Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Nonprofits: Develop your social listening strategy, tools and tactics NOW

I recently left (for financial reasons) a wonderful organization I'd been employed at for nearly 23 years. My history there: I started out at the nonprofit as a writer and editor, founded the organization's web presence (and created most of the products that now help it to raise about half of its billion-dollars-per-year in revenue online), and launched its most integral social media channels (such as its corporate blog, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube channels), which have also experienced unprecedented success.

My Introduction to Social Listening

During the last few years I served as a member of the organization's corporate social media team,  and one of my key goals (in addition to providing social content, channel management, analytics and online customer care) was to "figure out" social listening. What is it? Who's doing it and what are best practices? How can it help a nonprofit organization like the one I worked for?

I participated in numerous webinars and did a lot of research, then jumped in.

Creating Your Strategy

The first task, once you understand what social listening is, why you should be doing it and how it can help our causes and organizations, is to develop a clear strategy. As with any strategy, it must be well-informed, realistic and achievable, but also ambitious and visionary. And it must take into account the various realities and the interdependencies of the organization you serve.

I wrote a one-pager that outlined what I thought our strategy should be. My supervisor presented it to senior management and they loved it. The bottom line was: If we did social listening right, using some of the cool new tools out there to help us sort through and make sense of "big data," we could position our organization well for continued growth and success by: 1) informing senior management and key stakeholders of social trends and sentiment of our customers as it was occurring; 2) Become far more responsive to our customers (or, in our case, our donors') concerns and opinions; 3) alert us to vital "risk" concerns early in the game; and 3) Equip our own customer service specialists with the data they need, right at their fingertips, to interact effectively with our customers/donors.

Now It's Time To Talk Tactics

After numerous RFPs and interviews, we engaged a firm that one of our national offices had already been working with, Tracx, because we liked the simplicity of the interface they offered, how well they were connected with and seemed able to sift through "big data" sources, and the apparent simplicity/clarity of their customer interface and reporting system. They also worked the hardest of any of the firms we interviewed to get our business, and gave us a preliminary (first-year) price which truly was a good deal. They wanted the account, and seemed like they deserved it.

My management then tasked me with implementing the strategy I had outlined, tactically. I was to create a daily (informal) reporting system that made key stakeholders, specifically those who needed to be aware of risks in the social arena, aware quickly of either general negative sentiment or very specific negative attacks on our organization occurring out there in social space. These stakeholders included the "risk" group within our PR department, social media management, and key representatives from our donor service area. These would assess the relative risk of the information I presented (by email and phone, if urgency demanded) and escalate as appropriate, to our legal area, or senior management, or other stakeholders.

The next reporting tactic was a weekly social listening report, which I prepared in digital and paper form and presented to a group of content management specialists and key organizational stakeholders. This weekly report graphically summarized sentiment analysis for our organization's social interactions, and for those of some key competitors we had identified and were tracking. It also presented conversation trends (in "word cloud" fashion) for key words and phrases we were following, most importantly our own brand terms. And it tracked general trends related to social conversation on our channels and those of our competitors.

If social media followers were engaging with our competitors over specific issues, it was very helpful to understand this and jump in with ideas about how we could provide content to help us become a part of this conversation. Or if content we had provided was really spiking social interest, in contrast to other content we had "out there," it was extremely helpful to give this feedback to the appropriate department in hopes they could "do more of the same."

Because I was responsible for customer care in association with our key social channels, and in collaboration with those channel managers, I also had my finger on the pulse of how our customers were sharing their concerns with us on channels such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, and how they were feeling about our products or core offerings and our content. I therefore included a section at the end of each weekly report to share highlights of key customer feedback and trends, and I made sure our more "traditional" customer service departments (such as our call center, mail center and email correspondents) were hearing me and paying attention.

Finally, I aggregated these weekly reports together into a monthly report which I "prettied up" a bit so my management could send it on up to senior management and give them an easy, visual way to keep in touch with social sentiment of our donors and of those interacting with our competitors. These highly visible monthly and quarterly reports were designed both to equip senior management ... and keep our own department's bread buttered, so to speak!

