Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Islam and the Power of the Press

We have a small Muslim community in Santa Barbara.  There is a student organization at the University of Santa Barbara and a single mosque that currently does weekly prayers at the Goleta Community Center.  They've been trying to build a proper mosque for about 10 years... so goes building in this area of California compounded by the fact that it is a mosque...

It is a wonderful community of people.  Because it is the only mosque and the community is relatively small, Shia, Sunni, and any other brand of Muslim worship together.  They are comprised of folk from very conservative countries like Saudi Arabia all the way to folk from more "western" cultures like Bosnia, immigrants, students, professors, and folk whose families have been US citizens for generations.  That mix certainly has its tensions, but in large degree they work it out.  Folk from the mosque have also been very involved in the larger interfaith community, building strong relationships with Jews, Christians, Buddhists, and Hindus.  They are both appreciative of and advocates for what more than one of them has called the "genius of America" - freedom of religion.  They have also clearly condemned religious violence and spoken strongly against acts of terrorism.

When I think of Muslims, it is these folk who come to mind.  When I read statements like, "Why aren't moderate Muslims speaking out?" I shake my head and want to point to my friends. 

About a year ago, Muslims in Great Britain have begun a campaign on the web #NotInMyName and the phrase and hashtag is being used all over the world.  Yesterday our local mosque organized a march and vigil to speak out against religious violence, particularly in response to the terrorist act in San Bernadino.  They invited interfaith partners and all people of good will to be part of the event and representatives from every faith tradition and no faith tradition walked with them and stood in silence in memory of those killed. 

I'm not good at estimating crowd sizes (and we all know that pastors tend to exaggerate numbers), but on what Santa Barbarans call a frigid night, I'd guess about 300 people walked, listened to speakers, and stood in silence following the Imam as he and his congregation affirmed that Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance and that above all, they desire to be part of the larger American community.

One of the local televisions stations covered the event.  As far as I could see, the others did not.  I picked up this morning's paper - The Santa Barbara News Press - and the headline article with a large photo was that a group of students from Westmont College had gone to the Children's Wing of the local hospital to sing Christmas Carols to the ill children.  The event was not even mentioned.

Now, I have no idea how many similar events have taken place around the country or the world.  I do know that Muslim leaders and Muslim scholars have spoken out again and again against religious extremism and especially against terrorist violence.  If the press does not cover these events, how can "moderate" Muslims get their message out?  To what degree does the media feed off and support the narrative proposed by fanatics?  And in doing just that, are they not complicit?

This message and similar ones are out there...


Wednesday, November 25, 2015

A Good Guy with a Gun

Following the events in Paris, I have read multiple right wing commentators who speculated that if only Parisians had had guns, there would have been a very different outcome at the Bataclan.  Well, they're probably correct, but I don't know that the different outcome would have been a better one.

I won't argue whether or not a gun ever helps to deter crimes.  I understand there is good data that points that way but there is also good data that indicates that the very presence of a gun makes things more dangerous.  That is what I expect would have happened at the Bataclan.

Imagine the scene with me.  There is a large crowd of people gathered in a fairly chaotic place when all of a sudden one person pulls out a gun and begins firing.  Then a second pulls out a gun.  Then a third and a fourth.  How would you know who is a "terrorist" and who is not?  A fifth person, whom we know to be a "good guy," pulls a gun and begins to fire at one of the previous four, who then fires back.  If that fourth shooter was actually not a part of the terrorist group, he or she likely thinks the fifth is.  Multiply that by many people pulling guns and beginning to shoot at someone else who is shooting, all the while a number of innocent bystanders have been hit.  (After all, none of these shooters are trained to fire at real people in highly stressful situations while others are shooting back at them.) Then the police arrive on the scene only to see multiple shooters with weapons drawn, shooting at others in the panicked crowd.  How do they know who is a "good guy" and who is not?  So they begin firing as well.  Multiply all of that as the number of "good guys with guns" goes up.   What began as an horrific event has turned into the shootout at the OK corral. 

Recently in less crazy settings we have seen incidents that went horribly wrong.  There is the story of the car jacking victim in Houston a few weeks ago who was shot in the head, presumably by a "good guy with a gun" who was trying to help stave off the crime.  Instead, the victim was shot, the carjackers escaped, and the "good guy" picked up his shell casings and fled the scene, no doubt worried that he would be arrested.

I'm reminded of the meme that went around a few weeks ago... A small boy was throwing stones at other children in the school yard.  The teachers knew that something needed to be done or one of the children would likely be injured so, they handed out more stones to the other children.  That makes sense...

