Archive - October, 2007

About Doing No Harm

Recently someone told me he was in a roomful of “do-gooders.” From the way he pronounced the word it was clear he found these folks infected with a strain of naivete that was outside the “real” world.

I was intrigued a few years ago to hear a politician attack “liberal do-gooders” and deride a piece of legislation as charity as if charity were a bad thing.

It’s a strange world, one that I frankly don’t want to inhabit, that sees doing good and being charitable as signs of weakness, or just plain wrong.

The alternatives are doing harm, doing nothing (sometimes equal to doing harm) and being uncharitable, which means being miserly, cheap, stingy and self-serving. The politician claimed to defend traditional values which led me to wonder if I had already been transported to a parallel universe where words had taken on their opposite meaning.

Some commentators opine that the political rhetoric of the religious right, which is often defined as Christian teaching, is in decline. We can only hope.

Terry Fox, a Southern Baptist pastor, told writer David D. Kirkpatrick in a New York Times magazine article that “Some might compare the religious right to a snake. We may be in our hole right now, but we can come out and bite you at any time.”

Describing Christians as snakes lying in wait to strike and inject poisonous toxins is a strange description of the followers of Jesus. But toxic stridency has come to define Christians for many in the U.S. and around the world of late.

The closest allegory I find in scripture turns this definition on its head. “Be wise as serpents and harmless as doves,” Jesus told his disciples.

Paul told the followers of Jesus in the city of Colosse, “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience. Bear with one another, and if anyone has a complaint against another forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you must also forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. (Colossians 3:12-14)

These thoughts come to mind for several reasons. I continue to be perplexed by voices that do harm in the name of religion.

And I’m thinking of my own denomination as we move toward our global meeting in April next year. How we will see ourselves and the marks of faith that define our community?

One of our fundamental instructions from John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, is “do no harm.” The combined wisdom of Paul, Jesus and Wesley lays before us a hard challenge, to do no harm even when we differ on important things. When I think about that and what it calls me to do, it doesn’t seem like weak-kneed naivete, after all. It sounds like it takes great strength and courage because I will have to give up my own tendency to characterize others and listen in order to bear another rather than to seek power over the other (and make my point). And most difficult of all, to forgive.

It may be very accurate that this is not the way the world operates. And that adds to the challenge; to be in this world, but not of this world.

I’m writing these thoughts over the next few days and will note them here. I’m interested in your reactions.

Access, Free Trade and Trade Justice

I’ve been fortunate to be able to attend two remarkable events the past two weeks. I got a chance to hear leaders in business, health and government speak about how they see the future and trends they think will shape it.

I’ve heard the claim that we live in a world of communication–content and technology–unlike any humans have known before, and this is changing us in fundamental ways.

I’ve heard a lot about collaboration, partnership, information sharing, and access. There were references to the value of open source enterprises yet they weren’t referring to Linux, they referred to collaborative projects in business and health.

And I heard visionaries speak of the future in ways that are rather amazing to me. CEOs of major corporations are talking about globalization and poverty reduction. Heads of global health organizations and government officials are discussing partnerships to change the world, especially those places where human suffering is still the defining characteristic of daily life.

Frankly, I didn’t expect to hear this in the places where I’ve been, not because I think these leaders don’t know about poverty and human struggle, but because the rap against many of them is that they and their corporations don’t really care about that part of the world that can’t pay for their products or services.

But I’ve heard pharmaceutical executives explain why they continue to develop drugs to treat diseases that occur in less wealthy nations where it’s obvious they won’t get a return on their investment. And I’ve heard about open sourcing the knowledge derived from this research. I heard a Japanese executive explain why his company acted out of corporate social responsibility to establish bed net production in Tanzania, India and China.

One of the most intriguing speeches I heard was by Frederick Smith, CEO of FedEx. He spoke of the work FedEx has done to identify the power of access as the key to building the global economy.

Time and space today are collapsing,” Smith told the World Business Forum, “and availability of information is expanding.”

At first blush this seems self-evident but then he laid out what he sees as the benefits.

“This shifts power from producers to consumers who are more savvy and discerning, giving them more buying power. It stimulates demand to consumers, gives greater economic activity, higher living standards and expectations, which spawns innovation and greater access, and the cycle continues,” Smith said.

It’s true that in some parts of the world where infrastructure, education, poverty and restrictive policies are prevalent, access is limited. The generals in Myanmar shut down the Internet, for example. China has blocked access as well. But India and some emerging economies in Africa are examples of the power of access.

