Monday, February 28, 2011

Unions, Collective Bargaining, and Protesting: What would Jesus do?

Just a few days ago we were able to witness what we call the “Anti-Union” vote on the part of the Republican-controlled Wisconsin Assembly, which of course had to be done with the melodious sounds of protests in the background. However, the Democrats in the Senate still seem to be off on their days of protest-vacation, in their attempt to stall the proposed measures.

Immediately after the vote passed the Assembly, there were shouts of “Shame!” and “Boo!” from Democratic representatives. Only to hear and watch of such theatrical madness would make any left-leaner smile. The unrest in Wisconsin this week over Gov. Scott Walker’s plan to discontinue the bargaining rights and benefits of public workers is spreading to other states — Ohio, Indiana, and Tennessee, to name a few — also facing serious fiscal challenges that need to be dealt with straightaway. In many states, Republicans who came to power in the November elections, often by defeating Democrats [who are overwhelmingly union-backed, as noticed throughout political history], are taking aim not only at union wages, but at union power as they face budget gaps in the years ahead. However, because I am far from an economics and finance scholar, let me approach this issue from one of my favorite perspectives — the Jesus approach.

As my sensory nerves were engaged with the sounds and images from Wisconsin — its protests, shutdown of some public services, missing Democratic senators, and gubernatorial unwavering — I could not help but think of the old aphorism, “What would Jesus do?” Because I hope to be a scholar one day, let me qualify that I have no clue what Jesus would actually do or say; however we can examine his occasional teachings in order to extract an idea of his response.

In my view, whether your theological approach to Jesus is that of redeemer, Hebrew scholar, political activist, or social leader, one cannot deny that the narratives of Christ are concerned with the healing of the whole being of the individual — mind, body, and soul. Hence, Jesus had a special sense of mission to the oppressed. At the outset of his public ministry, he stood up in the synagogue and read from the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.” (Luke 4:18-19) This reading from Isaiah outlines the myriad levels of oppression that he [Jesus] had come to disrupt.

For our approach to this article, oppression is more theoretically defined as the subjection of human agency through the unjust use of force. This is significant, because whether it was the persons shunned because of their battle with leprosy or the women excluded because of patriarchal hegemony, Jesus had a way of connecting with those persons subjected by unjust societal force. Yet, in the 21st century, it is significantly distressing that the biblical theme of Jesus’ solidarity with the historical liberation of the oppressed is notably absent in the mission and message of those who strive to make the church truly universal.

In Wisconsin, as in other parts of this nation, the union workers are being subjected by the unjust use of political force. Their rights to collectively bargain and seek economic fairness are being removed before their very eyes, with minimal solidarity on the part of the church. According to what we see in the gospels, Jesus is calling for the church to be inconvenient, and support the struggle of the oppressed from within as they seek to obtain their own liberation from the oppressive, unjust forces of political supremacy. Our minds must not be deluded into thinking that the liberation of the oppressed will be achieved by those who are oppressed alone; no, beloved, this is not possible. Instead, those of us who identify as disciples of Jesus Christ - and who thus constantly wrestle with the question of “What would Jesus do” - must join hands and hearts with those seeking a socioeconomic landscape of egalitarianism.

Though Jesus lived and moved in a social and cultural environment when the religious leadership and political elites were dedicated to maintaining the systems and institutions of society that were “in-place,” he [Jesus] made it his practice to be out of place. Similarly, while the governor, the Republican Assembly majority, and other conservative political individuals would encourage these protesters to get in place, I say to the protesters in Wisconsin and around the world — shout louder and protest longer, for to be out of place is what Jesus would do.

Robert S. Harvey is currently a master’s student at Harvard Divinity School, where he addresses the intersection of religion, education, democracy, and civil rights. Robert is also a Baptist minister and has published a number of essays, articles, and social commentaries; he is currently completing a book entitled, 'Unconditional Love, Unconditional Inclusion: The Role of Christian Churches in the Social Development of Gays and Lesbians.'

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Religion News Coverage Doubled In 2010, But For All the Wrong Reasons

According to a recent study published by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, news coverage on religion and religious issues doubled in 2010 from 1% to 2% of all content reported in the US news media. Unfortunately, the coverage was driven largely by some of the darkest moments of religious discourse over the past year, with the top stories including the controversy over the Park51 Islamic Center, continuing reports on the sexual abuse scandal within the Catholic Church, and Florida pastor Terry Jones' threatened Qu'ran-burning event.

While increased coverage of religion arguably represents progress in our national capacity for discussions about religion and its role in our society, the extremely negative and over-sensationalized stories that prompted the increase in coverage of religion over the past year remain a cause for concern. The media dominance of events like those listed above skew public perception about religion and its role in our society in extremely negative ways. The themes of hatred, misunderstanding, corruption, and division that link these stories together form an overarching narrative about religion and its impact on our lives that stands completely at odds with the potentially powerful force for good that we in the religious left know it to be.

Moving forward, we owe it to our faiths and our fellow citizens to work both to end the practices within our own traditions that allows stories like those listed above to occur in the first place, but also to actively assert our voices in an effort to change the media narrative about the values, beliefs, and means of religious expression in this country. The voices of religious hatred and division cannot be allowed to drown out the message of love and justice. There is plenty of work to be done. It's time to raise your voice, and join the conversation.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Tennessee's Anti-Sharia Legislation Puts Muslim Americans At Risk

Tennessee joined the ignoble list this week of states considering anti-Sharia legislation. But unlike some other state anti-Shariah efforts in which the proposed legislation avoids explicit mention of Sharia law, like a recent bill introduced in both houses of Georgia's state legislature, the bill introduced by Tennessee State Senator Bill Ketron (R) grants the state's Attorney General the power to define and prosecute suppoters of "Sharia organizations." The proposed legislation allows the Attorney General to designate these 'Shariah organizations,' which the bill defines as
"Two (2) or more persons conspiring to support, or acting in concert in support of, sharia or in furtherance of the imposition of sharia within any state or territory of the United States."
Individuals suspected of supplying financial or material support to designated organizations would face the possibility of a felony charge and up to 15 years in prison.

While Tennessee is hardly the first state to consider such outrageous and blatantly bigoted legislation, the proposed bill might be the most explicit to date in terms of its condemnation of Shariah law, which it refers to as "treasonous" and which it suggests is incompatible with the values of the Constitution.

From the proposed bill:
Sharia as a political doctrine requires all its adherents to actively support the establishment of a political society based upon sharia as foundational or supreme law and the replacement of any political entity not governed by sharia with a sharia political order.

Sharia requires all its adherents to actively and passively support the replacement of America's constitutional republic, including the representative government of this state with a political system based upon sharia.

The knowing adherence to sharia and to foreign sharia authorities is prima facie evidence of an act in support of the overthrow of the United States government and the government of this state through the abrogation, destruction, or violation of the United States and Tennessee Constitutions by the likely use of imminent criminal violence and terrorism with the aim of imposing sharia on the people of this state.
The growing conservative effort to legislate against Sharia law reinforces the worst sort of lies and stereotypes about Islam and its adherents, and the practice of legislating through fear and genuine or willful ignorance has consequences that lawmakers across the country must recognize.

Murfreesboro, a small town in central Tennessee, is the home of a continuing controversy around the construction of a proposed Islamic center and mosque. The debate over the legality of the center's construction (opponents have actually submitted arguments to the court that the center should not be granted the same zoning permissions for land use as other religious institutions because Islam is not a real religion), has born witness to the very real consequences of the sort of ginned up, hateful rhetoric currently working its way through the Tennessee legislature.

In August, during the height of the controversy over the non-Ground Zero non-mosque, the construction site of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro was the target of an arson attack, followed soon after by reports of gunshots in the vicinity of the construction site. These events have reportedly left Muslims in central Tennessee living in fear for their safety, and compelled nearby mosques and other Muslim institutions to even request federal protection during prayer services.

