TheReligiousLeft.org

Friday, April 29, 2011

Ah, The Bravery that is Gaga…

By Eve's Identity
Cross-posted from BlogHer
Originally posted on April 28, 2011


She has been defined by many as a freak… a weirdo… a whore… a genius… an artist and a rebel. And whether you like her or not, we have all heard of Lady Gaga and probably formed a distinct opinion about her. She will go down in music’s history as unique in some cases, or trite and redundant in others. But one thing is for sure about Ms. Gaga; be it her raw and shocking song lyrics or the questionable reasoning behind her stage outfits, she definitely knows how to turn heads...which is likely the method to her madness anyway, right? The woman certainly knows how to get attention that’s for sure.     
So on that note, have you listened to it? If you did, was it bothersome to you, or did you like it? Perhaps you didn’t care either way, but even so, it’s the newest controversy spawned by Lady Gaga, and it may steer some of her “flock” to the wolves. She released a new song entitled “Judas,” and it has surely caused a conundrum among many in the Christian community. The Huffington Post released an article here, that gives more details about the lyrics of this song and the reaction by the public. If you haven’t read the lyrics, I suggest you do so. But if you did, it seems probable that she is comparing the notorious story of Judas in the Bible to what could be be a very dysfunctional relationship between Ms. Gaga and a significant other. That being said, clearly there are other characters that one could relate a bad relationship to without creating so much drama.  Sigh, that just wouldn’t be good enough for Gaga would it?

But I am not writing this post to criticize Ms. Gaga on her music or to praise her for her amazing talent either. What I am praising her for, is her bravery. I am writing about her just to point out how amazingly Ms. Gaga seems to pummel through social expectations without batting much of an eyelash (or real ones anyway). So, while I only find a few of her tunes catchy, I felt the need to commend Ms. Gaga while many could be calling her all kinds of vulgar names and criticizing her choice of lyricism. I choose to tip my hat to her because I respect her courage to take any character from any story to compare her feelings to, rather than stick to “what is expected” of her as a singer. While I am no music critic, I will say that this is the reason I can consider her a true artist and entertainer, and it’s also why I decided to mention her in this blog.
    
As I have said before, the reason women are currently in the social state that they are in in this world could easily be because of our attachment to religious and social expectations. Many of the specific rules we follow were created do keep women at a “weaker” state of living compared to men. If we could open our eyes and be brave enough to tackle such nonsense the way Lady Gaga has in her songs, women could be stronger in society as a gender. Likewise, and as a result, the world would also be stronger as a whole, because we would be riding with two engines instead of just one. Men, and those who agree with them by following all that is expected of women instead of challenging the social norm when he/she feels it’s needed, do nothing to strengthen this world and make it a better place. Instead, we regress instead of progress, and that is not the best interested of our existence. So I suggest that the next time you hear a Lady Gaga song and scowl or see a woman with no make-up on and shake your head, sit back and really think about why you are upset about these things.
    
The late philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau once stated, "Man is born free but everywhere he is in chains." Many of his philosophies have been implemented in the democratic forms of governing still used today in this world, particularly during the American and French revolutions. Perhaps women too should heed his warning

Thanks for reading!

Until next time… ~Eve

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Class Consciousness: The Spiritual Cost of Unemployment

By Joshua Eaton
Originally Published at State of Formation
April 1st, 2011
milarepa
The past year has probably been the hardest of my life. After graduating with a Master's of Divinity in Buddhist studies from Harvard University in May 2010, I've submitted over one hundred job applications and talked to countless personal and professional contacts, resulting in a grand total of three job interviews.

When I graduated I had no illusions about finding a high-paying job in my field, but even the very idea of a full-time job with health care now seems ambitious.

Needless to say, money has been a problem. I've burnt through my savings, maxed out my credit cards, and accepted a lot of support from my working-class family. I've rented a friend's tiny spare room because I could not afford to sign a lease, done Tibetan translation at a Buddhist monastery in exchange for room and board, and stayed with my girlfriend long enough to start getting mail at her apartment. (To Jennifer's roommates: When I get my own place again, you can sleep on my couch anytime!) Come April, I'll finally have to bite the bullet and move back in with my family in Georgia until I can get a permanent, full-time job.

What's surprised me most about unemployment, however, hasn't been the havoc that it's wreaked on my bank account, or my credit score, or even my relationships, but on my emotional life. I tend toward anxiety and insecurity, but the past year has seen me deeply depressed and jealous—emotions that I rarely feel. The most disturbing thing is how bitter I've become. I've always been a cynic, but unemployment has left me positively caustic.

I tend to think of Buddhist practice as a way of cultivating a mind so stable that such storms leave it unscathed, and I often judge myself harshly when I fail to live up to that standard—when the storm breaks through my mental roof, leaking in toxic emotions, and I'm too exhausted, or cynical, or just plain lazy to apply the Buddha's teachings.

