Sometimes It’s Not the Answers, It’s the Questions

It is a
with the
of framing
by fiercely held
science and
hotly contested
claims that
defy simple
–Kelly McBride

When there are no simple answers to complex ethical questions such as the Terri Schiavo dispute, the best thing journalists can do is raise questions that help frame the conversation, in the opinion of Kelly McBride writing in Poynter Online.

McBride says the Schiavo case was an opportunity for journalists to lead by attending to the way they presented the positions advocated by the various persons concerned with Ms. Schaivo’s medical condition.

At the intersection of complex medical science, fiercely held beliefs and the unknowable, it’s important to consider how we talk to each other. Journalists who recognize this and act on it can make a positive contribution to the conversation.

Increasingly, it’s becoming clear that framing is critical. Journalists have an ethical responsibility to provide us with the information we need to carry on a helpful conversation while also avoiding, in so far as its possible, being used by any side. This is a matter of style and content.

…we are
the power
of words
to convey
untruths and
some things
that are
–Kelly McBride

Framing involves setting the context of a story, precisely describing the medical circumstances, reporting the multiple dimensions and assuring that pertinent voices are heard. The current practice of featuring extreme voices and inflammatory language results in a synergy in which journalists use advocates and advocates use journalists. When this happens, the public good is rarely well-served.

As we move forward with stem cell research and abortion policy among a host of other ethical policy debates, we will have the opportunity for a more thoughtful and considerate conversation. The questions become as important as the answers because they provide the means for the multiple dimensions to be given attention and multiple voices to be heard. Journalism that opens the way for this wider conversation to occur will strengthen the whole civic community.

Seeing Through the Glass Darkly

The certainty with which some express their convictions today is quite remarkable. Even more so when they base their convictions on revelation and biblical interpretation.

I’m well into a collection of essays that leads me to this thought. The essayists attempt to say what God is by discussing what God is not.

They make the claim that God is not: religious, nice, one of us, an American, nor a capitalist, among other reductionist “nots.”
They find fault with ecclesiastical leadership that has accommodated to the culture. They reject Western culture that has been overtaken by a feel-good therapeutic model. And they critique religion that remakes and recasts “God” in the image of humans and most modern theology that has been done since Thomas Acquinas in the thirteenth century and Julian Norwich in the fourteenth.

Much of the critique of culture and politics is right on. I agree with it. But reading their claims, I am left feeling pretty much outside the community they describe. The whole enterprise of the church reaching out to people in the culture is not just mistaken, they say. It’s mean-spirited!
“it is pious language that stands on the false assumption that the purpose of the Christian faith is to give our lives ‘meaning’ and to satisfy our individual souls. The reason for the dominance of this language is understandable; it is the logical consequence of turning all Christians into potential consumers and turning the church into nothing but a vendor of goods and services–one more corporation vying in the marketplace for its own special niche…But this niche only appears tolerant. It actually uses the language of hospitality to cover a vindictive spirit.

seems not to be a concern for them. Their concern is to acknowledge that “God is.” They know what this means. They know what practices are necessary to express the convictions of faith. And by virtue of their own critical insight and intellectual acumen, qualities lacking in the rest of us who have sold out to popular culture and the shifting sands of modern theology, they know who and what God is.

There is in the dialogue about faith that speaks with a sense of certainty that excludes a lot of faithful people who live in a more ambiguous world. I read these essays and I come away thinking the case is closed. There is nothing to discuss. They have the answers, I’m wrong and that’s it.

1Corinthians 13:8-13
8Love never ends; as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. 9For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect; 10but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away. 11When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways. 12For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood. 13So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

Media and Control: A Futile Exercise

The absence of the voice of Mainline theologians, ethicists and other religious leaders in the public conversation about significant life issues has become obvious to some who have written to me recently.

