The “Ground Zero Mosque”

August 19, 2010

The proposed “Ground Zero Mosque”—or more accurately, the proposed multi-purpose Muslim community center, Park51—has been at the center of a media firestorm lately. All the usual suspects among the right-wing pundits have been milking the outrage over the planned construction. Some prominent Democrats, such as Harry Reid and Howard Dean, have jumped on the bandwagon. President Obama has backed off his earlier defense of the project. In the face of majority opposition to the project, these politicians are willing to compromise their principles for political expediency. But the fact that a majority of US citizens apparently oppose the Mosque does not make that position just or wise.

From what I gather, many who oppose the community center acknowledge that the developers have the right to build on this site. Instead, the opposition is denouncing the plans as inappropriate. They seem to believe it is insensitive to build a Muslim center so near the site of a catastrophe associated with Islam. Some, such as Newt Gingrich, even suggest that the project is a vindictive triumphalism, that this is some “victory mosque” to celebrate the 9/11 attacks.

Park51 is not next to, will not loom over or be visible from the 9/11 Memorial, will not even be on a prominent route to the Memorial. The proposed project is not a mosque. But really, I don’t care if it was a mosque, or directly connected to the site of the twin towers or the memorial. I don’t feel that the project is insensitive to the US or the pain of caused by 9/11. On the contrary, it is exactly what we as a nation need.

We need the visible presence of sincere Muslims of goodwill—of whom there are many—to take back Islam from the Jihadis and radicals. We need Muslims who reject the corrupt Islam which looms so large in the perception of our nation today, and who want to help heal the devastation done by those who have misappropriated and desecrated the name of their faith. We need Muslims who will declare through their works “That which tore down and destroyed this area is not Islam. This which we do to build and renew is Islam.” We need a presence which can help bridge the divides between us, help overcome the xenophobia which has only grown stronger as a reaction to the work of evil men under the pretense of religion on 9/11. We need their help in taking back the site from the spectre of the terrorists.

The developers of Park51 seem qualified to be that presence. The people and organizations involved with the project, such as the Cordoba Initiative, seem to all be “moderate” Muslim organizations, focused on outreach to the wider community and to multifaith understanding. As Newt Gingrich has suggested, the name Cordoba is significant, but not in the way he believes. Yes, Cordoba was the capital of Muslim Spain. Cordoba was also the land of the most religious freedom in Europe at the time—and for several centuries afterward. The Cordoba Initiative is inspired by that oft forgotten legacy to nurture understanding and respect among different faiths and cultures.

To thwart Park51 would ultimately hurt our nation. It would be a boon to Al-Qaeda and other radical Islamic organizations in their recruiting. They would be able to point to the US’s obstruction of Park51 as further proof of the irreconcilable differences between the West and Islam, that the West is inherently hostile to their faith. Compromise and appeasement only encourages the West to act as bullies, they will say, and thus the only way to communicate with the US and the West is through violence.

More importantly, it will aggravate the divisions between us, alienate Muslims and others who are different from the majority in the nation. Our collective psyche will never mend if we continue to nurse the pain and jealously protect it as our own. Innocent Muslims died on 9/11 as well. The only way to heal the festering wounds caused by 9/11 and our xenophobia is to face them head on, to meet with Muslims of goodwill, to find the common ground we share with them, to have faith in their humanity, and invite them in to share our pain as we share theirs. Park51 can play a role in facilitating that healing process.

As Valerie Elverton-Dixon eloquently put it:

Our true power lies in how we refuse the terrorists our terror, our fear and our suspicion of our Muslim sisters and brother. Our true power and our true strength is that from many we are one. It is from the strength of that unity that gives us the bravery not only to allow an Islamic Community Center two blocks from ground zero, but to welcome and to celebrate it (“Park 51 and America’s Unresolved Pain, Tikkun Daily, 08.19.2010)”.

NSP Guide to an Alternative July 4 Celebration

July 2, 2010

As we prepare for and consider how we celebrate July 4, I think it’s worth thinking about how else we might celebrate, and what our celebrations say about us.

The Network of Spiritual Progressives several years back created A Guide to an Alternative July 4 Celebration with some interesting ideas for an Interdependence Day celebration.

