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The Church and Prop 8: Losing by Winning

May
27
2009

In spite of this week’s setback in the California courts, legal approval for same-sex marriage is building steam. The domino theory many right wingers and religious conservatives worried about when Massachusetts turned in favor of same sex marriage five years ago is becoming reality.

Besides the Bay State, same-sex marriage is now law in Vermont, Iowa, Maine, and Connecticut. New Hampshire and New York are likely the next tiles to fall, and supporters have promised to continue the fight both in California and federal court. No doubt the momentum will build and more states will tilt in the direction of the prevailing political wind.

Yawn.

That’s not to belittle anyone for whom legal recognition of a unified relationship is an important matter. I yawn because I fail to see why this is even an issue anymore.

A year ago, while gay marriage made its way before the people of California, I addressed the church’s political stand on gay marriage, writing about the evangelical community’s failure to conduct themselves in a biblical manner. That failure was – and is – symptomatic of how the church has lost its way. We cheer a legal victory upholding a state ban on same-sex marriage but, blinded by that win, we lose sight of the eternal picture, pushing away tens of thousands of people we have been called to love.

As an evangelical, I understand the reason behind all the hand-wringing and brow-furrowing. For me, the Bible is clear on the issue – homosexuality is sin. But here’s a memo to my fellow believers: so are many other behaviors that we’ve winked at over the years without the same level of consternation. Divorce, for example. Current statistics suggest that marriages within the evangelical church fail just as often as they do among non-believers. Sex outside the institution of marriage seems rampant as well, not to mention all the other apparently minor (based on the church’s reaction) transgressions enumerated among the Ten Commandments.

I’m not suggesting that bad behavior excuses bad behavior, nor am I suggesting we evangelicals change our standards. To the contrary, I think the responsibility is squarely upon the shoulders of the evangelical church to rise above the debate over same-sex marriage, or any other behavior we see as sinful, and set a unilateral example by adhering to a standard of moral behavior as defined by the Bible. So here’s another memo to my fellow believers: We cannot force others to live by our standards, nor should we expect our government to impose those standards by legislative fiat. We are individually responsible to live the lives we are called by God to live, no matter how those around us choose to live their own lives. It’s a speck in your brother’s eye kind of thing.

Evangelicals like to point out that the Apostle Paul took a hard line against sexual immorality, including homosexuality. They point to his letters to the churches in Rome and Corinth and take those writings as a mandate to social activism, conveniently forgetting that those letters were not written to address the behavior of those outside the church. They were intended to correct immoral behavior within the church.

Paul’s concern was that Christian communities were acting in a manner inconsistent with their beliefs. He wanted his fellow-Christians to examine and correct their behavior in order to develop a closer relationship with God and demonstrate God’s love to the world by their example. Whenever we find the Apostles, Peter and Paul especially, addressing non-believers in the Book of Acts, they are never condemning. Instead, they preach God’s love and grace through Jesus Christ. Far from being aggressive, they willingly submit themselves to abuse and even imprisonment (and eventually death) for the sake of delivering their message – by the examples of their behavior.

When the message is delivered to Christians, it’s a different story. When Paul writes in I Corinthians 5, “For what have I to do with judging those also who are outside? Do you not judge those who are inside? But those who are outside God judges,” he makes it clear that the church should not worry about the world’s behavior. That’s God’s job. We need to spend our own time and energy keeping ourselves on the narrow path. We’d do well to heed Paul’s advice today.

Believers are called to be salt and light, a living witness of the love of God at work in the world. Ours is not a political battle, but a spiritual one. Even if our hearts break at what we see happening in our country, we are called to demonstrate a better way by living to a standard that has not changed since Christ walked the earth. No law can change that mandate. No court can set it aside.

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Posted by Mike Spinney at 7:44 PM | Permalink

Big Brother’s Riding Shotgun

May
12
2009

I live in Massachusetts where the governor and state legislature seem bent on giving new life to the moniker “Taxachusetts.” Our local news headlines lately have been all about turnpike toll increases, gas tax increases, sales tax increases, and a new kind of road use tax assessed through the use of a GPS tracking device that tallies the miles a car travels over state asphalt.

Sadly, Massachusetts isn’t the only place considering such a tax – known as a VMT (vehicle miles taxed). Following a pilot program, Oregon officials concluded that a VMT was a “viable” option for that state, and although the U.S. Transportation Department has said a VMT program “is not and will not be Obama administration policy,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has made conflicting statements, including, “We should look at the vehicular miles program where people are actually clocked on the number of miles that they traveled.”

Now, I’m not a black helicopter, Trilateral Commission-Star Chamber conspiracy theory kind of guy, but I don’t like the way this is headed. So this isn’t just an anti-tax rant. Rather, it’s a warning about giving state and federal agencies the authority to track the comings and goings of individual citizens. Little thought is being given to the negative implications on privacy, liberty, or peoples’ faith in government.

To date, the clear trend favors unfettered tracking. Government use of GPS is being tested on a number of different fronts in the courts, and the government is winning. In many states, sex offenders’ movements are monitored by the use of a GPS ankle bracelet, and while a judge in Massachusetts recently ruled that a suspected sex offender cannot automatically be required to wear such a device, their use was lawful in specific instances. Meanwhile, a Wisconsin appeals court just this week ruled in favor of the warrantless attachment of GPS devices to automobiles in order to track individuals suspected of crimes, athough that court did offer the caveat that it was “more than a little troubled” by the practice. Other jurisdictions are using the devices to ensure compliance with court orders restricting the movements of offenders in domestic violence cases.

As use of GPS tracking devices moves into the realm of revenue collection, spokespeople for the state and federal agencies involved have offered verbal assurances that citizen privacy would be a primary consideration. Such acknowledgements and caveats are cold comfort for anyone who is concerned by steady governmental encroachment on individual privacy and liberty.

Some would explain away these developments as necessary in an age where the people require more protection of their public servants. Threats both foreign and domestic, they argue, lurk in every shadow and safeguarding from such dangers costs money. Technology, of course, is the cure for both ailments. It’s easy, it’s getting less expensive and tagging your car or boat is only nominally intrusive – until you consider where the information about where you go and what you do ends up.

I very much doubt that I am the only person who – even in a post-9/11 world – is more troubled by the imminent prospect of having Big Brother as my constant driving companion than I am at the remote chance of becoming the next victim of al Qaeda or a more mundane villain. Nor am I interested in making it any easier for Uncle Sam to gain access to my wallet.

But I also get the sense that this relentless but nevertheless quiet assault on personal liberty and “creative revenue enhancement” has inflicted a kind of societal post traumatic stress disorder on the American people. We’re in a stupor and don’t know how to respond, nor do we have the collective strength to respond. We’ve been bombarded by overhyped fear of terrorism, economic collapse, environmental disaster, and social crisis to the point where we barely put up a fight even as Congress demands trillions of our money without a clear reason why. I have to wonder: do we even care anymore?

In his Barr Code blog, former GOP congressman and Libertarian presidential candidate Bob Barr recently wrote of the public’s waning faith in government and of how recent studies show the country is growing increasingly suspicious of its public agencies. That’s, in part, Barr concludes, because the politicians and bureaucrats who staff these agencies conduct themselves as if they are above the laws they have sworn to uphold.

The many tax cheats nominated (and confirmed) for cabinet positions within the Obama Administration, along with the previous administration’s penchant for secrecy, illustrate Mr. Barr’s point.

When the message coming out of Washington is, “Do as I say, not as I do,” and all the while the hands and eyes of government continue to probe into the personal affairs of the average Joe, it is clear that there is a disconnect between the citizens and our elected officials.

No taxation without representation was once a rallying cry against tyranny. Today it seems the Sons of Liberty have lost their voice.

Posted by Mike Spinney at 7:44 PM | Permalink

You Have Zero Privacy — Enjoy It!

Apr
23
2009

Oracle Corporation is the apparent winner in the $7.4 billion race (power walk?) to buy Sun Microsystems. I’m not a tech industry analyst, so I don’t have a lot to add to the conversations taking place over the financial or industrial implications, but the deal does bring to mind the now infamous words of former Sun CEO Scott McNealy, who said in 1999, “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.”

That quote has echoed down through the years since it was first uttered and it is either praised for its insight or decried with varying degrees of fervor depending upon your view on the subject. For my part, I think McNealy was spot-on – and dead wrong. You have zero privacy — enjoy it!

“Zero privacy” was McNealy’s way of pointing out that the then-nascent issue of the Internet’s impact on consumer privacy was merely accelerating the pace at which an individual’s personal information could be gathered, accessed, processed, and put to use by the organizations already using and abusing names, addresses, telephone numbers, and credit profiles. And he was absolutely right. Our personal information has always been part of the currency required to transact business, but the democratization of commerce in the Internet age opened a vast array of new opportunities to access and put that currency into circulation.

Yet pronouncements of privacy’s death, it turns out, have been hoist by their own digital petard. That same democratization has given individuals – you and me – more control over that information and more say in the privacy of our personal information.

I am a big believer in the marketplace of ideas and have full confidence that, as a whole, regular folks are smart enough to make their own good decisions. Others disagree, and have made it their life’s purpose to urge state and federal governments to layer more and more legislation on top of an already byzantine regulatory landscape that seems to have only one purpose: protecting people from themselves. Thanks, but I like to make my own decisions.

Crusaders like the Center for Digital Democracy and its director Jeff Chester seem to never be satisfied until their vision of how the world should be has been foist upon an ignorant and ungrateful nation. Their weapons – volume and hysteria – are brandished against corporate American in the mistaken belief that there is evil lurking behind every successful business plan.

The Federal Trade Commission recently issued a repudiation of the demands of overzealous privacy advocates like Chester when it allowed the online advertising industry to self-regulate rather than issue a set of rules that would likely be obsoleted by the inexorable march of innovation by the time the rules were ratified. The guidelines, drafted under the Bush Administration and issued by the FTC this past February, were delivered with a stern warning when Commissioner Jon Leibowitz said, “This could be the last clear chance to show that self-regulation can – and will – effectively protect consumers’ privacy in a dynamic online marketplace.”

Companies like Google and Microsoft, popular targets for the advocates’ ire, have been pretty good citizens in spite of what has been implied. But under the Obama administration Liebowitz’s lingering threat might be enough to keep companies from taking too many chances. Taking chances is what innovation is all about – it’s in the DNA of many tech companies – so it’s anyone’s guess who wins this fight.

But a telling story can be found in the success of social networking utilities like Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter. These companies are real time experiments exploring public sentiments over privacy in theory and privacy in practice. And they bear powerful witness – Facebook has more users than some nations do citizens – to the fact that people are more than comfortable baring their souls online to engage friends, family, colleagues, and even total strangers who may share common interests. (Disclosure: Spot-on’s ad service builds and sells Facebook applications but I’m not part of that aspect of the business).

I consider the success and popularity of Facebook as the best evidence that privacy is alive and well because of the Internet. In spite of the occasional hiccup (such as the network’s now-abandoned Beacon advertising kerfuffle), Facebook’s popularity continues to soar, in large part because of the company’s response to public opinion. If Facebook demonstrated a tin ear to its more than 200 million subscribers, they’d go elsewhere.

These sites are tools that encourage the public to be anything but private in front of millions of total strangers – and the public can’t get on board fast enough. Some will say this phenomenon is driven by our ego-centric, celebrity-driven culture, but human beings are largely social beings. We have an inherent need to associate with others and belong to communities, and as long as we believe we have a measure of control over those communities, we’re happy to be seen.

That doesn’t mean that people will always make wise decisions, but where personal liberty reigns there also exists risk. And there’s the ever present contradiction of individual habits that no amount of legislation will ever overcome. As personal security expert Robert Siciliano recently told me, “While many citizens scream against Big Brother and corporate America abusing their trust, many will give up all their privacy for ten percent off a new pair of shoes.”

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Keeping pace with the times, I am now on Twitter posting thoughts on faith, politics, privacy, and the occasional random observation or comment. Look me up and follow me as spinzo.

Posted by Mike Spinney at 10:00 AM | Permalink

Tea Party v. Thai Party Protests

Apr
15
2009

It’s tax day, that chilling annual reminder of just how much of your hard earned money state and federal government needs to do the people’s business, especially when the people’s business includes such necessary pursuits as wooden arrow manufacturing and rum distillation – just two of the 9,000 or so outrageous “stimulus” earmarks that have already been largely forgotten by the public.

For those who haven’t forgotten, today is the day groups of people will gather at various central and symbolic locations around the country to hold “tea parties” in protest of taxes and Congressional abuse of the public funds they’ve been charged with managing.

But “protest” just doesn’t seem like the right description. How about: gripe, carp, or grouse? Heck, gather and network are probably more fitting adjectives; these tea parties actually look like they might be a lot of fun.

My guess is that today’s tea party gatherings won’t turn so ugly and, in spite of the good intentions of those who are organizing them, the result will be one collective yawn heard resounding through the halls of Congress and state legislatures across the country. The phenomenon of these so-called protests, scheduled through oh-so-trendy social media utilities such as Facebook, Twitter, and Meetup, is almost laughable. Clicking on an invitation may give participants the warm and fuzzies over being involved in civic activism, but it’s far too easy for politicians to ignore such passive events, even when they are punctuated by an actual gathering of people.

Such events ask nothing of their participants, who tend to go on with their lives as soon as the clock says it’s time to make the next appointment.

“Oh, a tea party? You mean I get to spend an hour with a popular radio host and then head on down to Newbury Street? Sure, I’m in. Sounds like a blast.”

Contrast with the riots in Thailand – where the stakes are high and the folks at the front line are risking life and limb to get their point across. Anti-government groups recently clashed with the military in Bangkok in protest of the current administration, which came to power under a coup. What began as a peaceful demonstration turned violent, with ousted premiere-in-exile Thaksin Shinawatra encouraging his supporters and threatening to lead a revolution. The potential consequences of having been involved in those protests are severe: two people were killed, more than 100 injured, and arrest warrants have been issued for many identified as leaders. There are even reports of the establishment of organizations to investigate the mysterious disappearance of some of the protesters.

This sort of uprising is more in keeping with the spirit of the original Boston Tea Party, which, though not terribly violent, was a genuine risk to those who participated, and served as a precursor to armed revolution against an oppressive government. The government in Thailand knows the folks who clashed with the army and who burned buses are serious about their beliefs. King George and Parliament knew the colonists were serious about theirs as well.

Today, Congress knows that we are only serious about things like American Idol and whether our new iPhone has an “app for that.” And until our elected officials get a sense that we’re serious about our frustration – by taking action, not just gathering to gab about our “issues” – we can only expect more of the same.

On one hand, the more the folks in places like D.C., Boston, Sacramento, Des Moines, and Jefferson City ignore the public’s rumblings, the more likely it is those rumblings will erupt like Mount Redoubt. On the other, accepting a Facebook invite, even when the cumulative number seems big, isn’t an effective form of protest. It’s time to starting thinking of other ways to get the point across.

Demanding accountability and throwing the bums out on Election Day would be a great place to start. It’s what the founders had in mind to prevent the necessity of further violence, after all. They experienced the horror and tragedy of armed revolt and had the wisdom to offer a means to avoid it in the future. Unfortunately, the public’s continued failure to take advantage of this measure may have dire consequences.

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Keeping pace with the times, I am now on Twitter posting thoughts on faith, politics, privacy, and the occasional random observation or comment. Look me up and follow me as spinzo.

Posted by Mike Spinney at 9:12 AM | Permalink

Rx: Self-Help for Hard Times

Mar
31
2009

There’s an old story about a minister who lived in a town on the banks of a river that, one particularly wet season, spilled its banks. As the flood waters rose, the man went to the church to pray for God’s help and protection for the town. Shortly thereafter a truck drove up and offered to take the reverend to safety.

“Thank you, but I’m trusting in God. You should help others in greater need,” he replied.

Hours later the water had risen high enough to flood the first floor of the church. The minister was on his knees praying in his second floor office when a boat motored up to the window and a offered to take the reverend to safety.

“Thank you, but I’m trusting in God. You should help others in greater need,” he replied.

As the river continued to rise, the minister scrambled to the church’s roof and was in deep prayer when a rescue helicopter flew overhead and dropped a rope down in order to take the reverend to safety.

“Thank you, but I’m trusting in God. You should help others in greater need,” he replied.

Shortly thereafter the church collapsed under the force of the water and the minister perished. Standing before his maker, the man disappointedly asked, “God, I trusted you to see me through the flood. Why did you not answer my prayer?”

“I sent a truck, a boat, and a helicopter,” God replied. “What were you expecting?”

You might think this story would have some relevance to the situation in Fargo, North Dakota, but I thought the parable was more apt to our nation’s current financial situation.

I see captains of American industry waiting around for a parting of the skies and a booming voice (echoing from somewhere in the vicinity of Washington, D.C.) to tell them everything’s going to be alright; the only thing they need to do is show the proper obeisance (while begging for their stimulus check). Meanwhile, the very thing they need to move forward (and take the economy along with them) is, perhaps, the most obvious thing: guts and confidence.

I recently read an opinion essay by author Jean Strouse in the New York Times describing the situation during the United States’ banking crisis of 1907, which found President Theodore Roosevelt otherwise engaged while giants of American industry marshaled the resources necessary to prevent the collapse of our financial system. Sure, they were motivated by self interest, but isn’t that the whole idea?

Among the heroes of that situation, banker J.P. Morgan knew that if his fortune – and the fortunes of those who trusted and invested in him – were to survive the crisis, he was going to have to do something about it on his own. Roosevelt and the U.S. Treasury weren’t poised to write any checks to cover the losses incurred by Morgan or any other wealthy industrialists. Morgan consorted with his peers and figured out a solution to the problem. It was either that or fail.

J.P. Morgan was one man, but he was a man who acted decisively to not only avert disaster, but helped restore confidence in the market. Strouse argues that Morgan almost single-handedly turned the situation around because he understood the stakes and was willing to do what it took to win. Because of his actions we now look back to 1929 – and not 1907 – as our nation’s darkest economic hour.

The stakes have changed dramatically today, and so has the American industrial philosophy. “Too big to fail?” Blasphemy! CEOs of the current age aren’t motivated to succeed as they once were. In most cases their contracts guarantee massive salaries and generous severances, win or lose, so the daily objective has more to do with maintaining the status quo than with taking risks. Stockholders like money, but they abhor risk. Today’s risk takers aren’t occupying offices on Wall Street, but are found in America’s garages and incubators, or overseas in places like South Korea, Singapore, and India.

Strouse believes America’s economy is waiting for a new Morgan to step forward and suggests Warren Buffet might be that man. I disagree. Financially, Buffet’s as smart as they come, but he’s notoriously penurious and, apart from a shrewd accumulation of discounted shares, he isn’t likely to wager Berkshire Hathaway‘s value to spur confidence in the markets. He’ll spend words to bolster confidence, but he won’t ask his shareholders to squirm anymore than they already are.

Sadly, I don’t think this century has a J.P. Morgan. So, while the economic floodwaters continue to rise, we can’t afford to wait for a miracle. Instead, it’s time for Americans to revive their collective confidence and do as individuals collectively what we seem to be waiting for someone else to do for us: Get in the boat and help row.

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Keeping pace with the times, I am now on Twitter posting thoughts on faith, politics, privacy, and the occasional random observation or comment. Look me up and follow me as spinzo.

Posted by Mike Spinney at 4:49 PM | Permalink

The Message of Madoff

Mar
12
2009

Most Sundays I spend my evenings inside the medium security prison at MCI Shirley here in Massachusetts, fellowshipping with men whose lives have taken unfortunate turns. I’ve gotten to know some of the men who regularly attend the ministry, heard their testimonies, and have been challenged by some of what I hear. I’m not being casual with the word when I say I genuinely love these men, my brothers in Christ.

I’m not ignorant of the fact that the acts these men committed often involved other people, victims and their families, and that there are some cases where the damage done was irreversible. I’ve wept at times while coming to grips with the grim reality that attends prison ministry. I have answered a call to bring a message of hope and encouragement to a demographic that desperately needs it, and while there are some who resent the work I and other prison volunteers do, I make no excuses on behalf of these men, and I’ve never heard any offered by them.

Today, crooked financier Bernard Madoff takes a step closer to boosting the nation’s prison population for masterminding and carrying off a massive, decades-long fraud scheme that ruined the lives of thousands of innocent investors who trusted the Wall Street baron with their futures.

Bernard Madoff has pleaded guilty to 11 felony counts and the possibility of a 150 year sentence, but because of who Bernard Madoff is, the resources he yet has available, and the “non-violent” nature of his crime, it’s likely that he won’t do hard time, even if he does live out the rest of his life on the wrong side of the razor wire.

I’ve got a big problem with that.

That Madoff didn’t brandish a Roscoe in perpetrating his crime shouldn’t get him off the hook. To the contrary, the book on Madoff’s Ponzi scheme describes his sin as so cunning and calculated that well-meaning folks unwittingly helped him in his deception. They trusted him and he violated that trust to draw more victims into his web. In addition to money, reputations were lost and some took it hard. After losing more than $1 billion of his own money as well as the fortunes of clients that trusted him, investor Rene-Thierry Magon de la Villehuchet was so burdened by the weight and consequences of his apparent inadvertent guilt that he decided to take his own life. Retired British soldier William Foxton, upon learning that he’d lost his hard-earned modest fortune to Madoff, also chose to end his own life.

It’s said that all prisons are filled with innocent men, and if you don’t believe it just ask them. My experience has been to the contrary. Most of the men who gather in the chapel during Sunday night’s Most Excellent Way service will tell you bluntly that they are guilty of their crimes. Repentance requires admission of guilt, after all, and forgiveness can only come when there’s genuine contrition. Sometimes it takes getting caught in one’s deeds to bring that kind of brokenness, but even when God forgives absolutely the state still requires that time be served, and prisons like MCI Shirley are filled beyond capacity.

I don’t for a moment believe that Madoff is beyond redemption, but if he lands in Club Fed instead of a less comfortable facility, what kind of message does that send to folks struggling in the shadow of his tony Manhattan townhouse?

Our Declaration of Independence affirms the concept of equality, yet that ideal has never been a reality in America, and if the court treats Bernard Madoff with more deference than a kid who foolishly decided to earn his bread peddling dope under a street light, or who stupidly got in a scrape over a matter of respect, or who concocted a losing scheme to take money under an empty threat, the message will resound with clarity through every struggling neighborhood in the country.

In spite of the tremendous symbolism of President Barack Obama’s presidential victory, in the United States of America there are still too many who are more equal than others.

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Keeping pace with the times, I am now on Twitter posting thoughts on faith, politics, privacy, and the occasional random observation or comment. Look me up and follow me as spinzo.

Posted by Mike Spinney at 3:00 PM | Permalink

An Evangelical’s Goodbye to Dr. Dobson

Mar
2
2009

Dr. James Dobson stepped down last week from his post as chairman of the worldwide Focus on the Family ministry.

