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Thursday, March 5, 2009

The 9/12 Project

Fox News host Glenn Beck is doing a program called "9/12 Project" while trying to convince moderate America that their ideals aren't all wingnuttery after all.
“So, how do we show America what’s really behind the curtain? Below are nine simple principles. If you believe in at least seven of them, then we have something in common.”
I decided to take an honest shot at the nine principals, scoring three Yes, two Yes with conditions, and four No. To keep Beck from wanting to water board my UN-‘Murikan ass in Gitmo, I suppose I should start praying to the flag while listening to every Toby Keith album.

Here are the nine principals, along with my agreement or rebuttal:

1. America is good. - NO.

It can be dangerous to label a person, nation, or group simply as “good” or “evil.” Good is as good does. Only deeds should be judged as good or evil. Former President Bush tripling funds to combat AIDS in Africa is an example of a good action. Bush lying to invade Iraq and subsequently causing the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent people is an example of an evil action. Most of the wrong done in the world has come from one nation or group of people labeling themselves as “good” and finding somebody different than them to label “evil.” It is the quickest path to discrimination, oppression, and genocide.

2. I believe in God and He is the Center of my Life. - NO.

This has absolutely nothing to do with America or government. America was founded as a free nation – a nation of liberty. You cannot be both a nation of freedom and liberty and a theocracy. Religion is a personal choice that has no place in government.

If you want to see what happens when fundamentalist religion gets mixed up with politics look to further than the Taliban. To quote founding father Thomas Jefferson, "The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God."

3. I must always try to be a more honest person than I was yesterday. - YES.

4. The family is sacred. My spouse and I are the ultimate authority, not the government. - YES. BUT…

The government has no place in deciding who is a family, or who can marry. At the time President Obama was born, it would have been illegal for his parents to have been wed in 16 of the states. In 1967 bigots said “Protect the sanctity of marriage: No interracial marriage.” In 2009 bigots of the same ilk say “Protect the sanctity of marriage: No gay marriage.” If you believe #4 is true, you must demand the government stop meddling in personal freedoms and grant the same civil rights to all.

5. If you break the law you pay the penalty. Justice is blind and no one is above it. - NO.

The law is not nor ever should be the decider of what is moral. Our understanding of law and morality evolve over time, and will continue to evolve. Slavery, condoned by even the Bible, was an important institution in our country from before its founding until the passing of the 13th Amendment in 1865. Who today would condemn those, like Harriet Tubman, who broke the law to assist escaped slaves before 1865? Martin Luther King spent many a night in prison for breaking laws that today we find offensive and revolting.

In fact, it was from a jail cell in Birmingham that King wrote to his critics, defending his civil disobedience and open defiance of the law, saying, “One may ask: ‘How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?’ The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all.’”

6. I have a right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, but there is no guarantee of equal results. - YES. BUT…

We must grand these rights to all people, not simply those who live within some invisible lines arbitrarily drawn on a map. Human rights are for all people, and it is hypocritical and selfish to say only Americans have these rights. People lived in North America long before there ever was a United States, and I’m sure people will inhabit North America long after the United States is nothing but an ancient relic – the lore of history books.

The day I found inner peace was the day I stopped considering myself an American citizen, and started considering myself a neighbor, and brother, to all of humanity – and pledging to support all people to their right of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.

7. I work hard for what I have and I will share it with who I want to. Government cannot force me to be charitable. - NO.

Call me a socialist, if you must, but at least call me a Biblical socialist. For that is where I have drawn my guidance on charity and social justice. The truth is we must pay taxes to fund civilization. Civilization should include roads, police, prisons, and fire fighters. It should include transit, arts, basic housing, food, and clothing, hospitals, and health care. Without adequate health care, for example, many live a shortened life - or a life in pain - in direct opposition to principal #6. Health care is a human right.

Taxes should be about equal sacrifice, not equal percentage. If you don’t like funding civilization, you can join your ilk of Jim Jones or David Koresh in a remote compound somewhere. A nation is only as rich as its poorest citizens. I used to be a libertarian ("anarchy for the rich"), until I found a heart and lost the greed.

As Martin Luther King said, "A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life's roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring."

8. It is not un-American for me to disagree with authority or to share my personal opinion. - YES.

9. The government works for me. I do not answer to them, they answer to me. - YES.

To quote V for Vendetta, People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Six Steps to Save the Church - Observations by an Ex-Christian - Part 1

Part 1 - Overcome Fear with Love

Tommy Jackson, a pastor of a rural church in Texas, recently conducted an experiment – he pretended to be a drunk and homeless man wandering the church parking lot.

