Sunday, August 21, 2016

So What's Love?

Sometimes I'm 'accused' of promoting a let's-all-just-get-along-and-hold-hands-while-singing-Kumbaya approach to life and loving others. Or I'm told I'm naive because the world is a bad and scary place. (Accused is in quotes, as if wanting to get along is a bad thing. Is it? And Kumbaya is a spiritual song, by the way, "Come by here, Lord." As for naive, take it up with Jesus because his world was painfully real and scary, and his message is nonetheless one of love.)

But at any rate, if you're tired of my (perceived) why-can't-we-all-get-along? musings, then this might be the post for you. This could be the one where different toes are stepped on.

First, kindness, respect, patience and unselfishness when dealing with others is not about how the other person behaves. It's not about approving or disapproving of what anyone does or does not do. That simply is not our job as Christians, as we are told numerous times in the New Testament. In this sense, love is unconditional, non-judgmental. We don't pick and choose who we're willing to love or help based on how they have treated us, on their lifestyle, appearance or other external factors. Jesus didn't teach us to 'sort out the sinners' before offering help and love.

However, there is indeed a crucial shift needed in how we treat others. Unconditional acceptance does not mean we should expect nothing in return for assistance with physical needs. Yes, yes, I see red flags of alarm going up. There are plenty of exceptions. Sometimes people are in no shape to do much of anything to help themselves. A horrible accident. A sudden, catastrophic illness. A house fire or natural disaster. Unconditional help is the correct response in those circumstances. No questions asked. Take care of what needs to be done. When those folks are back on their feet, they'll be the first to help when someone else needs it. That's what neighbors do.

I'm talking about another uncomfortable truth and reality. Part of our collective approach to generosity has created and is continuing to promote generational poverty. Don't jump on government-sponsored social programs here because actually, many such programs have already had some improvements (even though more are needed). This is about us, as members of our respective communities. It is time for churches, civic organizations and others who want to do the right thing to lead the way because a strange irony shows that many who complain about the inefficiency of government programs, often are worse offenders when it comes to providing assistance.

I am in no way suggesting we stop handing out food, school supplies, Christmas presents or other items, but I am suggesting a shift in how we do it. When it comes time for back-to-school fairs, for example, it seems a better approach would be for the community to help the schools directly with needed supplies and let the students -- ALL of the students -- show up on the first day of class with necessary supplies already at school. That way there is no distinction between who is able to buy supplies and who is not and the schools will have exactly what is needed. (Added bonus, teachers would not have to spend so much money out of their own pockets to fill in the gaps.)

Food pantries. Diaper banks. Help with rent or utilities. When churches, organizations and individuals assist with those types of things, something should be given in return by the recipient. Not everyone can do much, but everyone who is able to get to someplace to ask for assistance can do something. To the detriment of the greater good, we've gotten squeamish about even discussing this sort of thing, and right now there are readers who are getting ready with replies that start with something like, "But we can't let kids pay for their parents mistakes..." I agree. It's been something I've said many times and will continue to say. I'm not saying I have the answers. I'm saying it's time to start the conversation.

Children now will be the parents of the next generation. They're learning how to get to by in this world and they'll be teaching their kids to get by in the same way, whatever way it is that they've learned. We need to break the cycle of generational poverty. The good and useful thing is that kids usually already want to help others as a natural impulse. We need to build on their enthusiasm for doing the right thing, not ignore it or squelch it. (The Bridges Program in the West Plains Schools often sees the students they help be good volunteers within the program and that response is encouraged.)

One step in doing this is that it's time to stop thinking in terms of 'us' and 'them.' There is only us. We're all in it together. Those who think of themselves as the 'haves' often think they know best how to help the 'have nots' among us. That's usually nonsense. Unless someone has lived in poverty, they don't know what it's like. We need to start having conversations outside of our own circle of acquaintances, conversations that help us all understand what's needed for change. No program can be truly successful unless all of the stakeholders have a voice.

