Thursday, April 30, 2009

The legacy of Fred Phelps

(Note to CCbloggers: The site is linking to the incorrect post. Look at the blog archive on the right to find the post you are looking for. Sorry for the confusion!)

Nate Phelps is the son of Fred Phelps and recently gave a speech to the American Atheists. It is a heart wrenching tale of the evils of religious extremism and of living with a genuinely evil person. Nate has come a long way, as his story testifies, but likely will be exorcising the demons of his nightmare childhood for the rest of his life. Elsewhere he relates how after the speech, Richard Dawkins came forward from the audience to ask why Fred Phelps wasn't in jail for the child and spouse abuse he had committed. Why indeed.

"Lies, damn lies, and statistics"

(Note to CCbloggers: For some reason the site is linking to the wrong posts. See the "Blog Archive" to the right and click on the post your are looking for. Sorry for the confusion!)

Here is one more application for Mark Twain's famous and very useful phrase: 401ks. Dan Sorin has been writing for some time trying to expose the false promises of these leaky retirement funds relied upon by millions. In this short article he tells of discovering another layer of deception: manipulating employers' plans' performance histories to inflate the appearance of their success. Sorin doesn't understand how they get away with it. In any case, it's called lying.

Monday, April 27, 2009

When we hit bottom, then what?

Paul Krugman is interviewed by the Cincinnati Enquirer (from Calculated Risk):

Q. What will it take to pull out of this crisis?

I'm in the camp that really worries about the L-shaped recession. We level off but we don't get the recovery. We hope it isn't, but it has all the markings of it. This looks like the kind of slump that has all the markings of where normal recovery forces are very, very weak.

It's hard to see where recovery comes from. Almost always the way a country recovers from a financial crisis is with an export boom. The problem is that we have a global crisis this time. So who are we going to export to, unless we find another planet to take our stuff?

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Sunday Reflections for April 26: "Torture"

(Note to CCbloggers: The site is directing you to this post by mistake. My most recent post on Biocentrism is here.)

I have resisted writing about US government torture I suspect primarily because it is such an ugly, uncomfortable topic. Like most people, I’d just rather not look. It’s also a very complicated topic and, frankly, I just haven’t been sure I had anything worthwhile to say. The issue now seems to be coming to a head so that to not say anything itself makes a statement.

The recently released government memos, the Red Cross report, and the multiplying stories of investigative journalists make clear that in the years after 9/11 horrendous things occurred to persons in American custody, which were authorized by our government. No one is really disputing that. There have been basically four responses to these revelations: 1) what occurred was necessary to our safety and legally justified, 2) whether right or wrong it’s over and we need to focus all our energies on current problems, 3) it’s essential the full story be told through an official investigation, and 4) laws were broken and the guilty need to be prosecuted and punished no matter who they are.

Whenever things go badly wrong, in any area of our life, our natural inclination is to get past it as quickly as possible: a personal tragedy, the breakup of a relationship, a failed business endeavor. The event itself was difficult enough and dwelling on it or returning to it just reignites the pain. Nonetheless we know that often, return we must. Sometimes it is to tie off loose ends, sometimes it is to repay people who have been hurt by our mistakes, and sometimes it is to learn more in order to avoid a similar disaster in the future.

I believe that in this episode of government authorized torture, as painful as it might be (and it will be painful), return to it we must.

At this point I am not advocating any particular process. Rather, I am relying on a principle articulated in John’s gospel when Jesus says we must know the truth because the truth “will set you free”. I am convinced that this episode will be for the country a disease which, if not treated, will continue to fester and afflict us for years to come. We all know that painful episodes which we try to brush under the rug only return again and again, growing worse in the process. We need to go through this national surgery and take this tumor out.

There is no disputing that this is a complicated issue but that is all the more reason for this inquiry. We can’t be put off by its difficulty. Even more, we can’t be put off by the prospect of our own embarrassment. As with a member of our own family, our immediate reaction is to assume our country’s innocence and defend its behavior: “My country right or wrong.” And this is amplified in a democracy because at some level we the citizens are responsible for our government’s behavior. If our leaders do wrong, then we have done wrong because we put them in office and they govern on our behalf.

