Alternatives to the BSA

There are countless examples of this all over social networking.

In elementary school, I wanted to join Cub Scouts.  I think Mom and Dad just wanted me to be sure it’s something I wanted to do, as I had to press them on this for a few years before they relented in 4th grade.  I started in Cub Scouts, transitioned into Boy Scouts, and ultimately completed my Eagle Scout Award in high school, the Boy Scouts’ top rank.

To say “I learned a lot” from Scouting would be an understatement.  Aside from merit badges and outdoor survival skills, I learned team work, social skills and leadership skills from my experience in Scouting that was indispensable as I continued through life.  I have held multiple leadership roles in church, in concert/marching band, and in academic organizations since that time, but the roots of these experiences are drawn directly to Boy Scouts.  I continue to enjoy the outdoors, though I don’t spend as much time there as I used to.  It’s something I hope I can foster in Meg and in our future children as our society moves increasingly forward in this “Digital Age.”

About a month ago, the Boy Scouts of America reaffirmed their position against openly homosexual boys and leaders within their ranks.  It’s a position they’ve held for over a decade, openly, and one where I fully believe they’re on the wrong side of history.  It’s telling when both our Presidential candidates support the organization’s right to hold this view, yet still disagree with it.  As shown in the image above, more than a few Eagle Scouts agree with Obama and Romney and have returned their awards to the Boy Scouts of America to express their disappointment with the organization.

When this news was in the media more prominently, Brooke asked what I thought about the decision.  To be honest, I haven’t completely made up my mind.  I guess I’d like to think that the Scout Leaders I had in Troop 701 wouldn’t have turned anyone away that wanted to be there.  They were quick to provide support to those who wanted to participate, but couldn’t afford the dues or equipment to go on weekend camping trips.  They were supportive of Scouts that needed to focus on their school work rather than meeting obligations for the Troop.  In ways I imagine some pastors disagree with their denomination’s stance on this particular issue, I expect that the Leaders of my troop would have tried to simply “ignore” the issue, rather than actively seek out the homosexuals within their ranks.  Perhaps I’m wrong, but that’s what I’d like to think.

At the same time, I disagree with Chick-Fil-A’s stance on this issue as well, contributing their corporate funds in favor of “traditional marriage.”  To me, it’s bad enough when a corporate CEO makes comments I disagree with, but when the profits of an organization as a whole are used as a tool in a larger fight, it’s a bridge too far.

This all comes back to Meg (plus her sister(s)/brother(s)), though.  Brooke and I both want her to have access to experiences like we had:  Brooke had 4-H, I had the BSA.  Depending on where we live (e.g. the City of St. Louis), 4-H may not be a viable option.  We aren’t aware of many clubs in this area, so we’d possibly have to drive to another county to attend one.  There are Boy Scout troops all over, but their numbers have been in decline in recent years, possibly because of their silly political stances, but mostly, I’d argue, because our world has changed quite a bit since it was founded.

St. Louis On The Air had a show in late-July looking at an organization I’d never even heard of called the Baden-Powell Service Association.  Any of you that are familiar with Scouting will likely recognize the name, as Lord Baden-Powell is responsible for starting the Scouting movement in 1907.  It came to the United States in 1910 after William D. Boyce encountered “The Unknown Scout” while visiting London.

The BPSA is similar to the BSA, but has a few key differences.  One of these is that it accepts all people into its ranks.  Thus, it is a co-ed organization, open to the whole family, straight or gay, etc.  They also focus heavily on skills (in the form of “proficiency badges”), the outdoors, and service, similar to the BSA.  They even have a similar “Scout Promise” and “Scout Law” to the BSA equivalent.  It appears to place more of an emphasis on “service” than I remember from BSA.  We definitely participated in service outings, but I think the overall “family approach” to BPSA sounds like it may lend itself to family-oriented service opportunities than BSA did (when I was there, at least).

While the BPSA is part of a larger international organization, it’s decidedly smaller than the BSA.  So far as I can tell, the only “Group” in our area is in Washington, MO, which isn’t particularly close.  According to the NPR story, there’s interest in expanding to other locations here in St. Louis, but it doesn’t appear that there are many of these groups around the USA just yet.

