Thursday, January 31, 2013

Conservative Christian Befriends Gay Activist

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” 
Matthew 5:43-48

A friend pointed me to a Huffington Post article by Shane Windmeyer, a nationally known gay rights advocate and the executive director of Campus Pride, about his friendship with Dan Cathy, President and Chief Operating Officer of Chick-fil-A.

Windemeyer tells of attending the Chick-fil-A bowl on New Year’s Day as Cathy’s personal guest and then notes, “For many this news of friendship might be shocking. After all, I am an out, 40-year-old gay man and a lifelong activist for equality. I am also the founder and executive director of Campus Pride, the leading national organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) and ally college students. Just seven months ago our organization advanced a national campaign against Chick-fil-A for the millions of dollars it donated to anti-LGBT organizations and divisive political groups that work each day to harm hardworking LGBT young people, adults and our families. I have spent quite some time being angry at and deeply distrustful of Dan Cathy and Chick-fil-A. If he had his way, my husband of 18 years and I would never be legally married.”

The story is surprising and moving. Dan Cathy initiated the contact. He listened respectfully to Windemeyer’s life journey, and in many ways he accepts him for who he is.

He writes: “Through all this, Dan and I shared respectful, enduring communication and built trust. His demeanor has always been one of kindness and openness. Even when I continued to directly question his public actions and the funding decisions, Dan embraced the opportunity to have dialogue and hear my perspective. He and I were committed to a better understanding of one another. Our mutual hope was to find common ground if possible, and to build respect no matter what. We learned about each other as people with opposing views, not as opposing people.”

And Chick-fil-A has done two significant things. They have stopped funding organizations or groups that denigrate LGBT persons, and they have drafted internal documents affirming their commitment to treat every person with dignity and respect. Their outside funding now focuses on youth, education, marriage enrichment and local communities.

It is a heartwarming story. Communication and mutual respect are good things and our country could use more of both.

When I first wrote about the Chik-fil-A controversy last summer, I said of Dan Cathy, that I believed him to be “in so many important other ways, a very good and decent person who tries to be a faithful Christian. He teaches a senior high Sunday School class. He lives by four basic practices, of worship, Bible study, prayer, and tithing. His ‘life verse’ is Deuteronomy 6:5, ‘Love the LORD you God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.’ It’s part of the Shema, and it’s also the first half of the Great Commandment to love God and neighbor.”

This story confirms that impression. Dan Cathy takes his faith seriously and he is trying to live it out. I respect his sincerity and his decency. I think he is wrong, but he is not mean, and that counts for a lot.

On the other hand, his choice to “love the sinner while hating the sin” has consequences. His stance gives cover to people with less compassion and more anger. Though it is not his intent, he is encouraging the bullies and the bigots.

And finally, I still expect more from someone who claims to be “a follower of Jesus.” Yes, faithful people can disagree. But only a shallow reading of scripture can sustain an understanding of the anti-gay agenda as growing out of Christianity or biblical faith.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Newtown and the Truth

Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate asked him, “What is truth?” 
John 18:37-38

It is one of the most compelling scenes in the Bible.

Jesus is brought before Pilate, accused of plotting insurrection. Pilate makes a statement in the form of a question, “So you are a king?” And Jesus turns the words back on him, “You say that I am a king.” His mission, he says, is to testify to the truth, and he claims that everyone who is open to the truth will listen to his voice. Pilate does not react to the implied insult, but asks the larger question, “What is truth?”

It is a question for philosophers and theologians, as well as for scientists and historians. And it is a question for every human being.

For the philosophers and the theologians, there is no single answer. And for every human being, there is a personal answer which is, at least in some ways, unique. But for the most part we have agreed that historical and scientific truth could be found with some certainty. Scientists and scholars could reach consensus. They would be open to new discoveries, but they could agree on the facts.

But our common sense of truth has increasingly come under attack.

The most recent case may also be the most absurd, but it is part of a larger pattern.

News stories on television and in print report that Gene Rosen, the retired psychologist who took in four scared children he found hiding in his driveway on the morning of the Sandy Hook massacre, is now accused of being an actor in a vast conspiracy to create an event that would push the country toward stricter gun control. Really.

“I don’t know what to do,” Rosen told an interviewer from “There must be some way to morally shame these people, because there were 20 dead children lying an eighth of a mile from my window all night long. And I sat there with my wife, because they couldn’t take the bodies out that night so the medical examiner could come. And I thought of an expression, that this ‘adds insult to injury,’ but that’s a stupid expression, because this is not an injury, this is an abomination.”

