Minority Report

There are times when I wish my brain had a stand-by switch like some of my old tube-based guitar amps, and today has turned out to be one of those days. I tried to lay down to go to sleep last night (OK, early this morning) around 2 AM; nothing unusual there, as that tends to be my norm. What made it a little unusual is that, instead of turning on the white noise generator and turning off the lights, I picked up a new (to me) book on, of all things, church-state relationships. Kiss goodbye any real idea of sleep; oh, I did turn out the lights after turning on the white noise – but as I said, there was no effective way to turn my mind off. I have been more or less awake since yesterday – oh, I do believe I’ll sleep later tonight – but whoa! I need to find something a bit lighter to read at bedtime.

anatomy-of-a-hybridThe title of the post might seem a bit misleading, especially if you are a fan of either the Tom Cruise movie or the Philip K. Dick science fiction story the movie is based off of. While I am a fan of both, the title is drawn from my own experience as someone who refuses to mix his faith in God with his political views. That, in modern-day America, makes me a minority – especially out here in the heartland of America. I simply cannot, in good conscience, mix church and state together as so many seem to do with apparent ease, and writing this paragraph – nay, the last two sentences – affirms two things in my gut: one, that some out there will be angered by that assertion, and two, that it is absolutely the right position for me to continue to hold.

Here, in as succinct form as I’ve yet seen, is the crux of the matter:

An interesting, and not so well developed, area of Christian theology is the relationship between the Church and the State. This runs parallel to the relationship between the Christian and the State, of course, but along a different path –how should believers relate to the power of the State as a group? Should the Church co-opt the power of the state to enforce Christian morality? Or should the Church merely try to influence the State through direct action and cultural shift? There are two contending views within the modern Christian Church, one which says the Church should try to attain and wield the levers of power to enact social justice and Christian virtue, the other which says the Christian Church should stand apart from the State, exerting influence, but not trying to grasp the power of the State for itself. – Thinking in Christ | Review: The Anatomy Of A Hybrid

pre-crimeMy belief is that the latter position is the correct one for the follower of Christ. Some of that likely comes from how I came to Christ, or, put in more accurate language, how I came to realize He had come for me. My childhood religion was Roman Catholic, my parents political views more Democrat than Republican (blue-collar labor was a pretty solid bloc in the sixties); when I kicked over the traces to make my own mistakes, I walked away from politics as completely as I could – that equates to not very far in a land and at a time where everything was political. By the time I made it in the doors of the 12 Step rooms, God didn’t exist in my life as anything other than an angry, condemning judge ready to cast me into hell for things I had done, had never done and might never do, or might have thought about doing. He had great raw material to work with, as I still had a few brain cells left that were only arguing occasionally.

I’ve said it before in a lot of different ways, and have tried to make it plain as I could. Politically I am an independent – note the lower case “i” – I do not affiliate with any party, even the Independent or Independence party, should there be one. On some issues I may find myself in agreement with moderate or centrist Republicans, while on others I may tend towards moderate or centrist Democrats. There is no “one size fits all” spot in my thinking anymore. I do not plan on making this any more of an examination of my views than that – I am not here to pass anyone’s ill-conceived litmus test on whether or not I am a “real” Christian based on what I think about the issues we are dealing with in America today, and I will extend you the same courtesy of not judging you based on your political beliefs. There are far too many people out there who are already willing to have nothing to do with someone once they determine that the other person doesn’t share their brand of religion, one that is, for lack of a more polite way to put it, colored by their political views.

Call me naive, if you will, but I have come by this position honestly, and with a great deal of struggle. Far too many forget we serve a King – and kings do not belong to political parties. Our modern-day monarchies are poor examples of how the writers of the Bible understood the term, since they mostly serve as figureheads or anachronistic holdovers from far earlier periods in world history, but well-removed from the days of the early church fathers. There is no mention anywhere in scripture of a house of Parliament, or a Congress – the only form of government I’ve been able to find in the Bible has been that of a king, and him with counselors, not co-leaders. Our ultimate loyalty is to a king in Heaven – regardless of the land of your birth or the political system you may live under today – and that is where we next turn.

