Archive - May, 2007

Bednets, Malaria and Poverty

The critique of Nothing but Nets falls short of
considering the whole picture.

The critique of Nothing But Nets, the grassroots organization providing bed nets and training to African mothers to prevent malaria falls short for several reasons. First, all the materials for Nothing But Nets that I’ve had something to do with does, in fact, state that several methods should be employed to protect children from mosquitos that bear the disease. These include residual spraying, wearing long-sleeved shirts in the evening, cleaning up water breeding grounds, using bed nets and providing training in proper use.

In addition, the global health initiative of The United Methodist Church has always stated Nothing But Nets is one component of a much larger and more comprehensive effort to tackle all the diseases of poverty–malaria, TB, HIV/AIDs. To focus on one disease, or one methodology for ending these diseases is inadequate. Beyond treating disease, The United Methodist Church has worked to reduce poverty and has interpreted and educated church members about the need for direct intervention with people on the ground, providing the necessary resources, including bed nets, medications, training community-based health care workers, building clinics and hospitals, providing information by radio and other communications channels, and working to change public policy in the U.S. and globally.

The church has been active in combatting poverty and providing healing for 160 years in Africa. We’re not newcomers to this work, nor naive in carrying it out. In fact, the church is present with people in places that others haven’t yet recognized. And we work in conditions that others shy away from and we don’t seek media attention for validation. We’re not expatriates, we’re local people on the ground. Many of our brother and sisters stay in areas that expatriates must leave because of danger or other hardship.

We’re rebuilding hospitals, schools and universities that have been destroyed by insurgencies and civil conflict. They’ve been destroyed more than once and we’ve rebuilt more than once. We didn’t just stumble into this, we’ve been doing it for a long, long time. We believe in staying power.

And we know that nets are not enough. They are one intervention among many. They work. They are immediately accessible. They are affordable. Moreover, nets have provided us the opportunity to raise awareness in the U.S. and other parts of the world to a need that has gone unaddressed for decades. Children didn’t just start dying of malaria, we’ve known about it and heard calls from our leader in Africa for years. And we’ve sought to bring it to global awareness. Nets are giving the handle to do this.

But we don’t stop with talk about nets. We talk about poverty and ask why people are still dying from diseases that have been conquered in the affluent world. We present our people with information about how to help, from providing nets to volunteering to studying public policy and advocating for change. We are working to mobilize 13 million United Methodists to make global health a priority concern for the foreseeable future. We know there is no short-term fix to tackling the diseases of poverty. We know we’ll have to fight these diseases one child at a time, one day at a time until the job is done. We are asking the people of The United Methodist Church to engage this struggle because we believe it’s the right thing to do and in following the teachings of Jesus who was known as the Great Healer, it’s essential to our faithfulness.

Media Matters: Skewed Representation of Religion in Major News Media

A new study by Media Matters demonstrates that
religious conservatives get much more media exposure than mainline

My first reaction to the Media Matters survey of religious coverage in the media, Left Behind: The Skewed Representation of Religion in Major News Media, is Wow! I have long thought conservative voices were getting more media time, but never had the data to prove it. Now we do.

I recall a Larry King program that featured three religious conservatives and nary a voice from mainstream, moderate or progressive religious perspectives. Viewers might understandably think these were the voices of the Christian community. But so far as we know, they were the merely the only religious voices invited. So it goes. The media have given exposure to the evangelical right for so long it appears this is the sole Christian voice. It isn’t. It isn’t even a majority voice. But you couldn’t tell it from the guests on the talk shows and the quotes in the print media.

Here are three key findings from the Media Matters survey:

  • Combining newspapers and television, conservative religious leaders were quoted, mentioned, or interviewed in news stories 2.8 times as often as were progressive religious leaders.
  • On television news — the three major television networks, the three major cable new channels, and PBS — conservative religious leaders were quoted, mentioned, or interviewed almost 3.8 times as often as progressive leaders.
  • In major newspapers, conservative religious leaders were quoted, mentioned, or interviewed 2.7 times as often as progressive leaders.

