When Helping Hurts

The controversy that has been stirred by the Invisible Children organization’s “Kony 2012″ campaign has created public discussion about important issues regarding human rights and humanitarian aid that need to be aired. The campaign is valuable in this way, regardless of its stated outcomes. A Foreign Affairs article on Invisible Children’s call for intervention last November makes one of the most damning critiques. Recently Foreign Affairs guest blogger  Joshua Keating charged that the organization “manipulates facts for strategic purposes, exaggerating the scale of LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army) abduction and murders and emphasizing the LRA’s use of innocent children as soldiers, and portraying Kony–a brutal man to be sure–as uniquely awful, a Kurtz-like embodiment of evil.”

Over the past 30 years, humanitarian efforts have become entangled with political realities to a dangerous degree because human rights are invariably a part of humanitarian crises. The record on this entanglement is mixed. The Berlin blockade following World War II led to treaties that attempted to protect aid to civilians in conflict areas from the political and military agendas at work. This meant keeping aid itself as neutral as possible.

However, great human need always occurs within a complex political equation. Helping people in these situations is rarely as simple as it appears on the surface. Those most likely to suffer in natural disasters and war are the poorest and most vulnerable in the population. They live in the least substantial housing, lack the resources to flee to safety and are the least influential in the social structure.

A history of brutal leaders

Northern Uganda, where Kony operated before taking refuge in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, has been in turmoil for longer than young Invisible Children filmmaker Jason Russell has lived. The people of the Karamoja region, home to 1.1 million, have long endured drought and political and social instability. Since its independence as a U.K. protectorate, Uganda has experienced a succession of despotic leaders who plundered the country and ruled by terror. Its first president after independence, Apolo Milton Obote, suspended the constitution and ruled under martial law, creating tribal conflicts and insurgencies that brought the country to ruin.

Obote was overthrown in 1971 by a military coup that implanted the infamous Idi Amin Dada, whose quixotic and deadly leadership has been well-documented in popular culture in the book and movie “The Last King of Scotland.” Civil war erupted and continued from 1979 through 1986. Government troops carried out genocidal raids that terrorized the region known as the Lewuro Triangle.

Obote returned to power in 1981, and some Ugandans say his second term was even bloodier than Amin’s. Yoweri Museveni became president in 1986, and he has brought relative peace and stability, except in northern Uganda. While he instituted progressive programs to combat HIV/AIDS, he is criticized on human rights by many international observers. Uganda is particularly harsh in its rejection of homosexuals today, for example.

A volatile mix

Reliefweb says the Karamoja region has the “lowest human development indices in the country.” The Reliefweb assessment also points out that 80% of the population faces food insecurity exacerbated by drought and lack of sustainable jobs. More than 1.1 million internally displaced people have returned to their homelands or have resettled to new locations after a peace agreement reached with Kony’s insurgency, but their ability to earn a living is still hampered by the broken economy across the region.

It is into this highly volatile mix of historical and contemporary political, economic and environmental currents that Invisible Children has stepped into and is suggesting military intervention. The Obama administration has put military advisers into Uganda to aid in locating Kony. However, their value is also being debated.

Looking past the fact that the assessment by Invisible Children is flawed (which should be enough reason for caution), it is also questionable how introducing yet another military operation in a region plagued by instability for the past 30 years could contribute to stability, especially when it would inevitably involve cross-border operations into the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where Kony is said to be operating now.

Sometimes doing good is not as simple as it seems from the outside.

From Invisible Children to Viral Video

A young filmmaker’s chance encounter with armed militia in northern Uganda nine years ago has resulted in a media storm that today is capturing attention around the world and reinforcing claims about the power of social media. It’s also created healthy debate about the most effective way for concerned people to affect humanitarian issues half a world away, and whether advocacy and awareness are sufficient responses to a longstanding conflict.

I’m writing of the viral video by Jason Russell, a 24-year-old filmmaker who went to Uganda as a student to discover a story he could tell through film. He found the story. It was about children conscripted against their will into the Lord’s Resistance Army run by the sociopath Joseph Kony.

Russell began telling the stories of children who sought refuge in common places where their numbers gave them strength to resist forced conscription. They would leave their homes to sleep together at night in buildings or other places so they couldn’t be abducted one-by-one at home.

Now a video posted by Russell’s organization, Invisible Children, has millions of viewers and is the subject of debate. The debate asks whether the information presented in the video is accurate. Kony’s militia is no longer operating in Uganda but is in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and it numbers  hundreds of conscripts, far fewer than the alleged 30,000 implied in the film. And while the militia is still doing great harm, the concern of critics is whether the film’s questionable information is a solid basis for useful action.

Other critics point out that Invisible Children spends only 30 percent of the funds it raises on direct services to children. And still others ask if a misinformed public can have meaningful influence about a situation in which a better solution is to assist local persons to resolve problems on their own doorstep.

The challenge of awareness

Over the years I’ve observed that some organizations are better at marketing development and empowerment than actually doing it. Invisible Children seems unabashed about its role. Russell tells the New York Times no one wants to see another boring documentary about Africa, so he decided to make one that is “pop” and “cool.” His most telling comment is that Invisible Children strives to be the Pixar of human rights storytelling. Which begs the question: To what end? Pixar produces content for entertainment and diversion, not for social change.

This is at root the challenge of awareness created through social media. Does awareness lead to action? What kind of action? Can a campaign built around celebrity, bracelets, pledges and donations lead to meaningful action? A new word, “slacktivism,” has been coined to describe this online activism.

A different approach

In stark contrast, outside the chatter of social media and as the Invisible Children video was going viral, the General Board of Church and Society of The United Methodist Church was training a group of college students face-to-face in Washington, D.C., about global health issues. The board was preparing the students for visits to legislators to discuss the church’s concern for health programs around the world, specifically focusing on the diseases of poverty and the church’s campaign against malaria known as Imagine No Malaria. The two methods of engagement could hardly be more different.

But both seek to engage young adults in critical issues of consequence in our hyper-connected world. There is hope in this effort. I take hope in the debate about the effectiveness of the method associated with Invisible Children. The questions of how to effectively advocate for human rights, affect government policy and empower local people to solve local problems all deserve wider discussion and action.

Each of us will decide whether Invisible Children’s method of online activism is sufficient and if we support it. I hope it feeds the kind of substantial engagement supported by the Board of Church and Society that will in the long run create skilled, effective influencers who will effect change in the long term.

If the Kony2012 campaign contributes to a meaningful consideration of how we can effectively advocate for a better world, then it is serving a useful purpose. And for lasting change and long-term influence, the model practiced by the Board of Church and Society offers a proven track record of effectiveness.

 

Time to Rally Around The Global Fund

Several months of turmoil have set back the efforts of The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Self-initiated investigations have uncovered financial abuses by local representatives of the organization in a small handful of the many countries the fund serves.  Yet, Bill Gates has called this worthy international organization one of the most effective entities to which the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation contributes.

Today, 25% of all international funding for HIV/AIDS-related programs, over half for tuberculosis, and almost three-quarters for malaria worldwide comes from The Global Fund. An estimated $15 billion is needed annually.

Gate’s support was further affirmed by an unbelievable $750 million promissory note, announced last week in a story in the New York Times. Before his announcement, Gates wrote a cogent op-ed piece calling for continued support for foreign aid.

Since 2000, malaria deaths have been reduced by 20% giving children a future.

Reduction in malaria deaths

The Global Fund is a funding mechanism, a bank, if you will, that makes grants to governments and non-governmental organizations that submit program plans in advance at a scale sufficiently broad to have national and regional impact. It fell a billion dollars short of its needs last year, causing it to suspend its grant-making.

This is particularly harmful because the grants are built on a two-year planning cycle, so the suspension of funds means a potentially deadly delay in treatment and prevention for the people who depend most on the fund’s work. Since 2000, malaria deaths have been reduced by 20 percent, according to the Times report. The time lag could set back these gains, resulting in increased human suffering and even deaths.

Amid the global economic crisis, the news of fund abuse was doubly harmful. For economic reasons, and in reaction to the misuse of funds, some donor governments withheld new pledges or did not fulfill past pledges. This meant programs and people unrelated to the misappropriated funds would not get much-needed prevention and treatment programs for these three diseases of poverty. It is important to note that the diseases targeted by the Global Fund take an unconscionable toll on the world’s most vulnerable and resource-deprived people.

