Saturday, November 13, 2010

What Rhymes With Leadership?

In the report detailing the Council of Bishops' adoption of the Call to Action Steering Committee's Final Report, there is a section that should disturb any United Methodist who loves the Church and questions the underlying assumptions used by those who prepared this report.
Fred Miller, president of The Chatham Group consulting firm and a member of First United Methodist Church in Chatham, Mass., cautioned bishops that values-based organizations such as denominations often struggle with handling data that conflicts with their own values—and therefore don’t deal well with reality.

“Organizations that work really well deal with brutal facts,” he said. “Leaders don’t wait for permission to lead. At some point, it has to be done by the bishops; it can’t be done by outsiders.”

Mr. Miller, who has donated his services to coach the bishops as they process the Call to Action report, outlined characteristics of groups that make good decisions: They have clear goals, have no more than six to 10 people and are careful to hold one another accountable. By contrast, he said, the United Methodist Church depends on a law-making body of 1,000 delegates “making speeches” every four years at General Conference.

“The real problem is a [church] culture that fears change,” Mr. Miller said. And sometimes, he added, practices have to change before a culture itself will change.(link added)
Parsing this mash of consultant-speak leads to some unsettling thoughts, and some questions that need answering. On an abstract level, I would maintain that there are no such things as "brutal facts". Facts are the most ephemeral things imaginable. The figures gathered by the surveys conducted can only be used to answer the questions put to them. If the questions are wrong, the answers you get back are going to be wrong. As I see little evidence of any serious discussion of the larger social and cultural context within which the church currently exists, any statistical analysis is going to be flawed.

Second, the whole business about "leaders don't wait to lead." One would think that an exhortation such as that would be seen as a rebuke to the Council. Yet, one can ask, I think, "lead where?" Or maybe, "Lead away from what?" Perhaps part of the problem here is the vision of the Bishops as "leaders". They are, in an administrative sense, to be sure. The real leaders of our denomination, however, are the local congregations. Not the pastors under appointment, but the whole congregation - the pastors and staff, lay leadership and membership. Those are the leaders. Addressing issues of the challenges that face our denomination start there, not with the Council of Bishops. Real leaders don't keep looking over their shoulders to see if anyone is following them.

Finally, the most unsettling quote concerns the denigration of General Conference. It's nice that the Council hired a consultant who voices such disregard for our traditions and our most important large-scale institutions. More important, our tradition of openness, a kind of democratic polity that is open to all (remember, anyone can submit a petition to General Conference for consideration by one of the committees), is our greatest asset. If nothing else, it allows us, as United Methodists, to remember every four years, that all the talk about connectionalism isn't a bunch of hoo-ha. It's a very real thing, embodied in our law-making institution of General Conference.

Mistaking that quadrennial gathering for our version of leadership is a fundamental error. No one, I think, looks to General Conference for leadership. It is where we as United Methodists gather to chart a general course for our church, to be sure, but in the broadest terms because ours is a church that crosses languages and nations and ethnicities and cultural traditions.

The disdain for difference embedded in the quote concerning General Conference really bothers me, even more than the nonsense about "brutal facts" and "leadership". If this is the quality of consultation The Chatham Group offers, I'm just glad it was offered for free. You get what you pay for, I suppose.


One of the more disturbing aspects of the Call to Action Steering Team's Final Report is the use of the term "relevant", as in, "the church is no longer relevant in our society." Considering the changing nature of our society and culture, which seems absent from the actual report, one can ask whether any church, regardless of denomination, is "relevant" in the sense of striking a chord of familiarity with the larger society.

All the same, what is disturbing to me is the implications of the word as it appears in the report. It sounds to me, at any rate, as if the Bishops, via the authors of the report, are bemoaning our shrinking numbers as a sign of a loss, not of relevance, but of social prestige.

Not so very long ago, the United Methodist Church was the largest Protestant denomination in the country. Our words were heard in the corridors of power. Our pews were filled with politicians and journalists, corporate executives and community organizers. Our diminishing numbers means, obviously, that we have fewer such people in our churches. We no longer have doors opened for us in some places. If indeed, this is what "relevance" refers to, I say, hurray for irrelevance!

At a deeper, theological, level, we need to come to terms with this idea. The message of the Church - the Good News of God's loving condescension to all creation, incarnate in Jesus Christ, lived out in his death and resurrection, embodied in us through the Holy Spirit - is the most relevant thing I can imagine. At the same time, nothing could be more irrelevant to any society; we always exist in greater or lesser tension with the world around us. Our message, particularly in an age in which "God" is an empty concept for so many, is not just quaint. It is meaningless.

Making church "relevant" is a constant challenge. We need to remember that preaching the Gospel, being Church, will create conflict as often as bring about loving community. We need to remember that, if we really are going to be the Church, relevance should not even be on our radar as far as priorities are concerned. At least as far as ensuring some kind of social prestige or cache is concerned.

I suppose that is what disturbs me most about the CtoA report. I do not read about preaching the Gospel, performing the sacraments, or even in a theological sense administering the life of the church. Full members of Annual Conferences are ordained to word, sacrament, and order. They are not ordained to relevance, vitality, and busy congregations. Worrying about "relevance" outside any contextual understanding of the Gospel message, without even a reference to it, is disturbing, to say the least.

Friday, November 12, 2010

New Life

Before I write another word of criticism of the Call to Action Steering Team's final report, I think it only fair to offer, with all due humility, an alternative vision for moving forward as a denomination.

