Friday, December 11, 2009

America's Livingroom

Yes, of course the Obama's should have a creche in the East Room. The East Room is American's living room, and just like your living room or mine, what is displayed there says a great deal about the people who live there. In the case of the East Room it says that Americans elect Christian presidents. That is a reliable representation. If we're uncomfortable with that fact, then we had better get busy nominating a Muslim or Jewish Presidential candidate, or an atheist.

The trouble is, that isn't going to happen any time soon. Just the rumor of Islamic leanings brought Obama down in the poles during his election. Before his aisle crossing jig in the Senate, the only thing most Americans knew about Joe Lieberman was his religious affiliation. Grandiose language and litigation to the contrary, American's are Christian, they vote for Christians and they put Christians in the White House. So there is no call to act all shocked and shaken when we wake up in December to find a creche in the East Room. That's America's living room, we put it there.

Don't misunderstand me, I'm grateful. If I brought my mother back from the grave today nineteen years after she passed away, and said, "Mom, there is an African American in the White House, gays can marry in Iowa and white males of Irish Catholic extraction can get into Chicago's best public high schools"... she'd keel over dead again. I am grateful indeed for all these blessings. But I worked for them, I prayed for them and most importantly, I voted for them. If you don't want a creche in the East Room, then don't vote for a candidate who owns one.

Look, I don't think we need to have a Christian president, I have no preference one way or another about his faith, his race, or his gender. I like brains, brains and liberal social policy. If my party - or any party- nominates a candidate who spouts my agenda with reasonable credibility, appears to be surrounded by brilliant people and appears to understand them when they talk, then I will absolutely go out and vote for her.

For now, I've got a great man in a good place and a promising future rising with the sunrise... over a creche. Big deal.

A Star in the East Room?

Over the course of the last few months writing this blog, I have written about the separation of church and state more than any other topic. The separation of powers is the defining characteristic of American Democracy, it indisputably makes our government strong, fair and resilient. And it is a gigantic pain the tush. Here’s a classic example. “Should the Obama’s have a crèche in the East Room this holiday season?” The White House is exactly that little piece of real estate where church and state collide: it is a federally funded, nationally registered publically held piece of property. It is also someone’s home.

When we ask if the President should put a nativity scene in one of its rooms, our concern is, “Will it make America look Christian?” No, it will make the Obama’s look Christian; it will make America look like what it is: a country governed by the people, and for the people. We didn’t write our laws to oppress people, we wrote them to safely set them free – to worship, to speak, and to print their opinions, for starters.

It would be un-American, not to mention profoundly unkind, to tell the people who live in publically funded residences that they can’t put up a religious representation that accurately reflects their beliefs. The East Room has been used for diplomatic purposes, for weddings and for funerals. It is a place that reflects the realities of American and in fact human life: struggle, joy and sorrow.

Our Constitution guarantees us a right to practice religion freely within limits. With its notorious reindeer ruling, our Supreme Court has maintained that tasteful and fair representations of religious belief may be present on public grounds (Lynch v. Donnelly, 1983). We fought a vicious war to defend a Jewish family’s right to place a menorah in their window. Christian scripture tells us to stand up and be counted as Christians. What does the presence of a crèche scene in the East Room say about America? That we’re not afraid to be ourselves and to let our brethren be themselves as well. I’m comfortable with that message.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Minarets Don’t Frighten People. People Frighten People

A representative of the “rightist” Swiss political party that sponsored a ban on building new minarets in Switzerland recently said that the ban was motivated by a fear that Islamic fundamentalists had “the political will to take power.” He need not have worried, by passing this legislation, he handed that power over to them.

Switzerland has long had a reputation for tolerance, and for refuge for the persecuted of other nations. Radical Islam now evidently dictates Swiss public policy. And it is a policy of fear. Curbing the religious expression of just one faith does not say, “We abhor the violent extremism of a minority of the faith.” Rather it says, “We will let our fear drive us to curbing freedom of religious expression.”

The Swiss want to curb extremism in their midst but they have gone about it in exactly the wrong way. A recent study of violent extremism in the United States found that "Apocalyptic aggression is fueled by right-wing pundits who demonize scapegoated groups and individuals in our society, implying that it is urgent to stop them from wrecking the nation."

It is not by suppressing religious expression, buy by engaging it that extremism and radicalism is suppressed. Diversity is normative. The more varied we are, the less likely it is that any one extreme group or view point can dominate the public stage. The more communal our experience, the less extreme we tend to be. Religion and religious expression has a prominent place in that dialog.

Nor is the politics of fear a new story. In 2006, Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, said, “The idea of a society where no visible public signs of religion would be seen- no crosses around necks, no sidelocks, turbans or veils - is a politically dangerous one.” A country’s government should not work as a “licensing authority” nor should it presume to dictate “public morality.” He argued that a government should not be the sole arbiter of a society’s identity.

That fact of the matter is that minarets don’t frighten people. People frighten people. If minarets are dangerous because they are used by fundamentalist Islam to perpetrate violence, then the Swiss had better take the crosses down from the church towers, lest we are reminded of the Klu Klux Klan. But that's extremist talk. The vast majority of Swiss Muslims are not fundamentalists: they don’t “adhere to the codes of dress and conduct” of fundamentalist Islam and they are mixed into the Swiss population as seamlessly as any other group. At least until now.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The iWidow and the Herion Addict

Have you ever looked around a restaurant and seen an iWidow? Look for the woman staring wistfully off into space while her husband stares unashamedly as his hand in his lap? She is an iWidow and he is Type A+Man. While this story has a modern spin, the fact of the matter is, its an old story. And I'll warn you now, there's no resolve at the end.

I have read that iPhone use creates actual addictive patterns in the brain. You send a text or a message and you await a response. That sort of “ping” back from another person releases a charge of dopamine – a little happy moment in your brain – and your behavior has been reinforced. Let’s call that iPavlov. But what the hell, right? Who cares if the guy is constantly checking the scores or updating his fantasy baseball stats. Big deal, right?

