Sunday, November 20, 2005

A Lesson from "Walk the Line"

My wife and I saw the new movie Walk the Line the other night.  The movie is a “biopic” retelling much of Johnny Cash’s early life.  We both really enjoyed the movie.

Johnny Cash’s story is a tragic one.  Religion/Faith is just as prevalent a theme in the film as addiction and domestic violence.

However, one of the most interesting scenes in the film depicted Johnny Cash meeting with recording executives.  Cash was trying to convince them to record a concert he was planning at Folsom State Prison in California.  The scene goes something like this:

Recording Exec: “Listen Johnny, your fan base is made up of good, church-going Christian folk.  They don’t wanna hear you singin’ to a bunch of murderers and rapists just to cheer them up!”

Johnny Cash: “Then they aren’t really Christians.”

Good stuff…

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Republicans Vote to Cut Child Support Enforcement

Man, this doesn't seem in accord with family values.

Federal Death Penalty Could Be Expanded

United Press International Washington, Oct 26, 2005 (UPI via COMTEX) (via Beliefnet)
An amendment to the reauthorization of the USA Patriot Act would make it easier for federal prosecutors to get defendants sentenced to death.Currently, all jurors in a case must agree the death penalty is warranted before a convict is condemned. If even one juror disagrees, the defendant's sentence is set at life in prison.
A Patriot Act amendment submitted by U.S. Rep. John Carter, R-Texas, and supported by the Justice Department would change that, The New York Times reported. Carter's amendment is in the House version of the Patriot Act reauthorization, but not in the Senate's. Lawmakers are to meet soon to settle differences in the two measures.
Several states allow for a second sentencing jury to be empanelled to reconsider a death sentence and even death penalty opponents say such a federal measure would likely be constitutional.
"It's one of the many situations where the Supreme Court leaves us to our folly," Federal Death Penalty Resource Counsel Project lawyer David Bruck told the Times.


Call your Representatives and tell them we have enough capital punishment in this country. Tell them social vengeance is not one of your values.

Others... Second?

I was listening to Christian talk radio the other night. One caller said that the principal she lives by is "Jesus first, others second, self last." Admirable sentiments, no doubt. But I wonder, might not the mantra be more succinctly (and accurately) stated, "Others first, self last"? Put another way, don't you effectively put Jesus first when you put others first?

Sunday, October 23, 2005

A comment on commercialism

Today the Social Gospel Today goes international. ¡I am posting this live from El Calafate, Argentina!

My stay at the estancia has come to and end (there will be many stories and much philosophizing to share), and I leave this afternoon for Buenos Aires. I wanted to quickly comment, however, on my initial reactions upon entering the tourist town of El Calafate (gateway to Argentine Patagonia) after having lived on an estancia literally in the middle of nowhere for almost 3 months. Forgive me for my bad English... I haven't been using it.

Riding along with a stranger who had offered me a ride back to Calafate (people are very neighborly here in Patagonia), I felt eager to be in town and to do the tourist thing. Upon returning, however, I found myself disgusted by the rampant commericalism of everything - the whole town seems to be geared towards pitching Argentine souveniers to wealthy American and European tourists. Having lived without much luxury and commerical exposure for three months, I had feared that I would be especially susceptible to its charms. My reaction, however, was quite the contrary. Not only did I not want to buy anything, but I was perplexed by why people would spend guady amounts of money (to an Argentine, but relatively cheap to a middle class American) on dressed up versions of things that gauchos (Argentine cowboys) use to get by each and every day.

Thank God that I can now appreciate that. My only fear, however, is that it might take 3 months away from civilization to come to this realization. ¿Any way we can get 100 million Americans to spend a couple months on an estancia?

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

The Federal Budget is a Moral Document, Revisited

Congressional Republicans are considering $50 billion in spending reductions that would cut funding for health care, education, food, housing and nutrition. Among other things, they are pushing for $10 billion in cuts to Medicare and Medicaid, programs which provided medical care for the poor and elderly. Coincidentally, the proposed spending cuts "are to be followed by a proposal for up to $70 billion in tax cuts." How convenient.