Before I do that, though, I also think it is necessary to spell out a major error on the part of CtoA. There has certainly been a steady downward trend in membership in the United Methodist Church, and the number of incoming members has been too slow to mask the aging nature of our congregations. All the same, what the final report fails to note is these are general social and cultural trends, as well as reflective of basic statistics of our population.

The largest population cohort is the Baby Boomers, roughly speaking those born between the years 1946 and 1964. The reason our congregations are aging is our population is aging.

More broadly, younger people are not only abandoning the mainline churches. In general, all churches are seeing dwindling numbers. Even the evangelical and Pentecostal denominations that saw such massive growth two decades ago are starting to feel the effects from a general, national trend toward secularism. While we can sit and debate who is at fault, if one sees it as something worth mourning, these larger social and cultural trends - an aging population; fewer younger people who also have fewer ties to institutional churches, or religion in general - need to be admitted as major obstacles to any attempt at reform.

Keeping these facts in mind, we should nevertheless affirm as United Methodists our heritage as outlined by Albert Outler in his discussion of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. Keeping our eyes on Scripture, delving in to our tradition, using the gift of reason, and listening and learning to the experiences of many people offer opportunities for doing and being Church in all sorts of ways. We should also remember that we are not about our work; we are the Body of Christ, abroad in the world, living the hope that the new life in Christ brings to all of us. While we should certainly focus on building the spiritual tools of our churches for doing this work through Bible Study, reflection on the historic doctrines of the Church as well as the deep wells of our Wesleyan heritage, we should never forget that these are means to the end, not of vital congregations, but being the Body of Christ.

There is no set of metrics that determine "best practices" for making disciples. The Spirit beckons, Jesus calls whom he will, and the Kingdom will come. We need to be open to all the ways God is calling us to be a people called Methodist. Sometimes that means nurturing small communities in isolated pockets that can barely sustain themselves; sometimes that means reaching across the miles to gather together via social media or other digital platforms, creating intentional communities in which members support one another even if they have never met face-to-face. It might mean fostering within local congregations a variety of talents and gifts for outreach.

We need to see our churches not as places or worship, although we do worship there. They should be places where people come to be fed in order to be about the work of the Kingdom. Most of all, we need to remember that real reform comes from the energies and imaginations at the local level. The Call To Action Commission, whatever its merits, is the imposition upon real live congregations that will not account for the sheer variety of new life out there in our denomination.

What's In A Name

(h/t Alan)

This story is infuriating for many reasons. The one sentence in it that makes my blood boil, however, follows:
After a Fellowship of Christian Students meeting, four girls and a boy surrounded her.

"They started talking about me like I was a man, and like, stuff like that. That I shouldn't be in this world. And my name was a boy name," she said.

Foster described how these people attacked her.(emphasis added)
Apart from all the other horrible details in this story, I'm now convinced that having Christian Student Associations in our public schools is a horrible idea.

Not Super Any More

This report from NPR yesterday brings to the fore a topic that seems, at first, to be almost unmentionable. It was only a few years ago we were reading, from the Bush Administration, the casual claim that our foreign and military policy goal should first and foremost be to remain the unchallenged global hegemonic actor.

Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

Except, really, the decline has been going on for decades. Like so much else in our contemporary life, it can be traced, more or less roughly, to the early 1970's. The Nixon Administration's decision to completely devalue the dollar; the oil shocks; our ignominious retreat from Beirut after the 1983 bombing of our Marine barracks there. The list of signs of our decline have been around us. Much of our rhetoric, however, is designed to ignore or deny these signs.

Pres. Obama's trip to south and east Asia highlights our diminished status. Just consider this trivia - by visiting two countries, he paid official respect to one third of the entire population of the planet. Between them, India and Indonesia have around two billion people living within their borders. Had Obama gone to China, he would have moved that total up to half.

While countries like India and Indonesia, Brazil and Argentina, South Africa and South Korea struggled through the height of the Cold War with internal repression, dictatorship, and political instability, these issues have, by and large, resolved themselves. Barring unforeseeable circumstances, I cannot imagine, say, Brazil returning to military dictatorship in the near future. Civil society has become deeply entrenched in these countries; India's continued growth even as the west continues to contract (with the exception of Germany), along with China's, has kept the world economy from complete collapse.

Unfortunately for Pres. Obama, he is reaping the whirlwind of our diminished status as just one among the more powerful nation-states, yet no longer the dominant primer inter pares. The inability to reach a free trade agreement with South Korea, as well as the refusal to budge any of the G20 states toward greater openness (which really would be in everyone's interests), seems to highlight his weakened state in the wake of the mid-term Democratic Party losses in Congress. Any President, however, would face a similar situation. Most would bluster and blubber, denying the reality that we no longer have a singular voice in world governance. Sadly, Obama will pay, I think, a high price domestically for showing his fellow Americans that we are no longer a superpower.

Connected Connectionalism: The United Methodist Church In The Age Of Social Media

The arrival of The Social Network, the quasi-libelous pseudo-biopic of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has fueled quite a bit of discussion over the limits and potential of social media in general, as well as what they may already be doing to us. I have read several of the better instances of such reflections, and concluded that they tend to be woven of authorial narcissism. Reflecting either wariness of potential control by invisible forces of which we are ignorant or openness to possibility without proper caution, these reflections, like Fincher's film, tell us far more about those who present them to us than they do both the limitation and potential of the media themselves.