Faced with July 4th celebrations that are focused on militarism, ultra-nationalism, and “bombs bursting in air,” many American families who do not share those values turn July 4th into another summer holiday focused on picnics, sports and fireworks while doing their best to avoid the dominant rhetoric and bombast…
…We also acknowledge that in the 21st century there is a pressing need to develop a new kind of consciousness–a recognition of the interdependence of everyone on the planet. A new revolution is necessary–one in which our actions reflects a realization that our well-being depends on the well-being of everyone else on the planet and of the planet itself.

I think many of their ideas regarding what to celebrate, and how, are worth thinking about.

The Death Penalty: A Pointless Exercise

June 17, 2010

The state of Utah will stage the fiftieth execution in its history tomorrow when convicted murderer Ronnie Lee Gardner faces a firing squad at midnight. Much has been made of the means Gardner requested. Assuming that no method is particularly drawn out, I find it inconsequential. Dead is dead. My concern is broader. I would prefer that Gardner not be killed at all.

I’m rather disappointed that I so often hear members of the LDS community enthusiastically endorse the death penalty. We’ve even had Republican legislators, with the support of the attorney general, consider methods to limit appeals and hurry the process along by which the convict meets their end.

Careful and well-intentioned as our justice system is, it is flawed. According to the Innocence Project, their work alone has led to 254 exonerations. Regarding death row specifically, The Death Penalty Information Center lists 138 people who have been exonerated since 1973. That is a minority number, to be sure, but a significant minority. Can we really be certain that all who have been executed were absolutely guilty? If later evidence proves that someone sentenced to life in prison was wrongly convicted, even years later, that person can be released and some recompense made. Not so for those executed. Dead is dead.

And what of those supposed merits of the death penalty on which supporters are potentially willing to bet innocent lives? The data is very complex, and advocates on either side of the issue are able to pull together statistics supporting their position. I would hardly be surprised if there was some deterrence value in a very aggressive use of the death penalty. Then again, the distinct possibility of death hasn’t prevented people from being willing to enlist in many of the most brutal wars. And is the possible deterrence worth gambling the lives of wrongly convicted people potentially on death row?

From a moral perspective, I fear that the invocation of justice in the argument is nothing more than a thinly disguised interest in retribution. The death of a murderer does not somehow restore the life of the murdered. No one is made whole by the execution. I doubt it provides any closure; the Gospel seems to indicate that the survivors and victims will find closure in the pursuit of forgiveness for the perpetrator, not in a surrogate vengeance.

I think justice, in the sense of restoration, can best be served by the one thing which the death penalty prevents; a change of the heart in the criminal. We tend to dehumanize these people. They become simply a label—criminals, convicts, murderers—subhuman monsters. And no doubt, if they are guilty of a capital offense, what they have done is monstrous. But we shouldn’t forget that these people are children of God like you and I. Damaged and dirtied by themselves and others they may be, they still possibly have the seed of divinity within them somewhere. I was raised to believe that murder approaches the one unpardonable sin. But can we truly judge so definitively, so broadly? I don’t believe we know that they cannot transform, whether through finding God, or finally coming to terms with whatever internal demons have plagued them. Nothing they can do can make up for taking the life of another, but some might possibly do some good in the world, even if behind bars, and beginning in some small way the purging of their soul. I hesitate to irrevocably eliminate that possibility out of some stern notion of justice.

I don’t really mourn Gardner. I have no doubt that Gardner is guilty. From what I gather, he appears to be a brutal, miserable person. If deadly force had been required and used to prevent Gardner from assaulting any of his victims, I would accept that as justified. But I mourn that another human being will be deliberately killed to accomplish nothing.

Why a National Day of Prayer?

May 5, 2010

Tomorrow is, as the first Thursday in May has been for a couple of decades, the National Day of Prayer. I’ve noticed a lot more fuss among Conservatives about the day than most years. perhaps because of misleading rumors that President Obama had canceled the observance and because a federal judge had ruled the National Day of Prayer unconstitutional, many seem to have been galvanized to promote the day more enthusiastically than usual.

