Wednesday, April 30, 2008

John McCain's Healthcare

John McCain opposes government-run healthcare. But as Ezra Klein points out in The American Prospect, McCain has been the beneficiary of government-run healthcare his entire life:
Born the son of a Navy admiral, he was cared for by Navy physicians during his childhood. After graduating from high school, he enrolled in the United States Naval Academy, and the military's care continued until he retired from the service in 1981. In 1982, he won a seat in Congress, ushering him into the Federal Employee Health Benefits Program, and in 2001, he qualified for Medicare. When he says, "we have the highest quality of health care in the world in America," he is speaking as a man who has enjoyed a lifetime of government-run care.

Messiah Arrested for Child Abuse

Another sad story about a religious person accused of abusing children:
State police have removed three children from an apocalyptic church whose leader claims to be the Messiah and acknowledges having sex with some of his followers.

The two girls and one boy -- all younger than 18 -- were taken from the northeastern New Mexico compound after an April 22 investigation, said Romaine Serna, a spokeswoman for the state Children, Youth and Families Department, on Wednesday.

She said a fourth child, a girl, agreed to be interviewed by the department. Serna said that girl had been at the compound but now lives elsewhere with her parents.

The three children were taken into state custody because of allegations of inappropriate contact between minors and the adult leader of the Lord Our Righteousness Church, Serna said.

"I understand that it was very calm, and [state police] did not meet with any resistance," she said. Serna said she wasn't aware of any other youths at the compound.

Serna declined to elaborate because of the ongoing investigation by state police and the district attorney's office. No charges had been filed, she said. The church has at least 70 members, Serna said.

Wayne Bent, 66, who is known in the church as Michael Travesser, established the church at a rural site called Strong City, north of Clayton in extreme northeastern New Mexico. He said God anointed him Messiah in July 2000.


Maybe McCain should pick Hillary for his running mate. They have both just engaged in the most shameless pander imaginable: suggesting a gas tax holiday for the summer. Tom Friedman, who took a break from writing columns for the New York Times to do penance for being one of the ditto heads who carried water for the administration on the Iraq war (or so I would like to imagine) is back with a good column today on just how dumb this is:

It is great to see that we finally have some national unity on energy policy. Unfortunately, the unifying idea is so ridiculous, so unworthy of the people aspiring to lead our nation, it takes your breath away. Hillary Clinton has decided to line up with John McCain in pushing to suspend the federal excise tax on gasoline, 18.4 cents a gallon, for this summer’s travel season. This is not an energy policy. This is money laundering: we borrow money from China and ship it to Saudi Arabia and take a little cut for ourselves as it goes through our gas tanks. What a way to build our country.

When the summer is over, we will have increased our debt to China, increased our transfer of wealth to Saudi Arabia and increased our contribution to global warming for our kids to inherit.

No, no, no, we’ll just get the money by taxing Big Oil, says Mrs. Clinton. Even if you could do that, what a terrible way to spend precious tax dollars — burning it up on the way to the beach rather than on innovation?

The McCain-Clinton gas holiday proposal is a perfect example of what energy expert Peter Schwartz of Global Business Network describes as the true American energy policy today: “Maximize demand, minimize supply and buy the rest from the people who hate us the most.”

Good for Barack Obama for resisting this shameful pandering.

But here’s what’s scary: our problem is so much worse than you think. We have no energy strategy. If you are going to use tax policy to shape energy strategy then you want to raise taxes on the things you want to discourage — gasoline consumption and gas-guzzling cars — and you want to lower taxes on the things you want to encourage — new, renewable energy technologies. We are doing just the opposite...

The McCain-Clinton proposal is a reminder to me that the biggest energy crisis we have in our country today is the energy to be serious — the energy to do big things in a sustained, focused and intelligent way. We are in the midst of a national political brownout.

So much for the idea that Hillary is a serious policy wonk. McCain at least admits he doesn't know much about economics.

I hesitate to say much about gas prices because I don't have to drive far to work; most days I work out of the home. My wife drives a couple of miles down the street. I know fuel prices are hurting people who commute and killing truckers. But if we are ever going to end our addiction to oil and do something about climate change we are going to have to stop driving gas-guzzling cars. High gas prices are beginning to change habits. It hurts. But it is medicine we need.

I am really beginning to wonder about Hillary.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Much Ado about Racism--but what about Sexism?

Rev. Wright, Barak Obama's former retired pastor, got the Obama campaign into hot water when the press took sound bites from his previously delivered sermons out of context and brought them into the public view. Both he and Obama have had to pick up the pieces and do much defensive work over the past month. I'm sure the Obama camp hopes this issue will be put to rest by Wright's speech to the NAACP last night.

It is interesting that the bigger elephant in the campaign besides Racism (and no--I don't mean McCain's Republican elephant) has not been mentioned yet. I'm talking about Sexism! I believe this is because the campaigns are just too afraid of it. They don't know what to do with this explosive issue.

Blacks have had equal protection written into the Constitution by amendment but women haven't. This is a plain and simple fact. If you want to talk about oppression of a group of humans--let's talk about women. Just pick up your Bible and read if you want to understand how Feminine Rage might still be alive and thriving. It seems, however, that for the time being, it is underground and not a campaign issue because no one is quite sure how to address it.

Though silent, feminist rage (and the fear of it) is there in this election cycle in spades--no racist pun intended!

Hunger is on the Rise

My suburban book group met last night to discuss the book -- now a decade old -- Nickel and Dimed. I'd read it for a church women's group discussion at "Former Church" about 8 years ago. Several of the women last night expressed that the book was "eye-opening" for them.

I posited that the book is now outdated and obsolete. Our world looks much different that it did 10-12 years ago when this book was being researched and written. As hard as it was for the author to live the life of a person trying to subsist on a minimum wage in the 1990s, it is doubly hard today with the sagging dollar and increased prices for goods, services, and transportation.

We all know that homelessness is on the rise as the banking/lending industry collapses from the weight of it's bad debt. Newspaper stories are starting to crop up about how the restaurant industry is faltering in suburban America as people eat at home to economize and walking and biking are no longer just "urban chic" to go green, but necessities of home economy.

The distribution of wealth and debt looks strikingly like it did back in the pre-New Deal era of the 1920s. Some economists and news commentators are starting to use the "d" word. (Economic--not emotional--depression.)

This morning I read that even our humanitarian health organizations are having difficulty dealing with the rising costs of everything including rice.

Hunger is on the rise.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Evil and the Problem of God

Beliefnet has a current debate up between biblical scholars Bart Ehrman and N.T. Wright on the problem of evil and how or why God allows it to happen. Ehrman, whose personal spiritual journey has taken him from conservative Christian to agnostic, has a book out on the subject: God's Problem, where he looks at the many different answers to the problem of evil found in the scriptures and finds God wanting. Wright has also addressed the issue in some of his books, including Evil and the Justice of God. He thinks the Bible provides an adequate answer to the problem of evil.

I hope to paste more on the subject soon; I need to get some real work done now; but via James McGrath's blog I saw this very good post at the blog Find and Ye Shall Seek. Read the whole thing. Money quote at the end:
Again, I think that all of this would much more easily be solved by simply affirming that God's nature is not that of a supernatural interventionist who has the power to act upon the world from the outside if he/she so decides to, but rather as a creative force that acts through the natural world, through persuasion rather than coercion. Take away the idea of God as omnipotent supernatural interventionist, and the problem of theodicy goes away.
Giving up on the belief in an all-powerful God who could do something about the problem of evil if he/she wanted to, but for whatever reason doesn't is so hard to do. But it is so freeing.

For the Bible Tells Me So

We showed the movie at church last night. It is a very powerful film and for many of the gay and lesbian folks in the audience it was obviously a very emotional experience. The film tells the story of five church-going Christian families who were taught by their churches that homosexuality is a sin (or more accurately as is said repeatedly in the film an abomination), and they believed it. And then they were gifted by God with homosexual children. What do you do when your faith teaches you that something is terribly wrong and sinful and your child tells you that this very wrong and sinful thing is an inseparable part of who they are?

The film also examines the handful of biblical passages and lets a range of biblical scholars from conservative to liberal institutions address the passages. They all agree that Christians typically misread the passages.

But the power of the film comes from the stories told by these families in their journey from disbelief and in some cases initial rejection of their children to acceptance and advocacy on behalf of gays and lesbians. There is simply no substitute for the telling of personal stories. It is easy to rail against the sin of homosexuality until one of your children is gay, or until you meet someone who is and hear their story.

We were fortunate last night to have Randi Reitan present, one of the moms in the film whose son came out. She told her story of growing up in far northern Minnesota and going to school at a Christian college and having no personal experience with gays and lesbians in her life until her son came out. When she shared this information with her minister he told her to not accept his homosexuality and to get her son into what is called reparative therapy to "fix" his problem. What a disgrace to the clergy! Fortunately she sought other advice and she and her husband came around to not only accepting their son for who he is but they became activists advocating on behalf of gay children. She said she has been arrested numerous times as part of a traveling Soulforce team that goes to Christian colleges to advocate for more openness of gay and lesbian students. She noted last night the high suicide rates among GLBT college students at some of these schools.

