Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Coming Together for the Common Good

Stories about division and conflict among religious groups are hardly news because they are all too common. So examples of diverse religious groups joining efforts are all the more important because of their rarity. The call to reduce greenhouse gas production 80% by 2050 should be old news by now, but the current support for that effort from religious groups in Massachusetts is noteworthy because of the remarkable diversity of the groups involved. From Unitarian Universalists to Quakers, from mainline Protestants to the Armenian church and beyond Christianity to Jews and Muslims, religious organizations within the state have found common ground and formed the Massachusetts Interfaith Climate Action Network , calling upon believers to take up the cause of caring for the planet with a religious zeal.

As long as one accepts the mounting scientific evidence, a strong argument for changing our behavior in relation to the environment can be built simply from consideration of self-interest, or at least the interests of our children and our children's children. Religions might add beliefs about a deity's involvement in creating the universe or an on-going concern for more than the human species on the planet, but the truly uniting element is a concern for the common good. While religion is not required to have a concern for others, those of us who are religious need to hear that message of inclusion at least as loudly as the doctrines that can lead us to exclusivity. The inclusiveness of the call from the Massachusetts Interfaith Climate Action Network is seen not just in the way that these diverse groups are coming together but also in the particular emphasis of their call.

The group's efforts include the expected elements of support for cleaner energy sources and conservation. Interestingly, they are also calling attention to an environmental issue too often neglect; the fact that poor people suffer disproportionately. Perhaps it is the addition of the religious imagination that brought this into focus. Regardless of the source, we need to heed the call to prioritize care for the poor and investment in low-income communities. In particular, we should invest in training and support for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, and those coming out of the prison system, to obtain jobs in the growing green sector. It is also critical to distribute funding and resources that increase community energy self-reliance, particularly investing in community organizations in low-income communities. This sort of vision takes into account the fact that the burden of change so necessary for the future needs to be distributed not equally, but fairly. Those best able to afford the costs should bear them. This vision also finds hope that in the process of addressing a problem in one area we might also find solutions in another.

These types of efforts ought to find broad support if even just for the positive impact they have in providing hope. We should be buoyed by hope when we do the work of creating a better tomorrow. Likewise, we should rejoice in endeavors that bring us together across boundaries. In this way we create the kind of community that can build a better world well into the future.

Monday, April 07, 2008

A Lesson in Caring

Central Massachusetts is a long way from Zambia, but somewhere soon in Zambia 380 care kits will arrive that were assembled at Tantasqua Regional High School this week. These kits will assist people providing care for people living with AIDS. The profound nature of of providing something as basic as anti-fungal cream was made evident to students on Friday when they heard the testimony of Princess Zulu. When she was 17, both of her parents died from AIDS. Her mother died while she was on a five-hour journey to find anti-fungal cream in hopes of alleviating a portion of her suffering and possibly extend her life. Princess Zulu, herself living with HIV, told this and other tales with a nobility that belied her suffering. Her presence held the students' attention and clearly earned their respect.

The creation of these care kits was the culmination of a year-long project begun when the summer reading list included a book about a young African woman's experience with AIDS. For young adults unlikely to be touched personally by the AIDS pandemic, this had to have been an eye-opening read. Thankfully, it also touched and opened hearts. Students led an effort that raised nearly $10,000 to help people that none of them are likely ever to meet. To the credit of the school district, they are teaching the next generation of leaders the importance of becoming world citizens. They are learning the answer to the question “who is my neighbor?” is anyone anywhere who suffers and for whom you can make a difference. Isolation, insulation and impotence in the face of massive global problems are easily created with simple and indifferent silence. We do our youth a disservice when we fail to expose them to the truth that one billion people on this planet struggle to exist on one dollar a day or less. They are better able to create a brighter future when they have hope that they can change the fact that 6000 people die every day from AIDS or that the preventable, treatable disease of malaria remains the leading cause of death for African children under the age of five. We can take comfort in the fact that these young people are looking at these problems and imagining solutions.

