Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Infidel: Troubling Insights from a Muslim Woman's Story


Just before Christmas I finished reading Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s memoir Infidel in which she recounts her personal journey out of the oppressive form of Islam she grew up with in her native Somalia. Ali recounts in vivid detail the mutilation, abuse and degradation of women and girls that were sanctioned and allowed by the Muslim faith of her youth. Because Somalia was in the midst of a civil war, at different points in her childhood Ali was a refugee living in Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Kenya. At age 22 her father arranged for her to marry a Somali man living in Canada she had never met. En route to join her new husband, Ali escaped to Holland, where she concocted a story that enabled her to gain refugee status and eventually become a Dutch citizen. Through the largesse of the Dutch welfare system Ali was able to earn a masters degree in Political Science and eventually she was elected to the Dutch parliament.

From her political position Ali called attention to the ongoing degradation of women that was occurring in the growing Muslim community in Holland (mostly from Morocco) and the complete lack of interest on the part of most Dutch Muslims to become integrated into Dutch society. Through the openness and tolerance of European countries toward other cultural and religious groups, Ali contends that Muslim communities in European countries are allowed to continue the barbaric and horrific practices toward women that she experienced growing up. When she made her views public through the production of a short film called “Submission,” the producer of the film was assassinated and her life was threatened. She fled to the United States where she now lives and works as a researcher with the American Enterprise Institute.

Ali’s story is troubling on two levels. First of all, she describes in graphic and horrifying detail the brutality she experienced in the form of female circumcision, beatings and extreme limits on her ability to grow and develop; she contends these acts toward here were common experiences of all Muslim women and girls in the places where she lived.[To see a video interview with Ali about these practices go to this link.] Second, her story challenges all the Western notions of pluralism, multiculturalism and religious tolerance. Attempts at creating religious dialogue, such as Karen Armstrong’s Charter of Compassion, depend on people of various religious groups having a mutual respect for each other’s right to believe in their own way. At the same time such efforts assume that people practicing those religions have a level of freedom and dignity within the contexts of their faith. For instance, Armstrong contends that compassion is at the heart of all the world’s great religious and therefore is a standard around which people of all different faiths can gather. However, Ali points out that while Islam teaches compassion, that call to compassion is meant to apply only to those within the Muslim faith, while those outside the faith are considered worthy of death.

Now Ali’s experience of Islam is quite different than that reflected by the Muslims in this country I have known and talked with. For instance, Muslims I have had in my classes have been very open to dialogue and don’t see Islam as degrading to women (though many of them still wear the veil and long robes), nor do they ally themselves with the radical elements of Islam. Moreover, a 2007 Pew Forum study revealed that Muslims in this country where generally pleased with life in the US and did not support terrorism. However, a more recent Pew Forum study found that nearly 70% of the world’s population lived in countries with “high restrictions on religious freedom.” Translated this means that 70% of the world’s people live under religious systems that do not abide by such values as respect for difference, tolerance and dialogue. Ali rejects the notion that such intolerance of others’ views is a result of suffering and poverty and claims instead that such closed views to outsiders is intrinsic to Islam and central to the teaching of the Koran.

There is no question that Christian history has its share of repression through the crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, pogroms against Jews and Muslims, enslavement of African slaves, genocide against American Indians, and the blessing of repressive colonization throughout the developing world. We still are dealing with the effects of this history. Moreover, there are still Christian groups such as “The Family” that mix conservative politics with Christian beliefs and seek to control and oppress others in the name of their faith. Likewise certain dimensions of Zionism would like no better than to completely remove all Palestinians from Israel. So this is not an indictment of only Muslims, but of all religious groups that leave no place for dialogue and respectful interaction.

When on Christmas yet another radical believer sought to martyr himself in the name of his God on a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, I find myself deeply troubled by the current intolerance that seems to span our globe. While I want to be open to the views of others, when those views include the mutilation and abuse of women, the restriction of basic freedoms and a lack of respect for difference, such views can not be endorsed or permitted. For all their faults the societies of the West, including the US, at their best strive to be open to a variety of lifestyles and beliefs. This openness is something we must continue to uphold in the face of fundamentalists near and far who would obliterate others in the name of their God.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The World As it is....?


On December 20 as we Philadelphians were digging out from a 12-20 inch snow storm (depending on where you were and what station you listened to), the Philadelphia Inquirer’s headlines announced that the Senate had garnered the 60 votes needed to move forward on the health care legislation. If passed it is expected to cost $871 billion and cut $132 billion from the deficit over the next 10 years. Quietly tucked away on page 6 was another article that the Senate had passed a defense bill worth $636 billion (of which $130 billion was for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) for the next year that did not include another $30-40 billion needed for the additional troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Apparently, Senators who had to be driven through the snow to get to the Senate chambers paused during the health care debate to pass the defense bill 88-10.

I had to stop and wonder why the Senate, so deadlocked on passing a bill that would provide health care for its own citizens, seemed to have no problem passing a bill that continues our war efforts around the world in the name of “protecting” those citizens. How about protecting those citizens from poverty, disease, and death? I had to wonder if these politicians and the President are operating between two different worlds.

During his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech President Obama talked about “reality”. He said:

I am mindful of what Martin Luther King said in this same ceremony years ago — “Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones.” As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King’s life’s work, I am living testimony to the moral force of nonviolence. I know there is nothing weak — nothing passive, nothing naïve — in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King. But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: evil does exist in the world. A nonviolent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism — it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason. [emphasis mine]

As Brian McLaren pointed out in his recent blog, Obama says there is ‘nothing naïve” about the way Gandhi and King dealt with the world, but he must “face the world as it is.” What world is he talking about? The world where violence begets violence, or where the myth persists that peace comes through war and violence? Is it a world where the hard-nosed reality of evil is confronted with the force of truth (Gandhi’s terms satygraha) and unrelenting unconditional love (King’s favorite term) or where we capitulate to the devices of our “enemies” and thus become no better or effective than them?

So what is the “world as it is” to which Pres. Obama refers? I am reminded of the closing lines in the movie "The Mission". After the Roman Catholic bishop has consciously collaborated with Portugese and Spanish conquistadors to nearly destroy an indigenous Indian tribe, he laments at the destruction that has been wrought in the church’s name. His Portugese companion tries to console him by encouraging him not to lament the Indians' destruction for “for the world is thus.” However the bishop responds simply by saying, “No, thus we have made the world.” In other words “reality” or “the world as it is” is a social construct. The assumptions and values we highlight determine what we consider to be “reality” and what is “unrealistic.”

The “world as it is” says war and war-making is a priority and inevitable, but providing health care, eliminating poverty, providing decent education both here and abroad are “unrealistic,” too expensive, and impossible to accomplish.

McLaren quotes the recognized World War II military commander Gen. Douglas MacArthur who said:

In the evolution of civilization, if it is to survive, all men cannot fail eventually to adopt Gandhi’s belief that the process of mass application of force to resolve contentious issues is fundamentally not only wrong but contains within itself the germs of self-destruction.

In other words, we can continue down the “realistic” path that leads to greater polarization and disparity in the world, or we can choose a different way. My prayer this Christmas season, as always, is that one day, we might see that the way of peace, justice, sacrifice and service is far more practical than all the guns and bombs will ever be.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Paradoxical Hope in the Age of Obama

Last year when Barack Obama was running for president the overriding theme was Hope. He had even written a book called The Audacity of Hope that outlined his vision for the United States. Many if not most the people who voted for him saw his election in almost messianic terms in that it was believed that Barack Obama would bring significant changes both in terms of government policies at home and our image and interaction with peoples around the world. Apparently the Nobel Peace prize voters thought so too, as it is widely agreed (even by Obama himself) this being given that award was not so much for what he had done, as for the hope and expectation his election to the presidency represented to the world.

For the last year Pres. Obama has been working to enact the agenda he campaigned on in spite of a crippling economic recession that reached its lowest point just as he assumed office. He has taken or proposed actions to stimulate the economy, hold financial institutions and big business more accountable, challenge people adapt to the realities of global warming, and pass comprehensive health care legislation. His vision and hope for change have clashed head on with the realities of conservative resistance and liberal dithering at home, and the brutality, oppression, and violence abroad.

Most recently Obama made a decision to send 30,000 more troops to fight an unwinable war in Afghanistan. I, like many others believe our approach there needs to be less military and more focused on education, building infrastructure and developing the economy. As Greg Mortenson points out in his book Three Cups of Tea, the best way to fight the Taliban is to build more schools. Our current approach simply kills more innocent civilians and therefore creates more “terrorists” whereas helping the common folks with their basic needs will not only raise their prospects but also draw them in to friendship.

