The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord's doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. Psalm 118:22-23 NRSV

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Pakistan's Dangers

From his pseudo-election in 2000, I have had grave concerns about the foreign policy agenda of The Decider. Although delighted at the choice of Colin Powell as the first African American Secretary of State, I like the rest of the nation became quickly aware that Powell's moderate positions would have little influence on the neo-con world of Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld. Responses following the Sept 11th, 2001 attacks merely confirmed my discomfort, and then the war in Iraq exacerbated my concerns.

Fast-forward to 2007. While Bush and Co. exaggerated the potential nuclear threat of Iran at the same time that their own intelligence suspected that Iran's nuclear program was halted in 2003, Newsweek presciently announced that the most dangerous country was Pakistan. In a cover story in October, Newsweek's writers exposed the volatility of a nation that already has nukes. Since October, the danger has intensified, as President Musharraf has done everything including imposing martial law with the United States standing in the wings offering coddling words of support. No, The Decider did not technically support the suspension of the Pakistan constitution, but he did allow Pakistan's Decider to ... well, decide. Today, opposition leader Benazir Bhutto was assassinated. And with her assassination, the volatility escalates.

I am not a foreign policy maven. I understand the intricacies of these matter on the most superficial level. But as a citizen, I certainly wish I could have more confidence in the people who are supposed to be the experts in Washington. My advice to them is that maybe they should read Newsweek. (Or listen to the State Department, as a friend of mine who is a career diplomat has told me to add.)

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

A Vulnerable God

Christmas Greetings from Leslie D. Callahan.

Of the Christmas lessons, the one from John 1:1-14 shows us Jesus Christ at his most transcendent and most vulnerable. The story begins not with Nazareth and the Annunciation or with Bethlehem and the birth of Christ, but in eternity where Word of God existed in the beginning, making the world that we all occupy. The Word was with God and the Word was God. Without the Word nothing was made. But the Word did not remain remote, over creation and apart from it. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. In Jesus Christ, God became concrete.

In becoming so much a part of creation, Christ must have known that his identity could be misunderstood and misappropriated. God in Christ must have known that there would be some who could not receive the divine because of the particularities of the human flesh – his gender, his ethnicity, his age, his marital status, his class, his religious affiliation. Still others would deny that Christ was a real human at all because of the divine nature expressed in him. And yet, knowing that his own would not receive him, and others would never see him, still the Word of God became flesh – touchable, viewable, sensitive, and mortal flesh – and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. God became like one of us.

In this holy season, as we celebrate the arrival of the One whom we did not expect, in a form we almost did not recognize, we who have beheld his glory and received the power to become the children of God must likewise prepare ourselves to take risks and become vulnerable. No, everyone will not receive us. Yes, we too will be misunderstood, our words misappropriated, and our identities rejected. Being accessible and touchable opens us up to the possibility of being injured or even killed. But we are comforted in the knowledge that God through Jesus Christ knows exactly what we feel. Wherever we go in his name, he goes with us and goes before us. Christ has been there first

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Holiday Politics

I know I am not the only one who is flabbergasted by the sheer length of the presidential campaign season during this cycle. We have 11 months to go and I am already sick of the debates and the interviews and the policy statements. I was skeptical about the jockeying for primary placement and am weary of the primary season before it even begins.

But one unanticipated consequence of this elongated campaign is the Holiday ads. It wasn't bad enough to have secularization and materialism as challenges to the meaning of Christmas. Now we have to have politicization.

Mike Huckabee's floating cross and invoking of the birth of Christ as a part of his appeal to the craziest aspects of right-wing Christian politics should make any believer sick. Hey, Mike, didn't you know that believers are supposed to be hidden behind the cross, not to have the cross eventually obscured by their big heads? Then, there's the Giuliani ad. Suffice it to say that "fruitcake" is a proper conclusion.

Although I find the Obama ad adorable, the Hillary Rodham Clinton ad amusing, and the John Edwards ad instructive, I still don't want to have to deal with politics on Christmas.

Why can't we just take a break?

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Guns Do Kill People 2

The story of the shooting death of Dyshon Boyd, a 4 year old who accidentally shot himself to death with a gun that belonged to his father, is another example of the reality that bullets kill indiscriminately.

Dyshon was his father Djuan's shadow. Although Djuan had trouble with the law, and was scheduled to face charges for dealing drugs, he apparently was a present and active father to his son. Unfortunately, Dyshon wanted to be just like Dad. He found his father's gun in his coat pocket. And a few hours later the 4-year-old died having shot himself in the throat.

Every person who owns a gun must take seriously the reality that the gun is more likely to shoot someone you love than it is to protect them. A Washington Post article in 2006 noted that more than 500 children die annually from accidental gunshot wounds. If you have a gun, make sure that it is inaccessible to children. Lock it up and don't assume that you have hidden it so well that they simply will not know where it is.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Bad Advertising

Somebody should tell believers that if they are going to advertise their spiritual connection they should try not to have a bad attitude. I was on the golf course in a Southern state this afternoon. The cart path crossed a street in a subdivision whose house line the golf course. I stopped on the sidewalk and gave the right of way to the driver of a car. In addition to letting her pass, I also smiled. She gave me a nasty look. I watched her car go by. License plate: GOD4ME. I chuckled and thanked the Lord for something to blog about.

When I told the person I was playing golf with, she told me about the time she blew her horn for someone who had a bumper sticker that said, "Honk if you love Jesus." The driver of the car flipped her off. He must have forgotten that he loved Jesus.

These are silly examples of a more serious issue. Whether we have bumper stickers and license plates or not, the way we behave reflects on the organizations and even religions we claim to represent. All of this reminds me to try not to be bad advertising.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Why I Don't Like Mike

I'll admit it. I almost got snookered. He seemed like the only truly nice guy in the Republican mix. I heard myself comparing him to the best human being who ever has been the President Jimmy Carter. It must have been that Southern charm and pastoral demeanor. He even had some nice things to say about Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton as people and as parents, which made him seem fair. So despite my suspicion of Republicans in general and Southern Baptist, evangelical-courting Republicans in particular, I began to like Mike Huckabee. Now I'm not saying that I would have voted for him. I didn't like him that much. But I almost liked him, especially when I compared him with the mean-spirited arrogance of Rudolph Giuliani.

Here's what changed my mind. I didn't flinch initially when I heard that he had supported the parole of convicted rapist Wayne Dumond, who later raped and murdered at least one woman. I figured that Huckabee had made an isolated bad call with tragic results. That is the danger of being in leadership; sometimes your actions have devastating, but unintended consequences. But after I read an article that described the political pandering that was actually behind the Dumond release, I decided that Mike is just as corrupt as all the rest. Although Huckabee avers that he could not have known that Dumond would rape again, especially since he believed that Dumond might erroneously have been convicted because the victim was Bill Clinton's distant cousin, there was ample credible evidence that Dumond had raped before. Huckabee's public support for Dumond's parole was not the well-meaning error of a person who believed in forgiveness, rehabilitation, and the efficacy of castration (Dumond's testicles had been removed before his arrest). It was crass politics - deadly politics.

Then there was his statement about quarantining persons infected with HIV. The biggest problem with this statement is when he made it. Of course, everyone makes mistakes, especially when it comes to deadly, communicable diseases. But by 1992, a person running for the U.S. Senate should have been sufficiently informed about AIDS and how it is contracted to know that quarantining would be unnecessary and cruel. To me this represents either willful ignorance or pandering to other people who are willfully ignorant, and frankly this country should be tired of that after 7 years of George W. Bush.

In sum, Huckabee is the charming version of all the hate-filled, ignorant politics that has sadly come to dominate the GOP. I know that there are Republicans who are thoughtful, compassionate, intelligent, and just. Mike Huckabee just isn't one of them. Sorry, Mike, I'm taking you off my "friends" list.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Oprah for President (of something)

I haven't decided who I'm loving in the Democratic field for 2008. I actually have a fair amount of contentment with the platforms of Obama, Clinton, and Edwards. I would be delighted to break the tradition of a white man as President; but I also like John Edwards. And I don't dislike the next few contenders down the list either. But I do need to say a word about Oprah.

We need to pay attention to Oprah, not so much for her endorsement of Obama, but for the way that she has taught us to live purposefully. Although her theology is a bit murky and hard to pin down, her integrity provides a lesson in living. I'm not saying Oprah is perfect, just that there are few people who live in the public eye who so clearly make their decisions on the basis of what they value and believe most fundamentally. She takes risks, exhibits generosity, invests in what matters, and proclaims her version of the truth, even when it's unpopular. (Remember the mad cow fiasco?) Because of Oprah, a lot of people are more aware of significant issues, are reading better books, and are watching better movies, with black characters who are not just stereotypes.

There is something powerful in that.