Still, it’s nice to know there’s still interest in groups like this, and there are groups that are accepting of all people, regardless of their color or creed.  Hopefully, by the time Meg’s old enough, there will be more groups like this around the City (BPSA/BSA, 4-H, or otherwise) that can expose her and her friends to the same kinds of things Brooke and I got to experience growing up.

On Foisting Morality

I should note that Brooke doesn’t agree with various aspects of this post.  My opinion and mine alone!

Brooke and I have had more than a few conversations about the “birth control mandate” controversy from the last few weeks, where the Obama Administration required under the Affordable Health Care Law that all employers, including Catholic Hospitals and Universities, are required to provide birth control as part of their health care coverage to employees.  Various Catholic organizations, and others, protested this requirement, so the Administration compromised in allowing these organizations to avoid paying for the coverage as part of their contracts with health insurance companies, however, the insurance companies themselves would need to provide the coverage to the employees of these organizations.

While some felt this compromise was an example of the Administration deftly maneuvering around a touchy issue in an election year, others felt it still went against the rights of the employer to deny coverage they deem to be immoral.

It was this “immorality” part that yesterday’s On Point Radio show on NPR took on, interviewing a Pro-Life representative, a Pro-Choice representative, and a Bioethicist about the issue, from a moral, non-religious standpoint.

One of the callers caught my attention as making my point better than I could ever hope to make it.  Sadly, there’s no transcript, so I can’t put it on here verbatim, but it transpired late in the podcast.  An employer called in with a hypothetical situation, based on one of his employees’ experiences.  He was quick to point out this was a “Devil’s Advocate” kind of position, but it illustrates what concerned him about legislation currently moving through the House and Senate that would allow employers to “get around” what the Obama Administration had put in place and deny coverage under a “conscience amendment.”

Suppose that an employee is under their employer’s insurance.  That employee finds out that they are pregnant, and further finds out that they are having a child with Down’s Syndrome.  The employee decides to go ahead with the pregnancy and delivers the baby.  As this actually happened, the employer (the caller) had access to the bill, or at least, what the insurance company ended up paying: right around $300,000.

So, on a moral ground, the employer could say “You know, I think it’s immoral to make other people in this company’s insurance network fork over the $300,000 to pay for this hospital visit.  It’s okay if you, the employee, want to give birth, but it’s immoral for that cost to get shifted over to the insurance company.  You, the employee, should have to pay that $300,000.  That’s your right to pay for it, but it isn’t your right to make your insurer pay for it.  On moral grounds, I don’t think you should have had the baby.”

Again, this particular employer wasn’t advocating this position, but it’s illustrative of what a law like this would allow: employers could deny any coverage they thought was immoral.  That means a company run by Jehovah’s Witnesses could disallow blood transfusions to its employees.  That means a bigoted employer could deny AIDS treatments because you’re a homosexual.  That means an employer (or insurance company), like in the hypothetical above, could say an abortion was more moral than the delivery of a disabled child.  And that means a Catholic organization could deny birth control to women with ovarian cysts, likely dooming them to infertility.

That’s why this mandate exists and that’s why it’s necessary: not to force companies to do something, but to ensure that the morals and/or religious ideology of companies and employers aren’t foisted upon you, the employee.  It’s freedom of religion and freedom from religion.  Even Protestants recognize that favoring one religious community will affect another.

People, as a group, have a right to health services.  It isn’t up to the employer which services you are allowed to get: it’s between you and your doctor.

Let’s keep it that way.

Internet Bi-Partisanship

By now, surely you have read and/or heard plenty about the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA). These two bills were heading through the U.S. House and Senate (respectively) and seemed destined for passage as recently as last week, with the first votes coming up next week.

Also, as you probably know, a shutdown of Wikipedia, Reddit, and other popular websites (as well as a host of other “In Solidarity” messages on homepages across the web) managed to galvanize support against the bills that has never been seen before.  In a single day, collected over 7 million signatures on an online petition.  Rather than the English-version of the website, Wikipedia redirected you to a list of your Congressional representatives and senators so you could either phone or e-mail them (I sent e-mails to all of mine; heard back from two of them, so far).

