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Family Planning in Jurassic Park, Part 2

John Hammond created a controlled environment in his laboratory. It looked quite different in the jungles of Jurassic Park.

Morality and ethics too often seem designed for controlled environments and pristine conditions – which hardly describes any human community I know. The great divide in the United States between a “pro-life” and a “pro-choice” position provides a classic case in point. Both positions make assumptions that rarely obtain in the real lives of the people they supposedly describe.

It’s time to retire these labels as utterly inadequate for addressing the complexities of our social context and the profound mystery of life itself. I do not mean that we should abandon goals, ideals, and principles. I do mean that they are always contextual and more complex than we first thought.

In the first of this two-part series, I declared my own position: I am “pro-choice” because I am “pro-life.” Simply put, I want to affirm the sanctity of life by affirming a woman’s right to make decisions about her own body. Of course, there’s nothing “simple” about that.

So here I’ll go back to Jurassic Park to suggest why the language of both choice and life are problematic and propose a possible alternative. This is definitely a work in progress; help me make it better!

Contextual Choices and Dino-Bait
To put it mildly, running away from a hungry T-Rex limits one’s choices. The effects of a tropical storm, electrical outages, and an unfamiliar terrain limited those choices even further in Jurassic Park.

Thankfully, we don’t have to worry about carnivorous dinosaurs, but every culture and human society shapes and determines the limits of our choices, sometimes just as severely as the situation in Spielberg’s film.

I don’t believe anyone is truly free to choose anything apart from the cultural contexts that shape even our most privately held desires. Most of us are usually quite unaware of how deeply others around us and the wider society shape what we think, what we want, and the choices we make.

“Liberals” generally find these contextual limits on choice perplexing if not repugnant. Modern western culture continues to laud the rugged individual, autonomous and free, even when its limits appear in bold relief. (See my recent blog series on Jesus and Ayn Rand.)

Robert O. Self’s recent op-ed in the New York Times describes particularly well the significance of context for the choices all of us make. Or rather, the significance of refusing to acknowledge the difference context makes in our ability to choose “freely.” His analysis of dividing “culture” from “economics” alone deserves careful reading.

Continuing to insist on a woman’s “right to choose” not only perpetuates the illusion of context-free choices; it also places a burden on her that no one should have to bear alone. Rather than the language of “pro-choice,” perhaps it’s time to talk about the “dignity of discernment.” How could we create spaces and communities for women to engage in discernment with dignity about their bodies and relationships?

Liminal Life and Dino-DNA
Dennis Nedry (Wayne Knight’s geeky character) stole dino-DNA from Jurassic Park for his corporate backers. So, did he steal life in that moment or only the potential for life? Do you know the difference? Can any of us really be so sure what life itself is let alone when it begins? How about when it ends?

Miscarriages, for example, happen for a number of reasons. Most occur because the fertilized egg simply wasn’t biologically viable. It had the potential but failed to achieve all the miraculous things required to actualize that potential.

Would Arizona’s Governor Brewer classify a miscarriage as an illegal abortion? That doesn’t seem any less absurd than what the law she just signed does in fact do: define pregnancy as starting two weeks before conception, before the egg ever encounters a sperm. If the desire for ever greater precision in these matters now extends to the potential for life, then it’s likely time to ban male masturbation.

Declarative statements about life seem far more elusive after standing with a family at a hospital bedside as a loved-one sits in a coma; the heart beats but the brain has stopped functioning. Is that life? Agonize with that family before you answer. I have, and I have no satisfying answer.

Any attempt to define precisely when life begins or ends is futile. It’s always messy, it never conforms to “Plan A,” it perpetually offends everyone’s sensibilities, and it belongs in the realm of spiritual awe, not hackneyed political debates.

Rather than the language of “pro-life” (is anyone really “pro-death”?), perhaps it’s time to talk about the “integrity of inquiry.” Life, after all, is not self-evident. It always refers to a particular entity, and is therefore always a matter of degree, quality, and circumstance. Whether we’re talking about ovulation or hospice-care, everyone deserves to inquire about what life is with integrity, with all the complexities and ambiguities on the table.

The language of “choice” and “life” will likely persist in our public debates for some time. While they do, I will continue to insist on at least this much: no more bloody coat hangers and knitting needles in back alleys. The lives of desperate women mean too much to subject them to that.

But I do hope for more: dignity in discernment, integrity in inquiry, and compassion in community.

I refuse to believe that such a position is too much to ask, even in the vexing polarization of the U.S. But it will mean that “liberals” might need to let go of the supremacy of the individual just as “conservatives” will need to let go of their certainty about what life actually is.

