Saturday, July 30, 2011

Politics and Prayer

James Richard (Rick) Perry, the current governor of Texas, may well be the Republican nominee for President in 2012. Gov. Perry (b. 1950) has not announced his candidacy. But he is getting high rankings in the polls and has strong backing from conservative Christians across the nation.
I envisioned this column before hearing about Gov. Perry possibly running for the presidency. Several months ago he proclaimed August 6 as a “solemn day of prayer and fasting on behalf of our troubled nation.”
All of the other governors of the nation have reportedly been invited to the prayer meeting, and I have (from the Internet, of course) a copy of the letter Gov. Perry wrote, on official stationery, to the governor of Alabama on May 18. The official announcement about the prayer meeting was made on May 23.
As far as I have been able to determine, only two governors have accepted Gov. Perry’s invitation: Gov. Sam Brownback (R-Kansas), and Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-Lousiana). Gov. Gary Herbert (R-Utah) sent regrets but signed a proclamation supporting Perry’s event.
To promote the prayer meeting, Gov. Perry has created a website, “The Response: A Call to Prayer for a Nation in Crisis.” On that website, the Houston Reliant Stadium event is described as “a non-denominational, apolitical Christian prayer meeting.”
 The “host entity” for the August 6 prayer meeting is the American Family Association (AFA), whose founder and chairman emeritus is Rev. Donald E. Wildmon, an influential conservative (fundamentalist) Christian leader.
The Response website indicates that it has adopted the AFA statement of faith. That means that the prayer meeting is clearly intended only for Christians, and even many moderate or liberal Christians would not be able to agree with the AFA statement.
A few weeks ago, Interfaith Alliance President Dr. C. Welton Gaddy, a fellow Baptist minister whom I have known since we were in seminary together, called on Gov. Perry to refrain from using his public office for religious purposes. Rev. Gaddy wrote,
“Governor Perry’s call for governors around the country to join him in prayer and fasting this August raises serious concerns about his commitment to the boundaries between religion and government. It has been my experience that when elected leaders invoke religion in this way, it almost always has more to do with furthering a political agenda than a religious one.”
I agree with Welton.
Certainly, I have nothing against prayer, and I would not at all discourage politicians from praying. But that praying needs to be done primarily in their own “closet” and not publicly at a 70,000-seat football stadium.
I fully agree with Welton’s closing statement as well: “At the very least, I would hope that Governor Perry publicly confirms that no government funds or resources are now or will be in the future used to further this spiritual rally.”
As I wrote previously, there is a very close tie between conservative Christians and the Republican Party. And now it looks suspiciously like Gov. Perry is using, within the Republican Party, a public prayer meeting for political purposes. If so, that is far from commendable.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Hitting the Ceiling

Tuesday August 2 is, as has been widely publicized, the deadline by which the U.S. Congress must raise the nation’s debt ceiling limit in order to keep the country from defaulting on its loan obligations.
At this point, it is by no means certain that the Congress will vote soon enough to increase the debt ceiling. And some people, for good reason, are hitting the ceiling about that.
Some are hitting the ceiling because of the highly irresponsible position of the Tea Party congresspersons who have made it clear they will not vote to raise the ceiling no matter what. Rep. Michele Bachmann is one of those, and she has probably ruined any chance of receiving the Republican presidential nomination because of her intransigent position.
Others are hitting the ceiling because of the conditions linked to a promise to vote for raising the debt ceiling. Those conditions are related to the “cap, cut, and balance” bill that was, foolishly, passed by the House last week.
The problem is that the House Republicans’ proposal for cutting is not only of wasteful and unneeded government programs but also a cutting of Social Security benefits and cutting Medicare and Medicaid. On The Ed Show last Thursday, Ed Shultz was hitting the ceiling because he thought the President was “caving in” to proposed cuts in “the big three.”
While “hitting the ceiling” may be too strong an expression, a number of Christians, led by Jim Wallis (editor-in-chief of Sojourners), met with the President last week. They pleaded that cuts not be made which would negatively affect the poor and needy.
Wallis and his friends are a part of a group known as the Circle of Protection, which has been signed by many denominational leaders. Daniel Vestal, Executive Coordinator, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, is one of the signers. (Many readers of this blog know, or know of, Dr. Vestal.)
I have also joined the Circle, which states, in part, “We are . . . committed to resist budget cuts that undermine the lives, dignity, and rights of poor and vulnerable people.”
Some Democrats have even been sending Republican congresspersons appeals from President Reagan. During Reagan’s two terms, he presided over eighteen increases in the debt ceiling. He even publicly scolded Congress for playing hardball politics with the debt limit and bringing the nation “to the edge of default before facing its responsibility.”
It was in 1983 that Reagan “hit the ceiling,” declaring that "The full consequences of a default--or even the serious prospect of default--by the United States are impossible to predict and awesome to contemplate." 
But now, just eight days before the deadline, some congresspersons, like Rep. Bachmann, are saying they will not vote for raising the debt ceiling no matter what. Many others are seeking to “blackmail” the President by saying they will vote for it only if their conditions are met.
Some are so irresponsible as to even say that defaulting is no big deal and might even help the country! And Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) has even suggested that the deadline was set for August 2 just so the matter would be settled in time for the President to celebrate his birthday with an extravagant fund-raising bash on August 3.
Maybe if we are not hitting the ceiling because of the government’s failure to raise the national debt ceiling we ought to be!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Dalai Lama and “the Opium of the People”