Media Matters concludes, “Despite the fact most religious Americans are moderate or progressive, in the news media it is overwhelmingly conservative leaders who are presented as the voice of religion. This represents a particularly meaningful distortion since progressive religious leaders tend to focus on different issues and offer an entirely different perspective than their conservative counterparts.”

This study could be a landmark. For years mainline voices have been left out. If this study results in an attempt to achieve balance in the media, it could start a change that more accurately reflects the diversity of the religious voices in the country. Let’s hope so.

Is True Religion Possible with Religious Ignorance?

Are Americans the most religiously ignorant
people in the Western world?

Susan Jacoby’s review of Religious Literacy by Stephen Prothero makes a point that’s not surprising but is certainly depressing. Only a third of people surveyed could identify who delivered the Sermon on the Mount. Less than half know Genesis is the first book of the Bible.

Ignorance of religion abounds. I recently heard a quote from Shakespeare attributed to Jesus, and Prothero reports that 10% of the people believe Noah’s wife was Joan of Arc!

The increase in religious ignorance is most likely a product of the culture. We’re watching screens more and reading less. Screens convey more information than we can absorb and we’ve become adept at filtering out those messages we’re not interested in and sometimes we miss those we want to consider.

We are left with impressions, but not depth. Our “knowledge” is a mile wide and an inch deep. Television newscasts call a minute and a half story “in-depth” coverage.

Several years ago we learned students couldn’t read a map, nor find the states in the union. Then we discovered they couldn’t identify key historical facts, such as when the Civil War occurred or who fought the Revolutionary War. Some don’t know what the Bill of Rights is.

Because religion is such a powerful platform for action–positive and negative–religious ignorance is not benign. It’s dangerous.

Moreover, if religion is to provide us meaning and purpose, it can do so most effectively when we are informed and able to express belief as both experience and substance. Religion informs values that are the basis for living. Faithfulness demands we study religious precepts in order to understand the values that guide our actions.

Jacoby reports that Prothero believes religious ignorance can be reversed and he offers suggestions to accomplish this. The need for religious literacy should be abundantly clear. And the time to start recovering it is now.

The Great Depression and World War II: American Memory

The Library of Congress exhibition of color
transparencies of the Depression and WW II era is fascinating and

For reasons that are a mystery to me, I am fascinated by the history of the U.S. during the Great Depression and the era that includes WW II. Perhaps it’s because it’s a coming of age period, the in-between time of childhood innocence moving toward hard adult experience. I don’t know.

I discovered the Library of Congress exhibition of color transparencies, America from the Great Depression to WW II recently and it’s a feast for the eyes.

I knew about the collection of black and white photos in archives in Washington, D.C. I once spent an afternoon thumbing through these images. It was close to being in heaven. The Farm Security Administration and the Office of War Information gave photographers (and writers, too) assignments to document U.S. life during these times of great social struggle. The result is some of the most fascinating social documentation in the history of the country. Some, such as Dorothea Lange’s image of a destitute migrant mother with six children who was a pea picker subsisting in a camp in Nipomo, California, have become icons.

But I was not aware that both FSI and OWI have color transparencies in their collections. It comes as a delight to see these color photos. I’ve posted four here but if you’re like me and you get into this period of our history you might want to go to the online exhibit and look at the whole collection in gallery view. The images are not only a delight, they are a good remembrance on this Memorial Day.

Is the Christian Right Fading?

In the aftermath of Jerry Falwell’s passing
narrow focus groups may be fading.

With the death of Rev. Jerry Falwell, there is no single leader to claim the mantle for the evangelical right, according to an article by Alan Cooperman in the Washington Post.

The cultural movement that gave rise to high profile leaders such as Falwell is changing with a new generation of younger people who see war and peace, and the environment as critical issues to be confronted. Dr. Randy Brinson, founder of Redeem the Vote, an organization to register young evangelical voters, told Cooperman, “The groups that focus only on a narrow agenda, especially gay marriage and abortion, are going to decline.”

Coming from an evangelical leader, this word is notable. The strident voice of the evangelical right personified in Falwell, according to the Cooperman article, is on the decline if not disappearing altogether.

