Monthly Archives: November 2009

The Manhattan Declaration: Continuing the Culture War

Last week a group of Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, and Evangelical leaders and scholars gathered in our nation’s capital to sign a new declaration. Trouble is, there’s nothing new in it. Drafted by culture war guru Chuck Colson and others, and signed by a broad range of Evangelicals, both cranks and royalty (Jim Dobson, Tony Perkins, Tim Keller, Ron Sider), the Manhattan Declaration begins with soaring and inspiring prose extolling the courage and heroism of the church from the Roman period to the 1960s. It begins, “Christians are heirs of a 2,000-year tradition of proclaiming God’s word, seeking justice in our societies, resisting tyranny, and reaching out with compassion to the poor, oppressed and suffering.” So far so good.

But that’s as far as it goes. The document then descends into the same old shibboleths about abortion, gay marriage, and religious liberty that have characterized the narrow agenda of the Religious Right for over a generation. So much for heroism.

Don’t get me wrong. The declaration is fine as far as it goes. It just doesn’t go very far, like a huge cannon that hisses and booms and turns out to be nothing but an oversized peashooter. Continuing the Evangelical culture war begun in the 1970s (now in the guise of an ecumenical confession), Mr. Colson et al. give full vent to the old paranoid rants over how Christians have been forced to violate their consciences due to a government overly officious in its devotion to the separation of church and state. Yes, to be fair, there have been such cases.

The declaration justifies passive resistance to governmental authority. Fine. Yet nowhere does it address the other glaring sins and wounds of our society, such as poverty, the growing disparity between rich and poor, racial prejudice, corporate greed, drugs and violence, AIDS, government corruption, imperialism, torture and the victims of war.

Why the silence? Well, as I’ve repeated ad nauseam in this blog, when one profits from a system, however broken it may be, one feels reluctant to rock the boat. The agenda of the “culture war” is perforce limited, since to do otherwise would involve our having to look at ourselves, repent and—gasp—change our own selfish lifestyles.

Like monkeys we hurl coconuts at the most broken elements in our society– the poor, the sexually broken, an incompetent government—but when placed in front of a mirror, we’re convinced the image reflected is some other monkey. And the corporate powers that really run this country like it that way, hence their having funded the Astroturf Summer (another brainchild of Mr. Perkins). It keeps the heat off the real bogeymen while giving us all a tidy sense of having done our religious duty.

Read the Declaration in its entirety or see the list of signatories.


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No Surprises

Two weeks ago the House passed a “landmark” health care bill by a squeaker, 220 to 215. Now, as President Obama remarked, it’s up to the Senate “…to take the baton and bring this effort to the finish line on behalf of the American people. And I’m absolutely confident that they will.”

Not bloody likely. As Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) threatened emphatically on CBS’s Face the Nation, “The House bill is dead on arrival in the Senate. Just look at how it passed.” So opponents are dug in for a fight.

Ironically, Republicans have coined this legislation a “government takeover of health care.” Meanwhile, the President is calling it “insurance reform.” Actually, neither could be further from the truth.

Essentially, despite some minor reforms that would actually be helpful, what this bill does in the big picture is lock us into a failing system of private insurance. Instead of reigning in the insurance industry and protecting consumers as originally intended, the bill would require all Americans to purchase health insurance. Not only do insurance companies make out like bandits with over 30 million new customers; they also get subsidized by the government.

And what happened to the so-called “public option” that was supposed to provide competition and control costs? It’s been whittled down to a nub that will cover only about 6 of the 45 million without health insurance. And that anemic little option is sure to be reduced even further in the Senate, if it makes it into the final bill at all.

In short, just like every other attempt at “reform” that makes its way through the congressional sausage factory, this bill turns out to be nothing more than another big fat giveaway for big business.

Listen to the rhetoric coming from the Oval Office: “I’m equally convinced that on the day that we gather here at the White House and I sign comprehensive health insurance reform legislation into law, they’ll be able to join their House colleagues and say that this was their finest moment in public service—the moment we delivered change we promised to the American people and did something to leave this country stronger than we found it.”

Change? Really? How do they define it? Change: defn. The ever increasing power and wealth of the few in place of the many.

