Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Time to "Cut Bait" with Evangelicals

When I was growing up, my Dad often used the expression “Fish or cut bait.” Seeing as neither I nor my father were big fishermen, it wasn’t until I was much older that I understood what the expression meant. To “cut bait” is essentially to cut your line, let your bait go free into the water and give up fishing. Dad would use this expression when it was time for us to act, rather than wallow in indecision.

This saying came back to me recently when I learned that Rev. Richard Cizik resigned from his post as vice president of governmental affairs for the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). His resignation was prompted by criticism that came after an interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s program Fresh Air. In the interview he was asked his position on gay marriage. He responded by saying that while he did not endorse gay marriage, he was open to the notion of civil unions. He also talked about his efforts to reverse global warming and his support for Barack Obama in the Democratic primary.

Apparently, Cizik’s remarks did not represent the views of the powerbrokers within the NAE. Cizik’s remarks prompted NAE president Leith Anderson to write a letter to the NAE board of directors that Cizik’s positions did not represent the positions of the NAE. Mounting pressure eventually forced Cizik to resign, even though he is widely credited with being a fresh voice for the new evangelical movement and someone who is trying to engage evangelicalism and U.S. culture in a meaningful way.

I learned of Cizik’s resignation from blogs by Jim Wallis and Tony Campolo, both long time progressive evangelicals who I deeply respect. Both Wallis and Campolo have had a significant role in shaping my understanding of how Christians should and can relate to the wider U.S. culture. Wallis expressed that he was “deeply saddened” by the NAE’s action but went on to say that he had trust in the NAE’s “commitment to the wider evangelical agenda beyond just abortion and gay marriage.” Campolo for his part said that Cizik’s resignation provided “one more reason why many of us are calling ourselves Red Letter Christians instead of evangelicals.” (For those not familiar with the term “Red Letter Christians,” it refers to the practice in some Bibles to put the words of Jesus in red letters, as opposed to black. Thus “red letter Christians” are those who follow the radical teachings of Jesus first and foremost). At the same time Campolo affirmed the common ground he has with evangelicals in regards to beliefs and the need for a “personal relationship with Christ.”

In spite of my respect for Wallis and Campolo, I have gone a step further, and “cut bait” with evangelicals. I first encountered the word “evangelical” when I attended Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in the late 1970’s. After trying to figure out what constituted an evangelical, I asked my advisor and New Testament scholar, Dr. David Scholer (recently deceased), what an evangelical was. I have never forgotten his response: “An evangelical is a person who another so-called evangelical considers to be one.” In other words, evangelicals are a club, a social group, a political entity. As much they like to define themselves in terms of doctrinal and theological positions, evangelicals first and foremost are a socio-cultural group that determine who they like and don’t like. Many African American and Hispanic Christians share the same doctrinal beliefs as evangelicals, but are not considered “evangelical” because they didn’t make the club. Evangelicals are overwhelmingly white, middle class, and politically conservative. People like Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo, Shane Claiborne and Ron Sider see themselves as a “progressive” wing of evangelicalism, but how can the likes of these be seen in the same “club” as James Dobson, Joel Osteen or the Southern Baptist Convention, who continually rail against everything from global warming to the anti-war movement to a concern for the public education to gay marriage and abortion?

For years, like Sider, Campolo, Wallis and others, I considered myself an “evangelical,” but several years ago, I decided that was a club I didn’t want to be associated with. It is not because of their views on certain issues, because in fact in many cases I share their views or am close to them. It is their arrogance, self-righteousness, and intolerance of any dialogue. Had I wanted to stay in the club, I am sure there would be many who would want me out, just as they wanted Rich Cizik out. I simply saved them the trouble; I “cut bait” with the evangelicals long ago.

Stanley Hauerwas, theologian/ethicist at Duke Divinity School, says that one’s perspective on any given issue can not be divorced from virtue, or what I take to mean certain traits of character. For me the primary Christian virtues are servanthood, humility, and a willingness to listen. The NAE, and I fear even people like Jim Wallis and Tony Campolo, assume that Christianity can “make an impact” on US culture and government policy. Like Hauerwaus, I hold out no such hope. Rather as Hauerwas says our first task is to model justice and freedom in our relationships to each other, and by our life together as Christians bear witness to a different way of life and community possible in Jesus Christ. In other words the virtues of servanthood, humility and a willingness to listen first must be exercised by Christians with one another. I don't see any trace of that in the NAE.

Instead the NAE’s action in relationship to Rich Cizik is only the most recent of a variety of ways in which evangelicals have shown that they have absorbed our culture’s intolerance of difference, and taken on an attitude of arrogance that gets played out in our culture every day between groups of differing views. Moreover, this intolerance has played itself out on the world stage and involved us in two wars and alienated the US from many of the nations of the world, including our so-called allies. Instead of being a model of a different way, evangelicals have shown they are as much a part of the problem as anyone else. Other than the fact that both evangelicals and I share the label “Christian,” I’m not sure there is much else we share. For that reason I disassociate myself altogether – I cut bait.

The recent presidential election shows that declining influence the “Christian right” and evangelicalism are having in our culture. I suspect that Rich Cizik was not the only “evangelical” who voted for Barack Obama, despite his positions on abortion, gay marriage, global warming and the like because any thinking person can not be a one-issue voter. Moreover, any thinking Christian will recognize that on any one of these issues, there may be a variety of positions even among devout Christians. The ability to listen to one another and to interact in a compassionate and humble way requires an approach to dialogue that the NAE has neither understood nor accepted. I have no time for a group that is so rigid and close-minded that they automatically expel one of their own, when he happens to rethink his views on something. The Spirit of God is not contained in doctrinal statements or theological positions, but in the ongoing work of trying to engage the world with the love and justice of Christ found in the gospel. I feel badly for Rich Cizik, but in the end he is better off being set free from the rigidity of a group who has lost the Spirit of the One they say they serve.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Living the Questions for the New Year

For many people, the beginning of a new year is a time of reflection and prognostication. We look back on the year that has passed and note the highs and lows, & the good, the bad and the disappointing. Then we look ahead to the new year. Some of us even make personal resolutions. The new year is also a time for us to project our hopes for the world at large for the coming year.

Yet this year in the midst of an economic crisis, ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, pirates seizing ships on the high seas, continued foot-dragging on global warming and so many other things, I find myself asking questions of the new year rather than expressing hope. And so I share with you my questions for 2009.

First, how will Barack Obama meet the challenges of the presidency such as the global economic crisis, the inequities in health care, a foreign policy in a polarized world, global warming, and the plight of the truly poor both in the US and across the world? Not since John F. Kennedy has someone entered the Oval Office amidst such high hopes and expectations. Since Nov. 5, Obama has been acting presidential even though he does not actually take office until January 20. Yet he enters the presidency facing multiple challenges that require not simply some quick fixes, but rather a complete paradigm shift as to how we think of ourselves as U.S. citizens and citizens of the world. I wonder, is he committed to the dramatic change he called us to in the campaign? Obama campaigned on a platform of change, and yet his appointees to the cabinet thus far seem remarkably similar to what has gone before; in fact many of his appointees served in the Clinton administration, and at least one (Defense Secretary Robert Gates) in the Bush administration. Now I realize that no matter who is sitting around the table Obama will be directing the conversation, and overseeing major decisions, and that in itself is a major change. in his second book, The Audacity of Hope, Obama makes clear is that he is not an ideologue of the left or the right, as much as he is a pragmatist. His mantras are “whatever works” and “whatever it takes.” In a time when there is a great deal of fixing to be done, will he be able to convince Congress and the American people, that the lifestyles we have been living need to be simplified, that the wars we have been fighting need a different approach, and the way we relate to the world needs to be significantly altered. Can he pull it off? That’s my first question.

My second question is this: How far down will the U.S. and global economy go? All the “experts” say 2009 will continue to deteriorate until it begins to turn around. However, these are the same guys who a few months ago were predicting we had hit bottom and the various government bailouts would turn us around. In other words, nobody knows. To add insult to injury to the increasing economic troubles, Bernard Madoff was caught running a billion dollar pyramid scheme, just highlighting how fragile and illusory our economic well being was and is even if you are filthy rich. As Thomas Friedman recently pointed out ,the Wall Street, mortgage and bank collapses came about based on loans where no money actually passed hands and where no one was willing to reveal the financial slights of hand that characterized many of the loan, stock and mortgage deals. Friedman concludes his analysis of the financial crisis by saying “we’re all going to be working harder for less money and fewer government services --- if we’re lucky.” That’s not very encouraging. My worries are pretty mild compared to most (how will I pay my daughter’s college tuition, will students be able to afford to come to Eastern University, what will the value of my house be), but others are facing economic collapse and some painful and difficult choices, and I wonder how will we as a people manage?

Third, how deep and severe is the damage that has been done by the Bush administration? The Philadelphia Inquirer recently ran a series of articles about the undoing of EPA regulations by the Bush administration. There have also been articles on the legacy of Dick Cheney’s vice presidency in which his disregard from public opinion was made clear. What concerns me is that we have yet to really see the extent to which the decisions of the Bush administration have handicapped the US image around the world, hampered the care of the environment, promoted the deregulation of the oil and financial industries and who knows what else. In my adult life I do not recall an administration that operated with such impunity as this outgoing administration. Even those who worked in that administration speak of the lack of commitment to honesty and truth. I fear the next few months will reveal just how much we have been duped.

