Saturday, March 26, 2011

Bob Herbert Signs Off Saying We Have Lost Our Way

Bob Herbert writes his last column for the NYTimes today and gives voice to my thoughts about our plunge into another war while millions in the US are unemployed:
So here we are pouring shiploads of cash into yet another war, this time in Libya, while simultaneously demolishing school budgets, closing libraries, laying off teachers and police officers, and generally letting the bottom fall out of the quality of life here at home.

Welcome to America in the second decade of the 21st century. An army of long-term unemployed workers is spread across the land, the human fallout from the Great Recession and long years of misguided economic policies. Optimism is in short supply. The few jobs now being created too often pay a pittance, not nearly enough to pry open the doors to a middle-class standard of living.

Arthur Miller, echoing the poet Archibald MacLeish, liked to say that the essence of America was its promises. That was a long time ago. Limitless greed, unrestrained corporate power and a ferocious addiction to foreign oil have led us to an era of perpetual war and economic decline. Young people today are staring at a future in which they will be less well off than their elders, a reversal of fortune that should send a shudder through everyone.

The U.S. has not just misplaced its priorities. When the most powerful country ever to inhabit the earth finds it so easy to plunge into the horror of warfare but almost impossible to find adequate work for its people or to properly educate its young, it has lost its way entirely.
There is no political will - even from Democrats - to spend money at home to bring down the unemployment rate and tackle the countless number of problems we have here. "We are broke" is the constant refrain. And yet there is barely a murmur of dissent as we commit ourselves to spending billions on another war of choice. It is hard not to agree with Bob Herbert: we have lost our way.

Friday, March 25, 2011

It's Time to Stop Playing the Killing Game

Donald McCartin is a retired Superior Court Judge in California. He was named to bench by Governor Jerry Brown in 1978. During his tenure on the bench he became, by his own admission, known as a "hanging judge" for the number of people he sentenced to death row. As he watches another go-around with Jerry Brown as governor, he thinks the time has come, for moral and economic reasons, for the Governor to end the death penalty in California:
I watch today as Gov. Brown wrestles with the massive debt that is suffocating our state and hear him say he doesn't want to "play games." But I cringe when I learn that not playing games amounts to cuts to kindergarten, cuts to universities, cuts to people with special needs — and I hear no mention of the simple cut that would save hundreds of millions of dollars, countless man-hours, unimaginable court time and years of emotional torture for victim's family members waiting for that magical sense of "closure" they've been falsely promised with death sentences that will never be carried out.

There is actually, I've come to realize, no such thing as "closure" when a loved one is taken. What family members must find is reconciliation with the reality of their loss, and that can begin the minute the perpetrator is sent to a prison he will never leave. But to ask them to endure the years of being dragged through the courts in pursuit of the ultimate punishment is a cruel lie.

It's time to stop playing the killing game. Let's use the hundreds of millions of dollars we'll save to protect some of those essential services now threatened with death. Let's stop asking people like me to lie to those victim's family members.

The Followers of Gandhi and Jesus

Geoffrey Ward begins his review of a new book on Gandhi, Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India By Joseph Lelyveld, with this telling observation:

Some years ago, the British writer Patrick French visited the Sabarmati ashram on the outskirts of Ahmedabad in the Indian state of Gujarat, the site from which Mahatma Gandhi led his salt march to the sea in 1930. French was so appalled by the noisome state of the latrines that he asked the ashram secretary whose job it was to clean them.

A sweeper woman stopped by for an hour a day, the functionary explained, but afterward things inevitably became filthy again.

But wasn’t it a central tenet of the Mahatma’s teachings that his followers clean up after themselves?

“We all clean the toilets together, on Gandhiji’s birthday,” the secretary answered, “as a symbol to show that we understand his message.”

Reminds me a lot of the followers of Jesus.