For a much more detailed and lucid exploration of Oprah and Barack Obama, read Patricia Williams's The Audacity of Oprah , which I read after I had already written this post.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The War on Christmas

I should confess at the outset that I am not a big fan of the holiday celebrated on December 25th. I won't bore you with the typical complaints about the commercialization or the secularization of the day. Nor will I reproduce the hackneyed "Jesus is the reason for the season." I will say that I think that a person or family would really have to work hard to celebrate the holiness of Jesus' birth,given all of the ads,television movies, parties, shopping days countdown, and other activities that have become inextricably connected with December 25 in the U.S. Those who know me know that I joyously participate in Advent, a season of reflection, preparation, and expectation of the coming of Christ. I am not boycotting Christmas, mind you; I will give gifts to family and friends, but I try not to put on others nor feel myself the kind of pressure that getting the "right" gift brings.

That being said, let me move on to the point of this blog post. Yesterday the House of Representatives passed a resolution (H Res. 847), co-sponsored by 60 Representatives, recognizing that Christians and Christmas are important. Click here to read the full text. The resolution cites national and international statistics that show Christianity to be the largest of the world religions in terms of adherents and expresses support to the Christian celebration on Dec. 25. But what, I ask, was the point?

My guess is that this was just another skirmish in the (invented) war against the "war on Christmas." My earlier comments reflect my observation that the war to obscure the meaning Jesus' birth by sacrificing the faith of Jesus on the altar of American capitalism has already been won. But that's not what Christians who say there is a "war on Christmas" object to. They object to saying "Happy holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas." They want to privilege the nativity scene over other religious and secular displays in the public square. They don't just want to celebrate Christmas themselves as their own religious holiday; they want everyone else to be forced to celebrate Christmas whether they want to or not. They want Christmas as a display of Christian hegemony. So this post, by a Christian for a largely Christian audience, is to say: Christian hegemony is itself un-Christian.

Our faith was never supposed to be the religion of the empire, imposed by force on subject peoples. Touting our numerical and political power around the world betrays the Christ who was born in Bethlehem and died at Calvary. Our faith, more than faith of the creche, is the faith of the cross. If we really want to recognize Christianity's importance, then we Christians ought to participate in Christ's humility.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Christians' Image

Like most of the people who are talking about it, I have neither read The Golden Compass nor seen the movie based on it. Consequently, this post is not about either the trilogy of books, nor the first movie adaptation. This post is inspired by a mass email that was forwarded to me by one of my friends who is a minister and who quoted the Catholic League's criticism of the books and the film because of their not very veiled references to the power of the Roman Church and because successful films will likely advertise the atheistic viewpoint of the books' author Philip Pullman.

Here's my problem. Christians are always asking each other to protest stuff like this movie. But where is the ongoing concern and protesting spirit about the other issues?I would like for Christian groups to send mass emails protesting the Iraq war, the exploitation and abuse of women and children, the apathy of many in the world to hunger and the AIDS pandemic, and the myriad other issues that endanger our children and world far more than movie(s) about witches or even atheists.

It says something not too flattering about the body of Christ that we are preoccupied with our image. In this instance, the Catholic Church is concerned about how it is being portrayed and other Christians are asked to jump on board. We care so much about our image, but our image would be greatly helped if we cared more about the Gospel - about people and their material condition as well as their souls. If nobody sees this movie, will we as the church really advance the knowledge of God in the world? I don't think so.

Speaking of negative publicity, that's what Creflo Dollar and Eddie Long ought to be thinking about as they refuse to disclose the financial details of their so-called ministries. Joyce Meyer got it right when she decided that answering Sen. Grassley's questions bespoke transparency, a concept that projects a much better image than hiding behind high-priced lawyers. Dollar and Long look like the accused who legally may invoke the 5th Amendment right not to self-incriminate but by doing so actually looks guilty because he/she remains silent. The question of whether they can legally avoid answering the already-publicized questions is beside the point. There is a bigger moral and ethical and evangelistic question that needs to be considered.

I cannot speak to the designs and purposes of Philip Pullman. But I can safely say that the antics of preachers like Dollar and Long, the perception of Christian cover-ups, and Christian apathy towards the hurting of this world have done more to promote atheism and blasphemy than any book or trilogy Pullman will ever write.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Incredible, by Definition

in·cred·i·ble /ɪnˈkrɛdəbəl/
1. so extraordinary as to seem impossible: incredible speed.
2. not credible; hard to believe; unbelievable: The plot of the book is incredible.
[Origin: 1375–1425; late ME < L incrédibilis. See in-3, credible]

—Related forms
in·cred·i·bil·i·ty, in·cred·i·ble·ness, noun
in·cred·i·bly, adverb

—Synonyms 2. farfetched, astonishing, preposterous.

incredible. (n.d.). Unabridged (v 1.1). Retrieved December 05, 2007, from website:

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Second Time Around

This is not the time to fall asleep on The Decider. All who think that because the Bush administration only has one year of power left or that the midterm elections of 2006 significantly curtailed his remaining power should pay attention to the unfolding drama leading up to military action against Iran.

There is a frightening sense of familiarity about the rhetoric The Decider and his neocon cronies use when describing and exaggerating the threat that Iran represents. The exaggeration became apparent to the world with the report of American intelligence experts that Iran's nuclear program has been on hold since 2003. Of course, the President had access to the newest reports before they became public, and admits to having heard about changing information as long ago as August. Yet he does not acknowledge that the experts' conclusions should call his policies and his plans into question. In a newsconference today, President Bush demonstrated that his mind has not changed.

The inability to change one's mind when presented with new information is unconscionable in any adult, but especially in a leader whose decisions have a worldwide impact. As I pondered this issue while listening to NPR in the car today, I experienced a sense of conviction that I ought to be praying differently for the President. Intercessory prayer is, in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, "bringing one another into the presence of God, seeing each other under the cross of Jesus as poor human beings and sinners in need of grace." (from Bonhoeffer's, Life Together)

But I am reminded too of the words of Jesus who tells us to watch as well as pray. So don't go to sleep on George W. Bush.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

World AIDS Day

On December 1st every year, we commemorate World AIDS Day, taking the time to reflect upon the progress being made in treatment, education, and community awareness about the AIDS pandemic and pausing to remember those whose lives the disease has already claimed. In 2007, there is some good news: the number of people living with AIDS has leveled off. But there there is no cause for resting on our laurels.

Around the world 33.2 million people live with HIV, adjusted downward from the 2006 estimate on the basis of UNAID's more accurate methods of tracking infections. Two-thirds of those who live with HIV, 22.5 million people, are in sub-Saharan Africa. And 1.7 of the 2.5 million HIV infections in 2007, or 68%, occurred in Africa. In Africa, AIDS is the primary cause of death.

Although the pandemic in Africa dwarfs the crisis in the United States, complacency here is dangerous, especially for the African American community. Washington, DC has the nation's highest HIV-infection rate, with numbers that continue to grow. (See Newsweek article.)

"Leadership" is the focus of World AIDS Day this year, and the leadership of African American spiritual communities is still needed for the dissemination of information and care. Are we better at understanding and addressing the issues associated with AIDS than we were 25 years ago? Yes. Have we arrived at the place of knowledge and comfort that will save lives? Not yet.

There are hopeful signs, sometimes in unexpected places. Much coverage has been given to the AIDS summit organized at Saddleback Church in California. Rick Warren, prompted by his wife Kay, has taken on the issue of AIDS in a way that I hope will inspire at least a few of the people who have looked to him for leadership through his mega-sellers The Purpose-Driven Church and the Purpose-Driven Life. And of course there is the ongoing work of Balm in Gilead, which for 18 years has been providing leadership to the African American and other African diaspora faith communities.

For more information about the worldwide AIDS pandemic, see

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Peace in the Middle East

Although I was only 8 years old, I remember well the Camp David Accords, signed when President Jimmy Carter brought together Anwar Sadat of Egypt and Menachem Begin of Israel for discussion on mutual recognition and respect. I remember the feeling of physical illness and spiritual trauma I experienced when I thought that there would be an announcement of peace in the Middle East because I remembered the biblical saying that in the day when peace is declared then total destruction is imminent. "For when they shall say, Peace and safety; then sudden destruction cometh upon them." I thought I was doomed, that Jesus would return as soon as the treaty was signed and I, unsaved, would be hell bound. Although this all seems a little ridiculous to me now, I think of it because it was my first up close and personal experience of feeling there were geopolitical implications of the literalist scriptural interpretation to which I had been exposed.

Religious and political pundits have discussed the complicated relationship between evangelicals and Israel. Radical secularists mock the simultaneous concern for Israel's future as God's chosen people and the evangelical theological certainty that all attempts to secure Israel apart from Christ's return are futile. And although I do not support the disdainful treatment of my own theological community, I too see the contradiction in the fact that evangelicals pray for the peace of Jerusalem and while espousing a theological perspective that depends on war.

