Thursday, August 27, 2015

Who Gets to Decide

More than once I've bristled at the term, "Radical Islam," especially when applied to folk like ISIS.  I've also grieved when I read or hear a statement that begins "Christians believe..." and goes on to include something I most definitely do not believe.  More than once my response has been... "that person is not a Christian," which is likely the same thing they would say about me.

In every religion with which I'm familiar, there is a degree of heterogeneity that includes folk at one point of the spectrum excluding folk at other points on the spectrum as not being real representatives of that tradition.  I have read Orthodox Jews say that Reformed Jews are not really Jewish.  I know Muslims who would say that the members of ISIS are not really Muslims and of course, those same members of ISIS routinely kill folk who call themselves Muslims but who do not measure up to their definitions.  Just the other day I had lunch with a very conservative Christian woman who flatly said that her family as not "Christian" - some of whom are central members of a church I know intimately.  Then there are those outside of the various religious traditions who often point to the very worst as examples... those who look at Islam and only see ISIS, at The Family Research Council as the spokespeople for Christianity... you get the picture.

Once I had a discussion with a hyper-conservative Calvinist.  At the end of our talk, she remarked, "We worship a different Jesus."  She was right.  It doesn't seem unreasonable then that the same title doesn't fit both of us.

So, who gets to decide?  And using what criteria?  Or is a decision even possible?

I would say, yes, a decision is possible and necessary.  We live in a world where information travels virtually instantly and every faith tradition finds itself out there, being judged in the marketplace of ideas and actions.  It is all too easy for folk to point at one element or another and generalize when that element may or may not fairly represent a religious tradition.  The label "Christian" is important to me and the way that label is read by others is then also important to me.

So... first, does the individual or group fit into the general trajectory of the tradition?  Every religious tradition changes through history, some more than others, but all change.  I would argue that in my tradition, we become more able to understand God's yearnings for humanity and move ever so slowly closer to God's "will."  While questions related to the founder like "what would Jesus do?" or "What would Mohamed do?" might be helpful, we must realize that we always see those founders through the lens of our current experience and even our theological stance.  The Jesus I see would be clearly different than the one Jonathan Edwards saw or the one that Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council sees.  Still, I believe we can look at the broad sweep of a tradition to see what direction it is moving and I would argue judge that something that spins off wildly from that trajectory doesn't fit the definition.  In spite of calling themselves "Christian," those in the Christian Identity Movement simply are not.    In spite of the word "Islam" being in the title of ISIS, they are not.

I would also argue that a group or person who claims to be trying to go back to the original intent is likely falling outside of the definition.  You can't go back... and indeed, God does not go backwards.  If the individual or group argues that everyone else has gone astray for the past decades or centuries... that is simply hubris.

Second, look at that trajectory again and ask how the tradition's understanding of who God is has moved... if the individual or group seems to be advocating a "God" outside of that tradition's trajectory, then clearly they are not one of them.

Finally, where did they come from?  If they pop up out of nowhere, they don't meet the definition.

The hard question of course is whether God can work outside of the tradition.  Of course.  God is God and can do whatever God wants... but those radical changes begin something new.  Christianity has Jewish roots, but it is not Judaism.  Islam has roots in Judaism and Christianity... but it is neither.  You get the point.

So, for today, I have no difficulty at all saying that ISIS is not Islam.  I'm a little more shy in my own tradition but if you asked me privately I'd tell you what I think about whether or not Westboro Baptist is really a Christian church.

What would your criteria be?  Or do you think it is not a worthy effort?

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Iran deal... what's at stake?

I have to say that I'm more than  little puzzled at the strong reactions against the proposed deal with Iran.  It significantly attenuates Iran's ability to produce a nuclear weapon.  It opens the doors for inspections wider than they have ever been.  It strengthens the pro-western factions in their government.  It offers relief to the crushing burden of sanctions, borne largely by the least able.It strengthens the strongest enemy of the radical Sunni groups like ISIS. 

What are the arguments for the downsides?  It does allow for an infusion of cash to Iran and will cause a shift in power in the region, but that looks to happen regardless of whether the agreement is embraced by the US.  It has been argued that more sanctions might get us a better deal... but the European community has said that they will not observe sanctions any longer so this will happen regardless of what the US does.   Iran is not trustworthy.  Again, nothing changes there.  At least with the agreement there are inspections.  In addition, it calls for the dismantling of a significant percentage of their centrifuges which would push out the time frame needed to procure enough material to make a bomb from as little as 2 months (currently) to a year or more.  Finally, if Iran broke the agreement, that would catalyze the world community against them. 

