April 29, 2008

Hoarding Correction Tape and Other Deadly Sins

Why is it that my favorite pens and office supplies are always the ones that disappear? No one ever steals my rusty scissors or dried-up glue stick. There's got to be a secret vault somewhere that contains all of the world's best gel pens, hi-lighters and staplers. Maybe there's a Post-It Note goblin who is somehow related to the sock monster of laundry-theft fame.

In order to combat the nagging phenomenon of missing white-out, I have learned to ration my office supplies and
only open a new correction tape dispenser when I'm absolutely certain that the previous one is long gone. I even keep a separate drawer of new supplies so that I don't confuse them with the ones that are currently "in use." I was looking for my white-out / correction tape dispenser today when a co-worker asked if he could borrow it. I told him that I couldn't find it and but it always seems to be missing. I was fully aware that there were two more in the supply drawer, but I didn't want to tell him about my secret stash. So, after shuffling some papers around in a fruitless search, I just told him I'd keep looking around for the missing correction tape dispenser. A little while later, I finally caved in and opened up a new dispenser from my stash for him to borrow. I'm not sure what bothers me more, the guilt from trying to hide my secret stash from a trustworthy co-worker or the fact that my secret stash is down to just one precious correction tape dispenser! You are now free to picture me cradling and stroking it like Gollum with the ring of power.

So when did I become such a hoarder?

I supposed I've always been reluctant to share my toys- going all the way back to my Legos, Matchbox cars, Construx, baseball cards and cassette tapes. My most prized tapes where the "originals"
which were to be clearly distinguished from mix tapes and those TDK / Maxell / Memorex duplicate tapes that were just not as cool. Whatever I cherished, I would make sure it stayed mine. I still remember when my dad once had to settle a dispute between my sister and me about who could own a newspaper photo of Magic Johnson that we were fighting over. This was shortly after Johnson's announcement regarding the HIV virus and I still remember my dad scolding us for wanting a picture of someone with such a "promiscuous lifestyle."

After the news began reporting last week on the food shortage in poor countries overseas, people in this country were lining up to buy more rice than they've ever purchased before. Suddenly,
consumers at Costco and Sam's Club were panicking about the limit of three 20-pound bags per visit! The demand went up, the supply shrunk and the prices have skyrocketed. It's (not so) funny how we seem to get hungrier when we hear about people starving. Our reaction is not to give away more or consume less, but to hoard and stockpile so that it won't happen to us. Forget about the fact that the food shortage being reported on does not even affect the U.S. supply! As usual, we in the west get first dibs.

Yes, we are a nation of hoarders and so I fit right in. Even so, I'm still saddened by last week's news story about two families in Hawaii that are on the brink of going to court to settle their sons' fight over a David Beckham jersey. The story has gotten national attention from media outlets including CNN, ESPN and USA Today. If you haven't heard about it, here's an article from the Honolulu Advertiser.

Essentially, these are two boys, ages 9 and 10, who had been best friends and soccer club teammates for 3 years. Along with their families, they attended a soccer game (what the rest of the world refers to as a football match) at Aloha Stadium on February 22 whose star attraction was David Beckham of the Los Angeles Galaxy. Throughout the game, both boys screamed for Beckham's attention from the front row while holding up signs saying
"Go Beckham" and "Aloha Beckham." In what must have been one of the most enthralling moments of their lives, Beckham trotted over and rewarded them with his jersey after the game ended. The only question is, who gets the jersey?

Video replays of the event seem to show Beckham pointing to the boy holding the sign and attempting to give the jersey him, although it was the other boy who ended up with initial possession of it (sounds like a fumble recovery or something). One family says it's theirs because their boy got it first. The other family, whose mom made one sign for each of the boys to hold, says they should get it because only their son held his sign aloft the entire game which was the reason Beckham came over to their section of the crowd.

