Words Matter - Justice, Misquotes, and Tweets

I might as well weigh in on the whole Bin Laden thing. If you'd like to read the opinions of smarter people let me know and I'll send you some links. Of course, if you wanted to read the opinions of smart people, you probably wouldn't be here. I guess what I really want to write about is not the event, but the words that have generated since the event. 

During his press conference after OBL had been killed, President Obama claimed that justice had been served. My immediate reaction was "no it has not. Revenge has been taken, but justice has not been served." I said those things aloud, I posted them on facebook. A healthy discussion was had about "what is justice?" My tune has changed a bit. A degree of justice was served. Actions have consequences. That's one of my favorite lines to throw around. OBL was a mass murderer. There's no getting around it. He gleefully took credit for numerous heinous acts across the globe. He considered himself outside of the bounds of normal laws and, most importantly, he had designs of doing the same kinds of actions again. He had to be stopped. His crimes had consequences. A modicum of justice was achieved. 

And yet, I use a pretty simplistic definition of justice. Justice is when things that were wrong are made right. I still can't adequately answer the question of what was made right. But the problem here may be the limits of my perspective. For me, 9/11 was a scary thing I watched on TV. I don't say that callously. To the extent that I am effected by larger geo-political realities, it effected me, but I didn't lose anything, except for maybe a naive and false sense of security in the fact that things like that don't happen to the United States. My point is, I wasn't a victim. I was an observer. The question of whether justice was done shouldn't be answered by observers, but by victims. For some, something significantly wrong was made right on Sunday night. They can't recoup their losses, but they may be resting easier. 

As a theologian, I say justice wasn't done because I believe that God's great end is creating community. Justice would have been done if in someway we could have managed to restore OBL into the human community. That's a solution that was impossible on this side of eternity. So in world of brokenness, we make the most of imperfect solutions and with an understanding that God's grace can bring out good out of any situation and that human sin can bring evil out of any situation. Amen and yuck! 

"Justice" is fun because it's one of those million dollar words. God is a God of justice. We work for justice. We pray for justice. We talk about social justice. Some of us get criticized for talking about social justice too much. Words like that have great meaning. I'm constantly reminded of the power of words, even when it feels like my own words have little to no power at all. 

On Monday a quote was floating around the internet that was being attributed to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The funny thing was that half of the quote was an actual quote, the other was just someone else's thoughts that got blended with the quote. The quote got attacked as if it was invalidated by the source. The words themselves were powerful, powerful enough that we wanted to attribute them to a man that many of us consider a hero. That fact they were actually the words of a random anonymous make them less powerful? 

During Lent my church did a thought provoking Bible study on discipleship from The Thoughtful Christian. The author made some claims about which were the "authentic" letters of Paul. See, there's a dirty little secret that many of seminary grads keep to ourselves in order to keep our jobs: The Bible wasn't written by the people you think wrote it (gasp!!!!). He talked about the seven undisputed letters then showed how the unauthentic ones give a different version of discipleship. See, putting Paul's name on your letter back then was about the equivalent of attributing a quote to MLK. It added validity. The danger of that in biblical studies is that we attribute some things to Paul and the early Christians (such as hierarchical governance and male domination) that may not have been apart of the early church's life together. Words matter and who says those words matter. Apparently, who we think said words matters just as much as who said them. 

Words can get you into trouble. Interesting commentary on the OBL situation came from one of my beloved Steelers. Running back Rashard Mendenhall questioned people celebrating the death of another person, particularly a person they didn't know. Fair enough. Lots of people made that assessment. Then he went on. He talked about not being sure that OBL was behind 9/11 and doubting whether planes could really take down a building. It smacked of conspiracy theory. The Steelers president responded quickly, noting how proud the organization was of the President and our armed forces. Lets not forget that former Steeler president Dan Rooney is an ambassador for the White House. Let's also not forget that Mendenhall had come to the defense of Adrian Peterson (running back for the Minnesota Vikings) when he compared the NFL players to slaves and the NFL owners to slaveholders. Mendenhall claimed that anyone who knew the business would see parallels. So this may have been strike two for Rashard in a game that might only require two strikes. We'll see. In an age where any yahoo can put words out into the atmosphere for public consumption (as this yahoo is currently doing) what is the responsibility involved in how we use our words? Should we self censor? We have a right to free speech, but our employers have a right to relieve us of employment. 

