Friday, April 30, 2010

Eurozone tottering (cont.)

As Zerohedge says, "All you need to know in two easy words."

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Eurozone tottering (cont.)--updated

Another day of meetings, phone calls, and statements of concern as Europe's debt crisis rolls on. The IMF is reportedly now ready to pony up $120 billion over 3 years to prop up Greece--much more than previous estimates. German politicians have also apparently hammered out a bailout plan. And Greece is said to have agreed to a severe austerity plan to reign in its out-of-control deficits.

The concern is whether all this is too little, too late. It is no longer just a Greek problem, with Portugal and Spain both beginning to experience the same financial pressures afflicting Greece. Bailing out all three countries could be more than the IMF and EU together could afford--if the crisis stopped there. Promises of austerity have been heard from the Greek government before but it is not at all clear whether the Greek people will go along with them.

Every day of "plans and proposals"--rather than actual decisions--only deepens the crisis and leaves more opportunities for the circling financial vultures.

Update: Paul Krugman in Friday's New York Times: So is the euro itself in danger? In a word, yes. If European leaders don’t start acting much more forcefully, providing Greece with enough help to avoid the worst, a chain reaction that starts with a Greek default and ends up wreaking much wider havoc looks all too possible.

Putting religion back to work (Sunday Reflections for May 2, 2010)

Typically we evaluate religions based on their beliefs. In a recent essay on Huffington Post, spirituality teacher and author Philip Goldberg says it’s more helpful to think of the functions religion serves.

As I see it, religion in its most complete form serves five basic functions. I've given each of these a name beginning with the prefix "trans-", which means "across," "through," or "beyond," because religion at its best crosses boundaries and points to realities beyond the ordinary. Those five functions are:
1. Transmission: to impart to each generation a sense of identity through shared customs, rituals, stories, and historical continuity.
2. Translation: to help individuals interpret life events, acquire a sense of meaning and purpose, and understand their relationship to a larger whole (in both the social and cosmic senses).
3. Transaction: to create and sustain healthy communities and provide guidelines for moral behavior and ethical relationships.
4. Transformation: to foster maturation and ongoing growth, helping people to become more fulfilled and more complete.
5. Transcendence: to satisfy the longing to expand the perceived boundaries of the self, become more aware of the sacred aspect of life, and experience union with the ultimate ground of Being.

Goldberg’s five functions are reasonable and pretty easy to understand. His functional understanding of religion is one that I think a growing number of people accept (even if they might define those functions somewhat differently). I wonder though if we realize how different such an understanding is from that of previous generations. Being able to think about religion as Goldberg does is almost entirely the result of one development in the modern world. Namely, we now have religious choices, including the option of having no religion at all.

Until recently, most people were born into a religion, either via geography or family. It came with the territory or it came with your pedigree. The United States was the first major exception to this tradition. From the start, it was made up of immigrants from a variety of religious traditions. The country’s founders were also acutely aware of the chaos and suffering caused by religious strife in Europe. As a result, the relatively new idea of religious freedom conceived by European intellectuals was put into practice and built into the constitution of this new country in the New World.

Acceptance of religious freedom did not become a global phenomenon until after World War II. It was championed by Americans as part of a post-war new world order (e.g. FDR’s four freedoms). What really moved it forward, however, was the dramatic growth in communication and transportation.

The new burgeoning global economy was soon sending people in all directions. Suddenly countries and communities that had been identified with one religious tradition found themselves with significant minority populations following other traditions, sometimes to the point where everyone was a minority. Growing secularism also weakened religious ties and many people simply dropped religious affiliation from their identity altogether.

By focusing on beliefs, religions end up in a nearly unending state of conflict. Internal squabbles arise continually as there are always differences over interpretation of scriptures, doctrines, theology, ritual, etc. As the world has gotten smaller and more interconnected, there are also increasingly strident inter-religious rivalries as each one, at bottom, inevitably assumes it has the truth and the others are in error.