We are told to pray for our leaders – not that we have to agree with them (frequently, we do not, regardless of who is in power). Our orders on how to treat one another come from a king; we have lawyers who will continue to codify those beliefs (or those of his enemy), and intellectuals who will argue for positions passionately – we are to hold fast to that which we have been taught and figure out how to implement “do as you would be done by” in a sane way. It would be great if we could stop the tendency towards reductionistic thinking and single-issue politics, but that is unlikely. One hopes it would not be too much to ask a brother or sister in Christ to honestly examine their positions and not try to backstop them with bumper-sticker level Biblical quotes without having really wrestled with the issues – which, if we remember, are more often than not about people that He died to save.

Image credits: Anatomy of a Hybrid upper, Department of Pre-Crime lower

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There’s A Riot Going On

There is a great little story in the book of Acts that, for the life of me, I cannot remember having ever heard a pastor use as a teaching moment. It may be that I’m reading it wrong and drawing the wrong things out of the Scriptures in what I say here – Bill and Jason? Keep me honest in the telling of the tale. First, the tale, taken from Acts 19:23-41:

The Riot in Ephesus

About that time there arose a great disturbance about the Way. A silversmith named Demetrius, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought in a lot of business for the craftsmen there. He called them together, along with the workers in related trades, and said: “You know, my friends, that we receive a good income from this business. And you see and hear how this fellow Paul has convinced and led astray large numbers of people here in Ephesus and in practically the whole province of Asia. He says that gods made by human hands are no gods at all. There is danger not only that our trade will lose its good name, but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be discredited; and the goddess herself, who is worshiped throughout the province of Asia and the world, will be robbed of her divine majesty.”

ArtemisNow, let me be clear on a few things here. Paul is not responsible for starting this riot – Demetrius is the one who instigated it – and that is from a surface scan of the text. No great depth of knowledge or analytical ability was required to reach that conclusion, agreed? Let’s read again – the reason Demetrius was upset, was it because he was afraid of God, as preached by Paul and others? Nope; fear of God – any god – doesn’t seem to be a part of this guy’s religion. Neither he, nor those he is inciting against Paul and the disciples, are afraid of God, whether that is YHWH (capital G – creator and Lord of all) or Artemis (lower case g; one of a pantheon). But fear is definitely a factor here: the fear of loss of income.

That should not come as a surprise to anyone. Fear of loss is a pretty powerful tool, whether it is something barely perceived or run out to the ends of every fiber of one’s being. Fear of financial insecurity has been around every since we came up with something beyond simple barter, and the fact that the modern global economy is based on fiat currency just makes the insanity that much more bizarre – at least in the days of Paul and Demetrius, a drachma was silver, therefore a metal of tangible worth, and not little bits of colored paper or the even more ephemeral electronic bits and bytes that represent fortunes today. Let’s continue:

When they heard this, they were furious and began shouting: “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” Soon the whole city was in an uproar. The people seized Gaius and Aristarchus, Paul’s traveling companions from Macedonia, and all of them rushed into the theater together. Paul wanted to appear before the crowd, but the disciples would not let him. Even some of the officials of the province, friends of Paul, sent him a message begging him not to venture into the theater.

Paul is not even a part of what happens here – people who feared for his safety and were a part of his missionary work would not let him go near the place.

The assembly was in confusion: Some were shouting one thing, some another. Most of the people did not even know why they were there. The Jews in the crowd pushed Alexander to the front, and they shouted instructions to him. He motioned for silence in order to make a defense before the people. But when they realized he was a Jew, they all shouted in unison for about two hours: “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!”

It is one thing to listen to someone when we believe that they share our beliefs (read that as biases as well), but quite another thing to listen to an outsider who does not believe as we do – especially when we are riled up. And it doesn’t take much to get most people riled up. Like I said, fear of loss is a powerful tool – and we are a tool-using species.

The city clerk quieted the crowd and said: “Fellow Ephesians, doesn’t all the world know that the city of Ephesus is the guardian of the temple of the great Artemis and of her image, which fell from heaven? Therefore, since these facts are undeniable, you ought to calm down and not do anything rash. You have brought these men here, though they have neither robbed temples nor blasphemed our goddess.