I have been critical of the political involvement of Dr. Dobson and other evangelical leaders, and will continue to watch how he and Focus on the Family ply their influence in the political arena, but I thought it appropriate to take this opportunity to spell out my feelings as a Christian who is interested – to be polite – in the politics of the day.

I admire Dr. Dobson as an evangelical leader whose ministry has clearly been blessed and is a blessing to many. Through Focus on the Family Dr. Dobson has built a positive and effective ministry that reaches tens of thousands of families around the world each day with a message of hope and edification. Whether or not you subscribe to the Focus perspective on life, for many people the ministry’s counsel on marital issues, child-rearing, and social and moral teaching is a much needed source of comfort and guidance. Focus on the Family’s multi-media organization effectively uses all the available tools of communication to daily reach out and help people.

But Dobson’s taken advantage of his prominent position, using his pulpit to play politics and influence policy by weilding his influence among millions of Christian voters as leverage. Now, I am not against civic involvement on the part of Christians. As an Evangelical, I follow state and national politics closely and express my opinion often. I believe I have a duty as a citizen to follow my conscience and faith on political issues, but regard this as a matter of personal choice, not religious obligation. I resent being told by anyone, let alone a religious figure, that I have a moral responsibility to act in a certain way and I will continue to speak out against influential Christians like Dobson who use their position to manipulate the political process. There is a world of difference between debate and exploitation, and I believe the pages of holy scripture clearly show a better way to bring about social change.

In the Bible, the Seventeenth Chapter of the Book of Acts records an incident in which an angry mob gathers in the city of Thessalonica because of the preaching of Paul and Silas. Those behind the mob complained to the Roman authorities that the missionaries were a threat to Rome because they told of a king other than Caesar, and that they were spreading discontent everywhere they went. “These who have turned the world upside down have come here too,” they protested.

Of course, Paul and Silas were not spreading sedition or inciting rebellion. They were simply preaching the gospel message, that “this Jesus whom I preach to you is the Christ” — and they turned the world upside down. In my opinion, that’s the model the Evangelical movement should follow if it wants to change the country and world: preaching and leading by example, not preaching with an eye on accruing power in the civic arena.

In the late ’60s and early ’70s there was a phenomenon in this country that became known as the Jesus Movement that grew out of and because of the simple preaching of the gospel message. At its height there was no political agenda to the Jesus Movement. To the contrary, the Jesus Movement took hold in stark contrast to the political climate of the day as many of America’s youth found in Jesus what they failed to find in their political and cultural leaders (right and left). They responded to the unadulterated message of hope and love that was lived by Christ, preached by the Apostles, and recorded in the Gospels. They turned their world upside down.

That message hasn’t changed in the two millennia that have passed since the crucifixion; neither has the desire of individuals to use that simple message to achieve selfish ends. Dr. Dobson has resigned, but the legacy he and other evangelical leaders leave behind – a ministry as political as it is spiritual – is one that should leave with them.

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Keeping pace with the times, I am now on Twitter posting thoughts on faith, politics, privacy, and the occasional random observation or comment. Look me up and follow me as spinzo.

Posted by Mike Spinney at 7:00 AM | Permalink

Toward a Saner Cuban Policy

Feb
24
2009

Finally, someone of consequence is talking sense on our senseless Cuban foreign policy.

Senator Richard Lugar, ranking minority member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and one of the most respected foreign policy voices on Capitol Hill, wrote in a report drafted over the weekend that, “We must recognize the ineffectiveness of our current policy and deal with the Cuban regime in a way that enhances U.S. interests.”

That’s the kind of sentiment that has been too long in coming. Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. has seen fit to continue a foolish grudge match with Cuba that amounts to little more than ridiculous display of stubborn pride.

What has our policy toward Cuba achieved for the United States over the last twenty years? Pardon me while I go freshen my coffee and catch up on some morning reading while you strain your brain thinking of a good answer to that question.

Time was we had every reason to take a hostile posture toward Cuba, even if the dramatic political change that turned the country from playground for America’s uber-wealthy to Communist launch pad was fomented in part by our political miscalculations and bungling during and after the Fidel Castro-led revolution from 1957-1959. Once the Soviets took advantage of the situation and established a political and military foothold on the island, we had little choice but to dig in and do what we could to protect our shores from the potential threat Cuba represented.

The high-stakes poker match is most closely associated with the Cuban Missile Crisis, but also included Operation Mongoose, a failed covert program aimed at using subterfuge and sabotage to undermine and, eventually, overthrow the Castro regime. But such policies became obsolete once the Berlin Wall fell and the Cold War ended.

