Reinhold Niebuhr, Where Are You When we Need You?

An economist on Marketplace this morning referred to theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s worldview as a familiar frame of reference for both presidential candidates. Niebuhr’s view of ethically ambivalent individuals yearning for perfectibility, yet caught in a sinful state and working in a fallen world, is found in the attitudes of both John McCain and Barack Obama, according to the Marketplace commentator.

Niebuhr’s theology was formed in the Great Depression and he taught applied Christianity in the New Deal era, a time that saw the depths of human depravity and greed, as well as the heights of sacrifice and service. He brought theology into the wider public conversation as a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York and as a social activist. He helped found Americans for Democratic Action and was politically involved throughout his life, giving particular attention to the rights of workers.

Historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. asked in a 2005 essay in the New York Times why Niebuhr isn’t remembered and provides an overview that demonstrates why his worldview remains salient.

Schlesinger cites Neibuhr’s cautionary view of religion in public discourse: “religion is so frequently a source of confusion in political life, and so frequently dangerous to democracy, precisely because it introduces absolutes into the realm of relative values.”

Never the less, Niebuhr also saw the religious claim of human willfulness and fallibility as a corrective to the modern argument that things were “getting better and better in every way.”

Niebuhr understood our capacity for evil is matched by our capacity for good and claims to moral behavior are a corrective necessity, and more.

Schlesinger says the tragedy of 9/11 revived the “myth of  our national innocence,” a concept Niebuhr called into question with substantial critique based on religious teaching.

Since Schlesinger’s essay, Niebuhr has received increased attention, mostly because Barack Obama has referred to him. It’s striking that a theologian who died in 1971 remains relevant on social analysis thirty years later.

Perhaps it’s because Niebuhr brought perspective to individual responsibility and the state of human fallibility as well as insight into the way we organize systems that perpetuate injustice and privilege. This tension between individual culpability and systemic injustice has been largely overlooked in the emphasis on extreme individualism that is found across the culture in the U.S. The evangelical right has focused on individual responses to a few key issues of moral concern, the so-called culture wars issues, and the mainline has been largely absent from the public dialogue or torn apart internally so it didn’t reach outside its own walls to engage in public discussion.

Niebuhr operated from a position in the academy and he was not seen as having an affiliation with a denomination. His relative independence gave him the room to engage in social movements and offer commentary free of the institutional constraints that denominational connections impose.

He also wrote in a pre-electronic age. Television was in its infancy and the written word remained influential. He edited The Christian Century from 1922 to 1940, for example. His ideas, while provocative enough to attract attention in their own right, did not face the kind of competitive overload we face today.

But this begs the question why we don’t have a theological basis for mainline dialogue today. In the final analysis, Niebuhr engaged the culture he found and spoke to people in language they could understand. He connected with people who had real issues that called for the application of theology in a practical way. And finally, he used the tools available and he acted. Perhaps that’s the difference.

Forgetting the Global Food Crisis

As the global financial crisis deepens the world risks forgetting the food crisis that is becoming even more severe. That’s the word from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. The number of seriously malnourished persons is up from 848 million in 2003-2005 to 923 million in 2007.

Asia and the Pacific region has more people facing hunger than Africa and Latin America, according to the FAO.

Through its Initiative on Soaring Food Prices, the FAO is assisting local farmers to purchase fertilizer, get training and grow food for local consumption. Because of the financial meltdown donor countries have been slower to respond to UN funding requests with the result that more people are going hungry.

Global Warming: Water and Disease

Global warming will drive significant increases in waterborne diseases around the world, according to a report by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, reported in the Washington Post by Kari Lydersen.

According to scientists, weather events will become more extreme which means heavier rains triggering sewage overflows, contaminated water supplies and more standing water among other things. It will also result in more mosquitoes which carry West Nile virus, malaria and dengue fever. And it could result in contaminated fresh produce and shellfish.

