I Agree with Donald Trump (regarding his earlier position on the Fifth Amendment)

The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution contains several rights, including the right to “remain silent” in court and not provide evidence that is “self-incriminating”. Its original intent was to limit the government’s power to coerce people to make false confessions of guilt. The common use today of “taking the Fifth” or “pleading the Fifth” is that guilty persons can remain silent and not provide answers that would incriminate them.

I have always had problems about people who “take the Fifth”. If they are truly innocent, what is the problem in answering questions with truthful answers? In other words, only people who are guilty use this amendment, and they do so with the hope of evading or postponing the truth about their guilt. The truth usually wins out. Guilty actions eventually come into the light and appropriate punishment is meted out.

Back in 2016 when Donald Trump was running for president, he pronounced his opinion about those who take the Fifth. At a rally in Iowa, he criticized some of Hillary Clinton’s staff who had utilized the amendment to remain silent: “Her staffers taking the Fifth Amendment, how about that? You see the mob takes the Fifth. If you’re innocent, why are you taking the Fifth Amendment?” During a presidential debate, Trump affirmed that “taking the Fifth” was “disgraceful”. I agree with Trump. When people are innocent, they should answer court questions and answer with the truth.

On Wednesday of this week, Trump appeared in a deposition with the New York Attorney General who is leading a civil investigation of the Trump organization’s finances. It is alleged that the organization overestimated the value of the company’s assets in order to obtain loans at low interest rates. At the same time, it seems that the company underestimated the value of those same assets in order to pay lower taxes. Two of Trump’s children (Ivanka and Don, Jr., who hold positions of leadership in the organization) appeared in depositions recently and gave answers to the questions. Nevertheless, former president Trump “pled the Fifth” over 440 times on Wednesday and refused to answer simple questions regarding the company’s financial assets. More than 440 times! Clear answers could have proved his innocence if that were the true situation. The refusal to answer legitimate question, at the very least, gives the impression of guilt.

Noted legal scholar, Alan Dershowitz, who served as attorney for Trump, yesterday told reporters that he was shocked upon hearing that the former president used the Fifth Amendment 440 times if he has “nothing to hide”.

Given that there exist financial documents from the Trump organization, its innocence or guilt will soon come to light. A Scriptural maxim is that “we will be judged by our own words”. Consistency between our words and our deeds is important for our ethical integrity. I agree with Trump’s words six years ago regarding the Fifth Amendment, and therefore, and based upon his own words, I do not approve of his refusal to answer the deposition questions on Wednesday.

Heroes from the Hearings

Over the last ten days, we have witnessed three more hearings from the Congressional January 6 Committee. Many people have emerged as heroes, those who have demonstrated unusual courage. In spite of criticisms from their “friends” and enormous peer pressure, they showed their commitment to our country, our constitution, and our people by speaking the truth as they understood it. Like the rest of us, they surely have their flaws. Nevertheless, I mention two of them as worthy heroes whose courage should be emulated. They are Brad Raffensperger and Cassidy Hutchinson.

Raffensperger is a conservative Republican who has served as Georgia’s Secretary of State since 2019. Prior to that office, he was a businessman, a civil engineer, and a representative in Georgia’s House of Representatives representing District 50. No conservative should doubt his credentials nor his integrity. The presidential election of 2020 put that integrity to the test. In his role as Secretary of State, he announced that Biden had won the election, and as a consequence, Georgia’s electors. On January 2, 2021, he received a phone call in which President Trump asked him to “find” 11,780 additional votes, just enough to obtain Georgia’s delegates to the Electoral College. Raffensperger resisted that request. He had analyzed the allegations of voter fraud and concluded Biden had won the state, fair and square. Faithfulness to the truth was more important than “loyalty” to a powerful individual.

On Tuesday, Cassidy Hutchinson was the main witness in that day’s hearing. Although she is only in her mid-twenties, she held a significant role in the White House as an aide to the former Chief of Staff, Mark Meadows. She is a conservative Republican and was committed to the policies of the Trump administration. Nevertheless, she witnessed important failures of the former president and key members of his team. She came forward and testified, under oath, of what she saw and heard: Trump’s authorization of his supporters to have various weapons at the speech at the Ellipse on January 6, the president’s desire to go to the Capitol that day to protest the certification of Biden’s victory, many key people who requested a presidential pardon for their involvement in the insurrection, mistakes that Meadows committed, plus other pieces of vital information. She testified, in spite of various forms of pressure, including threats upon her life. Loyalty to the truth was more important than covering up for leaders when they make mistakes.