Howard Thurman once said that there is no real freedom without discipline. As I understood it, he was saying we are only as free as we are disciplined. And yes, you should value that statement more because I paraphrased Howard Thurman. If that is true, then our freedom to use words is only a freedom if we are willing to use our words in a disciplined way. It's difficult to self discipline when we now have so many ways to get our words out there. Technology has developed more quickly than our etiquette on how to use it. 

This afternoon I misread a website and tweeted that today was Miles Davis' birthday. That seemed wrong, so I fact checked myself AFTER the fact and realized that Miles' birthday isn't for a couple of weeks. You would have thought I was in CIA the way I backtracked on that tweet. Not saying that CIA covers things up. (Paging, Mr. Mendenhall). I didn't want wrong information to be associated with me. I speak publicly at least once a week. That has made me want to be very careful with the words I use. I want people to hear from me the best approximation of truth that I have. I want to communicate love and grace in my words. And ultimately, I want my words to help bring about justice, real justice where relationships are restored and wrongs are righted. 

from politics to something better.

Yesterday, I went to an event that was a part of Cedarville University's critical concerns series. The topic was Christian involvement when it comes to issues of poverty and affluence. Two speakers were involved; Dr. Marvin Olasky and Rev. Jim Wallis. Anyone who knows me well knows that I'm a pretty big fan of Wallis, which was my primary draw to the event. Both speakers had a chance to speak and then the evening concluded with the speakers going back and forth around a few questions thrown out by a moderator chosen for the event. Video of the event should be up soon and when it is, I will make sure to post it.  

Though I was primarily there to see Wallis (and, let's be honest,to have my own views reinforced), I was interested in what Olasky had to say. Olasky is known as the intellectual architect of "compassionate conservatism" and he takes all of the classical conservative stance: let the markets work, give tax cuts, and tell government to get out of the way. I'll admit, he had a lot of compelling things to say and there were times when I allowed my preconceived notions to be challenged. There were some things he said that I'd like to factcheck, for instance his assertions that the Obama administration is hindering the work of faith-based organizations to help the poor. By the way, Olasky is editor-in-chief of World Magazine, which should probably become a part of my reading rotation. Olasky's "lecture" (his word) included a fair amount of good biblical exegesis and some interesting historical tidbits. It made for a very convincing academic exercise. 

Wallis on the other hand gave a sermon. He told stories. Sorry, but stories are always more compelling than lectures. As much as I agreed with some of what Olasky had to say, Wallis just said much more that I can get behind. Instead of the rhetoric of all government is bad, he spoke wisely of the need for faith-based organizations to partner with the government with each doing what they do best. His point was made best in discussing work that missions groups have done in the Gulf Coast. He stated that these groups had done tons of wonderful things and that they had responded much more quickly than the government, but then he made the point that the churches can't rebuild the levees. He mentioned that he loves the story of the Good Samaritan, but that in addition he'd want to see lights put up so that people aren't getting robbed on the way from Jerusalem to Jericho, echoing a similar point that MLK Jr. made about questioning the existence of such roads. That just makes so much more sense to me than just a simple, all government is bad approach. 

I had two major objections with Olasky's approach: 1) he made a point of caricaturing Wallis' position, which in a forum built on the idea of civil debate, seemed completely unnecessary. I felt like he was just taking cheap shots. 2) His approach seems based on this idealistic world where mainstream Christianity is actively engaging the needs of the poor around them. I just don't see that as being true. I think there are movements rising up, including those being spearheaded by Wallis and Sojourners that are concerned with caring for the poor, but the trend over the last few decades is that churches are moving farther and farther away from where the needs are, leaving the churches in the city and the country to deal with poverty with limited resources. I honestly would love to live in the world that Olasky imagines, but it's not real. 

