Archive for December 2011

Don’t Be Fooled About the 99% … of Evangelicals   3 comments

Recent studies have demonstrated again that our brains tend to filter out what doesn’t fit with our mental map of the world. It’s called “confirmation bias.” I suppose otherwise we would spend all our time hesitating between two (or more) opinions: “Is Breyers the best, or Ben & Jerry’s?”, “Should I do crunches or the ‘plank’ for my core?”, “Who really points to the way forward for America, Occupy Wall Street, or the Tea Party?”, etc.

The downside of this of course is that sometimes, since it doesn’t agree with the story in our head, we unwittingly filter out the truth. And when we do this, to make ourselves feel better or more confident in our positions, we generalize about those who are filtering the opposite way – those who dare to disagree with us. We stereotype them, paint with a broad brush, and we fail to even to give them the benefit 0f the doubt. Sometimes we impugn their motives, “They’re not even trying to see the truth!” Now this is still an improvement over times in the past. In our land these days, nobody is being burned at the stake or made to seek sanctuary in another country, or locked up in prison because of their unacceptable views. It’s hardly the case though, that we’ve reached a truly civilized place where we can talk with (not “at”) each other, and even learn from each other. What ever happened to “walking a mile” in the other guys shoes? Remember that old Elvis song?

If you’re a member of the Tea Party or a supporter of Occupy Wall Street, I think you know what I’m talking about. Generalizations abound, and stereotypes shape or control the thinking of many. And it’s just not accurate or fair, and you know it. Probably you wish that journalists and others would give a more objective and accurate depiction of your group – of people like you. Well, that’s how I feel about Evangelicals – people like me. The same thing happens for all the same reasons, and we would like to be understood better too.

In his article, The Evangelical 99%, Richard Flory tells about a recent visit to the meetings of the Evangelical Theological Society – a group which he refers to as the “brain trust of conservative American evangelicalism.” He begins with the usual amount of suspicion about the group, but his training and journalistic integrity keep him from prejudging what he sees based on what he may have expected. This is his exhortation to his fellow journalists:

“Of course due suspicion is warranted; these were events open to the public, after all. But journalists should nonetheless try to look for greater depth and complexity in their stories about conservative evangelicals and religion more generally. A conference that arguably constituted a sampling of Republican primary voters attracted people who are not only ardent in their beliefs but thoughtfully committed to civil discourse, per Chuck Colson. This suggests that there are more interesting stories to be told about religious conservatives than those that simply focus on titillating personalities like Sarah Palin, Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann. These politicos, along with Rick Warren, currently serve as stand-ins for tens of millions of conservative American evangelicals in most news media narratives, but they’re essential spiritual versions of the infamous 1 percent decried by Occupy Wall Street. In other words, they don’t live in the day-to-day world that 99 percent of the evangelicals in the U.S. actually inhabit. Like the ranks of religious progressives and centrists, on whom the gaze of the news media also seldom turns, most evangelical conservatives are just trying to make ends meet, raise their children as best they can and follow their religious beliefs as they encounter the good, the bad and the puzzling in everyday life.

“It is thus crucial for the news media to provide a more nuanced and accurate view of the roughly 80 million people in the U.S. who identify as evangelicals. They exert enormous influence in every national election, in various legal fights and in the communities in which they live. As such, they should neither be ignored nor characterized by the actions and proclamations of their most publicity-hungry members. By focusing narrowly on the famous (or infamous), whether political or pastoral, journalists skew the public perception of all forms of religion in the public sphere. This tight frame presents evangelicals as unworldly and easily befuddled (a la Palin, Perry and Bachmann) or not particularly deep theologically (a la Warren) rather than complex in their range of everyday needs, desires, fears and dreams. Apart from distorting reality, these media narratives don’t simply record the skirmishes in the culture wars–they also serve to stoke the conflict.”

