Directions for the Dead

30 10 2008

skull (cropped)

It may be a while, you know,
Before you find anything out at all.
You might just wait a long, long time.
Is that a kind of hell?
No, it is annoying but it is not

Hell. Hell, hell
Would be having every consequence
At logical extremes
slingshotted to your face.

Hell is a result.
Hell is finding out for sure again and again.
What you have is a blessing,
A mystery — a suspen
********************sion. That is

A kind of heaven,
Yes? Heavens no, heaven
Is also a result,

One final fall upwards,
A crescending denouement,
The soft sighing tingle of sleep
At the end of a heavy day,
A long purring stretch,
Fists in the air.


Yo Phillies: Thank You

29 10 2008

This year (from November to November) has got to be one of the most suspenseful, stressful, eventful, emotional years of my life. Thank you, Phillies, for some relief.

The rest of Pennsylvania: It’s now on you. November 4, baby.

Barack the Vote

28 10 2008

As the Wall Street Journal has noted, a slew of prominent conservatives are throwing their support behind Barack Obama.

So have a multitude of newspapers and magazines (some of them distinctly conservative in slant):

And, man oh man, there’s just tons more endorsements of people of every distinction listed on wikipedia.

Messy Eater

28 10 2008




Teeth closeup


Big-E and Miss M

23 10 2008

Big-E hangs out with M once a week to give my mother-in-law a break. These pictures below are a little dated, but you can see how these two reach a level of cuteness together that’s practically incandescent.


Why I Will Vote for Obama

18 10 2008


This is a post I’ve tried to avoid writing for a long time now. As a teacher, I feel I have to be careful about the biases and opinions I choose to make public; students and parents can easily find me on the web and have my blog color their perception of me as an educator and a steward of their trust in my influence. And while I’m comfortable sharing the centrality of my core beliefs, such as my religion, I am much less willing to dig in and take a stand on my political leanings — and also hesitant to expound on how my faith informs my politics. This is partly because my place on the spectrum has shifted over my lifetime; my thinking on specific issues has often evolved, sometimes drastically. I don’t have a really well-defined ideology and I don’t have enough confidence in my sense of applied theology. When a discussion gets heated, I tend to recede into a more positive role of listening and asking questions. I have no stomach for flame wars nor do I care for sifting through spin.

Like most people, I tend to come to a complex decision viscerally not rationally. I don’t have the time nor will to do due diligence on most policy issues, and so I rely on intermediaries — op-eds, pundits, blogs, friends — and my own sense of a candidate’s character. That sense has led me to favor Barack Obama as the best choice for the presidency.

What’s generally bothered me, though, is how at odds my decision has been with the Christians I know and read. Most of the Reformed blogs I subscribe to have roundly denounced Senator Obama. A quick google search yields a number of philippics suggesting no Christian can in, in good conscience, vote for the man, and very few countering articles articulating the other side from an orthodox Christian worldview. I have had spirited face-to-face disagreements with friends who, for most other things in life, I generally agree with. All this hasn’t changed my mind, but it has challenged my rationale: Why aren’t they voting for this guy? And why am I?

A recent confrontation springs to mind. My father-in-law, a man I deeply respect, saw me wearing an Obama sticker from a rally that was held near my neighborhood. He asked if I supported Obama. I said I did.

“Did you know that he recently denied creationism? How can he be a Christian? Our nation has lost its way; we cannot prosper if we’re not on the right side of God. That’s why we’re in this financial crisis. If Obama is elected, he’ll change the dynamic of the Supreme Court and all will be lost.”

I smiled weakly. At another time this man mentioned that Obama went to Islamic schools as a child and that no profession of faith could erase that influence. My father-in-law is a first-generation immigrant, a small business owner, an elder at his church, and, yes, a Republican. So is, incidentally, my own father, who probably shares similar views.

