July 30, 2009

When Pro-Life Purity Kills

While at Faith in Public Life this summer I have had a second row seat watching the efforts to find common ground on abortion. Last month I blogged a little bit about my position, what Obama's been doing, and the new Common Ground blog at RH Reality Check.

Last week the movement for common ground on abortion picked up steam as an exciting new piece of legislation went public. It is called the "Preventing Unintended Pregnancies, Reducing the Need for Abortion, and Supporting Parents Act."

More than three dozen religious leaders and groups from across the ideological spectrum announced their support for landmark legislation unveiled today by Representatives Tim Ryan (OH-17) and Rosa DeLauro (CT-3) that makes concrete progress toward the shared goal of reducing the need for abortion by preventing unintended pregnancies and supporting pregnant women and families (Faith in Public Life Press Release).

When they say "from across the ideological spectrum," they're not joking. We're talking about Jews, Evangelicals, and Planned Parenthood. This legislation has support from pro-life and pro-choice religious leaders, and pro-life and pro-choice secular leaders. It also has support from people like myself who indentify themselves more in the middle.

Despite the legislation having broad support, several conservative organizations and religious groups would not support the legislation and are in fact actively opposing the legislation, as well as criticizing persons who endorsed the legislation.

Commenting on the new divide that has emerged between people, William Saletan writes, "A new fault line has opened in the abortion debate. The fight is no longer between pro-lifers and pro-choicers. It's between militants and pragmatists." Even though "pro-choicers got money for contraception and sex education, [and] pro-lifers got abstinence-friendly curriculum, a bigger adoption tax credit, and financial support for women who continue their pregnancies," pro-life extremists are refusing to have anything to do with pro-choice organizations

But pro-lifers are not fooled -- a vote for either Ryan/DeLauro or the health care bill is a vote to increase abortions." Focus on the Family's activism arm, CitizenLink used a quote to tell their supporters that the legislation was about "death." I believe these statements are not only baseless, but they also represent an immoral and distorted pro-life position.

I understand not wanting to compromise or work together with your rivals, yet I believe there is an unprecedented opportunity before us to actually reduce the number of abortions in America. For over 35 years, millions of Americans have been fighting each other on abortion, and they have spent millions of dollars in the process. Meanwhile there are nearly a million abortions every year in this country. The time has come for a new approach. I hope individual pro-lifers will not stand on the sidelines or stand in the way for common ground on abortion. For to do so, I believe, would be a fatal mistake.

*You can find a 4 page summary of the legislation, as well as the full list of sponsors and their statements over at Third Way.

July 24, 2009

Beer & Conflict Resolution

In case you didn't know, racial tensions still exist in America. We can see this quite clearly by the response to the recent incident in which a Harvard professor was arrested at his home. It's not exactly clear what happened, but basically the police saw Dr. Gates trying to get into his home, however they thought he was an intruder. Tensions arose as Gates felt he was enduring another incident of police misconduct and racial injustice. From the perspective of the police officers, Gates appeared suspicious. When they confronted him, he did not cooperate and he became belligerent.

Obama stirred the pot on Wednesday by suggesting that the police acted "stupidly." Since then allegations have been flying from all over as to the appropriateness of the conduct of the police, the professor, and the president.

Today Obama weighed in again on the situation when he spoke at the White House press briefing. I believe Obama's profound, humorous, and humble remarks, reflect true leadership.

In his remarks, Obama said he'd called Sgt. James Crowley, the arresting officer, and spoken with him. He made some attempts to tamp down the furor, saying his impression of Crowley is that he's "an outstanding police officer and a good man" and that he'd talked with him about the three men -- Crowley, Gates and Obama -- having a beer together in the White House (Salon).

His entire remarks can be found on the link and are worth a read, but here's an excerpt.

My sense is you've got two good people in a circumstance in which neither of them were able to resolve the incident in the way that it should have been resolved and the way they would have liked it to be resolved...My hope is, is that as a consequence of this event this ends up being what's called a "teachable moment," where all of us instead of pumping up the volume spend a little more time listening to each other and try to focus on how we can generally improve relations between police officers and minority communities, and that instead of flinging accusations we can all be a little more reflective in terms of what we can do to contribute to more unity.

