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A Year’s Worth of Reading

I was bemused recently by an article that said reading is being rediscovered. Reading has been a doorway into new ideas and other worlds for me since I was a child. Like other readers, I read for pleasure and recreation, and to gain greater understanding.

This year I realized belatedly I was reading more purposefully. It was more like, “what the heck is going on here?” I need to understand.

So many of my long-term assumptions about life no longer hold. The values that I have believed in are called into question daily. The institutions I trusted are in decline.

As this decline happens, Matthew B. Crawford writes that “commercial forces step into the void of cultural authority and assume a growing role in shaping our evaluative outlook on the world.” (The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2014)

The growing influence of consumerism and secularization and the reactions to these dynamics are both fascinating and perplexing to me. But they are shaping our evaluative outlook, like it or not. (I don’t like it.)

It was not a conscious choice to pursue this in my reading, but over time, and with the questions raised daily by our political discourse, by year’s end it had become a theme.

However, there was much more than this existential search and in the list that follows I have briefly summarized both the good and the not so good, as I see it, in a year’s journey through the printed word, including both fiction and non-fiction.

Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, David W. Blight. This is a thorough and expansive biography of Douglass. It captures both the depth of his thought and the emotional turmoil that marked his amazing life. Despite his overwhelming strength, he was an imperfect and vulnerable human being, which makes his lasting impact all the more remarkable. It seems to me there is scarcely a leap from Douglass’ powerful indictment of 19th Century racism to the Black Lives Matter movement of the 21st Century. Such is his prophetic vision and the endurance of his notable life story.

Leadership in Turbulent Times, Doris Kearns Goodwin. This reads more like a novel than presidential history. Goodwin recounts how Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson provided crucial—sometimes heroic, sometimes flawed—leadership in times of great peril to the country. It made me nostalgic for real leaders. Non-fiction. Recommended.

Fear: Trump in the White House, Bob Woodward. Woodward fills in the backstories of major media coverage of the Trump administration. Thus, I didn’t find anything of compelling interest in this recounting of conversations and decisions that have already been reported daily. This narrative, laced with “f-bombs” did not appreciably help me understand the administration any more clearly than I can get by reading major newspaper or watching cable news. Non-fiction. Not recommended.

Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier. It’s curious to me how the savagery of war and life in the wilderness seems most truly conveyed in fiction. Frazier captures the brutality as well as the humanity of those caught up in the declining months of the Civil War. This tale of a soldier’s harrowing journey back to his love in the Blue Ridge Mountains is American literature at its best. Fiction. Recommended.

How Will Capitalism End?, Wolfgang Streeck. Streeck believes western liberal democracies based on capitalist economies are in crisis and we’re heading for a period of entropy. He projects we will be left to fend for ourselves because corporate capitalism is not only destroying itself, it’s destroying liberal democracies as well. The institutions that once restrained the excesses of capitalism are being subsumed by secular, corporate power. This academic treatise is a worrisome analysis of the current disarray across the globe as democracies struggle against authoritarianism and economic disparity. Probably the most influential book I read this year. Non-fiction. Recommended.

Working Class Rage, Tex Sample. I think this is the best of Sample’s work. He provides clarity about how resentment, powerlessness and marginality combine with racism and political manipulation to enflame the social dynamics that confront us today. He believes the antidote to resentment is local organizing that gives people voice and influence. Non-fiction. Recommended.

21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Yuval Noah Harari. Harari is one of the most provocative thinkers writing today. He raises questions about the future that should inform public policy for the long-term. How will we manage artificial intelligence? What will we do when automation in the workplace leaves millions of us unemployable? In the age of big data, who is watching you, and why? Harari poses profound questions that we will wrestle with as the future comes roaring at us in a daily torrent of technological change. Non-fiction. Recommended.

The Earth is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West, Peter Cozzens. Even before the end of the Civil War, white people had begun to stream west invading lands ceded to native peoples and onto homelands occupied by them for ages. The conflicts have been widely documented, but Cozzens provides a comprehensive account of the treachery, savagery and inhumanity that led to the dispossession and near genocide of native peoples across the U.S. west. This makes for tragic reading. It is a history of massacres, lies, miscommunication, broken promises and suffering. In 1863, Pres. Lincoln called several chiefs into Washington, D.C. Cozzens reports he spoke condescendingly to them, advising them that their only hope for prospering was to take up farming like white people, and offering no guarantee that they would be allowed to live on the open range as they had lived for centuries. Then he sent them on their way. One Indian told a white friend, “The government made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they never kept but one, they promised to take our land, and they took it.” Non-fiction. Recommended.

In Pieces, Sally Field. In an autobiography that is at times brutally honest and intimate, Sally Field tells of her ambiguous relationship with her mother, a relationship that affects virtually all others. Her roles as Gidget and the flying nun did not plumb the depths of her desire and determination to grow as an actor as the roles of Norma Raye and Mrs. Lincoln did. And in doing so, they affirmed her abilities as an actor and also put to rest some of the ambiguity between her and her mother. Non-fiction. Recommended.

Brief Answers to the Big Questions, Stephen Hawking. This collection of essays by Hawking published posthumously is mind-expanding. Hawking had the ability to explain complex theories about the cosmos in language that makes them accessible to the rest of us mere mortals. This makes for stimulating, challenging thought. Non-fiction. Recommended.

The Common Good, Robert Reich. The common good is rarely mentioned in political discourse today. Reich defines what he means by the common good, points out how it is disregarded by the economic and political elite, and makes a clear case for public policy and popular organizing to re-focus on the common good. Non-fiction. Recommended.

Unsheltered, Barbara Kingsolver. Kingsolver is a national treasure. In this novel she tells the story of two families separated by a century, living in the same poorly constructed house in Vineland, N.J. She weaves themes of social change, culture, scientific inquiry and female empowerment into a compelling tale that resonates with our contemporary social reality. Fiction. Recommended.

Every Day is Extra, John Kerry. I had to make myself stay with this autobiography through the first three chapters because they present a personal history that seems to me to fit the stereotype of an East coast elitist male upbringing. But after that, the personal history comes alive with Kerry’s military service in Vietnam, his commitment to public service, his awakening to his motivations for entering into politics and his desire to make a difference in the world. Non-fiction. Recommended.

Proud: My Fight for An Unlikely American Dream, Ibtihaj Muhammad. To become the first female Muslim American to medal at the Olympic Games required perseverance and ambition beyond measure. The challenges and sacrifices Ms. Muhammad faced are recounted in gritty detail. Non-fiction. Recommended.