The problem with taking this new approach is that it's not easy. It takes investing in the lives of those who need help, getting to know one another. It takes more time and effort to work out a way for all to contribute than it does merely to say, "Here's some canned food and a box of macaroni and cheese. See you next month." But I believe it might be easier than we think. It might begin with saying, "We'd like to offer you something to do for others." Ask how they might like to help. Present a list of volunteer jobs available, jobs that would extend out into the community. (The sad reality is that because of income inequality there are some seeking assistance who already have jobs, already are contributing to the community. Helping them move up is also important and requires a different level of investment.)

It would take organization and cooperation among groups, but it could work. No demands, at first, but a gentle persistence that doing something for someone else as a condition for continued assistance will yield results. People who really need help will be more than happy to do something in return. People who are in less need will eventually stop showing up for help, or else they'll continue to show up and work for what they're getting and that's fine, too. The lists of ways to help would grow as time went on, and there are really no limits to what could happen. Actual paying jobs might materialize for some, but a sense of satisfaction, belonging and purpose would eventually emerge and that's when the world changes for good because that's when our communities become better.

Jesus came to include all in his kingdom. In the Book of Luke he announced his public ministry with these words,"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor."

If we are to follow in his footsteps, we must be part of eliminating the oppression of poverty. We need a shift in thinking to realize that one aspect of oppression is when not everyone has the opportunity to share the gifts they have been given. Let's help one another shine and live free. I know we can find a way. Let's get along, hold hands and do it. That's the kind of love I'm talking about.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

What kind of world do we want?

This is not a post about guns. It's about how words matter. It's about respect and decency. It's about how commonplace it has become to throw basic civility aside in favor of using rude, spiteful and belittling comments to make a point in even the smallest matters of disagreement, of how what we're saying to one another and how we're saying it is transforming daily interactions in a way which would have been unimaginable  a few years ago.

This is not about guns, even though it's prompted by a story involving a gun.

Allen and I have been on vacation this week. On Wednesday we were in Arkansas only a few miles away from where two law enforcement officers were shot. Hackett Police Chief Darrell Spells sustained minor injuries (grazed on the forehead by a bullet according to reports I've read) and Cpl. Bill Cooper, 65, of the Sebastian County County Sheriff's Department died as a result of his injuries.

The morning of the shooting we watched a local television station's reporter who was on the scene in the minutes following the incident as he tried to sort through what was going on. Where was the shooter? On the loose? What was his motivation? Law enforcement officers rushed from miles around to help. People were warned to stay away. All the usual stuff. It was so brutally hot that day that the reporter had sweat dripping off his face in a matter of minutes as he was standing at a rural crossroads which was as close as the press was allowed to get.

A recent report I've read (from NBC News, quoting Sebastian County Sheriff Bill Hollenbeck) said the officers had no idea they were walking into a deadly situation -- described as an ambush by another officer -- when they responded to a domestic call. Hollenbeck said [the shooter, I choose not to add to his notoriety by naming him] had been scheduled to appear in court on a petition to revoke a suspended sentence that day. "More information began to develop that [he] wanted to cause what was told to us as a 'ruckus,'" Hollenbeck said Wednesday.

A ruckus. Not so long ago, with few exceptions and especially in rural areas similar to where I was raised, a ruckus was usually nothing more serious than a fistfight. But now a ruckus ends up with someone getting killed? In fact I started thinking about writing this a few weeks ago after hearing the report from a neighboring small community about an ongoing personal dispute between two high school classmates which ended in one being shot and seriously wounded and the other one dead by his own hand. Escalation of violence -- violent thoughts leading to violent words leading to violent actions -- have sadly become the norm with each passing day in rural America and beyond.

I wondered at the time of that incident if the young man who killed himself had been influenced by over-the-top, angry discussions by the adults around him. I have no way of knowing that, but I wonder.

A man who wanted to create a ruckus in Sebastian County, Arkansas, ended up murdering a long-time law enforcement officer, who was a Marine veteran and getting ready to retire. An Arkansas television station quotes Hollenbeck as saying about Cpl. Cooper, "He could have retired years ago," but he stayed on because he "loved the men and women he worked with." A good and honorable man, dead as a result of doing his job.

This is not about what kind of weapon the killer used or where and how he got it. Because no matter how you feel about guns -- whether you think more or less 'control' would or would not affect gun violence -- those opinions are not pertinent to this post. If you believe guns are the issue here, you're missing the point. This post is not even about supporting our local law enforcement community. Where I live it goes without saying that they're some of the finest men and women you'll find any where, and it is a given that I support them.

