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What About the War on Christmas?

What About the War on Christmas?

A war on Christmas
Image components from Openclipart.org

Each year I’m saddened and yes, annoyed, by the supposed war on Christmas and responses to it. Every time someone can’t set up a manger scene on public land, or is even forced to share the public space with other groups, there’s an outcry. It’s a war on Christmas! Never mind that there are, in almost every case, plenty of churches nearby, where such a scene could be placed with at least as much visibility.

Or someone is wished “Happy Holidays!” at the store, and is offended that it’s not “Merry Christmas!” Oh the agony! And yes, it’s quite possible that the checkout person at your grocery store was instructed by management to say “Happy Holidays!” Having worked in retail, I know that I was constantly instructed in what I was to say when answering the phone, greeting customers, and most especially when taking their money following the sale. Some of the stuff I had to say was really annoying, too.

But businessmen make these rules for their employees based on their perception of customer service. They are not religious decisions, and they are not actually doing you harm. You can say Merry Christmas all you want, but “he who has the gold makes the rules,” so if you work for the company, you follow the rules.

If I owned a retail outlet, I would instruct my employees that unless they know who they’re talking to, Happy Holidays would be the appropriate greeting, and I would ask—and expect—them to be sensitive to each customer. This is not because I don’t believe in public witnessing or prayer. Just yesterday I encountered a lady in Walmart who needed my help getting a large back of cat food off the shelf. We chatted for a few minutes, and then we prayed together right there in the aisle. Nobody stopped us, because we were the customers. I knew before I suggested it that she would be open to prayer simply because I listened to her first. So we prayed in the aisle beside the cat food.

Shoving a Merry Christmas in someone’s face is not likely to do much for witnessing. Here in the United States people already know this is a majority Christian nation. The form of your holiday greeting doesn’t make you special. If, on the other hand, you make a scene about what sort of greeting you receive at the store, you provide a very bad witness.

When you take on the title “Christian,” you bear the name of Jesus, the anointed one. You are to be Christ, the presence of God, in the world. When you make a scene over not getting your way, you do not provide a good witness to the anointed One. Rather, you make Him seem small, selfish, petty, and rude. You may, in fact, be taking God’s name in vain. Rather than making someone more interested in the Jesus you serve, you may well be driving them away. The clerk in that store may herself be a Christian who is merely following the rules of her job as she should. And you’re going to make her life more difficult because of that? Really? Do you think the one who was led as a lamb to the slaughter yet didn’t open his mouth is pleased with that?

The problem is that there is a difference between witnessing to Christ and witnessing to our own importance. What is the one thing that having a creche on the grounds of city hall does that having one in front of our church does not? It demonstrates our power. They would both witness to the story, always assuming that the right message is conveyed. But the one on the grounds of city hall tells people that we’re in charge and can do things the way we want to.

There is a way in which Christians should be involved in the culture war. That is by living in a Christlike manner and bearing the name of Jesus as we do it. That is a gospel proclamation, by word, deed, and sign. Our importance, our position, and our pleasures would take a back seat to loving each person and making sure that’s evident.

The original story of Christmas was one of giving, giving up rank and privileges, giving up power, becoming subject to the worst of the worst, and then loving, loving, and loving some more. I’m afraid there has been a real war on Christmas, but it’s all over.

Here in the United States, we lost.

Surprise: Fixing Is Harder than Criticizing

Surprise: Fixing Is Harder than Criticizing

“The flaws in Obamacare are obvious to me. The solutions are much harder,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). (Source: Politico.)

Image credit: Openclipart.org.
Image credit: Openclipart.org.

As a restatement of the obvious, that quote leaves little to be desired. Just so. I too can find plenty to criticize in the Affordable Care Act, which is not surprising for a law that is really a patchwork of compromises. That it is called “Obamacare” is a testimony to how we like to simplify things and find one person to credit or blame.

I just couldn’t resist posting the quote. I will watch with interest if there is a three year deadline to see what patchwork of compromises results, if any. Healthcare has always been an issue where proposing solutions has been much easier than getting them past Congress.

