Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Global Economic Ethic - Medicine for a Sick System

I had the good fortune recently to hear eminent theologian Dr. Hans Küng present the principles of the newly launched manifesto titled "Global Economic Ethic - Consequences for Global Businesses" at the Parliament of the World's Religions. Küng has been a champion of global ethics work for decades and was the principal author of the Declaration Toward a Global Ethic statement developed at the 1993 Parliament. The Global Economic Ethic grows out of that work and is also a response to the recent economic collapse.

Küng argues that the recent collapse resulted from three related failures: the failure of markets to correct their own problems, the failure of institutions to perform their duties, and a widespread failure of morals. This shocking set of failures demonstrates the need for ethical guidelines in the economic world; to a great extent the crisis was caused by a failure of ethics.

We do not need to invent these ethical guidelines, according to Küng. They already exist in the great religious and cultural traditions of the world. In their simplest form, these principles boil down to two overarching imperatives: the principle of humanity, that every person must be treated humanely, and the principle of reciprocity, also known as the Golden Rule. (Take a look at my earlier post to read about Karen Armstrong's Charter for Compassion based on the Golden Rule.)

Based on these two foundational principles and the 1993 Declaration Toward a Global Ethic, Küng argues that all economic activity needs to abide by four practical core standards:
1) Respect and support of human rights
2) Fair and responsible labor standards
3) Protection of the environment
4) Working against corruption in all its forms

These are principles that can be adopted by all people and nations, whether religious or not. Dr. Küng emphasized that globalization requires a global ethic. There is hope that because of the recent failure of economic systems, the door may actually be open for these ideas to be taken seriously. The failure of ethics has now been shown to have far-reaching and disastrous results. The full text of the declaration can be found at

In his response to Küng's presentation, Dr. Dipak Jain, professor and former dean of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, called for a new definition of sustainable capitalism: profits + people + planet. Dr. Katherine Marshall of Georgetown University raised the idea of a "greed line" (to parallel the poverty line), a level of wealth above which no one needs to rise. Attendees smiled at this idea, although we did not think it likely to be implemented.

These proposals, along with Karen Armstrong's Charter for Compassion and Rabbi Michael Lerner's call for a new bottom line (new post on this soon), show that there is palpable interest in the air for a rebirth of ethical commitment in the economic world. It is has become clear that greed, corruption, and regulatory failure do not work, not even for the affluent. Perhaps what really works after all are the age-old values of honesty, fairness, truthfulness, justice, and human rights. What a refreshing idea! Do you think it could possibly work?

Friday, December 11, 2009

Dalai Lama Closes Parliament with a Call to Action

The Dalai Lama, who has a kind of rock star status at this event, closed the 2009 Parliament of the World's Religions on December 9 in Melbourne. The aging spiritual leader was playful and self-deprecating at first, then became extraordinarily serious in his remarks. He called on the leaders of the world's diverse faiths to act together to address the pressing problems of war and climate change. He said we must not just gather together but also act together; otherwise people will say we just went home and went to sleep.

The spiritual leader urged the participants to develop a common ethic of compassion and mutual respect. Peace of mind cannot be purchased in a store; it must be developed within. We need to pursue a sense of peace within our own traditions, then move out into the world to spread that peace. Meeting together to share our experiences is a crucial part of this process. No one group can do this work alone.

The Dalai Lama made a particular point of saying that our shared community of compassion must include people who are not religious. He noted that China is not a religious country but must be drawn into the shared community of compassion. His call to compassion resonated powerfully with the Charter for Compassion proposal of Karen Armstrong and the Global Ethic work of Hans Küng.

The words of the Dalai Lama strongly reinforced the core message of the Parliament, which was that while our beliefs and traditions are delightfully different, our problems are shared in common, and the core teachings of our traditions are strikingly similar. We need to work with that core of shared values to bring a compassionate response to the pressing problems that threaten our ability to survive on this planet. This may sound like a simple message, but it is a striking turnaround from the all-too-common antagonism of the world's religions.

Amid much inspiring pageantry, the 2009 Parliament came to an end. All of the participants I talked to said that they had been profoundly moved and were ready to go home and find ways to make a difference.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Obama Team Meets with Interfaith Leaders

Barney Zwartz, Religion Editor of the Melbourne daily newspaper, The Age, reported on December 10 that members of the Obama administration had met privately with about 100 religious leaders at the Parliament of the World's Religions. The meeting took place behind closed doors, and included Peter Kovach, State Department Head of Religious Freedom, and Mara Vanderslice, White House expert on religious affairs.

The Obama team members were primarily interested in listening to the concerns of the religious leaders. They asked the leaders three questions: What should the Obama administration do? What should it not do? What intermediate or long-term suggestions did the interfaith leaders have for the Obama administration?

