Monday, February 21, 2011

Multicultural yet single-minded (Sunday Reflections for February 13, 2011)

Persian rap (this and picture below)

Last week, in a speech to world leaders, British Prime Minister David Cameron declared that multiculturalism has failed. From a report on MSNBC:

“Under the doctrine of state multiculturalism, we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and the mainstream,” Cameron said during a panel discussion attended by German Chancellor Angela Merkel. “We have failed to provide a vision of society to which they feel they want to belong.”

Merkel had expressed similar views last fall. Cameron went on to say that such cultural separation was partly to blame for the development of domestic terrorists in the UK.

“Multiculturalism” is a hot-button issue around the world, including here in the US. One of the problems with discussing it, however, is that it means so many different things. Cameron and Merkel are right in some of what they say—and very wrong in others.

The whole issue has arisen because of the recent and historically unprecedented movement of peoples around the globe. This has been made possible by the revolutions in both transportation and communication of the past fifty years. For the same reasons millions of people left Europe for North America in the 19th and early 20th centuries, millions of people are migrating from so-called Third World countries to the developed nations in search of economic opportunity.

While in the US most concerns have been economic (e.g. the effect of immigration on wages and jobs), in Europe the concern has been more cultural and primarily with Muslims. Immigrants are not integrating into European society, say these critics, but are living separately in cultural if not physical ghettos. Being disconnected from mainstream British society, Cameron believes, leads disgruntled immigrants to more likely act out their frustrations through terrorism.

One response to Cameron has been to question how culturally disconnected Muslims in the UK actually feel. Surveys have shown them to actually have a high regard for the country’s institutions, three-quarters saying they strongly identified with their British homeland. The terrorist connection also seems more complicated on closer examination. Several of the most prominent British Muslim terrorists actually were well educated, wore Western clothes, and had culturally mixed friendships. Their families were often as shocked as anyone at their involvement.

At the height of the US immigration wave over a century ago, concerns were similarly expressed about lack of cultural integration or even threats to American culture. Immigrants then, too, were chided for not learning English or adopting American dress or habits. Many Protestants were concerned about the numbers of Roman Catholics entering the country. Business and political leaders feared immigrants were bringing radical European labor and socialist ideas. Despite that, most everyone today agrees America’s immigrants proved to be one of the country’s greatest assets.

The Muslim world is in an increasing state of unrest, and not for the reasons people have often assumed. The domestic protests and demonstrations of recent weeks have shown that much of its people’s dissatisfaction is due to economic issues, rather than ideological or cultural ones.

For some time, extremists have taken advantage of that frustration and used it to pursue their own political or religious agendas. It has been said all along, for example, that the West never really understood al-Qaida or how small its base of support really was. Lacking other options, millions of impoverished and oppressed Muslims cheered some of its attacks as ways to vent their anger at whoever was bigger and more powerful than they. In many of the recent protests, the familiar Muslim extremist groups have largely found themselves on the sidelines. At long last, and ignoring most recognized anti-government leaders (many of whom live outside their countries in exile), people have spontaneously and on their own brought down governments which were doing little or nothing for their welfare. This is truly remarkable.

There is no real evidence that Muslim immigrants are more resistant to cultural assimilation than any other group. Instead they seem to be following the same pattern as immigrants of previous eras. Those who actually make the move from one country to another are typically least likely to adopt the customs of their new land—as we all know, old habits die hard. Where real change comes is in the following generations. The children of immigrants almost always learn the native language and are much more likely to adopt local dress and other habits. Childhood, and especially adolescence, is an enormously leveling experience.

There is a big difference this time, however, but it has nothing to do with any unique traits of Muslims. What’s different now is the rise of a genuinely global culture. Just spend a little time watching some international TV or other media. Never have the world’s youth looked and acted more the same. On every continent you see the same uniform: t-shirts, jeans, baseball caps, athletic shoes. Music is truly the global language with almost every style having some international influence. Rap has become the universal music of the underprivileged. You can Facebook, Twitter, Google, and game online in every major language and many minor ones. And the list goes on and on of franchised or syndicated TV shows, restaurants, stores, magazines, clothing lines, electronics, cars, and much more that now have a global presence.