She also identified the primary source of this sickness - conservative Christian churches - and said how important it is to try to get pastors of these churches to listen to these stories. It isn't helpful to debate scripture; they think they know what the scriptures say. It is the stories they need to hear of people whose lives are too often being torn apart by what they hear from the pulpit while they are struggling with what is going on inside them.

It was another wonderful event at OC.

Watching Conservative Bible Scholars Squirm

There is a fascinating article in Christianity Today about what to do about a favorite biblical passage that doesn't really belong in the Bible. The passage is John 7:53-8:11, the story of Jesus' famous response to the woman caught in adultery: "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone." The problem with the passage is that it doesn't appear in the earliest Greek manuscripts. Good Bible translations like the NRSV make note of this.

The Christianity Today article appears as a sidebar to another story about an important discovery of ancient manuscripts in Albania. A team of scholars was given a rare opportunity to see and photograph a cache of manuscripts; the existence of the cache was known but the number of manuscripts turned out to be much larger than expected. Although the earliest manuscript in the collection is dated from the 6th century, and thus isn't very early, it is an important find.

Regarding our story in question, in three of the manuscripts dated from the 9th century, what is known as the Pericope adulterae isn't there. In another manuscript from the same period it is tacked on at the end. As noted in the article, these ommissions are surprising in manuscripts dated this late. By this time in history what is to be included in the Bible is pretty much settled.

So, should this passage be part of the Bible? What does its inclusion say about biblical inspiration? Here is how several conservative scholars respond:

"There is no reason to pull this out," said Craig Evans, a professor at Acadia Divinity School. "Nothing about it says Jesus didn't have this encounter." All of the stories about Jesus began orally — it was a few decades before they were written down — so it is possible that this story just did not get written down until much later, Evans said.

Michael Holmes, a professor at Bethel University, doesn't consider the story inspired Scripture. But he said he would include the story in the Bible, because of its long history and because the verses bear the marks of an authentic story about Jesus.

"[Pericope adulterae] does offer us deep insight into how Jesus dealt with questions such as this, and in that sense is a great illustration to live by," he said.

Such judgments raise questions about what words like canonicity and inspiration mean for evangelicals. If we reserve the word inspired for the text in the earliest manuscripts, yet accept that other material (such as the pericope adulterae) should be included in our biblical canon, are we implying that select biblical passages may be canonical yet not inspired? If so, what should we do with this distinction?

Biblical scholars do agree on two things: The Bible story should be set apart with a note, and Christians should be cautious when reading the passage for their personal devotions.

Translation teams have struggled with how best to present the story. Some place brackets around the story (RV, NRSV, GNB, ESV), print it in a smaller font (TNIV), or place it at the end of the gospel (REB), all with notes of explanation, said Howard Marshall, professor at the University of Aberdeen. Textual notes are generally added when the traditional King James Version differs significantly from the texts of the Greek New Testament that today's English translations are based on.

So far, no modern translators have chosen to leave it out altogether.

"If you leave it out without any comments," said Ben Witherington, professor at Asbury Theological Seminary, "there are bound to be thousands of Bible readers asking, 'Is this Thomas Jefferson's Bible?'"

But leaving it in can be dangerous, too, especially when Christians breeze past the notes to concentrate on the story. It's difficult to understand how to treat such a sequestered passage; pericope adulterae continues to be much used as evidence of Jesus' character and as an example to believers.

The note in most Bibles does not say the story isn't authentic, but that the oldest manuscripts do not include it. Laypeople assume that translation teams must have a good reason for including the passage, Wallace said.

Douglas Moo, professor at Wheaton College, said that Christians should be cautious about using "Go, and sin no more" or "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone."

Wallace said pastors have a responsibility to communicate the truth of this text to their congregations. "We need to be as thoroughly biblical as we can be … [There] is a huge amount of ignorance that we're catering to in the Christian public.

"A person hearing these words should recognize that they have no authority as authentic words of Jesus," he said. Christians who are reading the story, he said, should give it the same authority as any other unsubstantiated early Christian teaching about Jesus.

Here are my three favorite sentences: 1) "A person hearing these words should recognize that they have no authority as authentic words of Jesus." I wonder how often that message is communicated from the pulpit after a bible passage is read. 2) "Christians should be cautious when reading the passage for their personal devotions." Of what? What might happen if we meditate on a Biblical passage that really doesn't belong in the Bible. And if there is one, could there be more? And 3) "[There] is a huge amount of ignorance that we're catering to in the Christian public." It is tempting to let that sentence stand as the final word but it really does make me wonder how many pastors who were educated in seminaries and introduced to biblical scholarship actually share anything they learned with their congregants.

No Atheists in Foxholes?

This soldier says the army is trying to make it that way:
When Specialist Jeremy Hall held a meeting last July for atheists and freethinkers at Camp Speicher in Iraq, he was excited, he said, to see an officer attending.

But minutes into the talk, the officer, Maj. Freddy J. Welborn, began to berate Specialist Hall and another soldier about atheism, Specialist Hall wrote in a sworn statement. “People like you are not holding up the Constitution and are going against what the founding fathers, who were Christians, wanted for America!” Major Welborn said, according to the statement.

Major Welborn told the soldiers he might bar them from re-enlistment and bring charges against them, according to the statement.

Last month, Specialist Hall and the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, an advocacy group, filed suit in federal court in Kansas, alleging that Specialist Hall’s right to be free from state endorsement of religion under the First Amendment had been violated and that he had faced retaliation for his views. In November, he was sent home early from Iraq because of threats from fellow soldiers.

Friday, April 25, 2008

A Gay Man Talks about Being In the Closet about AIDS

Todd Heywood is a gay man who writes for the Michigan Messenger. He is openly gay but until today in the closet about having HIV/AIDS:

The silence ends here. It ends today. It ends now.

I admit, I have participated in the silencing of this virus. I have been part of the game. I am angry I have been been part and parcel of creating a reality wherein this disease has been allowed to silently slither amongst us. I am furious that the media has focused more on HIV in Africa than HIV right here in our own country. I am appalled that we are prepared to spend $6 billion annually in dealing with HIV in Africa, but can barely muster the votes and support to spend $2 billion annually in our own country on our own people for HIV treatment and prevention. I am horrified that HIV education consists of a modified Nancy Reagan Just Say No attitude, when in fact people -- young people, old people, Americans -- need to know that this virus is here, and that it is continuing to infect us.

But it is easier to be silent when the impacted community is African Americans or Hispanics in our inner cities. It is easier to be silent when the people being decimated by HIV are gay men. Those communities won't rock boats, and they have access to the antiretroviral medications. The so-called "cocktails," like people with HIV need only to sip a Sunset-on-the Beach and they are cured. No one talks about how these drugs destroy your liver, your kidney, your pancreas and cause redistribution of body fat. You certainly don't see pictures in advertisements for HIV medications that show a man on dialysis and with a hump back because of the medications. You see a man climbing a mountain. Yeah, that's reality -- NOT.

However, the silence is easier this way.

We are silent about the disease. Silent about how it is spread, silent about how we fight it and fund assistance for those in need of medications. We are silent about the side effects so people say, "Oh, it's OK if I get HIV because I will just take a pill and be all better." Well, guess what: It's not that easy. We are also silent about who has it and who doesn't, and the silence is killing us.

Yes. It is killing African Americans, Hispanics, gay men, Americans. The silence is killing us. And we have created a beautiful system of denial in which we feed ourselves the lies of silence in order to assure ourselves that we are safe. We live comfortably in our silence, in our myth. Why actually talk about HIV with our partners, when we can just make an assumption about their status? I mean if you talk about it, god forbid, you might actually have to come face to face with the virus and shatter the illusion.

So today, for me, I am breaking the silence on a new closet. The closet of HIV. My name is Todd A. Heywood, and I am a gay man, a community leader, a journalist, and HIV-positive, and I will no longer sit in silence, nor will I allow another person to force me into silence again. I did it as a young gay man. I have done it for the past several months as I have adjusted to my HIV status. But the silence is over. And let me be clear, if you want to reject me because I happen to have HIV in my blood, that is your problem, not mine. But I won't let you walk away from me for that reason without confronting your silencing, oppressing behaviors.

The reality bus has arrived, and it has a seat for all of us on it. Welcome aboard.

Just One More Thing for Men to Worry About

From Reuters:
Police in Congo have arrested 13 suspected sorcerers accused of using black magic to steal or shrink men's penises after a wave of panic and attempted lynchings triggered by the alleged witchcraft.

Reports of so-called penis snatching are not uncommon in West Africa, where belief in traditional religions and witchcraft remains widespread, and where ritual killings to obtain blood or body parts still occur.

Rumors of penis theft began circulating last week in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo's sprawling capital of some 8 million inhabitants. They quickly dominated radio call-in shows, with listeners advised to beware of fellow passengers in communal taxis wearing gold rings.

