Thursday, December 20, 2012

Prayer, Newtown, Special Providence and Reinhold Niebuhr

But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. 
Isaiah 43:1-3

When I was a little boy my mother taught us a bed-time prayer which my sister and I said every night:

Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
The Lord go with me through the night,
And keep me safe till morning light. 

In the more common, older and much scarier version of that prayer, the last two lines are:

If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take. 

I’m glad Mom gave us the revised version. I can’t imagine teaching a child to say the original.

The scarier version dates from a time when little children did sometimes die in the night from a host of deadly childhood diseases which have mostly been eliminated over the last century. Today our children are safe from those deadly diseases because scientists have discovered vaccinations and medicines that are truly miraculous. Our medical and scientific progress is (I believe) part of what God is doing in the world. It is part of God’s continuing creation

Today we have come to expect that for our children, safety is the norm. And death and disease are rare. At least they are rare among the developed nations of the world. It is easy for us to forget that in other parts of the world children continue to die of disease and malnutrition at a rate that makes what happened in Newtown little more than a blip in the statistics.

We expect our children to be safe, and there is nothing wrong with that. All children ought to be safe. And safety is what every parent wants for his or her child.

But the biblical promise is not safety. The promise is that God will not leave us. Or to put it differently, in the context of my bed-time prayer, “safe” meant “safe in God’s care.”

One of the most cherished misunderstandings of biblical faith is the doctrine of “Special Providence.” 

We want to believe that God loves us more and protects us more than others. Special Providence promises that God cares for me, and for my family and loved ones, in a special and unique way. Of course, that is true in the sense that each of us has a unique experience of God’s care. But as Jesus said, the sun shines and the rain falls, on the just and the unjust, and God’s love is there for everyone.

In a radio sermon preached in 1952, Reinhold Niebuhr said that for many people, believing in God means “that that we have found a way to the ultimate source and end of life that gives us, against all the chances and changes of life, some special security and some special favor.” 

As an example, he speaks of the prayers “that many a mother with a boy in Korea must pray, ‘A thousand at thy side and 10,000 at thy right hand, let no evil come to my boy.’”

For the mother or father with a child in danger, that is the most natural prayer in the world and it is the deepest desire of our hearts. 

Yet in the end it is impossible. As Niebuhr explains, “The Christian faith believes that beyond, within and beyond, the tragedies and the contradictions of history we have laid hold upon a loving heart, and the proof of whose love, on the one hand, is the impartiality toward all of his children and, secondly, a mercy which transcends good and evil.”

The promise of Christian faith is not that God will grant us a special exemption from life’s hardships, or give us a special reward for our virtue, but that at the center of life there is a loving heart, which will be with us now and forever.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Rachel Weeping for Her Children

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

During an interview this fall, Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan was asked repeatedly what he intended to do about assault rifles. He deflected the question several times before finally saying something like, “Why are you asking me about that, even President Obama isn’t going to do anything about assault rifles.”

Sad but true.

Both parties are so fearful of the NRA that they will not put forth even the mildest plans to limit the availability of guns.

When Bob Costas talked (in the mildest terms) about the “gun culture” in the United States and in the NFL after Javon Belcher shot his girlfriend and then killed himself, there was widespread outrage, not that we had endured another senseless gun death, but that Costas had the bad manners to talk about it.

We can all agree, before we go any farther, that whenever we talk about something like the killings in Connecticut this morning, or Aurora, or Columbine, or Javon Belcher, we are talking about people who are mentally imbalanced. And we can all agree that we need to do more about mental health, and that mentally unstable people should not have access to lethal weapons. All of that is true, but if we had reasonable controls on guns, we wouldn’t be talking about 20 dead children in Connecticut.

Sticks and stones may break your bones but they are nothing compared to a semi-automatic weapon with lots of ammunition.

We are not number one in the world in gun deaths. In fact, we are 28th. Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Mexico, Jamaica, and almost two dozen other countries are ahead of us. But we are number one among wealthy developed nations. And among those nations, it isn’t even close. The gun murder rate in the United States is nearly 50 times as much as the murder rate in England or France. That means that Americans are 50 times as likely to be killed by a gun as people from England or France.

In this country we have as many licensed firearms dealers as gas stations.

Gun reform will not come easily. There will be massive and well-funded resistance. Proponents of reform will be vilified (just ask Bob Costas). But we need to try. We owe it to the future, but most of all, we owe to those little kids in Connecticut. Nothing can bring them back, or ease the grief of their parents, but reform would be a living legacy.

Are We Getting Smarter?

Thus says God, the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it:
I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.
I am the Lord, that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols.
See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them. 

Isaiah 42:5-9

Have you heard of the “Flynn Effect?” It’s named for James Flynn, a New Zealand researcher who first discovered the world-wide phenomenon of rising intelligence. His findings have been confirmed by many other scholars and his work is now accepted science.

Who knew?

In a recent column on this subject, Nicholas Kristof writes, “My readers are all above average. But if I ever had average readers, they would still be brilliant compared with Americans of a century ago.” He goes on to explain that a century ago the average American had an I.Q. that by today’s standards would be about 67. In other words, by today’s standards the average American of a century ago would be described as mentally disabled.

This means at least two things. It means that human intelligence is increasing. And it means that vast amounts of human potential are being wasted in places where the conditions of life are so difficult that human beings cannot grow as they should.

“The implication,” Kristof writes, “is that there are potential Einsteins now working as subsistence farmers in Congo or dropping out of high school in Mississippi who, with help, could become actual Einsteins.”

Human beings are smarter today because they are nurtured in a world filled with new ideas and knowledge. They are also smarter, measurably smarter, because of environmental factors. The removal of lead from gasoline may be responsible for an average gain of 6 points in I.Q. for American children.

What the research suggests is that kids are not getting smarter in spite of video games and television; they are getting smarter because of those activities.

This seems impossible (to me). It’s hard for me to believe that we are smarter than Emerson, or Thoreau, or Jane Austin. What about Lincoln? Biblical faith is always about remembering the past while moving into the future. We do not have to devalue the past in order to have hope for the future. Like the poetry of Isaiah’s proclamation, Flynn’s research points toward a hopeful future. If we can harness those gains in intelligence through better schooling around the world, we should be able to make enormous progress.

Flynn’s research reminds us that we often tend to believe that the present cannot possibly be as good as the past, when in fact it is better. I will hold onto that hope, and I will continue to trust in the unfolding of the Kingdom of God around us.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Bob Dole and the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

Jesus said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
Luke 14:12-14 

Robert Joseph “Bob” Dole was born on July 22, 1923 in Russell, Kansas. In high school he was star athlete, and the legendary coach Phog Allen recruited him to play on the basketball team at the University of Kansas. At Kansas he played football and ran track, as well as playing basketball. His pre-med studies were interrupted by World War II. He was serving as a Second Lieutenant in the Army’s Tenth Mountain Division in Italy when he was seriously wounded by machine gun fire in his back and right arm. After the war, he returned to college with his right arm almost totally useless, and switched to law, rather than medicine.

When we talk about the greatest generation, Bob Dole is one of the heroes.

He served in the United States Senate from 1968 until 1996, when he resigned to concentrate on running for President. Bob Dole was a fiercely partisan Republican, but he was also able to work across party lines and he never lost sight of the big picture. Among his many achievements was his advocacy for the “Americans with Disabilities Act,” which dramatically changed the participation of disabled Americans in society.

Bob Dole returned to the floor of the Senate earlier this week in a wheelchair to support adoption of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The treaty asks the nations of the world to catch up with what George H. W. Bush and Bob Dole achieved for the United States twenty-two year ago.

It should have been a slam dunk. But these are crazy times. The Senators came by one-by-one to pat him on the back and wish him well, and then thirty eight of them voted to reject the treaty on the grounds that it was a threat to United States sovereignty. Even though the United Nations would have no enforcement role, and we already have everything called for in the treaty already in place.

Opponents argued that language in the treaty which called on the nations of the world to act “in the best interests of the child” might result in the killing of disabled children. Former Senator Rick Santorum brought his disabled daughter, Bella, to the Senate and asked rhetorically if some people might think it was in Bella’s best interest not to be alive.

The treaty does not call for international enforcement; it is about our intentions as a world community to respect persons with disabilities and encourage their participation in society.

Senator John Kerry, along with Senator John McCain, a forceful advocate for the treaty, said after the vote: “This is one of the saddest days I’ve seen in almost 28 years in the Senate, and it needs to be a wake-up call about a broken institution that’s letting down the American people.”

Kerry went on: “Today the dysfunction hurt veterans and the disabled, and that’s unacceptable. This treaty was supported by every veterans group in America and Bob Dole made an inspiring and courageous personal journey back to the Senate to fight for it. It had bipartisan support, and it had the facts on its side, and yet for one ugly vote, none of that seemed to matter. We won’t give up on this and the Disabilities Treaty will pass because it’s the right thing to do, but today I understand better than ever before why Americans have such disdain for Congress and just how much must happen to fix the Senate so we can act on the real interests of our country.”

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Bob Costas and the Gun Control Debate

Then David took hold of his clothes and tore them; and all the men who were with him did the same. 12They mourned and wept, and fasted until evening for Saul and for his son Jonathan, and for the army of the Lord and for the house of Israel, because they had fallen by the sword. 13David said to the young man who had reported to him, “Where do you come from?” He answered, “I am the son of a resident alien, an Amalekite.” 14David said to him, “Were you not afraid to lift your hand to destroy the Lord’s anointed?” 15Then David called one of the young men and said, “Come here and strike him down.” So he struck him down and he died. 16David said to him, “Your blood be on your head; for your own mouth has testified against you, saying, ‘I have killed the Lord’s anointed.’”
II Samuel 1:11-16

Javon Belcher was the best linebacker, and maybe the best football player to ever play for the University of Maine Black Bears, and he went on to play for the Kansas City Chiefs in the National Football League. He graduated with a degree in family relations.

Last Saturday morning he shot and killed his girlfriend, Kasandra Perkins, and then drove to the Chiefs practice facility to thank his head coach and general manager, Romeo Crennel and Scott Pioli, for giving him a chance to play in the NFL before killing himself.