The report portends more events similar to those that have already occurred and that are not limited to a particular region. Lydersen writes heavy rainfalls have already resulted in drainage overflows in Chicago and Milwaukee in recent years resulting in contamination of Lake Michigan waters and the deaths of 54 people in Milwaukee from cryptosporidium.

Warmer temperatures have already resulted in mosquitoes moving from lower elevations in mountainous regions to higher locations, bringing with them exposure to mosquito-borne

It’s abundantly clear that the health of the environment is intimately and inescapably interconnected with the health of the human race and all other living creatures. The challenge the world faces is both urgent and far more significant than the individual crises we become so concerned about such as the price of a gallon of gasoline.

Values Votes

Jim Wallis of Sojourners is ambivalent about making absolute religious claims in the mix of faith and politics. He notes a few conservative Roman Catholic bishops and megachurch pastor Rick Warren set out a list of “non-negotiables” that were raised around the time of the event Warren hosted for John McCain and Barack Obama.

In contrast, actor Martin Sheen on the Matthew 25 Network website points to his religious roots in the Roman Catholic tradition as the source for his progressive activism.

Of the evangelicals, Wallis writes, “None of them even included the word “poverty,” only one example of the missing issues which are found quite clearly in the Bible. All of them were also relatively the same as official Republican Party Web sites of ‘non-negotiables.’”

He questions what is non-negotiable for Christians and asks why so many prominent and clear biblical claims for combating poverty and ending injustice were not included in the lists of the bishops and Warren.

Sheen’s comments are less absolute, but no less resolute. His lifetime commitment to progressive positions is widely known, as is his long-time willingness to speak from his faith perspective. It’s a positive contribution.

Mixing the geography of faith with the political process takes you into pretty complicated, if not murky, territory, one that calls for far more care and far less boisterous rhetoric than what we’ve heard the past eight years.

In place of non-negotiables, Wallis offers a list of “faith priorities” and calls on each of us to do the same. We would do well to consider his suggestion and reflect deeply on our own faith priorities, or values, and decide for ourselves how they will influence our choices at the intersection of faith and politics. It would be more than startling if we were to take the biblical injunctions about poverty and well-being and apply them to social policy. This would take us far beyond the culture war issues very deeply into the territory of social change.

On Digital Natives

I’ve been having conversations recently about digital natives and digital immigrants. I’m an immigrant, as are all people born before the Internet.

The nature of the conversation is how we inhabit different worlds depending upon when we came to the digital  terrain. I noted several years ago that broadband access and, later, cellphones were so much a part of the lives of younger persons they considered them much as I consider air and water, a part of the natural world.

To me they are not. They are tools. They are external to my reality, something outside my thoughts that must be incorporated into life. Not so for digital natives. They are seamlessly integrated. There is no other reality, certainly not a set of tools that must be integrated into one’s life. The fact is these “digital tools” have always been present and available to the natives.

Recently, we had a speaker at our organization discussing new media. I was unable to attend and received a text message reminding me of the presentation. Later, I asked if the presentation had been captured so I could see and hear it. While it was streamed live it wasn’t captured because none of us thought to do this in advance. Now, this isn’t criticism of anyone, but it is illustrative of a simple fact.

To digital immigrants it’s likely that something as common as digital documentation requires prior thought. To the native it just comes naturally. That’s because content production has always been a part of the use of digital tools, whether that means capturing and sending photos or audio files, taking images with a cellphone or reporting via text message and saving the transcript. It doesn’t require second thought. Everything is recorded for posterity.

That’s one way we inhabit different worlds. Media that must be mastered in the world of the immigrant is part of the native’s environment. And our understanding of each other is surely affected by our worldview.

The Digital Natives website offers a range of discussion and other tools that shape the digital world. There’s an interesting discussion, for example, about the development of content by digital natives and how it is empowering. The site links to a youth-produced radio program on KUOW, University of Puget Sound, illustrating the value of content production.