Before We Were Yours, Lisa Wingate. The story of Georgia Tann and the Memphis Tennessee Children’s Home is horrific. From the 1920s until 1950, at Tann’s direction, children from poor families were abducted, often with complicit support of the police, housed in an orphanage and adopted out to wealthy families. This fictionalized recounting of one family of these children and how their lives were changed is both engaging and heart-breaking. Fiction. Recommended.

The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels, Jon Meacham. Reading Meacham makes me think that we stand a chance of getting through the Trump years. Meacham writes that our current moment of partisan fury is not new. We have withstood deep division before, and with informed, capable leaders, have come out the other side for the better. We can hope. Non-fiction. Recommended.

War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence, Ronan Farrow. Farrow lays out how the U.S. diplomatic corp has been hollowed out by budget cuts and policies that replace diplomatic efforts with generals and military response in areas of conflict, and how this decline affects global stability and safety. I resonated with his writing. In a lifetime of traveling the world documenting humanitarian assistance, refugee aid and disaster response in the non-profit sector, I became concerned about what I perceived to be a decline in U.S. diplomacy. I saw the growing influence of China as U.S. diplomatic presence declined, even after 9/11. Farrow completes this picture with anecdotes, narrative and facts. Non-fiction. Recommended.

Leonardo Da Vinci, Walter Isaacson. To undertake a biography of a polymath like Leonardo is, to me, a monumental, if not unthinkable, task. Yet Walter Isaacson has written a remarkably accessible biography that reveals Leonardo in his humanity and social reality. This is an extraordinary accomplishment about an extraordinary figure. Non-fiction. Recommended.

Married to a Bedouin, Marguerite van Geldermalsen. A young Ms. Geldermalsen, of Dutch and New Zealand extraction, was traveling with a friend through the Middle East when she met and fell in love with her future husband, Mohammad Abdullah, a Bedouin. After further travels she returned and married Mohammad and they lived most of their adult lives in caves in Petra, the Nabatean city in Jordan, which has since been designated a World Heritage site by UNESCO. This is a revealing look at family life through the eyes of Ms. Geldermalsen, who managed with her husband to bridge two cultures, raise two sons and lead an interesting, remarkable life. Non-fiction. Recommended.

Fascism: A Warning, Madeleine Albright. Having escaped Fascism in her youth, and writing from her rich global experience as Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright says that Fascism started in the 20th Century with a magnetic leader exploiting widespread dissatisfaction by promising all things. As authoritarianism rears its ugly head in politics around the world, her warning is one I take seriously and one which should make each of us in democratic societies more alert and attentive to our obligations as citizens. Non-fiction. Recommended.

The Forgotten Road, Richard Paul Evans. I hoped this would be a novel I would really enjoy as it involved the journey of a man searching for renewed understanding of his life by traveling route 66 in an attempt to reunite with his estranged wife. I grew up living only one block from route 66 in a small Oklahoma town and the highway holds more than a dose of romantic nostalgia for me. But this novel doesn’t cut the mustard. Fiction. Not recommended.

The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, Peter Frankopan. Frankopan offers a sweeping history of the world by examining trade relationships. He makes the case that the center of world power resides in what we in the global North call the Middle East. Frankopan says this crossroads of civilization has been the most influential region for the exercise of global power and influence, and if we are to understand global dynamics, we must seek to understand this part of the world. Non-fiction. Recommended.

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, Atul Gawande. As we age, how do we continue, in so far as possible, to shape the story of our lives and maintain connection to significant others? This is the central question Dr. Gawande addresses in this sensitive and insightful discussion of end of life care. This could be a depressing subject but Gawande makes it a warm and compassionate exploration about our common humanity. Non-fiction. Recommended.

Living Faith, Jimmy Carter. For President Carter, faith finds expression through compassion and justice. He is an evangelical who gives substance and depth to faith. His search to understand faith as a way of life informed by the great theologians of contemporary times is a rewarding read. Non-fiction. Recommended.

Educated, Tara Westover. Reared by a radical Mormon survivalist father and a mother compliant to his harsh, often violent, rule, it’s amazing Tara Westover escaped and developed her own independent, educated life. Without condemning her family, this first person account provides insight into a unique and horrifying upbringing, and it is a testament to the value of education. Non-fiction. Recommended.

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, Neil de Grasse Tyson. This small book offers brief explanations of significant issues in cosmology in language that makes them understandable to those of us not familiar with complex scientific language. It’s just a so-so book, far less helpful, in my opinion, than Hawking’s book reviewed above. Non-fiction. Meh.

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, Yuval Noah Harari. A look into the future that is enlightening, provocative and even frightening. For example, Harari, among other things, says “democracy and the free market will collapse once Google and Facebook know us better than we know ourselves, and authority will shift from individual humans to networked algorihthms.” Whew! Non-fiction. Recommended.

Last Bus to Wisdom, Ivan Doig. Set in the 1950s, this is a wonderful coming of age tale about a young boy from Montana. He lives with his loving grandmother who must send him to stay with an uncle in Wisconsin as she faces surgery and cannot care for him. He travels by Greyhound bus, meets a cast of characters and has experiences that broaden the narrow horizons of his innocent, rural life. The twists and turns, deeply human characters and loving relationships in tension with tough reality make this a wonderful tale. Fiction. Recommended.

The Book That Matters Most, Ann Hood. A mysterious book from childhood becomes the object of a life-long search for meaning. Our lives are more complex than we reveal on the surface, and we choose to conceal much that is painful and troubling. The narratives we shape, and the secrets we conceal, make for a life. In this interesting novel, the twists and turns of secrets, loss, love and healing relationships make for an engaging read. Fiction. Recommended.

What Happened, Hillary Rodham Clinton. It seems there’s no neutral position regarding Mrs. Clinton. She’s either respected or hated. In this account of her campaign she explains why she followed the course she did and what it was like to run against Donald Trump. The recounting is more personal than we’ve seen in much of the coverage of her, mainly because she felt she had to protect herself from prying media. That led to a distance that has yet to be overcome. Non-fiction. Recommended.

A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Leadership, James Comey. By now we’ve heard the case Comey makes for his behavior during the campaign and why he acted to reveal investigations that ultimately played a role in the election of Donald Trump. I find Comey’s explanations lacking and self-serving. I don’t doubt his commitment to ethical standards, but I do question his rationale for breaking precedent and injecting himself and the FBI into the campaign in a way that influenced the election. Non-fiction. Recommended.

