Thursday, October 05, 2006

Do as Foley says, not as he does

Something happened recently in the news that I'm sure hundreds of people are blogging about. Republican Congressman Mark Foley was recently accused of being a pedophile, and the evidence looks pretty damning, I guess. (I haven't been following the story in great detail.) In addition to the damning fact that he was propositioning teenage boys online, there was the ironic fact that he was a founding member and chairman of the "House Caucus on Missing and Exploited Children". Now as a lot of people are blogging on this, there's no need for me to go into the hypocrisy of the Republican party's self-proclaimed reputation of being the party with the high moral ground, the possibility of Democrats intentianally pushing this information into the light at the most politically opportune time, FoxNews' repeated incorrect labeling of Foley as a Democrat, or the most obvious and straightforward critique of Foley as simply being a creep who might need to be locked up, regardless of his political party or social standing. (From what I hear, it's not clear whether or not Foley has actually broken the law. You know, when I was 16, I was sexually a fifteen-year-old female schoolmate, which as far as I know is perfectly legal, raising some possible interesting questions for a future post on the technicalities of sex laws.) Instead, I'm going to take what I think will be a unique approach and use this event as a jumping-off point for a positive moral lesson that will give, I hope, insight into the Bible in specific, and human nature in general.

I wish to neither condemn nor defend the actions of Foley that are at the center of this scandal, but point out something interesting about the irony of his position and various public statements. As someone who had worked a great deal on protecting children and had been very publicly outspoken on the matter of tracking down sexual predators and taking away their civil liberties, it may be very easy to call him a hypocrite, and you'd probably be right to do so. If you stop there, however, you'd be doing a great disservice to the message itself.

Foley's guilt or innocence aside, the purpose of the caucus he was chairing is one that most of us, regardless of our political views, can get behind. At least on an idealistic level, I'd guess that 99.9% of the population would like to see children guarded from exploitation and abuse. While most of us may have different opinions as to the manner in which we choose to protect our children, we all agree that protection of some sort is needed, and hopefully we admire the fact that there are people doing something about it. Whatever Foley may have done in his personal life seems to me to be something that we can separate from the aims of his political committee. Yet I don't know if anyone is taking the time to talk about the committee itself, and what it has or has not accomplished. I certainly haven't heard anything. Is it because the issue is unimportant?

When I was growing up, my stepfather used to punish me if he caught me swearing. I always thought it was the height of hypocrisy because, well, I'd say he swore like a sailor but I never met a sailor with a mouth that foul. For whatever reason, my stepfather had the annoying habit of seemingly being unable to get out three sentences in a row without using some form of the f-word. And that was when he was in a good mood; when he was angry about something, yikes! So I often wondered how he thought he had the right to tell me to watch my language. I even asked him once, to which he actually replied, I kid you not, "Do as I say, not as I do." The fact is, swearing is not a good thing to do, and while his hypocrisy made me more inclined to disrespect his words, he was nonetheless right that I should not be using vocabulary like that, and as my (more or less) parent, he had a right to have a say-so in my behavior.

As a child (heck, and as an adult) one often comes up against this sort of situation often in a non-hypocritical context. Upon being told of some rule in life that we have to abide by, there's often a tendency to point out that there are plenty of people that break the rule. "Why can't I go see that movie? All my friends are going to see it!" or "You mean I can't go to the party because there's drinking? Lots of other parents let their kids go!" or even "It's not like making marijuana illegal is going to stop people from smoking it!" It's not that the person who told you what you have to do is violating their own standard, but that you know the standard is being violated, and feel that it somehow lessens the standard anyway.

So what does all this have to do with the Bible? Well, if it's not obvious, there are a lot of people in the Bible that seem like very bad examples of morality, and it seems like people who wish to play down the validity of Judeo-Christian morality often point to these people as evidence that the Bible and God do not represent morality. Who in the Bible made a poor choice and did something immoral that led to something unfortunate happening? It would be easier to ask who didn't! Essentially, of all the major characters in the Bible, you've got about half a dozen, if that many, that don't have some tale of their personal moral failure included in their life story. Adam chose to disobey God in the one and only way he could. Noah was a drunk. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were all liars. Esau sold his birthright for a bowl of soup. Judah had sex with his daughter-in-law because he thought she was a prostitute. Moses was a murderer. Aaron encouraged the Israelites into idolatry. Miriam was racist. And the list goes on.

How can we look to these people as examples and models for how we are to live our own lives? Isn't the Bible contradictory and hypocritical to tell us about all these people? Well, no, and I don't think it takes a genius to figure it out. I remember as a child trying to read through the Bible on my own for the first time to really understand what it was about, and thinking to myself what a horrible bunch of people these were. It hit me then that these people's flawed lives were being laid bare before us as object lessons.

One of the most difficult to fully understand but important characters in the Bible is . (I have intended myself to write a post to this blog with the very same title as the post linked, although you might guess that mine would be different in many ways.) The guy is full of all sorts of character flaws, does a number of terrible things, and when you read everything the Bible says about him, it certainly can be difficult to understand what exactly it was that God saw in him. In the end, though, David is a prime example of what this is all about. Yes, David was flawed. He had sexual problems, he had violence problems, he had parenting problems, and he screwed up a lot of that stuff like nobody ever did. But God wants us to look at David as one example among many of people who mess up their lives and do the wrong thing as indeed, we all do. After it all, despite his failures David kept trying to be a better person. David kept turning to God to ask for forgiveness and guidance in how to make things right again. The Bible isn't there to show us perfection (except supposedly in the person of God), but to show us the flaws in all of us, and make us understand that we're a whole planet full of screw-ups--but lovable screw-ups!

My hope and expectation is that in the wake of the Foley scandal, our national leaders will continue the fight to protect our children from exploitation. It would be wrong to dismiss the seriousness of the cause because it was sullied by contact with someone of questionable moral standards. It is also my hope, but not at all my expectation that people would not reject the Bible on the basis of the questionable moral character of some of the people featured within it. They are neither better nor worse than any of us, they are just people, and the message that they are a part of conveying doesn't rest on their perfection, but the power of what it means in our lives.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Angels watching over my ass

About a week ago, I came across a sappy little . I'm not sure whether this is supposed to be cute or inspirational or what, but there it was in the paper, and thank goodness that Thel was attentive when that angel tapped her on the shoulder, or little PJ would have had a very bad day indeed. But you know, the whole thing bothered me, and it bothers me in the same way that hundreds of other stories like it bother me. I mean, even if you believe angels exist, isn't this sort of BS?

My mother, who is not a Christian, (at least in the more theologically conservative sense that I am: she's a Unitarian) had an incident in my own childhood that she attributes to the supernatural. See, one day she was making me macaroni and cheese, and I, a mere three-year-old at the time, thought I knew how this cooking thing was done, so I decided to get the noodles off of the stove myself, and in the process, poured about a gallon and a half of boiling water down my front. This is the sort of thing that would give most children a rather large scar for life, but my mother rushed into the kitchen, scooped me up, ripped off my clothes and dumped me in the bathtub under cold water. Having had no first-aid training, she confided to me many years later that the fact I am completely unmarked by that accident today is something she attributes to God. Surely, God somehow spoke to her and told her what to do. Do you see what might be lacking from this reasoning?

Well let me explain it with one more story that's truly my own, not my mother's. On a normal day in 1998, I was on my way to work. I was traveling south on a six-lane portion of Southern California freeway during rush hour at about 60 mph. There were four lanes to my left, and one lane to my right with a small concrete abutment separating it from an exit lane. In that lane to my right was a car being driven by a woman whom I somehow sensed was having trouble a second or two before anything happened; maybe I caught something in her facial expression out of the corner of my eye, I don't know.

In fifteen seconds, the following happened: Her car began to zigzag just slightly, and then spun out. One of the rear tires of her car made contact with the abutment and her car ricocheted off of it, and then her car was going straight, but at a 90-degree angle from the rest of rush hour traffic. The right front corner of her car plowed through the right rear corner of mine, and kept going across the freeway, leaving my car at a 45-degree angle to traffic, but still traveling in the same direction. As her car traveled across all lanes to my left, finally striking a pickup truck in the leftmost lane, my car resolved its contradictory momentum and position by flipping up and rolling end over end across the lane to my right, over the barrier and the exit lane, finally landing in a drainage ditch right side up. The pickup truck had landed on its roof, and the car that had started the whole thing came to a stop on the leftmost side of the southbound freeway. All three cars were demolished, but all three drivers were left without a scratch.

