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Archive for September, 2010

PRESIDENT OBAMA, BECK, GRAHAM, GEARAN AND TRUTH MATTERS
FATHER LARRY

Years ago my wife was given a T-shirt for helping with some community or church event. The caption on it said in large letters: “TRUTH MATTERS!” I found it somewhat disconcerting that she frequently wore it to bed as a nightshirt. What did that mean? A while back (obviously I have some difficulty in, as they say, “striking while the iron is hot” on this blog) Anne Gearan wrote an interesting piece for the Associated Press. I was immediately arrested by its title: “Fact Check: Obama Skips the Fine Print in Nuke Speech.” I thought Anne had discovered something in the small print in our nuclear agreement with the Russians that was, you know, like the fine print in an insurance policy where you agree to pay a sacrificial premium while surrendering your right to be reimbursed for catastrophic illness. I am, however, really happy to say that my expectation was disappointed.

I thought Anne, like my wife with that T-shirt, was saying both that truth matters in that it is important and that some matters are important because they involve a matter of truth that is essential and significant. But Anne wasn’t writing about anything important — maybe she was just playing around. Of course, when one plays with the truth it quickly becomes an exercise in the disingenuous and may even lead toward the fallacious.

So, Gearan begins by quoting the President as saying: “The risk of nuclear confrontation between nations has gone down, but the risk of nuclear attack has gone up.” She then extrapolates from this that President Obama was linking the two in a way that implies a global nuclear conflagration and a nuclear terrorist attack on a single city would be equivalent. Anne I think you missed the implication, which is not that nuclear winter in New York City would be just as horrific as a worldwide nuclear holocaust, but that they are both terrible to contemplate, and that while the risk of one has gone down the dangers of the other have risen. Regarding even a limited nuclear attack, the deaths, the human suffering, the awful and continuing poisonous effects of radioactivity, and the sheer horror stun all conceptualisation. I doubt that there is anyway to picture the financial catastrophe that would occur, or the effects on the practical functionality of the rest of the country; or, the impact on the quality of life for every man, woman, and child in America. But suppose there were three small nuclear bombs rather than just the one pictured by the President, nuclear bombs no bigger than a breadbox, detonated in New York City. Would that seem like a more serious threat to Anne? Or, how about ten bombs one exploding in New York, one in Washington D.C., one in Chicago, one in Los Angles, one in Dallas, one in Fort Worth, one in San Francisco, one in Portland, one in Seattle, and one in Bakersfield, California?

According to “Obama Skips the Fine Print in Nuke Speech,” President Obama’s assertion that a small amount of plutonium, about the size of an apple, could kill and injure hundreds of thousands of innocent people is misleading in that the amount of plutonium would actually need to be grapefruit size. Now Anne, I wonder if you could clarify for me the size of apples and grapefruits being compared? Was President Obama claiming something ridiculous like the amount of plutonium the size of one of those little apples you can consume in two bites would be as devastating as an amount of plutonium equal to the size of one of those really large grapefruits you see in the supermarket?

Furthermore, Gearan says, it is presumed that the capability of producing a small nuclear bomb of such devastation and death is beyond that of “most current terrorist groups.” Well let’s hope that presumption is correct. Either way I would think that we would want to affirm the President for recognizing the difference between “most” and “all”, and for being awake and alert rather than meandering off somewhere with a goat – oblivious to the dangers and challenges of the twenty-first century.

I guess one of the big problems I had with Anne Gearan’s piece was that I just found it stupid. I don’t think I am supposed to use that word. I know my grandkids are not allowed to use it, but then their parents are both smarter and nicer than I am. I once called Jack stupid and he didn’t like it one bit. He said that while I was older than him in human years he was certain that as measured on the Canine Scale his was the superior IQ. My mother never told me I couldn’t say that word, and I know that she sometimes said that really stupid things were stupid. The article is stupid because it is propagandistic rather than an honest journalistic analysis. It is meant to create an unfavourable impression of the President as either incompetent or somewhat dishonest or both, but it is not meant to lead the reader to a better understanding of the issues surrounding nuclear weapons. In that sense it is unintelligible, unperceptive, lacking in common sense, written as if composed by someone in a dazed state — perhaps intoxicated.