Now to Pres. Obama’s credit, during his campaign he consistently said he would send more troops to Afghanistan. So no one should have been surprised at his decision. That’s why the Nobel Peace prize folks got a speech on just war theory because that is how Obama saw our involvement in Afghanistan. As he was deliberating these past months, I admit I was hoping that he would change his mind, but in the end he did not. So I was not surprised even though I was deeply saddened.

Despite Pres. Obama’s argument to the contrary, Afghanistan is very much like the Vietnam War: an unwinnable war, against a small and illusory enemy, supporting a corrupt government, in an effort without clear and measurable objectives. As Yogi Berra might say “It’s déjà vu all over again.”

All of this has gotten me wondering: Where is the hope we had so counted on and vote for?

Like many Americans I have generally believed in history as progress – that idea that as a nation we are slowly evolving toward higher levels of understanding and functioning that as our politicians often tell us, “Our best days are still ahead of us.” Moreover as a Christian I have generally subscribed to the idea that God is active in human history and moving humankind toward some glorious and positive conclusion, that the Kingdom of God is breaking into our world and at some point God will send Jesus to bring that process to completion.

Not any longer.

I have pretty much chucked those ideas now. I don’t see history as progress, nor do I see God moving us toward some millennium. I now see history, like I see my life, as a series of recurring patterns. The awareness of these patterns gives me the opportunity to learn and possibly change. However, the reality is that those patterns are so deeply ingrained that often change is difficult to achieve, and when it does occur, it is usually partial and inadequate. So for instance in my personal life, I find that the older I get the more I become like my parents in ways I find both rewarding and disconcerting. When it comes to events on the world stage, I see humankind repeating patterns, such as we are with Afghanistan, a pattern that reminds me disturbingly of the tragedy of Vietnam.

The even larger pattern I see is that empires fall. Persia, Egypt, Rome, Great Britain and the Soviet Union once were all great empires that dominated large parts of their world. Today those former empires are shadows of themselves. The United States as an empire is also destined to fall; it is part of an historical pattern. Whether it will happen in my lifetime or the lives of my kids, I can’t say. However, the decision about Afghanistan, along with the worldwide economic crisis triggered by Wall Street, the environmental challenges of global warming, and the growing disparities of wealth and poverty at home point to signs that US empire is beginning to crumble; we are repeating many of the same patterns of empires before us.

Despite these seemingly dire circumstances and my admittedly pessimistic perspective on our nation’s prospects, I still am a person of hope.

I am a person of hope not because I think we will break the pattern, but because I believe we survive and sometimes even thrive as a human race despite those patterns. My hope is not in the United States or Barack Obama or some romantic notion of human evolution, but rather in a God whose very Spirit gives the human race the capacity to somehow endure dramatic and often drastic changes. It concerns and saddens me greatly that millions of people suffer humanity’s arrogance and ignorance, and un willingness to learn from our mistakes. Nonetheless, it is the perseverance of those who struggle, who are oppressed, and who are neglected and maligned by the powers that be, who at the same time somehow are able to celebrate and dance. My hope is in God’s gift of resilience. My hope is in God who has sided with the dispossessed and marginalized against the powers that be, and who remains constant despite the recurring patterns of history.

As Jim Wallis writes : “Hope is the door from one reality to another. Things that seem possible, reasonable, understandable, even logical in hindsight….often seemed quite impossible, unreasonable, nonsensical and illogical when we were looking ahead to them. The changes, the possibilities, the opportunities, the surprises that no one or very few would even have imagined become history after they’ve occurred.” (quoted in Bass, The People’s History of Christianity, p. 310).

In short my hope in this age of Obama is not in our innovative and courageous president, nor a myth of human progress, but rather in the paradox that by grace God walks with us from this reality to next not because of our efforts, but often in spite of them.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Other Sides to "The Blind Side"


On Thanksgiving evening I went with members of my extended family to see the recently released movie “The Blind Side” starring Sandra Bullock. Based on the book by the same title, “The Blind Side tells the story of Baltimore Ravens left tackle, Michael Oher. Oher was a nearly illiterate 16 year old who was allowed to enroll in Wingate Christian Academy outside of Memphis, TN through the advocacy of a friend despite having very low test scores and a nearly non-existent grade point average.

The son of an absent father and a drug addict mother, Michael is a virtual orphan trying to make it on is own. Then one evening he is picked up by wealthy socialite Leigh Ann Tuohy (played by Bullock) who brings him into her family, provides him a home, gets him a tutor, advocates for him with his teachers and against his former gang banger friends, and even shows him how to play left tackle on his high school football team. Michael who is 6’4”, 390 pounds is physically a natural football player; he just needs to learn how to block, which Leigh Ann shows him. Michael ends up graduating from high school, getting a scholarship to Ole Miss, graduates from college on the Dean’s list, and gets picked up in the first round of the NFL draft by the Baltimore Ravens, where he now is a starting left tackle. And, oh did I say that Michael was black, and Leigh Ann is white.

On the surface of it, assuming that the movie was essentially true, it is a wonderful, tear-inducing, good feel story of how well meaning people can make a difference in someone else’s life, and how even someone from a broken home can go on to success.

Yet I came out of the movie feeling uneasy about the larger message this movie was sending. Without necessarily meaning to, "The Blind Side" reinforces all the stereotypes that obfuscate the issues of race and class in our culture. All the good and well meaning people in the story(Michael’s teachers, the Tuohy family, & the football coach) are white, and all the negative influences and people in need (Michael, his drug addicted mother, & his good-for-nothing friends back in the projects) are black. The only stereotype that the movie does not reinforce is the Southern racist stereotype; Leigh Ann Tuohy and her family are open, committed, caring and helpful to the end.

Now for all I know the facts support the story being told the way it was: Wealthy white woman saves poor black kid from certain destruction. I just got wondering about the other sides of the story that were not only overlooked, but for the most part did not even get an honorable mention.

For instance, what if the story was told from Michael’s point of view, rather than Leigh Ann’s? What did it take for a 16 year old boy to keep trying despite the negative influences all around him? How did a kid with a drug addicted mother get such strong values of caring for one’s own (maybe his mother was an addict, but she had values too.)? What was it like to walk into an all white school and have folks look at you, whisper behind your back, but not talk to your face? What was it like to know that people look at you either in fear or disgust, and yet pursue your goal? What was it like to be taken in by this strong willed, white woman and her family and certainly be loved, but also be seen as a charity project?

Or what about telling the fuller story of the change that had to overtake the Tuohy family? What was it like to be the beneficiaries of the plantation mentality of the South and yet take a black young man into your home? What were the fears and the questions they had? What was it like to have your white friends question your sanity and call you “nigger lover”, as they certainly were? How did the kids manage the ambivalence of wanting to be accepted by their peers, but listening to the values lived out by their Christian mother? What was it like to go against the grain of the Southern aristocratic worldview that had been handed down for generations and contend with the feelings of confusion, fear and doubt?

Or what about raising a question as to how the all white, upper class Christian school got its start? Did it start in the 1950’s and 1960’s when throughout the South public schools were ordered to de-segregate, and so private schools, many of them “Christian,” were started so that wealthier white kids did not have to go to schools with Black kids? In the years since, had Wingate Christian school sought to shed its elitist, separatist image or had it continued to be a vehicle for keeping the Christian haves from the poorer, darker have-nots? How could Wingate be a Christian school and yet still be such an essential contributor to the separatist, elitist fabric of Memphis society?

Or, what about asking the question, why were the white folks living in the mansion (just like the “big house” on the plantation) and all the black folks were living in the projects? Why despite desegregation, affirmative action, and various efforts at bringing equity, is there a greater economic disparity between blacks and whites today than in the 1970’s? Why do public schools that teach poor children tend to be underfunded, thus under-resourced and under staffed, and so a kid like Michael Oher is promoted from grade to grade even though he can barely read? Why not ask how Michael learned how to learn by listening rather than by reading and writing, and thus was not uneducated, but just able to take a written test? Why not ask how public education seems to reinforce the disparate status quo rather than really help students succeed when thy come from schools in poor neighborhoods?

Or perhaps we might ask why this story was made into a movie in the first place, instead of a movie where black folks help each other? Why not tell the story of John Lucas, a basketball star who got caught in drugs, got himself together and now helps athletes who struggle with similar problems? Why not tell the story of Tony Dungy, former NFL player and coach, who routinely mentors young men? What about telling countless stories of families, white and black, who are poor and yet sacrifice so their kids can succeed and go to college? What is it about the “market” of the movie business that needs to tell this story, a story that essentially reinforces the inequities and disparities in our society as long as there a few Leigh Ann Tuohy’s to keep us honest and remind us to be charitable?

