Let Go and Let GOP: a book review

Every wonder why the Republican party is the party that self-consciously allies itself with the Christian Faith, even as its leadership has suspect moral values and betrays the OR Book Going Rougebiblical call to care for the vulnerable? According to Terry Heaton, the answer is Pat Robertson, the 700 Club, and his CBN empire.  Heaton writes:

When I worked with him the 1980s, we practiced and promoted a brand of Charismatic Christianity that was seen as a breath of fresh air to a faith that had grown stale in every aspect from its music to its preaching, and we worked long, hard hours to move hearts and souls in the way we felt was right. In so doing, we altered the course of political power in the United States, and it was as natural as our Christian calling. Taking positions on social issues formerly held by conservative Democrats such as the sanctity of life, religious liberties, patriotism, family, school prayer, and respect for individualism and tradition, we spoke to primarily rural and suburban Christians on behalf of the Republican Party. We presented as Biblical mandates or “laws” economic views that catered to a culture, teaching that being one of the haves was available for everybody. Our arguments and teaching helped move the GOP to the right on the political spectrum and created a following that continues to baffle even the smartest political analysts in the country who are confounded by how such people would act against their own interests in giving power to Republicans. (2-3)

Jesus joined the GOP because as Pat Robertson wagged on about God, he wagged the dog, diverting evangelicals toward partisan politics and Republicanism. Heaton tells this story in The Gospel of SelfHe had a front-row seat for most of this. In the 1980s, he was the executive producer of The 700 club, helping to transform it to its news-style format which would, in turn, influence the shape of conservative politics. Heaton sees their work at CBN as pioneering the sort of point-of-view-journalism which prefigured the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Conservative Talk Radio, and Fox news.

History will record that The 700 Club was the tap-root of that which moved the Republican Party to the right and provided the political support today for a man like Donald Trump.  A 2015 Harvard report concluded that right-wing media was driving the GOP, not Republican leadership, but this assumes that in order for people to behave as cultural radicals, they must be manipulated into doing so. This is a misleading interpretation of human nature and the power of personal faith. (12-13).

Heaton sees the work of CBN, and later right-wing media outlets, as instrumental in manufacturing political opinion.  Much of the book recounts the story of CBN’s success in the 1980s and the political genius of Pat Robertson. The book is called the Gospel of Self because of the evangelistic emphasis on self-interest in Robertson (and other evangelicals) which dovetailed with fiscal conservative concerns for personal, economic prosperity. Heaton describes the growth of Robertson’s empire, his influence, his nearly successful bid for the GOP nomination, before being investigated by the IRS (Heaton suggests the government pressure came because George H W Bush was Vice President and Robertson’s chief opponent).  In the final two chapters,  Heaton offers his critique of media manipulation and the return of real independent journalism, and his suggestions for the emerging church in the post-Christian/postmodern era.

This is a critical look at Pat Robertson and his influence, but Heaton is not vindictive or bitter about his experience at CBN. Like Robertson, he was convinced they were doing the Lord’s work. So even as he talks about the way The 700 Club’s sometimes exaggerated or manipulative claims of healing, or Robertson’s overstated prophesies,  Heaton also extolls the good. The ways Robertson and CBN impacted real lives and made a difference, Robertson’s genius, and fundraising and commitment to Christian mission. Heaton now advocates a brand of Christianity that is less top-down, more relational and less manipulative (204), but I didn’t feel like this book is out to smear Robertson’s character (even as he points at some glaring problems).

The real value of the book is the insider perspective that Heaton offers on Robertson. Robertson and his impact on Evangelicals in politics are highly significant for understanding American political landscape. Of course, Robertson was not alone. There was also Falwell’s Moral Majority, Francis Schaeffer, Chuck Colson, and a host of other voices. Heaton doesn’t really tell their story (he briefly mentions Falwell, or segments Colson did on The 700 Club), but he was too close to the sun all other luminaries paled in comparison. Heaton linking Robertson’s 1980s empire to Trump did seem a bit tenuous, other than to point out ways in which conservative politics and Evangelical sociopolitical identity became entangled.  Though he does make some interesting suggestions on how motivated conservatives and evangelicals are by self-interest, and the ways social-care, a gospel prerogative, was short-shrifted by evangelicals (and the GOP).   A book like Francis FitzGerald’s The Evangelicals (Simon & Schuster, 2017) does a better job of tracing the movement of Evangelicalism towards the GOP and the rise of Trumpism, but Heaton’s perspective is interesting as one. I give this three-and-a-half-stars.

