Thursday, September 18, 2014

Sparing Dagon in East Ramapo

It’s usually, you know, just a given in our country that, you know, people who don’t drive still pay taxes for roads, and people who hate the outdoors pay for public parks, and people without kids in the public schools pay for the public schools. Just, that’s the deal. We all know it. And so what happens when people who do not want to pay for the public schools take over the school board? —Ira Glass, This American Life
Do not rejoice when your enemies fall into trouble. Don't be happy when they stumble. For the LORD will be displeased with you and will turn his anger away from them. (Prov 24:17)
The Bible warns me about celebrating when statists get screwed by their own system – the system they consider us immoral for wanting to bow out of. No matter who suffers how much, they don’t seem to learn anything when it happens, which is frustrating, but when someone’s dog keeps you up all night with its barking, it’s hard to feel bad when it bites its owner.
Last Sunday’s episode of National Public Radio’s This American Life was as clear a showcase of the moral bankruptcy of statism as one is likely ever to see. It tells the woeful tale of East Ramapo, New York, a lower-middle-class town where “most of the people … were not Hasids, but most of the children were. Two out of three children in the school district were Hasidic.” The Hasids didn’t want their children in the public schools, and they didn’t want to have to pay for the public schools they weren’t sending their kids to in addition to the yeshivas they were paying for. But they agreed to a truce for a while: “The school board won’t call in the state to check and see if math and reading and history are being properly taught in the yeshivas, like the state mandates, if the Hasids will just stay away from the polls.”
That worked fine until the number of Hasidic children with special needs reached a critical mass: “Hasidic special-ed students, like other special-ed kids, … need expensive therapies and services and education. And the government will pay for those, is required to pay for them. But for that to happen, the district would usually require that the kids go into a public school setting.” And, of course, the whole point of the yeshivas is to keep the Hasidic kids out of the public schools.
East Ramapo refused to go the fascist route of using tax money to pay for special-ed facilities in the yeshivas, so the Hasids ended the truce and over a period of years voted the goys off the school board and Hasids on. The goys were understandably upset, but the Hasids were unimpressed. A letter to the editor in the local paper put it in what seem to me reasonable terms:
Dear fellow taxpayer in the East Ramapo school district, again and again, I read about how upset you are about the members of the school board, how we bloc-voted them in, how we don’t have the interests of the schoolchildren at heart. Well, let’s take a closer look at that.
For many years, you took our tax money, year after year, increase after increase, and you never had any problem with that. But when we finally get together and say, that’s enough, that is a problem.
I have a solution. How about giving all of us the option to bow out of the public school system and keep our money in our pockets? You want our money and our silence. Sorry, you cannot have it all your way.
And, of course, the goys had no intention of giving them the option to bow out.
What’s so immoral about asking to keep your own money and spend it on what you want? If I’m to believe Ira Glass as quoted in the epigraph, it’s immoral because we’ve never done it that way. (Actually, we did do it that way two hundred years ago, but that’s another story.)
So democracy is wonderful until it creates a situation that the democrats don’t like. I remember hearing during the Vietnam “conflict” years that if an election were held at the time, the Communists would win, so we had to keep fighting. As Tom Lehrer put it then,
For might makes right,
And till they’ve seen the light
They’ve got to be protected,
All their rights respected,
Until someone we like can be elected.
If the Vietnamese want to vote in the Communists, don’t they have that right? (As it turned out, of course, the Communists won without an election.) The Iranians voted in Mossadegh; we removed him for the Shah. The Chileans voted in Allende; we removed him for Pinochet. The Palestinians voted in Hamas; we let Israel blow the place to hell. The Ukrainians elected Yanukovych; we putsched in the neo-Nazis. The Hasids get tired of paying taxes for schools they don’t use, and—well, I’m not sure what’s going to happen, but I expect the State of New York and Uncle Sam his very self are rubbing their hands in gleeful anticipation.
The Hasidic school board could have simply defunded the public schools. That’s what I would have done. Dagon was flat on his face (see 1 Sam 5:3), and they could have ground him to powder. But they didn’t. They even raised their own taxes, increasing the school budget by 30% over ten years. But that’s not enough for the democratists.
Every comparable school district in the county grew its budget by an average of 50%. …
The costs the Hasidim and other conservatives say are out of control actually are rising alarmingly fast—pensions, health care, union contracts, cost of living. Those things grow by so much that a 30-some percent budget increase, that isn't growth. That's devastation.
So, while families are losing their jobs, losing their buying power as the Fed devalues the currency, and tightening their budgets, the schools somehow have the right to raise taxes to pay for pensions, health care, and union contracts. And if, as is to be expected, those union salaries are higher than the incomes of those paying the taxes, isn’t that the rich extorting money from the poor? This is moral?
And why are the costs “rising alarmingly fast”? Could there be any relationship between that and the coercion (as opposed to cooperation) inherent in fiat currency, union monopolies, and, of course, tax-funded education?
If the goys in East Ramapo want to pay more for their schools, why don’t they pass the hat? Charge user fees? Ask local businesses whose taxes have gone down to sponsor classes or students? If it works for potato chips and Little League, why not for schools?
My answer is that they don’t want to pay more. They want to force other people to pay for their kids’ education. If that’s the American way, I want no part of America.
And to the degree the Christian church is part of the exploitation of the Hasids—they are, don’t forget, the “Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria” that precedes the “the uttermost parts of the earth” to whom we are to proclaim the good news of Jesus—we are cutting out our own tongues.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Patrotic Bikinis

This month our nation has been celebrating two important events in its history. Last weekend marked the two-hundredth anniversary of Francis Scott Key’s writing of the “Star-Spangled Banner,” and of course Thursday was the thirteenth anniversary of 9/11. Fans at baseball and football games have been treated to military flyovers and color guards, giant flags have been displayed, patriotic music is everywhere, and military camouflage and other patriotic themes have adorned everything from baseball uniforms to football cheerleader bikinis.
Now our leaders are telling us that unless we go to war in Iraq again, and possibly in Syria and Ukraine, our future as a nation is in doubt.
In light of all that, think it is well to remember the old Bill Gaither song that goes
Jesus, Jesus, Jesus,
There’s just something about that name.
Master, savior, Jesus,
Like the fragrance after the rain,
Jesus, Jesus, Jesus,
Let all heaven and earth proclaim:
Kings and kingdoms will all pass away,
But there’s something about that name.
I’ve seen videos of a Sunday morning service in an evangelical church where the congregation sang “The Stars and Stripes Forever”: “By our right and by our might it waves forever!” They even repeated “forever” three times. But I’d like to suggest that there will be a time when that star-spangled banner will no longer wave. Just as today we talk about “the former Confederate States of America,” “the former Soviet Union,” “the former Yugoslavia,” and “the former Czechoslovakia,” someday people will speak of “the former United States of America.”
The Bible promises that we Christians “are receiving a Kingdom that cannot be destroyed.” It is to that kingdom that we owe our allegiance. So “Let us be thankful and please God by worshiping him with holy fear and awe.”
Let us pray.
Dear God,
We thank you for the blessings of our nation. We thank you that we have lived most of our lives without fear of famine, war, or disease. We thank you for the freedom to worship, and we ask forgiveness for the times that we have complained that this or that peripheral aspect of congregational worship has not been to our liking.
We thank you for President Obama, for Congress and the Supreme Court, for Governor Corbett and the state assembly and courts, as well as for our local government officials. We thank you for those who are willing to risk their lives to go into harm’s way to protect innocent life. Like us they are all people made in your image, and like us they are rebels against you and your law. Forgive them and us of our sins, and give us all reverence for you, courage to stand against injustice, and a desire to do justice, to love mercy, and most of all to walk humbly with you.
We have sinned against you, both in the evil we have done and in the good we have left undone. Forgive us, we pray.
