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.

Matthew 25 Network on Palin

The Matthew 25 Network calls Sarah Palin’s speech at the Republican convention “sarcastic, divisive and often deceptive.” As it happens, I am preaching Saturday evening at a worship service using Matthew 25 as the text so I was interested to read their email.

The group, made up of a mix of religious leaders from across the Christian community, takes Palin and John McCain to task for making a public display of Palin’s Christian convictions while violating them in her speech. The Network says she “went far beyond what could be considered acceptable disagreement and into what seemed like open contempt for a political opponent.” They also say she spoke falsehoods about Barack Obama’s positions.

While Matthew 25 Network identifies the public presentation of Palin as harmful to the faith, others have made an even stronger case that the merger of religious dogma with political ideology is a dangerous mix. The political operators who have assembled this coalition of right wing politics and evangelical religion may be clever but they are manipulating emotions and deeply held convictions beyond the ability of anyone to responsibly control.

There are too many examples of religion blessed oppression, and equally appalling, of civil wars with religion as a pretext to take the mixture of religious dogma and political ideology lightly.

In his forward to Sarah Posner’s God’s Profits:Faith, Fraud and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters, Joe Conason describes an underside of the evangelical right–the gospel of wealth preachers–as “irrational, avaricious, xenophobic, exploitative, and hostile to freedom.”

In his Christian Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America, Chris Hedges quotes Rod Parsley, the Ohio gospel of wealth preacher, speaking in Washington in 2006. “Man your battle stations! Ready your weapons! They say this rhetoric is so inciting. I came to incite a riot. I came to effect a divine disturbance in the heart and soul of the church. Man your battle stations. Ready your weapons. Lock and load!” (p. 33)

Heges warns about exploiting the frustration of those who feel the cultural and political institutions have failed them, a theme prominent in the politics of the religious right. “These carefully cultivated feelings of persecution foster a permanent state of crisis, a deep paranoia and fear, and they make it easier to call for violence–always, of course, as a form of self-defense.” (p. 29)

Heges sees danger in preachers and politicians who exploit the frustrations born of social dislocation and personal disruption that are sparked by our current economic downturn and cultural changes. Citing William James’ description of Tolstoy’s and Paul Buynan’s conversions to Christianity, which were born of alienation and frustration, “neither…could become what we have called healthy-minded.” (The Varieties of Religious Experience, p. 184)  “They had drunk too deep from the  cup of bitterness,” writes James. (James, p. 184, Heges, p. 59)

The Matthew 25 Network’s  critique of Palin’s speech merits serious attention. They suggest Palin’s elevation to the national stage now makes her the most visible face of Christian faith in the nation. That places a greater responsibility upon her than, perhaps, she or the political operatives recognize.

As the Matthew 25 Netwok implicitly says, sarcasm, diviseness and deception hardly reflect the spirit of Matthew 25.


This morning I note that CNN has brought into its Sunday morning Late Edition program a commentator from the Christian Broadcast Network to comment about politics and evangelical voters. This is the same CBN owned by Pat Robertson who declaimed that Hurricane Katrina was God’s punishment for abortions in the U.S. and who, according to the blog Yurica Reports, employed Blitzer as a Middle East correspondent when he was beginning his journalism career.

The watchdog site MinistryWatch describes CBN as follows, Christian Broadcasting Network, Inc. (“CBN”) uses mass media, especially television and visual media, to prepare the world for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ and the establishment of the everlasting kingdom of God on earth.”

The religious right continues to shape public perception of Christian faith. In his Sunay column, Frank Rich notes that 5.5 million turned to the Saddleback appearances of John McCain and Barack Obama while 32 million tuned into the time-delayed reports of the Olympics on NBC, suggesting, perhaps that the media attention given to religious conservatives might be a bit much, but never the less, it was a debate whose questions were framed by the evangelical wing of the faith.

However you feel about that, nuance and substance in reporting about religion have long since been abandoned by most U.S. media. And now CNN has decided to give legitimation and voice to an expression of an evangelical enterprise that is, in its most generous description, a fringe on the hem of the mainstream fabric of the faith.

All of which brings me to my on-going concern about the absence of mainline voices in the media and, because you’ve seen it before here, I pledge I’m going to just stop writing about it. I’m coming to the conclusion it’s futile to continue to point it out.

What this means is quite simple. Until some leaders emerge who can express theology in the public square from the Mainline tradition the Mainline will not shape public perception of Christian faith and its social reponsibilities through media as it once did.

We don’t have the likes of William Sloane Coffin, Jr., or Fr. Malcom Boyd, who some readers won’t even know, and there is little value in writing about that which only causes me continuing heartburn. So, I think I’ll swear off.

Ethiopia’s “New” Famine

Ethiopia is enduring famine. USA Today calls it new. In fact, it’s only the most recent and severe. The images of malnourished, exhausted children and adults are, unfortunately, not new. We’ve seen them before and more importantly, Ethiopians have suffered through famines before.

This time the hunger seems more widespread and pervasive. But famine in Ethiopia in 1985 sparked a global reaction and promises to never let it happen again, a promise that was hard to keep.

Oxfam, the international aid organization, says the famine will not result in a repeat of one million deaths as in 1985, but it calls the current situation a “toxic cocktail” resulting from weather, war, inflation and assorted insect plagues. Add population growth to the mix and in the words of one nutritionist, it’s a “ticking time bomb.”

This leads to the current call to end global poverty. It’s not that this is an impossibility, it’s just that doing it will require partnerships and commitment that do not yet approach the scale and mass required.

I hear too many organizations appeal for funds as if they alone were able to effect the necessary change. And, after telling stories of famine and poverty for thirty years, it’s clear to me that no single entity is equipped to meet this challenge on it own. To acknowledge this comes as a challenge to some fundraisers who must tell the success stories of their agencies in order to attract the resources necessary to conduct their work, and to agency leaders who don’t want to acknowledge the valuable work of others. I see and hear this almost daily.

But the truth is, partnerships to achieve scale are essential. The oft-repeated ad for malaria bednets by Exxon during Olympic coverage says it clearly. The day is past when agencies can claim they can go it alone and be effective. In the global environment with its complicated and interrelated causes and effects, we will either resolve problems together or watch them become worse by trying to go it alone.