Archive - October, 2006

On First Impressions

First impressions are not
necessarily reliable.

Writing about my first impression upon returning to Maputo after several years absence, I posted that things don’t look as if they’ve changed. Well, writing about first impressions can be a mistake.

In fact, much has changed. I listened to United Methodist Bishop Machado of Mozambique brief an episcopal delegation preparing to call on the President of Mozambique. He spoke of hospitals receiving beds and materials in the countryside, and schools being supported by the government. His on-the-ground perspective is a judgment I respect and value. As the episcopal leader of the church in Mozambique he is in position to raise issues to levels of government where they are heard, so his assessment is much more valuable than any outside impression.

Today is an historic day in the country. A major hydroelectric dam is being handed over to the government of Mozambique from Portuguese operators, a sign of considerable progress on many fronts.

So I’m glad I was mistaken. And I’m even happier that Mozambique’s leaders are addressing issues that will make for higher quality of life for the people of this country. They’ve been through the furnace of war and the vast majority live now under conditions of poverty that are stifling to the extreme. The government needs all the recognition it deserves when it does things that make life better. And it doesn’t need superficial critique from folks like me from outside who don’t struggle with these conditions daily. So I’m contrite and wiser.

European Human Rights Centre

The European Human Rights
Centre offers a variety of voices from around the world.

I received a nice note from Daniel at the European Human Rights Centre requesting a link to Perspectives. The Centre is a non-profit organization focussing attention on human rights and its website aggregates content from a variety of people around the world.

I’ll link to it as soon as I can do so safely. I’m a bit afraid to change code while on the road. (In a bit of a dicey situation with bandwidth reliability.) So, the link above will take you to the website and I’ll make a link in the sidebar of this blog under better conditions.

Fighting Poor Planning and Malaria

Poor planning is hurting the
fight against malaria.

Poor planning, lack of infrastructure and general disorganization are hampering efforts to fight malaria according to an article by Celia W. Dugger in today’s New York Times.
This quote summarizes the most salient point however: It is no secret that mosquitoes carry the parasite that causes malaria. More mystifying is why 800,000 young African children still die of malaria per year– more than from any other disease — when there are medicines that cure for 55 cents a dose, mosquito nets that shield a child for $1 a year and indoor insecticide spraying that costs about $10 annually for a household.

The article makes the case for a more effective delivery of health services. It also lays out the need for better planning to get medicines, nets and pesticides to the people who can make use of them.

None of the problems are insurmountable. The death toll makes it urgent, however, that the problems get resolved and more effective delivery of services begins immediately.

Communication to Build Community

I was asked to post my
remarks to the United Methodist Association of Communicators about the role of
communications in community organizing today. The remarks are posted at the link
below.

I spoke last week to the United Methodist Association of Communicators, a professional group who work on communications within The United Methodist Church globally. I was asked to post the remarks and have put the manuscript in a file in this link. Go to the link and select the file UMAC 2006. The file can be downloaded.

Thy Kingdom Come

NPR’s Linda Wertheimer
interviews Randall Balmer, author of Thy Kingdom Come. He contends the religious
right is distorting Christian faith in blind allegiance to the politics of the
right.

“I don’t find
much that
I recognize
as Christian”
(in the
religious right)
–Dr. Randall Balmer

Politics have highjacked evangelical Christianity, according to Dr. Randall Balmer, professor of religious history at Columbia University and Barnard College and a contributing editor to Christianity Today. Balmer was interviewed by NPR’s Linda Wertheimer on June 23.

“They have taken something that is lovely and redemptive and turned it into something that is ugly and retributive,” Balmer says in a quote on the NPR website.

In a revealing interview he relates querying eight religious right organizations about their positions on torture and received no response from most. Two replied that they support the Administration. One of those is the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a persistent critic of several mainline denominations. In an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Balmer writes, “Its president worried that the ‘anti-torture campaign seems to be aimed exclusively at the Bush administration,’ thereby creating a public-relations challenge.”

He continues, “I’m sorry, but the use of torture under any circumstances is a moral issue, not a public-relations dilemma.”

Balmer’s latest book is Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts Faith and Threatens America.

Affordable Computers for the Developing World

Low cost, full service
computers for users in the developing world hold the potential for connecting
the most distant villagers to the worldwide web.

While in Nairobi colleagues and I met with Aaron Sundsmor, Nairobi-based Director of Programs for First Voice International.