All people, but especially public servants, can learn a lot from these two heroes. The lesson is important for persons of all political persuasions, for Republicans and Democrats alike: truth is important. People in power and political parties frequently demand an absolute “loyalty” from their followers. We have a higher commitment. We are called to walk in the truth and admit our failures. May we draw upon the courage to do so.

Are the January 6 Hearings a “Witch Hunt”? Does it Matter

Over the past week we have witnessed the first three televised sessions regarding the January 6th, 2021 storming of the Capitol building in an attempt to block the certification of the election of President Biden. The congressional committee has mounted a large number of witnesses (all staunch Republicans up to this point) who have generally placed the blame for the insurrection on former president Trump.

Some of my friends (and many who support Trump) refuse to watch the hearings and claim that the evidence should be rejected because it is a “Witch Hunt”. They accuse the committee of being “never Trumpers” and, therefore, too prejudiced to be listened to.  There are seven Democrats and two Republicans on the committee. I hope that the committee members are trying to be fair, but I am realistic enough to recognize they are human and come to their task with subjective biases. Nevertheless, to dismiss the hearings as a “Witch Hunt” is a misguided cop-out. It is cowardly (and ethically wrong) to reject evidence without looking at it by alleging that it comes from prejudiced people. The issue is not who the information comes from, but whether it is accurate and true… or not. It takes great courage to examine information that we might not like and evaluate it with an open mind. I invite all people in our country to sift through the evidence and answer the following questions:

  1. Attorney General William Barr as well as Trump’s own campaign manager told him that he had lost the election, fair and square. Is Trump guilty of spreading the false message that the election had been stolen which was the principal motivation for the January 6th protest?
  2. After the election, Trump and his team 250 million dollars for an election defense fund. The problem is that this “fund” does not exist. It is a sham. Is Trump guilty of fraud?
  3. It is obvious that Trump pressured Vice President Pence to not certify the results of the Electoral College on January 6, 2021. Thursday’s hearing affirmed this was a violation of the Constitution. Was the pressure applied by Trump against Pence a criminal action?

If we want the truth, we must sift through the allegations. It is worth the effort. It will set us free and help restore our democracy.

Our Response to the Invasion of Ukraine

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is unjustified and evil. Putin is unleashing immense pain upon the Ukrainian people, upon his own Russian citizens, and has placed the entire world order in great danger. If nothing is done to stop the Russian advance, the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv will probably fall in the next couple of days. Putin ominously warned that if other countries attempted to stop the invasion, they would pay a “terrible price”, hinting at the use of nuclear weapons. Many European countries and the United States have begun to implement “severe economic sanctions” with the goal of forcing Putin to submit to acceptable international norms, but Russia’s immense oil and natural gas reserves give Putin great leverage with Europe. There are many key players who could take significant steps to reduce the pain, but they involve risk and cost. Here are some current options.

The United Nations should be the international police, yet it has structural weaknesses. The most obvious is that the five permanent members of the Security Council which includes Russia, have the power of the veto. By using this veto power, any one of these permanent members can thwart the wishes of the overwhelming majority of nations in the world. On Friday, the United Nations condemned the “brutal” invasion. Russia immediately vetoed that resolution. To complicate matters, this month it is Russia’s turn to preside the UN sessions. If the United Nations wants to be relevant in the future, it must get rid of this ridiculous veto power which has been so terribly abused.

NATO was formed to protect member nations. Its guiding principle was that an attack against any of the NATO countries would be considered as an attack against all the nations. “One for all and all for one.” The problem is that although Ukraine is friendly with NATO, it is not a member. Neither the United States nor any other member country is willing to send its own troops into Ukraine. It has been suggested that NATO declare Ukrainian airspace as a “no-fly zone” and prohibit Russia from dropping aerial bombs. It is possible that this would escalate the conflict into an all-out war, but it would probably save thousands of innocent civilians from bombing deaths. If Putin is not stopped now, other non-NATO nations in the region (like Moldova) would be easy targets for Russia’s expansion. Even NATO members (like Poland and the Baltic states) are vulnerable.

