Friday, November 25, 2011

Methodists Take a Stand for Same-Sex Marriage

By Becky Garrison

When sex columnist Dan Savage spoke at Union Theological Seminary in early October, he pushed those Christians who claim to be inclusive and radically welcoming to stand up and make some noise or else they will once again allow anti-gay Christians to control the conversation.”

On October 17th, 2011, approximately 900 United Methodists in New York and Connecticut put Savage's words into action. This group, which included 165 clergy, pledged to make weddings available to all people despite their denomination's ban on same sex marriage. In all, 74 congregations within the New York Annual Conference (NYAC) are represented among the signers with six entire congregations pledging to be inclusive to all individuals regardless of their sexual orientation. NYAC is the regional church body representing United Methodist congregations from Long Island to the Catskills and in southern Connecticut. The full list of signers, as well as the text of the covenant, is available here.

This announcement marks the kick-off of a project called We Do! Methodists Living Marriage Equality, a venture spearheaded by Methodists in New Directions, an organization affiliated with the Reconciling Ministries Network, a national movement formed in 1982 with the intent purpose of “mobilizing United Methodists to create full inclusion of all God’s children regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.” This project is co-sponsored by NY Chapter of the Methodist Federation for Social Action (MFSA), a grassroots organization working in the NYAC of the United Methodist Church (UMC) dedicated to ending the church’s prejudice and discrimination against LGBT people and Methodists, and both organizations are independent of the UMC.

According to Dr. Dorothee Benz, Chair of Methodists in New Directions and one of the organizers of the We Do! Project, while the passage of the Marriage Equity Bill in New York State energized the group, they began this process of discernment of moving the church toward inclusion in 2010 when the prospect of this bill ever becoming law was not yet an issue. Thus began a one-on-one effort of signing people on to this  covenant of conscience and intentionally move ministry to this area. During this time, similar pledges to marry all caught on like wildfire over various Methodist conferences. Benz reflects, “Our denomination mandates that we discriminate, but we choose to extend pastoral care to everybody,” adding that at present over 1,000 clergy in 19 states and the District of Columbia have signed a pledge vowing to extend their ministry to all couples seeking the church’s blessing for their relationships.

The Rev. Vicki Flippin, Associate Pastor for the Manhattan-based Church of the Village, shares her faith journey toward marriage equality that began  in 2008. In this year, she became a pastor in Connecticut at the age of 25, Connecticut achieved marriage equality, and two young women fell in love while attending the justice-affirming church where she served.

I told that couple—who thought they had found a sanctuary from discrimination and hate—that they were not welcome to be married in their sanctuary by their pastor. I believe I decided in that moment to stand in judgment before my God instead of before my church, and I do not know to this day whether it was the right decision. But I knew that, if I was going to commit this sin, I could not do it quietly. I confessed my sin to my church in a sermon, and together we decided to become a Reconciling Congregation and joined the movement for LGBT equality in the United Methodist Church. And, when the opportunity came to covenant with other clergy to stop discriminating, I signed on with gratitude. This summer, I moved to New York to begin working at a new church. On the very night I moved—tired and surrounded by boxes—the New York state legislature passed marriage equality. It is with a serious sense of purpose and a smile on my face that I now embark on this journey of non-discrimination with my fellow clergy in this place and in this time.

Unlike the majority of mainline denominations, who have made strides in recent years toward granting LGBT people access to the rite of marriage, the UMC continues to “support laws in civil society that define marriage as the union of one man and one woman.”  Also, while they acknowledge “that all persons are of sacred worth,” they also single out LGBT individuals as being unable to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church because “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”

Over the years, individual Methodist clergy have been disciplined for marrying same sex couples. However, this initiative marks the first time that a significant body of Methodists have stood in solidarity on this issue. While trying to prosecute such a large number of clergy could prove to be unwieldy and cost prohibitive, the the actual impact this action will have within this denomination remains unclear.  Flippin states that “each clergy person on this list is taking a risk.” She elaborates:

Performing same-sex marriages is a chargeable offense in our denomination and could lead to consequences as dire as removal of our orders. We are risking our our jobs, our careers, the incomes that support our families, and the ability to do the work which God has called us to do in the church. This is why community is essential. Because of the We Do! project and its covenant, we know that if we get into trouble because of our actions, there is a community of over 800 people who are waiting to shower us with spiritual and material support; this makes all the difference. Through this struggle, I have come to believe that power and privilege are not worth having if one is not willing to lay them down for the right cause, and this is the right cause and the right time for me and over 800 others signers. Together, we will make equality and justice a reality in our conference.

The NYAC has a history of pro-inclusive legislation, and issued a resolution at their 2010 Annual Conference titled "Ministering to All in Covental Relationships." But with Bishop Park on personal renewal leave until the second week of Novermber, he is not available to address the media on behalf on the Conference regarding this issue.

In terms of the UMC's more conservative elements, the Wesley Fellowship, a group of clergy and laity that serve as a voice for evangelical and orthodox pastors and churches in the Wesleyan tradition within NYAC, have not commented as of yet on this particular initiative. However, they posted a letter that was published in Conference's September 2011 newsletter supporting the denomination’s ban on same sex marriage.  Along those lines, the right-wing Institute on Religion and Democracy, which has been highly critical of the UMC's moves toward inclusion, and same sex marriage overall, has yet to comment on this announcement.

When asked to comment, the UMC's press sent links to their The Book of Discipline that state their  affirmation of traditional marriage and the denomination's position on homosexuality. Benz expect their actions will have reverberations at UMC's forthcoming General Conference which will be held April 24 to May 4, 2012, in Tampa, Florida.

Becky Garrison is a panelist for The Washington Post's On Faith column and contributes to a range of outlets including The Guardian, The Revealer, American Atheist magazine and Religion Dispatches.. Her books include Jesus Died for This?: A Satirist's Search for the Risen Christ, Red and Blue God, Black and Blue Church, and Ancient Future Disciples: Meeting Jesus in Mission-Shaped Ministries.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Reza Aslan and the Misrepresentation of Atheism at the American Academy of Religion

By Be Scofield
Originally posted 11/22/11 at Tikkun Daily

The American Academy of Religion held it’s annual conference in San Francisco this past weekend. A large gathering that attracts many of the big shots – both progressive and conservative – in religious studies, the AAR meeting provides a space for critical dialogue about religion and the world. Not surprisingly there was a lack of discussion about atheism. But I was pleased to find one panel discussion on Monday morning called, “Beyond Atheistic and Religious Fundamentalism: Imagining the Common Good in the Public Sphere.” However, my excitement quickly turned to disappointment when I realized they forgot to do one important thing: include an atheist.

 After the panel, I asked the organizer John Thatamanil of Union Seminary why there was no atheist included in a panel about atheism. He responded that in the quest for diversity he was bound to leave someone out. “Yes,” I said, “but this is a panel about atheism and you left out an atheist.” He responded that there was a Buddhist on the panel and they are atheists. However, it was a scholar of Buddhism on the panel and just because someone is a scholar of a particular religion it doesn’t mean they are practitioners. I have no idea what this persons beliefs are. But that is beside the point because the Buddhist scholar didn’t represent atheist positions, nor did he defend atheism from the attacks by the other panelists but rather commented on how he felt Buddhism and the Buddha would see this debate.

I then asked the panels presiding member Reza Aslan author of No god but God why there was no atheist included. To his credit he responded he had thought there would have been an atheist on the panel and was disappointed that there wasn’t. Fair enough. However, he didn’t seem concerned during the panel or discussion. One panelist spoke about Judaism, another Buddhism and the third about religion in a global context. Aslan then responded to their comments and added his own. By then he was well aware atheism wasn’t being represented. And the lack of an atheist voice didn’t give him any pause when critiquing atheism or the new atheists. Aslan could have expressed his concern in public saying that the discussion was limited by the lack of someone representing atheism. He also could have asked the organizer before hand who was scheduled to ensure an atheist was included.

I also challenged Aslan for easily dismissing the claim that atheists are persecuted in this country. I told him that atheists face discrimination on a daily basis. I shared the story about Damon Fowler, a graduating senior at a High School in Louisiana who protested that the school was officially sanctioning a Christian prayer during the commencement ceremony. As a result, Fowler was kicked out of his parents home, publicly demeaned by a high school teacher, physically threatened and ostracized by his community. Aslan responded that this was merely anecdotal and that fundamentalist Christians often say they are under attack by secularists. Yes, but I explained that America is both Christian and religiously hegemonic i.e. language, morals, customs, laws and beliefs are heavily shaped by these influences. Furthermore, this hegemony is often institutionalized. For example, you can’t become president of the U.S. without being Christian. School boards work to exclude the science and history in textbooks which threatens their conservative understanding of Christianity. And of course being religious is better than being atheist in the U.S., regardless of your tradition. Polls show that Americans would vote for a Muslim before they would an atheist.

Aslan wasn’t the only one skeptical of atheists claims of persecution. Julia Belser, visiting assistant Professor of Women’s studies and Jewish Ethics at Harvard responded to Aslan’s comment about atheists falsely being under attack by saying that it is hard to imagine a group that isn’t under siege today. Miroslav Volf, of Yale University went further suggesting that most people who think they are under siege actually aren’t. It’s just a “siege mentality,” he said. Would these panelists say the same about racism or sexism? Can we dismiss them because everyone experiences some form of attack or suffers from “siege mentality?” No, of course not. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that atheist discrimination is the same as racism or sexism. But it is real and institutions reproduce it. This just reveals that like most religious scholars, leaders or practitioners these panelists still have a huge amount to learn about Christian and religious hegemony and the lived experience of atheists in this country. If you still have doubts that atheists face discrimination just read this piece by author Greta Christina called the “10 Scariest States to Be An Atheist.” Here’s another.

I’m not writing this to castigate Aslan or the other panelists. Both Aslan and John Thatamanil were very friendly and open to my concerns. Nor am I saying this because I am an atheist or because I agree entirely with the new atheists. As I told Aslan, I’ve written extensive critiques of Christopher Hitchens, the new atheists and other atheist writers. I’m actually studying in a progressive Unitarian Universalist seminary which includes people of all different faiths as well as atheists and agnostics. But I do understand that atheists experience discrimination and have publicly defended them. As someone dedicated to countering oppression I believe that I have a responsibility to learn what it’s like for atheists to live in a culture of religious and Christian hegemony. Furthermore, it’s important to see how atheism is mitigated by racism, gender, class and geographical location. Despite me being in such a radically inclusive tradition I am still part of the dominant culture and thus, I believe, have a special obligation to challenge religious hegemony.

My hope is to inspire religious scholars, leaders and practitioners to listen to the every day concerns that atheists speak about. Unfortunately these experiences are largely lost in the high profile debates that focus mainly around God. And, honestly, I really don’t think most religiously affiliated people care about atheists. But that’s exactly why the panels like the one at the AAR should include positive voices for atheists. They can help shift the discourse from being so anti-atheist as there are still many stereotypes and prejudicial beliefs about atheists that dominate the day. Someone like Sikivu Hutchinson is an excellent example of who could be included. She is the author of Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics and the Values Wars. An academic, writer and public speaker her work is a reasoned approach to atheism and religion that avoids the extremes but which also includes issues of race, class and gender.

What’s it like to be you? This is a question that the religiously affiliated should be asking of atheists of all backgrounds who live in a culture that prioritizes Christian morals, language and customs. This, it would seem to me, is the best religious response to atheism that I can imagine.

Robert James Scofield, "Be," is a San Francisco based activist working to combine spirituality with anti-racism and social justice. Be is the founder of God Bless the Whole World, a free online resource with hundreds of videos of leading visionaries related to social justice and spirituality. He writes for Tikkun magazine and his work has appeared on, IntegralWorld and FactNet.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Neighbor

By Jeff Fulmer
Also Posted at Hometown Prophet and 

“For the entire law is summed up in one command: Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Galatians 5: 14)

That quote from Paul has an even higher degree of difficulty than when Jesus summed up the Law and the Prophets with, “…do to others what you would have them do to you…” (Matthew 7: 12). Because we’re all hard-wired to put ‘number one’ first, those passages have confounded Christians for two thousand years and counting.

