Monday, December 20, 2010

The Animal's Christmas

What would Christmas be without the animals included?  Like Santa without his reindeer or shepherds without their flocks!

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Real Christmas Spirit

“Away in a manger, no crib for a bed ….” As another Christmas rolls around, the third since the economic meltdown, the nativity stories strike a special note. How many families, like Mary and Joseph, are homeless this holiday? How many children will be born without any providential star?

The birth narratives in the gospels are fictional. But they also capture a truth. That ancient world, like ours, was divided into haves and have-nots, the privileged and the powerless. And Jesus was certainly from the lower classes.

What the Roman world found incredible about these stories was not the assertion that God became man. Greco-Roman culture was full of accounts of heroes of divine origin. What rankled was the notion that the Infinite might condescend to take flesh among the poor … that a Nobody like Jesus might actually be Somebody.

But that was the radical teaching of this upstart rabbi: Everybody mattered. There were no expendable or throw-away children, no women who could be treated like trash, no people with disabilities whose conditions pushed them to the margins. Lepers, prostitutes, prisoners, foreigners. All were precious.

What would Jesus say about a so-called “Christian nation” where one-out-of-five children live in poverty? Where your parent’s net wealth is a better predictor of whether you’ll attend college than your own grades or test scores? Where the CEO of Wal-Mart earns more in a single hour than his employees make in an entire year?

My guess is he’d be hopping mad at those who invoke his name while ignoring his words.

It’s fine to sing about peace on earth. But there will ultimately be no goodwill among people or nations until there is more basic justice, when a kid from the barrio has an equal shot at success with Chelsea Clinton or a Wall Street broker’s boy.

“Insofar as ye have done it to the least of these, ye have done it also unto me.” Love of neighbor expressed as practical solidarity with the outsider and outcast. That, in my mind, is the real “Christmas Spirit.” It’s what saves this holiday from mere materialism and sentimentality, making it a challenge to the conscience and tonic for the soul.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

George Washington's Religion: Christian or Pagan?

If George Washington’s religion could be reduced to a single word, that word would be “Providence.” He seldom used the term “God” in his public pronouncements, preferring other epithets for his divinity like the Beneficent Being, the Almighty, the Grand Architect of the Universe and All-Wise Disposer of Events. But when referring to the divine, his favorite term was “Providence.” It recurs again and again, in varied disguises. Sometimes Washington’s “Providence” seem to be a guiding presence in history, at times a personal protector against harm, at other times simply a synonym for Fate or Fortune.

But where did his usage originate? Surprisingly, the word “providence” occurs only once in the King James Bible (the translation that would have been most familiar to Washington from church services), and then not in a very flattering context. It appears in Chapter 24, Verse 2 of the Book of Acts, where a prosecutor named Tertullus praises the “providence” and wise administration of a Roman-appointed governor, who is presiding over the trial of the apostle Paul. Naturally, Washington owned a copy of the Bible, although probate records list his personal volume as an edition of Brown’s Bible, an illustrated study Bible produced by the Scottish divine John Brown in 1778 which included various marginal references comparing scripture passages and offering details of geography and other lore of the Holy Land. Surely this is an unlikely source to inspire Washington’s peculiar passion for a “providential”deity.

On the other hand, probate records also show that Washington’s library included a volume of Seneca’s Morals, which opens with a full essay titled “On Providence.” There the philosopher reflects that “Fate guides us, and it was settled at the first hour of birth what length of time remains for each. Cause is linked with cause, and all public and private issues are directed.” The good man will not resist what cannot be prevented, Seneca advises, finding consolation in the observation that “together with the universe we are swept along; whatever it is that has ordained us so to live, so to die, by the same necessity it binds also the gods. One unchangeable course bears along the affairs of men and gods alike,” a force that governs not only human affairs but also the “swift revolution of the heavens, being ruled by eternal law.” This sounds very much like the later Washington, who wrote to Sally Fairfax that “There is a Destiny, which has the Sovereign control of our Action, not to be resisted through the strongest efforts of Human Nature.”

Like Washington, who was a disinherited son and outsider in English colonial society, Seneca was a Spanish colonist living under Roman rule, a patriot who was tried and found guilty of conspiring against the tyrant Nero, a role model for young George. In the face of hardship and overwhelming odds, and in keeping with his Stoic outlook, Seneca counseled patience, inner fortitude and self-possession: life lessons that would guide the American throughout his own rise to greatness.

On the face of the evidence, Washington’s “Providence” owed less to Biblical or explicitly Christian sources than to Stoic philosophy. Indeed, Washington never employed Christological terms like “Savior” or “Redeemer” as names for the divine. His Providence was a noble but primariily pagan deity.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Where Are The Moderate Muslims?

With headlines full of extremists in all quarters, the question is often asked, where are the moderates—especially in the Muslim world?

Yet I suspect that many who puzzle and pontificate over these “missing moderates” aren’t looking very hard. 

Have they talked with their own neighbors lately?  Recently I had a chance to meet one of mine, Imam Abdur Rauf, at the mosque just down the road from the church I serve as minister

The Iman invited clergy of all stripes to visit his community last month during Ramadan—the Jewish rabbi, the Episcopal priest, Quakers and Catholics—just to get acquainted.  So this morning, I reciprocated the invitation and asked the Iman to visit my church for a Sunday service.

A handsome, middle-aged man with dark vest and black taqiyah or skull cap, Abdur Rauf, I learned, was born in Spanish Harlem, but discovered Islam while studying geology at Cornell University.  At the Merrick Company where he currently works, Abdur Rauf is the chief scientist in charge of LiDAR, or Light Detection and Ranging, analyzing digital data from satellites and translating these electronic bits into useful information about urban terrain and natural resources. In fact, I'm not sure just what he does, but he seems to know a lot more than me about lasers.

Not your typical Imam?

Spiritually, Abdur Rauf has been a leader and organizer of the Muslim Jewish Peace Walks which have taken place in many major cities around America—which began following 9/11 seeking a rapprochement among tribes of Moses and Mohammed, but now attract Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, and other people of faith seeking non-violent solutions to world conflict.

Again, not your typical Imam? Abdur Rauf certainly breaks my stereotypes.  But then, how many of my stereotypes are based on media distortions and fear of the unknown rather than on the actual experience of meeting my neighbors and talking one-on-one?

I didn’t have to go far to find a moderate Muslim—indeed, just half a mile down the road, to the local mosque.  So maybe you might also try reaching out to that woman wearing the hijab (head scarf) or the man wearing the keffiyah (headdress)?  Where there’s now a stranger with a funny hat, you just might find a friend.  And where you now find reasons for paranoia, you just might meet a moderate Muslim.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Have You Heard the One About the Polack?

I hadn’t been in Santa Fe more than two weeks. “I guess we won’t be telling many Polack jokes now,” one of the members of my new congregation quipped. I grinned and responded, “No, not telling many Chopin jokes either,” I remarked.