The United States and several European countries have imposed economic sanctions on Russia, first in an attempt to deter Putin, and now with the goal of punishing his immoral actions. Some of these sanctions are significant, but they are too little and too late. They might influence Putin to come to the bargaining table in a few weeks, but, in the meantime, many Ukrainians will perish. As of today, these government leaders have stopped short of really punishing Russia. For example, sanctions could be imposed that would prohibit Russia from participating in the international banking system (SWIFT). This would lead to a scarcity of oil and natural gas in Europe and would cause prices to skyrocket. Are Europeans and North Americans willing to pay higher prices to stop an immoral invasion and the thousands of deaths it would cause?

Many Russians are showing through their protests that they do not agree with Putin’s invasion. They have taken to the streets and hundreds have been jailed. I admire their courage. I hope that there are thousands of Russian soldiers who recognize that this is not a justified war. They should refuse to kill because there is a higher authority than Putin. It might cause them to be demoted, imprisoned, or even put to death, but those that believe in Just War Theory have the moral imperative to disobey an unjust military order.

Many Ukrainians have already demonstrated their bravery. It is likely that President Zelensky will pay the ultimate sacrifice for his love of his people. Many are fleeing from the war and taking their families to Poland, Moldova, or other neighboring countries. We who are far from the conflict should do all that we can to open doors for these refugees. These are desperate times and call for great courage and action.

The Biden Presidency’s one-year anniversary: Some criticisms are valid…some are not

One year into the Biden presidency: some criticisms are valid…some are not

Today, January 20, marks the one-year anniversary of Joe Biden’s presidency.  He has had his fair share of challenges: the Covid pandemic, the economy, foreign policies, etc. He has had some successes and some failures. As a result, his average percentage of public approval ranges from the low to mid-forties. His critics have identified his response to the Covid 19 pandemic, Afghanistan, the economy, the failure to achieve legislation on the Build Back Better and voting rights as his principal failures. Some of these criticisms are valid…some are not. I will comment on Afghanistan and the pandemic.

Last August, Biden received harsh criticism for the withdrawal of all troops from Afghanistan. He made mistakes on several aspects of that withdrawal, but an understanding of historical context is needed. The war in Afghanistan had gone on for twenty years. Back in February 2020, then president Trump negotiated with the Taliban leaders a deal in which U.S. and Taliban soldiers would not attack each other, but the U.S. would have to remove all of its military personnel by May 2021. The Trump administration excluded the Afghan government from even participating in these negotiations. So, Biden´s options were quite limited:

  1. Remove all U.S. soldiers by May of 2021 according to Trump´s agreement
  2. Negotiate a few extra months for the removal of the troops (this is what Biden did)
  3. Escalate the war by sending thousands of additional soldiers back into Afghanistan

Those who criticize Biden for removing all military personnel from Afghanistan have a right to their opinion. But unless they leveled the same criticism against Trump in 2020, they are inconsistent and guilty of hypocrisy.

A second area of criticism leveled against Biden has been in his response to the Covid 19 pandemic. Biden inherited a very chaotic situation from Trump. Infections and hospitalizations were so numerous that ICU space at many hospitals was totally filled up. To his credit, Trump did accelerate the production of vaccines with his Operation Warp Speed program, but his ridicule of mask wearing, his recommendation of drinking bleach as a cure, and his blocking and manipulation of scientific evidence were immoral and cost him the election. Early in his presidency, Biden made great progress against the pandemic, but (mistakenly) claimed victory over Covid. Then the Delta variant hit… and then the Omicron variant. Infections and hospitalizations have skyrocketed again. The Biden administration failed to order enough tests. The CDC has given confusing information and guidance about the spread of the pandemic. The President and his team have made mistakes in their handling of the pandemic, but we the people are also partly responsible. The growing scientific evidence tells us that the best ways to fight Covid are to get the vaccinations, test frequently and isolate when we test positive, wear masks in public spaces, and wash our hands frequently. If we have not followed these guidelines, (and if there are not extenuating circumstances), we citizens have contributed to the spread of Covid.