Conservative politicians in Tennessee and the rest of the country must realize that their ignorant, opportunistic grand-standing on the issue of Sharia law doesn't take place in a void. Such bigoted, misguided rhetoric has consequences, and those consequences will be felt first and foremost by our nation's already victimized Muslim population. The arson attack in Murfreesboro is only one of an escalating number of recent anti-Muslim attacks across the country. So far these attacks have been limited to intimidation and the destruction of property, but if conservative lawmakers continue to use Islam and the trumped-up, imaginary threat of Sharia law as a whipping boy in order to rally their base, it is only a matter of time before one of the lashes cuts deep enough to earn conservative Islamophobia a body count.

Civility be damned; this is a matter of basic human decency, and until conservative lawmakers abandon this inflammatory, Islamophobic rhetoric, they are putting the lives of American citizens at risk.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

“Sacrifice, Suffering, and Struggle”: Can we resurrect Dr. King’s real message?

On the 47th anniversary of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech” at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, it should come as no surprise to the left community that the loathsome Glenn Beck would distort Dr. King's message in the name of “reclaiming the civil rights movement.” And to top it all off, Dr. King’s niece, Alveda King joined Beck at the rally as a supporter and highlighted speaker.

What has happened to the legacy of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.? What have we, as a collective nation, allowed to happen to the message and mission of the man who once said: “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it”? The American people have so watered down the poignant and profound message of King to a point where his call for unarmed truth, judgment by character, and human progress are unrecognizable as the radical beckoning they truly were.

Let us take note of First Lady Michelle Obama’s call for Americans to engage themselves in food drives, neighborhood clean-ups, education projects, blood drives or more” as “one of the best ways to preserve [Dr. King's] legacy.” Let me be clear, I both honor and admire the First Lady. However for her to relegate the radically transforming, politically left, and spiritually enthused message and mission of Dr. King to “food drives, clean-ups, and blood drives” shatters his legacy. In short, Dr. King was about “sacrifice, suffering, and struggle,” his words not mine.

Tim Wise, an anti-racism activist, social critic, and public intellectual wrote in a recent article:
"Operating on a charity model, rather than one of solidarity with the marginalized and oppressed, these service projects, while perhaps worthwhile in and of themselves, serve to reinforce the illusion that the society is basically a just one, requiring no substantial transformation, but rather, just a little more “helping out,” in order to attain perfection."
Because I am who I am—a black, theologically progressive, politically liberal, Baptist minister—let me suggest that to relegate King’s message to “food drives and clean-ups” is like referring to Jesus’ message as “free hugs and always give a helping hand” [exaggeration intended]. The gospels present us with an historical Jesus who turned over tables, as opposition to the social mechanisms of oppression within an ancient political economy. Marcus Borg, a progressive Christian theologian writes: “Jesus not only challenged the politics of purity, but advocated the politics of compassion.” In a parallel vein, Dr. King dedicated his life and voice to overturning the sharp social boundaries of American society in order to build the beloved community.

We have a collective responsibility as a nation to not compromise the message and mission of a social prophet and radical change agent with a message of community service and human philanthropy; we must remember as Dr. King informed, “Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.”

Dr. King lived his life as an ardent disciple of the words of Christ that “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross, and follow me” (Mark 8:34); and therefore, whether we are religious or non-religious, black or white, wealthy or working, we too can gain from these words—forsake ourselves, take up the cross of radical social action, and follow the guidance of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a paradigmatic figure of truth, justice, love, and equality for all persons.

“Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom.”

Robert S. Harvey is currently a master’s student at Harvard Divinity School, where he addresses the intersection of religion, education, democracy, and civil rights. Robert is also a Baptist minister and has published a number of essays, articles, and social commentaries; he is currently completing a book entitled, 'Unconditional Love, Unconditional Inclusion: The Role of Christian Churches in the Social Development of Gays and Lesbians.'

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Glenn Beck Compares Reform Judaism to Radical Islam

A few weeks back, we ran a story on a letter signed by 400 rabbis and published in the Wall Street Journal which called on Fox News owner Rupert Murdoch to sanction Glenn Beck and demand an apology from Roger Ailes for their unacceptable comments about Judaism and the Holocaust. Well Beck fired back on his radio show Tuesday, dismissing the letter as signed predominantly by Reform rabbis, about whom Beck had this to say:
"[Reform rabbis] are generally political in nature. It's almost like Islam, radicalized Islam in a way."
Beck quickly added that his comments were "not about terror," but Beck again added that, in both radical Islam and Reform Judaism, apparently "it becomes more about politics than it does about faith."

Beck's comments drew immediate condemnation from the Anti-Defamation League. Abe Foxman, the head of the ADL, responded to Beck's claims, and demanded that he apologize to the Reform movement:
"Glenn Beck's comparison of Reform Judaism to radical Islam demonstrates his bigoted ignorance. Despite his feeble attempt to suggest that he was not equating Reform Judaism with Islamic extremist terrorism, the simple fact that he would mention them in the same breath is highly offensive and outrageous."
According to Media Matters, the letter published in the WSJ was signed by rabbis from the Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstruction, and Reform movements. MM goes on to cite a statistic from the National Jewish Population Survey of 2000-01, which indicates 35 percent of American Jews consider themselves to be Reform, with 39 percent of Jewish households belonging to a synagogue also identifying as Reform, for an overall population of approximately 1.5 million Reform Jews in the US.

How much longer can the higher-ups at Fox let the clown prince of conservatism peddle his particularly odious brand of bigotry unchecked?

White House Declares DOMA Unconstitutional

In a significant policy reversal for the Obama Administration, Attorney General Eric Holder announced on Wednesday that the Department of Justice will no longer defend the controversial Defense of Marriage Act. The Defense of Marriage Act, which was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996, holds that no state or political subdivision within the United States can be required to honor same-sex relationships recognized as marriages in other states, and also defines marriage in the eyes of the federal government as existing only between one man and one woman.

Despite the insistence in recent months by Assistant Attorney General Tony West that the Justice Department would continue to uphold its "institutional responsibility" to defend the constitutionality of congressional statutes, however controversial, recent court cases in a district with no precedent on questions of discrimination based on sexual orientation forced the Administration's hand. In a letter from Attorney General Holder to House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), Holder explained that the lack of precedent would require the Justice Department to "take an affirmative position on the level of scrutiny" applied to DOMA's constitutionality.

Holder's letter explains:
"The President and I have concluded that classifications based on sexual orientation warrant heightened scrutiny and that, as applied to same-sex couples legally married under state law, Section 3 of DOMA is unconstitutional."
Holder goes on to explain that, given the "significant history of purposeful discrimination against gay and lesbian people, by governmental as well as private entities;" increasing scientific evidence indicating the immutable nature of sexual orientation; the recent passage of state le repeal of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell;' and the absence of federal protection on the basis of sexual orientation, Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act fails to meet the heightened level of scrutiny required to defend the law as constitutional.

The DOJ's new posture on DOMA has set the stage for the inevitable reactionary backlash from the conservative establishment. Likely to help lead the charge is current House Judiciary Committee chair Lamar Smith (R-TX), who has lambasted the administration in the past for not doing enough to defend DOMA, and has personally offered to serve as counsel in the two pending trials. However, as our own Matt Redovan has pointed out, the legal arguments upon which past rulings on same-sex marriage have rested are deeply flawed in both their moral and legal content. Although the constitutionality of DOMA will likely work its way to the very top of the federal court system, the Obama Administration's decision to no longer defend such a blatantly bigoted piece of legislation represents a very positive step in the right direction toward equal rights for all of our citizens.

Bah, Bah Black Sheeple: Obama and the Myth of the “Black Bump”

By Bill Bradford

Two years into the presidency of Barack Obama, and given that February is Black History Month and Monday was President’s Day, I had originally intended to write an article that looked back at his 25 months in office. I wanted to review his efficacy as president, the difference between Candidate Obama and President Obama, and the historical meaning his election still holds for our African American brothers and sisters.

