If ‘The Dark Knight Rises,’ So Can We

If ‘The Dark Knight Rises,’ So Can We

On the eve of the premiere of The Dark Knight Rises, I ended up in a heated Facebook debate over the nature of President Obama’s “you didn’t build that” comments — the latest furor in a series of election-year political clashes over tax policy, economic interventionism, class warfare, and the Occupy movement.

After seeing the film, I realized this is no mere coincidence. Because the political themes and allusions in The Dark Knight Rises run thick and rich, especially considering the whole Bain/Bane connection.

Not that the conclusive installment of this latest Batman trilogy has an overtly political agenda. Rather, its script, co-written by director Christopher Nolan and screenwriter Jonathan Nolan, clearly resides in the context of our current, fractured political climate. As British-American filmmakers raised in Chicago, the Nolan brothers offer a unique take on blighted urban political decay. So their epic depiction of Gotham, and the way it captures our gestalt, the spirit of our time, owes just as much a debt to David Simon’s The Wire as it does to Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.

I’m sorry, did I just say “owes a debt?” There I go again.

See, as much as there is to love about this film, there’s just as much to object to — that is, if your goal is to use it as political ammunition.

(Mild spoiler alert.)

One story, two sides

Liberals can choose to see it as a story of corporate greed and hubris, and see the Batman as a hero of the people, the Ninety-Nine Percent. Conservatives can choose to see it as a story of a city hijacked by a runaway mob intent on redistributing the wealth of the One Percent, foiled by the ingenuity and grit of an American business-owner.

And you know what? They’re both right.

And not just because the Nolans deliberately tried to connect with broader emotional themes rather than align their film with specific political messages.

They’re both right because political factions never have exclusive rights to the truth. There are truths that liberals and conservatives both understand and embrace more or less compared to their counterparts. In the cultivation of these truths, we are drawn to political ideologies. But the pain and bitterness we feel from the losses incurred in the unrelenting allegiance to these ideologies … well, it blinds us. It traps us. We become slaves to the system. As a result, we end up doing things we regret, things we never thought we would.

Different kingdom, different mission

That’s the bad news, that when it comes to systems of this world, we are not in charge. But the good news is that in the scope of eternity, we are not in charge. The kingdom of God is not a democracy, but a benevolent dictatorship. As such, the kingdom goes by a different set of rules than what we’ve come to expect.

After all, Paul famously told the church that in Christ, there is no male or female, Jew or Greek, but we are one in Christ. He also told us that the same spirit that raised Christ from the dead dwells in our bodies. So there’s no reason why we have to remain trapped inside the identity of the closest prevailing political bloc. The more we acknowledge His Lordship, the greater basis we’ll have for humility, unity, and cooperation.

That sense of humility in action is what I found so moving in this latest film. Part of Batman’s redemption was in the way he was able to get beyond his pain and see more value in trusting and working with others. Most of us will never experience Bruce Wayne wealth, but all of us, if we put our faith in Christ, can rise above our fears and work with others for the common good.

Not only that, if we as the church are to fulfill our mission, we must rise above. Because there are others who need to experience Christ, and they don’t have the luxury of waiting for a sequel.

So let’s keep showing up, engaging, and rising above the conflicts that divide us. Because when it comes to saving the world, I have more faith in a risen savior than any caped crusader — even one as cool as Batman.

Obama’s Healthcare Mandate: Redefining Religious Freedom?

Obama’s Healthcare Mandate: Redefining Religious Freedom?

RELIGIOUS LIBERTY UNDER FIRE?: Supporters of religious freedom and against President Obama's HHS mandates on faith institutions rallied in front of the HHS building on March 23. New protest rallies led by Catholic and conservative groups are taking place around the nation. (Photo: Olivier Douliery/Newscom)

Last Friday at noon, hundreds of demonstrators gathered on Capitol Hill and at rallies across the nation to protest President Barack Obama’s health-care law and, specifically, the law’s mandate requiring employers to provide insurance coverage for contraceptives.

Conservative politicians and activists led the charge, with leaders such as Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann declaring, “This is about, at its heart and soul, religious liberty. … We will fight this and we will win.” Bachmann’s battle cry represents a growing movement of religious conservatives who contend that the president’s plan violates their freedom and beliefs.

Growing up, I had the opportunity to attend a Catholic school until my senior year. As a result, I know first-hand the strong commitment to pro-life causes that many Catholics hold. For instance, as a choir member, it was an annual tradition for us to sing at the youth mass that occurred before the Right to Life March, a protest against Roe v. Wade. Abortion, euthanasia, and the death penalty were topics that came up regularly in religion class. So it came as no surprise when I heard that 34 Catholic organizations have filed 12 federal lawsuits challenging the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ birth control mandate under the Affordable Care Act (also known as “Obamacare”).

Under the mandate, employers are required to provide access to contraceptive services as part of their health plans at no cost. However, as President Obama stated during a February 10 press conference, “[W]e’ve been mindful that there’s another principle at stake here — and that’s the principle of religious liberty, an inalienable right that is enshrined in our Constitution. As a citizen and a Christian, I cherish that right.” Knowing that many religious institutions oppose the use of contraceptives, originally all churches were exempted from the requirement. Now, that exemption is extended to any religious organization that has an objection to providing contraceptives; in those cases, the insurance company is responsible, not the organization.

To many people, including Christians, this sounds reasonable. So, why are Catholic organizations complaining?

The problem, they argue, is in the definition of “religious organizations.” In a lawsuit filed by Catholic organizations in Washington, D.C., the plaintiffs state that the mandate requires religious organizations to satisfy four criteria.

• First, the organization’s purpose must involve teaching and sharing religious values.

• Second, employees must subscribe to the same faith.

• Third, the organization must primarily serve those that subscribe to the same faith.

• Finally, the organization must be a non-profit.

“Thus, in order to safeguard their religious freedoms,” the lawsuit continues, “religious employers must plead with the Government for a determination that they are sufficiently ‘religious.’ ” Failure to adhere to the mandate could lead to penalties and fines. Since many Catholic organizations, such as hospitals, charities, and schools, employ and extend services to people of different faiths (and many people who claim no faith at all), it would be difficult to prove they are exempt from the mandate based on religion.

“If a group isn’t perceived as ‘religious,’ then they will be forced to provide drugs that violate their doctrine,” says Chieko Noguchi, the Director of Communications for the Archdiocese of Washington, one of the plaintiffs. “If the government can order us to violate our conscience, then what comes next?”

But don’t think that this is just a Catholic issue. According to the mandate’s opponents, it affects all Americans who profess to believe in God.

“One of the central missions of any church is supporting the less fortunate in our communities,” writes Lutheran pastor Joe Watkins in a June 3 editorial for the Philadelphia Inquirer. “With this mandate’s redefinition of a religious institution, many charitable operations will effectively be driven out of business. Under the new law if you are a Lutheran charity and you provide help to or hire non-Lutherans, you cease to be a religious institution. The same goes for Catholics, other Protestant denominations, and all other faith-based organizations.” He also argues that this will not only impact all religious groups, but also those who are either influenced or helped by these groups, since more time would be dedicated to religious background checks for potential employees and clients.

“It is distressing that our government would opt for a coercive and unfair regulation that requires us to make such an impossible choice,” Watkins wrote. “As a church, we have always opposed the use of drugs and procedures that are abortion-inducing. … Under this new governmental regulation, though, just by simply following our beliefs, we will face penalties under law.”

Watkins isn’t alone in his critique of the mandate. Back in February, some 2,500 Catholic, evangelical, Protestant, Jewish, and other religious leaders signed a letter asking the President to “reverse this decision and protest the conscience rights of those who have biblically based opposition to funding or providing contraceptives and abortifacients.” Also, the Catholic Church is planning to invite evangelicals for their upcoming event “Fortnight for Freedom,” which will take place the two weeks between June 21 and July 4 in order to bring attention to religious freedom issues.

In his speech announcing changes to the mandate, President Obama reflected on his first job in Chicago working with Catholic parishes in poor neighborhood. “I saw that local churches often did more good for a community than a government program ever could, so I know how important the work that faith-based organizations do and how much impact they can have in their communities.”

I am living proof of the positive effects of the faith-based organizations that President Obama described. I’m a proud, non-Catholic alumna of a Catholic school who understands why Catholics and their supporters are upset and concerned by the Affordable Care Act’s implications for religious freedom. By defining what a religious organization is, the HHS mandate could potentially hinder Christians from living out their faith with integrity. We, as Christians, are called to serve others no matter what. As a self-professed believer, President Obama should’ve recognized this.

What do you think?

Are Catholics and their conservative allies overreacting to the mandate or do they have a point?

Googling for Meaning, Part 2

Googling for Meaning, Part 2

In Part 1, we saw how the problem with GOP presidential hopeful Rick Santorum started with his characterization of homosexual relationships, and Dan Savage’s … savage response to that characterization. We can see that the meaning embedded in Santorum’s words is what created such a firestorm of controversy, and it’s easy to see how such embedded meaning can be an obstacle in connecting to an audience, especially when the embedded meaning connects to racism.

Meanings make definitions

We’ve got to understand that meanings make definitions, and cultural definitions are the context in which our audiences live. So what this means for Rick Santorum, and for Christians in general, is that we are already at a rhetorical disadvantage for a certain section of the populace when we identify ourselves as Christians, because for them, the word “Christian” has already been defined by overwhelming negativity.

So we must use our words and actions to be strategic about counteracting this cultural definition of Christianity with a new definition. If we prize our faith as highly as we say, then we need to be ready not only to take a stand for our faith, but to do so with sensitivity toward those who don’t believe.

Consider what the apostle Peter told believers:

Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander (1 Peter 3:15b-16, NIV, italics mine).

Santorum’s biggest problem as it relates to the Dan Savages of the world is not just his policies, but meaning created with his words. He needs to be able to maintain his convictions in a way that isn’t quite as alienating to people in blue states (or failing that, he should avoid offending Black people in general). After all, Santorum is not simply running to get the Republican nomination. He is running to be President of the United States, and there are plenty of Americans who don’t share his faith.

What’s ironic is that, of all the significant faith groups in America, the one that seems to do this best is Mitt Romney’s Mormons. The LDS church has been known for decades as being media savvy, from the ’80s into the present day. And it makes sense that they are, because Mormon doctrine, although it uses a lot of the same language, is so fundamentally different from most aspects of mainstream Christianity that it’s widely considered to be a cult. They have to persuade people with emotional imagery in order to draw attention away from the fundamental beliefs that undergird their religious authority structure.

Wanted: Real Christians

This difference, along with the myriad of differences in terminology, doctrine and ideology between other legitimate sects of Christianity (Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox, evangelicals, Pentecostals, Baptists, etc.), means there are so many competing definitions of what a Christian really is, that no wonder the unchurched are so confused. It makes you want to ask, “Will the real Christian church please stand up?

None of this is Rick Santorum’s fault directly. But it means that he’s sure got his work cut out for him. And even if he pulls a Rocky and somehow wins the Republican nomination — no sure thing considering he still has front-running Mitt Romney to deal with — he’s still going to have to find a way to relate to the rest of America.

I believe Rick Santorum has an authentic Christian faith. And even though there are aspects of his political record I find distasteful, I respect him for taking a public stand. His opponents might paint him as a phony, but then again people said the same thing about Dr. King. And as tone deaf as Santorum has been culturally, his immigrant lineage still connects him to the plight of the poor and the working class.

Plus, being a Christian will always put you in someone’s crosshairs. When the apostle Peter talked about others being ashamed of their slander, it reminded me of Dan Savage also attacking another prominent Christan named Rick — Rick Warren of Saddleback Church, someone who is much more image-conscious and well-known for his social justice efforts, which is why he was invited to give the invocation at President Obama’s inauguration.

Which just goes to show that as a Christian, following your convictions means you can’t please everybody.

I just wish more Americans understood what being a Christian really means. That it’s not the same as just “being a good person,” and that it’s more than just moralistic therapeutic deism.

Unfortunately, you’re not gonna get that from Google.

Googling for Meaning, Part 1

Googling for Meaning, Part 1

NOT FEELING LUCKY: A gay activist used a clever Internet campaign to create a new meaning for GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum's name on Google. Has the culture war gone digital? (Photo by Mike Segar/Newscom)

Since vaulting to a virtual tie with Mitt Romney in the Iowa caucuses, Rick Santorum has become headline news in short order. And so, too, has his so-called “Google problem.”

For the uninitiated, Santorum’s name was dragged through the virtual mud after a series of controversial statements regarding homosexuality drew the ire of sex columnist and gay activist Dan Savage. In an effort to retaliate against Rick Santorum for linking homosexuality with polygamy, bestiality, and moral relativism, Savage polled his readers to find the most offensive definition possible with which to associate with the word “santorum,” settling on a byproduct of anal sex. He then launched an Internet campaign, complete with its own website, designed to point search engines to this definition when users searched for the name Santorum.

(Relax, people. The link was to Wikipedia.)

Because this happened awhile back, few people knew about this outside of Santorum’s campaign staff, his small-but-loyal following, and liberal bloggers who intentionally linked to Dan Savage’s website in order to embarrass the then-U.S.-senator. But since his Iowa resurgence, in an effort to play catch-up, political reporters and pundits have been delicately referring to this as Santorum’s “Google problem.”