Of course I had to smile. To do otherwise would indicate I didn’t have any sense of humor. Dago jokes, kike jokes, nigger jokes, chink and wop jokes are considered to be in bad taste now. But somehow Polack jokes still pass under the radar.

Really, I consider myself more American than Polish. My father died when I was five, and I was never really encouraged to stay in touch with the Kowalski side of my family. Why should I? They were Polish.

They were Polacks, like Copernicus. Like Marie Curie. Like Joseph Conrad. Like Lech Walensa, the leader of Solidarity who as much as any single individual brought down the hegemony of the Soviet Union and ended the Cold War.

Or like Tadeusz Kościuszko, whose fortifications of Saratoga in New York during the American Revolution led to the defeat of the British General Burgoyne and the turning point in the colonists’ war for independence. 

I don’t even know where my father’s family originated in Poland. I’m a fully assimilated, non-ethnic, generic U.S. citizen. But I wish I knew more about my national heritage.

And I wish I didn’t feel still so small—belittled--whenever I hear a Polack joke.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Martin Luther Beck?

This past weekend, Glenn Beck preposterously claimed the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., shortly afterward criticizing President Obama as a proponent of liberation theology rather than a “true” Christian.

Caricaturing the President’s beliefs, Beck explained, "You see, it's all about victims and victimhood; oppressors and the oppressed; reparations, not repentance; collectivism, not individual salvation. I don't know what that is, other than it's not Muslim, it's not Christian. It's a perversion of the gospel of Jesus Christ as most Christians know it," Beck said.

I wonder if Glenn Beck has ever read the sermons of Dr. Martin Luther King, like the one he delivered at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in 1954 titled “What Is Man?” where he proclaimed:

Any religion that pretends to care for the souls of people but is not interested in the slums that damn them, the city government that corrupts them, and the economic order that cripples them, is a dry, passive do-nothing religion in need of new blood.  As I look at the social and economic injustices existing in our world, I plead for a church that shall be the fountainhead of a better social order. 

Sounds like Dr. King was concerned with oppressors and oppressed, even “collectivism” over individual salvation.

Martin was deeply influenced by Walter Rauschenbush, an early twentieth century theologian who argued that the “Kingdom of God” Jesus preached implied a progressive egalitarian order here on earth.  He was also a disciple of Gandhi, who led a non-violent revolution of brown-skinned people against a colonizing white empire—a “liberation” if there ever was one.

James Cone, the father of black liberation theology described King as “a liberation theologian avant la lettre,” that is to say, before the phrase existed.

For a charlatan like Glenn Beck to claim King's mantle, while simultaneously distorting his message, is obscene.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Founding Fathers Meet Ground Zero

Storms of controversy surround the proposal to build an Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero in New York, while precincts as far away as Murfreesboro, Tennessee and Sheboyan, Kansas, have experienced public opposition to mosques entering their neighborhoods. What would the Founders say?

In an article published shortly after the terror attacks of 2001, historian and head of the Manuscript Division at the Library of Congress, James Hutson, shed light on the situation. His remarks, so different from the heated rhetoric filling today's airwaves, deserve quotation:

"Readers may be surprised to learn that there may have been hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Muslims in the United States in 1776—imported as slaves from areas of Africa where Islam flourished. Although there is no evidence that the Founders were aware of the religious convictions of their bondsmen, it is clear that the Founding Fathers thought about the relationship of Islam to the new nation and were prepared to make a place for it in the republic.

In his seminal Letter on Toleration (1689), John Locke insisted that Muslims and all others who believed in God be tolerated in England. Campaigning for religious freedom in Virginia, Jefferson followed Locke, his idol, in demanding recognition of the religious rights of the "Mahamdan," the Jew and the "pagan." Supporting Jefferson was his old ally, Richard Henry Lee, who had made a motion in Congress on June 7, 1776, that the American colonies declare independence. "True freedom," Lee asserted, "embraces the Mahomitan and the Gentoo (Hindu) as well as the Christian religion."

In his autobiography, Jefferson recounted with satisfaction that in the struggle to pass his landmark Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom (1786), the Virginia legislature "rejected by a great majority" an effort to limit the bill's scope "in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan." George Washington suggested a way for Muslims to "obtain proper relief" from a proposed Virginia bill, laying taxes to support Christian worship. On another occasion, the first president declared that he would welcome "Mohometans" to Mount Vernon if they were "good workmen" (see page 96). Officials in Massachusetts were equally insistent that their influential Constitution of 1780 afforded "the most ample liberty of conscience … to Deists, Mahometans, Jews and Christians," a point that Chief Justice Theophilus Parsons resoundingly affirmed in 1810."

Hutson concludes: "The Founders of this nation explicitly included Islam in their vision of the future of the republic. Freedom of religion, as they conceived it, encompassed it. Adherents of the faith were, with some exceptions, regarded as men and women who would make law-abiding, productive citizens. Far from fearing Islam, the Founders would have incorporated it into the fabric of American life."

Would that our leaders today were equally wise and tolerant!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Disabilities and Possibilties

Twenty-eight years ago, I got a taste of what discrimination feels like.  I’d just graduated from Harvard Divinity School, was newly ordained, and hoped that some church might want to call a promising young man like me to be their minister.

But I was also coping with what doctors call end-stage kidney disease.  For reasons unknown, my organs were in irreversible failure.  And I felt that I needed to be honest with hiring committees.

I had interviews with several.  I told them that within a year or two I would be on dialysis and that, unless I were able to obtain a kidney transplant, I would be tethered to a machine three times a week for hours at a stretch.

At that point, most search committees thanked me and mentally ruled me out.  Who wanted an invalid as their pastor? 

Fortunately, one congregation took a chance on me, the First Unitarian Church in Seattle, Washington.  One member of the search committee there was Cathy Covert, one of the brightest, most competent and compassionate people you might ever want to meet, but who also used a wheelchair after experiencing adult onset polio.  Having direct experience with a disabled individual, I think, enabled folks on that committee to look past my health issues and consider me as a whole person—with multiple gifts and many skills rather than a single limiting condition.

As it turned out, I was on dialysis less than three months after the church hired me.  But I continued to work and the entire congregation was wonderfully supportive that initial year, until I received a kidney transplant that restored me to good health. 

For me, it was the beginning of a long, productive career—that might have turned out very differently had no one offered me a break.

I share this personal information on the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.  Long ago, strangers were willing to look beyond my diagnosis and give me a chance at employment.  Today, we can celebrate that more and more churches, businesses and non-profits are doing the same, and America is better for it.  Because treating people fairly is not just the right thing to do, or the caring thing.  It’s also the law.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Reading the Bible Again (For the First Time)

Most Americans, I suspect, think they are pretty familiar with the Bible. After all, it’s a major sourcebook of Western civilization. And many of us remember the stories we heard in Sunday School: Adam and Eve, the talking snake, and the rest.

