Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Practicing Progressive

Where is the outrage?

On Monday, the front page was filled with expressions of anger and indignation at the bonuses allotted to AIG. Newspapers around the world reported on citizenry up in arms over the millions of dollars being allocated to executives who, in the opinion of many experts and not-so-experts alike, were more deserving of eternal damnation rather than year-end bonuses.

On Monday, generally lost amidst ads for the latest fashions or zero interest car loans, was the announcement that humanitarian aid organizations were being systematically expelled from Darfur by Sudan’s president Omar Hassan al-Bashir in reaction to the International Criminal Court’s decision to indict him for crimes against humanity, genocide and murder. Estimates are that a minimum of 300,000 people have died in Darfur as a result of the policies handed down by the Sudanese ruler. Over a million people now depend on the aid groups in Darfur for the barest of life’s necessities. It is abundantly clear to those familiar with the tragedy continuing to unfold in Darfur that this expulsion is simply another means of human extermination, slower than government-backed raiders wiping out villages but just as effective.

On Tuesday, fearless and brave legislators spent their tax-payer supported day passing a patently unconstitutional bill designed to tax 90% of bonuses earned by executives working in industries that received federal bail-out funds. Congressmen and women of every stripe strode boldly to the microphones and declared their determined defense of all that is right and noble. Representative after representative made sure their mugs made it to the front page of their local newspapers proclaiming their virtue and extolling their moral courage.

On Tuesday, somewhere after the weather but before the comics, two paragraphs were spent describing how the Dali Lama was disinvited to a South African peace conference. The host country felt the exiled leader of Tibetan Buddhists, a committed pacifist, would distract from the theme of the meeting of Nobel Peace Prize winners and others, namely peacemaking.

On Wednesday, in response to the great hue and cry from America’s masses and breathlessly reported (and encouraged?) by its media, the front page reported that President Obama ordered the Treasury Department to pursue “every single legal avenue to block these bonuses.”

On Wednesday, a summary of Pope Benedict’s address to an African continent ravaged by AIDS could be found on page 6. The pope declared that the use of condoms actually promoted the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. His conviction in this matter reveals an apparent ignorance of the plight of healthy African wives married to HIV-infected husbands among other papal idiocies. Rebecca Hodes, of the Treatment Action Campaign in South Africa, an anti-AIDS organization, responded to the pope’s remarks by accurately declaring, “…his opposition to condoms conveys that religious dogma is more important to him than the lives of Africans.”

On Thursday we could read through the glass on the newsstand that Senator Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, demanded CEO’s of beleaguered and bailed-out businesses must show remorse ala Japanese corporate leaders, some of whom have recently committed suicide in response to their apparent failure to please the public.

On Thursday you had to rifle past the ads to read of Israeli soldiers complaining that government sanctioned rabbis were urging the combatants to see the conflict over Palestine as the God-blessed over the God-damned…and you can guess whose side God was on according to these clerics.

On Friday, banner headlines and a big photo announced AIG’s chief executive’s appearance on Capitol Hill where he was subject to a series of tongue lashings by politicians whose own fiduciary shenanigans and numerous infidelities have brought no little shame to their once hallowed chambers. AIG CEO Edward Liddy read examples of death threats to his employees and their families.

On Friday, page 16, the following paragraph appeared: “The Department of Defense has identified 4,252 American service members who have died since the start of the Iraq war. It confirmed the death of the following American…ANSONG, Theophilus K. 34, Petty Officer First Class, Navy; Bristow, Va.; amphibious transport dock San Antonio.”

Where is the outrage?

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Practicing Progressive

Rich Mayfield
For: 3-21-09

Bob Jones has only a few months to live. Just moments after learning of his grim prognosis, Bob begins to reevaluate the priorities that have shaped his life. His self-examination serves as the storyline for the 1993 triumphant albeit tear-jerking film, “My Life” starring Michael Keaton and Nicole Kidman. I watched this excellent movie shortly after reading the latest results of a study published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association. According to the account I read in the Los Angeles Times, researchers “found that terminally ill cancer patients were nearly three times more likely to go on breathing machines or receive other invasive treatments if religion was an important part of their decision-making process.” Statistically, these treatments did not improve the quantity and certainly not the quality of a person’s life.

After his initial desperate attempts to secure a different outcome, Bob comes to terms with his inevitable death and decides to make a home movie for his son to remember him by. This movie within a movie provides some exceptionally helpful insights into the process of value-rearrangement that accompanies our confrontation with our mortality. It is not surprising that a bigger home, a newer car, a more prestigious job diminish in importance in such circumstances. Instead, more mundane matters move to the forefront…time with loved ones, acts of reconciliation and forgiveness, a sunrise.