The Anabaptist Catholic Witness

Over the National Catholic Reporter Michael Sean Winters was musing about recent polling data that shows Catholics - even those who attend Mass at least weekly and who tend to be more conservative on social issues - warming to the idea of recognition for civil marriage for gays. What should be the response of the Church:
The Catholic Church should not bury its head in the sand as Donohue (Bill Donohue of the Catholic League for Civil Rights) seems to want it to do. Our approach to this issue, like our approach to many issues in this increasingly secular culture, must be to foster what Pope Benedict has called “creative minorities” in which we live what we believe and hope the beauty our lives evidence will attract others. Allowing ourselves to be lumped with anti-gay bigots is not the answer. We must ask ourselves: Why do others not see the beauty of a lifelong marital commitment? Why do others not see Christ as a part of their marriage? And, why should we be in the business of trying to prevent gays and lesbians from achieving some level of legal stability and protection for their unions? These are not easy questions, even though the loudest voices on both sides of the issue treat them, if they treat them at all, as easily answered.
Benedict's "creative minorities" sounds very anabaptist. It is a recognition that our most telling witness is the witness of our lives. If our lives radiate the beauty of love, sacrifice and commitment then we may find that we will have something that is attractive to offer to the world. The power we have in this way of living is not the power of being able to legislate our way but the power of authenticity which is the only power that ultimately changes hearts and minds. This is, in my opinion, the very best of the anabaptist witness. So it is interesting to hear it being espoused by the Pope.

Change We Can't Believe In

Unfortunately I find myself pretty much in agreement with this comparison by Stephen Walt -- now of Harvard and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace -- of the difference between the liberal interventionists leading us into war with Libya and the neocons who led us into war in Iraq:
The only important intellectual difference between neoconservatives and liberal interventionists is that the former have disdain for international institutions (which they see as constraints on U.S. power), and the latter see them as a useful way to legitimate American dominance. Both groups extol the virtues of democracy, both groups believe that U.S. power -- and especially its military power -- can be a highly effective tool of statecraft. Both groups are deeply alarmed at the prospect that WMD might be in the hands of anybody but the United States and its closest allies, and both groups think it is America's right and responsibility to fix lots of problems all over the world. Both groups consistently over-estimate how easy it will be to do this, however, which is why each has a propensity to get us involved in conflicts where our vital interests are not engaged and that end up costing a lot more than they initially expect.

So if you're baffled by how Mr. "Change You Can Believe In" morphed into Mr. "More of the Same," you shouldn't really be surprised. George Bush left in disgrace and Barack Obama took his place, but he brought with him a group of foreign policy advisors whose basic world views were not that different from the people they were replacing. I'm not saying their attitudes were identical, but the similarities are probably more important than the areas of disagreement. Most of the U.S. foreign policy establishment has become addicted to empire, it seems, and it doesn't really matter which party happens to be occupying Pennsylvania Avenue.

So where does this leave us? For starters, Barack Obama now owns not one but two wars. He inherited a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, and he chose to escalate instead of withdrawing. Instead of being George Bush's mismanaged blunder, Afghanistan became "Obama's War." And now he's taken on a second, potentially open-ended military commitment, after no public debate, scant consultation with Congress, without a clear articulation of national interest, and in the face of great public skepticism. Talk about going with a gut instinct.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Should I Buy a New Car or Go on an Expensive Vacation

Well, the answer for me is neither. Both my kids are getting married this summer. But if you have a choice and want to know which will ultimately make you happier, Professor Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling On Happiness answers the question in an Atlantic article and says you should pick the vacation:
We favor objects because we think that experiences can be fun but leave us with nothing to show for them. But that turns out to be a good thing. Experiences have the nice property of going away. Cars need repairs, they rust in our driveway, and they ultimately disappoint us enough that we sell them and get new ones. Experiences are like good relatives that stay for a while and then leave. Objects are like relatives who move in and stay past their welcome.

Another reason why experiences beat objects is that experiences are usually social. If you go to Europe you will almost surely go with someone, whereas if you buy the car, you will probably drive it by yourself. We are social animals, and the best predictor of happiness is the goodness and extent of our social relationships. Experiences are more likely to be shared than objects are.
A couple other Q&A's from the article:
You write, "unfettered access to peak experiences may actually be counterproductive." Explain that.