Yes, big deal. For many reasons.

The iPhone is the new Other Woman. The average working man takes his iPhone everywhere. He does not take his wife with him when he travels for work, he can’t. But even when he is home, he goes on runs, he goes out with friends, he goes shopping or to the movies and he may have to leave the wife at home, but he takes the phone. And it’s always on, he is always receiving information from it. Ask any iWidow if she’s ever been “waved off” in favor of a message on his hand-held device. That app is called the iDntHvTym4U. When she looks at her husband across the room, the average iWidow is thinking, “Gee, that used to be my hand in his hand.”

Where we used to wander, now we Mapquest. “How many times have we used it on family vacations to find a place when we were lost?” How many of those times would you have found it anyway? How many adventures have you missed by being precise and correct? He checks the weather and the train schedule, as if knowing them changes them in some way. He will or won’t be at the station before the 7:35.

Where we used to wonder, now we Wikki. We don’t say, “I wonder” anymore because we can Google. If we wonder, then we are asking and if we are asking, well, let me just look that up on the amazing internet which I happen to have surgically implanted on my palm right here… ahah! There is no more imagining an answer, there is no more debating various suggestions at an answer, there is only The Answer.

Where we used to have conversations, now we chat. I laughed one day to see this man listening to his buddy on the train. The buddy was talking about some frustration at work when the friend glanced down at his iPhone - his “I-Phone” in this case - and exclaimed, “I’ve got bars!” and never looked up at his buddy again. Bars indeed, bars erected between himself and his now seething buddy.

"We” has been reduced to” i.” Type A+ Man and his family are for a walk. The wife and the kids are talking, the kids are complaining about having to read Milton, about having to run in PE, and about the weather. They are all walking along, they are seeing and feeling and looking and while Type A+ Man is doing those things as well, he is also having another experience: he is getting sensory data that they are not. His experience of right now has more data points in it, his mind is fractured, the memory he takes from these moments will be different than any of his family, he will get home and have had a different afternoon. He is thinking, "I'll just do this one thing, answer this one email. I can do both things without anyone noticing." Well, he's wrong.

It is, I guess, an essential characteristic of high powered type A+ Man that he would like to have access to information all the time. If a question occurs to him, he wants to know the answer, he wants it now, he opens his palm and his palm tells him. There is no walking without knowing how far or how fast. “I’m higher than I was” or “I’m warmer than I was” becomes, “We’ve gone up forty feet from the trail head and its ten degrees warmer.” His senses don’t have bars here, I guess.

Type A+ Man has to know for sure right now and he has to compare to last time. He keeps track of how far and how fast. He has an app for accumulated miles that calculates the times, the distances, tells you how many calories you burned, and the weather. It knows how much vitamin D you absorbed, it keeps a record of pounds per square inch on your right knee since the injury and it has a nifty little chart to show you that, based just on the miles you’ve walked since you loaded the app, you are this much closer to walking all the way to the moon. And you know what? It does that automatically just by being on.

Well, now he knows how far he’s come, how fast, how long, how many books he’s read and how many classes he’s taken that might add up to a PhD in literature in which institutions in the United States. But for your average type A+ iPhone carrying executive, that is just not gonna be enough. No, he has to share it now. He has to Twitter and to Facebook, he has to email it to his buddy who is also virtually walking to the moon. And then, after he’s checked the facts, established his prowess, posted and emailed his conclusions and received the comments and return email, he chuckles and shares it with his family.

Only they don’t laugh.

Because none of this has actually happened. To them. They are still on the walk.

Remember the walk?

The iPhone saves, sorts and compares every little thing he has asks it to and gives him a nifty interface. And all that time the experience his family was having on the walk? He missed it. And what did his family learn? He brought along his personal ego boost, his handheld affirmation. His family was simply the jumping off point for a solipsistic tour of cyber credibility that ended with them feeling inadequate and, finally, disconnected. The message is subtle and possibly unintentional: what satisfies the family, what contents them, what they settle for, is just not enough for him. Their conversation doesn’t hold his attention. Their experience of the world is too one-dimensional, their world is too easy, he needs more of a challenge. Not only is he not sharing in their experience, he is not sharing in it because it is inadequate. How can they help but wonder if they are also inadequate in his sight? The app for that is called iSolation.

And iSolation leads into dangerous territory: we can easily go from "my only friends are virtual" to "I have no friends." Feelings of isolation are always among the list of characteristics in the case of a suicide... or of a Fort Hood type shooting. Isolation need not be imposed from the outside, we can choose it ourselves, we can opt into it.

There is much that is wonderful about this new handheld technology. It is indeed delightful to have a phone/radio/television/DVDplayer/Camera/Personal Computer/GPS at your fingertips. It enables us to use our time SO much more efficiently: we get work done faster, we respond sooner, we know now and we are through finished and done. But then what?

We have to be able to go from interface to face-to-face. We have to look up. This is different from "look it up:" we don't "Google it" we "make eye contact with it;" we don't "chat" with IM language, we chat, as in over coffee; we don't use a browser, we browse a bookshelf. Society requires socializing, if you doubt me, ask yourself why emoticons were invented: we can't communicate without facial expression.

This is the age old quandary of who to feel sorry for: for the family that experiences the absent/present member, or for the person who voluntarily isolates himself with an addiction he can't see and can't control. It's cool, its in, you're so lame if you don't, but its not heroin, its not crack. In an odd way, it is a more honest representation of the fact: it is your pilot. Ask yourself, when did you surrender the wheel?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Entering the Fold through the Lobby.

U.S. Catholic bishops are defending their direct involvement in congressional deliberations over health-care reform, saying that church leaders have a duty to raise moral concerns on any issue, including abortion rights and health care for the poor. Do you agree? What role should religious leaders have -- or not have -- in government policymaking?

