October2011.org?

Pallas just posted to the local minister’s email list telling us about October2011.org. At first glance, October2011.org looks like an antiwar demonstration that will take place in Washington, D.C., beginning on October 6. But unlike conventional demonstrations, they are modeling themselves after the protests of the Arab Spring. Here’s the pledge that they ask participants to sign:

I pledge that if any U.S. troops, contractors, or mercenaries remain in Afghanistan on Thursday, October 6, 2011, as that occupation goes into its 11th year, I will commit to being in Freedom Plaza in Washington, D.C., with others on that day or the days immediately following, for as long as I can, with the intention of making it our Tahrir Square, Cairo, our Madison, Wisconsin, where we will NONVIOLENTLY resist the corporate machine by occupying Freedom Plaza to demand that America’s resources be invested in human needs and environmental protection instead of war and exploitation…. [caps in original]

The focus of this demonstration will be civil disobedience. And it sounds like anyone who goes may risk arrest, based on what they say on in their FAQ:

There are important roles for those who choose not to risk arrest such as jail support, observation and other responsibilities during the occupation such as food, medical care and cleanup. That said, there are no guarantees because we cannot at this time predict the response by the DC police. Our experience in the past is that they give warnings prior to making arrests so that those who choose to do so may leave the action.

Speaking as a peacenik, I’m a little skeptical of this demonstration. Although the pledge quoted above seems to focus on an antiwar message, no Quaker or Brethren groups have yet signed on as sponsors; if this were a peace demonstration I’d expect to see at least one Quaker meeting as a sponsor. And when you read deeper in the Web site, this demonstration is not really an antiwar demonstration; peace is merely one of a list of fifteen issues. And this does not look like a broad-based coalition, but rather the usual narrow coalition of the usual leftist groups; as a leftist myself I can tell you that we are a vanishingly small segment of the U.S. population, so I’d expect a tiny turnout.

If you know more about October2011.org, I’d love to hear from you. Especially if you’re a peacenik, or have a religious perspective on this.

Millennial hymn for our times

Back in the early nineteenth century, Richard McNemar wrote a hymn commonly called “Babylon is Fallen,” which was included in the 1813 Shaker hymnal Millennial Praises. It is a hymn with typical Biblical apocalyptic imagery, probably based on Revelation 18.21 ff. Today the hymn is most commonly associated with an 1878 tune by W. E. Chute, and the Roud Folksong index number is S227926.

But the words most commonly sung today, e.g. in folk music circles and by Sacred Harp singers, are not the original words; four of the original six verses get ignored, and a third verse (probably added when Chute wrote his tune) is tacked on. I like the original words better, and when I read the first three verses, it feels as though the hymnodist were describing the current financial meltdown in the U.S.:

1. Hail the day so long expected!
Hail the year of full release!
Zion’s walls are now erected,
And her watchmen publish peace:
From the distant coasts of Shinar,
The shrill trumpet loudly roars,
   Refrain
Babylon is fallen, is fallen, is fallen,
Babylon is fallen to rise no more.

2. Hark, and hear her people crying,
“See the city disappear!
Trade and traffic all are dying!
Lo, we sink and perish here!”
Sailors who have bought her traffic,
Crying from her distant shore,
   Refrain

3. All her merchants cry with wonder,
“What is this that’s come to pass?”
Murm’ring like the distant thunder
Crying out, “Alas! Alas!”
Swell the sound, ye kings and nobles!
Priests and people, rich and poor!
   Refrain

Continue reading “Millennial hymn for our times”

A pastoral concern

Mike Cassidy writes the “Silicon Valley Dispatches” column for the San Jose Mercury News. He is feeling a wee bit cynical these days. With unemployment still high, Cassidy is wondering how the recent federal deficit reduction actions by Congress are going to promote job creation by American corporations:

It’s not a lack of money that is holding companies back from hiring. Collectively, corporations for months have been sitting on record levels of cash, reaching about $1.9 trillion today. Remember the recent headlines about Apple (AAPL) having more cash than the U.S. government?

And profits are up widely. The Wall Street Journal’s David Wessel was on the radio recently citing an analyst’s report that found that the first 100 of the S&P 500 to report quarterly earnings saw profit increases averaging 12 percent. Meantime, Wessel’s own paper was reporting on a new wave of layoffs at American companies.

So if you think further fattening corporate coffers with tax breaks will spur hiring, think again. — “Politicians and corporations are playing us for fools”

As someone who’s working in Silicon Valley, and as someone who knows a lot of people who are out of work or in danger of losing their jobs, I’m with Cassidy on this one. We have some of the richest companies in the world here in the Valley, and we saw 10.5% unemployment in June in the San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara metropolitan statistical area, which means some 94,300 people classified as unemployed (that doesn’t count the underemployed, or the people who have given up looking for work).

Speaking as a minister, I wish Congress and the president and CEOs would realize this isn’t about getting political points or pleasing shareholders.