This is about how words matter. Decency matters. This post is about loving one another. It's about the Golden Rule. I can't count the number of times that people, myself included, have been publicly mocked on social media for promoting love as an answer for violence. But that doesn't stop me. Because, ultimately, love is the only answer. Not a warm, fuzzy, feel-good attitude, but love as the complicated, profound force that it is. The idea of putting others ahead of ourselves. Of not demanding that every little thing must go our way.

It's also about a soul-searching examination of what we want our nation to be. Do we want to follow basic tenets of compassion, kindness and respect for the opinions of others? Or do we want to angrily cast insults at one another over minor differences? For those who identify as Christians, does the notion of 'turning the other cheek' when someone offends still apply? Or has that become a quaint, old-fashioned idea as we fight in the loudest way possible to be heard on every point?

You might not agree with me that love is the answer. You're free to disagree, but tell me this: What does work? Take long-term historical evidence and convince me that...whatever...building walls -- literal and figurative -- is what we need. Or maybe fewer guns -- or more guns? -- is the answer. Perhaps you believe more money for policing and more demanding of our rights can help. Will your favorite presidential candidate make all the difference in our day-to-day lives? We argue about it like a Trump or a Clinton or someone else is either the answer to all of our problems or to blame for the decisions we all make every day. But I ask you, would any of these things have changed the situation in Sebastian County? No. Be honest with yourself regardless where you stand, and the answer is still no. 

Sometimes it seems as if we don't have any control over our own words and actions and how we treat one another simply because politicians are behaving badly. Collectively, we need to get a grip on our emotions and our attitudes. And the answer has to come from within ourselves and a willingness to change the way we think and talk. A willingness to see that children are being influenced every day by the world around them and we, the adults, are the ones shaping the world. Are they being fed a steady stream of anger, fear and hate? Or do we offer hope that a better future is possible and that there is still something worth living and working for?

I can't convince anyone to change. I can only change myself and although I want to do better every day, some days I'm not even very good at accomplishing that. But we can't allow ourselves to give up doing the right thing even when others do wrong. These words from the New Testament (1 Corinthians 13:4-7) tell of the love I'm talking about:

"Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres."

You don't have to be a Christian to instinctively know the kind of love described in those verses is what we need more of in this world. 

I believe as a country, we're standing at a crossroads, just like that reporter, and we're trying to figure it all out as the situation unfolds. One road leads to more strife, bitterness and despair created with the words we use daily over minor disagreements, while the other leads to healing the rifts we've created by those ugly conversations with our friends and neighbors. It's not that simple, you say. No, it really is that simple. But it isn't easy. 

It involves making an effort to see situations from another's point of view and sometimes that will mean swallowing our pride and admitting that we've made a mistake or that our point of view was influenced by emotion not fact. It means that we understand that no one is always right and no one is always wrong. It means having discussions without personal insults which add nothing of value.

Every day with our attitudes and words we're creating the world our children and grandchildren will inherit. Will it be one where a ruckus is merely an argument or regularly a gunfight?

Sunday, January 31, 2016

What Does Government Look Like in Your View?

Many of us are so taken in by a partisan way of framing the way we think that we have become unrealistic about the role of government and about who and where we are as a country. We are not living a world that looks like it did 250 years ago. We're not a nation of a few million people getting around on foot and by horseback, and we're no longer satisfied with mud streets, reading by candlelight and hand-pumping water from a well. 

'Getting away from it all' sounds pleasant and idealistic which is amusing considering most of us have our cell phones and other devices with us constantly and if the electricity goes out for longer than a few days civilization grinds to a halt.