Multiculturalism really can’t be said to have failed. It simply is what is happening. It is what our world is becoming. It can be disruptive and make us uncomfortable. Yet those who are finding it most uncomfortable are those who have it coming. The ideas inspiring, and technology enabling, the overthrow of Muslim despots are very multicultural—but it’s the Muslim world that is shaking and benefiting.

On the other hand, the mass migration of people is also challenging the economic domination of business and political oligarchies around the world. Is it a threat of multiculturalism for people to decide that poverty is no longer an option—anywhere? Yes, a threat to some but a means to hope and empowerment for far more. And as for a multicultural source, we need look no further than the ancient Near Eastern world of the biblical prophets and of Jesus.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

What Cleopatra knew (Sunday Reflections for February 6, 2011)

While most of our attention has been on the weather this past week, we are also aware of the demonstrations and upheaval in Egypt and elsewhere. This is big news, as the networks remind us when they send their top reporters to be on the scene (a bigger deal than before in these days of slim news department budgets).

While events in Egypt have gotten the most attention, they are part of a chain of uprisings across the Arab world. It began in Tunisia with the popular overthrow of a decades-long dictatorship, and then spread to Yemen, Egypt and Jordan. There have also been calls for demonstrations in other countries, like Syria.

Hosni Mubarak was relatively unknown when he succeeded Anwar Sadat as Egypt’s President, following Sadat’s assassination. Nonetheless, he has remained in power for thirty years. On paper Egypt is a democracy, but elections are assumed to be rigged and opposition parties are heavily restricted or banned outright.

Since the Camp David peace accords, Egypt has been a staunch ally of the United States. It is the second largest recipient of US military aid, after Israel. It has no real threats on its borders but its military is viewed by American officials as a stabilizing force in the Middle East. Nonetheless, that military power has served primarily to keep the Egyptian government in power and has earned the US considerable hostility with the Egyptian public. Pictures of tear gas canisters with “Made in the USA” on the side have been widely seen.

Sadly this repeats an all too familiar pattern of US intervention in other nations’ affairs. Since the Cold War it has often adopted a policy of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” This has resulted in our support for dictatorial governments whose policies would seem to be anathema to our own liberal democratic principles, but are perceived as allies against other threatening powers.

In the long run these policies have almost always backfired. Perhaps the biggest debacle was the US support for the Shah of Iran, for which we are still paying the price. Ironically, one consequence of his overthrow and replacement by a hostile Islamic republic was our support for another dictator, neighboring Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. We all know how well that turned out.

Egypt is a large country with a history unmatched by any other. I’ve watched developments there a little differently since finishing the new biography of Cleopatra. Egypt was already ancient in her day, and living a century before Jesus we think of her world as ancient. By the time of her reign, many of Egypt’s famous monuments were already in decay (with graffiti!) and some were even unknown by her, lost in the sand only to be rediscovered centuries later.

Mubarak should have studied Cleopatra because he would have learned some pertinent lessons. While she was ultimately undone by the rise of Roman power, her rule over Egypt was one of the most prosperous and peaceful times it had known. What most people don’t know about Cleopatra was that ethnically she was not Egyptian but Greek. Her family the Ptolemy’s had ruled Egypt since Alexander the Great’s conquest three centuries earlier.

Egypt was a wealthy nation, often called the bread basket of the Mediterranean. Its capital, Alexandria, was a rich and cosmopolitan city, an ancient combined version of New York and Paris. (At this time Rome was viewed as kind of a “cow town,” a sprawling urban mess yet to have its great monumental building spree.) Cleopatra made Alexandria even more fabulous.

