At his massive rally in Washington, the conservative activist called his audience to restore America’s honor and “turn back to God.” But it wasn’t completely clear which god he was talking about.
The long experiment in American Christianity continues to yield interesting results.
As Duke Divinity School theologian Stanley Hauerwas has noted, “America is a synthesis of evangelical Protestantism, republican political ideology, and commonsense moral reasoning.” This odd amalgam has been possible because Americans have made faith in God “indistinguishable from their loyalty to a country that assured them that they had the right to choose which god they would or would not believe in.”
Such a view is so commonplace that it goes unquestioned by politicians, pundits, preachers, and the rest of us — whether we’re conservative, moderate, or liberal; high-church, low-church, or no-church.
It is telling that the least controversial aspect of Saturday’s “Restoring Honor” rally at the Lincoln Memorial was conservative talk-show host Glenn Beck’s insistent call that America “turn back to God.” His sympathizers welcomed it; many skeptics conceded: what’s the harm?
It’s the peculiar triumph of American Christianity that “God” names a vague, innocuous, content-less deity, one incapable of giving offense. This is why, as Hauerwas observes, America has never been able to produce interesting atheists: “The god most Americans say they believe in is just not interesting enough to deny.”
In fact, the American God — the one that Beck (who is a Mormon) and others invoked on Saturday — is a cipher that can be filled in with the kind of content that affirms any number of tenets of our civil religion: American exceptionalism, the sacredness of free markets, honor in war, the American dream.
And if each of us gets to decide who and what God is “for ourselves,” then the Church is unnecessary for the practice of this piety. But that doesn’t seem quite right, so we’ve developed the idea that churches are vital for the maintenance of the democratic institutions to which we pledge our ultimate loyalty. Insofar as church membership/involvement produces good citizens, “organized religion” has done its duty for the state it’s meant to serve.
The problem, of course, is that the American God bears no resemblance to the God revealed through the people of Israel and through the life and death of a first-century Palestinian Jew executed by the most powerful nation on earth. And the American church-as-maker-of-model-citizens looks nothing like the ekklesia of early Christianity — the called-out people who understood themselves to be at odds with an Empire predicated on domination and death. The Pax Romana (like the Pax Americana) demanded ultimate allegiance and tolerated weird, upstart religions only so long as they made no claims on the power of the state.
The ease with which most Christians in America negotiate their relationship with the polis is evidence, Hauerwas says, of how Protestantism is dying of its own success. The experiment, we could say, has worked all too well. Protestant churches in America have “lost the ability to maintain the disciplines necessary to sustain a people capable of being an alternative to the world.”
I wonder how many people attending the “Restoring Honor” rally on Saturday heard the gospel reading from Luke 14 on Sunday? The kind of honor Jesus is interested in “restoring” has nothing to do with patriotic pride or the valorization of death in war and everything to with humility and charity; with serving the poor; with standing alongside those who suffer; that is, with bearing witness — with our very bodies — to an alternative way of being in the world.
In our own context we might say that to take Jesus at his word here would mean that a gathering on the grounds of the Lincoln Memorial (or any other space or place) should look less like a Tea Party for the disgruntled and more like a banquet for “the the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” (Luke 14:13).
This means, then, that Christians are those who see themselves as “alien citizens” of whatever country they live in. Which doesn’t mean that Christians must necessarily strike a hostile pose; it’s certainly possible — even desirable — to love one’s country. But Christians are those who struggle and hope to believe in a God who has confronted death and the death-dealing ways of the world and the death-dealing ways in ourselves. And so we register our inability to be at home in a polis where greed and waste and war are taken to be inescapable and necessary — where, indeed, such sins are twisted into virtues.
For all the sincerity on display at the Lincoln Memorial on Saturday, and amongst the large throngs of proud Americans, this God and these Christians were hard to spot. Photo by Luke X. Martin from Wikipedia.
