Thursday, August 20, 2009

Tornado a Sign from God

Tornado sirens went off yesterday around the metro area as heavy rains and thunderstorms rolled through the area spawning a few small tornadoes along the way. One touched down in downtown Minneapolis near where Lutherans (ELCA) are gathered for their annual assembly. They, like most of our denominations, are having divisive conversations about homosexuality. Yesterday, as the storms were swirling they voted to accept the validity of same-sex relationships that are "chaste, monogamous and lifelong." This sets up a vote, expected Friday, on a proposal to repeal a ban on gay and lesbian ministers from leading churches unless they promise to be celibate.

Could these tornadoes have been a message from God? Via Drew Tatusko I see that John Piper, pastor of preaching at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, has said God sent these tornadoes as a warning to the Lutherans. A gentle warning, thankfully:
The tornado in Minneapolis was a gentle but firm warning to the ELCA and all of us: Turn from the approval of sin. Turn from the promotion of behaviors that lead to destruction. Reaffirm the great Lutheran heritage of allegiance to the truth and authority of Scripture. Turn back from distorting the grace of God into sensuality. Rejoice in the pardon of the cross of Christ and its power to transform left and right wing sinners.
It is worth noting that the tornado did not hit the convention center where the Lutherans are meeting. It did do some damage to a Lutheran Church steeple but most of the damage was done to homes in the area of the church. Thankfully no one was seriously injured.

Unless the homeowners were all ELCA members apparently God saw fit to punish innocent neighbors and homeowners. Or else God missed.

I am wrapping up a message series this week on the biblical view of suffering. There is certainly plenty of evidence from the scriptures, particularly the prophets, that one view of why suffering comes to us is that God is angry and sends armies and storms as punishment or warning. In this view God sometimes wipes out entire populations including lots of innocent people. So Piper isn't saying anything that can't be supported by biblical passages.

That doesn't make him right, though. For one thing there are other biblical responses to the question of why suffering happens, including some that suggest that bad things sometimes happen to good or innocent people and it isn't God's fault or their fault or anyone's fault. For another, we don't live inside that biblical worldview anymore. We know too much about storms and weather and how it works. It isn't a mystery left to be explained by God. This doesn't mean there aren't weather surprises; the tornadoes yesterday were quite surprising considering the relatively cool temperatures. But God isn't behind the surprises. The explainable forces of nature are.

Pastors who say the kinds of things Piper said about this storm are using a fear-based form of religion to maintain their authority with their congregation. If they can keep their people just scared enough to worry that God might be coming after them next if they don't behave then they can also keep them in the pews.

I know that many people are raised in this kind of fear-based religious environment and it works for them. I understand. But I do not have the same kind of understanding for educated pastors like John Piper who feed and nourish this kind of thinking. It is just wrong.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Mushy Faith on the Rise

That's the title of a GetReligion piece by Terry Mattingly where he makes fun of a recent Newsweek article by Lisa Miller who looks at polling data in America that suggests Americans are increasingly comfortable with the notion that there is more than one valid spiritual path. We are all Hindus now, Miller claims.

Mattingly says this news has "no news hook" whatsoever; it's old news. Probably true. But I wanted to take aim at Mattingly's title claim "Mushy Faith on the Rise." I would suggest this is not necessarily true. It certainly isn't true for this liberal Christian.

I was raised in a Christian home, in a predominantly Christian town, in a predominantly Christian country. But it might have been otherwise. I think that our choice of faith is likely to be dictated more than anything else by where we were born. It is highly unlikely that I would be a Christian had I been born in India or Saudi Arabia. I might very well have been born into a family of Hindus or Muslims.

That simple fact gives me pause when I think about the truth claims of Christianity that seem to close the door on the validity of other faith perspectives. "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except by me." Really? Can we really say that with certainty anymore when the world has become so interconnected and when our own country has become so religiously diverse? Are we really ready to condemn to eternal death the majority of the population of the world simply because by accident of birth they grew up in other religious traditions that make their own truth claims?

There is nothing mushy about my belief that this kind of thinking is wrong. I am certain it is wrong. I am convinced that there are many valid spiritual paths, even as I choose to follow in the way of Jesus. I am, in fact, fairly intolerant with those who hold these kinds of intolerant views about Christianity and its supremacy over other faith traditions. It's an ironic position to be in, but there is nothing mushy about it.

