Thursday, September 28, 2006

Holy Relationships Midwest Regional Conference Iowa City, IA Oct. 20-22

It's been a big day for news on the net! Here's another announcement that came this evening...thought it might be of interest to readers...

Holy Relationships Midwest Regional ConferenceIowa City, IA: October 20 - 22, 2006

The HRC Religion and Faith Program works to amplify the voices of faith leaders speaking out for LGBT equality and to empower LGBT people of faith to advocate on our political concerns from a faith perspective.
Join the HRC Religion and Faith Program Director, Harry Knox and Manager, Dr. Sharon Groves at The Holy Relationships Midwest Regional Conference. This conference promises to advance the voice of full inclusion for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in Catholic and Protestant churches, as well as in civil life. Keynote speakers include Dr. Rita Nakashima Brock and the Rev. Dr. Mel White. Co-sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign, the Holy Relationships Midwest Regional Conference will offer two keynote addresses; two general sessions; and 30 workshops, with themes covering a wide variety of GLBT-related issues — family relationships, sexual ethics for “all” people, surviving the ex-gay movement, being wounded by the church, positive theological insights, strategy and storytelling sessions and much, much more!
Register for the Holy Relationships Midwest Regional Conference today!

Bill Maher --

Check out this You Tube clip from the Bill Maher show which starts out to be a discussion on Camp Jesus, but turns into a debate about progressive and fundamentalist faith traditions of all ilk. It's wonderful!

Actor, Brad Whitford, formerly Josh on The West Wing and now the producer of a struggling live comedy show in Studio 66 on the Sunset Strip (going to be another great show!) is wonderful when he finally enters the discussion. The Buddhist news analyist is too and has the last word in this clip. The Christian FOX news analyist is flabbergasted with the rest of the panel. Bill Maher interjects the requisite amount of comedy.

Beyond Homophobia--A new Blog

Here is a new resource that I learned about today. It will be useful for those persons who might want or need more information for themselves or others as we move toward a more inclusive church and society and end discrimination against some of our brothers and sisters...


Dr. Gregory Herek, one of the nation'sleading social science experts on sexual orientation, has launched a newblog that focuses on the intersections of science, policy, and sexuality."Beyond Homophobia" is located at blog's title reflects Dr. Herek's efforts to encourage a more nuanced understanding of prejudice against sexual minorities, moving beyond the conceptual and linguistic limitations of "homophobia."

Toward that end, blog entries will address sexual prejudice and its relationship to cultural events and public policy in a variety of ways. Critical summaries of new research studies will be posted, as will discussions of how social science research can inform efforts to fight prejudice and discrimination based on sexual orientation.All of the postings are intended to discuss research findings in a way that nonresearchers will find informative and useful.

Topics include: * Sexual Prejudice * Marriage Equality * Sexual Minority Families * Don't Ask, Don't Tell * Hate Crimes * HIV/AIDSDr. Herek is a Professor of Psychology at the University of California at Davis, where he teaches graduate and undergraduate courses on prejudice, sexual orientation, and survey research methodology.

A leading expert on antigay prejudice, hate crimes, and AIDS-related stigma, he has published more than 80 scholarly papers on these and related topics. He has testified before Congress on antigay violence and on military personnel policy, and has assisted the American Psychological Association in preparing amicus briefs for numerous court cases related to sexual orientation including recent challenges to state marriage laws.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Protect and Preserve your Right to Free Speech from the Pulpit!

Have you been following the news story about All Saint's Episcopal Church in Pasadena California?

On Friday Sept. 15, the rector (Episcopalian priest) of this church was served with a subpoena to obtain e-mails and websites postings and newsletters of the church. This request stems from a sermon delivered in 2004 by an interim pastor that was deemed to be partisan. The IRS is now investigating whether the churches' tax exempt status was violated because perhaps they have taken a "political" position.

If you'd like to follow this story, All Saint's Church in an effort to be totally open and transparent, has posted all the relevant documents including sermons, subpoenas, press releases, etc... on their website.

Also, they are going to challenge the IRS and are inviting groups and individuals to support them by setting up a legal defense fund which you can contribute to online.

Here's where you can go read the documents and make your own evaluation.

For me, this crosses an extremely dangerous line. Church rolls were not being used to solicit votes nor were individual candidates' names being lauded or demonized from the pulpit. (Compare and contrast to the situation in several church in Ohio which are also under investigation for those activities.) This investigation by the IRS could have a deeply chilling effect on the freedom of religious activity.

As members of churches, we need to support and protect our pastors' right to comment on national and worldwide events from the pulpit (or newsletters or e-mails) from their Christian Perspective--whatever that may be. This is the essence of the free exercise of religion! I stand in Hesed with All Saints as they challenge both the IRS position as well as their methods of investigation!

What to do About Iraq

The release of the highlights of the National Intelligence Report confirms that the invasion of Iraq has made the world less safe. It is bad news for the President and his supporters because it contradicts the "stay the course" message we have been hearing for the last three years. Staying the course is only going to make the world even more dangerous.

But what to do about Iraq? David Ignatius suggests today in his column that too few Democrats are thinking about this. Instead, they are in "gotcha" mode with the report's findings and are ducking the hard issue of what to do to make things better.

I don't think anyone honestly knows what to do. It seems likely that if we were to pull out immediately there would be all-out civil war. It also seems likely that if we stay in the current mode we will get there eventually anyway and continue all the while to fan the flames of Muslim rage against us. It appears to me from what I read of military readiness that the only way we could increase troop strength enough to possibly make a difference on the ground is by instituting a draft. And that ain't gonna happen unless we are actually attacked. So there are no good options, which is why so many are being mum about solutions.

But what is abundantly clear at this moment is that the group in power now that has made one disastrous decision after another to get us in this mess needs to go. Because there is not a whiff of evidence that they have a clue how to make things better. In fact, it seems likely that given the chance they will soon have us in another war.

So Dems do need to be thinking about what to do to get us out of this mess, but right now the most important thing we can all do is make sure we get a change in leadership, first in Congress, and then in the White House.

National Campaign for Nonviolent Resistance

I'd read about this group planning this event when they were trying to gather participants. I'm so glad their efforts have garnered national coverage. That people can still give of themselves in this way to try to put an end to this war gives me hope. Please do what you can to support any national and local peace efforts--including supporting candidates who want to end death and will cast votes that promote peace in our world.

Peaceful Iraq war protests prompt 71 arrests
From Lisa GoddardWASHINGTON (CNN) --

Two Presbyterian ministers were among 71 people arrested during a series of peaceful protests against the Iraq war Tuesday, said a spokeswoman for a group participating in the protests.Demonstrators held sit-ins, prayer services and sing-alongs at four locations in the Capitol complex, including the central atrium of the Senate Hart Office Building.The demonstrations were reminiscent of the Vietnam era, with protesters strumming guitars, singing peace songs, holding flowers and wearing hats made of balloons. (Watch war protesters face the music -- 1:28)

Senate staffers watched the demonstrators from their offices. Protesters said that several workers gave them a thumbs-up or other signs of approval. (Watch how the protests are part of a highly charged day in Washington -- 2:23)

"We are trying to protest a lack of civil liberties and to try and end a war culture," said protester Alex Bryan of New York.Thirty-three of those arrested were charged with unlawful conduct inside the Hart Building, said Sgt. Kimberly Schneider of the Capitol Police.Thirty-eight more demonstrators were arrested at separate protests near the Capitol, she said. Of those, 23 were charged with crossing a police line and 15 were charged with demonstrating without a permit.

All of those arrested were cooperative with police, Schneider said.The National Campaign for Nonviolent Resistance, which has organized dozens of anti-war protests around the country, coordinated Tuesday's effort, which included several religious and secular groups.Among those arrested during the demonstrations were two Presbyterian ministers, a Catholic activist and a member of a Quaker group, said Jennifer Kuiper, spokeswoman for The Declaration of Peace, one of the groups participating in the protests.Both groups apparently expected participants to be arrested. On a notice posted at The Declaration of Peace Web site, the protests are described as an "interfaith religious procession around the Capitol, followed by peace presence and nonviolent resistance, including risking arrest at the U.S. Senate."The National Campaign for Nonviolent Resistance Web site adds, "Those willing to engage in nonviolent acts of civil resistance against the war and occupation are encouraged to join us. We also enthusiastically call upon those who cannot risk arrest, but who are willing to support those who do."Despite a rising tide of war opposition, the protesters said they represent no party or political movement.Baptist minister Jamie Washam of Wisconsin, who led an interfaith service during the protests, said she is adamantly opposed to the war."My congregation wants peace," she said. "And I think it's an offense to God."Tuesday's events in Washington were part of 375 protests and other activities being held around the country this week in opposition to the war, according to The Declaration of Peace.There were hundreds of arrests in a protest organized by the National Campaign for Nonviolent Resistance a year ago. On September 26, 2005, 371 people were arrested during the "Resist and Remember" protest in Washington, one of the organization's founders, Gordon Clark, wrote in an online article.Of those, 104 were arrested at the White House for refusing to leave after being denied an audience with President Bush, Clark wrote.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

It's Getting Warm In Here

In the Wall Street Journal this morning a report from James Hansen of NASA:

A study warns that the Earth's temperature is approaching a level not seen in a million years, implying that we are getting close to "dangerous" levels of human pollution.