One note asks plaintively, “Why is my church not offering guidance on these things? I feel like I’m not being heard.” She was speaking of the Terri Schaivo debate.
Over the past two decades the Mainline denominations have consistently made intentional decisions to remain outside the public conversation for many reasons. They once were deeply engaged in media but the current disengagement is both intentional and a result of public policies that marginalized and then eliminated them from public media.
I remember my first day of employment years ago at a national ecumenical organization. At a reception to welcome me, the CEO came to me in the hallway at the elevator on the sixth floor and said, “Just remember this. You do not write or send press releases.” She punctuated her words by tapping my lapel with her index finger.
Since I was hired to be a communications director, this came as rather shocking instruction. But I came to understand soon enough that in this Mainline organization the issue for communication in my unit was not getting the word out. The whole culture was focused on controlling communciation. It was a reactive strategy motivated by damage control on one hand and internal organizational competition on the other. Communication was not about an aggressive proactive strategy to tell the story of the organization.
The effort to control communication didn’t work, of course. It simply gave permission and power to others to frame the organization and create public perception about it. Those who cared enough to do this were antagonists who characterized the organization negatively. Our leaders were in a constant state of defensive reaction.
The harsher the attacks, the more they clamped down. The more then clamped down, the more emboldened the antagonists became because they had the initiative. Eventually, I moved on.
There are many reasons Mainline denominations are not speaking in public media. Lack of financial resources. Lack of experience in media. Fear. Lack of agreement within constituencies about where the denomination should stand.
These uncertainties make it difficult for leaders to speak. However, the requests I’ve had are not for pronouncements from the organization. They are questions of faith. What does the church teach about end-of-life care? How am I to decide upon the ethics of prolonging my father’s life inf the face of great suffering? What are my moral obligations? and in this religious leaders are especially skilled and equipped to share their perspectives.

About the Culture of Life

It’s ironic that the morning after Mel Lehman of Iraq for Children was honored for his writing about the plight of Iraqi children, the AP reported four children were killed by a home made bomb in southeastern Baghdad while collecting trash.

In last night’s award ceremony at the Religion Communicators Council, Mel was gracious accepting the DeRose-Hinkhouse Award for his piece God’s Voice in an Arabic Lesson in National Catholic Reporter. He told the interfaith communicators how important their work is toward creating global understanding. In fact, it is his concern for the children of the Middle East that was justifiably honored and should sensitize us to address their critical needs.

As the war in Iraq grinds on, it grinds up the children. Here are a few of the latest facts provided by UNICEF:

  • Children make up half of Iraq’s population of 25 million.
  • Nearly one in four do not attend school.
  • One million under age 5 suffer from chronic malnutrition.
  • Infant mortality today (107 deaths per 1,000 live births) is more than double what it was at the end of the 1980s.
  • The under-five mortality rate (131 deaths per 1,000 live births) is two-and-a-half times what it was in 1989.
  • Preventable illnesses such as diarrhoea and respiratory infections account for 70 per cent of child deaths.

As politicians talk about a culture of life, remembering the legacy of Pope John Paul II, they must be reminded that the children of Iraq urgently need peace that they may have life. Among many humanitarian organizations working to make life better, here are two worth considering:

Reflecting on Digital Empowerment

I’ve been reflecting on the feedback I’ve gotten recently from comments in this blog and in public commentaries I’ve written. Here are a few thoughts:

  • The electronic, digital culture has arrived. In addition to traditional (or old) media venues, the national dialogue is taking place now in blogs, e-mail, chat rooms, electronic forums (fora, if you are really traditional) and other Internet-based settings, and they will increasingly become central to the exchange of ideas and information-sharing.
  • Digital media are empowering. They make it possible for individuals to reach people directly with their messages and they make it easier to gather a wide database of information. There’s been plenty of discussion about the credibility and trustworthiness of some of this information, but that aside, it’s possible to go to many sources of information that in the past were not easily accessible to the average person.
  • Digital media are creating a new form of multi-platform storytelling. Plenty has been said and written about convergence. It’s a reality and it will only become more common because we want to see, hear, read and react to information today. We are more experiential and involved.
  • The dialogue is profoundly different in immediacy, participation and reach because of these media. They not only empower individuals as no other media have done (at least to my knowledge), they make it possible to give feedback and stimulate action. This is different from the traditional media which are less interactive and in many cases less timely.
  • The quality and character of the dialogue is changing. I’ve gotten literate, thoughtful and deeply moving email about the Schaivo episode, for example. I also got a note that was written in the heat of anger and I doubt the individual would have said the same things to me in person that he wrote in his email. Immediacy coupled with anger isn’t a good mix if it results in words that stop the conversation.
  • The new media allow us to frame the conversation. Framing is critically important. Contemporary mainstream journalism made a turn somewhere in the past few years toward isolating messages (sound bites), often by leaving out context and presenting the most controversial voices. I hear, read and see stories today that don’t even include the old standards–“who, what, when, where, why and how.” Stories are framed as if there are only two opposing positions. This “either-or” form of storytelling doesn’t really get at the complexities that lie somewhere in the middle. It’s sensational and often it’s just plain sloppy journalism. New media allow us to tell our own story.

I welcome your thoughts about these new media and how they are affecting you. I will continue to reflect on these changes because it seems to me the new media are giving us a creative new opportunity to shape the civic community. The question is, what shape will that community take?

Projecting Religion

What projection
does the
Pope reflect
back to
us about

A report from Rome this morning on NPR presented an interesting discussion of the reaction to the death of Pope John Paul II.

What caught my attention was a statement that he filled public squares, but not churches. The point was that he drew huge crowds into open spaces but his religious teachings were rejected by many of the same people who came to celebrate him.

I view this less as criticism of the Pope than as a modern paradox of belief. We celebrate the ideal and project into the celebrity whatever it is we hope for, then we go about our own lives doing what matters to us in our day-to-day existence.

I’m reminded of what my friend Dennis Benson said about rock stars many years ago. Dennis said fans project their own expectations and hopes onto the rock stars. The performers, knowing this, act out on stage those expectations. But neither the fans nor the performers are really what is acted out. There is a great deal of theatrics in these “acts.”

One of the wisest performers to express this is Dolly Parton who has said many times that women who come to her concerts are saying to themselves that she’s just like them. With a bit of luck or some other intervention of fate, they could be up on stage getting the attention and acclaim. She embodies their projection.

I’m not comparing the Pope to a rock stars. Nor am I implying that he enacted hollow theatrics. He did quite the opposite. He was committed to values and principles that he lived out and that were important in changing attitudes in this world. So, I’m not diminishing the great contribution he made.

But as the Pope is celebrated in death, the number of worshippers declines across Europe and Roman Catholics live by values that are contrary to the teachings of the church, as in the practice of birth control, to name only one example. This raises a question of what exactly people are projecting onto this Pope.

That he was able to generate this much respect and acclaim is remarkable. He captivated the imagination. But what is it that we imagine? There is much more here to be mined. What projection does the Pope reflect back to us about ourselves?

Two Views of Legacy

He may,
in time
to come,
be credited
with destroying
his church.
–Thomas Cahill

Two views of the legacy of Pope John Paul II reveal how thoughtful people differ today about the role he played in the world and the religious community.

As one on the outside looking in, Thomas Cahill’s extremely sharp critique yesterday took me aback. Upon reading it, I had to take a breath and re-read his words. I can imagine equally sharp responses to his opinion.

of us
to pretend
to honor
him by
lowering our
flags while
an amoral
to genocide.
–Nicholas Kristof

On the other hand, Nicholas Kristof points to the “culture of life” legacy that the Pope advocated,
and how this should be the motivation for specific actions in Darfur, Sudan to stop the rape and killing there. The world knows of this suffering created by conflict in the region and seems unable to put a stop to it. Kristof offers specific steps that would honor the Pope’s commitment to human rights and justice.

He urges the following action steps:

  • expand UN and African ground forces
  • urge Congress to pass Darfur Accountability Act
  • visit to Darfur by Sec. of State Condoleeza Rice to emphasize U.S. priority.

I Blog, Therefore, I Am

What should
we make
of blogging?
Is it simply
the latest
internet fad,
a truly
tool for
change or,
as some
have suggested,
a vehicle
for mob
–David Reid

The BBC has put together a package on blogging that discusses why people blog and how blogs are being used today.

