Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Thoughts on the religious-political "spectrum"

This post can also be found as a podcast here. If you want to go directly to mp3 download, click this link.

I opened the paper this week, looking to see if there was any coverage of the new We Believe group, or of the upcoming lecture/discussion with Jim Wallis. I was terribly disappointed to find, instead, that The Other Paper had a cover story entitled "The Dwindling Religious Middle".

Isn't that a bit premature? In my experience, there isn't even widespread awareness yet of faith voices speaking out from a point of view *other* than the far right. I am sure, for example, that many more people were aware of the Justice Sunday events than the diverse, interdenominational events that were held in response to them. I have often heard secular progressives complain that people of faith are not being vocal enough in countering the message of the religious right. I find that very frustrating, because the truth is, there are, and always have been such voices, but they simply don't get as much press. The Other Paper, which *has* given front page, in-depth attention to pastors like Rod Parsley and Russell Johnson, seems intent on being part of the problem. When they finally do get around to acknowledging the people of faith who are advocating a more compassionate, neighborly way of putting faith into action, it is only in the context of describing the plight of the "religious middle". In my mind, the fact that a letter Rev. Tim Ahrens sent out to dozens of area pastors in November has blossomed into a new organization built around the common ground shared by diverse people of faith should be, by itself, front page news. But the Other Paper article glossed over that news on its way to covering the plight of ministers who do not want to be political.

There are a number of things I find troubling about this article. The first is that, even though it is an "alternative" publication, the article falls into the same tired black and white way of seeing the world as most mainstream news sources. Right versus left, with us or against us...can't we please just *try* to have some dialog that doesn't force a dichotomy where one doesn't exist?

From the article: Wallis would like to position himself as a moderate, but the fact that he is embraced by the left probably gives away his proper place in the political-religious spectrum.

Well, thank you for speaking for him. Without translating the words *he* chooses into stark, black and white terms, people might be forced to grapple with the notion that the political-religious spectrum is just that--a spectrum, with a whole range of hues and gradations.

But you notice what the writer just did--he conveyed the message that Wallis is *really* aligned with the left, but didn't *quite* say it is so many words. He left himself some wiggle room--some plausible deniability.

Getting back to the idea of a spectrum, there really is a full continuum of viewpoints, from liberal to conservative on any number of issues. Someone may be more conservative on issues of personal liberties, but more liberal on economic issues, for example. Or vice-versa. Of course, when you step into the voting booth, you typically are faced with a series of either-or decisions. Do I vote for this candidate or that one? Yes or no on this particular issue?

In a time when this country has a president known for such stark statements as "You're either with us or against us", and when the religious leaders who get the most media attention frame political issues in similarly stark terms, it is easy to fall into that type of black and white thinking. But that doesn't mean that they *should*. Certainly, anyone who wishes to call him or herself a *journalist* should be able to see that issues are more complex than that, and, if they are worth their salt, they should be able to find a way to communicate these complex issues to the public in a way that can be understood.

We *must* learn to find common ground and work to create win-win outcomes. The We Believe group, in my opinion, is on the right track. Look at the home page--the tag line is "Uniting diverse religious voices to achieve social justice". By implication, David Niven casts We Believe as liberal, even though they represent a broad range of positions on the spectrums of faith and public policy. I'm sure there are members who, on the "hot button issues" of homosexuality and abortion, have views that are similar to those espoused by Rod Parsley and Russell Johnson. But they disagree with them on other issues, and have covenanted with the rest of the membership of We Believe to work together on issues where they share common ground. The group, as a whole, shares the "strong belief that we must act and speak in public ways to support the poor, the children, and those who are voiceless and unrepresented in our times".

And that is precisely who suffers if we continue to perpetuate the myth that issues of faith and politics are black and white and center around a couple highly divisive issues. It pained me and, yes, even angered me, to see the needs of those Jesus called "the least of these" go unaddressed while people of faith were persuaded of the dire need to vote for a constitutional amendment to make same sex marriage even more illegal in Ohio than it already was. Sometimes it's okay to be angry, and injustice makes me angry. It also angers me, with so much at stake, to see people who purport to be journalists taking their cues from people who, for their own political purposes, want to paint issues of faith and politics in stark, black and white, "with us or against us" terms. They need to do better than that, and, as much as I don't need something else on my to-do list, it's our job to call them on it when they start dumbing things down to the point that they are misrepresenting the truth.

Oh, and did I mention that I *really* have enough to do already, thank you very much. But then I hear about people like Maggie Kuhn, and I feel inspired, humbled, and a little sheepish that I'm not doing more...