Purported victims, 14 of whom were also detained by police, claimed that sorcerers simply touched them to make their genitals shrink or disappear, in what some residents said was an attempt to extort cash with the promise of a cure.

Musing on Spong's Visit

I went to see Bishop Spong last night at Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis. He is an engaging speaker, although I didn't hear him say anything last night that he hasn't already said more than once in his books.

The focus of his evening talk was on the challenge Christianity has faced from science and the way it has too often responded badly. Specifically he spoke about what he alleged were the two big threats faced by the church in history - from Galileo and from Darwin - and how in each instance religious authorities responded out of fear with demagoguery and denial that resulted in lasting damage to Christianity.

He paid particular attention to the challenge of Darwin, a challenge he said was two-fold. First, the theory of evolution smashed the use of the Bible as a book of science. God didn't create the world in 7 days, and he recounted with relish ridiculous attempts to hold onto the biblical story as science, like turning each day of creation into a thousand or a million years. He obviously does enjoy smashing idols.

He suggested, though, that the second and bigger threat of Darwin to Christianity took a while to be fully understood. The theory of evolution was a dagger in the heart of the doctrine of the "fall" of humanity and the resulting belief that we need to be saved by God. Evolution has taught us that there never was a perfect human or a perfect time in our past. There was no "fall."

He spent the bulk of time rehearsing the biblical stories that recount, in Christian understanding, God's attempts to make or then to fix what was supposed to be a Garden of Eden existence. First God created us perfectly in the garden and we screwed it up, so he kicked us out. Then he got so disgusted that he decided to wipe us off the face of the earth, all except one righteous family. But that didn't work; no sooner was Noah off the boat on dry land than he was laying around in a drunken stupor. Who could blame him, said Spong, after what he had just been through. So God decided to change tactics and make a special covenant with one group of people: Jews. They messed up, so he gave them the law and then the prophets. Nothing worked. So finally "in the fullness of time" God sent part of himself, his own son Jesus to save us, to redeem us.

In Spong's telling of this story the perpetual, ritual, reliving of this interpretation in liturgy, music, prayer and message fosters human self-loathing, fear of God and others, and unhealthy submission to religious authorities who alone hold the power to administer the sacraments of forgiveness that set us right, at least until next week when we have to be reminded once again that we are retched sinners in need of God's merciful salvation.

Darwin broke the back of this vicious cycle. There was never a time when we were pure; we never fell from God's grace; we don't need to be saved by the blood of Jesus. We are not by any means perfect; Spong acknowledged the human capacity for malice and evil. But what we need is not salvation. We need, instead, to learn how to become more fully human. This, Spong said, is what Jesus actually did for us. He showed us what it looks like to live a fully human life. In fact, Jesus lived such a fully human life that people looked at him and said "this must be God." His calling, though, was not to be the God who saves us, but to be the embodiment of a complete humanity in order to teach us how to live like him. This mission is captured perfectly, said Spong, by the Gospel of John's Jesus when he says: I came that they might have life and have it abundantly. (John 10:10)

The future hope of Christianity lies in embracing this understanding of Jesus and in making his mission our mission. On this point I agree with Spong, that we need to make the mission of Christianity living this life abundantly.

I am not so certain as is Spong that this was really the central mission of Jesus as Jesus understood it. One of the annoying habits of Spong is that he is so certain about everything he says and writes. In the question and answer session after his talk he responded to a question about the miracles of Jesus by dismissing the notion that Jesus was a miracle worker. He classified three kinds of miracles - nature, feeding, and healing - and said that all were attached to Jesus by the communities that followed as they recreated Jesus in the image of the heroes of the Hebrew scriptures.

Yes, but… isn't it possible that their additions to the story of Jesus can be traced back to a real memory of him as a healer? I don't think we can be so sure about what we can say about Jesus as a healer.

In the same way does John 10:10 really speak to what Jesus understood his own life to be all about? I think we cannot be so certain. While I, like Spong, am attracted to the idea that Jesus was essentially a wisdom teacher - this is who I would like Jesus to have been - I think it more likely that he saw himself primarily an eschatological prophet who believed that he was playing a central role in the unfolding drama of Israel's salvation history. He believed that the end was near and that he was a key participant in the final act. He was also a wisdom teacher and a healer. I think one of the reasons we have so many disparate memories and accounts of him is that his life's work was multifaceted, and different communities remembered those pieces of him that were most attractive to them.

But it is increasingly clear to me as I have tried to keep up with the work of the Jesus Seminar and its critics that we are not going to get a clear and neat picture of who Jesus really was. Our task, then, becomes to acknowledge first what we don't know. We don't know enough about Jesus to say with the kind of certainty Spong speaks with that this is the real Jesus. Second, we might need to acknowledge that - gasp - on some things Jesus himself might have been wrong. If he did believe that an apocalyptic drama was unfolding and that the end was near, then like Paul and multitudes of Christians throughout history right up to today, he was, and they were and are wrong. The end is not near. God is not coming back.

Then, do we just chuck the whole enterprise? Some do, but I agree with Spong that we don't need to. Instead, I think we need to carefully and continually revisit what we can say with some certainty about Jesus and Paul and the early Christians and hold onto what is useful (wisdom, peace and justice, egalitarian community, spiritual healing) and let go of what isn't helpful (God's wrath, judgment, the end is near, a pre-scientific worldview that we don't share.) So, for example, in their motivation to anticipate and participate in God's kingdom that was about to arrive, Jesus and Paul apparently ignored barriers of gender and social status to create egalitarian communities. Even if they were wrong about the apocalyptic drama they were surely right about the community. Its vision has freed slaves and ended segregation and emancipated women and inspired gays and lesbians to come out of the closet and claim their place at God's table. We go back to that vision again and again because it continually challenges us see others as fully human and in so doing to become, ourselves, more fully human. This part of Jesus' life and work is what keeps me connected. There is good stuff here.

This is also what is most compelling about Bishop Spong. It is what his own life's work has been all about. And so while his breezy certainty is somewhat annoying and his biblical scholarship is at times spotty, his life speaks. It was a privilege and a joy to be in his presence.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

What I did on My Spring Vacation

We've been back from NOLA (New Orleans, Louisiana) for over a week now. My spouse received an award from the American Chemical Society and the rest of the family tagged along to celebrate his achievement--and what a city in which to celebrate!

Along with seeing my spouse be recognized for his hard work, I was also privileged to witness 2 other historic events--the 25th anniversary of the French Quarter Jazz Festival and the 10th anniversary of the formation of Code Pink and the first performance of The Vagina Monologues. This anniversary of The Vagina Monologues was marked by turning the Superdome into the Love Dome for SuperLove V to the 10th. A new creation titled The Katrina Monologues was performed for the public on Friday April 11 from the floor of the Superdome and I was able to listen as actors wove together the stories of hurricane survivors.

In a blog post, this member of CODE PINK describes her experiences of NOLA/V-10th which were similar to mine.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008


Thank goodness it's the Pennsylvania Primary! All things are good in moderation--this includes discussion and debate during the U.S. democratic political process!

War, Peace & the U.S. Flag

I'm not quite sure why it has taken me so long to be able to understand what has become my ambivalence for the flag as a proud symbol of the U.S.A. It was a simple contest at my kids' school that helped me finally sharpen my focus on these feelings this morning.

On the way to school my girls excitedly told me about a new fundraising program--one of at least 5 going on concurrently. It is being called "A Penny War". The purpose of this penny war is to fund the purchase of a flagpole for the school. The premise of The Penny War is that the class that wins a skirmish of The Penny War each ?day?/?week?/?month? (not clear on this detail) gets a reward such as wearing sandals instead of the uniform code tennis shoes. Much like the current U.S. war, I'm not clear on when this war ends. I think I need to go back to the most recent school newsletter to find out whether the war ends at the end of this week, or at the end of the school year, or when enough money to pay for the flagpole has been collected.

As I was chuckling to myself at this bit of irony between U.S. military policy and putting up a flag at my kids' school, it struck me that I had learned to love and respect the U.S. flag as a child during a time of relative peace before the Vietnam War protests were common. My grandfather had a flagpole, and several current and historic flags that he raised on special holidays. I was the one who got to help him raise the flag on these holidays. I had also graduated from high school on the year of the U.S. Bicentennial--also during a time of peace and a great memory of celebration both for our country and for me personally!

But after 9/11/01 and particularly after 3/17/03 when Bush launched the Iraq War, flags have been flying everywhere all the time in numbers unprecedented in U.S. history--properly and improperly. I've even had a debate on a church governing body whether or not to fly a flag in the church sanctuary. (The vote was "no".) Everywhere you drive you can see torn and tattered flags flapping off of car windows and from flagpoles at homes and businesses and schools. There's a flag just 2 doors down from my house that sorely needs replacing. So, to me, the flag has become a negative symbol that represents the Iraq War. And the tattered flags flying everywhere are as worn and windblown as the troops lingering in the desserts of Iraq.

