Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Republicans: It’s Too Late for Disavowals

Whether they knew it or not, before the nomination went to Trump, Republicans were called upon to make stand between decency or degradation, conservatism or convenience.

I’ve said it before: 

No turning back: The ordnance has been launched.
But when so few did that he became the face of a party that once valued free trade, moral fortitude and some speck of religiosity, the choice became even clearer for those facing down-ticket races: Either disavow him now and save some shred of cred, or be stained forever and lose the White House and perhaps your majority in Congress.  

For some reason, many failed to realize that the Donald had already thrust the choice upon them. They thought maybe, just maybe, Hillary was bad enough of an opponent that there was a way to ride it out, to survive until a Trump presidency justified their goal-line stand.  

She was almost unlikable enough, but the success of this strategy now looks increasingly unlikely, and those who clung to Trump as the levee blocking Hillary’s flood of liberalism will likely be doubly disappointed in November. They could now lose both the presidency and the only legislative bulwark they had against her agenda because of a terrible miscalculation. 

They thought that people like me, those who feel homeless in this election, would eventually come around to supporting their imperfect choice, that their lesser-of-two-evils argument would hold true as it has in years where their candidate may not have been a shining star, but at least was remotely competent. But his complete lack of substance on the issues and the further revelations about his character, I believe, has proved them wrong. The supposed “evil” of the one has somehow been Trumped by the volatility and crassness of the other. We're still homeless. 

Some Republicans were shaken from their fantasy this week when Trump’s lewd video emerged. They then disavowed him as if the “p-word” somehow made the chauvinism oozing from his macho persona and checkered history with women officially unacceptable: 

Others even continued their balancing act. Paul Ryan, the party’s best tightrope walker, continued to straddle the line between abhorring the candidate and walking away from the party’s nominee. The best he could do? “I’ll no longer defend him.” Funny enough, Ryan had already bent over backwards to avoid defending him for the entire campaign. 

Sadly, the damage is done for Republicans who couldn’t find their backbone. The grenade has already been lobbed into their midst. The question is whether they will run and perhaps survive for the battles ahead, or fall on it for the man who pulled the pin in the first place. 

Monday, October 10, 2016

Trump’s Women Problem Is Our Manhood Problem

Throughout the second presidential debate, Donald J. Trump reminded us repeatedly of one of this election season’s tragedies, that a major U.S. political party has anointed as its standard-bearer someone who reflects back to America its deeply broken view of manhood. And, almost comically, they’ve done it at a time when he’s running against the first woman nominee.
Thanks to the historic nature of this election, gender has played an outsized role in this campaign. Democrat Hillary Clinton has played the female card more than once, and Trump’s misogynistic record, speech and personality have left him uniquely powerless to defuse it. He has fallen into rhetorical traps (and Twitter wars) that anyone with the self-awareness, charisma and confidence of a 13-year-old boy could have easily sidestepped. He now trails Clinton by some 20 points among women. 

Throughout the second debate, the flubs continued. Trump pouted like a petulant child. He complained like a third-grader that the moderators favored Clinton, muttering at one point that it was “three-on-one.” He repeated a half-hearted apology and again dismissed as "locker-room talk” the damning video recording in which he outlines how his fame entitles him to take advantage of women sexually. And at a basic level, he failed to show any sense of shared humanity in responding to the audience. 

As he stumbled through his answers, continuing his master class in blame deflection, my wife looked over at me, as she has on more than one occasion throughout this campaign season, and said, “It’s like he’s a toddler.” Indeed. And this coming from a trusted source: a former nanny and current stay-at-home mom. 

While Trump’s whining certainly fits with his “media-is-against-me” and “election-is-rigged” narratives, the sad thing is that it’s not part of a carefully planned political strategy. What we see reflected in his words is a deeper thread that runs through the series of gaffes that have inexplicably failed to topple his candidacy over the past year and a half.

Here’s the core of it: Trump is unwilling or unable to take responsibility for himself, or to show the slightest sensitivity to how his words or actions affect others. He’s the kid that knocked over the vase and immediately resorts to explaining away how it broke, who was caught with his hand in the cookie jar but insists things are just not as they seem. Responsibility means admitting wrongdoing. That’s failure, and failure is not an option for a man like Trump. 

