Thursday, March 14, 2013

God's Politics and Mine

Wallis in Parts III and IV bites off a whole lot to chew on -- War and Poverty -- Two realities that have always been with us, and surely are evident in the world today.   Writing in 2004/5 Wallis of course is focused on the aftermath of 9/11 and the presidency of George W. Bush.  Charitably, Wallis does not see W as bad person, a hypocrite religiously.   Rather, W is sadly misinformed about what biblical faith is.  (And so are a whole bunch of other American Christians.)  Wallis -- rightly, in my view -- finds the civic religion of our time frightening, and dangerous.  

"The real theological problem in America today is no longer the religious Right, but the nationalist religion of the Bush administration, one that confuses the identity of the nation with the church, and God’s purposes with the mission of American empire."  (Kindle  2806-2807)

W is no longer President, of course.   But given the current President's use of war in Afghanistan and military drones a whole lot of other places, one is disappointed that we haven't moved farther away from war as an instrument of international politics.  It is deeply entrenched in us all.

In Part IV  Wallis makes some excellent points about where conservatives and liberals ought to be able to agree.  He points to 'conservative' values of promoting healthy families, teaching personal responsibility, and discouraging sexual promiscuity as values that everyone can and should embrace, for the good of the poor.  Liberals are right to point out where economic and social systems deny opportunity to the poor.  But as they do, they shouldn't be ashamed to also say "Amen" to some of the things conservatives value.

Wallis calls the church to stand with the poor, personally and politically. And he cites instances where people of faith, working together, have been able to achieve great changes in the world.

Along the way he makes good use of biblical material:  the idea of "Jubilee" in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, Mary's Magnificat, the many voices of the prophets that excoriate the rich who oppress the poor.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Healing, Chapters 5 and 6

Here are some observations about these chapters -- some ideas that I think are important.  See what you think!

Chapter Five – The Company of Strangers

A call for the renewal of the “public life” – as in a “pub” where hospitality is offered to all.   Palmer encourages “free spaces” “where ordinary citizens can act with dignity, independence, and vision.”  (p 96)

Palmer here lays the foundation for “democracy circles” that are central to his hope that the divisions of our society can, over time, be bridged.  The solution is not found in large-scale programs, but in grass-root circles of people talking to one another with respect.

The physical divisions of society – gated communities, with guards and entry codes being perhaps the most stark symbol thereof – need to be somehow reconnected.  He writes, 
“As I watch some of our elected leaders slam into each other and shove each other aside, escalating the verbal violence that helps makes our political life toxic, I wonder if walking to work every day might make them better leaders. As I watch some ordinary Americans behave in a similar style—often the most privileged Americans who need not mingle with the hoi polloi—I wonder if some long walks in the city might make better citizens of them.”  (p. 99)

It is not only the superrich who are isolated from people who have very little.  I as a “middle class” person have little direct contact with the poor.   And thus little understanding and empathy for their plight.

The “private” thus cut off from the “public” is not healthy for society as a whole.  He writes:  “We are so obsessed with our private lives that we are largely oblivious to our public diminishments.  (p. 102)

Chapter Six:  Classrooms and Congregations

In light the recent ascent of evangelical churches into the political realm, Palmer’s look at the role of congregations in the revival of public life is especially important.  He cites Tocqueville again in this regard:

“Tocqueville is one of many who have wondered whether religious communities can serve American democracy well. It is true that religious convictions have sometimes divided us. But divisiveness is far from the whole story of religion's role in human history. [Emphasis mine.] In light of the fact that religious communities have been our most prominent form of voluntary associational life from the Plymouth Colony to the present, congregations must rank high on any list of settings where Americans develop their habits of the heart.   (p 121)

On the connection of the classroom and the church Palmer notes, “ However, I am equally passionate about not wanting to violate the deepest needs of the human soul, which our educational system does with some regularity. An education that pretends to explore only the outer world is disingenuous and incomplete."   (p 123)

Another great quote, that includes another great quote:

