Christian Humanism is the belief that human freedom, individual conscience, rational inquiry and a commitment to the values taught by Jesus as a guide to the ethical life are not only compatible with Christianity, they are fundamental to a proper understanding and interpretation of Christian belief. Being a Christian means at the least feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, healing the sick, supporting the poor, comforting the lonely, seeking peace and standing with the powerless against the mighty.
Wednesday, May 26, 2010
Skeptics are probably correct that this is much ado about nothing. We do not expect very much progress toward peace will come from these talks. The primary and persistent obstacle to resumption of serious negotiations has been Israel's policy of building Jewish settlements in occupied Palestinian territory, particularly in East Jerusalem. Israel has agreed to a temporary freeze on new home construction in East Jerusalem but—and this is an important “but”—Israel continues to insist that Jerusalem, all of it, is its “undivided capital” and that the status of Jerusalem is not subject to negotiation. That is a major obstacle. The Palestinians intend that East Jerusalem will be the capital of their new state. The Arab nations agreed reluctantly to support the Palestinians in the indirect talks but with the proviso that before direct talks between the parties Israel must stop building settlements in the occupied Palestinian land because the occupied territory is the heart of the proposed Palestinian state. That seems reasonable—but unlikely.
The fact of the matter is that recent actions by the government of Benyamin Netanyahu and his political allies have made peace less likely because they have imposed a series of draconian measures on the occupied territories [restricted movement, building new Jewish settlements, taking Palestinian lands and dispossessing the inhabitants, bulldozing Palestinian homes built without Israeli permits, repressive and aggressive military and police actions, restrictions on food, medical supplies, fuel and food brought into the territories, blocking export of trade goods out of the territories, interference with international charitable and social service agencies providing relief services, etc.] using the excuse that they need these repressive and unwarranted actions as part of their “defensive” strategy.
To a non-partisan in this struggle, recent Israeli actions appear to be more vengeful and punitive than defensive. A reasonable person might conclude that they are strategic actions intended to provoke the Palestinians, making it more difficult for Palestinian leaders to work for peaceful resolution of the conflict and strengthening the hand of advocates of violent resistance to the peace process among the activists on both sides of the dispute.
Why does Israel seemingly act against their own stated interests by provoking the Palestinians? I think the answer is obvious. Retaliatory acts of violence by Palestinians against Israel give Israel’s current extremist leaders cover to justify their repressive tactics while they continue to build and expand settlements in Palestinian territory. Our conclusion is that neither side is much interested in serious discussion of peace.
There are both political and “religious” reasons underlying the Israeli intransigence. The current Israeli leadership does not want serious negotiations because they prefer the status quo—the Palestinians are under subjugation and the political extremists (primarily Fatah and Hamas) are not strong enough to create a real threat, giving the Israelis the opportunity to continue building settlements in the occupied territory to establish a permanent foothold that will be difficult to dislodge through peace negotiations.
The Palestinian leadership is likewise uninterested in serious peace discussions because (a) they do not trust the motives of the Israelis, do not believe the Israelis will negotiate in good faith, and are convinced (apparently with good reason) that the Israelis will continue to stall any final settlement because they want to grab as much Palestinian territory as they can; and (b) given that the more radical elements among the Palestinians still do not concede Israel's right to exist, the leadership fears loss of political control if they appear too willing to concede basic issues at stake in this conflict.
The politics of the Palestinians is complex, but the extremist parties that struggle for Palestinians’ allegiance have a vested interest in continuing the conflict to maintain the loyalty of their followers to their extremist position that all of Israel occupies Palestinian land and needs to be driven out. They rely on outside funds and need conflict to keep the flow of money coming from radical Arab and Muslim groups outside of Palestinian territory that are driven by ideology and not interested in a final settlement with Israel.