However, an offhand comment I heard last weekend while riding the Boston subway caused me to flashback to the campaign of 2008, and the consternation I felt after reading and listening to right-wing pundits, specifically, Rush Limbaugh. The gist of the comment was: ‘It’ll be hard votin’ Obama outta office if all the blacks show up again.” This comment reminded me of a declaration made by Limbaugh to Politico on October 19, 2008. Fulminating about Colin Powell’s endorsement of Obama, Limbaugh said, “Secretary Powell says his endorsement is not about race... OK, fine. I am now researching his past endorsements to see if I can find all the inexperienced, very liberal, white candidates he has endorsed. I'll let you know what I come up with” (Source: Politico).

Later, on the same website after Obama won the election, Limbaugh fumed about “black racism.” Not racism toward blacks, but the idea that blacks ONLY voted for Obama because he himself was black. And as recently as last month, Limbaugh was still beating that tired drum, declaring on his radio show, “[For] the media, the Democrat adults and the establishment, the Clinton years were their Nirvana. And if Obama had not been African American, he would never have been elected” (Source: The Root)

My initial reaction was...DUH! Let’s face it, all of us have a tendency to feel a kinship toward those who share a physical, cultural, ethnic, or religious background as ourselves. I am a disabled person, and regardless of party, I would give a disabled candidate a close look, like I did with Bob Dole in 1996 and McCain in the 2000. However, by 2008, McCain had become so “un-mavericky” he had lost me. And I’m sorry, Governor Palin, but lugging a disabled infant around like a campaign prop, especially when you axed funding for Alaska’s special needs kids didn’t engender your “roguish” ways to the disability community – see the Sept. 3, 2008 edition of the Daily Kos.

However, my “duh” moment didn’t last long. Notre Dame Professor Darren Davis, a specialist on race and politics, wrote in the Huffington Post (Oct. 19, 2008):
“There is nothing racially obvious about Colin Powell's endorsement of Barack Obama. I have read Colin Powell's comments and he did not at anytime allude to race being a factor in his endorsement. I think what we are seeing is a sense of racial stereotyping of two ostensibly racially transcendent political figures. There has always been a stereotype that all black people will stick together. It seems that this is somewhat in play here, given that they only factor connecting Colin Powell and Barack Obama is race.”
And something else didn’t add up...the statistics. Davis was right; Obama’s skin color couldn’t have been the only factor. After all, Bill Clinton was fondly called “America’s First Black President,” and African Americans, since LBJ and the passage of the Civil Rights Act, have overwhelmingly voted Democratic.

I was able to begin contextualizing these voter trends in the spring of 2010, while reading E.J. Dionne’s Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith & Politics After the Religious Right for noted Harvard Divinity School Professor Harvey Cox. Dionne goes into great demographic detail about the 2004 presidential election, breaking down the voting trends along lines of religion, class, race, and ethnicity. In that election, George Bush won 58 to 41 percent of the white vote over John Kerry. Kerry won the black vote 88 percent to 11 percent (source: Dionne, page 52). This actually was a gain for Bush. In 2000, he received 10 percent of the black vote (source: CBS News).

Then, I did my own statistical analysis of the 2008 election. Obama won the black vote 95 percent to 4 percent, a seven-point gain over Kerry (source: CNN). McCain lost the white vote 46 percent to 53 percent, a 15-point loss from Bush (source: So, at first blush, Limbaugh was fractionally correct. Apparently, a handful of African American voters were influenced by skin color, casting their votes for Obama, while a larger percent of white voters were more “color blind” also casting their votes for Obama. Nevertheless, although the “black bump” certainly had an impact, McCain’s loss is directly attributable to the wave of new non-black voters who cast their lot with Obama.

If we dig a little deeper into the statistics presented above, an interesting trend emerges. Among the southern Democrats who voted for Kerry in 2004, Obama saw a drop of over 12 percent in 2008 (source: In total, this accounted for about a shift of three percent of white voters – who normally would have voted for a Democrat – to vote for a Republican. In whole numbers, counting first-time and non-traditional voters, Obama gained 2.9 million black voters, 1.5 million Latino/a voters, and 1.9 million voters under the age of 25. Meanwhile, 780,000 less Republicans cast votes in 2008, as compared to 2004, and overall the percentage of total voters who are white has been on a steady decline averaging three percent per year since their high of 93 percent in 1968.

What all of this number-crunching means is that the combined defection of white southern Democrats to the Republican Party, added to the number of Republicans who stayed home, equaled about the same percentage points as the “black bump.” What actually won the election for Obama was his ability to turn out 6.3 million first-time (or irregular) voters, who overwhelmingly voted Democratic. Limbaugh’s logic is a fallacy. Black gains and white losses basically canceled each other out. It was the Latino/a and young voters who were the engines of success.

“Si Se Puede!”

Fortunately, most right-minded Americans don’t view things in the same distorted color spectrum as Rush Limbaugh. There were many factors, other than skin color, that made Obama a more desirable choice among the newbies and independents.

First, he was NOT Republican. Bush Jr. will arguably go down as one of the worst presidents in U.S. history, launching two unpopular wars, one illegal and one ill-supported. McCain supported both conflicts (but to his credit, he disagreed with Cheney and Rumsfield on the proper way to execute the wars – he rightly called for more troops). Second, among the Latino/a voters, McCain was a flip-flopper on immigration reform. Promises made as a senator were most ardently denied as a candidate. Third, the moral ground had shifted under the Republicans. Among young voters, McCain was a backslider about LGBT rights and environmental reforms. Such hot-button issues like gay marriage and abortion (the bread and butter of the Rove-Gingrich calculus), were just not that important to young and independent voters, and the growing concern about the environment and alternative energy was (and still is). And fourth, and perhaps most importantly, the economy was in the toilet. Bush and his cronies on Capital Hill managed to drive the money train off the tracks, plunging the U.S. economy into its worst decline since the Great Depression. McCain, in his unseemly appeal to the far right, looked more and more like a clone of Bush.

It is always unwise, immoral, and offensive to make blanket claims of racism if you don’t have all the facts. Dig into all the variables and ignore exterior appearances. In fact, if you want to go purely by genetics, by a statistical sample as a representative sample of this country’s demographics, Obama should have been our fifth African American president. Also, there should have been approximately 23 females, seven Latino/as, and a few Asian, disabled and LGBT Commander-in-Chiefs. Who, in this measure, has been the most bigoted?

2008 was a perfect storm of opportunity for Democrats, so much so that even Dennis Kucinich, a Muslim, or an atheist could have given McCain a run for his money. Wait! Who am I kidding? No one would ever vote for a short guy...

Bill Bradford is a former newspaper editor, reporter, and author. He is also a disability activist and the Senior Vice President of Little People of American, the world's largest support and advocacy organization for people with dwarfism. He is currently a master's student at Harvard Divinity School, studying literature, ethics and liberation theology in the context of disability and interfaith dialog.

Thoughts on the Religious Left and Organizing

Last week’s Daily Kos posts on the religious left got me to thinking about what, exactly, I think the "religious left" is. One way to think of the religious left is as a group of individuals with liberal political goals that find motivation and justification for their political actions in their religious traditions. This is to say that the religious left is the coming together of a liberal/progressive/leftist political agenda and religious traditions. In this view, the religious left is inhabited by self-identified religious folk who desire and work towards specific liberal ends such as: enacting environmental protections; fighting for equal rights for the marginalized whether that be undocumented immigrants, the indefinitely detained, or gays and lesbians; fighting for economic justice through maintaining social security and unemployment benefits; the list could go on.

This way of envisioning the religious left neatly juxtaposes it with the religious right, which I typically think of as a highly partisan group with very particular political aims that is compelled into the political arena by its religious beliefs. The distinction between the religious left and right, then, is drawn based on social and political issues. If a religious group champions conservative political positions or policies, say, outlawing abortion, then they are a part of the religious right; likewise if they pick political fights on liberal issues, e.g. workers rights, then they belong to the religious left.

