Review: Clingan’s Chronicles

Clingan's Chronicles

Clingan’s Chronicles, Clingan Jackson. Youngstown: Youngstown Publishing Co., 1991.

Summary: A memoir of Youngstown political writer and office holder, Clingan Jackson.

Clingan Jackson was a newswriter, and later political editor of The Vindicator, Youngstown’s newspaper from 1929 until 1983. His life spanned most of the twentieth century (1907 to 1997), and this memoir, published six years before his death chronicles not only his life, but nearly a century of local and political history in Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley. As you can imagine, covering political life in the Mahoning Valley makes for an interesting narrative!

Jackson actually begins his account with family history of both the Clingans and the Jacksons that make up his lineage and how they came to Coitsville Township, what eventually became part of the East side of Youngstown. We learn about the family homestead on Jacobs Road (still standing) and how they were among the early settlers of the area. During part of his youth, his immediate family moved to Carbon, Pennsylvania, just across the state line, while he attended Lowellville High School in Ohio, holding his first political office as class president of his class of fifteen.

He spent his college years at the University of Colorado in Boulder, majoring in English and History, good preparation for a political writer. He describes the typical experiences both of learning and social fraternities, and the highlight of hearing Will Rogers speak. Reading this narrative, one senses he sought in his own writing to be a commentator on politics in the vein of Rogers.

After graduation, he returned to Youngstown in 1929, and almost immediately hired on with The Vindicator. At the end of 1929, he received notice that his job was ending, but when he went to turn in his key, the publisher let him stay on until he found another job. He ended up staying fifty-four years.  His account of covering The Little Steel Strike of 1937 was one of the most riveting parts of the book. Here is a portion:

“Ed Salt, a Vindicator photographer, and I were dispatched to Poland Avenue to cover the tense situation. It was growing dark by that time, lights were being shot out and hundreds of men were milling along the street. We parked near the fire station and started walking down the sidewalk. As we passed by a bush, we saw its leaves completely eliminated as a shotgun blast rang out. Being a brave man, I went back to the fire station; needing to take pictures, Salt pushed onward.

When I arrived at the station someone exclaimed, ‘Salt has been shot.’ Mustering my courage, I went to his rescue, and found him with his white shirt completely bloodied. I got him into the car, and we headed up Poland Avenue. Although the street was barricaded, I persuaded the pickets to let the car through by explaining I had a passenger who needed to go to the hospital.”

His tenure as political editor spanned the presidencies from Franklin Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan. Perhaps one of the little known facts about Jackson that came out in the book was that he was a pioneer in political polling and his polls more often than not were right on the money. The Gallup organization consulted with him on his methods. His book narrates his coverage of a number of the national political conventions during these years as well as the local politics of Youngstown, and particularly its shift over time to a Democrat Party-dominated town. We meet both office-holders and party leaders, including John Vitullo who helped lead the Democrats to their ascendancy.

One of the unique aspects of Jackson’s career is that he both covered politics and held office at the same time, and satisfied his publisher with his ability to impartially cover politics. He held office as a city council person in Lowellville, and state representative and senator. Later, he was appointed to a number of state commissions. His career was distinguished by introducing the first strip-mining act, helping create the state Department of Natural Resources, and participating in commissions that laid out the state’s interstate highways and later, the Ohio Civil Rights Commission. As he writes about his various association with both Democrat and Republican governors and other leaders, one has the sense that he, like Hubert Humphrey, was a “happy warrior,” far removed from the partisan vitriol of the present day.

His final chapters reflect back over his career, his retired life (although he continued contributing articles for the Youngstown-Warren Business Journal into the 1990), and his three marriages. Though aware of his own failings, what makes this part of the book quite wonderful is the deep joy and gratitude evident as he thinks of his times, his acceptance of his own mortality, and his thankfulness for each of his wives, two of whom pre-deceased him. He wrote of his three wives, “Good fortune is a necessary element of most any man’s success, and mine was having three farm girls for wives.”

The book includes a number of photographs of his life, surroundings, and of the people and places of Youngstown. Between each chapter are columns he wrote between the 1950’s and the 1990’s.

The voice in this memoir is warm and personal and has the feeling of a transcription of oral history. It strikes me that his book is a memoir of what might be looked back upon as a golden age of journalism, politics, and perhaps, the Mahoning Valley. People interested in any of these subjects will enjoy his account.

____________________________

Although published in 1991, I learned that new copies of the book may be purchased by contacting The Business Journal (the last publication Jackson wrote for) at 330-744-5023 Ext. 1008, asking for Eileen Lovell. Cost is $20 plus sales tax.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Clingan Jackson

Clingan's Chronicles

Clingan Jackson, on the cover of Clingan’s Chronicles

Recently, one of the followers of this blog recommended reading Clingan’s Chronicles written by Clingan Jackson. I remembered his columns from when I delivered The Vindicator, and who read him avidly as one of the first eighteen-year-olds to get the vote. I’m in the middle of the book, which is a fascinating combination of memoir, and history of Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley. Particularly its political history.

Clingan Jackson was the long time political editor at The Vindicator. He not only knew the political history of the Valley better than anyone of his time. He helped make it as a State Representative and later State Senator in the 1930’s. In 1950, he finally lost his Senate seat to Charles Carney, who later represented the Youngstown area in Congress. During his time at the State House, he introduced the first strip mining act, and later helped create the Ohio Department of Natural Resources–an environmentalist long before this became a cause. He ran for governor in 1958, losing badly. He also served on several state commissions.

