Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Happy Halloween

Happy Halloween!

20 Years Ago This Evening

Meagan was born in Youngstown, Ohio. Tonight she is in Mankato celebrating with friends. Happy birthday wishes and much love to our first.

Karen Armstong on the Veil

Catching up on Andrew Sullivan I caught a reference to this interesting article by Karen Armstrong on the western reaction to Muslim women wearing the veil. Armstrong talks about her years as a veiled nun, its history as a symbol of defiance against men and popular culture, and why more and more Muslim women wear it:

In the patriarchal society of Victorian Britain, nuns offended by tacitly proclaiming that they had no need of men. I found my habit liberating: for seven years I never had to give a thought to my clothes, makeup and hair - all the rubbish that clutters the minds of the most liberated women. In the same way, Muslim women feel that the veil frees them from the constraints of some uncongenial aspects of western modernity.

They argue that you do not have to look western to be modern. The veiled woman defies the sexual mores of the west, with its strange compulsion to "reveal all". Where western men and women display their expensive clothes and flaunt their finely honed bodies as a mark of privilege, the uniformity of traditional Muslim dress stresses the egalitarian and communal ethos of Islam.

Muslims feel embattled at present, and at such times the bodies of women often symbolise the beleaguered community. Because of its complex history, Jack Straw and his supporters must realise that many Muslims now suspect such western interventions about the veil as having a hidden agenda. Instead of improving relations, they usually make matters worse. Lord Cromer made the originally marginal practice of veiling problematic in the first place. When women are forbidden to wear the veil, they hasten in ever greater numbers to put it on.

In Victorian Britain, nuns believed that until they could appear in public fully veiled, Catholics would never be accepted in this country. But Britain got over its visceral dread of popery. In the late 1960s, shortly before I left my order, we decided to give up the full habit. This decision expressed, among other things, our new confidence, but had it been forced upon us, our deeply ingrained fears of persecution would have revived.

But Muslims today do not feel similarly empowered. The unfolding tragedy of the Middle East has convinced some that the west is bent on the destruction of Islam. The demand that they abandon the veil will exacerbate these fears, and make some women cling more fiercely to the garment that now symbolises their resistance to oppression.

The part of this I struggle with is not the idea that women in the west would choose the veil as a symbol of protest; more power to them. But in some parts of the Muslim world it appears to me to be the men who force it on women. It makes all the difference in the world whether it is freely chosen or not.

Bought and Paid for by Big Oil

Just one more sign that the Bush Administration is a wholly owned subsidiary of big oil:
The Interior Department has dropped claims that the Chevron Corporation systematically underpaid the government for natural gas produced in the Gulf of Mexico, a decision that could allow energy companies to avoid paying hundreds of millions of dollars in royalties.

The agency had ordered Chevron to pay $6 million in additional royalties but could have sought tens of millions more had it prevailed. The decision also sets a precedent that could make it easier for oil and gas companies to lower the value of what they pump each year from federal property and thus their payments to the government.

Interior officials said on Friday that they had no choice but to drop their order to Chevron because a department appeals board had ruled against auditors in a separate case.

But state governments and private landowners have challenged the company over essentially the same practices and reached settlements in which the company has paid $70 million in additional royalties.

If the Dems win control of the House or Senate, I can't wait for the hearings on the Iraq war and on the Administration's energy policy.

Unnatural Practice Condemned in Scripture

What "unnatural" practice is condemned more than 15 times in the Hebrew Scriptures? It's not homosexuality. A commentary in today's St. Paul Pioneer Press:

Christians concerned about the so-called marriage amendment to the Wisconsin Constitution would do well to examine our own religious tradition, in particular a centuries-old condemnation of an "unnatural" practice.

This practice is mentioned more than 15 times in the Hebrew Bible — always in the negative sense of a serious offense. Christian leaders condemned it as an unnatural vice for more than 1,500 years. In 1312 an ecumenical council of the Catholic Church condemned as heretics all those who argued that this practice was not sinful. Dante places people guilty of this vice in the seventh ring of hell. Martin Luther equated this sin with theft and murder and insisted that anyone who engaged in this activity should not be buried in consecrated ground.

What was this sin? Homosexual activity? No, it was taking interest on loans, a practice called usury.

How did church leaders go from universal condemnation of interest-taking to the situation today, where Thrivent Financial for Lutherans sings the praises of compound interest and the Vatican runs a bank?

Part of the explanation comes from a radical change in our understanding of money. Ancient peoples thought of money as merely a medium of exchange. If you loaned your neighbor a cow, you could expect some payment for it because the cow was useful. It produced milk and pulled your plow and might even bear a calf. Coins, on the other hand, just lay in a bag and didn't produce anything. Charging interest was seen as contrary to the very nature of money. Treating something sterile as though it were productive was going against nature.

Also, lending money was closely associated with oppression of the poor, especially when interest rates were often 50 percent per year or higher. At the time of Jesus, high interest rates were driving more and more peasants off their land and into the ranks of day laborers and beggars who could not make enough to feed themselves and their families. Usury imposed a death sentence of slow starvation on its victims.

Over time, our understanding of money has become much more nuanced. For us, money is a human invention, not something with natural value. In addition to being a medium of exchange, we see money as equivalent to productive resources, an abstract measure of purchasing power (as opposed to bartering), and something that stores value.

In the biblical period and for much of Christian history, homosexual activity was condemned for many of the same reasons as usury. Ancient peoples had no concept of homosexual orientation as a natural phenomenon. In a male-dominated patriarchal society homosexual activity among men was seen as degrading to the passive partner. It was unnatural because he allowed himself to be reduced to the essentially lower status of a woman. Also, biblical authors and church leaders commonly understood homosexual activity only in the context of idol worship, promiscuity and violence.

The 20th century witnessed a revolution in our understanding of sexuality, something comparable to the scientific revolution in Galileo's time. Today we hold to the natural equality of the sexes, and we are aware that committed, loving sexual relationships between persons of the same gender are possible. True, we continue to condemn promiscuity and rape in homosexual as well as in heterosexual relationships, but it flies in the face of facts to consider homosexual relationships only in that light.

To sum up,because we understand the nature of money differently, we are not opposed to all interest-taking. Now that we understand homosexuality differently, need we be opposed to all homosexual activity? Could it be that we are in the midst of a development of social consciousness and even of church teaching on this subject?

If so, just as now is not the time to reinstate laws that prohibit all interest on loans, so also now is not the time for a constitutional amendment that prohibits committed sexual unions between gay and lesbian persons.

A great article putting the ancient concept of homosexuality in its context. And if we are going to quote scripture to condemn something, lets be consistent.

Spirit of Jesus Making Headway among Evangelicals

An article in the New York Times looks at the improving fortunes of Democrats among evangelicals. In talking to members of two Columbus, Ohio megachurches, Vineyard Columbus Church and Grace Brethren, signs of disaffection with Republicans are clear and Democratic candidates are actively courting evangelicals and making headway. But maybe the spirit of Jesus is also making headway. Here is pastor Rich Nathan of the Vineyard church:
...“How is it that we evangelicals have become the strongest constituency for war of any group in America?” he asked.

When he asked that question from the pulpit, Mr. Nathan said, people stand up and cheer.
Good for them. The spirit of Jesus still speaks. I wonder if the pastor of the Grace Brethren church would dare say anything like this?

Saturday, October 28, 2006

So Much for The High Road...

Well, I could only resist one day...this editorial in today's New York Times says it well...

Conserving That Compassion

Published: October 28, 2006
When future generations of Americans look back on the current era, they’ll puzzle over what it was about George W. Bush that made people imagine there was anything compassionate to his conservatism.

Having apparently lost all hope that he can use terrorism to scare voters into electing Republicans this November, the president has now begun raising the threat of gay marriage.
The moment the New Jersey Supreme Court issued a ruling on the subject this week, Mr. Bush began using every possible excuse to bring up “activist” judges and gay weddings on the campaign trail. “I mentioned his love for his family,” Mr. Bush said at a rally for a Republican Senate candidate in Michigan. “He understands what I know, that marriage is a fundamental institution of our civilization. Yesterday in New Jersey we had another activist court issue a ruling ...”

The court in New Jersey, for what it’s worth, was hardly activist. The State Legislature had given gay couples the ability to unite in domestic partnerships that gave them most, but not all, of the legal protections available to married heterosexuals. The court simply said that both kinds of partners deserved the same legal protection, and left it up to the lawmakers to figure out how to do it. Hardly a thunderbolt from the sky, but Mr. Bush took up the cause of protecting the “sacred institution that is critical to the health of our society” as if a cadre of antifamily jurists had just abolished matrimony.

All this is, as everyone knows, just a show for rousing the base. If the last month has taught us anything about the Republican Party, it is that homophobia is campaign strategy, not conviction. Congressmen who trust their careers to gay staffers vote for laws to enshrine second-class citizenship for gays in the Constitution. Gay appointees and their partners are treated as married people at official ceremonies and social gatherings. Then whenever an election rolls around, the whole team pretends it’s on a mission to save America from gay marriage.