According to today's front page report in The Age, the Obama people listened carefully and were extremely well received by the spiritual leaders. The Parliament sessions have repeatedly emphasized concerns about war, climate change, the status of women, and the needs of the poor. The meeting with the Obama team members was viewed as an extremely positive and hopeful sign that the American superpower may also be genuinely concerned about these urgent problems.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Stories of Women in Leadership

At the 2004 Parliament of the World's Religions in Barcelona, there was real concern that the voices of women were not being heard. Presentations and panels were too often male dominated.

This time around, at the 2009 Parliament in Melbourne, there have been far more women on panels and also a wealth of programming related to the role of women in religion. It is fascinating to listen to the stories of women from diverse traditions as they struggle with patriarchal systems. Almost every religious tradition on the planet is going through a process of gradually including women fully in leadership roles. It is a necessary if sometimes painful evolution.

Dr. Linda Lyman, of Illinois State University, is one of the dynamic women leaders presenting at this year's Parliament in Melbourne. In her interactive workshop, "Personal and Professional Journeys of Women Leaders: A Worldwide Dialogue," Dr. Lyman told the stories of twelve women of diverse nationalities, ethnic heritages, and family backgrounds who all became significant leaders in the field of education. She then skillfully identified the common threads in their stories, how they survived economic hardship, cultural bias, glass ceilings, and balancing family with career to forge strong and meaningful professional lives.

In the small group interaction following her presentation, one could feel the resonance of these stories with the women in the room. Whether Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, or Jewish, women immediately understand these stories and feel both the pain and the inspiration. Their journeys embody many of the same themes. Many of the participants expressed their heartfelt thanks to Dr. Lyman for telling these stories and encouraging other women to stay on the path toward full equality in religious leadership. Even the men got the message too.

There is a different feel in the workshops being led by women. Feelings are honored, stories are told, connections are quickly made. It is not that men cannot do these things. We can, but our experience is often that women lead us in these paths with great skill and sensitivity. We all need these qualities in our communities, and we need them at full strength and with full empowerment.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Future of the Interreligious Movement

A 27-year-old Buddhist monk, when asked how he was feeling at the Parliament of the World's Religions, replied "overwhelmed and overinspired." There is so much going on here, and one has to make such difficult choices about what to do, that it's actually stressful.

As the week progresses, it seems like there are two major ways of looking at interfaith dialogue. One is to want to be as inclusive as possible and therefore not to enter into disputes about sensitive social or political issues. The emphasis, as Executive Director Dirk Ficca says, is on relationships, not issues.

The other major point of view is that the human community has urgent needs and that action is needed right now, action that will inevitably ruffle some feathers and make some people unwilling to participate. Rabbi Michael Lerner and Sister Joan Chittister of the Network of Spiritual Progressives are prophets with this sense of urgency.

Exactly the same issue of how to approach interfaith dialogue is present in Unitarian Universalist congregations and other religious communities. And in some ways, both views are right.

The Street Theology of Anger

Here is a photo of Imam Abdul Malik Mujahid, the incoming Chair of the Council for the Parliament. He gave a fascinating talk on why young Muslims are drawn into what he calls a "street theology of anger." Particularly in Afghanistan, these young people have never known any reality other than war.

Dr. Mujahid asked us what we would do if someone injured us or our property. Most of us would call the police. He then asked what we would do if we had no phone with which to call, or if the police were actually good friends of our attackers. And what if there were no elections to get rid of the corrupt police chief? What would you do? Such is the reality of the people of Afghanistan.

(In the photo above, some of you may recognize Lynnda White, who is asking Dr. Mujahid to come and speak in Peoria. He said yes!)

Paul Carus Award

Last night the Parliament presented the Paul Carus Award. Paul Carus, of LaSalle, Illinois, was one of the founders of the 1893 Parliament and tried for the next thirty years to organize a second Parliament. After his death, his family endowed a yearly $100,000 award for a person or group that is doing outstanding interfaith work.

This year the award went to an organization called IFAPA, or Interfaith Action for Peace in Africa. They are a coalition of eight major religious groups in Africa who have joined together to try to prevent wars on that continent. The gentleman at right is a member of IFAPA. We had the pleasure to meet him and converse briefly with him in French, our only common language.

Charter for Compassion

There is also a major movement here to support the Charter for Compassion, a global ethics statement developed by Karen Armstrong. For more on the Charter for Compassion, see my earlier blog post on that subject.

All good wishes to my readers! Please comment if you wish.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Seeking and Finding the Sikhs and Others

The Parliament of the World's Religions is the place to meet people you don't usually see. These youth from the Sikh religion in India were friendly to me and let me take a picture with them. Their faith involves worship with long and melodious chanting. One of them held my hand as we were having our picture taken, which was a wonderful experience. There are many Sikhs here with their distinctive turbans and flowing attire. It was the Sikh community that generously provided free meals to all of the Parliament attendees in 2004 in honor of their 400th anniversary.