Jackson was born into one of the “first families” of Youngstown. Ancestors, the McFalls, actually lived as trappers on Dry Run Creek (where McKelvey Lake is now located) even before John Young first established Youngstown. His great grandfather, John Calvin Jackson settled in the Coitsville area on the east side of Youngstown in 1804. His grandfather, who served as a Mahoning County Commissioner in the 1870’s and helped engineer the move of the county seat to Youngstown, built the family homestead on Jacobs Road. Clingan Jackson was born on March 28, 1907. He says one of his earliest memories was seeing his father come in on a snowy day to announce the election of Woodrow Wilson in 1912. It was a political family where heated discussion was common and not all agreed.

Jackson’s parents moved around. For a time, they lived across the state line in Hillsville where his father worked at the Carbon Limestone Company. He was allowed to attend Lowellville High School because of his Ohio roots. He joined his brother John at the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1925 and returned to Youngstown after graduation in 1929. He worked at the electric company for a few months and then started working for The Vindicator for $25 a week. His first job was fetching stock quotations from local brokerages, which gave him a first hand glimpse of the panic when the market crashed in October of 1929. He covered the beginnings of the labor movement in Youngstown in the early 1930’s and the Little Steel Strike of 1937. His narrative captures the risks reporters of his time went through to get the story:

“Ed Salt, a Vindicator photographer, and I were dispatched to Poland Avenue to cover the tense situation. It was growing dark by that time, lights were being shot out and hundreds of men were milling along the street. We parked near the fire station and started walking down the sidewalk. As we passed by a bush, we saw its leaves completely eliminated as a shotgun blast rang out. Being a brave man, I went back to the fire station; needing to take pictures, Salt pushed onward.

When I arrived at the station someone exclaimed, ‘Salt has been shot.’ Mustering my courage, I went to his rescue, and found him with his white shirt completely bloodied. I got him into the car, and we headed up Poland Avenue. Although the street was barricaded, I persuaded the pickets to let the car through by explaining I had a passenger who needed to go to the hospital.”

It turns out that Salt was covered with shotgun pellet wounds, none serious.

Youngstown Vindicator Clingan Jackson 09011968

Part of Clingan Jackson’s column from the September 1, 1968 Vindicator, the Sunday after the tumultuous 1968 Democratic National Convention

He became the political editor of The Vindicator in 1938 and continued in that role until 1983. He covered every president from Roosevelt through Reagan, and the congressional terms of Michael Kirwan, Charles Carney, Lyle Williams, and Jim Traficant. Although a lifelong Democrat, and at times an officeholder, his real fascination was with the practice of politics and he was able to cover Democrats and Republicans impartially. He was one of the pioneers in political polling, and the accuracy of his polls brought him to the attention of George Gallup.

Andrea Wood did a feature for WYTV on Clingan Jackson toward the end of his tenure at the Vindicator, in 1980. It is fascinating to watch him hunt and peck at a computer terminal while chomping on his trademark cigar. He comes across as the classic newspaper man. She later helped him with the editing work on Clingan’s Chronicles.

He retired from The Vindicator in 1983. He went on to contribute a column to the Youngstown-Warren Business Journal into the 1990’s. He passed away on March 26, 1997, two days shy of 90. He joined a number of his ancestors who are buried in the Coitsville Presbyterian-Jackson Cemetery. He was married three times, with two of his wives preceding him in death, Virginia and Thelma (“Billy”). His third wife, Loretta Fitch Jackson owned Loretta Fitch Florist at the intersection of Routes 616 and 422 in Coitsville. He wrote of his three wives, “Good fortune is a necessary element of most any man’s success, and mine was having three farm girls for wives.”

Sources:

Clingan Jackson, Clingan’s Chronicles (Youngstown: Youngstown Publishing Co., 1991)

Ted Heineman, Senator Clingan Jackson” Riverside Cemetery Journal, 2009.

Andrea Wood, Monthly News Magazine — WYTV, February 1980.

 

Choosing Barabbas

800px-GiveUsBarabbas

PD-US, “Give us Barabbas” from volume 9 of The Bible and its Story Taught by One Thousand Picture Lessons, edited by Charles F. Horne and Julius A. Bewer, published in 1910.

But the whole crowd shouted, “Away with this man! Release Barabbas to us!”

Luke 23:18, New International Version.

We’ve just come through a weekend that began with the submission of the Mueller Report and concluded with the Barr summary. I will not be discussing this report, of which most of us still know very little. Rather I want to discuss a more basic reflex of the partisans of our national political discussion.

Those who identify with the president seem to feel that their hero has been vindicated and already are thinking about what could be done under his leadership with four more years to “Make America Great Again.”

Those who identify with the other party in our national political discussion are already in a vigorous quest to find the person who will lead them, and the nation out of what they see is a political wilderness. There are quite a cast of rivals: Amy, Andrew, Bernie, Beto, Cory, Elizabeth, Kamala, Kirsten, Jay, John D, John H., Julian, Marianne, and Tulsi. Joe Biden is still considering as are a couple of mayors and several others.

It is going to be an interesting two years.

What I want to focus on is our quest for political messiahs. I want to propose that when we pursue political messiahs, no matter the party stripe, we are choosing Barabbas.

The reference goes back to the gospel Passion narratives.  The Roman governor, Pilate, under pressure to kill an innocent man, Jesus, tries to find an out with a practice of granting the release during the Jewish Passover festival of one of the prisoners sentenced to crucifixion. As an alternative to Jesus, Pilate offers an insurrectionist, someone who had challenged Rome’s rule, perhaps a political messiah to some. Pilate obviously miscalculated the crowd’s loyalties. They ask for the insurrectionist and murderer rather than the healer and teacher whose worst act was clearing the temple and preaching of a kingdom not of this world.

