Archive - December, 2005

Time and Context

Time and context are

In the
was the Word
–John 1:1

I was reading Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time when the lectionary for Christmas day referred us to the first chapter of the gospel according to John.

Hawking discusses time and humankind’s perceptions of it at various stages of scientific knowledge, and focuses on the significance of the Big Bang theory of the birth of the universe. At a single point (was it in time, in space, in what?) circumstances coalesced and a dynamic universe exploded into existence. This explosive moment is known in physics as the great singularity.

Hawking writes we can’t know what preceded this singular event because our knowledge and experience are based on our understanding of time after the Big Bang. All knowledge breaks down before the singularity because we can’t observe, verify or test before our “time.” We simply can’t know what was before. And if there is an end-point to the universe, a return to a singularity, we won’t be able to know what comes after our time.

The concept of the Big Bang, while plausible and explainable based on our current level of knowledge, must never the less be taken to some degree on faith. No matter how we postulate, we can’t explain what led to the Big Bang that scientists believe started it all.

Pretty heady stuff, I know.

The writer of the Gospel of John, in his own way, discusses what was before creation. It’s not a singularity. This isn’t a scientific observation, it’s poetry; but it’s equally beyond our comprehension. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all the people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:1-5)

This is pretty heady, too.

As my pastor said in her Christmas sermon, this writer steers clear of the creation in six days and the manger scene with the baby and the animals in the stable. The thought here is of a different kind than the birth narratives in Matthew, Mark and Luke. It’s not inconsistent with these accounts, but it comes at the story of creation and of Jesus from a different direction. John seems to be writing with the intent of creating questions. He gives us an enigma. He’s leading his audience to consider their view of Creation and God differently by referring to their knowledge of Greek philosophy and the Hebrew bible’s view of creation as a starting place. As a result, the Gospel of John is perhaps the most enigmatic scripture of all.

I was thinking of this as I considered the debate about creationism and evolution. The tendency to reduce these complexities to headline characterizations seems unbiblical. The writer of John seems to be saying, “Friends, it ain’t that simple. Put on your thinking caps. I’m going to take you on a ride and it will change how you understand the universe and your place in it. But I warn you, there are no easy answers.”

And then he wrote, In the beginning…

We Are Not Alone

Yesterday’s post on journaiistic practices
calls for added thought.

Yesterday I was critical of a CNN report on the return of a pastor to a local church in Crawford, Texas after a stint as a military chaplain in Iraq. My criticism was that the reporter did not cite the pastor’s denominational connection nor local church.

My consternation is, in part, because such reporting is incomplete. I want to know this kind of information. (Maybe no one else does.) But leaving out such information reveals a larger cultural issue.

It frames the story as if the pastor is not part of a connected community. It’s a common theme in the culture of the United States. Individualism. The stories we tell help to define us, individually and corporately. If we are presented as individual actors pursuing individualistic goals, I am concerned that such framing undermines community and, ultimately, social responsibility. Equally damaging, it does not help us perceive that we are citizens of a global community, and If we are to survive as a species, we must come to this understanding.

When storytellers frame our narratives individualistically I think it diminishes our understanding of the human family as interconnected and interdependent. This is culturally bound reporting. It reflects an unspoken assumption rife in contemporary U.S. culture, the culture of individualism.

The biblical witness speaks of our connection to a “great cloud of witnesses.” These witnesses observe, participate in, and tell the stories that shape us. And that’s the point. We are not islands, we are connected to each other and to a history that shapes and informs us. Our story is a communal story because our faith is held within a community. We practice faithfulness in relationship to God and to each other.

Our story is rooted in community. We when fail to understand this, we tell an incomplete story and we diminish the community of faith. We are not alone.

How the Mainline Loses

Here’s an example of how the mainline loses
its presence in media coverage.

Yesterday’s television news provided an example of how poor journalistic practices result in the lack of presence of mainline denominations in major media. CNN presented a piece on the return to Crawford, Texas of a local pastor who’s been serving as a chaplain in Iraq. Crawford, of course, is President Bush’s hometown now.