The story of Bryce is one of many compelling, well-produced first-person accounts that illustrate the value of giving voice to a young person. But it also points to something more. Bryce is compelling because he’s thoughtful, authentic and articulate. And he’s fluent with the medium of radio.

I’m starting to look more widely and deeply at the digital divide between natives and immigrants, and how we perceive the world because of our proximity to digital media. If you have suggestions for sites, books, resources, or a story to share, I’d like to hear from you.

The Great Emergence

Phyllis Tickle--The Great EmergenceEvery five hundred years the Western world goes through a period of re-formation. It’s an across the board change that affects the entire structure of society. In our day, according to Phyllis Tickle, it includes globalization, the flattening of the world, technological changes that result in lifestyle changes.

It is a great upheaval, a time when cultural accretions are cleansed, dropped and clarified as the culture moves into new expressions of community, power, meaning and values. This process has deeply shaped human thought and the progress of the humankind as it provides new ways for perceiving the world and our place in it.

As it happens, it isn’t only about socio-economic, political or scientific ideas, it’s also about theological, or faith, understandings of life. The Great Emergence is underway in our time and it portends fundamental changes in how we live our faith, and faith itself, according to Tickle and others who are thinking theologically about the great upheaval in our day.

In the Christian faith community Tickle equates it to a great “great rummage sale” in which much that has shaped the life of the church and faith is put on the table and liquidated as new faith expressions emerge.

It’s understatement to call ours a fascinating time of change. It’s so much more profound.  Tickle describes the contours in a video promoting her new book about the Great Emergence. She says it’s radically Jesus oriented, resting on the belief that he meant what he said and what he said should form how we live if we are to follow his teachings.

It’s communal, post-denominational, post-Protestant, largely virtual and organizes itself on the Internet. It is developing a theological perspective that is not exclusivist and that reaches back to the liturgical life of Christian communities in the first, second and third centuries to discover the passion that enlivened them under persecution, and to recover it today.

Neither Tickle, nor others, hazard a guess about where the Emergence is leading the Western world, and more particularly Judeo-Christian communities. But Tickle believes whatever change is afoot is the work of God, and a new thing is coming.

Ethiopia & Somalia Food Crisis

Lost in the news of the global economic meltdown is the continuing hunger crisis across the Horn of Africa. The BBC reports today that 20% of Ethiopians–8 million–may be facing hunger. Oxfam International says the number could be as great as 13.5 million including those in chronic poverty who receive governmental assistance yearly.

Further east, half the population of Somalia needs emergency food assistance according to the UN. New York Times reporter Jeffrey Gettelman writesMore than three million people, about half Somalia’s population, need emergency rations to survive. Nobody seems to like it. Many say they feel humiliated.

Oxfam calls on donors to meet pledges made last year, noting that the amount needed to provide subsistence to the hungry is barely a “drop in the bucket” when compared to the amounts being pumped into failing banks.

John McCain and Rhetorical Excess

When audience members of McCain/Palin rallies yell, “Kill Him!” “Off with his head” and “terrorist” it’s dangerous. McCain finally challenged one woman in Minnesota today and called for his followers to respect Sen. Obama. McCain was booed, which should have told him something.

In an atmosphere of anxiety and fear fueled by a global financial collapse, the rhetoric of both Palin and McCain have stoked the fears and fostered racism of the kind that has led to violence not only in the United States in the past but also in other nations.

David Gergen on CNN comments that the tone of the rallies could lead to violence. Baltimore Sun op-ed commentator Frank Schaeffer said McCain faces a choice about how he will be remembered in history: You have changed. You have a choice: Go down in history as a decent senator and an honorable military man with many successes, or go down in history as the latest abettor of right-wing extremist hate.

This, coupled with class baiting adds fuel to fires of alienation and division that have, in fact, led to serious social cleavages and even death. David Brooks wrote this morning of the Republican Party’s abandonment of intellectual  rigor. “What had been a disdain for liberal intellectuals slipped into a disdain for the educated class as a whole,” writes Brooks.