So who's right? The results of the dispute have gotten ugly. Both families are not speaking to each other, lawyers have been retained, lawsuits have been threatened and angry letters have been sent back and forth. Sports columnist Mike Wilbon of ESPN's Pardon the Interruption blames David Beckham's PR team for not having the savvy to just give both kids autographed jerseys to settle the dispute. By not commenting, it appears that Beckham does not want to set a precedent by getting involved in fan's disputes. Alexi Lalas, the former soccer star and current General Manager of the Galaxy, took a page from King Solomon's book saying this: "My suggestion is that the judge get a pair of scissors, cut the thing in half and give half to each," adding that "even David Beckham isn't worth ruining a friendship that could possibly last a lifetime."

Everyone can see that the situation has gotten out of hand, but I'm guessing the problem has more to do with the childish greed and pride of the parents, not their boys. I understand that it's never easy to take something away from your child when they really want it, but every parent has had to grapple with this. Sure, I would
want that Beckham jersey for my son too, but whose pride would it really be about if I couldn't tell my son to let his friend take it home? What would I be teaching my son if I sued his best friend's parents? Win at all costs? Fight to the death? Things are more important than people? Friends come and go, but sports memorabilia lasts forever? (I actually kind of like that one).

I guess things haven't changed much since Ahab wanted Naboth's vineyard, David wanted Uriah's wife, Jacob wanted Esau's birthright, Sarah wanted Hagar's fertility and Cain wanted Abel's blessing. The inability of grown adults to let go of their greed has plagued humanity since the dawn of time. The roots of pride run deep in all of us and no amount of autographed, authentic, officially licensed, limited edition, gold-plated, one-of-a-kind David Beckham jerseys will cure it.

At least no one will be suing me for my precious correction tape dispensers.

April 21, 2008

Happy Earth Day!

So what's going on today in the Empire? At my office, the water cooler buzz is all about the final 6 contestants on tonight's Andrew Lloyd Webber-themed episode of American Idol. In the world of sports, the first round of the NBA playoffs is providing some intrigue, especially after Saturday's double overtime victory for the Spurs over the Suns, whose heated rivalry will continue this evening in Game 2. The political world is clearly focused on today's Democratic Presidential Primary in Pennsylvania. Anyone up for Round 46 of Barack vs. Hillary? Once you get past the diversions of entertainment, sports and politics, there's little time left to contemplate any other significance to this busy Tuesday.

Happy Earth Day!

It's been close to 40 years since the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, a day when 20 million Americans took to the streets, parks, and auditoriums to demonstrate for a healthy, sustainable environment. This day is considered by many to be the beginning of the environmental movement, which led to the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act. Interestingly, Earth Day is the only event celebrated simultaneously around the globe by people of all backgrounds, faiths and nationalities. According to trusty Wikipedia, more than half a billion people participate in Earth Day Network campaigns every year.

I still remember going to science class at my private Christian high school (in the 1990's) and learning that Global Warming was a myth and that the term "Mother Nature" was never to be uttered unless you were on the wrong side of the God vs. Science debate. Never mind the fact that most of the great scientists throughout the history of western civilization were Christians or that all truth (scientific or otherwise) is God's truth, but I'll save that soap box for another day. Suffice it to say that the realms of conservation, preservation and environmental sustainability have not been the strong suits of American evangelicalism.

I've never considered myself an environmentalist or a tree hugger. Sure, I've watched An Inconvenient Truth, but that doesn't count (neither does March of the Penguins, although I unabashedly proclaim Winged Migration as the greatest bird-related documentary in existence). I've never read Silent Spring by Rachel Carson and honestly, I don't plan to. My name has found its way onto a lot of mailing lists, but the Sierra Club's isn't one of them. I didn't make it to last weekend's Kokua Festival with Jack Johnson and his leafy barefooted friends. I've tried to make sense of the term "carbon-neutral" but even the Wikipedia explanation is too complicated for me. Yes, I'll admit that we've recently begun using cloth diapers for baby, but that was 100% my wife's idea. Last Saturday, I regretfully missed an opportunity to plant trees with my church, although part of the reason involved the cost of gas for the 50-mile round trip. I guess it's not until I'm trying to save the environment that I worry about what I've done to help destroy it.

