Monday, May 12, 2014

Chief Justice Roy Moore and the Grieving Conservatives

There are plenty of conservatives I respect and appreciate. They understand that society moves forward, but sometimes not for the best and sometimes too quickly. They can be skeptical about societal change, not because they are small-minded - but because they are careful about the right kind of change. Their beliefs and their positions reflect an honorable integrity, even if I don't always agree with the positions it leads them to.

But there is another kind of conservative, and in this hyper-partisan political climate, they have taken over the limelight from the reasonable ones. They are fighting an ideological war, and are so bound up in defeating a perceived enemy, they have lost all grip on reason. This is how we get a federal judge - and not just a federal judge, but the Chief Justice of Alabama - saying that the freedom of religion only applies to Christians. 

Unfortunately, Roy Moore is not alone in his convictions. He is one of the leading voices in a movement that runs deep in many parts of the nation, including my own Southern small town. I only have to go as far as my secretary's office to hear this same reactionary rhetoric. "We are a Christian nation, we were founded to be a Christian nation, and the fact that we have become less Christian in recent decades is what has caused all our problems. "

It's a battle that has been raised against an enemy that does not exist and that they can't define. Sometimes, it's liberals. Sometimes, it's "the gays." Sometimes, it's the atheists. Sometimes, it's immigrants. Whoever they might be lashing out against at the time, this type of conservative is using their emotional argument that seems so to unreasonable to mask a deeper emotion - grief.  They are grieving over the loss of the world they once knew.

No one can deny that American society has changed rapidly in the last 50 years or so. For some of us - for most of us, really - these changes have been very positive. Many of you enjoy freedoms and opportunities today you could not have imagined just a couple of decades ago. For many others, like myself, we rejoice over these changes even though they don't personally benefit us.

For some, though, the change is unwelcome. It's disheartening. It's frightening. It's as difficult as losing a love one, but possibly even worse - because this grief gets wrapped up in all sorts of old prejudices and political scars. An angry, grieving conservative truly feels like their world has collapsed around them - and it leads them to do and say some things that leave the rest of stunned.

So how do we respond? When a Chief Justice says that he doesn't respect the religious freedom of people who have a different religion than him - how do we respond? Obviously, we work to get him and others like him out of office - because they are not upholding the Constitution. But beyond that, what do we do with the anger and grief in the many other people that won't heal? It will only get worse every time another reminder comes along that society has changed.

On part 2, we will start with churches. How can our churches be a place where we teach one another to cope with societal change?

Friday, May 9, 2014

Stop Being A News Consumer

A number of years ago, I made a conscious decision to stop being a passive news observer. I stopped accepting that whatever appeared in a newspaper or on a TV broadcast or on the Internet was worthy of my attention. Most of all, I stopped letting the giver of the news tell me what I should be learning about.

Instead, I became a news critic. I began to question every story, its source, the reliability of its information, and most importantly - whether it was newsworthy. After a while, I began to see more clearly how news is manufactured, how it is carefully crafted to fit a political agenda and a profit motive, and how I need to be on guard most when it is telling me something I want to hear. I also realized how most of the stories I need to learn about cannot be found anywhere on mass media.

Today, I am still on my journey out of being a news consumer. Thanks to social media, I can now decide which sources I receive on my news feed, and I can target the issues and the areas I feel are important to know about. I can also go and find other sides to the story should I suspect that politics or profit is unduly influencing the information being presented.

Some say that getting big money out of politics is the key to restoring our democracy. I think that is important, but I believe that finding a way to overcome the propaganda machine that mass media has become comes first.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Simply Free: A Working Outline

I'm putting together an outline for a book I may or may not end up writing. Comments are appreciated.

Working Title:  Simply Free

Thesis: Christian freedom is much more than being pardoned from wrongdoing. It is found in the release from all sorts of chains and boxes that bind our understanding and limit the flight of the human soul.

Section 1: Freedom from...

   A. Fear of death and loss
   B. Enslavement to wealth/ fear of poverty 
   C. Power and human systems
   D. Rationality and the illusion of knowledge

Section 2: Freedom to...

