Ground Zero for the First of the Caravan: Tijuana.

You can set aside the social media memes and “reports” of flag burning, rebellious behavior and general anti-American attitudes among the first individuals in the now-famous “Caravan” travelling through Mexico to reach the United States.  None of that is happening.

There have been some reports of violence, inflated by media sources that are biased against immigration reform.  You have a group of people who have managed to travel over a thousand miles from home across a foreign country in search of a better life, or at the very least, a place where they don’t have to worry about their safety.  Hunger, exhaustion, malnutrition, among other obstacles they have encountered, might have created a sense of hopelessness and triggered some fights.  Most credible media sources say the biggest issue isn’t violence, it is hunger.

The fears of those who have been berating this group ever since their existence was first reported are unfounded.  Facts, when separated from whipped-up, hysterical fantasy, can do wonders for getting an accurate picture of just what is going on, and why.  The plan, if there is even that much organization going on here, is to come to the United States and ask for asylum.  Can you guarantee that in a group of Central Americans this size, there won’t be some who might think it is easier to sneak across the border than to go through the restrictive, pernicious immigration policy developed by the land of the free?  No, but it is clear that most of these people intend to ask to come across.

The United States has promoted itself as a haven from oppression for all of its existence as a nation.  And while it hasn’t always lived up to that reputation, it is hard to scan the culture, read the stories, meet the people and study the history and not see that being a refuge from poverty, oppression, anarchy and persecution is one of our highest values.

But, while these people wait across the border to navigate an immigration system that makes appealing for asylum a tedious, aggravating, senselessly complicated process, they have humanitarian needs which need to be met.  So my question is, where are the American Christians lined up to cross the border and help meet those needs?

I’ve seen a lot of news stories praising the efforts of Christian denominations in responding to the hurricane and flooding disasters in Florida and the Southeastern US this past summer.  Southern Baptists are equipped with trailers in which thousands of meals a day can be prepared, shower trailers, laundry units and groups who can build temporary shelter in a heartbeat.  Other denominations have similar equipment and respond accordingly.  The more pressing issue isn’t taking some kind of a political stance on whether these people belong in the US or not, it is whether they can feed themselves and their children while they are waiting on the Mexican side of the border.

What kind of message would be sent if this caravan, as it slowly arrives at the various border crossing areas between Mexico and the United States, met with hundreds of Christian volunteers, bringing goods and food collected from thousands of Christians in the United States, stocking temporary shelters and serving to meet their daily physical needs?

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.”  Matthew 25:35

No qualifications or politics.  Just service.  It means looking at people as those whom God loves, and who need to have their needs met so they can hear the gospel of Jesus (though there are many Christians among those in the caravan) instead of looking at them as evil potential criminals.  Jesus transforms lives, so serving on the border would be a great way to show that American Christians believe that.

 

 

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Is That What it Takes to Get a Senator to Listen?

Jeff Flake is now Arizona’s senior senator, following the death of John McCain.  His title will be short-lived, as Flake has already announced he wouldn’t seek re-election, mainly because he’s tired of the increasingly partisan, political maneuvering that has rendered the Republican-controlled Congress the most unpopular in American history.

Not that Flake hasn’t been partisan on most issues, but the Senator from my home state has, to his credit, been more of a free thinker than a staunch partisan.  He’s definitely conservative, as you would expect from his small-town, Mormon heritage and background.  He was born in Snowflake, Arizona, a community not named after snow, but after two Mormon pioneers, Lorenzo Snow and William Flake, the latter of whom is the Senator’s great-great grandfather.  But he’s also been an outspoken critic of Donald Trump, disagreeing not so much with his policy, but with his lack of morals and ethics, his corrupt actions and his Machiavellian approach to just about everything.  Unlike conservative Evangelicals, Mormons have stuck to their convictions when it comes to the qualifications of moral character and behavior consistent with faith.  Flake decided to get out of the Senate rather than compromise his convictions for the sake of secular politics.

He was the one uncertain vote on the Senate judiciary committee when his fellow Republicans attempted to rush the process of recommending Brett Kavanaugh as a Supreme Court nominee to the whole Senate.  Flake isn’t worried about re-election and so was able to make a decision based on his own perspective, and not the party line.  Of course, since the hearing, and the subsequent questioning of Kavanaugh and one of his accusers was rushed through, he announced that he would be supporting Kavanaugh.  That was until he was confronted in an elevator by a group of women who had enough, and decided to show up and speak up.

It is unfortunate that it took the combination of a passionate confrontation in an elevator by a woman who was herself a victim of sexual assault, and a Senator cut loose from any obligation to a partisan agenda to get to the point where his vote, the necessary one for Kavanaugh to move forward, could influence the committee to do what was right and what proper procedure called for, and get the FBI involved in an investigation.

