January 2011


No post this week. Please check back next Friday for my comments on the DIY seminary.

The good neighbor looks beyond the external accidents and discerns those inner qualities that make all men human and, therefore, brothers (Martin Luther King, Jr., “Strength to Love,” 1963).

We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools (Martin Luther King, Jr.).

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New Alabama Governor Robert Bentley has apologized for his comments made shortly after his inauguration in which he said that only “saved” Christians were his brothers and sisters. He met a couple of days ago with Jewish leaders and said he meant no insult by his words, but was speaking from his core beliefs as a Baptist (http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2011-01/ala-governor-apologizes-brothers-and-sisters-comment). Given the viewpoint of Martin Luther King, Jr. represented in the citations at the beginning of this post, it’s ironic in the extreme that Bentley made his offensive comments on the holiday honoring the slain civil rights leader and at the very church in Montgomery where Dr. King was once pastor.

I’ll give the governor the benefit of the doubt and believe that he is sincere in his apology. But his statement was still incredibly misguided, both politically and from a biblical perspective. For the former, there’s nothing wrong with faith guiding the efforts of an official to lead. But such explicit reduction to second-class of anyone in the state who does not share a narrow set of beliefs is simply wrong and foolish. The values an official needs to take away from his or her faith for governing should be tolerance, a concern for justice and equity, an openness to new ideas, and an affirmation of hope even in difficult times.

For the latter–the biblical viewpoint–the governor apparently never read or forgot or ignored certain texts. Indeed, our baptism binds us in a special way as brothers and sisters. But that bond is not the only one the Bible knows or cares about.  Paul said in his sermon in Athens: “From one ancestor he [God] made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’” And surely our bond as human beings, all made from the dust and returning to it, unites us. We also all bear the image of God.

But beyond family, the Bible encourages and commands all of us, which certainly includes leaders, to care for the sojourner, the stranger, the alien. In Matthew 25, Jesus commended those who cared for the “least of these my brethren” (KJV) and identified himself with the hungry, the naked, and the imprisoned.

It is our common humanity, our common need, our common compassion that makes us brothers and sisters, not a ritual, not a doctrine, and certainly not the misguided opinion of an elected official. If Jesus calls anyone in need his brother or sister, who are we to dispute that?

© 2011 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.

Jared Loughner squeezed the trigger of the weapon that killed and injured in Tuscon last Saturday, and he is responsible for his actions. But it is also true that the tragic events in the desert both could/should have been expected and could have been prevented if our institutions and those representing them had worked better. Others have written and spoken about his school, the police, his family, the media, and our general national atmosphere, and I have nothing to add to what they have said. But this whole horrible mess has prompted me to think more broadly this week about the failure of our institutions in general and wonder what can be done to improve them.

Consider:

  • “Fifteen-year-old students in the United States ranked 25th of 34 countries on an international math test and scored in the middle of the pack in science and reading, raising concerns that the United States isn’t prepared to succeed in the global economy” (http://www.newsmax.com/Newsfront/us-teens-math-test/2010/12/07/id/379224)
  • “Everyone knows that the United States needs to fix immigration. But nobody knows how to do it” (LaVonne Neff, “On the Move, The Christian Century, January 11, 2011: 36).
  • Nurses, soldiers, pharmacists, elementary school teachers, doctors, and police officers were all considered more ethical and honest than members of the clergy, according to a recent Gallup survey (The Christian Century, December 28, 2010: 17).
  • According to the USDA, one in seven US households could not buy adequate food in 2009 (a historic high), and hunger was more prevalent in large cities than in rural areas and suburbs and was substantially higher among Hispanic and black families (The Christian Century, December 14, 2010: 17).

Surely such sad statistics indicate that our schools, churches, and our government are in deep trouble, which really is no news.

So what can we do?

We can throw up our hands and give up. We can predict the end of the world or cocoon in our homes. We can criticize all those other people we consider the cause of the problems, find some scapegoat, while never looking in the mirror and wondering where we went wrong.