Then, as now, there was a hunger for political leadership that would help a nation realize its hopes and dreams, in this case political independence from the Roman empire. Now we want leaders who will guarantee religious freedom, economic greatness, health care for all (or not), green policies (or not), welcoming immigrants and refugees and/or protecting our borders, and on and on. I don’t necessarily think it a bad thing to aspire to many of these, but I’m troubled by the messianic dreams that we require our politicians to feed that they will inevitably disappoint. They will no more bring in religious, economic or social utopias than did Barabbas bring an end to Roman rule.

When we look to political leaders to be our messiahs, we are choosing Barabbas, and Barabbas will fail us.

The other thing I want to propose is that we cannot choose Barabbas and Jesus. This is particularly addressed to those who identify as Christian–of any stripe. Essentially, the act of putting hope in any political messiah is to say, “away with Jesus!” What concerns me about the political idolatry in many of our churches, whether of figures on the right or left, is that we are giving an allegiance to others of which only Jesus is properly deserving, and neglecting the political order of which he is the leader. When we surrender the church to be in the vanguard of an earthly political order, we forsake the priorities of Jesus’s political order, one that transcends nation, economic status, age, gender, ethnic background and one that promotes, not division, but justice and healing of these fault lines, creating “a beloved community,” in the words of Dr. King.

Finally, I would have you think of this. When we seek political messiahs, we not only choose Barabbas, we “crucify” Jesus. While we cannot physically put Jesus to death, when we claim to be followers of Jesus but seek political messiahs, we often turn others away from Jesus. It is striking that “nones,” the religiously unafilliated, are now the largest single group in the US, tied with those who identify as Catholic, and greater than Evangelicals who are second according to the most recent General Social Survey.

This is not a call to give up political engagement, but rather to re-order our allegiances. Instead of viewing political leaders, particularly presidents, as messiahs, could we not return to simply viewing them as public servants serving the public good? I would suggest that at best, the public good is a proximate good. Utopias of the right or the left are dangerous, in my view, and may end up as tyrannies. Might we not, instead, look for those who might serve well and leave things a bit better than they found them?

It also strikes me that when we stop looking for messiahs, we stop looking for charismatic figures. We look at character–for measures of integrity, courage, wisdom. We look at demonstrated capability and convictions. We also remember that all human beings are at best “magnificent ruins.” We stop putting them on pedestals only to knock them down.

Whether we embrace Jesus or not, might it be time, and past time for us to stop choosing Barabbas?

Review: Elizabeth Warren

Elizabeth Warren

Elizabeth WarrenAntonia Felix. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, 2018

Summary: A biography of the Democrat U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, from the financial struggles of her family, her academic life and the research that changed her life, and her work protecting consumers that led to her Senate run.

“She persisted.” These words became a rallying cry when Elizabeth Warren attempted to read a letter from Coretta Scott King during the confirmation hearings of Jeff Session to the cabinet office of Attorney General. The letter spoke to Mrs. King’s contention that Sessions, as a federal judge had taken actions that chilled the exercise of voting rights by black citizens. She was interrupted once, warned of impugning the character of a fellow senator. The second time, Mitch McConnell stopped her, and she was forced to take her seat after the Republican dominated Senate voted to silence her. He said, “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” And she did. Banned from speaking in the Senate, she read the letter on a live Facebook video.

This was just the latest instance of a persistence born of a commitment to advocate for those our system often overlooks. It began, according to Antonia Felix, in Oklahoma, and her own family’s struggles to make ends meet. She watched her mother go to work save their home when her father had a heart attack. She had a passion to teach when becoming a homemaker was society’s vision for women and struggled in her early years between these two visions. A love of debate led to a scholarship to George Washington University. Her love for Jim Warren, high school sweetheart, led to a move to Texas, and completion of her degree at the University of Houston in speech pathology. A teaching job ended when she became pregnant. Struggling with the life of a stay at home mom after a move to New Jersey following her husband’s job, she enrolled in Rutgers Law School, which she described as “an advanced degree in thinking.” Completing law school, she and Jim moved back to Houston, with a second child, a son.

An offer to teach the legal writing at the University of Houston Law Center launched her career–and led to the end of her first marriage, as conflicts between her and Jim made it clear they had different marriage and life visions. She met her current husband, Bruce, at Houston. The biography goes on to trace her legal career as she moved to Texas, Penn, and eventually Harvard.

More significant, and especially for someone like myself who works with academics, Warren was transformed by her research. When she began her legal career, she was influenced by a law and economics course taught by Henry Manne in a program funded by the conservative John M. Olin Foundation, essentially a right wing group. One of her research interests was bankruptcy, particularly in a period when bankruptcy laws had made debt relief more accessible to financially troubled families. There were many advocating for tougher laws, contending that people were gaming the system and irresponsible. She ended up studying thousands of bankruptcy cases and came to a very different conclusion that contradicted her right wing leanings. She discovered lending and credit card practices that created debt loads that pressed families to limits at which a job loss or illness would push them over the edge. Terms buried in credit card agreements and sub-prime loans for those qualifying for better terms were the most outstanding examples.

It transformed her into an advocate for consumers and led to her helping set up, under the Obama administration, the Consumer Financial Protection Agency. In a landmark journal article (reprinted in the book) Warren argued,

“It is impossible to buy a toaster that has a one-in-five chance of bursting into flames and burning down your house. But it is possible to refinance an existing home with a mortgage that has the same one-in-five chance of putting the family out on the street–and the mortgage won’t even carry a disclosure of that fact to the homeowner. Similarly, it’s impossible to change the price on a toaster once it has been purchased. But long after the papers have been signed, it is possible to triple the price of the credit used to finance the purchase of that appliance, even if the customer meets all the credit terms, in full and on time.”