The week’s delay doesn’t slow down the process enough to endanger Kavanaugh’s potential appointment, but it does allow time to gather evidence that will either put the matter to rest by supporting Kavanaugh’s claim, or confirm his involvement in what his accusers say he did.  Even at that, there will be some Republicans who have decided that it doesn’t matter, that “boys will be boys,” and will abandon the values and morals they held when they made similar accusations against Democrats just a couple of short decades back and decide that even if he did what he has been accused of doing, he’s still their guy for the Supreme Court.

If I were Kavanaugh, I’d be the leader in asking for an FBI investigation, especially if I were certain that I had not done anything of the sort of what I had been accused of doing.  I’d want a credible investigation to say that they could not find a scrap or shred of evidence that I’d ever been involved in anything that would give even the most rabid partisan any doubt about the consistency of my morals and integrity.  And I sure wouldn’t want to appear evasive, overly defensive, or opposed to a short delay and an investigation that would exonerate me.  But Kavanaugh’s reaction to the hearing and to the news that there will be an investigation and a delay isn’t one that generates hope for a finding that he is innocent.

For a state that has had more than its fair share of quirky political disasters, Arizona has produced two Senators that have set the bar high when it comes to integrity in politics, and to how someone elected to represent all the people should behave.  It is unfortunate that the country is losing the service of both of them in such a short period of time.  McCain’s replacement, John Kyl, is a hard core partisan Republican who didn’t leave behind the same kind of legacy.  Flake will be replaced by a woman, regardless of whether the Democrat or Republican wins the election, though the Democrat, current Congresswoman Kirsten Synema holds a large, double digit lead in the polls over her Republican opponent.  Synema will be a strong voice for women in the Senate.

That Flake’s integrity was pushed to the front by his decision not to run, and by being a lame duck is a great argument for term limits for Congress.  Three terms for a representative, one for a Senator.

Southern Baptists and the Social Justice Debate

I’ve spent all but the past eight years of my life worshipping, serving and being a member of a Southern Baptist church.  My undergraduate college work was done at a school affiliated with a Southern Baptist state convention, and I got a master’s degree from one of the convention’s six seminaries.  In spite of what amounts to 52 years of familiarity with the denomination, I’m still baffled by some of the things that become debates, and by the position taken by some who are involved in the debate.

In spite of an awful lot of attention paid to belief that the Bible is inerrant, infallible, and completely authoritative, it seems like positions taken by many pastors and leaders in the denomination are increasingly based on the authority of right wing politics, and involve either twisting scripture to justify the position, or ignoring it altogether.  “Social justice,” because it is both a term and a domain in which those that many Southern Baptists label as “liberal” or “leftist” spend a lot of time and energy, has been something that they’ve either abandoned or re-defined, rather than face with Biblical honesty.

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this:  to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

That’s certainly not all there is to social justice, but the principle is definitely there.  And there isn’t anything that falls into this category that falls outside of the application of this Biblical principle.

The problem is not with “social justice” itself, or with the issues that involve inequality of treatment, racism, and the whole scope of what gets rolled into this issue.  The problem is believing that human wisdom and reason alone are where the solutions to the issues can be found.  It can’t, any more than it is possible for human wisdom, steeped in political rhetoric, to judge the thoughts and intentions of other people’s actions.

But what I read on blogs and message boards, where Southern Baptists are able to express their opinions on issues, is not what I’d expect to see from people who claim belief in an inerrant, infallible Bible and hold a “Christian worldview.”  What I see are hints of racial bigotry and prejudice, and the undue influence of a secular, right wing political perspective.  And while the definition of “social justice” in American culture does involve things over which there is some room for debate and there is a difference between Christian principle and American idealism, the perspective being put forth by many Southern Baptists makes them appear to be racist, unsympathetic to suffering and perceived oppression and unduly influenced by secular politics.

The Bible instructs followers of Jesus to be “salt and light.”  Salt, when sprinkled on food, changes the taste because it is a compound containing two elements, sodium and chloride, which react with water and other chemicals to bring about a transformation.  Light simply prevents darkness from taking over.  The Christian perspective on social justice is not to judge whether a particular position is right or wrong, but it is to chase away the darkness so that a transformation can occur.  When a partisan political stance prevents an understanding of someone else’s perspective, or distorts the ability to see things clearly, it has a tendency to weaken Christian influence and nullify the testimony of an evangelistic witness.  The Christian response to perceived oppression and injustice, regardless of whether the cause seems right or wrong, is ministry.  Period.  Many Southern Baptists have lost this vision.  Maybe that’s why they are losing more members than those “liberal” Methodists these days.

There is a real opportunity for ministry here, but I think there are some perceptions which have been created by the too-close association between conservative Evangelicals, including some very visible Southern Baptists, and right wing politics that cut those opportunities off before they happen.  There is probably nothing more difficult than walking a mile in someone else’s shoes, as the expression goes.  We don’t like the thought that our sense of what is right and wrong, which is a product of our own life experiences, are not absolutes, nor perfect solutions to anyone else’s problems.  And we really don’t like coming to grips with the fact that only God can judge the thoughts and intentions of anyone else’s heart, and he doesn’t clue us in on what’s going on in someone else’s life to the point where we can decide that their opinion is wrong, and their life experience was flawed.  Apply that to Colin Kaepernick, and see how that makes you feel.