Fragile progress 

The measurable progress that has been made in treating and preventing deaths from AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis is well documented. But it is fragile, and interrupting it is even dangerous because these diseases can easily blossom and return with a vengeance. The parasites and viruses through which they’re transmitted are adaptable and resilient. This is not a time to slow down or turn away.

The funding abuses also gave opponents of humanitarian assistance a talking point to call for reducing aid from government sources. Governments are the largest donors for humanitarian assistance. Nongovernmental organizations can never hope to fill the gap.

A call to the faith community

As supporters and partners of the Global Fund, I believe it’s critical that members of the United Methodist and Lutheran faith communities not only continue their support but also advocate on behalf of the fund.

The diseases of poverty will not be addressed at scale without governments, foundations, nongovernmental organizations, religious organizations and corporations working together and providing funds. If ever there were a strong witness for continuing to support this worthy organization and its vitally important mission to fight the diseases of poverty, the Gates endorsement was it.

The Global Fund was as transparent in investigating and reporting internal abuses as any organization I’ve seen in years of writing about international development. This forthcoming approach speaks well for the organization and its credibility. The fund has also prosecuted and achieved convictions against some of the culprits, who sit in prison as I write this. This comes at some risk to the fund in the host countries where offenders have been prosecuted.

Last week, the fund’s board reviewed the duties of the executive director and changed the responsibilities of the position. The board appointed a manager to run the daily affairs of the organization. Executive Director Michael Kazatchkine resigned.

My hope is that, in the future, the fund will regain the ground lost these past few months, recover from the economic downturn that has reduced its funding, and receive support from donors large and small to continue the march to end the suffering caused by these diseases.

At the end of the day, we are talking about people, vulnerable people, many of whom are without voice, suffering exclusion and discrimination as well as the effects of terrible diseases. Without the programs made possible by the Global Fund, their suffering will only increase. Many will die. And that is an abuse that all of us must not allow to happen.

 

A 2012 Reading List

After I commented on a reading list distributed by “Q”, some readers of this blog asked for my list. I’ve been slow to respond. But here is a list of the dozen books I intend to read in the course of this year.

That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back, Thomas L. Friedman and Michael Mandelaum. I’ve almost completed this book. Friedman and Mandelbaum write about four challenges that confront the United States–globalization, the revolution in information technology, chronic deficits and excessive energy consumption—through a lens of U.S. power, influence and ideals.

To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World, James Davison Hunter. I’m close to finishing this book also. Davison calls on Christian faith communities to de-couple public witness from political engagement and to practice “faithful presence” for the common good. The latter includes non-partisan, non-ideological expressions and actions for the common good. He bases his case on a theology of the Creation that calls Christians to be responsible to follow the teachings of Jesus to acknowledge the reign of God, be a servant people, act with compassion for all and invite all into the kingdom of God.

Commonwealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet, Jeffrey D. Sachs. The book was released four years ago, but I’m just getting to it. Dr. Sachs, the leading voice behind he Millennium Development Goals, proposes a new economic paradigm that is globally inclusive, cooperative, environmentally aware and science based because we are running up against the realities of a crowded planet.

The Triumph of Christianity, Rodney Stark. There’s a new (to me) strain of thought that says early Christianity spread with the cooperation of elites in the institutions of the day, and without this cooperation, the Christian movement might never have achieved the success it has attained. This case says Christian ideas and acceptance needed more than grassroots movements and populist coalitions. The followers of Jesus also needed influence in the institutions that shape culture in order to survive and grow.

Pathologies of Power, Paul Farmer. This, too, is an older book that’s been on my shelf for quite a long time. Dr. Farmer is an advocate for a definition of comprehensive human rights that includes, among others, food, shelter and health. Dr. Farmer is a tireless advocate for those who live without these basic necessities and who lack the voice to advocate strongly for them.

The End of Poverty, Jeffrey D. Sachs. Another of Dr. Sachs’ important works. As the world moves ever so slowly toward raising standards of living in developing nations, it appears that ending the most debilitating effects of poverty is no longer considered a pipe dream. Dr. Sachs, more than any other economist I’ve read, makes this case most clearly and reasonably.

Life, Keith Richards. A gift from my daughter, I’ll do my best to work through this biography of the guitarist and founding member of the Rolling Stones.