My ecological footprint is huge. I use paper towels for everything. I take too long in the shower. I create too much laundry. I drive too much and I always leave the power strip on. I throw plastic bags away. I eat a lot of individually wrapped foods with synthetically manufactured wrappers and containers that needed to imported and then disposed of. I can take out the trash in my sleep, but I rarely take account of what's in my trash and where it goes once that noisy truck takes it off my hands.

So why should I care that today is Earth Day?

Maybe it's because I feel guilty (can you tell?) about how wasteful we are as American consumers. Maybe it's because Earth Day pulls back the curtain on who I really am and not just who I blog to be. I could rant all day about religion and politics without it affecting my behavior. I can criticize the oil companies while still polluting with my car-dependant lifestyle. I can bash the government while failing to contact my representative. I can grumble about the Big Box Marts all I want, but I'll still look for the cheapest price on shaving cream and toilet paper. And I can give lip service to the environmentalists while I take a long shower.

It's difficult to be concerned about politics, globalization, poverty and injustice for very long before the conversation includes the environment. Our demand for certain products requires pollution and exploitation to manufacture those products. People (and animals) get sick because of the dirty air, dirty water and dirty conditions that our prosperity demands. People suffer through droughts and famines, roasting in the heat or freezing in the cold, because of climate change. People are poor because of our wealth. The environment is a not just a save-the-fuzzy-animals issue, it's a full-blown threat to human rights across the globe. Creation care, as evangelicals are now calling it, is a moral and spiritual issue.

In Sunday's New York Times, Michael Pollan wrote a fantastic piece called "Why Bother?" in which he said this about the environmental crisis: "For us to wait for legislation or technology to solve the problem of how we’re living our lives suggests we’re not really serious about changing — something our politicians cannot fail to notice. They will not move until we do. Indeed, to look to leaders and experts, to laws and money and grand schemes, to save us from our predicament represents precisely the sort of thinking — passive, delegated, dependent for solutions on specialists — that helped get us into this mess in the first place. It’s hard to believe that the same sort of thinking could now get us out of it."

So enough ruminating and self-loathing. What will I do besides blog about it? Although I tend to avoid making resolutions (for the New Year, Earth Day or any other time of year), my complacency compels me to make some sort of commitment. Here are my 3 pledges for Earth Day 2008:

1) I will turn down plastic bags at the store whenever possible. The more I learn about plastic bags and the crude oil required to make them, the less I can justify using a new one every time I make a purchase. Besides, they also take an estimated 1000 years to decompose- not the kind of 'millennium' Tim LaHaye had in mind.

2) I will read something by Wendell Berry, the Kentucky farmer/poet who is considered to be one of the most eloquent writers and thinkers on the subject of creation care and the interconnectedness of life. I also need to read more poetry!

3) I will plant something by the end of this year. It might be a tree or a small squarefoot garden, (buying a houseplant doesn't count!) but something tells me that gardening will be great for my soul. This resolution is the scariest because the thought of gardening has always invoked images of sweat, toil and frustration for me. However, I am willing to give it a try because of what new monastics like Shane Claiborne have said about the connection between gardening, spirituality and social justice, restoring God's creativity and imagination to "the abandoned places of the empire."

As Berry said, “Once our personal connection to what is wrong becomes clear, then we have to choose: we can go on as before, recognizing our dishonesty and living with it the best we can, or we can begin the effort to change the way we think and live.”

April 15, 2008

He's Guilty, But I'm Not Celebrating

Some people are rejoicing today. The front page of the Honolulu Advertiser reports that 23-year-old Kirk Lankford has been found guilty of second-degree murder in the death of 21-year-old Masumi Watanabe, described as "a painfully shy woman" sent from Japan to Hawaii to learn independence. For those of us who have been following this trial, it's been a very interesting case with many surprising developments. If you want to get caught up, here's an article summarizing the events.

I cannot definitively say whether this was the right verdict or not, but for the most part, I believe in our criminal justice system. The local news media has reported that most people in Hawaii appear to agree with this verdict so far. Am I personally convinced that Mr. Lankford 'intentionally' killed Ms. Watanabe as the jury has concluded? I'm still not sure, but that fact that he changed his story over the course of the trial only weakened his defense. I didn't see all the evidence, but the jury reached a verdict in just a day and a half. As the events unfolded, I have been vacillating between compassion for Kirk Lankford, who like myself is a church-going young husband and father of a young son, and sympathy for the grieving Watanabe family whose daughter was taken at a time in her life when she was just beginning to discover herself.