The study finds that, while the world warmed slowly during the century to 1975, it has warmed at a more rapid rate of about 0.2 degrees Celsius (0.36 degrees Fahrenheit) per decade thereafter. The researchers say the global mean temperature is now within one degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) of the maximum mean temperature of the past million years. Based on a 0.2-degree-Celsius increase per decade, that high point could be reached within 50 years.

The authors' conclusion: Further warming of one degree Celsius could suggest a critical level after which potential consequences -- such as higher sea levels and species extinction -- might be especially hard to manage.

"If further global warming reaches two or three degrees Celsius, we will likely see changes that make Earth a very different planet from the one we know," said James Hansen, lead author and head of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, in a prepared statement. "The last time it was that warm was in the middle Pliocene, about three million years ago, when sea levels were estimated to have been 25 meters (80 feet) higher than today."

Monday, September 25, 2006

Quote of the Day

Reverend Michael Morran standing on the steps of the Colorado State Capitol:
"I believe homophobia, and not homosexuality, is the sin," said Morran, minister of the First Unitarian Society of Denver. "Marry 'em all; let God sort it out."

Spirit Matters

My church newsletter article this week:

Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of a progressive Jewish magazine Tikkun. He is also the author of a new book, The Left Hand of God, which we are going to be reading this fall in the book study group. In the book he talks about his work as a psychologist for the Institute for Labor and Mental Health, where for the last thirty years he has worked with therapists, labor activists, and social theorists, to interview American workers to try and better understand their stresses, needs, and aspirations.
His book tells the story of their findings and it is not a pretty story. The world of work is not a healthy place. Although the average American worker is materially comfortable by the standards of most of the world, there is deep insecurity about holding and maintaining jobs. In addition, there is a corrosive bottom-line mentality that forces workers to see others in the "real" world as instruments for their own survival and advancement:
In short, How can this person be of use to me?" becomes the guiding question, shaping many, not all, relationships in the world of work. All day long we are taught to see others in instrumental terms--to ask how they can be useful to us to advance our goals and interests. And we are also learning to see things from an external standpoint, to accept a technocratic rationality in which ethical and spiritual awareness is replaced by a manipulative and materialistic consciousness.
Moreover, Lerner has heard from thousands of people another "deep truth" that it is hard not to think this way when you get home. Because what we have learned at work is that this is the "real world" and we want our children to be prepared for it and we want to be able to protect our family and home in this environment. And so we find it difficult to turn it off.
But we also find this way of thinking and living deeply unsatisfying. It is not congruent with our deeply held values. It is not really what we want our children to be learning from us. It does not satisfy our needs for meaning and spirit. So the question becomes where do we go to find a different way of thinking and living?
The answer to that question, Lerner maintains, can be found in the growth and success of the religious and political right in American today. They, far more than progressives, have understood the spiritual plight of average Americans and have offered a place - churches - and an answer - an all powerful God who loves them that fills their spiritual void. They have answered this spiritual need and grown because of it even though, according to Lerner, their overall religious narrative encourages and supports the very atmosphere that is causing the problems in America. Their God is a God of fear: we should be afraid. They unquestionably support an unbridled free market economic system that outsources American jobs, that attempts to limit goverment attempts to distribute wealth more justly (through taxes), that encourages the acceptance of economic social darwinism (survival of the fittest - if you are rich you deserve it; if you are poor you also deserve it), and that blames others (Muslims, homosexuals, athiests) for the world's problems.
Why do struggling American workers attend churches and support politicians whose theologies and policies are not looking out for their economic and material interests? Lerner's book is the second I have read in the last year that asks this question. The other, What's the Matter with Kansas by Thomas Frank, sought to understand why low income workers in Kansas supported politicians and preachers who advocated policies that made the workers poorer. Lerner's book addresses more directly the spiritual aspect, but both offer the same conclusion: spirit and meaning trump economics. Liberals, they both maintain, are still stuck on Abraham Maslov's hierarchy of needs which holds that material needs need to be addressed before people are able to worry about a "higher" level of spiritual needs. So liberals offer economic programs and conservatives offer an all-powerful loving God and guess who the people trust?
Our task, according to Lerner, is to acknowledge and address the real spiritual needs of Americans and match it to a theology and politics that is based on a different narrative than the "real world." Because the real world does not have to be our world.

Danforth on Gay-Bashing

Episcopal Priest and former Senator John Danforth has a new book out, FAITH AND POLITICS: HOW THE 'MORAL VALUES' DEBATE DIVIDES AMERICA AND HOW TO MOVE FORWARD TOGETHER. Yesterday he was on Meet the Press (transcript here). In today's Chicago Sun-Times, Steve Weinberg calls attention to Danforth's transformation on the issue of gay rights and the marriage amendment:

The self-styled conservatives, Danforth says, have placed law above love, claiming they can define when life begins and ends. "The government action they advocate would block early stage stem cell research, and it would criminalize scientists who are trying to find cures for diseases that cause untold human misery and death."

So, given Danforth's relative tolerance compared to most self-styled conservative politicians, what about his views on gay marriage, an issue that the former senator says is unmatched "as an example of the emotional heat caused by the mixture of religion and politics"?

The way Danforth explains his slow evolution on gay issues is heartwarming in its candor and encouraging in its lack of cynicism for personal political gain. During his Senate years, Danforth says, he never wanted to offend gays. "Still, they were objects of public contempt, so as a politician concerned about his own popularity, I did not want to be seen as their friend. This was so even at the end of my political career after I had announced that I would not run for reelection. I had nothing to lose as far as political support was concerned, but I never lost my craving for popularity."

Gradually, however, as gay constituents came out of the closet and met with Danforth publicly, he grasped their arguments about the wrongness of discrimination based on gender orientation. Today, Danforth accepts the research about homosexuality, so that he can state it is "a matter of sexual orientation rather than preference. It is not merely a choice of lifestyle."

Calls for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution banning same-sex marriages are worse than blatant political maneuvering, Danforth says. "I think that the only purpose served by the campaign for the amendment is the humiliation of gay Americans, advocated by the Christian Right and eagerly supported by its suitors in the Republican Party. To call it a constitutional amendment designed to defend marriage makes it seem something loftier than gay bashing. But in reality it is gay bashing."

Prayer Closet Today

Share your prayer concerns here.

More Jesus Camp Controversy

The LA Times picks up the story this morning:
...Already, the movie, which opens in L.A. this week, has split the Christian community and horrified those who fear the ascendance of the religious right on the national stage. "Jesus Camp" opened Friday in New York and will open in 20 more cities nationally Oct. 6.

Bloggers of all stripes have been so disgusted by the bits of the film they have seen on the Web that the film's central subject, camp founder Pastor Becky Fischer, has become a public figure, bombarded with hateful e-mails and bracing for her media appearances next week, including a scheduled appearance on ABC's "Good Morning America." The A&E Indiefilms/Magnolia Pictures film follows Rachael, now 10, Levi, now 13, and Tory, now 11, engaging and articulate children from Midwestern towns who attend Fischer's "Kids on Fire" Bible camp in Devils Lake, N.D., in 2005. The filmmakers, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, take a straightforward look at their subjects.

The film's cherub-faced children cheer when asked if they'd be willing to give up their lives for Jesus, pray over a cardboard cutout of President Bush and sob as they plead for an end to abortion. One is home-schooled by a mother who teaches that "science doesn't prove anything."

'This is war!'

At one point in the film, Fischer shouts to the children, "This is war! Are you part of it or not?" She proudly compares her work to the indoctrination of young boys by extremist Muslims in Pakistan and elsewhere. The film intersperses footage of Fischer and the children with clips of radio talk-show host Mike Papantonio, a liberal Methodist, excoriating conservative Christians like Fischer.

Fischer is disappointed by the way she appears in the film. "I do understand they're out to tell a story and they felt they found it with some of the political things," she said by phone from her home in Bismarck, N.D. "And they're out to show the most dramatic, exotic, extreme things they found in my ministry, and I'm not ashamed of those things, but without context, it's really difficult to defend what you're seeing on the screen."

More controversy over the film erupted last week when the Rev. Ted Haggard — whose constituency at the National Assn. of Evangelicals is 30 million strong — took a public stance against it, claiming that the film makes evangelicals look "scary." His condemnation apparently chilled the film's opening in 13 theaters in Colorado, Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma and Missouri on Sept. 15.

