Friday, June 30, 2006

A theological response to "wedge issues"

This is what I really wanted to say about the whole "flag-burning" mess, and the plethora of stupid "issues" that are spewed at us in this crossfire democracy we live in. Both parties are very guilty, though President Bush bears greatest responsibility since he has the ability to set the manner of dialogue.

The Bible contains a particularly relevant and useful story to these political times. The Prince of Egypt leaves us off at around Exodus 15 - if you recall, there was a big fuss about Hebrew slaves and freedom and parting the sea.

In "the book", the Hebrews are now on their own, wandering across the desert to reach the Promised Land. Along the way, they stop to camp at the base of Mount Sinai, where Moses is led to climb the mountain in order to receive the Law from God.

Apparently, God has more than a few instructions to give (it's true: see chapters 20-31 of Exodus), or is simply enjoying Moses' stimulating conversation. Either way, the prophet Moses is detained for quite a while, and the people at the bottom of the mountain grow impatient. They complained to Aaron, the interim leader, "Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this man Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him." Aaron decides to put together all their gold jewelry in order to melt it down and recast it as a golden calf for the people to worship in the meantime. They said, "These are your gods, O Israel..." (Exodus 32).

I wonder - maybe our nation is at the bottom of a mountain, waiting for some new order to descend upon us. Maybe some of us have grown impatient and fearful in an increasingly complicated time. Are our leaders more like Moses, climbing mountains to seek justice and truth, or are they more like Aaron, appeasing the fears of the masses through false fixes?

Let's reject the golden calves that are being put before us by Democrats and Republicans alike - we can't afford to bow down to idle-issues (pun intended) like gay marriage, "the war on terror", flag burning, or gas prices (which are still far cheaper here than most of the West). We must demand that our leaders climb the mountains, and if they're unwilling, we do it ourselves. I've seen so much pandering to tepid, inadequate leadership during my tenure in the student government - some people call this "being realistic." I think it's accepting a life wandering the desert when we have the potential to reach something much better - I hope people expect more, because then we can do more. This, ultimately, seems to be a central part of the Christian message in regards to civic engagement.

"What does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" - Micah 6:8

"Desecration" as "respecting establishment"?

I posted earlier about America's "military idolatry" - the notion that the soldier is a sacrosanct element of our national culture, and that the military, because it is seen as the means for our collective mission to save the world, is literally above democratic criticism.

If militarism is the national cult, then the flag is its standard.

Karl makes an astute observation about the use of the word "desecration" in the ridiculuous amendment that all but passed the Senate:
The Congress shall have the power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States.
Already in the Constitution is this familiar phrase:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion...
If "desecration" still means "the act of depriving something of its sacred character" (which it does), wouldn't the insertion of a clause prohibiting any type of "desecration" contradict the First Amendment?

This issue obviously runs deeper than constitutional semantics... Americans REALLY see the flag as sacred - our national relic. This implies many other sentiments as well - if our national symbol is sacred, than surely our nationhood is sacred. If our nationhood is sacred (chosen), then surely our mission and purposes are also ordained by the divine.

I suppose I wouldn't burn the flag, either - but frankly, it has much less to do with my devotion to the flag than it does with the unwillingness to flagrant insult the religion of other people. Likewise, I don't think Karl would ever spitefully rip up a Bible in front of me - and it has nothing to do with Karl's reverence for the Holy Scriptures (and trust me - there's no love lost between Karl and the Bible).

Somehow, though, we need to move on from this self-aggrandizing, arrogant view of our own nationality. Is the flag of the United States more sacred than the flag of Mexico, or of France? The amendment would seem to establish that it is. What sort of democracy exists under a sacred banner? Where the nation's motives and actions are protected under a godly cloth? It's a democracy where some but not all questions are askable, and some but not all answers are necessary. It's really not a democracy at all.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Burning of the American Flag

I was struck today that a constitutional amendment to allow the outlawing of burning the American flag failed in the Senate by a mere vote. Later, I saw yet another article about the proposed Freedom Tower that is to replace the World Trade Center towers. And then a terrifying truth seized me: we have become a nation increasingly concerned with symbols of freedom, while simultaneously less concerned with the principles and practices of it.

