Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Tomb of Jesus Called a Stunt

No surprise here:

Leading archaeologists in Israel and the United States yesterday denounced the purported discovery of the tomb of Jesus as a publicity stunt.

Scorn for the Discovery Channel's claim to have found the burial place of Jesus, Mary Magdalene and -- most explosively -- their possible son came not just from Christian scholars but also from Jewish and secular experts who said their judgments were unaffected by any desire to uphold Christian orthodoxy.

"I'm not a Christian. I'm not a believer. I don't have a dog in this fight," said William G. Dever, who has been excavating ancient sites in Israel for 50 years and is widely considered the dean of biblical archaeology among U.S. scholars. "I just think it's a shame the way this story is being hyped and manipulated."

It's clearly a hoax. But the question that continues to interest me is what is it that is driving all this fascination with Jesus' life? Whatever the answer the master marketers from Dan Brown to Mel Gibson to James Cameron are exploiting it and cashing in big.

Gay Bishop Responds

The first openly gay bishop of the Episcopal Church, Gene Robinson, has responded to the ultimatum delivered by the Anglican Communion to the American church that it stop allowing the blessing of same-sex unions and the ordination of openly gay and lesbian priests:

New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson said in a statement that Episcopalians should set aside the Anglican Communion's request for now "and get on with the work of the Gospel" even at the risk of losing their place in the Anglican fellowship.

"Doesn't Jesus challenge the greater whole to sacrifice itself for those on the margins?" Robinson said. "Now is the time for courage, not fear."


"How will we explain this 'forbearance' to all those gay and lesbian Christians who have come to the Episcopal Church because, for the first time ever, they have believed that there is a place for them at God's table, not simply beneath it, hoping for fallen scraps?" he wrote.

Meeting these latest demands of the primates may not even avert a communion-wide split, so Episcopalians should decide in their own time whether accepting gays and lesbians is the right thing to do, he said.

"Does anyone believe that our full compliance with the primates' demands, our complete denunciation of our gay and lesbian members or my removal as bishop would make all this go away?" he asked. "For the first time in its history and at the hands of the larger communion, the Episcopal Church may be experiencing a little taste of the irrational discrimination and exclusion that is an everyday experience of its gay and lesbian members."

In a companion statement to gay and lesbian Christians, Robinson said they should not be "intimidated into doubting our own vision of God's will for the church."

This is exactly the right stance to take. Going backwards now would be breaking faith with those who have come into the church and found a place at the table. Better to force the worldwide body to reveal its true stripes and say to the world "homosexuals are not welcome in our church" than destroy the spirit of God that is welcoming home people who for too long have had no genuine spiritual home.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Our Friends the Chinese

We got a stiff reminder today of what it means to live in a global economy. The Chinese stock market plunges a whopping 9% and that precipitates a 415 point drop in the Dow (3.3%), not the largest one day drop but a significant hit nonetheless. And whose economy is it that is buying all of our US treasuries and propping up the Bush deficit?

But I mention the stock market news as a segue into another story on US-China relations. Brad DeLong worked for the Clinton Administration and currently teaches at UCLA; he has an excellent economics blog The Semi-Daily Journal. In a post today he responds to another liberal blogger who thinks we ought to be protecting American jobs being lost to places like China and who wonders:
Why is it that it is the responsibility of $40,000 year American working families to sacrifice their future in order to raise up the living standards of poor Chinese, when commissars turned capitalists ride around Shanghai in a different Rolls every day?
Brad responds:

There aren't many commissars-turned-capitalists.

Scratching on the back of my envelope, I find that at current exchange rates, China's GDP per worker--and there are 800 million workers--is $3,000 per year. (In 1990 it was $1,100 of today's dollars per year.) According to Piketty and Qian's guesses, the top 0.1% of China's workers get an average of $30,000 per year at current exchange rates. This elite of some 800,000 do live considerably better in their homes in Shanghai than Americans with $30,000 do--unskilled labor and the services it provides are really cheap in Shanghai because China is still really poor (perhaps at a level equivalent to $100,000 per year if you like being waited on and having a household staff; much less if you don't). Redistribute all the income of the 800,000 commissars-turned-capitalists back to the masses, and you boost median standards of living in China by 1% above current levels.

In 1877, it was the United States that was the rising superpower across the ocean to the west of the world's industrial and military leader. Today it is China. In 1917 and again in 1941 it was greatly to Britain's benefit that America regarded it as a friend and an ally rather than as a competitor and an enemy. And since 1945 it has been greatly to Britain's benefit that America has regarded it as a trading partner rather than an industrial competitor.

There is a good chance that China is now on the same path to world preeminence that America walked 130 years ago. Come 2047 and again in 2071 and in the years after 2075, America is going to need China. There is nothing more dangerous for America's future national security and nothing more destructive to America's future prosperity than for Chinese schoolchildren to be taught in 2047 and 2071 and 2075 that America tried to keep the Chinese as poor as possible for as long as possible.

This is why I am not a liberal protectionist. I think it is in our best interest as Americans, not to mention as caring humans, that poor people around the world not be poor. I think, regarding places like China, it is in our selfish best interest as Americans that we maintain friendly if competitive trading relations with China. Brad is right; it isn't going to be long before they are the preeminent world power and we don't want their children growing up believing that we were hell-bent on keeping them poor.

I am not, on the other hand a Pollyanna free-trade advocate like Thomas Friedman, who seems unable to acknowledge the ruthless reality of corporate power around the world. Corporations really don't care about the welfare of anyone except their shareholders and they will happily give the shaft to any worker any place in the world in order to maximize their profits. It is not the Chinese workers that we need to be protected from; it is the multinational corporations who are presently infatuated with places like China because they have seemingly endless pools of cheap labor. But as soon as the Chinese start to make more and get better organized the corporations will be taking away their jobs too.

The way to provide that protection is not by erecting trade barriers that close off our economy to the rest of the world. The way to provide that protection is to have a robust government that a) provides universal healthcare to all Americans so no American has to worry that losing their job means putting their family's health at risk; b) has adequate resources to provide retraining, temporary assistance, and seed monies for research into new technologies that provide the new jobs we need; c) has strong enforcement tools to go after tax-evaders, environmental polluters, the the Enron-like companies that are the natural by-product of laissez faire capitalism.

Now more than ever we need a strong government to help us navigate the perils of the global economy. And we need the Chinese to be our friends.

Update: And yes, I am completely out of my element talking about economics. But when does it ever stop a blogger to talk about things they know nothing about?

A Bodily Resurrection

In a recent post I said that I don't believe that dead corpses can be brought back to life. I don't. I don't believe it happened to Lazarus; I don't believe it happened to Jesus; I don't believe it will happen to me. As I said in that post, to say that Jesus was raised from death or that Jesus lives is to say that he was raised into the memory of the Christian community. He is alive in us in as much as we live our lives following him, doing what he did. It isn't about belief or doctrine or being asked to turn off our brains and accept 1st century pre-scientific thinking; it's all about the way we live our lives.

That is not to say that I have any dispute with the notion that Paul believed in and preached a bodily resurrection. It is clear in 1 Corinthians 15 that Paul's Christian faith depended on his belief in a bodily resurrection of Jesus. But this is exactly where it becomes important to read scriptures in their historical context. Paul was a Pharisee, that party within Judaism that believed there was going to be a future bodily resurrection of the dead and a restoration of God's just realm on earth.

Before Paul was converted to Christianity he believed in a bodily resurrection of the dead. Paul carried that belief with him as he became an apostle of Jesus. He believed that the resurrection of Jesus was the "first-fruits" of the resurrection to come. He believed that with the bodily resurrection of Jesus the general bodily resurrection was now underway and the time of God's decisive act of restorative justice on the earth was at hand. (1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11)

What Paul likely faced at Corinth was incredulity at his views about resurrection. It was a common Greek view as old as Plato that the body is but a shadow of reality and the soul is the essence of what makes us human: "So 'tis well said of the deceased that the corpse is but a ghost; the real man--the undying thing called the soul--departs to give account to the gods of another world..." (Laws 12) This was the typical view of life after death in the world of the gentiles in which Paul traveled and preached. But Paul holds fast to his Pharisaic beliefs as he addresses the Corinthians about this issue. And of course, we don't ultimately know how they responded or if Paul won them over on this issue.

That this - belief in bodily resurrection - became the view of orthodox Christianity is beyond dispute. But despite the proper orthodox views on bodily resurrection, there can be little doubt that the popular view of most Christians is that life after death is all about survival of a soul, not the body.