Karl Marx wrote, “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people” (in Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, 1843).
It was particularly Christianity that Marx had in mind when he penned those oft-quoted words, for Christianity was clearly the dominant religion of Europe and Great Britain at the time. And to a certain degree Marx’s analysis was correct: most forms of popular Christianity at the time were individualistic and “other-worldly.” The focus of faith was on inner peace in the present and eternal bliss in the future.
Marx’s assertion about religion was also applicable to the religious tradition of India and Tibet (Hinduism and Buddhism). Through the centuries (millennia), those religions have stressed inner tranquility far, far more than social action.
In recent decades, there has been a new type of Buddhism, often referred to as engaged Buddhism (or sometimes socially-engaged Buddhism). This movement is particularly linked to the Vietnamese Thien (Zen) Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. But it is, clearly, a new form of Buddhism.
To a limited degree, the Dalai Lama has been linked with engaged Buddhism. But I did not get that impression from his public talk in D.C. on July 9 or from his essay titled “A Human Approach to World Peace” about which I wrote in my previous posting.
In fact, it seems that the Dalai Lama’s emphasis was much too individualistic, and his stress on inner happiness (regardless of the outward circumstances) was the kind of viewpoint that Marx was referring to when he called religion “the opium of the people.”
The emphasis on the individual and inner peace was long a feature of popular Christianity, to be sure. That was seen, for example, in Billy Graham’s Peace with God: The Secret Happiness (1953).
Perhaps that “fault” is even greater in Tibetan Buddhism, however. Meditation is its foundational practice. (The same is true for traditional Zen.) But here is the problem: meditation can be, and often is, an escape from the larger world rather than preparation for active engagement in seeking to solve the problems of society now.
There needs to be a two-way movement, such as Elizabeth O’Connor articulated well in her seminal book Journey Inward, Journey Outward (1968). Meditation or other means of cultivating the “inner” life, emphasis on what now is often called spirituality, is of great importance. But the “journey outward” is equally important.
Many Christians, doubtlessly, have not adequately implemented that needed two-way movement. But in his recent public talks as well in his previous essays, the Dalai Lama has not adequately dealt with the “nitty-gritty” of engagement with the problems of society either.
It is well and good for the Tibetan Buddhist leader to declare that “we must generate a good and kind heart, for without this, we can achieve neither universal happiness nor lasting world peace.” But to emphasize the development of a compassionate heart without a challenge to engage in societal change is, perhaps, to foster a mentality that proves largely to be “opium” for contemporary people.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Questioning the Dalai Lama

Tenzin Gyatso (b. 1935) is known around the world as the Dalai Lama. He has been in town this week, and I could have gone to hear him speak.
The “town” mentioned is Washington, D.C., and the Dalai Lama has spoken Verizon Center in D.C. daily since July 6. His final appearance there (this time) is tomorrow. During most of these days I have been staying in a D.C. suburb, so I could have easily gone to one of his gatherings.
Sunday morning I even had a free ticket in my hand, but gave it back as I had already decided not to go.
I probably would have gone if I could have met him personally and said, “Hello, Dalai!” (This is probably an irreverent pun, but I am enough of a latent Quaker to dislike ranking people hierarchically, with some “properly” addressed only as Your Highness.)
My decision not to go was largely based on an examination of why I would go. It seemed that being able to “boast” later that I had seen and heard the Dalai Lama was the main reason for going. So I decided just to listen to his July 9 talk on YouTube and read “A Human Approach to World Peace,” his essay first published in 1984.
To be honest, I am not very favorably impressed with what the Dalai Lama has to say. But I can see why he is quite popular in this country (and around the “developed” world). His message is appealing to those who tend to believe that personal and societal happiness can be achieved by people thinking correctly and trying harder.
The Dalai Lama proclaims that “we must generate a good and kind heart, for without this, we can achieve neither universal happiness nor lasting world peace.” That may well be true, but how do we go about generating such a heart?
Traditional Buddhism emphasizes the “eightfold path,” but the Dalai Lama claims he is not trying to convert people to Buddhism. Still, he sees the basic human problem through Buddhist eyes. He writes, “The great [religious] teachers wanted to lead their followers away from the paths of negative deeds caused by ignorance and to introduce them to paths of goodness.”
But according to the traditional Christian worldview, the human predicament is not rooted in ignorance; it is due to sin. And the solution is not enlightenment (a freeing from ignorance) but forgiveness and redemption linked to repentance. Such a perspective, though, is becoming harder and harder to “sell” in our narcissistic culture. Many people seem to like the Dalai Lama’s ideas better; they would rather meditate than repent.
And they would rather seek to save themselves than to trust someone else to save them. The Dalai Lama acknowledges that some people “prefer Buddhism” because “everything depends upon your own actions.” That appeals to those who want to be master of their own fate.
But is there no need for a Savior? Do we humans only need a guide to show us the way to live?
There are more questions I have about the Dalai Lama’s message, and I will likely continue these musings on the July 20 posting.
Note: Most of the quotes in this posting are from “A Human Approach to World Peace,” which can be found here. His July 9 talk is available at this link.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