Or maybe not. His recent decision to run for his native Haiti’s highest office was shut down by Haitian authorities. But it makes us wonder: Is a celebrity like Wyclef Jean equipped to lead a nation? Wyclef Jean is still trying to run for president of Haiti and it’s probably a bad idea. Despite confirmation that the Port-au-Prince born, Brooklyn-raised musician is ineligible, Jean remains optimistic he can appeal the decision and re-enter the election. Last week, Haiti’s Electoral Council officially removed Jean, as well as 14 others, from the list of candidates. Ravaged by a deadly earthquake and still deeply embroiled in the internal dissension born of years of political unrest, Haiti remains the poorest and least developed country in the Western hemisphere. For people of faith called to care for “the least of these,” the outcome of the November 28 election is important. Haiti needs a strong leader who can guide the country out of the muck and mire and into the process of rebuilding a nation. It remains to be seen whether or not that leader is Wyclef Jean. Since the artist first announced his candidacy, many have dismissed Jean for his lack of political experience, alleged mishandling of nearly $400,000 in funds donated to his Yele Haiti foundation, and his virtual absence in Haiti since January’s deadly earthquake. Most notably actor Sean Penn and former Fugee Pras Michel have openly shared their skepticism concerning his ability to run the fledgling country. And though there is sufficient reason to think Wyclef Jean may not be the next great president of Haiti, Christians should be careful of the kind of metrics they use to assess their political leaders. According to Lisa Sharon Harper, executive director of the New York Faith & Justice organization and author of Evangelical Does Not Equal Republican … or Democrat, a sense of calling and character should be the primary benchmarks of one’s fitness to lead. A presidency isn’t just a professional milestone or an arc in someone’s career, she cautions. “[Haiti needs] someone for whom words really mean something. An honest candidate isn’t trying to just tickle someone’s ears.” In addition to integrity, says Harper, a candidate must have a deep commitment to meekness. It’s a trait she defines as “controlled power,” and a quality, she quips, the previous U.S. administration lacked. “The president must be someone who prefers humility over the exercise of power. Scripture says the meek will inherit the earth.” Judging by the solutions some candidates are positing to rebuild Haiti, it won’t be long before the president-elect will need to know how and when to exercise power. As a means of recovery, many have identified multinational corporations as the saving grace to help rebuild Haiti’s infrastructure. There is danger in this type of support and a very real threat of further incapacitating the country, Harper warns. “A corporation can be a blessing and a cursing on a nation. If the land itself is owned by a corporation, that means the people on that land are also owned by it, and the laws of the corporation become the laws of the land. They have to be wary of that kind of contract, where the country is owned very literally by a corporation.” Understanding the nuances of this type of international diplomacy and the new role Haiti will play in our global economy will be key, and that important fact would likely be lost on an inexperienced candidate. Jean, the son of a Nazarene pastor and nephew of a Haitian diplomat, will need to prove that the worldliness he’s gained from his artistic career has equipped him for this type of work. But whether or not Wyclef is capable to lead will be a moot point if we cannot determine whether or not he is eligible. Last Sunday he tweeted, “Tomorrow our Lawyers are appealing the decision of the CEP. We have met all the requirements set by the laws. And the law must be Respected.” It’s unknown exactly why Jean’s bid was rejected, though it’s likely due to his failure to meet residency requirements. In Haiti, a candidate must live in the country for five consecutive years prior to the election. According to a spokesman for the electoral board, the decision was unanimous. Photo of Wyclef Jean by Ali Dan-Bouzoua from Wikipedia.
The Dr. Laura Schlessinger N-word flap once again highlights the Black community’s uneasy relationship with a depised word, and the double standard many Whites believe we promote.
Then the king commanded his palace master Ashpenaz to bring some of the Israelites of the royal family and of the nobility, young men without physical defect and handsome, versed in every branch of wisdom, endowed with knowledge and insight, and competent to serve in the king’s palace; they were to be taught the literature and language of the Chaldeans … Among them were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, from the tribe of Judah. The palace master gave them other names: Daniel he called Belteshazzar, Hananiah he called Shadrach, Mishael he called Meshach, and Azariah he called Abednego (Daniel 1:3-4, 6-7, NRSV).
