t be anything wrong with a country deciding not to use that particular authority. But the argument that Sandlin gives has nothing to do with the authority of the government or with the Bible. It starts by saying, “Jesus died by execution. He was an innocent man.” For just a moment, it looks like there’s finally something in this article that sounds like Christianity. Here we finally have a mention of Jesus’ death on the cross, and even a hint that the purpose of his death was sacrificial. But that’s not where this article is going. It goes on to say that it’s unloving to kill, and ends, “It’s time to stop the government-sanctioned killing.” Is this article really telling us that the message we’re supposed to get from Jesus’ death is that capital punishment is bad? Instead of seeing what Jesus has done for us, we’re supposed to see a reason to criticize our own government? Instead of receiving forgiveness of sins and salvation, we’re supposed to receive motivation to push for the abolishment of a law we think is “unloving”? This isn’t just ignoring the cross; it’s using the image of the cross to cover up the purpose of the cross!

I know that there are Christians on both sides of any social or political issue who see Christianity as a reason for their position, and I know that both Republican Christians and Democrat Christians often have a tendency to mix religion and politics. Sometimes, that isn’t even such a bad thing, because it’s true that religious morals should cause us to do good things in our lives, including the areas where politics are concerned. But when we use faith to inform our political and moral values, and when we use the teachings of Jesus to explain these values, we need to make sure we’re actually agreeing with those teachings, not just manipulating them and mixing them with clichés and Gandhi quotes in order to say whatever will justify our political beliefs. And, even more importantly, something is wrong when we think that Christianity is just about politics. It’s horrible and frightening when people can talk about their “Christian” faith without mentioning Christ and his crucifixion and the forgiveness of sins. It’s even worse that law and gospel have gotten so lost that people can actually talk about the crucifixion without seeing salvation and grace there. Jesus came to die for your sins, people! If Jesus’ teachings inform your political opinions, that’s a good thing, but don’t let your political opinions redefine Jesus!

The Weirdness of Going North

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SouthConsidering the fact that I lived in the Midwest for the first 11 years and 9 months of my life before moving to the South, it wouldn’t seem like it should be such a big culture shock to be back up North. But I guess that over the past ten years, I’ve gotten more accustomed to being a Southerner than I realized. That is, I’ve gotten accustomed to being around Southerners. I’m not sure I ever entirely counted as a Southerner; I’ve gotten into the habit of interchangeably referring to myself as a Southerner or Northerner depending upon the context. For example, if it’s too hot, I can complain about it because I’m a Northerner and am not used to having temperatures exceeding a hundred degrees for weeks on end, but when it’s cold, I can complain about it because I’m a Southerner and don’t even know what’s happening when there’s white stuff falling from the sky. I can drink iced tea either with or without sugar. I can make nostalgic and affectionate remarks about both corn fields and cotton fields.  I can claim that everyone else has an accent, and when someone tells me that I have an accent, I can attribute it to ancestors who came from fascinating distant places, even though those ancestors died years before I was even born. If someone asks me whether I consider myself a Northerner or a Southerner, I can tell them that I have the best of both sides. At the moment, though, I feel like a Southerner living in the North.

Roll TideFor one thing, the “Roll Tide” bumper sticker on my car is the only one I’ve seen since coming here, and I have not seen any Razorbacks references, either. I also haven’t heard anything about LSU, Auburn, or any of the other various teams whose names make up at least forty percent of conversational topics in the South. People around here aren’t as obsessed with college football as they are in Alabama, and any individuals who do watch college football are going to cheer for different teams and are probably not going to be particularly devoted to football this time of year, since it’s not even football season. Actually, I myself have never been a really big football fan. I think that the fan culture is actually just as important to me as the game itself. And really, I’ve been a Chicago Cubs fan for much longer than I’ve been an Alabama Crimson Tide fan, and I understand and enjoy baseball more than football anyway. But I’m sure that one of these days, I’m going to slip and use the phrase “Roll tide” in public, and it’ll come as a shock when no one knows what I mean. In fact, I’m a little tempted to start saying, “Roll tide, y’all”, instead of “Hello”, just to see how people react. In Alabama, this would not be a weird or unusual thing to do.