Suffering and delusion are always my suffering and delusion. They are always personal, always private, and always necessitate a private remedy. What I often forget, though, is just how much social, political, and economic structures really do affect our ability to practice the dharma.

The life story of the famous Tibetan saint Milarepa is an excellent example. When his rich, prestigious father died, Milarepa's aunt and uncle took all of the inheritance for themselves, leaving him and his family destitute. They wore rags, ate food unfit for livestock, were covered in lice, and had to toil at hard, manual labor just to survive. When Milarepa's mother couldn't stand it anymore, she asked her son to murder his aunt and uncle with black magic, threatening to kill herself in front of him if he failed. "As for me," she told him, " . . . the only thing I can do is to weep for very sorrow and grief."

The Buddha's teachings are wonderful, and they can be applied under any circumstances. Still, there are some social, economic, and political circumstances that limit our ability to put them into practice. Could Milarepa's mother have cultivated loving-kindness and compassion toward her sister- and brother-in-law? Of course. Was that as possible after their greed reduced her and her children to abject poverty as it was before? Not hardly. Her destitution—and the social, political, and economic structures that allowed it—limited her ability to practice the dharma.

Asvaghosa's Buddhacarita, verses 13:4 and 13:69, describes the Buddha's enlightenment as an attempt to conquer the realms of samsara, to usurp their sovereign power. This comparison between the structures of society and the structures of samsara is hardly accidental. The Buddha's own descriptions of samsara include the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path, the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination, and the abhidharma literature. Here, samsara is not individual, but structural; it is not my personal problem, but an impersonal system in which we're nearly all caught up.

I've been relatively lucky this past year; I've had wonderful friends and family, a Harvard degree, and a credit card to help me through. There are thousands of Americans for whom the Great Recession has been much, much harder. What answer can American Buddhism—with its emphasis on personal spiritual discipline—give to their suffering?

There is immeasurable value in developing our personal practice so that we can deal with anger when it comes up, but we also need to recognize how much our economic circumstances, or our political environment, or our social status can affect our ability to do so. In the Bodhicaryavatara, verse 6:1, Shantideva says,

"All the good works gathered in a thousand ages,
. . . A single flash of anger shatters them."

We need to understand that when we support political, economic, or social structures that engender hatred, anxiety, despair, and jealousy in others, we're making it infinitely more difficult for them to develop wisdom and compassion. Good works are so rare in this world; we cannot afford to shatter them.

Joshua Eaton recently graduated with a master of divinity in Buddhist studies from Harvard University, and is currently editing an anthology of Buddhist teachings on social justice. His full bio can be found at his website, http://www.JoshuaEaton.net.

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Religious Left in the News

Salon.com has a piece up this week in which author Brad Martin examines the largely untapped political potential for religious argumentation around progressive ideas. Aside from Martin's unfortunate suggestion that Jesus is anyone's "weapon," the article offers a solid reflection on the lack of religious themes in contemporary progressive messaging, and examines Jim Wallis' "What Would Jesus Cut" initiative as one concrete example of progressive political and religious synthesis.

Martin begins the article by noting the ubiquity of religious language used in support of conservative causes, including "fights over the contents of school textbooks, battles against gay employment and marriage rights, anti-abortion activism." Martin then offers a particularly instructive reading into the hesitancy felt by many on the Left when it comes to invoking religious language in support fo their own goals:
"It is, however, far less common to see Christian ideals -- or the ideals of any religion, for that matter -- harnessed to ideas or initiatives that originate on the political left. There are reasons for this. Offering a religious rationale for policy goals threatens what for many has become the cherished principle of secular rationalism in public life. Invoking a moral basis for public goals, to many otherwise well-intentioned liberals, undermines the separation of church and state, to which they reflexively seek to repel any threat. But this comes at the cost of chronically ceding the moral high ground and a potentially galvanizing force in national politics."
Hesitancy toward utilizing overt moral and religious language represents perhaps the largest hurdle facing the Religious Left in terms of effective messaging, and it is a problem entirely of the Left's own making. The combination of the Left's own internal pluralism and the progressive predilection toward political correctness, both of which are actual strengths in and of themselves, all too often combine in a lamentable reluctance to avoid explicit moral and religious language in an effort to minimize the potentially exclusionary or alienating effects such language might have on our fellow lefties. It's not out of weakness that many religious progressives tend to avoid language that could make our non-religious comrades uncomfortable, but the overall effect of ceding this language to conservatives does ultimately weaken progressive efforts.