Later, someone commented to me upon hearing the story, "Wow, your guardian angel must have been working overtime that morning!" I responded with a polite nod, but was bewildered. It's not that I don't believe in angels. I believe in the Bible, and while it doesn't say much about angels, at does seem to be pretty clear that their existence is attested to in Scripture. It's not even that I don't believe in "guardian" angels. There's a bit of evidence for them in the Bible, and if angels exist at all, why not have them work as guardians? The problem is that if you suppose they exist and are going around tapping moms on the shoulder, delivering first aid advice and acting as divine airbags in serious auto crashes, you've got a lot of explaining to do.

Why would the Family Circus angel go tap Thel on the shoulder rather than just stop PJ, or even push the lamp out of the way? Why would my mother get a message on how to treat her son's burns rather than a message to go into the kitchen a few seconds earlier and stop me from doing something stupid? If angels can keep the accident that morning from effecting more than three cars, why not hold it to two cars, or one, or none? And what about all the children who do pull objects off of shelves onto themselves, be they lamps or pots of boiling water, and are injured and scarred for life? What of all those who are killed in auto accidents, whether they be believers in angels or avowed skeptics? I can't help but think that logically, it's all a bunch of hooey, you know?

Allow me to switch gears, though. I've been thinking about this subject off and on since I saw the cartoon, and that was over a week ago. I'd originally meant this as one of a series of posts talking about things that Christians generally believe that I find more than a bit dubious. I probably will still throw in a few things in future posts, but for some reason, I found myself rethinking this.

It's interesting to me that atheists do tend to point to religion as a practice of "blind faith". The truth is, there's not really any such thing. It's not like there are people who find a scrap of paper with the word "Jesus" on it and decide on the basis of that alone to become Christians. No, people have reasons, and one person's reason is different from another's. Some people were brought up in the culture of Christianity and never bothered to question it. Some people may have read the Bible and found it fulfilling something they thought they were lacking. A lot of people experience some sort of trauma in their life that makes them turn to spirituality to find meaning. I don't know anyone that became a Christian for no reason whatsoever.

It's that last point about traumatic experiences, though, that seems so suggestive. People who argue against God often bring up the bad things, the suffering, the hypocrisy, the disasters, etc., as a reason to disbelieve in God, but oddly enough, there are a lot of people who believe for those very reasons. A friend of mine who is a "pro-life" activist is not an activist because of her religious convictions, but developed religious convictions due to her activism. "When I saw the evil and violence that was at work in abortion, I was sure that nothing could be so evil unless there was something supernatural behind it. If there were supernatural forces at work in the world, then it made sense to me that God would be one of them." While her experience is quite different than most, I've met scores of people who decided to give their lives in service to Christ when they found they had reached rock bottom.

What is my point? Maybe it doesn't make much sense; it often doesn't to me. Still, could it not be possible that many instances of suffering are allowed by God and His angels for the purpose of a greater good? I remember years ago being at a Christian evangelistic rally at which two mishaps occurred in sequence. First, the P.A. system blew out, and those people who had gone forward to make a commitment to Christ were forced to crowd in closer to the stage in order to hear the pastor. Secondly, after the pastor was finished speaking, a technical problem occurred that would have easily killed someone who had been standing in the area many people were standing before the P.A. mishap forced them closer to the stage. Many in attendance chalked it up as a miracle that the P.A. system had gone out at such an opportune time, but I was skeptical; did two wrongs make a right? Why not have everything function properly with no mishaps at all? Perhaps for the person who had been standing on that spot, the malfunctioning P.A. system would somehow empower them to find greater faith than if they had just stood there with nothing happening.

In a perfect world where nothing ever went wrong, I doubt anyone would ever notice God.