1) How do you feel about me asking you some questions that may be hard for you to answer truthfully? Are you willing to tell me what you really think and feel and believe, even if it could get you into trouble with the church? Are you willing to tell me which doctrines you truly and fully believe, which ones you only believe through "faith" that someday you'll understand or feel comfortable with them, and which ones you cannot affirm at all? And how can I support you if you do get in trouble for being fearless and telling your truth?
2) Who or what do you mean by the word "God" - if anything? Do you experience God? If you say you believe in God, what do you mean by "belief"? (For a list of different understandings of God, from which your pastor can pick, see my "Varieties of God" musing.)
3) Is the Bible the Word of God to humans, or is it humans' words about God? What is your relationship to the Bible? How literally do you take its miracle stories (walking on water, physical resurrection, etc, etc), if at all? (See my musing on "How to Read the Bible" to explore this topic with your pastor.)
4) Who was Jesus? Who/what is the Christ? What is your relationship to Jesus and/or the Christ? (My musing on "Varieties of God" addresses this question.)
5) Is anybody going to an afterlife of hell? Do people have to believe something religious in order to avoid ending up there, if it exists at all? (Check out the story of Rob Bell, the evangelical megachurch pastor who stopped believing in hell.)
6) Can people be "saved" without Christ or Christianity? Are there ways to experience God/Ultimate Reality outside of Christ or Christianity? Can other religions possibly be as good for other people as Christianity is for you? (More at Pluralism Sunday)
7) Do you think it is okay for LGBTQ people to have sex? Under what circumstances? Do you support same-sex marriage?
8) Do you support a woman's right to choose whether or not to have an abortion? Do you support women as leaders in all roles in church and society?
9) Do you support universal access to health care? Do you support a strong government social safety net to protect people from poverty, illness, and unemployment? Does your faith lead you to take political action for economic justice and peace? (Lots more on such issues at ProgessiveChristiansUniting.org .)
10) What questions are you glad I did not ask? What else do you think, feel, and believe that could get you in trouble with church authorities? What other questions should I be asking you? Are you willing to go public with all your answers? And again, how can I help you if you do get into trouble for being fearless?
The most common complaint of the 44,000 students at the University of Southern California:
A greater irony is hard to imagine, as they swirl around each other on skateboards, mix among each other in classes, and gather together on game days and other campus events.
Yet there’s no deeper loneliness than feeling isolated in a crowd of people, especially in a crowd of one’s peers. This isolation is strongly correlated with the epidemic of mental and physical health problems afflicting USC and all other universities.
Loneliness on campus is no news. Not long ago I re-read a copy of a letter I sent to my dear friend, Bruce Urbschat, when I was an undergraduate student at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Urb and I have been chums since we were 6 years old, growing up in a small town in Ohio. In 1966, my family moved to California, and Urb and I began to write letters. About 15 years ago, we exchanged xeroxed copies of our mostly hand-written missives, and Urb typed them up on his computer - all 960 single-spaced, priceless pages of them. In my 1972 letter, I reported to Urb that the UC system had done a study of the problems faced by its students, and loneliness was at the top of the list.
One would expect a certain amount of loneliness among new students at a university. They leave home and family and friends and start over, seeking social connections in a new and strange environment. But it is harder and takes longer to forge real bonds than students expect.
Students meet each other in the dorms, in classes, in clubs – but do they really get to know each other in these contexts? They make contacts. They grow their "networks". They make social media "friends". But are these encounters likely to result in close, mutually-supportive personal relationships that sustain their souls? Friends = network contacts. But network contacts =/= friends. Very often, they amount to little more than fleeting, situation-specific acquaintances.
How much of the loneliness that afflicts our students could be abated if our campus institutions and organizations were intentional about facilitating the formation of real friendships and of communities of friends?
This is the question to which I have devoted my summer. I'm scheming up a campus-wide friendship initiative. And in my research for it, I'm learning a lot. There are tricks to the trade.