To put it bluntly, the leaders on both sides have an interest in maintaining the status quo. Both fear loss of power and influence without an “enemy” to unite their constituencies. Both get financial support from outside groups (the Arab community and the UN pay the bills for the Palestinians, and the US and the American Jewish community subsidize Israel) that will end or be substantially reduced when peace is achieved. Without conflict to deflect attention from home problems, both would have to set about the mundane business of government and the personalities of the leaders on both sides of this conflict do not fit well with a peace agenda. I do not know whether others agree with my assessment but I conclude that neither the current elected political leaders nor the political activists and extremists really want peace because they profit from the current standoff. The voices of moderation and peace have been muscled out of the political arena.
The Netanyahu government is a loose coalition of conservative and orthodox elements in Israel, controlled by religious fanatics who believe that Israel has some inherent historical and biblical right to much of the occupied territories, a position supported by some fundamentalist Christian groups in the United States. It appears that the Israeli tactic is to continue to stall any final settlement while settling increasing numbers of Jews in the occupied territories, thus making it increasingly difficult to abandon the settlements in any “peace for land” swap necessary for a Palestinian state.
In an earlier day there were reasonable people in the Israeli government who seriously wanted to end the conflict and were willing to compromise and trade land for peace, but until the current government is replaced by moderates and until the government stops its attempts to silence its critics by attacking Israelis and other Jews around the world who support peace, we will not make much progress toward a final resolution of this conflict. The Israeli leadership continues to shoot itself in the foot by its extremism, which not only makes dealing with its enemies even harder, but also aggravates and disappoints its friends and frustrates potential allies.
Somewhere in the middle, the need of the Palestinians and the Israelis for a peaceful two state solution must be found, but it will require political will of the moderates to bring about peace. The seeds of peace have been planted but they are being crowded out by the fast-growing weeds of extremism and conflict.
There are non-violent peace movements on both sides that promise hope although we do not hear much about them in the media. The New York Times carried a story [Palestinians Try a Less Violent Path to Resistance] recently about new forms of passive resistance among the Palestinians: senior Palestinian leaders in the West Bank have joined unarmed protest marches against Israeli policies, goods produced in Israeli settlements have been burned in public demonstrations, the Palestinian prime minister entered the West Bank to plant trees and declare the land part of the future state of Palestine, a campaign has been launched against buying goods made in the settlements, a prohibition has been issued against using Israeli telephone cards by Palestinians. Non-violent resistance is beginning and is a welcome change. With support from all sides it has the potential to become a serious movement that could help change public opinion about the Palestinian cause.
There are also serious attempts at a less violent approach to the conflict in Israel and among Israel's supporters. In the US, there are several activist Israeli-Jewish groups promoting peace, including the Jewish Voice for Peace and J Street. Within Israel there is an active peace movement and even in the Israeli Defense Force there are passive resistors, including officers who have been jailed for refusal to carry out military missions in the Occupied Territories.
There is hope. Those of us who care, and that includes the Progressive community whether religious or secular, need to make our voices heard strongly and repeatedly—in the media, by letters to the editor, by commentary from the pulpit, in the streets if necessary—to counteract those loud voices of aggression that would drown out this conversation about peace with name-calling or attempts to derail the peace movement with irrelevant arguments that question the motives of the peacemakers. It is time that the forces for peace take control of the conversation.
Friday, May 21, 2010
Then we grew up and moral values such as loyalty and truth, integrity and honesty, reliability and patriotism, became a lot more complicated. It is not always clear that keeping secrets, or loyalty to a friend or an employer, is the right thing to do. It is no longer obvious that keeping silent about a friend's crime or misconduct, or a government official's duplicity or conflict of interest, or a corporation's reckless endangerment, fraud or betrayal of our national values should be protected out of loyalty.
Most people respect the values of honesty, integrity, loyalty, reliability and patriotism. The issue for the ethically mature person is that values are often in conflict in real world situations and we have to work our way through the conflicts to reach the position that best reflects our core moral values. The conflict of these values creates much of the tension surrounding arguments over the right thing to do in particular situations.
That point should be obvious, but it is lost in most discussions amidst loud and angry arguments in which the combatants fail to see the moral complexity of the underlying issues and consequently question the integrity or judgment of the other side. This came clearly into focus for me yesterday when I read an article in the Washington Post about the controversy generated by WikiLeaks, a website on which leaked corporate and government documents are posted anonymously by concerned citizens who are either patriots or traitors depending on your values.
One recent disclosure in particular generated a lot of press coverage—a video from the cockpit gun camera on a US military Apache gunship in Iraq that fired into a group of civilians, killing 12 to 15 Iraqis including two reporters for Reuters and wounding several children. The video seems to show a different version of events than the account released by the Pentagon following the shooting. The point here is not to discuss that event or whether the US covered up an embarrassing incident, but rather the issues related to the fact that WikiLeaks posted the video, which the Defense Department considered “classified” information. Critics of WikiLeaks (mostly in the government) were furious about the leak. Some supporters of the Pentagon went so far as to call releasing the video to the public an act of treason and suggested the CIA shut it down by “black ops” if necessary. Proponents of truth and government in the sunshine lavished praise on WikiLeaks for its patriotic courage in upholding our national values of truth and honor and keeping the public informed about events that the government wanted to conceal.
Moving past the hysterics, the release of that footage was certainly not "treason" (which requires intent to harm the country) and clearly no harm to the nation was intended or resulted. To the contrary, the intent was to tell the truth about the event. The video was embarrassing and made more so by the Pentagon's attempt to cover up what happened, but no information was released about any vital national interest and the security of the country was not harmed. Some idiot will of course argue that anything that puts the US in an embarrassing situation could lead to spiteful acts of revenge, but that does not come close to the concept of treason. It is hard to make a convincing argument that preventing embarrassment is sufficient grounds to justify a coverup, or to classify information “top secret,” or to pursue those who leak information as if they had done something disloyal. The controversy here is between those who believe that preserving government secrets is more important than disclosure, against those who believe that the real patriotic duty lies in protecting and preserving the honor of the US by telling the truth whether or not it is embarrassing to government officials.
Our government at all levels, Federal, state and local, has a bias toward secrecy and a desire to keep actions of government officials behind closed doors and in locked file cabinets. Attempts to create laws to compel “government in the sunshine” and to provide for “freedom of information” are fought by bureaucrats and legislators. Releasing information to the public that some bureaucrat doesn't want released is treated as disloyalty and grounds for termination of employment or prosecution for violating disclosure laws. The same is true in corporate America. Corporations conceal vital information that the public needs to know, whether that is safety information or evidence of fraud or contract irregularities involving public funds. The government bureaucrat and the corporate executive attack employees who release information to the public with accusations of disloyalty or of bad motives.
An example of corporate attempts to conceal damaging information from the public occurred while I was writing this article. A CBS news crew attempted to film oil spill damage on a Louisiana beach when they were approached by a boat operated by BP contractors with two Coast Guard officers on board who refused to let them film oil on the beach and ordered them to leave the area under threat of arrest. The Coast Guard said those were BP rules, not theirs. [We will not get into the issue of how BP, a private corporation, can issue rules that prohibit a news crew from filming on a public beach, with enforcement of corporate rules by the Coast Guard. We wish that CBS had pressed the issue to see if the Coast Guard would attempt an arrest on behalf of BP.]
The ethical issue faced now by CBS is whether its journalistic integrity requires making an issue of the public's “right to know” and its right to film oil damage on a public beach at the risk of angering BP and losing access to information, or whether CBS will quietly let BP get away with using government intimidation to conceal damaging information and thereby preserve its access to whatever news BP is willing to let CBS cover.
There are only three types of information that should not be released to the public: [a] information that would jeopardize specific operations and methods in national security or law enforcement activities, [b] legitimate commercial trade secrets of corporations, and [c] personal information about individuals where that information may be damaging with no redeeming public interest at stake. Most everything else that governments and corporations try to protect are things they don't want the public to know about, and that is why we need WikiLeaks and other media outlets, why we must protect the press' right to publish, why we must ensure the public nature of government activities, why we must insist that government operate under the disinfecting qualities of sunshine, and why we must vigilantly guard against government interference in the public's right to know.
