In Unkind Culture, Is There Still Something Nice to Say? ethicsdaily.com

I helped launch the Say Something Nice Day movement 13 years ago.

Never in my wildest imagination did I think that the greatest barriers to our success would become a president of the United States and evangelical Christians who support his coarse way of communicating and his behavior.

I remember when President Bill Clinton was skewered for his sexual exploits and Vice President Joe Biden was roundly condemned for his foul language.

I remember when the Republican Party campaigned vigorously as the party of family values.

I remember when the Southern Baptist Convention apologized to the African-American community for its racial discrimination in the past, promising a new day of race relations.

Those days have faded.

The pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, Robert Jeffress, says that the president’s sexual behaviors will not keep him from supporting the president. “Evangelicals knew that they were not electing an altar boy,” Jeffress said.

Franklin Graham, son of the famed evangelist, says that Trump is God’s chosen: “God put him in the White House for a reason.”

Henry McMaster, the Republican governor of South Carolina, said that the students who protested in support of the Parkland, Florida, high school students were a disgraceful tool of the left wing.

Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Center, says that evangelicals have given the president a mulligan on the Stormy Daniels adventure.

I have searched the Bible from cover to cover and I can’t locate either 1 Mulligan or 2 Mulligan. I must have been asleep when my pastor preached from that text.

I was wide awake when my pastor preached on forgiveness, but President Trump said that he has done nothing for which he needs to seek forgiveness.

Perhaps Peter was misquoted. “How many mulligans should I give, seven times seven?”

On the president’s language, Franklin Graham said, “He is a businessman. That is just the way he talks.”

Growing up, when I talked as the president so often does, I got my mouth washed out with Octagon soap. Dad did not give me a mulligan. Maybe he was asleep that Sunday also.

After all of the crudeness and meanness in the public square today, is there still something nice to say? Yes.

Amy Butler, pastor of Riverside Church in New York, is planning a conference on God and guns for pastors and church leaders.

Former president Jimmy Carter is still leading a brave movement for the inclusion of women in church leadership.

High school students are still exercising their right to protest peaceably. A second-grade teacher in Oklahoma, Haley Curfman, encourages creativity by allowing her students to write kind things on her white dress.

Pope Francis continues his pleas for mercy and forgiveness. Mayor Tom Tait of Anaheim, California, campaigned on a platform of kindness.

Large sections of our society have become mean and disrespectful of others, but those of us who cling to the teachings of Jesus are faced with a great challenge: How do we persevere when so much of our opposition is in the church and so much of the meanness is coming from the pulpit?

We turn to Jesus for the answer. Most of his opposition when he was on earth came from the church of his day. Most of his criticism was directed at the religious leaders of his time.

In spite of the opposition, he stuck to his message of love and forgiveness. He never deviated from that message. From the cross, he pleaded, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”

The message of Easter is that when he arose from the grave, he returned to those people who killed him. He never gave up on them or us. He hasn’t given up. Neither should we.

June 1 is Say Something Nice Day. June 3 is Say Something Nice Sunday. These are tangible opportunities to model constructive conversations and to infuse some positive rhetoric into the public discourse.

Keep on keeping on. Go about doing good. Say something nice to everyone you meet.

 

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If character is ‘irrelevant’ in politics, eventually the Church will be, too

Russ DeanI do not even know where to begin.

Life has always been confusing, and there have never been easy answers, but we live in a very bewildering time. Is it my imagination, or has it gotten worse? The confusion seems just recently to have magnified pretty dramatically.

No one trusts facts anymore. And what is truth?

The conservative Christian influences of my younger years used to disdain the danger of “liberal relativism.” But what “truth” could be more relativistic than what we are now hearing from some evangelical pulpits?

As reported by Baptist News Global, Robert Jeffress from the First Baptist Church of Dallas, recently pronounced that having an affair with a porn star is “completely irrelevant” to evangelicals. Jeffress believes forgiveness is between the sinner and God, “for anyone who asks.” The sinner in question, of course, has publicly and proudly admitted to never in his life having asked God’s forgiveness, for anything. But maybe that’s irrelevant, too.

I trust the reporter, I know the source, and I’ve never appreciated the accusations of “fake news,” but when I read this I thought, “This has got to be fake news. It just cannot be.”

For my entire adult life evangelicals have unwaveringly inveighed against the personal immorality of political candidates (not wrongly, though maybe a bit too piously at times). Character has always mattered, significantly. Today, suddenly, it is “completely irrelevant.”