Second-degree murder usually carries a sentence of life with the possibility of parole, but City Prosecutor Peter Carlisle will seek life without the possibility of parole, arguing that Lankford has a history of violence. Personally, I have yet to hear substantial evidence of such a history. I still remember reading about Lankford's arrest last April which surprised his friends and neighbors who said he was a loving family member who led prayers in church. What a difference a year makes. I was reading more about the trial this morning when I was struck by the comments and reactions to the verdict posted on a newspaper's online message board. All the comments supported the verdict and many were disturbingly triumphant. Here's a sampling:

"it is really too bad this state does not have the Death Penalty."
"his hell on EARTH is coming, but it will not be anything like the day he faces judgement before God."
"well kirk, now instead of admitting and being accountable for your actions, now you get to spend possibly the rest of your life in Halawa [prison]- the place where they love young men like you, and you also leave your wife and your child to fend for themselves."
"All you inmates at OCCC [Oahu Community Correctional Center] now torture this guy until he tells what he did to the body and bring peace to the Watanabe families hearts and minds."
"nothing is more satisfying than seeing a lawyer talking out of his a** and his defendant soon to be taking it up his a**. Damn it was a good day!"

Obviously, these comments are knee-jerk reactions. I do realize that blogs and message boards don't always bring out the best in people. Maybe I should just dismiss these angry words and treat them as I would restroom stall graffiti- just flush the toilet and move on. After all, what's the use in thinking too hard about words that were hardly given any thought to begin with? Their comments aren't worth my attention, right? People can be thoughtless in an environment of online anonymity. In fact, the very nature of the blogosphere almost encourages people be thoughtless sometimes. People don't really mean those things, do they?

I hope not, but I know better. I know myself and the angry, malicious thoughts I sometimes have- I might even be in danger of thinking some right now! I've seen the culture of revenge and retaliation that has spawned bumper stickers that say "I don't get back, I just get even." The myth of redemptive violence is alive and well from the halls of Congress to the kindergarten playground. It's ok to kill someone as long as it's for a just cause. We own guns out of self-defense. We start wars out of self-defense. We execute criminals out of self defense. We kill people in order to teach them not to kill. Self defense may have saved our lives but it has killed our souls!

I didn't want this to become a rant about the death penalty (perhaps it's already too late for that), but it's hard to escape the moral and spiritual dimensions of this issue that deals so directly with the sanctity of human life. I find the Bible to be very clear about the difference between revenge and restorative justice. Justice as described in the Scriptures always has to do with making things right and restoring things to the way they were meant to be in the first place. The intent of any punishment should be to bring wholeness to the victims, their families and yes, even the offenders. Punishment and discipline can be helpful tools in facilitating this restoration, but they are only a means to an end. Prison sentences, fines and community service are not ends in themselves, but a means of bringing wholeness and fairness out of a twisted situation.

As Shane Claiborne likes to say, "There are some things worth dying for but nothing worth killing for." Regardless of who the criminal is or what the crime was, I can't picture Jesus dancing on anyone's grave or celebrating someone's execution. His famous interaction with the adulterous woman facing the death penalty is often spiritualized into a feel-good story about how God forgave a lucky sinner, but it's rarely used as a model for criminal justice. We get distracted by the mysterious writing in the sand and his exhortation to "go and sin no more" as if the entire point of the story is to avoid sin, since Jesus might not be so merciful next time.

When someone on the message board (finally) commented that wishing for Mr. Lankford's torture was going too far, a response was posted saying, "You are sick for thinking he is human."

