December 29, 2009



You’re my client
But I don’t know you
I've read your case file
But it’s not your story
I've typed your résumé
But it’s not your identity

19 years old
18-month-old daughter
Boyfriend in prison
Parents across the ocean
Looking for housing
Living on the beach

Daughter is healthy
Misses her daddy
You met him at the skate park
He took you to a bonfire
Made you feel special
You thought it was love

He’s not a bad father
But drinks way too much
Works hard as a painter
Controlling in private
Sometimes cruel and abusive
The scars aren’t all visible

One night you defended yourself
With a kitchen knife
The cops called it a weapon
And you accepted the blame
Convicted of assault
With 2 years probation

Whether “homeless” or “poor”
You don’t look like the labels
Your handbag is stylish
Your voice pleasant and poised
You’re no threat to society
Just a girl with a baby

How am I supposed to know
What it's like to be you?
Grad school never taught me
How to fix your life
Am I teaching you anything?
Or are you teaching me?

December 16, 2009

Blogrolls and Pigeon Holes

"My momma always said you can tell a lot about a person by their shoes. Where they're going. Where they've been. I've worn lots of shoes..." - Forrest Gump

Let's be honest. What's the first thing you look for when visiting a new blog? Do you head straight for the main content by reading the latest post in its entirety? Or is it more important to 'size up' the author from his/her bio, affiliations, blogroll and other bell-whistle peripheries? If you're anything like me, the initial moments at an unfamiliar blog are focused on gathering enough data to make a theological/political diagnosis: conservative, liberal, moderate, libertarian, evangelical, mainline, ecumenical, academic, pastoral, missional, traditional, postmodern, Reformed, charismatic, emerging, egalitarian, complementarian etc.

This process of instinctive categorization smacks of superficial stereotyping, but is it really much different from scanning dust jacket bios at the bookstore or channel-surfing with a remote? Do snap judgments represent the height of consumeristic self-absorption or a practical necessity in the age of information? Who has the time to judge a book by anything besides its (back) cover? If Forrest Gump's human taxonomy theorem applies to the internet, you can tell a lot about a person these days by their Facebook profile, Amazon wishlist or bookmarked sites in their web browser. Even a seemingly innocuous blogroll can be a window into one's soul.

So if you're as interested in labeling me as I am in labeling you, here are some quick facts about the authors of my top 20 church and theology blogs:

- All of them are evangelical Protestants of one stripe or another.
- At least 13 have a graduate degree in theology or Biblical studies.
- At least 11 are egalitarians.
- At least 9 are under age 40.
- At least 7 are women or minorities.
- At least 7 released a new book in 2009.
- At least 6 are current pastors or church planters.
- At least 6 live in the Chicago area.
- At least 4 live on the West Coast.
- At least 4 have earned a Ph.d.
- At least 4 are complementarians.
- At least 4 are affiliated with Christianity Today in some way.
- At least 4 are affiliated with the Evangelical Covenant Church.
- At least 3 are Southern Baptists.
- At least 3 are TULIP Calvinists.
- At least 3 could be described as part of the emerging movement.
- As least 3 were born outside the United States.
- At least 2 are editors at book publishing houses.
- At least 2 are Presbyterians.
- At least 1 is Pentecostal.
- At least 1 is Anglican.

Have I sufficiently tipped my hand? Should I begin measuring the drapes for my pigeon hole? What does my blogroll tell you about me? What does your blogroll say about you?

December 3, 2009

Is Afghanistan Another Vietnam?

I was born after the Vietnam War ended, but it's not like American involvement in foreign policy quagmires is a thing of the past. In his big speech Tuesday night, President Obama offered 3 reasons why the current war in Afghanistan is different from the Vietnam War:

1) "Unlike Vietnam, we are joined by a broad coalition of 43 nations that recognizes the legitimacy of our action.

2) Unlike Vietnam, we are not facing a broad-based popular

3) And most importantly, unlike Vietnam, the American people were viciously attacked from Afghanistan and remain a target for those same extremists who are plotting along its border."

Sitting in rush hour traffic yesterday, I heard an NPR interview with Gordon Goldstein, an international affairs scholar who acknowledged Mr. Obama's points as fair ones, but proceeded to list 4 key "strategic parallels" between Afghanistan and Vietnam:
1) "Both Afghanistan and Vietnam are small powers that have been historically extraordinarily resistant to the efforts of large powers to impose order.

2) Both Vietnam and Afghanistan had corrupt and ineffectual regimes.

3) Both Vietnam and Afghanistan have contiguous border countries, through which support and sanctuary for an insurgency flows and fortifies that insurgency.

4) But most importantly, the parallel, really, that drives Afghanistan and Vietnam is in the realm of military strategy. In Vietnam, it was a strategy of counterinsurgency and clear and hold. In Afghanistan, General McChrystal has called for a strategy of clear, hold and build. So there are some parallels that I do not think can be easily dismissed."
So now that we've established there are both similarities and differences between Afghanistan and Vietnam, what should we make of Mr. Obama's war plan? In his Washington Post column today, E. J. Dionne describes the President's attempt to find middle ground as a "Goldilocks strategy: neither too hawkish nor too dovish, but just right."

I'm not sure I like the taste of this porridge.

November 24, 2009

Manhattan Declaration: Where are the moderates?

To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the Religious Right's demise have been greatly exaggerated. Energized by the backdrop of President Obama's first year in office, an ecumenical but familiar group of influential conservative Christians (including prominent Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox and Evangelical leaders) have reasserted the primacy of abortion, gay marriage and religious liberty as the three foremost political issues that matter above all others.