The Christian position on anything shouldn’t be something that lines up with a political position or a philosophical view.  It should be how to approach people with a ministry heart that demonstrates the love of God to a world that doesn’t know or understand that way of thinking and living.  Most Christians are so convinced of their own righteousness and their own doctrinal purity that they can’t even get along with other Christians.  If you need evidence of that, I’ll just point to the debates going on among Southern Baptists over defining and doing social justice, and the dismissive nature of those who have their narrow minds made up.

Show me your faith apart from your works and I will show you my faith by my works.

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Senator John McCain

The senior Senator from my home state of Arizona wasn’t actually born and raised in the state.  But then, neither were a significant number of the other six million people who live there.  But then, most of the people who have moved there over the years have done so because they love the place, and it has provided them an opportunity to start a new life.  So Senator McCain was the perfect person to represent the state in Congress.

Whether you agree with his political perspective or not, the fact that he served in the military, and endured a term as a prisoner of war is enough to command the respect of any American citizen.  He knew the risks he was taking when he signed up for military service, and his service helped pay the price for my freedom.  Thank you, Senator, for the sacrifice you made for this country.

Politics being what they are these days, Senator McCain was a statesman, and an honorable one.  He was a Republican because, in this day and age, identification with a partisan perspective is almost mandatory for getting elected, but he was also a “maverick,” and while his personal views did line up with the Republican party on many occasions, he was one of the few members of Congress who was willing to part ways with a partisan agenda when he thought a different view was best for those whom he represented.  He had integrity.  And he let it show.  I don’t think anything demonstrates that more than the night he gave a thumbs down to the repeal of the ACA.  He was the people’s representative, and a clear majority of the people in the state he represented were not in favor of its repeal.  So he voted as their representative.  He got berated and criticized for it, but that’s what integrity in politics looks like.

He has passed on, and so the time for stating disagreements with his position has also passed.  He can’t hear them, and they are no longer relevant.  He has earned the respect of people on both sides of the political aisle.  To say that he wasn’t a war hero because he was captured is as disgraceful an act as failing to lower the White House flag to half staff in his honor, and are despicable acts and words that reveal the true character of the one who used them.  They stand in contrast to the honor and character of Senator John McCain.

 

Late Night Thinking on Random Topics

Football has returned, the NFL pre-season is going strong, and the college season started.  There are a lot of things going on there.

There’s the high profile suspension of Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer for not reporting an awareness of spouse abuse by one of his staff members.  I’m not sure what to think of that.  Is this an incident where a person’s value to the coaching staff meant more than what he was doing to his wife?  Was it an oversight?  Is this a case of a football coach who is clearly the highest paid, and most visible person on a university campus, and in a community and state where the sport is revered getting away with something that others wouldn’t get away with?  Or is it an awkward situation related to a personal matter that should be handled in another way?

I like Urban Meyer, and what he’s done at Ohio State.  But I really don’t like the fact that this appears to be more than just an oversight.  I can’t imagine how the wife of the assistant coach who was abusive felt, not only because of the abuse, but because she must have also felt like the whole world was against her, and that because her husband worked for a high profile, popular coach in a revered football program, he was going to get away with it.  Meyer did apologize, though it was after the fact, and got suspended for three games, which amounts to a slap on the wrist. How much responsibility Meyer had here is up to his supervisors to decide, but I don’t think this was handled with the kind of seriousness it should have been.  There are a lot of people to be considered, including the players who committed to come to the school, and the fans and alumni who support the program, but those are considerations that the guy who runs the program should have taken when this action first became known to him.  The life of a coach’s wife is far more valuable than the whole football program combined.

Then there’s the ongoing issue of what to do with NFL players who continue to take a knee during the national anthem as a means of protesting what they perceive as unfair treatment by law enforcement.  They have a right to their perception which is based on accurate statistical information.  The question is whether taking a knee is disrespectful to the veterans who fought for the country, and the anthem that represents it.  Those who are doing this as a protest say, rather vehemently, that it is not intended to be disrespectful, that it is a protest against injustice that would otherwise be ignored.

The injustice they are protesting is real, and can be backed up with statistical information.  As a Caucasian male of a mature age, I can’t claim any authority to know how those who face this kind of injustice feel, nor can I understand the background behind it.  I know the history of racial discrimination and prejudice in this country, and I know that in spite of our best efforts to overcome it, it’s still there.  The NFL players who are doing this have moved into a position of wealth and influence as a result of their talent and the venue in which they use it.  The constitution guarantees their right to free speech.  They’re the ones who get to decide the meaning and purpose of their actions, and accept the consequences of their choices.