I suppose that there are some liberal Christians who have a mushy faith believing that anything goes, just as there as some mushy conservative Christians who see no conflict of interest between being a follower of Jesus and being a super capitalist/militarist.

Mattingly closes his post with the three questions that apparently separate, in his view, the true Christians from the mushy ones ("the fault lines in Christian churches and denominations"):

(1) Are the biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this event really happen?

(2) Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6)?

(3) Is sex outside of the Sacrament of Marriage a sin?

If you hang your hat on doctrine as the dividing line between "true" and mushy faith then these are your questions. It is all about getting your ticket to heaven and believing the right things and living the kind of life that will get your ticket punched. You want to be up there with your tribe sitting at the right hand of the Father.

Me, I'd rather hang my hat on these three questions:
Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?
I want to know whether your beliefs lead you to care about the immense social ills in our world today? Have you done your duty by going to church on Sunday and reciting the creed or by bowing in the right direction at the right time for prayer? Or does that faith lead you to care about changing the world and doing something about it. If the fault line is doctrine - any doctrine - and protecting your heavenly turf, then I think your faith is pretty mushy.

We Need a Populist Movement

I find myself agreeing with this position:
The Obama ''trickle down'' is, sadly, not all that different from the Bush-Paulson strategy. Like its predecessor, it endorses the bailout of giant financial institutions as the linchpin of its economic policy. It is, simultaneously, profoundly anti-democratic and anti-capitalist.

Other aspects of the Obama policy seem likely to prop up Wall Street traders at the expense of the rest of us. The administration's big ''cap and trade'' proposals could prove more advantageous to well-heeled ''carbon traders'' than to the environment. The other big winners may be Silicon Valley venture capitalists, who-- increasingly bereft of their own ideas for making money--hope to cash in on Washington-subsidized energy schemes.

Of course, not all Democrats have sold out. Sens. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and John Tester, D-Mont., have expressed opposition to bailing out ''too big to fail'' institutions. New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo has been fearless in unveiling the enormous Wall Street bonuses--over $32.6 billion last year-- handed out as firms suffered $81 billion in losses and almost drove the world economy to ruin.

Unfortunately, these are exceptions. Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin recently admitted that the banks remain ''the most powerful lobby on Capitol Hill,'' adding that they ''frankly own the place.''

So far in 2009 the Democrats have netted nearly 60% of all campaign contributions that have come from the financial industry, now the largest sector in terms of donations. The biggest donations have gone to such influential Democrats as Sen. Charles Schumer and his sidekick, newly appointed Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, from New York; Sen. Chris Dodd D-Conn., and Majority Leader Harry Reid D-Nev. Schumer, the Street's leading vassal in Congress, has emerged as the rising star in the Democratic leadership. If Majority Leader Reid loses his seat--as is now possible, according to polls in Nevada--Wall Street's main man could well end up a future Majority Leader.

Some Democrats try to have it both ways, playing populists for the peanut galleries but getting cozy with the industry when it matters. Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank, the House Financial Services Chairman, talks tough but has a history of friendly relations with financial powerhouses. One of Frank's own top assistants, Michael Pease, just went to work for the biggest winner since taking TARP bucks, Goldman Sachs. As left-winger blogger Glenn Greenwald put it recently: ''The only way they can make it more blatant is if they hung a huge Goldman Sachs banner on the Capitol dome and branded it onto the foreheads of leading members of Congress and executive branch officials.''

In the end the faux populist Democrats end up with policies that make Ronald Reagan's ''trickle down'' seem downright Leninist. Harry Truman once quipped that ''There should be a real liberal party in this country, and I don't mean a crackpot professional one.'' Sadly, it's increasingly the latter.

The hypocrisy should open a path for the Republicans as wide as the Grand Canyon. But the ill-named Party of Lincoln still seems to think that the path to power lies in the tired old formula of ultra-patriotism, guns, abortion and religious rectitude. Screaming ''socialism'' may awaken the spirits of some on the old right, but it's hard to make a convincing case when George Bush socialized banking and grew the deficit.