Even before its release, lurid fascination with the film's trailer bloomed on the Internet. A Sept. 17 ABC News report on the movie turned up on shortly after it aired, and by the next day, the segment was the website's most-viewed clip, with about 200,000 downloads in a matter of hours...

Pilgrimage to Jerusalem

Yesterday's Star Tribune had a good piece on Jerusalem. It is apparently part of a larger series on spiritual pilgrimage. The whole article is worth a read. A few highlights:

...In Jerusalem, every square inch of the stony ground is covered in blood and history, hopes and prayers, perdition and redemption. For each traveler and every resident, the history is different, the map is different, the truth is different. Those truths often collide, putting Jerusalem at the center of dozens of wars during the past 3,000 years.

In the face of every heart-rending dispute, the idea of this city's holiness endures. It doesn't matter how arduous the journey, how daunting the violence, or how hot the anger -- the pilgrims come. For as long as there has been a Jerusalem, there have been people intent on getting there...

I walked about 10 minutes from my hotel to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It was Palm Sunday, and the small courtyard in front of the church was packed.

I could hardly tell I'd arrived at one of the most important shrines in Christianity. There is no grand vista, not even a clearly defined structure. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is an amalgamation of buildings and additions from different eras and sects that merges with the stone walls of the buildings around it.

I followed the crowd into the rotunda of the church. A column of light from the opening in the dome pierced the haze of incense floating above Christ's tomb, a stone structure as big as a small house that sits where the original grotto is thought to have been. A pounding noise rang out, metal on stone -- crack, crack, crack -- and the Muslim keepers of the church keys strode into the rotunda, dividing the crowd as they hammered their metal-tipped canes on the hallowed rock.

Behind them came Franciscan monks in brown robes, and behind them, Catholic pilgrims. A group of Greek Orthodox worshippers gathered at the tomb, blocking its entrance.

The lead Muslim key keeper in a red fez banged his cane again, and the Greek priest emerged. The keeper raised his eyebrow and opened his hand; the gesture said: "Your time is up."Give me two minutes!" the Greek priest said in English, and ducked back into the tomb to hurry along his supplicants.

It was reassuring to know that in some respects, Jerusalem's spiritual factions can get along; several generations of the same Muslim family have been keeping order at the Church -- and peace between Christian sects -- since an 1852 agreement known as the Status Quo. The Greeks made way for the Roman Catholics, and soon voices rose in song.

Near the entry, a flight of steps leads to the top of what many Christians believe is the exact spot of Golgotha, the Place of the Skull, where Christ was crucified. Pilgrims knelt to touch a tiny patch of exposed stone under an ornate altar. One after another, they walked away with tears in their eyes...

In my imagination, Jerusalem was a vast city; the reality was quite the opposite. It only took 15 minutes to walk from the most important church in Christianity to the most revered site in Judaism, the Western Wall.

It was a sunny Tuesday afternoon, and I was in the company of guide Gil Daleski, a native of Jerusalem. Before we could see the Wall, we had to pass through a metal detector and a pat down. Two guards made a careful inventory of my camera bag.

"The security is heavy here," Daleski said. "... That's because if anything happens here, it can make the whole world burn."

We passed onto a blindingly white stone plaza, facing the towering wall, where Jews have worshipped on and off for more than 1,000 years. At least 20 Israeli soldiers armed with machine guns paced slowly through the knots of people gathered on the plaza, watching everything from behind dark sunglasses.

Daleski, a tall, soft spoken man with curly gray hair, did his best to squeeze 3,000 years of Jewish history into a few hours. The cycle he described was one of exile and return, repeated many times over the centuries.

The mount is not a mountain: it's a structure of massive stones built around a small hill. In the Jewish tradition, that hill is Mount Moriah, where Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac, Daleski said. On top of that box of stones was the site of the original Temple, the most revered landmark of the Jewish faith. For some Jews, the Temple marked the very place where the world began and the very place where it will end.

The Temple was demolished by invaders more than once; The Second Temple, built by King Herod, was destroyed by the Roman Emperor Titus, who replaced it with a temple to Jupiter. Eventually, that temple was torn down, too. Now the top of the Temple Mount is occupied by the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, significant Islamic holy sites.

"It's important to understand that we don't even have any ruins of the Temple. Nothing remained," Daleski said. "The Temple itself is the most important and holy place. But that's where the Dome of the Rock is now, so what can we do? The wall is the most holy place available."

The wall is just that: a span of light-colored stone blocks that rises nearly as high as a 10-story building. The worship area is cordoned off and divided into men's and women's sides. People of all faiths can approach the wall, but visitors are asked to cover their heads with a hat, yarmulke or scarf. On both sides of the gender divide, people stood with their faces pressed to the massive blocks of stone, quietly saying their prayers. Others carefully folded written prayers and wedged them into the cracks between the massive blocks of stone...

The next morning, I retraced my steps. To get to the most holy Islamic landmarks in Jerusalem, a non-Muslim must return to the Western Wall, and pass through an even more rigorous security check to get onto the plaza that is on top of it, and Al-Masjid Al-Aqsa, Arabic for "The Far Mosque."

In the Islamic world, al-Aqsa is a very holy place, third in importance behind Mecca and Medina. Why? Because a pivotal event in the life of the prophet Mohammed happened here.

I'd grown used to the closeness and crowds of the Old City; being in a wide-open, elevated space, unconstricted by walls, was a novel sensation. I walked to the center of the plaza, where my eyes were drawn to the beauty of the building that dominates the space, the Dome of the Rock. It is a singular achievement of world architecture -- a rhythmic balance of angle and curve that was centuries ahead of its time 1,300 years ago. Its gold dome, rising above the octagonal base, looked particularly lustrous against the pure blue of the spring sky. By comparison, the Aqsa Mosque at the other end of the plaza, with its gray dome and long arcaded front, was a quiet presence.

Under the shade of a smaller dome next to the Dome of the Rock, a group of school children listened to a lecture. Families rested beneath cedar and olive trees, and tourists wandered with their cameras.

The interiors of both monuments are closed to non-Muslims. Because of ongoing conflicts between Israelis and Palestinians, hard feelings are close to the surface.

A slender, elderly man in a dark green suit jacket introduced himself as a guide, and gave his name only as Abu Khader, which means father of Khader.

We sat on a bench under a cedar tree, facing the Dome of the Rock. The Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa were built in the late 600s, he said, after Jerusalem was conquered by Muslim forces and only a few years after the prophet Mohammed's death. For more than 1,300 years (aside from a century when the Crusaders claimed the city for Europe), al-Aqsa has been a center of the Islamic intellectual and spiritual world, he said. It still is.

"On holy days, the whole place is full, there is no room to pray. People have to pray outside the walls; all of east Jerusalem becomes a mosque," he said.

Al-Aqsa is held in special reverence because of the prophet's "Night Journey." Abu Khader said that one night in Mecca, as the prophet slept, he was awakened by the angel Gabriel, who took him to a winged-creature called Al-Buraq, who carried him to Jerusalem. The prophet met with other prophets, including Abraham, Moses and Jesus, and then ascended to heaven. It was on this journey that Mohammed received instructions about making five prayers a day, Abu Khader said...

The Pope's Emperor

In the previous post I mentioned the Star Tribune article about the Byzantine emperor quoted by Pope Benedict that got him in hot water with Muslims. Here is some of that article, written by Classics professor Andrew Overman of Macalaster College:

...The emperor was Manuel Paleaologus II, who ruled from 1391 to 1425. He was the second-to-last Christian-Roman emperor.

Christian Byzantine emperors, like the pope today, carried the official titles of the old Roman emperors. They believed they carried on the true Christian traditions and defended Christendom against alien beliefs and threats. The largest and most immediate threat to late Byzantine emperors was the advance of Islam.

Byzantine Christianity was reduced to the confines of Constantinople during Manual's lifetime, with the city under siege most of that time. Any visitor to Istanbul can see the walls these emperors constructed to try to save their city and faith from the forces of Islam which, if not for the Mongols and the French, would have taken all of Europe.

Byzantine Christianity was reduced to serving Islam well before 1453, when Constantinople fell. Pope Benedict's source, it turns out, worked for a Muslim caliph. Manual was a prisoner of an Islamic colonial lord fighting with other regional Islamic forces from Greece, Serbia and the Black Sea.

Christianity appeared to be a vanishing religion. Manual was marginalized, his people reduced to service, and life was lived at the whim of those who ruled his world -- the Turkish Ottoman Empire.

Manuel spent a few years in prison. He watched many of his people die trying to defend his city, and he saw many Christians convert to Islam. He lived and ruled -- if you can call it that -- surrounded by an occupying force. There was a small part of Constantinople where he was free to move. You might call it a Byzantine Green Zone. He tried in vain to get Western Christianity to come to his aid.

