Religious Reciprocity & The Fool’s Golden Rule

Posted on August 26th, 2010 by James

In the coverage of the protest against the kind of a mosque but mostly a community center near but not at Ground Zero, I noticed a sign saying “religious reciprocity”. It’s a new term to me, and I wanted to see what the faceless sign holder meant.

Searching the web told me that basically, the phrase means, “Their religion doesn’t allow us to build a church in Muslim countries, so we shouldn’t let them build a mosque here.”

Boy does this hurt my head, even ignoring the idea that this is a Christian nation, or that the Founding Fathers would even recognize as Christianity the religion of people who argue this.

When I was about 6, I was playing with my younger next door neighbor, Jeremy. He bit me, so I bit him back, harder of course. He went crying to his mother. My defense? “Do to others as they have done to you.” I call it the Fool’s Golden Rule.

And that’s what people calling for religious reciprocity are doing- taking a pretty universally shared ethical standard, that of treating others how you’d like to be treated, perverting it, and using it as an excuse to treat others poorly.

A recurring argument is that Saudi Arabia doesn’t have any churches, so we don’t need to allow mosques.

Seriously? Your argument is, well, Saudi Arabia isn’t doing it, so we don’t have to. Talk about stooping to the lowest common denominator. This is the US, where freedom of religion is kind of a major thing. It’s in the 1st Amendment. And in the 14th Amendment (you know, that one that some of the same people are fighting to repeal).

I think the US gains a lot as a country because of freedom of religion. It provides a variety of ideas, communities, and support networks. It (ideally) creates an atmosphere of continuous growth, as people and their ideas interact.

But it’s not only the collective good that benefits from freedom of religion. The Christian church and Christians also benefit. I mean, seriously, what does the Christian church gain by demonizing Islam? Not much. I can think of one single plus- but it comes with a lot of downsides. But that’s a post for another day.

We need to remember to follow the Golden Rule, how it is expressed throughout not only the Bible, but also in Islam, Judaism, Confucianism, and most other religions. We need to hold ourselves to a higher standard than the Fool’s Golden Rule – otherwise we’ll be stuck in a childish repeating loop of “But he bit me!”

This blog post brought to you by the letter “S”

Posted on July 29th, 2010 by James

"2 Guys Holding Hands" from Travis 75 on Flickr

One of my high school teachers gave my class a worksheet, listing about 15 different physical actions, ranging from a pat on the back to hugging to sex. We were asked to think about with what people, at what point in our relationship, we would be comfortable performing each act. Everyone had the chance to examine each action, and draw their own lines.

What would this worksheet look like for homosexuals? It all depends on a single “s”.

I recently had an “Aha! Moment” while reading Ted Grimsrud’s latest writing, “Welcoming But Not Affirming: The Logic of MC USA’s “Teaching Position” on Homosexuality“. Grimsrud is a professor at Eastern Mennonite University, and an author on subjects such as pacifism, theology, and ethics from a Mennonite point of view.

My “Aha! Moment” came when, for the first time, I was exposed to the difference between “homosexual practice” and “homosexual practices”. While it’s a minor spelling difference, the ramifications are not minor.

Basically, someone who specifies “homosexual practice” refuses to acknowledge that there are multiple homosexual practices. The Bible says that one homosexual practice is wrong, and since there is just one homosexual practice, that makes all homosexuality wrong.

To put it another way, if someone who specifies the singular form were to make a worksheet similar to the one my teacher gave us, but for homosexuals, there would be one action listed. Homosexual practice.

I never realized I was making this leap in logic. And what a leap it is.

Let’s, for a moment, turn this around and consider the idea of a “heterosexual practice.” Let’s start with Genesis 19, with the story of Lot and his daughters, and the heterosexual practice of incest and drugging someone to rape them. Following the same logic, we come to the conclusion that all heterosexual practice is wrong, because it is incestuous and non-consensual.