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from SpeakEasy in exchange for my honest review.

 

Praying on the Hill: a book review.

The Reverend Barry C. Black has served as the 62nd Chaplain of the U.S. Senate since 2003. Prior to that, he spent 27 years in the Navy, achieving the rank of Rear Admiral (OF-7). In February 2017, he provided the address for the National Prayer Breakfast, Donald Trump’s inaugural prayer breakfast as president. His message was inspiring. Go ahead, google it. It is about 27 minutes long and worth your time. It is an inspiring message, powerfully delivered.

978-1-4964-2949-0Make Your Voice Heard in Heaven: How to Pray in Power is an expansion of the themes he explored in his 2017 National Prayer Breakfast address. Black commends a lifestyle of prayer—trusting in God and praying through every circumstance. He asserts that prayer changes things and as we pray, ‘we make our voice heard in heaven.’

Black opens his book with an appeal to pray with assistance, that is, noting that as we gather to pray, Jesus is in our midst (Matthew 18:18-20) and the Spirit of God intercedes for us (Romans 8:26-27). Next, Black points to the Lord’s prayer as our model prayer we should pray. In the remaining chapters of the book, Black exhorts us pray with the right spiritual posture and to pray in every circumstance (e.g. Pray with purity, and fearlessly, pray with effectiveness, pray to escape temptation, pray even when God is silent, when we don’t feel like being good, when we need patience, in times of celebration, pray with intimacy, fervency, perseverance, submission, and pray with a partner).

Black occasionally illustrates his chapters with his experiences praying on Capitol Hill, and sometimes from his daily life Occasionally he throws in a pop cultural reference or something from history. However, for the most part, this pretty straight teaching from the Bible. Black has helpful and encouraging words for us as we each seek to develop our own private prayer practice. Despite the self help-y, title (“Make Your Voice Heard!) and the exhortation to pray effectively, and with power, what Black says is solid, God-honoring and down to earth. He is no prosperity preacher but is confident that prayers do have an impact on our life and nation.

Black speaks against the partisan divide in Washington, and he holds regular bipartisan prayer and Bible study meetings with members from both sides of the political aisle. However, his privileged place in the Senate puts limits on the sort of prophetic witness he is allowed to have.  Chaplains are the custodians of civil religion and as a career naval officer, Black does not challenge the status quo. So, for example, when he recommends the Lord’s Prayer, a prayer Jesus taught his disciples to pray in Galilean hill country—a region full of would-be-revolutionaries—Black depoliticizes the prayer. Praying for God’s coming kingdom by necessity challenges the established order. But Black writes:

Because I’m a member of God’s family, his promises become mine. I want my life to advance his Kingdom—not mine—and his Kingdom is not of this world. When my behavior  doesn’t adequately represent his Kingdom, I should desire to change what I’m doing. I make my decisions based on which choices better advances the priorities of my heavenly Father’s Kingdom (22-23, emphasis mine).

So while the Kingdom represents God’s priorities in the world, for Black, praying this prayer is fundamentally about challenging our own personal behavior and self-centeredness. For the first-century disciple praying this prayer, it meant the emperor was not the true king and that the political order was called into question. But Black is surrounded by powerful men and women. So Jesus’ most political prayer becomes primarily a tool for private devotion. Of course, because he exhorts political leaders to pray this prayer in this way, there are political implications. But this offers no systemic challenge.

On that score, this book is similar to a lot of other books on prayer. I am grateful for Black’s presence in the Senate, and the way he mediates God’s presence to our leaders, but I wish this book was more storied and offered a more prophetic challenge. I give this two stars. ★★

Notice of Material Connection: I received a copy of this book from Tyndale in exchange for my honest  review

Pastoral Care and Politics: a book review

Pastoral Care is often thought of on a purely micro level—counseling congregants through a crisis, walking alongside families in grief, or shepherding local congregations. Political theology, on the other hand, describes political, economic, social structures and practices, examining the issues at a more macro level. But what if there is a deep link between the political and the personal? What if the best way to care for souls, is to care for the polis—providing a framework for the flourishing of both individual persons and the common good?

9781498205214 Ryan LaMothe is professor of pastoral care and counseling at Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology.  In Care of Souls, Care of Polis: Towards a Political Pastoral Theology(Cascade Books, 2017), LaMothe develops “a hermeneutical framework for analyzing systemic issues.” Rather than conceptualizing pastoral care as an individualized discipline, LaMothe places pastoral care within the frame of care and justice, describing and understanding its import as a political concept.