It is horrifying to see the Catholic Church attempting to influence the outcome of legislation being formulated in Democratic government. Not because it violates the separation of Church and State, but because it reduces the church to a special interest group. The Catholic Church represents hope to its members, faith in the goodness and rightness of God's creation and the power to bring about that Kingdom through action. Lobbyists obviate the representative structure of our Democratic system to privilege a special interest for which the voters could not get sufficiently excited to vote. The Church says, "You can, indeed you must be proactive in making the change you seek to see in the world." The Lobbyists tell us, "Elect whoever you want, we can change their minds once they get here." By lobbying congress on behalf of their concerns, U.S. Catholic Bishops have said, "pay no attention to the actions of Catholic voters, we are the voice of the Church." They have demonstrated a lack of faith in the Democratic system, in the transformative power of faith, and in their congregations.

The Church has the power to work the system for change, it always has had, and on a scale that any lobbyist would kill for. Where a lobbyist can influence one legislator on one vote on one issue, the Church empowers its masses to make Christian choices with every step they take, every dime they spend and with every vote they cast on every issue and in every election.Where the Church is able to effect a groundswell of public action that transforms the face of politics and policy to reflect the constituents' beliefs...that is both a Christian and a Democratic dream. And a lobbyist's nightmare.

Catholic voters, in theory, know what to do. They know where the Church stands on issues of abortion and end-of-life counseling. In theory they have heard the Church's position from the lips of their Priests, they see evidence of it in their scripture, and they cleave to it as the foundation for their decision making. In theory they have voted into office representatives who will speak for them in this as well as all other issues. But even if they don't, in theory it won't matter because the template that guides these Catholics will keep them from needing abortion services and have a position on end-of-life care.

But the fact that there are Catholic Bishops lobbying the Congress over this bill tells us that theory is not proving out in practice. Possibly, Catholic voters didn't get out in big enough numbers to elect representatives who will reflect their beliefs. Possibly they didn't vote for people who reflect their beliefs. Possibly they aren't involved enough in church to know what position to vote for in the first place. In any case, the Catholic church has failed in its calling: its has not brought the faithful into the fold, it has not motivated them to live and vote to bring about the Kingdom, and it has not created in them a moral code that makes the health care reform debate irrelevant to them. That is the problem. The solution is not to by-pass the people. The solution is not to impose the moral code from the top down. Jesus did not throw in with Rome in order to change the ills of the society he preached to.

Where Jesus saw corruption, he preached righteousness. Where he saw iniquity, he preached justice. But he had faith in the Gospel and int he power of his flock to effect the change not by obviating the law but by fulfilling it. Therefore, I say to the well meaning but errant Bishops on Capital Hill: go back to your churches, back to your Scripture and back to your congregations because they are the Church. "Very truly I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit." (John 10:1)

Monday, November 16, 2009

A Detainee by Any Other Name

The New York Times reports that the governor of Illinois has offered up an empty prison outside of Illinois' Quad Cities as a possible alternative location for the prisoners at Guantanamo. Currently, the prisoners Guantanamo reside in inferior temporary housing. Meanwhile, in the heartland of America, a high security prison sits virtually empty. Oh, I beg your pardon, they are "terrorism suspects." And they are "housed" not imprisoned. The argument made by the Governor is that it would be an economic boost to the town in tough times. But there is a great deal more at stake here, and a great deal more to be gained from the move, for all of us.

While we hold these individuals in custody on an island thousands of miles from our homes, it is easy to vilify them, to dehumanize them and ultimately to forget about them completely. If they were here, even behind the seemingly impenetrable walls of a super max prison, we would be taking a small step back toward the humanity we so profoundly believe in, that we hope for on the part of our own soldiers at war and of which, I am afraid, we have completely lost sight in this case.

But we have a tendency to loose sight of things in a cloud of language and spin. When we went into Korea, it was a "police action" but the soldiers who were boots on the ground knew knew it was a War. When the pink slip arrives on your desk your company may be "right sizing" but you know you're out of a job. So we call these people "detainees." We don't want to call them prisoners because prisoners enjoy the privilege of at least a framework of rights and protections. Detainees do not. And in fact we can't call them prisoners because they haven't been tried, found guilty and sentenced. So we use the word "detainee" rather than "prisoner" because it sounds temporary, it sounds like an inconvenience. One is "detained" while the flight attendant retrieves the bag you left under your seat. One is "held prisoner" when one's spouse and children thousands of miles away, wait endlessly with no communication or promise of release .

Certainly, being "housed" in a "facility" that is designed for that purpose is a step in the right direction for the "guests of Uncle Sam" formerly "boarded" in ramshackle cells on Gitmo. But there would be a significant advantage to their captors, as well, that extends far beyond the boundaries of Thomson, Illinois. Prison guards, cooks and sanitation workers, construction workers, drivers and everyone else who comes in contact with the prisoners will be touched by them. These are no longer out of focus faces in the background of the news. They are men who look like men you know. Once you've made eye contact with a person, it is more difficult to imagine endorsing his simulated drowning. If your spouse comes home and tells you about one or to of the guys behind bars, its harder to stomach the fact that he has untreated TB. And if we see them as humans, and as humans under our care, then are we not more likely to treat them as humans? And if we treat them as humans, and they ultimately get out and report on the treatment, is it not better than tales of torture and deprivation? And if they take those better stories back to their families and their countries, then when a U.S. soldier is "detained" by a foreign government, have we not increased the likelihood that she will come home safe and sound and not the worse for her "detention"?