Back in Sunday school, I learned that “my neighbor” actually meant everyone we share this planet with, including the starving child or the refugee from a third world county. While I don’t come anywhere close to loving them as much as I do myself, on a good day, I can muster a respectable amount of empathy toward these struggling strangers half-way around the world. Truth be told, it is my actual “neighbors” that I have a problem with.

I live in one of the most conservative counties in a blood red state, so I am surrounded by raw-meat Republicans. They make up most of my Bible Study class, some are my clients, and they are my literal neighbors, including the guy down the street who flew his flag upside down the day after Barrack Obama was elected President. (Apparently an upside down flag is a distress signal). They argue and shout; they are often wrong, but never in doubt.

So, how can I be expected to love someone I disagree with so strongly? Love your neighbor as yourself looks good on paper, but doesn’t work in real life. And yet, as the arguments get louder and dissension grows wider, the greatest commandment seems more important than ever. In fact, our society is experiencing the very next verse in Galatians (15), “If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.” 

The protests over public employees’ right to organize and the debate over the debt limit are just two recent examples of the division taking place on a state and national level. The fault line that is splitting our country is deep and runs underneath the church, too. Granted, there are two very different theologies on either side of the political divide. Never-the-less, we are all supposed to share the same Savior who commanded us to love our neighbors and do unto others…

From my perspective, I feel like I am obeying those commands by supporting legislation that benefits the majority of society, without forgetting about the “the least of these.” While government can be intrusive and wasteful, it is also capable of doing so much more than all the well-intentioned individuals and churches could ever hope to do. Despite my desire to promote altruistic policies, I also know I can’t be effective if I am not honoring the greatest commandment.

So how can I learn to love my neighbor? The following are a few suggestions and guidelines I try to keep in mind:

1. Accept that I do not love my neighbors the way I should, especially the ones that I disagree with politically. I also need to recognize the need to change my attitude toward others, including that guy down the street who still has the “McCain/Palin” sign in his yard.

2. Stop worrying about winning an argument, or for the candidates I support to win an election, at any cost. This can only lead to me saying things I wish I could take back and bad decisions that come back to haunt me. If I can take my own agenda out of the equation, it’s easier to trust God with the outcome.

3. There are certain radio and TV shows that fill me with a righteous indignation that is neither holy nor productive. While these ‘air attacks’ usually come from the opposing camp, they can also be ‘friendly fire’ that is designed to whip me up and vilify the opponents. When in doubt, tune it out.

4. Accept that God loves every one of us, Republicans, Democrats, Tea-Partiers and Socialists. Only God knows the series of events that led (or misled) a person to come to certain conclusions. Their beliefs don’t necessarily make them a bad person. Sometimes, however, you do encounter such hostility and malevolence, the best response is to simply turn away and not engage.

5. Pray for divine help because, ultimately, that’s the only way I can learn to fully love my neighbors. Jesus tells us to “…love your enemies, and pray for those that persecute you.” (Matthew 5: 44) As well as releasing supernatural aid, the exercise of praying can also release anger that wells up when we’re threatened or offended.

*(This list is obviously not a complete set of answers, and I would welcome and benefit from your comments below).

Disagreements among Christians are as old as the church itself. In Galatians 2: 11, Paul tells us “When Peter came to Antioch I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong.” Not only is it okay to disagree, we are called to correct without condemning and admonish without judging. This means getting the log out of our own eyes first. It also means being willing to call out those in our party or church who cross the line.

Christians have the opportunity to break the vicious cycle of hate that is so pervasive in our society. Based on God’s greatest commandment, we are actually obligated to bring the debate down to a more caring conversation. As always, Christ himself provides the ultimate example by boldly standing up to the Pharisees and to the Roman ruler, forgiving them even as they crucify him. If He can do that, I can be a little kinder to my political opponents, even that guy down the street.

Jeff Fulmer is the author of the book "Hometown Prophet."

Friday, November 18, 2011

An Open Letter from Buddhist and Yoga Teachers and Leaders in Support of the Occupy Movement

By Michael Stone 
Originally posted 11/6/11 at 

As teachers and leaders of communities that promote the development of compassion and mindfulness, we are writing to express our solidarity with the Occupy movement now active in over 1,900 cities worldwide.

We are particularly inspired by the nonviolent tactics of this movement, its methods of self-governance, and its emergent communities founded in open communication (general assemblies, the human microphone, the inclusion of diverse voices, etc). These encampments are fertile ground for seeing our inherent wisdom and our capacity for awakening. We encourage all teachers, leaders, sanghas and communities that pursue awakening to join with these inspiring activists, if they have not already done so, in working to end the extreme inequalities of wealth and power that cause so much suffering and devastation for human society and for the ecosystems of Earth.

This movement has given voice to a near-universal frustration with the economic and political disenfranchisement of so many. It offers a needed counterbalance to a system that saps the life energy of the overwhelming majority –– the so-called 99% –– generating vast profits for a tiny handful, without maximizing the true potential for widespread wealth creation in our society. While our practice challenges us to cultivate compassion for 100% of human beings without villifying an “enemy,” our practice also calls on us to confront a system that causes such clear harm and imbalance.

We share in the thoughtful calls to address massive unemployment, climate change, the erosion of social safety nets, decaying infrastructures, social and education programs, and workers’ wages, rights, and benefits.

Moreover, the current legal structure of large corporations compels individuals to act with shortsighted greed, acts for which they are not held personally accountable. If we aren’t encouraged to act with awareness of our connection to the seven billion humans who share our global community, the social fabric of our society is torn apart by legalized acts of selfishness and fear. These acts are performed in human society, by nonhuman entities, oddly granted the legal and political status of people, which have no ability to adequately perceive or react to the negative repercussions of their choices. The whole planet pays the price.

Most importantly, we believe that individual awakening and collective transformation are inseparable. For members of spiritual communities, mindfulness of the situation before us demands that we engage fully in the culture and society we inhabit. We do not view our own path as merely an individualistic pursuit of sanity and health, and we believe it would be irresponsible of us to teach students of mind/body disciplines that they can develop their practice in isolation from the society in which they live. We are inspired by the creative and intellectual work of the Occupy movement as an essential voice in facilitating a more compassionate and ecologically grounded basis for practice.