In my three decades as a minister, I witnessed this reevaluation process many times. Having the great privilege of attending to the dying offers an unforgettable opportunity for values edification. Watching “My Life” was a poignant reminder to remember what I had the honor to once learn.

All of which is why I found the AMA’s report so curious. One would think that religious folk whose faith has allegedly guided them through their lives would be less inclined to panic at the end. Nevertheless, the study indicates just the opposite. I suppose we could draw two quite different opinions. In the first, we might assume that this vigorous attempt to prolong one’s days represents a deep reverence for life and, therefore, an equally deep resistance to giving it up. The other, more cynical, opinion might be centered on the proposition that the religionist’s faith isn’t as strong as publicly proclaimed and when push comes to shove, one’s true beliefs come forth with the subsequent reluctance to meet one’s maker.

In my own experience, I found that, generally, one died the way one lived. If someone spent their life nurturing relationships and welcoming new experiences, death was met with little fear and often a profound sense of satisfaction. Coming up to the threshold of death with many issues unresolved, on the other hand, was often a difficult and frightening encounter. This profound fear may account for the fact that 1/3 of the Medicare budget goes to the last year of life and 80% of that is for the last month. Judging from this new AMA study, religionists do not go gently into the night.

Another recently released study indicated that Americans were less inclined to affiliating themselves with religious institutions. Fully 15% of Americans now claim they have no religious affiliation, up from 8% in 1990. One hypothesis that might be drawn here could be centered on a growing awareness that specific religious doctrines provide less guidance for a well-rounded life…and death…than a simple adherence to more universal principles. In an increasingly connected world, assuming one’s religion is supreme holds less sway it would seem than the golden rule of doing unto others as one would want done unto them.

The fictional Bob Jones reveals the non-fictional truth that our lives take on deep, satisfying meaning when we spend them pursuing matters that really, well, matter.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Practicing Progressive

It was research has led me to the westernmost brewpub in America to compare Waimea Brewery’s Pale Ale to Sweet George’s Brown (a comparison that has Dillon Dam Brewery coming way out on top!) but it is philosophy that has me sitting on the lanai of this old Kauai plantation trying, once again, to unlock the mysteries of my life and times.

The last two winters have had me spending some time on this beautiful Hawaiian island that, paradoxically, is host to the rainiest mountain top on the planet as well as some of earth’s sunniest beaches.

Kauai’s semi-official motto provides fodder for my first philosophical foray: “One Island. Many Peoples. All Kauaians.” It is an inviting thought that provides some balance to the onslaught of tribalism that pervades so much of our world. Although my research is cursory at best, it does seem that this particular place in the middle of the Pacific has a high cultural tolerance level. In my own experience, only Nepal matches the kind of companionable welcome offered to the island’s visitors and residents alike. Pondering the religious, racial and political divides in much of the world only underscores the optimistic idealism that just may be taking hold here. Tempting as it is to avoid news from the rest of the world, a brief glance at favorite websites each morning only confirms one’s convictions that Kauai’s strategy may be the only viable one left.

America’s current foray into divisiveness that has puffed-up political commentator’s rooting for presidential failure and at-a-loss politicians pretending they know better has some of us yearning for the kind of unity modeled in this corner of the 50th state. Nursing a much too hop-infused beer, I stare out at the wind-whipped ocean and remember an afternoon in Greeley when Garrison Keillor brought his Prairie Home Companion to Colorado. With 10,000 or so folk seated in the arena waiting for this all-time favorite radio show to commence, Garrison stepped out into the crowd and began to lead us in a communal hymn or two. I doubt anyone present will ever forget how singing Colorado’s own “America the Beautiful” bound us all together, temporarily and tentatively to be sure, but bound nonetheless as caretakers of a national ideal that is tolerant of anything but intolerance. Farmers singing of spacious skies next to free-thinkers harmonizing on amber waves of grain created something sacred that had most of us, if just for a holy moment, yearning again for a more perfect union.

I suppose I could be accused of hiding from tough times in these now annual trips but, in fact, I’m finding travel to this romanticizing island a needed antidote for creeping cynicism. To discover that there still are places on this planet that strive for concord rather than conflict is to reaffirm conviction in the American ideal that all too easily and much too recently seems to get lost.

I came across a quote of historian Howard Zinn pinned to a public bulletin board in Kauai’s Old Koloa Town. Rain wrinkled, faded in parts and, I suspect, imperfectly transferred to this reporter’s notebook, it nevertheless illuminates something of what has me sitting here, beer in hand and mind in gear. Sometimes, most of the time if the truth be told, others can better express what we ourselves are yearning for: “…to be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage and kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places-and there are so many-where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now, as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory…”