In any case, it is possible to understand and appreciate the context of Paul's beliefs and writings about resurrection, and then say that we, living in a different time and context, don't believe that dead bodies can be resuscitated. Being a Christian doesn't hinge on this belief. Being a Christian is about choosing to follow in the way of Jesus.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Rice Cooked

Yesterday on Fox News Secretary of Rice made this statement about the Congress seeking a new authorization for Iraq:
It would be like saying that after Adolf Hitler was overthrown, we needed to change then, the resolution that allowed the United States to do that, so that we could deal with creating a stable environment in Europe after he was overthrown.
Via the blog Think Progress, Keith Olbermann responded to this statement taking it apart piece by piece. You can watch it there. The whopper, though, is that as a Secretary of State for the United States with a PhD in International Studies with a special focus on the Soviet Union and its relationship with Europe she doesn't know that after Hitler was overthrown, the President of the United States did in fact go back to Congress and seek a new authorization for the re-building of Europe. We call it the Marshall Plan, named after one of her predecessors. Of course it was opposed by the Republicans in Congress at the time so maybe that is why she draws a blank. But it is really quite embarrassing for a Secretary of State not to know about one of the most significant achievements in the history of her office.

Jesus Then and Now

A post of mine today on VOS:

A couple of days ago we had a brief discussion about biblical interpretation and the "value" of non-canonical documents like the Q source and the Gospel of Thomas. I want to invite a discussion on this coming at it from a different angle.

Why is it, do you suppose, that books by writers of the Jesus Seminar like Marcus Borg and JD Crossan are so popular today? Why are all these books by Elaine Pagels and Karen Armstrong and JS Spong and Bart Ehrman selling? Why the interest in the non-canonical gospels like Thomas and Mary Magdalene and now Judas? Why are CNN and MSNBC fronting stories this very day about the tomb of Jesus on their web sites and news programs? Who is reading and watching and following all this un-Orthodox Christian material?

And to broaden the question even more, why are so many Christians reading books about Buddhism by the likes of Jack Kornfield and Thich Nhat Hanh?

And why has Richard Dawkins' book The God Delusion been on the NYTimes bestseller list for 22 weeks now; and it has been joined by Sam Harris' book Letter to a Christian Nation. And think about how popular Carl Sagan was. How many athiests are there in America? How many of them are sitting in our churches on Sunday morning?

And let's not forget all the interest in new age stuff and wicca.

I think it is all very well to sit in the comfort of one's Christian orthodoxy and dismiss all of this with the certain knowledge that it isn't Christian and all of these folks are going to be toasting in hell. But doesn't it make you wonder what is going on here? Why aren't all these people satisfied with the orthodox Christian story? Why isn't the plain truth of the Bible enough? And, yes I know, some also see this as part of the unfolding plan of God. That's why The Left Behind series is also a best-seller.

But it all makes me wonder if it isn't true that we are living very much in a post-Christian era that has much in common with the era of pre-Constantinian Christianity, a period of time when the proto-Orthodox Christian movement was in real competition with a host of other religious beliefs, many of them pagan, some of them (Arians and Pelagians and Gnostics, Oh My) actually believing that they were the "true" followers of Jesus.

To the victor goes the spoils, of course, and we look back on 1600 years of Christian dominance in the west and it seems obvious we were right. But if you read Paul and the early church "fathers" it is also obvious that although they believed they were right they knew it wasn't something they could take for granted. It wasn't enough to dismiss the "competition" as irrelevant because it wasn't "our story." They had to make their case. And in making their case they didn't just pass on the story of Jesus unadulterated; they translated that story into the language of the culture in whose midst they were living. Jesus the Jewish messiah became Christ the Lord, to give one obvious example.

It appears to me that our story isn't faring so well today in the west and it might behoove us to ask ourselves why that is. And maybe, for example, we need to think about doing a better job translating Jesus into a post-modern and post-magical world. Maybe, for example, the stories and sayings like those found in Q (we think) and Thomas translate better than the miracles.

I also wonder, thinking more directly about the interest in the Jesus who doesn't quite fit into orthodoxy and of the Christians who are sitting in churches on Sunday morning but also dabbling in other forms of spirituality, if it isn't a situation similar to what Paul saw and exploited with the god-fearers who were attending the synagogues. They were genuine in their seeking but were not quite welcome just as they were. Paul showed them how they could be welcome without having to change something essential about themselves. Then it was being Gentile; maybe now it is sexual orientation, or being comfortable living in a scientific world or with the idea that there is more than one true spiritual path. What will the Jesus movement of the future look like that speaks to today's god-fearers, I wonder.

Body of Jesus Found

Sure. This story has been all over the religious news and blogosphere in the last couple of days:
"The Lost Tomb of Christ," which the Discovery Channel will run on March 4, argues that 10 ancient ossuaries — small caskets used to store bones — discovered in a suburb of Jerusalem in 1980 may have contained the bones of Jesus and his family, according to a press release issued by the Discovery Channel.

One of the caskets even bears the title, "Judah, son of Jesus," hinting that Jesus may have had a son. The very fact that Jesus had an ossuary would contradict the Christian belief that he was resurrected and ascended to heaven.

From the perspective of this liberal Christian, finding the body of Jesus would not be problematic. I don't believe in the bodily resurrection of a dead corpse, Jesus' or anyone else's. To say that Jesus lives is to say that Jesus continues to be present with his followers in spirit.

So I assume that Jesus' body was buried in some form, and decomposed like any other body. But how would we ever know if we found his body? The only evidence would come from DNA analysis and where would we get that? Unless we also believe that the good fiction of The DaVinci Code is actually fact and that Jesus has a bloodline, we have no way of matching DNA.

There sure is lots of interest in Jesus these days. Christians say Jesus saves. But lots of folks have also found that Jesus sells.

Take me out to the Ballgame...and for snacks...

Volunteers from Liberalchurch work selling food at the Centerplate Concession booths at the Metrodome to help pay the mortgage for our place of worship. This story about fans' eating habits at the Metrodome caught my eye...

Hold the mayo, but not much else at Twins games:
An analysis of Twins fans' eating habits finds all of baseball's favorites -- beer, hot dogs and pop-- at the top of the list. But last year, a new bratwurst, served hot off the grill, hit a home run.
By Paul Levy, Star Tribune

Baseball fans eat and drink more at the Metrodome when the Twins are winning, they prefer draft beer to bottled, spend more on pop than on brats and hot dogs, and spend the most at concession stands on Tuesdays. And they love their ice cream -- possibly more than at any other major league ballpark.
A recent review of the Twins' concession sales for 2006, conducted by Centerplate Concessions, also showed that Twins fans will pay more for bratwursts if they are convinced they're buying a better product.
The Twins' attendance rose dramatically last year, improving 23 percent -- from 1,771,010 in 2005 to 2,183,326 last year. But money paid at concession stands jumped even more -- by 35 percent, which likely had more to do with the team's dramatic march to the playoffs.
"If the Twins are losing, people leave the games early," said Priscilla Goldstein, a senior scientist at the University of Minnesota's School of Public Health. "When the Twins win and you stay until the ninth inning, you spend more."
Goldstein, who said she attends a couple Twins games a year, preaches the importance of a nutritious diet. But she always has a hot dog and beer when she's at the Metrodome. "Have to," she said. "It's part of the game."
The combined sales of draft (16.66 percent) and bottled beer (16.3 percent) comprise one-third of the total concession sales at Twins games, according to Centerplate's study. The next largest selling items are soda (21.84 percent), then hot dogs and sausages (16.53 percent).
The percentage of beer sales at the climate-controlled Metrodome is low compared with those at other major-league stadiums, where July and August heat and humidity make for thirstier fans, said Matt Hoy, Twins' vice president of operations.
While brats may not create the same fervor at the Metrodome than they do at Milwaukee's Miller Park, folks at the Dome take their dogs seriously, the Centerplate report shows.
Disappointed by brat sales after the 2005 season, Centerplate asked Klements, a Milwaukee-based sausage company and Twins sponsor, to develop a larger, tastier grilled bratwurst, served directly off the grill. In previous seasons, brats were steamed, grilled, wrapped in foil and stored before being served to customers, said Chris Kohlmeier, Centerplate general manager.
"Now when the customer comes up, we pull the brat right off the grill," Kohlmeier said.
The improved brat came with a higher price -- from $4.25 in 2005 to $4.75 last year -- but fans were willing to pay for a top dog. Brat sales nearly doubled last year -- from 55,351 in 2005 to 92,045 in 2006.
"It's a grilled product, and within the industry that's known as display cooking," said Hoy, of the Twins. "People like to buy food that is prepared in front of them, food that they know hasn't been sitting around."
Much of that food is purchased on Tuesday nights, when fans spend an average of $8.31 at concession stands. Fans spend the least on Wednesdays, an average of $6.62.
Those figures are misleading, said Hoy and Kohlmeier, because they don't account for discounts such as "dollar dog" nights or promotions that might include four hot dogs and four sodas with four tickets. Promotions on Tuesdays are rare, and beer sales are generally low on Sundays and Thursdays, when day games are often played.
Ice cream sells any time of the day at the Dome, but particularly from the third inning on, Hoy said. "From my understanding, we sell more ice cream than any other stadium," he said. "Go to that stand between Sections 129 and 131 and by the third inning, the line for ice cream is five deep. By the sixth inning, it stretches down the hall."
Ice cream accounts for 5.45 percent of Twins' concession sales. Snacks (peanuts and Cracker Jacks) are next at 4.41 percent and completing the list are nachos at 4.14 percent.
"I'm not hearing about many fruits and vegetables," said Lisa Harnack, associate professor of nutrition at the University of Minnesota. "But if you go to a game, you have to have fun. This is what the fans must want."