The Occupy movement has re-ignited our belief that it’s truly possible to build a culture of non-harm, honesty and respect for all creatures. We recognize our human failings and know that we’ll fail ten thousand times in our efforts to awaken. We now vow to bring our practices and methods of teaching more into alignment with our deepest values.

The structural greed, anger and delusion that characterize our current system are incompatible with our obligations to future generations and our most cherished values of interdependence, creativity, and compassion. We call on teachers and practitioners from all traditions of mind/body awakening to join in actively transforming these structures.

Ethan Nichtern, Shastri, New York
Shôken Michael Stone, Toronto


Supporters: By signing this
letter we believe we can unite in our commitment to align our practice
and values and work together to help our society.

Sharon Salzberg
Stephen Batchelor
Adam Lobel, Acharya
Anne Cushman
Ari Pliskin
Cyndi Lee
David Nichtern
Dr. Gaylon Ferguson, Acharya
Dr. Judith Simmer-Brown, Acharya
Dr. Robert Thurman
Eihei Peter Levitt
Koshin Paley Ellison
Maia Duerr
Rev. angel Kyodo williams
Robert Chodo Campbell
Roshi Joan Halifax
Roshi Pat Enkyo O’hara
Sarah Powers
Sarah Weintraub
Sean Corne
Susan Piver
Tara Brach
Ted Grand
Testu’un David Loy
Trudy Goodman
Ty Powers
Zoketsu Norman Fischer

Michael Stone is a Buddhist teacher, Yoga teacher, author, and psychotherapist. He is the Founder of Centre of Gravity, a community in downtown Toronto integrating Buddhist practice, Yoga and social action. He is a voice for a new generation of young people integrating spiritual practice with environmental and social issues. His most recent book is “Awake in the World: Teachings from Yoga & Buddhism for Living an Engaged Life.”

An Open Letter to the Christian Church

By Darren Cardinal (a.k.a. Cadillac Louis)

The following is an open letter I have been working on since my wife and I departed from our previous church. It was an easy decision for me after some very hurtful conversations with fellow members. It hasn't been an easy transition for my wife, but (I think) it's getting easier for her. We currently claim no home church, other then our actual home - church is where you make it. I hope you'll read on and please take in every aspect of this letter.

To whomever this message shall reach,

My name is Caddie and I'm writing this letter in response to an ideology I feel has been plaguing the church for far too long. I guess I should give you some background on myself before going any further. I've been a devoted Christian for something close to four years now, and most of that time was spent as a youth leader for my former church. I'm writing this because I feel the message that set me free from that life has been obscured, and that message is simply this, "God is love." I've been to several churches in my life and at every one I attended, I've noticed some key problems.

One of the biggest problems I've noticed is the idea of being "inclusive, but only so long as another group is in-line with our beliefs." In other words, if a person or group views God differently than us, "well, then clearly they're not of God." I'm sorry, but from my readings and study of the Bible, this is in direct contradiction with the teachings and life of Jesus Christ (you know that long haired dude we claim as "ours"). Not only did Jesus teach tolerance, but he embraced it. So your (and I mean this in a general sense) convert-over-accept idea is wrong!

I've noticed a lot of Christian mainstream churches who are willing to "borrow" from other religious traditions, but who won't invite those other believers into the "sacred" four walls of their church. My other problem with the exclusion I see being taught in our churches is how our brothers and sisters in the LGBTQ community are treated. Now I know the argument that could be raised by this statement, but I'm here to tell you that anti-LGBTQ talking points are inherently flawed. For starters the word "homosexual" didn't even appear in the bible until around the 1940's (you know, when it was a law in the United States to "not be gay" and African-Americans had to drink from different water fountains). Another point: let's say you are right and "it's not okay to be gay" according to the Bible. Well, then we better start following all those laws (again, you know, those things Jesus set us free from), and I better never see the pastor wearing a cotton-polyester blend suit or eating shellfish. If I do, we better stone him.

My second problem is this gospel of prosperity. Sorry, but I don't think it had anything to do with Jesus wanting you to live in a quarter of a million dollar home, driving a sixty thousand dollar SUV while drinking a ten dollar cup of coffee. Yet when the homeless man on the corner asked for change you tell him "Get a job, you bum!" Seems a little bit different then what Jesus taught us, doesn't it? True if you are faithful to the lord He will bless you, but shouldn't we also be giving it all back to those less fortunate? I'm not telling you to live the life of a begger, but I am asking you to reassess what is truly the gospel of prosperity.

Lastly, I want it to be noted that I do not hate you for this hurt you have caused. In fact I still find myself madly in love with you. For every single person who has told me I have fallen from the heart of God. For every friendship lost because I wouldn't break my belief in a better way then condemning or converting. For every person who has been turned away because they were "ungodly." I still love you because my faith in Jesus and in following him has taught me to continue to love you. This doesn't mean I have to forget what you have done and continue to do, but I still continue to love.

I hope someday to see a church united and finally able to accept everyone, but until then I will hold on to hope.

Cadillac Louis

Darren Cardinal (a.k.a. Cadillac Louis) was born and raised in The Motor City. He self describes himself as "your average working class lefty chasing after the heart of his faith." Unashamed of his social and political activism Darren is a powerful straight ally for the LGBTQ community. When his not out fighting for the underdog, or being devoted to his beautiful wife and father to their new born daughter, he is in the midst of starting a progressive church, "Progress to the Cross".

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Hate Speech on Helium: Victoria Jackson's Anti-Gay, Anti-Muslim Web Show

By Garrett FitzGerald
November 17, 2011

Saturday Night Liver alumna turned Tea Party darling Victoria Jackson has been no stranger to controversy over the last couple of years, repeatedly making headlines by stoking concerns over President Obama's citizenship and resemblance to the anti-Christ, and by loudly (like, really loudly) criticizing Fox's "Glee" for turning teens to a life of homosexuality

Well, Jackson is now upping the ante on her particular brand of intolerant wackadoodlery by launching a new web-based weekly talk show called "Politichicks." The show, which resembles nothing so much as an ultra-conservative spoof of "The View," premiered this week, and ever true to form Jackson spent most of the first episode trotting out tired conservative talking points about Islam and homosexuality with her new friends, Ann-Marie Murrell and Jennie Jones of the conservative rag The Patriot Update, and anti-reproductive rights activist Jannique Stewart.