I don’t want to belabor how bad the bills are (or now were).  They were pretty bad.  They were so vague as to allow for entire websites to be brought down, or at least to make it so cost-ineffective to host any interaction with users and consumers (for fear of copyrighted material being posted) that an entire industry of user-generated content would die.  I highly suggest you watch the video above if you want to understand the issue fully.  If you’re an internet user in any capacity, it’s an important 13 minutes for you to spend.

Mostly, I wanted to address how ridiculously cool it was to see the entire internet united, even if for only one day.  For that 24 hr period, this is all anyone was talking about across social networking.  For that 24 hr period, people were engaged in the politics of what was going on with an issue that applied to them directly.  For that 24 hr period, it didn’t matter if you were a Democrat or a Republican posting on some message board: both political parties supported the bills, and both party’s voters were against it.

For that 24 hr period, the internet and its users had more political power than the lobbyists from the motion picture industry and the music industry.  And that’s saying something.

We’ve seen something like this before, in the form of the Arab Spring nearly a year ago, where social networking and the internet helped spawn a revolution across the Arab world, in multiple countries, casting down dictators long thought to be invincible by their people.  Their citizens got organized, coalesced behind a belief that they could make a difference in their lives, and decided to take action.  And in some small way, the internet did the same thing for the people of the United States this week.

And I just think that’s kinda cool.

Another Reason to Buy American

A few months ago, I started listening to This American Life, a weekly Public Radio International show typically broadcast on NPR (Sundays around here, I think). Back in late July, they broadcast an episode about “patent trolls” that was particularly engaging, so I’ve been hooked ever since.

Last week’s episode, which I highly suggest you listen to, focuses on manufacturing in China, specifically, of products in Shenzhen.  Products from Samsung, Dell, HP, and more specifically, Apple.  Mike Daisey is something of a story-teller, so he gets up on stage in front of live audiences and talks in one-man shows.  As an Apple lover, he expounds upon his history with their products and how he always sought to understand how his iPad, iPhone, MacBook Pro, etc. worked, even going so far as to take his laptop(s) apart, clean them, and put them back together.  Through various circumstances, it occurred to him that he knew very little about how these products were actually made, however, so he took a trip to Shenzhen to visit the Foxconn plant where practically all Apple products are manufactured.  As others have reported in the past, he found harsh working conditions, that unions were illegal, and that underage girls were employed in the factory.

More to the point of what I’m getting at, Daisey says that Apple is actually doing relatively well with their manufacturing practices, holding yearly audits, requiring that their manufacturers follow strict guidelines, and so on.  Others in China and Southeast Asia, as a whole, aren’t as careful.  Some have even suggested that, while these practices are obviously unfortunate, in many ways, it still provides a better living than these individuals had prior to industrialization.  And furthermore, in many ways, these countries are currently ascending much as the United States did in the Industrial Revolution.  It’s something of a “growing pain” that countries must go through before they can decide what work practices will be most efficient for the company, and most beneficial to the worker.

This issue is something I’ve never associated with the idea behind “Buy American,” or at least, “Buy From Companies You Know Are Providing Some Level Of Non-Exploitative Treatment To Their Workers.”  Many (most?) manufacturing plants in North America are pretty good about treating their workers fairly, with some limit on hours worked, over-time pay, a minimum wage, and so on (depending on unionization and other factors, of course).   There are a variety of European companies that do as well or better in the treatment of their workers, and I’m sure there are even some in Asia that do right by their employees.  While I’m suggesting a focus on looking into the manufacturing processes of companies we tend to buy from, I just see the whole endeavor as another reason to just Buy (North) American.