Finally, what will become of the major places of conflict in the world: Zimbabwe, Congo, Sudan, Israel/Palestine, Pakistan, Iran, and North Korea (just to name a few)? The prevalence of poverty and civil war around the world is a matter of grave concern. Any one of these places could be the staging ground for a broadening global conflict. There are certain interests that would like nothing better than more war, be they weapons manufacturers, mercenaries or governments, because war is good business. War also allows us to divide the world into “them” and “us” rather than look to our common needs and interests. As I look out on the horizon, I hope for peace and justice in these places, but I am continually troubled by our inability and unwillingness as a human race to pursue that peace. I am sure that all of these conflicts have a history and a set of circumstances that justify the conflicts from the combatants’ perspectives. Yet the ongoing decision to choose war over reconciliation only perpetuates needless suffering and death.

These are heavy questions I bring as a world citizen into 2009. By asking them, I am not throwing up my hands in despair. Rather, I see these questions as informing my prayers and to a certain extent shaping my actions. I am not without hope, but that hope is not built on a Pollyanna notion that “everything will be all right.” That hope is informed by the difficult choices all of us must make, if we are to act constructively in and on the world in which we live. And so in the words of the German poet Rainer Rilke I will “live the questions” as I enter the new year

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A Christmas Prayer

In his book, Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama tells the story when he was running for the U.S. Senate of flying from Chicago on a private jet to a fundraising event on the west coast. He describes the comfortable chair, the wood paneling, the crab salad, and the constant attention he received from the wait staff. He then goes on to tell of a car ride with his campaign manager from Chicago to the western Illinois city of Galesburg. In a Galesburg diner he met with the town mayor and some Maytag workers who were concerned that their plant was being relocated to Mexico and they would lose their jobs. He contrasts the two trips by saying that when you are flying high in a private jet, it is very easy to lose touch with the struggles and needs of the everyday American. That’s why when possible he chose to drive rather than fly privately.

Recently, we have been reminded how some self-styled elite in our country seemed to have lost touch. Take the case of Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, who has been trying to sell President-elect Obama’s former Senate seat to the highest bidder. Now he is resisting calls for his resignation and may be impeached, so that Obama’s seat can be replaced. As disgusting as that action is, more disgusting is that all the people around him and many in the Illinois Senate knew he had done this sort of thing before, but looked the other way. Somehow the standards of honesty and decorum don’t apply to the governor or other Illinois officials – or so they think..

Or take the case of the former CEO of Merrill Lynch and Co., John Thain. In the twelve months he has held that post, the company lost more than $10 billion dollars and then was sold to Bank of America. For his stellar efforts Mr. Thain requested that he be granted a $10 million bonus on top of his $750,000 salary, $15 million signing bonus, and a long term pay package valued between $50 million and $120 million. Merrill’s compensation committee denied Mr. Thain’s request, but what kind of gall and hubris does it take for a person to even ask?

We could go on about the AIG executives who got bailed out and then took a luxurious corporate junket, or the auto executives who came to Washington expecting to be bailed out without any plan or the athletes who in spite of these hard economic times still get millions of dollars for throwing a ball or catching a pass – it is all obscene… and it has to end

One can only hope that as Obama ascends to the highest, most powerful position in the world that he won’t forget the lesson he learned en route to Galesburg. Likewise, one can only hope that the likes of Gov. Blagojevich and Mr. Thain can be humbled and cut at the knees to the point of recognizing how incredibly out of touch and arrogant they really are.

During this Advent season I am reminded of the words of Mary, the mother of Jesus when she proclaimed:

"God has performed mighty deeds with his arm
And scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
God has brought down the rulers from their thrones
But has lifted up the humble
God has filled the hungry with good things
But sent the rich away empty." (Luke 1.51-53)

Now I wish I could say that I see evidence of this great reversal of fortunes in our day, but I don’t. I will admit I am disappointed, angry and a bit cynical at the way the so-called leaders have handled the financial crisis. What I see is the poor being forgotten, and top 5% of the income bracket expecting their banks and finances to be bailed out. What I know is that I have tried in various ways to ally myself with those the passage calls the “humble” and the “hungry.” What I hope for is that not only will the poor and lowly be lifted out of their struggle, but that the arrogant of the world will be faced with their own shallow hubris either by personal reflection or circumstance.

During this Advent-Christmas season, we are often reminded to remember the things that are really important in life such as friends, family and good health. I do value these things, but there has to be more. This season I also remember that we celebrate not the birth of a cute baby in manger, but rather One who came to turn the world and its value on its head. This is my prayer and hope and what keeps me going.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Plaxico Burress and the Gun Laws

As a Philadelphia Eagles fan who by nature should take delight in any mishaps befalling opposing teams like the New York Giants, I should take some pleasure in seeing Giants star receiver Plaxico Burress being charged with illegal possession of a handgun after accidentally shooting himself in a nightclub. However, not only would such a reaction reveal a sick delight in another’s demise, but also would mask a much deeper sadness that grips me about the Burress event.

Burress shot himself in the leg with a loaded gun when he tried to grab it as it slid down inside of his sweatpants. At the time he was in an upscale night club in midtown Manhattan – not exactly a place where shootings generally occur. However, because Burress’ gun was not purchased legally (i.e. he did not have a permit to carry the gun), he is now facing 3 ½ years in jail for the possession of an illegal weapon. According to New York City law, the penalty for carrying an unlicensed gun carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 3 ½ years, the same minimum penalty as one would get for burglarizing a home. Before the law was enacted in 2006, Burress would have gotten a slap on the wrist and a year of probation for his act; now the stakes are higher.

Yet for me there is yet another depressing side to the story, which is how Burress got the gun and from whom. Currently, I am working with a group of folks planning an action in January to highlight the huge loopholes in Pennsylvania gun laws that allow for the illegal purchases of guns like Burress made. Right now in my state, illegal guns are largely secured through a process known as “straw purchasing.”

Here’s how the process works. An underground gun dealer, who is often a convicted felon and has served time, hires someone to purchase guns for him/her. This hired person is called a “straw purchaser.” The purchaser can buy as many guns as possible at one time, and so usually buys several. A simple background check is done, and if the person has no major crimes on his/her record, the purchase can be completed in less than 45 minutes. Once outside the store, the straw purchaser hands over the guns to the underground dealer for a commission, and the guns are untraceable to the new owner, the underground dealer. Those guns are then sold on the streets to petty criminals as well as law abiding citizens like Burress. If the gun is used in a crime, and the gun is traced back to the straw purchaser, they can simply say they lost the gun or that it was stolen, and no further questions are asked and no penalties are given.

The group I am working with is seeking to promote two laws. The first would limit handgun sales to one gun a month (thus restricting the bulk buying practice). The second law would require that anyone who has a handgun lost or stolen would be required to report that loss to police within 24 hours of discovering the loss or theft. Failure to do so would bring anywhere from a $500 fine up to 5 years in prison. The intention of this bill is to significantly discourage the process of straw purchasing. Similar laws passed in New Jersey and New York state have significantly reduced the straw purchasing practice in those states, with the result being that Pennsylvania has become a major supplier of illegal handguns to those and other surrounding states, as well as it own. Most often when violent criminals are caught they are found to be using these guns, so that passage of these laws is a key to reducing violent crime.

Despite the fact that Governor Ed Rendell, mayors and representatives of all Pennsylvania’s major cities, and most city police chiefs support these laws, they have not been able to get sufficient support. The major reason is that outstate representatives whose constituencies contain many hunters and gun collectors have not come on board, even though the proposed laws have nothing to do with hunting rifles or collector guns. Behind this resistance is a major effort by the National Rifle Association (NRA) to obfuscate the issue by claiming any gun laws limit legal gun owner’s rights and using phrases like “guns don’t kill people, people do.” So the NRA has poured tons of money into the political coffers of these representatives, thus binding them to the NRA position and blinding them to a simple set of laws that could reduce death if not violent crime. Behind the NRA are the gun manufacturers themselves who know that the illegal market is a huge business opportunity they can not afford to lose. Am I implying that the NRA and the gun manufacturer’s are complicit in the illegal market? Absolutely, I think their actions are criminal.

However what is sad in the Burress case is how far the illegal market spreads. Burress is a multimillion dollar athlete who can not only purchase a gun legally, but also can afford to hire bodyguards if he feels threatened (which is a reality for many celebrities). Yet for whatever reason, he chose to go on the underground market; and he is not the only one. The illegal gun market issue reaches the highest levels of society, and reveals not only our duplicity about the gun issue, but also how wedded we are to resolving conflicts violently. Furthermore, it reveals how far gun company corporate executives will go to make a buck. And it is shameful.

So as I watch the Eagles play the Giants I take no joy in Plaxico Burress’ absence, even though every time he plays, he burns my home team. His absence will create a hole of sadness in me for a world gone mad, and a society unwilling to take the practical, necessary steps to keep people from needlessly hurting and killing themselves through the use of illegal guns.