If you haven't yet read The Manhattan Declaration: A Call of Christian Conscience, here's the
full text and list of 145+ original signatories, which includes names like Chuck Colson, James Dobson, Tony Perkins and Al Mohler. This excerpt provides the basic gist:

Because we honor justice and the common good, we will not comply with any edict that purports to compel our institutions to participate in abortions, embryo-destructive research, assisted suicide and euthanasia, or any other anti-life act; nor will we bend to any rule purporting to force us to bless immoral sexual partnerships, treat them as marriages or the equivalent, or refrain from proclaiming the truth, as we know it, about morality and immorality and marriage and the family.
I suspect where one stands on the Manhattan Declaration likely hinges on how one would answer the question: Should abortion, gay marriage and religious freedom be placed at the very top of a "hierarchy of issues" (to use drafting committee member Chuck Colson's term) when it comes to public policy concerns facing Christians?

So far, the Manhattan Declaration has received mixed reviews. Bloggers over at First Things can barely contain their
enthusiasm for it, while others like Dan Gilgoff have said it "reads like a throwback to the culture wars of the 2004 election." Regent College theology professor John Stackhouse calls it "strangely useless" while Jonathan Merritt, founder of the Southern Baptist Environment and Climate Initiative, says the statement is unlikely to "sway a new generation of Christian leaders who take a broader view of cultural issues facing us today."The document's backers point to the diverse range of theological perspectives represented by its signatories, not everyone in the evangelical world who typically contributes to these types of ecumenical public policy collaboratives has endorsed the Manhattan Declaration. A handful of names like Ron Sider, Cornelius Plantinga, David Neff and Richard Mouw notwithstanding, there doesn't seem to be much support from evangelical "moderates" who were instrumental in drafting last year's Evangelical Manifesto and 2004's For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility, both of which called for a broadened platform including issues like creation care, poverty alleviation, racial reconciliation, human rights and peacemaking. Those who have endorsed both the Manhattan Declaration and the Evangelical Manifesto (Timothy George and Leith Anderson for example) appear to be the exception.

So where are all the moderates?

Noticeably absent from The Manhattan Declaration's signatories are respected scholars like David Gushee, Jim Skillen, Mark Noll, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Stephen Monsma, J.P. Moreland, Os Guinness, Dallas Willard and Darrell Bock, not to mention other influential evangelical voices like Rick Warren, Joel Hunter, Bill Hybels, Gary Haugen and Rich Stearns. This doesn't mean Manhattan isn't an amazing feat of coalition-building across Evangelical-Catholic lines (Neuhaus would be proud), but such a narrow range of policy emphases might explain why many, including yours truly, are reluctant to sign on.

It looks like the culture wars are back, folks. Man your battle stations.

November 18, 2009

Is it still cool to love U2?

If I told you that U2 is one of my favorite bands, what would this tell you about me?

A) A lot (since U2 fans tend to exhibit certain distinctive attributes)


B) Basically nothing (since everyone and their mom likes U2 these days)

When your stadium-sized concerts from Moscow to Vancouver are selling out in minutes, attracting fans from nearly every stripe of the politico-religious spectrum (born-again evangelicals and agnostics alike), it's safe to say that people love you. U2's concert last month at Pasadena's Rose Bowl not only drew an estimated 97,000 fans, it was also the most-watched live webcast in YouTube's history with 10 million streams coming in from 188 countries. In fact, you can still watch the entire thing for free if you missed it.

Particularly interesting have been the ways in which evangelical Christians have taken to the Irish foursome. In addition to mainstream radio, TV commercials and supermarket playlists, I've been hearing U2 increasingly played in Christian bookstores and yes, even mixed into the CCM rotation on Christian radio. Theological seminaries have offered courses on U2. It's not uncommon to find advertisements and reviews of books written about U2's journey of faith and activism in Christian periodicals like Christianity Today, Relevant, Sojourners and Books & Culture, whose current issue includes an article examining "the state of U2 studies," as in, like, the study of U2. Last month, the first ever academic conference on U2 was held in Durham, North Carolina, exploring the band's music, work and influence.

Not that I'm complaining. Whether their millions of fans (including yours truly) are drawn by crowd-pleasing anthems dripping with blatantly Christian imagery or the band's passionate activism in fighting extreme poverty and HIV/AIDS, there's no denying the connection so many have experienced. Seriously, can anyone familiar with U2's body of work, both on and off stage, resist their magnetic charm and refreshing authenticity? Or have we all just been brainwashed by 30+ years worth of The Edge's signature digital delay guitar effects ringing in our ears?

Indeed, if any rock group has discovered a way to blend widespread commercial success with artful innovation and critical acclaim, it's U2. But as their fame and influence continue to expand, I wonder if we're approaching the point of U2 saturation. Just how much "bigger" can this iconic rock band become? Will there ever be such a thing as "Bono fatigue?" Will U2 eventually come to represent the epitome of a mainstream product packaged for the masses or will they forever be seen as non-conforming innovators who transcended the patterns of commercialism? In other words, will it always be cool to love U2?

For my sake, I hope so.

November 6, 2009

High Church vs. Low Church

Andy Rowell's post over at Out of Ur describes how 'high church' and 'low church' streams of the Christians faith have much to learn from each other. Perhaps a few working definitions are in order:

High Church: Rowell describes these as "liturgical" churches who "emphasize historical and global continuity in their worship services," including Catholic, Episcopal and Lutheran churches. According to Rowell, "Liturgical clergy see their role as being a faithful steward of historic Christianity. This consists especially of serving the Lord’s Supper and preaching."

Low Church: Rowell describes these as the "free" churches who are characterized by "the relative autonomy of individual congregations," including Baptist, Pentecostal and non-denominational churches. According to Rowell, "Free church pastors tend to see their role as equipping their congregations for evangelism and social justice."

(In case you're wondering, Methodists and Presbyterians fall somewhere in between.)