But no, out of that story, the common understanding is that incest and rape are wrong. Consider then, what leads up to that story, in the same chapter of Genesis. It’s the story of the two angels visiting Lot in Sodom, often used as proof that homosexuality is wrong. Where sexuality is ignored in the story of Lot and his daughters, it is often the only thing considered in the story of Lot and the angels. If we take the interpretation and logic we applied to the story of Lot and his daughters, and apply it to Lot and the angels, we come up with a very different understanding of the story. We see it as a story of threatened rape and lack of hospitality towards strangers.

Martin Ssempa, Ugandan pastor and leader against homosexuality

I recently watched Vanguard’s “Missionaries of Hate,” a look at how American Missionaries influenced recent legislation in Uganda making homosexuality a crime punishable by death. The video includes a lot of footage and interviews with Ugandan evangelical leader Martin Ssempa, who has become a leader in the movement against homosexuality.

One tactic Ssempa uses is to show gay pornography and to talk about gay sex. But in a blurring of “practice” and “practices”, he makes his point that homosexuality is detestable by showing extremely graphic things, often involving feces. Never mind that this is likely not a solely homosexual practice, and similar heterosexual videos likely exist as well (sorry, not doing any research here). Or that there are other homosexual activities that aren’t detestable.

So there is a double standard in how homosexuality and heterosexuality are examined by many readers of the Bible. Homosexuality is often all grouped into one box (checked “No”), while heterosexuality is given columns and subheadings and all sorts of differentiation.

And once we remove this double standard, how will that change our understanding of what the Bible says? Will there still be a difference in the worksheet for homosexuals?

Convention in Arizona, take 2

Posted on June 28th, 2010 by James

A strong call from Felipe Hinojosa and Hugo Saucedo, 2 Latino Mennonites came out in The Mennonite, entitled “Why Mennonite Church USA Must Boycott Arizona”.

They ask that Convention boycott Arizona due to the state’s treatment of immigrants.

My last post came out opposed to this idea, but I have to reconsider in light of Latinos asking for the boycott. As the mist affected part of the church, their thoughts should have extra weight.

Convention was a formative experience, one that I think future youth will benefit from. It gave me an idea of the larger church and showed me there was a place for me. So I was not sure how I felt about the authors’ call for a Sabbatical year- in other words, canceling Convention.

Perhaps, they say, there can be a meeting of delegates elsewhere to work on church statements, etc. But no youth Convention.

Am the more I think about it, the more almost excited I get about the possibility. It could be a great time to reevaluate key aspects of Convention. I have long been uncomfortable with the youth worship sessions, and feel they don’t adequately reflect a large portion of Mennonite churches.

Maybe this is a chance to downsize convention- not in number of attendees, but in looking at creative ways to do it smaller. Maybe return to the camping out roots of Convention. Or maybe 5 smaller regional youth conventions, with people encouraged to attend in other regions if they have the financial means.

And this has just as much, if not more, possibility to make an impact on youth. It is a concrete action with real consequences that shows the love of Jesus towards the stranger in our land. It shows that following the way of Jesus may not be easy, or fun, but should be central to our decisions.

Boycotting Arizona for Convention would expose for thousands of youth a side of our church that has been heavy on words an light on (at least visible and tangible) deeds. It would teach the youth that stewardship is more than getting your money’s worth and pinching pennies, that it is using what God has provided in a way that brings life and the way of Jesus.

I see the issue of the money already paid (over $300,000, according to the Executive board) being a sticking point for many Mennonites. Could the church absorb that fee? Would Mennonites in favor of a boycott be willing to step up and help pay, which is oddly paradoxical, but I think may be the best solution? (If each person who would go to Convention otherwise pays about  $40, a small portion of the cost to attend, the money would no longer be an issue.)

In his editorial, editor Everett J. Thoma brings up a point I hadn’t considered- in the case that Convention still happens in Arizona, will boycotting Arizona morph into a boycott of Convention? What would that do to church unity?

I’m seeing a lot of calls for creative solutions, a third way. What ideas do you have?

Convention in Arizona

Posted on May 14th, 2010 by James

Mennonite Church USA is planning to hold their 2013 Convention in Phoenix, Arizona, with plans in place since last year.
With Arizona’s recent immigration law, the planning committee is now trying to figure out how that affects the Convention. Check out the article in The Mennonite here.