Bank failures and the sins of Wall Street in 2008 made her a fierce advocate for regulatory reform and finally convinced her to run for the Senate seat in Massachusetts in 2012. Opposition to efforts to roll back reforms made during the Obama years has made her a visible object for attack, including her claims of Indian heritage. The book includes the transcript of an address to Native Americans where she addresses this.

Warren is up for re-election this year, and has acknowledged that she is giving serious consideration to a run for the presidency in 2020. This book does have something of the feel of a campaign piece, introducing the wider public to Warren, addressing criticisms without making new ones. But it also did reveal something extraordinary that impressed me. Here was an academic whose research changed her mind and compelled her to act on what she found. She didn’t remain a “one dimensional scholar” remaining detached from her findings. She moved to work in government to apply those findings in ways that made life better for the people she studied. She cared more about truth than ideology, and allowed evidence to change her mind, and then showed the courage of her convictions over and over in advocacy. She persisted.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary advance reader copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

One of the Problems With Our Politics

Ohio_US_Congressional_District_12_(since_2013)

The Ohio 12th Congressional District as of 2013.

This is the congressional district, the Ohio 12th, in which I live. Do you see the problem? Why would you create a district like this?

I live in northwest Franklin County, in the city of Columbus, just below the dotted county line above which is the word “Powell.” Columbus is the focal point of most of our lives–where we work, the teams we root for, the politics we pay attention to, the parks we play in, the libraries and other public services we use. There is a highly populated sliver of this district in northern Franklin County outside I-270 with a tongue reaching down into Clintonville, significantly, all west of I-71, a significant ethnic demarcation line in that part of the city. Why would you carve up the Franklin County portions of the district like this?

Much of the rest of this weirdly shaped district is exurban or rural populations. Delaware County to the north has seen an explosion of affluent home construction by upper middle class individuals. Some contend that Delaware County carried George Bush in his slim election victories in Ohio. In national campaigns, Democrats come to Columbus, and Republicans to Delaware County. Morrow, Richland, Licking and southern Muskingum Counties are heavily rural counties. Why would you draw up a district like this?

The answer, very simply, is to make it a safe Republican seat. Only for eight years in the 1930’s, and two years in the 1980’s has the Ohio 12th been held by a Democrat. Why do I write about all this now?

As I write (a day ahead of posting), we are having a special election in this district. Pat Tiberi, the Republican representative vacated his seat in January. Troy Balderson, a Republican from Zanesville, and Danny O’Conner, a Democrat from the northern part of Columbus, are contesting the seat both now for the remainder of the unexpired term, and again in November for a new two year term. It is the one congressional election between now and November and HUGE amounts of advertising money on both sides have been poured into this race. Polling indicates the two candidates are separated by a mere point, statistically insignificant. Everyone is looking at this race as to whether there will be a “blue wave” in November.

Some of the craziness of this gerrymandered district is reflected in a remark made by the Republican candidate on his last campaign stop in his home town of Zanesville on Monday, August 6. He said:

“My opponent is from Franklin County, and Franklin County has been challenging. We don’t want someone from Franklin County representing us.”

It happens that one-third of the population of the district lives in that sliver of northern Franklin County and the remark seems to suggest that “us” somehow doesn’t include Franklin County, or that if the candidate from Franklin County were elected, he wouldn’t represent the “us” the Republican candidate was speaking to.

That’s the problem with gerrymandering. Political leaders of either party don’t have to think about representing everyone–only the base that gives them an election margin. Draw the district along the right demographic lines and you usually don’t have to worry. Both parties do this, which helps account for our highly polarized political conversation and gridlocked political process. A March 26, 2018 New York Times article states that at that time, only 48 of 435 House seats were considered “up for grabs.”

The sad thing is that representatives end up representing only some of us. If the Republican candidate wins, I wonder if he will represent me because I live in “Franklin County.” If the other wins, I’m sure some will wonder if their voices will be heard. Furthermore, this focuses on how we differ and not on what unites us, as Ohioans, and Americans. It seems to me that one could run focusing on what unites us even in our current gerrymandered district. But failing to hew to current party orthodoxy could be costly. If more districts were competitive, candidates would have to develop positions that reflect the concerns of all the district. And they would have to serve and listen to all the district during intervening years.

I think it a good thing that the race in my district is competitive. But I am concerned that this reflects more a political moment of resistance to a president unpopular in some quarters than the result of a consistently competitive district. Our political process needs to be built on something better than waves of political discontent or balkanized districts of safe seats. We have passed redistricting reforms in Ohio this spring that await the 2020 census. The process won’t be complete until 2023. We’ve yet to see what will result.

What can we do in the meanwhile? One thing as citizens is to identify and focus on the issues that affect all of us and not allow ourselves to be divided by the political parties. All but the super-rich face the issue of the cost of health care. No matter what we think about causes, all of us face the effects of climate change. We may not have it so bad in Ohio right now, but what happens when other parts of our country come seeking our water, or start moving here when other places become unlivable? How are we dealing with opioid use that are turning cities into war zones and rural areas into places of despair and grief.

The other thing is to pay attention and communicate about the things that matter to us–call, write, email, visit, and if we are not being heard, use our free speech rights to write in newspapers, on blogs, and to protest publicly.

We’ve let this happen to our country. We’ve allowed ourselves to be divided into demographic units and played up to on “hot button” issues instead of demanding responsible governance across the board and political leadership that values all of us and calls us together to pursue the best for our country. Today, and in November, we vote in my congressional district. It’s easy to collect my sticker and say I’ve done my duty. But as citizens, it has only begun.

[Written Tuesday, August 7, 2018] Update: Republican Troy Balderson narrowly defeated (a one percent margin) Democrat Danny O’Connor. A Green party candidate accounted for much of the difference in the other two candidates’ vote totals. They run against each other again in the November general election.