Now I'm not much of a beer drinker, or an alcohol drinker for that matter, nor do I think Obama is perfect, but I think we could all benefit from learning from Obama's approach to this conflict.
  • Courageously speaking up for those who are mistreated
  • Knowing when to back off and restate your opinion
  • Praising the positive qualities of your opponents
  • Speaking directly with your opponents
  • Addressing the larger issues at play
  • Finding common ground and humor
  • Working for reconciliation between people
  • Getting together with folks for drinks

July 22, 2009

Food Inc.

I watched the documentary Food Inc. over the weekend. I hope you get an opportunity to see it. There are many wonderful and disturbing aspects of the film, but here are three things that stuck out most to me.

  • There are scenes in this film of chickens and cattle that made me want to scream and weep. Now I know I’m biased because I’m a vegetarian, (for ethical and religious reasons) but even if you eat meat, I think you should be horrified at some of the ways in which many animals are treated in the process of them making their way to your dinner plate.
  • More effectively than I've seen done by another other film, Food Inc. weaves together a host of seemingly unrelated issues to form a tapestry of injustice. How we treat the environment and the animals in it effects how we treat fellow human beings. The role the agricultural industry plays in our political system effects our justice system. Our quality of health is directly related to our food prices and food options, which are directly related to what farm subsidies are lobbied for by big business.
  • My favorite scene in the film takes place when some Wal-Mart representatives meet with a few organic dairy farmers who have a contract with Wal-Mart and Stonyfield Farm. The crazy thing is that the farmers themselves intentionally don't shop at Wal-Mart. They’re sticking it to the man, but they’re sleeping with him too. As I wrestle with the challenges of being a Christian and being involved in politics, perhaps I can learn a few things or two from these farmers who are simultaneously boycotting a company, while helping it to expand its more eco and animal friendly product line.

July 18, 2009

Coming Out as a Progressive Christian

Last night I attended a dinner party with two very nice families and another seminarian. As the newest guest, it was only natural that at some point in the conversation around the dinner table, I would be asked about what I was doing in Washington DC.

Going in I knew that the families were a bit conservative. This was confirmed by the prayer before we ate, which referenced Christ’s sacrifice on the cross paying the ultimate price for the sins of wretched humanity.

Dinner got started and the food was good, the conversation was pleasant, and then I was asked the question, “So tell us about what you’re doing in DC?” Generally I like this type of question; it’s very open ended and it allows me to express myself. Yet as the room became suddenly quite and everyone’s attention shifted to me, I felt like I might be entering tricky territory. With a bit of trepidation, I attempted to articulate where I was working and what I was doing. I informed them that I was a Beatitudes Society Fellow at Faith in Public Life, where I helped them in their mission to be a resource center for justice and the common good. Then there were follow up questions and some comments. The conversation was casual, but with an element of seriousness that caused me to feel like I was on trial.

I felt like everything I was saying made me come off as a crazy, hippie, liberal Christian. I wasn’t ashamed to talk about…

-compassion, justice, and love
-a broader understanding of transformation salvation
-interfaith and ecumenical work
-climate change, healthcare reform, and immigration reform

But I knew they were suspicious of me. I can just imagine the host father silently praying that I would either see the light or never pastor a church. With all due respect to GLBT persons, I felt like I was bordering on coming out of the closet as a progressive Christian--to a group of people who were not going to fully accept me.

In the midst of it all, I was trying to decide how much should I share. How specific, how theological, how political should my responses be? Do I use liberal code words or conservative code words? Should this take over the rest of the evening? Do I want them to discover who I am, or do I want to blend in? Crap, now the seminarian is asking me if this is connected to Brian McLaren. Crap, now the father is asking me who founded these organizations and what book my reflection group is reading. For a second I blank on the title, (maybe that’s a good thing). I tell him it’s about progressive Christianity. “What’s that?” his wife asks. This is it, this is the moment I’ve been preparing for these last six weeks. I just gotta bust out my elevator speech, throw in a personal story, and they’ll be hungry for more. Yeah well, it wasn’t a disaster, but it was pretty close. Somehow the conversation ended with the father being concerned about people worshipping the earth and the conservative seminarian complaining that organic farming can’t feed enough people.

What was I supposed to say? I don’t want to hide, but sometimes it’s just easier. If I had been more forthcoming, I suspect that we would have inevitably more openly clashed with one another. I’m ok with conflict with friends and family, face-to-face or online. But put me in a room with a older, conservative, and dominant male that’s convinced that I’m out of line with God’s will, and I’ll curl up and crumble. If he discovers that I don’t believe the “right” thing about, God, Christ, the bible, humanity, sin, salvation, and faithfulness, I will want to run.