A sane man in a storm is a good thing. I suspect that this unnamed city clerk had heard Paul a time or two, or knew the disciples; based on how I read the text, that would be my answer.

If, then, Demetrius and his fellow craftsmen have a grievance against anybody, the courts are open and there are proconsuls. They can press charges. If there is anything further you want to bring up, it must be settled in a legal assembly. As it is, we are in danger of being charged with rioting because of what happened today. In that case we would not be able to account for this commotion, since there is no reason for it.” After he had said this, he dismissed the assembly.

big rollDemetrius was appealing to his cohorts with fear – the fear of loss of income was tied to their objects of veneration. If people no longer believe in our god, they won’t buy our silver souvenirs. They don’t buy, we go broke and we don’t eat. Do you think that sort of blatant emotional manipulation was somehow limited in time and place to the theater in Ephesus, or to just that subject? I know better – and so do you. What were the words to that song in 1980 – catchy beat, lame chorus? Oh, yeah:

Poets, priests, and politicians
Have words to thank for their positions
Words that scream for your submission
And no-one’s jamming their transmission[1]

Our instructions – clear and on point – were addressed in Matthew:

 “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?

“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. – Matthew 6:24-34 (NIV) [Emphasis added]

See to it that you are not driven to fear by a modern-day Demetrius, whether they are outside the church or inside it.

Image credit: Artemis – Allan Brockway’s aides-mémoire site. Money roll – Tumblr

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  1. [1] De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da, by The Police, Zenyattà Mondatta 1980

What’s in YOUR values?

As was my norm when driving home after a day of dealing with people at the airport, I tended to ruminate.[1] Sometimes the things that become the launchpad for these sessions are subliminal; I’d been exposed to a particular artist’s music on the Muzak system, or I’d been seeing a headline on a section of a newspaper in the back office. Wherever the starting point is, I find it interesting to see where the thoughts lead, and tonight was no exception – but this time I’d like to reflect on some of the pause buttons I hit along the way, and see if any of this hits a chord or two with you.

What a Difference a Prefix makes…

English is a funny language. If I take a simple word (not one with an ambiguous meaning, nor one that contemporary culture has redefined), and place a letter or letters in front of that word, I have modified the meaning, always with dramatic results in terms of effect. Take the prefix “a”, which changes the meaning of the word to something without.  The word is “moral” – place an “a” as the prefix and I now have the word “amoral” – the living opposite. “Sexual”? Voilá – “asexual.” “Muse”? Bam! “amuse.”

What’s dramatic about that? Let me see – we went from something positive (moral, sexual, muse – or thought) to something horribly wrong, something not always pleasant to contemplate, and something thoughtless. Still can’t see where this is going, right? Remember that last modified word, and hold onto it as we go on to the next pause.

Incomplete Passes

Pause number two had to do with amusement – thoughtless activity or, if you prefer, activity that is diverting and that holds the attention. Diverting from what? Holds the attention away from what, or focuses it on what? As my mind wandered down this particular trail, I noticed that I was feeling something that took a few minutes for me to identify – it was anger. The reason it took me time to identify what the feeling was had to do with how I see our culture still being led so easily away from where we could be.

I started thinking on what amusements we like. As a nation, and as a purveyor of popular culture to the rest of the world, what are we saying about what we value based on how much money we put into our diversions, and what do we sacrifice to do that? The more I thought about it, the more frustrating it got for me. Maybe it will be the same for you – or perhaps not.

Money RollA quick side-by-side comparison of the compensation in our system should be enough to highlight the obvious points. What does the top-paid quarterback in the NFL make these days, over how long of a contract? Compare and contrast that to the salary of a patrol cop who puts their life on the line every time they put on a uniform. The quarterback isn’t penalized financially for throwing an incomplete pass; the cop who catches a bullet is. Change professions? Sure – how about a K-12 teacher compared to a B-list actor?