Here's the full episode, if you're up for it:

The show is, admittedly, almost too uncomfortable to watch at times. And it's not entirely because of the perpetuation of bigoted stereotypes, gross over-generalizations, and bizarre conservative conspiracy theories, although we'll get to those in a minute (Muslims in the meat-packing industry? What?). These elements make the show deeply problematic, but what makes it truly painful to watch is the visible discomfort the other women feel toward Jackson and the completely forced repartee they attempt whenever Jackson allows them others to get a word in edgewise. 

The opening segment is given over to a discussion underscoring the conservative fascination with the non-issue of the purported Islamicization of America. In general, the panelists' claims about Islam are based on the tactic of depicting Islam as if it were one monolithic entity rather than a global constellation of highly contextualized articulations of religious tradition and meaning, and then reducing this monolithic depiction to the worst excesses, real or imagined, they can call to mind. Highlights include Jackson's recurring claim that "Muslims kill gays," the resuscitation of arguments over the non-Ground Zero non-mosque being a symbol of Muslim conquest, a bizarre mini-tirade by Jackson that involves George Soros and Muslims in the meat industry, and a discussion of the "creeping threat" of Shariah law in the United States.

For the most part, the claims being made by the four panelists are wholly unsupported by corroborating evidence or, you know, reality. Jackson tries to back up her non sequitur about Muslims in the meat industry with some anecdotal evidence from a friend of a friend who works in a meat factory, which already qualifies as Grade A hearsay before Jackson admits that one of those friends is leading evangelical climate change denier Cal Beisner, whose advice should probably be taken with a grain of salt. If you're having trouble finding a grain of salt with which to take Jackson's anecdotal evidence of Muslim infiltration of the meat processing industry, stick with Cal Beisner and you can pick one out of the ocean once water levels have risen to your doorstep.

The basis for the panelists' shared concern over the creeping threat of Shariah - and seriously, I have yet to receive an explanation as to why Shariah is always creeping - boils down to the say-so of anti-Shariah advocate Frank Gaffney, who Ann-Marie Murrell describes as "one of the experts on Islamization in America." This is the same Frank Gaffney, mind you, who is on record claiming that the Obama administration, the Center for American Progress, and even this year's Conservative Political Action Conference have all been infiltrated by the Muslim Brotherhood. 

Frank Gaffney is not an expert on Shariah, end of story. If you don't believe me, consider his sworn testimony during a hearing to prevent the construction of a mosque complex in Murfreesboro, TN. Despite the fact that the attorneys seeking an injunction against the mosque's construction asked the court to enter Gaffney as an expert witness, while on the stand, under oath, Gaffney made the claim, “I don’t hold myself out as an expert on Sharia Law. But I have talked a lot about that as a threat.” Either he truly is no expert on Shariah (likely) or he is a liar (not off the table).
The segment on Islam is rounded out by some wholly reprehensible, hyperbolic claims about how put-upon conservative Christians are because, according to Jackson:
"We're not aloud to say 'In Jesus' name, amen' because of separation of church and state, but their religion, they're allowed to beat up and behead their wife legally in America because we're open to all religions."
And one final gem from Murrell: 
"All Muslims aren't terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims. That's just a fact." 
Wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Factually wrong. Morally wrong. Wrong.  That is not a fact. That is, in fact, the opposite of a fact.
I've heard this claim from conservatives too many times before, and it is time we laid it to rest.

Not all terrorists are Muslims. In fact, not even most terrorists are Muslims. The FBI has a chronological list of all terror attacks on US soil from 1980 to 2005, and - this is the important bit - only 6% of the attacks involved Islamist extremism. That means that here in the United States, a whopping 94% of known terrorists are not Muslim. Europol, the European Union's criminal intelligence agency, posts a similar list each year entitled the "EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report." The numbers in Europe are there are even more stark, with terror attacks perpetrated by Muslims accounting for only 0.4% of terror plots in the EU from 2006-2008. The most recent report, when issued early next year, will include the details from this summer's horrific attack in Norway, carried out by a man "calling for a Christian war to defend Europe against the threat of Muslim domination."

Those are facts.

But the Politichicks don't limit themselves to perpetuating falsities about Islam. After a brief interlude in which Jackson denounces Eric Holder and Janet Napolitano for having "dead eyes" (your guess is as good as mine), the discussion moves to the topic of same-sex marriage. 

At this point, in one of the most flawless feats of mental gymnastics I've ever witnessed, Ann-Marie Murrell manages to label New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's  call to repeal DOMA as a "government intrusion issue" because the repeal of DOMA would somehow force churches to perform marriages between same-sex couples. So, the repeal of discriminatory federal regulation is a government intrusion issue because Ann-Marie Murrell is worried it might impose on her religious freedoms in a way presumably wholly distinct from the way it currently imposes on the social security benefits, tax benefits, veteran and military benefits, federal employment benefits, immigration benefits of same-sex couples, and basic rights and dignity of same-sex couples. Right. I mean, that's just a fact. 

A unifying current runs beneath the surface of "Politichicks," fed be the crocodile tears shed in a non-stop conservative pity party predicated upon the idea conservatives are unfairly labeled as intolerant, racist, and prejudiced when they air their intolerant, racist, prejudiced views. Murrell ends the show with a plea to liberals to respect the rights of conservatives to express themselves. As if there is some sort of equivalency, some ridiculous false relatvism between the the hateful rhetoric pervading every minute of this program and the beliefs of those who would denounce intolerance when they hear it.

The left's sometimes pathological fear of even the specter of intolerance has, at times, absolutely prevented the condemnation of intolerance where such condemnation was required. Our fetishization of relativism is absolutely known to the right, and it is precisely this tendency among liberals that Murrell is attempting to exploit in the closing moments of "Politichicks." But know this: tolerating intolerance does not make you more tolerant, it just makes you complicit in the furtherance of intolerance. And I, for one, am committed to naming and confronting the gross intolerance on display in "Politichicks" for as long as I can tolerate watching it. 

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Church or State? Where’s Your Faith?

By Jack Davidson

Where do we put more faith: our government or our religious tradition?