Their enthusiasm puzzles me. Prayer is only meaningful if motivated by sincere belief and intent. If people of sincere, humble belief are already praying, as they presumably do, what purpose a national day of prayer? If it takes the coercion of government declaration to get them to pray, what would be the purpose? How is that not vain prayer? If it is only a suggestion or encouragement to pray, why do we need to waste government time in message legislation or declarations sanctioning certain forms of observance? Are not the various religious organizations perfectly capable of voluntarily organizing to promote a national day of prayer should they deem it necessary? Why should we call upon the government, which conservatives paint as so ineffective, and which they want out of our personal lives, to lead us in prayer? Are presidents and government proclamations so much more effective than pastors, priests, and bishops in convincing people to pray? If it is a harmless gesture, as some supporters suggest, I wonder how they would react to the similarly harmless suggestion in a National Day of No Prayer?

I’m no lawyer. I don’t know that a National Day of Prayer is strictly unconstitutional. But I do believe that it is inconsistent with the core American value of Freedom of Conscience. While some of the Founders and early presidents, including both Washington and Adams, did champion national days of prayer, others—most prominently Jefferson and Madison, among the strongest advocates of Freedom of Conscience and early Republican values—opposed the practice.

Fasting and prayer are religious exercises; the enjoining them an act of discipline. Every religious society has a right to determine for itself the time for these exercises, and the objects proper for them, according to their own particular tenets; and right can never be safer than in their hands, where the Constitution has deposited it (Thomas Jefferson, “Letter to Rev. Samuel Miller,” The Jefferson Cyclopedia).

Altho’ recommendations only, [National Days of Prayer] imply a religious agency, making no part of the trust delegated to political rulers.

The objections to them are 1. that Govts ought not to interpose in relation to those subject to their authority but in cases where they can do it with effect. An advisory Govt is a contradiction in terms. 2. The members of a Govt as such can in no sense, be regarded as possessing an advisory trust from their Constituents in their religious capacities. They cannot form an ecclesiastical Assembly, Convocation, Council, or Synod, and as such issue decrees or injunctions addressed to the faith or the Consciences of the people. In their individual capacities, as distinct from their official station, they might unite in recommendations of any sort whatever, in the same manner as any other individuals might do. But then their recommendations ought to express the true character from which they emanate. 3. They seem to imply and certainly nourish the erronious idea of a national religion. (James Madison, detached memoranda, c. 1817).

Such observances overtly grant government favor to religion and theism over other alternatives. Further, despite some lip service to diversity, the day is, by the National Day of Prayer Task Force’s own admission, inherently sectarian in nature (the purpose includes “Foster unity within the Christian Church,” and “Publicize and preserve America’s Christian heritage,” and otherwise uses language which is specifically Judeo-Christian in nature).

Certainly those who believe in God should pray tomorrow, as on any other day. But we shouldn’t use government to promote our beliefs or to give preference to our religious tradition over others if we truly want the nation to stand for freedom of religion.

Unemployment and Dependency

April 9, 2010

In some ways, working the desk in the computer lab of the library seems something like the stereotype of work as a bartender. We get quite a number of the down-and-out, and they frequently turn to us to share their frustrations.

A broad-shouldered man in his forties, slightly frayed and worn, came to me for assistance. He was confused by the instructions on how to submit his resume for a job listing on Craigslist. I helped him to read the instructions, and guided him in the process of attaching his file to an email. Afterwards, he spent several minutes expressing his frustrations. For the past three years he had been unemployed. He had previously worked for years in a respectable blue-collar job which provided him a modest but sufficient income, a job in which he was proud of his work. But changing economic conditions had caused layoffs in his profession, and he had found little demand for his skills. He tried to be inventive and branch out into new fields, but with plenty of applicants with specific training and skills in those fields, nothing had come of his efforts. He was obviously ill-prepared to enter into fields requiring computer skills, which severely limited his options. He was interested in re-training, but routine bills and his medical expenses drained all his available funds—most coming from government welfare programs. If it weren’t for those, he would likely be out on the street.

“I just want a job,” He mourned. “But I can’t catch a break.”

This patron was hardly alone. A large number of requests for help at the desk have something to do with looking for work: writing resumes, sending or uploading resumes, using online job boards, using the library’s computers to learn to type, learning other computer skills.

