Friday, January 28, 2011

Climate in Uganda

January 28, 2011

It has been widely reported on Christian discussion sites and more recently in the newspapers that a Ugandan civil rights activist has been murdered in his home earlier this week. President Obama and the Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton have both issued statements condemning this murder and the climate of bigotry and violence that surrounds it. The Archbishop of Canterbury, meeting with Anglican Primates in Dublin has today, (belatedly in the view of many), issued his own statement even as protestors outside the meeting were begging him to do so. The Primate of Uganda, Luke Henry Orombi is not in attendance because he doesn’t want to be I the room with the presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church.

The slow and half-hearted condemnation of bigotry in the midst of a meeting marred by the absence of those in our church who foment such bigotry by their absence is both unfortunate and a disgrace.

That said, we must recognize that the Anglican Communion is only a ‘bit player’ in the Ugandan horror. If anything, Dr. Williams’ consistent efforts to keep Orombi In some kind of conversation had led to some statements, however muted, from some Ugandan bishops against a bill proposed in the Ugandan Parliament that would codify the outlawing of homosexuality and allow for the death penalty in some, (loosely defined) circumstances.

Inevitably, rather as we saw after the murder of Representative Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona, there is a lot of finger pointing going on. The beleaguered gay community is clear that this is a hate crime against an outspoken activist who had been singled out along with a few others by a small circulation virulent newspaper who perpetuates the myth that homosexuals raid schools and recruit children. (The paper subsequently lost a lawsuit on the issue.) The police want to portray the crime as nothing but another robbery–murder in a notoriously bad area.

The chairperson of one gay rights group in that country, a Ms. Val Kalende, has blamed American evangelicals who visited in 2009 led m by a man called Don Schmierer. He is accused of holding rallies and meeting with Ugandan officials of how gay men sodomize teenage boys and how the gay movement is an institution intended to defeat the marriage based society. Mr. Schmierer is ‘horrified’, feels like a victim of prejudice himself, says he offered parenting classes and “spoke to help people.”

Whatever influence Mr. Schmierer had in shaping the proposed Ugandan laws which are still under consideration but on hold thanks to threats in aid cuts from foreign nations, any responsibility he might bear is not a direct cause and effect kind of responsibility. Viruletn laws condemning homosexuality are to be found throughout the African Continent and especially in the East.

People of good will clearly have a role to play in protesting this insanity and making clear that prejudice in any form leads to violence in many forms. The hard work of creating a climate in which gun violence is abhorred and made difficult is part of that work in many places in this world. So is creating climates that do not solve disagreement with abuses of power. So are many other things. What we know beyond a shadow of a doubt is that those in power resist any notion of climate change. Those in power profit from the way things are. That is how we get our power.

In the church we are by no means immune to a dislike of change when it seems to affect our lives which are hard enough without someone monkeying with the balance of them. No0netheless, we also know what grace there can be for everybody when those who are currently held back, held down, threatened, persecuted and the like are set free and assisted in becoming full participants in the community which is more fully human itself because of their participation.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Government and Environment

January 24, 2011

At a recent board meeting of the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale, there was much celebration of a marvelous capital gift to endow a faculty position at Yale called the H. Boone and Violet M. Porter Chair in Religion and Environmental Stewardship. During worship we heard a sermon from a student combining a Divinity degree with one in Forestry who made all kinds of points about culture change and population growth and how they would affect the children in the room when they are forty. He connected concern for the environment with prophetic concern for fighting racism, poverty and any number of other evils. He ended with a suggestion that students could work together on building community gardens and the like.

