Archive for August, 2008

I don’t know, but I believe

Saturday, August 30th, 2008

I don’t know, but I believe


Unfortunately, this will be my last column for The Pueblo Chieftain.

I’ve accepted a new local writing position, and in doing so have had to make some difficult choices. One of those resulted in my agreement to give up my column here on Saturdays.

It wasn’t an easy choice, and it’s hard to say if it’s the right thing to do or not. The wisdom of our choices often benefits from hindsight and the results that follow.

This contribution marks my 127th consecutive column, and approximately 82,000 words – literally enough to fill a book.

How to put the appropriate punctuation mark at the end of such a series? How to let it go and feel good about where things are left? I keep coming back to a sermon a friend of mine delivered about seven years ago. I don’t remember the exact title, but the basic concept was “I don’t know, but I believe.”

Sometimes we embrace the false impression that a journey of faith offers us some sense of assuredness or certainty about the universe.

Though some may argue this position, to me it goes against the very nature of faith itself. If, after all, we knew, why would we need belief?

If I’ve learned anything in researching and writing two books on theology, hundreds of columns, editing other books and even assisting with a new translation of the Bible, it’s that I don’t know a heck of a lot.

I have a rich tapestry of beliefs, but the scope of my knowledge, relative to the constantly expanding body of information there is to know, is minuscule, nearly to the point of insignificance.

But I still believe.

I don’t know if Jesus is who scripture claims he is, but I believe that, through his life, his witness and his legacy, something divine broke through into the world – and that we’ve never been the same since.

I don’t know if hell literally exists the way we talk about it sometimes in religious circles, but I do believe we each have a chilling capacity for both good and evil, and that the only thing that ultimately can separate us from God’s limitless love and grace is ourselves.

I don’t know if the many claims I’ve made over the past 2 years are true, or if they’ve had the intended impact, but I believe the only way out of darkness is through it, and the only way toward truth is to wrestle with it daily – to debate it, dissect it and never let it stand on its own without a fight.

I don’t know if we’ll ultimately survive as a species, or if our habits will lead to our own demise, but I believe that there is a grace that holds this world together.

I believe that human nature is essentially good and that, even as much as we screw up, God is bigger.

I don’t know if I’ll regret the decision to move on a week from now, or in a month or ever, but I believe that we’re called to a place that generally holds for each of us equal parts excitement and fear.

Since I feel a salient, sobering, exhilarating combination of both right now, I believe I’m pointed in the right direction.

Thank you to each of you who has followed my musings, rants and suppositions over these few years.

Thank you to those who have taken the time to write notes of appreciation, support, encouragement, and even those who have challenged my ideas.

One of my favorite bands is the mega-rock band from Ireland, U2, and perhaps my favorite song of theirs is called “One.”

A particular line keeps running through my head, and I’ll offer it as my parting thought: “We’re one, but we’re not the same. We get to carry each other.”

This, I firmly believe.

Flobots are taking over the world

Friday, August 29th, 2008

Our little old band from Denver, featured on CNN. How cool is that?


The little band that wants to change the world

Colored wristbands run halfway up Stephen Brackett’s arm, each one marking a show he and his band, the Flobots, have played the last several days.

Brackett, who goes by Brer Rabbit as one of the MCs for the Flobots, keeps each one until the six-person band has a bad show, when he cuts them all off. The last time his arm was bare was after a show in Salt Lake City, when fans started three fights that had to be broken up.

“That by definition is a bad show,” Brackett said during the Tent State Music Festival to End the War at the Denver Coliseum this week during the Democratic National Convention.

After the festival, the event’s activist organizers planned to lead the 9,000 festival-goers from the Coliseum to the Pepsi Center in an anti-war march in which leaders were prepared to get arrested. Flobots planned to march with them.

Brackett looked down at his wristbands. “I’m very much hoping I won’t have to cut them off today,” he said Wednesday.

The march crowd was estimated by police at 3,500 to 4,000.

Flobots weren’t the biggest name in town for the just-concluded DNC, but the Denver band’s four convention-related shows signaled the band’s rise from local heroes, blending hip hop, a viola, drums, guitar and bass, to international touring artists. The Denver mayor’s office even gave band members tickets to hear Barack Obama accept the Democratic presidential nomination.

Through it all, Flobots have held on to their dream of building a nonprofit group that uses music to promote civic involvement. In fact, its street teams are actually a network of social activism.