If only the GOP were opposing the bills for the right reasons. They’re right on one score: it is socialism; it’s just not the kind of socialism they’re thinking of. For it’s the same brand of corporate socialism that has coddled and subsidized the private sector for decades. The Vice-President put it aptly this week on The Daily Show: “My grandfather used to say, ‘Joey, it’s socialism for the rich, and capitalism for the poor.'”

The rich get richer. The poor poorer. And they call it “reform.”


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Time to Disenthrall Ourselves

During the first two centuries of the Church’s existence, Christians throughout the Greco-Roman world suffered the cruelest of persecutions. Commonly charged by their pagan neighbors with being anthropophagoi (cannibals), misanthropoi (haters of mankind), and even atheoi (impious, atheists), like the Jews before them, they became the victims of the basest calumnies. To the cosmopolitan Greek mind, a stubborn refusal to “fit in” was the worst of crimes, as was the audacity of condensing the entire pantheon down to only one God. While such allegations rarely took the form of legal charges, intolerance and at times mob violence against Christians frequently brought the curious little sect to the attention of the authorities. Once in court, not so easy to counter were the charges of inflexibilis obstinatio (inflexible obstinacy, an unwillingness to recant) and maiestas (treason against the Roman state)– especially when disproving them involved performing acts of idolatry.

Today, similar charges are laid at the Church’s door. The only difference is that now they’re largely true.

What has happened to the Church? The faith that once championed the poor, raised its voice on behalf of the voiceless, stood up to the bullying of empires, and cared for the earth, has become a noisy and unthinking mob, a mouthpiece for greed and privilege, restless for war and bloodshed, running like lemmings toward a precipice it thinks is heaven, while pushing the rest of the world toward the brink of Armageddon.

Whom are we protecting? Certainly not ourselves. What have Big Oil, Big Pharma, Big Agro, and the Big Insurance and Defense industries done for us that we spread out like a carpet and allow them to walk upon our backs like some oriental potentate? When did we agree to become their attack dogs? When did they become our masters that we should be beholden to them? Is it such a blatant sacrilege to try to build a little bit of heaven on earth? To help the poor, to carry the burdens of the weak, to love our enemies, to care for God’s creation, and to make peace?

I know that there are healthier patches of Christianity in this country, but the pack with the loudest voices seem to drown out the rest. Why are they so toxic? Because this form of Christianity is not true biblical Christianity at all but a syncretistic blend of the Bible, free market capitalism, and armed paranoia. It has little connection to the Sermon on the Mount that I’m familiar with. “Blessed are the rich… Blessed are the powerful…Blessed are those who condemn and judge… Blessed are the warmongers…”

Yes, blessed are the free markets, unfettered with regulation; blessed is globalization; blessed is the land rid of indigenous peoples who don’t know how to strip it or mine it; blessed are the streams and aquifers filled with slurry and sludge; and blessed are those damned polar ice caps, melted so we can at last get at what’s beneath.

This is a faith that hates the word restraint.

When this nation eventually comes to a close and its final history is written, what will be said of the Church and its role in the demise of the Union Lincoln once called the “last, great hope of earth”? How we aided and abetted the greedy in raping the land, whole people groups, and even the air we breathe.

If these words sound harsh, remember that our Master’s most caustic words were reserved for the religious establishment of his day that shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are.” (Mt 23:15)

In the conclusion to his address to Congress in 1862, Abraham Lincoln said, “…The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”

If I could say one thing to the church in America at this moment in time, it would be this: “Let us disenthrall ourselves.” Stop listening to the warmongers, the hate-mongers, the purveyors of intolerance, greed, and the status quo. And start putting our Master’s words into action. If we’re not sure what that means, then it is time for us to become children again in the kingdom of God, to sit at the Lord’s feet and learn from him.


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Le Plus Ca Change…

(I want to reproduce here a speech given by the late Robert F. Kennedy in 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War. I do not need to point out the many correspondences with today’s headlines. They speak for themselves.)