For more information on current efforts to change gun laws in Pennsylvania, go to Ceasefire Pennsylvania. For information about national efforts to change gun laws, and to learn about laws in other states go to Freedom States Alliance

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Minsky Moment

Apparently, economists have known for decades that the kind of financial crisis we now are experiencing could happen. In the 1960’s a banker turned Harvard economist named Hyman Minsky put forth the “financial instability hypothesis.” Minsky predicated that when interest rates are lowered to make the borrowing of money easier, a euphoria overtakes bankers and investors that makes them irrationally giddy. Eventually, the financial institutions where these bankers and investors work overextend themselves to the point of collapse. When that happens, we have reached the “Minsky Moment.” Unfortunately, we have arrived at the place old Hyman predicted. When he first put forth his views, Minsky was viewed as a financial crackpot. Now we know he was a prophetic genius of market economics.

Years of financial market deregulation have set us up for this crash; we now know that. What Minsky believed was that markets need vigilance and regulation. He believed that capitalism run wild would collapse on itself.

Our new president should go back a dig up some of Minsky’s papers. Barack Obama is right to call for tighter regulation of financial markets and holding institutions accountable. If he decides to help the auto industry, he ought to do so with strict guidelines to build more fuel efficient cars. The short term thinking of so many companies and the desire to simply focus on the bottom line have led to a way of doing business that is anti-community, anti-environment, and self-destructive. Only as corporations regain a sense of their original charter –which is to serve the common good – can long term stability return. Because the human propensity for greed is so strong, regulation will have to force some corporations be those good citizens. Hopefully, others will see that such a move is not only in their best interest, but in the best interest of the communities they are supposedly called to serve.

Unfortunately Minsky is not here to see his predications come true (he died in 1996), although I doubt he would take much solace in saying “I told you so.” Even so, we must take this time to learn a hard lesson. So let’s start by reading and heeding Hyman Minsky’s words. If you want to a get a glimpses of what he said you can read about his theory here.

Sports Integrity and Global Warming

One of the few vices I afford myself is Sports Illustrated magazine. When my weekly issue arrives, I often find a quiet spot, skim through it, and read the lead articles. Then throughout the week, I pick it up and delight myself in the great distraction of college and professional sports. I love the pictures, the personal stories, the statistics, the predictions and the team updates. I even read about the high school and college stars that will never make it big but who are featured in “Faces in the Crowd." I love my SI!

Now I will admit that in the great scheme of things there is little that is redeeming in the magazine; it is pure diversion. When I was a preacher, I would convince myself that I could get great sermon illustrations from reading Sports Illustrated; I confess it was lie then and it is now. I just read it for the pure enjoyment of sport.

However, increasingly I have become concerned about the integrity of the magazine from a purely sports perspective. Several years ago they instituted the annual “swimsuit” addition, which is no more than a reason to show beautiful, thinly clad, women in exotic places. Recently, the label “swimsuit” has become suspect, as apparently the models now prefer skinny dipping. They have less covering on their bodies than the Playboy bunnies I used to gawk at when I was a teenager. Each year when the SI swimsuit issue comes, I have been embarrassed that my three young, impressionable daughters might think their father is a pervert (yes dear, all men are perverts!). So I always throw it away before they have a chance to notice.

Then several years ago, SI offerred an optional golf section. If you wanted you could have golf added to your particular magazine. As much as I had to admit that golf was indeed a sport, I was never any good at it. Furthermore, I had no desire to read about guys with names like Tiger, Shark, Vijay, and Sergio. So I turned down the offer. However, then they did away with the "optional" part, and simply made golf a regular section in the magazine. Since golf is almost played year round is some part of the world, there is golf almost every issue. My eyes glaze over, as I have to admit that some people like sports that I don't like. I can live with that.

However, a few years ago, SI crossed the line – they added a NASCAR section. No questions, no warnings, no options – there it was being presented on a par with baseball, football, basketball, hockey, track, and even golf. As far as I am concerned car racing may be a competition, but it is not a sport. Yes, people make a lot of money driving cars, and I’m sure the Big Three automakers and the oil companies sponsor them big time, but a bunch of guys and a couple of women driving around a track for 500 miles is not a sport. Sports require sweat, blood, tears, and physical exertion. Okay, so you have to hold on tight to the steering wheel, and the torque is exhausting when you go around a curve at 120 miles an hour, and pit crews have to be pretty skilled to change tires that fast, but a sport – puleeez!!!

So imagine my horror when the most recent issue (November 24, 2008) featured NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson on the cover. First of all, what grown man goes around being called “Jimmie,” and secondly in the name of sport integrity, he’s not an athlete, he is a driver! I get hives just imaginining that this may be a sign of more sports degradation to come.

So here’s my solution. Given the fragile state of the environment and the need for a reduction in our carbon footprint, NASCAR must be banned. For cars to buzz around a tract at 120+ miles per hour, they have to burn up a lot of fuel. Unless NASCAR takes to racing Priuses and Honda Hybrids, they must be banned for the sake of the environment. Imagine how much cleaner the air will be in Daytona, Charlotte, and Woodstock, NY. Families will be reunited, trees will grow again, and sports will be saved as an institution. Yes, NASCAR races must go the way of chicken fights and gladiator matches. They are inhumane, uncouth, and bad for the air we breathe.

Not to mention, I won’t have to cancel my subscription to Sports Illustrated.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Honoring Veterans of Peacemaking

On this Veterans Day I want to re-post a blog that I first put up on 11/7/06 honoring veterans of peacemaking. On this day when so much is made of war, we who see non-violence and negotiation as the way to healing differences need to find and honor the heroes of peace who have gone before us. So here is that posting from two years ago.

This coming weekend, is Veteran’s Day weekend, a time when the country honors the veterans who have served in the military and fought in our country’s wars. When I was a Baptist pastor, I could never get past this weekend without having someone in the congregation (not me) ask all the vets to stand up and be honored for “defending our freedom.” Now I realize that this kind of rhetoric is about as central to the American psyche as hot dogs and apple pie. I don’t doubt the vets’ sincerity or their courage, but I think they were and are often misled and misguided, as evidenced by the immoral wars we have fought over the last several decades, including the one we are in now.

As a pacifist, I want to ask for equal time for all those folks (many who were vilified) for their tireless efforts to work for peace in a war-mongering world. So I declare (for myself and anyone else who would like to join me!) this weekend as a Peace Veteran’s Day and put forth a few of my favorites to be honored for their work for peace through the years.

John Woolman- a Quaker in the 18th century who spent 20 years convincing his fellow Quakers to free their slaves

Elijah Lovejoy – a Presbyterian journalist who was killed by a mob in St. Louis for his opposition to slavery prior to the Civil War.

AJ Muste – a labor organizer and pacifist in the early 20th century

Mahatma Gandhi – a natural choice – the one who gave us satygraha (soul-force)

Martin Luther King Jr. – another natural choice, the one who tied satygraha to the ethic of Jesus on the Sermon on the Mount and gave us the “dream”

Dorothy Day – the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement

Jimmy Carter – a tireless worker for peace in the public sphere and a man who was consistent in his search for peace even when he was considered “weak”

Dan Buttry – a friend and mediator throughout the world who has worked to bring reconciliation in Burma, Northeast India, and many other places in the world

Arthur Rouner – my pastor growing up who retired to start a reconciliation ministry has worked inmany places including India and Rwanda

Daniel Berrigan – a leader in the anti-Vietnam War movement

Clarence Jordan –founder of Koinonia Farms in Americus, Georgia (which influenced Jimmy Carter) and a leader in racial reconciliation

Elias Chacour - Palestinian priest seeking to bring Jews, Christians and Muslims together in dialogue

Desmond Tutu – a leader in the South African reconciliation movement

Paulo Freire- Brazilian educator who taught campesinos to read the word and the world simultaneously.

Myles Horton –founder of Highlander Research and Education Center, a place that has trained social activists in labor, civil rights, environmental causes and immigrant rights for 50 years.

The list goes on. This list is neither exhaustive nor complete; there are many more tha could be added. Feel free to add your own. These are a few of my peace heroes, veterans of the peace cause. Let us honor them in our thoughts, but more so by following their example.

Thoughts on Proposition 8

Christian singer/songwriter Darrell Adams once introduced a song he had written poking fun at popular religious practices by saying, “There is something in this song to upset everyone.” I feel somewhat the same way about what I want to say in regards to California’s Proposition 8. Some will feel I have crossed over some sort of line, while others will be angry I have not gone far enough. So be it.

Last week the historic election of Barack Obama to the presidency was accompanied by a rising hope of a more open and inclusive spirit in U.S. society and culture. So it was with sadness that I learned of the passage of Proposition 8 in California, which overturned a California State Supreme Court decision allowing same sex couples to become legally married. In May the court had decided that the state discriminated against same sex couples when it did not allow them to marry. Since June nearly 18,000 couples received marriage licenses. Though Proposition 8 does not nullify those marriages, it does amend the California State Constitution to read “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid and recognized in California.” So henceforth, same sex couples can not get legally married in California.

Reflecting on that result I find myself in an ambiguous position of agreeing with one side of the debate, yet fully understanding the other side. As the brother of three siblings in same sex relationships, I feel like they have been unduly denied a simple right that I and all other heterosexuals have. While part of me wonders why gays and lesbians would want to seek marriage, given the abysmal divorce rate (nearly 1 in 2) of heterosexual couples, I also recognize that the passage of such a law normalizes and legitimizes relationships that heretofore have been considered immoral by some, abnormal by others, and simply “different” by others.

