Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Why is the Church MIA?

Last week I asked where the moderates had all gone, but following my blog post I had a wonderful conversation with a few friends on Facebook that brought the question into sharper focus. In my blog, I called the people who hold the middle ground “moderates” but I suppose that isn't quite right. My friend Elva asked me what exactly I meant by “moderate” and “middle ground” and to my mind, I was thinking that the people in the middle are the ones who listen and discern what is important on both sides of the issue. Lately, at least in the political arena, there doesn’t seem to be much of that. Instead, we have a host of pompous windbags pointing fingers at one another.

In her gentle wisdom, Elva asked me if I thought that Jesus ever took the middle ground, and this helped me to focus my discontent on our current political situation. Jesus never took "sides," Jesus stood for what was right regardless of which "side" was offended. Jesus told the zealots to forgive and condemned the Pharisees to be more compassionate. It isn't about "sides" it’s about doing what's right. My friend Robert chimed in noting that after the passing of famed basketball coach John Wooden, one of his players remarked, “With coach Wooden, it wasn't who was right, it was what was right." As I thought about doing what was right, I wondered, “Where are the people today who can see what is right on both "sides" and help us to find our way to what's right disregarding partisanship?” As Elva pointed out, “Jesus would not have taken sides, he would point out to do what is right."

And this returns me to one source of my discontent. If we can agree that Jesus would be beyond taking sides and instead point those arguing toward what is genuinely right, then shouldn’t that be what we are doing? If we, the followers of Jesus, who are called, collectively, the Body of Christ, have been called to do the work of Jesus until his return, then something is seriously wrong. As I look at several of the recent political hot-button issues such as immigration and the proposed mosque in New York City, it seems as if believers tend to be just as good at taking sides as everyone else.

In our denomination, United Methodist, we have a tradition dating back more than two hundred years (since 1744), of meeting together at least annually to worship, pray, discuss where we are and to plan for the future. This tradition has become known as “holy conferencing” and, while in seminary, “The Conversation Matters” (Henry Knight and Don Saliers) was required reading. The principle of “holy conferencing” is that instead of bickering over polar extremes, we should meet together, to talk about our problems and our concerns and find a way forward together. Essentially, we believe that honest and genuine conversation can help us to find what is right instead of arguing about who is right. In recent years I’ve found hope for the future of our denomination as we’ve continued to have generally calm and adult conversations about divisive issues while other denominations have begun to fragment internally over those same issues.

Understanding these things, I still have to ask, where is the church in the midst of these divisive political arguments? I got it wrong last week. If anyone should be listening and discerning what is right on each side of these difficult issues, we probably can’t look to our politicians, moderate or otherwise. We would, however, expect to find Jesus doing that and so we should expect the church to be there as well. The church seems to be conspicuous by its absence. Perhaps we are gun shy in a political arena where we have been told that the church is unwelcome, but I believe the church has something unique and valuable to offer.

Instead of being “Missing in Action,” the church should find a way for our leaders to meet with one another to talk, and to find a way forward, together. Only then can we find a way to stop arguing about who is right and instead start doing what is right.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Death of the Moderate Class?

Some years ago, and continuing today, we heard in the popular media the proclamation of doom for the middle class. In these stories we hear of how the rich are getting richer, the poor, poorer and that ever fewer people (though still a vast number) belong to what we call the middle class. I have no interest in discerning the truth of such claims. The prophecies of doom for the middle class however, point out an area of public discussion that has bothered me lately. In recent months I have written on subjects such as illegal immigration and the proposed construction of a mosque in New York, but in both of these issues (and many others) I notice the same thing, the utter lack of middle ground.

To be clear, I would rarely describe myself as a moderate, but because I am the spiritual leader of a diverse group of people I try to keep obviously partisan thinking out of both my public writing and speaking. For me, although my political beliefs are passionately and strongly held, the need for us to see beyond the world of the political is far more important. Our relationship with Jesus trumps our relationship with any political party, or at least it should.