"Secular rationalism," as Martin puts it, is all well and good when it comes to the actual letter of the law, but becomes downright Pharisaical when extended to the ways in which we talk about the law, usually at the insistence of the political Left. We have to recognize that moral and religious argumentation around political issues, even by elected officials, does not necessarily translate to a violation of the Establishment Clause. The constitutionally determining factor is whether or not moral and religious policy arguments can be effectively translated into secular language when it comes to writing the law itself. The language of the law is secular, but the language we use to talk about the law need not be. Indeed, the progressive penchant for cutting moral and religious language out of public debate effectively cedes the rhetorical power of these modes of discussion to conservatives, and deprives progressives of an important resource of meaning.

As Martin indicates in his article, Jim Wallis' "What Would Jesus Cut?" initiative offers an encouraging example of progressive politics explicitly couched in moral and religious language and values. Hopefully one day soon we can reach a point where the synthesis of progressive politics and religion will no longer seem quite so novel!

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Calling All Guest Bloggers!


Our work here at TheReligiousLeft.org relies on the diverse viewpoints of individuals whose beliefs cover the spectrum of religious and non-religious affiliation. In order to promote our country’s invaluable pluralism of perspectives, we welcome all submissions pertaining to themes of progressive politics and religion.

  • Who: Anyone committed to thinking constructively about the role of progressive politics and religion in the United States.
  • What: Submissions of approximately 500-2,500 words, and a bio of up to three sentences. We are looking for full-length articles, reflections, book reviews, sermons, etc. In an effort to simultaneously broaden and deepen the convrsaiton, we ask guest authors to engage their particular interests and passions through the lens of their own traditions.
  • When: Ever.
  • Why: Because we understand our commitment to progressive politics to be inextricably bound from the ways in which we think about questions of belief and practice, and we refuse to cede the public debate about religion in this country  to those who would appeal to religion as a means of denying anyone their basic rights and dignities.

Note: All submissions will be subject to form and content review by a site editor. Please indicate time-sensitive submissions to ensure that they post as soon as possible.

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Religious Right is Coming to the Tea Party

This was probably inevitable. Alternet reported this week that the president of Americans for Prosperity, the Tea Party astroturfing organization funded by billionaire conservative David Koch, has been cozying up with some of the key players on the Religious Right in preparation for the 2012 election. Alternet observes that AfP president Tim Phillips has been developing particularly close ties to disgraced Religious Right poster-boy Ralph Reed and Reed's new Faith and Freedom Coalition.

After overwhelming support from white, conservative, evangelical voters swept George W. Bush into office in the 2000 election, it seemed like the political power of the Religious Right was hitting an all-time high. But over the last decade a number of key factors, including the spectacular spectacle of the Bush presidency itself and the 2007 death of Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell, seemed to stall the political juggernaut that is the Religious Right, with this apparently waning influence all but confirmed by the 2008 election of Barack Obama. The subsequent rise of the Tea Party movement as an ostensibly secular, economically-oriented new brand of conservatism signaled perhaps the greatest internal threat to the rhetorical dominance of the Religious Right within the conservative movement.

However, as the Alternet article points out, the social values emphasis of the Religious Right has never really prevented it from aligning itself with conservative economic forces. To date, Ralph Reed's endorsement of Newt Gingrich's "Contract With America" as a "family values" issue probably still takes the cake in terms of the truly remarkable conservative ability to shoehorn seemingly disparate issues into one tidy package of values. Now, in another display of the Religious Right's resilience, Reed and Phillips seem to be engineering the wholesale incorporation of the remnants of the Religious Right under the astroturfed wing of the Tea Party:
"But there’s something more at work here than just good coalition politics. Movement strategists, such as Reed and Phillips, want to fully co-opt or merge the Religious Right, its organizing infrastructure, and its activists into the Tea Party wing of the GOP. So conservative Christian voters are being told that a radically limited federal government is God’s idea, and that right-wing economic policies are mandated by the Bible."
Certainly not all, or even most, Christians in the US feel that their religion calls for limited government and support for unchecked capitalism. Consider the findings of a recent poll conducted by Public Religion Research Institute in partnership with Religion News Service:
"[More]Americans (44 percent) see the free market system at odds with Christian values than those who don't (36 percent), whether they are white evangelicals, mainline Protestants, Catholics or minority Christians."
However, the poll notes that among certain demographics, particularly "Republicans and Tea Party members, college graduates and members of high-income households," the reverse holds true, and Christianity and capitalism are considered to be compatible more often than not.