Now perhaps I am making too much of a simple movie. As one person said to me, “Can’t you just take for being a good story?” Nope, I can’t because there are too many other messages a movie like “The Blind Side” sends, which make working for social and racial justice that much more difficult. It reinforces the personal attitudes and the social policies that make Michael Oher’s situation all too common, and the outcome of this story all too rare. It’s not that the story that “The Blind Side” tells is wrong; it is just that there other sides to the story that are not even acknowledged, and which also must be recognized and must be heard.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Last Veteran's Day - A Dream


The Year: November 11, some time in the future
The Place: A VFW Hall

The old veteran closed the door on the VFW. It was the last time he would ever do this special act. There was no point. He was the last veteran, and today was the last Veteran’s Day. The VA Administration had closed years ago and the VA hospitals had been turned back to their local communities. It wasn’t that people did not appreciate his service, or recognize his sacrifice (although truth to be told, he had just had a desk job). The people and the government had not turned their backs on their service men and women. The reason was simply that there were no more military veterans.

Decades ago, the people of the United States had simply and consciously decided they were not going to initiate any more wars. After long consultations between former soldiers, academics, politicians and just plain regular folks, the people of the United States came to the conclusion that waging war was just not an effective way to spread peace, encourage democracy, secure human rights and provide so called “national security.” Instead some regular folks had started talking about encouraging peace and democracy by sharing their national resources and expertise, and building bridges of understanding rather than the hostilities and hatreds caused by war.

Blogs, tweets, and text messages had proliferated on the Internet, and a new idea began to emerge that maybe there was another road to peace other than war. Websites, List serves and Social Networking sites were formed where people shared their ideas of how to build a more humane and safer world. Slowly, at first imperceptibly, the tide of public opinion began to change. Eventually entertainers, celebrities and media pundits started chanting the mantra of “wage peace, not war.” The politicians, sensing the winds of change, began claiming they had come up with “a new idea for a new century” and all of a sudden leaders started talking about the benefits of peace.

Now don’t get me wrong, the change did not come without great struggle. First of all, the nation’s history had been written around the theme of wars won and heroes created. All the great presidents in the first two centuries had come to fame in part because of their conduct in time of war, either as soldiers or leaders or both. Words like “freedom” and “country” could not be without a simultaneous mention of war. The language of war and battle infused every area of life from education to business to sports to religion. The imagery and ethos of war was at the heart of American culture, and there were many staunch patriots, both liberal and conservative, who could not conceive of being an American without reference to war. The change had come at a great shift in values and perspectives.

Even more difficult than the cultural transformation was the change in economic thinking. So many of the nation’s service, manufacturing and financial institutions had been built around the military's demand for war supplies. The makers of planes, cars, guns, food, and all the materials that went into those items had become dependent on the nation being at war with someone somewhere in the world at all times. And of course whenever there was an economic down turn, as happened in 1929 and 2008, the economy could always count on the military to provide impoverished men and women with no viable vocational prospects to join up and fill the ranks of the troops needed overseas. After the tide of public opinion had begun to turn, there were reports that came out that the CEOs of some of the major world corporations had actually held secret meetings trying to manufacture wars just to keep their businesses afloat. The corporations with major military contracts lobbied hard in Congress and spent billions of dollars making their point that war was good for the country. It created jobs and made heroes out of otherwise normal men and women.

However, the ones who had the hardest time were the politicians who had spent so much time trumpeting the power and prominence of the United States in the world. “God Bless America” had become the unofficial national anthem, and was used to pump up the crowds when realistic solutions to the nation’s problems seemed too difficult for these men and some women of leisure to work on. As long as there was war going on, they didn’t need to tackle the need for health care, better schools, responses to global warming and the like. They could cozy up to the lobbyists, get their fat checks, and basically do little to nothing to really improve life. The politicians had it made, and this change of the nation’s mind was hard for them to adjust to. Some didn’t, and were heard long after they had been voted out of office, mumbling “but I love my country” as they shuffled down the halls of the special politician respite care facilities that had been hastily constructed after so many of them basically had emotional breakdowns.

What turned the tide is that the regular folks, who were suffering under the neglect of their elected officials and abuse by their corporate leaders, finally got fed up. Historians debate what actual “tipping point was” but most agreed it came as a result of the confluence of several events that occurred near the end of 2009. President Obama decided to send more troops to the war in Afghanistan, a war that was killing more and more US soldiers each day, and making the Afghan people less secure than when the soldiers arrived. Bankers were touting that the recession of 2008 was over and giving each other huge bonuses, while one in 10 people were out of work, and one in eight lived in dire poverty. The president’s efforts to pass a comprehensive health care bill got mired down in political name-calling. Small businesses struggled to make ends meet. Young people, especially those just out of college found it difficult to start their careers. People everywhere just got tired of the lies, the hypocrisy and frankly, the bullshit coming out of their leaders.

So they hit the streets. They wrote letters. They walked into corporate headquarters and protested at bankers meetings. They marched on Wall Street, on Pennsylvania Ave, and on major streets in cities and towns throughout the country. They started emailing and texting their friends and family, and things began to shift. For a long time life in the US was chaotic. At times the police and the National Guard had to be called out to calm folks down. But then the police and guardsmen began deserting, not wanting to quell a movement that they themselves were in agreement with. There were reports in San Francisco, Philadelphia and Houston that police officers actually put down their guns and joined the marchers. There was even a governor’s wife in Minnesota who led a protest on her husband’s office at the capital. It was crazy, scary and exciting time.

After it was clear that Obama’s decision to send in more troops was wrong-headed, he reversed himself and the war in Afghanistan was terminated. The president ordered out most of the troops and instead sent teams of teachers, doctors, social workers, business consultants, community developers and engineers into the country to help rebuild what the soldiers had destroyed. Halliburton, Boeing and some of the other huge military contract companies began to shift focus and started building supply ships, and cargo planes to take seeds and tools to the impoverished parts to the world. Over a period of several years the World Bank experienced a complete change of leadership, and the new folks in charge started using words like “sustainability”, “eco-friendly” and “localized economies” rather than “growth”, “bottom line” and “globalization.” The change didn’t happen overnight, and for a long it seemed like nothing was happening, but as people looked back they realized the shift started when people got fed up.

And then the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the heads of the nation’s military branches, who had build their careers and professional identities on the need to conduct war, made an admission that shocked the nation. They asked for and received a prime time slot on national television. One by one these military leaders shared in graphic and often painful detail what war was really like. Each one shared his personal horror story of war, and then together they confessed their angst for sending men and women into the face of certain death for causes that rarely were clear and objectives that were never worthy. They talked about the lies and propaganda that were manufactured to justify their actions, and they asked for the nation’s forgiveness. They announced that they, the warrior heroes of the nation, were giving up their stations as military commanders, and were going to live more wholesome, productive lives.

Shortly after that, the recruiting stations closed. Because there were fewer soldiers, as time went on there was less need for veterans services. So little by little VA hospitals and other programs began to close simply because they were not needed. Then, one day in the spring the President announced that the next November 11 would be the last Veteran’s Day, simply because there were no more veterans.

Today was that day. The last veteran closed the door to the VFW hall, and smiled wryly. His granddaughter ran up and grabbed his hand as they walked together toward his car. He said to her “Want some ice cream?”

“Can I have chocolate cherry cheesecake with whip cream?”

He smiled “You can have anything you want. It’s a good day!”

Saturday, November 07, 2009

God and Guns


One of the things that Heeding God’s Call has done has sought to make the buying, selling, owning and using of guns an issue of faith. This expression of the gun violence prevention movement, which started here in Philadelphia, has drawn its base from the religious community, which has in turn given the movement respect and credibility in the wider community. However, by no means does that mean that the religious community is of one mind when it comes to the role guns do and should play in our society. Any Google search of “God and Guns” will turn up a host of websites and YouTube videos dedicated to the integration of God, Patriotism, Libertarianism and Second Amendment rights. On the other hand, a recent AP article reported that in Detroit pastors are carrying pistols into their pulpits and have organized armed “ministries of defense” to protect them and their parishioners during meetings together. I myself know pastors and Eastern University colleagues in Philadelphia who are not shy in admitting their ownership of a gun for their own safety.

While I am not against owning a gun per se (for instance I have many friends who are hunters), I am troubled by the intersection of faith and an instrument of violence, especially when that instrument’s sole purpose is to shoot, injure and possibly kill another human being, even in defense. This is the only use for handguns. At issue for me is not simply whether a Christian is justified in using a gun against another person either in war or in self defense, but rather the mistaken belief that the capacity to inflict violence of any kind against another person somehow makes them stronger and morally justified.