These two young adult women, Dolna and Carmen, have a radio show for young people in Santa Fe, New Mexico. They are interviewing people to find out why they are attending the Parliament and what they hope to accomplish here. We met them in a little café near our hotel while we were having breakfast. It turns out that my wife, Diane, has heard a segment of theirs on NPR! Another intriguing coincidence. Meeting people that we feel some kind of connection with is starting to feel like the norm.

Several of us attended a workshop yesterday that presented the idea that dialogue is a healing treatment for depression. The presenters defined depression as a kind of isolation, a loneliness, that needs communion with others to be overcome. I wonder if that corresponds with our experience—that community, relationship, listening, and dialogue lift our spirits. I think this experience is part of the reason we gather in communities together. Because it feels good!

This last community you see is a dinner gathering of Unitarian Universalists from England, Australia, and the United States. Friday night was a night when different religious groups gathered with their own communities. We UUs went to a fabulous buffet-style restaurant where all the food is prepared by cooking school students. It was a delightful blend of culinary consciousness and friendship.

This morning Diane and I heard a singing group of two women called Ruby. They filled an hour with moving songs that were all Rumi poems set to music. They worked with a Sufi scholar to create the translations and then set them to music. Exquisite!

We are doing well despite jet lag and various computer hassles. This afternoon I am going to a workshop on how Islam gets used to lure young people into violence. There is much more to do and learn than any of us can take in. Wish you were here!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Making Connections - Life in Interfaith Land

Today is December 3, at least in Melbourne, Australia. I think it's still yesterday in Illinois, where I live. Eight members of our church, along with thousands of other folks from all around the world, have traveled to this appealing and welcoming city to meet each other, share our stories, and make connections that we hope will have lasting and healing effects. Officially this gathering is called the Parliament of the World's Religions.

We have already been experiencing the delights of meaningful coincidences, or synchronicity as some call it. Our nearly eternal flight from LA to Sydney was full of people traveling to the Parliament, but we were truly blown away when a young man we met purely by chance in the Sydney airport, who is not involved at all in the Parliament, turned out to be the son of an Interfaith Alliance friend of ours back home. Then this morning in an apparently random coffee shop in Melbourne, we sat down next to another UU minister who is also here for the Parliament. Here are Tracy from New Jersey and I doing our email and blogging side by side. These are delightful and intriguing experiences.

The Parliament opens this evening and we will be there. There is no place else I would rather be at this moment. It's partly just fun, but it's also a rare opportunity to get to know people who are usually not part of my daily life, people who live far away and practice different faiths but with whom I share more in common than the surface differences would suggest. Each such meeting opens up a new spectrum of opportunities that lead in ways we cannot foresee, but which offer much hope to us as individuals and as a lovable but contentious human family. We are grateful to be here.

It would be great to read your comments! Just click below.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Charter for Compassion

This past week, Karen Armstrong, along with Desmond Tutu and other leaders, announced a campaign called the Charter for Compassion. The Charter for Compassion calls on the world community to adopt a global ethic of compassion based on what we often call the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

This moral guideline exists in virtually all of the world's religious traditions, which in itself is a rather remarkable fact. One question we might explore is how that came to be. There must be some deep resonance with our human nature and aspirations that is expressed in this simple maxim that does not belong to any one tradition, but to them all.

As Hans Küng and other religious leaders have passionately argued for years, the world urgently needs some kind of shared ethical framework. We are growing ever more interconnected, ever more part of the same village with everyone else on the planet. How are we going to live together on an ecologically and politically endangered planet without some common guideline for behavior? Karen Armstrong believes that compassion, as expressed in diverse ways that echo our Golden Rule, is the ethical guideline that can unite all of humanity.

The key to compassion is to set aside the selfishness and greed of our ego-centered tendencies and truly take seriously the needs of another. This dethroning of the ego has long been described as one of the ingredients of genuine spiritual experience. In compassion, we move beyond caring only about ourselves, and in so doing, discover a far wider world of meaning and satisfaction. We also find that our compassion is powerful and can change the world.

As we enter the festival season of the year, a season that takes compassion seriously, at least for a while, I invite you to explore the Charter for Compassion. You can find it at As the world searches for some way to find common ground, this ancient approach may point the way out of our confusion toward hope.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Why Should People of Different Faiths Talk to Each Other?

Later this month I will be leaving to attend the Parliament of the World's Religions in Melbourne, Australia. I'm starting to get excited. This will be my fourth time as an attendee of one of these global Parliaments. ( I missed the first one in 1893.) The idea of the Parliament is to gather people from all over the planet, representing most of the world's religious traditions, and spend a week talking to each other, looking for ways to cooperate to address our common concerns.