Despite assignations of labels like Andrew Sullivan's "secular fundamentalism" to the Tea Party movement, the latent religious potential has always hovered beneath a thin veneer of economic concerns, waiting for an individual or group with a powerful enough messaging apparatus to make it fit. As Lauri Lebo noted over at Religion Dispatches this week in her profile of Christian nationalist David Barton, there has been something of a cottage industry that has grown up around making this very connection since the rise of the Tea Party in the wake of the 2008 elections. Lebo cites a report complied by People for the American Way, which describes some of Barton's attempts to ground Tea Party policy in scripture:
"On a conference call with pastors two days after the November 2010 elections to celebrate conservative victories, Barton asserted a biblical underpinning for far-right economic policies: Taxation and deficit spending amount to theft, a violation of the Ten Commandments. The estate tax is “absolutely condemned” by the Bible as the “most immoral” of taxes. Jesus had “teachings” condemning the capital gains tax and minimum wage.

Barton also enlists Jesus in the war against unions and collective bargaining. According to Barton, a parable from the 20th chapter of the book of Matthew about the owner of a vineyard making different arrangements with workers was about “the right of private contract” – in other words, the right of employers to come to individual agreements with each employee. Jesus’ parable, he said, is “anti-minimum wage” and “anti-socialist-union kind of stuff.”
I admit that I am always morbidly fascinated by the mental gymnastics required to whitewash Ayn Rand's brand of elitist objectivism with Christian language and imagery. But it breaks my heart (and turns my stomach) to see the life and ministry of Jesus invoked to support policies that so negatively impact the most vulnerable members of our society, the very individuals for whom Jesus time and again demonstrated his own preference and concern. That is the true and bitter fruit of the economic policies advocated by Reed, Phillips, and Barton: the condemnation of the socially and economically disadvantaged to carry the burden for the rich. I can imagine few more perverted, inverted readings of the gospel message. As Lebo notes in her RD article:
It’s quite interesting just how closely biblical teachings align with the financial goals of those with the most to gain. For these keepers of the faith, sacrifice is never a word applied to them, but always to others.
The ability of the Religious Right to effectively brand and control the terms of public policy debates is well documented. These are, after all, the people who have convinced even those with whom they profoundly disagree to refer to them as "Pro-Life." Even as those of us on the Religious Left continue to think constructively about our own convictions and try to make our shared vision of justice a reality, we must remain vigilant to the harmful, dehumanizing policies and practices that our beliefs are all too often invoked to defend. This vigilance will be all the more necessary should individuals like Reed, Phillips, and Barton succeed in joining the Tea Party movement with the institutions that define the contemporary Religious Right.

As ever, we remain called to speak truth to power. The demand for justice exists across religious traditions, and it is up to us to find the tools within our own traditions that make the realization of justice possible. In the context of the policies and practices of the Religious Right, this places a special onus on Christians in the US to challenge harmful narratives that attempt to ground their legitimacy in our own cherished beliefs. For every conservative argument trying to place Jesus on the side of the rich and the powerful, we must be ready and able to present a counter argument, an alternate vision that situates the life and ministry of Jesus among the very people most negatively impacted by conservative economic policies. This is not just a matter of exegesis, it is a matter of justice. And though I firmly believe that the arc of the moral universe bends inevitably toward justice, it certainly seems that it can sometimes use a push.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Resurrection: A Scandalous Reading of a Scandalous Gospel

By Crystal S. Lewis

This Sunday, millions of churches all over the country will celebrate Easter, or as we called it in my Evangelical days, "Resurrection Sunday." The sermons preached in those churches will recount the story of how Jesus died a brutal death at the hands of the Romans before His tomb was discovered empty three days after His crucifixion. Many of those preachers will insist that the resurrection can only mean one thing... that it can only be understood as the event through which "salvation" has come to people who hear the Evangelical Christian message and affirm its truth.

However, my understanding of the empty tomb's relevance changed radically several years ago. My exposure to Church history helped me to realize that throughout my entire life, I had engaged the resurrection through a lens provided by people who were just trying to understand what it meant and why it was important.

It occurred to me that I knew what the crucifixion meant to Paul, Irenaeus, Origen, St. Augustine and even my pastor... but I had never asked myself what the death of Jesus would have meant to the blind man who regained his sight after the Healer's touch. I had never asked myself what it meant to the woman who had been restored to her place in society after being rendered unclean for twelve years by her unstoppable flow of blood. I had never asked myself what the crucifixion meant to the leper who, undoubtedly desperate for human contact, received that and more during a chance encounter with Jesus. I had not asked how little Talitha's family, or Lazarus' family, or the Centurion may have felt to hear that Jesus had died on the cross that day.

I had never divorced myself enough from the traditional understanding of the narrative to see why Peter so desperately wanted to protect Jesus from the centurions in the Garden of Gethsemane... or why the religious people and political authorities so desperately wanted to kill Him. It wasn't until I allowed myself to think outside my theological box that I could see what really died on the cross that day.

When I thought more carefully about it, I realized that each lash of the whip, each nail, and every insult hurled at Jesus while He hung on the cross was a simultaneous assault on a generation of people who had finally started to feel loved… and free… and hopeful. I finally realized that the claim of resurrection by early Christians was arguably not as much a cosmic one as it was the subversion of a system that had been stacked against "the least of these." Finally, I realized what it meant for them to say: “Jesus is not dead.”

