Saturday, December 20, 2008

Mad as Hell and Not Going to Take it Anymore?

There are few who enjoy engaging in outrage and righteous indignation as much as I do. I'm sure there is ample evidence of it at this blog as well as around blogland. In addition, I've got more than one family member to remind me of it, especially the teenagers who just can't wait to find themselves in a car with their friends with their mom driving somewhere and gesticulating wildly about the latest news article, court opinion, video clip, or Anglicana dust-up that has appeared online. Ordinarily, I dismiss their lack of interest in the latest life-or-death controversy as shallowness on their part. I take very seriously my causes and the careful reading I do to keep informed. Those who don't keep up and, worse yet, don't want to, are to be scorned, tolerated, or pitied.

Well, I hope I haven't been as bad as all that, but I'm not taking any chances anymore. Moral outrage and righteous indignation is cheap, easy to come by, easy to spew forth. The character Howard Beale in the 1976 movie Network epitomized this in his famous speech, taking up the troubles of the people in the audience and using them to arouse the ire of everyone (and in the process, boost the network's sagging ratings):
"I don't have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. It's a depression. Everybody's out of work or scared of losing their job. The dollar buys a nickel's work, banks are going bust, shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter. Punks are running wild in the street and there's nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there's no end to it. We know the air is unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to eat, and we sit watching our TV's while some local newscaster tells us that today we had fifteen homicides and sixty-three violent crimes, as if that's the way it's supposed to be. We know things are bad - worse than bad. They're crazy. It's like everything everywhere is going crazy, so we don't go out anymore. We sit in the house, and slowly the world we are living in is getting smaller, and all we say is, 'Please, at least leave us alone in our living rooms. Let me have my toaster and my TV and my steel-belted radials and I won't say anything. Just leave us alone.' Well, I'm not gonna leave you alone. I want you to get mad! I don't want you to protest. I don't want you to riot - I don't want you to write to your congressman because I wouldn't know what to tell you to write. I don't know what to do about the depression and the inflation and the Russians and the crime in the street. All I know is that first you've got to get mad.

[shouting] You've got to say, 'I'm a HUMAN BEING, Goddamnit! My life has VALUE!' So I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window. Open it, and stick your head out, and yell,

[shouting] 'I'M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I'M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!' I want you to get up right now, sit up, go to your windows, open them and stick your head out and yell - 'I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore!' Things have got to change. But first, you've gotta get mad!... You've got to say, 'I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!' Then we'll figure out what to do about the depression and the inflation and the oil crisis. But first get up out of your chairs, open the window, stick your head out, and yell, and say it:

[screaming at the top of his lungs] "I'M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I'M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!"
IMDb. As the film critic Roger Ebert pointed out twenty-five years later, the movie turned out to be "like prophecy. When Chayefsky created Howard Beale, could he have imagined Jerry Springer, Howard Stern and the World Wrestling Federation?" (Wiki quoting Ebert's 2000 review). And I might add, could he, in writing the "Ecumenical Liberation Army" into the plot, have imagined what the internet would end up doing to religious discussions and debate?

There are, of course, plenty of things worth getting mad about. Outrage is a good thing when it finally wakes people up out of a slumbering apathy, out of the sense that well, things aren't always what we'd like them to be, but we think we can muddle through just fine, taking care of ourselves in the here and now, and giving no mind to those who might be out to harm us or our neighbors or worse yet, not seeing how we can extend a helping hand to those in need. Sometimes one has to stand up for oneself and others who need fighting for, to speak up, shouting if need be, to take to the streets, the law courts, the legislature, and, when all else fails, maybe even take up a stone or musket or... whatever.

But aside from the usual worries about which causes are worth pursuing, whether some ends ever justify the means, what can and must be done for the least of us, there is the problem of just plain getting stuck in the white hot flash of anger that comes with most fervent expressions of moral outrage and righteous indignation. I got deeply mired in it myself during the closing days of the election campaigning. While there was nothing inherently wrong with appreciating the best of what Olbermann, Maddow, Stewart, and Colbert (among others), had to offer, to follow the news and the arguments, pro and con, there came a point for me when that's about all I could do. I was so angry that I found myself freezing up at a phone bank one evening, unable to make another call. I became so fearful that after an entire lifetime of being, for the most part, on the losing side of almost every political campaign or any other kind of cause I participated in, that I'd end up in a country with Sarah Palin at the helm, one in which no one cared about reason, science, justice, corporate malfeasance, economic inequality, war, peace.... or anything else that really matters, that religion, especially, would be left in the dung heap of those who might commandeer any human institution for their own greedy and selfish ends. I thought I was concerned about the country, but really, it was all about me, how the wrong result was going to offend, aggrieve, irritate, and confound me personally, as if that could really matter in the larger scheme of things.

And then, despite all odds and all my worst paranoid fears, Obama won the election. I knew from the beginning that it wasn't going to change anything overnight, that Obama most likely would make plenty of mistakes, and that his thoughtful approach to problems was no guarantee of any particular results, but...... still, not only did it create the first national hope I can remember since JFK was elected, it showed, at least for a moment, that the voices of hate and unreason were not always going to win, that at least on one day a plurality of Americans could once come together to say "no" to the hard, neo-cons and their allies on the religious right. Yes, that victory was diminished by the failure to gain the majority needed to defeat Prop. 8 in California, but it was still something of a miracle that Obama won the national race.