While I also find the ACA to be flawed in many ways, I give President Obama credit for having actually tackled the issue, done the hard work of proposing solutions, and getting even a flawed act passed. (See? I like to simplify my targets too!) If we get something more workable out of the new process, which I think is unlikely, President Obama will still deserve credit for forcing the issue. If he hadn’t, I expect nobody would even get to it in the next couple of congresses.

Recounts: The Scripts Continue to Change Hands

Recounts: The Scripts Continue to Change Hands

Ancient Egyptians exchange scripts on accession of new king. (Credit: Openclipart.org). Note: This is neither real hieroglyphs, nor is it a political script.
Ancient Egyptians exchange scripts on accession of new king. (Credit: Openclipart.org. Those who can’t tell real from fake news take note: This is neither real hieroglyphs, nor is it a political script.)

Political discussion in this country seems to have somewhat more in common with trash talk among sports fans than it does with any form of constructive dialogue.

OK. Now that I’ve practiced understatement, let’s look at the current state of political talk. I had hopes that I might find my Facebook feed more palatable after the election. No, not so much. I really enjoy carefully thought out pieces written by people I disagree with. I can’t stand trash talk, even by people I agree with, perhaps especially by people I agree with.

And so goes talk of fraud in the election. While voter fraud is vanishingly rare in this country, there will always be reports of suspicious activity, and almost any anomaly produces some sort of complaint. Back in my college years I served as poll watcher in a couple of elections. The slightest perception that we weren’t being treated with due honor would morph in our minds into a sinister intent to mess up the vote in our precinct.

All parties do this and all parties criticize other parties. It is in the nature of something as complex as a U. S. federal election that there will be allegations of fraud. Of course, the president-elect has managed to carry this to new heights in a tweet claiming that there were “… millions of people who vote illegally,” and this in an election he won!

I think I agree largely with Nate Silver in his article, Why I Suppport an Election Recount even though It’s Unlikely to Change the Outcome. As he points out, it is statistically incredibly unlikely that a recount will change the results. Those who think this might somehow produce a Clinton win are probably smoking something that’s only legal in Washington and Colorado (bless their hearts!). At the same time, in an age of electronic voting and hacking, I think it would be worthwhile to have an audit of our security procedures, not to change this election, but to make good security plans for the future.

But hypocrisy will reign, as those who threatened not to accept the election results if they lost criticize others for questioning them in any way, and those who criticized them advocate recounts.

Scripts are exchanged. Life goes on. Truth is the victim.

Robots Threaten Third World Jobs

Robots Threaten Third World Jobs

According to a UN report, about 2/3 of third world jobs are threatened by robots.

This is still early days in the way things will change in the world. We keep commenting on how the world has sped up, and it keeps speeding up ever more rapidly.

To those who wish to go back to some sort of better day that you imagine existed in the past I’d say that not only was the past not nearly as wonderful as it seems, but by trying to get there you will only make the future more painful to yourself and others.

Dave Black on the Election

Dave Black on the Election

One of the things that has disturbed me most about this election is justifications of bad behavior by those who claim to be conservative Christians. No, this is not behavior exclusive to them, but in this election it has been particularly clear. It was surprising to me. People I thought were truly about moral and ethical behavior, even if I often disagreed with their positions, have seemed to throw those positions overboard in exchange for the possibility of political power.

One person who has stood apart from this trend is my friend (and Energion author) David Alan Black. Dave reacted in a blog post today. Always gracious, yet firm, I strongly admire his principled, consistent position. With his [blanket] permission, I’ve extracted the post (his blog doesn’t facilitate linking to a particular entry) onto JesusParadigm.com. I chose a title for it: We Can Be the People Who Tell the Truth.

A taste:

… How can we defend a so-called “Christian” America that is hypocritical, homophobic, anti-immigrant, sexist, and bigoted? We can’t. Nor can we invoke a social gospel that ignores the personal gospel of faith in Christ….

Read the rest.

As Everyone Trades Scripts

As Everyone Trades Scripts

I commented on Monday that there was no possibility I’d be happy with the result after election day. (Considering my previous post on probability, perhaps I should have said <0.1%!) I can now tell you that I’m approximately as unhappy as I expected to be. My unhappiness will probably have dissipated to ordinary levels by the time I complete this post.

