Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Practicing Progressive

The growing numbers of folk who now check the “None of the above” box when it comes to religion may wish to skip the following column and move directly to the car ads but for those others who find the dramatic deconstruction of many things religious and the subsequent reshaping of the very future of all of humankind of more than passing interest, read on.

This past week Pope Benedict XVI, known to his friends as Joe Ratzinger and to his enemies as “The Enforcer”, surprised most of the Christian world by extending an invitation to the historically heretical but currently conflicted conservative members of the world-wide Anglican Communion to jump their teetering ship and make sail on the Vatican’s ecclesiastical vessel.

Like many denominations, the Anglicans (Episcopalians here in the U.S.) are immersed in a struggle for their religious identity that pits those who wish for a religion that integrates the scientific, cultural and philosophical progress of the past 600 years or so with those who prefer Pope Benedict’s predilection for the Dark Ages. Hence the invitation.

Benedict, who was the head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, formerly known as The Inquisition, before he was picked by his peers for the top spot, has long expressed his dissatisfaction for the way the world has gone. His continued support of the failed policy of sexual abstinence in the fight against AIDS and over-population combined with his shocking reversal of the excommunication of an unrepentant Holocaust-denying bishop are only two examples of the Pope’s failure to understand how life has changed since the Roman Emperor Constantine swung his sword and switched our predecessors from pagans into pious Christians.

So his invitation to the disaffected Anglicans appears to be nothing more than a political attempt to shore up the medieval mindset that pervades this disappointed part of Christianity. It is not entirely unlike the current fundamentalists’ power grab among the Moslems or Jews or Hindus to name a few obvious examples. Religious right-wingers watch with horror as the modern world takes more and more of their adherents away. Their common strategy seems to be entrenchment, drawing that proverbial line in the sand that declares whether one is on the side of God or the sinful world. And once the divine blessing is established, it becomes increasingly easy to resort to the most un-Christian or un-Islamic or un-Jewish of actions.

At this point it would be easy and tempting to throw up one’s hands and declare all religion anathema as comedian Bill Maher and scientist Richard Dawkins have so publically done. Their declarations of the irrelevancy and even villainy of religion fails to understand the monumental shift that is occurring among religions today. What we are witnessing everywhere from the intransience of the Vatican to the violence of the Taliban are the last throes of the dying. Religion that shapes itself on a pre-scientific, anti-modern worldview, no matter how powerful it may appear right now to be, is condemned to the dustbin of history along with flat-earthers, creationists and the Mayan calendar.

Conversely, and despite the depositions of Maher, Dawkins,, a new kind of religion is being born and taking form in a myriad of differing shapes. It is religion unafraid of the progress that has transpired across the spectrum of science, a religion that isn’t informed by an omnipotent being or infallible book but by the actions of communities of compassionate people who are experiencing the transcendent power of peace-making and justice-seeking. This is religion that finds its identity not in doctrinal declarations that distance itself from others but the realization that our planet grows ever smaller and ever desperate for a unifying theology that recognizes the failures of separatist superiorities and the ultimate value of acknowledging that there are many, equally valid and honorable, paths to the truth.

As idealistic and unrealistic as this may appear, the fact is it is occurring over and over again all over the world in mostly un-dramatic and under-reported ways but occurring it is and it is slowly but inevitably eroding the fortress walls of the medieval-thinking men now in power.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Practicing Progressive

