Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Taking of K-129

I picked up this new book mostly for the subtitle: How the CIA used Howard Hughes to steal a Russian Sub in the most covert operation in history. Non-fiction is non-fiction. Hopefully it's informative and engaging, but rarely is it earth shattering. I loved this book, though. This isn't one I was paid to read and it doesn't offer any real insight into life and purpose - it's just fun.

Rarely do you find a piece of history so interesting that's not already in the common knowledge. A few books have been written about Operation Azorian, but it was all new to me. In 1968 a Russian nuclear sub had an accident and sunk, mostly intact, in 17,000 feet of North Pacific water.
The US wanted to recover the nukes and any coding information on board and thus concocted a crazy scheme to essentially invent a whole slew of new technology and build a huge, experimental ship, strictly for this purpose.

We could get caught up in the follies of war or the economics of spending $250m in 1970s dollars for such a project, but I'd rather just focus on the well-written, enthralling history of this unlikely mission. Josh Dean gives detail, but not so much as to bog the story down. He gives background that's interesting and mostly leaves out what's not. It's a pretty dense 450 pages, but they fly by with great anticipation. Chapters are short, and it reads like a novel.

Being a real story, the ending is a bit of a letdown, but there's great joy in discovering and learning about a really fascinating piece of history. I didn't really have a blog post topic for today I was excited about, but if even four or five of you pick up this book, the time and space will be worth it. I think a lot of my regular readers would really appreciate The Taking of K-129.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Click Bait with Depth

So, I've been sitting on this for a while. I clicked on some click bait a while back - I do that occasionally, I'm sad to admit. It was about a man who refused to take off his Marine Corps hat for his driver's license photo. You may have seen it around. Essentially, the story was that an older gentleman was asked to remove his hat for the photo, as is general practice, but he refused, pointing to a man allowed to keep his turban on. When told the only exemption is for religious items worn daily, he claimed his hat was such an item and, after a flurry of phone calls, was allowed to wear it for the photo.

We have no real way of knowing if this is true. Even Snopes says it's anybody's guess, although the details are plausible. I believe the quote from the story is that his marine corps oath was "to one nation under God, which makes it as good as religion." Whether fabricated or not, it's a pretty telling statement about the perception of nationalism and the ways in which Christianity has been distorted to serve powerful and violent interests. We've essentially sanctified "common sense," when the gospel is foolishness to the wisdom of the world.

What's more telling, perhaps, is that this was designed to get people clicking. It's popular. It's the kind of feel good story people are willing to read and share. I sure hope my Christian friends are uncomfortable with it, but I've also seen plenty defend this kind of analogy. I've long heard people say you can serve God and country as long as you have them in the right order. Those are often the same people who say its un-American to welcome immigrants, for example - without much thought to Biblical teaching on the matter; who choose war over peace.

It's a broad brush and perhaps the characterization doesn't fit you - for that I'm glad - but it's been true in enough of my conversations to warrant comment. We simply can't combine nationalism and Christianity - even if there is some purported "right" order of allegiance, in any conglomeration of the two, Christianity always loses. Power is a wily foe - it's why Jesus says a man cannot serve both God and Mammon. We typically take that to mean "money," and greed is probably the best translation, but it's not always about money. Greed speaks to accumulation, typically at the expense of others. This is a power game.

When we seek to be "the best country in the world," there's tacit implications that this means others are less good. Perhaps we could be the best country in the world while also helping the rest of the world to achieve what we have. However, our typical fallback for maintain "greatness" is not magnanimous generosity and sacrifice; it's military might, force, and power. We hoard those things and in doing so, give worship and honor to Mammon.

The guy in the click bait, if he really exists, has nobly given his life to a certain set of principles and assumptions. They're "noble" in every sense of our vernacular, but they're not Christian values and the Church can't continue to strain between two pillars moving in opposite directions. That edifice, of God and country, is simply unstable. Better for it to fall and us pick up the pieces than to kill ourselves in an unwinnable task.