Now, three days later, there is widespread outrage. Just Google story and you will find bloggers and columnists from coast to coast up in arms.

The target of their outrage is Bob Costas.

If you haven’t been following the story, that may sound confusing. Costas didn’t shoot anybody, but he did something much worse. He spoke about gun control on national television. At half-time of the Sunday night game he took a little more than a minute to suggest that without a handgun, both Perkins and Belcher might still be alive.

Jeff Wagner, a sportscaster in Milwaukee said Costas could be summed up in three words, “What a weasel!” His blog on the subject was titled, “Hey Bob, Just Shut Up and Call the Game.” Apparently, Mr. Wagner is not aware that Costas doesn’t actually call the game. Maybe he has Costas confused with Cris Collinsworth or Al Michaels.

There have been calls to fire Costas and to boycott NBC.

The critics called it a “rant,” though it was delivered calmly and without rancor. Angry and outraged commentators asked how Costas could be so callous as to use a tragedy like the deaths of Kasandra Perkins and Javon Belcher to advance his own “political agenda.” It was, they claimed, “unseemly.”

Which makes sense.

Obviously, we wouldn’t use a death in a fire to talk about fire safety. We wouldn’t talk about drunk driving or seatbelts after a traffic fatality. And we certainly wouldn’t talk about smoking after someone who smoked for thirty years died of lung cancer. In all those cases, we would wait a decent interval, until all of us had forgotten what happened before we talked about how future deaths could be prevented.

Bob Costas crossed the line. He violated the unwritten rules.

In spite of the killings in a Colorado movie theater in July and a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin in August, gun control was barely hinted at during the presidential election. And if you Google
“mass shootings in the United States,” you will be amazed at how many killings you don’t even remember. For the most part, we have followed the unwritten rule and have not spoken a critical word about the guns used (mostly obtained legally) to kill innocent people.

And as a pastor, I should confess that I don’t think I have ever addressed the issue of gun control in a sermon.

Ironically, the Javon Belcher murder and suicide probably provided the weakest argument for gun control. Sadly, men have been killing women since long before there were handguns.

I don’t know whether better gun control laws would have saved Kasandra Perkins’ life. I do know that our unwillingness to deal with the proliferation of firearms in this country is just plain crazy.

Friday, November 30, 2012

We Belong to a World Community

“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. 8The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’”
Matthew 25:1-9

In a recent column, Nicholas Kristof observes that, “In upper-middle-class suburbs on the East Coast, the newest must-have isn’t a $7,500 Sub-Zero refrigerator. It’s a standby generator that automatically flips on backup power to an entire house when the electrical grid goes out.”

I’m jealous.

We didn’t lose power for more than a few seconds during Super Storm Sandy, but folks across town, just a few miles away, were without electricity for more than a week. That’s nothing compared to what happened in New York and New Jersey, but it does make you think. Standby generators are not cheap. It’s easy to spend over $10,000, but for many families, it’s worth it. Power outages are only fun for a short time.

There are at least two problems here. One is the increase in extreme weather caused by global warming. That is a long term problem that needs to be addressed (and it is becoming a crisis sooner than expected). The other problem is our infrastructure, and specifically, the electrical grid. In 2009 the American Society of Civil Engineers examined our electrical grid and gave it a grade of D+. The World Economic Forum ranks our electrical infrastructure as 25th in the world, down from 8th in 2003-4. Remarkably, neither global warming nor infrastructure got very much attention during the presidential campaign.

This points to an underlying problem: When it comes to major issues we lack a sense of community. In the language of kindergarten progress reports, “we don’t play well with others,” and we don’t know how to share.

I don’t criticize the people who are buying generators, but from a national or global perspective it makes no sense. It’s inefficient and it increases pollution. Ironically, it addresses the problems caused by climate change by adding to the conditions that cause climate change.

But this is where we are in America. Community services are being replaced with private alternatives. Rather than pay for services with higher taxes, we leave it to individuals.

If you are worried about crime, you can live in a gated community with private security. If the public schools have problems, you can send your kids to a private school. If the roads are crumbling, you can buy a bigger SUV. If public parks and recreation areas are not maintained, you can buy a home on the beach. But these “work arounds” only work if you have a lot of money.

We need to think hard about what it means to be a community, rather than a collection of individuals who happen to live in the same country (and on the same planet).

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Wonder Bread and Prosperity

So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”
John 6:30-34

Obviously, Jesus was talking about Wonder Bread.

One of the great trials of my childhood was that I never (almost never) had Wonder Bread. On Saturdays when I watched a circus show on TV called (I think) “The Big Top” at noon at Gramma Gibbs’s across the street, she would make me a peanut butter sandwich on Cushman’s white bread, but I still didn’t get Wonder Bread.

Sadly, my mother was into health food long before it was popular and I was forced to carry whole wheat or oatmeal bread sandwiches to school for lunch. As far as I could tell, everyone else had Wonder Bread.

According to the TV ads, “Wonder Bread helps build strong bodies twelve ways!” There were no ads for oatmeal bread, but my mother assured me that it was good for me.

