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Posts Tagged ‘America’

Please accept with no obligation, implied or implicit, our best wishes for an environmentally conscious, socially responsible, low stress, non addictive, gender neutral, celebration of the winter solstice holiday, practiced within the most enjoyable traditions of the religious persuasion of your choice, or secular practices of your choice, with respect for the religious/secular persuasions and/or traditions of others, or their choice not to practice religious or secular traditions at all.

We also wish you a fiscally successful, personally fulfilling, and medically uncomplicated recognition of the onset of the generally accepted calendar year 2011, but not without due respect for the calendars of choice of other cultures whose contributions to society have helped make America great (not to imply that America is necessarily greater than any other country or is the only “AMERICA” in the western hemisphere), and without regard to the race, creed, color, age, physical ability, religious faith, or sexual preference of the wishee.

By accepting this greeting, you are accepting these terms:

This greeting is subject to clarification or withdrawal. It is freely transferable with no alteration to the original greeting. It implies no promise by the wisher to actually implement any of the wishes for her/himself or others, and is void where prohibited by law, and is revocable at the sole discretion of the wisher.

This wish is warranted to perform as expected within the usual application of good tidings for a period of one year, or until the issuance of a subsequent holiday greeting, whichever comes first, and warranty is limited to replacement of this wish or issuance of a new wish at the sole discretion of the wisher.

[Author: Church Volunteer Central]

santa and reindeer complainers cartoon

santa and reindeer complainers cartoon

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Pluribus and Unum

The United States of America has somewhat of a schizophrenic community identity.  On the one hand, we relish in the idea that we are a “melting pot” of cultures; a country where people from any culture are welcome to legally come and establish a new home.  However, on the other hand, we worship the idea or myth of the rugged individual who comes to this country or who pioneers a new horizon; a country where an individual can realize the potential of all that he or she can become with enough hard work and luck.

For some time now, I have been pondering the sources of these attitudes within our American culture.  More specifically, I have wondered about our idea of the rugged individual who makes it on his or her own and how that shapes our relationships, politics and religion.  We love our pioneer stories.  We almost worship the entrepreneur who starts out with nothing and produces something out of a garage or shop that not only attains success but also produces wealth.  Our movies make heroes of the rebellious individual who beats the system or the status quo accepted by the larger majority.

This heightened sense of the individual over the community gives rise to many tensions in our society. Loyalty is no longer given to any one group but to the self.  So, individuals move from church to church, job to job, and even community to community for personal advantage.  Loyalty is passe’, whether it is to a marriage union or workers union.  Most Americans are looking for the “best deal” and “for the right price.”  We have taken the American Founders ideal of an individual’s freedom to pursue “life, liberty and happiness” to individualistic twisted ends.

Individualism fractures society more than it unifies it.  It seems to be the human tendency to move toward separateness until there is something that unites us – a common enemy, a common problem, or a common experience in the midst of disaster.  Once the threat has passed, however, jockeying begins all over for the selfishly personal “best seat at the table.”  Jesus’ disciples exhibited this same behavior despite the fact that it was Jesus who brought them all together and was the unifying factor.  Perhaps church bodies could learn something from their example and Jesus’ instructions to them.

Of course, the fracture of civilization and its relationships is nothing new to human existence. It is as old as the Garden of Eden where the break in community with other humans and with their Creator began.  However you tell the story and understand it, it perfectly illustrates the human condition.  From Genesis chapter three through history up to today, we witness the effects of the rips and tears in our social fabric.  The story of the Tower of Babel, when God caused confusion through language and culture, is only the pinnacle of this story.  Humanity has been on a steady descent ever since despite the attempts of world rulers and empires to bring a return to a one-world order according to their terms.  This has only led to resistance and further fractures in the global human community.

Washington D.C. Capital Buildings, Spring 2009

Washington D.C. Capital Buildings, Spring 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Of course, conveyors of conspiracy theories like to point to one of the Latin phrases on the reverse side of the United States’ Great Seal to show that the U.S. is involved in the same scheme. The Latin words

Reverse of the Great Seal of the United States.

Image via Wikipedia

Novus ordo seclorum” are taken by them to mean “New World Order” when, in fact, they truly mean “New Order of the Ages;” signifying the beginning of a new era with the birth of the United States of America.  The other Latin phrase appearing with it is “Annuit coeptis,” which means “God favored our undertakings.”  So, there is a bit of irony in the theories of conspiratists in that it would seem that they believe the U.S. is involved in some diabolical plan to take over the world with God’s blessings.

At any rate, the Latin phrase on the U.S. Great Seal which most Americans are more familiar with is “E Pluribus Unum.” This is roughly translated “out of many, one” or “one from many.”  In recent American history, it has been embraced to refer to the great cultural “melting pot” of this country.  However, at the beginning of American independence from Great Britain, it was an attempt to directly reflect the unity of the diverse thirteen colonies.

