For The Someday Book

Posts Tagged ‘politics

Rise Up

Image from Mother Jones

Craven and cruel. That’s the only way I can describe the GOP leadership in the U.S. right now, and the unchecked decisions they are making that impact us all. As Christians, how do we respond?

First, the evidence of cravenness and cruelty: deliberately pursuing policies that break up immigrant families; offering aid and comfort to white supremacists while refusing to pursue justice for people of color; passing tax laws that increase income inequality; legislating in the interest of billionaires and corporations against the needs of everyone else; dismantling public lands, institutions and resources; attacking law enforcement and intelligence agencies who uncover crimes by those on their side, while manipulating evidence against the other party; denying health care to children for political gain; ignoring the women who accuse leaders of sexual assault and harassment; claiming faith as a reason for discrimination against LGBTQ people and women’s reproductive health; abiding untruth and advocating lies; rejecting asylum seekers and refugees fleeing violence; stripping protection for our shared air, earth and water; and so much more.

An ocean away, I struggle to know how to resist this movement toward selfishness and callousness. I’m not there to organize or intercede in the resistance movements.

But I realize one of the most important things we must be doing to fight cravenness and cruelty is to form people in the way of Christ, which demands sacrifice, compassion, love of neighbors and enemies. In order to stop this movement of brutality and selfishness, we will need people of moral courage, generosity of heart, truth-telling, sacrificial commitment, and deep kindness. We need to BE those people, steeped in those habits of love, joined together with others of many faiths and no faith, to maintain our common humanity in this time.

While I still look to engage publicly in movements of justice and peace, I am feeling a renewed passion for my original calling–to engage people in the work of discipleship. The forces of cravenness and cruelty abide everywhere around us, not just in elected officials. We must each be a counter-force of courageous compassion, in the places where we live and work as much as in the streets and legislative halls. How can we, in the church, help form people in the habits of love, equipped to speak the truth, moved to care for the earth and for one another even as those around us mock and deride those values?

With this question deep in my mind and heart, I’m planning a Lenten study and sermon series on faith practices and holy habits. It might look innocuous and apolitical to talk about prayer, service, friendship, breaking bread, bearing witness. To me, though, it seems like a return to this most basic work of formation is the strongest bulwark we can build against the urgent drumbeat of callousness, cruelty and cowardice. These practices give each one of us the tools to immediately and locally resist the forces of hate and indifference, in ourselves and in the systems (large and small) we inhabit.

Discussion welcome. Political screeds and personal attacks are not, and will be deleted.

 

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On God’s Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned about Serving the Common Good by Jim Wallis, Brazos Press, 2013, 303 pp.

OnGodsSide-Cover-Sm_0I’ll confess this up front: I have a whole bunch of mixed feelings about Jim Wallis and Sojourners. Sojourners magazine was key to helping me find my faith footing when I was emerging from my evangelical background, and I value their commitment to social justice and especially economic justice and advocacy for the poor. They do good and important work in that area–helping connect economic justice issues to emerging and evangelical Christians.  I remain disappointed at their narrow-minded approach to issues of reproductive rights and their explicit rejection of equal rights for LGBT people. That’s the basics.

On a more snarky note, I find Jim Wallis’ writing to be desperately in need of a good editor. It seems repetitive, rambling and way, way too long. What is charismatic and endearing in speeches is long and dry in print. All of that was true in this book as well. Nevertheless, this book was a gift from a church member who wanted me to read it, and it was on a topic that I wanted to read about. It may have taken me a year (and frequent stops and starts), but I made it through. I still wish it was shorter and that Wallis stopped equivocating on issues of sexuality, but that doesn’t make me want to toss it out altogether. I’m glad I read it.

Now, with all that baggage named and claimed, let’s talk about what’s in the book itself.