There are so many reasons social listening, which is being practiced well by today's most responsive business organizations, is an essential skill for nonprofits who want to be successful in the competitive environment they are operating in.

Taking It the "Next Step" — Integrating Social Listening Into Your CRM

One of the things I was hoping would happen while I was still with my organization, but which they have not yet gotten traction on (due to the complexity of the project), is integration of our social listening data with our back-end customer data, or Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system.

A call center representative accessing the CRM account for a donor who calls in upset about something needs to be able to answer such questions as: Does the complainant have a significant social media following? Are they now airing (or are they likely to air) their concerns on their social media channels? If so, does more damage control need to be done? Beyond simply safeguarding the organization's reputation with this donor and keeping them happy, what would be the public engagement benefits of "going the extra mile" to make sure we hear and address their concerns? Etc.

I'm sure you can see the potential, right?

Integrating a social listening system with your CRM on the back-end is no simple task, but the world's best in class organizations are doing it now. So we should be thinking about it!

I'm Listening ... To YOU!

I'd love to hear how your organization is implementing social listening strategy and tactics. What are you learning? Is it worth it? What are the pitfalls and obstacles you are encountering?

And where do you think it's all going from here?

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Yes, it's embarrassing ... but this week I was the victim of a sophisticated employment scam

As I think most of you know, I am currently between jobs. I was laid off of from World Vision on August 3. I have six months of severance pay (which is very generous of them), but I do have to pay for my own health care (which is ridiculously expensive) and by the end of six months I will need to have something in hand that can help pay the bills.

Darlene has a good part-time job with the Puyallup School District (as a school nurse), though the pay isn't awesome. (Hey, it's the school district.) Our house is paid off, and we do have a solid nest egg set up for retirement, so it's not an emergency. But I do feel some pressure (at my relatively young age!) to find something, and not just anything, but specifically what God has cut me out to do. I've been hard at work investigating jobs in writing and editing, and social media and web innovation, as well as looking at some other areas that might fill the need temporarily. I've also been doing a lot of writing ... working on blogs, on my next novel, and on a magazine article or two. And I've been developing a business idea. (Yes, you guessed it ... related to exotic mushrooms!)

So, I've been busy. I've been working with an outplacement company, and have lots of resumes and applications out there, seeking interviews for various positions. This week (as part of this process) I was taken in (for a brief period of time) by a very sophisticated employment scam. And of course since then I've been dealing with the fallout, trying to protect our assets and help the authorities catch the criminal(s) running the scam, if I can.

I'm embarrassed that I was taken in, however briefly, and it's painful to share about. But I felt I should tell the story so others would be aware and might learn from my mistakes. And also, as you will read more about below, to protect myself if possible.

Laying the Groundwork

It all started out last week, when I saw and applied for a job posted on Indeed.com (a legitimate employment website) for a social media manager job at a (legitimate) smallish/newish business-to-business firm called Filmless, in San Francisco. The posting described basically what I would be good at doing and offered $35/hour for full-time work-at-home efforts, plus expenses.

This amount didn't work out to what I was making at my last job, but was better than what I need to survive and what I'd already been offered elsewhere. And the work-at-home part was very attractive. So I applied, via the Indeed site.

Day One ... Monday, Sept. 12

I received a contact email in the afternoon from someone purportedly named "James Townsend." The form was a standard Indeed email form and my response that I was interested triggered to their website.

Day Two ... Tuesday, Sept. 12

About 8 a.m. Tuesday morning, I received a very officious-sounding message from James which said:

We at Filmless are glad to let you know we have accepted your resume from Indeed for the position of a Social Media Manager and you can proceed now to get started with your interview for the job. This Position is Mon- Fridays and pays $35/hour, full time hours guaranteed if desired with salary increase.