The Worst Hard Time, Timothy Egan. The Dust Bowl and the Great Depression plunged both maternal and paternal sides of my extended family into poverty and pushed them off the land. One grandfather kept life and limb together as a sharecropper, and another lost his farm, and his heart, when he had to move to town and work laying sidewalks through the Civilian Conservation Corps. I have a lifelong fascination with how the people of that era kept their families together (or lost cohesiveness) and made it though this most difficult economic period. It also reminds me that history does, indeed, repeat itself–perhaps not in every detail, but in wider sweeps of human behavior.

The Shipping News, E. Annie Proulx. Another oldie, but one I’m interested in because the reviews praise Proulx’s ability to write lean, clean prose, a talent I can only wish for.

A Guitar and a Pen, edited by Robert Hicks. This collection of stories by Nashville songwriters is a departure from their storytelling form of music to narrative. The songwriters of Nashville are the poets of popular culture, and I admire their ability to tell a story about life in all its sadness, strength, joy and humor in three minutes. This is fun, light, pleasurable reading.

There you have it. I’ll no doubt be reading beyond these books, but these will take priority.

 

 

Top Ten 2011 Faith Media + Culture Posts Tell A Story

It is always surprising to find out what people are reading, and our blog is no different.  So in keeping with the season, here is our list of Top Ten Posts from our Faith Media + Culture blog.  As we look at them, they seem to reflect a time of change, uncertainty and global concerns that have been top of mind for many.

10.  Malaria is No More. Say What? This post was my response to an article in the NY Times in which a representative of Malaria No More said the organization was about to close up shop because malaria was coming to an end.  Hard to imagine such a proclamation when malaria takes the life of a child in Africa every 45 seconds.  Subsequently, the staff of Malaria No More issued a statement saying the organization has never claimed “mission accomplished,” is not closing its doors and will only close after the goal of ending malaria deaths in Africa has been accomplished.

9.  10 Tips for Christians in Social Media. A few do’s and don’ts for Christian conduct online.  My favorite is to remember the Golden Rule and avoid snarkiness!  Lewis Carroll’s Snark caused people to disappear, much like mean spirited jabs can diminish a person.

8. Phantom Dreaming: The Schwinn Phantom. A short reminiscence of a love affair, with the bike of my life, and how we were reunited. Guess that was the start of my love for all things with wheels.

7.  Poll on Global Citizenship Released. What an incredible year this has been and it is no surprise that one in five US adults has followed international news closely.  Our poll uncovered some surprising facts. When asked where Americans turn when disasters happen, 52 percent tend to turn to U.S. and International Red Cross organizations first.  Church and religious organizations were second (29 percent), indicating the important role faith-based institutions play in serving both local and global needs.

6.  Why Somalia Matters. Drought, famine, dying children and conflict make for a volatile situation.  For years after the end of the Cold War, Somalia was overlooked by world leaders and its corrupt regime ignored. Then it fell apart, and now it’s a global problem, a place where uneducated, heavily armed young men commit piracy on the high seas and terrorists train recruits to kill and terrorize.  I believe that benevolence can lead to peace and stability.  And faith can lead to hope and worth.

5.  Open leaders have open meetings. Well, this was a doozy of a post, raising comments from all corners of the United Methodist world.  I appreciate all of you who have written, called and commented – even those of you who took issue with my opinion.  To those who disagreed with my comments, I am sorry for any offense.  However, it’s the beauty of transparency and freedom of speech that allows for this vast array of agreement and dissension.  May God continue to bless this cherished First Amendment value.

4.   Country Song Packs A Hell Of A Punch. Country music has always told a kind of raw truth about our country, and Brad Paisley’s song “A Man Don’t Have to Die” is no exception.  The song tells of the type of hell many are going through as the numbers of those living below the poverty line has reached all time highs.

3.  Photos from the Dust Bowl and Great Depression. Talk about the Great Recession and it conjures up images of the Great Depression.  I have always been interested in the collection of images from the Farm Security Administration and Office of War Information documentary photo project in the 1930s and into the early 40′s, and have gathered some of my favorites here.

2.  Celebrating the Death of Osama bin Laden? Is it a Christian act to celebrate a death, even one so notorious?  Here I discuss the ambivalence that many of us felt at bin Laden’s death.  Since then we have had more to ponder with the death of Muammar Gaddafi.

