Wednesday, February 15, 2017

From Bystander to Ally

That was the title of Dr David Gushee's talk in our "Are You Receiving Me" series, on February 1st.  A video of the event is now available and can be seen below

Dr Gushee spoke about how "being a bystander" is a natural response when we see people in trouble.  Only a small fraction of bystanders are ready or able to become allies - to voluntarily move from privilege to a posture of solidarity.  (In the case of "Christian" Gentiles helping Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe, the focus of Dr Gushee's early research, the proportion who became allies was less than one percent).  He gave three factors that encourage this move to allyship: relationships, compassion and courage.  And he noted that the two major narratives of the Bible - Exodus and Incarnation - are themselves narratives of allyship.

There is a price to be paid for being an ally, especially (at the moment) for being a Christian ally of LGBTQ people. For Dr Gushee himself, it has led to a steady stream of "disinvitations". Conservative Christians fear they will be contaminated by sharing the same conference or platform as an acknowledged ally of LGBTQ people.  Still more heartbreaking to me was to read the story of Joy Beth Smith, a young staffer working for James Dobson's Focus on the Family organization.  Smith was fired last November after posting 'a Facebook status lamenting transgender suicide'.  Just think about that for a moment.  Even lamenting the loss of some of God's children (should they happen to belong to an excluded class) is so scary to FOTF that they want to banish such lamentation from the private social media accounts of those who happen to work for them.  (Even FOTF seems to have felt some shame over this, as they offered Ms Smith severance money if she would sign a non-disclosure agreement which would have meant we would never have learned of these events. Courageously, she did not; I cannot resist quoting, Nevertheless, she persisted.)

I thank God for David Gushee, for Mary Beth Smith, for Mark Tidd, for Nadia Bolz-Webber, for Ben Wideman... the list can go on... for all the allies. I believe that the change we are working for is right, is beautiful, and is unstoppable.  But there will surely be trouble along the way.  Courage!

Friday, February 10, 2017

Toomey on Pruitt and environmental protection

Pat Toomey
Back in December I was privileged to be a signatory on a letter to (then) President-elect Trump regarding the nomination of Scott Pruitt to lead the Environmental Protection Agency.  Recently I followed this up with a fax to Pat Toomey, US Senator for Pennsylvania.  (With phone lines clogged and email inboxes backed up, I have heard that a fax is one of the more reliable ways to contact your Congressional representatives.  The Internet company FaxZero offers a limited number of free faxes  online to any US phone number, and they have set up special pages to allow you to conveniently fax your Senator or Representative.  I made use of their service to contact Senator Toomey, and today I received a reply by email. Good on him for replying! (though, as you will see, the response is studiously ambiguous).  In the strange world we now inhabit, I feel it is important to make sure that our representatives in House and Senate hear the voice of "we the people" - whether that is by visiting their offices, attending town hall meetings (if Senator Toomey would be bold enough to hold some), using an app like Countable, writing, emailing, calling - or sending faxes.

Here's what I wrote:

Dear Senator,

I am writing about the pending Senate confirmation votes on the appointment of Scott Pruitt for Director of the Environmental Protection Agency.

He should be viewed skeptically by the Senate, given his past history of opposition to the fundamental missions of the Federal program that he is nominated to direct.   Mr Pruitt has sued the EPA 14 times and has campaigned on the boast that he is “a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda.”  Yet according to a recent poll (Ipsos, 1-28-2017), 67 percent of Americans want a strengthened or expanded EPA, or for EPA to maintain the same level of protection. Fewer than one-third even among Republicans want the EPA to be “weakened or eliminated”.

The Evangelical Environmental Network, of which I am privileged to be a member, recently sent President Trump a letter signed by over 500 scientists, pastors and ordinary believers, which states in part:

The EPA Administrator plays a crucial role in defending all of us from the health consequences of pollution, especially vulnerable populations like the unborn, children, the elderly, those with heart and lung conditions, and others with special susceptibilities.  Mr. Pruitt’s past actions suggest he would not defend the vulnerable from pollution.

I encourage you, as a person of faith and as a Senator charged with especial responsibility towards our Nation’s future, to vote against Mr Pruitt. He is not the right person for this critical task.

And here is Senator Toomey's reply

Thank you for contacting me about the nomination of Scott Pruitt as Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator. I appreciate hearing your thoughts on this matter.

As you know, on December 7, 2016, President Trump announced his intention to nominate Scott Pruitt to serve as the next EPA Administrator. Currently, Mr. Pruitt is the Oklahoma Attorney General and, among other things, he has been involved in litigation on various environmental matters.