I have been meditating on Wonder Bread since I learned that the Hostess Baking Company has declared bankruptcy (again) and is shutting down. No more Hostess Cup Cakes or Snowballs or Twinkies. I thought Twinkies were eternal.

The company is blaming the unions and there is some truth to that. Apparently one of the unions had a deal whereby they could not be required to carry baked goods and bread on the same truck, which meant two different trucks for the same route. On the other hand, in one of the earlier bankruptcy reorganizations the CEO negotiated pay and benefit reductions with the unions and then gave himself a 300% pay raise (which he earned by negotiating those reductions).

There is certainly enough blame to go around.

Those of us who paid attention to Reinhold Niebuhr are not surprised to find that the tendency to self-interest is found in unions as well as in management. Niebuhr was in favor of unions, not because they were pure and blameless, but because they provided a countervailing force to the power of corporations.

It is worth noting that in the in the Wonder Bread and Twinkie world of the 1950’s, unions were much stronger than they are today. In the mid-fifties approximately one-third of all workers were unionized. Management and workers bargained as equals. And on top of that, the highest marginal tax rate was 91%.

In that postwar environment of strong unions and (relatively) high taxes, we thrived. Middle class income grew dramatically and we enjoyed perhaps the greatest prosperity in the history of the world.

Ironically, there is much more nostalgia for Twinkies and Wonder Bread than for stronger unions and higher taxes, even though we know that Twinkies and Wonder Bread and Hostess Cup Cakes are not good for us. (My mother was right all along!)

There are lots of things about the post-war era that we don’t miss. The disabled were institutionalized and out of sight. Black people rode at the back of the bus. Gays were kept in the closet. And women did not stray from the kitchen.

Restoring the higher marginal tax rates of the fifties will not magically create prosperity (but investments in infrastructure—remember the interstate highway system—can make a difference). And restoring the power of the unions is impossible in the new global economy. But there are still positive lessons to learn from those “Wonder Years.” It is possible to have prosperity without asking those at the bottom to have less so that those at the top can have more.

Monday, November 26, 2012

A Different Kind of Christmas

Today is “Cyber Monday.” Friday was “Black Friday,” which actually started on Thursday (the holiday formerly known as “Thanksgiving”). When you stop and think about it, the idea of Christmas shopping is a very strange one. Do we really expect to find Christmas for sale somewhere?

I need to insert two footnotes before going any farther. First, as someone concerned about the national and global economy, I am glad that the early reports on Black Friday show that sales are up. And second, having enjoyed a childhood full of wonderful Christmas presents (though the gifts I got were very modest by today’s standards), I am not about to suggest that today’s children should be denied those self-indulgent delights.

Deep inside the materialistic excesses of our holiday shopping, there is a theology struggling to get out. The tradition of gift giving goes back to the Three Wise Men, who brought gifts to the baby Jesus in the manger. At its best, the gift giving celebration affirms our faith that God is still among us, that we experience Christ in every human hand and face. In other words, every baby is baby Jesus. We give gifts to our friends and family as a celebration of Christ’s presence within them.

Of course, if we are really trying to give a present to Jesus, then we need to ask, “What kind of present would Jesus want?” (WKPWJW?) I’m guessing it’s probably not something you can get at the mall. And though I am pained to admit it, I probably can’t order it from LL Bean.

According to the Gospels, he wants us to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, to love our neighbors as ourselves, to forgive those who hurt us, to turn the other cheek and go the extra mile, to work for peace and justice, and pray for the coming of God’s kingdom, to give all that we have, and to follow him.

On the way to accomplishing that (and some of it can only happen in God’s time and by God’s doing), what Jesus wants is changed lives. And he wants that, not because it’s good for him, but because it’s good for us.

When people ask that absolutely essential question of the season, “Are you ready for Christmas?” what they really mean is, “Have you done your shopping?” The question is meant to be harmless and fun.  And it is.  We would be shocked to get a serious answer, but think for a minute about what that might sound like.

"Are you ready for Christmas?"

"I’m ready for a different kind of Christmas.  During Advent I try to begin each day with a few minutes of Bible study.  I read the familiar texts from Isaiah and Luke.  I try to let it sink in, and I try to read it every day as if I had never read it before.  I try to envision what the world would be like if we really lived out those scriptures. Then I pray for my friends and family.  Some of them are going through difficult times. And my own life is not as bright as the Christmas lights. But mostly it's just a simple prayer that we slow down enough to really enjoy the season and be thankful for one another.  How about you?"

That might lead to a very interesting discussion, or a long silence.  What do you think?  Are you ready for a different kind of Christmas?

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Have You Heard the One about the General and the Biographer and the Socialite and the Other General and the FBI?

It happened, late one afternoon, when David rose from his couch and was walking about on the roof of the king’s house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; the woman was very beautiful. David sent someone to inquire about the woman. It was reported, “This is Bathsheba daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite.” So David sent messengers to get her, and she came to him, and he lay with her.
II Samuel 11:2-4

Raise your hand if you thought General Petraeus was a likely candidate for extramarital sex.