It's going to be a great trip, and it will be fun to visit Australia, but how productive is it likely to be? Does it really do any good to engage in interfaith dialogue beyond a kind of warm, fuzzy feeling and the appearance, or perhaps illusion, of progress?

Sam Harris, in his bestseller The End of Faith, argues that we do damage to the world when we give respect to other faiths that may actually be trying to kill us. I agree with Harris that religious fundamentalism is a danger to our planet, particularly when combined with militaristic nationalism. It may actually be the case that fundamentalism itself is not the real problem, but rather this combination of fundamentalist religion with political power.

However, I think Harris misunderstands how religious views can change. My experience is that religious dialogue tends to disarm harsh fundamentalist stances. This is one of the reasons why fundamentalists do not generally attend such interfaith events. To be in dialogue is to let go of rigidity and to acknowledge the value of other positions. Fundamentalists know this and therefore avoid such engagement. Lack of respect, on the other hand, leads to rage and often violence. This is why "dissing" in gang culture can get one killed.

So I am arguing that religious dialogue in a respectful environment creates a counterbalance to rigid beliefs and fundamentalist-inspired nationalistic politics. The more dialogue, the more respect and the less rigidity. The more respect, the more ability to work out problems without resort to armed conflict. The more dialogue, the greater the chances for peace. And peace is something we deeply need. For this reason I devote a portion of my energy and resources to interfaith dialogue. So what do you think? Is interfaith dialogue dangerous or the path to peace?

Monday, September 21, 2009

No World Peace Without Religious Peace

"No world peace without religious peace" is a quotation from Hans Küng, the Swiss Catholic theologian who has been so active in the work of worldwide interfaith reconciliation. When we look around the globe, we see that a high percentage of conflicts and wars have a religious dimension. Virtually all of the various wars in the Middle East are obvious examples, including America's seemingly endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Küng puts forward the argument that such conflicts will not be resolved by politics or weapons alone; the underlying religious issues must be addressed as well. It is not just nations that are at war, but religions too. If Küng is right, then interfaith reconciliation is a necessity for peace on earth.

I first became aware of Küng's work at the Parliament of the World's Religions in Chicago in 1993. It was at this historic global interfaith gathering that Küng put forth his idea of a global ethic, a set of principles that could be adopted by all of humanity, that would favor no one group over the others and could enable the human race to live in peace. The 1993 Parliament in Chicago was followed by Parliaments in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1999 and Barcelona, Spain, in 2004. The next Parliament will take place in Melbourne, Australia, December 3 through 9, 2009. Once again a movement will be made to bring the faith traditions of the earth into cooperative interchange of ideas, beliefs, and commitments.

At the 1999 Cape Town Parliament, Nelson Mandela proclaimed that the worldwide scourge of AIDS needed the cooperative effort of the world's religions to be conquered. Today the world, and Africa especially, are still ravaged by this disease. The 2004 Parliament in Barcelona focused on four major global issues: clean drinking water, religious violence, third world debt, and the plight of refugees. Significant projects were undertaken in all four areas by religious leaders.
The theme of the 2009 Parliament in Melbourne is "Hearing Each Other, Healing the Earth."
You still have time to go, and you might get to talk to Hans Küng yourself. Find out more at

If it is true that the huge social problems of the world need religious cooperation to be overcome, or at least the cessation of the conflicts between religions that exacerbate these problems, then interfaith involvement becomes a kind of moral imperative. There are many ways to participate, and your church, mosque, temple, or synagogue may offer such programs. I have found the Interfaith Alliance, supported by the late Walter Cronkite, to be a creative, active group for interfaith issues within the United States, and the Parliament of the World's Religions to be the cutting edge movement for global interfaith dialogue and action. I encourage you to explore these two good options and others as well.

Religion, to be helpful to humanity in the 21st century, must lead to dialogue and peace, not hatred and war. Now we must each figure out how to contribute toward that goal. What are your ideas?

Friday, September 11, 2009

A Question of Character

Jacob Weisberg, in a recent Newsweek opinion essay, writes that "health-care systems are not just policy choices, but expressions of national character and values." If Weisberg is on target, as I think he is, then what kind of national character and values would our present health care system imply—assuming for a moment that our hodgepodge collection of procedures constitutes a system? I would suggest that our present, unreformed system implies the following:

1) We are more concerned about whether relatively affluent people can get the very best care as quickly as possible than whether less affluent people can get any care at all. We are very willing to live with stark inequality.

2) We are determined to look at health care as a collection of profit-making businesses, even though it is ever more clear that health care does not fit the standard business model and that providing health care as if there were a competitive marketplace for such services keeps driving prices higher and higher. We are very fearful of more cooperative and inclusive solutions, which are demonized as socialism.

3) We are in love with technology, the newer and more sophisticated the better. We believe that technology—not compassion, personal care, or finding lower-cost alternatives—is the solution.