Adding more guns to a terrible situation does change things... but not necessarily in a positive way.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Fear and Religious Freedom

You have likely heard freedom of the press referred to as the "first freedom," because it is central to the functioning of a democracy but also because many folk think it is the first freedom listed in the Bill of Rights.  While it is part of the first amendment, it is not the first one listed.  The first freedom listed is freedom of religion.   One might argue that the order is irrelevant but I think it is not.  Freedom of religion tells us that the government has no say in the way that we order our values and shape our lives.  Freedom of speech and of the press is rendered impotent if the government first has the power to repress or support that most central of individual functions - the way we shape who we are, what we believe, what we value.  As with all of the freedoms in the Bill of Rights, religious freedom is aimed primarily at protecting those who fall outside of the centers of power - odd groups, minority groups, those who do not

Like all freedoms, freedom of religion comes with risk.  There are religious systems that by their nature are oppressive and destructive.  There are religious systems that by their very nature work against human progress.  There are even some that promote violence.  As a nation we have wrestled with the ways to deal with those issues and have decided - rightly I believe - that before the government can interfere with religious practice, it must show a compelling interest.  Fear is not a compelling interest.

Recently, because of the actions of a very small group of jihadists, Muslims have been the object of
fear and of discrimination.  One piece that comes up regularly is the wearing of burqas or niqabs which cover everything except the eyes (and sometimes even the eyes) by Muslim women.  The arguments go two ways.  One says that such treatment of women is oppressive (that is another post).  The second is more prevalent now in these days following the terrorist attacks in Paris.  It says that these loose fitting garments allow someone to hide weapons which are then easily used to commit violence and prevent others from being able to identify the person wearing the garments.

The fact that the vast majority of terrorists are men and that loose garments that cover the majority of the body are often worn by folk for very practical reasons (spend any time in northern Minnesota in January without everything being covered?) and that in many states in the US, citizens are allowed to openly carry weapons down the center of the street tells us that this is more about fear of the other than about terrorism.

It is worth understanding Muslim discussions and thoughts regarding hijab - modesty of dress for both men and women - in various Muslim cultures and theological traditions but that is basically irrelevant at this point.  Many religious groups including orthodox Jews, the Amish, Sikhs,  some groups of evangelical Christians, and some Muslim traditions have proscribed ways of dress for both women and men.  The question is whether or not the government has the power to define religious expression in terms of dress.   Perhaps a more blunt way to phrase the question is whether or not the government has the power to tell you or me what we must wear?  If some Orthodox Jew finds it offensive that my wife's forearms are showing as she walks down the street or some Amish folk think my dress is too colorful should they be allowed to enforce their religious understandings?  Should a Sunni from Saudi Arabia be able to make my female readers wear a niqab?  We would be up on our hind legs in a second if any of those enforcements were to take place.   We should feel the same repulsion at the idea that the government can make a woman who believes that her religious commitment to hijab requires her to be covered to uncover herself. 

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

An Economic Problem

I listened to most of the Republican debate last night and I have to wonder what universe they're living in... for that matter, a similar question can be raised with the Dems.

Again and again, I heard how they were going to rebuild a growth economy that would provide good, well paying jobs for Americans.  Regardless of how I feel about their tactics, the truth is I don't think that is a possibility right now.

Let's imagine the very best possible outcomes... a bunch of these big multi-national companies decide to come back to the US and build big modern factories... The fact is that those factories will hire some folk, but not nearly the number that a similar factory would have hired 50 years ago.  Automation is the word.  Robots and computers would be doing the work that Tom, Bill, John, Jean, and Sally did in the 50's.  Bob might still have a job making sure things are going well but the productivity of the individual worker is way higher which basically means that fewer flesh and blood employees are needed to produce even more goods.  As time goes on, there will likely be fewer of these jobs in the factories with more and more of the work becoming automated.  Even if those few workers did get higher pay (which in today's economy they do not), because of increased productivity, the lions share of income goes up the ladder to those who own the capital.  Labor doesn't count as capital and besides, there are scores of folk who would love to leave the fast food job for a chance at a position that pays closer to a living wage.  Of course we still need folk to design and program the robots... but those aren't blue collar jobs that pay well.

We could use serious work on infrastructure which does require skilled labor and just plain labor... but that requires bigger government and nobody is really talking about the kind of government commitment required to rebuild crumbling roads and bridges all across the country. 

Which leaves us service jobs which have grown.  The Obama presidency produced significantly more jobs that previous Republican administrations but the observation is correct, many are not jobs that provide a living wage.  The reality is that fewer of those service jobs will be needed in the near future.  Retail has rapidly shifted to the internet, putting scores of retail clerks out of jobs and moving those tasks to large distribution centers where much of the work can be automated and even that which is not requires radically fewer workers than your local Macys.  Think of it, there is no real reason that McDonalds really needs more than one or two people.  Virtually everything done at a fast food restaurant could be automated.  You could punch your order into a ouch screen, swipe your card, and wait for a series of computerized robots to provide you with a custom made burger without the possibility that someone overlooked your order or put extra pickles on when you had clearly stated none.  It won't be long until it is less expensive for a new franchise to do just that vs. hiring  real people who make mistakes, get sick, and get weekly paychecks.

