Friday, November 27, 2015

Politics (Part One)

I’ve been thinking about politics.

Specifically, I’ve been thinking about why some of y’all are so pigheaded.

Now that I have your attention, let me say that what I’ve really been thinking about is why we’re so angry with each other.

Most of us have dug our trenches and are huddled down in them. Every once in a while we stand up to lob a verbal or virtual grenade over toward the other side. We save our heaviest salvos for when someone on the opposing side attacks our position, our candidate, our preconceived notions, or our consciously or unconsciously chosen biases.

I seem to remember learning in a long-ago pastoral care course that anger usually comes from fear, fear usually comes from feeling threatened, and we feel threatened when we are faced with change. I reckon, then, that we are angry because we are afraid, we are afraid because we feel threatened, and we feel threatened because we are confronted by change.

And the times, as Mr. Dylan sang a half-century ago, sure are a-changin’!

I was born in 1958. When I stop and think about it, I am amazed at the changes we’ve seen in the fifty-seven years of my life. For example, think of advances in civil rights, in technology, and in our understanding of the universe. I and many other see such advances as good and necessary progress. Some, though, are threatened by the change that progress brings. And it certainly is the case that advancements can be misused in ways that bring increased risk to people. For example, while I treasure the unbelievable knowledge that the Internet places at my fingertips, I am aware of the ways in which its power is used to spread false information, to fan the flames of fear, and to add layers to the pile of ignorance.

I once described a man I knew this way: “He’ll never be happy until it’s 1952 again—so, he’ll never be happy.” I wasn’t wrong about my friend. It seems to me that a lot of us will never be happy unless we can stop the changes that are coming—so, we’ll never be happy.

Technology is going to continue to advance. The world is going to keep getting smaller. The United States is going to continue becoming more multi-cultural.

The United States Census Bureau projects that “minorities” will be in the majority in the United States by 2043. That means that whites will be in the minority in about thirty years. A recent Pew Research report demonstrates the declining percentage of Americans who self-identify as “Christian,” although Christianity is still by far the predominant religion in the United States.

My point is this: America is changing demographically. Some see such change as adding more ingredients to the melting pot; others see it as fuel for the further melting down of what they regard as the “real” America.

My further point is this: some of us are afraid that things are going to keep changing in ways that we don’t want them to, while some of us are afraid that things are not going to keep changing in ways that we think they should.

So, some of us fear the changes that are taking place, while others of us fear the change that will take place if the changes that are happening stop happening.

We see those who think differently than we do—those who have different ideas, those who practice different religions, those who support different candidates—as promoting the change we don’t want and as standing in the way of the change that we do want. And so, we respond to them in anger. Usually, we’re not really angry at them. We’re angry at what they want; we’re angry that they don’t want what we want. We’re angry because they don’t see the world like we do. We’re angry because they are not threatened by what we’re threatened by.

And that’s some of what I’ve been thinking about politics.

I suspect I’ll be thinking some more . . .

Sunday, June 15, 2014

I Believe Government is the Problem

I believe government is the problem.

I believe that major American corporations will pay a decent wage to their workers without a government-imposed minimum wage.

I believe that American companies will put the safety of their workers first without government-mandated safety regulations.

I believe that American industries will do everything in their power to keep our world clean and healthy without government-imposed environmental standards.

I believe that American insurance companies will offer health insurance coverage to people with pre-existing conditions without a law requiring them to do so.

I believe that the people who run American corporations and who run Wall Street firms are so fair-minded, generous, and just that they would never do anything that might hurt homeowners, investors, or pensioners and thus need no governmental regulatory burden placed upon them.

I believe that automobile companies want consumers to become less dependent on fossil fuels and so will voluntarily and willingly increase the mileage standards of their vehicles without the government requiring them to do so.

I believe that oil companies want America to find and develop alternative fuel sources and in the meantime need to be allowed to drill for oil anywhere since finding and developing alternative sources is just hard and so the government needs to quit trying to push us in that direction.

I believe that there is no correlation between the level of gun ownership and the murder rate, even though statistics show that the United States, which has the highest gun ownership rate in the world, also has the highest murder rate of any country in the industrialized world that's not Mexico, and so there is no need for the government to take any interest in our guns.