The supposed "Flag Desecration Amendment" is the perfect example of this. I shall allow the supporters of the amendment to speak to their motivations in their own words:
Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) – "Throughout the history of our country, our flag has given the brave men and women serving in uniform the strength to persevere and protect the freedoms that are a foundation of our way of life. We owe them – and we owe all Americans – an amendment that would guarantee the preservation of the honor, integrity, and history represented in that flag."

Sen. Bill Frist (R-TN) - “Countless men and women have died defending that flag. It is but a small humble act for us to defend it."

These arguments, typical of arguments advanced by many proponents, turn on this amendment somehow being a necessary service to veterans. Interestingly, while these two non-veterans argue that it is necessary to outlaw the “desecration” of the American flag, a fellow senator who is himself a veteran of the U.S. military argued against the proposed amendment.
Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-HI) "...I believe Americans gave their lives in the many wars to make certain that all Americans have a right to express themselves, even those who harbor hateful thoughts."

For me, this speaks to a larger point. No man or woman dies for a piece of cloth. No, what we admire, indeed what our society reveres, about the flag is the symbolism inherent to it. The American flag symbolizes freedom and liberty, sources of pride for Americans since the nation’s inception. The greatest liberty, to my mind, is the freedom to openly challenge one’s government, it is the freedom which allows liberty to protect itself. This proposed amendment would have strongly curtailed that freedom in the name of protecting a symbol of freedom. We would protect the symbol of freedom while actively impinging upon the practice of it. It genuinely baffles the mind.

This issue is an exceedingly deep one and I have left the vast majority of it unexamined (What is the meaning of 'desecration'? How did election year politics play into this vote? What is the role of the military in the public psyche? Is it wise to amend the Constitution to overturn part of the Bill of Rights? Why do we allow this all to happen? So on and so on). I do hope my esteemed colleague will contribute his thoughts and that you contribute yours in the comments as well.

Monday, June 19, 2006

General Convention III - Lessons on Activism and Change

Exactly thirty years ago, at the 1976 Episcopal General Convention, women were, for the first time, allowed to be delegates from their local regions. Not completely surprisingly, the 1976 Convention also authorized allowing women to become ordained as deacons, priests, and bishops. Women now make up just over 20% of the clergy of the Episcopal Church (source: Louie Crew).

Yesterday afternoon, my friends and I waited through hours of mind-numbing procedural debate in the House of Deupties to hear the results of the closed election at the House of Bishops. The bishops had been bused about eight blocks to an Episcopal church in the middle of Downtown Columbus and were sequestered there until a candidate for Presiding Bishop (the highest-ranking clergy position in the American church) achieved a majority of votes (yes, Karl, we use a version of run-off voting).

Finally, we were informed that representatives of the House of Bishops had arrived to deliver a special envelope to the Deputies' Committee on Consecration of Bishops - the envelope contained the election results. The air electrified, and the enormous convention hall started to bulge at the sides as the people continued to pack in for the news. Grain by grain, the moments dripped by as the crowd inched closer to the edge of their seats. My mind was on nothing else - I hung on every word, waiting for two of them to be, "And now..."

"And now..." began the President of the House. We all suddenly realized that the time had come. A profound gravity took hold of the room as 3,000 anxious Episcopalians interrupted their breathing. The President introduced the Chair of the Committee on Bishops, who was responsible for verifying the results. The Chair walked slowly to the podium and greeted us, his transfixed captives. My jaw was already open.

"The committee has received the results of the election by the House of Bishops..."

History raised its eyebrow.

"...and moves consent for the 26th Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church..."

History turned its head.

"...the Right Reverend..."

History waited.


Quite literally, a windy gasp rippled throughout the assembly. I looked at my friends sitting around me, both women, eyes bigger than their faces.

"...Jefferts Schori."