But beyond this more recent distaste for flag waving, I still felt a haunting feeling of disquiet with the U.S. flag that had longer history in my psyche. I'd never quite identified or articulated it before. Then it struck me like a bomb bursting in air. When you think of raising the flag, along with reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, you think of singing the Star Spangled Banner (or instead of at sporting events). So my personal memory had tied the U.S. Flag permanently with the Star Spangled Banner--a song which is a celebration of war and a song I don't enjoy singing at all.

As this realization hit me, much like a flag rippling in the wind, a second wave of awareness came that for me, the U.S. flag for me was no longer the happy symbol of peacetime pride, but now when I see it, it evokes only thoughts and memories of war, aggression, and death due to recent U.S. history.

My husband's grandfather was a veteran of World War I and his parents gave us the flag from his casket after his funeral. We had flown this flag at our house on U.S. Holidays for the past 12 years or more until 9/11. Now, when national holidays approach I reluctantly haul it out for display. Sometimes when I know we are going to be gone over a U.S. holiday I'm actually relieved that I don't have to have a personal internal debate about whether to fly the flag or not.

After this morning, I don't know whether I will ever be able to look at the flag the same way again. I know that it is critical that those of us who love the United States of American and who also love peace, try very hard to resurrect our mythology of the flag as a symbol of peacetime pride and deconstruct the mythology of the flag as merely a war banner. I'm not sure whether this will be possible, but I will try.

Happy Earth Day!

To celebrate Earth Day 2008, please take this quiz which I found on a link from The Center for Progressive Christianity from the Sierra Club. Then go do something!!

As for me, I think it is past time to install a "low flow" shower heads and this will be my project for the next day (or two depending upon how long it takes this unskilled person).

Monday, April 21, 2008

What Can One Person Do About Climage Change?

Writing in the New York Times, Michael Pollan channels the message of the Dalai Lama (previous post) on why each of us needs to to our part to combat climate change:

Whatever we can do as individuals to change the way we live at this suddenly very late date does seem utterly inadequate to the challenge. It’s hard to argue with Michael Specter, in a recent New Yorker piece on carbon footprints, when he says: “Personal choices, no matter how virtuous [N.B.!], cannot do enough. It will also take laws and money.” So it will. Yet it is no less accurate or hardheaded to say that laws and money cannot do enough, either; that it will also take profound changes in the way we live. Why? Because the climate-change crisis is at its very bottom a crisis of lifestyle — of character, even. The Big Problem is nothing more or less than the sum total of countless little everyday choices, most of them made by us (consumer spending represents 70 percent of our economy), and most of the rest of them made in the name of our needs and desires and preferences.

For us to wait for legislation or technology to solve the problem of how we’re living our lives suggests we’re not really serious about changing — something our politicians cannot fail to notice. They will not move until we do. Indeed, to look to leaders and experts, to laws and money and grand schemes, to save us from our predicament represents precisely the sort of thinking — passive, delegated, dependent for solutions on specialists — that helped get us into this mess in the first place. It’s hard to believe that the same sort of thinking could now get us out of it.

Thirty years ago, Wendell Berry, the Kentucky farmer and writer, put forward a blunt analysis of precisely this mentality. He argued that the environmental crisis of the 1970s — an era innocent of climate change; what we would give to have back that environmental crisis! — was at its heart a crisis of character and would have to be addressed first at that level: at home, as it were. He was impatient with people who wrote checks to environmental organizations while thoughtlessly squandering fossil fuel in their everyday lives — the 1970s equivalent of people buying carbon offsets to atone for their Tahoes and Durangos. Nothing was likely to change until we healed the “split between what we think and what we do.” For Berry, the “why bother” question came down to a moral imperative: “Once our personal connection to what is wrong becomes clear, then we have to choose: we can go on as before, recognizing our dishonesty and living with it the best we can, or we can begin the effort to change the way we think and live.”

...If you do bother, you will set an example for other people. If enough other people bother, each one influencing yet another in a chain reaction of behavioral change, markets for all manner of green products and alternative technologies will prosper and expand. (Just look at the market for hybrid cars.) Consciousness will be raised, perhaps even changed: new moral imperatives and new taboos might take root in the culture. Driving an S.U.V. or eating a 24-ounce steak or illuminating your McMansion like an airport runway at night might come to be regarded as outrages to human conscience. Not having things might become cooler than having them. And those who did change the way they live would acquire the moral standing to demand changes in behavior from others — from other people, other corporations, even other countries.

The Best Message by a Spiritual Leader this Weekend

Was given by the Dalai Lama in Michigan:

The United States and other wealthy countries need to downscale their lifestyles and try to focus more on inner contentment, the Dalai Lama said today.

There simply aren’t enough natural resources on the planet to support all 6 billion people on Earth imitating Western lifestyles, which consume large amounts of water and electricity. Because there are limitations on external material resources, but not on internal ones, it’s better to seek contentment and peace rather than material things, he said...

All people need to take responsibility for the environment in their daily lives, doing what small things they can to make a difference, the Dalai Lama said. He said he showers instead of taking baths, which conserves water, and turns out the lights when he leaves a room. "It’s a really serious matter," he said.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Sadr Threatens War

This can't be good:
Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr on Saturday threatened an "open war" against the Iraqi government unless it halted a crackdown by Iraqi and U.S. security forces on his followers.

The specter of a full-scale uprising by Sadr sharply raises the stakes in his confrontation with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who has threatened to ban the anti-American cleric's movement from political life unless he disbands his militia.

A rebellion by Sadr's Mehdi Army militia -- which has tens of thousands of fighters -- could also reverse overall security gains at a time when U.S. forces are starting to leave Iraq.

"I'm giving the last warning and the last word to the Iraqi government -- either it comes to its senses and takes the path of peace ... or it will be (seen as) the same as the previous government," Sadr said, referring to Saddam Hussein's fallen regime, without elaborating.

If Maliki backs down he looks even weaker than he already is. If he calls Sadr's bluff there could be open civil war. What a mess.

The Other Visit by a Spiritual Leader

The Dalai Lama is speaking at the University of Michigan:
The Dalai Lama on Saturday encouraged people gathered at the University of Michigan to preserve their own religious traditions while respecting others with differing beliefs.

"As you know, I always believed since all different traditions have the same potential to bring inner peace, inner value ... it is important to keep one's own tradition," he told about 8,000 people at Crisler Arena.

The exiled Tibetan spiritual leader said he learned about Islam, Christianity and Judaism through personal contact and that he has a "genuine admiration and respect and appreciation for those traditions."

Friday, April 18, 2008

The Pope and His Clothing

The Washington Post Style section pays attention to what the Pope is wearing and what it says about his theology:

Traditional Catholics have been over the moon since Benedict was installed and started reviving ancient aspects of church life, including making it easier for priests to say the Latin Mass (yes, you need permission to do that) and encouraging the wider use of Gregorian chants and Renaissance music for worship, as opposed to contemporary spiritual genres such as jazz or gospel. They see his clothing choices as a powerful symbolic message saying one thing to a contemporary world: The Catholic Church ain't changing -- not on duds, and certainly not on abortion or gay marriage or priestly celibacy.

Noting that Benedict is choosing styles from the decades, even centuries, before Vatican II (the council in the 1960s that sought ways to modernize Catholicism), some reformers express concern about what the pontiff's clothing choices might indicate.

They "worry that this old-fashioned 'character' also comes with an old-style authoritarianism," David Gibson, a biographer of Benedict and well-known Catholic blogger, wrote in a recent essay published by the Religion News Service.

Why the pope is wearing fur and lace is a subject of some sensitivity. In 25 years as head of the Vatican's orthodoxy-enforcing office, Benedict developed a reputation for rigidity, even if that meant damaging the careers of Catholic theologians who challenged conventional thinking.

One day last week in his office overlooking St. Peter's piazza, Benedict's top liturgical official played down the gossip, saying Benedict isn't trying to bring the church back into the Dark Ages.

Just a couple of centuries will do.

Paying for Something I Don't Believe In

This was the newsletter article I wrote for this week and didn't send:

What if you came to church on Sunday and heard me using me message time to disparage Jews and Muslims and to say that only those who are Christians are going to be saved? What if your children came back from Sunday School and told you they had learned that God created the earth in 6 days and it happened just a few thousand years ago?

How long would you continue to attend and contribute if the message we shared was in obvious conflict with the values we espouse as a religious community. Not very long, I would guess. I would hope.

So did you file your taxes this week? Did you think about this fundamental act of patriotism, paying taxes, in the same light as contributing at church?

When you look at the amount of social and political unrest around the world, it really is a remarkable thing that we live in a country where tens of millions of people willingly - if with some grumbling - make a regular financial contribution to the government. Every year. No force is required. We understand that there are penalties for cheating, of course, and we support compliance because we know that the taxes we pay provide services we all need and because we have a sense that we are supporting a country whose values are worthy of support.

But is this true today? Our taxes are supporting a government that launched an unprovoked war under false pretenses. A government that drew up a specious legal cover to justify torture of prisoners held with no legal rights. I must confess that it angers me a great deal to be contributing to the support of a government that is acting in ways contrary to its espoused values.