But Biblical illiteracy is rampant. Even fundamentalists, who insist that every word of the document is inerrant and divinely inspired, have a hard time naming the five books of Moses from the Old Testament or the four gospels from the New.

Barna, Gallup and other respected polls show many Americans imagine that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife! How well do you know the Good Book?

Listening to National Public Radio this morning, I heard a commentator make reference to what he called “Biblical” terms like “hellfire” and “damnation.” Skeptical (and somewhat familiar with scripture), I wondered if those particular terms ever appeared inside its pages.

Here’s the answer, according to the online concordance Bible Gateway, which searches over 100 versions of holy writ by keyword. Neither damnation nor hellfire are words you’ll ever find there.

Nor will you find any reference to the “trinity” in the Hebrew or Christian scriptures. There are no hits for “immaculate” or “infallible” or “literal” in the Bible, either. And of course, there is no mention of “incarnation” or “transubstantiation.”

Most of the central dogmas of the church are missing. They were invented centuries after the canon was closed. But surely the moral teachings of the Bible are timeless and clear?

Uh-oh. There are no references to “homosexuality” or “abortion” or “stem cells” in the Bible at all. The labels “Democratic” and “Republican” don’t make any appearance.

Perhaps we should have less preaching and pontificating about the Bible and a little more study of the document! Read accurately, within its own historical context, it is unlikely to support any of the narrow religious or political agendas that are promoted in its name.


Sunday, May 23, 2010

Now and Then

Be here now!   Ram Dass, the psychedelic guru of sixties, gave that advice decades ago, and it’s never really gone out of style.  So a more recent spiritual guidebook is called The Power of Now.  Then there’s Simple Zen: A Guide to Living Moment By Moment.  Another author preaches The Naked Now: Learning to See As the Mystics See.  Enlightenment, judging by the book titles at least, means not living in the past or getting tangled in worries about the future. 

With no sense of the past, however, there would be no real reason to experience remorse or feel regret for mistakes made, no real incentive to atone or make restitution for misdeeds.  Moral categories of guilt and forgiveness fall by the wayside. 

Sometimes we should feel sorry for things we’ve said and done, in my opinion—and try to behave better in the future than we acted previously.

Wallowing in the past can be unhealthy.  But amnesia about our personal and collective history can also be debilitating.  Should America forget its history of slavery, or Germans just drop Auschwitz down the memory hole?  As William Faulkner said of the South, where the shadow of the Confederacy and Jim Crow still lingers, “the past isn’t over; it’s not even the past.”

Whatever enlightenment means, it must imply more than living in a perpetually sunny present moment   It must entail being able to see the Big Picture—where our lives unfold through good times and bad, where nations err, tragedies occur and crimes are committed, but where failures need not be endlessly repeated, not at least if we remember what needs to be changed and resolve to reform.

“One day at a time” may be a helpful philosophy for some.  But I think it takes three days to make us fully human: yesterday, today and tomorrow.

Together they give the present instant—this brief interlude between eons gone by and endless years to come—its fullest savor.


Friday, May 14, 2010

Arizona the New Mississippi?

Is Arizona trying to whitewash history?

This week Arizona’s Governor Jan Brewer signed a law forbidding the teaching of ethnic studies in the state’s public schools. The law would dismantle popular programs in Tucson classrooms that expose students to Mexican American history and culture.

The Tucson Unified School District’s website states the curriculum’s goal is to instill “respect, understanding, appreciation, inclusion, and love” among its students. But Tom Horne, the state’s Republican superintendent of schools who pushed the law and is running for office to become Attorney General, says letting blacks learn about African American history or offering Latino studies to Spanish-speaking youth fosters “ethnic chauvinism.”

By the same logic, learning about the Holocaust promotes anti-semitism.

Frankly, I wish I’d learned more non-European history back when I was in the public schools. Lately, I’ve been reading a book titled Latinos: A Biography of the People by Earl Shorris, which has filled in some big gaps in my appreciation of the Hispanic contribution to America’s present and past.

For instance, did you know Santa Fe was settled in 1598 by Juan de Onate, before Jamestown in Virginia or the Pilgrims reached Plymouth? (Reminding me of Will Roger’s quip that, while his ancestors didn’t come over on the Mayflower, they were on the shore to greet the ship’s passengers as they disembarked.)

Did you know that California passed a statute in 1856 that was actually called “the Greaser law” aimed at unsettling the already-established Spanish-speaking population?

Were you aware that a demand for “English only” education would eliminate hundreds of Spanish words from the North American vocabulary that are in daily use, words like tomato, cigar, hurricane, coyote, and plaza?

Ethnic studies don’t propagate hate. Racism does. And unfortunately, Arizona (which was first explored by Spanish Franciscans in 1539 but didn’t join the United States until 1912) is rapidly becoming the new Mississippi.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Baby Gandhis

Where does morality come from?  Nature or nurture?

Do we acquire our notions about fairness, kindness and decency from our culture and upbringing, or are we born with some inherent sense of right and wrong?

Religious teachings have traditionally affirmed the Nature view.  Morality is implanted in the soul. The knowledge of good and evil is intrinsically human, inherited from Eve and Adam as far back as Eden.

Scientists, in contrast, have mostly been of the Nurture school.  As Freud had it, babies as born with  a cauldron of selfish desires guided by the pleasure principle, in conflict with the demands of civilized society, which strives mightily to impose a Superego of “thou-shalt-nots” upon the infant’s raging Id.

But new research from Yale University, reported in the New York Times this week, suggests both may be right.

Surprisingly, even very young babies seem to have a well-developed sense of what it means to be naughty and nice.  Watching a puppet show with two characters, one of whom is obviously cooperative and another who doesn’t play well with others, one-year-olds when given a choice will almost always reach for the good puppet and avoid the one with the mean streak.

Or the babies at Yale’s Infant Cognition Center watch three geometrical shapes act out a modern morality play.  A yellow circle tries to climb a hill.  The red square attempts to help it up the hump, while a green triangle pushes it back down.  Results show babies prefers shapes that help to those that hinder.

The experiments remind me of a story from the autobiography of the well known 19th center preacher Theodore Parker.  Parker became a moral beacon to his generation, a leader of the abolition movement.  But his ethical education, he recalled, stemmed from an experience he had a four-year-old.  Walking in a field, swinging a stick, he spied a tortoise sunning on a log.  He raised the stick to hit the animal, but an inner voice told him “no.”  Relating the incident to his mother later, she told the boy that the voice was Conscience, and that if he followed it faithfully, it would never lead him astray. 

Science seems to indicate she was right.  We may not all be Baby Einsteins, but  babies do appear to have an inborn idea of good and bad behavior. We're Baby Gandhis, if you like.

