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Read and comment on my blog.

In a recent exchange with Facebook friends, it came to light that some people only read headlines. One interlocutor opined:

I’ve said for years, people read headlines, but nothing below that. The problem in this country is that people are too lazy to be informed. I disagree with turning off the TV. You just have to watch more than one channel for your news. Newspapers are a great source of info also.

Funny how it’s other people who only read the headlines. I wrote:

Who are these people who only read headlines? I hear about them everywhere from people who read the WHOLE article, but I never meet anyone who admits to reading only headlines.

I got this response:

No one would ADMIT to reading only headlines!!!!

In the interests of transparency, therefore, I admit I often only read headlines. Below is a list of recent headlines along with my reasons for reading no further.

Obama Makes Gains at U.N. on Iran and Proliferation
The headline says it all.

Taliban Widen Afghan Attacks From Base in Pakistan
Not technically news.

Oil Industry Sets a Brisk Pace of New Discoveries
Great. More oil.

President of Iran Defends His Legitimacy
Why am I not surprised?

Vietnam Finds Itself Vulnerable if Sea Rises
Future news that might not happen.

Guidelines in England for Assisted Suicide
It’s still illegal, but sometimes no one cares.

Immigrants Cling to Fragile Lifeline at Safety-Net Hospital
I almost read this. An Atlanta hospital is closing its kidney dialysis unit, but for some it’s the only place they can go.

For Pittsburgh, G-20 Meeting Is a Mixed Blessing
Pittsburgh wants to improve it’s image. Big deal.

Senator Tries to Allay Fears on Health Overhaul
Another politician weighing in on a hot issue.

Obama to Use Current Law to Support Detentions
Why mess with Bush’s legacy when it works?

White House Pares Its Financial Reform Plan
Backing down from industry pressure… again.

There are more, but this should suffice. The headline doesn’t say it all, but often it says enough. After reading the paper for a while, you start to realize that most of what gets written is not just unimportant, but completely useless. In fifty years no one except certain peculiarly wired historians will ever look at those articles. Most articles are full of useless and uninteresting facts. No one remembers them except the fact Nazis who troll news blogs looking for victims. (You know who you are.)

I like facts. Facts are our friends. They keep us from believing nonsense. Often, however, the relevant facts can be stated in a sentence or two. Take, for example, the recent debacle where Senator Joe Wilson interrupted President Obama’s speech to Congress, calling him a liar. Here are the facts:

  1. Senator Joe Wilson shouted “You lie!” during the President’s speech.
  2. Such behavior during a Presidential address to Congress is highly unusual.
  3. Some people were miffed. The President seemed unconcerned.

Volumes have been written about these facts. They have been analyzed and reported and re-reported and re-analyzed until hardly anyone cares any more. With all that has been written, however, I doubt that even one person changed their opinion about Obama or the health care proposals currently before the Congress. All those words have served only to reinforce opinions already held. What, then, is the point of reading any or all those words? To be better informed? To be swayed first one way and then another? To hear your own thoughts echoed by your favorite pundit (only in much better prose)? No! Once you have the facts, conveyed by the headline and possibly the first one or two sentences, you move on.

Very occasionally, however, some seemingly innocuous fact will wiggle its way into your mind and introduce a niggling doubt. Maybe, perhaps, not everything you believe with such firm conviction is right. Maybe, perhaps, you’ve been wrong about a detail here or there. It’s nothing really important or life-altering, of course, but really, there could be another way of seeing this particular issue. In fact, there might be some merit to arguments you had dismissed out of hand because they were so obviously wrong. You might have to adjust your thinking. You might have to broaden your perspective. You might learn something. You might grow up.

It takes humility—not much, but some—to let a mere fact whack you in the head until you finally realize you were wrong. God grant us all that much humility!


America’s Biggest Problem


Read and comment on my blog.

Health care reform is an urgent issue. Millions of Americans are uninsured or underinsured. While there are differences about what role government ought to play in health care, there is nearly universal agreement about the need for reform. Yet health care reform is not our biggest problem.

The financial crisis that resulted from the collapse of the housing bubble has led to a worldwide recession. In the United States, unemployment has risen into double digits, and many people have stopped receiving unemployment benefits because they have been so long without a job. Home foreclosures continue at an alarming rate, and occupations once considered secure, still face further cuts. Yet the economic crisis is not our biggest problem.

Since the fall of the twin towers of the World Trade Center, we have fought to contain and eventually eliminate terrorism. Our efforts have certainly curtailed terrorist activities, yet we still face massive military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. In exchange for security we have given up personal freedoms we once held dear. Yet neither terrorism nor the loss of our freedoms is our biggest problem.

Our biggest problem is the oldest in history. It has been with us since the founding of our nation and will continue until history itself comes to an end. America’s biggest problem is sin.

Some people when they hear “sin” think immediately of sexual immorality. This sort of sin has been so long derided by our media that hardly anyone thinks of it as sin any more. As destructive as sexual immorality is to our health and to our future, it is not what I mean by “sin.”

