Saturday, February 9, 2013

30th Anniversary of GCS Fire

This weekend marks a defining event of my childhood.  At some point during the night of February 9, 1983, a mentally ill African-American man with a history of arson smashed the window of the southeast classroom of Greenville Christian School.  The school had been renting the education wing of the old Washington Street Baptist Church, located, of course, at the intersection of Washington and Wellington Streets in North Greenville.  The young man had been arrested on suspected arson of the structure before, but his prior target had been the old sanctuary proper.

The window through which he chose to set the fire was hidden behind a large, untrimmed cedar tree.  The campus had been plagued with burglaries and other damage during the school's entire occupancy, dating back to 1977.  Many times, human feces could be found in piles of paper - or not - in front of doorways or other nooks along the building's exterior.  This included underneath the cedar tree which provided cover for the troubled man's crime.  North Greenville was then -- and still is -- an economically depressed section of a smallish southern city.  Surrounding the campus were rotting frame houses with notorious occupants.  Beer bottles in what was then a dry city were as common on the school grounds as the slap of a plastic jump rope.

To young Christian children, the regular mistreatment of our campus signaled nothing short of the assaults of Satan and his minions.  The young man who lit the fire served as the epitome of the evil out to destroy us.  He wasn't just a firebug; he was a diabolical mind under demonic torment.  The fire itself was the catharsis of our war against the Prince of Darkness.

Using little more than matches, the arsonist lit his fire in some papers against the inside wall beneath the broken window.  The flame then spread directly upward and ignited the composite drop ceiling of the classroom.  An angel altered the Greenville Fire Department quickly as the flame burned slowly across the dense ceiling.  This slow-burn gave the fire "plenty to feed on" which fortuitously prevented a conflagration.  However, the burning composite produced thick, choking smoke which filled every single square inch of the education wing.  It seemed also to have an adhesive property to it, as the ruthless cloud absolutely covered every surface it enveloped with a foul-smelling brown film.

The next morning, Thursday, February 10, my mother woke up my sister and I late with the news.  Even though we knew Satan was out to get us, nothing gets a 5th grader out of bed faster than news that his school burned.  I will admit I wanted to rush to campus and take in the awful shock of what I had just heard.  Soon we were joined by other board members, including my dad, in inspecting the damage.

I was struck by the gallons upon gallons of water everywhere.  At first, I thought the fire had burned the pipes and caused a massive leak, but it was quickly explained that the fire hoses caused this water damage.  Again, the perverse side of me was a little disappointed that my classroom, which adjoined the one where the fire started, wasn't a charred cinder.  But after seeing all the water damage, it was revealing to me how the cure seemed worse than the disaster.

But the damage to our school wasn't the defining moment I referred to earlier.  Over the next seven days, including the weekend, the entire school family, as well as others in the community, got together to reopen.  Southern Baptists, Independent Baptists, Catholics, Pentecostals, Charismatics, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Methodists and just good'ol run-of-the-mill evangelicals worked hard to relocate classes to a church, scrub that stinky film off desks, and re-inventory which learning materials were still usable.  And all of this without a headmaster (what we called a principal), who had resigned only weeks earlier.

I spent the remainder of 5th Grade crammed next to my classmates in half of a mobile home.  The following autumn, however, we moved into a new campus which is the school's current location.  Years later I told this story to a pastor friend up in the Chicago suburbs, and he couldn't believe the body of Christ worked together in this way.  Today, I'm still struck by the same effort of faith.  It is my gold standard for how I measure a Christian community.

Psalm 126:5

Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Rove Wars

Every so often something happens in the political world for which I have an apt metaphor.  Recently, the undulating blogosphere of conservatives and Republicans rioted with the news that Karl Rove, former consultant and Deputy Chief of Staff to President George W. Bush, had formed another PAC with the intent to follow the William F. Buckley goal of "nominating the best conservative who can get elected."  This news and the way it's been reported has been viewed as anti-TEA Party.  Why am I compelled to relate a story like this allegorically?  Because it is an opportunity to really examine why political people feel the way they do - what makes them tick - and to rebuke same with the heart of the matter before we pull the trigger in the circular firing squad we've formed.