The story of King David is much more straight-forward than the story of CIA director David Petraeus. A woman in Florida complained to a friend in the FBI about emails she was receiving. The FBI friend started an investigation, which led to the discovery that the women sending the unwanted emails was having an affair with General Petraeus. Eventually, the FBI also found that the woman receiving the (allegedly) nasty emails was also having an (apparently or possibly) inappropriate correspondence with another general. In the meantime, the friend at the FBI was taken off of the case and then complained to a friend in congress because it was going too slowly. And maybe he is now also under investigation? You can’t make this up.

The whole story is tragic. It is especially tragic for the spouses and the families. It is always painful to have one’s trust betrayed, but to have that betrayal played out as the lead story in a never ending news cycle must feel like one has been sent to a special place in hell. But in a different light, it is also tragic for the principal actors. No one is immune to human frailty

Our modern David has no shortage of folks willing to make excuses for his behavior. An unnamed former colleague described Paula Broadwell as “a shameless self-promoting prom queen,” and apologized for the general by explaining, “You’re a 60-year-old man and an attractive woman almost half your age makes herself available to you – that would be a test for anyone.” News stories focused on Mrs. Broadwell’s wardrobe, her eyes, and her well-toned muscles in an attempt to rationalize the general’s fall from grace.

When in doubt, blame the woman.

One of the more remarkable things about the story of David and Bathsheba is that all of the blame, human and divine, falls on David. When we think about the patriarchal culture of those times, it is surprising that Bathsheba was not portrayed as the temptress and the seducer.

We blame the woman in part at least because we know there is no limit to the needs of the male ego. On the short list of powerful men who had affairs with worshipful younger women we find Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, John Edwards, and John McCain.

The problem is not new. Half a century ago when Allen Dulles was CIA Director and his brother, John Foster Dulles, was Secretary of State, the standards were quite different. According to his sister, Allen Dulles had hundreds of affairs, including Queen Frederika of Greece, and no one thought much about it.

The Book of Proverbs provides wisdom for married men in the form of a blessing:

Let your fountain be blessed,
and rejoice in the wife of your youth,
1a lovely deer, a graceful doe.
May her breasts satisfy you at all times;
may you be intoxicated always by her love.

Proverbs 5:18-19

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Climate Change and Hurricane Sandy

The waters swelled so mightily on the earth that all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered; 20the waters swelled above the mountains, covering them fifteen cubits deep.
Genesis 7:19-20

Roger Boisjoly died suddenly last winter in his sleep. He had been diagnosed with cancer a few weeks before that, but his death was unexpected. In 1986 he was an engineer working for Morton Thiokol, a major contractor for the Space Shuttle Challenger. He had argued vociferously against the launch in January of 1986 because his research showed that the seals at the joints of the multi-stage booster rockets were subject to failure in cold temperatures. With launch temperatures predicted to be around thirty degrees Fahrenheit, Boisjoly believed it was not safe to launch. Tragically, he was right. Boisjoly spent the last decades of his life addressing engineering students on ethical decision-making.

Dan Miller, an engineer and climate change expert has compared climate change to the Challenger disaster. In their eagerness to keep the launch on schedule, NASA managers asked Boisjoly and a small number of other engineers at Thiokol to prove that the shuttle would blow up before they would be willing to cancel the launch. Miller points out that they were asking the wrong question. “They should have asked for assurance that the flight would be safe in order to launch.”

Similarly, the climate change skeptics argue that the vast body of data showing evidence of manmade climate change is not conclusive “proof.”

The computer models produced by climate change scientists have predicted an increase in extreme weather events as a result of global warming. The devastation of Hurricane Sandy is consistent with this pattern. That doesn’t “prove” that the largest storm in recorded history was caused by climate change, but it does make one wonder.

In an exchange with Andrew Revkin in the New York Times on line, Miller writes:

“Extremely Hot Summers (“3-sigma” events) have increased 50X (5000%) in the past 50 years. There is 4% more water vapor in the atmosphere than 50 years ago. Average ocean temperatures have increased (90% of global warming energy goes into the ocean). The Arctic sea ice just reached its lowest level in thousands of years and in a few years you will be able to sail a boat to the North Pole for the first time in human history.

“These documented impacts all affected the strength, scale, and direction of Hurricane Sandy. No one is saying that a Hurricane Sandy would not have happened if not for climate change. But I believe there is little doubt that the record-breaking scale and potential destructiveness of Sandy is due in large part to the amplifying effects of warmer ocean temperatures, higher atmospheric moisture content, and unusual Arctic weather patterns.

“Like the Space Shuttle Challenger’s NASA managers, waiting for scientific “proof” of disaster, rather than taking prudent (and economically beneficial) steps to avert disaster, only guarantees that our children will face catastrophic consequences.”

Climate change was one of many topics ignored in the presidential debates. But it is something we cannot ignore. One of the meteorologists predicting the devastating effects of Hurricane Sandy reported on a conversation he had with a coastal resident as the storm was approaching. The man complained that the meteorologists were always hyping the next big storm and he saw no need to evacuate his home. The meteorologist said his response was approximately, “Do what the emergency management people are telling you to do, and if they are wrong you can call up and yell at me on Tuesday.”