Faith: A Journey for All, Jimmy Carter. At 96, President Carter continues to display an openness and activism that reveals a powerful, living faith. In this volume he defines faith as “a belief in something that has always existed; it is never based on scientific discoveries, or what we learn as facts, but always on a moral concept or a vision of something superlative or idealistic.” Non-fiction. Recommended.

Barracoon: The Story of the Last ‘Black Cargo,’ Zora Neale Hurston. This work went unpublished for 80 years due to copyright complications. But it remains a compelling, important story in 2018. Zora Neale Hurston interviewed Cudjo Lewis, the last survivor of the of the last slave ship to make the transatlantic crossing to the United States. Told in Mr. Lewis’ own words, this is a powerful recounting of the inhumanity of the slave trade, an insight into the deep emotional wounds it inflicted, and a study in dispossession, alienation, and accommodation. Powerful. Non-fiction. Recommended.

Cave of Bones, Anne Hillerman. Anne Hillerman has picked up where her father left off with the tales of Leaphorn, Chee and Manuelito, Navajo police officers solving crimes on the reservation in the Four Corners of the U.S. Her tales of the Southwest ring true, and offer entertaining respite from the daily grind of political rhetoric, corruption and criminal behavior inflicted upon us daily in real life. Fiction. Recommended.

A Theology for the Earth, Anne Marie Dalton. Exploring the writing of Thomas Berry and Bernard Lonergan, this is one of the most sound, and meaty, theological studies on the environment and spirituality I’ve read lately. There is too much in this writing to crystallize in one phrase, but the discussion of immanence is especially important. Dalton writes, “The doctrine of God’s immanence maintains that God is not distant from creation, but that all creation participates somehow in the divine reality.” At a time when we hear rigid dogma presented as the content of faith, this open-ended, sacramental understanding of Creation is a corrective to non-sensical fundamentalism and sentimentalized spirituality. Non-fiction. Recommended.

A Lowcountry Heart: Reflections on a Writing Life, Pat Conroy. A posthumous collection of letters and essays written by the southern novelist Pat Conroy. Despite his harsh childhood, he found meaning in the stories of others and made it his life’s work to draw out those stories and enlarge upon them through fiction. He reconciled with his authoritarian father and chronicled the low country culture of his native South Carolina. Non-fiction. Recommended.

Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, Joshua Foer. I have a terrible deficit remembering names. It’s complicated by a medication I take. I was interested in working on mnemonics to help me remember names and avoid embarrassment and frustration. Foer explains how he became a world class competitor in USA Memory Championship competition using mnemonics. The key: to create as outlandish, and lewd, a mnemonic as possible. Enough said. Non-fiction. Recommended.

The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks, Terry Tempest Williams. This is such a pleasure to read. It’s a mix of poetry, narrative, spirituality and personal reflection based on experiences at national parks across the country. Tempest Williams’ activism is a gift to us. Non-fiction. Recommended.

The Faith of Dolly Parton, Dudley Delffs. Dolly is such an interesting character an in-depth biography of her life story would be an intriguing read. I hope some biographer gets beyond the managed image to the person. This is not that book. It’s a collection from second-hand sources interjected with evangelical religious reflections. Non-fiction. Don’t bother.

The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit, Michael Finkel. Finkel established a relationship with a true hermit who lived in the North Woods of Maine for most his adult life, scavenging for survival, sometimes terrifying local people as a result. Non-fiction. Recommended.

M Train, Patti Smith. Patti Smith is a performer, writer and visual artist. Her album Horses has been hailed by Rolling Stone as one of the best 100 albums of all time. In this first person narrative she reflects on her life, in no particular timeline, but over the accumulation of a lifetime of experiences. The book offers insight into the mind of a creative multi-platform artist. Non-fiction. Recommended.

Chasing Hillary, Amy Chozick. I thought I would get a picture of the Clinton campaign from the viewpoint of this New York Times writer as she traveled in the press corps. There’s some of that, but there’s also the writer’s reflections about her tense relationship with Mrs. Clinton, reflections that, frankly, seem less informative than embarrassing. With due respect to Ms. Chozick, I had hoped for more reportage and I didn’t need the interpersonal reflections. Non-fiction. Not recommended.

Henry David Thoreau: A Life, Laura Dassow Walls. This is the most informative and complete biography of Thoreau that I’ve seen. Dr. Walls presents Thoreau in a wider view than the writings for which he is known. His relationship to Emerson is threaded throughout the narrative, and his interests and activities beyond Walden are presented. It’s a worthwhile look at an iconic figure in U.S. history. Non-fiction. Recommended.

The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Richard Rhodes. While doing photography at White Sands National Monument in New Mexico, I picked up this volume. It earned Rhodes a Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award. It’s a wide-ranging account of the lives of the scientists who developed the bomb, their evolving knowledge of the atom, the political environment in which they worked, the secrecy to which they were sworn, and the isolated social setting in New Mexico where they lived. It’s a thorough, and thoroughly engaging, account of a scientific accomplishment that has changed our world forever. Non-fiction. Recommended.

Walden and Other Writings, Henry David Thoreau. I started the year re-reading Thoreau. I suppose I would have been a Transcendentalist had I lived in his times. What strikes me about the Transcendentalists is their sense of the sacredness of nature. Thoreau witnessed the full-blown industrialization of the country with skepticism if not disgust. As we face a crisis of environmental degradation today that threatens human existence on the planet, Thoreau’s view of nature seems more prescient than peculiar. Non-fiction. Recommended.

The Genius of Birds, Jennifer Ackerman. Bird brains are far more complicated than that phrase implies, according to Ackerman. Birds are intelligent creatures, some more so than others. But in this account Ackerman reports on research around the world that establishes that birds are much more intelligent than has been recognized, and they deserve our respect and appreciation. Non-fiction. Recommended.

My Southern Journey: True Stories From the Heart of the South, Rick Bragg. Ever since he wrote for the New York Times, I’ve been a fan of Rick Bragg. I must confess, however, that I’ve become weary of southern males writing about their relationship to their mothers. It’s an overworked theme in country music and there’s plenty of it in this volume. I don’t mean we should disrespect our mothers, but this trope is over done. Non-fiction. Recommended.

This Fight is Our Fight: The Battle to Save America’s Middle Class, Elizabeth Warren. I know she sets conservatives’ hair on fire, but she’s bright and clear-headed about the role of government functioning on behalf of the people and contributing to a more prosperous life. Perhaps it’s because she’s so competent that she causes such a stir. And maybe that’s why she garners such a strong negative reaction from the banksters and politicians they’ve bought. She’s a threat and she perseveres. Non-fiction. Recommended.