One of the things I find very frustrating is the way people change scripts. We saw it happen with who liked and who hated FBI director Comey during the election. (FWIW, I think the man is to be admired.) We’ve seen it as the senate and presidency changes hands with regard to confirming justices. Before Tuesday, it was very bad for the Senate to block judicial appointments according to one party. I’m guessing that it will still be bad to do so, but now that will be according to the other party. Trade scripts.

Here’s what I would like to ask. I’ve lived through a few presidents, and I have friends of very different political persuasions. During the George W. Bush administration, my more liberal friends disrespected then President Bush. After that, for eight years, my conservative friends disrespected President Obama. In both cases, I have done my best to refer to the office and the person holding it with respect, even when disagreeing vehemently with the that officeholder.

Is there any chance that we could do that with President-Elect Trump, to be President Trump following the inauguration? As I said above, I was unhappy with the choices, and could hardly be anything but unhappy with the result. I will very likely criticize policies espoused by a President Trump. I disagree vigorously with him on a wide variety of topics, and will doubtless say so. But I hope to always refer to him respectfully when I do so. I may not be feeling very respectful. I certainly do not respect many of the policies he has proposed during the election.

There is one president of the United States. Those who say, “Not my president,” are not simply wrong, they are part of the problem. Another script that will be swapped will be which party is the party of “no.” Someone has to be first in trying to work together.

Vocabulary Word of the Day: Probability

Vocabulary Word of the Day: Probability

Picture Credit: Openclipart.org
Picture Credit: Openclipart.org

I know headline writers need their splashy headlines, but as the media is filled with word of a stunning upset, we should remember the number of times that one candidate or the other was “destroyed” or “finished,” or the election was declared “over.”

A poll takes a snapshot of part of the electorate which is extrapolated to the whole. It will have a margin of error, generally something like 2.5% to 3.5%. (Why that is can be a project for research.) That means that a candidate who is at 50% in that poll might actually be as low as 46.5% and as high as 53.5% if the error margin is 3.5%. If we’re thinking of two candidates, the other, let’s say showing at 45%, could be anywhere from 41.5% to 48.5%, an overlap of 2%. Now that’s using a margin for candidate A of +5%. The average for Clinton was around +3.5% the day before the election. Now not all polls were at that value, and also not all polls have a 3.5% error margin.

Now there’s an additional percentage involved, which is a probability, variously 90-95%, that the poll itself is within that margin. So in the poll above, if the figure is 95%, for example, 95 out of 100 times the election being polled would reflect a result within that margin for error. Otherwise it might be anywhere. I’m not making any effort here to keep these details realistic — if you read up on the topic you can learn how these numbers relate, but more importantly, if you read the data on a poll, you can find what these numbers are for that particular poll.

There is no set way to combine polls into an aggregate, and there is no established error margin for polls that are combined. That’s because not all polls are created equal. On the eve of the election, Nate Silver and crew were giving something near a one in four chance that Trump would win the election, i.e., according to their analysis, if you had a good enough sample, one in four elections run where the data looked like this would go to Trump. Three in four would go to Clinton. The election doesn’t make them wrong. That’s a probability.

Let’s look at that. If I flip a coin, the probability is one in two that it will come up heads an one in two that it will come up tails. So I flip the coin, and it comes up heads. Was my projection wrong? Not at all. Similarly, the FiveThirtyEight people aren’t wrong either. If they had said, “Clinton will be the next president of the United States,” then they would have been wrong. What they said was that there was around a 78% chance it would be Clinton an a 22% chance it would be Trump.

They were critiqued by Sam Wang of the Princeton Election Consortium, and several people wrote on FiveThirtyEight to defend their methodology. Dr. Wang gave a 99% chance that it would be Clinton. Both Nate Silver (and an unknown number of members of his crew) and Dr. Wang are much more skilled at this than I am (in the same sense that an MLB player is more skilled at baseball than I, considering I have never picked up a baseball bat for a game, is better at baseball than I am). I spent some time with their data and couldn’t really find a way to understand fully how they got their probabilities and why they differed so much. (On your mental flowchart, create a box and label it “Lots of Statistical Figuring.”) But my intuitive feeling was that Nate Silver was getting the better of the argument. It seemed to me that there was insufficient data on which to base that high a level of confidence in the aggregation of these polls. We haven’t been polling presidential elections for that long.