Another weird thing is that it’s cold here. I don’t mean that it snows more in the winter; that’s obvious and I’m prepared for the fact that next winter is going to feel long and cold to me no matter how mild it is by Northern standards. I mean that non-winter temperatures are surprisingly cold here. It’s still a bit chilly now, in the middle of June. There have been days that it’s been in the 60s. In Alabama, we have a word for this kind of weather, and that word is “freezing”.  Admittedly, I’ve always been amused by the way that Southerners panic every time it drops below eighty degrees, but even I have gotten to the point that it really doesn’t feel like summer unless it’s so hot that you can bake things by holding them out of an open window for a few minutes. Okay, I admit that I’m exaggerating there, but it’s literally true that in the summer, you can brew tea in just a couple minutes using no heat source except sunlight. I’ve done that in my dorm room many times. Then I’d stick it in the refrigerator for a while and put some sugar in it. There’s something very satisfying and summery about a cup of sweetened iced tea, or, as we call it in the South, “tea”.

NorthThen there’s the accents. I don’t have a Southern accent at all, and neither do I use the word “y’all”, but I no longer really notice Southern accents unless they’re very strong. Now, Midwestern voices sound unusual to me. For the first few days after I got here, I thought that everyone’s voice sounded clipped and harsh. But at least around here, talking takes little enough time that it’s a useful and efficient means of communication. In the South, it’s rather inconvenient to have a four-syllable first name because it takes the average Southerner about five minutes to get through each syllable. Each vowel is a meticulously crafted work of art, the kind that leaves the observer wondering what it’s supposed to be, but agreeing that it is certainly aesthetically pleasing. The stereotype says that Southerners are more talkative than Northerners, and I wonder if that idea comes from the amount of time spent talking rather than the number of words spoken. (Actually, Southerners probably talk more than Northerners according to either form of measurement. But I still think that the difference is much greater if we’re measuring time rather than words.)

If a random stranger does exchange small talk with you, that’s weird and kind of creepy around here. I had forgotten this because in the South, it’s perfectly normal for people to chat with people they see in public places. I’ve never been the type of person to strike up a conversation with a random passerby, but I’m so used to the normality of such encounters that I thought nothing of it when a random man who saw me applying for jobs one day stopped me to offer information about the town and to welcome me to the area. In fact, I appreciated his friendliness until I realized that he was flirting with me and thought that I was going to go on a date with him. Then he continued to follow me even after I said goodbye and told him to have a nice day. In order to escape, I had to give him a fake phone number and then pretend that I was in a hurry to go someplace else. Then I ran away and hid in my car and said to myself, “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Alabama anymore.” I really hate lying; I am still very bothered by this even now that it’s been something like two weeks.

Speed Limit infinitySomething else I’ve noticed is that people drive differently here. I think that every single place in the world, with the possible exception of uninhabited areas such as the ocean floor, is known for the fact that people drive more quickly there than anyplace else. This would seem to be statistically impossible, but it would also seem to be true. I definitely have noticed that, both in Alabama and in Illinois, people drive faster there than they do in the other state. This is slightly less paradoxical when you take into account that the speed limit is drastically different; people are supposed to drive significantly faster in Alabama.

In my experience, Alabama drivers are terrible about changing lanes abruptly and not looking where they’re going when they do so, and indeed, I have seen for myself that Illinois drivers are much better about this. But they have their own idiosyncrasies here. (Which is fairly obvious considering that this is, in fact, what the word “idiosyncrasies” means.) For instance, drivers around here tend to pull so far forward at stop signs and stoplights that they’re actually in the intersection. They really will block traffic rather than give up that tiny little head start when it’s their turn to go. It annoys and confuses me, but absolutely everyone does it.

Also, tollways are weird. I don't like tollways.

Also, tollways are weird. I don’t like tollways.

