Archive - July, 2005

Bad News or Good Economics?

An essay in the New York Times Book Review
presents an interesting overview of the pressures on the news media, the
influence of bloggers and the resulting attitudinal shifts in the audience for
news. It’s an instructive discussion.

Why are we more polarized in the U.S. than consensus oriented? Why do the Mainstream media seem unable to please anyone and are losing audiences to other, more specialized media? Why is Rush Limbaugh so successful? And why, given the availability of more information, are we no better informed about public policy than in the past?

An essay by Richard Posner, appearing in the New York Times tomorrow, offers an insightful discussion of these and a host of other equally intriguing questions.

Posner gives the most simplified and cogent description of the economic realities that move media toward the center or into the groove of confirming the pre-set beliefs of the audience. This looks like bias, selling out, or caving-in to to those who disagree. To those who agree, it looks like fair and balanced coverage.

Posner’s formulation of these economic pressures makes more sense than the simple argument that journalists are biased and pursuing their own agenda when they cover a story. Perhaps some are biased, but without the willing consent of their editors they can’t do much to push personal bias.

On the other hand, when economic pressures bear down on a media operation, they can cause an editor to pull punches, or to go out after particular targets for exposure, especially if those targets are ones the audience looks upon with contempt or disbelief. The coverage will confirm the audience’s biases. But Posner says this isn’t as simple as individual journalists pursuing their own biases. Much more is at stake. Revenue and audience demand, which are not controlled by the journalist, influence the direction of many media operations.

I disagree with Posner’s sweeping claim that mainstream media don’t take on certain entrenched institutions such as religious organizations. I worked at Church World Service in the 1980s when CBS’s Sixty Minutes did an incredibly biased and unfair story on the National Council of Churches. Working at CWS, I knew the story was a fabrication of a biased producer and it got past executive producer Don Hewitt and others at CBS and caused considerable harm to the National Council.

There was a concerted effort even back then to undermine this religious institution by a committed group of right-wing political writers, well-funded by right-wing foundations and enjoying the support of the editors of the Reader’s Digest, among others. Hewitt said later on the Larry King show that this is one story he regretted in his long career because he got telephone calls the morning after from what he called “redneck bishops” congratulating Sixty Minutes on the story.

I don’t have a clue about the existence of a redneck bishop and I find the use of the term “redneck” offensive. But I do know that this story marked my change of attitude toward the mainstream media. I stopped watching Sixty Minutes as a Sunday ritual and started looking very skeptically at mainstream television news.

If Sixty Minutes could be used as a propaganda tool to smear a responsible institution, then I decided I had to look with skepticism at all major media. Still do, in fact.

Posner raises concerns about integrity and credibility along with his analysis of economics and emerging new media. It makes for interesting reading.

Hope or Cynicism–It’s a choice we all can make

Mercifully, the weather cooled and we
experienced a glorious Fall day in Nashville in mid-summer. As a result, I
cooled off and have a slightly more positive take on the conflicts that divide
us as well.

Mercifully, the temperature changed in Nashville, the humidity dropped and today was an absolutely glorious Fall-like day. In the middle of summer, when it’s usually the hottest, we enjoyed a morning temperature in the 60’s and the daytime temp was in the 80s. It was a real gift.

As a result, I have cooled my thinking about divisiveness in the society and the church as well. It’s amazing what a little positive stimulus can do, isn’t it?

That’s a point worth capturing. Positive stimulus results in positive energy, more often than not. Negative thinking results in negative energy. We can choose which we participate in and which we generate.

Don’t you get more energy from conversations in which people are genuinely engaged in problem-solving that make things better than in conversations in which they are thinking defensively, protecting turf, fearful that someone’s going to get an advantage over them and concentrating on power and control? As we all must do, I participate in both in a normal day and the ones that leave me energized are those that are dedicated to making things better.

This is the real tragedy of our polarized national dialogue, and within our religious organizations. When we are under attack or feel we must defend ourselves, our energy is channelled into defensiveness and self-preservation rather than the release of positive energy which occurs when we feel affirmed. It’s when we feel safe and secure that we share thinking that solves problems and opens new possibilities.

If the “social energy,” as Rabbi Michael Lerner called it last week in the conference for the Network of Spiritual Progressives, is directed toward positive ends, it generates a whole new feeling and attitude. I think it’s time for that.