We watch these public discussions in the media (radio, television and internet) and, even though I would not describe myself as a moderate, I often find myself wondering where the moderates have gone. Certainly we’ve seen a rise in partisanship in recent years and, for all the election year talk of bipartisanship, we’ve seen less of it than ever. In fact, public discussions seem to be entirely dominated by radical factions or, at least, representatives from the polar extremes of the political spectrum. To some extent, this has always been the case. In reporting the news it is easier to frame the discussion by showing opposite ends of the debate. Where I have begun to have difficulty is that, increasingly, the opposite ends are all there are. Perhaps it’s because news outlets have fallen in lockstep and report a single point of view. Perhaps everyone has tuned into partisans like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Rachel Maddow, Keith Olbermann or similar partisan talking heads. Honestly, I don’t know. What I have noticed however is that with the discussion no longer framed by the extremes but dominated by the extremes, no one seems to be left to have an honest discussion of what lies in between.

In discussing the immigration debate I noticed that both sides have valid and serious concerns that need to be addressed but everyone is so busy pointing fingers and name calling that virtually nothing is being done. In the New York mosque debate everyone seems to be either for the mosque because the constitution demands it, or against it because they find it offensive for Muslims to worship so close to ground zero. But what about the pesky details in the middle? The world is watching our great American experiment in democracy and constitutional government. The constitution and the freedoms that it guarantees are important.

On the other hand, we are accustomed to the slow pace of progress. St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church was destroyed by the collapse of the World Trade Center and hasn’t yet managed to get permission to rebuild, now almost ten years later. The reasons for this delay are debated, but still, if it has taken the congregation of St. Nicholas ten years to get their project moving (and they already owned the land) why do we think that this Islamic congregation should get permission overnight? Our constitution guarantees certain freedoms, but we still place legal limits on those freedoms. We limit where alcohol can be served in our communities and who may legally own a liquor license. We limit where industry can build and what types of industry can be built. Communities frequently protest construction of mega-churches because of concerns for traffic. A community near where I once lived refused permission to build a hotel because of concerns of how the patrons would affect the neighborhood. These rules and regulations do not violate the constitution but instead allow careful and thoughtful review by state and local authorities as well as allowing the discussion and consideration of local neighborhood concerns and opinions.

My problem with all of these discussions is that no one is being allowed to voice concerns without being attacked and dismissed for being on the “wrong side” of the argument. Once upon a time, it was the moderates that found the middle ground, who considered the arguments of both sides and allowed an orderly and honest discussion that looked at all sides and considered the needs and desires of all the stakeholders involved. Sometimes these discussions took a lot longer than we wanted them to take but still, we had the discussion. Lately it seems that there are no more moderates to bring the two sides together and to consider the claims and the needs of all involved. All we have left is a pile of partisan bickering that heads for the door as soon as they think they’ve buffaloed, bullied and shouted down enough people to form a majority.

I hope I’m wrong.

I hope there are still a few good moderates left because if we’ve lost the ability to have these kinds of discussions, we’ve lost everything and the great American experiment has failed.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Mosques in New York, Discrimination or Deliberate Manipulation?

In recent weeks there has been a controversy playing out in New York City. If you somehow managed to miss it, a group, led by Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf (a religious leader educated in Egypt, Malaysia, England and the United States) has asked for permission to build an Islamic community center and mosque in Lower Manhattan only two blocks from ground zero. Tempers have flared over whether this group, or any group, should be allowed to build a mosque so close to the site where many Americans, including Muslims, were killed by fanatics in the name of Islam. I have been thinking about this and have been following the news as well as a few of the blogs that are being written about this. It has taken me a while to get my hands around this issue simply because I have mixed feelings and I needed time to better understand how I felt before I could say anything.

Part of my problem is that we all, myself included, have strong feelings about what happened on 9/11 and many of us have strong nationalistic feelings as well. I served ten years in the Army Reserve and my unit was called to active duty (in Kentucky) for six months during the first Gulf War. I have always felt that part of what I did as a soldier was to defend the rights of people even when their actions differed from mine. I have friends who are pacifists and who, for religious reasons, refuse to serve in the military. I have been willing to serve in order to protect their right not to serve. Flag burning offends me greatly but I will fight to protect the rights of others to express themselves in this way. Likewise, those who propose to build an Islamic Center two blocks from ground zero deliberately play upon two fundamental principles of our constitution, the right to property and the freedom of religion. The American right to property allows the owners of land or other property to do whatever they desire within the limits that the law allows and so, if you own land, you should be able to do with it as you wish. Freedom of religion tells us that we cannot deny the right to build a place of worship simply because their particular religion is unpopular or even offensive to others. For these reasons, the developers of this mosque/community center/cultural center should clearly be allowed to pursue the necessary permits and contracts to begin building, but the story isn’t really that simple.