Goldberg’s view sets aside the question of the truth of a religion’s beliefs but instead asks about a religion’s usefulness. A religion or religious community should be evaluated on how well it is helping its members meet certain basic human needs:
  • Is it helping them establish a meaningful and positive identity?
  • Is it helping them navigate and make sense of the challenges and stages of human life?
  • Is it helping them understand their role in society and guiding them in their interactions with others?
  • Is it helping them mature emotionally and socially, especially in learning to balance their personal ego needs with the needs of the community?
  • And does it connect them with the wider world and give them a sense of meaning and place in the universe?
The orthodox faithful or “true believers” do not and cannot see their religion in this way. They follow their religion because it is true and right—end of discussion.

More and more people, however, see the religion they personally may follow and all the world’s religions as part of a larger whole, which includes the whole range of human experiences and endeavors. For them it is impossible not to realize how all religions have developed historically and influenced each other, sharing traditions, gods, stories, myths, rituals and scriptures. Recognizing this, to then ask which religion is “true” is not only impossible to determine but pointless.

Fundamentalists would see Goldberg’s perspective as blasphemy but he is, in fact, trying to preserve what he believes is the vital role religion plays in our world and in people’s lives. While born in antiquity, the world’s religions cannot remain anchored there. Much of the energy of contemporary fundamentalism comes from a fear and rejection of the extremes and imbalances of modern life. Such a response is often entirely justified but dragging the world back to religion’s ancient origins is not a workable solution.

Goldberg (and many others) recognizes that religion provides an important critique of human life and its excesses. It provides guiding principles and interpretive stories which help us keep life in balance, individually and as a society. By insisting on remaining stuck in the past, religion is losing its ability to perform that essential role. Indeed doing so often allows it to be manipulated by the very forces it ought to be keeping in check (e.g. despotic political leaders wrapping themselves in religious images and symbols).

Religion’s value and power is not in what it thinks it knows about past events, the origin or make-up of the universe, or about God (which even the Bible insists is ultimately unknowable). Rather, religion’s value is its insight into our hearts and minds, i.e. the human soul. It doesn’t take much awareness to realize that the souls of many individuals and indeed of the planet as a whole are hurting badly. Rather than contributing to that darkness, religion must rediscover how to be a guiding light leading to wholeness and life.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Eurozone tottering--updated 2x

European Central Bank HQ in Frankfurt
Standard & Poors downgraded the debt of Spain today as borrowing costs continued to rise for the PIIGS. (Reports here and here.) The current credit crisis is also spreading beyond the eurozone as Hungary also saw its bond rates going up. Meanwhile Germany, the primary source of funds for a proposed Greek bailout, continued to hem and haw about what, if anything, it was willing to do. As has been predicted for months, Greece's credit problems are spreading across the southern tier of Europe and beyond.

Mostly the US has just been watching all this out of the corner of its eye. Obviously we have plenty on our own plate right now. Yet as Europe discovered when Lehman imploded, finance and credit today is all international. A credit earthquake in Europe will inevitably send a tsunami in our direction. (See Simon Johnson’s “Wake the President.”)

The global economy is still very fragile--much more so than most people realize. Government officials, especially here in the US, have done a good job of putting out the message: "We've turned the corner, the crisis is past." They know how crucial public confidence is in reviving economic activity. Nonetheless, the 2008 financial meltdown revealed real and fundamental problems in the global economy which have still gotten little attention. Most of what ailed the system then, still ails it now.

A credit crisis in Europe could well trigger the same kind of panic as happened in fall 2008. Again, the banks will demand government bailouts to prevent a complete financial meltdown. This time, though, most government tanks are close to empty. A second massive bailout is just not in the cards, which means the economic dominoes will fall however they want.

Another option which is also a threat to the US is that the eurozone actually gets its act together and does something constructive. Most agree this would inevitably mean a significant devaluation of the euro. This is already predicted for the pound once British elections are past. The result: European goods become cheaper (wine, travel, BMWs!) and American goods become more expensive. Oops. There goes President Obama’s plan to grow the economy via expanded exports.

It’s easy to portray Germany as the bad guy in the current mess but it really is like the person trying to decide how to rescue a drowning man without himself getting pulled under. Germany has avoided many of the financial pitfalls other countries have fallen into and is still relatively healthy economically. It sees the Greek bailout, likely followed by bailouts of who knows how many other countries, as a continuation of the problem rather than a solution. It will not go in debt to finance these loans and German taxpayers have no interest in digging deeper to pay for them.