Do the club owners have a right to regulate their behavior?  On the field, absolutely.  They are employees, being paid to do a job by an employer.  The employer has the right to be represented as he or she decides, and they also have the right to decide to be respectful of their employee’s rights.  There is a line in there somewhere.  But free speech is as much of a constitutional guarantee as the right to bear arms and religious liberty, which many of their critics claim.  And those veterans, who are invoked as being victims of an act of disrespect of the flag and the anthem, fought for the right to protest.  The players taking the knee have made it clear that their actions are not intended to be disrespectful to anyone.  Maybe the focus does need to be directed toward their obviously deep feelings and convictions.

Here’s a video that might change your mind about the whole thing.

https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/video/2018/aug/22/beto-orourke-nfl-protests-texas-video

The NFL is not suffering, as some have claimed, and no professional sport in this country ever will.  Player salaries will set an all time record in the 2018-19 season, television revenue and viewership during the pre-season is up over the previous year, and winning or losing had a much greater effect on NFL franchises last season than this did.  No winning team will ever have trouble filling its stadium, and the Super Bowl will remain the top sporting event annually.  Whether you agree or disagree with their actions, the fact of the matter is that the atmosphere that surrounds professional sports in the United States gives the players the upper hand on this issue, and that’s just the way it is.  No “boycott” will bring about a change, and no owner action will be more than just a scolding.  The morality of idolizing sports figures is a whole other discussion, but it is clear that on this issue the players hold the power.

The injustice they are protesting is also another discussion, one that requires honesty, and cannot take place in the emotional turmoil that currently exists surrounding it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Remembering Aretha Franklin

I discovered Aretha Franklin listening to the radio I got for my 12th birthday.  That was a time when the best music was on the AM side of the dial, and my radio got switched back and forth between the two pop rock stations from Tucson, Arizona that we could pick up in my hometown, at least during the day, KTKT and KIKX.  Of course, you switched back and forth to listen for your favorites, and those stations mainly played just the top 40 current hits, so you could hear your favorites several times a day on each one.

That was also back in the day when you collected records of your favorite songs.  The local drug store sold 45’s for 99 cents and I had a pretty good collection of Aretha Franklin’s songs.  The flip sides were pretty good, too.  She had a remarkable voice, and the combination of that with the songs she sang was just something special.  Listening to her now brings back memories from that time of life.

She had a rough life.  Her music reflected that in many ways, though it was “g” rated compared to much of the music of the day, and especially compared to much pop music now.  It was approved to be played at our school dances, and in those days, not all songs passed that standard.  She was a genuine celebrity who used her celebrity status, and gave a good portion of what she earned to make life better for people.  If you knew anything about her, you thought about that when you listened to her music.

She will not be replaced.

Grieving…

So what do you do when someone who knows better decides they’re going to go ahead and do something to make themselves look more important, or better, in someone else’s eyes?  When they decide they are going to open their mouth, and say something that really has no purpose other than to put someone else down?

One of the strictest rules in the house in which I grew up was that you always told the truth, and there were times when even the truth didn’t need to be told by you because it wasn’t any of your business, it was someone else’s.  Both of my parents had some pithy, Southern colloquialisms, or more specifically, West Virginia hillbilly colloquialisms, to make their point.  “None of your business” was put in pretty succinct language, one of their favorites being, “So when did you become God?”  I got the point.

So why is it that some of the most damaging gossip, and some of the most vicious treatment of another human being that I’ve seen in my lifetime has come from people claiming to be Christians, and has taken place not only among Christians, but in some of the places within the context of the Christian community where there’s an expectation of the existence of a more mature faith?  The grief?  That’s come because what I’ve seen and heard came from someone who made an effort to build a trusting relationship with the person that they ultimately betrayed with their gossip.

What really hurts, in this case, is that the victim is someone I really care about.  And the gossip that was hurled to intentionally do harm and damage took place following the worship service in a church.  

Some people have simply said that the best resolution to this is to simply move on, and let those who said the damaging words face accountability to God for their words.  The Bible says that the kind of person who would engage in such conversation is not exhibiting any characteristic of Christlikeness, and they are “empty tombs”.  I’m not in a position to judge, but I have a hard time understanding how a person whose life has been transformed by Christ can so quickly and easily return to the flesh.  There’s a selfish motive there that we can’t see, I’m sure.  And selfishness is the ultimate evidence of a heart full of sin.  It’s not hard for Christians to fall in this particular regard.  But how can you build a relationship with someone, trust them with helping you to provide an education to your children, invite them to your house to spend holidays, and then so easily believe something that someone else told you without question, and withour any real reason or evidence and then condemn that person by telling someone else what you think they did.

Yep, pretty specific.  It is a real situation.  And it’s personal.

Forgive them.  Seventy times seven.  I hear those words.  Faintly, reluctantly, wanting to find a way not to have to hear them, or act on them.  Looking for an exception, but realizing that the only way to put this in God’s hands is to be obedient to them.