This week in Annapolis the Bush administration, undoubtedly the administration most beholden to evangelical orthodoxy, has initiated its own legacy-saving effort at bringing Israel and the Palestinians to the table. Secretary Rice and President Bush, having flatly ignored the opportunity 7 years ago to build on the outline for peace proposed by the Clinton administration in its waning days, now have concluded that simply backing Israel while ignoring the Palestinians will not ultimately lead to safety for Israel or to peace in the Middle East. It's only too bad that the US waited until the Fattah party's majority had vanished in favor of the more radical Hamas whom Palestinians democratically elected last year.

What I wish for this nation and especially for the African American church is that we would do the intellectual and historical work that would allow us to seek justice for the exiled and displaced Palestinians, not just security and recognition for Israel. I am aware that many Christians see a spiritual and theological mandate for supporting Israel. But just as I hope that I have matured beyond the far too literal biblical interpretation that left me praying against Carter, Sadat, and Begin's efforts, I hope that we will have the theological, spiritual,and political maturity to support a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli question. Let's pray for the peace of Jewish and Arab Jerusalem.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Guns Do Kill People

When we talk about the tragedy of gun violence in our communities, we often focus on the occasions when bullets maim or kill the shooter's intended targets. But there are many other instances that prove that bullets have no conscience and that maiming and killing arise even when no intention to injure is present. I imagine that most people who read this blog can name multiple incidents when the "wrong" person was shot or the gun went off accidentally. This past week such a tragic circumstance emerged in Duquesne, a suburb or Pittsburgh, and ended the life of Chelsea McAllister.

The story, Police question boy 14, in girl's shooting, as reported by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is as follows:
Chelsea McAllister's online ID is "jesus i'm yours," a theme on which she performed a liturgical mime dance in the hours before she was fatally shot Tuesday at the home of a youth minister in Duquesne.

The 15-year-old 10th-grader at West Mifflin Area High School was killed instantly by a blast to the head from a 16-gauge sawed off shotgun.

The 14-year-old Penn Hills boy who police said pulled the trigger has not been charged. Police have not identified him.

The 14-year-old and a 15-year-old Penn Hills youth had been with a group of teens that included Chelsea, her sister, Ashley McAllister, 18, and a 15-year-old girl who also attends West Mifflin Area High. They all had been invited to join Chelsea at a youth group service Tuesday night at Grace Community Ministries in the Hill District.

Chelsea had performed with a mime troupe at the church service. Afterward, the five teens were driven by Keith Owens, a youth minister at Petra Ministries in East Hills, to his home in the 200 block of South Sixth Street in Duquesne.

The home of Chelsea and Ashley, a senior at West Mifflin Area High, is around the corner from Mr. Owens' residence.

Mr. Owens, 21, lives about two blocks from the Bethlehem Temple Apostolic Church where Chelsea's grandfather, Bishop Nathan McAllister, is the pastor.

Duquesne Police Chief Richard Adams said Mr. Owens had two guns at the residence, a rifle that was kept upstairs and a sawed-off shotgun that had been given to him by a relative.

Mr. Owens told police that he and the teens were in the living room and at least one of the boys wanted to examine the shotgun. He said he unloaded the weapon before allowing the boys to examine it, Chief Adams said. The shotgun, however, still contained a cartridge.

After their short visit, Chelsea and Ashley left to go home. But Chelsea forgot her purse. She walked back up the porch stairs and into the residence. As she entered the living room, the shotgun was discharged, with the shot striking her in the head, police said.

Immediately after the shooting the boy ran into the street screaming that he had shot someone, Chief Adams said.

Inside the residence police found Chelsea's body and the weapon used to kill her.

"We're just upset, wondering why he [Mr. Owens] would show those kids a gun," said Kimberly Thomas, Chelsea and Ashley's aunt.

Why indeed?

Our prayers go out for the comfort of the McAllister family, as well as for the peace and healing of the 14 year old who shot Chelsea and for the youth minister who owned the sawed-off shotgun.

Friday, November 23, 2007

'Tis the Season

Between midnight and 6 a.m., stores and malls came to life ushering in the commercial Christmas season. Over the next few days, the analysis of sales over the Thanksgiving weekend will determine financial prognoses for the retail industry. Markets will rise and fall. But I'm not thinking about that now.

I don't even pretend to be an expert in economics, but I am sure that you can only spend your money once. So today, I am not thinking about Christmas shopping; I am thinking about a long winter and exorbitant heating bills. I am thinking about gas prices going through the roof. I am thinking about new windows for my house, and of the possibility that I'll need a new roof. This doesn't mean that I won't buy presents or even shop for bargains, but my focus is on keeping my money in my pocket for as long as possible. 'Tis the season to be prudent.

The wonderful thing about that is that it leaves me a few moments for reflecting on the other meaning of the Christmas season: preparation for, celebration of, and accountability to the coming of Christ. If I can't get up at 4 a.m. or 6 a.m. for prayer, I certainly would not be caught at the mall.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

I Just Want to Take a Little Time

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the African American Christian tradition is the commitment to giving thanks. Whether in the coalfields of West Virginia or in the center of Philadelphia, nothing gets a Black congregation's attention and amens quicker than expressions of gratitude. Often those who had the fewest material goods or the most infirmities were quickest to declare how much they have to thank the Lord for. In honor of my forebears and the example they have shown, in the words of the classic gospel song, "I just want to take a little time right now to thank the Lord."

For ancestors, especially Leonard and Annabelle, whom I miss especially at holidays.
For family and friends, who love me and whom I love.
For a place of my own, warm in winter and dry during the storms.
For meaningful employment that pays the bills.
For vocational clarity after so many years of ambivalence.
For physical health, emotional stability, and intellectual acuity.
For recognized gifts and undiscovered talents.
For successes and failures.
For spiritual communities and leaders with integrity.
For food to enjoy and for the good sense not to eat too much of it.
For multiple invitations for Thanksgiving dinner.
For homes away from home.
For babies and elders and everyone in between.
For enemies who teach me how to pray and trust.
For laughter that is not mean-spirited.
For golf, even though I do not play well at all.
For a past full of extravagant blessings.
For a present full of contentment.
For a future full of promise.
But most of all, for Jesus who really is a Wonderful Savior.
I just want to say Thank You.

O Magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt God's name together.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

How much is too much?

I am neither gloating about nor lamenting the investigation of 6 televangelists' ministries by Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa). While I frequently criticize the materialistic mentality that so many television ministers both preach and embody, I am in no way counting on a senate probe to unearth details about financial practices that will reform the behavior of clergy or their congregations. At the same time, I am not buying the "governmental persecution" and First Amendment protection line some have offered in defense of their extravagant lifestyles. What I am doing is using the media focus that has centered on these ministries to raise and discuss the question that is at the base of Grassley's queries and that all who minister need self-critically to consider: How much is too much?

This question goes deeper than the salaries and perks offered to the pastor(s) and their families. It is a theological question that speaks to the essence of what and who we believe God is, and what and who God calls us to be and represent. When they brandish their "bling" and flaunt the piece of God's creation they have requisitioned for their use, prosperity preachers demonstrate their allegiance to a God who is defined by what God owns and by the way that God makes them owners. What those of us who dispute this distorted vision of God need to represent is the God who is known by what God gives and by the way God makes givers of us. While I certainly appreciate the material comforts and consider them to be blessings, especially as I remember times of want and moments of concern about how and whether I would be able to make ends meet, I do not want to measure my life by what I have. I want to measure by what I give.

What feels most distorted about the lifestyle of the rich and famous televangelist is that nothing about that lifestyle is actually accessible for the bulk of their membership. What makes their houses, planes, cars, jewels, and $30K toilets most offensive and excessive is that the people whose tithes, offerings, and even purchases make those extravagances possible have not a hope of ever having anything remotely that "fine" for themselves. It's the exclusivity and the elitism that send the wrong theological and social message. No matter how many "kingdom principles" their hearers employ, they will always be separated materially from their pastor.

Some argue that church people want their pastors to represent something that is "above" them, that they delight in knowing that their pastor drives a Bentley and lives in a section of the city that they have never even visited. There is some truth to this perception. But the job of spiritual leaders is to be a part of the mental transformation the reminds people that Fortune 500 CEOs are not our model - Jesus is our model. In one of Paul's finer moments, he tells us what the Jesus model represents:
"For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich." 2 Corinthians 8:9

The beauty of this model, that measures the grace of giving rather than the blessing of owning, is that it creates interdependence and balance in the body of Christ and in the human community.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

A Father Who Tried

Philadelphians are all too aware of the escalation of gun violence in our city and of the particular rise in shooting at police officers. A couple weeks ago a section of the city was on lock down for hours, and some areas for days, following the fatal shooting of officer Chuck Cassidy. A couple days ago, two undercover officers were treated and released from the hospital after being shot during a drug raid. The alleged shooter is a sixteen-year-old who will be tried as an adult.

Unfortunately, the involvement of young brothers is an all too familiar element in the drug and gun saga of our major cities. With inadequate education (this young man failed to show up for 10th grade this year) and no sense of purpose for their futures, a segment of our young people turn to and almost revel in a life of criminality.