We need to put our best thinking into how to end poverty, feed hungry children, clothe those who live at the level of survival, fight HIV/AIDS, malaria and TB around the world.

We need to direct our energy to bringing peace to Iraq, Sudan, Israel-Palestine and the dozens of other places where humanity is under attack.

I’d much rather be engaged in those efforts that generate positive energy and produce positive results. And Lord knows there’s plenty of opportunity to do this. We just have to make a conscious choice to engage in those things that create the positive social energy that releases our creativity and best thinking.

It comes down to a choice between cynicism or hope. Hope is like a refreshing, cool day. It gives you energy. Cynicism, on the other hand, is more like a hot, muggy day that wears you down and drains you.

Unlike the weather, however, we can actually influence this. It’s within our ability to contribute to refreshing hope or draining cynicism. The choice is left to each of us.

Hate, Love and Christian Faith

Hateful words don’t reveal the love that is
at the heart of the Christian faith.

I’ll grant that I could be a little cranky today. As I write the temperature and the humidity in Nashville are almost identical. 97. So take that into consideration. But weather aside, I think it’s long past time to stop the sarcasm, demonization and hateful rhetoric that some people use to characterize those who don’t believe as they do.

Recently I read a note that accused a respected leader of a church group of being a baby-killer. The writer was upset because he disagreed with a woman’s right to choice. I also read comments by two leaders elected to the highest positions in their denomination. One expresses sarcasm about the work of some other folks in the church. The other criticizes another leader.

Sarcasm is not hate speech, of course. But as I reflected on these statements it occurred to me that in a coarsened and dehumanizing culture the distance between a diminishing remark and the language of hate is only a matter of degree. And besides, don’t both dehumanize the “other” and claim moral superiority, all in the name of Christ?

In fact, it’s antithetical to the way of Christ. It’s a denial of the sacredness of human personality. It poisons our attitudes towards one another and drives wedges between us. It disrespects the faith of others who don’t believe as the critic believes. It makes the world a harsher, less affirming place. That’s not the way of Christ.

We’ve seen the level of public discourse in this country deteriorate to a despicably low state. And some of that has been fostered by people who claim religion as their motivation. I don’t believe it’s necessary. Religion does not give us license to engage in personal attacks or diminishing remarks because we don’t see eye-to-eye on scripture, tradition, or theology. These differences can be frustrating. They can even make us angry. But they also make life interesting and they’re not demonic.

Here’s how I’m thinking about this today. We’re only here on this earth for a very short time. In 100 years I’ll be gone and so will all those who disagree with me. The people who take our place will be living in different circumstances and facing different challenges. If they are still fighting over issues 100 years old, shame on them.

Besides having so short a time to do our best, we have been given a marvelously wonderful universe. It’s beautiful. And the earth we inhabit nurtures us and deserves our care and protection.

A billion people will go to bed hungry tonight. 1.6 billion people in 89 countries are worse off today than 15 years ago. Eleven million children under age 5 will die this year, and the next, and the next of preventable illnesses and hunger.


Kids in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Zimbabwe, Palestine and countless other places will go to bed tonight afraid. They fear what the darkness might bring–bombs from the sky, guns bursting through the front door, explosions in the street. It’s an outrage that children can’t feel safe.

Here’s something else that really ticks me off. The state of Tennessee is dropping one hundred ninety thousand poor and disabled people from health care because the state can’t afford the costs. At the same time, the state lottery director and her staff are eligible for bonuses because Tennesseans chose to gamble away more of their money than anticipated. On her $364,000 salary the director can receive a 65% bonus, resulting in a salary of $700,000.

Am I the only one who thinks this is an outrageous sense of misplaced values?

Wonder what Amos, Jeremiah, Isaiah or Jesus would say about that?

So I wish those folks who are popping their corks would pop them about issues like these. That’s not to say that our beliefs, understanding of scripture and tradition don’t matter. They do.

But poor people matter, too. And sick people matter. Children matter. Peacemaking matters. Can we not agree on this?

And if we can, doesn’t it make sense that we spend our time trying to end poverty, getting health care for everyone, providing education and inoculations for children, working for peace, and protecting the earth?

