Friday, May 28, 2010

Thoughtful Reads

I like thoughtful writing-- the kind where a true intellectual looks at current events through the lens of more than just politically or policy-motivated mumbo-jumbo. This is the main reason why David Brooks of the New York Times has become one of my favorite columnists, whether or not I agree with his opinions. His columns are reliably rational, moderate arguments-- despite the fact that his opinions do on occasion draw some fire for their unique brand of idealism. But really, what is a column for but to express the writer's opinion on the way they see the world and the way they think it ought to be?

Today Mr. Brooks had an especially thoughtful column about the real ramifications of the oil spill-- namely, how it reflects the way we think about technology. We put a great deal of trust in very risky devices, and create overly complex governance systems to manage them, he argues. Mr. Brooks also cited an excellent 1996 piece by bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell (of The Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers), written around the tenth anniversary of the Challenger explosion. Whether or not you agree, the pieces are well-written and bear some contemplation as we consider how to move forward with recovery from this massive environmental disaster.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Faith and the Democrats, 2010 Edition

The 2008 Democrats realized something that they hadn't seemed to grasp in previous election cycles: faith matters to a whole lot of people. It matters so much, in fact, that it often influences their voting patterns. One could argue quite effectively that then-candidate Obama's ability to define his political views in light of his religious beliefs played a major role in making him the most successful Democratic candidate in years in terms of winning the votes of the faith-based community. And for a while, when the Democrats came to power, they maintained their faith-based outreach programs-- President Obama even expanded former President Bush's faith-based initiative offices in the White House.

Since then, though, little other than disappointment has ensued from the progressive faith community. The Democrats have been woefully unresponsive to many religious concerns, and even the president's religious advisers feel that they are not being heard. Moral language is really nowhere to be found in speeches by most Democratic politicians, and the "Faith in Action" page on the DNC's website is almost painfully out of date and unused. All of these issues-- and more-- were addressed in an excellent article by Michelle Boorstein of the Washington Post, asking, "Are Democrats pulling back on faith outreach?"

The answer, from my perspective, is a resounding "yes," and that upsets me more than I can say. I have long felt that the Democrats were woefully incompetent when it came to connecting to faith groups, and that the Republican lock on religion can only be unhealthy for the faith community. The problem is not the lack of opportunity for Democrats to phrase their ideas in a way that speaks to moral and faith-based perspectives, it is simply their lack of action. The problem is not that there is no value in framing political issues as a moral imperative (health care is a great example), it is that that value is seldom recognized and even more infrequently utilized to benefit the Democratic agenda.

The Democrats seemed to be getting back on the faith-based track a little more during the 2008 election. Obama spoke about his faith openly and framed his issues as a question of values, and many people-- including and especially people of faith-- responded to that. However, the recent backpedaling hasn't done them any favors, and if they fail to get back to that moral language, especially during the upcoming Congressional campaigns, the Democrats will once again risk losing control of the moral ground in the conversations to Republicans-- and that monopoly would be a huge loss to the country and to constructive dialogue.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Beck's Call: The Conversation About Social Justice Christianity

I am admittedly long overdue in writing about the controversy that Glenn Beck launched when he called on Christians to leave churches that preached social justice. It seems, however, that I am not as belated as I thought, because the conversation is still going on. More on that later.

