Thursday, January 20, 2011

Love as a Bold Act: Remembering Sargent Shriver

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
Luke 10:25-28

Robert Sargent Shriver, Jr. was a devout Christian. I don’t know whether or not he chose a “life verse” from scripture, but when I look at his life I see a connection to the “Great Commandment” to love God and neighbor. And he lived out of Jesus' promise, "Do this, and you will live."

As a young man Shriver was a member of the “America First” movement that opposed involvement in the “European War.” But he enlisted in the Navy before Pearl Harbor because he believed that it was his duty to serve his country, even if he disagreed with its policies. I don’t know what changed a young isolationist into a champion of international responsibility. But his lasting legacy is one of service to the highest ideals international peace and justice.

Sargent Shriver was the first Director of the Peace Corps, which began fifty years ago as one of the key initiatives of President Kennedy in his first months in office.

Writing in the New York Times, Bono tells of his friendship with Shriver, which began when he asked for Shriver’s help in promoting international efforts to help debtor nations. Shriver was immediately supportive and enthusiastic, and helped to network support across the country.

Bono explained Shriver’s dedication to peace and justice as an outgrowth of his faith. He writes, “He and his beautiful bride, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, would go to Mass every day — as much an act of rebellion against brutal modernity as it was an act of worship. Love, yes, but love as a brave act, a bold act, requiring toughness and sacrifice."

In Sargent Shriver, Bono saw a man whose faith was directly connected to action, and for whom one’s work for others was a sacred calling. Shriver believed that “For the Word to become flesh, we had to become the eyes, the ears, the hands of a just God.” In this way injustice could be overcome and justice could be established.

In an article in the Boston Globe, Mark Gearan, who was director of the Peace Corps from 1995 to 1999, and is now President of Hobart and William Smith Colleges, wrote:

At the 20th anniversary of the Peace Corps, Shriver quoted Yale President Bartlett Giamatti’s 1981 commencement address: “What concerns me most today is the way . . . we have created thoughtful citizens who disdain politics and politicians when more than ever we need to value politics and what politicians do; when more than ever we need to recognize that the calling to public life is one of the highest callings a society can make.’’ It’s a point that should be made again today.

In a time when there is so much cynicism about government, it is good to remember the optimism of “Camelot.” In those years of rising expectations, there was more than a little turbulence and chaos, but it is good to remember that it was also a time of national and individual altruism. It was not really “Camelot.” It was far from perfect. Some of it was not even good. But there was for many of us a shared vision of what we could become as a nation. We dreamed great dreams for the greater good. And we even achieved some of them. Sargent Shriver was a crucial part of the dreaming and the achieving.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Ordinary Goodness

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Matthew 5:4

As I listened last night to the memorial service for those killed in Tucson last Saturday, I was comforted. Obviously, those most in need of comfort are those who lost loved ones. But in a larger sense, we are all in mourning.

We have all lost something.

But as I listened to the service, and particularly as I listened to the President’s speech, I was comforted and lifted up by the amazing grace of ordinary goodness. As he said, "our hearts are broken." But when we reflect on the goodness we have seen, we also know that "our hearts have reason for fullness."

At the center of it all is the congresswoman who was the target of the gunman. Gabrielle Giffords continues to make progress and there was a loud ovation when the President announced that just hours before the service she had opened her eyes for the first time.

The victims were relatively anonymous until the shooting. And as we remember them, we are reminded that ordinary goodness lives all around us. John Roll, the Federal Judge, was known for his honesty and faithfulness. Dorwan Stoddard died while shielding his wife. Dorothy Morris died in spite of her husband’s desperate attempt to cover her with is body. Phyllis Schneck was a devoted grandmother and church volunteer. Gabe Zimmerman was a dedicated public servant. And Christina Taylor Green was everything we hope for in our children.

At the end of his address, President Obama focused on Christina, who was born on another tragic day, September 11, 2001. She was one of the “Children of Hope” featured in a book that pictured one child from each state, born on 9/11.

He noted that after a personal tragedy we take time to reflect on those whom we have lost and he reminded us that we are all part of one family:

"For those who were harmed, those who were killed – they are part of our family, an American family 300 million strong. We may not have known them personally, but we surely see ourselves in them. In George and Dot, in Dorwan and Mavy, we sense the abiding love we have for our own husbands, our own wives, our own life partners. Phyllis – she’s our mom or grandma; Gabe our brother or son. In Judge Roll, we recognize not only a man who prized his family and doing his job well, but also a man who embodied America’s fidelity to the law. In Gabby, we see a reflection of our public spiritedness, that desire to participate in that sometimes frustrating, sometimes contentious, but always necessary and never-ending process to form a more perfect union."