In the first 4 chapters, LaMothe describes a conceptual framework for pastoral political theology, in chapters 5-8 he examines the macro issues of empire, neoliberal Captialism, class, and related issues which erode care and justice. He also suggests ways for the church to be an alternative polis.

In chapter 1, LaMothe provides an overview of the polis (society) and politics in political theologies:

[P]olitical theologies, generally speaking, are concerned with how human beings organize themselves in time and space, as well as with how human beings survive and flourish. The political theological activities of reflection and action presuppose not only a particular religious mythos but also other knowledge systems (e.g. philosophy, human sciences) used to examine and critique political institutions, realities and issues of a particular societal context and era (22).

LaMothe notes (following Daniel Bell) that if all theologies are political than pastoral theologies are as well, and he notes a number of ways political-economic realities impact pastoral care, “Domestic violence, adequate medical care, food insecurity, widespread incarceration and economic poverty and numerous other areas of concern, reflection and care are intertwined with political-economic factors, though these issues may not be in the foreground of pastoral theological focus” (22).  LaMothe argues that the lens of care—not just for individual souls, but for the polis—enables to more readily see the political implications and connections in pastoral care.

[A] political pastoral theology, grounded in the Christian mythos, aims to understand and assess current political-economic narratives, issues, institutions and structures, and to develop programs and policies that are themselves assessed and critiqued. A central interpretative framework for these aims is the notion of care, informed by the Christian tradition and the human sciences and aimed at the survival, flourishing and liberation of individuals, communities, society and the earth. Care of the polis necessarily includes a cooperation of diverse others, and thus a political pastoral theology must attend to the communicative practices of a society (29).

In chapter 2, LaMothe considers the relationship between care and politics. He argues that care is aimed not just at a person’s survival, but at the flourishing of communities and families—the common good (47).  He draws on the notion of kenosis (Christ’s self-emptying) as a model of care for the Other, and posits that for communities and society to flourish, the notion of care (whether pastoral care, government, NGOs, etc) is a necessity.

This comes into sharper focus in chapter 3. LaMothe relates the concepts of care and justice in political pastoral care, drawing on black liberation theology and South and Central American liberation theology. Lamothe takes the emphasis in liberation theology on (1) attention to the community, (2)the preferential option of the poor and (3) responsiveness toward oppression and argues that political pastoral theologians be mindful of and respondent to the systemic oppression and marginalized in society (83). LaMothe argues that while both justice and care are necessary for human flourishing, a viable, and thriving polis depends on a rigorous ethic of care—where all members of society are recognized as valued (92). Justice is necessary to correct wrongdoing and repair relationships, but in creation itself, notions of care precede justice (and enemy love and forgiveness are expectations):

An ethic of care is grounded in the ontological reality of creation, and human beings are cocreators particularly through recognizing and treating Others as persons. This cocreation of the space of appearances ideally occurs in parent-child relations, family relations, communities and societies. A viable polis, then relies on an ethics of care, and it is an ethics of care that grounds an assessment and critique of political-economic institutions, structures and policies (92).

Chapter 4 argues for a civil and redemptive discourse both in political and pastoral speech.  LaMothe notes, “a polis begins to shrivel and die when civil discourse is replaced with self-certain, self-aggrandizing, intransigent monologues that aim at coercing the Other into acceptance of one’s singular vision of the world” (95). He warns against totalizing speech, and urges us to follow Jesus’ kenotic example of self-emptying (Phil 2:7), and discover ways of speaking in civil (and pastoral!) discourse which are both humble and hospitable:

Kenosis is the difficult discipline of clearing the psychic room to make space for and welcome the Other in reverence and this psychic room is related to the space of appearances of the polis. The fruits of a kenotic discipline are humility and hospitality, which are key to redemptive discourse and its aims of inviting, revering, respecting and understanding the Other. This is redemptive because it seeks to overcome alienation by inviting the possibility of real meetings between persons in the midst of disagreement (123).

This recovery of redemptive speech is necessary if we are to find ways to care for our increasingly fragmented world. “We need a redemptive discourse that rejects the facile pleasures of self-certain total explanations that opts for the belief in and practice of just and caring speech in the face of hostility and hatred” (127).