Those who claimed that Jesus "had risen" were telling the powerful that despite their attempts to bury hope and equality... despite their efforts to kill the voice of the one who had touched them when no one else would... despite their efforts to entomb the Good News that was being preached to the poor and the radical message of liberty for the captives, the hope of the people would continue to live.

For us, resurrection means that hope is still brewing, even in the most corrupt systems. Resurrection means that love is still powerful in ways that can often only be explained by invoking the transcendent. Resurrection means that nothing can stop the will of a downtrodden people who feel driven by a force greater than themselves-- Not the death of one person. Not the death of a religious ideology. Not even the death of a generation.

And so, on this Resurrection Sunday I celebrate the scandalous Gospel of Jesus Christ-- not because of what it meant to Paul or the church fathers, but because of what it means to the sick, the outcast, the hungry and the voiceless. I believe that like Jesus, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon us, for he has anointed us to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent us to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free, and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come.” (Luke 4:18-19) And my prayer is that all Christians, whether they fall on the theologically conservative or the liberal side of God's family, will find the enduring courage live out the resurrection by proclaiming this Good News.

Crystal S. Lewis writes a blog called Diary of a Christian Universagnosticostal. Be sure to follow Crystal on Twitter and connect with her on Facebook.

When Crystal S. Lewis isn't writing for TRL.org, she's engaging Christianity's tough questions on her blog: Diary of a Christian Universagnosticostal. Known for her candid (and often edgy) perspectives on theology, postmodernism, faith infused with reason, the future of Christianity, and “radical religious pluralism,” she describes herself as “incurably curious” and says skepticism is a calling, not a curse. Crystal lives in Washington, DC where she is pursuing a Master of Divinity.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Can You Put a Price on Discrimination? How about $500,000.

According to a document obtained this week by the Huffington Post, House Republicans plan to pay the law firm of former Solicitor General Paul Clement as much as $500,000 of taxpayer money to protect the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in court. After a February announcement that the Department of Justice would no longer defend the controversial bill, which defines marriage at the federal level as between one man and one woman, House Republicans declared their intent to hire counsels to defend DOMA.

Although the spending cap for the defense of DOMA is currently set at $500,000, the contract obtained by the Huffington Post indicates the cap could be raised "by written agreement between the parties with the approval" of the House of Representatives. Critics of Boehner's defense of DOMA suggest that the existing cap could be met fairly quickly, setting the stage for even more taxpayer money to be spent in an attempt to deny the rights of same-sex partners. From a statement by Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese:
"There are currently at least nine cases challenging the constitutionality of section 3 of DOMA which bars federal recognition of marriages between same-sex couples. If the House were to intervene in all nine that would mean less than 100 billable hours would be spent per case in order to hit the $500,000 cap. Clearly this fee cap is a lowball estimate that hides the true cost of this litigation."
Democratic lawmakers have been quick to point out that the Republican decision to defend DOMA smacks not only of intolerance, but of fiscal hypocrisy as well. Drew Hammill, a spokesman for Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), had this to say on the issue:
"The hypocrisy of this legal boondoggle is mind-blowing...Speaker Boehner is spending half a million dollars of taxpayer money to defend discrimination. If Republicans were really interested in cutting spending, this should be at the top of the list."
It is shameful enough that House Republicans insist on defending this misguided, discriminatory piece of legislation at all, but to add insult to injury these deficit hawks insist on using taxpayer money in an attempt to deny US citizens their civil rights. There's a well-worn adage about conservatives wanting to make the government small enough to fit into your bedroom, but now it seems they're intent on charging taxpayers for the house call.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Former Republican Senator Trashes GOP's Values

This is about as encouraging an interview as I've seen from a conservative lawmaker in some time. Former senator Alan Simpson (R-WY) took to MSNBC's "Hardball" on Monday to air his grievances over the state of the Republican party with host Chris Matthews. Simpson roundly condemned his party's increasingly extreme stance on social issues including reproductive rights and homosexuality. From the interview:
"Who the hell is for abortion? I don't know anybody running around with a sign that says, have an abortion, they're wonderful. They're hideous. But they're a deeply intimate and personal decision, and I don't think men legislators should even vote on the issue.

Then you've got homosexuality. You've got 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell.' We have homophobes in our party. That's disgusting to me. We're all human beings. We're all God's children. ... [Former Pennsylvania senator Rick] Santorum has said some cruel things, cruel, cruel things about homosexuals. Ask him about it. See if he attributes the cruelness of his remarks years ago. Foul."
Simpson pulled no punches in his scorn for the emerging field of 2012 GOP presidential hopefuls:
"That's the kind of guys that are going to be on my ticket, you know, makes you sort out hard what Reagan said, you know, 'stick with your folks.'But I'm not sticking with people who are homophobic, anti-women, you know, moral values while you're diddling your secretary while you're giving a speech on moral values. Come on. Get off of it."