What separates this case from so many others about which we hear is the heartfelt concern and candor of this young man's father. Both on television and in the press, Willie "James" Taylor has tearfully described his unsuccessful attempts to provide stability and loving discipline for his son, including his efforts to seek intervention from social service agencies before his son's behavior escalated to the felony level for which he is now charged.

The efforts of Mr. Taylor, who is scheduled to preach his initial sermon this Sunday, remind us all of the complexity of issues that contribute to the problem of crime, especially drug-related crimes, in our community. Although it is clear that our communities would benefit from the more active presence of fathers and positive role models, quality time with Dad is no panacea.

The question that Mr. Taylor's son and John Lewis, who confessed to killing Officer Cassidy, both raise for our families and our community is this: How do we combat the aimlessness and wandering that underlie drug activity? Part of the answer is lies in the home. Part of the answer is found at school. Part of the answer is with the government. And part belongs to the church which has an important role in helping people to find their ultimate purpose in life.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Strong and Ambitious? Too Bad for Us

Just when I was recovering from the Baisden show, I read the NY Times OpEd article by Maureen Dowd (article)that cited a Ray Fisman study on speed dating that suggested what many of us suspected, that men (of all races) like smart and ambitious women only if the man does not perceive her to be smarter and/or more ambitious than he. I was so intrigued that I read the Fisman article in Slate. I won't go into all of the gory details. I'll just quote the salient paragraph:
When women were the ones choosing, the more intelligence and ambition the men had, the better. So, yes, the stereotypes appear to be true: We males are a gender of fragile egos in search of a pretty face and are threatened by brains or success that exceeds our own. Women, on the other hand, care more about how men think and perform, and they don't mind being outdone on those scores. from An Economist Goes to a Bar

As a strong, intelligent, ambitious Black woman with a religious vocation, I am intimately aware that dating is difficult. Fisman's experiments involved speed dating, which is not likely to be the way that I find my Black Man anyway. But there are deeper issues that Baisden, Fisman, and Dowd point to that affect not only the love lives of Black (and other women) but also speak to the possibilities of fulfilling all of those other ambitions, e.g. being a pastor (me) or President (Hillary). Strong women walk the fine line of achieving our goals with strength and ambition and in spite of strength and ambition. We can't win for losing, as my momma would have said.

It's a Shame

This post was catalyzed by my viewing Michael Baisden's show on Monday night. I knew ahead of time that Baisden was problematic, thanks to the incisive blogging analysis of Gina from What about our Daughters.

Still, I tuned in anyway figuring that I would see some Black folks and enjoy some political conversation about something other than church. I expected to hear about Black life, white racism, culture wars or something like that. Instead, I encountered yet another representation of the gender wars that plague all people but that seem to have a peculiar hold on Black folks. Baisden's subject: Are women too strong or are men too weak? Who's the boss? Who wears the pants? The panelists, whose names I did not investigate, can generally be recognized as Brother Dark Ages, Brother Progressive, and Sister Relationship Expert.

I won't go into all of the details about the conversation I heard before I turned off the TV to keep from hitting it with a hammer. I won't talk at length about the informal poll asking brothers whether strong women were "turn offs" or "turn ons," or Baisden's incredulity when brothers answered "turn on." Suffice it to say that even Brother Progressive felt compelled to announce emphatically that he "is and always will be the head of [his] house."

I was, in a word, demoralized. Apparently it really is impossible to shake the problematic, fallacious, and certainly sexist notion that the only time a sister should be in charge is when a brother cannot be found. Strong Black Woman comes to the rescue until a brother shows up to be The Head. Guess it was church politics, after all.

The scariest aspect of the Baisden show was the absence of a brother who would publicly defend his belief in gender equality and shared leadership in the Black family. When Brother Progressive seemed to be going in that direction, he immediately was forced by the scorn of the other men, especially Baisden, to affirm his manhood by positioning himself above his wife. A male friend, who is married, explained to me a few weeks ago that sometimes brothers are almost embarrassed when they are with a woman who is "too" accomplished. That's what I saw in Brother Progressive. Shame.

Here's my question: How will we ever have happy, constructive, mutually uplifting Black love relationships that lead to successful marriages and families if we spend all of our time competing with one another to be the boss? Alternatively, will we really be better off if one of us simply decides always to defer to the good but certainly fallible judgment of the other? Must leadership be so much a game of "Who's on top?" And if really successful relationships are based on sharing power, but Black men are too ashamed to say so, how will younger brothers ever know that it's okay?

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Damon Wayans

I am perplexed by the question of how much outrageous talk we should endure in the name of entertainment.

When I began the blog, I asked friends to forward ideas or situations they thought I should address. My friend took me up on this, after watching Damon Wayans peddling his outrageous and insulting ideas on The View. I watched the clip on and heard Wayans declare, in the name of not being hypocritical, that Don Imus was right in dubbing the Rutgers basketball team nappy-headed hos. When the hosts of The View objected, Wayans without originality implied that Black people would find his defense of Imus humorous, although white people would sit at home with a confused look on their faces.

It seems to me that the problem of blatantly offensive and misleading speech in the name of entertainment is inherent in the comedic genre. Of course, there have been comics who resist the urge simply to shock or go for cheap laughs, but usually the edginess that makes comedians funny skirts the boundaries of propriety, offense, and frequently meanness.

The Imus comment and the Wayans reprise are not simply matters of free speech or of (the lack of)taste. We who listen judge them to decide when attempts to be funny are just too mean or too false or too stupid to laugh at. And even when we laugh, out of nervousness or amusement, we have the right to consider whether our own laughter represents some baser emotion that we prefer not to indulge. And, yes, we even have the right to be so weary of seeing and hearing ourselves demeaned that we protest and refuse to take it anymore.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Fugitive Safe Surrender 2

According to the United States Marshal's office, the most recent Fugitive Safe Surrender, held at Bible Way Church in Washington, D.C., was a success as more than 500 persons turned themselves in, including 240 on the last day of the operation.
Conceived of by Peter J. Elliott, United States Marshal for the Northern District of Ohio,after the death of Cleveland Police Officer Wayne Leon at the hands of a wanted fugitive, Fugitive Safe Surrender is a powerful new initiative that encourages persons wanted for felony or misdemeanor crimes to voluntarily surrender to the law in a faith-based location. The program now has been adopted as a national USMS-sponsored initiative.

The Marshal's report continues:
Preliminary results showed that 530 individuals surrendered over the program’s three days, and that 53 of those were wanted for felony crimes. However, fewer than three percent of all those who participated in the program were arrested. For those few, charges included domestic violence, escape from jail, and felony assault. Sixty-four of the people who appeared at the church found that they had no active warrants against them, further illustrating the benefit of the program.

Last week the City of Philadelphia was on edge as a fugitive, now identified as John Lewis was at large, following the fatal shooting of police officer Chuck Cassidy. Lewis was apprehended in a homeless shelter in Miami after days of intense police activity in the the Oak Lane section of Philadelphia and because of tips encouraged by the $150K reward.

In addition to my concern about an armed, frightened killer at large, before Lewis was caught, I sympathized with his family and friends who worried that he would not live to face trial. While most of those who surrendered in D.C. were not wanted for felonies, that program gave me hope for more humane and frankly less dangerous means of bringing even those wanted for felonies to justice.

There is so little good news when it comes to law enforcement, especially as it relates to African Americans. Let's hear it again for the US Marshal's office and enlightened experiment in fugitive surrender.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

A Revival for Our Time

I spent the last two days in Atlanta where I was privileged to be a part of a revival at Ebenezer Baptist Church. This revival had all of the usual elements: singing (Helen Baylor, Dottie Peoples, and choirs), preaching (yours truly), prayer and praise (at least half of those assembled). But this revival had more: voter registration, feeding the homeless, scholarly discussion (Dr. Obery Hendricks discussing The Politics of Jesus). It was themed "Victory in the Village" and had at its core a concern for the holistic needs of a community in crisis.

While I was in Atlanta, breaking news announced that six prominent "mega ministries" are under Senate investigation. Yet again, the images of ministerial opulence that include half-million dollar cars, multi-million dollar estates, jet planes, and prosperity preaching dominated the media coverage of Christian life. I was embarrassed, though no longer surprised, since we have come to take these distortions of the gospel for granted. And I might say especially in Atlanta.

But I am thankful that conspicuous consumption is not the only story. Ebenezer is not the only church bearing witness. God still has prophets who have not bowed the knee the god of this world. Jesus still has some followers. I hope that my efforts contributed to the transformation of a few more.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Fugitive Safe Surrender

Just when I had given up hope for any good news to emerge either from the District of Columbia or the Black church, I happened to be listening the NPR's All Things Considered and heard the story of Bible Way Church and its role in a program called Fugitive Safe Surrender.

Safe Surrender permits fugitives accused of nonviolent offenses to turn themselves in to federal marshals in the safety of the Bible Way Church facilities. It is a win-win situation which conserves law enforcement money and personnel as well as giving people who made a mistake in fleeing the opportunity to turn themselves in without making their legal predicament worse. Although it does not offer amnesty, it does portend leniency in sentencing, and some of those who have surrendered actually leave on the same day with a clean slate.