Fifteen years ago I espoused the view that homosexuality was not normative in God’s eyes. I based that position on a reading of the Bible that noted that anywhere homosexuality was mentioned in Scripture it was either criticized or condemned. Over the previous 15 years I had attended numerous debates and read countless books on the topic, even writing a paper on the topic when I was in seminary. However, over time I became convinced that whatever the Bible had to say about homosexuality, it was not talking about a committed relationship akin to marriage. In some cases the Bible’s position was based on ancient views of human sexuality no longer held even by the most devout Christian. In other cases, the homosexuality mentioned was connected with pagan religions. However, the major obstacle for me was while I could discount or explain away the few passages that did mention homosexuality, I could find no statement positively affirming same sex relationships. The pro-gay Biblical argument was an argument from the absence of condemnation, not the presence of affirmation. At the same time I saw the committed relationships of my siblings and others, some of whom were dedicated Christians, and I could not accept that God would categorically condemn someone for loving someone of their own gender. I changed my position not so much on the basis of new view of Scripture, but rather the compelling evidence of the commitment and love of same sex couples I knew personally. I decided I would leave the theological debates up to God, and choose to err on the side of grace rather than judgment.

Yet even in the days when I opposed homosexuality on moral and Biblical grounds, I never believed that meant that gay/lesbian couples should be denied basic human rights. Laws discriminating against gays/lesbians in the areas of employment or housing did not seem fair. The same goes for gay/lesbian marriage. When I was a pastor, I might not have performed a ceremony for a gay or lesbian couple, but I did not feel I had the right to impose my view on society as a whole given the vigorous debate on the issue.

Today, I have changed my attitude toward homosexuality overall, and support the right of same-sex couples to marry. Nonetheless, I work for a Christian college that does not allow or support same sex romantic relationships. While I generally affirm the overall mission and culture of my school, this is one area where I personally disagree with my school’s position. At the same time a few years ago I was quite proud when Eastern University was one of only a handful of Christian schools that welcomed members of Equality Ride to dialogue at their campus. Equality Ride is program modeled after the Freedom Rides of the Civil Rights movement, where young people go to Christian schools and military academies challenging schools to reconsider their policies regarding gay and lesbian relationships. Most schools banned the Equality Riders from coming on their campuses. By contrast Eastern invited the students to come for two days, set up opportunities for dialogue and generally allowed students and faculty to interact with the guests and each other on the place of gays and lesbians in the church and in society in general.

Like the Equality Riders, many supporters of gay rights liken their movement to the Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s. This approach does not hold much appeal to African Americans who see their struggle for equality in quite a different light than gays and lesbians. In fact polls indicated that a majority African-Americans and Latinos in California supported Proposition 8. Tactically, I think the gay rights movement needs to come up with a different metaphor for their cause. For many people who support bills like Proposition 8 the issue is not so much about rights as it is about morality. While I may not agree with their view, I recognize that to talk about rights when people are thinking morality is to talk past one another. In that sense it becomes like the abortion debate where people are talking at each other, while not really hearing one another because they in essence are speaking a different language.

What is needed is a new kind of dialogue built on respect and listening. David Black, the president of Eastern, took a great deal of heat from the Board of Trustees for allowing the Equality Riders to come on Eastern’s campus, but I applaud him for the willingness to allow people of different perspective to engage in meaningful conversation. While in the end Eastern did not change its policies as a result of the visit, it sponsored a respectful and open dialogue conducted in a way that seems like a model that others could follow.

I am sure the supporters of Proposition 8 feel like they achieved some sort of moral victory last Tuesday, and certainly the opponents feel like a terrible injustice was institutionalized. Regardless of what the outcome had been, one referendum or even 100 referendums can not alter the fact that we can no more will away the debate over same sex relationships than we can alter the path of the Earth around the Sun. Deeply personal issues like the right of same sex couples to marry can not be solved in a court room or ballot box, but rather across a table of respect and openness. As Barack Obama embodies a new day in inter-racial dialogue in this county, my hope is that we can look at other areas such as gay rights where we as a nation disagree, and find ways to dialogue meaningfully and respectfully with the goal of finding common ground and living together constructively despite our differences.

Friday, October 31, 2008

The Symbolism of Barack Obama

With just 4 days until Election Day, the political ads are flooding the TV and airwaves. However, what has struck me most powerfully, as we come down the home stretch of this campaign, is the symbolic meaning of Barack Obama’s presidency to so many American voters. To speak of symbolism is not in any way to suggest that Obama lacks substance; quite the contrary. I think his ads generally have been some of the most intelligent we have seen in recent political history; he looks into the camera and in his own words explains his plan for the economy, health care or foreign policy. There has been very little mud-slinging at John McCain. Instead he has spoken to the issues, and treated us like we really do have brains and don’t just vote on appearance or emotion. So I recognize and greatly respect the substance of Barack Obama’s campaign.

However, I can not overlook the way in which his candidacy has inspired a renewed hope in the possibility of the United States making a new start as a constructive player in the world. He reflects an attitude of caring, and he uses the words “we” and “us”, as much as he uses “me” and “I”. While being the target of countless ads suggesting he is a friend of terrorists, a socialist, a reckless liberal, and somehow un-American, he embodies in his manner and his speech what we hope is the best of America: intelligence, compassion, inclusiveness, openness and respect. As such Barack Obama is more than a candidate; he has become symbolic of what so many people hope the United States can be.

Back during the Democratic primary, someone sent me the link to one of many songs that have been written about Barack Obama, "Yes We Can." In this video, featuring several well-known actors and singers, I hear not only a spirit of hope, but also a deep yearning for change. Even now when I watch that music video, I get chills because in spite of my cynicism, it arouses a longing in me to see peace in our world, justice on our streets, integrity in our leaders, and a reconciliation and respect between people of different races and ethnicities. As I listen to that song, I begin to believe that “Yes we can” make a difference.

I was seven years old when John F. Kennedy was elected president, so I don’t know how I reacted at the time of his historic inaugural address. However, every time I watch a replay of JFK saying “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country,” I get chills. I was 10 years old when Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, which almost always brings me to tears even now. Now at 55, I am once again moved to believe that this country can actually live up to its ideals and its principles. Barack Obama, not only as candidate, but more so as symbol, has touched a longing deep inside of me.

I know for many of my African-American colleagues and friends who have sufferred the unending pressures of racism, Obama evokes feelings of hope and vindication that I can not begin to imagine. For my daughters, one of whom will vote for the first time, this election really matters. While I don’t who they will vote for, I know that the excitement Obama has evoked in young people has made politics matter among their peers in ways that young people haven’t felt in a long time. From people who have connections overseas in Europe, Asia, and Australia, I hear that there is hope for a new kind of United States under Obama that will act differently on the world stage. Even the strong reaction of fear and anxiety Obama evokes in his opponents testifies to the power of his candidacy; the face of who qualifies as a “true American” has changed (and that is frightening to some). The fact that a bi-racial man, who identifies himself as an African-American but whose pedigree is global, could be the next President is astounding in both its reality and its symbolic meaning.

I have often wondered why anyone would want to run for President of the United States, but I am glad Barack Obama made that choice. I am cautiously hopeful that on November 5 he will be declared the next president of the United States. However, beyond that, I am thankful that he has evoked in me and in others, the belief that as common people we can make a positive difference in the world. Yes We Can!

Saturday, October 25, 2008

The S-Word

John McCain and Sarah Palin are using up the alphabet trying to characterize Barack Obama. Along the way Obama’s opponents have used the L word (liberal), the U-word (un-American), the E-word (elitist), and the T- word (terrorist). Always lurking in the background were the M-word (Muslim), the A-word, (Arab), and the B-word (Black). So far this alphabet soup has not been able to slow Obama down, so now they have pulled out the S-word (socialist). Apparently, Barack Obama is a socialist because he told Joe the Plumber that we need to “spread the wealth around.” What a horrible thought that in a time when (according to a recent NPR report) the gap between the richest one percent and the poorest 10% of the population is greater than its ever been in our nation’s history. What a terrible thing to suggest that we might actually redistribute that wealth to the other 99%.

Because of my criticisms of capitalism, I too have sometimes been called a socialist. In a society that tends to think in polarizing dualities I guess if a person isn’t for unregulated, free market capitalism, that makes him a socialist. The fact is I am not against free enterprise or against rewarding the entrepreneurial spirit, nor am I for full and complete government intervention. The bottom line for me is that basic needs like housing, education, health care, and job opportunities are equally available to all. I am against systems that allow people with power to abuse, with information to mislead, and with wealth to horde. I am for socially responsible capitalism, capitalism with a conscience, if you will. I am for companies that make products not simply because they sell, but because they are good for the environment, uplifting to the human spirit, and edifying for the community and the world. I am for a system that doesn’t just reward the creative business leader, outstanding athlete, and hardworking professional, but also the dedicated teacher, caring childcare worker, compassionate social worker, and tireless community leader. I am for a culture that does not simply say it is pro-life and pro-family, but creates the economic and social conditions that allows those families to thrive. I am for a society that places value on people’s dignity and dedicates its resources to creating healthy neighborhoods. And since the lure of profit is so overpowering for many political and business leaders, I am for regulations that keep them in line.