In past articles, we've described the need to hold the contemporary conservative movement accountable for its increasingly extreme, dehumanizing social policy expressions, and former Sen. Simpson's remarks display this process in full effect. In terms of public perception, it comes down to an issue of branding, and as the conservative brand becomes increasingly and inextricably bound with blatant homophobia and anti-women rhetoric and policies, it will become increasingly uncomfortable inside Reagan's "Big Tent" for more socially moderate conservatives. As Simpson's remarks illustrate, it is already becoming more difficult for conservatives of the less extreme persuasion to toe the party line in light of the disgusting rhetoric coming from their peers. Progressives and liberals must continue to hold the Republican/conservative brand accountable for their vitriol, and help shift public opinion away from such wanton disregard for the rights and dignity of these vulnerable groups.

h/t Huffington Post

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

State Department Demonstrates Its Enduring Cluelessness Regarding Religion and Foreign Policy

A State Department report released by the Associated Press this week documents an internal investigation of Douglas Kmiec, the US ambassador to the Mediterranean island nation of Malta. The report, compiled in February by the department's Office of Inspector General, describes Kmiec's as devoting "considerable time" to writing on religious issues and themes of interfaith cooperation, which has apparently created friction between the ambassador and some Washington officials.

From the report, via the Huffington Post:
"Based on a belief that he was given a special mandate to promote President Obama's interfaith initiatives, [Kmiec] has devoted considerable time to writing articles for publication in the United States as well as in Malta, and to presenting his views on subjects outside the bilateral portfolio."
Kmiec has since offered defended himself in an email sent to the AP:
"I must say that I am troubled and saddened that a handful of individuals within my department in Washington seem to manifest a hostility to expressions of faith and efforts to promote better interfaith understanding...Our constitution proudly protects the free exercise of religion -- even for ambassadors."
The response of the State Department to Kmiec's work is lamentably typical of governmental attitudes toward religion at the level of international policy. While at Harvard Divinity School, I was privileged to take a number of classes on religion and international policy at the Kennedy School of Government. The existence of such classes at an institution like the Kennedy School reflects the recent development of a particularly complicated relationship between religion and international relations. While the interest in engaging religion from an international policy perspective itself represents a degree of progress - such classes would have been all but unthinkable prior to 9/11 - the preferred approaches and attitudes with which international policymakers approach religion still leave much to be desired.

The State Department's investigation of Ambassador Kmiec's writing on religion offers a case in point of the tension between religion and international policy work, and the extreme caution by which many professionals of the latter category approach the former. Policymakers in the US all too often remain stuck in an outdated, realist perspective that overly privileges national security to the detriment of innovative policy developments regarding the constructive capabilities of religion and religious communities at the local and transnational levels. To the extent that US policymakers insist on considering religion solely from a security perspective, they will remain blind to the incredible potential for peace-building within the world's myriad faith traditions, and - as a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy - continue to reinforce the view of religion as a force with a limited and typically destructive role to play on the world stage.

 While national security remains an issue of vital concern, viewing religion solely through a security lens inevitably skews governmental priorities when it comes to engaging with religion, and, as is the case with Ambassador Kmiec, can actively impede the sort of creative religious outreach that the United States should be pursuing as a matter of international policy. This is not a matter of reinventing the wheel; international policymakers just need to start taking religion seriously as a potentially constructive force in international affairs rather than focusing solely on its destructive potential. The resources are there, they just have to be recognized for what they really are.
For a particularly interesting perspective on the issue, I recommend Madeleine Albright's fascinating reflections on the role of faith in international affairsThe Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on America, God, and World Affairs and R. Scott Appleby's The Ambivalence of the Sacred, which cuts right to the heart of the need for more robust engagement at the international level with the constructive, peace-building potential inherent within all of the major 'world religions.'

While the State Department's decision to investigate Ambassador Kmiec's extracurricular interfaith work is lamentable, it will hopefully serve as a catalyst for a broader discussion about the US government's desperate need to reimagine how it engages with religion at the level of international policy. While religion's inclusion in official conversations regarding US foreign policy represents a certain amount of progress, policymakers clearly have yet to determine what on Earth they are to make of it.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

“I’m Sticking To the Union”

By Fr. John S. Rausch
April 8, 2011

Wisconsin under the leadership of Governor Scott Walker recently passed a law that strips most government workers at the state, county and local levels of their collective bargaining rights. Only police, firefighters and the state patrol are exempt from the law, but teachers and public health workers are not. To seek pay raises higher than the consumer price index, unions need to win approval by a public referendum, and every year union members must vote to continue being represented by their union. The unions fought the legislation to the last vote.