My secondary school teaching experience was brief but enlightening. I first entered the classroom as a fifth-grade teacher in 1999. As a wide-eyed and eager teacher in a Southern California public school system, my life was filled with new experiences and a roomful of not-so-eager-to-learn students.
My days were full and eventful. I can remember one particular event on the school playground where my class was playing. Two young fifth-grade girls that were in my class ran up to me; they were visibly distraught and somewhat undone (both were African American). Trailing behind them was a young Armenian boy, also in my class. He appeared agitated, nervous, and somewhat defensive.
The girls told me that the Armenian boy said the N-word on the playground. The young man chimed in and said he was merely rapping the same song the young ladies were rapping — the latest hip-hop cut no doubt — and repeating the same words they said. One of the girls then said, “You’re not Black, so you don’t have a right to say that word.”
I was taken aback. This was 11 years ago. The N- word is now even more widely promoted in the public space in many rap songs and entertainment circles. Thrown out predominantly by some African American rappers and comedians, this term (epithet to many) has become public domain; however, does this give everyone the right to spew it out freely — essentially naming all of us like in the Daniel passage above?
Over the past several centuries, Black folks in America have been named and renamed — boy, colored, Negro, Afro American, Black, etc … The naming of self, as opposed to being named, has been and continues to be a sensitive issue. What one feels comfortable with being called depends on personal preference or perhaps it is informed by a generational context — would the 18th-century enslaved Africans in America refer to themselves as African American or, rather, African, Ghanaian, or Ashanti? What did Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah prefer to be called?
The recent spate of public racial insensitivity has seemingly reached an all-time high. Not to be compared with the horrors of the American slave period or the legalized racial segregation of the18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, in a postmodern 21st century climate, racial sensitivity is becoming virtually extinct. Although thought to be somewhat curbed in light of America’s first African American president, prevalent attitudes suggests otherwise.
Discussion on race and racial insensitivity resurfaced once again a couple weeks ago on the Dr. Laura Schlessinger radio show. Schlessinger explicitly uttered the N-word 11 times when an upset African American female phoned in to ask advice concerning racially insensitive remarks made by her White husband’s family and friends. Schlessinger dismissively told the woman that she was being hypersensitive and that “when Black people say [the N-word], it’s affectionate.” Schlessinger told her caller that Black guys, like comedians on HBO, use the term all the time when referring to themselves. After an awkward exchange that found Schlessinger continually cutting off the caller, Schlessinger hung up!
The good Doc went on to say that if you’re too hypersensitive, and don’t have a sense of humor, then you should not marry outside your race. Dr. Laura seemed to suggest that she, too, should not be too hypersensitive when being racially demeaned as a Jewish woman — well we know where this argument ends!
Despite Schlessinger’s apology the next day, it became clear that her bizarre comments were the result of a deep-seated resentment that probably stemmed from the growing national backlash against what many White Americans perceive as a double standard when it comes to race — i.e., “If Black people can say it, why can’t we?”
This same backlash could be detected in the infamous meltdown of comedian Michael Richards (formerly of Seinfield), who referred to hecklers in his audience as “n—–s,” or in the callous banter of shock jock Don Imus when he referred to the sistas on the Rutgers women’s basketball team as “nappy headed hoes.” Where and how did these public figures get the idea that they could name us?
The unfortunate fact about this deplorable language is that much of its use is due to a cavalier and self-deprecating attitude among a minority of vocal and visible folks within the African American community. Some don’t think the N-word is negative until it is turned on them by someone who isn’t Black. The term is publicly used and promoted by rappers, opportunistic professors who peddle popular commentary disguised as scholarship, and a wide array of youth and self-adulating persons. These are the people who ensure that racial resentment and division will continue to fester. Most significantly, these persons attempt to re-name us all similar to the example seen in the Old Testament narrative of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.
Dr. Laura Schelessinger photo by Phil Konstantin from Wikipedia.
Nicole Cleveland always thought her marriage would be over if her husband were unfaithful. But then it happened. In her new book, So He Cheated, Now What?, she examines the reasons for infidelity and advises women that there’s still hope for their marriages, even if he cheats.
