Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Public Opinion

Better to meet a she-bear robbed of its cubs
than to confront a fool immersed in folly.
Proverbs 17:12

He also said to the crowds,
“When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?
“And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right?”
Luke 12:54-57

Jesus had a low opinion of public opinion. And that was before the polls showed that 90% of those willing to express an opinion preferred Barabbas the bandit to Jesus the rabbi.

In “Newsweek,” Niall Ferguson, who previously distinguished himself with a plan to reduce the National Debt by selling National Parks (seriously, that was his plan), writes this week about how “America finally comes to its senses and faces the fiscal facts.” As evidence, he cites a Gallup Poll showing that 17% of Americans now see the deficit as the biggest problem facing the nation. This is up from just 5% six months ago and approximately zero a year ago. I have a hard time taking someone seriously who suggested selling the Grand Canyon, but I’m glad that he’s happy.

Last week I was planning to write a blog about how public opinion had shifted on gay marriage. According to the latest poll figures, it is now supported by more than half of the American people. The majorities are slim: one poll showed 51% support and another showed 53%. By contrast, just 37% supported gay marriage in 2003. It might not be the Kingdom of God, but it looked like progress to me.

My confidence in public opinion was buoyed by the news that more than 60% of registered voters would not vote for either Sarah Palin or Donald Trump.

But then I read some other poll numbers.

One poll shows that 43% of registered voters say that “most members of congress are corrupt.” Most? That seems a little harsh. Clearly, there is corruption in congress (Ensign and Rangel come to mind). But most?

Another poll shows that 38% of Americans say that President Obama was not born in the United States. That’s a little more than twice the number of those who say he is a Muslim. How is that even possible? Did the poll also ask how many think Hawaii is part of the United States?

As Bob Dylan wisely observed:

Half of the people can be part right all of the time
Some of the people can be all right part of the time
But all of the people can’t be all right all of the time

Dylan added the amusing tag line, “I think Abraham Lincoln said that.” My guess is that if we commissioned a poll, a significant number of people would say that was true.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011


Do not rejoice when your enemies fall,
and do not let your heart be glad when they stumble,
or else the LORD will see it and be displeased,
and turn away his anger from them.
Proverbs 24:17-18

Schadenfreude is the joy one feels at the misery of others. It is a human reaction. Evidence, I think, of our tendency toward sin. Sometimes we can’t help it. Other times we revel in it.

The Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards talked about the joy that the elect in heaven must feel when they see the torment of those lost in hell. It is hard to imagine a more unchristian thought, but that did not seem to trouble Edwards. Among the joys imagined in Edwards’ vision of heaven was a cosmic and eternal schadenfreude.

I mention Edwards because in this respect he makes me look good. By comparison, my Schadenfreude is fairly restrained.

In February I posted a blog (“Have You Heard the Joke about the Gay Guatemalan?”) about Representative Bob Watson in response to a comment he made at a luncheon in Providence. He was criticizing the legislature for spending too much time on questions about the medical use of marijuana, illegal immigration, gay marriage, and authorizing more gambling at Twin River. And this is what he said:

“I suppose if you are a gay man from Guatemala who likes to smoke pot and gamble, you probably think we’re onto some good ideas here.”

Representative Watson was arrested at a sobriety check point in Connecticut over the weekend, and is charged with “driving under the influence” and (this is the best part) possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia.

It’s like skit from “The Daily Show” come to life right in front of us.

Could it be more amusing? And of course we can easily think of several ways in which it could be even more amusing, and there is amusement in that speculation.

Mr. Watson was unrepentant after his gay Guatemalan joke. In a phone interview with the Providence Journal, Watson explained, “I apologize when appropriate and/or necessary,” and he concluded, “I identify this situation as representing neither circumstance.”

My guess is that he will feel differently about this latest incident.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Jackie and Jake

When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”
Matthew 21:10-11

Some translations say, “the whole city was shaken,” others say, “the whole city trembled.” The Greek word translated as turmoil, or shaken, or trembled, actually refers to the shaking of the ground as in an earthquake. It has the same root as seismic.

When the Kingdom of God appears, as it did on the day we call Palm Sunday, the earth shifts under out feet. We have trouble keeping our balance.

If we are paying attention as we read the Gospels, this happens again and again. When the last are first and the first are last, convention is turned on its head. But over time, the newness and strangeness is lost on us. We get used to the story of the Prodigal Son, or the Good Samaritan and they no longer surprise us. They seem conventional, and consequently they also no longer move us.

But if we can experience it again, for the first time, the appearance of the Kingdom of God is like an earthquake.

Two stories.

