Archive for August, 2008
I normally avoid political commentary in my blog and even here will be brief and avoid publicly endorsing or dissing any candidate. However I will give a hats off to Obama for securing the Democratic Party nomination. My hat goes off in honor of my father, to whom I spoke this morning (my actual flesh and blood father, not the FATHER in heaven father). As we talked his voice was full of excitement and disbelief. He said that as he heard Obama speak, he thought back to skipping school to protest “just for the right to eat in a restaurant.” Even as I write this, I too am deeply moved as I think about my mother, my grandmother and grandfather who never lived to see this day.
I’m quite sure there are many people who disagree with Obama’s politics and who don’t quite get the emotional and psychological impact for Black folks. You see for most of us, we never really even thought about the possibility that anything remotely like this could happen.
That being said I want to give a shout out to Sen. Clinton and her many supporters male and female. A lot of folks really don’t get the disaffection and disappointment. I get it, and no.. I don’t expect you to “get over it.”
On Sunday mornings during the offering collection at my church, we often have instrumental music or perhaps a soloist will give a special selection. Two Sundays ago was no exception. While offering was being collected, the pianist played and the soloist, obviously nervous, sang a simple Korean worship melody. It took all of two minutes to finish the collection and the solo, but it was the first time in the two years since I’ve been attending this Korean church that I’d ever heard the soloist sound at all unsure of his voice. More strikingly, it was the first time I’d ever heard any song done in Korean.
I was the soloist.
Two weeks later and I am still somewhat puzzled by this event. It was a strange moment for me and becomes even stranger upon further reflection. It is strange that I would be nervous singing in front of the congregation, when I regularly preach and have lead worship many times. Stranger still that this is the first time I’ve heard any song sung in Korean though it is a Korean church (albeit the EM). Strangest of all that it would be I, a Black American, who would be the one to sing it.
Yes, I was nervous, but not for reasons you might imagine. I knew the song through and through; I’ve sang and led it many times in front of hundreds of people. I wasn’t concerned about my pronunciation, my inflection or my accent. I know the song better in Korean than in English. When I was later approached by a visitor who expressed her thanks (and surprise) at my solo, I was taken aback. I honestly hadn’t given much thought to the fact that it was a Black man who had just sang a solo in Korean at a Korean church and that that might be surprising to some people. It isn’t that I ever forget I’m Black and at a Korean church. I’m just sometimes surprised when other people notice what has become normative for me.
What made me nervous was the question headlining this blog post: can I be myself? I don’t mean to suggest that I am somehow Korean or Korean American, or that I can ever really grasp that experience; far from it. I mean rather that my nervousness and hesitation was due to the uncertainty of whether it was okay to bring this tiny element of Korean culture into worship. This perhaps should not have been my preoccupation. Perhaps I should be worried that I’ve transgressed by taking too much liberty with a culture not my own. But in that moment of choosing to sing, my decision was not one of political or cultural calculation. It was a decision of worship. It was a moment when I momentarily let slip the studied ways I’ve avoided disturbing the cultural milieu of the English congregation and choose rather to be myself. The striking irony is that it was through the medium of a Korean worship melody.
In traditional Black preaching, the sermon is a dialogue between the minister and the congregation. It isn’t unusual for a preacher to ask as he builds into the heart of his message, “Can I be myself?” only to hear back the affirmation of the crowd. In my own preaching, it is a phrase I often use. At the heart of the question is the philosophical and even psychological posture of the Black church as a whole. The church was and remains the place where Black people could, “be themselves” without the necessary and tiring mental gymnastics, emotional resolve, and cultural contortion needed to live with peace and dignity in a world dominated by White society. At church, in worship, and in the community of God, you could simply be yourself; you could be Black.