1.  Rob Bell and Hell. What’s all the fuss about?  Yes, Rob Bell asked us to consider that there might be other pathways to comprehend God and that hell might be a state of being.  But many of us have secretly asked the same questions and have endured our own personal hells.  Theologians have been arguing these questions since the late 19th century, making Rob Bell just one more brave soul willing to ask questions.  Since the publishing of his book, Rob Bell has left the famous Mars Hill Church he founded to pursue other interests, one of which is a television drama.  Seems Bell never scored high grades in seminary preaching classes because he was always pursuing new ways of presenting ideas.

Well there you have it: a year of economic woes, international upheavals, provocative propositions about hell, social media manners, and a little love letter to Schwinn.

Join us in the coming months as we offer up our view of the world in 2012.  But take heed, as Edward R. Murrow so eloquently commented,

Perhaps we should warn you that there is one thing you won’t read, and that is a pat answer for the problems of life. We don’t pretend to make this a spiritual or psychological patent-medicine chest where one can come and get a pill of wisdom, to be swallowed like an aspirin, to banish the headaches of our times.”

But just maybe, we are comforted in our ability to ask questions together.

Civic and Religious Activism Go Hand-in-Hand

Pew survey released just two days before Christmas reveals that people active in churches, mosques and synagogues are more involved in different organizations and devote more time to them compared to those who are not actively religious.

This doesn’t surprise me. For the past 10 years, research by United Methodist Communications has consistently identified a desire among a significant number of people in the United States, especially young people, to connect with others who want to make a difference in the world. They also want to be part of something larger than themselves, something global. And this is a spiritual quest.

There is ample evidence that when given the opportunity to fulfill this desire through outward bound service, they will take it and run with it.

A missed opportunity

Most religions teach concern for others and provide the means for followers to act on the teaching. Service to others is a core precept of the Abrahamic faiths, for example, so it’s likely those who follow these religions would engage in outward expressions of their faith.

However, many, including mainline Protestants, have not done well articulating this appealing attribute in ways that make them inviting to those seeking a more vibrant expression of faith. Some denominations lost their capacity to communicate their relevance when they disengaged from the media environment that has become the world in which we live and move today. That’s a pity because they have what many are seeking, and it can make a difference in people’s lives.

Having an impact

Reporting on the Pew research, the Christian Science Monitor says the actively religious are also likely to feel better about their place in society and to be more trusting and optimistic about their impact on society.

My hunch is that connection to a religious community serves as a way to step outside the hyper-individualism prevalent in modern societies and that religious activity functions as a form of empowerment. It’s been my experience that when people organize around shared moral convictions and act compassionately, such as building Habitat houses, advocating for just and humane social policies, or volunteering as tutors in urban schools (among many other social activities), we experience both a stronger connection to others and a sense of purpose that results in awareness that we can make a difference in the world.

In religious language, we discover we belong to God and to one another. The entryway to deeper spiritual understanding is through giving yourself to a larger purpose than what is offered in a secularized, consumerized material culture.

I heard a moving witness to this at an event called Advocacy Days for Imagine No Malaria, in Washington, D.C. After meeting with legislators to advocate for preserving discretionary items in the federal budget, including funding for malaria prevention, a woman told other participants in the program that she felt renewed faith in the democratic system, a greater sense of personal empowerment and a deeper commitment to her faith. I hope she felt accomplishment when many of the programs for which she advocated were retained in the budget legislation that was passed a few days ago. With others in the group, combined with advocates from religious communities across the country, she did, in fact, make a difference.

Our call to action

I believe faithfulness is best expressed by our compassion. Jesus instructed his followers to act compassionately toward those who were among the least in society. That call to action has been a basic precept of Christian faith throughout the ages.

It’s been said that religious belief is personal but not private. The Pew research seems to confirm it, and perhaps it reveals more: Religious faith is not only about what we believe; it’s also about how we live.

Social Media and Street Protest

Protesters in Syria are using text messaging, and social media to organize and satirize the government. Street dancing as a form of protest goes against the grain of a more somber, repressed social order, while it confounds and confuses authorities, according to a recent report in the New York Times.

Technology does not lead social change, it follows. Social change is rooted in the aspirations of local people in communities. It is dependent upon their experience. If their experience is of injustice, being ignored and/or abused, technology that allows them to tell their story is a tool for organizing and empowerment, but it is not the driving force. The driving force is the human desire to be heard and treated with dignity.