I believe that human activity does not contribute to climate change and that, even if it does, we need jobs now more than we need a planet in the future and so the government needs to quit trying to limit the emission of greenhouse gases.

I believe that the causes of civil rights and equal treatment of all Americans would have made more progress more quickly had the federal government not gotten involved and would make more continued progress if the government would not get involved.

I believe that on the night before Easter, a bunny rabbit goes to homes with children and leaves them baskets filled with chocolate bunnies and candy eggs.

I believe that the moon is made of green cheese.

I believe that when a child loses a tooth, a fairy comes into her or his room and, without waking the child, leaves money under her or his pillow.

I believe I’ll stop now …

Monday, November 11, 2013

Remembering Our Veterans

My father, the late, great Champ Ruffin, was a Navy Veteran of World War II. He, like most veterans of war, did not glorify or romanticize his service and he certainly never said or even implied that if I wanted to be able to hold my head up in polite American society I needed to serve a stint in the military. He did, though, suggest that I consider participating in ROTC. His reasoning was practical: “They’ll commission you when you graduate from college, they’ll probably pay for seminary, and after you serve twenty years as a chaplain you can retire and still have decades to pastor churches.” Given that had I done that I would have been drawing that retirement check for a dozen years now, it now seems like a better idea to me than it did at the time.

I did meet with the head of ROTC at Mercer University but I decided not to pursue that course. I reckon I decided I wasn’t Army material. Subconsciously I suspect I was influenced by my then recently deceased mother; my Aunt Joan loved to tell the story about how, one Christmas at MawMaw and PawPaw’s house, I walked my very scrawny eight-year-old self by them in my brand new make-believe Army uniform and Mama said to her, “Look at him. He looks like a prisoner of war!” (which Mama pronounced “wawa”—it rhymes with the state we lived in, which she pronounced “Jawja”). Given that I weighed 125 pounds soaking wet when I entered college, I think that I thought not much had changed.

I guess I wasn’t military material. I confess, though, to having felt some guilt over the years at not having served in the armed forces. A young service member that I met early this year changed my thinking, though. I was thanking him for his service to our country when my guilt surfaced and before I could beat it down I heard myself confessing to him, “Sometimes I wish I had served in the military.” He shot a quizzical look at me and said, “Well, Sir, I’m sure you have found other ways to serve!”

In so saying, that young sailor set me free not only from my misplaced sense of neglected duty; he set me free also to think about and to celebrate the many different ways that people serve our nation and our world. To borrow the Apostle Paul’s analogy, if we think of the United States as a body, we realize that not everyone in the nation is meant to be a foot—not everyone should serve by being in the military; the foot is necessary but if the whole body is a foot, then it’s not a body—it’s a foot. Military service is one vital and essential kind of service; in this world, sometimes a nation has to defend itself and when that time comes, we need and are grateful for the people who are ready and willing to defend us.

Our military veterans have won, protected, and preserved our freedom. Other veterans have, too, in different but absolutely vital ways.

Think, for example, of the veterans of our diplomatic corps. Who knows how many more conflicts our country would have been involved in and how many more lives we and other nations would have lost had our diplomats not worked so hard behind the scenes to make and to maintain peace? Diplomats working through the State Department and the United Nations, among other departments and organizations, have championed and preserved our liberty and continue to do so.

Think, for another example, of the veterans of humanitarian organizations. Who knows how much worse situations might have been and how much more quickly they got better because the representatives of such organizations have been and are present in times of disaster, whether the disaster is brought by nature or by humans?

Think, for a third example, of the veterans of peace movements. Who knows what the radical witness and the radical actions of peace-making groups and individuals have done to keep us aware of and hoping for a better world in which conflict is less present and war is rare?

Think, for a final example, of the veterans of civil rights and liberties organizations and movements. Who knows what could have happened to our freedoms right here at home—especially those of the poor, disenfranchised, and powerless—had such advocates and activists not done the difficult and often unpopular work that they have done and continue to do?

In all of these cases and in many others, people labor to help correct conditions that can fuel conflicts and to foster communication that might improve relationships. So there are many kinds of veterans who in their own ways have defended freedom and who have preserved the peace.