I have to say, I appreciate these words. I’ve known lots of Evangelicals in my lifetime, and there are many that I respect for their intelligence, passion to know the truth, commitment to sacrificially serving others, and willingness to admit they could be wrong, or that they’ve grown, or changed a long-held position. Many of the ones I know have a great respect for women, would fight to the death for religious freedom for those in other religions, and attempt to marshal the church’s sometimes meager resources to help the poor. (The church of about 500 where I attend just fed over 350 people for Thanksgiving – with members serving needy people with love and respect. The church’s food pantry gives out bags of groceries to many hurting families every week. When I was a pastor, one Thanksgiving we invited a homeless family to share our holiday dinner with us in our home.) I’m just saying that this picture may be different from the one in your head – and you might not be seeing what is really there. It might be “confirmation bias.” I’m glad that Richard Flory said it, because I’m sure it means more coming from him.

I like to suggest that we start anew. We can agree to practice respect towards those who differ from us. We can work hard to give each other the benefit of the doubt. Let’s try to see beyond the ideological walls we have constructed – or even worse – that others have constructed for us. After all, we all breathe the same air, walk the same earth, and we all “… encounter the good, the bad and the puzzling in everyday life.”

In a day when everything is “spun” and where disinformation is perhaps the most common form of information, skepticism and cynicism can be appropriate responses – but they’re hardly appropriate starting points. On my way to Zuccotti Park once, I took the long, often slow bus ride into Manhattan. I was almost the only white person, and I have to admit, it’s not my usual element. But on that bus, as I looked around, I realized in a very powerful way, “I don’t know these people or their struggles, but I know this – they are part of the 99%. They are the reason that I’m going into the city to protest today.” Perhaps the next time you encounter an Evangelical, you can do something similar (self-talk). You can say to yourself, “I don’t know or understand this person, but she is part of the 99%. Maybe I’ll try to show respect. Maybe we’ll learn we share some important beliefs. Maybe where we differ, we can do so with insight and more respect than previously.” You might even say, “Maybe I can learn something from this fellow creature.” In the words of Richard Flory, “You might be surprised to discover that they’re not so different from you ….”


Posted December 22, 2011 by occupyevangelicals in Uncategorized

Should Occupy Wall Street Be “Largely Secular”?   Leave a comment

In the LA Times article Occupy Movement is Largely Secular,  Jennifer Butler, executive director of Faith in Public Life (a progressive multi-faith organization) says,  “Our tradition and our scriptures are so clear that we’re supposed to take care of the poor, the widow, the orphan…. I think that is a rallying cry for faith communities that will unite us even when we have disagreements over other social issues.” Mitchell Landsberg, the article’s author, reminds us that “So far, though, Occupy is a predominantly secular undertaking.”

John Green, a longtime scholar on religion and politics, therefore asks,  “Where are the mainline Protestants? Where are the Quakers?” Although individuals from those groups are participating in the Occupy protests, “…there’s been relatively little denominational involvement.” I think this is a good question, and I’m asking it about Evangelicals as well. “Where are they, and why aren’t they involved?”

And I don’t think it’s as complicated a concept, or unthinkable a suggestion as it might seem. Maybe it’s too much to expect denominations to formally approve of or partner with Occupy Wall Street – and probably neither side would benefit from that anyway. Even so, it would be simple enough for individual churches (pastors) to make it clear to their people that OWS is something very important, and that some of them might be “called” by God to participate. After all, not everyone wants to minister by handing out bulletins on Sunday, and not everyone is satisfied with ministering only within the safety of the church walls – and accepting the limitations associated with that in terms of impact on others. As I’ve suggested elsewhere, Occupy Wall Street gatherings provide believers of all stripes and persuasions opportunities to share their values; pray for hurting, confused people; stand up for those who are being neglected or abused, and give a cup of water in Jesus’ name (literally or figuratively). Participation creates opportunities to act out your faith, and put feet to your prayers. It’s a way to learn from others, and sharpen your skills in sharing your faith. And if you can’t physically go down to Occupy gatherings, it doesn’t matter. There are myriads of other ways to be involved, and those ways will benefit you and others in all the same ways. (And let’s just say that your church “sends” you, and that you go – and that for whatever reason, you eventually decide it’s not for you, or that it’s not a workable fit with your view and values. If that happens, I’d say you should close that chapter and find another way to do something important with your time and your life. I promise you though, you’ll be a better person for having tried it.)