The question that continues to haunt me from my moment of singing nervousness two weeks ago is whether church is or can be a place for Asian Americans to be themselves. It is troubling to me that singing a Korean song in Korean at a Korean church during the mostly Korean American 2nd generation worship service would be something exceptional. That it was done by the only non-Korean in attendance is merely icing on the moldy cake. The song is of course, only a symbol of the larger concern. To put it in terms of my own ethno-cultural background, if I cannot preach, pray, sing, and worship like a Black man (whatever that means) at a Black church, where else can I go? If I cannot be “Black” here, where then can I? I believe Asian Americans need to be asking and answering the same question.
Not to put too fine a point on it, or too paint too broadly with inadequate strokes, but my experiences in ministry point me to a sad observation. Often Black students (and others, but I’ll stick with Black folks for now) who have had the most difficult experiences growing up of “not being Black enough” or “trying to be White” are usually the ones most resistant to being involved in ethnic specific ministry for obvious reasons. They are the ones to most often push for multiethnicity and diversity, or who will want to join all White groups where the focus is “not on race.” They are also the ones who ultimately benefit most from being in a Black group where they are challenged to embrace both the beauty and pain of their ethnic identity and see it redeemed in light of the gospel. I suspect the same might be true for many Asian Americans for whom the grail of multiethnicity is just an easy way out.
Whilst perusing various blogs earlier in the day I ran across one that had a quite disturbing graphic depicting the steps undertaken by a physician performing an abortion procedure on a child at approximately 20 or so weeks. Though I have seen such graphics before, I was this time horribly disturbed in a way that I have not been previously.
If I am honest with myself I must admit that at least part of my reaction was likely due to the particularly sensitive state of my emotions following several weeks of intensive ministry, family and social obligations, all of which serve to make me more tender than I perhaps am in “normal” circumstances. Perhaps it is such tenderness that our Lord would desire me to always have.
Nevertheless and despite the cause, I was deeply moved and given the political season in which we are engaged, my thoughts turned quite readily to that arena. The political structure of our government and the evolution of political decision making alongside developments in the understanding of the role of the courts in refereeing political and social life in our nation make it certain that for many religious and otherwise socially conservative persons, the issue of judicial appointments to the federal bench is a salient issue in their minds as they weigh their voting responsibilities. It is fair to say that many, if perhaps not most of the so called evangelical vote that has been given consistently to Republican Party candidates over the last two decades has been heavily influenced by this political consideration.
The courts have become the most contested battleground in the long waging culture wars of American political life as evidenced by the recent California Supreme Court decision concerning homosexual marriage. It is also fair to say that many of these same conservatives have been likely disappointed by what they perceive as a lack of progress in overturning controversial decisions such as Roe vs. Wade and with the ongoing dissolution of what had been a large scale social consensus concerning such things as marriage and the family. The rabid unpopularity and arguably failed governance of the current president have left many evangelicals thoroughly disenchanted with these age old controversies and many, especially of the younger generation, are likely to see abortion and homosexuality in the same light as their secular non religious friends. It remains to be seen whether the California decision will serve to rally such “conservative” voters around a McCain candidacy that has received, at best, a lukewarm reception (something no doubt due in part to the tepidness of the candidate himself).
As an evangelical Christian it might perhaps surprise some that I have not always been “pro-life” as the terminology has it (though I know of no one who is publicly “pro-death”). In my youth I was quite settled in my opposition to efforts to limit the exercise of a woman’s freedom over her own body. It seemed to me at the time a potentially unjust imposition of state power and an unnecessary intrusion by the state into what was fundamentally a private matter of health and safety. At the time my greatest consternation with the issues was the exclusion of the father from the decision making process, as I believed (then as now) that the vagaries of our biology do not afford one parent greater rights of decision making vis a vis a child or potential child. Though the woman physically carries the child, he is no more or less responsible than she is in determining how best to proceed in such as case. Likewise I believed it to be reasonable that adult parents of under aged teens held primary responsibility for making the decision for or against abortion as it was a medical procedure and excluding them from the matter would be an uneven application of existing laws. As you might imagine, while it was simple to hold these positions from a political point of view, it became increasingly difficult to justify abortion theologically, though honestly in my youth, I never attempted to do so.