It’s always difficult to admit our mistakes but we know it is also mark of character and maturity. I have been watching a PBS series telling the story of American Indians, from the arrival of the Pilgrims onward. It is a very sad story, painful to watch, yet one that has important lessons to teach. In many ways it is not unlike the culture clashes we are experiencing now in this time of globalization. It is not only about greed and power but also fear, ignorance, and misunderstanding. What the program makes evident is how much the whole country lost in the suppression and exploitation of the Indians and how deep a scar it left on our national character.

The saga of slavery is a very similar one and in both instances what has been important is for the nation to say at some point, “This is not us. A mistake was made. We must not let anything like it happen again.” That is the point we must come to in the story of the torturing of prisoners held in American custody. And we will only get to that point with a public airing of the whole story. As Sen. John McCain has said, “It's not about who they are. It's about who we are."

As I write this I am surprised to find tears coming into my eyes. The emotions behind this episode are apparently much stronger than I am aware, and I am probably not alone in that. I am angry, sad, embarrassed but I suspect most importantly, I am deeply ashamed. “This is my country, the country that I love. How could this have happened?” And so I understand completely FOX newsman Sid Fox literally pounding the table on air and saying, “"We are America! We do not fucking torture!"

And yet, we did.

Which brings up another, broader aspect of this episode: the increasing distance and alienation of Americans from their government. In the current financial crisis, we know that many millions of us did stupid things. However, we also are increasingly aware that the stage was set for all this by systems established with government sanction and bought and paid for by lobbyists and campaign contributors. The bailouts have been a continuation of this manipulation. Similarly, the decisions surrounding the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were almost all made behind closed doors, including those of closed congressional committees.

Certainly secrecy is necessary at times but what has been the exception is increasingly becoming the norm. The slogans about the need for transparency and accountability are right and they must be made into reality. Allowing decision to be made secretly for expediency will only work as a policy when it is known that eventually, at a later date, “everything will be revealed”. Into this ugly scene we must bring the lamp out from under the bushel so that it will illuminate “all in the house”. We may not like what we see, but see it we must. Justice demands it and our future requires it.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Perils of optimism

A priceless cover from the Economist. Be careful little fishies!

(Note to CCblog users: the site is sending you here in error for my most recent posts. They are listed to the right and clicking on them will take you to the one you want. Sorry for the confusion.)

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

What happened to Jesus? (continued)

(CCBlogs users note: For some reason CCBlog links are not going to the correct post. "Drip, drip, drip" can be found here.)
(This continues the thought of the Reflections post below on April 16, "What happened to Jesus?").
One can, of course, take the conclusion that the Easter experience was one of visions and apparitions of Jesus a step further. Some would say this is all Jesus ever was. The voices have been slowly but steadily growing more numerous who say Jesus never existed as a flesh-and-blood human being. Jesus was never other than in people's heads. Personally, from my own reading and thinking on the subject, I have to say it is possible. Certainly the modern "quest of the historical Jesus," as Albert Schweitzer called it, has raised far more questions than it has answered. To borrow Churchill's phrase, Jesus has become "a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma".

Perhaps the simplest and most helpful explanation of the problem comes from New Testament scholar Robert Price. What Jesus research has produced, says Price, is too many Jesuses. No one has been able to construct a picture of a historic Jesus that can encompass all the various personality traits, theologies, and social agenda that scholarship has uncovered. It's as if we are at the end of the old TV show "To Tell the Truth". When the host asks the real "John Doe" to stand up, each of the candidates make a move as if to get up until one finally does. In this case, however, the real Jesus won't stand up. We just get a lot of shuffling from the candidates.

The explanation that Price and others have come to is that there is, in fact, no "real Jesus" to be found. The bumper crop of Jesus possibilities is the result of his being a constantly evolving figure in the literary and kerygmatic imaginations of the early Jesus movement. One theory is that rather than Jesus being a real person spiritualized into the Christ, he actually have started as a mythical and heavenly figure that was the central character in a great mythical salvation drama of death and rebirth. Over time the stage moved from heaven to "history" and the cast found their feet planted here on earth. Indeed, without too much difficulty, one can imagine the Jesus Paul talks about as just such a mythological character. Hence, the near absence in Paul's letters of any references to Jesus' "earthly" life and ministry as one finds it in the gospels.