But this issue-based way of distinguishing the two sides misses a larger dynamic that exists, and probably has existed for a long time but is coming into particularly sharp relief at this present moment. I suppose it could still be considered an “issue,” but it is much larger than the particular political issues I’ve enumerated so far. I’m thinking of the struggle for democracy itself, which I view as a struggle against arbitrary domination.

While this fight sometimes breaks down along Democrat-Republican lines, I think the fight over whether power should be vested equally in all members of a community, or whether that power should be vested into a smaller group or even single individual, goes beyond party politics. The current struggle in Wisconsin between public employees and Republican elected officials is emblematic of the kind of fight I’m thinking of, but it is not always the case that Democrats are on the side of the people. The bipartisan support of the Patriot Act, which authorizes the arbitrary use of incredible power by the federal government against its citizens, provides a recent example.

In the fight between those who want to keep power in the hands of the individual citizens of this country, i.e. disperse power democratically – and those who want to deliver (or continue to deliver, I should say) power into the hands of an increasingly small fraction of the population, usually the uber-wealthy corporate elite, the main method of the defenders of democracy is and has to be organizing. Frederick Clarkson touched on the importance of organizing for the religious left, and provides some wonderful descriptions of the goals of organizing. He ends his piece with these reflections:
…organizing for politics, religious and otherwise, is necessarily still a primarily human endeavor: One in which we engage and change one another en route to wider social and political change. How we do that has everything to do with how we develop long term political capacity for ourselves in our own communities. And it is how we do this, that I think will make the greatest difference as we relearn the art and science of organizing in ways appropriate to our time.
But what is “organizing”? I want to pick up this thread and say a few things about the how of organizing, which I think will go a long way in describing the “what” or organizing, and why I think the how, that is the activity, is and ought to be at the center of all groups that consider themselves a part of the religious left.

There are many types of organizing, but the sort I have in mind is often called broad-based organizing (as opposed to issue-based organizing, or community organizing). Groups doing broad-based organizing are not defined by identity-politics or by any particular issue. The organizing process begins and is sustained through face-to-face meetings, either individually or in small groups between individuals who are usually already affiliated in some way, for example by being members of the same synagogue, citizens of the same town, or parents of children in the same school. The purpose of these meetings is to talk with and listen to each other – especially to listen to each other. Political issues that the group eventually takes action on arise from common concerns that are brought out in the telling of stories. If a group of parents get together and share their stories, and many of them tell a similar story about how unhealthy they think the cafeteria food is at their children’s school, then they may have the beginnings of a political action in which they put pressure on the principal or superintendent to switch to a food-service provider with healthier options.

This process of sharing stories, finding common cause, and taking action in a way that holds those further up the power-hierarchy accountable is democracy at its heart. These sorts of political actions address a need of the community, and the community itself has decided to act upon it.

Compare this to a situation in which a third-party organization does some research on the healthiness of the largest cafeteria food-providers’ food. Armed with this information, a regional political organization starts up to try to pressure schools into changing their cafeteria foods. This organization hires “organizers” to go door to door in a given community, informing people that their children are eating terribly unhealthy food, and trying to enlist them into helping, either by coming to a rally or donating money. Even if this organization’s mission gathers steam, and even if it succeeds in forcing schools to change their food offerings, it will have done so in a completely different way than the broad-based organizing approach. The former begins with a concern for hearing the interests and anxieties of community members; the latter begins with an issue already decided, and then attempts to recruit various people to the cause, regardless of what their own highest concerns are. With broad-based organizing, the authority to act drives from the power of a shared concern that is developed and cultivated by the community itself. In the later example, the authority to act comes from a research report.

I think the religious left needs be involved in this form of broad based organizing precisely because it is a quintessentially democratic activity, and its exercise promotes democracy and forms individuals into democratic citizens. The religious left is and ought to be concerned with the democratic power that citizens have, and should encourage and protect the exercise of that democratic power.

Why is this necessary? It’s necessary because there are other political actors who want to take that power away. These individuals want to consolidate that power into their own hands (e.g. Bush/Cheney increasing the scope of executive power and Obama’s legalization of and extension of these policies), or into the hands of their allies (tax cuts for corporations, which in turn fund the campaigns of the politicians who enacted the tax cuts). This consolidation of power is anti-democratic; it is authoritarian. And it is the backdrop to many of the current political issues being debated – especially the absurd argument that public workers need to give up their collective bargaining rights so that states can balance their budgets (see, e.g. former governor Ted Strickland on the situation in Ohio: "They’re using a fiscal challenge as an excuse to consolidate political power.").

The religious left should count as a member any individual, group, or alliance that organizes people and helps them democratically stand up to the exercise of authoritarian power. Far from being defined by particular issues, this means that members of the “religious left” could endorse conservative policies. So long as those conservative policies are the outgrowth of true concerns of our neighbors (in the broadest sense), then they demand our respect and our attention. And as long as the proponents of such organically grown conservative policies are willing to engage in conversation in which reasons are exchanged in good-faith, then we should welcome them into the religious left, for that form of conversation is itself a cornerstone of democracy that needs to be defended.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Fox News Can't Get Enough of Islam's Fred Phelps

We have run several stories in recent weeks about conservative fear-mongering over the 'creeping threat' of Sharia law in the United States, but the folks over at Fox and Friends upped the ante this morning during an interview with controversial Muslim 'cleric' Anjem Choudary. Choudary, who has served as the mouthpiece for at least two formally proscribed Islamist organizations in the UK, is planning a protest outside the White House on March 3rd to call for, you guessed it, the establishment of Sharia in the United States.

At first glance, the presence of Mr. Choudary and his uncompromising endorsement of Sharia law as a universally applicable system might seem to confirm pervasive conservative fears over the implementation of Sharia in the US. However, what Fox and Friends host Grethcen Carlson only tepidly points out is that Choudary's sentiments are not at all indicative of the sentiments of most or even a sizable portion of American Muslims, and Carlson entirely fails to mention that Choudary has drawn strong condemnation from the UK's Muslim community for his views and for hosting similar events in the UK.

Writing in in the UK's Guardian newspaper last year, political columnist Medhi Hasan thoroughly debunked Choudary's credentials as a representative of Muslims in the UK and elsewhere:
"Is Choudary an Islamic scholar whose views merit attention or consideration? No. Has he studied under leading Islamic scholars? Nope. Does he have any Islamic qualifications or credentials? None whatsoever."
In the article, Hasan mentions the plans scrapped by Choudary's Islam4UK organization to organize a protest march through the English town of Wootton Bassett - which serves as the point of repatriation for fallen soldiers returning to the UK through the Royal Air Force station at Lyneham - and an open letter sent by Choudary to the grieving families of fallen British soldiers encouraging them to embrace Islam as a means of saving themselves 'from the hellfire.'

So in Mr. Choudary we have a hard-line religious figure who, despite being forced to the fringes of his own faith tradition by the condemnation of his co-religionists, manages to get headlines through a penchant for inappropriately protesting military funerals. What we have, in essence, is a Muslim Fred Phelps, known as the military funeral-protesting, bigoted firebrand who heads up the infamous Westboro Baptist Church.

But all similarities aside, there is one overwhelming difference between Choudary and Phelps, and I am not talking about the obvious difference between their respective religions. The difference between Choudary and Phelps is that nobody, and particularly not a top-rated news network, would ever feature Phelps and his particularly abhorrent brand of Christianity as indicative of the religion and its values as a whole. And yet this is the second time this month that Fox News has not only featured a story on Choudary, but featured him live, on the air, propagating his message about bringing Shariah law to the United States (earlier this month, Sean Hannity spent almost a full 15 minutes "debating" Chourdary on his program). Although such antics are sure to get Fox News some serious ratings, the network's obsession with the bogeyman of Sharia law is misleading, dishonest, and poses a very real threat to the Muslim population of the United States.

