He’s dead?…

Osama bin Laden is dead. It feels strange to write that. I could wish he had been brought to trial — or brought to justice really — rather than killed in a firefight. But they’re reporting that he used another person as a human shield, which reveals a lack of courage and a moral depravity. So he’s dead. I can’t help but think that the world is a better place without him.

By sheer coincidence, today I’ve been thinking about the Cain and Abel story from the book of Genesis. You’ve heard the story: Adam and Eve are the first two humans. They have two sons, Cain and Abel. God favors Abel over Cain, and in a fit of pique Cain murders Abel. When God asks Cain where Abel has got to, Cain replies, How should I know, am I my brother’s keeper? But God, being God, knows that Cain has killed Abel, and tells him so. Cain is ashamed. God punishes Cain, saying: I’m cursing you, your life will be tough, you’re going to be a vagabond and a fugitive forever. Cain says, I’m gonna be a vagabond and a fugitive, and everyone who finds me out will try to kill me. But God says, Not so, anyone who kills you, vengeance will be taken upon him sevenfold. Then God set a mark upon Cain to let people know about that. There’s some kind of weird complex poetic truth to the Cain and Abel story that I can never quite wrap my head around. It is obviously not a literally true story, but like the best fiction it gets at deeper truths — what the deeper truths are is open for debate.

And although it’s an inexact and incomplete analogy, I can’t help thinking of Osama bin Laden as a Cain-like figure: someone who commits a heinous murder, and who, after his crime was committed, had to become a fugitive and vagabond. It’s an inexact analogy, and Osama bin Laden was not Cain, but I have to admit I do worry about the aftermath of his death. Osama bin Laden is dead, the world is a better place without him, but I would not call this a neat and tidy ending to his story.

I do feel an enormous sense of relief that he’s dead. He was both depraved and powerful. And now the question is: what next?

This week’s protest sign

According to today’s San Mateo County Times, a group of students at Hillsdale High School held a rally to protest statewide cuts to public education funding. The Times shows a photo of a group of students marching behind a banner that reads:

You Don’t Pay For Our Education
We Won’t Pay For Your Social Security!

Perhaps this is the beginning of a new generation gap, the start of a widening rift between the Millennials and the Baby Boomers?

“Three Cups of Deceit”

Carol discovered John Krakauer’s “Three Cups of Deceit,” put out by the new online publisher, Byliner Originals; it’s a 100,000 word non-fiction article about Greg Mortenson, the well-known author of Three Cups of Tea. As you might imagine from the title, Krakauer is critical of Mortenson, and concludes the following:

In all fairness, Greg Mortenson has done much that is admirable since he began working in Baltistan sixteen and a half years ago. He’s been a tireless advocate for girls’ education. He’s established dozens of schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan that have benefited tens of thousands [of] children, a significant percentage of them girls. A huge number of people regard him as a hero, and he inspires tremendous trust. It is now evident, however, that Mortenson recklessly betrayed this trust, damaging his credibility beyond repair. [pp. 67-68]

Krakauer alleges that Mortenson fabricated important parts of his two bestselling books, Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools. To prove these allegations, Krakauer identifies serious errors in chronology, he finds contradictions between the account in Three Cups of Tea and an earlier article by Mortenson, and he digs up lots of eyewitness testimony that does not agree with what Mortenson wrote.

Krakauer also alleges that Mortenson mismanaged Central Asia Institute (CAI), the nonprofit organization he established to build schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan. To prove these allegations, Krakauer interviewed former employees and associates of Mortenson, as well as former board members of CAI, who claim that Mortenson did not adequately document expenses (in some cases provided no documentation at all), used CAI funds for personal use, and bullied employees. Furthermore, according to Krakauer, Mortenson used CAI monies to promote Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools, while keeping the book profits for himself; promotional expenses allegedly included buying copies of his first book to keep it on the bestseller list. While it’s always wise to have some doubt about the opinions of disgruntled former employees, Krakauer managed to find so many disgruntled former employees and board members for such a small, newly-founded organization, that I at least had to doubt Mortenson’s managerial ability. Continue reading ““Three Cups of Deceit””

Limits of entrepreneurial endeavor

In the most recent issue of Stanford Social Innovation Review, Johan van de Gronden, CEO of the World Wildlife Fund in the Netherlands, says that markets are not capable of solving all the world’s problems:

As change agents, we’d do well to seek inspiration beyond the language of business and entrepreneurship…. Suggesting that sufficient entrepreneurial tools and practices will solve most of society’s ailments is a category mistake. It comes with the tacit assumption that society is better off when social entrepreneurs replace the many functions of government. This is the classic fallacy of development aid. When NGOs start delivering the services that many poor governments can’t deliver, they involuntarily aggravate the problem rather than build a solution. Governments spiral into a starvation cycle. If citizens cannot hold government accountable for basic services, for the proper spending of the collective revenue for the public good, then on what grounds would they favor one government over the other in the polls? And what reasons would citizens have to pursue a government career?