When I first heard of this theory it seemed, of course, radical and revolutionary. If accepted, if "true," the church would never be the same. That's a common reaction of both proponents and opponents of a mythical Jesus. Now, however, I wonder if it really makes all that much difference. The historicity of all ancient figures is pretty fuzzy. We have our Alexanders and our Caesars. But even the lives of the greatest rulers and generals are missing many of the details modern biographers want and those we have often appear suspiciously like romantic embroidery.

As we move to lower levels of prominence, the historical reconstruction process becomes nearly impossible. And ancient religious and philosophical figures are several levels below that of royalty. Do we really know anything about Socrates' teaching, for example, given that virtually our only source is a hardly objective Plato? Historians today cast doubt on what we really know about any of the great religious figures of history: the Buddha, Lao Tzu, Mohammed, as well as Jesus. The fact is that all we have to deal with today is the religious traditions that trace their origins to the stories, historically accurate or not, surrounding these figures. We know there was an explosion, but there is so little left of the building it's doubtful we'll ever know what really caused it.

So the historical Jesus is likely to remain hidden—perhaps forever—in the fog of the ancient past. But what if a convincing mythological proto-Jesus were found in some yet undiscovered document, thus shifting the argument in a non-historical direction? Again, I suspect, it wouldn't make all that much difference. After the media splash, those of a fundamentalist persuasion would remain unconvinced and those more liberal would repeat what they already say, which is that it's "the story" that matters, and the philosophy and ethics that goes with it.

And that, of course, is where contemporary Christianity's problem lies. The question is not what is or isn't historically believable about the Bible and the Jesus story. Rather, the question is whether we really care about them anymore. "The story" (which actually unites Christian conservatives and liberals more that they realize) comes to us from very distant time—from another world, really. The attempts of preachers and teachers to make it "relevant" are now so strained that many have basically given up on it. For those that haven't the results are often laughable and pathetic. Verses and texts are seized willy-nilly to frame this or that teaching on marriage, sex, child rearing, personal finance, and countless other contemporary topics, many of which ancient people couldn't have even imagined let alone had an opinion about.

And all this focus on contemporary life issues in the church is a not very effective screen for the growing disinterest among Christians in the classic themes of sin and salvation, the mystery of God and eternal life. We simply live in a different world than did our ancient spiritual ancestors. Do Jesus and the Bible generally have anything to say to us about life and death and the meaning of existence? Of course, but then so do many sources of ancient wisdom—but it’s found only after sifting with difficulty through much that is irrelevant or incomprehensible to us. And even if we concede that the biblical and Christian traditions have insight and wisdom unique in the ancient world, it still doesn't mean they can provide us an overarching philosophy or even mythology with which we can understand and organize our lives today.

This is the Jesus the church needs to find today, whether historical or not—a Jesus whose story and message can give inspiration and meaning, purpose and comfort to people living in a confusing and evolving post-modern world. For the contemporary church, as for the women at the Markan tomb, this Jesus isn’t here. What’s uncertain is where or whether this Jesus can be found.

Monday, April 20, 2009

End of the 401K?

(Note to CCBlog users: There seems to be a problem creating a link to the right post. If you are looking for "Is it art or ..." you'll find it here.)

Last night, 60 Minutes did a segment on the fiasco of the 401K. One interview emphasized a forgotten fact, which is that they were intended to be one leg of a three-legged retirement stool, with the other legs being Social Security and traditional guaranteed benefit employer retirement plans. The latter leg has virtually disappeared, however, leaving a very wobbly stool indeed.

The weakness of 401Ks has now been revealed for everyone to see, of course. But as the 401K industry lobbyist 60 Minutes interviewed bluntly implies, the problem goes beyond that one program. The problem is equity investing itself. The spokesman tried to deflect 401K criticism by saying participants shouldn't have been in stocks in the first place if they weren't prepared for the inherent risks. This conveniently ignores the fact that hitching onto the Wall Street rocket has always been the appeal of 401Ks.