 

 

Declining Membership in the “Nation’s Largest Non-Catholic Denomination”

Or the Nation’s largest Protestant denomination if your view of the reformation includes influences that led to the beginnings of the Baptist family of denominations.

Southern Baptists are intoxicated…with numbers.  The pause there works better when that statement is made verbally, rather than in writing.  It’s probably not as prevalent now as it was when I was growing up, and every church had the same register board up front with Sunday school enrollment, attendance, offering this week, last week, and worship attendance.  The Sunday school enrollment figure in the church where I grew up was always somewhere around 140.  It would fluctuate a bit, usually going up at the beginning of the new church year in October, and would drift back down by the end of the year.  It was located in a community where a lot of people came in to spend the winter months, so while summer attendance averaged around 50, from January to April it was not unusual to have a month with an average attendance of 70.  Church membership was always around 225 and the worship service would average about 80 in attendance.

As a kid, I always wondered who the other members were, if they didn’t come every Sunday.  If the whole membership ever showed up, we’d have to set up extra chairs in the auditorium, since it could only seat about 150.  And every week, the “outreach” director of our Sunday school class would report that he’d called the members of the class who had a card on the roll, but always got marked absent.  On occasion, someone would respond, but not often.

But through all of those growing up years, and through the time I spent at an SBC state convention related college, and an SBC seminary, the SBC was always touted as the “Nation’s largest Protestant denomination,” and the membership growth was always pointed to as a sign of the theological correctness and the “health” of the denomination, compared to those “liberals,” who were declining.  Of course, the Catholic church was booming, explained away by “immigration,” and in the community where I grew up, the two Mormon wards were, by far, the largest churches in town, and were also growing fairly rapidly.

But time has passed, and there’s been a lot of change.

Membership growth peaked in the SBC in the mid-1970’s.  The increases each year following that are numerically smaller than the previous year, and the percentage increase also drops each year.  It is interesting to note that while the “Conservative Resurgence” came along in 1979, with an aim of turning the denomination back to its conservative “roots”, and to avoid declining membership that mainline churches were experiencing because of their “liberalism,” and abandonment of evangelism, the percentage of membership increase in the SBC continued to decline, the decline in baptisms began to steepen, and the numerical increase in membership grew smaller every year following 1979.  During the 90’s, the “growth” was actually statistically insignificant.  But over the past decade, the number is no longer a membership increase each year, it is a decrease, and it is getting larger each year.  The number of members is now more than a million less than it was a decade ago, and there have been years when more than 200,000 members have been subtracted from the membership.  That this is not just some reporting or statistical anomaly is evidence in the fact that attendance has gone down by a similar percentage, and other statistical categories, including church income factored for inflation, are declining by similar percentages.

So what’s going on?

Generational Decline

The Baby Boomer generation is still the largest among the current American population. With half of this group now past 60, and Baby Boomers making up approximately 50% of the current church membership in conservative Evangelical churches, including Southern Baptists, we are seeing a statistical “aging” of churches (the median among Evangelicals, according to church researchers, is past 65) and the number of member deaths exceeds the number of new converts baptized.  The Southern Baptist Convention is seeing its churches baptize approximately 250,000 new converts each year, though 80% of that number are the children of church members, and are, for the most part, already included in attendance figures.  The only estimate I could find on the number of member deaths was somewhere just south of 300,000.

Evangelicals, including Southern Baptists, have been losing their young people since the 80’s.  I remember Lifeway sounding the alarm bells when a study came out that showed 70% of the youth who were raised in church and active in their youth group during high school were leaving the church during or after college.  That was a staggering figure then, representing mostly the beginning of Generation X.  But as time has passed, awareness of the situation has brought about a whole series of changes in church programming and ministry that has failed to stop that departure.  In fact, among the latter half of Generation X, and into the Millennial Generation, the figure has increased to 85% leaving.  Unlike their Baby Boomer parents and grandparents, many of whom returned to church in adulthood, these kids aren’t coming back.

The influence of the humanism that now dominates the public education system is one of the main reasons for this exodus.  Students who attended Christian schools in either grade school, high school, or college seem to be far less inclined to leave than their counterparts who did not have that instructional opportunity added to their experience.  Those are not guarantees of fidelity to church membership, but the percentages are much higher.  And it is in these younger generations where the church membership is missing, and where the membership decline is being felt.

Evangelism, Outreach and Ministry

Since people seem to be attracted to megachurches, that might not be a place where you’d look to explain declining membership.  But while many megachurches appear to be growing in number (though the decline among Evangelicals has hit even some of the largest and most venerable churches) they are growing by attracting members out of smaller congregations which is where the ground work of evangelism is being done.  The SBC is a good example of this.

