Saturday, December 07, 2013

Freedom and Noblesse Obliege

I recently had a brief Facebook conversation with an old friend in response to a Fox News opinion article with the headline: School bans Christmas trees, the colors read and green. I gave a somewhat snarky reply that neither trees nor the colors red and green were actually Christian. Her more gracious reply was that it was a matter of freedom and that people's rights to practice their religion were being infringed in order not to offend those of other faiths. The article concludes:
"So this is what it’s come to, America. You’ve got college-educated teacher terrified to put a toy elf on the shelf because she might get sued by the ACLU or some other left wing anti-Christmas group."
Now I will grant that adults and children should be able to celebrate whatever religious holiday they choose to without fear of peer pressure or reprisal. People should be able to discuss and celebrate the holidays of Christmas (Christians), Hanukkah (Jews), Kwanzaa (African-Americans), Bodhi Day. (Buddhists), or any other religious holiday in December. But I do think that we white Anglo-Saxon Protestants need to be a little bit careful of crying "persecution" every time our expressions of faith are limited or, let's be honest, our dominant-culture privilege is infringed upon.

I was pleased to be able to attend a a local production of Fiddler on the Roof and was struck, not for the first time, by what real persecution looks like. The story is set in 1905 in Tsarist Russia and while the focus is on the erosion of tradition" in Tevye's family and his small village of Anatevka, the wider story is the encroachment of the outside world--specifically the eviction of Jews from their villages on the instructions of Tsar Nicholas II. As I sat there in a warm, dry, safe theater paid for by taxpayer money watching this show that I had paid money for without a second thought, it came to me afresh how fortunate I am as a white, heterosexual, employed, upper-middle class Protestant Christian American. I own what I own and do not need to worry about its being taken away from me. I had eaten a good meal and was not worried about from where my next meal would come. I could get in my car and be reasonably sure that it will take me home quickly and without incident. I was unlikely to be stopped by law enforcement on the way home and asked why I am in that wealthy community (Saratoga, CA). I have many freedoms that others can only dream of.

This is why I am very reluctant to claim persecution and wary when I see others in my similar situation do so. Yes, we need to guard against government dictating what we can or cannot do--because the ultimate result of unchecked government power is what happened to Tevye and his neighbors--and later to over 6 million Jews in the Holocaust. We also need to be wary of those who simply decry money and corporations, because the revolution such cries sparked in Russia resulted in communism. But when most of my contemporaries cry "persecution" they are often instead railing against the diminished white privilege (even unconsciously) which is a hallmark of the increasingly multicultural nature of this country. Yes, other races, religious traditions, sexual minorities, and people long on the margins of society are claiming an increasing share of what used to be power reserved to the majority population--a majority that is decreasing by the hour. Politically, we are seeing congressional districts redrawn to protect this diminishing privilege and seeing an increasingly inequitable dispersion of wealth. Culturally, we are feeling the death-throes of a culture in which there will be no dominant culture any longer. I also think of Nelson Mandella, who died this week, as he struggled against the dominant (though numerically minority) culture in South Africa. Such struggles make complaints about "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas" seem foolish.

My point in this lengthy post is that rather than whining about persecution and fighting an increasingly desperate battle against multiculturalism, those of us with power should instead shoulder the ancient notion of noblesse obliege--the notion that those with power have an obligation to empower those with less power and to use our power for justice rather than subjugation. As Christians, we of all people should be aware of the dangers of temporal power and the power of love and sacrifice to triumph over the world. As we move towards Christmas, may we take seriously Jesus words:
"From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked." (Luke 12:48b)

Thursday, August 15, 2013

4 Years Later: Nothing Changes in TEC Advertising (UPDATE: Except the responsiveness!)

UPDATE: If you click on the newest Episcopal Church advertising link, you now get the following rather than the ads:
Many thanks to those of you who have given us constructive comments on the billboard and postcard suggestions we had posted.  We agree that the concept needs more work, and we are going back to the drawing board with your ideas in mind.  We sincerely appreciate your feedback and encourage you to keep sharing your ideas and, when appropriate, your criticisms.  We take them all seriously. 
Well put and a good response--something that was not in evidence four years ago. So, things DO change! Well done, Episcopal Church Center staff!