So, that’s it. I read a few other books about birds and nature, but they are of limited interest and not reviewed here.

I’m interested in hearing from you about your most interesting reading in the year past. Feel free to share in the comments section of this post.

In Search of the Soul of America

As immigrant children were being taken from their parents and held in cages, former First Lady Laura Bush compared it to the internment of Japanese Americans that started in February, 1942.

Public outrage was unlike any in modern times.

Many claimed it was un-American and it violated the soul of the nation.

That phrase, the soul of the nation, is more than intriguing in these dark days. It calls for self-examination and re-engagement with the responsibilities of citizenship.

What is the soul of America today when basic human rights are violated?

When compassion is mocked as being soft and truth itself is a refugee in search of safe harbor?

When some evangelical Christians stand behind a policy that takes babies from their mother’s breasts, puts children in cages, and incarcerates teenage boys in tent internment camps in the desert?

When the U.S. government refuses to reveal where the babies, little girls and female teens have been secreted away?

When a morally deficient president equates human beings to vermin who “infest” the country?

When an evangelical Christian attorney general quotes scripture to justify inhumane government policy as ordained by God?

We are in such a time. Toxic politics, nationalism, tribalism, misogyny, ignorance, racism, sexism, homophobia, isolationism, and perhaps most menacing of all, authoritarianism, are expressed openly putting our democracy in peril.

Trusted institutions are under attack. Truth is mugged daily. Compassion is mocked. The vulnerable are exploited and the rich get richer as the poor get left behind.

Re-considering the soul of the nation under these circumstances seems more than an urgent exercise. It seems a critical necessity, because the entire democratic experiment is on the line.

A few weeks before the family separation tragedy, I set out on a reading journey in an attempt to gain understanding of this thing called the American soul, perhaps to stave off my own depression.

One of the several books I read is John Meacham’s, The Soul of America: The Battle for our Better Angels.

Meacham writes that we’ve been through dark moments before and the character of the nation’s soul has been a check on our worst behavior and a challenge to live up to our ideals.

This is reassuring, but it also contains a pertinent caution. We often betray our ideals and wound our soul. Sometimes we take one step forward and two steps back.

In key moments, dark moments, we have reached deep, claimed higher values and sought healing through truth, justice and equality.

Courageous leaders often stepped up and behaved in ways that led us through. He cites Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, LBJ and Martin Luther King, among others.

Knowing this history reminds us of the character required to take on tough problems and it recalls the values that have undergirded struggles for justice in the past.

Knowing how we’ve overcome our past challenges doesn’t lessen the seriousness of the problems we face today but it points us to key touchstones.

For example, Meacham writes that Teddy Roosevelt shared a dream of Anglo-Saxon imperialism. But at a time when people in the West were afraid of being overrun and outworked by Chinese, Roosevelt rose above the fears and defined an America that was more inclusive and egalitarian.

“Americanism is a question of spirit, conviction, and purpose, not of creed or birthplace,” Roosevelt said.

In declarations like this we begin to discover the meaning of “soul.” It’s what distinguishes the U.S. from other countries, Meacham says.

It is a nation founded on ideals, not on race, birthplace or tribal lineage.

“This was the first nation in the history of the world to be founded with a purpose,” he writes.

And our purpose is captured in key words and phrases: “All men (sic) are created equal,” “government by the consent of the governed,” “give me liberty or give me death.”

These are not mere clever formulations. They mean something.

Even when they are dishonored and betrayed, they are a call to our better angels, a pinprick of conscience imploring us to embody the values embedded in this soul message we tell ourselves.

Meacham does not soft pedal how native peoples were treated from the very beginning, nor the inhumanity and immorality of slavery.

He documents those times when we have denied our better angels: the selfishness, exploitation and greed that led to the Great Depression; the Civil War, and the racism that found new life in Reconstruction and the Lost Cause; the internment of Japanese Americans during WW II; displacement of Native people; denying women the vote; and the horrors inflicted by the Klan and other racists.

Progress comes slowly, he says. “Reform is slow work, and it is for neither the faint-hearted nor the impatient.”

But it happens. It happens because good people make it happen.

And in these days, remembering that the people embody the soul of the nation makes citizenship a serious responsibility that we often overlook.

Meacham says “progress does not usually begin at the top and among the few, but from the bottom and among the many.”

There is hope in this claim. If we the people hold fast to the ideals of the soul story, we can make change happen.

Even cynical leaders wear out their welcome Meacham says. He recounts the infamous McCarthy era.

McCarthy’s lawyer, Roy Cohn, who also trained a young Donald Trump, said, “Human nature being what it is, any outstanding actor on the stage of public affairs—and especially a holder of high office—cannot remain indefinitely at the center of controversy.”

“The public must eventually lose interest in him and his cause,” Cohn is reported to have said.

Meacham says grasping our past is orienting. It’s also encouraging.

If we remind ourselves that we’ve walked the path in dark shadows before and emerged into the light, we can do so again.

What drove me to reflect on this is my work experiences covering global humanitarian issues over the past 30 years.

I learned early in this work that the facade of what we call civilization is very thin and under adverse circumstances it can crack and fall.

Somalia, Ethiopia, Niger, Cuba, Kampuchea all taught me that we humans have the capacity to do unspeakable evil to one another, or to give assent to others and allow them to do great harm.

If we forget our own humanity and do not hold fast to ideals of human dignity and justice, evil things can happen.

Thus, I have never believed in the dictum, “It won’t happen here.” It could.

The soul of the nation is only as strong at the commitment of the people to hear and embody the truth of Lincoln’s words, spoken at another dark hour in our history, and to live so that they become true.

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies.
Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle field and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

First Inaugural Address, 1864

Jimmy Carter on Faith

Faith: a journey for all

Jimmy Carter has solidified his global reputation as a statesman and moral leader.

He’s an evangelical who takes politics seriously, but he’s not in the least like those who most loudly represent this branch of the Christian tree in today’s media.

In his latest book Faith: A Journey for All, he explains his evangelical faith, an explanation which is about as traditional as it gets.

It’s so different from the fundamentalist, partisan evangelicals in the public eye today as to make it distinctive, perhaps even redemptive of the word.

His understanding of faith is gracious, compassionate, inclusive and just.

He writes, “I try to remember what I frequently teach: that the love and grace of God does not have to be earned; the message is not ‘Try harder and do better’ but ‘Receive the gift with happiness, and show your gratitude by sharing God’s love with others.’