This calls to mind two historical events. The first is the recent genocide in Rwanda when Tutsis were called “cockroaches” by Hutus and angry mobs were rallied by radio. The phrase “hate radio” gained prominence. The anger was stoked and a rampage began that resulted in 10,000 Tutsis per day killed. Ultimately the toll was 800,000 Tutsi lives lost.

The second is the anti-intellectual platform of the Khmer Rouge in Kampuchea under the radical reforms led by Pol Pot. The fractured society was so riven that those who were educated, even those who wore glasses were considered enemies of the collective agrarian society and were killed. The toll in this southeast Asian nation is still disputed but the most conservative estimate is 500,000 people killed.

When “others” have been diminished and de-humanized, when hateful rhetoric has been distributed  by major media and when primal fears have been stoked with political rhetoric, terrible things can happen.

I would not argue that McCain/Palin are intentionally fomenting violence, but they are setting a dangerous tone, especially among those whose grip on reality is tenuous. Once unleashed,  these emotions can erupt out of control. The ingredients for genocide are not present in the campaign. But we need only recall Timothy McVeigh, Theodore Kaczynski, and Lee Harvey Oswald to remember that twisted minds with political agendas can be lethal.

The fears and alienation in this time of crisis are real and the potential for harm is too great to tolerate the continuing rhetoric of diminishment and fear.

Why Rednecks May Rule the World

I’ve carped about the failure of the mainline religious denominations to speak to the daily realities of working people in the United States for so long that when I start those who have heard me before tune out. I don’t get as acerbic as some do, but I’m glad others who share this concern cut through the clutter and get down to the point. Joe Bageant does.

In an essay on the BBC today he explains why “Rednecks May Rule the World.” I’ve spoken with Joe and exchanged ideas about this common concern. He gets it. And he explains it better than anyone writing in the media today. You may find him too sharp and, perhaps, too honest.

Never the less, the failure of progressives to speak the language of working people and to understand their values while also displaying a haughty aloofness from them is not merely politically costly. It’s classist and, in the case of mainstream theology, unfaithful.

For those in the Methodist tradition which rests on the willingness of John Wesley to step out of the pulpit of his Anglican parish and go to the coalfields of Birmingham to preach to miners, and who also organized study groups for poor people who were left out of England’s Industrial Revolution, it’s also a betrayal of their history.

That the church has not been outspoken as working class folks lost their jobs, are exploited by usurious credit, see public education go down the drain is frustrating. We’ve wrung our hands but not been outraged at the rising number of uninsured. We’ve protested the war that takes a greater number of working kids because they see greater opportunity in the military than in the job market at home, but…well the list goes on and on. It makes clear how little the church has to say to working people and the working poor.

If, in this context, Bageant seems outraged, it’s more than understandable. It’s justified.

Malaria Statistics

The new WHO report on malaria estimates raises about as many questions as answers. While the report revises estimates of malaria cases downward in Asia, it also raises questions about the accuracy of the collection of the data.

This is not a new discussion and the most recent report won’t change the minds of anyone. Given the haphazard state of many national health systems in Africa and parts of Asia–too few doctors, nurses and trained technicians, obsolete equipment and inadequate reporting and monitoring–data collection in many parts of the world is based on estimation not accurate record-keeping.

And some health care workers I’ve talked with go further. They tell me diagnosis is also a problem due to lack of testing capabilities and reliance upon labs that lack necessary equipment.

Dr. Bob Snow, an epidemiologist in Kenya cited in the NY Times, says malaria cases may be much higher than reported. He notes that many cases in rural areas go unreported. Others claim many people with fevers  who are assumed to have malaria don’t have the disease.

This doesn’t mean the threat posed by malaria isn’t real. It highlights a deeper problem. Health care systems in resource-deprived regions of the world need significant improvement. If they can’t accurately diagnose, they certainly can’t treat effectively, and data collection in such circumstances becomes meaningless.