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Posts Tagged ‘Politics’

Juan Williams

Image by Fairfax County Public Library via Flickr

It has become politically incorrect to voice one’s fears and anxieties publicly. Any insecurities one might have around a group of people are a social weakness and must be left unvoiced.  At least this is my take on recent events in the news.  The most glaring example is the firing of Juan Williams from NPR over expressing momentary personal anxieties he experiences when he gets on a plane with others overtly dressed as Muslims.

Keeping our fears and insecurities silent is precisely part of our problem. Where is the public forum to express openly and talk honestly about the experiences that frighten us?  When is there an opportunity to have a civil discussion about what are or are not rational fears public fears?  Dismissing and glossing over them only causes greater paranoia, I believe.

As a parent, when my children express a fear – rational or not – I want to talk with them about it. A healthy discussion with them helps me to address the difference between reality and perception.  Some fears are healthy and some are not, but telling my child they are “phobic” or dismissing them as immature will not help them.  Yet, it seems to me this is precisely the way those in government and media are attempting to treat the American people.

Anyone who expresses an anxiety or fear is labeled “phobic” – islamaphobe, homophobe, xenophobe, etc. This is intended to silence us and make us bury those fears deep within our psyche.  There is no public place to express them.  So, we do not talk about them.  We do not acknowledge our insecurities over those differences.  Instead, like the good stoic Northern Europeans we are, we are expected to get over them, move on and embrace everyone in every place regardless of how we really feel.  Don’t talk about “it.”  Don’t deal with “it.”  Hide “it.”

I do not think this is a long-term workable solution for peace and unity among humankind. Sooner or later, these unspoken fears will come out.  Precisely because they were not dealt with in a suitable manner today, their dormancy will give way to hatred towards those we fear in some tomorrow; especially in times of greater turmoil.  Consider past human actions against one another: Rwanda, European-Jewish history, American treatment of Japanese Americans during WWII, Sunnis and Muslims, Muslims and Hindus in Pakistan-India, South African Apartheid, and the Jim Crow laws of 20th century America.  The list is as endless as human history.

Our silent fears will not lie unspoken for very long. Human history has taught us that when it comes to conflict of any kind, we will bunch into “tribes” that will attack one another.  These “tribes” might not necessarily have their identity around ethnic or social affinities.  Today they are just as likely to form around ideological affinities: conservatives, liberals, socialists, capitalists, religionist, non-religionists and on the list goes into “pro-this” and “pro-that” or “anti-this” and “anti-that.”

Waterfall Above Hyas Lake, Washington State, September 2010

Waterfall Above Hyas Lake, Washington State, September 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

The greatest idea of founding American democracy was, I believe, the creation of a society where an open market place of ideas can be shared by everyone. This means that we must give voice to our differences and fears as well as our commonalities and passions.  Sure, we may even have to listen to people we disagree with on the most visceral level.  However, allowing their voices to be heard is much better for society overall than demanding it be silenced and relegated to the underground.

Giving air time in a public place for all ideas allows the larger public to determine the cogency and vitality of ideas and arguments. We need not censure the American public from them.  They will do so by themselves with thought and action.  If our ideas and ideals – political or religious – cannot stand on their own two feet in a public debate then perhaps it is time to reconsider our own position.

Vivian Schilling, the CEO of National Public Radio, and the other leaders of PRI (Public Radio International) should be ashamed of the way they handled the firing of Juan Williams. However, even more so, they need to reconsider how they treat sincere expressions of fear, anxieties and social concerns.  It is not enough to dismiss them as Vivian Schilling did with a suggestion that Juan Williams take his issues up with his psychiatrist.  There is a whole nation of people who know that twinge of fear, even if it is only momentary, when they get on a plane with people dressed as Muslims.  It is simply our current reality.

Would Juan Williams, who is himself of African-American descent, have received the similar discipline if he expressed the same fear about going into a poor African-American neighborhood with a history of drug and gang violence? Would he have been expected to not voice any fear if he had gone into a Ku Klux Klan meeting to do a reporting job?  The fact is that reporters, even NPR reporters, have a history of relaying personal impressions and expressions.  So, what makes this any different?  Oh, yeah.  It was on Fox News.  Well, that is another story.

Even in our current negative financial climate, the American people are chided for their fears. We are daily reminded that the problem is “the consumer confidence index.”  It indicates that we are fearful for the future and its uncertainty.  The expectation seems to be to overlook our fears and keep on buying and going into debt.  Until our own fears are conquered and we gain a positive consumer financial index, the economy is our fault.  Right.