Vaccine mandates require special comment. The Biden administration mandated that health workers at institutions that receive federal funding (Medicare, Medicaid, etc.) be vaccinated. It also mandated that employees at large private companies (with over 100 employees) receive the vaccination or be tested weekly. Mandates are points of tension between individual freedom and public safety. The Supreme Court recently ruled that the Biden administration was correct regarding the health worker mandate but overstepped its authority regarding mandates for large private companies. The drinking of alcohol provides a helpful parallel. People can legally drink alcohol in their own homes, even to the point of getting drunk. The government, health agencies, and religious organizations can recommend that people don’t drink excessively, but adults legally have the right to do so in their homes. (Total banning of alcohol was attempted during Prohibition, but did not work). Nevertheless, governments appropriately mandate that people cannot drive their cars while they are under the influence of alcohol. Individual freedom is limited when public safety is at stake. Although there is a very slight risk with any vaccination, the evidence shows that not getting vaccinated against Covid is much more dangerous. Unvaccinated persons are 17 times more likely to become hospitalized than their vaccinated neighbors. This greater rate of hospitalization puts public safety at risk due to greater strain on hospitals (no available ICU space, needed surgeries are postponed, stress and burnout among health care workers, etc).

Vaccines are highly successful in fighting Covid. Are federal, state, and private sector mandates part of that successful battle? The courts will make their rulings as they weigh individual liberty versus public safety. Nevertheless, if more people voluntarily received the vaccinations, we would approach herd immunity and the pandemia could be reduced, and mandates would not be necessary.

The one-year anniversary of Biden’s presidency is a good time to evaluate the past and make the necessary corrections. Biden should do so…and so should we.

When the Giving of Thanks is a Sham

Thousands of years ago, there was a Rabbinic blessing that the Jewish rabbis would recite every morning.  ¨Blessed are you, O God, for making me a Jew, and not a Gentile, free and not a slave, a man and not a woman.¨ Although clothed in religious language, this ¨blessing¨ covered up some of the national and social prejudices of the time. In other words, their giving of thanks was a sham. In their specific context, Gentiles, slaves and women had inferior places in society. The free, male rabbis were thankful that they were the ¨winners¨ in their social context. Down through the ages, people have protested, fought wars, made speeches, taught classes in favor of the equality of all humans. We have come a long way…but we still have a long, long way to go.

The racial prejudice, machismo, and social sins of previous generations are quite evident to us today, who are the ¨enlightened¨ ones. Nevertheless, we have our own biases. In our politically divided United States, most of our citizens are clearly in one of two camps. Almost all areas of life: voting, Covid vaccines and mask wearing, education/PTA meetings, the Supreme Court and even our churches are increasingly politicized and polarized. Most of us are arrogantly thankful that we are morally superior to those in the other group. It comes across in the way we talk about people on the other side.  ¨All Democrats are baby killers¨ or ¨All Republicans are racists¨ even though these affirmations are obviously exaggerated and false. These exaggerations are shameful and shamful.  Many in the middle are increasingly frustrated with both sides.

I am not a moral relativist. All options are not ethically equal. Truth is important and so is distinguishing right from wrong. I am happy when I shed morally or intellectually inferior options in order to choose better ones. But these wise decisions are accompanied by the temptation of pride. That pride and arrogance are dangerous for us individually and as a nation. Therefore, I recommend the following suggestions for my/our interaction with those on the other side.

Before, during and after we critique others, we must remember that

  1. All of my ¨opponents and rivals¨ are as important as I am.
  2. I must appreciate and recognize the aspects of goodness and truth in positions that I reject.
  3. I need to be rigorously honest in my use of information about others and about my side.

Let us go forward in truth and grace.

Dear Republican Friends: Believe the Facts from Arizona

I have many friends and relatives who are registered Republicans. Recent polls suggest that a majority of Republicans do not believe that last November’s presidential election was essentially clean and fair. They believe that substantial fraud took place in the tabulation of votes in states like Georgia and Arizona that voted with their ballots (and therefore their entire slate of electors in the Electoral College) in favor of Biden. This blog is for you.

I have tried to be patient with these friends. I have hoped that they were not just “sore losers” who did not want to admit that Biden defeated Trump. But news coming out of Arizona should answer any doubts about the election in that state.