We only have one planet. We don’t have a place to go if this one becomes uninhabitable. Maybe the 99% of scientists who believe that global warming is real are mistaken. Maybe the effects of global warming have been exaggerated. But their predictions have been accurate up to this point, and it is long past time for us to do something about it.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Happy United Nations Day

2In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. 3Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. 4He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. 5O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!

Isaiah 2:2-5

At the United Nations building in New York City there is a statue of a man beating a giant sword into a plowshare. The sculpture, titled, “Let Us Beat Swords into Plowshares,” was created by Evgeniv Vuchetich and given as a gift by the Soviet Union in 1959.

When President Reagan addressed the United Nations General Assembly in 1987, he began by describing the journey that brought the delegates and the nations together as a kind of pilgrimage, and then he said, “We come from every continent, every race, and most religions to this great hall of hope . . .”

Near the conclusion of his address, speaking specifically to the Soviet Union as well as to the whole assembly, he asked, “Cannot swords be turned to plowshares? Can we and all nations not live in peace? In our obsession with antagonisms of the moment, we often forget how much unites all the members of humanity. Perhaps we need some outside, universal threat to make us recognize this common bond. I occasionally think how quickly our differences world-wide would vanish if we were facing an alien threat from outside this world. And yet, I ask you, is not an alien force already among us? What could be more alien than war and the threat of war?”

The United Nations Charter was ratified on October 24, 1945. Today is United Nations Day. When I was a boy we celebrated United Nations Sunday in church every year.

My guess is that most people don’t know that today is United Nations Day. And we do not have many political leaders who would speak of the U.N. assembly room as “this great hall of hope.”

Over the years the United Nations has relentlessly vilified and marginalized by politicians. Some see it as simply ineffective and others see it as a threat to our sovereignty. In his new book, “The Black Helicopters Are Coming!” political commentator Dick Morris’ claims that President Obama is plotting to have the United States invaded by the United Nations. Morris admits that “it sounds crazy,” but insists that it is really going to happen.

It doesn’t just sound crazy. It really and truly is crazy. But this is where we are.

The truth is that the United Nations has not lived up to our expectations. We have avoided massive world wars, and that is no small achievement. The second half of the twentieth century was much more peaceful than the first half. And the United Nations must take some share of the credit for that. On the other hand, smaller wars have been constant and the resulting deaths and injuries have been staggering.

In spite of its obvious limitations, the world is a better place because of the United Nations, and on United Nations Day I want to touch briefly on a few of the U.N. organizations that have fostered international progress and understanding.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is organized to reduce hunger worldwide through improving agricultural productivity and raising levels of nutrition. The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) is similarly targeted to reduce rural poverty in developing nations by funding relief efforts.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) promotes global cooperation to improve maritime safety and decrease marine pollution.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) acts as a forum for discussing global financial issues and provides loans to developing countries.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) promotes world peace and security by fostering international cooperation in education, science and culture. They promote the fundamental freedoms endorsed in the UN Charter.

And then there are some UN organizations that require no further description: the World Health Organization (WHO), the World Trade Organization (WHO), the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), and the World Bank Group (WBG) which includes five sub-groups focused on promoting development and reconstruction.

It is an impressive list. Together they promote an international strategy for beating swords into plowshares. 

Friday, October 12, 2012

A young Girl Takes on the Taliban

When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.”

So he went with him.

He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement.
Mark 5:21-24,40-42

Jesus took her by the hand and said to her, "Talitha cum," which means, "Little girl, get up!"

In a perfect world, when she was 11 years old Malala Yousafzai would have been playing with the Pakistani equivalent of an American Girl doll. But in the violent and unjust world in which she found herself this schoolgirl was taking on the Taliban by voicing her passion for education. As Taliban fighters overran her town in northwestern Pakistan in 2009, Malala spoke about her plans to become a doctor and defied the Taliban’s crusade to subjugate women by denying an education to girls like Malala.

On T.uesday they came for her. Masked gunmen boarded a crowded school bus, singled her out, and shot her in the head and neck as other terrified children watched. She survived, along with two other girls who were wounded. Doctors at a hospital in Peshawar reported that she was in critical condition.

Incredibly, the Taliban claimed “credit” for the attack and promised that if she survived they would come back for her. Ehsanullah Ehsan, a Taliban spokesman confirmed by phone that the Taliban had targeted her and called her campaign for girls’ education rights an “obscenity.” Ehsan went on to say that Malala “has become a symbol of Western Culture in the area; she was openly propagating it.” “Let this be a lesson,” he warned.

In a New York Times column, Nicholas Kristof  reports speaking with Fazal Moula Zahid, a close family friend, who told him that doctors were hopeful that there has been no brain damage and that she will ultimately return to school.

“After recovery, she will continue to get an education,” Fazal said. “She will never, never drop out of school. She will go to the last.”

“Please thank all your people who are supporting us and who stand with us in this war,” he added. “You energize us.”

It would be wrong to see the Taliban as the voice of Pakistan. The government is hardly a model of progressive tolerance, but they are basically at war with the Taliban. On the other side of the political spectrum, it was a major setback for Pakistan’s progressives, who were appalled and frustrated by the attack. Nadeem Paracha, a media commentator posted his sarcastic assessment on Twitter, “Come on brothers,” he wrote, “Be REAL MEN. Kill a school girl.”