The students also got a quick civics lesson when a college student asked them to join in advocacy to support the reauthorization of the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). If we all learned our civics lessons correctly, we should know that emails, letters and phone calls to our legislators help to make our democracy work. We can join with these future leaders today by supporting them in the effort to support this worthwhile legislation. $30 billion over five years is a small gift from us that could mean the gift of life to thousands. Caring for others is a lesson we can never learn too well.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Unity at What Cost?

In his landmark speech about race, Barack Obama apparently has chosen to ignore some difficult claims raised by the sermons of his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, in favor of seeking unity. He said that Dr. Wright's comments “expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country – a view...that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America.” He also called them “ not only wrong but divisive, divisive at a time when we need unity.” It is one thing to disagree, but to do so with an appeal to unity is effectively to dismiss dialogue altogether.

Not surprisingly, Obama is calling for unity on the issue of race. Dr. Wright was preaching to a primarily African-American congregation who know the ugly truth about racism from their own personal experience. Unfortunately, by calling Wright's comments “racially charged at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems,” ignores the context and serves to avoid a deeper conversation about race. Obama said that Wright was wrong to claim that white racism is endemic, yet offers no argument. The simple fact that Africans came to this country in chains would seem sufficient to support Dr. Wright's position. Even Republican presidential candidate, Mike Huckabee has said that he understands the heat in Wright's rhetoric since they are both from a generation that lived through blatant, legal racial segregation in this country. Changing laws may change behavior, but it doesn't change hearts and minds. Racism is embedded in the thinking of many, including, as Obama pointed out, his own white grandmother. Simply talking about language and attitudes and not calling it racism is a game of semantics that further pushes the discussion underground. Only a full, deep, rich discussion in the light of day will help us to move toward undoing racism. Obama has the opportunity to spark this discussion in America. Perhaps he believes that that would cost him the presidency. Sadly, that is likely true.

The second topic that seems to be off the table is America's support of Israel. Obama suggested that seeing “the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam” was an example of how Wright's view of the country is “profoundly distorted.” Suggesting that America's foreign policy in the Middle East may have contributed to the anger that led to 9/11 is by no means the same as dismissing the danger of radical Islamic ideology. Neither does holding Israel accountable for the way it treats the Palestinians mean that we must stop supporting Israel altogether. No nation, whether it is America or our allies, is exempt from ethical examination. Questioning the behavior of Israel is clearly one of those “third rails” in American politics. In fact, including this in a speech about race, when coverage of Wright's comments didn't include charges against Israel, suggests that it was politically expedient to raise the issue in this way. Unfortunately, neither of these issues is the kind that can be dismissed so quickly. We must accept that difficult and divisive issues can be addressed in respectful conversation. Let's hope we can move beyond sound bites and controversies to the necessary dialogue.

Thursday, March 27, 2008


In an interview shown by ABC's Good Morning America this past Wednesday, the fifth anniversary of the war in Iraq, Vice President Dick Cheney dismissed the overwhelming opinion of the American people with the response, “So?” Here is exactly what was said:

CHENEY: On the security front, I think there’s a general consensus that we’ve made major progress, that the surge has worked. That’s been a major success.
RADDATZ: Two-third of Americans say it’s not worth fighting.
RADDATZ So? You don’t care what the American people think?
CHENEY: No. I think you cannot be blown off course by the fluctuations in the public opinion polls.
If these numbers existed in Congress it would be a veto-proof majority and the war could end now. Most everyone read the election results two years ago as a referendum on the war and expected the new Congress to act. So perhaps it is understandable that the Vice President is not too concerned about public opinion since even when it is expressed through the democratic process it is still largely ignored.

In a painfully ironic twist after much media attention focused on the words of one preacher suggesting that God may not be blessing America, the 4000th American soldier died in Iraq on Easter Sunday. For Christians, Easter is the holiest day of the year and the single word message of that day is hope. Yet, in the face of blind indifference to the will of the American people and the suffering of the soldiers, veterans and their families, it becomes increasingly difficult to be a hope-monger.