A little bit of background. Arizona has been a competitive state with Republicans having a slight edge over Democrats in the presidential elections. Nevertheless, with the significant growth of urban areas where Democrats tend to be stronger, the Democrats have been narrowing the gap. Here are the presidential results from the last 20 years.

Presidential elections (according to Arizona Presidential Election Voting History (270towin.com)

               Republicans                                      Democrats                         Republican margin

2020      Trump-R              49.1%                   Biden-D                49.4%                   – 0.3%

2016      Trump-R              48.7%                   Clinton-D             45.1%                   +3.6%

2012      Romney-R           53.7%                   Obama-D             44.6%                   +9.1%

2008      McCain-R            53.6%                   Obama-D             45.1%                   +8.5%

2004      Bush-R                 54.9%                   Kerry-D                44.4%                   +10.5%

This gradually growing Democrat strength is also evidenced in the U.S. Senate races. Republicans won all of the races in the 21st century until 2018 when Democrat Kyrsten Sinema defeated Republican Martha McSally (a Trump supporter) 50% to 47.6%. In that same 2018 election Democrats won 5 of the 9 congressional races in the state.

Therefore, it was widely expected that the 2020 presidential race between Trump and Biden would be competitive. Prior to election day, 11 of the 16 news agencies making predictions gave Biden a slight lead. The other five considered the election to be a toss-up.  

According to the official results, Biden defeated Trump by some 10,000 votes 49.4% to 49.1%. Significant factors in Biden’s victory were a 3% increase in the number of Latino votes and a ringing endorsement by Cindy McCain (John McCain’s widow) which persuaded many traditional Republicans to vote for Biden.

Even though Biden’s victory was certified by Arizona’s election authorities, Trump claimed the election was fraudulent. Even after Biden’s inauguration, the Republican controlled State Senate in Arizona authorized the formation of the Maricopa County Presidential Ballot Audit to de a recount of the votes in that county. This was an extremely partisan endeavor carried out by Trump supporters who wanted to find extensive fraud. The final report of the audit was released two weeks ago (September 24,2021). The hand tabulated recount revealed that Biden had actually received 99 more votes than originally reported and Trump 261 fewer votes. (See Schwartz, David; Layne, Nathan (September 27, 2021). “‘Truth is truth’: Trump dealt blow as Republican-led Arizona audit reaffirms Biden win”Reuters. Retrieved September 28, 2021.

My plea is that those who have claimed fraud in Arizona would admit the truth. If the state election authorities found no fraud, and if a Republican appointed private auditing firm could not find fraud, what evidence would persuade these “unbelievers”? There comes a point when the facts are overwhelming, when we must accept the truth even when we don’t like it. The truth is good for us. It can set us free.

Afghanistan – Let`s Learn from the Mistakes of Four U.S. Presidents!

Afghanistan – Let’s Learn from the Mistakes of Four U.S. Presidents

               Last week, our twenty-year war in Afghanistan came to an end. At times, it was quite chaotic. The country is back in the hands of the Taliban. Even the most optimistic political spin cannot this war into a total success. What should we do now? Let us learn from the mistakes of the four U.S. presidents who oversaw this war.

George W. Bush [#43] took us into war in Afghanistan in 2001. Our country was reeling from the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, and citizens wanted revenge. The Taliban controlled Afghanistan at that time and sheltered al-Qaeda which was responsible for the 9/11 attacks. The Taliban refused to turn over Osama Bin Laden, so Bush began dropping bombs on October 7. Within a short time, the Taliban was defeated…temporarily. Bush prematurely announced total victory. In November 2003, the president declared, “Our military went to Afghanistan, destroyed the training camps of al-Qaeda, and put the Taliban out of business forever.” That claim was arrogant…and turned out to be false. Although al-Qaeda was temporarily beaten, Osama bin Laden would not be killed until a decade later, and in Pakistan, not Afghanistan.

               Bush made several mistakes, but possibly the biggest was that he led us into a war that had no “exit strategy”. Those who understand Just War Theory (and sadly, most people do not) know that a just cause is not sufficient to declare a justified war. Other criteria, such as just cause, last resort, and the realistic probability of success including an “exit strategy”, must also be met. (Back in the 1st Gulf War, then President George H. W. Bush [#41] pushed the Iraqi soldiers out of Kuwait in 1991, but the U.S. did not invade Baghdad at that time, because there was no “exit strategy”. The son should have learned this lesson from his father.) We the people of the United States should have learned a similar lesson from the failed war in Vietnam.