Let us take the mute off of our fears and openly express them. We must not give in to our silent fears.  Instead, we are more apt to find solutions, overcome our fears and move confidently into our future side-by-side if we work together to address them.  Franklin D. Roosevelt expressed to the American people after the dark days of the beginning of The Great Depression that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”  By going on to acknowledging America’s fears he dis-empowered those fears.  Maybe he was only partially correct.  Maybe what we have to fear is our silent fears.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Election Day

Image by elycefeliz via Flickr

Thank goodness it is over: mid-term elections. The day following elections, November 3rd, is almost as bad as the days leading up to Election Day on November 2nd.  The whole day is taken up with pundits and analysts telling us what the election results mean; as if we are too ignorant to figure that out ourselves and need someone to tell us.  Of course, even the analysis is driven by political views.  So, none of it is hardly objective – from the left, right or center.

At least for a short period of time, about 18 months, we will not have to listen to the ads, get phone calls from pollsters, and be visually assaulted by placards along our streets and highways. It is not that I am against the American political process.  Far from it!  We are privileged to be citizens of a country that can change political authorities without a coupe or revolution that causes death and destruction.  Few nations in the world can do this.

I am just tired of the mean-spirited, misleading and meaningless droning that has taken over any real civil dialogue that will result in really solving problems. Much of today’s political proclamation reminds me of a poster I saw one time for a revival meeting taking place at a conservative Baptist church in our neighborhood.  In bold-letters across the top is declared, “Come hear preaching against!”  And then it went on to list all of the ills of our society: smoking, drinking, gambling, movies, television, dancing, illegal drugs, swearing, etc.  The whole poster was filled with issues that listeners could go and hear preached against.

It struck me in the weeks leading up to the elections that this was pretty much all I was hearing in the debates. Propaganda I received in the mail never espoused what a candidate was for and any solutions the candidate was offering to solve our state or federal problems.  They all consisted of what a political action committee (PAC) or sponsor for an opposing candidate was against.  How helpful.

I was taught years ago that any unskilled moron can tear apart a barn. However, it takes a skilled craftsman and someone who really knows what they are doing to build one.  It would appear to me that we have more than enough people who can identify the problem and tear apart what has already been attempted.  What we are really lacking is enough people who can come together to build something that will benefit everyone and last more than one election cycle.

All of this has got me to thinking about politics that really matter. It has been a “hobby-horse” of mine for years now, but this past election cycle has only solidified my opinion regarding American politics.  It is simply this: The only politics that really matter are the politics you and I practice everyday.  Let me explain, please.

The most basic definition of the word “politics” is offered to us by the Merriam-Webster as “the art or science of government. Now, before you rush head-long into thinking that the word “government” has only to do with our large scale federal and state governments, think again.  Our early American Founders understood first and foremost that governance, or government, was first and foremost a personal matter.  It concerns how one governs his or her own affairs: home, land, finances, relationships, etc.  Thus government, properly practiced, starts within one’s own home.

Unfortunately, it seems that as a society as a whole we have lost touched with this reality. We focus on macro-politics, when our most important contributions are on the micro-political level.  The American electorate gets all worked up over what party is in power, what national issues are screaming for our attention, and who has most recently offended our political sensibilities.  Meanwhile, the everyday things we could do to govern ourselves and our own circle of influence goes unmet.

Glacier On Mt. Daniels, Washington State, September 2010

Glacier On Mt. Daniels, Washington State, September 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

For example, the political debate over health care is a major issue on the national scale. Yet, how many of us really practice responsible self-government in the way we eat and exercise?  All of us contribute to the rise of health care costs when we let obesity and a sedentary lifestyle send us to the doctor for expensive medical procedures and then expect our insurance companies to pay for it (which is paid for by the rest of us contributing to the system, by the way).

Many conservative and religious American voters vow to only vote for pro-life candidates. However, how many of them actually help the governance of their local pregnancy centers by volunteering time or donating money?  It is useless, let alone hypocritical, to vote for state or national pro-life candidates if one is unwilling to act locally to help those with unplanned or unwanted pregnancies.  Personal politics demands that I practice in self-governance that which I vote for on my election ballot.

In other words, what we demand on the larger scale of the political arena, let us practice on the political scale that really matters: personal politics and self-governance. By making a difference in our own towns, cities, neighborhoods, local schools, food banks, rehab centers, social agencies and volunteer organizations, our culture is changed at the micro-level.  This change will be reflected at the macro-level as those within our communities and raised on our values are elevated to larger or macro levels of political responsibility.