Hope for America lies not in blithely declaring “God bless America” as if invoking the Almighty is sufficient to justify any action. Hope for America lies not in some change in leadership as if some particular individual or party will save us. Hope for America lies not in trusting in our strength, whether military or economic. Hope for America lies not in believing that we can do no wrong.

Hope for America lies where it always has; squarely in the lap of the individual. For too long we have believed an American myth that endless resources and power exist for each individual to possess. We have strayed too far from the initial patriotic cry that we must all hang together or we will hang separately. If two-thirds of us truly oppose this war then we must exert our will and not simply accept the current misguided leadership. Hope for America lies in being a community committed to the common good, not a collection of self-serving individuals and bickering groups. When Christians proclaim at Easter that Christ is risen, we are at least in part declaring that Christ is present in the world in the lives of the believers. May those of us who celebrated that message of hope this past Sunday believe enough in the strength of community to manifest the Prince of Peace to a world desperately needing that presence today.

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Preacher and the Politician

This week, Barack Obama has come under fire because of belief by association. Sermons by his long-time pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, have come to light that include vitriolic statements that attack the American status quo. There are two issues to consider, the beliefs and the association.

If we allow the mainstream media's appetite for controversy to set the agenda for political discussion we will continue to find the suggestion that each candidate is responsible for all the beliefs of each person making an endorsement. It is not fair to assume, or for that matter even to accuse, that since Dr. Wright has apparently praised Louis Farrakhan that Obama somehow supports Farrakhan. Likewise, Rev. John Hagee's endorsement of John McCain does not lead to the conclusion that McCain shares Haggee's disdain for Catholicism. One could argue that Obama's connection to Wright is markedly different since as his pastor, Wright has influenced Obama's faith formation for a couple of decades. Certainly there is an important relationship here that Obama has stated numerous times. But to suggest that one is showing poor judgment by remaining a member of a church where the pastor makes a few controversial statements is to sorely misunderstand this church and its denominational tradition.

For many years now Christianity in America has been portrayed as a religion of doctrinal and ideological alignment. But the experience of most churches, at least those in the Mainline Protestant tradition, and certainly within the United Church of Christ (the denomination of Obama's church), is one of a wide range of theological views where rarely does a week go by that something said from the pulpit does not meet with the disapproval of one or more members. The UCC embraces this diversity of expression as a way of seeking to know more of “our still speaking God.” Even the dialogue between those who think differently is an opportunity, as it can teach us better how to live with these tensions without forsaking community. Unfortunately, this appears to be a concept not interesting enough to the mainstream media to cover. Likewise, the media pressure around this has unfairly forced Obama to choose between an old friend and mentor and his political future.

As for the beliefs themselves, it cannot be denied that Dr. Wright has spoken some difficult truths in a manner that offends. While we may not accept that from our politicians, we should not be surprised to hear it from preachers. The ancient Hebrew prophets were a surly bunch who spoke truth to power in socially unacceptable ways. This is the model for some preachers today. No one but Dr. Wright needs to defend his views, and some of them certainly demand clarification at least. Still, preaching to a predominately Black congregation about the ugliness of the still too-present racism in America today, while uncomfortable for Whites to hear, is yet appropriate. It is patently unfair for the oppressor to insist that those who are oppressed cease all antagonistic speech directed at them. We can hope that this issue does not get reduced to an incident about individuals, but instead opens up a wider discussion of ways of undoing racism in America.

Monday, March 10, 2008

An Immoral Document

In a recent interview with Ann Curry, President Bush claimed that the poor performance of the economy had more to do with building too many houses than with spending on the Iraq war. He claimed that military spending was creating jobs, ignoring the fact that home construction likewise creates jobs. His statement also showed a severe lack of moral judgment elevating work to destroy life and property over work to create a basic need for people. As the illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq marks its fifth anniversary, we have become all to familiar with this sort of convoluted morality from the president. His current budget request before Congress demonstrates more of the same.