On God’s Side is intended to spark a new public, religious and political conversation about the meaning of the common good. Rather than creating a religious left to stand against the religious right, Wallis wants us to claim another place where we agree on shared values. “Don’t go right, don’t go left, go deeper,” he says. (5) On the role of religion and society, he lends a nuance to Martin Luther King’s understanding that religion is the conscience of the state:

Religion does much better when it leads–when it actually cares about the needs of everybody, not just its own community, and when it makes the best inspirational and common sense case, in pluralistic democracy, for public policies that express the core values of faith in regard to how we should all treat our neighbors. (6)

Instead of trying to dominate the public square, faith communities should seek to inform and inspire it. Faith communities should prefer authenticity over conformity, reflection over certainty, leadership by example and not control. (19)

Our role in the world is to offer the presence of unexpected hope–not by what we say, but by what we show in our love and care for one another and the world. (24) Wallis argues that an emphasis on the common good brings together the right’s drive for personal responsibility with the left’s drive for social justice, both of which are required for society to function well. Theologically, Wallis roots this connection in Christology, claiming that an “atonement-only” Jesus is insufficient for a “God who so loved the world.” Jesus came for the sake of the world, and we must live for the sake of the world as well. (58-61)

The rest of the book wanders back over this territory again in different ways (that repetitive, rambling thing). However, Wallis does offer a sort of theological laundry list of all the issues we could and should engage as the church–not just right or left, but issues that all followers of Jesus could unite to address. Wallis covers immigration reform, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, civility in public debate, voting rights, the influence of money in politics and elections, wealth inequality, transparency and accountability in our financial institutions, exploitative lending practices, “stand your ground” laws, homelessness, human sex trafficking, mass incarceration, and the need for stable families. Some of the stuff about families drew way too close to traditional gender norms and certainly did not address the changing meaning of “family.” Some of the rest felt like a refresher in good liberalism, which felt quite refreshing to me at this stage in my life, when I am not immersed in it.

Wallis’ power remains his ability to bridge a concern for social and economic justice with evangelical theology. This was evidenced in a special section devoted to debates about the size of government, which is an issue far more on the right than the left. His most compelling case, as always, is that faith (even evangelical faith) is not a private matter. It is for the good of the world, not just the good of an individual soul. While this book did nothing to cause me to put aside all the above-named baggage I brought into it, that baggage did not stand in the way of making this a meaningful book to read. It offered some fresh insight and depth on the role of religion in relation to the state, and renewed my perspective on how we Christians ought to be engaged in the work of social justice.

President Obama delivers his second inaugural address. (Photo from slate.com)

President Obama delivers his second inaugural address. (Photo from slate.com)

In the days since President Obama’s second inaugural, the critics have reached consensus that his speech was a forthright defense of a liberal, progressive agenda. He spoke up for the values of inclusion and equality, government programs to help the poor, and the movement of justice as drawing wider the circle of democracy. He named climate change, marriage equality, health care, equal pay and the end of “perpetual war” as among his second term priorities. It was a laundry list of passionate causes for progressives like me .

For the first time in more than a decade we heard a national politician apart from Ted Kennedy make a public case for these values. My heart soared at the trinitarian invocation of “Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall,” three benchmarks in the struggle for equality for women, African-Americans and GLBT people. I am grateful to the president for making the case for a progressive agenda in the face of a reactionary right-wing party, and I pray that his work giving voice to these concerns will translate into action, legislation and real impact in our nation.

This critical analysis of the president’s words is not intended to denigrate his progressiveness as “not good enough,” as measured by some ideal standard. It is not a plea for political correctness. Instead, it is an argument that language matters in the struggle for justice and equality, and an attempt to use the president’s speech to demonstrate how language can include and exclude in the most subtle ways.

Just as there were moments in his speech that made me feel like at last my worldview had a voice in the political arena, there were also moments that left me feeling marginalized and set apart as “other.” Ironically, these were often the moments designed to be inclusive. In these phrases, the president’s words exemplified a common pattern I call “unconscious Othering.” Unconscious Othering happens when attempts to promote equality for historically oppressed groups actually reinscribe their marginality.