As much as some of us admire the libertarian way of thinking or claim that we're members of a party which promotes 'small government,' we have moved fully into a society which relies on what the government at local, state and federal levels can provide for us that we cannot provide for ourselves as effectively or efficiently. Call it what you will, but we collectively started working together as members of a civilized society many decades ago and if we don't continue to work together, things will start crumbling. Maybe the outcome would be best, in the long run, but at least consider what we have come to expect:

- We want solid, functioning and well-maintained highways, bridges and infrastructure.
- We want county roads with no potholes. 
- We want effective and well-equipped law enforcement officers and emergency personnel who are at our beck and call. 
- We want a justice system in which crimes are solved quickly and those who are a danger to persons and property are locked up. 
- We want our mail delivered to our front door six days a week. 
- We want a strong military to defend us and national guardsmen for emergencies. 
- We claim that we want all children, veterans, those with disabilities, the homeless and the elderly to be safely housed and well cared for. 
- We want to breathe clean air, drink fresh unpolluted water and eat food which is not going to make us sick or kill us. 
- We enjoy our national and state parks and monuments and want them maintained. 
- We want the fastest Internet and the most reliable power grid and cell phone service possible.
- We want to be free of disease and discomfort and to have the best and least expensive health care in the world.
- We want an outstanding system of public education. 
- We want innovation.
- Many -- within every socioeconomic level -- want and get subsidies, tax credits and government grants for projects.

The list goes on. 

In short, we want it all. We want to live long and prosper, so we make demands. We want safety and freedom. We want convenience and leisure. We want city council to make sure our neighbor mows his yard. We want a strong economy and jobs that pay more than a bare minimum living wage. Many of us don't want regulations. We complain when we don't get everything fast and in the exact manner we believe we should. 

And apparently, especially within the past few years, we have come to expect that nobody should pay for any of it, individually, corporately or as a state or a country. At the very least we want everything at a rock-bottom bargain price. How does this make sense? How does it work? I really am open for suggestions because it sounds like utopia to me.

Ideally, many of these things can and would be taken care of within communities, and I'm a real fan of that notion, but it will take some work getting back to that, and realistically, some things cannot be accomplished at only a local level.

A country populated with less than 3 million people can function in a different, simpler way than a country of over 300 million. Politics has divided us and clouded our thinking in this regard. We have definitely gone overboard in many areas with bloated government, and the pendulum needs to swing back to a more reasonable way of doing things. But if all we're willing to do is throw tantrums when things don't go our way, if we want to continually blame someone else for our woes without taking responsibility for ourselves and those who are less fortunate, if we're not willing to step up and help figure out a more balanced way going forward....well, simpler times will be forced upon us, and I don't think many of us will enjoy it as much as we claim we would.

Remember, Facebook doesn't work without the Internet and electricity.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Religion of Loudness

Loudness surrounds us. In many circles of public discourse, screeching rhetoric and the need to be the most raucous voice in the room have out-paced critical thinking, common sense, calmness, compassion and consideration for our fellow human beings. This is the case in politics, but it is the case in religion, too, and the two things have become linked together in what should be thought of as an unholy alliance.

Religion, the outward expression of our inward spiritual relationship with our Creator, was not meant to be loud. For those who claim to follow the teachings of Jesus, consider his example. His goal was often to draw away from the crowd, to find time for quiet and solitude, to gain strength from contemplation. When he stepped into the public square, he did not attempt to shout down his opponents and he did not demand that his religion should have any special rights or claims to privilege. 

Yes, he was angry when he drove out the money changers in the temple, and I'm glad he was because it gives us the example we need in a certain context. The anger Jesus expressed was directed at those within his own religion (Judaism in the context of his birth) who were taking advantage of people and misusing power and position. I dare you to find an example of Jesus trying to shout down his oppressors or get in the face of those who were adherents of another religion or philosophy. Did he speak the truth? Yes, but it was the truth in love. It wasn't the "love the sinner, hate the sin" mindset as many have come to understand love. It was simply love. An unconditional love that didn't have anything to prove or an ax to grind, a love designed to heal rather than cause further harm.

But a loud, clanging religion has evolved over time. Rather than the quiet life and loving interaction with the world that is designed to set believers apart, something else has emerged for a large segment of mainstream Christianity in America, something which is less a city on a hill or a candle shining in the darkness and more a white-hot spotlight with a blaring bullhorn attached to it, mounted on a Humvee, roaming roughshod over the streets of the world.

Something dark has emerged which makes it fine to blast (literally and figuratively) other religions, to disparage fellow Christians and to say things in the name of Jesus that are mind-boggling in their hurtful audacity and inappropriateness. For those who are rooting for the likes of Donald Trump or Ted Cruz, that is certainly your prerogative as a citizen, but when support for the mindset they proclaim is applauded in the context of Christianity, there's a problem with that.