Mr. Bush and his faithful acolytes seem perfectly willing to stoke fears that create division and sorrow in a country that doesn’t need any more of either. The president has just a little more than two years left in office. You’d think that for once he’d want to consider devoting his time to making things better instead of worse.

Friday, October 27, 2006

The High Road...

Tempting as it is to write about how predictable it is that Bush and the Republicans are using the NJ court ruling of Tues. granting gay rights to whip up their voting base for the elections next week, I will instead let it ride.

Instead I will share this letter from the Ex. Director of More Light Presbyterians who helped to lead a conference on welcoming transgendered persons into the church which sounds so full of hope and also good resources for those who may need them:

From Michael Adee:

Hello from Corvallis, Oregon. History has been made in Corvallis, Oregon as the first national faith conference for and about transgender persons, their families and friends was offered here October 20 - 22. Transforming Faith: A Transgender Witness is the title of this national conference inspired by the vision and passionate commitment of Rev. Tara Wilkins, Executive Director, The Community of Welcoming Congregations. Keynote presenters and preachers included: Virginia Mollenkott, Justin Tanis, Malcolm Himschoot, Maurice Harris and our Erin Swenson, National MLP Liaison on transgender education and former Co-Moderator, More Light Presbyterians.

Erin and I offered 2 workshops, "Becoming & Being a Trans-Welcoming & Affirming Congregation: First Steps and Next Steps," along with a MLP educational resource table. MLP educational resources of particular interest to our conference participants include: More Light on Transgender, More Light on Intersex, and Pastoral Care in Transgender Experience written by Erin Swenson. Many pastors seeking help with pastoral care for transgender persons came to our workshops. I kept thinking how helpful this information and these pastoral care skills would be for all Presbyterian ministers and pastors. Over 250 people participated throughout the weekend joining the 120-plus conference participants. Virginia Mollenkott's keynote "Omnigender and a New Reformation" challenged all of us to consider our connections to and place in the transgender and intersex family and movement. Rabbi Maurice Harris led our Shabbat service from the Jewish tradition. Malcolm Himschoot, UCC minister, responded to the film about his life, faith, gender transition and ministry -- "Call Me Malcolm." Justin Tanis, National Center for Transgender Equality, addressed the justice issues for the trans community in both church and society. Erin preached on Sunday morning at the host church, First United Methodist Church, Corvallis, a Reconciling Congregation. Not a dry eye in the sanctuary as Erin shared her own story of faith, call to ministry, family and gender transition as a Presbyterian minister and dreams for a church and society embracing transgender persons and their families. Joining Erin and me, other Presbyterians participating in the conference were Sara Herwig, Lisa Larges, Dave Dornack and Barbara Campbell. Barbara is pastor of St. Mark's Presbyterian Church, Portland, a More Light Church, _http://www.stmarkpres.org/_ (http://www.stmarkpres.org/) and on the Board of the Community of Welcoming Congregations.

This conference experience was truly transforming and life-changing for me. I found myself in the place of ally -- as an ally, friend and advocate with my transgender sisters and brothers. Usually I am working to get heterosexual Presbyterians to recognize the sacred worth of LGBT persons and to step up to the plate as advocates for justice. This time I found myself being asked to step up as a ally and advocate with the transgender community. It was an honor and delight to spend the weekend with so many transgender persons and their families. I am deeply grateful for the insights gained and lessons I am learning in this remarkable life and faith journey with transgender persons and their families. Portland, OregonCascades MLP Chapter. After the conference, 24 Presbyterians from five churches in Portland and Salem met for a "Celebration of All God's Children" sponsored by More Light Presbyterians. Hosted by Rose City Park Presbyterian Church, the celebration included a community meal with the sharing of prayers, hope and dreams for LGBT persons in our Church and world. Donald "Perk" and Carol Ann Purkey were special guests honored during this Cascades MLP Chapter gathering. Perk has been part of More Light Presbyterians, a faithful ally and advocate since its origins in 1974. After the Transgender conference in Corvallis and the MLP Chapter celebration in Portland, Erin, Tara and I met to begin evaluation of the conference and consider a future transgender conference. This conference was a life-giving and life-changing experience for all of us fortunate enough to be there and possibly a life-saving one for some. I told Tara that she could count on MLP and me again for another transgender faith conference next year. Transgender awareness, education and ministry in your congregation, MLP Chapter, campus or seminary community? Check out resources now at _www.mlp.org_ (http://www.mlp.org) and contact Erin Swenson, MLP National Liaison on Transgender Education - _erin@erinswen.com_ (mailto:erin@erinswen.com) .

with hope and grace,

PS - Organizations supporting the Transforming Faith: A Transgender Witness Conference included The Community of Welcoming Congregations, The Center for Lesbian & Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry (PSR), The Religion & Faith Program (HRC), The Institute for Welcoming Resources (NGLTF), and More Light Presbyterians

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Follow Up--The Messengers

Having posted about this some time ago, I wanted to follow up on the results of The Messengers television show on The Learning Channel. As you may recall, it was a reality show where the contestants from varying ethic, cultural, religious, work backgrounds were placed in different situations for a week at a time and then required to prepare and deliver a message on the topic. The contestants were then judged on their message by a panel ("celebrity" speakers/preachers/clergy).

I never got to see the final myself, and I wanted to follow up. The website of TLC has the winner, the three finalists, and those who were eliminated week by week. All their speeches can be heard too!

Additionally, there is information about what you can do locally to help in the different topic areas that were covered if you are moved by one of the messengers to take action (i.e. homelessness).

Here's the website where you can check out the winner and/or hear all the speach/speeches:

I will tell you this much, the winner was a poet, a social workers, and a woman...

Wellstone Remembered

I also missed being able to mark yesterday's anniversary, the 4th, of Paul Wellstone's death. His death precipitated a marked decline in the state of Minnesota politics, and probably also played a role in getting us into Iraq and the mess that has followed as he would have certainly led the charge against the war effort. Instead we got a spineless, opportunistic, political chameleon as his successor as our US Senator.

But for many of us his death was also the moment when we realized that we were going to have to get more involved politically and do our small part to try to fill his huge shoes. It has taken a few years to see the fruits of that effort but it is finally beginning to pay off.


New Jersey Backs Equality

Well, for some reason I coudn't get on my blog yesterday, so I missed commenting on this great story. The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled yesterday in a 4-3 vote that the state must confer equal rights to same-sex couples under the state constitution. Interestingly, the three dissenters voted no because they wanted the decision to go further and guarantee same-sex couples the right to be "married." The court gave the state legislature 180 days to figure out a way to implement a fair policy.

From the New York Times this morning:

The issue revolves around a single word — whether to call this newly constructed relationship, which has all the rights and obligations of marriage — a marriage.

But it will be far from simple when the issue lands a few blocks away at the State House, where the governor and the Legislature have 180 days, according to the court, to come up with an answer.

Gay rights advocates say they will press hard to call this new legal relationship a marriage and not something else, such as a civil union. Many conservatives, meanwhile, have promised to push for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage — just as some lawmakers are doing now in Massachusetts, where that state’s Supreme Judicial Court validated a right to gay marriage in 2003...

Two years ago, New Jersey Democrats managed to sidestep the gay marriage issue when they passed a domestic partnership law that offered same-sex couples some — but not all — of the rights that married couples have.

Now the issue is back, and there appears to be no getting around it. And for lawmakers, it comes as all 120 members of the Legislature face re-election in 2007.

Governor Corzine said he welcomed the court’s conclusions, adding, “I look forward to the legislative process implementing the court’s decision.”

But in a joint statement, Richard J. Codey, the Senate president, and Joseph J. Roberts Jr., the Assembly speaker, indicated that Democrats would not go the extra step of defining the new legal partnership as a marriage.

Another top Democrat, Senator Raymond J. Lesniak of Union County, echoed that point. He said that he and other members of the party’s caucus had discussed a compromise, which would extend the marriage rights to gay couples but classify their relationships as “civil unions.”

“Marriage has been a religious institution adopted by the government and a lot of religions have defined it in a way that that excludes gays,” Mr. Lesniak said. “That’s not what the government does, and the court clearly demands that we offer gay couples the same rights and obligations that heterosexual couples have under our marriage laws. But we can do it in a way that respects people’s religious beliefs.”

I have said it before and will keep saying it: the state needs to get out of the marriage business. The state should be giving straight and gay couples certificates of civil union that guarantee them legal protections. Marriage is the business of religious communities, and they should be free to bless the civil unions with marriage ceremonies according to their religious tenets. It is time to end this last bastion of the state meddling in the affairs of religion.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Daylight Saving Time

My mother who has been visiting with us left this morning and we all got up earlier than usual to have breakfast together and see her off. This prompted a discussion of how sunrise/sunset times change and also of daylight saving policy. So I headed to the internet to find a sunrise/sunset chart and to make sure the information I was giving my kids was correct.