This “myth of redemptive violence” as Walter Wink calls it essentially believes that if I am wronged or injured by another’s use of violence, I am justified in getting even. This myth of redemptive violence is at the heart of nearly every cop show and “kick-ass” movie out today. This same myth dominates US foreign policy and has been the cause of all the deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan. As the myth goes in US foreign policy, if we can somehow catch and kill Osama Bin Laden, the other leaders of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, the world will be safer. What this line of thinking ignores is the verifiable reality that violence only breeds more violence whether on a city street or a mountain pass in Afghanistan. In fact it can be logically argued that the heinous 9/11 attacks that ushered in the “war on terror” were a response to U.S. military actions in the Middle East. Instead of pointing fingers as to who was to blame, we would do better to recognize that the pattern of spiraling violence feeds on itself, and no one wins, and no one is justified.

Moreover, fighting violence with violence does not work. In the article on the Detroit pastors, one of them was quoted as saying, “…the Scriptures are clear that civil authority is part of God’s plan…In our country it says in due process that you may bear arms to protect yourself. While we should be committed to trusting God, that doesn’t prevent us or command us to be totally passive.” By calling upon people of faith to take a non-violent approach I am in no way opting for passivity. The dichotomy between bearing arms and passivity is a false one. What people of faith have is the power of numbers and moral conviction. We don’t act in isolation expecting God to miraculously protect us from violence; instead we use the power of the message of love and justice working together in community to provide an alternative model of security and conflict resolution. While I appreciate the feelings of insecurity that lead people to pack a gun for protection, study after study shows that such practice makes our communities and homes less safe rather than more.

That’s why I continue to work alongside my brothers and sisters in Heeding God’s Call. While we don’t have all the answers, the power of our combined spiritual commitment is a source nonviolent power that can heal and provide an alternative to the discredited myth of redemptive violence.

A CALL TO ACTION - Heeding God’s Call goes to the PA State Capital in Harrisburg on November 19, 2009

The PA House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to hear testimony on HB 40 at the State Capitol in Harrisburg beginning at 10am on Thursday, November 19. Please plan to join your fellow faithful there to help bring some sanity to this issue. !

Background: The ‘Castle Doctrine,’ established in common law and statute since medieval days, grants a legal right to use force, even lethal force, against threatening invaders of residences. However, under current law in PA and almost every other state, a person who feels threatened in a public place has a legal duty to attempt to flee. Lethal force may be used only as a last resort.

HB 40, the gun lobby’s ‘Shoot First’ bill, would turn this on its head. Namely, HB 40 would grant a legal right to use lethal force, including gunfire, against any person felt to be threatening, virtually anywhere. The operative phrase, of course, is ‘felt to be threatened,’ which opens a huge can of worms and danger. All a shooter would have to do if ‘Shoot First’ becomes law is claim she/he ‘felt’ threatened in order to avoid liability for harming or killing another, threatening situation or not.

This is, of course, craziness of the first order and would replace the law and order of a civil society with a ‘Shoot First Ask Questions Later’ mentality more akin to the mythical Wild West than to 21st Century America. Again, all so the gun lobby’s patrons in the gun industry can sell more guns.

So, Heeding is in the midst of organizing a trip/meeting/etc. in Harrisburg for all concerned faithful, to oppose the abomination in God’s eyes that is the ‘Shoot First’ bill, to make our views known and to remind legislators that we and they have a religious duty, whatever the faith tradition, to seek civility and peace, not the fear and violence promoted by the gun lobby.

For more information contact me (drickb@aol.com) or Heeding God’s Call (info@heedinggodscall.org)

Saturday, October 17, 2009

There is Something Wrong With This Picture


This week had a lot of good news for Wall Street. The Dow Jones indicators topped 10,000 for the first time in many months after dipping below 7000 at one point. Then because stocks were on the rise, the economists declared “the recession is over”. Then we heard that multimillion dollar bonuses were back for the big investment companies. Finally it appears that the financial bailout actually created more wealth and less competition for some of the country’s biggest investment firms Goldman Sachs and JP MorganChase. Meanwhile, the unemployment rate hovers near 10% (and that’s only counting the people who are looking; the real unemployment rate is probably closer to 17%), city governments are cutting back services, university systems such as California are having to raise their tuition significantly, and the Federal government looks at a multi-trillion dollar debt.

There is something wrong with this picture. How can the recession be “over” when only the wealthy and powerful are making their money again? My issue is not just that some people are making money while most are still struggling, but rather that the system that got us into the mess last year has not been fundamentally altered. It is a system that favors the powerful at the expense of the weak, and that concentrates the resources of the nation in the hands of a few while the many struggle. If Goldman Sachs is making a bundle, then they should pitch in for health care for every one in this country, and their wealth should be spread to better not just the wallets of its top execs but the people in the communities where they operate.

Ralph Estes argues in The Tyranny of the Bottom Line, that corporate “success” should not merely be measured by the profit margins and financial returns to investors, but on the social and environmental impact on employees and vendors, and the communities where companies operates. By that measure Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan Chase are dismal failures and the recession is far from over. While they were given bailout money to make affordable loans to people, they instead have used that money to trade on the stock market, and then passed the earnings on to themselves.

E.F. Schumacher argues in Small is Beautiful that we need to move from an economic model that is constantly focused on growth to an economy based on sustainability. The subtitle of Schumacher's book is "Economics as if people mattered." What a novel thought! The extreme capitalist model on Wall Street and in the business sector constantly measured growth, which in a world of fixed resources means loss for others. Thus, we get the obscene disparities between the haves and have-nots not only in this country but even more so around the world. Instead we need to create an economic model where they economy serves the needs of communities and individuals and is built on a commitment to community sustainability rather than individual gain.

There are some companies that have begun to get the idea that they are part of the community rather than predators on the community. There is a growing movement of socially responsible businesses that see their mission beyond their own bottom line. A company can do good and do well at the same time. The executives there may not run off to the bank with a multi-billion dollar bonus but the employees of those companies are paid well.

I am not an economist, but I am also not an idiot. Don’t tell me that the economy as we now have it is working. We have tried that slight of hand far too many times. The financial and economic system itself must be drastically altered so that we have an economy where if one suffers, all suffers, and if one succeeds, all succeeds. That is what community,justice and being socially responsible are all about.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Reflections on the Closing of a Gun Shop


On Wednesday, September 30, Colismo’s Gun Shop on Spring Garden St. in Philadelphia closed its doors for the last time. Once ranked by the Brady Campaign as the fifth worst gun shop in the country when it came to allowing straw purchases of illegal guns, this was a major victory for the gun violence prevention movement in Philadelphia. On September 22 while a group of us from Heeding God’s Call were meeting to plot our next move against Mr. Colisimo and other gun shops, the U.S. Attorney’s office was finalizing its case against Mr. Colisimo and on that afternoon, they charged him with making false statements and failing to keep accurate records with regard to straw purchases. The next day, September 23, Mr. Colisimo’s attorney announced that he would plead guilty to the charges and that the store would close. Those of us from Heeding God’s Call had no prior knowledge that such action was being taken. Over the next few days there were several articles and op-ed pieces celebrating Colisimo’s closing and praising of “religious activists.” We were surprised and elated, and our efforts were vindicated.

As one of those activists, I have been prompted by these events to reflect on what all of this means for the faith community and the gun violence prevention movement, and how God may be working in and through our efforts. From very early on I (along with several others) have had the sense that the gun shops such as Colisimo’s are merely the most visible expression of a hideous and distorted spirit of violence at the heart of North American culture. At our trial in May I spoke about the incongruity and tragic irony that the city’s district attorney and the police department put efforts into arresting us and thereby protecting an illegal gun dealer like Mr. Colisimo. Only a twisted sort of logic would move the city officials to pursue charges against us when their own officers were being killed with these illegal guns ( five in the last 2 years) and who every day were called into situations where illegal guns were in play. Such experiences convinced me that we are contending not just against isolated individuals buying and selling illegal guns, but with a system under the influence of what both sociologists and theologians called institutional “powers” - an indication that the these systems have taken on a mind and life of their own, and are at their heart are evil.

At the heart of these twisted powers is the National Rifle Association (NRA)and the gun manufacturers, such as Smith & Wesson, and Beretta (just to name two). Throughout the period where we were taking action against Colisimo’s, we never heard or saw any concrete indication of the NRA’s influence, and yet we could sense it just below the surface. Moreover, during the same period while we were picketing and protesting in front of Colisimos, the NRA was able to influence the passage of a bill that allowed guns to be carried into National Parks, reaffirmed the Tiahrt Amendment that restricts the dissemination of information to the public about illegal guns sales, and bullied a number of politicians (including Pres. Obama) into not passing a federal ban on the buying and selling of assault rifles. They have even sought to discredit local politicians that have come out in favor of the Mayor’s Code of Conduct that we asked Mr. Colisimo to sign. If the NRA were truly on the side of responsible gun ownership, one would think they would support a bill such has been proposed that requires individuals to report when a gun they own has been lost or stolen. Yet, at every turn the NRA has been at work to oppose any and every law seeking to regulate the sale of guns, and have bullied and lied their way through the public arena.

