Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Desecration Cuts Both Ways and Both are Wrong

Once again a viral video has galvanized individuals in a firestorm of fury and a nationalistic outrage. Air Force veteran Melissa Manhart approached a protest where an American flag was apparently being desecrated by the protesters. In an act of patriotic fervor self-righteous nationalism, Ms. Manhart took the flag and refused to return it to the protesters. Each side claimed to be the rightful owners. The protesters claimed she was stealing their property and she claimed she was protecting the public property of all Americans from disgraceful desecration. The Internet video of the incident shows the ensuing argument as heated disputes regarding ownership, patriotism, and proper treatment of the flag were interspersed with the cries of racism, bigotry, and police injustice. In the end, Manhart was arrested and the flag returned to the protesters while scorns of the police failure to defend the flag were railed at the uniformed by bystanders. It was all the kind of theatrics that makes videos go viral.

In watching this outrageous viral video make its rounds through the Internet, on blogs and Facebook, I cannot help but feel immensely distraught and discouraged at the flagrantly unchristian response to this incident.

Please do not misunderstand. I do not support the public desecration of our national symbol. Yet I also fervently believe that the brazen behavior of Ms. Manhart is actually more offensive then whatever the original protest was so ignorantly trying to communicate. Ultimately, for me it begs the question, where is Christ amid such an inane conflict?

Christians are called in Christ to stand for justice, equality, and righteousness. Although we may rightfully demonstrate justifiable patriotism and appropriately express loyalty to, and reverence for, the symbols of our nation, nothing in Scripture supports the Christian support of such volatile behavior theatrical grandstanding simply to protect a piece of cloth that ultimately has no power or no authority. It disheartened me to see professing Christians defend the behavior of this woman in the rationalization that the flag deserves such arrogant, rude, and unchristian protection.
At the root of the issue lies the fact that such grandstanding and polarizing behavior does nothing to support one’s cause over and against alternative perspectives. In reality, it serves only to galvanize highly politicized opinions and entrenched attitudes of hatred and anger. Those who would promote the desecration of the flag will find no sympathy for why its symbolism is so important to those who would defend against its desecration. Those who are originally protesting through the desecration of the flag are in no means willing to come to an understanding, thus making mutual dialogue impossible.

To put it rather bluntly, in my opinion, both sides were wrong. When protesters publicly and dramatically desecrate an American flag, it is clearly an act intended to evoke strong (and highly reactive) emotion. It is also, coincidentally, a protected form of free speech in our country. As such, free speech may not be something that we particularly like or approve of, but that freedom is a constitutional right. Such rights, also demand responsibility; but more importantly, such rights come with an acute awareness of the consequences of exercising that freedom. Those who were protesting by using the flag received exactly what exactly what they wanted—lots of attention. The irony is, they got their attention because of the behavior of one who disagreed with their approach. Had Ms. Manhart left them alone their protest would have never reached national attention.

The firestorm of fury. This incident has unleashed upon the world is indicative of the greater problem we face as a human community, as a church, and as a nation. It is clearly indicative of our unwillingness to speak to one another. Our passionate rage is driven by anger toward those who see the world differently and that does not lead to healing and wholeness. Our angry desire to speak down to others and shout out to overpower those with whom we disagree does nothing to foster the values that make America great. In fact, it is such a values that will ultimately destroy this nation that we so love. Most of all, such volatile insolence toward others disgraces Christ.

As a faithful Christian, a proud veteran, and proud supporter of the American flag, I would ask those who were protesting through the desecration of the flag to find a more effective means of dialogue rather than resorting to childish shock value theatrics that clearly only offend and divide rather than unite or educate. I would also tell Ms. Manhart that she needs to get over her idolatrous obsession with a piece of fabric and focus her well-intended passions and energies on constructive dialogue and faithful prayer in order to change her world for the better. If that is what patriotism looks like, we do not need any patriotism at all. Her behavior is a disgrace to the flag. As a nation, and as Christians, if we allow such behavior to fuel more rage, more self-righteous arrogance, and more hatred, we serve only to sow the seeds of our own destruction.