It does seem abundantly clear, however, that we cannot rely on political discourse alone to provide this kind of space. We need faith communities and religious leaders willing to take courageous stands in ambiguous situations – both for the sake of women’s bodies and for sake of the profound mystery of life.

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Family Planning in Jurassic Park, Part 1

I am “pro-choice” because I am “pro-life.”

Set aside for a moment how problematic those labels are. Set aside as well (just for the moment) how detrimental the polarization of these labels is. I’m convinced that a lot of Christians work hard to occupy that very peculiar and apparently contradictory space that I just declared, but few talk about it. There are good reasons for the silence – this is a precarious and complicated space, not at all easy to describe let alone defend.

I am convinced that so many of us stumble over this particular moral/political issue because we try to craft positions in the abstract, philosophically or theologically. Think about the scientist creating an ideal laboratory environment for an experiment. More often than not the lab results don’t work out there in the “real world” because context nearly always trumps ideals.

So I want to frame this attempt at describing my “pro-choice-because-I’m-pro-life” position by turning to Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park. I’ll say more about the position itself in Part 2, but here I want to underscore how important it is to frame it with real life and not abstract principles.

I take Michael Crichton’s story and Spielberg’s film as the quintessential judgment on all human attempts to capture, contain, control, and circumscribe the untamable energies of life. I also see in that film a poignant testament to context; even the best ideas and well-laid plans will falter and fail without due attention to the particularities of contextual realities.

Keep both the vagaries of life and the complexities of context in mind as I offer just three Jurassic observations to frame what I’d like to propose in Part 2 of this mini-blog-series. (Click here if you need a primer or refresher on the film).

Paddocks and Ghettoes
John Hammond, the creator of Jurassic Park in Crichton’s story, was both a genius and a fool. He tried and ultimately failed to separate carnivores from herbivores in elaborately protected “paddocks.” Okay, let’s just call them ghettoes.

Nothing in the U.S. (I would argue any country) is free from the dynamics of race and class and more broadly the attempt by every society to cordon off some segments of the population from the others. The attempt to do that in Jurassic Park by separating meat-eaters from veggies proved disastrous. Every similar human attempt ends in precisely the same way; we are likely witnessing just the latest iteration of that failure in the uptick of gun violence in the U.S.

We cannot have a conversation about “family planning” (and everything that innocuous moniker implies) without talking about gated communities and “sacrifice zones,” those places where U.S. society has consigned all the expendable ones, all the “undesirables,” all those who might stand in the way of corporate profits. For more on this, I cannot recommend highly enough two recent books by Chris Hedges concerning this vexing morass of social and political issues. (See/read the Bill Moyers interview here.)

It would certainly be easier if we could approach all of our ethical dilemmas by analyzing ideal states. Have you ever said “well, all things being equal” when trying to make an argument? I have. Sadly, there is no such state. We can’t pretend we don’t live in a society of paddocks.

If we’re going to talk about contraception, abortion, and reproductive health, we must talk about the racial and economic paddocks in which those issues exhibit a range of meanings and implications that fall well outside our neat-and-tidy moral systems.

Lab Coats and Cassocks
The managers of Jurassic Park sought to control such a potentially dangerous environment with one simple innovation: ensuring at the time of conception that every dinosaur would be female. This would guarantee no unwanted reproduction – “unwanted,” of course being a cipher for “disrupting our plans for making profit from a well-controlled theme park.”

There’s a long and troubling history in western culture of trying to control reproduction, from the pseudo-science of racial differences rooted in phrenology to the eugenics programs supported by some of the biggest corporate financiers in the early 20th century. I mean folks like Carnegie and Rockefeller.

Human reproduction has been one of the most highly regulated activities in nearly every human society in every historical era. Religion has most often been the preferred way to regulate it. Let us not, however, assume we have passed into an enlightened era where science corrects religion’s excesses. The development of the birth control pill originated with those who were mostly concerned with eugenics, with controlling human reproduction based on race, ethnicity, ability, and “desirability.”

One might wish that science played a stronger role in today’s political discourse, but we must not think that everything labeled “scientific” is value-neutral or benign. Today’s reproductive technologies and their applications alike are deeply embedded in the discourses of what matters to the dominant culture of this society.

We should also remember that the Jurassic Park experiment failed. The dinosaurs found a way to reproduce, or as Sam Neill’s character put it when he found a dino egg out in the field: “Life found a way.” It always will. And surely that alone should inject a bit more humility in everyone’s approach to what “life” means.