Otherwise, we’ll just drive people away from the church because no one in their right mind wants to join up with a feuding band of religious folks.

So why are we spending this precious time fighting when we could be putting energy into creating change that will really make a difference? I just don’t get this.

I was working on a couple of articles this week and I happened to find my way to this scripture that seems unusually apropos to the current climate.

?My dear children, you come from God and you belong to God?This is how God showed his love for us: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. This is the kind of love we are talking about–not that we once upon a time loved God, but that he loved us and sent his son?My dear, dear friends, if God loved us like this, we certainly ought to love each other.?

And the writer speaks even more directly.

?There is no room in love for fear. Well-formed love banishes fear. Since fear is crippling, a fearful life–fear of death, fear of judgment–is one not yet fully formed in love. We, though, are going to love–love and be loved. First we were loved, now we love.?
(1 John 4, The Message, Eugene Peterson.)

Diversity is Important, Inclusiveness is Essential

Jim Winkler, General Secretary of the
General Board of Church and Society, delivered one of the clearest and most
cogent addresses at the Network for Spiritual Progressives. Among his points
was one that received precious little notice by other speakers, that the
progressive agenda must be owned by more than middle class white
folks.

In one of the clearest and most cogent addresses at the Network for Spiritual Progressives, James Winkler, General Secretary of the General Board of Church and Society of The United Methodist Church delivered a prophetic message to the group that must be heard if this movement is to get legs.

Winkler expressed appreciation for the quality of the experience the planners had put into this conference. It was a remarkable event that exceeded all expectations. Expecting 500 attendees, the actual number of registrants had to be capped at 1,300 due to limitations of space and availability of break-out rooms for discussion groups.

But as he assessed the future, Winkler noted that the movement must be more inclusive than the Berkeley event. The participants were predominantly white and from the Boomer generation. A small caucus of 18 to 30-year-old participants convened to discuss outreach to youth, but the issue of engaging a wider group of ethnic persons was left to Winkler raise. And he did so with sensitivity and grace, but also with clarity and urgency.

It’s a word that must be heard today if we are to overcome the politics of division and fear that the political right has practiced with such skill. It’s also necessary if we are to address another critical need, the inclusion of a wider number of participants in the national dialogue.

Winkler made a key point when he told the group that inclusiveness must be a foundation for bringing the U.S. into a more fruitful and compassionate dialogue about the future. The voices that are left out of the conversation today are not only white progressives, but also African-American, Native American, Asian and poor white folks, among others. These voices offer more than diversity, they offer life experiences and creative problem-solving that could inform the conversation and help create new solutions to social problems that are growing as a result of current policies.

He reported an interesting observation that bears further analysis. He said much of the opposition he hears in reaction to some actions of his board appears to come from middle-age and older white males. It would seem that the social dynamics that leave out the poor and vulnerable also contribute to a feeling of anger and alienation among those who have had more access to power but who are feeling left out of the conversation today as well.

I’ve heard others in completely different settings make similar observations about an underlying frustration that sometimes erupts into angry comments from this group. Likewise, I’ve heard the staff of the Commission for United Methodist Men speak of the need for particular attention to ministry with men because men are experiencing a sense of disconnection and isolation that is corrosive and harmful. This leads to frustration and anger of the type described by Jim Winkler.

It’s a changing world and the structures and actions that have worked in the past are under great stress today. This contributes to isolation and anger. What worked before doesn’t work so well now. What was valued in the past doesn’t command the same respect today. Voices that had influence often meet with distrust or are ignored today. This leaves us ripe for conflict, and for name-calling and blaming.

We really do need a wider, calmer dialogue. When so many feel so angry and isolated we must ask why. And we must seek new ways to create conversation to change the national conversation. Our national political leaders have demonstrated their incapacity to do this. If we can’t do it in the church, where will such a dialogue occur?

Jim Winkler called us to inclusiveness. He called us to address this loss of voice, not for one group but for all who feel left out. Among many good points he made, this was one that seemed to me to be a key to moving forward. If we are to create a movement of people who care for the earth and other human beings, and who look for fresh, new ways to express this concern we must be able to talk to each other. All of us. It’s a message we need to hear and to heed.