The package discusses the advantages and risks inherent in blogging and explores different types of blogs.

When I wasn’t blogging people asked why not. Now that I am, some ask why. (Not really, just kidding.)

However, there are risks and advantages to blogging. They need to be considered beforehand, rather than after.

Thomas Freidman Says the World is Flat, After All

Writing in the New York Times Magazine, Thomas Friedman lays out his case that the world’s flat after all.

It’s flat because new technology makes it possible for anyone with the smarts, a computer and an Internet connection to collaborate in a global network of knowledge.

This is the newest wrinkle in globalization, according to Friedman who has written on the subject in The Lexus and the Olive Tree and Longtitudes and Latitudes.

are being
and value
is being
less and
less within
silos and
more and
more through

–Thomas L. Freidman

It’s a
Flat World,
After All

Globalization is the social and business reality in which faith and culture are being shaped and lived out. It’s more than a wrinkle, really. It’s already having profound impact on how corporations function, as Freidman illustrates. The collaborative workstyle he describes is a whole new way of working across distances and other boundaries.

In meetings I attend there is often discussion about a “global church” but the meaning of the phrase is still very murky to me. Is it about organization? Is it about theology? Is it about worship? Is it about changing relationships in mission?

Friedman makes clear that in the corporate world globalization is about basic challenges to existing management styles and organizational structures. I suspect the biggest challenge globalization presents to organizations and individuals is the need to re-think our place in the world.

The potential is profound. It will mean all of us have to re-think our roles and responsibilities as workers and as citizens. What will the future hold in an interactive, collaborative, participatory, always-on, pluralistic environment? What will faith look like in these circumstances?

Corporations are coming to terms with a very different competitive environment that is knowledge-based and geographically distributed across the globe. Imagine what this means for management and control.

It’s not just where we’re heading. It’s where we are. In some ways faith communities have been at the leading edge of thinking about life in a holistic way. We know that we are connected with people in ways far more binding than technology and national boundaries. And, at least as I understand it, Christian faith provides us a basis for viewing this reality in a constructive and expansive way, not in a fearful and defensive way.

I think Freidman’s contention that the world is flat presents us with an opportunity and a challenge. The opportunity is to interpret this new understanding so that we don’t live in fear and to find words to talk about our responsibilities as members of the global community. The challenge is to support policies that provide opportunity to all people–workers in the U.S. and workers beyond the U.S.–in a just and equitable sharing of the world’s resources so that we can sustain the environment and live purposeful lives wherever we are.

I know how grandiose these words sound. But, faith is a fairly grandiose enterprise if it helps us understand our meaning and purpose in life. For me, coming to terms with the flat world means coming to terms with new words to discuss the global community. It means working to create a new global awareness. It’s an exciting challenge, trying to figure out how to get around on this flat world.

Practicing Healing

One of
the most
things we
can do
to heal
one another
is to
listen to
each other’s

–Rebecca Falls

I continue to receive deeply moving stories in response to my commentary on Terri Schiavo.

Whether writers agree or disagree with me, many tell of painful struggles around their own life and death experiences with loved ones. I am moved by the real pain in these stories.

They are changing my skepticism about our ability to have a constructive dialogue about life and death decisions.

If my respondents are any indication, then most people remain open to further discussion of these issues in a civil and responsible manner. That means they are willing to listen but they also want to be heard.

Many have said they have felt no one in the public media has spoken for them. With very few exceptions, they say the language of the debate has been extreme and they don’t like this.

These notes reflect far more thoughtful perspectives than the sharply worded sound bites that we’ve heard. Many writers advocate a point of view, but they do so without rancor, or without taking absolute positions that allow no room for a different opinion.

I think local churches and other community groups would serve us well by offerring dialogue groups on the various issues that cluster around life and end of life ethics. If we truly listen to each other in an attitude of respect, we might begin a process of healing that will move us forward in our common desire to respect life and create a more just and humane world.