“Jackson wanted to test his congregation on their compassion for those in need. Playing the part to the fullest, he even had the police called on him. Some church members were [leery], but others offered food and shelter, not knowing who the mystery man was. Jackson revealed himself at the end of the Sunday service.”

Reviews on various websites about the experiment were mixed. One person responded: “Of course people will act righteous. They’re in a church parking lot. They have an audience. I couldn’t even begin to recall all the holy pissing contests I’ve seen among congregations. When I was attending the Christian high school, people tried to out-holy each other all the time–as long as someone was watching. In private, especially off campus, people were considerably less Christ-like.”

Here’s one thing I’ve noticed. Most Christians - the suburban, generally wealthy or middle class ones like we have here in the South - they can deal with one or two people. They can deal with one drunk, one homeless person, one black person, one gay person.

What they can’t deal with is being a minority. They have a great fear when they are the minority in any situation - they feel unsafe, and they feel they don’t have control. I’m a minority in my neighborhood - everybody in my neighborhood is an ethic minority; there is no majority. It’s a pretty safe community but most suburban Christians would never venture here - to them it’s a “ghetto” and “unsafe” - usually code words for “there be black or brown people there.”

This is often why we never see the suburban churches helping with the urban problems. In my city there are over 5,000 homeless and only around 2,000 beds in shelters on any given night. The suburban churches see no issue in building gymnasiums that sit empty for five days a week. They can spend 30,000 on a new video projection system. They fear being out of their comfort zones. They need to be entertained. When a call goes out to collect 5,000 sets of coats and winter clothes for the homeless, local churches give a half-hearted response of around 1/5th of what is needed.

The churches can usually do an okay job at collecting some money or canned food because it doesn’t actually involve having to be around the poor and homeless. I saw photos of a church that recently hosted a “30 Hour famine” event to raise money. The youth group made card board boxes to sleep in on the front lawn of their suburban church, many painting and decorating their boxes. As somebody who has been around the homeless quite a bit over the past few years, it is hard for me to even begin describing how outrageously out of touch with reality are these people.

In fact, I find it rather insulting. It is if they are saying “I pretend to understand you and your situation even though I don’t care enough about you to even meet you, spend time with you, or get to know you.” Why not have the youth group spend the night at a homeless shelter or in a park frequented by homeless? Even better, why not have them meet every week to minister to the poor and homeless – NOT to hand out tracts to them, NOT to simply pass them a couple bucks and scurry away, but to LOVE them like Jesus loved them? Because it isn’t safe? Really? And I thought you believed you had a God watching over you and protecting you? More likely it’s because you’d be so ashamed to be seen with Lazarus, right Rich Man?

Fear has no place in the life of a Christian – except fear of a life of apathy, a life without empathy, and a life of complacency. If you fear being a minority in a group of people radically different that you, then you need to reevaluate what your beliefs. As I’ve heard before “The church needs more martyrs and less celebrities.”

“People sometimes ask if we are scared of the inner city. We say we are more scared of the suburbs. Our Jesus warns that we can fear those things which can harm our bodies or those things which can destroy our souls, but we should be far more fearful of the latter. Those are the subtle demons of suburbia. As Shane’s mother says, “Perhaps there is no more dangerous place for a Christian to be than in safety and comfort, detached from the suffering of others.” We’re scared of apathy and complacency, of detaching ourselves of others. It’s hard to see until our 20/20 hindsight hits us, but every time we lock someone out, we lock ourselves in. Just as we are building walls to keep people out of our comfortable, insulated existence, we are trapping ourselves in a hell of isolation, loneliness, and fear. We have “gated communities” where rich folk live. We put up picket fences around our suburban homes. We place barbed wire and razor wire around our buildings and churches. We put bars on our windows in the ghettos of fear. We build up walls to keep immigrants from entering our country. We guard out borders with those walls – Berlin, Jerusalem, Jericho. And the more walls and gates and fences we have, the closer we are to hell. We, like the rich man, find ourselves locked into our gated homes and far from the tears of Lazarus outside, far from the tears of God." - Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw, Jesus for President

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

How much have you crossed off the pyramid?

I think fundamentalists Christians fear more than anything else a non-literal interpretation of the Bible and the creation story because it is often the beginning of disbelief for many ex-Christians/atheists.

