Thursday, August 15, 2019

There is an archaic word that is being resurrected of late: apostasy.  Apostasy means to abandon one's beliefs (religious or political or, in the case of U.S. evangelicals, both).

A few weeks ago, Josh Harris, who was a darling of the evangelical world in the late 90's due to his best-selling book "I Kissed Dating Goodbye" (which promulgated "biblical" sexual purity standards) and who went on to become a pastor, announced that he no longer considers himself a Christian (he also disavowed the things he taught in his books, apologized to the LGBTQ community and separated from his wife).  "I have undergone a massive shift in regard to my faith in Jesus," wrote Harris. "The popular phrase for this is 'deconstruction,' the biblical phrase is 'falling away.' By all the measurements that I have for defining a Christian, I am not a Christian. Many people tell me that there is a different way to practice faith and I want to remain open to this, but I’m not there now."

This week a new kerfuffle has emerged as Marty Sampson, a worship leader and songwriter in the powerful Hillsong evangelical movement, mused on Instagram, "I’m genuinely losing my faith, and it doesn’t bother me. Like, what bothers me now is nothing. I am so happy now, so at peace with the world."  Sampson later clarified that he hasn't renounced his faith but that it is "on incredibly shaky ground" in part because he is “struggling with many parts of the belief system that seem so incoherent with common human morality.”

When I saw Sampson's Instragram post, I was impressed by his honesty.  In fact, honesty was a major theme in his post. "I want genuine truth. Not the 'I just believe it' kind of truth," Sampson wrote.  He lamented that there are many tough and relevant questions about Christianity right now--such as immorality among Christian leaders, compatibility between fundamentalist Christian teachings and science, etc.--but, "no one talks about it."

There used to be a guy named Hank Hanegraaff (who billed himself as "The Bible Answer Man") with a nationally syndicated Christian phone-in radio show.  People would call and ask him questions, and he always had an answer (that conformed to fundamentalist evangelical doctrine).  Sometimes people would call and ask Hank about friends or loved ones or celebrities who had "fallen away" from the faith.  Hanegraaff's answer was that if one is truly saved it is impossible to fall away.  Therefore, he reasoned, those who fall away were never really Christians in the first place.  That's pretty dumb (and arrogant) logic, rooted in Calvinism and steeped in tribalism.  Hanegraaff's answer was, essentially, "well, they never really were one of us, so we don't need to grapple with why they eventually rejected their, and our, belief system."

I've learned (from observation and from personal experience) that leaving a tribe you once belonged to incurs far more rage and retribution than having never belonged to the tribe in the first place.  Leaving a tribe stirs up troubling questions about the legitimacy of the tribe (or the tribe's leaders).  And questions coming from those within the tribe--honest and tough and challenging questions--cannot be abided, as they are perceived as a threat.  So honest seekers of truth must often make the painful decision of either leaving the tribe to continue their quest for answers, or shut up and fall into line.

In the fundamentalist Muslim world, to renounce Islam and embrace a different religion (or no religion) is considered an unforgiveable sin.  But a person who has always been a Christian or Jew or Buddhist is generally viewed in the Muslim world with respect (or at least with far less contempt than a former Muslim).  Fundamentalist Christians aren't much different in their attitudes toward apostates.

A few years ago, Vicky Beeching, a prominant British worship leader/songwriter (and Oxford educated theologian), came out as a lesbian.  She remained an evangelical Christian.  "God was still my highest priority and my greatest love," she says.  But her songs were systematically erased from the evangelical world and the invitations to lead worship at churches and gatherings abruptly ceased.  She was shunned.  Her wonderful and heartfelt songs of worship, which had been sung by thousands, were now considered tainted.  "She was never really one of us" was the message.  The same pattern will undoubtedly occur with Marty Sampson.

The Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, coined the term "fallen from grace."  It's the only place this phrase appears in the Bible.  But, interestingly enough, when Paul used the phrase he was castigating the Galatian Christians for embracing legalism and turning their backs on grace.  "You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace," he told the Galatians.  In other words, it was the religious legalists who had fallen from grace.

I would submit that we are seeing an apostasy in our day and age.  It is a terrible falling away.  But it is a falling away from grace.  Like the "foolish Galatians" (as Paul called them), a great many evangelical Christians have abandoned grace and instead embraced legalism and tribalism.  They have rejected the truth-seekers, the question-askers, the agents of grace (not to mention the immigrants, the refugees, the outcasts and the poor).  They have become like the Pharisees depicted in the Gospel of Matthew, for whom Jesus had few kind words, despite their stringent religiosity.  It seems that if folks like Beeching and Harris and Sampson and millions of millenials are indeed "falling away," they are actually falling away from legalism and toward grace. 