So much work can be centralized.  More and more Universities are moving to online classes where a video of a professor who died a decade ago can continue to  "educate" students while, yes, computers can grade the papers.  Surgeons can use robots across the globe to perform surgeries and my insurance is rewarding customers who use online physicians.  Multi-site churches use star preachers and show the sermon on a big screen while volunteer musicians lead the worship.  One of our local wine tasting rooms has a bank of spigots on a wall with a touch pad, a description of each wine, and a card reader.  When you arrive, you receive a card with a computer chip to use at the pouring stations.  You then choose the wine you want to taste, slide your card, push the size of the taste, and hold your glass under the spigot where you receive exactly the pour you ordered.  At the end of your tastings you hand the card to the one person (not really required) who places the card in another reader that then tells you your bill... which as likely as not, you pay with a debit card swiped through another card reader.  The few places where real people are required - wait staff at a high end restaurant, a real pourer at the wine tasting room, artisan crafts, personal care givers for the elderly, etc.  - are luxuries.  We simply need fewer people to do more work... and as the technology improves, we will need fewer yet. There simply are not and will not be enough jobs out there.   And some of the work that does require real people, such as music, art, literature, is becoming devalued by the current means of distribution (digital via the internet) and those folk are less able to make a living at their work.

What all of that adds up to is that the current direction of our economy does not bode well for those without significant capital in the short term and for just about anyone in the long term (owning an automated factory doesn't do much for your bank account if there is no customer base to purchase your goods).

It really does feel to me as if we're headed to a choice between a future that looks like Star Trek The Next Generation where people spend their time doing things that bring meaning to their lives or a world like Blade Runner or The Hunger Games where the vast majority of folk live in dangerous and depressing places, just on the edge while a few reap whatever rewards there might be and live behind walls in gated, protected areas.

Now, I'll get a bit political... those who argue for smaller government push us towards a world like the latter.  That is certainly the world their current patron saint - Ayn Rand - would have advocate (think of the places in the world with "small government" like Somalia and tell me you'd really rather live there).  Even the more left leaning, worker centered views of some Democrats like Bernie Sanders just holds off that new world for a few short years.  As a society we will have to make decisions and a radical rethink of the way our economy needs to be shaped is necessary if we want to avoid that future.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Musical blessings

It has been a wild and woolly couple of weeks for me - being on vacation and then two conferences.

The second conference was the regional Folk Alliance conference called FARWest.   FARWest is essentially a trade conference for acoustic musicians and bookers.    There are workshops aimed at helping touring musicians and venues to do what they do better and lots and lots and lots of music.  The performances begin in mid afternoon and run until 2:30 in the morning... followed by an open jam session for those who still don't want to go to bed.  Add getting to spend time with old friends and make some new ones.

I have no idea how many performers there were but between the official showcases and coffeehouse and the guerrilla showcases that take place in hotel rooms, I think I saw at least 40-50 different acts.  Some literally knocked my socks off and I hope to book them for Cambridge Drive Concerts.   Some were really great but didn't seem as if they would be the right acts for Cambridge Drive.  Others... didn't click for me... which is not a swipe at the quality of the performer's art, only a statement that it wasn't my cup of tea for a variety of reasons.  Depending on how I was feeling at any given point it was either musical nirvana or musical overload. 

Then, I got home and began working on music for a gig I have this Friday (10/23) with Robin Howe and the Darin Lee Project.  They've got a full band for this gig with Grace Feldman on drums, Eric Brittain on guitar, and me on bass.  It is some very nicely crafted pop music and I' looking forward to the gig.  At the same time, it has been a long time since I've played with a full fledged rocking band... and I forgot my earplugs for rehearsal.   I'll not do that again.  If you're in greater Santa Barbara this weekend, we're at The Brewhouse at 8:30.  Stop by for some really great music.

On Sunday, I am back playing bass with our excellent church band.  We do a very wide variety of musical styles and (if I do say so myself) are one of the better church bands that I've heard, especially when you realize that our players are mostly volunteers while the big churches mostly have paid players.  IMHO we hold our own or better any of the bands I've heard.  Still, church music is not about performance.  It is about experiencing the presence of God.  I can only speak for myself there, but I certainly feel God's presence in the music this band makes.

Back to Cambridge Drive Concerts... more wonderful music.  We present on the first Friday of each month and have a great show coming up in a bit more than two weeks from this writing with Dulcie Taylor as our headline act and banjo gal, Donna Lynn Caskey opening.

All in all... I am blessed with the opportunity to hear and play some wonderful music.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Choice

No, this post i not about abortion although I think some of the arguments might be similar. 

Recently the state of California legalized physician assisted suicide.  Obviously the issue raises difficult moral and ethical questions.  I won't address them here except to say that difficult moral and ethical questions first and foremost need to be addressed by the person immediately facing them.  Of course there are social and community concerns that cannot be ignored but the struggle belongs to the individual facing the situation.

I have struggled with this question and my basic orientation always leans towards life.  My gut says that even in the most painful and difficult of times, there is something wondrous and wonderful about life and that should never be discounted.  At the same time I saw images on 9/11 that made me think differently.

We also saw peole jump from the towers to their deaths, knowing that they were committing suicide.  At the same time, death was imminent as the flames came towards them.  The choice was clearly between dying a painful death of burning or a quick one from the impact of a fall from the towers.  I don't know what I would have done if faced with that choice but I do know how I feel about burning and it is not a way that I would choose to die.  So, I asked myself, was the decision to jump an immoral one?  Did I have the right to condemn those who would choose one way to die over another, knowing that death was clearly coming? 