A recently released poll from the Public Religion Research Institute found that viewers who rely on Fox News as their primary news source are significantly more likely to have a negative view of Islam and Muslims. According to the poll,
"41% of Republicans who most trust Fox News believe that American Muslims want to establish Shari'a law as law of the land in the United States, compared to 23% of Republicans who most trust other news sources and 22% of the general public."
With the conservative news media's obvious obsession with Sharia law, and with Anjem Choudary as the face that they have clearly chosen to give its 'creeping' introduction into the United States, these statistics should come as no surprise. Fox News deserves condemnation for their intellectually dishonest and morally hazardous portrayal of Sharia law in the United States, and should immediately cease courting ratings by validating fringe elements of the Muslim faith by giving individuals like Choudary a platform for their vitriolic views.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Worker Solidarity: From the Middle East to Madison

Although the role of labor unions in the recent uprising in Egypt has been largely under-reported in the United States, the formation of a new Egyptian trade union confederation (the Federation of Egyptian Trade Unions) and the same's immediate call for a general strike during the protests received international praise from labor supporters. During the 18-day uprisings which ousted long-time autocrat Hosni Mubarak from power, labor leaders in the US and around the globe offered support and solidarity with workers in Egypt. In a letter to Egyptian labor leaders, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka wrote:
We salute you in this brave endeavor and join the international labor movement in standing with you...The people’s movement for democracy in Egypt and the role unions are playing for freedom and worker rights inspires us and will not be forgotten.
Now the work boot seems to be on the other foot, as Kamal Abbas, the General Coordinator of the Centre for Trade Unions and Workers Services in Egypt, released a video this week to encourage protesters in Wisconsin fighting a controversial bill proposed by Gov. Scott Walker (R) which would eliminate the collective bargaining rights of most of the state's public workers. In the video, Abbas stands in front of images of young protesters killed during the uprising against Mubarak.

According to the translation provided on Youtube, Abbas' statement reads (and pardon the lengthy block quote, but this is powerful stuff):
"I am speaking to you from a place very close to Tahrir Square in Cairo, "Liberation Square", which was the heart of the Revolution in Egypt. This is the place were many of our youth paid with their lives and blood in the struggle for our just rights.

From this place, I want you to know that we stand with you as you stood with us. I want you to know that no power can challenge the will of the people when they believe in their rights. When they raise their voices loud and clear and struggle against exploitation.

No one believed that our revolution could succeed against the strongest dictatorship in the region. But in 18 days the revolution achieved the victory of the people. When the working class of Egypt joined the revolution on 9 and 10 February, the dictatorship was doomed and the victory of the people became inevitable.

We want you to know that we stand on your side. Stand firm and don't waiver. Don't give up on your rights. Victory always belongs to the people who stand firm and demand their just rights.We and all the people of the world stand on your side and give you our full support.

As our just struggle for freedom, democracy and justice succeeded, your struggle will succeed. Victory belongs to you when you stand firm and remain steadfast in demanding your just rights.

We support you. we support the struggle of the peoples of Libya, Bahrain and Algeria, who are fighting for their just rights and falling martyrs in the face of the autocratic regimes. The peoples are determined to succeed no matter the sacrifices and they will be victorious.

Today is the day of the American workers. We salute you American workers! You will be victorious. Victory belongs to all the people of the world, who are fighting against exploitation, and for their just rights."
Abbas is not the only one making the connection between the efforts of protesters in Wisconsin and Egypt. Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) observed that "similarities" exist between the movements as expressions of popular frustration with government, and a humorous site comparing Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker to Hosni Mubarak appeared after Walker threatened to call in the Wisconsin National Guard to enforce his decision to cut workers' collective bargaining rights. We join Egyptian laborers and people of conscience everywhere in offering our continued support to the protesters in Madison working to defend the rights and dignities of the working people of Wisconsin. (h/t

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Interfaith Support Building Behind Wisconsion Labor Protesters

In a display of solidarity with the workers of Wisconsin, religious leaders in Wisconsin and Illinois offered their homes and congregations to the Democratic state senators who have left the Wisconsin capital in order to prevent a vote on a controversial bill which would slash the the collective bargaining rights of public employees. The bill has the support of Wisconsin's Republican governor Scott Walker, who remains unwilling to compromise on a measure which he considers essential to balancing the state budget.

The sanctuary efforts is being coordinated by progressive labor rights organization Interfaith Worker Justice. According to Kim Bobo, the executive director of the Chicago-based organization,
"[The proposed cuts are] antithetical to all religious traditions...They are using the guise of a budget crisis to completely undermine workers' rights to organize."
Many faith traditions from across the religious spectrum support workers' rights on moral grounds, and area religious leaders have joined union representatives adn Democratic lawmakers in weighing in on the proposed rollback of collective bargaining rights. From a Friday article in Milwaukee's Journal-Sentinel :
"For those brave senators seeking shelter from the storm . . . we'd be glad to provide you sanctuary, to give you a home, until this is resolved," the Rev. Jason Coulter of the Ravenswood United Church of Christ in Chicago.

"I appreciate the bold stand they have taken . . . to speak out for those who are disempowered," said Rabbi Bruce Elder of Congregation Hafaka in Glencoe, Ill.
To further pressure Gov. Walker into compromising on the proposed legislation, Interfaith Worker Justice has also circulated a letter signed by more than 50 national religious leaders opposed to the proposed legislation, and the Wisconsin Conference of the United Church of Christ issued a statement last week, in which it described the basic right of workers to engage in collective bargaining as "an essential framework of a democratic society and . . .  consistent with the moral and ethical principles that come out of our Christian faith."

The history of religious support for workers' rights spans more than a century, with progressive movements like the Social Gospel movement and the Catholic Worker movement making significant contributions to gains in protecting the rights and dignity of working people. As the out-pouring of support from religious communities for the efforts of protesters in Madison demonstrates, progressive religion and support for workers' rights remain inextricably bound in the 21st century. Our thoughts and prayers remain with the protesters in Madison and the public servants of Wisconsin, as they continue the struggle to protect their basic rights and dignities.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

GOP Lawmaker Touts Earth's Limitless Resources, Indestructibility

A GOP State Representative from Minnesota offered an interesting theological argument this week in an effort to justify his proposal to lift the state's moratorium on the construction of coal-fired power plants. According to Rep. Mike Beard (R), the addition of future fossil fuel power plants is not a cause for environmental concern, as Beard believes that God has blessed humanity with a world that is at once inexhaustible and indestructible. Well, thank goodness, because we seem to be doing our damnedest on both fronts.

Even the most conservative estimates of the planet's fossil fuel reserves acknowledge that remaining oil, coal, and natural gas supplies are finite, although estimates on the remaining amounts of each vary greatly. Rep. Beard, however, appears not to share these concerns. In a recent interview with MinnPost, Beard explained:
"God is not capricious. He's given us a creation that is dynamically stable. We are not going to run out of anything."
So much for the supply problem, but what about the incredible strain our over-reliance on fossil fuels places on the environment? Again, according to Rep. Beard, God has us covered, and shame on you for suggesting otherwise. As Beard elaborated to Minnpost: "It is the height of hubris to think we could [destroy the planet]." Rep. Beard drew from his own childhood experience in Pennsylvania to explain Earth's resilience, even after it has been stripped of its resources:
"Our farm was mined for coal three times...And, now we stand on a point and look over barley and wheat and pines. Did we temporarily disrupt the face of the earth? Yes, but when we were done, we put it all back together again."
When pressed on the issue, particularly in the context of the awesome destructive capabilities of nuclear weapons, Beard told the MinnPost:
"How did Hiroshima and Nagasaki work out? We destroyed that, but here we are, 60 years later and they are tremendously effective and livable cities. Yes, it was pretty horrible. But, can we recover? Of course we can."
Bad science and bad theology are both very real - and in some cases very dangerous - problems, and Rep. Beard has managed to wed the two in order to further the ambitions of one of the most destructive special interest lobbies in our country. Arguing with people who rely on such justifications despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary might feel like banging your head against a wall, but it is vitally important that such claims do not go unchallenged.