When access is available Smith said, “it connects people, empowers them, enhances well being, gives them choices, improves quality of life. Access to health care, clean water, sanitation increases life expectancy and decreases infant mortality, it expands employment opportunities.”

I was reminded of micro loans to women in Bangledesh and other developing nations which they use to buy cell phones and then sell telephone services to their neighbors.

I was also reminded of the joy of a retired history professor in one of our training events in Zimbabwe when he first learned how to Google a subject of interest. He literally bounced in his chair with excitement, but more telling, he said, “My world has changed.”

Indeed, the world has changed for all of us. I don’t mean to say market forces don’t drive globalization. They do. Profit is still the same powerful force it always was. And workers in developed economies have paid a price in loss of jobs. Their economic pain is wrenching. I don’t think it’s been dealt with adequately. I don’t think the glib answers I’ve heard about how unfortunate this is, but that we should move it forward anyway, are adequate. Those who’ve lost their jobs aren’t nearly so sure it’s been a good thing. And the benefits haven’t reached down across the board in developing economies. I worry about blue collar workers especially but outsourcing has moved more broadly than blue collar jobs. And now India is outsourcing jobs that were recently outsourced by U.S. corporations.

So claims that globalization is the pathway to the world’s future need a critical eye. The May, 2007 issue of Sojourners cast an eye on the moral issues encompassed in trade justice, which are significantly different from opening up global trade alone.

Mohamad Yunus, the founder of the Grameen Bank has created micro markets that empower people locally and as they become economically self-sufficient they gain access to an expanding range of information, services and products. But most importantly, they experience self-determination. The word “justice” adds a whole new dimension to the conversation about globalization.

But access is empowering. One of the roles that non-profits can play effectively is enabling access by recognizing their power to engage people in remote regions where they not being reached by others. This is the strength of many faith organizations.They are present in places off the grid and beyond cell phone coverage. They’re with people who aren’t viable economic markets for businesses.

If access is to achieve the promise of empowerment, those who have least and struggle most must be connected. That will change the world.

Malaria: What Next?

The second and third days of the Malaria Forum conducted by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation turned out to be as stimulating and inspiring as day one. Important research was reported in a continuous stream. As a layperson, I’m an interested observer with no scientific knowledge but I heard enough to be encouraged, even inspired, by what is happening despite my limited scientific understanding.

For example, we heard about a successful phase one trial of a new malaria vaccine for children. The vaccine must go through additional trials requiring months if not years, but progress is being made.

We heard about new pesticides in development that are safer for the environment, longer lasting and require fewer applications.

A report was presented explaining how gnomic research can identify weak points in the parasitic genome. This could allow researchers to consider where genetic intervention might be successful and could result in engineering mosquitoes that don’t carry the parasite, are made sterile, or even result in mosquitoes that don’t bite humans, according to one researcher.

A report was given on development of synthetic artemisinin, the most hopeful and efficacious compound for treating malaria. This means the complex challenge of cultivating, extracting and producing the compound from natural sources could be bypassed using laboratory control and, equally important, synthetic compounds can be manipulated to address resistance.

Resistance is a big issue and it was discussed by many researchers who noted that malaria was drastically reduced in the 1930s, only to come roaring back a few years after eradication efforts declined. One researcher called the parasite a daunting insurgent and warned that progress in reducing the incidence of malaria cases is actually the most dangerous stage because it lulls us into believing we can cutback on research and innovation. History tells us this gives the parasite the opportunity to adapt and spread quickly, becoming even more difficult to fight.

Many presenters called for a multi-pronged attack and frankly criticized the malaria community for its competitiveness and failure to collaborate in the past. Dr. Robert Sinden, a researcher at the Imperial College London, said, “The real competition is not other scientists, the real competition is the parasite.”

“We have to think big and take risks,” Dr. Tadataka Yamada, President of the Global Health Program at the Bill and Melinda Foundation, said. “We can’t let barriers get in the way. We must share information openly and freely. Withholding knowledge only makes people die faster.”

The prevailing tone of the forum, however, was collaboration and creating new partnerships built on the recognition that no single entity can eradicate this disease.

There was discussion about the interconnection of malaria with maternal-child health, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, community-based health care, national health systems and its debilitating drain on developing nations’ economies.

This interconnection is significant because improved delivery systems, strengthening national health systems, training community health workers and creating effective information delivery are comprehensive benefits.