This Sunday ends Daylight Saving Time. Since Daylight Saving Time can be an embarassment for churchgoers who have forgotten about the time change (it happened once to our family when I was a child) I decided to post this as a friendly reminder to set your clocks back one hour (fall behind) before you go to bed Saturday evening.

My research also reminded me about the Energy Policy Act of 2005 that takes effect next year. Next spring Daylight Saving Time will begin on March 11 and end November 4. A government study will determine whether this alteration of the effective dates for Daylight Saving Time results in more energy saving.

For more interesting information about Daylight Saving Time go to:

I hope you enjoy our "bonus hour" this Saturday/Sunday night!

Monday, October 23, 2006

Not My President

Aside from one brief moment after 9/11, I have never considered George Bush to be my President. It's not that he is a Republican and I am a Democrat. I voted against and disagreed with Ronald Reagan, but never doubted that he was my President. Because he thought of himself as the President of the entire country, and governed that way, he enjoyed the affection and support of many people who disagreed with his policies. But George Bush has never thought of himself as the President of the whole country; he has never sought to represent the interests of more than half of the electorate, at most. From today's Los Angeles Times:
With a few exceptions, such as education and immigration policy, he has targeted his central initiatives — tax cuts, judicial appointments, the unilateral projection of U.S. power abroad — primarily at the priorities of conservatives while conceding little to interests outside his coalition.

In Congress and across the country, that ideologically polarizing agenda has helped Bush unify and excite Republicans. But it has come at the cost of antagonizing Democrats and straining his relations with independent voters.

This strategy has rested on the calculation that if Bush generates enough turnout on election day from Republicans and conservative-leaning independents, he can survive unease among moderate independents and intense opposition from Democrats.
There has never been a moment in his presidency when he hasn't been campaigning and governing for his constituency. This is why it took him only a matter of months to destroy the bipartisan goodwill the country experienced after 9/11. He immediately set about using it as a wedge issue to win the next election.

I look forward to the day when the whole country has a President again, be he or she Republican or Democratic.

Reason and Faith at Harvard

The President and Provost of Notre Dame, writing today in the Washington Post, think it is a good thing that Harvard is considering adding a required class on reason and faith:

What should a properly educated college graduate of the early 21st century know?

A Harvard curriculum committee proposed an answer to that question this month, stating that, among other things, such a graduate should know "the role of religion in contemporary, historical, or future events -- personal, cultural, national, or international."

To that end, the committee recommended that every Harvard student be required, as part of his or her general education, to take one course in an area that the committee styled "Reason and Faith."

Heading into the last trimester of my junior year at Penn State I had completed nearly all of my major course work in Political Science and decided to take a course in religious studies. The course was actually an ethics course taught by an American Baptist scholar, Paul Harrison. It was a life-altering class for me because it introduced me for the first time to the idea that it was possible to think critically about religion. It also introduced me to scholars and bright students who also had reasoned faith positions. I enjoyed the interaction in class so much that I filled up my senior year with classes on American religious history, ethics, and introduction to biblical criticism. The same Paul Harrison, who became something of a mentor for me, then convinced me to stay for another year after graduation and do a Master's program in the religious studies department. And then it was on to seminary and the rest is history, I guess.

I think it is a good thing that Harvard is considering making it a requirement that students take a religious studies class. If they do it other universities will likely follow. Why is it a good thing? The vast majority of students attending college hold religious beliefs and have religious backgrounds. As they have grown up and gone through high school they have learned to think critically about science and history and current events; but most have never had any exposure to critical thinking about religion. Most churches don't go there; many think it is dangerous or evil.

College is the first, and may be the only, opportunity many people have to learn that it is possible to bring thinking skills to bear on faith issues and bible studies. And in college they have the opportunity to have this exposure among people of different faith perspectives. Given the reality of an increasingly diverse world we live in and the heightened important religious differences are making in our lives today, no student should leave college without having at least the one-course opportunity to think critically about religion and its role in our lives.

Of course it would also be nice if more churches invited their parishioners to keep their brain turned on when they attend services.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

South Central Indiana District Votes to Punish Liberal Church

Manchester Church of the Brethren is a liberal congregation in Indiana; it has come under fire in recent years for its acceptance of gays and lesbians, and specifically for allowing its facility to be used for same sex commitment services. A special conference was held today to vote on whether to take action against Manchester. Bill Eberly, from the Manchester Congregation, filed this report on the VOS listserve:

The special district meeting in S/C Indiana concluded today at about 12:30. The deletgates(about 130) considered the following recommendation from the district board:

"...any South Central Indiana District Church of the Brethren congregation that allows a same sex covenant service on church property or with the assistance of church ministerial leadership will have a three year moratorium placed upon their participation in elected and appointed District offices, including seating delegates at District conference. Durint this time of moratorium, the Church will also submit to work with the District Board, Ministry of Reconciliation, Annual Conference Council and other entities as directed by the 2004 Annual Conference paper - Congregational Disagreement with Annual Conference decisions - to address the issues surrounding their broken relationships with the larger church. Further, that the Church will be directed to suspend indefinitely conducting or facilitating same sex covenant services, on church property or with the assistance of church ministerial leadership."

The motion passed with 94 yes and 35 no. 86 votes would have been required for minimal passage.

An interesting amendment that would have changed the wording a bit to include any church that violates any annual conference ruling would be subject to a three year moratorium etc. etc. That amendment was soundly defeated. It was clear that the delegates wanted this action to only refer to a "sexual topic".

One side made it clear that they were clear in wanting some punishment for churches that violated a sexual mandate.

The other side concentrated on the appropriateness or "legality" of the proposed punishment or sanctions of the motion.

So one side was arguing against homosexuality and the other side was arguing church polity (i.e., whether a district has any authority to punish a congregation in this way because of a simple disagreement on one issue.

What's next? If Annual Conference does not support this kind of action on the part of a district, should the standing committee review this action?

Peace (I think). Bill Eberly
What a shame. This action will likely appealed to the denomination's annual conference.

Department of Peace

In a Washington Post piece on Rep. Nancy Pelosi, minority leader of the House of Representatives who could become Speaker of the House after the election, I caught this quote on the dangers of having her as Speaker:
On his Web site, Majority Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.) calls the prospect of Pelosi becoming speaker "just plain scary" and says: "While Republicans fight the War on Terror, . . . House Democrats plot to establish a Department of Peace."
Oh My! A Department of Peace. How dangerous. I don't know what Pelosi's position on this is, but I know lots of folks who think having a department of peace would be a good idea.

But then, in Googling around about this, I discovered that we already have one, and it is fully funded by Congress. It is called the United States Institute of Peace. This is what it says on the front page of its website:
The United States Institute of Peace is an independent, nonpartisan, national institution established and funded by Congress. Its goals are to help prevent and resolve violent international conflicts, promote post-conflict stability and democratic transformations, and increase peacebuilding capacity, tools, and intellectual capital worldwide. The Institute does this by empowering others with knowledge, skills, and resources, as well as by its direct involvement in peacebuilding efforts around the globe.
Why didn't I know about this? How would a Department of Peace be different? Perhaps cabinet level? I will have to spend some time reading about the USIP.

Friday, October 20, 2006

District Gathering Impressions

My post for this week's newsletter:
Two weeks ago I, along with 8 others from Open Circle, attended the district gathering at Camp Pine Lake that was called to bring together district individuals from our churches to talk about the issues of biblical authority, homosexuality, and the lordship of Jesus Christ. The gathering was called in response to the conflict that exists in our denomination and our district over these issues. I wrote the following post for the VOS listserve (Voices for an Open Spirit), a progressive COB online community:

The gathering was called in response to the actions of six churches in the district that raised questions about the theologies and attitudes about homosexuals of Open Circle, Common Spirit fellowship in Minneapolis and Living Peace fellowship in Sioux City, IA.

There were around 160 people at the conference, representing over 70 percent of the district churches, including representatives of the three mentioned above and most if not all of the six churches who raised questions. Carol Waggy and Paul Roth, trained mediators in the COB, were there to lead and mediate the discussion. Jeff Bach, professor of Brethren history at the denomination's seminary, was there to give us some historical perspective on how the Brethren have handled conflict in the past.

We spent much of our time in small groups. We had numbers on our name tags and met in groups with others with the same number. I was in a group of seven and the group was representative of the different views in our district. We were all given a list of communication agreements that included: we will speak for ourselves, we will avoid making grand pronouncements, we will refrain from characterizing the views of others in a critical spirit, etc. We were led through a series of exercises that gave us an opportunity to talk about our views on homosexuality and biblical authority.

