Sunday, April 30, 2017

Schism is Coming

Bishop Karen Oliveto (left) meets Dixie Brewster (right) for the first time prior to the opening of oral arguments before the United Methodist Judicial Council meeting in Newark, N.J. Brewster is petitioner questioning whether a gay pastor can serve as a bishop in The United Methodist Church. At rear is the Rev. Keith Boyette, representing Brewster before the council. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS.
Bishop Karen Oliveto meets with her accusers prior to the Judicial Council hearing that will rule her election illegal.

In the end, it was--and will continue to be, to the bitter end of the due process--as Methodist a defrocking as could ever be.

It was inevitable from the moment Karen Oliveto was elected to the United Methodist episcopacy by the Western Jurisdiction that the legitimacy of that election would be appeal to the Judicial Council, the denomination's highest court. The Council's duties parallel those of the US Supreme Court: it is the ultimate arbiter in disputes over the Discipline, a copious and often self-contradictory book of rules and regulations that is, to some Methodists, more significant than the Bible. The Discipline can only be amended by the General Conference, a representative body of the entire global denomination that is equal parts clergy and laity, and which meets quadrennially. If the General Conference met more often, perhaps the Judicial Council would have less to do, as more time could be spent perfecting the often clumsily worded compromises that go into the Discipline. But considering how acrimonious those sessions have become, had they been more frequent, the United Methodist Church would most likely have ceased to exist years ago. 

There have been many issues dividing American Methodists since 1784, when Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke--commissioned by Methodist founder John Wesley to be "general superintendents" for the growing colonial branch of his movement--declared themselves bishops and initiated the first schism, as anti-episcopal "Republican Methodists" chose to break away; another sect, "Methodist Protestants," broke away in the 1800s over the same issue. A far greater rift came in the next century over slavery, and lasted nearly a century, time enough for the theology of northern and southern Methodists to grow apart from each other in a multitude of other ways. Still, the two denominations felt they had more in common, and that the end of slavery had rendered the grounds for schism moot, so with ecumenism in the air, they reunited in 1939 to become simply the Methodist Church. A 1968 merger with the Evangelical United Brethren created the United Methodist Church--and almost immediately launched the infighting between evangelicals and progressives that has grown over the decades from hairline cracks to a grand canyon that will almost certainly lead to the division of the denomination along theopolitical lines.

The Discipline has been the stage for most of these battles, and the most bitterly, continuously fought of them has been how the church shall address the existence within its membership of homosexuals. The issue was first enshrined at the very first General Conference of the fully merged denomination, as in 1972 the words "homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching" were voted into the Discipline. This gave rise to the "Reconciling Congregation" movement, a phenomenon with parallels throughout mainline Protestantism: churches that functioned much as sanctuary cities do with respect to immigration, refusing to draw distinctions between members along lines of sexual orientation. I was blessed to be pastor of such a church from 1992-95. The movement has grown over the years, especially in the more progressive Western and Northeastern Jurisdictions, but also, significantly, in large cities throughout the Southeastern and South Central Jurisdictions, as well.

There have been many watershed moments in the struggle between the forces for greater inclusion and those who cling to the belief that any deviation from monogamous heterosexuality is a sinful perversion: the commission of study committees, listening sessions, denominational conversations, protests, demonstrations, the constant wack-a-mole of LGBTQ advocates figuring out work-arounds to the Discipline, only to have loopholes closed in the very next General Conference. Over time, a de facto approach developed for administrators who chose to simply look (and listen) the other way so as to never officially know they were ordaining gay and lesbian pastors, and presiding over pastors, both gay and straight, who were performing same-gender marriages ceremonies. These Bishops and superintendents were often guests in the homes and churches of gay pastors, may even have attended some of the weddings, but as long as certain words were not spoken in their presence, could continue to pretend no one was violating the Discipline. Only if charges were filed would any action be taken--as happened from time to time. The frequency of church trials has grown in recent years, even in the most progressive of Annual Conferences, as conservatives have become furious with what they rightly see as a flouting of church law.

What's been missing all these years has been a church administrator willing to face church sanction over the issue. Increasingly, pastors have put themselves on the line, risking their own livelihoods to bless the unions of gay and lesbian couples; but until now, no superintendent or Bishop has taken the plunge of publicly disobeying the Discipline.

I would like to think that ended Friday. But I'm not hopeful.

Last July, Karen Oliveto, a pastor living in a legal marriage to another woman who fits the Discipline's definition of being a "self-avowed and practicing homosexual" as well as any I've ever met, was elected Bishop by the Western Jurisdiction, and assigned to an episcopal area that includes the Rocky Mountain and Yellowstone Annual Conferences. Bishop Oliveto continued to be open about her relationship status and orientation, giving United Methodists opposed to her presence in the ministry, let alone the episcopacy, ample ammunition to mount a campaign against her. Complaints were filed, and charges are pending, but potentially the greatest blow came Friday, when the Judicial Council ruled her election a violation of the Discipline.