Sadly, misogyny is a world-wide problem.

Writing on “The International Day of the Girl,” Kristof linked the shooting in Pakistan to an incident in Indonesia where a fourteen year old girl was lured into captivity by sex traffickers and then raped for a week. She was finally released after her disappearance was reported on the local news.

When her school found out what had happened, the school publicly expelled her in front of hundreds of classmates. According to a report by Indonesia’s National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, they did this because she had “tarnished the school’s image.”

In the struggle for gender equality, education plays a critical role. That’s why the Taliban wants to silence Malala Yousafzai.

“This is not just Malala’s war,” said a 19-year-old female student in Peshawar. “It is a war between two ideologies, between the light of education and darkness.” Kristof notes that at the time he spoke with her the young woman said she was happy to be quoted by name. “But after what happened to Malala, I don’t dare put her at risk.”

Throughout Pakistan there are extremist schools financed by misogynists from Saudi Arabia and other nations. Kristof writes, “They provide meals, free tuition and sometimes scholarships to lure boys—because their donors understand perfectly that education shapes countries.”

Foreign aid from the United States is mostly directed toward the military. Less than a tenth of our aid dollars go toward education. The military aid is at best a short term solution. In the long run, it is education that will shape the country. Malala’s struggle transcends nation and gender and religion. It is about shaping the kind of world we want to live in. Her struggle is our struggle.

Jesus took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!”

It is through the education of young women in Pakistan and around the world that Jesus’ words will come alive.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Affirmative Action and the Moral Arc of the Universe

13Happy are those who find wisdom,
and those who get understanding,
14for her income is better than silver,
and her revenue better than gold.
15She is more precious than jewels,
and nothing you desire can compare with her.
16Long life is in her right hand;
in her left hand are riches and honor.
17Her ways are ways of pleasantness,
and all her paths are peace.
18She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her;
those who hold her fast are called happy.

Proverbs 3:13-18

The Supreme Court is presently considering a case about affirmative action, “Fisher v. the University of Texas at Austin.” Abigail Fisher claims that the University of Texas denied her admission because she is white. She claims that minority students were admitted whose applications were otherwise less accomplished than hers. The University is arguing that race is only one factor they consider in admissions and that they have a compelling interest in having a diverse student body. Although I don’t believe it is part of their argument before the court, the school also maintains that Ms. Fisher would not have been admitted even if race were not considered.

Affirmative action is no longer a government mandate. It is a voluntary program initiatied by many institutions because they believe their mission can better be fulfilled by enlarging opportunities for historically disfavored groups.

The Court has been clear that is unconstitutional to exclude minorities because of their race. The question before the Court is whether it is constitutional to implement a race-conscious program in order to increase the opportunities of minorities.

I think we can be reasonably certain that the framers of the constitution would have been against any racial preference that increased the opportunities for minorities. They were in favor of slavery. They would have been against the Fourteenth Amendment and they certainly would not have extended the equal protection clause to include affirmative action. Similarly, it is hard to believe that the majority voting for the Civil Rights Act of 1866 would have held together to approve the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

I am not a lawyer and I won’t pretend to understand the legal technicalities. A ruling in favor of Ms. Fisher seems likely, and several of the justices are already on record against any form of “race consciousness.” Unfortunately, this will turn back the clock on diversity and move us away from a more inclusive society.

As Christians, one of our fundamental beliefs is that God works in history. In the long run, we are moving toward the Kingdom of God. In the imagery of the abolitionist preacher Theodore Parker, popularized by the greatest preacher of the Civil Rights movement, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

If the program at the University of Texas at Austin is declared unconstitutional, the arc will get a little longer and our task will become a little more difficult.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Something Missing from the Debate

17As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” 20He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” 21Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 22When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

Mark 10:17-22

Earlier this week in his column in the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof wrote about an urgent issue that was completely absent from the presidential debate, the growth of income inequality in America.

Kristof began with a parable. He invited readers to “Imagine a kindergarten with 100 students, lavishly supplied with books, crayons and toys.” There is more than enough for everyone, but one little boy has almost all the toys. Nine others each have a few toys, and the remaining 90 children have nothing at all.

One little boy has more toys than all those ninety others combined.

As a responsible adult, you want to correct the situation. “What’s going on?” you ask. “Let’s learn to share! One child shouldn’t hog everything for himself!” But the one with all the toys is unmoved. “I don’t want to share,” he says. “This is America!”

Sadly, the little boy is right. America does in fact look like the kindergarten in Kristof’s parable. The top 1% in the United States has more wealth than the bottom 90% combined. Every time I write that I think it must be wrong. It seems impossible, but it’s true. There are studies that vary slightly in their calculations, but the basic facts hold. And within that top 1% there is a steep increase as you move from the .09% up to the .01% (one in a thousand).

In the present economic “recovery,” 93% of the gains in income went to the top 1%. And last month the Gini coefficient, the standard measure of inequality set a modern record and reached the highest level since the great depression.

Last year scholars from Duke and Harvard conducted a study in which they asked Americans which country they would like to live in, one with income inequality like Sweden’s or one with income inequality like America’s. Turns out that most of us would rather live in Sweden. Of course the researchers didn’t label the countries as America a Sweden. We want to live in a more equal society and we believe that America has a much more equal distribution of wealth than it does.

