POEM: My Dim Contours of Repentance

I’m sorry it had to come to this

That it took George Floyd suffocating beneath a knee

And a legion of protests

Long reams of raw, angry, repentant Facebook posts

For me to start paying attention

I’m sorry it took so long for me to listen

To name that all lives can’t matter until black lives matter

I’m sorry I let politics and religion

Those evil, constructed lines of left and right

Blur the face of your pain and trauma

Blur the sight of your dignity shoved into the pavement

Cut off from air — pinned like an animal

While I went on my way and said nothing

Did nothing

I’m sorry I was content with the neutrality of empty negatives

Content to comfortably try to not be bad

To not be racist

While your bodies were ravaged

Just around the corner, where I was afraid to look

I’m sorry.

_

It never should have had to come to this

The hard birth of healing held up, stuck in the throat

For decades — centuries for Christ’s sake

Your wounds, your fears, your cry left to fester

Beneath my pride and fragility

It should not have come to this.

_

I will lean in and keep my ears open

If I speak, it is for mourning — for lament

If my heart whispers, it is to give a greater thanks than I can know

Thanks to Malcolm X for writing his autobiography

Thanks to Ta-Nehisi Coats for singing his sad, ferocious song

Thanks to my black American history teacher at Bakersfield College who showed us Amistad

Who told us about men who, when they couldn’t keep it in their pants

Went out to the slave quarters

To the makers of 12 Years a Slave and Selma

To brave saint Isaac for sitting in front of my church

Then in front of my microphone

To say what it felt like when Trayvon Martin was killed

Thanks to the black brother whose name I can no longer recall

Who told a majority white room full of Baptists

That racism was still real

To vulnerable and strong David who said on Facebook

That he would rise in violence if not for Jesus

Such courage, my God, such courage

Courage you never should have had to muster

Burdens you never should have had to bear.

_

Where was I when your ancestors landed on these shores in shackles?

Where was I when that God damn fraction, three-fifths, was written down

Where was I when white hoods lynched your great-grandfather

When a deptuy marshal shot Clyde Perkins in an alley

And walked away without a charge

When the bank loan was declined over and over again

And the white man’s laws held your father on the other side of the tracks

When blue lights flashed in your mirror and your heart leaped in terror

When the tear gas, water cannons, and rubber bullets started flying

When Eric Garner gasped “I can’t breathe”?

Where was I?

_

So far away.

I am still so far away.

So I lay my hand on my mouth

I have spoken once, I will proceed no further

Except to utter this one impossible — but yet possible? — blessing:

May you breathe in

Deeper than you ever could

Before

Quick Take On The Presidential Debates

I’ve never followed an election season as closely as the one America is in the middle of right now. Granted, at the tender at of 22, that’s not saying a whole lot, but working on a congressional campaign myself, I felt a professional obligation to keep up with the Obama-Romney race. The presidential debates, in particular, set the tone for the campaigns down the home stretch and shape the talking points of the public square (at least for a week or so). That’s why I made it a point to watch all of them.

As much as people may like to complain about the formats, the questions, and the state of political discourse in America in general, I think there’s something to be said for the presidential debates. One problem with politics is that’s it’s fake. Everything you see of a candidate is a carefully constructed image and surface-level presentation. This is most true on the campaign trail. It’s one thing to deliver a faultless, teleprompter-assisted speech on the stump or shake hands with thousands of enthusiastic supporters. Going face-to-face with your opponent, someone inevitably seeking to exploit all of your greatest weaknesses and failures, is an entirely different matter. It seems, then, that a debate gives us a slightly better glimpse of who our candidates really are because we see them in the face of opposition.

That said, the nature of politics and our society at large means that these debates are just as much (if not more) about style as substance. As such, you have to judge them on two levels. One, how did the candidate come across to people? Was he likable? Knowledgeable? Presidential? Two, what are his views and what kind of vision does he have for the country? Are his arguments sound? How much does he manipulate the facts? Will his policies actually work?

I would argue that the Romney/Ryan ticket was, on the whole, better than Obama/Biden on both of these counts. Continue reading →

Book Review: “To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World”

It was with great eagerness that I picked up James Davison Hunter’s “To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World.” As the title suggests, Hunter tries to tackle the contentious topic of culture changing as it’s understood and practiced by Christians. Given that Hunter is both a Christian and prominent sociologist at the University of Virginia, he seems to be a good man for the job.

Any talk of transforming culture inevitably involves politics, and that’s the thing about “To Change the World” that piqued my interest. My understanding of the intersection of Christianity and politics has evolved quite a bit over the past several years (along with my convictions about what that intersection ought to look like). Given that I just graduated from a Christian college and started a fledgling career in politics, I could hardly have chosen something more relevant to my life.

That’s because Hunter sets out to answer the big question: how do Christians go about changing the culture in which they live? Or more generally: how ought we to go about living out our faith and engaging with the world? It’s a timeless subject that Christianity has wrestled through since it’s inception, starting at least with St. Augustine and continuing until today with organizations like Focus on the Family.