What do celebrities Fantasia Barrino and Alicia Keys, who have been in the news recently for having affairs with married men, have in common with author Nicole Cleveland? Nothing. Cleveland does share a bond with actress Sandra Bullock, who recently divorced Jesse James because he was unfaithful. The difference is Cleveland chose to stay with her husband, Jerry, even after his affair produced a baby. She writes about it in her book, So He Cheated, Now What?
Cleveland (left), a development manager with the public broadcasting station in Norfolk, Virginia, has turned the experience into a ministry that helps women heal. She launched BreatheAgainMagazine.com in 2006, where others who have overcome major obstacles encourage women. To Christians, marriage represents not only a lifetime commitment to one’s mate but a foreshadowing of the relationship between Jesus and His church. However, several published reports estimate divorce among Christians in the U.S. is higher than the 50 percent national average. Infidelity is often the main reason. Published reports indicate an estimated 60 percent of men and 40 percent of women have been unfaithful. I talked with Cleveland about her book and message, which is also instructive to us men who have been unfaithful or are considering it.
URBAN FAITH: When you see news stories about infidelity what’s your reaction?
NICOLE CLEVELAND: I tell everyone that it’s never going to stop. When it’s high profile celebrities, like in the case of Sandra Bullock, it’s unfortunate because they don’t have a chance to heal. I wasn’t in the public eye like that.
Could dealing with it privately be worse?
In public it’s worse because you can’t really grieve. Everyone, even people you don’t know, is telling you what you should do. The one who was cheated on doesn’t have time and space to do what they need to do to heal. But on the flip side, when you’re suffering privately by yourself, it’s particularly hurtful because you don’t have anyone to talk to. You don’t want others to know and you can feel ashamed.
Why is So He Cheated, Now What? more of a workbook than a narrative about what happened with you and your husband?
I wanted to give actionable steps. I wanted to speak to the person who is going through it and tell them what to do. I wanted to let them know that they are not alone. I really wanted to hone in on that person who is hurt now. I wanted less drama. People want to talk about whether the other woman or the man is wrong, but what about the person who is hurting right now? The focus is off of that hurting person and it’s on revenge instead.
How does it affect you to hear of others wounded by infidelity?
I hear from women everyday through my website. They email me and tell me they don’t have any idea what they’re going to do. People call me at 10, 11 o’clock at night because they’re having an episode or flash back. I sometimes laugh because it takes me back to the same state. I can tell them what stage they’re in and what they’re going to feel or do next. Sometimes I cry with them. They say, “You think I’m stupid, you think I’m dumb.” Absolutely not. I’ve been there. My heart goes out to them.
Do you ever feel locked into talking and writing about infidelity only?
I do feel like that sometimes because it is reliving it again over and over. But when I tell my story I get healing from it each time. I believe it’s because mine is centered on faith and God and what He’s done for me. I have a mandate to tell the story. I don’t do it for me I do it for others. The bible says we overcome by the power of our testimony so someone needs to hear the story.
How can couples prevent infidelity?
You have to keep the communication tight. You can’t put things before your marriage. We were really busy in the church. Church is supposed to bring you together, but sometimes it can be that thing that helps pull you apart. We allowed the enemy to sneak in. I don’t condone what my husband has done, but we need to move forward. Our relationship is better now. We’re friends. We were like roommates before. We were like robots doing what we needed to do. We now take out time for ourselves. We laugh together.
I bet you’ve had women roll their eyes when you say that.
Oh yeah, but I say you never know what you would do until you’re in the situation. I was that woman who rolled her neck and rolled her eyes and said I would never do that. Then I had to eat my words.
Why did you stay with your husband?
I wanted my marriage to work. I love him. I love my family.
Why do people feel infidelity is the unpardonable sin?
We are so caught up with what others think about us. It comes from arrogance and what you would put up with. It’s also betrayal. I couldn’t have done it on my own. God took me through it. As women, we sit around and talk about stuff like that. “If he cheated, I would bust him upside the head.” Look at all the movies. There is such a big focus on adultery.