Yes, everyone read the mandatory warnings in the various fund brochures that past performance could not be guaranteed. But surely the charts showing 1-year, 5-year, and 10-year returns got much more attention. And yes, everyone knew the market had hiccups and investment strategies needed to be "long term". But nothing was said about Wall Street having a seizure that would wipe out half or more of your retirement savings, resulting in "long term" being longer than many will be in the work force.

"Why I Fired My Broker", the cover story of the new May Atlantic, is another bracing dose of economic reality thearapy, helped down with a measure of gallows humor. Jeffrey Goldberg consults a variety of fiancial wizards in search for an answer to the question every staggered "average" investor is asking: "What do I do now?" After years of being told stocks were the path to financial security and a comfortable retirement, he finds the message has changed nearly 180 degrees.

Goldberg seeks out Robert Sorros, son of George Sorros and deputy chairman of the fund started by his father, who quickly disabuses him of the idea anyone on Wall Street has interests at heart:

“You think a brokerage should be a place you go to pay commissions for fair and unbiased advice, right?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“It’s not. It never has been.” He then cited another saying of Buffett’s: “‘Wall Street is a place where whatever can be sold will be sold.’ You are the consumer of their dreck. What they can sell to you, they will sell to you.”
“But they told us—”
“They lied.”
He went on: “You should be disheartened and disappointed. But don’t kid yourself. You’re a naive capitalist. They were never your advisers. Do not for a moment think that a brokerage firm is your friend.”
“So who’s my friend?”
“You don’t have one. This is the market.”

From Seth Klarman, a highly successful fund manager, he gets much the same wisdom:

He agreed with Robert Soros that the financial-services industry treats the small investor not as a client but as a source of ready cash. “The average person can’t really trust anybody. They can’t trust a broker, because the broker is interested in churning commissions. They can’t trust a mutual fund, because the mutual fund is interested in gathering a lot of assets and keeping them. And now it’s even worse because even the most sophisticated people have no idea what’s going on.”

All of which causes Goldberg to reflect, "After 15 years of pabulum, I was enjoying, in a perverse sort of way, receiving straight talk from masters of finance."

One of the reasons the market won't be coming back, at least not to anything near wear it was, is that investors won't be coming back. Even without having Goldberg's conversations, people are figuring out for themselves that Wall Street and all its affiliated components have been taking "average investors" for a ride. The billions paid in investment fund fees and commissions over the years have left most people right where they started, with the money they paid in--and sometimes not even that.

For Goldberg this is a reality check, a painful but necessary crashing back to earth. Truth is always to be preferred to fantasy.

I no longer expect to get rich. It makes me happy to realize this. It also makes it easier to give more money to charity. In retrospect, I can’t imagine what led all of us to believe that we could regularly expect double-digit annual returns on our money, for doing no work.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Sunday Reflections for April 19, 2009: "What happened to Jesus?"

(Note to CCBlog users: For some reason you are being directed here, when my most recent post is actually here. Sorry for the inconvenience.)

As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, "Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you." So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. (Mark 16, Gospel for Easter Day B)

“Hey! Where’s Jesus?” Alone among the gospels, Mark’s account of Easter has no appearance of Jesus. Instead, women come to the tomb and find it empty, except for an angel who scares the daylights out of them. Where’s Jesus? “He is not here.” But he will appear to his disciples in Galilee, the women are told. And with that they flee in terror.

How can you have Easter without an appearance of the risen Jesus? In the ecumenical three-year lectionary, Mark provides the Gospel texts most of the time in Year B (the current year). There is an option on Easter Day, however, to choose John’s Easter story instead, thus avoiding the awkwardness of a Jesus-less Easter. Another option—chosen by the ancient church—has has been rejected by the modern church, and that is to add a new ending to Mark in which Jesus does appear. There are multiple alternative endings to Mark but most scholars agree none of them are original to Mark’s gospel. It seems pretty clear that there was some unhappiness in the early church about Mark’s version of Easter, hence the attempts to “improve” his story.

In the interest of historical honesty, most recent versions of the Bible now end Mark as we see it here (perhaps putting one or more of the alternative endings in a footnote). But the main reason Mark’s Easter story carries weight (and thus ought to be chosen over the John alternate) is that New Testament scholarship is nearly unanimous in believing Mark was the first of the Bible’s gospels to be written. In fact, it’s pretty obvious that the authors of both Matthew and Luke used Mark as the basis of their own gospels (the author of John may also have had Mark in front of him but that’s less clear). Thus they both added appearances of Jesus to the Easter story they found in Mark.