And then he spoke of Christina. In her, he said, “we see all of our children. So curious, so trusting, so energetic and full of magic. So deserving of our love. And so deserving of our good example.”

“I believe we can be better. Those who died here, those who saved lives here – they help me believe. We may not be able to stop all evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another is entirely up to us. I believe that for all our imperfections, we are full of decency and goodness, and that the forces that divide us are not as strong as those that unite us.

“That’s what I believe, in part because that’s what a child like Christina Taylor Green believed. Imagine: here was a young girl who was just becoming aware of our democracy; just beginning to understand the obligations of citizenship; just starting to glimpse the fact that someday she too might play a part in shaping her nation’s future. She had been elected to her student council; she saw public service as something exciting, something hopeful. She was off to meet her congresswoman, someone she was sure was good and important and might be a role model. She saw all this through the eyes of a child, undimmed by the cynicism or vitriol that we adults all too often just take for granted.

“I want us to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as she imagined it. All of us – we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children’s expectations.”

The ordinary, but amazing, goodness of those who died challenges us to live better lives. We can do better.

Friday, January 7, 2011

The War on Science

Wisdom cries out in the street;
in the squares she raises her voice.
At the busiest corner she cries out;
at the entrance of the city gates she speaks:
“How long, O simple ones,
will you love being simple?
How long will scoffers
delight in their scoffing
and fools hate knowledge?
Proverbs 1:20-22

A belief in science is fundamental to Christianity.

We believe that “the Earth is the Lord’s, and all that is in it” (Psalm 24:1). And we believe that learning about that world is a sacred calling. We can trust science because we trust the world that God made. When we read that God brooded over the darkness that covered the face of the deep, and then spoke and brought forth life, we don’t read it as a scientific text, but as a faith statement. At the center of it all is the creative spirit of God, and we believe that it is good.

As a Christian, I am troubled by what appears to me as a war on science.

You might think that the war on science was confined to Fundamentalist Creationists, but you would be wrong. Writing in the current issue of Newsweek, Seth Mnookin points to the opposition to childhood immunization as a case in point.

“The vaccine rate has plummeted,” he writes, “in places where people put ‘Darwin fish’ stickers on their cars.” The phobia is traced back to an article written in 1998 by a British doctor, claiming to have discovered a link between immunization and autism.” That study has since been found to be fraudulent, but the genie won’t go back into the bottle.

When vaccinations decline, children are put at risk. Diseases we once thought were gone can come back. In 2009 there were more cases of whooping cough in California than at any time since 1947, before the vaccine was in widespread use. And in southeastern Pennsylvania in 2009, six unvaccinated children were infected with Haemophilus Influenzae type b, a disease that had been almost eradicated twenty years ago. Two of those children died.

(I am pausing now to think about my many near friends with autistic children. I do not mean to tread lightly on your pain. I have not studied this issue. And I cannot pretend to feel what you feel. We need more research on the causes of autism. But my larger point is that more research will not get us anywhere unless we are willing to trust the research.)

In the 1950’s there were persistent rumors that someone had invented a carburetor that would make it possible for a car to get 100 miles to the gallon. The fact that engineers and scientists repeatedly pointed out that there were limits to how much energy could be extracted from a gallon of gas, and that the best carburetor in the world could not change the laws of physics, some people were still unmoved. The automobile industry, they believed, was paying off the scientists.

Of course, we should not be naive about this. It does make a difference who is paying for the research. Years ago the tobacco industry invested heavily in finding "scientists" to undermine the scientific findings on the dangers of smoking. Recently I listened to an interview with an economist who argued that it would cost too much to try to do anything about climate change. When asked how much of his funding came from the petroleum industry he said, “Not that much.” But when pressed, he admitted that 40% of his funds came from the petroleum industry. Forty percent?

Part of our more recent mistrust of science is fueled by the tendency of television programs to try to present (or appear to present) both sides of an issue, as if everything were open for debate. At some point we have to trust scientists to find the facts. And we have to recognize that our tendency to want everything to be cast as a controversy undermines that trust.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Epiphany and Adoption

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.
Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

“A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
Matthew 2:16-18

Epiphany is the season of light, but in the biblical story, it begins in a very dark place. The account of Herod’s slaughter of the innocents is one of the darkest stories in the Bible. Jesus’ life is lived between the two Herods. The first one is so determined to protect the empire from this new “King” that he will engage in wholesale genocide. A generation later, the second Herod collaborates with Pilate to have Jesus crucified, apparently believing, like Joseph’s jealous brothers, that if you kill the dreamer you can kill the dream.