Our antagonistic posturing with Cuba has played an important role in U.S. domestic political strategy, most evident every fourth November when presidential wannabes from Richard M. Nixon to George W. Bush have promised to maintain the status quo in order to win the votes of conservative Cuban-Americans in South Florida, but apart from Election Day placations for Little Havana expats, the only reason I can deduce for maintaining our hostile posture with Cuba is because, economically, it costs us nothing and makes us feel tough.

This suspicion came into clear focus in the summer of 2006 when the discovery of oilfields in Cuban waters coincided with the development of technology that made accessing the deep reserves feasible, prompting Congress to propose exempting U.S. oil companies from the embargo (and at least one astute columnist to point out the proposal’s hypocrisy).

Somewhere there’s an economic threshold that must be crossed before Washington decides Cuba’s evils can be forgiven. Even in matters of national security, it always seems to come down to economics.

Economics are why we so willingly look beyond China’s horrendous record of human rights abuses and the serious military threat posed by the world’s most populous country. Economics are why we so willingly look beyond Saudi Arabia’s record of human rights abuses and the serious military threat posed by the world’s most oil-rich country. At the other end of the scale, economics are why we so willingly look beyond the plight of the poor and oppressed people in places like Darfur, Malawi, and Burma.

As I argued in 2006, I believe the United States must do a better job of being a good neighbor to all the nations that make up the Americas, and our foreign policy in this region must be based on mutual respect. Just because we carry the biggest stick doesn’t mean we have a right to brandish it. Countries like Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua may not represent a military threat to the U.S., but they can make life difficult here by maintaining nationalistic rhetoric against us, rallying the impoverished people of Latin America toward anti-Americanism at a time when the entire world is struggling economically, and giving our global rival, China, an even greater opportunity to buy political influence in our hemisphere.

By re-evaluating our Cuban policy and giving rise to normalization of relationships with one of our closest neighbors, we can signal to all of Latin America that we are willing to work through our past differences and recognize the manifold ways in which our nations are linked, and work to do what is in our common good.

Posted by Mike Spinney at 6:00 AM | Permalink

He Had a Dream!

Jan
15
2009

In spite of my Christian beliefs, I’m a notorious humbug around the holidays. I just don’t see how gathering around a pagan totem in the spirit of avarice can possibly bring honor to Christ. I’m not even certain that the government should be in the business of religious ceremony. Which brings me to our next national holiday: Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Dr. King isn’t getting his due from what I can see. After all, if we’re serious about honoring the Civil Rights Movement’s greatest hero shouldn’t we be using the observation of his birthday as an excuse to shill for a quick buck? Isn’t that the American way?

Consider the abundant marketing opportunities as a Dr. King impersonator appears on your television screen bellowing:

I have a dream – a dream of lower prices!

I have climbed the mountain – and it’s a mountain of savings!

Free at last, free at last – buy one, get one free, while supplies last!

Without the taint of commercialism I have to believe Americans haven’t really embraced Martin Luther King Jr. Day. There’s a lingering sense that we acquiesced to the holiday based on a sense of guilt, and not the overwhelming merit of King’s life and accomplishments. That’s the only logical reason I can think of to explain why everyone from Wal-Mart to Slick Rick’s Used Car Emporium is afraid of mining this rich advertising vein — the fear of finding Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton camped out in their parking lot after launching such a campaign.

Let me be clear on this issue: I fully support honoring Dr. King with a national holiday. I have the utmost respect for the man who lived and died for the noblest of causes and principles, and who exemplified the words of Jesus Christ who said, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

I am humbled by Dr. King’s life and legacy. King accomplished more in 39 short years than I can hope to do should I live to be 100. He gave selflessly of himself and changed a nation for the better. I’m thankful that I have been blessed to live in the world he helped shape and marvel at the well-timed inauguration ceremony that will punctuate what Dr. King’s sacrifice has made possible in America today.

I do, however, find it more than just a little ironic that the birthday of a man who preached and followed the teachings of Christ, indeed, was martyred and became an exemplar of the life lived by the very Son of God, would be treated with more reverence than the birthday of Jesus himself.

I’m not sure Dr. King would have wanted to be regarded as more sacred than the King of Kings. I’m not sure he’d want to be treated with more respect than presidents Washington and Lincoln.

Christmas has devolved into little more than the apex of a month-long marketing spree, where consumer spending and economic indices are watched with greater anticipation than our moral compass. Retailers sell their souls in December and hope that, by tempting shoppers with the promise of satisfying wanton lust, they can make up for eleven months of sloth.

Likewise, we celebrate the death and resurrection of that same Savior by stuffing candy and colored eggs into baskets under the pretense that a beneficent rabbit is on the loose spreading joy throughout the land. I’m sure Jesus is pleased that He chose to suffer on a cross so that we could nibble the ears off a chocolate bunny.