Ethics is the application of philosophy; morality is philosophy (or theology) in action. Thus, budgets are moral road maps. They prescribe how one wants to put one's thinking into action. As Jesus said, “you shall know a tree by its fruit.” So what is the fruit of the president's budget? It will mean more spending on war, less on health care and children, and less revenue collected from those most able to afford to give it.

The president is requesting an 11% increase in military spending. While some of this will be blamed on the war, just as in previous years, there will be supplemental requests for funding specifically for the war. The amount of money consumed by this war, already nearing one trillion dollars, will continue to spiral out of control. Nobel prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz has estimated that including the hidden costs of caring for injured soldiers and the rise in the cost of crude oil, among other factors, the true cost of this war is in the neighborhood of three trillion dollars.

Meanwhile, the necessary cuts in spending will affect the most vulnerable. The Children's Defense Fund reports that the budget would decrease funding for Medicaid, the frontline program that makes health care accessible to the nation's poorest citizens. And while the President did propose a larger five-year increase in the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) than he did last year, it is still not enough even to cover all currently enrolled children, much less make program improvements or enroll any of the more than 9.4 million uninsured children in America—whose numbers have increased by over one million in the past two years.

Despite increased sacrifice required of the most vulnerable among us, the President has again called for the tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 to be made permanent. If that happens, The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that over the next ten years the top 1 percent of households would be beneficiaries of more than $1 trillion in tax cuts. What is the ethical defense of asking the poorest Americans to suffer while the wealthiest benefit? Adding to this injustice is the tragedy of continuing to pay the price in both money and lives for a misguided war. Mr. President, your professed beliefs should have led you to create a very different budget, one that translates those beliefs into moral action.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Let the Truth Defend Itself

One of the foundational principles that allows democracy to function ethically is transparency. The current administration has already done far too much to compromise this principle in the name of national security. Now we are witnessing a pitched battle over legislation in Congress that would seem to have more to do with protecting monied special interests than the individual citizen. The Senate and the House of Representatives have each passed a bill to renew authorization for the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, but they differ on one critical point; immunity for possible illegalities on the part of telecommunication corporations. The Senate bill includes immunity that House rejects. FISA is good legislation that pre-dates 9/11 and establishes a rapid response judicial system for the government to get warrants for surveillance. But apparently the actions of the telecoms have violated the provision of FISA. Whistle blower Mark Klein, a retired AT&T technician has testified before Congress that he participated in providing access to Internet transmissions traveling over AT&T's network, that was, in his words, “a huge, massive domestic dragnet on everybody in the United States."

In his State of the Union address, President Bush made a veiled threat of an impending threat and almost canceled is African trip all to protect immunity in the FISA bill. Why is there a need to protect the telecoms from their past actions? Indeed, what are those actions? If they violated the letter of the law in the spirit of true patriotism then why not bring the truth to light and allow the court of public opinion to pass judgment?

Why should we believe that we are being kept safe when ricin and an “anarchist manual” are found in a motel room in Las Vegas? This is exactly the sort of thing we were told the war on terrorism would protect us from, but authorities are saying there are no links to terrorism in this case. It is right that we protect our security, but at what cost?Benjamin Franklin is credited with saying “those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Essential liberty in a democracy must include the rule of law. Before the current so-called war on terrorism, our nation found ways to maintain the rule of law while still maintaining clandestine operations to provide for security. Why is is that all we have now is assurances that the government is protecting us from unseen threats and appeals to expand the scope of its power to do this work in secrecy? Where is the evidence to justify this trust? Our essential liberty is being attacked in the name of temporary safety, we must not succumb to fear. Let the truth come forth and defend itself in the name of liberty.