Our continuing ability to "afford" massive tax cuts belies Republicans' claims that spending cuts are required due to this year's hurricane relief. As President Clinton recently remarked, one-time catastrophic spending like the relief for Katrina should never be the basis for permanent changes in the federal budget. The Republicans attempt to exploit Katrina to free up more money for tax cuts is nothing short of disgusting.

As the 2006 elections approach, Christians would do well to remember that our social institutions, no less than our individual actions, are to reflect Godly values. Preeminent among those values must be a concern for the least of our brothers and sisters. Providing tax cuts to the wealthy--or even to the middle class--at the expense of social programs like Medicare and Medicaid does not reflect Christian values.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Cobra Commander & American Foreign Policy

Wizard Magazine recently released a Top 10 list of the best bad guys in cartoon history.
Included in that list were Starscream (#2) from Transformers and Cobra Commander (#7) from G.I. Joe.  These, along with Voltron, were my favorite TV shows while I was growing up in the 1980’s.

These shows depicted a clear-cut struggle between the forces of good and evil.  You had the evil, “bad guys” that always depicted attributes deemed undesirable – such as, selfishness, cowardice, dishonesty, etc.

Then you had the “good guys”; always brave, always heroic, willing to lay down their life for a comrade (or even a stranger).  The good guys always won, but only when defeat seemed closest.

The good guys were often colored in such a manner as to reflect the American flag: red, white and blue.  Some were a little less obvious – Optimus Prime from Transformers was primarily red, blue and a silvery white.  Some were more up front; G.I. Joe flew the American flag.

In the case of G.I. Joe, the enemy was distant, invasive and alien in a way.  The two leaders (for much of the series) were faceless, wearing masks at all times.  These were Cobra Commander and his 2nd in command, Destro.
While in Taizé, France, (summer, 2001) I spoke with my small group Bible study – I was the only American – about our respective countries’ (Spain, Germany, Holland, Bulgaria, Australia, Poland) foreign policies.  We came to an easy consensus that the United States is certainly the most outwardly focused of the countries.

The United States is often interested in being a big brother to (the nice way to say it) or bullying (the not-so-nice way to say it) less powerful nations around the world.  However, among the countries represented, the United States has/had more serious internal issues than the others – things like lack of access to healthcare, problems with public education, a wider gap between the wealthy and the poor.

The conclusion was that the United States is much like the man in Matthew 7.3-5 who sees a speck of sawdust in his neighbor’s eye and offers to remove it, but cannot because of the plank in his own eye.  The other countries represented, for the most part, understand that there are internal problems that must be fixed before they can venture out saving the world that doesn’t know, want, or need to be saved.
I began reflecting on the influence of the cartoons I watched when I was little and started to realize that I am much the same way as my nation.  I am concerned and interested in helping other people with their problems, but like to shy away from addressing my own.  If someone else is being called names, I’ll step in to assist, but take the abuse when directed at myself.  Every other person in my group reflected in their personal lives the understanding that they have/had their own internal issues that needed to be dealt with before they could go around offering/forcing assistance to their neighbors.

The people running this country and the generation about to take it over grew up during the Cold War and all the fear and bravado that came with it.  We group up knowing that there was a faceless enemy on the other side of the world.  It was us against them.  Even our Reagan-era cartoons reinforced that notion.

In the coming years and decades, we must all be aware of that “social-location,” as the sociologists like to call it, from which we come.  We must critically reflect on the world that shaped us even as we shape the world.  Does the world and culture of our upbringing still have effects on us today?

Next time you hit the voting booth, remember it’s not “us against them” anymore.  This is a global community and we’re electing the ambassadors to that community.  There is no Cobra Commander across the sea.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

The Agape Press on Poverty

A columnist for the conservative Christian news outlet, the Agape Press, has this dubious take on the following billboards cropping up across South Dakota:

"Jesus cares for the poor -- So do we."