Here is the example that set me on edge in the speech:

For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts.  Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law – for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.

The president demonstrated his support for equal pay for women and equal marriage for GLBT people–two issues very close to my heart. However, the way he phrased his commitment made me feel sidelined instead of included. Why?

First, the phrase “wives, mothers and daughters.” This rhetoric appeals to men, inviting them to support women’s equality based on their love for the women closest to them, their wives, mothers and daughters. However, in making that appeal to men, women get reduced to their roles as wives, mothers and daughters–shutting off the fullness of our lives as a professionals, creators, agents and full persons outside our place in the family.  Men are people first; husbands, fathers and sons secondarily. Women are wives, mothers and daughters first; maybe after that women can also be something else. Women who are not wives and mothers cease to matter outside of a perpetually juvenile status as daughters.

Second, the use of pronouns. The president says “our wives, our mothers and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts,” and “our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law.” The pronouns “our” and “their” create a dynamic of “us” and “them.” “Our wives, our mothers and daughters”  and “their efforts” imply that the “our” is male, and women are “they.” Women may deserve equal pay, but do not simply belong to the “us” that delivers it. GLBT people may deserve equal marriage, they may even be elevated to treasured status as sisters and brothers, but they are still not part of “us.”

Quite unconsciously, the president’s words on equality have reinforced the idea that women and GLBT people are Other, different, outside the norm of “us.”

A look at "we the people." (Photo from the Union Leader)

A look at “we the people.” (Photo from the Union Leader)

Here is another example:

We must be a source of hope to the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the victims of prejudice – not out of mere charity, but because peace in our time requires the constant advance of those principles that our common creed describes:  tolerance and opportunity; human dignity and justice.

If “we must be a source of hope to the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the victims of prejudice,” then the poor, the sick, the marginalized and the victims of prejudice are not a part of “us.” They are Others, for whom we must care and provide, but they do not belong to “we, the people.” It is subtle, but this unconscious Othering, even in the name of promoting equality and justice, serves to reinforce existing distinctions and their accompanying discrimination.

The president’s own place as a member of a historically oppressed group added an intriguing dynamic to these remarks. When the president says “we,” he includes himself and all other African-American men in the “us” instead of the “them.” That is a huge step forward, and not to be taken lightly. I was moved to consider the great strides and sacrifices that made it possible for an African-American man to lay claim to the power of that “we.” Yet I also recognize that he could also have claimed the “we” for more of us.

How could the president’s words have done that? Here’s are some sample rewrites.

For our journey is not complete until men and women both earn a living equal to their efforts.

For our journey is not complete until our daughters have the same opportunity as our sons to earn a living equal to their efforts.

Our journey is not complete until the love between a man and a woman, between two women or two men is treated equally under the law…

Our journey is not complete until, gay or straight, our relationships are recognized equally under the law…

We must be a source of hope to one another, when we are poor, or sick, or marginalized, or the victims of prejudice – not out of mere charity, but because peace in our time requires the constant advance of those principles that our common creed describes:  tolerance and opportunity; human dignity and justice.

In the above rewrites, the “we” includes those groups awaiting justice, rather than demanding equality while still drawing the “we” in such a way that they are not a part of it.

This unconscious Othering happens all the time. Its subtle ways of reinforcing privilege can easily go unnoticed. The president’s speech offered such a clear example that I wanted to use it as a chance to illustrate the problem, especially since it came in the context of attempts to be inclusive, not tokenism or attempts to exclude.

Can you think of further examples of unconscious Othering? How can we think more critically about our use of pronouns, and the lines of “us” and “them” we subtly draw in our speech?

I heard an interview on NPR’s Talk of the Nation last week with Louis Michael Seidman, author of a controversial New York Times editorial and forthcoming book entitled On Constitutional Disobedience. Seidman is a constitutional law professor at Georgetown whose editorial was called, “Let’s Give Up on the Constitution.”