Friendship grows out of acquaintance in moments of emotional or spiritual vulnerability, when hard truths are shared. It blossoms when people invite each other into their circles of intimacy. It bursts forth when people go beyond social expectations. One young friend of mine tells of his experience as a lonely college freshman, when a very popular senior student took him under his wing, and without being asked, showed up for my friend's music performance on campus. My friend's sense of loneliness evaporated.
Friendship blooms in groups that overtly value and actively encourage deep relationships among their members. Our USC Secular Student Fellowship is a remarkable example. Bart Campolo, our former humanist chaplain, worked with students to jump-start its friendship-inducing culture. They are serious about being a true community of students who support each other in living lives of creativity, curiosity, and service. Their purpose is to be deeply convivial: to get to know each other seriously, to connect outside of conventional categories of who is cool and who is not, to practice listening and show deep respect for each other. I have spent a lot of time with them, and their club fascinates me. They are my inspiration for this friendship initiative. They have discovered a secret friendship sauce that ought to be available all over campus.
A lot of student clubs on campus meet "face forward", just like a traditional classroom. This is not a recipe for conviviality. The groups that generate and sustain real friendships are the ones that are structured so that students often meet face to face. A lot of clubs do one-time "ice-breakers" toward that end, but plenty of ice remains. So this effort must be continued, meeting after meeting.
My favorite resource for thinking about friendship is a website from Australia called Kitestring.org - a group that is dedicated to solving the loneliness crisis that has spread across the planet as a result of economic, cultural, and technological change. Kitestring breaks down what makes friendship tick. It says that friendship happens in webs of relationships: it is not a function of isolated dyads. Friendship is made and sustained through multiple connections and contexts. You might meet somebody and have a nice chat due to your common interest in artistic tinwork. But not until you discover that you are both serious about meditation do you become real friends. Friendships form through a back-and-forth of increasingly risky acts of shared vulnerability. They build with "bids" of intimacy, starting small and becoming more significant. Friendships form and maintain in containers: groups, clubs, organizations, classes, temples, churches. They may need to be "re-potted" into new ones when the initial container becomes too small. Friendships need the right balance and rhythm between intensity and "air" -- between emotional expressiveness and light-hearted looseness, between time together and time apart, between a serious conversation and a game of cards.
Mario Luis Small, a sociologist, did a study of child care centers, which he found to be powerful engines for the creation of positive social capital. He discovered that all child care centers are not equal in this regard. His research showed that child care centers that forced parents to work together to put on fundraising events are far more effective in generating friendships. One minute, the parents are baking cookies together. The next, they are babysitting each others' kids, getting groceries for each other, and socializing with each other regularly. The child care center has no intention of generating this kind of social capital. Its fundraising policy has the inadvertent but overwhelmingly positive effect of fostering friendships among parents. How much loneliness could be eliminated if organizations purposefully created the conditions for friendships to form and continue? It is a question for all of us, who work in institutions of all kinds, to consider carefully. (It's a question my friend and colleague Cat Moore is answering in her work as a MotherClucker - read more about her here.)
What are your thoughts on this subject? What have you found to be effective in fostering the formation and growth of friendships? Let me know! and I'll keep you posted on my discoveries!
My study guide for churches on health care policy in America - use freely!
Progressive Christians Offer a Plan
Dear Progressive Christian Friends and Allies:
Recently, I created a curriculum for churches to use for adult education about faith and health care in America: Samaritan Care. I hope you'll use it freely - adapting it and giving me feedback for improving and extending it.
Based on the feedback I've received so far, it seems to me that our progressive Christian movement has an opportunity to make a really positive impact on the health care debate as the Congressional elections loom ahead. Obamacare is being picked apart steadily by the Republicans, who have no clear, viable plan for replacing it. Universal, single-payer governmental health insurance - some form of Medicare for all - is surely the best plan. But getting from here to there will be enormously difficult in the short term, even when Democrats could gain control of both the executive and legislative branches again. Odds are that in the best realistic scenario over the next four years, some form of revived and restructured Obamacare would be the most likely interim outcome. But Trump and the Republicans have wrecked the Obamacare "brand", so another is needed in order to inspire the public imagination.