I am overjoyed that after only eight months of modest pressure and publicity, we were able to contribute to the closing of one nefarious gun shop, but I am also aware that this victory, is only one small step. I have received words of praise from a variety of people and places, some of them quite unexpected, and all greatly appreciated. However, I, like all of us at the heart of this effort, am acutely aware that our work will not be done until children can play in city parks and on neighborhood sidewalks without their parents fearing for their safety.

We will not be done until those persons all up and down the straw purchasing process are “outed’ and made accountable for their greed and lack of civility.

We will not be done until the NRA members turn on their own leadership and challenge them to be on the side of real safety and sanity, and not allow their numbers and money to be a cover for the gun manufacturers’ complicity in the illegal gun market.

We will not be done until politicians, including our Nobel Peace Prize winning president, are willing to take a stand against the NRA and refuse to trade their character in for political contributions.

We will not be done until the cultural link is broken between freedom, patriotism and gun ownership.

For this reason people of faith who care about safety, who deplore violence and who believe we serve a God on the side of social justice, must step up and move out against the powers of violence at the heart of our culture. Through my involvement in this movement, I have seen and heard some dreadful and depressing stories, but I have also met countless courageous people living in violent neighborhoods who continue to pray, march and work for peace on their streets. Likewise, I have met committed folks from outside the cities and violent places, who have taken this cause on as if it were their own. The spirit that holds us together, I choose to call the Spirit of God; others might name it some other way. What is clear is that we are engaged in a struggle of universal proportions that requires as many voices and hands as can be gathered.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Vindication and Affirmation For Heeding God's Call


Yesterday (Sept 22), a group of us who have been leaders in Heeding God's Call met to plan and strategize as to our next actions in the local gun violence prevention movement. A significant part of our conversation centered around what are next moves should be in relation to Colismo's Gun Shop, the store that has been the focus of so many of our actions over the past 8 months. Little did we know that while we were meeting the U.S. Attorney's office was charging Mr. Colism with falsifying statements and failing to keep accurate records. On a practical level, it appears that our activities may have called attention to this particularly notorious gun dealer, and moved the process along in bringing him to justice. On another level, today feels like a vindication of our efforts, and an affirmation that God is indeed working in and through our efforts.

You may read the whole article at http://www.philly.com/philly/news/20090922_ap_fedschargephiladelphiagundealer.html

Feds charge Philadelphia gun dealer

The Associated Press

PHILADELPHIA - A Philadelphia gun dealer that has been the target of religious activists is now charged in federal court with making false statements and failing to keep records required by law.

The U.S. Attorney's Office announced charges against Colosimo's Inc. after business hours Tuesday. A man who answered the phone at the business said "What can I say?" to a reporter seeking comment and eventually hung up. Owner James Colosimo has previously said he follows all laws in his business.

Activists have targeted Colosimo's because of the number of guns sold there that end up being used in crimes. The owner has said that's to be expected from a high-volume dealership like his. He has said he believes he has saved lives by selling guns to police departments.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Racism at a Deeper Level


Former President Jimmy Carter raised a lot of hackles this week when he suggested that much of the intense opposition to Pres. Obama and his health care plan is racist in nature. He noted that as a Southerner, he can sense the “belief among a large number of white people and not just from the South that a black man is not qualified to lead this country.” I applaud Pres. Carter’s outspoken assessment. As expected, the mention of the R-word sent people off on all sorts of tangents, and even prompted Pres. Obama himself to disagree with his predecessor. Regardless of what he thought personally, that was a smart political move by Obama to rise above the name-calling.

However, Carter’s assessment should not be lightly dismissed. First of all, he has lived in the South during an openly racist time in its history, and has been around the world seeking to mediate conflicts of all sorts. A man of his stature and experience does not make such statements lightly. I felt much of the same sentiment when I left a town hall meeting a couple of weeks ago; among some in the crowd there were attitudes of elitism, classism and racism that was palpable. Furthermore, some of my African-American friends have quietly acknowledged to me the same feeling, as have some of my white friends. However, until Carter spoke up, many of us didn’t have the courage to say it, given the polarizing nature of the health care debate, the political climate of the country, and the general discomfort many feel when the topic of racism comes up.

I do not know what former Pres. Carter may have meant by the comment, but I can speak to my own thoughts. As offensive as some of the signs at last Sunday’s “Tea Party” march (comparing Obama to Hitler being THE most offensive), I have attended enough events where similarly deriding signs regarding George Bush were present to know that signs in themselves are not the issue. The mistake many make is that we equate racism simply with making openly racist statements or gesture. Most culturally sensitive people today know that such statements will only get them in trouble, so those racist statements may be thought but not spoken.

No, the racism I sense is at a deeper, subliminal level and has more to do with white people’s sense of identity than the actual words we say. Several years ago I attended the Damascus Road Anti-Racism Training sponsored by the Mennonite Church, at which I was introduced to racism represented by the image of an iceberg. The tip of the iceberg is the overt racist acts and statements most people associate with racism. However as the saying goes, such acts are only “the tip of the iceberg,” the symptoms of a much deeper condition. In the middle layer of the iceberg is the power structure that inherently favors whites in many aspects of society’s institutional life. One only has to look at the well-publicized inequities in criminal justice cases, public education, housing, health care and the like to show how society’s structures privilege whites at the expense of people of color. (This is an assertion that I know many whites might dispute, but I am not addressing that issue here). However, at the base of the pyramid is racial identity, which gets to how we whites were shaped by family and culture to think of ourselves in comparison to other racial groups. It is at this most basic level, that I sense many white people are reacting unconsciously and irrationally to President Obama. His very presence as the most powerful leader in the country and perhaps the world does not fit with our identity as white people.

In thinking of this most basic level of racial identity I refer to myself as a “recovering racist.” I was born into a racist culture, and racist perspectives shaped me before I was cognitively able to examine my beliefs and values for myself. Like a crack baby born addicted because of his mother’s addiction, so too I was born into a racist culture that said whites were more important, smarter, more worthy, worked harder than others, and therefore deserved their privileged place in society. As much as I might deride such thinking on one level, on another level it is hard to walk away from the comfort I have believing I am better than others. Like an addict seeking to break free of his addiction, I must every day confront the vestiges of racism bred into my cultural DNA.

Now let me be quick to add that I grew up in a home where racist attitudes and statements were never tolerated. In fact we children were often told not to think of ourselves better than others, and I can remember more than once when my mother chided me for such attitudes. We had African-American students living in our home thru a program called A Better Chance. Yet I grew up in a culture where African-Americans were generally portrayed either as Little Black Sambo, Aunt Jemima, or Amos-n-Andy on the one hand, or an angry rioter, a shiftless bum or an illiterate thug on the other. I grew up in a culture where we made decisions by saying “Eenie, meenie, miney, moe, catch a N____ by the toe…,” where community variety shows had white men in black face, and where little black porter statues were place on people’s front lawns. Furthermore, until the Cosby show, I never saw a media image where African Americans or any other person of color were anything remotely like the white people we saw on TV. Whether they were black, Hispanic, Japanese, or Chinese, we had derogatory names for them that we used freely and without thinking.

These subtle and not-so subtle images portrayed a clear message: “We (whites) are not like them (blacks).” As the racial and ethnic consistency of our society has increasingly diversified, the threat to white people’s place as the dominant group has intensified. Projections are that by 2040 or so, white people will make up less than 50% of the population. For a nation that 200 years ago basically saw itself as a country of European transplants, this is a major identity shift. We whites got accustomed to being in control, to being the standard by which all things are judged, and to being in the driver’s seat of society’s rules. Obama as president is a visible reminder that the racial and ethnic power balance has shifted, and that being white does not make one feel as secure as it once did.

Obama’s prominent and capable performance as president has stirred understandable differences of opinion which are not racist in themselves, but which sometimes are fueled by a deep-seated white fear and insecurity. What I felt at the town hall meeting may be similar to what former Pres. Carter was alluding to when he said the opposition is fueled by the fact that the president is an African American. That doesn’t mean that all opposition to Obama is inherently racist. However it also doesn’t mean that just because people refrain from making openly racist statements or gestures that they are not racist. Racism is so deeply embedded in our psyches that it is not so easily expunged.

