Sunday, November 26, 2006

clergy leadership in the public square

"Truth is above harmony. Those who fear disorder more than injustice invariably produce more of both."
- William Sloane Coffin, Jr. (from the website of Protestants for the Common Good, a Chicago faith-based organization)

Our public theology class recently chatted with Rev. Tim Ahrens, one of the leaders of We Believe Ohio. Part of the discussion revolved around how we (in our guest lecturer's words) "silence [ourselves], make excuses, or refrain from speaking because of [our] fears." There's so much truth to that. For those of us who tend to be introverts, have not had a history of being activists, and who wear multiple hats in the community, speaking out involves an element of personal and professional risk.

One quick example: submitting an op-ed (see previous post) on immigration issues to the local newspaper. While my comments had a name and professional role/agency affiliation attached, two short comments printed in today's paper had the luxury of anonymity.

  • Professional ramifications: These called-in "sound-off" responses were both in opposition to the position I took, and one stated the caller was reconsidering their support for the agency based upon my position. The callers said the comments indicated I was "in favor of illegal immigration." I would argue these callers are missing an important nuance in the article. There are probably many more of these individuals out there. However, I see it as a matter of racial justice, which is central to the agency's mission, so it was vital that we speak out - even if it got people angry.
  • Personal ramifications: In addition to the ramifications for the agency that employs me, I also have to consider (selfishly) whether those who help fund my seminary education through scholarships might object to my position, and how that will affect me in the future.
  • Clergy in the public square? I have also been involved with individuals through the years who believe that clergy should not address these issues. I have over time come to disagree. I would agree with classmates and our speaker who see an important role for social justice leadership within the local church. I look with excitement at the work of organizations such as We Believe Ohio, Chicago's Protestants for the Common Good, and the Let Justice Roll living wage campaign as positive models for how clergy can galvanize action through community work.

Local Readers (come on, I know you're out there): What might happen if clergy in our own community used their occasional space on the religion page for social justice oriented columns? So far, they seem more oriented towards individual devotions, family matters, and local church participation. What if the focus changed outward? Do matters such as the racial justice/immigration comment I submitted belong on the op-ed page? Religion page? Both? Neither? Not-so-local readers, you're welcome to comment, too!

(A logistical note to my readers who are new to blogs - if you have trouble entering a comment, you can send me an email message to publish instead.)

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Thanksgiving Wishes

May each of you have enough to fill your bellies and hearts this day. May you have a peaceful place to rest your head, and someone to comfort or challenge you as needed.

I am thankful for my daughter. For my ongoing love affair with the written word, and for words of wisdom from others. I am thankful for the wise women of the church who have inspired me through the years. I am thankful for the opportunity to share my thoughts with you. And for many other things that would make this post quite long...

For what are you thankful?

Grace and peace to you on Thanksgiving Day.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

we don't have to play into racist assumptions

My op-ed from a recent post was accepted, with edits to reflect local developments, by the Janesville Gazette.

For background on the situation in Walworth County, Wisconsin, I would point you here for the incident that prompted the community conversation. Here for risks that immigrants take to come to Southern Wisconsin. And here for the fear-filled atmosphere in the local Hispanic/Latino community. And here for the discussion of law enforcement vs. immigration/customs enforcement responsibility. More links from other sources to come.

But, more disturbingly, I would point you here for an article on identity theft that is only tangentially about the local situation. The online version doesn't come across as tightly linked to the series, but in print, it ran juxtaposed under the first article, under a banner headline about "why they come". I think the series, as packaged, plays into racist assumptions in a way that is very damaging.

Unfortunately, the paper doesn't run its op-eds in the online version. Feedback on the revised op-ed is running 50/50 so far.

More to come...

Monday, November 13, 2006

when you take it a step further...

Comic strips and hyperbole are a natural combination.

I had to share today's FoxTrot comic strip. What happens to unemployed political ad writers?

Funny take on public discourse, illuminating an extremely important point. All that venom and negative energy doesn't just up and disappear at the end of the campaign. Where does it go?

Do we follow that energy? Move ahead of it? Try to shake the dust off our feet (or in a more contemporary metaphor, scrape it off the heels of our shoes)? What can we do to dissipate it -around us, and in us?