To proceed you must first undergo an online assessment/job briefing and you will be needing a Gmail (Google Hangout Instant Messenger) on your Pc/device, using your Gmail account to gain access to Hangout Messenger. Contact your interview Manager and request to get started with an interview using your job code as verification."
The part (other than a few sloppy typos) that should have been my first clue, which I didn't pay sufficiently close attention to at the time, was his email address, filmlessworkers948281@gmail.com. Note that it has the word "Filmless" in it, but it's actually from the Gmail domain, and not a legitimate Filmless.com email address. But, I completely missed that at the time.

So, I followed his instructions and connected with him via Google Hangout, which I am familiar with as a result of using it extensively on my last job. His account had the official-looking Filmless logo which was on their (legitimate) website and Google Plus account. So I assumed (yes, another assumption) that I was talking to the legitimate Filmless Google account.

Once we connected on Google on Tuesday morning, he said, "Okay, are you ready for your interview?" I was somewhat taken aback, assuming an interview would be something that would have to be scheduled. I was sitting there at my computer in my pajamas still, so I responded: "Well, I'm not prepared for a video interview, we should schedule that if that's the case. But if you wanted to interview by chat I suppose we could do that now."

He simply responded, "Yes," and started off firing interview questions. (By the way, this became an MO for him. He typically didn't respond either completely or clearly to my questions, which should have been another clue. It was as if his attention was divided while we were talking online, and now I suppose it was — probably running his scam at multiple levels simultaneously — but at the time I supposed he was probably just a busy guy and not a great communicator on chat. Many people aren't, and one reason is they don't type as fast as I do!)

The interview took about two hours, and he asked lots of questions about my social media skills and experience, which I realized at the time were canned questions, but I figured he was probably HR and asking a lot of people standardized questions. Hence I was quite surprised when, at the end of the interview, he began talking as if I had the job.

Another red flag was that as he did this, he immediately launched into financial details. Did I want to be paid by check, or online? If online, what bank did I use? And he began talking immediately about providing me with the funds to purchase the software I would need to do my job at home. Some of the items on the list were familiar and I had used them before, others were new. But I realized the way such software worked was, as a user on a company account I wouldn't actually have to pay to purchase "software," but the company would simply add me as one of its available user seats.

One other thing that had happened during the interview (prior to this point) was that I had tried to interrupt his stream of questions (at what seemed like an appropriate moment) to ask a list of questions of my own about the company: their history, their culture, their values, their financial details, etc. The only one he actually answered was to confirm they were located in San Francisco (which I already knew from Googling them), but he ignored the rest of my questions. Also a red flag.

But at this point I was still processing the fact that it sounded like, counter to my expectations, he was offering me a job. So I asked for clarification: "Are you offering me a job?"

Yes, he said he was. He confirmed the salary and we talked a bit about benefits. He mentioned that they did have a retirement plan, but when he copied me a list of benefits, nothing about a retirement plan was on it. Another red flag, but I wrote it off as a misunderstanding.

Another red flag was a comment he made that I was "lucky" to be selected for this job — not something a real HR professional would probably say. But I excused it, thinking, "Well, he's probably new. The company's only two years old, after all."

Then he continued talking about the process of getting me a check, and when I was available to start? I told him I was flexible. He said he wanted me to start training on Monday, and that for the sake of speed they would email me a copy of the check (as a PDF) so I could deposit it in my bank account.

At that point I told him I was not yet ready to accept his offer, that I needed to speak with my wife about it and also close the loop with some other applications I had in process first. This response seemed to upset him a bit, and I received a curt: "Well then, message me back when you've made up your mind." Should have been another red flag.

Shortly after the interview ended (about 1 p.m. or so) I received a text (I had given James all my basic contact information, which is a part of my resume) from someone who identified herself as Angela Perryman from Filmless. The number the text came from was 858.683.7846. I didn't recognize the area code but assumed it was San Francisco. (I didn't research this until later, and found out it was a San Diego area code. Not that that in and of itself is anything of a huge red flag.)

By the way, I'm putting names I was given (probably all phony) as well as the real (disposable, no doubt) email addresses and the text number that I have here, in this blog, because I know Google will index this information and it will become available to anyone searching the web for information on these scammers.