Like the US in 2008, Europe wants to push its problems down the road, hoping time will miraculously produce a solution. The US wants this to be a problem Europeans will solve by themselves. Meanwhile, many major banks have insured themselves against European sovereign defaults via the CDS market making their role in all this ever more suspicious. Thus once again for them it’s “heads we win, tails you lose.”

What tangled webs we weave.

Update: Paul Krugman wonders today whether events are making the unthinkable thinkable or even inevitable. Namely, it may well be that Greece's exit from the euro is around the corner, with others to follow. Carrying this out will be a huge mess but that's what we have already. Krugman's personal plan: "I think I’ll go hide under the table now."

Update 2: Paul better move over. Felix Salmon wants to join him.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Newspaper free-fall

Holy smokes! 24 of the top 25 circulation newspapers lost year-over-year readership in the past 6 months. Many of the percentage declines were double-digit. An across-the-board change of this magnitude in such a short time is simply astonishing. Obviously, newspaper subscriptions and newstand purchases are something people cut out in a recession. Unfortunately, this almost certainly means more newspapers disappearing or, at least, shrinking dramatically.

Greece tottering (cont.)--updated 2x

Greece's short-term debt is now the worst in the world as its 2-year government bond went to 13.55%. Greece surpassed the previous worst bond rate of Hugo Chavez's Venezuela. This comes in conjunction with an outbreak of "blue flu" (as its called in this country) among Greek air force pilots who called in by the hundreds today as too sick to fly, apparently in protest of pay cuts and new tax measures. (Note: Greece is a member of NATO.) In any other scenario this would be considered insurrection, suggesting either civil war or a coup is around the corner.

Greece has been "promised" a bailout by the EU yet keeps getting mixed messages about what it needs to do to qualify for this aid. The economically healthiest EU member is Germany and it knows it will have to provide the the largest portion of any aid Greece receives. This notion has little popular support in Germany and local elections are coming up in a month. The other reality is that everyone knows Greece needs far more aid than the amounts that have been publicly discussed. Yet another reality is that after Greece, Portugal, Spain, Italy and possibly other EU countries will also be coming hat-in-hand for financial help.

The story is starting to get old, waiting for some conclusion. As time goes on, the last chapter is looking increasingly ugly.

Update: Yves Smith at Naked Capitalism has a good piece on the topic today titled "Greece: Dead Man Walking?" There is also a good discussion in the commentary that follows. Increasingly the comparison being used is that Greece could very well be the EU's Lehman Brothers.

Tues 04/27: Standard & Poors downgraded Greek national debt to junk status today. It also lowered its rating on Portugal's debt two notches.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Doing better than we think (Sunday Reflections for April 25, 2010)

"We have made remarkable progress in our scientific knowledge and technological expertise. We have not done anywhere near as well in the advancement of human relationships."

This quote from anthropologist Herbert C. Taylor was posted recently by a Facebook friend as a "thought for the day" (which I enjoy). It’s the kind of quote that will cause many to nod slowly and grimly. “Sad but true.” It sounds wise and somewhat profound. I’ve heard similar ideas before. I think it’s baloney.

We’re all aware of the dramatic improvements in quality of life brought by science and technology, though we often take them for granted. We also forget how recent most of these developments have been. We tend to think about whiz-bang electronic devices but advancements much more basic really show how our world has changed.

Steam and gas engines and electric motors made possible activities no human or animal strength could accomplish. Electric light illuminated better and more safely countless dim interiors as well as nighttime exteriors. Electric wired and wireless communication brought people together in ways previously unimaginable. High speed transportation did the same, fulfilling the dreams of generations. Antibiotics conquered diseases, modern agriculture dramatically reduced the resources needed to feed the world, birth control gave people and especially women new freedom and control over their lives, as did a host of household appliances. Man-made materials like steel, aluminum and plastics resulted in safer, cheaper and more efficient products of all kinds. And let’s not forget indoor plumbing.

All this and more have improved the quality of life of people around the world. These improvements continue to spread and continue to grow in number and quality. We do not exaggerate in describing these changes in industry, agriculture, transportation, and communication as “revolutionary.” Professor Taylor’s quote above implies, however, that human relations have somehow lagged behind. Yet just a little reflection shows that the changes in human relationships have similarly upended our world.