Thursday, February 22, 2007

The Light is on for You

That's the slogan you'll be seeing on buses and billboards in some parts of the country to remind Catholics to come to confession. The Diocese of Washington is trying a light-hearted approach to encourage parishioners to participate in what is a dying rite of the church:

Parishes have been cutting back the time they set aside for confessions for years; many now allot only 30- or 45-minute blocks or ask for appointments. Years ago, lines at confessionals were long and priests listened for hours.

Also known as the sacrament of reconciliation, confession involves several mandatory steps: being sincerely contrite, articulating to a priest (who stands in the place of Jesus) what was done wrong, apologizing, receiving an assigned penance and being forgiven.

Why the drop in interest? Busy schedules, the rise of other therapeutic options, a guilt-free society are culprits. But the Catholic Church itself has also changed the understanding of confession:

But the biggest changes, church historians say, came in the 1960s, when clergy began preaching more about the sins of racism, militarism and environmental degradation. The '60s also brought the Second Vatican Council, which said -- among many other things -- that eating meat on Friday was no longer a sin.

Priests began talking about sin in different terms, and Catholics wondered: What is it I'm supposed to confess? said Boston College professor James O'Toole, who wrote a social history of confession. The sacrament has "virtually disappeared," he said.

After Vatican II, "the whole idea was changed, it became a much more positive thing, less emphasis on fault and more on improvement," said Mary Gautier, a researcher with the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.

I'd never make a very good Catholic. If I went into the confessional I would say to the priest, "You go first."

British Out, Americans In

As the Washington Post notes this morning, the Administration took a major hit yesterday with Tony Blair's announcement that British troops are beginning to pull out of Iraq. The Administration is trying to spin this as a good news story on Basra compared to the difficult challenges of Baghdad that require more American troops. The obvious response to that line of poppy-cock is to inquire why, then, aren't the British troops being redeployed to Baghdad to help the Americans. Because they have had enough of this failed war.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Anglicans Heading Towards Schism?

From the Washington Post:

Several leading liberal Episcopalians said yesterday that they would rather accept a schism than accede to a demand from leaders of the worldwide Anglican Communion for what they view as an unconscionable rollback of the U.S. church's position on gay rights.

The defiant reaction to the communique issued by the primates, or heads, of the Anglican Communion's 38 national churches on Monday at the conclusion of a weeklong meeting in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, reflected a growing feeling on both sides of the dispute that time for compromise is running out.

"Yes, I would accept schism," said Bishop Steven Charleston, president of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass. "I would be willing to accept being told I'm not in communion with places like Nigeria if it meant I could continue to be in a position of justice and morality. If the price I pay is that I'm not considered to be part of a flawed communion, then so be it."

I couldn't agree more. There are some moral principles that can't be compromised.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

A Most Unusual Conversion Story

I can certainly understand the sentiment of Don Larson - enough bloodshed in the name of God, but what a conversion:

A year ago, he was a Pentecostal Christian minister at Camp Anaconda, the largest U.S. support base in Iraq. He sent home reports on the number of "decisions" -- soldiers committing their lives to Christ -- that he inspired in the base's Freedom Chapel.

But inwardly, he says, he was torn between Christianity's exclusive claims about salvation and a "universalist streak" in his thinking. The Feb. 22, 2006, bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra, which collapsed the dome of a 1,200-year-old holy site and triggered a widening spiral of revenge attacks between Shiite and Sunni militants, prompted a decision of his own.

"I realized so many innocent people are dying again in the name of God," Larsen says. "When you think back over the Catholic-Protestant conflict, how the Jews have suffered, how some Christians justified slavery, the Crusades, and now the fighting between Shiite and Sunni Muslims, I just decided I'm done. . . . I will not be part of any church that unleashes its clergy to preach that particular individuals or faith groups are damned."

Larsen's private crisis of faith might have remained just that, but for one other fateful choice. He decided the religion that best matched his universalist vision was Wicca, a blend of witchcraft, feminism and nature worship that has ancient pagan roots...

Larson then applied to be the first Wiccan chaplain in the military, but that got him removed from Iraq and the chaplaincy. And it turns out that although Larsen was serving as a Pentecostal minister he was really in the midst of a long spiritual search.

Romanian Priest Sentenced for Exorcism

Sometimes I wonder whether we are living in the first or twenty-first century:
A Romanian priest who led a dayslong exorcism ritual for a young nun that ended with the woman's death was sentenced Monday to 14 years in prison. Four nuns were also sentenced in the case. The dead nun, Maricica Irina Cornici, believed she heard the devil talking to her. She was treated for schizophrenia, but when she relapsed, Daniel Petru Corogeanu _ a monk who served as the priest for the secluded Holy Trinity convent in northeast Romania _ and the four other nuns tried exorcism.

Cornici, 23, was tied up for several days at the without food or water and chained to a cross. She died of dehydration, exhaustion and suffocation.

Nora Leitner

My heart goes out to Nora Leitner and her family:

The first thing you notice about 12-year-old Nora Leitner is the dark circles under her eyes. They stand in stark contrast to the rest of her appearance; at a glance she might be any petite, pretty tween girl, with her blond ponytail, elfin frame and thousand-watt smile. But the circles tell a different story: Nora looks as if she hasn’t slept in a month.

In a sense, she hasn’t. Nora has epilepsy, and as with 30 percent of those with the disorder, her seizures are not controlled by existing treatments.

She often has more than one seizure a day, mostly at night. Her seizures, called tonic-clonic (what used to be known as grand mal), cause her to lose consciousness for a full minute while her body convulses.

While some people feel an “aura” of symptoms before a seizure, Nora’s happen entirely without warning. When she seized at the top of a staircase in her home in Yardley, Pa., it was plain luck that her parents were at the bottom and caught her as she fell. Though she is on the brink of adolescence, she is rarely, if ever, left alone.

I will never forget the horrible day Ryan had his first tonic-clonic seizure, at age 5. Fortunately, Ryan's epilepsy responded to medication and after a time he was able to live relatively seizure-free. Even more fortunately he outgrew his epilepsy and we are now able to look back fondly on some of those times, like getting up at 2 a.m. and going to the airport (pre-9/11) and up into the observation deck to watch airplanes while we waited until it was time to go to the hospital for his sleep-deprived EEGs.

But it is an awful disease and it is sad to still read that funding to research it is hampered because it carries a stigma and has no "icons" to call attention to it and help raise awareness and money.

The Bible and Slavery

Recently I have been reading some of the pre-Civil War, pro-slavery, sermons that are available online. It is quite interesting reading and good reminder about how wrong those who quote Bible passages to buttress their positions can be. Here are a few paragraphs of a sermon delivered by Rev. Joseph Ruggles at First Presbyterian Church, Augusta, Georgia on January 6, 1861. Ruggles begins by reading Ephesians 6:5-9, gives us a brief exegesis of the Greek word for servant, which he explains clearly means slave. And says:
...The time has fully come when all who are interested personally in the subject of Southern institutions--whether masters or servants--should comprehend their scriptural relation to them--should know whether or not the holiness of God receives or rejects them--and whether in all our possible contentions for their maintenance we are to have only men for our enemies or, in addition, our Sovereign Ruler also. Now, we have already seen that the Holy Spirit employs words which He has intended to be understood as distinctly enunciating the existence of domestic servitude--that He has sent to all the world a volume of truth, which is indisputably addressed to men who hold slaves and to the slaves who possess masters--and that, from the connections in which these highly suggestive words occur, He has included slavery as an organizing element in that family order which lies at the very foundation of Church and State. A study of such words is, therefore, a first and an important step in ascertaining the will of God with respect to an institution which short sighted men have indiscriminately and violently denounced, and which wicked men have declared unworthy of the countenance of a Christianity whose peaceful and conservative spirit, as applied to society, they neither respect nor understand.