Well, I guess there are at least two of us who happen to think that Kirk Lankford is still human. What bothers me is not that he was found guilty, but that so many people are delighting in his suffering. If that means I'm "sick" then you can refer me to a specialist because I believe that no human being deserves to be tortured or raped no matter what their crime was. What type of society are we when we relish the thought of someone being sodomized in prison? Where is the comfort in that? Why are we so angry? Why are we so quick to punish criminals and send them to the grave? What has corrupted our souls to the point that we enjoy seeing the death of another child of God? Have we learned anything since we put Jesus to death?

Dallas Willard says, "Christian spiritual formation is inescapably a matter of recognizing in ourselves the idea systems of evil that govern the present age and respective culture, as well as those that constitute a life away from God."

It's pretty easy to recognize evil in the thoughtless actions of criminals and the thoughtless words of angry bloggers. It's much harder to look for the Kirk Lankford in me. What would I have done if I had struck a pedestrian with my work truck while on the job and no one was around? Would have gone to the authorities right away with the truth, risking my job and good name? I might not have been so foolish as to dump the body in the ocean and lie about it, but I've certainly done my share of stupid things.

Part of me wants to visit Mr. Lankford in prison. I should at least write to him. Because of Hawaii's overcrowded prisons, he may likely be incarcerated across the ocean in Arizona or even farther east. How does that provide "correction" or rehabilitation or restoration or wholeness? This much is true: another child became fatherless today as his father faces a lifetime in prison. No one should be celebrating.

April 8, 2008

W.W.J.B. (What Would Jesus Boycott?)

It's very hard to separate business from politics. How many of the current political hot topics are economic in nature? Soaring oil prices, America's national debt, the falling U.S. dollar, the economic recession, the costly war in Iraq, tax cuts, free trade agreements, cheap foreign labor, rising unemployment rates, CEO's with 'golden parachutes', Third-World debt and the success of war-profiteering corporations like Lockheed Martin and Halliburton are just a few of today's issues that have both economic and political significance. I would take it a step further to contend that these are also issues of moral and spiritual significance. As Jim Wallis of Sojourners likes to say, "Budgets are moral documents." Whether it's the federal budget, our church budget or the family budget, we declare our priorities and values by what we spend money on and who that money goes to.

The business of sports is like any other business. There are products to be sold, logos to be mass-produced, slogans to be repeated, earnings to report and market shares to be fought over. Coke doesn't want you drink Pepsi any more than Rupert Murdoch wants you to watch NBC's Summer Olympic coverage instead of baseball on his network, FOX Sports. Corporations can own media outlets, stadiums, teams and even individual players if the price is right. Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, LeBron James and Serena Williams have made far more from Nike (a brand that all 4 stars currently endorse), Gatorade, Sprite, HP and other corporate endorsements than from their actual on-the-court earnings. Those corporations in turn, have made gigantic profits relative to the pithy millions given to those athletes for their smile.

So what is the responsibility of sports fans like myself? To consume of course! Which teams do I follow? Which games and events will I watch? Which sportswriters and commentators do I like? Which website will I access to read recaps, watch highlights, view box scores (the sports equivalent of the business section's finely-printed stock prices) and maybe even buy a key chain or t-shirt displaying my favorite team's logo? At this very moment, there are well-paid market research firms and analysts being deployed with the sole purpose of discovering my patterns of consumption. It's very flattering until you realize what they're really after. Even though I didn't pay a dime to start this blog, I'm sure Google is making money off me somehow.

And that brings us to the flurry of commotion surrounding the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. Today's torch relay in San Francisco, the only U.S. city on the tour, ended up being re-routed amid fears of the large and rowdy masses. This whole scenario was an activist's dream but a nightmare for the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Seriously, of all the American cities for the torch to pass through, this was the choice? In my mind, San Francisco is clearly one of America's great cities when it comes to diversity, the arts, culture, and intellect, but if it were my job to decide on a route for the torch where it would be cheered instead of jeered, the city by the Bay would be the last place I'd pick. While they're at it, maybe the IOC could have also invited a hunting-gear-clad Dick Cheney to sit on the top of a float, rifle-in-hand, as part of the parade!