Thursday, November 09, 2006

election response

So I stayed up on election night, until it was election late night. I woke up on the sofa when it was post-election early morning, news channel still running a ticker of election results. Then it was time to get the munchkin ready for school. I highly recommend a kindergartener as a great antidote to the election-night hysteria and edge-of-your-seat wait for vote counts (in this case, from Montana, Virginia, and various state/local referenda). Now that I have fallen behind the news cycle yet again, I offer these reflections.

Those of you trying to offer instant analysis of what message the voters were trying to send - please stop. Get a life. I have heard all sorts of answers on this one, and as far as I'm concerned they're all wrong, and they're all right. It's as simple as this: a critical mass of citizen-voters of this nation saw something that angered them, or sickened them, or ... you get the point. These individuals each evaluated the situation, and decided that enough was enough. Their motivations didn't all have to be the same. In electing Democratic candidates, this nation's voters made many individual choices. It wasn't groupthink. It was war. It was environment. It was arrogance. It was health care. It was science. It was friends and family. They relied upon all sorts of indicators that impact their everyday life, including their faith. Read into the election results what you will, but realize that in doing so, you discount the agency of each person who took the time to learn about the candidates, the issues, and go to the polls. Do not diminish your neighbors in that way.

What comes next? My favorite political cartoonist, Tom Toles, channels Charles Schulz - Before the election, and after.

I am encouraged by the get-to-business tone I've been observing from the Democrats. They seem to be acting like grownups. Definitely preferred over "I told you so," or drunken revelry. I believe that the grassroots and the netroots worked their behinds off to make the party's election success a reality. However, we also need to look at what the party has to offer. The Democrats did not win office so much on their own merits, but because they were the most viable alternative.

In that vein, a classmate recently offered this tremendously relevant parable. I cannot claim credit for the idea, but I share it for your reflection: "The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed upon the earth. And should sleep and rise night and day, and the seed should sprout and grow, he knows not how. By itself, the earth produces, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the harvest is ripe, he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come" (Mark 4:26-29)

I hope and pray that our newly elected Democratic leadership in Congress earns this. As always, feel free to disagree. And tell me about it!

Monday, November 06, 2006

By any means necessary?

But first, a plea from your sister:
Registered voters: If you have not yet voted, and you are reading this on Tuesday, stop. Now. Get your keys. Leave home. Find your polling place. Vote. Then come back and read. I promise you, this blog will still be here when you return. Barring a cataclysm on the Internet that is beyond my control.

OK. Thank you for engaging in that exercise in civic responsibility. Now, to the question for the day: what are "appropriate" cultural influences to be used as grist for public theology? In a recent class, Mel Gibson's 'The Passion of the Christ' was part of the background material assigned for our reflections on violence. At the time it was released, I took a stand that I was not going to support Mr. Gibson's work by allocating my time or my money. Publicity on this film was so ubiquitous at that time, though, it was hard to avoid. Even the promo clips gave me nightmares. I was seriously disturbed by the professor's assigning this work.

Speaking of civic responsibility, though: in doing public theology, should we go by the "any means necessary" school? Go with what catches public attention? I.E., if the public conversation is on Mel's The Passion, do we have a responsibility to address it? Do we propose alternatives? Or avoid it altogether? Can we stick with the sanitized/pretty versions? The fact is that no unbiased version of the story exists. How can we responsibly engage with the 'spin' that's already in the marketplace of ideas?

If The Passion were released today, I'd have to say that I would use it, despite my squeamishness and theological disagreements with the filmmaker. I would try to offer resources for processing the sights, sounds, and ideas viewers encountered. Frankly, after that level of violence, I think we move beyond the field of education and into the realm of pastoral care.

I think anything in the marketplace of ideas is fair game for public theology. Particularly if it makes me uncomfortable, it needs my attention. Sure, I'd rather spend my days practicing my interpretive skills on Veggie Tales. But, we have a penchant for moving from the bright Saturday morning cartoons to the ominous mood music of The Da Vinci Code, Mel's version of The Passion, the Left Behind series. In class discussion, I called The Passion pornographic, in its use of violence to stir the viewer. I used The Matrix in a Pizza & A Movie video series at church a few years ago. Extremely violent? Without a doubt. But powerful, potent in its ability to engage the imagination around themes of faith. I don't think we get to stay in 'G' rated films. Our world is not 'G' rated, our imaginations are not 'G' rated. Even when we like to pretend they are.