He admits that "Republicans have probably not taken the topic as seriously as Scripture does" but viciously attacks Democrats for just throwing money at the problem.

I think he doth protest too much.

If conservative Christians start talking about poverty, I think they've already lost the theological battle.

Alabama State Senator: Hurricanes Were 'Judgment of God' on Sin

Beliefnet has this fascinating story.

Alabama Republican state Senator Hank Erwin from Montevallo, wasn't surprised by Katrina:

"New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast have always been known for gambling, sin and wickedness," Erwin wrote this week in a column he distributed to news outlets. "It is the kind of behavior that ultimately brings the judgment of God . . . . Warnings year after year by godly evangelists and preachers went unheeded. So why were we surprised when finally the hand of judgment fell?"

"If you are a believer and read the Bible, you know sin has judgment," Erwin said. "New Orleans has always been know for sin. . . . The wages of sin is death."

United Methodist Bishop, William Willimon, disagreed:
"I have no idea what sort of senator or politician Mr. Erwin is, but he's sure no theologian. . . . I'm certainly against gambling and its hold on state government in Mississippi, but I expect there is as much sin, of possibly a different order, in Montevallo as on the Gulf Coast. If God punished all of us for our sin, who could stand?"

Instinctively, I find Erwins comments disgusting. My God does not act so vengefully.

But on a logical level, if one believes that God intervenes in the physical world, then how else do you explain Katrina? Surely free will can't explain a severe hurricane striking a major metropolitan area. And there would have been devastation and death no matter how prepared we were. If you accept that God intervenes in the physical universe, then don't you have to also conclude that God either intended Katrina, or just didn't care?

This type of theological trap besets many who face personal tragedy. Personally, I take John Shelby Spong's position--that God is a Transcedent Absolute, a Truth. I take our conception of God as a personal "being" as metaphor--if a generally very helpful metaphor. If God's nature is Absolute rather than Personal, then we can say that the question of why God didn't stop Katrina simply misunderstands the nature of God.

It may be painful to question the metaphor of God as Personal Being, but doesn't adhering to it in cases like this contort our image of God anyway?

Thoughts on Harriet Miers

As the entire country likely knows by now, President Bush has nominated Texas lawyer and administration insider Harriet Miers to replace Sandra Day O'Connor on the U.S. Supreme Court. Much bandwidth has already been "spilled" by bloggers over the nominee, and I doubt anything I have to say will be terribly original, but I nevertheless feel compelled to add my two cents. It seems to me that the Miers nomination is a transparent attempt by the Bush administration to hide the ball. Miers has never served as a judge, and therefore she has no record of opinions which could illuminate her judicial philosophy. Does she reject the Constitution's "right to privacy" as untextual? Does she believe that the New Deal and the 60s Civil Rights revolution are unconstitutional because the federal government's power under the "Commerce Clause" is limited to an 18th century definition of the term "commerce?" We just don't know. We don't know anything about Harriet Miers.

But apparently Bush does. Balkinization has recently written about Bush's "information advantage" on Miers, objecting that Bush obviously knows a lot more about her than any of the rest of us do. Bush and Miers have been bosom buddies since his days as Governor of Texas and she's served as one of his closest advisors since 2000. She's even spent time clearing brush with him in Crawford. Bush knows her thoughts on Roe v. Wade. Bush knows her thoughts on federalism. But we can be assured that neither Bush nor Miers will tell any of us. Not in the "discovery period" leading up to her Senate hearing and not at the hearing itself.

Nominating someone without "litmus testing" their thoughts on Constitutional issues seems reasonable to me when their credentials justify it. But Miers is simply a Bush insider. She doesn't have near the resume of John Roberts or of myriad conservative Courts of Appeals judges Bush could have selected. The President must at least give a good reason for appointing someone to the Supreme Court. And "I know her well and like what she thinks about the Constitution" isn't good enough.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Increasing Social Distance

My rush at work seems to have abated.... At least somewhat.... For now....