To the Council's credit, they really could do nothing else. It's not their job to change the words of the Discipline. 45 years of wack-a-mole have rendered those words as clear as they can possibly be. The only way for a non-heterosexual to be ordained in the United Methodist Church is in violation of the Discipline; therefore, it is illegal for Karen Oliveto to be an ordained Methodist minister, and as only ordained ministers are eligible to be elected Bishop, for that election to have occurred.

Also to their credit, the Council was clear that its decision did not nullify the election, or alter her status as a Bishop. It is up to the Jurisdiction that elected her to, through due process, resolve the complaints that have been registered against her. Should those trials acquit her--or, far more likely, given the way they usually end, discover some technicality that permits them not to render a decision one way or the other--she will remain a Bishop.

But here's the thing: there is no getting around what happened Friday. The Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church has ruled that it is illegal for a self-avowed, practicing homosexual to be a Bishop. What's more, the Council directed all Boards of Ordained Ministry--the regional bodies that screen candidates for ministry--to consistently apply the orientation criterion in their deliberations. Many of these boards have engaged in a sanctuary-city-like practice, adopting policies of refusing to use the rule as part of their decision-making. From now on, these boards will, themselves, be subject to church discipline should they continue to ignore the language.

Which is why I believe April 28, 2017, will from now on be remembers as Schism Day.

I can't guarantee that. It's very possible that the Western Jurisdiction will comply with the Judicial Council and subject Bishop Oliveto to the defrocking of a thousand cuts that is the church trial process. The world is watching, and any efforts to deflect or ignore properly filed complaints will be seized upon by the ironically named Good News caucus, and used to file even greater charges against any and all church administrators not in compliance with the literal mandate of the Council. Bishop Grant Hagiya, responsible for dealing with complaints against Bishop Oliveto, has announced that due process will be taken with all of them. He and his assistants are very likely poring over the Discipline in search of any remaining loophole or work-around, as are chairs of every Board of Ordained Ministry that has intentionally ignored the sexual orientation of pastoral candidates.

But it can't last. Bishop Oliveto's open defiance of these norms is far more than one woman standing up for what's right. It's a call to action. For 45 years, the church has been harming its own, driving many away, forcing those who remain to hide their essential natures, to parse every word they say in public, to pretend their life partners are roommates or friends, to live double lives, to deny their calls to ministry or, if managing to thread the gauntlet and be ordained, to live a lie in the presence of any church officer or administrator who, upon hearing certain words, would be required to act on them and initiate proceedings against them. Such treatment isn't just an injustice. It's an abomination.

The Council of Bishops has been working, since last year, to arrive at a way for United Methodism to contain both those who believe non-normative sexual orientation should be affirmed, rather than condemned; and those who believe only monogamous straight persons have any place in the life and leadership of the church. I've believed for years now that this is a futile effort. There is a way, and it's existed for 45 years: don't ask, don't tell, but if you do find out, prosecute the hell out of whatever poor individual had the misfortune to hold hands with his partner at the city park long enough for some pious bigot to see it. There is nothing even remotely Christian about that approach, but as much as Bishops may appeal to the better natures of their flocks, there is simply no other way to keep both sides of the issue under the United Methodist umbrella. The time is at hand for us to go our separate ways; and as much as it pains me to say it with respect to all those sincere Methodists who just can't get past sexual orientation that's different from their own: good riddance.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Our First Atheist President

He certainly likes to show off executive orders.

Congratulations, Bill Maher. Your lifelong dream has come true: the United States of America has an atheist President.

Of course, Maher, being a principled atheist, will insist that Trump's lack of knowledge of or interest in religion does not make him an atheist. The President is not actively anti-Christian; much to the contrary, he insists his faith credentials are as legitimate as anyone who's occupied the Oval Office. He has to: evangelical Christians are a large part of his base. During the election, he actively courted their votes, reaching out to readers of the Christian Right who, after endorsing him, sought to downplay his obvious discomfort with fundamental Christian values like charity, mercy, and tolerance, not to mention his long record of marital infidelity and sexual assault. He'll get us the Supreme Court, they said, and that means overturning Roe V. Wade, protecting religious homophobia, reviving school vouchers, and everything else on the evangelical laundry list.

And so he has. In his sole accomplishment thus far, Trump nominated Neil Gorsuch, a conservative, to fill the year-long vacancy left by Antonin Scalia, rewarding the flagrantly partisan delay tactics of the Republican Senate. Gorsuch's vote has already permitted Arkansas to engage in a death row killing spree, and may soon begin whittling away at the establishment clause of the Bill of Rights.

But Trump himself has shown no interest, since taking office, in attending any church in Washington, D.C. when he's in town on a Sunday morning--just as he stays home when he's at Mar-a-Lago, as he frequently is on weekends. He's often claimed to be a lifelong Presbyterian, and in 2015, addressing a gathering of conservative evangelicals, he said, "I'm Protestant, I'm Presbyterian, and I go to church, and I love God, and I love my church."