To hasten the day when a good interim solution, as well as the best long-term solution, is achieved, a clear goal is needed to put in front of the American people. This is where progressive Christians can be very useful to the cause, by promoting Samaritan Care as a concise outline of what any real health care reform plan must include. It is a short list of essentials, against which any health care policy proposal can be compared.
To this end, I'd very much appreciate your input on this draft of a description of Samaritan Care. Please send me ideas for inclusion and revision, and suggestions for strategy to go public with it.
We are Christians in America who are inspired by Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10). His story was his answer to the question: "Who is my neighbor?" The Good Samaritan made sure that a wounded man - a total stranger from a different tribe and community, lying by the roadside - got not only first-aid, but received pre-paid comprehensive health care until he was fully healed. This sacred story reveals that we're all neighbors when we show mercy to each other. Jesus told his disciples to do two things: proclaim the Kingdom of Heaven on earth, and heal the sick. The first hospitals were Christian monasteries. So providing health care to all is intrinsic to our mission as Christ-followers.
Each one of us, at some point in our lives, will be the wounded person lying on the side of the road. And each one of us can be the Good Samaritan - by standing up for universal, comprehensive Samaritan Care.
Samaritan Care is a faith-informed, fact-based consensus among American Christians about what our nation's health care system must include.
Samaritan Care guarantees that every American of every faith or creed has access to comprehensive health care with uniform minimum standards:
* Secure: Continuous coverage for all, regardless of pre-existing health conditions, income, or employment status.
* Comprehensive: Coverage for hospitalization, doctor visits, preventive care and checkups, reproductive health, prenatal and maternity care, mental health care, specialist treatments, basic vision, hearing, and dental care, occupational health care, nursing home care.
* Equitable: Co-pays for medical treatment and prescription drugs that are affordable for people of all income levels; assurance of access to quality care in all regions of the country.
* Affordable: Cost-control provisions and incentives to assure the financial viability of the health care system.
None of these requirements is out of reach for America, the world's richest and most creative nation. There are many ways to achieve their implementation.
Faith communities will hold politicians accountable to meet these essential expectations.
A "votivator" is a person who researches candidates and propositions for every election, and votes every time - and lets her/his friends and neighbors know about his/her voting choices. Copying a trusted votivator's votes is an honorable way to participate in democracy. Over time, people who follow votivators can become informed votivators themselves! Learn more about VOTIVATORs
How I'm voting:
US Senate: Dianne Feinstein. She is going strong – holding strong against Trump and for the environment, for the social safety net, for women’s rights, etc, etc. Her seniority counts for a lot – she has heft that her challenger, Kevin De Leon, would take years to develop. We need her in the Senate more than ever.
US Congress: Adam Schiff. He is a superstar in Congress – handling the Russia investigation with firmness and civility….
Governor: John Chiang. I have been very impressed with his pragmatic, progressive approach to his work as State Treasurer. I really admired the way he successfully stood against Schwartzenegger’s butchery of the state budget. Chiang is a champion of something I’ve hoped would happen for a long time: a State Bank of California that would save the state a lot of money and enable needed investments in housing, etc. Newsom is too dependent on the public employees’ unions. Villaraigosa sold out to the Herbalife pyramid scheme, to the outrageous Cadiz Valley water-grab, and to the charter school industry. NOTE: I seriously considered voting for Villaraigosa simply to heighten the chances that we'd have two Democrats and no Republican making it to the November election. With no Republican at the top of the ticket, Republican votes "down-ballot" would be dampened, giving an advantage to Democrats, particularly House candidates in swing districts. We call this "strategic voting" in a "jungle" primary where party affiliation no longer matters. The fact that I was tempted to do this is a sign that our CA "open" primary system has weakened the party system in an unhealthy way.
Lt Governor: Jeff Bleich. I did some research on the candidates and concluded that he’s the guy, based on his solid public service cred as Ambassador to Australia, his progressive but pragmatic policy positions, and his stellar list of endorsers - especially Rep. Jackie Speier, whom I venerate.
Secretary of State: Alex Padilla, the incumbent. I think he’s doing a good job – having substantially raised the number of registered voters in the state, and updated voting systems. Much more work to do, but he’s most qualified to continue it.