But the problem has very little to do with Google. And in the big picture, it has little to do with Rick Santorum directly, although his feud with Savage vaulted his name into the internet spotlight. See, Google’s search algorithms direct users to what they’re looking for based on a complex set of criteria, which includes how many and how often people link to a particular website. The way that Dan Savage and his supporters were able to defame Rick Santorum is by intentionally manipulating that process, a term sometimes referred to as “Google bombing.”

But Rick Santorum’s problem is really not with Google, which is why his attempt to get Google to remove the offending search result, rather than proving his fighting mettle, mostly showed his ignorance regarding how the search engine, and by extension the Internet in general, works.

Instead of a Google problem, what Rick Santorum has is a meaning problem. And unfortunately, so do many other Christians in politics.

Words have meanings

See, the crux of the clash between conservative and liberal activists is often in the meanings or connotations of words. For Santorum and other Christians who believe that God’s standard for marriage and sexuality is for one man and one woman, the word “homosexual” or “gay” is shorthand for “deviant.” As in, “if you deviate from our standard, then you’re wrong.”

For Dan Savage and many of his ilk, I think that what’s so offensive is not simply the idea that the Bible teaches that homosexuality is a sin, but that this sin in particular is so vile and morally objectionable that people who engage in it deserve whatever dehumanizing rhetoric is flung in their direction. That’s what they get, I’m sure they imagine Christians saying, for choosing that lifestyle.

Unfortunately, because of the decades-long conflation in American churches of Christian doctrine with Republican politics, many left-leaning, non-religious Americans have adopted distorted definition of Christianity. For them, the word “Christian” is an adjective akin to “hypocritical” or “judgmental.”

Many postmodern, Gen-X and/or Millennial Americans have similar cultural leanings, even if they grew up in Christian households. I have a friend who is a Christian, the child of a Presbyterian pastor. In his household, growing up, the term “conservative” was usually a slur, and to this day any reference to The 700 Club brings up a slight wave of nausea.

By itself, this barely qualifies as news, as it’s been covered ad nauseam by younger, hipper Christians trying to ditch the stench of stuffy cultural superiority.

But in this situation, it does explain a lot.

The gay civil rights movement

For starters, it explains why so many gay activists have borrowed the tactics, imagery, and rhetoric of the civil rights movement.

A galvanizing force in the Black community, the African American church has been, for decades and even centuries, the focal point of political activism for Blacks in America. And it’s easy to forget this now, but there were plenty of White people in the late ’60s who denounced Dr. King and the civil rights movement as rabble-rousing nonsense. So entrenched were these Whites in their typical Christian Baby Boomer upbringing, with an idea of Christianity as American as baseball and apple pie, that they failed to see the civil rights struggle as a biblical issue. It was countercultural, so for them it was wrong.

By contrast, many liberal White people voluntarily joined the struggle — especially those whose parents grew up in that time and for whom it became de rigeur to adopt many of the cultural artifacts of the Black church experience without actually believing in God, Jesus, or salvation. It’s like they got swept up in the passion of the struggle and came along for the ride, sort of.

(For a pop culture example, imagine Steven and Elyse Keaton from Family Ties in their twenties, singing “Kum Ba Ya” during a protest.)

So when these liberal White folks (or others close to them) struggle with their own sexuality, then later come out of the closet and choose to adopt publicly gay identities, it makes sense that they would generalize the Christian response to homosexuality as just another example of people in the church rejecting anything countercultural. It’s logical. They did it to the Blacks, now they’re doing it to us.

Understandably, many socially conservative Blacks are uncomfortable and even resentful when queer activists link their struggle to the civil rights struggles for African Americans, if for no other reason than because Black folks hardly ever had the luxury of staying in the closet for political or business reasons. But despite being socially conservative, most churchgoing Blacks are still an overwhelmingly Democrat voting bloc, which means that popular African American politicians usually have to work a delicate balance between having a positive voting record on gay rights but not being too outspoken on the issue.

(This is one of the reasons why President Obama, regarding gay rights, tends to let his subordinates do the talking.)

*******

So the questions abound: How can we accurately represent Christ and the church for those who don’t believe? Is there or should there be a theologically orthodox, African American Christian response to the civil rights movement? And what does any of this have to do with Rick Santorum?

For these and other answers … stay tuned for Part 2.

Left, Right, and Christ

Left, Right, and Christ

CIVIL DISCOURSE: Lisa Sharon Harper and D.C. Innes provide a model for constructive Christian dialogue across political divides.