The politics that matter start on the personal level. If we cannot self-govern, then what makes us think that anyone we elect will be able to govern for us?  This is only a cop-out.  Instead of taking personal responsibility to choose and to act, we want those in government to tell us what to do so that we can blame them when it does not work out.  It gives us an excuse to “Vote the bums out!”  It is time for every American to take a personal vote.  If you were “president” of you, would you re-elect yourself?  If the answer is no, it is time for some soul-searching.

The reality is what we all know too clearly. There is no administration or elected official that is going to bring solutions to all of our problems.  It is up to each of us to practice politics that matter, which is the science and art of governance.  Let’s start with self-governance and go from there.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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You know you work for the government when:

The process becomes more important than the product.

You don’t see anything wrong with attending a meeting on a subject you know nothing about.

You feel you contributed to the meeting just by being there.

You stop raising issues/problems because you know you will be the one answering them.

You fly first class across the country to attend a conference with 100+ people to discuss the fact that the project does not have enough money.

You work for an acronym, on an acronym, and your job title is an acronym.

You understand the rationalization of an acronym composed of acronyms.

You know that the location of a meeting is directly related to its importance.
(1) A meeting at Fort Hood requires a subordinate or a contractor
(2) The same meeting at Lake Tahoe requires your personal attention

You’ve sat at the same desk for 3 years, done the same thing for 3 years, but have had 3 different business cards.

[author unknown]

Need Cash for Alcohol Research

Need Cash for Alcohol Research

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Let’s All Grow Up

As an observer and listener of world events across a spectrum of news channels, I am wondering what it is going to take for the more moderate voices in our world to be heard.  It seems that only the radical voices, extremists if you want, get all the air time.  And now, a small time pastor, Reverend Terry Jones, of a congregation of barely 50 persons and shrinking in Florida has captured the world stage with a threat to burn the Quran.

Almost a year ago (October 1, 2009 to be precise), I posted a blog article entitled, “Let’s All Calm Down.”  In it I called for people to settle down and realize that the issues we face today, when placed in historical context, should not be all that alarming to us.  Running around scream in a high-pitched Chicken Little-like voice that our world is ending is non-productive.  In historical context, politically and religiously, this is hardly the worst of times for the United States of America.

Whether it is debating health care, taxes or government programs, it seems that the discussion always devolves into a tit-for-tat battle.  In juvenile-like behavior patters, instead of taking responsibility for our own actions and outcomes, we seem to be concerned with who started it and placing the blame.  It is time we all grew up and got over “it” – whatever the particular “it” of the blame game we are playing.

This should go with Americans attitudes towards radical and extremists of the Muslim religion and vice-versa. Instead of trying to figure out who “drew first blood” so that “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” can be extracted, the mature adult thing to do would be to stand above the offense.  I often teach my kids when they are being picked on by their siblings or kids at school that one of the most potent weapons to disarm a potential enemy is to first not respond to their behaviors and actions.  If that does not work, then proceed to draw attention to their actions by drawing in the attention of others – authority figures and peers.  If your behavior is above reproach, they will support you and fight for you.  In the end, you will have to do very little.

Granted, this is a difficult approach to take when our emotions running high and our pride and feelings have been hurt. However, acting like a bunch of juvenile gang members or kids on a play ground seeking revenge for every slight will not get us anywhere either.  Someone needs to become the adult in a very volatile situation.  Reverting to our childhood antics and behaviors will not solve our world problems or bring peace.

So, the Reverend – with such a title used very loosely – Terry Jones seems to have forgotten the most basic teachings of Jesus when it comes to how we are to treat our enemies: pray for them, serve them and love them.  Of course, this requires a very mature approach toward our perceived enemies; many of whom turn out not to be our enemies at all but people only acting out of their own hurt and woundedness, albeit in an immature way.  Unfortunately, Terry Jones is not alone in America.  I have heard many people through our media respond in justifying the action of burning the Quran or vandalizing Islamic worship and community centers with:

  • “Well, they burn our flag in their land!”
  • “If they burn our Bibles, we should be able to burn their Holy Book.”
  • “Islam promotes hatred and persecution of Christians all over the world.”
  • “They were shouting Quranic verses when they flew those jets into the Twin Towers.”
  • “They preach against America as “the great Satan” and want to attack us again, so we have the right to practice our right to freedom of speech by letting them know how we feel about it.”
  • “We have the right to protest and practice our freedom of speech.  Who cares what they think about it.”

Notice that in some way all of these statements hold a kernel of truth.  The real question, however, is whether they are the mature, adult way to respond.  It may be true that my son was hit first by another kid at school.  That does not give him a right to retaliate in like manner and expect to not bear the consequences of those actions: trouble at school with possible expulsion and trouble at home.  It may be correct that another kid called my girl a nasty name, but that does not permit her to respond in a similar way.