The reporter never identified the pastor’s denomination, nor the name of his local church despite the fact that he was continuing his pastoral responsibilities in the congregation and he referred to their importance to him in providing him emotional and spiritual support. And he was interviewed inside the sanctuary and shown taking the pulpit and expressing satisfaction at resuming his responsibilities there.

The story lacked a basic piece of the journalistic formula: who, what, when, where, how and why.

ABC News’ did much better with a piece on a volunteer engineer and his family from the U.S. who have dedicated the past year to tsunami reconstruction in Aceh province in Indonesia. The piece situated the family, explained the nature of his work, the organizational connection to CRS, the future projections for reconstruction and gave prominent play to a teenage daughter. She explained that the needs of people in Aceh continue but are now less publicized as world attention has turned to other stories. It was, on the whole, a complete package and a better example of good journalism.

One of the realities the mainline communions face in telling their stories to journalists is this insensitivity to their wider connections. Frankly, I think it’s partly lack of understanding on the part of journalists and partly lack of completeness in storytelling.

This isn’t mere nitpicking. The failure to understand the connectional nature of the mainline communions results in stories that fail to capture to the comprehensiveness of these communions. Connectionalism is part of their context. To ignore it is to miss an important part of the story.

Plain Writing

Keep it simple.

We had dinner with long-time friends from out-of-town a couple of nights ago and the conversation turned to our appreciation for our respective pastors and their abilities to communicate complex teachings with simplicity and clarity.

My friend contends that one result of seminary education is to ruin the ability to communicate in everyday language. As seminarians are required to dissect the technical language of theology, he said, they lose the skill to talk with people about their faith in common words. He’s a seminary graduate, so he was reflecting on his personal experience.

When I went away to seminary the last words I remember hearing from my local church are, “Don’t get educated beyond your raisin’.” That meant, don’t come back using dollar words to talk to us when nickel words will do as well. But we doget educated beyond our raisin’, and we do learn to use dollar words. in fact, we have to learn these words to successfully complete the course work. The mainline churches prize an educated clergy. But most people value someone who can speak their language.

The ability to communicate clearly in understandable language is a real gift. As our knowledge grows, many areas of life become more complex. This makes writing or talking about this complexity even more challenging. In order to accommodate complexity, language becomes more specialized and technical. It becomes difficult for those of us not schooled in the specialty to understand. Specialists use language known to insiders but not to laypersons.

Stephen Hawking writes of this problem in physics. Yesterday, the New York Times technology writer, David Pogue wrote of the difficulty of writing for a mass readership that includes unskilled users and technology professionals. He tries to accommodate both by putting technical information in parentheses. The less technically savvy get the information they need but don’t get confused with unnecessary technical specs that don’t help them operate their gadget. The technically savvy get the information they need to compare performance, capacity and speed.

Faith language has fallen into the trap of fogginess. It’s very hard to find a theologian who can step from the complexities of theological discipline to talk about faith in everyday language. (In fact, it’s hard to find a theologian who even cares about doing this.) I read theologians who write of working on their latest “project” and wonder if they’re building a chest of drawers. In fact, they’re writing of their current theological “construction.” And mostly they write for other theologians.

I heard recently of a preacher in a college town who is able to communicate with the professors, blue collar folks and youth by preaching the same sermon three times; not in separate services, in the same presentation. First, he gives an academic interpretation. Next he puts the academic into colloquial language. And finally, he uses the everyday slang that he garners from his children. He effectively bridges the different languages spoken in the congregation.

All of this leads me to a couple of posts I’ll do in the next couple of days before heading off to Manila, Uganda and the Sudan.

Writing and Social Context

A few weeks ago I wrote of the importance of
context and writing. These are a few examples of the kind of writing that
explains context and helps the reader understand how culture and other dynamics
in a social context affect the lives of people.

A few weeks ago I wrote of the importance of context in reporting. Here are a few examples of the kind of writing gleaned from the New York Times that explains context and helped me understand how culture and other dynamics in a social setting affect the lives of people.