Modern Americans tend to forget just how fractious those early colonies were based upon their religious preferences, politics, loyalties to England, economies and ideals of the ruling classes. The contentions were never really settled until after the Civil War – and some would argue, especially from the southern United States, that it is still not settled.  Early on, the threat of secession from the federal union was always present; first from the northern states and then from the south.  Politics became divided very early over the preeminence of individual and state rights versus federal rights.  We still wage political battle over those ideas today.  This conflict may always be in flux and never really settled in our American democracy.

Interestingly, E Pluribus Unum was the motto of the United States of America until 1956, when it replaced with In God We Trust.” Until then, it appears on most U.S. coinage since it was mandated by law in 1873.  It first appeared on U.S. coinage in 1795 even though it was first proposed for the Great Seal of the U.S. in August of 1776 and finally formally adopted in 1782.  In the 1776 proposal, which Benjamin Franklin had a hand in, the seal had a shield with six symbols; each symbol representing the six main countries that provided immigrants to the colonies: the rose (England), thistle (Scotland), harp (Ireland), fleur-de-lis (France), lion (Holland), and an imperial two-headed eagle (Germany).  Those six symbols were surrounded by thirteen smaller shields, which were to represent “the thirteen independent States of America.”  Of course, the “independence” of those states and the others to follow would greatly change with the new constitution of 1883.

The idea that a country not formed by, from or for any one ethnic group can exist without fracturing into hundreds of splintering self-interest groups is still being tested.  The United States and its people are still very much a democratic experiment in the making.  The strength of our union requires every citizen and local and state government to bow to higher ideals than self-interest.  This, in part, was the empowering force behind Abraham Lincoln’s administration and other leaders to seek to preserve the union with southern states who attempted to go their own way.

Even in many American churches, the unity of the church fellowship takes pre-eminence over selfish desires and goals. There is a desire on the part of the individual to be a part of something larger than just the small cosmic consciousness that the individual inhabits.  Becoming and being a part of a community of faith enlarges one’s life and capacity for living in and through the lives of others as believers pray, worship and serve together.  The essence of the Gospel and the Church’s theology is that the Creator, through His incarnation in His Son, Jesus, has come to bring true unity in human and divine relationships.  As the apostle Paul would have it, the enmity or hostilities created by cultures, languages, skin colors and offenses to God have been removed by the peace offering made by Jesus the Messiah on the cross.

So, we are not merely “pluribus” – many independent individuals or states of being seeking to find out own way. We are also “unum” – formed as Americans in our democracy to unite around those ideals that make us a unique light to the rest of the world.  We are a cosmic declaration that people from different parts of the world, with different skin colors, abiding by different religious convictions can not just merely co-exist but also become unified for the common good of each individual in its society to pursue life, liberty and happiness.  It was this very audacious and precarious idea that caused most of the America’s Founders and the truly wise and understanding today to constantly invoke the help and aid of Providence.  And so, it seems, as long as the help of heaven preserves our union and democracy, we will continue to be E Pluribus Unum.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Religious Refereeing

We live in a world who likes to define right from wrong, who’s in and who’s out, as well as those we like and those we do not. Everyone becomes their own personal referee, making judgment calls on the life and behaviors of others.  It is so much easier to identify the error and slippery slope in another person’s life than our own, however.  Plus, it seems our rule book is always changing according to our own whims, likes and dislikes and morphing philosophies of life.

I recognize this painful reality in my own life. For example, I had a wonderful time with some friends the other night.  Greg and Cindy Holman had me and my family over for dinner and we attempted to catch up on 30 years of history, which is ever since we were all in college together at Northwest University in Kirkland, Washington (then, Northwest College).  Of course, that is an impossible task in one evening.

The conversation turned to how much we have changed, not just age wise but also in thinking, religious beliefs and practices. Life experiences have shaped or reshaped our philosophies and theologies.  How we view, interpret and apply certain Scriptures and religious beliefs we grew up with is drastically different.  We all recognized that our world has expanded; we see God’s tent as much larger than the narrowly defined one we grew up with in our families and churches.

The painful reality we have discovered is that we spent too much of our time in our younger years trying to define the boundaries of God’s household of faith rather than helping those on the journey towards faith. Whether Baptist or Pentecostal, High-Church or Low-Church, liturgical or non-liturgical, Charismatic or Dispensationalist, Arminian or Calvinist, presbyterian/episcopal or congregational/independent in church government – we all believe that we are the heavenly Father’s favored child because we are more correct than our brothers and sisters.  Even the best among us can be paternalistic in our attitudes towards those we accept: We tolerate them even though we consider them to be in error or deviant in faith and practice rather than whole-heartedly accept and embrace them as brothers and sisters in the household of faith.