4) We link health care to employment. This link may have been created almost by accident during the WWII era, but it fits strangely well with our history. The old pilgrim rule that "the one who doesn't work, doesn't eat" applies to health care as well. There is an unmistakable streak of judgment in our rationing of health care. What's worse, even those who work may still not get care.

5) We apparently do not believe that health care is a right, but rather a privilege for those who deserve it because of their station in life.

I may be overgeneralizing, but these are not far-fetched claims. They are also not very admirable characteristics. But all of this is now being challenged. The president claims that this overly selfish, profit-oriented, divisive system does not represent the real American character, does not reflect our true selves. I pray that he is right.

Apart from economic issues, which are important and challenging, and political issues, which are difficult and often nasty, health care clearly has a moral dimension. In Ted Kennedy's moving last letter to Obama, he lays out the case "that what we face is above all a moral issue; that at stake are not just the details of policy, but fundamental principles of social justice and the character of our country."

What kind of a people are we? Are we compassionate or selfish? Do we seek justice or only self-interest? Will we care for all the people or just our particular tribe? Do only the few enjoy the huge wealth of our land, or the whole people? These are the questions of character to be answered in the next two or three months. I deeply hope that we will hear the call of what Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature" and discover a new sense of national community and caring. In the current president's words, "That is our calling. That is our character."

Monday, August 31, 2009

Cubs Win World Series!—When Hell Freezes Over

Last week I had the good fortune to make my annual pilgrimage to Wrigley Field to see a Cubs game. It's a gorgeous ball park, full of history and tradition, worth a visit whether you're a Cubs fan or not. It was a gray, rainy day in Chicago right up until game time, when fortuitously, the clouds went away. The weather stayed clear and pleasantly warm just long enough for the Cubs to win 9-4, a victory that made the evening even more fulfilling.

This is the time of year when the Cubs typically fall out of contention like the leaves of autumn fall out of their trees, and this year is no exception. August has been brutal for the Cubbies, and their playoff hopes are almost over once again. The team has not won the World Series for 100 years, and their loyal fans yearn to know when this long run of bitter disappointment will be over, when victory will finally come. The good news is that there is an answer to this question, at least according to popular legend, and that answer is, "The Cubs will win the World Series when hell freezes over!"

I am fascinated with the power of symbolism. How in the world is hell freezing over connected to baseball? Hell is a place of suffering, of torment, of hopelessness and despair. Obviously a real hell, if it existed, would be a far more serious thing than a losing baseball team; but on a far less grim level, Cubs fans do suffer. To say that hell will freeze over someday is to say that there will be an end to suffering; hope will replace despair, and joy will triumph over pain. It's a great image, an optimistic vision of the future. Even the lowliest will eventually come to glory. What a powerful faith statement!

To look to a day when hell freezes over is to affirm that life is full of hope, that pain and suffering are not eternal, that joy and love are ultimately stronger than despair. Whether one takes that affirmation literally or metaphorically, it is a message that lifts the spirit and gives us courage. It places the sufferings of life, or a long losing streak, into perspective. Yes, suffering is real, but suffering is not the final answer. That is the problem with hell. It says that for countless souls, there will be no hope, no more chances, no next year. But every Cubs fan knows that this is not true. There is always next year. There is always hope. Even hell will be overcome someday.

The religious group that has consistently taken the faith stance that hell will not be the final victor in human life, but that love will conquer all, is called Universalism. As an old Universalist saying goes, "We live in eternal expectation of the dawn." Or in baseball language, "Wait till next year!" May your favorite team win someday.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Most Americans Believe In Hell—Most of My Readers Don't

According to the latest Pew Forum poll, 59% of Americans believe in hell. This poll is consistent with other recent polls that confirm that slightly more than half of Americans believe that hell exists. Traditionally, hell is considered to be a place of eternal torment where nonbelievers go to be punished forever after they die.

Among the industrialized democracies, this level of belief in hell is uniquely American. European countries usually poll around 10-20% for belief in hell. America is truly different in this particular way.

Apparently the readers of my blog do not agree with the majority position on this question. Not a single person out of 45 respondents to my unscientific poll voted Yes for the traditional view.

Among the other choices that I offered, 71% of voters picked the simple, straightforward choice that hell is not real. About 40% say hell is real, but only in our minds. About 13% think hell is real, but only on this earth, a view that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. expressed in Ebony magazine 48 years ago. The numbers do not add up to 100% because voting for more than one option was allowed.

Does any of this matter? I think religious beliefs influence the way we weave our social fabric. For example, in the current debate over health care, it is clear that Americans view this issue very differently from the rest of the industrialized world. Something that seems completely normal and natural to most of the world, namely universal health care, seems to be extraordinarily upsetting to many Americans. This reaction is too extreme and too visceral to be simply a matter of economics. People react to this idea as if it were the end of American civilization. Something else is going on beneath the surface.