I guess I could have made the case that Obama is a Christian, that his two biographical books clearly and convincingly describe his agnostic (not Muslim) worldview before his political career, the influence of Christian believers who were political partners in Chicago, his internal struggle with his beliefs or non-beliefs while attending Trinity United Church of Christ, his intellectual and experiential conversion at an altar call at that church, and his reflective meditations on how his faith informs his political philosophy. I could’ve mentioned that a number of Bible-believing Christians — myself included — believe that God could have used the mechanism of evolution as part of his creative act in Genesis without contradicting Scripture. I could have vigorously challenged the insinuation that any past life, education, experience, or upbringing — no matter how suspect or egregious — could invalidate the genuine repentance and salvation of a soul, a downright heresy that is antithetical to the heart of the gospel.

Or I could have argued that his core syllogism — that our nation needs to restore its favor with God and should therefore elect a candidate with the proper beliefs about God — was moot. Some of our nation’s most effective and esteemed leaders were, at best, indifferent to Christian fundamentals. Thomas Jefferson physically bowdlerized his Bible, cutting out pages and passages that he deemed ridiculous. Abraham Lincoln consistently professed a skepticism of all religious institutions. Ronald Reagan hardly attended church. Conversely, some of the most disastrous presidencies (Carter and Bush) were helmed by the most overtly evangelical politicians ever. As to the financial crisis, I present exhibit A:

Or exhibit B.

In point of fact, the United States is not the Israel or Judea of the Old Testament; it is not a theocracy of God’s chosen and its president is not a high priest. It is not even, I contend, in constitution a Christian nation. It is, instead, the most dominant and emulated representative republic in the world. It is a model of constitutional democracy built from the ground up. And its foundational principles are based not so much on Christian doctrine as on select rationalist proposals of the Enlightenment:

  • checks and balances in divided branches of government
  • universal rights and liberties guaranteed in a national Constitution
  • federal independence and representation in local governments
  • the separation of the state from other major institutional bodies such as the press and the church

But I don’t disagree that an individual citizen should vote according to his values. And I don’t disagree that a politician’s faith informs his or her representation, or that a Christian politician can and should try to redeem his or her office for the Lord, to be a witness as all believers are to be witnesses in our respective professions.

What’s really troubling about my father-in-law’s objections is the ugly familiarity of them. It’s clear that he’s ripping his rhetoric from the slew of forwarded e-mail missives he gets every day, part of the grassroots propaganda network developed by the Religious Right and exploited for the Republican Party. I don’t have any beef with the insidious effectiveness of the distribution network, but I am angered by the role churches and religious leaders have had in promoting such disinformation in their quest to preserve political power. It speaks to the fundamental flaw of the Conservative Christian belief that part of the government’s essential responsibilities is to legislate and enforce a specific set of social mores and virtues, “family values.”

The Religious Right was conceived in response to the threat of Bob Jones University losing its non-profit status because of its straddling of secular and religious roles and a perceived siege of the Christian worldview by a culture that seemed to be trending inexorably toward political correctness, postmodern diversity, and secular humanism. But in the face of this perfectly valid anxiety and fear, this movement of believers did not wait on the Lord but looked to Egypt; they were seduced by political promises to institutionally enforce their way of life as the normative one in America. I believe this was a fatal mistake that showed a foundational lack of faith. Instead of exhorting their congregants to stand firm in faith as the world changed around them and assuring them that their salvation and their God remained sovereign and providential in their confusion and stress, these leaders urged their flocks to fear and hate and condescend change and difference and reason. And they made their ever-increasingly powerful political voice an idol.

I don’t think I’m out of line to call these Conservative Christian leaders Pharisees and Sadducees — a den of snakes and white-washed tombs who have betrayed their stewardship of leadership by emphasizing moralizing self-righteousness over the utter depravity that plagues us all and the universal need for divine grace and compassion in the face of it. They have promoted a Manichean point-of-view that they use to justify cynical Machiavellian tactics and double-standards of judgment against designated enemies. They have sucked up to power and let in the moneychangers. (It’s odd to hear how the stock market was denounced from the pulpits as a temple of vice and gambling in the 1930s in contrast to the current pastoral deliberation, if not defensiveness, of both the free-market recklessness that led to our recent financial freefall and the necessity of corporate and banking bailouts in response to it.)