I believe that this is a changing reality in many churches today. At the grass roots level, Christian believers are recognizing more and more that every follower of Christ is on a different spiritual journey.  There is a desire to allow others to listen and follow their own spiritual walk with God.  This attitude, however, scares many other Christians into thinking that such a consideration would allow for a “slippery slope” into error, heresy or sinful behaviors.  Unfortunately, this has led to a tendency to want to define with hard categories and boundaries “who is in” and “who is outside” the tent of faith.  This has been a problem through all of church history.  It was endemic of the church from the start and continues on down until today.  Consider, for example, the first century flap between Jewish believers and Gentile believers.

The early American colonies were brutally divided by such thinking and behavior. Anglicans were at war with Congregationalist; both of them despised and persecuted the Quakers, Baptists and Lutherans.  Everyone held the Unitarians and Deists in suspicion.  Depending upon which state or county you lived in, you may not have been able to openly practice your brand of Christianity.  You could have been jailed or worse for preaching or holding cottage meetings outside the state recognized church.  If you were a free-thinker, agnostic or atheist then there seemed to be no place for you in early America except the far reaches of western settlements; just as there was no place for the Jew, Hindu or Muslim.

It seems to me that much of the church has concentrated on the minutiae of doctrines and doctrinal distinctives and forgotten Paul’s injunction to consider one another’s conscience. More important than correct theology, according to Paul, was the living application of faith, hope and love in the life of the community of Christ followers.  As much as Paul expounded upon what the early church was to believe about Christ’s life, death, resurrection and glorification, the bulk of the content of his letters to the churches concerned acceptance, forgiveness, bearing one another, mercy, grace and love for all Christ’s followers.

I am not addressing those things that Scripture points to as obvious sin or error. Those are quite clear and even the apostle Paul was willing to expose and expel unrepentant persons from the family of faith for such things.  However, it seems that there is a lot of room left for things that are not clearly identified or settled as sin and error.  The Lord and the Scriptures left to us seem to allow for a great diversity of opinion and practice in one’s faith journey.

Mount Saint Helens, July 2002

Mount Saint Helens, July 2002 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Our proclivity to want to don the referee’s jersey and blow the whistle on fellow believers has left a sour taste in the mouths of non-believers as well as many believers who have left our churches. Christians and their churches today as in other times in human history are more likely to be identified by what they are against than what they are for or have in common.  Just as likely, they have left those outside the faith completely baffled and bemused by our divisive spirit over nearly unintelligent doctrinal nuances.  Our hostilities towards one another over spiritual practices (communion, baptisms, congregational worship, Bible translations, etc) devoted to the supposed same God are confounding.  If we cannot love one another through our different opinions and practices, what makes us think the world would believe the God and gospel we preach could ever accept them?  No wonder so many do not join the church because they are afraid of picking the “wrong” one.

More importantly, I believe, it speaks to our complete lack of faith in the Lord to build his own house (as we are told in Scripture he would do) and for his Holy Spirit to convince, convict and conform his own children in his own way (as Jesus assured us his Spirit would do).  We honestly do not believe that if everyone loved the Lord enough and loved one another enough that he is strong enough or faithful to bring us one day to all the same conclusion and same place – which is before his throne and in his presence.  No, we would much rather try and second guess the Lord and identify for ourselves who will be there and who will not.  The stark, naked truth is that it is not our job.

As someone wisely observed, “It is not my kingdom and I’m not the King.” It is not my household of faith and I’m not the Father who chooses who is in it or who is outside of it.  Jesus’ parable to The Tares and the Wheat may be worth another study for us who want to blow the religious referee’s whistle on others.  It may be time to put those away and, instead, embrace anyone on a spiritual journey towards God, encourage them and share with them what we know and our stories and, most importantly, allow and trust that God is at work in their life just as he is in ours.

It must have been an elderly and wizened Jude who learned to put away the religious referee whistle and uniform when he wrote in his New Testament letter, “To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy— to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore!  Amen” (Jude 24, 25).  In these words is an understanding of a grace greater than all our sin.  There is recognition that it is all God’s work, not ours and that he is able to take care of what is his.  As such, it allows us to put away religious refereeing because God is able to make his own calls.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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It is so odd to parent teenagers. Their maniacal mood swings create for some incredible drama.  A parent can go from being the best dad/mom to the worst parent ever in milliseconds.  When I give permission for my daughter to do something she wants to do, I get hugs and smiles and a giggly girl excited about life.  However, if I decide that what she is asking permission to do is not permissible or that she must obediently follow-up on something I requested or required her to do, then I become an unthinking, ugly ogre who has no more sense than an aphid and my beautiful girl turns into an unrecognizably grouchy and surly carbon-based life form.