President Bush also allowed the war to morph from a limited objective of destroying the al-Qaeda camps to an ambiguous, nebulous goal of “nation-building”. Pentagon leaders were also at fault by misleading the president and the public by claiming that we were “winning” the war and that the new Afghan government and military were able to stand on their own. Based on their counsel, Bush affirmed in 2004, “as a result of the U.S. military, the Taliban no longer is in existence.” Four years later, Bush lied to us and denied having uttered those words, “I never said the Taliban was eliminated. I said they were removed from power.” We must learn to be suspicious of the cheap military claims made by our presidents.

Barack Obama [#44] campaigned on the promise to get our soldiers out of Iraq and Afghanistan. Although he did withdraw our troops from Iraq, he increased our military presence to 68,000 troops in Afghanistan in February, 2009. Although the capture and killing of Bin Laden in May of 2011 restored Obama’s popularity at home, the quagmire in Afghanistan continued. The Afghan people lost confidence in their own national government. When Obama left office in January 2017, he had not fulfilled his promise to end the “endless war”. We should learn to question the overly optimistic campaign promises and military predictions of our presidents.

Donald Trump [#45] also campaigned on the promise to end the war in Afghanistan. With his policy of “America first”, he criticized the “endless wars” that Bush had started. Nevertheless, when he talked about pulling our troops out, his military leadership continued to mislead him and the public with claims of us winning the war and the excellent training our military had given to the Afghans. In February of 2020, Trump totally ignored the Afghan government and negotiated a special deal with the resurgent Taliban (?!!!) to end the war. Trump began to withdraw the 15,000 troops down to 2500 and promised to leave Afghanistan by May 1, 2021, if the Taliban would not attack U.S. soldiers. Although this was an attempt to keep his promise and to end the war, it also meant that the death of 2,400 U.S. soldiers (and over a hundred thousand Afghans) and the 2 trillion dollars spent on training the Afghan army were largely in vain. Trump’s agreement was a clear signal that he had lost confidence in the Afghan government (even though the White House continued to proclaim the Afghan military was well equipped). Here again, the lack of a serious, good exit strategy guaranteed a bad exit. The lesson to be learned is that unjust wars should not be ended by bad agreements.

Joe Biden [#46] also campaigned to end the war in Afghanistan. Even when he was Vice-President during the Obama administration, Biden was in favor of bringing the troops home. Although he moved the Trump negotiated date of withdrawal back four months to August 31, 2021, he had decided to withdraw our troops (and some 70% of the U.S. people agreed with him).  The Taliban quickly extended their control over the country. Afghan president Ashraf Ghani fled the country on August 15 and the city of Kabul fell into the hands of the Taliban. Biden had to send 6000 soldiers back into the country to oversee the safe withdrawal of U.S. citizens and thousands of Afghans who had helped the U.S. At times it was chaotic. A suicide bomber killed 13 American soldiers and some 170 Afghan civilians. Although Biden had promised that all U.S. citizens who wanted to leave would be able to do so, as of today there are about 100 Americans and thousands of Afghan allies still in the country. Biden made promises that he could not keep.

With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight vision, I would have temporarily kept the U.S. soldiers in the country even as I would have started processing the Special Immigrant Visas for the Afghan civilian allies earlier in the summer.  Even this action would have been criticized, because it is likely that Kabul would have fallen even earlier than it did.

               Upon seeing the chaotic departure, some people have argued that the U.S. should have stayed in Afghanistan for many more years. Unless these people also criticized the Trump withdrawal plan, this is blatant hypocrisy.

What should we do now?

  1. We should learn from our mistakes and not jump into bad wars so quickly. Invasions of other countries for ¨just¨ causes are rarely successful, especially when the invading army does not understand the target culture. When you bet on the losing side in a civil war, the exit will be messy.
  2. We should encourage peaceful means to reduce the poverty, hunger, and oppression of women in war-torn Afghanistan. This means working with the United Nations and other countries in the region.
  3. Congress should immediately increase refugee limits so that, upon appropriate vetting, Afghan civilians can be received into our country without delay.
  4. In our communities, we should work with groups like World Relief to help settle these Afghan refugees.