Sharon LaFraniere in Forced to Marry Before Puberty explains how poverty and patriarchy in rural Africa lead to the indenturing of young girls and often to marriage before they reach puberty. It’s a practice being banned in more and more places. LaFraniere says it results in “adolescence and schooling cut short; early pregnancies and hazardous births; adulthood often condemned to subservience.” She writes it also exposes young girls to HIV at an age when they don’t grasp the risks of AIDS. LaFraniere provides context to what is otherwise a puzzling and frustrating behavior on a continent known for its social and familial bonds.

Juan Forero explains the political context in which Evo Morales contended for the presidency of Bolivia in Elections Could Tilt Latin America Further to the Left. Free trade and U.S. drug policies mix with unproductive economic policies to alienate the poor who are in the majority in Bolivia. Morales articulated this alienation and offers hope to those who are left out of the economy leading to leftward drift common across Latin America today. Forero’s writing offers insight into this nascent political change.

Amy Waldman wrote an unusually fine four-part series on the changes resulting from a new superhighway under construction in India. In the first part, Mile by Mile, India Paves a Smoother Road to Its Future, she lays out a word picture of the social change that is rushing across India at break-neck speed and how this highway is affecting social, religious and cultural systems as well as influencing family life and living patterns. Waldman writes that the highway is “a conduit for the forces molding the new India.” Beyond its descriptive overview, her writing also captures the ambiguity of the changes the superhighway represents, and to a degree enables.

Lydia Polgreen provided a glimpse into the surreal change that oil has brought to Ebocha, Nigeria in Strangers in the Dazzling Night: A Mix of Oil and Misery. Due to natural gas flared off oil wells, darkness never comes to Ebocha. The flares light up the night sky as if the city were locked in perpetual daylight. Oil, however, has not dimmed the grip of poverty. The people remain as impoverished now as before oil was discovered. Polgreen’s article made me recall the emptiness of “trickle down” economic theory embraced so energetically by the Reagan Administration. It was a false promise then, as it is now. The people of Ebocha give witness to this hollowness by living in a town that never sees darkness but continues to see poverty as extractive technologies exploit their landscape but leave behind few benefits.

Michael Wines provides an intriguing, if frustrating, look at the failure of development to bring change to the poor in Malawi in Amid Squalor, An Aid Army Marches to No Drum at All. It’s an instructive view summed up by Wines in this short paragraph, “Government corruption siphons money and will. Global charities compete for their own pet projects, rather than cooperating on an integrated plan. Malawi hasn’t the money or political consensus to do what is needed on its own.” For those of us who hope to see poverty reduced in the developing world, Wines’ article offers hard insight into the multiple forces that conspire to prevent progress. He does a service by shedding light on the various behaviors that impede development.

Once again, Sharon LaFraniere offers a perspective about the challenges of educating young women in Africa, one that I’ve never before seen in print. In Another School Barrier for African Girls: No Toilet, she provides insight into a cultural reality that is virtually overlooked when we think of the challenges of educating African women. The absence of toilets for girls at school makes for an inhospitable environment. Embarrassment and humiliation become stumbling blocks that result in young women dropping out of school, especially as they reach puberty and the age of menses. I don’t know if this could be a tipping point as Malcom Gladwell identifies one, but something so simple as a latrine to enable privacy and sanitation might provide an environment for young women to continue their education, a key to liberating them from oppressive burdens and lack of knowledge in rural Africa. LaFraniere has provided us with unique insight.

These are but a few of the writers I’ve read recently who provide important context and, thereby, have helped me see a more complete picture of the world.

Trains, Trains, Trains

The Washington Post says trains,
specifically model trains, are not dead. The hobby is booming. And it’s adults
who are providing the growth.

Having just spent the past several days working on the railroad, I know the Washington Post’s article on model trains is on track.

Model railroads may be marketed to kids, but it’s the old guys who are buying. I know from attending a pre-Christmas train show and shopping at a couple of hobby stores. It’s Boomers who are laying down the money for laying down the “high iron.”

What’s the appeal? For me, it’s partly nostalgia. I remember as a kid delivering newspapers in the late afternoon waiting as the passenger train would pause at our little town, blocking the road. I’d see folks in the warmly-lit dining car enjoying their meal enroute to Tulsa. That seemed an unapproachable world, yet so close I could reach out and touch it. I yearned to one day be in that car.