Who would have thought that actually working for a living was so hard? Anyway, I have recently had (for the first time in a while) some time to think.

What has me spinning lately is a conversation I had on the bus.

My new job requires me to wear a suit every day. I often get quizzical looks from my fellow riders, since I'm always the only one in such attire. But recently I got confronted directly. "Are you a lawyer?" asked another passenger, apparently deducing this fact soley from my coat and tie. When I told him that I was, he seemed utterly perplexed. "What are you doing riding the bus to work, then?" he asked. Apparently all lawyers, admittedly members of the American aristocracy, are too rich and too important to take mass transportation with "ordinary folks."

I continued to talk with the man (a regular-Joe bartender), but he seemed nervous. In a way I can't exactly explain, I was uncomfortable too. At most times in my life, I've felt perfectly natural conversing with anyone. But the suit was apparently infecting my brain....

I have long thought that the purpose behind "professional dress" was to distance and differentiate we "professionals" from "those people," and it always bothered me. Why do we need to try to mark ourselves so explicitly as "better" than them? And why should anyone be nervous to talk to me of all people? These things have always bothered me.... But I never thought that my suit would affect me--my own attitude. I never thought that I would feel distance on my end.

But perhaps it isn't just the suit. Perhaps it is also that I spend my days in an office filled with highly-educated professionals, reading the writing of still other highly-educated professionals. I just haven't spent any time lately talking with my neighbors outside my socioeconomic class. And I've discovered that any amount of time spent in such isolation really does turn everyone else into "those people."

If I am to follow Jesus' example, a highly abstract, generalized love for neighbors isn't enough. Christian love, I believe, must also be specific, concrete, grounded in the actual neighbors that I meet every day. So I'm resolved: to resist the suit; to get to know my working-class fellow passengers; to strive to mitigate the social distance that makes me somehow vaguely uncomfortable with anyone outside my class.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Life is Happening...

Apologies for not posting. We have been slammed at work. This rush should be over on Friday, and I'll try to get something out shortly after that. Hopefully I won't mutilate second-grade spelling words in my next offering. (See discussion of "busses" [sic] below.)

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Where were the busses on August 28th?

Katrina recrimination is becoming something pf a national past time.

I thought it was inappropriate for the media to begin the political assessment of Katrina in the middle of last week - when conditions for tens of thousands in New Orleans were still life or death. But now that those victims in the New Orleans convention center and Superdome have been (or are being evacuated) to safer, livable shelter, I do think it is time we start assessing how we let what happened happen.

Especially after the 9/11 "My-Pet-Goat" fiasco, it is infuriating to see that the President was yucking it up with a Country music singer and an acoustic guitar as Katrina hit. Also, it is disturbing that the National Guard and FEMA took so long to respond, even after the levees broke.

But the most disturbing thing is the Government's failure to send busses on August 28th. As one blogger writes, our failure to "get busses to evacuate the 'least among us'" meant that, "for all practical purposes," they "were left to die."

Reading archived news from August 28-29 is, for me, chilling.

On Sunday, August 28th, the mayor New Orleans ordered a mandatory evacuation order.
He warned further about the expected Category 5 storm: "This is a threat that we've never faced before." Louisiana's Governor predicted that the city would lose power and water service and would likely see "intense flooding." Weather forecasters predicted a storm surge of 28 feet and reported that "the highest levees around New Orleans are 18 feet high."

Most disturbing: as early as Sunday, the national press was reporting that "between 20,000 and 25,000 [people]" who were unable to comply with the evacuation order were "lin[ing] up to take shelter in the Louisiana Superdome . . . ."

The bottom line is that our government knew or certainly should have known that this was going to be a terrible disaster. It also knew or should have known that thousands upon thousands of the poor would be left behind - with no car with which to comply with the mandatory evacuation order.

But it didn't send busses on the 28th. Why?

