Monday, July 23, 2007

God loves you, so send your money in today

I dislike televangelists. Rather, I dislike the picture of the Christian right they paint: a swath of people who believe the human is superior to other species due to their allegiance to a deity and their adherence to a set of texts sent down from said deity.

Now, don't get me wrong here: I have respect for all people of any religion in name. Further, half of my family are evangelical, and I love them very much and appreciate what they do for me. However, I believe that if someone decides to follow a man — or woman — on television because of their supposed representation of God, they end up worshipping the man representing God, not God. These representatives include Pat Robertson, Benny Hinn, and Tim LaHaye (and did include Jerry Falwell and Tammy Faye Messner), who all have started as people with faith but turned into veritable megalomaniacs, many of them amassing huge fortunes as a result of running huge ministries or even television stations. While I do not approve of the practices leading up to this, as I will explain later, it should be considered that the message they at first tried to put out was indeed of good faith, yet power and fame simply corrupted them.

Evangelism as a media genre can be put back arguably as far as Charles Coughlin's radio programme, broadcast in the days of Franklin Roosevelt, in which he angered several religious audiences with anti-Semitic comments until, after World War II and failed attempts by the government to control him, a Detroit priest ordered him off the air. The first time money became involved, though, may have been a plea from Pat Robertson to keep his television station at the time, WYAH-TV, which resulted in a telethon that still continues today on its successor — the Christian Broadcasting Network — and many other religious stations, first starting with $10 donations from a benchmark of 700 donors a month (hence the name of the flagship programme, The 700 Club). The telethon, which was enough to keep the station afloat, pales in comparison to the telethons still held on Trinity Broadcasting Network's Praise the Lord programme. TBN, in effect, was formed when Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker broke with CBN, but they eventually left TBN alone and started the PTL network, which would soon become infamous for the failure of a Christian theme park, the imprisonment of Jim Bakker for tax evasion, and his affair with a secretary that he tried to settle with $250,000.

TBN, under the direction of Paul and Jan Crouch, has become probably the largest religious television network in the nation, with revenues upward of $150 million annually. However, much of the money any such network seems to make goes toward the luxurious lifestyle of the hosts. Indeed, according to Business 2.0's Dumbest Moments in Business History, Bakker had diverted more than $3.7 million in revenue for personal issues, including an air-conditioned doghouse. Whatever the money is specifically used for, the fact that the bulk of it comes out of the pockets of viewers as 'donations' is unsettling in the least. Rather than live out as a pay-per-view programme offered with, say, DirecTV, people have to donate to the station. In theory, donating is good — but what if, Chris Hedges asked in his book, American Fascists, you start demanding $1000 or more at a time? You claim that 'you are robbing God', and that 'it is Your show, Your airwaves'. To me, that sounds much like extortion, seeing as no deity like the one they claim to represent would actually need money. Much of money inevitably goes to Crouch or whomever is running the station, and to see them spend an excessive amount of money on a jet plane and several mansions, not to mention cosmetic surgery — rather than give some money to actual charities and keep a modest sum — is nothing short of incensing, and even more so when you back up such opulence as a 'gift from God' for running a ministry.

If money is enough to incense me, I can't bear to think of how awful it is to couple it with the constant purporting that God wants the financial best for His followers. On a Detroit News article that is no longer online, a church pastor evidently got to write off a mansion as a donation from members of his church, which subscribed to the 'Gospel of Wealth', a system of Christian beliefs that come to the conclusion that God wants followers to be as wealthy as possible. There's a little problem with that, however:

And as he was going forth into the way, there ran one to him, and kneeled to him, and asked him, Good Teacher, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life? And Jesus said unto him, Why callest thou me good? none is good save one, even God. Thou knowest the commandments, Do not kill, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor thy father and mother. And he said unto him, Teacher, all these things have I observed from my youth. And Jesus looking upon him loved him, and said unto him, One thing thou lackest: go, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, follow me. But his countenance fell at the saying, and he went away sorrowful: for he was one that had great possessions. And Jesus looked round about, and saith unto his disciples, How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God! And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus answereth again, and saith unto them, Children, how hard is it for them that trust in riches to enter into the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through a needle's eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. (Mark 10:17-25 ASV)

It seems as if Jesus didn't see wealth as necessarily a qualification for getting into heaven; rather, it seems as if he wanted the rich man to be generous to the poor as he certainly had the resources to do so. While it is true that the religious right does tend to give more to charity than liberals and the secular (even when donations to organisations such as TBN are factored out), there are some who, despite the great trend, believe that an expanse of wealth and power is acceptable by God regardless of where it goes. The Gospel of Wealth, therefore, probably isn't a very good interpretation of what should be done on the part of Christians.