So why does Jesus not appear in Mark’s Easter story? It’s hard to imagine Mark’s author left out such a detail if he knew of it. And therefore, as surprising as it might be, it seems likely that he was unaware of traditions or stories about Jesus walking around and talking to people on Easter. Nor was Paul, who wrote perhaps twenty years before Mark and who never mentions it in his letters. Thus it was not until the writing of Matthew and Luke, a half century after Jesus’ death, that there were written accounts of Jesus appearing to his followers on Easter.

How could that be? One clue is in Paul’s letters. Paul insists that, like the other apostles, he too has seen Jesus, and he implies there is no difference between his experience and theirs. The word he uses repeatedly in talking of all the apostles’ experiences of the risen Jesus is “appear” (“last of all…he appeared also to me”). The Greek word translated here is the one used in talking of what happens in a vision or a dream (a relatively common subject in ancient writing). Paul never describes his experience of Jesus though he does speak of being “caught up” into heaven, again obviously in some kind of visionary experience. Also, the stories in Acts about Paul’s conversion (but not written by him) describe his experience as being a vision of Jesus.

As a consequence, many scholars have concluded that the experiences which launched the church after Jesus’ death were visions of him raised and in heaven. Very likely the first to have such a vision was Simon Peter. (Interestingly, while this is said in multiple places to have happened, there are no New Testament stories describing Jesus appearance to Peter.) Other visionary experiences then followed, perhaps even with groups. The appearance to Paul apparently was one of the last of these. His need to assert it indicates, however, that some in the church may have questioned its authenticity.

So what do we make of the stories in the other gospels of Jesus’ Easter appearances? They are certainly more vivid, dramatic, and, we might say, “tangible”. Yet this is what has made these stories difficult for many people to swallow, especially in recent years. The physicality of the risen Jesus does raise all sorts of questions and problems. This bothers some people and not others. In any case, appreciation of Mark’s Easter story and the experience of Paul show there is more than one way to faithfully understand the resurrection of Jesus.

Many conservative Christians today insist on the literal truth of everything in the Bible. Surprisingly (perhaps), this was not the case in the pre-modern ancient and medieval church. In commentaries and preaching from those periods, metaphorical and symbolic interpretations of scripture were both popular and often considered of more value. Reading these today, they often strike us as farfetched and even bizarre. Yet they actually simply continued a tradition that long preceded them. Our concern for separating “fact from fiction” and for determining what really happened is a relatively new development and would have struck our nonscientific ancestors as odd and rather pointless.

Personally, I certainly appreciate the Easter stories where Jesus actually shows up (Luke’s “road to Emmaus” is one of my favorites). Historically, however, I do find the idea of visionary experiences of Jesus a more plausible explanation for how the “Jesus movement” got its start. What is important to realize, though, is that Christianity is not based on beliefs about what did or didn’t happen in ancient history. Faith is not based on belief in anyone else’s experience, whether it’s someone we know personally or someone who lived centuries ago. Faith can only be based on our own experience.

Paul, again, is of help here. Never does he use his experience of the risen Jesus as a reason for others to have faith (he does use it to insist on his credentials to be an apostle). Rather, “faith comes by hearing” the words of scripture and the words of preaching and witness. Or as Luther says, faith happens “in our ears” and is itself a miracle and gift of grace. And what faith does is awaken us to the presence of the risen Christ within us, rather than one wandering around a garden in ancient Palestine. “Christ in you, the hope of glory” is what is important, Paul declares.

Did God raise Jesus from the dead? Is Christ alive? As Mark implies and as Paul says, this is not a question of history. Rather, it is an existential question that we can only answer for ourselves, and for our world, today. Whether Jesus lives here and now—however you understand that—is the only question about him that really matters. “He is not here” in this tomb, the angel says. He’s gone on ahead.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Britain indeed has talent

Another stunning debut on Britain's Got Talent. Susan Boyle wows the judges with her out-of-the-park performance of "I Dream a Dream" from Les Miserables. As a Facebook friend said, "Frumpy lil' Scot's got a voice!" The performance is very reminiscent of Paul Pott's first appearance two seasons ago. Time will tell if Susan has anything like the success he has had. Andrew Sullivan (from whom I first learned of this) posts a UK reader's comment on the hidden talent of Britain's church choirs and how many are dismissed generally because they don't have the star look.