People in local communities are learning how to use technology to tell their own stories and to act collectively. There is a good discussion of this in SMS Uprising: Mobile Activism in Africa. Jeannie Choi provides an overview about online organizing in the United States in the July issue of Sojourners.

When people who have not had the means to tell their own stories find the mechanism to do it, they become empowered. There is a relationship between the ability to tell your story and the legitimizing function of technology. Simply put, if people listen to your story, the act of listening itself is affirming. It can be empowering to discover that your story is important enough for others to listen to it. This affirmation can become a driving force that reinforces your belief in the rightness of your cause. Today you can tell your story globally.

Coalescing frustrations

It’s often said that media shape culture and values. It’s also true that media give expression to culture and values. They provide the means for expressing frustrations and angers denied or ignored. The relationship between media and empowerment has become even more direct in the age of Twitter, the web and SMS (short messaging service) texting with an important caveat: the power of new technology depends on where it is available and who can afford it.

Protesters across the Middle East have used social media to coalesce the frustrations of people who are economically repressed and denied their rights. Emboldened by social media and its extensive reach, they have been able to use it strategically to counter official propaganda and coalesce large numbers of people to act in concert and call repressive governments into question.

The conflicting narratives being told by state media and independent media in Egypt today are the result of the earlier use of storytelling and calls to action through social media that gave protesters a voice and the capacity to act. Alternative reporting, often first-hand and in-the-street, challenged the narrative provided by the state-controlled media and continues to do so today.

The larger challenge

In a more ominous use of social media, it’s being reported that the Shabab Islamist militia in Somalia is using Twitter to reach an English-speaking audience outside the region for recruitment. The Shabab have imposed harsh punishment upon those who break their interpretation of Islamic law — amputating limbs, for example — and have restricted the distribution of food aid to starving Somalis unless they control it.

Some U.S. Somali youth have been recruited to Somalia and have died as suicide bombers and militia fighters. As U.S. officials consider how to shut down or immobilize the Shabab’s Twitter account, they must also struggle with the underlying alienation that attracts recruits, and the narrative of Shabab that makes it attractive. This is a far larger challenge than the use of technology itself. And it’s one that the repressive governments of the Arab Spring must contend with as well.

Herein lies a cautionary concern. The same media that empower can be used to disempower. If governments pass restrictive regulations that require media companies to turn over tracking information, personal data and airtime use for cellphones, for example, or tracking data for online use (among other data), the potential for harm to genuine grassroots activism is real.

We’re not at that point yet, but as we celebrate the opening of the repressive regimes in the Arab Spring, and as we see the empowerment of peoples across the African continent and the United States, we must also recognize the tenuousness of the technology that is being utilized — and with it, the fragility of the hopes that lie deep within the human breast to be free, to speak openly and to be heard.

We must work to ensure that the irrepressible desire to make the world a better place does not fall victim to the principalities and powers that would seek to use this technology for evil purposes, and we must resist those oppressive forces that would contain it or snuff it out.

(Postcript, Dec. 29, 2011: A report in the New York Times on Dec. 29 tells of an alarming increase in rape of women and girls in Somalia. The report says gangs of young men have raped women claiming jihad as justification and others have abused women in lawless refugee encampments with no security.)

The Wave and Community

Even as the Christmas season is upon us, we recently enjoyed an unusually fine December day, and I could tell the old blue Kawasaki Vulcan Drifter wanted out of the garage and on the road. (You can tell these things, trust me.)  So I headed out on a familiar route that includes a bit of highway and a bit of backroad. It winds through picturesque horse country near our house.

Other motorcyclists were taking advantage of this great weather, too. It’s customary to wave at approaching riders, but I passed a few who didn’t wave and it got me to wondering. Was it that riders of other marques didn’t want to recognize a different machine? Was it that they’re tired of this small act of hospitality? I wonder if they would stop and offer assistance if I were broken down on the road?

It was disconcerting. This inauspicious act has been one of the many pleasures of a ride. I hasten to say that some riders waved enthusiastically, so it isn’t as if the gesture is dead altogether.

That evening, browsing Motorcycle Cruiser magazine, I happened upon a column that mirrored my experience almost to a tee. Not only that, columnist John A. Kovach had experienced a breakdown and watched other riders pass without offering assistance. Even in motorcycling, community is breaking down.