We Have Met the Pharisees and They Are Us

Most people have heard of the Pharisees. They were a religious group of leaders within Judaism during New Testament times. Although Jesus agreed with them on some doctrinal issues (like the resurrection of the dead), he challenged them on many of their practices. He criticized them for their religious arrogance, for their hypocrisy and for their self-righteousness. I have never wanted to be like the Pharisees because I have not wanted to receive that same type of criticism from Jesus.

Nevertheless, I am more similar to the Pharisees that I would like to admit. Explore with me the inner thinking of the Pharisees.

  1. They were proud of their knowledge of the Scriptures. I too am proud of my knowledge of the Bible.
  2. They used this knowledge to benefit themselves and to put down others. I have, on occasion, used my knowledge of the Bible and other topics to elevate myself and to criticize others.
  3. The Pharisees were arrogant and thought that their group was always right. I, and most citizens in my country, think that our group, our political party, our church, and our nation have been right (almost always) and that the ¨Other¨ is wrong.

What are the tragic consequences of this modern-day Pharisaic behavior? Many people are rightfully rejecting institutions due to the hypocrisy of their leaders. This is especially true about younger generations. Young adults are abandoning their churches at record rates. They are skeptical of political parties. The hypocrisy of many Boy Scout leaders has led to its bankruptcy. The behavior of some police officers has caused a crisis of credibility.

What is the cure to this Pharisee-itis? Before we just assume that we are “right”, we need to dig deep into our heart and ask tough questions about our motives. In the words of Jesus, we need to take the beam out of our own eye before we take the speck out of the eye of our neighbors.

Let’s begin the slow, long road towards greater moral integrity.

Proud to be an American?

An acquaintance recently sent me a message on Facebook that read, “I’m proud to be an American”. He then asked that if I agreed with the statement, I should re-send it to everyone on my friend list. This phrase is very common, but it is also problematic. Given that we are entering Memorial Day weekend, I think it is important to unpack the phrase…and make it better.

First, we need to clarify the name “American”. Many people from the United States use the word to refer exclusively to people from our country. Many are unaware that this comes across as very arrogant to others in the Americas. My wife is a Brazilian. Brazilians are Americans. I have lived many years of my adult life in Mexico and Costa Rica. Mexicans and Costa Ricans are as much “American” as I am. Those who are from Canada southward to Chile and Argentina can all claim to be Americans.

A little bit of history helps. The wars of independence broke out in Spanish America in 1810 in Venezuela, Mexico, and Argentina, then quickly spread to other colonies. Much hinged on the word “Americano”. On the one side were Spaniards born in Spain but had moved to the colonies in the Americas and received special privileges. They were known as “Peninsulares”. On the other side were the “Americanos”, who were Spanish by ancestry but who were born and raised in the Americas. They were treated as second class citizens. (This is similar to life up north where the Anglo colonists suffered “taxation without representation” at the hands of their British relatives.) The founders of the new nations in Latin American paid dearly (some with their lives) for being “Americanos”.

Part of the problem is due to our limited vocabulary. We have words like Canadians, Hondurans, and Peruvians, but we would need to create something like “United Statesians” to achieve greater precision. “North Americans” is somewhat better, but as seen with NAFTA, Canadians and Mexicans are geographically also in North America. To communicate more accurately, I choose to use “U.S. citizens” or “people in the United States”.

Even more problematic in the phrase “I’m proud to be an American” is that it appeals to our emotions, but it does not clarify what “American” attributes we should be proud of. Should we be proud of our pursuits of Manifest Destiny even though European settlers took lands that were under the stewardship of indigenous people? Should we take pride in our history of slavery or repent of it? Which side of the current cultural wars should we be proud of? There is room for reasonable disagreement and debate on specific issues and attributes but a blanket statement of pride to be an American does not advance that debate.

So, where do I stand? I am proud of the American belief that all men and women are created equal before the law, but I lament our historical failures to put that belief into practice. I am proud of the invitation to immigrants etched on our Statue of Liberty, but I am horrified how we closed our doors to Jewish refugees who tried to flee Nazism. This Memorial Day, let’s reflect on our national past, learn from our mistakes, and contribute our words and deeds to making our country better.