The basic thesis is this:

Our obsession with the Constitution has saddled us with a dysfunctional political system, kept us from debating the merits of divisive issues and inflamed our public discourse. Instead of arguing about what is to be done, we argue about what James Madison might have wanted done 225 years ago.

Seidman argues that good government requires that we commit to certain principles (e.g. free speech, equality under the law) not because a document requires them, but because we all agree they are important. Notice he does not attack the Constitution or its contents, simply the obsession we have developed with adherence to the document and its principles, or the principles of its authors.

constitutionAs one might expect, his editorial has elicited a dramatic reaction, mostly negative. At the opening of the NPR interview, Seidman spoke about hundreds of e-mails he had received, the majority of which are abusive. Many include virulent anti-Semitism and some even threaten physical violence. The anger and hatred are clearly disproportionate to the weight of the editorial.

Seidman summarized his argument in the editorial—that we who are current residents of the country should be free to decide for ourselves what kind of country to have, not be beholden to a group of white men who lived more than 250 years ago. Host Neal Conan responded with a question that led to this exchange:

Conan: If you start ditching some parts because you don’t think they’re right, then how do you then make sure you keep the parts that you do think are right?

Seidman: …Over the years we’ve ditched many parts of the Constitution. There are lots of provisions that are not obeyed. And what we need to do is just acknowledge that fact and talk and make decisions for ourselves about the kind of country we want to live in.

Seidman went on to cite examples of sections of the Constitution we disregard, but it was in that exchange that I realized the connection. I have heard that exact conversation many, many times before, with a minor adjustment:

If you start ditching some parts of the Bible because you don’t think they’re right, then how do you then make sure you keep the parts that you think are right?

Over the years we’ve ditched many parts of the Bible. There are lots of provisions that are not obeyed. (Fill in the blank here: keeping a kosher diet, insisting that women cover their heads, mixing fibers, etc.)

I would argue that what Seidman is encountering in the harsh responses to his work is not hyper-patriotism, it is another variant in the wider worldview that is fundamentalism. Instead of fundamentalist interpretations applied to the Qu’ran or Torah or Bible, they are applied to the Constitution. The anger, defensiveness and either-for-us-or-against-us politics of Seidman’s harsh attackers resembles the decades-long rhetoric and practice of fundamentalist movements.

What-is-fundamentalism-300x199Fundamentalism traces its origins to a Christian reaction to modernism, but the term’s use has broadened to incorporate similar trends in other religious and theopolitical movements. To my knowledge, however, it has not been used to describe a non-religious political position or to describe the right-wing movement in the United States that understands themselves as defenders of the Constitution. However, a closer examination reveals that the sentiment represented by Seidman’s detractors, by some within the Tea Party, and by other right-wing coalitions maps on to the characteristics of other fundamentalist groups.

Karen Armstrong, in her landmark history of fundamentalism The Battle for God, does not give a definition of fundamentalism, but follows the lead of Martin Marty and R. Scott Appleby’s Fundamentalism Project and offers a set of characteristics of fundamentalist movements.

They are embattled forms of spirituality, which have emerged as a response to a perceived crisis. They are engaged in a conflict with enemies whose secularist policies and beliefs seem inimical to religion itself. Fundamentalists do not regard this battle as a conventional political struggle, but experience it as a cosmic war between the forces of good and evil. They fear annihilation, and try to fortify their beleaguered identity by means of a selective retrieval of certain doctrines and practices of the past. (xiii, adapted from Marty & Appleby)

Those who seize upon the purity of the Constitution also practice a kind of spirituality. They see central values like freedom, democracy, independence and patriotism (all narrowly defined) under threat from outside forces. Their inerrant scripture is the Constitution, and they appeal to the era of the founding fathers as the authoritative and idyllic.