I found setting up the model railroad an engrossing challenge. It’s physical and hands-on. The wiring is simple but frustrating. If the connections work, it’s great. If not, you have to keep tinkering until they do. Likewise, the maintenance of the cars is basic. Grease, oil and graphite. And the placement of the track involves pulling pins, soldering and screwing sections down tight.

You get your hands dirty but the payoff is immediate. So this isn’t heady stuff, it’s simple and basic.

It’s also totally different from everyday work before a computer or participating in meetings. Besides, the Lionel set we got as kids still runs perfectly after all these years. Newer models run even better due to improved electronics, wiring and motors.

I could wax literary or even artsy. Hank Williams said the train evoked the sound of a lonesome whipporwill. Johnny Cash sang he heard “the train a’callin’, comin’ round the bend, but I ain’t seen the sunshine since I don’t know when. I’m stuck in Folsom prison.” Roy Acuff got hands clapping for the Night Train to Memphis. And Thomas Wolfe used the train as a metaphor for the passage of time.

But the truth is, these things are just plain fun.

Living in Different Worlds

We all live in circumstances that contribute
to how we see the world and its peoples.

Where you live affects how you view the world and the people around you. So does your daily work environment, home life, tribal culture and education along with a host of other influences.

I became aware many years ago that we all live in different worlds and our understanding of the society around us is determined, to a large extent, by the immediate conditions in which we live.

Some years ago I was a reserve police chaplain in Kansas City, Kansas. It was a voluntary position and my stint at it was relatively brief but I learned a lot in a short time. One of the enduring lessons was how little I knew of the various worlds in which people live, even in the same city. As strange as it seems to me to today, in those days it was a revelation. Until then I had assumed my own experience was close to everyone else’s. But I learned this is not so. There are subcultures that we don’t know first-hand, and some we probably don’t know about at all. We only glimpse some through news stories or other distant, second-hand story-telling and this rarely gives us the context that informs us about why people do what they do or act as they act.

Riding with street cops led me to people and subcultures that were as foreign to me as a visit to another planet.

I am thinking about this as I reflect on the lack of understanding of globalization and the variety of cultures in which people live around the globe. We in the U.S. are amazingly uninformed about these various cultures, even as we are uninformed about the subcultures within our own country.

It’s not necessarily due to a massive character flaw. I think it has a lot to do with the size and diversity of the U.S. geographically, ethnically, socially and economically, among many other reasons.

As a nation, the United States has been relatively self-sufficient. We can travel a continent without crossing customs boundaries, and even when we do go to Mexico or Canada, it’s a pretty routine, benign process. So our frame of reference is based, quite logically, on what we know. It can’t be any other way.

I’ve been considering this from the perspective of our need to understand the importance of global challenges and our interconnection with the peoples of the world, especially the need to address poverty, human rights and health in the U.S. and globally. Do we have a clue about what some of us in the human family must do to survive on this planet? I wonder.

This leads me to hope that journalists can help create understanding by writing, or otherwise explaining, context. Journalism requires multiple skills and interpreting the culture is one of them, as difficult and risky as that might seem. It’s one way to be exposed to the differences that distinguish us in the global community.

I’ve long thought this is an area where religious communicators have both an advantage and a greater burden. Many religious organizations are extremely well-connected to the heartbeat of their communities. This connection to the grassroots puts religious communicators in position to offer important, but often unrecognized, context.

I’ve come to believe after many years in this storytelling discipline that context is critically important. Journalism that focuses on events and crisis but fails to deliver crucial context isn’t complete. The context of poverty in New Orleans, for example, became even more important than the wind and water that tipped the scale of awareness. Katrina laid bare a reality that had been buried under years of neglect and inattentiveness. Fortunately, many journalists caught on quickly and helped us understand this.

Now New Orleans contends with both recovery from the hurricane and reconstructing a social context that is inclusive and offers opportunity for everyone. How well this is done will determine the future of the city. And how well the context is understood will determine the quality of the reconstructed social order. There is a place here for those who interpret life from ground level to provide important insights about everyday folks and what is important to them.

