Saturday, July 2, 2016

America on the Fourth: Rival Visions

“All men are created equal” seems central to the American Dream. America not only possesses a huge land-mass, but is possessed by aspirations, dreams, beliefs in a land of opportunity and fairness, "with liberty and justice for all." Yet "who is all" has been a work in progress.

Only White Persons May Apply?

In 1922, the Supreme Court rejected the application of a Japanese resident, Takao Osawa, to become a citizen because he was “not of the Caucasian race.” A year later, the same Court rejected an Indian immigrant,  Bhagat Singh Thind, who pleaded that he, as a Caucasian, deserved citizenship. Abandoning their reliance on the pseudo-scientific “races of Man” scheme, the same justices ruled that the “common understanding of race among ordinary white citizens" excluded such dark-skinned people. (1)

Only “free and white” persons could become citizens the 1906 Naturalization Act had declared—the legal outcome of a century of widespread belief that the U.S. was meant to be the home of the racially superior “Anglo-Saxon Civilization.” Rooted in ethno-centric prejudice, a "science of race" developed that confirmed it. When Hitler's Aryan superiority myth led to horrifying results, that prevailing American white supremacist belief retreated to fester in marginal groups.

The African-American writer Ta-Nahisis Coates asserts that the “American Dream," is maintained by an “obligatory historical amnesia” — a cultural habit of forgetting the ugly parts of our past (2). But no ugly past stays silent in the past, returning in forms both old and new. America is currently faced with a resurgent, and somewhat disguised, version of that old exclusionary vision. 

America: A Creedal Nation

The United States is a visionary country, a creedal nation—the first creedal nation in the world’s history, inaugurated by a Declaration and Constitution embodying its tenets. The American Creed sets forth a humanistic vision of a community commited to certain “inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Over time, the application of those rights has extended beyond the original northern European population to all other European immigrants, women, African Americans, and, finally, to the likes of Takao Osawa and Bhagat Singh Thind. 

Our history involves the same process of “new light breaking forth” from the words of our founding Creed as do the evolving interpretations of religious scriptures. As the Old Testament scholar Margaret Barks observed, religions consist of symbols, rituals, creeds and customs the meaning of which “the followers disagree about repeatedly.” The primal DNA of the American Creed, "all are equal," has eluded all our attempts to bind it into narrow ethnic or racial boxes. 

The past: veto of the future or foundation for it?

Our current, fractional Presidential campaign embodies these creedal disagreements amply. Competing visions of America clash, partly obscured by a level of personal venom and invective seldom seen since the 19th century. Lurking behind the crippling stalemate of Republican and Democratic establishments, overlapping visions of involvement in a multinational world and marketplace thrives. Outside those establishments the regressive vision of America for “us, free of foreign contamination and entanglement" rises again, the very spirit of the Courts 1922-23 decisions. 

Neither political establishment, Right or Left, has adequately addressed the dislocations thrust upon America by that changing world culture and a global marketplace, leading to the discontent fanned by the resurgent Regressives. We are in an in-between moment, searching for the next embodiment of the American Vision—a moment rife with new ways people are excluded from equal access to the "pursuit of happiness." The vision we choose for our future will have lasting consequences. Creeds can lock us into to our past or can also inspire us to live into the further implications of their values. 

This fourth of July is not a time to gloat in how "great" we are or were, but to ponder how great we may yet become if we take our creedal DNA seriously.  

2.  See Ta-Nahisi Coates Between the World and Mea piercing account of the Black experience in America. 

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Talking to Opponents—Actually Talking!

Ah, political “con-versation” in America today:

My neighbor’s late night email howled: “How am I supposed to answer this pile of misinformation and lies?”

Miles, a Democrat, somewhat further Left than I, had gotten an article from his conservative Republican relative Bart about reasons to support Donald Trump. Miles had already fired off a fiery repost, reacting to assertions that Obama was “deliberately engineering decline of the military,” fomenting a “war on cops” and “flouting the will of the people,” to mention but a few.

So Miles had fired back: “You people have a twisted view of the world, and if you want to live in constant fear of ‘the other,’ be my guest . . .I can't understand how any reasonable human would allow this egotistical, manipulative, bully, con artist to get anywhere near the White House.”

Miles’s repost had the inevitable result: a still more incendiary email from Bart’s conservative Christian brother about Miles’s “godlessness," with a sharp turn into transgender bathroom issues—what passes for "debate" in contemporary America..

Incendiary Rhetoric

Thus raged the current polarized non-conversation between disagreeing Americans, each side hurling potshots at each other: fire and smoke, verbal grenades and harsh words—anything other than what once passed as debate and dialogue. 