While I personally have been a beneficiary of the privilege, education and opportunity that capitalism provides, I don’t see those benefits being distributed equitably. Instead as the data shows, I see the rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer and the middle class shrinking. I see CEO’s who jump out with golden parachutes, and unscrupulous bankers who get away with fraud. I see a legal system that protects those who can pay, and punishes those who can’t. I see a public school system that is based on a funding formula that only increases the disparity between rich and poor. I see companies that produce wasteful products in the name of convenience, and people who consume more than their share of energy simply because they can afford it. Capitalism has produced great wealth for some, but in its ascent it has run roughshod over many people along the way. Just ask the descendants of African slaves, Native Americans , Mexican immigrants, and white factory workers how capitalism has been used to exploit them and to justify the destruction of their cultures and communities.

For me the health of a society and its economy is not found in the Dow Jones, the S&P 500, the GNP or the GDP. To me the health of a society is determined by how well it takes care of its most vulnerable: its children, its elderly, its poor, its down and out. The health of the society is measured in the quantity of people who enjoy a basic quality of life. On that score, we aren’t cutting it, no matter how well the stock market is doing or how advanced our health care system. If that makes me a socialist, then I accept the label.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

John McCain's Test of Character

John McCain is in a tough position. Some of his supporters may be supporting him for reasons that are totally out of character with the candidate himself. McCain, a man who loves the United States and has often appealed to what he sees as the best in American ideals, is in the unenviable position of evoking some of the ugliness of U.S. racist culture.

Despite my disagreement with McCain on many issues, I have generally trusted he was a decent man, until the last couple weeks when ads and rallies revealed a xenophobic and racist undertone. As his attacks on Obama's character took on a malicious and misleading tone, I lost respect for McCain. For her part, Sarah Palin has tried to link Obama to the violent activities of Bill Ayers, the University of Chicago professor who 40 years ago was in the radical group, Weather Underground. Yes, Obama and Ayers served together on civic committees seeking to improve education in Chicago, but come on, Obama was eight years old when Ayers was in his radical phase! Various speakers at McCain-Palin rallies have highlighted Obama’s middle name, which happens to be Hussein, as if that proves he is really a Muslim. This feeds the post 9/11 hatred of all Muslims because of the acts of a few. Fear that Obama might actually become president has stoked the racial prejudice that bubbles just beneath the surface in many of his white supporters’ spirits. They now have tacked on the title “Arab” to “elitist” and “out of touch with the working class” as another euphemism for his race.

On Friday, I gained back some of my respect for McCain when he chided his supporters who tried to link Obama to terrorism and accused him of being a secret Arab Muslim. McCain responded that Obama was a “decent person…that you don’t have to be scared of as president of the United States.” His supporters boo-ed him when he said that!

Let me be clear: I don’t believe all of McCain’s supporters are racist, nor do I believe that McCain shares the fear, anger, distrust and outright prejudice of this segment of his supporters. However, McCain’s problem is that he needs those people’s votes if he is going to become president. My question is: will he seek the presidency at the cost of interracial understanding and dialogue? If this election has shown us anything it is that (1) young people don’t generally carry as significant racial hang-ups as earlier generations, but that (2) their parents and grandparents, especially in predominantly white areas, can not get past some deeply held racial anxieties and fears.

Now I am sensitive to the fact that there are many McCain supporters who do not share the characteristics of those who booed McCain on Friday, and I recognize that there are significant enough differences on issues that one could legitimately prefer McCain to Obama. However, the manner in which John McCain handles that segment of his supporters who harbor a primal fear that a black man might become president will not only have a significant impact on the election, but also on what happens beyond November 4 in terms interracial understanding, justice, and reconciliation.

When pushed and stressed to the brink, a person will often show his/her true character. McCain is on such a brink. The next three weeks leading up to Election Day will be a significant test of character for John McCain, as he contends with the deeply held prejudices of some who fear Obama more than they support him. No matter how the election turns out, John McCain must deal with the fact that his campaign has both aroused and benefitted from an historic legacy of racial fear and hatred.

A Phair-Weather Phillies Phan in Phoul Phinancial Times

As I write this piece, the Philadelphia Phillies lead the LA Dodgers 2-0 in the National League Championship Series (NLCS). Full disclosure: I am a fair-weather fan riding the bandwagon. Two months ago I could not have named half of the Phillies’ starting players, and I didn’t know who Brad Lidge was. But here I am cheering them on like the best of them.

Now by contrast, the Eagles send me either into euphoria or depression for 24 hours after every game. (I’ve been thinking about asking my doctor for some medication to help me with this problem.) But the Phillies – I just can’t get into watching baseball on a regular basis. I loved playing baseball as a kid and even coached baseball and softball for years, but I have always found watching baseball to be something of a yawner. I’ve been to two Phillies games since they opened the new park three years ago, and one of those was paid for by someone else. I have taken in a few minor league games, when invited by others, but even there I left early. Usually, I can’t bring myself to paying the exorbitant price for a ticket and since we don’t have cable TV, I don’t see many games. I actually think baseball is best “watched” on the radio, when you can be doing something else at the same time. And as much as I love football, I am too cheap to even pay for Eagles tickets at $80 a pop.

Thinking of ticket prices, there is something surreal about people paying an average of $250 a ticket to watch a NLCS baseball game (and $500/ticket if they make the World Series) while the world is plunging into a financial crisis. One would think that if we are going to cut back, frivolous activities like watching live sports might take a back seat. Yet the stadiums are packed and the prices keep going up. What is even more ironic is that all the new stadiums across the country (including Citizen Bank Park and Lincoln Financial Field) were built to accommodate more luxury boxes for the very companies and CEOs who have been lining their own pockets, manipulating the mortgage rates, cashing in on the oil crisis, and causing the stock market to dive. Yet somehow in a sports town like Philadelphia when the team is going well, it doesn’t matter if you are a CEO or unemployed, a McCain or Obama supporter, black, white, Hispanic or Asian, Christian, atheist, Jew or Muslim ---there is one thing that binds us together – our sports teams. It is the great diversion and the great unifier.

Now purists could easily and justifiably call me a hypocrite for such statements –and I agree, but I have often felt consistency is overrated. There is no question that professional sports are as exploitative and elitist a business as there is. How else to professional sports teams routinely get public money to build stadiums so they can rake in millions at taxpayers’ expense? We may decry having to pay for welfare and education and health care, but politicians line up to support the building of a new stadium. We may think teachers are overpayed, but $80 million for that star player, hey that's a bargain! Moreover, sports can be used to divert our attention from the very kinds of activities that have gotten us into our current financial mess. I remember the 1980’s move “Rollerball” starring James Caan. Rollerball, a combination of hockey and roller derby, was used by the power elite to divert the populace from the oppression and fraud they were creating in a divided and suffering society. I get it. Sport is a huge diversion, but…what about them Phils!

Somehow these diversions, like sports, help me realize how much of a game the rest of life is. Finance, politics, business, and even war are all games with all sorts of posturing and roles, and people playing to win or lose. Unfortunately, these games have dire consequences, but nonetheless they are games. And just like with any game, after its over, we can move on, pick ourselves up win or lose, and face tomorrow. I get depressed after another Eagles’ loss and feel elated when the Phillies win, but win or lose, after my emotion passes, I still have tomorrow. The game is not the beginning and end of life; it’s only a game.

Now there are folks who mistake the game for life. There are sports fans who invest too much emotion or gamble too much money on sports. There are business people who really think they can rule the world. There are politicians who begin to believe their own exaggerated PR clippings. There are generals who forget that every “casualty” in war is not just another chess piece on the board but a precious human life. When that happens, then we need to halt the game and remind people that they really aren’t in control, and that they need a major dose of humility or even humiliation to cure their hubris. So for instance, those AIG execs who went on a $400 million junket after they were bailed out by the government, ought to be paraded out in every major city and publicly chided.

But if they and we can keep things in perspective, then we can enjoy the diversionary games when they bring us together. Lord knows, we could use a bit more unity, and frankly every once in a while it’s nice to have a diversion. So fair-weather fan that I am, I will cheer the Phillies hopefully into the World Series and a championship. Now we Philadelphians have been conditioned not to get our hopes too high when it comes to championships. So if they win, we will celebrate and have a parade. If they lose, we will gnash our teeth for an evening. But either way, the next day we will get up and get on with life. Because in the end, as my Dad always reminded me after my team lost a close one, it’s only a game.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Two Aspects to the Wall Street Bailout We Don’t Talk About

The vice-presidential debate between Sarah Palin and Joe Biden on October 2 was very interesting on many levels, but they each said something I hadn’t heard in all the talk around the $700 billion bailout, buyout, rescue (or whatever we want to call it) plan being considered by Congress this past week. Gwen Iffil, the moderator, asked them a question which neither candidate wanted to really answer (and which neither Obama or McCain did answer when asked), which was “What plan or priority will your administration have to give up in order to payout the $7 billion?” At different times each of them said something in passing that I hadn’t heard before.

In response to the question Joe Biden said, “Well we might have to cut back on some of our foreign aid commitments.” And then in response to another question, Sarah Palin briefly talked about the need for people live within their means.

Biden’s response reveals that in addition to the poor of the U.S. being likely to suffer in this crisis see my earlier posting), so too the global poor will bear a major share of the burden for the greed and graft of the financial markets. JustForeignPolicy.org puts it this way:

Largely missing from debate has been the impact of this plan on U.S. government spending on human needs in the next Administration. What will be the toll exacted on human needs for all Americans in the next budget, and who will win and lose in the latest bailout plan? And there has been almost no mention at all of the impact on our global commitments to help eradicate poverty, reduce illiteracy, address easily preventable disease, provide food and shelter to the world's neediest at home and abroad.