It seems to me that some of these characteristics are not alien to, say, the state of California. The world’s eight largest economy and home to some of the planet’s wealthiest individuals is barely capable of running a balanced state budget, while providing a minimum of basic and affordable services to its citizens, from health care to public schooling. There is tragic irony in this, as some of the world’s most generous foundations, finest NGOs, and best universities are part of the same societal fabric. And I think there is a correlation. When we place so much emphasis on the values of entrepreneurship to the extent that we start defining the poor quality of basic services as market failures, we may begin to think that the conception of a business plan in the mother of all solutions.

— Johan van de Gronden, “It takes three to tango: a European perspective on American civil society,” Stanford Social Innovation Review, spring, 2011, p. 23.

The peculiar American proclivity for insisting that markets provide solutions for all problems does interesting things to liberal religious congregations. This proclivity forces those of us in congregations to adopt entrepreneurial approaches in order to remain in existence, because we have to compete in the market with extraordinarily well-funded and well-supported alternatives, such as large market-driven conservative mega-churches that preach the gospel of prosperity, the entertainment industry, therapists, yoga studios, etc. In the same vein, this American proclivity also affects the expectations of those of us in congregations, such that we demand the constant innovation of products and services that is characteristic of American markets.

Those of us in liberal religious congregations have to carry an essentially impossible balancing act. We have to utilize the best resources of entrepreneurial endeavor, not just to thrive, but to survive; and as the years go by, we have to rely more and more on entrepreneurial endeavor. At the same time, we would be betraying our ethical and theological ideals if we go too far down the market-driven path of the prosperity gospel (“Come to church, build a purpose-driven life, and you will find financial success!”), or if we began to believe that the markets are more important than our historic ethical and theological ideals. This is a big part of the basic challenge facing liberal religion today.

Down with Rome!

I’ve been reading apocalypses recently: Revelation, an ancient Christian apocalypse, and Joel, an ancient Hebrew apocalypse, to be specific. As a Transcendentalist, I have a soft spot in my heart for Joel’s insistence that everyone is going to have transcendent visions: “And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions: And also upon the servants and upon the handmaids in those days will I pour out my spirit.” (Joel 2.28-29)

Politically, however, I’m more interested in Revelation, which rails against the oppression of the Romans, and longs for the destruction of the Roman Empire. It’s the vivid expression of an oppressed people’s longing for the destruction of their foreign oppressors, filled with extravagant imagery. I know conventional Christians see Revelation as the coming of the End Times when they all will get raptured up to heaven; but to me it reads more like political hate mail for the Roman overlords.

To better understand Revelation, I’ve been reading bits of a non-canonical apocalyptic book, the Sibylline Oracles, written somewhere around the same time as Revelation, give or take a century or two. This passage from Book VIII makes the political content quite clear:

God’s declarations of great wrath to come
In the last age upon the faithless world
I make known, prophesying to all men
According to their cities. From the time
When the great tower fell and the tongues of men
Were parted into many languages
Of mortals, first was Egypt’s royal power
Established, that of Persians and of Medes
And also of the Ethiopians
And of Assyria and Babylon,
Then the great pride of boasting Macedon,
Then, fifth, the famous lawless kingdom last
Of the Italians shall show many evils
Unto all mortals and shall spend the toils
Of men of every land….

There shall come to thee sometime from above
A heavenly stroke deserved, O haughty Rome.
And thou shalt be the first to bend thy neck
And be razed to the ground, and thee shall fire
Destructive utterly consume, cast down
Upon thy pavements, and thy wealth shall perish,
And wolves and foxes dwell in thy foundations.
And then shalt thou be wholly desolate,
As if not born….

The Sibylline Oracles, trans. Milton S. Terry, 1899, Book VIII, ll. 1-15, 47-55; pp. 161-163.

Nothing about the Rapture here, just straightforward hate mail for Rome. In my reading, Revelation is also hate mail for Rome; it makes more sense that way. Yes, it is a lot less straightforward than the above passage from the Sibylline Oracles; yes, it is filled with bizarre imagery; but it makes a lot more sense as an ancient religio-political tract predicting the downfall of Rome than as a onto-theological text predicting — um, from a theological point of view, I’m not sure exactly what Revelation is supposed to predict.

Maps with fine-grained census data

Want to know the racial mix around your congregation? Check out Mapping America: Every City, Every Block, an interactive map produced by the New York Times. The level of geographic detail is astounding, down below census tracts to streets and blocks. Unfortunately, since the data comes from the U.S. Census, the five racial categories are very broad: white, black, Hispanic, Asian, other (the census does take more detailed racial information, but does not provide that level of detail with geographic location).

I looked up the neighborhood immediately around the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, and found it is 59% white, 1% black, 5% Hispanic, 32% Asian, and 2% other; I’d estimate that the racial makeup of our congregation is probably 80% white, 1% black, 1% Hispanic, 17% Asian, and 1% other; I suspect those who actually show up on Sunday morning are probably somewhat more racially diverse. (The neighborhood where we live turns out to be only 12% white, which helps explain why my church feels so white when it’s actually more diverse than most of the Unitarian Universalist congregations I’ve been part of.)

Mind you, there are problems with this map. I looked up our old neighborhood in New Bedford, and the map shows people living on the hurricane barrier at the mouth of New Bedford harbor, which is absurd. The underlying data are probably fairly good, but the graphical presentation should not be construed as showing the exact location where people live.