Let me be clear: I agreed with Miles that the original article had some real misinformation (even disinformation) in it, and much distorted rhetoric. But underneath all that right-wing bramble were real feelings and some genuine concerns. Miles’s “answer” had been full of Liberal invective, not an engagement with the underlying issues. His email bristled with phrases like “You people” and the clear accusation that Trump supporters are simply “unreasonable.” 

Is there no alternative to this family-diving, friendship threatening barrage of words? Miles and I spent the next two days debating how to engage the debate in more constructive ways, like this:

Better Rules of the Road

1.  Start with agreements, if possible. If not, at least with recognition of the other’s concerns. “I can agree that frustration with our deadlocked national Establishment has generated much of power of the Trump campaign.” 

2.  Ask for further clarification: What makes you think this way? What led you to these conclusions? What reasons do you have for accepting these positions? 

3.  Then, and only then, question what you consider misrepresentations, exaggerations, disinformation or outright untruths. If possible, share concern over the issue at dispute. I can’t agree that Obama is trashing the Constitution with Executive Orders because other Presidents like Bush, Lincoln, and Jackson have set many precedents for such decrees. But I do agree that this area of Presidential power is very undefined and controversial. 

4.  State the way you see the situation, and why you see it that way. From my standpoint, Trump has made a number of extreme statements that imply a more serious disregard for the Constitution than any previous President or candidate—and give specific examples. 

5.  Avoid the comforting exhilaration of declaring the opposition ignorant, stupid, or immoral. Recognize that real people have real concerns, however poorly, in your opinion, they are expressed, or even how much factual error surrounds them. 

Communicating rather than winning

The above suggestions are not intended to “settle” arguments, but to encourage communication. This isn't just about being "nice" (though nice is usually better than nasty). Such rules of engagement open the possibility, difficult as may be, for challenging, communicating, and questioning. 

At this perilous point in our history, both Liberals and Conservatives (to use inadequate and clumsy labels) largely feel the other side is ignorant, misinformed, or immoral—or all three. This leads to the luxury of retreating into our own tribalistic echo chamber and congratulating our moral superiority and superior intelligence to each other. Our self-selected media outlets reinforce this. Moral superiority over the benighted other rules the day, in all directions. 

There are better ways to live. Better ways to have a political conversation. Better ways to be America.

And someone might actual be provoked to rethink something they believe. 

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Brutal Toughness Arises

Donald Trump says he will abolish gun-free zones around schools and elsewhere his first day in office. He's not the only Tough Guy on the prowl:

The president elect of the Philippines promises to “fill Manila Bay with bodies” in a crackdown on crime. Gunmen patrol the perimeters of mosques in the South. Putin plays the strong man in Russia, Erdogan in Turkey, Netanyahu in Israel. Hillary Clinton, the first woman to find herself within hailing distance of the U.S. Presidency finds herself attacked from the Right by a verbally brutal man and on the Left by an increasingly belligerent one.  And that’s not to mention the thousands of young men raised in the West who desert to fight against the liberal, Enlightenment democracies they grew up in. Primitive warrior belligerence seem to be on the rise.

"What Rough Beast?" 

Psychiatrist Carl G. Jung was alarmed, in 1930, to hear, from every one of his German analysands dreams about the ancient Teutonic berserker warriors.  On this basis he published an essay, Wotan, which chillingly predicts the triumph of the brutal Nazi regime. The berserker didn't appear to me in anybody's dreams, but in some films of the late 70s and early 80s—films like the uber-macho Rambo series and even in the masterfully crafted Lord Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan (1984). As Sylvester Stallone emerges bloodied but alive after one of the Rambo series frequent blood-baths, I felt the same archetypal chill.  To quote Yeats' "Second Coming" (1919): What rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?

I seem to have an inner sense (I jokingly call this "Cassandra" after the Trojan princess who accurately spotted trouble ahead). My Cassandra has a disturbing ability to notice dark clouds arising on far away horizons, and watching these films chillingly reminded me of Jung's observations. In the outer world, the "voodoo economics" of Reagan were taking over, and the GOP's dog-whistle racism was in full swing. The country was moving away from the New Deal's "we're in this all together" spirit and headed toward the "every man for himself" mentality we see today on the Right.

My chills do not a prediction make. Donald Trump does not bring Hitler to mind for me, but he is the latest in a long, intensifying line of men (and a few women like Sarah Palin) for whom belligerence is a value, civility, reason and facts the signs of the “loser.” And he joins the rising company of those strong men who praise “shooting from the hip, “usually phrased as “telling it like it is,” which really means “putting some words to the frustrations I feel." Meanwhile, the Enlightenment dream of the free exchange of ideas in civil discourse is threatened on the Left by an often rigid “politically correct” moralism. Allergic to any disagreements, it reacts with moral outrage rather than "say more about why you think that."