In situations such as this we often discover how interconnected we really are. We don’t live in disconnected worlds after all.

This is a biblical concept and it runs against the grain of an “us/them” attitude that is commonly talked about today. It’s also counter to the idea of culture wars, the divisive conversation about values that is so widely presented in mainstream media. Reporting is about more than isolated events and inflammatory rhetoric. It is also about context; about where we live, with whom and how. It can help us understand ourselves as well as others who seem unlike us.

When reporting is done well, as much of the reporting from New Orleans was, we discover we are connected in ways seen and unseen, and we must attend to each other with this understanding. I hope those who report for religious audiences see their reporting in this light and provide insight, sensitivity and the opportunity for us to understand.

I’ll write more about this in the next few days.

The Improbable Christmas Story and Depression

This is a time when people are more aware of
depression. Yet, it’s also the time to remember the improbability of the
Christmas story and find hope in it.

I’ve received a couple of Christmas letters and talked with a few individuals that mentioned how depressed they are this year. Some attribute it to the course the United States has taken. Some mention the crisis in health care for the poor in the state of Tennessee. Some mention Christians who demonstrate more intolerance than peace and goodwill in this season of hope.

I understand each of these concerns. The pain these folks are experiencing is real. The evidence they cite is also real. There’s good reason to be depressed about the state of the world today. The bumper sticker is right: “If you’re not depressed, you’re not paying attention.”

But, I’ve come to the position that giving in to depression, even when the evidence is so strong to support it, is to give in to the powers and principalities and allow the dark forces a victory. And I rebel against that.

I’m not writing here of depression that’s caused by disease, serious metabolic or chemical imbalances, significant psychiatric factors or that condition known otherwise as clinical depression. I’m writing of the more common depression that afflicts millions and is treatable with cognitive therapy and medicines.

I heard an excellent sermon last Sunday on the improbability of the Christmas story. The pastor, Judi Hoffman, noted that by any measure the idea that enduring, divine love would be introduced into our lives through an unwed, peasant girl from a podunk town as she and her betrothed slept with animals in a barn, is an improbable tale.

I would add that the young couple were displaced by the demand to register for a census conducted by an occupying power, and surely Joseph would have preferred to build furniture in his shop than undertake a long walk with his pregnant bride-to-be. There’s nothing nearly so romantic in the hard realities of this story as we revere in the picture postcard trivialization of Christmas so common today. This is pretty bleak stuff.

Yet, I thought, this tale has endured the centuries and inspired a movement that has embodied compassion and hope, as well as intolerance and cruelty when followers have gone astray.

But I’m choosing to take hope in the improbability of it all, that within human experience love can penetrate the darkest thoughts and most cruel behavior, all evidence to the contrary. This is true even when circumstances seem most destructive and when those who ought to know better betray their highest and best values.

Be brave.
Be strong.
Don’t give up.
Expect God
to get
here soon.
Psalm 31:24
The Message

This a story of outsiders embraced by love beyond human understanding; a story about misfits, malcontents and the forgotten bearing witness to the best of human and divine, an improbable story that gives one hope even in the face of the bleakest circumstances.

And over the years, I’ve come to another conclusion. Depression–that condition known as “mild” depression–involves a conscious act of desicion. To be or not to be. Even when it doesn’t feel as if it’s possible to choose not to be depressed, a conscious effort not to succumb can help.

The very reasons that justify depression also call me to roll up my sleeves and get to work. People are dying in Darfur and Iraq, and a whole lot of other places. Human rights and dignity are being violated here and around the globe. Children are dying of preventable diseases that make their loss all the more tragic. This is depressing.

But this is also where the Christmas story breaks through. To give in to the nihilism of this side of reality is to miss another view of reality, the view from a stable where an unwed peasant girl, a working class carpenter and a child born with animals bear witness to divine love. In this simple, improbable story, hope rises like steam from a cold roof on a winter day. But unlike steam, it endures, animates, and inspires us. It’s not about reason. It’s about our deepest yearnings and desires, and these come to the surface when circumstances press in on us with crushing force. When we know this is not how life ought to be.