Here again we take so much for granted. Our historical myopia has caused us to forget how people in the past treated and related to one another. Part of this may be the fault of Hollywood which is often our primary window into the past. Being entertainment, it’s not surprising that much of that past is highly romanticized. Movies and TV also get most of their material from the lives of history’s “rich and famous” while ordinary people get little screen time.

The simple reality is that for much of Western history, at least, only one category of people had anything approaching the rights and freedoms we now take for granted: free, skilled or property-owning males. Often this group was a very small percentage of the population. In many ancient civilizations, slaves accounted for up to a third of the population. Many who were free nonetheless still lived in poverty or close to it, often as tenant farmers indebted to rich land owners. Women were often viewed and treated literally as only partially human, since their gender was thought to be an incomplete version of the male norm. Children were simply potential humans, mouths to feed until they could perform useful work.

In his book Leviathan (1651), the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes famously described human existence as “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.” Hobbes’ point, however, was that this was “the life of man” in the absence of civilization and just government. From his Enlightenment era forward, the world has been on an unrelenting quest to establish and extending human rights for all. We forget how revolutionary was Thomas Jefferson’s simple assertion in the Declaration of Independence, memorized by school children the world over: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal….”

In 1776, many would certainly not have seen human equality as “self-evident.” Yet less than two centuries later this principle was enshrined in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and thus officially recognized by all the nations of the world. Of course, its implementation is still highly flawed but we cannot underestimate how far civilization has come in establishing this rule as the norm by which individual and societal behavior is to be judged.

The notion that every human life is uniquely and inherently valuable would have been laughed at in most periods of human history. Today it is one of the primary standards for judging human relations. The story of how we came to this point is important and fascinating and needs to be told often. With seeds from the Bible, ancient Greece and elsewhere, the idea began to take hold in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. Its origins involve theologians, philosophers, painters, writers, composers, politicians, merchants, and scientists. Crucial events include the Magna Carta, the Reformation, the American and French Revolutions, and the scientific and industrial revolutions.

Unfavorably comparing our technological progress with that of human relations is not only misleading. It also misses their vital interrelationship, for the two have developed in tandem. Science and technology grew in parallel with a belief in the value and dignity of human beings. Further, the spread of human rights became possible as the basic necessities of human life became more easily attainable by ever larger portions of humanity. Today new and expanding global communication networks make oppression ever more difficult (as most recently with the use of Twitter by Iranian protesters).

There is no question that modern life is much more complicated and the modern world more dangerous in ways our ancient ancestors could not have imagined. That is the price of freedom and equality and the consequence of being on a journey still far from completion. Recognizing that, however, should not diminish our awareness of how primitive was our beginnings or our appreciation of how far human civilization has come. In short, we need to remember that the past was not all that great and the present is a whole lot better than we often realize.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

To whom much has been given: an update

Wall Street bank heads testify before Congress
Yesterday the SEC indicted Goldman Sachs for civil fraud. The specific trade cited is just one example of countless others done by GS and other TBTF Wall Street banks. In brief, GS is charged with selling sub-prime mortgage-backed financial instruments which it knew would soon turn into junk. It did not disclose this to buyers, however. Further, these were created at the request of a hedge fund client specifically so it could bet against them. GS is not (yet) accused of similarly "shorting" its own product but if it is later this would be much worse.

The one individual named in the indictment is a GS VP named Fabrice Tourre or "Fab" as he sometimes calls himself, as in this email. The brains behind this particular deal, in his own words he perfectly describes the use of intellectual gifts to create a device for fraud and deception build on sheer greed:

Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein
More and more leverage in the system. The whole building is about to collapse anytime now... Only potential survivor, the fabulous Fab[rice Tourre]... standing in the middle of all these complex, highly leveraged exotic trades he created without necessarily understanding all of the implications of those monstrosities!!!

Reportedly the Attorneys General of both New York and Connecticut are seriously considering criminal indictments against Wall Street bank executives. It's also assumed more action will be coming from the SEC and perhaps other Federal agencies. This is likely just the first chapter in what could be a very long saga--at least, let's hope so.