I confess that this is uncharacteristically inflamed rhetoric for me. I apologize, I am just frustrated by what seems to me to be the trampling of a very basic principle of what it means to be a nation based on inalienable rights, a signatory to the Geneva Convention, and a person made in the image of God. It comes down to an issue of "Us or Them." When we ask ourselves, how should we proceed, the answer is often so simple, and yet so very difficult to achieve. We should do unto Them as we would have Them do unto Us.

..and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” (Matt 22:35-39)

Saturday, November 14, 2009

You are What You Do... but not for a living.

This week the New York Times ran a front page story about the adverse effects on family life when a parent loses his job or remains unemployed for a substantial length of time. Several studies cited in the article found that in these cases the out of work parent takes a severe hit to his self-esteem, becomes emotionally remote from his family and his family relationships are strained to the breaking point. Children growing up in this environment, it seems, suffer from the stress over the course of their whole lives in both academic and professional performance. Significantly, it is the parent’s stress and emotional distance that affects the children in this way, not the financial impact. In short, we fail our children not when we unexpectedly lose our jobs but when we intentionally turn away from our families with a false smile and assurance.

The tragedy is that there is no reason to do that. Families existed long before job markets, depressions and unemployment. In fact, I would argue, families exist because of the stresses and demands of the world. And families are, at the end of the day, the only antidote, as well.

When we are stressed, when we are insecure or feel out of control of our environment, it is a basic human need to turn to a trusted friend or loved one for support. As children we climb into our parents’ laps when we are hurt. As adults we may get a hug from a friend or a lover. We shake hands and pat shoulders and say with a shake of our head, “That sucks.” We take comfort from these gestures, but we aren’t fixed. Our knee is still skinned, our heart is still broken or we are still out of a job. We are still loved, we are still valued. No part of who we are as people has been damaged beyond repair. But we feel better.

And there is something in it for the family member who consoles us as well. At a time when there is awfully, painfully and profoundly nothing to be done, they can take an action. They can say the words and make the gestures that help alleviate their own stress as well as ours. They get a chance to say aloud that these things don’t change how they feel about you; they don’t alter who you are in their eyes. And they are themselves comforted in knowing that if their positions were reversed, the same would be true of them.

It is when we internalize our stress that we damage ourselves and our families. We fear that they will think less of us for losing our position, while at the same time preventing them from allaying our insecurities. We fear that they think of us only or primarily as a breadwinner, but by closing them off from the realities of our lives, we give them very little more information to go on. When job loss makes it seem as though everything is crumbling down, the supportive arms of our families and friends can prevent us from being crushed.

The research cited in the New York Times piece indicated that children felt stress when their family dynamics were altered. They could plainly see their Dad at home and their Mom going off to work. They are not unaware of the cancelled family vacation. They feel, as do their parents, powerless and insecure. When we repress our stress and don’t talk about it with them, we deprive them of a chance to do something, even if it’s just giving a hug. When we withhold the truth from them, we deprive them of that little fraction of control that comes from being informed. We are telling them we have no faith in them; that they have failed in their jobs as our cheering section.

However, when we are honest about our feelings and our fears, we teach them something else entirely. We are telling them that we are not defined by our job or our income and we give them permission to be defined not by their test scores or the spiffiness of their cell phones. Most importantly, however, we are teaching them confidence. We trust them with our own insecurities; we cleave together when times are tough. Our membership in this family is more important, more resilient, and ultimately, more enduring than anything the outside world can bring on. We are telling them that love trumps fear.

All of the world’s great faiths are communal. We are not meant to bravely soldier on in isolation. Judaism and Islam originated in tribal families. Christ tells us that wherever two or more of us are gathered, there is love. And while we know what Christ, Moses, and Mohammed were trained to do for a living, it is for the way they loved their communities that we remember them.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Can you Be All You Can Be and be Muslim?

The Fort Hood shootings have raised questions again about how the military should handle the personal religious beliefs of its soldiers, whether they are evangelical Christians, Muslims, Wiccans, and so on. What is the proper role of religion -- and personal religious belief -- in the U.S. armed forces? Should a particular religious affiliation disqualify someone from active military service? How far should the military go to accommodate personal religious beliefs and practices?

The heart of this question is “can I trust a person of another faith to cover my back in battle”? Is there something in their religious text, in their beliefs or their practice that will prevent them from doing their job in battle? Or, in the reverse, if I know the soldier goes to the same church as me can I trust him more? In short, is he loyal first to his faith or to his country?

The answer is: neither, he’s loyal to his buddy.

Snappy recruiting slogans aside, long standing research has proven that in the heat of a firefight there is no such thing as an Army of One and that is intentional. From the day they are recruited, soldiers are trained to be part of a team. Over the course of their training they are subjected to rigors and abuses, sacrifice and exhaustion, and they emerge as a cohesive unit bonded by that transformational experience. They are “brothers in arms.” When this team is deployed, when they are under fire, they see not “a Jewish person” or “a Republican” being fired on, but a guy they’ve bled and sweat with, a guy they are committed to, a guy they can count on and who is counting on them.

And that’s a good thing because in that moment, they are no longer soldiers whose individuality has been sublimated to the needs of the unit and who are meticulously machined into interchangeable uniformity. In that moment, they are Human.

There’s nothing new in this. We all know that the path to tolerance and acceptance is paved one friendship at a time. When we move from generalizations to personal relationships, we recover our humanity. My children recently saw television footage of a raid on what the voice-over said was “the house of a Muslim.” The mother and children in that home were terrified and crying and my own children responded in kind. “That could be Fakhra,” they said referring to a family friend of ours, “those could be her sons.”

We ask ourselves to what degree we should make accommodations for religious freedom in our military. The answer is “as far as possible.” This is our military, after all. It goes into foreign countries under our flag, it should represent our beliefs, including, literally at the top of the list, religious freedom. Because it is right, because it is humane, because an awful lot of the time it is what these brave men and women are fighting for.