[Simon Cowell]'s never sung in a church or temple choir, I don't think...Susan Boyle looks like a lot of the women with whom I've sung over the years, and has the spunk that they have, too. Her chat before and after indicated a bright spirit, I know the type and have sung with these women, and girls, many times.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Sunday Reflections for April 12, 2009: "Newsweek: End of Christian America?"

The most basic contours of American culture have been radically altered. The so-called Judeo-Christian consensus of the last millennium has given way to a post-modern, post-Christian, post-Western cultural crisis which threatens the very heart of our culture. (Albert Mohler in Newsweek)

Albert Mohler is the President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville (one of the world’s largest seminaries). He was interviewed for the cover story of the most recent issue of Newsweek, titled “The End of Christian America”. As the quote above indicates, he is very disturbed by the religious trends in this country that have been highlighted in two recent surveys, the 2009 American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) and the one released last year by the Pew Trust. Both showed a continuing trend of fewer people identifying themselves not only as Christian but as having any religious identity at all. The ARIS results showed 15% answering “None” when asked to name their religion. Newsweek’s new poll reported 30% of Americans identifying themselves as “spiritual” rather than religious.

There is no question that this is a dramatic development and a genuine change in our cultural character. It is less clear what its significance is. Some, like Mohler, view it as a “the country is going to hell in a hand basket” moment. Conservative Christians like Mohler believe that Christianity is an essential element of our national identity and to lose it, or to have its influence significantly reduced, threatens its very foundations.

The author of the article, Newsweek religion editor Jon Meacham, is more sanguine. He believes religion doesn’t go away but it does change over time: “America, then, is not a post-religious society—and cannot be as long as there are people in it, for faith is an intrinsic human impulse.” In his view, the growing rejection of Christianity is the result of the church shooting itself in the foot. Evangelical Protestantism and conservative Catholicism both overreached in their attempts to impose their values on American society as a whole. Their strident battles against abortion, homosexuality, stem cell research, the teaching of evolution, and so on have not just alienated those holding different viewpoints. These struggles have led many to view Christianity as a threat to an even more fundamental value of American society, that of liberty. Meacham writes:

If we apply an Augustinian test of nationhood to ourselves, we find that liberty, not religion, is what holds us together. In "The City of God," Augustine —converted sinner and bishop of Hippo—said that a nation should be defined as "a multitude of rational beings in common agreement as to the objects of their love." What we value most highly—what we collectively love most—is thus the central test of the social contract.

For decades the Catholic Church has lived with the reality that a large portion of its members often disagree with and even disobey church teaching on social and moral issues. This same phenomenon is now being recognized in evangelical churches, especially among younger members. The haranguing by bishops and pastors to vote this or that way has turned off not only secular voters but even members of their own churches.

More importantly, the increasingly strident arguments that these various trends are evil and dangers to society just haven’t been persuasive. Younger people, especially, take our growing cultural diversity for granted. They use birth control, have gays as friends and family members, were taught evolution, and have increasing contact with members of other religions. At the same time they wonder why churches have shown little concern for global warming and the environment, clergy sexual abuse, and Third World poverty. In short, a growing number simply disagree with church positions in the “culture wars” while others, even if they are sympathetic, have just grown tired of all the shouting.

I think Meacham has this part right but I also think that this isn’t the whole story. What is significant about the recent survey results is not only that a growing number are leaving churches but also that they are not joining new churches (or even other religions) that they are more in sympathy with. Large numbers of younger people (under 40) especially have made the decision, consciously or not, that they can simply do without the organized religion experience altogether. The problems Meacham identifies may have pushed people out the church door but in the past most would have then searched for a new more comfortable pew to sit in. That isn’t happening now.