We should expect no less of a response for our adult situations in a troubled world.  When will we start to grow up and act like the adults in this cosmic play ground?  When will we stop responding to force with force?  Or, reverting to name calling with name calling and demeaning labels?  Who will be the first to take the moral high road of forgiveness and reconciliation?

Classic Ford Hood Ornament, Cool Desert Nights Auto Show, Richland, Washington, 2010

Classic Ford Hood Ornament, Cool Desert Nights Auto Show, Richland, Washington, 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

One would hope that Christians, in keeping with their message and mission, would be among those.  Where are the adult voices among all religions that call for tolerance, forgiveness, longsuffering, patience, kindness, grace, mercy and justice?  Who in the Christian community is calling for larger Christian community to reflect the teachings of Jesus on the world stage?  I believe they are out there.  They are just not being heard.  Bad news seems to sell better than any good news.  So, a crazy, fundamentalist pastor of an insignificant congregation in Florida gets world-wide air time while the deeds of countless Christians around the world to, for and among Muslims goes unrecorded.  Go figure.

I cannot speak for other world religions, but having been a Christian leader in congregations for 25 years and having studied the Bible with three degrees in Biblical Studies and Theology, I do believe that I have some understanding of where Jesus would steer us:

  • “You have heard people say, “Love your neighbors and hate your enemies.”  But I tell you to love your enemies and pray for anyone who mistreats you.  Then you will be acting like your Father in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both good and bad people. And he sends rain for the ones who do right and for the ones who do wrong.  If you love only those people who love you, will God reward you for that? Even tax collectors love their friends.  If you greet only your friends, what’s so great about that? Don’t even unbelievers do that?  But you must always act like your Father in heaven.”  (Matt. 5:43 – 48)
  • “Whenever you stand up to pray, you must forgive what others have done to you. Then your Father in heaven will forgive your sins.”  (Matt. 11:25, 26)
  • “Even if one of them mistreats you seven times in one day and says, “I am sorry,” you should still forgive that person.”  (Luke 17:4)
  • “But love your enemies and be good to them…Have pity on others, just as your Father has pity on you.  Jesus said: Don’t judge others, and God won’t judge you. Don’t be hard on others, and God won’t be hard on you. Forgive others, and God will forgive you.”  (Luke 6:35 – 37)

Or, where the Apostle Paul’s instructions to the churches would take us:

  • “Dear friends, don’t try to get even. Let God take revenge. In the Scriptures the Lord says, “I am the one to take revenge and pay them back.  The Scriptures also say, “If your enemies are hungry, give them something to eat.  And if they are thirsty, give them something to drink. This will be the same as piling burning coals on their heads.  Don’t let evil defeat you, but defeat evil with good.”  (Rom. 12:19 – 21)
  • “Stop being bitter and angry and mad at others. Don’t yell at one another or curse each other or ever be rude.  Instead, be kind and merciful, and forgive others, just as God forgave you because of Christ.”  (Eph. 4:31, 32)
  • “…forgive anyone who does you wrong, just as Christ has forgiven you.”  (Col. 3:13)

The easy road to take?  No!  But being the mature adult in a room full of children is never an easy task.  It is tiring and trying.  Ask any middle school teacher.  However, it is the road that a majority must willingly and intentionally take to make our world a better place.

Will it come with a price?  Yes!  It will mean being willing to take the brunt of abuses given by those who choose to act out.  The role of the parent in the home is not to reflect the behaviors of the children in the home.  This may mean not taking the ravings of their teenager to seriously.  It may mean overlooking the slight of an angry child who screams, “I hate you!”  Shouting, “I hate you too!” back will only escalate the problem not solve it.  So, assuming the posture of the adult on the world stage may mean absorbing abuses and even the shedding of our own blood.

I do not know a parent of any child who at some time has not wished that the responsibility for being the adult in the home was not theirs.  That is only natural because it can be an exhausting and frustrating endeavor to constantly provide for and police those given into our charge.  However, surrendering our position is not an option.  Neither is reverting back to our own child-like behaviors of our past.  Fortunately, there are many all across the spectrum of religions and politics who act responsibly.  They take care of the poor, stand against injustice, suffer with the disenfranchised, come alongside the marginalized and actively contribute to making our world a better place.  We just need more of them and need to hear their voices.

So, it is time we all grew up.  Stop acting and responding like children.  Begin to behave out of our higher ideals and values – political and religious.  Be willing to bear the cost of improving our world for our children.  Become the voices of reason against the squall or school-yard language and rhetoric.  Refuse to play the “who done it to who first game.”  Then, perhaps in time, the whole world will grow up to become what we all hope it will become.  A place where we can all get along.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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It is not just a slip of the tongue that can catch a preacher in an embarrassing moment. Sometimes the slip of the shoe will too.  There is nothing like a brand new pair of leather soled dress shoes and carpeted sanctuary floors to better illustrate this point.