The deed was done. The entire chamber erupted into wild shouts of joy and roaring applause. History smiled.

The House of Deputies still had to vote its consent to the choice of the bishops. But before it did, one by one, women crowded the eight microphones and gave their testimonies. Sixty, seventy, eighty year-old women recalled how hard they had fought to even be allowed a vote at the Convention. Twenty, thirty, forty year-old women spoke of how excited they were to tell their daughters that their bishop was a sister. A few men (no women, I should note) stood up against Jefferts Schori, saying her election would cut us off even further from the rest of the world church. But more men spoke of how they were excited to now celebrate with their wives.

Next to me and in front of me, as I listened to the testimony, elderly women were smiling so broadly - I realized that I had no conception of how vindicated they must feel. Thirty years ago, these women were radical pioneers of progress - now one of their own would be representing all women everywhere in conversations that previously have never fallen on female ears. Many had water in their eyes, trickling down their cheeks and into the happy corners of their beaming lips.

My friend Karl gives advice on successful activism - it's important to re-iterate that he is NOT calling for compromise.

Where they met opposition, they didn’t belittle those challenging them, they
engaged those individuals in dialogue, eventually persuading the vast majority.

This was exactly how Episcopal women achieved their right to vote (in fucking 1973!) and then consequently their access to ordination. They put forth very clearly that they were equally valued and spiritually sensitive as men were - no qualifiers or exceptions. They did not convince people by villifying those who disagreed with them - they did so by showing their love for their church and for the people in it. As a related aside, it was the opponents of the women who did the vilifying, declaring those who supported the ordination of women as "betrayers of Scripture" and "revisionist."

But they were not shaken: the women engaged their opponents with their honest interests fully visible - they wanted full inclusion, and that is exactly what they demanded. They didn't curl up into balls of self-comforting isolation whenever they encountered dissent: rather, they steered themselves deliberately into those shaky waters in order to listen, learn, discuss, and reconcile.

I think the ridiculous events put on by the UW College Republicans are seen by members of that group as attempts to "engage opponents" and "steer into dissent" - but the intention of these events is clearly NOT reconciliation.

Wherever activism's real goal is to reconcile differences for the sake of mutual progress - rather than to convince (another way to say "conquer") or to silence - activism becomes change. I witnessed the fruits of this yesterday night. People are very excited. I just got handed an awesome pink button pin that reads "It's a girl!" with the new bishop's name on it.

So, as a footnote to Karl's excellent article, I would urge progressives to ask themselves, in whatever they're doing or strategizing about, "Why are we here?"

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Ingredients of Successful Activism

Below is an article I wrote for Ruckus, a progressive newspaper at the University of Washington (one that, sadly, wasn't published at all during the 2005-2006 school year). Hopefully the summer edition will be published, as they solicited a number of progressive leaders on campus for tips about successful activism.

Don't lose sight!
By Karl Smith

It’s easy to make fun of the College Republicans. Their annual events include an "Animal Rights BBQ," where they grill the flesh of the animals - a striking statement on the Republican understanding of the term "rights;" a "Conservative Coming Out Day" which attempts to equate admitting oneself as a member of a group that controls the Executive, Legislative, and Judiciary branches to being a member of a group that is constantly threatened with state and federal constitutional amendments diminishing one's personhood; and, of course, the "Affirmative Action Bake Sale," an annual attempt to again appear on the O'Reilly Factor by marginalizing the value of underrepresented students and completely ignoring social and institutional forces of inequality. These are laughable events in that they are examples of what I’ll term 'bad activism.'

Step back for a moment and consider what exactly it is we're trying to accomplish through our activism on campus. This sounds trivial, but it’s not; the College Republicans aren't the only ones who don't get it. It can be a whole lot of fun to hold an event for progressives to get together and satirically deride our opponents – it's certainly not difficult these days – and I’m not trying to diminish the occasional holding of such events, but they shouldn’t be the primary focus of our activism and advocacy work. We need to reach out BEYOND the progressive community to those who otherwise be apathetic or even opposed to us; we need to communicate our moral vision in a way that’s accessible to everyone.

