Archive for March, 2011

Found Jesus? Try looking in Hell

“Hell is the absence of God”.  This is a pithy definition that many Christians find attractive. It shoves under the rug any suggestion that God might have created Hell as a place of eternal torment and punishment for human disobedience.  Since God will not force us to love ‘him’, we must make the choice ourselves, or so it goes.  And what Christian would not choose  the presence of God in Heaven?  If God is omnipresent, if “he” is everywhere, then his absence is ‘no where’.  Hell is the last death, annihilation.   This makes the bitter pill of damnation a bit easier to swallow.

But Jesus is suggesting something else, that God is not in Heaven but may actually spend a lot of time in Hell.  Many of his followers readily choose to spend time in Hell, living with and helping those who cannot escape, at least not on their own.  Classic examples are Father Damien,  Dorothy Day, Albert Schweitzer, Corrie ten Boom, Nelson Mandela and Mother Theresa.  Thousands, if not millions, of others, have forfeited comfortable Sunday church meetings, choir practice and Bible study to devote their time and energy in the service of the sick, the poor and the imprisoned.  This is where they find God.  This is where they lead others to God. Not through pseudo-evangelical proselytizing about Hell and Heaven.  Not through fear and intimidation, but through self-sacrifice and love.

The other day I suggested that,  to many Evangelicals, both progressive and fundamentalist, if you took away Hell you would take away their vision of Jesus.  Hell may even be a more important tenet of the Christian faith than Jesus, because without Hell what is there for Jesus to save us from?

But maybe there’s another way to look at Hell, a way that is not so doctrinaire but more holistic.  Maybe the closest we can get to God is in Hell, though not by reflecting on our own pain but through focusing on the pain of others.  No gains or rewards, no divine pats on the back.  Just encountering the beauty and presence of God in some of the vilest and most horrifying cesspits of the world.  Why else would anyone willingly live their lives with those people, in those places? A love of God that I can only imagine.

Perhaps this points us to what Heaven ( or more accurately, the Kingdom of God ) might look like.  It’s not a place where we go when we die and it’s not a return of the mythical Garden of Eden.  It’s not something God gives to us for being good, but a world that we must earn by working towards eliminating our man-made Hells.  Of course, the chances of this happening does not look  good, but some amazing people are busy making it happen, one piece at a time.


How Jesus came to preach on Hell (a parable)

At that time Jesus and his disciples entered a prosperous land.  Hearing of his arrival, many of the people came to hear him speak.  Thousands gathered around him.

” I bring you good news.  God loves you, all of you.  You have no need to fear or worry. Eternal life is yours.  Peace and happiness are at hand. “

The crowd began to murmur. They didn’t understand what he was saying.

“How is this possible? How do we get this eternal life you speak of ?” they asked.

Smiling, Jesus spread his arms wide. “Just follow me. I am living this life right now.  I have come to share with you  the Way of eternal life  and how to be in tune with God. You may hear all kinds of people on television pitching their self-help programs,  but there is good reason there are so many of them. They don’t work. Not for long. But follow me and I can assure you of eternal life.

” OK, so what’s the catch? How much does this cost? What kind of sacrifices do I have to make?” a man asked.

“There is no catch” said Jesus. “This life is free. No fees. No purchase necessary. No sacrifice.”

“Alright”,  another shouted.  “Tell us. What is this secret?”

“Simple” said Jesus. “Love each other as much as you love yourself and love God with all your heart.  The only way to love God is to love others.”

“How do we do that?” someone asked

“Always put the needs of others before your own” Jesus said. ” Visit the sick and  imprisoned. Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked.  Take in the homeless.  And -very importantly – forgive everyone, especially your enemies.”

“That’s crazy!” someone shouted.  “We don’t live in some sort of dream world. We have families to take care of – we can’t just bring bums and vagrants into our homes!”

“I have to worry about my kid’s college tuition!” another shouted “I can’t buy clothes for a bunch of slackers. Let ‘em get jobs and buy their own.”