He illustrates with one story after another. One of the most interesting is how he brought Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat together at the historic Camp David negotiation that resulted in Egypt and Israel entering into a new relationship.

He offers compelling personal history about how his parents, and later he and Rosalind, stood firm against the racism in Georgia that threatened their income, and sometimes their lives.

I found it instructive and challenging. If only I had that attitude of magnanimity and perseverance, I thought as I read.

As we know, his faith has practical consequences. He’s shown this throughout his life.

His discussion of faith, framed with insight from Niebuhr, Barth and Tillich among other mainstream theologians, is more than pieties. Faith values inform his understanding of diplomacy, policy, global relations and the body politic.

For example, his formula for dealing with dictators like Kim Jung Un where sanctions have brought extreme hardship to his people is to target the elite with sanctions on travel, foreign bank accounts, and other privileges of government officials, and not on the economy in which the oppressed are already suffering.

He warns that politicians in the U.S. at all levels are becoming obligated to big money donors. As a result, we are changing from a democracy to an oligarchy.

This is not a new thought, of course, but coming from President Carter, it rings with a power that sounds less like partisan sniping and more like a diagnosis to be taken seriously.

He recalls telling his students in a class at Emory University that church members are more self-satisfied, committed to the status quo and exclusive of dissimilar people than are many politicians he has known.

Many congregations are more like spectators than participants in the quest for justice and social change, he says.

He writes that he believes faith is both a noun and a verb.

Recently, when Jeff Sessions justified ripping immigrant children from their mothers at the border by citing a passage from Paul in Romans 13, in which Paul says we should be obedient to the laws of government because God has ordained government for his purposes, I turned Carter.

He wrote presciently. “Jesus went to his death and Paul spent his final years in prison rather than conform to religious and secular laws they could not accept.”

“We are not required to submit quietly to the domination of secular authority without assessing whether it is contrary to our religious faith.”

Carter explains a complex faith in simple language. He practices what he believes.

He is a gift, and we benefit from his telling of the Good News, truly an evangel.

The End of Diplomacy

Several years ago I produced a film in Ethiopia about the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

Research took me across the country and I was privileged to see the breadth of this ancient, colorful culture and the landscape in which it has evolved.

At one point, my traveling companions told me about the “China bridge.”

It was a new structure that replaced an older, less reliable bridge over a mountain pass.

Later, I was in another African country and heard about the “China road.”

I began to keep my eyes and ears open to the presence of China in this part of the world.

I knew Chinese workers had provided the labor to build the Nairobi to Mombasa railroad in Kenya under British colonial rule, but it was not a strategic actor in modern times.

China into Africa

However, it was becoming clear that China was inserting itself into the continent by building infrastructure, doing business and exploiting natural resources.

At first, it was a bit clumsy because Chinese workers weren’t there for diplomacy, they were there to get a job done and they didn’t interact well with local populations.

Moreover, China was also buying large tracts of land for agricultural development and this didn’t sit well with locals who were often thrown off the land.

In effect, I was witnessing a new geopolitical move by China to extend its reach into a continent to which it had not given much attention in recent decades.

I thought of this as I read the excellent account of the decline of U.S. diplomacy by Ronan Farrow, War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence.

The Decline of U.S. Influence

Farrow provides first-rate reporting about how U.S. diplomatic strategies were implemented, ignored, or compromised, in Pakistan and Afghanistan, Africa, Asia and Latin America.

He offers unique insight and detail about the efforts of special representative Richard Holbrooke, among others.

It’s a compelling story, as well as one that should be of great concern. It illustrates how elections in the U.S. make a difference.

Importantly, it makes it clear how the loss of U.S. influence puts national security at risk in these days of geopolitical crises.

As I read Farrow’s account of U.S. involvement in Somalia as recently as 2004, I recalled my own experiences there two decades earlier.

It concerned me way back then that Somalia in anarchy was a destabilizing force in east Africa. But it seemed a mere blip on the radar of U.S. politicians until Somali pirates began to highjack tankers moving down the Gulf of Suez into the Indian Ocean.

To be sure, they were interested in the region much earlier and appropriated the island of Diego Garcia for an airbase, and later estabished a large militay presence in Djoubti, but less about Somalia.

From Diplomacy to Military Think

The crux of the case Farrow makes is that the U.S. has reduced its diplomatic capacity worldwide in favor of increasing its military footprint. This has the effect of putting our international relationships in the hands of generals who have military power but are not skilled at, nor assigned to develop the kinds of relationships with civilian populations as diplomats have cultivated in the past, nor to assist to in the development of countries to encourage democracy.

They enter under security-building protocols, and this is very different.

In fact, so-called “nation-building” is derided and ridiculed today. There will be no Marshall Plan coming from politicians who quietly and spinelessly accept modern-day isolationist ideology.

And that’s a shame as well as a danger.

What is Being Lost

Farrow writes that what is being lost is generations of skill, knowledge and relationships that undergird the U.S.’s efforts to grow democracy and create a more peaceful world, as idealistic as that sounds.

He notes in precise detail how frequently the ideal has been hypocritically betrayed.

China, on the other hand, has stepped up its efforts—it’s transactional diplomacy, not the type of relationship diplomacy the U.S., at its best, has attempted to do—and China is filling in the gaps.

Among other things, this means that youth around the world are interacting with Chinese programs and receiving a worldview from the Chinese perspective, business people are developing transactional relationships with China for business and infrastructure, and politicians are interacting with Chinese officials more directly.

And the U.S. is in the background diplomatically.

A Lost Future

In his epilogue, Farrow quotes senior State Department official Bill Burns as he is leaving his post in the opening days of the Trump Administration.

Burns summarizes the dilemma, “There’s a real corrosion of the sense of American leadership in the world and the institutions that make that leadership real. You end up creating circumstances where you wake up fifteen years from now and say ‘Where are all those Foreign Service officers who should be just short of the mark of becoming ambassadors?’ and they’re not going going to be there.”

But, Farrow writes, China will be there.


Here are two interesting takes on the decline of U.S. diplomacy, not directly related to Farrow’s book, but certainly complementary to the core idea: Trump’s America Does Not Care and Trump Has Put America in the Worst of All Possible Worlds, This Should Have Been the Real Headline of the Trump Kim Summit.

Church Leaders Speak Against Family Separation

The practice of separating children from their mothers at the U.S. border is against the values I have been taught that the United States holds with respect for human rights and it is certainly against the teachings of Jesus. I have written the bishops of my church asking them to speak out. I have written my Senators and Representative asking them to stand against the policy and if necessary rush emergency legislation to block family separation. Silence is complicity. 