A little context: In his show on March 3, 2010, conservative talk show host Glenn Beck made the following proclamation to his religiously inclined viewers:
"I'm begging you, your right to religion and freedom to exercise religion and read all of the passages of the Bible as you want to read them and as your church wants to preach them...are going to come under the ropes in the next year. If it lasts that long it will be the next year. I beg you, look for the words 'social justice' or 'economic justice' on your church web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words. Now, am I advising people to leave their church? Yes!"
And it continued. Understandably, many churches were incensed and the progressive evangelical Christian magazine Sojourners launched a campaign telling their readers to "turn themselves in" to Beck, proclaiming, "I am a social justice Christian." They got several thousand signatures the first night...and the next day on his show, Beck went even further:
Where I go to church, there are members that preach social justice as members–my faith doesn’t–but the members preach social justice all the time. It is a perversion of the gospel. … You want to help out? You help out. It changes you. That’s what the gospel is all about: You.
"A perversion of the gospel." Right. That phrase, combined with Beck's equating social justice Christianity to communism, Marxism, Nazism, and totalitarian government sparked articles and conversations across the faith spectrum. Sojourners founder Jim Wallis invited Beck to a conversation about the relationship between social justice and Christian faith-- an invitation to which Beck has still not replied. After early April, the topic largely disappeared-- but now it is back with the FOX host's latest claim that the government was forcing churches to preach a "religion of environmental and social justice."

I don't pretend to understand Beck's motivation for launching on this particular tirade any more than I understand why people bother putting vegetables on pizza (I'm just saying, you lose a lot of health value when you load veggies up with grease. You want vegetables, eat a salad). For all I know, he could be sincere in this criticism or he could be just trying to stir things up. But as long as there are those who take people like Beck seriously, I take him seriously. Most of the time I can shrug it off when Beck goes off on a tirade, but this time he is criticizing something that forms the essence of what I believe.

Let me be very clear: I believe the passage in Ephesians that says salvation is by grace, through faith. However, I do not believe that this is an excuse to shrug off the problems of the world around us. My chaplain pointed out in a sermon a few weeks ago that God does not promise to raise us to a new creation in another dimension or something, but to "make all things new" in this world-- which means that we have to care about the world we live in now (side note: I highly recommend reading that sermon, not only for the spiritual and intellectual content but for the excellent references to Star Trek, Star Wars, and Indiana Jones). I believe in the profession made in the Epistle of James: "Faith without works is dead."

Perhaps this is where my own more liberal inclinations come into play. I suspect even someone like Beck might agree with me on the need to pair faith with good works. However, I believe that Christians are responsible to work on a larger scale to make a difference in the problems of poverty, environmental degradation, and more. It's not enough to change your lightbulbs to be more energy efficient, or put a $5 bill in a homeless man's cup. I believe that the government has the responsibility to "ensure domestic tranquility" and "promote the general welfare," as the Preamble to the constitution says. Poverty reduction, environmental justice, health care-- these are all concepts that directly relate to "the general welfare."

Jim Wallis articulated the problem with Beck's claim about social justice Christianity very well in an opinion piece for the Huffington Post.
Private charity, which Beck and I are both for, wasn't enough to end the slave trade in Great Britain, end legal racial segregation in America, or end apartheid in South Africa. That took vital movements of faith which understood the connection between personal compassion and social justice. Those are the movements that have inspired me and shaped my life -- not BIG GOVERNMENT. And my allies in faith-based social justice movements have wonderfully different views on the role of government -- some bigger than mine and some smaller than mine -- but we all believe social justice requires changing both personal choices and unjust structures. Apparently Beck thinks social justice ends with private charity, but very few churches in the nation would agree with him.
Now, I personally admittedly go a bit farther than Wallis in my views (if you read through his whole article, you'll see), but I agree with his notion that it is important to work from the bottom up-- changing yourself first and moving to a smaller local level, and then beyond. Personal first, policies later. But the unjust structures of government have to be changed if a real difference is going to be made in this country and especially around the world. I worked for a small Catholic social justice lobby last spring, and part of the appeal of their organization for me is that they took both a top-down and bottom-up approach to helping the global poor. They had missionaries in the field helping with day to day needs of the people, and also people like myself in Washington, advocating for change in the structures that contributed to that level of poverty. It was a remarkable experience because of the power of that context (I expect I will write more on my experiences with that organization soon).