All my life I’ve heard conservatives insist that welfare corrupts self-reliance and personal industry, encouraging laziness, idleness, and indolence, turning good people into “loafers.” Tom Delay even recently went so far as to avow that people want to be unemployed, that “unemployment benefits keeps people from going and finding jobs.” When unemployment benefits are proffered, goes the theory, it prolongs unemployment because the recipients have less incentive to find work.

Seems a pretty dismal view of humanity, and I don’t buy it. Oh, I’m sure there are always some who abuse the system, but the extent and level is exaggerated. I see far too many people who want work, who want to be able to provide and to feel the sense of self-worth which comes with being self-sufficient. They may lack the background which has helped enable many of us to find a place in the modern economy. They may have some extra obstacles, and lack some of the skills or training which are prized in today’s job market. But they don’t aspire to be leeches and loafers. Welfare doesn’t extend some life of luxury, it extends their survival while they struggle to succeed or deal with the challenges which have prevented their ability to be self-reliant thus far. They may depend on government assistance to keep them housed or fed right now, but they don’t relish the notion of relying on their meager welfare checks indefinitely to support idleness.

The data shows that the conservative complaint is superficially correct. Unemployment welfare does prolong unemployment. However, an Economic Policy Institute analysis shows that a deeper look reveals a story missed by the critics: unemployment insurance allows the recipients the time and resources to find work suited to their abilities or to develop the skills necessary to be more effective in the modern workplace. This makes those individuals more productive and more economically secure in the long run—a valuable investment if we want the members of our society to be more self-sufficient. In the short run, If people are having difficulty finding work, it may have less to do with some supposedly welfare-facilitated loafing than with an economy which has been persistently hemorrhaging jobs for some time now. To assume that jobs will suddenly open up if we just cut off aid to the poor in order to prevent dependency and “loafing,” that everyone will be self-reliant and “independent” is naive, and the results could be disastrous for the poor in society—most of whom are like you and I, and “just want to work.”

I’ll Pass on the Party Hats and Whistles, Thanks

March 23, 2010

As of last night, the House of Representatives has passed sweeping health care reform. The deed is done. Not really, of course; the bill must go yet again to the Senate, where—despite the euphoria of Democrats—passage is not assured. And if it does, the issue still won’t be settled; several states are planning to fight against the law in court. But the vote is seen by a key moment for both sides, with leaders of both arrogantly claiming to tell us that real Americans are on their side. We’ll see who is right over the course of the next several months and the next election cycle. I suspect that in this, as just about every other issue and election over the past several years, the divide is passionate but pretty even.

(I’m relieved that, whatever the outcome, the Democrats did not resort to the “Deem and pass scheme.” Even had I wholeheartedly endorsed the bill, it would be a tragic betrayal of our values if our leaders were to circumvent the essential democratic process with some procedural chicanery.)

I’m decidedly ambivalent about the whole issue. I’d hoped to write a series of posts exploring the issue in depth while the issue was hot, but other demands and priorities prevented that. Perhaps I’ll still get around to it in the not-too-distant future. Suffice it for now to say that I do strongly believe we need serious health care reform. I support the idea of some form of universal health care, though I find some merits and would be willing to give a chance to some form of a “consumer-driven” system. I hope that the bill accomplishes what its supporters claim. But there are many troubling aspects to this bill that I fear may come back to haunt us.

The Right has been rabid in their denunciations, as can be expected with virtually any Democratic effort. But if you put aside the reflexive cries of slippery slopes, socialism, totalitarianism, and the bungling nature of government, there are some substantive issues. The costs of the bill and the potential to balloon the debt if everything does not go precisely as planned is something which does trouble me. And while I do see the logic of requiring everyone to be in the risk pool by having insurance, I do think that there is a legitimate issue regarding the constitutionality and the ethics of requiring everyone to own insurance simply for existing.

It isn’t just the conservatives who are concerned. In the today’s email message from Rabbi Michael Lerner’s Network of Spiritual Progressives, there was many caveats in the praise for the victory

it’s also ok to acknowledge that this bill does not represent most of what we really want. It is the biggest give-away to the private insurance companies in decades, forcing 30 million people to buy health insurance whether or not they want it without putting any significant price controls in place, so the insurance companies get a huge new group of health insurance purchasers and can (and will) raise their prices just as they have done in outrageous ways in the past decade.