The parent of a teenager can exhibit all the brilliance of Einstein and still not be recognized for any measurable contribution to his/her child’s well-being the same said child. My teenage son can bounce into the room, ask for my opinion about something, presumably because of my 21 years of education and life experience, and then turn around and do just the opposite.  This, of course, leaves me completely dumbfounded, especially when I become blamed for the outcome in spite of the fact that my counsel was exactly opposite of his own chosen course of action.  It is still my fault in some sort of vicarious way.

It is amazing how a child’s perspectives about his/her parent can change on the flip of a dime. When they are going well, according to their desires and plans, the parent is all-loving, all-wise and full of beneficence.  When things are not going so well, then the same parent – in the twinkling of an eye – becomes the vicious judge of their world, the destroyer of happiness and the cause of all the world’s ills.  The jump between these two emotive universes can happen several times in the same day.  It is as if the child is a being who is able to live in parallel universes and able to jump between the two at will.  Or, perhaps, they really are two different children who keep swapping places with each other between their good/bad universes.  The problem for the parent is never knowing what child they will wake up to in the morning or which one they are addressing at the dinner table.

Ancient Mayan Architecture, Chichen Itza, July 2003

Ancient Mayan Architecture, Chichen Itza, July 2003 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

If all this sounds ridiculously twisted, imagine how God must feel toward his human creatures. We tend to treat him in much the same manner as hormonal teenagers.  When life is going well, God is good!  When life is going bad, God is distant, deaf and demanding our blood.  When it appears he answers our prayers the way we want them answered, then God is to be praised.  However, when it appears he has declined to hear our prayers or gives what appears to be a resounding “No!” to them, then he is to be neglected and ignored.

One of the outcomes of my disobedience toward God is not only how I view my self but also how I view God. It affects my perspective of him.  Sin twists my perspective of God to where he no longer is “Our heavenly Father” but my condemning judge.  My perspective changes from one that sees God as for me to God as opposed to me.  He becomes, instead of the giver of life, the destroyer of life.  My twisted perspective then affects how I look at worship, church, the Bible, Christian leaders and fellow Christians.  How I believe God sees me becomes tainted.

This twisted perspective happens on a larger group or national level too. When the economy is robust and our jobs are good, then God has definitely blessed America.  However, when a disaster strikes or the economy tanks and we lose our jobs, then God is accused of not really being loving, caring and all-powerful.  After all, thinking like hormonal teenagers, if God really loved us, cared and was all-powerful, then he would always side with us; he would always say “Yes!” to our requests; and life would have no disappointments or pain.

The duty of the mature adult parent is to be the emotionally stable one when surrounded by the unsteady tides of teenage angst. It does not serve any purpose when the one who is supposed to be the adult acts just as emotionally immature as the teenager.  Of course, for an exhausted and frustrated human parent, this is not always the way it works out.  Even we have our limits and the worst comes out of us.

Fortunately, God does not have such human limits. He is the perfect parent who loves and acts with consistency.  He is the heavenly Father who does not change his perspective towards us no matter how much ours might change towards him.  When we are unfaithful, he remains faithful.  Even when we are in the position of a prodigal child, he remains the loving father waiting and hoping for his child to return to his/her senses and return home.  His perspective of us remains true even when ours gets twisted by our rebellious, deceiving hearts.  He sees us clearly with eyes of love while we view his character and nature dimly through suspicious eyes.

The hope that every parent of a teenager has is that one day they will mature and “grow out of” their emotionally unstable ways. I wonder if our heavenly Father does not wish the same thing for us who call our selves his children.  I often chide my children with saying, “I can’t wait until you grow up and get old enough so I can get smart again.”  For, in almost every case, the child in later life will look back over the years and say to him/her self, “You know, my parents sure knew what they were talking about.”  This is every parent’s reward and justification.

Until that time, it will remain the duty of every parent of a teenager to be the unmovable rock in the changing tide. This stability will be seen as unreasonable, demanding and unjustified.  However, it is exactly what is needed at this time in a teenager’s life.  It is also exactly what we need from our heavenly Father:  stability in an ocean of changing values.  So, let us caution our selves when our vision of God becomes twisted by the fortunes or misfortunes of life.  Let us untwist our perspective into the right one:  God does not change; we do.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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One of the things missing in the debate about immigration today is the view from the other side of the border – or fence in some places.  Americans seem to be myopically fixed upon their own ethno-centristic view of “the immigrant;” especially the illegal.  There is little regard or interest in how the rest of the world sees us, which explains a large part of the mess we have made in Iraq, Afghanistan and other parts of the world where we have attempted to interfere or intervene.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of Americans live in a mono-cultural setting while the rest of the world lives in a multi-cultural setting.  People in the rest of the world are made, as a part of everyday living, to interact with two or three different cultures and speak in two or three different dialects or languages.  On the other hand, Americans are impatient with an immigrant working behind the counter at Burger King.