As for me—well, I’m a veteran minister/pastor/preacher/teacher/writer who hopes—who believes—that the Spirit of whose presence I have tried to foster greater awareness and the prayers that I have tried to encourage people to pray and the Jesus in whose steps I have tried to follow and to help others to follow have influenced people to be more peaceful in their spirit and more peaceable in their relationships.

As for you—well, you’re a veteran of your life, whatever shape that has taken and is taking. In your home, in your vocation, and in your community you by your attitudes and your actions have had and do have every opportunity to promote peace and to defend liberty.

So as we express our gratitude for our military veterans today, let’s also express our gratitude for veterans of other movements and organizations who also work, often at great risk and sacrifice, for peace and liberty.

And let’s all be, whatever our role in life, veterans of the never-ending struggle to help everyone be free.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

An Open Letter to President Barack Obama

Dear Mr. President,

I would like to tell you about what I learned from Dr. Carey T. Vinzant.

I first met Dr. Vinzant on a spring morning in 1975. Rev. William L. Key, a retired Baptist minister who was also my high school Creative Writing teacher’s father-in-law, picked me up that morning to take me the forty or so miles from my home in Barnesville, Georgia to visit Mercer University, the college to which his daughter-in-law and he were convinced I should go, even though I was not so convinced. When I got in the car, Preacher Key told me that we were going to pick someone up in Forsyth; that someone else turned out to be Dr. Vinzant, a man of whom I had never heard but who I that morning discovered had retired some six years earlier from the presidency of Tift College, the now defunct, sadly, Baptist college for women located in Forsyth.

We had an appointment with Mercer’s Director of Admissions Johnny Mitchell. We walked into his office, sat down, and chit-chatted a bit. Finally Mr. Mitchell looked at me, then at Preacher Key, then at Dr. Vinzant for a long time, then at me again. He said to me, “So, when do you want to start?” I was a sixteen-year-old high school junior; I entered Mercer that fall.

I have been loosely connected with Dr. Vinzant in other ways since then; he and I both served as pastor of The Hill Baptist Church in Augusta, Georgia and of the First Baptist Church in Fitzgerald, Georgia where I presently serve.

I remember exactly one thing that Dr. Vinzant said to me. It was during my meeting with my ordination council, a group of ministers and deacons who quizzed me to determine if I was fit to be ordained, which, frankly, my seventeen-year-old college freshman self was not, although they voted unanimously to proceed with the ordination that was already scheduled for the next day.

During that meeting, Dr. Vinzant asked me the only question that I can still remember from that interrogation: “Mike, I wonder if you think that the Apostle Paul could have done the work he did for the Lord had he not had the education that he had?”

I stammered out an answer that I thought was pretty good; it had something to do with my conviction that I reckoned that the Lord could use anyone the Lord wanted to in whatever way the Lord wanted to, including overcoming whatever deficiencies, educational or otherwise, they had. Or maybe I just said, “Yes.”

Dr. Vinzant gave a little smile and said, “Well, you may be right. But it seems to me that Paul was uniquely qualified to accomplish God’s purpose of bridging the gap between Jews and Gentiles precisely because of his background and education in both the Jewish and the Greek worlds.”

I’ve thought a lot over the last four decades about Dr. Vinzant’s observation; he was right to say that Paul’s ability to articulate his faith in both the Jewish and Gentile worlds was vital to the spread of the Christian faith. One could make a similar observation about Moses, who as a Hebrew raised in the Egyptian Pharaoh’s household was well positioned to speak both to the Hebrew people and to the Egyptian leadership and thus to lead the Hebrews out of bondage.

I say all of this, Mr. President, to say that I believe that you should say much more about race in America than you have to this point said and that you should say much more about race in America than you said in your recent remarks about the Trayvon Martin case. You are, after all, uniquely qualified to do so and, being so qualified, you should take advantage of the bully pulpit of the presidency to try to help us make further progress in understanding each other and in working together for the benefit of all people.