Personally, my own Christian journey has been shaped by an ecumenical denominational background predominately in the "low church" evangelical world, but I'm also very much drawn to the idea of weekly Sacraments, liturgy, sacred spaces and contemplative practices found in the high-church tradition. Every time I visit a liturgical church, I'm stuck by how thoughtful and intentional everything is.

Sometimes I wonder how my faith would be different if I had been raised on creeds and catechisms instead of DC Talk and Breakaway magazine. While I would love to see more liturgy, written prayers and reverence for the Great Tradition incorporated into our local church's worship gatherings, much of it is still a second language to me.

It's as if I've become a long-distance admirer of the sport of cricket from watching it on TV, but at the end of the day my natural sport is baseball. I may be intrigued by the oval-shaped field, wickets and bowlers (instead of a diamond, home plate and pitchers), but I'm in no way qualified to teach the fundamentals of a game for which I barely understand the rules.

Perhaps my low church, pragmatic evangelical DNA is to blame for my desire to see some sort of convergence that blends the best of both worlds.

October 21, 2009

Fantasy Football Affections

"You stir us up to take delight in your praise; for you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you." - Augustine of Hippo

Fantasy football has become a cultural phenomenon in this country. Recent estimates suggest around 27 million Americans play fantasy sports in an industry that has grown over 20 percent in each of the last four years. As someone who has played every fantasy NFL season since I was a freshman in college 10 years ago, I guess you could say I'm a poster child for its appeal. From my perspective, online fantasy sports (when played in moderation of course) provide a more efficient and flexible way to remain engaged as a sports fan without having to watch hours of live games on TV that inevitably eat into one's precious weekend and family time. There may be other ways to rationalize this peculiar behavior, but that's the best excuse I've come up with so far. What a time-saver!

This fantasy football season (which is just about half-over) my 2 teams are heading in opposite directions. In our league of church friends, my squad known as Flea Flicker is currently in first place (5-1), but in another group composed primarily of Wheaton alumni, my languishing Y.A. Tittlers are 9th out of 10 teams (2-4). It's essentially an imaginary roller-coaster with (virtually) no bearing on reality.

When I first began gathering names for our annual church league a couple months ago, it wasn't hard to find other fans who check scores online or in Monday morning's paper. But I was surprised when one of my friends, a devout football enthusiast who follows the NFL very closely, told me he didn't want to join. When I tried to reassure him that managing one's team can take as little as 5 minutes per week and does not involve any money, my friend still declined. I mentioned that he already knew most of other guys in our league and would probably fare well against the casual competition, but he still wouldn't bite. He told me he'd rather abstain than worry about constantly tweaking his make-believe collection of real-life athletes. When he insisted he'd be utterly consumed by it if he joined, I finally backed off.

Looking back on the conversation, I respect my friend's courage and self-awareness in declining my invitation, an offer that must have been tempting for a well-informed football fan like himself. It's not that I believe fantasy sports are an inherently sinful cultural artifact any more than Facebook, Twitter or even the internet itself. But as 21st century Christians living in a society saturated by personalized technology and customized entertainment, we are inundated with products and services relentlessly vying for our time, attention and ultimately our affections.

In a recent interview with Leadership Journal's Skye Jethani, Reformed pastor Matt Chandler describes the sanctification process beginning with two questions:

"What stirs your affections for Jesus Christ? And what robs you of those affections? Many of the things that stifle growth are morally neutral. They’re not bad things. Facebook is not bad. Television and movies are not bad. I enjoy TV, but it doesn’t take long for me to begin to find humorous on TV what the Lord finds heartbreaking.
"The same goes for following sports. It’s not wrong, but if I start watching sports, I begin to care too much. I get stupid. If 19-year-old boys are ruining your day because of what they do with a ball, that’s a problem. These things rob my affections for Christ. I want to fill my life with things that stir my affections for him."
For some, playing frivolous fantasy sports, maintaining a blog or purchasing an iPhone will not consume us or rob our affections for Christ. For others like my spiritually mindful friend, it might. In either case, followers of Jesus must continually remain aware of the ways in which our affections and allegiances can be easily diverted by technological novelties as innocuous as imaginary football.

On the other hand, I don't believe fantasy football can be categorically dismissed as beyond redemption or antithetical to the Christian life. When done in the context of real-world friendships, it can be a healthy form of "male bonding" rather than an anti-social pursuit of superficial bragging rights or anonymous mind-numbing entertainment. This might be a stretch, but I'd like to suggest the joy of recreational competition, strategy and victory can even stir our affections for the One who satisfies like no other. On the subject of earthly pleasures, C.S. Lewis offered a balanced approach:
"If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage." (emphasis mine)
So yes, let us joyfully and soberly compete for the fading glory of fantasy football trophies. Let us enjoy the suspense and unpredictability of being sports fans. Let us marvel at comeback victories and rare upsets by the underdog. But let us not confuse these God-given blessings with the "real thing" who is Christ himself. He alone is our solid Rock in whom all things hold together. He alone is the true Bread and Living Water who satisfies our restless souls.

May our affections be stirred.

October 8, 2009

Evangelicals In Hawaii: How Are We Different?

Here's a question I've been thinking about recently:

How is evangelical Christianity in Hawaii different from evangelical Christianity in the rest of the U.S.?

That's an easy one. We eat more SPAM here.

Some other possible answers:

1) The high cost of land and limited open space have prompted many churches (including a few megachurches) to meet in auditoriums, theaters, school cafeterias, golf courses and other non-traditional settings.

2) Since any travel out of state requires flying 2500+ miles, we are less likely to participate in popular Christian conferences, conventions, music festivals and other parachurch gatherings than our mainland counterparts. While I'm not too upset about missing Point of Grace (or Whitecross) live in concert, it would be nice if it didn't cost $1000 in airfare, room and board just to attend the nearest theology conference.