Imagine making love to the person of your dreams. That will be a good day. But the day after will not. The good thing about peak experiences is that they make us happy while we are having them, but the bad thing is that they then serve as a standard of comparison for all the experiences that follow. When researchers looked at lottery winners, they weren't happier than a control group, but they did take less pleasure in everyday events. The big happiness rush you get when you receive the big check is gone pretty soon, and then when good things happen you find yourself saying, "That was nice but it wasn't like the day I won the lottery."

That doesn't mean you should refuse peak experiences. It just means you should ask yourself, "If I have this peak experience, will it make the rest of my life dull and unsatisfying?"

What's the most controversial suggestion in the paper?

If one thing surprises most folks, it might be the suggestion to buy many small things rather than fewer big things. If you asked people if they'd prefer an ice cream cone every Monday for the next few weeks or a great meal at a French restaurant, most would probably take the great meal gift certificate. But it turns out that the frequency of positive events is a better predictor of happiness than intensity of those positive events.
I prefer beer to ice cream but it makes sense to me. And I rarely come away from an expensive restaurant satisfied that the meal or experience was worth the price.

How Great Entrepreneurs Think

Saras Sarasvathy, a professor at the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business, has been studying entrepreneurs and how they think. Her conclusion:
Sarasvathy concluded that master entrepreneurs rely on what she calls effectual reasoning. Brilliant improvisers, the entrepreneurs don't start out with concrete goals. Instead, they constantly assess how to use their personal strengths and whatever resources they have at hand to develop goals on the fly, while creatively reacting to contingencies. By contrast, corporate executives—those in the study group were also enormously successful in their chosen field—use causal reasoning. They set a goal and diligently seek the best ways to achieve it...
Would you describe Jesus as a master entrepreneur or a corporate executive? Was he developing goals on the fly or did he have it all planned out from the beginning? At what point did he see a cross in his future? Was this always the short-term goal on the way to resurrection and a church? Or did he start out with other goals - say forming a renewal movement - and eventually come to see his own martyrdom as necessary in order to jump-start something bigger? Was the cross a calculated risk or a painful but necessary step on the way to a global organization?

I'd say he was closer to entrepreneur.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

It's Snowing Again

These goldfinches are as happy about it as I am.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Saving the Jefferson Bible

In my message yesterday I was talking about how I have come to understand the stories of Jesus the healer and exorcist. I mentioned that there was a time when I practiced the Thomas Jefferson method of reading the Bible. I cut out - figuratively - all the stories I didn't like. I just ignored them.

Jefferson, of course, literally cut them out. Or more precisely he cut out the passages of the Bible he did like and created his own private Bible. This morning I saw a Washington Post article reprinted in the Star Tribune about Smithsonian Institution attempts to save the Bible, which is apparently falling apart:

For more than 116 years, the Jefferson Bible, as it is known, has been one of the iconic possessions of the Smithsonian Institution. Now a group of conservators and curators has removed the 86 pages from the original binding and is examining every inch to stabilize its condition, study its words and craftsmanship, and guarantee that future generations can learn more about the artifact and the man.

The pages, with verses glued on each side, are brittle and stiff -- 90 percent show some damage. Jefferson used a mix of animal glue and starch as an adhesive. The handsewn binding is tight, making the spine rigid.

On one table in the basement workshop, Jefferson's title page for "The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth" is elaborately written in his clear hand.

"There are 12 different types of paper and seven different types of ink," said Janice Stagnitto Ellis, the museum's paper conservator. "We took tiny samples of ink from the ruled line. The paper fibers are weak."

Jefferson was meticulous, she said, leaving precise gaps in each book as he removed the verses that supported his religious and moral beliefs. He used two English texts, as well as two French and two Greek and Latin, arranging his selections in chronological order over four columns.

He was also an editor. "Apparently he didn't like the construction here of 'for as in a day,' so he edited out the 'as,'" explained Ellis, pointing with a silver micro-spatula to the little square where he had eliminated the word.