Refreshed, Renewed, Hopeful

The meeting to create a network for spiritual
progressives has concluded and it left me feeling refreshed, renewed and
hopeful.

I write this on the flight back home after four days at the conference for the Network for Spiritual Progressives.

The conference was enormously refreshing, hopeful, intense and clarifying.

It was refreshing to hear informed, intelligent, committed resource leaders from a wide range of spiritual traditions, all of whom are seeking to create a more humane and compassionate culture, out of those same spiritual motivations. To hear people who are seeking to embody the best of their spiritual traditions is refreshing.

It was hopeful because the culture of individualistic, materialism in which we live in the U.S. creates cynicism and despair. It promises more than it can deliver. It undermines the sacredness of our humanity as creatures of a loving, creative God. It defines life in material, physical terms which are, in my reading of the Bible, antithetical to scriptural understanding. Therefore, to hear rabbis, priests, Protestant clergy and other religious leaders defining life as a sacred, transcendental experience of the Great Spirit gave me reason for great hope.

The meeting was intense. The issues we discussed were not light-weight. I sat in on a workshop about bridging science and religion. It was a heavy-duty discussion, the likes of which I’ve not heard in a seminary class, ever. The intellectual questioning and searching was challenging and unrelenting. There was no place for simplistic or superficial Bible-blessed bromides in this setting. This was about authentic, deep searching for common ground and for confronting equally authentic and deep differences.

And it was clarifying. In dialogue with those from different faith traditions one’s own tradition becomes clearer. Most often, I tend to meet with those who, in one degree or another, hold views similar to my own. This leads to shorthand language and common understandings that don’t require elongated explanation. We’re enough alike that we understand each other in general, even if we differ in the specifics.

Not so if you’re in a group that includes Sufi, Buddhists, Roman Catholics, Jews, Muslims, humanists and many of the varied Protestant traditions of Christianity. In such a setting, common language must be found and terms defined. Clarity can only be worked out with careful language and intentionality.

In the final assessment, however, the conference was a reminder to me of the value of my own tradition which was born in the 18th Century teaching of the English theologian, John Wesley. Wesley taught that faithfulness to Jesus Christ requires prayer, study of scripture, emotional commitment and intellectual rigor. This, coupled with an uncompromising commitment to meeting the needs of the poor, visiting the imprisoned, caring for the vulnerable and sharing one’s financial resources with the impoverished and neglected. That’s a tall order. But this conference crystallized an understanding of this Wesleyan view of faith in a new way for me. In this diverse community I heard the clearest expression of Christian faith that I have heard articulated in a long, long time.

In our self-help culture Wesley’s message is counter-cultural if not counter-intuitive. It is a call to individual responsibility in connection with a community of those who are dedicated to study, worship and the discipline of common responsibilit–for each other and for the social order in which they live. I left believing Wesleyan thought is especially well-suited for the times in which we live because it calls us to a task larger than narrow, feel-good, self-help culture that is so pervasive today. It calls us to view the whole world as the place where our faith is expressed. It calls us to express faith through service; to be engaged with those who are left out, poor, on the margins, sick, imprisoned and vulnerable.

I leave the conference enamored with another thought. In this culture that is often so coarse, shallow and utterly material, I believe there are those who deeply want something with greater depth and purpose than popular culture can ever offer. What they want is something worthy enough, and big enough, to believe in. Something large enough to commit one’s life to.

Here’s the big thought. As a Wesleyan Christian, this means to me making a commitment to heal the earth of our environmental harm, work for peace and end poverty because personal commitment to Jesus Christ, at the level of the heart and the depth of the soul, impels one toward this lifestyle. To know Jesus is to know the face of the poor, the war-ravaged and the forgotten.

This individual commitment further impels us to collective expression of faith; to a community of faith in which we are renewed, refreshed and in which we find hope.

Scripture and Its Continuing Story

Bishop John Shelby Spong spoke eloquently
and movingly last night of the challenges of getting into scripture and
respecting the scriptural tradition of the Judeo-Christian faith
communities.

Bishop John Shelby Spong spoke eloquently and movingly to the Network of Spiritual Progressives on Thursday evening about the reclamation of the Bible by mainstream faith communities.

Bishop Spong told the group the Bible is not static. “It has always been a growing, evolving epic of a particular people” in relationship to God, he said.