Review: Political Church

Political Church

Political Church: The Local Assembly as Embassy of Christ’s Rule, Jonathan Leeman. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016.

Summary: Explores the nature of the church, arguing that it is a political institution that serves as an embassy of the kingdom of God, with implications for both its internal life and its engagement with the nations and governments of the world.

It seems that the relationship of church and state, which we often frame as spiritual versus political, and organic versus institutional, is a perennial discussion. In this work, Jonathan Leeman does a fine-grained analysis of both the biblical material concerning covenant-redemptive history and studies of the new institutionalism and turns much of the traditional schools of thought on their heads, arguing that both church and state are political and institutional, that our separations of spiritual and political realms don’t wash, and that our liberal idea of religious freedom ends in the destruction of religious freedom. He argues that both church and state function under the rule of God, albeit under different covenants and functioning in different “ages.” He contends that there is no neutral public square but that it is a battleground of the gods and that the state, ordained by God, either acting in accord with God or self-justifying.

Intrigued? I found myself growing more and more intrigued as I followed his carefully reasoned argument to its conclusion and thesis about the nature of the church. Leeman writes in his Introduction:

“Yet the primary claim of this book is that the local church is just such a political assembly. Indeed, the church is a kind of embassy, only it represents a kingdom of even greater political consequence to the nations and their governors. And this embassy represents a kingdom not from across geographic space but from across eschatological time.

“In other words, this book is concerned with the biblical and theological question of what constitutes a local church. The answer, it will argue, is that Jesus grants Christians the authority to establish local churches as visible embassies of his end-time rule through the “keys of the kingdom” described in the Gospel of Matthew. By virtue of both the keys and a traditional Protestant conception of justification by faith alone, the local church exists as a political assembly that publicly represents King Jesus, displays the justice and righteousness of the triune God, and pronounces Jesus’ claim upon the nations and their governments.”

Leeman begins by calling into question our conceptions of politics and institutions arguing for a broader conception of politics that includes the church, and that an institutional understanding of the church’s life is warranted in scripture. A political institution is “a community of people united by a common governing authority,” and he applies this both to church and state.

His next four chapters explore a politics of creation, fall, the new covenant, and the kingdom. He argues that the state operates under the Noahic covenant and has delegated authority to maintain the social order in the present age while refraining from enforcing belief, or impinging upon religious liberty, rooting religious liberty in an absolute standard, rather than in the conflicted conscience of liberal democracy. The church, foreshadowed by Israel, operates under the new covenant as ambassadors of the coming age, ordering its own belief and practice through the “power of the keys” while announcing the coming rule of Christ and its character to the nations.

A particularly striking conclusion is that it is the local church that is the focus of this work, and the only meaningful place, in Leeman’s argument, that functions as a kingdom embassy. Furthermore, he argues that the “power of the keys,” that is, the power both to admit people into membership and instruct them in truth, and to remove those who, by their lives, repudiate Christ’s rule, resides not in a single person or in a hierarchical structure, but in the congregation as a whole. This certainly is consistent with a “priesthood of all believers” theology, but I am troubled with what seems an inevitable consequence of his conclusion, the highly Balkanized kingdom of schismatic Protestantism. Are local congregations the only institutional manifestation of the kingdom?

His development of the idea of church as institution also bears on his discussion of justification and a difference with N.T. Wright. He would contend that covenant inclusion is not the definition of justification which he would maintain is being “declared righteous, but rather the institutional context of justification. This is one example of the careful analysis one will find in this work, in contrast with what Leeman believes is often fuzzy thinking. One also sees this in his critique of “advancing the kingdom” through social transformation without conversion. For Leeman, this begins with defining terms carefully, and distinguishing from notions that accrue more to liberal, Western ideologies than biblical theology.

This is a short review of a very long book. It is not possible here to “show all the work” in Leeman’s argument. His premises about politics and institutions and his covenant theology are key to that argument. It is particularly helpful in its conclusion that the church’s witness is a political act, in the ways it defines what both church and state do under a sovereign God. His discussion of the politics of forgiveness versus self-justification was another highlight for me in bringing to bear the distinctiveness of the Christian message as it bears on both church and public life.

In a time where political engagement tends consist of knee-jerk reactions to hot-button issues, slogans and soundbites, and efforts to return America to some kind of mythical Christian age, Leeman challenges us to the hard thinking about what our proper role is in our churches, and a framework for how Christians involved with the state might act. Whether you agree with all of his conclusions, the process he uses to reach them will challenge your own thinking and assumptions.

Review: No Other Gods

No Other Gods

No Other GodsAna Levy-Lyons. New York: Center Street, 2018.

Summary: A liberal, progressive reading of the Ten Commandments, moving beyond personal morality to the social and political implications of the commands.

It seems that the most attention the Ten Commandments have received of late are controversies about whether or not they may be displayed in court houses and other public settings. Most would perceive that these commandments are the property of the conservative elements of Judaism and Christianity and that more enlightened, secular, humanist, spiritual-but-not-religious approaches liberate people from the oppressive laws and strictures of conservative religion. Yet, Ana Levy-Lyons, the author of this work and a minister of a progressive Unitarian congregation, contends that this freedom from religion hasn’t always been liberating, evidenced by record levels of anxiety and depression and an activism lacking in sustaining ethical foundations. She proposes in her introduction to this book:

“We may feel today that we’ve outgrown the need for the religious strictures of the past. But those very strictures might well have been devised for such a moment as this. Now be when we need them most. Especially today, we need shared commitments to hold ourselves accountable to history, to the future, to one another, and to something larger than all of us. We need faith in our collective power to transform the world toward justice–a power authorized and fueled by the ground of being itself. Choose-your-own-adventure spirituality is inadequate to the challenges we face. We need religious practices like the Ten Commandments that are rooted in a deep and multilayered tradition, that are spiritually rich, and that are intentionally insulated from modern culture.”