"This is a private document he created for himself," said Harry Rubenstein, the chair of the museum's political history division. "He never sold it because he didn't want it to be public. He wanted to avoid bringing back the arguments that he was anti-Christian."

Friday, March 18, 2011

Gay Marriage Support Crosses Threshold

Looking around for good news on this Friday I see these results from a new ABC News/Washington Post poll:
More than half of Americans say it should be legal for gays and lesbians to marry, a first in nearly a decade of polls by ABC News and The Washington Post.

This milestone result caps a dramatic, long-term shift in public attitudes. From a low of 32 percent in a 2004 survey of registered voters, support for gay marriage has grown to 53 percent today. Forty-four percent are opposed, down 18 points from that 2004 survey.
Committed couples and stable families make for healthier children and a stronger society. Whether those couples are gay or straight makes no difference. You would think that every pro-family/children Christian would support gay marriage, wouldn't you?

It's Off to War We Go

Again. Hi Ho. Hi Ho. No Congressional debate needed. No clear definition of what the end game is, how success will be defined. (At least I didn't hear it from the President's remarks.) Just a promise from the President that there will be no troops on the ground in Libya. But we have lots of high-tech technologies and weapons to use and that military-industrial complex to feed. So it's off to the shores of Tripoli we go, again.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Rick Santorum on Separation of Church and State

Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum (not a proud part of my home state history) was in Massachusetts speaking to a group of Catholics and he not only ripped former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney for his health care law but he also ripped former President Kennedy, also from Massachusetts, for saying that he supported separation of church and state:
Santorum decried what he called the growing secularization of American public life.

He traced the problem to Kennedy's 1960 speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, in which Kennedy – then a candidate for president - sought to allay concerns about his Catholicism by declaring, "I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute."

Santorum, who is Catholic, said he was "frankly appalled" by Kennedy's remark.

"That was a radical statement," Santorum said, and it did "great damage."

"We're seeing how Catholic politicians, following the first Catholic president, have followed his lead, and have divorced faith not just from the public square, but from their own decision-making process," Santorum said.
Might it be possible that President Kennedy's faith was actually informing his decision-making? Might it possible that not all Catholic politicians share the same faith perspective as Santorum? Might it be possible here that the real radical is Santorum, who also added this little bit of historical commentary about another President:
"Jefferson is spinning in his grave," he added.
When Jefferson became President he discontinued the practice started by his predecessors George Washington and John Adams of proclaiming days of fasting and thanksgiving. He wrote this famous letter to the Danbury Baptists in response to their concerns about religious establishment:
Mr. President

To messers Nehemiah Dodge, Ephraim Robbins, & Stephen S. Nelson, a committee of the Danbury Baptist association in the state of Connecticut.


The affectionate sentiments of esteem and approbation which you are so good as to express towards me, on behalf of the Danbury Baptist association, give me the highest satisfaction. my duties dictate a faithful and zealous pursuit of the interests of my constituents, & in proportion as they are persuaded of my fidelity to those duties, the discharge of them becomes more and more pleasing.

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. [Congress thus inhibited from acts respecting religion, and the Executive authorised only to execute their acts, I have refrained from prescribing even those occasional performances of devotion, practiced indeed by the Executive of another nation as the legal head of its church, but subject here, as religious exercises only to the voluntary regulations and discipline of each respective sect.] Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.

I reciprocate your kind prayers for the protection & blessing of the common father and creator of man, and tender you for yourselves & your religious association assurances of my high respect & esteem.

(signed) Thomas Jefferson
Wanna guess whose statements about church and state really make Jefferson spin in his grave?

Monday, March 07, 2011

When Liberation Movements Go Viral

One of the interesting scholarly and blog conversations that never ends is how much if any of the gospel accounts of Jesus life are based on things Jesus actually did or said. How much can we really know? There is one kind of this conversation that takes place on a level that debates whether Jesus even existed. You can read some of that conversation here and here if you are interested. I enjoy reading the posts but confess that even as a very liberal pastor who cares about historical accuracy I am hopelessly biased on this issue.