Ostensibly the law was passed to address part of Wisconsin’s $3.6 billion structural budget deficit caused by the Great Recession. The legislation requires state employees to pay 12.6 percent of their health care coverage and half of their pension costs. The measure could save the state $30 million in the short run and possibly $300 million over the next two years. During the legislative debate the unions accepted the financial give-backs in a gesture of conciliation, but stood fast about their collective bargaining rights. After the bill passed stripping those rights, many wondered about the real intent of the law.

Archbishop Jerome Listecki of Milwaukee reflecting Catholic teachings on labor issued a statement in favor of the workers’ rights: “Hard times do not nullify the moral obligation each of us has to respect the legitimate rights of workers.” He reminded us, “Every union, like every other economic actor, is called to work for the common good...However, it is equally a mistake to marginalize or dismiss unions as impediments to economic growth.” This last statement contains the core of the continuing moral debate about unions.

What caused the Great Recession? Most economists would agree it was the sub-prime mortgage bubble and the hyper-speculation of Wall St., not the pay scale of teachers and nurses. The recession came after three decades of neoliberal economics that enshrined freedom and individualism at the expense of community and the common good. Trade liberalization, outsourcing, deregulation, privatization, restrictive labor rulings plus revised accounting and financial rules slowly turned the middle class into a “debtor class” as workers struggled to maintain their standard of living. While productivity expanded by a vigorous 20 percent between 2000 and 2006, real wages edged up only 2 percent. In reality, 65 percent of all growth in household income between 2002 and 2007 went to the richest 1 percent!

Economist John Kenneth Galbraith saw unions as a countervailing force to stand against the immense power of capital so labor could share fair gains. From a moral perspective, Pope John Paul II wrote in 1981 that a “union remains a constructive factor of social order and solidarity, and it is impossible to ignore it” (Laborem exercens #20). Without unions little will prevent egregious structural sins against distributive justice, which demands a fair share and dignified life for everyone in society.

In Wisconsin proponents of Gov. Walker’s law tried to discredit public workers as lavishly overpaid, but John Schmitt of the Center for Economic Policy Research matched public and private sector workers according to age and educational levels. He found overall public sector workers made 4 percent less that their private sector counterparts.

At the heart of Catholic social teachings lies a sense of solidarity and community. Pitting private and public sector workers against one another ignores the just claim every worker has to adequate pay, health care and retirement pension. Justice demands we not make workers the scapegoats of budget deficits caused by cruel neoliberal economics.

 
Father John Rausch is a Glenmary priest who writes, teaches and organizes in Appalachia.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Cross in the Mountains

Here is a little bit of inspirational, ecumenical environmentalism from the coal fields of Eastern Kentucky.


"The Cross in the Mountains" documents an ecumenical prayer service for the renewal of Appalachian communities. The service focused on the catastrophic practice of mountaintop removal and its consequences to God's people and environment, with the purpose of educating and inspiring inner transformation and shared discussion about care of creation as an ethical and moral issue.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Terry Jones Has a Body Count


The trial was a sham. After four hours of deliberation, the defendant was found guilty of a laundry list of crimes, including "the promotion of terrorist acts, crimes against humanity, rape and torture of people of other faiths and the persecution of minorities and women." The punishment had already been decided. After the verdict was pronounced, the defendant was placed on a black metal tray in front of the judge's bench, doused in kerosene, and lit on fire in front of a crowd of approximately fifty onlookers.

The defendant was the Qu'ran, the holy book of the world's 1.5 billion Muslims. The kangaroo court responsible for sentencing and summarily "executing" the Qu'ran was organized by Florida pastor and hate group leader Terry Jones, who served as the judge - complete with black robes - during the bizarre mock trial last month. Jones, whose group Dove Outreach International is listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center for its anti-gay, anti-Muslim agenda, garnered international media attention for planning another event to burn the Qu'ran on September 11th of last year, at the height of the controversy over the construction of the Park51 Mosque in Manhattan. After an international outcry, Jones was convinced at the eleventh hour to abandon that particular act of desecration, and subsequently vowed he would "never burn a Koran." However, after this month's bizarre pseudo-courtroom ritual, Jones reneged on his promise and followed through on his initial threats.

Jones' desecration of the Qu'ran followed a host of urgent and regrettably prescient warnings that his actions could incite violence abroad. Although Jones' hateful display attracted little domestic media attention at the time, images and videos of the burning Qu'ran have circulated through the web over the last two weeks, and now the repercussions have begun. This week in Mazar-i-Sharif, a city in northern Afghanistan, protesters enraged by word of Jones' display stormed a UN compound. In the violence that followed, at least eleven people lost their lives, including seven UN staffers and guards. Similar protests in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar claimed nine more lives and left scores injured.