Was I full of reservations at all these unusual red or yellow flags? Yes, absolutely, and I talked those through with Darlene after she got home from work Tuesday evening. She agreed they were weird. But I had also spent a lot of time researching Filmless, and they seemed to have a spotless reputation. (At this point I didn't really consider the possibility that Filmless itself wasn't a part of the scam.) It was clear that the company was more or less virtual; though it had a small physical office in San Francisco, it was clear on their website that all their producers were freelancers, and with such a new-ish company it made sense that most of their staff would telecommute.

Other than reservations, however, there was one other thing I had. Let's call it by a term that is frequently used, but difficult to define: A "check in my spirit." I stayed up late Tuesday night, my mind spinning, difficulty going to sleep. I prayed, and I watched a movie to try and get my mind off the sense of nagging anxiety that something wasn't right. But even as I finally went to sleep, well after 1 a.m., and when I woke up at my usual time at 6:30, it was still there.

Day Three ... Wednesday, Sept. 13

I reconnected on Google Hangout with James on Wednesday morning at 8 a.m., as I'd promised. I said, "Before I accept your offer, I have a list of questions for you." I fired all my questions at him (one at a time) from my prepared list. And he responded to them quite well. I also was sure to be clear that he was very aware of my Christian faith, which I know might be off-putting for some. But it didn't seem to phase him. Once again, we talked for about an hour.

My final question was, "Why do YOU enjoy working for Filmless? What makes you go to work in the morning?" (I had also asked him who Angela was ... he said she was his secretary, which in hindsight should also have been a yellow flag, since nowadays such folks are called admins, not secretaries. And I asked him if they worked in the office or were remote. It would have been smarter for him to say "remote" as this would have made it harder for me to verify with Filmless, but he said they worked in the office.) We bantered about the traffic in San Francisco, and he told me the reason he did the job was for the money, and that he had family in the area. I was expecting more of a PR-ish answer than that, but it seemed honest and so I kind of laughed it off. And stuffed down my sense of anxiety, thinking, "Well, I can certainly put the breaks on this at any time if I need to."

I did still have reservations at that point, about all the seeming yellow and red flags, and also about the job description itself, which seemed a bit unrealistic, but Darlene had said: "Test him a bit. Maybe ask for flexible hours and see if he agrees. If so, they probably do really want you and are willing to be flexible. And you could always quit if it doesn't turn out to be a good fit."

So, I told him I was willing to give it a try, if he agreed to my flexible hours request, which he did without hesitation. I asked what the next step was. He said they would pay for my training next week, and that he and I would also need to get some details taken care of before then, so I would need to be available online for a few days. I asked him who would do my training. He said he would, which I also found slightly suspicious. I asked him who my supervisor would be. He said that would be determined after the training. Hmmm. You mean there isn't actually a hiring supervisor? Weird.

Then he again started talking about how to get me a check for me to purchase things I needed. At this point I stopped him and said, "Okay, yesterday you said the check was for software, but my understanding is that's not really how the software situation should work, especially if your company already has relationships with the software vendors" (he had told me earlier that I was replacing another social media manager who had left the company, so it made sense this was true).

But then he replied, "No, it's not for the software, it's for purchasing the equipment from our approved vendor." And the amount of the check made sense for equipment. However, I KNEW the day before he had said it was for software (twice), so this was another red flag. But by this time, I'd taken the bait, and I wrote it off to the fact that he was evidently a pretty sloppy communicator.

In hindsight, it's amazing to me how you can create and use all kinds of internal excuses to try and explain unusual behavior, red flags which should really stop and make you say, "Hold your horses here." But it's a powerful thing, when someone approaches a person who is vulnerable due to need with a seeming way to meet that need. You want to believe that they are telling the truth, so you rationalize things in your own mind to try and make you feel more comfortable and less edgy.

I used to make fun of people who were dumb enough to fall for scams proffered by Nigerian princes. Now, I'm going to be a little more empathetic.