Can the Center hold?

The long-term consequences of all this are uncertain, but the effects so far amount to a major assault on the foundational principles of Enlightenment civilization: our sense of a common humanity over against ethnic prejudice; what the 18th century public thinkers called sentiment, or fellow-feeling that opposes brutality and hard-heartedness; the values of tolerance and civility vs. trash-talk and gleeful prejudice; and reasoned debate based on facts and evidence as a more productive way to truth than passionate belief.

Such values form the moderating "center" which fostered the pluralistic, democratic Western world we inhabit—and even significantly disarmed the population. But now it seems as if The Center cannot hold/ The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity. (1)

What can anyone do?  Hold the Center!  Refuse to give in to the current polarization. Try to understand where others are coming from, even as you disagree with them. Avoid the dangerous luxury of moral outrage so enjoyed by the "righteous" on Left and Right. This country is in the midst of an extended struggle at a crossroads of its history.  These are bulwark against a rising belligerence that may well lead to the blood-dimmed tide Yeats feared in 1919.  Is that what we see already in the smaller incidents, both Left and Right?

My inner Cassandra is worried. 

1. W.B.Yeats, The Second Coming.  See

Friday, March 25, 2016

At the heart of reality, life-out-of-death.

The Paschal Mystery is at the heart of Christianity because it is at the heart of the world’s life. What happens on Calvary is many things, including the vivid glimpse of how Things work. 

At the heart of life death dwells, but life springs from that dark heart. The very elements making up our bodies,  the cosmos as a whole, were forged in dying stars,  the first to flare forth. Dying yields life. The very ground under our feet, the fruit of myriad deaths becomes the grist for greenly springing new life that yields, in turn, life which soon becomes earth.

So is it strange that Jesus dying, as he does upon the rough wood of the cross, was seen, by some, as an ikon, an image, a glimpse of a cosmic "Lamb slain from the foundation of the world”? What is revealed on Calvary is the timeless reality of the Crucified God—a God crucified and rising again to continue loving and blessing, creating and re-creating. 

What do I mean?  Quite simply, that God is present at the heart of this dying-into-new life process, not remote, not watching it from a distance, but in it, with us, beside us, around us. God is Emmanuel, God-with-us, before, during and after the earthly life of Christ. We don’t talk this way, but the saga of the Scriptures is the saga of the crucifixion of God, of how God’s loving purposes, again and again, are frustrated by human sin.  Both in parables like the story of the first Parents in Eden and the Tower of Babel and in the saga of Israel’s history interpreted by the faith of the writers,
human beings violate the fabric of God’s goodness in each other, in society, in creation itself.

Cain kills Abel, the brothers sell Joseph into slavery, the children of Israel resist their own freedom,
David murders his captain Uriah to cover up his adultery, the ancient Kingdom of Israel wanders away from God’s path, God’s plan to bless the very ones who keep themselves from the blessing.
This is our story, the story of civilization, ours and every other. There is much good, of course, much human courage and creativity and kindness, but again and again the human race tears at the fabric of God’s goodness, God’s very presence in the world, in creation itself. God is here, God is wounded in us. God is wounded for us.

As Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote in his poem God’s Grandeur.

     Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
        And all is seared with trade; Bleared, smeared with toil;
        And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
     Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
     And for all this, nature is never spent;
        There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.

And for all this, God’s grace is never spent; there lives the dearest freshness deep down things—God’s constant love which has long since determined not to abandon us, whatever we do. Even on the Cross, God remains Emmanuel. Christ, as the Messenger of God, accepts the reality of all human sin dumped upon him, yet keeps on coming among us, determined to help our better angels defeat our worst. Christ on Calvary represents all human suffering, and presents it to God. He represents God’s participation in it all: the homeless, the diseased, the victims.

But he also represents the God who continues to invite us all into his loving embrace. His resurrection declares that new life can come out of suffering and death.  The dearest freshness deep down things flows forth in “Father forgive them.” And on Easter he will stand among us saying “Peace be with you.”

From the death of the first generation of stars and the rebirth of the cosmos to the death of Christ and his reappearance in transfigured form, God is life-out-of-death.  Which is why this day was, of old, “God’s Friday” and is now called “Good Friday.”  Both are true, more than we can ever know. 