One of the fundamental problems with abortion and with other socially and politically challenging questions from a biblical perspective lies not simply in the application of seemingly arcane laws and mores from the Old and New Testament to a very different social context, but rather in an inherent contradiction between the social and political philosophy of the Bible and The Republic.
The political philosophy of the United States is the product of two distinct and important streams of thought that culminated in the production of the founding documents of the republic and which account for some of the tensions inherent therein.
The first is the tradition of English common law which stretched back several centuries and was influenced by its Norman, Celtic, and Anglo-Saxon precursors and came about in a time of stark realism about the hardships of life. It was part of the feudal compact of European society that at core was conservative, agrarian, and individualistic and yet was cognizant also of the responsibilities of the common man to “do his bit” for his feudal master or, less frequently, the crown. This was all the government he wanted or needed.
The second is that of the French Enlightenment which was more recent, yet in some ways more potent. It was the product of educated elites who were, in the main, atheistic in their orientation if not in their actual belief. It was largely corporatist and viewed society as a series of “compacts” or agreements between groups, but most especially the “governed” and the government, which was the monarchy. It was also humanistic, anti-authoritarian (in the sense of its rejection of any authority deriving from sources external to the “people” i.e. divine right), and, like common law, rights oriented but in an idealistic sense. That is to say rights are common, rather than individual goods.
The joining of these two streams under the leadership of the elites who founded the country largely explains the tensions inherent in the American political system. It is a system wherein the corporate, utopian, group rights orientation derived from our Enlightenment roots are ever in conflict with the radically individualistic, dystopian and personal rights orientation of our English common law ancestry. Ironically, it is our Enlightenment legacy that, despite its anti-hierarchical bent, that lends itself more readily to domineering executive power utilized generally in the guaranteeing of perceived corporate “rights” and less frequently in the pursuit of utopian aims.
So then, how is the political philosophy of the United States fundamentally at odds with a biblical worldview and what does any of this have to do with abortion? Indeed there are some Christians who would argue against this characterization and point to many things within the intent of the framers original documents that have Christian antecedents, as well as pointing out that many of the framers were themselves Christians.
The Christianity of certain of the framers is not at issue here, nor is it particularly relevant in this argument. It is quite possible to hold and practice a solidly active faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and still adhere to, support, and even endorse a political philosophy that is not especially Christian or even biblical. Likewise the presence of certain Christian presuppositions within the founding documents does not mean that the entirety of such documents reflect a Christian or biblical framework. Indeed it is more likely a reflection of the fact that the United States was birthed out of a culture that had been influenced by Christianity for several centuries and whose predominant philosophic impulse was Christian.
The answer to my question is rather simpler than my arguably inaccurate and unhelpful description of American political philosophy and is at least two fold (though I suppose I could dig out another fold if I were so inclined).
Firstly, the Bible specifically and Christian thinking more broadly has very little use for the concept of “rights” in either the Enlightenment or the English common law sense of that word. As a religion, Christianity is preoccupied with cultic questions of proper religious practice and with ethical questions of proper social relations. Political commentary, where given, is generally sparse, situational, and at times prophetic. There is little said about how the government as an institution ought to function in relation to its citizens / subjects since government was largely personal and arbitrary in nature. Subsequent years of Christianization provided abundant opportunity for discourse on how princes ought to conduct themselves towards their subjects, but such advice was given with the understanding that the rulers themselves would be Christian, in word if not in actual fact. Even so, the way in which we talk about rights is a concept alien to Christianity. Much more is written in scripture about the responsibility of Christians to one another, to unbelievers, to God and occasionally to the government. In all of these cases, the over arching thrust is towards the giving up of ones prerogatives both as a spiritual discipline, and as a practical matter leading towards peace.