Recently, though, I have been reading Richard Horsley's book Jesus and the Powers: Conflict, Covenant, and the Hope of the Poor. and have been interested to see Horsley address Jesus' "fame". Our earliest gospel Mark states in the very first chapter that Jesus "fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee." Is this true? Is it possible? How popular was Jesus? How much of a "scene" did he make? How much of a movement did he have?

Here is Horsley:
Toward the beginning of Mark's story, Jesus' mission appears to be "headquartered" in the village of Capernaum, at the northern end of the Sea of Galilee, along the frontier with Herod Philip's territory from the east. From this base, the mission and communication spread into surrounding villages. Mark's Gospel thus paints a picture different from the normally limited communication from village to village in agrarian societies: the interaction among Jesus, the disciples, and the responsive people generated an expanding network of communication around the countryside.

...In these early accounts of the mission, Jesus delegates disciples to spread the proclamation and manifestation of the kingdom into other villages, where they are to work closely and stay with the people. Jesus' mission thus involved an intentional orchestration of communication across village lines. Though exaggerated, Mark's representations of rapidly expanding communication at least partly what was happening in Jesus' mission itself.
Horsley cites a book I haven't read, Domination and the Arts of Resistance by James C. Scott, as evidence of how "rumor" spreads among disparate communities and inflames hope and emboldens beaten down peasants to take action as they hear news of resistance and victory from other communities.

Horsley thinks that this is what was happening with the Jesus movement in peasant villages around Galilee. His kingdom movement reminded the people that the were (or could choose to live) under the direct rule of God not Rome or the temple aristocracy. It inspired hope and action in the form of sharing of goods and healing both physical and spiritual. The news about Jesus was going out through intentional mission and through the peasant rumor mill. The Jesus movement, Horsley suggests, was real; it was spreading; and hence it was quickly and correctly perceived to be a genuine threat by the religious and political authorities.

I find Horsley's explanation plausible. It could have happened this way. I certainly resonate with his description of Jesus' movement as being centered around spiritual/political/economic liberation.

I also can't help but make the connection between Horsley's description of the surprising and almost explosive spread of the Jesus movement and events in the middle east right now. If you wanted to see evidence of how a liberation movement can spread rapidly and seem to come out of nowhere we are watching it happen before our eyes. I keep asking 'why now'? What has changed between one year ago or five years ago and today? Certainly the technology that has fueled the spread of "rumor" has penetrated these societies enough to make it possible to keep the news flowing and to make it nearly impossible to suppress from above. But there also has to be an element of frustration and anger and hope reaching a certain critical mass where it just needs to find an outlet. The good news about this movement is that it has been mostly peaceful, making a mockery of those who equate Islam with violence. Even better some of the government response has been peaceful. Alas this is not true everywhere.

Still, to watch a movement go 'viral' in this manner is a reminder that it really does happen this way. It very well could have happened this way with Jesus.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

How Should We Fix Our Budget Problems

A new NBC/WSJ poll asks Americans to make choices about how to fill the hole in our budget:

The most popular: placing a surtax on federal income taxes for those who make more than $1 million per year (81 percent said that was acceptable), eliminating spending on earmarks (78 percent), eliminating funding for weapons systems the Defense Department says aren’t necessary (76 percent) and eliminating tax credits for the oil and gas industries (74 percent).

The least popular: cutting funding for Medicaid, the federal government health-care program for the poor (32 percent said that was acceptable); cutting funding for Medicare, the federal government health-care program for seniors (23 percent); cutting funding for K-12 education (22 percent); and cutting funding for Social Security (22 percent).

This just confirms my view (hope?) that the last election was an aberration as angry tea-partiers showed up in an off-year election and skewed the results, throwing the election into the hands of a political party that mistakenly believes it has been given a mandate for taking draconian action to cut government spending on social programs, not to mention taking out public-employee unions to boot. This is just the latest poll that suggests that these leaders are over-reading the results of the election and misreading the mood of the public.