Significant leaders in Israel are frightened by the agreement but other significant leaders have spoken in favor.  An important observation here is that Iran, while not being trustworthy has also shown itself to not be crazy.  In spite of rhetoric to the contrary, they have not taken steps that would threaten their future as a nation.  Israel on the other hand is crazy.  They have shown repeatedly that they will do whatever is necessary to defend themselves and that they would not hesitate to use matching force and more.  If Iran was to produce a nuclear weapon and use it against Israel, it is abundantly clear that Israel would respond with their significantly larger nuclear array and Iran would be completely annihilated.  Without the continued focus of the world on Iran's capacity to build nuclear weapons, it is precisely the Israel capacities that push them to develop these weapons.  Many military leaders in Israel believe that this deal does indeed serve to make Israel more secure, not less, and will serve to stop Iran's program to develop these weapons.

So short of diplomacy, what is the option another than another war costing trillions of dollars and 100's of thousands of lives?  We have seen the long term results of wars in the Middle East and they are not positive.  Given the strong points of the deal vs. the single option of war, why would anyone argue against it?

The cynic in me sees only one reason - oil.  If sanctions are lifted and there is no war, Iran will likely flood the world market with oil, driving down the cost - they need the money.  Fracking and enhanced drilling techniques will become too expensive to be practical and profits will drop significantly for the oil companies.  From what I can see, the only ones who benefit from this agreement failing are the oil companies and the end result is once again seeing young men and women dying to preserve the profits of multinationals.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Bernie & Black Lives Matter

Let me begin with five statements...

1. I'm white.  I grew up a recipient of white privilege and continue to benefit from a system that gives preference to my race (and gender).

2. I am an ally.  I grew up in the 60's in an integrated section of the city of Pittsburgh.  Since my childhood I have been aware of the different way that my black friends and acquaintances lived and the struggles they faced - struggles that I did not face.  I watched as they tried to navigate a system set up to disenfranchise them at every step while I waltzed through without a thought.  I have been an ally - sometimes better than others - throughout my life and I think I understand the issues as well as any white man can.  I know that not all white progressives are as sensitive to those issues as they need to be.

3. Through my life I have seen issues of race change.  Some of those changes have been for the better, others have not.  Despite the fact that we have a black president, we have a long way to go before the system of racism is dismantled.  Ignoring the problems or conflating them with other problems does not help.  Black Lives Matter is an important cause and a slogan that I embrace. 

4. I have no right to speak for black folk.  Heck, I have no right to speak for other white folk.  Still, as a white person who has benefited from racism,  I have a responsibility to speak out on issues of race.

5. I've been deeply troubled and saddened about the discussions following the Black Lives Matter protest at the Bernie Sanders rally in Seattle.  For all of the reasons above, I've hesitated to say anything and yet feel compelled to do so.

I've read black commentators say that they have been attacked by white progressives after that protest, that without the protest, Bernie would not have taken the stand he took one day after the protest, and that as a result, they would not vote for Bernie.

Perhaps it is not my place to formulate strategy for the Black Lives Matter folk...   I would argue that while black folk and other folk of color are clearly the victims of racism, that change will come much more quickly if significant numbers of white folk are entirely on board.  Make no mistake, slow change means more dead black folk.  If saving lives is the goal, then flailing around in frustration may not be the wisest strategy.  Keeping the issue visible and building coalitions are good strategies.  This protest achieved one end... but may have been counter-productive for the other.

It is a central question - whether Bernie would have made the strong statement he made about Black Lives Matter without the protest.  Perhaps he was taking the issue too lightly and was conflating it with some of the other societal problems he was addressing.  Maybe his platform didn't address the urgency felt by many black folk who see a system that does not value their lives as highly as those of white folk.  Still, I think a serious sit down might have enlightened him and moved the issue forward without angering and possibly disenfranchising folk who arrived to hear Bernie speak about other important issues that are serious issues for black folk as well as white ones. 

Of all of the candidates currently running, I believe that Bernie Sanders is the one who would most advance the issues that are important to black folk, including moving us forward in dismantling a system that has been in place far too long.  Strengthening the coalition that could get him elected would be a smart strategic move on behalf of those for whom the Black Lives Matter campaign is their primary concern.