That sense of edginess, I realize now in hindsight, is a valuable thing we should listen and pay attention to. I had SO many red flags, I was already reasonably convinced there was a 50% chance that this was some sort of a scam. Despite this, I continued down the path with this scammer. (Or scammers, I'm not sure.)

I didn't have a virtual check deposit app set up with my credit union (didn't actually even realize they had one, which is a nice thing to have), so I set that up. He then PDF'd me a copy of the check with instructions to print it out and then scan it using the app, for deposit.

I called my credit union (ECCU) and talked this through with them. They said they weren't sure it would work, printing and then scanning a digital copy. But he assured me, "Sure, it will work, it's basically the same thing as scanning the original." Which made sense to me. So I tried it. Repeatedly. About a dozen times. I kept getting error messages from the credit union's system that the scan wasn't clear. James kept bugging me, "Have you deposited it yet?" (Which also should have been suspicious.) And making suggestions about how to make it work: better lighting, etc.

I finally got the scan to go through, by following one of his suggestions and cutting out the printouts in the approximate size of a real check, then placing them on a dark background for the photograph. And the app acknowledged my deposit.

James then asked me for a screenshot of the acknowledgement message to verify that the check had been deposited. But by that time I'd closed the app and couldn't get the message back, and told him so. "Well," he said, "just log on to your account and send me a screenshot of your transaction history." I looked at my account and the check I'd submitted wasn't reflected there yet, and I was still sufficiently suspicious that I wasn't ready to provide account numbers or any sensitive financial information to him, so I told him that deposit wasn't yet reflected in my transaction history and I would send verification whenever I could get it. He then let that go.

And, in hindsight, yet more red flags: The check that he emailed me wasn't made out from Filmless and didn't even had Filmless' name on it. (Or James'.) It was from a "Diversified General Credit Union," signed by a "Demi B. Atwood" and it had the name "James Beckham" in the memo area. Moreover, the check itself wasn't sent to me from James' email account, it was sent from the email account of someone named "Ben Dawson" at inteltechoffice4181119@gmail.com.

But there was one more thing he wanted. "To set up our payroll, we need verification of your account. Is there a branch of your credit union nearby? We'd like you to go have them make out a $5 cashier's check, to you, then scan and send us a copy of that. You can then cash the check for yourself when you're done."

It seemed an unusual request (another red flag), and I think it pushed me over a tipping point of sort. After all, at this point the thought of NOT having to work with this weirdo was becoming rather appealing. I decided to "play along" but to seek the credit union's advice about the situation. I told him, truthfully, "My credit union doesn't have any branches in my area, but there is another credit union I belong to here, Harborstone, where I can have them make me out a cashier's check."

"Do it," he said, "and let me know when you are able to scan and send a copy of that to me."

So I headed for the credit union. When I got the Harborstone branch office on South Hill. I had a very helpful conversation with a teller who listened well, talked to her supervisor, and came back and agreed that the whole situation seemed quite suspicious. "A $5 cashier's check made you to you? We've never heard of that before and don't understand how that would help them set up payroll. It doesn't have any of your own account numbers on it. Perhaps it's for some sort of a security or credit check?"

"I don't know," I said, "but I can ask them." So I messaged James back and asked him to call me because I had questions.

He didn't respond right away, so I left the bank and ran a few errands. While I was out I also did something else I had intended to do much earlier: I had gotten Filmless' main office number off their website (where they also had email and chat contacts listed). So I called it, intending to ask them about James Townsend and Angela Perryman. But an answering machine picked up the call, so I left a detailed message describing my dilemma.

Meanwhile, James responded to my message asking him to call me: "What questions?" was all he said. (Another red flag was that he never did give me his phone number, even though I asked several times.)

I told him what the credit union had said, that they didn't understand why he'd want me to do this. He gave me some lame and muddled explanation about needing it to set up payroll. So I returned to the credit union and showed them his response. They read it carefully and said, "That doesn't make any sense at all. This really does sound fishy."

I had also brought a copy of the $3,400 check they had sent, which I had already deposited to my credit union, so at this point I asked if they'd be willing to take a look at it. They said, "Of course. We can do even better than that. We can run its numbers to see if it appears legit or not." So the teller typed the numbers into the computer, then immediately shook her head. "Nope," she said, "it's coming up as a bad check."

The gig was up. On their advice, I immediately called ECCU and told them what had happened. They said they would put the check I had deposited into a special research hold and try and figure out what was going on.

After stopping for some lunch, I headed for home. As I did so, James was messaging me: "Did you get the cashier's check? Can you send the scan soon?" His urgency to do these weird financial things was another red flag that I should have really paid attention to earlier on.

I ignored his messages until I got home, and then decided to put him off while I tried to figure out what to do. I messaged him briefly and told him I'd developed a bad migraine (which was true!) while waiting at the bank, and that I was going to bed for the rest of the day (not exactly true) and would talk to him tomorrow. He asked again about the check, but I ignored this, and also a 4:30 message asking me if I was feeling better.

Immediately after this I got onto the FBI's website for internet crimes, called the "Internet Crime Complaint Center" or IC3, and made a full report of the crime. I told a few close friends who had been praying about what had happened, but asked them not to share it publicly, as I didn't want to tip him off that I was onto him. And I also went back on Filmless' site, sent them an email with the whole story, and also tried their chat technology, which said they weren't available to chat. I left a message that I was going to call the San Francisco PD on Thursday if they didn't get back to me. (At this point I still wasn't sure whether they were in on the scam, or not.)

Later Wednesday evening I did get a gracious response from Filmless. They told me that over the past two days they had been the victim of an employment scam, and they apologized, and suggested I ignore any communications about a job offer. A little late, of course ... I wanted to advise them that next time they should say something about it on their website, which would have clinched it for me earlier. But, I can understand that they were inundated putting out the fire. (I've been there, in my job at World Vision.) They also told me they were working with Indeed.com to resolve the situation.

Naturally, I was upset about all this. I felt foolish, and was frustrated about wasting my time, and being victimized, and disappointed that what had seemed like a nice job didn't pan out. Nonetheless, my spirit was at rest, and I also had a great sense of relief. The only open question mark was "Why?" What were the scammers hoping to gain from all this?

I went to bed early and slept like a log on Tuesday night.

Day Four ... Today, Thursday, Sept. 15

James was messaging me via Google again before 8 a.m. this morning. Then, shortly after 8, he sent the following message:
I see you on hangout now , Larry what is going on And the funds you deposited have cleared The bank just informed me"
I was, of course, reasonably certain that was a lie. I knew that even under normal circumstances, a check like that took days to clear. And these weren't normal circumstances; ECCU had said they had put a research hold on this particular check. But, I called them anyway, just to make sure.

While I was waiting to talk to someone, I checked my web balance online, and was startled to see it list in my transaction history the deposit of the $3,400 check! However, when I looked at my available balance, the check amount clearly wasn't reflected in that.

When the operator came on, I started at the beginning and described the situation, then said: "I'm concerned because my transaction history shows the check I deposited yesterday, but my balance does not." The gentleman I spoke with looked at the situation and told me that the deposit was indeed flagged for research, but that as a normal part of their process they were showing the transaction in my history and that they had actually released $200 of the $3,400 check (per their policy, I assume) to my account. He said he would reverse this and that they would contact the issuing bank to be certain. He said if the check was a phony it would be rejected at that point.

Okay, I told him, but I had two concerns: 1) I don't want a single cent of this guy's money in my hands! Yesterday when I talked with you, I assumed the check would be rejected, because I told you what Harborstone told me, that it was a fake. But even if it's not, I don't want him accusing me of cashing his check! And 2) I didn't want to incur any fees for this bad check, if possible.

At this point, after reading James' message this morning, I realized with a chill what the point of the whole scam might be. He would probably come back and say, "Hey, you cashed my check. You owe me that money back!" And of course he'd want it in the form of a cashier's check, or some such. (Possibly the reason he had me prove I could get a cashier's check? I'm not sure.)