As a United Methodist, one great advantage I recognized fairly early is the way social media facilitate connection. On the most mundane level, Facebook allows individuals to create a network of individuals with whom they can choose to interact, choosing the limits of that interaction, opening themselves more or less to the larger world by choice. While it does have limitations and the potential for hazard (particularly for children), this is no less true than any other way of socializing. The oft-repeated warnings that the communities created by the various networks of "friends" on Facebook can lead to the false impression of a deepening understanding; that any virtual interaction creates a set of expectations and assumptions that cannot be sustained by real-world experience; that transferring our understanding of friendship to this new form of interaction falsifies both our original ideas concerning friendship as well as the nature of our interactions on digital platforms are all important to bear in mind. They should not deter us, however, from realizing that the various networks are our creations.

Having been on Facebook for about two years now, I have seen the potential of these intentional communities of choice in any number of ways. Contrary to the dire warning presented by Zadie Smith at the close of her essay "Generation Why?" - "The Social Network is not a cruel portrait of any particular real-world person called “Mark Zuckerberg.” It’s a cruel portrait of us: 500 million sentient people entrapped in the recent careless thoughts of a Harvard sophomore." - is not borne out by experience. As a platform providing opportunities for interaction, it offers users the ability to create their own ways of presenting themselves; most Facebook users are familiar with the plethora of "quizzes" ("What's color reflects your personality?"; "Who were you in a past life?") that were created, by and large, by teenage girls. As Facebook is not only a tool for users, but also a tool for its investors to make money, most users are aware that the amount of information shared on Facebook should always be considered with at least one eye jaundicedly gazing at the potential for exploitation.

All the same, we have before us a tool that should be used to the fullest extent to connect us. As United Methodists, always talking about "connectionalism", we have in Facebook in particular an example of what connectionalism could really look like. We have a tool that can be used to get the Word out. We have a tool to create communities for mission work, for Bible study, even for creating worship communities on-line.

Sad to say, our usual ways of thinking and acting as "church", locally and in the connection, make us wary of tools that have the potential to grow outside the control of the authority of the denomination. The Call to Action Commission final report (.pdf), conceived in fear, seeking for solutions in methods already abandoned by the business community, utilizing a vocabulary that does not reflect our Wesleyan heritage, our tradition of profound theological reflection, or the reality that "vitality" is reflected in connection itself as much as any set of criteria open to direct statistical analysis, fails at precisely this point. Even more than its desire to focus intention on undefined "vital congregations", it ignores the social and cultural context in which we live, and how we interact.

There is potential for re-envisioning church, as well as gathering information about church, that is simply not on the radar of the authors of Call to Action - the way we are already creating new ways of being together with the digital tools we all have in our homes.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

All Administrations Suck

At some point, it becomes necessary to sit down and actually think through things. My frustration with Glenn Greenwald's daily grandstanding, claiming some imaginary moral high ground in relation to the Obama Administration, grows. Today, he tweeted concerning a website he describes as "[a] well-done rebuttal site" to those "lavishing praise" on the accomplishments of the Obama Administration. The site, "What The Fuck Has Obama Done So Far?", provides a series of links to policy decisions, tactical maneuvers, and other things about which, it seems to me, reasonable people can disagree.

Some of the things listed I do think are mistakes on the part of the Obama Administration, such as not pushing hard enough for a robust public option on health care. At the very least, allowing the federal government to negotiate deals with Big Pharma would certainly have gone a long way toward reducing medical costs, particularly for seniors.

Let's take one example from the website. It announces, "Eased restrictions on the use of child soldiers in Africa". Now, that sounds pretty awful. As with all the other banners, there is a link provided for the source of the allegation. In this case, the link is to Foreign Policy, a story from October 26, written by Josh Rogin.
On Monday, the Obama administration waived sections of a law meant to prevent the recruitment of child soldiers in Africa, paving the way for new military cooperation with four countries with poor human rights records -- despite their use of underage troops.

"I hereby determine that it is in the national interest of the United States to waive the application to Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, and Yemen of the prohibition in section 404(a) of the [Child Service Prevention Act]," President Obama wrote in a memorandum to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Let's think about this story for a moment. What has the President actually done? He has done nothing more than made clear, as provided by statute, that it is in our national interest to work with four separate states that have, or do, use child soldiers. None of these countries will make my top 10 places to live, for any number of reasons.

Yet, I have to wonder. How, exactly, has what Obama done in any way "eased restrictions on the use of child soldiers"? Last time I checked, these four countries, generally speaking, are sovereign entities. The United States respects the sovereignty of other nations. So what does the law do?
In 2008, President George W. Bush signed the law, which prohibits U.S. military education and training, foreign military financing, and other defense-related assistance to countries that actively recruit troops under the age of 18. Countries are designated as violators if the State Department's annual Trafficking in Persons report identifies them as recruiting child soldiers.
Now, in what way has the United States pursued any policies of military education and training, military assistance and financing with these four? Other than starting to work with Yemen on their Al Qaeda problem, I'm not quite sure. Beyond that, it is hyperbole to claim that Pres. Obama, by writing a memo, is effecting a change in the military recruitment policies of other countries.

So, this is kind of, well, you know, wrong.

More to the point, scrolling through the list, you come up against issues or positions taken that are, at the very least defensible, or perhaps sensible, or about which reasonable persons can disagree. Going a step or three further, certain legislation and policies pursued and supported by Pres. Obama have done a great deal of good. The remarkable achievement of the previous Congress is its success rate despite the unanimous opposition of the Republican minority and concerted efforts of conservative Democrats to undermine the majority legislative agenda.

