Monday, October 12, 2020

On Columbus and Motives

It was 528 years ago today that Christopher Columbus first came ashore on the island we know as San Salvador. Happy Columbus Day.

He and his crew bravely set sail to find a new route to an Old World. But they actually found a New World. Columbus never knew what he had found. In fact Columbus made three more trips to the New World, always persuaded that he was exploring southeast Asia. 

For centuries Columbus has been celebrated in this New World. Today's his day. Countries and cities are named by him and for him. In recent times we have rethought his status as a hero. He seems to be a man of great contradictions.

On the one hand he wanted to claim his discoveries for Christ, bringing Christendom to savages. On the other hand, he and his crews took all the riches they could find and treated many indigenous peoples savagely. His discoveries ushered in a new age of colonization, in which European nations employed native tribes to harvest riches of resources.

So, was Columbus a good guy or a bad guy? It's complicated. Like all of us he was a complicated person. We may never know his true motives. His bravery and leadership led to important discoveries. His greed and cruelty led to centuries of exploitation. There is no simple answer to the character of Columbus. He was a complex person. We can't dismiss him as evil any more than we can hail him as flawless.

We also need to be careful when judging history. History is complicated, just as people are complicated. If Columbus had not discovered the New World, someone would have. How might have history unfolded differently? We can never know. Rather than harshly judging historical events, we ought to learn what has happened and recognize our own responsibilities today. Were wrong committed? Of course. Is there something we can do today to correct historical wrongs? Let's make appropriate changes today. 

More importantly, let's evaluate our own times--policies, practices, laws, traditions--and commit to do what is right today. Future generations will certainly find fault with us in the 21st century. Let's find those flaws in our systems now, and do what is good.

And on the issue of motives: I don't know what motivated Columbus. Often, I don't know what really motivates me.

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Pandemic Observations

Yogi Berra said, "You can observe a lot just by watching." Here are some of of my recent observations.

Construction seems to be moving along just fine. I see road work, commercial building, and home construction everywhere.

From political ads, I now know that all politicians are alternately saints and Satan.

The COVID-19 statistics are almost worthless, because we don't really know what they mean. If our positivity rate is 5%, that's good unless we are testing a lot of people who don't need a test. Or it's a bad thing if we want to have herd immunity. But then herd immunity includes people who are not COVID positive, but have antibodies. What are we really measuring, now?

In some public places no one notices if you are wearing a mask or not. In other places, you get dagger gazes with a bare face.


Some industries are killing it in the pandemic, like Amazon and Netflix.

Other industries are struggling, like theaters and gyms.

Some people are making adjustments and finding a new normal.

Others are figuratively holding their breath until everything gets back to the old normal. Which it never will.

The current normal will not be the final new normal. But we don't know what the new normal will be or when we will get there. Or if we will even know it when we get there.

Life used to be more predictable than it is now.

The pandemic stress has shown where a lot of weaknesses are, in families, businesses, industries, churches, systems.

Sports seem less important than ever. Unless your kid plays. Then sports are very important and you miss them.

I'm going to keep observing. And I also want to jump in and get involved. Sometimes you can really make a difference just by doing something.

Monday, August 17, 2020

Knee on the Neck, part II

I’m doing a gut-check on how I would respond when faced with difficult moral decisions. Sometimes following the rules and norms is the wrong thing to do. See my previous post, Knee on the Neck, part I.

Here’s the next scenario.

Now I’m back in history. I’m in the mid-19th century, in the American South. I have grown up here and learned the culture, the way things are. There is nothing to question about our practices. Slaves are slaves. Whites are whites. It’s just how things are. Then I overhear a conversation. Someone from another state expresses sympathy for the slaves. Well, I feel compassion for them, and want to make their situation better, but there’s only so much you can do, right? You can help a one-legged man carry his load, but you can’t give him a new leg. 