Chapters 5-8 describe overlapping macro, political issues and how they relate to pastoral care. In chapter 5, LaMothe examines the way empire is part of our U.S. cultural DNA. U.S. history exhibits the imperial and expansionist aims of empire, and as an empire in decline, it has become increasingly violent (131). LaMothe describes the emergence of the U.S. Empire, its carelessness and injustice. He argues that the church ought to provide an alternative narrative to Empire, not in the sense of being anti-imperial—as in the polar opposite of empire in every respect—but by providing an alternative version of what it means to be human:

While Jesus grew up in a world where Roman imperialism was daily fare, his ministry, his way of being in the world, was not based in opposition to empire. In other words, Jesus’s public actions were not anti-imperialistic, but were alterimperialistic in the sense that Jesus offered an alternative, and this alternative is represented by the term kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is not in opposition to the imperium, at least in the direct sense. Rather, it is an alternative polis that has nothing to do with imperial practices. Indeed, imperial policies and practices are inconceivable in a kingdom based on love, compassion, care, mercy, justice and forgiveness (152-53).

And so LaMothe describes ways for the church or other communities which oppose empire, of being an ‘alterempire.’ 

Chapter 6 describes the contributions of neoliberal capitalism to suffering in the polis and the subsequent distortion of Christian theology (à la the Prosperity gospel). Classically, Max Weber envisioned a robust Protestantism as both enabling the development of capitalism and restraining its acquisitiveness (173). That is, capitalism was subordinated to Judeo-Christian values and anthropology. However, under neoliberal capitalism, the engine of acquisition drives and distorts our theological understandings instead. Material wealth and success are seen as the signifiers of divine blessing.

Here too, LaMothe commends us toward an altercapitalism:

As a small polis, the ecclesia promotes, through liturgy, preaching, retreats, classes, and stories, the standards Christian virtues of faith, hope and love—virtues necessary for the care and justice. Indeed, the very notions of care, justice and the common good are tied to these virtues so that the notions do not become distorted by the values associated with the market society (i.e. with the commodification of care). Living as an altercaptialist community necessarily includes being deliberate about nurturing interpersonal relations and fostering a critical reflective stance toward the larger society so that community members and leaders are not co-opted by the hegemonic discourse associated with the values and expectations of the market. An altercapitalist community serves, then, as a countercultural entity by developing subjects with capacities for a type of critical thinking connected to caring virtues and for the kind of social relations that are personal. (196).

Chapter 7 extends this political-economic analysis with a critique on classism, pointing to the example of the early church attempting to live as an alterclass community where all members were mutually cared for. “Yes, they failed, at least with regard to perpetuating this kind of community. But they succeeded in imagining a community that did not depend on or reproduce class” (229).

Chapter 8 closes the book with a look at several relevant issues for a political pastoral theology: climate change, education, healthcare, the judicial system, the politics of exclusion.

LaMothe writes as pastoral theologian teaching in a seminary; however, the notions of care for the common good, and the focus on macro issues which erode care and justice, makes much of what LaMothe says applicable to any community resistant to the dominant voice of U.S. Empire. LaMothe’s chief interlocutors are the gospels, Paul and Liberation Theology, but the concept of being alterempire (promoting an alternative to imperial and expansionists aims and advocating justice and care) is a word for activists of all stripes, faith traditions, and ideologies.

While this book was published in 2017, and many of the issues raised here are relevant to Trump’s America our damaging long pedigree and the examples of U.S. Empire, Neoliberal capitalist distortions, classism, exclusion, etc,  LaMothe cites are from an earlier era (Obama and before). Still, LaMothe’s discussion of self-aggrandizing totalizing speech and the need for redemptive discourse struck me as a particularly appropriate warning against our current polarizing political speech.

 LaMothe is sympathetic to radical politics and doesn’t interact as much with Protestant political theologies (briefly O’Donovan and Volf, no James K. A. Smith). Certainly, there are evangelicals that see a broad overlap of politics and pastoral ministry (e.g. David Lane, Mike Huckabee, Jerry Falwell, Jr), though they often are not as cognizant of the socio-economic impact of empire, class and economics which LaMothe highlights here.

LaMothe points pastoral care practitioners toward a greater awareness of systemic problems which complicate care. This will be a helpful resource for pastors and congregational leaders, as well as theological instructors and students. I give it four stars – ★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from Wipf & Stock books in exchange for my honest review. Cascade Books is an imprint of Wipf & Stock.