And then there is the money squandered. Estimates by the non-partisan Government Accounting Office suggest that the Iraq war will cost us in excess of a trillion dollars if it ends anytime soon. This is how our money is being spent. Can you imagine if the President or member of Congress had suggested in the aftermath of 9/11 that we ought to spend a trillion dollars over the next decade to rebuild our country's crumbling infrastructure, fix healthcare, end our reliance on foreign oil, and fund a global Marshal Plan around the world? The good that could have been done with this sum of money spent in a way congruent with our values.

Of course, any President or Congressional leader who proposed such a plan would likely have been derided for being totally unrealistic. And yet year after year billions after billions flows into Iraq. In the name of realism.

Sorry for this somewhat angry rant. I am deeply troubled contributing financially to something that I do not believe in and that is so obviously at odds with the best values of our country. I hope and pray that by next April 15 I will not feel the same.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Best Religious Cell Phone

I didn't know there was such a thing, and that could be because, according to Computer World writer Mike Elgan, there isn't a Christian cell phone:

While researching this article, I was unable to find a single Christian, Hindu or Sikh cell phone. I'm not saying they're not out there somewhere, just that I'm "agnostic" on the point. I just don't know.

That there is no Christian cell phone may surprise you. In fact, Christians lead the world in cell phone accessories and software, including cell phone stickers and cases, ring tones and Bible-related content specific to phones. So it's easy for Christians to assemble their own faith-based cell phones from widely available "parts." But, to the best of my knowledge, nobody is selling a prepackaged "Christian cell phone" designed to be marketed to Christians...

That leaves us with the top three contenders: Islam, Buddhism and Judaism. So here they are, listed in reverse order: The top three religious cell phones.

No. 3: The Jewish cell phone

A few years ago, an ultra-Orthodox rabbi approached Abrasha Burstyn, the CEO of Mirs Communications Ltd., an Israeli subsidiary of Motorola Inc., with a proposed cell phone concept. The result is a phone that fulfills what the rabbi saw as a need to block objectionable content from the eyes and ears of other ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel, which by some accounts represent about 7% of the Israeli population.

The phone is inaccurately referred to in the Israeli press as the "kosher phone." A gadget can't actually be kosher, but it does come with the approval of what is, essentially, a censorship board called the Rabbinical Committee for Communications.

While most religious cell phones start out as regular cell phones, and are augmented with additional religious "stuff," the so-called kosher phone has less, not more. It has been stripped of functionality and simply makes and receives calls. It can't send or receive text messages or access the Internet. There's no camera. And more than 10,000 phone numbers for dating services and sex hotlines have been blocked.

Here's the best part. The phone offers steeply discounted per-minute charges when calling another kosher phone. But it will cost you a whopping $2.44 a minute for calls placed on the Sabbath. To the best of my knowledge, Mirs is the only wireless carrier in the world that uses its pricing structure to punish deviation from one of the Ten Commandments.

The carrier has decided, interestingly, that there is demand for phones with a similar lack of functionality among non-Orthodox but conservative Israeli Jews and Muslims within Israel and beyond.

No. 2: The Muslim cell phone

If ever there was a religion that needed a special cell phone, it's Islam. The reason is that good Muslims pray facing Mecca five times a day. If you live in a small Muslim village, you'll be notified as to when to pray by the "call to prayer," which is broadcast loudly from the local mosque. Once inside, the whole building is oriented toward Mecca, so it's easy to get it all right.

Text about this image
The Ilkone I-800 cell phone from Ilkone Asia plays its own call to prayer and other features for Muslim users. (Photo courtesy of Ilkone Asia.)
But if you're a Muslim in a big, foreign city, which way is Mecca? When are prayers? And where can I find a mosque? A good Muslim cell phone solves all that.

There are several Muslim cell phones available in various countries. The best I've found is made by a Singapore-based company called Ilkone Asia. Called the Ilkone I-800, the phone not only plays its own call to prayer at the appropriate times, but points toward Mecca and plays recorded prayers over the speakerphone.

The phone also comes with the full text of the Quran in both Arabic and English.

The Ilkone I-800 is available internationally, including in Lebanon, Jordan, Qatar, Bahrain, North Africa, Singapore, Turkey, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Bangladesh, Iran, Pakistan and India, and it will reportedly become available soon in Europe and in the U.S.

No. 1: The Buddhist cell phone

Text about this image
This gold-plated Nokia N70 cell phone has customized features for Buddhists.
The best religious cell phone in the world is made for Buddhists. This highly modified and rare Nokia N70 is currently available only in China. Like other religious cell phones, the Buddhist phone has Buddhist ring tones, software and other trappings. What sets this phone apart from the pack is the sheer beauty and detail of the customization.

The phone is reportedly gold-plated and contains a piece of jade called the "Buddha video button." When you press it, you can watch a Buddhist video. Another embedded jade piece lies on the back in the middle of the speaker and is just for decoration. The back has an embossed image of the Buddha. It plays classic Buddhist music and 12 sutras. The battery, stylus -- even the little door that provides access to the removable media card -- are all adorned in Chinese Buddhist style.

If you're religious, or even if you aren't, enjoy your favorite cell phone while you can. Because even though each of these is small, pocket-size and mobile, you can't take it with you.

I still can't believe there isn't a Jesus cell phone. Jesus sells!

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

McCollum Proposes Amendment to Ban Death Penalty

From Minnesota Monitor:

Rep. Betty McCollum introduced a Constitutional amendment to ban the death penalty Wednesday in part to coincide with the visit of Pope Pope Benedict XVI, the world's most well known death penalty opponent. In addition, McCollum's proposal comes the same day the U.S. Supreme Court found lethal injection to be a constitutional method of capital punishment, thereby ending a 7 month moratorium on capital punishment in the United States.

"Criminals who are found guilty of committing heinous acts should be sentenced to life in prison as a punishment and for the wellbeing of society," McCollum said in a press release. "The death penalty, by contrast, does not serve society's interests - it is damaging and harmful. Fighting crime, achieving justice, and elevating human dignity are all damaged by state-sponsored executions. We know the death penalty is more expensive to implement than regular sentences, it does not reduce crime, and it imposes a shared societal responsibly for killing another human being on behalf of a justice system that is clearly not perfect."

...Given the lack of support for ending the death penalty in the United States, McCollum's amendment will likely be a symbolic gesture intended to generate a discussion on an issue in which Catholics and progressives agree. "The Supreme Court's decision today was painful for those of us who believe the death penalty is immoral," said McCollum. "No one can respond with greater moral authority or spiritual wisdom on this subject than His Holiness."

I wonder how many Catholics really agree. I wonder if the Catholics on the Supreme Court agree. I wonder if the Pope brought up the death penalty with the former Texas governor and prominent supporter of the death penalty. Good for Rep. McCollum.

Update: On the Christianity Today blog report on the Supreme Court decision today affirming the constitutionality of the method of lethal injection used, we learn:
American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) guidelines say use of the method to put down animals is unacceptable.
Makes you proud to be an American in this "Christian" nation.

Where Jim Wallis Stands

Sojourner's founder Jim Wallis answers questions in Christianity Today on abortion, gay rights, the war in Iraq, and more. And he reminds that he is not a theological liberal:

But there has never been a doubt that I am an evangelical. In fact, the Sojourners community had its fatal split many years ago when a number of people in the community, including some of my fellow elders, really wanted to change our theological orthodoxy and were attracted to people like Matthew Fox, the creation spirituality theologian. And I just said, "Matthew Fox is a heretic, and we're committed to the central lordship of Jesus Christ and the authority of the Scriptures."

And they said, "Well, we're not. Not all of us."

I said, "Well, Sojourners is. Even if you're not, Sojourners is and it's going to remain that way." I was accused of hierarchy and patriarchy, they quit, and we split. And that was the end of the residential community in some ways. But I took a stand, as I always did, for orthodoxy.

There is a conversation in our place that is ongoing about how evangelical or ecumenical we are, and not all of our folks are as evangelical as I am. But I'm the founder and president still. I'm not dead yet. I went to Trinity because I wanted to have this discussion in the evangelical world. And then for a long time evangelicals weren't really responding to us at Sojourners. Now they are.

I find it interesting that in this same article he says that Episcopalians should not split over the issues dividing them:
But the church shouldn't divide over this. They should stay together, live with their differences, keep talking, and respect each other's opinions.
Like Wallis did at Sojourners?

The Future of the Church of the Brethren

Yesterday I had lunch with a Church of the Brethren (COB) friend and we were talking about how long it would take for our denomination to die. This person suggested that within 15 years everything the COB now owns or runs will be in the hands of Mennonites. I had to admit that I had never considered this possibility. I countered that I think within 10 years the conservative faction will have withdrawn from the COB and merged with their more natural religious soul-mates, the Brethren Church. We will see if either of us is right.

What seems clear to me, though, is that our present path as a denomination is in a death spiral. Our institutional center is re-organizing, again. The deck chairs will be shuffled once more. Although it is financially untenable to maintain two denominational headquarters, in IL and MD, leaders were unable to pull the plug on either one.