I will take this one or two steps further, however. Every Administration in our history, by the standard being applied here, is a dismal failure. George Washington broke treaties with the Iroquois. John Adams actively supported and enforced the Alien and Sedition Act. Andrew Jackson? Guilty of genocide. Abraham Lincoln? Writ of habeas corpus suspended, plus responsible as Commander-in-Chief for more deaths than any other in our history. Teddy Roosevelt was a war-mongering bigot who talked a good game against the Trusts but didn't really bust all that many. FDR? Three words - Japanese Internment Camps.

I am not suggesting that everything the President has done, or failed to do, receives my lavish support. On the contrary. Also, it is good to remember there are things that we need to do, issues concerning which we need to hold the Administration accountable. All the same, it is the tone, both of Glenn Greenwald as well as the website in question, that makes me mad. With his pose as "principled critic" of all Administrations, it is quite simply impossible for any Administration ever to live up to the Constitution. Exigencies of the moment occasionally make demands upon our time and interests that force us to do things we might not otherwise do. Furthermore, while I appreciate the reasons for a law limiting our relations with nations that recruit and use child soldiers, to claim that, by waiving parts of the law in question, in full accordance with that law, President Obama makes it easier for any of these countries to recruit child soldiers is just crap. Period.

I have no problem being critical of the President, as I have been so many, many times. Posing on the pinnacle of moral purity and pronouncing judgment, without the full weight of evidence, let alone the experience necessary to really judge, really just pisses me off. I'm quite tired of it.

Biblical BS

I was commenting back and forth with Rev. Matt Johnson on FB yesterday on an old, favorite topic - the use of profanity on the internet. He said something about the Greek word skubalon and said it was used in St. Paul's letter to the Philippians. After just a little digging, I discovered its general meaning and exact location.

First, skubalon:
any refuse, as the excrement of animals, offscourings, rubbish, dregs of things worthless and detestable
Phil 3:8 (Revised English Bible):
More than that, I count everything sheer loss, far outweighed by the gain of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I did in fact forfeit everything. I count it so much rubbish (skubalon), for the sake of gaining Christ.
I didn't take Biblical Greek, but I do know that translating any word, particularly with limited knowledge or understanding of nuance, popular versus formal uses, and all the rest, is never easy. The King James Version translates that as "dung", which at the very least is closer to the spirit not only of the word, but to the effect St. Paul is trying to convey. All he once was is not just lost, it is shit.

I find it more than refreshing to have this tidbit pointed out to me. Several years ago, I said that Jesus most likely did not blink when he heard the 1st century CE equivalent of "fuck". I was told that he probably got all school-marmish about it, but I tend to doubt it. There just doesn't seem to be the small-minded moralizer about Jesus. Remember, this was a guy who got a bad reputation for hanging out with drunkards, prostitutes, the real dregs of society. St. Paul was, along with being peripatetic preacher, a tent-maker, said skill helping to fund his various adventures and travels. Being a laborer meant much the same then as it does now, socially at any rate. For all his relative erudition in the koine Greek, he probably had exposure to even more colorful expressions.

We dehumanize the people and stories of Scripture when we close our eyes to the social reality within which our faith was born. While I am not suggesting that pastors stand in the pulpit and spout profanities freely, it would be nice if a lesson from this could be drawn out - while certainly scatalogical, Paul's use of an extreme epithet was clearly a rhetorical device showing the contrast with Paul's understanding of his life before and after his encounter with Jesus.

Would that we had more such bold proclaimers today. And that's no shit.

One Veteran's Story

He didn't storm any beaches or jump out of any airplanes. He didn't wade through jungle rivers or freeze during Europe's worst winter in decades. He didn't even leave the United States during his time in the service. My father, however, is a World War II era veteran. His story is unique, yet also more common than one might think. The US Army swelled its ranks to over twelve million, and surely a minority ever saw actual combat.

He managed to avoid getting drafted, enlisting after several fights with his mother. She had lost her only brother in the slaughterhouse of World War I, and had no desire to see her older surviving son go to war only to die. He won that battle, doing his basic training at Fort Dix, NJ in April, 1945. He entered the medical corps as a corpsman, working at an Army hospital at a small war-time base in the city of Utica. He told me that the base had brothels directly across from each of the base entrances, and each Monday morning he saw a parade of young men coming to take care of whatever they might have caught there the previous weekend. He offered this to me as a cautionary tale, I think, because his exact words were, "Some of these young guys [he was 23, so a bit older than the usual draftee] came in with their peckers hanging by a thread." Colorful, yes, but hardly descriptive.

At some point fairly soon after arriving, an officer saw his education and experience and he managed a transfer to Special Services. The bulk of his time in the military was spent emceeing Army Special Services shows. They would fly from base to base entertaining the troops, putting on dances and what not.

After the war ended in August, 1945, there were riots in Europe as draftees, understandably frustrated there were no answers to their questions as to when they would go home, made their feelings clear. They had been drafted for the duration, but that had reached an end, and they wanted to go home. The Pentagon devised a plan that satisfied no one, so it was probably the best one. Since he was a volunteer, had some college education, and was older, my father, in less than a year, was among those eligible to leave early.

My guess is his last assignment was to fulfill some requirement to get him out. During basic, he had managed to win his sharpshooter medal. As a kid, he had been a really amazing shot - he and his brother would sit in their kitchen sink and shoot out the window above it, and my father would take the letters off a power pole in their backyard when my Uncle couldn't even see them - and had that verified by the US Army. He had managed to rise to the rank of Sergeant. With those two qualifications, he spent the last weeks of his time in the service as a Drill Sergeant, and here I cannot remember if he said he did it back at Fort Dix or at Fort Campbell, KY. In either case, he did two classes of draftees.