Running a campaign laced with rants which feature themes of exclusion, mockery and discrimination based on differentness; demonization of refugees and their religions; talk of carpet-bombing until the desert glows; and other snide, sniping and snarling diatribes, and trying to frame any of it in the context of Christianity leaves me struggling to find words sharp enough to cut through the deception and immorality at the heart of it. 

We didn't arrive at this sad state overnight. Gradually introducing any ideology is the way to make it acceptable and that is how it has come to be that loudness is not only part of our religious discourse, but often it is accepted and applauded in mainstream ways. I am reminded of 1 Corinthians 13:1, "If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal."

It is time to quiet the gongs and still the cymbals. It is necessary for believers to recognize and call attention to the hypocrisy of those who would have us believe hatred is a virtue, and furthermore, we must choose not to take part in it. This situation became acceptable gradually, but if we all were to put into practice the simple loving principle of only doing to others what we wish done to ourselves, then we could shut down the loudness in our own lives and the world would follow.

I have a long way to go before I achieve this in my own life, but I want to always be guided by a still, small voice, not the loudness.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Greatest Hope We Have

Some of you will remember my years of writing a column, "A Little Good News Today," for the West Plains Daily Quill's religion page and for posting on this blog regarding what could be called matters of the spirit. It's been a while since the focus here has been on such topics, but the time seems right to mention a few things about The Way that Jesus proclaimed.

"And without faith it is impossible to please God..." is from Hebrews 11:6. It is one of my favorite verses because of my belief that it should have a huge impact on our view of sin. Many people have a list of actions and attitudes which are considered to be immoral and are therefore sins. I'm not planning to argue about anyone's list of sins versus my list of sins, but I think we should be able to agree that at the center of the concept of sin is breaking God's laws or rebellion against God.

If we are concerned about pleasing God (and isn't that the primary job for those who claim to follow Jesus?), I believe our focus should be less on 'sinful' actions (especially the actions of others) and more about sinful attitudes. Our actions flow out of our attitudes, so attitudes are the source our troubles. That gets us back to the 'without faith' part. What does that mean?

Faith, like sin, is a big concept. Along with love and hope, faith forms the triangle which is the heart of the message of Jesus. Some would say that doubt is the opposite of faith, but I think that God understands, even expects, our questioning because Jesus himself expressed doubts. In his last days on earth, Jesus, in the Garden of Gethsemane, experienced great anguish and uncertainty over his calling and his circumstances. In fact, one of his last recorded statements on the cross is, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”

What I believe scripture reveals to be the opposite of faith is fear. Fear has several forms, including worry, anxiety and expecting trouble with each new day. One of my favorite quotes (not from the Bible, from a movie) is, "A life lived in fear, is a life half-lived." For those who are not Christians, being fearful is understandable. For those who claim to be believers, living in fear is not how we please God.

Jesus doubted. But he did not fear. He did not worry. Overcoming fear and worry are central themes to becoming the people we are called to be, believers who will be a shining light to the rest of the world.

What did Jesus say about worry? Many things, but here's one, "And if God cares so wonderfully for wildflowers that are here today and thrown into the fire tomorrow, he will certainly care for you. Why do you have so little faith?" (Matthew 6:30)

What about fear? "For He Himself has said, 'I will never leave you nor forsake you.' So we may boldly say: 'The LORD is my helper; I will not fear. What can man do to me?'" (Hebrews 13:5-6) And, "There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love." (1 John 4:18)

Having occasional fears is part of our human condition. Being careful and watchful of immediate danger (like going inside during a lightning storm) is common sense which God also expects.

But when we wallow in fear; when we promote it and then claim to be advancing the views of Jesus; when we distort scripture to justify hatefulness; and when we're willing to bankrupt our country, morally and financially (and constitutionally, I'll add) because we have been goaded into fear by the greed and self-interests of the rich and powerful, then everything about that scenario is wrong. We are choosing fear over faith and for Christians, that's a sin. Scriputurally, there just isn't much other way to say it. Because the end result is a loss of hope and a loss of love, and if those things are gone, then all is lost. God has not abandoned us at that point. We have abandoned him.