There is a lot of bad news in the church world today, thousands of reasons to suspect that many church leaders have completely lost touch with reality. I am delighted to see Bible Way continuing its historical commitment to holistic transformation and social justice. I hope some other people are listening and watching too.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Trick or Trauma

Because I have been reading Renita Weems's blog, I knew that today was a day for wearing red in solidarity with those who are drawing attention to the violence against women. For me, that means that it is also a day to stand against anyone who seems to condone such violence simply because the victim of the violence does not fit the mold of propriety or morality or whatever else.

Here in Philadelphia, a (female) judge last week reduced a rape charge to armed robbery and "theft of services" when a woman who had agreed to have protected sex with two men for a fee was forced to have unprotected sex with four men at gunpoint. Judge Teresa Carr Deni's problem with the case clearly relates to her disapproval of the original agreement, but it is frightening that a judge could miss the basic point when it comes to legal definitions of rape- namely, that when someone forces a sex act upon you, it is rape. The victim in the case was trying to turn a trick and got a trauma. The gunpoint part should have been a clue to Judge Deni.

This points to why we need days like today to draw attention to the wrong of violence. We need to remind the world and even judges that no on deserves the beating and that no one asks for being raped. We need to raise awareness so that the community and the courts do not traumatize abused women simply because we do not approve of them.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

McClurkin's Testimony

I thought the story was going to blow over, but apparently not. It seems that gay rights advocates are disappointed with Barack Obama for not "disinviting" Donnie McClurkin who was a headliner at Obama's South Carolina gospel concert. The problem? Donnie McClurkin's testimony that God "delivered" him from homosexuality.

Now let me say at the outset that I am not writing this blog to take on the question of the authenticity of McClurkin's testimony. Rather, I want to weigh in and simply remind people that testimony is what it was. It represented McClurkin's right to frame and define his own identity. And McClurkin has generally been apolitical about this particular aspect of his testimony.

It's not that I am missing the point that gay rights advocates make, namely, that the kind of testimony McClurkin gives may be used to undermine their claims in framing and defining their identity. They reason that if people take McClurkin's word for being delivered, then those same people will refuse to accept the word of gay people who say that their sexual orientation is not a choice.

I said in a blog a few weeks ago that testimony is judged by the performance of the one giving the testimony and by other facts that are known to the hearer. Do you believe McClurkin? Do you believe his opponents? Either? Neither? At the moment, that's not even really the question. The question at hand has to do with whether you believe Obama.

However all of this turns out, putting Obama in the middle is not sensible. If he's going to win the Democratic nomination or the Presidency (and this goes for whoever wins), he is going to have to be attractive to people who are not attractive to each other. The "values" question cannot be "Do I agree with Obama about everything?" but "Can I support the candidate given the reasoning behind the positions with which I disagree?"

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Wilson Freed

As most of you who have followed the story probably already know, Genarlow Wilson, the student-athlete who was sentenced to 10 years in prison after his conviction for having oral sex with a 15 year old when he was 17, has been freed. The protests and legal arguments have finally succeeded in undoing a gross miscarriage of justice that followed from the mandatory sentencing. But even though Wilson is freed, the problems that led to his tragic case remain, namely, under-aged drinking and random sexual activity.

When asked on Friday where his welcome home party was being held, Wilson wisely responded that he was staying away from parties for a while. This is because the initial scene of the crime for which he was convicted was a hotel party where alcohol and drugs were consumed by Wilson and his friends. We have to face the facts that across the nation, adults are providing alcohol to teenagers who are far too young and inexperienced to drink legally or responsibly. Studies show that alcohol consumption at early ages predisposes one to alcoholism in adulthood. And high school students across social, economic, racial, and regional lines are being injured physically and emotionally by drinking and by the irresponsible adults who are providing the drinks.

That brings me to the next point. After months of hearing about the Genarlow Wilson case, it was the website What about Our Daughters that brought the full story to my attention. The full story is not a case of a boy and his girlfriend having oral sex and the boy being arrested. The full story involves several boys, at least two girls, and an orgy of sexual activity caught on video. The sexually graphic video captured images of the guys taking turns having intercourse with a 17-year-old girl who was drunk. Although Wilson was acquitted of raping the 17-year-old, his buddies pleaded guilty to sexual battery in connection with their non-consensual contact with her. There is a lesson that we must teach our sons and daughters. We have to protect our children by warning them about the dangers of drug and alcohol impairment. We have to tell them that you can get so drunk that you wake up the next morning not knowing whether you had sex or with whom. And we have to tell our children that they are too valuable to be having sex with someone who doesn't know who they are or what they are doing. Moreover, we have a responsibility to teach them what "consent" means, legally and morally.

Black people especially cannot leave it to the courts or the criminal justice system to sort out our children. We are going to have to get off the dime and begin to have the hard, honest, even graphic conversations that may prevent the kind of hard fall that Genarlow Wilson, his friends, and the two young women all took.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Common Sense?

I had really decided that I wasn't going to write anymore about Juanita Bynum after my earlier posts. Then my cousin sent me a link to Bynum's website and her new "mentorship" classes. My cousin wanted me to hear Prophetess Bynum's poor taste in humor in the form of a disparaging reference to "short bus people."

I left the site playing long enough to be stunned by Bynum's first advice to her mentees. Buy a name-brand pen, but not a Bic. A Bic, she reasoned, is common and you are too important, your name is too important to be written with a common pen. She continued by bragging that she has paid as much as $5000 for a pen that she uses only for special occasions, such as signing multi-million dollar deals.

This, I thought, is what really endangers Black Christianity. Too many of us actually believe that investing in a pen, or in the offering plate of a prophet(ess), or in playing the lottery number drawn from the pastor's sermon text is the key to unlocking our destiny and purpose. We risk our soul(s), sell our soul(s) for so little because our internal accounting systems are out of kilter. We have no idea what real value is.

In this way, there is very little difference between the "prosperity" propounded by media preachers and the bling-mentality of the underbelly of hip-hop. Both exploit the desperation and depression of their constituencies with promises that are addictive and elusive at the same time. Buy my CDs and videos and you can surmount the obstacles of your everyday living. And even if you can't move out of public housing, you can live vicariously through me. My bling is your bling.

It is true that we don't know what our lives are worth, but it's not because we are using a "common" Bic pen.We don't know what we're worth because we listen to people who think in dollars but no sense.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Come On People

Pundits and bloggers have been weighing in on the latest offering from Bill Cosby and Alvin Poussaint, generally by focusing on their appearances on Oprah and Meet the Press last week. I have held off in voicing my opinion because I wanted to read the actual book before commenting.

Now that I've both read the book and watched MTP on the web, I have to express my commendation and my concern. I want to commend Cosby and Poussaint for their role in restoring the conversation about the relative importance of personal behavior and systemic adversity in determining the future of Black people. I appreciate the passion, candor, and caring for Black people that I saw in the book and heard in the interview. I agree wholeheartedly that self-defeating attitudes and irresponsible behavior are crippling some Black people, especially youth. And God knows that as a single,educated Black woman who wants to be married to a Black man, I am heartbroken because of the lost and wasted talent, energy, intelligence of Black men who populate prison or who wander aimlessly.

The book is easy to read, divided into short sections that offer practical instruction about subjects from crime to childrearing, health care to financial management. All of these subjects are intended to speak holistically to the African American condition and respond to the need for guidance that Cosby and Poussaint perceive. Unfortunately, the most nuanced discussions are found at the end of the book, by which time the faint of heart might have already given up on being inspired and instructed rather than simply patronized and insulted.

The tone of the book gives me pause, especially its disdainful dismissal of every countercultural or subcultural aspect of Black life, especially hip hop music and Black English. Although Cosby's life as an entertainer has given him the notoriety that makes his opinions publishable, the rhetorical conventions and the tendency to exaggerate that characterize comedy may be counterproductive to advancing his message.

It is one thing to acknowledge the need for developing skill in standard English, especially when interacting with the dominant culture. It is another to repeat that "You can't land a plane in Rome saying, 'Whassup?'" (7) At such moments, and there are a few in the book, an ugly air of condescension calls the expressions of compassion and concern into question.

I too dislike the fashion statement of jeans so baggy that the underwear is exposed. But the solution is not to heckle the wearer, but rather to demonstrate that modesty is sensible and that different occasions call for different uniforms. It's not true that you can't get a job or can't work a job dressed in urban fashions. The question has to be what kind of job do you want, and are you really willing to do what it takes to grow into a position that will allow you the freedom of artistic expression in your dress.