We talked into the evening about the potential for using community radio, cell phone networks and low-cost computers to deliver information to people who are isolated and information poor. First Voice is doing a remarkable job making digital media more accessible to poor villagers.

I note that Matt Carlisle in his blog points to an Information Week feature article about low cost computers being developed for users in poor countries. MIT is perfecting the $100 laptop, a sturdy, basic laptop designed for rough handling in remote villages.

One of the ironies I experienced on my last visit to Kisumu, Kenya is standing with Benta Atieno Ogonyo, leader of the Koriato Women’s Group, as she explained the work of the demonstration plot while clutching a cell phone. The irony is that the plot has no electrical hookup. The women use a car battery re-charged by a solar panel for an electrical source.

When I was in Kisumu last, almost two decades ago, it was connected to Nairobi by road and a government-operated landline telephone system that was, for Africa in that day, relatively efficient. But it was far from convenient and a long, long way from accessible to rural villagers.

Driving into the Koriato project, Peter Odengho, development specialist, told us it was selected because it is nearly inaccessible and during the worst of the rainy season even bicycles can’t get there easily.

Today, however, it’s connected by cell phone and First Voice’s satellite services. Tomorrow it will likely be on the web. And still, it’s off the grid.

Social Isolation in the USA

The General Social
Survey which tracks core discussion groups and the social networks through which
we relate indicates we’re more isolated than ever.

The number
of people
saying there
is no one
with whom
they discuss
important
matters
has nearly
tripled.
–General
Social Survey

The bowling alone syndrome may be growing according to the General Social Survey. The survey measures the “core discussion groups” Americans use. Simply put, it measures with whom we talk–family and friends–and it identifies the social networks in which our conversations take place. It was first conducted in 1985.

Based on this year’s research, it appears we’re more isolated than ever. The researchers who conducted the report say it’s possible something fundamental is changing in the culture. They hedge a bit in identifying what this change may be, or what it foretells.

They suggest that new communications technologies may allow us to expand the reach of our conversations, but caution that this doesn’t necessarily result in the same depth of relationship that comes with face-to-face contact.

We really don’t reach out and touch someone through Internet or cellphone contact in the same way we do when we sit together around the same table.

This presents communicators with a dilemma. How does technology encourage or discourage community? Are we, in fact, undermining community when we implant technology into communities that have relied upon personal contact for communication? This becomes more than a conundrum as we seek answers to the questions raised by this survey.

Given the reality of pervasive media, the demand is put to us to determine how we can utilize media to foster community. When The United Methodist Church began its outreach effort known as Igniting Ministry, which was a training initiative coupled with television and radio advertising, the perception in the church was that the advertising component was the defining element. It isn’t.

The key to Igniting Ministry is how it prepares a congregation to review its life together and become a more welcoming and hospitable community. The Christian tradition teaches that we are created to be in relationship. We are created for community. I believe it was from Neil Alexander of The United Methodist Publishing House that I first heard the phrase, “We belong to God, and to each other.”

The key to meaning in our lives, we believe, is to experience relationship with the Creator and with our brothers and sisters through the mediation of Jesus whose teachings and self-sacrifice reveal the depth of relationship a loving God seeks to have with us.

Through this unique relationship we find meaning. We discover who we are and how we can most meaningfully experience life. Outside of that experience, Christian teaching says we are incomplete.

Some have made individualism a cardinal principle of their values. Following the formative philosophy of John Locke, they see individualsm as the highest state of human existence.

But, I think Augustine’s thought that sin is the state of separation from God is more descriptive and accurate. Sin is a state of unrealized community with God.

How does this get into a blog about media and culture? I think in this way: When major media are placed at the disposal of commercial interests, they serve the function of separating us. In the hands of those who want to sell us goods and services, they are merely tools for commercial enterprise.

The most effective way to sell to us is to focus on our individual needs and concentrate on creating desire for those products and services. This inevitably involves a process of indivualization; emphasizing our individualism to a degree that isolates us and leaves us alone in the world. This is the state of unrestrained individualism.

Ironically (perhaps) some of the more popular television programming targeted toward young adults who have grown up in this culture are those programs that provide a facade of community–the recently expired Friends, Sex in the City, and Will and Grace, for example. I think Marshall McLuhan said when something is no longer relevant, we turn it into an art form. (And if he didn’t say, he should have.)

Thus, the loss of community as a vital function is honored through the art form of television, perhaps providing us some consolation as we sit alone watching the artifice of community on the screen.

What this says to the Christian community is more complicated than we tend to consider. The mainline denominations, for example, concentrate on their loss of membership as if what were at stake, and most important, is the survival of the organizational church. In fact, what is at stake is the spiritual condition of people who exist outside a community of support and outside a relationship to the Creator and other human beings. What is at stake is the human community and a full understanding of what it means to be human.

Viewed in this light, membership statistics pale in importance, don’t they? The challenge is not merely to bring new members into the church for the sake of the survival of the organization. The challenge is to create community in which people are assisted to comprehend that their destiny is to be related to each other, the Creation and a loving God. How we use media is fundamentally a theological concern.

Social Change: Religion, Television and Automobilies, and a few more

“The paradigm is
shifting” is an overused phrase, but “The paradigm is
shifting.”

The principal sin
of neoconservatives
is overbearing arro-
gance. It is not so
much that they have
ever been wrong. It
is that nobody has
ever convinced them
that they have been
wrong.
David Keene
American Conservative
Union

(In NY Times Multimedia
see link to Graphic for a
collection of quotes)

As NBC announces it will cut 700 jobs and change its primetime strategy, a group of conservative Christians prepares to go to court to defend a mutual aid-type payment plan for health care, and Chrysler, anticipating another big quarterly loss, plans more cuts.

It’s cliche’ to say, “The paradigm is shifting,” but the fact is, the paradigm is shifting. In each of these examples underneath the public discussion is a basic reality–the old way of doing things is changing radically. We can try to dress it up in other clothing, but the organizational models of the past century are worn and tattered and they are being challenged to put on newer style.

NBC, as virtually every other mainstream media operation, must contend with the cost of acquiring content for news and entertainment as viewers move to digital media. Much of the content delivered on the Internet is free. In an article in the NY Times, Jeff Zucker, CEO of NBC Universal Television says, “I don’t know if it is irreparably broken, but the economic model is under a tremendous amount of pressure.” Another article on newspaper revenues discusses the challenges print media face, and they are not dissimilar to broadcasters.

I hear this everywhere I turn. Old systems are under pressure. It’s change or die, according to some analysts.

The evangelical mutual aid association Christian Care Ministry, gives members the ability to share in paying medical costs. A story in the Times, reports it isn’t an insurance company but some regulators say it acts like one, and it’s beyond their regulatory oversight so they’re pressing legal challenges. But underneath the legal particulars is a broken health care model in the United States. Given the opportunity, some opt out and others are excluded because they can’t afford insurance. The old model is broken.

The U.S. auto industry slept through the market sensitive practices of the Japanese automakers and continued to rely upon the same formula–producing vehicles that gave them greater profit while ignoring the growing demand for low-cost, fuel efficient models. While some automakers attribute their problems to high wages and health insurance, the handwriting has been on the wall in form of Japanese and Korean calligraphy for a long time, but they didn’t read it.

I don’t think it’s far-fetched to view the turmoil in religious communities today through this lens of paradigm shift. As the paradigm changed with the Protestant Reformation, the encounter of enlightenment with post-modern is creating swirling changes that haven’t yet reached their fulness and probably indicate that religious people are in for some interesting and unsettling days ahead.

The debate among religious conservatives and their counterparts in the political right reveals fractures in the coalition that has served them well for the past two decades. But beneath the obvious political differences is a deeper issue–which values are enduring and should be retained and which can give way to new understandings of faith in the 21st. Century?

Political analysis is inadequate. The need for an anchor in a world of change leads to claims for religious verities. In an age of anxiety, this is not surprising. Nor is it surprising how divisive the claims are. Religious folks are saying some pretty horrible things about others who differ with them, even their allies. I read the criticisms by evangelicals of Brian McLaren, the emergent church architect, and I wonder how he absorbs these strong words. A conservative independent seminary training United Methodist students fired its conservative president recently in a manner that will besmirch the institution for years. And at least one theologian in the United Methodist Church has made a career of sharp theological critique and his detractors roll their eyes while followers love him. Across the religious spectrum ferment and nastiness are evident.

Lines are being drawn, true believers are lifted up, and those who don’t measure up are cast aside. As the paradigm shifts and people become uneasy with the loss of certainty, they struggle to preserve what worked in the past and, in some cases, they devour each other.

Some days the only theologian I want to listen to is Tom T. Hall.

The Killing of Christian Leaders Continues in the Philippines

Extrajudicial killing continues
in the Philippines.