That's not to say nationalism or American patriotism doesn't have elements of true virtue embedded within it - just that they're in service to a worldview that's dead and dying. The sooner we cut the cord, the better we're all going to be.

I still don't advocate giving in to the clickbait - it's the surest way for your to spread fake news or contract a computer virus - but here's one, at least, that speaks volumes beyond simply the words on the screen. Our lives are telling; they reveal information about us we may never have intended or known. Let's serve God and keep Mammon out of it.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Navel Gazing

My denomination, the Church of the Nazarene, has a PR wing, for lack of a better term. It's called NCN News and generally they put out some really good stuff. The people there work hard and I appreciate their effort.

Way back in the dark ages, when I was in seminary, I worked for Nazarene Compassionate Ministries, another arm of the denomination that coordinates all kinds of community ministry around the world. It's also the entity that helps directly in times of disaster (and we've had a lot of disasters lately, so if you still have more to give - - is a great place to do it). Anyway, I found myself in a position to exorcise a pet peeve of mine.

When NCN News covered a disaster event, the accompanying story usually just described the Nazarenes and Nazarene congregations affected by the disaster. This makes sense on one level, since its news specifically for Nazarenes about Nazarenes - however, in the burgeoning internet age, Nazarenes were certainly not the only audience. It struck me as a bit short sighted to not include the total number of displaced, dead, or injured people along with our Nazarene numbers. Others agreed. It was a quick fix and I think it helps us keep focus on the larger picture of need and response in a disaster (after all, most of the people NCM helps aren't Nazarene anyway).

In a related case, over the past few years there's been no small amount of controversy over a directive from the President regarding salaried employees and working-hour requirements. I don't want to bog us down in detail, but the basic gist is that some companies were giving people titles and putting them on salary in order to work them more hours with no real responsibility that might traditionally accompany a salaried position - think assistant manager at [insert fast food chain here] working 80 hours a week for $30,000 a year (which is about $7.50 an hour).

The new rule raised the minimum salary for exempt employees (workers not eligible for overtime) to somewhere around $48,000 a year - meaning people making under that amount, even if they are salaried, are still owed overtime pay. Now pastors are always overworked and underpaid, but the federal government has always assumed those ridiculous working conditions come with the job (since it is a divine calling and all) - so clergy haven't been included in any of these rules.

A court recently knocked down the raise in minimum salary and the battle will undoubtedly continue.

My beef was with how the Church of the Nazarene talked about this rule and it's journey through the legal system. It's obviously of import, since congregations are typically cash strapped and do often rely on salaried employees, even beyond clergy. I'm not entirely sure if this was something NCN News covered themselves or relied on the pensions or finance departments to keep tabs on - regardless, whenever the subject came up, it was always as bad news. The raise in minimums will hurt churches! Look out for this new rule! It may not have been so overt, but the negative coverage was always right there under the surface.

When the rule was halted by the courts, we got this piece: - a reflection of relief, if nothing else. It just struck me as a little self-interested, especially for a denomination built upon work with and among the poor, that the end of a rule that would bring much needed financial help to hard-working, but low income people would be met with relief.

As I said, this wouldn't really apply to clergy, so those affected would be office staff or custodians, perhaps daycare staff (I'm not entirely up on the specifics). I can't imagine the population of people who are both salaried employees AND regularly putting in more than 40 hours a week as non-clergy in the employ of a Nazarene congregation is all that big. It's certainly dwarfed by the many people this rule was designed to help. (And it avoids entirely the question of why congregations would be upset paying low-income employees for overtime they earned anyway!)

I feel a little bad using this as an example, but I do think it's a good one. One of the great problems for Christians is just how insulated we tend to be. We get so caught up in the programs and inner-workings of our congregations and our denominations that we're not engaged (or not as engaged as we should be) with the world around us. I know employees of a denominational headquarters are far more involved with the inner workings by necessity, but there's also a responsibility for leadership, for pointing us out of our bubble and towards the needs of the world.