In a stinging critique of the IOC, Dan Wetzel of Yahoo Sports observed earlier this week that the choice of China as a host nation was made for economic reasons more than anything else. Essentially, the IOC was gambling that this move would help China to 'clean up its act' on issues of democracy and human rights (more specifically, freedom of the press and the treatment of Tibetan dissenters). Although it's difficult to obtain accurate information about conditions in China, the general consensus is that the air and water pollution are terrible, the food is unsafe and journalists can be expected to be spied on and searched without notice. There has also been widespread violence in Tibet in an attempt to squelch the protests. Wetzel writes, “The IOC willingly purchased the unholy bill of goods China was peddling so its sponsoring corporations could, in turn, sell stuff to the Chinese people.”

So what do China's policies have to do with the Olympics? Only as much as the business of sports has to do with politics. Which is, I guess, everything. For activists and protesters concerned with stopping the violence in Tibet, the Games provide the backdrop for publicity stunts and demonstrations. Some activists have touted the phrase "Genocide Olympics" in reference to China's strong economic partnership with a Sudanese government that has yet to put a stop to the unspeakable atrocities in its Darfur region. Others have used the Olympics to protest China's support of Myanmar (formerly Burma). Whether you agree with the tactics or not, these protests have helped the general public to begin exploring the whole connection between politics, business and sports.

On Monday, Hillary Clinton urged President Bush to boycott August's opening ceremonies as a way of denouncing China's disregard for human rights. Fellow senators Robert Byrd (D-WV) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ) joined her later in signing a formal letter asking Bush not to attend. In a vacuum, this might be a noble act, but it's not like the United States currently has the credibility and moral authority in the global community to put any teeth into such a boycott. Besides, we owe them money. "It's very hard to tell your banker that he's wrong," Barack Obama said today. "And if we are running huge deficits and big national debts and we're borrowing money constantly from China, that gives us less leverage."

Politicians and world leaders are stuck between condemning China's treatment of demonstrators while still applauding the Olympic Games. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have already said they will not be attending the ceremonies. French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Australia's Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd (himself a former diplomat to China) have not decided whether to attend the opening ceremonies, although Rudd opposes a complete boycott of the Games. "My view is that boycotts do not work,” he said. “I do not support a boycott. The boycott of Moscow in 1980 had no impact on the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan.” Mr. Rudd's attention is currently focused on the torch's route through his capital of Canberra on April 24.

For American politicians like Clinton and Obama, it's too risky to call for a complete U.S. boycott of the Games- at least right now. Not when they are being hosted by such a potent economic power as China. There are too many corporations involved with too much money at stake. You might as well call for a boycott on Arab oil! China and the U.S. rely heavily on each other as economic partners and neither one is in much of a position to point the finger when it comes to ethics and global responsibility.

But controversy is nothing new for the Olympics. Before the 1936 Olympics held in Hitler's Berlin, the IOC expelled American Ernest Lee Jahnke, the son of a German immigrant, for encouraging athletes to boycott the Games. Needless to say, he was replaced by someone with more support for the Games. At the 1972 Games in Munich, members of the Israeli Olympic team were taken hostage by the Palestinian terrorist group Black September. Eleven of them were murdered. At the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, 33 African countries boycotted the Games due to reasons related to South Africa's apartheid. The 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow were boycotted by 60+ countries (led by the U.S., China, Japan, West Germany and Canada) in response to Russia's invasion of Afghanistan. The Soviet Union returned the favor by boycotting the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics along with 13 of their allies. Even if the 2008 Olympics proceed without a U.S. boycott of the opening ceremonies, the Games will again be shrouded in controversy. But what is the right thing to do this time around?

For the record, I believe that Tibet should be a free and independent nation. The peaceful monks (and any other dissenters) should be allowed to protest non-violently without the threat of violence or imprisonment. I also believe that China should not be financing Sudan's genocide by purchasing their oil without even an acknowledgement of the atrocities committed. We consumers still have some power to do something about it. Raising awareness through boycotts could be part of the solution.

