Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Even Jerry Falwell Recanted

For some reason, as I consider the shootings Sunday morning at the Unitarian church in Knoxville, I keep thinking back to the late Jerry Falwell, and his remarks after September 11, 2001 when he blamed liberals for the terror attacks. I don’t want to sound like Jerry Falwell, but I can’t help wondering if he bears some responsibility for the Knoxville shootings which apparently were motivated in part by the shooters hatred of liberals.

Jerry is not alone, of course, and bears no direct responsibility, but I am wondering who demonized liberals over the past 30 years so much that a desperate, unstable, bitter man might choose to take out his frustrations on a congregations of strangers known to him only by the epithet, “liberal”?

I think back to one of the signature moments of the 2004 presidential debates when George Bush responded to one of John Kerry’s positions by saying, “there’s a word for that: it’s called liberalism.” He spat out the last word as if it he’d been sucking on lemons.

When powerful people cast such aspersions so often that a word becomes like a scarlet letter, how surprised should we be that the targets of the words become, eventually, the targets of more lethal weapons?

Of course, liberal leaders over the past 30 years bear a burden as well for failing to counter the verbal attacks with strong defense of a governing philosophy that gave us social security, Medicare, Medicaid, voting rights and fair housing laws among other accomplishments. Too often, in the face of a mainstream media machine that happily plays along with the conservative noise machine, liberal leaders have been too timid to respond.

Meanwhile that media machine seeks the lowest common denominator and reports political discourse as if it were a sporting event. Campaigns become horse races and issues become political footballs. Never mind that there are real losers when health care systems fail to cover tens of millions of Americans or when U.S. military might is brought to bear or when gays and lesbians are denied basic civil rights. Rather than serious conversation about real solutions to genuine problems, political discourse is reduced to sound bites.

Eventually, partisans on both sides get lost in the media miasma that they helped create and all of politics becomes nothing more than scoring points. So the nation is divided into red and blue as if we were girding for another civil war, never mind that we are often talking about the slimmest of margins at the polls and differences among neighbors at the street level.

When the rhetoric is hijacked by fierce and angry partisans, it becomes all too simple to demonize any supporter of a candidate or position with which you disagree. Most folks confine their shouting to the echo chamber of left- or right-wing web sites. You do not have to scroll through too many entries in the comments sections of such sites to uncover seething anger.

In that uncivil discourse Dubya is still stealing elections and Obama is a Muslim. It doesn’t have to be that way. I’m an Obama supporter. The woman who cuts my hair doesn’t trust Obama, but I trust her with sharp implements next to my throat. We can talk with each other about political differences without calling each other names. We don’t have to lose sight of our common humanity, and of our common deep self interest as Americans: to enjoy the unalienable rights with which all of us have been endowed.

The divides between left and right are properly differences over the political paths and strategies we believe will best secure those rights to ourselves and our posterity. Those distinctions are significant and where we fall on that spectrum says a good deal about how we conceive of the “all” of “all men are created equal” or the “we” of “we the people.” The balance between the individual and the collective is worthy of continuing political contest.

But when we fight, instead, over who is in and who is out of “all” or “we,” the differences in strategies of finding the most auspicious balance become deep divides that throw the entire polis out of balance altogether. Historically, that’s the point when conservative demagogues demonize some as outsiders whether they be racial minorities, women, sexual minorities, immigrants. Those on the political left have historically been those arguing for broadening the definition of “all” or “we” to include those marginalized outsiders.

That’s what the Unitarian congregation in Knoxville has been doing for years.

It is not a Rodney King moment. It is not time to plead that we all just get along. It is, rather, time to insist that those who would erect walls around we the people to keep out those who have not yet found their place cease their fulminations against those of us who want to tear down such walls.

You can argue about the proper role of walls and the timing of putting them up or tearing them down. You can argue about the proper path for including previous outsiders into the commonwheel. You can certainly argue about the most fair and efficient means of providing public service to all of us.

However, calling those who disagree with you unpatriotic, ungodly or un-American not only deepens and hardens our differences, but it also invites violence. Even Jerry Falwell recanted.