There is a responsibility that comes with being created in “the image of God.” It is a responsibility to be righteous and go to war to protect the weak and preserve the good. It is a responsibility to be faithful, to look deeply at our motivation to be sure it stems from our beliefs. But most critically of all, it requires compassion: love for our fellow man and sacrifice for him if need be. It is in that sacrifice that we can finally “be all we can be.”

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

“What can I expect?”

Proposed health-care reform legislation includes a provision that allows Medicare to pay for "end-of-life" counseling for seniors and their families who request it. The provision -- which Sarah Palin erroneously described as "death panels" for seniors -- nearly derailed President Obama's health-care initiative. Some Republicans still argue that the provision would ration health care for the elderly.

Does end-of-life care prolong life or does it prolong suffering? Should it be a part of health-care reform?

“What can I expect?”

The critical issues at the end of a person’s life are dignity, compassion and respect. “End-of-Life” counseling is no more or less than a treatment option. To withhold information about a treatment option is disrespectful, demonstrates an appalling lack of compassion and ultimately deprives her of her dignity.

When any one of us goes to the doctor for almost any reason, the question we are asking is: “What can I expect?” If the answer is that we will get better over time or that we need treatment to get better, we ask again: “Then what can I expect?” And if the answer to that first question is, “You won’t get better” even then we find ourselves asking: “Then what can I expect?” Because it is our treatment path, we believe that our question should be dignified with an answer and that our wishes should be respected. We call this informed decision making and it is based on the elemental principle of respect.

Everyone has a right to know what their doctor knows about their condition. Say your doctor knows you have cancer. She must tell you, even if she thinks it will upset you, even if she is sure you won’t treat it, even if she knows you can’t afford treatment, she is duty bound to tell you what your options are. But let’s say your doctor knows the gender of the baby you’re carrying. You can instruct her to keep that information from you. That, again, is a decision she must respect.

If this all seems obvious to you, that’s because it has been public policy for years. Medicare already pays for Hospice care when families and patients request it. Medical professionals, clergy and social workers are paid by Federal funds in those cases. Hospice care, like any other medical procedure, can be declined by the patient or those speaking on her behalf. And we don’t call it a death panel, we call it compassion.

The essential element of end-of-life treatment is that, to the highest degree possible, it adhere to the patient’s individual desires. Our government, our insurance companies, our employers, our clergy and sometimes even our family may think they know what is best for us, they may be motivated by the most genuine desire to do what is right. But, as a 94 year old Rabbi recently told me, “In such a case, I do not want you to do what’s right. I want you to do what I tell you.”

This same Rabbi told me a story which is worth telling here. An ancient and well respected Rabbi of the second century was ill and close to dying. In keeping with the belief that only God decides when life should end, his students stood around his bed day and night and prayed for him and their prayers kept him alive. Day and night he lingered on and on. Then one day his dearly beloved nurse, who was not Jewish but who had served him faithfully for years, walked into the Rabbi’s bedroom, picked up a very expensive lamp and smashed it to the ground. The praying men were startled into silence and the Rabbi was permitted to slip away… with dignity, compassion and respect.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Too Good to be True

--Is there good without God? Can people be good without God? How can people be good, in the moral and ethical sense, without being grounded in some sort of belief in a being which is greater than they are? Where do concepts such as good and evil, right and wrong, come from if not from religion? From where do you get your sense of good and evil, right and wrong?

Any person can aspire to Goodness. Any Christian, Any Buddhist. Any Atheist. God, or a belief in God, is not necessary. What is necessary to aspire to Goodness is religion. What is necessary to define Goodness, is love.

The desire to be good or to do good: that is morality. The intentional and dedicated pursuit of Goodness as a guiding principle in our lives: that is religion. It is important to note in that definition that the principle “guides” us, it does not determine for us what is Good. How we define what is Good is cultural, it is elusive and changeable, and ultimately it is emotional.

Take the example of an Eco-Friendly acquaintance of mine. Environmentalism informs every aspect of her life: how she dresses, what she eats, how she votes, who she marries, etc. That sounds like a religion. She avidly pursues the Good without ever considering God.

But what if her “religion” excludes on moral grounds testing that might save human lives? What of my religion, which permits medical testing but pollutes the planet irrevocably? If either of us gets our way, the other is trampled, surely such a thing cannot be Good.

Surely the Good is a compromise between what I believe and what she believes, what I am willing to surrender to her and what she is willing to surrender to me. Goodness exists in a space between us, we define it communally and since we are both avidly pursuing it, we can hope to achieve it together. We do this with humility, with compassion, with a desire to please and to be pleased. We do this with love.

And when we reach a loving compromise in this way, it means that we have experienced Goodness without either of us achieving that elusive Good we desired.

When we speak of Christianity as a religion, we acknowledge that the ideal of Christ, his life and works, infuses what we do. Christ does not TELL us what to do, but an intentional determination to lead a Christ-like life guides us. But in every action we take toward that goal of Christ-like living, we must know that He would never want us to trample those in our path. That would not be Christ-like, it would not be Good. We believe we are created in the image of God and that our moral fiber s a reflection of that “drop of perfection” in our souls. I believe that. I just don’t think it’s necessary to believe it to aspire to Goodness.

Nothing I have said here is new. Plato, Kant, Keats, Eckhart all have explored it more thoroughly and intelligently. None, perhaps, so well as Iris Murdoch, the British philosopher and author of many brilliant novels and essays including “The Sovereignty of Good” in which she argues every nuance with elegant simplicity. That books ends with the conclusion that we should not try to define Goodness, or Love, for that matter, but be aware that humility is the road to both.

Monday, October 26, 2009

If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck..

If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck….

The Vatican has offered to create a loophole in Catholicism through which Anglicans and conservative Anglo-Episcopalians can slip into their pews with little or no adjustment of principle. That simply cannot be true. The Conservative Anglicans may wish to distinguish themselves from Catholics, and those who care enough to ask may see the distinction, but out in the real world of generalizations and rounded off numbers, they will be counted as Catholics.