Drivers around here also aren’t very nice about letting someone make a lane change. If you accidentally get into a turn lane when you want to go straight, or don’t get into a turn lane when that’s what you were trying to do, your mistake cannot be rectified. Last-minute lane changes are not things that happen in Illinois, apparently. I am sure this relates to the aforementioned fact that Illinois drivers are slower and safer about their lane changes than Alabama drivers are, but it makes life very difficult for people like me who are unfamiliar with the area and don’t always know which lane they want to be in until the last minute. This issue has in fact inspired the song (To be sung to the tune of “Come Ye Thankful People Come”) which goes like this: “Let me over, let me by/ You don’t want to make me cry/ If I get lost I’ll be sad/ I am likely to go mad/ At this rate I’ll ne’er arrive/ I will never end this drive/ Let me get into that lane/ You are driving me insane.” Yes, I did make this up on the spur of the moment and sing it out loud with my windows open when it was entirely possible that other drivers could hear. I apologize for the irreverent use of a hymn tune, but I could not help it, for the song was so relevant to the situation that my conscious mind was not involved in its invention.

One thing that I do not miss at all is the cockroaches. I don’t think I’ve seen a single cockroach since I left campus, and that is definitely a very good thing. And there are fewer mosquitoes and wasps, as well. And the roads tend to go in straight lines and intersect other roads frequently, which makes it easier to get back on track if you’ve gotten yourself lost. Around here, there seem to be fewer car crashes, probably because of the aforementioned reckless lane changes in Alabama. Also, there is no risk of hurricanes in this area, and storms can usually be predicted somewhat farther in advance. So these are all good things.

Eleven Years Later

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Eleven years ago today, it was a beautiful sunny day very much like today. My sister and I had been spending the afternoon playing with dolls in the basement until my father came home unexpectedly early and informed us that there had been a terrorist attack that morning, and that people had died in New York City, at the Pentagon, and in Pennsylvania. We hadn’t had the television or radio on that day and hadn’t heard about the attacks until then. But for the rest of the afternoon, until the prayer service at church that evening, we watched the news coverage on television, even though they were just showing the same couple video clips over and over and over again. Somewhere in our house, I think we still even have the September 12, 2001 issue of the Omaha World-Herald, although it quickly became tattered from being read so frequently.

I learned a lot that day and on subsequent days. I hadn’t even known the definition of certain words like ‘hijack’ and although I had heard the word ‘terrorist’ before, I hadn’t remembered what it meant. I had never heard of al-Qaeda and knew nothing about Afghanistan besides its location. I hadn’t known anything about the World Trade Center and the word ‘pentagon’ meant nothing to me besides the name of a shape that had either five or six sides; at that time, I couldn’t remember which it was. Even though I had been fascinated by politics since the time of the 2008 presidential election, I had never paid much attention to anything involving foreign policy, and to me, the most significant thing about the government had been the way elections worked. It was something new to read and see news stories about political people doing political things that involved issues more serious than whose name and face we needed to add to our poster of all the American presidents.

The events of September 11 didn’t directly affect me personally. Although I was very frightened and disturbed at the time, and even had a phobia of airplanes for a little while, although I paid a lot more attention to current events from then on, and although it did change the way I thought about politics and patriotism, that was really the extent of September 11’s impact on my life. I didn’t know anyone who died that day. My memories of that day are an insignificant anecdote, which I remember only because I (and people in general) tend to remember major events in terms of minor personal details. I’m sure that my family will always tell the story of how my little sister responded to the news by asking if any windows had been broken. But for many, many people, September 11, 2001 is not an anecdotal memory; it was not an ordinary day where something big happened far away. It was the day when loved ones died, when they directly witnessed a catastrophe, when their world changed in ways that went beyond the political and social ramifications of the attacks.

Those are the reasons that we commemorate September 11. Today is not a political observance, nor is it just a day to remember what that day eleven years ago was like for us personally. The people who died on September 11, 2001 are still dead now, and their families and friends who we prayed for then are still grieving the loss of their loved ones now. They are the reason that we observe the anniversary of those attacks eleven years ago.

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