The first one is easy because we have gotten used to it. In April of 1947, Jackie Robinson became the first black person to play Major League Baseball (in the modern era). This happened because Branch Rickey, who was the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, made it happen. Rickey, whose full name was Wesley Branch Rickey, was a devout Christian, and he believed that integrating baseball was a sacred calling.

Shortly before Robinson’s debut, a sports writer warned Rickey that if he went through with his plan, “all hell will break loose.” Branch Rickey responded, “No, I believe all heaven will rejoice.”

When the Kingdom of God appears, it feels like an earthquake to some people, like all hell is breaking loose. But to others, this shifting of the earth is the trembling caused by a heavenly chorus.

Looking back, most of us are certain it was a heavenly chorus. And we are sure that baseball and America are better off because of Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey. It is hard for us to even conceive of experiencing it as that sports writer did.

The second story is more difficult.

The Smith College community is in an uproar (shaken, trembling, in turmoil) because of a decision by the Admissions Office to bar a student from actively participating as a “Gold Key” guide for prospective students.

Jake entered Smith as a woman, but since last summer has been transitioning into what he understands to be his real identity as a man. The Admissions Office had no problem with Jake as a guide when he was a woman, and they do not question his character, but they do not want a transgender student representing Smith to prospective students and their parents.

For my daughter, Carolyn, Smith ’07, and her friends, this is a clear case of discrimination. The Admissions Office is exhibiting transphobia. They need to rethink this and do the right thing. And Carolyn tells me (I’m sure I’m oversimplifying) that “gender is a social construct.”

If gender is a social construct, then that calls into question what it means to be a “women’s college.” As a proponent of women’s colleges in general, and a strong supporter of Smith in particular, I have concerns about that. I also have confidence that Smith will find its way. But beyond the specific issue at Smith, the larger issue is about how we deal with gender and identity.

Can you feel the ground shifting?

Monday, April 4, 2011

On the Anniversary of Dr. King's Death

Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho, and the LORD showed him the whole land. And the LORD said to him, “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants’; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.” Then Moses, the servant of the LORD, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord’s command. Deuteronomy 34:1, 4-5

The summer before my freshman year in college I received a letter from Wesleyan University asking whether I would mind having a Negro roommate. At the time, I was insulted by the question. What would make them think I was a racist? I rewrote the response card to indicate that I would not mind having a Black roommate, but I did object to the question.

Looking back, the experience seems surreal. Did I really grow up in a time when we thought that white people needed to be asked whether they could share a room with a person of another race? I doubt that they sent a letter to my roommate, Stewart Malloy, to ask whether he would mind having a white roommate. But to be fair, Wesleyan was embarking on a new and precedent setting path. They were the first of the elite, private, traditional liberal arts colleges to actively recruit and admit a large minority population to the student body, and they were understandably nervous. Looking back, I am proud of Wesleyan’s leadership in that historic endeavor.

When I told my grandmother Trench about the question and about my response, she said, “You know that means you’ll have a colored roommate, don’t you?” Later that fall, when Stewart came home for Thanksgiving with me, we were dis-invited from the family meal. It was the beginning of a rift that would last for years.

As the year unfolded, Stewart and I found ourselves living through a time of great racial tension and upheaval. The Wesleyan vision of integration was continually under attack from the larger white community, which wanted “more time” to do this more “gradually,” (that was before we had even reached “all deliberate speed”) and from the pressures of the growing Black pride and Black separatism movements on campus.

Our room was, at least in our minds, like the eye of the hurricane. Stewart and I talked often about racial issues, but we never had a single argument on the subject. We listened to each other, and we learned. And like many other young people, we were busy thinking about how we could change the world.

Then one night, as I sat at my desk, Stewart came back to the room in tears. “They killed him,” he said. And immediately, I knew who the “him” was. Martin Luther King, Jr., the prophet of non-violent change, had been murdered. On campus and around the country, racial tensions increased dramatically.

A few weeks later, after a meeting with the Black student group, Stewart told me that we could no longer be friends. Nothing would change in our room, but outside we would not speak to each other. It was not personal. It had nothing to do with us. It was all about larger issues in the Black student community.

Freshman year ended and we went our separate ways. I don’t believe we spoke again until our twentieth reunion. Stewart was sitting on a stone wall in front of the College of Letters. We hugged and laughed and talked for a long time. It was as if our conversation had only been briefly interrupted.

On the anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination, I find myself remembering and reflecting. Last night there was a program on CNN chronicling the events surrounding his death. A significant part of the report detailed the efforts of J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI to discredit King and to treat him as a criminal. Today, when current government leaders speak warmly of his contributions, it is easy to forget how controversial and revolutionary his message was.

Although I often lament our political polarization today, it is important to remember that we have made progress.