He said the Bible, like all religious traditions, begins in a “tribal mentality,” but it does not stop there. It grows to define God as love and justice, not only for the tribe but for all the world.

To illustrate, he spoke movingly about the Biblical story of Hosea, the prophet married to Gomer. He explained how Hosea took Gomer back into his life after she left him and became a prostitute. Hosea’s acceptance was considered completely illogical to those around him. But the point of the prophet’s acceptance is to demonstrate God’s love and acceptance for all, according to Bishop Spong. It included a call to repentance and to return to an understanding of a God of love and justice.

Jesus took this understanding of God and expanded it further. He told us to love our enemies and those who are different from us. Paul took this further and said if you are in the Christ experience you will discover there is no Greek nor Jew. We are all part of a single family, and that is where all religion must walk.

“If this is true,” Spong asked, “why must religion lead us to walk to the past? A past that divides us and sets one against the other. The God of tribal religion is too small for our expanding world.”

He was speaking directly to the current debate about the use of the Ten Commandments in public spaces, the divided positions on gays and lesbians, and differences over a woman’s right to choose. He said the use of scripture by some to claim absolute truth for their political positions and cultural beliefs puts Biblical understanding at risk.

The Bishop said in this climate we’re in danger of losing three key truths: 1.The Jewish gift of the Torah teaching that all life is holy and there are no exceptions; 2. the central meaning of the story of Christ that every person is loved; 3. and the Judeo-Christian teaching that every person is called to be all that each of us is capable of being. No society nor religion should ever be allowed to diminish a child of God, he said.

The crowd gave him a long, standing ovation at the end of his address.

Addressing Spiritual Crisis with Hope

Rabbi Michael Lerner, leader of the Beyt
Tikkun synagogue and founder of the Tikkun magazine and community, told
participants that the political right has addressed the spiritual crisis people
feel in the materialistic society in the U.S. more effectively than
progressives. Progressives have not identified the crisis and responded to it
in a meaningful way, he said.

People in the materialistic societies of the West are experiencing a spiritual crisis because materialism cannot address the deeper needs and desires of our spiritual yearnings according to Rabbi Michael Lerner, founder of the Tikkun community and magazine of the same name. Rabbi Lerner is also spiritual leader of the Beyt Tikkun synagogue in Berkley.

Rabbi Lerner told participants in the Network of Spiritual Progressives that the political and religious right correctly assessed the feeling of spiritual crisis and offered responses that captivated those who feel their lives are threatened by the coarseness and materialism of secular society. He said those who identify themselves with progressive values have not been as vocal and effective at stating values which stand in contrast to the individualism and acquisitiveness of much of mainstream culture today.

The challenge to religious progressives, he said, is to express values that create hope and offer community to those who feel that the family is threatened, human dignity is in jeopardy and who feel left out by values that they can’t accept. He said those values include a reliance on aggression, domination and control as an extension of foreign policy.

He said the biblical view of life is that we come into the world “fundamentally connected.” “We have the capacity to be safe with others. We can be loving and compassionate.”

Some view the world as a harsh place, he said. They feel they must protect themselves through aggression, domination and control. He said the biblical view is that we see the world in awe as a mystery of grandeur and miracle.

If the world is about material values, others become important to us for what they can contribute to the bottom line. Relationships that reflect a market exchange leave us feeling alienated, incomplete and left out. As a result, he told the group that friendship is “thinner” than it has been in the past and it’s more difficult to develop relationships of trust because market values change the quality of our interactions.

He admonished the group to see people for who they are, as holy in and of themselves, and to avoid viewing others “for what they can do for you.” He said, “We need a new bottom line of love and caring.”

“We have to speak of love, kindness and generosity. Of course we’ve all been let down by others. We’ve been scarred. But as spiritual people we know our flaws and we accept that we are flawed beings. Never the less, we must come out of the closet as spiritual persons and say so in the public sphere. If we repress these values we repress this voice and the only voice heard is the voice of power and domination.”

Lerner said he is not advocating abandoning the real need for security in a dangerous world, but he said addressing the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable is a way to address conditions that foster instability.

He also proposed a global Marshall Plan in which industrialized nations contribute 5% of their gross domestic product for the next five years to eliminate extreme poverty.