Controller: Betty Yee, incumbent. She’s smart and capable and is working hard to educate politicians and voters about how totally out of date our state tax system has become. (We need to even-out the income tax base and start taxing services as well as goods, in order to be able to ride out inevitable recessions.
Treasurer: Fiona Ma. Member of the Bd of Equalization, well-qualified progressive....
Attorney General: Xavier Becerra, incumbent (appointee). I really admire how vigorously he’s fighting back against the Trump administration, re: DACA, immigration generally, and other issues.
Insurance Commissioner: Asif Mahmood. An outsider candidate but with good qualifications (an MD) and progressive but grounded policy positions. Poizner is really a Republican, with a history of immigrant-bashing. Lara made a hash of his single-payer proposal in the CA legislature – progressive for sure, but not practical.
Board of Equalization: Scott Svonkin. I’m going with his overwhelming list of endorsers here – Mayor Garcetti, Sheila Kuehl of the Supes, etc, etc, etc.
State Senator: Ben Allen, incumbent – so far, so good – no real challengers –
State Assembly: Laura Friedman, incumbent – very good so far…
LA Judges: I am going with the LA Times rec’s, except for Michel -- read why here - and Berger, who the Bar Assn says is not qualified. Very hard to get other independent advice on these candidates. Coletta, Hunter, Segall, Hancock, Mackey, Armendariz, Gibbons, Ribons, Diamond, Gilbertson, Spear. More info on judges, always, at LA County Bar Assn - they rate their qualifications, don't make recommendations.
Superintendent of Public Instruction: Tony Thurmond. I am suspicious of both the public employees’ unions and the charter school movement. Thurmond is more on the side of the teacher’s union, Tuck on the side of the charters. I am really concerned that charter schools are sucking the regular public schools dry. There will be no real improvement in our schools unless the regular, non-charter schools can thrive. So I’m tilting toward Thurmond for this reason.
County Assessor: Jeffrey Prang, incumbent
County Sheriff: Jim McDonnell, incumbent. He’s far from perfect but needs more time continue to clean up the messes of the previous administration –
LA County Supervisor: Sheila Kuehl, incumbent – I love her – a practical progressive --
66: Yes – water, park bonds-
69: Yes – mew fuel tax for transportation expenses only – good
70: No – This is on the ballot as part of a back-room deal that Jerry Brown pushed in order to get the cap-and-trade deal through the Legislature. He promised to put it on the ballot but he really isn’t in favor of it, and neither am I – this law eliminates “majority rule” on future decisions re: the cap-and-trade fund.
71: Yes – sensible revision to delay enactment of ballot issues until votes are fully counted.
72: Yes – effectively offers a tax incentive for solar panels on houses, etc.
Many millions of hungry people got fed, effectively and cost-efficiently, choosing the food they needed in supermarkets like anyone else. Farmers and shop-keepers made money. When the economy was good, fewer people used the program; when the economy was in the dumps, more people were helped by it. What was not to love about the Food Stamp/EBT/SNAP federal food subsidy program? It has been one of the most sensible and successful legacies of the War on Poverty in the 1960’s.
That was before Republicans got their hands on it and started cynically imposing work requirements on its recipients -- people who need the program precisely because they are either unable to work or cannot find adequate employment. Trump wants to shrink the program dramatically with draconian obstacles to participation in SNAP. Enforcing these cumbersome rules will reduce the fiscal efficiency of this powerful poverty-prevention program. More money will go to bureaucrats and a lot less to hungry people. Having slashed taxes on the rich and on corporations, the Republicans are whining that the government can't afford to help the millions of people on the economic margins. But Adam Smith himself, capitalism's most famous interpreter, recognized that it inevitably leaves a lot of people in the dust, requiring government intervention to support them. There is nothing “conservative” about being in denial of this fact. The imperative of the Christian gospel, as well as common sense, impel us to maintain effective public systems that protect our most vulnerable citizens from bad outcomes that capitalism causes and cannot alleviate.