With the evidence above, I don't think "we didn't know" is a reasonable answer. I don't think there is an acceptable answer.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Give, give cash, give cash ONLINE

"We have very little, but they have nothing."

I am pleased, but not that surprised, by the outpouring of private charity for the victims of Hurricane Katrina. The Christian Science Monitor estimates that the total amount of gifts will reach $1 billion. It's not nearly enough, of course. But it's a lot. Considering the charitable response to the tsunami disaster earlier this year, though, I expected nothing less.

We here at the Social Gospel Today are encouraging people to make online donations in cash to the American Red Cross. Online donations of cash have, as we say in the biz, very low "transaction costs." As the embattled director of FEMA has correctly noted:

“Cash donations are especially helpful to victims. They allow volunteer agencies to issue cash vouchers to victims so they can meet their needs. Cash donations also allow agencies to avoid the labor-intensive need to store, sort, pack and distribute donated goods. Donated money prevents, too, the prohibitive cost of air or sea transportation that donated goods require.”

Online donations are even better than in-person or telephone cash donations. More of your gift can go directly to those who need it most because it costs less to process it. (No need for telephone operators, etc.)

It's important that we send our thoughts and prayers out to those who are suffering. But we've got to send more than just that.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Atlanta Piles On

Atlanta has become the latest city to get into the anti-panhandling act. My thoughts on panhandling last summer are here.

I still vehemently oppose anti-panhanding measures, but I personally try to give food rather than cash.

Living in New York last year taught me, sadly, that the conservatives aren't wrong in their claims that many take cash hand outs for drugs or alchohol. Still, the fact that these folks have a substance abuse problem in addition to being homeless shouldn't harden our hearts. Give food and give to treatment centers....

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Sunday Comment: No Compulsion

I think we can all agree that this Indiana trial judge erred in the most fundamental sense of the term when he ordered two parents to "shield" their ten-year-old son from their "non-mainstream faith."

The belief that there must be no compulsion in matters of religion is one of those happy moments when our theological and libertarian convictions agree:

"God calls men to serve Him in spirit and in truth, hence they are bound in conscience but they stand under no compulsion. God has regard for the dignity of the human person whom He Himself created and man is to be guided by his own judgment and he is to enjoy freedom." Declaration on Religious Freedom, Pope Paul VI (1965).

"Let there be no compulsion in religion." Qur'an, Al-Baqarah 2:256

"If a man desires to become a proselyte . . . he is to be addressed as follows: 'What reason have you for desiring to become a proselyte . . .' and he is made acquainted with some of the minor, and with some of the major commandments. What is the reason? In order that if he desired to withdraw let him do so." Talmud, Yevamot 48b.

"The 'establishment of religion' clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the Federal Government . . . can force [or] influence a person to go or to remain away from church against his will or force him to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion." United States Supreme Court, Everson v. Board of Education (1947).

"[T]he interest of parents in the care, custody, and control of their children is perhaps the oldest of the fundamental liberty interests recognized by this Court." United States Supreme Court, Troxey v. Granville (2000).

Someone who shows such absolute disrespect for fundamental liberties should be impeached, not just reversed.

Finally Some Good News

Charitable giving across the board -- even to non-tsunami related charities -- soared last quarter according to this report.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Brother Roger of Taizé

I know this is long for my first post, but please bear with me. I want to thank 42 and Infission for the opportunity to guest post.

He wanted to help refugees of the war, just like his grandmother had done some 25 years earlier. So he moved from Switzerland to France to a little village known as Taizé in the south of Burgandy. Along with his sister, he offered a place of food, shelter, safety and compassion for those who managed to escape the reach of Nazi Germany. This conviction to help the needy grew out of his strong faith.

Understanding that many who sought refuge in Taizé were Jews or agnostics, he never prayed or worshipped in front of his guests. Instead he opted to go into the woods alone to pray and sing.

In the autumn of 1942, his little refugee community was discovered and all involved were advised to flee. However, he was able to return to his community in 1944 – this time with companions.