This idea came from Dan Barker, but it does fit my life as well. Start with a pyramid. The pyramid has a descending order of beliefs. For example, at the top is belief in an all powerful god. Below that is the divinity of Jesus, the resurrection, the Trinity, atonement by the blood of Jesus, the belief in salvation in faith alone, etc.

At the bottom of the pyramid is maybe belief that Baptism is required to enter heaven. Or that Christians can’t work on Sundays. Most Christians don’t believe these are necessary tenants of faith, so go ahead a cross them off your list. As you go up the pyramid, you have various denominational beliefs. Some restrict pastors to being only male, for example.

As you get up the pyramid, you come to issues like belief in a literal creation story. “Well, if the creation story isn’t literal, that’s okay. It was parable, just like Adam & Eve and Cain & Able were parables. The truth is in the message of a parables.” Scratch another level off the pyramid.

Creationists/fundamentalists say “Here’s what we believe, what evidence can we find to support it?” Scientists and freethinkers say “Here’s the evidence, what conclusions can we draw from it?”

“Most of the old testament was written by a primitive people trying to understand god, so I’m not going to take everything literally. Noah was a parable. Moses was a parable. This doesn’t conflict with the belief that god loves us and has a plan for us.” Scratch another level off the pyramid.

As Christians become less literal in their interpretation of the Bible, the fundamentalists have lost control over them. They no longer have the ability to steer Christians in one direction or the other on their political agendas. No longer does it work to cherry pick one or two verses and telling Christians they must interpret this verses literally.

Eventually, as the pyramid gets smaller, you cross off things like Jesus being the only path to heaven, and eventually you doubt the need for Jesus' divinity at all. Like Thomas Jefferson and many other deists, your faith is in the overall message of Jesus, but you don’t take literally the stories of miracles or even the resurrection.

At this point you see many other stories of morality through out the world that are as good or better than the Bible. You see that morality is found outside the church. As Steve Weinberg said:

"Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion."

There’s only one block left atop the pyramid now - scratch it off.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Hall House

There are over 2,000 children in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School System who are homeless this winter. Several charities and government agencies came together to transform an empty building into shelter for a hundred families of schoolchildren. This was made possible by the hard work of hundreds of volunteers - young and old, religious & non-believers, who transformed the dilapidated, roach infested, abandoned building into a clean, healthy, safe, and livable home to keep children and their mothers off the streets. This is their story, which I wanted to tell through photography:

The historic Hall House, built in 1940 on Tryon Street as a luxury hotel, sat vacant and in a state of disrepair until just recently. Several charities and government organizations came together to renovate the Charlotte Housing Authority property in order to provide temporary housing for some of the city’s 2,000-plus homeless children and their mothers.

Volunteers showed up by the hundreds January 2nd and 3rd to work on the old structure and prepare it for occupancy. Six floors, each with twenty 600-square-foot units, had to be thoroughly cleaned, painted, have repairs made, and have furniture and beds delivered. Many parents who volunteered brought along their children to help. Three generations of the one family I spoke with showed up Saturday to help with preparations.

Due to fire regulations, all the old stoves had to be removed. Each kitchen will have a working refrigerator and sink, and every floor will have a microwave. A volunteer stated that the bunk beds were built by local Boy Scouts, and that all bedding such as pillowcases, sheets, and blankets have to be new and unused due to health regulations. Many sets of blankets, sporting numbers and bright logos of race car drivers, were donated by NASCAR. Much of the furniture, such as chairs and nightstands, were donated by a local hotel.

Twenty children and their mothers began moving in later thatweek, with 20 more each following week until the Hall House is home to 100 families. The Hall House is planned to be only a temporary shelter, and volunteers hope to find many of the residents permanent housing by July.

To be continued...

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A search for the true meaning of Christmas

It seems almost cliche now for somebody to discover the true meaning of Christmas. After all, we see George Bailey and Ebenezer Scrooge and even the Grinch all find the true meaning of Christmas every year on our televisions while we unwrap our toys and feast in excess.

Early in December I came to understand and accept that I am an atheist. I wondered how this Christmas be different – a Christmas without Jesus. I wanted to tell everybody how Jesus’ birth was just an amalgamation of various solar deities, many of whom predate the New Testament and share a birthday with Jesus. I wanted to tell everybody how Jesus is really just a Santa for adults; how wreaths, Yule logs, and even Christmas trees are from pagan traditions, and are actually condemned by the Bible. I wanted to send out “Axle tilt is the reason for the season” greeting cards. No matter how much I wanted Jesus, or Santa, to be real it would not change the reality that they are both just myths.

