Archive - December, 2007

Conflict Sells, Especially Religious Conflict

Conflict sells. Religious conflict has been a consistent way to frame religion by major media in the U.S. and globally for the past decade, and it’s sold magazines and newspapers and created an image of religious faith as a battleground.

There was a time when media were virtually clueless about religion. Sometimes I think they are still. Today you can’t pick up a publication or watch a news show without reference to religion. But often it’s treated superficially and without historical understanding. And even more often it’s framed by major media into a narrative of conflict. Conflict sells, but it doesn’t provide understanding, and often is inaccurate and misleading.

Robert Navarrette writing in the San Diego Union-Tribune says coverage of Mitt Romney’s descent and Mike Huckabee’s rise in Iowa is attributed by Newsweek to religion. As Newsweek frames the story, Iowans are rejecting Romney because of his Mormanism. Huckabee, on the other hand, is capturing the hearts of evangelical conservatives who are more comfortable with this faith perspective, according to the magazine. The story is framed as conflict between competing views of faith, another version of the religious wars.

But Navarette points out this is inconsistent with what voters are saying. The Iowa Poll conducted by the Des Moines Register indicates Romney’s descent is attributed to his flip-floppping on issues. Huckabee is viewed as the more principled social conservative among the Republican pack.

Navarette has harsh words about the conflict framing. Noting it’s often used to frame stories about people in the U.S., dividing us by race, class and education, he writes it’s “dangerous, insulting and likely untrue.”

It’s insulting because it paints Iowans as religious bigots when they are more open-minded than they are given credit by national pundits. My experience in the heartland is that people living there are as complicated and diverse of opinion as other regions of the country, and certainly at least as moderate and fair-minded, if not more so, than folks I’ve worked with on either coast. The heartland is a more nuanced and complicated region than this simplistic conflict framing reveals.

To come to the story with conflict pre-determined risks missing the point altogether. And that’s what Navarette contends Newsweek’s coverage has done. His conclusion is that Romney’s problems with Iowans have more to do with their belief that he lacks principles than that he holds to Morman principles. Huckabee, if nothing else, has been consistent in his positions, even bucking the crowd on immigration and his controversial pardons for criminals when it isn’t popular to do so.

These differences are more nuanced than the holy war frame can contain. In fact, in this instance, I think it masks the factors that affect the voter’s assessment of Romney. They are less concerned about his religion than about his consistency to principles he has claimed in the past but seems to have abandoned today. This has little to do with Morman religion and more to do with political expediency.

Besides giving us an inaccurate interpretation, this narrative has also contributed to a definition of religion that is distorted and unnecessarily divisive. I’ve long contended that coverage of religion lacking historical context and theological depth is harmful because it’s incomplete. Religion is about meaning and nuance. It isn’t about short headlines and telegraphed catch-phrases such as “holy war.” What, exactly is that?

Even the use of this phrase characterizes religious debate in violent terms. More of us don’t engage in name-calling and rhetorical flourishes but moderation doesn’t grab attention. So religion has taken on an image of contentiousness that isn’t a fair representation of the vast majority of religious people.

Yet, for some media coverage provides legitimation. Far too often in recent years this has meant that extreme voices, not necessarily representative of time-honored and tested religious thought, have even been elevated to national stature. The more intemperate and divisive, the more likely to be covered.

But many of these media-elevated voices are not representative of the faith traditions with which they are associated. On my worst days I think some journalists don’t care and on my good days I think some are oblivious to the nuances. Of course there are those who cover the religion beat who have the formal education, experience and familiarity to cover religion substantively.

But I don’t hold much hope that coverage will get better anytime soon. I do think moderates are about to be discovered. Hiding in the alcoves of the mainline for the past decade they’re about to come out into the daylight like ancient monks emerging from their caves.

But I don’t look for a change in the frame. Take a gander at Newsweek‘s most recent report on religion–Moderates Storm the Religious Battlefield–and you see why.

Oh well, at least they interviewed some of the best teachers and thinkers. That’s a start, I suppose.

Immigration and Christian Faith

Sitting before a nativity scene in her home, the Tennessee state representative explained a tough new law to a television reporter. It’s designed to make employers identify illegal immigrants and send them packing, she said, oblivious to the irony of the setting.

