Friday, February 29, 2008

Thoughts on a Leap Day

Today is February 29: Leap Day, which only comes every four years. I have a friend whose birthday is on February 29, so she only gets to celebrate a real birthday every four years (she always has an excuse to party, though, so the seeming lack of birthdays doesn't hold her back). Because of this she remembers where she was on every Leap Day of her life. My memory isn't quite that good, but I thought I'd look back and see where I was (generally) on all the Leap Days of my life.

1980- I wasn't born until November, so I was barely an embryo on this Leap Day, if that. Good times.

1984- I was still a toddler, probably not even in preschool by this point. I had a baby brother who was about 18 months old, and our mother's life was probably focused on meeting our every need. Those were the days.

1988- I was in first grade, and we were living in Colorado. At some point during these few years we had a blizzard that dumped so much snow on us that I literally walked to school in snow that was waist deep. It was only uphill one way, but still.

1992- I was in fifth grade and we had just moved to Nashville that previous summer. This wasn't the best year because I missed my friends from Denver, but I eventually adjusted.

1996- I was a freshman at Brentwood High School and was chomping at the bit to get my driver's license in the fall. Mr. Box, our band director, decided it would be a good idea to have a "Leap Day Concert" since they happened so rarely.

2000- My freshman year at Butler, and I had been a pledge in Phi Kappa Psi for a little over a month. I was in my first year of my first youth ministry job at Speedway UMC in Indianapolis, which is about two blocks from the actual Speedway. We didn't have church on Sundays when there were races because it was too loud and the foundations of the building shook. I made the mistake of having a youth event during qualifying for the Brickyard, so I learned this the hard way. I thought the roof was going to fall in.

2004- My first year at Vanderbilt Divinity School, and I was working at Crievewood UMC in Nashville as Youth Director, where I would also eventually become Associate Pastor. Grad School was kicking my butt, but I was starting to get the hang of it. Jessica and I had dated for a while the previous semester and had taken a break, so on Leap Day I was still pining away for her and hoping we'd get back together. Thankfully that would happen in less than a month!

2008- Here I am in Clarksville, TN. I'm the pastor of Bethlehem UMC, I'm married to Jessica (yayy!), and I've spent my Leap Day writing a sermon about Jesus' conflicts with the religious establishment of his day, watching "The Sopranos" on DVD (my latest fixation), and of course, blogging. 

Looking back at where I've been on all the Leap Days of my life, I realize how blessed I am to have had as many different experiences as I have in the relatively short time I've been alive. There have been good time and bad ones, but overall it's been pretty great. So where will I find myself on Leap Day 2012? All I know is I'll be 31  years old. The rest? We'll just have to see. Stay tuned...

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Let's Define the Terms, Please!

Something’s been bugging me lately in all the rhetorical sound bites that are being thrown around in the Presidential campaign. OK, so a lot of things bug me about it, but I’m only going to mention one right now. When I hear candidates talk about the “War on Terror” I often hear them describe the enemy with the term “Islamic Fascism” or “Islamofacism” (which is not technically a word, but W. has shown us that Merriam Webster is no obstacle). This is a very handy term because it recalls our communal fears of another rise of Naziism, and it stokes our fears of Islam because most of us don’t know anything about it other than crazy stories we’ve heard about the Taliban. The term “Islamic Fascism” is very useful for making people afraid. I totally disagree with using fear as the sole motivation for anything, but that’s a subject for another post. What I want to point out today is that “Islamic Fascism” is a contradiction in terms.

Simply put, Fascism and Islam have absolutely nothing to do with one another. Fascism is a political philosophy that arose after most of the monarchies in Europe collapsed and states like Italy and Germany unified during the nineteenth century. Nationalism that was based on common geographic, ethnic, and cultural identity, rather than allegiance to a particular monarch, was on the rise and Fascism began to take shape. The major examples of Fascist governments were those of Mussolini in Italy and the National Socialist government under Hitler in Germany.

The basic principle of Fascism is that loyalty to the state trumps all other loyalties. Fascism is essentially atheistic because religion can lead to divided loyalties. Fascism only tolerates religion insofar as it serves the needs of the state and promotes loyalty to the state. Fascism stood in direct opposition to Communism, which had as it’s goal the eventual elimination of all state structures, relying on the essential altruism of human beings to care for the needs of others. Fascism believes that people are not essentially good and therefore need to be controlled.

Islam is first and foremost a religion, not a political philosophy. In Islam, loyalty to God, not to the state, is the first and only priority. In fact the word “Muslim” means one who submits to the will of God. While it is true that many Muslims have expressed the desire to see the entire Muslim world united under an Islamic caliphate, that is more a product of medieval Middle Eastern political culture than specifically Islamic theology. It is also true that certain governments, like the Taliban in Afghanistan, have been heavy handed states that attempted to control almost all aspects of their citizens’ lives, but this is indicative of a particularly radical interpretation of Islam that does not represent the majority of the Muslim world.

Like Judaism and Christianity, Islam believes that humanity is fallen and sinful, but that it has not totally lost its capacity for good. For a Muslim, following the five pillars of Islam is a way of disciplining oneself and ordering one’s actions to reflect the will of God. Islam does not, like Fascism, believe that people’s actions have to be completely controlled for the common good to be served.

Using terms like “Islamic Fascism” is not only an insult to Muslims, it’s an insult to educated, thinking people everywhere. Using terms like that reveals an assumption that people’s fear of the unknown is a greater motivator than their desire for the common good. This is the same assumption that Fascism makes, by the way, which is more than a little ironic.

Instead of using invented terms like “Islamic Fascism”, I implore all candidates for office to talk about real issues and real problems and not simply create phony “straw men” to scare people into voting for you. The only way we can make positive change and achieve the common good is to be honest about what we’re really trying to do, and not to exploit fear and misunderstanding for personal and political gain.