Another church person in the Philippines has been shot dead by masked men on motorcycles. This is a common tactic that has taken the lives of human rights workers and church persons for the past several months and there seems to be no end to the death and suffering.

This note was sent by Mervin Toquero of the National Council of Churches of the Philippines:


Dear Friends,

Greetings of Peace in these troubling times!

In less than a month after our brother Noli Capulong was brutally killed,
another church worker of the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines from
Oroquieta City (Northern Mindanao) was gunned down by motorcycle-riding
killers on Saturday, 17 June.

Tito Marata was the provincial officer of
the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines and a member of the Farmers for
Agrarian Reform Movement. Tito is the 17th church activist killed since
November 2004
(please see list below).

The killing of Marata happened a
day after the Arroyo Government committed one billion pesos (USD 1 = PHP
53) for an all-out war to end the communist insurgency in two years or
less. Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez on the other hand declared that loss
of lives is unavoidable if the government will crush the Reds. “You can’t
avoid collateral damage… Sometimes there are bombings and civilians might
get hurt,” Gonzalez told the Inquirer newspaper.

With this appaling development, we once again appeal to you to continue
praying for our country and to send petition letters to your Foreign
Ministers, the Philippine Government, and the Philippine Commission on
Human Rights to put an end to the killings of church people, peace
advocates and leaders of people’s organizations.

Attached are three sample
petition letters
for your reference.

CONTAK Philippines has launched SPEAK Now Campaign (Stop Persecution and
Extra-Judicial Killings Now in the Philippines) last month and we have
produced a Campaign Kit (Primer on the Killings of Church People, Stories
of the Martyrs, Prayer Guides, Petition Letters and Postcards, Posters).
If you are interested to receive a copy, please send us your address and
contact information.

We sincerely appreciate your support and solidarity to our campaign to stop
the killings and to find justice for all the victims.

Respectfully yours,

Lei Garcia
Executive Director
CONTAK Philippines

17 Church People Killed

1. Isaias Manano (UCCP) 28 April 2004
2. Joel Baclao (UCCP) 10 November 2004
3. Juancho Sanchez (UCCP) 16 November 2004
4. Vicente Olea (UCCP) 23 November 2004
5. Abe Sungit (UCCP) 5 February 2005
6. Fr. William Tadena (IFI) 13 March 2005
7. Alfredo Davis (UCCP) 15 April 2005
8. Rev. Edison Lapus (UCCP) 12 May 2005
9. Rev. Raul Domingo (UCCP) 20 August 2005
10. Jose ‘Pepe’ Manegdeg III (RC) 29 November 2005
11. Junico Halem (UCCP) 6 December 2005
12. Mateo Morales (RC) 24 January 2006
13. Nestor Arinque (UCCP) 7 March 2006
14. Rev. Jemias Tinambacan (UCCP) May 9, 2006
15. Pastor Andy Pawikan (UCCP) May 21, 2006
16. Noel Noli Capulong (UCCP) May 27, 2006
17. Tito Marata (RC) June 17, 2006


CONTAK Philippines —
(Church Office for International Network in the Philippines)
2/F UCCP National Offices
877 EDSA, West Triangle
Quezon City PHILIPPINES

contakphilippines@gmail.com


As a member of a delegation to the Philippines that spoke with government and military leaders January 3-6, 2006, we sought to press the point that church missionaries working with the poor are not communists or terrorists. This rationale has been used to justify extra-judicial killing in the Philippines. Many of these killings have gone un-investigated. Others have been justified under the murky reasoning stated by Justice Secretary Gonzalez above.

I have posted sample letters in the file Philippines Sample Letters which concerned persons can use as models to write to officals.

No News is No News–The Daily Show and the Nightly News

Research by Dr. Julia Fox at
Indiana

University
reveals that in 22 minutes of news coverage during two weeks
during

the 2004
political conventions only one and a half minutes were devoted
to

“substantive
political news.”

Research by Dr. Julia Fox at Indiana University reveals that in 22 minutes of nightly news on television during the two weeks of the 2004 political conventions, a mere one and one half minutes were devoted to “substantive political coverage.”

Reported on the Tom Paine website, the research also examined political coverage on The Daily Show and found that while the comedy program devoted more time to political stories, when the time for humor and stunts was factored in it was no better by comparison.

Writer Rachel Joy Larris says voters need crucial information about candidates and these media cannot deliver substantive information in such small time capsules.

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