“My core religious beliefs include this simple article of faith: the God who gave all of us life wants us to do the same for each other. When people or groups who claim religious motivation make their points by using violence in any form—spiritual, psychological, verbal, or physical—it seems clear to me that they are driven by fear rather than faith, committed to control instead of trust in God. The writer Anne Lamott says, “You can safely assume you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” (p 136)

A challenge to our own congregation:  what does “diversity” mean for us – and how open do we dare to be with one another?  On page 138:

“My response to the requests I get to help such congregations “diversify” is simple: “There is no such thing as a ‘homogenous white congregation.’ There are only groups of white people pretending that they have no critical differences among themselves for fear that their ‘community’ would crumble if they opened their real lives to one another. Why would anyone with a visible difference want to join a group of people who look like each other but cannot embrace their own invisible differences?”
Further – another good question for self-reflection:

“When a congregation is profoundly clergy-centered—when the pedagogy consists of a clergyperson (performer) downloading information and inspiration to parishioners (audience)—the game is rigged. The theological message may be one of community, but the lived experience is one of dependence on an authority. Under those conditions, not much can be done to build the communal trust that allows compassion to flower, no matter how benign the leader is.”

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Healing the Heart Three

One phrase, in the opening quotation by Terry Williams, captures a great deal of the problem of our political process these days:  Can we listen with our whole beings, and not just our minds, and offer our attention rather than our opinions?”  On the one hand, the political ads we are seeing appeal NOT to our minds, but to our emotions – especially the emotion of fear.   The information begin offered is questionable at best, and the graphics unfailingly mock the victim of the ad.  And so I hope for more mindful appeals – reasonable, factual, honest.   But Williams is saying that emotion too – the heart, in Palmer’s parlance – must be in play.   Mind and heart . . .

Having said that, I do think that most people’s “opinions” so freely offered and so seldom supported would do well to include honest, thoughtful analysis of the issues at hand.

A disturbing truth:  Not only does an appeal to the emotions almost always trump an appeal to intellect, but presenting facts that contradict deeply held beliefs is more likely to reinforce those beliefs than compel people to change them.   (p. 51)

This begins a fascinating section about how “the heart” – the non-rational part of us – is really the ruling part in so many circumstances.   Realtors will tell you that people buy homes largely because of emotional reasons.  They are not void of reasonable analysis of the purchase.  But in the end it is the heart that “simply loves it,” and the purchase goes through even if it may mean a financial stretch.

Palmer cites Alan Greenspan’s shock when financial leaders chose the way not of the good for all, but the good for themselves, or the perceived good, that is personal financial gain.  He had believed – as a disciple of Ayn Rand – that the free market would avoid such things as the collapse of 2008.  But reasonable people in charge of lots of people’s money, for a number of years made foolish and selfish decisions about that money.  Thus, their “heart” ruled over their minds.

The answer to our problem, says Palmer, is not a coldly intellectual, purely rational approach to issues – that would deny the reality that we are creatures of head AND heart – but an engagement of the whole person (mind and emotion, head and heart) in the challenges of the world. 

So Palmer invites us to find commonalty in our common heartbreak of these times.  Not that we are all heartbroken for the same reason – Tea-Party folk and progressives do not share the same cause for their broken hearts.  But the experience we have of heartbreak – disappointment, disillusionment, lost dreams, anger – is the same.  And perhaps in that agreement we can begin the long process of  mending our hearts and our society.

The last sections of the chapter make some excellent observations about how many of us deal with our “Heart Disease.”  Rather than “going within” to the real heart of the matter, we salve our souls with  “toxic consumerism,” while placing the blame for our pain on “the other” – by scapegoating.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Healing the Heart Two

Prelude . . .

            “Hearing each other’s stories, which are often stories of heartbreak, can create an unexpected bond between so-called pro-life and pro-choice.” (p. 5)

This is a key assumption of Palmer’s work – not only do we need to be “in touch” with our soul within, our authentic self, but also with others, especially, perhaps the “others” who are not like us.   The walls that we build so quickly and so well rest upon false ideas of who the “other” is.  Talking to one another (and that requires patient, careful listening to the other) is the means by which we hear the stories of those we think to be our enemies.   
Palmer will talk more about that:  listening to their stories without judgment,  and in an attitude of unconditional acceptance not of their ideas (which may be radically and dangerously opposite of ours), but of the person – a “child of God” we would say, giving them the ultimate praise.   When we listen, and then are listened to, there is an opening for understanding and for peace.

Chapter 1 . . .

            Palmer talks here about the “confusion” that is necessary in a democracy.  A dictatorship has the attraction of order in a society.  A citizen may not like that order (especially if the order rigs the odds against them), while another may like it a lot – if they are near the top of the heap held in place by the power of the dictator.  There is some comfort in having one’s options limited, or decided by others.  Indeed some people coming out of oppressive regimes my at times wish for the days when they didn’t have to think very much.  The Israelites, once they had escaped the slavery of Egypt, had times when they longed for the days of slavery when at least they had food to eat.
            So democracy is “less efficient” and full of tension, not unlike a prairie.  The trick is handling that tension.   Here Palmer distinguishes between good bad stress (“distress”) and good stress (“eustress”).  The former is negative and destructive, while the later is healthy – so long as we learn to use it for dialogue and for growth.
            On page 14 he lists “our key civic capacities.”  How many of those do we live out in our political process? 
            Palmer’s book is not about mere “techniques,” as helpful as they can be at times.  Instead of those, he says, “we need insights into ourselves and our world.” (p. 15).
            At the end of Chapter One he sketches out the structure of the book, beginning with . . .

Chapter 2 . . .

            A starting place is the truth that “Whatever is in the common good is, in the long run, good for me and mine.”  (p. 31)   One wonders, then, at the key question that many politicians use in their campaigns:  “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”   Shouldn’t a better question be, “Are WE better off now than WE were  four years ago?”   A nation of individuals concerned primarily about their own lives, it seems to me, is a nation destined to decline.  It seems inarguably clear that unless we all prosper, none of us will in the end.  That is Judeo-Christian principle, and a perfectly reasonable one too.
            The story about the Sunday School class Palmer witnessed in 1974 is a moving one about people who value deeply and seek to live out the gift of political freedom – “Learning how to listen well, speak clearly, and follow procedures in the larger, more diverse, and conflicted world of American politics.”  (p. 38)
            The chapter ends with Palmer’s “Five Habits of the Heart” that he says we need to cultivate in our community and political life.   They are under two general categories:  Humility and Chutzpah.  See the first blog on this book for more on the habits.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Healing the Heart of Democracy -- One

Parker Palmer's book, Healing the Heart of Democracy, is a provocative and I would say even profound analysis of our nation's present toxic political landscape.  Provocative because of his observations about "the things we do" like our most cherished pastime, namely, amassing possessions.  He writes well, with sharp wit and also humility that admits his own complicity in the faults of American society.  Profound because he is asking deep questions about us . . . about our hearts and the habits of the heart we cultivate.  He does not offer quick, and surely not easy answers to the divisions that hobble us.  He does invite us to ask some difficult questions of ourselves.

Palmer is big into "paradox" -- holding in tension seemingly opposite views and values, rather than siding on one side or the other.  Out of that tension, he says, comes creativity and new life.  Breaking the tension (denying the other's perspective and needs) brings death, to the individual and to society.  But the holding of that tension -- over a long period of time, decades even -- requires diligence, patience, courage, and hope.  All of which most of us are in short supply these days.

So his call is to a new way of doing our politics, and really community in general.  He calls for us to cultivate new "habits of heart," ways of being and doing and relating to one another:

Three have to do with "humility:"

            1.  Believe that we're all in this together -- we need each other, all of us.
            2.  Develop an appreciation of the value of "otherness" -- in people different from us we learn not only about them, but about ourselves too.
            3.  Cultivate the ability to hold tension in life-giving ways -- learning how to stay with a difference of opinion, of culture, of value long enough for a new understanding, new life, to emerge.

Two habits of the heart have to do with "chutzpah," or personal confidence and action:
            4. Generate a sense of personal voice and agency -- to be able to speak, and to be an agent of change.
            5.  Strengthen our capacity to create community -- for it is in community that we can go forward  as a society, with everyone on board.