Up until now, I always thought of it as an economic issue, to keep our money here rather than sending it overseas.  Increasingly, this is difficult as manufacturing jobs have all but left the U.S.  Even when we “Buy American” in things like cars, they’re only assembled here: all the individual parts are built/assembled overseas.  But after listening to this particular story, it makes me consider other reasons to try buying American-made/grown products, where feasible.  Unfortunately, it’s probably impossible to buy a TV, an MP3 player, a computer, or a phone that was assembled, let alone built, in the U.S.  I guess I’d like to see the “Buy American” ideal extended so it not only encompasses the economic need to keep our money here, but also the need to extend the rights of workers and the belief that each individual has value to the countries that make all the “stuff” we keep buying.  Perhaps something like the “Fair Trade” label used on food products from around the world: a certification process companies can apply for to provide some degree of protections for the people they employ.

I dunno.  I just never really thought about the concept of “Buy American” as a way to reward companies that treat their workers well.  Perhaps we all should.

Edit: In mid-March, This American Life had to retract their initial report, listed above, saying that Daisey had fabricated enough portions of his monologue that they deemed it unfit for their journalistic standards.  Generally speaking, things like chronology, specific interviews, and certain details were fact-checked with his translator, Cathy, who told This American Life that it didn’t all happen in that order or in that way.  They interviewed Daisey again in the podcast from that week, who felt badly for the ordeal, but wanted to make sure people realized that the things he said are “true” in that they happened at Apple plants: just not necessarily on his particular visit.

Don’t Hate The Band, Hate The Fans

I don't think these guys get it...

I’ve heard this argument before: “I don’t hate Dave Matthews Band, but their fans are so annoying!”  As in, the music isn’t beyond the realm of their enjoyment, but the people they have to enjoy it with are so terrible that it detracts from the intended experience.  The same could be said for a variety of other acts, I’m sure.

Except in the case of Coldplay.  Both their fans, and the band, are terrible.  But this should go without saying.

Increasingly, I find myself seeing a connection between this feeling toward music and toward religion, especially in the case of Christianity.  All too often in today’s culture, I feel ashamed by what seems to be the impression that Christianity sometimes portrays to the world at large.  Folks like those above, admittedly from the fringe group, the Westboro Baptist Church.  Do all Christians feel this way?  Absolutely not.  Yet any time they get attention, there are folks out there that think this is what Christianity is all about.  Much of the same can be said of Islam, where a few bad apples end up making the rest of the world fear a largely peaceful and just faith tradition.

There are examples like this guy, too:

...neither does he...

Again, I’m sure he’s in the minority, but when pictures and videos of this nature hit the internet or television, the message being spread isn’t “Love” and “Acceptance:” it’s “Retribution” and “Intolerance.”

I think I’m most sensitive to this issue when it comes to homosexuality and the Church.  I know a few folks who are gay, and they’re really good people.  Personally, I’d love for them to be able to go to church.  And I know some of them would like to.  But, their impression, based on images like those above, and from conversations they’ve had with other Christians, means they’ll probably never go.  These are people that want to learn more and want to get the same experiences that I’ve had throughout my life, but feel like they can’t, because they’ll either be turned away, or at least told that their lifestyle is going to send them to Hell.

Since when are the Christians the ones doing the persecuting, eh?

I’m tired of these folks above representing me.  Of having some bearing on how my faith and traditions are perceived by the world at large.  These people do not represent the whole of Christianity.  Nor does the feeling that homosexuals are evil.  Nor does the feeling that women who have an abortion are going directly to Hell.  These feelings are indicative of unacceptance, of intolerance, and of hate.  In my opinion, they are inherently unchristian beliefs.

To those people that want to quote Old Testament scripture or the Letters of Paul (neither of which are words of Jesus, for the record…), I give you this:

12 So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.     — Matthew 7:12; NIV

36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”  — Matthew 22: 36-40; NIV 

That is the Christian message, as I see it, straight from the mouth of Jesus Christ.  Treat others as you want to be treated.  Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.  These are the important aspects of Christianity, and if you follow these tenets, then you are not only a good Christian, but you’re also a good human being.  Unsurprisingly, the Golden Rule transcends Christianity and applies to other world religions, as well.  It’s just one of those things you should do.  Christians included!

These feelings always get stirred up around election season, when I see self-righteous “family candidates” like Rick Santorum up on a stage, talking about “family values” while denouncing pro-choice women and homosexuality, among other things, all the while representing Christianity on the world scene.  I’m appalled by the things this guy says, in the name of Jesus Christ and in the name of the Christian faith, as a whole.  I just hope that people around the world don’t think he, and others like him, are representative of all Christianity.