I wish that I could tell you that this is a brief story about a friend of mine. But, alas, it is not.  I must own up to my own humiliating debacles.  And this is one of them.

I had just taken a youth and associate pastoral position at Neighborhood Christian Center in Bremerton, Washington. So, right out of college, my wife and I moved to Bremerton to make a new home and start an adventure in ministry.  Of course, like any wet-behind-the-ears rookie of any occupation, I was intent on proving my worth to not only the senior pastor, Jim Hill, but also the whole congregation.

As those in any level of church leadership know, Sunday mornings are a frantic and frenetic time. I have grown certain over the years that pre-service preparation is when the devil and his minions show up for church.  Thus, we would probably do better going around praying and exorcising demons from every room and off of every person coming through the doors than getting ready for our religious rites.  But, of course, we are always too busy to do just that.  So, we scurry around like blind church mice trying to find cheese.

On this particular Sunday, I was prepared and ready to go minutes before the start of the morning worship. There were a few little details I needed to take care of with some individuals in the back of the church.  So, I made my way to them to talk.  Meanwhile, the sanctuary continued to fill up.  It was going to be a full church that particular morning, which is always gratifying to all those who have prepared so hard.

The senior pastor led worship from the piano. It was my duty to welcome everyone and give the invocation; the opening prayer for those of you not from the Pentecostal “High Church” tradition.  I must have taken a little longer than I thought with the individuals I was talking to for before I knew it the cue to begin started.  This meant I was out of place in the back of the church and not in the front of the church where I belonged.

Hurrying quickly, I decided to take a short cut up the platform by jumping on to the stage from the side where there were no steps but quick access right to the pulpit. Now, I was more athletic than I am now and quite able to jump high.  In college I could dunk a basketball with two hands.  Thus, leaping the two-and-a-half feet up onto the stage posed no problem in my mind.  Except…

That week, in anticipation for my new position on a pastoral staff, I had gone out with my wife to the mall to purchase a new pair of dress shoes. I had purchased on sale a very nice pair of Florsheim dress shoes.  They had 100% leather uppers and soles.  They were very comfortable.  It was those shoes that I was wearing when I decided to take my leap-of-faith from stage-right.

As I recall, my take-off was impeccable. I had the length and the height just right.  What I had not calculated was the reaction of my new leather soled shoes to the carpeted edge of the platform.  I may as well have been wearing polished Formica soled shoes.

My shoe slipped off of the stage. My body continued in its forward projection.  Shin came crashing into the edge of the stage.  The rest of my body came crashing to the floor.  Unfortunately, the platform was also tastefully decorated with potted plants.  Real ones.  These helped to break my fall.  My fall helped to scatter the pots, the plants, and the soil across the platform.

Franklin Country Court House, Pasco, Washington, August 2010

Franklin Country Court House, Pasco, Washington, August 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

It is amazing how quite a crowded room gets when something like this happens to someone. For a brief moment, all time stood still.  It was as if everyone was waiting to see if my body would lie in a still heap or give signs of life by continuing to move.  After s brief registry of just what happened, several people moved to see if I was alright and help me up.  Of course, wanting to quickly recover I had tried to bounce up from my prostrate condition only to kick around the remains the flowers and potting soil.

The senior pastor look at me bewildered. I looked at him befuddled.  Already ushers were helping to pick up the dismounted potted plants.  Some church ladies were gingerly scraping potting soil into little piles and scooping it into a few pots.  I hardly new how to begin.

How do you recover from such a publicly humiliating beginning? For some people that morning, it was there first introduction to the “new pastor”.  I can only imagine what they must have been thinking.  For those who had a direct hand in my hiring, including the senior pastor, I imagine that someone wanted to get up and apologize to everyone else for my being there.

Somehow, my composure and the congregation’s composure were restored and we continued on that morning. I do not remember any thing else of that day.  The singular event, however, is pretty much burned into the synapses of my brain.  Needless to say, I spent a good deal of time scuffing up the soles of my dress shoes on the sidewalk after that morning.  My shin would heal, my pride would mend and most people would forget it ever happened.  But not me.  I still shudder when I remember that episode.

I think everyone has a similar story of public humiliation to share. It is part of human experience.  It is a tool to keep us humble.  I imagine that there are days that God as an audience to our behaviors call his angels to his side and says, “Hey, everyone!  There a newbie trying something out.  Let’s see what happens.”  Isn’t it good to know that one of the ways we can bring pleasure to God is by providing comedic relief?  I think one of the largest books in the library in heaven has got to be entitle, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Pulpit.”