We are advised to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” as we engage in the world, and yet the Religious Right has always been played for a fool by the conservative political establishment. No better example of this exists in my mind than David Kuo’s first-hand account of the up-front lip-service and back-door sneering the current Bush administration gave to the faith-based initiatives program. With the sheep of the Lord in their back pocket, the Republicans have had license to run the country as they saw fit.

I agree with my father-in-law that this great nation will incur God’s wrath if it ignores its sin and surrenders to evil, but I would argue that we have actively done that with a Republican party dominating every branch of government. Consider our national sins of slavery, racism, and xenophobia; the torture of fellow human beings; the social injustice faced by populations marginalized by poverty, ethnicity, or civic status; the lack of honesty and transparency in the government; the hubristic exploitation of the weak and ignorant by the greedy; the pursuit of an indefensible war; the utter disregard of the stewardship we owe the rest of creation. I could go on, but I’ve already worked my agita up to here.

What about abortion? To me, abortion is the circumcision of the Religious Right, the single-issue shibboleth that determines whether you’re with us or against us. And since all other issues can take a back-seat to this one, it’s been the virtuous armor that covers a corrupted soul. I realize that analogy is inappropriate past a certain point; I’m pro-life, I believe the soul starts at conception, and that aborting a fetus is equivalent to infanticide. But I have to wonder why the Republicans, after dominating all three branches of government for several years, have not made more progress overturning Roe v. Wade or even cutting down abortions to significantly lower levels as they have promised to do ad infinitum. Can it be that by dragging their feet they do not have to lose their best and final tenterhook in the church? I guess I can’t say for sure.

I also can’t say for sure what happened to John McCain, but in my imagination he typifies the corruption of integrity the church went through by allying themselves to one party. One year ago I said aloud that I could see myself voting for McCain. I cannot now. Ever since he jettisoned Murphy and Weaver in his campaign in favor of imported advisors from Karl Rove, McCain has for me lost his credential as a principled independent. His nomination of Sarah Palin as his running mate has not only thrown his advantage of experience out the window, but has made me question his judgment and temperament. Despite his barb at Obama in the first debate, it is McCain who looks like he doesn’t know the difference between strategy and tactics, as evidenced by his wildly undisciplined campaign. And the divisive, ugly, insinuating attacks of his supporters (tacitly encouraged by his campaign) brings me back to the Pharisaical tendencies I see in the Religious Right. I like to think that McCain is, at his core, an honorable man, and it seems that, at times, he grows more virtuous the worse his personal situation gets. Is his noble suffering worth, though, the needless chaos it accompanies? It’s evident now that he cannot shake the shadow of his party. As tough and persistent as he is; McCain falters to be all things to everyone.

So should we all swing on over to the other side? No. That’s not my point. Both the gospel and church history have borne out that God’s will is accomplished primarily through the instrument of the church — that is, the basic but profound union of believers in salvation by grace — and not the grabbing of institutional power. If anything, the church as a corporate body should not be involved in politics at all. Politics is about compromise and appeasement to fight an incremental battle of eventual good works, the gospel is the opposite — it is a revolution of grace and holiness. That is not to say the church cannot speak Scriptural truth to political issues such as abortion or discourage its members from pursuing a calling to public service. What it should not do is look to the world for answers or agency. Instead, it should stay true to its nature. As my Bible study is finding out in Ephesians, the church is an entity of radical reconciliation, a structure of divine unity that provides both encouragement and accountability — and something only achievable through God, not man.

That said, I say do your civic duty and vote. Pray and vote. Don’t just do what everyone on the Religious Right is doing, and don’t just do what the rest of the country is doing. Get the facts, listen to lots of opinions, and make up your own mind.

If you want my own two cents, I like Obama. I think he can do some good just by virtue of his identity. As an African-American candidate with a foreign name his very comportment and behavior repudiates the stereotypes many people have of African-Americans and foreigners. That identity excites large swaths of disaffected populations in America, including the youth. And that identity undermines other countries’ long-held assumptions about American condescension and hypocrisy.