Roars and Whimpers
The penultimate scene in Spielberg’s Jurassic Park features a T-Rex roaring beneath a fluttering banner that reads, “When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth.” Old paradigms never exit the stage gracefully, or with a whimper. They usually roar their way into oblivion.

Of course, the sequels to Jurassic Park make clear that even dinosaurs can make a comeback. So let us consider carefully our current political and social climate with reference to a centuries-long legacy of male privilege in western culture. I hear it roaring, do you?

I do not mean that men are dinosaurs. I mean that the system currently still shaping North Atlantic societies that organizes its polices, institutions, laws, and religious communities by stratifying a society based on maleness is doomed, no less so than T-Rex or the Brontosaurus – but none of us should underestimate the effects of those final roars.

T-Rex will not go quietly into that good night and there are plenty of whimpers in that roar’s wake – not least are the cries heard from women who might be forced to have abortions, which “progressives” don’t like to talk about. (Check this out in China, but also in Massachusetts.) How can we possibly have a conversation about life, about contraception, about science, about human thriving while all our voices are drowned out by the roar of white male privilege?

I would love to consider what life means and what conception entails without the roaring voices of mostly male politicians who want to insert vaginal probes in women’s bodies, or those who think there is such a thing as “legitimate rape,” or lobbyists who pretend that race, class, and economics play no role in crafting social policies about reproductive health.

Maybe someday we can; but not today. So in Part 2 I’ll suggest why “pro-choice” and “pro-life” are just about the most misleading labels one could imagine for this topic of deep concern, how we might talk differently about this vexing topic, and what a peculiar Christian response might look like. Stay tuned…

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Jesus and Ayn Rand, Part 2: Re-Membering

Somewhere between the Borg and the Lone Ranger humanity thrives. How to define precisely where that Goldilocks sweet spot is (to toss in another cultural reference) varies depending on historical era and social location.

But we need to be very clear about this: The United States has never even come close to Borg-style “collectivism” (as Ayn Rand called it). To the contrary, the dominant Anglo-European (a.k.a. white) culture in the United States has instead preferred to idealize Lone-Ranger-style individualism, frontier independence, and to resist notions of shared responsibility (except in times of great peril, such as World War II).

In that light, it is nearly miraculous that the U.S. Congress ever passed the Social Security Act, provided Medicare for senior citizens, Medicaid to the poor, or food stamps for the hungry. Yet even those modest victories in shouldering one another’s burdens now stand at risk, especially if Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan win the election this November.

Social policy is important, but that’s not what’s really at stake in this election. Two very different visions for the future of this country are on the ballot this fall. And the differences are deeply philosophical, ideological, and yes, religious.

Faith communities of all kinds have an important role to play in these debates, not for the sake of imposing religious beliefs on anyone, but for bearing witness to our shared humanity in communities of generosity and service. (We can also draw on ostensibly “non-religious” sources for these important insights, such as this compelling piece that appeared recently in the New York Times on the “delusion of individualism.”)

Christian communities in particular would do well to reflect on our own traditions as November approaches. Here are just two observations among many.

“Socialism” is not Code for “Godless Communism”
Some self-styled “conservative” Christians still worry about this. A blog devoted to this anxiety actually referenced one of my blog posts as the writer issued a warning about liberal clergy undermining individual freedom in favor of state control.

I don’t take that anxiety lightly; I think Jesus actually shared it. Jesus of Nazareth lived and taught under the oppressive thumb of the Roman Empire and died by its hand. He knew something about fragmented communities, and how religion can quickly acquiesce to imperial power, and what the struggles of the poor and outcast look like.

I think the first-century Jesus would have understood very well what led Ayn Rand to choose so definitively for the self against all its encroachments. Roman soldiers were present at nearly every street corner. They monitored every transaction at the temple in Jerusalem (prompting Jesus to acts of civil disobedience). They levied taxes “without representation” and demanded loyalty to the Emperor.

If you’re living under the kind of imperial power that quashes all individuality (or even perceiving yourself to be), opting for the self over all else makes sense. But Jesus chose a different path: creating a community of disciples whom he called his family; taking on the role of a servant, washing their feet, and telling them to do the same thing; and eventually giving his life for the sake of love.

Eucharistic Theology isn’t Just for Sunday Mornings
In a world of deep fragmentation and, as I suggested in Part 1 of this blog series, in a society perched on the brink of social “dismemberment,” the Christian celebration of the Eucharist has at its heart the Greek concept of anamnesis. We usually associate this word with memory, or the opposite of “amnesia.” But it evokes something stronger: the act of re-membering what has been torn apart.