What infants lack, the research shows, is a sense of impartial regard for strangers.  They prefer those who speak a familiar language.  They are more comfortable with people of the same skin color.  They seem to have an innate prejudice that favors their own in-group.

So while “being nice” comes naturally to most people, becoming unbiased is apparently a lifelong endeavor requiring learning and the acquired ability to empathize beyond your own immediate clan or tribe.

The conclusion?  Even the “good people”  (which includes most of us) need to work hard to act ethically in our diverse, religiously variegated world.

Friday, May 7, 2010

National Day of Posturing

The Washington Post reported that about one hundred people gathered near the U.S. Capitol today to protest a federal district judge’s ruling that the “National Day of Prayer” violates the U.S. Constitution.  Justice Barbara Crabb of Wisconsin decided last month that the annual observance is “an inherently religious exercise that serves no secular function.”

About 1000 Evangelicals were present yesterday, when Rev. Michael Hall of the International Bible Reading Association proclaimed that “as Christians we don't need a political strategy, we just need God's word.”

The protesters said they were just there to commune with God. “"No personalities. Just prayer. No party divisions. Just prayer,” according to Nancy Sharman of the National Day of Prayer Task Force.

But if there is no political strategy and no partisanship involved, why orchestrate the event on the Capitol steps? Why demand that Congress validate the National Day of Prayer, or that the President endorse it? Presumably Christians (and others) can offer their supplications with or without an official act of government.

If the motive is not political, what is it?  Jesus, after all, warned in the Gospel of Matthew not to parade your piety before men.

The National Day of Prayer was enacted by a resolution of Congress in 1952, amid the McCarthyite hysteria that “atheistic Communism” was taking over the world. Today it’s become a narrow, sectarian expression of the Religious Right.

In a Bible-thumping worship service held in the Cannon House Office Building (owned b y U.S. taxpayers), Franklin Graham, son of the famous Rev. Billy Graham, told an audience filled with Congressmen and Pentagon brass that, "My prayer is that America once again will worship the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Where does that leave Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, pagans, atheists, or the millions of honest Christians who are loyal, patriotic citizens but don’t buy Graham’s fundamentalist fervor?

Graham is free, under the Bill of Rights, to pray whatever he likes. But he shouldn’t expect the U.S. government to say “Amen.”

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Killing and Kindness

When we checked our mutt Smokey into the veterinary hospital last week, we were asked whether we wanted a DNR, Do Not Resuscitate, order.  I’d never really contemplated advance directives for dogs before.  After learning more, we decided CPR would be okay.  But with a twelve-and-a-half year old canine, we didn’t want more heroic measures.  Every life has its limits.

The incident reminded me of a letter John Adams penned to his friend the physician Benjamin Rush, back in 1813.  It’s written under the persona of Adams’ horse, “Hobby.”  Hobby says he’ll try to shake a little animation into his Master for a few more months, maybe years.  But what can his owner realistically look forward to at the age of seventy-seven?  “How many Pains and Aches, which I cannot shake away, has he to endure?  How much low spirits?”  The horse foresees the fate that awaits a doddering Adams, “withered, fading, wrinkled, tottering, trembling, stumbling, sighing, groaning, weeping.”  The thought occurs to Hobby whether he shouldn’t just stumble, accidentally-on-purpose, as an act of Charity—presumably putting a quick end to the senile equestrian, just as we humans compassionately release our animal companions when they’ve outlived their natural span.

I’m not sure if Adam’s letter could be said to reflect his views on mercy killing.  That’s a big topic, and medical technology has done too much to transform the way we die to make any exact extrapolation possible.  But it does suggest that some things never change.

Whether considering horses, dogs or men, we’ll always struggle with the question of when to fight gallantly and when to throw in the towel.   

For Smokey, I know the point is swift approaching when it will be time for a dose of kindness.  And when my day finally comes, I hope I’ll have a horse like Hobby—or another ministering angel—to send me quietly on my way.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Boys Will Be Boys Will Be Deported

There’s an old saying that “boys will be boys.”  The new version holds that “boys will be drugged and deported.”

That might be one conclusion to be drawn from the sad saga of Artem Saviliev, the seven-year-old adopted lad whose American mom sent him back unescorted  to Russia with a note pinned to his jacket saying she didn’t want him anymore.

Torry Hansen, his adoptive mother, claimed little Artem was dangerously violent.  Grandma said he’d threatened to burn the house down.  But really, how threatening can a seven-year-old be?  Russia’s commissioner for children’s rights found no evidence of pathological behavior when his experts examined the kid.

If little Artem were actually setting fires, and not just threatening to, that might be evidence of some pretty severe disturbances.  But I suspect that most grade-school boys have at one time or another verbally threatened to kill mom or dad, blow up the school, or at least blast teacher with a giant death ray.

Was Artem really a bomb waiting to explode, or just a boy letting off steam?

The incident reminds me of a family in my church that came to me for counseling.  Their second-grader--let’s call him Liam--had stolen another child’s crayon and ripped up the classmate’s drawing.  A team of psychiatrists, social workers, school bureaucrats and law enforcement types had been called in to assess the young delinquent.  The parents were frantic.  What was wrong with their boy, to engage in such anti-social conduct?

I told them they ought to be defending their youngster, who shouldn’t have stolen the crayon, but hadn’t exactly committed the crime of the century, either, and would probably be stigmatized for his entire educational career if they allowed the authorities to have their way.

Part of their plan would doubtless have included dosing Liam with Ritalin or other psychoactive medication.  Vermont and New Hampshire lead the nation in the percentage of children who take these drugs—often at the insistence of school officials who find boys too boisterous and easier to control in the classroom when they’re on dope.

As an adoptive parent, my sympathies are all with Artyem and Liam.  And as a man, I can well recall pulling pranks as a kid that now might land my own children in court.  Have boys changed so much?   I think it’s society that’s changed—and not for the better.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Blame It On The Queers

A high ranking Vatican spokesman yesterday blamed the escalating scandal over child molestation in the Catholic Church on too many homosexuals in the priesthood.

Who will be the next scapegoat? Feisty nuns? Secular humanists? Somebody has to take the blame for this nasty business and it couldn’t be the fault of all those Cardinals and Bishops who supposedly run the place.

No, the Church is more than blameless. Altar boys are being tied up and sodomized, but the Church is the victim rather than the perpetrator of these horrific acts. That was the far-fetched logic of a Vatican preacher who, just before Easter, likened pedophile priests to Jewish victims of the Holocaust, comparing attacks on the hierarchy to anti-Semitism.

The Bishops are being subjected to media criticism, not slaughtered like cattle in extermination camps, so it’s not a very good analogy. But consider: could the Vatican preacher have charged his critics with carrying out an Inquisition? A witch hunt? The Holocaust was a poor choice, but at least it didn’t raise memories of heretics burned at the stake.