Ironically, the Wall Street Crisis comes at a time when the United Nations is requesting that the developed nations of the world contribute $72 billion per year (or .7% of GNP as promised) to meet the modest goal of reducing extreme poverty. The U.S. is asked to contribute approximately $100 billion over the next 4 years as their part in the plan.

Until this week $100 billion seemed like a lot of money, but now we know that when push comes to shove we can garner far more resources when we need to finance a war or compensate for the greed and graft of some unscrupulous rich folks. Moreover, while it seems like the U.S. share is out of proportion, among the 20 developed nations of the world, the U.S. is dead last when it comes to foreign aid on a per capita basis. Now it appears we will have a lock on that position for some time to come. Furthermore, the rhetoric of “ending poverty in our lifetime” will simply remain more empty rhetoric with the U.S. leading the way.

Which leads me to Sarah Palin’s comment about lifestyle. In large part the current crisis has threatened our American practice of living way beyond our means. Moreover, when it comes to energy, we often act as if we should have the freedom to consume as much energy as we want. Both tendencies point to the world’s need for we Americans to simplify their lifestyles. Except for Palin’s comment, none of our leaders have talked about the fact that we American are just too materialistic, drive too many gas-hogging cars, live in houses that far outstrip our needs, and generally disregard the reality with 5-6% of the world’s people, we consume 25% of the world’s resources. Our need for “stuff” makes us “dependent of foreign oil.” The world can’t afford us, and it is time we slow down, and scale down.

Our family regularly recycles, continually de-clutters, drives high gas mileage cars, forsakes cable TV, seeks to consume energy and generally tries to live within its means. And yet, I am continually amazed at the amount of wasteful stuff we still have laying around, and how alluring it is to consume just because I can. The messages from the media and the market is buy more, consume more, and accumulate stuff, and it is an ongoing temptation. These days I have been reminded of that phrase I first heard from the Quakers over 30 years ago: Live simply so that others may simply live.

If the last couple of weeks has taught us anything, it is that not only can we not afford to continue to live and operate in the way we have been going, but also the world can’t afford us either. John McCain and Sarah Palin like to say that terrorist groups such al-Qaeda hate the U.S. because of our commitment to democracy and freedom. That’s bullshit. In their own words much of the world (including our allies) resent and hate us for our greed and materialism, and the way it drives us to run roughshod over the rest of the world. Perhaps the chickens have come home to roost, and it is time we take a hard look at ourselves, and simplify.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

White Privilege and Sarah Palin

Tim Wise, author of White Like Me, and well known speaker on white privilege recently applied his thoughts to the current media treatment of Sarah Palin. You can read his comments here. Wise's tone is strong and a bit acerbic, which is why I hesitate to post it. I trust that Sarah Palin is a decent person, even if she is a political lightweight and one with whom I disagree on many issues. Nonetheless, this article is not really about Palin, as much as it is of the "pass" she gets on criticism because she is white. Wise makes clear if Obama were associated with some of the items with which she is related, the treatment by the media and especially the white public would be vastly different. In the end it is another example of how unbalanced and unjust our white worldview is, and how in many ways worldview is a critical issue underlying this election. When people say they won't vote for someone simply because he is named "Obama" or perpetuate the myth that he is a Muslim(when in fact he is a practicing Christian AND it should not matter what faith he professes)or accuse him of not being a leader because he led as a community organizer and not a military officer, it betrays a deep blindness of whites to their own racist attitudes. Cognitive psychologists point out that often our decisions are based primarily on our emotions (fears, anxieties, anger, etc) and then rationalized later. Such often seems to be the case when it comes to white voters and Obama. Indeed, there are significant philosophical differences between Obama and McCain, so I am not suggesting voting for McCain makes one racist. But to put Palin and Obama in the same league or to grant Palin the "pass" that Wise suggests, shows how far we who are white have to go in confronting our unconscious fears and overt prejudices.

European View of the US Election

We in the United States tend to focus solely on events within our own borders. We are known for being rather ignorant of what the rest of the world thinks about, even when they are thinking about us. Recently, I read this report of a pair of lectures presented at Colby College (Waterville, ME) on the European perspective on the U.S. Election. What is clear from this article is that Europe overwhelmingly is hoping our next president will take a more cooperative and interdependent approach to foreign policy than the go-it-alone- approach of the Bush administration.

You may read of the lecturers' comments here.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Reflections on the Wall Street Crisis

As I have witnessed the financial meltdown on Wall Street over these past 10 days and the subsequent response of the government to this crisis, I have had a number of thoughts and questions, many of which are shared by millions of observers. Will the executives of these failed companies get “golden parachutes” and float away scot free? How significant will the tax increase be to pay for this debacle? How did we get here in the first place? And who has been minding the store? Beyond these obvious questions which pundits far smarter than me can answer, I just have a few observations.

1. John McCain blames the “greedy Wall Street bankers” for the demise of Wall Street. How stupid does McCain think we are? Greed is what Wall Street is about. That’s why we invest in the first place; we want more than we have now. Gerhard Gecko (ala Michael Douglas) in the classic movie, Wall Street, said it best in his speech on greed – Greed is good! At least from his perspective. We may dress greed up and call it “profit” or “return on investment,” but the reason all of us have money in stocks and mutual funds is because we want more. It’s what capitalism is about.

The problem isn’t greed, it’s no boundaries. The practice of selling funky mortgages and getting people locked into high interest rates was well known. This was not a new deal. The practice of “short selling” on stocks was a well established practice. Borrowing money to invest money in hopes of making it back is part of the investment game. These were all dangerous practices (driven by greed) that we all knew about. And if some people were a bit dishonest or manipulative in their interactions, hey all is fair in finance and war. So, we didn’t put a stop to it. We didn’t blow the whistle. We saw greed as the ultimate goal, and if people could get away with it, more power to them.

So why are we surprised? It’s not greed, it’s the game itself that needs correcting. Capitalism is designed for there to be winners and losers. In other words, it is designed for somebody to get bilked. What happened was the big boys got stung by their own game. Interestingly, however, now we have to pay.

2. So who is going to really pay for this bailout? The pundits say the taxpayer, but no politician in his right mind is going to raise taxes, so what will happen is that there will be cuts. Where will the cuts come from? Where else, but from the programs that serve the voiceless and the poor: social service programs, educational programs, student loans, health benefits. We rich and middle class folks can complain all we want, and maybe Congress will throw us a bone, but it’s the poor who will pay….as they always do.

3. Finally, if the government can come up with $700 billion to bail out Wall Street, and $800 billion to conduct a war that should never have been started, why can’t it find a way to provide universal healthcare or equitable school funding or adequate housing for all? Committed capitalists cry “socialism” when such things are mentioned, but today they are quite pleased that the government decided socialism is okay when it works for the well-to-do.

In the end my bank accounts and pension funds are safe, but I wonder at what cost to the most vulnerable in our society. And what do our actions reveal which our mouths are loathe to say. Liberty and justice for all …or just the select few?

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

A Choice of Worldview: A 9/11 Reflection

As we remember the 7th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, I am reminded of my 9/11 story. The Sunday following the attacks we had a guest preacher at the small church we were attending. She was a seminarian and a pastor’s wife, and I wondered “Wow, what a tough position to be put in. I wonder what she will say.” Well, she told the story of a conversation she had had that week with a fellow seminarian from Nigeria. In that conversation he said to her, “Now you in the United States have joined the rest of the world. You have now experienced the insecurity and vulnerability that we in Africa feel all the time.” Truer words could not have been spoken by that Nigerian brother, and it’s a message I’ve taken with me every since.

For a while we in the United States were humbled by the 9/11 attacks. We realized we were vulnerable, and we came together in amazing ways to support and honor one another. Not only did thousands volunteer to help in the clean up, but also hundreds of thousands contributed money to help the families, the victims and the rescuers. Every public event I attended in that first year had some ceremony to remember the 9/11 victims and their families, and also took time to honor police and firefighters for their dedicated service. We acted like people who knew that our strength was not in some false bravado, but in our connection and community with each other.

But somehow that sense of humility was turned into a war cry for revenge and retribution. 9/11 became the reason for discriminating against people of Middle Eastern descent and those who looked like them. People were stopped and harassed and detained simply because of their dress and appearance. Laws were passed that allowed the government to tap anyone’s phone at any time simply for being suspicious, and to violate all sorts of civil liberties. Then we entered into wars in Iraq and Afghanistan bent on revenge and a determination to “get bin Laden.” While the war in Afghanistan made some sense in that the Taliban were supporters of al-Quada, Iraq was a sham from the start. We now know that there was an elaborate attempt to mislead the Congress and the American people about “weapons of mass destruction” and the threat that Saddam posed to our country. We know that before the tanks got rolling and the bombs dropped, the US government was negotiating with Halliburton and other major corporations to divvy up the expected oil revenues. President Bush alienated many of our allies, such as France, Russia and Germany, who refused to join us in our invasion. We have treated the POWs from that war as inhumanely as any thing that is done by our so-called “enemies.” In many ways we have become the very thing we say we oppose. Five years and 4000 dead and thousands more maimed and wounded later, we are still in Iraq, and the president and John McCain talk about achieving “victory.” Victory over what and for what? A Lie?