As evidence of the hoax, one web site points out that Rosen “focuses totally on the kids and the sound of gunshots. Even though his eyes and ears should've taken in the whole scene, his story focuses completely on the kids and the guns.” And the writer explains why, “if this was a false flag event designed to move political opinion on gun control, here in America, then you would get a lot more bang for your buck by talking about the innocent little children. That's what tugs on America's heart strings the most ... especially around Christmas time.”

It is both cruel and bizarre, but it is also just one more to add to the list:

911 was an inside job.
Global warming is a hoax.
President Obama was born in Kenya.
The President is a Muslim.
Evolution is a hoax.

And the list goes on.

We are in a strange place. Our technology allows us access to a wealth of information vastly greater than anything the world has previously known. But we do not trust our scholars or scientists. In one of the more memorable exchanges within the committee that reviewed standards for text books in Texas, one participant, a dentist, said that he did not want to leave history or science to “the experts.”

The late Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” In the strange world of the paranoid truthers, we are also entitled to our own facts.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Marriage Equality: A Response to Bishop Tobin

King Solomon loved many foreign women along with the daughter of Pharaoh: Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Sidonian, and Hittite women, from the nations concerning which the Lord had said to the Israelites, ‘You shall not enter into marriage with them, neither shall they with you; for they will surely incline your heart to follow their gods;’ Solomon clung to these in love. Among his wives were seven hundred princesses and three hundred concubines; and his wives turned away his heart. 
I Kings 11:1-3 

In a recent column in The Rhode Island Catholic, Bishop Thomas Tobin urged the General Assembly to reject “same sex marriage.” The quotation marks are his. He called it “immoral and unnecessary.” In setting forth his argument against marriage equality, the Bishop wrote:

“The proposal to legalize same-sex marriage is an attempt to redefine the institution of marriage as it has existed in every culture from the very beginning of human history. Marriage between a man and a woman was designed by God for two specific purposes: to affirm the complementary roles of males and females in a loving relationship, and to provide a stable foundation for the procreation and raising of children. Homosexual relationships can achieve neither of those goals.”

The idea that marriage has been defined “in every culture from the very beginning of human history” as a relationship between one man and one woman comes as a great surprise to anyone who has read the Bible. The patriarchs all had several wives and in their stories the rivalry among the wives often plays a significant role in the narrative. And later we read of Saul and David and Solomon, whose wives and concubines were counted in the hundreds.

Marriage has been redefined countless times over the centuries as the roles of men and women have changed. Marriage is no longer defined as a business transaction between the woman’s father and her husband to be, in which she was sold as property. Our definition of marriage no longer includes the right of the husband to beat, or rape, or abandon his wife. It’s not that long ago that the wedding vows typically had the woman promising to “obey” her husband.

According to the Bishop, one of the purposes of marriage is to “affirm the complementary roles of males and females in a loving relationship.” But he does not say what those “complementary roles” are. Both men and women are capable of working outside the home. Each is capable of being the primary “at home parent.” Both can change diapers, cook supper, push strollers, and coach Little League.

In terms of raising children, we already know that children raised by same sex parents are no more likely to have problems than children in “traditional” families.

Bishop Tobin argues that “natural law, the Holy Scriptures, and long-standing religious tradition are very consistent in affirming that homosexual activity is sinful, contrary to God’s plan.”

He is entitled to his reading of Scripture, but it is important to point out that significant numbers of Christians and Jews read those passages differently. The Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., as well as both Conservative and Reform Judaism have read those same texts and come to very different conclusions. The argument from natural law is also subject to dispute. We do well to remember that in past centuries natural law was cited in support of slavery, segregation, and the subjugation of women.

Bishop Tobin called same sex marriage "immoral and unnecessary." He is wrong on both counts. It is moral and it is necessary. It is a basic question of civil rights and equal treatment under the law.

Gay and lesbian couples are already living in committed relationships. They are already raising families. They are our neighbors, co-workers and fellow citizens. They sit with us in church on Sunday mornings. They go to PTA meetings and soccer games. The relationships and the families already exist. The question is whether or not those relationships are given equal protection and recognition under the law.