3) Hawaii lacks a fully-accredited theological seminary and often "imports" pastors who are (initially) unfamiliar with the nuances of Hawaii's multicultural landscape where Caucasians are in the minority. We probably also lose a fair number of homegrown future pastors who move away for college or seminary but do not return to the islands.

4) For better or worse, we don't seem as picky about denominational and theological particulars around here. Most evangelicals in Hawaii identify more with their specific congregation than the denomination to which it belongs. For example, does the 'typical' churchgoer know the difference between the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA)? On the mainland, this is a monumental divide meriting follow-up questions like, "What kind of Presbyterian are you?" (or Baptist, Methodist etc.) In Hawaii, we're more likely to "peg" someone by where they attend church, if at all. Only oddball church geeks like me will actually pry into your denominational background.

5) While Christians in Hawaii experience ripple effects of broader trends in American ecclesiology (such as mainline Protestant decline and the rise of multi-site megachurches), our local denominational landscape is very unique. Hawaii's two most prominent denominations are the United Church of Christ (128 churches including Central Union, Makiki Christian and First Chinese among others) and the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel (49 churches including New Hope Christian Fellowship and Hope Chapel among others). I'm not aware of any other state where the UCC and Foursquare (or vice versa) are the two biggest Protestant bodies. Some of the rapidly growing denominations on the mainland like the PCA (3 churches in Hawaii), Evangelical Covenant Church (1 church) and the Anglican Mission in the Americas (no churches) have yet to make a huge impact in the 50th state.

6) Many of the cultural differences between Hawaii and the mainland affect the way we "do church." There is a greater representation of Asians and Pacific Islanders living in Hawaii, but less Latinos and African Americans. We tend to dress more casually and eat more rice/less potatoes than our mainland friends. We tend to prefer reggae over country music on the radio. We baptize people in the ocean and hold wedding receptions at hotels. I don't remember doing too much of that when I lived in Illinois.

I'm sure there are other differences between Hawaii's churches and those on the mainland. Any thoughts? What could we add to the list?

October 1, 2009

Now That's A Bookstore!

Powell's City of Books in downtown Portland, Oregon, the world's largest bookstore.

September 24, 2009

3 Reasons Why MEN Must Speak Out Against Domestic Violence

For those of us working in the social work field, many of our clients face the inexcusable reality of domestic violence. The statistics are staggering: domestic violence is the leading cause of injury among women, between 85 and 95% of all domestic violence victims are female and over 1200 women in America are killed every year by an intimate partner. Not only do the survivors of abuse endure a lifetime of physical and emotional scars, the cycle of violence impacts the next generation of abused and neglected children, who internalize violent behavior as a “normal” way to handle anger, stress and relationship difficulties. Awareness is on the rise, but a steady stream of local and national news stories describing incidents of women being viciously beaten and abused by their partners continually reminds us how far we still have to go.

Sometimes it even feels like the problem is becoming worse.

Social workers and victim advocates (most of whom are women) have understood the urgency of this crisis for a long time. But while many organizations and grassroots campaigns have formed to help prevent domestic violence before the next life is taken, men (for the most part) have been noticeably absent from these efforts. The question is: Why not? Perhaps it’s not “manly” to join a cause involving the rights of women. Perhaps men are socialized to “mind their own business” when it comes to another man’s domestic outbursts. Perhaps it’s more convenient to remain silent instead of raising one’s voice in favor of change.

From my perspective, there are at least three reasons why it’s critical for men in particular to speak out against domestic violence.

1. It shows that domestic violence is not just a problem affecting women and children. In the past, women and children have been predominantly responsible for the heavy lifting when it comes to confronting this problem. When people see a marginalized group marching for their own rights (minorities, women, the poor), privileged cynics can easily dismiss it as an act of self-interest. But when whites march for racial justice, men speak out for the protection of women or wealthy people stand up for the poor, people start to pay attention.

2. It resists the social approval of abusive behavior. When women are the only ones speaking out, observers conclude that men must not be too concerned about the problem. It's doubtful that domestic violence would go unreported so often if men were as outraged about it as women. In a society where men still constitute the overwhelming majority of those in positions of leadership and influence, values are communicated and reinforced by the actions of men (for better or worse). Conversely, when a social problem truly matters to the general public, you can be sure that men will be involved in the solution. Violence against women will never end until men prove they are serious about stopping it.

3. It promotes a healthy understanding of masculinity. Widespread depictions of "heroic" men by the entertainment and advertising industries prop up twisted caricatures of maleness in which the ideal man is muscular, aggressive and always gets the woman he wants. Women are expected to defer to the wishes of men, whose fulfillment is at the center of most movie plot lines and music videos. By peacefully taking a stand against domestic violence, men can demonstrate what mature and responsible manhood is really about: a commitment to non-violent conflict resolution, active fatherhood and respect for the dignity of women.

Until men care enough to speak out against domestic violence, our silence will be a passive endorsement of the status quo.

UPDATE: Joe Bloom, one of my instructors at UH, describes the recent Men's March Against Violence held October 15 at the Hawaii State Capitol in this Star-Bulletin op-ed piece. Thanks to all who came and spoke out!

September 12, 2009

Further Questions on Torture and Abortion

As a follow-up to my previous post on torture and abortion, here are some of my questions for those who oppose one but defend the other.

Questions for those who are anti-abortion but believe torture can be justified:

1. If abortion is immoral (in part) because the procedure deliberately inflicts severe pain on a pre-born human being, why is it permissible to deliberately inflict incredible physical and psychological pain on a prisoner while torturing him or her?

2. If abortion is truly "worse than slavery" (an outlawed form of torture) as many pro-lifers say, should women who obtain an abortion be treated as criminals on par with someone who is found guilty of owning slaves?

3. If torture can be justified for pragmatic, utilitarian reasons (i.e. to prevent terrorism and save lives), what's wrong with the pragmatic, utilitarian reasons for abortion (i.e. to prevent poverty and unwanted pregnancy)?

Questions for those who are pro-choice but anti-torture:

1. If torture is immoral (in part) because it inflicts cruel, degrading and traumatic pain on a human being, why is abortion not also immoral, particularly in cases where the pre-born child has developed to a stage where trauma and pain can be experienced?

2. Why should prisoners of war have a greater right to life and dignity than pre-born children? Is one more human than the other?

3. If abortion is a matter of personal choice, why shouldn't torture be a matter of government discretion on a case-by-case basis?

September 9, 2009

Torture, abortion, and partisan ethics

I believe that as followers of Jesus, Christians must hold to a consistent ethic of human life. Scripture teaches that all human beings have been created in God's image (Genesis 1:27) and therefore, every person, whether young or old, rich or poor, strong or weak, saint or sinner, bears the imprint of the Creator. Human rights and dignity, yours and mine, are ultimately derived from the One who loves us "with an everlasting love" (Jeremiah 31:3). Consequently, people are not cosmic accidents or disposable commodities to be bought and sold, used and discarded. If we indeed believe that life is immeasurably precious to the God who created it, we have a responsibility to be extremely careful in situations involving the choice to purposefully harm, wound or terminate another person's life.

Interestingly enough, the convoluted realm of American politics reveals a peculiar dynamic where opposing sides in the culture wars profoundly disagree on the question of which lives should be defended as sacred and which ones are more disposable. Conservatives are generally opposed to abortion, euthanasia, physician-assisted suicide and genetic engineering, but are more likely to support the use of preemptive military force, capital punishment and torture, including water-boarding (see diagram at right) and other "enhanced interrogation techniques." The liberal end of the spectrum often opposes capital punishment, war and torture, but is more likely to defend abortion, euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide as matters of human rights. Is it just me or does anyone else find both sides to be inconsistent?

Two of the most contentions issues concerning the sanctity of human life in recent years have been abortion and torture. A Pew Research poll conducted earlier this year revealed that 62% of evangelical Protestants (my own faith tradition) believe "the use of torture against suspected terrorists to gain important information" is often or sometimes justified, whereas only 16% say it's never justified. It's especially disturbing that evangelicals are more likely to support torture than any other religious group in America including Catholics, mainline Protestants and those without any religious affiliation. The poll also found that those who attend religious services at least once a week are much more likely to support torture than those who seldom or never attend religious services. This is lamentable at best and shameful at worst.

When it comes to abortion, the statistics are flip-flopped. According to a separate Pew Research poll, evangelical Protestants remain the group most adamantly opposed to abortion, with well over 60% saying the procedure should be illegal in most or all cases. It's not difficult to find conservative religious organizations lobbying against abortion or liberal groups lobbying for the end of torture on religious grounds, but it's rare to find those who believe both practices are immoral. Opponents of abortion claim that it harms a sacred life and violates the dignity of another human being, a line of reasoning also used by those who oppose torture. Those who are "pro-life" seem the most likely to defend torture, but those against torture seem the most likely to defend abortion. How can this be?

The problem with our culture war categories of right vs. left is that everyone gets divided into two flawed packages of partisan platforms from which we assume the "other" side cannot possibly be correct about anything. We've confused Christian ethics with partisan ethics, deflecting every criticism along the lines of "Well, the other side clearly has it wrong on [fill in the blank: abortion/torture] so why should we listen to what they have to say about [torture/abortion]?" Have evangelicals considered the possibility that both torture and abortion are wrong on largely the same grounds, namely, the inherent dignity of human life created in God's image? Must we choose between the human rights of pre-born children and the sanctity of a prisoner's life? Aren't they both human? When the protection of a sacred human life conflicts with other important goals (national security or women's rights for example), do the ends justify the means?

Cue responses from conservatives defending torture and liberals defending abortion...

August 26, 2009

Summer Reading Recap

Alas, summer is over (sigh) and it's back to the grind of social work studies, but I'm very thankful to have finished some non-required reading during my "freedom" these past few months:

Kevin DeYoung- Just Do Something: A Liberating Approach to Finding God's Will (Moody, 2009)

Cathleen Falsani- The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People (Sarah Crichton Books, 2006)

Collin Hansen- Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist's Journey with the New Calvinists (Crossway, 2008)

Tim Keller- The Reason For God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (Dutton, 2008)

R.T. Kendall- The Sensitivity of the Spirit: Learning to Stay in the Flow of God's Direction (Charisma House, 2002)

C.S. Lewis- Mere Christianity (Audiobook performed by Geoffrey Howard, Blackstone, 2000)

Andrew Marin- Love is an Orientation: Elevating the Conversation with the Gay Community (Intervarsity Press, 2009)

Scot McKnight- The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible (Zondervan, 2008)

Sara Miles- Take This Bread: The Spiritual Memoir of a Twenty-first Century Christian (Ballantine, 2007)

Richard Mouw- Praying at Burger King (Eerdmans, 2007)

Mark Noll- The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Eerdmans, 1994)

Henri Nouwen- The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming (Doubleday, 1992)

Jim Skillen- In Pursuit of Justice: Christian-Democratic Explorations (Rowman & Littlefield, 2004)

August 19, 2009

End Times Gloom and Doom: A Historical Reality Check

I'm told that if you translate "Prince Charles of Wales" into Hebrew and calculate the symbols using an ancient Jewish number system, it adds up to 666. Sound the alarm!

One of my least favorite aspects of being an American evangelical Christian is getting lumped together with peddlers of apocalyptic speculation and escapism of the Left Behind variety. Unlike those who are convinced that a "secret rapture" will occur at any moment or that the current geopolitical landscape is God's cosmic chessboard where brutal dictators, wars, famines and genocide are part of an inevitable collision course to destruction, I'm in no rush to force-fit today's headlines though an end times filter.

So instead of wading into the deep theological waters of eschatology or the Scriptural basis for cultural renewal, I offer the following 3 morsels to chew on. You'll likely need to read them at least twice to capture their full meaning, but it's an undertaking well worth the effort. I should also mention that each selection comes from the pen of a committed evangelical Christian. Ready, partake:

  • "The evangelical predilection, when faced with a world crisis, to use the Bible as a crystal ball instead of as a guide for sorting out the complex tangles of international morality was nowhere more evident than in response to the Gulf War in early 1991. Neither through the publishing of books nor through focused consideration in periodicals did evangelicals engage in significant discussions on the morality of the war, the use of the United Nations in the wake of the collapse of Communism, the significance of oil for job creation or wealth formation throughout the world, the history of Western efforts at intervention in the Middle East, or other topics fairly crying out for serious Christian analysis. Instead, evangelicals gobbled up more than half a million copies of several self-assured, populist explanations of how the Gulf crisis was fulfilling the details of obscure biblical prophecies." -Mark Noll (The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, Eerdmans, 1994)
  • "The current crisis was always identified as a sign of the end, whether it was the Russo-Japanese War, the First World War, the Second World War, the Palestine War, the Suez Crisis, the June War or the Yom Kippur War. The revival of the Roman Empire has been identified variously as Mussolini’s empire, the League of Nations, the United Nations, the European Defense Community, the Common Market and NATO. Speculation on the Antichrist has included Napoleon, Mussolini, Hitler and Henry Kissinger. The northern confederation was supposedly formed by the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the Rapallo Treaty, the Nazi-Soviet Pact and then the Soviet Bloc. The 'kings of the east' have been variously the Turks, the lost tribes of Israel, Japan, India and China. The supposed restoration of Israel has confused the problem of whether the Jews are to be restored before or after the coming of the Messiah. The restoration of the latter rain has been pinpointed to have begun in 1897, 1917, and 1948. The end of the 'times of the Gentiles' has been placed in 1895, 1917, 1948 and 1967. 'Gog' has been an impending threat since the Crimean War, both under the Czars and the Communists. -Dwight Wilson (Armageddon Now! The Premillenarian Response to Russia and Israel since 1917, Baker Books, 1977)
  • "Revelation 21-22 makes it clear that the ultimate purpose of redemption is not to escape the material world, but to renew it. God's purpose is not only saving individuals, but also inaugurating a new world based on justice, peace, and love, not power, strife, and selfishness." -Tim Keller (Christianity Today, A New Kind of Urban Christian, May 2006)

August 11, 2009

Federal Recognition for Native Hawaiians: Will This (Finally) Be The Year?

When it's all said and done, 2009 could be a special year for Native Hawaiians.

Thanks to President Obama's recent endorsement of the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act (S.1011), better known as the Akaka Bill, Native Hawaiians are closer than ever to gaining federal recognition status comparable to Native American tribes and Alaska Natives. Once Congress returns from its August recess after Labor Day, the bill is expected to clear the Indian Affairs Committee to be voted on by the full Senate. In addition to Mr. Obama and all four of Hawaii's Democratic representatives in Congress, the bill is supported by a diverse range of public officials and organizations here in the islands including our Republican Governor, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) and the editorial boards of both the Honolulu Advertiser and Star-Bulletin.

[If you're not familiar with the Akaka Bill, here's a helpful article and timeline from the latest issue of Maui No Ka 'Oi magazine summarizing the nearly decade-long efforts of Senator Dan Akaka to pass this bill, as well as the opposition coming both from conservatives who say it goes too far and activists who don't think it goes far enough.]

As someone who interacts daily with low-income families receiving public assistance on Oahu's Leeward Coast, I can personally attest to the disproportionate socio-economic hardships experienced by the Native Hawaiian community. Measurements of poverty, homelessness, incarceration, obesity, infant mortality and other indicators of well-being reveal that Native Hawaiians are at a clear disadvantage in relation to other ethnic groups comprising Hawaii's multicultural landscape. But this isn't about pity, class warfare or bleeding heart sentimentalism. It's about acknowledging a systemic social injustice and creating a framework for reconciliation. It's about respecting the history, culture and dignity of an indigenous people group who inhabited these islands long before America's manifest destiny came ashore.

Being a locally-born hapa haole, I understand that while Hawaii is one of the most ethnically diverse states in the nation, we are by no means "colorblind" to the beauty and diversity of many cultural heritages. So how exactly are Native Hawaiians different from Chinese-Americans, Japanese-Americans, Filipino-Americans and hapa haoles like myself? The answer is quite simple: They are indigenous. They are the original inhabitants of lands that later became part of the United States. You cannot say the same about any other people group in the islands today. It is a simple historical fact that a fully independent monarchy exercised sovereignty in Hawaii centuries before it became a U.S. territory. As I see it, this places Native Hawaiians in the same category as Native American tribes and Alaska Natives. If you disagree with this comparison, you will probably oppose the Akaka Bill.

But given the reality of federal recognition for 561 Native American tribes (Cherokee, Sioux, Navajo, etc.) and Alaska Natives, there are only three positions available if you are opposed to the Akaka Bill:

1) You could argue that indigenous people groups are no different from other ethnic minorities and therefore none of them (Native American tribes, Alaskan Natives or Native Hawaiians) deserve any special federal recognition. This view would require Native Americans and Alaska Natives to be stripped of their semi-autonomous status, including the right to form domestic dependent "nations within a nation." In addition to losing their powers of self-government, 561 tribes would be denied access to benefits, services and protections currently in place. Or...