Although our annual meeting, Annual Conference, has been paired from a week to a few days, it is still a money-loser. It would make more sense to have our national gathering every other year. On the other hand our annual meeting may be the only thing still holding us together.

We have two factions in the church, liberal and conservative, who are equally stubborn in their unwillingness to compromise on core issues. I am part of the liberal faction. We have a weak institutional center that is scared to death of picking sides. Some are genuinely conflicted. Some have their hearts in one place but their wallets in another.

Meanwhile we bleed members and churches. Our churches, declining in number though they are, can't find pastors from within the COB fold. So they go outside and find pastors with no interest in the COB. They've got their Bible and their paycheck, and that is all that matters. So inevitably these churches drift away from the denomination.

Denominations are dying everywhere. What is happening to the COB is not unique. But because we are smaller to begin with we are more at risk of making a quick exit.

I have no interest in reviving a dying denomination. I do, however, have an interest in participating in a movement that is progressive and based on the very best of COB values. Little by little I am seeing more and more of my progressive COB brothers and sisters coming to this same place. The time has come to stop putting energy into breathing life into a dying institution or gatherings where we bring members of the two stubborn factions together to talk things over.

I have no ill feelings toward those conservatives. I respect them for their strong beliefs and disagree with them on every one. I have no interest in trying to get them to change their minds, and I don't want to use the precious amount of time I have in my life listening to them tell me why I am going to hell. We will see who is right soon enough.

In the meantime. it is time to begin thinking about what a new structure will look like. Perhaps the place to begin is with a district made up of progressive churches and individuals that crosses geographical boundaries. Perhaps the time has come to begin channel outreach monies into this kind of structure. Our fall gathering of COB progressives in Indiana may be a good first step.

I don't know what it will look like yet, but what I do know is that within 10 years the COB will no longer exist in its current form. It is time to begin planning now for a different future.

Why Do People Love the Tibetans and Not the Christians?

Via a post on Emergent Village I came across this post at Kimberly Roth wonders why people are so taken by the plight of the people of Tibet and the work of the Dalai Lama and not equally enamored with the teachings of Christ:
There’s something about the plight of Tibetan Buddhists that tugs at the hearts and souls of people worldwide. The Dalai Lama is a highly regarded spiritual leader, the reincarnation of the Buddha of Compassion come to serve the Tibetan people. He promotes peace, compassion, non-violence, tolerance and mutual respect, and he appears to live his life in this sphere. It is no wonder people are drawn to him, his religion, his politics and his people...

However, there is a flip-side to Tibetan Buddhism. There is work involved, and peace comes with a price. The Tibetan people serve multiple deities, some of whom are full of vengeance. Their religious practices are in part, to appease the deities en route to obtaining enlightenment. Monks create intricately detailed mandalas to house deities and guide meditation. Followers walk the streets of Tibet endlessly spinning prayer wheels in an effort to gain the attention of the Buddha of Compassion. Tibetans perform physical rituals, such as stopping to bow every few steps, in an effort to relieve personal suffering. Street children, widows and crippled men line the streets...

Tibetans are enslaved in a religion where deities are feared and atonement comes through repetitive actions. “Tibet is not free! Tibet is not free!” Followers of Christ, on the other hand, were set free through acceptance of his sacrificial atonement on our behalf and granted the gifts of grace and peace and hope. Tibetans strive for alleviation of suffering. Christians learn to rejoice in their sufferings, or so we are told...

Here’s where I get stuck.

Christians have been given the gift of true peace through a relationship with the Son of God. We do not have to do good works to earn our salvation, but through Christ’s sacrifice and the gift of the Holy Spirit, we are empowered to love other people with God’s love. When we fail to live up to the standard Christ demonstrated for our life, or when those around us mess up, there is still grace… grace that reminds us we are human… grace that reminds us we are loved… grace that picks us up, dusts us off, and encourages us to keep going. It truly is a wondrous faith.

Why, then, is it that the world is not enamored with faith in Christ?

Why is it that the world seems so taken by Tibetan Buddhism?

Why isn’t Christianity the religion of peace?

She begins to answer her own question about why the world seems so taken by Tibetan Buddhism with her follow-up question about why isn't Christianity the religion of peace? Could it be that the followers of Tibetan Buddhism are more Christ-like than many of the followers of Jesus? Could it be that the Dalai Lama, like Gandhi before him, embody the teachings of Jesus in their words and deeds - despite their different religious beliefs - more than most Christians? And if that is so, why should it be surprising that they, like Jesus in his time, attract followers and gain respect from people around the world?

I also am not sure I agree with Ms. Roth's understanding of the essence of Christianity as portrayed in this post. She says, "We do not have to do good works to earn our salvation, but through Christ’s sacrifice and the gift of the Holy Spirit, we are empowered to love other people with God’s love." I am assuming she is basing this statement on her reading of the writings of Apostle Paul. We are justified by faith not works.

But there is plenty of "works-righteousness" in Paul. Reads Romans 2. Or this:
Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus (Phil. 3:12-14, NRSV).
Or this:

19For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. 20To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. 21To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. 22To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. 23I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings. 24Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. 25Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. 26So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; 27but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified. (1 Corinthians 9:19-27)
Justification by faith not works is absolutely central to Paul's argument that Gentiles have been invited to sit at the same table at God's big party where the Jew's were long ago chosen and privileged to be present. Gentiles do not have to become Jews first to be there. They only have to have faith in Jesus Christ, who paid the price of admission for them. This is Paul's argument.

But I do not think that Paul would then have said, "When we fail to live up to the standard Christ demonstrated for our life, or when those around us mess up, there is still grace… grace that reminds us we are human… grace that reminds us we are loved… grace that picks us up, dusts us off, and encourages us to keep going." I think he might have said instead that even though we are justified by faith, there is still a need to work out one's salvation with fear and trembling. There is plenty of work required to do on the way towards salvation for Paul.

And then there is that other guy, Jesus: "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me." There is not a word about free grace in that simple definition of Christian discipleship.

So why is the world not enamored by faith in Christ? Because for too many Christians their religious expression - faith in Christ - is little more than a ticket to heaven. Say the words, get your ticket punched. Discipleship is defined as proper belief, faithful church attendance, prayer, and acts of charity. They misunderstand Paul and they ignore Jesus. There is still plenty of room within this definition of Christianity for living rich and gobbling up the world's resources while much of the world is poor, or for launching unprovoked wars that bring death and destruction to millions of people.

Meanwhile, real Christ-like discipleship is practiced by people like the Dalai Lama. It's not surprising to me at all why he and his faith expression inspires respect and emulation while much of what passes for Christianity today does not.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Virtue, Love, and Fortune and the U of MN Opera Theatre

On Sunday I had the pleasure to see/hear the recent U of MN Opera Theatre production of The Coronation of Poppea by Caludio Monteverdi. It is one of the earliest operas and the orchestra was small and the "heavy lifting" is done by the harpsichord and a few string instruments rather than a full orchestra.

Liberalchurch's music director, Andrew Fleser, played the harpsichord for the performance I attended. Here's what the program says about Andrew:

Andrew Fleser has performed as a soloist and accompainist throughout the U.S. and Europe. Fleser has worked with such musical luminaries as pianist Martin Katz, vocalists Sharon Sweet and Zehava Gal, and composers Ricky Ian Gordon, John Harbison, and Jake Heggie. He has served as a vocal coach on the faculty of Grand Valley State University (Allendale, MN), and at summer programs at Westminster Choir College or Rider University (Princeton, NJ) and Idaho State University.

Hailing originally from Grand Rapids, Michigan, Fleser received a Master's Degree in Piano Accompanying and Coaching from Westminster Choir College as a student of JJ Penna and Dalton Baldwin, and a Bachelor's Degree in Piano Performance from Aquinas College in Grand Rapids. Currently a doctoral candidate at the U. of MN, he studies Collaborative Piano with Timothy Lovelace.


Listening to Andrew play and reading the program was a great reminder at just how blessed we are at Open Circle to have him with us. Thanks Andrew!

Monday, April 14, 2008

A New Form of Political Protest

Between the U.S. primary election process and trying to stick within the Weight Watchers' regime, there are some days when I feel exactly same way as this guy in Naples, Italy--for entirely different reasons.

Question: Who am I paraphrasing Marie A. or Barak O.?
"Let them eat ballots!"


NAPLES (Reuters) - Ballot stuffing took on a new meaning in Italy's parliamentary election on Sunday when a man ate his ballot paper in protest at the country's politicians.

Police in Naples said they had charged the 41-year-old businessman with destroying election materials. He said all Italian politicians and politics "are crap" and that he was protesting "against the system."

(Reporting by Laura Viggiano; Writing by Phil Stewart)

Friday, April 11, 2008

Wright Stuff calls attention to an article in the Dallas Morning News about reaction from black preachers in the Dallas area to the "surprising" content of some of the sermons of Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama's former pastor. Surprising, that is, to whites whose images of black preaching comes from iconic memories of Martin Luther King, Jr. preaching to the country during the civil rights struggles of the 60's. As I pointed out in a previous post Wright was echoing anger expressed by King himself in some of his own sermons.

