Newsweek and the Koran

The religious and cultural damage done by
the Newsweek story has been done. But how long will it linger?

Newsweek has apologized but the damage has been done. Lives have been lost and extremists have gained another cause to fuel anti-Christian, anti-U.S. feelings across the Muslim world.

The Christian Science Monitor lays out in clear fashion why disrespect for the Koran is such an offense to Muslims. So much is offensive about this story it’s nearly beyond comprehension how it could have slipped by editorial scrutiny. Of course mistakes are made. And there’s no need to pile on the bandwagon criticizing Newsweek at this late stage. So this isn’t a polemic against Newsweek.

What comes to mind, however, is concern about Christian-Muslim relations around the world especially in those places where the relationship between moderates and extremists–the Middle East, parts of Indonesia, Pakistan, India and north Africa–is delicate. Christians are a minority in many Muslim states and even where moderates are in power, they face discrimination or worse. I’ve met with many who speak quietly of the influence that those of us outside their societies have upon circumstances within. They urge caution in language and action that would offend Muslim majorities.

In Imperial Hubris, Michael Schereur explains that Christians are identified, inaccurately, with U.S. policy toward Muslim states. When President Bush explained, sincerely and honestly, how his personal faith influences his moral decisions in office, this was read by many Muslims as proof that U.S. Christians are engaged in war against Islam.

Of course that’s not true, and of course that’s not what the President intended to communicate. But that only reinforces the point. Communication around the issue of Christian-Muslim relations is delicate and it has life and death implications.

Add to this the anti-Islam comments of Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell that were interpreted as representative of the whole of the Christian community, another inaccuracy, and the hole that’s being dug gets deeper and wider. In this situation perception is reality.

That’s why the story is tragic, in my opinion. It will provide extremists the fodder they need to harm innocent people who have no connection to U.S. policy but who are implicated simply because they are Christians. The Pentagon has denied the story from the outset, but that will fall on deaf ears in the inflamed passion that has developed anyway. I see no way to repair this harm. Christian leaders can disavow abuse and disrespect of the Koran; that’s paltry, I know, but what else can be done now that the damage is done?

Manipulating Religion for Secular Power

The Rev. Mike MacDonald, an evangelical
pastor at Broad Street United Methodist Church in Mooresville, S.C., writes of
his concern that politicians who manipulate religion for secular gain are
affecting the ability of the church to speak to people about commitment to the

I do have a
problem when
politicians try
to use faith
as a club
to beat up
their opponents
–The Rev. Mike MacDonald

It’s good to know that there is real diversity of opinion in the public conversation about the influence of religion in the political arena today. It’s just too simplistic to treat the loudest right-wing evangelical voices as if they are the only voices to be heard.

Rev. Mike MacDonald makes a good point in his commentary on when he refutes the claim that Christians can take only one political position.

He recalls the history of the Anabaptist movement, which sought to be free of government persecution over their refusal to practice government-sanctioned religion. That history must be taken seriously. It’s not only important because it contributed to the principle of separation of church and state that was embedded in the colonial writings that came to shape the U.S. Constitution, it’s also important because it demonstrates what can happen when religious principles are codified into public policy. Rev. MacDonald is correct to say that religion has more to gain by keeping these two (government and religion) separate than by joining them in policy.

Rev. MacDonald’s desire to distance religion from politics is echoed by the famous evangelist, The Rev. Billy Graham. In today’s USA Today Rev. Graham says, “If I took sides on all these divisive issues I would cut off a great part of the people I want to reach.”

These pastors are speaking from positions of faith that make imminent sense to me. Their voices are a welcome addition to the conversation.

A third set of voices, all diverse, is featured in a series in BusinessWeek. The cover story for May 23, Evangelical America. Big Business. Explosive Politics., tells of the culture wars at corporations in the U.S. and how evangelicals have taken a page from business in marketing books and other products. (The magazine is on the newsstands but it isn’t online at this posting.)

Tiger is GRRReat!

If you’re a Mac fan, Tiger, the new
operating system, is great.

I don’t know how many Mac users read this blog. But I think a few of you have not moved to the dark side. I loaded Tiger on two of our three Macs and there’s no turning back.

A few relatively minor utilities haven’t been updated yet, so they won’t work. One was a screen grab that I like but it’s not irreplaceable. The built-in screen grab works well enough for me. It’s a little less convenient, but that’s not a big deal.