But as a consumer, I have to admit that the Olympics are still an appealing product to me. I think it's great that the world-class decathletes, backstrokers and gymnasts are given some attention once every four years. I always enjoy watching the opening ceremonies and rooting for the underdog from a small country who can inspire their people with hope amid darkness or draw attention to a forgotten area of the globe. I'm still fascinated, some would say naively, with what the Olympics should be about: the idea of bringing nations together at the common table of athletics in a form of 'soft diplomacy' (whether everyone at that table is actually fed is a another question). It's true that Tibetans would be oppressed and Chinese factories would be coughing out nasty chemicals whether the Olympics were held in China or Switzerland. It's only because of the Olympics that anyone is starting to care. The fact that the Olympics have become tainted (or maybe always have been) should not be a reason to wash my hands of responsibility and turn away. Maybe the Olympics are an endeavor worth redeeming. Maybe they point to something deeper about the brokenness of humanity.

Besides, what would it accomplish if I thumbed my nose at the Olympics only to change the channel (or web browser) and watch another program where those same corporations are selling me other products that perpetuate the cycle of greed and oppression? Is there any way to escape the Matrix? I think this is why some people choose to become monks. Like the Tibetan ones however, they can still find their rights being taken away by unchecked corruption from the halls of power (which also includes those business relationships that help to prop up those in power).

Maybe I'll just use the time that I would be watching the Olympics to catch up on some errands I need to run. I hear that Wal-Mart's got everyday low prices.

April 1, 2008

Male Spirituality: Is There Such a Thing?

I often joke that my career goal is to become a pastor's husband. Wait, is it still a joke if I'm actually serious? As someone who attended private Christians schools for all but three of my K-12 years and grew up in a home filled with Focus on the Family paraphernalia such as Breakaway magazine (yes, I was a devoted subscriber), my adolescent years were largely shaped by a full portion of James Dobson, I Kissed Dating Goodbye and DC Talk. Come to think of it, I still remember the full lyrics to "I Don't Want It" and "That Kinda Girl" from their historic 1992 album, Free at Last.

All CCM nostalgia aside, my evangelical upbringing as well as my college years at Wheaton have made me very familiar with the supposedly "Biblical" reasoning for why "manhood" can be used as a code word for spiritual authority while "womanhood" or femininity is often defined as little more than providing a supportive, nurturing role to men. Many evangelical churches (including the one I attend) hold to the the basic view that there is something intrinsic about men (by God's design of course) that makes them more qualified than women to be leaders in the home and in the church. Although it's become trendy now for evangelical Christians to promote the idea of men as 'servant leaders', it is still largely men (I almost said "large men") who retain positions of authority in evangelical churches.

The debate over gender roles in the evangelical church will not likely be resolved anytime soon. While the mainline denominations have largely reached a consensus that women can be ordained as ministers and their access to positions of church authority should not be limited strictly on the basis of being female, the evangelical world remains very divided on the matter. The debate over the women in the evangelical church doesn't get the airtime of say, homosexuality or abortion, but it's still a very polarizing issue with well-respected scholars and pastors on both sides.

If you're not familiar with the vocabulary, the terms most commonly used in the debate are complementarian (the position of those who believe in male headship) and egalitarian (those who say that women can be pastors or hold other positions of spiritual authority such as a church elder). For example, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) is a complementarian denomination that was formed in 1973 largely in response to the ordination of women in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) that began in the 1960's. More recently, The Vineyard USA, one of the country's largest charismatic denominations, changed their stance in September 2006 to begin allowing the ordination of women. I should also note that the terms complementarian and egalitarian are only useful for the most part among evangelicals- a term which itself has become increasingly devoid of any helpful meaning as it now commonly tossed around by political reporters in an attempt to label a particular group of conservative voters as opposed to a stream of Christianity distinct from Mainline Protestantism, Catholicism and the Orthodox Church.

For those on the outside of the evangelical world looking in, it remains a mystery why women are welcomed and even encouraged to become CEO's, politicians and community leaders, yet they are simultaneously prohibited from preaching the Sunday morning sermon or serving as members of an Elder Board. A woman's leadership role in the church may range anywhere from Sunday School teacher to Co-Pastor with her husband, but the phenomenon of evangelical women pastors whose husbands are not also pastors is rare. For those of us who are trying to change things from the inside of the fish bowl, there can be the temptation to abandon the evangelical church altogether or at the very least throw up our hands in denial and distance ourselves from "those people."
I may not be able to provide the correct definition of true masculinity, but I certainly know what it is not. I am increasingly weary of Christian slogans, trends and movements that attempt to summarize my masculinity as little more than a gender role that somehow entitles me to positions of leadership in my church, my home and my marriage- usually at the expense of intelligent and gifted women like my wife.

