Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Thoughtful Enough to Know We are Not Thoughtful

On July 11, 2008, Peggy Noonan penned an Op-Ed piece in the Wall Street Journal entitled "A Farewell to Harms" (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124716984620819351.html) and within it she proceeds to detail what she terms the "horrific" train wreck that has been Sarah Palin in the national spotlight. My thoughts are not about Gov. Palin or her political career, but rather Noonan's discourse on who Palin is how she has chosen to portray herself (not how she has been portrayed mind you, but how Palin has chosen to embrace as her character on the national stage).

I respect Noonan's point of view because she is not a hostile commentator. Noonan is most well known as the former speechwriter for the Great Communicator, President Ronald Reagan. She is a passionate Conservative and a keen political mind. This is not a member of the "liberal" media yet again taking pot shots at the soon to be former Governor or her approach to politics. This is a well-respected and revered member of Palin's own team.

My thoughts are also not about Palin's political career or her political beliefs. Rather, my thoughts are about another aspect of how Palin has framed herself as an Evangelical and the impact that Noonan's words (although not intended) on that role and how I view it.

Let me summarize Noonan's thoughts first. Noonan claims that Palin was limited in her ability to explain and defend her positions or in some cases even to know what her positions on some issues was or is. Noonan accuses Palin of using her lack of depth and knowledge as a badge of honor or what she calls, "Evidence of Authenticity." Governor Palin appears to be almost proud of what she lacks as though that aspect makes her more real.

Noonan's harshest and most sustained attacks are on the thoughtfulness of Palin and her approach to leadership and politics. Noonan charges that Palin was simply not thoughtful. She never learned how others think or why. This was not of interest to her in any capacity and in that lack of insight, she could be right without knowing why or how the other side was in turn wrong. Noonan goes so far as to state that Palin wasn't thoughtful enough to know she wasn't thoughtful enough.

A "ponder-free" zone is the charge from Peggy Noonan. And perhaps this lack of thoughtfulness and an unwillingness to dig deep and be both self-critical as well as a critical thinker about the greater issues is somehow a sign of her working class status and her being "just one of us." In addition to debunking the notion that Palin is or has ever been working class, Noonan decries that notion that the working class is who lacks these qualities.

While Noonan clearly is speaking to Palin's political and leadership qualities I was struck by something all together different although one might very well inform the other. As someone who studies the rhetoric of Evangelicals and someone who identifies herself as belonging to a community of believers who identify with the Evangelical community, I think Noonan hit the nail on the head of how too many Evangelicals approach our roles and ideals in the world.

As Evangelicals we have a strong history of anti-intellectualism and an unwillingness to thoughtfully engage in both self-criticism, but also an unwillingness to think critically about the things that we supposedly oppose. We are unwilling to learn why others believe as they do or do not or why people believe or do not at all. We have waged an "us versus them" campaign as a means of persuading people that ours is the side of right and anyone who disagrees is opposed to us. We have not been thoughtful enough to know we are not thoughtful enough.

We have attempted to be the "common man" religious group amongst a field of "elitist" mainline organizations that we perceive has lost spiritual power and so we are the answer to that dry and dull religion by being everything that mainline religion is not. We wear this as a banner of authenticity.

Yet, there is some truth to our heritage. The Pentecostal movement to which I belong as a fourth-generation member of the Assemblies of God had beginnings about as humble as that of Christ himself. Jesus was born in a stable (cave) and placed in a feed trough for animals. The Pentecostal movement was birthed in an abandoned livery stable with the son of slaves with little or no education as its leader. However, I would also argue that over time as the movement grew and developed it took on a more middle-class existence but remained more than willing to remain at a place where we lacked education or a willingness to engage in intellectual thought and contemplation in order that we might wear our lack of engagement as a badge of honor.

I find this a dangerous approach to our faith and our influence. We are living in a time when the up-coming generations of young people are greater questioners and are seeking more insight in to what we claim we believe and here is the big one...why. How do we arrive at our positions and why do we believe what we believe. We must be prepared to give them an answer. In order to engage them, we have to step out of a limited ability to explain and defend our positions and we must know our positions. We have to know how people outside of our community think and why in order that we might engage them appropriately and be able to discourse with them and in turn be persuasive in our engagement.

Thoughtfulness cannot only be about "winning" people over to our side. We must also engage thought and to abandon our "ponder-free" zones in order that we can critically analyze ourselves and our approach to our faith. We must be willing to acknowledge where we have erred and caused harm to the cause of Christ and then move forward to not engage in those errors again. To simply pretend the we have not failed or made a mockery of our Lord in our history through our human action is not only naive it is dangerous. The greatest danger in all of this is the very real possibility that we will repeat those errors either intentionally because we have not learned from them or unintentionally because we have not taken the time to give critical thought to them.

