Christianity Needs a Facelift

By Kevin Howell

photo by Shandi lee via compfight creative commons

photo by Shandi lee via compfight creative commons

I was talking with a friend recently about the problems within the Evangelical church. Well, less so the problems, but rather the public perception of the church in America. I wondered if it is even possible to change the perception — that Christians are exclusive, closed-minded, homophobic, self-righteous, judgmental, right-wing Republicans.

Too much damage has been done. Too many talking heads have spewed what we’re against rather than expressing what we’re truly about…or at least should be about. There’s been more debate than dialogue when it comes to engaging nonbelievers, particularly in public forums.

Most Christians understand this. However, what the world sees isn’t the practical, reasonable, appealing aspect of the faith; it sees the negative.

If there’s any hope of the perception being changed, we have to make efforts to change it. At the core, the church doesn’t have to change what it’s doing. For the most part, Christians are doing great work changing lives, helping the poor, serving their community, and giving to great causes throughout the world. The problem is, the majority of America sees a politician framing his/her inflaming ideology within a Christian context instead of the missionaries who are helping victims in the Philippines or believers helping fatherless children in the inner city.

It’s not that we need to compromise our beliefs and the Word to change perception. Nor do we have to go on a public relations campaign to promote the more amiable aspects of Christianity. We simply do what we have been called to do: We engage. Not the church institution or your church group engaging with the community and culture, but you, as an individual, engaging with the world, the people around you. The greatest way to change the perception of a group of people is to get know someone from that group.

We all were created to connect. It’s human nature. We’re less drawn to ideologies and institutions and more drawn to individuals. Think about, if you like your neighborhood, your job, your church, you local coffee shop, it probably has a lot to do with the people there. You feel like you belong. You feel like you can relate to them.

Why did people flock to Jesus? Yeah, His teaching was dope, but He was also likable. Way more likable than the Pharisees. It wasn’t about His personality necessarily, but His character, His heart, and His compassion. People connected with Him.

There are people who connect with you. You don’t have to be charming or outgoing. There are people who just vibe with you. And you can be representative of what a Christian is to them. You can communicate without arguing. Disagree without condemning. Discuss without being disrespectful. And most of all, you can listen.

People don’t trust institutions, they trust friends. It takes time to like an institution, but it takes just one conversation to like a person. You can change the perception of Christianity, one friendship at a time.

Are you in?

 

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The Great Divide? Don’t Believe the Hype

By Kevin Howell

Since the shooting in Tucson, Ariz., a couple of weeks ago, we’ve been hearing a lot of talk in and about Washington about having a more civil discourse, and the two main political parties being more unified. There have been arrangements for some Democratic and Republican senators to sit together during the President’s State of the Union address later this month. Seriously? Is this kindergarten, where we try to make kids “play nice.”

Ever since I’ve been following politics, which is right around the time of the 2000 Presidential election drama, we’ve been hearing that “the country is divided” and “we’re divided into red and blue states.” It’s not until a tragedy happens — Sept. 11, Katrina, and now the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords — that the media and those inside the D.C. Beltway begin talking about the need to unify. The sentiment sounds noble, and I think anyone who follows politics, particularly via the non-objective, unbalanced cable news stations that claim to be objective and balanced, would agree that we could use more civility, and less petty divisiveness. However, the assumption that our nation is divided is, well, quite silly to me.

First we have to clarify what it truly means to be divided and not just accept the political pundits’ definition. It’s safe to say that the U.S. is the most diverse nation in the world in almost every facet — ethnically, racially, religiously, economically, etc. With so much diversity, the nation is as divided as its population. Every individual/group has different views, beliefs, values, and motives. But we have, for years, learned to live with these differences. America isn’t tearing at its fabrics. We have some loose threads (see: Ted Kaczynski, Timothy McVeigh, John Allen Muhammad, Jared Lee Loughner) but we’ve always had them.

I find it ironic that this discourse happened to come in the weeks leading up to Martin Luther King Jr. Day. In a time when we reflect on the Civil Rights Movement, how can we consciously say that America is divided, today? America was divided during Dr. King’s lifetime, when segregation was the rule of the South, and there was a literal, forced, systematic divide of the races. It was divided in the 1860s, when 11 southern states declared secession and our nation’s deadliest war saw 620,000 soldiers killed. That’s division. But when an old boys, two-party system calls each other names… when a group of people loudly criticize and demonize the president (meaning what liberals said about Bush, and what conservatives say about Obama)… when major media outlets — MSNBC and Fox News — push their respective political agendas… and when any clown with an opinion and an internet connection can have a blog or a podcast to rile up his/her cohorts, that’s not division, it’s merely recruitment for others to pick a side.

Contrary to what Cooper, Olberman, O’Reilly… Palin, Pelosi, Obama, or Boehner would have you believe, we are not divided. We’re simply Americans with as many different beliefs as there are people. There are no red or blue states… just a whole lot of purple.

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Searching for Answers Amid Tragedy

answers amid tragedy

By Kevin Howell

Here’s some of my reflections from the Tucson, Ariz., shooting tragedy.