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As a prologue to this post, I want to say first of all that I love the Episcopal Church. I am an Episcopal priest because I love the combination of Word and Sacrament, the "big tent" theology that welcomes everyone, and the conviction that the love of God in Christ is transformational in people's lives. I'm one of a diminishing number of so-called "cradle Episcopalians" and a member of likely an even more rare group: Generation X cradle Episcopalians. I've spent nearly 20 years in the ordained ministry and with everything that is wonderful about the church there is one thing that continually amazes me about it:

How many times we shoot ourselves in the foot. Repeatedly.

Almost four years ago, I wrote a blog post critical of the Episcopal Church's new advertising campaign which came up with this attention-grabbing ad (sarcasm) which they paid a significant amount of money to put as a full-page ad in USA Today (see above). Not only was I underwhelmed and lamented the waste of time and money that this represented, but I also recalled the not very helpful fact that if any congregation wanted to use this ad and put their own church's name on it they were invited to "email us [Episcopal Church Center] and we will create a personalized ad for you." Had no one at Episcopal Church Center heard of Photoshop? Could we not be trusted to take the artwork provided and personalize it? Apparently not.

In the midst of this I was also notified by legal council at Episcopal Church center that I was not permitted to use the Episcopal Church shield unless I obeyed strict guidelines on its use. I could not put it on t-shirts, coffee mugs, and other items in my Café Press shop. I was informed of this after I logged into my shop and found the images had been blocked and then had to ask why they were blocked. I haven't had time with my day job as parish priest to pursue the matter further. But apparently my efforts to advertise the Episcopal Church were not received in the spirit with which I offered them. Clearly no one was permitted to deviate from official materials.

In my blog post, I contrasted the USA Today ad with two ads that my colleague Frank Logue, then a parish priest and now Canon to the Ordinary for the Diocese of Georgia, put together in short order from the suggestions of two colleagues via Facebook:

The ad to the left is image-based rather than text-based, it has an attention-grabbing headline, it shows a picture of an actual ministry of the church with actual people. It shows a great view of a lovely worship space (of which the Episcopal Church has more than its fair share). Finally, it invites people to worship and service in the Episcopal Church--two things we do very well. What it does not do is explain all of the reasons that you really should give the Episcopal Church a try, in excruciating detail.

The other ad highlighted the multicultural nature of the Episcopal Church, gave a brief dig at the Republican Party, but otherwise pretty much said "we're a diverse, multi-age, multi-ethnic church" without using any of those words. Brilliant, and probably took him about an hour on his computer.

Fast forward four years and the Episcopal Church has now come up with brand new, cutting-edge, advertising materials that feature several phrases on a stained glass background, such as the ad:

Another clergy colleague has already voiced his opinion via an excellent blog post. My opinion is that we've progressed from wordy two-color bullet point ads in 2009 to less wordy, more snarky, and still image-less ads in 2013. Given the background graphics, this is something that many of my colleagues and I could have done in 15 minutes on a computer, if we had wanted to sound like a mother scolding her grandchildren who never write, never call, and just don't visit often enough. I won't inflict the others on you, but suffice it to say that they ads reinforce the stereotype that we're a bunch of old, rich, cranky white people who can't understand why our children and grandchildren don't come to church anymore. As someone on Facebook said in response: "These new ads somehow blend hipster elitism and stick-in-the-mud traditionalism into the same gooey mess."

Contrast that with the materials from the diocese of Ohio, which feature ads like this: 


Note that this does not conform to the national church's style standards (doesn't have the new shaded shield), but it is way more effective than what came out of the national church.

I would like ads worthy of the wonderful church that this is. I would like things like the advertising materials that the church posted but without the text, so that people could add pictures and their own clever text to the background. Perhaps even a repository where people can upload their own ad ideas. It is time to let go of the corporate command-and-control and bad 1980s style advertising and get into the twenty-first century where anyone with a computer and a basic image-editing program can do this kind of thing with a few resources at his or her disposal. And without offending anyone.

Give us the tools. Get out of the way. And talk to folks who don't currently go to church before you do this again. Please.