We are on the brink of a radical revolution. We are at the defining moment of a generation. We are poised for monumental social transformation. So which institution do we believe is more capable of effectively enacting that progressive social reform, our government or our religious traditions?

Whatever your personal answer, our societal answer is clearly given in the type of questions we keep asking about the Occupy movement: What is their political platform? What policy are they proposing? What good are these liberal deadbeats doing? Are they even organized?

We’ve heard these questions over-and-over again throughout the past few months, as people watch the Occupy protests from afar. We may have even asked these questions ourselves. Clearly, the general sentiment assumes that any protest/revolution/reform worth our time and effort is a political protest/revolution/reform.

I look back two thousand years, and I bet people back then were asking the same kind of questions of the Jesus movement. I think people watched Palm Sunday happen from a safe distance. I think people looked down on this chaotic crowd occupying the streets of Jerusalem.

And I think they asked the same questions:

What do they hope to achieve with these hippy drum circles? What good is a palm branch to the poor? When are they going to stop all of this chanting and get a real job? What is their political agenda anyway?

Here’s what’s happening.

People are looking at the Occupy movement, and they expect political action, just as two thousands years ago people looked towards Jesus hoping for political action. Just as the crowds were two thousand years ago, people today will be sorely disappointed when they realize that this movement is not meant to be just a political movement, but so much more.

And so it was, just a few days after greeting him as a peasant king – when given the choice between Jesus of Nazareth, a religious prophet, or Jesus Barabbas, a violent political rebel – the people chose the political rebel. The people chose to let Jesus of Nazareth die and set Jesus Barabbas free. The people chose to let their faith die and their politics be their savior.

And so here we are now, watching the Occupy movement unfold on YouTube or CNN. And we ask: what is their political agenda?

For some reason, we believe that any protest must be political in nature. For some reason, we believe that the most effective revolutions are political revolutions. For some reason, we’re still choosing Jesus Barabbas over Jesus of Nazareth. For some reason we are putting more faith in our politics than we put into our religious traditions.

Look at our liberal churches. When we try to organize around social justice issues, so often we organize to lobby congress, protest congress, send petitions to congress. Now I think churches organizing to lobby and/or petition congress is a quintessential element of our faith. In fact, many churches need to do more of this type of work. But I also think that many of our more liberally active churches are selling ourselves short. We are organizing to petition an outside group to do the work that we should be and can be doing ourselves as the Church.

I have been psyched over the past few months to discover more and more liberal Christian websites. Simultaneously, I have been more and more dismayed to find that 90% of the posts on these sites can be boiled down to “Fuck the GOP” (this claim is not meant to be a factual statement).

When did we become the official religion of the Democratic Party? Important as it is to act as a safeguard against homophobic, sexist, racist, and economically unjust political maneuvers, we should be spending an even greater amount of time self-reflecting and acting as the safeguard against the homophobic, sexist, racist, and economically unjust tendencies of our own religious traditions. Important as it is to push significant progressive political reform, we should be spending just as much or even more effort cultivating communities that live out those progressive ideals in the everyday.

It’s as if we don’t have any faith in our own institutions to be agents of change. It’s as if we believe that the very churches we attend are powerless beyond the walls of our sanctuary. It’s as if our churches are choosing Jesus Barabbas over Jesus of Nazareth.

And after two thousand years, what affect has Jesus Barabbas made? Where are Barabbas’ followers? What good are they doing in this world today?

And yet here we are, the followers of Jesus of Nazareth. We may not always do right by his name, but often when we stray, it is because someone is trying to use the Church for political gain. We may not always do right by his name, but unlike Barabbas’ followers, we are still here. We are still striving to be the good news in this world. We are still trying to heal the broken-heartedness of creation.

What good is a marriage equality bill if our churches are still turning away GLBTQ couples? What good is an economic justice bill if the CEO in our pew is still making exponentially more than his or her lowest-paid employee? What good are government social services if our churches aren’t also coming up with creative solutions to the eternal need to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and shelter the homeless?

We shouldn’t have to wait, and protest, and wait, and wait some more for the government to change the world. We, the Church, should be working to change the world now. Progressive reform doesn’t have to be all political; progressive reform can be social, economic, religious, racial, sexual, cultural, musical, etc. Or, in other words, Church.

So here we are. Occupy protestors have a significant opportunity here. All of the news organizations are waiting to see what will happen. The nation is waiting to see how the Occupy movement will define itself. Will it be the liberal counterpart to the Tea Party? Will it propose specific legislation? Will it be a significant political force?

I hope not. I hope the Occupy movement will be so much more than a political revolution. I hope it will be a full-scale cultural revolution. I think it already is that cultural revolution. But for some reason we want to dumb it down to the narrow scope of contemporary American politics. For some reason we can’t see that a cultural revolution can be so much more than a political revolution, just like Jesus’ own disciples had trouble understanding that his message went so far beyond the political realm.

You can legislate all you want, and the 1% will still find the loopholes to stay in the 1%. But if you change the culture, if you change the conversation, if you change the hearts of the people in the 1%, if you reform the values system along with the legal system, well then you are doing the holiest work of all. Then you are doing the work God meant for the Church to be doing. Then you are creating the kind of change that will echo throughout the next two thousand years.

If we learned anything from the story of Jesus of Nazareth, it’s this: don’t make the same mistake the crowds made two thousand years ago. Don’t choose Jesus Barabbas. Don’t water down this palpable, necessary, holy message of mercy and justice by limiting it to a mere political force.

Be the crowd that chooses Jesus of Nazareth. Be the full-scale cultural evolution, not a fleeting trend. Be a movement, not a petition. Be the water-into-wine party, not a political party. Be the Progressive Church as God meant it to be.

Jack Davidson is Associate Minister at the First Church of Christ, Congregational UCC in Redding, CT. He recently completed a MDiv from Harvard Divinity School, and also earned a teaching license through Harvard's Program in Religious Studies and Education. You can often catch him in a canoe, barefoot and bearded with a musical instrument in hand. Yep, he's totally that guy.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Cain Falls Off the Tolerance Wagon

Given the lightning-quick attention span of the 24-hour news media, a few months of electioneering can seem to span eternities. But think back with us now to the heady days of July, when little-known GOP presidential hopeful Herman Cain had a sudden change of heart regarding the dangers of Islam after a transformative visit to the ADAMS Center mosque in Northern Virginia.

Before his visit to the ADAMS Center, it is possible that Cain had just never met a Muslim (unlikely) or spent time familiarizing himself with the particulars of the second-largest religion on the planet (substantially more likely). But neither of these possibilities prevented Cain from going on record prior to his July encounter with claims that Islam should not enjoy the same basic Constitutional protections as other faiths in the United States, that "based upon the little knowledge [he has] of the Muslim religion...they have an objective to convert all infidels or kill them,” or that he would never to appoint a Muslim to his cabinet or the federal judiciary.

But all that changed on that day in July, after Cain's visit to the mosque in NoVa. After the visit, Cain's apparent contrition for his earlier comments was deemed genuine by Robert Marro, a trustee at the ADAMS Center, who participated in Cain's tour. Marro claimed Cain's previous anti-Muslim views were based simply on "misinformation," and described a recalcitrant Cain reflecting on his commonalities with the worshipers at the ADAMS Center: “One of the things that he said a number of times: there’s a great deal of common ground between us.”

Cain's campaign also seemed to suggest that the visit had made quite an impression, and Cain subsequently issued a statement describing the congregation at the ADAMS Centers as follows:  
Those in attendance, like most Muslim Americans, are peaceful Muslims and patriotic Americans whose good will is often drowned out by the reprehensible actions of jihadists.
Well, Herman Cain's new-found respect for his Muslim fellow Americans turned out to be short-lived, as the increasingly scandal-plagued former GOP front runner resorted back to a few of his old fear-mongering tricks in a recent interview with GQ:
Devin Gordon: What did you think about the fuss around your comments about Muslims. [Cain said in March that, if elected, he wouldn’t feel “comfortable” appointing a Muslim to his cabinet] Did you think that you were treated fairly in that conversation?

Herman Cain: No, because a lot of people misrepresented what I said. I know that there are peaceful Muslims, and there are extremists. I have nothing against peaceful Muslims. Nothing whatsoever. But I also know that we must be careful of extremists and we must be careful of the tendency by some groups in this country to infuse their beliefs into our laws and our culture.

Devin Gordon: Do you think that there is a greater tendency among the Muslim faith for that kind of extremism?

Herman Cain: That would be a judgment call that I’m probably not qualified to make, because I can’t speak on behalf of the entire Muslim community. I have talked with Muslims that are peaceful Muslims. And I have had one very well known Muslim voice say to me directly that a majority of Muslims share the extremist views.
Chris Heath: A majority?

Herman Cain: Yes, a majority.

Devin Gordon: Do you think he’s right?

Herman Cain: Yes, because that’s his community. That’s his community. I can’t tell you his name, but he is a very prominent voice in the Muslim community, and he said that.

Chris Heath: I just find that hard to believe.

Herman Cain: I find it hard to believe.

Chris Heath: But you’re believing it?

Herman Cain: Yes, because of the respect that I have for this individual. Because when he told me this, he said he wouldn’t want to be quoted or identified as having said that.
Alan Richman: Are you talking about the Muslim community in America? Or the world?

Herman Cain: America. America. 
Color me cynical, but I find it hard to believe as well. 

Are we really to believe that after Herman Cain recognized the error of his ways in uniformly condemning all American Muslims as extremists, a prominent Muslim figure secretly confided in Cain that only most of American Muslims hold extremist views? It seems much more likely that faced with his plummeting poll numbers, mounting sexual harassment allegations, and outrageous foreign policy gaffes, Cain has turned his back on our nation's approximately 2.6 million Muslims Americans with whom he formerly claimed to identify, and has reverted back to his old habits of trying to rally the Republican base with Islamophobic fear-mongering.

It is some small relief that Mr. Cain's time occupying center stage in the comedy of errors that is the 2012 GOP presidential primaries seems to be drawing to a close. And, given his demonstrated willingness to time and again resort to scare tactics that unfairly target the religious traditions of our fellow citizens for cheap political gain, I for one am glad that GOP voters are finally losing their taste for 'Black Walnut.' The scary question is, which GOP presidential hopeful will be the next nutty flavor of the month?  

(big old h/t to TPM on this one)

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Where Are The Progressive Prophets?

By Becky Garrison

Back in October when Jim Wallis, CEO of the evangelical social justice organization Sojourners, accused unnamed liberal journalists of distorting evangelicalism, he cited how they depicted evangelicals as engaged in a dark conspiracy to take over the world. In response, fourteen religion journalists countered this argument in an open letter to Wallis whereby they asserted that they have not thought or written such sweeping generalizations about evangelicals. Nevertheless, this group affirms that exclusionary Christian movements such as Christian Dominionism are “real, overlapping, and significant in evangelicalism and in our political and electoral culture at large.” In a similar vein, the Southern Poverty Law Center urged voters to boycott the 2011 Value Voters Summit held the first weekend in October in light of two of its sponsors' efforts to demonize LGBT people with false propaganda.

Wallis bolstered his claim that Sojourners speaks for a wide swatch of evangelical Christians by engaging in dialogues with Richard Land at events like the National Press Club and Union Theological Seminary. While I did not attend the NPC shindig, I was present for their conversation at Union which was held in conjunction to the book launch for  Left, Right and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics. According to Wallis, this book co-authored by Lisa Sharon Harper, Director of Mobilizing for Sojourners, and The King's College professor and Tea Party supporter D. C. Innes, demonstrates that two authentically evangelical voices can hold very different views across a wide range of political, economic, and social issues.

During this book launch, these authors, along with Wallis and Richard Land, President of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, debated varying biblical interpretations regarding the role of God in government and race relations before a somewhat responsive audience of about 250 people. In this collective discussion, they seemed to be more concerned with finding “common ground” in Christ than debating controversial and polarizing issues such as same sex marriage, abortion rights, and gender non-discrimination legislation that will grant basic human rights to trans individuals. Then again, when Sojourners rejected an LGBT welcome ad sponsored by the Believe Out Loud campaign, Wallis justified this decision on the grounds that “LGBT issues may not be our primary calling as our work against poverty and hunger, and for peace.”