And so, I come to physician assisted suicide with a new perspective.  For those for whom death is clearly coming - a death that may be slow and painful and erase all that they are  - who am I to say that a choice of a quick and painless suicide might not be a reasonable decision for them to make? 

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Religious Refusals - Kim Davis

Again we see a county clerk, Kim Davis, who has made the news for refusing to grant marriage licenses to gay couples on the grounds that providing a license to them violates her religious commitments.  Here's an article on the clerk.

After the SCOTUS decision, I wrote a blog post on the issue of religious liberty and this very issue, here.    I've since thought more about the issue.  As a country we do make accommodations for religious commitments whenever possible and we should continue to do so.  The question is whether this is one of those instances.

I don't know whether there would have been an easy work around, whether the offended clerk could have easily had someone else issue the licenses, or if that was not possible.  It is ironic that the clerk evidently has been divorced more than once and has no problem ignoring that, but that is a side issue.  It is also clear that folk on both sides of the counter have decided to make this particular instance a test and that the SCOTUS has ordered her to issue the licenses.  If there had been a reasonable work around (which I outlined in my previous post), the clerk has made it impossible to access.

So, here's my new thoughts on the issue.  While we make religious accommodations, there are jobs for which no changes can be made to make it fit the religious objections of a given individual.  For example, I am a pacifist for religious reasons.  While the government did make accommodations for pacifists when there was a draft, there are clearly accommodations that could not be made.  If I were to join the military as an infantryman and then refuse to carry a weapon because using one offended my religious commitments, nobody would argue that I be allowed to go into battle sans weapons, waiting for someone else to shoot their rifle.  The job itself does not fit with my religious sensibilities.  I could not and cannot do it.  It seems that this is the case for this clerk.  The clerk's job includes issuing marriage licenses and she is not empowered to decide whether a given couple meets the criteria to receive one.  If her conscience will not allow her to issue marriage licenses to any who are legally entitled, she must resign or be fired.  It is that simple.

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.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Separation of Church & State - The Bill of Rights

Two things inspired this post and at least one that will follow it.  First, on July 4, James Dunn died.  James was one of my heroes as the director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.  James was an amazing man who was a tireless advocate for the Baptist idea of soul freedom as it related to religious liberty for all people.  You can read a short bio of James here.   He was an amazing man and I was blessed to spend the little snippets of time that I spent with him over the years.

The second piece is a recurring theme that I see on Facebook calling for churches to pay taxes.  More about this in a later post...

So, first I'd like to speak a little about the bill of rights and the ways that document impacts religious organizations. 

Often we hear of the freedom of the press as being "The first freedom."  The reality is that freedom of the press is actually the third freedom mentioned in the bill of rights following freedom of speech, and first, freedom of religion.  That's correct.  The very first freedom mentioned in the Bill of Rights is freedom of religion. 

Let me make very clear one critical observation about the Bill of Rights... it's purpose is to limit the power of government.  It defines where the government cannot tread.  It says that government may not establish religion nor impede religion.  It does not limit religious actions in any way, including involvement in political activity.  Indeed, to the degree that political activity is dictated by religious commitments, it implies that the government does not have the ability to interfere.

One other quick observation... folk often conflate other non-profit organizations with religious bodies and indeed, the laws that are often used to restrict or support non-profits are often applied to religious organizations.  It is important to note that other non-profit type organizations are not mentioned in the Bill of Rights.  Religious organizations have a special status in the Bill of Rights that other organizations, regardless of how important they might be to the function of society, do not have.  Common wisdom says that non-profits receive their status because of the good they do in society with the implication that whenever that good recedes, their status disappears.  There is no such expectation placed on religious organizations in the Bill of Rights.  Religion does not have to contribute anything to the broader society to receive its status. 

Finally, it should be realized that the concept of separation of church and state came primarily from religious groups, mainly the Baptists, Quakers, and Unitarians.  These groups championed "soul freedom," the idea that an individuals relationship with God is between that person and God and the state has no role in defining it, supporting it, or impeding it.  Thus Thomas Jefferson's famous phrase, "wall of separation," was written in a letter he sent to the Danbury Baptist Association who had written him to encourage him to enshrine separation of church and state in the Bill of Rights.  Jefferson wrote back to assure the he would include a wall of separation.  The texts of the correspondence can be found here.

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.

In the next post, I'll talk about taxes and churches...

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Marriage Equality and the non-consenting

Since the SCOTUS ruling there have been a bunch of reactions from conservative religious folk.  I have no problem with someone believing whatever they want and I fully expect that when someone has a deeply held faith commitment, they will act accordingly.  If they do not, then they are simply hypocrites. 

So here are the two problem areas... First, I hear folk, especially very conservative Christians, claiming that the government will force them to marry gay couples or they will somehow be punished.  My first question would be when has the government ever forced you to marry anyone?  If a couple comes to me as a clergy person, I decide whether or not to perform the service. If not, it may be because I do not agree the couple is ready for marriage or any other reason that I decide.  If the congregation I serve has criteria to which I've agreed, then those criteria help shape the decision.  If I served a congregation that refused to perform services for divorced persons and a couple came with one of them being divorced, the service would not be performed.

