Saturday, December 30, 2006

The Mezquita, Temple Beth Emeth (Ann Arbor, MI), and St Clare's Episcopal Church (Ann Arbor, MI)

In Ann Arbor, Michigan, there is a Reform Jewish synagogue and an Episcopal church on Packard Street. They share the same worship space. They even hold joint services on some occasions, like Thanksgiving. There's a rotating panel in the sanctuary; on one side is a sculpture of a cross, on the other side a scuplture of the Torah. Whichever congregation is using the space will rotate the panel to the symbol of their own faith. It really makes you feel warm and fuzzy.

Meanwhile, in Spain, there's a movement to allow Muslims to pray at the Mezquita (Spanish for mosque), which is the Cathedral of Cordoba. The Roman Catholic bishop of Cordoba, Juan Jose Asenjo, has so far refused. The Mezquita in fact started life as a mosque, and was built over two centuries, while the Moors were in Spain. Unusually, it faces North-South instead of East-West (Muslims usually pray facing Mecca, to the East). It is a masterpiece, and it is a cultural treasure.

And around the 13th century, the Moors were ejected from Spain, and the mosque was converted into a cathedral. In 1492, the last Muslim territory in Grenada, Spain, fell, ending 8 centuries of Muslim presence there. Now, about a million Spaniards out of 44 million are Muslim, mainly immigrants from North Africa.

I'm sorry to take so many swipes at the Roman church ... but face it, they deserve it. I believe the Roman church should recognize that the Mezquita is not just their property. It is a cultural treasure, and as such it is the property of the whole human race. Additionally, it was constructed by Muslim hands. They should have a share in it. If we can get Muslims and Christians to pray peacefully in the same space, we will have taken one small step down the road to peace between our two religions. At the very least, it would be good PR. But Bishop Asenjo said that the joint use of temples and places of worship would only generate confusion amongst the faithful. How stupid does he think the faithful are?

I believe the Roman Catholic Church in its current incarnation is far too arrogant to allow this. However, I invite them to make me eat my words. I will be very, very glad, and these words are not written on paper, anyway.

MSN article:

History of the Mezquita:

St Clare's:
Christians under persecution in India

[Editor: this comes from a site,, that I would rarely frequent. However, I frequently call fire and judgment on bigots, persecuting people for their religion is a form of bigotry, and new Christian converts are frequently persecuted in other countries. Here they are persecuted by fundamentalist Hindus. In many Muslim countries, Muslims are legally forbidden from converting away from Islam. Sometimes, this is upon pain of death.

In the West, despite the bigots whose statements I've previously exposed (, anyone can convert from one religion to another with no legal reprecussions. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says, "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance."]

Carol-Singers Arrested, Church Burned in India
Vishal Arora & Nirmala Carvalho
Compass Direct News

Christmas Eve services disrupted in several states.

NEW DELHI – Hindu extremists burned down a church in India on Saturday (December 23), arrested carol-singers on Christmas Eve and disrupted yuletide services in several states. One Christian suffered a fractured hand, and another lost his hearing.

Extremists burned down a thatched church in Boriguma area, Koraput district of Orissa state on Saturday night (December 23), preventing church members from celebrating Christmas there. The congregation had already decorated the building for Christmas festivities, but everything was destroyed in the fire.

Asit Kumar Mohanty, state representative of the Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC), said GCIC was investigating the incident to determine who was responsible.

On Christmas Eve, about 45 jeeps full ofDharma Sena members circled through the streets of Raipur, the capital of Chhattisgarh state, announcing that they would close down all church services held on Christmas Day.

“Dharma Sena is a Hindu fundamentalist group supported by the VHP and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party state government,” Arun Pannalal, general secretary of the Chhattisgarh Christian Forum, told Compass.

“They had already carried out several attacks in the week before Christmas,” he added. “These public threats are just another step in their campaign to rid the state of Christians.”

Carol-Singers Arrested
Later on Christmas Eve, Pastor James Ram and 10 other Christian missionaries were beaten and arrested after singing carols in Jalampur, a remote shanty town in Dhamtari, about 80 kilometers (50 miles) south of Raipur in Chhattisgarh.

Members of the Hindu extremistBajrang Dal attacked about 20 Christians who had gathered in a church in Jalampur; they stormed into the church, beat some of the Christians and destroyed hymnbooks and Bibles.

Five Christians were injured in the attack; one suffered a loss of hearing due to a blow to his head, while a Bible school student’s hand was fractured, according to a GCIC report.