A woman stood up, shaking her fist. “What kind of fuzzy-wuzzy crap is this? Love your enemies?! I guess you expect us to love all those elitist god-haters that want to destroy this great nation?  You just want us to open our arms to foreign heathens as they pour into our country, taking our jobs, speaking their own languages, praying to the wrong gods and plotting violent revolution?  You’re just a sissy wing-nut that hates his own country!”

The angry crowd turned their backs and began to leave, grumbling and shaking their heads.  Nervously, Jesus glanced  around. Looking up,  he smiled and suddenly  jumped on a nearby boulder, waving his arms frantically.

“Wait! Wait!” he cried. “There is another way! A better way! Come back. Give me another chance.”

Most ignored him but some turned back.  “This better be good”, they said. They sat down on the grass and waited.

Jesus  sat down in the middle of them. ” OK, the other stuff was good, but that was only half the story. This is the real deal. You see, there are these two places called Heaven and Hell….


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No Hell = No Jesus

As long as I can remember  my mother has said, “As a Christian you have to believe in Hell but you don’t have to believe anyone is  there.”  This is her gracious understanding of an essential Christian doctrine.  Though she didn’t know it,  this understanding is a Christian “heresy” called Universalism, a heresy  that says all of us,  even non-Christians, will go to Heaven. And it was expressly against Catholic, and most Christian doctrine. But wasn’t she right about one thing:  Don’t you have to believe in Hell to be a Christian? This must be the case, if Universalism is a heresy.

Not long ago Rob Bell was  in the hot seat with many Evangelicals (and some Catholics)  because his recent book, “Love Wins”,  suggested that no one goes to Hell.  He set the conservative Christian bogs on fire and most of them essentially condemned Bell to hell for not believing in Hell.

The ensuing progressive  Christian defense of Bell was great.  Many Emerging Church and progressive Christian bloggers  busted the chops of people like the Three Johns ( Piper, MacArthur and Hagee) for accusing Bell of  Universalism . They rightly criticized the conservative Christian tendency to make Hell such a big part of their theology, to the point where this doctrine  obscures a lot of the Gospel message.  But, unfortunately, few of them go far enough.

Because in their defense of Bell they made it quite clear that they also believed in the doctrine of Hell, they just adapted it to make it more palatable.  Most seemed to accept the conventional orthodoxy  of a Final Judgment and the potential prospect of Hell (even with little or no scriptural support for it) coupled with the salvic solution of Jesus dying for our sins on the cross, as God’s blood sacrifice, to free us from eternal damnation.  Which, to me, flies in the face of what Jesus spends a lot of time telling us about God.  As I heard a pastor once say, God is either merciful or God is just, but God cannot be both.

I think one reason why so many Christians are unyielding about Hell, and why the progressives still can’t shake the doctrine off, is that, in reality,  Hell is the cornerstone of the Church, not Jesus.  Because without Hell, what is there for Jesus to do? What does he save us from?

No Hell = no Jesus. Or at least the Jesus that many Christians claim to believe in, have faith in.  Without Hell he loses his job description. He loses his purpose along with the primary meaning he may have for millions of Christians. So the idea that there is no Hell is just too damn frightening to consider.

There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. 1 John 4:18

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If you blame teachers because some kids can’t read then you are a dunce.

Conservative criticisms of Wisconsin school teachers based upon state reading scores are  completely off base and only help to underscore the growing Republican indifference to anyone other than the privileged classes.

Even though Wisconsin is above the national norm, when only 34% of students are reading at  or above the level of proficiency, there is some cause for alarm. But the worry should not be over whether the teachers are doing their jobs.  On the contrary, the numbers point out that, when all factors are taken into consideration,  the teachers are doing the best they can with who and what they have to work with and under adverse circumstances that are the result of many in our nation’s upper classes ignoring the plight of the poor.

In my home state, Maryland, our scores are not that much different from Wisconsin’s.  But there is a huge disparity among the school districts.  I happen to be ‘fortunate’ enough to live in Howard County, one of the top 5 wealthiest counties in the United States.  (Don’t get the wrong idea, I’m just a chauffeur and live above the master’s garage.)  Our eighth grade students typically score in the 90th percentile.

