Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Senator Byrd and the Ku Klux Klan

“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance."
Luke 15:4-7

When Christians have questions and debates about what they believe, it is usually about doctrine, or about biblical literalism. Do you believe in the virgin birth, the bodily resurrection, the second coming? Do you believe that God created the world in seven days? Do you believe that Jonah lived for three days in the belly of a fish? Do you believe that Jesus walked on water?

But there are other questions of belief which are in many ways much more important. One of those questions is highlighted as we contemplate the recent death of Senator Robert Byrd.

Do you believe that people can change? And when they change, do you believe that there is “joy in heaven,” and that life is made new?

Robert C. Byrd, like his adoptive father, was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Not only was he a member; he organized a chapter. In later years, he often tried to minimize his involvement, saying that he left the Klan after a brief involvement in the early 1940’s. But his racism carried beyond those years. In a letter written in 1945, Byrd said that he would never fight in the armed forces "with a Negro by my side." He emphasized his opposition by writing, "Rather I should die a thousand times, and see old Glory trampled in the dirt never to rise again, than to see this beloved land of ours become degraded by race mongrels." Nearly two decades later, in 1964, he filibustered the Civil Rights Act and eventually voted against it. In 1967 he voted against the nomination of Thurgood Marshall, the first African American appointed to the Supreme Court.

There is no excuse for racism. The fact that it was widespread does not change the fact that it was (and is) wrong.

In his later years, Byrd did not expect to be forgiven for his earlier racism. The forgiveness he wanted, and believed he had received, was from God rather than from his fellow citizens. But joining the Klan, he said, was the worst decision of his life. And his racist past provided a cautionary tale about how poor judgments and decisions can haunt you forever.

History must judge him by his whole life. The good he did later does not eliminate the evil he perpetrated. He promoted hatred and that cannot be overlooked. But for some people, the Klansman is the only "real" Robert Byrd. They see his evolution as more about convenience than conviction.

Maybe. We cannot know what is in another person's heart. But Jesus believed that people can change. And Christians are called to that same hope. For others and for ourselves.

In his letter to the Romans Paul writes, “Let love be genuine, hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good.” If we only love the good and do not hate the evil, we become sentimental. But as William Sloan Coffin has said, if we do not love the good more than we hate the evil, we just become “good haters.” At the end of Chapter 12 Paul writes, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Jesus believed that people could change. And that the change could be real. His critics wondered why he spent so much time among people with so little sense of righteousness, and his answer was that these were the very people who needed him to help them change. He was (and is) the shepherd looking for lost sheep. And leading them home. And rejoicing at new life.

Do we believe that people can change?

Monday, June 28, 2010

New Rules on the Road

For the Lord loves justice;
he will not forsake his faithful ones.
The righteous shall be kept safe forever,
but the children of the wicked
shall be cut off.
Psalm 37:28

Rhode Island has a new bicycle safety law. It requires motorists to pass cyclists “at a safe distance.” And it defines that as “sufficient to prevent contact with the person operating the bicycle if the person were to fall into the driver’s lane of traffic.”

Do I hear a “Hallelujah?” As a cyclist, I see this as very good news.

Lori DiBiasio was a major force behind the push for the new law. Her boyfriend, Frank Cabral, was killed by a motorist who swerved into the breakdown lane and ran him down while he was cycling in Charlestown in the summer of 2007. The woman driving the car was given three traffic tickets, totaling $225 in fines, but was not charged with “driving to endanger, death resulting,” because the Attorney General determined that there was too little evidence for a conviction. I would think that swerving into the break down lane and running over someone would be pretty close to the definition of “driving to endanger,” but apparently not.

The new law would not have prevented Frank Cabral’s death, and it does not call for real penalties for motorist who kill cyclists, but it is a start in raising awareness.

In Rhode Island we have many wonderful areas for cycling. There are bike lanes on large parts of major roads like Route 2 and Route 3. And there are many back roads with relatively few automobiles. As a cyclist, I avoid the traffic as much as possible. And I do my best to keep out of the way. But motorists often pass with little margin for error. And I have been cut off more times than I can count.

It is an odd phenomenon. Drivers who will wait patiently behind a front-end loader, or a tractor, or a delivery vehicle, are incensed if they are delayed for a nanosecond by a cyclist. They honk. Sometimes they yell. Occasionally they curse.

Think about it. And do the math. If a motorist follows a cyclist at fifteen miles per hour for a hundred feet, on a road where the car could have traveled at thirty miles per hour, the driver experiences a delay of a little over two seconds. Following for the length of a football field costs less than ten seconds.

One wonders about the source of the animosity. Part of it may be due to the fact that motorists don’t realize that cyclists have a right to the road. Part of it may be because drivers don’t understand that we can’t ride through pot-holes or broken pavement or broken glass. But still. Why are those seconds lost to a cyclist more upsetting than the time lost in the supermarket when someone blocks the aisle?

In any case, thanks to Rhode Island for trying to make it a little bit better.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Dodger Belief

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
John 1:6-9

Manny Ramirez came back to Boston and the Red Sox won three straight games with the Dodgers. The story line was all about Manny. It’s always about Manny. At Fenway, some cheered his greatness as a hitter, and others booed his lackadaisical attitude. By all accounts, Manny works very hard at his hitting, and he is among the best who ever played the game. In other aspects of the game, at least with the Red Sox, he didn’t always try.

He was and is an enigma. He is always, “Manny being Manny.”