Update: LA Times columnist Michael Hiltzik has an excellent column on the SEC lawsuit against Goldman Sacks' and the financial chicanery that led to it. He zeroes in on the larger issue and why new federal financial regulation is essential to restore order in the world of TBTF banking:

The real issue isn't what Goldman knew or didn't know about the larger economy. The issue is that Wall Street's business model has become corrupted into one dependent on creating transactions that spin financial wheels to virtually no economic end, merely to generate fees and profits.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

To whom much has been given (Sunday Reflections for April 18, 2010)

This week marks the 40th anniversary of one of the great “happy ending” stories of modern times: the flight of Apollo 13. At the time, I was experiencing the last weeks of junior high and so was more than a bit distracted. I remember it happening but it took Ron Howard’s 1995 movie Apollo 13 for me to learn the story in detail. Even prior to that, however, those events had provided a phrase for my lectionary and that of many others: “Houston, we have a problem” (though the actual words spoken by Jack Swigert were “Houston, we’ve had a problem”).

Apollo 13 was to have been the third human landing on the Moon. Instead, an oxygen tank rupture, two days after the April 11, 1970 launch, rendered the craft nearly inoperable as well as nearly unsustainable for its three-man crew. The story, told well in Howard’s movie, is one of calm ingenuity under immense pressure, by the ship’s crew and the Mission Control staff in Houston. With the absolute minimum of necessary power and barely avoiding fatal carbon monoxide poisoning, Apollo 13 did a single loop around the Moon and limped home to a Pacific splash down on April 17. Later NASA deemed the mission a “successful failure.”

Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book chronicling the beginning of the US space program focused on the first test pilots and Mercury astronauts. In his title, Wolfe deemed these men to have The Right Stuff. That “stuff” was obviously still present ten years later and was the only thing that made Apollo 13’s failure a success rather than the catastrophe many expected.

My memory of that time has other events imprinted more vividly, however. In addition to being a rocky time for my family (on top of the usual early-adolescent angst), it was also a time of great upheaval for the country. A new president, Richard Nixon, had won election promising he had a plan to get the United States out of Vietnam. After a little over a year in office, that plan wasn’t going so well.

The South Vietnamese military was not stepping up to replace American forces the way they were supposed to. In order to give our allies a leg up, President Nixon ordered an “incursion” into neighboring Cambodia to root out Communist Vietnamese forces that had taken refuge there. Nixon’s April 30th nationally televised address announcing the invasion was two weeks after Apollo 13’s return and I still remember it. The glow of Apollo 13’s rescue was quickly lost.

The following week on May 4, 4 students were killed and 9 injured by Ohio National Guardsmen at Kent State University. Some of the students were part of a crowd protesting the Cambodian operation but others were just bystanders. Almost immediately college campuses across the country were engulfed in protests and violence. Hundreds of campuses were closed as 4 million students went on strike.

My brother was a freshman at Southern Illinois University. A little over a week after the Kent State deaths he called home: “Come get me. They’ve closed the school.” My dad and I jumped in the car and made the long boring drive to SIU (Interstate 57 was only partially completed then). It certainly looked like the war had come to Carbondale. Every window in the downtown was broken. A campus building had been burned. The National Guard had set up an outpost right next to my brother’s dorm.

To borrow NASA’s language, it’s hard not to view the events of May 1970 and everything leading up to them as a horrendously unsuccessful failure. Perhaps the most well-known chronicle of America’s Vietnam experience is David Halberstam’s 1972 The Best and the Brightest. His title, like Wolfe’s, highlights the unique abilities of the people involved in this national endeavor. His title, however, is highly ironic, of course.

The question Halberstam pursues is how such able and intelligent people could have gone so horribly wrong in virtually every way: in their expectations, strategy and execution of the war. These were the “whiz kids” brought to Washington by President Kennedy and largely retained by President Johnson. Renowned leaders of business and academia, their self-confidence led them to arrogantly pursue, in Halberstam’s words, “brilliant policies that defied common sense,” which often ignored contrary judgments of lower level military and foreign policy officials. (This was something I heard of first hand from a college professor of mine who was a retired Green Beret general. Stationed in Vietnam before the buildup, his negative evaluations of the war’s prospects were not welcomed at the Pentagon. Realizing his career was at a dead-end as a result, he moved on to college teaching.)

