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“Rally to Save the American Dream” remarks

I spoke at today’s Rally to Save the American Dream, sponsored by MoveOn. Here are my remarks:

My name is Chuck Warpehoski, I’m an interterfaith organizer. Some people would have us believe that the only religious voices on faith issues are conservative voices. I’m here to tell you that’s not true.

All the faith traditions talk about caring for the poor. Of course, the best way to do that is to give them good-paying jobs, and that’s what unions are for.

The Torah, the Jewish scripture, teaches that every seven years all debts should be forgiven. You don’t have to be Jewish to realize that this teaching might have a lesson for us as we face the foreclosure crisis.

The Torah also teaches, “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” (Deut 16:20) You don’t have to be religious to realize that this teaching is a challenge to a budget proposal that raises taxes on poor families while cutting taxes on businesses.

In Christianity, Jesus asked his followers, “Who of you, if a child asked for bread, would give him a stone.” The point is that we should care for our children and give them what they need. And you don’t have to be Christian to realize that this teaching says something about a budget that cuts funding to our schools.

Jesus also told his followers, “those who are not against us are for us.” That sounds to me a bit like solidarity.

Teachers, are you with us?

Students, are you with us?

Labor, are you with us?

Michigan, are you with us?

3 Ways To Deal With Fear Of Loss

When I suffered my brain hemorrhage last November, the scariest part for me was in the ambulance as I was being transferred from the hospital that diagnosed my brain bleed to one with a neurology department that could treat it.

I’ve been reflecting a lot on that fear, where it came from, and what it means for my life now.

As I lay in the gurney, I didn’t know how much damage I had undergone, and I was worried what this would mean for the rest of my life. As a community organizer, my work (and my current life) revolves around being able to think clearly, communicate clearly, and influence people.

Thank God, there was no noticeable damage from the event, but since then I have reflected that this is a temporary sitauation. While I am now physically strong and mentally astute, as we all age we lose these things.

If I love my ability to speak and write well, and this ability leaves me, I will be heartbroken.

If I define myself based on my smarts, and my smarts leave me, my identity will be destroyed.

How can I use the gifts I have now but not base my life around them so I will be lost if I lose them? I am still reflecting on this query, but three responses come to mind:

  1. I can try to use and appreciate my gifts while I have them, just as I appreciate a sunset for its duration. By cultivating this perspective toward my physical and mental health, I hope to suffer should my health leave me..
  2. I can care for my body and mind to keep them working well, just as I care for my car (okay, I should do better than how I care for my car). While age is inevitable and it will mark all of us as long as we are alive, we are able to slow its erosion of body and mind.
  3. If I lose my ability to think clearly, to remember, to communicate, to move easily, what would be left? How can I cultivate traits within myself so that in this case I would still be able to give and receive love for myself and for others. I have known people who have experienced dementia, yet while their memory was gone, they still exuded love and warmth for those around them.

More than death, I have long feared strokes and dementia. These reflections give me a pathway to live so that I might fear them less, to deal with them with more grace should they befall me, and probably to live a better life in the meantime.

Now let’s see if I’m up for it.

Clean coal, leprechauns, and unicorns

I recently wrote a guest post about the rally to stop a coal-fired power plant in Bay City on the Great Lakes Law blog. Check it out. Continue reading →

What does Genesis teach us making room for new things?

And God said, “Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear.” And it was so.  God called the dry ground “land,” and the gathered waters he called “seas.” And God saw that it was good. Then God said, “Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds.” And it was so. The land produced vegetation: plants bearing seed according to their kinds and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good.  And there was evening, and there was morning—the third day. (Genesis 1:9-13)

Notice how God had to move the water out of the way to make room for land?

Sometimes to create new things the existing ones need to move out of the way.

I’ve seen this in committees. Sometimes a group gets so established in its ideas, its activities, and its ideas that there is no room for new people, new thoughts, or new ways of doing things.

And sometimes then the only way to allow the new ideas is to flourish is apart from the established structures, and that means that the existing structures need to get out of the way.

This can sound harsh, but note that the Genesis story doesn’t say that the new land was good and the old sea was bad. God calls both good. So to say an established thing needs to make room for something new is not to judge one or the other.

For me, this is freeing. It means I can stop trying to plant a new tree on top of the sea. Instead, I can recognize the need for new land and to start making room for a new start.

Why people of faith should oppose torture

Torture is Wrong bannerThis is Torture Awareness Month, and I’ve been working to recruit congregations to hang banners saying “Torture is Wrong.” Sometimes I get the question, “Why should our congregation take a stand on this issue?”

The National Religious Campaign Against Torture has compiled a good list of resources about why people of faith are speaking out against torture. Let me add my own thoughts.

As I look at my tradition, Christianity, and its roots in Judaism, I see much of its ethical teachings as based in empathy.

We see this clearly in the Laws of Moses:

“You shall not oppress the stranger, for you know the soul of the stranger, having been strangers in the land of Egypt.” Exodus 23:9

Why not oppress? Because you know what it’s like. Even if you as a person have not experienced this, remember your history as a people and a faith. Remember what it’s like to be powerless, so that you won’t take advantage of the weak.

Jesus continues teaching from this tradition by reminding his followers of Lev. 19:18, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12:31)

If you love your neighbor, you won’t torture him. That may be trite, but it is true.

Likewise, when we look at the history of our faith community, we as a people know what it is to be tortured. From the St. Stephan, the first Christian martyr, to the Jews of the Holocaust, people of faith have seen what it is to be unjustly beaten, tortured, and killed. From a Christian perspective, of course, we see this most in Jesus, who was flogged, humiliated, and nailed to a cross–certainly a form of torture.

The teaching of Exodus can be restated, “you know the soul of the tortured, having been tortured by Rome.”

And now we are in power. As people of faith in America, we are part of the world’s only remaining superpower.

We are part of the New Rome. The New Egypt. The new empire.

And it is vital that we look back to our history and our tradition that we remember that we too as a people were victims of torture, and that we choose God’s path of empathy and declare:

Torture is wrong.

Reverent Agnostics

I just finished A.J. Jacobs’ The Year of Living Biblically. I picked it up expecting to be entertained, and I was.

What’s not to like about a modern-day germ-phobic secular Jew from New York with obsessive-compulsive disorder trying to follow the Bible as literally as possible for a year? He even stones an adulterer (but since the Bible doesn’t specify, he uses a very small stone).

What I didn’t expect was to relate to his spiritual experience.

At the end, A.J. says:

I’m no a reverent agnostic. Which isn’t an oxymoron, I swear. I now believe that whether or not there’s a God, there is such a thing as sacredness. Life is sacred. The Sabbath can be a sacred day. Prayer can be a sacred ritual. There is something transcendent, beyond the everyday. It’s possible that humans created this sacredness ourselves, but that doesn’t take away from its power or importance.

I fully agree with Jacobs’ experience here. I do not know for sure if there is a God or not, but I do know I have experienced the sacred.

What’s more, I have also found the Quakerism, Christianity, and the Bible to be tools to help me understand Truth and to experience the Sacred.

And that is enough for me

What happens when oppression is no longer bitter?

This Saturday is the first night of Passover.

Part of the tradition of the Passover observance is to eat bitter herbs during the Seder meal as a memory of the bitterness of slavery in Egypt.

But what happens when slavery is no longer bitter?

According to Chabad.org, that is exactly what happened in Egypt, “tradition tells us that 80% of the Jews said, ‘This is our land. How can we leave it?’ And they stayed and died there.” Bondage had lost it’s bitterness. They had become accustomed to slavery and injustice, and that led to their demise.

For those who were liberated, however, slavery was hard to swallow. During the Passover meal, Jews remember that bitterness even as they celebrate freedom.

Today, I find myself wondering if, like 80% of the Hebrew slaves and even more of the Egyptians, we too have become too accustomed to the bitterness of oppression.

Do we find continued racial inequality hard to swallow? Do we want to spit out the violence and injustice of the war in Iraq? Or have we stopped tasting the harshness of the fact that 17% of children in the U.S. live in poverty?

Rabbi Waskow teaches “every generation, Pharaoh; every generation, freedom.”

This Passover is a time to remember both Pharaoh and freedom. It is a time to taste and remember the bitterness of oppression, and to remember that bitterness is still with us.

How can an Interfaith organization deal with the changing religious landscape?

As I’ve already mentioned, dealing with the changing religious landscape is one of the key questions facing ICPJ for our future.

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life recently released a groundbreaking study on the US Religious Landscape.

It’s loaded with fascinating findings, but one in particular is the growing segment of people who are unaffiliated with any particular religious tradition:

The survey finds that the number of people who say they are unaffiliated with any particular faith today (16.1%) is more than double the number who say they were not affiliated with any particular religion as children. Among Americans ages 18-29, one-in-four say they are not currently affiliated with any particular religion.

These has dramatic impacts for groups doing congregation-based organizing like ICPJ.