Even more harrowing is the thought of not wealth alone, but power — over the government. We see it today, with states passing laws forbidding same-sex couples from marrying, apparently in the light of a Massachusetts ruling that allowed them to do so. Last year, South Dakota even tempted Roe v Wade by banning abortion altogether except in cases in which the mother's life was at risk, even disallowing exceptions for rape and incest. It's unfathomable to me how this could have been the result of a bloc bred on the teachings of pastors in the media — we have the Moral Majority, founded by Jerry Falwell in the hopes of creating a voting base of people opposed to specific or implied actions prohibited in the pages of the Bible. The resulting voting base took credit for putting Ronald Reagan in power, and they almost certainly helped both Bushes enter office. The latter Bush, turned to when America was attacked on 11 September 2001, turned out to be one to cause mayhem in the moral sphere — not to mention Iraq — based on his evangelical beliefs, egged on by religious Republicans and arguably the forces of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. Indeed, the latter was featured on The 700 Club two days after the attacks to give his analysis (click the video link below the picture of his face) of what caused it — and it had nothing to do with militant Arab fundamentalists:

I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way — all of them who have tried to secularise America — I point the finger in their face and say, you helped this happen.

Eventually Robertson, who said 'Well, I totally concur', recanted. All the same, the attack was caused by militant Arab fundamentalists — and it seems to me that remarks like this could have been the very fuel needed for such an attack. When it gets down to it, these fundamentalists and these beacons of the Christian right are quite the same in their steadfast intolerance for even other religions. That's what the whole mess in the Middle East is over, after all.

While we're on the subject of gays and abortionists, I might as well say what I believe. People like Falwell will use a prohibition in Leviticus as well as Paul's letter to the Romans* to justify such inconvenience to gays. That's fine to me — but it's not fine when rigid interpretations make their way into the government of a free society. The decision that homosexuality is a sin is in the moral sphere, something a straight or gay person alike might see as a hindrance or a sign of weakness. But marriage is a different issue, one that carries legal consequence. I believe that the government has no responsibility to rule on strictly moral affairs as homosexuality when it occurs in the bedroom; as such, denying a couple a legal right based on an individual, moral interpretation is downright wrong. Although marriage has always been sacrosanct in many religions, even as the union of one man and one woman, I do not see this having much validity when applied to legal statutes that apply to all people regardless of their sexual orientation — if marriage is a legal term, I say let same-sex couples marry.

As such, I am adamantly pro-choice. I realise there are many couples who want to have a child and place a value on the foetus any woman is carrying, but this doesn't necessarily apply to them since they want the child. There are some out there who are brave enough to pull through with raising a child even if they were raped — this is not for them, either. The issue here really covers those who have sex as a form of recreation or trust, even outside marriage. On one hand you have the girl who was raped or was a victim of sexual abuse within the family, and on the other you have the girl who had sex with her boyfriend in which no condom was used or the condom or any other device failed. The latter case I do find a little immoral, but it happens either because of indifference to the situation or as a token of trust. In either case, if a pregnancy arises, it's ultimately the woman's decision whether to go on with the pregnancy and raise the child, or abort it. A pregnancy at a young age, while possible in older times, is made much more difficult by college and the possibility of a career (not to mention the scant availability of sitters). Indeed, in Steven Levitt's Freakonomics, the point is made that a child arising from an unwanted pregnancy and not given up for adoption most likely will grow up bearing the scars of his or her mother's resentment and turn to crime. Indeed, Levitt was criticised across the board when the point was made clear that legalised abortion was a major factor in the fall of crime in the 1990s despite apocalyptic predictions for the decade. I think the fact that a pregnancy forced upon by a moral interpretation of a foetus as a separate life — when it's not even counted in population and mortality records — will likely result in the child being raised in an environment conducive to resent and criminal behaviour is enough for me to say a woman should have the right to abort at any stage of pregnancy. Even if it is a little gross.