Many Christian communities over the last few weeks have been hearing from John’s gospel on Sunday mornings about bread, about the feeding of 5,000 with just five loaves and two fish, about the “manna in the wilderness,” and about Jesus’ own body as the bread of the world.

Christians in the first few centuries after Jesus turned often to these passages in the sixth chapter of John’s gospel to describe the Eucharist. And they did so by evoking the image of the many grains of wheat scattered over a hillside gathered into a single loaf of bread – the dismembered is re-membered as food for the world.

There precisely is where my theological conservatism and my social liberalism intersect. God gives God’s own self for the good of God’s own creation. And this creates a community whose members do the same thing.

The Rev. Elder Jim Mitulski of New Spirit Community Church often refers to the Eucharist like this:

What we do at this table is what we want to see in the world: all are welcome; there is enough for everyone; and no one is turned away.

Christians have something to say about Rand-style selfishness that now infects today’s political discourse. And we say it every time we gather around a table to share bread and wine, as we gather to re-member again what has been dis-membered.

That’s the hopeful vision we can and should take with us into the public square. I would call it “socialism,” but it certainly isn’t godless.

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Jesus and Ayn Rand, Part 1: Dismemberment

We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union…”  Those words are starting to sound a bit quaint, aren’t they? They might soon be rather moot.

How about these words: “For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another” (Romans 12:4-5).

Nearly 2,000 years ago St. Paul expressed theologically to the Romans what the framers of the U.S. Constitution aimed for politically. Both feel quite tenuous today.

To be clear, I do not mean that the “founding fathers” of this country were seeking to create a “Christian nation.” I do mean that both St. Paul and the pioneers of this country’s polity shared a simple insight that has proven, time and again, to be profoundly difficult to live. It’s just this: We’re all in the same boat.

Call it the “Body of Christ” or call it the “body politic.” In either case, your fate is tied to mine in countless and uncanny ways.

This is not some newfangled lefty slogan. We might remember the ancient Greeks in that regard, the fountainhead of modern democracy. (Yes, that’s an allusion to Ayn Rand; more on that later.)

Aristotle, for example, insisted that “the whole must of necessity be prior to the part.” (That’s from Aristotle’s Politics, book 1, chapter 2; read the whole thing here). Aristotle’s claim belongs to his extended argument for the necessity of a “polis” (poorly translated today as “city”) to extend the household and village into a wider circle of mutual exchange.

For Aristotle, individuals remain woefully incomplete without the “polis.” Even more, it’s actually unnatural for an individual to remain outside the communal bonds of the “polis”; humanity’s natural state is community, working always for the “happiness” (“well-being” might be a better translation) of all the others.

The distance we’ve traveled from Aristotle’s politics could not have been made clearer than by Mitt Romney’s choice for a vice-presidential running mate – Paul Ryan.

Much physical and digital ink has already been spent on Ryan’s affinity for Ayn Rand’s philosophy and how it has shaped his politics. Frankly, I think trying to make Ryan a Rand disciple isn’t very useful politically or culturally. He’s already distanced himself from Rand’s “atheism,” implying of course that he’s not in her ideological camp.

I think it’s much more helpful – culturally, politically, and religiously – to name explicitly what’s at stake in these philosophical and ideological issues, and it’s just this: Are we all in the same boat or not?

Ayn Rand believed that “boat” was a trap, the cultural version of the sinking Titanic. Find your own lifeboat and get away as quickly as you can so that you don’t get sucked under by the “common good.”

Rand promoted the self above all else, and any incursion from government or communal responsibility as an affront to the supreme autonomy of the individual. It’s not too much to say that Rand promoted “dismemberment,” the cutting of any ties that bind us to one another for the sake of enlightened selfishness. Do Mormon Romney and Catholic Ryan believe the same thing?

(For those unfamiliar with Ayn Rand’s writings and philosophy, I highly recommend a great theological blog by a colleague of mine, the Rev. Richard Helmer, who wrote about this a few years ago.)

I believe Ayn Rand was simply mistaken on a most fundamental point: Human beings do not want most of all to be individuals; they want most of all to belong somewhere, anywhere. A recent story on NPR about the anatomy of a hate group made this perfectly clear in some troubling ways.

White supremacy groups recruit individuals who feel alienated, cut adrift, not really belonging anywhere. The most persuasive factor in motivating membership in a “hate group,” in other words, is the possibility of “belonging.”