While that isn’t a bad thing, per se, be careful, I say to my Anglican brethren, that you are joining a Church not only that will accept you, but that will represent your values to the world.

If disenchanted Anglicans add their numbers to the Catholic Church’s count, they throw their weight behind the Catholic Church’s agenda. With their inclusion, statistically more people will, for example, believe in the supremacy of the Pope. No, they may say, we are Anglicans, but on a grand scheme, in the real world, who is going to know or even care about that distinction. The next time there is a poll of religious affiliation and political activism will there be an asterisk by Catholic? Or a box between Episcopalian and Catholic marked “Walks like a Duck but not a Duck.”

As an Episcopalian, I am not a duck. I believe in ordaining women and homosexuals. When the Pope pardons clergy who deny the Shoah, I don’t have to own it. When he states that the distribution of condoms in Africa contributes to the spread of AIDS there, I get to be outraged.

Now, in my experience, most Catholics read the Papal declarations, but then they do what they want. From the perspective of personal piety, I am hard pressed to discern between my conservative Anglican friends and my Catholic friends. As far as I can see, Catholicism is not addressing the current realties of the lives of Catholics. Nor is the Anglican Community satisfying the needs of its conservative congregants. If my Anglican brethren join the Catholic Communion, I pray that their critical mass will be felt and not subsumed by the church, that both communities will converge to form a new species that is clearly being called for.

In a previous blog, I argued that worshipers should feel free to change churches to fit their needs. I want to rephrase that now to say that worshipers, when they feel their churches do not meet their needs, should change the church. As was saliently said by Diana Butler Bass last week, people of faith have been voting with their feet since the dawn of time. You might call it Religious Darwinism: churches adapt or they disappear. I love and admire the Catholic Church. I just think it could use a wee smidgeon of evolution.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Plenty Good Rooms

This week the Vatican announced its intention to make a place at its table for Anglican and Episcopalian brethren who are discontented with recent trends in their own denominations. The Vatican’s stated objective is to increase their numbers and they have been accused of “sheep stealing” by various pundits and commentators. Regardless of the motive, the Vatican is performing a fundamentally Christian act: reaching out to brethren who feel disconnected and welcoming them into the fold of fellowship and worship in the Church. What matters is that a people of faith find a place where they can worship in community and without compromising their closely held values. In the words of that beautiful spiritual, there are “plenty good rooms in my father’s kingdom” and these Christians feel that they are at liberty to “choose their seat and sit down.” I would argue, however, that they feel that way because they are at the end of the day, fundamentally not Catholic.

In the Anglican Communion, we believe that God speaks directly to us, not through an intermediary. In the Anglican Communion, the denomination is driven from the pews and not the Pope. As a result we are “messy.” We disagree on clerical qualifications, we argue about inclusive language, heck, we can’t even decide whether to sit or stand during the prayers at communion! We argue about these things sometimes so heatedly that we have to agree not to talk about them for years at a time, as was done at a recent convention. And yes, sometimes it makes us look absurd, extreme or disjointed. That is because our denomination is predicated on the ability of the laity to discern and determine the call of the church as a body. Growing pains are a natural side effect of an institution that is growing.

I am a Theology and Ethics major at a Methodist Seminary. When my colleagues tease me about being an Episcopalian, I say that we are indeed one step away from Catholicism… but it is a step to the left. I think that means that we applaud our Anglo-Episcopalian and Anglican fellows for having the integrity to acknowledge their discomfort with trends in our denomination and desiring to align their worship with their convictions. I hope it means that they will always feel they have a place with us, that they are welcome in our churches, in our homes and at our tables in the understanding that we are all guided by the same desire for authentic faith. I hope for them, as I hope for all of us on any journey in any faith or community, that their discernment is as thoroughgoing as their commitment to their faith. “Blessed are they that keep his testimonies, and that seek him with the whole heart.” May his word be as a lamp unto your feet.

Throwing Christians to the Lions in the 21st Century

This week my daughter’s high school had standardized testing. Out in front, meticulously restrained to the sidewalk pavement and therefore not on the grounds of a public school, representatives of The Gideons, handed out to the entering students, pocket sized copies of Christian Scripture. The books are quite small, they are bound in one of the school colors and they were thrust into the hands of the students just as casually as if they were flyers for the sandwich shop down the street. The students took them, too, just as casually. Inside the school, however, these little books were tossed in the garbage, used as projectiles, defaced, defamed and disrespected.

Now I am not one who proclaims the sanctity of the book. Frankly, that smacks of idolatry to me. The Word is sacred, the book paper. My own Bible has writing in the margins and dog eared pages. Isaiah was once soaked in coffee and smells like Kona Blend to this day. This, to my mind, is a good thing. No, it is not the defacement of the icon that concerns me.

Nor do I want to give the impression that every one of the kids who took a book from the Gideons subsequently abused or disrespected it. Most were bemused but respectful and either set them aside or crammed them into the bottomless pit that is a high school locker. Really, the vast majority of kids couldn’t care less either way.

And I am sure that the hearts of the Gideons outside were in the right place. . These good men reached out in accordance with their mission to “promote the Gospel of Christ to all people.” They intended to offer support and consolation on an incredibly stressful day. Perhaps they thought that, going into that Algebra AP, the feel of the recitation of Scripture might make a student more calm. In point of fact, the recitation of the Pythagorean Theorem might make them calmer, but whatever. They might even have imagined that in a moment of crisis or despair someone might open the little book to the Gospels or the Psalms or the Proverbs and have their lives changed by the Scripture in that moment. These are worthy aims, I have no beef with this.