One of the people I met at the conference over last weekend was pressured into sex four times by a former boyfriend. At the conference, a boy she liked (I'm sketching here) rejected her because of her belief that she should have the right to abort should she find herself incapable of raising a child. She cried for a few minutes before her friend, a staff member, and I gathered around and dried the tears before resuming the water play.

Now, my aunt and uncle donate to CBN, and I have watched two episodes of The 700 Club at their house. The objective of the show, I will repeat, is to uplift viewers with miracles in others' lives, but when they begin political rhetoric — such as the talk on gays and abortion — things get ugly. I just hope there'll be someone who comes along and actually gives a decent ministry without forcing literal interpretations of the Bible on viewers. After all, humans did write the book — from their perception of the world, albeit with insight as to how God wanted the world to run — and humans are interpreting it.

* The last two paragraphs of the first chapter of Romans are a polemic on 'unnatural relations' leading to other sorts of sin, an allusion to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in the book of Genesis. We'll assume for a second that the Bible is true: While the documentation of a gang of men wanting to draw other men out for forced sex has led literalistic Christians to say that homosexuality led to the collapse of Sodom, I believe that a collection of graver sins, or perhaps even the simple fact that these men just wanted to force sex on other men to exact misery, but not because of individual orientation, could have led God to supposedly destroy the city. Also, the Archbishop of Canterbury recently issued a statement accusing such Christians of ignoring what Paul wrote at the beginning of the second chapter, immediately after his polemic, invalidating man's right to judge others based on their sins due to this situation.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Obligatory Youth to Youth update

Six youth summits. Four Youth to Youth summits. You would have thought that I would have become a moderator at one as I eventually gained — and lost — such respect at the Pok√©mon Community and other sites. This time, you're right: All through this conference, people have asked me to enlist in the conference administration. Apparently I can go straight in and then do Adult Staff duty the following year, or so they tell me. That I'll have to check on in March, when they say applications are going out.

This year, so much has happened that I now have to break it into segments. Unfortunately, there are no pictures; I didn't remember the camera. If you're new to this blog and are a little confused, you may want to read the accounts of 2006 and 2005.

Day one: Fe fi fo fum, we're kicking I-95's bum

On Thursday, I had to be up at 4.00am and hail a taxi since my parents couldn't wake up. A few kids — the ones I normally went with had gone to Costa Rica earlier in the month — were in the van, and the father of one of them was driving as the pastor had to be present for a summer bazaar. The father turned out to be very critical of New Jersey as far as laws go, and he was like me in the mind that more roads were needed if the Garden State Parkway was clogged up at 7.00am (although much of it was due to an accident in which the police cut traffic off to push a car across the carriageway). We managed to get to campus at 11.00am, an hour ahead of registration, and when the rush finally came I made sure to be one of the first to register for courses — a writing course, a class about foreign students trying to learn the native language, and a workshop on Internet safety.

This year was the twenty-fifth anniversary of Youth to Youth's operations, so the theme this time around was 'I Love The 80s', meaning that the opening ceremony would often be interrupted (as scripted) by Melissa, who was reprising her role in the Youth Staff, with blurbs about what happened in the year — 1982 — that Youth to Youth came into being. Once that finished, we had a small session in the Rotunda of Bryant University in which we tried to identify whose picture was posted on one of the huge screens (I was in the flicking roster but it never stopped on me).

Then came the first family group session. Once again, I was in Family Group 9, and I had the same Adult Staff representative. The group was also led by Ashley (whom I recognised as the one who did slam poetry the previous year) and included a military man who had been sent to evaluate the programme by some sort of youth agency, a girl who aspired to be a model, a Nigerian girl who taught us our little buzzword 'Amonge' (an Ibo greeting) and whom I believe also wanted to be a model, a guy born in Japan to Sri Lankan parents who was advised against flirting, and four others. We didn't play as many games as before, rather discussing the events that passed as well as our lives, yet when we did, it would be Indian Chief, Mafia, and two attempts at Ha, the first being in a circle when some objected to being laid down on during the first session and the second — producing worse success at going down the line — being held on the final day.