They’re not.

To anyone reading this that has been wronged by people in the name of Christianity, then I sincerely apologize.  I just hope anyone that knows me, or Brooke, knows that we’re Christians and we don’t feel the same way as those that seem to represent us.

And we aren’t alone.

On This September 12th

The headline on September 12th from the New York Times

I actually started composing something a week ago about September 11th, reminiscing about that day and the general mood of the country prior to the attack on the World Trade Center.  As I paid attention to some 9/11 coverage during the past week, I was reminded of what the country was actually like, and that I was really viewing it with rose-colored glasses.  Hey, I was a sophomore in college; I’d only just started paying attention to the world around me.

Thus, instead, I reflect on September 12th, or really, the initial days that followed September 11th.

Much like the JFK assassination and the generation(s) before me that were actually alive at that time, I remember exactly what I was doing at the time it all happened.  I was in my dorm room and had just gotten up to read my Yahoo! News feed and see that a plane of some type had hit the first tower.  I woke up my roommate and turned on CNN just in time to watch the second plane hit the second tower.  On live television.

What followed over the next few hours, and few days, and few weeks, was a series of feelings.  Confusion.  Fear.  Shock.

Then Focus.

Then Togetherness.

Then Direction.

This country went through a terrible tragedy and, from it, came a sense of direction that it hadn’t had in awhile.  My initial blog post was looking to those years before 9/11, and that it was a time that I wish we could all return to.  However, in many ways, the country was already on a downward spiral of divisiveness, with the Lewinsky Scandal and Impeachment proceedings in the news.  With a Dot Com Bubble bursting.  With a Housing Crisis already in the works.

Really, a decade on, I’d like us all to reflect on where we were 10 years ago today, rather than 10 years ago yesterday.  Sure, yesterday was incredibly important and it is equally important that all those lives were lost.  At the same time, I think it’s essential that we remember how much of the country actually came together for a common purpose.  Eventually, that purpose was misdirected toward other political goals.  That purpose was used to divide the country even further than it’s ever been, certainly in my lifetime.  And today, on September 12, 2011, we are about as divided as we could be.

But on September 12, 2001, we were all together.  In grief.  In searching.  In wondering.

Yet also, in a desire to root out evil.  A need to be together in service to our communities.  To be together in solidarity and in support of our firefighters, policemen and EMTs, but also in support of each other.

Case in point: I read on Facebook that over 100 people from our church in St. Louis went to East St. Louis to be in service to others on September 10th as part of the Serve 2011 project.  That’s the kind of feeling we should be getting from 9/11.  Not only focusing on the attack itself, but also on the need to better ourselves that followed for the first few days and weeks after it.  The thing that was designed to tear us apart that actually helped bring us together, even if only for a few short moments.  Where we weren’t rich, poor, black, white, man or woman: we were just American.  And we were all the same.

And that’s what we need to work toward finding again, 10 years later.  Ten years after September the 12th.

What “The American People” Want

I’ve been paying attention to this fight over the debt ceiling to an extent.  Not a huge one, not a small one: just “an extent.”  I certainly have my view on the subject (i.e. make some cuts to entitlements, raise revenues on the top 5%), but that’s not what this particular post is about.

This is about the mythical “American People.”

I listen to NPR’s “On Point” program on a regular basis and, on more than one occasion, they’ve had politicians on talking about what “The American People” want.  They apparently want a balanced budget.  They want the government to act just like a family does.  They want Big Business to pay their fair share.  They want to be Pro-Life.  They want to be Pro-Choice.  They want to lower taxes.

Where are these people?

Frequently, when politicians talk about “The American People,” they’re talking about The Majority.  They fail to mention that The Majority only represents 51% of the actual voting population of America: there’s another 49% that’s statistically just as big.