An overlooked new utility that has caused me to mutter “thank you’s” under my breath is an automated network diagnostics tool. I travel a lot. I often have to futz around with wireless settings to get on the Internet and it’s a minor frustration when I’ve set something in the background that prevents the powerbook from connecting. I always forget those settings.

This happened again last night. But, after Tiger. A pleasant screen advised me I’m not on the Internet and asked me if I needed help. Of course.

So, I follow the next step and the next and before you know it, I’m on the Internet. I look at the settings and realize I could have done that. Of course, it would have taken ten minutes or more, I would have re-set something I didn’t need to change, used un-theological language and maybe gotten on-line before the new day arrived.

So, I’m pleased. Even more, I rested because I went to bed earlier and was in a better mood for sleep. I like Tiger.

Making a Difference Through Service

Dr. Guy D. Nave, Jr. told a group of United
Methodist church leaders that young people today want to make a difference and
he called upon the leaders to offer them the opportunity to experience service
through self-sacrifice as an expression of faith.

Young people are
looking for an
opportunity to
serve, to make
a difference in
the world
–Dr. Guy Nave, Jr.

“Young people are looking for an opportunity to serve, to make a difference in the world,” according to Dr. Guy Nave, Jr., assistant professor of religion at Luther College, Deorah, Iowa. He was speaking to a group of United Methodist leaders last night who are looking at the future of the church.

He told us his experience with college students on the Luther College campus leads him to conclude that young people want to be a part of a worldwide connection that is contributing something that makes a difference.

“It’s not about what we need, it’s about contributing something,” he told the group.

This is consistent with the results of research United Methodist Communications has done among non-church adults in the United States. There is, I believe, a growing desire to create change, especially change that makes life better for those who are poor, vulnerable and neglected in the global society.

This is a message we are hearing consistently but it’s one that has no quantifiable data behind it yet. We don’t know how many people feel this way. One economist who attended the meeting said he believes it may be at least 10% of the population, but that’s a guess, too.

But my thought goes to this. If 10% of the young adults in the United States are yearning to make a contribution and to create change, and if they are doing this through humanitarian service, as Dr. Nave says they are on his campus, that means a substantial number of people are already engaged in making the world a better place, and they’re doing it quietly, without fanfare.

There’s a lot to be gained from understanding this, if it’s true, and if it represents a harbinger of things to come. They’re not running from the world in fear, they’re seeing problems and trying to fix them. They’re not standing on the curb shouting to impose their views on others, they’re engaging with others to bring about change that makes life better. They’re not withdrawing into mindless consumption of material goods, they’re actually acting in counter-cultural, self-sacrifice to help other people.

I so want to believe this is true, and I so want to hope not only that it’s happening, but that it will increase.

Too Many Choices

With the plethora of media to read, view and
hear, we are presented with too many choices. It’s a wealth of information, and
it affects my level of guilt for things unread, unseen and unheard. The curse
of the richness of media today.

A feature of living in this information-rich environment is coping with too many choices and not getting all the reading, viewing and listening done. It’s not a tragedy, but it is a frustration. I’ve got four books started right now, just bought some movies on DVD that I missed when they were running at the theaters (Salaam Bombay! [I know it’s more than twenty years old, but I still missed it], Hotel Rwanda, Friday Night Lights and Osama) and there’s a great issue of Harper’s I’ve been trying to get through, not to mention an old Wired with a cover story on the death of radio.

It’s not even for lack of desire. My intentions are good. It’s due in part to the conditioning that comes from multi-tasking. We don’t do anything for extended periods of time. But to read a book takes time. It isn’t something I can do at uptempo or in short spurts.

I want to concentrate! But, there’s this thing I’ve left undone, that e-mail to answer, and, oh yea, there’s that note I’m supposed to write. You know the story.

I know I watch too much TV. I know I need to organize these tasks better than I have so far. I also know that the whole media culture is conspiring against me, and it’s winning. It’s seeking to attract my attention, as it is yours as well, and it works. I give 15-seconds here, 30-seconds there and move on to the next thing. Talk about short-term memory.

So, my best intentions get trashed by the helter-skelter of a short attention span and the flurry of busyness that probably could be managed with less compulsion–if I could just take the time to ponder how to do that.