"The Girl in the Picture"

Kim Phuc was long known as “the girl in the picture” before she was widely known by her personal name.
Phan Thi Kim Phúc (b. 1963) was the girl in the Pulitzer Prize-winning picture taken on June 8, 1972, by AP photographer Nick Ut. That graphic picture shows Kim at nine years of age running naked on a road out of her village in South Vietnam after being severely burned on her back and arms by a napalm bomb attack.
About ten years later, Ms. Phuc was admitted to medical school in Saigon, but was withdrawn by the Vietnamese government who wanted to use her for propaganda purposes. Partly because of her unhappiness with that development, at Christmastime in 1982 she converted to Christianity.
In 1986 Kim was sent to study at the University of Havana in Cuba. There she met Bui Huy Toan, another Vietnamese student, and they married in 1992. On the way back to Cuba from their honeymoon in Moscow, the airplane made a refueling stop in Newfoundland. The newlyweds left the plane and asked for political asylum in Canada, which was granted.
Kim became a Canadian citizen the following year, and she continues to live in Canada with her husband and two sons, who are now 17 and 13.
Last Monday (7/4) Kim was the keynote speaker at the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America summer conference, which met on the campus of Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, VA. I had the privilege of attending that conference and of meeting Kim and hearing her speak.
I don’t know when I have ever seen a more radiant, joyous, sweet-spirited person.
But she hasn’t always been that way. She spent years in physical pain, having seventeen operations over the twelve years after her injuries. Then, she was bitter at having been bombed in her village, of having had to suffer so much, and of having to bear such scars on her body.
She eventually realized that to be free she had to learn to forgive. She told the rapt audience who heard her speak last week, “It was hard, but I became free.”
Kim also emphasized that “forgiveness is a choice.” And it is a choice she encouraged all her listeners to make, forgiving anyone and everyone toward whom they harbor resentment or grudges.
Since hearing her speak, I have bought The Girl in the Picture: The Story of Kim Phuc, the Photograph, and the Vietnam War (2000), her biography written by Denise Chong. I am eager to learn more of her inspiring story.
From now on when I hear about Kim Phuc, I will not think of her as “the girl in the picture.” Rather, I will remember her radiant face and her marvelous message on the power of forgiveness.
And I will remember her closing words: “Don’t see the little girl calling out in pain and fear. See her as crying out for peace.”

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

What about American Exceptionalism?

The United States of America celebrated its 235th birthday yesterday. Across the country, as always, Independence Day was replete with parades, patriotic speeches, and fireworks. I don’t have any trouble with all that (although I would be happy with fewer late night fireworks).
But I do have trouble with the emphasis, not just on July 4 but often, on what is referred to as American exceptionalism.
Make no mistake about it: the U.S. is an exceptional nation in many ways, and there are numerous things to be proud of as a USAmerican. But people from many other countries, rightfully, think that their nation is exceptional with numerous things to be proud of, too.
During a European trip in the spring of 2009, President Obama said, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” He has been severely criticized (mostly by right-wing conservatives) for making that statement.
“A Nation Like No Other”: Newt Gingrich’s Manifesto of American Exceptionalism is the title of a book published just last month. A reviewer of the new book says that the President’s 2009 statement is a quote Gingrich “does not so much cite as target.”
Of course, the critics rarely (and Gingrich doesn’t) note that the President went on to say, I’m enormously proud of my country and its role and history in the world.” And I am, too.
But there are problems with narcissistic patriotism, as most seems to be. You’ve no doubt heard this definition of patriotism: “the belief that your country is better than everyone else’s because you were born there.”
In the past, certainly the English (British) thought that their country was exceptional, and they set out to spread their superior culture, and territorial possessions, around the world. For example, what once belonged to Native Americans became New England. And it was not without reason that it was once said, “The sun never sets on the British flag.”
The Chinese long thought their country was exceptional. To this day the two written characters used for the name of the nation literally means central kingdom. The Chinese thought they were the center of the world. Consequently, Chinese cultural influence is strong throughout East Asia.
A century ago, the Japanese came more and more to think of their country as exceptional. Based on a new emphasis on the ancient Shinto myths, the military leaders came to believe that Japan was rightfully the country to rule Asia (remember their emphasis on the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere?) and then the world. Ideas of Japanese exceptionalism was disastrous for their neighboring countries, and, ultimately, for Japan.
But what about exceptionalism in the new country that became the United States of America after July 4, 1776? Among other things, that widespread belief led to the concept of “manifest destiny,” an idea that turned out to mean death for many Native Americans and destruction of much of their culture.
So while celebrating the many exceptional aspects of our beloved nation, let us note, and beware of, the manifold problems that can spring from too much emphasis on exceptionalism.