Friday, January 15, 2016

Civilizational Divides and Church Disciplines

Inevitable; it was always almost inevitable.

It took a decade and more in coming—the vote by a majority of Anglican Primates to “discipline” (not “suspend”) the U.S. Episcopal Church (TEC) for blessing same-sex unions and “changing” the meaning of marriage. (1)

I stand firmly and joyfully in support of the Episcopal Church’s decisions, but we need to recognize, soberly, that these dynamics far transcend religion itself.

The cracks in the Anglican Communion’s foundations simply reflect growing the civilizational divide between the post-Christian West and much of the rest of the world. While the legalization of same-sex marriage has grown apace in countries like in the British Isles, the Scandinavian countries, France, Portugal, Spain, Argentina, Canada, Brazil and the United States (to mention but a few), countries more deeply tied to conservative sexual sensibilities have dug in their heels in reaction: Nigeria, Uganda, India, with Russia trying to become leader of a moral coalition against alleged Western “decadence.”

The more progress, the more resistance

The more the West asserts its changed moral convictions, the stronger the opposition becomes. For Westerners accustomed to leading the “advance of civilizations” this is a rude awakening. As the conservative African bishops remind us constantly, the colonial era is over. Like it or not, the West is now only one part of a competitive collection of civilizational blocks outlined in Huntington’s prescient The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order.

A world-wide fellowship of Churches like the Anglican Communion cannot escape the consequences of such divergent civilizational developments. That ecclesiastic and political leaders (like Putin, for example) would play on this divergence for various secondary gains was also inevitable, humanity being what it is. A good deal of capital can be made out of a sense of moral superiority, resistance to the influence of former colonial powers, or promoting a sometimes simplistic version of “our” moral past.  

Both sides are deeply part of their own cultural context. The different focus of their polarized moral arousal cannot be separated from this fact.

One of the early advocates of LGBT full inclusion, retired Bishop John Spong, saw this inevitability in a New York Times op-ed piece as long ago as 1998. The Primates' very carefully worded (aka 'Anglican') statement, may well the last attempt to re-form the Communion as a ‘loose fellowship of churches' that actually continues to stay in some relationship—a family—however impaired. 

Moral arousal or moral outrage?

So, each side feels morally superior, and believes they are right. As the U.S. Primate Michael Curry states clearly, the TEC feels this is a matter of fidelity to Gospel values, as the Spirit leads the church into deeper realizations of truth. In the past two decades TEC has declined to abide by the declarations of the last two Lambeth Conferences about marriage, for human rights reasons seen as spiritually compelling.

Meanwhile, moral arousal does not have to become moral outrage, however tempting that is or how enjoyable it feels. I know where I stand, and why. You probably do, too. But Jesus warned us about the dangers of arousal becoming outrage. (3) We know that outrage increases a dangerously blinding, either/or, us/them view of reality that can be destructive. 

Arousal can, on the other hand, lead to grace and steadfastness in the face of opposition—and holding firm to the practice of seeing opponents as real human beings with real concerns, however divergent.

1.  See the actual text of the Primates Statement at

2. See Thomas Friedman, "The Age of Protest" at

3.  "Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you." (Matthew 5:44). Love here, of course is agape, an intention for their ultimate well-being, not fond feelings. See previous blog on the Paris attacks on this website. 

Sunday, November 15, 2015

After Paris: Love Your Enemy—Really?

Jesus and Buddha: Your Enemy is your Teacher?

In the wake of terrorist attacks like that in Paris last Friday, what sense does Jesus’ famous (or infamous) charge to “love your enemies, bless those who curse you” make? The customary Christian treatment of this has been, at best, to say to Jesus “thank you for sharing” and return to business as usual. 

Hating the enemy is, after all, natural and normal. But, of course, hate breeds hate, which may be what Jesus was getting at. And, anyway, when he said “Love” he didn’t mean warm, fuzzy feelings. He meant something very close to what the Buddha meant by calling humanity to have a clear intention for the other’s well-being, plus a call to compassion for everyone you meet, That links with Jesus's repeating the Jewish maxim “Love your neighbor as yourself. Consider the other to be as human as you are."

Even then, Jesus: do you mean we should intend well-being for terrorists who shot innocents by the dozens at the concert hall in Paris, who blew themselves up and killed others at restaurants? Who killed themselves to kill others? Compassion? Give us a break!

Your enemy is your best teacher

The Dalai Lama, who knows the Buddha far better than I do, insists that “your enemy is your best teacher.” He ought to know, I guess, since the Chinese government has been hounding him ever since he decided they wouldn’t be good for his beloved homeland. 

