I guess for those of us who are into sports, the obvious topic for this blog would have been the scandal at Penn State. But for now, just one quick comment: we’ve had lots of college student protests in the news this year captured by iPhones and the like. Just take a moment and contrast the “Arab Spring” protests where many young people in northern Africa and the Middle East gathered to speak out against oppressive political regimes and the Penn State students who gathered to speak out (violently at times) against the firing of a football coach who took part in covering up the sexual abuse of children. Priorities, anyone? That’s all I have to say about that…for now.
What I decided to focus on this week were a couple of related election-week experiences I had. I’ll tell you the separate stories as they happened.
On Wednesday, I came across a friend’s Facebook posting of this article on a new “Christmas Tree tax.” As you can see in the article, the author is incredulous that the Obama administration is “imposing” a new 15-cent tax on all Christmas trees sold by major tree farms (sales of >500 trees/year) in order to boost the public image of Christmas trees. The tax gained ridicule from conservatives and eventually was put on hold. The impression I got from listening to soundbytes and reading headlines and blogs were that this tax was 1) some new thing from Obama and his tax-addicted administration, 2) a unilateral decision by the government picking on Christmas tree farmers, and 3) a way for the government to gain some revenue for its programs. At this point, I thought to myself, “Hmm, maybe there’s more to the story.” And guess what? There was! I came across this article, which clarified some of the process going into the tax proposal. Apparently, a group of Christmas tree farmers have taken a hit with the prevalence of artificial trees, realized they didn’t have the resources as individuals to do much marketing, and approached the administration about this tax program, which would be the latest in a series of similar programs (eg. “Got Milk?” “Beef: it’s what’s for dinner” and “Pork: the other white meat”). Now, do I think these are places the government should step in? Not really. I think a little collaboration and ingenuity among the concerned Christmas tree farmers is more appropriate. But it is clear that this is not 1) some new concoction to tax people by a socialist regime, 2) a straight-up “imposition” by the government on poor farmers, or 3) a way for the government to gain revenue for an unrelated program (ie. Obamacare). That’s story 1.
Story 2 occurred on Thursday. I was listening to a (quite liberal) radio show discussing SB 137, an anti-bullying bill passed by the Michigan State Senate last week. The issue at hand was not the anti-bullying part of the bill, but an insertion that Republicans in the state senate made. According to the show, it sounded like the Republicans had put in a clause letting people off the hook if their bullying is based on a religious belief or moral conviction. You can see some of the criticism in this article. This seemed pretty odd to me (even for Republicans…), so I thought to myself, “Hmm, maybe there’s more to the story.” And guess what? There was! I decided to just read the bill. It’s mostly a bill requiring school districts to create and enforce thorough anti-bullying legislation. The controversial addition by Senate Republicans goes like this: “This section does not prohibit a statement of a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction of a school employee, school volunteer, pupil, or a pupil’s parent or guardian.” Let me say that I am grateful for the anti-bullying bill and the increased attention being paid to bullying. Bullying was never a good thing, but is a whole new beast with social media and cell phones. It is dangerous and it should be addressed by schools (and churches, and workplaces, etc.). That said, however, I agree with the inserted clause. It does not justify or excuse bullying. Critics believe it will make the bullying policies difficult to enforce. Guess what? Life is messy and a bullying policy isn’t going to fix all the problems. But there is a difference between stating a belief that something is wrong and bullying someone. Sadly, it is a distinction our culture is increasingly unable to make. That is why the clause is necessary. And though some bullies will certainly try to use it as an excuse for their bullying as some critics say, that is not what this clause is about. That’s story 2.
I hope my literary clues have led you to the connection between these two stories. In Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort, Bishop describes and laments the way Americans are increasingly able and willing to adopt a “tribal” lifestyle. We can easily design our lives so that the journalists, newscasters, preachers, and friends we interact with are all telling us what we want to hear, reinforcing our beliefs, telling us the side of the story that will confirm our preconceived notions. The problem is this: rarely do stories have one side. That’s not to say that there is no right or wrong. That is to say that before we form an opinion, vote, or plan of action, we should have as much of the story as we can. I think this is generally a good policy. But as Christians, I believe the biblical Story gives us even more motivation to get our stories straight…
- Truth-speaking. God does not and cannot lie. Which means that if we are to reflect God accurately (function as God’s image), we must be truth-speakers, “speaking the truth in love.” Truth-speaking is not just accurately relaying some facts, but doing our best to convey the whole story. For instance, if we tell people that God is just and holy, but leave out that he is loving and forgiving (or vice versa), we are certainly guilty of misrepresenting God and have failed to lead people into Truth. Aren’t we just as much responsible for accurately representing other people? In both of the examples above, I had to go to at least two different sources to put together the whole story. If we only represent the “liberal” or “conservative” version of the story in conversation or Facebook post or radio show, can we really say we are speaking truth in love? If we only mention parts of the story that spotlight the “socialist agenda” of President Obama or the insensitivity of Republicans in the Michigan state senate, isn’t that pretty close to slander, libel, or gossip depending on the medium? Half-story-telling is not compatible with being truth-speakers.
- Truth-seeking. In order to be truth-speakers–in this day and age–we must be truth-seekers. This means being aware of the signs that we are only getting one side of the story. In fact, maybe we should just assume it when it comes to news channels, blogs (except my own, of course ), radio programs, and politics. Turn off the people paid to get ratings by being divisive and controversial. Turn on the people from both sides who are making thoughtful arguments for the good of the order. Fine, watch FoxNews or MSNBC, but then consult the other before you have a conversation with your like-minded friends. And if you don’t have time to do some truth-seeking, there is a plethora of biblical wisdom about holding your tongue.
- Truth-seeing. The biblical Story gives us some good principles to check the filters through which we are understanding the world. For instance, the Scriptures tell us that all human beings are a) created in the image of God and b) fallen into sin. Our vision is out-of-whack when we only see the image of God in “our people” and only see evil and sin in “them.” We need to be disciplined in applying these doctrines across the board. The doctrine of the “Image” should make us think twice before we accept that Republicans are pro-bullying. The doctrine of Sin should give us a healthy skepticism about whether President Obama is really a tax-addicted dictator just because my favorite news station is painting that picture. Again, there are right and wrong, good and evil, but truth-seeing means we respect the Image enough to consider that the “others” might be good and right and Sin enough to consider the possibility that I and my side are are just as susceptible to evil and wrongness.
- Healing and Reconciliation. Accepting the first side of the story we hear is not the way to healing and reconciliation, two things God is pretty into. These gospel goals are made difficult by the lack of #1-3. The more we misrepresent others, refuse to listen to the other side, and neglect the biblical call to respect and self-awareness, the harder unity and peace become. As Christians, we have been given the ministry of reconciliation. If we continue to surround ourselves with people who reinforce the goodness and rightness of our current way of thinking and the evil and wrongness of anyone we already disagree with, there is no hope of transformation, something else God happens to be pretty into.
Here’s the message: As Christians, who are called to worship in Spirit and in Truth, who follow the One who calls himself the Way, the Truth, and the Life, who are indwelt by the Spirit of Truth, there is no part of our lives where we can settle for less than Truth. Our political landscape makes it easy to do just that. So this is one of the opportunities we have to be stars in a dark sky: as truth-speakers, truth-seekers, and truth-seers for the sake of healing and reconciliation wherever God has placed us.