Friday, August 02, 2013

Relief and (Re-) Development: Desparation and Dependency

Good intentions without action don't accomplish much, but what action is needed?.
I recently finished reading the book Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It) by Robert Lupton. Perhaps the best part of the book is this one:
...in 2001, six years after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans and long after the city should have shifted to long-term development projects, churches and mission organizations still "market" the crisis and volunteers continue to flow into the city by the thousands, distributing free food and clothing to "victims." When relief does not transition to development in a timely way, compassion becomes toxic.
He quotes Roger Sandberg, former Haiti country director of Medair, in defining a progression from relief to development:
First stop, relief. Relief work occurs during and immediately following an emergency and includes not only life-saving interventions but also the alleviation of suffering.
Second stop, rehabilitation. Rehabilitation follows and overlaps with the relief phase. Rehabilitative work increases the capacity of a local community, enabling them to better respond to future crises. Rehabilitation also seeks to promote projects that restore services or livelihoods to a preexisting or improved level.
Third stop, development. Development interventions follow and overlap relief and rehabilitation phases. Development work is long term. It seeks to improve the standard of living for a population over many years or decades. In the best-case scenario, relief and rehabilitation inverventions are done with long-term development in mind....Very roughly, we might say that relief, rehabilitation, and development phases respectively last months, years, and decades.
This particular distinction between relief, rehabilitation, and development has been on my mind in the last several months in three areas of my life: local, national, and international.

On a local level, as a parish priest I respond to urgent crises through small grants from my discretionary fund--a fund set up by the church to be used at my discretion (hence the name) to address needs as they arise. Most of the time, it is used to do things like provide two quarts of oil and a tank of gas to needy folks heading for San Francisco or a hotel room for a mother and her kids fleeing an abusive husband/father. This is all good to do, but leaves me feeling dissatisfied because I know that I'm simply doing relief work, not solving the underlying problems. It also frustrates and angers me when I see an unending procession of need, sometimes event the same people over and over again. I have the dual feeling of being angry at being taken advantage of and yet ashamed of that anger because i know that ninety-five percent of thse folks have few other options.

On a national level, I've watched with increasing frustration as our national debate regarding cuts to the Supplimental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly Food Stamps) between, if you believe the two sides, the heartless, cold-blooded Republicans and the bleeding-heart, dependency-fostering Democrats. Below the partisan posturing is a disagreement about whether (and when) relief of suffering should stop and whether (and when) government should be in the business of rehabilitation and development to help people lift themselves out of poverty and need. There seems to be little discussion of how the government can facilitate increasing the capacity of people to respond to future crises--just whether we should still send checks or not. Additionally, the notion of separating people into "givers" and "takers" strikes me as a profoundly unhelpful way of wrestsling with the need to go beyond relief to rehabilitation and development. Throwing a drowning person a life-ring will not foster dependency. Jumping in and trying to hold them up means that both of you end up drowning.

On an international level, several months ago I spent a week in Haiti. That country is perhaps the poster child (yes, I appreciate the irony of the phrase) for perpetual relief verging on the toxic. Literally billions of dollars have been spent there, often with major strings attached in the name of accountability. At the parish I serve, St. Edward's, we are a part of consortium of churches and a school that have a relationship with St. Patrick's Church and School in LaCorbe, Haiti. Having had a relationship with people there for many years, we are beginning to discuss how to move from continually addressing immediate needs to building the capacity for the community to begin to provide for themselves. There is certainly a tension between what they perceive as their immediate needs and what we hope for as far as long term rehabilitation and development. Part of the challenge is that we have the luxury of taking the long view. A good example is that there is a need for a power source at this fairly remote chruch and school. As enlightened, developed-world folks, we would prefer to set up a small solar installation that would then be self-sustaining. However, our partner in Haiti would like a gasoline generator so that he could haul it around and use it for a variety of congregations and schools. Both make sense in their own way. On the one hand, we don't want to do what so many NGOs have done in Haiti and impose our own will on them. On the other, we don't really want to perpetuate a reliance on expensive fossel fruels. Difficult decisions.

I have no easy answers to any of this, but it does strike me that we need to be having these sorts of conversations at all levels of government and within our churches. Just writing a check, as much as it helps in the short-term, stops at relief without moving beyond that. If we can get to the point of true partnership where we help people to get and stay on their feet, perhaps we can move beyond the gridlock in both government and society.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

We're just not republican enough

I've finally figured out what the biggest problem in our country is:

We're not republican enough. 