There may be data to support this, I haven’t given it much attention. These voices have been passe’ for quite some time among the vast majority of moderates who are concentrating on much wider and more comprehensive agendas like the environment, poverty and health. Falwell and Pat Robertson both seemed to peak a generation ago. They got coverage in part because the Bush administration gave them access and because they willingly made outlandish claims the media loved to cover. But they never spoke for the majority of Christians and they were useful to the politicos only to the degree that they could activate voters on wedge issues.

As the world heats up, war drags on, and health and poverty continue to kill, the wedge issues aren’t working so well. Younger evangelicals coming of age inhabit a different world than Falwell and Robertson, and as all younger generations, they’ve developed a different world view. They have gay friends. They know this issue isn’t the make or break issue that global warming is.

I don’t think this means the demise of stridency and judgmental Christian partisans. Knowing they are on the decline, I expect we will hear stronger words and witness even more aggressive attempts to reclaim position. The struggle to restore civility is only beginning. We’ve a long way to go before we recover a public discourse that is less polarizing and divisive.

But, those who want to see this discourse happen should take heart, and concentrate on the work of healing the wounds opened by strident political rhetoric. We face challenges that are much more intractable and urgent. I think that means we need to keep our focus on those urgent issues and take them on. We’ve been diverted in the past by the wedge politicians–secular and religious–and the time has come to bid the dividers adieu and get on with more important work, like saving the planet and saving lives from the preventable diseases of poverty.

Archbishop Tutu on Anglicans Extraordinary Obsession with Gays

Archbishop Desmond Tutu says African Anglicans
are obsessed with gay issues and are “fiddling while Rome burns.”

Archbishop Desmond Tutu says African Anglicans are obsessed with gay issues and they are not confronting the pressing issues the church should be concerned about–HIV/AIDS, Zimbabwe’s plight under President Mugabe, and the crisis in Darfur. Speaking to the BBC, Tutu said the Anglican communion is spending too much time debating gay issues and same sex marriage while the continent groans under the burdens of AIDS and corruption. Tutu called the debate an “extraordinary obsession.”

An Upright, Charitable and Discreet Conversation

The United Methodist Church is engaged in a
conversation that follows the prayer of its founder, John Wesley

may all our
actions be
… spirited
with zeal,
and all our
regulated with
and our
…void of
all guile,
and joined
with perfect
integrity of
–John Wesley

The United Methodist Church is engaged in a conversation that reflects a prayer its founder prayed in the 18th Century. But it isn’t an artifact of history, it’s as current and relevant as today’s news.

John Wesley prayed in the 18th. century for an “upright, charitable and discreet conversation” among the people of the Methodist movement. His words ring prophetic in our climate of indiscreet, uncharitable and truth-bending spin.

If we could have the conversation Wesley prayed for we would benefit from mutual respect and we would hear each other even if we don’t agree on every point. A conversation of this quality holds the potential for changing this wonderful, vital faith community with a storied history. While some partisans don’t want us to have the conversation in this respectful way, it has begun in some parts of the church anyway. It needs to be carried further by fair-minded clergy and laypersons in local congregations. It should be a grassroots conversation about the whole church and how it conducts relevant ministry today.

It should go beyond issues that divide and recall the practices, beliefs and disciplines that unite. I’ve heard excitement about the Nothing But Nets program to provide bed nets to mothers in Africa. It’s excitement unlike anything I’ve seen in recent years. This is a unifying activity that gives us life. It’s the kind of action that makes a difference in a constructive, life-enhancing way.

I’ve also heard positive comments about four initiatives proposed by the general agencies of the church that will reach out to young people, create new faith communities, fight poverty and tackle the diseases of poverty. These four are causing talk, and action. They unite. In fact, what unites us is much deeper and stronger than those things that we differ about. But it’s hard to know this when the divisive voices that get the attention are loud and shrill, and we have our share of these.

We don’t need to sweep our differences under the rug. But to be fair to ourselves we need to acknowledge what we’ve got in common with as much energy and appreciation as we discuss those few issues about which we differ. We hold much more in common than we recognize and concentrating only on the divisive issues, we lose our perspective. Most of us don’t get energy from arguing, we get energy from doing the right thing. And actions like Nothing But Nets and the four actions above are right things.

We also need this perspective today because the urgent needs of the world continue and we can make a difference as we are called to do as Christians. We have a responsibility to the world, to ourselves and to our Creator to not be diverted from creative, constructive service by arguing over things that the vast majority of us think should not divide.

We need an upright, charitable and discreet conversation.

(My thanks to Judy Smith of The United Methodist Publishing House who first called this prayer to the attention of a working group on the State of the Church 2007. The prayer can be found online at this link. It is available in print as well: “A Collection of Prayers for Families,” The Works of John Wesley (Jackson Edition), Volume 11, p. 249)

Deny not, O LORD, the desires of those souls, who would offer up themselves entirely to thy service; but preserve us always in seriousness of spirit. Let the sense of our weakness make us watchful and diligent; let the sense of our former negligence excite us to be fervent in spirit; and may the goodness of thy commands render us fruitful and abundant in the work of the LORD. O that all our pious affections may be turned into actions of piety and holiness: and may all our actions be so spirited with zeal, and all our zeal so regulated with prudence, and our prudence so void of all guile, and joined with perfect integrity of heart, that adorning our most holy faith here, by an upright, charitable, and discreet conversation, we may receive praise in the day of the LORD, and be numbered with thy saints in glory everlasting.

Turf Wars and Winning-at-all-costs:Chrysler and Falwell

I hear that people are tired of the
win-at-all-cost behavior and turf wars.

Someone said to me recently, “Don’t you get tired of turf battles?” I must admit I do. Another conversation pointed out that the public discourse today has devolved to a win-at-all-cost strategy. The speaker said the idea of discourse itself is being re-defined by behavior that makes winners and losers. No room for compromise. Two different issues, but both affect our lives in community. As I read the analysis of the Chrysler purchase and the epitaphs of Rev. Jerry Falwell, I thought about how the two really do affect us personally.

I recall an op-ed by Matt Miller several months ago in which he said “90% of political conversation today amounts to dueling talking points.” And he asks, “Is persuasion dead?”

If it is, we can’t hold much hope for our civic life because this is an alienating state of existence. It’s a constant state of battle in which one side must win by defeating the other with no room in the middle for considered discussion. As an old debater, this is a sad state. I know it dates me, but I recall when debate really meant assembling data and presenting a compelling case with the goal of influencing a moderate, thoughtful audience to accept it. It was informational give-and-take that was persuasive as well. It’s hard to find that today. And we’re more polarized as a society because of it.

Turf wars are common, and they are fought tenaciously. Even when they bring down the organization, people hold on to their turf. I read the USA Today coverage of the buy-out of Chrysler by Cerberus and the first point one analyst makes is Chrysler must: “Have the guts to ax anybody more interested in turf than success.”

Apparently turf continues to be an issue even as the company implodes and its future is threatened. Daimler paying to get free of an automaker is quite a remarkable statement about the internal state of Chrysler’s culture, even to those of us on the outside who don’t have all the information.

The Boston Globe analysis “Creative destruction at Chrysler,” puts it only slightly differently.

The Globe attributes the company’s downfall to union demands and the costs of pensions and health care. But underneath these, according to the analysis, is the unwillingness of executives to give up management of health care and discuss alternatives. Turf.

The death of Rev. Jerry Falwell has also presented an interesting variety of public “epitaphs.” One headlined him as a “uniter and divider.” Rev. Falwell saw his role to vocalize the precepts of his faith and he chose tactics that created unwavering support or complete rejection. In such a polarized debate, to be in the middle is to be counted as enemy. I find that sad, among other things.

I hoping–no, I’m praying–that we will see the error of this kind of public discourse and management style, and enough of us who are tired of both will work to re-establish a different quality to the national conversation and to our civic life. We have ample evidence that turf wars can bring down even powerful corporations when they take focus off the core purpose of the organization. And winner-take-all tactics can split great religious communities and leave us broken even as we speak of our desire for healing and to become whole. Two different issues, but each affects us very directly. Makes me wonder, Haven’t we seen enough? Isn’t it time for change?

Should Religious Groups Use Earmarks for Pet Projects?