Monday, July 28, 2008

A Stylish Sling

Away for a while ...

Your somewhat faithful occasional blogger is going dark for a while following shoulder surgery scheduled early Wednesday morning. When my arm gets out of its sling, then I'll be back. Meanwhile, pray and act for peace.

Kingdom Economics

Yesterday morning during the talk-back time after the sermon, someone brought up a section of the scripture that I had not touched on. After a series of sayings about the kingdom of God, Jesus says, "So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."
Before I could open my mouth to respond, John spoke up. John is a mid-50s man who in most contexts is probably considered developmentally disabled. I would label him that if I'd just met him and didn't know him. But over the course of the five years I have been lucky enough to be his pastor I have come to deeply appreciate that he is, truly, differently abled. He has a knack for speaking profound truth quite simply.
Yesterday morning he said something to the effect of, "you know, there's too much of that all around us right now. I try to focus on what's good."
He went on to name some of the good. For him it is always family, food and classical music.
As I listened to him, I knew that he had put the truth far more eloquently than I was prepared to as I was spinning theological reflections through my mind. They amounted to the same thing: that if the kingdom of God is near, among us, as Jesus put it, then surely so is hell precisely what we make of it here and now. We don't need the angels to separate the evil from the righteous, we do it ourselves all the time. Indeed, we do it within ourselves, living divided lives as the better angels of our natures contest with alienation in our souls.
John spoke it much more clearly, and it was a kingdom moment. For in the broader culture and economy surely he is considered among the least of these, not worth much to the ledger's bottom line. But in the kingdom economy, plain wisdom is a pearl of great value.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

July Witness

Last Sunday evening down at Lafayette Park, my friend Noah Budin sang what I’ve long considered a kind of hoary old folk song: Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream.

Last night I had the strangest dream

I'd ever dreamed before

I dreamed the world had all agreed

To put an end to war

As Noah sang, a crowd of tourists gathered to watch and listen to our small band of folks who had come together in front of the White House to pray for peace. I don’t know what the tourists thought. Some may have thought, “bunch of naïve fools,” others may have thought, “nice voice,” still others may have thought, “right on,” and some may have thought, “cool, protesters, now my DC tourist experience is complete.”

To a great extent, it does not matter what others think of the dream and visions that we give voice to as we witness for peace. God calls us to witness to a vision of a commonwealth of belovedness marked by compassion, justice and peace. God calls us to dream kingdom dreams.

So we will continue the witness. Placing one small stone at a time until we change the landscape. We gather again on August 17 at 6:00 p.m.

In the meantime, here’s a poem that Noah wrote inspired by our witness.

Stone In My Pocket

And if I feel you’ve left me bare and wasted

In the presence of the absence of your love

And the signs you send are hard, obscure and hidden

I may need to look no further than my hands

And when I heard him speak that day I realized

One can’t move a mountain using words alone

Nor can hearts be changed by might and power

But gestures small and subtle kindle flames

I closed my hand around

A piece of quartz no bigger than my thumb

It came 400 miles just to find me

But I dismissed it, put it in my pocket. Gone.

And the next day when I found it I just kept it

And the next day after that and then the next

And I thought of Lafayette Park and people praying

Where that stone was witness there to hymns of peace

It was laid upon the fence as a reminder

Of the shards of broken souls and wounded hearts

Of the shreds of fabric crashing through the windows

Of a shattered nation, tired, scorched, engulfed

Now it goes where I go

At times it jabs my thigh and leaves a mark

But I can live with that small and spare discomfort

For I wrestle with the damage every day

And here’s the thing about a piece of quartz

It just may be the oldest stone on earth

And it’s found in every land around the globe

And if you listen you can hear it softly weep

This one I keep to remind me of the present

Was here long before the planet knew our names

And it will remain long after earthly flesh has faded

And sometimes signs are hidden in plain sight

So when I feel you’ve left me bare and standing

In the presence of the absence of your love

I may need to look no further than my pocket

And hear the crying of that stone. Our job’s not done.

© Noah Budin 2008