I think most people can see that he is smart, careful, and patient. He has been a quick study on the issues both domestic and otherwise that’s a refreshing change from the studied ignorance of the past eight years. He has a magnanimous confidence that obviously irritates his opponents but should serve him well when collaborating with other leaders. And that confidence is earned since he’s been prescient in a number of important areas, including energy, financial instability, and — of course — the Iraq war. He’s achieved that prescience by attracting the best and the brightest and encouraging real dialogue. He’s not intimidated by complexity or nuance and can not only frame a problem but come up with a solution. It might be argued whether his solutions are pragmatic, but time and again I’ve heard him explain how he turned down his support of legislation that might, at first, be politically popular but, upon closer inspection, was wasteful or ineffective. Though Democrats do often have an unhealthy affinity for bureaucracy, Barack Obama does not strike me as the pointy-headed boss of Dilbert.

The design of his campaign actually exemplifies for me what I intuit is his best trait of all: that he is a systems-thinker. He is someone who understands how a system works and knows how to work within a system. He understands the importance of leverage points and granular influences at the fringe. He knows what to focus on to make real change without being distracted by strawmen or symptoms. He learns quickly and adjusts accordingly … and it’s simply amazing how he was able to accomplish so much in so little time in politics. It’s the only way he could have won against Clinton, and it’s the reason why he may win against McCain.

It’s also the reason why I’m not bothered by his pro-choice stance. I believe he’ll be pressured to keep his stated intention to significantly reduce abortions in this country even without a blanket federal Prohibition on the practice, and I honestly think he’ll do a better job of it than Bush or McCain. (Of course, there’s plenty of doubt about this among evangelicals.) And I like his approach of addressing preventative measures and supporting incentives, which would be far less likely to happen if we just made the damned thing illegal. And we might not overturn Roe v. Wade with the next judge he appoints, but I’m comforted that he was once a professor of the Constititution at the University of Chicago and will likely appoint someone who has at least as good a sense as he does of this country’s founding principles.

This is a guy who’s not chasing all the marbles that’s getting away from him, but planning ten years ahead into the future. This is a guy seeing all the changes in the world as an opportunity and not just a threat. This is a guy who understands the potential in things like technology and globalization but can also hear out the concerns of those worried about the repercussions of such things.

Obama’s not perfect. He has the Democratic proclivity to talk about good works. Sometimes it seems that he’s studied the language of Martin Luther King, Jr. without really understanding the underlying theology. I’m not sure he has as firm a knowledge of his faith that he might think he does. I hope he finds some solid discipleship at the next church he attends (because he actually attends church). I can easily imagine how his caution might test his integrity.

But I’m heartened by my experience of the rally I attended just before my conversation with my father-in-law. At the announced opening of the rally at 6:15 am the line was already four blocks long. Scores of people of every stripe waited courteously, patiently. I saw college students streaming from Temple, folks from the neighborhood, an old co-worker from Americorps. One man jumped out of a van and gave away free coffee and donuts. Volunteers went down the line and signed up more volunteers. They soon gathered little crowds around them as everyone seemed to want to volunteer. We were discouraged from bringing signs or banners and most of us complied. The enthusiasm was real but not rabid. When Obama finally came and gave his spiel, it was all too short, maybe 15 minutes. We were craning our necks, but nobody shoved or acted rudely. I was glad to see for myself that it wasn’t all about him, but that it was about us, a nation, finding a new way forward.

obama rally - modified

The Big Birthday Invite

13 10 2008


Big-E is celebrating his first birthday in Northern Virginia on Sunday afternoon, November 23. Holla back at ya boy if you can make it! (I know I’m going to regret using that colloquial expression as quickly as… well I already regret using it).

E-mail me at tomkim77 at gmail dot com, and I’ll send you the time and directions for the celebration. Please do RSVP, since I need a pretty good idea of the attendance for that day.

Traditionally, the first birthday is a big deal, but I think this is going to be low-key. We’ll have the costume, the food, the picking ceremony, but Big-E and his entourage will mostly be happy to see the fam and friends.

So let us know!