In Matthew 25:35-40 Jesus’ message could not be more clear:

35 I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. 36 I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 “Then those who are righteous will reply to him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? 38 When did we see you as a stranger and welcome you, or naked and give you clothes to wear? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 “Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’

 

FAITH LEADERS’ STATEMENT ON FAMILY SEPARATION 

Recently, the U.S. Administration announced that it will begin separating families and criminally prosecuting all people who enter the U.S. without previous authorization. As religious leaders representing diverse faith perspectives, united in our concern for the well-being of vulnerable migrants who cross our borders fleeing from danger and threats to their lives, we are deeply disappointed and pained to hear this news. 

We affirm the family as a foundational societal structure to support human community and understand the household as an estate blessed by God. The security of the family provides critical mental, physical and emotional support to the development and wellbeing of children. Our congregations and agencies serve many migrant families that have recently arrived in the United States. Leaving their communities is often the only option they have to provide safety for their children and protect them from harm. Tearing children away from parents who have made a dangerous journey to provide a safe and sufficient life for them is unnecessarily cruel and detrimental to the well-being of parents and children.  

As we continue to serve and love our neighbor, we pray for the children and families that will suffer due to this policy and urge the Administration to stop their policy of separating families.

His Eminence Archbishop Vicken Aykazian
Diocesan Legate and
Director of the Ecumenical Office
Diocese of the Armenian Church of America

Mr. Azhar Azeez
President
Islamic Society of North America

The Most Rev. Joseph C. Bambera
Bishop of Scranton, PA
Chair, Bishops’ Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs

Senior Bishop George E. Battle, Jr.
Presiding Prelate, Piedmont Episcopal District
African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church

Bishop Kenneth H. Carter, Jr.
President, Council of Bishops
The United Methodist Church

The Most Rev. Michael B. Curry
Presiding Bishop
Episcopal Church (United States)

The Rev. Dr. John C. Dorhauer
General Minister & President
United Church of Christ

The Rev. Elizabeth A. Eaton
Presiding Bishop
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

The Rev. David Guthrie
President, Provincial Elders’ Conference
Moravian Church Southern Province

Mr. Glen Guyton
Executive Director
Mennonite Church USA

The Rev. Teresa Hord Owens
General Minister and President
Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Rabbi Rick Jacobs
President
Union for Reform Judaism

Mr. Anwar Khan
President
Islamic Relief USA

The Rev. Dr. Betsy Miller
President, Provincial Elders’ Conference
Moravian Church Northern Province

The Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson II
Stated Clerk
Presbyterian Church (USA)

Rabbi Jonah Pesner
Director
Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism

The Rev. Don Poest
Interim General Secretary
The Rev. Eddy Alemán
Candidate for General Secretary
Reformed Church in America

Senior Bishop Lawrence Reddick III
Presiding Bishop, The 8th Episcopal District
Christian Methodist Episcopal Church

The Rev. Phil Tom
Executive Director
International Council of Community Churches

Senior Bishop McKinley Young
Presiding Prelate, Third Episcopal District
African Methodist Episcopal Church

###

http://www.umc.org/who-we-are/faith-leaders-statement-on-family-separation

Educated

Tara Westover did not set foot in a classroom until she was seventeen, at least that’s how old she thinks she was.

In her memoir, Educated, she says her birthday was never recorded. She had no birth certificate because her anti-government, survivalist father wanted the family to be invisible to the feds.

He was also radically anti-medical establishment and a fundamentalist Mormon.

For most of her youth, she sorted scrap metal in the junkyard that was part of her family’s home base below a remote mountain in Idaho.

Childhood

As a child, she was impaled by metal, abused physically and emotionally by both her father and an older brother. The latter held her head in a toilet to demonstrate his power, and once threatened her life, handing her a bloodied knife with which he had just dismembered a family dog as if to confirm his threat.

Her siblings and both parents experienced life-threatening injuries including disfiguring burns, head trauma and broken bones, all of which were treated with home remedies concocted by her herbalist mother.

Her mother was also an unlicensed midwife who yielded to the patriarchal authority of her husband, even when that meant acquiescing to, or denying outright, the violence and abuse that ran through the family’s relationships.

Westover details her father’s emotional extremes which she speculates could result from bipolar disorder and perhaps schizophrenia.

But she writes that he will never be diagnosed because he refuses medical treatment.

Education as a Way Out

Three of her brothers, among seven siblings, found their way out of the family dysfunction to go on to higher education. All achieving PhDs.

With encouragement from a brother, Tara eventually educated herself sufficiently to pass the ACT and achieve admission into Brigham Young University at age 17 as home-schooled.

It was not an easy transition. She held fast to the values imparted from her parents who regarded even “mainstream” Mormons as gentiles and considered her desire for education as “whoring after man’s knowledge.”

Her story is remarkable; a feral child from a family enmeshed in radical ideology and obvious dangerous dysfunction; a young woman who did not know about the Holocaust when it was raised in a lecture about Western art in her freshman year in college.

She was successful at BYU, so successful she received a prestigious fellowship to Cambridge, then Harvard, and ultimately earned her PhD as well.

It’s a wonder she survived, much less achieved academic distinction.

Narrating Her Own Life

She writes of the interior struggle to resolve the conflict between the reality taught by her father and the reality was learning through her education.

“My life was narrated for me by others,” she writes. “It had never occurred to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs.”

Here is the crux of her interior struggle—to discover her right to narrate her own story and develop the courage to find her voice.

At Cambridge she discovered the writings of Mary Wollenstonecraft and John Stuart Mill, and her intellectual world and her emotional world both began to open in ways she had never imagined possible.

A friend sent her Redemption Song by Bob Marley with the lyrics
“Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery
None but ourselves can free our minds.”

She scratched the lines in notebooks, on margins, and lost herself contemplating what they meant.

Estrangement

But the more educated she became, the more estranged she felt from her family back home. Despite the violence and rigid ideology, there was also a bond that she felt was sealed by love, as distorted and confusing as it was.

The pressures built. Her desire for connection, her love of family, her life narrated by others conflicted with the lectures and reading at Cambridge.

This struggle led to a nervous breakdown for which she sought counseling.

If all of this seems too horrific to bear, it isn’t.

Hope

Woven throughout her gripping, sometimes shocking narrative, is hope. It resonates like a mountain flower breaking through the winter snow and ever-so-gently bringing color to the landscape.