To me, there’s only one explanation for this: The billions in his bank account have failed to convince Trump that he has what it takes as a man. And if he can only convince the world that he does — whether through starring in a reality-show, erecting towers across the globe or running for the highest office in the land — he might just be able to convince himself. 

We’re Also to Blame

This problem of male validation is not unique to Trump. It’s a deep emotional need for guys. I see it surfacing in myself, in hopefully less obvious ways that I constantly have to fight against. Any man who claims to be completely confident in himself at all times either has gained astounding maturity through a life of experience and reflection — or is simply in denial. 

But Trump’s manner, combined with his ubiquity in the media these days, has made him an easy champion to those who need to validate the anger they feel at their own perceived victimization. He doesn’t spur them to good works; he gives them permission to embrace a narrative of passivity — the idea that things happen to them and not because of them. That they are affected by forces of change in the world, not that they can be the force for change themselves.

This is dangerous. The logical result is a world full of disgruntled 70 year olds that have never done anything to help anyone else, and who mistake bravado for power. 

We’ve got our virtues all out of whack. Trump is praised as “honest” because he spouts off without guarding his tongue, as “strong" because he fails to compromise, as “persistent" because he resists pressure to moderate wrongheaded views. 

Men like Trump base their strength based on performance — sexual, financial, political. You see this in his constant (selective) citing of favorable polls, his references to “beautiful” media reports about him, his ire for journalists that challenge him, his office wall plastered with photos of himself with celebrities. It’s easy to see that he needs this on an emotional level: His conviction comes from outside approval, not from inner fortitude, which is why his positions so easily shift. 

For a man whose whole existence serves to prove his strength, the cardinal sin is to admit vulnerability. But caring about others is a source of strength, and it’s key to effective leadership. Honesty without tact alienates those you’re trying to persuade. Strength without empathy is just bullying. Persistence on a path headed off a cliff is just plain stupidity. 

Judging by poll numbers — especially the divergence in Trump’s support between genders — too many men fail to see this, perhaps because they see in him an excuse not to undertake the hard work of change. 

Son, Don’t Watch 

If you ask most men, I’ll bet few can point to an exact moment or even the season when they transitioned from boyhood to manhood. Some don’t even know what’s the dividing line. 

But I think most would agree that we’re closer to the ideal when we’re giving of ourselves, not taking for ourselves. As my friend Chuck Holton puts it, “A boy takes; a man gives.”

This is Trump’s — and America’s — manhood problem.

Whether it’s objectifying women, engaging in cronyism, or supporting someone who does, the core issue is the same: We all want to serve the self at the expense of others rather than serve others at the expense of self. Men in this country (and everywhere, really) have bought into the lie that the world is there to make them happy, not that they have been created to help improve the world. 

This is not at all to say that self-sacrifice is an exclusively male ideal; in fact, women usually do a better job of it. But many of our societal woes stem from men shirking their responsibilities because they have failed to understand the nature of their role and that of happiness itself. The irony is that seeking the good of the world, not yourself, is what tends to bring lasting purpose and peace. 

This is lost on Trump, and it’s one of the many reasons I can’t vote for him. Over the next eight years, I will be teaching my son that those who are truly strong don’t have to flaunt their strength. It’s the imposters who need to be their own spokesmen. It’s the insecure who need to be right in an argument rather than do right in their lives. 

I can’t throw my support behind a man — or woman — who is poised to constantly undermine those important lessons. 

Friday, April 05, 2013

Most Americans Have Never Heard the Gospel

Sandwich boards commanding repentance. Street preachers shouting hellfire. Political slogans condemning gay marriage and abortion. Trite, pithy bumper stickers and church signs with lame puns.

We've presented many versions of the good news to the culture.

The problem is that none of them sound all that good

You might say the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing. I agree, but just because someone is starving doesn't mean you can only give him stale bread, even if he denies he's hungry. 

I will admit that I have become hardened to Americans, especially after sharing the Jesus story with foreigners. They often have no context, no built-in prejudices against it. They've never had a televangelist after their pocketbook or a protester calling down the sulphur of Sodom on their loved ones. A refreshing openness allows them to at least entertain a new idea, even if it's just so they can practice English. 

Americans, on the other hand, are jaded to Jesus. But on the rare occasions when I let God tenderize my stubborn heart, I realize this is because most of them have never really heard the gospel either, or at least a version worth hearing.  

Sure, they know that a babe was wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger. They know that Jesus most likely had a beard and blonde hair glistening with a halo. They know that he had cool sandals and roamed around the countryside like a pre-incarnation of Gandhi, telling people to do no harm. 

Of course this is a caricature, but there's a reason it's there. Those who are supposed to be Jesus' friends have reduced the feast of his mission to a sack of greasy burgers.

In rare moments of clarity, I have been able to provide trusting friends and curious acquaintances with a tiny glimpse of the real Jesus, the glorious, powerful Jesus that the Bible portrays.

I've been able to show that he offers more than behavior modification. He completely transforms the heart, molding it in love so that its actions inevitably change. He doesn't preach empty acceptance. He stands like a levee, solid against the flood of God's wrath, turning us from his enemies into his beloved children. And most importantly, he comes not to judge as his followers so often do, but to save from a judgment already pronounced. As a result, we can have eternal life - not a future sitting around on clouds with harps - but the promise that we can touch forever now through faith in the one who bridged the temporal and everlasting.

Much of this must sound like mumbo-jumbo. It always does, even as it's coming out of my mouth.

But as a sommelier once told me, you just have to like how the wine tastes and be able to describe it to yourself. Then you can remember it, even if you can't articulate its subtlest notes.

So let me hand you the glass, offering a few tasting notes.

The world is broken. Look at Syria and the Congo. Look at the selfishness in your relationships.

Jesus is God's way of fixing it. He starts in you, then works through you. We are changed so that we can change the world. If that's not good news, I don't know what is.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Why Christmas Is for All Nations

I've heard that China's Santa Claus doesn't make his home in the North Pole. Instead, he lives in Atlanta. 

In addition to chicken feet, machinery and other products, the Asian country is now importing our cultural symbols. The benevolent, bearded man with a red suit and a belly that shakes like a bowl full of jelly is now apparently in such high demand at Chinese shopping malls that they put him up in five-star hotels and pay him enough to live for a year. Seems like a lot of trouble for a taste of Western tradition. 

Yes, it bothers me that when outside observers search for the meaning of Christmas, they are most fascinated by a fat dude who grants wishes, like a Buddha with a sleigh. But that's a rant for another day. More disconcerting to me is the fact that much of the world sees it as a foreign holiday, missing their stake in the story. 

The truth is, Christmas marks the fulfillment of a long-held wish, that things would be patched up between us and God. For those who don't understand God's love or justice, this doesn't sound revolutionary or even appealing. Why does the divine care about how I respond to him, and how would I approach him anyway? 

God knew this, and long ago, he appointed a people, the Israelites, to be his ambassadors to the world, carrying the answers to these questions and the secret of how to get back to him. 

Nowadays, with America's stalwart support of the modern state of Israel and shofars making their way into Protestant sanctuaries, it's hard to remember how foreign God's original chosen people would be to us today. They were tribal, raising animals for a living and worshipping in a tent where the presence of God was kept behind closed doors. The cost of their shortcomings was ever before them, institutionalized in violent sacrifices that put them back in touch with God. 

It's easy to see how "Immanuel" - God with us - was a breath of fresh air to those who worshipped him from behind a curtain of separation. After thousands of years of reaching up to Him, Christmas meant that he had come down to his people, repaying their rebellion with closeness, fulfilling a promise he made early in their history to send a baby boy to make peace with those who willingly became his enemies. 

God Is Global

So Christmas is a Jewish story, but as God fulfilled his promise to a specific people, he also flung open the doors of his kingdom to the world. The exclusive club of God's fellowship was now for all, as the angel told the shepherds when announcing the birth of the chosen one, 

“Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people."
We tend to forget that this was in the plan all along. Even the first Hebrew, God's original covenant partner, was chosen in order to usher God's presence and power into the world. As God said to Abraham
I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me. 
Born to a virgin in Bethlehem 42 generations later, Jesus was the conduit for this promise to be fulfilled. The magi (foreigners from afar) knew it as soon as he was born, and Jesus himself, though he concentrated on the lost sheep of Israel, later in life acknowledged that his Father would bring outsiders into his fold. His parting command to his disciples was that they go into all the world and share the good news that we can all be a part of God's family, taking on his name and sharing in his inheritance, no matter where we're from or what we've done. 