He spent his final years writing. He copied a form from late antiquity, a highly polemical style developed by earlier Christian writers who attacked Jews. In fact, the style was called in some places "Adversus Ioudaios," that is, "against the Jews."

In this style, the writer's opponent is usually made up, a straw man constructed to serve the author's purposes and characterized in a stereotyped and hyperbolic manner. Manuel thought what seemed to work in the 4th century against Jews might work as well in the 15th century against Muslims.

Pope Making Amends

The Pope has been making a concerted effort to undue the damage done when he quoted from the 15th century Byzantine ruler (see this Star Tribune article about the emperor) about the violence of Islam:
Pope Benedict XVI told Muslim diplomats Monday that ''our future'' depends on good relations between followers of both faiths as he sought to put to rest anger over his recent remarks about Islam and violence.

The pontiff also quoted from his predecessor, John Paul II, who had close relations with the Muslim world, calling for ''reciprocity in all fields,'' including religious freedom. Benedict spoke in French to a roomful of diplomats from 21 countries and the Arab League in his summer residence in Castel Gandolfo near Rome.

After his five-minute speech, in a salon in the papal palace in the Alban Hills, Benedict, greeted each envoy one by one. He clasped their hands warmly and chatted for a few moments with each of the diplomats...

This tells me that he really didn't have a grasp on the possible implications of papal comments. Being the Pope is not the same as being the man behind the Pope in charge of interpreting Catholic Doctrine. He is operating in an entirely different league now.

How Bad Is it In Iraq?

This was not a good weekend for the defenders of the Administration. The new intelligence estimate that shows that Iraq has made the world less safe has been all over the news. Another report details the desperate straights of the military in regards to readiness.

This morning, an AP report says that the retired military commanders who served in Iraq have had enough and are taking the unusual step of speaking publicly about the Administration's failed policies while the war in Iraq is still on:
Retired military officers on Monday bluntly accused Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld of bungling the war in Iraq, saying U.S. troops were sent to fight without the best equipment and that critical facts were hidden from the public.

"I believe that Secretary Rumsfeld and others in the administration did not tell the American people the truth for fear of losing support for the war in Iraq,'' retired Maj. Gen. John R. S. Batiste said in remarks prepared for a hearing by the Senate Democratic Policy Committee.

A second witness, retired Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, assessed Mr. Rumsfeld as "incompetent strategically, operationally and tactically." "Mr. Rumsfeld and his immediate team must be replaced or we will see two more years of extraordinarily bad decision-making,'' Gen. Eaton added in testimony prepared for the hearing, held six weeks before the Nov. 7 midterm elections in which the war is a central issue...

It is unusual for retired military officers to criticize the Pentagon while military operations are under way, particularly at a public event likely to draw widespread media attention. But Gens. Batiste, Eaton and retired Col. Paul X. Hammes were unsparing in remarks that suggested deep anger at the way the military had been treated.

All three served in Iraq. Gen. Batiste worked as senior military assistant to then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. Col. Hammes was responsible for establishing bases for the Iraqi armed forces. He served in Iraq in 2004 and is now Marine Senior Military Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, National Defense University. Gen. Eaton was responsible for training the Iraqi military and later for rebuilding the Iraqi police force. He said planning for the postwar period was "amateurish at best, incompetent a better descriptor.''

Gen. Batiste, who commanded the Army's First Infantry Division in Iraq, also blamed Congress for failing to ask "the tough questions.'' He said Mr. Rumsfeld at one point threatened to fire the next person who mentioned the need for a postwar plan in Iraq. Gen. Batiste said if full consideration had been given to the requirements for war, it's likely the U.S. would have kept its focus on Afghanistan, "not fueled Islamic fundamentalism across the globe, and not created more enemies than there were insurgents.''

Col. Hammes said in his prepared remarks that not providing the best equipment was a "serious moral failure on the part of our leadership.'' The U.S. "did not ask our soldiers to invade France in 1944 with the same armor they trained on in 1941. Why are we asking our soldiers and Marines to use the same armor we found was insufficient in 2003?'' he asked.

It is bad enough that this has all unfolded the way it has. But what is particularly troubling is that there has been absolutely no Congressional oversight of the Administration. The current Congress is just another political arm of the Rove re-election machine. Instead of looking out for the interests of the troops and the country, they provide cover for the Administration. But it is all beginning to unravel.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

This is Church Camp?

I went to church camp as a kid and it was never anything like this:
Holy war is coming. Thank you, Jesus.

That's the tone of a disturbing new documentary called "Jesus Camp." The film, by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, takes us to a Bible camp called "Kids On Fire," where the children of evangelical Christians are indoctrinated in a militant faith that sees nonbelievers as opponents and secular government as an enemy to overthrow.

I saw a preview of the movie last week (it opens at the Lagoon Cinema in Uptown on Oct. 6, if the Rapture hasn't come by then). And I will leave the film criticism to others. But "Jesus Camp" shows what may be in store for us when millions reject the idea of separation of church and state and want to create a Christian State ready to do battle for Christ.

We get kids in combat fatigues, their faces painted in camouflage colors, who sob, speak in tongues and pray for Jesus to re-make America in his image. Or, more accurately, to re-make it according to the plan of the adults who are turning these children into good little Evangelical mujahaddin.

Pumped up in the Lord, the kids grab hammers and smash crockery labeled "government," sending the shards flying while adult leaders urge them to "give up your lives for Jesus" and "break the power of our enemies in government..."

Nick Coleman tells us that the movie is coming to the Lagoon Cinema October 6. You can see the trailer here.

Why Would He Think That?

Chris Wallace of Fox News can't understand why President Clinton would accuse him of carrying out a "hit job" in his interview of Clinton broadcast Sunday:
"All I did was ask him a question, and I think it was a legitimate news question. I was surprised that he would conjure up that this was a hit job," Wallace said in a telephone interview.
A hit job conducted on a liberal by Fox News? Come on. What was Clinton thinking? That would never happen there.

You can watch the interview here. Wallace asked Clinton why he didn't do more to get Osama bin Laden when he was President. Clinton responded that he did all he could and way more than President Bush. He pointed out that Richard Clarke, who served Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, and Bush II, brought the Clinton plan for dealing with OBL and terrrorism to Bush and was dismissed. They put terrorism on the back burner until 9/11.

Once again, Clinton reminded me of why he was such a good President and a great politician. I doubt if any interviewer/propogandist on Fox has ever been so effectively challenged.

Friday, September 22, 2006

A Muslim Conversion Story

The Washington Post has an interesting story this morning about a young man who converted to Islam:

Chris Moore was an aspiring rock musician with earrings and a shaved head when he walked into a Northern Virginia mosque a dozen years ago and began asking questions about Islam.

A month later, the Christian-raised son of a U.S. Navy man became a Muslim. His conversion initiated a spiritual odyssey that took him to several Muslim countries, including Saudi Arabia, where he adopted and then rejected the ultraconservative Wahhabi approach to Islam...

The arc of Moore's personal journey from a very conservative to a more moderate expression of his faith echoes the spiritual path of many Muslim American converts. For Moore, the story began in 1994, a year after graduating from Annandale High School.

An only child, he became close friends with Aaron Sellars, another young aspiring musician. The two also shared a yearning for spiritual fulfillment, which led them to Dar al Hijra Islamic Center in Falls Church. They walked in one day and began asking one of the members about Islam. Sellars converted that day; Moore, raised Catholic, did so shortly afterward.

He took to his new faith with an intensity typical of converts. He adopted the Arabic name Khalil, which means intimate friend, and gave up his beloved music, because a Saudi spiritual adviser convinced him that it was a sinful waste of time...

When the Fairfax institute offered Moore a scholarship to study in Medina, Saudi Arabia, he grabbed it -- because to live in the town that Muhammad called home for several years is "the dream of every Muslim," Moore said.

He arrived in Medina in 1996. "When I first got there, I was pretty much in awe. I truly, honestly believed . . . that the only scholars on the face of the Earth that had anything to truly say about Islam were . . . Saudi-related in some way," he said. Theirs, he thought, was "the true Islam."

But in his third year of studies, he started having doubts about the Wahhabi version of Islam taught at Medina. He saw "inconsistencies" in some of his professors' teachings, he said, and was perplexed by the way they selectively chose scriptural stories to back up their ideas but left out others that contradicted them.

Determined to explore Islam on his own, Moore began reading respected ancient Muslim scholars whose views were contrary to the Wahhabi outlook. He also listened to a taped lecture by Hamza Yusuf, the founder of the Zaytuna Institute and a leading figure in the American Muslim community.

"Sparks started to go off, like maybe [his Saudi professors were] pulling the wool over my eyes," Moore recalled thinking. "Maybe there is another version of Islamic history and another version of Islam."

When he started pulling away from the Wahhabi approach, some of his fellow students, including American and British colleagues, called Moore an unbeliever and an "innovator" -- a sin in Wahhabi thought.