With regards to the debt ceiling, let me just go ahead and summarize what the actual American People want for those politicians that apparently don’t know:

  1. They want their social security to stay the same.
  2. They want their medicare/medicaid to stay the same.
  3. They don’t want more taxes.
  4. They don’t want wasteful government programs.
  5. They want roads, bridges, police, fire fighters, clean water and constant electricity.
  6. They want a job they like.
  7. They want to be paid more than they’re currently getting.
  8. They want to buy the stuff they want with the money they make from the job they have.
  9. They want their kids to go to good schools and get the education they want.
  10. They want to live the lives they want to without the government interfering (or their neighbor, for that matter).

There are probably more things I could list, but this is a good start.  The American People just want things to continue going as they are, or to go better.  They don’t want things to change, unless they will get better.  “The American People” that most politicians seem to be talking about don’t actually exist, except in the polls they use to win their election.

I’m getting a little tired of “The American People.”  I want The American People back.

Roddenberrian Economics

Ayn Rand is someone I’ve heard of in the past, but up until now, haven’t really paid much attention to.  I “got into it” with someone over Facebook a few weeks ago regarding “Randian disciples” and learned a bit more about her in the process.  Then, at the end of April, NPR’s On Point had a discussion about her, specifically with reference to the Tea Party.  The architect of the Republican Congress’ budget plan, Paul Ryan, has referenced her on multiple occasions.  There is also a movie out, “Atlas Shrugged: Part I,” which was released in a partial attempt to capitalize on her resurgence, though Rotten Tomatoes currently has the film sitting at around 9% positive ratings.

Rand grew up in Russia and moved to the United States in 1926.  She was a philosopher and writer, and is perhaps best known for her books, “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged,” both products of the mid-20th Century.  Due in part to her upbringing and the general climate in the post-World War II world, she embraced the concepts of Objectivism and was very much a rational individualist.  She opposed in Collectivism, an idea that contributes to Socialism and Communism.  Because of her beliefs, and the stories she told in her books, fiscal Conservatives, and especially Libertarians, have embraced her and in some ways treat her as a figurehead for their ideas.  Alan Greenspan was one of the founding members of Rand’s ironically named “Collective,” a group of close confidants and proponents of Objectivism.

The key idea behind her overall philosophy, as I understand it, is that it is wrong to take what is one person’s and give it to someone else.  That the purpose of one’s life is to pursue your own personal happiness and your own self-interest.  One could call this whole idea “Randian Economics.”  Or, as she puts it:

“My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.”

– Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged

Any of you that know me, however, would have another quote come to mind.  Something completely different, and the antithesis of this philosophy, in my view:

“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”

– Spock

“Or the one.”

– James T. Kirk

Which brings me to Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek (pictured atop the camera in the image above).  I won’t go into the history behind all of it, but let’s just say that if I were going to choose a side between one philosopher from the mid-20th Century and another, I’ll go with Roddenberry.  His vision of the future is one that I’d like to live in.  One where money is not the driving force for all we do.  Where the desires to serve humanity and all others surpass the desire to serve yourself.  Where humans recognize that they are only able to be more than themselves when they are together with others.  Where no one human is above anyone else, at least in terms of rights and respect.

Bear in mind that these ideas weren’t necessarily revolutionary in the 1960s, but they weren’t made publicly available on television often, either.  At the time, it was highly irregular to have a Japanese American man, an African American woman, and a guy playing a young Russian on the same bridge, serving together, working together, helping each other.  Roddenberry infused his fictional universe with hope for the future through Collectivism, where we all share what we have and work together toward a common good.

And so, I wish to coin the term “Roddenberrian Economics.”  I think we’d all be better off if we took some pointers from the man.

Heck, I’d even argue that Gene Roddenberry has more followers than Ayn Rand does.

Lonely In The Middle

The last few weeks have presented a variety of issues within the American national discourse that warrant commentary, but I’ll let that aside right now and focus on something a bit more “meta” to the situation: how, exactly, we as members of society communicate with each other.

A few weeks ago, I posted on Facebook on two unrelated subjects.  On the first, I stated the following:

Andy Linsenbardt wants help with a list of bands or groups worse than Coldplay. The only one I can come up with so far is LFO.

That status update started a discussion spanning 96 comments across 10 or so people.  I followed it up with this:

For those that don’t want to read through the 89 comments in my previous status posting, the following was decided, after much deliberation: ICP < Nickelback < Creed < Coldplay.