...I refer you to his conduct with respect to Onesimus, a runaway slave belonging to that believer in Christ., Philemon. This servant coming providentially under the influence of Paul's preaching, was happily converted. Being converted, what was his duty to his defrauded master? The spirit of christianity, which now resided in his heart, informed his conscience of the fact that he was the property of Philemon, and that while he remained away from his owner's home and authority, he was committing the sin of robbery. He consulted the Apostle. What was his advice ? He did not hesitate to urge Onesimus to go at once to his master, confess at his feet the grevious fault he had committed, and beg to be received once more among the number of his slaves. And that the reconciliation between master and servant might be hastened, Paul wrote, (and wrote under the inspiration of God,) a letter of beseeching tenderness to the offended owner, asking him to pardon the faithful fugitive and give him a place in his confidence, and telling him that he would now, with grace in his heart, be a far better servant than ever.

Such reasoning, from the implied allowance of slavery by inspired Scripture, is, my friends, conclusive enough upon the point in question. Let neither master nor servant dispute the righteousness, doubt the wisdom, or fear the reproach of the relation which they sustain towards each other. It is not sinful. It is not inexpedient. It is not degradatory.

Of course not. Because he found it in the Bible.

Anglicans Take a Step Back

From the New York Times this morning:

Facing a possible churchwide schism, the Anglican Communion yesterday gave its Episcopal branch in the United States less than eight months to ban blessings of same-sex unions or risk a reduced role in the world’s third-largest Christian denomination.

Anglican leaders also established a separate council and a vicar to help address the concerns of conservative American dioceses that have been alienated by the Episcopal Church’s support of gay clergy and blessings of same-sex unions. Although the presiding American bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, agreed to the arrangement, some conservatives described it as an extraordinary check on her authority.

The directive, issued after a five-day meeting of three dozen top leaders of the Anglican church gathering in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, constituted a severe rebuke of the small but affluent American branch. Conservative Anglicans described the communiqué as a landmark document that affirms the primacy of Scripture and church doctrine for the world’s 77 million Anglicans, only 2.3 million of whom are Episcopalians.

“This is very, very, very significant,” said Bill Atwood, who serves as a strategist for a group of the conservative bishops. “It was either call the Episcopal Church back or lose the Anglican Communion, and the group agreed it was better to call the Episcopal Church back.”

We have made remarkable progress over the last 200 years in widening the circle of God's realm to include blacks and other racial minorities, women, and now gays. It is always worth remembering that each movement forward was opposed by Christians who quoted their scriptures and claimed that the word of God was absolute: blacks are not equal, women are not equal, homosexuals are not equal. Each movement forward also included temporary steps backward. Think about the Civil War. Christian churches were willing to split over the issue and the country went to war. But progress came and now Christians look back on that moment and wonder how any person could think that slavery could be justified or blacks could be treated as sub-human. Where did that come from? Well, of course, it came from the Bible. It's in there and there is no use trying to deny it. But we recognize today that the Bible was wrong about slavery, and so were those Christians who used their Bible to defend the indefensible institution.

And so it is with attitudes toward homosexuality. The same backward spirit is fighting a rear-guard action against full acceptance of homosexuals. These Christians are using their Bibles to defend an indefensible position. They are wrong. And at some point in the future Christians will look back on this particular battle and wonder what we were thinking.

In the meantime, the struggle continues. And some of our welcoming churches will probably be seeing a few more Episcopalians.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Pining for the Good Old Days

Who'd have thunk it:
Back when Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton was first lady, no one better embodied what she once called the “vast right-wing conspiracy” than Richard Mellon Scaife.

Mr. Scaife, reclusive heir to the Mellon banking fortune, spent more than $2 million investigating and publicizing accusations about the supposed involvement of Mrs. Clinton and former President Bill Clinton in corrupt land deals, sexual affairs, drug running and murder.

But now, as Mrs. Clinton is running for the Democratic presidential nomination, Mr. Scaife’s checkbook is staying in his pocket.

Christopher Ruddy, who once worked full-time for Mr. Scaife investigating the Clintons and now runs a conservative online publication he co-owns with Mr. Scaife, said, “Both of us have had a rethinking.”

“Clinton wasn’t such a bad president,” Mr. Ruddy said. “In fact, he was a pretty good president in a lot of ways, and Dick feels that way today.”

The plain truth of the matter is that Bill Clinton was far more conservative than George Bush. Think nation building and deficit spending. When you have lived for six years through the worst experience of presidential "leadership" in the history of the country, putting up with the peccadilloes of Bill would be a welcome change. Even some of the vast right-wing conspiracy agree.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Lutheran Pastor At Center of Denominational Dispute

The Washington Post reports:
It was a typical Sunday scene and, in its own way, a small act of defiance.

Members of St. John's Lutheran Church last weekend filed by their pastor, hugging him and exchanging jokes. Gleeful children rushed past toward a treats-laden table.

Many in the 350-member Atlanta congregation say they don't plan to let the Rev. Bradley E. Schmeling leave the pulpit Aug. 15, as ordered last week by an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) disciplinary committee because he is in a gay relationship.

Defying the order could end Atlanta's oldest Lutheran church affiliation with the ELCA, cutting off the small church and its members from the large denomination's resources, including community service programs, hymn books and access to synod officials for guidance on legal, financial and spiritual matters.

St. John's members hope it doesn't come to that. They want the denomination to change its rules about sexually active gay clergy at its biennial churchwide assembly in Chicago next August, just days before Schmeling is to be removed from the clergy.

"We are not an activist church, even though we can stand for issues of justice," said Charles Fox, who occasionally assists Schmeling at Sunday worship. "He exemplifies the kind of love and empathy I envision Christ to have had."

The committee, which basically served as the jury in a closed-door trial, found Schmeling guilty of breaking the denomination's rules for having a same-sex relationship. However, the committee also called those rules "at least bad policy" and recommended changing them, which the ELCA could consider doing at its biennial meeting.

St. John's -- a congregation that gathers in a 1914 Tudor-style manor in one of Atlanta's historic neighborhoods -- now finds itself in the middle of a campaign to allow sexually active gays to be pastors in the largest Lutheran denomination in the United States.

"It hasn't been a problem to explain Brad or his relationship to our children as much as what the church wants to do," said Fox, a married father of a 10-year-old boy and an 8-year-old girl.

The ELCA, which has 4.9 million members, allows openly gay clergy, but only if they are celibate. Still, many Lutheran churches support ordaining partnered gays and perform same-sex blessing ceremonies despite the policy. The same debate over how biblical verses on gay relationships should be interpreted is tearing at many mainline Protestant groups...

At the ELCA's last national meeting in 2005, a proposal to allow synods to decide if they would accept a pastor in a same-sex relationship failed after getting nearly half the 1,000 votes, short of the required two-thirds majority.

Nearly half of the Lutheran congregations in the country were comfortable enough with the idea of allowing a gay or lesbian pastor to be in a committed relationship that they think it should be up to each synod to decide how to handle it. By some definitions that means that these millions of church-goers are no longer "Christian.

Friday, February 16, 2007


Over on the blog at the BRF website today I find this quote:
A HOMOSEXUALIST BRETHREN PASTOR INDICATES that in another generation, the current homosexual divide won't be an issue in the Church of the Brethren.
That pastor would be me, based on a post I made yesterday to the VOS listserve. I don't know what a homosexualist is, but it is probably something I should be proud of, given the source.

At the Morgue

The McClatchy Baghdad Bureau of its news service has set up a blog, Inside Iraq, with unedited posts by members of the news service there. Here is a post from today:

At the Morgue.

We were asked to send the next of kin to whom the remains of my nephew, killed on Monday in a horrific explosion downtown, can be handed over. The young men of the family, as was customary, rose to go.

“NO!” cried his mother. “Isn’t my son enough?? Must we lose more of our youth?? You know there are unknowns who wait at the Morgue to either kill or kidnap the men who dare reach its doors. I will go.”

So we went, his mum, his other aunt and I.

I was praying all the way there.

I never thought a day would come when it was the women of the family, who would be safer on the roads. All the men are potential terrorists it seems, and are therefore to be cut down on sight. This is the logic of today, is it not? To kill evil before it even has a chance to take root.

When we got there, we were given his remains. And remains they were. From the waist down was all they could give us. “We identified him by the cell phone in his pants’ pocket. If you want the rest, you will just have to look for yourselves. We don’t know what he looks like.”