Traveling abroad opens up a whole new world for those needing to break out of their mono-cultural worldview and experience life like the majority of the rest of the world.  Probably no experience for me has shaped my view of different cultures as much as my experience in India.  At the same time, no experience has taught me more about culture and immigration than my interactions with people from different countries attempting to start life over in the USA.  They are the brave ones.  It gives me an appreciation for what my ancestors did when they first came to America from Sweden a century ago or from Germany more than two centuries ago.

Lizard On Burnt Stump, Deschutes River Trail, April 2010

Lizard On Burnt Stump, Deschutes River Trail, April 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

India is a study in contrasts.  In the major cities, there are people everywhere.  The bright colors of dress and Hindu temples, music blaring from loud speakers and non-stop sounds of automobile horns surround a person.  There is no escape.  At the same time, the smells of diesel, perfumes, foods, open sewers and dead animals constantly waft around you.

As one moves through the city and countryside, a person cannot escape the rotting garbage, open trenches of raw sewage, plastic bags everywhere, wandering cows dropping there excrement everywhere, dogs running lose and people walking in and amongst traffic.  For all the beauty, the filth and chaos is unavoidable!  Forget any American sense of the rules of the road.  Trucks, buses, tractors, cars, motor rickshaws, bicycles, tricycles, ox carts, cows, water buffalo and people all vie for the road with honking, waving and shouting.

This is how most Americans see India and its people.  How about their view of us?  I recently read an article taken from the Evangelical Missions Quarterly (44:1 January 2008) by Paul G. Hiebert entitled “Clean and Dirty: Cross-Cultural Misunderstandings in India.”  It was eye-opening and revealing.  I wish I had read it before I my trip to India.

I presently live in an apartment complex that has a number of Indian families living in it.  The smell of curry drifts from their apartments.  I love it.  I have a new appreciation for their attempt to live in an American culture that is so foreign to them.  They have a lot of work cut out for them just to navigate everyday life.  I – all of us – have a lot to learn from them.

One thing that Indians notice in stark contrast from where they came from is the public cleanliness.  Manicured lawns, prettily painted houses, clean streets, no open sewers all make the world seem neat and orderly.  And the traffic!  No one uses their horns!  People drive clean, dent-free cars.  They stay in the well-marked lanes and actually stop at stop-lights and stop-signs.  On top of that, they will actually wait their turn to go through an intersection!  It is all simply amazing to them.

In contrast, however, when Indians first come to America, they are shocked at our personal filthiness.  Paul Hiebert in his article points out that they see Americans going to school, buses and stores in torn jeans, very short shorts, unkempt T-shirts and gaudy footwear.  Women dress in the same drab attired as men or in sweat pants or, worse yet, pajamas.  From their cultural perspective, all these look like beggars’ clothes.  Obviously we can afford more respectful clothes.

It is puzzling to these new comers to America that we keep our shoes on when we enter a house.  This is really confusing to them when we enter a house of worship into the presence of God.  It seems that we care more for our cars, yards and streets than we do ourselves or our god.

When visiting India, if one looks past the surface of dirt and filth, one would see a culture that is very concerned with purity and pollution.  Hiebert points out that Indians are, in fact, obsessed with personal cleanliness.  When leaving their small huts, men will always come out with their best shirts, ties and trousers, washed and pressed, along with polished shoes.  Women will only appear in public in brightly colored feminine clothes.  Houses even with dirt floors and court yards are swept daily.  People brush their teeth and comb their hair almost obsessively.  Plus, they will do it outside, in public, so that people will see their concern for cleanliness and public dignity.

When Indians watch Americans eat, they do so with incredulity.  After all, Americans like to eat with utensils that have been in other people’s mouths.  They frequently do not wash their hands before eat – even if they touch food with their fingers!  They also use their right hands in toilets and use paper to clean themselves.  Hiebert also points out that Americans eat meat, particularly beef, which gives them a strong body odor that vegetarians can smell.

Since Indians are concerned with personal pollution, they are careful about the things they touch.  Only the left hand is used for dirty activities, such as toilet duties.  They only eat with the fingers of their right hand, after washing, which has not been in other people’s mouths.  They are careful about who and what they touch to prevent themselves from being defiled.

Perhaps Americans could use a lesson from about “cleanliness” and “purity” from our Indian friends.  Instead of being so concerned about outward cleanliness, we should focus on what defiles us.  It seems Jesus addressed the Pharisees of his day with the same concern.  They were more concerned about outward purity than inward defilement.  His advice to them was not to be so concerned with the outward cleanliness of the cup, but pay attention to what is inside it.  It is what comes out of us that defiles us.

I suspect there are other lessons world-citizens could teach us if we were willing to learn.  As more and more people come to America from around the world, we have a prime opportunity to allow them to teach us.  It might behoove us to not demand that they become “like us.”  In some instances, it may be better for everyone if we become more like them.  This will take getting a vision from the other side of the world.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Towards A More Civil Public Discourse

One of the strengths of a true democratic system of government is the ability to have open public debates concerning the issues that matter to our nation.  No one individual, political party or system of thought controls or sensors the discussion; even to the point of publicly protesting before governmental buildings, outside political gatherings and in town meetings.  In many other countries of this world, such open protestations would be met with government oppression, brutality and even imprisonment and possibly death.

American citizens should appreciate these freedoms.  I strongly believe that they should be guarded and practiced.  However, I also believe that there is a danger today of allowing this form of public debate and open protest to degenerate into a deconstructive melee that will damage our system of public debate rather than promote it by the way we conduct ourselves.  Too often in today’s political climate the open discussions in our newspapers, talk-radio stations and sidewalk protests devolve into a hostile mob that demonizes everyone who does not think like they do.

This is group-think at its worst.  There is no open and honest dialogue with the opposing viewpoint in many cases.  Instead, they are rallies to cheerlead a particular political or social agenda without regard to the other side of the argument.  The other side is not even welcome to the table.  They are seen as “the enemy”.

This is not about the political left or the political right.  It is not about Republicans, Democrats, the Tea Party or Coffee Party advocates.  I am more concerned about America’s tone and tenor in the discussion.  Where is the “civil” in our civil public debate and discourse?  What happened to dealing with issues rationally and objectively?  Is there really an honest discussion taking place for the benefit of all people if one side of the debate is not present?

I am not suggesting that debate be dispassionate.  Neither am I suggesting that individuals or groups should not boldly and strongly affirm and assert their position.  What I am suggesting is that there is a way to do that without demonizing and alienating the other side of the debate.  When our debate descends from dealing with issues and facts to finger-pointing, name calling and generating misinformation about the other side’s position, we have to ask ourselves, “What are we really accomplishing?”  I would venture to answer, “Not much.”

Granted, from America’s earliest political days, public discourse has been heated and mean.  (Something I address in an earlier Blog Post: “Let’s All Calm Down!”)  For a great picture of how mean it could get, I recommend William Safire‘s book Scandalmonger.  After the colonies won their independence from England, some of our earliest leaders were dismayed  how fractious and uncivil American politics quickly became.  George Washington despaired over the hostile divisions of the American political arena.  Individuals who were compatriots in the Revolution became bitter enemies afterward.

Another period of American history that turned into civil war instead of civil discourse was prior to and during Abraham Lincoln’s term in office.  The issues of states rights, federal government powers and slavery were issues that consumed American politics from its earliest days.  Reading the diatribes of the times, one senses a growing hostility between parties to the point that by the time Abraham Lincoln gained office he despaired whether the divide could even be healed.  It turns out he was both right and wrong.  The great divide in American politics and society could be bridged, but only by war.

It is precisely this type of “war” language that we are hearing once again on the fringes of the public discourse surrounding American politics and the accompanying agendas.  Whether it is the Health Care Reform Bill, abortion, socialism versus capitalism, taxes, gun ownership or any of the other number of “hot button” issues, the divide between the sides is growing into an unbreachable wall that will not permit constructive dialogue and problem solving.

History teaches us that the “fringes” of public thought soon become the primary movers for social reform.  Therefore, it would be wise for us to pay attention to how our public discourse is being shaped by them.  Again, I am not addressing the issues or topics discussed.  I am more concerned about the way in which they are being discussed.  The process of debate shapes us as much as the actual decisions that come out of it do.  How are we allowing the way we discuss and debate these issues shape us as a people and nation?

I am particularly dismayed and shocked at how Conservative Christians, or just Christians in general, conduct themselves in this public discourse.  We most often come across as the most angry and hostile.  Our points, which are very good ones, are lost in the screaming and yelling at the opposing side.  However passionate one might feel about a particular political issue, as a Christian, one must ask, “How does the way I conduct myself and communicate my message reflect the Kingdom of God and its King?”

Christians live in the tension of existing in two kingdoms: the Kingdom of this world and the Kingdom of God.  We are primarily citizens of the Kingdom of God first and foremost.  Therefore, as citizens and ambassadors of that Kingdom to this earthly one, we should be concerned with how our actions and words portray the Kingdom of God and its King.