This simply is not a concern and there is no reason to believe it ever will be.  Add the question of what gay couple would want their service to be performed by someone who believes their relationship is an abomination and I really cannot imagine it ever becoming a problem.

The second is a bit trickier.  We've seen already that in some states, clerks are being advised that they do not have to provide marriage licenses to gay couples.  This is problematic in a number of ways.  First I would ask whether those same clerks are allowed to refuse a license to a couple with a divorced person?  Or a mixed race couple?  Or a couple of mixed religions... or no religion for that matter (if indeed, marriage is an institution established by God)?  All these situations trigger religious objections by some.

Then there is the question raised by the recent meme... if giving a marriage license means that you've participated in the gay marriage, does selling a gun mean that you've participated in a murder committed with that gun?  Does giving a couple a license imply anything other than that the state allows this relationship and that the employee is acting as an agent of the state (his or her job). 

Years ago I had a discussion with someone who worked for a defense company and had been condemned by some for working at a plant that produced munitions, implying that they were responsible for how those munitions were being used.  His answer was, "I didn't send the troops there.  I didn't authorize the expenditures.  You elected that government and you paid for those munitions.  Maybe you're the one who is responsible."  The argument made sense.  I think this is a similar situation.  If an individual clerk cannot fulfill his or her job, they should find a new job.  In doing that job - providing a marriage license - they are not participating in the acts that follow.

On the other hand, what about a JP or Judge who performs weddings as a part of their job?  That person is participating in the ritual in a more significant way and religious objections may have a real part here.  At the same time, the local government is required by law to provide that service.  I would argue that in those circumstances a religious exemption might make sense but that the government agency is obligated to provide someone who will perform the ceremony.  John Smith may indeed say, "I cannot do this service for religious reasons, but my colleague, Mary Jones will.  Let me get her."  Or indeed, while talking to the couple, the clerk need not even mention John Smith.  The clerk can just make the appointment with Mary Jones.  Under no circumstances can the county office say, "Sorry, we don't have anyone to do your service."  They are responsible to provide that service to all who are legally entitled to it

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

water, water... but only if you can afford it

No doubt, you're aware that much of the southwest is in a severe drought situation.  More than once I've had friends from other parts of the US remark that they wish they could send some of their excess rain here.  Well, we'd like that too.  The primary water source for much of the area where I live is a man made lake - Lake Cachuma.  The last official number I heard was the end of March and it was down to 27% of capacity.  I'm sure it is lower now and we likely won't see any significant rainfall until October.
Lake Cachuma - everything in the foreground is supposed to be underwater

As you can imagine, the government is encouraging folk to save water.  Lawns are dead.  Water thirsty plantings are either pulled out or dead.  Many folk have buckets in their showers to catch water which is then used to water flowers or flush toilets.  Folk who can have stopped their daily showers.  The old adage, "If its yellow, let it mellow, if its brown flush it down," has been taken to new extremes.  Many households have cut back water use significantly.

You may have heard about Nestle continuing to pump water from California aquifers and sell it around the country while those who live on top of those very aquifers struggle to have enough water for daily needs.  Then there are the oil and gas companies who inject huge amounts of water in injections wells or in fracking, both using large amounts of water, and possibly/likely contaminating the aquifers upon which people depend and upon which much of California agriculture depends.  We even see stories out here of farmers using the contaminated water from oil fields to water the vegetables that many of us eat.

Well there is a third group of folk that really make my blood boil.  In the grand scheme of things they don't use as much water as either Nestle or the oil companies, but the symbolism really is infuriating.  They are the folk pointed out in this article in the Washington Post - rich folk who think that because they can afford it, they should get all of the water they want and use it in any way they please, screw the poor folk who can't flush their toilets, I deserve my lush green lawn.  In April after a state order to cut water usage by 25%, the folk in wealthy Rancho Santa Fe actually increased their usage by 9%.  According to the NY Times, daily per capita water use in Santa Fe is 427 gallons.  In July, they used 644 gallons per person per day.  Compare that to San Francisco, one of the most water effiecient areas of the state, where the daily per capita use is 44 gallons.  You read that right, 9.7 times as much water per person in Santa Fe vs. San Fran.

Here is a telling quote from the Washington Post article
People “should not be forced to live on property with brown lawns, golf on brown courses or apologize for wanting their gardens to be beautiful,” Yuhas fumed recently on social media. “We pay significant property taxes based on where we live,” he added in an interview. “And, no, we’re not all equal when it comes to water.”
We're rich so we shouldn't have to play by the same rules...

Fines don't work because the folk are rich.  Social conscience doesn't work for at least some of them... I'd like to see a limit on water use... give them a number of gallons per person per household  - make it a generous allotment, say 50% more than the state average - and when it goes above that, shut off the water.  And the tanker trucks that then drive in carrying water for those who can afford to buy from them... well, make those sales illegal until the drought is over.

This is one more example where the necessities of life are being sold to the highest bidder and for those who cannot afford to compete... too bad.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Murders and Mental Illness

I've been listening with sadness to much of the discussion surrounding Dylann Roof and the murders at Emmanuel AME church.  More than once I have heard people refer to him as insane, comment about how "sick" his actions were, or describe his actions as those of a crazy person.