“People who go to our shows get really amped, but they had nowhere to get plugged in,” said guitarist Andy “ROK” Guerrero. “When they hear our music, we want people to start thinking, dialoging and talking about what is going on in our country.”

Even though music comes first for Flobots, “Nobody in this band could do this if it weren’t for a bigger reason,” Guerrero said.

The heart of that activism could well be Brackett and Jamie Laurie, known as Jonny 5, who have been with Flobots from the beginning.

Laurie’s drive started when he participated in the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle in 1999. At the time, Laurie was becoming an activist as a response to messages expressed in hip hop. It didn’t hurt that a girl he liked was protesting too.

The WTO protests shut down parts of the meetings and brought worldwide attention to activists’ message.

“It was so empowering,” said Laurie, now 30. “Ever since that moment, I’ve had it in my head: I don’t ever want to abdicate responsibility in terms of changing the world.”

The band specifically asked for the week of the Democratic convention off during their tour so they could be home for historic events. They played shows, attended rallies and squeezed in visits with family.

The biggest protest they attended, though, was after playing in the daytime Tent State festival with Rage Against the Machine. When the music ended midafternoon Wednesday, thousands poured onto the streets to march nearly four miles with Iraq Veterans Against the War to the Pepsi Center.

The veterans’ goal was to speak to Democrats at the Pepsi Center, where access was blocked to the public, and camp outside until their demands were met. Flobots were in the first row of civilians in the march.

“I think this is the biggest demonstration of the week,” Guerrero said checking out the crowd. “And it’s all because of music. In yo’ face!”

The veterans wanted convention delegates and the Obama campaign to hear their demands for an immediate withdrawal of troops from Iraq, full health care benefits for returning troops and veterans and reparations to the Iraqi people for damage caused by the war.

Four hours after the concert, as sunset approached, Brackett searched for water, and protest organizers warned the crowd that arrests could come as the parade made its way on an illegal route if they decided not to disperse.

Finally, an Obama campaign representative met with one of the veterans, which led to cheers and bear hugs among the protesters.

No arrests were reported.

“This is the most victorious ending I could’ve ever imagined,” Laurie said afterward.

And Wednesday night, Brackett still had his wristbands on his arm.

Convention sparks superficial activism

Saturday, August 23rd, 2008

Convention sparks superficial activism


I didn’t believe it when I heard it.

There have been rumors floating around that Denver officials were trying to whisk away homeless people before the upcoming Democratic National Convention so that they wouldn’t make anyone feel uncomfortable.

I figured that certainly this was one of those urban legends that stemmed from a bad joke or something.

But it turns out that it’s actually true.

The Los Angeles Times reported this week that the city is handing out free haircut coupons to people living on the street, offering a one-time day of beauty to help lend those without jobs or places to live that “my life is not as bad as you think” look. In addition, the Times reports that Denver Human Services is passing out “free movie passes and bingo games to get them (homeless) off the street, as well as temporary housing and free tickets to the zoo and Museum of Nature and Science.”

Makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside, doesn’t it?

Not only is this an abhorrent diminishment of a very real human condition, but it also is a sad statement about the expectations of such a convention, particularly for the party that supposedly is so focused on the needs of the poor.

It’s situations like these that make me understand why so many Americans are political independents. Everyone involved should be ashamed of themselves.

True, this little stunt is not the Democratic National Committee’s doing, but their relative silence on the matter makes them liable for the behavior surrounding their arrival.

If we want to get homeless people off the streets, fine. But let’s make it worth the effort.

I say give them tickets to attend the convention. Week-long passes would be great, complete with seats at Invesco Field to hear Obama’s acceptance speech.

And let’s not candy-coat the matter by trying to stick all 4,000 of them in one section. Every person there should have to sit immediately next to someone who is homeless.

Since this is a representative democracy, and since the Democrats purportedly are the party advocating for the rights of the marginalized, perhaps we should give them a slice of the delegate pie, too.

The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty estimates that as many as 2 million Americans live on the streets on any given night, which is about one in every 150 people.

With about 4,050 pledged and unpledged delegates in play at the convention, this means that, in a proportionate system, the homeless should have about 27 votes on the convention floor.

This is only about one-third of the total delegates for Colorado, and considering we have a state population that’s a little more than double the estimated national homeless population, this seems only fair.

We say that the economy, jobs and housing are top priorities for the parties, but our bias lies in the context in which we consider those issues. We complain about ballooning mortgages while others live in cardboard boxes.

We gripe about wages not keeping up with inflation while some do odd jobs for pocket change. We think of economic issues such as the cost of groceries and energy, while millions wonder when their next meal will be.