Jeff Bach's presentation consisted of historical stories about conflict and how it had been resolved, including ban, split, and reconciliation that allowed for continuing differences. What was most significant about each of the stories, and probably Jeff's point, was the long period of time in each case - years - it took to sift things out and come to a resolution. He also reminded us that the annual meeting was begun as a way to handle conflict, and there never has been a time when there wasn't something that was dividing us. He also gave a brief presentation on the paper on human sexuality. We had small group time after each of these presentations for discussion.

I have to confess that I looked forward to this weekend as much as I look forward to getting a tooth pulled at the dentist. However, I came away appreciative of the efforts of the district board to bring us together to talk and grateful for the opportunity to discover unexpected allies and to talk frankly with some folks who have views different than mine. I don't know what has been happening in other districts but I think this weekend was a model of the kind of event that should have been happening ever since we agreed to stop talking about our differences on the floor of annual conference so we could talk and study the issues in our churches and districts. It has been my impression that we simply stopped talking, period. And if Jeff is right that the historical purpose of the annual meeting was to get together to work out our differences, then we have strayed far from that in our current format.

My impression after this meeting of the mood in our district is the majority of churches in the district are moderate to progressive theologically, or at the very least are of a mind to continue talking and working things through. On the other hand, there are some who want to push the district to clearly state its positions on the issues of biblical authority and homosexuality. And I suspect that they were not happy about the format and outcome of the weekend. It wouldn't surprise me to see them try to force the issue in some way in the coming year and then respond accordingly.
If you want to read the perspective of a conservative who was there you can read a post on the website of the BRF (Brethren Revival Fellowship), a conservative Brethren organization. Click here. From this person's perspective the conference did not deal with the important issues, and did not deal with the issues it addressed in a satisfactory way.

The district is now seeking feedback from those who attended and may plan further gatherings like this if there is enough interest. I think they are valuable for the district, but as I said in my VOS post, I suspect that before another year passes there will be an attempt to force the district to take a clear stand on these contentious issues, which is what the folks who are most unhappy with us want.

Washington Out of the Closet

The Foley scandal has ripped the veneer off of one of the realities of our political world. There are hundreds of staff members in Congress and in the White House who are gay or lesbian. Many of them, probably most of them, are working for the party of "family values," the Republicans. The Washington Post takes note today:

In October 1993, after the ban on gays in the military was replaced with a "don't ask, don't tell" policy, three Oklahoma congressmen said they wouldn't hire an openly gay person onto their staffs. Then-Rep. Jim Inhofe (R) told the Tulsa World: "I would not appoint a gay person in that type of leadership position."

That declaration sent a ripple of fear across a certain set on Capitol Hill. A small, bipartisan group of staffers huddled and formed the Lesbian and Gay Congressional Staff Association, which now has a confidential e-mail list of more than 200. And a frustrated aide contacted the Tulsa World and gave an anonymous interview.

I'm gay, he told the newspaper, and I'm on Inhofe's staff.

The aide was Kirk Fordham, former chief of staff for disgraced former representative Mark Foley (R-Fla.) and a key player in the ongoing investigation of the page scandal, said Hill sources who requested anonymity because of the investigation.

In the 13 years since, even as gays have moved visibly into mainstream America, they hold a tenuous, complicated spot within the ranks of the GOP, whose earlier libertarian, live-and-let-live values have been ground down by the wedge issue of opposition to gay rights. And, even though an Inhofe staffer confirmed last week that his boss still maintains his employment ban, many gay men are key aides to Republican legislators, powerful silent partners in winning elections by pledging allegiance to religious "values voters" ever on the alert against "the homosexual agenda."

This dichotomy -- or hypocrisy, depending on who's doing the labeling -- has been forced out of the closet by the page scandal, just as surely as Foley.

"You have to separate the marketing from the reality. The reality is, these members are not homophobic. For the most part, they're using this marketing to play to our base and stay in power. They have to turn out the votes," said David Duncan, once a board member of the Lesbian and Gay Congressional Staff Association and a former top aide to Rep. Robert Ney (R-Ohio), who last week pleaded guilty to corruption charges linked to the Abramoff scandal.

Andrew Sullivan, the openly gay conservative columnist, calls the Republican leadership "closet-tolerant."

"They're tolerant of gay people but they have to keep quiet about it because their base would go crazy if they ever express it. That's the bottom line," Sullivan said. "They have this acute cognitive dissonance, which is a polite way of saying hypocrisy."

In their day-to-day dealings, even the most conservative Republicans can display an ease with normalizing relations with gay people. Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) ranks No. 3 in Senate leadership and has likened homosexuality to bestiality. A rumor erupted in summer 2005 that his chief spokesman, Robert Traynham, was gay. When Traynham confirmed the rumor, Santorum promptly rushed to his defense, issuing a release calling his aide "a trusted friend . . . to me and my family."

After a breakup with his boyfriend, Duncan got "some relationship advice" from Ney over dinner at Morton's with other staffers. Ney told him "how difficult it is to find the right match," recalled Duncan.

At a State Department ceremony last week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice swore in Mark Dybul, the new global AIDS coordinator and an openly gay man. With Laura Bush and Dybul's partner, Jason Claire, looking on, Rice introduced Claire's mother as Dybul's "mother-in-law," a designation that made evangelical leaders howl in protest. "Morally provocative," chided Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, in a mass e-mail.

A Republican strategist who has served in several key positions during his 17-year career on the Hill said: "Most of these Congress members would be perfectly happy if they didn't have to vote on another gay issue. For some it is an issue. For some . But the truth is, a lot of members are more tolerant than their voting records would have you believe. Look at [Rep. Roy] Blunt [R-Mo.], [Rep. Eric] Cantor [R-Va.], [Rep. Adam] Putnam [R-Fla.]. They know gay people. They have gay friends. But they speak out against gay rights. They have to. That's where the votes are." All three voted to amend the Constitution to define marriage as being only between a man and a woman...

This is the silver lining in the dark cloud of this scandal. It exposes the truth about life in Washington, which is no different than life everywhere: there are glbt folks living and working in all walks of life. But more to the point in this case, many of the Republicans in office who employ these folks know about their sexual orientation and don't care. They want the best people they can find and sexual orientation has no bearing.

Sure, they are hypocrites for employing them and befriending them and then going out and promoting anti-gay measures like the marriage amendment. And I certainly hope those who are up for re-election this cycle are defeated. But events like this scandal force them (legislators) out of the closet; it becomes plain to everyone including their anti-gay-friendly constituents that they really don't have a problem with gay folks. They employ them, befriend them, attend their commitment services, defend them when they are attacked.

And in this way another small barrier to full acceptance is broken down. No doubt having this reality exposed will enrage some of the most religiously conservative folks, but for many who are simply uncomfortable or uninformed, it builds a bridge to understanding and takes us one step closer to a more just world.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

The Growth of Christianity 3

Another installment from Rodney Stark's book The Rise of Christianity. Stark accepts the findings of a number of early Christian scholars that suggests a substantial number of the first converts were from the privileged classes. He makes a distinction between sects, which are renewal movements within a religion that tend to appeal to the disposessed, and cults, which are brand new movements that require a level of intellectual skepticism about existing religious organizations. Christianity was a cult movement; it appealed to the skeptical and privileged. This assumes some breakdown in the satisfaction level with the existing religions, and this was true among the pagan religions of the Roman empire; more on this in a later installment.

The important point here is about the appeal of new religions:
New religions must always make their way in the market openings left them by weaknesses in the conventional religion(s) of a society... Here it is sufficient to point out that as weaknesses appear in conventional faiths, some people will recognize and respond to these weaknesses sooner than others. For example, as the rise of modern science caused difficulties for some traditional Christian teachings, this was recognized sooner by more educated people. In similar fashion, as the rise of Greek and Roman science and philosophy caused difficulties for pagan teachings, this too was first noticed by the educated. To state this as a proposition: Religious skepticism is most prevalent among the most privileged.

But skepticism does not entail a general immunity to the essential supernaturalism of all religions. For example, although sociologists have long believed that people who give their religious affiliation as "none" are primarily secular humanists, considerable recent research shows this not to be the case. Most such people are merely indicating a lack of conviction in a conventional brand of faith, for they are also the group most likely to express interest in belief in unconventional mystical, magical, and religious doctrines. For example, "nones" are the group of Americans most willing to accept astrology, yoga, reincarnation, ghosts, and the like.
Ain't it the truth. One of the great ironies of my experience with the "cultured despisers" of Christianity, those who have outgrown the "narrow-mindedness" and "ignorance" of their childhood faith, is how many of them dabble in new age and eastern religious practices. There is nothing necessarily wrong with dabbling and learning and finding what works, but it also the case that one "superstition" can be given up only to be replaced by another. In any case, Stark goes on to talk about those attracted to the first Christian message:
...For new religions always involve new ideas. Consider citizens of the Roman world as they first confronted the Pauline church. This was not simply a call to intensify their commitment to a familiar faith (as sect movements always are). Instead of calling Romans to return to the gods, Paul called them to embrace a new worldview, a new conception of reality, indeed to accept a new God. While sects are able to appeal to people of little intellectual capacity by drumming the old, familiar culture, new religions find such people difficult to reach. Thus they must gain their hearings from people of social standing and privilege...