In a recent conversation with local ELCA pastors, one commented on the “deafening silence” from our bishops on the avalanche of stories about declining church membership and the succession of church closings just in our synod. The silence is telling but it may be a good sign actually. Mainline churches like the ELCA have tried just about everything to reverse their decline with no real results. Church leaders may be silent because they literally don’t know what to say anymore. It could be then that, like an alcoholic, the church is close to hitting bottom. By which I mean churches may finally be willing to consider genuinely radical change.

Until now congregations and denominations have been engaging in crisis management: How do we increase membership and offerings? What new staff and programs do we need? What staff and programs do we cut? How can we afford to fix the roof, keep the lights on, and pay the pastor’s salary? The assumed objective has always been to maintain the institution.

But what if this isn’t the goal? Does church or religion necessarily mean structured organizations with constitutions, officers, members, weekly gatherings, professional full-time clergy, and buildings costly to build and maintain? Frankly, the church has focused on these things for so long it’s hard to imagine it means anything else. Yet these are the things increasingly rejected by society or becoming economically unsustainable.

I disagree with Pastor Mohler that we are in a “crisis which threatens the very heart of our culture”. I think he is right that “there is a new narrative, a post-Christian narrative that is animating large portions of this society". It is a time for soul-searching, for innovation, and for genuine listening to the people and culture around us. As Meacham says, people will always have spiritual needs (and propping up ancient institutions is not one of those needs). What changes is how and where those needs are met. We need to face the fact that we are in the midst of one of those changes.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Those crazy Belgians

If you're in need of some cheer, watch this:

Monday, April 06, 2009

To loan or not to loan

A new post at Economist's View raises again a question that keeps bouncing around regarding the economic recovery strategy: Should people be saving or borrowing? The quoted article's main point is the contention that excess consumer borrowing rather than stock speculation was the cause of the Great Depression. Ever since last fall's financial crisis, the government's primary stated objective has been to get banks loaning money again--even though everyone agrees excess debt was what created the crisis in the first place. The article and many of the comments cast serious doubt on this strategy. Rather than saving the banks, they argue, this sector needs to contract. Rather than extending credit it needs to remain tight, with the inevitable resulting foreclosures and bankruptcies.

In this view the options seems to be: take the pain now and fix the system once and for all, or minimize the pain and drag out the problem for years to come. This also may be at the heart of the conflict between the aggressive US/UK approach and the more restrained strategy of the continental Europeans. In the latter case, one of the main reasons they are more willing to "endure" the crisis rather than rush to ameliorate it is their more extensive social safety net of public health care, extensive unemployment benefits, etc. If the US had such programs in place, would Washington be advocating a different policy? Are we doing what's right, or are we taking the easy way because we don't have the political stomach to do what's actually necessary?

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Sunday Reflections for April 5, 2009: "Ending the drug war insanity"

The United States is losing this war. The reasons are endlessly debated and strategies are constantly changing but to little effect. Most everyone agrees the war began with unrealistic objectives and too few resources. Now it seems like a swamp that sucks in whatever is thrown into it and there is no end to the conflict in sight.

I am not talking about the war in Iraq or the “war on terror”. I am talking about the “war on drugs”. This war has been going on about as long as I can remember. First declared by President Nixon, it has been carried on and expanded by all his successors and all fifty states at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars. No one would describe it as being even remotely successful.

We are in a time when there is broad awareness that a lot of things we have been doing as a society and even as a planet just aren’t working. The word “crisis” often shows up in multiple stories in any day’s news summary: energy crisis, environmental crisis, credit crisis, etc. While distressing to live through, such times historically are also times of opportunity for needed change and fixing things that are broken. Reports from a number of quarters, domestic and international, point to an emerging consensus that the drug war is broken beyond repair.

I won’t bore you with a lot of statistics since most of us are aware of the basic facts. Rates of drug use have changed little, if at all, over the past 40 years. At the same time, studies show that the street price of drugs has generally declined (indicating increased availability since demand has not changed) and the quality of product has improved. Occasional well-publicized drug seizures are drops in the bucket compared to the constant flood of drug supply.