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Keeping One Idea Among Many

The idea that the United States of America is an open market place for ideas is being tested. Of course, it is always being tested because it  is still a democratic experiment.  However, the feverish screaming from different sides of ideological or religious aisles has perhaps been no more loud than in recent days.  Whether it is the proposal of an Islamic Center two blocks from the 9/11 ground zero, the diametrically opposed political and economic ideas of the left and right, or discussions surrounding health care and other contemporary issues, the result seems to be the same: deafening noise.

Unfortunately, the media and pundits seem to have hijacked the center stage of the discussion. Of course, early on in U.S. politics, newspapers played a large role in informing or misinforming the public.  Today, our technology has only improved the results of information or misinformation.  The question of whether a society can maintain an open market place for ideas to be shared and debated seems to be still up in the air.  The classic example is the average American liberal arts college or university that allows for just about any discussion except any concerning the support of the Christian faith.  The same binders are put upon any such discussion in the secular market spaces.

When our institutions, media and government control the dialogue the liberty to express one’s ideas is enslaved to those institution’s ideologies. Of course, on the other side of the argument then, is the understanding that if it is truly to be an open market place of ideas, then we must allow for the voice of even the wackiest of propositions.  That may be true.  However, I would argue that there is less a danger in that direction than in the direction of censorship and limitations of liberty.

Contrary to what many ne0-atheists and anti-religion proponents claim, I believe that the core of Christian thought and doctrine have remained robust and alive. Even in an unfair and unbalanced environment for equal dialogue, the claims of the Christian worldview have stood up well.  Granted, most of this has had to take place within the confines of Christian institutions, schools, and think-tanks.  If anything, the arguments and ideas have been sharpened by the debate that takes place outside the public market place of ideas.

In a market place of ideas, it is not surprising to find that there are many voices. Personally, I believe that this is a good thing.  It helps to hone and sharpen opposing points of view and eliminate those that do not stand up; or at least hold them up to sharp scrutiny.  As a Christian and church leader, I have never been afraid to allow the core Christian tenets to stand up for scrutiny in the market place.  Unfortunately, there are very few places where a civil dialogue can take place so that religious/political/philosophical ideas can be shared.

I have discovered some of the nastiest folks in internet chat rooms; even if they are meant to give voice to religion or politics or philosophy. It is not too soon into any discussion before a person or persons takes it down to the level of name calling and playground banter.  All one is left to do is to move on.  Sadly, I have not found the public arena much more inviting or encouraging.  It seems that very few people have a capacity to share ideas, convictions or experiences in a civil manner.

Classic Ford, Cool Desert Nights Auto Show, Richland, Washington, June 2010

Classic Ford Automobile, Cool Desert Nights Auto Show, Richland, Washington, June 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

This may not be the greatest challenge, however. I believe the greatest challenge may be for the individual to be able to keep their individuality in thoughts and convictions without selling out to what is either politically correct or publicly acceptable.  This is not to say that a mind should remain unchanged.  Change of convictions based upon sound reasoning is acceptable.  Acquiescing to the raucous mob or loudest voices is not.  Instead, maintaining individual expression amidst public discourse is akin to wearing a blue shirt to a convention of Wal-Mart employees.  It is hard to not get lost in the crowd and just appear to be one among many.

The idea of individual liberty to believe and express one’s beliefs in the United States was a sacred idea to most of the founders of this secular democracy. It is why they maintained the importance of the separation of church and state; so that one ideology, even a Christian one, would not dominate the public market place of ideas and expressions.  Instead, they hoped to build a society that would be open to all religions, philosophies, and ideas so that in and through the sharing of them the best in humanity may arise.

The attempt to hold captive any ideology or philosophy, even if it is held only by a minority is truly un-American in the most basic sense. Only those who do not really believe what they tout or know why they believe what they spout fear those with opposing ideas.  Take the Christian Gospel for instance.  If the ideas and ideals of the Christian Gospel cannot hold its own in a secular society, then those who trust in it may best serve themselves by re-examining what they believe.  Depending upon the government to support their ideas and censor any that oppose them is only a sure way to loose credibility.  Every idea must stand on its own two feet, per se, no matter how sacred.