Ultimately, as I watched Cosby and Poussaint I realized how much this debate exposes a significant generation gap. Oprah's website dubbed Cosby "America's Favorite Dad." But for what generation? The Cosby Show, though in syndication, was for another generation. Cosby's Fatherhood was published in 1987. I wonder whether Cosby and Poussaint have the relationship with their target group that will allow the best parts of their message to take root. Generations past heeded the voice of the elders because they had reason to trust them, not simply because the norms of the community demanded that elders be respected.

There is no doubt that the time of reckoning has come for our community. If we do not address some of the issues that Come On People raises, we will not survive. Despite some weaknesses, Cosby and Poussaint have written a book that is driving that conversation.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Don't Make Your Business Bad

I grew up in a family in which my mother prided herself on being able to manage her money, however little or much of it there was. (And my dad had the sense to put the finances in her hands.) She faithfully brought her tithes and offerings to the church. She gave what she could when she knew that someone was in need. She saved for the things she wanted, including our annual "vacation", also known as the church convention, and for a "rainy day." She paid cash for almost everything. And when she used credit, she always paid off the bill ahead of time. In fact, she had been so diligent when she was well that we noticed the onset of her dementia because she was no longer sharp when it came to finances. At her best, she handled her business.

I am not knowledgeable enough to say whether our national economy as a whole is healthy or what its prospects are. I do read about record highs in the price of oil, record lows in the value of the dollar, and immeasurable instability in financial markets because of the subprime lending crisis. We have no idea what the long-term financial implications of the Iraq war will be, nor do we know whether and how Social Security will survive the Baby Boomers' retirement and increased longevity. What we do know is that, to paraphrase an old adage, if America gets a cold then Black people will have pneumonia.

Meanwhile, there are too few communal conversations among Black people about money and wealth. And I have a particular concern about the (lack of) treatment of this issue within the church. We have to have conversations about money beyond "Will a man rob God?" during stewardship month. We need to talk about credit. We need to talk about budgets. We need to talk about money in relationships. We need to talk practically about how to buy a house you can pay for, and not just walk around your "dream house" quoting scripture about the promises of God. We need to talk about how not to buy a new car as soon as you pay the old one off. We need to talk about investments, and not just in the ministries of prominent preachers.

"Why in the church?" you may rightly ask. First, because Christians learn about all kinds values in the church. Second, because in the church there are a lot of problematic, erroneous messages about "seeds" and "financial blessings" that need to be debunked theologically and practically. Third, because financial stewardship of our forbears founded and sustained the Black church in the past, and our investment will determine its future. Fourth, because the church is our institution and we can and should make it a center for the empowerment of our people.

I began this post by talking about my mom because she taught me that money is something that you have to handle and manage. When I am tempted to overspend I still hear her caution "Don't make your business bad." I am heeding her advice (mostly). But I recognize that I and others need the tools and information to make our business good and prosperous.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Turn It Off

Anyone who spends a lot of time online, as I do, will probably have read about the controversy that has arisen over ongoing protests of BET programming. For anyone who missed it, Enough is Enough, a group convened by Rev. Delman Coates,Ph.D. has been picketing the home of BET Executive Debra Lee for the past several weeks to call attention to the degrading and demeaning representations of black people in the media. Not everyone is cheering. Michael Eric Dyson wrote an Op-Ed in the Atlanta Journal Constitution sympathizing with the message but objecting to the methods of the group in targeting Lee's home.

Let me say from the outset, that I am generally in support of Coates's aims. The Black community has consistently suffered because of the negative images portrayed in the dominant culture and because of the propensity of some in our community to live down to those images. While I could never understand the desire to become a caricature, some Black people, young and old, work very hard at it. Thus, the question of which came first, the image or the pathology, is a lot harder to answer than either side admits.

But I want to approach this issue from a different vantage point and declare that we watch too much television in the first place. African Americans generally and African American children particularly are known for being television's largest and most faithful audience. Forty percent of African American children reported watching more than 4 hours of television per day. Although the adage that TV watching burns fewer calories than sleeping has been debunked, it is certainly true that TV watching correlates to childhood obesity. And when we are looking for reasons that our children are underperforming in school, then we have to look at TV as a contributing factor.

Anyone who reads this blog knows that I am no right-wing "personal responsibility" guru. But the crisis in the Black community in education, poverty, and crime is so significant that we are forced to look in every direction for solutions - inward and outward. If we want our children to be successful (and if we as adults want our brains not to turn to mush), then we are going to have to turn the television off. Read a book, do your homework, go for a walk, talk to your family, clean your house, go to bed. Whatever. Just do it without the television for a change. And that means video games too.

Friday, October 12, 2007

When Your Number Comes Up

I am among the minority of Americans who are against capital punishment. Along with other opponents of the death penalty, I am convinced of the racial bias in prosecutions, concerned about judicial and police error in convictions, and unconvinced of capital punishment's efficacy as a deterrent to heinous criminality. But my deepest objection to the death penalty has to do with the what happens when our government and, by extension, we as citizens become executioners. While I understand the logic of "an eye for an eye, a life for a life" that rationalizes our impulse to exact revenge, I view government and the rule of law as a balance to our individual and collective emotionality, not as the executor of it. At the same time, because my position is a minority one, I live with an awareness that executions take place regularly in this nation, especially in the state of Texas, and I try not to lose sleep over that fact.

But this week in the New York Times, I read an article by Adam Liptak Going to Court, but Not in Time to Live that jarred me and reconfirmed my suspicion that the state as executioner actually feeds the worst impulses in our society and undermines the justice in the justice system. Liptak describes the case of Luther J. Williams who died by lethal injection after the Supreme Court had agreed to hear his case, but before they actually heard it. Apparently, it takes 4 members of the High Court to agree to review a case, but 5 members to stay an execution. Thus, the living and dying of a human being came down to what Liptak calls the "arithmetic of death." Can you stay alive long enough for your final appeal?

In truth, death penalty cases often come down to numbers. How old is the defendant? What is the defendant's IQ? What is the right proportion of chemicals and anesthetics to make an injection lethal without being cruel and unusual punishment? Not to mention the date on the calendar when the sentence of death will be carried out or the number of innocent people who have already been executed.

All of these considerations only intensify my discomfort with state-sponsored death. I don't trust the government, the police, or the courts with that kind of power. The longer I live, the more I sympathize with many victims' families who long for a closure that comes only with the perpetrator's death. At the same, I am increasingly suspicious of the numbers game that brings that finality. And I am profoundly aware that the condemned have families, too.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Being Grateful

From time to time, I give consideration to the subject of happiness, my own and others'. This kind of reflection is generally prompted by a biblical text that forces me in sermon form to delve into the meaning and elusiveness of joy. Today I am thinking about a sermon I heard last evening that reminded me how prone I am to making myself unhappy by focusing on the negative and a Newsweek article on Deborah Norville's new book about gratitude that made the same point in a more secular context. Bottom line: A key ingredient to happiness is gratitude.

To be sure, there is much that is wrong in and with the world today. Unending conflict in Iraq, escalation of rhetoric as a prelude to war in Iran, genocide in Darfur, oppression in Myanmar, worldwide violence against women, expansion of the prison industrial complex, poverty, not to mention racism, sexism, classism in the society and in the church. But even with all that is bad, with all that needs to be addressed, there is still much good in the world and in my life.

Every day that God sends, there are many reasons for me to give thanks and to know contentment, though not complacency. While there are perhaps a few people who hate me or dislike me intensely, there are far more who love me, affirm my personhood and my gifts, and wish me well. While I have had my share of disappointments, there have been far more moments when I have been pleasantly surprised by extravagant blessings. My life has not turned out to be exactly what I ordered, but mostly that's a good thing. And the truth is that, as a good friend once declared, "happiness is a choice" for me.

As for the evil and wrong in the world, there is still good news in that there remain some activists, thinkers, clergy, grass roots organizers, and even a few politicians who have not yet become callous to the needs of those who suffer. Some courageous people reject racism, sexism, and classism in themselves, in the church, and the community. There are still some people who believe in the possibility of a better life and better world. A world in which everyone would have the luxury I have overused of being unhappy because of the little things.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Why do we tolerate this?

Growing up in West Virginia with a dad who was glued to our television from season to season and sport to sport, I developed an early loathing for televised athletics. (We only had one TV at that time, back in the dark ages.) What might now be called my interest, maybe bordering on mania, for professional sports derived from being a resident of two very big sports towns during years when the city teams were in playoff contention. I became a Yankees fan during the early years of Derek Jeter, when the Yankees were not only the best team but the best looking team in MLB. (Remember Bernie Williams?) Although they're not as flashy, the nice guys of the Philadelphia Phillies have slowly won my heart and in their worst days caused me to lose sleep.

But I'm not really blogging today to lament a disappointing NLDS for the Phillies. I am simply posing a question for all reasonable people of good will - Why do we continue to support teams with names like "Indians," "Braves," and "Redskins"? Why especially do black people, many of whom still do not eat watermelon in public because of the caricature of our people, tolerate the Sambo-like logo of the Cleveland Indians?