The point is that we are willing to pay more for things that change our feelings on a short term basis than on things that would change the real living conditions of our lives or those of our neighbors. I know this from painful personal experience as an addict as well as from the standpoint of social observer and believer in Christ. I can see some of the eyes rolling out there now… “Hello, Dr. Obvious? We’re calling about Dawson again – he’s not drinking the Kool-Aid.”

The Good is the Enemy of the Best

There are a lot of folks out there who will say “What? That old argument again? What does he want, anyways?  Socialism? Communism? What? Truth be told, I want something that people who have already made up their minds about cannot provide – I want to see believers in Christ who understand economic theory, political systems, psychology, and law inside and out come up with something better than what we have now (and stop being apologists for what we have now). Why? Let’s put it this way – do you think this is your best life now? Because the section title says it – the “good” (our current systems, traditions, habits as relate to governance, economics, etc.) is the enemy of the best – and we cannot know what the best is if we continue to settle for what we have now. Anyone who can say with a straight face that what we Americans have right now is the best possible life, the best possible economic system, political system, etc. has already made up their minds that they are willing to settle for less than the best. The argument “Well, I can’t change the world” is a lie from hell. We are all living beneath our birthright as children of God when we allow ourselves to buy into the lie. You impact lives every day, therefore you not only can, but in fact do change the world you live in.

To all those who are primed and ready to say “What you are proposing is socialism (or communism)!”, may I please refer you to Acts 2:42-47? Stop labeling as socialist or communist something that arose from within the hearts and was made manifest in the actions of the people who were followers of the Christ without government edict or judicial fiat!

The original post drew a strong response from one individual who insisted on misreading what I was saying and would not address any of the points I had made. To try to head some of that off, let me highlight some beliefs I hold:

  • A Christian lives in the hope of Heaven and lives to advance a Kingdom, not a nationalistic agenda.
  • Capitalism is not mentioned in the Bible, but usury is – and it is forbidden there. So is idolatry.
  • God is not (a)American, (b) Republican, (c) Democratic – do not try to smuggle in a picture of how we currently do it and say God has blessed it.
  • I am advocating new thinking on how best to resolve the issues that have beset mankind, not continued reliance on the best thinking of men long dead. Since Christ is alive, He is not among those I refer to. Adam Smith, John Locke, on the other hand, I do refer to.
  • Tyranny is not solely a political concept – it can be found in the marketplace daily, if one but has the ability to see and the willingness to look.
  • What we have is the modern equivalent of panem et circenses, a fact not lost on Suzanne Collins fans worldwide.

If I accomplish nothing else with this post than getting someone to think a little deeper than would have been their norm, to question what they are being told by authority figures globally, and to learn more of how the world works, I will have accomplished something.

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  1. [1] This post was originally published in November 2008; after re-reading it, I decided to make only minor changes and additions.

Confirmation Bias?

Back while I was still working at the airport, I was flipping through a magazine targeted at the remodeling industry and came across an article that referred to something called confirmation bias. Wikipedia[1] gives us the definition in greater depth than the article:

Confirmation bias (also called confirmatory bias or myside bias) is a tendency for people to favor information that confirms their preconceptions or hypotheses regardless of whether the information is true.[Note 1][1] As a result, people gather evidence and recall information from memory selectively, and interpret it in a biased way. The biases appear in particular for emotionally significant issues and for established beliefs. For example, in reading about gun control, people usually prefer sources that affirm their existing attitudes. They also tend to interpret ambiguous evidence as supporting their existing position. Biased search, interpretation and/or recall have been invoked to explain attitude polarization (when a disagreement becomes more extreme even though the different parties are exposed to the same evidence), belief perseverance (when beliefs persist after the evidence for them is shown to be false), the irrational primacy effect (a stronger weighting for data encountered early in an arbitrary series) and illusory correlation (in which people falsely perceive an association between two events or situations).

A series of experiments in the 1960s suggested that people are biased towards confirming their existing beliefs. Later work explained these results in terms of a tendency to test ideas in a one-sided way, focusing on one possibility and ignoring alternatives. In combination with other effects, this strategy can bias the conclusions that are reached. Explanations for the observed biases include wishful thinking and the limited human capacity to process information. Another proposal is that people show confirmation bias because they are pragmatically assessing the costs of being wrong, rather than investigating in a neutral, scientific way.