The most important insight to remember when understanding fundamentalism is that it is a new phenomenon, in spite of its appeals to the past. Fundamentalism is a reactionary move against modernism, a way to fight the cultural changes that threaten former ways of knowing and living. Armstrong distinguishes between mythos and logos. Mythos is the truth that gives meaning to our daily lives. In pre-modern societies, it was the primary form of truth, and never intended to be taken literally. Mythos connects our experiences to timeless, eternal realities larger than ourselves and our era. Logos, by contrast, is the “rational, pragmatic and scientific thought that enabled men and women to function well in the world.” (xvi) Logos looks to control the environment and pursues new ideas and technologies. The pre-modern world placed mythos as the primary form of truth, but embraced logos as well. The modern world has all but dismissed mythos, and taken logos as the primary form of truth.

Fundamentalism is a particular and peculiar reaction to this modernity that seeks to take mythos and turn it into logos. As the mythos no longer matches the logos of science, they shore it up by trying to claim it is logos. For example, the story of a six-day creation in Genesis is a myth. Its primary purpose is to tell us that the world is God’s creation, that it is good, and that we humans were also created by God and reflect God’s goodness. It is a story about meaning. Fundamentalism takes that mythos and makes it into logos by arguing that the story of creation is a factual scientific explanation about the beginning of the universe. It is not even a return to something old (which would be a pre-modern coexistence of mythos and logos, with mythos as primary), it is a creative, novel reaction to modernity.

300px-Washington_Constitutional_Convention_1787One example of this kind of American Constitutional fundamentalism can be found in conversations about the Second Amendment. It has reared up strongly in recent weeks as the country talks about gun control in response to the shooting at Newtown, Connecticut. Many who resist gun control consider themselves defenders of the Second Amendment, and they grow agitated at any suggestion that we might want to control access to certain kinds of weapons or ammunition. Rather than making an argument about how access to those weapons nurtures a free society, they believe themselves to be beseiged, drawing dramatic lines between “us” and “them,” “real Americans” and those who should “leave the country.” Claiming to be standard bearers for the Constitution, this group of gun advocates appeal to the document and the founding fathers, and dismiss any who disagree as unpatriotic, unfaithful to the Constitution, and underminers of liberty.

Just yesterday, a Tennessee man named James Yeager made the news for posting videos on YouTube threatening to “start shooting people” if they tried to take away his guns. His interview with a local television station contains all the characteristics of fundamentalism listed above. Below is the raw interview with the local television station, in which he initially tries to calm his rhetoric, but eventually gets more agitated. (If you don’t want to watch the whole thing, at least watch the section starting around 2:10, where he talks about shooting people to defend the Constitution. You can also watch the edited news story here, which includes clips from his original YouTube postings.) Since that time, the state has withdrawn his gun permit in response to his threats, but as of this writing there has been no attempt to collect his weapons, and we do not know if he intends shoot people if they do.

Mr. Yeager is not unique. The rhetoric he spouts and the appeal he makes to the Constitution can be found throughout right-wing organizations in the United States, including the Tea Party, NRA, and the conservative radio, television and blogosphere. They are another form of fundamentalism, alongside Christian, Jewish and Islamic fundamentalist ideologies. Just as within faith groups, not everyone who is a conservative member of those groups is a fundamentalist, but fundamentalism is a unique segment found within those groups.

Many of us in faith communities have struggled against fundamentalist perversions of our faith for many years, but they persist and even seem to grow stronger. I’m not sure we have much to say that will open up the conversation or create useful common ground to move forward. However, it seems helpful and insightful to identify the parallels between the rhetoric around religion and politics, and to name both as fundamentalist in their reactionary characteristics.

Tonight, just across town, on the campus where my husband teaches, Indiana Senatorial Candidate Richard Mourdock said the following:

Life is a gift from God, and even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.

My friends, Republican or Democrat, this post is not about politics, even though everything is political and I think this should impact how you think about your vote. This post is not about abortion, even though I strongly support access to safe and legal abortion as a fundamental aspect of securing women’s health and safety. This is a post about theology, and it is written from my pastoral heart, with care and concern for people hurt by misguided, dangerous theology. (Although, as always, posts here reflect my own views and do not stand for the views of my wonderfully diverse congregation.)