The key to Cleopatra’s domestic success was her intentional efforts to bridge the cultural gap between herself and her people. Unlike her predecessors, she was fluent in Egyptian and studied Egyptian culture. Cleopatra actively participated in Egyptian religious festivals and hence was viewed as both a queen and a goddess. She planned for agricultural disasters and stored food for emergency distribution. She worked to make the Egyptian bureaucracy and legal system responsive and fair.

Today, in Egypt and the other nations in turmoil, hundreds of millions of young people have become overwhelmed with frustration. Many have grown up in poverty or just barely above it but see no prospect for change or economic opportunity. They see leaders who have been in power for decades yet have done little but build their own personal fortunes and those of their cronies. Tiny wealthy oligarchies live in gated McMansion communities, untouched by the impossibly frustrating lives of most of their fellow citizens.

The rise of the Internet, mobile phone networks, and global TV, however, is creating a new international community among the down-and-out. And in numbers and knowledge there is power. They are now in communication with each other, are inspired by each other, and respond to each other. All these uprisings are linked by global telecommunications and this is a genie that can’t be put back.

The gap between the haves and have-nots has been growing around the world, including in this country. While such a gap may be inevitable, it is has its limits and those limits are becoming tighter in this electronically connected world. Out ranking both religion and politics, the basic concern of all people is fairness and opportunity. In times of distress, everyone must share in the suffering. In times of prosperity, everyone must receive some part of the growth. In many places that hasn’t been happening. But where in the past those disparities could be kept under wraps, today they are being displayed for all to see. As in Jesus’ parable, the lamp is on the stand illuminating all in the house, whether they like it or not.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

A script in need of a re-write (Sunday Reflections for January 30, 2011)

(What follows is my 2011 report for my congregation. This year it was a summary of my view of the state of Christianity and of the church in general.)

I’ve just finished one of the most satisfying and important books I’ve read in a long time. It’s by one of my favorite authors, the English theologian and philosopher Don Cupitt, and is titled A New Grand Story. I like Cupitt because he is incredibly insightful and honest. An Anglican priest now in his 70s, Cupitt long ago paid the career price for his honesty, being shuffled off to Cambridge University. Nonetheless his career has been distinguished, valuable and, most importantly, satisfying to him, even if not in limelight. I doubt you have ever heard of him.

What’s a new “grand story?” Over the centuries, religion’s primary purpose has been to help people understand themselves and the world they live in. Religions do this by telling stories—“grand stories”—about human origins, purpose, and destiny. These stories answer questions like: Who are we? Where did we come from? What should we do or not do? How do we live with each other and with those different from us? How will it all end? The biblical story, used and adapted by Jews, Christians and Muslims, is one of creation, suffering due to sin, and redemption.

As Don Cupitt has been saying and writing for many years, it is just this biblical grand story which no longer is meaningful, or even makes sense, to the majority of modern people— many of whom are still active in the religions which tell it. Hence this book, which is an attempt to shape a new story of human meaning and purpose for the 21st century and beyond. In it he attempts to show the relevance for what he believes was at the heart of Jesus’ message—a message obscured and even intentionally lost by the church which followed in is name. It is a call to live our lives freely, fully, creatively, and without holding back. I believe he makes a persuasive case.

In the mean time the ancient church stumbles on, as Cupitt well knows and understands. Christianity (like other religions) has hung on even after people stopped believing its story because it serves other purposes, as well. It provides us with an identity; the community of a congregation can be like a second family for us; and moved by the gospel message, the church is a means for us to serve people in need. In addition worship, liturgy, prayers, hymns, scripture, art and church architecture all provide us a vehicle for emotional expression and a spiritual connection with a reality greater than ourselves.

Without a believable, central “grand story,” however, the way the church meets these needs seems increasingly antique and artificial. To outsiders worship feels like a step back in time, like those “living history” re-enactments you see in parks. In Europe and elsewhere, it’s not uncommon for churches to exist wholly or in part as museums for the tourists. So the church rolls on but like a tire with a slow leak. How much further can it go?