I don't know today whether the new administration is going to bring any substantial changes to this nation or the world at large. But the fact of its election has, slowly but surely, begun to change me. I very much appreciate the many people I have encountered online who provide companionship and solace to those who are in pain, who are discouraged, and who may need to stand up and shout with no small measure of outrage and righteous indignation over those things in the world around us that cannot be suffered in silence. But I just don't feel like I can or should be a part of that culture of pain and anger and outrage anymore.

I'm tired, so very tired, of the anger all the time, of being angry and reading others' angry outbursts, at least when there is an unwillingness to cut it off and move on to either taking positive action against whatever has provoked the anger or putting it aside and focusing on what can be done here and now. I'm even more weary of the pace at which news erupts, opinions are given, and reactions blown all over the internet, with relatively little time for reflection, deliberation, or thought. I've been as guilty of it as anyone, but it is time to stop -- stop the egotism of believing that individual outrage is worth emitting, day in and day out, and that I and those who think like me are always good and right and fairminded, and that the tone and cadence of our collective outrage is somehow different from what we see spewing forth from the blogs and news sources we have come to hate so much.

This all occurred to me long before this latest controversy about Rick Warren burst on the scene, but I haven't until now tried to take some time to try to pull it together and start thinking about how to put it in practice. As some may have read what I've written elsewhere on the Rick Warren issue, partly in the heat of the moment, let me try to clarify what, if anything, all this has to do with that topic, although I still do not know if I'm up to addressing it in full.

First, I am in no position to judge whether someone else has the "right" to be angry or whether anger, or at least outrage, might be an appropriate or helpful response to a given situation or problem. Second, I don't know what the best tactics or strategies are for changing the laws and the hearts and minds of people with regard to gay marriage. I do, however, suspect that the civil rights approach does not appeal much to anyone but those who already firmly believe in the cause because the emphasis on freedom, autonomy, and choice does not address the values and concerns of those who question the wisdom of opening up marriage to everyone, regardless of gender. Instead of trying to reframe the issue in terms of stability, fidelity, and strong family relationships, the demand for freedom seems to play into the worst fears and prejudices of those who are inclined to think of gay marriage as simply a license for peculiar sexual behavior.

Third, the politics of offense and grievance has never worked well for any minority, yet over and over people - heteros as well as gays and lesbians - seem obsessed with talking about how hurt and offended they are that there are people who do not understand or respect persons who are GLBT and who speak and act accordingly. That seems to be the reality, has been for a very long time. It does not do anything to even try to change the hearts and minds of those who are causing the harm -- it only says that it is terrible that such attitudes exist, that those who express them are wrong and awful and not worthy to speak in public, and that what counts is repeating the demands for respect and equality over and over as if saying it enough times will get the point across to those who think they are really being asked to condone immorality and to respect licentious or unwholesome behavior.

Maybe I'm being insensitive, or stupid or whatever. Maybe I'm in position to be more objective. I don't know for sure. What I do know is this is not a fight I can engage in as long as it requires me to keep beating the drums of anger and outrage at what I know is wrong, just to keep in good graces with those who feel the need to keep at it. There may be a time for casting stones, but the more important work and the longer time required is in gathering them. For now, I'd like to see if I can work on the gathering.

Meanwhile, I want to reiterate that I am not suggesting that no one should ever get mad or express outrage. I do believe, however, that on the issue of GLBT rights, that there must be a concerted effort to get the positive message out that what is at stake is not sexual freedom per se, as the opponents like Warren would have it, but rather the way of preventing teenage suicides, of building up relationships and families, of encouraging and promoting responsible, faithful, loving behavior on the part of all persons, no matter what their sexual orientation. The Rick Warrens of the world want to write off GLBTs as some tiny segment of the total population unconcerned about the good of all, rather than those who are often who are vital members of the larger community, who are friends and family and neighbors and colleagues, who pay taxes, raise children, grow old and pretty much live like everyone else, except to the extent that society creates barriers against them.

That message, however, has to come from those who know the stories as their own, who can give full pictures and accounts of real-life people, their pains and sorrows, their loves and their joys, not just talking points or positions or general statements of offense and injustice. I cannot tell those stories - can only tell others that they are real and important. I can, however, listen with the eyes and ears of an outsider, to suggest, the best I can, those gaps in information or narratives that may not be apparent to those who know them well. I'm good at analysis and criticism, the more measured and carefully thought out the better. If someone wants to make use of those skills, I have them here to offer, for whatever they're worth.

But as for the outrage over injustice and hate and sin -- I'm sorry. I'm just done out on that score. Outrage, disgust, dismay over the evil in the world is not worth the spit and the sputter. It also can put one in mortal danger of making claims of being more righteous and virtuous than the poor soul who is the object of all that wrath and indignation. I don't like what Rick Warren says and does about gays and lesbians. I believe he is deeply wrong. But I am also deeply suspicious of those who truly believe that others are more worthy to give prayers than he is, who are ready to make the judgment that all the work he has done to combat poverty and AIDs is overshadowed by the harm his homophobic views has caused, and that the importance of the prayer-giver is the group or causes he or she is perceived as representing, not the prayers themselves or the God who hears them. In the end, I wonder if there isn't more reason to distrust all those who claim to have God on their side, progressive and reactionary, than there is to distrust politicians. In any event, we'll all have to wait and see what happens. We live in interesting times.