A key image throughout the book is that of a "broken heart."  The heart, he says, that center of our being where our truest self lives, is often broken.  But it can be "broken apart," leading to disintegration, separation, and ultimately death, or, it can be "broken open," to embrace others, to live compassionately and in hope.  Which way the heart goes, he counsels, depends on the habits of the heart we have been nurturing through our years as a person or as a society.  

While Palmer is always concerned with the heart of the individual, he doesn't leave it there.  The healthy soul, with a heart that is broken open, expresses itself in compassion toward the "other," toward the needs of the world.  This book includes very practical suggestions about how we can create again community -- public spaces -- where the private and the political realms can meet, where we can practice basic skills of listening to one another and to our inner Teacher, and together renew our culture and "create a politics worthy of the human spirit."

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Anyone else game?

One of our group, Steve Barney, was so convinced and moved by our last book that he has taken Peter Singer up on his invitation to do something concrete to help create a "culture of giving."  Below is his pledge to give more to save lives, at some cost to his own enjoyment.  And he has invited us to ask from time to time how he's doing!  Thank you, Steve, for giving us an example.

I PLEDGE . . . that I will make a matching donation, approximately equal to the amount that I spend on nonessential luxury items over the remainder of this year, to an organization, or organizations, helping people throughout the world who live in extreme poverty by giving it to GiveWell ( for the sole purpose of re-granting it to some of their top charities, according to their next round of charity evaluation research, without using any of it for their own operating expenses.

Steve Barney
Oshkosh, WI
June 23, 2012

PS: By making this pledge public, I hope that I am, in my own small way, "creating a culture of giving" (title of chapter 5):

"The most important reason for pledging is that by doing so you help to change the culture of giving."...
--The Life You Can Save --

This is my self-imposed luxury or consumption tax, similar to one described in Singer’s book:

"Israel Shenker, founder and CEO of the Philadelphia-based real estate firm ISS Development, is happy to tell others about his standard. He matches everything he spends on discretionary items—vacations, a luxury car, a larger house than he needs—with a charitable donation of the same amount." ...
"Shenker’s standard is a self-imposed consumption tax—if you spend extravagantly, you will also be giving substantially. But much will depend on how strictly the category of "discretionary item" is interpreted: Remember that bottle of water. On the other hand, a consumption-related standard allows those who are reinvesting their income productively to live modestly and continue to do so. The very rich, though, should go beyond merely matching their philanthropy to their consumption."...  (The Life You Can Save, p. 160-161)

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Let’s Hear It For the Arts

In Singer’s Chapter Nine – Asking Too Much? – he argues that if rescuing people from dying is the greatest good – more important than anything else one could do – then all of our resources (beyond the barest necessities of sustaining our own life) should, for us to be ethical, be given to efforts that save lives.  “My argument does imply that it is wrong to spend money on those things [gourmet food, music systems] when we could instead be using the money to save people’s lives and prevent great suffering.”   Later on that page 149, after the example of buying good stereo equipment, he asks, “Can it be ethical to live that way?”  His implied answer is surely “No.”

Likewise, he says, giving to the arts is, in our world, “morally dubious.” 

Singer, of course, does not think many people will live by his argument that any expenditures beyond our basic needs should be given to help the extremely poor.  He realizes that, in fact, few of us will.  He contents himself to challenging rich people to give away a mere 5% of their income, and the rest of us perhaps 1%.  His challenge is quite modest, and achievable. 

As compelling is his logic, and as informative are his statistics (about poverty and about the super-rich), however, it seems to me that he neglects the human need to create.  We do not stay alive merely to stay alive.  There is something within the human spirit that longs for beauty, for joy, for creativity – the arts.  The world, of course, could easily do both:  pay for amazing artistic activities, and save the dying too.   If only the rich would just spare the rest of the world some change.

For our part we can donate to efforts that seek to save lives. But we can’t do that if we neglect other parts of the soul – community, art, joy, leisure, rest.   A culture that neglected these, I think, would soon care little for the dying, or for each other either. 

Is it possible that a dying soul is as bad as a dying body?