There are several resources that I think can be helpful in talking with conservatives, particularly the recent writings from evangelicals who are emphasizing the Kingdom of God. To name a few…

-David Gushee: Kingdom Ethics & "Kingdom theology makes a comeback"
-James Choung: True Story: A Christianity Worth Believing In
-Richard Stearns: The Hole in Our Gospel

I realize that some conservative folks will always write me off because I believe the Bible is inspired, not infallible, gays are probably ok, violence is sinful, men and women are equal, penal substitution lacks grace, Muslims might go to heaven, and the fundamental character of God is love. And I guess it makes sense that folks like this would want me to be the last person with a flock. But I hate that feeling.

For now, I’ll keep praying for God to form me, get an elevator speech and then practice it, and work at telling and weaving God’s story with my story.

*For simplicity’s sake, all references to liberal and conservative are broad generalizations of political and theological views. These two categories do not accurately reflect the spectrum of divergent and diverse views held by people. Even many of my particular social and theological views are probalby considered conservative.

July 14, 2009

Give a Sh*t

One of my earliest memories of bucking the status quo was in middle school when I started to ask questions about whether or not swearing was unChristian. I began to challenge assumptions from my parents, youth leaders, and parents that saying "asshole" or "shit" was wrong. After all, those words weren't around when Jesus was walking the earth, and people just substituted other words in the place of swear words. Was God really going to be upset with me if I hit my finger and whispered "dammit" under my breath?

I have been questioning authority and asking the why question for about as long as I can remember, but I think my opinion on the issue might also have had to do with the fact that whenever I played multi-player Bond or Mario Kart on Nintendo 64, I would curse up a storm. But it was never out of hatred or malice, it was just a little venting for whenever I got my ass kicked. Boy did I string along some rather peculiar combinations of swear words back in those days:)

Then at some point in high school I heard Tony Campolo say the following,

I have three things I'd like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don't give a shit. What's worse is that you're more upset with the fact that I said shit than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night.

That quote validated my own feelings that God really didn't care if Christians swore; what really mattered was that we care about loving our neighbor by preventing so many children from dying.

I was reminded of that the other day while reading a United Methodist News Service article/report about ending hunger. The article included quotes from David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World. As part of his tireless efforts fighting and advocating on behalf of hungry and poor people around the world, he has stated that we actually have the resources to end worldwide hunger. In addition to prayer and advocacy, he says "The main thing we need is more 'give a damn.' It is political will." I think Beckmann is exactly right and I think his word choice helped him to make his point.

Last week, Derek Webb released his latest album, Stockholm Syndrome. There has been some controversy surrounding the album--in part because of the song "What Matters More," which has a swear word and addresses homosexuality."

‘Cause we can talk and debate until we’re blue in the face
About the language and tradition that he’s comin’ to save
Meanwhile we sit just like we don’t give a shit
About 50,000 people who are dyin’ today

I find the potential power and meaning that swear words can have fascinating. There is a time to remind people that God desires for them to care about others who are oppressed, poor, hungry, and in bondage. But there is also a time to boldly say, "God wants you to give a shit! Apathy is lethal." I'm not saying that giving a shit is all that matters, definitely not. It is just part of our response to God's great love for us. God wants us to also be moved with compassion and compelled to seek justice, while walking humbly with God.

When's the last time you gave a shit? When's the last time you were truly sick to your stomach at something just fucked up in the world. I'll be honest, all those children dying, the ones you see with the bloated bellies on the infomercials in the middle of the night--I care, but not enough. My heart hasn't ached for them in a while. And yeah, we can't fight every battle, every day. Yet we must allow the things that break the heart of God to break ours.

Thankfully I saw this video today, and it shook me up and just rattled me. Shaun King posted it from CBS, and showed it to his church. It sounds like they're getting ready to really get involved. You can help too by sharing the video or by donating money to UNICEF. You can also help by urging Congress to reform foreign assistance. Write a letter and give money to support Bread for the World's campaign to get H.R. 2139 passsed.