Now that the Senate confirmation process for Mr. Pruitt has begun, I value knowing your views about this nomination. I believe that the Senate's constitutional role in providing advice and consent for presidential appointments is important, and all nominees deserve careful and thorough consideration. As you may know, I supported many of President Obama's nominees and will support well qualified nominees selected by President Trump as well.

Also, while I have supported sensible environmental protections, I am concerned about the excessive regulations coming out of the EPA in recent years that needlessly impede job creation and hurt the pocketbooks of hard-working Pennsylvanians. Under the Obama Administration, the EPA was especially aggressive in proposing new rules that raised energy prices, imposed onerous compliance costs, undermined economic growth, and put Pennsylvanians out of work. I am hopeful that the next EPA Administrator will take a new direction and pursue a more balanced approach that is mindful of both our economy as well as our environment.

Thank you again for your correspondence. Please do not hesitate to contact me in the future if I can be of assistance.
It's a disappointing reply in that it focuses entirely on the costs of regulation and does not acknowledge that regulation produces benefits to the wider population as well.  Nevertheless, Senator Toomey does say (as of course he has to!) "I value knowing your views". A huge amount is at stake, for the future of the nation and the world, in how the present administration addresses climate change.  Leading conservatives as well as "liberals" know this and are making creative proposals for the future. Let's keep asking for an EPA director who knows it too.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Role model?

I found this story on the website of the organization Our Daily Bread:

A cancer-stricken believer was dying. I was in his room as his family gathered around him. One by one he spoke to his children, to their spouses, and to his young grand children. He gave each a loving, tender blessing. Even his warnings were spoken with gentleness. He reminded them to keep the Lord in the center of their lives. We wept together, knowing that soon he would no longer be with us. A few days later he was gone.
As a "cancer-stricken believer" myself, I can hear and acknowledge the aspirations that this story represents. When my time comes I, too, want to leave my family with a parting blessing.  I am encouraged when I hear that people are inspired by my "perseverance", or that somehow I am a "role model" to them.

I'm also frightened by the story.  Because the role of "role model" can be a burdensome one.  If someone is looking to you to see how a "cancer-stricken believer" should behave, what if it all becomes too much? What if, at some point, I am in such pain that I want to scream obscenities or such fear of death that I am reduced to despair? What becomes of the "role model" then?

I know Eli/Miriam wrestled - much more deeply than me - with this same issue, the issue of  the heightened expectations created by being a "role model" to some.  Although "cancer-stricken believer" isn't everybody, it's not all that uncommon a status.  "Transgender Christian" - now there is someone a little out of the ordinary!  For many people, Eli was their only model for this role - and he knew it - and he wanted, to the end, to live it out.  And sometimes, being this model was a burden to him also.

In Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings Frodo - the hero and "role model" of the story - having resisted, until the last minute, the lure to power that the Ring represents,  finally succumbs and claims the Ring of Power for his own.  At this point he is not a role model at all - Tolkien even received a letter suggesting that he should have been executed for treason, rather than honored - but his failure is redressed by a gracious, providential act: Gollum, grabbing his "Precious", overmastered by demented joy, topples into the fire and achieves the destruction of the Ring that Frodo was unable to bring about by his own efforts. (It is clear from Tolkien's letters, especially #246 in the edition edited by Humphrey Carpenter, that he regarded this point as extremely important; Peter Jackson's elision of it in the movie edition seems to me to be a serious misunderstanding.)

The point I am trying to make is that the role of "role model" is ultimately too much for any human being (save one - see Hebrews 12:2) to sustain consistently.  Especially when the "role" being modeled is a minority one, especially when it is one which "endures such hostility" (oops, I slipped back into Hebrews again), as Eli's was and mine is not.  Sometimes you don't want to be a "role model" - you just want to be your ordinary, fallible, beautiful human self - a unique person made in God's image, yes, and also a person who needs some space away from being "on duty" the whole time.

So let's show our role models some grace, whoever they may be, in the anticipation of that final act of redemptive grace that Tolkien symbolized in his narrative of the Sammath Naur.  What's more, let's remember that each role model has a network of supporters ("Frodo wouldn't have got far without Sam, would he, Dad?") who make any "modeling" that we do see possible and effective.  Do not these supporters need to receive grace too?   Let us all consider how to stir up one another to love, to  quote from Hebrews one last time (10:24).   Amen