Sarah Palin represents what is the worst that I see not only in politics, but that which I see in another community she aligns herself with: the evangelical community. Her lack of thoughtfulness is not a Conservative political trope, but it is a hallmark of evangelicalism and that is more convicting to me than anything she might do or say politically. While we may have come from humble beginnings it is time to put away childish things and to more fully engage in thoughtful and sustained critique of ourselves, our faith, and our approach to religious engagement. While Peggy Noonan might call this a "time for Conservative leaders who know how to think" from a political and governance perspective, I believe this is a crucial time for believers and evangelical leaders who know how to think and are willing to step out from our anti-intellectual past and to become the thoughtful leaders of a future generation of Christ followers.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

What Price Freedom?

Over the course of the last few weeks, I have really been contemplating the concept of freedom. What does freedom really mean? What is freedom? It seems that today, the 4th of July, that there is no better day to take this internal debate and hash it out before the universe.

We hear a lot about freedom in our American culture. It usually follows a discussion about personal liberty and the rugged individualism that so permeates the American mystique. Is that really what the founding fathers had intended? Is that really what they were fighting for? Since leaving his beloved Virginia a couple of years ago, Kevin and I have become students of those fathers. We watch every history channel documentary, listen to historians analysis in books on cd/podcast, and talk for hours about the courage and conviction these men seemed to possess yet find a realism about them in their flaws. While "all men are created equal" was the words they would write, it was not a belief most of them held. When Abagail Adams implored her husband to "remember the Ladies" he scoffed at her ideas, yet she was his most trusted advisor and surely was both husband and wife while he was away contemplating what this new experiment would look like. Most could not reconcile the issue of the slave with their concepts of freedom and concocted convoluted notions of person hood to justify the evil they could not admit to themselves was present in their midst.

We have a mystique in America about the "rugged individualist" and we call this freedom. Yet, often what we lack is the need to have interdependence to serve right along side our Independence. Even the founders understood this. While they fought for liberty from tyranny, they could not go it alone. Had the colonies not come together, the outcome could have been very different. They had to work out their differences which often led to compromise in order to plot out what was to become the United States of America. United is a key word there. Individualism and unity strike me as being in contrast to one another. Yet, united is what we needed to become in order to accomplish our Independence. Ironic, isn't it?

It was the Union which Lincoln sought to preserve. While the sin of slavery was ripping the nation apart, in order to truly deal with it, the union was necessary. It was a messy, bloody and flawed process that we often still see scars of, but United we emerged as the house divided against itself could not stand.

As a Christian, I can only reconcile what freedom actually is by looking at the freedom I am given in Christ. Yet, does that freedom mean that I can now live my life as I choose? Am I free to be and do whatever my heart sees fit? Over and over, the answer to that is no. In order to live out my freedom I am accountable to both God and my fellow man. I will be judged on my actions and how I treat those God has brought into my life. I need a community in order to be challenged, corrected and to promote growth. I am free, yet I am not independent, but rather dependant.

It seems that to have freedom, we must not "go it alone," but we must see our need for one another. Isn't that what God decided from day one in the garden? Maybe he meant, it is not good for mankind to be an individual, but I will make another with which they can be interdependent so that real freedom can be found.

I saw this posted on a friends Facebook page this morning: "It is absolutely clear that God has called you to a free life. Just make sure that you don't use this freedom as an excuse to do whatever you want to do and destroy your freedom. Rather, use your freedom to serve one another in love; that's how freedom grows. For everything we know about God's Word is summed up in a single sentence: Love others as you love yourself. That's an act of true freedom." Paul the Apostle.

To truly be free we must be willing to give up ourselves and to serve one another. To love others as ourselves which is a denying of self. Is this the freedom that the founders desired? While they may not have articulated it in the evangelical manner some would ascribe to them, I think it is a universal truth and transcends. We must care for one another, serve one another, put others before ourselves and give up our independence in order that we might truly be free.

As we embark upon our 234th year as citizens of the United States of America, I want to commit myself to serving more, loving more and giving up more of myself in order to see that the greatest experiment in history can live on, but live on in a new way where my focus is not so much on me and what is right and best for me, but what is right and best for those God has brought into my life and those I have yet to encounter. May we learn to be more interdependent and know that freedom comes at an enormous price, a personal price, but the God of the Universe stands before us already having paid the price so that we can be truly, honestly free.