So, what is my answer? “Should Occupy Wall Street be “largely secular?” I don’t know, maybe so, probably so. (I guess I haven’t really been discussing that!) But does that mean that it’s a movement that should occur without clergy presence and influence, that Christians should absent themselves from it, that Evangelical churches should take a stand against it, that  the Judeo-Christian Faith has nothing to say about the issues it’s forcing Americans to consider in newly powerful ways?  Well, no. That’s definitely not it.

“Occupy Church Street, Not Wall Street”?   3 comments


Back in November, Richard Beattie from the Denver Evangelical Examiner wrote this critique of Occupy Wall Street and ended with some advice to them.  He said,

“The waste of time, talent and resources of occupying Wall Street is getting tiresome. The movement is not united and watching the threads on blogs and websites is only serving to be buying into a system of “haves and have nots.” … I was thinking about how “Occupy Wall Street” is playing on Wall Street and how it is playing on Main Street and from what I can see the only hurt that the movement is leaving a mark on is the continuing sluggish Jobs Index. I have a solution for the occupiers – Leave Wall Street and head on down to Church Street. Occupy Church Street, your prayers will be answered.  …

“On Church Street you are not slaves to Wall Street or Main Street, you are considered friends who will be compelled to live in a community where people will give, will work with you and beside you. Your gifts and talents, your education and your qualifications are noticed. …. There will always be greed and there will always be injustice, but when you rely on God only for your sustenance then you will find your needs are met, that justice is given and you will be treated with respect and dignity. So take your tents and move to the nearest church you can find and occupy Church Street 24/7. Be prepared to pray, be prepared to worship and be prepared to listen to the message God wants you to hear.”

I can’t resist a few brief comments on this exhortation. 1) In fairness, this was back in November, so the impact that OWS is having was less evident. 2) The picture portrayed here of the church is very generous. The church of Jesus Christ is indeed to be a receptive, inclusive place where you will be welcomed and your talents will be appreciated and utilized – and where you will be treated with respect and dignity. In practice it might take some real looking to find such a church – and if you have real problems you might want to keep them to yourself – just so you don’t ruin everything! The church is made up of very imperfect people, and it shows. I mention this not to pick on the church, but because the author writes glowingly about it and condescendingly about OWS. In my experience, I’ve seen people (not necessarily Christians) attempting to live out Christian principles more impressively in OWS gatherings than in most churches. 3) The question remains, even should justice and respect for others be found in the church – what about those outside of the church who also want and need these things? In most cases they’re not going to come to the Evangelical church (about which they often have many negative impressions) for help. If the church is to help, it has to reach out or go to them. This “going” is at the heart of the Great Commission and the sending out of the Apostles after the resurrection of Jesus. And given that, perhaps involvement with the Occupy Movement isn’t so far-fetched. When I’ve gone to Zuccotti Park, my presence as clergy was appreciated by many, and I had unprecedented opportunities to share my values and perspective – just like everyone else there. Showing up and talking to others and praying for them is doing something, and it may lead to other good things too. You don’t have to camp out, be a “dirty hippie”, or become a socialist to join in with these others in an attempt to “do good to all people.” 4) The God of the Bible won’t do for us what we can do for ourselves. He expects us to leave the comfortable, familiar enviroment of our churches, and actually work for justice and respect in our world. It’s not enough to say, “We have the answer here, and if they want it, they can come to us.” Perhaps this is the message that God wants the Church to hear.

Posted December 22, 2011 by occupyevangelicals in Uncategorized

Can Evangelicals “Occupy”?   3 comments

For their own reasons, many on both the Left and the Right seem to think that Evangelical Christians ought to stay out of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Many non-Christians on the Left are against Christian involvement in Occupy because they are distrustful and disillusioned with religion and the church (Do a twitter search on “religion!”). Many Christians on the Right seem concerned about other things – things not on the Occupy radar – abortion, homosexual marriage, etc. The question is, who are these Evangelicals, and can they make a contribution? Might those who are antagonistic now towards them, later actually be able to appreciate them for their contribution?