A similar story is beginning to be told about the 2008 financial meltdown. Of course, the events of this saga are likely still being played out. It is already clear, however, that the precipitating causes of our current economic collapse have all over them the fingerprints of many of today’s “best and brightest.”

It’s obvious that the heads of the nation’s “too big to fail” Wall Street banks are made of equal parts brilliance and arrogance. It has been documented how these firms also regularly recruited thousands of the top graduates of the country’s best colleges and universities. By their own admission, many of them now admit they had one goal: make lots of money—which they did, often beyond their wildest dreams. Put to such use, however, their education and brilliance have now cost us and people around the world houses, jobs, savings and still unfolding economic misery, beyond most people’s worst nightmares.

Interviewed about their flight, Apollo 13 commander Jim Lovell was asked if the crew was ever scared or thought of dying. Matter-of-factly he said no, they were just too busy carrying out their various tasks. And even if they had run out of things to do to save themselves, Lovell went on, they knew that, until the power or oxygen gave out, they would continue to send data and report their findings so that it could be figured out later what had gone wrong. That was their job.

In Luke’s parable of the faithful steward, Jesus concludes by saying, “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required.” I suspect that if the Apollo 13 crew or those who had been down below in Mission Control were to hear those words, they would be received with a shrug-of-the-shoulders “Well of course.” Yet that wisdom or awareness seems to have escaped many of those in the midst of our current national crisis.

As we enter graduation season, I hope commencement speakers will use this crisis as an opportunity to convey both the blessings and the responsibilities talent and opportunity carry, and warn against the irresponsibility and harm of selfishly misusing them. If they do, those speakers will certainly have no trouble providing living examples of people who have chosen each of those paths, and of the consequences of the choices they made.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Death throes or birth pangs? (Sunday Reflections for April 11, 2010)

For years The Lutheran has been the country’s largest circulation denominational magazine. It may still hold that rank but, if so, today it is in a much smaller field. Print media in general is in decline and then being tied to declining institutions is a double whammy. In recent years several church magazines have closed (some replaced by online versions) as have some non-denominational religious journals.

Circulation for The Lutheran has certainly dropped. One thing that used to keep it up was the congregational subscription plan whereby churches, at reduced cost, could subscribe for all their member households. Many churches have dropped these to save money and most were not replaced by individual subscriptions.

As with the church in general, The Lutheran has had trouble figuring out its purpose or identity. Early in the ELCA’s life it was reporting regularly on the denomination’s struggles to get going. Many synodical bishops criticized all the “negative press” implying the magazine was somehow being disloyal. The message got through and ELCA news was reduced while more articles were devoted to congregational and personal life issues.

The result was a magazine that became increasingly bland and repetitive. I’ve heard it described as a Lutheran Guideposts or even Readers Digest. Many clergy I know say the only things they look at are the obituaries. The one section most often criticized is the Letters to the Editor. Ironically as the articles became “happier” these letters became angrier, sometimes vitriolic. Given the selection that was printed I can only imagine the tone of those left out.

According to Editor Daniel Lehmann, the current April issue has a “Cover story full of risks.” In his editorial he acknowledges that for the past four years The Lutheran “tamped down” its coverage of the ongoing debate over gay clergy. Supposedly ending that embargo, this issue’s feature story reports the fallout to date over last summer’s Churchwide Assembly actions. To avoid any appearance of bias, the magazine contracted the story out to Lutheran Chicago Sun-Times reporter Sandra Guy.

Lehmann needn’t have worried. In his editorial he says that past reporting was “straightforward news” of “official actions” limited mostly to “he said, she said” accounts. For whatever reason, this almost exactly describes this issue’s story. Guy provides almost no personal analysis but rather strings together dozens of quotations of lay members, pastors and bishops. The views of proponents of the assembly action, opponents, as well as those on the fence are all reported.

The article has nothing surprising to report. Many are happy, many are sad and/or angry, and many are unsure what to make of the acceptance of gay clergy. A few congregations have voted to leave the ELCA and more may follow but thus far the numbers do not look significant. Contributions are down but the biggest cause for that may be the recession. Opposition is strongest in small town and rural congregations, especially those which were formerly ALC. Support is strongest in synods with predominantly urban and suburban memberships.