Call for comments: what's fair game in public theology? If public theology is everyday God-talk, what's usable from our cultural melange? TV? Books? Video? What tools do you use? Do you consider anything off limits?

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Free to Hate

As our class explores and practices public theology this term, another assignment (in addition to this blog) has been to write an op-ed on the subject of 'freedom'. This is my draft. Feel free to comment!

The American melting pot has boiled over in this year's immigration debate. Earlier this election year, an opportunistic House leadership raised the specter of 15 million illegal Mexican immigrants (heavens, what a number!) having anchor babies, stealing our jobs, and avidly consuming social services. Divisive partisan opinions were fed by irresponsible media commentators. While our elected officials used immigration as a talking point in their road show, the issue of what to do became more pressing in local communities around the nation. The fear and anger fed into public discourse became embedded in small and midsized communities as ethnic hatred.

We're talking about hating people based on their skin color, their language, their national origin. Too strong? Perhaps. But the vehemence of these commentators, of individuals who feel their livelihood is at stake, indicates more than just strong feelings. These aren't just words. They cement opinions, which generate actions.

The fear or indifference at the root of hate is a precursor to violence – the type of violence that allows one group to work for the elimination or exit of another. Our national conversation about immigration has developed into talk of restricting access to human services and mass expulsions. The term ethnic cleansing used to apply to other countries, other communities. South Africa under apartheid. Yugoslavia. Sudan. Congratulations, America. Welcome (back) to the club.

In response to the federal government's failure to act to stem the flow of immigrants, the mayor of Hazleton, Pennsylvania proposed an ordinance (which the city council passed 4-1). It penalizes employers and landlords who hire and house illegal immigrants. It hasn't gone into effect yet, but almost overnight, with no notice, a city of 30,000 or so lost thousands of residents. Five thousand people, as best as they can figure, just picked up and left.

News reports indicate a once-thriving street of shops and restaurants has fallen quiet; For Rent signs populate neighborhoods, rather than people. What's just as bad is a spike in discrimination complaints. Some report a trend of increasingly overt hostility towards Hispanics, regardless of immigration status. The ordinance has left people free to hate – based on neighborhood, nationality, skin color, English proficiency.

The mayor of Hazleton says that illegal immigration is destroying small town America. In response, a struggling community chooses measures that exile 15% of its population; shutter vibrant, successful businesses; and increase racial hostility. Forget about the problems allegedly caused by illegal immigrants. Hazleton's elected leaders are doing quite a good job of destroying the city on their own.

Unfortunately, ethnic hatred also spreads. Following Hazleton's lead, at least 40 other communities in the United States are considering laws aimed squarely at pushing undocumented immigrants out of town. The measures, and their authors, are indifferent to their effect on law-abiding families, on United States citizens who are guilty simply of having the wrong skin color and the wrong ancestry. Officials claim that they are simply responding to the critical problems they face as a result of illegal immigration. They speak of gangs, murders, drugs. They claim that these laws are targeted against illegal immigrants of any nationality. The reality is that no population group has a monopoly on violent elements. And no population group has a monopoly on their ability to contribute to community life.

Sadly, we are adept at racial profiling, pulling people over for 'driving while brown', firing them for speaking Spanish in the workplace, assuming that they are illegal or undocumented because they happen to be less proficient in English. Sadly, Hazleton and other communities across the US are free to destroy themselves, in the course of trying to purify themselves. We are free to buy into the hatred seeded by cynical politicians, commentators, and those who ought to know better. We are also free to make other choices.

If America's greatest resource is its freedom, then we ought to exercise it sustainably. A sustainable freedom recognizes our interdependence. It obligates us to build community, not sever connections. Such freedom urges us to offer welcome to the stranger and sojourner in our midst. It seems there is more wisdom to be had from the young. The students of Hazleton Area High School just proposed a diversity club. They're calling it Unidos. Among its goals? Fostering dialogue between social, cultural and economic groups. Now that's a club we need to join.

Note: this op-ed was accepted for publication (in edited form) by the Janesville Gazette. See their 11/21/06 print edition.