Other people think of the long and varied list of things good Christians are not supposed to do: drinking, dancing, smoking, gambling, and using recreational drugs. Those who assiduously avoid such things certainly appear to have some form of godliness or holiness, but it’s a form our media have mocked until the very concept of godliness seems quaint, like the plain-style furnishings you can buy from Amish retailers. Neither is this what I mean by “sin”

I think of sin the way Heidegger thought of being thrown: it pervades our human condition. By the time we become aware of it, we are already guilty. If we look at the archetypal sin, the first one committed in the Garden (Genesis 3), there is nothing inherently immoral about it. Adam and Eve did not break any law that we would recognize as universal today. They didn’t steal of kill or lie or destroy. All they did was eat what God had forbidden, and they did so under provocation from a tempter who filled their heads with visions of God-like grandeur. What was so damnable about that?

In fact, the sin I mean is what we Americans regard as our greatest virtue. It is our independence from God. Throughout our history, we have been torn between our near idolization of independence and our acknowledgment of God (even the feeble, antiseptic acknowledgment permitted by our modern understanding of religious freedom under the Constitution). Our independence of God is our biggest problem.

Our prophets, instead of calling for national repentance, are too busy casting stones at their political enemies. Since we are evidently reaping the harvest of our greed, why are there so few Christian leaders calling for repentance and urging the church to serve those most injured by it? Why so few warnings about future judgment? Do we really think we can indefinitely postpone the payment for our sins? That the bill for the billions we are borrowing now to stave off depression will not come due at a most inopportune time?

Let us repent. The problems we have are of our own making. We have tried to do good on our own without God’s wisdom and guidance. Now we are trying to correct our mistakes without admitting our guilt or asking for help. Let us repent as a nation. Let those of us who believe in God turn to him on behalf of those who do not. Let us stop castigating our political opponents and acknowledge that we ourselves have been guilty of independence from God. Let us plead for his mercy and grace. Let us serve the poor and share with those in need. Let us practice true religion (James 1:27). A humble, penitent, obedient church might once again display the power of God to a watching world.


Guns in Church


Pastor Ken Pagano’s invitation to his congregation to bring their guns to church made the New York Times. It apparently made the news in other countries as well. Great. Conservative Christians are gun-toting sociopaths. Liberal Christians are peace-loving and reasonable, like Jesus.

Only Jesus wasn’t. He told his followers that they would have enemies everywhere. He told them he came to bring division and strife. “A man’s enemies,” he said, “will be members of his own household.” He told his followers to bring swords for protection, even though he planned to give himself up. He deliberately broke the law to call attention to its oppressiveness, and he openly challenged the authorities of his day. He died a convicted felon.

If you want to invoke a role-model for peace and respectability, Jesus is not your best bet.

I think Pastor Pagano’s stunt is ill-advised and unwise but Constitutionally protected. Minnesota had a law for a while requiring businesses and institutions to post a sign if they banned guns. Our church dutifully complied: “The Harbor Church bans guns on these premises.” So did our local YMCA and several community colleges. It sort of made sense in the Twin Cities. The law eventually fell to legal challenges.

(When I was teaching at a local community college, I was told first that I could not carry a gun anywhere on school property,  even if I had a permit. A few weeks later, the policy was amended. I could bring a gun to school as long as it remained unloaded and locked away in my car. I own an ancient shotgun that my dad gave me years ago to hunt pheasant. I don’t consider a gun my best protection against armed criminals or an overreaching government, but that could be because I am not very proficient with a gun and can’t imagine actually shooting someone with one.)

But rural Minnesota is famed for its prime hunting lands. I’ve heard of places where the kids bring their guns to school so they don’t have to go home before going out to hunt. Of course, the guns are hunting rifles, and they are locked up during the day, and the kids are all well-versed in gun safety. But I can’t imagine a school in the Cities giving the go-ahead for such a scheme.

The Constitutional right to bear arms is based on the premise that arming our government without retaining the right of the citizens to arm themselves could lead to the collapse of our democracy. Armed citizens are a check on overreaching government. The history of the Whiskey Rebellion of the 1790s demonstrates the limitations of pitting armed citizens against an armed government. While the federal government effectively demonstrated its authority, the army was unable to enforce the whiskey tax, and it was repealed in 1803. Both sides could claim a victory.

A lot of NRA members and other gun enthusiasts still consider the right of citizens to bear arms as a protection against the government. That’s why they don’t want a ban on assault weapons. A group of guys with shotguns and hunting rifles would not last long against a trained military force armed with M1s and 50-caliber machine guns. It’s not that they expect the government to turn on them any time soon; it’s a matter of principle. They want to be ready if the government gets out of hand.

For a lot of Democrats the NRA stance borders on insanity. Not only does the NRA oppose restrictions on gun ownership, but they regard the government as a potential enemy. For those accustomed to thinking of the government as the solution to their problems, it’s hard to conceive of people who consider the government to be the source of theirs.

I doubt Jesus would advocate on either side of the gun debate. He always seemed more interested in personal responsibility than in questions of policy, unless the policies were unjust to the poor. When his critics tried to embroil him in the hot-button issues of his day, he always refocused on our obligations before God: “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” He would remind gun advocates that God told us not to kill but to lay down our lives. He would also call the gun opponents to repentance.