And as the Dallas Morning News article points out, this venting of frustration by black American preachers from the pulpit is not unique:
The controversy is letting white America in on what was well-known to black Americans: A profound distrust of government and other institutions is preached in varying degrees from black pulpits – and shared by many in the pews...

"Our history in America says that we are not shocked by his statements," said the Rev. Frederick Haynes III, senior pastor at Friendship-West Baptist Church in Dallas.
Where does this distrust come from? From this kind of history, perhaps:

History fuels the distrust – particularly the infamous Tuskegee Experiment. For 40 years, beginning in 1932, nearly 400 black men with syphilis were enrolled in a health study to be treated for "bad blood." They were never told they had syphilis and were not treated for it because the doctors wanted to do autopsies on men who died with the disease.

The government only admitted what happened in 1972, after the Associated Press broke the story. The near-universal knowledge of that experiment among African-Americans grants credence to other health-related conspiracies.

"Certainly not in my lifetime will there ever be a sense of resolution and total trust in the medical system because of that," Dr. Reed said.

Meanwhile, racial inequities in health care continue to be documented. Just last month, a study of California's Medi-Cal managed care program identified significant differences in care for poor blacks, compared to poor people of other races.

"No matter how you slice it – in terms of the disease burden, outcomes, access to care – there is a disproportionate impact on communities of color, and particularly on the African-American community," Dr. Rawlings said.

Does this excuse vitriol coming from the pulpit? No. I think we who have the privilege of speaking on behalf of Jesus to our congregations are challenged to channel our anger at injustice into non-violent messages of compassion for our enemies and peaceful resistance to injustice. But I am also a very privileged white suburban American; I have never walked in the shoes of the oppressed, so I am loathe to cast stones at a preacher whose life experience is vastly difference than mine.

I am also somewhat amazed at the media attention Obama's pastor has drawn while candidates from the conservative end of the spectrum cast their lots with the Pat Robertsons and Jerry Falwells and James Dobsons of our country who have been spewing vitriol for decades on our national airwaves at America and those they disagree with. Did we just expect more from our black preachers, or is there a double standard at work here?

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Eating Dirt Cookies in Haiti

I was just watching a story on NBC News about people eating dirt cookies in Haiti. No link to the video is up on their website. But ABC News has the story:

It was lunchtime in one of Haiti's worst slums, and Charlene Dumas was eating mud.

With food prices rising, Haiti's poorest can't afford even a daily plate of rice, and some take desperate measures to fill their bellies.

Charlene, 16 with a 1-month-old son, has come to rely on a traditional Haitian remedy for hunger pangs: cookies made of dried yellow dirt from the country's central plateau.

The mud has long been prized by pregnant women and children here as an antacid and source of calcium. But in places like Cite Soleil, the oceanside slum where Charlene shares a two-room house with her baby, five siblings and two unemployed parents, cookies made of dirt, salt and vegetable shortening have become a regular meal.

"When my mother does not cook anything, I have to eat them three times a day," Charlene said. Her baby, named Woodson, lay still across her lap, looking even thinner than the slim 6 pounds 3 ounces he weighed at birth.

Though she likes their buttery, salty taste, Charlene said the cookies also give her stomach pains. "When I nurse, the baby sometimes seems colicky too," she said.

The good we could be doing with the billions spent in Iraq. And I know we are dealing with a failed state, too. There is plenty of blame to go around.

Preachers of Hate

Via Andrew Sullivan I see that Foreign Policy has compiled a list of the world's most dangerous religious leaders. It includes a Muslim, Jew, Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist. Every religion has its dangerous fanatics.

The Best Weatherman in the Twin Cities

Got fired. Greg Laden tells the story:
The story goes like this: Paul Douglas was a back-room meteorologist for a local Twin Cities news show. He was one of the guys in the back that actually predicted the weather, which was then delivered by the pretty boy/girl weathermen/women on camera. One day the main weatherman was out of town, and the other weatherman was sick (details of the story vary), and nobody realized that they had no one to report the weather until the very last second. So they threw Paul a jacket and tie and said "Get out there, boy, you're the weatherman today."


So Paul went in front of the camera and gave the weather, and charmed the audience and the reporters and the producers, and became, overnight, the best weatherman in television.

Paul went on to continue reporting the weather. He was always honest, accurate in his descriptions, and did the best job anyone could do given the vagaries of that business. Notably, Paul understood climate change and was one of the first TV weathermen to refuse to parrot the corporate global-warming denialism. Paul knew global warming was real.

In the meantime, Paul started up a weather data company that was very successful, and was eventually purchased by Garmin for over 40 million dollars, making him the "richest weatherman in the world" according to reports at that time.

I suspect Paul was very much in demand as a weatherman. He did go to Chicago for a while, but preferred living in the Twin Cities, so he returned. I imagine his salary was quite high. This may be why he was fired yesterday.

WCCO, the broadcast company that Paul worked for, has been laying off people, and plans to continue to do so, as they are being beaten out in the Twin Cities market by the local Fox News show. That is really a shame in so many ways... Yesterday, Paul Douglas was on the list of people to let go. Reports are that he is sad to have had this happen while he was on vacation, denying him the opportunity to say goodbye to his loyal audience. I imagine that was a corporate strategy to limit the public outcry over losing the best guy on local TV news (including all the reporters and weathermen/women).

I'm not worried about Paul. He is obviously not in need of a job. But his loss to local broadcasting is sad and palpable.

Greg omits one important fact about Douglas: he was a graduate of the best university in the country, Penn State. It was a classless act to fire him while he was on vacation. WCCO news was once the banner news station in the twin cities. But they are falling fast.

Objective Truth in Religion and it's Perils

On a listserve for progressive Brethren someone shared this post this morning:
I have been rereading Parker Palmer's The Courage to Teach as a guiding focus as we do professional development for our principals next school year.

On the subject of how we perceive, he has some very interesting things to say. I will quote some of it here, and although it speaks of teaching, the words apply to far more.

"A mode of knowing arises from the way we answer two questions at the heart of the educational mission: how do we know what we know? and by what warrant can we call our knowledge true? Our answers may be largely tacit, even unconscious, but they are continually communicated in the way we teach and learn.A great post.

If we regard truth as something handed down from authorities on high, the classroom will look like a dictatorship. if we regard truth as a fiction determined by personal whim, the classroom will look like anarchy. if we regard truth as emerging from a complex process of mutual inquiry, the classroom will look like a resourceful and interdependent community. our assumptions about knowing can open up, or shut down, the capacity for connectedness on which good teaching depends. ...

For objectivism, any way of knowing that requires subjective involvement between the knower and the known is regarded as primitive, unreliable, and even dangerous. The intuitive is derided as irrational; true feeling is dismissed as sentimental; the imagination is seen as chaotic and unruly; and, storytelling is labeled as personal and pointless. ...

Years ago, Alfred North Whitehead declared that 'inert ideas' were the bane of higher education, deadening the process of teaching and learning for students and teachers alike. But for objectivism, the only good idea is an inert idea that like the lepidopterist's prize butterfly is not longer elusive and on the wing but has been chloroformed, pinned, boxed, and labeled. this way of knowing may render the world lifeless - but that, say its proponents, is a small price to pay for what they call objective truth. (pp. 50-52)"

"If we dare to move through our fear to practice knowing as a form of love, we might abandon our illusion of control and enter a partnership with the otherness of the world. By finding our place in the ecosystem of reality, we might see more clearly which actions are life-giving and which actions are not - and in the process, participate more fully in our own destinies, and the destiny of the world, than we do in our drive for control. This relational way of knowing - in which love takes away fear and co-creation replaces control - is a way of knowing that can help us reclaim the capacity for connectedness on which good teaching depends. (p. 56)"

What Palmer says about teaching is true in our complete lives as well. It is when we seek to define knowing for others (control) that we lose the more important call to relationship. In the Garden, God wanted relationship with Adam and Eve. God knew that once knowledge could be claimed, relationship was in jeopardy; therefore, the only prohibition was to not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

How many do we see today who proclaim they *know* the truth of what is good and evil? How many relationships have been lost because of this objective truth?
A great post.

The Legacy of Dr. King

I missed this recent post by Taylor Branch in the New York Times about the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. Branch, the author of “At Canaan’s Edge,” the third volume in his history of the modern civil rights era, argues that King's legacy isn't just civil rights about non-violence:

Many of Dr. King’s closest comrades rejected his commitment to nonviolence. The civil rights movement created waves of history so long as it remained nonviolent, then stopped. Arguably, the most powerful tool for democratic reform was the first to become passé. It vanished among intellectuals, on campuses and in the streets. To this day, almost no one asks why.

We must reclaim the full range of blessings from his movement. For Dr. King, race was in most things, but defined nothing alone. His appeal was rooted in the larger context of nonviolence. His stated purpose was always to redeem the soul of America. He put one foot in the Constitution and the other in scripture. “We will win our freedom,” he said many times, “because the heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.” To see Dr. King and his colleagues as anything less than modern founders of democracy — even as racial healers and reconcilers — is to diminish them under the spell of myth.