Mainstream Media on Life Support?

Nancy Snow writes from the Media Reform
conference in St. Louis that mainstream media is on life support and this is an
opportune time for alternative media to get its messages out.

we need to approach
media reform as
a global public health
and education campaign
–Dr. Nancy Snow

Dr. Nancy Snow writes from the Media Reform Conference in St. Louis that mainstream media are on life support and this is a good time for alternative media to distribute messages to audiences as a dose of needed medicine.

Such claims have an element of truth in that major media are undergoing change and a major part of the change is demographic. The audience for traditional media is aging and it’s not being replaced by younger readers, viewers and listeners. That’s a cause of concern for editors, station managers and radio programmers. It’s not on life support just yet, but it could be close to it if trends continue (and there’s no reason to believe they won’t)

The test will come when major advertisers choose alternative media and skip broadcast, for example. A story recently in the New York Times identified the thirty-second spot as an endangered species. On the surface that’s not such a big deal, especially if you don’t like the glut of ads on television and radio. However, if it means that advertisers are choosing to use other forms of advertising to reach target audiences that are more accessible now because of the multiple media they use, it’s bad news for mass media operations.

There’s no doubt that we’re heading into a new era of communication. Citizen communication and civic journalism remain a hopeful gleam in alternative media’s eye. They haven’t yet achieved the reach and saturation of mainstream media. Of course, that’s not the only measure of their influence. If they target the correct audience and inspire action, they will accomplish as much, if not more, than they would by hitting large numbers of people who don’t have an interest in creating change.

And that’s the strategic point. Targetted messaging is possible today in ways that were not available in the past. Therefore, it’s not how many people you reach, but how many of the right people you reach who will act upon the information you share with them.

In the case of media reform that’s good medicine.

Overstatement and Trivialization

A group in Arizona equates municipal limits
on the retail stores to the book-burning by the Nazis during the holacaust.
This kind of over-reach is all-too-common today. and This ad campaign
illustrates clearly the risk.

Overstatement is so common today it’s almost unnoticed, or at least, it loses its strength among some audiences. Calling Supreme Court judges equal to Ku Klux Klan members, for example, is very likely to drain the critique of these judges among those audiences in the mainstream middle. It energizes the core base of the right who are already convinced of the message. But it probably also creates a more aggressive opposition.

It’s not the imagery
itself. It trivializes
the Nazis and
what they did.
And to try to
attach that imagery
to a municipal
election goes beyond
–Bill Straus
Arizona regional
director for
the ADL

But overstatement continues. Now comes an ad in Arizona protesting a proposed municipal zoning ordinance that would limit the amount of space retail stores can devote to groceries. The ad equates limits on floor space to Nazi bookburning. Walmart has put $300,000 into the group protesting the proposed ordinance.

After the local Anti-Defamation League protested the ad, Walmart, caught unaware of the source of the image, has said it will apologize because the ad trivializes the Holocaust. But Walmart, never the less, approved the ad imagery and copy. Thus, it approved the tone. It’s hardly sufficient to say that ignorance of the source of the image changes the tone of the message. It’s still an overstatement that doesn’t hold.

Communication is about credibility and trust. Communication is always important. When passions run strong, how we communicate and what we say becomes even more important. In times like this, it’s all about the message. Better to be accurate and to set a positive tone than to apologize for your mistakes later.

Podcasting Wikipedia

As podcasting increases, here is a central
repository of information.

As podcasting increases, a central repository of information about it can be found at this podcasting wikkipedia. Thanks to Chuck Russell for passing this along.

Health Care, Pensions and Broken Promises

Sixty-seven percent of the population of the
United States supports universal health care. Pension funds are changing the
rules. Both issues, health care and pension funds, are about moral commitments
and moral consistency. If we break our promises we undermine a fundamental
social contract that was hard-won and that has served the nation

The problem of access
to quality health care
at affordable rates is
one of the most serious
social problems we face.
Over the past 30 years,
the infusion of market
principles and values
into the health care
industry have almost
completely transformed
health care into a
commodity to be
consumed only by
those who can
afford it. Today,
nearly 43 million
Americans do not
have any health
insurance at all.
–Civil Society Institute

Business Week reports that concern about private Social Security accounts, coupled with the rising costs of health care is creating a constituency for universal health care and against private accounts.

