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Monday, August 23, 2010

Tired of Being Tolerant

It seems amazing to me that there is a national and ongoing discussion about the exact nature of President Obama's religious beliefs. This is even more amazing given the fact that there was such a political stir created by then-Candidate Obama's pastor, Jeremiah Wright, of the United Church of Christ. The UCC is a Christian church of course, but that does not seem to matter and those who attacked the President for sitting under so-called "radical" Christian sermons (such as reparations to African Americans - oooh, so radical), now attack him for not being a Christian at all, but a secret Muslim.

So what do you get when you combine the extraordinary short-term memory of the American public with a total rejection of anything that looks like, smells like, or even faintly resembles logic or common sense by the crazy-ass conservative right? One-fifth of the American public believes he is Muslim and one-third of Republicans believe the same. Does it even make sense to discuss this? Of course not, but making sense is not the point. Having legitimacy is not the point. Crazy-ass conservatives do not need to try and lift up competing ideas or raise new credible leaders - they just need to constantly erode confidence in the Democratic President. Just make him seem a little less "like us," more "foreign" and perhaps even a little un-American.

Just make the President someone to fear. Because that is how you win elections and winning elections - not good governance - is the point of creating mass fear of people or groups of people. Having legitimacy or common sense consistency in your arguments is not worth the time for the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, or even Sarah Palin (remember the death panels during the health care debate?).

This has always been the case. Former President George H. W. Bush was down close to 20 points in the polls when they found the issue that would define the 1988 election. It wasn't about foreign policy, or economic issues, or the need for health care. The campaign issue that decided the 1988 election was a black man, Willie Horton furloughed in Governor Michael Dukasis' home state in Massachusetts and who then brutally raped and killed a woman while making her husband watch. Dukakis tried to refute the political ground gained by Vice-President Bush by arguing that his state was not the only state which practiced furloughs, nor even the most lenient one. In fact, it was a Republican Governor in Massachusetts that started the program. (See "Running on Race" by Jeremy Mayer, for an excellent analysis)

But what Dukakis failed to understand was that this had nothing to do with facts or policies. He was sunk before he even began refuting what even the creator of the ads, Lee Atwater, said were blatantly fear-mongering and racist just before he died.

For today, look no further than immigration. While no one in their right mind truly believes that the U.S. can legally or morally deport 12-14 million undocumented immigrants, and while the Secretary of Homeland Security and former Governor of Arizona Janet Napolitano has said that the border is as secure as it ever has been or likely will be even while billions have been and continue to be poured into the wiling hands of corporations like Whackenhut, Haliburton, CCA and Boeing, and while no one once again in their right mind believes that undocumented immigrants can or do access social security benefits, and while facts clearly show that crime is lowest in immigrant communities - in spite of all of this, immigrants are demonized and scapegoated for so many of the ills that plague in American society. Truth be damned.

To get attention in our 24 hour (or less oftentimes) news cycle, you just need to make headlines and that can be done through fear; common sense or legitimacy in your argument hardly matters anymore. Fear draws attention and immediately causes people to withdraw and close up their views, rarely to open them up once again for further reflection. If that can be done upon the immediate introduction of an issue or a person, then finding the full contextual truth is so much more problematic. This was the case with Willie Horton, this is the case with immigrants and this is the case with so many complex issues that deserve more than soundbites and 1 and a half minute news stories.

So, did Jesus ever deal with this kind of fear-mongering and illegitimacy in our arguments, and how did he respond? I believe he did. At the end of Matthew 21 when the scribes and Pharisees are testing Jesus to catch him in a lie and to discredit him, but in verse 46, though they wanted to arrest Jesus, it says "they feared the crowds because they regarded him as a prophet."

I find this passage interesting mainly because it is so late in Matthew's gospel and there still seems to be much public support for Jesus. This of course is in contrast to just a few chapters later, Matthew 27:15-23, when the public once again is asked to defend either Jesus or Barabbas from certain death and they opt for Barabbas and against Jesus.

What happened for the switch in public opinion?

How did the public go from defending Jesus against their very own religious leaders to demanding his crucifixion? I am sure a number of factors were at play, but two very clear reasons include the continued eroding of public support for Jesus by religious leaders who knew they did not need to lift up their own leadership, but rather, just tear him down. In other words, they played the typical political game of tearing the other person down if you can't match them.

The other was a simple abuse of power. They reached out and convinced the Romans, through their connections, to make Jesus the scapegoat so that the power of the religious leaders could be kept in tact.

These two things: direct attack of a public figure in order to lower public confidence and the abuse of power in order to finally put that figure out of the picture - were employed then and continue to be used today.

Minus the actual physical killing, these two strategies are mainstays in politics today (and in years past as well). This is not a defense of President Obama as much as it is an identification of what folks like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and so many others are actively doing to him, to ACORN, to Van Jones, and almost to Shirley Sherrod. And I know I will get comments that say it goes both ways, I admit there is limited use of this by liberals, but it is limited. These strategies have been used time and time again by crazy-ass conservatives and have become perfected to an art and without any shame whatsoever.

So how should we as people of faith respond? Interestingly, Jesus did not defend himself when he was brought before the Romans, but he still refused to give the religious leaders who organized his death legitimacy at all. At the end of chapter 21 Jesus' actions and attitudes takes a very different turn in regards to the tactics of the religious leaders. He points out what they truly were: hypocrites. And he describes their very vile influence on the people they supposedly lead.

Too often we see Jesus' refusal to defend himself as a form of tolerance for hypocrites who want nothing more than to preserve their own power at any cost and the dissolution of a movement characterized by love, peace and justice - a movement they could not control. Jesus was not tolerant of such blatant hypocrisy and he readily and at times brutally pointed out their illegitimacy as so-called religious leaders. (See especially Matthew 23)

So, what may be the lesson we can learn? I believe we give those who only attack and seek to destroy far too much credibility. In Matthew 22, after Jesus is defended by the crowds and he understands that the strategy being employed by the religious leaders was to attack him and use their positions of power to ultimately destroy him, he begins to call them out for who they really are.

He calls them hypocrites, tells them they know "neither the Scriptures nor the power of God" (22:29 and which totally discredits them as so-called religious leaders), and then shuts them up for good by putting them on the spot with his own question (22:41-45). In chapter 23 Jesus takes off the gloves and articulates clearly the total lack of any credibility the religious leaders have. While Jesus spent his life patiently and lovingly answering sincere questions and welcoming genuine searches for truth, he also absolutely refuses to give any legitimacy to those whose goals and means for those goals are nefarious and destructive to him or his many followers.

Jesus rightly points out that those who use fear to drive their own agendas are without faith and therefore without credibility. We must do the same. Jesus has abounding tolerance for those who have been pegged by society as sinful or ostracized in some way. But he has no tolerance for hypocrisy or those who only want to attack and destroy. We worship far too often at the altar of tolerance when we should boldly call people out and name them for what they are: hypocrites, liars, destroyers, and those who deserve no credibility.

And how do we discern those who deserve credibility from those who do not? When the goal of their questions or statements or actions are for deeper understanding and broader solutions then they always deserve legitimacy. But when people question, make statements, or engage in actions where the goal is the demonization of people, or the attack of people, then they do not deserve our time.

It is time for us to stop being liberal when it comes to tolerance, and to start being faithful. The 15 minutes of fame for the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin is long been over and it is time for us to give our attention to those who are indeed credible.