Defining “Evangelicals” has always been tricky, and it’s only become more complicated over the years. British historical David Bebbington’s four specific hallmarks of Evangelism have often been cited: “… conversionism, the belief that lives need to be changed; activism, the expression of the gospel in effort; biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible; and crucicentrism, a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.”

Another approach is to describe Evangelicals as “an organic group of movements and religious tradition.”  This approach includes “ … groups as disparate as black Baptists and Dutch Reformed Churches, Mennonites and Pentecostals, Catholic charismatics and Southern Baptists….” (ibid.)

To simplify and generalize even more, one might suggest that Evangelicals inhabit the middle ground between the other Right and Left – the religious Right and Left, with Fundamentalists on the Right, and liberal Churches on the Left. As one would expect, within Evangelicals themselves we find the same spectrum, with more conservative individuals and groups on the one end, and more liberal ones on the other. (For instance sometimes the controversial “Emerging Church movement” is considered Evangelical.)

What I’m asking about is whether members of this disparate group, and not just on the fringes of it, but those at its heart, can “occupy.” Can they share the concerns of the Occupy Movement and join their voices with others of the 99% in protesting obscene income inequality, rampant downward mobility of the middle class, lack of accountability and corruption on Wall Street and in Congress, and the slipping away of First Amendment rights, and similar national concerns? To put it succinctly, is there anything intrinsic to being an Evangelical that would or should prevent that? That’s my question, and it’s not an academic one. So many Christian friends of mine and their pastors (also friends) are at best uninvolved or apathetic towards the Occupy movement, and at worst, openly hostile to it, that I feel the need to defend what I believe is obvious. (Not all my Christian friends or friends who are pastors are this way, just to be clear.)

So here’s why I think Evangelicals can Occupy:

1) In the past, Evangelicals have been active in a great spectrum of concerns and issues:

“By the decades prior to the Civil War, a largely-evangelical ‘Benevolent Empire’ (in historian Martin Marty’s words) was actively attempting to reshape American society through Bible and tract distribution, the establishment of Sunday Schools and through such reforms as temperance, the early women’s movement, various benevolent and betterment societies, and–most controversial of all–the abolition movement.” Marcia Pally says something similar, “Evangelical emphasis on individual moral responsibility made them, from the colonial era to World War I, politically anti-authoritarian and economically populist — anti-banker and anti-landlord. Before the Civil War, they created many of the associations that helped build the country and, in the North, were crucially important to the abolitionist movement. After the war, they fought for labor against robber-baron capitalism and supported William Jennings Bryan three times for president on a pro-worker, pro-farmer platform.”

Today, Evangelicals involve themselves in a similarly impressive list: “New evangelicals have been working through their churches on substance abuse, care for the homeless and the elderly, prison ministries, and affordable housing, and they have been developing projects overseas on environmental protection, disease reduction and education.” (ibid.) This is done through education, lobbying and coalition-building.

There is definitely also a specifically “political” piece of the equation: “Since all governments are human and therefore corruptible, new evangelicals understand the vigilance needed to keep politics honest. This is the church’s “prophetic role” — not to become the government but to “speak truth to power.” (ibid.) Recently, the National Association of Evangelicals called on its members — over 40,000 churches — to protest Republican cuts in programs for the needy.” (ibid.)

So, if Evangelicals today refuse to participate in causes and protests like the Occupy movement, they are out of step with, rather than following in the footsteps of, their predecessors.

2) Many “New Evangelicals” today stress the need to move beyond Bible studies, prayer meeting, and service to God that is understood only as serving in the church and sharing the gospel with neighbors, to more of a “taking it to the streets” kind of religion. That includes the critical practices I’ve mentioned (prayer, Bible study, etc.), but acts in this other arena also.

The Biblical writer James says, “Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. ” (James 1:27) This quintessential ministry activity occurs outside the walls of the church obviously – and that’s why while you’re at it, you must take heed to keep yourself “unspotted.”

Evangelicals believe in sharing the “gospel” – the “evangel.” Biblically, such witness is accomplished both verbally and through behavior or actions. The saying “”Preach the Gospel always, and if necessary, use words.”, often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, whether rightly or in error, makes the proper point. Writings by the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good puts it this way: “Much Christian moral witness takes place quietly in families, local congregations, and local communities, as Christians simply go about their daily lives and seek to live as faithful followers of Christ. This is the responsibility of all Christians. … But some Christian moral witness occurs at national and international levels, where many significant challenges to human well-being are often created and addressed. Christians have no choice but to engage religious, economic, cultural, and political institutions with our best efforts to articulate and embody the love and justice of Jesus Christ for the well-being of God’s world.” (And “world” here is the sense of our planet, but also definitely in the sense of it’s people.)

You gain an appreciation for how exciting and thoroughgoing these efforts can be when you read from the “Here We Stand” statement of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good: “We stand against poverty and economic injustice and for dignified and decent economic conditions for all. We seek to be involved in creative efforts to build a more fair and humane economic order here and around the world. … We stand against tyranny and for democracy, justice, and the rule of law. We are involved in efforts to protect and strengthen the culture of American democracy, the unique legacy of religious liberty in this land, and the always fragile rule of law. We look for ways to support indigenous efforts to advance democracy, religious liberty, public justice, and the rule of law in other lands.”  (ibid.)

Secular antagonists, fault Evangelicals if you will with the stereotypes that Christians “don’t get it” or “don’t care”, “won’t become involved” or “just want to push their religion down your throat/convert you”, but the evidence is against you. There is not only a rich tradition of activism, but some admirable and radical calls to action being made today from the Evangelical camp.

3) There should be nothing surprising about either what was done in the past, or what is being attempted now by Evangelicals (either “New” or otherwise), because the Bible clearly call’s upon God’s people to be concerned about social justice. Listen to just a few verses from the Bible: “For I the Lord love justice.” (Isaiah 61:8); “You must not distort justice; you must not show partiality; and you must not accept bribes, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of those who are in the right. Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue.” (Deuteronomy 16:19-20); “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8);  “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:24); “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness [Greek dikaiosune, also translated as justice], for they will be filled.” (Jesus in Matthew 5:6);  “And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.” (Jesus in Luke 18:7-8);  “Woe to you … for you have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.” (Jesus in Matthew 23:23)

David Gushee, who gathered these verses says, “I could have picked hundreds of other verses. By our count in Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context (Intervarsity Press, 2003), fellow ethicist Glen Stassen and I find in the Bible 1,060 uses of the two Hebrew and two Greek words for justice. In contrast, the main words for sexual sin appear 90 times. There really is no theme more central to biblical faith than the matter of justice. This is very widely recognized to be true for what Christians call the Old Testament, but in our book we show that it is just as true for the New Testament. We offer an entire chapter detailing the forty occasions in which Jesus confronted the powers and authorities of his time over their injustice. We show that justice is one of the core themes of the kingdom of God that Jesus preached about and died to bring into existence.”

“To summarize: for Jesus, as for the Jewish prophets in whose line he came, social injustice consists of misuses of power to create distortions of human community in which greed, domination, violence, and exclusion come to dominate human life. Social justice consists of human acts to resist social injustice by repairing such distortions of human community. We work today for social justice when we seek to create religious and political communities characterized by more economic justice, less domination, less violence, and more inclusive community. When we do so, we can have every assurance that we are attempting to put into practice God’s will and indeed God’s passion for a world that he made for precisely such justice.”

I can already hear the objections, so let me rush to add at this point that it’s not only institutions that need to be renovated and repaired, but the human heart itself. From a Biblical point of view, the fallenness (brokenness, sinfulness) of man touches everything he is and does. It’s not that man is as bad as he can be, it’s that he can never help but leave disgraceful fingerprints on everything he touches, and morally ugly footprints everywhere he goes. What sets Evangelicals apart from others concerned about social justice issues, is this assumption of the need for all individuals to be transformed (not just the 1%, but the 99% as well). It will not be enough to attempt to change only the corporations, the Congress, the police, and the tax rate, etc. (In fairness, I have to say that I have heard this kind of theme also at Zuccotti Park and read it in Occupy materials. An  example would be Occupy’s call to boycott shopping on Black Friday in 2011, and instead to donate items you already have and aren’t using to the needy. Another would be the “democratic” approach in decision making in the General Assemblies and elsewhere, where pains (literally) are made to see that every person and his or her view is treated respectfully. The movement is also designed to prevent power grabs so that such equality continues. They encourage a looking inside oneself as well as a critique of others.)

I must also rush to add, just because both lives and institutions must be changed, that there is no excuse for Evangelicals focusing only on one or the other. In the past, Evangelical churches became enamored with the “social gospel”, and many gradually stopped doing evangelism. That was a mistake to be avoided, not a precedent to emulate. Evangelism and work for social justice are two sides of the same coin – and I would dare suggest that this is exactly what you see in the Greatest Commandment of Jesus to each of us to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength – AND to love our neighbor as we love ourself. If all you give to your thirsty neighbor is a cup of cold water, you deprive him of the “living water” that Jesus offers. If all you offer him is the living water, and you don’t reach out to him with love and help in other ways, at best you lose your “street cred”, and at worst,  your own faith is proven by your inaction to be false.

4) If today Evangelicals are associated more with Republicans and the Religious Right (and they are), there is no reason to think either that Evangelicals will not change their political affiliation – or that they will not change the political landscape. (Already Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo, formerly known as Governor 1%, proposed a tax plan that, many believe, was shaped as a result of the Occupy Wall Street movement. The Republican party used to be much less the party of the rich than it is today, and used to be much more sympathetic to a wider spectrum of concerns. There’s no reason, at least hypothetically, that it can’t embrace many of those former values.

In fact, hopefully a third way will arise that avoids all the polarizing categories and starts anew, with people seeking the truth together. That’s partly what I believe the Occupy Wall Street movement, which has been criticized for not embracing a political party-type position, is asking people to do. It’s also what the some New Evangelicals are calling for: “We want to see an engagement of Christians in American public life that is loving, rather than angry; holistic rather than narrowly focused; healing rather than divisive; and independent of partisanship and ideology rather than subservient to party or ideology.”

And even now, there are some who are hopeful about changes already occurring among Evangelicals. In the past (the 20th century) Evangelicals become associated with the political Right. Paully asks wisely “So why another shift in the 21st? One reason is generational, with idealistic youth rejecting the politics of their parents. Another is that views about sex, the environment and global connectedness have shifted nationwide, including among evangelicals. … In a group that takes ethics seriously, still another reason for the change is new thinking about what matters most. The cavalier militarism and the justification of torture during the Bush years, along with the strident in-group-ism of the last four decades, prodded many evangelicals to re-examine themselves and their actions. George W. Bush may have fractured the Christian coalition that elected him.”

I’ve become a news junkie, and for a long time I’ve been a major fan of National Public Radio (WYNC in New York). Several months ago, I had to finally stop listening. I couldn’t listen to the demoralizing news any more. It wasn’t bad news by the “sound byte”, but “in depth.” It depressed me profoundly, and I was kvetching to anyone who would listen about the premature demise of our country, of rampant corruption everywhere you turned, and of the broken social contract that we all now realize we more-or-less depended on. Then, one fine day, I heard about Occupy Wall Street at Zuccotti Park, and eventually went down to the park to check it out for myself. That day was a turning point in a process that led to no less than a personal rebirth of hope for me in our future as a country. Yes, I know that “This is not my home, I’m just a passing through.”, but I know that, while I’m here, my world is going to impact me and the people I love (and others that I may be neglecting so far, but need to begin to love). I also know that in return, I can impact that world. This is why I “Occupy”. Let me commend it to you, especially my Evangelical Christian friend

Posted December 16, 2011 by occupyevangelicals in Uncategorized

Your Son at Gitmo   Leave a comment

We have Mohammed positioned so he can’t sit down. His foot is shackled to a steel ring in the floor, and his hands tied to the ceiling above. The medic, concerned about dehydration, ordered IV fluids for him, and we’re blasting the Rolling Stones and rap music at him that is so loud I think I’ll have hearing damage myself. He’s only a kid – about the age of my oldest son, so I sincerely doubt that he has a wife or children at home. Even so, his parents must be frantic wondering about him. “Where is he?”, “Who has him?”, “What are they saying he did?”, “Will we ever see him again?” and “Is he still alive?” He’s been here at Gitmo for two months. This really intense treatment has been his life now for the last 19 days – electric shock, sleep and food deprivation, isolation, verbal games to break him down, other crap to completely disorient him, and even a couple days of waterboarding. I can’t say we’ve learned anything useful from him yet. As usual. (Wouldn’t you say anything to make it stop if you were him? I know I would.) I wonder sometimes if he even knows anything – if he even did anything to deserve being here. I feel sorry for him. I wish he would just die and put all of us out of our misery.

I’m not sleeping or eating much better than he is, and it’s taking a toll. I can’t stop thinking of the “golden rule” I learned thirty years ago in Sunday School – and the hippocratic oath I took to “do no harm.” In a place like this, those things just don’t apply. And of course, it’s necessary and for the greater good. Even so, I feel my hands, that I once saw as the gift of God to bring healing, have been co-opted by the devil. The Dylan lyrics, “…they took a clean cut kid, and they made a killer out of him, that’s what they did.” could have been written about me. I’ll always remember Gitmo, and it’s impact on my future I’m sure will be profound. It’s redefined me. I now know that I’m a person capable of monstrous deeds, of inhumanity and unimagined cruelty to strangers. I’m a patriot who has lost faith in his country – maybe even in God. I could never tell my wife, my parents, my brother or sisters – I could never tell my children, what I have done to other humans like myself in this place.  I know that soldiers often return scarred from battle, but rather that than this. May God help Mohammed, and may God help me.
Postscript: This is a blog on Occupy Wall Street, so it’s fair to ask how this entry fits into that theme. I would suggest that when our country decides to behave as they have in Guantanamo, and offers the rationale that it’s permitted because basic human rights are trumped by our national security – that we lose something as a nation. And when the rest of us are expected to sit by and let this happen, that something is lost then too. I’m not sure what you’d call it, but it’s a loss that means that we undergo a mental paradigm shift as a nation – that having become comfortable with inhuman treatment of enemies, we crack open the door in our national thinking to inhuman treatment of our fellow citizens. It’s a slippery slope, and it takes some time – just like it did in Nazi Germany. They didn’t start with the elimination of the Jews, but chose easier targets – the disabled, the mentally ill, Poles and Slavs, gypsies and many homosexuals. Once the citizenry had become accustomed to that, they were prepared for Hitler’s “final solution.”

And so here, after all these years of Guantanamo (and not to imply it’s the only factor in such a shift), we now sit by in this country when our own citizens are (1) beaten and attacked during peaceful Occupy Wall Street protests (2) the victims of eugenics in Virginia, California and North Carolina, and (3) where a US citizen can be exterminated by our government without a trial.

The other worrisome point of similarity is that the media can’t really get access to Guantanamo records, and that the media is more and more kept from covering police crackdowns on Occupy. What this means obviously, is that police on our streets, and military personnel in Gitmo, can and do act with impunity. They are regulated neither by the laws of our nation, or by the laws of God – and we are mostly kept in the dark about it.

Finally, once you devalue human life – once you become accustomed to the taking of it as a price that might have to be paid for the greater good – the stage is set for corporate abuses like the ones we see today.  (The preventable BP Oil spill that cost lives; and the Massey Mine Disaster, also preventable, are two examples that readily come to mind, where people died because of greed – and the idea that we need these businesses to do what they do. Who is crying out for these victims, insisting that someone go to jail for these lives that were treated as the cost of doing business? I doubt theses victims families will be so understanding.

It’s all profoundly wrong, incredibly disturbing and very frightening. May God help us as well.