But in Baltimore City and certain other urban areas, the students score much, much lower. Same state curriculum guidelines, same teacher pool (Baltimore actually offers higher salaries because they find it is a pretty tough teaching gig) and the same teacher unions. Different demographics, different environments, different levels of crime and safety, different class sizes, different family structures.  Different scores.

So, it’s not necessarily about instruction, it’s about social and economic inequality. It’s about school districts where many of the students come from broken, dysfunctional and impoverished homes and others are recent immigrants that have difficulties speaking English versus schools where the students drive  Accuras and BMWs  and have wealthy parent who help them with homework and maybe even pay for tutors. Which kids do you think would likely score higher?  Which teachers have the tougher job?  Which kids are more likely be successful in this world and have children of their own with similar promise?

Not that these scores are altogether that accurate nor is standardized testing the right way to go, but scores across the country have gone up. Every state has some version of the High School Assessments, which every Maryland student is required to pass to graduate.  Wisconsin has a very similar set of assessments.  I’ve taken a few of these sample tests,  and though I’m no dunce, I found them  very challenging

I’ll bet that most of these critical Tea Party folks, especially Beck, Limbaugh and Palin, would have a hard time passing these tests, if they could at all.  Though they might  be able to handle the Wisconsin eighth grade reading test OK,  I wonder if they could earn a ‘proficient’ on the highs school version. From what I’ve seen and heard, reading is not high on their list of priorities.

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Laying off teachers won’t solve our fiscal problems but legalizing drugs just might

If the Tea Party conservatives are really as serious about cutting spending,  streamlining government and protecting individual liberties as they claim to, then they should stop wasting their time tilting at windmills like civil service unions and take on the real Big Government elephant in the room: the Federal War on Drugs.

Let’s face it. The War on Drugs has failed miserably and,  as we see with the earlier alcohol Prohibition, likely  doomed to failure from the start.  It is outrageously expensive. It has contributed to a burgeoning organized crime industry.  It is immoral and hypocritical. As of March 3rd, 2011, 2:25 EST close to 7 billion 200 million dollars has already been spent on drug prohibition this year alone.

After 40 years, the United States’ war on drugs has cost $1 trillion and hundreds of thousands of lives, and for what? Drug use is rampant and violence even more brutal and widespread.

Even U.S. drug czar Gil Kerlikowske concedes the strategy hasn’t worked.

“In the grand scheme, it has not been successful,” Kerlikowske told The Associated Press. “Forty years later, the concern about drugs and drug problems is, if anything, magnified, intensified.”

This week President Obama promised to “reduce drug use and the great damage it causes” with a new national policy that he said treats drug use more as a public health issue and focuses on prevention and treatment.

Nevertheless, his administration has increased spending on interdiction and law enforcement to record levels both in dollars and in percentage terms; this year, they account for $10 billion of his $15.5 billion drug-control budget.

If you are skeptical then you might consider that the source of the above information is not NORML but Fox News, a group that is not known for their  ‘liberal’ tendencies.  But drug prohibition was never really  part of a conservative agenda, with just as many on the left bound up with misguided, well-intentioned, yet hypocritical and myopic ideals.  Conversely, there have been visionaries on both the Right and the Left ( like Bill Buckley and Kurt Schmoke) who have joined forces to inject some sanity into our nation’s drub debate.  In the same Fox story of  May 13th,   2010, the previous drug czar, John P. Walters, didn’t agree:

Walters insists society would be far worse today if there had been no War on Drugs. Drug abuse peaked nationally in 1979 and, despite fluctuations, remains below those levels, he says. Judging the drug war is complicated: Records indicate marijuana and prescription drug abuse are climbing, while cocaine use is way down. Seizures are up, but so is availability.

“To say that all the things that have been done in the war on drugs haven’t made any difference is ridiculous,” Walters said. “It destroys everything we’ve done. It’s saying all the people involved in law enforcement, treatment and prevention have been wasting their time. It’s saying all these people’s work is misguided.”