Then dinner came. While I admit I've been eating less these days, I helped myself to decently-sized meals all through the conference. I also was approached by a few people in Adult Staff to recommend applying for Administrative Staff, or the 'A-Team'. It turned out that in order to be on Adult Staff, I would either have to return once as an adult plebeian or go to the administrative level. (I heard a variety of stories, some saying I could join Adult Staff right away.) When the day comes — sometime in March, they tell me — I'll find the application to do so; I'm also guessing that it'll require driving.

As lunch was going on, so did some old favourite round games such as Ride That Pony. There was another game, Jigaloo, which I finally figured out: You stand in a circle and shake and clap, singing 'Jig-a-looo, jig-jig-a-loooo, hey [name]!' before the person they call from the circle steps forward and creates a jive for the others to repeat before the process starts over. Now, I had thought for a while that it would be silly of me to join such games, but the following presentation, led by Bill Cordes, challenged that. He came on-stage with an easel on which an arrangement of letters, YOGOWYPI, was written. He told the conference that it stood for 'You Only Get Out What You Put In' before leading them in a gibberish chant, which I came to realise meant that anyone not joining the mass in following obviously wasn't putting in what they expected to enjoy in it (I'll have more on that later):

Fe, fe fi, fe fi fo, fe fi fo fum! Kumalacha kumalacha kumala vista, no no no nacho vista, vista, vista! Isalini disalini oo ah ah malini acha kacha acha lacha oo ah ah....

Then, there was 'The Big Show'. Instead of it being a talent show, it was a game show that involved the whole congregation: We started by filling out and submitting a quiz with eight questions, and the one who got the most right won an iPod and those whose sheets were drawn before got conference memorabilia (I got another pouch). Eventually one was called up to face the presenter in a 'Let's Make a Deal' session: He offered her a box or five one-dollar banknotes. The audience at first urged her to choose the box, yet as the number of banknotes increased, she leant toward the banknotes — and ultimately accepted them over the box, which turned out to have a dollar's worth of pennies.

At the end of the day, we all returned to one dormitory hall. Since construction was taking place and some of the dorms were out of commission, we all had to take up residence in one hall, the boys on the lower two floors and girls on the upper floors. I ended up with the very same room as last year, yet my room-mate was an East Greenwich envoy (the vast majority this year were East Greenwich envoys; none lived outside the north-eastern Untied States and Bermuda).

Day two: Lost in numbers

With the morning came the next speaker, David Mahan, who had not much more to say than his experiences as a young father and a screed on how abstinence was the only sure way to keep oneself clean of any infection or pregnancy (I'll have more on what I think when I write my piece on televangelists tomorrow — I just heard tonight that Tammy Faye has copped it) as a result of what he went through with having a baby and scraping to get by. Once that finished, we went off to the athletic centre for the team-building games, in which we had to rotate around stations that put us in a game of Hot Potato, cryptograms, and bridge walk in a theme similar to that of Survivor. The one I didn't like much was the cryptogram: We were handed a novel and were told to decipher a code using sequences that relied on a page number, line number, and letter. The codes, which were touted as escape codes, turned out to be Youth to Youth operation numbers, disheartening when the trouble people went through to understand the instructions was accounted for.

Then, we had lunch, a Family Group session, and our workshops. The first workshop I attended was 'A Day in the Life of an ESL Student', led by a staff member who himself had for a while struggled with language after moving in. He led the class off with sheets numbered by level of language mastery; those with the number 1 were written entirely in Spanish, and the amount of English increased as the number went up. The workshop ended wit lists of suggestions to accommodate those arriving from other countries with little or no English. The second, 'The Write Stuff', was initially a course in writing when other people tell you what to include, having us write any sort of work as she announced words for us to include in the order in which she announced them. Soon, though, it became a session in which we gathered in a circle and one or two people would come in and act out a scenario, and one in the circle would yell 'Freeze!' if he or she had an idea of a scenario that fit the positions the people inside were in, causing them to hold their positions and leave if the person who called tapped them out and assumed their position before continuing. Soon enough, we were all doubled over in laughter; one they found more hilarious was my intervention on a parent discipling an emotional child to turn it into me being a healer and the other girl confessing her 'sins'.