European history is a great example of what happens to the church when it is enforced and protected by the state. Instead of under-girding it, such actions undermine it.  Even the early American colonies’ attempts at church-state religions proved this point.  Let the Church and its message stand on its own two feet without government support or intrusion.  Free from such false supports, I am convinced it will flourish; even as one idea among many.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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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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Individualism Versus Collectivism

The pioneers of the United States of America were marked by a rugged individualism. While communities were formed for mutual protection and financial prosperity, it was most often the pioneer, settler or trader who explored and paved the way for them.  As such, much of America’s psyche is marked with an individualistic attitude.  As a society we value the stories of individuals who came to our shores and made a way for themselves.

Since the “wild West” has been settled and cultural values are now shaped more by the urban and suburban than the farm or ranch, the social psyche seems to be changing from an individualism mind-set to a collectivism one. As the population of America has shifted from agricultural settings to urban ones, the value of the individualism is not as prominent as that of the collective or community.  Is this good or bad?  I do not know.

The trouble arises, however, in attempting to define what are the rights of the individual versus what are the rights of the community. For those still attendant to the ethos of individualism, any discussion of social or community responsibilities is interpreted as an attempt to impose the  “evils” of socialism or communism.  On the other side of the spectrum, for those committed to the values of community and perceived social obligations, any objections from those committed to individual responsibilities and rewards is interpreted as irresponsible and uncaring.

Thus, in today’s political milieu, is the responsibility for health care an individual one or a collective one? Or, is the duty to provide for one’s self and family solely an individual one with no social support or is their a collective interest and invest on the part of the larger community?  At what point are issues to be determined on the federal, state or local collective community level or purely based upon individual response and responsibility?

To add to the mix, the definition of what are the “rights of all” versus what are the “rights of individuals” becomes complicated. When determined by the individual, there are almost as many answers as there are individuals in the U.S.  When determined by the community, there are as many answers as there are collective groups (political, social, religious, etc).  Thus, collective groups fight for and lobby for their collective interests.  This seems to result in an ever increasing broadening of collective “rights” available for the community.

Early in American history, the collective “rights” were very limited; though not always fairly practiced. The Bill of Rights was the beginning of the effort to define those social or collective rights.  The idea of fairness developed early on in the American consciousness so that over the years the idea of what is fair has broadened greatly: fairness in housing, fairness to Americans with disabilities, fairness to people of different religions, fairness to people of different sexual orientations, fairness in employment opportunities, fairness in the minimum wage – and the list continues to grow.

This is not all bad. It reveals that our democracy is a living, breathing organization and not one written in stone and codified to a particular era of human history or experience.  However, it carries with it its interesting challenges as well.  The contemporary struggle, apart from the struggle over gay marriage rights, is the idea of fair and equal access to technology, most particularly the internet.

Just as it became a perceived right in America for everyone to have electricity and a telephone after it had been available for a number of years to particular individuals, so now it is becoming a perceived right that everyone has a “right” to have access to the internet and computer technology. Those in the collective camp point out that individuals without such access are at a high disadvantage at school, in the labor market and the global market.  Those in the individualism camp howl at the idea that everyone has that “right” to technological access, especially since they as an individual had to pay a high personal price to attain that right, let alone that they should share in the cost of providing equal and fair access.

Classic Car, Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, June 2010

Classic Car, Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, June 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Two consciences seem to be at war in America. There is the conscience of the individuals who value the person over community; who “pulled themselves up by their own boot straps” and accomplished something with their life.  They value personal effort and ownership.

Then there is the conscience of the individuals who value the community over individuals; who realize that no one got where they are alone. This is often called collectivism.  The group rather than the individual is the primary political and social unit.  They value community effort towards equality and fairness.

The former group has determined that the moral bearing of the community is dependent upon the individual’s actions and responsibilities. They fear the subjugation of the individual to the group.  Instead, they believe that every individual is a sovereign entity who possesses an inalienable right to his or her own life.  Thus, all individuals have an obligation to them selves so that they are not a burden to anyone or any group.

While the latter group has determined that the moral bearing of the community is determined by how it cares for one another. They emphasize the interdependence any individual has with some social group.  Thus, all individuals have an obligation to the larger group who hopes to guarantee the security of its individual members.

The conscience of one has been shaped by rugged individualism and self-determination. The conscience of the other has been shaped by belonging to strong communities who support the individuals within them.  It is no wonder then that immigration has played a large part in shaping and moving the American conscience towards a collective ideal.  Most of the rest of the world has lived and survived in strong, tight-knit communities.  Even in settling in American, they have done so in immigrant communities who take care of one another.

The African, Asian and Latin American communities exhibit a strong family and communal based ethos. It is these new immigrant communities that will shape the future of the U.S.  The days of the lone ranger, rancher, cowboy, farmer, settler or pioneer are gone for the most part.  The migration of the majority of the American population since 1900 away from agricultural setting to urban and suburban settings is advancing this change as well.  So, what is the harm?