What is done is done...  In any case, I'm glad that Bernie has embraced the cause in a more direct way and I hope that is a significant step in building that coalition.  I'm glad that Hillary has met in private with some of the leaders of the movement and hopefully she too will make a strong statement.  And we've heard from the Donald... as expected, he has dismissed the issue and likely solidified the position of black folk in the Democratic column.   I hope the Sanders campaign moves forward to find more people of color for leadership in their campaign and becomes more sensitive to the specific issues faced by people of color.   I hope the Black Lives Matter folk continue to build alliances and coalitions.

Thursday, August 06, 2015

70 years

It is said that Gandhi was once asked, "Is there anything for which you would kill?"  The story says that his answer was, "No. There is nothing for which I would kill.  There is much for which I would die."  When killing is allowed has always been a sticky question.  For many cultures, killing someone who is part of the ingroup is not allowed, but someone who is an outsider is allowed.  We give police officers permission to use deadly force under very specific circumstances.  And finally, even the military are allowed to kill only under certain circumstances and there are long traditions of writing "rules of engagement" and moral frameworks for warfare.

All of the data indicates that the earliest followers of Jesus were pacifists and would have identified with Gandhi's answer.  The stories of the martyrs include many instances where individuals willingly gave their lives and watched as family members gave theirs without returning violence for violence.  After Constantine it became clear to those in power that pacifism was no longer an option.  They believed that empires required armies and the threat of death so the theologians went to work to build a schema that would allow for the possibilities of state sponsored violence and would define under what circumstances killing was allowed or even required.  They came up with the "Just War Theory."

Augustine was the first theologian to propose a just war framework and set the tone for the discussion from then on.  His framework was

Principles of Just-War Theory
1. Last Resort
A just war can only be waged after all peaceful options are considered. The use of force can only be used as a last resort.
2. Legitimate Authority
A just war is waged by a legitimate authority. A war cannot be waged by individuals or groups that do not constitute the legitimate government.
3. Just Cause
A just war needs to be in response to a wrong suffered. Self-defense against an attack always constitutes a just war; however, the war needs to be fought with the objective to correct the inflicted wound.
4. Probability of Success
In order for a war to be just, there must be a rational possibility of success. A nation cannot enter into a war with a hopeless cause.
5. Right Intention
The pirmary objective of a just war is to re-establish peace. In particular, the peace after the war should excede the peace that would have succeeded without the use of force. The aim of the use of force must be justice.
6. Proportionality
The violence in a just war must be proportional to the casualties suffered. The nations involved in the war must avoid disproportionate military action and only use the amount of force absolutely necessary.
7. Civilian Casualties
The use of force must distinguish between the militia and civilians. Innocent citizens must never be the target of war; soldiers should always avoid killing civilians. The deaths of civilians are only justified when they are unavoidable victims of a military attack on a strategic target. 

Other expressions of the Just War Theory also included a proscription against destruction of property, specifically the burning of structures.

Certainly that framework has formed the basis of moral justification of military violence since and the argument makes sense even if some of the criteria, especially #2, may seem a bit dated.  I would argue though that there has never been a war that met those criteria.  That is not the point of today's post.

Seventy years ago, the US dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima followed a few days later by the second on Nagasaki.  The argument goes that Japan was planning to execute all prisoners of war and that a ground war in Japan would have cost many more lives that the conservative estimate of 135,000 (mostly civilian) deaths from the dropping of those two bombs.  

If we begin with virtually any iteration of the Just War Theory, the bombings were simply immoral.  The number of civilian deaths and the complete destruction of two cities is simply not acceptable according to any Just War theory.  To equate the deaths of civilians to that of military is never allowed.  Even if those civilian deaths did save the lives of Allied military forces, it is still immoral according to Augustine's argument.  That a second bomb was dropped was even more repugnant.

My local paper had an editorial today arguing that the bombings were both necessary and good.  That the writer felt that argument needs to be made is telling.  It also feeds the continued growth of nuclear weaponry as the argument states that there are times when the use of such horrible weapons is justifiable.  The lesson we must learn from the bombing of those two cities is that the use of weapons of mass destruction is simply immoral under any circumstances and the world must work in concert to rid ourselves completely of all nuclear weapons.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Huckabee is not worthy

Mike Huckabee should be ashamed of himself but instead he is doubling down.