Levy-Lyons offers an interpretation of these commandments as a radical manifesto of liberation rather than of oppression, empowering resistance to a materialistic, capitalistic society. Inspired by the rabbinic tradition of midrash, she offers a fresh interpretation of the commandments that she hopes both secular liberals and the progressive religious might engage in common.

Beginning with the first command, to have no other gods, she argues that the message of this command is to “dethrone the modern deities of political, social, and corporate power” that pervade our daily life, as well as all the private personal gods that vie for a place in our lives, whether they are ideals of beauty or what she calls the “tyranny of balance.” She argues that our relation as a community to the one who is “Being” itself demotes all these other pursuits. Likewise, we should accept no “sculpted images” (the second commandment) as substitutes, whether they be material objects or the sculpting of ourselves or being lured by the power of a brand. She contends, “real life, unfiltered by brands, is spectacular.” The third command, of not taking God’s name in vain calls upon us to defend God’s goodness by refusing to allow others to justify immorality in the name of God, or justifying a culture that celebrates guns or destroys the environment with the idea that this is how God has made the world, that this is just the way things are. It is a call to assert the goodness of God in matters of justice and care for the earth.

Against a 24/7 mentality and a rigid sabbatarianism, the fourth command is an invitation to squander one day every week. It seeks the liberation of those in wage slavery so they can also rest, it says “no” to a relentless consumerism and “yes” to Abraham Joshua Heschel’s “palace in time” where we rejoice in enough and linger over meals with friends. It is a dangerously radical waste of time that threatens the “gods” of the other six days. Likewise, in a culture that fosters accountability only to ourselves and leaving home for the next new thing, the fifth commandment calls us to honor parents, and in so doing stay accountable to where we’ve come from. While not justifying the wrongs that may have been done to us, the command challenges us to honor what made us who we are, that none of us are self-made. Levy-Lyons also extends this to the earth itself, that our accountability to it is connected to our living long in the land.

To not kill is not merely to not murder, but to not let die, and challenges our involvement in systems that kill, whether they are the third world sweatshops that produce our clothes or the bureaucratic systems of a city like Flint that channel toxic water into the homes while diverting them from automotive plants. Our commitment to life may go so far as to abstain from meat or animal products, considering how animals live and die. The seventh command against adultery rejects the idolatry of consumer choice (and unchoosing) in the most intimate of human relationship, to instead turn our choices to protect innocence and to stay in for the long run. The eighth challenges us not only to refrain from taking what is ours directly, but in what we pay for things, and how our choices affect the availability of the world’s resources to others. The ninth is not about what counts as a lie but the pursuit of truth, whether in the courts, or in the marketplace or the political arena. She makes trenchant comments about “truthiness” — lies that sound like they could be true but undermine truth-telling.

She ends with the tenth commandment, to not covet, and recognizes the internal aspect of this command, how in fact coveting precedes all else. Coveting is subverted when we embrace a life of “enough”– that we have enough and we are enough. She recognizes that to cultivate a life of “enough,” that keeps the commands, takes a community (it was fascinating that as a liberal, she includes Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option in her further reading list–perhaps this is why). Her concluding chapter contends that it matters, that pursuing goodness and love multiplies to a thousand generations and in the end, the commands transform into ten blessings, a paraphrase of which she concludes the book.

I found this attempt to interpret the commands to those seeking to escape the oppressiveness of conservative religion fascinating both for the recognition of how these commandments are in fact for our and the world’s good, and the radical demands that keeping these commands raise, particularly extending beyond personal and private morality to our concerns about systems and structures and ideologies. Yet as one who exists in a different social space than the author, the insistence on the value of human relations while keeping the deity as a very impersonal Being was puzzling. I was perhaps most troubled by an unwillingness to ask questions about the use of abortion as birth control or the warehousing of the aged among our concerns about killing. There seemed to be more concern about the warehousing of animals than people. Likewise, can we truly talk about adultery without also questioning cohabiting without commitment? There was nothing about how pornography destroys marriages. It felt at times that her reading of the commands comported with the values of progressive community with whom she ministers.

We all find it easier to challenge the transgressions of others than our own. This, actually, is what makes this a good book for me to read because I often do not hear in my faith community the challenges Levy-Lyons gives in this book. At the same time, what I would contend is that these commands are truly radical in challenging “off limits” subjects for all of us, whether this has to do with our consumerism, our exploitation of the planet, or all the ways we distort the wonderful gift of our sexuality, or even our attempts to keep the infinite yet personal God at arms length. What a fascinating conversation might be had, like Bill Moyers’ Genesis series, were scholars and ministers across the spectrum gathered to discuss these ten words, ten commandments, ten blessings!

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary advance review copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

 

Review: Two Paths

Two Paths

Two Paths: America Divided or UnitedJohn Kasich. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2017.

Summary: The presidential candidate’s memoir of his campaign and the choice of the low and high paths of political engagement we face and his vision for that high path.

No matter who you favored in the recent presidential campaign, you probably would agree that it was one of the most rancorous and ugly on record. John Kasich, current governor of Ohio and one of sixteen Republican candidates was determined not to pursue the coarse, mud-slinging style pursued by other candidates. He describes observing the behavior of the other candidates at the first Republican debate and determining, “I will not take the low road to the highest office in the land.”