A Time for Casting Stones, A Time for Gathering Them Together

+Clumber's colleague, The Rev. Dr. James B. Simons, of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh issued the following [HT seeking spirit]:
State of the Diocese Report
Special Convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh
December 13, 2008

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven”

These familiar words, from the third chapter of Ecclesiastes, are often read at funerals and were turned into a popular song in the 1960’s. The preacher, Koheloth, begins to pair opposites such as in “a time to be born and time to die, a time to weep and a time to laugh.” Of the fourteen pairings, one has always troubled me, or, I should say, didn’t make a lot of sense to me and seemed to be out of place with the others. It occurs in the fifth verse: ” A time to cast stones and a time to gather stones together”.

As I reflect on the events of the past several years, and more specifically in the Diocese of Pittsburgh over the past several months, I now think I understand this verse, and in many ways it has become the most poignant of them all.

As we move forward as the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh, we need to make a decision about which season we are in: the season where we cast stones or the season where we gather them. I would like to suggest that we end the season of stone throwing and enter into a new season — one in which stones are gathered, gathered so that we might rebuild what has been torn down.

Casting stones:

As we seek to rebuild the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh, we are not starting with a clean slate. As we move forward we carry the burden and scars of our recent past history. In short, we have developed a culture over the past several years that has not been one of grace and charity. We bring with us patterns of behavior which sought to categorize and judge others by what were in many cases arbitrary measures. We have not thought the best of each other and we have assigned motives for others’ actions, often without speaking to that person or seeking to obtain accurate information. It was a culture of fear and control, and many in this room, including myself, cooperated in the creation of that culture. It was a culture of throwing stones, and I stand before you now to say, “Today that culture ends.”

In the eighth chapter of The Gospel According to St. John, Jesus is confronted by a group of religious leaders who bring to him, as John describes it, “a woman who had been caught in adultery.” It is quite possible that this woman had been dragged from her bed, disheveled and partially clothed and forcibly driven through the streets of Jerusalem to the temple itself where Jesus was teaching. A woman found to be in grievous sin dragged to the holiest site of her faith. She is to be an object lesson, and Jesus is asked if she should be stoned, as the law permits. You all know his response, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” And John tells us that one by one, starting with the eldest, the religious leaders turned and walked away. At the clergy renewal of vows two years ago, the preacher recalled this story and asked us to imagine something I am going to ask you to imagine also, namely, that as each man turned to leave he dropped the stone he was holding so the departure was not silent but rather punctuated by the staccato dropping of perhaps hundreds of stones on the pavement of the temple court.

It is time to stop casting stones: it is time to realize with humility that we are all sinners saved by the grace of God, that judgment is not ours to render, and that we would do well to drop the stones we now hold and instead open our hands to each other.

This will be no easy task. The hurts and wounds are very real, and healing will come only when we are willing to let go of the pain. We need to ask for forgiveness and we need to forgive as we have been forgiven by God, and move forward in grace.

Patterns of behavior have been established, many unconsciously, and we need to give each other permission to stop and say, “No, that’s they way we used to treat each other. We’re not doing that anymore.” We’ll need to re-evaluate every aspect of our lives and ask the question, “Is this the way that Jesus would have us behave and treat each other?” We will make mistakes, and there will be false starts. There will be more hurt, but if are willing to be vulnerable to one another and believe the best of each other, the old patterns will begin to melt away and we can move ahead with grace and charity.

Picking up Stones:

But it will not be enough simply to let go of the stones, the old patterns of behavior, and the hurts we have accumulated. We need to start gathering a different kind of stones. Stones that will enable us to rebuild what is in disrepair.

Nehemiah served in perhaps the most trusted position in the Persian Empire. He was cupbearer to King Artaxerxes. It was his job, among other things, to taste the King’s food before the king ate it, so as to insure the king’s safety. Over a hundred years beforehand, the first wave of exiles had returned to Jerusalem, among them Ezra whose task was to begin the rebuilding of the temple itself. Nehemiah, having never been to Jerusalem, receives word that the city is in tatters, that the walls which protect the great city have fallen, and that people are vulnerable to outside attacks. After a long period of prayer, Nehemiah petitions the king for leave to go and rebuild the walls. Permission is grated. Nehemiah makes the journey and completes the task in record time.

I have often described the task before us as “Herculean,” an adjective which evokes the Roman myth of Hercules and his twelve labors. But our task here is not Herculean, achieved by virtue of our own strength. Rather, our task is “Nehemian” – to be accomplished in faith, with prayer, and through obedience to the Lord.

The people of Nehemiah’s time gathered stones in order to build, knowing that their faithfulness would be blessed by God. These are the stone we need to gather, stones of rebuilding, stones of construction, stones that allow us to create, and in that creation to rejoice with the Creator. It is time to gather stones. It is time to rebuild. It is time for us to focus on what unites us, not what divides us. For what unites us is far deeper and more powerful than that which separates.

“What does this look like?” you may ask. I would like to suggest that there are at least three aspects to this rebuilding.

First and foremost, we acknowledge that the foundation stone on which we build is the person of Jesus Christ. We are, and continue to be, a Diocese which upholds the classic formularies of the church — the Nicene and Apostle Creeds — affirming the Deity of Christ, his sonship with the father, his redeeming work on the cross, and his offer of salvation to the world. We believe scripture to be the Word of God and that it contains all things necessary for salvation. It is from this that all else flows, it is on this foundation that we build. All of our outreach, all of our social service, all of our mission work is predicated on these facts and driven by the sure and certain knowledge that we are redeemed people who wish to make Christ’s redemption known to the world. Everything begins from here.