Megachurches grow by attracting members from smaller congregations.  Other than children, most of these folks are already baptized.  But as smaller churches empty out, disband, and close, the groundwork of evangelism ceases.  People that might be reached by a smaller congregation are overlooked or ignored by larger ones.  The personal touch is gone.  From a generational perspective, Baby Boomers are the ones attracted to these large, impersonal congregations because they are interested in the theatrical style worship and the celebrity pastor.  Younger people aren’t brought in by those things.  Millennials in particular appear to be much more attracted to non-traditional congregations that are small and personal, and where their own expression of faith can be seen, discussed, helped and encouraged.

Politics

The overwhelming support of Evangelicals for Trump has become a leading cause of the drop in church membership and attendance among Evangelicals.  Accelerating declines in attendance have steepened since 2016.  Oh, yeah, I know that for many evangelicals, abortion is still the bottom line, and for those who are white, fear of immigration and refugees, and fear that the rest of the world is after their money is pushed along by the conservative media sources they watch.  But when you narrow your issues down, you get lip service to grab your vote, and you wind up electing terrible leadership.  And a lot of Evangelicals are deeper thinkers than they are given credit for, and they see that support for an immoral playboy like Trump, who hasn’t held back on either his unrighteousness in the form of lying, or his crude attitudes and words.  Churches where leaders have been particularly active in right wing politics are seeing members drain out like water through a sieve.  And it is no coincidence that the declines in Evangelical church membership among whites parallels the 2016 election.  People are leaving because churches are too political.

I have to say that I’d walk out the door of any church where a pastor brought any political content into the service.

 

Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor, Your Huddled Masses Yearning to be Free…

But if you come here illegally, we will take your children from you as a punishment, and will prosecute you to the fullest extent of the law.  And we’ll trot out some scripture to justify what we are doing…

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities .  For there is no authority except from God and those that exist have been instituted by God.  Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.  Romans 13:1-2 ESV

So you’re citing this verse in support of the enforcement of immigration law under Trump.  Were you citing it during the eight years of the Obama Presidency?  Did you accept the Affordable Care Act when it was passed?  How about in regard to the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision that made abortion legal and a constitutionally protected right?  How about the recognition of same-gender marriage, do you accept that under this same Biblical principle?

Rhetorical questions, I know.

Obviously, some laws are unjust, and some are based on practices and principles that go against our Christian beliefs and principles.  From a personal perspective, I believe that after a woman becomes pregnant, it’s not just “her” body anymore, and there is another life of equal value that needs to be considered in any decisions that are made regarding health.  I don’t believe that God’s plan for the family is for two people of the same gender to enter into a marriage relationship.  I also happen to think that health care is a basic human right, and that it is as much of a sanctity of human life issue as abortion rights are.  I think the for-profit insurance and medical care system that has developed in the US, which causes us to pay twice as much per capita for medical care, and which takes profit out of out pockets twice, once for the insurance premiums, and again for the cost of care and medication, is a moral injustice.  No system is perfect, but I’d favor a model based on what the Europeans or Canadians have, since they seem to be meeting needs and providing higher quality care to their population, in spite of what the critics say.

So let’s talk immigration reform and let’s get past all the trumpian rhetoric at the outset of the conversation.  The current immigration laws are not “their laws” in reference to Democrats.  Laws in this country, regardless of who passed them, apply to everyone.  The one that Trump errantly refers to when referencing the practice of separating children from their parents was passed by a majority Republican House and Senate.  Both Presidents Clinton and Obama were fairly strict in their enforcement of immigration law, and of working to stop illegal immigration, and were fairly successful at it as the record shows.  They did it within the limits of the law, made allowances for granting political asylum under the law when the cases warranted doing so, and in contrast to the Bush administration, which simply cut staffing at INS and the Border Patrol to give tax breaks to the wealthy, and ruined the enforcement of immigration law, allowing millions to come in to the country illegally, were relatively successful at stopping the abuses and being humane.  Those claims that they “did the same thing” are what you suspect they are, lies.

The decision to separate children from their parents as a means of enforcing the law, and of making illegal border crossings a felony as practiced by the Trump administration is a much different approach to enforcing the law than Clinton, Obama or Bush took during their terms.  This is an injustice, just as much as an abortion is one.  And there is absolutely nothing wrong with protesting, and putting pressure on politicians to change the law.  That’s how this country works.  Political pressure eventually expresses the will of the people, whether it is through protest, or the potential threat of an uprising at the ballot box.  With the thin-skinned Trump, the polling numbers he and his supporters like to deny forced his decision in less than a month, after it appeared that an electoral disaster for the GOP would accompany the continuation of the policy.  Whatever the reason, when the voices crying out against this particular injustice reached a crescendo, and the needle of public opinion was tilting rapidly away from Trump, he stopped the practice, though not before considerable political damage was done to Republican chances to hold Congress in November.