Rachel Swartzendruber Miller, director of convention planning, is quoted as saying, “The question we will be grappling with is, ‘Will we be helping the situation by refusing to meet in Phoenix to show that we are resisting this unjust law? Or, is God calling us to face this injustice by being a present witness of healing and hope in the Phoenix community?’”

I don’t think the right thing to do would be to boycott Arizona and find a new location, and not just because the Mennonite in me is worried about losing the downpayments already made.

A boycott would potentially hurt the government and businesses who would put pressure on the government, but it would also hurt the people working at the convention center and hotels- people who can’t necessarily afford it.

Not that boycotts can’t be or aren’t used as a successful tool in creating change. But I think they are more successful with a more defined scope – Arizona has a lot of innocent bystanders.

It sounds like they’re leaning towards the second option, and I agree. This is an opportunity to show the Mennonite Difference™ in a real way. It’s a chance to welcome the strangers in our land. Maybe do some service trips to the border, work with organizations that work with immigrants, etc.

It’s a chance to act on the 2003 Resolution on Immigration. It’s a chance to act on Iglesia Menonita Hispana’s 2008 Resolution. It’s a chance to respond to the Pacific Southwest leaders’ 2006 call to focus on immigration issues. It’s a chance to live up to our Statement on Immigration.

But honestly, I hope that this is all a moot point. Hopefully by 2013, this law will be off the books, or even better, unnecessary. Maybe true immigration reform (and the necessary economic reform to back it up) will have happened. Hey, I can dream, right?

It’s also important to note that this isn’t just a thought exercise. This will affect members of the Mennonite Church who are illegal immigrants. These members already have difficulty attending, and I think convention would suffer without their presence.

Mandela’s Failures

Posted on May 11th, 2010 by James

How far does a person need to go to be a successful revolutionary? How much must they accomplish?

These are the questions at the heart of a purported interview with Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the second wife of Nelson Mandela. Madikizela-Mandela has said she never gave this interview, and didn’t say these things, so take that into account.

The article (wrongly?) quoted Madikizela-Mandela as saying, “Mandela let us down. He agreed to a bad deal for the blacks. Economically, we are still on the outside. The economy is very much ‘white’. It has a few token blacks, but so many who gave their life in the struggle have died unrewarded.”

Whether or not Madikizela-Mandela actually said this, this quote does hold at least some truth. The economy is still mainly in the hands of the minority whites. This is the reality I saw and heard about in my (very short) time in South Africa several years back.

One pastor I talked to mentioned the places that whites go often, and the blacks can only afford to go once a year, maybe. He spoke of an economic apartheid.

I visited a sheep ranch, where colored workers lived in little shacks, while the white ranch owner lived in a beautiful home. The owner talked of how great it was that apartheid was over, but was nervous that there might be a restructuring of the economy that would take his family’s home for generations away.

Did Mandela not go far enough? Should he have pushed for further equality, pushed for economic reform and reparations? Because while great steps have been made, there is not yet equality or justice in South Africa.

And if he had pushed for more, how would the world view him? Would he have received the Nobel Peace Prize? Or would he be dismissed as a radical figure?

You have to remember that Mandela entered prison a revolutionary who was readying a guerrilla war against the government. He was a radical. But 27 years later, he left prison a changed person. He was more willing to compromise, and wanted to end apartheid peacefully.

In betting terms, he went from going for broke, to playing it safe. And while he didn’t make the gains he could have, he did make some remarkable improvements.

Should he have gone for broke? Or is a safer approach better? Do his successes make up for his failures, and how do you draw that line?

John Cleese on Extremism

Posted on April 15th, 2010 by James

Yes, that John Cleese, of Monty Python fame. Cleese does a great job of describing the concept of “the other,” and how it makes extremism a very attractive option. Definitely funny, and still very poignant and relevant, 20-some years later.

The question, I guess, is, what’s the alternative? How can I hold on to beliefs that by many standards are extreme, while not “othering” people on the opposite side of the spectrum?