This essay is not about WikiLeaks, at least not directly. It is about the conflict of moral and ethical values that we face daily and a reminder that we need to be careful that we do not get so concerned about one value that we forgot other values that may be in play in any given situation. Our argument with someone else may result from the other party ranking values differently than we do in a particular context. That does not necessarily make them wrong and us right. An argument that one person sees as an issue of loyalty to country may be seen by another as an issue of integrity, and the disagreement arises because the parties rank these issues in different priority order in a given situation, or are not contemplating that there is one than one value in play.
Loyalty, integrity, honor and truth are often competing values in the real situations we face daily. Our job, as ethical human beings, is to work our way through the values that are in conflict in any given situation and make the best judgment we can about what our duty is in that context.
For a broader discussion of ethics and duty, in the context of a Humanist and a Christian, see this discussion.
Wednesday, May 5, 2010
The editorial writer did not do his homework and apparently is ignorant of the background of the lawsuit that led the federal court to declare the National Day of Prayer to be unconstitutional. It is not about whether or not a day of prayer, reflection or meditation violates the separation of church and state. It is much more troubling than that. It is about whether this day of prayer, and the organization behind it, are violating the “establishment” clause of the Constitution by promoting a particular religion, Evangelical Protestant Christianity.
So a little history. The National Day of Prayer is an evangelical Christian program, funded by a task force led by Shirley Dobson, wife of James Dobson, the founder of the conservative political activist organization, Focus on the Family.
According to its website, the task force is “a privately funded organization whose purpose is to encourage participation on the National Day of Prayer” and “to communicate with every individual the need for personal repentance and prayer... and to mobilize the Christian community to intercede for America’s leaders and its families.”
Its origin is traced to a 1952 rally in Washington by the evangelical minister Rev. Billy Graham, in which he called for a national day of prayer and envisioned a "great spiritual awakening" for the capital with "thousands coming to Jesus Christ." The initial bill proposing the National Day of Prayer was introduced in the Senate (1952) by Senator Absalom Robertson (father of Pat Robertson) as a measure against the "corrosive forces of communism which seek simultaneously to destroy our democratic way of life and the faith in an Almighty God on which it is based."
Apparently it was not implemented, so it was reintroduced in the Senate in 1987 by Strom Thurmond, according to the time line on the National Day of Prayer's website. The driving force behind the day of prayer was a little known group, the National Prayer Committee, a creation of the International Congress on World Evangelization, held in Lausanne, Switzerland in 1974.
In short, this is a project of a right wing Christian group to promote their particular take on Christianity and to try to get control of the conversation about religion in American life, including proseletyzing for evangelical Christianity and promoting their view that the United States is a Christian nation—which it is not, and has not been since its founding. See my recent article on the issue.
The federal court found that the day of prayer served no secular public purpose and that is why it was ruled to be unconstitutional. The judge said in her opinion that “the U.S. government may not enact a statute supporting prayer any more than it can encourage citizens to 'fast during the month of Ramadan, attend a synagogue, purify themselves in a sweat lodge or practice rune magic.'"
If it were a neutral day for all people, whether or not religious, for reflection and meditation on our common values, maybe it could be found to be lawful, but as it is now structured, it is a project of a narrow Christian evangelical group with a clear sectarian purpose. Americans are certainly free to pray or not as they choose, but there is no justification for a public government sponsored day of sectarian religious prayer.
Prayer is not necessarily objectionable if not done in public or with public sponsorship but it is probably pointless except as a prelude to action that involves a serious commitment to real Christian (and human) values--working toward peace in Afghanistan and the Middle East [being peacemakers, bring our troops home], feeding the hungry [support the food bank and food kitchens], sheltering the homeless [supporting the homeless shelter, the abused women's shelter, the children's home], healing the sick [funding CHIP, supporting health care for all], etc. Prayer by itself without action is empty and meaningless words. If our world is to become a better place the people of our nation will have to work together with others around the world to make it happen. A national day of sectarian prayer will not accomplish that.
Tuesday, May 4, 2010
The two things that really set them off are taxes—they are too high—and socialist welfare programs for the poor, the unemployed, the lazy—all those scabs on the backs of true blue-blooded working Americans who have to work hard only to have their just financial rewards stolen from them by the government and redistributed to those who don’t deserve it. Every news article, editorial, or letter to the editor becomes an occasion for these extremists to vent their increasing anger and frustration at society, at government, and at local and national politicians.
