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.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

The Case for More, Not Less, Religion in Schools

A recent conversation with my daughter and a possible pending Supreme Court case have gotten me thinking about the need for more religion in our public schools. Donna Kay Busch’s case initially caught my attention because it happens to involve the Marple Newtown School District my children attended. Apparently, in 2005 Ms. Busch’s son wanted to have his mother read from his favorite book during “All About Me” week at his local elementary school. However, when his mother came to read out of the Bible, the principal and the school district said no, basing their argument on the separation of church and state. Ms. Busch took her case to court, which she lost at both the District and Appeals court level. She and her lawyers have until August 31 to decide if they will appeal their case to the U.S. Supreme Court. I hope they do.

Now given the fact that Ms. Busch is being represented by the Rutherford Institute, there may be more in the details of this case than meets the eye. The Rutherford Institute is a Christian legal organization that has its roots in the writings of Samuel Rutherford and Rousas J. Rushdoony early proponents of the Christian Reconstructionist movement. Christian Reconstructionism’s stated goal is the implementation of theonomy, the application of Christian Biblical principles in the policies of government; in my view they represent the worst of religion-controlled government the Christian faith can offer. They are the “Puritans - take 2.” Thus, I grant that this case may not be the case to make the case for more religion in school.

However, on the surface I see no justifiable reason why this mother, and any mother or child, should not be allowed to bring their religion to school. Moreover, I believe schools should encourage and promote discussion about religion rather than stifle it. My daughter, Esther, a recent college graduate who majored in religion, made a strong argument to this effect. She expressed frustration that her degree did not enable her to teach religion at the public school level, when a deeper understanding of religion is critical to understanding and addressing many of the problems our nation confronts around the world in places such as Israel, Iraq, Iran, India and many African countries. Her point was that religion plays a huge role in the way people think, make decisions and interpret the world, as well as how governments and nations choose to operate. The current crisis in the Iranian elections is only the most recent example.

In the United States we operate in a schizophrenic manner when it comes to the role of religion in our lives. On the one hand, our presidents finish their speeches with an obligatory “May God Bless America,” and our children pledge allegiance to a “one nation under God,” yet we dare not try to actually talk about what such phrases mean once the school bell rings. Our politicians must walk this tightrope of affirming that they have some sort of religious faith and then pledging that that faith will in no way influence their decision making. In his most recent book, Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama made exactly that point. After taking a chapter to share his own spiritual journey, he finished by saying that a political leader’s religious perspective should not influence one’s policy making. How could that be? If religious faith is that which shapes our worldview and personal values, how can it not affect our decision-making? Who are we kidding? Doesn’t it make more sense for us to be open about our values and the religious systems that shape them, and examine them just like we might examine the evidence from a science project or an historical event?

Perhaps in this regard former President George W. Bush was more honest. He regularly referred to the influence his religious faith had on his decision-making and sought to make federal funds available to religious organizations promoting the common good through his faith-based initiative project. In Oliver Stone’s depiction of Bush in the movie “W.”, Bush’s conversion to Christianity, his sense of “call” to run for president, and his practice of ending White House meetings with a moment of silence were clearly portrayed. Regardless of one's view of Bush’s theology or his politics, Oliver Stone makes clear that religion played a significant role in the way George W. Bush saw the world and to understand George W. Bush one had to understand his religious worldview.

The same could be said of many world leaders. The same could be said of cultures around the world ranging from Iran to Japan to South Africa to Brazil and even the United States. Shouldn’t students be exposed to all the major religious faiths, and even atheism, as a way of understanding the different worldviews from which many of the world’s peoples operate? If students only learn about religion in their place of worship, how will they ever come to a wider appreciation of the diversity of religious views? Expecting an evangelical church to present a credible case for Islam, is like asking Ford to explain all the benefits of a Toyota; it ain’t going to happen in a church or a mosque, but it could happen in school.

Now I am quite aware of the difficulty making religion more a part of public education in a fair and equitable way. The question of who decides what should or should not be taught becomes quite tricky. The ongoing debates over whether or not creationism or evolution ought to be taught in biology classes is a case in point. However, when the framers of the Constitution included the First Amendment guaranteeing freedom of religious expression, it was aimed at keeping the government from regulating religious expression and not aimed at keeping religion out of the public square. The First Amendment was designed to keep the government out of the church, not the church (or mosque or temple or ethical society) out of the school. Given the increasing religious pluralism of our society (e.g. there are now more Muslims than Episcopalians in the U.S. and Los Angeles is one of the most diverse Buddhist cities in the world), and the increased need for all people to know and appreciate various worldviews, it only makes sense to encourage study and discussion, and yes, even reading religious texts in schools.

As a starting point secondary school history and social studies classes ought to incorporate a study of religion into their curriculum. In many cases it would simply be a matter of including what has been “cut out” of the existing story. For instance, how can one talk about the European exploration and conquest of North America, or the American Revolution or the Civil War or the Civil Rights movement or 9/11 without talking about the significant influence of religion in those events? Certification for history and social studies teachers should include at least one course in world religions. Local religious leaders could be asked to speak in classes about their particular brand of faith. (Ironically, 15-20 years ago this was the practice in the Marple Newtown School district where the Bible reading case is being contested.) At the primary level religious holidays and events like “All About Me” could encourage families to share their cultural traditions, including those that are religious. Parents who object to such events could have their children “opt out” just as they can for sex education classes. Altogether, these kinds of common sense moves would create an environment for dialogue and mutual understanding rather contention, suspicion and fear. Spirituality and religion has a huge influence on the lives of many people, even those who consider themselves non-religious. Attempts to honestly examine belief systems, values and worldviews can only help create citizenry more knowledgeable about the people and world around them.