He and I were sitting and watching Full Metal Jacket, and he was getting more and more agitated during the long opening sequence set at Parris Island, SC. Finally, he couldn't take it anymore, and he went on to tell me that during his time as a Drill Sergeant in the Army (DI's in the Marine Corps are a different breed of cat), there were strict rules on language, you would never think of touching, let alone hitting, a draftee. The end of each day saw them sitting and writing letters home, those who could. That's another thing, my father's strongest impression - the state of so many of the draftees. It was a very different time, 1946. Particularly those who came from the rural south may not have had electricity, or very limited exposure to it. A couple, he said, weren't used to wearing shoes because they hadn't had them growing up. That doesn't even begin to describe their personal hygiene.

Maybe it wasn't the barely-controlled violence of Marine Corps Boot Camp, but I do know that Basic is not easy, and Drill Sergeants have to be tough. Even when he was much younger, I had a difficult time picturing him as one, but he did it, and I am so very proud that he did.

Not every veteran has tales of daring-do, or has memories so harsh they refuse to share them. They served, though, and did their duty as commanded, same as any MOH winner. I am proud of my father's service, even though my guess is he was glad to shake the dust off his Army boots (he often said that life in the Army was, more often than not, sheer monotony; he said that alcoholism was rampant, especially among non-coms, because there just wasn't anything to do).

Thank a vet today, if you haven't yet.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Searching For Middle Ground

Having written a series of posts in which I made clear my feelings on the whole Wikileaks folderol, I thought I was done. Like Michael Corleone, however, I feel myself dragged right back in (although without Al Pacino's overacting . . .). Because I am interested in following certain of Glenn Greenwald's writings, I follow him of Twitter. Reading this tweet, I clicked the link to find this article.
According to yet another diatribe by Salon’s Glenn Greenwald, the claim has been made that the government is “harassing” friends and supporters of Bradley Manning (the army guy who leaked classified documents to Wikileaks).


As Greenwald reports it, Manning’s supporters and friends are being detained when they enter the country and whatever digital devices they are carrying have been confiscated.
That's the report without embellishment. Gerwitz, however, embellishes a bit.
It is not heroic to take an oath to protect and defend the United States, to accept a job where you’re entrusted with classified information, and then leak that classified information, putting American soldiers and assets at risk of loss of life.

That’s not being a hero. That’s being a traitor.
Actually, it isn't. Treason, as has been pointed out over and over again in recent years, is the only crime specifically defined by the Constitution, and Pvt. Manning, whatever crimes he may or may not have committed, is not, by that definition, a traitor.

All the same, Greenwald is equally ridiculous.
I think Manning, if he did what he's accused of, is the most heroic political figure of the last decade at least
That would be, alas, a big negatory.

Greenwald's column is an entire series of frustrations, really. Gerwitz is correct; the people being questioned are associates of Private Manning, who is under arrest for leaking classified information. Greenwald is huffy because officials are conducting an investigation. I am dumbfounded that a lawyer would consider this harassment.

All the same, I am frustrated by the way this entire business is being framed. There are no heroes or traitors here. Defending the investigative tactics of the Justice Department and its military equivalents is not a sign of an "authoritarian follower". That is some serious bullshit right there. While Gerwitz does presume Manning's guilt, he is under no compunction to do otherwise. Considering the facts already on the public record, while overstating that Manning is a "traitor", at the very least a commentator is quite free to state that he has, indeed, violated his oath, and several other laws besides, by his own admission. Specific instances can be adjudicated by a court of law. In court a presumption of innocence is necessary; in a public discussion of the broader topic, I see no reason to pretend such is necessary.

Furthermore, I think Gerwitz should feel no need to state his long-term opposition to the Iraq War as a way of defending his overall position. One can oppose the war, from beginning to the present, without believing for one moment that this opposition means defending every single act - including illegalities that might place our troops in great danger - done in the name of that opposition.

I see no reason to defend a position that opposes the war and opposes actions that have the potential of placing our troops or their allies in danger. As the discussion heats up, it would be nice to be able to have a discussion of this matter without the reversion to hyperbole.

St. Charles North High School Celebrates Bully Week

With a generous tip of the hat to Matt Johnson, this story came to my attention. Please note the headline says that hateful comments might have "caused tension". Ya think?!?
Three St. Charles North High School students caused tension in the school after they wore shirts bearing inflammatory language toward gays Monday to protest against a week designed to promote tolerance of different lifestyles, officials said.

St. Charles North this week is celebrating Ally Week, which is a national event against the harassment of students who are gay, transgendered or bisexual.

District 303 spokesman Jim Blaney said three students showed up Monday at the school wearing shirts that said "Straight Pride" on the front and quoting a Biblical verse from Leviticus on the back of the shirt referencing death as the punishment for homosexual behavior.

The students were initially called into their deans' offices after the shirts created tension among the other students, Blaney said. There was then a second discussion with the students.

"The students said their intent was not to intimidate any one or cause physical harm," Blaney said. "Their intention was to show their pride in being straight."
Just as with racist "white power" advocates, I am filled with disgust that it's the bigots who claim to represent some class of persons to which I, through accident of genetics, belong.