NPR interviewed those who have left hate groups, which also suggested something quite astonishing. The most hated targets of white supremacist groups are white people who are not racists. The absolute need to bond, to create community, to have a shared “identity” is so strong that those who are most reviled by white supremacists are white people who won’t join them.

This presidential election presents a clear choice between two significantly different visions for the future of this country. It also offers a profound opportunity for religious leaders and faith communities to respond to the deep need for belonging, not with hate, but with compassion, generosity, and love.

In Part 2, I’ll suggest what Christians in particular might offer to a society perched on the brink of dismemberment: a spiritual practice of “re-membering.” Stay tuned…

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“In God We Trust” — But Which One?

It’s printed right there, on U.S. currency: “In God We Trust.” Is that true? If so, which god would that be? The one worshiped by the Sikhs who were gunned down in Wisconsin? The one worshiped at First Baptist Church of Oak Creek, just down the street from where the Sikhs were killed? Are these one and the same “God”?

In 1956, the 84th Congress of the United States passed legislation, signed by President Eisenhower, that changed the official motto of this country from e pluribus unum (“out of the many, one”) to “In God We Trust.”

This is a rich vein of material to mine for theologians, but everyone in the U.S. needs to pay attention to this, whether citizen, green-card holder, atheist, conservative Christian, cultural Jew, observant Muslim, and so many more. Much depends on how people understand this motto, and not just for internecine religious debates, but for crafting social policy, engaging with our political process, navigating cultural differences, and nurturing interpersonal relationships – everything, in other words.

I care about this for at least two interrelated reasons: 1) how to promote critical and constructive theological thinking in Christian communities about what we mean by “God”; and 2) how conceptions of “God” shape our common life in an increasingly diverse nation like the United States.

These are huge concerns, and a single blog post can’t possibly address them adequately. Here I want to make just one point and expand on it later in future posts.

Here’s the point: The God who is everywhere in general tends to be nowhere in particular.

I know that sounds woefully abstract, so let me back up a bit. That point began to gestate when I was young and saw, for the first time, Cecil B. DeMille’s wildly extravagant film The Ten Commandments. The burning bush, the pillar of flame, the boiling mountaintop – of all these rather campy film effects awakened my desire to find God somewhere and not just vaguely everywhere.

I grew up in a religious tradition (Evangelical Christian) that stressed what I like to call the “OmniGod” – this is the Creator God who is omnipresent (everywhere), omniscient (all-knowing), omnipotent (all-powerful), and omnibenevolent (all loving). I was taught this from a very early age. God was, one might say, ambient to the culture of my youth, something like the fluoride added to the water supply by the government – unseen, tasteless, but helpful in the long run.

Eventually, I found that “always-everywhere” but “nowhere-in-particular” deity rather unsatisfying, and also a bit ironic. The conservative Christianity of my youth likewise stressed the incarnation of that God in a particular person, Jesus of Nazareth.

I take that emphasis on incarnation as a clarion call to pay attention to the concrete and the particular as much as if not more than the general and the abstract. This matters in a religiously and culturally diverse nation like the United States, and for at least two reasons.

The Risk of Religious Monopoly
The God who is generally everywhere but nowhere in particular can tempt a religious community to claim exclusive access to the God in whom everyone should place one’s trust. This can lead to the particular, and therefore limited understanding of one religious tradition monopolizing all the other others. A religious monopoly invites hubris rather than humility; it invites hierarchical control rather than shared inquiry; and it invites spiritual practice that is more akin to a museum exhibition than a living tradition. A religious monopoly can also quickly spill over into a cultural monopoly, as the latest wave of anti-immigration energy in the U.S. suggests.

The Risk of Homogenous Communities
If God is generally everywhere but nowhere in particular, then diversity becomes a big problem to solve rather than a huge gift to embrace. Differences of opinion must be silenced and subsumed under one broad banner; divergent approaches are treated as threats to uniformity; faith communities become isolated silos or religious versions of a gated community.

If God really is generally present everywhere, then God will show up in all sorts of particular places we might not expect, in traditions that our not our own, and always, as the Hebrew prophet Isaiah declared, ready to do a “new thing” (Is. 43:19; 65:17).

As a Christian, I find in Jesus Christ the patterns, rhythms, sensibilities, and insights that I believe I should seek wherever and whenever I’m looking for God, whether I find God in “Christian” settings or not.  And when I do believe I’ve found something of God in non-Christian settings and people, that insight could well revise what I think about Jesus.

A religious monopoly afraid of diversity, by contrast, sits perilously poised on the brink of idolatry. Stamping a religious declaration on money suggests the same thing about a nation.

