Thursday, November 26, 2015

On Thanksgiving Day

My favorite holiday:  about friends and food!  I hope we all can share a welcoming table with those we know and love, and that strangers  can find a place there with us.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Grace, Gratitude, and Generosity: a postcard from Los Angeles

Sometimes I find myself on the Los Angeles Metro, in the morning after rush hour, riding south from downtown towards the museums, as I did a few days ago.  This light rail and subway system is being built at great expense, though doesn't come close to the long-gone trolleys that knit together far-flung LA until the 40s.   But I digress.

Outside of rush hour the riders on this line are mostly minority, predominantly African American.  There was a sprinkling of college students of all races plugged into their phones, a couple of tourists, a murmer of soft Spanish, and middle-aged white me, but most of the riders were black.  I was sitting a few rows from the front,  next to the window.

A beautiful young African American woman was standing by the driver's door.  It was a warm day, and she was wearing shorts and a stylish T.  Smooth-skinned with sparkling eyes, she looked about 19 or 20, too young for the baby carriage she was standing next to.  She was joking with a tall young man across the aisle from my seat,  both smiling, talking loudly, though it seemed like a casual encounter, not a relationship.  Sitting in one of the front seats ahead of me  was a slightly older woman.

I heard a clank-clank sound, of coins being shaken in a large styrofoam to -go cup.  "Change?"  asked a husky voice.  "Any change?"  An old black woman,  heavily built, wearing a long dark skirt and stained sweater was edging down the aisle on a waft of unwashed- body smell.  The students stared at their phones. I looked at mine too.  The young man stopped talking and edged further into his seat.


The woman sitting in the seat in front of me got up and walked to the back.

There was only the girl and her baby at the front of the car. There was a soft conversation, though I couldn't hear the words.   I heard "clank".  Over and over, "Clank", as each coin the girl pulled from her purse fell rhythmically  into the beggar's cup, this beautiful young girl the only one greeting this suffering homeless woman, greeting her and gifting her.

The old woman sighed and sank into the front seat, the one that faces the aisle and says "for the elderly and disabled".   I could smell her, though she was several rows away.  I looked up briefly, and realized suddenly that there was a  rip in her dark skirt extending down from the waistband so that I could see the flesh of her thigh and a fold of her belly rolling over it.  Her ankles were swollen.  Her  eyes were closed, her body clearly aching.  She got off at the next stop to ride the train back to continue begging.

Grace, gratitude, and generosity.  The picture stays with me.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Standing up to terrorism as Christians and Americans

San Diego is a border town, a city of refugees and immigrants not just from Mexico and the Pacific, but from Africa and Europe. The Bishop of San Diego, Rt Rev James Mathes, speaks out :

As a nation of immigrants and refugees (over 40 percent of us can track our ancestry through Ellis Island), we must not be changed by terrorists. If because of ISIS, we pass laws restricting refugees, if we impede compassion, if we impinge civil liberties like after 9/11, then ISIS will win. Now is the time for our nation to rally around her core values so eloquently stated in our first piece of American scripture, "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." These immortal words echo holy words from the apostle, Paul, "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus," (Galatians 3:28).

This is who we are as a Christian people. This is who we are as citizens of the United States. We take risks for those who suffer. We are descendants of the Good Samaritan and Martin of Tours, Francis of Assisi, and Mother Teresa. Our fathers and mothers gave to the Red Cross, created the Marshall Plan, rebuilt Europe, adopted orphans from war torn countries, helped rebuild New Orleans, and we will be there when tragedy strikes again. Now is the time for us to be touched by the better angels of our nature. Now is the time to remember who and whose we are. Now it is time to love and not fear. That is the only thing that will heal our broken world.
Read the whole thing.

Monday, November 9, 2015

The war on Christians

There is a war on Christians.  It is being conducted in the Middle East by terrorist groups such as Isis.

But, apparently, to a particular type of Christian, the was is being conducted here because Starbucks has a red cup for the holiday season.

Seems festive to me, but apparently, a red cup that does not include the words "Merry Christmas" is an insult to the 70% of Americans who identify as Christian, leading to rants on Facebook and You Ttube.

And it seems that the message of the season is lost.