“I do not want–as I believe most Americans do not want–to sell out American interests, to simply withdraw, to raise the white flag of surrender. That would be unacceptable to us as a country and as a people. But I am concerned–as I believe most Americans are concerned–that the course we are following at the present time is deeply wrong. I am concerned–as I believe most Americans are concerned–that we are acting as if no other nations existed, against the judgment and desires of neutrals and our historic allies alike. I am concerned–as I believe most Americans are concerned–that our present course will not bring victory; will not bring peace; will not stop the bloodshed; and will not advance the interests of the United States or the cause of peace in the world. I am concerned that, at the end of it all, there will only be more Americans killed; more of our treasure spilled out; and because of the bitterness and hatred on every side of this war, more hundreds of thousands of [civilians] slaughtered; so they may say, as Tacitus said of Rome: ‘They made a desert, and called it peace.’ . . .

“The reversals of the last several months have led our military to ask for more troops. This weekend, it was announced that some of them–a ‘moderate’ increase, it was said–would soon be sent. But isn’t this exactly what we have always done in the past? If we examine the history of this conflict, we find the dismal story repeated time after time. Every time–at every crisis–we have denied that anything was wrong; sent more troops; and issued more confident communiques. Every time, we have been assured that this one last step would bring victory. And every time, the predictions and promises have failed and been forgotten, and the demand has been made again for just one more step up the ladder. But all the escalations, all the last steps, have brought us no closer to success than we were before. . . . And once again the President tells us, as we have been told for twenty years, that ‘we are going to win’; ‘victory’ is coming. . . . It becoming more evident with every passing day that the victories we achieve will only come at the cost of the destruction for the nation we once hoped to help. . . .

“Let us have no misunderstanding. [They] are a brutal enemy indeed. Time and time again, they have shown their willingness to sacrifice innocent civilians, to engage in torture and murder and despicable terror to achieve their ends. This is a war almost without rules or quarter. There can be no easy moral answer to this war, no one-sided condemnation of American actions. What we must ask ourselves is whether we have a right to bring so much destruction to another land, without clear and convincing evidence that this is what its people want. But that is precisely the evidence we do not have. . . .

“The war, far from being the last critical test for the United States, is in fact weakening our position in Asia and around the world, and eroding the structure of international cooperation which has directly supported our security for the past three decades. . . . All this bears directly and heavily on the question of whether more troops should now be sent–and, if more are sent, what their mission will be. We are entitled to ask–we are required to ask–how many more men, how many more lives, how much more destruction will be asked, to provide the military victory that is always just around the corner, to pour into this bottomless pit of our dreams? But this question the administration does not and cannot answer. It has no answer–none but the ever-expanding use of military force and the lives of our brave soldiers, in a conflict where military force has failed to solve anything yet. . . .

“But the costs of the war’s present course far outweigh anything we can reasonably hope to gain by it, for ourselves or for the people of Vietnam. It must be ended, and it can be ended, in a peace of brave men who have fought each other with a terrible fury, each believing he and he alone was in the right. We have prayed to different gods, and the prayers of neither have been answered fully. Now, while there is still time for some of them to be partly answered, now is the time to stop. . . .

“You are the people, as President Kennedy said, who have ‘the least ties to the present and the greatest ties to the future.’ I urge you to learn the harsh facts that lurk behind the mask of official illusion with which we have concealed our true circumstances, even from ourselves. Our country is in danger: not just from foreign enemies; but above all, from our misguided policies–and what they can do to the nation that Thomas Jefferson once told us was the last, best hope of man. There is a contest on, not for the rule of America, but for the heart of America. . . . I ask you to go forth and work for new policies–work to change our direction–and thus restore our place at the point of moral leadership, in our country, in our hearts, and all around the world.”

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Giving Peace Equal Time

It’s been many weeks that Mr. Obama has been trying to make up his mind what to do in Afghanistan. The occupation is not going well there, and every day that goes by, more and more Americans join the ranks of those who want us out. The President just sent back the latest slate of options to the DOD, and little wonder, since all of them involved escalating the war in some way and increasing troop levels.

It’s no surprise that when a nation has a superior, highly trained and equipped fighting force, it’s first response in any conflict is to use it. When you’re sitting around a table with the Joint Chiefs of Staff– who are undoubtedly patriotic men but trained from adolescence to blow things up or drop things on people– it’s no mystery why peace remains so elusive. If you consult a surgeon, of course, he’s going to suggest surgery. If you consult a military expert, he will naturally suggest a military solution. But what about a country like Afghanistan, where, historically, the problems have never yielded to military solutions?

How about giving peace a seat at the table? How about actually offering peace a voice in the discussion? Better yet, how about establishing a Department of Peace which would balance the DOD (formerly called the War Department) and whose raison d’etre would be to promote peaceful alternatives to war (such as, say, dialogue, diplomacy, negotiation, and humanitarian assistance)?

Lest conservatives and hawks cynically roll their eyes and assume the idea to have been hatched by some left-wing peacenik wearing love beads and wreaking of cannabis or some “America-hating” liberal think tank dedicated to depriving this country of her martial superiority, it ought to be pointed out that a plan for an “Office of Peace” to counterbalance the Department of War was first proposed in 1792 during the administration of our Founding Father George Washington. It was the brainchild of Dr. Benjamin Rush, renown physician, humanitarian, devout Christian, signer of the Declaration of Independence, and intimate friend of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. Among the defects which have been pointed out in the Federal Constitution by its antifederal enemies,” Rush wrote,

“it is much to be lamented that no person has taken notice of its total silence upon the subject of an office of the utmost importance to the welfare of the United States, that is, an office for promoting and preserving perpetual peace in our country.

“It is to be hoped that no objection will be made to the establishment of such an office, while we are engaged in a war with the Indians, for as the War-Office of the United States was established in time of peace, it is equally reasonable that a Peace-Office should be established in the time of war.

Known as the Father of American Medicine and Psychiatry, Rush authored many textbooks on the subjects and advocated reform in the care of the mentally ill. He was also an ardent abolitionist and an early proponent of equal education rights for women (he founded the first college for women in the country). As a Christian he believed the Bible to be the only true foundation for peace and desired that a copy be placed in every home.

As a physician Rush served as a Surgeon General in the Continental Army, so he had seen close up the grim realities of war. Perhaps that is why in his proposal he submitted that the following words be inscribed over every state and court house in the land: THE SON OF MAN CAME INTO THE WORLD, NOT TO DESTROY MEN’S LIVES, BUT TO SAVE THEM. By contrast, he desired that this sign be placed over the entrance to the War Office:

“1. An office for butchering the human species. 2. A Widow and Orphan making office. 3. A broken bone making office. 4. A Wooden leg making office. 5. An office for the creating of public and private vices. 6. An office for creating a public debt. 7. An office for creating speculators, stock Jobbers, and Bankrupts. 8. An office for creating famine. 9. An office for creating pestilential diseases. 10. An office for creating poverty, and the destruction of liberty, and national happiness.

Apparently, the idea of such an office was not new, since it had been kicked around as early as the Constitutional debates of 1787. And despite Rush’s sometimes eccentric language, Washington himself was impressed enough with the concept that he even went so far as to propose such legislation to Congress in 1793. 216 years later, the idea is still not dead. In fact, Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) made it an integral part of his campaigns for the Presidency in 2004 and 2008, and he continues to introduce the bill (HR.808) each year. Far from being just a crank piece of legislation, the current bill has 70 co-sponsors in the House.

War hasn’t worked very well. Shouldn’t we give peace a chance?

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The Green Patriarch

As Kermit the Frog sings, “It’s not easy being green.” That’s probably especially true when you’re the spiritual leader of the world’s 300 million Orthodox Christians. But there’s something about His All Holiness Bartholomew I, Archbishop of Constantinople, New Rome and Ecumenical Patriarch, that makes it seem easy.

Last week, after meeting with the President at the White House, he gave a lecture at Georgetown University in which he addressed three “progressive” aspects of Orthodox Christianity: the pursuit of non-violence in social change, care for the health and welfare of everyone in the community, and respect and love for the environment as God’s creation.

Explaining how one of the world’s most conservative religious bodies has played such a significant role in progressive causes, he first made this disclaimer:

“Even though our faith may be 2000 years old, our thinking is not … Christianity was born a revolutionary faith, and we have preserved that. In other words, paradoxically, we have succeeded in not changing the faith that is itself dedicated to change. By calling Christianity revolutionary and saying it is dedicated to change, we are not siding with progressives. Just as by conserving it we are not siding with conservatives. All political factions believe God is on their side. As Abraham Lincoln said of the Union and Confederacy, ‘Both read the same Bible and pray to the same god, and each invoked his aid against the other.’ The only side we take is that of our faith– which today may seem to land us in one political camp and tomorrow another– but in truth, we are only and always in one camp, that of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”

The Patriarch then proceeded to describe the seldom discussed Orthodox roots of Dr. Martin Luther King’s use of non-violent resistance. Most will recognize that King used Ghandi’s work in India as a model. Yet few know that Ghandi himself was profoundly influenced by Russian Orthodox author Leo Tolstoy, who in 1893 published the Kingdom of God Is Within You, in which he laid out his theory of non-violence. So struck was Ghandi with this work that the two struck up a brief correspondence, which lasted until the author’s death in 1910.

Regarding healthcare for all, Bartholomew noted that the first hospitals were instituted by Saints Basil of Caesarea and John Chrysostom in the Eastern Roman Empire in the 4th century.

“…They were public institutions, free of charge and created for the public good…. It is clear that we owe the Byzantines the development of the modern institutions we call hospitals. But what may be more important, we owe to them the view that every member of society, from the greatest to the least, deserved the best quality healthcare available at the time. This is obviously relevant today, and as the U.S. debates the best way to provide healthcare for its citizens, we hope and pray that the Byzantine-Orthodox approach provides a model worthy of emulation.”

Nicknamed the “Green Patriarch” by European leaders, His All Holiness has made the Orthodox Church a leading voice in environmentalism. Speaking of creation care, he noted that the ascetic element within Eastern Orthodoxy has long held that our relationship with the natural world must involve a “voluntary restraint”:

“By reducing consumption – known in Orthodox theology as encratia or self-control – we ensure that resources are left for others in the world….Our sin toward the world – the spiritual root of all our pollution – lies in our refusal to view life and the world as a sacrament of thanksgiving, and as a gift of constant communion with God on a global scale….We must challenge ourselves to align our personal and spiritual attitudes with public policy … If human beings treated one another’s personal property the way they sometimes treat the environment, we would view that behavior as antisocial. We would impose the judicial measures necessary to restore wrongly appropriated personal possessions. It is therefore appropriate for us to seek ethical and even legal recourse where possible in matters of ecological crimes.”

Makes me want to convert.

To listen to the lecture in its entirety (starts 10:30). To read the text.

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Is It Too Late for a Two-State Solution?

Just when progress seems to have been made this year toward getting Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to agree to pursue a two-state solution, doubts about the viability of a separate Palestinian state have begun to reemerge. This week Saeb Erekat, chief negotiator for the U.S.-backed Palestinian Authority, voiced his concern that such a solution would prove impossible.

The problem? Israel’s addiction to settlements (colonizing Palestinian land). Over the past few decades Israeli settlers have made vast incursions into Palestinian territory and don’t appear about to budge. If a Palestinian state were carved out today, it would resemble a slice of Swiss cheese (just the holes, not the cheese). Many Palestinians feel such a gerrymandered “bantustan” would be impossible to govern.

Of course, this is not the first time doubts about a two-state solution have been expressed by a high ranking Palestinian leader. Before his death the late Yasser Arafat said he believed that time for a two-state solution had just about run out. While the majority of Palestinians still favor such an option, they are mostly middle-aged or older. The younger generation seems to back a bi-national state, and perhaps Erekat reflects their views.

“…With the continuation of settlement activities, the two-state solution is no longer an option,” Erekat said. “Palestinians should refocus their attention to the one-state solution, where Muslims, Jews and Christians can live as equals.”

Such a stance flies in the face of recent actions by the Israeli government to make Israel an exclusively Jewish state, as well as statements made by Netanyahu’s predecessor Ehud Barak that a one-state solution would be national suicide for Israelis, whose birth rate has not kept pace with that of Palestinians.

The negotiator’s remarks serve to underscore that Palestinian rockets are not the only barrier to peace in this war-torn land. If Israel wants lasting peace, whether with one or two states, it will have to stop colonizing Palestinian land. Yet with the pressure of Jewish immigration coupled with an overindulgent U.S., Israel has little incentive to change. I.e., why the settlements? Because Israelis needs the land and no one is going to stop them from taking it.

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