In the 2007 American League Championship series against Cleveland, the Sox were down three games to one. Everyone was talking about winning game five. It was, they said stating the obvious, a “must win.” If they did not win the next game, the season would be over. Manny took a completely different approach. He didn’t think losing was so bad. His basic attitude was, “if we lose, we lose.” And life will go on. The sports commentators were incensed, but the truth is that it was refreshing. It was, after all, only a game. Then they went out and won three in a row from Cleveland. And in the World Series they beat Colorado four games to nothing.

As impossible as it seems, Manny is apparently not the craziest person associated with the Dodgers. That award goes jointly to Jamie and Frank McCourt, the team owners who are now in a bitter divorce struggle.

In the wrangling over finances related to the divorce we learned that the McCourts hired a psychic named Vladimir Shpunt to give the team positive energy. Shpunt only attended one Dodger game and he knows nothing about baseball, but he spent hours watching them on television from his home in the Boston suburbs. He said he could not work miracles, but he could improve their chances of winning by 10-15%. For this they paid over $100,000.

Even Manny Ramirez is not that crazy. And he is way more loveable than the McCourts.

We sometimes worry that when people drift away from Christianity or Judaism they will have nothing to believe in. But oddly and sadly, the alarming thing is that when people drift away from Christianity, they seem to believe almost anything.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Outsourcing the Custodians

Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.
II Thessalonians 3:10-13

Last night the School Committee in East Greenwich voted to outsource the work of school custodians. The Committee estimates that this will save the town $200,000 in the first year, and more over the years to come. It will reduce the average property tax bill by thirty-four dollars.

Nineteen people will be fired. They will be replaced by workers who will be paid much less and will have no benefits. Some have worked for the School Department for twenty years. They can apply to the new management firm, and potentially could get their jobs back, but at reduced pay and without benefits.

It is a local issue. There will be no national news reports. But it is also part of a much larger development. Job prospects at the lower end of the labor force are getting worse. Those who have little will have less. For Christians, this is a disturbing trend. The gap between rich a poor will get a little wider.

One of the major insights of the Reformation was about the honorable nature of work; that work is good and working is good, and we ought to do the best we can at whatever we do. And each of us should earn our way by contributing to the common wealth. In the late nineteenth century, the Social Gospel reformers looked harder at the rights of workers, recognizing that workers were easily exploited by the wealthy and powerful. They supported a living wage and the right of workers to organize.

For nearly a century, until the 1970’s, workers made huge gains. The Middle Class grew and flourished in the United States and the wages of average Americans increased. A comfortable retirement became a nearly universal expectation. But over the past thirty plus years, many of those gains have been erased and the gap between rich and poor has increased.

There are no easy answers.

Tax Payers and Consumers want to save money. We lament the loss of small businesses as we drive to Wal-Mart or Target or Best Buy.

In the specific issue of the custodians, familiar faces will be replaced with strangers. There will be much less continuity in the work force. People who were part of the school community and had an investment in it will be replaced by workers whose only connection is a short-term dead-end job.

Could it have come out differently? Could the custodians have done more to justify the greater cost? Could they have made themselves indispensable by approaching their work with more flexibility? Could they have been more cooperative with the School Board?

Hard questions. And again, no easy answers.

But it is not good for the gap to increase between rich and poor. And it is not good for those who do not have very much, to have even less.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Almost Perfect

But the Lord said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
II Corinthians 12:9

Everyone is talking about Armando Galarraga’s (almost) perfect game.

It would have been a perfect game if the umpire had not blown the call on what should have been the final out. Even the umpire was in tears, after he watched the replay and concluded that he had missed it. Later he hugged the pitcher and apologized. He said that he had missed the most important call of his career.

I am thinking of another almost perfect game, almost exactly thirty-one years ago, on May 26, 1959. Harvey Haddix pitched twelve perfect innings and then lost in the thirteenth. At the end of nine innings, the score was 0-0. Lew Burdette, pitching for the Milwaukee Braves had given up twelve hits, but still had a shut-out. Haddix was perfect.

In the thirteenth inning, one runner reached on an error, but the no-hitter was still intact. Then Henry Aaron walked. Still a no-hitter. Then Joe Adcock hit a home-run. No more no-hitter, no more shut-out. The game should have ended 3-0, but Aaron thought the home run was a ground rule double, and he left the base paths and headed for the dugout. Adcock, running with his dead down, passed Aaron and touched home plate. Both Aaron and Adcock were called out and the game ended 1-0. The game went from perfection to chaos in an instant.

Galarraga is not the first pitcher to lose a perfect game with two outs in the ninth inning. In 2001 it happened to Mike Mussina (Yankees-Red Sox) and over the years there have been many.

Everyone, including the umpire, thinks it was a bad call.

I’m not so sure. Having seen it replayed over and over, I think it’s closer than people think. Looking from behind the first baseman, it looks like it’s not even close. But from the other side, I’m not so sure. The ball hits the glove and then rolls around. It makes a complete circle. Or so it seemed to me. And I’m not sure where the runner’s foot was when the ball stopped rolling.

If we went back over all those other “perfect” games, my guess is that we would find a lot of things that were less than perfect. We would find many times when balls were called strikes. But they were earlier in the game and maybe they weren’t third strikes, so they were forgotten.

Real perfection does not belong to us. It only belongs to God.

That’s not much comfort to Armando Galarraga, who was gracious in his disappointment. But it is till a good lesson for the rest of us.