I found myself thinking, as I often do when confronted with the magnitude of the environmental crisis that seems to be coming our way, that any practices of environmental stewardship I might adopt on a personal level, while spiritually useful and a reminder of what is really important, don’t make a dent in what needs major governmental and regulatory attention. I value recycling and notice how much it has lessened the amount of trash we produce at home. I remember a sermon from Walter Smith some years ago in which he wondered how long it had been since some of us had felt earth rather than concreted under our bare feet, and I like to make a point of finding times to do just that as a personal way of staying literally and physically grounded. But when it comes to the kind of environmental shifts that our pointed towards in Jared Diamond’s Collapse and any number of sermons, I believe that addressing the complex network of issues that make for proper concern for the environment is a proper role for governments at the highest levels.

I worry that in the current debate about the role of government in this country, a mood that opposes regulation, especially when it interferes with what sounds like a belief in our God-given right to make profit at any expense, will mean that we will fail to do what we need to do today in order to provide for those who follow us tomorrow. While I know that there is a healthy debate about what effects there might be from climate change, I sense a kind of wishful thinking in some quarters that we really don’t need to worry about that now. It sounds like the idea that we can fight two long and breathtakingly expensive wars without having to pay for them.

Al this leads me to be doubly grateful for those who work on all of our behalf to understand the issues facing us and to lobby our government at every level to pay attention. I’m also grateful for our Earth Stewards at All Saints’ who organized an opportunity for responsible disposal and recycling of our no-longer-used electronics.

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Role of Government

January 14, 2011

Paul Krugman had a column in today’s New York Times that helped me put a growing feeling into words. He pointed out that the conversation about the appropriate role of government has changed in recent years from one in which everyone basically assumed that government has some kind of role in being a mechanism for caring for the weakest in an affluent society, to one in which some people assume that government’s role should be severely limited and there is no ‘social program’ that can be considered legitimate.

I remember when Ronald Reagan started campaigning on the basis that ‘government is the problem’. He, as I remember it, wanted a limited role for government, but he also talked about the weakest in society. He was very taken (as was Margaret Thatcher) with the monetarist theories of Milton Friedman and he talked about how wealth would ‘trickle down’ to the neediest and everyone’s fortunes would be raised. It was pretty clear then and is even clearer now that monetarism is no more a magic theory than any version of the Keynesianism that it sought to replace. BUT, at least he seemed to believe that there is some necessity in a civilized society that the neediest have some kind of safety net.

What I hope to hear in our current debates is some concern for those who are weakest among us. It is conceivable to me that a Christian could see a very limited role for the federal government. What is not conceivable is that they would see no communal or regulatory role for caring for the weakest among us. I think about our traditions of stewardship, Israel’s gleaning laws allowing for the wayfarer and stranger to eat, prophetic concern for widows and orphans and on and on. It seems to me that we can have a legitimate debate about the appropriate level of ‘community’ at which such needs might be addressed (provided that the discussion also includes the appropriate level and source of resources). What I near now is a kind of implicit individualism that, whatever its intent, sounds angry and greedy and selfish to my ear. “Keep the government’s hand out of my pocket. My money is mine. Don’t regulate business. Leave everything up to individuals. If people choose to live on the streets, then that is their choice.”

Bipartisanship and civil discourse depend upon some common vision. Paul Krugman does not believe we have it. Is this not a place where conservative and progressive Christians could both find and model common ground?

Natural Disasters

January 14, 2011

Our own Kevin York-Simmons recently presented a paper at the Annual Conference of the Society of Christian Ethics in New Orleans. Building on the work of Jon Sobrino he looks at the increasing incidence of moral analysis in the wake of natural disasters. At one level this looks like media looking to assign blame in the wake of such disasters. Why was the death and destruction caused by the Haitian earthquake so much more severe than the Chilean one a few months later, when that one was so much more powerful? Kevin looks at the moral, pastoral and theological consequences of Sobrino’s approach and the proper place of human agency in ’natural’ disasters.

I was remind of the work of Jared Diamond in his book Collapse (Viking, 2005) which looks at how societies choose to fail or succeed, including making choices that lead to ‘natural’ devastation.