Religion in the deficit debate

As I watch the deficit battle in Washington with fascinated horror, I can’t help but noticing the threads of religion that run through it:

Barack Obama is a self-avowed quasi-Niebuhrian pragmatist who has come out of the mainline Protestant tradition. Like so many mainliners these days, he has distanced himself from organized religion; part of that mainline pragmatism is to stick to religion only when it doesn’t get in the way. He doesn’t seem to be drawn or driven by any particular transcendent moral or ethical ideals. You will also notice that he doesn’t go to religious services on a regular basis.

There are at least two religious types within the Tea Partiers. First, there are the followers of the Prosperity Gospel. Generally speaking, the Prosperity Gospel holds that religious success (salvation) is tied to material success; in one common American form, it ties in with residual American Calvinism, and holds that the wealthy are the elect, and those without money are hellbound without possibility of salvation. Whatever the specific form of Prosperity Gospel, if you’re not wealthy, you are morally culpable, you need to pray harder, and the government should not help you out.

Second, you can find the libertarian atheists among (or at least allied with) the Tea Partiers. These are often people who follow the fundamentalist atheism of Ayn Rand and her cohorts. This often takes the form of deifying the individual human, and rejecting as anathema any coordinated effort to help out the poor and unfortunate, who are not deified. The fundamentalist Randian atheists reject any call to a higher moral authority out of hand; sometimes, they’re hard to distinguish from the quasi-Niebuhrian pragmatism of Barack Obama and his cronies.

Ordinary Christian evangelicalism, committed to its own high principles around various social issues, continues to affirm that the churches can and should play a major role in delivering social services. They find themselves allied with the Tea Party’s efforts to de-fund government as much as possible. Catholics who are aligned with their religion’s hierarchy are in much the same position. However, both the Christian evangelicals and the Catholics are committed to government intervention in social issues like marriage and abortion, and many Christian evangelicals and most Catholics remain committed to letting the government fight poverty, out of their Christian commitment to helping the poor; at some point, they will have to confront the vast gulf between themselves on the one hand, and the Prosperity Gospelers and Randian atheists on the other hand. (My guess is that many of them will jump the gulf and join the Prosperity Gospelers or the fundamentalist Randian atheists.)

What is most striking to me is that so many theological groups are missing from the public coverage of the debate. Where, for example, are the mainline Protestants who have been influenced by the various liberation theologies (the feminist, black, GLBT, etc., liberation theologies)? Also missing from public coverage is any mention of the various groups doing ecological theology, including liberal Christians, humanists, and Neo-Pagans.

Religious liberals have been left out of the debate? — this should not be a great surprise. Most religious liberals and religious moderates long ago decided that they would keep their religion out of any discussions of public policy. And having once ceded the public square to fundamentalists, religious conservatives, and religious nutcases (i.e., the Prosperity Gospelers, etc.), we’re finding it very difficult to get back in.

Egregious conduct by politicians

Sometimes you just can’t believe the egregious behavior of certain politicians. No, I’m not talking about Anthony Whiner, er, Weener — and I’m not talking about former California governor the Gropinator’s 13 year old love child. I’m talking about the egregious hypocrisy of Gov. Rick Perry of Texas.

Perry, you may recall, presents himself as religious man. He’s the kind of guy who attends prayer breakfasts where he puts his religious faith on display; he has even opened a national prayer breakfast for governors of U.S. states. But while eating breakfast in our Texas motel this morning, I opened today’s edition of the Amarillo Globe-News and read that Perry gives financial support to his church at a rate lower than even than most Unitarian Universalists (who are the worst contributors to their congregations of any U.S. denomination aside from Catholics). Here’s an excerpt from the AP story:

The San Antonio Express-News reports the Perry family’s income tax return shows Perry gave $90 to his church in 2007, a year in which he reported an income of more than $1 million….

Hmmm. If I were his pastor, I think I’d be giving Rick Perry a friendly little phone call right now. However, to be fair, Perry’s giving record was not that bad every year he’s been governor:

The records from 2000, when Perry became governor, through 2009 show he earned $2.68 million and gave $14,243 to churches and religious organizations, about a half percent.

In other words, over a ten year period, Perry earned an average of $268,000 a year, and gave an average of $1,424 per year to his church. By comparison, last year I earned about $60,000 and gave about $3000 (or 5%) to my church.

This leads to Harper’s Rule: Politicians may not use Biblical references, nor refer to their “Christian faith,” unless they contribute at least 5% for their income to their church. If a politician breaks this rule, you should shout “Matthew 6:5!” at him or her.

Underpants

During the religious education committee meeting tonight, one of the committee members was telling us about a bunch of five year olds hanging out in their underpants. It was a pretty funny story. When the story was done, I couldn’t resist bringing up the Anthony Weiner silliness — I said that while the American news media are saying that Weiner sent “sexually explicit” pictures of himself (which makes it sound important and serious), the BBC tells it like it is: Weiner sent underpants photo. He sent pictures of himself in underpants; not even five year olds would be that silly! We had a good laugh at Underpants Weiner, and moved on with the rest of the business we had to cover.

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.