For now, though, let me just say this: by what he said about social justice Christianity, Glenn Beck challenged me to defend why I believe that this kind of activism is an integral part of my faith, and for that I am of course grateful. But he is wrong in encouraging Christians to leave churches that preach social justice-- and if people listened, he would be forcing a mass exodus from a majority of mainline Protestant, evangelical Protestant, and Catholic churches around the United States. Social justice Christians have made a real difference in creating a better world. Don't believe me? Take a look at William Wilberforce and the abolition of the slave trade in England, or Martin Luther King in America's civil rights movement.

Read More:
-Glenn Beck Declares War on United Methodists
-Jim Wallis: What Glenn Beck Doesn't Understand About Biblical Social Justice
-Take Action: Tell Glenn Beck: I'm a Social Justice Christian
-Glenn Beck Responds: Social Justice is a 'Perversion of the Gospel'
-Glenn Beck Attacks Churches on Climate Change
-Mark Schaefer: Wiping Away Every Tear

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

My Relay for Life Experience

Note: This post was originally written on 18 April 2010 at 3:11am.

Bender Arena, American University, Washington, DC

It has been a long, long time since I have done anything remotely like this-- Midnight Madness with Youth-to-Youth in middle school and Word of Life in early high school are the closest equivalents that come to mind. Why? Put briefly, all-nighters do not agree with me. I surprised even myself when I seriously entertained the thought of coming to this event. However, it seemed appropriate to do something after losing three friends to cancer in the course of a year, so here I am. I relay in memory of Gail Parady, Fred Holliday, Jean Moore, and Paulette Hilchie, and I relay in honor of the ongoing fights against cancer by Jinny Scott [update: and Ann Kippley].

This is a truly unique event: part memorial, part fundraiser, part celebration. Each participant donated at least $10 as an entrance fee; many donated or fundraised more than that from family or friends. Most of us are walking with a friend or family member in mind-- a victim, a survivor, a caregiver. There are even survivors among our number here...they are some of the leaders of the event, and they walked the first lap as we all cheered them on.

The luminaria ceremony was probably the most touching part of Relay. People purchased these bags and dedicated them in memory of those who have died; we all walked around the track in silence for about 10 minutes after they were illuminated. One of my friends was a major organizer of Relay; he celebrated his birthday today and lost his dad to cancer about five years ago. It was heart-wrenching to watch him and the others during the luminaria ceremony-- it was a poignant reminder of why we are all really here.

Despite all this, the core theme of the event is "Celebrations." Accordingly, my team chose a "Happy Retirement" theme for ourselves and we dressed up as various ages and stages of retirees. We also made a sign for our "campsite" that says, "Our team is RE-TIRED of cancer."

It has been a mostly high-energy evening full of entertainment. As I write, there is a "Miss American" drag contest going on. Five guys got dressed up in fancy gowns and did a little catwalk. There has been a lot of music, ranging from an ongoing DJ dance party, to two a cappella groups, to to two rather bad bands, to a bagpiper. The music is keeping us all going at this late hour-- it is now 03:40. There has also been a lot of donated food and drink-- Chipotle, crepes, sodas, and more. The stuff that really keeps most people going is the Red Bull, I suppose, which makes a good deal of sense.

Other activities that have been going on include board games at different campsites, volleyball, frisbee, soccer, and the eternally popular bounce house.

I don't know that I am going to have the energy to make it all the way through the event. I have certainly done my best, and my knee has held up remarkably well, in spite of all the stress I've put it through. Regardless, this has already been a remarkable experience. We collectively raised over $40,000 for cancer research, heard some remarkable stories, and partied like it was 1995. I guess all I can say is-- Relay on!


Update: I made it through until about 5:30 in the morning before returning to my dorm and crashing. The final fundraising count was nearly $45k. I firmly believe that Relay for Life is an important way for a community to rally around cancer survivors and caretakers, and to remember those who died, while fighting back against the worst six-letter word in the dictionary. I plan to participate again next year, and urge others to do the same.