Kevin does not shy away from addressing the complexities of poverty and race. Is there any way that decent building codes with relatively costly consequences could have been introduced or enforced in the midst of Haitian poverty? Those codes made the difference for Chile. Were the policy decisions that let the levees of New Orleans remain inadequate in spite of evidence of the same over a long period of time somehow a result of unconscious prejudice against the poor black people who would be most affected in the wake of Hurricane Katrina?

He also recognizes the real difficulties of a tendency to undertake analysis (and blaming) in ways that end up blaming the victim. I found myself thinking about the work of Valerie Batts on modern racism (and other ‘isms’) in which she identifies how the issues and challenges of the power group are mirrored within the non-power group and internalized in different ways. For example a liberal teacher might pass a student doing inadequate work in order to somehow try and mitigate the student’s disadvantages in life. That ‘dysfunctional helping’ can get internalized in the student over time as an attitude that believes it is not necessary to do the work because it is always possible to ‘beat the system’. In addition, the conversation takes place on multiple levels (personal, relational, institutional and cultural) with the frequent consequence that we ‘talk past each other’ in these important conversations. The work that different groups in society need to do in order to be prepared to mitigate the consequences of natural disaster differ according to one’s ‘place’ or ’position’ in the various power relationships involved.

On the theological front, Kevin recognizes that a moral analysis of natural disaster relieves us of the kind of theological conclusion that assumes that such disasters fall upon sinners who, by their actions, have in some way deserved the disaster. I’m not sure that much of the blame game goes far beyond this kind of analysis. Sobrino, apparently, turns to an idea of God suffering with those who suffer and leaves it at that while seeking to move the focus to human choice and human agency in the devastation wrought by these disasters. The question, of course, is whether or not our story of faith assumes that God can or should prevent such natural disasters as earthquake, flood and famine.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Taseer and Giffords

January 11, 2011

By all accounts Salman Taseer was a well respected man in Pakistan. Until his assassination on January 4th he had been serving as governor of the populous Punjab region. He had taken up the cause of an illiterate woman who had been in an argument with neighbors over drinking water and in the process said something which led to her being accused of blasphemy. Asia Bibi is a Christian who was tried, convicted and given the mandatory sentence of death. Taseer had called publically for her to be pardoned. He had also campaigned to change the blasphemy laws. His murderer was one of his body guards and the others did little or nothing while he was murdered. Apparently the killer was able to make a statement to the media while being arrested. He acknowledged killing the governor because of his position.

Sectarian violence, mostly, though not exclusively, against Christians carried out by Muslims ahs been on the rise in Pakistan in recent months. Pakistan, while intended primarily as a Muslim state in distinction from India, was founded in 1947 with a clear commitment to religious tolerance. Most press commentary on this series of events paints a pretty gloomy picture for Pakistan going forward unless those who support tolerance begin to speak up, clearly risking life and limb as did Mr. Taseer.

I cannot help but think of this in light of the Arizona shootings including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords who was, apparently the primary target of the shooter even though others died and she might well survive. It is not clear to me that the shooting was politically motivated although most commentary seems to make that assumption. I am pleased by the calls for reform in the gun laws (although am unaware of any calls for reform coming from anyone in Arizona who have passed laws last year making it legal for citizens to carry a concealed weapon.) I am not optimistic that our elected leaders will find the necessary backbone to take on the gun lobby based on their past performance. I wonder how many more of these kinds of shootings will need to happen before they do muster the will to act. Kudos to Representative King, (R) of New York for being willing to propose new gun laws.