Sadly though, neither is Wallis' world. I think it is more real and I think he is more willing to admit the flaws with his approach, but he is still operating with a little bit of a "perfect world" scenario. The problem isn't the approach, but the machinations of government. Perhaps, that's the same problem with the church. One of the compelling points that Olasky made is that the market is more flexible than government. It responds more quickly to issues and changes in the cultural environment. Government works slowly. The bigger the government, the slower it works. Wallis argues that he doesn't want bigger government, he wants effective government. Cynical 30 something that I am, I find that term to be an oxymoron. I am continually amazed at how little are elected officials get done. 

When it comes to politics, I realize that I have turned back into this guy. I allowed myself to get swept up in things in the fall of '08, but I've come crashing back down to earth. I think that's a really good thing. Politicians can quickly become idols. We don't need gods, we need servants. I think that's the other problem I have with the approach some conservatives take. Our government is supposedly of the people, by the people, for the people. When we criticize government it is a self critique. In some ways a critique of our willingness to be blissfully ignorant. In some ways a critique of our ability to get things done that we really care about. I go back to last April and the mobilization to end poverty (man, I am so in the tank for Jim Wallis!). I was amazed by the easy access we had to our elected officials. I'm no professional lobbyist, but I have every right to go into my congressperson's office and tell him or her what I think is important. When we let go of the right, we get what we deserve, which at the moment is not much. It makes sense that a lazy citizenry would have a do nothing government. 

Most importantly though, and I think Olasky and Wallis agreed on this, government is not the answer. Those of us who have experienced the love and grace of God should be working actively on behalf of those who are in need. That is not an opinion. That is the foundation of our faith. When we forfeit that responsibility than what other recourse do the hurting in this world have than to beg for scraps falling from the government's table? The church has to take the lead on this because compassion is not a part of the government's mandate. It is most certainly a part of ours. MLK said that the church is not to be the master of the state nor its servant, but its conscience. We have to provide the moral compass that leads people to justice, mercy, love, and peace. 

Finally, I hope what I saw last night were the death throes of the "left/right" divide in the church. Here's the deal, if you're super conservative and you want to help poor people, we're on the same team. If you're super liberal and you don't want to get your hands dirty, get the f out the way! (uh... by that I mean, write a check and/or pray for us.) Either way, the political divides are killing the church's social witness. We need to get back to what we can all agree on (God wants us to care for poor people) and get to work. 

So enough about me, how are you? 

from deeply cynical to audaciously hopeful?

Obama So a bunch of my friends went to see Barack Obama speak in Oaklnad this weekend. I, instead, went to a beer festival. I think I chose wisely.

Seriously though, everyone has jumped onboard the Obama bandwagon. I admit, I like the guy alot. The Audacity of Hope is the next book on my "to read" list. Maybe that will put me over the edge.

So why the cynicsm, you ask. Well, a couple of things. First off, I have only gotten to vote in two presidential elections. I'll end the suspense now and say the guy I voted for lost both times. Most of the time when I look at poliitcs, it looks like the system is designed for the sole purpose of keeping certain people and interests in power and in the spotlight. I have to say, of all the casualties that have taken place in during the Bush administration, my loss of trust in the system may be the most personal one.

I guess that leads to my second misgiving; Barack Obama is a politician. Yes, he says the right things. He's inspiring, he seems to be able to unify the nation and he wants the war to end. All of those are good things. Still, politicians are trained to say things people want to hear. He's charismatic. The danger with charismatic people is that they can get by on their charisma without actually following through on promises.

I guess the other thing is the moral that I took from David Kuo's book Tempting Faith. We've put to much faith, hope, trust...whatever in politicians and politics to make the world a better place when in reality, it has been grassroot efforts, churches, community organizations, and inspired individuals that have changed the world. While I don't agree with Kuo's conclusion that Christians should disengage with politics, I do believe that we already have someone to inspire us, someone we can put all of our hopes and trust in. Politicians will always let us down.

With all that said, if the election was today, I would most certainly vote for Obama. And I think I could do so without feeling like I was voting for the lesser of two evils. My hope is that he really is all that he claims to be. I hope that he can lead the nation in a way that is not polarizing. I hope he can lead in a way that is truly bi-partisan. I hope he can continue to inspire people the way that he has pretty much since the Democratic National Convnetion in 2004 where he gave one of the best political speeches I have ever heard. So I support Barack, but I'm not holding my breath.