According to Jeffress, apparently personal morality and integrity are no longer the measure of Christian character. Personal morality is now irrelevant as long as you toe the party line regarding national policy on abortion rights and as long as you threaten to rain down all-consuming “fire and fury” on our enemies.

You know, just like Jesus said.

In this age of bitter polarization and angry divisiveness, maybe critical words, words that challenge someone else’s point of view only fuel the unhealthy animosity so many of us are experiencing. I worry about being the one to offer those words. I sincerely do not want to be part of the problem.

But can the Church really afford to allow such breathless hypocrisy to define Christian ethics and spirituality? Can we tolerate such an example to be the model of “Christianity” for the wider culture? Or could it be that people are running from the Church today in droves because we have allowed exactly this?

To be sure, navigating our political system will always present a challenge, especially for voters of faith. There’s the law, and there’s the “higher law” — and then there’s that thorny concept of the separation of church and state. Making voting decisions difficult for all is the fact that there is no perfect candidate (and no perfect voter either!). No candidate will perfectly mirror a voter’s views, issue by issue, point by point, and given the complexity of our democracy, based largely on the “either/or” of a two-party system, voters — maybe especially religious voters — will sometimes have to settle. Choosing a candidate might come down to choosing an issue or issues, being willing to compromise on other concerns …

… but never compromising our own, core values in the process.

The primary job of a leader is to lead — and no one leads without first setting the example. In leading by example, character and integrity are essential. Jesus said you will know a tree by the fruit it produces. Conservatives used to say this was Truth.

I believe it still is.

In a recent sermon about gun violence I told my congregation that I am not “anti-gun.” I said this because … I am not anti-gun! I am, however, anti-foolish — and I believe what we are doing, and all that we are not doing proves our utter foolishness with every tragic, often preventable, killing. Likewise, I am neither anti-conservative nor anti-evangelical. I am, however, anti-… well, anti-whatever-this-is. I just have no idea what to call it.

I have never seen anything like it. I do not even know where to begin. Character doesn’t matter. How do we even talk about truth?

It is a confusing time, but one thing is crystal clear to me: if committing an adulterous affair with a porn star, if that kind of morality and that kind of character is “completely irrelevant” to a Church that has always said exactly the opposite, there is another thing that will be “completely irrelevant” to today’s culture — and that is, sadly, the Church.

*Russ Dean is co-pastor of Park Road Baptist Church in Charlotte, N.C. A native of Clinton, S.C., and a graduate of Furman University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he earned a D.Min. degree from Beeson Divinity School. He and his wife, Amy, have been in church ministry for 30 years, and they have served as co-pastors of Park Road since 2000. He is active in social justice ministries and interfaith dialogue, and when he isn’t writing sermons or posts for Baptist News Global you’ll find Russ in his shed doing wood working, playing jazz music, slalom or barefoot water skiing, hiking and camping, or watching his two teenage boys on the baseball field.

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Climb the Ladder and Storm the Treehouse* – Rev. SUSAN SPARKS  

I grew up in Charlotte, N.C., on a quiet neighborhood street called Lockhart Drive. For years, I was the only little girl on a street full of boys. Lucky for me, I could outrun and outclimb most of them, so they would begrudgingly let me play, too — except, of course, in the treehouse.

Tucked away in the top of an old sycamore in my next-door neighbor’s yard, was a fort made of nailed-together plywood. It was the place that all the kids — excuse me, all the boys — loved to play.

To emphasize that it was for the boys only, they had scribbled the ubiquitous “no girls allowed” sign on the door. Ironically, the sign was spelled not “allowed” but “aloud,” which made me think I could come in if I were quiet.

I was wrong. I was never invited in.

I put up with being excluded from that all-boys treehouse for a long time, not wanting to rock the boat and hoping they’d change their minds. Then one morning, I woke up and thought, “This is a new day.” Sneaking through my neighbor’s gate, I inched up the ladder, and as I was about to clear the last rung, one of the boys spotted me. They all started shouting, “You can’t come up here! You’re a girl! Read the sign!”

I was about to yell, “You can’t SPELL!” when my next-door neighbor’s mom came running out of the house, and said, “What’s the ruckus?”

When the boys shouted their angry disapproval, she crossed her arms and gave one of the best comeback lines ever: “Well, boys, I own this tree, and the tree house that’s in it. Technically, you’re trespassing. I’ll let you stay, but only if you take that tacky sign off the front door and let Susan in.”

There was a long silence, followed by grumbling. Then the sign was pulled down. They did it, not because they wanted to, but because they had to. They did it because they didn’t own the treehouse.