Which is something like this

Moreover, as John Pavlovitz writes,
These continual strident, shouting, red-faced rebuttals to Atheists and non-Christians and corporations are doing exponentially more harm than good in the world beyond the already-convinced; representing Christians as aggressive, bitter brats forever challenging everyone to fisticuffs. 
....So much of our modern Christian culture (from talk radio show hosts to bullhorn screaming preachers to brazen church signs) has devolved into faith-justified antagonism and sanctified fight-picking in the name of Jesus—and I just don’t get it.

I don’t even recognize so much of this stuff as being of Christ anymore.

When did the Good News of Jesus become a massive middle finger to anyone who doesn’t believe what we believe or express faith the way we personally express it? 
In so many ways Christianity has lost the plot and bastardized the message, and people are right to reject it. Until we can provide an expression of faith that better mirrors the life and ministry of Jesus, I don’t blame anyone for opting out. 
Or as Gandhi put it, you Christians are so unlike your Christ.  

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Religious children less altruistic

A new study has come out with the surprising result that children from religious upbringings are less altruistic than children with none, and the more "serious" the upbringing the less generous the child.
The new research, done with children in six countries (Canada, China, Jordan, Turkey, South Africa, and the United States), included 510 Muslim, 280 Christian, and 323 nonreligious children. The study, the first to take such a large-scale look at how religion and moral behavior intersect in children from across the globe, focused on one facet of moral behavior: altruism, or the willingness to give someone else a benefit that also comes with a personal cost.... 
[E]ach child was told they could put some of their 10 stickers in an envelope to be shared with other kids, who were described as being from the same school and ethnic group. The scientists used the number of stickers left in the envelope as a measure of altruism.

The children from nonreligious households left 4.1 stickers on average, a statistically significant difference from Christian children (3.3) and Muslim ones (3.2). Also, the more religious the household, based on a survey of parents, the less altruistic the child. ..... In older children, the split was most stark, with religious youth increasingly unlikely to share.
There are a couple of theories of why this might be the case
[T]he pattern of religious children being less generous may be tied to a phenomenon called “moral licensing.” That’s when a person feels permitted—even unconsciously—to do something wrong, because they see themselves as a morally correct person.
We see a lot of that in the do-as-I-say hypocrisy of many ostensibly devout people.    Another take:
 [T]he results are connected to the importance many religions place on an external authority and threats of divine punishment. Whereas children in religious households learn to act out of obedience to a watchful higher power, children raised in secular homes could be taught to follow moral rules just because it’s “the right thing to do,” he says. Then, “when no one is watching, the kids from nonreligious families behave better.”
Again, a form of hypocrisy.

Interestingly, data from  other studies suggests that there is no difference in the altruism of adults.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The middle class is dying (literally)

A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows an alarming increase in the rate of death of US Whites (USW, in the Prospect chart below) that runs counter to trends not only in other countries but even in other racial groups (USH = American Hispanics).

What's happening?

Turns out the increased mortality is almost exclusively amongst those with high-school diploma or less, and linked to suicide, drug overdose, mental health issues, and other stress-associated disorders.

Rather than being a sign of too much welfare, it's more a sign of people falling out of the social contract, leading to destitution and despair.

The American Prospect:
The declining health of middle-aged white Americans may also shed light on the intensity of the political reaction taking place on the right today. The role of suicide, drugs, and alcohol in the white midlife mortality reversal is a signal of heightened desperation among a population in measurable decline. We are not talking merely about “status anxiety” due to rising immigrant populations and changing racial and gender relations. Nor are we talking only about stagnation in wages as if the problem were merely one of take-home pay. The phenomenon Case and Deaton have identified suggests a dire collapse of hope, and that same collapse may be propelling support for more radical political change. Much of that support is now going to Republican candidates, notably Donald Trump. Whether Democrats can compete effectively for that support on the basis of substantive economic and social policies will crucially affect the country’s political future.

Case & Deaton, “Rising Morbidity and Mortality in Midlife among White Non-Hispanic Americans in the 21st Century,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, November 2, 2015.
The White Midlife Mortality Reversal: All-cause mortality, ages 45–54 for U.S. white non-Hispanics (USW), US Hispanics (USH), and six comparison countries: France (FRA), Germany (GER), the United Kingdom (UK), Canada (CAN), Australia (AUS), and Sweden (SWE). 

Friday, October 30, 2015

The resurgence of the know-nothings

Ben Carson's popularity is a symptom of a broader, deeply concerning anti-intellectualism.