The reasons that you are uniquely qualified to help us to think and to talk about race in America are two-fold and are, I suppose, obvious, but I beg your indulgence as I state them anyway. First, you are the President of the United States, which will be a fact of your life for only forty-two more months, and so you should take advantage of every second to deal with truly vital matters and issues. Second, you are both black and white, which has been a fact of your life for your entire life and will be for the rest of your life and so you will be in a position to help us to keep thinking and talking about race for a long time.

It is likely that we will never have another President who is as qualified as you are to help us in coming to terms with the realities of race in this nation. I know that you cannot do so on your own, but you—and only you—can be our prompter-in-chief and moderator-in-chief. You and only you can set the terms of the debate at an open, honest, and dignified level.

I realize there are risks for you if you continue to talk about race; some people will say that you are stoking the fires of racism if you continue to talk about what it is like to be black in America, but you nevertheless need to talk about it, especially since you also know more than most black people do about what it is to be white in America.

When you were elected, we celebrated the fact that you were our first African-American President. But we need for you to embrace, even more than you already have, the fact that you are our first bi-racial President.

In the First Testament of our Bible, at a time of great crisis, Mordecai suggested to Queen Esther, who was a Jewish woman serving as queen alongside the king of Persia, that perhaps she had risen to leadership “for just such a time as this.”

Perhaps, Mr. President, you have, too.

Please lead us in speaking with truth and grace about the fact of race; lead us in making progress in understanding each other so that we can better live up to our ideals of equality and justice.


Michael L. Ruffin
Fitzgerald, Georgia

Friday, February 8, 2013

Are Double Taps Double Trouble?

The "Century Marks" section of the February 6, 2013 issue of Christian Century contained the following item (citing the source as Business Insider, December 12):

New York University student Josh Begley has been tweeting about every U.S. drone strike since 2002. He has pointed out a tactic called "double tap," which is considered by some a war crime. It involves a strike on the first responders who try to rescue the people hit in the initial strike.

If the double tap is indeed American policy, it should be deeply troubling to all Americans.

I would like to know: do we make it a practice to target with a drone strike those who are responding to an earlier strike?

I have contacted many media figures asking them to look into this matter but have received no response and, so far as I know, it has not been mentioned on the air...

Friday, August 31, 2012

My RNC 2012 Conspiracy Theory

In his classic of gonzo journalism Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 (New York: Warner, 1973), Hunter S. Thompson said the following:

The reason Nixon put Agnew and the Goldwater freaks in charge of the party this year is that he knows they can’t win in ’76—but it was a good short-term trade; they have to stay with him this year, which will probably be worth a point of two in November—and that’s important to Nixon, because he thinks it’s going to be close… But the real reason he turned the party over the Agnew/Goldwater wing is that he knows most of the old-line Democrats who just got stomped by McGovern for the nomination wouldn’t mind seeing George get taken out in ’72 if they know they can get back in the saddle if they’re willing to wait four years. (pp. 319-320)

He went on to say,

But the thing you have to understand is that Nixon has such a fine understanding of the way politicians think that he knew people like Daley and Meany and Ted Kennedy would go along with him—because it’s in their interest now to have Nixon get his second term, in exchange for a guaranteed Democratic victory in 1976. (p. 320)

Thompson did not see the future with total accuracy. He thought that the 1976 election would be a contest between Spiro Agnew and Ted Kennedy; he didn’t know that both Agnew and Nixon would resign from office in disgrace which would put Gerald Ford in the White House in 1974 and at the top of the Republican ticket in 1976. He also didn’t know that the Watergate scandal would pave the way for a relative unknown named Jimmy Carter to carry the Democratic banner that year, much less that Carter would win the election.

I think, though, that had Agnew and Nixon not resigned and had Agnew been the Republican nominee in 1976, the Democratic candidate, no matter who it was, would have won.

It was a year (the year in which I turned 18 and voted in my first presidential election, by the way) in which a Democrat was almost fated to win, much like 2008. As my wise uncle told me early in 2008, “It doesn’t matter whether Hillary or Obama gets the nomination. This country is going to elect a Democrat this year.”

Getting back to 1972, though, Thompson’s main point was that Nixon was willing to do whatever he had to do, including setting his party up to lose the White House four years down the road, in order to get reelected and that the Democratic establishment was willing to see McGovern get defeated if it meant a virtual guarantee of a Democratic win four years later.