I am not suggesting that silence is the answer.  Neither is not caring what happens to and in this world.  We are called to bring the Kingdom of God to the world in which we live through our lives and our witness.  The issues of righteousness and justice are central to this mission.  However, the manner in which we strive for those things is just as important as their substance.  For by the way we conduct ourselves we reflect the nature and character of not only the Kingdom of God but also the nature and character of its ruler – our Heavenly Father.

Beach Pebbles, Ozette River Camp Site, June 2003

Beach Pebbles, Ozette River Camp Site, June 2003 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

My experience has taught me that the one who begins yelling the loudest has already lost the debate for he or she has no further substantive content or cogent arguments to make to prove his or her point.  There is a more civil way to conduct a civil public discourse.  Let me humbly recommend a few action points that may help us towards a more healthy and constructive public debate:

  1. Have a first hand knowledge of the issues and their facts.  Do not depend upon the pundits or politically slanted news organizations to give you objective truth.  Remember, they have an agenda that sells and makes them money.  That’s their primary concern.  If they truly worked for resolutions, they would be out of business.  It’s in their best interest to stir up the debate, not resolve it.
  2. Turn off and tune out “the screamers”.  Those yelling the loudest, as I said above, often do not have anything more constructive to bring to the argument other than passion.  While their passion is good, at the end of the day, it will not win the debate of substance.  If you get a conservative or liberal news source – internet, print, TV, or radio – make sure you are balancing it by listening or reading to the opposing side.  Make sure you know the rational points and objections the other side of the argument is making.  This will sharpen your own points.
  3. Read and learn from history.  This is not the first time that American politics has gotten heated and ugly.  It is not the lowest we have reached in the political forum.  However, to avoid delving deeper or repeating the mistakes of the past, it is important to know where we have been and where we have come from in our collective history.
  4. Openly invite and welcome the opposing side to the discussion.  Two things can only be accomplished by this:  First, you will learn the objections and points of the other sided.  Second, you will strengthen your position and ability to communicate your point.  You will also learn the weaknesses in your own argument, which will send you back to studying and learning about the issues and facts.  You may be surprised and change your mind as a result!  Or, you may win a friend and the debate by being better equipped.
  5. Learn the difference between a public rally and public debate.  More of the former takes place than the latter.  Rallies are good for energizing and mobilizing political partners, if that is what is actually happening.  However, in my experience, they too easily devolve into pointless and nasty caricaturizations of the opposition.  A debate will have the opposition present and allow it to fairly communicate its points.  It will require clear and cogent communication, but, just as important, listening.
  6. Finally, for those who are Christians, remember the bigger picture of the Kingdom of God.  It is not bound by the boundaries of a political party or social agenda.  The Church of Christ is growing and propagating in some of the most hostile political and social environments our world has to offer.  God is bigger than either political party.  We are called to represent and be communicators of that Kingdom to this world.  How we do that is just as important as the substance of our agendas.  Do our words and actions reflect the nature and character of the One we way we follow and serve?

There are no easy answers and solutions to resolving differences of opinions.  It is why we call the discussions of these things “debates,” after all.  However, I am firmly convinced and convicted that as mature people interested in the good of all humankind and creation that we can do a better job of being civil in our public discourse.  The way we conduct our public debates shapes us as much or more so than the substances of those debates.  Cherishing and honoring this important democratic process is important to our future as a nation.

Good constructive debate over the issues and facts is healthy for our democracy.  Hostile demonization and threats of violence only send us back into the times of tribal warfare or, worse yet, civil war.  However, I have faith in people, especially the American people, and especially the American democratic experiment that we can turn towards a more civil public discourse.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Even before the founding of the United States of America, the question that bright minds have struggled with concerns the role of government in the life of the individual and the community. It is something that we are still trying to define today.  The answer really rests on one’s experiences in life and the attitudes that have been handed down.

Much of American life and culture is made up of the rugged settlers and individual entrepreneurs who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and earned their own success.  They left community, friends, and families behind to make it on their own.  As a result, their identity with a community is loosely based upon their individual fit in it.  If they come to a place where they do not feel they fit any more, they have no problem pulling up roots and moving – to a different job, a different community, a different church, etc.

These individuals came from families who left mother country and fatherland to start a new life in America. Then, they left comfortable lifestyles on the eastern seaboard of America to pioneer and settle the mid-west or start over in the gold rushes of the far west.  Later, their families left the family farms of the mid-west to find careers in the expanding industries and start-up companies on the west coast of the U.S.  There is a history of settlers, pioneers, adventurers, and entrepreneurs in this group.