I believe that part of our uniquely American and deeply troubling response to the possibility of universal health care has to do with religion. From the Calvinism of the pilgrims to the evangelicalism of the religious right, our society has long harbored an unconscious tendency to see the human family as split, divided by God into the saved and the damned, God's people and the outsiders. That is what the hell story is all about. Some will win and others will lose in life.

When you mix this deeply divisive religious component of our culture with the extreme individualism of the pioneer movement and the insensitivity of unregulated capitalism, you get a society that distrusts any idea or program that seeks to serve all the people without dividing them into winners and losers. The uniquely high level of belief in hell in America is one of the components of our deep suspicion of universal solutions to anything.

This divided way of looking at the world may have worked, or appeared to work, on the frontier, at least if one were not a Native American or an African slave. But in the 21st century, characterized by interdependence and the need for cooperation, it is a formula for failure, both moral and economic. It is time for us to change. Do you agree?

Monday, August 17, 2009

Universalism, Partialism, and Rage Over Health Care

The issue of health care is really heating up in our society. It appears to be the make or break test of the new administration. It's a huge political struggle for power, but of course it is not primarily about politics for 47 million people with no health insurance. It is about how to pay the bills.

In the past few weeks, the stress level has clearly increased to a boiling point around this hot issue. People are yelling at each other, spreading false information, and intentionally trying to create chaos at public meetings. One of the tragic dimensions of our democracy is that such negative tactics often work.

I don't want to reduce this national discussion to a single issue, because there are multiple concerns in the health care debate—concerns about freedom of choice, finances, private versus public plans, and universal coverage. These issues all merit further discussion. But I want to invite you to be aware of how the element of religion provides another dimension of the debate, one that is often in the background, unspoken.

One of the two religious traditions that form the historical background of the religious community I serve is called Universalism. Universalism is a particular branch of Protestantism that has traditionally taught that God will eventually save everyone; no one will be condemned to eternal punishment. There are similarities between this religious argument and the current argument that everyone should have health care. The underlying sentiment is that everyone has value and is worthy of being cared for in a loving way. No one should be left out of the circle of care.

The Universalists used to call the people on the other side of the theological argument Partialists, because according to the traditional doctrine, only a part of humanity would be saved. I would suggest that we, as a society, are historically Partialists; we are unconsciously comfortable with the idea that only part of humanity will be cared for and the other part will be left out.

One dimension of what is going on behind the scenes in this intense struggle over health care is a revival of the old argument between Universalists and Partialists. In this new incarnation of an old conflict, the Universalist argument is now being recast as socialism, which is a kind of heresy in America, much like Universalism was a heresy within Christianity.

This religious undercurrent in the health care debate is one of the reasons that the argument is so intense and emotional. It is not just health care that is at stake, but for some folks, it is the whole meaning of life as they understand it. This religious underpinning of the arguments is not the whole story, of course, but it is part of the story, and it helps to explain the extraordinary level of upset in the air.

As events unfold, I invite you to reflect on how religious beliefs have a subtle effect on social issues. This is a time of transformation for America, a time when we are reevaluating our understanding of our lives in community. Both sides see this reality clearly, hence the highly charged atmosphere. Let us hope that we, as a people, can find a way to care for each other without losing our civility and decency in the process.

Let me know your take on this difficult time as well.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Bela Fleck and Toumani Diabate—The Banjo Crosses the Great Divide

Bela Fleck, one of the finest musicians of our time, has done it again. Beginning in 2005, Bela packed up his banjo and set out for Africa in search of the roots of the oft-maligned instrument of which he is such a master. He journeyed across the African continent playing with many excellent musicians, particularly those who play instruments that belong to the same family as the banjo. His musical encounters are now beautifully recorded in an exquisite documentary film called Throw Down Your Heart, which I recommend wholeheartedly. A CD with the same name is also available.

Now Bela is touring with one of the musicians he encountered in Africa, Toumani Diabate from Mali. Toumani is a master of the kora, a 21-string instrument that clearly shares roots with the banjo. He plays the kora as well as Bela plays the banjo, if one can even imagine that. The two of them are magnificent together, sharing a musical dialogue of depth, improvisational complexity, and extraordinary beauty. Don't miss an opportunity to see them if you have the chance.

As an aspiring banjo player myself, I am very aware of the troubling symbolism of my adopted instrument. To many people it is a reminder of racism, of slavery, of some of the worst elements in American history. And yet the banjo is an authentic African instrument. According to one of the musicians Bela met in Africa, the banjo lifted the spirits of the people who were hijacked to America under horrible conditions and helped them survive the tragic and painful journey. The banjo may symbolize troubling dimensions of America, but it stands for Africa as well. Bela demonstrates this truth and brings the banjo back full circle to its home. There is an unmistakable feeling of redemption about this journey.