Now begins a horror that surpasses anything I could have possibly envisioned .We were led away, and before long a foul stench clogged my nose and I retched. With no more warning we came to a clearing that was probably an inside garden at one time; all round it were patios and rooms with large-pane windows to catch the evening breeze Baghdad is renowned for. But now it had become a slaughterhouse, only instead of cattle, all around were human bodies. On this side; complete bodies; on that side halves; and EVERYWHERE body parts.

We were asked what we were looking for, “ upper half” replied my companion, for I was rendered speechless. “Over there”. We looked for our boy’s broken body between tens of other boys’ remains’; with our bare hands sifting them and turning them.

We found him millennia later, took both parts home, and began the mourning ceremony.

Can Hollywood match our reality?? I doubt it.

Friday Cat Blogging

Inspired by Kevin Drum, it's Friday Cat Blogging time. They were into the Valentine's Day wrappers.

Era of Religious Right is Over

So says Sojourners founder Jim Wallis in this week's Time Magazine:

As I have traveled around the country, one line in my speeches always draws cheers: "The monologue of the Religious Right is over, and a new dialogue has now begun." We have now entered the post-Religious Right era. Though religion has had a negative image in the last few decades, the years ahead may be shaped by a dynamic and more progressive faith that will make needed social change more possible.

In the churches, a combination of deeper compassion and better theology has moved many pastors and congregations away from the partisan politics of the Religious Right. In politics, we are beginning to see a leveling of the playing field between the two parties on religion and "moral values," and the media are finally beginning to cover the many and diverse voices of faith. These are all big changes in American life, and the rest of the world is taking notice.

Evangelicals — especially the new generation of pastors and young people — are deserting the Religious Right in droves. The evangelical social agenda is now much broader and deeper, engaging issues like poverty and economic justice, global warming, HIV/AIDS, sex trafficking, genocide in Darfur and the ethics of the war in Iraq. Catholics are returning to their social teaching; mainline Protestants are asserting their faith more aggressively; a new generation of young black and Latino pastors are putting the focus on social justice; a Jewish renewal movement and more moderate Islam are also growing; and a whole new denomination has emerged, which might be called the "spiritual but not religious."

Even more amazing, the Left is starting to get it. Progressive politics is remembering its own religious history and recovering the language of faith. Democrats are learning to connect issues with values and are now engaging with the faith community. They are running more candidates who have been emboldened to come out of the closet as believers themselves. Meanwhile, many Republicans have had it with the Religious Right. Both sides are asking how to connect faith and values with politics. People know now that God is neither a Republican nor a Democrat, and we are all learning that religion should not be in the pocket of any political party; it calls all of us to moral accountability.

Most people I talk to think that politics isn't working in America and believe that the misuse of religion has been part of the problem. Politics is failing to resolve the big moral issues of our time, or even to seriously address them. And religion has too often been used as a wedge to divide people, rather than as a bridge to bring us together on those most critical questions. I believe (and many people I talk with agree) that politics could and should begin to really deal with the many crises we face. Whenever that happens, social movements often begin to emerge, usually focused on key moral issues. The best social movements always have spiritual foundations, because real change comes with the energy, commitment and hope that powerful faith and spirituality can bring.

It's time to remember the spiritual revivals that helped lead to the abolition of slavery in Britain and the United States; the black church's leadership during the American civil rights movement; the deeply Catholic roots of the Solidarity movement in Poland that led the overthrow of communism; the way liberation theology in Latin America helped pave the way for new democracies; how Desmond Tutu and the South African churches served to inspire victory over apartheid; how "People Power" joined with the priests and bishops to bring down down Philippine strongman Ferdinand Marcos; how the Dalai Lama keeps hope alive for millions of Tibetans; and, today, how the growing Evangelical and Pentecostal churches of the global South are mobilizing to addresse the injustices of globalization.

I believe we are seeing the beginning of movements like that again, right here in America, and that we are poised on the edge of what might become a revival that will bring about big changes in the world. Historically, social reform often requires spiritual revival. And that's what church historians always say about real revival — that it changes things in the society, not just in people's inner lives. I believe that what we are seeing now may be the beginning of a new revival — a revival for justice.

The era of the Religious Right is now past, and it's up to all of us to create a new day.

Remembering Carl Sagan

My online newsletter post this week:

Carl Sagan died ten years ago. For many years, thanks to his PBS series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, he was the most well-known scientist in America. In 1985 he delivered the famous Gifford Lectures in Scotland, where William James in 1902 first delivered the lectures that became his The Varieties of Religious Experience and where great scientists, philosophers, and theologians have lectured annually, before James, and ever since. Sagan lectured to packed houses but the lectures were never published and his own notes were filed and lost until his widow, Ann Druyan, discovered them a couple of years ago and decided to edit them into book form, The Varieties of Scientific Experience.

In her introduction, Ms. Druyan notes that Sagan was not a "religious" man, if by religion we mean adhering to a traditional religious faith. But he was a deeply spiritual person, and made it his life work to share with others the sense of awe and wonder he experienced as he explored the universe with others, as well as his passion to care for and save the planet. He also was more than willing to engage the public in discussions about the nature and existence of God. Because he was by temperament an inquisitive person, he read and studied all the major religions in the world and often amazed religious people with his ability to quote their scriptures and tell them about their own religious history. She notes that over the years he worked with and befriended many religious leaders:

However, he never understood why anyone would want to separate science, which is just a way of searching for what is true, from what we hold sacred, which are those truths that inspire love and awe. His argument was not with God but with those who believed that our understanding of the the sacred had been completed.

That statement provides an excellent summary of my own "conflict" with much that passes for organized religion in our day. It isn't the idea or the belief that in the biblical prophets or Jesus or Paul or in scripture as a whole the sacred was revealed. I can readily affirm that. It is the idea or the belief that what we find in scripture is it. The perfect revelation. Nothing since compares; nothing since found to contradict the understandings of humans writing two thousand years ago and more can be true. What the scriptures said then about science or the place of women or homosexuality is the final word.

It's not, for me. The scriptures are where I begin to understand my own spiritual (and cultural) place in the world. But we have learned so much since then about our enormous universe, the ancient history of our planet, and the way our minds and bodies work. And it's just the tip of the iceberg of what there is to know and understand. I can't imagine being satisfied to say that what the scripture writers knew and believed about history or science or Jesus or humanity is all there is to know. The search for truth did not end then. The search for truth is what leads us to know and understand everything we can about the world around us. And in that search it is possible to see the continuing unfolding of the sacred, every bit as awesome and wonderful today as it was two thousand years ago.

A Governor Uninspired by the Muse

I hope Pawlenty changes his mind this year. As the article indicates 37 states and several MN cities already have a poet laureate--so why not Minnesota?
By Courtney Blanchard

"The 'Gov' shall appoint a state poet laureate,
Who shall serve for a four-year term.
Because this appointment will always be great,
There's no need for the Senate to confirm."

Most bills don't read like poetry, but lawmakers are proposing to establish a state poet laureate in the most appropriate fashion. House researcher Mark Shepard wrote the rhyming lines of the bill, but if passed, the poem would probably be taken out of the law and go on the books in standard legalese. Shepard, a 1978 University Law School graduate, said he doesn't normally write poetry. "Only upon request of elected officials," he said.

Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, is sponsoring the bill. She said the state's poet laureate would read in schools and write about significant milestones in the state, like town anniversaries or the opening of legislative sessions. "Poetry is great for teaching kids how to read and enhancing literacy," Kahn said. The poet laureate wouldn't be paid, but Kahn said she's optimistic that arts and humanities groups in the state will raise private money for the position.

According to the Library of Congress, 37 states have poets laureate. There's also a national poet laureate: Donald Hall. Several Minnesota cities also have poet laureates, including Duluth and St. Paul. Carol Connelly is St. Paul's first and only poet laureate.

Mayor Chris Coleman created the position in July, and Connelly has since written a poem about Coleman's budget address as well as toured grade schools to read poetry. "Children are so open and their poetic souls have not been wrecked," she said. Connelly said poetry is often ignored in schools, but she still encounters a lot of artistic opportunity among grade school children. "So many of them are amazingly talented," she said. Connelly, a fourth generation denizen of St. Paul, said she started writing poetry later in life, after writing for newspapers and magazines. She uses her status as a laureate to hold workshops for other writers and draw attention to the art. "I think poetry deserves every bit of pomp and circumstance and attention it can get," Connelly said. "I think it's the art that makes the reader a wiser and stronger person."

English major David DiPasquale has been writing poetry for several years. He said one of his poems was just selected for Ivory Tower, the University's undergraduate art and literary magazine to be released in spring. DiPasquale said a state poet laureate could help expose people to the art. "We're not as comfortable with poetry," he said.

Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty wasn't comfortable with the idea of a state poet laureate - he vetoed a version of the bill last session. According to a June 2005 Star Tribune article, Pawlenty said approving the bill could lead to "requests for a state mime, interpretive dancer or potter." Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung said he hasn't had a chance to ask the governor if he will veto the bill this year, if it passes. "He did it before, but it doesn't necessarily mean he would do it this year."

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Hardaway Redux

Leave it to an ESPN analyst Gene Wojciechowski to speak words of wisdom about the news that retired NBA player John Amaechi is gay and retired NBA player Tim Hardaway is a bigot:

The news isn't that Amaechi is gay and wrote a book about it. The news isn't that Tim Hardaway is a self-confessed homophobic and told a radio sports talk-show host about it. The news is that it won't be news a week from now. And that's a good thing.

This is all playing out so predictably. Former NBA center declares he's gay. Past and present NBA players declare indifference. One former NBA player, in this case, Hardaway, declares his outrage and hatred. Hey, just like real life.

It's so easy to take a swing at the human pinata, Hardaway, right now. After all, the words spilled out of his mouth with such ease and with such arrogance.

"Well, you know, I hate gay people," he told Dan Le Batard, a Miami Herald columnist and local talk show host, on Le Batard's radio show. "I let it be known I don't like gay people. I don't like to be around gay people. I'm homophobic."

Never mind that Hardaway played at the same university and for the same coach who, years earlier, helped destroy racial stereotypes by starting five African-American players against all-white Kentucky in the 1966 NCAA Final Four championship game. But the lessons of tolerance taught by Don Haskins at Texas-El Paso somehow were forgotten by Hardaway. Or maybe they were never remembered in the first place.

Hardaway's comments will be reviled and praised. Gay rights advocates will issue angry, impassioned statements condemning the remarks. Gay bashers will rejoice. And then all the noise will dissolve and we'll watch the NBA All-Star Game this Sunday.

This isn't meant to dismiss what Hardaway said. It was a vile, reprehensible display of ignorance, but it isn't anything new. Hardaway simply gave his prejudice a name and a face for a news cycle or two. His bigotry, as well as his apology, will be forgotten, as it should be.

Hardaway is a single, blunt, clumsy voice. His opinion is shared by others, but the good news here -- the only news here -- is that there are enough other voices to counter the homophobic screed.

NBA commissioner David Stern immediately rendered Hardaway persona non baller by banning him from any league-related appearances. But the more appropriate action might have been to let Hardaway make those appearances and deal with the backlash in person. Or better yet, have him attempt to articulate the reasons for his hatred. I mean, if we're going to have a dialogue, then let's have a dialogue.

Instead, we got this from Hardaway: "I shouldn't have said I hate gay people or anything like that."

Can't you just feel the sincerity?

Meanwhile, Amaechi acknowledged the obvious, that homophobia comes in all shapes and sizes, including former All-NBA point guards. Hardaway was given a public forum to express his views. Others use old reliable: hate mail.

There always will be intractable people such as Hardaway -- and Amaechi no doubt has the letters to prove it. But it's easier to pay less attention to Hardaway's nonsense because, in the end, his hatred doesn't matter. And one of these days, neither will Amaechi's homosexuality.

I don't care that a gay center played in the NBA. Then again, I don't care if my car mechanic, dentist or mailman is gay. And I definitely don't care what a little lint-speck of a person, Tim Hardaway, thinks about them.

This is no longer about alternative lifestyles, or whatever the hell euphemism nervous people use to describe gays. It's about the relationship between the micro world of sports and the macro world of society.

I'm not naïve enough to believe homosexuality in sports isn't an issue, but it no longer is the issue. Those days are gone. That's why Amaechi is no pioneer and Hardaway is barely a footnote.

Progress is being made. Maybe not as fast as Amaechi would like, or as slow as Hardaway would prefer, but we're approaching a moment when being a gay athlete in a predominantly straight world simply doesn't matter.

Yesterday it was Martina Navratilova. Today it is Amaechi. Tomorrow it will be someone else. Guess what? They had me at hello.

I don't need any more heartfelt disclosures from the Amaechis of the world. Been there, read that. That's because we live in different, more enlightened times now. Perfect? No. Better? Yes.

It's not my fault Hardaway didn't get the memo.

Yes, progress is being made.

A Refreshing Honesty?

Last week former Penn State and retired professional basketball player John Amaechi came out and admitted he was gay. Retired Miami Heat guard Tim Hardaway responded to this news:

"You know, I hate gay people, so I let it be known. I don't like gay people and I don't like to be around gay people," he said while a guest on Sports Talk 790 The Ticket. "I'm homophobic. I don't like it. It shouldn't be in the world or in the United States."

I suppose we should commend him for being an open and honest bigot. Hardaway later apologized for his comments, but it was too late, he lost his job as a league spokesman for the NBA.

Iraq Syndrome

The Administration is having a hard time convincing anyone that it has solid intelligence on Iran supplying weapons to Shiite insurgents in Iraq:

Much as the Vietnam Syndrome dogged the foreign and military policies of a generation of U.S. presidents, the Iraq Syndrome has become an ever-present undercurrent in Washington. "Everyone is reliving the whole thing again in everything we do," said one administration official, referring to the tumultuous months surrounding the U.S. invasion in March 2003.

"In the old days, if the U.S. government had come out and said, 'We've got this, here's our assessment,' reasonable people would have taken it at face value," the official said of the Baghdad briefing. "That's never going to happen again."

Correction. It's never going to happen again with this Administration. After what we have learned about the intelligence on Iraq, no one should take on face value a word this Administration says about anything. Congress should do all it can to both investigate the lies about Iraq and make sure this President does not do it all over again with Iran.

And I am still waiting for the Administration to answer the question of who is funding the Sunni insurgents and where are they getting their arms? We have incurred far more losses from them than from the Shiite side. Could it be that it is the Saudis who are funneling money to the Sunnis?

Smoking Gun

This is what you call a smoking gun:
...from March 2005, Mr. Trepp's wife reminded him: "Please don't forget to bring the money you promised Jim and Dawn" Gibbons. Mr. Trepp's response came minutes later: "Don't you ever send this kind of message to me! Erase this message from your computer right now!"
Jim Gibbons is a former five-term US Representative from Nevada, just sworn in as the state's Governor. Mr Tripp is the owner of a software company, eTreppid, that managed to win many military contracts while Rep. Gibbons was in office. The FBI is investigating Mr. Gibbons and Mr. Tripp. The Wall Street Journal reports that newly released emails show that Gibbons helped Tripp win many no-bid contracts, and that Gibbons was treated to cruise trips and the use of a private jet by Tripp. Apparently, he was also receiving cash. Someone must have forgot to completely erase the e-mail. Darn.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Conservative Naivete

Conservatives are supposed to be the people who take seriously the reality of humanity's fallen nature in the world. But sometimes they exhibit the most naive forms of thinking about human nature and behavior. And it often happens when they begin to wax eloquently about the wonders of the free market.

Somehow today I found myself on the website of The Claremont Institute, a right wing thinktank. I was reading there a book(s) review by Christopher D. Levenick. He is a writer for The Claremont Institute and the American Enterprise Institute, which is another right-wing think tank. (For context, it was recently revealed that American Enterprise Institute was offering $10,000 to scientists who would write articles challenging global warming, so you know the kind of "thinking" they do.)

In any case Levenick was reviewing five books by progressive articles: A review of Our Endangered Values: America’s Moral Crisis, by Jimmy Carter; The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country from the Religious Right, by Michael Lerner; Why the Christian Right Is Wrong: A Minister’s Manifesto for Taking Back Your Faith, Your Flag, Your Future, by Robin Meyers; The Hijacking of Jesus: How the Religious Right Distorts Christianity and Promotes Prejudice and Hate, by Dan Wakefield; and God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It, by Jim Wallis. In one brief article he managed to review, dismiss, and dispatch them all.

Here is a quote that caught my eye:
Take the Religious Left's approach to poverty. To their great credit, these writers are dead serious about feeding the hungry and clothing the naked. Unfortunately, however, they perceive this obligation as primarily and properly the work of government. Carter speaks for the group when he alleges that "[i]n efforts to reach out to the poor, alleviate suffering, provide homes for the homeless...government office-holders and not church members were more likely to assume responsibility and be able to fulfill the benevolent missions." Little acknowledgment is made of the private sector's role in creating affluence, or of the fact that a zealous redistribution of present assets will inhibit the creation of future wealth. Yet these errors of practical economics are of less consequence than the grave theological misapprehension beneath them. The challenge and the burden of almsgiving are and ought to be personal. Christian charity does not consist of petitioning the state to redress economic grievances. Rather, it calls upon the individual believer to comfort the afflicted. An ethic geared primarily toward government undermines the crucial sense of personal responsibility for the least of one's brethren. True charity, like true faith, must be voluntary if it is to be efficacious.
"The challenge and burden of almsgiving are and ought to be personal." Has Levenick never heard of the biblical prophets? They were not addressing their scathing words of criticism to individuals but to the state, and they were calling on the state to act with justice towards the poor.