Note that I have not capitalized the R. I'm not saying the problem is that we're not aligned enough with the policies and values of the Republican Party. Far from it! What I am saying is that many, many of us have been taught that we are part of a democracy and we act as if this is not only the way it should be, but that "the government" is taking away our God-given democratic rights. The truth is otherwise.

We do not live in a democracy. We live in a republic.

A republic, as anyone my age who passed high school Civics class can tell you, is a representative democracy. We elect people to represent us as members of the local school board, city council, or state or federal Senate or House of Representatives. We trust them to educate themselves about policy and the implications of the various laws and other policy items they vote on and then to defend those votes to their constituents. We may not agree with them one hundred percent, but we gauge their performance not on how much we agree with them but on how much they accomplish for our own good and the good of the country.

Not anymore. Now we want to vote on everything, every time, or we want our "representatives" to simply cast a vote on our behalf, just as if we were sitting in that chamber. Never mind that most of us don't know a tenth of the implications of the votes we would like taken on our behalf. Never mind that we can generally be trusted only to act in our own self-interest rather than in the interest of others. Vote my way or get out, Mr. or Mrs. Representative!

What has this brought us? Timid and reactive politicians. Witness the immigration debate. If you held a majority of House Republican's feet to the fire, most would agree that some version of the current Senate-passed immigration reform bill makes sense. But they won't support it. Why? They're afraid. Not afraid of immigrants, or of them taking jobs from others, or anything you might expect. They're afraid of being defeated in their primary races by someone more "conservative" (read: right-wing) then they are. They are afraid of not being re-elected. Not failing to be re-elected because they haven't done enough, but failing to be re-elected because their "base" constituency will be whipped into a froth and vote them out on this issue only--regardless of whether or not it makes sense.

Couple this with the obscene amount of money it takes to mount a credible campaign, which mostly relies on simplistic 30-second commercials about how awful the other candidate is and how they supported this bill or that bill, and how awful it is that they could compromise on such an important issue (whatever that issue is) and you end up with representatives who spend half their time raising money, a quarter of their time campaigning for re-election by deriding their opponents, and it is no wonder there is little time to even come up with a nuanced version of any issue, much less to foster the kind of across-the-aisle relationships that getting anything done requires.

My solution? Evaluate representatives not on how closely they aligned with your own views on various policy issues, but on how much they actually got accomplished. Did they participate in crafting and passing a more or less realistic budget? Did they reach across the aisle to collaborate with others to get a reasonably good law or policy passed? Did they reach out to ALL of their constituents (not just donors or their "base") with thoughtful discussions and defenses of their votes? Then re-elect them. If they just reacted to the latest 30 second commercial, bowed to pressure from their fellow representatives on their side of the aisle or, worse, their "leaders", vote them out.

At least, that's what I think.

Saturday, July 06, 2013

World Domination Summit, First Cut

This post represents some initial impressions after being at one of the most remarkable conferences I've ever attended. After an opening word and concert Friday night at the Oregon Zoo, we had several plenary speakers over two days at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in downtown Portland, Oregon and many afternoon seminars from which to choose. Any number of people have asked me why I went and what I wanted to get out of this. As a first-time WDSer, I have a confession to make.

I have no idea.

WDS is so hard to describe. The best tag line I've run across is "living remarkable lives in a conventional world." WDS seems to be the quintessential "out of the box" conference---in other words, if you are (or want to be) out of the box, this is the conference for you. I'm still processing all of the things I've learned, but one big thing I've learned: I have heard more about being your true self, following your dreams, and truly being community in 48 hours here than in many years of church conferences. 

As I've explained it, most of the conferences I attend tend to be what might be called "industry" conferences--talking about how to grow your church, reach out into the neighborhood, preach better, study the Bible, etc.... They're pretty much designed to appeal the the clergy that attend them. They also have to be relatively inexpensive, all the better to fit into Continuing Education budgets. But what most of them end up as are low-budget discussions of Jesus, the church, arcane Biblical truths, or other "shop talk." That isn't always true, and I've been to my share of great conferences, but there's always sort of an implicit "us/them" thing going on. "How do we get them to come to us?" "How do we get us (in the church) to go to them?" There really isn't a realization that people can lead perfectly good, even remarkable, lives without being a disciple of Jesus, much less a church-goer.