The nativity is a story of displacement and immigration. It’s a refugee story. Joseph and Mary were migrants. When the infant Jesus was born and they fled Palestine for Egypt upon hearing infant boys were being slaughtered to prevent insurrection, they became refugees. They crossed national borders, perhaps illegally, we don’t know.

We do know one of the most remembered of Jesus’ teachings is that a mark of faithfulness of his followers is to show hospitality to strangers. “I was a stranger and you took me in.” (Matt. 25:36b)”

The Bible was written by, for and about immigrants, migrants and refugees,” according to The Rev. Joan Maruskin, former director of immigration for Church World Service. She points to biblical narratives that refer to immigration from the Exodus to Jesus to Paul.

As she notes, the best known migration story is the Exodus. The Israelites sought to escape persecution and economic exploitation. These conditions are no less a defining part of reality for millions of poor people today. According to Jason DeParle writing in the New York Times, seventy four million people migrate from poor country to poor country to escape poverty.

Many, if not most, are illegal immigrants. They risk greater abuse and less protective services than immigrants to richer countries and they place burdens on nations ill-equipped to deal with them. Even if they are only notch above where they were, they seek that small measure of gain.

At the root of this massive movement of people across borders is poverty. So long as poverty eats away at their quality of life and the grass looks greener in the next pasture, even if it’s only slightly greener, people will go, legally or not.

Immigration is about poverty, war and persecution, the very things Jesus said his followers should be concerned about, and among the very people he said it is necessary to receive with hospitality.

In this age of Lou Dobbs it’s worth remembering what Jesus said. When we receive the stranger it’s as if we’re receiving him. Recognizing this, a more constructive way to curb illegal immigration would be to partner with the poor to develop better economic conditions right where they are and not to build longer and higher walls. And it would be more consistent with Jesus to ratchet down the rhetoric that demeans and exploits fear and racism. But most importantly, it’s necessary to remember what he said, and who he was. When those who thought they were faithful asked,”When did we see you?”

He replied, “I was a stranger and you took me in.”

Tropical Virus in Europe

The occurrence of a tropical virus in Italy raises questions not only about the effects of global warming, it also demonstrates yet again that diseases are not restricted by geography. Tiger mosquitoes migrating from tropical Africa carried the the parasite chikungunya, a relative of dengue fever, to Europe.Similar mosquito migration into higher elevations has introduced malaria into parts of the world where it hasn’t occurred before. Tiger mosquitoes are said to thrive as far north as France and Switzerland.Puzzled Italian physicians did not expect a tropical disease on their soil. We’ve known for years that infectious diseases are only hours away from any region of the world but the viral outbreak caught officials off-guard. It’s said that bird flu is only twelve hours from any place on the planet because of air travel and Asian health officials are much more alert due to proximity.The Italian viral outbreak is an important warning that it’s foolhardy to continue to think diseases are geographically constrained. Some aren’t, and today they can move quickly. As important as it is to urgently address global warming, it’s also critical to control and eliminate diseases no matter where they occur. It’s not unthinkable that malaria or dengue fever, to name only two, could erupt in unexpected areas as the environment changes.An unspoken factor in the continuing toll of malaria is that it doesn’t occur in the developed world. If it did, the attention it’s getting now and the various research efforts would have been pursued more aggressively much earlier.It’s good that the world is now giving this disease attention. But the viral outbreak in Italy is a clear reminder that many other threats are out there and they respect no boundary–neither geographic, economic or social. The relationship between health and the environment is complex and, when manifested as in the Italian example, obvious.It’s also clear that inattention to the suffering that occurs from diseases mostly in the poorest communities is not only morally unacceptable, it’s to invite peril if these diseases migrate to the developed world. It’s in the interest of the global community to continue to tackle the diseases of poverty and to improve conditions that put people at risk.The boundaries are disappearing, and as the Italian experience confirms, we are all in this together no matter where we reside.

Health Care is a Universal Need

After hearing from 114 Filipino clergy and laypersons the past 10 days a common theme emerged. Everyone needs access to health care and the older we get, the more urgently we need it.

We were in the Philippines to hear from retirees about their pension plans butpensions are not the only thing on their minds. Pension needs are extremely important. Many of these folks live below the survival level and this is beyond excusable, especially for those who have given a lifetime serving others through ministry. It’s an injustice that clergy and lay workers in The United Methodist Church outside the United States don’t have the same security and opportunity to live with dignity in their retirement that those in the U.S. have. This must be addressed,and fortunately, the pension board of the church is beginning to do so.