In short, people must have a degree of privilege to have the sophistification needed to understand new religions and to recognize a need for them...
It is important to note his mention of Paul. This is what Paul did that was different than Jesus. Jesus was, in the terms of this book, the founder of a sect. His was a reform movement within Judaism. Paul took the Jewish reform message and turned it into a new religion in the world of the pagan Roman empire.

Congratulations and Best Wishes!

When sometimes it seems there is precious little good news, I get a cheerful e-mail as I did today from a former pastor and good friend, Rev. Steve VanKuiken. Steve wrote:

Dear Far Away Friends,
On Friday I'm throwing a party to celebrate and announce that I'm engaged to get married to Jennifer Hackman. I've got a keg of beer, some wine, some food, and we're going to have a happy hour/open house from 6:00-8:00. It's going to be fun to surprise our friends and my congregation with this. Jenn and I will have set our wedding date for June 9.
Many of you know that for a few years my life has resembled that blues song that goes something like, "If it weren't for bad luck, I wouldn't have any luck at all." Well, things have changed. On the personal front I have been incredibly happy, and my song has changed to "the luckiest man on the planet."

For background, Steve--over the past 7 years--has weathered being dragged into eccliastical court in the Presbyterian Church USA when his church ordained GLBT elders and he performed a same-sex marriage, lost his call at the Presbyterian Church in Cincinnatti (which had lured him away from Burnsville, MN), started a new church (www.TheGathering-church.com), won his appeal from the PCUSA, left the PCUSA denomination by his own decision when they would not approve his ministry to The Gathering Church, went through the process to become ordained as a UCC pastor, suffered depression, and ultimately was asked for a divorce from his wife and mother of their two children. It is so good to hear that he is happy again. I also know that he's working on getting his congregants to approve The Gathering to become UCC affilliated--and vice versa.

Cheers to you and Jennifer, Steve!

The B-I-B-L-E

When I was a kid and going to Vacation Bible School, we all sang this little song about The Bible. "That's the book for me; I stand alone on the Word of God, the B-I-B-L-E". Thankfully my personal theology has evolved (some) since I was in preschool. However, this cuts both ways. While I have become more open and spiritual and hopefully more loving and tolerant, I've also become very emotionally disconnected with the Old Testiment. I've had a difficult time reading the Bible as a spiritual discipline, because it is so full of accounts of redemptive voilence and a God that people obeyed and feared to avoid being punished instead of a God that asks for and receives love and kindness.

Yesterday I was reading the preface to my New Revised Standard Version of the New Oxford Annotated Bible as I began a journey on a new Bible study at Progressive Christain Church with Liberalpastor and others. I'm encouraged as I begin this journey by both the comments of liberalpastor as well as these words from the representative from the committee of Biblical translators which was commissioned by the National Council of Churches to make the revisions. Bruce M. Metzger in the preface of this version of the Bible writes this for the committee of translators:

"The Bible carries its full message, not to those who regard it simply as a noble literary heritage of the past or who wish to use it to enhance political purposes and advance otherwise desirable goals, but to all persons and communities who read it so that they may discern and understand what God is saying to them. That message must not be disguised in phrases that are no longer presented in launguage that is dircet and plain and meaningful to people today. It is to hold a large place in congregational life and to speak to all readers, young and old alike, helping them to understand and believe and respond to its message."

I'm grateful to be going on this new journey with my Bible and my friends.

Why We Will Win on Gay Issues

The Washington Post notes today that evangelical leaders are moving beyond culturally divisive issue to embrace environmental and hunger issues. Why? Because that is what younger evangelicals care about, says Roberta Combs who is part of the new leadership of the Christian Coalition:

"We will never leave our core issues, never," Combs said. "But as more people get involved and as younger people get involved, there are other issues that come to the forefront, and we will be open-minded to take a look at them."

Bishop Harry R. Jackson Jr., pastor of Hope Christian Church, a 3,000-member congregation in Lanham, was among the signers of the Darfur appeal. He said he knows that some evangelicals are concerned that their clout will diminish if they take on too many issues. But, like Combs, he pointed to the need to address subjects that matter to young Christians.

The cultural war is being led by an older generation of evangelicals: Dobson, Robertson, Falwell, etc. Younger evangelicals, particularly those raised in urban areas, have grown up in a culture where gays are out of the closet, in the schools, on television, and living next door. In 20 years gay issues will cease to matter.

That doesn't mean we still won't be fighting it out in some of our churches, though. In our denomination, we still have strong pockets of those who believe women should have their heads covered, stay at home, and serve no leadership positions in the church. So there is no reason to expect gay issues to completely go away. But it won't be a mainstream issue of concern in the culture or within Christianity.

Rumsfeld as Scapegoat

Sally Quinn makes makes a biblical reference in her analysis of why Donald Rumsfeld is taking so much heat for everything that has gone wrong with the war in Iraq, and why the President keeps him around:

Still, the president must be aware on some level that once the pugnacious, outspoken and flak-attracting Rumsfeld leaves the stage, the focus will be on the president. Whether Bush realizes it or not, this is about a scapegoat.

In the Bible, the high priest would transfer the sins of the people onto a goat, and, as it was written, "the goat shall carry all the sins of the people into a land where no one lives, and the man shall let it loose in the wilderness."

(The word for scapegoat in Hebrew means, literally, "into hell.")

Rumsfeld has seen others take on the role of scapegoat. Look what happened to Nancy Reagan. When she was first lady, she rightly realized that Donald Regan, the chief of staff, was causing her husband enormous damage. What she hadn't realized was that Regan was filling the role of scapegoat for the president. When Don Regan was finally fired, Nancy herself was made the scapegoat. She then took the brunt of criticism for the errors of her husband's administration.

It is hard for the American people to turn completely against the president. It seems tantamount to patricide. We're much more comfortable being able to blame someone else for the president's mistakes. Laura Bush will never be the scapegoat. For now, it's Rumsfeld.

The problem with trying to make real people scapegoats is that they can talk. It is doubtful that Rumsfeld would go quietly into the wilderness.

Tragic Cycle Repeats

Former Rep. Mark Foley was himself a victim of a sexual predator:

A Florida newspaper has interviewed a Catholic priest who acknowledged having an intimate, two-year relationship 40 years ago with a youthful Mark Foley, the former U.S. Congressman who resigned last month after being accused of inappropriate sexual conduct with Congressional pages.

Rev. Anthony Mercieca told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune that he befriended Foley when he was assigned to Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Lake Worth, Fla. Foley was an altar boy in the parish.

Mercieca told the newspaper that he took overnight trips with Foley, skinny-dipped and sat naked in a sauna with him and massaged Foley while the youth was undressed, the article says.

It doesn't excuse Foley for what he did, but it does provide a window of understanding into the sad cycle of sexual abuse.

What's The Matter with Kansas?

Here in Minnesota, former Republican Governor Arne Carlson has in recent years become a strident critic of the current right-wing controlled Republican Party that is all about waging cultural wars and decimating the social and economic infrastructure in the name of no new taxes. Carlson has recently endorsed Democratic candidate Rebbeca Otto for State Auditor. Colleen Rowley, Democratic candidate for the US Congress in my 2nd Congressional District, is a life-long Republican who has had it with what has become of the Republican Party.

Carlson and Rowley are not the only moderate Republicans who have had it with their party. The Washington Post reports on developments in Kansas, where right-wing Republicans have made cultural-war issues their top agenda for many years:
Paul Morrison, a career prosecutor who specializes in putting killers behind bars, has the bulletproof résumé and the rugged looks of a law-and-order Republican, which is what he was until last year. That was when he announced he would run for attorney general -- as a Democrat.

He is now running neck-and-neck with Republican Phill Kline, an iconic social conservative who made headlines by seeking the names of abortion-clinic patients and vowing to defend science-teaching standards that challenge Darwinian evolution. What's more, Morrison is raising money faster than Kline and pulling more cash from Republicans than Democrats.

Nor is Morrison alone. In a state that voted nearly 2 to 1 for President Bush in 2004, nine former Republicans will be on the November ballot as Democrats. Among them is Mark Parkinson, a former chairman of the Kansas Republican Party, who changed parties to run for lieutenant governor with the popular Democratic governor, Kathleen Sebelius.

"I'd reached a breaking point," Parkinson said, preparing for a rally in Wichita alongside Sebelius. "I want to work on relevant issues and not on a lot of things that don't matter."

Parkinson is a fiscal conservative, as is Democratic Governor Sebelius. Parker also supports the teaching of evolution as "settled scientific theory." It's these two issues that sets these Democratic converts apart.