I'm certainly not perfect in this regard (certainly not in any regard) and I know that many of you disagree with me on some issues. But I hope and pray that in the days and years ahead all of us can set aside our differences and focus not on the fear we're being fed through the media and other outside sources, but on the source of all good things, Jesus himself. As many of us celebrate his entrance into the world in the week ahead, it is my hope we will bask not in suspicion, dispair and dread but in the peace and goodwill the angels proclaimed at his birth.

Fear not. That is the greatest hope we have.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

There's Always a Villain

Throughout history there have always been villains, enemies. There are reasons for villains, some might say there's a need for them. As the 21st century unfolds, ISIS has emerged as the enemy and it exists for multiple reasons. Based on history and the evolving nature and impact of the military-industrial-congressional (and oil) complex, one might say there's a need for a villain like ISIS.

First, a few thoughts about the nature of villains. Some say ISIS is unlike any enemy we've faced or seen, but that's not the case. Yes, their methods of death and destruction might seem to be 'worse' than enemies in the past, but that's mostly because we live in a world in which we're technologically connected like never before. Social media gives this enemy a platform for communicating directly to all who have Internet access. They use it to recruit. They use it to network and coordinate attacks. They use it to terrorize the world. They are masters of manipulation and horrific theater. They goad us. They let us see inside their twisted minds and methods. They strive to make us live in fear that we could be the next to die. Effective. Yes, ISIS is a villain.

The accounts of civilians -- children, women, aid workers, journalists -- beheaded or killed in other shocking, almost unimaginable ways, elevates this enemy to a level which is new to most of us, except for those who have seen combat or for anyone who pays attention to history. The number of those killed by ISIS fighters is hard to calculate, but most estimates place the count in the tens of thousands rather than the tens of millions murdered by Stalin, Mao or various factions and despots in Africa (just in the past century) or the millions killed by Hitler, Pol Pot/Khmer Rouge, the Kims of Korea and others. Not to diminish in any way any pain or suffering, but ISIS is a relatively small-time villain by comparison.

Does ISIS target civilians more than past large-scale murderous regimes? No. Civilians are always the target of cowards and lunatics. (It's estimated of the approximate 250,000 deaths in the nearly five years since Syria's civil war began, ISIS is responsible for less than 5 percent. A ruthless dictator in Syria has been responsible for far more deaths than ISIS.) Are their methods more brutal? No, not really. I don't suggest anyone investigate the means of death inflicted by past or present criminal regimes, but beheading is humane in comparison to many ways people are murdered by madmen.

And something which seems to matter most to many in the US: Are they killing Christians on a mass scale? No, not in relative terms. And furthermore, Muslims of other sects have been the biggest target for ISIS. It is to their 'marketing advantage' (and they are masters at marketing) to publicize the killing of non-Muslims and de-emphasize the murder of other Muslims. Yes, the Islamic State is motivated by religious (and political) beliefs, based on their interpretation of the Quran. But all of us who follow religious teachings, approach our respective beliefs with our own interpretations of sacred texts. Apparently ISIS would like to 'rule the world,' (although there is simply no way that is close to happening), but even more important to those who are part of it, is their desire to bring about the End Times. Seeing the world come to an end is more important to them than running it. Oddly enough, they believe they are ushering in the return of Jesus who will defeat the armies of Rome. (ISIS publishes a slick magazine, "Dabiq," which outlines their way of thinking.)

North Korea continues to top the list of countries -- as it has for many years -- where Christianity is persecuted the most and China is no winner in that category, either. (Note: This persecution has nothing to do with Islam.) It is acceptable for us to label North Korea's Kim Jong-un as a villain because he apparently has nothing the US needs or wants. And because North Korea has nothing we want, we also generally ignore them because they aren't killing Westerners. China persecutes and imprisons Christians on a regular basis, enforces state-sponsored abortions (360 to 400 million in the past three decades) and yet we would never dare name that country a villain because, among other reasons, we love buying their cheap crap, especially during the Christmas season. So, we also ignore their atrocities, but for different reasons.