I spent 3 months in the Dominican Republic- part of that time was spent with a very left-wing organization called Justicia Global. I spent a lot of time learning about how capitalism is detrimental to a society, especially the poor. This was augmented with a lot of time getting to know people who were experiencing the flip side of capitalism.

I came home as what Cleese would call an extremist, suddenly surrounded by many I now considered my other. I remember hanging out with some friends, and really ripping into one who was a devoted capitalist, and was working in some capitalist capacity – I forget what exactly. In my mind, he (and people like him) were directly responsible for the poverty of my new friends in the D.R.

I forgot that People are People are People. I made my friend out to be my other.

And it was really ineffective, honestly. I wasn’t able to ridicule him into agreement. It just made me look (and feel) like a jerk. And it was hurtful to me as well

I would draw a distinction that Cleese doesn’t make in this clip. Extreme opinions does not automatically “other” people on the other extreme. It has a tendency to, perhaps, but it is avoidable. The fact that an opinion is extreme doesn’t make it wrong (civil rights), but neither does it make it right (the Hutaree).

I’d like to think that I’ve done a better job since then of not making people others. Maybe I have. Maybe I haven’t. How are you being an extremist who doesn’t “other”?

Making trade work – The TRADE Act

Posted on March 28th, 2010 by James

As I’ve mentioned before, international trade is seriously messed up. It is negotiated between unequal parties, meaning the countries with more power end up with policy that unfairly helps them, to the detriment of the less powerful countries.

Trade agreements can also disproportionately affect people within countries. For example, they can be written to really help corporations, while hurting small farmers, for example.

Currently, there are no (or at the very least, insufficient) checks and balances on the process of negotiating trade agreements. There is no mechanism for checking back in on an old one to make sure it is working and is actually beneficial.

Those are some of the gaps that the TRADE Act hopes to fill. The Trade Reform, Accountability, Development and Employment Act has been introduced in both the House and the Senate, and has gotten cosponsors in both.

There are a few components to the bill-

  1. Calls for a check in on all trade agreements every two years. This will include an analysis of how each agreement has affected unemployment, wages, costs of goods, and paying special attention to agriculture.
  2. Requires any new treaties to include provisions on labor standards, human rights, environmental standards, food & product safety, and more. It won’t allow provisions that lessen a country’s already existing standards. It would ensure that farmers in all countries signing the agreement would get adequate returns.
  3. If these standards are not met upon review, the President has to submit a plan to renegotiate the treaty to make it satisfy the TRADE act.

So basically, it sets standards for trade agreement, calls for periodic review of each agreement, and requires the agreement to be renegotiated if it isn’t satisfactory.

I’m really excited to see this in both the House and the Senate. It shows that people are realizing that trade agreements are a powerful tool, and have been really misused. This bill cuts down on the likelihood that they can be abused by the powerful, and sets a good base level of standards that should be present.

Read the bills here (House, Senate), and I’ll try to keep track of it as it moves through the process.

People are people are people

Posted on March 26th, 2010 by James

Do you listen to This American Life? If not, you should. Seriously. I listen to the podcast while I do dishes, and it is awesome. It’s story telling at its best. 10, 15, even 50 minute stories that are interesting and awesome, and are usually pretty thought provoking.

Last week, they re-released a 2003 show called “My Pen Pal,” the story of Sarah York and Manuel Noriega’s relationship as pen pals. Noriega was the Saddam Hussein of the late 1980′s- Dictator of Panama, drug trafficker, CIA double agent, trained at School of the Americas. York was an 11-year-old from Nothern Michigan who began writing to Noriega because her dad liked his hat.

They wrote back and forth, and York soon realized something that went against everything she was hearing about Noriega. She realized he wasn’t a monster. He was a person.

Yes, he was a person who did some awful things. Some awful awful things.

But people fought York (11 years old) over the idea that he was a person. They wanted to believe he was incapable of being human. They had to believe that he was pure evil.