Second is incarnational ministry. In his book The Rise of Christianity, University of Washington sociologist Rodney Stark set out to test the commonly held story that the church, during its first three hundred years, grew exponentially in the Roman Empire. He was asking the question, “Is it really possible that such a movement could grow so much so fast?” His conclusion was “yes” but the reasons were a bit surprising.

What led to the rapid growth of the early church was not a commitment to purity of doctrine. In fact, there were huge theological debates (which make much of what we struggle with today seem paltry), and the first Council of Nicea, which began to bring some uniformity of belief, wouldn’t occur until 325. What Stark discovered was that the church grew because of what I would call “incarnational” ministry. That is, the early Christians “became Christ” to the world.

In the mid third century the plague came to Alexandria, Egypt, and in the course of several months two-thirds of the city’s population died. Those of means abandoned the city, often leaving sick family and friends behind to die. But the Christians stayed. They stayed and ministered not only to their own but also to everyone regardless of their religion. The testimony of this incarnated love was what caused people to be attracted from paganism to a faith in Jesus Christ.

All around the empire this sort of behavior was seen. Christians visited the garbage dumps and collected the infants left to die, they took in the widowed and orphaned, they treated women better than even the official law of Rome would have them treated. They engaged the world with a self-sacrificing love which, like the plague itself, became infectious. It changed the world.

This is the way we need to be. We will build this diocese with the stones of the incarnation. We will show the world what it means to love one another and what it means to love a world which is broken and hostile. To lay down our very lives because of the life which was laid down for us and for the world. The world cannot help but be attracted to that.

Lastly, and I hesitate to use this word because it is so misused, diversity needs to be a hallmark of our common life together. But this is not easy to achieve and will not be brought to fruition simply by our trying to be more diverse.

My undergraduate degree is in stream and lake ecology. My thesis was developing a baseline study establishing the water quality of a large stream in Allegheny County. There is an inherent problem with assessing the water quality of a stream: the water is always moving. If someone is emitting an effluent at intervals, that substance may or not be present when chemical testing is done. What environmentalists have discovered is that the quality of the water can be established by assessing the diversity of the biological life forms found in it. In other words, the better the water quality, the more diverse the community.

The healthier the environment, the more diverse the community is. One does not improve the quality of the water by introducing diversity; one increases the diversity of the community by improving the quality of the environment.

I believe the same is true of every community, including the church. If we want to enjoy the diversity which has been one of the characteristics of the Episcopal Church, we must work to create an environment that fosters such a community.

This brings me back to where I started: we can only do this when we abandon the patterns of behavior to which have become accustomed. We must be in conversation, seeking to understand each other and when possible to rejoice and embrace the diversity God has blessed us with.

This is not to say that there are no boundaries and that everything is necessarily acceptable. But the church is broader than we have allowed it to be here and we need to work at creating a healthy environment that fosters appropriate diversity.

And now we come to the first test in seeing if we can lay aside the old patterns of behavior and move forward, trusting that the leadership which has been raised up is prayerfully seeking what is best for the Diocese and every member in it.

Your Standing Committee has been meeting with representatives of the Presiding Bishop’s office in order to ascertain the best way forward in establishing an Episcopal presence in the diocese at this time, that is to say the presence of a bishop.

There were two possible ways to do this. The first is termed a “Provisional Bishop”. This individual would be elected by the convention and would assume full ecclesiastical authority in the diocese.

The second option is termed an “Assisting Bishop”. This individual would be selected by the Standing Committee to assist the Diocese, while the Standing Committee would continue to be the ecclesiastical authority. However, certain aspects of that ecclesiastical authority would be delegated to the assisting bishop by agreement of the Standing Committee. This is the route we have chosen to take. We believe that it gives the diocese more autonomy in making decisions as we move forward in what is certainly a time of fragility. There is also the reality that the universe of candidates available to be Assisting Bishop is larger, as the role is part-time and would not be for the entire time between now and the election of a diocesan Bishop.

I am pleased to announce that, subject to a letter of agreement being signed, your Standing Committee has asked Bishop Robert H. Johnson, retired bishop of Western North Carolina, to act as Assisting Bishop of the Diocese of Pittsburgh. I need to make sure that there is no confusion here. The State of North Carolina has several dioceses and at one time there were two Bishop Robert Johnsons in the state. The Standing Committee has chosen Robert H. Johnson of Western North Carolina, who currently resides in Ashville.

Bishop Johnson is a Jacksonville, Florida native and was ordained in 1963. He served parishes in Jacksonville and Atlanta before being elected Bishop in 1988. He has been active in CREDO and serves on the board of the Church Pension Fund. He has been married for 46 years and has two grown children. Bishop Johnson most recently served in a similar capacity to what we are asking in The Diocese of Southern Virginia and did a wonderful job. We are thrilled that Bishop Johnson will join us in this capacity. He will be with us approximately two weeks a month and his commitment is until the end of July 2009.

Bishop Johnson’s task will be threefold. First, he will help us to rebuild the infrastructure of the Diocese and be responsible for the day-to-day administrative tasks. Second, he will be available for parish visitations to do confirmations and other sacramental ministries. Third, and most importantly, he will be a pastor to us. Bishop Johnson will help us begin the healing we so badly need. He is, we believe, the right person at the right time.

Our old culture would now start to throw stones. It would “Google” the Bishop’s name and begin to collect writings and voting records, it would be mistrustful and suspicious. It would dwell on the deficits and not the benefits. Perhaps some from whom we are separated will do this.