Those that grew up in this cultural ethos tend to believe that government should leave the individual alone to do his or her best (or worst).  The role of government is largely relegated to ensuring the safety of the nation, the economic concerns of the nation on the international stage, and to provide, as much as is fairly possible, a level playing field for each individual or corporation to pursue life, liberty, and happiness. Individual rights are more important than governmental interests.  Big business and their CEO’s tend to be suspect only when they are perceived as being in cahoots with the government.  Otherwise, they are content to leave well enough alone.

These tend to be what has come to be referred to as “conservatives”. They are conservative about cultural and governmental changes.  As such, they tend to believe that less government is better government.  The settler, farmer, rancher, entrepreneur, business owner and anyone else who attained the American dream by their own hard work tend to be in this mix.  America has a long history of such individuals: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson (despite, among others, being a philosophical and social liberal), Henry Clay, Andrew Jackson, Rutherford B. Hayes, Booker T. Washington, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Gerald R. Ford, and Ronald Reagan among others.  Of course, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt are also included in the conservative camp, but they also did much to expand the role and authority of the federal government.

On the other side of the discussion are those who have thrived and succeeded in the American dream not so much on their own rugged individualism as much as in cooperation with others. Many of these have been immigrants who came to America and settled in immigrant communities.  They survived the transition into a new life through the safety and cooperative spirit of that community.  Others of these have witnessed the success of cooperatives to better their lives, such as labor unions or social justice organizations.  They tended to gather in large cities and depended upon their smaller community within the context of the large metropolitan area to maintain identity and gain a measure of success and stability.

These tend to be what has become referred to as “liberals”. They are liberal about social and governmental changes.  As such, they tend to see that government is the promoter and prompter for social change on the individual and corporate level.  Whatever change is necessary to better the whole community is welcome.  They believe that government exists not only to guarantee a level playing field but also to guarantee, as much as is possible, that every individual succeeds and attains life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  America has a long history of such individuals:  John Adams (despite, among others, being a philosophical and social conservative), James Madison, Calvin Coolidge, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson,  and Jimmy Carter among others.

These are two distinct visions of America. For one group, government is the extension of the individual with representatives to carry out the interests of the individual.  For the other group, government is the extension of the whole community with representatives to carry out the interests of the whole community.  One sees a lone pioneer struggling to make it on his or her own.  Another sees a village working together for the survival and fulfillment of all of its members.  On one side of the aisle you have a group yelling, “Stay out of my way.  I can do it!”  Then, on the other side of the aisle you have a group screaming, “Together we can!”

Yellow Flowers in Seattle, Full Color, July 2003

Yellow Flowers in Seattle, Full Color, July 2003 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

Which one is correct? This is part of the struggle surrounding the current health care reform debate.  Do we need government intervention and control?  Or, do we need to let the individuals and corporations of our society work it out in the market place?  Until then, who pays the price?  Is it better to have a government bureaucrat or committee deciding who and what is covered by insurance or to have a corporate lawyer and committee decide?  Both may hold power over the individual and make decisions that are life changing.   Are we better off allowing the abuses and responsibilities of  insurance and medical corporations to continue or should we entrust the government to do a better job?  Is the track record of government bureaucracies better than the track record of public or private corporations?  And this is only one issue our nation is struggling with among many.

The question that must be answered, and perhaps never will be answered in our current American cultural climate, is simply this:  What kind of community do we want to make as a nation?  Is community made up of  individuals in cooperation with one another based upon contractual agreements?  Or, is community made up of  individuals in responsibility for one another based upon larger responsibilities to the whole nation?

The question that must be answered in our religious communities is this: What does the gospel say concerning the care of the last, least, and lost among us?  What are the commands and injunctions given to us in the Old and New Testament concerning how we treat the oppressed, foreigner, and poor among us?  If we deny the government the responsibility to care for them then where are we in actively caring for them?  While we have built multi-million dollar campuses and facilities, what impact have they had upon caring for the poor and disenfranchised in our communities?  What portion of our church budgets go to help the poor, unemployed, disabled, hungry, sick and homeless in our own congregation or neighborhoods?  How much do the community churches support the local food bank, homeless shelter, free medical and counseling clinics, and pregnancy centers?

If the government is only a representative of the independent individuals of our society, then perhaps it is time for these individuals to own up to their moral responsibility and put up or shut up when it comes to donating time and money to help the less fortunate around them.   We are all our brother’s or sister’s keeper.  It is in our best interest to care for those in need around us.  For the religious, it is the essence of the gospel and our true identity with Christ.

On the other hand, if the government is an extension of community and community care to our whole society, then it is in everyone’s best interest that the government by the people, for the people, and of the people hears from the people.  For a community is more than just one, whether that one be the president, a senator or representative, a bureaucrat or corporate lawyer.  Likewise, “we” is more than just “me”.  Perhaps now would be good time to hear everyone say, “We can do this together!”  And for all the individuals to answer, “Count me in!”

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

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