I want to say this as clearly as I can.  Dylann Roof's actions were not due to mental illness.  He is not crazy.  He is not sick.  He is evil and his actions were evil.  To identify him with those who are mentally ill does great disservice to those who truly are mentally ill and places them under suspicion that they do not deserve.  If murdering 9 people equals mental illness then what does mental illness equal?   If we can label this person as "sick" and then lock him away and forget him, what do we do with the truly sick people in our communities and even in our own families?

Please, please, please, do not call this evil young man crazy or sick or mentally ill... he is not.  And those who are mentally struggle enough with their illness that they do not need to be branded with suspicion of being murders.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Go Frank

Let me begin by saying that I have no problem with people of faith bringing their faith into their politics.  That is a very different thing than imposing one's faith on someone else but if one's faith does not impact the way he or she lives in this world, the way they vote, and the values they hold, then it is not worth having.  A particular faith commitment is never adequate for forming public policy but to expect an individual of faith to remove his or her faith from their deliberation on any issue of importance is untenable.

I've chuckled more than once at the way the religious right, non-Catholic and Catholic alike, has reacted to Pope Francis.  The lack of integrity is almost comical.  The same folk who cheered when the Roman Catholic hierarchy condemned gay marriage or the right to choose are apoplectic that the pope would call for world-wide economic reform or care of the earth.  They could not say any more clearly that they are fine with bringing one's religious values to political discourse only as long as it is supportive of their agenda.  So, when the pope speaks out on economic or ecological issues they accuse him of moving beyond his "religious" role and speaking to issues about which he is ignorant.  I'm especially interested in the way some Roman Catholic Republicans have so easily dismissed his teaching as being irrelevant. 

Here's the issue... Pope Francis and everything he has said and done falls so squarely in that blend of the Jesuit and Franciscan traditions that he represents as to be completely and absolutely expected.  That he chose the name, Francis, should have been a hint of what to expect.  That he is a Jesuit should have warned everyone that he would be a thoughtful activist, engaging the world.

It is no surprise to anyone who has read anything I've written that I am a fan.  Certainly, I do not agree with all of his stances - and as a Baptist, I have no obligation to - but I deeply appreciate his thoughtfulness, his courage, and the way he is pushing all people of faith forward.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Boycott?

This week Franklin Graham has called for Christians to boycott businesses that are (along with the media and gay and lesbian organizations) cramming a tide of moral decay down our throats.  Evidently this commercial from Wells Fargo Bank was the straw that broke the camel's back for him.


I have no problem with anyone deciding not to do business anywhere for any reason they choose, including some perception that a particular business is supporting "moral decay."  I do have problems when someone identifies a specific moral understanding as "Christian," implying that anyone who does not agree is simply not "Christian."

Now it is true that I am not the same stripe of Christian as Franklin Graham and indeed, I would have some difficulty using that descriptor of him - probably as much as he would have using it of me - for a whole bunch of reasons.  I am not quite ready to write off everyone who owns that name just because I disagree with them over sometimes very important issues.   There needs to be room for disagreement and the possibility of rubbing shoulders with different opinions in order for growth to take place.  It was interesting that around the same time Graham was calling for a boycott of businesses that are supportive of LGBTQ people, prominent evangelical leader, Tony Campolo, came out as fully supportive of inclusion of LGBTQ folk in the church

Back to the commercial... For a number of years our family did foster care.  We saw the horrendous situations of many children.  Some were eventually freed for adoption.  Sometimes their foster families adopted them but sometimes they did not for any number of reasons.  The older children had a much more difficult time getting "forever families" as did children with any issues ranging from emotional problems to physical disabilities.  It would not be easy to find a home for child like the one in the commercial - an elementary school aged girl who was also deaf.  The implication from Graham that somehow the little girl in the commercial would be better off languishing in foster care or an institution vs. adoption by a loving lesbian couple is just ugly.

I hope Graham follows up in two ways - first that he calls for each of his constituent families to adopt a special needs child and second, that he be consistent and refuse to do business with all LGBTQ friendly businesses.  Of course, the second step might be difficult to live out.  Eliel Cruz has included a list of 30 other major companies that, like Wells Fargo, received a 100 score from the Human Rights Campaign Corporate Equality Index .  Their list of 366 companies scoring 100 happens to include 14 of the top 20, 150 total of the companies on the Fortune 500 list.  Cruz goes on to observe that finding a national company with a zero score is virtually impossible.

His list includes: Target, Starbucks, Levi’s, Microsoft, Amazon, Ford, Home Depot, Expedia, Pepsi, Procter & Gamble, Gap, Oreo, Macy’s, Old Navy, Banana Republic, General Mills, J.C. Penney, Walgreens, Nike, Ben and Jerry’s, Google, Ebay, Orbitz, Jet Blue, Mastercard, Johnson & Johnson, Goldman Sachs, Cisco, Marriott, and UBS.  Likewise, Facebook, where Graham posted his call, scored 100.  Graham could be consistent with his stated goals and boycott all of those companies on the complete list... or he could argue that he is singling out Wells Fargo because they chose to advertise their position and so were actively cramming this moral decay down our throats.