We need to not do that. Rather, we need to trust that those who have been raised up to leadership have everyone’s best interest in mind and that this is not just a human answer to a situation but a godly one as well. We need to see this appointment as God’s way of moving us forward, to recognize it as another stone we gather in the rebuilding of our common life.

At the end of the book that bears his name, Joshua confronts the people of Israel and asks them to choose this day who they will serve. He is honest with them about the difficulties this choice will bring, that serving YHWH is not an easy task. It is in this context that he utters perhaps his most well-known line, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”

And so a similar choice lies before us today. Will we choose the old way, the way of throwing stones and serving the past, or will we choose to serve the Lord, to serve him by picking up stones to rebuild for the future? Serving the Lord by gathering the stones of creating will not be easy, but I believe that we are equal to the task. That to which God has called us He will empower us to complete.

I want to close by making a personal declaration to all you here today. It is simply this: “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”

Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh.

Andrew Sullivan on Rick Warren

Andrew Sullivan has some additional thoughts about the controversy over Rick Warren's role at the Inauguration from the perspective of Christian gay man. He writes in "Taking Yes for an Answer":

If I cannot pray with Rick Warren, I realize, then I am not worthy of being called a Christian. And if I cannot engage him, then I am not worthy of being called a writer. And if we cannot work with Obama to bridge these divides, none of us will be worthy of the great moral cause that this civil rights movement truly is.

The bitterness endures; the hurt doesn't go away; the pain is real. But that is when we need to engage the most, to overcome our feelings to engage in the larger project, to understand that not all our opponents are driven by hate, even though that may be how their words impact us. To turn away from such dialogue is to fail ourselves, to fail our gay brothers and sisters in red state America, and to miss the possibility of the Obama moment.

It can be hard to take yes for an answer. But yes is what Obama is saying. And we should not let our pride or our pain get in the way.

Read the rest at the The Daily Dish at The Atlantic. Sullivan also shared this post from one of his readers:

All the interpretations of the Warren pick I've read are that he's practicing business as usual, triangulation, appeasing the far-right religious nutters, bashing the gays, and on and on. As a 54-year-old woman, I was fortunate to be born into an era in which the great strides in gender equality were already won by the hard work of our mothers and grandmothers. Yet, I've endured crude misogyny, and have learned that I'm probably not in a small minority.

I run my own successful design business, but spent many early years in work situations where I was the only woman in an all-male shop. The one lesson I learned right off the bat is that equality and acceptance in one's day-to-day life can only be won on the individual level. We all need laws to insure our rights when they are threatened, but one cannot change a closed or bigoted mind by writing an article, or passing laws, or protesting in outrage, or marginalizing the haters, or calling them names, or turning one's back in outrage. The only way to change a mind is to change a heart, and the only way to do that is to open oneself to the other person and slowly slowly allow them to learn that you are not "other," you are not frightening, you are not immoral.

You are just like them. I'm not saying it changes every mind, but every mind that has been changed, has been changed at the personal level by getting to know an individual from the group they fear or despise.

I suspect Barack Obama is exquisitely aware of this from his own life of otherness and assimilation. Has anyone considered that perhaps he chose Rick Warren, not as a maneuver for his own political gain, but rather as a way of keeping Warren close and engaged in order to change HIS heart, therefore changing his mind. Imagine the influence of a Rick Warren telling his followers that he wrong about gays, that they are really OK and just like them? It's an amazing thought, and perhaps improbable, but who would know unless it's tried? I think this is where Obama is coming from, and I, for one, am eager to see just how it will all play out in the ensuing years.
The Daily Dish

A Polarized Electorate Is Not Good Enough

Ghosts of Christmases past and present and maybe Christmas future:
There's the religious absolutism of the Christian right, a movement that gained traction on the undeniably difficult issue of abortion, but which soon flowered into something much broader; a movement that insists not only that Christianity is America's dominant faith, but that a particular fundamentalist brand of that faith should drive public policy, overriding any alternative source of understanding, whether the writings of liberal theologians, the findings of the National Academy of Sciences, or the words of Thomas Jefferson.

And there is the absolute belief in the authority of majority will, or at least those who claim power in the name of the majority -- a disdain for those institutional checks (the courts, the Constitution, the press, the Geneva Conventions, the rules of the Senate, or the traditions governing redistricting) that might slow our inexorable march toward the New Jerusalem.

Of course there are those within the Democratic Party who tend toward similar zealotry. But those who do have never come close to possessing the power of a Rove or a DeLay....

Mainly though, the Democratic Party has become the party of reaction. In reaction to a war that is ill conceived, we appear suspicious of all military action. In reaction to those who proclaim the market can cure all ills, we resist efforts to use market principles to tackle pressing problems. In reaction to religious overreach, we equate tolerance with secularism, and forfeit the moral language that would help infuse our policies with a larger meaning. We lose elections and hope for the courts to foil Republican plans. We lose the courts and we wait for a White House scandal.

And increasingly we feel the need to match the Republican right in stridency and hardball tactics. The accepted wisdom that drives many advocacy groups these days goes something like this: The Republican Party has been able to consistently win elections not by expanding its base but by vilifying Democrats, driving wedges into the electorate, energizing its right wing, and disciplining those who stray from the party line. If the Democrats ever want to get back into power, then they will have to take up the same approach.