I suppose one could excuse the boorish behavior of South Carolina Representative Joe Wilson as simply the inopportune outburst of a passionate politician. Of course, such understanding would have to diminish Wilson’s membership in the “Sons of Confederate Veterans” an organization, one could fairly assume, that still bemoans General Lee handing over his sword at Appomattox.
And maybe when Senator Jim DeMint, also from South Carolina, declared that defeating any health care reform would be President Obama’s…”Waterloo. It will break him.”, it was nothing more than political strategizing and not the personal vendetta it appeared to be. But then again one would have to exclude his enthusiastic remarks on “Good Morning America” complimenting the plethora of poster-bearing and confederate flag-waving folk that attended the September 12 protest march in Washington D.C. Many of the posters at the gathering depicted President Obama as a communist, a fascist and, perhaps worst of all for the gathered, an African-American.
I’ll grant it is possible that these two men’s comments are not infused with bigoted undertones but simply the innocent commentary of dedicated conservative thinkers…although it does tend to stretch one’s credulity to think that the state that elected the segregationist Strom Thurmond to the Senate right up to when he was 100 years old, would be humbly offering America two racially objective congressional representatives.
But when two Republican county chairmen…again from South Carolina…publish an opinion column this past week in the Orangeburg Times-Democrat that includes a vile anti-Semitic smear, it is enormously difficult to ignore the racist mindset that seems to permeate Republican politics in that state. The fact that the two chairmen immediately and effusively offered apologies for their gaffe only underscores their inability to understand the realities of 21st century America. It is clear to me that these men never thought their use of a pernicious stereotype would offend any of their readers. These men were only expressing what is taken for conventional wisdom in too much of America. What’s more, I’ll wager there isn’t a person reading these words who can’t remember a recent time when a similar xenophobic sentiment was shared in their presence.
To think that over 200 years of racial, religious and sexual injustice can disappear from America’s collective psyche without a significant backlash is to evidence a naiveté that even we liberals are incapable of achieving. The “race card” continues to be played over and over again in contexts that stretch from country clubs to Congress, from neighborhood red lines to national party lines. Each time an 18 wheeler rushes by with a Confederate flag on its grill, each time you hear how someone “jewed” another down, each time you read of one more gay man beaten nearly to death, you can bet that the race card or the religion card or the sexual card is being played one more time in America.
This week, The Boston Globe reported that the Secret Service was under a significant strain with the “unprecedented increase” in threats to our president. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks the activities of hate groups and paramilitary organizations throughout America, has this to say on the recent enormous growth in these groups: “A key difference this time is that the federal government — the entity that almost the entire radical right views as its primary enemy — is headed by a black man.”
When you hear TV and radio commentators claim that our president has a "deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture." (Glenn Beck) or describe him as “the little black man-child” (Rush Limbaugh) or when politicians allow their bigotry to trump protocol and their prejudice to pervert the democratic process, it is difficult not to think that what is being played is some very dirty poker.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Practicing Progressive

The great hue and cry from America’s right over the designation of President Obama as this year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner had me returning to another time when shock and indignation marked the standard conservative response. It was 1964 and, perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, it was the last time the prize was awarded to an African-American, Dr. Martin Luther King.

It was my first year of college and I was caught up in the political fervor that was spreading like wildfire across campuses throughout America. Late night discussions in smoke-filled dorm rooms had us neophytes philosophizing on America’s extensive list of problems and our easy enough solutions. So when Dr. King was announced as that year’s Peace Prize winner many of us saw it as a powerful confirmation of our convictions. King was a symbol of what could be achieved when the deepest of hopes combined with the bravest of actions.

Of course such naiveté was soon tempered by the failure of too many on the left to commit to non-violent civil disobedience for a just cause and too many on the right to acknowledge the legitimacy of equal rights for all. Still, many of us were stunned by the vitriol spewed against the Nobel Committee’s selection and the Civil Rights Movement in general. The reaction from southern politicians, both Democrat and Republican, was expected but even conservatives in the north let loose their invectives…On his opposition to passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Senator Barry Goldwater piously declared, “You can’t legislate morality” and William Buckley’s National Review magazine had this to say about Dr. King:

"For years now, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and his associates have been deliberately undermining the foundations of internal order in this country. With their rabble-rousing demagoguery, they have been cracking the “cake of custom” that holds us together. With their doctrine of “civil disobedience,” they have been teaching hundreds of thousands of Negroes — particularly the adolescents and the children — that it is perfectly alright to break the law and defy constituted authority if you are a Negro-with-a-grievance; in protest against injustice. And they have done more than talk. They have on occasion after occasion, in almost every part of the country, called out their mobs on the streets, promoted “school strikes,” sit-ins, lie-ins, in explicit violation of the law and in explicit defiance of the public authority. They have taught anarchy and chaos by word and deed — and, no doubt, with the best of intentions — and they have found apt pupils everywhere, with intentions not of the best. Sow the wind, and reap the whirlwind." (Sept. 7th, 1965)

Part of that whirlwind, so dreaded by Mr. Buckley and others, has brought millions of African-Americans into the mainstream of American life and now even into the White House.