The “War on Christmas” flared up again this year, with TV commentators blasting those who want to place displays to other (or no) religions and holidays alongside Christian displays. Pastors railed against those who wish others “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas.” It all became rather silly as I found myself standing in a Bed, Bath, & Beyond, watching the shoppers endlessly circling the parking lot, rushing in and filling their carts with useless trinkets and devices. Many people would soon exchange gift cards to the same big box stores with each other. “Hmmm” I thought, glancing over at a display. “This lemon zester cost over three days wages in much of the world, and this onion slicer cost almost a month’s salary.” How did we get to this point from celebrating a birthday that was heralded as bringing “peace, goodwill to men” – a person whose life taught us to serve the poor and needy, and love the outcast and alien?

The more I thought about the holiday season, the more I thought about the people in my community. I found out about a local ministry, Clothe Charlotte, was undertaking an ambitious project – collect and distribute sets of winter hats, gloves, and coats for every homeless person in the city. Assisting the homeless and needy in my city is something important to me. I worked to promote Clothe Charlotte and participated in the collection, sorting, and distribution of sets of winter clothes for the homeless. Clothe Charlotte was sponsored by Kinetic Church. It was refreshing to see a church so dedicated to a service project – one that focuses on the “honey” of doing “unto the least of these” rather than focusing on the “vinegar” of handing out tracts and evangelizing, especially when the news features stories of churches kicking out homeless ministries because they didn’t pray and sit through a sermon before eating.

We sorted and packed sets of winter clothes at Freedom Park, and despite the light drizzle spirits were high. I delivered a car load of clothes to CUP Ministry – one of many shelters and ministries throughout the city to receive clothes. As car after car pulled in loaded with winter clothes, the minister clapped his hands loudly as his stood on the back porch of the house-turned-food pantry.

Helping Clothe Charlotte was one of my best holiday memories in years. The holiday season is all about light in the darkness, love in the cold, and taking time from our busy lives to do good in the world. Don’t allow the sectarian and political bickering take focus away from the universal ideals of peace, love, family, and community. Whether we’re Christian, Jewish, or atheist – whether we celebrate Christmas, Winter Solstice, or Festivus – we can all join in the goodwill spirit of season and join together in helping our neighbors.

An introduction to Clothe Charlotte:

Clothe Charlotte '08 from Kinetic Church on Vimeo.

My Flickr slideshow of Clothe Charlotte:

A video of Clothe Charlotte that features several of my photos:

ClotheCLT from ClotheCharlotte on Vimeo.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Small Towns Versus Big Cities - Searching for "Real America"

I sat on a chilly metal bench at the airport overlook – a small park next to Charlotte-Douglas International that offers a great view of one of the runways. In the distance stands the skyline with tiny little cranes moving back and forth over a new skyscraper going up. With head tilted to one side and arm outstretched, I see if it has yet grown larger than my thumb. As the planes come in, I stretch out my arm and try to pinch them between my index finger and thumb, increasing in size until they are too large to fit in my open palm. This one is the daily flight from Munich, Germany. I often come here to do my thinking. I’ve lived in the heart of the city for several years now, after spending almost my entire life in a rural town an hour or so away. It is just days before the election and the biggest thing on my mind is the rift between perceived “small town values” and “big city values.”

The Republican National Convention had speaker after speaker who espoused the greatness of small town values in "real America." The Daily Show had aired a segment asking “What are these small town values?” Now North Carolina had become the latest battle ground over what is “real America.” Sarah Palin, speaking at a rally outside Greensboro, North Carolina, said “We believe that the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit, and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America, being here with all of you hard working very patriotic, very pro-America areas of this great nation.” Palin nor McCain ever dared to set foot in Charlotte, instead holding a rally outside the city alone a rural stretch of Highway 49. It was here that, before McCain spoke, House Representative Robin Hayes said “Liberals hate real Americans that work and accomplish and achieve and believe in God,” a comment he denied making until an audio recording proved otherwise.

I thought back to the summer days of my youth. My father would lift me into the air with his large hands, worn and calloused from many years spent in the local steel mill. His right ring finger half as long as the others, a permanent reminder of his Marine Corp tours in Vietnam. We would spend many summer afternoons in our back yard K-mart kiddy pool. My father was transferred from the steel plant in his boyhood hometown in Alabama when I was still too young to remember. He worked hard to make an honest living for my mother, my sister, and me. My mother worked part time in the local school system driving a bus and serving in the cafeteria. They were always active in my school and church, coaching my T-ball team or leading the children’s ministry with puppets. These were what I leaned were small town values; hard work, honesty, honoring your family, love of God, and love of country.

It is very hard to spot – only after years away from small towns, and from the outside looking in, that I can see the cracks in the so-called “small town values.” There is a great deal of politeness on the surface in rural areas, but it is only skin deep. You're okay as long as you look like everyone else, they think you are a good Christian, and aren't gay or something. Once you get past superficial politeness you'll be shocked at the fear and hate boiling under the surface. Some of it erupted during the election with angry mobs of Republican supporters.

Fear is what drives life in small towns. Fear of change. Fear of a shifting power structure. Fear of something or somebody different. It stems from an “us versus them” mentality and an oversimplification of everything as being either “good” or “evil.” There is no room for gray. Christians, especially, are taught that the world is out to get them – to destroy their country, their community, and their values. Power hungry politicians and pastors (with an increasingly blurred like between the two) demonize those who are different as a method to keep their followers in check. “The gays want to destroy our families, the Mexicans are stealing our jobs, and the blacks steal all the welfare money.” There is no room at the table for opposing views or independent thought. In their minds, good Christian folk are being persecuted. Cable news commentators, and my former pastor, told me the 1950’s were the greatest time in our nation’s history. When I hear that today I’m shocked. After all, in the 1950’s segregation was in full force, Jim Crow laws were in effect, and the glass ceiling was as high and firm as ever.

Along with fear, stereotypes drive small town perceptions of “outsiders.” In small towns, residents tend to lump people into large groups. You have your whites and blacks, all Latinos are labeled as Mexicans, and Asians are Chinese, and then there are those of “terrorist descent.” When you don’t know somebody outside of stereotypes, it is nearly impossible to care about them, and very easy to become wary of them. The small town is the comfort zone for those who fear the poor or foreign. Shane Claiborne said in The Irresistible Revolution, “I asked participants who claimed to be "strong followers of Jesus" whether Jesus spent time with the poor. Nearly 80 percent said yes. Later in the survey, I sneaked in another question, I asked this same group of strong followers whether they spent time with the poor, and less than 2 percent said they did. I learned a powerful lesson: We can admire and worship Jesus without doing what he did. We can applaud what he preached and stood for without caring about the same things. We can adore his cross without taking up ours. I had come to see that the great tragedy of the church is not that rich Christians do not care about the poor but that rich Christians do not know the poor.”

Small town America is stubborn and slow to accept progress and grant equality and liberty to all. Living in mostly segregated, rural areas breeds bigotry, racism, xenophobia, a general disregard for the poor and needy, and disdain for people and beliefs other than your own. Small-town-mindedness encourages anti-intellectualism, jingoism, and blind devotion to religion and government (which have an increasingly blurred line between the two). In addition, small town bigotry shifts over time. While segregation was a sacred institution in rural towns for most of this country’s history, many rural residents now take pride in how they “aren’t racist” and even have a token black friend to prove it. In 1968 the battle cry was “Protect the sanctity of marriage; no interracial marriage.” In 2008 it had evolved into “Protect the sanctity of marriage; no gay marriage.” I often hear stories of people from small towns who leave for college. At first they have a prejudice against gays or Muslims or some other group. Maybe their pastor preached on the evils of homosexuality. They believe it, until they actually befriend a gay person. Then they learn to judge their new friend by their character, and not the stereotype hung around their neck by a small minded pastor.

I’ve come to love the city so much that I could never imagine going back to a rural town. There is a great community in the city, an exchange of ideas where everybody has a place at the table. I’ve learned that people that are different than me aren’t the enemy. We’re all different, and that’s what makes us great. Once you get to know people, the stereotypes learned in the small towns are washed away. Eventually, we can stop labeling people all together, and accept them as individuals. It took some time - several years - after initially moving into the city before I realized I had become a liberal. I had come to cherish several important big city values; tolerance, peace, equality, justice, and a desire to treat others as I would want to be treated. I didn’t care about gays until I made gay friends. I didn’t care about the poor until I knew them and, in a way, joined them.

The morning after the election I drove though the small town of my youth. I’d often seen a Confederate flag flying on a pole along the highway just outside of town, but that day it was lowered to half mast. I mentioned it to a friend in Raleigh. “The Confederate flags are flying at half mast in the South today, haha,” he later responded. “Thanks for that joke; I’ve been telling it all morning!” Except, it wasn’t a joke.