As I listened to the two political conventions these past couple weeks, I was struck by the fact that we are not only being presented two distinctly different candidates, but we are also being presented with two different views of the United States’ place in the world. McCain talks about “victory in Iraq” and being a Commander in Chief. He plays heavily on his 5 years in a North Vietnam prison during (I might add) another immoral, illegal war. He thumps his chest at Russia’s invasion of Georgia and invokes the memory of Ronald Reagan and the Cold War. His followers wave signs that say “Country first” and “America first”, as they chant “USA, USA” like they are at an Olympic event. In St. Paul the Republicans put forth a pre-9/11 worldview that says we choose to try and rule the world and dictate to the world, rather than join the world.

Obama presents a much different picture. (Now, I will admit that some of this picture is not one that Obama plays up much, if at all. It is the picture that is in my mind. So if you want to blame someone, blame me.) The future I see that Obama paints is a picture where the United States has joined the world, where US leaders actually talk to leaders of countries like Iran and Russia. It’s a world of coalitions rather than cowboy-style going it alone. It’s a world where the leader of the U.S. actually looks like people in the 2/3 worlds, and actually has roots in that world thru his father from Kenya and his childhood in Indonesia. It is a world where people are respected rather than run over in an attempt to expand Western corporate and political interest. In fact it is a world that the U.S. is a full participant, sharing the concerns, the vulnerabilities and the suffering. It is not a world that we in the U.S. like to think about, but in my view it is the world we live in.

These visions of the world are embodied in the messages and images of the two candidates, McCain and Obama, while at the same time being visions that transcend either man. These visions speak deeply of how we see ourselves as a people. No doubt the pre-9/11 vision is comforting and assuring to some, while the post-9/11 vision is uncharted territory and thus frightening. Yet, I believe that if we as a nation don’t choose the multi-national, multi-cultural, one-nation-among-many future, we will be dragged there soon enough through a painful collapse of our society and way of life.

When my daughters were in middle school, I told them they had to learn Spanish because by the time they were adults 25-30% of the US population would use Spanish as their first language. I wish I had had the foresight to tell them to learn Chinese, Swahili and Arabic as well. The world my girls inhabit today as young adults is a much more diverse world than I could have imagined. It is a world where they must know how to communicate and cooperate across racial, cultural, national, religious, and ideological lines. It is a world that doesn’t abide an “America first” way of thinking.

One of my students put it clearly and succinctly. She wrote:

“I feel we are now at a newfound precipice looking into the future. We can choose to be proactive and decide what we want to become as a people--a global community within and without our borders--or we can continue to react and develop our social policies ad hoc. “

Like this young woman, I believe we are at precipice; we can either move backward to a time that exists only in our minds, or move forward to embrace the fact that we are part of a global community and need to do our part to help it become a healthy community. That doesn’t mean there won’t be conflict, failure, disappointment and the like. But in my mind it is better than denying what 9/11 clearly showed us: that we must embrace being part of the world as it is, or suffer the consequences of living in a Pollyanna past.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

In Defense of Community Organizers and the People They Work With

“I guess a small-town mayor is sort like a community organizer except that you have actual responsibilities.” That line got a big laugh and cheer from the delegates at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul this week. At the same time it betrayed an attitude of neglect that has characterized this presidential election campaign on both sides of the aisle.

For Gov. Palin’s information, community organizers are people who take on the responsibility of helping people who have no power or voice in this society, not only to get heard, but also to secure rights and opportunities that are denied them because they are poor. This summer I had the opportunity to attend the annual gathering of the National Organizers Alliance, a network of community organizers. These folks were working in a variety fields: immigration reform, voter registration, environmental protection, civil rights, labor, and anti-racism. Like social workers, childcare workers, inner city school teachers, youth workers, and millions of community and church volunteers, community organizers are committed to securing dignity and rights to the people who are often neglected, forgotten, and, even worse, abused by the U.S. economic and political system. As my wife, a social worker who serves people with HIV/AIDS, says: “We work with the folks that the rest of the society would rather not deal with.”

However, in addition to insulting a whole group of dedicated folks whose contributions are already devalued by this society, Gov. Palin’s statement raises a deeper concern about this election; and in this regard Sen. Obama is equally at fault. While there has been a lot of talk about the “middle class” and the “working class” by the candidates, no one has talked seriously about the growing extent of poverty in this nation. The only candidate to focus on the needs of the poor was John Edwards in the Democratic primary race. Other than that the poor have largely been ignored.

In his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, Barack Obama talked about the mortgage crisis, rising oil prices, jobs being shipped overseas, lowering taxes and the like – issues that impact the middle class. As a person with a “middle class” income, I resonate with those issues. I have not been able to do all I wanted to do, because costs have gone up. I am fortunate to have a secure mortgage, decent health coverage and a good credit rating, but I wouldn’t mind a little more. But the discomfort I experience is nothing compared to those who were suffering before the mortgage crisis hit, because they either didn’t have a permanent home, or because they struggled to pay the monthly rent. The discomfort I experience is nothing to the family that has no health care, and limited transportation, and whose schools are overcrowded, undersupplied, and physically decrepit. Senator Obama has talked about growing up with a single mom on a limited income, but has not fully addressed the complex burdens faced by the poor in this society today. He knows about it not only from his childhood, but also from his days as a community organizer. He tells the stories of people he knew in Southside Chicago in his memoir Dreams of My Father.

So, Obama knows about poverty, but for political reasons he has chosen not to talk about it; poverty, like racism, is not an issue Americans want to be reminded of. Gov. Palin, and the Republicans take the neglect even further, and ridicule those who make it their business to work side by side with those who are marginalized, dispossessed and abused by our system.

However, let me be clear: the issue is not about charity. Republicans are as generous and concerned about the “downtrodden” as anyone else. The issue is not about charity, but rather about social justice. John Rawls, Harvard philosopher who wrote A Theory of Justice, said that a society is judged on how it responds to the needs of the most vulnerable in that society. Justice is about making sure that people have their basic needs met, and that the doors of opportunity are equally open to all. Justice isn’t about giveaways; rather it’s about creating an economic, educational, and political system that gives every person a voice regardless of their station in life. In short social justice suggests that one’s ideas, rather than one’s access to power thru lobbyists and financial contributions, guide the decisions leaders make. In short, social justice is actually practicing the democracy we profess to have in this society

Almost all political speakers end their speeches with some variant of “God Bless America.” Jesus said that the way one responds to the needs of the poor, naked, imprisoned and weak is equivalent to the way one responds to him, and by extension to God (Matthew 25). If this nation truly wants any sense of God’s blessing, we had better open our eyes and our minds to those through whom God speaks and listens: the poor.

Monday, August 18, 2008

How Does the Peace Movement Respond to the Russian Invasion?

This is one of those entries where I wish I had something profound and insightful to say. Unfortunately, all I have are questions.

Last week, while we were all watching the opening ceremonies the Olympics (or for those who despise the sports mania, you were doing something to distract yourselves from said event), the Russians were invading the Republic of Georgia. To many, especially people in the Baltic States and Eastern Europe who were once part of the “Soviet bloc,” this event seemed hauntingly reminiscent of Russia’s 1953 invasion of Czechoslovakia. Poland and Ukraine have made it clear that they fear they may be next on Russia’s list of projected targets. The world stood shocked at Russia’s bold move caught flat footed by their act of aggression.

To hear the Russians talk, it sounds like they are only seeking to “liberate” the oppressed people of South Ossetia. To hear the Georgian leaders speak, it sounds like a brazen move of aggression. Where does the truth lie? Of course it depends on who you listen to.

As a person committed to peaceful, non-violent means of conflict resolution, I was speechless and felt inadequate when I read about these events. The U.S. government’s response was to make strong statements of support for Georgia and to deploy “humanitarian aid” delivered by members of the U.S. Navy and Air Force. NATO seemed paralyzed. President Sarkozy of France brokered a peace agreement, which the Russians seem to be saying they would agree to while continuing to advance deeper into Georgia. However, the peace community was silent.

At times like this, I wish we peaceniks of the world were better organized. I wish we had a contingent of people whose mission it was to enter such situations to stand between the warring factions and advocate for reconciliation. During the 1980’s when the U.S. carried on its covert war in El Salvador and Nicaragua, Witness for Peace made such forays. At the beginning of the current Iraq war, Christians Peacemaker teams drove to Baghdad even as the bombs were falling. Numerous groups have sought to serve as “human shields” between the Israelis and Palestinians. However, usually such groups are small and take months to organize because they are not “at the ready” when such conflicts arise. In fact the Christian Peacemaker website asks the question: "What would happen if Christians devoted the same discipline and self-sacrifice to nonviolent peacemaking that armies devote to war?"

Part of the problem lies with the kind of people peace folks tend to be. We peace folks tend to be a bit anti-authoritarian and don’t like too many rules. We balk at too much organization (that’s why there are so many anti-Iraq war groups all bickering with each other). This divisive attitude hampers us when we need to act quickly and the people in need are halfway around the globe. We become strangely silent when there an act of naked aggression by an perpetrator who could care less about Gandhi’s concept of satygraha (truth-force) or Martin Luther King’s notion of redemptive suffering or the South African concept of ubuntu.