He muses that we’re caught up in a culture of individualism. His brother-in-law heads a volunteer fire company and reports he can’t replace his 60-year-old volunteers with younger people. Kovach recalls the days when civic clubs provided community connection and a way to serve the common good, but these are now in decline as well.

Individualism has been a trend for many years. It was noted by Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone. A recent Pew research study on global attitudes found that U.S. citizens are more likely to believe their fate is within their own control and express greater belief in individual initiative than Europeans.

The process of atomization in U.S. society is ingrained. The forces that drive individualism are many–race and class, the unending barrage of advertising that cultivates our feelings of inadequacy and promotes individual desire, urban planning and development that defined the American Dream as suburban utopias. Many of us live in so-called bedroom communities that don’t offer much neighborly interaction. Work is separated from other parts of our lives. Advertising manipulates our words so that our language is less precise, and it tries to hook into our interiors, our thoughts and feelings. We’ve become skeptical and protective.

As we’ve urbanized, we’ve moved away from small towns, mainstreet businesses and town squares, and the web of relationships they embodied and sustained. Through marketing and advertising, our humanity has been redefined and we are cast as mere consumers. However, as the big box stores give us the lowest price and automated checking, they reduce our interaction to anonymous transactions.  Shoshana Zuboff says consumption requires no skill, just an appetite. Volunteer organizations that once offered community, order and stability are no longer able to do so, and we seem to be losing our sense of the common good.

At the same time, we yearn for connection; we long for something more meaningful than the latest gadget or short-term fad. We want more than an artifice of community, we want meaningful, fulfilling connection. A recent study by the Barna Group reveals that young persons in the United States desire to be a part of something larger than themselves and they are not finding that in churches.

United Methodist Communications just released a study showing that what we enjoy most about the holidays is connecting with others. We enjoy sharing a meal with others (25%), traveling to visit friends and family (14%), worship (5%) and volunteering time (5%). When asked what was most meaningful among these our answers are: the shared meal (54%), worship (14%), and visiting friends and family (10%) .

In this axial age, we seem caught in a conundrum — the rider as rugged individual and the rider in community, and perhaps the analogy extends more broadly. In the paradox, I believe we yearn to belong and to be known. But it’s not an easy path.

In religious language, even if we don’t (or can’t) express it in words, we yearn to know that we belong to God and to each other. But many are also skeptical of religion, so we search. And wonder.

Sometimes a wave is more than a wave. And a meal is more than food.

Peering Into The Heart of the Universe

Last night, along with several others, I peered into a microscope at the Hillyer Lab at Vanderbilt University Medical School and looked at a mosquito’s heart. It was a transcendent experience.

We also watched two videos. In one, blood courses through a mosquito’s heart. In the other, we watched cells that will gestate and migrate to the salivary glands and become a malaria parasite.

The suffering this process will bring to humans is tragic. I never underestimate this. At the same time, I am awed by our ability to look at a mosquito’s heart! We can video it as it pumps! But there is more to transcendence than mere technology, and that is what grabs my imagination and won’t let go.

Later, I watched The Incredible Journey of the Butterflies, a Nova program on PBS about the migratory flight of Monarch butterflies. These delicate, beautiful creatures weighing less than a half ounce somehow manage to reproduce in a generational cycle that results in a migration of thousands of miles from Canada to Mexico. How they do it eludes us.

As a layperson utterly lacking scientific knowledge, this inspires me with wonderment at the processes of nature that happen in complex ways, sometimes beyond our sight and often beyond understanding. To me, they are mysteries and more. They inspire awe.

To experience awe and mystery is to stand at the threshold of transcendence. It’s to be transported beyond my puny conceptions about the mechanics of life and into wonderment about how it happens and what it means. It’s to peer at the mystery we call God.

The Creation with which we are entrusted is endlessly fascinating, even as we deal with such harmful processes as malaria and as we are called to steward Creation and protect all its creatures. As the universe unfolds its mysteries I am humbled by what I don’t know. I can only dimly glimpse its complexity and discover my place in it.

When such mysteries are unlocked they don’t necessarily put an end to the awe and wonder. As often as not, they lead to a gateway behind which lies more mystery, more inviting fascination. It’s as if the Creation is an unfolding drama and we’re but one of the actors searching for its plot line. We seek to know what lies beyond the beating heart of a mosquito and a malevolent parasite. We search to understand the flight of a lovely, fragile creature that leads us to flights of imagination, thoughts of beauty, and to wonder how it all fits together.