In 1999, he decided to study Islam elsewhere and traveled to Mauritania, Morocco, Yemen and Egypt. He worked at an Islamic educational center in Abu Dhabi for a while. During his travels, he returned in the summer to study English and religious studies at George Mason University, where obtained a bachelor's degree in 2001...

What I find really interesting about this story is that this young man is on a spiritual journey within Islam. He had the passion typical of a convert to any religion and that passion led him to explore and embrace a fundamentalist version of Islam. But he didn't stop there. He kept searching and questioning and saw how his fundamentalist teachers only used the scriptural texts that supported their own views. He came to realize that there was more than one way to understand and practice his faith.

This is a hopeful story about Islam because it demonstrates that there is room for diversity there. It is also the kind of story I have heard over and over from former Christian fundamentalists.

Torture Is US

McCain and company caved. We torture. The New York Times and the Washington Post agree. From the Times:
The deal does next to nothing to stop the president from reinterpreting the Geneva Conventions. While the White House agreed to a list of “grave breaches” of the conventions that could be prosecuted as war crimes, it stipulated that the president could decide on his own what actions might be a lesser breach of the Geneva Conventions and what interrogation techniques he considered permissible. It’s not clear how much the public will ultimately learn about those decisions. They will be contained in an executive order that is supposed to be made public, but Mr. Hadley reiterated that specific interrogation techniques will remain secret.
From the Post:
Mr. Bush wanted Congress to formally approve these practices and to declare them consistent with the Geneva Conventions. It will not. But it will not stop him either, if the legislation is passed in the form agreed on yesterday. Mr. Bush will go down in history for his embrace of torture and bear responsibility for the enormous damage that has caused.
Somebody in Washington needs to take a clear stand on this issue now. Do we have an opposition party with any spine?

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Wal-Mart on Drugs

Wal-Mart is going to begin selling $4 generic prescription drugs:
Wal-Mart announced Thursday a pilot program in Florida to sell about 300 generic prescription drugs for as low as $4 for a 30-day supply.

The program will be available to both insured and uninsured consumers, and will cover 291 generic medicines for things like allergies, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and diabetes.

Some antibiotics, antidepressants, antipsychotics and prescription vitamins are also covered under the new plan, the world's largest retailer said.

The company said it would soon run radio and newspapers ads listing drugs included in the program.

The program, due to start Friday, will be available to customers and employees at 65 Wal-Mart stores, Wal-Mart neighborhood market stores and Sam's Club pharmacies in the Tampa Bay, Fla., area. The company hopes to expand the program to its 3,900 pharmacies nationwide in January 2007.

Is this a good or bad thing? If you are a senior who is caught in the blessed "doughnut hole" of our new Medicaid drug plan, it is wonderful. If you are a pharmacy it is awful. Wal-Mart can do what only the federal government can do - leverage its enormous size to demand low prices for drugs. This will bring more people into the store who will buy more things and make Wal-Mart more profitable and more able to drive competitors out of business.

This kind of move just postpones the day when we get to a single-payer healthcare plan and the federal government does what it ought to be doing anyway.

No More Bagged Spinach

This post in the LA Times this morning makes me think it is going to be a long time before I buy bagged spinach or lettuce again. It isn't just the E. coli. It sounds like the food is being grown in a sewer and then cleansed with bleach:
Monterey County's Salinas Valley is one of the world's most intensely farmed regions and a major supplier of lettuce and spinach to the nation. The current outbreak of food poisoning marks the 20th time since 1995 that the dangerous E. coli strain has been linked to lettuce or spinach.

The source of the pathogen has not yet been pinpointed, but tainted water is considered a likely culprit.

Many creeks and streams near the region's spinach fields, including the Salinas River, Gabilan Creek, Towne Creek, Tembladero Slough and Old Salinas River Estuary, are known to be carriers of the E. coli strain implicated in the food poisonings. When consumed, people experience cramping, diarrhea and, in severe cases, kidney failure.

Although the growers do not draw water from creeks to irrigate their fields, their crops could be tainted by runoff from nearby livestock operations or Central Coast urban areas.

"What is troublesome with this particular watershed is that it has low-lying land in agricultural production, and flooding certainly occurs in the lower portions. If we have high levels of E. coli in surface waters and they are flooded onto fields, that is certainly a potential source of contamination," Rose said.

Only one waterway in the lower Salinas River watershed does not violate federal E. coli standards, and it is in a state park, surrounded by natural land. Some waterways are so contaminated they contain 12,000 or more organisms per 100 milliliters of water — 30 times the Environmental Protection Agency's standard. Ingesting just a few organisms can make a person sick.

E. coli is ubiquitous in the environment because it is found in the intestines of every species of warm-blooded animal. Wherever there is feces, whether bird, human, cow, or dog, there is E. coli. "The presence of E. coli in water is a strong indication of recent sewage or animal waste contamination," said Dale Kemery, spokesman for the EPA's Office of Water.

Packagers take great care to destroy bacteria on greens, washing lettuce or spinach in baths of water, chlorine and citric acid before spinning it dry and sealing it in plastic bags.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Via Kevin Drum I caught this short interview with Dr. Emile A. Nakhleh in Harpers. Dr. Nakhleh served in the CIA for 15 years and retired on June 30, 2006, as the Director of the Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program, the intelligence community's premier group dedicated to the issue of political Islam. The whole thing is worth a read. Here is an excerpt:

5. What is the likely political fallout from the Iraqi debacle and from the failures of the “war on terrorism”?

We've lost a generation of goodwill in the Muslim world. The President's democratization and reform program for the Middle East has all but disappeared, except for official rhetoric. That was the centerpiece of the President's policies for the region, and now no one is talking about it. We have lost credibility across the Islamic world regarding “democracy” and “representative government” and “justice.” We are devising new rules and regulations for holding people without charge. The FBI has been at Guantanamo for years, and no charges have been brought against anyone. The Islamic world says “you talk about human rights, but you're holding people without charging them.” The Islamic world has always viewed the war on terror as a war on Islam and we have not been able to disabuse them of that notion. Because of Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and other abuses we have lost on the concepts of justice, fairness and the rule of law, and that's the heart of the American idea. That's very serious, and that's where I see the danger in the years ahead.

6. Is there an inherent threat to Western democracies from the Islamic world?

No, there's only a threat from those who use Islam for ideological reasons and who are willing to employ violence. There are 1.4 billion people in the Islamic world and only a tiny minority, maybe 2 or 3 percent, are politically active. Just like Jews and Christians, most have kids to raise and bills to pay. Most view Islam as a personal and societal force, not a political one, and only a tiny minority becomes terrorists. There are hundreds of political parties in the Muslim world, in Indonesia, Malaysia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Morocco, Yemen, Pakistan, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Those parties and their supporters have participated in many elections, and some times they have won and some times they have lost, but they have largely recognized the results. Not all are necessarily interested in creating Sharia societies. Even Hamas highlighted its opposition to Israel and service to society, not religious issues. Political Islam is not a threat—the threat is if people become disenchanted with the political process and democracy, and opt for violence. There is a real danger from a few terrorists and we should go after them, but the longer-term threat is that people opt out of the system. We need to not only speak out in favor of democracy and political reform, but also act on that as well.

The damage we have done to America's image in the world in just incredible. On the flip side, our image of Islam needs to be reality-based. A tiny minority - and dangerous - are genuinely interested in harming us. The vast majority are not. They have kids and families and jobs and lives and worries just like we do. We want to get along with them, not make them hate us.

Prayer Closet Today

Feel free to add your prayer concerns here.

Values Voters

From a press release by the People for the American Way:
A major new survey released today by the Center for American Values in Public Life refutes some widely held assumptions about how Americans'’ religious views and values influence their political behavior. The survey, part of a multi-year research project, was released on the eve of a conference on "“values voters"” convened by the Family Research Council and featuring a who'’s who of ultraconservative activists and political leaders.

"There'’s been a lot of talk about values voters, and a lot of that talk is just plain wrong,"” said Dr. Robert Jones, executive director and senior fellow of the Center for American Values in Public Life. "“Most Americans do not think restricting access to abortion and keeping gay couples from getting married are the most important issues facing voters. When Americans think about voting their values, they're thinking primarily about candidates'’ honesty and integrity."

Jones noted that even among evangelical Christians, issues like addressing poverty and providing affordable health care handily trump restricting access to abortion and banning gay marriage.

In addition, said Jones, data from the American Values Survey indicates that hasty conclusions about the size and permanence of a partisan "“God gap"” have been premature. While the most frequent church attenders are still most likely to vote Republican, the gap has shrunk dramatically, and it appears that Democratic candidates have an opportunity to attract majorities of every other group, including weekly worship attenders.

"“It is simplistic and inaccurate to suggest Democrats have lost their ability to win support from religious Americans,"” said Jones.