I have to believe that in Russia and in Georgia there are people who are committed to the ways of peaceful conflict resolution and non-violent direct action. I have to believe that there are people whatever their spiritual heritage who have found a deeper truth and personal inspiration in teachings such as Jesus’ directives on non-violence and redemptive suffering in the Sermon on the Mount. Somehow we must find ways to connect with such folks, support them and if need be stand up with them to counter the impulse to military violence that snags our leaders anytime actions like this occur. If we believe, as I do, that the way of non-violence is the way human beings are created and wired to live, then we have to find ways to creatively respond.

In the buildup to World War II the great Christian leader and theologian Reinhold Niebuhr renounced his youthful pacifism as being impractical in a world threatened by Nazism. When events such as the Russian invasion of Georgia occur many would-be pacifists silently thank their lucky stars we’ve got some big guns trained on the “enemy.” The hawks in our country, such as John McCain, feel emboldened to threaten military force on our supposed adversaries. But we peace folks, where are we?

I, for one, don’t want to go down the military road, but at this point, I have far more questions than constructive responses. Any ideas out there?

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Tigger With A Cause

For the past several months the media has been highlighting “The Last Lecture, ” an actual lecture delivered by Dr. Randy Pausch on September 18, 2007 at Carnegie Mellon University. Dr. Pausch was a computer science professor at CMU who was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. At the time he delivered the lecture he was only expected to live for another 2-3 months, which is normal for pancreatic cancer. However, he beat the odds, and just recently passed away on July 25, 2008.

If you have 75 minutes to spare, “The Last Lecture” is worth listening to. Dr. Pausch shares a number stories about how he had been able to fulfill his personal dreams, how as a professor he encouraged the dreams of others, and then the life lessons he learned along the way. What makes the lecture so compelling is the context of his impending death and the sincere gratitude he has for the people in his life: mentors, colleagues, students, friends and family. The lessons and insights themselves are not particularly profound; what makes them so compelling is that the man sharing them lived them and did not just speak them. So now there are Last Lecture CD’s, podcasts, and books, and as American consumer culture is prone to do, we have made "The Last Lecture" into a commodity to be purchased on the self-help shelf at you local bookstore. Even so, cynicism aside, "The Last Lecture" is worth your time.

I finally took the time a few nights ago to view/listen to "The Last Lecture", and was particularly struck by one of his life lessons. He said all of us can choose in life to either be a Tigger or an Eeyore. For those not familiar with the Winnie the Pooh stories, Tigger is a bouncy, fun-loving tiger who never stops moving and finds joy in everything. Eeyore, on the other hand, is a morose, self-pitying donkey for whom life is a constant struggle and disappointment. Pausch’s point was this: we have a choice as to how we will engage the world, either as an exciting fun-filled adventurer or as a self-pitying pessimist. Randy Pausch chose to be a Tigger, and demonstrated that by causing an auditorium of people to laugh to the point of tears while talking about his impending death.

Depression is a terrible disability, and I realize that often there are chemical imbalances involved, but nonetheless I think Pausch has an excellent point. While not all of us have the “luxury” of knowing when and how our lives will end, all of us have the choice as to how we will live until our lives do end. When I was a pastor ministering to dying people, I came to realize that the so-called “deathbed conversion” was a false myth. People died in the same way they lived. If they were cynical or morose or self-centered in life, they were the same way in death; likewise if they were compassionate, positive and other-centered in life, they died that way too.

While I can have my “pity party” moments, I choose to embrace life with a Tigger mentality. However, Tigger is probably not the image I would have chosen because the issues confronting us today are too severe to just “bounce” through life. Nearly every day I interact with people who face issues of poverty, illness, family breakdown, racism and the like. On a national and global scale we are at dangerous place in history in large part due to the misplaced policies of our own government. So the Tigger image alone does not do it for me; Tigger often did not really interact with people and the world in a meaningful way. Yet, I like Tigger’s attitude, his spunk, his endless energy and his desire to see an adventure in every event.

Recently, I came across a line written by Reinhold Niebuhr in The Irony of American History:

“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in a lifetime, therefore we must be saved by hope.”

I couple that with the saying attributed to Gandhi:

“Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

These words capture what drives me these days. They capture who at my best I hope to be. I want to work for positive changes in the world that will outlive me. So I couple Niebuhr's and Gandhi's words with Pausch’s image of Tigger, and say I want to be a Tigger with a cause. I want to be engaged in lifting up the lives of others as I am compelled and inspired by hope.

I don’t think Randy Pausch was a particularly religious man; he makes no mention of faith in his last lecture. Nonetheless, there is clear spiritual import in what he says: we have a choice as to how we will live life. Moses (Deuteronomy 30.15, 19b) put it this way: “I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction … Now choose life so that you and your children may live.” Randy Pausch’s “The Last Lecture” (which he reveals at the end is really a message for his three young children) is a call to choose life, to be a Tigger with a Cause for as many days as we have left in this life... and beyond.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Spirituality of a Different Kind

Just before the July 4th holiday I attended the national gathering of the National Organizer’s Alliance (NOA) , a network of community organizers, labor organizers and social activists from across the country. I was there to learn about community organizing work that was being done at the grassroots level, and came away with that and so much more. The folks at the gathering represented a wide variety of groups and concerns: gay rights, environmentalists, immigration, drug policy reform, labor unions, women’s issues, anti-racism groups, church networks and much more. The group was racially, ethnically and generationally diverse, and leadership was shared equally and seamlessly across all the differences. While there were several “old-timers,” people who had been involved in social activism since the 1960’s, there also was a healthy contingent of late adolescents and twenty-somethings whose contributions and commitments were affirmed and celebrated. Despite all the apparent differences, there was a common commitment to radical social change and to “the movement” that will hopefully bring it about.

I met one African-American brother who had spent several years in prison for a crime he did not commit, and when he was released he returned to his home in rural South Carolina to work for economic and racial justice. He was elected as a county commissioner, but even that did not spare him from being harassed and threatened to the point of death by white supremacists in the area. However, he spoke gratefully of the support and assistance given to him from his colleagues from NOA during some of his most trying times. He saw the members of NOA as his extended family and community of support.

One night we were entertained by the D.C. Labor Choir, a group of union folks who got together weekly to sing and support each other. Like the NOA group, the choir was made up of Asian, Latino, African-American and White folks of all ages. Several of the songs they sang were gospel songs (with the words slightly altered) that originally came out of the African-American church, which of course had been the heart and soul of the Civil Rights movement in the 1950’s and 60’s.

As I was listening to the choir and reflecting on my experience with these ordinary folks committed to extraordinary change, I felt like I was in “church”; not church in the stuffy formal sense that many folks think of church, but “church” in its best and fullest sense. The feeling of mutual support was true community, the music spoke to the depths of my soul, the commitments expressed were infectious, and the vision of a new world brought about by the movement reminded me of Jesus speaking about the Reign of God that is here and is to come. Furthermore, as I spoke with folks individually, I learned that many of them were strengthened by a deep sense of purpose that came from their religious faith, be it Jewish, Christian, Muslim or undefined.

Krista Tippet, the author of Speaking of Faith, and host of the radio show by the same name, says that in our current age with its tendency toward extremisms of all kinds, our society and world is in need of religious “moderators,” people who do not deny the importance of faith but instead “bring the best of their traditions to bear on the world.” I felt that I was in the presence of such moderators, folks who were drawn to a vision of a world of equity, peace, fairness, health, safety and cooperation with nature. Cynics and “realists” on the Left and Right denounce such visionaries as impractical. That cynicism leads to the life-destroying policies of both the left and right, and only breeds greater enmity between the two. The Rush Limbaughs, Ann Coulters and Bill Mahers of the world scoff at such visions, and only leave us in despair. By contrast spiritual moderators imbue us with a sense of optimism because they see through the present struggle to a brighter horizon where hope lives. Such hope does not hide or deny present struggles and suffering, but helps sustain us to keep working toward a world free of unjust suffering.

My experience at the NOA gathering was so moving because 25-30 years ago when I was marching against Vietnam, nuclear power, U.S. support of the contras and other causes, there was a great deal of anger and enmity on the Left toward spiritually oriented people. While there were always religiously oriented leaders like Jesse Jackson and William Sloane Coffin involved, I felt that they were tolerated because of their political leanings and basically ignored (by most) for their spiritual convictions. What I sensed at NOA was something quite different; I felt an openness to the Transcendent that pointed to a deeper spirituality infusing those seeking social change.

One of the great things about this postmodern age we live in is that I can affirm my Christian roots and motivation, while someone else can affirm their roots from another tradition, and we don’t have to feel like one of has to “win” the other over. Instead we can stand in the space that our common commitments create for us despite our different sources of inspiration. In such encounters I am reminded that God or Allah or Yahweh or the Higher Power or whatever we call the Transcendent is far too vast for any one of us to fully grasp, and therefore large enough for all of us to be covered by the Divine grace and shelter of love.

Robert Mulholland writes that often God comes to us from the margins of life in what he calls a “decentering experience.” In other words very often the Transcendent is found in the places where one would least expect to experience a deep sense of a spiritual presence. I did not go to the NOA gathering expecting to experience “church;” nonetheless, God met me there in deep and profound ways, and I am deeply grateful for being decentered yet again.