That the school administration couldn't even muster the gumption, during a week dedicated to enlightening students on the far-too-high-price gay kids pay for bullying, to at the very least demand they cover the shirts with a sweatshirt or hoodie makes no sense. Obviously, they were exercising their First Amendment rights. So, I shall exercise mine and call them out as small-minded, ignorant dorks. Further, I shall exercise my First Amendment rights and call out the school Administration for being a bunch of weak-kneed hypocrites who can't even muster the strength to have these kids cover up, let alone, I don't know, maybe suspending them?

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Michigan District Attorney Gets The Ax

It may have taken a bit of time, but anti-gay District Attorney Andrew Shrivell who stalked a student leader at the University of Michigan who happened to be gay - not just on a blog dedicated to the poor kid, but showing up where the guy lived - finally lost his job yesterday.

I know he's gonna play the victim card - they always do - but the guy's behavior was, quite simply, creepy. Just wondering if he's gonna get creepier now that he's freed from any restrictions forced upon him by his employer.

Embrace Everything

Because of a couple comment on my Facebook link to this post last night, I think I need to be clear that I was doing a couple things with it. First, I was being provocative in order to get folks thinking about worship in new ways. Second, I was overstating my basic position in order to clarify a far more important point, which I wish to spell out here.

As for being provocative, well, I'm not sure it worked. What I saw when I watched the video of Wookiefoot closing down a show was a kind of mass celebratory experience. Musicians and dancers on stage and audience all together dancing and joyfully celebrating . . . just life. The joy of being alive. Even the guidance to help clean up the grounds was done in such a celebratory way - "Reach down and pick up some trash," etc. - that it was really quite remarkable.

Christian worship, whether Protestant of Catholic, Orthodox or Pentecostal, is far too rigid. There is an implicit assumption, I think, that "reverence" excludes any spontaneous expression of joy. I include Pentecostal worship in this because, for all its noise and shared sense of the celebration, it is routinized and controlled, rather than open.

There is nothing wrong with traditional worship forms and styles. I once attended a Greek Orthodox High Mass, and the service was originally written by one of the Cappadocian Fathers in the fourth century. Now that's old time religion. Given the limited choices currently on order, I will take traditional hymnody over praise music. Moments of silence are as important as moments of rapturous noise.

Yet, there needs to be more space for more opportunities. If the Psalms are clear about anything, we need to "sing a new song". We are not enjoined to "sing the same old song over and over and over and over again." Along with singing something new - because our God is the God, first and foremost, of new things - we are to honor our God with joy. For some reason, particularly in American Protestantism (although generally, I think), joy is equated with a lack of reverence. Considering conservative attitudes in various Protestant denominations toward dancing, the theater, alcohol, even musical instruments (they are a relatively recent addition to worship in Methodist circles), is it any wonder there is such a disconnect between our sacred worship and our secular celebration?

Furthermore, the commercialization of a kind of "Christian pop" music since the 1970's, which actually hides a pretty creative period of actual hymn-writing, has offered up a huge resource for churches, at a price (of course), as well as created an audience for an alternative to "secular pop" that further separates not only Christian worship, but Christina home life, from its participation in the larger world. This dichotomy is expressed in African-American history by the "Saturday night/Sunday morning" phenomenon. The folks who stomped at the roadhouse all night Saturday went home, refreshed, changed clothes, then spent most of Sunday in church singing a different song, often with the same musicians providing accompaniment. The links, however, between the spirituals and blues, as James Cone has written, are far more intricate not just musically, but culturally as well. Even so, when Gospel artists (and Gospel music was and still is a huge market) cross over to pop - from Sam Cooke to Amy Grant - there is a certain sense of betrayal, of the performer selling his or her soul for filthy lucre.

To overcome this, I think the easiest thing in the world would be to open our worship to everything. There is no reason in the world, other than calcified tradition, for an arbitrary secular/sacred divide. Especially in the Wesleyan tradition, we need to recognize that so many of Charles Wesley's hymns were written to be sung to popular tunes. In John Wesley's instructions for singing which open the United Methodist Hymnal, we read that if we know a certain set of words to a tune, we are to forget them and learn the new ones as quickly as possible. What would it be like if the Church were to open itself not just to Sandi Patti and Toby Mac, but to Jay-Z, Kings of Leon, and George Strait? There are also a slew of "secular" songs that, if one listens closely enough, have a message the Church could embrace easily. Songs by the Irish bands U2 and the Alarm, the American band The Call, Marvin Gaye and the Neville Brothers all offer themselves to us as a source of inspiration.

There is no reason, other than a certain cultural preference for reticence in certain public settings, that our reverence for God limits us in our expression of joy at the great gift of salvation and new life in God. This also does not mean that silence is also precluded. On the contrary, some noise mixed with silence can be even more effective. We need to be creative in our approach to all sorts of possibilities, particularly if we wish to be a Church that is alive. Wouldn't it be nice, after all, if we could proclaim that when we sing every song, our hearts go loop-de-loop and we can do no wrong?

Monday, November 08, 2010


I discovered yet another wonderful band today, called Wookiefoot. As I watched a couple vids at YouTube to acquaint myself with them, I got to thinking about something that has actually been brewing for quite a while.

Why can't our Christian worship services more closely resemble something like this?

This is pure joy and celebration. Dancing and exuberance as a people gathered together celebrate . . . being together.

Now, I know there will be those who will say, "What about contemporary praise worship?" Most contemporary praise music is, to be blunt, quite awful. Musically it is bland and formulaic. Lyrically, it is usually more about celebrating how marvelous it is to be me, the one saved, rather than praising God, anyway. Whether it's Deadheads spinning in endless circles, headbangers pounding to the beat, or the folks at this festival simply celebrating life, why is this missing from our worship experience?