The Republican Party once had a lock on a reputation as the party of fiscal responsibility. But in recent years the Republican Party has become a two-faced monster of fiscal irresponsibility. At the state level, where deficit spending is not legal, Republicans have adopted slash and burn economic policies under the mantra of "no new taxes," policies that have decimated transportation infrastructure and public education here in MN. While at the national level they have turned into out-of-control spenders and run the deficit through the roof. Gone is any semblance of a sensible fiscal center.

And then there is science. As illustrated by how they handled the Terri Schiavo tragedy and their constant battle against evolution, today's Republican Party has decided to turn the clock back on science in an attempt to pander to religious conservatives. It can't work as a long-term political strategy. Mainstream America is not that stupid. Or so I have hoped for many years now, and at long last it appears that my faith in the intelligence and common sense of my fellow citizens has been well-placed. The vast majority of Americans want their kids to learn the very best we know about science, and they don't want their legislators making faith-based diagnoses after watching video clips of sick individuals. They are growing weary of the cultural wars. Even in Kansas.

Way Over the Line Part 2

So it now turns out that Living Word Christian Center pastor Mac Hammond isn't going to be voting for Michelle Bachmann afterall because he doesn't live in her US House district. Is it possible he didn't know this when he made the personal endorsement from his Sunday church stage? Unlikely. According to the Star Tribune, he and his wife are active contributors to the Republican party and have contributed $2500 to Bachmann's campaign. There is nothing wrong with being active politically (or I'm in big trouble) but his pleas of ignorance and misunderstanding about the way he spoke sounds mighty suspicious. It appears he simply stood in front of his congregation and lied.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Dispicable No Matter Who Does It

Liberal gay blogger Mike Rogers has "outed" Senator Larry Craig, R-Idaho, claiming he has evidence that Craig has at least four same-sex encounters. Craig is married, has children and grandchildren, and is a staunch conservative. It doesn't matter what his politics are. Mike Rogers is attempting to destroy a man and his family. And it is wrong, just plain wrong. It is wrong when the left does it; it is wrong when the right does it. I hope that leading Dems will denounce this with no caveats. Here is Andrew Sullivan:
The outing crusade gains momentum. Look: I loathe the closet. I despise the hypocrisy in the Republican party. But a witch-hunt is a witch-hunt. If the gay left thinks it will advance gay dignity by using tactics that depend on homophobia to work, that violate privacy, that demonizes gay people, then all I can say is: they are wrong. They will regret it. It will come back to haunt them. And they should cut it out. The fact that their motives might be good is no excuse. Everybody on a witchhunt believes their motives are good. But the toxins such a witchhunt exposes, the cruelty it requires, and the fanaticism of its adherents are always dangerous to civilized discourse. What you're seeing right now is an alliance of the intolerant: the intolerant on the gay left and the intolerant on the religious right. The victims are gay people - flawed, fallible, even pathetic gay people. But they are still people. And they deserve better.

The Plain Truth of the Scriptures?

Every once in a while I head on over to the blog of Craig Alan Myers on the Brethren Revival Fellowship sight to what's up with the BRF. This morning Craig had this quote from the famed 19th century British preacher Charles Spurgeon:
I am sometimes told by my people that I attack certain parties very hard. Well, I cannot help it; if they are not right, it is not my fault—if they come in my way, that I am compelled to run over them. Suppose two of you should be driving in the road to-morrow, and one of you should be on the right side of the road, and some accident should occur, you would say, "Sir, the other man ought to have pulled up, he must pay the damages, for he had no business there at all on his wrong side." And it will be the same with us if we preach God's truth; we must go straight on; if the greatest ill feeling in the world rise up we have nothing to do with it.
No man has a right to believe what he likes; he is to believe what God tells him; and if he does not believe that though he is not responsible to man, or to any set of men, or to any government, yet mark you, he is responsible to God. I beseech you, therefore, if you would avoid heresies, and bring the church to a glorious union, read the Scriptures.
If you would avoid heresies... read the scriptures? Every "heretical" group is reading the scriptures. And why is it that there are hundreds if not thousands of denominations who each believes it is the one reading the scriptures correctly? Why isn't there just one church if the scriptures are so clear?

Way Over the Line

Michelle Bachmann, candidate for the US House in the 6th Congressional District in MN is in a heated race with child-safety advocate Patty Wetterling. Bachmann appeared recently on a Sunday morning at the Living Word Christian Center in Brooklyn Park where pastor Mac Hammond personally endorsed her and then turned the stage over to her so she could give her testimony. You can see the portion of her testimony here where she talks about fasting for three days before God told her it was the right thing for her to do to run for Congress. She also says that it is God who has made this one of the top three congressional races in the country. You can also read about it in the Star Tribune here.

Hammond regularly runs television ads touting his prosperity gospel: if you follow God you will become rich, which is what God wants for you. But aside from the fact that his message has nothing to do with the gospel of Jesus, his church should lose its tax exempt status immediately. He has since acknowledged that what he did was wrong, and has promised not to do it again. That's what every criminal caught in the act says.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Christians in Iraq

We don't hear much about the Christians in Iraq, but their situation is deteriorating:

Both Chaldean Catholics and Assyrian Christians, the country’s largest Christian sects, still pray in Aramaic, the language of Jesus.

They have long been a tiny minority amid a sea of Islamic faith. But under Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s million or so Christians for the most part coexisted peacefully with Muslims, both the dominant Sunnis and the majority Shiites.

But since Mr. Hussein’s ouster, their status here has become increasingly uncertain, first because many Muslim Iraqis framed the American-led invasion as a modern crusade against Islam, and second because Christians traditionally run the country’s liquor stories, anathema to many religious Muslims.

Over the past three and a half years, Christians have been subjected to a steady stream of church bombings, assassinations, kidnappings and threatening letters slipped under their doors.

Estimates of the resulting Christian exodus vary from the tens of thousands to more than 100,000, with most heading for Syria, Jordan and Turkey.

The number of Christians who remain is also uncertain. The last Iraqi census, in 1987, counted 1.4 million Christians, but many left during the 1990’s when sanctions squeezed the country. Yonadam Kanna, the lone Christian member of the Iraqi Parliament, estimated the current Christian population at roughly 800,000, or about 3 percent of the population. A Chaldean Catholic auxiliary bishop, Andreos Abouna, told a British charity over the summer that there were just 600,000 Christians left, according to the Catholic News Service.

More victims of a failed policy.

Back from PA

I am back from a long weekend in Pennsylvania to visit my father-in-law and do what we can to help around the house. His health is declining.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The Growth of Christianity 2

Although this comes later in Stark's book, it seems an appropriate follow up to this morning's post on the science of friends. In the first three hundred years of the common era, two devastating epidemics hit the Roman Empire. It is speculated that the first one was smallpox and the second one measles. Both depopulated entire cities; at its height the second one was killing five thousand people a day in Rome.

The Christians were just as susceptible as the pagan population to the diseases. But they responded in profoundly different ways:
Here issues of doctrine must be addressed. For something distinctive did come into the world with the development of Judeo-Christian thought: the linking of a highly social ethical code with religion. There was nothing new in the idea that the supernatural makes behavioral demands upon humans--the gods have always wanted sacrifices and worship. Nor was there anything new in the notion that the supernatural will respond to offerings--that the gods can be induced to exchange services for sacrifices. What was new was the notion that more than self-interested exchange relations were possible between humans and the supernatural. The Christian teaching that God loves those who love him was alien to pagan beliefs. MacMullen has noted that from the pagan perspective "what mattered was ...the service that the deity could provide, since a god (as Aristotle had long taught) could feel no love in response to that offered." Equally alien to paganism was the notion that because God loves humanity, Christians cannot please God unless they love one another. Indeed, as God demonstrates his love through sacrifice, humans must demonstrate their love through sacrifice on behalf of one another. Moreover, such responsibilities were to be extended beyond the bonds of family and tribe... These were revolutionary ideas...
This difference in doctrine was born out in practice during the epidemics. The pagans fled the cities and left the sick to take care of themselves. The Christians stayed and took care of the sick, all of the sick. Both Christian and pagan correspondence from the period bears this out.

What affect did this have on Christian conversion? Well, it is easy to imagine that those who were cared for and lived would have been more open to hearing the Christian message. But the interesting scientific corollary is that more sick people lived because of this care. The Christians, of course, could do nothing about the disease itself. But:
McNeill pointed out: "When all normal services break down, quite elementary nursing will greatly reduce mortality. Simple provision of food and water, for instance, will allow persons who are temporarily too weak to cope for themselves to recover instead of perishing miserably."

...Modern medical experts believe that conscientious nursing without any medications could cut the mortality rate by two-thirds or even more...
So the "unusual" practice of intentionally caring for the sick practiced by the Christians actually meant that more people lived through the epidemics. It would have looked and felt like a miracle. Whose God is real? In addition, and this hearkens to an earlier chapter in the book, since conversion almost always happens through bonds of friendship and family, and people are less likely to convert to a religion if they already have strong social and religious ties, the epidemics severed the social and religious ties of many pagans and opened them emotionally to be willing and ready to respond to the novel religious claim of Christianity.