I found myself reflecting on Thompson’s words as I watched and wondered about the Republican National Convention this week.

First, I wondered why the Republicans had nominated Mitt Romney.

When you look at the record of his four years as governor of Massachusetts, it seems clear that he is at heart a moderate Republican. Yet somehow, he managed to win the nomination of a party that has swung way to his right. Yes, he has, in the process of running for President, said that he now believes most of the things that the most conservative wing of the party wants him to believe, but when you observe the lack of enthusiasm for Romney—a lack for which he tried to make up by naming Paul Ryan as his running mate—you get the sense that lots of Tea Party Republicans don’t really believe that he is one of them, most likely because he is not. Two of the reasons he got the nomination, it’s fair to say, are (1) the more conservative and Tea Party-favored candidates were obviously unqualified for the position and (2) Romney had much deeper pockets than his opponents.

The bottom line is that the Republican Party has nominated as their presidential candidate someone that many, many of them don’t want and about whom few of them are excited. His one qualification, so far as they are concerned, is that he is not Barack Obama.

Second, I wondered why the final hour of the convention was so badly mismanaged.

Lots of other people are wondering about this, too. These days, for better or worse, the major networks only carry the 10:00-11:00 EDT hour of the convention; that hour, then, is very important in terms of getting the party’s message out and of introducing its candidate. But on Thursday night, the video about Romney, which got good reviews, aired before 10:00 and Clint Eastwood’s entertaining or bizarre, depending on who is describing it, monologue was seen during the prime hour along with Marco Rubio’s strong address and Gov. Romney’s acceptance speech. Why wasn’t Eastwood on earlier and the video on later?

Third, I wondered why some speakers, especially Chris Christie and Marco Rubio, spent almost all their words talking about themselves and almost none of them talking about the nominee.

They aren’t running for President. Well, they aren’t running this time.

When I put Hunter S. Thompson’s observations about 1972 together with my wonderings about the 2012 Republican convention (a dangerous melding, I admit), I find myself pondering a rather conspiratorial theory.

Could it be that the Republican Party has put forth a nominee that they doubt seriously can win—and don’t particularly want to win—so that, four years from now, after four more years of President Obama struggling with either the results of failed policies (they hope) or the results of continual virulent and obstructionist opposition from House and Senate Republicans (they know), they will (they think and hope) be virtually guaranteed to win the White House with someone that the Tea Party folks can and will gladly get behind and who effectively launched his 2016 presidential campaign at this convention, namely, Paul Ryan, Chris Christie, or Marco Rubio?

Thompson wrote that the man with whom he shared his observations responded, “That’s so rotten I really have to admire it. Boy, I thought I was cynical!” to which Thompson replied, “That’s not cynical. That’s pure…politics…” (p. 321).

I know I may sound cynical.

I don’t think that the GOP planned to nominate someone that they didn’t like and they didn’t think could win. I just think that, given that’s the way it’s worked out, they have decided to work with it as best they can.

They might be able to take four more years of Obama over eight possible years of Romney, if that’s what it takes to elect someone in 2016 that will insure the presence in the White House of a true believer.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Patriotism, Religion, and the Building of American Community

With Memorial Day upon us and Independence Day following close behind, my thoughts have turned to the value of patriotism.

I confess that in years past I have spent quite a bit of time pondering patriotism’s too frequent mutation, under the influence of fear, arrogance, and xenophobia, into nationalism and jingoism. I confess furthermore that I am still troubled by those who talk and act as if the United States is always automatically better and more correct in any scenario that is played out under any circumstances with any nation and as if anyone who offers a criticism of an American policy or program is, if not an enemy of the state, at least unpatriotic.

I confess also that in years past I have spent quite a bit of time fretting over the too often uncritically reflected upon connection that many people seem to make between Christian commitment and patriotic allegiance and particularly over the marriage of convenience between far right wing Christianity and far right wing politics. I confess furthermore that I am still troubled by those who talk and act as if somehow pledging allegiance to the American flag and pledging allegiance to the Christian flag are two sides of the same coin.