I am rooting against the Indians tonight since they are on the verge of eliminating the Yankees. But I always root against them because of the racist image that dons their uniforms, even after years of protest from Native Americans and their allies. And by the way, I'm not celebrating Columbus Day either.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Clarence Thomas Testifies

Watching Clarence Thomas’s interview on 60 Minutes (Thank God for YouTube) reminded me again how powerful and misleading testimony can be. There is nothing like hearing someone tell her or his own story, nothing like observing the construction and performance of a person's version of the truth.

Thomas constructed a mythic African American tale, complete with an absent father, a disempowered mother, an infallible grandmother, and, most important of all, a grandfather who dispensed tough love and the will to succeed. As reporter Kroft lobbed questions, much in the way of a defense attorney with his client, Justice Thomas spun a tapestry of adolescent Catholicism, 60s radicalism (loved the picture with the big Afro), early adult disillusionment (the fault of affirmative action), and mature strict-constructionist constitutionality. Despite some missteps along the way, he became a son his grandfather could be proud of, a success story. Horatio Alger lives.

The Clarence Thomas of the 60 Minutes interview is compelling and tragic, having overcome obstacles and defied racists only to end up misunderstood and mistreated, not just by white people but by his own. He has a 15-cent law degree from one of the finest law schools in the country and a not-sure-it’s-worth-it seat on the highest court of the land. That is powerful stuff.

But it is also misleading. If we are to believe his explanation, liberals and Black people dislike him because he thinks for himself and refuses to walk in lockstep. I can only speak for myself, but that’s not why I don’t like Clarence Thomas. I dislike anyone who espouses the kind of judicial conservatism whose colorblindness refuses remedy to people of color, after centuries of systemic racial oppression. I don’t like anyone whose rulings consistently interpret the law to affirm big corporations against little people. I dislike anyone whose judicial philosophy is to the right of Antonin Scalia. And I especially dislike people who benefited from affirmative action to the nth degree and then offer themselves as poster children for the ridiculous position that affirmative action actually hurts black folks. White or black, male or female, I would not like Clarence Thomas the Supreme Court Justice. I don’t proclaim to know the man.

Testimony, in court and in church, is judged on the basis of the speakers’ performance and on facts known by the audience. While Thomas’s 60 Minutes performance gets an A, the testimony of his rulings tells another story.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Suffer the Children

In an effort to explain his veto of the bill reauthorizing SCHIP (article), the State Children's Health Insurance Program, The Decider repeated his objection that the $35 billion expansion was both too costly and could potentially add children whose parents can afford private insurance to state rolls or, worse yet, that some adults might even be covered. In a statement so ironic that it would be comic if the stakes were not so high, The Decider intoned, "Poor kids first." But Bush's actual commitment, certainly more fervently held than his concern for the poor ,was expressed in his follow-up comment, "Secondly, I believe in private medicine, not the federal government running the health care system."

As a person of strong core beliefs and convictions, I can hardly object to the presence of such staunchness in another person, right? I have to respect and even admire that the President recognizes that the buck stops with him, whatever the polls say, right? Wrong!

I am weary of Bush's upside-down convictions. In his warped imagination, stem cell research using soon-to-be-discarded embryos is indefensible. Torture of suspects who have not yet been convicted of anything is a necessary evil. $190 billion for the war effort in 2008, funded God knows how for God knows how long, is advisable. $35 billion dollars over 5 years for children's health insurance, funded by additional cigarette taxation is too expensive.

When asked during the 2000 election presidential primary season what political philosopher he admired most, Bush cited Jesus Christ because "he changed my heart." I guess this is the same heart that believes in private medicine. It doesn't take much heart for a man who has always had access to health care to believe in the system that provides it for him. Real heart, as in the kind that produces compassion, induces a person to examine systems on the basis of who is left out. Perhaps Bush got confused by the King James Version's antiquated language and thought that when Jesus said "Suffer the little children" he meant "make the children suffer."

Whatever has caused this misguided presidential veto, I pray to the Jesus who loves all of the children that the Congress will override it.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Thomas and Hill Redux

By eerie coincidence Isiah Thomas and the Knicks were found guilty of sexually harassing Anucha Browne Sanders on the same day that Anita Hill published her response to Clarence Thomas's recently released memoir, titled My Grandfather's Son. In the memoir, Justice Thomas seeks simultaneously to vindicate himself and his image and to implicate the liberal establishment in what he claims were Hill's false accusations during his 1991 Supreme Court confirmation hearings.

In 1991, I was an undergraduate and already much too familiar with the tensions that can plague the relationships between professional Black women and men. I remember vividly the countless conversations in the dining halls of Harvard College that ensued after Anita Hill accused the nominee to the Supreme Court of sexual harassment. I am proud to say that I believed Hill from the beginning, although I admit that I disliked Thomas even before Hill surfaced. More interesting is the fact that most Black people I talked with, male and female, also believed Hill. What we argued about was whether it was ultimately helpful or damaging to the Race (meaning for African American progress) for Hill to have come forward.

I argued then that the Race is only degraded when we cover up Black men's misdeeds, especially when those crimes damage Black women. Black women are not responsible to imperil their physical, spiritual, or professional lives in order to preserve the fiction of a united Black community. And in fact, it is a form of internalized racism to have such a low opinion of Black manhood that we think Clarence Thomas and his ilk are the best we can do when we look for representatives of, in, and for our community.

In 2007, I am struck by how much has changed and how much remains unchanged. Recent events, including the civil trial of Isiah Thomas, the conviction of Michael Vick, and (another) indictment of O.J. Simpson demonstrate that the Black community still struggles with how to respond when famous Black men are accused of wrongdoing. But the ruling holding Isaiah Thomas liable for sexual harassment demonstrates that some things have changed. As Anita Hill herself put it: "Fortunately, we have made progress since 1991. Today, when employees complain of abuse in the workplace, investigators and judges are more likely to examine all the evidence and less likely to simply accept as true the word of those in power."

The Anita Hill who emerges in the New York Times Op-Ed piece is worthy of celebration. Whereas during the hearings she seemed muted and victimized, today her voice resounds like the clarion call of a trumpet. Unlike Thomas, she seeks no vindication, since as she notes, independent authors have already demonstrated that the claims Thomas seeks to resurrect were false. But she does offer a caution, that this unprecedented and obviously bitter outburst by a sitting Supreme Court Justice may portend legal regression if the nation drops its guard.

I (still) hear you, Professor Hill.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

How Many Times Can Giuliani Say 9/11

Try as I may, I cannot keep from tuning in to what might be called the "Religious Dimensions of Presidential Politics, 2008 Edition." Perhaps it is because I bought the later discredited hype that attributed the reelection of George W. Bush in 2004 to the "values" campaign waged by Karl Rove and his anti-abortion, anti-gay political hacks. More likely, my interest is attributable to the ongoing concern I have as a scholar and minister for the representations of the faith that resonate with the majority of Americans who call themselves Christian.

Whatever the sources of my interest, I found myself biting when I read the headline "Giuliani Cites Bible on Personal Life." I wanted to know the limits of pandering in the Giuliani campaign. Would Hizzoner (Emeritus) actually manufacture a relationship with the Christian scriptures in order to bolster a would-be romance with the Christian conservative Republican base? The answer was both a more and less cynical appeal to the heart of his base than I anticipated.

In the first instance, I had to admit that perhaps Giuliani's resort to scripture was not entirely manufactured. Taking his testimony as a true confession, one discovers an adulterer who finds comfort in the refusal of Jesus to stone one such as himself. Although in some sense it is objectionable, this use of scripture is wholly conventional. Many a person living a ragged moral life has intoned, quoting Jesus, "Judge not." In the Black church tradition, this usually manifests as "The Lord knows my heart."

Given the fact that Giuliani has a difficult mountain to climb if he hopes to be the poster-candidate for the family values niche of the Republican base -- what with his public display of marital infidelity while in Gracie Mansion, his estranged children, and his support of abortion rights -- it may be prudent indeed to summons the Savior himself to silence his most judgmental followers. And if that doesn't work, he can tell the public again that his family and faith, though profoundly important in his life, are none of our business.

What was more disturbing than Giuliani's comments about the Bible was his use of "September 11th" as a mantra. In an unforgivably self-serving way, Giuliani constantly reminds his audiences that for him, and presumably for them, 9/11 changed everything. He's prayed a lot since 9/11, and he has to take his wife's calls in the middle of speeches because of 9/11. In effect, he wants America to know that he needs to be President because of 9/11.

What scares me most about this tactic, is that it may actually work. It may be the case that the value most critical to the Republican base in this election will be the strong arm. Pro-Jesus and pro-family may actually be less important than pro-war.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Take Me Home, Country Roads

The first item in my biographical sketch, used for church programs and speaking engagements, is that I grew up in Gary, West Virginia. More often than not, someone from within the congregation will approach me after the service with the special twinkle in their eye that comes not from a spiritual breakthrough catalyzed by my preaching, but rather from the shared heritage of being a Mountaineer. "I'm from West Virginia, too," they exclaim. After the exchange of specific information about cities and counties, there usually follows a conversation about the joys of being from West Virginia - almost heaven.