Yes. Misguided but well-intentioned. Anyway, the figures speak for themselves.

It is only March 2nd yet already 293,628 people are incarcerated for drug related offenses in this country. Of those 151,513 were for cannabis. (Every 30 seconds an American is arrested for possession of pot).  On average, since 1995, U.S. prisons have grown 10,000 more inmates a year for drug related offenses.  And the U.S. appetite for drugs continues to grow.  So why continue to press this ‘war’?

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, sitting down with the AP at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City, paused for a moment at the question.“Look,” she says, starting slowly. “This is something that is worth fighting for because drug addiction is about fighting for somebody’s life, a young child’s life, a teenager’s life, their ability to be a successful and productive adult.

“If you think about it in those terms, that they are fighting for lives — and in Mexico they are literally fighting for lives as well from the violence standpoint — you realize the stakes are too high to let go.”

Which is how so many Americans think about this problem: emotionally. But Napolitano is very, very wrong ( and as head of  Homeland Security realizes that if drug prohibitions were lifted most of the current financing for anti-American terrorism would dry up). Anyone at any time can buy illegal drugs, in spite of all the forces fighting this “War”.  The real cost of this boondoggle are in the lives destroyed by over zealous prosecution and incarceration, the property of innocents seized, the opportunities lost because of the money being allocated for this losing campaign and the incalculable number of violent deaths. The trials of the addicted are, with all due respect, trivial in comparison to the wholesale suffering that this drug prohibition is responsible for. As for drugs’ debilitating effects, apparently you can smoke dope and snort cocaine and still make it to the White House.

What do they call something that you keep doing and doing and doing, each time expecting a different outcome? Madness?  Meanwhile, we continue to look for ways to cut government spending, while all along it’s right up our nose.

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Why in the world would Mexicans dislike the United States?

Today Mexican President Felipe Calderon is in Washington to meet with President Obama. The situation between our two countries is rocky, with the contentious issues of immigration, the illegal drug industry and trade imbalances at the forefront. Seemingly beneath the tensions lay some deep-seated resentments that Mexicans  have for the U.S.

Maybe it’s just because we tend to consider ourselves as the real “Americans” with our country deserving of the name “America”, which arrogantly demoted Canada and Mexico to the status of remoras feeding off the scraps of the U.S.shark. But then why don’t the Canadians seem to dislike us as much as our neighbors to the South? Well, this is nothing new.

The love/hate relationship between the U.S. and Mexico is nothing new.  Recently, the Mexican dislike for the US came to the limelight with the notorious reaction they  Miss USA slipped and fell during 2007  Miss Universe Pageant (again, she was first billed as Miss America before she was Miss USA).   To the average U.S. citizen this dislike was surprising and unfathomable.  Because if they hate “America” so much why do so many of them want to move to the U.S., often illegally? ( Maybe to escape Mexico’s challenged economic and social conditions  that, arguably, the U.S. is to blame for.)   Though they likely share the same reasons with other countries for being annoyed with the U.S.,  Mexicans seem to harbor some special inherited resentment of America.

Maybe it has to with the fact that, if all was right with the world, the country that today claims to lead the world in freedom and democracy, that sees itself as the shining example of liberty, fairness and the rule of law, would have a national map that looked more like this:

I’m sure every Mexican child is fully aware of what happened to their country at the hands of a northern aggressor nation and this could hardly foster warm fuzzy feelings for the United States. I wonder, if there was a country around at that time that wore the mantle that the United States wears today – as world policeman and arbiter – if they would have stepped in to prevent our young, impudent nation from conquering almost half of Mexico.

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If Herman Cain was President he’d run this country like a restaurant.

Government employees would be working 72 hours a week while the rest of us would be rolling silverware with no health benefits.

Herman Cain just won a Tea Party presidential straw poll. As one who survived and escaped the world of corporate restaurant management, I have an insider’s perspective on the successful mass feeder’s leadership  style and approach to human resources.

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