2) You could argue that Native Americans and Alaska Natives deserve recognition, but Hawaiians somehow do not. This view would require you to ignore the similarities between the lands taken away from Native American tribes and the overthrow of Hawaii's monarchy in 1893, in which power was seized at gunpoint from a self-governing indigenous people group. The U.S. government's 1993 Apology Resolution admitting wrongdoing in the overthrow of Queen Lili'oukalani makes this argument even harder to defend. Or...

3) You could argue that in order to turn back the clock on the injustices of American imperialism, everyone should be sent back to "wherever they came from." This all-or-nothing view would presumably require Caucasians to be sent back to Europe, Asians back to Asia and so forth. Some Hawaiian sovereignty advocates are demanding the United States to completely withdraw from Hawaii, but this essentially requires secession from the Union, something that is neither realistic nor beneficial in my opinion.

Since I disagree with all three options above, I support the Akaka Bill. It is not a silver bullet solution to the complex disputes over ceded lands and entitlement programs, but Native Hawaiians are far better off with federal political recognition than without it. Until they are validated on par with other indigenous people groups, attempts to improve conditions for Native Hawaiians (through Kamehameha Schools for example) will always be threatened by lawsuits and accusations of "race-based" discrimination. The way forward through these convoluted realities is not an endless barrage of litigation, but the establishment of a legal framework allowing Native Hawaiians to form their own nation within a nation (while still under the authority of federal and state laws) so that a new dialogue can begin.

Enacting the Akaka Bill is not the final goal, but the starting point.

July 28, 2009

An ITZBEEN To Remember

As anyone with multiple young children knows, parenting can often be a simple test of survival from one day to the next. From tantrums to toilet-training, diapers to drool-wiping, mid-day messes to mid-sleep disruptions, there’s always an adventure lurking just around the bend. Unlike my wife, who has gracefully mastered the art of juggling competing needs of a toddler and a newborn, I tend to lose my bearings in the fog of perpetually unfinished tasks.

The craziest time of day in our household, 5 to 8 pm every evening, can almost be reduced to a series of questions (nearly always asked by me): Where’s Vincent’s pacifier? When is his next feeding? How long was Theo’s nap? When was his diaper last changed? And so on.

Sometimes it's the simplest things that are hardest to remember.

To preserve our sanity amid the chaos, we've come to lean heavily on an innovative new gadget, the ever-trusty ITZBEEN Baby Care Timer (pictured at right), a musubi-sized portable device that keeps track of how long “it’s been” since the most recent feeding, diaper change, nap or any other fine detail involving elapsed time. In addition to its four timers that can be individually reset with the touch of a button, I’ve even used the ITZBEEN as a handy reading light that won’t disturb anyone’s precious sleep.

And while the ITZBEEN’s backlit display provides important details to help ensure our newborn’s health and well being, it's no surprise my forgetful tendencies extend beyond my role as a parent. Even as a grown adult, I forget to put myself to bed on time. I forget to say “please” and “thank you.” I forget to floss my teeth and put away my '
toys.' I probably couldn't tell you where I last saw the ITZBEEN.

Beyond the physical realm, I am spiritually forgetful to the core.

I forget to practice God’s presence. I forget to celebrate His goodness. I forget to surrender my life daily to Christ. I forget to thank Him for the Cross. I forget the great cost of His sacrifice and consequently, I forget to tell others about His matchless grace.

Which makes me wonder: If I had a spiritual ITZBEEN, what would it tell me?

When did I last pray (not including mealtimes and church services)? How long has it been since I practiced hospitality or welcomed a stranger? When did I last enjoy the beauty of God’s creation? How long has it been since I shared the gospel (whether through actions or words)? When was the last time I gave to the poor or visited a sick person? How long has it been since I reflected on the Cross or pondered the Resurrection that changed human history?

Could it be that my drool-dispensing, diaper-soiling sons have a better grasp of their daddy's care and affection than I do of God's? As much as I adore those two boys, the Everlasting Father’s love goes so much deeper.

I think I can remember that.

July 23, 2009

Should government stay in the "marriage business"?

From the pages of Time magazine to the Honolulu Star-Bulletin and everywhere in between, I've heard numerous calls for government to "get out of the marriage business." The heated national fracas over gay marriage has caused some to question whether government should have anything to do with marriage as a social institution. If I may paraphrase, the argument usually goes something like this:

Marriage is a church issue, not a state one. Since marriage is a private agreement between two individuals, it should not be subject to government interference. Just as one's personal religious beliefs should not be a matter of public debate, neither should someone's marriage. If the government doesn't regulate people's baptisms, confirmations, Bar Mitzvahs or other religious ordinances, what gives them the right to meddle with marriage? Most of the political-religious controversy surrounding same-sex marriage could be resolved if the government would simply stop issuing marriage licenses. This would allow states to maintain religious neutrality by not promoting or discouraging any form of relationship over another. People could define their relationships according to their own beliefs, religious or secular.
The appeal of this reasoning plays well in today's post-religious climate. Most people don't want the government telling them what to believe, who to love or how to behave in their private lives. Ceasing the government’s role in the recognition of marriage, so the theory goes, would be a way to validate gay partnerships in the civic square while protecting the religious freedom of churches and clergy. By simply removing the dreaded M-word from the vocabulary of government, we could all put away our bullhorns and go home happy.

Or could we?