Think of the need for villains. I hadn't considered this until several years ago -- because it's one more thing kids aren't taught in history classes -- when I realized my dad's grandparents were 100 percent American citizens, with 100 percent German ancestry and my father mentioned that they spoke German. Yet he knew not a single word of it and retained no German traditions. Why? I finally figured it out. My dad was born in 1918 as WWI was winding down, but anti-German hysteria in the US -- the flames of which had been vigorously fanned by President Woodrow Wilson -- was still in full swing. (Wilson gets my vote for Worst President Ever, by the way, for a variety of reasons.)

In the 19th century, millions of Germans immigrated to the US, and they were welcome additions to the melting pot. In the years leading up to the turn of the century and WWI, that all changed and Germans in America were targeted with hate as the country was enticed to panic, especially by Wilson's administration. It was a horrible time to be of German ancestry in the US. 'Patriotic societies' could call loyalty into question for any (or no) reason. Germans were persecuted, physically harmed and run out of business. In West Plains, Missouri, my hometown, a German family was allegedly "burned out of town" during WWI when their business caught on fire and there was no attempt by the town's fire department to put out the flames until it was too late to save the business. Not our finest hour.

After war was declared, Wilson proclaimed all German-American citizens to be "alien enemies." They couldn't live near airports or military facilities and they were also banned from port towns and the nation's capital. In 1918, Germans had to fill out registration papers and be fingerprinted. Those who failed to comply or who were considered dangerous were detained in internment camps for the duration of the war. Wilson needed to keep the country focused on an enemy, a villain, so that support for the war didn't lag. The villains of WWII of course were Americans who were Japanese. They were forced from their homes and into concentration camps. Germans and Italians in the US also had a taste of hate during that time, too, although oddly, Germans were lesser villains in WWII.

Then that war ended and there was another shift in who the villains were when communism was perceived to be a dark force which would envelope the world and bring us down. Communism had a long run as the Worst Possible Villain (from 1947 until the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991). The Cold War, The Korean War and The Vietnam War were (at face value) because of our fear of the villainous communists. At more complicated levels, those wars were especially good for the business of war as the military-industrial (-congressional) complex really began to hit its stride just as President Eisenhower warned (or predicted?) it would. Once the major players got a taste of the profits to be made by continually making war and meddling in the business of other sovereign nations, it's been non-stop.

Of course, the Germans and the Japanese are our friends now, so they can no longer be the villains. Even the communists have cleaned up their acts enough that we tolerate them. (Some are still repressive regimes who rule with an iron fist, but so what, right? They're our trading partners, so we'll give them a pass.) Let's see, who could be a good enemy? Let's make terrorism the villain, and since people might start figuring out that terrorism in one form or another has always been the enemy, let's evolve it into a holy war, and give it a face because a War on Terrorism stretches the limits of irony just a little too far. Radical Muslims have been labeled and identified as the enemy, a villain which can take up our resources for several decades.

This is of course an over-simplified assessment, but it's how we've come to be in a permanent state of war in the Persian Gulf region: military operations there in the 90s, Afghanistan, Iraq, The Islamic State. One has run into another with no end in sight. We haven't solved anything. We've created a quagmire that none other than Dick Cheney predicted in 1994 would happen if we invaded Iraq. Ah, the irony just keeps going.


And now we have the alleged threat of Syrian refugees and every adherent of Islam right here in our country to focus our attention on because, just like in times past, there are many powerful men who need a country filled with so-called patriotic Americans lining up to hate whatever villain, whatever enemy, we're told to hate. But hate is not patriotism and what we're contemplating by getting on board with the likes of Donald Trump is shameful, disgusting behavior such as Americans have displayed in times past and which we have come to regret with the passage of time.

I don't believe a majority of Americans want to be seen by the rest of the world as hate-filled and xenophobic. Let's stop allowing ourselves to be manipulated by fear and start asking ourselves questions such as: Why exactly do we need an enemy? Is it to fuel someone else's greed? To fire up political bases in an election year? To distract us from the real issues at hand?

ISIS needs an enemy because they want war. If our goal is to make peace why are we trying to make villains of an entire religion right here in our own country? The reasons we have villains are more and more convoluted all of the time. We're being more and more easily led down a path of hate every day and it is sucking the life out of us, literally. We are distracted from innovation and compassion and if anything is likely to lead to the end of civilization as we know it, that's it.