To watch Bela and Toumani play together is to see some of the wounds of the world healed, if only for an evening. They laugh together, improvise together, and delight in each giving the praise to the other. When they join hands, as they often do after a song, we feel the transcendence of boundaries, as issues of language, nationality, religion, race, and for a moment even the tragedy of slavery are overcome by the musical partnership. When they playfully weave together a medley of traditional African tunes with "Oh Susanna" and "Dueling Banjos," we have a sense of experiencing a reconciliation that is almost unimaginable.

Several readers of this blog have asked me how we can go about making the world more inclusive. What can we actually do? Transformation comes about through individual acts of creativity and courage. If Bela Fleck can redeem the symbolism of the banjo and reunite this ancient instrument, stolen from its roots by oppressors, with its deeper identity in African music, then perhaps any problem is capable of transformation. Together Bela Fleck and Toumani Diabate create marvelous, uplifting music, but they also do more. They apply healing sounds to a deep wound and give us hope that other wounds can be healed as well. We have cause to be grateful to them.

If you have other stories of overcoming boundaries, with or without music, or if this story resonates with you, leave me a comment.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Inclusive and Exclusive Religion

If churches and other houses of worship are to be meaningful in the 21st century, the question of who is included and who is excluded will be crucial for each community of faith to decide. One can observe various groups struggling with this issue every day in the news. Are women to be fully included? How about gay folk or those of differing religious views? These are tough questions for many groups.

Cal Thomas, in an opinion piece published July 24, argues passionately that exclusion is at the heart of Christianity and that inclusion is an abandonment of the true faith. He states, "Inclusivity has nothing to do with the foundational truths set forth in Scripture. The church, which belongs to no denomination, but to its Founding Father and His Son, is about exclusivity for those who deny the faith. The church is inclusive only for those who are adopted by faith into God's family." Thomas uses this line of thinking to ridicule the participation of gay folk in the Episcopal church and Jimmy Carter's concerns about the role of women in the Southern Baptist church.

This kind of tribal perspective is common in conservative Christianity, which has a long tradition of dividing us all into the sheep and the goats, along with dire threats for those who come out on the wrong side of the line. Indeed, this kind of exclusivist thinking, and the justification of it using religion, is a kind of unconscious mental habit in American culture.

Precisely the same question, namely who will be included and who will be excluded, lies at the center of the current health care debate. If exclusion is considered God's will, as Mr. Thomas and many others apparently believe, then universal health care would represent a major shift away from that kind of thinking. Let us pray that we can make that shift.

If religion is to be meaningful in the 21st century, it will need to move away from exclusion and shift increasingly toward inclusion. Exclusive religion will keep us from uniting in the crucial ways needed to resolve our deepest social problems, which demand global, interfaith and intercultural cooperation. Inclusive, welcoming religion has the potential to inspire many of us to work energetically for the common good.

"Inclusivity" may not be in the Bible, but love of neighbor certainly is. And who is our neighbor? Precisely the one we have difficulty accepting, like the despised Samaritan in the parable, who turns out to be a healer. When we can love and include those who are not like us, then we are truly on the way. Which way do you think religion is moving? Send me your thoughts.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Walter Cronkite and the Interfaith Alliance

One of the most underreported dimensions of the life and work of Walter Cronkite is his long and dedicated involvement with the Interfaith Alliance. For some strange reason, this doesn't seem to be headline news.

The Interfaith Alliance was founded in 1994 with a mission to promote the positive role of religion as a healing and constructive force in public life. That was, and still is, a challenging goal. At the time of the founding of the Interfaith Alliance, America seemed to be increasingly mired in a one-dimensional view of religion. The one kind of religion that was constantly asserted in the public eye was the conservative Christianity of mostly white, evangelical and fundamentalist Christians.

The message of this movement, called the religious right, was that religion is about rigid moral rules, conservative politics, individual responsibility (which usually meant voting "no" on social programs) and a strangely unChristlike affirmation of American militarism. The religious right was cultivating a growing alliance with conservative politicians that would reach its zenith during the Bush years. Some of those politicians openly called for America to be a "Christian nation," a form of government known as theocracy.

The Interfaith Alliance was formed to provide an alternative to this flawed model of the role of religion in public life. Interfaith Alliance sought to remind the American people that America is diverse, mulitcolored and multiethnic, not monochrome and always crowding the right side of the political spectrum. The new organization wanted to promote tolerance, religious freedom, civility and respect in religious dialogue, and clear boundaries between church and state. It wanted to correct the mistaken idea that any political party represented God. It wanted America to remember that thoughtful and caring people can disagree on religion, politics and social policies, whether they are people of faith or not.