It’s time for those so enamored with the political process and all its pageantry to pull their heads out of the clouds – or whatever orifice into which they’ve inserted their heads – and deal with the real, tough issues.

If we really want to talk about change we can all believe in, let’s begin with “the least of these.”

Dark Knight speaks to our darker nature

Saturday, August 16th, 2008

‘Dark Knight’ speaks to our darker nature


I’m a big fan of movies. Always have been. As a kid, my folks took me to the drive-in all summer long, and we’d hit the theaters at least once a week.

Suffice it to say that having kids has stifled my movie-going habits dramatically. I see very little that’s not animated anymore, unless I catch it on DVD.

But when the buzz kept building about “The Dark Knight,” Christopher Nolan’s most recent iteration of the Batman saga, I knew I had to catch it on the big screen.

This movie definitely was unlike any comic-book-themed film I’ve ever seen. The characters were startlingly real and disturbingly complex in their moral ambiguity.

There was, however, nothing ambiguous about Heath Ledger’s Joker, the much-praised performance that may earn him an Oscar nod in memoriam. Together, Ledger and Nolan present a fiendish character whose most fearsome qualities are not in the depth of his power, but in his absolute lack of regard for himself or the rest of humanity.

Most bad guys – or girls – are motivated by things we can relate to, such as greed, revenge or the like. It’s almost fun in a way to live vicariously through certain villains, getting a kick out of the voyeurism.

This Joker, however, is no joke.

Ledger’s character is the embodiment of pure anarchy, content to sit back and watch the world burn, with himself at the center of the conflagration.

His power lies in having absolutely no fidelity to any person or thing in the entire world, including his own life.

The protagonist, however, has no such luxuries.

Batman’s (Christian Bale) desire to preserve life and his romantic inclinations toward Ms. Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) are Achilles’ heels that make him vulnerable to his opponent, regardless of the firepower he brings.

The Joker is fairly explicit about his relative weakness and lack of resources. He points out that his only passions in life – gasoline, gunpowder and knives – are cheap.

Yet he wreaks havoc on a metropolis out of sheer will, and because he has nothing at all to lose.

The terror of such a character lies in the salient reality of its existence in our world.

After all, if a handful of men with some box cutters are willing to go down with an airplane, what’s to stop them or anyone else?

How do you buy someone off who will burn a mountain of money out of sheer spectacle?

How do you intimidate him into compliance if he has no fear of death or suffering?

In battling such a force, how do you keep from becoming the very thing you are trying to stop?

The implications with regard to modern American society are disturbing.

In recreating our idea of villains, Nolan also turns the notion of heroism on its head.

Batman’s saving acts at the end of the movie hardly lead to a ticker-tape parade or keys to the city.

Instead – spoiler alert – he becomes the symbol for everything he fought against: a guiltless martyr.

The Messianic parallels, though not stated outright, are so mythically similar to the crucifixion of Jesus that any Christian is likely to sense the similarity.

After all, who has better demonstrated that doing the right thing may not lead to glory and adulation than Christ himself?

I won’t say the film is fun or that it left me with much hope.

But it did leave me with the lingering sense that choice really is the main thing keeping us from being as good – or as bad – as we imagine ourselves capable of being.

AIDS data forces us to face facts

Saturday, August 9th, 2008

AIDS data forces us to face facts


I had mixed feelings about recent news that HIV infection numbers are way up in the United States.

On one hand, it’s a tragedy that anyone in our affluent, knowledgeable society still suffers from a preventable disease such as HIV/AIDS, but it is good news at least that the virus, which claims thousands of lives here every year, is at least momentarily on the public radar again.

I’ve worked in HIV/AIDS nonprofit care for the past seven years, and in that time, I’ve watched public interest – and subsequently, funding – for domestic HIV care and prevention drop significantly. While AIDS in Africa receives substantial dollars, the care systems here at home continue to weaken.

Meanwhile, those affected most are the poor, who lack access both to prevention education and materials, as well as access to the systems of care which can prolong the life of an HIV-infected individual indefinitely, and improve quality of life to the point that those affected can work, pay taxes and do practically anything else the rest of us take for granted.

The good news is that the recent blip in the media is due to improved testing, rather than a massive spike in infection rates. The bad news is that rates continue to rise among specific demographic groups – some unexpected – such as seniors, young people, heterosexual women, African-Americans and Latinos. There are a couple of reasons why there’s little political muscle behind HIV/AIDS these days, even though half-a-million people currently live with HIV domestically, more than 1 million have died of AIDS and 56,000 new infections emerge annually.