It’s improbable and counter-intuitive that when we are most vulnerable we are closest to God; that in our deepest pain the divine is not only present, but is available to transform the bleakest reality.

This story contains a call to transform and be transformed; to live as if that which denies life could be different. It’s an invitation to live as if to demonstrate how different life could be. I know it seems naive, improbable and unrealistic. And because it seems so, the rebel in me is attracted to it like metal shavings to a magnet.

When the whole world is going one direction, to choose to go in another direction is an act of defiance. I like that.

I recall the Psalmist who wrote:
Be brave. Be strong. Don’t give up.
Expect God to get here soon.

In the meantime, live as if it were already true. Remember a peasant girl, a working class guy and a baby in a stable. Maybe it is.

Values at Risk: Morals in Crisis

President Jimmy Carter writes about our
endangered values and the crisis in moral leadership in the U.S.

A few weeks ago I promised readers of this blog that I’d try to keep posts short and to the point. Haven’t succeeded, have I? If you’ve hung in there through these last several posts, thanks. I find it hard to boil down some of the complex issues and ideas to a dozen words. No doubt, I’ll not be asked to write catchy bumper stickers. I’d need the side of an 18-wheel truck trailer for some of my briefer notes. Never the less, I’m still working at limiting the length of these posts.

That said, I want to reflect on a couple of points made by President Jimmy Carter in his new book, Our Endangered Values: America’s Moral Crisis, and Ronald Heifetz (Leadership Without Easy Answers) then I’ll try to return to the pledge.

First, I’m impressed by the strength of President Carter’s words about fundamentalism. He is not an alarmist, and so when he writes that our values are endangered and lays out both a civic and a biblical rationale for his concern, it catches my attention.

His commitment to justice and compassion after leaving the White House is unsurpassed and his words carry the power of moral commitment and conviction that go far beyond partisan bickering. His strong warning leaves me pondering how to respond.

Our own well-being
would be enhanced
by restoring the
trust, admiration and
friendship that our
nation formerly enjoyed
among other peoples.
–Pres. Jimmy Carter

I hope we can return to the core social values he articulates–concern for human rights, economic and social justice, protecting the environment, addressing global warming, ending hunger and poverty, collaborating globally for peace. I also hope we can look anew at the biblical underpinnings that inform us as people of faith. While his evangelical upbringing is not universally shared in the mainline community, his dedication to open dialogue and pluralism is certainly a foundation for most religious communities in the U.S. and he clearly relies on the Bible as the source for this openness.

I confess that reading his text caused me some pain. I can’t adequately explain how heartbreaking it is to me to see how low the image of the United States has fallen internationally. In my work as a writer and video producer I’ve travelled globally for most of my adult life and I’ve never experienced the widespread disrespect with which this country’s leadership is viewed today. It saddens me because I’ve been in remote villages from Ethiopia to Kampuchea where in the past people spoke to me of their gratefulness for the U.S. as a beacon of justice when their own leaders were oppressive and trampled upon their rights. Today they’re afraid of us. To squander this hope and its attendant goodwill is truly heartbreaking.

Secondly, the former President’s description of the dynamics that led to the leadership change in the Southern Baptist Convention is instructive. He explains how a change in the language of the church’s mission statement opened the door to further changes in polity (see pp. 41-45). Coupled with a creedal statement that has become mandatory, this resulted in the elevation and empowerment of local church clergy and a few leaders as the arbiters of theology and policy in the SBC, according to President Carter.

What is instructive is that the first step toward turning away from historic traditions, including the separation of church and state, once a basic tenet of the Baptist movement, was to change the polity. His point is that polity change is not a matter of small consequence. In fact, he says this has influenced the nation as a whole by melding fundamentalist religious positions with a political agenda. (p. 41)

Finally, when he writes that fundamentalists demagogue emotional issues I think his narrative converges with Heifetz’s assessment of the role of scape-goating. Heiftez writes that it’s tempting (and sometimes it’s a conscious decision) to concentrate on matters that are not central to resolving conflict because it’s easier and less upsetting than tackling the hard issues straight on. Scape-goating deflects attention away from the core issue and onto side issues. It’s a smokescreen.