The Imam heading this project, Feisal Abdul Rauf, claims that his mission is to develop bridges of understanding between our two cultures and his background and education would seem to indicate that he is, perhaps, in a unique position to do that. He has sometimes seemed to be a moderate Muslim who condemned the 9/11 attacks, but in the same interview where he condemned the attacks, he also declared that the U.S. was at fault for those attacks and he likewise has refused to concede that Hamas is a terrorist organization. We are told that this building is to be built by American Muslims and for American Muslims but the estimated cost of this project is over $100 million and there is a very real possibility that it may be funded by radical foreign Muslims who intend to use our system of constitutional law and justice against us in order to demonstrate what they perceive to be our weakness. It is disturbing, in light of our obvious concerns, that the developers have refused to reveal the actual funding sources.

In places like Jerusalem and Mecca, and throughout the Middle East there is a tradition of building mosques to commemorate great Islamic victories. Throughout the centuries, I do not doubt that many Christian cathedrals have been built with similar motives. In light of concerns about offending the families of the victims of 9/11 however, it may well be worth our time to discern whether this building is being built by American Muslims in order to facilitate understanding between out cultures or by foreign radicals who intend for its construction to stand as a testimony to the defeat of American imperialism.

A few other pieces that need to be fitted into our understanding: Two mosques already exist in Lower Manhattan (one built prior to the construction of the World Trade Center) and indeed an Islamic Cultural Center also exists not far away in Midtown Manhattan near Central Park. St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church stood in the shadows of the World Trade Center and was destroyed when those building collapsed. St. Nicholas church is negotiating a settlement with the New York Port Authority but although there has been some difficulty in negotiations caused by demands from both sides, St. Nicholas church, nearly nine years later, has not yet received permission to rebuild. While an Islamic group should not be discriminated against simply because they are Muslims, neither should they get preferential treatment. Just days ago, it was discovered that the developers of this proposed building do not own both parcels of land needed to build. Whether this omission was accidental or deliberate raises a whole host of additional questions.

So where does all that leave us?

Constitutionally speaking, there is no reason that this group should be singled out from any other group that wants to build any legal structure in Lower Manhattan. If the construction is legal then it should be allowed to move forward. On the other hand, a center that desires to advertise itself as a bridge for “cultural understanding” could certainly do better, and should do better than to build in this particular location. Building here would be insensitive in the extreme. It would be out of place for the nation of Germany to build a cultural center within two blocks of a Nazi death camp. The desire to build in this location seems hostile, inflammatory and deliberately divisive.

It is important to remember that Islam didn’t fly two airliners into the World Trade Center. It is unfair to condemn all Muslins for such a crime, but we remember the places where people danced in the street when they heard the news. Perhaps it is unfair to paint with a broad brush and blame an entire religion for the actions of a few, but I suspect that, rightly or wrongly, this is the memory of a majority of our nation. As people of faith, Christians should be well acquainted with the false accusations that other religions have historically directed against us and so we should be sensitive to how this might be happening to Muslims in our nation today. On the other hand, we are called to be wise as foxes and to understand our world and how it works. If our nation is being deliberately manipulated in order to make us look weak, stupid and foolish then we should have every right to say no. If our constitutional system of law and justice is being used against us in order for our enemies to celebrate our defeat, then we should find a way to say no.

I believe that too many questions remain unanswered. The events surrounding 9/11 give us every right to be suspicious and careful. It seems as if the developers of their proposed building are getting a pass so that we can feel good about not discriminating against them. In order to answer the legitimate questions that have been raised, and in order to assuage the fears of the victims’ families and indeed the fears of many across our nation, more information must be revealed and more must be understood before construction should proceed. If the developers should refuse to be straightforward and reveal this information and should they refuse to answer the difficult questions, then let them build somewhere else. Without those answers, construction of this building, in this place, would be an affront to all Americans and would desecrate the memory of the victims of 9/11. If nothing else, things need to slow down while everyone takes a second and third look at the problem and as we search for answers to unresolved questions. Until then, under our system of government, if there exists a proper and legal way for this project to be stopped, then it should be.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Who Can We Blame?