But among lingering unaddressed issues is access to health care. It is extremely frustrating to hear people who need eye surgery, kidney transplants and other treatments say they can’t get the care they need because they have no health insurance and no money to pay for medical care.

We heard three pastors and spouses say they are losing their eyesight but can’t afford the costs of relatively simple surgery for cataracts. Others could benefit from common procedures in the U.S. that are beyond reach in the Philippines.

This is a moral concern in addition to an issue of justice and equity. Upon return to the U.S., I was frustrated to read that President Bush has, for the second time, vetoed health care for children in the U.S.

Health care should not be a political football, but it is. The President’s political agenda tilts in favor of the existing market-based system. And he’s intent on making middle income families pay for health care. To do this he’s willing to deny access to poor children.

But health care in the U.S. is also more costly than the national systems in other developed nations, which tests the credibility of the claim that marketplace competition keeps costs lower and results in better care.

Writing in the New York Times of a post partum procedure, perineal re-education, Pamela Druckerman illustrates the differences between the French system and ours. Druckerman says the French consider it in the national interest to “make mothers new” after giving birth by offering therapy and training to shape the stretched birth canal. So the government antes up 60% of the cost of perineal re-education.

The procedure isn’t commonly offerred in the U.S. and might be considered a luxury. But Druckerman cites a World Health Organization report that the French spent “$3,464 per person on health care in 2004, compared with $6,096 in the United States. Yet Frenchmen live on average two years longer than American men do, and Frenchwomen live four years longer. The infant mortality rate in France is 43 percent lower than in the United States.” The French system offer better results, lower costs and offers a rehabilitative procedure not routinely offerred in the U.S.

Ironically, President Bush supported universal health care for Iraqis at a cost of $950 million in 2004 and the rationale was based on lack of access. If access is right for Iraq, it logically follows that access to basic health care should be a right enjoyed by everyone, Filipino or U.S. citizen.

The world has said as much in article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But we still have a long way to go.

Street Children in Manila

Walking near Rizal Park in central Manila I passed three street children sitting on the sidewalk. Separated from a beautiful, manicured golf course by a chain link fence, they were sniffing glue.

These three boys looked to be around 12-years-old. They were dirty, barefoot and dressed in worn-out, tattered ragamuffin clothing. My presence nearby was of no interest. They cupped their hands over their noses, squeezed tubes of glue and inhaled. A young adult woman, child in tow, stood nearby also sniffing from her cupped palm. The child toddled around playing in trash on the sidewalk.

Scenes such as this are not unusual. They exist in virtually every city in the developing world. Poverty knows no bounds and it erodes human dignity wherever it exists. But, as with most people I know, I never get used to it. It haunts me.

According to the Philippine Resource Network there are 1.5 million street children in the Philippines. The shadow of a modern shopping mall falls on the intersection where these children and the homeless mother and child sleep. In the corner of a pedestrian underpass, hundreds, perhaps thousands, walk by them daily. This isn’t unusual either. We accommodate to it because we don’t know how to change it, so it continues.

A more haunting image sticks in my mind from two days later as my colleagues and I walked to our hotel along United Nations Avenue. The World Health Organization is on this street and so too are a modern hotel with a glitzy casino, the main office of a large bank, a metro police station and an upscale hospital. It’s a high rent district.

Darkness was approaching. Trucks, motorbikes and cars jostled for position. Manila traffic is like no other. It is the ultimate in cacophonous, congestion.

In a gutter inches from this nightmarish, horn-honking turmoil a little girl in a tattered dress walked barefoot oblivious to the danger. She was no more than four-years-old. I started to move toward her but a young woman saw her and reached her first.

There was no adult nearby. It’s a reasonable guess she has been abandoned or she’s walked away from a mother high on glue, or asleep and unaware. But clearly, she’s alone like a lost kitten in this dangerously heavy traffic.

I hope the young woman takes her to the police station which calls child protective services which takes her to a safe place. But this is more than likely a fiction I’ve imagined to ease my own feelings of guilt than a practical solution.