Or perhaps the check is one he's stolen from someone else? Or perhaps it was forged on someone else's "real" account? And now of course the bank of the victim would have a record of me trying to cash the stolen or forged check. Perhaps this might be a blackmail attempt of some sort?

This feels ugly ... here's why I'm telling you this

Whatever it is, it feels extremely ugly. So I'm telling the story here, partly in an effort to protect myself, just as I've told it to the FBI (through their IC3 website ... though I really wish I could talk to a human being there).

Naturally I'm hoping for justice. And I'm hoping to stop this guy so no one else is victimized. I feel bad for what has happened to Filmless.com, and to Indeed.com, as a result of this scam. And possibly to other people (possible innocent victims?) I've named in this blog.

In the meantime I've learned some lessons about trusting my own heart, and about being more cautious and getting verification earlier in the process when things don't seem right.

I also have a message for James, if he bothers to read this (and he might, I'm not sure): While you have tried to hurt me, for the sake of your own greed, I am not angry at you. In fact, I forgive you. This is because there is One who has already paid the price for every sin you have ever committed and ever will commit. Jesus gave His life on the Cross to forgive you and set you straight!

I will continue to pursue justice, and hope that the FBI catches you and stops you before you hurt anyone else. But even as you sit in jail (since as an interstate crime, this is a federal offense and a felony), I will pray that you find peace, and true purpose, and recognize the freedom that comes from being forgiven.

As for the rest of you: I'll continue to post updates (as comments to this blog) and let you know how things develop from here. Please do pray for James, and for anyone victimized by his greed. And thanks for listening!

Friday, September 02, 2016

Is disrespecting your country a legitimate way to protest wrongs?

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has made the news big time for his decision to not stand during the playing of the National Anthem, as is traditional in the sport. You can read Kaepernick's explanation for his decision here.

Despite refusing to stand for the anthem because of what he says is the need for changes to end racial oppression in the U.S., Kaepernick has sought to show support for veterans in other ways. ESPN says that during a game with San Diego he "applauded veterans and active military during a first-half break with Lee Greenwood's God Bless the USA playing and stood for a rendition of God Bless America, clapping at the end of that as well."

Whether you agree or disagree with what Kaepernick has decided to do (and many disagree, as he has been loudly booed by fans as a result of refusing to stand), you have to admit he has been successful at one goal, and that is drawing more media attention to the issue of racial disparity and oppression in America.

I've been thinking about what Kaepernick has done because I realize that, in addition to the issue of racism, there are many other evils happening in America today which could certainly be protested or highlighted in some way if one was willing to take a step to disrespect our country. What about abortion? More than 55 million innocent unborn children murdered in America since 1973 certainly deserves some discussion. Not to mention our government's (and the UN's) support for this heinous practice. What about the fact that as taxpayers we are forced to give a half billion dollars of our hard-earned money each year to the evil Planned Parenthood organization so that it can continue to kill unborn children?

And I'm sure if you looked hard enough, in addition to these two horrible things (racial injustice and abortion) there are lots of other evils that you could justifiably blame America for, and in so doing, find justification in showing disrespect to our country, if you were so inclined. So, should we be?

Respecting Rome

I believe the answer to this question, for Christians, is a clear "No!" ... and here's why.

The first Christians (those who lived in the generation or two after Christ lived, died, rose again and ascended to the Father) experienced government-sanctioned evils as horrible as any we here in America are experiencing now. In 64 A.D. Rome was the greatest power the earth had ever seen, but its emperor, Nero, was feeling threatened by the rise of a new religious sect called Christianity, which claimed fealty to a Kingdom not of this earth. He began a government-sanctioned campaign of persecution of Christians that was horrible beyond imagination. Christians were fed to the lions in the arenas for entertainment, and in his own garden he tied them to poles, coated them with pitch, and lit them on fire to serve as pleasant evening lights.

The Apostle Paul was a Roman citizen who ended up being executed in Rome by the governing authorities, most scholars think in May or June of 68 A.D. Nero himself committed suicide on June 9, 68 A.D. Paul would have doubtless been aware of all Nero's many atrocities against Christians.