I choose to live in a world more like the one portrayed in Wells Fargo's ad than the one for which Franklin Graham yearns.  If that equates with moral decay... bring it on.   Similar accusations were thrown at the earliest followers of Jesus.

Target Starbucks Levi’s Microsoft Amazon Ford Home Depot Expedia Pepsi Procter & Gamble Gap Oreo Macy’s Old Navy Banana Republic General Mills J.C. Penney Walgreens Nike Ben and Jerry’s Google Ebay Orbitz Jet Blue Mastercard Johnson & Johnson Goldman Sachs Cisco Marriott UBS - See more at: http://elielcruz.religionnews.com/2015/06/07/franklin-graham-calls-on-christians-to-blacklist-lgbt-friendly-companies/?email=robin%40awab.org#sthash.ru2MEuwy.dpuf

Target Starbucks Levi’s Microsoft Amazon Ford Home Depot Expedia Pepsi Procter & Gamble Gap Oreo Macy’s Old Navy Banana Republic General Mills J.C. Penney Walgreens Nike Ben and Jerry’s Google Ebay Orbitz Jet Blue Mastercard Johnson & Johnson Goldman Sachs Cisco Marriott UBS - See more at: http://elielcruz.religionnews.com/2015/06/07/franklin-graham-calls-on-christians-to-blacklist-lgbt-friendly-companies/?email=robin%40awab.org#sthash.ru2MEuwy.dpuf

Sunday, May 17, 2015

"But I don't believe what they believe..." redux

A little over a year ago I posted a piece about the theology of one of the local megachurches - Eternal Punishment and the Local Megachurch in which I questioned whether the member of that church really believe that their "unsaved" neighbors are all going to suffer eternal punishment in hell.

I had a vacation week this week and we were in town on Sunday and attended that church.  The church scene in greater Santa Barbara is dominated by a couple of megachurches and it seems that the individual congregations go in and out of style.  When I speak to the families whose children attend our nursery school and ask whether they're a part of a local religious community, about 1/2 say they attend whatever megachurch is in style at that time.  The church we attended this morning is the in style church now and it showed.  There was a line of cars waiting to get into the parking lot.  The average age was significantly younger than Cambridge Drive and there were scores of pregnant women, toddlers, and kids. The sanctuary was very full.

This morning's experience felt authentic.  I felt the genuineness of the worship leaders and deeply appreciated that.  Signage was poor.  A first time visitor could easily get lost in the shuffle but that is part and parcel of a megachurch.   There were bits of the service that literally made no sense (communion was just weird), but the biggest problem for me was the sermon.  The preacher spoke on John 12:27-33 and said the passage addressed two questions: why did the cross have to happen and what did the cross accomplish.  The sermon was consistent with the statement of faith I read a bit over a year ago.  The woman who spoke (yes, a woman) talked about the purity and justice of God requiring the death penalty and that Jesus "had to suffer for a day so we would not have to suffer for eternity."  I'll let the logic behind some of the arguments go but the theological underpinnings I find really problematic.

The preacher presented the defining characteristic of God as being purity... and the purity is so pure that it is literally immiscible with the sinful nature of humanity.  Why is the cross necessary according to the sermon?  Because God's purity requires wrath and justice, which in the case of human sinfulness equals death and eternal punishment.

I found myself wondering how many of those young mothers would pour out wrath on their children regardless of what they had done.  Earlier in the service, members were asked to share scripture passages that gave them comfort during difficult times and one quoted Matthew 7:9-11
Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? 10 Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? 11 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!
You can see the inconsistency here... especially since these words were spoken by Jesus long before the cross.

Again, I found myself wondering how many of those in the congregation actually believe in a God whose wrath is so all consuming that the only answer is the death penalty or eternal agony... and if that penalty is meted out on one who is innocent, then all the better.

Sorry... that i not the God I believe in.

I would argue that the defining characteristic of God is love and that by its very nature love is never immiscible.  Indeed, that is the very message of the incarnation.  In my theology, God's love requires forgiveness and reconciliation not punishment.  The cross is not punishment for human sin but the example of human sin and the example of love that goes so far as even to suffer.  It is God reaching out to us no matter the cost.

Just like the other local megachurch we attended a few years ago, I found myself wondering why the folk are there.  This one did feel authentic... at least it has that going for it and it is possible that much of the congregation actually agree with the theology that came from the pulpit this morning.  On the other hand, if they do not believe that message... you can draw your own conclusions.

Thursday, May 07, 2015

The problem with the police

Police violence, particularly against black men and boys is a serious issue and must be addressed.   The fact that Baltimore has a black mayor and black police chief clearly shows that police violence against black men is not so simple as blaming a bunch of white racists for acting inappropriately but race cannot be ignored as a factor (see more below).  Race is not the only issue though and as some of my racist friends are quick to say, "White people get killed by the police too." 

Let me begin by saying that for most of my ministry I have had police officers who were members of my congregations.  To a person they were dedicated, conscientious people who took their jobs very seriously and truly wanted to do the right thing.  Still, the officers I have known well struggled with the issues below.