But beyond the shallow understanding of Judeo-Christian tradition, Levenick betrays a naive understanding of human nature. Out of the goodness of their hearts individuals, of course, should contribute financially for the well-being of others. And in a perfect Garden of Eden universe there would be no great disparities of wealth because those who have benefited and prospered the most would willingly and voluntarily level the playing field themselves. But we don't live in the Garden of Eden. We live in a world where many are happily selfish and where political and philosophical systems celebrate this selfishness as God's will and nature's destiny. It's social Darwinism, the survival of the fittest.

The worldview that Levinick pines for was the reality of America during the Industrial Revolution and the days of robber barons and children working in sweatshops. The government played a minimal role in the lives of everyday Americans and companies were free to take and plunder and exploit. For many Americans charity was all that stood between them and extreme poverty. It wasn't enough.

And it all came crashing down in the Great Depression, when all but the very wealthy suffered greatly. It was a defining moment in American history when a collective national decision was made to vastly increase the size and scope of the government in order to make sure that there was a check on unbridled corporate power and a social safety net that protected all Americans from the ravages of deep poverty. It wasn't perfect, and in subsequent years the safety net was further expanded in the form of Welfare (which also wasn't perfect), but it was an enormous evolutionary advance in thinking from the idea that charity is a matter of personal choice. And it was a move made necessary because many (most?) of us will not willingly choose to care and give enough to make a difference in our world.

Now, we are experiencing another enormous shift in the balance of power in our world with the expansion of the reach of global corporations to follow the "bottom line" and create and destroy jobs at will all around the globe, while at the same time corporate CEO's and executives are raking in obscene sums of money. Personal charity can't begin to make a dent in the incredible needs of dislocated workers, not to mention the environmental damage being done. Nor can it address the corruption of companies like Enron or the practices of companies that hide their wealth "offshore" so they can avoid paying taxes.

Human nature is often not pretty. And the only real check on all of this brutish behavior is a strong government that answers to the people. We need our government to protect us from the crimes of corporations. We need our government to redistribute wealth, to expect and require that those who have benefited the most will contribute to the poorest among us. Because they will not freely choose to do it. We need our government to call on all of us to make sacrifices for the good of the country, the environment, and the world.

I have no illusions that government is immune to the same corrupting influences as companies. It too is made up of individuals who can be incredibly incompetent and/or corrupt. The current Administration is a perfect case study. But that is why our founding fathers created three co-equal branches of government, because they took seriously the reality of human nature. We need the branches of our government to do their jobs and check and and challenge one another.

But we need our entire government to do for us what no one of us can do as individuals, alone or collectively. And it's precisely because we know what happens when we rely just on the charity of individuals. You would think that a conservative would know this.

Bush Vindicates Clinton on North Korea

It took President Bush six years to figure out that the Clinton plan for North Korea was the right one:
In exchange for fuel aid, North Korea agreed Tuesday to shut down its main nuclear reactor and eventually dismantle its atomic weapons program, just four months after the communist state shocked the world by testing a nuclear bomb.
This is exactly the agreement that Clinton had worked out with North Korea. When Colin Powell became Secretary of State his first comment on North Korea was that he would continue the Clinton plan, until he was rebuffed by his boss. Instead, we were not going to talk to North Korea because we don't talk to tyrants. That worked well.

In that six year time span North Korea was able to successfully develop and test a nuclear weapon. It's just one of countless examples of the current administration taking what was on the whole a pretty good economic and global situation and turning it all into a shambles.

Sagan Lives

Carl Sagan died ten years ago. But thanks to his wife we have a new volume of his writings:

Now, however, Dr. Sagan has rejoined the cosmic debate from the grave. The occasion is the publication last month of “The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God” (Penguin). The book is based on a series of lectures exploring the boundary between science and religion that Dr. Sagan gave in Glasgow in 1985, and it was edited by Ann Druyan, his widow and collaborator...

“I would suggest that science is, at least in part, informed worship,” he writes at the beginning of a discussion that includes the history of cosmology, a travel guide to the solar system, the reason there are hallucinogen receptors in the brain, and the meaning of the potential discovery — or lack thereof — of extraterrestrial intelligence.

Never afraid to venture into global politics, Dr. Sagan warns at one point of the danger that a leader under the sway of religious fundamentalism might not try too hard to avoid nuclear Armageddon, reasoning that it was God’s plan.

“He might be interested to see what that would be like,” Dr. Sagan wrote. “Why slow it down?”

Almost in the same breath, Dr. Sagan acknowledges that religion can engender hope and speak truth to power, as in the civil rights movement in the United States, but that it rarely does.

It’s curious, he says, that no allegedly Christian nation has adopted the Golden Rule as a basis for foreign policy. Rather, in the nuclear age, mutually assured destruction was the policy of choice. “Christianity says that you should love your enemy. It certainly doesn’t say that you should vaporize his children.”

I will look forward to reading it. One of my favorite Sagan quotes comes from Pale Blue Dot:

How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, 'This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant'? Instead they say, 'No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.' A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Trying to Stop Being Homosexual

The New York Times has a good article today about the personal struggle religiously conservative homosexuals face:

Corey Larsen spent years hiding the feelings that drew him to other men, at first refusing to acknowledge them and then praying daily for them to be taken away.

As a teenager in Clearfield, Utah, he tried to banish the thoughts. As he grew older, the attractions grew stronger, but so did his religious convictions as a Mormon.

The contradiction tormented him. After moving to Manhattan several years ago, he remained a respected young leader in his church ward. Behind closed doors, though, he sank into despair. “I was either going to stay in the church, in what I believe and what I love, or choose this different path that I felt was just knocking on my door,” he said.

Last May, Mr. Larsen, 28, began seeing a therapist in Jersey City, joining others across the country making similar attempts to eliminate their gay desires through therapy or religious ministries dedicated to that end. Most are caught in similarly anguishing crises of faith and identity, searching for a way out through a murky world of intense dispute and warring political agendas.

Efforts by religious conservatives to “treat” homosexuality received renewed attention last week with news that the Rev. Ted Haggard, an evangelical pastor dismissed from his Colorado megachurch in a gay-sex scandal, had undergone three weeks of intense therapy and then reportedly concluded that he was “completely heterosexual.”

Although the scientific community cannot say definitively what determines sexual orientation — whether it is nature or nurture — most mainstream mental health professionals dismiss attempts to eradicate homosexual desires or to change someone’s sexual orientation as quackery that is potentially harmful.

Gay rights advocates say the efforts only provide additional fodder for homophobia. Mental health experts say there is no proof that sexual reorientation therapy, as it is often called, works. Meanwhile, they argue, the damage it can inflict on self-esteem, triggering depression and even suicide, is well documented.

“There’s not a debate in the profession on this issue,” said Dr. Jack Drescher, a New York psychiatrist and former chairman of the Committee on Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Issues of the American Psychiatric Association. “This is like creationism. You create the impression to the public as if there was a debate in the profession, which there is not.”

Nevertheless, these efforts, commonly called the “ex-gay” movement, have become increasingly visible across the country, where the battle over gay marriage and sex scandals in the Roman Catholic Church have brought the divisive issue of homosexuality to the forefront in recent years.

The efforts to rein in homosexual desires run the gamut from those that take a completely secular counseling approach to others that are completely spiritual. Some proclaim complete change is available, while others focus simply on helping gays and lesbians live celibately. Men seem to predominate in them, but women also seek them out.

Despite the skepticism about whether ex-gay programs can work, there is no denying the struggle of those involved. Among them are evangelical Protestants, Orthodox Jews, Mormons, Roman Catholics and others often driven by deeply held religious beliefs that run counter to societal voices that encourage them to embrace being gay. It is unclear how many people participate in these programs, but a leading Christian organization in the movement, Exodus International, estimated in 2003 it had 11,000 in its affiliated ministries...

The anguish of those struggling with their sexuality is real. It is just sad that they are trapped in a religious mindset that can't accept them for who they really are.