Mike Lofgren:
Thanks to these overlapping and mutually reinforcing segments of the right-wing media-entertainment-“educational” complex, it is now possible for the true believer to sail on an ocean of political, historical, and scientific disinformation without ever sighting the dry land of empirical fact. This effect is fortified by the substantial overlap between conservative Republicans and fundamentalist Christians...... 
For these culture warriors, belief in demonstrably false propositions is no longer a stigma of ignorance, but a defiantly worn badge of political resistance.
And while we may laugh at them, they are more dangerous than that.
Numerous states like Louisiana now mandate that public schools teach the wholly imaginary “controversy” about evolution. A school textbook in Texas, whose state school board has long been infested with reactionary kooks, referred to chattel slaves as “workers” (the implication was obvious: neo-Confederate elements in the South have been trying to minimize slavery for a century and a half, to the point of insinuating it had nothing to do with the Civil War). 
This brings us back to Ben Carson. He now suggests that, rather than abolishing the Department of Education, a perennial Republican goal, the department should be used to investigate professors who say something he doesn’t agree with. The mechanism to bring these heretics to the government’s attention should be denunciations from students, a technique once in vogue in the old Soviet Union. 
Those seeking the Evangelical vote play to these views.  And they are scary. As is misattributed to Sinclair Lewis:

"When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross."

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Americanized Christianity (updated)

More than one commentator has noted that we have a distinct form of Christianity in the US, an Americanized form that is not truly Christian.  These commentators call for a restoration of True Christian values.

Of course, how that works depends on who's asking.  Rod Dreher thinks that "Americanized Christianity" is an anything goes amoralization that allows for horrors like same sex marriage and transgendered folks transitioning.
Business as usual is over, church people. There will be no “taking our country back”; you will be lucky if our country’s fast-emerging culture doesn’t take our faith away from our kids. Don’t you doubt it. If you have been the sort of Christian who equated Christianity with the American way of life, you had better rethink that, and fast.

On the other hand, Benjamin Corey on Patheos thinks "Americanized Christianity" is an overwhelming identification of Christian faith with Republican talking points, which real Christian will reject.  for example
If your primary identity is legitimately that of a Christian, you’ll be open to learning about Christianity as it was taught and lived by the earliest Christians. However, from an American mindset, original Christianity and the first Christians appear nuts: they were universally nonviolent (against capital punishment, abortion, military service and killing in self-defense), rejected individual ownership of property in order to redistribute their wealth (Acts 2:44-45, Acts 4:35), and rejected any involvement with the government. When reading about them they seem rather un-American, and this will cause frustration or disbelief among those in Americanized Christianity.
An American value is small government and low tax rates, but a Christian value is the elimination of poverty– which is precisely why the early Christians shared their wealth instead of hoarding it. However, while many American Christians fight for lower taxes, the average American Christian doesn’t give money to charity. Where the early church shared everything, statistics show that Americanized Christians share almost nothing- less than 5% even tithe to their church. When we reject the Americanization of Christianity, we become focused on how to give more, not on how to give less.
and of course,
Somewhere along the line, the Americanized version of Christianity taught us that defeating gay marriage was perhaps the most pressing issue of our time. Sadly, as Americans we’re taught to be self-centered and this is an incredibly self-centered view that completely ignores the global issues of our time. It is the mistaken identity that our issues are the issues. The most pressing issues of our time? Let’s start with the fact that 750 million people around the world don’t even have access to clean water or that 805 million people are chronically malnourished.
Funny.  They both agree that "Americanized Christianity" is a problem but there is no agreement on what that is!

This completely corresponds to another article I read this week on how liberals can change conservatives' minds and vice versa by considering "moral foundations theory":
Summing up a great deal of research, Feinberg and Willer write that "liberals tend to endorse foundations based on caring and protection from harm (harm) and maintenance of fairness and reciprocity (fairness) more strongly than conservatives. However, conservatives tend to endorse moral concerns related to ingroup-loyalty (loyalty), respect for authority (authority), and protection of purity and sanctity (purity) more than liberals [emphasis theirs]." ....
Feinberg and Willer had two main hypotheses for their study: first, that liberals tasked with convincing conservatives on some issue would do so with liberal-"flavored" moral language, and vice versa, rather than try to seek out an argument more likely to resonate with someone on the other side; and second, that liberals would be more swayed by liberal-flavored arguments, and vice versa.
So, Dreher isn't going to be swayed by arguments about fairness and harm to gay people, and Corey isn't going to go for the purity argument.  But maybe Dreher would be more concerned about the poor and disadvantaged if one points to Biblical authority.  But I'm not sure how you could use arguments re. harm or fairness to persuade Corey otherwise.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Angry Catholics