During times of inexplicable tragedy, people naturally have questions running through their minds. Whether it’s something we deem natural disasters like the earthquake in Haiti, or the recent floods and mudslides in Brazil, or something caused by man, such as the Arizona shooting, we are all looking for answers. Typically, since there are no reasonable answers in the human mind for matters of this magnitude, people tend to question or blame God. And honestly, I can’t fault them for that, because I question God.

It’s difficult not to when a 9-year-old girl, Christina Taylor Green, is killed for simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I can’t blame God because I know it’s not in His character to cause such a thing, but as far as how it was allowed to happen, I wrestle with understanding the ideas of sovereignty, free will, evil, a fallen world and providence. Truthfully, it’s just too great for my mind to comprehend, and too complex for theologians to surmise. As President Obama put it in his address at the Tucson memorial: “Bad things happen, and we have to guard against simple explanations in the aftermath.”

The truth is, there are no simple explanations. It’s just something we can’t wrap our limited minds around. With something tragic happens that’s beyond our power, we look to the higher power for comfort, understanding, and unfortunately to place blame. However, it’s ironic that when things are going quite well, in times of prosperity, and when man does exceptional feats, we have simple and acceptable answers. We rarely look above to give credit, nor for explanations. Rather, we heap praise on human accomplishment. We applaud ourselves for our skill, work ethic, mental fortitude, and knowledge, not even considering that the triumph, achievement, joy, or success had something to do with the same One we question during our lowest moments.

I speak of our nation in general, of course, and not every individual. But I believe we all fall into that category in some way. I know I do. Maybe I do thank God during great accomplishments, but in times of peace and happiness, when life is simply wonderful, do I celebrate Him with gratitude as much as I seek Him for assistance when life stings? Unfortunately not.

Therefore, tragedy serves as a lesson for us. It’s a reminder, not just of our finitude, but also of our need to always live in gratitude.

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Change We Can Believe In

By Kevin Howell

I’ve been fascinated by the town hall meetings on health care reform. The issue seems to have struck a nerve with people, namely those opposed to the bill in Congress, which would create government-funded, universal coverage. Of course the issue is much politicized, as Democrats say an overhaul of the health care system is our only hope, and Republicans would have you think that we’re quickly becoming Cuba.

The town hall meetings, attended mostly by people opposed to the reform, have been quite hostile. I was watching highlights of a Pennsylvania meeting hosted by Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter and I thought the crowd was about to rush the podium and beat him down. What really has people pissed is the thought that the government is taking over their health care coverage, which they see as meddling in their personal lives. And if there’s one thing that we can’t stand, it’s someone else trying to control our lives.

I think that’s why people have reservations with God. Who I am kidding? That’s why I have reservations with God. The idea of an almighty being who looks out for us is quite acceptable and even desired. But when He wants to be in the driver’s seat of our lives, we’re not willing to ride shotgun.

It’s human nature to want to “have it your way.” We live in a society that preaches independence, is built on individual rights, and is driven by the creed, “If it feels good, then, by all means, do it.” However, smashing into our comfortable cosmos comes God, disrupting our pursuit of happiness in order to offer us so much more. He offers us what we need instead of what we want. His purpose is to make us better, rather than just making us feel better. The condition is that we must trust Him. That proves difficult because our tendency is to fit God into our lifestyle instead of conforming our lifestyle to God.

At the core of this struggle is the Achilles’ heel of modern humanity: resistance to change. Oh, we can change some things quite easily (girlfriends, husbands, wives, jobs, schools, friends, or addresses), but to change ourselves is damn near impossible. Maybe it’s because we’reset in our ways, or maybe it’s because we subconsciously see it as an indictment of ourselves. Whatever the case may be, loosening our grip on our own identity and indulgences is essential to grasping God.

I’m not a big fan of change, myself. It breeds discomfort and inconvenience. Eventually we adapt, and in most cases, the change is for the better. I don’t know if I can say that about health care reform. The government can only be trusted to a certain extent. But when it comesto managing our lives and our future, I know God can be trusted. We just have to be willing to change.

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The Abortion Debate

abortion debate

By Kevin Howell

I don’t envy politicians. It’s not that I see them all as power-hungry and corrupt, it’s just that they have the difficult job of — in America’s democracy at least — representing a segment of people with differing values, ideologies and persuasions. In short, politicians must be adept at “straddling the fence,” often dancing around issues, and being politically correct in efforts not to offend anyone.

Never is that job more difficult than when facing what I call moral dilemmas. You know what they are, those hot-button political issues, such as abortion. Abortion is a relatively long-standing debate that has spanned four decades in the political arena. In the 35 years since the Roe v. Wade decision, the debate continues to heat up. It’s been in the forefront even recently, as is usually the case when a new Supreme Court justice is nominated. The nation has particularly felt the tension of the issue as we have transitioned from a pro-life presidential administration to a pro-choice one. Although President Obama has nimbly treaded on this topic, trying to remain sensitive to the opposing view, both sides remain just as passionate and unrelenting. Middle ground is not easily reached when the debate pits core values against each other: a civil right vs. a moral responsibility.