Many evangelicals believe that there will be a "great falling away" at "the End-Times."  I, and many other Christians, don't subscribe to that "End-Times/Left Behind" theology, but I do see a great falling away.  As in the days of Jesus and Paul, the ones who are falling away--the real apostates--are often the most religious ones; the ones who claim loudly to be doing God's will while they contradict God's heart.

Friday, August 09, 2019

There have been several books that have changed or shaped my outlook on life. One of them is Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland by Christopher Browning. The book is a masterpiece of historical research that focuses in tightly on a relatively small contingent of German soldiers. But in doing so it reveals some very disturbing universal truths. 

Reserve Police Battalion 101 was comprised of middle-aged working-class men who were drafted into service in the latter part of WWII. Their job was to go through Poland, village-by-village, round up the Jewish residents, and execute them. The men in Reserve Police Battalion 101 were not rabid Nazis or even particularly anti-semitic. They were just "ordinary men" following orders and doing their job. They killed tens of thousands of Jews.

There is a quote, falsely attributed to filmmaker Werner Herzog, that goes like this: "Dear America: You are waking up, as Germany once did, to the awareness that 1/3 of your people would kill another 1/3, while 1/3 watches." Although the origins of the statement are murky, the statement itself rings with clarity. As the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment demonstrated, a majority of people will go along with evil and injustice if it is mandated by "the authorities." Only a minority possess a strong enough internal moral compass to enable them to refuse to participate, or to speak out against it.

U.S. history is filled with atrocity, if one chooses to not gloss over it. The perpetrators of atrocity usually do their best to keep their actions out of the general public view. Germans who lived in the lovely village of Dachau claimed that they had no idea of the depravity that was occuring at the concentration camp on the outskirts of town. Throughout the 20th century we average Americans have generally remained ignorant or apathetic about the atrocities in Central and South America, the Middle-East, Africa, Asia and elsewhere, committed with our government's backing.

I suspect we are witnessing the seeds of atrocity within our own borders and it is in plain sight. The immigration raids this week at food processing plants in Mississippi were, from what I've read, the largest in U.S. history. The Obama administration used to go after the business owners, with the overarching concern being prevention of the exploitation of undocumented immigrant workers. The Trump administration has shifted the focus to go after "the least of these"--the workers themselves and their children who are separated and left abandoned. The immigration raids in Mississippi were intentionally designed by the Trump administration to be highly visible media spectacles. The goal was to please Trump's base of supporters and to terrorize undocumented immigrants throughout the U.S. The message was clear: get out or likewise risk being rounded up and incarcerated and deported and have your children traumatized and your home and all that you've worked hard to attain left behind.

Hannah Arendt, who reported on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, coined the term "the banality of evil." Eichmann, and others like him, she observed, tended to not be sadistic arch-villians but rather "terrifyingly normal" bland bureaucrats who managed to disengage themselves from the reality of the evil they were responsible for. Eichmann, Arendt observed, was actually a rather shallow person, a joiner, a follower rather than a leader, an unimaginative and somewhat ignorant person more concerned with job security than with ideology. This description also applies to the men of Police Battalion 101 and, I suspect, to many of the men and women of the department of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Border Patrol and their parent bureaucracy, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Sunday, August 04, 2019

“This attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas. They are the instigators, not me. I am simply defending my country from cultural and ethnic replacement brought on by an invasion.”
--From the "manifesto" of the El Paso shooter

"We cannot allow all of these people to invade our Country."
--Donald Trump

"I just got back [from the southern border] and it is a far worse situation than almost anyone would understand, an invasion!"
--Donald Trump

"People hate the word ‘invasion’ but that’s what it is. It’s an invasion of drugs and criminals and people.”
--Donald Trump

"More troops being sent to the Southern Border to stop the attempted invasion of Illegals, through large Caravans, into our Country."
--Donald Trump

"To confront this crisis--you saw that, it was a big deal two months ago--I declared a national emergency, which is what it is.  This is an invasion!  When you see these caravans, starting out with twenty thousand people, that's an invasion.  I was badly criticized for using the word 'invasion.'  It's an invasion!"
--Donald Trump

On May 8th, 2019 at a rally in Florida, Trump spoke about the "invasion" of people at the southern U.S. border. He asked the crowd: "How do you stop these people?"

"Shoot them!" a rally attendee shouted out.

Trump responded, laughing: "That's only in the panhandle you can get away with that stuff. Only in the panhandle."

The crowd laughed and cheered. 

So yesterday Donald Trump retweeted a tweet from Franklin Graham celebrating the five-year anniversary of Dr. Kent Brantly being brought back to the U.S. from Africa for treatment of Ebola. Brantly, who had been treating Ebola patients in Liberia as a missionary when he was infected, was the first Ebola patient to set foot in the U.S.