Ralph Nader, dismissed the bill in the New York Times as “a major political symbol wrapped around a shredded substance…It is a remnant even of its own initially compromised self. Chris Hedges referred to it today in Truthdig as “a bill that will do nothing to ameliorate the suffering of many Americans, will force tens of millions of people to fork over a lot of money for a defective product and, in the end, will add to the ranks of our uninsured.”

I suspect that the Democrats have used up their only opportunity to fix health care. I don’t think there will be the chance to revise things over the next few years; after labor that difficult, what you see is what you get. I guess we can only hope that their gamble pays off.

Air Pollution and “Draconian” Environmentalism

March 6, 2010

I’ve been having a lot of personal and online conversations about environmentalism with self-described conservatives lately, and noticed an interesting trend. All agree in theory with the root concept of environmentalism. They all agree that we need to be good stewards of the land, air, and water upon which we rely. But they still bristle about environmentalism, because they see it as “restrictive.” The agenda of the movement has been referred to by such terms as “draconian,” “coercive,” “autocratic,” and “repressive.” According to their philosophy, environmental protection and stewardship should be advanced through non-coercive and non-punitive means.

It’s a wonderful idea. Sadly, it doesn’t work in the real world. Exhibit A: Utah. Our conservative legislature has persistently maintained an attitude ideologically opposed to regulation, insisting that individual agency is the best method of environmental stewardship. This year, the only bills related to pollution or the environment making headway through the Utah legislature are a message bill discouraging federal legislation based on the “global climate conspiracy” (despite opposition from BYU and U of U scientists, who are apparently part of the nefarious global climate cabal) and bills whose purpose is to enable increased extraction of fossil fuels in Utah—fuels the consumption of which contribute to air pollution. And the fruits of this attitude and agenda? Utah can lay claim to the worst air quality in the nation.

Many people of all stripes are sincerely concerned about the environment, and make laudable efforts to minimize their environmental impact on a voluntary basis. Despite the fearmongering of the Right, no one supports a green police a la the absurd and insulting Audi Superbowl commercial. But without any sort of restrictions— “coercive” though some might consider it—there is too much incentive for society collectively to pollute the public commons upon which we all rely for life. There must be rules based on an understanding of the the limitations of the ecosystem which prevent us—”draconian” though that may seem to some—collectively from damaging the environment (and ultimately each other). Unrestrained consumption/pollution and the sort of sprawling exurban communities which maximize automotive use, and which conservatives seem to favor, are simply unsustainable in our geographic circumstances. Some combination of pollution tax, restriction on polluting activities, and reorganization of our communities is imperative if we want to avoid the increasing harm to human health associated with air pollution. Given that government is the only entity which has the authority to do these things, the Reagan mantra is wrong: government is in part the solution. The idea that government has no role in using its power to prevent people from harming others by their consumption decisions? That’s the problem.

Utahns: Sign the Fair Boundaries Petition Online

January 21, 2010

The Fair Boundaries Initiative to implement a less partisan and more honorable districting process in Utah now has an online petition to sign. Utahns, if you haven’t already done so, please sign!

Helping Haiti

January 15, 2010

The world is abuzz with the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti. It’s hard for someone like me to really comprehend the scope of the tragedy of many of the stories coming from devastation. Most of us are not in a position to ourselves go and help out, but there are a number of worthy organizations participating in the rescue and recovery to which you can donate. They include:

(this list is hardly comprehensive; there are plenty of other legitimate options. You can find others, and research their reputation and integrity through CharityNavigator or NetworkForGood.)

But as important as this disaster relief work is, hopefully we will do more. I hope we can take this opportunity to consider what allows this sort of catastrophe to occur—not the earthquake, of course, but the social conditions which allow the natural disaster to wreak such devastation. We as individuals can engage long term with the non-profit organizations which are working to foster long-term and sustainable changes to those conditions. And we can participate as citizens to encourage our government to adopt a foreign policy agenda more conducive to such change. Bill Quigley, Legal Director at the Center for Constitutional Rights and a law professor at Loyola University New Orleans, has suggested ten suggestions.