House of Adults

Son Ryan turns 18 today, Meagan 20 on Halloween. Who knows where the time has gone.

The Science of Friends

This article in yesterday's New York Times points to the growing scientific evidence of the importance of friends and strong social networks for our emotional and physical health:

...Research on the link between relationships and physical health has established that people with rich personal networks — who are married, have close family and friends, are active in social and religious groups — recover more quickly from disease and live longer. But now the emerging field of social neuroscience, the study of how people’s brains entrain as they interact, adds a missing piece to that data.

The most significant finding was the discovery of “mirror neurons,” a widely dispersed class of brain cells that operate like neural WiFi. Mirror neurons track the emotional flow, movement and even intentions of the person we are with, and replicate this sensed state in our own brain by stirring in our brain the same areas active in the other person.

Mirror neurons offer a neural mechanism that explains emotional contagion, the tendency of one person to catch the feelings of another, particularly if strongly expressed. This brain-to-brain link may also account for feelings of rapport, which research finds depend in part on extremely rapid synchronization of people’s posture, vocal pacing and movements as they interact. In short, these brain cells seem to allow the interpersonal orchestration of shifts in physiology.

Such coordination of emotions, cardiovascular reactions or brain states between two people has been studied in mothers with their infants, marital partners arguing and even among people in meetings. Reviewing decades of such data, Lisa M. Diamond and Lisa G. Aspinwall, psychologists at the University of Utah, offer the infelicitous term “a mutually regulating psychobiological unit” to describe the merging of two discrete physiologies into a connected circuit. To the degree that this occurs, Dr. Diamond and Dr. Aspinwall argue, emotional closeness allows the biology of one person to influence that of the other.

John T. Cacioppo, director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago, makes a parallel proposal: the emotional status of our main relationships has a significant impact on our overall pattern of cardiovascular and neuroendocrine activity. This radically expands the scope of biology and neuroscience from focusing on a single body or brain to looking at the interplay between two at a time. In short, my hostility bumps up your blood pressure, your nurturing love lowers mine. Potentially, we are each other’s biological enemies or allies.

Even remotely suggesting health benefits from these interconnections will, no doubt, raise hackles in medical circles. No one can claim solid data showing a medically significant effect from the intermingling of physiologies.

At the same time, there is now no doubt that this same connectivity can offer a biologically grounded emotional solace. Physical suffering aside, a healing presence can relieve emotional suffering. A case in point is a functional magnetic resonance imaging study of women awaiting an electric shock. When the women endured their apprehension alone, activity in neural regions that incite stress hormones and anxiety was heightened. As James A. Coan reported last year in an article in Psychophysiology, when a stranger held the subject’s hand as she waited, she found little relief. When her husband held her hand, she not only felt calm, but her brain circuitry quieted, revealing the biology of emotional rescue.

But as all too many people with severe chronic diseases know, loved ones can disappear, leaving them to bear their difficulties in lonely isolation. Social rejection activates the very zones of the brain that generate, among other things, the sting of physical pain. Matthew D. Lieberman and Naomi Eisenberg of U.C.L.A. (writing in a chapter in “Social Neuroscience: People Thinking About People,” M.I.T. Press, 2005) have proposed that the brain’s pain centers may have taken on a hypersensitivity to social banishment because exclusion was a death sentence in human prehistory. They note that in many languages the words that describe a “broken heart” from rejection borrow the lexicon of physical hurt.

So when the people who care about a patient fail to show up, it may be a double blow: the pain of rejection and the deprivation of the benefits of loving contact. Sheldon Cohen, a psychologist at Carnegie-Mellon University who studies the effects of personal connections on health, emphasizes that a hospital patient’s family and friends help just by visiting, whether or not they quite know what to say...

Death Toll in Iraq Tragically Vast

From the Wall Street Journal Morning Brief:

A new estimate of the death toll from the war in Iraq is so tragically vast it raises the question of whether the U.S.-led invasion and reworking of the country can ever be considered a success no matter how the conflict is resolved.

The study, to be published in Saturday's edition of the British medical journal the Lancet, finds that roughly 600,000 Iraqis have died in the violence. This number, produced by a team from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, represents "an additional 2.5% of Iraq's population [that] died above what would have occurred without conflict," the report says, according to The Wall Street Journal. It compares with a civilian casualty rate for May through August this year of 117 people a day, according to a U.S. military study; other tabulations that have pegged the amount of civilian fatalities at about 50,000 to more than 150,000; and President Bush's declaration 10 months ago that "30,000, more or less" have been killed during and since the invasion.

Bush says 30,000; a scientific team says 600,000. Why is it not surprising that the real numbers bear no relationship to those of the Bush Administration? Let us never forget that this was a war of choice.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

The Great Risk Shift

Over on the Washington Monthly blog, Jacob Hacker has a great series of posts going based on his book The Great Risk Shift:

Why are Americans so unhappy about the economy, when the basic economic numbers (inflation, unemployment, economic growth) have been pretty good? Because the basic economic numbers don’t capture the pervasive insecurity that Americans increasingly feel. Our economy has—until recently at least—produced strong overall growth and productivity (though not strong growth in middle-class incomes). But it’s also been producing massive economic instability for ordinary Americans, whose jobs, incomes, homes, health insurance, and retirement pensions are ever more at risk.

If you have trouble figuring out why risk makes people anxious and unhappy, consider this simple thought experiment: How much of your income would you be willing to put at risk to get a chance at twice your current income? If you’re like most Americans, the answer is “not much”—and for a simple reason: While you’d love to have more money, your life would be thrown into turmoil if your income dropped by, say, half.

Social psychologists have a name for this phenomenon: “loss aversion,” which means simply that we dislike losing things we have far more than we like gaining things we don’t have. No wonder: If your family income fell by half, you would risk losing your home, your health insurance, your retirement savings—in a word, your safety net. And with these vital assets would go your dreams for the future. Maybe it’s no surprise, then, that a recent poll found that even opportunity-loving Americans prefer, by a two-to-one margin, the security of having their current income protected to the chance to make more money.

To understand why insecurity is at the heart of public dissatisfaction with the economy requires grasping how much our economy has changed. I’ve discovered that the up-and-down swings of American family incomes before taxes are now three times larger than they were in the early 1970s. Remember that thought experiment about a 50 percent potential income drop? Well, the chance of such a 50 percent drop for an average American—with average age, average education, average personal characteristics, average chance of experiencing job loss, divorce, and the like—is now almost one in six... Find six average people, and the statistics say one of them is going to see their family income fall by half. Back in the early 1970s, you would have had to round up more than fourteen people before one of them faced that risk...

This is a reality that I experience first-hand among people I know in church and community. On the whole they are middle to upper-middle class boomers and busters with good paying jobs. But there is much insecurity because so many of them have had the experience of losing jobs and taking pay and benefit cuts (or they watched it happen to friends and co-workers) and they know that their economic well-being is constantly at risk. There are no pensions, no loyalty from employers, and lots and lots of hungry Indians and Chinese willing to work the same jobs for lots less (and its not their fault).

I believe, of course, that there is a spiritual response and discipline that helps us weather this uncertainty. But there is also a political response that involves sharing burdens and lessening risks for all. It's what a just society does, and it ought to be at the heart of a society that claims to be based on Judeo-Christian values. But we get all this right-wing talk about an "opportunity" society which is just a big cover for dismantling the social safety-net and letting the poor be crushed, the middle-class evaporate, and rich get richer with no obligation to care about the well-being of anyone else. Except for a little faith-based charity, of course; that always makes one feel better. It's social darwinism unleashed.

The Growth of Christianity

I have been reading Rodney Stark's book, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries. Stark is a sociologist of religion and is well-known for his earlier studies and publications on the growth of Mormonism and cults. Stark examines the available evidence from early Christian writings about the numbers of converts and tells us:
Given our starting number (1000 in 40 BCE), if Christianity grew at the rate of 40 percent per decade, there would have been 7,530 Christians in the year 100, followed by 217,795 Christians in the year 200 and by 6,299,832 Christians in the year 300.
This is a plausible rate of growth, according to Stark. Mormons, for instance, have grown at a 43 percent clip since their beginnings. Therefore there is no need to seek miraculous explanations for the expansion, especially during the last half of the third century:
...But because of the rather extraordinary features of exponential curves, this probably was a period of "miraculous-seeming" growth in terms of absolute numbers...
He has an interesting take on what this growth means for understanding the conversion of Constantine:
...Looking at the rise of a Christian majority as purely a function of a constant rate of growth calls into serious question the emphasis given by Eusebius and others to the conversion of Constantine as the factor that produced the Christian majority (Grant 1977). So long as nothing changed in the conditions that sustained the 40-percent-a-decade growth rate, Constantine's conversion would better be seen as a response to the massive exponential wave in progress, not as its cause.