Franklin's tweet, which apparently is intended to promote a movie, calls Brantly's healing a "miracle" but many commenters have pointed out that highly skilled, highly educated medical professionals at top U.S. medical facilities applying science and research had quite a bit to do with it.

Trump (who Graham stridently supports) seems to have forgotten that five years ago he repeatedly tweeted that Ebola patients (including Brantly) should not be allowed to enter the U.S. for treatment. "Ebola patient will be brought to the U.S. in a few days - now I know for sure that our leaders are incompetent. KEEP THEM OUT OF HERE!" Trump tweeted as plans were being made to return Brantly to the U.S. “Stop the EBOLA patients from entering the U.S. Treat them, at the highest level, over there. THE UNITED STATES HAS ENOUGH PROBLEMS!” Trump tweeted as the air ambulance was on its way to Liberia to retrieve Dr. Brantly. "The U.S. cannot allow EBOLA infected people back. People that go to far away places to help are great-but must suffer the consequences!" Trump tweeted as Brantly was on the air ambulance flying across the Atlantic ocean toward the U.S.

In other words, if Trump had had his way Brantly would have died in Liberia, barred from returning to the U.S. for treatment. And if Graham has his way a man completely devoid of empathy and basic human decency will be President of the United States for another four years.

The hypocrisy runs deep with both Trump and Graham.
"I'm not a racist," we white people tend to say. "I believe all people are of equal value," we go on. We white people, the privileged and empowered ones throughout the history of the United States, tend to personalize charges of racism and quickly exonerate ourselves. Sometimes we get quite defensive at any whiff that the racism label might be applied to us personally.

The thing we white people tend to overlook is that racism in America is systemic and structural. It is deeply woven into the fabric of the United States. We white people often don't notice that this is the case because, frankly, it doesn't effect us personally. That's called privilege: if something doesn't effect us personally we don't see it as a significant problem.

For myself, it is only when I shut my mouth and *listen* to non-white people tell their stories that I realize how pervasive racism is in America and how oblivious I often am to it. Worse, I realize how often I have participated in it and benefitted from it--all while very earnestly defending myself as not being in the least bit racist.

For example, if you proclaim "I'm not a racist" yet you support or make excuses for or refuse to take a closer look at politicians and pundits who propigate racist views (explicitly or implicitly) then yes, my friend, you are racist. If you tell jokes about racial minorities then yes, my friend, you are racist. If you imbibe stereotypes about people of other races (Asian people are smart but bad drivers, Black people are lazy and "low IQ", Hispanic people are violent and simple, etc.) and you allow those stereotypes to shape how you perceive individuals then, my friend, you are racist.  If your response to Black Lives Matter is to say "All lives matter!" and if you think Colin Kaepernick was being unAmerican when kneeling during the national anthem then, my friend, you are racist.  If you immediately respond defensively rather than introspectively when racism is discussed then, my friend, you may unwittingly be racist or be complicit in the perpetuation of racist systems and social structures. And just about every time I wrote "you" in the above paragraph, I could have just as easily wrote "I".

I don't know the answer to how we white people extricate ourselves fully from the miasma of racism that pervades America, except that we need to begin by listening closely and undefensively and ask of those who experience the effects of racism what we can do. And we need to have the integrity and courage to not abide or ignore racist rhetoric or "dog whistles" from others--especially from others who have influence.
In less than one minute the shooter in Dayton killed 9 people and wounded 26. There is an old Islamic saying, from the Quran, that to save one life is to save an entire world and to take one life is to kill an entire world. That's profound, when you think about it. In 21st century America any moron can kill nine worlds in **less than one minute**. That's insanity, when you think about it.

Friday, August 02, 2019


 I may have missed it, but I have not heard or seen Donald Trump, the supposed "leader of the free world", speak out against the brutal crack-down in Russia on people protesting for fair elections.

I've seen and heard Trump this week attack the city of Baltimore, attack Robert Mueller, attack various prominant black and brown people (Elijah Cummings, Don Lemon, Al Sharpton, the four Congresswomen, Barack Obama), attack Nancy Pelosi, attack Bernie Sanders, attack Joe Biden, attack Democrats in general, attack Joe Scarborough & Mika Brzezinski, attack the media in general, attack the leadership of the Federal Reserve, etc.

I've seen and heard Trump this week boast that he's doing a great job, and claim that the Mueller investigation exonerated him (it didn't), and promote his rallys and say nice things about his "friend" who "has a great and beautiful vision for his country" the murderous dictator Kim Jong Un. 

But I haven't seen or heard Trump express solidarity with the tens of thousands of people taking to the streets in Russia demanding fair elections. And I haven't seen or heard Trump express concern about the thousands of average Russians being beaten and arrested by security forces for protesting against Putin brazenly interfering with local elections. 

But maybe I just missed it amongst Trump's constant flurry of attacks on Americans.