One. Allow all Haitians in the US to work. The number one source of money for poor people in Haiti is the money sent from family and workers in the US back home. Haitians will continue to help themselves if given a chance. Haitians in the US will continue to help when the world community moves on to other problems.

Two. Do not allow US military in Haiti to point their guns at Haitians. Hungry Haitians are not the enemy. Decisions have already been made which will militarize the humanitarian relief – but do not allow the victims to be cast as criminals. Do not demonize the people.

Three. Give Haiti grants as help, not loans. Haiti does not need any more debt. Make sure that the relief given helps Haiti rebuild its public sector so the country can provide its own citizens with basic public services.

Four. Prioritize humanitarian aid to help women, children and the elderly. They are always moved to the back of the line. If they are moved to the back of the line, start at the back.

Five. President Obama can enact Temporary Protected Status for Haitians with the stroke of a pen. Do it. The US has already done it for El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Sudan and Somalia. President Obama should do it on Martin Luther King Day.

Six. Respect Human Rights from Day One. The UN has enacted Guiding Principles for Internally Displaced People. Make them required reading for every official and non-governmental person and organization. Non governmental organizations like charities and international aid groups are extremely powerful in Haiti – they too must respect the human dignity and human rights of all people.

Seven. Apologize to the Haitian people everywhere for Pat Robertson and Rush Limbaugh.

Eight. Release all Haitians in US jails who are not accused of any crimes. Thirty thousand people are facing deportations. No one will be deported to Haiti for years to come. Release them on Martin Luther King day.

Nine. Require that all the non-governmental organizations which raise money in the US be transparent about what they raise, where the money goes, and insist that they be legally accountable to the people of Haiti.

Ten. Treat all Haitians as we ourselves would want to be treated (Bill Quigley, “Ten Things the US Can and Should Do for Haiti,” CommonDreams.org, 01-14-2010).

Caring for the Poor and the Needy to be Added to the LDS “Three-Fold Mission”

December 10, 2009

According to a report in the Salt Lake Tribune, the LDS Church will be making a change to the “Threefold Mission of the Church” to better reflect our responsibilities as Christians.

The LDS Church is adding “to care for the poor and needy” to its longstanding “threefold mission,” which is to preach the LDS gospel, purify members’ lives and provide saving ordinances such as baptism to those who have died.

This mission first was coined by late LDS President Spencer W. Kimball in the 1980s and since then has been repeated as a mantra by the church’s more than 13 million members.

The new group of phrases will be described as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ “purposes,” rather than missions, and will be spelled out in the next edition of the LDS Church Handbook of Instructions , due out next year, church spokesman Scott Trotter confirmed this week.

“Caring for the poor and needy,” Trotter said, “has always been a basic tenet of the [LDS] Church.”

Elevating it to one of the faith’s major purposes brings added emphasis.

“This is a dramatic move and very important message,” said Jan Shipps, an Indiana-based American religion historian who has spent decades studying the LDS Church. “It’s not that Mormons haven’t already been caring for the poor and needy with its humanitarian program. It’s just that this moves it to the top of their priorities, along with proselytizing and temple work (Peggy Fletcher Stack, “New LDS emphasis: Care for the needy,” Salt Lake Tribune, 12.10.2009).”

I think this is a fantastic move, and I hope it helps the membership of our faith reconsider the role of being charitable and compassionate in their lives. I hope people consider this an invitation to look beyond the traditional means by which we try to help our brothers and sisters in need, look beyond the tithing/donation forms, the formal charity drives (things like MS drives, March of Dimes, etc). and disaster relief. Our faith and its members has generally done a pretty good job at that sort of thing. But I would like to think of this upcoming change as an invitation to broaden our perspective on caring for the poor. Can we consider how our daily lives and decisions impact those less fortunate around us? Our consumption decisions, our decisions about our business decisions, our employment decisions, all can have an impact on the needy and downtrodden. Can we consider them? So often I hear rather disparaging comments within LDS circles about the desperately poor whom we see around on the streets, outside shopping centers, or in our library. Can we look with more compassion on those we see around us every day who are in desperate circumstances?

This month we celebrate the birth of Him who gave us a priceless and otherwise unobtainable gift, who gave it not in some exchange, but out of pure love for all of us who needed his help. What better way to celebrate than to give to those from whom we cannot expect anything in return?


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