At what point was it decreed that Christian worship must be bland, boring, even morose?

Why should we feel it necessary to yield celebration to secular experiences, aided by cannabis?

I would love to see a worship service where everyone takes risks, demands not just hands raised (and oh Lord how I do not like that Sam I am), but dancing, losing oneself in the moment. I would love to hear a huge variety of music, including supposedly secular music that nevertheless praises God.

I'd settle for a pastor with dreads, which I think are awesome.

Call To Action Accepted By Council Of Bishops

As if it's any surprise the Council wouldn't buy something it had already paid for.

I cannot and will not even attempt to surpass the words of this post by Rev. Matthew Johnson.
If we want resurrection, maybe scripture is telling us we need to admit that some of the things precious to us are, in fact, dead. Then, in doing so, turn them over to the loving hands of God and the power of God's Word. Maybe, instead of looking to the recent present, we look to the uniqueness of our tradition for answers. Maybe, if we are reasonable, we'd see that our action plans have been utilized —and since abandoned — by corporations because they failed. Maybe, if we listened to experience, we would hear the dissenting voice as having value in this conversation and not be so hurried.

But the grieving cannot do these things. And I must remember to be patient with the grieving. I will continue to be present, church. I am saddened that this is so hard for you. I only ask that you please take care of what remains lest we all end up in the same place. And when you are ready to finally talk about what is happening to us from a God perspective, I will be ready to share.

"Are there no prisons?"

With thanks to Rick Perlstein via Facebook, this story from the Minneapolis Star-Tribune actually shocked me, I refused to believe it.

Until I read it.

Very easily, I got to thinking about Dickens' A Christmas Carol. It is outrageous that we are moving backwards, not just in our view of the moral status of indebtedness, but in the legal approach toward debtors as well. Three years ago I got in to a discussion concerning A Christmas Carol with a right-winger. It was . . . interesting to say the least. At this point let me just point out the backdrop to the creation of the story. In the late summer of 1843, Dickens was given a tour of an orphanage, and was outraged at what he saw. His first instinct was to write a pamphlet, but when nothing would come, he was encourage by one of his benefactors to write a story. A Christmas Carol was written, edited, and published in white heat, just a few short weeks.*

The entire project, then was conceived and carried through as a form of literary protest against the legal structures that kept the working class not only working, but incapable of doing much of anything else. While one can make too much of the protest, one should also not make too little of it either. Dickens was not simply encouraging charity; even more he was trying to raise awareness not only of the pitiful condition under which millions lived and died, but expose to a supposed "Christian nation" the way its attitudes created structures in which charity simply wasn't enough. Through the ringing voice of Marley's ghost, and most especially the Ghost of Christmas Present, he hear not only the promise of what our life should be about.
"Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive Ocean of my business!"
We also hear, in the Second Spirit's sarcastic quoting back at Scrooge his own words of contempt for the poor, the judgment upon all who believe that material success curries some special favor.
"Man" said the Ghost, "if man you be in heart; not adamant; forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered What the surplus is, and Where it is. Will you and such as you decide what men shall live, what men shall die! It may be, that in the sight of Heave, you are more worthless and less fir to live than millions like this poor man's child. . . ."
It is truly revolting that we have slipped this far. All the same, with the Christmas season just around the corner, we shall all have a reminder of the social cost of rampant avarice, not just upon our persons, but upon our whole society. I do so hope that there are ears to hear, once again, the lesson Dickens conveys in his "ghost of a tale".

*This information is included in John Mortimer's Introduction to the Facsimile Edition, published by Yale University Press to commemorate the sesquicentennial of the original publication.

Crazy Lies Fuel Hate: Calling 'Em Out

Over the weekend, Rick Perlstein published a piece in the Daily Beast, an object lesson in how fake notions of civility enable lies to spread, poisoning the political atmosphere. I read it with mixed feelings at the time. If we spend our time pointing to all the lies out there - whether it's "Obama raised your taxes" (a fairly easy, simple one) or "The government took over health care" (a far more difficult one to tackle) - there would be little left to do. On the other hand, countering lies does get the facts out there. Particularly in the case of the taxes lie, countering it with the facts gets the word out that Pres. Obama actually cut taxes for the vast majority (95%! Not too shabby!) of Americans.

Still, I worry. The ball is always in the court of those who fling whatever poo they find. Obama is a socialist, born in Kenya, who wants to institute Sharia law. This outrageous idea is the currency in so much of the right, no matter how often it is pointed out as a series of self-contradictory lies, it just won't go away. Like Limbaugh's "Obama always means the opposite of what he says," it is quite literally impossible to deal in a substantive way without confronting the idea that a large portion of the American electorate premises its ideas on assumptions that aren't just wrong - they are crazy.

Yet, reading this story on the big business of pimping anti-Muslim hatred (never mind the many, many books out there claiming the great threat to our way of life from Muslim terrorists), I realized that it is, indeed, necessary to call a spade a spade and a lie a lie. It is even necessary to call the kind of thing Newt Gingrich says crazy. Because, simply put, it is.

What convinced me? The following comment on this piece, made by "Spiderman2":

With the liberals around us, nothing that is stupid is impossible. Who would have thought that these idiots will legalize gay marriage or smoking pot?