Jesus the Village Organizer

I am about half-way through reading Richard Horsley's latest book Jesus and the Powers: Conflict, Covenant and the Hope of the Poor. Horsley does a masterful job of spelling out the economic/political/religious milieu of Jesus. He provides a forceful reminder of the fact that the Temple in Jesus' day (and previously) was very much under the control of the Roman occupiers who supported the king who built and maintained it and appointed the high priests who ran it. Taxes were collected in the temple for the empire. The Temple was indeed much more than a house of God.

Horsley depicts the scribes and the Pharisees as the intellectuals very much caught in the middle. Their livelihood depended on their service to the Roman-appointed leadership. But they were also keeping alive a religious tradition that breathed through and through with a message of liberation from oppression. They very much feared the results of active resistance and so for the most part collaborated to help put it down, but they also occasionally were moved to actual resistance as when students of the teachers Judas son of Sariphaeus and Matthias son of Margalothus tore down Herod's imperial eagle after his death. (909 Kindle)

Meanwhile out in the villages of Galilee and Judea the peasants attempted to eke out an existence that was made more and more desperate by the forced taxation that supported the temple and the Hellenization projects of Herod. Most couldn't read but they kept alive the ancient remembered traditions of resistance and liberation:
The Village communities in which the Galilean and Judean peasants lived provided the sequestered sites in which they could cultivate their popular tradition and develop their "raw" resentment into a "cooked" discourse of their desire for dignity and hopes for deliverance. It was in the "hidden transcript" of the continuing cultivation of popular Israelite tradition in the village communities that past deliverance was remembered, and hopes for a better life nurtured. This was the fertile soil from which movements could grow... (1005 Kindle)
In a period of time that spanned more than a century before and after the time of Jesus a series of peasant-led resistant movements, some messianic and some prophetic, came out of the villages and succeeded for varying periods of time in taking back village life from the Romans and their wealthy Jewish client leaders. Each, however, was eventually crushed by the overwhelming force and brutality of the Roman legions.

The Jesus movement was one of these peasant-led movements. Horsley says it differed from the other resistance movements in this way:
Yet there was a significant difference between Jesus and his movement and the (other) popular prophetic movements. Both drew on the popular memory of Moses (and Joshua or Elijah). But, whereas the other prophets led their followers out of their villages and into the wilderness or up to the Mount of Olives in anticipation of God's new acts of deliverance, Jesus focused his mission on village communities and their concerns. Throughout Mark's narrative of Jesus mission in Galilee and beyond, Jesus works in villages and synagogues (which were village assemblies, not buildings.) (1149 Kindle)
Jesus sent his envoys out to work in the villages. His renewal movement was about reclaiming covenant relations, social and economic, among the people living there. He knew well the indignities of village life under Roman role. His healing acts symbolized this:
This is perhaps nowhere more vividly expressed than in the two interwoven episodes of the twelve-year-old woman and the woman who had been hemorrhaging for twelve years (Mark 5:21-43). Both women are representative of the people, as symbolized by the "twelve." In both, the power of life is ebbing away. The lifeblood of the older woman had been steadily drained from her. The younger woman, just at the age when she should be married and being reproducing life in Israel, was "at the point of death." These are the representative figures of Israel in the Galilean villages where crowds eagerly greet Jesus. (1215 Kindle)
Significantly, Horsley notes in these stories that the initiative to be healed comes from the people themselves and healing takes place in an interaction between Jesus and the people who respond to his message of hope and his genuine authority but are not merely passive recipients of Jesus power.

Interesting read so far... I see Horsley making his own way here rejecting both the wisdom Jesus who left us memorable and timeless parables and aphorisms and the failed apocalyptic prophet whose martyrdom spawned a movement. Jesus, in Horsley's treatment, created an indigenous kingdom movement that spoke to concerns of peasant/village life.

Horsley is great in the book's beginning describing the history of Israel's formation in reaction to a repeated history of imperial rule from external (Babylon, Egypt, etc.) and internal (David, Solomon, etc.) powers. As I mentioned earlier I found his treatment of the function of the temple as a seat and symbol of that imperial power to be particularly enlightening.