Hear this loud and clear:

GOD DOES NOT INTEND RAPE.
RAPE AND VIOLENCE ARE NEVER GOD’S WILL.
GOD DOES NOT DESIRE SUFFERING FOR SOME GREATER GOOD.

If you are a survivor, God did not send your rapist to hurt you or test you or teach you or punish you or improve you. God did not sacrifice your body and your safety and your security, even to bring the most wonderful child into the world. A human being acted out of violence, power, rage or some other sinful place to hurt you. God did not intend for you to be raped.

There can be no equivocation there. God does not afflict us. So where is God in suffering?

The heart of the Christian story deals with just this concern. The cross plays a central role in our faith, and it is a symbol of suffering caused by violence and power.  Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross showed us that God does not desire our pain to obtain salvation, that God does not require our blood sacrifice, that violence is not God’s way, and that God will pursue justice and peace even unto death.

Three days later, our faith proclaims that something miraculous happened—God took the tools of violence and destruction and transformed them into Easter resurrection and new life. To say that God made new life out of something horrible, whether a rape or a cross, is to proclaim that God can overcome anything. God can take the worst this world has to offer, and God can make hope and new life. God can take a murder on a cross and create resurrection. God can take a violent rape and create a beautiful child.

That does not mean that God intends murder and rape. God does not cause horrific things to happen to us in order to make miracles. That’s not sanctified, it’s sadistic.

That also does not mean that every pregnancy resulting from rape is a gift from God. Not even every non-violent conception is a gift from God. To declare that every pregnancy is intended by God conjures a cruel Master who shows only disdain for the suffering it inflicts.

  • Imagine a woman who becomes pregnant as a result of rape. Forced to carry an unwanted child to term, she is unable to begin her healing until the pregnancy is over. Even if she gives the baby up for adoption, she must live with the physical reminder of her violent trauma every day. Every kick, every contraction, every moment of labor causes her to relive the rape again in her mind. Instead of lasting for a night, her trauma lasts for nine months.
  • Imagine a woman who already has three children. Her fourth pregnancy puts her own life in danger. While her unborn child may or may not survive, she will not. Her older children will be left motherless. The children’s father will be unable to provide for them without her income, and they will likely be separated into foster care.
  • Imagine a woman trapped in a violent relationship. She has a plan to get out, but she discovers that the partner who abuses her has also conceived a child in her womb. She knows she cannot escape if she is pregnant, and that this violent man will have parental rights to the child even if she leaves him.

Some women would claim God’s new life in these pregnancies, no matter the circumstances. They will love and raise the child with joy and faithfulness. Others would claim God’s new life and possibility in the freedom to terminate a difficult pregnancy and claim the value of their own lives as God’s beloved. They will live their lives with purpose serving God in other ways. In neither case does God intend the suffering to get to the new life. In both circumstances, God can heal and redeem the suffering by bringing new life.

Deuteronomy 30:19-20 says:

“Today I have given you the choice between life and death, between blessings and curses. I call on heaven and earth to witness the choice you make. Oh, that you would choose life, that you and your descendants might live! “

I believe that sometimes the choice to end a pregnancy is a way of choosing life—life for the mother, life for other children, life free from abuse. God can make new life out of terrible things, but we cannot always equate God’s new life with an unborn child. We cannot know how God will work in a woman’s heart, nor can we know the path of life in every situation. I stand firmly against the use of speculation about God’s intentions to legislate forced pregnancy.

Above all, this is clear: God does not intend violence. Rape is not part of God’s grand plan. Neither is forced pregnancy part of God’s will. God comes to us in Christ so that we “might have life, and have it more abundantly.” (John 10:10) The prayerful discernment about what it means to choose to “have life, and have it more abundantly” belongs to each woman, her own womb and her own conversation with God—not our legislators.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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