Why do you think?
It’s drama and people can relate to it. We like other people’s misery. Look at the Tiger Woods situation. Whose business is their marriage? I did a lot of interviews around that. I felt for his wife (Elin Nordegren) because she had no time to do privately what she needed to do for herself. A lot of times the people who say they wouldn’t do something are the ones that would.
That goes for people who say they would never cheat too?
That’s true, very true.
Why do people cheat?
I know my situation, but each is different. It goes back to that “make believe” aspect of it. You have to be who you really are at home. You have to come correct. The other person is allowing you to be king of whatever you feel you need to be king of. You don’t have to deal with laundry or picking up kids. Maybe you’re not hearing from your spouse that you look good or smell good. This goes both ways, by the way. Then there’s the conversation about the bills. At home it’s all about what you didn’t do right. My husband and I always go back to the movie John Q to the scene where the wife tells the husband “Do something!” He makes a very drastic decision that goes bad and he ends up saying, “Well, you told me to do something.” We don’t realize we’re doing that as women. We’re so focused on what we’re supposed to be doing – family and work and extra activities for the kids. Very few men marry their mistresses.
What’s next for you?
My goal is for the book to reach the people that it’s reaching. I want women to know that the pain will go away and someone else has been where you’ve been; they’ve cried the same tears and they’ve made it. So can you.
As unemployment grows, partisanship deepens, and war lingers on, things certainly don’t look as hopeful as they did 20 months ago when Barack Obama took office. But there’s still hope. We just need to remember where to look for it.
Remember January 2009? That month, the country witnessed the historic inauguration of Barack Hussein Obama as the 44th president of the United States of America. “The skinny kid with a funny name” upended the political establishment, running on a campaign of hope and change. So many of us expected that his administration would usher in a new, golden era of progressive policy and thought in Washington. No more politics as usual, we all agreed. Some heralded the start of a new, “post-racial” era in American life. It was hard for even the most jaded pessimist not to get suckered in.
Fast-forward to the present: summer 2010. While there have been some landmark victories and accomplishments, they have been overshadowed by the plethora of watered-down compromises and outright defeats. Politics has indeed departed from its usual course, but only in that the level of partisan bickering seems to have reached an all-time high. Plus there’s rampant unemployment; the massive national deficit and the accompanying looming specter of what that means for our future; and a war effort that is only getting worse with no easy exit strategy. On top of that all, along came the Shirley Sherrod incident, eradicating any holdouts still desperately grasping onto the myth of a “post-racial” America. Now the “Ground Zero mosque” controversy threatens to pull us further apart as a nation.
And it appears despair is contagious, because progressives aren’t the only ones suffering the doldrums. Americans of all ideological backgrounds and partisan bents seem to be in dour moods. A majority of people believe the country is headed in the wrong direction. Politicians from both sides of the aisle (and even those in the middle), are quaking in their boots as the anti-incumbent, anti-Washington sentiment has swept the nation. It’s simply a hard time to be an optimist.
For the average citizen, it is tempting for us to bury our heads in the sand. To lament the sad state of affairs that has developed and to promise that we have learned our lesson. We won’t get involved, we say. After all, what’s the point? Nothing will change; nothing ever changes. Besides, aren’t our own lives — the stresses and pressures of day-to-day living — complicated enough?
It is in times like these that we should remember Paul’s exhortation to the Galatians. He encourages them to be persistent in their efforts and endeavors, writing: “Let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not” (Galatians 6:9).
Just as Paul urged them to persevere in their efforts despite the negativity around them, so too must we not take our hands from the plow despite what we see or what the pundits say. There is simply too much important work to be done. Immigration reform. Revamping our nation’s outdated and damaging environmental policies. Reforming our schools. Restoring the livelihoods and habitats destroyed by the black, oily trail along the Gulf Coast. Our country can’t afford for people of good conscience to abandon their advocacy on these issues.
While we have been suffering through a summer (and perhaps a spring and winter) of depressing news and bleak outlooks, we must remember that a new season is just around the corner. And, lest we forget, autumn is harvest time.