I understand the frustration of these activists. The ability of the Republicans to repeatedly win on the basis of polarizing campaigns is indeed impressive. I recognize the dangers of subtlety and nuance in the face of the conservative movement's passionate intensity. And in my mind, at least, there are a host of Bush Administration policies that justify righteous indignation.

Ultimately though, I believe any attempt by Democrats to pursue a more sharply partisan and ideological strategy misapprehends the moment we're in. I am convinced that whenever we exaggerate or demonize, oversimplify or overstate our case, we lose. Whenever we dumb down the political debate, we lose. For it's precisely the pursuit of ideological purity, the rigid orthodoxy and the sheer predictability of our current political debate, that keeps us from finding new ways to meet the challenges we face as a country. It's what keeps us locked in "either/or" thinking: the notion that we can have only big government or no government; the assumption that we must either tolerate forty-six million without health insurance or embrace "socialized medicine."

It is such doctrinaire thinking and stark partisanship that have turned Americans off of politics. This is not a problem for the right; a polarized electorate -- or one that easily dismisses both parties because of the nasty, dishonest tone of the debate -- works perfectly well for those who seek to chip away at the very idea of government. After all, a cynical electorate is a self-centered electorate.

But for those who believe that government has a role to play in promoting opportunity and prosperity for all Americans, a polarized electorate is not good enough. Eking out a bare Democratic majority is not good enough. What's needed is a broad majority of Americans -- Democrats, Republicans, and independents of goodwill -- who are reengaged in the project of national renewal, and who see their own self-interest as inextricably linked to the interests of others.

I'm under no illusion that the task of building such a working majority will be easy. But it's what we must do, precisely because the task of solving American's problems will be hard. It will require tough choices, and it will require sacrifice. Unless political leaders are open to new ideas not just new packaging, we won't change enough hearts and minds....

Maybe the critics are right. Maybe there's no escaping our great political divide, an endless clash of armies, and any attempts to alter the rules of engagement are futile. Or maybe the trivialization of politics has reached a point of no return, so that most people see it as just one more diversion, a sport, with politicians our paunch-bellied gladiators and those who bother to pay attention just fans on the sidelines: We paint our faces red or blue and cheer our side and boo their side, and if it takes a late hit or a cheap shot to beat the other team, so be it, for winning is all that matters.

But I don't think so. They are out there, I think to myself, those ordinary citizens who have grown up in the midst of all the political and cultural battles, but who have found a way -- in their own lives, at least -- to make peace with their neighbors, and themselves. I imagine the white Southerner who growing up heard his dad talk about niggers this and niggers that but who has struck up a friendship with the black guys at the office and is trying to teach his own son different, who thinks discrimination is wrong but doesn't see why the son of a black doctor should get admitted into law school ahead of his own son. Or the former Black Panther who decided to go into real estate, bought a few buildings in the neighborhood, and is just as tired of the drug dealers in front of those buildings as he is of the bankers who will not give him a loan to expand his business. There's the middle-aged feminist who still mourns her abortion, and the Christian woman who paid for her teenager's abortion, and the millions of waitresses and temp secretaries and nurse's assistants and Wal-mart asscoaites who hold their breath every single month in the hope that they'll have enough money to support the children they did bring into the world.

I imagine they are waiting for a politics with the maturity to balance idealism and realism, to distinguish between what can and cannot be compromised, to admit the possibility that the other side might sometimes have a point. They don't always understand the arguments between right and left, conservative and liberal, but they recognize the difference between dogma and common sense, responsibility and irresponsibility, between those things that last and those that are fleeting.

They are out there, waiting for Republicans and Democrats to catch up with them.
Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope (New York: Vintage Books, July 2008) at 46-47,48-49, 50-51.

Others on Obama's brand of pragmatism (of the Dewey variety, not Clintonesque Machiavellianism) see: Mitchell Aboulafia, "Obama's Pragmatism (or Move over Culture Wars, Hello Political Philosophy)" at TPM Cafe; Christoper Hayes, "The Pragmatist" in The Nation; and Cass R. Sunstein, "The Empiricist Strikes Back" in The New Republic.

The Ready Market for Rage

Stemming from a discussion of Louis Farrakan, black nationalism, and the attempt of market black POWER products, including toothpaste, Barack Obama wrote:
Questions of competition, decisions forced by a market economy and majoritarian rule; issues of power. It was this unyielding reality - that whites were not simply phantoms to be expunged from our dreams but were an active and varied fact of our everyday lives -- that finally explained how nationalism could thrive as an emotion and flounder as a program. So long as nationalism remained a cathartic curse on the white race, it could win the applause of the jobless teenager listening on the radio or the businessman watching late-night TV. But the descent from such unifying fervor to the practical choices blacks confronted every day was steep. Compromises were everywhere. The black accountant asked: How am I going to open an account at the black-owned bank if it charges me extra for checking and won't even give me a business loan because it says it can't afford the risk? The black nurse said: White folks I work with ain't so bad, and even if they were, I can't be quitting my job -- who's gonna pay my rent tomorrow, or feed my children today?

Rafiq had no ready answers to such questions, he was less interested in changing the rules of power than in the color of those who had it and who therefore enjoyed its spoils. There was never much room at the top of the pyramid, though; in a contest framed in such terms, the wait for black deliverance would be long indeed. During that wait, funny things happened. What in the hands of Malcolm had once seemed a call to arms, a declaration that we would no longer tolerate the intolerable, came to be the very thing Malcolm had sought to root out: one more feeder of fantasy, one more masy for hypocrisy, one more excuse for inaction. Black politicians less gifted than Harold [Washington] discovered what white politicians had know for a very long time: that race-baiting could make up for a host of limitations. Younger leaders, eager to make a name for themselves, upped the anted, peddling conspiracy theories all over town -- the Koreans were funding the Klan, Jewish doctors were injecting black babies with the AIDS virus. It was a shortcut to fame, if not always fortune; like sex or violence on TV, black rage always found a ready market.

Nobody I spoke with in the neighborhood seemed to take such talk very seriously. As it was, many had already given up the hope that politics could actually improve their lives, must less make demands on them; to them, a ballot, if cast at all, was simply a ticket to a good show. Blacks had no real power to act on the occasional slips into anti-Semitism or Asian-bashing, people would tell me; and anyway, black folks needed a chance to let off a little steam every once in a while -- man, what do you think those folks say about us behind our backs?

Just talk. Yet what concerned me wasn't just the damage loose talk caused efforts at coalition building, or the emotional pain it caused others. It was the distance between our talk and our action, the effect it was having on us as individuals and as a people. That gap corrupted both language and thought; it made us forgetful and encouraged fabrication; it eventually eroded our ability to hold either ourselves or each other accountable. And while none of this was unique to black politicians or to black nationalists -- Ronald Reagan was doing quite well with his brand of verbal legerdemain, and white America seemed ever willing to spend vast sums of money on suburban parcels and private security forces to deny the indissoluble link between black and white -- it was blacks who could least afford such make-believe. Black survival in this country had always been premised on a minimum of delusions; it was such an absence of delusions that continued to operate in the daily lives of most black people I met. Instead of adopting such unwavering honesty in our public business, we seemed to be loosening our grip, letting our collective psyche go where it pleased, even as we sank into further despair.

The continuing struggle to align word and action, our heartfelt desires with a workable plan -- didn't self-esteem finally depend on just this? It was that belief which had led me into organizing, and it was that belief which would lead me to conclude, perhaps for the final time, that notions of purity -- of race or culture -- could no more serve as the basis for the typical black American's self-esteem than it could for mine. Our sense of wholeness would have to arise from something more than the bloodlines we'd inherited. It would have to find root in Mrs. Crenshaw's story and Mr. Marshall's story, in Ruby's story and Rafiq's; in all the messy, contradictory details of our experience.
Barak Obama, Dreams from My Father (New York: Crown Publishers, 1995, 2004) at pp. 203-204.

Barack Obama - Mixed blessings of the 1960's and the legacy of "With Us or Against Us?"

One aspect I find fascinating in Obama's writings is his perspective on 1960's ideals and activism from unique standpoint of someone whose parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins, who played diverse roles in those times, in the context of different cultures, governments, races, and ethnic idenities. Here is one passage on this theme, which I marked in part because it hit some of the points in time that connect to my own experience growing up in the 1960's as part of a generation between his parents' generation and his own.
I've always felt a curious relationship to the sixties. In a sense, I'm a pure product of that era: As the child of a mixed marriage, my life would have been impossible, my opportunites entirely foreclosed, without the social upheavals that were then taking place. But I was too young at the time to fully grasp the nature of those changes, too removed -- living as I did in Hawaii and Indonesia - to see the fallout on America's psyche. Much of what I absorbed from the sixties was filtered through my mother, who to the end of her life would proudly proclaim herself an unreconstructed liberal. The civil rights movement, in particular, inspired her reverence; whenever the opportunity presented itself, she would drill into me the values that she saw there: tolerance, equality, standing up for the disadvantaged.

In many ways, though, my mother's understanding of the sixties was limited, both by distance (she had left the mainland of the United States in 1960) and by her incorrigible, sweet-natured romanticism. Intellectually she might have tried to understand Black Power or SOD or those women friends of hers who had stopped shaving their legs, but the anger, the oppositional spirit, just wasn't in her. Emotionally her liberalism would always remain of a decidely pre-1967 vintage, her heart a time capsule filled with images of the space program, the Peace Corps and Freedom Rides, Mahalia Jackson and Joan Baez.

It was only as I got older, then, during the seventies, that I came to appreciate the degree to which -- for those who experienced more directly some of the sixties' seminal events -- things must have seemed to be spinning out of control. Partly I understood this through the grumblings of my maternal grandparents, longtime Democrats who would admit that they'd voted for Nixon in 1968, an act of betrayal that my mother never let them live down. Mainly my understanding of the sixties came as a result of my own investigations, as my adolescent rebellion sought justification in the political and cultural changes that by then had already begun to ebb. In my teens, I bvecame fascinated with the Dionysian, up-for-grabs quality of the era, and through books, film, and music, I soaked in a vision of the sixties very different from the one my mother talked about: images of Huey Newton, the '68 Democratic National Convention, the Saigon airlift, and the Stones at Altamont. If I had no immediate reasons to pursue revolution, I decided nevertheless that in style and attitude I, too, could be a rebel, unconstrained by the received wisdom of the over-thirty crowd.