Secondly, the principle of majority rule or more elegantly, “the consent of the governed,” is as alien to Christianity as my critique of it is likely to be to those who are democracy’s most ardent defenders. Rightful critique of “activist” jurists often falls back upon a philosophical position that it is the responsibility (or right) of the people to decide upon certain issues and that courts over overstep their boundaries and usurp this presumably sovereign right. A counter critique is then launched about the need to protect the rights of the minority opinion from the “tyranny of the majority.” In this case, both positions are right and both in error. To prevent what would likely be an even more tedious post to finish I will deal only with the error of the former as I have already discussed the fallacy of “rights” inherent in the counter critique. The notion that “the people” have a right to decide anything is a clearly unchristian concept when applied outside of a covenanted Christian community as was present in Acts, and flies in the face of our common depravity and deceivability. It was after all a majority position to select a king in 1 Samuel, and we know well how the democracy of the Tower of Babel worked out.
Thirdly and finally (I knew I’d find another ‘fold’ in there somewhere), the Bible and Christian history hold Christians, not government, to a high standard of interventionist responsibility on behalf of justice for those most unable to assist themselves. The testimony of scripture is that government exists to “reward good and punish evil.” In such circumstances that the government inverts its function and begins to reward evil and punish good, it is the responsibility of Christians to resist (and of course to bear the consequences). In a democratic system, Christians can work more actively towards that metric through the democratic process by electing officials who will act towards that end. In any government system Christians can work toward eliminating or ameliorating the most detrimental effects of injustice, oppression, brokenness or sin on “the least of these” as we did in the earliest days of our faith when Christians actively rescued abandoned babies who had been left to die.
What a Christian cannot do is work actively or passively towards the support or institutionalization of those governments or official which fail to adhere to the metric of scripture to “reward good and punish evil.” This is not to say that Christians ought to be single issue voters or should otherwise ignore the promises, characteristics, and commitments of any candidate for the sake of his or her position on an issue such as abortion or homosexual rights. It is rather to say that due consideration must be given always for those who have the least ability to defend themselves or their own inte
Should Christian leaders endorse political candidates? In an election year when the presumptive nominees of both major political parties have had their share of “preacher problems” the question arises both for candidates and their supporters as to whether any association with religious figures is worth the potential backlash that may come when those leaders come out and say what they really believe, which in most cases is hardly politically palatable.
Beyond that and more to my own interest is whether Christian leaders themselves should be in the business of actively endorsing political candidate as author Brian McLaren recently did Sen. Barack Obama. It should be noted and is well known that Christian leaders have supported and endorsed candidates in elections for a long while, though in more recent history it has been the evangelical support of Republican Party candidates that has received the most attention. The term “Religious Right” has entered into popular lingo and the perceived wholesale support of evangelicals for President Bush is credited with much of his electoral success. (I say perceived because most African American Christians would theologically be considered evangelical but often vote Democratic).
I believe that such political engagement, while understandable and in some cases laudable, ultimately undermines both the prophetic and priestly function of the church in society. Any time a Christian leader, no matter how qualified and nuanced his phrasing, goes on record as saying, “This guy is better than that guy (or gal)” that leader runs the risk of conflating Christianity with whatever agenda that politician has. More than that is the implicit idea that to vote counter to the endorsed candidate is to somehow be fighting against God’s will or purposes.
As an aside, I find McLaren’s implicit characterization of the issues and the thinking which have motivated many Christians to often support Republican candidates as “wedge issues” and “binary thinking” to be insulting and dismissive. Many believers, though standing in full agreement with the Democratic Party on many issues, simply cannot in good conscience support pro-abortion, pro-gay marriage policies and see them as antithetical to their convictions. Further, he seems to imply (I’m being generous as he doesn’t imply it; he states it) in his endorsement that those who have voted in this way have been mindlessly manipulated into marching obediently in the parade of cynical politicians.