I as also glad to see the expression of condolence from Sarah Palin because many have pointed out that the same site features a number of democrats that she does not like with gun sights placed over their districts. Whatever emerges about the motivations of the murderer in this particular shooting, there is no doubt that an atmosphere of intolerance has been growing, not only in Pakistan, but also in this country. The rhetoric of the tea party is only one piece of it. It is clear that such ‘clarity’ helps win elections, but I yearn to hear from politicians of any party a sense of the greater good, a concern for the weakest and neediest among us (without requiring a kind of sentimental, tearful lip service to concern for such people). Such an expression would give substance and context to our policy debates and could serve as an antidote to intolerance.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Class Action and Class

January 10, 2011

Some time ago I read the story of Fen-Phen, the dangerous drug that was eventually banned but not before it had destroyed many lives. The story was told by Alicia Mundy in Dispensing with the Truth. It was the story of brave attorneys taking on a powerful industry and lobby on behalf of victims who did not know each other and who only knew that their lives would never be the same again. The ‘class action’ lawyers were, for the most part a ‘class act’.

So it was with some dismay that I read Curtis Wilkie’s The Fall of the House of Zeus: The Rise and Fall of America’s Most Powerful Trial Lawyer. It is the story of Dickie Scruggs, a man who made many fortunes taking on asbestos and big tobacco and the like. Wilkie does not come across as sanctimonious about his subject, a man who was eventually sent to prison for attempting to bribe a judge. I was clear that Scruggs made enemies early on in his astonishing career and was frequently in court defending himself against charges that he had promised money to associates and then not paid them. Once the money started rolling in they all wanted what they thought was their rightful share. At the same time he did things that rich people do: gave large gifts in his community, to his university and to political candidates.

What brought him down, in the end, was not some dire and dastardly premeditated deed, but more a pattern of expecting that he could make anything happen, that he was golden, almost a sense that he was born to succeed in what ever he did. The bribery, according to Wilkie, was not Scruggs’ idea, but something he eventually bought into while an associate was wearing a wire provided by some very excited federal agents who saw a chance to bring down a rich man. It is a sad story with a large cast and no one comes out looking particularly good.

The phrase ‘banality of evil’ comes to mind. There was no decision to commit an unthinkable crime. There was, rather, a pattern of action and belief that supported acts on the edge, created in Scruggs a sense of invulnerability and eventually led to the commission of a great crime almost without thought or realization as to what was happening.

It all goes back to the idea that it is the little decisions we make that shape the big ones: that little fudging of the truth on our tax returns or expenses, that extra desert or glass of wine, that box of pens from the office all lead to that sense that somehow we deserve what we have. It is the affliction of embezzlers and, apparently, some people who accumulate great wealth without cultivating a kind of self awareness or spirituality that keeps them on a good path.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Feast of the Epiphany

January 5, 2011

I hope everyone who reads this had a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Tonight being Twelfth Night, the Feast of the Epiphany is much on my mind. In my previous parish we had a lovely evening service to celebrate it. Alexander and Joanna were both baptized at that service. Here we have found little or no energy for coming downtown for evening celebrations such as Epiphany, Ascension, Annunciation and so on. So we tend to mark things on Wednesdays when many have gathered anyway for various activities and classes. This will be the second year we have tried a celebration which is mostly aimed at telling the story of the magi with dance and song for our children, but open to everyone. The service is followed by a festive Wednesday Night Supper.

One of my assumptions about the stories of Jesus’ birth is that in spite of God being made manifest to the poor, marginalized and outcast in the form of shepherds and to the wise, the powerful, the seekers after truth and the nations that this birth in a stable in Bethlehem did not seem like a momentous event of great significance to most people in the moment. That leads me to wonder where I am being granted grace to see God made manifest.

I think about the couple who are the only people caring for an elderly relative in her final months, while still juggling two careers. I think about the man who seemed to be homeless who left a dollar in our crèche for Jesus while the church was being decorated this Christmas past. I think about the unprompted and uncensored genuine response of a child to a scene of great beauty. What these all have in common is that God is made manifest in generosity, self disclosure and self-giving. The practice of generosity is not necessarily liberating in itself, but it can lay the foundation for those marvelous moments of grace in which we are freed to be generous and find ourselves part of the mystery of incarnation ad God is made manifest both to and through us.

Happy Epiphany to one and all.