That’s what I experienced as I looked at the heart of the mosquito and watched the migration of the Monarchs. In the macro, viewing the mosquito’s heart was as if I were looking into the universe, beyond the remarkable precision of the structure, beyond the functional beauty of its mechanical pump, pump, pumping, and into a seamless reality that can only be apprehended because it is unfolding, beckoning inviting exploration.

Or consider the butterfly, its wings in macro are but scales refracting light at different frequencies, but seen in their wholeness they inspire in us a wondrous sense of beauty. So simple, yet so complex. They power a soaring flight so fanciful and perilous that were a human to embark upon it in such a spare way it would be considered insane.

In this wonder, we can celebrate with those of old, “Those who live at earth’s farthest bounds are awed by your signs; you make the gateways of the morning and the evening shout for joy.” (Psalm 65:8)

New Poll: What Do Americans Think About the Holidays?

Love the holidays or hate them? Well, it seems that we Americans love our holidays, with 90 percent of all Americans taking part in the celebration of Christmas.  In fact, even 80 percent of atheists warm up to the yuletide.

Our 2011 American Holiday Study being released here shows that Christmas is by far the most important holiday celebrated among Americans.  Surprisingly, Independence Day outranks Thanksgiving and Easter as the second most important holiday.  Certainly, the fact that Americans are patriotic is seen in this data, possibly impacted by the ten years in which the U.S. military has been engaged in wars.
Most Important Christmas Activities. Dickens got it right; old Scrooge was wrong.  The top Christmas activities revolve around meals, gifts, decorations and parties. Seventy-six percent of us will exchange gifts, 63 percent will decorate their homes and 58 percent will trim a tree.

Interestingly, more people will attend a holiday party than a worship service; 55 percent will make merry compared to 47 percent attending worship services. Watching our special holiday movies (48 percent) ranks right alongside worship.

One of the oldest Christmas cards housed at the Bridwell Library at Southern Methodist University

And while some of us “elf ourself” and send Christmas emails (36 percent), most Americans (61 percent) will still send Christmas cards. More of us will buy a present for ourselves this year (31 percent) than volunteer time to an organization serving the poor (21 percent).  However, donations become an important part of our activity at Christmas, with 42 percent making a monetary donation.

What we enjoy most, least

The most enjoyed activities at the holidays seem to center around connecting with others. Sharing a meal rated the highest at 25 percent, followed by 14 percent traveling to visit friends or family.  Attending worship services (5 percent) and volunteering time (5 percent) were among the top seven Christmas activities Americans enjoy.

Santa, take note:  the activities that we enjoy least about the holidays include shopping for gifts, visiting Santa, attending a sporting event, purchasing a present for ourselves, attending a parade and attending worship services.

Attending a worship service was the only activity listed among the top six in both the most and least enjoyed.

The activity with the most meaning

The activities that have the most meaning to us are sharing a meal (54 percent), attending worship services (14 percent), traveling to friends/family (10 percent) and exchanging presents (4 percent).

Those of us involved in planning meaningful worship experiences might take pause at some of these facts.  While worship is meaningful to 14 percent of Americans, what is making a worship service one of the most and least enjoyed activities?

‘Holidays are too commercialized’

Generally, attitudes toward Christmas remain positive, but 60 percent of us think the holidays are too commercialized, and 32 percent wish they were simpler.

Most Americans do not think Christmas is overrated or that the holidays have lost their meaning.  A majority of respondents indicate they are likely to give more to the needy this year (58 percent) and to emphasize worship more (54 percent).

Many Americans appear more pragmatic about Christmas spending as well.  We will create budgets for presents and take time to match presents with the recipient. Most people will spend $250-$499 on presents.

Americans like to show their Christmas spirit. Forty-eight percent believe public displays of Christmas scenes are appropriate. But many say that spending on decorations for themselves will be limited to less than $50.

Giving to charities during the holidays will be higher among older age groups, with about a third of respondents 55 and older indicating they will give more than $100 this year.

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This study was commissioned by United Methodist Communications.  A third party conducted the consumer opinion poll on the agency’s behalf in June, canvassing 870 adults 18 years of age and older.

 

 

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