Please use your church to heal the nations. May those who know you be able to bring peace to Ukraine, Syria, Gaza, and Nigeria by living lives of service, by presenting your vision of justice to ease the oppression of those who don’t know you, and most of all by fulfilling the Great Commission and making disciples. May your people in this nation be quick to listen, slow to speak, and especially slow to go to war. Instead of a great warrior nation, may we be known as a nation that heals the victims of war and knows how to keep wars from starting.
We pray for our enemies both personal and national. May we learn how to make our enemies into our friends, and most importantly into your friends.
We thank you for missionaries who leave their comfort zones to go around the block or around the world to tell the good news of Jesus. We thank you for those who give money to make that work possible. Please bless them, keep them safe, and enable them to bear fruit that will last for eternity.
We thank you most of all for sending your Son into the world. We thank you for his life of service, his words of life, for his death to pay for our sins, and for raising him to life to make us right with you.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Why Should I Listen to You?

So you think things like private property and free markets are heartless barbarity.
Why should I listen to you? You’re nothing but an overdeveloped monkey. And if I try to tell you you’re anything but an overdeveloped monkey, you’ll pull out this chart

and tell me I’m an ignorant Neanderthal.
According to your system, for almost five billion years there was no moral system anywhere in the universe besides might makes right. If you’re going to say that the God of the Bible is too violent for your liking, I suggest you follow a bunch of wolves, lions, robins, or amoeba around and tell me you didn’t see the kind of predatory behavior you condemn the biblical Israelites for.
B-b-b-b-but,” you say, “we’re supposed to be beyond that. We’re humans, not animals. We have moral standards.”
Ummm, my friend, look again at the chart. In your system we are animals. What you call moral standards are simply a survival strategy. Instead of stripes or venom, we have a uniquely human means of manipulating the chemistry of other humans’ brains. At some time in the past, someone to the right of center of that chart – probably someone who could not survive in a might-makes-right world – got the idea that he could get other humans to suspend the might-makes-right system long enough for him to exploit them by extending the common terms good and evil to include not only that good things were desirable, and not only that sometimes it was good to give up a small good now for a larger good later, but that even things that were good could be bad if he didn’t get a share of it.
Think that’s crazy? How else do you explain the difference in ethical systems today? Two hundred years ago, Indians – both dots and feathers – condemned new widows to death. New Guineans kill people they think send their spirits to kill those who die of anything but armed conflict. The Israelites stoned blasphemers, and Muslims still do. Within my father’s lifetime, rational people looked objectively at the evidence available to them and concluded that the root of their problems – and they had problems far beyond anything I’ve ever experienced – was Jews, and the best way to make the world a better place was to kill all Jews. Most Europeans today consider all such practices barbaric. If morality were anything but a survival strategy – if there were anything to prove its existence – there would be one standard of morality that we can all agree on, methinks.
In short, you can talk about morality all you want, but it’s still all might makes right. And your cure for the ills of private property – participatory democracy – proves it.
Every democracy on the face of the earth came about by armed conflict at some stage. And every election is simply a way of deciding who looks down the barrel of the gun and who looks up. Don’t believe me? Try not paying your school taxes and see where that gets you. And, of course, those who are better at might makes right have less subtle ways of making life miserable for the rest of us.
Only if we have something outside our universe saying, “This is good and this is bad” do the words good and bad have any real meaning. I’m not fond of everything in the Bible, and some of it looks a lot like might makes right in the name of a God who supposedly doesn’t work that way, but I’d rather start with “Love God and love your neighbor by doing for him what you would have him do for you” and try to make sense of the things that don’t fit in neatly than to start with a system that is might makes right from the get-go and try to use it as the basis of an ethical system that contradicts both logic and history.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Be True to Your … Whaat?

When some big braggart tried to put me down
And say his school was the best,
I said, “Hey, wait a minute.
What’s the matter, buddy, ain’t you heard of my school?
It’s number one in the state.”
So be true to your school,
Just like you would to your girl.