Audacious Hope vs. Unreasonableness

Ralph Nader announced this week that once again he is running for president. The recent documentary biography about him tagged him as an unreasonable man. The description is based on a quote from George Bernard Shaw, "The reasonable man adapts himself to the conditions that surround him... The unreasonable man adapts surrounding conditions to himself... All progress depends on the unreasonable man." Nader is clearly the most progressive choice in the race currently. There is also no denying that he has a substantial and well documented record. But his two previous runs have had the effect of making him a political pariah since many can't get beyond blaming him for being a spoiler who took the presidency away from Al Gore. Assigning blame, whether in politics or other areas of life, is always a tricky endeavor. Too often blaming another is nothing more than an effort to reject personal responsibility.

It would certainly be healthier for our nation if the Democrats and Republicans alike were to welcome all comers in all elections and focus only on their own responsibility in winning or losing elections. Perhaps that is too much of a simplification, for surely there are systemic issues that deserve attention when one party or another manipulates processes to gain an unfair advantage. Along these lines it is the other parties that have the greatest case. Ballot access for other than the two major parties is exceptionally difficult in almost every state. Both of the major parties have a vested interest in keeping it that way. Major corporate campaign corporations are the lifeblood of presidential campaigns and they work to maintain the status quo eliminating any real threat from a third party, keeping their messages silenced.

Some will argue that only those with realistic chances of winning should have an opportunity to be heard anyway. The national discussion is enhanced with a wider assortment of views. Nader cites scholars who show that his campaign was able to push Gore to more progressive stands (ironically getting Gore more votes). In the end, the majority of Americans may indeed choose between a Democrat and a Republican, but the presence of others in the campaign can certainly influence the positions those two parties take.

Before Super Tuesday, Nat Fortune and Merelice, Co-Chairs of the Massachusetts Green-Rainbow Party wrote the following, Why do more Americans contribute to charities than show up to vote? Obviously we care about the world around us. And we believe one person can make a difference. And we trust that what we have to offer is not too small. Otherwise, we wouldn't bother with either charities or voting.” This is the logic of being unreasonable, insisting on being heard, hoping for change. Much has been made of change during this campaign. Senator Obama's recent book was titled after a sermon he heard, “The Audacity of Hope.” Whether through unreasonable insistence or audacious hope, change only comes when those on the margins refuse to be silent. This presidential campaign will be enhanced by the inclusion of as many opinions as are offered.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Soft Power

In what is being seen as a trip to establish a legacy, President Bush is currently visiting Africa. In a presidency marked by the use of hard power, this current effort is an example of soft power. After seven years, Bush can be accused of too little too late, but his reception in Africa, where his popularity is immense, would seem to speak otherwise. Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete had this to say, “I know you will leave office in about 12 months' time. Rest assured that you will be remembered for many generations to come for the good things you have done for Tanzania and the good things you have done for Africa. Your legacy will be that of saving hundreds of thousands of mothers and children's' lives.” These lives have been saved from malaria and HIV/AIDS.

The president launched a plan in 2005 to reduce malaria deaths in sub-Saharan Africa, where more than 80 percent of malaria cases occur. The disease kills at least 1 million infants and children under five every year. Bush's five-year plan calls for $1.2 billion, so far congress has funded about a third of this program. Congress has also agreed to his plan to spend $15 billion on HIV/AIDS prevention in Africa. He is now urging congress to double that. While in Tanzania, Bush also announced a plan to distribute 5.2 million free bed nets in six months, enough to provide a net for every child between ages one and five in Tanzania. On top of this he also promised $700 to help Tanzania build up its infrastructure.

"The power to save lives comes with the moral obligation to use it," Bush said about these efforts. This relatively sudden reliance on soft power is finally a glimpse of the compassionate conservatism that he promised. Joseph S. Nye Jr., distinguished service professor at Harvard University, describes a country’s soft power as coming from three resources: “its culture (in places where it is attractive to others), its political values (when it lives up to them at home and abroad), and its foreign policies (when they are seen as legitimate and having moral authority).” Richard Armitage, deputy secretary of state during President Bush's first term, now a colleague of Nye, makes the case for soft power this way, "You don't need to walk into a room and pronounce yourself ... in charge, everyone knows when the United States is in the room. You gain much more by not even speaking about it."