Is Protest Patriotic?   Leave a comment

Can a patriot be a protestor? That is, is there anything intrinsic about protesting that prevents a true patriot from doing it?  The answer seems simple enough. Eventually, it seems, some injustice will make it impossible for many who really love their country to sit quietly on the sidelines. An unjust war, obscene inequality, rampant downward mobility of the middle class, lack of accountability in business and corruption in national politics – these are just a few of the possible reasons given for such protest today. The treatment of Jews, American Indians, women, blacks and other ethnic minorities, an unfair draft, unjust laws, the pillaging of our planet – and many like things have been reasons in the past. Image

A common objection is that one can always educate, vote, and work within the appointed processes for change. Nothing says you must fill the streets, or sit down at the lunch counter, or ride in the front of the bus. But sometimes such protesting is education, sometimes it’s voting with your body, and sometimes it’s what people do when they feel that working within the appointed processes for change no longer work. (How would we remove the 1% from their stranglehold on our country by the conventional processes? They’re not going to go quietly or easily. And maybe by camping in the parks and taking to the streets in greater and greater numbers, and winning back homes for those who have been driven out of them – maybe these things and others like them won’t be effective, but maybe they will, and maybe we want to try. By these methods the 99% may be awakened and come together. If that happens, anything will be possible.)

Former Republican candidate Herman Cain is reported to have said that the Occupy Wall Street protesters are un-American and against Capitalism. (It’s not clear whether he means to say there is a causal relationship – i.e, that they are un-American because they are against Capitalism, or whether he just dislikes all the protesting and thinks they are un-American for that reason.) Either way, he couldn’t be more wrong, as Peter Brandon Bayer has shown in his article

“… a thriving democracy depends on continual informed debate. Protest acquaints us with viewpoints contrary to the prevailing opinion, prompting us to examine the strengths and weaknesses of national policies.

“In the celebrated 1969 opinion, Tinker vs. Des Moines School District, the Supreme Court struck down the School District’s ban prohibiting students from wearing black arm bands to denounce the Vietnam War. Although acknowledging that wearing arm bands is both controversial and an arguable breach of school decorum, the justices rejoined, ”Any departure from absolute regimentation may cause trouble. Any variation from the majority’s opinion may inspire fear. . . . But our Constitution says we must take this risk . . . and our history says that is the sort of hazardous freedom – this kind of openness – that is the basis of our national strength.’.”

There is also a distinctly Jude-Christian perspective on the issue. In the Old Testament, Daniel refused to go against his own conscience when commanded by the king (Daniel 6:1-28), and suffers the consequences of his action. (The fact that God delivers him makes it clear to the reader that his actions were noble.) In the New Testament (John 2:13-17), we see Jesus himself protesting corruption at the temple. He makes a real scene – brandishing a whip (“street theater”), shouting an indictment of the powers that be, and spilling money all over the place by overturning tables. Almost all of the apostles of Jesus were martyred for their faith – refusing to renounce their faith and conform to the demands of the political leaders of their day – the ultimate protest.

There is also a theological piece. As the implications of the creation story unfold in Scripture, we learn two great truths about man as man. One, that since he is fallen from his original pristine state, man is capable of great wrong (Romans 3:10-18), and that indeed, everything he does is touched by his fallenness. We can expect therefore, for instance that he will sometimes look out only for his own interests, and use whatever means available to him to exploit or enslave others to enrich himself. Others will need protection from such men. God declares that he is against them, and looks to his people – in Israel and later in the church, to protect the poor and vulnerable on His behalf. (James 1:27 passim.) This means much more than protesting on their behalf, but certainly includes it.  Returning to what we know about man, there is the second thing – that he is made in the image of God – the “imago dei.” (Genesis 1:26-28) There is a sense that, certainly in his creation, but even after his fall, man uniquely reflects the nature of God in some essential ways. (Theologians have debated for centuries just what this means, but the core idea is indisputable.) For our purposes this means that man can be noble, magnanimous – and self-sacrificing. It means that he can and will sometimes be found acting in the interests of others – even at his own great expense. This also means much more than protesting, but again certainly includes it.

I’d like to finish my comments by returning to the story of the “cleansing of the temple” by Jesus (John 2:13-25). Imagine the story, not from our perspective centuries later, but from that of the disciples who were there. I would guess that they were thinking, “What is he doing?”, “We don’t need this bad publicity!”, or “I’m really uncomfortable with this.”, or “Is this really the best approach?” They seldom understood him or what he was about, and I think we give them undeserved credit if we think they felt otherwise on that day.

And, isn’t this the response many have towards acts of protest today? Democracy (which intrinsically includes protest) is often frustrating, confusing, and messy. But … this is what democracy looks like.

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