– Beach Boys, “Be True to Your School”
One of the first things I noticed when we got to Papua New Guinea in 1982 was how patriotic the people in Port Moresby were, at least if measured by the number of flags and the T-shrts and bumper stickers and signs for the government-run radio network. As an American I thought all this affection for the circuses run by and for the benefit of the ruling class of a banana republic most people had never heard of was kinda cute.
I remembered at the time the pep rallies held before important athletic events by the “public” schools I had attended. As I heard the exhortations to “show some school spirit,” I knew I wasn’t seeing much (at least when the team going out to fight, fight, fight for us was probably going to lose). I also wasn’t sure what it was or why it was important. What made Annandale High better than Jefferson High or JEB Stuart High?
Now I had chosen to go to Annandale, sort of. The house that we were looking to move into was in the district, and I thought Atoms was a neat mascot, but even as a high school junior I knew that wasn’t a good reason to choose one school over another. But I was into (non-mainstream) sports more than academics, we trusted the system, the house was a good fit, and the school wasn’t too far away, so on the first Tuesday of 1969, I became as much an Annandale Atom as I could without taking the field or even really caring if the teams won.
On that first Friday I went to the football game alone. I didn’t see anyone I recognized from my classes, nor did I recognize any names on the roster. But I cheered for the Atoms, who had been Virginia state AAAA champions the year before. Nineteen sixty-nine, however, was a “rebuilding year” and they lost that night and most nights both years I was there. Why did I cheer for them? Because I now lived in the neighborhood.
Why did urban Papua New Guineans wave the flag? Because they were born in the neighborhood. Why did I see Panamanian flags on almost every car in Panama when I was there? Because the folks were born in Panama. Why do Finns fly their flag? Why do Italians fly their flag (even when they’re in the US and have never been to Italy)? It’s because in some sense they were born there. They were placed there by circumstances beyond their control.
Why do Americans fly Old Glory?
If you had asked that question two hundred years ago, I think the answer (from white people, anyway) would have been, “Where this flag flies, no one can claim special privileges. We’re all equal, and people are free to take care of themselves, to succeed or fail on their own merits.” (Abolitionists would have added, “Someday the same will be said for all people here.” Others might have added “peaceful commerce with all, entangling alliances with none.”) Christians would have attributed this justice and the liberty it made possible to the influence of the church on everyday life.
Perhaps the church then had as high adultery, divorce, and bastardy rates as the society as a whole – as it does today – but those rates were low. And though not everyone who went to church was trully living for God, talk of “Christian America” was not too far off.
But today? What does it stand for today?
What sentence runs through your mind when you see the flag flying? “The land of the free and the home of the brave”? How free do people who elect a Barack Obama want to be? Or do they want a system of privileges for themselves and their friends? How do the anti-imports and anti-immigration and anti-gun and anti-drug crowds define “free”? How brave are people who sit in air-conditioned rooms in Arizona and Pennsylvania and drop bombs on women and children across the ocean?
Next time you’re in a group, ask people what they think when they see or fly the flag. Or try to read the minds of the other people in the next crowd you find yourself in. Is what they think what you think? Is what they think what God thinks, or what God wants them to think?
I submit that Americans fly Old Glory today for the same reason I rooted for the Atoms: it’s “the best” because it’s where they are. I submit that there’s no true virtue attached to this flag as opposed to, say, that of Finland. And given that thousands of people who could live anywhere they chose within the borders of the US are choosing to live outside, it would seem that a lot of people who have looked into the matter consider rooting for Uncle Sam like rooting for the Atoms in a “rebuilding year.”
It was by faith that Abraham obeyed when God called him to leave home and go to another land that God would give him as his inheritance. He went without knowing where he was going. And even when he reached the land God promised him, he lived there by faith – for he was like a foreigner, living in a tent. And so did Isaac and Jacob, to whom God gave the same promise. Abraham did this because he was confidently looking forward to a city with eternal foundations, a city designed and built by God. (Hebrews 11:8-10)
Like Abraham, we are blessed – so far – to live in a country where we can go about our everyday business with relatively minor difficulties. We don’t have the kings of the east abducting our relatives (Gen 14) or an Abimelek commandeering our wells (Gen 21). (Or maybe we do.) But we dare not forget that this is not our home. We cannot look at the injustices in our society and say, “Ah, but it’s good enough for government work.”
We need to judge it by the standard of that “city designed and built by God,” even if doing so in as godly a way as we can manage – and we need to humbly ask God to make our way of communicating that judgment ever more godly – makes us unpopular with those who know of no better home.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Rhinestone Jesus and Samaritan’s Purse

I’m reading a fascinating book by a regular mom—kids who melt down at Target, the whole “I’m no superhero” nine yards—who has done something really special. Rhinestone Jesus is the story of how Kristen Welch has enabled a Kenyan woman to head Rehema House, a home for unwed mothers in one of the poorest slums in the world. Of course, she didn’t do it all on her own. She’s an engaging writer, and through her blog she has recruited dozens, maybe hundreds, of pray-ers, donors, and even some short-term “boots on the ground” in Kenya to turn talk into substance.
She started from scratch: she had none of the training most missionaries get before they go to the field, and—I say as one who received a lot of praise in my day for going to the middle of nowhere as a Bible translator—she went to about as tough a place as exists anywhere apart from literal war zones. I get the feeling that before she undertook this project, going to the next state was fraught with culture shock for her, so her story is clear testimony of God’s ability to bless people more than they can possibly imagine by stressing them to the limit and allowing them to grow.
I also took a suggestion to watch Healing for Hewa, a video put out by Samaritan’s Purse, about a medical team headed by Dr. Allan Sawyer, a doctor in Papua New Guinea, that spent two weeks in a remote part of that nation—much like my part of the middle of nowhere—to teach mothers how to have healthy pregnancies and keep their newborns healthy. Again, for every pair of “boots on the ground” there are dozens of folks back home praying and giving to make it happen.
What the book and the video have in common is the theme of dozens of people back home praying and giving sacrificially to help a few dozen poor people live better. The number of mothers and babies helped directly by Kristen Welch’s friend Maureen is in the dozens, though of course the ripple effect is certainly much greater. Same with the number of Hewa women helped by the medical team. Kristen Welch, Maureen, Dr. Sawyer, and their teammates at home and on site all love Jesus and are concerned about the health of mothers and babies, and they put their concern into practice through prayer, giving, and sheer dogged endurance.
What bothers me is that these same people—or most of them, anyway, judging by what I see of evangelicalism—who will sacrifice so much to save a few dozen mothers and babies in Kenya and Papua New Guinea think nothing of supporting wars that kill mothers and children by the hundreds in Afghanistan and Iraq as “collateral damage”—and don’t forget the ripple effect. These wars have cost every man, woman, and child in the US almost seven thousand dollars apiece over the last thirteen years: for a family of four, that’s almost twenty-seven thousand dollars. How many families of four have given over two thousand dollars a year, every year, to missions? Yet they give that to Uncle Sam who, whatever else he does, kills more babies than Maureen and Dr. Sawyer can save.
Did God put the Great Commission on hold so that we could “defend our freedoms”? (This leaves aside, of course, the question of whether “the enemy” overseas is a greater threat to our freedom than Uncle Sam is.) Or should we be evangelizing the Afghans and Iraqis—perhaps I should say “should have been,” since so many of them are dead or likely hardened against anything an American would say—instead of bombing them?
I remember a story from the 1970s of a US Army commander coming to a town in Japan and expecting a fight but finding he was welcomed by the local populace. Apparently there were so many Christians in the town that, as the story goes, the commander said to an assistant, “Maybe we should have been dropping Bibles instead of bombs.”
Kristen Welch recounts more than one situation she entered in Kenya feeling sorry for someone who was living in abject poverty only to find that because that other person had Jesus in a way Kristen didn’t, it was she who was the poorer. Is it not worth asking if having the most powerful military the world has ever seen has made our church the poorest in history?
How much more good could those people who give sacrificially to Rehema House and Samaritan’s Purse do if they took the money they give to Uncle Sam’s military and gave it to those charged with fulfilling the Great Commission?