“The missionaries were caught bribing poor Hindus in a slum colony to convert to Christianity,” theTimes of India reported, quoting Bharat Singh, superintendent of police in Dhamtari. “They were promising people economic help and jobs in exchange for conversion.”

Pannalal told Compass that the charges of forced conversion were false: “TheBajrang Dal members were simply annoyed by the chanting of Christmas carols.”

Ram was released by about 10:30 p.m. on Christmas Eve, and the other believers were released by 6:30 p.m. on Christmas Day.

The arrests have heightened communal tension in the Dhamtari area; in the past few days, Dharma Sena andBajrang Dal members have been out patrolling the streets, according to Pannalal.

Prayer Service Disrupted
Hindu extremists also prevented tribal Christians in Tilonda village, Thane district of Maharashtra state, from celebrating a joint Christmas prayer service on Christmas Eve.

Over 400 Christians had gathered for the event.

Before the service could begin, however, a large mob from the localVanvasi Kalyan Parishad barged into the assembly, shouting slogans against Christianity and driving the Christians away from the prayer hall.

Fearing further violence, church officials canceled the event.

According to Dr. Abraham Mathai, vice-chair of the Maharashtra State Minorities Commission, there were three other incidents of violence against tribal Christians in Thane district in the week before Christmas.

Mathai had written to local police asking for protection for the Christmas Eve prayer service.

“The police were present, but they did nothing when the extremists arrived,” Mathai said.

‘Reconverted’ to Hinduism
The Hindu extremist groupDharam Jagran Samiti (DJS or Society for Religious Revival) yesterday (December 26) claimed it had “reconverted a large number of Christians” in Agra district of the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, Asian News International reported.

“Those Hindus who had converted to Christianity, or those who were lured into joining it by Christian missionaries, were called here to return back to the Hindu fold with respect and on equal terms,” said Gajeshwar Singh, regional chief of the DJS.

On December 23, police asked the Good Shepherd Community Church (GSCC) in Agroha, Hisar district, Haryana state not to celebrate Christmas.

“Some people, seemingly belonging to theBajrang Dal and VHP, lodged a complaint in the Agroha police station alleging that the curch was converting Hindus,” the Rev. Reginald Howell of the GSCC told Compass.

He said the complaint was filed when the church members were singing Christmas carols in the church.

Following the compaint, the police summoned seven Christians, including the pastor of the church, identified only as Romi, and interrogated them. They were released after the village head requested the police.

“The Christians were called to the police station against on December 24 and ordered not to conduct any service on Christmas,” Howell said. “However, after representatives of the Christian Legal Association of India intervened, the police allowed the church to celebrate Christmas,” he added.

Police Prevention
In the only positive report, officials prevented an anti-Christian rally in Dangs, Gujarat, on Christmas Day, heading off further violence.

The All India Christian Council (AICC) has thanked the chief minister of Gujarat state, Narendra Modi, for preventing anti-Christian violence in Dangs district during Christmas.

AICC Joint Secretary Samson Christian said the heads of both Dangs and Bhavnagar districts refused permission to theVishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) and theRashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh to hold a massive rally in the region on Christmas day.

The rally was announced after eight statues of local gods were desecrated by unknown persons on December 14. Hindu extremists blamed Christians for the sacrilege and announced plans to hold a rally in the area on December 25.

Christians asked local authorities to ban the event, since previous rallies in the area at Christmas time have resulted in violent attacks. In a rally held during Christmas week 1998, Hindu extremists destroyed several Christian churches and institutions and attacked many individuals.

“Tight police security was maintained in the Christian-dominated areas, particularly the tribal district of the Dangs, which has a history of Hindu-Christian clashes during Christmas celebrations,”The Hindu daily newspaper reported.

Copyright 2006 Compass Direct News
Saddam Hussein executed

Prayers for his victims as well as for his soul.

IF the death penalty is justifiable, then Saddam surely deserved to die. I myself find it hard to protest his execution; he was a mass murderer, and his guilt was not in question. However, many have condemned the death penalty even for Saddam, and I commend them. I recognize that the Episcopal Church, and many other churches, has condemned the death penalty, that many countries have abolished it, and that for religious and ethical reasons I normally oppose it. I am not perfect, and if the crimes are heinous enough, I usually don't protest too much.