The nearly exclusive use of hard power throughout the Bush presidency has had a negative effect on the ability of the US to use soft power now. The world's only remaining super power launching a preemptive war in the opposition of world opinion is precisely the sort of thing candidate Bush warned us about in 2000 when he said, "If we're an arrogant nation, they'll view us that way, but if we're a humble nation, they'll respect us." Arrogant foreign policy is bereft of moral authority. American political values have likewise been diminished as a source of soft power due to the limitations of civil liberties since 9/11. Consumerism as a cultural export has not only not endeared America to the world, it is part of the depravity that some terrorists have named as a source of their enmity.

Humility is not something our nation can fake any more than respect can be demanded. The sort of goodwill currently being created in Africa can spread if this is the beginning of better ethical international behavior. Regardless of motivation, morality in diplomacy is both effective and welcome.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008


Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, a time of reflection on our shortcomings in preparation for Easter. Jesus taught that one should take the log out of one's own eye before removing the speck out of someone else's eye. Thus, this is an appropriate moment for the Christian church to take a long hard look at itself. If the research done recently by the Barna group is correct, the church has an urgent need to change if it is going to remain viable into the future.

This fall, the president of the Barna Group, David Kinnaman, published the findings of research on the opinions of 16-29 year-olds about the church in a book titled, “unChristian.” They found that the most common perceptions of Christianity by young non-Christians were negative, led by judgmental (87%) and hypocritical (85%). In fact, even half of the young Christians surveyed agreed that the church is judgmental and hypocritical. The churched and un-churched alike pointed to one particular issue that leads the way in shaping this opinion. The most common perception today is that Christianity is "anti-homosexual." The Barna Group web site reports, “Overall, 91% of young non-Christians and 80% of young churchgoers say this phrase describes Christianity. As the research probed this perception, non-Christians and Christians explained that beyond their recognition that Christians oppose homosexuality, they believe that Christians show excessive contempt and unloving attitudes towards gays and lesbians.” Young Christians frequently complained the church's teaching has made homosexuality a “bigger sin” than others and not equipped them to deal with their relationships with their homosexual friends.

This is an issue causing great divisiveness within the church itself. Not all Christians agree that homosexuality is a sin. A fair inference from the survey findings would be that many young Christians are questioning this teaching as well. Those who do believe that this behavior is sinful must consider whom is harmed by it. If there is no victim where is the crime? Once before, the church led a movement to outlaw a sin to improve society. The church-based Temperance movement led to Prohibition. Legislation was clearly the wrong method for helping drunkards to mend their ways. If your goal is to help others see the wrong in their behavior, publicly judging them will only move them away from your concern.

Lent is a season of fasting, typically marked by denying oneself a pleasure or giving up a negative behavior. Perhaps this is a good moment for all Christians to fast from judging others. It would be an opportunity to practice the teaching of Jesus that only those without sin are permitted to cast stones at sinners. People of all faiths and people of goodwill of no faith should be able to come together in a free society to serve and improve the common good. This lofty goal should not be derailed by a misplaced focus on judgment that detracts from the reputation of an institution well positioned to improve society, the Christian Church.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

What Are the Issues?

The top five TV political reporters have asked the presidential candidates 2938 questions so far. One would hope that the topics covered reflect a wide array of the issues important to the future of America. Three of those questions have been about unidentified flying objects. Given the large number of questions, a few light-hearted questions raised by a revelation about one of the candidate's experience with UFOs might be excused. But what is the excuse for the number of questions about global warming being only one more? That's right, only four questions have been asked about an issue that many would agree is one of the most important issues that will be faced by the next president.