And, in another month, hucksters of every stripe will don powdered wig and stovepipe hat while imploring any and all to “save a few presidents” on a car, or mattress, or some other must-have piece of flimsy merchandise. Independence Day, Memorial Day, and Labor Day have all become mere excuses for an extended weekend bacchanalia, and I doubt four out of five random citizens can tell you when we observe Flag Day or Veteran’s Day.

Dr. King spoke eloquently of his longing for a day when people would be judged not by the color of their skin, but the content of their character. He fought and died for equality and to break down the racial taboos that divided a nation and its diverse peoples. In spite of Barack Obama’s landmark victory last November, many of the taboos King spoke of remain firmly entrenched within our culture. If Martin Luther King Jr.’s memory is among them, can we ever hope to achieve his dream?

Posted by Mike Spinney at 11:30 AM | Permalink

Mike Huckabee’s Moses Moment

Jan
7
2009

One of the good things about New England ice storms and the extended power outages that follow is that you can find time to catch up on your reading. In my case, that consisted of Mike Huckabee’s recent release, Do the Right Thing.

I was interested in Huckabee’s book because I wanted to spend a little more time getting to know the mind of an evangelical- turned-presidential-contender. In spite of Huckabee’s engaging personality and surprising showing during the 2008 Republican nomination process, I never got the sense that he was treated with the same seriousness that other candidates received. The beauty pageant that is the American presidential election cycle, by catering to sound bite and superficiality, never gets too far below the surface of any of the hopefuls. As a result, we learned more about Huckabee’s cooking peculiarities than we did how he might manage the country.


Do the Right
Thing

I knew from reviews and other discussions that the book would be part manifesto and part campaign confidential, so revelations that Mike Huckabee doesn’t much care for former rival Mitt Romney, and that Mike Huckabee doesn’t much care for Libertarians were expected. Most of the book’s more salacious content has been covered already – and you expect a little more from me than regurgitated anecdotes about Huckabee’s new best pal, Chuck Norris.

So even though I think that many Libertarians hold to a purer conservative philosophy than most Republicans – I am a registered Libertarian, after all – my focus was on Huckabee’s balance and reconciliation of personal faith and public political position. I was also interested to see how Huckabee the candidate jibes with my perception of Huckabee the author.

Despite my misgivings about his take on Libertarians, as I worked my way through Do the Right Thing, I found myself nodding in agreement. Many of his positions on economics and tax policy, social issues, healthcare, and national service and volunteerism are fairly close to my own. Why then, I asked myself, was I not persuaded to support him during the primary season (even if, as a registered Libertarian, I could not have voted for him in Massachusetts)?

Partly because my personal opinion of Huckabee could not be reconciled with my more general aversion to candidates who wield the club of religious faith to gain political advantage. Many times in the book Huckabee expresses his disappointment over not receiving the endorsement of a number of prominent Christian figureheads, including Pat Robertson, Bob Jones III, John Hagee, and Gary Bauer. He sounds as if his fellow evangelicals had an obligation to do endorse him. And, interestingly, there was no mention in the book of the steadfast support Huckabee received from the likes of friend and prosperity gospel charlatan Kenneth Copeland.

My duty as a Christian is not, after all, to blindly cast my vote for whichever candidate is best able to convince me of his religious sincerity, but to study the word of God, strengthen my faith, and be guided by wisdom and the Spirit before prayerfully casting my ballot. Besides, we’ve already got a template of what can happen when the so-called religious right aligns itself with a candidate simply because he claims the mantle of faith. And the temptation for politicians to put their faith (whether genuine or artificial) on display in hopes of currying favor with an important voting bloc is all too real, even when outward evidence would suggest a less than sincere devotion.

Mike Huckabee asserts, by writing this book and remaining an active voice in American politics, that he is trying to reform the Republican Party by helping it return to a more traditional brand of conservativism, and that by enunciating his views he will inspire values voters to bring pressure on party leadership to fall in line. I think Huckabee should stop wasting his time with the GOP, which has demonstrated that it is perfectly comfortable with malleable principles that have given us unprecedented expansion of the federal government, economic ruin, and the lack of a national moral compass.

In keeping with his Christian tradition, Huckabee may believe that his party is not beyond redemption, but I disagree.

I’ve argued before that if the religious right is sincere about its desire to reform the American political system, it should do so not from within the party that has betrayed its most loyal members, but by leading an exodus of those voters to a new party – a political promised land as it were.

We know you want to be president, Mr. Huckabee, but are you prepared to be a Moses?

Posted by Mike Spinney at 9:31 AM | Permalink

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