A couple years ago, Christianity Today featured a spot-on article by Agnieszka Tennant entitled "What (Not All) Women Want" in which she described her frustration with a narrow definition of femininity espoused by John and Stasi Eldredge in their book Captivating: Unveiling the Mystery of a Woman's Soul. If you're wondering why John Eldredge's name sounds so familiar, it's probably because you've heard someone at church (if you attend a conservative evangelical church like I do) discussing his books such as Wild at Heart and The Sacred Romance, which in a nutshell, encourage men to embrace their inner warrior and re-discover the lost art of rescuing the princess and leading her, with God's blessing of course, on an adventure filled with romance and dragon-slaying. It all sounded fun and exciting until I realized that it was just the latest adaptation of the hierarchical ideology that promotes men as the active leaders by default and women as the faithful followers.

To be clear, I don't have a problem with flourishing marriages and I applaud the efforts of organizations like Eldredge's "Ransomed Heart Ministries" that provide much-needed inspiration and counseling for couples who are trying not just to preserve an unhappy marriage, but make it truly thrive. However, I have a serious problem with the idea that men have to be in charge in order to be spiritually healthy husbands and church members.

In fact, a good way to make me cringe would be to show me a book description, sermon outline or conference brochure with the phrase "MALE SPIRITUALITY" prominently displayed. When I hear the word "male" coupled with any type of religious term, my Christian sexism alarm goes off. After all, complementarians are the usually the ones who draw distinctions between male-ness and female-ness while egalitarians like myself are so paranoid and wary of hierarchical oppression that we shy away from almost all spiritual comparisons between men and women.

Both complementarians and egalitarians agree that American culture has corrupted the church with a warped idea of maleness- a lazy couch potato who has little to offer beyond crude humor and sports trivia. Everyone knows that church services, seminars, retreats and youth groups are filled with a disproportionate number of females. There is little debate over the need for men to become more intentional about their spiritual journeys; the disagreement comes over how to fix the problem. The complementarian model offered by "family-oriented" groups who publish marriage/parenting books and broadcast radio programs has been to provide identity-starved men with more authority and responsibility so that they will 'step up to the plate' into their leadership role as intended by God. The egalitarian approach has been to include more women in the male-dominated circles of authority so that the Body of Christ can be more balanced from top to bottom which will hopefully lead more male involvement at the lay level.

But there may be a third way. I have recently discovered the work of a Franciscan priest named Richard Rohr who seems to describe a unique understanding of male spirituality that is neither hierarchical nor afraid of gender distinctions- could there be such a thing? In his book entitled Wild Man to Wise Man, Rohr says that "we know instinctively that masculinity cannot be the same as patriarchy." Ok, sounds good so far. He also says that men must seek "honest mutuality" in their relationships with women as well as "recognize and critique their own power with regard to women." Now I'm intrigued.

A quick scan of his website, malespirituality.org, reveals a program called M.A.L.E (Men as Learners and Elders) that I can only describe as an ecumenical/anti-patriarchy/monastic version of Promise Keepers. It should be noted that Rohr uses the term 'elder' to describe wise spiritual mentors, not men in authority over women. It sounds like an active, yet contemplative brand of male spirituality that seeks to "initiate" men (sort of like a fraternity?) into contemplative practices that are largely practiced by women these days. Rohr says that the idea of masculine spirituality is not "just for men", but it is actually an approach that many women are more in touch with today than men because women have been encouraged and even forced to work on their inner lives more than men in our culture.

In another interesting twist of fate, Rohr will be speaking at Honolulu's 2008 H.I.M. Conference this weekend which I'll be attending. I am looking forward to finally discovering what it means to "be a man."