The war in Iraq and terrorism are two high-profile issues that have rightly garnered a great deal of attention this presidential election. But even those who doubt the predictions of scientists can hardly claim that care of the environment is not a vital issue to address in the next four years, for what we do in the short term will clearly affect the long term. The issue of global poverty is another example of a sleeping giant issue. Today, every three seconds a child will die from extreme poverty - either because they don't have enough food, don't have access to clean water, or have been stricken by an entirely treatable condition like diarrhea, measles or malaria. Aside from a moral mandate to act, since it is clearly within the power of the United States to end this crisis, enlightened self-interest would lead us to end extreme poverty before it becomes the motivation from more desperate acts of terrorism.

One moral issue that the candidates have been pressed on is health care. Each of the major candidates has a plan to address the delivery of health care in this country. Unfortunately, for the most part the issue has been addressed only as it effects individual Americans' budgets. The real question of whether profit has any ethical justification in health care, or anyplace in Human Services for that matter, is not on the table. Any health care insurance company trying to make a profit must minimize paying settlements to do so. How can that delivery model benefit anyone but the stockholders? The bottom like is that the bottom line seems to be considered more vital that the preservation of life.

The media has a vested interest in tension and conflict, thus any animated emotions from candidates will steal attention away from the issues. Thankfully, there is enough information available from each of the campaigns through their local offices and the Internet that there is no reason for any voter being uninformed. Here in Massachusetts we will be part of “Super Tuesday” on February 5 when we go to the polls. While those registered in a political party can only vote in that party's primary, unenrolled voters will have the choice of taking a Republican, Democratic, or Green-Rainbow ballot. Don't give away your power by staying home. Get informed and get out and vote.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Finding Common Ground on Abortion

Thirty-five years after the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade, the debate over the legality of abortion is arguably more divisive now than it was then. For many years now, this has been a wedge issue used to divide politicians and the electorate by requiring polar opposites, absolute agreement with no shades of gray. With its focus on the issue of legality, the abortion debate has become one of determining permissible times and methods instead of working to reduce the number of abortions, surely something that could not offend either side of the argument.

In the highly politicized rhetoric, pro-choice politicians sound disingenuous when they add “and rare” to their calls to keep abortions safe and legal. If pro-choice leaders truly desire that abortions should be rare while they remain legal, they should be eager to support legislation like that introduced by Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH), a member of the Congressional Pro-Life Caucus, and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), a member of the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus almost a year ago. That bill was designed to provide contraception education as well as support for new mothers and resources for foster care and adoption. That, and similar legislation currently are referred to committees.

Likewise, pro-life politicians rarely call for a reduction in the number of abortions instead taking an all-or-nothing approach that has the effect of allowing preventable abortions now while hoping for an end to all abortion later. Additionally, the belief that overturning Roe v. Wade will end abortion in America ignores the fact that it would return abortion to an issue fought in each state and conveniently forgets the history of back-alley and foreign abortions that happened prior to the court ruling.

A truly comprehensive pro-life stand would also take into consideration the quality of life for the newborn whose mother chose not to abort. In his book, "Our Endangered Values,” Jimmy Carter writes, "Two thirds of women who have abortions claim their primary reason is that they cannot afford a child." He cites statistics from the Alan Guttmacher Institute and the Centers for Disease Control and their latest report [2002], "The most prevailing common factor is poverty, with six out of ten abortions occurring among those with incomes below $28,000 per year for a family of three." A comprehensive plan to alleviate poverty would have the added benefit of reducing a significant factor contributing to the rate of abortions.

We should not allow medical, ethical and religious issues regarding such things as determining when life begins, or when a fetus is viable to distract us from the practical ways we can reduce abortions today. The vision of a day when every child is a wanted child, who has equal access to opportunity is one that both sides of this polarized debate ought to be able to embrace.

Monday, January 14, 2008

An Unhappy Anniversary

This past Friday marked the sixth anniversary or the first prisoners of the war on terror being detained at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. The peculiar arrangement of a United States military facility that is not considered US soil has created a cruel limbo for those who have been imprisoned there. They are subject to the whims of their captors without any recourse to law. None of them have been tried or even charged. In the cases where there has been any access to legal representation, they have been released.