But I believe that American immigration law and policy, as it now exists, is unjust, and as such, needs to be changed.  Most of those coming from Latin America, and hence across the border from Mexico, are fleeing criminal violence and oppression, and absolute poverty in the countries from which they are coming.  Those conditions exist there mainly due to American interference in the internal affairs of their countries “to protect American interests in the region.”  Through most of our history, the United States has considered it necessary to control the politics of Latin America, particularly since a communist dictatorship was able to take hold in Cuba.  Our government, going back to at least the Eisenhower Administration, has supported oppressive dictators, financed revolutionaries and precipitated civil wars that have taken hundreds of thousands of lives, put millions of people into poverty, made them homeless, and created a power vacuum of anarchy into which drug lords and criminal elements who make their money off of American addictions, continue to rob the population blind, and murder them and their children when they get in the way.  Ironically, these people flee oppression by heading to the one place on their continent where they believe they will have the opportunity to work hard and have a better life.  Our response is to take their children from them, arrest them, brand them as a felon, and detain them indefinitely without granting them the same rights that they’re coming here to receive.

Our immigration laws and quotas are tilted toward the cash.  Quotas are set so that wealthy immigrants can come at their leisure, and so that they bring their fortune with them in order to enhance our economy when they come.  There is plenty of room in the quota for Norwegians who want to come to the US, but even though the quota always goes unfilled, it stays the same.  On the other hand, if you want to come from El Salvador, good luck.  The quota is much smaller than the demand, and you’ll have to wait in line literally for years to get to the top of the list.  If, that is, you survive that long.  The problem is that the crises around the world that prompt people to think of America as a refuge from oppression (gee, where did we ever get that reputation?) don’t happen in countries where the quota for immigration to America is large enough to meet the need.  In spite of our reputation as a haven from oppression, which is part of our historic, philosophical and religious foundation,  our immigration laws are to benefit the rich, not the oppressed.

Attempts at reform, such as those introduced by President Johnson in the late 1960’s, get turned back by subsequent administrations because those who come here seeking opportunity to better themselves don’t have political clout.  And because we have done such a terrible job of teaching the historical foundations of American principles to our students in the public education system, we have generations of Americans who have no idea why that big green statue sits on an island in New York harbor, or the principles and foundations for which it stands.

So yes, Romans 13 does have something to say about the governing authorities.  But if you think abortion is wrong, immoral and unjust, then you need to start thinking that other laws passed by our government can be just as wrong, immoral and unjust.  Given the principles that were articulated by our founding fathers when the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were written, and where this country got the people who made it into what it is now, our current immigration law and policy is also wrong, immoral and unjust, measured against American ideals.  They can, and should, be changed.

 

Observations About SBC 18.

The Southern Baptist church in which I grew up was in a small town in Arizona, not in the Baptist heartland, but it was made up of members mostly from the South who had migrated west for work.  Most members were civilian employees of the military base at Ft. Huachuca, with a few military personnel.  The next largest contingent were people who worked at a natural gas compression plant owned by a Texas-based company, and most of them were from Texas.  The First Baptist Church in town belonged to another denomination, but the Southern Baptists always managed to find their way into our church, either by recognition of the missions programs and the Sunday School literature, or by the accents of the other church members.

This congregation of about 80 people on a good Sunday (up to 150 on Easter) was very well educated from a denominational perspective.  We always had a lot of participation in missions groups, and we always had at least one church member serving on one of the state convention trustee boards or committees.  At one point, we had a member on what was then the trustee board of the Home Mission Board, and we had a member who served two terms as a trustee of what was then Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary.  All of that influence combined to create a personal interest in the work of the denomination on my part, and that included earning an undergraduate degree from the state convention’s college, and a graduate degree from Southwestern Seminary.

I’m an “outsider” now.  After almost a lifetime career in Christian education in institutions owned and operated by Southern Baptists, I accepted a head administrator position in a Christian school that belonged to another denomination, and moved to a part of the country where there’s not an SBC church down the road or around the corner.  The opportunity, which was a lifetime career goal, was the deciding factor, but I have to say that I had reached a point where I was much less stuck on denominational pedigree and identity, and much more attracted to what develops when you cross those man-made ideological boundaries.  And contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t put you on any slippery slope.

I watched a good portion of the SBC via the webcam.  Actually, you get a much better view that way than you do sitting in the convention hall.  I was quite curious to see how denominational leadership, and this particular group of messengers, would react to recent events, and how they would go about dealing with what is most definitely a paradigm shift for Southern Baptists.  After a decade of a decline in membership and attendance that puts the SBC in the same category in that regard as the more rapidly declining mainline denominations, and some disastrous numbers about baptisms, followed by a year of reports of scandal involving both “architects” of the Conservative Resurgence, and the Executive Director, the outcome of the convention meeting generated a lot of interest, including my own.  Depending on your perspective, the results might be considered surprising, or predictable.  I’m thinking a little of both.

The “Conservative Resurgence” as a movement is clearly over.  Oh, there’s no danger that the SBC will head toward the edge of “liberalism” again, if indeed it ever really did.  But the movement itself, and the individuals who operated it, have finally had their hands pried off the steering wheel.