Of course--and this is, apparently, always going to be a big "of course" with this President--one needs to take anything he says with passion as the words of a swindler: the more ardently he makes his case, the more likely he is lying. And even if he, for the moment, believes what he's proclaiming, chances are he will dispense with it the moment it seems advantageous. To the extent that Trump has a higher power to which he pays homage, it is his own bloated self-image. Everything he says and does is for the sake of becoming wealthier, more powerful, and gaining the respect accorded to authoritarian autocrats. I have a very hard time imagining any sincere Christian seeing Trump as a role model. In fact, the one verse in the Bible that, to me, best describes the President is this warning from the Apostle Paul:
Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us. For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven... (Philippians 3:17-20a)
Trump may not be a card-carrying member of the American Atheists organization, but if ever there was a President who fit the description of an enemy of the cross of Christ, it is this man. Since taking office, he has been on an executive rampage, appointing a Bizarro Cabinet of anti-secretaries, signing a slew of executive orders aimed at repealing every earth-friendly, people-friendly regulation put in place of his predecessor, making life miserable for immigrants and refugees, launching ill-advised in ineffective military attacks on the Middle East, threatening war with North Korea, accusing judges, the media, and his predecessor of being enemies of democracy, which he has redefined as whatever promotes the interests of Donald Trump. It goes on: his tax reform plan redistributes wealth from the poor to the rich. The health care reform he has promoted would result in 25 million people losing their medical coverage. His tirades and tweets have damaged relations between the United States and its closest allies. His office constantly peddles falsehoods. His policies endanger the health and wealth of the very lower class voters who put him in office.

That list could go on for pages, and will as long as this President is in office. The point here is this: Donald Trump is the most anti-Christian President in the history of this country.

Bill Maher will insist that it takes more than being simply indifferent to religion to make one an atheist, that one has to be actively opposed to religion. I submit that President Trump takes that opposition to an extreme. As Paul, or any other Biblical writer would tell us, the proof is not in the words that issue from his mouth. Any swindler can speak sincere pious words to your face while emptying your savings. It's how he acts, what he does with this power that has been so dangerously handed to him by our clumsy electoral system. This is not the way Jesus would govern. And while the realities of politics force even the most Christian President (I'm looking at you, Jimmy Carter) to make occasionally amoral, or even immoral, choices, never before have we had a President whose motto so clearly seems to be "What Would Jesus NOT Do?"

Or, as Bill Maher put it in an excellent commentary a couple of weeks ago: "What would a dick do?"

Face it, Bill: more than anyone who has ever occupied, or possibly ever will occupy, the Oval Office, Donald Trump is putting the "a" in "atheism."

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

But Is It Blasphemy?

"Believe me!"

It's hard to know where to begin. I mean...ew. Just...ew.

But seriously, let's start with the provenance of this piece of...art. Two days ago it went up on a
Twitter feed attributed to Tiffany Trump, but most likely a fake. It was accompanied by this prayer:
Dear Lord, I pray in the Mighty name of Jesus, that you would give Donald J Trump wisdom and that you would protect him and fill him with Your Spirit and help him to withstand the fiery darts of the enemy.
Now, in and of itself, there's nothing remarkable about such a prayer. The language is consistent with evangelical prayers for politicians perceived to be friendly to conservative Christianity, up to and including a nod to the opposition that associates them with demonic forces. Associating it with this picture--which, I learned from a quick Google search, has been in circulation at least since January, long before the faux Tiffany Trump turned it into an Easter tweet; though I was unable to identify the artist who put the image together--gives the prayer a different spin, however.

Trump is depicted as weary, hurt, in need of comfort, which a scarily tall Jesus seems happy to provide. He's even wrapped the controversy-battered president in his halo, perhaps in preparation for taking him directly up to heaven, thus skipping over the messy business of growing older, getting sick, and dying that the rest of us are condemned to. And before you leap up in defense of Jesus rapturing such an undeserving excuse for a believer, look at it this way: the sooner Trump's gone, the sooner we can breathe easier that we won't be getting into a nuclear war with North Korea, Russia, and anyone else who irritates our mercurial leader. So rapture away, Jesus. Please.

But back to the image: if this picture really did first appear in January, there's something very prescient about it. In January, Trump was riding high, boasting of his huge" margin of victory, the enormous crowd who'd turned out for his inauguration, the stack of executive orders he was proudly signing without taking the time to read their contents, the long list of anti-secretaries he was nominating to the Cabinet, and all the good he could not wait to undo with the help of a unified Republican Congress. Trump and all his surrogates were fountains of deceitful braggadocio, blissfully ignoring--when they weren't condemning as "fake news"--every fact, however obvious, that was tendered in opposition to their lies. Are we really to believe that the President's ego was so fragile that even then, just days into the biggest, brassiest, most beautiful Presidency ever, he already needed a holy shoulder to cry on?

Maybe the unnamed artist was seeing the writing on the wall, the unavoidable signs of the times that pointed to Trump not so much Nebuchadnezzar--the Babylonian emperor who, chastened by the prophet Daniel's teachings, repented of his sins and retained his empire--as his son Belshazzar, whose corruption led to the conquest of Babylon by Persia. Indictments, even impeachment, are coming not just for Trump, but for many of his family members and cronies. The regime will come down and, worst of all possible outcomes, Donald Trump will be humiliated and branded a loser. He'll need a shoulder to cry on then, and with all his followers already locked up, where can he turn but Jesus? Who knows, maybe this chastening will finally get him to turn from his selfish, evil ways.

I hope that's what the artist had in mind. If so, it breathes just a touch of value into this gauche piece of religio-political schlock.

But all of that is erased by the prayer that was tacked onto it by Tweeter--who, as noted earlier, is almost certainly not Trump's neglected other daughter, Tiffany. This prayer delivers the unsubtle message that all the obstacles in the way of the regime's agenda have been placed their by ungodly  Democrats, enemies who never tire of casting darts at the tender sensibilities of our poor sad President. Sad little boy. There, there. Take it to the Lord in prayer. He'll take that burden from you, ease your mind, soothe your soul, make all the bad people go away. What's more, he knows what it's like to be tortured and crucified for promoting God's agenda of enriching the rich and taking food, shelter, and health care away from the poor while simultaneously flooding the earth, sea, and sky with all the pollutants that have been kept bottled up until now by those nasty environmental laws. And don't even get me started on how much God hates immigrants.

Wait, what's that your whispering in his ear, Jesus? "I suffered and died for the exact opposite of everything you're doing." No, that can't be right. After all, he told us to believe him, told us again and again that he was doing the Lord's work, looking out for the little guy, protecting his followers from the evils of political correctness and all the dangers that come with welcoming people with brown skins within our borders.

"Oh, for Christ's sake," Jesus continues to whisper, loud enough this time that it leaps right off the canvas, "has any of you ever even opened my book?"

Because if you had "Tiffany Trump," you'd have seen plenty in there about caring for the poor, protecting the rights of the oppressed, welcoming the stranger, giving all your money to just causes, leaving all your earthly possessions behind to follow in the footsteps of the homeless messiah, and being ready to suffer and die for the salvation of others.

In all seriousness: I've been a frequent critic of Christianity in general, and the United Methodist Church in particular, since long before I began writing this blog. I have great issues with much that is considered Holy Scripture, as well as much that is dogma to even the most independent of churches. I don't come by these criticisms from a place of ignorance or of kneejerk rejectionism: I'm seminary-trained, ordained, and between seminary and my sometimes overlapping ministries of the pastorate and sacred music, I devoted almost thirty years of my life to church work. I've known thousands of Christians, most of them sincere, many of them people I admire and respect. I empathize with the many believers who are caught in the struggle between taking the Bible seriously and deciding how much of it to disagree with.

With all that said, I really have no patience for those Christians who've become so partisan they will slap a Jesus sticker on the most heretical of hucksters just because he'll advance a couple of their pet agenda items. No matter how rabidly you may believe in recriminalizing abortion, that cannot outweigh the thousands (perhaps even millions) of innocent men, women, children and, yes, babies who will die horribly if even a fraction of Trump's campaign promises become law--not to mention how many millions more are at risk from his latest reversal, his suddenly Hawkish approach to dropping missiles and bombs on Syria, Afghanistan, and possibly North Korea.

So yes, I'd like to think Jesus is right there in the Oval Office, wrapping Donald Trump in his arms, preparing to rapture him right up to heaven, not because he deserves it, but to save the rest of us--all seven and a half billion of us--from the wrath that will come if he ever stops shooting himself in the foot, and starts putting any of his plans into action.

And seriously, where would Trump be safer from the darts of mean old liberals like me? The White House? Trump Tower? Mar-a-Lago? Or altogether out of this world?

Friday, April 14, 2017

If the Prefix Fits...

This...

...or this?

I'm looking for a word to describe a freak of politics.

It'll be a word that combines elements of other words in a clever, ironic, or satirical way. The technical term for such a word is "portmanteau," which describes a word that, through such a combination, creates a new word, often describing something that was not around for previous editions of the dictionary. A prime example is "motel," a word combining "motor" and "hotel" that would have had no meaning, nor reason for existing, prior to the proliferation of the automobile. (And yes, I know a portmanteau also describes a sort of hybrid suitcase that opens up into a mini-wardrobe, hence the picture at the top of the page.) But "portmanteau" may be too mild a word for what I have in mind, since we are, after all, about to discuss a truly Gothic monster of a political phenomenon. That's why I'm leaning more toward "chimera," a mythological creature made up of pieces of a goat, a lion, and a dragon. I suppose one could say that a portmanteau is a sort of linguistic chimera, but now we're getting dangerously close to heading off on a grammatical tangent, and this is supposed to be an essay about Our Current Dystopian Reality. So let the neologizing proceed:

There have been plenty of efforts at describing the Trump regime as something other than the executive branch of the American republic:

Kleptocracy: a government of thieves. Considering how many robber barons Trump has appointed to the Cabinet, and how eager he and his family appear to be to capitalize on the White House as a revenue source for their own already obscenely stuffed wallets, this may be the best word on the list. Although...

Nepocracy: a government of people related to each other. This principally works to the extent to which First Son-in-Law Jared Kushner has been put in charge of nearly everything, including a number of tasks for which entire departments already exist. Governing in this way implies an extreme distrust of anyone who would forgo wealth in favor of public service. I mean, why would anybody do such a thing? And then there's...

Kratocracy: government in which power has been seized through cunning. That could be an apt description of how the Steve Bannon white power machine, coupled with Russian shenanigans, managed to swing Trump's election even as a significantly larger number of votes was cast for his opponent. But that may be giving Bannon (and Moscow) too much credit, as both seem not to have known what to do with the monster once it, against all odds, came to life. One word that definitely does not work is...

Meritocracy: government by persons who are excellent, upstanding, competent people deserving of the job. In my mind (despite the flagrantly ironic "crooked" appellation Trump continues to use), a Clinton administration would have fit this word well, as did the Obama administration. Obama went to extremes nominating secretaries and undersecretaries who were the top minds in their fields. Trump, on the other hand, appears to have reflexively chosen to do the exact opposite, creating a...

Kakocracy: government by the worst people. Whether we're looking at the Departments of Education, Justice, the Environment, Energy, Housing, Health, Science, State, or any of their agency offshoots, Trump seems to have intentionally nominated persons antithetical to the very existence of the tasks they will be overseeing. The one exception has been Cabinet posts associated with security, though even there, it took the Flynn scandal for Trump to begin hiring genuinely qualified secretaries--all of them ex-generals. Perhaps that means we'll ultimately have a...

Stratocracy: government by generals. The United States has powerful safeguards against such a violation of democratic norms, including a military code of conduct that is profoundly subservient to civilian leadership. There's a reason some of the politest young adults I have ever met are soldiers: they're trained to defer to ordinary citizens. It's also why the military itself was resistant to having retired generals as Secretaries of Defense, or of the various branches of the military. Though given Trump's delight at having actual weapons at his disposal, perhaps there should be a bit less deference when he walks into the Situation Room. And considering how whimsically he's been using that power, one moment insisting regime change in Syria would be a horrible idea, the next, moved by footage of sarin-gas-attacked babies launching a missile attack against a Syrian airbase, perhaps what we've really got here is an...

Idiocracy: The title of a 2006 science fiction satire by Mike Judge, in which an average 21st century American, put in suspended animation, awakens to a future in which smart people have gone extinct, due in large part to their low reproduction rate. In a world without wits, the halfwit becomes king. Trump intentionally campaigned with low-information, low-education voters in mind, is famously averse to reading, prefers the bias of Fox News (which is, sadly, probably the most balanced of his information sources), signs executive orders without reading them, avoids intelligence briefings because they're boring... Mike Judge recently remarked that his movie may have been too optimistic, considering how quickly Washington has turned into an episode of Jackass. In fact, though, idiocracy brings with it a decline of quality of life, something nobody on the current Cabinet would stand for, because in fact, they're more of a...

Plutocracy: government by the wealthy. It's been said many times that this is the wealthiest Cabinet this country has ever seen. Just how ably can a clique of billionaires represent the hopes, fears, and dreams of hundreds of millions of middle and lower class citizens? Not at all well, if this first 100 days is any indication.

So many excellent words, most of them quite fitting to one extent or another. That's why I'm feeling the need to come up with a new one or three, because this chimera of a regime--uniting as it does plutocrats, nationalists, homophobes, industrialists, climate change deniers, luddites, misogynists, racists, xenophobes, militarists, nepotists, and all-around deplorable people into a single incoherent festering boil of ineptitude--really deserves its own word. So I've made up a few. (It's really simple, and I encourage you to give it a try as well. Just take a prefix that describes what you've got in mind and tack "-ocracy" on the end of it.)

Demeritocracy: government by people who should be in detention; the very opposite of meritocracy. Trump has chosen Cabinet leaders who've been quite open about their desires to either dismantle the agency they're leading, or to transform it into its antithesis. Thus, Jeff Sessions is turning the Department of Justice into a prosecutor of draconian immigration policies while ignoring the civil rights agenda it has been promoting for decades, regardless of the political leanings of the Attorney General.

Chaoticracy: One expects any transition of administrations to have embarrassing moments: officials inadequately briefed before a press conference, legislation poorly promoted, appointments missed, balls dropped; and some transitions have resulted in tragedies, as inexperienced officials made errors that cost lives. But in four and a half decades of being a political junky, I have never witnessed any transition debacle as appalling as the travel ban, or any Presidential agenda item so mishandled as the ACA repeal and replacement. We have an incurious narcissist as President, who has named a Cabinet of fools and scoundrels. Congress, which should be cleaning up the mess he makes, is instead falling over itself trying to explain and justify every early morning rant that tweets from his smartphone. When the great Democratic recovery finally kicks in, there's going to have to be a lot of time and energy devoted to fixing all that Trump has broken. And finally, the one word that, of all these, best (to me) describes this chimeric abomination of a government:

Bizarrocracy: I read a lot of DC comics when I was a kid. One of my favorite features of the DC universe was Bizarro world, a cube-shaped planet on which every good thing in our own world is distorted and corrupted. That capsule summary doesn't begin to do it justice. Here's the Bizarro code:
"Us do opposite of all earthly things! Us hate beauty! Us love ugliness! Is big crime to make anything perfect on Bizarro world!"

Donald Trump is a Bizarro President. Where other world leaders are diplomatic, he is abrupt and reactionary. Where other Presidents (with some exceptions) are educated and intelligent, he is ignorant and anti-intellectual. He's vulgar and garish rather than refined and elegant, explosive rather than cool, thoughtless rather than thoughtful. He bases decisions on appearance rather than content. Again and again, he has proven himself to be superficial, selfish, and heartless. It's hard to imagine how anyone so unfit for the office of President managed to take that office, but that's the world we now live in, and as a result, we have an EPA that is giving free rein to polluters and resource exploiters, an HHS that is seeking to dismantle government health care without having anything lined up to take its place, a Justice Department that sides with voter suppression lies, an Education secretary who'd like to dismantle public education so as to write a blank check to poorly performing private education corporations--the list goes on to encompass every Cabinet post. This is the anti-Cabinet, the government devoted to blindly reversing every aspect of progress that has been made toward universal human rights and the common good. To borrow from a different comic universe, it's as if Hydra won World War II, and now we all have to bow to the multi-tentacled skull of our malevolent overlords.

Of course, this didn't just happen, though it seems like that to those of us who walk around in a constant state of shock over how quickly our world has been turned on its head. There were partisan forces at work all along, seeking to win at any cost, to consolidate power and cling to it no matter how many innocents were trampled as a result. But that's another, far less amusing blog for another time.

Instead, I'm going back to counting the days until the only prefix that belongs on the "-cracy" suffix is "demo."

Making Feudalism Great Again

Trump's closest historical antecedent.

There is broad consensus among both supporters and detractors of the Trump regime that the President's slogan--"Make America Great Again"--is an appeal to nostalgia. Ah, for the good old days, when men were men, women knew their place was the kitchen and the boudoir, and people with natural (as opposed to tanning booth) pigmentation stayed on their side of the tracks. Since coming to office, though, Trump has been evoking good old days far older than the 1950s. He's styled himself an autocrat who's above the law, who takes his unpopularity as license to simply ignore those who disagree with him--when he's not publicly attacking them, even referring to them as enemies. This is not a President for all the people, or even for the narrow slice of the people who voted for him (which, I'll remind you, was around 18% of the population of the United States): he exists to satisfy just one constituency, himself.

That's not just autocratic, or even anti-democratic. It's medieval. Don't believe me? Consider the reign of John Lackland, king of England from 1199-1216, a man so petty, spiteful, and cruel that his own barons rebelled against him. John considered himself above the law, his crown giving him the authority to seize property and imprison, torture, and execute any who disagreed with him. The civil war against him led to the creation of Magna Carta, a seminal declaration of property rights he was forced to sign, though it is historically significant more for its existence than its effectiveness. Prior to that moment in 1215 when John affixed his seal to the document, England had operated under a system of mostly unwritten traditional rules of chivalry. Magna Carta spelled the beginning of the end of feudalism, though it was to be hundreds of years before Parliament began to accrue democratic power apart from the nobility.

And this is the era Trump harkens back to most fondly. He genuinely believes being President gives him license to ignore the ethics rules that apply to every other elected official in the United States. And he's stacked his Cabinet accordingly with millionaires and billionaires whose conflicts of interest dwarf those of any previous administration. Hypocrisy? Compassion? Respect for the rule of law? Belief in the Constitutional principles that are the true greatness of America? Simply common decency? All these things are for wimps. They're making America small, weak, impotent. Checks and balances are obstacles to power, regulations prevent investors from wringing every last penny out of the environment, and the media are pedantic nags who just can't get with the program of lauding the king for his greatness.

Trump's campaign was all about giving voice to white working class voters, people who've felt neglected as America has become multiracial, multiethnic, multisexual, and as its economy has shifted away from manufacturing and resource exploitation and into service and technology. These were his constituents, his vassals, his serfs, and he promised repeatedly to look out for them, to defend their interests, to find them jobs, to guarantee them health care; and he did it all to the refrain of "believe me." These aren't just the words of a huckster: they're the themesong of an utter despot. Trust him, put your faith in his compassion, his benevolence, his generosity. Should the ruler deign to smile, who knows? Perhaps a few dollars will trickle down into your wallet, enough to buy a dozen eggs, a bus ticket to the unemployment office that's been closed due to budget cuts.

Many have compared Trump to fascist leaders of the Twentieth Century, and there are certainly apt parallels. But really, when you look at how he views the world, and how he's acted since taking office, can there be any doubt but that this really is our King John, a despot so corrupt and mercurial that it's going to take a 21st Century Robin Hood to bring him down?

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Presidential Improv Bombs

Worst. Improviser. Ever.

The first improv performance I ever attended was a sermon.

The year was 1988. I was student pastor of a tiny rural church five miles south of Oblong, Illinois. My advisor, Professor Virgil Howard, had come up from Dallas to see how I was doing. While he was there, he guest-preached for a Sunday evening service. He sat on a stool in the middle of the sanctuary, and like any good improviser, asked for a suggestion: "What's your favorite Bible story? And what are some things going on in your lives?" He took everything the congregation threw at him, and wove it into an amazing conversational narrative that was moving, personal, and inspirational. 

By the time he'd finished, I knew exactly what kind of preacher I wanted to be: not a lecturer, not a poet, not a stem-winder, but an improvisational storyteller. For the remaining twelve years of my pastoral career, and the ten years after that that I continued to occasionally preach, I honed that craft. At first, I prepared for sermons as exhaustively as any novice pastor, studying the passage I was preaching on in depth, reading commentaries, and writing out a full manuscript for every sermon. I didn't preach from those manuscripts--I had decided from the beginning that I did not want to read sermons--and at times, this resulted in some extremely short sermons, as, having forgotten a transition, or lost the thread that could lead to an elegant conclusion, I just said "Let us pray" and wrapped it up with an "Amen." (That Illinois congregation appreciated these short sermons, as it meant they could beat the Baptists to the restaurant.) Over time, those transitions got smoother, the illustrations flowed more freely, and I found myself revising as I preached. By the time I left the ministry in 2000, I was no longer writing manuscripts at all, and my preparation time had shrunken to simply reading the lesson on Tuesday, then letting it percolate until Sunday, when what I preached might have little relationship to the sermon title I'd given the secretary on Thursday.

In the years that followed, I continued to preach occasionally for both the faith community that supported me through my transition away from ministry (the Metanoia Peace Community) and the Church of the Good Shepherd, which hired me initially as a pianist, but was delighted to find I knew my way around the Bible, as well. Freed of the strictures of pastoral preaching, I let my homiletical freak flag fly, taking risks like never before, talking about ways in which both church and state had exploited and abused persons of color, women, children, sexual minorities, the poor, immigrants--all the themes I'd wanted to hold my congregations accountable for, but hadn't dared bring up with any intensity. Metanoia and Good Shepherd were both breakaway communities made up of disaffected Methodists, and they were far more receptive to these ideas than even my most progressive congregation would have been.

They were also extremely forgiving. In my last years of ministry, and in my less-frequent preaching gigs after I left it, I had become a lazy preacher. The improvisation that had, at first, helped me over transitions, and aided me in improving the weaker parts of sermons, had over time taken over the entire sermon. That's not to say that improvising a sermon is necessarily a bad thing: sometimes things come up that supercede whatever the prepared sermon was supposed to be, and a preacher doesn't have time to write something new. But I'm not talking about emergency sermons: I was improvising everything. And I was good at it. People loved what I was doing, were moved and inspired and led to think about old topics in new ways, and I heard plenty of praise for how engaged they were. But again, lazy: I wasn't studying the scriptures anymore. I had shelves full of commentaries that gathered dust. I didn't even look at the passages I would be using until I was in the pulpit, reading them. To be honest, I was chasing a high: the adrenaline rush of hearing or reading the text and seeing where it took me right then, in front of a congregation. Thanks to my years of exploring and creating my own improvisational preaching style, I had the skills to pull it off, with the congregation none the wiser.

But here's the thing: skill and responsibility are two very different things.

Sermon prep time is not just about knowing a text, and finding what it has to say for a preacher. Much more than that, it's finding what message it has for a particular community, at a particular moment in its life. That's not something that is always evident. In fact, there were times when I wrestled with a text all week long, putting off the writing of the sermon until the hours before I was to preach it, then finding, as I did, that the message was utterly different from what I had thought as I typed up a manuscript I didn't care for in the least. Without all those days of working through the message in the back and front of my mind, I never could have delivered it. Preaching responsibly means preparing for the task through study, meditation, and sometimes multiple drafts of what will be delivered from the pulpit. This is true even if the final product is improvised: the text has to be fully engaged before it can be responsibly delivered, no matter what its final form takes.

I present all this because I've been reading a lot this week about the improvisational foreign policy of the Trump regime, and I'm sick about it.