As I noted above, I'm still processing all of my learnings, and I'll no doubt have more to say. I'm just glad that I came. I hope my life is more remarkable because of it and I'm going to try and make it so.

Stage at WDS 2013

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Bad Theology and Acts of God

“Even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that is something that God intended to happen." -- Richard Mourdock

No doubt you have read or heard about the quote above and the firestorm that has followed it. Among a great many other comments, it provoked this blog post from Susan Russell. The blog post itself is about the mistake of writing our own theological convictions into law in a secular democracy. I'm with Susan on that one--if we are against a country instituting Sharia law as their civil law, why are so many of the same people eager to write evangelical Christian theology into law in this country? Yes, we do legislate morality--from the regulations we support to the tax breaks we give--but it should be a morality common to the vast majority of citizens, not the interpretation of a shrinking faction of them.

But that isn't what I want to blog about. I want to talk about the flawed theology the under-girds Mr. Mourdock's statement: the idea that everything that happens to us is under God's control. If it happened, then God intended it to happen.

This theology is most often expressed, unhelpfully, in the wake of a tragedy. I've especially heard it after the untimely death of a loved one. Phrases like "God must have needed him in heaven" or "God meant for this to happen" or "God must have some reason for doing this" are attempts to make sense of the senseless--and to hang that effort on the belief that God controls each and every thing that happens in this world. Even insurance companies use the term "act of God" to describe a natural disaster.

Books can and have been written about why bad things happen to good people. The point is that ever since the Garden of Eden, there have been two things that blocked God's will from being done in the world: human sin and random chance. If one accepts the Garden of Eden story even as an allegory, the question comes up: Did God intend for Eve to eat the apple? No, he specifically told her not to do so. Why did he even put the forbidden tree in the garden? Because following God's will without a choice is not discipleship, it is slavery. The Bible is filled with people who were asked to make choices about their lives and the results of those choices.

It is also the case that the world functions via natural laws--tidal waves, hurricanes, earthquakes, storms and other natural phenomena don't ask whether or not there are people living in that place--the event happens regardless of whether there are two or two million people living there. Along side natural law is random chance--in other words, stuff happens. God may be omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient, but God has chosen not to control everything that happens in the world. Just as human beings have free choice about whether they follow God's direction or not, the world is also not subject to God's direction. Evil exists. Disease happens. The world is a fallen, imperfect place. It is not the Kingdom of God.

All of this provides, or should provide a sense of perspective to the Christian. Whoever ends up winning the election in a little more than a week or so, God will still be God and the world will still have the problems and challenges that it has. The way we deal with those issues as people of faith is probably more important than even this issues themselves. God does not cause tragedy, but God does help us deal with tragedy. And that is an act of God.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Money, Politics, and the Race to the Bottom

I don't usually get too political on this blog, but I just received an email, ostensibly from Vice President Joe Biden (but really from the Obama campaign) with a message that made me sit up, take notice, and sigh deeply. The message was this:

"If we don't win this election, it will be because we didn't close the spending gap when we could."

Really? Has our nation become so politicized, so polarized, so shallow, that the Presidential election will be decided solely by who has raised the most money? If that's the case, couldn't we at least do it for a worthy cause--sort of like Presidential telethon for, say, cancer. The one who raises the most money for the cause wins the election. At least then it wouldn't be literally billions of dollars spent on increasingly negative ads tearing down the other candidate and distorting his or her words and/or record. Perhaps I'm neither naive or just idealistic, but I would hope that the reason anyone loses an election is that the ideas and policies put forth by him or her at least seem better than the ideas and policies put forth by his/her opponent. Period. 

I'm pretty tired of the zero-sum political game--every policy question is framed in terms of who "wins" and who "loses." Even some TED talks are being restricted because tax policy is deemed "too political." Check this one, for instance:


This is a person who has "been there and done that" as far as starting a business, and has been extremely successful doing so. Yet his testimonial is deemed "too political" in the current environment. 


I long for a day in which people argue policy questions and come to a compromise solution that is good for the country. As long as we vote for whoever comes out on top of the fundraising smackdown, everyone loses.