The passage of mandatory sentencing laws also has had little affect except to strain prisons to the breaking point. Senator Jim Webb (D-Virginia) recently launched a new effort for a top-to-bottom reform of our criminal justice system. With
rare political courage, Sen. Web is trying to force his colleagues and the country to ask embarrassing and painful questions. Here is an excerpt from his speech proposing a new prison reform commission:

Let's start with a premise that I don't think a lot of Americans are aware of. We have 5% of the world's population; we have 25% of the world's known prison population. We have an incarceration rate in the United States, the world's greatest democracy, that is five times as high as the average incarceration rate of the rest of the world. There are only two possibilities here: either we have the most evil people on earth living in the United States; or we are doing something dramatically wrong in terms of how we approach the issue of criminal justice. . . .

Webb goes on to note that since 1980 the prison population of drug offenders has gone from 41,000 to over 500,000, an increase of %1200. Over half of federal incarcerations are for drug offenses. It is also obvious that these prosecutions are grossly inequitable. Again, Sen. Webb:

[T]here are stunning statistics with respect to drugs that we all must come to terms with. African-Americans are about 12% of our population; contrary to a lot of thought and rhetoric, their drug use rate in terms of frequent drug use rate is about the same as all other elements of our society, about 14%. But they end up being 37% of those arrested on drug charges, 59% of those convicted, and 74% of those sentenced to prison . . . .

No one denies the devastating effect of drug abuse. Yet nearly everyone involved with the issue agrees that it is much better dealt with as a public health issue than a criminal one. And the exploding costs of the legal drug offensive now clearly show that this ineffective cure is worse than the disease. The ever-increasing but never sufficient monetary costs for law enforcement are bad enough. The social costs, however, are staggering.

Again, the list is familiar and nearly endless. In this area, the drug war is like Prohibition on steroids. The money being made by professional criminals exceeds anything the gangsters of the 1920s ever dreamed of. In addition, the corrupting anti-drug efforts of advanced countries have ricocheted around the globe, ensnaring whole governments in some cases. Most recently we have watched in horror the reports of murder and torture in Mexico as drug cartels, equipped like small armies, battle for power. Inevitably this struggle has begun to spill across our border. Secretary of State Clinton, however, correctly apologized to Mexico saying the real spill-over has been our failed drug policy into their society.

The parallels with Prohibition are becoming so obvious they can no longer be ignored. Adopted in a sincere yet na├»ve attempt to improve society, the nation’s experiment with banning booze ran into the simple fact that a whole lot of people liked to drink. Soon the “speakeasy” became a national institution—as did organized crime. Today, alcohol abuse continues but at no worse a rate than before. It’s recognized as a condition needing diagnosis and treatment, not prosecution and incarceration.

Many people, of course, see drugs as more dangerous and “evil” than alcohol. The term “drugs” covers a broad waterfront, however. For the vast majority of users—including those imprisoned—the drug of choice is marijuana, which few experts now argue is intrinsically any more dangerous than alcohol. The belief that it leads to use of “harder” drugs is also debatable. But the larger issue is that, regardless of the danger of this or that drug, using law enforcement to battle what is really a public health problem has been an unmitigated disaster.

Advocates of drug decriminalization are increasing, even among law enforcement officials. Financially strapped states are being forced to re-examine their policies as they run out of money for new prisons or even to operate the ones they already have. Small countries that have already taken this route—most notably The Netherlands but also Portugal—now have years of positive experience to give support for such a move.

It‘s time for a serious national conversation on drugs and drug policy. We can no longer hide behind politics and moralizing. We need to talk about real people and our society as it actually exists, about the real effectiveness of current policies, and about their real costs both in terms of dollars and their impact on people’s lives and on society as a whole. A popular phrase from the world of psychology is being used in a lot of places these days and it applies here as well: Insanity is to keep doing the same thing but expecting different results. With the “war on drugs” it’s time to stop the insanity.

It’s always been easy to demonize criminals and the imprisoned. Most of us are aware, however, that justice is often based more on one’s ability to pay for a good lawyer and that our jails and prisons are living nightmares of violence and sexual abuse. This situation continues, at least in part, because few of us ever experience it first-hand. How different it might be if we took seriously Jesus’ “Judgment Day” vision that one basis for separating the righteous from the unrighteous is whether or not they visited “the least of these” in prison. And in this “Holy Week” when we focus on the cross, the central mystery of our faith, we must certainly be aware that trials and convictions do not always produce justice and being labeled “a criminal” is never the full measure of any person.