Many folks felt that with Obama’s election we had crossed some multi-racial threshold in this country. Somehow by electing a black man to be President, we could now rest easy, pat ourselves on the back, and say "we really ARE an inclusive country." However, instead I think what we have seen is that as Barack Obama has assumed his role with directness and decorum, something deep within the white soul begins to tremble at the change that is coming and life as we whites have known it will not return no matter how hard some may try.

Monday, September 14, 2009

What Do Conservatives Want?

OK, OK – You got my attention. I had regarded you as some small lunatic fringe, who did not represent the heart of the Republican Party. However, last Saturday, you were able to gather 100,000 people in Washington, D.C. You have done a good job of disrupting several town hall meetings in the past couple of months. You have been able to make people wonder if the government can really afford comprehensive health insurance for all Americans. I know you don’t like any thing that comes for the Democrats, and you especially don’t like Barack Obama. I’ll ignore the pictures that show Obama with a Hitler moustache, the signs that call him socialist and a facist. I’ll assume you haven’t read up on your history lately to know what those words and symbols actually mean. Even so, you’ve got my attention – I understand what you DON'T want. My question is what is it that you DO want?

As I have said in other places in this blog, I find the terms “liberal” and “conservative” to be relatively meaningless and misleading labels. Yet this is what folks call themselves. I also realize that most of those who will read this blog would not consider themselves anything close to being conservative. But to those of you who do, or those of you whose friend, parent, or co-worker resonate with the sentiments that were expressed in DC over the weekend, can you give me a clue as to what you are FOR, rather than just what you are AGAINST?

Do you really buy the Glenn Beck line that Barack Obama “hates white people?” Do you actually believe Rush Limbaugh when he says that there is “no health care crisis in this country?” Are you really so callous as to relegate 30 million of your fellow citizens to have no health care protection, when they could be your child, your parent, your friend, or your co-worker? Do you think anyone would set up death panels like Sarah Palin said? And all of this while health insurance companies, doctors and lawyers make off like bandits ripping all of us off. Who do you think has put up $40 million in advertising money to defeat health reform. According to Bill Moyers of PBS, that’s what the health insurance companies are spending in advertising to keep their comfortable position.

I want to believe that so-called conservatives are well-meaning people with decent ideas and a concern for their fellow human being. I want to believe they are people who care for something more than just lower taxes, smaller government, and the right to carry a gun anywhere at anytime. I want to believe that there are “compassionate conservatives” that Marvin Olasky talked about. If there are, that’s who I need to hear from because the conservative message has been hijacked by a bunch fear-induced ranters, and it does not make sense. If Joe Wilson, the representative who publicly called Pres. Obama a “liar” during his speech to Congress, is the best they can do, the Republicans and the conservatives are in worse shape than I thought.

So, Conservatives, whoever you are – help me out here, because I just can’t figure out what you are FOR, except for tearing down everything that might make it a bit healthier for everyone in our country.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Is This Democracy? I Don't Think So



When I was growing up in the 1960’s my father and I would often have vigorous discussions and debates (some called them arguments) about the issues of the day. This was the era of Civil Rights, the Vietnam War, the Women’s Liberation movement and so much more. My father was and still is a staunch moderate Republican who believes that Ronald Reagan was America’s greatest president in the modern era. While he laments the moral conservatism of his party, he supports its generally pro-business perspective. I, on the other hand, was and still am left of center on most issues. So, as you can imagine we had and still have some pretty steep differences on many issues.

Yet, despite those differences, our discussions were (and are) always civil, controlled and respectful. In fact on occasions when my mother, who generally sided with Dad, got emotionally worked up, he would ask her to excuse herself. Debate in our house was about expressing your position logically and respectfully, and then listening to the other. Dad modeled respectful discourse, the ability to disagree agreeably. As I have grown into adulthood, I realize it is one of his greatest gifts to me.

The other night, my wife and I, attended a town hall meeting on health care sponsored by our Congressperson, Joe Sestak. Rep Sestak is a tireless worker, a retired military man, and a moderate Democrat. He began the session with a few personal remarks, and then proceeded to field comments. The pastor of the church where we were meeting implored people to be “humble and respectful,” but when the questions started that request was quickly forgotten. At points Sestak acknowledged that he and members of Congress had not explained themselves clearly, and that was why he was there that night. Several times he expressed his desire to hear people's concerns, and address their questions. However, when he tried to explain aspects of the bill, people in the crowd just shouted “liar.” They accused him of not considering their views, even as he stood there attentively listening to their diatribes. I don’t know how he did it, but he maintained a cool and respectful demeanor in spite of much hostility (I guess that military training is good for something!). Most of the questions became opportunities for people to vent their fears, their veiled hatred of President Obama, their anger at undocumented immigrants, and their disregard for the 47 million Americans without health care. While most people, like myself, were there to learn what actually was in the bill, we had to do so through the din and noise of the hecklers.

Despite the belligerent disrespect of the questioners, I came away with a better understanding of the bill, and the reasons to support it. I also came away with a much higher regard for Rep. Sestak. However, I also came away quite discouraged about democracy as it is practiced in America.

You see, I believe strongly in democracy, in the right of people to have a voice in their government. In fact I believe in democracy, not just every 4 years, but work consistently to create spaces where community folks can come together on a regular basis to address and resolve their problems in their communities. I applaud the work of groups like Everyday Democracy that have created materials and guides for communities to come together around issues they face in their communities. I wish every state had the caucus system like Iowa come election time. These are opportunities for people to come together in the spirit of grassroots democracy to discuss and resolve the issues of the day.

However, I could not carry on such an effort with the hecklers in that crowd the other night, not because I disagree with their position, but because there is not the environment of respect needed for healthy dialogue. Media talk show hosts, like Rush Limbaugh on the Right and Bill Maher on the Left, have turned political discussions into shouting matches and name calling. What gets reported in the mainstream news is not the issues, but the nature of the fights over the issue. Notice, for instance, how reports of the town hall meetings generally are not about what is said on the issues, but about the guns people bring, and the shouting people do. The media is more interested in the fight than what the fight is about. And now lots of people have followed suit and brought this attitude into the town hall meetings.

I still believe in democracy, but I left the meeting with a heaviness about our ability to live together in an increasingly pluralistic, multi-cultural society where everything is not going to go my way. It seemed the other night that a lot of folks had decided to build their bunker or fortress and just start firing away over the wall with no respect for the humanity of others, or the willingness to listen, consider, and seek to work together in spite of differences.

Perhaps, Dad, we need to gather folks around a big table, and show them how democracy is really supposed to work.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Guns, Health Care and the Meaning of Democracy

A sideshow to the ongoing debate about healthcare reform is the fact that protestors have now begun to show up with guns. If you haven’t seen it, you need to watch Chris Matthews’ (Hardball) interview with William Costic [I believe that was his name, but am not sure], the man who started the gun-toting process by bringing an unconcealed weapon to the Obama town meeting in Portsmouth, NH last week. My good friend Bryan Miller of Ceasefire New Jersey wants us to consider such acts as just plain “craziness.” However, I don’t think we can so easily dismiss them, for as Bryan goes onto explain if they are crazy, they are a very well orchestrated and organized group of crazies. As I listened to Mr Costic explain his views to Chris Matthews,I heard a man with a world view informed by a hyper-vigilant, individualistic, libertarian logic. When asked if he thought Social Security or Medicare were mistakes, he said “yes.” He openly admitted to voting for Ron Paul in the last presidential election. He spoke out of a very well thought out and largely coherent perspective.

These are the folks (mostly unknowingly) indebted to and informed by the political philosophy of the late Robert Nozick, who saw the government’s role in maintaining justice as protecting basic individual rights, and otherwise staying out of people’s business. Nozick considered taxes “robbery” and paying them “forced labor.” However, Nozick was no dummy; he taught at Harvard throughout most of his career, and his ideas are deeply embedded in the American psyche especially when people talk about individual rights. Before we dismiss these gun-toters as a “lunatic fringe,” we need to recognize that they have a coherent worldview, however distant it may be from our own.

Behind and beneath all the rhetoric about health care, gun rights and the like is a struggle over what it means to be a citizen of this country. The fears are being stirred up the media and corporate manipulators, but at the same time they are more than simply fears about people's financial future. I believe they are fears of a seismic shift in what it means to be an American citizen. I could not be further from the worldview of people like William Costic not only on the issue of guns, but also on what “rights” should be protected, and who gets to decide that. Yet, I have known people like him, and I sometimes despair of the widening chasm in our civic life between people like Mr. Costic and myself.

The fact that people can go to these town meetings, shout down the speakers, and then say it is their right to be “heard” in a democracy, seems bizarre to me. People don’t even know what they are talking about. For instance, I heard one protester berating his representative to keep the government away from my Medicare. Your Medicare comes from the government, dummy! Democracy relies on an informed public; that’s why the public education system is so vital to the health of a democracy. A democracy occurs when people can talk across their differences in a respectful manner. Democracy is not just about “being heard” but about hearing others as well.