This might strike you as a daunting task, but it's far from impossible. Consider the remarkable achievements of the Fair Trade Coffee Coalition (FTCC) this year. They convinced Housing and Food Services and Tully's Coffee Company to offer a Fair Trade Certified espresso blend. Though they're not finished transforming the UW into a 100% Fair Trade Certified coffee campus, they accomplished the enormous task of convincing students across campus, especially those beyond the progressive community, of the value of Fair Trade Certified coffee. They successfully communicated the moral vision that we have a duty to those who produce the products we consume. Indeed, by the end the few remaining opponents of the FTCC accepted the value of Fair Trade Certification but fell back on the argument that they demanded the right to choose between exploitative and non-exploitative products (may I nominate this for Conservative Argument of the Year?). So how did the FTCC get there? Unlike the CRs, the FTCC went to other groups across campus, such as the ASUW Student Senate and the Residence Hall Student Association, giving presentations about Fair Trade Certification and why it was a beneficial idea. Where they met opposition, they didn’t belittle those challenging them, they engaged those individuals in dialogue, eventually persuading the vast majority.

So how can you, as a progressive activist, ensure your advocacy and outreach are actually accomplishing something? First, make sure your outreach extends beyond those who already support your cause. Design your publicity to attract those who would otherwise be apathetic or even disagree with you. Second, step back and consider the event from the point of view of your opponents – will you further alienate them or engage them in further dialogue, thus creating the opportunity to change their position? Finally, remember that language matters! Frame your ideas in ways that communicate, and are consistent with, your moral vision. For more on this, George Lakoff's Don’t Think of an Elephant! is the perfect starting point.

Positive progressive change IS possible and can start right here on the University of Washington campus. There’s no time like the present for bringing it about.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

General Convention II - Immigration Speech

I feel like a newsreel - everything I'm reporting from the Convention is about a day late because I'm just not finding very much time to really say what I want to say here.

The Millenium Development Goals have emerged as the biggest topic of discussion besides all the "gay stuff"... the MDGs are also a part of the "ONE Campaign" that we've all heard a lot about from people like Bono. The idea with ONE is that if every person and institution in the developed world gave only 0.7% of their annual revenue towards alleviating impoverished conditions, extreme poverty would be eradicated by 2015. Already, many regional divisions of the Episcopal Church (called "dioceses") give 0.7% of their budgets, and all churchmembers are encouraged to do the same themselves. The resolutions at hand call for the national church to follow suit - this would be a huge boost for the ONE campaign.

But, of course, straight men just can't get enough of talking about gay men - and so the only issue the mainstream press cares about from the General Convention is the issue of the gay bishop we elected in 2003. Some are calling for the Church to officially "express regret" about what it did. Considering that I found the Episcopal Church and eventually became Episcopalian exactly because I saw a Church going through an honest and open discussion of sexuality. In fact, it was right around the same time that I was really coming out to myself that I started to look for a church again - and the Episcopal Church welcomed me. Should it "express regret" for me, and for the countless others it has drawn in from the cold by being so inclusive? I think not.

On the 13th (yesterday), I testified to the Church's National and International Concerns Committee about a resolution proposed to adopt a new document as part of the Church's policy on immigration. The document ("The Alien Among You" - located just above the resolution in the link above) is a good step, but misses some fundamental concerns such as more protection against criminalization of humanitarian aid for migrants at the border, deeper reform of the path towards legal residency and citizenship to make these paths more accessible, and opposition to militarization of the border and vigilante activity by groups like the "Minutemen."

In the Christian spirit, here is my resurrected speech:

Resolution A017 is a good step forward for the Church's policy on immigration. It makes some crucial recognitions such as recognizing that a system which forces immigrants to live in fear and hiding creates an underground world where they are subject to exploitation, that the system of attaining residency is broken, and that xenophobia since 9-11 has sharply increased. A good summary of the document is made near its end: "Let us not fear being agents of generosity and abundance."