It’s time we stop the grandstanding and start listening to one another.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Indiana’s RFRA is Only the Tip of a Much More Dangerous Issue

Yes, Indiana has passed a law that some heard as a statement in favor of religious freedom. Others have challenged it as a form of legalized discrimination. At issue is not so much religious freedom but the ability for businesses to openly engage in discriminatory practices against people out of religious conviction. With all due respect to all involved in this firestorm of controversy, this morning Indiana lawmakers have released changes to the law that are intended to clarify and define it as explicitly non-discriminatory. These much-needed changes, however, only place a small band aid on hemorrhaging wound the initial passage of RFRA has created. It is important to understand why this law, regardless of intent, has divided us along such vicious lines.

            RFRA laws have been in effect since President Bill Clinton first initiated the federal law in 1993. The intent and structure of the law was to provide protection to individuals facing violations of their religious freedoms. For example, a person wishing to not be compelled to work on Sunday in order to attend worship services could use the federal RFTA to protect the right to worship without penalty. The law was designed to protect individuals from discrimination from organizations, businesses, and government solely on the basis of religious faith.

            Indiana’s law took the law to a whole new level. The original statute radically changed the language from protecting “individuals” to protecting “persons.”  It then goes on to define persons as individuals, organizations, partnerships, and corporate entities and various forms of businesses. In other words, Indiana’s law no longer protects individual people in upholding their free exercise of religion. It protects business owners and corporations from exercising religious priority. It screams of the Hobby Lobby case from last year which essentially understands that a company has the same rights as an individual person—a dangerous trend that is actually eroding individual freedom in favor of corporate rule!

            At the core of the controversy lies a very dangerous, two-edged sword of absolute fear.

·       Many people who have felt the scourge of discrimination feel the unbelievable fear that an individual is powerless to stand against the forces of hate and oppression of large entities. Call the discriminating entities the church, a restaurant, or a large corporation, the law strikes fear into the hearts of those whose genuine humanity has been threatened by hate and discrimination.
·       Many people feel that the moral and fundamental faith foundations of their religious faith are fundamentally threatened because of sweeping changes in our nation’s understanding of marriage. They feel a tremendous fear the world as we know it is about to destroy their way of life and all the moral, religious, and theological priorities they hold dear.

Yet, in transcending the fears, there is a more foundational realty that this law—in both its original form and currently proposed fixed state, fails to understand—simple humanity! In-so-much as every human being is truly endowed with the imaginable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, that fundamentally requires that the laws of the land uphold the basic humanity of all—regardless of religious priority, as well as ethnicity, gender, age, education, occupation, income, gender identity, sexual orientation, or … whatever.

Putting it into real practice comes down to some of the real issues that have fueled this debate. Hypothetically speaking, if a couple wants to get married and they choose to have pictures made of the wedding it is because they want to share in the simple cultural and human joy of looking back at wedding photos and remembering the start of their life together in matrimony. What difference should it make if the couple happen to be of the same, or perhaps, opposite gender? Yet, when a professional wedding photographer says to them that their wedding does not deserve photographic attention, it is not simply a denial of service. It is a denial of their humanity.

            The changes to the law, assuming they are approved by the Indiana State Legislature and signed by the Governor, are a big step in the right direction, but as they presently exist, they still betray a fundamental belief that only flesh-and-blood human beings have human and religious rights. Corporations are property, not people. The law must understand that and nothing short of a complete repeal of Indiana’s RFRA will uphold this.

            Unfortunately, this one state law is only the tip of a very large iceberg that has the potential to rupture far more than a few feathers in the Indiana State Capitol. Recent Supreme Court rulings granting individual rights and freedoms to corporate entities, and the vast blessing of vast corporate wealth to speak without impunity threatens to undermine our society in ways far greater than gay wedding pictures.

Yes, this issue has sparked a lot of emotional energy. But, as such issues tend to be, it will fade from the news as quickly as it emerged and our media-driven political culture will find a new cause to shout for or against in no time. Likewise, the Indiana law may stand as is, it may get “fixed,” and it may get repealed. Anything’s possible. What’s important is that we take hard and long look at the direction this nation is going in terms of the rights of an individual person, created in God’s image and called good, versus the rights corporations, corporate wealth, and corporate power over-and-above real people. That is the bigger issue!