You certainly can't trust big-business conservatives to stop bonuses for the TARP babies, particularly the 25 financial firms deemed ''too big to fail'' by the likes of Ben Benanke. Give GOP big-business leaders higher stock prices, and they will follow you anywhere. Only a few--such as Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa,--have shown they are truly serious about the free market or defending the interests of the regular taxpayer.

Given this sad political picture, the best hope now is to build an alternative perspective that focuses on the basic economic issues. This would not be the media celebrated movement of moderates--Democrats-lite and Republicans-lite--who seek kumbaya through compromise. It would, instead, require a radical third tendency--neither strictly left or right--that would draw on long-term American priorities and values.

These new radicals would focus on basic issues like improving infrastructure, and primary education and bolstering the nation's productive economy. Their inspiration would come from a long tradition of federal successes--from the Homestead Act and the WPA to the Interstate Highway and the space program. They would view the financial crisis not as an imperative for protecting the well-connected but for financial reform, decentralization and innovation.

Such an approach would address what the British author Austin Williams calls our ''poverty of ambition.'' Americans historically have rejected a future constrained by entrenched hierarchies. Most, I believe, would support spending money and paying taxes, if it was spent to achieve big things that would lead to a greater, more widespread prosperity and opportunity.

Just imagine if the upward of $1 trillion spent guaranteeing Goldman Sachs and Citigroup executives giant paydays had instead gone into roads, bridges, subways, buses, port development, skills training, energy transmission lines and basic scientific research. And imagine if instead of protecting Citigroup and Bank of America, we encouraged stronger local banks and solvent financial entrepreneurs to fill the breach left behind by gross failures.
It has made all the difference in the world having a Democrat in the White House directing our foreign policy. No more crazy neo-cons starting wars on false pretenses and planning and hoping for a half dozen more. Sane policies and a touch of humility on the world stage have made the world a safer place for everyone.

But in domestic politics I think the difference is not so much. It will make a difference on health care reform because with Republicans in charge it would simply never happen. But we won't get the radical reform we need for the simple reason that Congress is in bed with the pharmaceuticals and HMO's and insurance companies and physicians and everyone else who has grown rich off of the dysfunctional system we have now.

Same with the financial industry. They own the place. A trillion dollars to bail them out and nothing changes. Big bonuses for those who are adept at moving money around - but not 'down' to the small businesses that need loans or homeowners who are going under. The rich get richer and another long jobless recovery begins where everyone who isn't rich doesn't feel very much like anything has recovered at all.

But thank God we have Wal-Mart!

I think there is something to be said for taking as much money out of the big economy as possible and supporting local businesses and farms and co-ops. And... supporting small operators in emerging economies through micro-loans and SERRV and Ten Thousand Villages.

Politically we need a real populist movement that isn't nativist and fear-based ala Lou Dobbs, but one that focuses on support for decentralized and local economies in combination with a robust federally funded government that takes care of the big items like health care and infrastructure where bigger really is better. What we don't need any more are the too-big-to-fail banks and financial institutions and the politicians who answer first to them.

I am very glad that Obama is President and that Democrats are in charge of Congress. But having them in power just shines a light on how deeply tilted our political system is in favor of the very rich. We need to save them from themselves and remind them of who voted for them and why.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

In the Garden Today

Butterflies and Hawks in the backyard.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Conservative Lawyer Takes on Prop 8

I see that Ted Olson, who served in Reagan's Justice Department and as Solicitor General for George W. Bush, and who argued Bush's case in Bush v. Gore, is getting set to challenge Prop 8 in federal court. He has teamed up with his nemesis in Bush v. Gore, David Boies. From the Los Angeles Times:
You and Boies -- you're a version of Hepburn and Tracy in "Adam's Rib."

That's a nice way to put it. I like that. I thought we needed someone who was a well-recognized lawyer but who would provide balance for my perspective. I wanted to convey the message that this was not Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal, that this is about human rights and human decency and constitutional law. David was my opponent in Bush v. Gore, but he's someone for whom I have great respect and affection. We spend some time together once in a while socially. We've done some biking in Europe together. He didn't hesitate for a second.

Does your argument have more purchase with conservatives because you're the one making it?

I'm hoping that it does. I hope some people will open their eyes to the decency of getting to the point where we allow gay and lesbian individuals to be married and have a happy life.