We get too caught up navel-gazing and we miss the world we're called to be deeply invested in. We spend our time trying to be different, but we end up just being separate. We can do better - all of us - and I hope we will.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Football, Respect, and Assumptions

Last week there was more than a little hubbub about Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers Quarterback and all-around mercurial dude. He answered a question about the routes one of his receivers was running - asked by a woman - by saying it was "funny" that a female was asking about routes.

It was a terribly awkward thing to say, made worse by the accompanying body language that came off as more than a little dismissive of someone just trying to do their job. The reporter said as much in a statement following the press conference - she was insulted, both personally, and on behalf of women and female sports journalists everywhere.

I think it's very likely Cam Newton is a sexist - or at the very least, felt like one in that moment - sexism is the devaluing of a person because of their sex, in our society, it's women, valued less than men for no real reason whatsoever. However, the actual words the man spoke merely expressed his feelings receiving that question in that moment - the interpretation of their meaning is left up to the beholder.

We know how the reporter felt - and rightly so - it seems most of the world agreed with her, again, that is their right. But the way in which this "story" was covered in the media took a slightly different tack. Instead of discussing what those words could mean and having opinions on those various meanings, most outlets I saw, heard, or experienced, decided that Cam Newton meant that women shouldn't be covering sports and proceeded to fill their time arguing against that point.

It may be a slight difference - and one not worth really arguing about since almost no one is giving Newton the benefit of the doubt here (although, in subsequent statements, Newton both admitted the reporter's interpretation of his words was correct and argued she didn't understand what he was trying to say). There's a large cultural point at play here, though: namely that we've reached a point where almost everyone is comfortable treating their own opinions as fact.

We don't really know what Cam Newton meant. In fact, in statements since the incident he's apologized for saying exactly what everyone thought he said and also defending himself, claiming he was merely commenting on how rare it is, still today, to see a women covering sports and that his comment was intended to be a complement.

The proper response to all this is to argue what should be the interpretation of the comments and explain why. We just didn't do that - we extrapolated meaning from the words and then claimed that meaning as fact.

It then happened again, in a different way, on Sunday - when the Vice President of the United States and the owner of Dallas Cowboys made statements that equated kneeling during the national anthem with disrespect of the flag, the country, and/or the military. These echo the comments of the President, but as we all know, in the current administration, the words of the President don't count until someone else repeats them.

Equating the various protests taking place at NFL games during the anthem with disrespect is certainly a valid opinion, but, of course, stating that opinion works against the direct statements of most of those very players - and, indeed, with Colin Kaepernick, the originator of the protest, who moved from sitting on the bench to kneeling specifically because he wanted to avoid the kind of disrespect Mike Pence and Jerry Jones happen to see.

Now I get that someone could mean no disrespect, but have their words or actions perceived as disrespectful anyway. Both parties, in that case, have a right to their intentions and opinions. But it is a far cry from fair to simply state your opinion as fact and cluelessly defend it. It's the kind of behavior you might expect from a twelve year old, whose brain development hasn't yet let them truly grapple with the reality of a non-binary argument. It's not the hallmark of mature individuals.

Yet here we are.

This is the world in which we live.

I find it particularly interesting that we're quick to call out those who devalue others. Sexist, racist, traitor - yet we seem to do it in such a way that we devalue those we accuse of devaluing others. If people are indeed people and worthy of respect simply because of that fact, then we should probably treat them that way.

That's not to say we don't oppose those ideas, actions, words, and opinions we deem to be wrong - but we need to do it in a way that honors and values the person who said, did, thought, or expressed them. People come up with the stupidest, most inane, illogical, and all-around terrible ideas out of great earnestness of thought. Not that every idea is a well-wrestled achievement, but many of even the stupidest truly are.

We should be able to say to or about Cam Newton: the words and actions he used the other day really make it sound like he doesn't think women should cover sports without automatically making our interpretations truth. The frickin' Vice President of the United States should be able to say, "your actions during the anthem bother people who love this country," and those players should be able to say to the Vice President of the United States, "the inaction of the country in the face of injustice bothers people (like me) who love this country," without having to denominze, devalue, and denude the dignity and respect of those who disagree.

