upper room daily devotions

Thursday, June 28, 2012

On Civil Civic Discourse - Following Lunch with the Israeli Ambassador to the United States

A couple of months ago, my church was fortunate to host Tavis Smiley and Cornel West for a private lunch with area religious leaders, educators, public sector workers, and not-for-profit leaders. About 130 people who rarely find themselves all in one room were gathered together - deans, professors, homeless people, housing advocates, health care providers, city workers, entrepreneurs, and Muslim, Jewish, and Christians leaders. There was a general sense of, "Wow! It CAN be like this." As an act of reciprocation, the Seattle AJC invited me to an interfaith lunch with Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, who was in town for a public event later in the evening. During lunch, straightforward questions were asked about Israel's policies, settlements, Iran, Egypt, nuclear armament, the Wall, and other topics. And, these topics were discussed without the tenor of the discourse fraying into the usual name calling mass of crazy that so very often accompanies difficult conversations. For some, these two lunches have sparked interest in exploring the nature of public discourse in America (at least in the Pacific Northwest) - real, deep, serious, meaningful exploration. Is civil civic discourse possible, especially during an election year? What role does religion play in public discourse? And, can it be a positive influence in our public commons rather than something divisive and polarizing?

The language that we use profoundly shapes not only the obvious message, but it conveys a meta-message. When we heard words -- "progressive," "conservative," "elite," "religious," "Christian," "Zionist," "God," "believe," "FOX news watcher," "MSNBC follower," "Islamicist," "radical," "socialist," etc -- we create associations with meaning that go far beyond the literal meaning of the word. Take "Christian," for example. The word literally means "little Christ" and has been used for two thousand years to describe a follower of Jesus. However, in American culture today, the word tends to lean toward the following caricatures:
  1.  An Evangelical (probably Southern) who doesn't "believe" in evolution, global warming, gun control, peace, love, grace, intellectual pursuits, homosexual equality, abortion, education, a common good, diversity, tolerance, inclusion, or science. This person probably does "believe" in an exclusionary Christology, a jingoistic nationalism, patriotism, truncating personal liberties if they contradict evangelical values, a strong military, no new taxes, limited government except as that government enforces evangelical beliefs, the moral authority of the GOP, tea party leanings, racism, homophobia, white supremacy, and the power of faith over science.
  2. A Roman Catholic, who in addition to sharing most of the traits listed for the Evangelical, covers up for pedophiles and is a misogynist.  
  3. A prophet of the prosperity gospel seen as a new brand of snake oil salesman/person, who uses Christian language to teach personal and financial gain. This prophet most likely serves a megachurch, is wealthy, fleeces its congregants, and sells programs for self improvment.
When someone upsets these caricatures (e.g. Cornel West, Helen Prejan, Tony Campolo, Jim Wallis, Martin Luther King, Jr.), their Christian identity is subsumed within a more tolerable humanism, or they are simply ignored (Diana Butler Bass, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, Otis Moss III, mainline bishops and adjudicatory leaders). The problem, of course, is that our whole common good suffers when we reduce our public discourse to caricature paintings brushed with hyperbole. Take poverty, for example, "the poor" are neither good nor bad; they are poor. But, today's rhetoric focuses on the worth or morality of the poor person, arguing alternately that poor people are agentless victims, aka the "honorable poor," or they are lazy, sinful, layabouts draining life out of society. Are there good poor people? Sure. Are there bad poor people? Sure. They are people, after all, and people are, to varying degrees, good and bad. Venerating and castigating poor people moves us nowhere toward a process of addressing poverty in any real and significant way. These arguments are red herrings that hijack public discourse and turn it into a shouting match between two polarized  positions. There can be no commons in such a model.

I wonder how we might better frame conversation so that actual discourse can take place. I wonder what would be entailed for us to stop listening to the rhetoric of caricature and hyperbole in order to engage in serious and deliberate inquiry. Can this be done while still wrestling with the deep and difficult issues that face us as a nation, people, and planet?

I think so. At least, I hope so. The first casualty required in order to begin changing the framework of public discourse has to be the charged language used to convey meta-messages that arrest dialogue rather than promoting it. At least, a reasonable understanding of language and meaning is needed in order to step into the serious work of communication.

Words like "structuralism," "phenomenology," "poststructuralism," and "semiology" are not found in everyday parlance nor should they be, but their importance in helping us understand our world, how we attach to meaning, how we create meaning, and how meaning acts in our lives should be part of our consciousness, especially if we intend on earnest public discourse. Every person who has an opinion about the news, the world, politics, and religion need not be intimate with the works of Jacques Derrida and GWF Hegel, but those framing our public dialogue should be conversant with their ideas, e.g. "diffĂ©rance," and "Hegel's dialectic."

We are living during a time of deep change in how we connect with and even create meaning. The institutions and ideas that we have taken for granted are unraveling and reconsituting themselves in unknown ways becoming unknown things. Times like these are always fraught with tension and discord. There are even people today who question the value of a public commons, of public discourse. I, however, believe that the public commons is a moral and social good, something to be protected by all of us, whether we use the complicated jargon of the academy or whether somehow we simply know deep down that shouting matches, caricatures, and hyperbole do nothing to enhance life for any of us, much less all of us. Simply put, there's nothing neighborly about certain kinds of behavior. Can't we at least aspire to simple neighborliness? 

I'm hoping for a better conversation this election year. And, I'm willing to work toward a better public discourse. And, I'm looking for conversation partners...

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Toward a Culture of Trust

This title is an unusual title - as far as titles go these days. We are much more accustomed to titles about broken trust written in tasteless puns, titles flavored with a spice of sarcasm. I enjoy the sarcastic jab as much as the next person, but I think that it belies our real yearning for trust.

Today Diana Butler Bass spoke to United Methodists in the Pacific Northwest. In her presentations, she talked about the "terrible decade" - the decade from which we are emerging. In 2001, the terrorist attacks on American soil shook not only our country but the whole world. Six months later, accounts of clergy abuse began to rattle the foundation of the Roman Catholic Church, a challenge which Diana Butler Bass ranks more significant than the Reformation. Then, in 2004, the Religious Right's campaign to become the deciding factor in an American presidential campaign came to fruition, in effect changing both American politics and evangelical Christianity in the United States. And, the Episcopal Church elected an out gay bishop. Taken together, these events show how religion has become synonymous with violence, broken trust/abuse, single party politics, and "inelegant" decisions and processes.

I know that these events writ large are echoed all throughout our culture. All around us lay the detritus left behind by broken trust and a shaken confidence in the institutions which used to serve as society's bedrock.

Tonight I had occasion to hear some folks talking about broken trust in the church. Not an unusual topic, for sure. Frequently, when someone asks what I do and I tell them that I am a pastor, I hear, "I don't believe in religion. It's full of hypocrites." What is unusual about tonight's conversation is that it took place among clergy - clergy who struggle with trusting the very institution and set of relationships to which they have entrusted their lives, their families, their finances, their...everything.

This is something I've struggled with as well. Clergy aren't exempt from struggling with one another or the church. As a matter of fact, our proximity to the workings of church makes us more sensitive to its failings. We love the church, and it is very upsetting when it fails to embody the grace, love, compassion, and justice of Jesus.

One of the wonderful things about being United Methodist clergy is that I belong to an order. Despite this identity, few Methodists, including clergy, understand what this means. To me, it means something very profound. I have pledged my life to men and women all around the world. I promise to pray for them, to work with them, to be held accountable by them...for life. I entered into this order aware that I would need to submit to the leadership of others even when their leadership falls short. I entered this order as a way to prioritize my life. Belonging to an order is an act of trust in a trust challenged world. It is counter-intuitive to trust people one doesn't know; it is sometimes even more challenging to trust those whom one does know. It is this challenge which I think can lead us toward a culture of trust that extends beyond our clerical life and into our greater society, a society which is crying out for a way to connect, believe, love, and trust.

I don't think we arrive at a culture of trust through study, better exegesis, more statements of faith, or correct theology. We arrive at a culture of trust through the act of trusting and being trustworthy. Trust is by definition relational. It is not ideological. It is not theoretical. It is practical; that is, it is found in praxis. And, it is relational. One does not trust on one's one.

The church could have a wonderful word of hope for our culture if we could find our way out of the terrible decade by showing the world that we know something about trust. After all, being followers of Jesus, living as disciples of Jesus, and extending ourself as the body of Christ in the world - these are all about trust and relationship. We have too frequently focused on institutional preservation, correct theology, dogma and doctrine to the detriment of trust and relationship. I wonder how we might be different if we started each day praying earnestly for one another, offering ourselves humbly in service to one another, and seeking the best for one another. This would go a long way in building trust. Just putting the other before ourselves - what Jesus said to do - this would help us forgive a little more easily when disappointed, would help us ask for forgiveness, would help us want the best for one another, would help us think beyond ourselves, would help us resist the lure of cynicism.

I feel privileged to be part of an order - a set aside relational structure, bound for life with an odd assortment of people who give themselves, like I do, to a silly vision of a trustworthy world. When I pray the hours every day, I hold my brother and sister Elders in my heart. I do not take this relationship lightly or for granted. It is a deep joy to live in this ongoing experiment of trust.

For the times I fail to be trustworthy, I seek forgiveness. For the times I cannot forgive, I ask for grace. For the times I can model trustworthiness, I give thanks. For the moments in which we live in mutual trust, I praise God.

Our world wants to think that trust is possible. I also think that it seems an impossible dream. Until the rest of the world can believe (another word for "trust") in this dream, let those of us privileged to be part of trusting relationships hold that dream before the world, modeling as best we can what it means to move toward a culture of trust.

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