Given my origins in Southern West Virginia, I have been disturbed to the point of speechlessness by the accounts of seven captive days of rape and torture inflicted on 20-year-old Megan Williams. Images of this young Black woman forced to endure unspeakable abuse and indignities at the hands of six white people, among them a man and his mother, both sicken me and boggle my mind. I ask, along with the victim's mother and a nation aghast, how could human beings treat another person so cruelly. I cry out for justice, for the criminal acts to be punished and for the victim's personhood to be honored in the local courts, while all of America watches.

Unlike the rest of the nation, however, for me this case does not resurrect or reinforce preconceived notions about the fundamental backwardness of West Virginians. With all of its problems, most of them related to the collapse of industry and accompanying joblessness and poverty, West Virginia is home to some of the best, most generous people I have ever met.

Don't get me wrong, I am not naively pronouncing West Virginia free from the racism that plagues our nation, nor from the tensions that often attend interracial interactions. But I feel the need to say on behalf of all West Virginians, still resident or transplanted, that the West Virginia hills are home, the place were I learned from a community of people, black and white, what it means to be a good neighbor.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Too Much Enthusiasm? Not Again.

I might be accused of being hyper-sensitive about the subject, and the accusation might even be well-founded, but I am stunned by the recent article in Time magazine which asks the question "Are Mega-Preachers Scandal-Prone?" Now at first blush, if you judge an article by its title, you might wonder what about that assertion impacts me. I don't even have a church, much less a mega-ministry. And I have been known myself to question the integrity of several mega-preachers, generally in private but sometimes in public too.

What raises my ire about the article is the fact that it implies, with the ready assistance of Albert Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, that it is the Pentecostalism of these preachers that introduces the physical and emotional excess that leads to private misbehavior which eventuates in public exposure. Says Mohler, it is "so driven by emotion and by passion" that theological and moral accountability suffer. Thus, though discussing such figures as Swaggart, Bakker, White, and Bynum, who by virtue of their notoriety are hardly typical, the article manages to indict the whole Pentecostal/Charismatic movement.

Now any American religious historian, especially one who studies Pentecostalism as I do, will recognize immediately an argument as old as revivalism in this country. Whenever spiritual fervor has risen to the point where established denominations and authoritative persons cannot contain or control it, the charge of bodily excess and "enthusiasm" has always followed. The charismatic movement is no exception. Even within the history of Pentecostalism, theological debates and disagreements have often led to mudslinging accusations about the personal morality of the theological opponent. After Charles Parham's ouster from the Azusa Mission in 1907, he forever after accused Azusa-style Pentecostals of practicing "free love" and other acts of immorality, usually meaning illicit sex. His opponents, in turn, accused him of sodomy. None of this is new, but that doesn't make it accurate.

Let me expand on the point that Anthea Butler made in the same article, but that Time failed to emphasize, namely, that Pentecostals are no more scandal prone than other denominations. In fact, even the scandalous behavior noted in the article itself is commonplace, not only among Christian clergy but within society at large. Adultery and fiscal mismanagement, domestic violence, and divorce are not "mega-preacher things." The difference in these cases is that the preachers have a national following both before the allegations and after.

As a minister with Pentecostal heritage, but with a wide variety of experience and affiliation among Christian denominations, I am spending a lot of time lately trying to help non-Pentecostals have some accurate perspective on the Pentecostal movement. Time's reiteration of the worn-out thesis that too much emotional content makes religion dangerous and unaccountable does not help.

At the end of the day, being Pentecostal/Charismatic or anointed or in ministry, does not determine whether you will stay married, be faithful, or steal money. But being famous does mean that if you get caught, you'll have a scandal on top of everything else.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Show me the Money

When the public relations machinery that controls electoral politics in this nation invoked the phrase "compassionate conservative" and attached it to the vision and intentions of the man who would be President (now known as "The Decider"), I was skeptical. All of my life the Republican party, policy and platform, had represented race-baiting. poverty-ignoring, industry-coddling, war-mongering conservatism, completely without compassion. Conservatism of this sort moralized about personal responsibility, enriched the coffers the few who were already rich, and ignored governmental responsibility for promoting the general welfare. But where once I was skeptical, now I am downright angry.

The news this week is dominated by stories of appropriations. Defense Secretary Gates (on behalf of The Decider) is preparing his request for an estimated $190 billion for the war effort in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2008, one-third more than the original projections. At the same time, a bipartisan effort in Congress is haggling over a bill to extend health coverage to 10 million uninsured American children. The price tag? $35 billion over 5 years. And the haggling is primarily about making the bill sufficiently bipartisan so that enough Republicans will sign onto it and make it veto proof. Why does it need to be veto proof? Because our compassionate conservative Decider has an ideological opposition to federal government intervention in health care, even for the sake of millions of children.

Here's what I don't get. Our government can write a blank check and incur unprecedented debt to intervene uninvited and reorganize a nation halfway around the world in the name of democracy without offending his ideology, but a (cheaper) action to save the lives and promote the health of children at risk in our own nation goes beyond the pale of appropriate federal interference. Big government for war; small government for children. We can afford to remain in Iraq indefinitely, but we cannot insure the children who will ultimately have to pay the debt we are incurring.

In my posts thus far, I have been speaking to Christian-types, church people who I believe need to think more deeply about the issues of our day. And this blog is no exception. I don't hold out much hope for the current President. He is what he is, and does what he does. The challenge actually belongs to the church, the same people who initially felt that the compassion part of the "compassionate conservative" vision could lead to politics that conforms to a fundamentally (not fundamentalist) moral vision. The question for Christians is Have we finally reached the point where we can resist Bush's veneer of Christianity and condemn his policies?

When do we pay attention to the carpenter from Nazareth who observed 2000 years ago that where your treasure is there will your heart be also?

Friday, September 14, 2007

Gaper's Delay

“The fact is that gossip, rumors, mythmaking, and news stories are not appropriate vehicles for the communication of nuances of truth, those subtle tonalities that are often the truly crucial elements in a causal chain.” -- Chaim Potok My Name is Asher Lev

How absolutely providential for me to begin reading Potok’s novel on the day when Bishop Thomas Weeks III held a press conference to fire back at his wife Juanita Bynum with his opening salvo in the public relations war that has become the end of their marriage.

Before I wax indignantly poetic about the disingenuousness of both Weeks and Bynum who purport to respect the privacy of their marital covenant even as they continue to make it a public spectacle, I need to remember their history. There’s no earthly reason to be surprised that the end of their marriage would be a PR extravaganza, since from the beginning they have publicized it on cable television, first with the announcement of their engagement and then with The Wedding, a million-dollar production rerun periodically in a TBN schedule that includes innumerable other B-movies.

For those who missed it, in a press conference in Atlanta, Weeks read a statement in which he detailed the series of events, beginning in early June 2007 that led to the altercation on August 21st. What he wanted the audience to know, especially those in his local congregations (pointedly referred to as the “Global Church”), was that every story has two sides. His side, at least the part that his attorneys have permitted him to speak about, is a story of Juanita Bynum’s heartless and decidedly un-pastoral severing of her ties to her husband and to the ministries/congregations that they founded together. His side is that Bynum is far from a saint.

This latest installment of the Juanita and Tommy Show is fascinating, not so much because of the star players whose statements frankly lack originality, but because of the audience responses. Weeks called the press conference because he knew he had an audience, predominantly female like the church itself, waiting with bated breath for the explanation that would make his actions make sense. He must have known that his marriage has become a car wreck and that a whole nation of (black) church people is hanging its collective head out of their car window trying to get a better look and perhaps to see some blood.

The problem with all of this is that it is a distraction. What kind of wife or pastor or even person Bynum was is tangential at best to the central issue of the violence witnesses say Weeks unleashed in that parking lot. I haven’t met a person yet, male or female, who did not have a difficult or even impossible side to their personality. Who isn’t a real pain to live with sometimes? Who doesn’t have irredeemably selfish, thoughtless, cruel and maybe even heartless moments? I find it disturbing that Weeks would design a defense for the public that amounted to character assassination. Of course, the events he narrated might have a role in his criminal defense as mitigating circumstances, but it is a sign that he thinks very little of his (I repeat, mostly female) church audience if he believes that portraying Bynum as a nasty or insensitive person will redeem him in our sight, especially without his taking responsibility for his own loss of control.

With all of that said, there is an even bigger distraction that is a part of this scene. We have collective, ecclesiastical “gaper's delay.” We the public need to understand is that no press conference, sound bite, television appearance, or even memoir is ever going to give us the insight or knowledge that will make this make sense or reveal the truth that is hidden by the public relations machines. What we really need to do is to allow the judge(s) – both in Atlanta and in heaven – to sort out the Bynum-Weeks affair. We have places to go and things to do for the kingdom of God. So let’s get our eyes back on the road that leads to life everlasting and stop holding up traffic.