Much more interesting is Guy’s article which follows the cover story, based primarily on an interview with ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson. Basically Hanson says the church needs to move on: “I’m patient with the process of decision-making, but I’m not putting ministry and mission on pause in the meantime.” While last year’s assembly action is still important to process, Hanson says there are bigger issues which the ELCA has been confronting long before this:

The changes of our demographics didn't begin with the Churchwide Assembly. We have been becoming a smaller church body in membership, increasingly older than the U.S. population, and a predominantly white denomination in an increasingly multiethnic and multicultural world. So in the larger context, what does it mean to be faithful, evangelical Lutherans in this changing context? Those questions will continue to be foremost.

While Hanson’s analysis is largely accurate it is also somewhat disingenuous. Many would argue that the decision to allow gay clergy was exactly the kind of step the church needs to make to be more relevant and connected to the contemporary world. The problem, of course, is that a lot of people don’t want to make that connection. What would it mean for the ELCA to draw in new, younger, more ethnically diverse members? How could it not mean making the ELCA a dramatically different church which very likely would alienate many of its current members?

This, of course, is exactly the dilemma faced by countless congregations of all Christian stripes, even those thought to have figured out how to be “relevant.” For years the Crystal Cathedral was seen as a model of a new way to do church. Started by Robert Schuler in the 1950s, his new essentially non-denominational church reached out to the young post-war families pouring into southern California. His stunning glass church seated thousands and came into the homes of millions more through its TV ministry.

It is now reported that the Crystal Cathedral is $55 million in debt, has a list of unpaid vendors as long as your arm, and was forced to cancel both its epic Christmas and Easter holiday shows (the Christmas show would have been its 30th anniversary). The church has been unable to find a successor for the now elderly Schuler. His son was kicked out as the church’s new pastor when his leadership was deemed inadequate. Yet this is surely a symptom of the larger question of what direction to take the church now that the demographic it appealed to originally has largely disappeared. What if the new people really don’t like all that glass?

Prior to the ELCA’s formation, and when he was still a skeptic of the proposal, the ALC’s last Bishop David Preus said Lutheranism’s biggest challenge was that “the boats have stopped coming.” By that he meant the biggest source of new American Lutherans had been immigration, and that was now over. Thirty years later American Lutheranism still has not figured out how to create a new identity and purpose for itself.

As much upheaval as last summer’s assembly action caused it may be only a start. If Lutheranism is going to have a future it may take many more such changes for the church to transform itself into something relevant and appealing to contemporary people. In other words, to quote Jesus (and only somewhat out of context), this may be only the beginning of the birth pangs. Whether the church has the commitment, energy, and the stomach for more such wrenching course changes only time will tell. Given how rapidly and dramatically our culture is changing, however, time may not be something we have much of.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Greece tottering--watch out below

Sigh. As the New York Times reports, Greece's financial state is deteriorating rapidly. Rates for its bonds are going through the roof which means it will soon be unable to finance its debt, i.e. it will be insolvent, busted, broke. Fellow EU members, led by Germany and France, have been hemming and hawing for months about how to get Greece out of its predicament. Vaguely worded yet dramatically announced plans have been put forth. Clearly the markets aren't buying them.

So why care about Greece? For the same reason we should have cared about Lehman Brothers. As small as it is Greece really does have the potential to be a domino. If it goes under attention will turn immediately to the other PIIGS: Portugal, Italy, Ireland and Spain which all have similar problems. In addition, much of Greece's debt has been financed by German and French banks which, like their American counterparts, are not in the best shape to begin with. No one knows for sure what the consequence of a Greek default would be but given the fragile state of the global economy no one wants to try it and find out.

Unfortunately there are no good options. The gist of the EU's message to Greece is that it needs to severely tighten its belt and reign in its spending. This would certainly mean a major shrinking of the Greek economy and real pain for its citizens. Greece may, and likely will, just say no. One piece I read says Greece should just pull out of the EU and the Euro, print up new drachmas, and let the lawyers figure it all out. Again, what Greece does could trigger a chain reaction spelling the end of the Euro itself--and that would really be a mess. A much deeper recession in Europe would be almost inevitable, with global repercussions. Stay tuned.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Fighting Jesus' battles (Sunday Reflections for April 4, 2010)

Then Jesus said to him, "Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matthew 26)

When I was a kid I loved to play war games, read about famous battles, and dress up like a soldier. In grade school, my neighborhood friends and I would have mock-battles through the yards on both sides of our street. These came to an end when suddenly everyone decided to fence in their back yards. (You don't think there was a connection between those two things, do you?)