Hunter responds to this question in three parts. He first explores the substance of the question: What is culture? How and why does it change? What is it like today and what kind of influence do Christians currently wield? This part of the book is mainly analysis that lays the groundwork for the rest of the book, clears up some misconceptions about world-changing, and defines key terms—what exactly is “culture,” for instance. How do ideas have consequences? Why doesn’t society always reflect the beliefs of the majority?

Whether or not you’ve thought through these questions, it’s well worth the read. Some of Hunter’s answers may surprise you. For instance, changing culture isn’t as simple as “changing the hearts and minds, one person at a time.” Rather, those at the top of elite power structures have far more sway in the movement of our ideas and beliefs than whatever the masses say. Only 15% of America at the most is secular, yet our society–the public square, our classrooms, and so on–is intensely secular.

The second part of the book explains and critiques, in a self-admittedly very broad fashion, the three main movements or “models” that American Christians have adopted over the past several decades in their mission to change the world—the Christian Right, the Christian Left, and the Neo-Anabaptists. He sums them up in the terms “defensive against”, “relevance to”, and “purity from”, respectively.

In the third part, Hunter goes on the offensive, offering a new model for cultural engagement that he terms “faithful presence.” Continue reading →

Book Review: Animal Farm

In terms of making me feel like I’m actually doing something with my life, George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” was a pretty good deal.

Here’s what I mean by that. It was short—at 128 small pages, I read most of it in a single weekend. It is easy to read—written in a clear, simple style. And it’s a classic—ranking just under “1984” on the list of famous Orwell books. In other words, I read a classic over the weekend and understood it.

Wish I could do that every weekend.

But seriously, “Animal Farm” is a pretty good read. Orwell writes with a down-to-earth simplicity that fits the book’s parable-like fairy tale genre. First published in 1946, in the aftermath of Nazi Germany and on the brink of the Cold War between the United States and Soviet Union, Orwell launches a scathing attack on totalitarianism in no uncertain terms in one of the most simple contexts imaginable—a farm.

The plot is simple but effective. It begins on Mr. Jones farm. One night, one of the old hogs gathers all of the animals and tells of a coming revolution. He predicts that one day the time will come for all animals to rise up, overthrow their oppressive human rulers, and establish their own utopia where all animals live in harmony with each other, reap the full fruits of their labor, and enjoy an abundance of food and rest. Soon after the old hog’s death, on a night when Jones was especially drunk and careless with his animals, two younger pigs lead a revolution that ousts the farmer and gives the animals control of the farm.

Everything goes wonderfully, at first. Led by the pigs, the animals collectively work hard for the benefit of each other and quickly establish their own laws of “Animal Farm” to ensure equality and further their cause around the world.  They rename the farm “Animal Farm,” fly their own flag, and sing their own national anthem, “The Beasts of England.” Yet the dreams of a world of animal equality and abundance for all turn out to be nothing more than that—just dreams. Continue reading →

Political Journalism and Lolcats–Together?

Politico writer Ben Smith made waves last week when news broke that he was leaving most of his duties at the young political news site to head up a new  team of journalists at BuzzFeed, a website devoted to distributing popular social content across the Web. The editorial team, Smith said, will cover traditional beats like sports and politics plus other, “non-traditional” news categories.

On the surface, it seems like an odd move. In the world of elite political news coverage, Politico is where it’s at. Everyone in Washington, DC reads it. It’s one of three things that former president George W. Bush reads every morning (the other two are the Bible and the Wall Street Journal). When I spent a semester in DC, the first journalist I met had some advice for me: read Politico–every day.

BuzzFeed, by contrast, collects and promotes anything that lots of people are clicking on, seeking to provide “the viral world in real time.”  It is thus geared toward everyone on the Web; we all know the posters and gag videos that come up on such sites. I do not frequent either of the two sites myself these days, but from what I know of the two, I would have no qualms about spending a few hours a week reading Politico.

BuzzFeed? It hosts a weekly battle to choose the “best”, most time-wasting flash game and makes lists of top viral videos.

So why did Smith make the switch? Clearly he has an entrepreneurial spirit, but I think he realizes something more. Simply put, the internet is powerful. Some have called it the “Second Gutenberg Moment,” and I don’t think that is much of an exaggeration. Those who learn to tap into this power have the potential to gain a lot of influence in a short amount of time. I doubt that Smith hopes to become the next Drudge or Zuckerberg, but as many articles about the move have pointed out, BuzzFeed’s CEO Jonah Peretti is a co-founder of the successful HuffingtonPost. Peretti knows how to work the web better than most, and it appears he hopes to duplicate his success with BuzzFeed (although he refuses to speak directly about comparisons between the two). Continue reading →

Freedom of Religion is Only for Christians

Photo: Gage Skidmore

As a human being, I have a bias towards certain things, and I think a large part of it is towards the media. It seems like everyone these days can find a way to criticize journalists and tear down the work they do. In any controversy (or lack thereof) the media is always one of the first groups to get blamed.