The science backing up climate change is there, but we must also work to ensure that religious voices promoting environmental responsibility are being heard. Hopefully Minnesota lawmakers will do the responsible thing and vote down Rep. Beard's proposal to lift the state's moratorium on coal-fired power plants. However, given Rep. Beard's apparent uncanny ability to produce gems like the quotes above - come on, just look at how Hiroshima and Nagasaki worked out - there may yet be a silver lining in the deal for Minnesota's mining industry.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

South Dakota Law Could Justify Murder of Abortion Providers

South Dakota State Rep. Phil Jensen (R) introduced a bill on Monday which critics worry could be used, in some circumstances, to justify the murder of doctors, nurses, or volunteers who assist in performing abortions. The bill, known as HB 1171, defines the act of killing a person in defense of an unborn child as "justifiable homicide," which some reproductive rights advocates worry could open the door to legal immunity for individuals who perform acts of violence on individuals or institutions that provide abortion services.

Jensen denied that the bill would offer legal protection to individuals who kill abortion doctors, claiming "This code only deals with illegal acts, which doesn't include abortion." However, according to a TPM interview with law professor Robert Weisberg, Jensen's defense of the bill as only applying to illegal activities is either "disingenuous or backpedaling," as Weisberg claims that the distinction between legal and illegal activities is simply not in the statue as it currently reads. If adopted, HB 1171 would amend existing South Dakota law to include the following language (with proposed additions in bold):
Homicide is justifiable if committed by any person while resisting any attempt to murder such person, or to harm the unborn child of such person in a manner and to a degree likely to result in the death of the unborn child, or to commit any felony upon him or her, or upon or in any dwelling house in which such person is.

Homicide is justifiable if committed by any person in the lawful defense of such person, or of his or her husband, wife, parent, child, master, mistress, or servant, or the unborn child of any such enumerated person, if there is reasonable ground to apprehend a design to commit a felony, or to do some great personal injury, and imminent danger of such design being accomplished.
National advocacy groups for reproductive rights have already begun calling on South Dakota lawmakers to add language to the bill which explicitly protects abortion providers. In a statement released today, Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, insisted that the lawmakers in South Dakota have a "moral obligation to protect reproductive-health care professionals who are providing legal medical services to women." With the level of violence against abortion providers escalating dramatically in the last two decades, South Dakota lawmakers must avoid passing any legislation that offers even the slightest possibility of legal protection for individuals who would exert their own lethal moral vigilantism against abortion service providers. And given the religious justifications for many past attacks on abortion service providers, religious communities bear a special responsibility in condemning HB 1171 and the sort of violence it could be used to sanction. Although reproductive rights remain a deeply divisive subject in many faith communities, we should all be able to rally behind the condemnation of legalizing premeditated murder.

The Religious Left in the News

The religious left received some encouraging publicity from the good folks over at Daily Kos this week, with a handful of reflections from regular bloggers examining the current state and future potential of the movement. Daily Kos regular dirkster42 got the ball rolling on Friday, with a post entitled "On the Invisibility of the Religious Left", which briefly examines some of the historical failures of the religious left to effectively capitalize on media outreach, and also details persistent media bias against certain forms of progressive religious argumentation. This article prompted responses on Saturday from other bloggers Philoguy and Frederick Clarkson, who offer an outsider perspective on the religious left and a vision of how organizing for a (new) religious left might look, respectively.

A special shout-out to dirkster42 for including a snippet from HDS all-star and all-around terrific human Mark Jordan in his piece. Let's keep these discussions going, folks!

Monday, February 14, 2011

My Old Kentucky Home-Grown Activism

Buoyed by the euphoria of Egypt's recent democratic protest movement, I was excited to learn this week about the ongoing efforts in my home state of 14 anti-mountaintop removal activists, including Kentucky literary treasure Wendell Berry, who have been staging a sit-in in KY Governor Steve Beshear's office since Friday. The protesters, who are calling themselves Kentucky Rising, are calling on Gov. Beshear
"To lead by ending mountaintop removal, by beginning a sincere public dialogue about creating sustainable jobs for our hard-working miners, by putting the vital interests of ordinary Kentuckians above the special interests of an abusive industry."
The efforts of the Kentucky Rising participants will culminate on Monday with a planned "I Love Mountains" march on the Capitol building in Frankfort. Kentucky Rising has already received outpourings of support from the likes of author Michael Pollan, environmentalist and climate change expert Bill McKibben, and evidently from the pulpit as well. In a sermon delivered Sunday, a minister in Georgia devoted his sermon to a discussion of the activists' efforts, explaining:
"We have lost touch with the physical. We have numbed ourselves to violence and loss because we see it all the time on TV. We forget how things are real and tangible. We lose our perspective because we have distanced ourselves.

A perfect example of this is in how get power to our homes. It has to come from somewhere, and we need to start paying attention to where it comes from. Two of my favorite authors are camped out in the governor's office in Kentucky right now with other protesters to get him to stop mountaintop removal mining in their state. Mountaintop removal destroys nature, communities, and ecosystems, poisoning the land..."
We wish the Kentucky Rising activists nothing but success in their efforts to halt one of the most abusive methods of resource extraction ever devised. What a week for civil disobedience!

Friday, February 11, 2011

Mubarak Resigns Presidency

After 18 days of protests and labor strikes, which some estimate have claimed up to 300 lives, Hosni Mubarak has resigned his office as the President of Egypt. According to Egyptian vice-president Omar Suleiman, Mubarak is "waiving" his office, and effectively passing authority to the army command, known as the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces.

Coupled with the peaceful insurrection that ousted long-time Tunisian despot Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the success of Egypt's pro-democracy movement represents another resounding triumph for nonviolent social transformation in a region long accustomed to autocratic, highly militarized government. The success of these efforts also offers a sharp contrast to the claims circulating in conservative circles that nonviolence and democracy are antithetical to Arab culture. From Stephen Zunes, a scholar of nonviolent social movements and advisor to the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict:
"While many observers have acknowledged how unarmed pro-democracy insurrections helped bring democracy to Eastern Europe, Latin America, and parts of Asia and Africa, they had discounted the chances of such movements in the region, despite Tunisia being far from the first. The protesters represent a broad coalition of young and old, Muslim and Christian, poor and middle class."
The Obama administration and US policymakers must take heed; we can no longer continue propping up repressive autocrats in the Middle East under the false pretenses of the "stability" they offer. As Archbishop Tutu reminds us,
"History teaches us a categorical lesson: that once a people are determined to become free, then nothing in the world can stop them reaching their goal."
Mubarak is gone, and now begins the arduous work of deconstructing thirty years of government corruption and oppression, and the delicate business of installing democratic governance in its place. As we continue to hold the freedom-loving people of Egypt in our thoughts and prayers, it is incumbent upon those of us here in the United States to hold our own government responsible for the policies that allow rulers like Hosni Mubarak to remain in power.

Yalla, Egypt!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Ohio's Catholic Bishops Urge Abolition of Death Penalty

Ohio's Catholic Bishops recently joined the long list of religious groups advocating against the worst excesses of our criminal justice system when they released a statement last week calling on Ohio Governor John Kasich and state lawmakers to abolish the state's death penalty. The statement, signed by clergymen from around the state, cited recent comments by Ohio State Supreme Court Justice Paul Pfeifer about the inherently discriminatory nature of the death penalty, and called for the death penalty's replacement with life without parole. From the bishops' statement:
The Catholic Bishops of Ohio agree. . . that Ohio's elected legislative leaders ought to debate and ultimately abolish the death penalty. Just punishment can occur without resorting to the death penalty. Our church teachings consider the death penalty to be wrong in all cases. Life imprisonment respects the moral view that all life, even that of the worst offender, has value and dignity.
Justice Pfeifer, who helped draft the 1981 legislation that established Ohio's capital punishment protocol, referred to Ohio's application of the death penalty as a "lottery" during a press conference on January 19. Ohio holds the dubious distinction of following Texas in recent years as the second largest purveyor of state-sponsored murder.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell: Can the Church Please Repeal?