A good friend of mine, who spent many years as a Jesuit priest before leaving his vocation to marry and raise a family, asked my opinion about the unfolding drama. I told him my own view counts for little. Since I’m not a Catholic, whatever I think or say can be dismissed and discounted as the prejudices of an outsider. I told my friend that ultimately, it would be up to officials in the Church to clean up their own house and make restitution for wrongs committed.

He suggested that thousands of conscientious priests resigning, in mass protest, might be the kind of jolt needed to get the higher-ups quit their stonewalling and come to terms with this problem of their own making. Perhaps. But unfortunately, that doesn’t seem likely to happen anytime soon. Instead, blame it on the queers.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Festival of Freedom

How do you say “welcome” in Sudanese, Nepali and Russian?  Despite language barriers, the expression of hospitality was unmistakable when refugees from those countries, along with asylum-seekers from Bhutan, Burma and the Congo, gathered for an interfaith Passover Seder last night.

Passover or Pesach, called the “Festival of Freedom” in Jewish tradition, commemorates the Israelites’ liberation from slavery in Egypt.  Yesterday’s celebration, jointly sponsored by Ohavi Zedek Synagogue and Vermont Interfaith Action, brought the old story up-to-date as new arrivals recounted their personal narratives of escaping regimes more brutal than anything imagined in Pharaoh’s time … schools turned into prisons, hiding from soldiers in the jungle, years spent in make-shift bamboo huts in re-location camps before finally making their way to America.

Jews, Catholics, Congregationalists, Episcopalians, Unitarians, Friends, Presbyterians and Evangelicals rubbed shoulders with Buddhists, Muslims, and Hindus, sharing the ritual foods like parsley dipped in salt water---a reminder of tears—and bitter herbs, recalling the bitterness of slavery in “mitzrayim,” a Hebrew term meaning any place of oppression, whether ancient Egypt or more modern hell holes.

The night concluded with prayers for peace from Lao-Tze, St. Francis, and the Buddhist dharma. 

I was grateful to participate in an event that exemplified religion at its best—building bridges rather than barriers among the world’s peoples, and strengthening relationships among those of differing cultures and faiths.

For a planet torn by too much religious, racial and national conflict, last night’s Seder was a bright moment of hope.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Racism in Rutland?

It’s an ugly picture that conjures up memories of Abner Louima, the Haitian immigrant who was sodomized with a broomstick by Brooklyn police in 1997, creating a national furor.  But this picture is in progressive, pristine Vermont.

A video taken New Year’s Day has just been released that shows a Rutland police officer, Michael Nesshoever, repeatedly firing a pepperball launcher at a detainee named Jamek Hart, who is constrained in a holding cell with his feet shackled and hands cuffed behind his back.

The pepperball pistol, which works something like a paintball gun and is ordinarily used for crowd control, fires three pellets at a time.  The video shows the detainee, whose pants have fallen to the floor, being hit repeatedly on the bare skin of his lower legs and buttocks.  At least twenty shots were fired at the helpless man, according to the head of the Rutland Police Commission.  As the pepperballs strike, the victim’s angry rants and protests turn to screams of pain before he falls to the floor.  Police then place a bag over his head–reminiscent of Abu Ghraib.

At least three police officers, all of whom are white (with one sporting a “skinhead” style haircut), were involved in the assault on Hart, who is black.

The director of Vermont’s ACLU, Allen Gilbert, warns against assuming the brutality was racially motivated.  “People usually jump to that conclusion if an incident involves a person in the minority, but it’s not necessarily the case,” the Rutland Herald reports him cautioning.

Maybe or maybe not.  Police have a hard job and have to deal with some unsavory characters.  And perhaps these particular officers abuse all their prisoners, regardless of color.  But when white cops on an all white force gratuitously torment and torture a black man who is bound hand and foot, powerless to resist, it certainly looks like institutionalized racism to me.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Land of the Unfree

America’s Great Recession may have a silver lining.  States facing revenue shortfalls are being forced to re-evaluate the astronomical incarceration rates that make the United States the prison capital of the world.

Paradoxically, the “land of the free” has more people living behind bars than China, Russia, or other hardline regimes, 737 inmates per 100,000 of total population. Many of these jailbirds are non-violent offenders sentenced on drug-related charges.  Many of them are mentally ill, warehoused rather than treated.  And disproportionate numbers of them are poor and black.  Confined to a cage for years, these men and women are torn from their families, isolated and from their communities, and tutored by the professional thugs who are there for more violent crimes.  This is not only a disgrace and human tragedy, but a huge waste of taxpayer’s money.

Lovely little Vermont, one of the safest, most sheltered backwaters anywhere, saw its prison population double between 1996 and 2006, shooting up 80% as national incarceration rates climbed just 18% over the same decade.  Prison spending in the budget-strapped state rose more steeply than the slope of Mt. Mansfield, a 45 degree incline.  

Yesterday, however,  the Governor’s office released a report recommending Vermont’s prisons reduce their numbers--that furloughs be expanded and more home supervision substitute for jail time.  It’s a step in the right direction and long overdue.  A report prepared in 2008 showed it costs over $45,000 a year to keep an inmate locked up in the Green Mountain State.  That’s about the cost of tuition, room and board at an Ivy League College.

Economic hard times are causing Americans everywhere to re-evaluate their spending.  If this round of belt-tightening can push the United States toward a saner prison policy, it will almost be worth a bust in the business cycle.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Confucius, Baseball and Apple Pie

Ask an American what faith they profess and you’ll find Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Moslems, and Hindus in abundance, with a liberal sprinkling of Bahai’s, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians.  But hardly anyone will confess to being a Confucianist. 

That’s odd, because Confucius is as American as Motherhood and Apple Pie.  Our nation’s founders admired him greatly.  Thomas Paine listed the Chinese sage in the same category as Jesus and Socrates and a manual for public devotion that he helped devise omitted any Biblical passages but included proverbs from Confucius and other Eastern poets.  James Madison, the father of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights, had a portrait of Confucius hanging in his Virginia home.

But it was Benjamin Franklin who first introduced Confucius to the American colonies.  In 1737, Franklin carried a series of papers “From the Morals of Confucius” in his weekly magazine The Pennsylvania GazetteFranklin called the Chinese master’s philosophy “the gateway through which it is necessary to pass to arrive at the sublimest wisdom ….”

Holland Cotter summarizes the Confucian outlook in today’s New York Times as a pragmatic strategy of “you be nice to me and I’ll be nice to you,” getting along by going along.  “He also believed that education, hard work and respect for the past were essential; that excessive anything — money, fun, religion — led to trouble; and that social harmony was best achieved when people interacted courteously, but basically minded their own business.”

Some doubt if Confucianism even qualifies as a religion, because it focuses mainly on ethics rather than on saving souls.  Asked by a follower about life after death, Confucius supposedly replied, “Why worry about the next world when you haven’t yet learned how to live in this one?” For a founding generation of Americans tired of metaphysics, a practical religion that counseled public virtue and civic-mindedness while avoiding hair-splitting doctrine had a definite appeal.  

As the father of a Korean son, I have come to appreciate Confucian culture more and more, as it helped to build civilizations that have endured for thousands of years—valuing decorum, promoting strong families, and instilling reverence for the highest standards of personal conduct. 

So the next time I’m asked what religion I practice, I think I’ll answer “Confucian.”  If it’s good enough for Ben Franklin, it’s good enough for me. 

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

An Unchurched President?

Should our President go to church more often?

Candidate Obama held his first presidential debate in Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church. He worshiped regularly with his family at Chicago’s Trinity Church, until his fiery pastor Jeremiah Wright started sounding like an angry radical. But a recent news story on headlines the President’s religion taking a private turn, reporting the family has attended church just four times in the year he’s held office.

The retreat from visible, public piety is drawing fire from some who voted for Obama on the basis of his Christian credentials. The Gallup Poll shows Americans becoming more tolerant in some respects, with larger numbers than in the past saying they might vote for a woman, an Hispanic, or a divorcee for President. But the majority still indicate they could not abide an atheist in the White House.

Apparently, voters want their Chief Executive to believe in God, or at least pretend to believe by warming a pew each week.

But one wonders whether the Founding Fathers would have ever been elected, had this standard been enforced. George Washington’s diaries, for example, indicate that in 1748, he spent 15 Sundays going to church, recording 49 days spent fox hunting, attending two balls, one play and receiving a reprimand from a Scotch Presbyterian acquaintance for spending too much time at the card table. In January the following year, he hunted on twelve days and went to church just once.

Shortly after being elected, President Washington was virtually “arrested” for not attending church, apparently detained by the local tithing man responsible for enforcing New England’s blue laws prohibiting travel on the Sabbath. Delayed and anxious to reach his destination in New York, he was intercepted on Sunday morning in the Connecticut village of Ashford and forced to halt. The President’s diary indicates that he used the interlude to rest his horses, but he found the tavern where he cooled his heels “not a good one” and the sermon of Mr. Pond, the parson of a nearby church, “very lame discourses.”

Some Presidents, like John Adams, attended church almost every Sunday of their lives. Others, like Jefferson and Madison, rarely bothered. But all of the nation’s first half dozen Presidents were enormously discreet about their personal spiritual lives. None would have engaged in the kind of “media spirituality” that voters seem to demand now.

Voters should judge their President on the basis of his economic policies, his ability to work with Congress to pass important legislation, and his strength in protecting America’s interests around the world. Obama’s church attendance (or lack thereof) is just not the public’s business.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Breaking Our Energy Addiction

In his State of the Union address last month, our President called for the development of “safe and clean” nuclear power, which is like asking for “pure and healthy” heroin.  Radioactive nuclear isotopes, the necessary by-product of these plants, are carcinogenic, mutagenic, and essentially indestructible, a toxic threat that lasts practically forever.

Here in Vermont, an aging nuclear facility is leaking tritium into the Connecticut River, poisoning ground water, and ready for the scrap heap as cooling towers collapse and other equipment failures multiply almost daily.  Unfortunately, the private corporation which profits from Vermont Yankee doesn’t have the money to de-commission the plant or restore the site to its former condition.  The taxpayers of the state are in real danger of inheriting a gargantuan clean-up bill, along with a Chernobyl-like industrial dead-zone that puts an ugly blot on the Green Mountain State’s carefully cultivated pristine image.

To supply the world’s energy needs, thousands of plants like Vermont Yankee—or like the new reactors receiving federal loan guarantees that Obama announced today-- would have to be built, each with a lifetime of 30-40 years, each a meltdown waiting to happen.  Or if all technical and human error could be miraculously avoided and no disasters happened, those thousands of reactors would all become perpetual gravesites: concrete encased tombs covering hundreds of square miles, testifying to our short-sighted addiction to cheap energy.

Nuclear, coal, and oil are like heroin, crack and meth.  The corporations that supply our petroleum and other short-term “fixes” are like pushers, reaping fantastic profits by keeping us dependent on their deadly products.  And American consumers are like junkies, willing to trade their long term well-being and sell their children’s futures for the rush of driving bigger cars, heating bigger homes, eating more burgers and squandering more resources than any other people on earth.

The fix America needs won’t be found in nuclear power, but in breaking the bad habit of expecting instant gratification without considering the consequences to our neighbors, our bodies, or the natural environment.

Really, isn’t it time to go clean?

Saturday, February 13, 2010

A Whites Only Tea Party?

A photograph in this week’s Economist shows an actor dressed in a tri-cornered hat and colonial garb attending last week’s national Tea Party convention, surrounded by a sea of white faces.

Former Congressman Tom Tancredo, who led the roster of speakers, lamented the fact that citizens who couldn’t even speak English or spell the word “vote” sent a socialist to the White House.  Tancredo didn’t mention that President is black, yet his tirade against “multiculturalism” and his call for a return to the kind of literacy tests that disenfranchised African Americans in the Jim Crow South spoke for itself.

While the blogosphere ponders just how racist the Tea Party counter-revolution really is, historians agree that the original American Revolution was anything but. Every school child knows that Crispus Attucks, the first patriot to fall in the Boston Massacre, was a black man.  But most don’t know that  African Americans were present in nearly every major battle in the War for Independence. The Continental Army was probably the most racially integrated up until the 1950’s, when Harry Truman officially de-segregated the armed forces.

And while I am anything but a linguist, Americans in the colonial period spoke Dutch, German, French, Swedish, Spanish, a variety of African dialects and dozens of Native American languages as well as English.  In a document titled  “Colonial Irish Immigration to North America,” Jerry Kelly observes:

English spies and Tories reported back to their English masters that "Irish is as commonly spoken in the American ranks as English," which thereby puts English speakers at about 30% of the Continental Army once you count in the Gaelic-speaking Irish from every state; the German-speakers from Pennsylvania and Virginia; the Dutch from what had been New Holland (Long Island, northern New Jersey, the Hudson Valley, and the Mohawk Valley); the French of the frontier and Louisiana; the Finns and Swedes of what had been New Sweden (parts of Delaware and New Jersey), the Spanish of what had been Spanish Florida and Louisiana, and our Algonquin and Iroquois allies. Anybody who had a serious grudge against the English went into rebellion, and that was a lot of people. Anglo Saxons and their language were a minority. The Continental Army was multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, and ready to welcome the likes of Lafayette, Von Steuben, Kosziusko, and others as valued officers even if (or because) they barely spoke English or didn't speak English at all. English was regarded as the language of the enemy - Tories and Regulars alike.