However, several key shortcomings to the document make it incomplete as the Church's holistic policy. My colleagues will review several of these - I would like to highlight the issue of border militarization and vigiliantism.

We see that President Bush recently deployed about 5,000 National Guard troops to the border with Mexico. The federal government recently approved funds for the construction of a fence - I ask you here, does a fence keep "them" in or does it keep us in?

Especially here in Columbus, the idea of a border fence is especially ironic, considering we meet today in a city named after a gentleman, who, with good intentions, nevertheless inaugurated the age of European border drawing around the world.

If we are truly committed to the radical hospitality of Christ as key to our ongoing conversion and salvation, we can't stand by and watch as guests to the Wedding Banquet are blocked from entering or even actively being thrown out, as is the case with the Minutemen.

The document and A017 are good steps towards addressing what we recognize to be an issue that violent and fearful reaction cannot solve. I believe that this resolution should be amended to not only adopt the document as our policy-in-progress, but to call for further development of the document that could address these and other concerns.

The ability of people to pursue a different life in America is the unique American ministry to the world. We as the American church have a chance to speak for the extension of this ministry to all of God's honored guests, non of whom we are entitled to turn away, none of whom could ever be called "illegal."

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

General Convention I - Introduction

I've found the first real "me" time at this whole thing... I'm sitting in an alcove by the lobby of my hotel here in Columbus because I've been hoping for a while for the chance to "blog" this convention.

In a nutshell - I've never seen so many collars in one place before. The General Convention of the Episcopal Church draws about 10,000 people every three years to some unfortunate place in the country - this year, Columbus, Ohio. It's a great city, much to my surprise. We discovered later that something is terribly wrong with this place: the city is completely spotless. I have yet to see a SINGLE piece of stray litter flapping around in the breeze along the sidewalk. Barely even a crumb - for proof of this, also consider the fact that I have not even seen a single PIGEON yet. People are friendly, service is good, and food is tasty. I came up with the theory that beneath the streets in an ancient sewer system, an underground underclass lives off of the city's trash - thus, none is seen.

After pulling into the hotel at around 8:30pm on Sunday night the 11th, I was exhausted and also slightly nervous with anticipation about meeting my new colleagues and also my new roommate for the next eleven days. Great people, every single one of them. It's going to be a great time... these are going to be good friends.

A lot of people are pretty nervous about General Convention... at the last convention, the Church approved the election of an openly gay man (Gene Robinson) as a Bishop - this let the dogs out, for sure. Bishop Duncan of Pittsburgh is waging a venomous verbal/psychological campaign of division against the rest of the church family because he and a gaggle of other "leaders" think the best way to address their disagreements of the issue of Bp. Robinson is to threaten to leave the church entirely!

Since I've been here, I've heard a lot of metaphors about the church as a family: people disagree, but they come together in the end at the Table to do those few pieces of truly inviolable business. As long as a family is able to share a Table, it also maintains a critical foundation for reconciliation and understanding. This was the hope of consecrating Gene Robinson - the initiation of a new dialogue.

Instead, the homophobes in the church (who annoyingly call themselves "traditional Christians" or "orthodox") have simply left the table altogether - I learned today that a group of them are meeting separately from the rest of the family for worship. How sad.

In the meanwhile, the Church is grappling many other issues (believe it or not, some Americans care about more than "pelvic politics")... the big buzz this year is around mobilizing the entire Church to rally for the Millenium Development Goals and the ONE Campaign to "Make Poverty History." I just came back from a Eucharist service that used all U2 songs - very cool.

I hope the Church can set an example for the world of what an intentional, tense, productive, familial democracy can look like. I wrote a letter to my friends along those lines - I might post that later. The point was, however, that the Church can show the world how to LIVE democracy.

Let's see.

"We love because he first loved us. Those who say, ‘I love God’, and hatetheir brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brotheror sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must lovetheir brothers and sisters also." - 1 John 4:19