Rove has assumed an odd place in our political culture -- even the popular culture at large, to some degree.  The victorious political consultant who acheives celebrity in his own right is a new phenomenon in American society and history.  Over the past 35 years or so, Americans have begun to assume, enabled by the media, that no candidate arrives in the White House without a savant genius directing his every move.  The first person to acheive this notoriety was Hamilton Jordan, one of Jimmy Carter's lead consultants in the 1976 campaign.  This is ironic, given how when Carter was inaugurated he did not even have a Chief of Staff for over two years.  With the exception of Reagan (more on this in a minute), no recent President -- or serious nominee -- has seemed to ride into the White House without a Tonto.  Bush 41 had Atwater.  Clinton, Carville.  Then Bush, Rove and Obama, Axelrod.  But even some of the loser's consultants have parlayed their ineptitude into a decent paycheck:  Howard Dean's Joe Trippi has become what might be the first free agent of the punditocracy, taking gigs with both MSNBC and Fox in recent years.

Rove, however, has risen beyond the Robin role (or Batman, depending on one's level of cynicism about the process) that our modern media now expect when covering a presidental race -- any race, really, by now.  Among Republicans, Rove has taken on (or created) two roles for himself:  the GOP punching bag and GOP high priest.  He has become a kind of Republican patriarch we secretly feel the need to have in the absence of strong leadership (see previous paragraph, re: Reagan and keep reading).

The far right, TEA-party, same-old-angry-people who vote Republican have taken the Oliver Stone view of American politics:  that there's always an unseen godfather pulling the strings with the goal of ruining the country.  Because Rove understands the importance of PACs in federal elections and has worked hard to create them (not just his latest one in question, the Conservative Victory Project), many conservatives of the myopic variety have eagerly assigned Rove the role as Old Man Potter out to ruin Bedford Falls and vainly rename it.  (NOTE:  while Karl Rove works tediously to organize PACs in accordance with the law, the revitalized Obama Democratic Party has mastered the under-$200-donor loophole in the election code so as to obscure their contribution sources).

By contrast, mainstream GOPers (I refuse to use the disgusting misnomer recently created:  "establishment") turn to Rove by default when beaten and discouraged because he was the last guy to direct a winning presidental candidate.  Mainstream GOPers tend to include big donors who can support Rove's PACs.  Hence, Rove is able to create PACs, which are active everywhere.  But because Republicans struggled last fall, Rove and his PACs are now to blame.  So goes the love-hate persona Rove has been elevated to on the GOP side.

The Party's Rove relationship is a lot like The Clone Wars of the Star Wars Expanded Universe.  The Clone Wars were an interregnum period of manipulation and chaos during the rise of Emperor Palpatine.  Unlike the universe according to Lucas, however, the Rove Wars are a reflection of the vacuum of leadership that currently plagues the GOP.  To be sure, Rove himself has committed serious strategic missteps, especially in the areas of public policy (he alone is responsible for the spike in federal education spending; he also caused the defection of Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords in a 50-50 Senate back in 2001).  But is he a Sith Lord?  Of course not.

The Rove Wars are a reflection of a bad leadership model we have come to accept -- the one of Lone Ranger/Tonto or Batman/Robin  -- which brings me back to President Reagan.  I'm not sentamentalist, and I am not sure President Reagan would do as well in today's primary system.  What I am sure of, however, is that Presdent Reagan - quite the contrary to how he's been portrayed - kept his consultants at the consultant level.  Jim Baker, Michael Deaver, David Gergen -- all were talented men who took orders from a man with an exceptionally clear vision.  No, Reagan wasn't a wonk.  Yes, he could seem unempathetic -- a quality that is a must-have for today's candidate.  But he knew what he knew and he willed it to be carried out.  He didn't need someone to consult on agenda items that in some respects saved our country:  growth-oriented tax policy, defense against a well-organized Communist empire, and the proper role of government.

When will the GOP find someone to bring balance to the Force?  My ability to pick the next Jedi is muddled with my self-interest.  But I do know this:  hate, fear -- and I would add, envy -- these are the pathways to the Dark Side.