With the help of friends, counseling and her educated siblings, she regained her balance.

She writes of the empowering value of education, power that allowed her to claim her life, to transition from a frightened sixteen-year-old girl whose reflection in the mirror called her to be her father’s daughter on his terms, or to leave the girl in the mirror behind and create a new self.

Education

Education done well can enable us to claim a more authentic and aware self, and more.

For some of us it isn’t enough to lay claim to a new life, the old life must be deconstructed, to step away from the mirror.

And in Tara’s metamorphosis, it meant negotiating the difficult path to resist the hold of those who narrated the old life.

In the rigid family structure she was reared in, it also meant estrangement from values and beloved parents and siblings.

I thought of her story as I also read of the debate about the value of education in our country today.

The value of those majors in higher education that are not focused on skills for careers in new technologies are being called into question.

To Gain a Life

Tara Westover’s gripping story is testament that education is about more than learning a skill to find a job. That’s an important part of the process, to be sure.

But more importantly, it’s about gaining wisdom, the ability see more clearly.

It’s a door to something deeper, more enduring and life-changing—the development of a person aware of his or her place in the universe, and affected by wisdom inherited from those who have gone before us, and responsible to those who will come after us.

Finding a voice and developing the confidence to use it.

Selfhood.

Barracoon-A Story

The difference between a tragedy and a statistic is a story.

A story can enflesh the statistic, make it real, give it emotional context, and make it human.

A human story can reveal that we are more similar than different.

We share hopes and dreams that are not limited by barriers of language, geography or the color of our skin.

A story that reveals our desire for connection—to the land of our birth, to each other and, most importantly, our desire for basic human dignity, illuminates our common humanity.

Barracoon: The Story of the Last ‘Black Cargo,’ by Zora Neale Hurston fulfills exactly this role.

And it does it through gripping, emotionally engaging, gut-wrenching tragedy bound up in unimaginable endurance and hope that is as authentic a human story as we will ever read.

The story of Oluale Kossula humanizes the tragedy of more than 12 million people in Africa who were captured, chained in stockades, and sold into enslavement.

Kossula was captured in 1860 by a warring king in Africa at the age of 19 and transported on the slave ship, Clotilde, in violation of U.S. law, to Alabama where he was enslaved.

The events in Africa are as horrific as the inhumanity that lies in future bondage in the U.S. And this honesty adds authenticity to Kossula’s very human story.

The Clotilde was the last slave ship to transport Africans illegally into the United States.

By enabling Kossula to tell his story in his own way, Hurston gives voice to one among those millions of voices most often left out of the story of enslavement, the enslaved themselves.

Much of what we know about this horrible period of human history is told through the words of the slave owners, the statistics derived from ship manifests and slave markets.

“All these words from the seller, but not one word from the sold,” writes Hurston in her introduction.

She held fast to helping Kossula (his English name was Cudjo Lewis), tell his story through his own distinct dialect, which publishers at the time wanted to change to “respectable” language.

Hurston refused to compromise and, therefore, it took 87 years for this story to be told.

We should be grateful, for Kossula is, in his own way, an articulate and powerful storyteller.

It is as if we are allowed into the sacred space of conversation between Hurston and Cudjo, sitting on the porch or in his windowless house in Plateau, Alabama, or under the shade tree, listening to the pain of dislocation, the loneliness, the hope for the future, and the incomprehensible strength of this life, this man who has survived against all odds.

The racism that infects contemporary society in the U.S. from the White House on down, makes Cudjo’s story is as relevant today as ever.

As Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead, it’s not even past.”

Editor Deborah G. Plant says in her afterword, Barracoon is a counternarrative to our collective silence about slaves and slavery, about slaveholders and the American Dream (and I would add inaction about racism).

Because it illuminates our humanity—the good and the evil, the horrific and the lovely, the vulnerability and the strength—Barracoon is as fresh and important today as it was when Hurston first sat down to listen to this powerful storyteller, and that she stood fast to tell the story in his own words, makes it all the more important and enlightening.

Jordan: Awe-inspiring beauty, culture, people

Temple of Hercules ruins, Amman

Ruins of the Temple of Hercules at the Roman Citadel, Amman

Standing in the Roman Citadel on the highest point of the modern city of Amman, Jordan before sunrise, the pale light of dawn revealed the ruins of the great temple of Hercules built by the Romans around 30 BC.

The site is considered by some experts to be among the world’s oldest continuously inhabited places with pottery shards dating from the Neolithic period.

I felt my heart beat with excitement as I set a tripod to catch the gathering light. “It can’t get any better than this,” I thought.

Later, when we entered the Roman colonnade city of Jerash before sunset, the blue sky was punctuated by puffy white clouds that would bring a brief shower.

Hadrian's Arch, Jerash

Hadrian’s Arch, Jerash

The orange glow lit Hadrian’s arch, the impressive entrance to the city, constructed around 129 AD. And I thought one more time, “It can’t get any better than this.”

The next evening as we turned in for the night at the Dead Sea, I watched the sun set over Jerusalem across the way as the sunlight splayed like diamonds on the surface of the water, and I thought once again, “It can’t get any better…”

And so it went for 9 days across the country of Jordan, a feast of history, culture, food, wonderful people and haunting beauty.

Wadi Rum sunset

Wadi Rum sunset

From Amman to Jerash; from the Dead Sea to the evocative beauty of the desert wilderness of Wadi Rum (where the movie The Martian was filmed); from the ancient city of Petra carved into the sandstone cliffs to Dana, the northernmost point of the Great Rift Valley that extends southward through east Africa, each day brought its own awe.

I was traveling with a group of seven photographers led by noted photographer Ken Keminesky of Discovery Photo Tours. In addition to our Jordanian guide, we were an eclectic collection of ages and nationalities from New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Singapore, the U.S., and a U.S. expatriate living in the Netherlands.

The Treasury, Petra

The Treasury, Petra

Traveling with the group was a joy in itself. Our travel time was marked by bright conversation, humor, and helpful sharing of ideas and information.

I will be posting photos from the trip on my Facebook photography page as well as my personal Facebook page and Instagram. I hope you’ll take a moment to view these brief photo stories and I hope they convey the wonders of Jordan that so captivated me.

Impending Famine

Examination by a community health worker in a Somali clinic.

Examination by a community health worker in a Somali clinic.

I just finished watching We Who Remain, a new virtual reality film from the New York Times about survivors of the Sudan civil war. They are from the Nuba mountain region that was retained by the government in the north when South Sudan was created.