Or we can commit to hope. At the very least, we can realize that our current crisis is what Strauss and Howe once called “the Fourth Turning,” a predictable turn of events following a cultural unraveling, ending with a new civic order (an upbeat time when institutions become strong again), when the cycle starts all over. (See William Strauss and Neil Howe, The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy and http://blog.lifecourse.com/ along with http://www.fourthturning.com/).

We can listen to our leaders and do what they call on us to do. President Obama has called on us to “do better” and to live up to Christina Green’s and all our children’s expectations. As he said in his speech applauded by left and right: “As we discuss these issues, let each of us do so with a good dose of humility. Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let us use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together”  (http://westorlandonews.com/2011/01/13/obama-we-can-do-better/).

His comments apply not only to the tragedy in Tucson and the current national climate. Every institution has people in it who want somebody else to take the blame, who are unimaginative and childish, whose ears are closed to any voice but their own. If we are going to make our institutions better, then we need cooperation, fresh approaches, and deep care for each other.

Finally, Christians particularly can remember and heed the call of our Lord. Jim Wallis, the well-known progressive evangelical, has written: “A central calling for Christians is to be peacemakers. Peace, we understand, is not simply the absence of current conflict, but the presence of a just community. In the midst of tragedy and violence, I believe this means every Christian must ask themselves: ‘How am I responsible?’ What more can we do to bring peace to this world as the Prince of Peace has called us to do? What are the situations and environments that allow this kind of hate and violence to grow? How can I not only stop conflict, but also be a part of bringing about a just community that displays the positive presence of peace?

“As many have already said, we must honor this tragic event and Gabby’s national service by reflecting deeply on how we speak to and about one another, and how we create environments that help peace grow, or allow violence and hatred to enter” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jim-wallis/an-attack-on-the-soul-of_b_807020.html).

In other words, you must be and do better. And so must I. May God help us.

© 2011 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.

This post is an adapted excerpt from the meditation I shared at my dad’s funeral in December 2010.

“The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; I have a goodly heritage” (Psalm 16:6).

My dad was a man of the Old South. Being Southern permeated his very being, touched every aspect of his life, and was the lens through which he saw the world.

Those who live in this region of the country know there’s so much more to the South than kudzu, sweet tea, and magnolias. More than a drawl or saying things like “Hey, y’all, Granddaddy’s fixin’ to carry me huntin’.” More than eating grits with your cornmeal-battered fried catfish or your shrimp or your country ham. More than a typical take on religion and/or politics.

Being Southern is first of all about heritage and history. One of the most characteristic Southern questions is “Who is your daddy? Who were your people?”

And that was definitely Daddy. He was so proud of his heritage, reaching back into the troubled Civil War era in North Augusta, South Carolina and in Tennessee. It connected Daddy to something greater than himself and stirred his passions.

Being Southern is next about a sense and pride of place. We are connected to buildings, stadiums, farms, rivers, schools, homes in a way that approaches religious devotion. We know that it is not true that one place is as good as any another, because only one place is home.

And, oh, Daddy loved his home. He spoke fondly when I was growing up about “the Old Place” whose location always remained ambiguous to me, appropriate to somewhere that took on mythical status. And he told tales of his childhood there. Not only the Old Place, but Albany, Georgia captured his heart. It was where he grew up, fell in love, went to work, reared children with Mama, and yes, faced loss. Death comes to us all, and if he had to die, I can think of no other place he would rather have passed on than in his own bed in Albany.

Finally, being Southern is about duty and honor. This was the place where Daddy’s regional identity meshed nicely with his military service. No doubt these were the greatest values I learned from Daddy: to keep your promises, to be a man of your word, to do the right thing even when it costs you dearly. I never knew Daddy to go back on a promise, and he had great disdain for those who did not keep theirs, especially politicians. I happen to believe that those who live with honor will receive honor, so I am certain he has heard the words of our Savior: “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

The historian C. Vann Woodward in 1960 titled a book The Burden of Southern History. I doubt Daddy ever saw his heritage as a burden. It was for him a privilege being Southern.

And it is.

© 2011 Tom Cheatham