What concerns me is the Christian in the crowd. I am thinking of the teenager who is just at that age where going to Church Camp or Youth Group outings is really fun to do, but a little embarrassing to admit. This is the teen who is right at that moment in their faith life where they wonder if the obvious and pervasive stupidity that they have just begun to notice is a part of every single adult of their acquaintance extends to their pastor and therefore their faith. This is the teen who is deciding how religion will fit on the horizon of their emerging adulthood. What this child sees inside that building is that his faith is a liability. His peers jeer at the Scripture, they read the words with dripping sarcasm and the laugh at the dopey language and tired parables. The Christian student in this scenario is in the horrible position of having to stand up for his faith in the face of the loudest of his peers, or to deny his faith and slink away, resenting the Scripture for having put him in this position in the first place. The Gideons who lovingly handed out those scriptures in the hope of reaching the Christians inside the building have only succeeded in throwing the most vulnerable of their brethren to the Lions.

Scripture could very likely help a person who is anxious and unsure as he or she enters a testing situation or an interview room or an application process, but in order for the Scripture to do that person any good, he has to have read it before hand, to have processed it, incorporated it into his bones and made it his own somehow. That isn’t done on Testing Day, on the sidewalk outside of school by a stranger with a blaze orange book. By all means minister to the youth of our community, evangelize right up until the very last day, but do it with compassion, thoughtfully and intelligently. Possibly, on the day of the SAT’s, hand that sweating sophomore a role of Tums and a card with an inscription that says, “I’m hoping for the best for you.” That seems like, well, what Jesus would do.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Hate Crimes Legislation is a Federal Anti Bullying Campaign

Congress is expected to expand federal hate crimes laws to add "sexual orientation" to a list that already includes "race, color, religion or national origin." Is this necessary? Should there be special laws against crimes motivated by intolerance, bigotry and hatred? Isn't a crime a crime?

Hate crimes are particularly horrific because they say not, “I hurt you because you hurt me,” but “I hurt you because you are.” And also, frequently, “because I can.” Hate crimes are so common in our culture that we have multiple names for it. One of them is bullying. Virtually every school district in the United States has an anti-bullying campaign to teach our children to recognize intimidation, take it to the authorities and let the authorities work out the consequences. Hate crimes legislation is no more than a Federal Anti-Bullying Campaign. Where a citizen is victimized for being who he is and is afraid to stand up for himself, the government says, “If he threatens you again, you come and get me and I’ll deal with it.” But what any school child will tell you, whether he is the victim, witness or bully, is that the ani-bullying campaign is only as strong as the punishment it delivers. If the principle wags his finger at the bully and says, “Now don’t kick sand in Dexter’s eyes anymore, Spike,” the bully will go right out and fearlessly victimize the little guy again. In a culture where we have to teach our children to do what is right and where an adult sized potion of courage is required to do it, the least we can do is promise that the legislation that protects them has teeth. It doesn’t matter who the little guy is, the big guy can’t push him around on our block.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The H1N1 Vaccine Debate and a Christian Compromise

Polls show a majority of Americans are concerned about the H1N1 virus (swine flu), but also about the safety and efficacy of the swine flu vaccine. Is it ethical to say no to this or any vaccine? Are there valid religious reasons to accept or decline a vaccine? Will you get a swine flu shot? Will your children?

The H1N1 virus threatens the national and administration of the vaccine should be mandatory. Certainly, there are valid religious reasons to refuse or accept vaccination. However, in the face of a serious threat to national health, the United States of America has historically, and without remorse, set aside the religious reservations of a few in the interest of protecting the majority of its population. It must be done, but it need not be disrespectful. If we are compelled to ask our Christian Scientist and Jehovah’s Witness brethren, among others, to trample their religious principles for our benefit, the least we can do is be kind about it, be respectful, and if at all possible, grateful to them for threatening their salvation in favor of ours.

I compromise my principles a little bit every day in order to ensure religious freedom for my neighbors. In my own state of Illinois, a parent choosing to refuse state-required immunizations must jump through a series of state and county hoops, produce signed documents and testimonies and prove their religious affiliation. In exchange, the state offers me as much assurance as it possibly can that my vaccinated children will be safe from infection. It does not, it cannot, categorically promise to isolate my children from their unvaccinated classmates. This is a risk I live with because I would not want to live in a country that required “separate but equal” facilities for people who had made choices based on their faith traditions. Once in a while, in one fell swoop and in recognition of special circumstances, I ask these same neighbors to make a similar sacrifice for me. I am confident in their empathy and reasonableness.

Jesus told us to preserve the Sabbath and we respect people who honor the Sabbath. He also healed the sick on the Sabbath. He argued that violating the Sabbath laws did not invalidate the Sabbath but that his father in heaven valued human life above ritual purity. He made these arguments and he performed these miracles with respect and kindness toward those whose religions he compromised through his actions. We can do no less in his name.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Dream into Being: A Post Racial World

Gravity works like this: everything we do, everything we have created to live on earth, every cell in our bodies and every expectation we have in our lives depends on gravity. We develop strong bodies, muscles, dense bones, parallel hips and shoulder structures, so that we can stand up in opposition to gravity. Our cells are oriented by and function in concert with gravitational pull. We design buildings and use materials that counter act gravity. The forces of gravity move the largest bodies of water known to man back and forth across the face of the planet. The force of gravity is so ingrained in us that we are able to anticipate a falling snowflake. Even our animals comprehend of gravity: my dog is not performing elaborate computations to predict the pitch and drag of the Frisbee he catches I his mouth. It is instinctive. Gravity is like that: so instinctive that we don’t think about it at all, it’s a given. And yet everything we do and everything we are is premised on gravity. That is being White in the U.S.

Now imagine that gravity increased ten-fold. Imagine it pushed you down. Imagine you could not build the structures or catch the snowflake, imagine that you had to use every ounce of your strength to stand. That is being non-white in the U.S.