Maggie Kuhn, the Gray Panthers charismatic leader changed the face of society with regard to the elderly. She was a committed, hard-working woman who at age 65 began an organization that continues her tradition of fighting for a better life for all. Her advice for those who want to make a change in the world is, "Go to the people at the top - that is my advice to anyone who wants to change the system, any system. Don't moan and groan with like-minded souls. Don't write letters or place a few phone calls and then sit back and wait. Leave safety behind. Put your body on the line. Stand before the people you fear and speak your mind--even if your voice shakes. When you least expect it, someone may actually listen to what you have to say. Well-aimed slingshots can topple giants."

Okay, *fine* Maggie. You do make a compelling point. Guess I just need to "keep on keeping on". Now, I just *know* that slingshot is around here somewhere...

UPDATE: Please check out the whole article and share your thoughts with the writer if you feel so inclined. You can select David Niven from the drop-down menu here


Something I mentioned in the podcast that didn't make it into this post is the fact that the other big issue I had with this article is the portrayal of ministers "staying out of politics" as a positive or desirable thing.

There IS NO getting away from politics. It touches everything. It is, in fact, "made of people". And if we just keep trying to respond with charity to the new ways the far right finds of trashing every safety net we have, there's no way we'll ever be able to keep up. The "least of these" will be much better off if they get *justice* than charity, but we can't work for justice without getting some politics on us.

Monday, March 27, 2006

The religious middle is dwindling?

Just a reminder about my blog, Faithful Ohio, which I try to keep updated with events and commentary. I've asked (and am asking again) for people of faith in Ohio to submit guest commentaries and notices about upcoming events.

Something I'd appreciate some commentary on, and *not* just from people in Ohio, is the cover story in this week's edition of The Other Paper. It's about The Dwindling Religious Middle.

Particularly this part...

But to Pastor Rogers, issues like poverty and homelessness are why churches should stay out of politics.

"Politics has distracted us from the job," he said. "It's distracted us from what we're called to do. Politics is polarizing. You can't do effective work when you're polarized."

"These religious groups spend time and energy proving their political points while ignoring the horrible wrongs all around them. If you took the money spent on campaigns, that would be a lot of food to feed the hungry."

"That just bothers me," he said with a sigh. "It's a basic human flaw. We really insist on being right, don't we?"

Rogers is actively involved in the Free Store, which provides basic household items to those in need, regardless of religious backgrounds or political perspectives.

"No one bothers talking or arguing about politics there," he said. "The political-religious battle in the newspaper is less important when you're clothing a single mother and her children, keeping the family in a warm apartment."

I have started my own response to the article, but haven't had a chance to finish it yet. One thing people should be aware of is the fact that the We Believe group, which is mentioned in the article, is about uniting *diverse religious voices*. The point is to get away from issues that are polarizing and find issues that appeal to our common values that we can work together on. And when the minister says that people have tried to get him to be more political, while I don't know this for sure, I think he might be saying that people have pursuaded him to join B.R.E.A.D., a 10 year old organization made up of some of the same people as We Believe, and focussing on social justice issues on which a broad range of faith perspectives can agree.

Monday, March 13, 2006

We believe! Ohio launch tomorrow

Finally, sane religious voices are joining together to counter these folks.


I know I've been wanting that since...well, I have no idea how long, but for a bloody long time, that's for sure!

The launch of the group We Believe! Ohio is tomorrow. If you've ever wondered aloud where were the moderate, sane religious leaders countering the far right, well, here they are. But they're going to need some help if they are to be heard.

Here is the time and location of the launch event/press conference:
Tuesday, March 14, 2006
11:00 AM
The First AME Zion Church
873 Bryden Rd. Columbus, OH

More details can be found here

Please do anything you can to help spread the word that, as the little people in Horton Hears a Who collectively shouted, "We are here!" We will need a pretty powerful microphone to be heard over the money and media access of the far right.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Politics and the Pulpit (audio)

Via Upper Arlington Progressive Alliance:

After a liberal church was targeted by the IRS for preaching political views and threatened with its tax-exempt status, it lashed out and argued that some conservative churches could be in the same situation. This led to several conservative churches in Ohio being investigated by the IRS.

Host Barbara Bogaev talks with Ed Bacon, rector of All Saints, a liberal church in California, and Russell Johnson, pastor of the conservative Fairfield Christian Church, about IRS probes at their respective churches; and explores their political and religious differences and common ground.

Listen here.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Listening for, and acting upon, one's call

I just put my second podcast online. When I came home from church yesterday, my husband Demetrius told me that he'd listened to the first one I did.

Oh? Pause. "That was very brave of you." Quizzical expression. "Brave?" Sometimes "brave" can be a nice way of saying "stupid". We used to watch the British political comedy, Yes, Minister, and there was a joke on that show that the word "courageous" was code for "political suicide". He's a sweetie, and I was pretty sure he didn't mean it that way, but I was feeling a bit insecure about my recent leap into uncharted territory.

He went on to explain that it seemed "out of character" for me. Well, yeah. I get a little nervous when I have to make a phone call, for crying out loud, so how did I summon the courage to do this? And what reason did I have for doing this that made it worth pushing past that nervousness and getting into "Just do it!" mode.