If Anne Gearan is interested in the” fine print,” in the factual details, in the essential reality of things, in the crucial questions, in truth that matters, then why not ask about the moral integrity of people who, with venomous hatred, shout the “N” word and scream “Faggot! Liar! Baby killer!” at those who, based on my opinion (as differentiated from hard empirical evidence), have more class, probably more intelligence, and possess more in the way of goodness and kindness of heart than they do? Why not investigate the correlation between the use of violent words and images by Republican leaders and their surrogates in the media, and the frightening death threats against Democratic congressional representatives and their families — bricks thrown through windows, the brandishing of firearms, and the call for militias to use deadly force in opposition to the government; that is, we the people?

I had quite forgotten about Anne’s Associated Press article, when I heard Franklin Graham’s remarks on CNN the other day. Graham, the son of the famous evangelist Billy Graham and heir to the Graham religious empire, was holding forth with considerable deviousness on the question of whether President Obama is a Muslim. In that interview Graham very cleverly, but inaccurately, first casts President Obama as Muslim by definition. “The President’s problem,” he says, “ is that he was born a Muslim, his Father was a Muslim. The seed of Islam is passed through the father like the seed of Judaism is passed through the mother. He was a Muslim. His father gave him an Islamic name.” One is then, according to Graham, a Muslim or a Jew by accident of his or her birth. By using the word “seed” he sneaks in an unwarranted and improper association with genetics – gives the impression that being a Muslim is an inherited characteristic like foot size or skin color. As an aside it is rather interesting that Graham wants to suruptiously connect religious faith with genetics but not with sexual orientation. If Barack Obama had been born in a traditionally Muslim family in a thoroughly Muslim culture, then there would be a real sense in which it could be said he was born a Muslim. But he was born in a highly pluralistic culture, to parents from different worlds. What religious associations the father, who was not a particularly good Muslim, had in mind in naming his son we will never know – perhaps none. Nor do we know what his mother was thinking, maybe nothing more than that it would be nice for the boy to be named after his father. Personally I like the name. On the Enigram I am a Four which indicates I like things that are somewhat different or even unique. Too bad my name isn’t Larry Obama. And if you have to be black to have a great name like that, well that would also be okay. I am bald and one of my little biases is that bald black guys tend to look more interesting than bald white guys.

Graham continues in his silly attempt to undermine the sincerity and legitimacy of the President’s Christian faith by saying, “He (the President) has renounced Islam, and he has accepted Jesus Christ. I can’t say that he hasn’t. So I just have to believe that the President is what he says.” It is hard to see how one could renounce what one never was or embraced, but it’s not the logic of this statement that matters – it is nothing more than an immoral attempt to fix the false notion that President Obama is a Muslim in the minds of television viewers. Graham’s statement is classically passive aggressive. It strikes a vicious blow while leaving Graham in a position to claim that it was entirely benign. He can’t really say that the President has renounced Islam, but because he is such a good guy, such a righteous man, he’ll believe the best while leaving you to suspect the worst. The intent of such a ploy is for the viewer to think: “Well the Rev. Franklin Graham is not willing to say unequivocally that President Obama is a Christian and not a Muslim, so I bet it’s true the President is actually a Muslim. And that is code for evil black terrorist.

If Franklin Graham had any spiritual or intellectual integrity, if the truth really mattered to him, he would have said something like this, “Although the President and I may disagree about many things he is, in fact, by virtue of his public profession of faith in Christ and participation in Christ’s church, a follower of Jesus and my Christian brother.” Using Franklin Graham’s method of reasoning and speaking I could say: “I do not know whether Franklin Graham is an atheist whose goal is to covertly subvert the Christian faith from a position of leadership in the evangelical Christian community. I can’t say that. I just have to believe that he is what he says he is.” Or I could say: “I don’t know whether Franklin Graham is an anti-Semitic bigot like his father. I can’t say that for certain. I will just have to trust him when he says he isn’t.” But, if the truth matters to me what I will say is that while I find his fundamentalism a deviation from the faith of the Apostles, and his stupidity embarrassing, Franklin Graham is my brother.