Beginning in 1997, Walter Cronkite became one of the most active and dedicated supporters of the Interfaith Alliance and remained so for the rest of his life. The group awards a prize each year in his name, and at the time of his death, he served as honorary chair of the board. Upon the occasion of Cronkite's first meeting with executive director Rev. Welton Gaddy, the most trusted person in America stated, "Nothing less is at stake in the work of the Interfaith Alliance than the existence of democracy as we know it."

In the last twelve years, the religious landscape has changed in America. The religious right no longer has the sole claim to be the voice of religion. There are many voices being heard in America, among them voices of Muslims, Jews, Native Americans, Hindus, Buddhists, humanists, pagans and many varieties of Christians. Walter Cronkite's dedication to opening up our American consciousness to the diverse voices already present among us is a major reason for the increased richness of our contemporary view. It is now our task to continue this work so that Americans of all faiths, and those of no faith, can live together peacefully, safely and in full freedom.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Maybe God Doesn't Want America to Have Universal Health Care

The hottest issue in American society is health care. Millions of Americans are intensely concerned about what will happen in the next few months as our government struggles to act. As almost everyone knows, the United States is the only industrialized democracy in the world that does not have universal health care. Every other major democratic state has figured out a way to solve this basic problem. Why should America alone be different?

Believe it or not, part of the answer has to do with religion. This may sound strange, but it's true. We Americans live in one of the most religious countries in the world. Despite our growing religious diversity, one of the strongest traditions in our heritage is still the Calvinism of the first pilgrims who settled New England. That old Calvinist tradition taught that God has divided the human race into the saved and the damned — those who are going to spend eternity in bliss and those who will spend it in eternal punishment. According to this Calvinist world view, there is no possibility of ever changing this harsh reality; there are cosmic winners and cosmic losers in life, and that is just the way it is. I contend that our social policies tend to follow this same pattern.

Although there are certainly many other religious points of view in our culture, and even within Christianity itself, this old myth of the ultimate division of the human family, expressed in many forms, runs very deep in the American psyche. Ours is a culture that has repeatedly divided people into the ins and the outs. Slavery and the near genocide of native Americans are obvious examples. Both of these tragedies were supported by Biblical arguments. We hear echoes of this old theology over and over again, even in the 21st century. We hear them whenever anyone proposes a program that tries to solve a social problem for all of us. Deep in our culture is a lingering belief that God does not see things in this universal way.

According to this old belief, God sees the human race as eternally divided into those destined for heaven and those destined for hell. If that is true, then trying to make life work for everyone can never succeed, because it goes against that great cosmic plan. Even to argue for universal solutions is maligned as socialism, a horror too great to imagine. Why? Because, according to this view, universal solutions go against the very will of God; it is inevitable that some will be blessed and others cursed.

In our current health care debate, we hear this argument coming repeatedly from the conservative side of the spectrum. Many Americans are strangely willing to accept 48 million people with no health insurance, and millions of others with inadequate insurance. Such a view, which accepts the suffering of millions of people as inevitable and insoluble, can legitimately be called Hellth Care.

Why would otherwise intelligent and decent people take such a harsh position? Because it fits with a religious world view, clearly linked with conservative politics, that teaches that the final destiny of humanity is separation, not reconciliation; division, not unity. This linkage between politics and religious dogma is not usually discussed openly, of course, and it may even be unconscious for many participants, but it is not that hard to connect the dots.

There are, fortunately, religious alternatives to the model of the saved and the damned, both Christian alternatives and alternatives in other faiths. My perception is that these alternatives are on the ascendancy. Countless thoughtful Christians have abandoned the threatening and divisive rhetoric of damnation and have chosen (wisely, I think) to anchor their faith in the transforming power of love that forms the core of Jesus' timeless message.

Outside of Christianity, there are Eastern, mystical, humanist, New Age, nature-centered and other traditions that emphasize the unity of all life, not its ultimate division into saved and unsaved. These paths teach interdependence, compassion for all, and communal salvation. They see us as all in the same boat together, not fighting against each other for the scarce life boats (or insurance policies) in which only the few will survive. These world views lead to social policies that are inclusive, not exclusive.

As the health care debate unfolds, we can hear these two different world views expressed over and over again. Some will talk of universal access; others will talk of why this will never work. Some will talk of compassion; others will talk of harsh realities. Some will talk of all Americans; others will appeal to those who deserve and those who don't. Underneath this discussion lies an unconscious world of religious myth and belief. In one world, the human family is eternally and painfully separated into heaven and hell; in the other view, all of humanity shares a common destiny, a future in which all of us share in the bounty of life.

It is my view that the old hell-dominated view, the myth of separation, has run its course and is currently falling apart. The health care debate serves as a powerful example of how American society is actually changing course, from a land where only some are entitled to the benefits of life to a land where, ever so gradually and with great difficulty, all of us (even women, GLBT folk, people of color, the poor and those of other faiths) will eventually reach the promised land. Do you find such a vision inspiring? Let me know your thoughts.