By Robert Harvey

Just a few months ago, we were able to witness the historic House and Senate votes on the repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” the discriminatory law that has denied more than 14,000 Americans – and countless others barred or discouraged from enlisting – the ability to serve openly and honestly about their sexuality in our military. Enacted after a long, arduous battle, this repeal allowed the president and the Pentagon to implement a new policy of non-discrimination for lesbian and gay service members.

Yet, even after the houses of Congress had the fortitude to defend our country’s values of freedom, equality and the pursuit of happiness for all Americans, there is an institution [a large, diverse, and divided institution] that holds on to “Don’t ask, don’t tell” as its policy—the Church. Behind the Sunday morning messages of love and compassion, lie oppressive religious structures which condemn and oppress gay and lesbian persons. It is virtually impossible to approach the topic of gay and lesbian equality—in marriage, in adoption, and in yes, even in ordained ministry—without a variety of responses, including raised eyebrows, perplexed faces, painful tears, and proclamations of hell and condemnation; on the other side one might be met with open arms, joyful laughter, inner peace, and unconditional love.

With the most vocal voices being those of biblical fundamentalism and literalism, the ‘left’ Church needs to identify itself more publically in order to combat this idea that the irrationally loud get to determine the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness for an oppressed population. Sorrowfully to report, many on the loud ‘right’ seem to have lost their copy of the Gospels where Jesus instructs: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35). It this passage, Jesus is capsizing the hierarchal and legislative systems in place that held down oppressed and marginalized persons. According to Dr. Cornel West in The Cornel West Reader, “what the Palestinian Jew named Jesus was all about was, ‘I’m going to overturn various forms of hierarchy that stand in the way of being connected with you compassionately.’”

Of course, because the ‘right’ would read the words of Jesus as suggesting that love implies confronting the “sins” of our brothers and sisters, let us be clear that this was by no means Jesus’ message. Dr. West suggests throughout Jesus’ ministry, he directly addressed any issues of morality and degradation that were being projected as attempts to hurt the positive-functioning life of others. He expounds on this idea when he writes:
If Jesus was proclaiming a certain kind of love-centered state of existence that is impinging upon the space and time in which we live, impinging upon history, and if this issue of homosexuality and homoeroticism was a fundamental sin, he certainly would have highlighted it … what we get, as in so many other cases, is an attempt to project various conceptions of the gospel that followed after the life and resurrection of Jesus, in an attempt to reinforce the very thing that he himself was fighting against.
Despite progress being made in many of the areas of American society—politically, educationally, and economically—many Christian denominational networks continue to preserve an exclusion of gays and lesbians from active participation in the life of the church, but also in the life of their own existence. In spite of the state-by-state advancement in marriage/civil union rights for gays and lesbians, many Christian churches maintain the patriarchal, heterosexist, fundamentalist, and irrational belief that heterosexual marriage possesses an inherent superiority to homosexual marriage, while studies suggest that heterosexual marriages possess the highest rates of divorce compared to both gay and interracial relationships; in the words of the Reverend Dr. Peter J. Gomes, minister of the Harvard Memorial Church:

“I think Jesus would say, ‘The Gospel is inconvenient, it makes people nervous. But if there is anything that can be done to encourage fidelity, and loyalty, and recreating the kingdom of God between two people, I’m for it. And your heterosexual world is not all that great, 50% percent of marriages end in divorce.’”
Let me note that there are several denominational networks, including the Episcopal Church and Evangelical Lutheran Church of America that have embraced and unconditionally welcomed the gay and lesbian community, yet the larger, universal Church still embraces the policy of ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’. It is both deceitful and distressing that an institution, which is built on the principles of love, hope, compassion, and community—all lessons of Jesus, of course—would be so closely affiliated with oppression, victimization, and exclusion. Just as the Church had to [and continues to] confront its irrationality of racial and gender issues, it too must confront gay and lesbian inclusion.

The Church, the ‘right’ and ‘left’, has to stop holding God to the boundaries of limited human consciousness and practice the message it claims to believe. The Gospels inform us: “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross, and follow me” (Mark 8:34). The Church in order to truly follow Jesus must be willing to turn from its ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ ways, take up the cross to include all persons, and follow after Jesus.

Robert S. Harvey is currently a master’s student at Harvard Divinity School, where he addresses the intersection of religion, education, democracy, and civil rights. Robert is also a Baptist minister and has published a number of essays, articles, and social commentaries; he is currently completing a book entitled, 'Unconditional Love, Unconditional Inclusion: The Role of Christian Churches in the Social Development of Gays and Lesbians.'

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What: Submissions of approximately 500-1,500 words, and a bio of up to three sentences (PLEASE INCLUDE YOUR EMAIL ADDRESS). We are looking for full-length articles, reflections, book reviews, sermons, etc.

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Monday, February 7, 2011

Muslim Group Hosts Cooperation Forum

Ahead of this month's controversial congressional hearings on the radicalization of the Muslim community in the United States, the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) is hosting a forum on Muslim-American cooperation with law enforcement. Rep. Peter King (R-NY), the brain trust behind the hearings, has cited concern over the alleged non-cooperation of Muslim leaders with law enforcement officials as a justification for the hearings. King has maintained his line about non-cooperation despite widespread insistence, including from Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS), his predecessor as House Homeland Security Committee Chairman, that no top level law enforcement or intelligence officials share his concerns.

While the forum is not tied directly to the upcoming hearings, Muslim leaders hope that the forum's theme and timing will help to deflate some of the tensions being generated by King's dangerous shenanigans in the House. The forum will feature voices from across the political spectrum; according to Haris Tarin of MPAC:
"What we wanted to do is to ensure that this did not become a partisan issue. We have people of various political leanings and various perspectives addressing the topic."
The forum will be moderated by Suhail Kahn, a former Bush administration official and, according to conservative conspiracy theorist and rabid Islamophobe Frank Gaffney, a sleeper agent for the Muslim Brotherhood.

In addition to the MPAC forum, in anticipation of Rep King's hearings a group of fifty faith, civil, and human rights groups published a letter to House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) asking them to object to the hearings. Invoking the dark legacy of the McCarthy era, the letter describes King's proposed hearings as perpetuating "fear-mongering and divisive rhetoric that only weakens the fabric of our nation and distracts us from actual threats," and discusses the potential consequences of the proposed hearings for the Muslim community in the US and around the world.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Egyptian Christians Defend Praying Muslim Comrades

A few weeks ago, we reported on an incredible display of solidarity between Egypt's Coptic Christian and Muslim communities. After a suicide bomber killed 21 Coptic Christians in a horrific New Year's Day attack in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria, thousands of Egyptian Muslims took to the streets to act as human shields to escort their Coptic neighbors to mass.

Now it seems that some Coptic Christians are working to return the favor. This powerful image from an anonymous source on the ground in Egypt depicts Coptic Christians forming a human chain around their Muslim comrades as they kneel to perform Ṣalāh, the ritual prayer performed five times each day by devout Muslims.

Some of the most powerful images emerging from the Egyptian protests for democracy have included scenes of protesters kneeling in prayer. One of the protests' most iconic moments to date occurred last week, when protesters stopped to perform Ṣalāh in front of a wall of riot police on the Kasr al Nile Bridge in Cario, only to have the powerful hose from an armored vehicle turned on them.

In addition to the incredible symbol of solidarity and interfaith cooperation the image above represents, it will hopefully help to dispel some of the wholly irresponsible rumors being circulated by conservatives that these protests are being fueled by "radical Islamic" elements instead of the genuine desire of the Egyptian people for a more just and democratic government. As the refrain from the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, and Suez continues to remind us, "Muslim, Christian, we are all Egyptian."