I think Massachusetts or California will be the first state to implement Sharia Law.
This is nuts. Pure and simple. It isn't "false", as if there were some set of facts that could refute it. Rooted in a whole series of assumptions that bare no resemblance to reality, it presents the crazy idea that liberals would favor the imposition of restrictive religious laws foreign to our traditions as perfectly reasonable. Rather than just "refute" it, it is necessary to call all of it - whether voiced by Newt Gingrich or some anonymous commenter - what it is. It's just plain nuts.

Being Rogue

It is easy enough to criticize the views expressed by Sen. Lindsey Graham concerning a military attack on Iran. Yet, I don't think such a criticism would be as fruitful as considering it within the larger context offered by these two essays from New Politics. Rather than point out several obvious flaws in Graham's desire for massive destruction and death, we might just consider Graham's bloodthirsty outburst - along with John McCain's "bomb-bomb-bomb-Iran" from the Presidential election - an expression of our political Establishment's long-running need for external threats.
To understand the lunacy of the problematic Islamic “threat” currently being hyped in mainstream U.S. political discourse, we need to place the concept in the historical context of Western, particularly U.S. imperialism’s collective self-image. White American identity has from the beginning defined itself in opposition a dangerous, threatening, darker “other” who had to be conquered, subdued, and/or exterminated . . .


After the 1989 collapse of Russian bureaucratic state-capitalism parading as "Communism" and with "Red" China born again as a U.S. capitalist trading partner, a new demon was needed to deflect from unrest over increasing economic and social inequality in the U.S. and around the world. The War on Drugs worked for a while. It proved useful for sending U.S. military advisors and equipment abroad to prop up pro-U.S. governments in Latin America while profitably filling the U.S. expanding US private prison system with unwilling customers from among unemployed Black and Hispanic youth. But after Osama bin Laden and his cohort pulled off the attacks of September 11, 2001, the War on Terror took precedence and "Radical Islam" was suddenly discovered as the major threat to Western Civilization. This distant threat has proven a sufficient ideological pretext for curtailing democratic freedoms and creating a security state at home while using torture, terror bombing and outright invasion in pursuit of insanely unrealistic hegemonic foreign policy goals in the oil-rich Middle East.
These opening and closing paragraphs from the second in a series by Richard Greeman at New Politics provides context for the frequently voiced support for military action against Iran, despite this country representing no threat to the US and its interests, and despite the insistence by Iranian opposition figures that a military strike by the US would only strengthen that regime's hold on power.

Even more than Iran, the general hysteria concerning the threat of terrorism needs to be reconsidered. From Greeman's first article:
But does ‘the threat’ [of coordinated Islamic terrorism] indeed exist ? And is it really ‘more important’ than catastrophic climate change, proliferating WMD’s, or the world economic crisis ? If we sincerely wish to analyze the social forces which express themselves under the various banners of what Westerners have lumped together under the heading of ‘Radical Islamism,’ perhaps we should begin by deconstructing the concept and to situating it in the context of the Orientalist ideology of Western colonialism/imperialism.
Far too long have many in our Establishment found it not only expedient but necessary to express a belligerence toward other states that, if done by the targets of our potential wrath, would be met with horror by all. Just consider if Graham's comments had been made by, say, North Korea and directed at the United States. We would have a couple carrier battle groups steaming toward the Sea of Japan as well as a whole division of troops winging toward South Korea. We enjoy no immunity from judgment as too belligerent or threatening simply because we are the United States. Only here does the idea of the United States as the "lone superpower" bring comfort. For the rest of the world, a United States striding the globe ignorant of its own history and blustering toward confrontation with anyone who might raise a voice of protest might seem frightening.

Even, dare I say it, that the US is that most dangerous of rogue states.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

As For Me And My House . . .

With the opening of a serious discussion over change and reform within the United Methodist Church, I think it was some kind of blessing that Cornerstone UMC had its special guest preacher, the Rev. Jim Bell, draw out the main point of that oft-used stewardship-campaign Scripture in 2 Corinthians, "God loves a cheerful giver," and all that. I loved that he noted its popularity, near-ubiquity in fact, then went to the heart of the passage.

This isn't about giving because we are asked to do it. This isn't about giving because we should feel compelled to do it. This isn't about giving so that the Church can look busy doing all sorts of good stuff. What's it about is this (and Paul is very clear, in verse 12 of chapter 8 (REB): "for as a piece of willing service this is not only a contribution towards the needs of God's people; more than that, it overflows in a flood of thanksgiving to God."(emphasis added)

In other words, it's not about what we want, or what the Church asks of us. It isn't even about "doing stuff". It's about giving God glory because, well, you know, God is God. It's that simple. We don't give because we are promised promiscuous return from God's bounty (although we are promised that); we don't give so that all sorts of programs can ensue that feed the hungry, house the homeless, clothe the naked, and work for peace and justice in our neighborhoods and around the world (although it does that). We give because, well, God has given and asks - and it is a request not a compulsion - that we give back. All that God gave is everything that God is (see Philippians 2 if you don't believe me), so giving some of our own shouldn't be too much, right?

See, the Church doesn't exist to perpetuate itself, its structures, agencies, hierarchies, or even name. It exists for God, to be about God's work. All the structure and all the agencies and various levels of bureaucracy all are just means to the end of serving God. When I read a study document from the UMC that asserts this upfront - that we exist for God, not for ourselves - I not only will get behind it. I will see it being successful. As it stands right now, worrying about vital congregations before letting those congregations know that they have life not from themselves but from God, because God has called them together will get us nowhere.

Virtual Tin Cup

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