I’ll be the first to confess that journalists are human and make their fair share of mistakes. Worse, their presuppositions, religious beliefs, and political framework play into their coverage. However, I still want to believe the best about journalists and the stories they write. Most of the time, I don’t think they’re out to get one side or the other.

Sometimes, though, they really are “that bad”. Yesterday I nearly spit my drink out when I came across this AP story about the Aug. 6th prayer meeting headlined by Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Dubbed “The Response” and attended mainly by conservative Christians, the prayer meeting was promoted as a time for believers to gather and bring their mutual concerns and hopes before their God.

Many of the stories and commentary I’ve seen on it have either emphasized the political aspect–Perry’s marshaling the conservative Christian base–or questioned it’s appropriateness. Is it okay for a governor to lead such a narrow religious event? What about separation of church and state? etc.

If you want to talk about that, fine, but in this case, it seems, the writer has let her fear and disdain of these evangelicals slip through in a really sad way. Where did the AP story trip up? Look near the middle, where April Castro writes:

Perry’s audience Saturday was filled with people who sang with arms outstretched in prayer — and wept — as Christian groups played music on stage. And Perry, himself, huddled on the stage in a prayer circle with several ministers who helped lead the event. It was Perry’s idea and was financed by the American Family Association, a Tupelo, Miss.-based group that opposes abortion and gay rights and believes that the First Amendment freedom of religion applies only to Christians. (empahsis mine) Continue reading →

“Shut it Again on Something Solid”

Out of all the sessions at the American Enterprise Institute‘s recent Purpose and Prosperity conference in Washington, DC, I identified personally the most with the Politics and the Millennials discussion panel. In their talk about the voting habits and political positions of today’s young evangelicals, the four speakers described me perfectly: confused and uncertain, unwilling to fully embrace a full conservative or liberal ideology, hesitant to identify with a political party, yet still leaning conservative at the end of the day.

Since spending a semester in Washington DC last fall at the Washington Journalism Center, I’ve felt the weight of my own ignorance more and more. Almost all of the black and white views that I brought in to the program last fall turned to gray. For the most part, I’ve considered this a liberating experience. It opened my mind to accept new ideas and freed me from any sort of allegiances or need to defend a person or policy.

Amy Black, a professor at Wheaton and one of the Politics and the Millennials panel members, said that one of her goals is to introduce a little gray–a few new, valid, perspectives–when teaching students. In principle, that’s a good thing. A good education should shake and challenge students’ views.

However, she said, the point is not to leave students in political limbo, unable to find their way out of a maze of muddled opinions and sound bites, yet that is where I was at prior to the Purpose and Prosperity Conference. My study of journalism had turned me, for all points and purposes, into a political agnostic.

 

Another one of the discussion panel members, Matthew Anderson, said that these young, confused evangelicals need to develop some sort of concrete framework through which to view and interpret politics. Political engagement and understanding, he said, starts with having a lens of coherent beliefs and values. It reminded me of something G.K. Chesterton said: “Merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.”

That captures the essence of what I learned from the Purpose and Prosperity conference. Each session set up a clear framework through which to view matters of public policy and faith. Arthur Brooks redefined the way I look at the debate over capitalism. Alex Brill and Andrew Biggs described tax policy and social security in concrete numbers. Steven Hayward spoke on environmentalism with a balanced presentation of facts. Every speaker, in fact, clearly sketched out the present political situation in their respective fields.

The beauty of this is that once you have a framework in place–a reference point through which to view today’s political debates–then you can start asking good, informed questions. For an aspiring journalist like myself, this is huge, because now I know better how to categorize and study all these areas of public policy. I’ve learned what it means when Republicans talk about reforming Social Security, or when Democrats talk about renewable energy.

Better yet, I have taken a few more steps toward the one thing that hopefully all of us are looking for: the good old truth. Truth with clarity, fairness, and faith.

The Times, it is a-Changing

As of today, The New York Times is now offering a digital subscription.

We talked about this last fall in the journalism program I did in Washington, DC. Lots of people saw it coming, so it’s not so much unexpected as significant. This just might be the model of the future that publications use to help fund themselves.

As an aspiring journalist and someone who tends to have a little more sympathy for the media, I support the Times’ decision. The news and media world is in flux right now. With the rise of the internet, we’re getting used to more and more free information, but “free” isn’t going to sustain much quality journalism. Even with advertisements, newspapers need more funding to continue operating at a high level. Pay-per-story is one solution that I thought could work quite well. Online subscriptions is another. We’ll see if it works out for the Times. If it does, expect a lot of other papers to start heading that direction.

Personally, of course, I’m not as much of a fan of this move because it means I can only read 20 articles a month before I have to cough up $15 for the minimum monthly plan. And as a poor college student, I think I’m going to content myself with the 20 stories. That’s about one story a day on weekdays.

Though come to think of it, when you put it that way I guess it’s not too bad.