Left, Right & Christ is a thoughtful examination of the intersection of evangelical faith and politics by two evangelicals who have spent their careers working amidst the tensions of that sometimes-crazy political space. In the book, coauthors Lisa Sharon Harper, a politically progressive Christian, and D.C. Innes, a politically conservative Christian, engage in a constructive dialogue about the issues that are defining the nature of political discourse in our nation today — healthcare, abortion, immigration, gay marriage, the environment. (Full disclosure: I helped research Lisa Sharon Harper’s portion of the book.) A couple months ago, Innes and Harper held a panel discussion and book signing with Jim Wallis of Sojourners and Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Innes, an associate professor of politics at King’s College, offered a construal of Christian public engagement from the right; Harper, director of mobilizing at Sojourners, shared one from the left. Needless to say, it was a lively discussion. Having read the book and attended the launch event, two things merit mentioning here here.

The role of technology in disrupting consumption and employment

An audience member noted that technology plays an often-overlooked role in reconfiguring labor markets and purchasing patterns. For instance, the advent of automated teller machines — ATMs — marks an improvement in the access and availability of money for consumers. ATMs, however, reduce the need for the traditional function of tellers in local bank branches. As more banks adopted ATMs, consumer patterns shifted and the demand for a certain type of labor diminished.

Neither Innes nor Harper fully integrates this ongoing development — Austrian economist Joseph Schumpter calls it creative destruction — of technology in particular, and capitalism more generally, into their account of the State, the Market, and the Church. To their credit, though, both authors acknowledged the point once it was made. Technology is an existential issue as much as an instrumental one. Phrased differently, it not only alters what we do, but it also radically re-arranges our way of being in the world. I left the panel thinking about this question: What does it mean to be the Church in a world where technology is such a powerful force? To put it crudely, is a proximate cause in unemployment and underemployment from Wall Street to Main Street and our consumption of everything — from the news we read to the Facebook updates on our profiles — is mediated through technology? I’m still pondering this one and I encourage you to consider it as well.

The use of Scripture in political arguments

While reading the book and listening to their remarks, I noticed an interesting difference between the co-authors. Ms. Harper generally constructs her arguments from passages of the Old Testament. Her treatment of Genesis 1-3 distinctively accents the image of God doctrine and shalom theology. It is rather commonplace to hear Christians from the left invoke the Hebrew prophets or the Imago Dei as a resource for biblical claims about justice and human dignity. Harper’s unique turn within that conversation is to take Genesis — rather than say, Amos or Isaiah — as her starting point and then to deepen the appeal to the image of God doctrine by connecting it to shalom — the sense of wholeness and right relationships between people, between people and creation, and between people and God.

Mr. Innes, conversely, places the weight of his arguments in New Testament passages like Romans 13:1-7 and 2 Peter 2:13-17. His vision: God ordains the government to restrain human sin, punish evil, and praise the good. The last point is particularly important for the professor, who draws a distinction between a government that praises the good (i.e. distributing civic awards like the Presidential Medal of Freedom) and a public sector that attempts to provide goods such as housing, healthcare, and so on. Innes’ arguments — in the book and in person — conclude that a State with large public expenditures and direct service programs overreaches the biblical proscribed role for government.

At the event, Wallis and Innes held a brief but interesting exchange on regulation, Wall Street, and punishing evildoers. Wallis agreed with Innes that punishing evil and restraining sin is a biblical function of government. He then challenged Innes with a question like the following: “Why not apply the insight about punishing evil when it comes to Wall Street?” Innes did not offer a response, although in fairness to him, Wallis did not substantiate his provocative inquiry with a specific example. Nevertheless, given the high-profile conviction of Raj Rajaratnam for insider trading — and his eleven-year sentence, the longest ever issued for this type of offense — Wallis and Innes certainly stumbled upon a discussion worth having.

The panel discussion took place with a refreshing amount of charity amidst contrasting perspectives. Despite harboring significant and perhaps irreconcilable differences of political opinion, neither one made the argumentative move of questioning the other’s faith, audibly doubting the “biblical” nature of the opposing argument, or otherwise resorting to ad hominem attacks. Harper and Innes’ book, and their public dialogue, provides a helpful example for Christians from left to right. In a political environment that incessantly caricatures and stereotypes contrasting points of view, a steadfast refusal to bear false witness — and its corollary commitment, telling the truth as we see it — is a distinctive gift of conversational charity that Christians can bring to democratic discourse.