Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Thoughts on Community #1

November 28, 2011

So many things have had me thinking about community in recent weeks. Perhaps the way in for me has been a book called Disrupting Homelessness: Alternative Christian Approaches by Laura Stivers (Fortress, 2011). She uses the ethics of a liberationist called Traci West of Drew University to explore issues of homelessness. Along the way she articulates various attitudes that ‘society’ has taken to the homeless criticizing what she calls “assimilate or criminalize.” She looks at various models that have been widely used including the Rescue Mission Movement and Habitat for Humanity. She appears to have some admiration for the ‘Housing First’ Movement which seeks to put chronically homeless people into their own apartments rather than tr to move them through a “continuum of care”, but which still seems to be about assimilating homeless people into societal norms. (It is my understanding that those prepared to provide and care for the men of the in the event that the Task Force for the Homeless wither step aside or are evicted are focused on the Housing First model.)

Set against this work is an idea that never quite gets articulated to my satisfaction but which appears to be that ‘the homeless’ are a constituency or community in themselves who need to be addressed as a collective and legitimate ‘other’. We read things like this: “Using prophetic-disruption methodology entails not simply deconstructing oppressive ideologies but also identifying and addressing power, privilege, and social domination.” (p.116) Or again: “So long as Habitat emphasizes changing the conscience of the rich, it will not adopt a structural critique.” (p.117) This ‘prophetic-disruption refers to “our Christina calling to confront, just as Jesus did, that which denies human well-being and community.” Stivers writes “For as long as humans have been around, domination and oppression have been used to gain power and privilege, and Scripture and theological rationales have been used to justify the status quo of inequality.” (p.7)

Stivers’ research and descriptions of the current reality of homelessness in America makes clear that there is a structural problem in that there is simply not enough low cost housing or adequate shelter and other services for those in need. We know this to be true anecdotally in Atlanta as Shirley Franklin’s first class efforts to engage the whole community in addressing the challenge of people living on the streets ended up being seriously underfunded after the recession of 2008.

The homeless people that we address at All Saints’ are not the majority, those who are invisible, the women and children, and so on. We address the ‘chronically homeless’ m any of whom refuse to live at the Peachtree Pine shelter which they describe as “being like a prison” and yet who resemble many of those who do choose to live there, some of whose lives have been transformed by some sense of kindness and community. They raise the question for me as to whether ‘the community’ is allowed to develop norms of behavior, violation of which puts someone outside of the community and therefore in need of ‘help’ in some way. The behavior of some disrupts the ‘wellbeing’ and ‘community’ of others. Is it criminalizing poverty to say that someone may not engage in drug use and prostitution on the All Saints’ campus and the ability of some of the homeless to regulate their own behavior has meant that we will no longer be a welcome place at night when we are closed? This is undoubtedly a decision of ‘power and privilege’ in one sense, but also a vision of community that is not governed by those who find inconvenient the norms which inevitably become rules when they are violated often enough.

Descriptions of the ‘Occupy Movement’ make clear that even in a ‘leaderless democracy’ the behavior of some is eventually curtailed or limited for the wellbeing of the many. I have more thinking to do about the ‘homeless advocates’ who seem to use the homeless to promote ‘disruption’ and be ‘prophetic’ without apparently wishing to challenge those they allegedly serve to abide by norms of the larger community. They become terrorists for a community that, however defined, finds it difficult to adjust to societal ‘norms’. Should assimilation not be the goal if community means that everyone thrives?

Thursday, November 17, 2011


November 16, 2011

There is really no reason that you would have heard of the IALC, otherwise known as the International Anglican Liturgical Consultation. Since the last General Convention the Episcopal Church’s Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music (SCLM) has been working on developing a rite or rites for the blessing of same-sex unions. At the annual Presbyters Conference of our diocese w were taken through the process of by which such a rite is being developed, including various theological principles underlying the potential and to-be-proposed rites without being allowed to look at the rites themselves. This all amounts to painstaking politics, apparently covering every base so that those who do not like and do not want to see such rites developed in the first place cannot engage the old game of attacking the process. I suppose it is necessary, but it is dull beyond words for those who have made peace with what is happening one way or another (some by leaving the Episcopal Church altogether) and have moved on.

The primary complaint that led to the development of the proposed Anglican Covenant was that The Episcopal Church did not ‘consult’ with official Anglican bodies of varying kinds at varying levels on the place of homosexual people within the church before proceeding to ordain and consecrate Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire. This complaint offered in spite of the wide and long standing conversation with Anglicans throughout the world who were willing to engage such a conversation.