As Christians, we look to Jesus’ teachings for guidance and direction. He never said anything about homosexuality, but he said a great deal about how we treat our neighbors. A verse from the Sermon on the Mount provides a good summary:

“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 7:12)

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Health Care: Economics and Morality

As he went, the crowds pressed in on him. Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years; and though she had spent all she had on physicians, no one could cure her. She came up behind him and touched the fringe of his clothes, and immediately her hemorrhage stopped.
Luke 8:43-44 

I got a note last week from a young woman in our church asking me to pray for her aunt who “has been diagnosed with lung cancer, lost her job in September and has no insurance. A day later a colleague told me of a friend who was recently diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. The good news is that her doctor has found a medication that gives her relief. The bad news is that it costs six hundred dollars a month, and she has no insurance. And last week I also heard from a young friend who was hit by a car while riding her bicycle. She was wearing a helmet, so the impact of her head on the hood of the car did not, apparently, cause serious injury, but she was reluctant to get checked at the hospital because (you guessed correctly) she had no health insurance.

Americans pay more for health care than any other developed country, and we get worse results. We don’t live as long and we are not as healthy as the residents of other developed countries. The difference is that they have universal health care and we don’t.

The woman with Crohn’s disease is a Canadian citizen who has lived and worked in the United States for several decades. After listening to her problem, a friend suggested gently, “Maybe it’s time to go home.”

We spend over $8,000 per person on health care. That’s more than twice the cost of other developed countries. We have fewer practicing physicians, 2.6 per thousand people compared with an average among other developed countries of 3.1 per thousand. Our life expectancy is 78.7 years, compared to an average among the developed nations of 79.8. And we have 2.6 hospital beds per thousand people, compared to an average of 3.4 beds per thousand in the rest of the developed world.

We spend more and we get less.

Health care is a moral issue, but it is also an economic issue. Universal health care improves lives and it saves money. It is not economically efficient for uninsured people to use the hospital emergency room when a visit to a doctor’s office is what they really need. Routine care can improve health and reduce the number of crisis situations that lead to emergency hospitalizations.

The Affordable Care Act, aka “Obamacare” is less than perfect, but it makes a beginning. Fewer people will be uninsured and fewer people missing out on routine screenings or going to the Emergency Room when they have a bad cold. And fewer people will face bankruptcy as the result of a catastrophic illness.

And there is an added bonus for those concerned about the national debt. The CBO (Congressional Budget Office) estimated that the Affordable Care Act would reduce the debt by $143 billion between 2010 and 2019.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Averting the Fiscal Cliff and Casting Out Demons

“When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it wanders through waterless regions looking for a resting place, but it finds none. Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ When it comes, it finds it empty, swept, and put in order. Then it goes and brings along seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and live there; and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So will it be also with this evil generation.” 
Matthew 12:43-45

Jesus was talking about the so called “Fiscal Cliff.”


The “person” is the country and the “unclean spirit” is the combination of tax increases and spending reductions that congress created as a way to force itself to deal with the national debt. Congress has, at least temporarily, driven out the unclean spirit, but they have not replaced it with anything positive. Unless they fill that void, the unclean spirit will return and bring friends with it.

It is amazing (and not in a good way) how much time and effort (much of it negative) congress has invested in averting a crisis that it created. And the false demon of the fiscal cliff kept them from addressing the real problems of economic growth and job creation.

The debt is a long term problem, but the immediate problem is jobs. And almost everyone admits this. In the presidential campaign, both President Obama and Governor Romney talked about jobs and economic growth as the most critical issues facing the nation. If the debt were the most important issue, then the fiscal cliff would be a solution rather than a problem. But almost everyone in congress wanted to avert the fiscal cliff because they believed, as almost all economists believed, that it would throw the country into another recession.

So one demon has been cast out. One catastrophe has been averted.

And the markets around the world seem to like this; at least they like it better than the alternative. The Dow Jones Industrial Average was up over three hundred points yesterday. Investors apparently think that congress has done the right thing.

Lost in all of the Fiscal Cliff hoopla is the fact that as of January first, the payroll tax has gone up for everyone. The Social Security tax has gone back to 6.2% from the temporary rate of 4.2% adopted as an economic stimulus for the past two years. The two percent increase applies across the board on all earned income up to $113,000. Intentionally underfunding Social Security never seemed like a good idea to me, but a two percent across the board tax increase isn’t a good idea either. Economists say it will slow economic growth by about half a percentage point, which doesn’t sound like much, but with the economy growing at only 3% annually, that’s a loss of nearly 20%.

Still, we averted disaster.

Maybe now we can focus on the need for job creation and economic growth. Ironically, for all of their differences, both Republicans and Democrats seem to agree on the need for economic stimulus. Conservatives want to do it with tax cuts and liberals want to do it with spending, but those are just different sides (literally) of the same coin. The argument we should be having is about which kind of stimulus will work best.