Not Helpful

Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.  So do candidates for high office.  During his recent visit to Israel, presidential candidate Mitt Romney ventured into dangerous territory.  In a speech to a Jewish audience he suggested that “cultural differences” are the reason Israelis are more successful economically than Palestinians.

Mr. Romney  also vastly understated the actual disparity between the incomes of Israelis and Palestinians.  He put the gross per capita G.D.P for Israelis at $21,000 and the gross per capita G.D.P. for Palestinians at $10,000.  According to the Central Intelligence Agency, the per capita gross domestic product for Israelis in 2009 was roughly $29,800.  The per capita gross domestic product for Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza in 2008 was $2,900.

What accounts for this dramatic disparity?  I am no economist, but I think it’s fair to suggest that the history of Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories and the trade restrictions imposed by Israel’s government have something to do with it.  One could debate whether those restrictions are justified or not, but even a non-expert like me might be forgiven for thinking that “cultural differences” don’t tell the whole story.

What concerns me most about Mr. Romney’s comments is how they feed the anti-Semitic stereotype that Jewish people are good at making money and obsessed with profit.  The corollary of this racist attitude, of course, is that Palestinians are, by nature, lazy and unproductive.  Both stereotypes are at best uncharitable and at worst dehumanizing.

I’m old enough to remember Southerners opine that “nigras” (that was the polite term back then) were incapable of higher education and high achievement.  Looking back, I shudder to think that otherwise kind, faithful Christians could believe such bunk.  I also remember a church meeting during which an elder spoke of “Jewing down” a bid from a contractor.  He was, quite properly, chastised by his brothers and sisters in Christ.

Anyone who has been to Israel has to admire way the Israelis have brought forth the abundance of the land.  I still can’t get over the sea of banana groves near the Sea of Galilee.  On the other hand, I have Christian friends who travel to Israel to help with the olive harvest because Palestinian farmers don’t have access to olive groves that have been in their families’ possession for generations.  The point is, the Israeli-Palestinian relationship is profoundly, maddeningly complicated.

I certainly don’t have the solutions.  But I am convinced that slightly-veiled racial stereotypes are not helpful.

Broken Bones and Fractured Grammar

What a strange language English is.  Today’s New York Times features an article about an injury incurred by Yankee’s third baseman Alex Rodriguez:

Rodriguez broke a bone in his left hand when he was hit by a 88-mile-per-hour pitch in the eighth inning of a loss in Seattle on Tuesday night.

The Times didn’t get it wrong.  The bone was broken, but it was the pitcher who broke it, not the owner of bone in question.  For some reason, when a player gets beaned by an fastball, we say the player “broke a bone,” when in fact he did no such thing.  That’s just the way the idiom works. Pity the non-native speaker who is trying to master the English language.

Idioms are one thing; ignorance of grammatical rules is another.  As a former high school English teacher and the son of a college English professor, I understand that language changes over time.  The rules of grammar I was taught by the formidable Miss Whitten, the unquestioned authority in  my12th-grade English class, are evolving.

Frankly, I’ll never get used to the plural pronoun in reference to the singular subject, as in “Someone left their dish on the table,” but I understand how it avoids the use of the generic masculine.  Miss Whitten, however, must be turning in her grave.

Something up with which I will not put (Sorry, Winston Churchill) is this dreadful habit of using the nominative case for the first person pronoun when it is joined to another noun or pronoun by “and,” as in “She gave the book to Jim and I,or “Between you and I, this sentence stinks.”

People never say, “She gave to book to I,” using the nominative case.  They say, rightly, “She gave to book to me,” using the objective case.  Why, then, does adding an additional object throw people off?  I just don’t get it.  Adding more objects to the verb or the preposition doesn’t change the case.  This isn’t an example of evolving usage.  It’s an example of lazy language.

I’m not the grammar police.  I just hate to see the language mistreated.

In Praise of Ecumenical Protestants (For a Change)

Still at It

The July 2, 2012 edition of the Christian Century features an interview with David Hollinger, professor of history at the University of California at Berkley.  Dr. Hollinger has some good things to say about “mainline” churches – what he prefers to call “ecumenical Protestants.”  When asked to comment on the standard narrative of “mainline decline,” he offers a more nuanced assessment of the “failures” of liberal Protestantism:

The ecumenical leaders achieved much more than they and their successors give them credit for. They led millions of American Protestants in directions demanded by the changing circumstances of the times and by their own theological tradition. These ecumenical leaders took a series of risks, asking their constituency to follow them in antiracist, anti-imperialist, feminist and multicultural directions that were understandably resisted by large segments of the white public, especially in the Protestant-intensive southern states.

It is true that the so-called mainstream lost numbers to churches that stood apart from or even opposed these initiatives, and ecumenical leaders simultaneously failed to persuade many of their own progeny that churches remained essential institutions in the advancement of these values.

But the fact remains that the public life of the United States moved farther in the directions advocated in 1960 by the Christian Century than in the directions then advocated by Christianity Today. It might be hyperbolic to say that ecumenists experienced a cultural victory and an organizational defeat, but there is something to that view. Ecumenists yielded much of the symbolic capital of Christianity to evangelicals, which is a significant loss. But ecumenists won much of the U.S. There are trade-offs.