This memoir describes Kasich’s campaign journey from his wrestling with whether to run to his second place finish in New Hampshire and the joy he found in town hall discussions with prospective voters to his decision to suspend his campaign under pressure from Republican leadership, including Reince Priebus. He recounts the reasons why he refused to endorse Donald Trump after reviewing numerous video clips of his campaign rallies. Weighing heavily for him was the fact that he is the father of two teenage daughters, and given what Trump did and said, he considered it “unthinkable” that he could ever endorse Trump. Consequently, he spent the convention outside the convention hall and voted for John McCain as a write in during the election.

Kasich argues that his faith as a Christian shaped the convictions that led to a refusal to stoop to the tactics of others, or to endorse the paragon of these tactics. He writes:

“What does God expect of me? I believe He expects me to live on a higher plane, all the while knowing that I will surely fail. I believe the higher plane he sets before me is a call to resist the gravitational pull of life on earth, which is just a lot of the base stuff that can fill our days in negative ways: envy, hatred, jealousy, intolerance, self-aggrandizement, looking merely to accumulate wealth or fame. If you think about it, when it’s time for us to leave this earth, these negatives can all seem kind of mundane. Yet, in the ills of society we see these negatives on full and forceful display. It’s the way we sidestep those negatives and walk in the light that will come to define us after all” (p. 122).

He contends that our present character of politics reflects not only leadership but also “followship.” He believes we all share responsibility for amplifying “fake news” and perpetuating the echo chambers of one-sided discourse. Political followers need to hold leaders to higher standards, and hold those standards as well.

Toward the end of the book, he includes much of the text of his “Two Paths” speech to the Women’s National Republican Club in New York, which outlines his vision both for an elevated discourse, and probably provides the most concise summary of the policies Kasich would have pursued as president.

I had two reactions as I read this book. One was the recurring thought, “if only….” I do not know if Kasich could have defeated Hillary Clinton. But what a different country it would have been if he’d had that chance. The other was thinking it was Kasich’s focus on the ethos of his campaign, which became his message, that probably was one of the reasons he lost. It wasn’t a compelling message for most Americans, apparently.

Is Kasich as good as he appears in this book? He presents himself as a man of faith, a family man, a principled and determined politician willing to reach across the aisle. Living in Ohio, I’d say most of this is true, except when he has a majority behind him, as he has enjoyed during his tenure as governor. Only a voter referendum reversed efforts to break up unions for public workers, similar to what was done in Wisconsin. It is not apparent to me how much he has “reached across the aisle” in our state and certainly our legislature has engaged in the gerrymandering of districts he says must be ended for electoral reform.

Still, this book gives a good glimpse of what the country missed in overlooking Kasich. Truth was that I urged my friends in other states to join the island of sanity that was Ohio during the primaries and vote for Kasich on the Republican side. If only….

 

Review: Reclaiming Hope

Reclaiming Hope

Reclaiming HopeMichael Wear. Nashville: Nelson Books, 2017.

Summary: Written by an Obama staffer in his Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and faith outreach director in his 2012 campaign, this is not only a narrative of that work, but also an exploration of controversial decisions made by this administration, and how Christians might think of the possibilities and practice of political involvement.

Michael Wear got involved in Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign after following his rise in politics following the 2004 Democratic convention speech that brought Obama to national attention. After the election, he was appointed as a staff member in the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships under Joshua DuBois. He worked in this office, contributing to efforts to provide tax breaks for adoptions and commitment of the administration to actively fighting human trafficking. He completed his service in the Obama administration heading up the 2012 faith outreach efforts during the presidential campaign. This book discusses that work, which ended with the second inauguration, after which he launched a consulting firm.

It begins with the idealism that surrounded the election of Obama, and the early hopes of an inclusive politics. He highlights Obama’s defense of the inclusion of Rick Warren against people who opposed him for his support of California’s Proposition Eight. An administration that started with a concern to include differing views at the table changed as the Affordable Care Act legislation worked its way through Congress. Concerns about abortion, and the unbending resistance on the contraceptive mandate aroused a sense that the administration was engaged in a war on religion.

Likewise, Wear wrestles with seemingly sincere statements about religious faith and support of traditional marriage by candidate Obama, only for him to “evolve” to a different position, eventually supporting gay marriage, with evidence that this had been the end goal all along. It causes him to wrestle with some of his own work, including speech-writing research that drew on his knowledge of religious audiences.

In reading this, one has a sense of missed opportunities, by both the Obama administration and the political opposition, that led to a hardening of attitudes and deepening of divides. Yet for all this, Wear is neither bitter nor disillusioned. His last two chapters concern the theme of hope. The first of these concerns the error of placing hope in politics. Here he recounts a fascinating interchange between writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Washington pastor Thabiti Anyabwile over this subject. In the final chapter he talks about the important role Christians, who do not put their ultimate hope in politics, can play in reclaiming hope for engagement in the process–hope that is committed, seeks justice, and is humble. He contends there is important work to be done and for Christians to come together around in both racial justice issues and religious freedom.

This last was particularly striking. It seems like these often are treated in a mutually exclusive fashion–you can only be for one or the other. Yet we are in fact in a country where there are both deep racial inequities, and where religious freedom faces real threats. Rather than accepting partisan binaries, why not stand together in a both-and fashion on this and other issues? Similarly, he contends that since marriage has been extended to same sex partners, why not strengthen the incentives for others to marry as well and revisit the ease with which we grant divorce?

Against a temptation in the current toxic climate to withdraw, he writes:

    “In the face of hopelessness, Christians cannot withdraw from their neighbors, under the impression that they are unwanted and so grant what they think the world wants. We do not love our neighbor for affirmation, but because we have been loved first. Now is not the time to withdraw, but to refine our intentions and pursue public faithfulness that truly is good news.”