Such a saying gives me a radical new slant on the meaning of  “love your enemy.” What if the problem with our ever-so-natural horror and hatred of the enemy is that it blinds us? Blinds us.

If we are angry—and hatred is distilled anger—our brain tends to block out any new information. If we are dealing with an enemy the last thing we need is blindness. We need to see, not just what we hate, but the actual human being who is behaving in ways that harm us (or that we fear will harm us). When we say, “How could anyone kill a concert-hall full of innocent people?” we need to hear it as question directed to us by ourselves—or perhaps the Spirit in us. A question that needs an answer. 

Seeing the enemy more clearly

“How could anyone act that way?” we say, not realizing we're inviting ourselves to find out, to get to know the enemy better, to see the opponent in the fullness of their humanity. What is the anger? the alienation? ignorance?—or the reaction to injury?—that leads to terrorist outrages?  Even if we want to strike back, we’ll act with more wisdom if we can see. And if we decide that simply striking back is insufficient, maybe risks jumping from the frying pan into the fire, seeing the enemy more clearly may lead us to more nuanced, varied, and effective responses. We will be clearer, also, on how to distinguish terrorism from Islam itself. 

Not humanity’s usual tactic.  But the Dalai Lama goes on. In response to a human rights activist who says anger is her driving force,  I heard him say, "BE angry! Anger is good! Anger is natural! But don't stay there."

The enemy can “teach” us by provoking deeper understanding. Understanding the sources of the enemy’s anger better,  compassion may arise, however wrongheaded we may think the enemy to be. We might even learn what injuries, real or imagined, provoke the enemy—unless we have some delusion that "we" are perfect, flawless, and innocent.  

Maybe that’s why Jesus tells us to take some time to contemplate the enemy in prayer, to imagine blessing their fundamental, frail and fallible humanity, to ponder how to do such good as will lead to long-term solutions. Even if that involves restraining evil by force to begin, which is never a good place to end. 

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

It’s Privilege at Stake, Not "Religious Freedom”

People who have been dealt all the high cards for centuries react badly when they get dealt low cards. If they then begin howling that their “freedom” is being taken away, they’re referring to their power to control the game. It’s all about the loss of cultural and legal privilege.

That’s the drama being played out in Morehead, Kentucky, as the religious right uses County Clerk Kim Davis’ conservative Christian beliefs to claim an exemption for “religious liberty” with cries of “persecution” abounding. 

Historic Protestant Hegemony

America’s foundational freedom to practice religion without State interference is not at stake here. As we become more religiously diverse, the power of Christianity, especially one brand of the faith,  to dominate culture and legal systems inevitably wanes. White Protestants of northern European extraction ruled the roost from colonial days until the mid-20th century. Their morality and values were reflected in the law, especially with regard to sexual morality: contraception, orientation, divorce. 

Protestant privilege held sway with great power, with the approval of the majority. Religious minorities had little or no power to exercise their “religious liberty” except in private life and worship: Jewish businesses that closed on the Sabbath had to shut down on Sunday as well. Homosexual acts were against the law. Atheists had no cultural “liberty” to achieve elective office even if there was “no test of religion” in the law. 

Peak and Decline

This Protestant hegemony peaked in the post-War 1950s and talk of our “Christian” nation’s battle with “Atheistic Communism.” Then, in rapid succession, a Catholic was elected President, public school prayer was forbidden, Sunday blue laws unravelled, and abortion was declared legal. Disadvantaged minorities (Jewish business owners, non-believers, and women) gained more freedom of choice. 

The power of Christian privilege to shape culture and law was diminished significantly. But the constitutional guarantee of freedom to practice one’s religion was not touched—just the historic freedom to impose it on society at large. For many millions, especially those who took Christian privilege for granted, the nation-wide legalization of gay marriage seems the final straw.

No Easy Settlement?

As the philosopher Isaiah Berlin wisely observed, differing values really cannot be reconciled perfectly. While it seems abundantly clear that a representative of the State must obey the laws of the State or seek other employment, other clashes between the right to marriage for gays and other situations is probably not as black and white an issue as either side wants to acknowledge. 

The Founders, overwhelmingly, believed that a strong and diverse religious culture, free of government interference, would be a vitally important element in the Republic they were establishing, and supported religions of all kinds (at first mostly Protestant) by special exemptions. Settling this in specific cases will not be easy in the current brouhaha, and the far Right has opened a new battle in the culture war which it has waged ever since the school desegregation undermined the once-powerful white Protestant belief in the separation of the races. 

But the cry of “liberty lost” boils down to the loss of privilege, and shouts of “persecution” to outraged, politically ominous pouts.