Recently, the Roman Catholic Church completed a Synod on the Family, which was full of Bishops, politics and manipulation.  At one point, a scathing letter was written by 13 of the Bishops and then denied by some of them.  Columnists like Rob Dreher and Ross Douthat wring their hands about schism.  Not surprisingly, much of the fear and loathing is over the possibility of a more merciful approach to divorced-remarried Catholics (who are denied Communion), or LGBT people.  Conservatives are openly opposing Pope Francis, with a vehemence and anger that Vatican watchers consider unprecedented.  And all these, even though nothing has really changed.

Fr James Martin looks at the hysteria.  He is shocked at the spite, and identifies four reasons.
First,  Catholics today often conflate dogma, doctrine and practice.

....In the past few decades, we have seen these three categories collapsed together, at least in the popular Catholic imagination. It is as if every teaching is seen as dogma. And this has had disastrous effects. Because a change in one is seen as an attack on everything....
Second, change itself may be difficult for some Catholics because it threaten one's idea of a stable church. Yet the church has always changed. Not in its essentials, but in some important practices, as it responds to what Jesus called the "signs of the times."

.....Third, a darker reason for the anger: a crushing sense of legalism of the kind that Jesus warned against. Sadly, I see this evident in our church, and it is ironic to find this in those who hew to the Gospels because this is one of the clearest things that Jesus opposed....

Fourth, even darker reasons for the anger: a hatred of LGBT Catholics that masks itself as a concern for their souls, a desire to shut out divorced and remarried because they are "sinful" and should be excluded from the church's communion, and a self-righteousness and arrogance that closes one off to the need for mercy. ]
He concludes,
Fear of change holds the church back. And it does something worse. It removes love from the equation. In the past few weeks I have seen this fear lead to suspicion, mistrust and hate. And at the heart of this, I believe, is fear.

As St. Paul said, perfect love drives out fear. But perfect fear drives out love.

In another article, in America Magazine (the Jesuit Magazine), Fr Martin has more to say about these angry Catholics:
I’m disgusted with malicious slandering that passes itself off as thoughtful theology. I’m disgusted with mean-spirited personal attacks that pass themselves off as Christian discourse. I’m disgusted with the facile use of words like “heresy” and “schism” and “apostate,” passing itself off as defenses of the faith. Basically, I’m disgusted with hate being passed off as charity. ....
That is not theology, and it does not flow from the love of Jesus Christ. It is a malicious desire to wound people and to score points. And if you think it’s amusing, then you’re missing Jesus’s point about not calling people names, and always praying for our “enemies.” And by the way, if you take Jesus should be your model, and feel the need to judge people, and call them names, like “hypocrite,” feel free to do so when you are the sinless Son of God. We risk being so Catholic that we forget to be Christian.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Lancing the boil

An interview with Political scientists Thomas Mann (Brookings Institute and UC Berkeley) and Norman Ornstein (American Enterprise Institute) who came to notice by their analysis that the "broken" politics in the US is a result of the GOP collapse.

They say,
There is no clear path out of our current distemper. The solution, like the diagnosis, must focus on the obvious but seldom acknowledged asymmetry between the parties. The Republican Party must become a conservative governing party once again and accept the assumptions and norms of our Madisonian system. That will likely require more election defeats, more honest reporting by the mainstream press and more recognition by the public that the problem is not "Washington" or "Congress" or "insiders" or politicians in general.

The burden is on the GOP because they are currently the major source of our political dysfunction. No happy talk about bipartisanship can obscure that reality. Unless other voices and movements arise within the Republican Party to change its character and course, our dysfunctional politics will continue.
Unless and until the infotainment industry otherwise known as the Mainstream Media stops this false equivalence between GOP and Dems, we will continue to see this.

And really, after the contrast of the free-for-all reality TV of the insult-flinging Republican "debate" and the sober Democratic version, isn't this apparent?