I can’t and don’t have to say the same sort of thing about Glenn Beck – star of the Fox propaganda machine. Beck is not my Christian brother. He is a fellow human being – at least I can’t say for certain that he is not a human being. I just have to take his word that he is what he says he is when he professes to be human. And I take him at his word when he asserts that he is a Mormon – something that, as far as I know, has not been denied by the Mormon Church. I am only being a little factious here. Mormonism is not a “branch” of Christianity like say, Catholicism, Protestantism, or Eastern Orthodoxy. It is not that Mormons are bad people any more than that being a Muslim means that someone is a bad person. In fact, many Mormons like many Muslims are wonderfully wholesome people. It is simply that based on certain theological criteria Mormonism does not stand in continuity with the historic Christian faith, and when Muslims acknowledge that Jesus was a prophet but go on to insist that Mohammed was the last and greatest prophet, they assert something no Christian can accept. So when Beck calls on Christians to leave churches that pray and work for social justice it is the ranting of an outsider. When churches speak out on matters of social justice, when they pray for peace and justice to triumph in our world, they are practicing what they have heard and learned from the Torah, the Prophets, and the Apostles; in short, they are attempting as best they can to walk in the Way of Christ.

Of course, Beck is referring only to the sort of peace and justice work with which he disagrees. In fact, the political/religious right has always had strange ideas about which politicians are and are not Christian. The Rev. Billy Graham thought Richard Nixon, who was both an outstanding statesman and foul-mouthed crook, was his good buddy. Ronald Regan who didn’t go to church and whose wife sought guidance from astrologers in order to advise her husband, even on matters of state, was considered by evangelicals as one of them. And because he told them Jesus was his hero and flattered them, fundamentalists fawned over George Bush, an alcoholic and war criminal who laughed at how ridiculous they were behind their back. But someone, like Jimmy Carter or Barack Obama, who is a person of compassion, and of humility, and who is genuinely concerned for the poor, the vulnerable, and for the well being of just ordinary people is painted as a diabolical anti-Christ. I can tell you this. In the end I am more concerned with the character and the competency of the person exercising the powers of the presidency than I am with what is listed on their religious or philosophical resume. But I am digressing badly.

When Glenn Beck alludes to the President as a Muslim (meaning a black terrorist to be feared), a Nazi, a Hitler, a communist or fascist he is saying that the President is a vicious, evil, murderous person. There is simply no other way to honestly construe his words – vile words that can only come from a dark heart. For Beck truth does not matter – not even in the small things. In his self-serving speech at the Washington Monument he told the crowd how he had held President George Washington’s hand written First Inaugural Address in his own hands. A lie! A rather small lie, but a lie nonetheless – a lie told to manipulate the emotions of people. Even when Beck warns his audience not “to pick up a gun” or “cause any violence,” he does so in a way that is itself incendiary. First, he plants in the imaginations of his listeners a vision of the government (which he erroneously equates with the President and the Democratic party rather than with “we the people”) as menacing – threatening our most basic freedoms and rights and posing an imminent danger to our liberty and our very lives. It is ironical that the president who actually kidnapped, secretly imprisoned, tortured and even murdered suspected enemies of the state was a Republican not a Democrat. And the President proven to be guilty of illegal clandestine operations against political opponents was not a Democrat, but a Republican. With total disregard for truth, for any rhyme or reason, Beck tells his audience they are under “a well-coordinated attack.” He asserts, “There is a coup going on. . . . There is a stealing of America. . . . the American way of life is being systematically dismantled and destroyed. . . . the republic is in danger. . . . there will be rivers of blood if we don’t have values and principles. . . . Obama is trying to destroy the country. . . . and is pushing the country to civil war. . . .” The appropriate response, the natural reaction then, is anger and overwhelming fear in which people begin to think violent thoughts – thoughts of armed resistance to the President and the phantom like evil with which, in their now confused thinking, he is aligned. Beck ratchets up all this violent imagery by talking about how somebody might shoot him (Beck) in the forehead because of his resistance to any effort to take away his gun, or to letting someone into his house to tell him how to raise his children. He even claims that Obama wants to kill him. He urges peace and non-violence all right, but he does so because now is not the time for armed resistance. That time may come, but it is not yet. What the left really wants, he raves like a paranoid schizophrenic, is for Beck’s followers to commit some act of violence, to take up arms, so that they can be ruthlessly and violently suppressed. As someone who, on many issues, would probably have to be considered on the political left, I prefer to think of it as the Christian or moral left, I find this all most curious since I am, by conscience, a pacifist.

