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

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.

From Tragedy to Transformation - My Thoughts on the Assault of of Juanita Bynum

Three weeks ago, the church world watched agape as the news of one of its most popular evangelists and her husband hit the airways. In the hottest news since... well, "The Wedding" we heard,"Televangelist assaulted by her Bishop Husband" or so the headline said. The church was reeling, but I believe that some good can and will come out of this tragic and devastating occurrence. Perhaps the church and community will finally come to terms with the universal possibility and the clerical propensity for physical domestic abuse. We should all know by now that being called, gifted, and even effective in ministry in no way innoculates a person against the tests and trials that make life life. And it follows that if we can be tried in the same flames as everyone else, we must also be just as susceptible to being singed. It's only logical. The problem is that too often we forget this most basic lesson, that indeed we are all human and thus vulnerable. We who should know better forget that a vocation signals a holy purpose but does not in and of itself cultivate a thoroughly holy disposition or character. Thinking that we are standing firm above the fray, we become easier, unwitting targets for hard, embarrassing falls.

Whether or not Bynum and Weeks ever had the kind of marriage that warrants their leading marriage seminars and writing best selling advice books we will never know. But even if they once were all that they claimed, their marriage had no armor or coating that prevented the scratches and chinks to which all relationships are vulnerable. Whether Weeks had a history of anger management problems or not is subject to debate. But what is clear is that an unchecked temper and violent rage can lead to devastating violence - devastating to the partner, the perpetrator, and to the church. Furthermore, our humanness occasions not only possibility of our failure but also the responsibility to endure and even profit from the consequences that follow. The most frustrating responses I have read or heard when any leader messes up are those that try to combine "man of God" and "human" to exonerate the leader both before and after the facts are known or to shield him/her for calls for justice in the wake of those facts. "Everyone is human," I hear ad nauseum. True, but adult humans understand that actions have consequences. "He's a man of God. We shouldn't judge." Perhaps, but the Christian faith teaches us that sinful actions (and domestic violence is sin) sow seeds that the perpetrator must reap. Even if respect for the anointing kept David from killing Saul, Saul's own sin occasioned his being deposed and led ultimately to his destruction and death.

We as leaders must exercise integrity. We have to cultivate in private the kind of character that will support our public giftedness. And when we fail and fall, we must have the good grace to be accountable and submit ourselves to a punishment that fits our crime. Wrong doing must always be followed by repentance and repentance includes demonstrable works that signal our desire, where possible, to make reparations. The people need to ask more of themselves and their leaders. And whenever a failure occurs, we all need to remember with compassion and humility that justice is a means of reconciliation and not the opposite of forgiveness.

What in all likelihood will NOT happen because of the events in the parking lot of the Renaissance hotel in Atlanta is transformation of the lives and material circumstances of the millions of women who have been the victims of domestic violence. When I heard about the attack, my first coherent thought (after I had recovered from the shock) was a certain awareness that Juanita Bynum , who has already survived so much, would survive this too. If Bynum's most recent public appearances and comments portend her future, then my initial assessment was correct. But I, along with many others, am skeptical about whether the incorporation of issues of domestic violence into Bynum's ministerial portfolio will advance anyone's cause other than her own. I am not discounting the importance of individual transformation,nor disregarding the power of the preached word, but the cure for domestic violence will not come through pithy sermonic assertions. We need systematic policy and culture change. I am all too afraid that Bynum's brand of deliverance will, to paraphrase Jeremiah, heal the wounds of the daughters superficially and speak peace where there is no peace.

I cannot close without a word on behalf of all the preachers and pastors who simply do the work of ministry. Those who live and labor among the people, but who have been living in the shadow of the glitzy ministries of televangelists and conference promoters. One other good thing that I think could come of this tragedy is that maybe someone in a congregation somewhere will have a fleeting moment of real appreciation for their own pastor who is not glamorous but who is godly.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Getting Started

I have been challenging myself to think more systematically about the issues that affect my life and community (defined narrowly and broadly depending on the day) and to write consistently so that I have a potential audience for my best thinking. As I see it, there are more than enough talking heads, especially on talk radio, and quite a few writers, but there's far too little thoughtfulness behind the speaking and writing.

Am I trying to improve myself or the world? I'll start with myself, and we'll see what happens to the world. I find that while I feel free and unimpeded when it comes to talking without thinking or researching the facts, I am much more careful about what I write, especially since I recognize that what we say lives forever in cyberspace This blog provides the necessary occasion for keeping it real, which in this context means keeping it accurate rather than simply being blunt.

And that brings me to the loftier goal of affecting other peoples' thinking and conversation. Over the last three weeks, I have been impressed by the impact that certain blogs have on my life, which was actually the catalyst for my considering blogging myself. As I have been pondering, I have also been writing some potential posts and sending them out to friends and colleagues who have, in turn, encouraged me to find a wider audience.

Here I am. Let's see who shows up.