Unfortunately, few church leaders want to acknowledge let alone talk about this reality. They can’t even begin to imagine what’s to be done. Those that are bureaucrats often can only focus on immediate issues of budget and personnel. Increasingly I hear the criticism that they really just want to hang on long enough to get to retirement. But honestly, I can’t judge them for that concern because, at my point in life, I understand the feeling all too well.

And frankly, it’s nearly impossible (as Cupitt has discovered) for those living in the church to honestly grasp what is occurring. Bluntly, Christianity as we have known it is slowly but surely coming to an end. And this is the case for all the world’s great ancient religions. Yes, people still claim traditional religious identities. And a significant, though much smaller number, are active members of congregations. Yet worshiping communities everywhere are getting smaller and older, year-by-year. Religion provides little if any creative fuel for contemporary culture’s fire.

Where the ancient religions do still possess energy, it is increasingly directed into conservative, and often violent, political movements. This is true of fundamentalist Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and sometimes even Buddhism. While appealing to some, this politically militant and extremist religion is increasingly alienating to most residents of modern countries and cities. This is especially the case for young adults, where recent surveys show that those in their 20s and 30s now more often view traditional religion as a source of division and conflict in the world, rather than a force for peace or spiritual growth.

I have written and spoken many times about the impact of these developments on our own congregation and our denomination, the ELCA. The past two years especially have been difficult and—literally—dark times for our denominational leaders. Past and present staff members have told me of large portions of the ELCA Higgins Road office tower virtually shut down due to staff layoffs and reductions. The lights have been turned off on thousands of square feet of cubicles and meeting rooms.

Locally, multiple synod congregations now close every year, especially in Chicago and the older suburbs. Most others are shrinking, with a growing number served by part-time or only pulpit supply pastors. As a synod staff member reported awhile back, the few congregations that are growing do so mostly by gaining the former members of other ELCA churches.

Inevitably for us in the church, these developments seem grim and depressing. As with all change, important things are being lost. Yet I am convinced that these movements in our society and world will ultimately prove to be for the better. Cupitt’s story is one of the human species on the move. While not always in a positive direction, humanity’s track over-all is towards freedom, understanding, and responsibility—in short, towards maturity.

For all its benefits, traditional religion has tended to keep people dependent and is suspicious of human freedom. For these and other reasons many people now view religion as holding them back, or at least largely irrelevant to their lives. Yet living as a free, independent and responsible human being remains an enormous challenge. It’s hard work, and we all need guidance and support in that journey.

People are looking for that help but often with very unsatisfactory results. A genuine need is there, and ultimately I believe the church will evolve into a community that is dedicated simply to helping people in this challenge we call life. We’re not there yet, however. We carry too much baggage. We can’t let go of our past, of our memories of what the church once was. As Lot’s wife learned and as Jesus admonished those holding the plow, if you’re looking back you can’t be moving forward.

My own understanding of all this continues to evolve. I understand well the appeal of just continuing to do and say all the same things as before. It feels so much safer, yet I’m convinced that way leads only to stagnation and death. The hope and promise of life is always the challenge and risk of going forward, even if into the unknown, into a fog where sometimes you can barely see a foot in front of you.

So in the coming year I will continue to try to strike the balance of offering the traditional services our church provides, yet at the same time exploring what new direction the Spirit is leading us. I thank all of you for your continued support of our work in a very challenging time. We are a community of good and deeply caring people. You are our church’s most important asset and your love and life are the most important gifts you have to offer. I hope you will join me in continuing to give all you can with joy, and without looking back.

Be it resolved (Sunday Reflections for January 16, 2011)

(It's taking me a while to get back in blogging mode and a couple friends have prodded me about it--thanks for the push! So I will be playing catch up publishing the past few Reflections articles and apologize that these may feel a little out of date.)

How are those New Year’s resolutions coming? If you’re like most people, some or all of them may have already fallen by the wayside. Or if your intended resolution was to procrastinate less, perhaps you haven’t gotten around to making any yet. Hey, 2011 is only a couple weeks old—plenty of time.