I expect some of your fan mail has flipped 180 degrees because of this?

I am getting comments from some segments of the society who feel that it's the wrong thing to do and I'm betraying the conservative cause and things that I've stood for in my life. Some of it is quite hostile. But that goes with the territory. On the other hand, I'm hearing from people, including plenty of Republicans, who are very, very grateful. It has been overwhelmingly gratifying to hear from very decent people who are touched by the fact that we're trying to help.

A woman came up to me in our library in our law firm and said, "You and I haven't worked together, but I'm a lesbian. My partner and I have two children." And she burst into tears. I put my arm around her and she put her arms around me. This stands for what we're trying to accomplish here. It's a principle, but it's a principle that deeply touches human beings. If we're successful, we can help the lives of literally millions of people. And what a great service that would be.

This should be interesting.

Religion at its Best

Episcopalians continue to break down barriers and ordain and promote the best regardless of sexual orientation:

Only weeks after the Episcopal Church ended a de facto moratorium on promoting gay men and lesbians into the church hierarchy, church leaders in Los Angeles nominated two openly gay priests as assistant bishops on Sunday.

The move came a day after a church search committee in Minnesota announced that it had settled on three candidates, one of them a lesbian, for bishop.

Good for them.

Religion at its Worst

Christians attacked by Muslims in Pakistan:

It was the poorest class who lived in Christian Colony, a small enclave of bare brick houses where the mob struck Saturday. Its residents work as day laborers and peddlers in the market, often earning far less than the minimum wage, $75 a month.

The Hameeds were having breakfast when the mob descended, wielding guns, hurling stones and shouting insults (“Dogs!” “American agents!”) through their window. The Hameeds did not appear to have been singled out but had the misfortune of living where the mob entered the neighborhood and happened to be home at the time.

When the grandfather, Hameed Pannun Khan, 75, a house painter, opened the door to see what was happening, he was shot in the temple and crumpled to the ground. The crowd then pushed inside, and the rest of the family — at least 10 people — fled to the back bedroom and locked themselves inside. They listened from behind the door as the mob looted the house, dragging away a refrigerator and a cupboard.

Then came the smoke, thick white plumes under the door.

“Everyone was shouting to escape,” said Umer Hameed, 18. “There was no oxygen.”

They waited as long as they could, until they thought it was safe, and then made a run for it, but not everybody made it. Three women, the two children and a man were trapped when the roof collapsed in flames.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

The Legal Drinking Age

My son turns 21 this fall and recently made a comment to me about how ridiculous it was that the drinking age was 21 when in all other matters he was a legal adult at 18. Didn't I agree, he asked. I said no, I thought it was a good idea as it postponed the link between being a new driver and a new drinker. Raising the drinking age had lowered deaths by drinking and driving, I said. I knew I had read that somewhere.

Of course I didn't think the same when the legal drinking age of 19 was snatched away from me in Pennsylvania in 1979. I went from being of age to not while I was in college. How unfair was that?

In any case I see, via Andrew Sullivan, that one of the architects of the national law that raised the drinking age to 21 in 1984 now repents of his earlier work. Dr. Morris Chafet was a psychiatrist who served on the presidential committee that pushed to have the legal drinking age raised to 21:
Chafet describes his effort to raise the drinking age as the "single most regrettable decision" of his career. "To be sure, drunk driving fatalities are lower now than they were in 1982," Chafet notes. "But they are lower in all age groups. And they have declined just as much in Canada, where the age is 18 or 19, as they have in the United States."

That observation, while welcome, hardly warrants a "better late than never" response. As Chafet also notes in his piece, the arbitrary age restriction is partially to blame for things like binge drinking, injury, and property destruction. Simply passing a law isn't going to stop young adults from drinking, an activity that has long been a sign of adulthood. Yet because of the fear of punishment, those young adults are much less likely to seek help when the partying gets out of hand, and the results are frequently disastrous. Furthermore, underage drinking only breeds disrespect for the law. So much for keeping people safe.
So, yes it is true that drunk driving fatalities are lower among teens, but they are also lower among all groups. What is that they say about statistics? I can't imagine any political scenario that would undo the current drinking age, but it would be ironic if just as my son turned 21 the legal age was lowered to 18.