I guess it's better radio, better tv, better click bait, to just make the most outrageous claim possible and wait for the fireworks. We can excuse it as business or marketing or entertainment all we want, but most people don't see it that way; they see it as life and death or at least a matter of honor. It's not just in good fun when its so pervasive and half the audience isn't in on the joke.

We've engaged the post-modern post-truth world in exactly the wrong way. Instead of coming into every conversation holding our facts and opinions lightly, willing to have our minds changed, we enter in combat mode, willing to denigrate the different and deny the validity of anything but my own ideas. One of the biggest problems we have right now in this country is that everyone thinks everything they think is a fact. When in reality, we could all use a little bit of humility...

...or maybe a lot.

Thursday, October 05, 2017

Christians and Guns

The Ten Commandments say "Do not kill;" Jesus said "turn the other cheek" and "love your enemies," and then he went out and did it - even when it cost him his life. We can parse all the various real-time possibilities where one might agree killing is the least bad of many terrible options, but those possibilities, in the grand scheme of things, are few and far between - far fewer and less likely than the attention we give to them - all so we don't have to feel the guilt of falling short of the ideal. There is a difference between justifying our weakness and apologizing for it. We need more of the latter.

I tell people my position on life is simple: it's precious; we should protect it. Don't kill. Don't do things that might endanger the lives of people. Be willing to give up your own life rather than take the life on another. The what ifs and the maybes are simply unlikely to matter in my life or yours. Thought experiments are far less important than real people - even enemies and those whose actions might make it harder to love and protect their lives.

Our typical answer to the problem of violence and killing is to make more laws. I'm not opposed to laws, especially when your job is to make them. A Congress doesn't do any good if it sits on its hands. Maybe you're one of those who'd rather they do nothing - which is fine by me - but then let's disband the system rather than stacking it with gridlock.

I don't believe laws will solve anything, though. Forcing people to do something will only result in rebellion. Radical freedom is the way to go. Some call it anarchy - where a society rises and falls on the health and strength of relationships between people. That's a scary proposition, but it's what the gospel of Jesus Christ is all about (I wrote about this the other day). When it comes to guns and violence, you can't outlaw them with integrity - as I tweeted after the Las Vegas massacre, who would enforce a ban on guns?

We've got to get beyond the notion than power and control are the way to run the world. If you want to stop something from happening, you need to stop doing it and let your example be the evidence for others to see and follow. Jesus' solution to violence was to not be violent. His solution for the abuse of power was not to use it. His very words were to take that slap in the face and then turn your cheek for another. If it takes your death, my death, to condemn the violence of another - so be it. A violent response to violence justifies the violence.

My denomination, the Church of the Nazarene, was founded on some basic principles - one of them, strangely and tangentially enough, was the prohibition of alcohol. Many early Nazarenes worked among the poor - drunks and prostitutes, among others - and knew firsthand the dangerous of alcohol. Many of them were caught up in the prohibitionist movement - a movement so forceful and persuasive that 2/3rds of the US House and Senate (with vast majorities in both parties) along with the legislatures of 46 states approved an amendment to the Constitution to that effect.

It was ultimately a practical failure and later repealed with another, similarly overwhelming series of votes - but the root causes of alcohol prohibition remained dominant in the Church of the Nazarene. My forefathers and foremothers saw the perils of alcohol use - not for every individual, of course, but for society as a whole - and moved strongly and willingly to abstain in solidarity and out of love for those hurt by alcohol.

It's still an issue for our denomination. Personally, I would love for us to have maintained the historic position - that we're simply a people who choose not to drink out of love for others. Christians can certainly make different choices and be just as obedient and faithful as us, but the Church of the Nazarene is a place where we don't - not because it's against the rules, but because we've made a particular choice.

We'd be a lot smaller if that were the case. At some point along the way we decided being bigger was better and went a little "don't ask, don't tell" on the alcohol thing. So now, we've got a lot of faithful Christians who choose to love and serve God and neighbor while also drinking responsibly from time to time that call themselves Nazarenes. And we've welcomed them into membership and ordained them and I certainly wouldn't want us to get rid of them.