The ground that we’ve stood on as an organization for 43 years is eroding. Congregations are less and less the the basis for spiritual fulfillment for Americans. And considering the declining membership in mainline congregations, this basis is even more imperiled.

I see three possible responses to this change:

  1. Ignore it, at least for now. We’re still doing okay. We still have a good fundraising base and health congregation support. We can ride this horse for a while before it gives out on us.
  2. Be part of a revival of congregations. There’s a credible story to tell that congregations have an important role in sustaining activism and spiritual fulfillment. If we help tell this story, it could help reinvigorate our partner congregations.
  3. Shift our focus from “religious” activists to “spiritual” activists. Instead of fighting or ignoring the trends, we could ride with them. This would expand our tent, and it would also challenge us to update our language and habits to embrace both formally religious people and informally spiritual people. That’s a tall order, but I think we’re up to it.

Ignoring the shifts is our default position, but I don’t think it’s viable in the long-term.

I find the second option alluring, but I don’t think it’s realistic. I We may be able to have some regeneration effect for religious communities. It is also tricky. We can’t say to people “congregations can help feed your soul and sustain your activism” if our partner congregations are either spiritually dead or hesitant around activism.

I tend to think option three has the most promise, but I’ll be honest, I get nervous thinking about how to navigate the ambiguities of that position. In the short term, it risks alienating our congregation-based core support without attracting large numbers of new supporters.

Easter, Transformation, and Fear

Last week in Bible study we read Matthew’s account of the resurrection of Jesus (Mat 28:1-10), and I was struck by how much this passage has to do with fear:

After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.

There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.

The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.”

So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

Now, normally we don’t think about fear when we think about Easter (unless, like me, you’re terrified of Peeps).

But doesn’t transformation, rebirth, and renewal always come with fear? Don’t we always resist change and fear it?

The  Easter story reminds us that change is possible. That hope emerges from hopelessness. That death triumphs over life. But, for us to experience this joy, we must be willing to let our joy overcome our fear.

Mary Magdalene and the other Mary let their joy and their hope triumph over their fear, while the guards new only fear. Without joy to overcome their fear, they were bought off by the religious elite to suppress the resurrection account.

We too can know the joy and the hope that comes from rebirth and renewal. It will not prevent fear, but it does have the power to overcome our fear, if we are willing.

Protecting religion from Government: Why we need church-state separation

I just got one of those emails from a family member.

You know the kind, the ones with knee-jerk arguments for hyper-conservative policies. The kind that can ruin your evening.

This one was calling for “prayer in schools” and told people who didn’t believe in God to “sit down and be quiet.”

Here’s my response…

—————-

“As long as there are tests, there will always be prayer in schools.”

Our nation was founded by religious minorities. Puritans, baptists, and others fled religious persecution in Europe to the United States so that they could be free of state-sponsored religions that persecuted them for their religious beliefs.

The establishment clause of the first amendment of the constitution is part of the genius of the American system. It protects religion from the state.

For example, Episcopalians use pre-written prayers in the Book of Common Prayer. Pentecostals rely on spontaneous, spirit-led prayer. If we teach prayer in schools, which type do we teach?

The job of government and schools is not to teach religion. Public schools should not force protestant children to say the “Hail Mary.” Nor is it to force Jews to end their prayer with “in Jesus’ name we pray.” Nor is it to tell atheists, Buddhists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hindus, and others to “be quite and sit down.”

I try (and admittedly often fail) to maintain a daily prayer practice, one that is rooted in my Quaker spirituality and tradition. It is different from the Muslim practice of praying toward Mecca. It is different than the charismatic Pentecostal tradition of spontaneous prayer and speaking in tongues. It is different than the Episcopal reliance on the Book of Common prayer. I would hate to insist that the schools teach Pentecostal, Muslim, Episcopalian, or other kids that the right way to pray is how the Quakers pray. The only way to safeguard our religious liberty is to keep the responsibility for religious education in the hands of our religious institutions.

That’s why the establishment clause is right there in the first amendment. That’s why Thomas Jefferson talked about a “wall of separation between Church and State.” This method of protecting religion from governmental encroachment is a brilliant American innovation, one that we should honor, cherish, and preserve.

-Chuck

p.s. Yes, for the record I recognize that some colonial settlers fled religious persecution from one state-sponsored Church to attempt to set up a new state religion that then went on to persecute other religions. I am painfully aware of how the Puritan settlers had Quakers whipped for proclaiming Quaker theology. I don’t want us to make that mistake again.