Monday, March 17, 2014

INTERNET HATE AND CONSIDERATE CODDLING

I really like the articles in CNN’s Belief Blog, and I’m grateful that the good folks at CNN.com give a space to intelligent discussion about faith.

But the intelligence usually ends with the article. What I mean is that the end of the article marks the beginning of some of the most caustic comments on the web.

Feeling securely masked behind random usernames, internet posters (those who “post” comments) are boldened to post any angry, salacious, inflaming words that come to mind. It is the modern equivalent to the anonymous prank phone calls of yesteryear. Technology has taken that joy away from telephone users (via caller identification), but has given it back in a different shape: internet forums and social media.

The freedom to "flame" robs us of the freedom to discuss.
The strong connection between anonymity and hateful internet comments is the very reason why Youtube.com is now working to get people to use their real names, knowing it will curb much of the online vitriol on their site.

While most internet rabble rousers enjoy posting their digital poison in blissful anonymity, many do not care if their face, name, or even their email address is shown to the world. The digital distance of the internet is enough to give them the courage to say things they would never say to face to face.

This is why “cyberbullying” became a major issue with teens, a poisonous practice with a growing list of fatalities.

The phenomena is so common it has been given a clinical name – Online Disinhibition Effect – and has been the subject of serious academic psychological study for at least a decade.

What does this have to do with faith? 

While the web has given us a fantastic tool to discuss with people worldwide the issues that fascinate us, confuse us, and (yes) divide us, it has also given us a tool to allow the worst within ourselves to digitally vomit venomous messages upon whomever we wish, whenever and wherever we wish. One sad consequence is that, where there was opportunity for thoughtful, open dialogue between those who differ, the openness (and anonymity) of the internet invites just the opposite, forcing any engaging and enlightening dialogue into closed groups, which means they will by nature be less engaging and enlightening as we feel compelled to discuss among like-minded folks just to ensure a friendlier, safer environment.

And that is sad.

A recent post on CNN’s Belief Blog is a well written article about Jesus, written by author and Jesuit priest, James Martin. Sadly, with all the hatred and cynical crudeness habitually left by internet users, I don’t expect James Martin to even attempt to respond to questions or comments on his article.

A couple years ago I made the mistake of trying to dialogue with the hatemongers who left comments on the Belief Blog. I asked why there was such animosity toward those of faith, and the reply given to me was, “because you all have been coddled too long.”

If being “coddled” means respecting others by (at minimum) withholding crass, meanspirited comments about their beliefs, then I’ll take coddling any day. And if that’s how one defines coddling, then lets generously coddle everyone, whether Catholics or Charismatics, Baptists or Buddhists, atheists or agnostics, Mormons or Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses or Jews.

If “coddling” means treating one another with respect, biting our tongue (or fingers) when tempted to communicate crassness, and talking with kind, civil words, despite our differences, then, by all means, let’s all coddle!

Anyone care to start an internet "coddling movement"?

Sunday, March 2, 2014

THE PRESIDENT AND "MY BROTHER’S KEEPER"

In a recently well-televised speech, President Obama recently made reference to one of the most famous stories in Bible’s book of Genesis (Gen. 4:9), and I wonder if America even knows it. You can read the tragic story about the brothers, Cain and Abel, HERE. 

When I hear the phrase “my brother’s keeper” my mind first goes to the Bible story, and then quickly goes to the song by the late Rich Mullins, who wrote his song “My Brother’s Keeper” while on a Native American reservation. Though Rich has been gone since the tragic accident in 1997, the organization he worked with is still making a difference in the lives of Native American youth. 


I saw some of the President’s speech regarding his “My Brother’s Keeper” plan, and it was encouraging that he included “all the faith communities” as part of the answer for the struggles of young minority males, along with government, business and philanthropic groups. They “all have a responsibility to help,” he said. But when I read the actual text of the “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative, in the very long list of Task Force members, there was no representative of any faith community listed. In fact, for an initiative that takes it’s name right out of the Bible (a word for word quote), there is surprisingly no mention of faith at all. 

As a president who has made much of his religious faith, this surprised me, but even more so in view of all the countless effective faith-based programs that have already been doing (for decades) exactly what the President is promoting. 

Part of the “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative is to research what has been working, and if the President is truly interested (as he says he is) about involving the “faith community,” then it would be wise to see what churches have already been doing for minority youth. A quick internet search can find some terrific programs worth researching, so if the Task Force wants to know what works, here are a few good examples: 

URBAN YOUTH IMPACT (West Palm Beach, FL) is an award-winning Christian-based outreach program for urban youth in West Palm Beach, Florida. They have an after-school academic program, healthy work opportunities, parenting classes, positive social events throughout the year. UYI workers spent over 9,000 hours tutoring students last year, with over 80% improving or achieving grade level. Begun in 1988 by Christian golf pro Joe Hobbs, 93% of all donations go to actual program services for inner city youth, with just a tiny fraction going to fund-raising and administration.

I liked what I read about CALVARY COMMUNITY CHURCH (Hampton, Virginia). Writer Wil LaVeist highlighted the church's mentoring programs for young black men. One year ago, the church began its successful "Man Training" program, a 10-week program to help "boys become men through the training of their minds, bodies and souls." Initially intended for young men in their church, soon they had at least 100 applications for enrollment from families outside the church seeking help for their young men. They began with a "boot camp" that addressed the whole person, mind, body and spirit, relying heavily on male volunteer mentors to be a weekly part of the lives of these young men. LaVeist says that "Moral and spiritual values, respect for authority, academic excellence, camaraderie and being an extension of the family are what the program emphasizes." Like most churches, they have a youth program, however they also have their E.P.I.C. Young Adult Program in which they plug in their young people as soon as they graduate from high school, to help them "utilize their gifts while under the mentorship of young adult leaders" and "providing associations and networking opportunities for them with godly peers and role models."

BRONXCONNECT is part of the Bronx Church Mentoring Outreach program, based in New York City. It “is a faith-based, community-based alternative-to incarceration youth program focused around mentoring services.” They serve young people, ages 12-18, partnering with several local churches and government services, to prevent offending youths from going back into the correctional system, achieving an 83% success rate since the year 2000 when they began to work with the local court system. Their primary work is matching these young with trained mentors for a one-on-one relationship that makes a difference. 

Doug Banister, pastor of the All Souls Church (Knoxville, TN) began serving urban youth by raising money to begin the EMERALD YOUTH SWIM TEAM. He realized that urban youth were being shut out of the active swim sports programs in his area because of a lack of finances and transportation. With the help of dozens of volunteers, they began the first inner city swim team in Knoxville, which currently has about 50 kids. They raised money for swimming gear, rides and meals for urban kids, coordinating efforts of other local teams, churches and even the University of Tennesee swim team. Their work is part of the Emerald Youth Foundation, “a Christian, urban youth ministry that serves more than 1,350 urban young people each year” in the Knoxville area, joining together 21 churches and Christian organizations to raise youth up to “love Jesus Christ and become effective leaders who help renew their communities.” 

As I said, I do appreciate President Obama's initiative, calling upon people and all kinds of organizations to be the "brother's keeper" to at risk youth and families, however churches have been doing this for 2000 years since the Leader of our global Task Force called upon us to feed the hungry, help the sick, and take care of our neighbors in many ways. 

We have been our brother's (and sister's) keeper for a very long time.