Luke 10:33

But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he was moved with compassion,

*For the record I don't advocate that Christians swear constantly or recklessly. Obviously it is important to be respectful with our words and our actions. But most importantly, our words should not be used to harm, degrade, or demonize other people. Unfortunately, even people who don't have a potty mouth have found other words and phrases to hurt their neighbor.

July 11, 2009

Greenpeace at Mt. Rushmore

From Democracy Now
In South Dakota activists with the environmental group Greenpeace scaled the Mount Rushmore National Monument Wednesday and hung a banner urging President Obama [to] take the action on global warming. The banner was hung next to the carved mountain face of Abraham Lincoln. It reads quote “America honors leaders, not politicians: Stop Global Warming.” The action came as Obama was in Italy for talks with other world leaders of the G8 summit. The group of 11 Greenpeace activists were arrested and charged with trespassing. They each face up to six months in prison.

It's hard to believe that environmental activism in South Dakota made news around the world. I can't say that I support everything that Greenpeace does or stands for, but I like this action. They felt that they needed to engage in civil disobedience to make a point. Their actions in South Dakota combined with their other advocacy efforts, combined with the movement to care for the environment have led to significant policy changes and new legislation aimed at reducing pollution, expanding sustainability, and assisting those most hurt by climate change.

I think the decision to engage is civil disobedience in never one people should take lightly; people must consider safety and ethics, and wisely discern the best course of action. If this does not occur, civil disobedience can be counterproductive or even immoral.

Last year six Greenpeace activists painted a smokestack in the United Kingdom as part of an effort to stop the expansion of coal plants. They were also arrested and charged, but they were found not guilty.

They were accused of causing £30,000 (US$53,000) of criminal damage to the Kingsnorth smokestack from painting. The defence was that they had a 'lawful excuse' - because they were acting to protect property around the world "in immediate need of protection" from the impacts of climate change, caused in part by burning coal.

Nick Broomfield directed this fascinating documentary of their story. Do you think the actions of either group of activists was justified?

July 8, 2009

Colbert & Matthew 25

This is from last week, but I had to give a plug for Colbert referencing Matthew 25 in this segment. Colbert reports on Missouri State Representative Cynthia Davis' recent statement that "Hunger can be a positive motivator." The comment was made in reference to her opposition to subsidizing school lunches for low income children during the summer.

In fairness, Davis later wrote, "We all agree on the importance of feeding children, but we differ on who should do this. I believe this duty belongs to the parents." I'm glad she thinks that children should be fed. Unfortunately she doesn't seem to understand that in American we have a great deal of poverty and many children go hungry.

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Tip/Wag - Cynthia Davis & Fox News

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July 4, 2009

Faith Communities & Healthcare

Can you feel it? The momentum for healthcare reform is building. If you pay attention at all to the news it feels like there’s some story about this issue everyday. I’m really excited because I think things are shaping up politically for this to really happen. Michael Moore, though imperfect, has laid the groundwork, the economic crisis has intensified the healthcare crisis, and Democratic leadership is in place. But that’s not all--the faith community is organized! As one phenomenal example, check out this excerpt of a press release from Faith in Public Life. It publicizes a faith-based healthcare campaign sponsored by them, PICO National Network, Faithful America, Sojourners, and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good.

As the health care debate heats up and Senators head home for Independence Day Recess, pastors from across the country are taking to the airwaves with radio ads to remind lawmakers that the status quo on health care is "not who we are as a nation" and that "America can do better," emphasizing our nation's values in the days leading up to July 4th.

Drawing on the Scriptural call to act with a spirit of courage, love and action, the ads will run beginning today through July 4th in five key states--Arkansas, Colorado, Louisiana, Nebraska and North Carolina--urging Senators from those states, whose support will be critical to the passage of meaningful legislation, to support reform that makes quality coverage truly affordable for every American family. The ad script and audio are available here.

On top of faith communities airing radio ads and being locally and nationally organized to encourage their Senators to support “reform that makes quality health care choices affordable for all families,” these efforts were covered by over 100 newspapers, including the Wall Street Journal.

Unfortunately some faith-based groups like the Family Research Council and the Institute on Religion and Democracy seem to be trying to derail healthcare reform. Last week I blogged about Tony Perkins debate with Jim Wallis and this week Mark Tooley sent an email out blaming the Religious Left for the plague of fatherlessness, illegitimacy, crime, social decay, and further poverty in the 1960’s. Why are conservative Christian groups actively opposing efforts to ensure sure that Americans have affordable and accessible healthcare.?