A Mind Divided

The New York Times has an interesting article about scientists who earn their degrees doing research in fields related to the study of evolution, but who personally hold religious beliefs that reject the findings of their own studies:
There is nothing much unusual about the 197-page dissertation Marcus R. Ross submitted in December to complete his doctoral degree in geosciences here at the University of Rhode Island.

His subject was the abundance and spread of mosasaurs, marine reptiles that, as he wrote, vanished at the end of the Cretaceous era about 65 million years ago. The work is “impeccable,” said David E. Fastovsky, a paleontologist and professor of geosciences at the university who was Dr. Ross’s dissertation adviser. “He was working within a strictly scientific framework, a conventional scientific framework.”

But Dr. Ross is hardly a conventional paleontologist. He is a “young earth creationist” — he believes that the Bible is a literally true account of the creation of the universe, and that the earth is at most 10,000 years old.

For him, Dr. Ross said, the methods and theories of paleontology are one “paradigm” for studying the past, and Scripture is another. In the paleontological paradigm, he said, the dates in his dissertation are entirely appropriate. The fact that as a young earth creationist he has a different view just means, he said, “that I am separating the different paradigms.”

How does one hold this together in the mind?

The article notes the challenges these individuals bring to the academic setting. As long as they are doing good work and keeping their religious views from interfering with their studies, then there is no reason to keep them from pursuing their degrees. But then some of them go on to teach at conservative religious institutions where they disavow the findings of the scientific method that they used to earn their degrees. And they use their academic degrees to lend legitimacy to the non-science they are teaching.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Good News for the ELCA

From a press release by the Human Rights Campaign:

The jury of 12 Lutheran clergy from across the country recommended that the ELCA’s Churchwide Assembly, the denomination’s highest legislative body, “remove the language that specifically precludes practicing homosexuals from service as ordained ministers of this church” and “remove the specific prohibition against homosexual sexual relationships.” The committee also recommended that the denomination take steps to immediately reinstate clergy that resigned or were expelled from their churches for entering into committed same-sex relationships.

"The ruling came Wednesday during a closed-door church trial of openly gay Rev. Bradley Schmeling, pastor of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Atlanta.

"We are encouraged by this decision that Pastor Brad’s leadership and ministry should be affirmed and the discriminatory policy overturned,” said Human Rights Campaign Religion and Faith Program Director Harry Knox. “It would be tragically irresponsible to rob the St. John’s family of their loving pastor and his proven ability to grow this outstanding ministry because of a bad policy that needs to change.”

Despite the continued vocal support of St. John’s members, Schmeling was brought before a disciplinary committee in January on charges that he had violated the denomination’s pastoral conduct guidelines after disclosing to church leaders last August that he had entered into a committed same-sex partnership. The ELCA currently allows only celibate gay people to serve as clergy.

"The disciplinary committee will forgo further proceedings on Schmeling’s trial until Aug. 15 following the 2007 Churchwide Assembly in Chicago. Unrefuted evidence at the trial showed that the congregation has grown and thrived under Schmeling’s leadership and the committee’s strong recommendation to the Churchwide Assembly is that the discriminatory policy be changed.

"One church, one denomination at a time.

Living the High Life

The life-styles of the rich and famous... Mac Hammond owns a large home in Plymouth with a pool. He also owns a private plane. He owns two Florida condos worth more than $3 million. A Lexus and a Porsche are registered under his name, three boats too.

A CEO or successful business entrepreneur? Sort of. Mac Hammond is a pastor of Living Word Christian Center in Brooklyn Park. The Christian part is a bit suspect as Hammond preaches a gospel of wealth, and he certainly qualifies as a perfect role model.

But the fact that he pays no taxes on his homes and received a sweet-heart loan to purchase the plane which he then leases back to the church for more money has drawn the interest of a watch-dog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, which is asking the IRS to take a closer look at the churches finances.

This is the same pastor who personally endorsed Rep. Michelle Bachmann during the last election and said he was going to vote for her even though he didn't live in her district.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Saudi Broker Palestinian Deal

I'll bet this cost the Saudis a lot of money:
Rival Palestinian leaders signed an agreement in principle on a power-sharing government Thursday in Saudi-brokered talks in Mecca.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, of the mainstream Fatah movement, and Khaled Meshaal, leader of the militant Hamas group, signed the accord at a ceremony hosted by Saudi King Abdullah in a palace overlooking the Kaaba, Islam's holiest shrine.

The deal sets out the principles of the coalition government, including a promise that it will "respect" previous peace deals with Israel, delegates said. It also divvies up Cabinet posts in the new government.

Still, if Hamas actually keeps its end of the bargain regarding previously negotiated deals with Israel, its a step in the right direction.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Hope on the Healthcare Front

I have long believed that we will get some form of universal healthcare only when American corporate leaders cry "uncle" and say that they can't compete in the global arena while their biggest competitors don't have to worry about providing healthcare for their employees since their home governments provide it.

In what is being viewed as a groundbreaking announcement the head of Wal-Mart is joining the heads of other major corporations and the head of the Service Employees Union to announce a push for universal healthcare:

They have established one of the fiercest rivalries in the American economy, attacking one another’s organizations through dueling blogs, newspaper advertisements and news conferences.

But this morning, in an extraordinary meeting in Washington, the chiefs of Wal-Mart Stores and the Service Employees International Union will stand together and agree on a series of goals for achieving universal health coverage, according to people briefed on the matter.

The two men might even shake hands.

The meeting between H. Lee Scott Jr., the chief executive of Wal-Mart, and Andrew L. Stern, president of the S.E.I.U., which caps months of secret conversations, could be the beginning, however tentative, of a détente between the nation’s largest employer and its labor critics.

At least on one issue. But the issue — providing affordable health insurance — is arguably the biggest facing both Mr. Stern and Mr. Scott. Wal-Mart, which insures fewer than half its workers, has identified health care as potentially the biggest vulnerability to its image and business, and the S.E.I.U., one of the country’s biggest unions, has called it the No. 1 priority for its members.

So during today’s meeting, Mr. Stern and Mr. Scott will announce a campaign to seek public acceptance of several principles of health policy. One goal is universal health coverage by a specific date, somewhere around 2012. Another is the idea of shared responsibility, emphasizing that individuals, businesses and government all play roles in financing health care and expanding coverage.

Executives from AT&T, Intel and several nonprofit organizations will also participate in today’s meeting.

This is good news. If Wal-Mart gets involved seriously in this effort, it will happen.

Update: From the Wall Street Journal here is the opening statement signed by all who participated:

America's health care system is broken. The traditional employer-based model of coverage in its current form is endangered without substantial reform to our health care system. It is being crushed by out of control costs, the pressures of the global economy, and the large and growing number of uninsured. Soaring health costs threaten workers' livelihoods and companies' competitiveness, and undermine the security that individuals of a prosperous nation should enjoy. We can only solve these problems -- and deliver health care that is high quality, affordable, accessible and secure -- if business, government, labor, the health care delivery system and the nonprofit sector work together.

Specifically, the four principles are:

1. We believe every person in America must have quality, affordable health insurance coverage;

2. We believe individuals have a responsibility to maintain and protect their health;

3. We believe that America must dramatically improve the value it receives for every health care dollar; and,

4. We believe that businesses, governments, and individuals all should contribute to managing and financing a new American health care system.

In their followup statements all participants agreed that the current system is broke. Said Intel Chief Craig Barrett:

The U.S. healthcare system delivers results below international norms at high cost, and consumers and industry suffer the consequences.
I wish I had a nickel for everytime I hear someone say, in opposition to universal healthcare, "we have the best healthcare in the world." It isn't true.

Turkana Boy Controversy

Occasionally I hear comments from Brethren evangelicals that "real" Christianity is alive and well in Africa. It is certainly true that evangelical Christianity seems to be thriving there. But this is why I don't celebrate it:
Deep in the dusty, unlit corridors of Kenya's national museum, locked away in a plain-looking cabinet, is one of mankind's oldest relics: Turkana Boy, as he is known, the most complete skeleton of a prehistoric human ever found.

But his first public display later this year is at the heart of a growing storm -- one pitting scientists against Kenya's powerful and popular evangelical Christian movement. The debate over evolution vs. creationism -- once largely confined to the United States -- has arrived in a country known as the cradle of mankind.

"I did not evolve from Turkana Boy or anything like it," says Bishop Boniface Adoyo, head of Kenya's 35 evangelical denominations, which he claims have 10 million followers. "These sorts of silly views are killing our faith."

What is thriving in Africa is a throw-back version of Christianity that denies the validity of evolution, tramples womens rights, and holds bigoted views about homosexuality. It may very well be alive and growing, but it's not good for humanity and its not good for Christianity.