At the risk of invoking Godwin’s Law, let’s take a look at Hitler. Hitler did terrible things. But he was also a person, capable of love and friendship.

Now, I am in no way defending these people. They are guilty of terrible things. But I do think that every time we reduce a person to the “other” and then further on to a “monster”, we are doing ourselves and our communities a major disservice.

By demonizing the other, it becomes easier to do things that we wouldn’t do to people. It becomes not just simple, but logical, to become a monster yourself. It’s easy to say, “They’re not actually human, so I don’t need to treat them like one.”

And this isn’t just about evil dictators. It’s about the awful neighbor whose dogs won’t shut up. It’s the landlord who takes 8 months to fix a leaky sink. It’s the coworker who is annoying as all get out.

Look for the humanity in everybody, no matter their actions. To deny someone else their humanity is to give up your own.

Free Trade with Haiti harmful, admits Bill Clinton

Posted on March 22nd, 2010 by James

In the mid 1990′s, then President Bill Clinton convinced Haiti it would be a great idea to lower tariffs on rice imported from the U.S. And it was great- for U.S. rice farmers.

But Clinton recently admitted that this policy, along with other free trade/neoliberal policies, have really been detrimental to Haiti. Read more in this article at the Huffington Post.

This mirrored what happened in Mexico after NAFTA was passed (also under President Clinton). In one example, tariffs were lowered for importing pork from the US to Mexico, and the US heavily subsidized pork production in the US. Far from being a fair playing field, pork producers in Mexico were unable to compete, and went out of business. Immigration to the US skyrocketed after NAFTA was signed as more and more farmers were put out of business. (You can read a paper I wrote on NAFTA & Immigration here.)

Likewise, the number of Haitian immigrants in the U.S. has doubled since 1990.

The article above says that the damage in Haiti went even further than putting farmers out of business. This agreement, along with other factors like tons of aid, ruined the entire food production industry of Haiti. Now, with the earthquake interrupting the importation of food, they’re finding there isn’t enough food in the country to sustain them. And hunger and starvation has been a problem for years.

Free trade. “Free” sounds like it’s an excellent thing. And maybe it would be, if it was free trade between equal parties. But sadly, the powerful countries have used it to their own benefit, at the severe detriment of poorer countries. And the people who made those deals are still eating well- it’s the people they govern who suffer.

This hurt isn’t new

Posted on March 16th, 2010 by James

I’ve heard the argument multiple times that the Mennonite church is being torn apart by PinkMenno (and the LGBTQ movement in the Mennonite church in general, but I’m most familiar with PinkMenno). It’s causing conflict, creating divisions and hurt. These movements are not welcoming to ethnic Mennonite groups, who are generally even less accepting of homosexuals than the Mennonite Church in general.

I would argue, however, that these movements are not creating a new conflict. Rather, they are  bringing an existing conflict to the surface, and asking the Mennonite church to deal with it. Racism was a conflict long before the Civil Rights Movement. Sexism was a conflict long before the Women’s Rights Movement. Oppression is a conflict. This oppression, a conflict, has deep roots in the Mennonite Church. So these movements are not creating a new conflict.

And they’re not creating divisions and hurt. The division of gay vs straight and the hurt imposed by those with privilege has existed. It seems to me that these divisions that once were quiet and assumed are now more in the open.

And it particularly irks me to hear the idea that Pink Menno should stop what it is doing because it is hurting church unity and may cause people to leave the church. In other words, a decision to include LGBTQs in the Mennonite church would also be a decision to exclude people who disagree from the Mennonite Church.

The church is actively excluding gay and lesbians from full church life. Gays and lesbians did not make this choice. They want to be fully involved, to be able to use their God-given gifts for the good of the church. But the church says no.

This is completely different than if, by some miracle from above, the church decided to be welcoming to LGBTQs, and people left. Sure, they were affected by a decision the church made. But it is their choice to leave. The church did not stand at the church door and send them away.

Do I want people to leave the Mennonite Church? Absolutely not. That is not the point of these movements. The point is to make the church open to all people, regardless of their sexual orientation. How people respond is up to them.

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