That may be stretching a point.  But Tea Party nativists who want the nation to “return” to its English-speaking, Euro-centric roots surely misunderstand the racial and linguistic diversity that the American experiment has welcomed since its very beginning.

That diversity, which extended hope to all races and manners of people—not a phony homogenous “Tea Party” of Sarah Palin look-alikes—constituted the real American Revolution.

Friday, February 12, 2010

How Christian Were The Founders?

An article in today's New York Times asks, "How Christian Were the Founders," reporting on efforts of the state Board of Education in Texas to re-cast the nation's as fundamentalist Christians.

One member of the Texas Board, Don McLeroy, is a dentist rather than an historian, but declaims that "The men who wrote the Constitution were Christians who knew the Bible. Our idea of individual rights comes from the Bible.."  McLeroy thinks the Earth is 6,000 years old, and thinks that the 47 millions textbooks his state purchases each year should reflect that Biblical "fact."

But facts are stubborns things--and history shows that America's founders and framers were not fundamentalists, by any stretch of the imagination. Ben Franklin re-wrote the Lord's Prayer. Jefferson edited his own version of scripture, eliminating the miracles. Washington was never a formal communicant in the Episcopal Church, and avoided attended services on Sundays when communion was served, probably because he didn't believe in the all the doctrines required of orthodox Christians. John and Abigal Adams were both Unitarians, .who rejected notions like original sin and eternal damnation. The Constitution never mentions God, because the framers believed government was based on the consent of its citizens, not upon any divine mandate. 

Yet the founders were not secularists or opposed to organized religion. They simply believed that faith should be exercised in the private sphere rather than assert its authority through law or tax-funded initiatives. Unfortunately, today's evangelicals want their own brand of dogma to receive government recognition and support, eliminating the barrier separating church and state. This is a recipe for sectarian conflict. America is the most religiously diverse nation on earth, where Buddhists outnumber Presbyterians and Muslims may outnumber Jews. There is no creed or confession that can unite these various religious systems. Only a philosophy of mutual tolerance and forbearance will enable us all to live together as Americans, inhabitants of a land that--as the founders intended--welcomes people of all beliefs.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Religious Bigotry and Nazi Nonsense

To score easy debating points by hitting below the belt, just compare your opponents to Nazis.  Transform the folks you disagree with into goose-stepping personifications of evil.

That’s the strategy of right wing religious leaders that include four Roman Catholic Bishops and evangelical hotheads like James Dobson of “Focus on the Family,” who are now circulating a petition called the Manhattan Declaration, comparing those who support gay marriage and women’s reproductive freedom to Nazis.

The manifesto equates “those who today assert a right to kill the unborn, aged and disabled” with the ideologues of the Third Reich who advocated eugenics to build a master race.

The Catholic signers include Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia, Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, and Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville—all very reverend, no doubt.

But wouldn’t it have been more appropriate for the Roman Catholic hierarchy to denounce the Nazis when Adolph Hitler was actually in power?  During World War II, our current pontiff, Benedict XVI, was a member of the Hitler Youth.  And according to Shira Shoenberg of the American Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, “For much of the war,” Pius XII, the reigning pope at the time, “maintained a public front of indifference and remained silent while German atrocities were committed.”

So when actual Jews were being gassed, the Church was silent.  When homosexuals were being rounded up and put in Dachau, the Church was silent.  But when gay marriage is has become a viable prospect on the political landscape, the Church has finally found its moral voice.

All in all, not one of Christianity’s finer moments.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Obama, King, Niebuhr

It’s been said that Martin marched because Rosa sat, and that Barack ran because Martin marched.  President Obama has more than once acknowledged his debt to the man who, more than any other single individual, helped put him into office.  Gone are the decorative china plates that adorned the Oval Office during the Bush administration.  In their place on the bookshelf rests a framed program from the 1963 March on Washington where Dr. King delivered his famous “I Have A Dream” speech.  And in one of his first acts upon occupying the White House, Mister Obama returned a bust of Winston Churchill to the British people to replace it with a sculpted head of the civil rights leader.  In a telling measure of how far the country has come, that bronze bust of King was last on display in the White House Library when Bill Clinton borrowed it from the Smithsonian in the year 2000.  And that, believe it or not, was the very first time that the image of any African American had ever been exhibited in a public space in the White House since the day John and Abigail Adams moved into the residence over two centuries ago! So a black man’s occupancy there as Chief Executive is little short of a miracle, and his inauguration a scant twelve months ago felt more like a moral redemption than like a partisan political victory.  Post election surveys showed that far more Americans remembered voting for Obama than actually cast a Democratic ballot.  For nearly everyone, whatever their party, experienced a moment of elation that November.

We’ve come a ways since Selma, when TV images of Alabama state troopers beating non-violent protesters with billy clubs led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the enfranchisement of millions who never had a voice before.  And in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech last month, President Obama referred to the sacrifices of an earlier generation.  “As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King's life's work,” Mister Obama told the audience in Oslo, “I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there is nothing weak -nothing passive - nothing naïve - in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.”  He recalled Dr. King’s own words upon accepting the same award years before, that “violence never brings permanent peace.  It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones.” Surely the President’s homage to King’s legacy was real.

Yet then, Obama began to distance himself from that legacy by noting that “as the head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation,” he had to face real threats from abroad. “For make no mistake,” the President declared, “evil does exist in the world,” a curious observation, as though Martin Luther King Jr. hadn’t quite noticed the existence of malevolence around him or fully faced up to the destructive and demonic dimensions of human history.

But King knew about evil.  Over the course of his career, he was stabbed with a knife and had his home was bombed twice, once with his wife and daughter inside.  He was thrown into jail in Albany, Georgia, thrown into jail in Birmingham, Alabama, and wiretapped by the FBI who tried to blackmail him into committing suicide.  Martin Luther King Jr. received death threats almost daily and was hit on the head by a brick hurled at him during a march in Chicago.  He was spat on and had crosses burned on his lawn.  Indeed, Martin Luther King had encounters with the kind of thugs and villains that our current President can only imagine.  And it was precisely his deep analysis of evil, with its twisted capacity to distort the personality and deform the soul, that enabled King to battle hatred and violence without becoming vengeful or violent in the process.