These days, it's nearly impossible to discuss the civil-legal institution of marriage (namely, the kind of thing conferred by a marriage license) without opening a religious-political can of worms. Perhaps I'm naive to attempt such a feat, but instead of discussing the theological nature of holy matrimony (which in my Protestant tradition is a sacred, lifelong covenant uniting a husband and wife as "one flesh" in the sight of God) or adding my voice to the cacophony surrounding the politics of gay marriage (been there done that), I would like to address the following question: Is there any solid non-religious (dare I say "secular") basis for the government to issue marriage licenses?

The short answer is yes.

While some well-meaning libertarians and others see the elimination of civil marriage as a means of resolving the gay marriage controversy, this would create far more problems than it solves. It’s not that I believe government should be promoting a particular religious agenda or regulating what goes on in private between consenting adults. Nothing could be further from the truth. My concern is that political bickering over the issue of same-sex unions has caused us to lose sight of marriage's much broader sociological purpose beyond religious ceremonies and warm fuzziness shared between committed partners, gay or straight. In the public square, marriage is not merely about religion or sexual orientation. It's about the fundamental need for societies to gauge the comparative significance of human relationships.

To put it bluntly: Marriage provides a measuring stick we cannot do without. We can tweak it, re-think it, re-name it ("civil unions" or "domestic partnerships" anyone?) or re-define it however we think best, but until we decide that drinking buddies and pen pals should receive the same benefits and protections as couples who have pledged a lifetime of commitment to each other, government will always play a role in the so-called "business" of civil marriage. Even if marriage licenses were abolished and replaced with civil unions as some have suggested, I suspect most of the voices so loudly engaged in the gay marriage standoff would quickly re-direct their energies to the laws governing civil unions.

Let's say the government stopped issuing marriage licenses altogether and as an alternative to civil marriage, couples could create their own private contracts that would be enforced through contract law. Administering pensions, inheritances and custody battles would become more difficult, but not impossible. The bigger question would be how to legally distinguish between those who wanted an “old school” lifelong partnership type of arrangement (gay or straight) versus a pragmatic contract between drinking buddies who wanted to save money on health care coverage. Without the draconian categories of "single" and "married", what other simple criteria would employers and health care providers use to determine the seriousness of a relationship and consequently, who qualifies for benefits?

For example, if I signed a private civil contract with one of my friends who has a terrific health care plan or education benefit for "spouses", would his employer be willing to cover my medical expenses and pay for my grad school tuition since we signed a similar contract to the married couple next door? Would such a contract excuse me from testifying in court against my friend, as married couples are? If I were to obtain a “divorce” or terminate my contract with him, could I sign another contract with one of my international friends to secure U.S. residency for them, as married individuals can? What about those employers who actually DO want to provide certain benefits to an employee’s spouse (defined in the old-school, marriage license sort of way) instead of just a drinking buddy or casual acquaintance? If there were no civil marriage, would such an employer be guilty of discrimination for offering "special" benefits to certain types of contract signatories and not others?

As a deeply religious person who cringes at the conflation of God and country, I can understand why some people would like to throw the civil marriage baby out with the political bathwater. But just because the word “marriage” (a perfectly good and practical concept, even for non-religious folk) has become associated with culture war carnage does not mean government recognition for lifelong partners is a bad idea. Judging by the eagerness of gays and lesbians to obtain government validation and not merely sign a private contract, maybe there is something special about marriage licenses after all.

July 10, 2009

Is Jon Stewart a prophet? I think not.

As a loyal subscriber to Sojourners magazine for nearly 5 years, I've seen a wide range of personalities and social activists covered in its pages. Even so, I'm thoroughly baffled as to why potty-mouthed fake newsman Jon Stewart was selected to grace this month's cover for the award-winning Christian publication whose stated mission is to "articulate the biblical call to social justice, inspiring hope and building a movement to inspire individuals, communities, the church and the world."

Here's the best explanation I've come up with so far: Jim Wallis really, really likes him.

Sojourners' founder and editor-in-chief opens the interview by likening The Daily Show's host to an Old Testament prophet: "The Hebrew prophets often used humor, satire, and truth-telling to get their message across, and I feel you do a combination of all three." From that point on, the interview largely consists of Wallis trying to convince Stewart to 'admit' he's some sort of contemporary prophet/activist/sage while Stewart, with trademark self-deprecating wit, coolly deflects every attempt to conjure what simply isn't there.

Despite Stewart's insistence that he's actually who he appears to be, namely a successful TV personality doing his job attracting audiences in order to "sell enough Budweiser [so] that Comedy Central will let us stay on the air," Wallis remains unconvinced and tries in vain to frame him in the prophetic tradition of "speaking truth to power." The irony of it all is that Stewart recognizes his clear lack of prophetic/spiritual credentials even as Wallis continually offers him the mantle if he wants it.

Granted, Stewart's clever satire mocking politicians and 24-hour cable news coverage can be both entertaining and insightful when he's exposing the phoniness of Washington-style politics. And yes, The Daily Show still makes me laugh from time to time, although I'm starting to outgrow its crass humor and cheap laughs at the expense of religion. But last time I checked, Hebrew prophets in the Scriptures were not primarily comedians delivering applause lines for big audiences. They were typically unpopular and counter-cultural messengers who preached repentance and obedience to God.

In many ways, I fit the profile of a typical Sojourners reader. I'm a 20-something evangelical Christian who believes global poverty, the environment, human trafficking and health care access are the most pressing issues of our time, although abortion and gay marriage require healthy discussion as well. At its best, what has made Sojourners unique through the years is a commitment to Scripture-based activism, not commercial politicking cloaked in religious language. With all the untold stories of Christ-centered ordinaries doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with God among the least of these, I'm not convinced we need to co-opt the bright lights and celebrity of a mainstream entertainer to build the mustard seed kingdom Jesus spoke of.

If Jon Stewart is the closest approximation to a modern-day prophetic voice Sojourners can find for its cover story, we're in a lot more trouble than I thought.