So, what was Paul's attitude toward his government? Did he advocate disrespecting it because of its evil?

Paul's letter to church at Rome, written about 10 years before his death, offers an interesting perspective on this question:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer.
Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.

His statement in verse 6 about paying taxes is interesting. I've considered before the question of whether Christians should withhold a portion of our taxes in objection to being forced to support Planned Parenthood's slaughter of unborn children, in particular. (THAT would make a statement ... get the government's attention very quickly, getting you in all kinds of trouble with the IRS, and you could probably get on the news by doing this if you wanted to.) But would it be the right thing to do? Paul's counsel above would suggest that it would not be.

Rome and the USA: Some Sad Similarities

Some might object, "But Paul says 'rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad.' But this obviously wasn't true of Nero, and it isn't necessarily true of our leaders either." And it's true that while Nero was in power when Paul wrote his words to the Romans, he didn't actually begin seriously persecuting Christians until a decade later.

But Rome was involved in plenty of other horrific evils before then. This article in "Ancient Origins" details some of the more gruesome archaeological discoveries of mass infant killings in the Roman Empire. And I quote:
During Roman times, it was not uncommon for infants to be killed as a form of birth control. It was not a crime, as newborn infants were viewed as being ‘not fully human’. In most cases, a Roman woman who did not want a newborn would engage in the practice of “exposure.” She would abandon the infant, either to be found and cared for by someone else, or to perish. According to the beliefs at the time, it was up to the gods to determine whether the infant would be spared or not.
But the author, M. R. Reese, notes as she continues that the hundreds of infants killed at the site under an ancient bath-house in Ashkelon did not die of exposure; rather they were healthy babies, none more than a week old, who died as a result of being thrown into the sewer pit beneath what is speculated to be a brothel as well as a bath-house. She says "It is possible that the infants were born to prostitutes or laborers who worked at the bathhouse."

This is the culture Paul claimed citizenship in when he wrote his letter to the Romans. Such horrors as we also experience here in the U.S. today with our government's support for late-term abortions — near-term babies having their spinal cords snipped with the scissors of abortionists — or the prevalence of incidents of people murdering others because of their skin color, would not have been something terribly out-of-place in the governmental context for Paul's writing.

And yet he urged respect for the governing authorities, and for paying taxes.

The fact is, God expects us to respect those authorities who govern us, regardless of their evils. Such authority has been established by Him, and He will ultimately hold them accountable for what they do with the authority He has given them stewardship over.

Does this mean we are to stay silent in the face of such atrocities? Absolutely not. We in particular have the privilege of living in a country where we have the legal (First Amendment) right to speak out, and God forgive us if we don't exercise this right. In this current election cycle, I find the two primary contenders exceedingly immoral, and so I have not hesitated to use my voice (on social media and elsewhere) to speak out against them. And frankly, there is no way I will support either with my vote. This I also think would be a grievous wrong, to adopt a "lesser of two evils" mentality and thus give my support to either.

But, if either is elected, I will respect them, as I have respected President Obama. This does not mean I won't speak out against the evil that they do, and it doesn't even necessarily mean that I won't respectfully disobey the governing authorities in those situations where obedience would mean myself committing evil. This was the pattern established by Peter and John in Acts 5 when the governing authorities ordered them not to talk about Jesus, under threat of imprisonment and possibly death: “But Peter and the apostles answered, 'We must obey God rather than men.'" And they continued to preach the Gospel in respectful defiance of the orders of the governing authorities.

Putting Our Money Where Our Mouth Is

Personally, I think the most praiseworthy thing that Kaepernick has done to share his concern about racism is not the thing that he's getting all the media attention for. He told the press he plans to "donate the first $1 million he makes this year to help communities in need as part of his plan to take a more active role in combating racial inequality."

Kaepernick's stance has created a lot of useful conversation about racism in America, but putting his money where his mouth is an especially effective (and also respectful) way of making a difference about those issues he's concerned about. Are we willing to do the same thing with the issues we care about?