Passing a meaningful health care reform bill will neither solve the dilemma nor end the tension. However, it raises again the fundamental questions about what it means to be citizens in a democracy, and even what a democracy truly is.

Democracy used to be defined by the old New England town hall meeting, where the citizens of the community would come together to discuss community issues, and then make decisions together. Today “democracy” has become a political weapon used to spread Western corporate interests around the globe. “Democracy” has become the media circus we have seen in these so called town hall meetings over the last month. Regardless of how the health care reform bill is resolved, the deeper questions remain as to what our “rights” are and should be, and what values and truths are worth fighting for, no matter how difficult and painful the struggle.

Friday, August 14, 2009

In Search of Heroes on the Underground Railroad



During this week of August 9-15 I have been travelling through southern Ohio studying the pre-Civil War anti-slavery movement and the Underground Railroad (UGRR). This trip was prompted by a small note in my family history I had found, which indicated that two of my ancestors, William Silver (1798-1881) and his son Albert R. Silver (1823-1900) of Salem, Ohio, were involved in the anti-slavery movement and most likely allowed fugitives from slavery to stay hidden in their homes enroute to freedom in Canada. I went on this trip to try and get a feel for what it would have been like for them and for others involved in the anti-slavery cause. As such I set out to learn as much as I could about the anti-slavery movement in Salem and throughout Ohio, to learn about what fugitives from slavery had to go through to find their freedom, and the routes they took through Ohio.

In the course of this week, I learned about the little town of Ripley, Ohio, a town on the banks of the Ohio River, which was a major entry point for fugitives escaping from Kentucky into Ohio. I went to Ripley to learn about two of their citizens, Rev. John Rankin and John Parker. After visiting their homes, learning more about their stories, and walking the streets of Ripley. I wrote the following reflection on why I had come to this little river town.

After visiting the home of Rev. John Rankin, abolitionist, leader of the UGRR, and a Presbyterian minister, I realized why I am on this trip; I am in search of social justice heroes, mentors and models from history. Rankin is such a man. As a “station chief” in the UGRR, he provided shelter and guidance to over 2000 fugitives (I can no longer call them “runaway slaves” after this trip) from 1821 to 1865. He did so publicly through his sermons and writings, especially “Letters on American Slavery” published and distributed in 1826. He did so covertly and illegally thru his leadership role with the UGRR. He was an activist and a public intellectual, a man of faith and political conviction.

He did so at the expense of his career; he was driven from a church in his native Tennessee; and he did so despite having a wife and 13 children. He did not use his family as an excuse for inaction and “playing it safe.” He did so at the threat of his life; “Wanted” signs in Kentucky offered a reward for his death.

In a search for mentors, we need to realize that seldom do they operate alone, even though we will put them on a pedestal; I don't want to do that.For every Rankin, there was a congregation and host of others that supported him, cooperated with his efforts, and followed his leadership. He was able to operate as he did in Ripley because the people of Ripley shared his convictions and commitment to action.

Rankin was white, and one thing I have learned is that the commitment and conviction was far greater and deeper among blacks, both slave and free, than most whites, even those of Rankin's character. For every John Rankin, there were also several John Parkers. Parker was a former slave who came to live in Ripley after he purchased his own freedom and moved from Alabama. He ran an iron foundry and had two patents. Parker was a “conductor” of the UGRR, meaning he ferried people across the Ohio River from the shore of the slave state of Kentucky to freedom in Ripley. Parker also had a family, and yet did not shrink from action. Despite numerous threats to Rankin, the danger to Parker was much greater – first because he was black and second because he was not a religious or a public figure. The culture being what it was then as now, Parker’s punishment would have been much greater than Rankin’s; the difference between then and now, in pre-Civil War America the Fugitive Slave Law clearly stated greater penalties for blacks, rather than being covertly rationalized as they are today.

This trip has given me new insights into what it takes for people of all faiths, colors and backgrounds to work for and achieve social justice. We all play our part.I cannot be a John Parker, but I can be inspired by John Rankin. I am blessed to be in the privileged position to be a servant of social justice; may I learn from John Rankin and not squander the opportunity.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Heath Care, Individual Rights and the Common Good

I must admit I am mystified by the vehemence and the vitriol that appears to be getting stirred up over the proposal to develop a universal health care system. Providing access to health care for everyone in this country seems like a no-brainer, and something long overdue. It seems to me that the debate should be how we are going to change the current system, not whether or not we should change it. However, I seem to be mystified a great deal these days because I also can’t figure out the logic that would resist a ban on the sales of assault rifles, or limit sales of handguns to one per month or require that people report when a gun is lost or stolen.

However, like the debate in this country over guns, emotions and perceptions rather than logic seem to be at the forefront of the health care debate, which point to some deep tensions and some nefarious manipulation beneath the surface in our culture. I saw a CNN video of a man screaming at a town hall meeting with PA Senator Arlen Specter and he was accusing Specter of taking lobbyist money for supporting Obama’s health care plan, when it’s the lobbyist money that is being poured into fight his plan. I saw another Fox News clip where O’Reilly was criticizing Obama’s body language as “defensive” and “angry” at a town hall meeting when he was joking about his critics. Well duh, you’d be pissed off too, if you were being falsely accused of things you never even dreamed of. All sorts of rumors such as people not getting treatment or being forced to euthanize themselves or their loved ones are being put forth as “truth;” the whole thing is bizarre to me.

At a deeper level I suspect two things are going on. First, the critics of the universal health care proposal seem to be playing up the tension between individual rights and common rights, or what is sometimes called the common good. There are somewhere between 45-50 million people without health insurance today. With rising unemployment, and tighter employer budgets those numbers are only getting higher. There are also millions of people who are “under-insured” meaning the health insurance they have is woefully inadequate. At the same time there are lots of people, like me, whose health insurance is very adequate, and provided in part by my employer. Eight years ago when I had hernia and prostate surgery, I was well cared for. Likewise my wife has had outpatient surgeries twice this year, and has been quite adequately cared for by her employer-provided plan.

Personally, like the majority of Americans we don’t need better health care. However, my individual plan will probably have to change in order to make it possible everyone in this country to enjoy the right and benefit to the health care I enjoy. I might have to pay more, or even have my taxes raised (although this has not been proposed for my tax bracket). On the other hand, my daughter has just graduated from college and was booted off our family plan; she has no health insurance and neither of her employers are providing it; with universal health care, she would not be left exposed. The individual plans available to her are ridiculously expensive and inaccessible to her.

As her father, I am hoping she stays healthy, but am quite aware I may have to “cover” her if something happens. Now I suppose I could protest and say that I have no obligation to my daughter since she is an adult, but what kind of parent would I be? What kind of person would I be? Expand this tension to the entire country and we see this tension between the health care haves and the have-nots.

At play is my individual right to health care versus the common right of all to health care. A focus on common rights (rather than individual rights) says that it is the common right of all people to have access to health care. The pundits will stir up emotion by calling it “socialism” and developing scenarios where people with serious health issues won't be able to see a doctor for months on end, but in the end, it is really about community and common decency. However, this tension plays out in so many ways in our society over things like taxes, driving gas-guzzling versus hybrid cars, and regrettably even so called “gun rights.”

However, nefarious corporate forces seem to be stirring up this tension and creating the kind of chaotic circus atmosphere I saw at the Specter town hall meeting. Recently (July 17) Bill Moyers reported that the health insurance industry, including companies like CIGNA and Aetna are spending a half million dollars a day in advertising, political contributions and lobbyists to defeat the president’s proposed changes to the health care system. We like to think we are a democracy where people get to have their say. However, those with money get access that the rest of us don’t have, and spend millions of dollars to confuse people, so that you get a man screaming at a supporter of health care reform (like Specter) and accusing him of taking lobbyist money, when it is the lobbyists efforts he is trying to overcome. Despite our efforts to expand democracy over the world (however ineffective), we don’t really have a democracy in this country, we have a money-ocracy, where big money supports corporate interests, drowns out common sense and stirs up tensions that should be manageable.

Back in the book of Genesis, Cain asked God if he was his brother’s and sister’s keeper. God’s silence implied that yes, he was, and we are. What good is the most advanced health care system in the world if 50 million plus people can’t access it? How can other countries far less “advanced” than us (we could have a whole discussion about what “advanced” means) have resolved this tension. My individual rights do not eclipse the common right of all to have access to health care. I only hope that common sense can prevail. Given the current confused and politicized state of affairs, that will be a tough sell.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Option for the Poor and the Long Defeat


The term “preferential option for the poor” is a term bandied about by theologians and educators alike, especially those who have an interest and commitment to bettering the life conditions and opportunities of those who benefit least and suffer the most in our society and world at large. I have often used that term, and see myself as one committed to the addressing the issues of poverty, injustice and oppression in our world. However, when I read about Dr. Paul Farmer, the subject of Tracy Kidder’s book Mountains Beyond Mountains, I gained a deeper understanding of just what saying I am committed to helping the poor really is committing me to.