Back in seminary I did a stint as a student chaplain in a mental hospital.  It was a formative experience for me in many ways and I learned more from my supervisor, Bob Cholke, than I could begin to share.   One thing he said was very relevant to the problems we're seeing with the police today.  After working a few weeks at Haverford State Mental Hospital, Cholke said, "Be careful... if you spend much time here, you'll see everyone as crazy."  It was true.  As I spent more time with the mentally ill folk in the hospital I began to see that they really weren't that different from everyone else I knew.  It was a short jump to seeing everyone else I knew as like them... crazy.  I think the same is true with police officers.  They spend a lot of time with bad people and it doesn't take long until they see everybody as bad.  They would argue that at times their very lives depend on seeing the worst in the people they encounter.  That may be true, but it does change the way they see everyone and the ways that they interact with the public.

Race is clearly an issue in our culture and we often characterize criminals as being people of color.  You see a violent crime drama on television and there is a good chance that the criminal is not white.  Turn it around and people of color are seen as criminals regardless of what they have done.  This happens even with police officers who are black.  Add this to the sense above that everybody is a criminal and you've got a recipe for problems. 

The militarization of the police intensifies everything.  I remember hearing a commentator watching the police in Ferguson who said that when he was in Afghanistan, he was less heavily armed on patrol than the police were on the streets of Ferguson.  When the police arrive in full combat gear, that elicits a response that is not good.  It intensifies the sense of an us/them divide.  It escalates the potential for problems.  We all know that the police are supposed to protect and serve but the military is there to engage an enemy.  Some years ago I heard Ray Bakke say that the future of urban ministry was in the hands of women because men tended to escalate the potential for violence.  The softer approach of women lessened the tensions.  How much more true is it that a heavily armed police force in full combat gear escalates things as opposed to a softer presence?

The solutions are not simple and they are not without cost.  A softer police presence may indeed make the job of the police more dangerous.  It may also make the general public less likely to suffer from violence by police officers.


Thursday, April 23, 2015

Life Gets in the Way

Bless me father/mother/brother/sister for I have sinned...

I have been really negligent of my blog recently... my last post was January 29th and the one before that was December 17th...  It isn't that I have had nothing to say.  There has been a lot going on in my life and a lot upon which to reflect.  Theologically, I've been thinking about a lot.  My work at the church is very positive these days and I'm feeling good about things there.  I've been working more at my fretless bass playing and I'm feeling really good about it.  Watching my two grandchildren grow and change really is the joy of my life and is simply transcendent.

Life is good... and full... but at the same time I find myself wasting more time these days and I'm not sure what that is about.  I'd like to be spending more time practicing bass (and find more opportunities to perform on it).  I should be writing more here and I even have an idea for a book that has been floating around for a couple of years without me doing anything on it.  I'd like to spend more time playing with Corwin and Khloe or at least be more intentional about it.  I worry terribly about both of my children and their families but really have no solutions to offer either and sometimes that immobilizes me a bit. So I have been spending too much time in completely non-productive activity (which isn't to say that all non-productive activity is bad, we do need some).

So, this post comes both as confession and as commitment to get my butt back in gear.  Check back in a week or so to see whether it has worked.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Music, Copyrights, and Money

Sam Smith has a great song getting a lot of play on the radio these days called Stay with Me and which is nominated for a Grammy.  There are two phrases (six notes) that match a song by Tom Petty which you can hear in the mash up below.


Evidently someone discovered the similarities and Tom Petty & Jeff Lynne were added as co-writers of the Sam Smith song and will receive a percentage of the song's income.  Nobody says that Sam Smith copied the line or stole anything but the other two are still receiving royalties because they own that six note phrase.

Here's the problem... as long as one stays with a single key, there are only a limited number of notes that can be placed in a limited number of orders.  Add the way that western music works and the way that pop music works and things become even more constrained. 

Here's another video mashup that shows this issue in a funny way.


and yet another one



Search for Pachabel's Canon rant on youtube for yet another....

Now, I'm a song writer and I believe that artists should own their work.  I also have a BA in music.  I remember a composition class where the prof made a statement that struck me as odd... and I expect an understatement.  She said "every melody that could possibly be written was written by the 14th century."  That is, every melody you ever heard was a copy of something written long, long ago.   I am sure that if we looked a bit we could find another instance of those 6 notes in the Sam Smith/Tom Petty song.  It is a great little line and it was not original to Tom Petty.  If you're a songwriter, everything you have ever written has already been written by someone else.  Here's the point though.  That doesn't make you less of an artist.  You still have taken those same six notes and given them new life, new meaning, and new emotional content.

So here's my rant... to own those six notes (which is what is being acknowledged here) is just ridiculous.  I would say the same thing about DNA and any number of other examples of intellectual property.  The laws need to be updated to reflect the reality of the situation. 

For a bit of fun, Jon Stossel recently wrote a column on intellectual property.  I think it is the first (and like the last) time I've agreed with him. 

FWIW, I prefer what Sam Smith does with the 6 notes over what Tom Petty did.