Reaching rural villages with information to change behaviors was discussed and many representatives referred to “faith-based” groups which haven’t been integrated into the total effort.

I was part of a panel that discussed how to engage people of faith in addition to others including civic and political groups. The response was affirming and appreciative for these new partners in the fight.

Innovations targeting malaria aren’t limited to this disease alone. But it is an entry point because it’s so pervasive. This point was reinforced by Brig. Gen. Brian Chituwo, Minister of Health of Zambia.

He noted that Zambia is at “the epicenter of HIV/AIDS, but our net distribution has made great strides in improving rates of infection for malaria and contributed to an improvement of health in general. This reduces susceptibility to opportunistic diseases.”

Debilitation from malaria is so heavy a burden some estimate the loss of productive workers and output reduces GDP in the worst affected countries by 12%. Reducing the incidence of malaria could free up health systems and economic drain and set the stage for greater productivity.

This is the first meeting of this kind I’ve attended so I have no basis for comparison. But the level of discussion and the flow of creative ideas here was amazing. The challenge to eradicate malaria posed by Bill and Melinda Gates was heard clearly and affirmed. But it’s an enormous task and one that will take a generation or more. In fact, no one is prepared to put a timeline to it for fear of raising expectations that could backfire if not met. No one wants to see another failure in this struggle.

But as I listened to the conversation it felt as if there was a sense in the room that this challenge can be met. I heard determination to see the task through. I heard urgency to end the dying, and recognition of the inequity of this disease with its heavy burden on the poorest of the world. I heard references to the ethical dilemma of not tackling eradication. Melinda Gates said anything short of eradication is ethically unacceptable.

I wonder if I was witnessing a seminal event, one in which the battle to eradicate a killer disease was joined. It’s too early to tell, but I hope this is so.

Eradicating Malaria

The “E” word. Melinda Gates spoke it today at the Malaria Forum convened by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The word is eradication. It’s perhaps the most controversial issue discussed in private by researchers and practitioners in malaria and debated in public settings. But Melinda Gates was unequivocal.

“We have a historic opportunity not just to treat or manage malaria but to eradicate it. To reach a day when no mosquito on this planet carries the disease. To do less is too timid and a waste of talent,” she told the Forum.

She also reminded the group that while this discussion goes on children are dying and this is the ethical underpinning first among several reasons why malaria should be eradicated.

“Every life has worth. Little boys and girls are going to be bitten. And they’re not going to get to a doctor or clinic. They will die in the village. No child should die of malaria in today’s world,” she said.

Only a day earlier the participants discussed eradication and elimination of malaria particularly when speaking with donors and a general audience. Some said eradication or elimination are goals too high to pursue, at least, too high to stake a claim or make a promise. Others said it’s not possible to inspire the kind of support and financial contributions required without staking out high ground.

Melinda was followed by Bill Gates who presented the advances made in both treatment and research in prevention and immunization. He, too, issued the challenge to work toward eradication.

Both were visionary and inspiring. They issued a challenge to leaders in government, the civic sector, industry and non-profit organizations to press ahead with a long term commitment to eradicate malaria.

Bill Gates said, “There’s no doubt if the world dedicates the time and the money we can coordinate tools and resources to eradicate malaria. But it’s not a short term goal. It is a long term process. To go only half way would be to fall behind,” he said.

Both Bill and Melinda noted that the incidence of malaria was reduced several years ago and when cases decline the world pulled back from prevention. When this occurred the disease came roaring back and is resistant to some of the early pesticides and medications that were effective then. Bill noted this his must be instructive today. When malaria cases are reduced there should be no reduction of commitment or prevention and treatment lest the process repeat itself.

He underscored the commitment of both himself and Melinda by telling the Forum, “Our commitment won’t wane. It’s a life long commitment on our part.”

What Paul Meant

Sacred texts are living documents. We have a relationship with them and they inform and shape us over the years, even if they aren’t contemporary with us. That’s a mystery to me yet it’s an experience I’ve had often enough to believe it. A spirit within the texts spans the centuries so they remain insightful and incisive. And when we study them it’s as if we’re in a dialogue that leads us to learn regardless of the march of time.

It’s reasonable to ask in the Judeo-Christian tradition how stories of a tribal people that reach back centuries hold wisdom relevant to life in the 21st century. That’s the mystery.

I bring this up because I’ve been reading the apostle Paul lately and I happened across the small book by Gary Wills, What Paul Meant. Paul appeals to me in many ways, partly because he deals with the frailties of our humanity. If anyone understands religious people in conflict, it’s Paul. Wills brings this home.