Jones said that analysis of the survey'’s religious demographics makes it clear that the American religious community is far from monolithic, and is not heavily weighted to the right. Journalists, public officials, and candidates should take note, Jones said, of the fact that fully half of Americans can be classified as centrist in their religious orientation, while 22 percent are traditionalists, 18 percent are modernists, and 10 percent are secular or nonreligious.

Among the findings highlighted today:
Social issues such as abortion and gay marriage rank last in importance to the vast majority of Americans when deciding how to vote.

An overwhelming majority of Americans, including at least three-quarters of every major religious tradition, say issues like poverty and health care are more important than hot-button social issues.

When people think about "“voting their values,"” more people think of the honesty, integrity, and responsibility of the candidate than any other values.

Americans overwhelmingly agree that too many religious leaders focus on abortion and gay rights without addressing more important issues such as loving our neighbors and caring for the poor.
Abortion and gay marriage turn out the right-wing base. But John Kerry did not lose the last Presidential election because of these issues. He lost because he was perceived as having less "honesty, integrity, and responsibility" than George Bush. It was a colossal misjudgment, but if Democrats are going to win the presidential election they are going to need to better understand the values issue. Because they almost certainly going to be running against John McCain, whose strength is going to be his "values."

Science and Salvation

I very much enjoyed reading this article in the Washington Post about the efforts of renowned biologist E.O. Wilson to reach across the aisle and try to elicit the support of evangelical Christians in the effort to save threatened ecosystems and species:
It's hard to picture, if you know him only by his scientific reputation, but E.O. Wilson confesses it freely: He loves watching preachers on television.

Wilson is an internationally renowned biologist who has based his extraordinarily productive five-decade career at that great bastion of secular humanism, Harvard University. At 77, his work and his worldview are so thoroughly entwined with Darwinian theory that they're impossible to imagine without it. His reverence is for the wondrous creatures and intricate interconnections of the natural world, not for any supreme being.

So what's he doing tuning in those evangelical sermons from the megachurches?

"I listen to them the way an Italian listens to opera," Wilson confesses with a lopsided grin. "I may be thinking of the texts as fiction, but I can't resist the old-time rhythm, the music and the superlative performances."

These rhythmic exhortations are the stuff of Wilson's childhood. He may have put aside the Southern Baptist faith into which he was born -- and, as a teenager, born again -- but he has retained his emotional ties to the culture surrounding it. All of which helps explain the herculean task he recently assigned himself:

He's trying to bridge the gap between science and religion in the hope of saving life on Earth.

The vehicle is his new book, "The Creation." Wilson chose the title because he knew it would resonate with evangelical Christians, a community so vast and influential that without its support, he believes, reaching the goal will be next to impossible. And he chose to present his argument in the form of a letter to a fictional Southern Baptist minister.

If you called it a sermon, he wouldn't object.

"Pastor, we need your help," Wilson writes. "The Creation -- living Nature -- is in deep trouble." At the present rate of destructive human activity, "half the species of plants and animals on Earth could be either gone or at least fated for early extinction by the end of the century."

It's not that this looming catastrophe is news; Wilson and many others have sounded alarms about it for years. What's new is his personal outreach program. Since "The Creation" was published this month, Wilson has been taking every chance he gets to extend the hand of friendship across that yawning science-religion divide. Tonight at 7:30, he's scheduled to address the subject at Washington National Cathedral.

Why? Because to him, science and religion are "the two most powerful forces in the world today" -- and they need each other.

Don't get him wrong. He's not trying to reconcile the irreconcilable.

He's saying: Let's put our differences aside. "We've got a job to get done."


Tuesday, September 19, 2006

End the Profanity of Exclusion

I have been getting email invitations to a conference in Minneapolis with the title "End the Profanity of Exclusion." The conference is sponsored by Voices United:
Voices United is a Twin Cities based coalition of faith groups , currently including members from the Episcopal church, Metropolitan Community Churches, Roman Catholic Church, United Church of Christ, United Methodist Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church and the Unitarian Universalist Association. We are dedicated to ending the profanity of exclusion, united in our call to decry the reprehensible use of gay, lesbian,transgender, and bisexual people as scapegoats for the ills of our society and as a distraction from the real threats to our communities.
I completely share the goals of this group, and I very much dislike the over-the-top language they use to advertise and describe themselves. The profanity of exclusion; the reprehensible use of glbt people as scapegoats. I feel like I am being assulted when I read this language. It is used, I imagine, to draw attention to the sense of outrage they feel at the way glbt persons are too often treated. But they are striking back in what feels like a violent way with their language. It is not the path to reconcilation and acceptance. Or maybe I am just being too sensitive.

Prayer Closet Today

Well, I can't get a picture loaded today, but... You are invited to share here your prayer concerns and prayer requests. Just click on the comment button and enter your text. Please be respectful of the prayer requests of others.

Liberal Evangelicals are Speaking Up

Led by Jim Wallis of Sojourners, liberal evangelicals are getting organized and are refusing to allow the right wing to continue sullying the evangelical label:

Liberal evangelicals, weary of a Republican-centric image, launched a campaign Monday to promote Christian values beyond the issues of abortion and same-sex marriage.

Red Letter Christians, a project of Sojurners/Call to Renewal, announced plans to establish a grass-roots network of 7,000 moderate and progressive clergy members.

"A debate on moral issues should be central to American politics, but how should we define religious values?" said Jim Wallis, an activist and executive director of the Christian ministry, which also publishes the liberal Sojourners Magazine.

The project's name comes from the color of some Bible's type, with words directly attributed to Jesus appearing in red.

Wallis said Christian conservatives have limited the discussion to abortion and same-sex marriage, two fears that mobilized voters in 2004, and that voters care about more than two the issues.

"We must insist that the ethics of war — and whether we tell the truth about going to war — these are moral values issues too," Wallis said. Democrats have pinned part of their midterm strategy on voters' restlessness with the war in Iraq.

The Red Letter Christians campaign plans to use voter guides for congregants and briefings for their leaders to argue education, poverty and the environment are all evangelical issues. Wallis also launched a new blog this week at, debating with former Christian Coalition head and failed Republican Georgia lieutenant governor candidate Ralph Reed.

Is it possible to be a liberal evangelical? That's like asking if it is possible to be a liberal Christian? Or a Christian who doesn't believe in the literal physical resuscitation of Jesus' corpse? Of course it is possible. Good for them for getting organized. We may yet reclaim the Christian faith for the real Jesus.

Who Uses Faith-based Initiative Money?

Liberal churches, apparently. From the Washington Post:

The Bush administration's faith-based initiative is reaching only a tiny percentage of the nation's black churches, most of which have limited capacity to run social programs, hampering the initiative's promise of empowering those congregations to help the needy, according to a study to be released today.

The national survey of 750 black churches by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies found that fewer than 3 percent are participating in the program, which funnels at least $2 billion a year in federal social services spending to religious organizations.

Black churches in the Northeast and those with self-identified progressive congregations and liberal theologies were most likely to be taking part in the program, a finding that surprised the researchers, who concluded that the White House has not used the program as a political tool as some critics have suspected.

"Those people who were most worried can exhale," said Robert M. Franklin, a professor of social ethics at Emory University who worked as a consultant on the survey. "Churches have not been manipulated by Karl Rove. They have not sold out."

Despite instances of grants going to political and ideological supporters of President Bush, the survey found that, overall, liberal-leaning churches were more likely to apply for and receive the grants, even though they tend to view the program more skeptically than their conservative counterparts do.

Why is it working out this way? For one thing it is bigger churches across the board who are using the program. They have the infrastructure in place to provide services. The vast majority of minority churches in the country are small. But liberal churches also believe in providing social services, and will hold their nose and take the federal money if it allows them to expand their programming.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Prayer Closet Today

You are invited to share here your prayer concerns and prayer requests. Just click on the comment button and enter your text. Please be respectful of the prayer requests of others.

Pasadena Church May Fight IRS

From the Los Angeles Times:
A liberal Pasadena church facing an IRS investigation over alleged politicking sounded a defiant note Sunday, with its leaders and many congregants saying the probe amounted to an assault on their constitutional rights and that they were inclined to defy the agency's request for documents.

"These people are offended," said the Rev. Ed Bacon, rector of All Saints Episcopal Church, after delivering an impassioned sermon about the investigation to a standing-room-only crowd of about 900. "Freedom of speech and freedom of religion have been assaulted by this act of the IRS, and I think my people want to be heard in court."

Bacon said he would consult with attorneys and church officials before deciding a course of action but that the vast majority of parishioners with whom he spoke Sunday thought the church should resist a summons demanding copies of newsletters, e-mails and other records.

"I believe we should respectfully decline to produce the documents," said Cathy Shearon, an All Saints parishioner "off and on" for more than 20 years. "Being passive plays into the culture of oppression."