On the other side of the coin, for a completely separate issue, I posted a story published by the Des Moines Register regarding abortion laws in Nebraska and how a particular couple were forced to do something they didn’t want to.  The feed this post spawned went for 51 comments across 7 or 8 people.

In both of these unrelated discussions, involving many individuals of completely different ideologies, we were able to “hold it together” and not get (too) personal.  We were completely capable of providing opinions without the need to tell each other that we were bad people or completely wrong (well, aside from the occasional sarcastic comment in that first thread…).  For the most part, it was a respectful discussion from ranging viewpoints.  On the latter discussion, I don’t think we came to anything close to a consensus, yet I feel we left more informed on the opposing viewpoints.

While the first status update was largely a “dig” at Coldplay (much-deserved…), I wasn’t thinking that I’d get nearly that many comments.

On the latter one, I kinda did, which brings me to the following point:

I think the thing missing most from the national discourse today is honesty and openness, especially from those positioned in The Middle.  There are quite a few folks out there on the political ultra-right or ultra-left that have their signs waving on the picket line, the so-called “activists” you could say.  These people are being very successful in pulling their ranks further and further from each other, making it appear that there is only a very distant “middle-ground” left between them.

It’s just sad when Facebook is the last bastion of reasonable discourse.

I won’t get into the abortion debate here or anything, but it’s safe to say that, aside from the folks out there with “Pro-Choice” and “Pro-Life” signs going on marches, the issue is frequently ignored in the middle.  I think it’s mostly out of fear, as those in the middle are afraid of being labeled one or the other, and what that may mean.  It’s the kind of issue we frequently ignore in schools.  Going to Lutheran and Methodist churches all my life, it’s an issue that’s frequently ignored there, as well.  It just seems as if there isn’t really a middle ground in that particular debate, let alone a variety of others.  People are afraid of the subject.  They keep it locked away.

In a related fashion, all too often, I hear of people not wanting to say anything about politics, or about religion, or about culture, because they are afraid of offending friends of theirs, or of “getting into it” to the point where they may not end up speaking with someone for a few days (or weeks…or ever again…).  These are people that don’t want to bring it up around the dinner table with their spouse, or with other family members.  Those that don’t want to bring it up at work so they don’t end up getting into some kind of long argument with their co-workers.  And most relevant to this particular post, those that don’t want to post anything on Facebook or other social networking sites so their friends (or future employers…) can’t see what they think about various issues.

And therein lies the problem.  If people aren’t willing to defend their positions, with intelligence and respect, then those on the ultra-left and those on the ultra-right with their signs will have effectively won.  They will have won by scaring those in the middle away from getting into the debate in the first place.  By causing them to hide from the discussion, keeping the issue from ever reaching any kind of moderate consensus.  Without a voice firmly planted in The Middle, then the opposing sides continue to pull apart with little to hold them together.

The problem is nothing new, and it exists in other instances.  Case in point: Years ago, at a Wesley House float trip, I had a great conversation with a Methodist pastor I greatly respect.  We were lamenting the decreasing population of Methodist campus ministries, while others were increasing in number.  In his view, the other ministries were offering a more “black and white” interpretation of the world, and the Bible, while Methodists (and ELCA, and others…) were allowing for the fact that there are “greys:” that black and white weren’t the only options.  The people we were trying to provide a service for weren’t interested in The Middle: they chose their extremes, likely because they wanted to be told what to think  The Middle, to them, was a scary place to be, a place where you may have to question things, have to think about the world, and have to make decisions.  Picking an extreme, there’s a clear-cut answer: you accept it and move on.

On a political spectrum, I technically fall center-left.  I’m a Moderate, by most interpretations.  But my thoughts on a variety of subjects, to some, would paint me as an ultra-leftist (because “The Middle” has been pulled more and more toward the Conservative side of the spectrum, but that’s another issue altogether…).

You can position yourself in the middle of an argument and still have strong feelings about it.  It’s possible.  And I try to do it all the time.