It’s more likely she will be walked to the sidewalk and left once again. Someone will find her, perhaps an adult street person, and put her to work begging, taking her earnings and keeping her fed just enough to remain productive for them. Eventually, if she survives, she will be another child getting high or prostituting herself. Sixty thousand children are prostituted in the Philippines according to the resource network.

And I wonder how she will perceive of herself if she lives to adulthood. Having known only the streets and the harsh exploitation and abuse they serve up, will she even question whether she deserves this treatment, or will she have become so shaped by it that she accepts her lot and adjusts to less than human interaction?

There are those dedicated to reaching out and caring for street children, of course, but the widening gap between the poor and those who shop at the mall and gamble at the casino makes their task ever more challenging. And worse, child trafficking and child soldiering heaps abuse upon abuse.

While I was in Manila, UNICEF reported 200,000 children were victimized by human rights abuses in the Philippines. To escape grinding poverty children are joining rebel movements and taking up arms.

As usual, the Armed Forces of the Philippines denounced the report saying UNICEF had listened only to leftists and the numbers were skewed. This has become a template reaction and it reveals just how distanced from reality the established powers are. When I was in the Philippines a year ago with a human rights delegation my writing was criticized by a military officer in the same way. The Army of the Philippines’ response to human rights abuses is predictable.

Even setting aside the charges of abuse, the state of child well-being is abysmal. The Philippine Resource Network says only 19% of children aged 4 to 6 years old are able to go to public or private pre-schools. More than one-third of the smallest municipalities cannot offer education up to the sixth grade and 60% of children drop of out school by the second grade.

So, what can be done? More than we sometimes recognize at first glance. In the short term we can support any number of organizations working with street kids and for the welfare of all children including UNICEF and Save the Children among the many. A Google search turns up page after page of organizations addressing the needs of street kids in every part of the world. All need financial support and many encourage volunteers.

Taking the long view, we can support the Millenium Development Goals, particularly Goal 2–Ensure that all boys and girls complete a full course of primary schooling–and Goal 5–Reduce by two thirds the mortality rate among children under five.

But the most important is to advocate for Goal 1–Reduce by half the proportion of people living on less than a dollar per day; and Reduce by half the proportion of people who suffer from hunger. To do this we must become involved in writing letters to policy-makers for more effective humanitarian assistance and legal protections, volunteering and giving financially to non-governmental organizations, or all of the above.

I walked back to my hotel room and quickly fell asleep. But I awakened in the middle of the night. The image of the toddler in traffic wouldn’t let go of me. I looked out the window. Even in the darkness, children were moving about on the street below. I didn’t sleep the rest of the night.

AIDS VS. Malaria?

An interesting, frustrating debate is going on among a few concerned folks in The United Methodist Church about AIDS and malaria. The concern is that by giving attention to malaria AIDS is being neglected. In addition, the claim was made recently that malaria is an easier disease to attack, carries no stigma as AIDS, and is a way to avoid the pandemic.

It’s an interesting argument but one that is full of holes, and even unnecessary. Tackling malaria is not an abdication to AIDS. The interrelationship between HIV/AIDS and malaria is clear. Those affected by AIDS are at greater risk of even more complications if they also contract malaria. To ignore this is to add to the burden of AIDS, not to decrease it.

Eradicating malaria would reduce the drain it places on national health care systems, medical staffs and families of infected individuals. Reducing this burden so that increased resoures can be directed toward AIDS should be part of any comprehensive strategy.

Malaria keeps poor people poor. Sick farmers can’t plant or harvest. Sick mothers can’t care for their families. Sick children can’t attend clases and sick teachers can’t teach. So long as malaria exacts this toll it will continue to be a drag on productivity and economic development.

Eradicating malaria is no small challenge. To tackle malaria is also to tackle AIDS and to reduce poverty. This is hardly a choice to choose an easier challenge.

But the most important point is that tackling one disease is not to ignore the other. This is a false choice. At the root of the effort to tackle malaria, AIDS and poverty is a concern to improve the quality of life of people facing a struggle to survive. The goal is to improve life, not to compete as if this is a zero sum game. It’s not. The challenge is to make people whole by creating the conditions for all to thrive. This is to move toward life and see it in its wholeness.

The debate is an unnecessary diversion based on a false dichotomy that is more distracting than enlightening.