The subsequent outcry over this decision raised the question of whether one can claim to be a progressive Christian leader if they do not stand solidarity with their LGBT brothers and sisters. For an increasing number of liberal Christians, the answer is a resounding “no.”

When Dan Savage, sex columnist and founder of the “It Gets Better” project, spoke at Union Theological Seminary in New York City in early October as part of a conference titled “Pro-Queer Life: Youth Suicide Crisis, Catholic Education, and the Souls of LGBTQ People,” he attracted about double the number of attendees who gathered to hear Wallis. This somewhat younger crowd of mostly mainline Protestant and social justice Catholics engaged in lively conversation about how the Catholic church as the largest provider of private school education in the United States can take responsibility for protecting against the culture and attitudes that contribute to LGBTQ suicide.

At a press conference prior to his talk, Savage described evangelicals like Wallis who might affirm LGBT people but refuse to grant them the same civil rights and liturgical rites as everyone else as “the same old hate in a brand new bag. It's God Hates Fags with a big smile.” Savage also predicts the demise of this outdated mode of thinking:

You look at polls of younger evangelicals and they're over it already by wide margins. Increasingly, when people are forced to choose between their gay and lesbian friends, relatives and co-workers and their church and their faith, they're going to choose their gay and lesbian friends, as well they should. So as [Christian leaders] puts their chips down on taking us back to the 1940s and 50s—they are such great decades—they’re going to lose the battle.

Also in mid-October, Union Theological Seminary moved this conversation forward by hosting the “Compass to Compassion” consultation. This event represented a small step towards confronting the intersection of compassion with oppression, particularly when the ongoing oppression is influenced and funded by groups of Americans who call themselves Christians even though they target LGBT people globally. This conference shed light on the effects of fundamentalist ideology known as “dominionism” on the further criminalization of homosexuality in 76 countries in particular where consensual same-sex relationships are illegal. 

For religion journalists, clergy and leaders of faith-based organizations to remain silent in light of this epidemic against LGBT people is not only irresponsible, it's deadly.

Becky Garrison is a panelist for The Washington Post's On Faith column and contributes to a range of outlets including The Guardian, The Revealer, American Atheist magazine and Religion Dispatches.. Her books include Jesus Died for This?: A Satirist's Search for the Risen Christ, Red and Blue God, Black and Blue Church, and Ancient Future Disciples: Meeting Jesus in Mission-Shaped Ministries.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Social Gospel Saved My Soul

By Katelin Hansen
Originally posted 8/22/11 at By Their Strange Fruit

There seems to be a belief in the Evangelic church that social justice is secondary to an individual's relationship with God. As if 'loving thy neighbor' is something to do in the Church's spare time, after it has addressed the state of a person's soul in the afterlife.

Of course, personal salvation is extremely important, but it needs to go hand-in-hand with addressing the brokenness of the world we live in. The fact that the Church often sidelines issues of justice is at the root of much of the public distrust of Christianity. It is what brands us as 'hypocrites.' We say to the world "who cares what the rest of your life is like, just say you'll join our club!"

People end up thinking they have to have their act together before they even step through our church doors, and it becomes are barrier to forming the relationships that facilitate forming a personal relationship with Jesus. We should instead be sending a different message: "God loves you just the way you are, and He's not finished with you yet." This is the Good News of salvation. Is it not true for all of us?

Perhaps if we took more of a stand for social justice, folks would understand that God really does care about His creation and His Kingdom, and therefore is invested in the individual, not just an institution.

In scripture, we constantly see Jesus forming much of his ministry around the paring of service and salvation. When addressing the earthly needs of those around us, we demonstrate God's grace in a tangible way (Servant evangelism is largely based on this philosophy).

These concepts have been eloquently fleshed out in Allen Mitsuo Wakabayashi's book, 'Kingdom Come.' Wakabayashi describes God's heart for the Kingdom, and the deep need for redemption that includes both personal salvation AND a transformed world.

Wakabayashi declares that Evangelism/personal salvation is not at odds with social justice. They go hand in hand! He asks, "how much more effective would our evangelism be if all Christians and churches were characterized by a commitment to dealing with social issues that trouble out world?"

He notes that we are constantly battling against a stereotype that Christians are uncaring and uninvolved, but that "the world needs to see that our faith really does make a difference for life, especially as we deal with some of the most vexing social struggles, like race, gender, and class suppression." Wakabayashi quotes several important questions: "If your church were to leave the community you're in, what impact would that have? Would they miss you? Would they weep?"

Specifically about racial justice, Wakabayashi  observes "when it comes to the racial problems in out nation, white evangelicals have tended to deal with the problems by encouraging each other to make friendships across the racial barrier and to treat people kindly. While this is commendable, the same people do little to change the laws and policies that perpetuate so many of the racial problems." Amen!

Recently, Christians have indeed become more prominent in the political world, but I am frustrated to observe that it is almost always in a narrowly defined role, discussing only one or two high-profile and divisive issues. We still are largely silent when it comes to "advocat[ing] peace, justice, and compassion." How can this be?? Weep, Church, for we have forgotten our call.  

All this to say, go check out Kingdom Come! 'Part 1' starts a bit slow, but it’s laying the foundation for the rest of the book. There is also one specific page in which I wish he had chosen a different illustration of his point. You'll know it when you come to it. 

Perhaps, if we were better at loving our neighbor, fully invested in our neighborhood, people would better understand us as agents of God's Good News. True, we are "not of the world," but God gives us a lot of time here before calling us Home. Surely He intends for us to invest in that time and in the world that is around us.

There are some church that feel that involving themselves in issue of justice will distract from their 'true mission,' when really there is only one mission: bring glory to God. And justice is very much a part of that.

Consider and comment: "When was the last time you heard your pastor encourage you to get involved in the policies of the city in order to effect kingdom change for the poor?" How do personal salvation and social justice intersect/interact in your life? How can we better integrate them going forward? 

Katelin Hansen (@strngefruit) is the editor of By Their Strange Fruit (BTSF), an online forum to facilitate justice and understanding across racial divides. BTSF explores how Christianity's often-bungled relationship with race and racism affects modern ministry and justice. Recognizing that racial brokenness hinders our witness to the world, BTSF strives to increase the visibly of healthy and holy racial discussion by approaching justice and reconciliation from a Christ-minded perspective.