 

Don of the Planet of the White Evangelicals: a book review

Since November 8, 2016, one question has dominated media ad nauseam: how did this happen? How did Donald J. Trump—a man full of narcissistic bravado, who publicly mocked a disabled reporter, failed to unequivocally denounce white nationalism and the KKK, insulted political opponents and women with unparalleled crassness,  bragged about sexual assault, passing it off as locker room talk, and also bragged about his sexual exploits in public forms—become president? Why did 81% of evangelicals support him, a higher percentage of support than either George W. Bush or Mitt Romney received? In one night, white evangelicals swung from the demographic most likely to say that personal character matters in assessing a leader’s public ethics, to the group that said it mattered the least.

9780801007330A lot of ink has been spilled, attempting to answer the question of why Donald Trump. Stephen Mansfield tackles this question directly in  Choosing Donald Trump: God, Anger, Hope and Why Christian Conservatives Supported HimMansfield is a historian, conservative Christian and cultural critic. He boasts strong evangelical credentials and of all the people who have endeavored to tackle the Trump phenomenon, he may be the whitest (I can’t actually back that up). His previous books include a Christian book about manly men doing manly things, The Mansfield Book of Manly Men (Thomas Nelson, 2013), as well as books about the faiths of presidents and world leaders: The Faith of George W. Bush (Tarcher, 2003), The Faith of Barak Obama (Thomas Nelson, 2008), Lincoln’s Battle with God (Thomas Nelson, 2012), and The Character and Greatness of Winston Churchill (Cumberland House, 2004).

Notably, Mansfield does not attempt to write a book on the faith of Donald Trump, as he did with Bush and Obama.  He attempts instead to answer how Donald Trump became evangelicals’ champion, though he does address the the possible religious content of Trump’s faith. He repeatedly points out the incongruities between Trump’s Christian claims and the evidence from Trump’s life and writing:

[F]or at least the first five decades of [his] life, there was little evidence  of a defining Christian Faith. Instead, his religion was power, vengeance, and, notably himself. He seemed not to know that the ideal of revenge to which he devoted so much time and an entire chapter of a book was contrary to the teaching of the religion he served. He did not know or did not care that truth mattered in his faith, that his preference for “truthful hyperbole”—an”innocent form of exaggeration . . . and a very effective form of promotion”—was little more than lying and forbidden by his religion. It was the same with his sexual mores, with his language, and business ethics, and with his lack of evident concern for the will of an all-knowing God. (70).

Mansfield explains the Trump phenomena in the four sections of his book. Part one names the incongruity between evangelicalism and their “unlikely champion.” Part 2, provides the backstory, and the voices that shaped Trump: his emotionally distant and cut-throat real estate tycoon father, military school, the positive thinking gospel of Norman Vincent Peale, and his decade-long friendship with prosperity preacher, Paula White, the pastor that translated Trump’s faith to his would-be evangelical allies.

In part 3, Mansfield describes Trump’s appeal for evangelicals, namely, his commitment to overturning the Johnson Act, his opposition to Obama’s legacy, Hillary Clinton and the way Trump gave voice to their anger. Obama was adept at speaking Christian language, but evangelicals disagreed vehemently with his Pro-Choice platform, the ways in which the Affordable Care Act was biased against pro-life positions and Obama’s evolving stance on Marriage Equality. Clinton, a lifelong Methodist, was also more adept at speaking about faith matters than Trump, but her progressive politics, pro-abortion stances and her failure to even engage with evangelicals during her campaign hurt her standing with them. Mansfield focuses his assessment of Clinton’s lack of appeal among evangelicals on her policy, not on scandals like her private email server or Benghazi.

In part 4, Mansfield makes the case for prophetic distance between evangelicals and their would-be champion. He begins by assessing Billy Graham’s legacy as ‘pastor to the presidency,’ and how Graham came to see how he was used by presidents (he felt particularly seduced by his friendship with Nixon). Mansfield quotes Graham as saying in 1981, “The hard right has no interest in religion except to manipulate it” (137). This strikes me as words his son Franklin ought to heed.

Surveying our cultural landscape, and the story of  Jesus driving the money changers out of the Court of the Gentiles (the part of the temple where the nations came to seek Yahweh), Mansfield observes that Jesus was objecting to a racist policy that hurt the Gentiles. He concludes:

In an America battling new waves of racial tension, what might come from a bold, unapologetic declaration of the meaning of this episdode in the life of Christ—that racism is sin, that it is un-Christian and that any president who claims to be a follower of Christ must fight this evil with every weapon possible?

That is what is required of ministers who step into the lives of presidents. They are not there merely to affirm. They are not there simply to sanction. They are there to confront and speak truth that brings change. They are there to maintain prophetic distance and to be guardians of a moral vision for life and government. (141).