Dr. King showed most profoundly that in an interdependent world, lasting power grows against the grain of violence, not with it. Both the cold war and South African apartheid ended to the strains of “We Shall Overcome,” defying all preparations for Armageddon. The civil rights movement remains a model for new democracy, sadly neglected in its own birthplace. In Iraq today, we are stuck on the Vietnam model instead. There is no more salient or neglected field of study than the relationship between power and violence.

We recoil from nonviolence at our peril. Dr. King rightly saw it at the heart of democracy. Our nation is a great cathedral of votes — votes not only for Congress and for president, but also votes on Supreme Court decisions and on countless juries. Votes govern the boards of great corporations and tiny charities alike. Visibly and invisibly, everything runs on votes. And every vote is nothing but a piece of nonviolence.

We pray in the name of Jesus and honor the memory of King, but we live by the the myth of redemptive violence. We sacrifice our sons and daughters in the name of peace. We think that we can bring democracy to Iraq by the barrel of a gun. Instead of being the world leader in exporting foreign aid, championing human rights, sending brigades of Peace Corps volunteers around the world, teaching the skills of peace-making and non-violence to our children... we export war and guns, violate human rights, and idolize trained killing machines.

An argument can be made that we need a military force to protect our country in a dangerous world, but the world would be a much less dangerous place if we did more than pay lip service to the legacy of Dr. King. What would the world look like if actually lived the teachings of Jesus and practiced the skills King taught us of non-violent resistance to injustice?

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Mandaeans in Trouble

April DeConick here and here is highlighting the plight of one of the oldest religious communities in the world, the Mandaeans. They, like Christians and women and children, are another casualty of our great "success" in Iraq. Who are the Mandaeans?
The Sabian-Mandaean religion is one of the oldest monotheistic religions in the Middle East lived mainly in Southern Iraq and few in Iran. It is independent of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It follows the teachings of John the Baptist; baptism being its central ritual. The Mandaeans are around sixty thousand at the present time. During the past decade, and especially the past three years, thousands have escaped Iraq and Iran, choosing self-exile and escape rather than death and persecution. There is now a large refugee population in Syria (2100 families), Jordan, (500 families), Yemen (46 individuals) and smaller numbers in Lebanon, Egypt, Mali, and Thailand.

Some Days Are Like That

A no good very bad day.

We have a winter storm watch posted for tomorrow with the possibility of heavy snow. Ah... April in Minnesota. So today I decided to take my lawn mower to Ace Hardware for a spring tune up. On the way there it rolled backwards in the mini-van and hit and shattered the back windshield. It is going to be an expensive tune up.

Baby with Two Faces Worshipped as Goddess

From AP:
A baby with two faces was born in a northern Indian village, where she is doing well and is being worshipped as the reincarnation of a Hindu goddess, her father said Tuesday.

The baby, Lali, apparently has an extremely rare condition known as craniofacial duplication, where a single head has two faces. Except for her ears, all of Lali's facial features are duplicated -- she has two noses, two pairs of lips and two pairs of eyes.

"My daughter is fine -- like any other child," said Vinod Singh, 23, a poor farm worker.

Lali has caused a sensation in the dusty village of Saini Sunpura, 25 miles east of New Delhi. When she left the hospital, eight hours after a normal delivery on March 11, she was swarmed by villagers, said Sabir Ali, the director of Saifi Hospital.

"She drinks milk from her two mouths and opens and shuts all the four eyes at one time," Ali said.

Rural India is deeply superstitious and the little girl is being hailed as a return of the Hindu goddess of valor, Durga, a fiery deity traditionally depicted with three eyes and many arms.

Up to 100 people have been visiting Lali at her home every day to touch her feet out of respect, offer money and receive blessings, Singh told AP.

"Lali is God's gift to us," said Jaipal Singh, a member of the local village council. "She has brought fame to our village."

Village chief Daulat Ram said he planned to build a temple to Durga in the village.

"I am writing to the state government to provide money to build the temple and help the parents look after their daughter," Ram said.

Lali's condition is often linked to serious health complications, but the doctor said she was doing well.

"She is leading a normal life with no breathing difficulties," said Ali, adding that he saw no need for surgery.

Lali's parents were married in February 2007. Lali is their first child.

Singh said he took his daughter to a hospital in New Delhi where doctors suggested a CT scan to determine whether her internal organs were normal, but Singh said he felt it was unnecessary.

"I don't feel the need of that at this stage as my daughter is behaving like a normal child, posing no problems," he said.

I can't imagine what life is going to be like for this child.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Your Priest Stalker

From Reuters:
A Boston priest apologized in a New York court on Tuesday for stalking television host Conan O'Brien and his family and accepted an order to stay away from the comedian's home and office for two years.

The Rev. David Ajemian, 48, a priest in the Archdiocese of Boston, was arrested in November 2007 during a taping of NBC's "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" at New York City's Rockefeller Plaza.

Wearing khakis and a wrinkled overcoat, Ajemian said in court on Tuesday that from September 2006 until his arrest he sent letters, postcards and packages to O'Brien's New York home and to the NBC studio.

In one letter to the comedian, written on parish stationary, Ajemian referred to himself as "your priest stalker" and suggested he could be a guest on O'Brien's show.

When Should We Disobey Our Government?

Over on the blog of Craig Alan Myers, from the BRF (Brethren Revival Fellowship) which is the conservative wing of my denomination, Craig says:
THERE ARE only two times when the disciple of Jesus declines to obey human authorities: (1) If the government forbids him to do what the Bible plainly commands; (2) If the government commands him to do what the New Testament clearly forbids. Note the following examples which illustrate each situation:

(1) The Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20) commands us to preach the Gospel to every person. If rulers forbid our doing what God clearly commands, we do it anyhow, like Peter and John did (Acts 4:13-20).

(2) Jesus prohibits the taking of human life and teaches us to love our enemies (Matthew 5:43-44). If rulers command us to take human life, we refuse to do it, like the early church did for three centuries after the time of Christ

The prevailing atmosphere in the New Testament is one of respect for those persons in the places of civil authority. Very seldom does it happen in a nation which is a republic that one is required to do what God’s Word clearly forbids. If we must ever disobey human government, it should be done with a spirit of humility and not in a spirit of defiance.
Is this really true? A couple of thoughts.

First, notice what Craig says is the only authority for deciding whether to obey or disobey civil authorities: the Bible. God doesn't speak in any other way? To one's conscience, for example?

Second, Craig says that "the prevailing atmosphere in the New Testament is one of respect for those persons in places of civil authority." Is this true for Jesus? I don't think so. Take for example this teaching of Jesus from Matthew 5:41:
41and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.
In the passage from the Sermon on the Mount Jesus is addressing one of the much resented reminders of the Roman occupation of Palestine: soldiers forcing civilians to carry their packs on military marches. What is Jesus saying here? Kill them with kindness? Ingratiate oneself with the enemy to stay out of trouble?

This example clearly does not meet Craig's threshold for resistance to civil authorities. It is not about preaching the gospel or killing another person. Jesus is addressing a humiliating and unjust act sanctioned by the goverment. What is his instruction?

Here is what Walter Wink has to say about Jesus' instructions in his classic, Engaging the Powers:
Jesus does not encourage Jews to walk a second mile in order to build up merit in heaven, or to exercise a supererogatory piety, or to kill the soldier with kindness. He is helping an oppressed people find a way to protest and neutralize an onerous practice despised throughout the empire. He is not giving a non-political message of spiritual world-transcendence. he is formulating a worldly spirituality in which the people at the bottom of society or under the thumb of imperial power learn to recover their humanity. (p. 182)
Jesus is teaching a strategy of non-violent resistance to unjust actions sanctioned by civil authorities. A practice Jesus himself employed in the passion story: riding the donkey into Jerusalem making messianic claims about himself in the midst of a highly charged Passover atmosphere, overturning the tables of the money-changers in the temple, refusing to answer the questions of Pilate, etc. Each of these actions is an example of non-violent resistance to civil authorities. (I suppose we can debate whether over-turning tables in the temple is non-violent.)

Our (Craig and me) Church of the Brethren ancestors misread these passages and others as examples of non-resistance to evil. They did not know what we know now about the sitz im leben, the setting in life, of these passages. They did know all too well about oppression against the anabaptist movement. But what they took from the scriptures was a lesson on non-violent (right) non-resistance (wrong) to the injustices perpetrated by government in the name of keeping the peace.

It is certainly true in theory that, as Craig says, because we live in a republic there ought to be rare moments when we need to resist civil authorities. But the practical history of the long struggle for civil rights in our country, as well as the recent history in my life-time of political leaders taking us into two wars on false pretenses and of having a current administration willing to sanction illegal wiretapping and torture of prisoners suggests otherwise. And my reading of the teachings and practice of Jesus tells me that when our government acts in unjust ways and we are unable to remedy the situation through the ballot box then we are called to non-violent resistance to this injustice. Just like Jesus did.