I don’t know how long the idea of New Year’s resolutions has been around. Nor do I know when they became focused almost exclusively on issues of diet and exercise—and thereby exercises in futility. This is the time regular gym goers complain about the flood of new members crowding the facilities. “But just wait a few weeks,” they continue. “They’ll be gone soon and things will get back to normal.” And they’re right.

The difficulty of these resolutions, I think, is that they usually are about us trying to be or become people different than who we are. They’re about doing things we really don’t want to do but have come to believe we ought to do. It’s hardly a surprise most of these plans and good intentions quickly crash and burn.

Most of the health issues these resolutions try to address are due to our modern lifestyles (sitting at a desk rather than working out in the fields) and/or compensating behaviors for other problems. In other words, we eat, smoke, drink, etc to deal with boredom, anxiety, depression or other emotional conditions. Trying to change the behavior without dealing with the underlying cause is, as we all know, nearly impossible.

I do think, however, that making intentions and plans for ourselves can be a good thing. Rather than trying to do things we really don’t want to do though, I think better and more realistic resolutions are to do things we actually like doing or want to try doing.

Unfortunately, many of us still carry around a kind of Puritanical view of life—one which religion often reinforces. We have voices in our heads constantly telling us that we ought to be doing or not doing one thing or another. Then add the real voices of our family, boss, and our doctor—no wonder we want to drown in a bag of potato chips or M&Ms!

Life is not a game or a contest, though. There aren’t rules to follow and points awarded for following them. Nor is life preparation or training for something else. Our lives are infinitely valuable and worthwhile in and of themselves, right here and now.

So in thinking about “2011 Resolutions,” rather than asking what I need to change about myself, I could instead ask what more do I want to do or become. In talking about New Year’s resolutions (and why he doesn’t make them), Deepak Chopra makes the unprofound yet absolutely true observation that what most people want is to be happy.

Of course! And why not? Again: what are we waiting for? There is nothing wrong with doing things for the simple reason that they make us happy. And so there might be our first resolution: I’m going to do more things that make me happy, and for no other reason than that.

This raises the problem that we often don’t know what makes us happy; or that we’ve forgotten what used to make us happy. One simple place to start in figuring this out is with childhood memories. What did you enjoy doing when you were 8 or 10? Very likely there is some related adult activity that would give you as much or more enjoyment today.

Adulthood should be about expanding our horizons so we should also wonder about things we’ve never done but perhaps might enjoy. Here there is almost no limit. And in a city like ours there are countless opportunities to take a class or otherwise try some new activity.

Adulthood is also about becoming less self-centered and more involved in relationships. Many of our interests are made more enjoyable by doing them with others. Like to read? Join a book group. Like sports but the joints aren’t cooperating like they used to? Coach in a youth league. Enjoy some field like history, science or art? Share your enthusiasm by volunteering as a docent or guide. And don’t forget the value of just helping someone in need. Again, there is no end to the human service organizations needing volunteers to help in their work.

Sadly, the enthusiasm and curiosity most of us have as children seem to get lost somewhere along our journey into adulthood. It’s no wonder that as we feel more and more burdened by duties and responsibilities, and then begin to experience the physical challenges of adulthood, we try to find simple pleasures to compensate. Unfortunately many of these are self-destructive and really don’t make us very happy anyway. No amount of TV watching or calories can really do the trick.

What would you like to do—really? Is there some itch in you that needs scratching? Maybe it’s as simple as committing to reading a book an hour each day (okay, half-an-hour). Or maybe you really want to learn to play the violin, or help someone else learn to play the violin.

In any case, rather than resolving to deny yourself something, why not resolve to give yourself something? Rather than resolving to constrain yourself in some way, why not resolve to expand who you are in some new or renewed direction? Rather than committing yourself to some drudgery, how about committing to something enriching, exciting, or perhaps even a little scary?

How about resolving to start doing something, regularly, that makes you happy? What could possibly be bad about that? And who knows, it might even help you forget those potato chips and M&Ms waiting in the cupboard.