Should religious groups lobby for federal grants
for pet projects?

Earmarks are
grants that
bypass the
and competitive-
The New York

Should religious groups lobby for federal grants for pet projects using earmarks? The question is raised in a front page article in the Sunday New York Times.

The article points out that many religious groups maintain offices in Washington, D.C. to influence public policy based on their moral precepts. But they have not bought the services of lobbyists for earmarks, which are written as riders on other legislation and don’t reflect public policy issues. They are grants for specific projects like roads, bridges or buildings. Because they are not examined by committees and the full legislature, they are a quiet way to secure funds or concessions.

My colleague, James Winkler, head of the Board of Church and Society of The United Methodist Church, says earmarks could present serious moral conflicts. He says an earmark for an individual project attached to a bill that would provide funding for war would put the church in an untenable position.

I think Jim is correct. Moreover, I think the whole process of earmarks, which have come under criticism recently, can be easily abused. The famous bridge to nowhere is the most recent example. The use of earmarks puts religious groups in league with other special interests seeking to benefit themselves rather than seeking the public good.

Public policy advocacy by boards such as Winkler’s Church and Society focuses on wider social benefits, usually for programs that serve disadvantaged groups or protect the rights of minorities, for example. These positions are based on moral precepts, not upon securing specific benefit through a well-connected lobbyist. One example cited in the article is re-routing a road to a religious college, perhaps a useful project, but one which seems little different than a bridge in a congressional district secured as pork. And even conceding social benefit, the lack of transparency in the process and the fact the funds go to a specific entity makes them very problematic, in my opinion. I agree with James Winkler that the use of earmarks significantly changes the public witness of religious communities and could compromise their ability to be credible public advocates. That is too high a price to pay.

Motorcycle Commuting

With gas prices increasing, I’m seeing more
motorcycles commuting.

I watched a motorcyclist weave from the inside lane to the outside lane of a four-lane highway in rush hour traffic pulsating between 70 mph and near dead stop. I said a small prayer and remembered the aphorism, “There are old pilots, and there are bold pilots. But there are no old, bold pilots.”

With gas prices increasing, I’ve noticed more motorcyclists commuting. It’s a misconception that motorcycles are more nimble than cars. In fact, all the safety articles I’ve read dispute this idea. But new riders who haven’t gone through safety training may be operating under this misconception.

For 13 years I commuted from a suburb of New Jersey into the upper west side of Manhattan; Fairlawn Ave. to route 4, across the George Washington Bridge, down the Westside Highway to Riverside Drive. Every day was a new experience.

And, yes, it was risky. But I’m not cut out to be a carpool commuter, and I was careful. I used several tactics. I always rehearse what to do if someone moved into my lane, or pulled out in front of me, or did something else unexpected. Continuously anticipating and planning a safe escape is essential.

I also scanned the roadway continuously, making mental note of cars on either side, available shoulder space, cars behind, the pace of traffic ahead and, of course, debris. I learned to watch what tasks drivers were doing besides driving–shaving, putting on make-up, reading, and yes, snorting white powder (really). I had to anticipate who might start a chain reaction of rear-end collisions that would be much more damaging to me than a car with a bumper and several feet of metal between the driver and the back-end of the vehicle ahead.

I developed a sensitivity about what conditions might be risky–riding beside a truck whose driver couldn’t see me, staying in the rearview mirror of both cars and trucks, staying out of middle lanes when lane shifting was going on.

A rider also has to anticipate road surface and the traction of the bike’s tires. A roadway is most slippery just after a rainfall has started when oil mixed with water hasn’t been diluted or washed away, and the center is more oily than the wheel track. Metal gratings and asphalt give less traction than composition surfaces. Wear depressions hold water and are more likely to contribute to hydroplaning, which, on a motorcycle is deadly. Spilled diesel and other liquids are about the same as skating on ice. I had to turn at an intersection where transit busses entered service and they spilled diesel that made the surface slippery to walk on, much less to cross on two wheels.

On a good day the trip would take 45 minutes. I wore a helmet and appropriate protective clothing. I’d change and start the workday. Actually, it was then that the real danger started!

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