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Soul Sickness and Domestic Terror

I can’t get the words of an old African-American spiritual out of my head:

“There is a balm in Gilead, to heal the sin-sick soul.”

Those words came to me yesterday morning as I read about the mosque in Joplin, Missouri that had been burned to the ground overnight, apparently because of arson. This is the same mosque that was damaged by an arsonist earlier this summer (on the Fourth of July, no less).

That old spiritual keeps coming back to me as we learn more about the terrorizing of worshiping Sikhs outside of Milwaukee over the weekend, just two weeks after Batman movie-goers were gunned down in a Colorado theater.

It’s time we recognize all of these as just the latest symptoms of a serious societal sickness in the United States. Whether this sickness is treatable or proves to be fatal to the soul of this nation will depend in large measure on our collective willingness to diagnose it and to speak truthfully about its consequences.

Whatever we might learn about the perpetrators of these acts of violence will matter less than whether we can address what truly ails us as a society. Whoever is elected President this November needs to stand up in January during the State of the Union Address and be perfectly frank: “The state of our union is not good.” And here are just two of the reasons he could cite.

Money Buys Truth
What would you do with $6 billion? Corporations and lobbying groups will spend at least that much buying this year’s presidential election. But the real cost is truth-telling.

Politicians won’t speak the truth for fear of losing corporate money and most people don’t even want to hear the truth because it would mean changing the way we live. Most of us don’t want to hear about where our computers are made, how our food is raised, what petrocarbons do to the environment, who foots the bill for legislation, and why white supremacy still shapes nearly every one of our cultural institutions.

A project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center recently noted that the 2012 presidential campaign is on track to be the most deception-laden of all. An NPR story from a few months ago suggests that fiercely partisan divisions aren’t going away any time soon. This means in part that what we really need right now likely won’t happen: grown-up conversations about gun violence and racism.

Untreated Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
I remember vividly where I was when the twin towers fell. Even today, I tend to look up with a twinge of anxiety when I hear a low-flying plane in the San Francisco Bay Area. That is surely mild compared to the post-trauma symptoms of New Yorkers.

While I’m a big fan of “retail therapy,” I hardly think that keeping New York’s Fifth Avenue shops open for business after the 9/11 attacks suffices to address the trauma of terror.

The virulent anti-immigration rhetoric over the last ten years bears witness to our collective post-traumatic stress disorder. All “foreigners” are suspect, especially if they don’t speak English, or have dark skin, and even more especially if they wear turbans. (Read this excellent commentary about guns, white men, and madness.)

(Wade Page, the shooter in Wisconsin, sported a 9/11 tattoo and had been tracked for years by the Southern Poverty Law Center for his involvement in white supremacist groups.)

This could be an occasion to address not only post-9/11 trauma but the longer traumatic legacy of African slavery and economic stratification. Something has gone terribly awry when white people among the working poor are unable to make common cause with African-Americans among the working poor – this is the classic “wedge” that politicians have learned to exploit with corporate money.

People are traumatized. People are fearful and anxious. Way too many people can’t put food on their tables. These hard realities are mapped to race, to color, to language, to culture, and, sadly, to turbans. We must find a way to talk about this.

So how might we begin to diagnose even these two symptoms? Christian traditions (among others) have a word for it: sin.

Self-styled liberal Christians shy away from this, but I think it’s time to name it. I don’t mean the rightly caricatured “Santa Claus God” who checks his list to see who’s been naughty or nice. I mean instead how both the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Testament treat “sin” as anything that prevents the full flourishing of life and relationships, which the Creator intended for all.

Back in the 19th century a religious philosopher/theologian, Soren Kierkegaard, described the human condition as a “sickness unto death.” This sickness results from the self’s turning inward on itself instead of outward, in relation. This, Kierkegaard said, leads to a spiral of despair, and surely today we are on that brink.

Some indigenous peoples in North America referred to the same thing as “soul sickness.” That’s how they made sense of their encounter with Europeans, whose obsession with private property and their inability to share what they had with others perplexed them. The Chippewa had a cure for this soul sickness: organizing your community for the sake of the common good.

Treating the tragedies in Aurora, Oak Creek, and Joplin as isolated incidents of potentially mentally unstable individuals only perpetuates our denial. We need to name our collective illness before we can find healing.

Surely faith communities can help facilitate those conversations, and not merely for naming what ails us. Surely leaders from all of our religious traditions could stand together, put aside doctrinal bickering, and bear witness to solidarity, and thus to a vision of hope, of the possibility of healing, and of a way to live together differently. Surely now is the time.