Consider this:

- Worldwide, 8 million people die from cancer each year.
- Half of the world's hospital beds are filled with people suffering from water-related diseases and 1.6 million die from those diseases, 90 percent of the deaths are children under the age of 5.
- At least 1.5 million people die from tuberculosis each year.
- In 2014, 1.2 million people died from AIDS.

The list goes on. How about we focus on solving these issues as a means of achieving peace?

Call me naive. That's fine. But I challenge anyone to show me hard evidence of how bombing an enemy like ISIS into oblivion is even possible. It's like stomping around in a room full of roaches, killing a few and sending the others scurrying to hide in the walls. Even if it is possible to miraculously wipe out ISIS (let's be realistic, we're heading down the road of US ground troops in that attempted scenario), then how can that effectively solve the long-term problem of the repressive Syrian government versus rebels? And how does it work especially without a full-scale plan to rebuild the infrastructure which will be destroyed, leaving Syrians without a place to live and work? And where will we get the resources to do all of that? Merely throw another trillion dollars on the debt load? Great plan.

We're all being played for fools by politicians and our own government, and for those who think hating Muslims and trying to ban people from the US based on religion is the magic answer to dealing with an enemy who has mastered social media and recruits across borders without the need to even enter a country, then naive and misguided is the kindest description I have for that way of thinking.

When we allow fear to motivate and drive policy, if we turn on each other and turn our back on the principles of a free society, that's how ISIS wins.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

A Passing Generation

My parents' generation and how they viewed the world has been on my mind lately. It's likely because the last sibling of either my mother or father passed away Jan. 5. My Aunt Golma, who had lived in Washington state since before WWII, was the youngest sister of my mother. She had turned 92 on Dec. 24. Mom and Dad and the eight brothers and sisters they had between them are all gone now.

Theirs is the generation born in the decades of the teens and twenties of the 20th century, during or just after WWI. Those of that age group, whether gone or still with us, lived through the Great Depression, suffered loss during WWII and perhaps Korea, and saw Vietnam through eyes the younger generation did not. During ensuing years, came baffling changes in society including those brought about by computers and a new age of technology. Through it all, they maintained an almost universal resolve to do the right thing, even if they sometimes failed.

I've been thinking about what it was like for me growing up. My parents were not non-political and they were certainly not non-religious. They believed in God and they believed the United States was a great nation. The two things were more or less naturally connected for them without the need for grandstanding in either area. Their unstated view, lived out in their everyday lives, was that following the basic teachings of Jesus by displaying kindness toward others and tending to our own business, rather than focusing on the faults of others, also made us good citizens. That's how God and country went together as I was taught by their example.

They didn't agree with everything that every elected official said or did, but it was never with disrespect that they would publicly express disagreement, if at all. Politicians didn't tell them their religion was 'right' or 'wrong' and they didn't have preachers telling them how to vote. That was not the church's job then, and it shouldn't be now. That was how church and state were naturally separated.

Think about how some in the church world talk about this country and how some members of Congress talk with complete disrespect not only to and about each other but to and about the president of the United States. It didn't start in the last six years, but it's grown to epic proportions in less than a decade. Think about how it's filtered down to how so many of us have allowed that same kind of anger, bitterness and strife to enter our own conversations related to religion and politics which sometimes filter down to other topics. To those who are 50 or older, especially, doesn't it seem unbelievable that in less than a generation we've gone from the kind of citizenship displayed by the majority of the “Greatest Generation” to what we have now?

How have we allowed this country to become ruled by people who on a daily basis invent new lows in ways to caustically disagree and who seem to take great joy in letting us know they don't intend to work together or try to reach agreement? How have we allowed ourselves to not only approve of that behavior but to celebrate the division and disgusting turmoil by taking part in it ourselves? I am encouraged by recent conversations about working together to make our local community better. As long as the talk doesn't turn to religion or politics we should be fine, because it's become seemingly impossible to have a civil conversation on those topics with someone who has an opposing viewpoint.

If we want to honor the hard work and sacrifice of the generation who lived in their prime throughout the last century, we need to return to the kind of Christianity and citizenship they displayed. If we refuse to do so, what legacy are we leaving the next generation? God help them if we won't.