Accepting Religious Curiosity in Context

I was catching up on NPR’s “On Point” from February 16th, where Tom Ashbrook was interviewing Richard Watts, author of various books, the most recent of which is “Hungers of the Heart: Spirituality and Religion for the 21st Century.” The entire podcast is worth listening to, but toward the end, Watts and Ashbrook got into some interesting territory.  In general, Watts is very interested in “the historical Jesus,” looking at the man and historical record and the context in which the Bible was written, as opposed to focusing on what could be considered the more “mystical” aspects of the Bible.  We pick up this transcript as Tom Ashbrook is reading a comment off the internet:

Ashbrook: “…but then here’s Elmridge who says of you ‘but he is denying the divinity of Jesus.’  What about that, Rev. Watts?”

Watts: “Well, one of the things we need to do is we always need to read texts in context.  When we don’t do that we get into big trouble.  Now, for example, if I tell you that there’s…that I know someone in the first century that’s called ‘divine,’ ‘the son of god,’ and ‘the savior,’ you know, who do you suppose I’m talking about?  Well, most people would say you’re talking about Jesus.  No, I’m talking about Caesar Augustus.  Caesar Augustus received all of those divine titles, and so when Christians talked about Jesus and what they had encountered in his life, they used titles which were very counter-cultural, they were saying, look, if you want to know what life is about, if you want to know what real power is, if you want to know where divinity is, look at this peasant going around talking about creating a new community of compassion and love.  Don’t look for the seat of power for the emperor in Rome.”

Watts: “Christianity in the very beginning, before it was called ‘Christianity,’ Tom [Ashbrook], it was called ‘The Way.’  And it was a way of life.  It was a lifestyle.  It doesn’t mean that lifestyle was devoid of a basis of belief, of course it was, but it was a lifestyle long before it was a creed, and I think we need to get over our hang-up with absolute creeds and get back to the lifestyle, a lifestyle which is non-violent, which is compassionate, which is inclusive, which creates community rather than holding people off at arm’s length.”

There was another interesting exchange later in the podcast.

Ashbrook: “You know very well, as do many other preachers, that the kind of mainline protestant churches that you’re describing that may be most open to this kind of open-minded, liberal conversation, are the ones that have seen their attendance just go through the floor in the last decade.  Now why is that?”

Watts: “Part of that, that’s a great question, and part of the problem is, that, I have to lay at the feet of clergy.  It seems to me that an awful lot of clergy don’t bother to teach the people what they themselves have learned.  And so, people are sort of fundamentalist by default because they, these sorts of questions that you and I are talking about today are not often raised and I know that in mainline churches there are all kinds of people sitting there never receiving permission to raise their questions, never having the opportunity to engage in give-and-take about what their life experience has taught them, or what their life experience has asked them.

Let me tell you a very brief story.  There was a scholar in the Jesus Seminar, which works to uncover the facts about the historical Jesus, that was giving a talk to a group of Missouri Synod Lutherans, a very conservative denomination, and he was talking about New Testament documents, and the document “Q,” which is a lost document of the sayings of Jesus.  And then came time for the question period and he wondered, he felt like Daniel in the lion’s den, and a woman stood up and, instead of addressing the speaker, she turned around to address her preacher in the pew behind her and she said to him, ‘did you know about Q?’ And he said, ‘well, yeah.’  And she said, ‘why didn’t you tell us?’  And I think that’s a very powerful parable, that our churches are full of people that are questioning, who are curious, but who aren’t being adequately taught…”

I won’t write much about this, as the post is already long enough with these transcripts included.  I just wanted to say that this is the kind of thing I like to hear about, the historical context in which the Bible was written, and how that context can help inform what we know and what we don’t know about religion.  Moreover, I think that if there was more of this being taught in our churches today, there would be fewer “black and white” interpretations of what the Bible tells us, and we would all be more accepting of each other.

It’s a shame when pastors and educators shut down the intellectually curious.  We should all be fostering curiosity in ourselves and in our kids in order to better understand where we come from and who we are, rather than asking someone to tell us, and then accepting that information blindly.

Questioning and thoughtful investigation is the way of science.  It should be the way of religion, too.