Adding insult to injury, on the day of the anniversary, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., ruled three Muslim British humanitarian workers and a religious pilgrim captured in Afghanistan and detained in Guantanamo Bay prison were non-persons. The implications of considering anyone legally a non-person are staggering. With no human rights, even the hope of protection is gone. The only way even to begin to suggest that this behavior is acceptable on our behalf by our government is to firmly believe that these detainees represent the true “evil-doers” and thus argue that that they deserve whatever treatment may come from those they've harmed or threaten to harm. But honoring democracy demands that the people be informed when the government acts on their behalf. In six years, when have we been told what evil the detainees are even suspected of? How can it be that a democracy can choose to treat anyone as a non-person when no public case has been made? This is the sort of behavior expected of banana republic dictators who “disappear” their opponents. This is the sort of alleged justice of vigilantism, only in this case a secretive group within our own government are the vigilantes.

This administration has shown not only a disdain for the justice system and the rule of law, but also a lack of trust in the judgment of the American people. Why must we trust that they are protecting us from unseen harm instead of exposing to the light of truth what they have done on our behalf? There are certainly good reasons for clandestine investigations that require secrecy while they are on-going, but one might expect that in the course of six years of hard work fighting terrorism that there would be multiple success stories that could now be shared to reassure the people who are being terrorized. And isn't that the point of terrorism, that we be frightened? What has this administration done to reduce fear? The practices of detaining without charges, declaring people non-persons, removing suspects to places where legal protections don't exist and there torturing them provides no comfort to the fearful. As a matter of fact, the thought that it could happen to anyone at any time increases fear while providing no measurable security beyond that which the government alleges. Additionally, the image of America in the eyes of the world is diminished. We no longer have the right to call for justice when we act so unethically. There is no justification, only excuses.

Monday, January 07, 2008

What's the Value of a Tree?

On the first episode of the short-lived television series, Joan of Arcadia, Joan has an encounter with a young man whom she comes to realize is God in the flesh. She tries putting him on the spot by asking, “So how about a miracle?” In response, the young man points to a tree and simply says, “There.” “But that is just a tree,” says the unimpressed Joan. She is silenced by the reply, “You try making one.”

The simple truth sounds cliché, only God can make a tree. Don't mistake this for an argument for Intelligent Design; regardless of the origin of species, mere mortals remain incapable of creating from nothing. This helps to frame one of the glaring problems in environmental protection, the fact that a tree has no economic value left on its own. The only time a dollar amount is attached is when calculating its value once cut an processed as lumber. The value of a stand of trees, or a wetland, or a barrier island does not lie just in their potential for development, or even for recreational use. The only cost effective machines for converting carbon dioxide into oxygen are green plants. If we were to develop every square inch of land, we would also have to develop technology to produce oxygen. What would that technology cost? Calculate that and you begin to have a figure to use when considering the value of untouched natural resources. And that's just part of the value. Vegetation provides natural erosion control, wetlands purify water, and barrier islands protect the mainland from coastal storms. When gone, human efforts to provide the same services always prove to be exorbitantly expensive. This is why the time has come to stop thinking of nature as resource and start considering it as capital.

In an April 2007 report, “Valuing New Jersey’s Natural Capital: An Assessment of the Economic Value of the State’s Natural Resources,” the value of the goods and services provided by the state's natural capital is estimated at a minimum of $20 billion annually. That places the value of the state's total natural capital at $681 billion (the amount needed to be invested at 3% to produce the annual yield). The authors are confident that the estimates are conservative. These are numbers that don't normally enter into economic discussions. But there is an ethical imperative to consider the value of creation as is. As the saying goes, good planets are hard to find. We are seeing the limits of limiting our understanding of creation solely in terms of the teaching of the book of Genesis that humans are to subdue it. We need to balance that with the equally biblical teaching that all the earth belongs to God. Life is a loan, not a grant. Whether your faith is in the God of creation or the wisdom of science (or both), we all need to begin to find our place in the web of life and live accordingly.