As the situation led to the Civil War, I would have listened to both sides of the debate. I would have recognized that in this imperfect world, people have different circumstances. You must have followers and leaders. You have a whole way of life that has gone on for centuries. You can work to make it better, but you can’t undo everything. People have the right to their own opinions. I may dislike slavery, but you have your right to support it. 

Even if I stood against slavery, I could not go to war against my life-long friends. I certainly could not go fight with the Yankees. They want to oppress us Southerners worse than we treat our slaves. I hear from preachers and politicians that our way of life is right. And we ought to fight for it. No one can tell us what to do. God approved of slavery in the Bible, I’m told. I can have a clear conscience before God and men and fight for the Confederacy. That’s what all my friends are doing. 

Why do I think I would have acted that way? Because most of the South did just that. They went along with the prevailing wind of culture and common practice. They didn’t want to change. Even if they opposed slavery, they believed it could never be abolished. They had all the arguments from religion, politics, and economics. Nothing could really be done. All the solutions looked worse than the problem. How many ways can we rationalize evil? Plenty. 

I want to be the kind of person who can stand up and do what is right. I want to be the cop who would shove his boss off the neck of a dying man. I want to be the preacher who will come out and condemn systematic oppression, who will warn about blind patriotism, who will announce a calling higher than the U.S. Constitution and a two-party system. 

I can imagine my actions in difficult situations. But I want to do better now, make a difference today. I want to recognize when it’s wrong to do the normal thing. I want the guts to find the right thing: the loving, compassionate, merciful, challenging, difficult, honest, Christ-like thing. 

If this were easy, then everybody would be doing it.


Saturday, August 15, 2020

Knee on the Neck, part I

The murder of George Floyd rocked our country. It has reignited the movement for racial justice and (re)opened the eyes of many white people, like me. I now see that the battle against racism in my own heart must last a lifetime. That’s how distorted my perception is.

We can’t let allow ourselves gradually to drift back into complacency about our social systems and prevailing attitudes in America. Now that we’ve had a few months to metabolize the tragedy, search our souls, and begin to address our deep-seated societal issues, I have some confessions to make.

 Acknowledging these personal reflections might help me overcome my racism. I am a racist, and I daresay that virtually everybody is. We all notice the outward appearance of people, and we tend to make assumptions about people based on their appearance. Maybe my definition of racism is too broad, but I’m sticking with it.

Here’s my first gut-wrenching question for myself. What would I have done if I had been one of Derek Chauvin’s rookie partners on May 25, 2020? I imagine I would have respected that 19-year veteran of the Minneapolis Police Dept. He has helped me learn the ropes. He seems to care about me. And, most of all, he knows what he’s doing.

When he puts his knee on George Floyd’s neck, I see that he’s doing his job. He’s effectively restraining this big guy. I take notes. Maybe I wouldn’t handle it that way, but I’m a rookie. What do I know? Then the knee stays on the neck. The suspect seems more cooperative. The knee presses harder.

Isn’t that enough? I believe in the rule of law, but I also believe in life, I believe in compassion. I care about the people of the city. “To protect and serve.” I say something to Officer Chauvin. I suggest letting the man off the pavement. I’m getting really concerned. Something doesn’t feel right. But Chauvin knows what he’s doing, remember? I must be over-reacting. I’ll ask questions at the end of the shift.

Here’s my fear: I’m afraid that I would have done exactly what those young officers did: protest mildly, and let it go. I’m afraid that I would assume that I was wrong about the severity of the situation. I’m afraid I would not have the guts to get in Chauvin’s face and tell him to back off. I’m afraid that I would never have shoved him off of Floyd in time to save the man’s life. I’m afraid that I would have been too timid, too unsure, too compliant.

I want to be better than that. I want to be more bold than that. I want to stand up and push back, in the moment, on the spot.

Next time, another gut-wrenching question.


Wednesday, August 12, 2020

The Church Con Job

I recently spoke with a friend about how church is going. This person attends a large church which has regathered outdoors for worship. She expressed disappointment that a lot of young families have not returned to worship.