If poverty is stigmatized - if disabled, under- and unemployed, and low-income elderly people are “othered” out of the category of “hard-working Americans”- it is politically easier for Republicans to destroy successful governmental poverty-prevention programs. By couching their slash-SNAP plan under the false goal of promoting employment, they imply that SNAP recipients are a separate underclass of the lazy that can be ignored. They equate poverty with moral failure. This fiction is fed by “prosperity gospel” theology, which says that faithful Christians will prosper, and implies that poverty is a sign of faithlessness. Prosperity preachers are Trump’s favored religious acolytes. When they laid hands on him in blessing as he began his presidency, it amounted to a curse on tens of millions of struggling Americans.
This curse is not only bad religion. It's bad economics. A foundational quality of capitalism is that nobody is in charge of it. So market failures are not moral failures. Depressions, recessions, inflation, deflation, and big gaps or cuts in the labor force are painful but normal perturbations in the "free market" system. Millions of people are badly harmed by this system, through no fault of their own. But our political leaders are moral failures when they refuse to solve the problems created by market failures. If Republicans are so excited about defending the capitalist system, then they should do all in their power to protect its reputation by defending a robust system of public social insurance. But they are so hell-bent on dehumanizing those left behind by market forces that they are wrecking people's trust in capitalism. Theirs is a cynical political game with no winners.
American democracy is in serious trouble today. Our president is steadily, insidiously attacking its foundations. We're so lost among the trees of his lies, so boggled by the scandals and investigations and hearings, that we have lost sight of the forest. We're barraged by news of outrageous incidents, but meanwhile we are losing the view of the much bigger picture. Trump and the Republicans are denigrating the institutions and public trust that make our Constitution meaningful. Tyrrany seldom comes overnight: it comes after democracy has died by a thousand cuts.
Embedded in the Judeo-Christian tradition is a deep distaste for despotism. Now is the time for us to read our Bibles, remember our spiritual roots, and renew our commitment to resist the forces of oppression, fighting back against the "powers and principalities". William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania, said that people "must be governed by God or they will be ruled by tyrants." In a time when so many churches in America have been turned into Republican echo chambers, Christians who choose God over billionaire autocrats must make their voices heard in the public square as never before.
Nowhere in our scripture is the democratizing impulse more evident than in the speech of the prophet Samuel to the people of Israel, when they clamored for him to anoint a king:
Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, “You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.” But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to govern us.” Samuel prayed to the Lord, and the Lord said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you. Now then, listen to their voice; only—you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.”
So Samuel reported all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”
But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said, “No! but we are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.” I Samuel 8 - NRSV Bible
Here's the prophecy Samuel might deliver today to the voters who believed Donald Trump when he said "I alone can fix" America's problems:
"These will be the ways of the real estate tycoon who will reign over you: he will take your sons and send them to arrest refugee women and children trying to cross into the country. He will appoint cabinet members to deliver the government for the financial gain of himself and his wealthy courtiers. He will have his way with your daughters, and then pay them off to keep quiet about it. You wanted him to protect you from your enemies, but his go-it-alone bluster will weaken your nation's alliances with its allies and make you even less secure. He will take the best of your public lands and turn them over to oil interests and mining companies, to foul your air and pollute your water. He will plunder the treasury to lavish tax cuts on his rich courtiers, and take away funds for shelter and bread from the poor. Worst of all, he will denigrate the institutions upon which democracy depends. He will lie so often and so outrageously that you forget that there ever was such a thing as the real truth. He will insult and demean his enemies, and even his friends, so often that you will begin to think it is normal for an elected president to act like a dictatorial bully. He will tarnish your faith in the value of a free press, he will weaken your trust in the fairness of the judicial system, he will ride roughshod over the checks and balances enshrined in your Constitution. He will co-opt religion for his own ends, rendering it ineffective to resist him. He will cheapen the ideals of democracy, so that you will become apathetic about participation in it, and let the country become a playground for oligarchs. You shall cease being citizens, and instead become the subjects of a plutocracy. And in that day you will cry out because of your tyrant, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day."
But Trump voters refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said, "No! but we are determined to have a billionaire over us, so that we also may be like Russia and China, and that our oligarch may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles."