Friday, November 11, 2011

What Must Happen in 2012

I recently completed reading Slaughter at Goliad: The Mexican Massacre of 400 Texas Volunteers, a compelling history of Texas’ more shameful episodes, that of James Fannin’s incompetence during the Texas Revolution at Presidio La Bahia near the town of Goliad. Slaughter at Goliad is written by Jay A. Stout, a retired U.S. Marine fighter pilot who flew thirty-seven combat missions during Operation Desert Storm. Stout’s concise book is as much a study in crisis leadership as it is an important summary of what is, to this day, regularly glossed over in the 7th Grade here in Texas. The story of James Fannin has historically been presented tersely as one of holy heroism in the face of a rapacious Mexican horde. To be sure, Fannin and his hapless command met their destiny at the hands of two of the most depraved men in Mexican history, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna and General Jose Urrea. But Fannin has wrongly enjoyed a certain degree of ethereal veneration for his actions – or really inactions -- in March of 1836. He is subconsciously honored by the more bigoted Texas element as that brave Gringo who stood his ground and was ignominiously murdered for it. Most Texans hear “Goliad” and think “Remember Goliad” the same way they think “Remember the Alamo.”

But this book will change one’s battle cry. Stout’s excellent work served not just to feed my inner history nerd. It made me think more about the current political climate – but not in the Santa Obama sense.

President Obama doesn’t live rent-free in my head. He has been, without question, destructive, but I don’t sit around stewing about him and allowing myself to be afraid. And this is why Slaughter at Goliad has resonated so loudly in the political part of my brain. Narcissistic, disturbed tyrants don’t scare me near as much as arrogant, bumbling good guys. Tyrants, without fail, fall into the trap set by themselves (re: Qaddafi). Stout relates that an elderly Santa Ana spent his final days trying to recruit fighters to retake Mexico for him – in New York City! Instead, fools with self-righteous ideals but no skill can lead an entire nation off a cliff. Enter a certain type of fellow Republican.

I have been involved in political activism for over twenty five years. I have had the great adventure of being close to policymaking for thirteen years. I am sick and tired of my fellow Republicans who refuse to understand this great system our Founders gave us and which was copied by Fannin’s smarter contemporaries.

There is a strand of conservative out there, many TEA Party-linked, but many not, who would rather indulge their limited education and experiences, megalomania and idealistic fervor with the goal of parlaying such into the honor of being the most right of anybody. I am convinced that rather than move the ball forward incrementally, as our Founders designed, they would rather die the martyr’s death during a March Primary. This was the shameful lesson of James Fannin and the deaths of the more than 300 subordinates for which he was responsible.

Martyrdom only applies to saints who are individuals devoid of any selfishness, even when the presence of the Lord Jesus awaits then. Only the dynamic presence of the Holy Spirit in one’s heart prior to death can accomplish this. If any ego or self-righteousness resides in a martyr’s heart, he or she is nothing more than a self-serving jihadist, I don’t care where they go to church. These are the false actions of legalists. Political activism is more about being right than it is about just, caring and humble. These people are Pharisees deserving of the rocks they are so eager to cast toward others (you can check my previous blogs to see that I would never decry those whose faith motivates their involvement in the public square. In fact, I enthusiastically cheer it. Who I’m talking about here are those who would rather be right than Republican).

And this is what must happen in 2012, through the primaries at every office level and down through the general: conservatives must reject faith-based motives that are legalistic. I'm not going to pretend to know what this looks like in public policy, but I’ve thought a lot about it. I think the correct interface between faith, public policy and government should be subjected to a single test: what makes the best citizen? Notice I said the “best.” This does not mean “righteous,” because only God can do that. And it most certainly does not mean “best” in such a way as to make me feel better knowing certain laws are on the books. If we utilize this test for our policies and candidates, conservatism will win every time (more on specific examples of this in later blogs). Legalism in public policy is completely counter to what our Founders envisioned, and it is poison on Election Day.

James Fannin was the illegitimate son of a prominent Georgian whose relatives had fought in the American Revolution. Trading on the family name, Fannin was able to secure a West Point admission, but his social obtuseness and the paternal chip on his shoulder prevented him from yielding to educators before and during his time at the Military Academy. As a cadet, he failed to complete the first year’s curriculum even when given two years to do so. For this, he was expelled. He later became a slave trader and made some fast money by selling human beings in pre-revolutionary Texas. From there, he got involved with the actions of the early fighters, including a successful foray which led to some notoriety alongside Jim Bowie when the pair helped capture San Antonio in late 1835.

But during the first three months of 1836, Fannin’s service would be self-promoting at best and grossly inept at worst. His total ignorance about military command, his fervor to earn the honor his illegitimacy denied him, and his pitiful inability to get along with others created a perfect storm of bad tactical decisions. This resulted in him and his small regiment being caught in the open, flat Texas prairie without water and adequate provisions by Mexican dragoons and soldados. This happened after abandoning the Presidio they had worked night and day to harden! Wounded and weak-minded, Fannin allowed himself to be deceived by an expert deceiver, General Jose Urrea, into capitulation. This was aided by the clumsy translations of a German national serving in the Mexican Army, Juan Jose Holzinger. A couple days later, Fannin was shot in the head at the orders of a mid-level colonel, Jose Portilla, who was afraid to defy Santa Anna when Gen. Urrea left Goliad to continue his campaign. That morning, Fannin’s motely command were marched out in three groups, shot, bayoneted, looted and left to be eaten by wild animals.

Ask yourself, is this any way to be satisfied that you did the right thing, that you held to your principles, whatever they are? Is this the badge of a “true conservative?” Fannin accomplished absolutely nothing but the death of himself and others who were badly needed elsewhere. The truth is that given the incredible freedom of our state and nation today, the power and discretion we as citizens have to address problems, and the resources of our state and nation to help others, a conservatism that is rooted in self-righteous legalism is shameful and pathetic.

Today we commemorate the millions of Americans who have made truly unselfish sacrifices all over the world. Remember Goliad because of our tendency toward vainglory.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Summer Reading and Some Help

I am ashamed of myself. I call myself a writer, and yet I have allowed 7.5 months to go by before updating my blog. But I have a pretty good excuse: I delivered another freelance project for the non-profit I’ve been involved with for the past two years. My writing mojo had been netted by a topical study of the Life of Peter. And if that pass doesn’t work, there’s always the good ol’ alibi of: parent.

And my role as parent is actually going to serve as the theme for today’s blog. So, to begin, what good parent doesn’t intentionally allow themselves to be shackled every now and then to a book or two every summer? I mean, some of my happiest childhood memories are of seeing both parents’ noses in books as I snuck past their bedroom door at night…and through the living room…and into the garage…and to a lot of places. Books are good. And a good book means your parents are actually “checked out” for a few moments while you retrieve that household object that works so well against your neighborhood enemy, such as granddad’s Winchester.

Here’s what I digested this summer, on the beach, on the patio, in the a/c, everywhere:

Heaven is For Real (Todd Burpo with Lynn Vincent) – a magnificent little book that many by now have read. Sitting on the beach at Port Aransas in early June, a passerby remarked on reading it, and as I joyfully spilled out its contents to the kids at dinner that evening, a nearby patron also joined in on the conversation, pointing out details I hadn’t thought about.

This book contains no less than the hard presence of Jesus. I felt as though I had actually been given a vision of the Lord – quite unexpectedly for this summer and certainly undeservedly. Of course, you have to believe in him first – not just that he existed/exists – but that he actually died for you. My Aunt Donna gave me this book this year, and she is two for two on absolute gems for summer (Her previous winner from 2009 was Dinner with a Perfect Stranger by David Gregory).

Day of War (Cliff Graham) – A fellow author from Tate Publishing recommended this awesome retelling of 1 Samuel 28-31 from the point of view of one of David’s Mighty Men. Graham, a retired military chaplain, spent extensive time in Israel studying the ancient land’s topography as well as hours upon hours immersed in Jewish histories to recreate the as yet unclaimed Promised Land during the kingdom of Saul. But what makes the book as compelling as it is illuminating is Graham’s knowledge of personal combat and its impact on the body. My joints ached after reading the story.

Through his fiction, Pastor Graham also presents a fascinating idea about how the Holy Spirit may impact the physical body while God’s will is being executed with it. Most important, Day of War presents David as never before: a truly charismatic leader who was as ruthless as he was tender. As with Heaven is for Real, the reader is in for some vivid experiences if his/her heart is open while reading.

Only Angels are Bulletproof (Emily Ann Benedict) - I was interested in this crime novel sent in L.A. because its author wanted to create genre characters with faith dimensions. Imagine if any of the main characters on CSI or NCIS found themselves having to consider seriously the divine as the result of one of their cases.

Benedict puts some interesting people on the page and does an excellent job of taking her main character through a dynamic faith change. The story slows a bit when it should keep moving, but it is otherwise a great first novel. I have been there. I still am.

The Help (Dreamworks)- this is the one “book” I only read through the screen this summer. My parents couldn’t put down the book form. I couldn’t stop my tears during the movie version.

To read the critics on this movie is to know once-and-for-all that race in America is a sensitive subject only when elites want it to be. I think that is why this book/movie has experienced wild popularity: the people have willed that they want to know what they knew, not merely from the civil rights era, but from their own homes! For a large chunk of upper middle class Americans, especially in the South, Texas and lower Midwest, there was no “civil rights era”; they called it “childhood.”

My sister (two years younger) and I are quite possibly the very last Americans to have experienced the everyday presence of a black woman in our home who was not just responsible for our daily lives, but who executed the role of maternal nurturer very much like Aibileen Clark. Our mother’s housekeeper was named Frances Wesley. Frances’ single greatest contribution to me was an uncanny, serene blend of trust and self-reliance in the face of a hostile world. Frances experienced raw discrimination at the hands of one of Dallas’ leading hospitals, only to trust God and use a gifted intelligence to persist in bettering herself in Jim Crow Texas. She built her own home in spite of an alcoholic husband who died young, refusing to be bitter (at least the years I knew her). She never had children of her own; she told my sister and I that we were her children, even though she was 60 before knowing us. It’s only my opinion, but a male child’s best model for trust comes from the mother, not the father. This is because in a natural sense, the child first depends on his mother for survival, who must then trust in whatever her resources are for the pair’s survival, preferably a good husband. If the mother can trust, that is successfully modeled for the son. If she can’t, the anxiety instead is translated.

Sure, Viola Davis’ Aibileen is surrounded by “stereotypical” Hollywood blacks in the movie, but to sling this at The Help is simply cheap copy by reporters trying to brown-nose their liberal buddies. I mean, come on, it’s the movies. What found me weeping at various moments in the film was not the tenuous struggle for dignity that many black Americans faced during this time (though that story gets some good play here), but the yearning that The Help’s children, young and old, had for maternal care – for that desire to trust and to know who to trust.

Think about parenting today. God bless every mother who takes a minute in the morning to tell their child they is kind, smart and important. But anyone who is providing Aibileen-style care to today’s two-year-old is certainly the exception. Why? Because it isn’t the American way to parent. American parenting is centered on one thing: raising successful children. Not even successful adults, but successful children.

Our society stands on the ledge today because of a crisis of proper parenting. The gradual urbanization of the past 100 years has allowed one generation’s selfishness and narcissism to enslave them to wealth, status and convenience such that they haven’t been able to properly nurture their children. Not just in Jackson, Mississippi, but everywhere American parents have expected someone else to do their job, many of who in turn had to abandon their role as parent to their own children. If those kids, then, were from a bad neighborhood, parenting was left to the local gang.

So the nerve, I think, that this movie hits is a uniquely American sense of the hits and misses we have as parents today. I saw The Help amidst a mass of North Dallas humanity this weekend at Northpark. Even though the theater was dark, I could tell that many of the movie watchers at the 1pm matinee hadn’t been to the movies in a long time. I’m guessing that many of them were like me. I’m sure many of them had someone in their home who was a blessed nurturer, and they wondered why life and/or their fellow man had been unfair to them. My hope is that most of them left the movie as I did, grateful for who has cared for me, but daunted at how pitifully inadequate I am to care for my own children. Gonna need some help.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

The 00s: A Retrospective

One of my nostalgic indulgences are those “year in review” segments that the network news assembles and broadcasts every December 31. I think it’s my inner history nerd. But I can remember sitting in front of Frank Reynolds as early as 1981, watching pre-digital video sequences and thinking, “Wow, it’s neat to see everything that happened last year in one stop.” I think I felt a sense of power in simply being able to re-experience everything in a short manner.

This year, the retrospectives have seemed less hyped, if slightly mottled. This is due in part to the 24 hour news channels and their constant review of the year over the course of the day (and preceding week), which then gives the evening news versions less punch. In response, the evening news producers feel the need to add a twist to the reporting of the year-in-review segment, which tends to obscure a sense of time.

But the real reason for 2010’s lackluster retrospectives, I think, has been the fact that our society has been a bit confused on the decade that has passed. Not only were many of us unsure when it started (the official, historian date is Jan. 1, 2001; most of us began it after partying like it was 1999) and ended, but the 00s’ events have been a disjointed experience leaving many of us bewildered.

Think about the decade we just had: we began with an impeached President who was as popular as ever, endured the nausea of chad soup in Florida only to have a court pick our leader, shuddered through 9/11 with a side of anthrax, invaded a country and didn‘t quite win, watched the culture wars continue over Mel Gibson and Terri Schiavo, witnessed a major city flood and black Americans drown en masse, got easy credit, got a female Speaker of the House, lost easy credit, watched the culture wars continue over Sarah Palin and Barack Obama, then finished it all by rooting for the Texas Rangers in the World Series while the devil repossessed the Cowboys.

And if the news wasn’t enough, we had no shortage of Fear Factor stunts in our personal lives. For this blogger, it was: marriage four days before January 1, 2000, children - a lot of them, joining the Baptist church, a $14,000 raise based solely on the dialect I spoke, exiting a high stress job and hanging out my own shingle, being on cable TV, crossing the Mississippi with almost $250,000 from a home sale, spending it, divorce, the bottom and sobriety, ministry, joblessness and the kindness of others, becoming a single parent, getting a book published. And also, etc.

Between all of this, I’d like to think I’ve maxed out my stress points for the next decade as well.

So I think that when we reflect on the 00s - in many ways a short portent of the information culture that is upon our world - we might get a little tired. There have been good reasons to be tired but satisfied; there have been negative experiences that have exhausted us.

But being tired is actually right where God wants us to be. It is the first stop on the train of dependence. Isaiah 40 says it best, “To him who lacks might He increases power.” We can’t get the might until we are out of our own. We are not done with own might until we’ve seen that god-as-us is no good.

The 00s for me are really just that: zeroes. And for this, I am extremely grateful. Happy ‘11