Mansfield’s concluding chapter gives several examples of Christian leaders who maintained this sort of prophetic distance and were, therefore, able to speak prophetically into the life of leaders.

Mansfield is evenhanded. He gives a strong critique of Trump and Trumpism without demonizing the man or the movement. I don’t know from reading this book how he voted last November. I am sure I wouldn’t always be on the same page as him politically or theologically but I appreciate his conviction, fairness and the thrust of his argument

In the interest of disclosure, I am one of the 19% of white evangelicals who did not vote for Trump. I have a lot of friends who have disavowed the term evangelical in the wake of the last election because they want to dissociate from the evangelical support of a president who winks at injustice, sexism, racial bigotry, and xenophobia. I still call myself an evangelical because I believe in the reality of new birth in Christ, salvation through the cross, a Bible-centered spirituality and a commitment to mission, but I am sensitive to the way evangelicalism and evangelical language has been co-opted.  I appreciate Mansfield’s argument for prophetic distance, though as he notes throughout, the evangelical movement, for better or for worse, has hitched their cart to the Trump train. Whether or not prophetic distance is now possible remains to be seen, though certainly there are examples of evangelicals who have dared to speak truth-to-power. I certainly want to see an evangelicalism guided more by conviction than political pragmatism, but it is 2017 and I’m cynical.

Still, if you want a white, evangelical assessment of why Trump and where we go from here, this is a good place to start. I give this four stars. ★★★★

Notice of Material Connection: I received a copy of this book from Baker Books in exchange for my honest review

 

On thoughts & prayers

This blog is called thoughts, prayers & songs.  Here, I think through issues related to theology, justice, calling, and faith, or whatever comes to mind.  My thinking has been shaped by the reading of books and I have reviewed many books here (and on my Goodreads account), but I don’t think of this primarily as a ‘book review blog.’ It is a blog, and books are some of my conversation partners as I think through issues, and seek to grow in my Christian walk. I know stuff, but I don’t want to just be knowledgeable. I want to be wise and have a vibrant devotional life: to pray, read Scripture, and live out a compelling, missional faith. I want to love mercy, do justice, and walk humbly with God. So, in addition to book reviews, I have intermittent liturgical reflections, poems, scriptural musings and theological meanderings.  My blog tagline “My journey from self-absorption to doxology” captures the movement that I strive toward:

From thoughts, ⇒  to prayers, ⇒  to & songs.

And I hope people take the journey with me.

Nevertheless, I know thoughts & prayers have fallen on hard times (few people will rail against songs, though a rare unmusical soul may try). Thoughts & prayers are offered across social-media whenever a friend or loved one is facing trying circumstances. A lost job, an unwelcome diagnosis, the death of a family member. “You are in my thoughts & prayers.[insert heart emoji and cryface].When we hear these words from friends, we understand that they are saying that they care and that they are holding us in their heart while we are in a difficult place. But when a politician says it in the wake of yet another tragedy we feel more cynical:

“I’d like to begin by sending our thoughts and prayers to the people of Puerto Rico, who have been struck by storms of historic and catastrophic severity,” -Donald J. Trump (source, Business Insider, “Trump on Peurto Rico Crisis,” Sept. 29, 2017)

“My thoughts and prayers are with the people of Nepal” Hillary Clinton on Twitter, April 25, 2015)

Our cynicism about politicians offering thoughts & prayers is because we perceive they have the power to do something about the situation, but are not responding in a tangible way. If they offer up thoughts and prayers but fail to act to alleviate the suffering of others than we feel like they don’t care, they just say they do. This is especially true in the aftermath of gun violence. Democrats and media outlets have criticized a number of GOP politicians for offering thoughts and prayers in the wake of both last year’s Orlando shooting at Pulse night club, and last week’s shooting in Las Vegas. Here is a sampling of headlines:

GOP Congressmen Offer “Thoughts and Prayers.” Here’s How Much the NRA Gave Them to Offer Nothing More. (Slate, June 12, 2016)

Why ‘thoughts and prayers’ is starting to sound so profane (Washinton Post, Oct. 3, 2017)

Rubio and Florida GOP Offer Vegas “Thoughts and Prayers” While Taking Thousands of Dollars From NRA  (Miami  New Times, Oct. 3, 2017)

THOUGHTS AND PRAYERS AND NOT MUCH MORE: POLITICIANS REACT TO LAS VEGAS SHOOTING (Newsweek, Oct. 2, 2017)

Messenger: America, land of thoughts and prayers, mourns its dead, again (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Oct 2, 2017)

This growing angst against thoughts & prayers in the wake of recent gun violence is due to a lack of effort on the part of Congress to pass some sort of common sense gun control law. Certainly, they feel bad for the people in Vegas who were killed or injured when Stephen Paddock unleashed his arsenal on a Country Music festival. But the NRA has given a number of our congresspeople thousands of dollars and Christians in America are more likely to own a gun and be pro-gun than any other segment of the population. So, nothing happens. But thoughts & prayers.