Confirmation biases contribute to overconfidence in personal beliefs and can maintain or strengthen beliefs in the face of contrary evidence. Hence they can lead to poor decisions, especially in organizational, military, political and social contexts.

The author of the magazine article wrote about how advertising and marketing types use these biases that we all have to better sell their product and overcome negative associations by emphasizing positives.While this is not especially new information, it does have a bearing on how we are sold to by both sides in debates, as well as how news stories are spun to favor the biases of the editorial staff, reporters, and/or ownership.

I vaguely remembered getting some of this information in psychology and statistics courses back at VCU, but it had been a while since the knowledge had been brought back to the foreground. What brings it to be a blog post subject is the end result of having to listen to conversations, watching (and reading) news reports, and listening to the responses of people around me. As I said in a previous post, sometimes the best thing I can do is to keep my mouth shut; at other times it would be irresponsible to remain silent.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Above all else, Father, please grant me that wisdom of when to speak like John the Baptizer and when to remain silent as Christ before Pilate.

What any thinking being should do, as opposed to what usually happens, is when we are presented with new information that challenges our beliefs is dig deeper. If what we find out after doing the legwork causes us to change our beliefs because we believe what we’ve found to be a truer, more accurate picture of things as they are, fine. If we resist, and would instead want to change facts to suit our ideology or religious beliefs, we’re mentally ill – like it or not, there is no cleaner definition. And the reality is, we are all mentally ill because we all suffer from confirmation bias depending on the subject matter – self most definitely included. One egregious example comes to mind in the trial of Galileo, but there are innumerable other examples, and contemporary examples abound.

This illness that all of us have, in varying form or degree, can only be countered with concerted effort and willingness to face truth – no hours of therapy required, just a willingness to make the effort followed by the requisite action. Sometimes the challenge is to simply recognize truth where it is and for what it is. Sometimes the challenge is, instead, to stop ourselves from putting forth our biased beliefs that have not been tested, while other times a complete re-evaluation of one’s core beliefs may need to occur.

Here is a simple truth – for those who understand, no explanation is necessary; for those that don’t, none is possible. You counter ignorance with education. Education needs to be done on a daily level, without fear, without spin – facts, not opinion – because we should never stop learning. Education needs to be a component of anything we do in life when working with others, but we cannot simply pass on our biases and look for confirmation of them in the news – that is no more ethical than what is being done to us by the mainstream media or the other purveyors of what passes as news (but is really marketing carried out in another guise).

Religious beliefs – specifically Christianity – are no different in that regard. Christianity is not what I want it to be – it is what it is and what it was long before I became a believer, and will be what it truly is long after I am gone – and that is a good thing. It is not a servant of any earthly political agenda or persuasion, nor are we to pervert it into such. Unless my understanding is flawed, followers of Christ are also adopted by God, the King of Kings, and no king I’ve ever read about has been a member of a political party, so thanks, but my King is neither American, nor Republican or Democrat. Neither are we to twist the Gospel to justify conduct expressly forbidden by it. It is hard enough trying to learn how to live out our faith without having to argue that Christ meant it when He said we are to love our enemies and our neighbors like ourselves,[2] just like He meant it when He said we are to not resist evil. Try expressing those beliefs where I live now around some of  the people I live around (not necessarily with), and the gentlest response I could expect is howls of laughter or of derision at how naive I am, or how it must be nice to be so idealistic. The less gentle responses, while I could type the words, aren’t ones I want to hear, never mind type.

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  1. [1] Please note that I do not consider Wikipedia as an authoritative source of information. While convenient, it is not acceptable to me as a final source. Please feel free to suggest other free sources of the information presented in their article, and I will review it. Of particular significance to me is that the text shown here was pulled from their site in 2011 for a different article, well before the Sandy Hook shootings made gun control such a hot-button political issue.
  2. [2] C.S. Lewis is the one Christian apologist who was able to reach me with his conversational tone (in contemporary English, not KJV-oriented “Christianese”) for Christ. Others would come along whose works I found equally compelling, but only after the case had been made in a way that got past my defenses and my biases.