These families have tasted guilt-free freedom on Sunday mornings. They now have whole weekends without the pressures and responsibilities of church activities. Apparently some families enjoy this kind of extended discretionary time. It will be hard, my friend said, to pull them back into church life.

My friend was well-intentioned, and I don't mean to distort her heart's concern. But it's time for churches and church leaders to do some soul-searching. Have we really conned people into giving up their free time so that we can count them in our numbers for worship and Bible study?

Now that virtually every Christian in America has tasted the weekend freedom of the nonreligious, have they really found something better than church? Maybe mere habit and social convention led many believers to gather religiously. Maybe most of us have never really known anything different than regular Sunday meeting rituals. Maybe something besides love for Jesus animated our Sunday routines.

And now the habit is broken. 

Or maybe the spell in broken.

If churches need to do a sales job to cajole the masses back into the pews, then count me out. 

This is a "come to Jesus" time about the real purpose of church. Is the purpose to gather a crowd? Or is the purpose to make disciples? Of course the word for "church" in the original language means "assembly" or "ones called out." But surely Jesus had more in mind than large groups singing songs and hearing speeches. 

The church is not just called out, but called together. The early church met daily, sold stuff to help the needy, and dedicated themselves to prayer. They cared about the poor and hurting. Their faith was a way of life. The world saw this love and dedication and longed to be a part of the fellowship.

The church stood up to bullies in government and religion. They announced the coming of the kingdom of God. They shared good news. God constantly shakes up the status quo with the power of Jesus.

Let's be a Church that cares about justice, intervenes for the poor, rejects rampant consumerism, challenges the people in power, and loves the unlovely. Let's help people find love and acceptance. Let's share the message of hope in Christ. Let's work together to end racism. Let's lift up each other when we feel discouraged. Let's help people find meaning and joy in daily life. Let's sacrifice our comfort to supply the needs of others. Let's introduce people to Jesus.

Then we will have something to sing about on Sundays: the God who transforms.

Monday, July 6, 2020

What Else is History Hiding?

No doubt, history is written by the winners. Who knows how many cultures have been eliminated or exterminated, without even a footnote in history? I suppose we will never know.

Winners write the history, but sometimes the other story gets told, even if it takes hundreds of years. In some cases, zealots want to rewrite history to support a specific bias. Other times, sincere students of history take a second look at the facts and find that important truths have been conveniently overlooked. 

  • The end of World War II looks much different from a Russian vs. American perspective. 
  • I wonder if anyone really knows what happened at the First Thanksgiving.
  • The great explorer Christopher Columbus had both noble and savage motives in his exploration.
  • The causes of the American Civil War included states' rights, but the rights in question were directly and indirectly tied to slavery.
  • The contributions of African Americans to the progress and culture of our nation are much more significant than I ever knew.
  • The treatment of Native Americans by the U.S. government has been horrifying and abusive: from taking land to massacres to forced exile.

These and other shameful episodes in American history don't need to be the lens through which we see America. But they also don't need to be entirely ignored or dismissed. Only when we acknowledge our mistakes can we begin to strive for real justice. We don't need to wallow in the muck of the past, but we dare not excuse it or ignore it.

I do wonder what else history is hiding. I have so much to learn.


Saturday, July 4, 2020

A Fourth to Remember

Our celebrations of freedom today will be remembered.

We have the freedom to assemble, but need to stay apart.

We remember our American heritage, but realize that some experience more freedom than others.

We have had weeks now to learn the history that we never knew: the coup in Wilmington, the massacre in Tulsa, the unfairness of red-lining, the countless stories of the justice system gone wrong. Actually the history has always been there, but we white Americans never wanted to look. I'm sorry that I waited so long to look and listen.

Last night my family watched the musical "Hamilton." It was an amazing blend of uncomfortable history, political drama, and enthusiasm for the American promise of freedom. This show gives me hope that there really are some ideals that all American share and that we can pursue together.

Our nation needs healing, but only after we face truth and care about justice.

"We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."