Then we had dinner, and the Youth Staff had a presentation that did away with projector idents that gave a glimpse of what the skit would cover and, rather, had staff members come out with flash cards with years written on them. The funniest of them all was a director's cut scene, in which a director had to do two takes on a scene in which a sister found her brother to be a drug addict and near death, whereupon she called her mother, who then hailed an ambulance. Two takes, one with pouting on the part on all cast members and another in which crying was induced, passed before the director announced that there were two many emotions to describe the disaster of such news.

Once that and another group session cleared, we went out to the athletic centre for racing games, food, and a movie. The pool was closed this year, so there went my chances to clean my toe up. The time would be spent with a girl I met during the writing workshop and her boyfriend, both from Connecticut and coming to conference for the first time.

Days three and four: Water and tears

Since the day began with a youth action planning session, I feel obligated to explain the group I came with and have been a part of for four years or so. We are a church group, responsible for many events occurring on the island for the enjoyment of kids and teenagers and for the benefit of the church. However, the group has been falling into disrepair; some of the senior members have ended up smoking, drinking, and causing other mayhem; indeed, as I stated in the 2005 report, one had been caught with marijuana at the conference. As Mike, the member of our youth group who was working as a Youth Staff member, explained in the morning, the previous leaders had been lenient on the other members, requiring that no drugs be done 'at the meetings'. Since laws prohibited it anyway, this had no effect. Mike decided, along with the rowdy bunch we came up with, that a drug-free style outside meetings would be compulsory. However, he warned of opposition from the girls who didn't come because of their involvement in the Costa Rica trip — indeed, according to him, many of them had been caught drinking vodka on the trip. The discussion dragged on into the following morning's discussion session, and we finally agreed on a bill to be voted on at the next meeting.

Back to day three. Once the planning session finished, we returned to the auditorium for another speaker, Harriet Turk. She led off with a story of a cashier who at first refused to talk to her until she gave her an ultimatum: stay put until a word was said. The next day, she came back, and the cashier announced to the whole store what was being rung up. As it turned out, this girl had a problem with the job and her social life that reflected in how she went about work. This led her to introduce a chant — one she would transmit to her daughter whenever she was out — that was supposed to make us assure ourselves that our social situation was within reach of rectification.

Lunch passed, and we had our third workshops. I attended a seminar on Internet safety, in which the officers led off with a few videos, one in which a kid fell off his bike down a concrete stairwell. The message, he said, was that anything could float around on the Internet. Indeed, he showed us a few things about social networking sites and friends on the Internet that shocked me. The first was a MySpace page of a person who legally possessed marijuana but ended up sharing it with teens he met through the page; the second was a story of a kid whose parents were technologically literate but was depressed much of the time, turning to the Internet for comfort before a 'friend' turned on him a week before he committed suicide.

Then, we headed back to the athletic centre for a round of water fights. I was not involved in any of the games in particular, yet I did often hang around people who ended up getting splashed in many places. One of the staff did eventually toss water at me, although it quickly cleared up. Yet I would have another source of water to worry about soon enough: tears. During the games, I chose to tail a pack of students from the snow cone machine. They all eventually were drenched as I followed them, but soon enough, one girl began to cry over a guy rejecting her based on an abortion belief (again, look for my televangelism piece tomorrow). Eventually one of her friends, a staff member, and I cheered her up, and all was bright and rosy again.

We cleaned off, had dinner, and we had the dance. Like last time, the dance was being held in the Rotunda rather than the park, but this was as planned (perhaps since there had been thunderstorms in the area as of recent). Yes, I did have a map or two, but this time, I would not — by my own choice! — be working on it whilst everyone else was having a good time. Time would be spent alongside two staff members, one of whom had, like me, obtained a great deal of college credits in her senior year. (This person I did eventually give a few old maps to.) I ended up dancing with them, and I enjoyed it. I'm not sure if it's due to a crush — if this were the case, it occurred really, really late this year — but when I was around these people or even on the floor, nothing seemed to matter other than how I looked to the people I was actually dancing with. (I might write a little more on that.)

On the final day, the family groups organised and we had a mass picnic outside the athletic centre. Then, we went into our room and made an attempt at Ha, which collapsed as people just couldn't stop giggling. The closing ceremonies followed, in which we were all given fortune cookies to crack at the same time, and I was actually able to get AIM contact lists for once!

So, youth staff?

Yes, administrative staff. Everyone has been telling me to apply, and it's time I gave back to the programme after feeding off it for four years. I can't wait until March.

Nobody tell James.