Why don’t we have neat numbers for the aggregate values? Let me note, first, that any time one uses a phrase like “the polls show,” one is doing some sort of aggregation, however loose. Folks like Sam Wang and Nate Silver do it in a very scientific way. (I’ll let them argue over which is more scientific, and they do so with some vigor.) We all do it when we look at polls and make a generalization. The reason there isn’t a neat x% margin of error an y% probability that the poll will, in fact, fall within that margin is that polls use different methodologies. If you average the number of apples an oranges you have, you don’t get a better value each for apples an oranges. It might be better to say that if I average my Gala apples an my Golden Delicious apples, I don’t get an accurate picture of what type of apples I have available. One set of those apples Jody wants to bake into a crisp, and the other I’m going to slice up and eat. I’m afraid I’ll have to look at the actual apples.

Again, my inexpert intuition is that aggregation needs more experience and testing to get more accurate, even as I think that Nate Silver’s work is the more promising. In the meantime, what is quite certain is that nobody in the media has a clue about any of this. Alternatively, they don’t care, and just want to write headlines to sell papers, whether they reflect actual data or not. I suppose that’s possible.

 

 

I Blame Us

I Blame Us

Anger
Picture Credit: Openclipart.org.

It’s election day here in the United States, and though I will shortly head to my polling place and cast my vote, I’m not going to say who it is in any of the races. What I would like to call for is moderation, in the sense I define it when talking about religion. I know it’s odd to take such a common word and then define it in perhaps eccentric ways, but I believe both that my definition falls within the semantic range of the word as commonly used and that it is the word closest to what I want to say. In my view, a moderate isn’t always in the center, but rather is one who looks at the entire spectrum as openly as possible (perhaps from a center starting point), and allows solutions that come from a variety of perspectives. I do hold in common with most moderates I know the idea that extreme solutions often create new extreme problems while often failing to solve what they set out to solve.

With that lengthy note out of the way, why is it that I blame us?

Simple: Because today.

We get to vote. Yes, there are technicalities, but they aren’t all that incredibly difficult. If you want to know how the electoral college works (or doesn’t), you can learn. If you want to learn about the candidates for all the various offices, the information is out there. If you want to know how similar solutions have worked in the past, that information is available too.

It’s easy to blame the media. They fed us all the wrong sort of information. Quite possible, but each voter has a brain. It used to be harder to do, but now you can look up data very quickly. For some reason people think misinformation started with the internet. No, the internet just made it easier to spread misinformation. But it has also made it easier to get good information. The one factor that has remained the same? How willing are you to evaluate?

I find that quite frequently one can find enough information to debunk a story right within that story. Just look at their source information and how they cite it. Many, many stories actually have no facts cited to first-hand sources at all. Some people read just headlines and early paragraphs, which is a formula for being deceived. Headlines are hard to write. You want to be accurate, yet you don’t want the headline to be too long.

It’s easy to blame the politicians. But politicians are elected and re-elected by us. It’s interesting how popular many representatives are while congress as a whole is quite unpopular. In a way, we’re saying that we don’t like the people elsewhere in America. We like the idea of electing non-politicians, but despite the claim, you can’t really do that. By the time someone is on the ballot, they’re a politician. The question is, how good of a politician are they?

It’s easy to blame corporations. But corporations get their money from us when we buy their brands and in turn they influence elections and politicians by spending money, whether it’s a bribe in the legal sense or not. You can find out how much money the politicians you support are taking from corporations. But more importantly, if you watch what the politician does, you can see what the result is. Oh, but that’s too hard. We want it to be simple. Well, it’s not simple. We talk about the responsibility to vote. How about the responsibility to know what you’re voting on?

I believe it all comes back to us. The tools are available for us to study and to make intelligent choices. We don’t have to be misled. We don’t have to be manipulated.