The danger in this is that while we focus on our differences we don’t attend to the matters that could move us forward.

President Carter writes of fundamentalists who are well-known in the media. They don’t have significant influence in the mainline churches. But the interesting thing to consider is how some of the same issues that are so hot in the wider culture are affecting the conversation in the mainline churches and whether the dynamics that led to change in the SBC are, in fact, transferrable. I am not proposing that they are. But reading President Carter gives me pause to think about the challenges facing the mainline churches and how we will adapt to them. Given the strength of the Baptist position regarding the separation of church and state–this was a founding value of the Baptist movement in the new world, after all–and the short time it took for fundamentalist ideology to turn away from it, one cannot assume that tradition will always inform values in a positive and enduring way.

Scapegoating and Truthtelling

When stressed we seek both relief and

It is an embarassing
tragedy to see a
departure from our
nation’s historic
leadership as a
champion of
human rights.
–Pres. Jimmy Carter

To read former President Jimmy Carter’s latest book, Our Endangered Values: America’s Moral Crisis, is a worrisome exercise. President Carter writes that religious fundamentalists and political conservatives now in power are turning away from historic values that have made the U.S. a beacon of hope for human rights and open society. Echoing a concern raised by former Senator and Episcopal priest, John Danforth, the President says, “Narrowly defined theological beliefs have been adopted as the rigid agenda of a political party.” (p 3)

“The influence of these various trends poses a threat to many of our nation’s historic customs and moral commitments, both in government and in houses of worship,” he writes. (p. 3)

…there are
three words
that characterize
this brand of
and exclusion.
–Pres. Jimmy Carter

Pres. Carter says political leaders who do not promote economic and social justice, human rights, protection of the environment, alleviation of human suffering and global cooperation are creating a moral crisis that puts the nation at risk. He writes of the hot button issues of homosexuality, evolution and abortion, among others, noting that fundamentalists “have managed to change the nuances and subtleties of historic debate into black-and-white rigidities and the personal derogation of those who dare to disagree.” (p.3)

He relates firsthand experience with the takeover of the South Baptist Convention by fundamentalist leaders, many of whom today are on familiar terms with the White House and Congressional leaders. He has left the Convention and is sharply critical of the new fundamentalism. He says, “…there are three words that characterize this brand of fundamentalism: rigidity, domination, and exclusion.” (p. 35)

In posts preceding this I’ve cited Ronald A. Heifetz (Leadership Without Easy Answers), who says conflicting values create stress. Heifetz’s theories about stress and Pres. Carter’s view of our moral crisis are more compatible than divergent.

When the stress gets too heavy we seek relief. Unfortunately, easing stress can sometimes mean diverting attention away from substantial challenges. It can mean scapegoating the less powerful in a society, for example.

The most blatant example I’ve seen is the killing of the children of the poor in Brazil. Families in the most wretched poverty in Brazilian cities live literally from hand to mouth. Often adults lack the most basic skills necessary to enter the job market and they have no financial resources to fall back on. They live in rag-tag settlements perched precariously on steep hillsides with no sewers, often lacking running water and virtually no basic services.

These neighborhoods breed crime, disease, violence and addiction. It takes heroic effort to survive such conditions and escape them.

In desperation, some families send children to the streets to beg. Other children run away from abusive situations. Still others, seeing no future in the shanty towns known as favellas, take to the streets and return only occasionally to the family.

The children get involved in drugs, theft and other illegal behavior. They are products of an economy that is failing to include all the people. It’s a difficult, complex dilemma but scapegoating children doesn’t solve it.

In fact, scapegoating the demeaned and devalued takes attention from the more significant problems that must be changed if the society is to improve in the long-term. This is the risk in focusing on hot button issues. Heifetz says the leaders–those in positions of authority and those with informal authority–must provide a “holding environment” that encourages the society to deal with values in conflict. President Carter is suggesting that, in fact, leaders with formal authority today are not providing this kind of leadership. Instead, too many are encouraging and enabling scapegoating, and that puts us all at risk.

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