Fifty some years later, nothing has changed. The world is full of treehouses with signs that say, “no girls aloud” or “no people of color allowed” or “no LGBTQ” or “no persons with disability.” Why? Because unlike the one in my neighbor’s yard, these modern-day “treehouses” are still owned by the boys.

That changed this week when a powerful Hollywood actress woke up and decided “This is a new day.” Two-time Academy Award winner Frances McDormand said two words at the end of her Oscar acceptance speech that rocked Hollywood: “Inclusion Rider.”

The next day social media and news outlets were abuzz, explaining the significance of the term. In short, an inclusion rider is a stipulation that actors and actresses can ask (or demand) to have inserted into their contracts which would require a certain level of diversity among a film’s cast and crew. It is a little-known concept and one most people are reticent to engage because, like me with the treehouse, they don’t want to rock the boat or damage their chances to “getting in.”

The movie industry is a classic example of the proverbial treehouse with a sign hung out that says, “no ­­­­­­­­­­______________    (fill in the blank with any demographic that is not straight white able-bodied male) allowed.” For example, a recent study showed that LGBT-identified characters represented a mere 1.1 percent of all speaking characters in the top 900 films of the past decade.

Similarly, the Asian community has for years endured the sting of Hollywood casting Caucasians for Asian roles. For example, DreamWorks and Paramount cast Scarlett Johansson, a Scandinavian actress, as a Japanese cyborg in their adaptation of Ghost in the Shell. The announcement coincided with reports that producers considered using digital tools to make Ms. Johansson look more Asian.

People with disabilities are another underrepresented population. As comedian and disability advocate Maysoon Zayid has explained, “We (the disabled) are 20 percent of the population, and we are only 2percent of the images you see on American television, and of those 2 percent, 95 percent are played by nondisabled actors.”

Of course, women are not allowed in the treehouse either. According to a study of the top-grossing 250 films, women comprised only 11 percent of the directors, 11 percent of the writers, 16 percent of the editors and 3 percent of the composers.

And the statistics for inclusion are equally if not more skewed for people of color. Again, studies of popular movies show that in 2016 70.8 percent of speaking roles were white, far outweighing the numbers for those who were black (13.6 percent) or Hispanic (3 percent).

These statistics are particularly troubling in film and television because what we watch has the power to shape what we believe about who we are.

Hollywood is not an isolated example. It’s a microcosm of the deep seated, systemic prejudice and racism that runs through the social meridians of our nation and our world.

Achieving the American Dream shouldn’t be like trying to get into a treehouse in which only certain people are welcome. The Puritan work ethic shouldn’t just ensure success for those who look like the early white Puritans. Frances McDormand was right. We need an inclusion rider. But not just for Hollywood contracts — we need one for life.

Fortunately, we have one. It’s called the Bible.

Unlike most convoluted corporate documents, this contract boils down to two simple provisions: 1) Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and 2) Love your neighbor as yourself. If you take these words and apply them to the discrimination in our world, you get God saying to the power structure something akin to this:

“Well, boys, I own this tree and the treehouse that’s in it. Technically, you are trespassing. I’ll let you stay, but only if you take that tacky sign off the front door and let all my people in.”

If we’ve accepted God’s terms, if we’ve accepted this contract, then we are bound to live within its parameters. We are also bound by the corollary: we must not support those who refuse to live by that contract, and specifically the “Inclusion Rider” of life. That is a deal-breaker.

There are many ways we can do this, but one is to be intentional about how we spend our money. Again, Hollywood offers the perfect example. One of the main reasons offered to justify their outrageous hiring practices is economic — the claim being that films with diverse casts don’t make money.

Really?

Last weekend, it was announced that Black Panther, the first mainstream superhero movie fronted by an almost entirely black cast, became only the 33rd movie in history to cross the one billion dollar mark. It joins films like Jurassic Park, and Avatar, and it did it in only 26 days after its original release.

In. Your. Face. Hollywood.

Brother and sisters, we have more power than we think. We have the power to take care of each other, to give everyone a fair chance, to ensure that the gifts and talents of all of God’s children are not wasted.

The misspelled sign outside the treehouse contained more truth than I realized. We all need to speak out and be heard “aloud!” “Girls aloud!” “LGBTQ aloud!” “People with disabilities aloud!” “People of color aloud!”

This is a new day. Come on! Let’s climb the ladder and storm the treehouse!

*This piece is taken from a sermon delivered at the historic Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City on Sunday, March 11, 2018.