For Christians, inequality is a moral problem. Kristof, who would not call himself a Christian, is nevertheless closer to the ethics of Jesus than many devout “believers.” He describes our inequality as “unconscionable.” For the past thirty years we have been redistributing income, from the middle and bottom to the top.

Inequality is not just a moral problem; it is also an economic problem. It stifles growth because those at the bottom cannot create the necessary demand for goods and services, and they cannot afford the education to train for the jobs of the future.

The answer is not for the government to play Robin Hood and take money from the top to redistribute at the bottom, but to restore a more progressive tax policy. In the 1950’s, the marginal tax rate on the highest incomes was 90%. It wasn’t until 1987 that the highest tax rate came down to less than 50%. That income could be used for education, job training, and infrastructure, investments that would create jobs and benefit all Americans.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Peacemaking in the Muslim World

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.”
Matthew 5:9

Last Friday and Saturday, tens of thousands took to the streets in Benghazi to protest the killing of Ambassador Christopher Stevens, who was widely recognized as a friend of the Libyan people. A Libyan man, shocked by the violence, commented,  “Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, had a saying about not killing an envoy, a diplomat,” he said. “But every religion has its extremes.”

When it comes to Islam, the ongoing complaint is that we never hear from the moderates. They are silent and invisible. But last weekend in Benghazi the moderates were out in large numbers. Writing in the New York Times on Tuesday, Thomas Friedman commented, “It is not clear whether this trend can spread or be sustained. But having decried the voices of intolerance that so often intimidate everyone in that region, I find it heartening to see Libyans carrying signs like ‘We want justice for Chris’ and ‘No more Al Qaeda’ — and demanding that armed militias disband. This coincides with some brutally honest articles in the Arab/Muslim press — in response to rioting triggered by the idiotic YouTube video insulting the Prophet Muhammad — that are not the usual ‘What is wrong with America?’  but, rather, ‘What is wrong with us, and how do we fix it?’”

The critical commentary was not limited to Benghazi. Throughout the Muslim world, voices were raised in protest. Friedman quotes a brutal critique from Imad al-Din Hussein, who writes for Al Shorouk, the leading Cairo newspaper: “We curse the West day and night, and criticize its [moral] disintegration and shamelessness, while relying on it for everything. ... We import, mostly from the West, cars, trains, planes ... refrigerators, and washing machines. ... We are a nation that contributes nothing to human civilization in the current era. ... We have become a burden on [other] nations. ... Had we truly implemented the essence of the directives of Islam and all [other] religions, we would have been at the forefront of the nations. The world will respect us when we return to being people who take part in human civilization, instead of [being] parasites who are spread out over the map of the advanced world, feeding off its production and later attacking it from morning until night. ... The West is not an oasis of idealism. It also contains exploitation in many areas. But at least it is not sunk in delusions, trivialities and external appearances, as we are. ... Therefore, supporting Islam and the prophet of the Muslims should be done through work, production, values, and culture, not by storming embassies and murdering diplomats.”

In every country and in every culture, the loudest voices are always the extremists. And they always have influence disproportionate to their numbers. It is good to remind ourselves that they are not the only voices.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Faith and Politics in America

"Politics are never ultimate, never absolute. We can and must fight the good fight for a better republic and a better world. But our hope does not depend on any political outcome. Our faith and our hope derive from Jesus Christ, who survives all nations and all politics."
Robert N. Bellah

The Bible is a profoundly political book. The prophets proclaim God’s passion for justice as the foundation of the social order. And the message of Jesus is centered on “the good news of the Kingdom of God.” In the Lord’s Prayer, our first petition is, “Thy Kingdom come.” When the early church spoke of Jesus as “Lord,” and “Savior,” and “Son of God,” they knew that all of these terms were used to apply to the Emperor. And they knew that the Empire had killed Jesus because he was a political threat. When early Christians said that Jesus was “Lord,” they were also saying, “and Caesar is not.”

The Gospel is intensely political and we cannot read it with any measure of intellectual honestly and pretend otherwise. It is about proclaiming a vision of the Kingdom of God. It is about social and economic justice. But we must also remember, as Bellah points out, that the Kingdom of God can never be identified with any single political group or cause, or country. Instead, it is always the standard by which every political plan is judged.

What does this mean for us as Christians in an election year?

First, we need to keep perspective. Near the end of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus speaks of the apocalypse as a time when “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven.” Elections matter and the choices are real, but regardless of who wins and who loses; this will not be the apocalypse.

Second, we should not assume that those with whom we disagree are lacking in honesty or sincerity or faith. We are not choosing between good and evil; we are choosing between competing visions of the good.

Third, we need to remember that it is always easier to see the speck in the eye of our neighbor (or the opposing candidate) than it is to see the log in our own eye. As Bellah notes, “We can and must fight the good fight for a better republic and a better world.” But we need to be clear that there is a gap between our vision and God’s vision. This does not mean that one idea is as good as another, or that political issues do not matter. It does mean that we should approach political issues with repentance and humility.