The harm may be in our own undoing. As noted by some of the Founding Fathers of the U.S., the danger of any democracy is when the constituents of that democracy realize that they can vote themselves into perceived financial and personal security.  Like our senators and representatives who vote themselves a pay raise, the American public is now able to vote for them selves a larger and larger portion of a piece of the American pie; or pressure their senators and representatives to vote for it.  The problem is that there is only so much pie.

It is a delicate balance between the rights and responsibilities of the individual versus the community. The margins and definitions of this are always changing and shifting.  As with many similar issues, the answer to finding that balance will never lie in an “either/or” approach.  It will be contained in a “both/and” approach.  Where it will not be determined is in the mass media market or among special interest groups fighting against one another.  Where it will be determined is perhaps in the very place that America seems to be lacking the most right now; in the halls of leadership and scholarship.  Strangely, this will require strong individuals who have an eye for the collective whole.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Founding Faith

I really enjoy reading good history books. Since my interests are pretty eclectic, so is my library.  The startling thing about reading history is how much is not new to human experience.  It almost makes one believe that life is an endless cycle that experience death and rebirth or reincarnation.  Still, learning from people who have gone before us and the histories they leave behind can be very instructive.

Recently, I finished Steven Waldman’s national bestseller, “Founding Faith: How Our Founding Fathers Forged a Radical a New Approach to Religious Liberty” (Random House, 2008).  I have read conservative writers and historians take on this period of American history as well as extremely liberal writers and historians treatment of the same period.  Both sides seem to want to use this common history to push a political or religious agenda.  Waldman’s treatment of this formative period of American history and its major players was far more balanced (he takes shots at both sides’ attempts to use this history to prove their points).

I appreciate an historical perspective that allows the characters and events to be complicated. Steven Waldman does just that with how he portrays the beliefs of the different Founding Fathers.  They were complicated individuals who changed their religious and political opinions throughout their life times.  Some mellowed with old age, while others hardened with it.  Some began with a very narrow view of religion and then ended their life with a much more liberal view of it, while others had just the opposite experience.

The formation of the founding documents that all these key players had a stake in reflects a part of all of their journeys toward maturity. However, being a part of a political process, they also reflect the various and many compromises that all of them had to make concerning religious and political views.  They did this to bring unity.  Thus, necessity, once again, proves to be “the mother of invention.”  Individuals who found themselves at odds and even hostile to others’ opinions came to believe that compromise was needed to accomplish a larger mission.  After the revolution’s dust settled, then the gloves came off and parties returned to their factious ways, which made for some truly colorful politics.

Hot Rod, Pickup, Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, June 2010

Hot Rod, Pickup, Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, June 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Whatever one has studied about the faith of the Founding Fathers of the United States, one thing is pretty certain from Steven Waldman’s book: they defy easy definition or categorization according to our present political or religious definitions.  In other words, the words “conservative” or “liberal,” whether religious or political did not mean the same thing at the end of the 18th century as it does in the 21st.  At the same time, our present understandings or assumptions concerning the Masons, Unitarians, Puritans or Congregationalists are not completely adequate.

Just like the hot button issues that drives our political agendas today; the Founding Fathers had their own hot button issues surrounding politics and religion. Thus, they reacted against the perceived abuses of both spheres of influence in human affairs.  The common perceived threat was a political or religious authority that interfered with the liberty of a person to act according to his or her conscience. Thus, politics and religion was the battle ground then as much as it is today; perhaps it will always be a part of American politics.

The diversity of religious expressions throughout the colonies demanded liberal documents that would not too narrowly define religion or faith. The various economic experiments that the colonies had gone through since their foundings also demanded broadly worded documents that allowed states to continue their systems of governance.  Of course, the power struggle between states and the federal government continue up to this day and have had some interesting developments over the past almost 250 years.

In short, the seeds of the religious and political dramas being played out today were planted in the soil of this country by our Founding Fathers. Just as compromise marked their work, so it will and must mark our work today.  There is a larger ideal in the formation of the United States of America than what particular religion or faith must be expressed.  The critical issue for the Founders and for us today is the question as to whether any religion or no religion at all contributes to the moral character of our self-government.

As such, the Founding Fathers guaranteed that the game of politics in the United States would also be a rough and tumble sport. This can be witnessed in the lives of our very first leaders.  Politics is not for the faint of heart.  We need people who are willing to contend for issues that are central to the way we live and the way we govern ourselves.  At the same time, let us remember the larger principles for why we exist as a nation.  These can be seen in our founding documents.  Of course, this will require a faith in our Founding Fathers, whatever side of the political or religious aisle they stood.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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