There is a balm in Gilead, to make the wounded whole;
there is a balm in Gilead, to heal the sin-sick soul.

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My God-Given Right to Viagra

Women should pay to prevent a pregnancy but the government should pay to ensure that men can have erections. That absurd opinion is why, in large measure, we’ve been having a mini-meltdown recently in the blogosphere, the press, and public discourse generally in the U.S.  I wish I were making this stuff up.

Some of the provisions of the Affordable Care Act that just went into effect on August 1 mandate insurance coverage for basic (and sometimes not-so-basic) women’s reproductive health. That’s not the only kind of coverage for women, but that’s the stuff that’s getting all the attention, and for good patriarchal reasons. Let’s recall that since January 1, 2006, Medicare has provided prescription drug coverage for Viagra (among other drugs to alleviate male sexual impotence, and some private insurance companies do the same).

Health care in the United States is wildly and unnecessarily complex, but this much seems clear: Our society is willing to pay for men to “get it on” but not to protect women when men do so. This is yet another sad and alarming instance of the current war on women.

I would dial back that rhetoric a bit if the situation weren’t quite so dire. Alas, there is a war going on, and women’s bodies are on the front line. The now-infamous legislation in Virginia mandating a medically unnecessary “vaginal probe” before an abortion is just one among too many examples. (I blogged about this “war” a few months ago.)

But let’s consider a broader critique that appeared a few years ago about Medicare coverage for Viagra. The mini-outcry then was about covering access to “elective” medical help.

Back then, Dr. Ira Sharlip from the University of California in San Francisco conceded that Viagra and other such drugs “treat a condition that compromises the quality of life but doesn’t threaten life.” But then he added, “There are many drugs that are approved for quality-of-life indications. It wouldn’t be right to single out [impotence drugs] as frivolous when there are so many others in the same category.”

Dr. Sharlip meant things like the “purple pill,” for acid reflux, or intensive doses of Ibuprofen for pain, or knee surgery for better walking, or sinus procedures for better sleeping, or…the list goes on and on. What exactly is “frivolous” when it comes to health and quality of life? That’s a key question for which I have no ready answers. But I do know this: making a distinction between men and women in that equation is wrong.

There are many reasons why I, an Episcopal priest, theologian, and gay man, should and do care about this. Among those reasons is this: the supposed “religious exemption” argument that is now being trotted out by politically religious reactionaries as an escape hatch for caring about women and women’s bodies – and not just women, but everyone who isn’t, frankly, a white, straight, wealthy, married man.

A recent Kentucky appeals court ruling that involved this vague “religious exemption” ought to send shivers down the spine of every religiously-affiliated U.S. citizen, and indeed everyone in this country. In brief: Kentucky’s court refused to intervene in a tenure dispute at Louisville Theological Seminary after tenured faculty had been let go. Because the institution in question is religious, the court cited the “religious exemption” escape hatch and dismissed the suit brought by the fired faculty members.

Is that really the standard we want to set in a democratic society that is increasingly marked by religious pluralism? Do we really want to say that our courts of law provide no recourse whatsoever, even in basic breach of contract disputes just because they pertain to religious institutions?

What about a religious exemption for individuals and not just institutions? Parents apparently have the right to refuse to vaccinate their children for “religious reasons,” even though this could put others at risk in public schools.

Or consider yet another recent court decision, this one by a federal judge who ruled that the Roman Catholic owners of a Colorado heating-and-cooling company are exempt from the mandate to provide contraception coverage in their employees’ health-insurance plans – for religious reasons.

Unless a “heating-and-cooling company” is now a new way to refer to a church, this ruling surely qualifies as a classic slippery slope. Should I worry that a plumber, who might also be a “conservative” Christian, will refuse to fix my toilet if he finds out I’m not a heterosexual?

In the midst of all this, it’s time for liberal/progressive Christians to be very clear about what the latest health care brouhaha entails, and it’s not about respecting religious freedom. It is instead about whether men have the right to control women. (See this opinion piece in the New York Times.)  This story is, sadly, as old as our species: Men want to have erections whenever they please and make women pay the price. I really do not believe the Jesus I read about in the Gospels would approve.

I no more have an inherent right to erection-enhancement drugs than I have a right to control women’s bodies or, for that matter, the body of any other human being. But what if all of us did have a right to access whatever we needed to ensure the best quality of life for ourselves, our partners, our spouses, our children, our families, and our communities? And what if that included both Viagra and The Pill? That would be a society more aligned with how I read the Gospels.