He told the group that they must seek to move social energy toward a more hopeful world.

The Waning Days of the Religious Right

Jim Wallis, leader of Sojourners and a
progressive evangelical Christian told 1300 people last night that he believes
the model of the religious right is finally over and a new public dialogue has
begun.

Religion is not
a wedge to
divide. Religion
is meant to
be a bridge
to bring us
back together.
–Jim Wallis

Speaking before a packed auditorium on the campus of the University of California at Berkley, Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners, told the crowed he believes the end of the “model of the religious right is finally over and a new public dialogue has begun.”

Wallis said his view is based on a cross-country tour of more than 40 cities in which 80,000 persons have come to meet him. He told the crowd that many evangelical Christians are saying they don’t feel represented by Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson or James Dobson. A lot of Roman Catholics don’t feel represented by right-wing bishops. Mainline Christians feel they’ve been “dissed” by the media and have been left out.

Wallis went on to say that many rabbis have come to meet him, Muslims who don’t feel the mainstream image of radical fundamentalism represents the Muslim faith, and “a lot of young people who say, ‘I’m not religious but I’m spiritual and I want to be a part of the moral discourse.'”

This convergence of interests in the spiritual and in social change is much more than the rise of a counter-movement to the religious right, Wallis said. The religious right was the coopting of relgion. Political operatives struck a deal with a half dozen television evangelists for their mailing lists, according to Wallis, for a promise of greater exposure in national media. They used religion as a wedge to divide.

“Religion is not meant to be a wedge to divide,” Wallis told the group. “Religion is meant to be a bridge to bring us back together.”

Wallis was interrupted with applause several times during his speech which clearly struck a responsive chord with the diverse audience. He said the two issues that dominate the dialogue of the religious right–abortion and homosexuality–are not the only moral issues spiritual people must address. With 3,000 verses in the Bible about fighting poverty, this makes poverty a moral, religious issue. Creation and care for the earth is a religious issue. Going to war is a religious issue.

“How did Jesus become pro-war and pro-rich?” Wallis asked the crowd.

He closed by saying we have a clear choice today, to become cynical and disengage or to believe in hope in spite of the evidence and then watching the evidence change (through action to make conditions better).

He told young persons in the audience to choose between careers and vocation. Careers are the assembling of assets. Vocation is the intersection of “your gifts and the crushing needs of the world.” Using one’s gifts to address these crushing needs is a vocational choice, he said, and many young people today are saying they want to engage in change that is big enough to believe in and to commit their lives to.

Every single progressive social movement in the history of the U.S. has been fuelled by spiritual values, he said in closing.

The Source of Our Discontent

Peter Gabel, president of New College of
California and associate editor of Tikkun magazine, told a meeting of spiritual
progressives today that the greatest source of pain today in our mediated
society is social separation.

Peter Gabel, president of New College of California and associate editor of Tikkun magazine, told a meeting of spiritual progressives today that the greatest source of pain in our mediated society in the U.S. is social separation.

A climate of
fear, denial and
tentativeness is
the source of
fear and depression.
–Peter Gabel

Gable told the 1200 people attending the Network of Spiritual Progressives at the University of California, Berkley, that media practices result in “casual artificiality and superficiality.” He illustrated by recalling a newscaster in Boston who announced breathlessly, “The Red Sox win and a fire in Dorchester! Back in a moment.” The juxtaposition of the two stories left no discrimination between the relative importance of the sports news compared to the loss of homes of people in a fire.

This results in a “flattening” of meaning, according to Gabel. When the important and the trivial receive the same attention and emphasis, our sense of the value of other people and the sacredness of the world in which we live is undermined. The media substitute a casual artificiality, something familiar to all viewers of local news programming.

The parade of stories, none presented with real depth or meaning and wrapped in feigned casual banter, strip meaning from all stories. We are saturated with this kind of media. From the artificial content of of “real TV” shows, to the compressed time given to sensational stories on morning TV, to the content of local news, there is no depth that leads to greater understanding, nor content that empowers the viewer to participate in problem-solving.

In fact, Gable told the group that these media actually contribute to our sense of isolation and feelings of disempowerment. This contributes to disengagement from meaningful community.

Gable’s onto something important here, I think. It goes deeper than critique of media content to the way media shape our perceptions and values today. It’s a far more interesting concern than merely looking at the coarseness of the content. This gets to the power of content to influence how we perceive the world and related to each other. Or, in Gable’s proposal, how we don’t relate to each other as a result of the way media frame our world.

I’ll be probing this more in the future. I’ll also be writing other impressions from the conference this week.

Addictions and the Methamphetamine Epidemic

An epidemic of methamphetamine addiction is
putting families at risk and deteriorating small town and rural
life.

A frustrated small business owner in a poor town in central Oklahoma said to me last week, “This business has been a good investment, but I can’t find reliable, dependable workers. Around here they’re either stoned or drunk.”

Perhaps in frustration she overstated the situation, but the reality is that addiction to methamphetamine and abuse of alcohol are eating away at communities and families in rural and small town America like termites destroying the foundation of a house.

The meth problem has been growing for the past ten years and today is at epidemic proportions. A front page article in The New York Times on Monday, July 11, documents this scourge.

It’s creating a new group of neglected children known as “meth orphans.” In the past year in Oklahoma meth addiction has resulted in a sixteen percent increase in children in state care due to meth addicted parents. One center in Tulsa authorized to care for 30 children at a time has received 90 in the recent past, according to the Times article.

The childcare workers interviewed say it’s unlikely these children will return to their families after the parents were taken to the Austin treatment center for addiction. According to her experience has shown that once families are broken by meth they don’t get fixed. It’s an insidious, persistent addiction that leaves physical, mental and emotional damage in its wake.

Dentists, for example, have begun to identify a condition known as “meth mouth,” in which include the teeth soften into a brownish paste, destroying enamel and killing the root structure. Even among young meth users the only option is removal because teeth can’t be restored.

Oklahoma isn’t the only state facing this scourge. In Tennessee meth labs are so common the state has created a specialized decontamination unit to deal with toxic wastes left from home cooking labs.

As the Times article notes, meth orphans have increased in Oregon, Kentucky and across the Great Plains states.

Addictions ravage other communities as well. Among urban poor blacks, crack cocaine takes its toll. Alcohol abuse has been documented among Native Peoples for too many years to count. In affluent suburban communities the highly addictive painkiller oxycontin is the drug of choice.

In each of these communities the damage to individuals and families is devastating, but the toll addictions take on the poor is not only devastating, it is rarely addressed. (I am aware of the availability of many twelve step programs. But I am also aware that these programs focus on individual behaviors and do not attempt to address the social realities that feed despair such as lack of jobs, poor education and a general lack of opportunity in small town and rural America.)

This leads to questions: What drives people to addictions that are utterly self-destructive? Is life so miserable for people living at the edge of survival that abuse of chemicals is more desirable than reality? Is it a result self-medication, as some suggest? Is it a breakdown of values? Lack of personal responsibility? The thrill of clandestine underground behavior? The intense rush and heightened sexual drive that meth in particular is said to stimulate? And what about the material culture that leaves those with economic resources engaging in addictive behavior?

No single cause sufficiently explains this much self-inflicted human suffering. And similarly, there is no single, easy solution. It’s a multifaceted problem that requires multiple pathways to resolution.

In a culture of materialism that bombards us nonstop with messages reminding us of our inadequacies and stimulating us to consume more, a deeply troubling picture emerges; one in which self-esteem is undermined and the promises of consumption are more than can be delivered.

It’s also a culture that in recent years has emphasized individual responsibility while ignoring or even denigrating the traditional value of our corporate responsibility to assist the disadvantaged and protect the vulnerable. We mock the idea that “it takes a village” to raise a child. And we see community support deteriorate.

So those who are lonely, alienated, rejected, insecure, angry or confused seek solace, escape, comfort or thrills by abusing chemicals. Addiction is more than personal weakness and irresponsibility, it’s also about lack of economic opportunity, social support, meaningful work and human dignity. These are the attributes that occur in a genuine community such as a local congregation when it is at its best.

There are churches in every county in the country. Some are places where life is affirmed and meaning is received as a gift from God. Where this hospitality is lived out, and where people move from the sanctuary to the world outside to serve, they create a different world. It’s a world where people experience something deeper than the empty promises of materialism, they experience love that transcends this scourge on the human spirit and offers hope.

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