As ecumenical Protestants meet the challenges of ministry in the 21st century, we stand on the shoulders of leaders who understood the risks involved in putting their faith to work.  It is still the case that the church is called to be faithful, even at the risk of its own life.

Dr. Hollinger is not suggesting that numerical decline is something to be desired, or that the loss of members is entirely attributable to the struggle for justice.  Still, he provides a welcome perspective.

There are those who say that the mainline denominations have lost members because they departed from Biblical principles.  I think that many factors have contributed to the current situation; one of them has been faithfulness to the God revealed in the Bible.

Why Care for Creation?

Tallahassee’s Second Largest Solar Voltaic Electric Plant

Let’s start with three basic theological principles.

  1. “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof” (Psalm 24).  Theologically speaking, we human beings don’t own anything.  We’re merely stewards – caretakers – of a creation that belongs to the Creator.
  2. As wonderful as the creation is, it has its limits.  We cannot exploit the earth’s resources with abandon.  When we do, we disrupt the balance God built into creation from the beginning.   That, more or less, is the lesson Adam and Eve learned when they ate the forbidden fruit.  Without limits, the whole system goes haywire.
  3. Human beings are made in the image of God to live in community with one another.  The answer to the question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” is “Yes!”  We cannot love God without also loving our neighbors.  I cannot honor God without honoring God’s image in my neighbor.  Hence, it’s not enough for me and mine to flourish.  I must see that my neighbor flourishes as well, living in dignity, freedom, and justice.

These basic theological principles prompt a moral mandate to care for the earth not merely for our own sakes, but also  for the sake of others.  Environmental stewardship is not just a choice.  It’s  a “vocation ”  — a calling, the will of God for humankind.

As simple as these concepts are, they are easily forgotten, even by Christians, who ought to know better.

While I’m happy to see corporations jumping on the “Green” bandwagon to market their products as “sustainable,” and while I support governmental regulations to limit the unbridled exploitation of the earth’s resources, I don’t look to market forces or to regulation to get us out of the mess we’re in.  What’s required is what Christians call “repentance”  — moral realignment – a purposeful change in the way we live our lives.

That realignment must begin with communities of faith.  We can’t very well expect others to change their lives if we’re not willing to change our institutional lives first.  My own congregation came to that conclusion four years ago when we committed to reduce our “carbon footprint” to zero.

We began by retrofitting our 1950’s-era Education Building with double-paned windows and modern fluorescent fixtures.  Then we tore off the old roof and put on a new one, aligned to get the maximum benefit from the sun’s rays.

Next we installed a solar voltaic generating plant on the roof, following the example of the Unitarian Universalist Church, the first congregation in town to install solar panels.  Our 25.5 KW panels produce about 25% of our total electrical needs.  When we’re not using all the electricity the sun generates, our meter, in effect, runs backwards, and we sell the surplus back to the City.  Since it was installed, the system has avoided the production 235,580 pounds of carbon dioxide and saved enough energy to power eight homes for one year.  (For a real-time readout, click here.)

The next-to-last step was to renovate our sanctuary, built in 1838.  We replaced our venerable air conditioner with a state-of- the art system and retrofitted the entire building with the most efficient lighting systems we could find.

We did all this not to save money.  (The project cost a great deal of that!).  We did it to be better environmental stewards.  We called the project “Light from Light,” borrowing a phrase from the Nicene Creed. A final step remains. When we’ve saved enough money, we’ll modernize the HVAC system in the Education Building

Having reduced our carbon footprint, we asked a partner congregation in Frenchtown if they knew folks who needed to make their own homes more energy efficient.  When invited, we went into homes with caulking,  CFL’s,  low-flow showerheads, window film, and other accoutrements to make our neighbors’ homes more energy efficient.  In future years we plan to contribute to Sustainable Tallahassee’s Community Carbon Fund.

Other congregations are making similar life-style changes.  I applaud these efforts.  We preachers can huff and puff all we want about the need for environmental repentance, but repentance starts at home.  Unless communities of faith live out our calling to be stewards of creation in our own institutional lives, our words will be no more than “a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”

Prepared for Hurricanes, But Not Health Reform

The Supreme Court’s decision regarding health care reform took me by surprise. I’m perplexed by Governor Scott’s announcement that his office plans to do nothing to expand Medicaid or set up an online insurance exchange for Floridians. It seems he’s hoping that the after the November election the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act will be repealed.

Mr. Scott and I don’t seem to agree about the proper role of government, but even a leader who believes in limited government, it seems to me, should plan ahead. I accept that our Governor is praying for repeal, just as I assume he’s praying for a mild hurricane season. The difference is, he’s urging us to be prepared for hurricanes. I don’t understand why Florida shouldn’t be prepared for health reform as well.

I made an informal poll of the counselors at our church’s regional summer camp when I was there last week. Almost all of them have health insurance as a result of the provisions of the health reform law that have already gone into effect. When they complained about “Obama Care,” I reminded them that they are already benefiting from “big government.”

That’s the way it usually works, isn’t it? “Judicial activism” means a decision I don’t like, and “big government” means benefits for someone other than me. It’s hard to justify that attitude amongst Christians, but there it is.

It seems the Golden Rule isn’t golden after all.