This was brought home to me in an essay by Alice Walker called “Saving the Life that is Your Own” in which she examines role models she’s held for her own writing. It struck me that she had to go looking for role models who were not what she was, but what she wanted to be. She quotes Toni Morrison saying that she has to be “her own model as well as the artist attending from, learning and realizing the model.” What struck me about this is that my race has never defined my role models, because my potential is not limited by my race. In my entire life as a writer, until that moment, it never occurred to me that I could not aspire to be Leo Tolstoy.

I look around at the books on my shelves and their stories jump out at me. I know the characters like old friends, I know their lines, I can envision their most moving scenes with an immediacy that gives me great joy. I have to stop and think and in several cases Google and check the race and sometimes gender of the writer. This, in my sheltered little mind, is the road to the kingdom. In her essay, Alice Walker says that white writers tend to write the reality they live in now, “as if there were no better existence for which to struggle.” Black writers, however, expect a “larger freedom” and their characters struggle toward it.

One thing all theologians agree on is that human beings are narrative animals. They take their realities and write them into legends: they call that history. They write their dreams and imagine a reality that is more perfect, more satisfying than what they know: they call that fiction. But when those stories are read and their fictions take root in the imagination of the reader, then there is the beginning of reality. I know this story, you know it. A truth exists between us and between us we can live that truth into being, speak imagination into revolution, create the reality that once was only a dream.

I don’t know what I post racial world looks like. But I can imagine a city whose buildings are constructed in different ways and with different materials, I can imagine evolutionary adaptations that enabled people to walk and breathe comfortably. I can imagine bowling becoming a more popular sport than tennis. And then suddenly having the weight lifted, the entire paradigm changing and how a culture would have to adapt to their “larger freedom.” Imagine that.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

We are our Brother's Keepers

Q-- Eight years after the U.S. attacked Afghanistan, fighting continues. Religious extremists in the Taliban and al-Qaeda retain significant power there. What is our moral responsibility to the people of Afghanistan? If religion is part of the problem there, how can it be part of the solution?

We are our Brother’s Keeper

This question was asked of all three faiths at their very inceptions: Are you your brother’s keeper? All three faiths have always and instinctively answered “yes.” But let us remember that keeping one’s brother safe from harm is a proactive endeavor. We must put faith in action as our brother’s keepers with structured, well funded, non-interventionist humanitarian aid.

The very fact that steadfast religious commitment contributes to the violence in Afghanistan makes it our best hope for peace there. Afghanistan is a Muslim country, guided by mandates which, at their core closely resemble those of its fellow Abrahamic faiths: Judaism and Christianity. What is required of the brother’s of Islam in this situation is active intervention, but in the Abrahamic tradition of humility and humanity. We must show a desire to understand and a willingness to respect what is good in Islam while also acknowledging our own violence and foolishness in the name of religious freedom.

Judaism, Christianity and Islam were all born in the same moment when Abraham and his son, be he Isaac or Ishmael, were called upon to act in humility and humanity to fulfill God’s commandment. It is important to note, however, that what was required of Abraham was proactive involvement. What was required of his son was faithful fulfillment of his role in God’s plan. Abraham, obedient and steadfast is his commitment to God, spoke words of faith to his son. He took courage from God’s faith in his ability to fulfill the commandment. His son was concerned for Abraham’s feelings even as he prostrated himself in an act of humility and faith. So are we three faiths conceived in that moment of testing, called on to be humble, to be thoughtful, to be generous and to be faithful to the last. We are our brother’s keepers, bound to one another in the binding of Isaac.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Rebuilding the Tower of Babel in a Nucelar Age

Reacting in part to recent missile tests by Iran and North Korea, President Obama and a unanimous UN Security Council last week endorsed a sweeping strategy to halt the spread of nuclear weapons and ultimately eliminate them. Is nuclear disarmament a religious issue? Is it a pro-life issue? Is support for nuclear disarmament a moral imperative? Should we pray for nuclear disarmament?

This week’s questions offer the panel a rare opportunity to elucidate an important distinction: in the field of Theology and Ethics the words “mutually verifiable” have no discernable meaning. We have all been confronted with the conundrum of pacifism: if a murderer held a gun to the head of your loved one, would you take their life or let them take the life of your loved one? The point of that question is, at the moment of crisis, the fog of fear and fury obscure even our most closely held morals. Disarmament then, the holstering of weapons, the cessation of testing and production, and the enforced inspection and validation of compliance is, to my mind, a necessarily political and diplomatic one. It is a process through which the infrastructure of destruction is torn down. It is a stepping back away from an unacceptable future. There is no place at the nuclear negotiating table for religion. Cool heads, undistracted by anything more than hard science and verifiable fact must be permitted to prevail in the tearing down of a possible future with which no one can agree.

But in the wake of those talks, outside the door of the conference room, when our attention can refocus on the construction of a plan for the future, there and then we need the framework of theology and the building blocks of ethical debate. All people of faith are compelled not just not to kill, but to heal what is broken in Creation. Obviously the production, arming and deployment of weapons of mass destruction of any kind is not in keeping with that mandate. We must ask ourselves, as citizens of the world, and as students of the Word, what lessons can we take from the Buddha, the Torah, the revelations of Mohammed or the life and work of Jesus of Nazareth. What is the picture of peace, the Kingdom, if you will, and how can we create it faithfully, with strength and unity? It is in answering these questions, in long and exhaustive dialog, in self examination and cross cultural exploration that our steadfast belief in a good God, in His will for us to come together as a whole people, and in our ability in His image to realize that goal, that Theology and Ethics is our best tool. In splitting the atom, like the builders of the tower of Babel, we aspire to a god-like power over Creation. But it is a desire for destruction, which is not God-like at all. To bring an entire planet into agreement on the sanctity of life and the insanity of mass destruction is accomplished one day at a time, one person at a time, one treaty at a time and ultimately it makes the words “mutually verifiable” immaterial.