Here are some ways you can be manipulated:

  • Fear, and its extreme buddy panic. Decisions made out of fear are often bad. Have you ever noticed how an animal will often run straight ahead in front of a car? I have to watch when entering my driveway because there are a few cats who will sleep right out there and then when they wake up and see the car coming, run directly in front of the wheel. Even when something justifies the fear, that fear is not a good basis for decisions. Motivations? Sure. Reaction? Not so much.
  • Anger. Angry actions are often dangerous actions. Anger spawns those extreme solutions that often create new extreme problems. There is such a thing as righteous anger, but it is much rarer than claimed.
  • Social herding. The fact that all your friends are doing something doesn’t justify it. Your mother probably told you something of the sort. But it’s easy to do.
  • Apathy. Do you know why political campaigns try to manipulate stories to make their chances look better (or in some cases worse)? In either case, it’s to build enthusiasm in their voters. Getting out the vote is a major factor in elections. Why? Because many of us will become apathetic and not get up the energy to cast our vote. Politicians (all of them, even the so-called non-politicians) would like their voters to be enthusiastic and energized and the other side to be discouraged. I have noted this year that those who are leading in the polls talk about polls, and those who are losing in the polls talk about crowd size. I don’t mean that winners talk about polls and losers talk about crowd size. Rather, I mean that a politician will talk about the thing that makes him or her look best.
  • Hate. Give it up, or it will kill you. Disapprove. Reprove. Approve. But give up hate.

I’m sure someone is thinking they don’t have time for all this. All I can say is that a whole bunch of people had plenty of time to fill my Facebook feed with complete garbage. No, I’m not talking about one side or the other, I’m talking both. Yes, there were thoughtful people and thoughtful posts, but those were a distinct, almost extinct, minority.

So if you’re angry tonight as the results come in, be angry at us. Make it an inclusive “us.” You (if you’re a U. S. citizen) and I are both part of the people, and the people will be speaking.

I’d Like to See an End to Christian Politics

I’d Like to See an End to Christian Politics

christian-flag-over-usWhen I first set out to join a United Methodist congregation, I asked the pastor for definitive information on United Methodist beliefs. With much trepidation, he provided me with a United Methodist Discipline. I read the first hundred or so pages, not being too interested in the details of the church’s committee structures, including the statements of belief and the social principles. On returning the book I asked him whether I was expected to affirm the social principles. He said, “No.” Good answer!

I don’t mean that Christians should have no political involvement. I both comment on issues and vote. I vote in every election for which I’m eligible, even if there’s only one or two items on the ballot. What I mean is I’d like to see an end to a specific set of political principles that someone, anyone, claims form “Christian politics.” Sorry, UMC, I have never warmed to the social principles, even the ones I agree with. I would only truly like social principles that said how I should behave toward my neighbor, not ones that say how I should carry that behavior into the political sphere.

I’d like to suggest that Christians argue for political positions they believe to be right, moral, appropriate, effective, or whatever other good adjective you find, because the policies are all those good things, not because they are the right thing for Christians to propose.

Here are some of my reasons:

  1. In the United States we live in a secular society. I think it’s appropriate to make political arguments that can be understood by my neighbors of any faith, and those who profess no faith at all.
  2. Politics leads us to careless and even intentional falsehoods (for the greater good, of course). When we attach the word “Christian” to that behavior, we blaspheme Christ.
  3. Politics leads us to violate the golden rule, treating others as traitors, scum, demonic, evil, or otherwise corrupt, simply on the basis of their affiliation. That’s sinful.
  4. Politics leads us to take God’s name in vain and engage in false prophecy, as when we preface our own opinions with a “thus saith the Lord.” Ezekiel 22:28 applies.
  5. Politics, especially partisan politics, leads us to carelessness.
  6. Politics leads us to fear, panic, and unwise actions.
  7. When we try to express modern political positions as somehow scriptural, we tend to look amateur in our exegesis, in our theology, and in our political theory.
  8. Politics leads us to depend on human authority and power rather than on God’s power and the Gospel.

The last one is one I regard as a great danger, one into which I believe most of the American church has already fallen.