One suspects that it’s the President who hasn’t been tested or wrestled with such dark forces, who tends rather to assume the best about human nature.   In his 2006 book The Audacity of Hope, Obama said that he personally had been mostly insulated from the “bumps and bruises” that beset many other African American men, although he had suffered his share of what he called petty slights: “security guards tailing me as I shop in department stores, white couples who toss me their car keys as I stand outside a restaurant waiting for the valet, police cars pulling me over for no apparent reason."  Perhaps that relatively sheltered background accounts for his reaction last summer when the Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates was arrested by a white police officer in his Cambridge home on suspicion of burglary.  After initially accusing the cop of behaving stupidly, Obama tried to defuse the situation by inviting everyone over to the White House for a friendly beer.  Whether the issue happens to be racial profiling or heath care reform, his guiding instinct seems to be that, deep down, most people want to do the right thing.  If only they can be cajoled to sit down across the table from each other, sweet reason and dialogue can surely overcome whatever misunderstandings or ill feelings might have arisen.  Bipartisanship, compromise, and cooperation are the watchwords for this kind of dewey-eyed idealism.  Can we all sing Kum-ba-yah?

Hopefully Obama is more realistic than that, and there are reasons to believe that he might be.  The conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks, for example, has recently written about Obama’s intellectual debt to Reinhold Niebuhr, one of the more influential religious thinkers of the last century and the founder of a tough-minded doctrine that he called “Christian realism.”

I read Niebuhr back in college and he certainly had an impact on me.  He was born in Missouri in 1892 and after attending Yale Divinity School went to pastor a Lutheran church in Detroit, where Henry Ford was union-busting on his assembly lines, and where large numbers of African Americans from the South had started migrating to work in the plants.  A northern, industrial city gave him a perfect laboratory for the study of social conflict—the push-and-shove between capital and labor, between blacks and whites.  And Neibuhr concluded that this simmering conflict was not going to resolved or adjudicated through sharing a Budweiser or appeals to mutual goodwill.  These were fundamental antagonisms that could only be resolved through some form of power struggle.

Because every society is based on power, he said.  The concentration of power in the political sphere enables a certain amount of law and order to prevail. The concentration of power in the economic domain enables factories to function.  The concentration of firepower in the military enables the nation to defend itself against foreign enemies.  But power also corrupts, by its very nature, Niebuhr cautioned.  It corrupts even good people, because all of us are egoists to some degree, not quite as fair or even-handed or impartial in our judgments as we imagine ourselves to be.  Our loyalties to our own family and tribe are always stronger than our sense of duty to the outsider and stranger.  And so, whoever happens to be in charge, the very forces that enable the country to defend itself are inevitably turned to warlike ends.  The creation of vast economic wealth for some leads to poverty for others. The same powers of government that insure domestic tranquility have a tendency to produce totalitarianism and tyranny. Thus Niebuhr’s philosophy was marked by irony, by paradox, by a sense of inescapable tragedy where human motives are never entirely pure or disinterested and where the very best of intentions always carry an undercoating of naked self-interest.

Niebuhr was a complex thinker and “Christian Realism” had a profound influence on Martin Luther King.  To appreciate just how profound, let me read you a passage.  This is what Reinhold Niebuhr wrote in a book called Moral Man and Immoral Society, which was published in 1932, when the future civil rights leader was only three years old, and when the Montgomery bus boycott was still a quarter century in the future:

“It is hopeless for the Negro to expect complete emancipation from the menial social and economic position into which the white man has forced him merely trusting in the moral sense of the white race.”  Appeals to fair play or brotherhood or Christian charity wouldn’t suffice, in other words. Such tactics hadn’t worked in the past and they never would.  Pressure would have to be applied to force whites to give up their privileges.

“On the other hand,” Niebuhr continued, “any effort at violent revolution on the part of the Negro will accentuate the animosities and prejudices of his oppressors.  Since they outnumber him hopelessly, any appeal to arms must result in a terrible social catastrophe.”  Watts and Newark and other cities that burned in riots in the 60’s proved the truth of that prediction.

But Niebuhr then goes on: “The technique of non-violence will not eliminate all these perils.  But it will reduce them.  It will, if persisted in with the same patience and discipline attained by Mr. Gandhi and his followers, achieve a degree of justice which neither pure moral suasion nor violence could gain.  Boycotts against banks which discriminate against Negroes in granting credit, against stores which refuse to employ Negroes while serving Negro trade, and against public service corporations which practice racial discrimination, would undoubtedly be met with some measure of success … One waits for such a campaign with all the more reason and hope because the peculiar spiritual gifts of the Negro endow him with the capacity to conduct it successfully.”

You can bet that Martin read that passage when he was in seminary, and perhaps Mr. Obama has read it, too.  According to David Brooks, he was interviewing the candidate on the electoral trail back in 2007, both of them tired of talking about the horse race when out of the blue, Brooks asked if he had ever read Reinhold Niebuhr.  According to the columnist, Obama’s weary tone suddenly changed. “I love him. He’s one of my favorite philosophers.”

So  Brooks asked, What do you take away from him?

“I take away,” Obama answered in a rush of words, “the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away ... the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard ….”

Those are lessons that I hope the President has taken to heart.  Because the moral  quandaries facing our world demand leadership that is both clear-eyed and compassionate.  Afghanistan is in danger of turning into Obama’s Vietnam, a war that both King and Neibuhr denounced.  But the challenges here at home are equally difficult, particularly regarding civil rights.

For despite the euphoria of last year’s election, racial justice remains an elusive goal for our country.  A report released by the UCLA Civil Rights Project just a few days before the President’s inauguration warned that school segregation is on the rise, with black and Latino students more likely to be isolated from their white peers in the classroom than at any time since the dawn of the civil rights movement.  Young black men living in the United States today are more likely to go to jail than to go to college, while here in Vermont there are ten times as many people of color behind bars as might be explained from their numbers in the state’s population.   Compared to whites, blacks have double the infant mortality rate, double the risk of stroke, twice the rate of diabetes, and are twice as likely to be uninsured.  And when it comes to money, the net wealth of black households amounts to just ten cents for every dollar owned by whites.

These are systemic problems, which go beyond the elimination of personal bigotry.  They are symptoms of a dilemma that Neibuhr knew well: upstanding, conscientious, enlightened individuals who would never use the “N” word tolerating class and economic structures that perpetuate savage inequalities. Or as King put it, “It’s not the bad people I can’t forgive, but the good people who do nothing.”  Redressing institutional racism demands more than learning how to mix at a party or operate in an office with people of diverse ethnicities.  It also requires a redistribution of power and money and resources, at the very time the Supreme Court is dismantling affirmative action programs and declaring even voluntary school de-segregation plans to be unconstitutional.

Whether we call ourselves Christian or not, I think we need to be realists, in the manner of Niebuhr and King.  For while the President campaigned on a promise of “Change You Can Believe In,” we need to realize that genuine change always requires struggle, beginning with the struggle to reform ourselves but not ending there. Those with a vested interest in the status quo have never given away anything of value without a contest and they never will.  The question is, what kind of change do we believe in, and are we willing to fight for it and sacrifice for it, as earlier generation did?  Whether American continues to progress toward a brighter day of justice and opportunity or backslides into the shadows of yesteryear depends less on who’s in the White House or whose head is on the bookshelf than having hard heads about the tasks before us.

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