It is jarring to juxtapose Herod’s brutality with the gentle images of the shepherds in the field, but it tells us from the beginning that the Empire (in any age) will not yield easily to the vision of God’s Kingdom.

There are so many places in our world today where the innocents are threatened. (Please take a moment to think about that.)

With its unsettling and tragically realistic violence, this text is a reminder that we often avoid controversy in our discussions of faith issues, as if the most important thing were to keep from upsetting each other, while the biblical narrative apparently has no such reservations.

This morning I am thinking about abortion. And let me begin by saying clearly and unequivocally that I believe in a woman’s right to choose. I believe that women must have the right to control their own bodies. And I am deeply suspicious of those folks who seem to care so passionately about the unborn, and yet apparently very little about anyone after that.

And in terms of the biblical passage, I don’t mean to imply that abortion and infanticide are the same thing.

But still.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, one in five pregnancies ends in abortion. That’s just too many. President Bill Clinton’s famous phrase about abortion was that it should be safe, legal . . . and rare. I agree that it must be safe and legal. But we have not done enough to make it rare.

The tragedy is compounded when we note that at the other end of the fertility spectrum there are couples who desperately want to have a child and cannot conceive.

Prior to 1973, 9% of all pregnancies to unmarried women resulted in an adoption. For unmarried white women the number was 20%. Today only 1% of all unmarried women choose adoption. Those numbers are meant to illustrate the problem. Obviously some of the unmarried women want to have a child, and I believe we should support that choice.

The reduction in adoptions is partly related to the availability of safe and legal abortions, but it is also reflective of our lack of support for women who might choose that path. We do not readily applaud a woman’s brave choice to carry a child and go through the risks of childbirth so that this little person can have a good life, and a loving couple (straight or gay) can grow together. Instead, we are more likely to ask in disbelief, “How could she give up her baby?”

Abortion still carries a stigma. And single mothers face more than enough obstacles. But we seem sadly unable or unwilling to provide more support to the women who choose to make an adoption plan. We in the church need to look for positive ways to reinforce and support the adoption plans that women make.

We need good sex education. We need to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies. And we need to keep abortion safe and legal. Adoption is not the universal answer. There are many instances in which for medical or psychological or economic reasons, it is not realistic. But we should support it as often as we can. And we should celebrate the women who make that choice.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Gladys and Jamie Scott: Is This Justice?

When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Luke 4:16-21

Jesus began his ministry by proclaiming “release to the captives.” From the beginning, his teachings make us uncomfortable and challenge our assumptions.

I find myself reflecting on Jesus’ proclamation as I read that Gladys and Jamie Scott have been set free, that Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour announced that he is suspending their prison terms.

The sisters have been serving consecutive life sentences in a state prison in Mississippi for their (alleged) role in a 1993 robbery in which no one was hurt and $11 was stolen.

The sisters were not pardoned, and their prison terms were suspended, not commuted, on the condition that Gladys donate a kidney to Jamie, who is seriously ill with hypertension and diabetes and receives dialysis three times weekly. In his column in the New York Times, Bob Herbert writes, “Gladys had long expressed a desire to donate a kidney to her sister, but to make that a condition of her release was unnecessary, mean-spirited, inhumane and potentially coercive. It was a low thing to do.”

In a statement about the release, Governor Barbour said, “Their incarceration is no longer necessary for public safety or rehabilitation, and Jamie Scott’s medical condition creates a substantial cost to the state of Mississippi.”

In other words, this isn’t about justice, it’s about saving the state money.

Christians have a hard time with “release to the captives,” or the many other admonitions to set the prisoners free. We know that setting the prisoners free is a sign of the coming Kingdom of God, but we are more comfortable with freeing people from metaphorical “prisons,” than real ones. And that makes sense. We want the bad guys to be locked up. And we have to have some way to protect the community.

But the case of the Scott sisters is a good time to reflect on the criminal justice system. Keeping dangerous people off of the streets, and preventing them from hurting others, are worthy and just goals. Beyond that, we hope for restorative (rather than retributive) justice that rehabilitates people and restores them to community.

In reality, who goes to prison is determined too much by race and class. The Scott sisters, who are poor African-Americans, got consecutive life sentences for stealing $11. The Wall Street brokers who helped send the country (and the world) to the brink of financial catastrophe with schemes that created, promoted and sold intentionally risky investments while simultaneously betting against them, got . . . richer . . . . It is hard to see the justice in that.

Crime is real. Prisons are necessary. But the system can and should be more just than it is.