Let’s be clear about this, too: religious institutions have the right to their religious beliefs and to practice those beliefs. We need to be very clear about that Constitutional “free exercise” clause. At the very same time, religious institutions do not have the right to violate basic human rights and freedoms – at least not in a democratic society. How we adjudicate these complexities will be vexing as we move forward, and faith communities need to be very careful about where they want to plant their religious freedom flag, as these recent courts cases illustrate so well.

The truly peculiar faith of Christians ought to play a role in all these social policy decisions, not by dictating what others should believe about God, but by voicing a vision of human thriving and quality of life to which all deserve access as a God-given right.

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I Care About the Chickens

I really don’t care what some misinformed Christian fundamentalist owner of a fast-food chain thinks about my sex life. I don’t even care how much money he gives to stupid political causes. It’s a free country – he can do what he wants with his money.

It’s high time we talked about the chickens instead.

We’re in a deep food crisis in this country and in many other parts of the world as well. We have been for a long time now. The crisis is about the environment, about human health, and about the humane treatment of non-human animals. The crisis, in short, is caused and perpetuated by industrial agriculture, or what one commentator has called our “catastrophic food production system.”

If we started boycotting all fast-food chain restaurants to protest factory farming, I’d be ready to sign up. But just because some corporate hack doesn’t approve of my dating practices? I have better things on which to spend my outrage.

(A Facebook friend pointed out just recently that Chipotle’s adopted a policy concerning the humane treatment of the animals used for their restaurants. Go here for a great little film about it and also more on the horrors of factory farming.)

Over the last few years I’ve come to a greater understanding of how appalling contemporary food production has become. My awakening began by reading, back in the 1990s, Carol Adam’s provocative book, The Sexual Politics of Meat (her links between misogyny and meat packaging are persuasive, as is her hypothesis about how we manage to avoid the moral implications of our eating by distancing ourselves from the sources of our food).

More recently, Michael Pollan’s eye-opening books, The Ominvore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food, are simply must reads, not to mention Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and the documentary film of the same name.

It’s time to be much more outraged over industrial farming practices than over the religious beliefs of someone who couldn’t manage to come up with anything better than “Chick-fil-A” as a name for a restaurant (how many kids now think that’s how they should spell “fillet”?). While I’m grateful to the handful of mayors and other politicians taking a stand against S. Truett Cathy’s religious-based bigotry, I’d much prefer to see them and many more take a stand against the factory farms that litter our rural spaces with cruelty and environmental havoc.

I believe outrage over our food crisis can help fuel our work toward what Jesus called “The Kingdom of God.” Let’s call it the “Kin-dom.” That’s not my moniker; it’s been around a while, and came mostly from feminist critiques of patriarchal Christianity. And I like it, not least because it evokes and suggests not only that kinship is a key characteristic of human relationships but also of the relationship between humans and non-human animals.

Kinship – how much are we willing to stake on that? Are all of us humans really in the same boat on this planet? Is that ark big enough for non-human animals? It seemed to be for Noah.

I don’t claim any moral superiority on this topic at all. I’m a meat eater, so any vegetarian credibility is out the window, let alone any vegan points.

That said, I have read a lot over the last ten years or so about dogs (I’m a huge dog lover) and about horses, dolphins, and a smattering of other animals. All of it has been astounding and in some cases life-changing. Non-human animals share far more with us than most of us have ever imagined. And what we don’t have in common is equally astonishing and more than worthy of our respect.

The life-changer came when I realized just how much intelligence and emotional awareness we share in common with the animals we eat. Salmon? Not much. Pigs? Quite a lot. Cows? Somewhere in between. In all cases, however, these animals feel pain, experience fear and terror, and hundreds of thousands of them never see the light of day or are able even to turn around in their crates and pens.

Among the many topics our food crisis provokes, we need to consider nutrition and obesity rates as well as affordable food for families in tough economic times. Are grass-fed, free-range cattle more expensive once they get packaged in a grocery store than their factory-farmed counterparts? Yes, but not by much.

These days, when I stoop over the meat counter at Safeway and compare the Foster’s Farms chicken breasts (likely artificially fattened at the cost of serious discomfort for the chicken) with the Full Circle chicken breasts (humanely raised) I literally cannot stomach the former for the sake of $1.25.

Back in the 1990s, Roman Catholic Cardinal Roger Mahony declared, “Any society, any nation, is judged on the basis of how it treats its weakest members; the last, the least, the littlest.” And Mahatma Gandhi supposedly once noted that “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”

What sits inside that little white bag from Chick-fil-A is cause for far more worry and outrage than the misguided piety of the man who makes money from it.