You no doubt heard his condemnation of the Iran deal as the equivalent of marching Israel to the doors of the oven.   Now, he is certainly entitled to his opinion of the deal.  He is even entitled to some degree of hyperbole as a candidate.  He is not entitled to such thoughtlessness if he really wants to be taken seriously as a candidate to be president of the most powerful nation in the world.  He has put himself in the same category as Donald Trump... a buffoon making inflammatory statements just to get attention.  Worse than that, he has denigrated the title "Christian" as he has shown himself to be a liar, willing to say things he knows are not true to further his own ends.  When called on his comments, he reaffirmed them.

Let's think of the implications of his statement...  He has equated our president with Hitler.  He has condemned the many thoughtful people, including the majority of Israeli citizens, who support this diplomatic attempt to solve complex problems in a difficult part of the world as naively working for the destruction of the people of Israel.  He is instead advocating yet another war (beyond negotiation, there is no other option) that likely cannot be won, condemning many families both in Iran AND in the United States to suffer needlessly while at the same time, allowing Iran to move forward with a nuclear weapons program. At the same time he is ignoring the strong safeties built into the deal simply because they do not fit his political ambitions.

Mike Huckabee has removed himself from any serious consideration as a political candidate and has called into question his right to call himself a follower of Jesus.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Choosing Faith for your child

The other Sunday we had a baby dedication at Cambridge Drive.  The reality is that we don't dedicate babies... we dedicate the adults in their lives to providing a community of caring, nurture, and education so that they may come to their own profession of faith.  That leads me to think about a statement that I hear fairly often, "We don't want to force our children into any faith tradition.  They can make their own decision when they get older." 

To an uncritical thinker, the two paths may sound very similar.  They are not.  let me give a metaphor.

"We believe that playing a musical instrument is very important.  Indeed, all of the studies show that it is one of the very best exercises for the entire brain.  At the same time, we know that playing a musical instrument is a big commitment.  It involves time to practice, money for lessons, money for instruments, and in some ways it even determines the child's friends - if for example they play in the band.  A young child may think she knows what instrument is best but she is too immature to really think that through.  Because it is so important, we'll wait until our son or daughter has graduated from high school so they can make their own decision about playing an instrument and which one."

It is of course, ridiculous.  Anyone who has tried to learn an instrument as an adult knows how much more difficult it is than learning as a child.   We also know how that brain exercise impacts the brains of young children in positive ways.  Finally, learning an instrument is like learning a language and significant bits of that learning are transferable to other languages learned later on.  It is fairly obvious that to wait until the child is old enough to "make their own choice" will simply remove the possibilities from them.  If they learn no instruments as a child, they likely will never learn an instrument.  On the other hand, if they learn an instrument and decide later on to learn a different one, they will already have many of the skills needed to make that transition.

I believe the same thing is true with regards to faith.  Without a foundation in a religious tradition it will be very difficult for a young person to make good choices regarding a path for themselves.  They won't have a language with which to describe religious inclinations and they won't have a vocabulary to enable them to make judgements regarding the value of one tradition or even one faith community over another.  If religious faith has any value, children must be exposed from their youngest days.

And there is that question too... does religious faith have any value?  There are scores of evangelical atheists out there these days telling us that religion is at its foundation a negative force.  They point to he word "faith" and smirk that it requires commitment to something for which there can be no proof.  Then they go on to list the history of religious violence.

There is no argument.  Violence has been and still is perpetrated in the name of religion.  Still, I think it would be difficult or impossible to parse out the parts of that violence that are religious in nature and which are political, economic, or cultural.   Then there have been a few cultures that called themselves atheist.  All of which I'm aware were significantly unenlightened.  

As for being unverifiable... well, I do not agree that all things of value must be verifiable.  I love my wife, my children, and my grandchildren.  Is that verifiable?  Is it quantifiable?  I think not... but it is simply one of the most important commitments in my life.

Are there reasons to believe that a religious commitment, and even more important, a religious community is important?  I think so.  I would argue that while there are clearly instances of religious violence, that most of the positive movements forward in history have had significant if not exclusively religious components. 

All of the blue zone studies have indicated that there is a very positive correlation between longevity and being part of a religious community which gives shape and purpose to life.  That is quantifiable. 
The unquantifiable part is that of my personal experience.  It has been in that larger community of faith that I have found support and challenge that has helped me to be the person I am.  Now, I know that one need not have a religious community to have community, but I see very, very few examples of the kinds of connections and support I see in a good church among my atheist friends.  They may have small connective groups but they tend to be homogenous in every way and they tend to be much more laissez-faire in their connectedness.   The churches in which I've been a part certainly have a degree of homogeneity but they have also had bits that were clearly not.  They have all included folk with different political and cultural backgrounds, ages, economic strata, educational attainments... Were I choosing them as friends, many of them would have lain outside those lines.  Because the church in effect forced me to be a part of their lives, I found myself enriched in ways that under other circumstances never would have happened. 

Finally, religious folk are more generous (again quantifiable) and I would argue that is a very important trait to encourage.  Religious faith requires one to look outside of themselves and to think of the welfare of others.  Again, it is not difficult to find toxic examples, but even then, there is often a hint of a positive side to it. 

So... I would argue that providing a positive foundation for a faith commitment is an important task for a parent and for the larger religious community.  Raise a child within a tradition.  Then, when they are ready they will choose, but they will have a foundation upon which to make a good decision.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Separation of Church and State - Tax Status

I ended my previous post with these words...
A couple of conclusions...
1. religious organizations have special status in the constitution whether we like that or not.
2. that special status leads to a unique relationship between government and religious organizations.
3. while we certainly can change the constitution, there would be consequences for such a move.  To remove the establishment or impediment clause might indeed open the door to an established religion and those who argue for the United States as a "Christian" nation, might just get their way.  At the very least, those who are part of minority traditions (possibly including atheists), could find themselves suffering under official law.
Keep those observations in mind.

In 1819, Chief Justice John Marshall of the supreme court noted, "The power to tax involves the power to destroy."  While the context of the statement was not a church state decision, the import is the same.  To grant any government agency the power to tax religious organizations is in direct contradiction to the 1st Amendment free exercise clause as it gives the government control over religion.  Again, we cannot escape the fact that the constitution gives a unique status to religious organizations that places them outside of the reach of government.  The implications are both important and far-reaching with the most obvious being that churches do not pay taxes.   Depending upon the location, churches often do pay other fees and assessments levied on property.

Some folk think clergy do not pay taxes.  Not true.  Clergy pay income tax and self-employment tax.  Due to some weird legal thing, clergy are seen as employees for income tax purposes and self-employed for payroll tax purposes.   It is true that if a clergy person lives in church owned housing, he or she does not pay income tax on the rental value of that housing.   They do pay self-employment tax though, on the fair rental value.   As I understand it,  other employees who live on property owned by the employer for the benefit of the employer such as building superintendents, college presidents, college resident assistants, military personnel, etc. receive that housing tax free as long as they meet three tests -

  1. The lodging is furnished on the business premises of the employer;
  2. The lodging is furnished for the convenience of the employer, and
  3. The employee is required to accept such lodging as a condition of employment

From what I can see, folk other than clergy do not pay self-employment tax on their housing nor is a payroll tax deducted.  So... at that point (if I'm correct) these other categories of employees actually get a significantly higher tax benefit than do clergy.  Self employment tax is HIGH.

So, it is relatively easy to justify the value of living in a parsonage as exempt from income taxes for a clergyperson as it can easily be seen to meet those three tests.  There is an additional piece, though, that comes into play for clergy sometimes known as a "housing allowance."  I don't know whether a similar benefit exists for anyone else.  I suspect that if it does, the rules are a lot more stringent than for clergy.  Clergy who own their own homes or live in rental properties can receive part of their salary designated as a "housing allowance" equal to the actual cost of housing or the fair rental value, whichever is lower. The housing allowance is not subject to income tax but is subject to self-employment tax just like the fair rental value of a parsonage. The reasoning behind this goes back to the free exercise clause.  This idea is there to equalize the ability of religious organizations which do not own housing for their leaders to exist relative to those that do own that property.  This benefit is challenged in court regularly and so far has been upheld. 

There are other implications of that unique status held by religious organizations that are also important that I may pick up in other posts at some time... I believe that the Johnson Amendment of 1954 (that is when non-profits were prohibited from making political endorsements) cannot apply to churches as that impedes free exercise.  I believe that laws such as zoning etc. also do not apply to churches.   Historically the court has said that the state must show a "compelling interest" to reach over the wall between church and state.  I would argue that the constitution requires that to be a very high bar.  Finally, I like to remind people that churches do not receive tax exempt status because of the benefit they provide to society.  Churches find their unique relationship to the state enshrined in the First Amendment.  They are not like other non-profits.