But rebels from the south continued to operate in the Nuba mountains, resulting in ongoing warfare between the northern government and southern combatants.

The immersive film, which is viewed by placing a cellphone into a simple two lens cardboard device, provides a 360° view into the lives of those who remain in the region. It’s also viewable without the 360° viewer.

While they feel trapped by the horrific fighting, this is their home. They have no place to which they can flee, so they remain.

Their stories are touching, engaging and sad. Children have seen bodies dismembered by bombs dropped from the air. They have learned to jump into large holes dug into the earth when the bombs drop or the shooting starts.

This is, unfortunately, not a new story. It’s one of the oldest conflicts in recent history. 

Social Conflict

It’s continued, in part, because the region for many years was not viewed as strategically important to the Cold War powers. After the end of the Cold War, Eritrean separatists fought and won independence from Ethiopia. Somalia came apart and descended into anarchy. And in Sudan rebels in the south took up arms and won independence from the north.

Then the Middle East region became a hotbed of violence. Today the U.S. has a base in Djoubti and China is moving in next door. After displacing its residents and leasing it from the British, the U.S. established a base on the Indian Ocean atoll, Diego Garcia. The area is strategic due to its position between East Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia.

I’ve traveled in Somalia, Sudan and Ethiopia several times and the region looks today much as it did when I was there several years ago. Southern Sudan, including the Nuba mountains, is an arid, bare landscape. The people have adapted by learning to live on the edge of survival, primarily by tending cattle.

Many of the children have grown up knowing nothing but social conflict. Many have lost parents, siblings and whole families. The conflict seems intractable and the suffering unending. Only days ago seven humanitarian aid workers were ambushed and killed in South Sudan.

Perhaps this intractability is why it doesn’t attract much attention anymore. But that’s an unsatisfactory reason for not attempting to alleviate the human suffering that is growing by the day.

Impending Famine

The United Nations says it needs $4.4 billion by July to prevent famine in South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen and northeastern Nigeria. Famine threatens 20 million people. Some reports claim it could be the worst humanitarian crisis since the end of World War II.

In addition, millions of Syrians are displaced and living in temporary conditions that are miserable, or worse. 

While this global crisis develops, the U.S. and some European nations are engaged in interminable debates over national politics to the neglect of a world that is broken and divided. We are preoccupied by a nationalist, nativist ideological dispute that detracts from global perspective.

For people of goodwill, and most especially, for people of Christian faith, this is also a distraction from the historic teachings of the faith. Scripture tells us we are citizens first of the kingdom of God, and that our responsibilities for feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, offering water to the thirsty and making peace have no boundaries. It is all God’s world. And we share responsibility for its nurture and care.

A World of Abundance

Thus, despite the false preaching that offers Bible-blessed nationalism, the call to Christians today is to maintain a global view and to act accordingly. This means to provide aid to those who are vulnerable, those who for no reason but birth, find themselves living in life-threatening conditions. It means caring for people within the borders of our own nation and beyond. It means understanding that there’s enough for all. We live in a world of abundance, not one of scarcity.

And it means advocating for funding for humanitarian aid and keeping foreign assistance.  

Among those groups that I support offering direct service and advocacy are the International Rescue Committee and Church World Service. Both organizations help me keep this perspective.

 

Unity, Schism, or Something In-between?

The bishops of The United Methodist Church proposed a path forward that forestalled debate on human sexuality when they offered a plan of action to the delegates of the 2016 General Conference of the church in Portland.

The plan includes a call to an extended time of prayer, review of the sections of the church’s law book referring to human sexuality, the creation of a commission to consider how to move the church forward and the possibility for a called session of General Conference at some future date to consider how the church manages its conflict over human sexuality.

Exclusionary policies regarding homosexuality spelled out in the law book of the church, called the Book of Discipline, are the source of the dispute.

I watched as an outsider after having been part of the general church staff for a number of years.

Parliamentary procedure became a proxy for action in a session that looked like the church was slowly unraveling. Delegates called for multiple points of order and made amendments to motions that brought the proceedings to a standstill.

One delegate even made an unprecedented request (at least I can find no precedent) to ask the bishop presiding over the session to step down due to “bias” and allow another to take his place.

This was an indication of how brutal the situation has become and how deeply entrenched are the different factions.

A Theological Problem

At root, this is a theological problem of great importance. But it also a cultural issue. And even some conservatives who are holding fast to exclusion concede that it is a battle lost. The church is fighting over values from a world that is already past, but not yet fully accepted by some.

It seems reasonable to say that there is no theological solution to the division. The differences are too great. The hurts too deep. The positions too fixed.

The denomination, once a cornerstone of mainline theology, has become irrelevant in the public conversation about human sexuality in the United States due to its exclusionary policies and practices.

On this issue, it is now in league with theologies that are more accurately situated in 19th and 20th century fundamentalism than in the traditions, teachings and practices of Christian faith over the centuries.

For a lucid discussion of this, see a statement by Timothy Eberhart, Assistant Professor of Theology and Ecology at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and Assistant Professor of Theology and Ecology at Methodist Theological School in Ohio.

Only time will tell if the proposed commission can provide alternatives that keep the church from making a formal split. On the other hand, it may determine that a split is preferable to the theological differences that are eating away at the church’s mission and witness.

Revisiting Regionalism

Past proposals for reorganization into semi-autonomous regional bodies will likely be given greater consideration. This would, in theory, make it possible for the church in different parts of the world to follow the theological perspective most acceptable to that region—schism without calling it schism.

What it would do to common mission and witness is open to question. What it would do to the nature of the community and how United Methodists view themselves in the world is worth considering as well.

Discipleship and the Kingdom of God

The call to discipleship is a call to see oneself in relationship to the whole world that is God’s good Creation. It is not a call to sectarianism, chauvinism, or cultural isolation.

In fact, these are the very things that are tearing the world apart, many of them under the guise of religious extremism.

If the church moves toward regionalism and does not simultaneously begin to teach more intentionally that to follow Jesus is to become a citizen of a kingdom that knows no geography, and that demands that one become a globally aware citizen who stands for justice for all and respects the sacredness of human personality, it will have failed its missional responsibility.

The call to be a disciple is the call to rise above the divisiveness that so characterizes religion in these days, contributes to the diminishment of the global community, and continues to do great harm to people around the world.

This is the challenge the church must face.

______________________________

There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Gal. 3:28.

______________________________

This discussion by David Brooks of social fragmentation and decentralization is pertinent to the deliberations that will be conducted in The United Methodist Church in the future.

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