As I've traveled the world, I've seen the various ways men and women approach God. Christ's invasion is God's way of spelling out the right one for us. The Jew who seeks a Messiah can look to Jesus. The ascetic Buddhist can redirect his desires to the source of their fulfillment. The Hindu who sees God in all can begin to fathom the wonders of his specific, personal plan. The Muslim who trusts in God's oneness and justice can also begin to feel his grace. And the atheist can trade cold rationalism for illogical love. 

Christmas is not just for Christians; it's not just for Americans, Britons or Germans. It's the invitation of a global God to all people to partake in his plan to heal the whole world, establishing a universal community of peace and love rooted in him. 

Wherever you find yourself in the world today, Christmas is for you and yours if only you'll take hold of it by faith. 

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Defining Manhood in China and America

In America, masculine stereotypes are easy to spot.

Boy in Xinjiang province
Photo by Brad Kinney, 2006
Being a man is rocking a six pack (beer or abs will do), scoring chicks, driving a nice car - generally showcasing your independence while masking any sense of vulnerability.

Ironically, even though we're sitting on the couch gaining weight as we watch them, Americans worship the Jack Bauers and James Bonds of the world, those heroes who can kill a man with their pinky as quickly as they can get a lady to go to bed with them.

While we err on the side of bullet-proof bravado, Chinese society seems to expect a softer man. In traveling to the country over the past eight years, I've met many demure guys with wet-fish handshakes and designer man purses. In educational and social gatherings, I've seen men stay in the background while the more outgoing girls steal the spotlight.

A New York Times article today discussed how boys are being left behind in China's education system. Girls in urban areas, perhaps thumbing their noses at society's preference for sons, are outpacing their male counterparts in a variety of subjects and on the all-important gaokao, or college entrance exams.

Tasked with carrying on the family name, boys in China are squeezed by the pressures of growing up as "little emperors."

On one hand, they're coddled. But the investment in their development raises the entire family's expectations for their future. Immense pressure to achieve leads to countless hours of study starting at a young age. With all this on your shoulders, who has time to ponder things like masculinity?

Apparently, 16-year-old Wan Zhongni does, and he's not liking what he's seeing.

“I should have used my free time to play sports, to play basketball. I think I lack masculinity. I need to improve," the NYT article quoted him as saying.

The piece goes on to enumerate reasons for the gap in male/female performance, but I couldn't get past the honesty and uncertainty in his statement: "I think I lack masculinity." How many of us could say the same thing?

It struck me that whether it's Chinese guys spending days immersed in Internet games or Americans collecting tattoos, deer heads or polo shirts, their problem is the same: Manhood in each culture is a moving target. No one is defining it, and few men in either society are inviting boys into a higher calling for their masculinity, which should be focused on submission to God and sacrifice for neighbors.

Where are the Chinese fathers? Many of the rich send their kids off to the best schools, while the poor go to find work in the cities, leaving their sons to be looked after by grandparents in the villages. Divorce isn't as prevalent as in the U.S., but Chinese families are practical. They will split up if it means better careers and more money for kids' education and parents' care.

Where are the American fathers? Many are parked in front of the TV, while some sit staring at computers in the offices where they spend 60-plus hours per week. Others left minutes after their child was conceived and never came back.

In America, it's well-documented that kids from fatherless homes are more likely to commit crimes and drop out of school. Many Chinese are worried that their country is losing its moral compass and sliding into materialism.

In both countries, it's going to take men defining manhood for boys like Wan Zhongni to avoid rough sailing ahead.

For a clearer view of manhood, read "Making Men: Five Steps to Growing Up" by Chuck Holton, which I edited. I've also found the teachings of Robert Lewis helpful. They're encapsulated in the book "Raising a Modern-Day Knight".