Friday, January 27, 2017

Inauguration Words: “America First”

In Donald Trump’s world, there are winners and losers. From his words, he seems to lack as sense of mutuality. Thus, his slogan-like call for “America First” should not surprise anyone. But, what does this mean? What does it mean to him? What does it mean to the U.S.? And, how does God view the idea of “America First”?

This is my third installment in a series. These entries explore words from the President’s inauguration speech. Some of the words have deeper implications than he might have considered. My purpose is not to criticize Trump. My purpose is to provoke thoughtfulness.

Trump said, “From this day forward, it's going to be only America first. America first. Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs will be made to benefit American workers and American families.”

In Matthew 20:1-16, the parable about the laborers in the vineyard transmogrifies winners and losers into a communal gathering. Each person receives what they need. Is the parable about salvation? Yes. Is it only about salvation? Probably not. Faith connects with every aspect of life. If faith in Christ were only about salvation, then Christians could set aside faith matters in daily living. One could do as one pleases and trust that God has no ethical or behavioral expectations on a Christian’s life. Scripture does not support this hedonistic interpretation. Instead, the Bible is explicit; faith connects with action (James 2:14-17). God has expectations (Micah 6:8).

What about the laborers in the vineyard? Were the people who showed up to work all day losers because they did not earn a greater wage than those who arrived at the end of the day? What about this “America first” mantra? Salvation is for all, not the winners. Life is for everyone, not just Americans.

A few chapters after the parable about the laborers in Matthew, Jesus tells a Pharisee about the greatest commandment. In Matthew 22:37-40, Jesus says, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Jesus’ comment, “hang all the law,” adds gravitas to a loving statement. He does not describe some namby-pamby love. This love is powerful. It transcends boundaries, even borders. Elsewhere he answers the question, “Who is my neighbor?” In the gospel, the neighbor is a foreigner! A Samaritan, of all people! Thus, I ask, how is a Mexican different than a Samaritan, if, in this analogy, Americans are the chosen ones of Israel?

“America first” misses the mutuality of the Christian faith. It falls far short of “love your neighbor as yourself.”

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Inauguration Words: “Eradicate Completely”

Today’s blog entry continues from yesterday’s. Yesterday, my post was about phrases from President Trump’s inauguration speech. Over the weekend (1/21-22), I thought about the transition from one administration to another. As I thought about the transition, the new president’s words came to my mind. Several phrases jumped out at me. So, I read his speech. Some of what he said was troubling. Let me explain why.

Trump said, “We will reinforce old alliances and form new ones. And unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the earth.”

Proposing to “eradicate” a belief system “from the face of the earth” suggests genocide on those who refuse to give up their beliefs. Invoking the label “genocide” might sound dramatic, but words matter. “Eradicate” means destroy completely. To ‘eradicate poverty’ means ‘to put an end to poverty.’ Thus, to “eradicate completely” means total destruction of “radical Islamic terrorism.”

Unfortunately, attacking terrorism inspires some people to join the terrorists. For example, bombing a village where terrorists are hiding might lead non-radical Islamic villagers to become sympathetic to the terrorists. Terrorists are successful when they invoke terror. Getting frightening and thoughtlessly fighting back responds on the terrorists’ level. It is like fighting fire with fire.

The President should choose his words carefully. Carelessly tossing off words like “eradicate” to sound tough might inspire some people, but when taken seriously, “eradicate” harkens to darker times. So, how can the U.S. respond to terrorists?

First, we can identify the causes of terrorism. Poverty, inequality, cultural changes, and religious fanaticism. When people address poverty, inequality, and cultural changes, religious fanaticism has more trouble recruiting adherents. How do we address poverty? We can buy fair trade, focus on development and education, and ease away from “America first” ideologies. I will treat “America first” later.

Second, we can develop partnerships with countries who are already engaged in fighting terrorism. Regional partners will be more effective than drones and bombs. I do not know the intricacies of defeating Daesh (aka ISIS). But, a thoughtful response will lead to greater success than bombing the entire area or attacking terrorists’ families, as Trump has suggested.

Third, we must not be afraid. Fear is the currency of terrorists. Big talk, like “eradicate,” reveals inner fear. Instead of playing into their hand, we must rise above it. The Bible assures us that God controls the world. If Christians believe it, then we have nothing to fear.

Words matter. Let us engage in thoughtful discourse about complicated problems and avoid vacuous platitudes.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Inauguration Words: “Civilized world”

As I reflect on the peaceful transition from administration to another, the differences are striking. The Obama and Trump administration have dissimilar approaches. Even the way and they look at the world is unique. In this blog, I would like to look at some of the words and phrases Trump used in his inauguration speech.

