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.