It seems that every day there is more to read about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. I understand that this is a huge news story that affects millions of people along the southern coast of the United States and I am really not too concerned that the media is (typically) overplaying the story. What concerns me is the way that local residents, and politicians of all stripes (local, state, and federal) are turning a horrible accident into a bizarre circus of finger pointing in the extreme. Legally, I understand that the cost to clean up the mess will be enough to bankrupt several major corporations and that BP may not survive to pay for it all. I understand that BP will want to shift some or all of this financial burden onto whichever other corporate entities may have had a role in allowing this accident to happen. What I have a problem with, is the tendency that people have for wanting to make this tragedy personal.

Folks are pointing a finger at the CEO of British Petroleum and saying that it is, personally, his fault that this happened. They point fingers variously at President George Bush and President Obama and the commander of the Coast Guard and anyone else that seems even remotely convenient and somehow construe the facts of history to make it that persons fault. Yes, mistakes were made. No, things happened that shouldn’t have happened. Shortcuts were taken that shouldn’t have been. All that can be true and still, it doesn’t have to be any single person’s “fault.” That’s why they call them accidents.

Many of the policies in place were enacted by the Bush administration but they were likely voted on by many members of the opposing party. Many of these policies were changed by the Obama administration and the enforcement of these regulations fall to that administration as well. In either case, I doubt very much that either President Bush or President Obama had any specific knowledge of what was happening on this one particular drilling rig. Likewise, I doubt that the president of BP, who is (or at least was) not an American and who does not live in the United States (BP stands for British Petroleum, remember?) knew anything about the specifics of what was happening on one of the hundreds of drilling operations his company was conduction around the globe. Certainly none of this was intentional. The spill alone is horrible. The environmental damage is unimaginable. Thousands of people have lost their livelihoods and eleven men lost their lives aboard the Deepwater Horizon. No sane person would have intentionally caused this to happen or even allowed it to happen. It was an accident.

Psychologists tell us that when people are under stress they look for a place to focus that stress. It happens in churches that are undergoing significant change. When people are under stress they want someone to be responsible for the stress they feel and will often reach out to any convenient authority figure. I have been the focus of such stress. All sorts of elaborate stories can be created to direct that stress, or blame, upon these convenient figures regardless of the facts or the truth. Reality just isn’t that tidy.

The reality is that churches that are undergoing change have often come upon that change in a process that spanned many years and involved many more people. The reality of the accident aboard the Deepwater Horizon is that its causes were undoubtedly many and involved persons from the drilling rig, its owners, BP, regulators and members of state and federal government. Even worse, pressures were put on all these players by market forces by which each and every one of us played a part. Face it, when I get off the freeway to buy gasoline I really don’t give a rip about who has the best environmental record, I just want the cheapest gas. The pressure to produce fuel cheaply and to develop an abundant domestic supply while abiding by the various restrictions placed upon them undoubtedly played upon some of the poor decisions that were made and which led up to the accident. Besides that, accidents happen despite the best intentions or preparations of any of human being. That’s why we call them accidents.

I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be a complete and thorough investigation, there should and if criminal acts were committed then those acts should be punished. Neither am I saying that BP and its subsidiaries and subcontractors should not pay for the damages caused and the cleanup that is required, they should. What I am saying is that I doubt that we will ever find a smoking gun. I doubt that anyone will ever be able to say that any one person or that any specific group of people are, personally, responsible for this accident.

As people of faith, especially as people of faith, we need to be clearer about that. Instead of becoming belligerent and argumentative, instead of busying ourselves pointing fingers at people who were far removed from actual events, we need to have a different focus. As people of faith, we need to let the justice system do its job and conduct its investigation without our interference. As people of faith, we need to focus our attention on the least and the lost, to try to help those who have been harmed by this disaster and who have no safety net to catch them. As people of faith, instead of looking for people to blame, we need to show a little grace.

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