Part of the evidence for that claim is that the messengers elected a president with no endorsement from, or connection to, the resurgence leadership.  In fact, he defeated, rather overwhelmingly, the candidate who was endorsed by the resurgence leadership.  J.D. Greear is yet another in a long lineage of mega church pastors who always seem to get elected to the denomination’s presidency, but in some regards, his congregation is different.  While most SBC mega churches grow almost exclusively by attracting members from smaller churches, and most of their baptisms, which happen at a much slower pace than the smaller churches, are children under 12 whose parents already attend church, Greear’s church differs somewhat in that regard, and actually shows attendance growth related to evangelistic activity.  He’s a  supporter of the SBC’s Cooperative Program at a far greater percentage than most churches of its size.  And Greear is a “Calvinist,” which places him outside the doctrinal parameters of all of the SBC presidents who’ve served since before Adrian Rogers started the resurgence movement in 1979.  SBC Calvinists have been tolerated since most are “inerrantists,” but they’ve not been included in the good-ole-boy circle of influence or leadership.  And Greear still isn’t, but that is apparently no longer relevant.

If you need more evidence that there’s been a major shift in attitude, take a look at the vote totals on the motion by Tom Hatley to dismiss the executive committee of the Southwestern Seminary trustees.  It was a motion in support of Paige Patterson, more than anything else.  Apparently, the messengers at this convention represent a group of Southern Baptists who are tired of the tactics used by Patterson to gain influence and do as he pleases, as outlined by trustee Bart Barber prior to the vote being taken.  That, along with the realization that the convention needed to support, and not undermine, trustees, and the motion failed by a massive margin.  I’m still reading blogs and comments where there is a reluctance to admit that Patterson overstayed his welcome, and his day is over, but that doesn’t appear to be the majority view anymore.

The messengers at this convention also made some indirect statements when it comes to right wing politics.  Resistance to allowing the Vice President to speak in person was much higher than you might expect among conservative Evangelicals, slightly over 40% opposed a motion to change the order of business to allow him to speak.  I think that is a sign that Trump’s immorality and lack of values and character is having an effect on his support among conservative Christians, but it is also a sign that the SBC is not made up wholly of white Evangelicals.  Observers of this convention noted a higher than usual percentage of Latino and African American messengers, and opposition to Trump among those groups is as high as the support level among whites.  Pence treated the messengers as a political action committee, not a Christian denomination, causing further consternation about his live appearance.

Messengers also expressed their displeasure for agenda-driven selection of trustee board members by giving a second term to an ERLC trustee from the Kansas-Nebraska convention who has been a supporter of the executive director Russell Moore.  Though Dan Anderson had only served one term, and expressed an interest in serving a second, the committee on boards attempted to replace him with someone who was opposed to Moore’s position on Trump.  There had been threats from disgruntled Southern Baptists to overturn this board in order to get at Moore, but this particular effort failed to get enough support to do so, and Anderson was re-elected to his second term by a rather overwhelming floor vote.

I don’t think this means that a majority of Southern Baptists have finally realized that being “conservative” theologically and doctrinally is not directly tied to right-wing politics.  There are some obvious contradictions between right wing political positions and Biblical Christianity, and conversely, obvious consistency between some left wing political positions and Biblical Christianity, but I’m not going to get into that here.  What this does represent, however, is an acceptance on the part of those who attended this convention as messengers of the fact that one’s political opinions and perspectives are not a factor in a denominational executive’s ability to do their job, and that there is no consistency with Biblical Christianity in using someone’s job as a way to enforce conformity.  That is a shift from the way the SBC has been doing business for a long, long time.

There is not a mechanism within the SBC to resolve the problems that have created the statistical declines.  It is not a top-down denomination.  There are 50,000 independent, autonomous churches affiliated through a cooperative missions support program, and the churches are at the top of the organizational chart, not the bottom.  What happens to the SBC is that what happens to the churches affects the denominational institutions and agencies that they support.  NAMB cannot underwrite or organize the kind of church planting effort that local churches could do themselves.  The seminaries train leadership that is licensed and ordained at the church level.  The IMB sends out missionaries based on the support provided by the churches.  Churches decline because of internal issues, not because of something the denomination has done.

The median age of the average church member in the SBC is somewhere around 60 years of age, and like most denominations, its churches are made up of those generations of people who understand denominational branding and believe in “distinctives” that are mainly semantics centered on leftover reformation theology.  If there was a “typical” SBC church you could walk into these days, what you’d see is a large, well decorated, traditional auditorium with the pews half full of mostly gray heads, and a small scattering of children and youth.  You’d also see a way of doing things that has been well adjusted to a small, inner circle of the active, older members.  And that would explain what you’re seeing.  When you see a fair number of those kinds of churches either get to the point where they are forced to change, or they disband, and a new congregation still affiliate with the SBC gets to take over the building, you’ll see the numbers do a reverse.