   A. Love God with all heart, soul, and mind
   B. Love one another (without condition)
   C. Speak up and act out
   D. Be content

Section 3: Simply free - Life in God's hands

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Getting Testy About Testing

Dear Editor, April 30, 2014

This morning, my third-grade son went to school full of anxiety. His class has been busily preparing for the year-end SOL tests. Because so much rides on these tests, there is a lot of pressure being put on them. Despite being a straight-A student, my son is worried he will not pass. He even asks if he can stay up late to do more studying. I wonder if it is all necessary, or if it is what is best for our children.

Standardized testing might have had a good purpose at one time, but now it has become a political gimmick. Too timid to do what really needs to be done to help our schools (adequate funding), our elected officials often turn to these testing standards as a way of saying, "See, we did something for education!" - without really doing anything. This has three negative effects:

1) It places more busy work on teachers, dampens their enthusiasm, and inhibits their talent and creativity. Low teacher morale equals a lower quality education.

2) It causes to point fingers at teachers when scores don't meet expectations, instead of holding our elected officials accountable. There is already a movement in this nation to devalue public education and attack teachers, and the pressure and distraction of high-stakes testing only adds fuel to this fire. Again, the stressful school environment that is being created is bad for the quality of education.

3) As mentioned, it puts undue stress on children, even on young children. Third graders do not need to be worried about passing a standardized test. They need to grow in their love of learning, not taught to be anxious about it.


The Rev. James E. Moss
Clarksville, VA

Monday, April 21, 2014

Sympathy for Jimmy

Monday, April 21, 2014

In the movie "That Thing You Do," an unknown young rock band records a song that becomes a top ten hit. Caught in a whirlwind rise to fame, they soon find themselves flown out to Los Angeles by the record company. They stay in a fancy hotel, hang out with celebrities, play on live national TV, and even get to guest star in a movie. The band is thrilled and dazzled by the glitz and glamour of the whole experience - except for Jimmy.

Jimmy is the lead singer and songwriter for the group, and he is the only one who truly understands the situation. Having been warned by another singer who was on the downside of fame to "never trust a label," Jimmy begins to see that all the glitz and glamour of Hollywood is going to distract the band from what they are meant to do - to write more songs and record more records. He knows from an awkward encounter with the record company president that they are not interested in Jimmy's musical ideals and ambitions - only in squeezing out as much profit as possible until they can find the next one-hit wonder.

The tension comes to a head one evening while they are eating dinner at the hotel. Jimmy reiterates his concerns that the record company is taking advantage of them. The lead guitarist responds sarcastically by looking around and saying, "Yeah. Those lying snakes. Look how horribly they have treated us" - at which point Jimmy walks off.

A few days later, when they finally get into the studio to record some more songs, Jimmy is informed by their manager that they won't be making the record he envisioned - but rather a collection of cheesy covers and a Spanish-language version of their original hit. This time, Jimmy grabs his guitar and storms out of the studio - leaving behind both the record company and the band.

The movie portrays Jimmy as a self-centered jerk, because he seems to spoil everybody else's good time with his insistence on artistic integrity. But I have sympathy for Jimmy. It was his song, after all, that made the whole rise to fame possible. And all he wanted to do was make sure they could keep the ride going, and become a truly famous band - not just a one-hit wonder. But no one could hear his concerns, because they were too distracted by all the glitz and glamour.

After World War II, the United States went through an unprecedented period of economic growth that is analogous to the whirlwind rise of this band. By the time my generation was growing up in the 70's and 80's, our culture was fully immersed in the consumerism produced by this stunning growth. It was an over-abundance of luxury that was as intoxicating as the glitz and glamour of Hollywood was to a band of young musicians from Erie, PA.

Just like the fancy hotel and the movie sets, our time of material abundance cannot and will not last. History clearly shows that such growth is impossible to maintain. And as we try in vain to maintain the glitz and glamour, our true ideals and ambitions as a people are being neglected.