Wear has given us a thoughtful book about political engagement, one where we see his own growth, and yet one that does not end, like so many, in disillusion or bitterness. He models the deep resources Christian faith brings to sustain a resilience when one faces deep disappointment, opposition, or simply the realization that the road is a long one. While written out of the context of a Democratic administration, it is not a partisan version of faith in politics, but one that any thoughtful Christian, no matter their party affiliation, may read with profit.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: A Letter to My Anxious Christian Friends

letter-to-anxious-christian-friends

A Letter to My Anxious Christian Friends, David P. Gushee. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016.

Summary: Written as a series of letters, this is an exploration of what it means as a Christian to both love and be anxious for one’s country as people of faith committed to the global kingdom of God.

David P. Gushee thinks there are good warrants for American Christians who love their country to be anxious–the erosion of a Christian consensus, the economic jolts we have faced as a country, the deep fractures along lines of race and values that we have experienced, the violence of our streets, and the instances where police have also exercised force unjustly. Written in the run up to the 2016 presidential election, Gushee explores what it means both to face the issues that arouse such fear, and step back from the fractured political discourse to try to think as Christians about what it means to live into our faith instead of being governed by our fears (and perhaps those who play upon them).

He writes:

“…the assumption lying behind this book is that it is okay for Christians to care enough about the country they live in to be anxious about it. It is, indeed, perfectly acceptable for Christians to be patriots, to love their country with a robust and full heart. Many of my fellow Christian leaders do not agree with me on this, and they have good reasons for their views. Mainly their worry is that American Christians, in particular, have a hard time distinguishing between God and country when they attempt to love and serve both. I think that I can point to a path of critical, informed patriotism through the various reflections offered here. But I acknowledge that I do love this country, and precisely because I do, I want it to be the best country it can be. If you agree, read on.”

The rest of the book consists of twenty reflections (letters) divided into two parts. The first eight are an exploration of who we are as a country of Americans, the place of Christians within that, how we understand our form of government and the development of political parties, the state of our civic character, and how Christians might think about patriotism. He helps his readers understand the changing place of the church in this country and how we might think about that. What I appreciated best were some of his reflections on how we are and are not a Christian nation–both the Christian influences upon our institutions and the fact that no nation can be a “Christian nation” as Israel was the people of God. Gushee is able to speak honestly both about our flaws and injustices as a nation, as well as commend the cultural goods that might be observed and built upon. He commends a kind of patriotism that is not an “America first” mentality but rather a wanting what is best of this country for all of its people while being mindful of our place in the world.

The second part of the book then considers how we might move from fear to faith in addressing some of the fearsome challenges we face:

  • Race: a call for white majority Christians to listen.
  • Police: while commending most law enforcement personnel, pressing for greater oversight and rooting out of unjust policing practices.
  • Sex: as one who has previously endorsed gay marriage in the civil sphere, he argues that our focus is better spent on the more casual and thoughtless expressions of sexuality and its heart-wrenching consequences.
  • Abortion: while deeply troubled by a casual approach to abortion, especially late-term abortions,  and favoring some legal restrictions on abortion with exceptions for rape, incest and threats to the life of a mother, he argues for greater focus on preventing pregnancies that would lead to abortion.
  • Aliens: here, he would like to see reforms proposed before our recent election cycle for comprehensive immigration reform that both secures borders while providing some path for undocumented persons who have not broken other laws to gain some kind of legal status.
  • Guns: this is one he speaks deeply and passionately about, questioning whether the founders had in mind the proliferation of weaponry we see.
  • Money: he calls us beyond competitive greed to a generosity with our resources.
  • Climate: he decries that denial of climate change and the partisan impasse that leads to doing nothing while creation suffers, and with it many of the most vulnerable.
  • War: we have been at war for most of the last century. While nations must protect themselves, he argues there are many tools and Christian should press for the nonviolent ones to be used insofar as possible and for constitutional processes to be protected.
  • Executions: the death penalty is an anomaly, the consequence for only a handful of murders, and often inequitably applied at great cost to our system.
  • Education: a call to pursue the best possible education for all our people. Surprisingly, he calls for removing tenure and union protections of incompetence while saying students, teachers, and parents all are required to make this work.
  • Health-care: all of God’s children should have access to affordable and adequate care. A generous patriotism doesn’t want any to fall through the cracks.

The strength of this book is that it articulates an ethic that is broadly pro-life, and expands upon what would be a generous and faith-informed vision of patriotism. Obviously, not all will agree with all he commends. I personally took issue with what I thought a cavalier treatment of Romans 13 about authority that imputed Paul’s statements to his privileged status as a Roman citizen. I thought this was biblical eisegesis and unnecessary to make his case against unlawful use of police force.

Because Gushee tries to cover so much ground, especially in the second part of the book, in a series of short reflections, many of his recommendations, which tend to echo more progressive positions in most cases, come with relatively little biblical or theological argument, nor is there much of an effort to address opposing views. As a result, my sense is that the book will be re-assuring to those of Gushee’s “anxious friends” from a more progressive outlook, but dismissed by his conservative “anxious friends.” Nor do I feel it will promote dialogue between these factions within the Christian community who are anxious for very different reasons (it’s telling to me for example that he is silent about issues of religious liberty). I found Russell Moore’s Onward (reviewed here) a far more helpful resource for promoting this kind of engagement.

Perhaps the two might better be read together. Perhaps the places they differ might open up the safe space for Christians to wrestle toward an ethic of societal engagement that is neither left nor right but distinctively Christian. I think that is what both authors would want. And for Gushee, an ethic of faith working through love is much preferable to one that resides and responds in fear.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via a pre-publication e-galley through Edelweiss. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.