I think this understanding of humanity gives Paul’s writing resiliency. In addition, as Wills notes, Paul understands faith as an active response to the person of Jesus and not as belief in a set of propositions or commitment to dogma. Paul was in complex relationships and he writes from within the frustration, anger, joy and hope these relationships hold. That’s pretty human stuff.

Paul has been criticized, accused of gender bias, patriarchy and even teaching contrary to the words of Jesus. Wills takes on these charges and dispels them in this small book that is quite remarkable for its accessibility and compactness. Wills makes the case that Paul is not only consistent with Jesus, but that he is closest to Jesus in time and is, therefore, likely the most reliable reporter of Jesus’ own words.

Paul is not, however, a biographer as the gospel writers, all of whom wrote from three decades to nearly a hundred years after Paul. Paul’s letters, excepting Romans, are written to address specific problems in the emerging religious following of Jesus.

Wills points out that Paul’s “flock” is made up of Jews who have no New Testament and exist before the word Christian has been applied to them. They rely upon Jewish law and practices for their religious grounding. They don’t have an “Old Testament” either, and don’t know the words church, priests or sacraments.

To understand Paul, we must understand the historical setting in which he wrote and why he wrote. Wills led me to reflect how little I actually do understand, and how our own cultural filters and historical accretions affect comprehension of his writing.

Paul’s letters precede the narrative we know as the Acts of the Apostles and the Gospel of Luke, yet Luke has been regarded as the authoritative account of Paul’s conversion experience, travels and relationships with the early gatherings of the followers of Jesus. Wills points out how this cannot be. It’s not that Luke is untrue but that his reporting about Paul comes from a later time and for a different reason than Paul’s. Wills views Luke “not necessarily as untrue, but as not commanding trust.” (p. 153)

And this leads to a much deeper appreciation of the living reality of Paul’s enduring legacy and of Luke’s task to unify and harmonize the leadership of the nascent church centered in Jerusalem under Roman occupation. Luke’s task was different from Paul’s.

Scripture arises from the depths of human experience. It reflects how the Holy is comprehended in this complex reality. It requires engagement and in this we discover the spirit that bridges time and enters our lives. When Paul writes,
“Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become a sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing. Love suffers long and is kind, love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; Does not rejoice in inequity, but rejoices in truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away.
When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known. And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”

Timeless.

Catching my Breath

I‘m traveling and have not caught my breath which is why posts have been few and far between the past ten days. Last week I was in New York to attend severl meetings, capped by a meeting of the World Business Forum. I intend to write about that soon because it was an energizing meeting. Some big name business and civic leaders shared their management styles and vision for global business that was extremely interesting to me.

This week I’m in Seattle to attend a malaria forum sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Experts from around the world are attending and presenting information on the effort to reduce the incidence and impact of this disease.

I hope to post from here as time allows. What is most important about both of these meetings, in my opinion, is that individuals and leaders are taking a long look at how to create positive changes that can affect billions of people around the globe and we’re all doing this from our unique perspectives, yet those perspectives overlap and intersect in remarkable ways.

There is hope in this even as we face crushing diseases, the horrors of war and the environmental degradation that so wounds the Earth. I hang onto the hope. It’s hope that gives us strength and energy, and that will lead us out of darkness. So, I’ll write about this as time allows this week and will share my views about why hope is the foundation for our common future.

Cost of War: One Day

The comparison of the costs of war to the costs of socially constructive programs is a common topic on the web. The intent is to illustrate how money applied to war could be applied to more socially constructive efforts. Unfortunately, merely pointing out how strikingly different results could be achieved by re-directing spending doesn’t change priorities, but it does give us a different perspective. This is more relevant today in the wake of the veto of the SCHIP legislation.

The American Friends Service Committee website promotes a Wage Peace campaign that shows not only what could be done with just one day’s expenditure for war (provide 423, 529 children with healthcare, for example) but also provides action steps and materials to spread the word.

Christianity Has An Image Problem

Christianity has an image problem and it’s getting worse, according to research by the evangelical Barna Group.

In a brief article in TIME, David Kinnaman of Barna says in 1996, 80% of U.S. citizens identified with Christianity and fewer than 20% of non-Christians held an unfavorable view of the religion. But how that has changed.

Today fewer identify with the faith (73%) and among people between 16 and 29, 38% have a “bad impression” of Christianity. As Kinnaman says, “It’s not pretty.”