So back to the IALC, a group made up of representatives of many, but not all Anglican provinces, with a predominant Western and professional academic representation. Our own Bishop is a part of that group and attended the most recent gathering of the Consultation in New Zealand last August. The main agenda was to be about marriage rites and particularly the thorny issue of whether or not we should be contracting a marriage as well as celebrating it. Bryan Spinks of Yale reports (in The Living Church, October 23, 2011 p.24-26) that our friend Mdimi Mhogolo of the Diocese of Central Tanganyika presented a paper lamenting the suppression of indigenous marriage customs through laws modeled on those of the United Kingdom. Into this mix those overseeing the agenda shoehorned a conversation about our proposed rite for the blessing of same sex unions and it is clear that from Dr. Spinks’ perspective this was unfortunate. Those who really don’t want any such rite and really don’t want to talk about it and certainly don’t want to imply any imprimatur from the IALC beg for a consultation (in the words of Dr. Spinks) in a “serious, charitable and fully informed manner across the communion”. This sounds good and would be if the communion wanted such a consultation. Dr. Spinks report suggests that this is precisely not the case and so perhaps a single morning of consultation within a consultation is the best we are going to do before the General Convention is asked to act next year.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Thoughts on tax policy and other matters

November 15, 2011

I know that I am not a social conservative and in matters like abortion, sexuality and the like I tend to a libertarian position. Not so much with economic policy. It seems to me that we determine common goals in and through a democratic process and then argue about ‘fair share’ for meeting those goals. I think schools are important and that we should all participate in paying for them. I think that to do so through a sales tax is essentially regressive, meaning that it contributes to the mechanisms by which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. In other words this is not the fairest way to fund schools that. My conservative friends tell me that public schools are mostly used by poorer people anyway and that the rich pay more sales tax because they spend more money, having more to spend. This seems to me an appropriate political argument, where making a case about any tax that government is “too big” is destructive of communal values that have been put in place and affirmed over time. The desirability or otherwise of government creating and maintaining a system to ensure that our citizens can retire with some measure of security and dignity is a reasonable conversation, as is whether the military budget needs to be large enough to fight two or more unpopular wars indefinitely. What does not seem reasonable is ‘line in the sand’, ‘my way or the high way’ type tactics we have seen from this congress. I’m also therefore among those who are glad that President Obama has avoided the temptation, urged upon him by many of his own party, to ‘creative a narrative’ that is the opposite and equal of his opponents. I prefer a more vigorous defense of what we should and do have in common, and why.

With that in mind I have a couple of modest proposals that overcome the ‘having it both ways’ problem that played a role in bringing down the banking system (selling bad paper and then making money again by betting that it will go wrong) and that plagues the political debate about matters of importance (government is too big for what you think is important but what I think is important is sacrosanct.)

1. Any time we go to war with the support of congress, we automatically institute a draft until that war is ended.
2. The top rate of tax for our alleged ‘job creators’ (individuals or businesses) is tied to the unemployment rates. Unemployment goes down, so does the top-tax rate.
3. Increases or cuts in taxes to pay for entitlement programs are, above some reasonable level, tied to similar increases or cuts in the military budgets.

These things should stay in place until the current climate changes and sanity is restored.

Into Difference

November 12, 2011

One of the questions I have been asked with some regularity since returning from a visit to the Diocese of Western Tanganyika is why we are in this relationship in the first place. Are we helping the needy? Building an orphanage? Bringing some kind of expertise? The answer is ‘none of the above’. We are engaging in what Titus Presler calls “Reconciling Mission in a World of Difference.” That is the subtitle of his book Going Global with God (Morehouse, 2010). At All Saints’ we say that we are a community centered in worship and that we grow in faith as we engage God and our neighbor. It is that engagement of God and neighbor that is mission “into difference” with the reasonable and holy hope of “reconciliation” as a result of our opening ourselves to whatever it is that God has to teach us in the world of another.

Jennifer Vanderbes’ second novel is Strangers at the Feast (Scribner, 2010). At a recent gathering of our Novel Theology group we discussed the differing worlds of characters who appear to be in the same world as they are from the same family. Beyond that we saw what happened as they “engaged difference” with their eyes closed and how deathly violence was the result. As some of the members of the group shared about what was happening as they chose to live in ‘transitional neighborhoods’, we heard how difficult it can be to live in a world in which we displace each other for all kinds of ‘innocent’ reasons.

There is something about traveling across the world and wrestling with the suspicion that for our hosts, ‘unity in Christ’ and the ‘fellowship of the gospel’ are quite secondary to whatever monetary gifts we might release that opens our eyes to worlds of difference closer to home. We went with some clear instructions about how our gift was to be used and ended up coming to terms with the reality that partnership means that we must trust those with whom we are in relationship. Whatever financial gifts we can release to assist in the work of proclaiming the gospel in DWT will have to be used by those who live their in the way they think best even as they understand our particular interest in strong education in Africa as a primary means of their finding a sustainable future.

As we think about this ‘mission into difference’, we are already addressing what one reviewer declares missing from Dr. Presler’s helpful book. Ian Douglas, a former faculty colleague of Presler and now Bishop of Connecticut reviewed Going Global for The Anglican Theological Review (Fall 2011, Vol.93, #4 p.734-6) and says he “does not adequately offer a power analysis in his consideration of difference…how disproportionate power allows some to cross borders from positions of privilege while others experience that crossing as targets of oppression.” In DWT we are guests and we are dependent on our gracious hosts in so many ways, but we come from privilege and have to be careful about instincts we have to be ‘helpful’ without really and deeply understanding the world in which we are privileged to be visitors.