So which is more important: The civil right of a woman to choose, or the moral responsibility to protect the life of a child, albeit an unborn one? For that matter, do moral arguments even matter in a nation that clamors for separation of government from religion? Well, yeah. Even those with more liberal political views use moral arguments to support their agenda. President Obama, in his campaign and call for universal health coverage called it a moral responsibility for a nation to make affordable health care available. In stumping for his tax cuts, he cited moral reasons for his plan to have wealthier Americans shoulder more of the tax burden in order to elevate those living in poverty. In my home state of New Jersey, our Democratic governor, Jon Corzine, signed a law abolishing the death penalty saying it “undermines the sanctity of life.” So evidently, moral ground is sufficient to stand on, even in the political arena.

President Obama, speaking on the topic at his controversial visit to the University of Notre Dame for the commencement address, said that the government must “make sure that all of our health care policies are grounded not only in sound science, but also in clear ethics…” Yet, the topic is no easier for the medical field to decipher. I read a comment from a health professional that said science is too advanced to deny that life begins at conception. Health professionals recognize unborn children in all stages of development as alive. The debate is the right of the mother to end that life. Well, Mr. President, science has spoken, it’s those ethics — or moral responsibility — we have to clear up now.

OUR DILEMMA

A May poll by Gallup shows that Americans are narrowly split on the issue, though there has been a significant increase in those opposed to abortion. For the first time since Gallup began tracking public opinion on abortion rights, the majority of the country is pro-life (51 percent) while 42 percent is pro-choice. As someone who is pro-life, I celebrate those figures, however I realize that they don’t necessarily trigger that Roe v. Wade will be overturned. America has a long history of cultural wars, from the abolition movement to the temperance movement to the Civil Rights Movement to the ‘60s sexual revolution to Proposition 8. These types of battles have always presented the nation with a moral dilemma. And ultimately, the side or ideology that wins doesn’t prevail solely by political or legislative means. Take for example the temperance movement, which gained steam in the 1800s and led to 1920s prohibition laws, banning the sale and consumption of alcohol. Though the motives for the law may have been noble, the movement was unsuccessful primarily because it forced temperance on people. There was temperance on paper, but there was no temperance in people’s hearts.

The Civil Rights Movement didn’t depend on legislative action to make change, but rather new laws were enacted as a result of the movement’s success in changing people’s views of racial segregation and discrimination.

The point is, though we should continue the fight to end abortion in court, we also must work to get it out of people’s hearts because one of the best ways to protect the unborn is to reach out to those bearing them.

THE LOVE MOVEMENT

The non-legislative approach to the pro-life movement isn’t that exciting. There are no protests outside abortion clinics and no political rhetoric on talk radio or Fox News. It’s more of a grassroots approach…that’s right, the revolution will not be televised. But it will take just as much effort, involvement, resources, patience and prayer as the present strategy, and maybe more. Changing hearts and minds isn’t easy; it requires education, intervention, empathy, and ultimately, the love of God.

To employ this method we have to first face the facts: Abortion is disproportionately prevalent in poor and minority communities. Black women are 4.8 times more likely than white women to have an abortion and Hispanic women are 2.7 times more likely; black women account for 38 percent of all abortions; there are 770 abortions per 1,000 live births in New York City. The point is economic status, environment and culture play huge roles in abortion. Age is also an important factor, as 50 percent of all abortions are performed on women under 25, and 17 percent are teenagers. Pregnancy is always a life-altering experience, particularly for girls and young women who feel they can’t afford a child, don’t have time to raise one and lack the support at home to be a single mother. This is where the education, intervention and empathy come in. Though abortion is a difficult and heart-wrenching decision for most, it is seen as the easiest and most logical choice. Young women, particularly in inner-city and minority communities, need to be educated and counseled about the alternative of adoption. This is not properly considered because young women often don’t completely understand the process of adoption and the options therein, nor do they ever see this alternative exercised in their environment.

Women contemplating abortion also need our intervention. Since 3 out of 4 women choose abortion because of lack of money or lack of support, there must be a resource structure in communities to support young mothers with childcare, jobs, training and finances. If women know they are not alone, that their fears formed from an unplanned pregnancy can be quelled from the support of a loving, giving, pro-life community, then many more will choose to give their child a chance at life.

Most of all, we must be empathetic to the plight of young women facing this decision. We may not persuade all of them to give birth, but we cannot abandon those who decide to have an abortion. If we are going to change hearts, we can’t demonize those who disagree with us, especially the young mothers making the decision. The same love, counsel and support must be extended to those who have terminated their pregnancy, not to condone the action, but to show them that they are still loved, hoping to change their choice for a possible future pregnancy (47 percent of women who have abortions had at least one previous abortion).

This approach isn’t easy; it must involve the entire movement, particularly the help of the church to be the center of support in the community. If we are passionate about preserving life, protecting the unborn and not adding to the 45 million-plus who have already been aborted in the U.S., then we’ll give all we have, do whatever we can and care as much as possible to save the unborn, support potential mothers, change hearts and challenge this nation with a new type of movement.

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