This interpretation is entirely in keeping with the thesis developed by Shirley Jackson Case in his 1925 presidential address to the American Society of Church History. Case began by noting that attempts by the emperor Diocletian in 303, and continued by his successor Galerius in 305, to use persecution to force Christians to support the state had failed because "by the year 300 Christianity had become too widely accepted in Roman society to make possible a successful persecution on the part of the government". As a result, Case continued, by 311 the emperor Galerius switched tactics and excused the Christians from praying to Roman gods, and asked only that they pray to "their own god for our security and that of the state." Thus Constantine's edict of toleration, issued two years later, was simply a continuation of state policy.
It is really helpful to see plausible numbers of growth and an explanation of how it might have happened. And I find it very interesting to place the conversion of Constantine in the context of this growth. I have always assumed that it was his conversion that accelerated the numerical growth of Christianity, but it is quite possible, as Stark suggests, that the laws of numbers were working themselves out and the exponential growth simply kept going after Constantine's conversion. But it would have seemed to those living through it that his conversion accelerated the process.

More to come on that I found very interesting on where the growth happened and how.

Monday, October 09, 2006

How the Other Half Lives

Sen. George Allen, R-Virginia, is in a tight re-election race with James Webb, who served the Reagan Administration but who has since joined the growing list of ex-Republicans who are fed up with what passes for the Republican party today. Allen has been in hot water over questions about whether he has a racist past. But CNN is reporting today that he may now be in hot water for failing to disclose stock options:

Congressional rules require senators to disclose to the Senate all deferred compensation, such as stock options. The rules also urge senators to avoid taking any official action that could benefit them financially or appear to do so.

Those requirements exist so the public can police lawmakers for possible conflicts of interest, especially involving companies with government business that lawmakers can influence.

Allen's stock options date to the period from January 1998 to January 2001 when Allen was between political jobs and had plunged into the corporate world.

An Associated Press review of Allen's financial dealings from that era found that the senator:

• Did not have to look far to find corporate suitors, joining three Virginia high-tech companies he assisted as governor. Allen served on boards of directors for Xybernaut and Commonwealth Biotechnologies and advised a third company called Com-Net Ericsson, all government contractors.

• Twice failed to promptly alert the Securities and Exchange Commission of insider stock transactions as a Xybernaut and Commonwealth director. The SEC requires timely notification and can fine those who file late.

• Kept stock options provided to him for serving as a director of Xybernaut and Commonwealth, but steered other compensation from his board service to his law firm.

Allen is claiming that since the stock prices of the companies involved has been lower than the price of his options, he didn't think there was a need to report. Except there was this:

In interviews, Allen and his staff sought to play down his corporate dealings, saying they were a good learning experience but did not lead to extraordinary riches -- except for a quarter-million-dollar windfall from Com-Net Ericsson stock.

Just a little quarter-million-dollar windfall.

Another Failed Bush Policy

So North Korea has officially joined the nuclear club. It is worth remembering that the first thing George Bush did regarding North Korea when he became President was scuttle President Clinton's carefully crafted diplomatic approach. No more appeasing the axis of evil! In fact, the basic policy of Bush was to sneer at and dismantle everything Clinton did in foreign policy.

This makes it official, though. Iraq is a disaster; thanks to the mess in Iraq Iran is now an emboldened and strengthened regional power. And North Korea has nuclear weapons. And lets not forget Afghanistan. Everything Bush touches turns into an unmitigated disaster. Which means that the next President will have no choice but to spend four years dismantling everything Bush did.

Friday, October 06, 2006

God Punctuation, and Politics

While watching The Daily Show last night I learned President Bush had made remarks calling his war in Iraq "a comma". This quote was getting picked up and interpreted. Some felt it was a "code message" for the religious right.

First, I do not believe that President Bush has the retorical acumen to think quickly enough to drop "code words" that are not prewritten by a speech writer in the text of a speech. Even his staffers concede that!

Secondly the comma, as a religious reference, is not a term of the religious right--it is the marketing phrase for the United Church of Christ one of the most theologically and politically progressive Christian Denominations. The quote is from Gracie Allen, the delightful woman comedian who was married to comedian George Burns.

Peter Baker in yesterday's Washington Post online spells out the comma debate. Click below for the whole article, here's an excerpt...

The comma remark, though, offers an especially intriguing case study in how a few words can trigger many interpretations. Bush used it in an interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer aired on Sept. 24 in talking about Iraq. He noted the bloodshed shown on television but hailed the resiliency of the Iraqi people and cited the election last December in which 12 million came to the polls despite the violence.

"Admittedly, it seems like a decade ago," Bush went on. "I like to tell people when the final history is written on Iraq, it will look like just a comma because there is -- my point is, there's a strong will for democracy." The president used a similar line at a campaign event last week in Alabama and again on Tuesday in Stockton, Calif.

Critics of Bush began e-mailing and blogging about the remark within minutes of the CNN interview. The Carpetbagger Report blog called it stunning "even by Bush's already-low standards" and added: "Everything we're seeing is 'just a comma.' I'm sure that will bring comfort to the families of those who have sacrificed so much for Bush's mistakes."
Then Ian Welsh, on his Agonist blog, postulated a theory about the hidden meaning of the comment, citing the "never put a period" saying and calling it a "dog whistle" comment that only some would understand: "He is constantly littering his speeches with code words and phrases meant for the religious right. Other people don't hear them, but they do, and most of the time it allows Bush both to say what those who aren't evangelical or born again want to hear, while still reassuring the religious right [what it] wants to hear."

But it turns out that the phrase "never put a period" originated not with a Christian conservative figure or biblical passage but with Gracie Allen, the comedienne wife of George Burns. And the phrase is a favorite not of the religious right but of the religious left. The United Church of Christ, which is devoted to fighting for what it calls social justice and opposes the war, adopted the phrase in January 2002.

"I needed something short and succinct," said Ron Buford, the marketing director who came up with it. "When I saw the Gracie Allen quote, I was up all night thinking about it -- God is still speaking, there's more for us to know."

When he heard about Bush's comment, Buford was stunned. "It's ironic that, as savvy as they are about using these quotes to strengthen their base, that he would use a quote that we've been using lately," Buford said.

Aides said it is ridiculous to believe Bush is sending subliminal messages. "People have too much time on their hands," said Bush counselor Dan Bartlett. "I can assure you, you don't need a secret decoder ring to decipher what he's saying."

All Bush means, he said, is the struggle to build Iraqi democracy will take years. "He's making a historical analysis -- that these brief periods seem long and protracted now, but when you look back at them in history, they won't seem that way. He's definitely not discounting the loss of life or the sacrifice people are making."


Personally, I hope history will look back upon the Bush administration as just a comma in the history of U.S. democracy! I saw a new bumper sticker yesterday. It looked like the "W" sticker that Bush supporters have on their bumpers, but this one had writing on it. So while keeping assured clear distance, I got close enough to read it. It said "W"(orst President Ever)


Thursday, October 05, 2006

Thanks to Todd

My church newsletter post this week:

It was some twelve years ago that a group of Open Circle folks gathered one evening in the home of Faye Lefever to interview applicants for the position of music director. The church was still in the planning stages; we were several months away from holding our first public worship service and the time had come to find someone with music skills to join our team.

What was fresh on my mind that evening was the music I experienced serving the church I had just come from in Ohio. I loved the church but not the music program, and I vowed to myself that never again would I be part of a church experience where every Sunday was a musical adventure. So we convinced the district committee that was overseeing our new church project that we needed to budget enough money to hire a talented musician.

Todd Lines was one of four that we interviewed that evening. He will tell you that his first impression of me was that I looked like a conservative evangelical. He informed us almost immediately in the interview that he was gay; he wanted us to know that up front, and I suspect he wanted to test us to see how "liberal" we really were. We assured him it wasn't a problem. The interview went well enough, but when he moved to the piano to play and sing we knew our search was over. His piano skills and voice were awesome.

Not once in twelve years of leading worship with Todd have I ever had to worry about what we were going hear in music. In fact, it is fair to say that on more than a few Sundays Todd has carried me and the worship. His musical gifts have consistently enhanced our worship and lifted our spirits. But the real gift that Todd has given us over the years is the sharing of his life. Through the years he has shared his joys and struggles, stories about his past, his thoughts on the issues of the day, and we have laughed and smiled and been moved to tears, and he has helped us deepen our spiritual lives and our community ties. Open Circle would not be what it is today were it not for Todd's presence. I am deeply grateful that he has shared his gifts and life with us over the years.

This Sunday will be Todd's last Sunday as our music director. He is not leaving our community but is freeing himself of the weekly responsibilities of music leadership so he can pursue other professional dreams and to be able to spend more time with his parents. We wish him nothing but the best and look forward to future Sundays when he shares special music. I hope you will join our community this Sunday in saying thank you to Todd in our worship service and in the potluck meal that follows.