The conservative reaction to President Obama’s award has ranged from careful criticisms of his alleged lack of political progress to the insipid and often hate-filled rants of radio and TV commentators. In the end, many of these outspoken critics will find themselves, as did their ideological predecessors, on the wrong side of both history and morality.

Long before his death and in the midst of many disappointments and failures, Dr. King had entered into that Parthenon of men and women who represent more than what they have accomplished in their own lives. He became an iconic force that empowered the imaginations of millions to soar beyond their own limited visions and experiences. For 250 years, America has been shaped and guided by these mythic figures who are more than the sum of their historical accomplishments. Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt, to be sure, but also Rosa Parks and Susan B. Anthony, Ronald Reagan and Robert F. Kennedy, Medgar Evers and Matthew Shepherd.

Although the Nobel Committee claims the prize was offered for actions already taken, I suspect President Obama may have cringed just a bit when he learned of his newly bestowed honor and, perhaps upon reflection, come to the realization that this prize is a powerful declaration of where millions and millions of people around the world have placed their hopes and dreams for a better, more peace-filled, life for themselves and the generations to come.

“I accept this award today with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind. I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history. I refuse to accept the idea that the "isness" of man's present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal "oughtness" that forever confronts him. I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsam and jetsam in the river of life unable to influence the unfolding events which surround him. I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality. I refuse to accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into the hell of thermonuclear destruction. I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. I believe that even amid today's motor bursts and whining bullets, there is still hope for a brighter tomorrow.” (Nobel Acceptance Speech. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., December 10, 1964.)

Thursday, October 01, 2009

The Practicing Progressive

There is a crisis in America.

And although my more rational readers may think this national calamity may have something to do with the giant gridlock that has stalled the implementation of any reasonable health care policy, they would be wrong. Others among the saner set might assume that our continuing military involvement in Afghanistan is cause for enormous concern with a growing consensus among our citizenry that there must be some other means for resolution there than participating in a tribal war that has been killing participants for decades. They, too, would be wrong.

For the crisis of which I write is of far greater concern to a certain segment of Americans for whom minor issues like health care and warfare pale in comparison to the frightening fact that America is running out of ammunition for our handguns! According to the Associated Press, “American bullet makers are working around the clock, seven days a week, and still cannot keep up with the nation’s demand for ammunition.”

It seems that ever since an African-American was elected president, the plethora of paranoiacs who make America statistically the top nation in the world for gun ownership have been gobbling up ammunition at a phenomenal and, for some of us, frightening rate. According to the National Rifle Association, Americans normally purchase a measly 7 billion rounds of ammunition each year. This year that has jumped to 9 billion. Even with the worst of shooters, if our gun-toting folk manage to fire off every bullet and cartridge over the next twelve months, I worry there won’t be a deer, elk, moose, bear or human being left standing.

Setting aside the often specious Second Amendment arguments that are dragged out time and time again whenever anyone dares to wonder aloud why we Americans feel compelled to mimic Wyatt Earp on the streets of Tombstone, one can’t help but see an ominous connection between our current president’s color and the current dearth of ammo. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, by most accounts, a reasonable and tolerant man, sounded the alarm this week in a column where he mused… “The American political system was, as the saying goes, “designed by geniuses so it could be run by idiots.” But a cocktail of political and technological trends have converged in the last decade that are making it possible for the idiots of all political stripes to overwhelm and paralyze the genius of our system. I worry that one of the ingredients of that cocktail is the appalling lack of reasonable gun control in America.

When men dressed in camouflage can stand at the entrances to meetings where the president is to appear and legally brandish their own weapons of specific destruction, how can reasonable folk not see a serious threat to both the life of our president and the future of our country? Friedman equates this time in America to the atmosphere in Israel just before Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated.

Ex-president Jimmy Carter was pilloried recently by politicians and others for suggesting that the frenzied opposition to President Obama’s new policies was driven in part by racist motives. Carter, a Georgian native and personal witness to the inherent evil of a racist society, bravely confessed what, I think, many of us encounter in casual conversations nearly every day. Racism is alive and well in a very sick way in America.

Is the increase in both gun ownership and political lunacy necessarily connected? Perhaps not but in a country where hate-filled, racially charged, rhetoric resounds everywhere from the airwaves to the internet to the very halls of Congress, it would seem prudent to at least consider finding rational ways for keeping the loonies away from the Uzis.