The elements that are in control of our fate are no different than a record company milking a hit song - they simply don't care about our long-term ideals and ambitions as a people. But they will gladly satiate us with endless consumer goods and mind-numbing entertainment options so that we won't be concerned about how those ideals are fading.

In our society, there are folks like Jimmy. Folks who see the situation for what it is. Folks who understand how the wealthy have slowly but surely taken control of what was once a democratic nation. Folks who understand what will happen in a few decades as wealth continues to stratify, as good jobs get more scarce, and as public education continues to erode. Folks who get scoffed at when they raise these concerns.

A have had a number of conversations on topics like this where someone has said, much like the guitarist who scoffs at Jimmy,  "How can you complain? Look at all you have. Even the poor among us have microwaves and cell phones." And I have felt as helpless as Jimmy when he comes to realize that his band mates don't see or won't allow themselves to see what is really happening.

At the end of the movie, the audience is told what became of each of the band members after Jimmy stormed out and effectively broke up the group. One of them joined the military. One moved to Las Vegas - and is still chasing the glitz and glamour. And one went back to school.

Only Jimmy stayed in the music business, and he ended up having a long and successful career as a bandleader and then as a producer. Because of his rebellion against the glitz and glamour, and against being distracted from what he knew was most important - he was able to go ahead and fulfill those dreams that they all shared back in that garage in Erie, PA.

Here's hoping we can find a few more Jimmy's to help lead our people out of consumerism, out of subservience to the interests of the wealthy, and into a more authentic and just pursuit of who we are and who we are created to be.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Fastest Way To Drive Young People From The Church

Let's see. What might be the fastest way to drive even more young people out of the church... Hmm...  I know! 

We could have a major controversy over an issue that is a big deal with older adults but not so much with young folks...

We could have dramatic pronouncements on social media about a big shift in policy... Which would really upset half of the older folks, setting off a flurry of angry tweets and blogposts...

Then... We could have that decision reversed a few days later... Causing the other half of the older folks to send off a flurry of angry tweets and blogposts... 

And we could throw in some indignant board member resignations as well...

Remembering, all the while, that those younger folks we so desperately want in our churches think this is pretty much a non-issue... 

OK. I admit that the sarcasm there was a little thick. But why do we keep doing this to ourselves? Young people can see quite clearly what draws the most passion out of church leadership - and they are not attracted at all to this internal warfare over an issue that they see the way we see racial segregation. 

I once stood up in front of presbytery, at the end of one of those long, emotional debates where nobody's mind gets changed - but we all make ourselves feel righteous. I simply asked that we show as much passion over the topics of poverty and evangelism as we do over homosexuality. Even half the passion would be a big improvement. 

This issue is dragging us down. And fast.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Supporting Public Schools Is A Conservative Value

Dear Editor,

"Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps."

"Give a man a fish, and feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he'll feed himself for a lifetime."

These two phrases are often used when people talk about ways to deal with the problem of poverty. And they make a lot of sense. Giving people handouts might help with immediate needs, but it does not produce the self-sufficiency that allows people to escape poverty and support themselves.

Which is why supporting a strong public education system also makes a lot of sense. Public schools are the best way to help children find their bootstraps and learn how to fish. But for some reason, we can forget this when it comes time to fund public education.  We send our children to outdated and deteriorating facilities; we underpay our teachers; and we cut many of the programs that help students acquire the tools they need to succeed in life.

This spring, the Mecklenburg County School Board is proposing a $3 million increase in the annual budget. Part of the increase covers requirements passed down by the state. Other parts are intended to restore funding that was cut in previous years. All of it makes sense to those of us who would like future generations to be less dependent on government welfare. To cut education funding at the same time we cut welfare is shortsighted and cruel - and it defies the core of conservative values.

I encourage the Board of Supervisors to approve the proposed budget. This is not about whether we like Dr. Thornton, whether we approve of Project Based Learning, or whether we are in favor of consolidating the high schools. This is about giving all of the children in our county a fighting chance to feed themselves when they are grown.

The Rev. James E. Moss