After a pacifist period in high school, my warlike habits had a brief revival in college when I joined in pitched dart gun battles that broke out regularly in the dorm. Now I only play a very occasional computer war game but do still enjoy a good war movie (Patton is one of my favorites). In any case, I am certainly aware of the appeal pretend soldiering has for many people (admittely mostly male). I suppose it goes all the way back to the first chess set, if not earlier. A more recent expression which developed after my interest peaked (but which I suspect I would enjoy) is paintball.

It does happen unfortunately (and in a variety of ways) that people get fantasy and reality confused. Sometimes people’s play gets way too serious.

We’ve seen the adjective “Christian” added to a lot of things in recent years: Christian radio, Christian rock, Christian schools, Christian counseling, Christian aerobics. This week we got a new example: Christian militia.

Nine arrested members of the Hutaree militia are charged with conspiring to kill law enforcement officials. (“Hutaree” is a word the group made up to mean “Christian warrior.”) Allegedly militia members hoped their attacks would spark a popular uprising against the federal government. Their purpose was to fight the forces of the Antichrist which they believe are working to establish a “new world order.”

Their inspiration comes from an area of theology called eschatology (“study of last things”) and the book of Revelation, as well as other apocalyptic biblical books and passages. This subject has had a lot of popularity over the past forty years, as well as at various times throughout church history. Probably its most well known recent manifestation is the Left Behind book series by fundamentalists Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins.

Interest in “end times” theology always increases in time of social upheaval and anxiety. People who are suffering or are afraid of the future become a ready audience for preachers and writers who say God is about to intervene on their behalf. Some focus on an upcoming “strategic withdrawal” orchestrated by God’s angels (the so-called “rapture”) to rescue his people from danger. Others, like the Hutaree, hear a heavenly call to arms to fight the forces of Satan.

Leaders for such movements are not known for expertise in Bible and theology but rather for big egos, vivid imaginations, and talents for manipulation and propaganda. One unfortunate characteristic of Christians over the centuries has been a sense of entitlement and privilege. If we’re God’s chosen people (this thinking goes), then things ought to go our way. When they don’t and the world around us looks too awful, then God is just going to get rid of it—and we’re going to help Him do it. This is not unlike the child who can’t get the toy blocks to cooperate and so knocks the whole building down in frustration.

One of things that makes the Bible a great work is that it contains the whole range of thinking and feeling of the ancient people who were loyal to the God of Abraham and of Jesus. Within these very human words--but with real effort--one can hear that God speak. This certainly doesn’t mean, however, that every word the Bible contains is “God’s word” on this or that subject (if only it were that simple).

Revelation has some great passages but much of it is simply very, very strange. It is certainly not a road map for the end of history or for God’s shutting down the operation called planet Earth. As former evangelical Frank Schaeffer (writing on Huffington Post) bluntly reminds us, Revelation is

… a bizarre pastoral letter that was addressed to seven specific churches in Asia at the end of the first century by someone (maybe John or maybe not) who appears to have been far from well when he wrote it. In any case, the letter was not intended for use outside of its liturgical context, not to mention that it reads like Jesus on acid.

The story of Holy Week, of course, contains a great deal of violence. Its central events are Jesus’ arrest, sham trial, torture, and death by crucifixion. Jesus, however, never participates in the violence and rejects others’ use of violence to defend him. Rather he goes to the cross without resistance, to use the scriptures’ metaphor, like a lamb led to slaughter.

Confronted by the overwhelming evil of Rome, Jesus calls not on armies of angels but on faith, hope and love. “My kingdom is not of this world.” But his kingdom is in this world, manifested in the faithful lives of his followers. The gospels’ stories of Jesus’ resurrection are the early church’s bold proclamation that no earthly power can stop the power of God’s love. Living in that faith, Jesus’ disciples embrace hope rather than the anger and fear that so often tempt us to follow them on their path to despair and death. They join him in affirming the eternal goodness of life, God’s greatest gift. For that reason we proclaim, Christ the crucified one is risen.