Federal law prohibits nonprofits, including churches, from campaigning for candidates. At issue is whether an antiwar guest sermon, delivered two days before the 2004 presidential election by the Rev. George F. Regas, constituted campaigning.

Some All Saints defenders have called the IRS probe a case of selective prosecution. But conservative congregations, as well as liberal ones, have been investigated across the country by the agency over the years.

One church in upstate New York lost its tax-exempt status in 1995 after running a full-page ad in USA Today in 1992 saying that it would be "a sin to vote for [Bill] Clinton."

But at least one group familiar with the past probes called the All Saints case unusual in the breadth of the summons' request, which also seeks financial records and overhead costs related to Regas' sermon.

The probe surprised Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a watchdog group that has filed 58 complaints of improper church politicking over the last decade and a half. The grievances were roughly evenly divided between liberal and conservative religious groups.

"What perplexes me about All Saints," said Barry Lynn, a group spokesman, "is that I have never heard of a church being asked to undergo such a sweeping, broad and deep investigation on the basis of a complaint about a single sermon by a guest speaker."

All Saints came under IRS scrutiny shortly after Regas, the church's former rector, delivered a sermon that depicted Jesus in a mock debate with then-presidential candidates George W. Bush and John F. Kerry. The sermon did not endorse either candidate.

Regas' suggestion that Jesus would have told Bush his preemptive war strategy in Iraq "has led to disaster" prompted a letter from the IRS in June 2005 stating that "a reasonable belief exists that you may not be a tax-exempt church."

Most Difficult and Challenging War?

In a New York Times article about the rift between Sen. John McCain and President Bush over the President's desire to sanction torture, I caught this quote from an editorial in the Manchester (NH) Union-Leader, a conservative paper:
“The question is being asked: in the midst of the most difficult and challenging war we have ever faced, can the nation afford a President McCain?” The Union-Leader — the largest newspaper in the state, which holds the nation’s first presidential primary — asked in a front-page editorial on Saturday.
Most difficult and challenging war we have ever faced? I wonder how old the editorial writer is? Or how well he or she knows American history? Gasoline and material resources were rationed during WWII. Ever family in the country was asked to sacrifice to support the war effort. Major hot wars were being fought all around the globe; cities were being annialated by saturation bombing; we dropped two atomic bombs. How does this war compare?

And that is just one example. The Civil War would be another conflict far more difficult and challenging to the nation's future than this war.

The problem is that the Manchester Union-Leader would, following the President, like to make this a conflict of civilizations - good against evil, Christian against Muslim. It isn't. But even if it were true, how would we know it? We aren't asked to sacrifice anything to support the war. There is no sense on Wall Street or main street that we are in the midst of an epic battle for the future of civilization.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

IRS Targets Liberal California Church

From the Los Angeles Times:
Stepping up its probe of allegedly improper campaigning by churches, the Internal Revenue Service on Friday ordered a liberal Pasadena parish to turn over all the documents and e-mails it produced during the 2004 election year with references to political candidates.

All Saints Episcopal Church and its rector, the Rev. Ed Bacon, have until Sept. 29 to present the sermons, newsletters and electronic communications.

The IRS investigation was triggered by an antiwar sermon delivered by its former rector, the Rev. George F. Regas, at the church two days before the 2004 presidential election. The summons even requests utility bills to establish costs associated with hosting Regas' speech. Bacon was ordered to testify before IRS officials Oct. 11.

The tax code bars nonprofits, including churches, from endorsing or campaigning against candidates in an election.

Facing the possible loss of his church's tax-exempt status, Bacon said he plans to inform his roughly 3,500 active congregants about the investigation during Sunday's services. Then he plans to seek their advice on whether to comply.

"There is a lot at stake here," Bacon said in an interview. "If the IRS prevails, it will have a chilling effect on the practice of religion in America."

The congregants will have two choices: consent to the IRS request, or decline, which could result in the matter being referred to the Department of Justice and, possibly, U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, All Saints' lead attorney Marcus Owens said.

"The congregation's decision will be clear on Sunday or a few days after that," Owens said. "My guess is they will be unlikely to respond demurely and acquiesce in the government's request at this stage. The issues are too close to the quick of their fundamental religious beliefs."

Members of All Saints have a long history of social activism. The sermon that attracted the IRS' attention was delivered by Regas, who was well-known for opposing the Vietnam War, championing female clergy and supporting gays and lesbians in the church.

The medieval-looking church, just east of City Hall, seems to embody staid, moneyed Old Pasadena, but the liberal outlook goes back decades. During World War II, its rector spoke out against the internment of Japanese Americans. Regas headed the church for 28 years before retiring in 1995.

Exactly how the congregants will make their feelings known on the IRS issue is yet to be decided.

"It may come via e-mail, or as a yea or nay on Sunday, or some other means," said Keith Holeman, a spokesman for the church.

IRS spokesman Frank Fotinatos declined to comment on the matter saying, "We can't confirm or deny any ongoing investigation."

Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), who unsuccessfully tried to launch a Government Accountability Office investigation into the IRS' probes of churches nationwide last year, called the summons "a very disturbing escalation" of the agency's scrutiny of All Saints.

"I don't want religious organizations to become arms of campaigns," he said. "But they should be able to talk about issues of war and peace without fear of losing tax-exempt status. If they can't, they'll have little to say from the pulpit."

The view was echoed by the Rev. Bob Edgar, an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church and general secretary of the National Council of Churches USA. "I'm outraged," he said. "Preachers ought to have the liberty to speak truth to power."

"There is a lot more to be done about this, and it may include some actions of nonviolent civil disobedience," Edgar said. "Since 9/11, the IRS, like the FBI, has been moving back to the 1950s and 1960s when a great deal of such activity was propagated against church leaders like Martin Luther King."
I'll have to see if I can find a copy of the sermon that got the church in trouble; I read it two years ago and remember it as being standard biblicly-based prophetic speech questioning the President on his decision to take the country into war. The kind of message I and countless other pastors spoke then, and would do again. But this is an administration that sees all dissent as treason.

A Heart Revealed

Whatever the President may claim about his religious convictions, his true convictions are being revealed in the Congressional debate over whether to sanction torture of terrorist suspects. The President wants new rules that contravene the Geneva Conventions:

The officials said the CIA and the White House are convinced that retaining access to these methods is key to extracting information from captured terrorism suspects who have urgently needed information about dangerous plots.

Congressional critics of this position have some support from within the government: Neither the FBI nor the Defense Department allows the use of the CIA's harshest techniques, and last week senior Pentagon officials said they believe that more cooperative forms of interrogation produce better results than inflicting extreme discomfort.

But the CIA feels differently. A memo sent by CIA Director Michael V. Hayden to the agency's employees Thursday approvingly quoted Bush's endorsement of the CIA interrogations for "defending the homeland, attacking [al-Qaeda] . . . and saving thousands of American and allied lives." Hayden said in the memo that the clarifying language of the administration's bill would give him confidence that what he "asked an Agency officer to do under the program is lawful."

The rival Senate bill on interrogations -- approved by the Armed Services Committee on Thursday and sharply criticized by Bush yesterday -- is silent on how the CIA should comply with the Geneva Conventions. Its intent, according to several government officials, is not only to avoid sending a signal to other nations that Washington is reinterpreting its treaty obligations, but to leave in place a historic understanding of international law, which would render unlawful many of the extreme interrogation techniques the CIA has been using.

Bush and other senior officials have not discussed what those methods include, but the president described them as an "alternative set of procedures," emphasizing that they differ from those used elsewhere in the government.

At a news conference yesterday, Bush alluded to these special methods when he said the new legislation was needed to provide "intelligence professionals with the tools they need."
The world, in the President's view is a dark and dangerous place and the only way to defeat the forces of darkness is to think like them and behave like them. And in that way he becomes one of them. I wonder if the President has ever read The Lord of the Rings.

Let's hope he is not allowed to take our country down this path.

Prayer Closet Today

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Pope Apologizes to Muslims

I think, anyway:
Benedict told Muslims on Saturday he was sorry they had found his speech on Islam offensive, expressing his respect for their faith and hoping they would understand the ``true sense'' of his words.

``The Holy Father is very sorry that some passages of his speech may have sounded offensive to the sensibilities of Muslim believers,'' Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone said in a statement.

Is he sorry for what he said, or sorry that they found it offensive? It's a big difference and it isn't clear to me which it is. I guess we will wait and see what the Muslim reaction is. I still wonder what he was thinking when he used that obscure 14th century quote.

Friday, September 15, 2006

One of those Weeks

From the Open Circle Newsletter:

Well, this has been one of those weeks. Flu and cold bugs have hit our household this week and don't seem to want to go away. Ryan brought home a cat, a cute kitten. The bird loves it! Not. Adding another member to the household, even a feline member, interrupts the ordinary flow of living. Especially when plants are toppling, the bird is squawking, and the back of your legs are suddenly being impaled by razor-sharp kitten claws. And most worrisome of all, Mary Ann's dad is ill and in the hospital a thousand miles away.