First, those affected most don’t happen to fall among the most politically powerful groups and lack the advocacy mechanisms to keep their needs front-of-mind among those in power.

Second, there’s still a social stigma around HIV/AIDS because it is principally transmitted sexually or though intravenous drug use.

As a result of decreased public support, the front line in the battle against HIV has – perhaps ironically – become our local churches. Though it’s a particularly sensitive subject among historically non-Anglo churches, that’s precisely where the greatest need is.

There’s a recent story about a caseworker who called a church in her community about coming to speak to the congregants about the risks of HIV, along with prevention and care strategies.

The pastor declined, noting defensively that no one in his congregation had the need for such information, and that the message would only scare people unnecessarily.

The case manager thought the pastor’s response was curious, considering one of the church members already was a client of hers.

I’m not a big fan of most messages on church signs, but one local church has had some great ones lately. The first message said that, “Giving with the expectation of something in return isn’t giving; it’s trading.”

The second read: “Charity responds to the need, not just the cause.”

If a church focuses only on the perceived moral implications related to HIV infection, without addressing the present needs of those living with the disease, they are not fulfilling the Gospel call to care for their neighbor.

Along those lines, if they give money or care only with the condition of the recipient conforming to their own value systems, they’re not actually giving, but rather trading, with strings attached.

Though it may be against human nature to give unconditionally to those with whom we have personal differences, it’s precisely the sort of litmus test that helps reveal whether we walk the talk we pay lip service to, all too often.

Evangelist’s excesses are in the spotlight

Saturday, August 2nd, 2008

As if Christian ministers don’t have enough bad press to contend with, between financial scandals, extramarital dalliances and the sexual abuse fiascoes of the Catholic church, Kenneth Copeland is falling into a predictable stereotype for media-savvy evangelists.

Known as one of the fathers of Prosperity Gospel – the idea that God wants us to prosper not just spiritually, but also financially – Copeland has come under recent scrutiny by The Associated Press, Congress and the Internal Revenue Service for questionable financial dealings.

Personally, it’s enough for me that he has an eight-figure personal net worth, though this is not a crime by our legal standards.

Though under investigation for some time, however, it should be pointed out that no specific charges have been levied against the preacher or his ministry.

Some of the evidence speaks for itself, though. A recent article in the Chicago Tribune reports that members of Copeland’s board of directors have been paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in speaking fees by the Copeland Ministry.

We in the nonprofit world call this a conflict of interest; it’s widely known that those governing a nonprofit should have arms-length distance from any financial gain.

Though it’s not law to do so, Copeland would have a hard time raising funds for his cause from foundations and the like because of this enmeshment.

However, he gets around this by accepting money principally from individuals who either don’t know about this or who don’t see anything wrong with it.

Another nonprofit no-no is nepotism – the practice of those in positions of power passing on goodies to close friends or family members.

Copeland seems unconcerned with this, handing over six- and seven-figure salaries to family, along with property belonging to the ministry.

There’s also the philosophy of separation of powers, which says that the staff in charge of running the organization should not be the same folks as those managing the vision for the organization on the board.

Though Copeland technically is not on his own board, he maintains veto power over every single decision its members make, causing them to be entirely beholden to his will.

Finally, Copeland avoids plenty of taxes by placing things like his $6 million house and $17 million jet in the nonprofit’s name, which doesn’t pay taxes.

While I’ll grant that the guy’s savvy as a businessman, I wonder how it is that anyone with even a superficial understanding of his holdings can possibly keep sending him money.

So why does it work for him?

Because he offers the kind of Gospel message people want to hear: Jesus honors your consumer-driven lifestyle. Though he lived in poverty, as did his followers, the plan all along was to set you up for excessive material wealth.

Sounds good, right? It allows us to be greedy and still call ourselves good Christians. But when we sit down with the Gospel books and really look at them, how can we use God as our excuse for how we live?

None of us is perfect, and I honestly don’t begrudge anyone – ministers included – living a comfortable lifestyle.

Congress and the IRS may or may not discover impropriety, but ultimately, the power lies in our hands.

If we truly want to use our abundance to make the world a better place, and if we honestly believe that our charitable giving is effectively giving to God, maybe it’s time to ask ourselves if we really think God is concerned with whether or not the Copeland family has another jet.

It could just be that there’s someone else a little more deserving of our generosity.