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‘Anticipatory mourning’: America’s youth on death, guns and dissent

Bill Leonard

“We have our CHILDREN taken from us; the Desire of our Eyes taken away with a stroke.” So Puritan preacher Cotton Mather (1663-1728) wrote from 17th-century Boston, watching helplessly as multitudes of New England’s children and youth perished from diseases that could strike at any moment from infancy to adolescence. Twice married, Mather was the father of 15 children, only six of whom reached adulthood. Two outlived him.

In Children in the New England Mind in Life and Death, Peter Slater observed that the death of children was so frequent that colonists often lived in a state of “anticipatory mourning.” He concluded that “the conviction that ‘the King of Terrors’ [death] often came quickly made the Puritans anxious not to be caught unready.” Indeed, death vigils were so common in every Puritan family that “whatever their eventual outcome, parents prepared themselves emotionally to cope with the anticipated loss.”

Three hundred years later, the “anticipated loss” of children in the United States continues, in part because mass shootings have turned school kids into “the hunted,” as students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., now describe themselves. After 17 people died there in a St. Valentine’s Day massacre, it is clear that “anticipatory mourning” haunts families across a country whose 300 million firearms literally outgun the rest of the non-military world. Post-Parkland, how many American parents now vow to tell their children they love them every day before sending them to school? Indeed, the voices of survivors from multiple mass firearm-related murders force us to acknowledge that public venues and AR-15s, exacerbated by incessant one-on-one-parking-lot-shootings, make violent deaths an ever-present possibility in every American community.

Such anticipatory mourning seems as palpable in 2018 as when Jeremiah described it almost 3,000 years earlier: Hear, O women, the word of the Lord, and let your ears receive the word of his mouth; teach to your daughters a dirge, and each to her neighbor a lament. “Death has come up into our windows, it has entered our palaces, to cut off the children from the streets and the young men from the squares” (Jer. 9:21).

As religious communities in a country where students now call themselves “the hunted,” let us at last take seriously the anticipatory mourning of young people schooled in strategies for escaping rogue shooters. For the church, if ever a gospel of Christian hope was needed in American society it is now. Implicitly and explicitly, American youth demand support for themselves and their families in confronting the relentless specter of death in a land where a merciless 18-year-old can “legally” secure battlefield weapons.

We’ve ritualized death away from the young in this culture, in funeral homes and hospice facilities, but it has overtaken them with a vengeance in what were once safe spaces for learning. Thus the church, in its teaching, preaching and praying, is now called to respond to a nation of anticipatory mourners, reasserting the presence of God in our living and our dying, particularly in the violent ends to which we all are now vulnerable.

Lent is that season of the Christian year when we own death as a sign of our mortality and the unpredictable nature of life itself. (“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”) On Good Friday we recount the agonizingly brutal execution of the world’s Great Innocent.  On the way to Easter we say one more time that life is stronger than death and that God is with us in it all. Helping human beings acknowledge the reality of death, grieve deeply, and live bravely is a central witness of the Christian gospel. Let us reaffirm that hope for our children and ourselves, here and now.

And while we are at it, let’s devise concrete recognition of and strategies for confronting America’s gun culture, unique across the entire globe, weaponizing violent people far too easily. Henceforth, “the hunted” will not allow us to wait for the next AR-15 atrocity. Days after the deaths of their 17 friends, Parkland students moved from victimization to dissent. In a “Morning Joe” interview, Douglas High survivor David Hogg commented: “This will be a generation-long-thing. This is just getting started. Millennials are some of the most politically active and some of the most critical individuals … and as such I think that’s what is going to sustain this process, realizing what is wrong with America and trying to fix it, because the previous generation won’t. … You can’t wash away those memories.”

Right-wing media quickly entered the fray, accusing Hogg and other outspoken survivors of being “crisis actors,” not genuine Douglas students. Others tagged them as dupes of the anti-Second Amendment, anti-gun, anti-Trump media. In America’s culture wars, neither death nor conspiracy theories takes a holiday.

Undaunted by such attacks, these hunted Millennials declare that their dissenting voices will not be silenced. David Hogg says he won’t return to school until Florida passes at least one new firearm regulation, concluding, “We have a major gun violence problem in this country, one that won’t go away.”

And until voters, politicians, families and churches confront that problem, anticipatory mourning won’t go away either. So let’s try to tell our children we love them every time they walk out the door. They need to know that, every day of their lives.

*Dr. Leonard spoke at the John A. Hamrick Lectureship at First Baptist Church of Charleston.

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