The Tea Party is something of an enigma. It is difficult and may be unwise to attempt to characterize a group that is as diverse and fluid as the Tea Party appears to be, yet there are some things that can be said about them. "They" appear to be a motley assortment of folks, well meaning in their intentions for the most part, gullible enough to be led astray by the right wing buffoons and rabble-rousers of talk radio and Fox News, foolish and naïve in their public displays and rallys, appallingly ignorant about American history and values, unable to make serious practical political judgments (note their fascination with Sarah Palin), and ultimately dangerous because they foster ignorance and mob rule. They do not understand either democracy or the realities of a republic, yet they are powerful enough to create real damage because they are frustrated and angry and they are lashing out at whatever seems to be a good target for their rage.
A recent dialogue illustrates the difficulty of intelligent conversation with a Tea Party supporter who advocates values that he does not really understand. In response to a newspaper critique of inflammatory rhetoric by speakers at a local rally in which supporters of President Obama were called everything from socialists to traitors, he said (talking about his friends who participated in the rally):
“They just want to be reassured that you’re an American and that you believe in capitalism, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. That’s all.”I responded to him:
“The vast majority of Americans believe in capitalism, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, including me. I fear that what you mean is that you want people to believe in your way of understanding these terms, and that is where our disagreement arises.
[a] I believe that capitalism is the best economic system but it needs operating rules, and it needs to get disconnected from corporatism and monopolies, so that there is real and fair competition between equal parties in commercial transactions. When one party to a financial transaction makes the rules (for instance, the banks), then real and fair competition does not occur and the basic premise of capitalism is defeated.
[b] I believe in Constitutional government, as do most people, including the courts and judges. The issue is how the Constitution is interpreted. That is what we argue about. If you mean that you want judges who make Constitututional decisions the way you want them decided, and I want judges inclined to go along with my read of the Constitution, both of us believe in the Constitution, but we disagree about what it means and how it is to be interpreted.
[c] I believe in the Bill of Rights. I believe in freedom of speech. I think that provision was put into the Constitution to apply specifically to political speech. No one should be able to muzzle your freedom to express and advocate for your political beliefs. But I want that strictly interpreted. Speech is speech. Actions are not speech. Money is not speech. Corporations are not people. So my take on this is that what the courts have called “symbolic speech” – i.e., flag burning, desecrating public buildings with splattered blood, or disrupting public meetings, etc. is not properly an exercise of “free speech.” I also maintain that “money” is not free speech and campaign contributions can be limited without any individual being deprived of his right to speak his mind.
In other words, we do not disagree about the importance of capitalism, or the Constitution, or the Bill of Rights, but we surely disagree about what they mean.”The leadership of the Tea Party movement says that the characterizations and estimates of the Tea Party should not be based on what happens at public demonstrations, what is yelled out, what is written on crude illiterate signs. It is apparent that the excesses of the Tea Party followers and hangers-on have proven to be an embarrassment to its leaders, who have visions of being taken seriously and having some impact on future political events. Fox News, in a surprisingly candid article on the Tea Party following its national tour, said that “while organizers have held the tour as a way to stay front-and-center as a political force, the rallies have also attracted the kinds of mistruths, exaggerations and conspiracy theories that make Tea Party leaders cringe. Though the movement is still trying to shore up its credentials as a grassroots power that's here to stay, the so-called "fringe" and its accompanying antics continue to give critics fodder.”