Or worse, instead of thoughts & prayers, we allow our fear of the other to cloud our thoughts and prayers. Instead of thinking or praying, we beef up our arsenals and prepare for the worst. If a bad hombre threatens us or our family, we are prepared and can take him out before he does any damage.

A couple of years ago, I was pastoring a church in Florida. When Dylann Roof shot up Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, one of the elders asked me if I wanted him to start carrying his gun to church in case someone decided to shoot up our congregation (he had a conceal carry permit). I declined the offer, but I get this desire for self-protection. There are bad people in the world and nobody wants to be a victim.

Good people carrying guns in church sounds so sensible. Didn’t Jesus say, “If you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one”? But two swords were enough for the whole lot of twelve disciples and I can’t see Jesus giving his blessing automatic assault weapons with armor piercing rounds. Those who live by the sword perish by the sword.

I follow Jesus. He is the Prince of Peace, Mr. Turn-the-Other-Cheek. He overcame the violence of his age by submitting to death on a Roman cross. I think and I pray to be shaped in the image of Christ. I want to be like Jesus. And while I have had few real-world opportunities to practice the non-violence of Jesus, this is the way of the cross. Christ followers who think and pray about the state of the world will be moved to a certain sort of action. Their response to violence will be cruciform. Thinking and praying are formational activities.

Some liberals and media pundits get hung up on thoughts and prayers, but thoughts & prayers are not our problems. Failing to act is the problem, both in the wake of tragedy and proactively to avert a crisis. I feel the weight of my own critique here. I am a reader and a thinker and can be accused of living too much in my mind sometimes. Yet, thoughtless actions wreak havoc on the world and prayer-less lives have no Divine spark. Think, pray and act, so that your life may become a song.

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Rules are Revolting: a book review

Becky Bond and Zack Exley worked together on Bernie Sander’s presidential campaign. While Bernie’s bid for the Democratic nomination was ultimately unsuccessful, they did mobilize an impressive amount of grass roots support. Rules for Revolutionaries gives a glimpse of the power of ‘big organizing’ and what it takes to ignite a movement. While the anecdotes in this book are drawn also exclusively from the Bernie campaign, Bond and Exley argue that the ‘rules’ reveal what leaders do in movements to mobilize millions of people.

19650The title, Rules for Revolutionaries alludes to the earlier work of Saul Alinsky, the influential Rules for Radicals. Alinksy was a Chicago-based labor organizer (whose work was influential for Obama). His work became a standard for organizers and activists. However Bond and Exley observe that Alinsky’s model was ‘premised on the paternalistic concept that an enlightened core of outside organizers was necessary to show the poor that there was a better way and then to represent them in a battle with elites” (8-9). Alinsky believed in building power so to compel negotiation (rather than revolutionize the entire power structure). Bond and Exley also criticize Alinsky for creating incrementalist Black and Latino groups designed to mitigate anger instead of effecting real change. In contrast, Bond and Exley believe their model provides a more revolutionary way forward:

The big organizing model that can fuel revolutions believes that communities are filled with talented and intelligent people who understand what was broken and, when given material and strategic resources, can wrest power from elites and make lasting change. A political revolution is different from community organizing as we know it today. (9)

The rules aren’t so much ‘rules’ as pithy chapter titles which describe aspects of their strategic vision. Some of these are practical: “Get on the Phone!” The Work Is Distributed. The Plan Centralized,” “Learn the Basics of Good Management,””The Revolution is Not Just Bottom Up; It’s Peer to Peer,” “Put Consumer Software at the Center,” “Get Ready for the Counterrevolution.” Other rules are about the right orientation toward the work of organizing: “You Won’t Get a Revolution if You Don’t Ask for One,” “The Revolution Will not be Handed toYou on a Silver Platter.” A couple of rules describe the issues worth organizing for: “Fighting Racism Must Be the Core Message to Everyone,” “There is No Such Thing as a Single Issue Revolution.”