This goes to demonstrate the importance of having groups like Faith in Public Life--who provide an alternative to the Religious Right, but also groups like the Beatitudes Society---who work to counter the harmful actions and influence of the Religious Right (more about that in my previous post).

Here's one other great ad that highlights the importance of healthcare reform. It's from PhRMA and Families USA. It's not faith-based, but I think it should inspire persons of faith to act.

July 3, 2009

Countering Christians?

This past week I have had several conversations with staff, friends, and family about the mission statement of the Beatitudes Society. Up until now I have felt torn about the language of “counter” within the statement. On one hand, I believe very strongly that Christianity has been hijacked and distorted by the Religious Right. As a 1st year college student in the fall of 2001, I was horrified by the post 9/11 blending of violence and nationalism with Christianity. Since then I have realized that there is a great need for Christians to reclaim the faith by proclaiming and embodying the “message of the welcoming and generous love of Jesus as expressed in the Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount.” Advocating for “justice, compassion, and peace” is one component of this. However, if there is not a strategic method to counter the harm that the Religious Right has and is causing, the Beatitudes Society is simply another social justice and leadership organization. Such a group would not be bad and would have a powerful witness, but we need more than that. More Christians saying, “James Dobson doesn’t speak for me,” is also important, but we need more than that too. We need the Beatitudes Society to intentionally work to counter and diminish the power and influence of Christian groups who are encouraging hate, fear, and violence.

On the other hand, being apart of an organization that is explicitly countering a Christian movement that my conservative grandfather (a retired UM minister) is apart of, makes me a little bit uncomfortable. How can I build bridges with him on moderate issues, if I associate myself with an organization that opposes a significant part of who he is? We are both members of the body of Christ, but by the Beatitudes Society “counter[ing] the Christian Right,” he is not welcome at the table. The implications of this part of the mission statement seam to exclude anyone who even partly identifies with the Religious Right from working together with the Beatitudes Society on points of agreement. Does the Beatitudes Society really want to alienate the growing number of evangelicals who are becoming involved in issues of creation care, poverty, human trafficking, torture, immigration, and genocide? Some of those folks may or may not fully on board with issues of war, LGBT, pluralism, or hermeneutics, but they can be powerful allies in the work of “justice, compassion, and peace.”

After reading Kimberly’s post about this issue on the Beatitudes Society’s blog, I have come to some new realizations and conclusions. First, while generational dynamics and Religious Right infrastructure are influencing this discussion, I don’t think they are at the heart of this issue of maintaining or discarding the “counter” language. What’s at stake for me is whether or not a Christian organization is going to make it apart of its mission/purpose/goals to be against people. Granted the wording is, “counters the Religious Right,” but essentially that makes a statement of being against the people in that movement. In thinking about my own life and all of the things I’ve said against the military, I’m realizing that even though I’m almost a pacifist, I don’t think I should be against the military. Rather I am against every aspect of the military that contradicts loving your neighbor; I am against the violence. In the same way, I am against every aspect of the Religious Right that contradicts loving your neighbor; I am against harm. I am not against my grandfather, James Dobson, or Fred Phelps for that matter. And so I don’t think the Beatitudes Society’s mission should be to “counter the Religious Right” because you might as well exchange the words, “counter fellow Christian brothers and sisters.”

What do I believe is the solution? Well I still think that when talking about the Beatitudes Society, you need to talk about the organization differently to different people. And I sincerely believe that that can be done in a way that reflects honesty and integrity, and is faithful to progressive Christianity. But I just discovered tonight that the mission statement opens with these words of context:

Today in America, the widespread perception of Christianity -- one centered in nationalism, materialism and intolerance -- bears little resemblance to the life and teachings of Jesus, particularly as they concern justice, compassion, and peacemaking. To counter that, The Beatitudes Society develops and sustains a national network of emerging Christian leaders at seminaries and divinity schools who will:

These words provide the framework for what the Beatitudes Society is doing. It is not just concerned with justice, compassion, and peace, but also pushing back against a Christianity that is “centered in nationalism, materialism, and intolerance.” This is what the Beatitudes Society is countering. And in my opinion, that is a more accurate reflection of progressive Christianity than countering people.

P.S. As practical alternative word choices, I would suggest the second goal begin with “Embody a message…” or Melanie’s suggestion “Proclaim a message…”