In subsequent interviews, Jones attempted to absolve himself of responsibility for the attacks:
"We do not feel responsible," Jones told ABC's Nightline on Friday, speaking about his Gainesville church. "We feel more that the Muslims and radical Islam uses that as an excuse. If they didn't use us as an excuse, they would use a different excuse," Jones said.
Jones has indicated plans to hold another "day of judgment" in the future, this time likely placing the Prophet Muhammad on trial in another twisted display of monumental, megalomaniacal callousness.

Jones' actions, particularly coupled with his response to the tragic killings in Afghanistan, belie the fundamental lack of both understanding and compassion that define Jones' particularly hateful brand of religiosity. The violence Jones' display spawned in Afghanistan, while horrific, hardly "proves" Jones' hypotheses about the dangers of radical Islam, as Jones has since claimed. While the loss of life in Mazar-i-Sharif and Kandahar is tragic, the fact is that, at most, a few hundred of the world's 1.5 billion Muslims were incited to violence by Jones' acts of direct provocation. The measured response and condemnation from the remainder of the world's Muslim population - especially from Muslims in the United States, whom Jones has characterized as practicing "a religion of intolerance, violence, and oppression” - blatantly contradicts Jones' violent vision of Islam.

Jones absolutely bears a moral responsibility for inciting the recent spate of violence in Afghanistan. Although news reports indicate that local Taliban agents, who have since claimed responsibility for the outbreak of violence, exaggerated the extent of Jones' activities by claiming he burned multiple copies of the Qu'ran, Jones intentionally added fuel to a cycle of violence with proven consequences. As the Danish cartoon controversy demonstrated some years ago - when offensive cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad were published in Danish newspapers, which fueled riots resulting in the destruction of Danish embassies across the Middle East and deaths in Nigeria, Libya, and Afghanistan - incidents like Jones' Qu'ran burning can be used to stoke the fires of localized unrest a whole world away.

The distance between Florida and Afghanistan cannot mitigate the responsibility Jones bears for the violence he knew his willful disrespect of the Muslim faith might well incite. Jones' disgusting display in no way justifies the horrific response it has drawn in Mazar-i-Sharif and Kandahar. But the tragic severity of the response was a possibility against which Jones was repeatedly warned, and in his decision to carry out his misguided, deplorable actions, Jones assumed responsibility for those actions' consequences.

Congratulations, Pastor Jones; your particularly disgusting brand of Islamophobia now has a body count.

UPDATE: President Obama has released a statement condemning both Terry Jones' actions and the subsequent violence in Afghanistan:
Today, the American people honor those who were lost in the attack on the United Nations in Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan. Once again, we extend our deepest condolences to the families and loved ones of those who were killed, and to the people of the nations that they came from. The desecration of any holy text, including the Quran, is an act of extreme intolerance and bigotry. However, to attack and kill innocent people in response is outrageous, and an affront to human decency and dignity. No religion tolerates the slaughter and beheading of innocent people, and there is no justification for such a dishonorable and deplorable act. Now is a time to draw upon the common humanity that we share, and that was so exemplified by the UN workers who lost their lives trying to help the people of Afghanistan.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Claiming a space for young voices in Christianity…



This month The Truth Force Project (TFP), a Christian program for youth and young adults to practice the fearless pursuit of truth in community, through faith, reason, and action, launched recruitment for its 2011-12 Activist-Scholars Program: Good Sex/Bad Sex: Christian Taboos, Testimonies, and Transcendence.

Based online via video conferencing, the program connects young people ages 18-22 from across the country who are interested in investigating sex-positive and sex-negative formation and LGBTQ concerns in a Christian context. Once selected, participants attend nine online sessions (once per month) that focus on study of the issue under the guidance of an experienced ministry team. Additionally, in their own communities participants give two hours per month of issue-related service, complete a small capstone project, and reflect and share on their journeys through social networking technologies.

Addressing a topic that has typically not been discussed among many U.S. Christians, TFP director Mike Uca-Dorn reflects on one reason why there’s such a need for the program, “After years of working with homeless LGBTQ youth that often experienced Christian homophobia as a contributing factor to their homelessness, I saw a clear need for fellow Christians to engage their own views about sexuality for change to begin.” A recent study reported that 20-40% of homeless youth in the U.S. identify as LGBT, and that they are more likely to use drugs, participate in sex work, and attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers.

One hope of TFP is that the program connects students who lack local supportive networks so that they do not feel alone. The program is meant for both students who are experienced with the issue and those who are just beginning their interest.

Applicants can apply for the September 2011-May 2012 program online by June 15th. For more information please visit truthforceproject.org.

TFP is a new project of Hosanna! People’s Seminary based in New York City.
 
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