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Conservative Spin Machine Targets Egyptian Protesters

The conservative establishment in the United States is predictably nervous about the pro-democracy movement in Egypt, as it features many traits known to make conservatives squeamish, namely brown people, religions they don't understand, and genuine populist anger over the sort of unjust policies that the US has promoted in the region for decades. So, predictably, conservatives have taken to the airwaves this week in an effort to force Egypt's pro-democracy movement into boxes which will allow them to more effectively understand and wholly revile the protesters' on-going efforts to secure a more just and democratic government in Egypt. Here are just a few examples of conservatives trying to spin the movement into some sort of arch-leftist Marxist communist socialist Islamic terror party. And if you're having trouble reconciling how all of these ideologies can supposedly be making common cause, don't worry, these are the same commentators who think that fascism and communism share the same end of the political spectrum.

For starters, consider Ann Coulter's appearance on Sean Hannity's program this week. Coulter repeatedly refers to the pro-democracy protesters as "a dangerous mob" and "extremists," and accuses the protesters of vandalizing the Egyptian Museum, despite reports of up to three thousand protesters forming a human chain around the museum to prevent damage to Egypt's priceless artifacts.

Additionally, and aside from Coulter's bizarre obsession with Obama's response to the 2009 election protests in Iran, in her claim that "nothing good has ever come from riots like this in the street," Coulter (perhaps willfully) forgets the legacy of nonviolent popular revolution that swept across Eastern Europe in the late 1980s and the host of nonviolent revolutions since then that have succeeded in promoting democracy precisely because of this sort of popular outrage and demand for gereater democracy and freedom. The Velvet Revolution of Czechoslovakia, the Solidarity movement in Poland, and the Singing Revolution across the Baltic states all relied on massive public protests and strikes as a means of overthrowing communist regimes. The Carnation Revolution of Portugal and the People Power Revolution in the Philippines featured similar pro-democratic protests in the streets during the 70s and 80s, and even more recently the Bulldozer Revolution, which forced Slobodan Milošević out of power, the Rose Revolution in Georgia, and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine all featured pro-democracy protests like those currently taking place on the streets of Egypt. This is what democracy looks like.

Next, consider this bizarre and bizarrely fascinating exchange between Glenn Beck and Bill O'Reilly about the situation in Egypt. There are moments of what seem like actual clarity in this interview, like Beck's apparent rejection of US hegemony (around 1:10) and seemingly passionate exclamation of "[Mubarak] is torturing people with our money" (6:33), but the wild historical inaccuracies and ultimate conclusions peddled by both commentators end up as nothing more than classic conservative talking points. O'Reilly continues to trumpet the "devil we know" line that we have discussed previously, insisting that an autocrat with a penchant for human rights abuses is still vastly preferable to another violently anti-Western Islamist state ala Iran, as if these two extremes represent the only viable options for governance in the Arab world.

Beck, true to form, comes out with some real gems, including the claim that the US didn't engage in imperialistic brinkmanship "before the progressive movement," and that the protests in Egypt are "not about freedom" as they are being "orchestrated by the Marxist communists and primarily also the Muslim Brotherhood" (3:50). Beck and O'Reilly ultimately agree on the danger of a new "jihadist" government rising to replace Mubarak, and both agree that "the jihad," whatever the hell that means, represents "the main threat in the world today," particularly, in Beck's mind, when "coupled with the communist socialist movement" (5:43).

Beck and O'Reilly's conclusions demonstrate not only a fundamental lack of understanding of the historical, political, and religious contexts in which the events in Egypt are taking place, but a resolute willingness to misconstrue whatever factoids they can muster to further their conservative understandings of international affairs and their repercussions here in the US. Now, contrast the fevered prognostications of the talking heads discussed above with a recent article by Dalia Mogahed, the senior analyst and executive director at the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, on the role of religion in Egypt's pro-democracy movement. Mogahed draws from the rich history of progressive religious activism in the US in stressing the need for constructive engagement between US policy-makers and the religious underpinnings of Egypt's democratic aspirations. Mogahed's article refutes the claims by Coulter, Beck, and O'Reilly that the protests have somehow been 'hi-jacked' by radical Islamists, explaining instead:
The protesters represent a wide cross section of Egyptian society who demand justice, as they call for Muslim-Christian solidarity. They wave Egyptian flags, not specific opposition party banners or sectarian symbols.

At the same time, Egyptians' rising religiosity may very well play a role in this development, just as faith often animated our own civil rights struggle. If Tunisia's success story was the match that ignited Egypt's popular uprising, decreased tolerance for injustice -- in some cases born out of a religious awakening -- provided the fuel.
Active engagement with the constructive, peace-building potential of the world's religions represents the pinnacle of progressive religious foreign policy aspirations. Mogahed's article provides a poignant reminder of the inextricable bond between progressive religion and the desire for justice, and offers a compelling call to our nation's leaders and policy-makers to recognize the democratic aspirations finding expression in the voices of Egyptians from all of that nation's different religious backgrounds. Mogahed concludes:
From abolitionists to the civil rights movement, American leaders have drawn inspiration from their faith in their pursuit of justice...Our country's unique history and passion for social justice makes us natural partners to the Egyptian people in their struggle for a better future. Moreover, there is hunger on both sides for greater cooperation. Gallup surveys found that the majority of both Americans and Egyptians say greater interaction between Muslims and the West is a benefit not a threat, despite Egyptian disapproval of U.S. policies in their region.

The continuing popular protests in the most influential and populated Arab country may represent the future of the Middle East. U.S. policy makers cannot afford to alienate this movement by failing to understand its intricacies. Faith is a part of Egypt, but most Egyptians do not support the rule of clerics. They seek the rule of law.
As the government response to the protests in Egypt appears to be increasing in violence, we continue to hold the freedom-loving people of Egypt, as well as those who labor for justice the world over, in our thoughts and prayers.

Rabbi Michael Lerner on Jewish Support for Egypt's Uprising

There's a terrific piece making the rounds today from Rabbi Michael Lerner (of the Network of Spiritual Progressives and Tikkun Magazine) on Jewish support for the movement for democracy in Egypt. Lerner's frank commentary on the willingness of Israel and the United States to bargain with Egypt's repressive regime nicely frames the arguments being made by many conservatives right now (e.g. work with "the devil we know" in exchange for securing Israel's borders) but Lerner takes this argument a step further and ties support for the Egyptian people directly to the historical experience of Jewish oppression. From Lerner's article:
Israel has allied itself with repressive regimes in Egypt and used that alliance to ensure that the borders with Gaza would remain closed while Israel attempted to economically deprive the Hamas regime there by denying needed food supplies and equipment to rebuild after Israel's devastating attack in December 2008 and January 2009. If the Egyptian people take over, they are far more likely to side with Hamas than with the Israeli blockade of Gaza.

Yet it is impossible for Jews to forget our heritage as victims of another Egyptian tyrant - the Pharaoh whose reliance on brute force was overthrown when the Israelite slaves managed to escape from Egypt some 3,000 years ago. That story of freedom retold each year at our Passover "Seder" celebration, and read in synagogues in the past month, has often predisposed the majority of Jews to side with those struggling for freedom around the world.

To watch hundreds of thousands of Egyptians able to throw off the chains of oppression and the legacy of a totalitarian regime that consistently jailed, tortured or murdered its opponents so overtly that most people were cowed into silence, is to remember that the spark of God continues to flourish no matter how long oppressive regimes manage to keep themselves in power, and that ultimately the yearning for freedom and democracy cannot be totally stamped out no matter how cruel and sophisticated the elites of wealth, power and military might appear to be.
Lerner's observations stand in fairly stark contrast to the narrative coalescing in conservative circles within the US, which are scrambling to paint Egypt's truly populist movement for democracy (and ps, I thought conservatives loved this stuff. Maybe if the Egyptian protesters wore more tri-cornered hats?) as already co-opted by communists and Islamists, despite all evidence to the contrary. As the future of Egypt hangs in the balance, we hope along with Rabbi Lerner that the brave souls on the streets of Cairo know that they have the support of faiths communities the world over as they continue in their struggle for democracy.