It is not that I think Anne Gearan, Franklin Graham, or Glenn Beck must agree with me on pacifism, universal non-profit health care, gun control, theology or philosophy. It does not disturb me to be contradicted – it’s good for me. I think that honest debate, respectful dialogue, humble and thoughtful challenges to what one thinks and believes is enormously helpful to the search for truth – can strengthen the spiritual, emotional, and intellectual integrity of individuals, religious communities, and societies. It is when self-serving mendacity masquerades as truth and reality is deliberately replaced with illusion than I am deeply troubled. Unfortunately, the more anxious any organization, society, or culture becomes, the more susceptible it is to the conjurer’s slights of hand. Obviously, things are not always as they seem. I only know Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. through what has been told of them and through their own writings. And while there are things about them I wish had been different; for example, I wish they had shown more love, and respect and honor for their wives, their contribution to this world, to humanity, was enormous. Glenn Beck, riddled with pathological self-grandiosity, has cast himself as another Martin Luther King, Jr. But to paraphrase a former vice presidential candidate: “Glenn, you are no Martin Luther King, Jr.” – not in peace and goodness, not in compassion, not in rhetoric, not in intellect, not in anything.

Please forgive me for letting this turn too much into a homily. I have now been an ordained clergy person for more than four decades and it is hard for me to avoid a little sermonizing. However, I will be quick about it:

• Do you want truth or nostalgic illusion? Many talk about wanting to return to the values of the past. My question is what values are in mind? The values of manifest destiny under which the US launched wars of aggression against Mexico in a shameless land grab, or against Spain and then the people of the Philippines in the brutal repression of that nation’s drive for independence? The values of the slave trade in America? Perhaps they are thinking of the time of genocidal warfare against Native Americans? Or the values of segregation, of beatings and lynching, and the denial of human dignity and the fundamental rights we all desire for ourselves? Or, the time before women could even vote, or the time when workers had no choice but to work for below subsistence wages in places and under circumstances that showed no concern for their health or lives. Maybe they are talking about a time when husbands could beat their wives or abuse their children with impunity. Are we talking about the values of a pre-Social Security or Medicare America? The past to which some would like to return is that time when we thought that power in this country would always be held in the hands of the descendants of white Europeans. That day has indeed passed. President Obama is only the first, not the last by any means, of African Americans, Hispanics, Asians and women who will govern this country. That is simply the reality, not only the reality of shifting attitudes and values, but of demographics. Welcome or unwelcome “the times they are a changing.” If you want, you can become very nostalgic and grieve the passing of a time that probably never was, or you can contribute to a future that is different but hopefully better for everyone. What you cannot do is to make the river flow in the opposite direction.

• Second: I simply want to say that what I personally am most interested in is truth written with an upper case “T” – Truth as the nature of divine reality. By truth with a lower case “t” I mean truth as bare fact – truth that can be argued, debated, researched, speculated on and handled in the way Anne Gearan handles it. When thought of in the upper case sense truth calls into question our core values, our guiding principles as individuals and as a society. It compels us to respond to situations and practical issues in a manner consistent with the divine character. If we are Christian it means the way we are in the world and with others is determined, not by our internal anger or fear, but is something that emerges naturally from our experience of the presence and Spirit of Christ. “What does not live in you cannot live around you.”

Since I am preaching now I will end with the following quote from Nan C. Merrill’s rendering of Psalm Ninety-Four:

Too often we spew forth arrogant words,
we boast with heads held high.
We oppress the weak in our blindness,
and turn a deaf ear to the cries
of the poor.
We ignore and turn aside
from the stranger,
too many children go hungry to bed.
And, we think, “This is not our concern;
let them pray to God for help

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