But I’m not thinking about those things this year—well, not much, anyway.

Instead I’m thinking about the valuable and healthy role that patriotism can and should play in forming, preserving, and enriching a sense of community among Americans.

“Patriotism” as I define it is a healthy love for, respect for, and devotion to one’s homeland, whether it is one’s homeland by birth or by adoption, and to its people, its traditions, and its principles, and a commitment to protect it, to defend it, and to work with all other citizens to make it even better.

Now, as a Christian (and I think I can safely assume I would say this if I came from another faith tradition) I must add that my commitment to love and to serve my God and to have my life formed by my Scriptures is prior to and more important than and thus must inform and can even sometimes limit the ways in which I can serve and support my country. It’s simply a matter of putting first things first and as a Christian my primary allegiance is to my Lord and all my other allegiances, including my allegiance to my country and even to my family, exist under and are shaped by that primary allegiance.

One of the great principles upon which the United States is founded is the principle of religious liberty; in this nation people are free to practice their religion (or to practice no religion) and are free from being compelled to support an established or state religion. I think that is a good and healthy thing, which I am sure the Founding Fathers would be relieved to hear. I furthermore think that it is a principle around which we should rally and which we should all, irrespective of our religious traditions and convictions, defend.

But one of the side effects of our tradition of religious liberty and the resulting tremendous religious diversity in the United States is that our religious traditions and convictions often become lines of division and debate and even of antagonism. There is nothing wrong with the practice of apologetics and all Americans should certainly have the freedom to make their case and to speak their minds so long as we are respectful and civil about it. Let’s face it, though—most of us do in fact think that there is something a little more valuable and “right” in our faith tradition than there is in other traditions or in no tradition; otherwise, we wouldn’t stay in it. I, for example, am a Christian and I truly believe that the ultimate and at the same time most accessible (a tension I just have to live with) revelation of God is in Jesus Christ. I would very much like to see absolutely everybody absolutely everywhere become a disciple of Jesus.

But that is not going to happen here in America or anywhere else. Moreover, all American Christians are never going to interpret or practice their Christian faith in the same way.

Therefore, practicing ecumenism is very difficult. Perhaps to our shame but nevertheless understandably given the way things are, holding truly ecumenical Christian worship services or sharing in truly ecumenical Christian ministry efforts—and by “truly ecumenical” I mean services or efforts at which any Christian group or individual would be fully welcomed and fully included and fully appreciated—is difficult, given the differences in worship and doctrine and practice that divide us. Certainly, then, holding truly ecumenical—with no requirement or expectation that the participants be Christian—worship services or ministry efforts is even more difficult.

For the record, I’d be more than willing to try it in either or both ways—“Christian ecumenical” or just “ecumenical”—but I recognize the difficulties. While it is true that God is one and while it is true that people of all religious traditions probably should be willing and able to come together to worship that one true God, it is simply the case that our different beliefs and convictions and practices make it hard.

In the United States of America, then, building over-arching community around religion, even around the worship of the one true God, is a non-starter.

So here I return to patriotism—did you remember that this is a post about patriotism?—and to the valuable and healthy role that patriotism can and should play in forming, preserving, and enriching a sense of community among Americans.

The bottom line is that we have at least a chance to be unified behind our common allegiance to the United States and to the principles on which the nation is built.

It is not—or at least is should not be—difficult for us to see that we best celebrate our American freedoms or remember our American history or embrace our American heritage when we do so not as Christian Americans or Jewish Americans or Muslim Americans or Buddhist Americans or Atheist Americans but rather as Americans who happen to be Christian or Jewish or Muslim or Buddhist or Atheist.

It is our common allegiance to America that can and should bring Americans together and create American community.

I know that some will say that this is idolatry, the putting of America in the place of God, but I deny that. I say again that for a person of faith his or her commitment to God must come first. I also say that where ecumenical progress can be made it should be made. But I also say again that our heritage of religious liberty and the fact of religious diversity make it impossible for religion—even faith in the one true God who, I would say, is most fully revealed in his Son Jesus Christ—to be the basis for American community.

The creating of such community is the most important role that true patriotism can play.

(This post originally appeared in 2011 on my blog On the Jericho Road.)