After the war, a local man created an association to care for young boys orphaned by the war. The long-term mission of Taizé had begun to take shape. The community was committed to serving the “least of these” in whatever way possible.

On Easter Sunday, 1949, the first brothers took the vows of celibacy, material and spiritual sharing and to a great simplicity of life. The monastic community of Taizé was born. And Brother Roger led them.

Since then, the Taizé monastic community – along with the Sisters of Saint Andrew – has welcomed and served all who traveled to the countryside of France to connect with God and with other pilgrims from all over the world. Thousands of people between the ages of 17-30 travel to Taizé each year.

As an ecumenical community, Taizé (with Catholic brothers, some Protestant brothers and actively seeking Orthodox brothers) has sought to assist the Church Universal in reconnecting with itself. This is evidenced not only in the mission work done all over the world (specifically Africa, Asia and South America), but even in its church building – the Church of Reconciliation.

I visited Taizé in July of 2001 with a group of youth and young adults from the north Texas area. My time there changed me forever. Not only have I learned the importance of contemplative study and solitary prayer – I have a better view of global Christianity.

During each evening prayer, Brother Roger would pray over those sitting around him (he would move around the large sanctuary throughout the week). I could feel the love of Christ emanating from his face as he prayed over me. I never knew him, but I know he was a great man.

Brother Roger was a close friend of Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa, the latter of which he co-authored a handful of books. Brother Roger was a man of peace fighting for peace.

Brother Roger died last night in a place he loved dearly – the sanctuary of the Church of Reconciliation. He died surrounded by the Community of Brothers and many pilgrims to Taizé. Despite his recent illnesses, he did not die peacefully.

Brother Roger was stabbed to death by a woman described as “probably mentally disturbed” during evening prayer on August 16, 2005.

This prayer was offered at morning prayer on August 17th:

“Christ of compassion, you enable us to be in communion with those who have gone before us, and who can remain so close to us. We confide into your hands our Brother Roger. He already contemplates the invisible. In his footsteps, you are preparing us to welcome a radiance of your brightness.”
The global Church has lost a great hero of the Faith. The global poor have lost an important advocate. The community of Taizé lost its founding leader. Heaven has gained a favorite son.

We should be in prayer of thanks for the life that Brother Roger led. We should be in prayer for strength and understanding for the Brothers and Sisters of Taizé. We should be in prayer for healing for those who witnessed such a tragedy. We should be in prayer for the woman who allegedly murdered Brother Roger for healing, forgiveness and salvation.

I leave you with a prayer by Frère Roger:
“God of peace, through the Gospel we understand that it is merciful love that counts above all. Give us therefore hearts that are filled with goodness.”
Brother Roger will be missed...

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Sunday Comment: Get Evolution out of the Spotlight

Many Christians have Evolution on the brain.

Bush's support of "Intelligent Design" and Kansas's recent adoption of pro-Intelligent Design curricula standards, among other things, have thrown it into the spotlight. I heard a fanatical sermon this morning blaming Evolution for Nazism, Freudianism, Behaviorism, Communism and Atheism. So I've got it on the brain too.

According to a recent Harris poll, only 38% of Americans believe that "human beings developed from earlier species." This is down from 44% in 1994. The proponents of Intelligent Design have certainly created the public perception of an intellectual dispute. Although I would answer the Harris poll question "yes" if put to it, I have not personally investigated the evidence for or against Evolution. The reason is that its validity or invalidity is just not that important to me.

I think the fact that Evolution is such a controversy within our churches illustrates a broader problem within mainstream Christianity today. It is a prime example of concerns about orthodoxy prevailing over concerns about orthopraxy. Where is the thundering from the pulpit about the lack of charitable giving?

As Christians, we must start concerning ourselves more with what we do and less about what we believe. We must start recognizing concrete human suffering as more critical than the Origin of the Species, the origin of the universe, or any other abstract controversy.