The inauguration speech provides an opportunity for a new president to set the tone for his/her administration. In the case of Trump’s speech, he revealed a clear worldview—one that is consistent with his campaign rhetoric. Trump views the world as a zero-sum game. There are winners and losers. To be a winner means beating someone else. Instead of cooperation and mutual gain, Trump sees individual gain. Somewhat ironic, this view is antithetical to trickle-down economics. Trickle-down economics proposes that when the rich get richer, they spend more and the situation improves for everyone. In other words, a rising tide raises all boats.

One phrase jumped out at me. Trump said, “We will reinforce old alliances and form new ones -- and unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the Earth.”

I will treat the phrase “eradicate completely” at a later date. Right now, I want to focus on “civilized world.” What did he mean? The countries of the North Atlantic? Europe, the United States, and Canada? What about Australia and South Africa? N. B. Each area I listed has a majority of white/Caucasian people. Does he include South Korea and Japan as civilized? What is the President’s view of Bhutan? It is the only carbon-negative country in the world. Of course, he has called climate change a hoax. So, being carbon-neutral or carbon-negative would not be noteworthy to him.

By saying the words “civilized world,” we learn that he holds the antiquated view of some of the world as uncivilized. I can hardly believe that this needs treatment. 

If Trump was referring to Africa, a continent of 54 countries, he does not understand the nature of civilization. The 1.1. billion people of the continent have produced 22 Nobelauriates. Four of the ten fastest growing economies in the world are on the continent. One out of every three people who live on the continent are, actually, middle class. Sure, the continent has issues of poverty, inequality, and injustice. But, so does the United States.

We can relegate a phrase like “civilized world” to old books. When we read them, we can overlook it. These words are a relic of a Eurocentric or colonial worldview, like the sexist mankind, instead of humanity or the racist negro, instead of African-America.

Some of Trump’s most ardent followers long for a golden heyday of the United States. They seem to long for something like the world portrayed on Leave It to Beaver (1957-63) or The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet (1952-66). Both television shows portray an idealized America of the 1950s. However, both shows miss the cultural richness of America, even within that era. Neither show portrays the depth of Appalachia and the Southern literature tradition. Both miss the Southwestern mix of a Latino culture growing in the United States. Neither touches African American or Native American culture. And, neither shows the diversity of American cities, like New York and Chicago.

There is no civilized and uncivilized world anymore. We live in a postcolonial world. We live in a world of pluralities and differing viewpoints. We recognize various cultures for their richness and what people can learn from one another. Referring to the “civilized world” and longing for an idealized past might play well with white supremacists, but it means nothing to those of us who feel blessed to live in a diverse land. These phrases miss the truth, beauty, and goodness of seeing other nations succeed with the United States.

The Bible is full of verses supporting helping others and seeing them as sisters and brothers, not uncivilized foreigners. As a Christian, my motivation for calling out this phrase is tantamount to God’s calling in Matthew 5:16, “Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Blessed are the poor in spirit...

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:2

What does it mean to be “poor in spirit”? And, why are the people who are “poor in spirit” blessed? Are they blessed because they are poor in spirit? Or, does the state of being poor make them predisposed to God’s blessing?

If people are blessed because they are poor, then simply giving away all of one’s possessions should lead to blessings. Maybe it would. Maybe the act of giving everything away would yield an openness to God’s blessings. But, then giving everything away would not be the source of the blessing. The act of giving everything away would be transformative. Upon realizing the change after experiencing a willful entry into poverty, God’s blessing would logically follow the state of being poor, not the act of giving everything away.

Poverty is not having enough. We can be materially poor and lack sufficient food and clothing. We can be intellectually poor and lack information or ability to understand complicated subjects. To many people, poverty means the state of being poor—being inferior in worth, value, or self-image. Entering this state means stripping off the trappings of the world.

What is the opposite? And, why would people in the opposite state not be blessed? When we have enough, we do not need more. When we do not need more, the space in our lives for God diminishes. We have what we need; therefore, why do we need God? For many people, the answer is: we don’t! Jesus responds to this self-reliance and self-sufficiency by pointing out the blessings that can accompany giving ourselves away.  

Creating space for God means moving something else out of the way. Sometimes we must move our ego. Other times, we need to address our relationship with material things. Even relationships can get in the way of our poverty before God. Almost anything can become a stumbling block: technology, politics, the news, and so one.

When we can meet our own needs, what do we ask from God? More? Then, we being greedy. People who can meet all of their own needs and have a strong sense of self-worth will struggle with placing all of their security in God. The passage is not exclusively about economics or spirituality, but about placing our identity in God.

The words in the text not only refer to literal poverty, what we think of as material poverty, but they also suggest humility. By not having enough, or being in the spirit of poverty, we can come to God with open hands and be grateful for any blessings God gives.

What gets in the way of our dependence on God?