Short answer? God told me to. I explore what that means in today's podcast.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Launch of We Believe! Ohio

Crossposted at Faithful Ohio

A few days ago, I had the opportunity to meet with Rev. Tim Ahrens, pastor of First Congregational Church in downtown Columbus. He is the one who, as is described in this article in the Columbus Dispatch, sent a letter to dozens of pastors in central Ohio, with the intent of starting a dialog about how people of faith who care about a broad range of "values" issues can begin to make themselves heard. Something I already knew when I sat down with Tim, and that he emphasized in our meeting, is that this is not a "liberal" or "progressive" group, but rather a broad coalition of religious leaders and people of faith who agree that the message of prominent religious leaders like Rod Parsley and Russell Johnson does not speak for them:

"It centers in a few issues and on a few people, and it takes the nuances out of the debate around those issues and turns them into black-and-white issues," Ahrens said last week. "Some of those issues are questions about homosexuality, abortion and a definition of Muslims that is condescending and judgmental. Those are the issues that have been posited as the issues for Christians, but there are many of us who know that Jesus had a lot more to say about stewardship for the poor, about orphans and widows and others in need.

"We are, in a sense, saying that the Jesus being portrayed is not the Jesus we know and love and follow."

One of the most important things to do now, Rev. Ahrens said, is, like those tiny people on the dust speck in Horton Hears a Who, say "We are here!"

If you agree that it is important to help make sure that the dialog about values is more diverse and inclusive, please help spread the word about the new group, We Believe! and the upcoming press conference.

February 25, 2006

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Faith,

Since November 2005, a group of over 100 pastors, priests, rabbis, cantors and actively committed lay leaders from Roman Catholism, two traditions of Judaism, and 15+ Protestant denominations have met to discuss what we as people of faith can say as one voice speaking on behalf of the poor and on behalf of those who have a wide-ranging viewpoint on the intersection of faith and public policy.

We are black and white. We are men and women. We come from a wide range of theological diversity as well. We are conservative, moderate and liberal on the spectrum of faith and public policy! We serve urban, suburban and rural people in our houses of worship. We hold in common a deep and abiding love of the God whom we serve.

We also share in common our strong belief that we must act and speak in public ways to support the poor, the children and those who are voiceless and unrepresented in our times. We will speak with love to power as we serve God in these times.

Our name is WE BELIEVE!.

We are ready to launch our group (as ready as we ever will be). We want you to be a part of this launch.

On Tuesday, March 14, at 11:00am we will hold our first press conference. We are gathering at 10:30am at Pastor Vincent T. Frosh's church, The First AME Zion Church, 893 Bryden Road. We will gather there to pray together and prepare for our common unveiling of purpose.

We are planning for the presence of 150 people of faith at this public launch. We hope you are one of those people! We also hope that you bring 4-5 others with you. If you are a clergy person, bring other colleagues. If you are a lay person - come as a local leader - and bring your priest, pastor, deacon, elder, rabbi, cantor or imam.

Contact Rev. Tim Ahrens if you are coming - call Tim at 228-1741, ext. 13. or email at tim@first-church.org.

In closing, we ask you to do three more things:

1) Read our statement and our action steps below. If you can abide in these things, join us.

2) Pass this email on to others.

3) As you do this, please know that over the past 100 days, WE BELIEVE has evolved. With our greatest attendance at 65 leaders, we have sung together and prayed together. We have listened to great preachers and theologians reflect on faith and public life. We have hammered out a statement in a democratic format. Through it all, we have determined to stay together and work out the future of our group. We admire and thank all who have been a part of this network thus far. Help us to grow and go further.

by American, Ohioan People who love our religious and civic traditions:

WE BELIEVE! We are called as people of faith and loyal Americans to be
united in dialogue and action to say:
YES to justice for all
NO to prosperity for only a few;
YES to diverse religious expression
NO to self-righteous certainty;
YES to the common good
NO to discrimination against any of God's people;
YES to the voice of religious traditions informing public policy
NO to crossing the lines that separate the institutions of Religion and Government
Approved 1/26/06


1. We will work on Voter Turn-out and an Absentee Voter Initiative with the goal of clergy turning out 80% of their members.

2. We will work on an initiative to Give Children, Poor and Homeless People a Voice and Vote

3.We will work on an initiative to Preach on Issues of Religion and Social Justice in Our Society.

4. We will establish a Website and maintain it.

5. We will work on an initiative to Create Public Events for "WE BELIEVE!"

6. We will publish a Book of Sermons around these topics.

Again, bring fellow clergy on March 14th. Pass the word. See you there.

On behalf of "We Believe!,"

Tim Ahrens
If questions, call me, 228-1741, ext. 13
A printable PDF of Rev. Ahrens letter can be found here.