Let's start with the improv: as my faith communities fell away, I found a new community in the world of improv. I decided early on that my role as an improviser would be limited to the piano, where I could underscore scenes and partner with musical improvisers to create spontaneous original songs, musicals, and operas. A few experiences on the stage showed me that, however comfortable I had been doing one-man longform improvisations (i.e., sermons), in a scene with another improviser, I was years of hard work away from anything approximating skilled work. Great improvisers are like magicians, conjuring up complex characters and intricate plots with utterly natural dialogue without missing a beat; but like any magician, they spend years honing their craft. It's like the tired old joke about how to get to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice.

That's why your friend's improv show is such a painful thing to attend: they're newbies, and they haven't yet internalized the basic rules of improv. In ComedySportz, the improv troupe I'm most familiar with, these apprentice and journeyman improvisers perform as part of the "Minor League" (formerly the "Farm Team"); and while their shows often reveal brilliance and innovation that can be lacking in a "Pro Team" show, it typically takes years for them to become consistent enough to be promoted to that level.

And then there's the President.

Donald Trump has a knack for huckster improvising. He knows how to work a crowd of customers, and con them into buying the lies and shoddy merchandise he has to offer. He was able to spin this knack into an electoral victory-from-the-jaws-of-defeat that should have all thinking Americans scratching their heads as they struggle to figure out how to prevent it from happening ever again; because that victory spells disaster for this country.

The problem is that the skills Trump used to win are not, in any way, shape, or form, skills that can be spun into effective governance. Trump didn't improvise because it was effective--often, he created horrendous offensive messes with his off-the-cuff remarks that took enormous effort to clean up--but because he was too lazy to spend the time learning to effectively deliver a coherent speech from a manuscript. Coming into the White House, he has remained lazy, leaving hundreds of vital positions vacant, signing executive orders without first reading them, and spending more time on the golf course than any President in recent memory. He lacks the attention span for intelligence briefings, is influenced more by Fox News than his Cabinet, and has ceded both domestic and foreign policy to the demagogues and neophytes who've been best at kissing up to his fragile ego.

In such an atmosphere, all executive policy becomes short form improv. The health care overhaul Republicans have been flogging for seven years had to be reeled out in a matter of weeks because Trump lacked the patience for the exhaustive, in-depth work it takes to produce any kind of comprehensive legislation, and like any inadequately rehearsed improv show, it flopped. The same is likely to be true of Trump's tax reform and infrastructure initiatives.

As disturbing as these domestic fiascos are proving to be, they cannot compare to the chaos being wrought internationally by the improvident President. Last week, Trump's UN Ambassador Nikki Haley announced that regime change in Syria was no longer a priority for the United States. Shortly thereafter, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad launched a sarin gas attack on a rebel stronghold that resulted in the deaths of at least ninety people, many of them children. President Trump saw footage of some of these children on TV, and in less than a day, reversed one of his few (up to then) consistent policies, ordering a missile strike on the airfield from which the chemical weapons had been launched. The attack was a slap on the wrist to Assad: within 24 hours, the airfield was again up and running, as bombers took off with more conventional payloads to be used against the same people.

This foreign policy has been called, by many publications, improvisational. It's a striking contrast to the deep thought that preceded any such action taken by the previous administration. And it's the best reason yet to worry about what will result from having an amateur improviser in the Oval Office.

Good improv isn't just about being quick. It's about listening: you can't say "Yes, and..." to an offer you haven't heard because you were too wrapped up in your own bit. Yes, there are times when an impulse can result in a scene heading off in an unexpected direction that delights both performers and audience, but that can only work when the improvisers are operating as partners, rather than stars.

Our President does not play well with others. He wants every scene to be about him. He lacks the patience to let policies develop organically, to listen to the others who really do more than he does, or to cooperatively create something that reflects more than the whims of his ego. As difficult and intricate as health care reform may seem to Donald Trump, it has nothing on the no-win complexity of the civil war in Syria, wrapped up as it is with both ISIS and Russia. Navigating these water safely will require many steady hands at the wheel, career diplomats who've spent decades studying the nuances of all the stakeholders. Clearly none of them was consulted (assuming they weren't just laid off) prior to the missile attack. Certainly Congress was not consulted.

Of all the responsibilities of a new President, none has more potential to create havoc, nor demands more humility than foreign policy. Presidents with far higher IQs than Trump have spent years learning the ropes, and have found themselves embarrassed by their missteps. That's probably why the Obama administration chose to "lead from behind": they didn't want to upset the apple cart of the world economy by taking actions that hadn't first been exhaustively vetted by career diplomats and legislators with decades of experience in foreign policy. That's not the style of our current President, though. He can't be bothered with spending time paying his dues, listening to boring experts drone on about how complicated the Middle East is, how carefully dictators need to be handled, and how many potential outcomes there may be other than the desired one. Trump has no need for scene partners. He'd rather leap onto center stage, aggressively, impulsively improvising policies that, of everything he does, most need to be meticulously scripted.

All of which means it's not just Trump's drinking buddies (if he has any) who've been roped into attending his amateur improv show, it's the whole world. And it's not just (like so many amateur improv shows) painful to watch. It's deadly.