The dismantling of the social safety net that is well underway is not favored by the majority. However, it continues apace because the political process is not responsive to these concerns yet. However, the whole context of corporate scandal, pension fund uncertainty and stagnating wages could be feeding the skepticism of ordinary folks that they can’t trust the private sector with things as important as health care and pensions.

It’s hard to imagine anything worse for those who propose the “ownership society” than the demise of a major corporation’s pension fund. Pension funds are based on a promise. Give us your time and do this work and we will set aside money to provide you security later in life when you can’t work or don’t want to. A promise only works when both sides trust that each will fulfill their part of the agreement.

The guys at Enron wrecked lots of lives by stealing or deflating in value the 401Ks of a lot of working people (by creating a system of corporate shells built on fantasy), not only employees but investors. United made a promise to its workers that it has now broken. The government, that is all of us together, has become the guarantor of last resort to fulfill the promise.

A lawyer in the United case said on NPR recently that this action (to allow United to default on its pension promise) represents a culture change. Corporations are no longer required to live up to their promise to workers for pension benefits. Undoubtedly this will change the type of fund workers can contribute to, and it will place even more responsibility and cost on the worker and less on the corporations.

These are not mere economic choices. These are moral choices. Why do those who are so vocal about private, personal issues in the constellation of “traditional values” remain silent on these issues that have much more significance for millions of people? It can hardly be said to be unimportant. It’s an issue of well-being that affects every worker in this society. So, how can we not view it as a moral concern?

A poll by the Civil Society Institute finds that 67% of the population of the United States favors universal health care. My guess is that we have dealt enough with the current system to know that it is broken and wasteful. And I suspect, but can’t prove with attitudinal research yet, that we don’t trust the corporate interests that run it to reform and create a better, more efficient system. They’ve had their chance and things are getting worse.

What this means is that social justice is not an abstract set of principles that floats around in the ether. Social justice is as direct and personal as your next visit to your doctor, your mother’s next prescription drug order, your grandmother’s next surgery and your own paycheck deduction as you save for your future. Social justice is about a whole lot more than a select few issues. It’s about how we are treated everyday and how our lives are affected by the practices of corporations and government. It’s about fairness. It’s about keeping promises. It’s about holding everyone accountable to live up to their agreements.

It’s been a long, hard struggle to get the social safety net in place, and it was created precisely because injustice was so harmful, painful and obvious. What is being undermined by greedy corporate executives and the practices of some corporations is a social contract that has stood us well over the lifetime of the nation. That we are accountable to each other and for each other. That’s a moral issue.

Pensions and Justice

The broken promises of corporate pension
programs raises more than economic questions. They raise fundamental questions
of justice and they expose the weakness of an ideology that is popular right
now–the ideology of individualism.

The forfeiture of United Airline’s pension program leads me to think about a pension fund The United Methodist Church is attempting to start for retirees in countries outside the United States where there are neither effective pension funds nor social security. I’m sure the employees of United are deeply concerned about the future of their benefits, as well they should be. The broken promise represented by this default not only betrays trust, it also calls into question time-honored values that say if you work hard and play by the rules you will get your just dues in this society. Defaults like this add the phrase, “Well, maybe.”

Thinking of this insecurity in our society where there is a social service system in place leads me to consider retirees in a place where there is no system, or a very limited one. That’s the situation with most workers in Africa, much of eastern and central Europe, parts of southern Asia and most of South America. They simply must continue working until they can’t physically work any longer. Then it falls to family or some other informal system to care for them.

It’s a pretty bleak prospect.

What the church is attempting has never been done before, to my knowledge. That is to create a sustainable pension fund in developing nations where the social support systems are informal and family-based because rampant poverty hampers governments from doing more than rudimentary services.

One component of the pension initiative is to explore how the funds can be self-supporting through investment in the countries where they are being implemented. It’s a huge challenge and one that is being undertaken with caution and due diligence. But it speaks to a much different ethic than the corporate ethic that is most prevalent today.

It’s an ethic that seeks to make the whole community stronger by enabling economic development for the benefit of the whole society. It’s being considered with caution and considerable analysis. The people doing this know that humanitarian impulse must be connected to economic realities, so this isn’t a pie-in-the-sky idea that will crash on the rocks of reality, at least it won’t crash for lack of careful planning and cautious implementation.