Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Jesus without Content

Dear Lord Jesus,
I know that I am a sinner and need Your forgiveness. I believe that You died on the cross for my sins and rose from the grave to give me life. I know You are the only way to God. So now I want to quit disobeying You and start living for You. Please forgive me, change my life and show me how to know You. In Jesus' name. Amen.

It is commonly known as “The Sinner’s Prayer.” That particular version comes from the Christian Broadcasting Network.

I visited their website in search of an interview they did with Donald Trump.

If you click on a link labeled “Know Jesus” you will find yourself on a page called “Peace with God.” They have a very simple four step process ending with the Sinner’s Prayer.

Step one is recognizing that God loves you.

Step two is realizing that we are separated from God by our sin which, if unforgiven, will lead to death. But God’s gift is eternal life through Jesus Christ.

Step three is understanding that Jesus Christ paid the penalty for our sin and bridged the gap between God and people.

Step four is receiving Christ as your personal savior. You must do that in order to be saved. Jesus is the only way to God and the only way to escape the punishment we deserve. But (lucky for you!) you can give your life over to Christ right now. All you need to do is to pray the prayer.

As near as I can tell, you don’t even need to be sincere, although that is not clearly spelled out.

G.K. Chesterton famously observed that “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.” But the CBN version of Christianity is not difficult at all.

Never mind taking up the cross, or loving your enemies, or turning the other cheek, or going the extra mile, or selling all that you have and giving it to the poor, or any of those other teachings of Jesus that seemed so difficult. You don’t need to worry about clothing the naked or feeding the hungry. 

Just say a prayer.

And just to be clear, you don't need to say a prayer for those who are poor or sick or oppressed. You just need to pray for Jesus to save you.

Don’t worry about doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with God. Don’t worry about letting justice roll down like a mighty river. Don’t worry about what Jesus taught or how Jesus lived, or what he actually asked of those who follow him.

What does it mean “to quit disobeying You and start living for You”? If we were looking at the teachings of Jesus, that could be a very challenging endeavor, but in terms of the Sinner’s Prayer, one suspects it is a vague reference to conventional morality.

If we reduce Christian faith to such meaningless jargon, it is no wonder that people can call themselves Christians and still embrace racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and other forms of oppression. Jesus without his teachings is just an empty shell. You can fill it with whatever suits your fancy.

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

The ACA Has Achieved Something Significant

Five Year Old James Cook of Cleveland, Ohio

When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”

“I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.” And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!”

Mark 2:1-5, 11-12

Modern readers tend to focus first on the miracle.

They may believe it literally, or they may see it as a metaphor. They may rationalize it, or they may see it pointing toward larger truths about healing and wholeness and forgiveness, they may focus on sin and guilt in relation to physical health.

But there is something else, central to the story, which is easily missed. What impresses Jesus is the four friends carrying the paralytic. “When he saw their faith” he offered the forgiveness that led to healing.

They picked him up and carried him.

When Jesus saw them carrying the man, he called that “faith.”

Over the past eight years of our national debate about the Affordable Care Act, one of the most contentious questions has been about whether or not healthy people have a responsibility to carry those who are ill.

And the good news is that we have made progress.

In September of 2011 CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer was moderating a Republican Presidential Candidates debate in Tampa Florida. He posed a hypothetical question to Dr. Ron Paul. If a healthy thirty year old man with a good income chose not to buy health insurance and then became catastrophically ill, what should happen? Paul tried to dodge the question by recalling (incorrectly) that years ago the churches took care of people who had no insurance, but a significant portion of the audience could be heard chanting, “Let him die! Let him die!”

Not our finest moment, though the Ayn Rand crowd must have rejoiced in the triumph of “the virtue of selfishness.”

No one is really happy with the individual mandate requirement of the Affordable Care Act. But without some means of requiring everyone to buy coverage it is impossible to pay for the very popular provisions protecting those with pre-existing conditions and eliminating the lifetime limits on coverage.

The ACA is far from perfect. But it has achieved something significant. It has shifted the terms of the debate.

When we first began discussing the ACA, one of the primary objections was that “we can’t afford it.” In other words, we won’t carry sick people. If people need to be carried they will have to pay for it on their own.

In the initial debates and in subsequent attempts at repeal, those against the ACA did not mention the folks without health insurance. And they did not seem worried that repeal would take away insurance from twenty million people who were previously uninsured and now have health insurance through the ACA.

But now that has shifted.

President Trump’s official position is that the ACA should be repealed and replaced with Health Savings Accounts, which is not really a viable alternative to insurance. But in his public statements he has repeatedly said that we can’t have twenty million people losing health insurance. And other opponents of the ACA have said the same thing.

In the long run we need some version of single payer health insurance like almost all of the developed world. And we could do this using the present Medicare model.

But for now at least we seem to have taken a small step toward.

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish. 

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Monica Crowley and the Perils of Plagiarism

Remind them of this, and warn them before God that they are to avoid wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. 
II Timothy 2:14-15

It is quaint, really.

A reminder of a bygone era, a time when even the whiff of a scandal was enough to derail one’s candidacy for public office. Like Tom Daschle withdrawing from a proposed cabinet position in the Obama administration because he got a free ride (literally, the use of a limousine and chauffeur) which he did not declare on his income tax. 

Monica Crowley’s withdrawal as a candidate for the position of senior director of strategic communications for the National Security Council in (soon to be) President Trump's administration because of alleged plagiarism seemed oddly out of synch with everything else going on in the new administration.