Adherents of the Tea Party movement are supposedly brighter than the average citizen (a questionable judgment based on the signs they carry and the slogans they shout), but regardless even those identified as its leadership seem strangely deficient in knowledge of history and the meaning of some of the simplest political concepts—socialism, communism, tyranny, fascism, Nazi—which they use in the most bizarre and uninformed way. An analysis of this aspect of the Tea Partiers appears in a recent issue of Slate, in a perceptive article worth the read by Ron Rosenbaum, The Tea Party's Toxic Take on History. In his critique of the lack of historical awareness evidenced by the Tea Party Rosenbaum says:
“Most people with a basic grounding in history find Tea Party ignorance something to laugh about, certainly not something to take seriously. But I would argue that history demonstrates that historical ignorance is dangerous and that it can have tragic consequences, however laughable it may initially seem. And thus the media, liberals, and others are misguided in laughing it off. And educated conservatives are irresponsible in staying silent in the face of these distortions.... The muddled Tea Party version of history is more than wrong and fraudulent. It's offensive. Calling Obama a tyrant, a communist, or a fascist is deeply offensive to all the real victims of tyranny, the real victims of communism and fascism.... The media for the most part has shown itself afraid to challenge the insidious distortions of language and history Tea Partiers promote.”It would be nice if the so-called “Tea Party” crowd were actually a new third party instead of what appears to be merely “Republicans with attitude” who talk about change we might believe in but are actually just the same “angry white folks” with the same tired complaints about big government, unbalanced budgets, porous borders, gay marriage, enemies behind every bush, government giveaway programs, and high taxes. They are Republicans wearing camouflage, and I guess they assume we won't notice.
When the Tea Party movement first surfaced I had hoped for more. I really hoped for a third party of fiscal and social moderates that would give some balance to the flaky fringe of the right and the left and might lead to a national conversation about needs and priorities and a willingness (and necessity) to compromise in the interest of accomplishing something useful and workable for our nation and to move us beyond anger and frustration.
I wanted a party for fiscal moderates, a party that would not engage in unnecessary wars and that if and when a war was necessary for our defense would have the integrity to pay for that war by raising taxes so they could show they were serious and were not just engaging in political rhetoric for short term political gain at long term cost to the next generation of ever increasing debt and ever decreasing quality of life.
I wanted a party that would commit to making lobbying illegal; end campaign donations by corporations, businesses, labor unions, trade associations and political action committees; reform campaign finance laws and amend the “free speech” provisions of the Constitution so that corporations were not deemed to be persons and money was not deemed a proxy for speech; and eliminate the influence of corporatism in our lives.
I wanted a party that would enforce our borders and our immigration laws; end agricultural visas for farmers and technical visas for computer programmers and other professionals unless coupled with enforceable provisions requiring those with temporary work visas to leave when their visas expire; stand up to the Republican Party that wants our immigration laws to be ignored to keep the cost of labor down and ensure a continuous supply of low cost workers to business in order to undermine worker protections and unions; stand up to the Democrats who also want the immigration laws to be ignored so that more poor workers and minorities will increase the potential membership of their party; and change the national conversation about immigration so that there was no implication that open national boundaries are desirable and enforcing our immigration laws was somehow “racist.”
I hoped for a party that would encourage free enterprise to flourish by breaking up the big banks and big corporations that dominate our markets and prevent real competition in price and quality of goods and services; devise regulations to make markets fair and competitive; eliminate manufacturer agreements with retailers that arbitrarily fix prices and penalize retailers who compete on price; remove legal constraints on Medicare so that drug companies would have to bid successfully to get their drugs on an approved list; and enforce trade agreements to prevent dumping and other unfair and anti-competitive practices that undermine our economy and our workers.
I hoped for a party that would recognize that government is separate from religion and would not try to impose sectarian or religious values into the political sphere or try to impose particular religious standards on the rest of society.
But I am a realist and I do not think this will happen. I am afraid that the Tea Party is not really a serious political movement that will give us a real choice because we have seen the Tea Party movement co-opted by the Republican Party to try to win unhappy independents. Our choices will still be between Republicans and Democrats. That is a great disappointment to me, because both parties are firmly in the control of the corporations and despite what they say with their campaign rhetoric, fundamental change will not happen. The existing political parties are too entrenched in their ways, too entangled with lobbyists, too much under the influence of corporations, PACS and political cronies, too sure they can continue their current ways with no real consequences, too inclined to protect and advantage their friends. That said, and with considerable reluctance, I will continue to support the Democrats in elections as a moral choice of the lesser of the evils because they tend to be less selfish and more inclined to support programs that benefit people.