If organizing is your thing, Bond and Exley have practical advice and hard-earned wisdom to share.  As I said, these really aren’t rules, they are practical description the approach that Exley and Bond took as part of the campaign. Whether or not the new rules overturn the old playbook remains to be seen. This is mostly just an insider’s look atBernie’s historic campaign.

I am not really sure that there is much revolutionary here. There is some good leadership advice such standing for something, giving people a big way to get involved, how to mobilize and empower leaders, and what it means to lead in a more cooperative less elitist way.  All of this is helpful. Revolutionary? Not so much. Will these rules ignite a revolution? That remains to be seen.  The rules begin to feel tedious by the end.  I give this book 3.5 stars.

Notice of Material Connection: I received a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Hope for a Post-Hope and Change America: a book review

Reclaiming Hope by Michael Wear tells the story of faith in the Obama administration. Before he turned twenty-one in 2008, Wear was already a White House staffer, appointed by the president to the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships as one of the youngest WH staffers in the modern American political era. He had previously worked with Barak Obama’s election campaign and he would go on to direct faith outreach for Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign.

240_360_book-2109-coverGiven this bio, Wear is obviously sympathetic to Obama and his legacy; however what he offers here is both sympathetic and critical. He describes Obama (and his own efforts) to intersect with people of faith and address their concerns, and the places where he felt Obama had failed to build bridges to religious communities. His book is part memoir, part political analysis with some theological musings thrown in for good measure.

The first five chapters of Reclaiming Hope, are autobiography. Wear describes his improbable journey to the White House, meeting Obama and working on the campaigns and in the White House. Despite Obama’s Christianity and his respect for people of faith, faith was of secondary importance to the administration. Many of Wear’s colleagues were ignorant of faith concerns, and occasionally antagonistic to religious concerns. This biography section gives an insider look at a few places where Obama wrestled with religion in the public sphere (i.e. his distancing himself from his pastor, Jeremiah Wright, his meeting with evangelical leaders, his appointment of Rick Warren to pray at his inauguration, etc).

The next three chapters discuss in greater detail how the Obama administration addressed (or didn’t address) the concerns of people of faith. In chapter six, he discusses abortion. While Obama and the Democratic Party are officially pro-choice, the policies that Obama promoted during his administration were aimed at reducing the overall number of abortions. The number of abortions decreased, during his tenure they were at their lowest in years with a higher number of adoptions. Nevertheless, Obama’s abortion policies were not well received by those on the Religious Right, and weren’t adequately Pro-Choice for some on the left. Chapter seven examines the contraception mandate of the Affordable Care Act and the tone-deaf way the administration responded to Christian’s who felt their religious freedom was being infringed on.Chapter eight describes Obama’s evolution on same-sex marriage, which put him more and more at loggerheads with traditional, religious folk.

Chapter seven examines the contraception mandate of the Affordable Care Act and the tone-deaf way the administration responded to Christian’s who felt their religious freedom was being infringed on.Chapter eight describes Obama’s evolution on same-sex marriage, which put him more and more at loggerheads with traditional, religious folk.

In chapter ten, Wear describes the second inauguration. In contrast to the first inauguration, the evangelical pastor Obama had asked to pray (in this case Louie Giglio) was vehemently opposed because of a twenty-year-old sermon against homosexuality. In his first inauguration both Rick Warren, a conservative evangelical megachurch pastor, and the first openly gay Episcopal  bishop, Gene Robinson prayed—a testimony to Obama’s ‘big-tent,’ inclusive approach to religion. At his second inauguration, the lines between Right and Left had hardened.

Wear’s final two chapters wax theological on the meaning of hope, not in the political sloganeering sense, but in the Christian sense. Politicians offer a piecemeal  and little hope, but Christian hope is Jesus—our hope for today and evermore. Wear closes with thoughts on how Christian’s ought to engage the political landscape, bringing hope to realms of religious freedom and race relations.

I appreciate the insider perspective Wear brings to faith and politics in the Obama era. He reflects on the places where he feels like Obama was true to his vision, and the places where he dropped the ball.  Wear strikes a nice balance between narrative and analysis. I also appreciate the insight he brings as a person of faith from the left side aisle. If Christianity gets coopted by the Right, the Left is often ignorant of the Bible and Jesus. That brings a unique sense of challenges.

This is an interesting read for anyone interested in faith and politics (something we won’t get away from in the Trump era). The hope for America and the world is not this president or the last one. Or the next. It is Jesus, hope of the nations and change we can believe in. I give this book four stars.

Note: I received this book from BookLook Bloggers in exchange for my honest review.