She would have been working for a man who apparently believes strange conspiracy theories and tweets fake news without apology. And that man, of course, would be working for a president who once bragged that he could shoot someone in broad daylight on Fifth Avenue without losing any of his supporters. 

All the fuss over plagiarism seems strange.

In a comprehensive analysis for CNN Money, Andrew Kaczynski, Chris Massie and Nathan McDermott reported that a CNN KFile review found that Crowley had plagiarized thousands of words in her Ph.D. dissertation.
“In her dissertation on America's China policy under Truman and Nixon, entitled ‘Clearer Than Truth,’ Crowley, whose Ph.D. is in international relations, lifted multiple passages from Eric Larson's 1996 book, ‘Casualties and Consensus: The Historical Role of Casualties in Domestic Support for U.S. Military Operations.’ She also repeatedly plagiarized James Chace's 1998 book, ‘Acheson: The Secretary of State Who Created the American World,’ as well as a 1982 book by Yale's John Lewis Gaddis called ‘Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of American National Security Policy during the Cold War.’ Crowley's dissertation also contains passages taken from a 1996 book by Thomas Christensen of Princeton, ‘Useful Adversaries: Grand Strategy, Domestic Mobilization, and Sino-American Conflict, 1947-1958.’”
Plagiarism covers a wide variety of academic misdemeanors and felonies from the high school student who turns in a paper written by someone else to the researcher who does some sloppy work on the footnotes or leaves out quotation marks. Most of the time it is more about sloppiness and laziness than what we traditionally think of as cheating.

But the Crowley case belies that generalization.

One is struck by the sheer volume of the sections in question. The CNN Money article lays out her text beside the original. The individual passages are long. We are not talking about a sentence here and a sentence there. And they are word for word. And they go on for pages.

One guesses that the readers who signed off on her dissertation are not feeling very good about themselves right now.

And. There’s more.

Her 2012 book, “What the (Bleep) Just Happened,” published by Harper Collins, also contains significant material lifted from other sources.

But that’s not all. As Kaczynski, Massie and McDermott report:

“Crowley's first plagiarism scandal came in 1999, the year before she submitted her dissertation. After The New York Times reported a reader found that a column she wrote in the Wall Street Journal strongly resembled a 1988 article in the neoconservative magazine Commentary, a Journal editor said that the paper would not have published her piece if it had known of the parallels. Crowley denied the charge but acknowledged that the language is similar.”

So this wasn’t just a footnote missing here or there, or even a stray sentence or two, this was extensive and comprehensive. This was industrial strength plagiarism. 

Even so, I bet Donald Trump could have gotten away with it.

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish. 

Friday, January 6, 2017

None Dare Call It Treason

The LORD your God you shall follow, him alone you shall fear, his commandments you shall keep, his voice you shall obey, him you shall serve, and to him you shall hold fast. But those prophets or those who divine by dreams shall be put to death for having spoken treason against the LORD your God—who brought you out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slavery—to turn you from the way in which the LORD your God commanded you to walk. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.
Deuteronomy 13:4-5

I can still see the book in the living room of the house where I grew up, sitting in the pine bookcase my father made. And there is still a copy on a bookshelf in our house in Maine, the legacy of Elaine’s great uncle Joe Higgins.

None Dare Call It Treason was written by John A. Stormer and published in 1964 in support of Barry Goldwater’s campaign for the presidency. Six million copies were distributed in bulk quantities that summer and fall.

The title of the book comes from an epigram by Sir John Harrington:
Treason doth never prosper.
What’s the reason?
Why if it prosper, none dare call it treason.
I grew up in a Republican household in a time when it was almost redundant to speak of “Protestant Republicans.” And the village of Sagamore, Massachusetts was part of rural America.

It was not long after the 1964 election that the combination of the Civil Rights struggle and the Viet Nam War moved our family away from the Republicans.

I never read the book, but I knew the basic thesis. America was being betrayed by the elites in politics and academia, who were procommunist. The Soviets were winning the Cold War because they were secretly supported by the elite liberal establishment. 

The title came back to me when Donald Trump began sending out tweets in support of Russia and Vladimir Putin, and against our own intelligence agencies. And it seemed bizarre that the script had been turned inside out. The longtime cold warriors must be suffering vertigo.

One can only imagine what the response would be if the situation were reversed and Hillary Clinton had been the candidate supported by Russian Spies who was now at odds with our own intelligence leaders.

In an article published online last month on Billmoyers.com Marty Kaplan wrote:
“It’s abysmal that Democrats didn’t have a good enough jobs message to convince enough Rust Belt voters to choose their economic alternative to Trump’s tax cuts for the rich. It’s disgraceful that the media normalized Trump, propagated his lies, monetized his notoriety and lapped up his tweet porn. It’s maddening that the Electoral College apportions ballot power inequitably. But as enervating as any of that is, none of it is as dangerous to democracy as the CIA’s finding that Putin hacked the 2016 election on Trump’s behalf. Without firing a single shot, the Kremlin is weeks away from installing its puppet in the White House.”
The puppet designation seems like a stretch to me. Donald Trump is too unpredictable and impulsive to be a reliable puppet for anyone. But Kaplan is right that the Russian intervention in our election is dangerous to democracy.

It is impossible to know whether the Russian hacking changed the outcome of the election. But the results were cheered in Moscow and celebrated by Vladimir Putin. It is hard to believe that could be a good thing.

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish.