Top Dog

Screenshot 2017-06-03 09.28.17As I write, I am sitting in a sunny room in my mother-in-law’s home in Edinburgh, Scotland.  (Yes, it’s not often one can put “sunny” and “Scotland” in the same sentence.)  I confess to some reluctance to leaving the house today, for that would mean facing my Scottish relatives and friends who are aghast at the behavior of the President of the United States.

I have considered wearing a bag over my head when I go out, but that probably wouldn’t work.  As soon as I opened my mouth, my accent would betray me. I might as well own up to the fact that “my” President is a profound embarrassment not only to me, but to the world.  His most recent equivalent to an upraised middle finger is his announcement that the United States will withdraw from the Paris climate accords.

Writing in the New York Times, David Brooks rightly points out the amoral basis upon which my President makes his decisions.

This week, two of Donald Trump’s top advisers, H. R. McMaster and Gary Cohn, wrote the following passage in The Wall Street Journal: “The president embarked on his first foreign trip with a cleareyed outlook that the world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage.”

My President never learned to sing “Jesus loves the little children – all the children of the world . . .”  He fails to grasp the fundamental concept of “neighbor” that lies at the heart of Christian ethics.

That’s why, even if he were to accept the scientific evidence for climate change, he would still reject the Paris accords on the grounds that other countries might get the better deal – might gain some advantage in the endless struggle to get ahead of their competitors.  Never mind that, historically speaking, the United States is the world’s greatest carbon polluter.  What’s important is today’s deal – today’s opportunity to win.

For that’s what the world is through my president’s eyes – a field of perpetual and brutal competition.  On the personal level, it’s “Donald first.”  On the global level, it’s “America first.”

My President has put a new spin on the concept of “American exceptionalism.”  The term used to suggest that American had a unique mission to make the world a better place – to be a “city set upon a hill,” a beacon of hope to the downtrodden and beleaguered, a nation willing to take moral leadership in the global community.  Under Mr. Trump, America doesn’t even pretend to aspire to such moral high ground.  We’re just one more dog in in a dog-eat-dog world – and a snarling, vicious one at that.

As I lead worship every Lord’s Day I pray aloud for the President of the United States.  I pray that he will be guided by the Holy Spirit and graced with wisdom, forbearance, and insight.  I will continue to make that prayer, for I truly hope that he will repent and open himself to God’s leading.

If he does, the first question he will have to struggle with is, “Who is my neighbor?”  Jesus has an answer for him, but to receive it, he must have ears to hear.

Pig in a Poke

When I arrived to serve First Presbyterian Church of Tallahassee in 1985, Florida was coming down with a bad case of lottery fever.  Both conservative Christian groups and the liberal-leaning Florida Council of Churches opposed the establishment of a state-run lottery, even though proponents insisted that funds derived by separating fools from their money would be used to “enhance education.”

I joined Southern Baptists and Unitarians to say that the state should not encourage the something-for-nothing mentality that undergirds “gaming.”  (You can’t say “gambling” anymore.  That word has been stricken from the lexicon.)  We opposed the lottery on moral grounds.

We lost, of course.  The voters of Florida, in their infinite wisdom (or utter gullibility) took the bait.  And guess what!  The pea wasn’t under the shell after all.  Over time, the tax dollars that should have gone to education went elsewhere.  And the Governor is praised for proposing a budget increase for education that barely makes up for last year’s cut.

Meanwhile the ads for the Lottery grow increasingly surreal.  Throwing your money away on lottery tickets is not an exercise in cupidity after all.  It’s a way of “contributing” to education.

Eat your heart out, George Orwell.

The slide down the slippery slope has brought us to Gretna, a town in that is 85 per cent black and has an unemployment rate of 25 percent.  In a few days the residents of Gadsden County will get to vote on whether to allow slot machines to be added to the barrel racing and card games that are already underway at Creek Entertainment Gretna.

There’s not much doubt which way the vote will go.  The allure of jobs and new tax revenues is powerful.   My colleague, The Rev. Mr. Charles Scriven, a man of impeccable integrity, has launched an effort to defeat the slots.  Alas, the momentum is against him.

We can’t put the genie back in the bottle.  “Gaming” is probably here to stay.  The best we can do is to try to contain it as best we can.  Still, I can’t relinquish the dream of a system that uses equitably-derived tax dollars to further the public good.

“Gaming” is a social evil, no matter how many voters approve it.  It’s bad for families, bad for individuals, and bad public policy.  Dress it up anyway you want, it’s still a pig in a poke.

Courage Today

My son Adam gave me the new biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas for my birthday.  At 542 pages, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy made  for good reading at the beach following Christmas.

As Metaxas guided me through those chilling years of Hitler’s rise and the ever-increasing persecution of Jews, I kept asking myself, “If I had been a Christian in Germany at that time, what would I have done?”

Would I, like Bonhoeffer and that small band of pastors in the Confessing Church, signed The Theological Declaration of Barmen, rejecting “Nazi Theology,” or would I, like the vast majority of “good” Christians, gone along with what was termed “German Christianity?”  Metaxas points out that many,  many Germans opposed the Third Reich, but felt it their patriotic duty  to serve in the military and not to resist the government openly.

Last Sunday Glenda Rabby gave a wonderful talk to the Inquirers’ Class at First Presbyterian Church, Tallahassee, about the role of churches and church leaders during the Tallahassee Bus Boycott and the Civil Rights Movement.  I was too young at the time to make adult decisions, but I remember the pressure my father faced as a pastor in Texas.

When Dad stood for Civil Rights, even in a modest way, he was vilified by some church members as a Communist dupe and a disloyal American.  Members of the John Birch Society came to our church and took notes during his sermons to make their case against him.  My parents received anonymous phone calls at the manse accusing them of being “nigger lovers.”

If I had been the pastor of a church in the South in those days, would I have had the courage to speak out?  To march with Dr. King?  To insist that racial segregation was contrary to the gospel?  To drive black voters to the polls?

In hindsight, the issues facing Christians in the 50’s and 60’s seem crystal clear.  At the time, however, things seemed more complicated.  The same is true today.

Leon County Supervisor of Elections Ion Sancho has become a voice crying in the wilderness regarding the recent restrictions on voter registration and early voting passed by the Florida Legislature  He told  a crowd on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day,

We are facing a time that few of us thought would be possible.  History tells us we have been here before.  (The legislators) have another plan they want to implement, to make sure the people who voted in 2008 are not the same people who voted in 2012. (Quoted in the Tallahassee Democrat, January 17, 2012)

The argument that the new restrictions are merely a hedge against fraud by voters is an obvious sham.  It requires a willing suspension of disbelief to see the new law as anything but a means of suppressing votes by those who traditionally vote Democratic.  The effect of the law is to limit the votes of blacks and other minorities.  The law is not overtly racist, but then again, neither were the old poll tax laws.  These days you don’t have to be Bull Connor to keep non-whites from voting.

Preach on, Brother Ion!  You are a profile in courage.