Eventually, my rejection of authority spilled into self-indulgence and self-destructiveness, and by the time I enrolled in college, I'd begun to see how any challenge to convention harbored within it the possibility of its own excesses and its own orthodoxy. I started to reexamine my ssumptions, and recalled the values my mother and grandparents had taught me. In this slow, fitful process of sorting out what I believed, I began silently registering the point in dorm-room conversations when my college friends and I stopped thinking and slipped into cant: the point at which the denunications of capitalism or American imperialism came too easily, and the freedom from the constraints of monogamy or religion was proclaimed without fully understanding the value of such constraints, and the role of victim was too readily embraced as a means of shedding responsibility, or asserting entitlement, or claiming moral superiority over those not so victimized.
Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope (New York: Vintage Books 2006) at pp. 36-38.

He goes on to explain why the Reagan administration, despite its unjust economic policies, had a strong appeal to a nation weary of the tumult of the 1960's, and then says the following about see the new conservatisim that followed:
[F]or a younger generation of conservative operatives who would soon rise to power, for Newt Gringich and Karl Rove and Grover Norquist and Ralph Reed, the fiery rhetoric was more than a matter of campaign strategy. They were true believers who mean what they said, whether it was "No new taxes" or "We are a Christian nation." In fact, with their rigid doctrines, slash-and-burn style, and exaggerated sense of having been aggrieved, this new conservative leadership was eerily reminiscent of some of the New Left's leaders in the sixties. As with their left-wing counterparts, athis new vanguard of hte right viewed politics as a contest not just between competing policy visions, but between good and evil. Activitists in both parties began developing litmus tests, checklists of orthodoxy, leaving a Democrat who questioned abortion increasingly lonely, any Republican who championed gun control effectively marooned. In this Manichean struggle, compromise became to look like weakeness, to be punished or purged. You were with us or against us. You had to choose sides.
Ibid. at pp. 41-42.

Reinhold Niebuhr - Experience v. Liberal Dogma

From The Irony of American History (1952), Chapter V "Experience Triumphs Over Dogma":
[T]he liberal society never achieved the perfect harmony of which it dreamed because it overestimated the reciprocity of the free market and also equated economic competition with all encounters in society. It overestimated the reciprocity of the market because it was oblivious both to the elements of power in society, and to the disproportions of power in economic life. Power, in the thought of the typically bourgeois man, is political. He believes that it must be reduced to a minimum. The earlier bourgeois man wanted to eliminate political power because it represented the special advantages which the old aristocracy had over him. The present bourgeois man wants to reduce it to a minimum because it represents the effort of a democratic society to bring disproportions of economic power under control. In the shift of motive from earlier to later bourgeois man lies the inevitable degradation of the liberal dogma. Marxism was bound to challenge the dogma, and to find the later form particularly vulnerable.

The reciprocity of the market was too simply equated with the social harmony of the community because self-interest was restricted to the economic motive. The false abstraction of "economic man" remains a permanent defect in all bourgeois-liberal ideology. It seems to know nothing of what Thomas Hobbes termed "the continual competition for honor and dignity" in human affairs. It understands neither the traditional ethnic and cultural loyalties which qualify a consistent economic rationalism; nor the deep and complex motives in the human psyche which express themselves in the desire for "power and glory." All the conflicts in human society involving passions and ambitions, hatreds and loves, envies and ideals not recorded in the market place, are beyond the comprehension of the typical bourgeois ethos.

Inevitably this meant that social realities would develop which were not anticipated in the creed. The strong would and did take advantage of the weak. Prudence was not wise or strong enough to deter them. The earlier industrialism did aggravate, rather than mitigate, the lot of the poor, as certainly as it accentuated the disproportions of power existing in traditional societies. Reason which, according to the liberal creed, would always seek the point of concurrence between the interests of the self and of the other, could not function consistently in this manner. Rather it conformed to Thomas Hobbes' conception of the function of reason. It would make demands upon the community which seemed reasonable to the claimant and inordinate from the standpoint of the community.
Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History (1952) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press ed. 2008) at pp. 93-94.

Thist is my selection from this book, which has much to say that is oddly still applicable despite its genesis in the culture and politics of the Cold War.

Let me note in passing that what took me to the book in the first place was reading somewhere that it had influenced Barack Obama. The U. of Chicago Press, in introducing their new edition of this book, quotes Obama as follows:
"[Niebuhr] is one of my favorite philosophers. I take away [from his works] the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away . . . the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard." —Senator BarackObama
U of C Press.

Mulligan Stew

Photo by Dave at DeaPeaJay's Photostream, flickr

There's been a whole lot stewing in my head since early November. It includes the U.S. presidential election, the Episcopal Church in general and our diocese in particular, the peculiar antics on public display at diocesan convention and the undercurrents of hostility behind them, and the long journey my children and I made over Thanksgiving (could be fodder for our own tragi-sitcom, "Two Thanksgivings" or "Tales from the Politically Correct").

Meanwhile, I've been reading catch as catch can, including Barack Obama's Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance and The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream, Reinhold Niehbur's The Irony of American History, and, one of the most powerful and beautiful pieces of writing I've encountered for a long time, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski (someone I note, with wry amusement, who said to Newsweek that "A book you hope parents will read to their kids" is "The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins" - funny from a guy who writes so tellingly of the interior emotional and spiritual landscape of our canine friends and acquaintances).

At some point in an airplane far above the earth's surface, I had a moment of epiphany that brought all these odds bits and pieces of food for thought, images, emotions, and family gatherings - something about time past and present and Almondine (the great female Sawtelle dog). I'm still working on whether and how to write about it and/or whether to simply toss out morsels of what went into the mix with accompanying reflections. For now, I'm afraid that the best I can do is just highlight some passages that I've found especially meaningful, and later see where I can go from there.