Not pretty at all. Non-Christians say the preoccupation with homosexuality is their biggest complaint against Christian churches, and remarkably, 80% of the Christians Barna interviewed picked the negative adjective “anti-homosexual” to identify Christianity. The report on the Barna website says, “As the research probed this perception, non-Christians and Christians explained that beyond their recognition that Christians oppose homosexuality, they believe that Christians show excessive contempt and unloving attitudes towards gays and lesbians.”

Remember, this isn’t a research group that can be accused of skewing numbers to represent a position, it’s a well-known and highly respected research organization clearly identified with evangelical theology.

The number of people who don’t identify with Christianity is growing and so is the number who have a bad impression of it, according to the Barna research

These numbers aren’t encouraging. In fact, they point to a diminished future, not just for evangelicals but also for mainline communities. Overall, people in the United States are becoming less favorable to Christianity, especially youth and young adults.

The United Methodist Church has been actively sending messages to key groups in this demographic and research shows a more favorable attitude after eight years than before. There is a receptive audience and the messages are working. They are also effective in getting the church’s voice into the public conversation. As a result, perceptions of the church run counter to the conclusions Barna reports in the general survey.

But they are one small effort in a din of competing sights and sounds, and my hunch is the “anti” stance that turns off so many Christians and non-Christians alike is more pervasive and penetrating. “Anti” messages come in the form of news stories about controversial divisions that capture attention at key points of public exposure such as the recent conclave of Episcopal bishops in New Orleans discussing homosexuality.

These messages have disproportionate influence because they are more visible and are expressed in passionate language. But they aren’t working for a lot of people, and are doing harm to the image of Christianity.

I don’t advocate taking a vote to determine the content of faith. But a faith stance that is open to learning more, encourages us to serve others and assists us to find a deeper relationship with God and others presents a different face to the world than the “aginers.” Standing for something is more inviting.

There’s a message here.

Stress

I was in a meeting the other day when someone who is quite together and very experienced began to speak of stress and its effect on our performance. I was caught off-guard. We all live with stress. It’s persistent and powerful among the people I know.

Hardly a day goes by that I don’t hear some reference to feeling stressed. I don’t know if I trust the surveys about high stress positions, not because they’re inaccurate but because I hear so many people refer to feeling stressed that I can’t imagine which jobs have more, or less. Everyone, it seems is stressed in some way and it’s difficult to quantify which stress is more destructive than another.

In Googling “managing stress” I came first to an article by Christine Gorman in TIME that is one of the most helpful pieces I’ve read recently. I refer to Christine in this blog because she writes about health issues, so frequent readers will know her name. But in this instance her article popped up from the search engine and not as a result of me targetting her name.

Christine’s six lessons for handling stress are eye-opening. Her description of what we do under stress made me feel like she’s been watching me with an invisible camera. We come home, plop in front of the TV, eat poorly, and collapse. All the wrong things to do. But the article cites research that confirms too many of do the same when we’re stressed.

Additional stress occurs with the breakdown between work and our personal time. The always-available text messaging, emailing cellphone is but one example. And working from home further blurrs the distinction between home life and work life.

There are physiological and emotional results, none of them especially pretty. Christine writes, “stress, depression and job burnout are now the U.S.’s fastest-growing disability category.”

So, I hope you’re not feeling stressed as you read this, but if you are, do as Christine says, “take a deep breath.” And I suggest you hop over to the link and see what else you might do to turn it around. Apparently, a lot of us owe it to ourselves to become more aware of how we’re making ourselves worse, not better, because don’t handle stress well.

SCHIP Veto Override

The General Board of Church and Society of The United Methodist Church has called upon Congress to override the veto of the SCHIP legislation. The text of the statement follows:

General Board of Church and Society Expresses Disappointment over President Bush’s Veto of SCHIP — Washington, D.C., October 3, 2007

The General Board of Church and Society worked tirelessly as part of an interfaith effort to rally support for the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP). The SCHIP legislation, which drew strong support in Congress, would have expanded a children’s health insurance program by $35 billion over five years. We are deeply disappointed that President Bush vetoed this bill which received bipartisan support and which promised to provide health care to 10 million children over this five-year span.

The President’s act of veto of this legislation is contrary to our denomination’s understanding of God’s abundant provision for all God’s children – including the provision of health care.

The General Board of Church and Society calls the U.S. Congress to action to override this veto as an act of moral conscience on behalf of children in the United States.

________________________________
James E. Winkler
General Secretary

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