Personally, I'd love for us to be clear and united and small - but we're not - at least on this issue - so we move forward together and in faith. We maintain our position of abstinence, because that's who we are. I hope we can do it with grace and freedom - not making rules, but choosing to abstain out of love for our brothers and sisters. I even authored a change to our official statement to that effect last summer - it wasn't passed, but it wasn't killed either. I have hope.

The key, I think, is the emphasis on freedom and grace. Prohibition is a bad idea. It's why laws will only ever control "bad" behavior and never eradicate it. People bristle at being told what to do. The Church of the Nazarene calls its members to abstain from alcohol - with lots of good, sound, biblical and theological support and a grand historic narrative that stems from our profound belief in self-giving love.

We do the same thing in other areas as well. Gambling is a big one. Maybe one I can speak to better, because I enjoy it. I'm an ordained minister in the Church of the Nazarene, so, for integrity's sake, my gambling days were over a long time ago - and were never much to begin with, because I'm inherently risk-averse and incredibly cheap. Still, a good poker game is a lot of fun. We abstain - and I join in - not because there's something wrong with gambling in the abstract, but because there's no real way to disconnect my actions from the larger gambling environment that ruins families and destroys lives.

We might say "there's nothing wrong with alcohol or gambling; it's the addiction that'll ruin you," and that's a true statement, but there's no such thing as the abstract in the real world. The five bucks my friend wins off me might end up being lost to a lottery or a casino when he's having fun over the weekend - that money used to entice the gambling of someone else who can't afford it or can't stop. As much as we third or fourth or fifth generation Nazarenes like to talk about the over-eager prohibitions of our past (which included, officially, movies, dancing, mixed-bathing, and circuses - along with unofficial prohibitions on jewelry, playing cards, and, sometimes, wearing the color red, among others) - the logic and the theology are sound.

We're called to give up good things that might harm others. I've spent several weeks studying, teaching, and preaching from Romans 14, and I've yet to figure out exactly where the line is - how much should I be willing to sacrifice for the good of others? I don't know the limit of my sacrifice, but I know there was no limit to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and I'm certainly not better than him.

All this to say - whatever the lawmakers decide about gun laws (or alcohol or gambling) is their business - but what I'd like to do is call my fellow Christians, and especially my fellow Nazarenes, to just give up the guns - not because of some rule against them or even because they're bad on their own, but simply because our society can't handle guns responsibly and we're connected to that, whether we like it or not.

I'm not going to make it a campaign or a crusade and I won't (or at least it's not my intention to) shame anyone. People who make a different choice than me should have the same grace we show to people who make different choices about gambling or alcohol or anything else we tend to avoid. I'm just saying, for me, and I hope for others, this is an issue that's taking on a different tone.

It's a bit tricky for me, since I've never been a gun guy and don't own any. I do think, though, that hunting for food is a near universal good - something we should have more of, not less. I believe deeply we'd all be better off getting our meat at the end of a gun than out of a slaughterhouse. As much as I'm not a gun guy, the loss of that positive indeed feels like a sacrifice. I don't think guns are bad - any more than I think alcohol is bad (or gambling or marijuana or movies or the NFL, for that matter).

We draw lines all the time about when to do things responsibly and with limits and when to avoid them altogether. We make choices about our health and habits. For Nazarenes, we've sworn off gambling and alcohol for a long time. I'd like to suggest we add guns to that list - not maniacally or forcefully or with shame, but of our own free will, out of love for our neighbor.

Laws can control behavior, but they cannot eradicate problems - only sacrificial love can do that. I'm not opposed to the former, but I'm deeply committed to the latter. In fact I think it may be the only truly gospel means of responding to the tragedy of gun violence in all its forms: senseless murder, police shootings, war and whatever else we do to each other.

It may be more than we "should" have to sacrifice, but the world certainly doesn't work the way it "should," and there are no limits to what we're called to sacrifice out of love for each other.