As Kidder portrays him, Dr. Paul Farmer is an infectious disease specialist with both an MD and PhD in anthropology, who has committed his life to serving the health needs of poorest of the world’s poor. His home base is rural Haiti, where he has served as a clinician for decades while sharing his experience and expertise regarding AIDS, TB and other infectious diseases at the highest levels and some of the most desperate localities in the world. The organization he founded with a few other like-minded individuals, Partners in Health (PIH), has a record of addressing some of those most pernicious diseases in some of the world’s poorest and oppressed places.

Farmer’s accomplishments alone cause him to stand out, but his radical commitment to the poor has translated into an approach to life and work that puts all of us who consider ourselves to be progressives and social justice activists on notice. For Farmer poverty is not an “issue,” but real individual people to whom he has made himself a servant. Even after gaining international renown for his breakthrough work on medical diseases, Kidder describes how Farmer walked 11 hours through the rough Haitian terrain to check up on one patient and his family from his clinic in Cange, Haiti. When asked if that was time well spent when he could be consulting around the world, Farmer replied “I am a doctor, he is my patient, that’s all that matters.”

More than that Farmer has not gathered to himself the material advantages of being a doctor and of being a globally-renowned figure. He often travels to meetings around the world with one rumpled suit bought for him at a thrift store. Wherever he goes he seeks out patients who may be in need of his services. Moreover, he judges the effectiveness of his program and of any national or international health policy, on how well it benefits the poorest of the poor. For that reason Farmer regards the Cuban health care system, with lower infectious disease rates than the United States to be one of the best in the world despite it supposedly Communist leanings. Poor people are served as well others – that system works. One can only wonder what he must think of the current debate in the US around universal health care, and whether or not we can “afford” to make sure 50 million uninsured Americans are covered. My guess is that Farmer would be extremely critical of the capitalistic assumptions underlying the debate and suggest that the health care system itself is bloated at the top by insurance companies, drug companies, physicians, and lawyers all fighting for their big piece of the pie, while the poor go untreated.

While Farmer has been successful at one level in providing insights into ways countries can address the infectious disease problems in their countries, serves on the faculty Harvard Medical School, and regularly consults with international health organizations, he recognizes that taking the option for the poor or the “O for P” as he calls it, is a long and frustrating struggle. Near the end of the book, Kidder quotes Farmer saying:

“I have fought my whole life a long defeat…I have fought the long defeat and brought other people on to fight the long defeat, and I’m not going to stop because we keep losing. Now I actually think sometimes we may win. I don’t dislike victory…You know, people from our background ….we’re used to being on a victory team, and actually what we’re really trying to in PIH is to make common cause with the losers. Those are two different things. We want to be on the winning team, but at the risk of turning our back on the losers, no, it’s not worth it. So you fight the long defeat” (p. 288).

To work on behalf of the poor requires personal sacrifice and a commitment to the long defeat with a few victories scattered in. Fighting the long defeat is not just volunteering or doing “pro bono” work every once and a while. Rather, it is to see one’s well being and destiny tied directly to real people with real needs who have been beaten down and neglected by the very systems that purport to help them. I thank Dr. Paul Farmer for helping me see that the option for the poor is a meaningless idea without putting my life behind it, and taking time to consider ways in which we may have allowed our lives to undermine our own rhetoric.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Climbing Mount Katahdin


Every summer one of my goals is to climb a mountain. In some years I have had to stretch the meaning of the word “mountain” to achieve that goal, by climbing a hill that for some reason had been given a “mount” in front of it. However, the last two years I have climbed real mountains such as Croagh Patrick in Northwest Ireland two years ago and a peak in the Smokey Mountains of North Carolina last summer. This year I took on the ultimate test: Mt. Katahdin in central Maine (although central Maine feels like the edge of civilization). While only 5267 feet tall (by Rocky Mountain or Alps standards that is only a hill), Mt. Katahdin rises straight up from a valley basin. The only way up is to climb incredibly steep grades for 2 miles or more.

First, I had to hike 3.5 miles up a trail with a slight grade just to get to the base of the mountain at a basin called Chimney Pond. From Chimney Pond I began my ascent on the Cathedral Trail, a nearly vertical climb up huge granite boulders stretching for 1.7 miles straight up. Not only was I challenged physically, but I felt tested mentally, as if often did not appear to be any place to grab with my hands or push up with my feet. After 4 ½ hours (two hours hiking in and 2 ½ hours climbing up), I made it to the top.

When I got there about twenty other people were also there having come up from a variety of paths: two Canadians who came up Cathedral trail ahead of me, a bunch of teenagers and middle-agers, a family of 5 (including a seven year old girl), and group of four women who had completed their goal of hiking the entire Appalachian Trail in chunks over a period of 17 years (Mt. Katahdin is the northern end of the AT). From the peak I looked over the valley from which I had come and on the other side to the valley to the west. I saw the infamous Knife Edge, a 1.5 mile narrow ledge leading across to another peak. I saw Chimney Pond two miles below and I saw the lakes and valleys bond. I was tired but ecstatic.

After I had been up on the peak for about 30 minutes, a rain storm whipped up (some later reported the rain had even turned to small pellets of hail), and I began to feel my temperature drop. Not wanting to get hypothermia, I started what for me is the more difficult dimension of climbing, the descent. I headed down another way called the Saddle Trail, so named because of a broad plateau between Baxter and Hannigan peaks that looks like a saddle from below. After crossing the plateau, I began going down a run of loose rock, which the forest ranger said was easier than going back down Cathedral Trail.

Easier, yes, but easy, not at all. Loose rock made slippery by the rain made for a slow and at times treacherous descent off the mountain. Fortunately, there was no one on the trail above or below me because often loose rock cascaded down the run when I stepped on it. After two hours of slipping, and sliding, I was off the mountain, and then began a 4 ½ mile trek and slow descent back my car. In the valley the rain was falling much harder and what had been a trail going up was largely a mud bath coming down. Eventually, 9 ½ hours after I had started that morning, I arrived back at my car.

I have often wondered what it is about climbing mountains that attracts me; my college roommate who lives in Montana, writes for hunting and fishing magazines and spends days at a time in the wilderness, would call me an “Oh wow, the mountain guy.” I know that part of what attracts me is the mental and physical challenge of it. Several times while climbing the boulders of the Cathedral Trail, I thought to myself, they should never let an amateur like me on a trail like this. Mountain trails ought to be rated like ski resorts rate their trails (Easy, Difficult, Most Difficult, Expert). Yet in spite of my obvious limitations, I pushed past them, achieved something I was not sure was possible, and proved something to myself.

Part of what attracts me also is the total focus that climbing requires. Going up I had to think about every hand hold and every place I was going to put my foot. Going down, I had to think carefully about every step I was going to take lest I twist a knee, sprain and ankle or take a fall. When I got back my room, I noticed I had scrapes all over my leg. I had not even noticed them or my blistered toe, because my mind was so completely focused on the task of climbing up and then down.

Also, there is something concrete about climbing mountains that is refreshing. I spend so much of my time in the realm of ideas and speculation; it is nice to have something tangible to point to as an accomplishment. While ambiguity and critique is a big part of what I do in my work, a mountain is something I can say, “See, there it is and I climbed it.”

I suspect that perhaps part of what drives me to climb mountains is because overall I have lived a fairly privileged and comfortable existence, and I find exhilaration in pushing myself to the edge of survival. People I know who grew up poor, or are poor, generally don’t do things like climb mountains, even though it is a relatively cheap form of exercise, because they have had to scrounge out life to survive each day. Yet for me, climbing mountains pushes me to a place I don’t often go. As I was climbing up the boulders of the Cathedral Trail, I thought, you know, I could die up here. Weird, I know, but somehow it fills a deep need within.

No doubt there is something deeply spiritual about mountains for me. The psalmist wrote: "I lift my eyes to hills, from whence comes my help” (Psalm 121.1). Mountains in some mysterious way remind me of my humbleness and the grandeur of God. Thomas More (Care of the Soul) says that there are inner drives and longings that emanate from deep yearnings within our souls. For me, climbing mountains does something for my soul.

Frankly I am not sure why I get off on climbing mountains. All I know is that when I got back to my car, I felt a huge sense of relief and satisfaction, having tackled one of the most challenging climbs I have ever attempted, and having lived to climb another summer.