It is amazing to me to watch and feel the energy level dip and the stress level rise as we deal with the "ordinary" disturbances that visit our home. They affect my outlook on life, my patience level with others, my passion for the things I care most about. Can I just pack up my fishing pole, a tent, and a couple of books and come back in a month when everything is better?

If only there were some assurance that everthing would indeed be better. I know it won't. The particular issues will likely be different. It might be a work stress, or another 9/11-like terrorist attack, or a death in the family. Whatever it is there is bound to be something that saps my energy or pushes my buttons. I know this.

But I also know that I have some choices about how I prepare myself to deal with the realities and stresses of everyday living, and I also have some choices about how I choose to respond to events, people, and even pets. Kicking the cat across the room is not ok. And no, I haven't done it.

If you want to know why God isn't dead and why religion won't go away even in our modern and post-modern world, it is because our religious traditions hold a repository of convictions and practices that have sustained stressed-out individuals for centuries. At the center of these convictions is trust - trust that we are truly known for who we are and loved, trust that we have been richly blessed with all that we really need to be happy and well, trust that there is meaning in our lives and that we are here for a higher purpose, and trust that there are spiritual practices and disciplines that can sustain and comfort us when we are in the midst of challenging moments, bad weeks, and even national disasters.

The choice we make on a daily basis is whether we will choose to tap into that repository of convictions and practices. It is hard to do. Sometimes it seems like it is hard to justify when there are so many pressing problems. But if we ever want to get to that place in our lives where we have a deep well of spiritual strength to draw on in our daily lives then we will want to begin to carve out the regular time required. The more I am at this job of being a spiritual leader in our community, the more I am convinced that this may be the most important thing we teach, and the most critical culture of practice and expectation we want to create in our community.

Prayer Closet Today

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Thursday, September 14, 2006

The Prayer Closet Today

In addition to prayers for the children of Gaza, mentioned earlier, prayers for the family of Teri Dessalet and her family as her dad, Robert, passed away yesterday. And prayers for Ed Davies, my father-in-law, who has been hospitalized for shortness of breath, and who was diagnosed with an aneurysm near his heart and irreversable lung disease, pulmonary fibrosis.

Got a prayer request? Post it in the comments.

Republicans Jumping Ship

Recent weeks have seen a significant uptick in the number of Republican opinion-makers who are stating publicly that it might be good for the GOP if they lose the House this fall. Why? They recognize that Americans are angry with the President for a whole host of reasons and that the Congress has done nothing but rubberstamp his policies.

The latest issue of the liberal magazine Washington Monthly has articles by seven conservative Republicans who state the case for Republican losses. In today's Los Angeles Times, one of my least favorite columnists Jonah Goldberg, makes the case:
The rub of it, from a conservative perspective, is that Republican control of the House doesn't equal conservative control. It may not seem that way to liberals who think Joe Lieberman is right wing, but from the vantage point of the conservative movement, GOP dominance has been an enormous disappointment — good judicial appointments and tax cuts not withstanding. Our hopeful joy upon the 1994 takeover of Congress was like finding a new pony by the Christmas tree. Now it's more like finding it slumped over dead on top of the presents.

This may be why some of us aren't contemplating the possible, if not probable, Democratic takeover of the House with too much dread. (Losing the Senate would be something else.) Yes, the thought of Nancy Pelosi as House Speaker and John Conyers Jr., Henry Waxman and Alcee Hastings as potential committee chairmen does cause an involuntary gag reflex and a shudder for the future of the republic. And yes, the image of all those Democratic staffers returning to Capitol Hill like the marauding caddies during open-pool hour in "Caddyshack" does churn the stomach.

But what would actually happen? Well, the first thing we'd hear would be the metaphorical snap of the rubber glove as the House prepared to investigate the executive branch with a zeal and thoroughness normally reserved for prison guards who enjoy looking for contraband just a little too much. Subpoenas would fly. Perhaps printers would churn out bills of impeachment.

BUT AS UGLY as some of this might be, the silver lining would be fairly thick. First, as a matter of simple gitchy-goo good government, one has to admit that the executive branch could use an independent audit. Amid the orgy of spending and deal cutting, the GOP-controlled House has largely abdicated its oversight responsibilities. Someone's got to check the receipts.

Second, as a matter of rank partisanship, letting the Democrats run wild could be good for both the GOP and conservatives, as my colleague Ramesh Ponnuru recently pointed out in the New York Times. If you think Americans are itching for change now, wait until they break into hives after two more years of Republican monopoly on power.

But a Pelosi-run House could so horrify voters that it would probably prepare the soil for a Republican presidential candidate in 2008. Pelosi is, if anything, a moderate in the Democratic caucus, but she is indisputably far to the left of the American center, in part because she and her colleagues mistake passionately angry bloggers for the mainstream. Letting voters see this crowd try to have its way for two years would only help the GOP in the far more important 2008 election.

Moreover, it could very well boost President Bush's popularity in his final two years — popularity he would need to conduct foreign policy, which tends to dominate the final years of all presidencies.
What's ironic about this is that I have recently read some Democratic pieces suggesting that the best thing that could happen to the Democrats in this election is that they almost take over the House and Senate. The thinking is that thanks to the mess that Republicans have made of the economy and foreign policy, regardless of who controls Congress the next two years things are likely to get worse before they get better. Having bare majorities in the House and Senate, Republicans would be unable to enact any more scorched earth legislation they have cooked up, like Social Security privatization, but would also be unable to blame Democrats for Bush's mess as it continues to unfold. This would set them up well for the next election. Or so the thinking goes.

Republicans, of course, are worried about exactly this scenario. So some of them think a Democratic win in the House would be a good thing. In any case, it's interesting to see all of these Republicans who supported the war and everything else this President and Congress have done, and who have benefited from the friendly access they have had all over Washington, now running away from it all as the ship sinks. What is that they say about rats?

Rabbis Ordained in Germany

It is difficult to imagine that it hasn't happened since 1942, but good to see this threshold of healing being crossed:
Three men on Thursday became the first rabbis ordained in Germany since World War II, a milestone in the rebirth of Jewish life here decades after the Holocaust.

Daniel Alter, 47, of Germany; Thomas Cucera, 35, of the Czech Republic; and 38-year-old Malcolm Matitiani of South Africa were officially named rabbis in the ceremony in Dresden's synagogue, which was rebuilt after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

No rabbis have been ordained in Germany since the Nazis destroyed the College of Jewish Studies in Berlin in 1942, midway through the World War II.

Alter and Cucera plan to remain in Germany, while Matitiani says he will return to his native South Africa.

''After the Holocaust, many people could never have imagined that Jewish life in Germany could blossom again,'' German President Horst Koehler said before the event. ''That is why the first ordination of rabbis in Germany is a very special event indeed.''

Congress and the Culture of Corruption

Two front page New York Times stories tell the story of why we need a change in Washington:
1) Nine months after Congressional leaders vowed to respond to several bribery scandals with comprehensive reforms, their pledges have come to next to nothing...

2) The Interior Department’s chief official responsible for investigating abuses and overseeing operations accused the top officials at the agency on Wednesday of tolerating widespread ethical failures, from cronyism to cover-ups of incompetence.

“Simply stated, short of a crime, anything goes at the highest levels of the Department of the Interior,” charged Earl E. Devaney, the Interior Department’s inspector general, at a hearing of the House Government Reform subcommittee on energy...

It is time for a change.

Prayers for the Children of Gaza

It is always the children who suffer the most when men wage war:
For the last week, Zidan Abu Reziq has been sleeping outside, next to his plantings on a small square of sand he expropriated.

The Abu Reziqs, like many of the large, destitute refugee families in this shrapneled, tumbledown slum, need to plant to eat. They took the land and planted it with vegetables, an investment of about $50, most of the money that the United Nations Relief and Works Agency gave them to buy school uniforms for the children.

Zidan’s wife, Tamam, admits her 51-year-old husband sleeps with his plants because he needs to protect their investment in the lawless chaos of Gaza, where his own small theft of land, 20 square yards that belongs to the government, is dwarfed by the huge expropriations by gangs and families and militia groups that have taken over much of the best land left behind when the Israelis pulled out their settlers a year ago.

It is difficult to exaggerate the economic collapse of Gaza, with the Palestinian Authority cut off from funds by Israel, the United States and the European Union after Hamas won the legislative elections on Jan. 25.

Since then, the authority has paid most of its 73,000 employees here, nearly 40 percent of Gaza’s work force, only 1.5 months’ salary, resulting in a severe economic depression and growing signs of malnutrition, especially among the poorest children.

Prayers for the children of Gaza and for peace in the Middle East.