That having been said, let us not forget those who abetted Saddam. As Robert Fisk says,

'Who encouraged Saddam to invade Iran in 1980, which was the greatest war crime he has committed for it led to the deaths of a million and a half souls? And who sold him the components for the chemical weapons with which he drenched Iran and the Kurds? We did. No wonder the Americans, who controlled Saddam's weird trial, forbad any mention of this, his most obscene atrocity, in the charges against him. Could he not have been handed over to the Iranians for sentencing for this massive war crime? Of course not. Because that would also expose our culpability.'

'But that is not how the Arab world will see him. At first, those who suffered from Saddam's cruelty will welcome his execution. Hundreds wanted to pull the hangman's lever. So will many other Kurds and Shia outside Iraq welcome his end. But they - and millions of other Muslims - will remember how he was informed of his death sentence at the dawn of the Eid al-Adha feast, which recalls the would-be sacrifice by Abraham, of his son, a commemoration which even the ghastly Saddam cynically used to celebrate by releasing prisoners from his jails. "Handed over to the Iraqi authorities," he may have been before his death. But his execution will go down - correctly - as an American affair and time will add its false but lasting gloss to all this - that the West destroyed an Arab leader who no longer obeyed his orders from Washington, that, for all his wrongdoing (and this will be the terrible get-out for Arab historians, this shaving away of his crimes) Saddam died a "martyr" to the will of the new "Crusaders".'

A quote from the sci-fi series Babylon 5 is appropriate; this goes for Saddam as well as for the American government officials who abetted his murderous reign:

Elric: "Well take this for what little it will profit you. As I look at you, Ambassador Mollari, I see a great hand reaching out of the stars. The hand is your hand. And I hear sounds. The sounds of billions of people calling your name."

Londo (eagerly): "My followers?"

Elric: "Your victims."

Friday, December 29, 2006

Doing the right thing in business: Cox Enterprises finds new employer for left-behind workers
By Marc Gunther

[Editor: posted originally on CNN Money. "Left-behind workers" not to be confused with the Left Behind series of novels - don't get me started on their faulty theology.]

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- Here's an advertisement that is not often seen in the classifieds:

Wanted: New employer for 300-plus experienced workers. Production facility included. If your company has a need to expand operations in the near future, we have the perfect opportunity for you.

Cox Target Media, a division of privately held media giant Cox Enterprises, took out that ad after the company decided to close a factory in Elm City, North Carolina. "We want to preserve the jobs for our North Carolina employees," the ad went on to say, "and we're willing to be creative to make this happen."

You may not know Cox Target Media, but chances are that you know its main product, a blue envelope filled with coupons mailed out once a month under the Valpak brand. This year, the company will stuff more than 18 billion offers from advertisers into more than 500 million envelopes and then mail them to 45 million households in the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico.

Yes, it's a big operation. And despite what you've read about the decline of print media, it's doing fine - Cox is leaving Elm City because it plans to consolidate its printing and mailing operations in a new, high-tech facility in Florida, at a cost of about $200 million.

Before we go on with the Valpak story, a bit of context: There's lots of debate about layoffs and globalization, as jobs move from one place to another or one industry to another. The economist Joseph Schumpeter famously called this "creative destruction," and it can't be stopped. But that doesn't mean companies cannot take responsibility for people who are left behind when dislocations occur. They can.

That's what Cox Target Media did. One of Cox Enterprises' values is that "our employees are our most important resource." Every company says that. But Cox acted on it, at least in this instance.

"We know all these people," explained Bill Disbrow, president and CEO of Cox Target Media. "Through no fault of their own, we had come up with what we thought was a much better way to run our business, for our customers and our shareholders. Yet you had this group of folks up there who had done a great job for us for a long time.... We at least had to make the best effort we possibly could."

When Cox decided to close down the Elm City plant in 2004, it employed about 440 people there. Most were not going to move to Florida; in any event, there wouldn't be jobs for all of them because the new automated plant needs fewer workers.

So Disbrow assigned a vice president to find a buyer for the Elm City plant. Cox took out ads, sent out sales brochures to about 200 firms and spread the word through the Winterberry Group, a consulting firm, and Petsky Prunier, an investment bank that specializes in direct marketing.

The consultants found IWCO Direct, a direct mail company based in Chanhassen, Minnesota. It looked at first like the two firms might be out of sync. "They needed the plant earlier than we wanted to get rid of it," Disbrow said. But earlier this year, they reached an agreement.

Elm City's workers will remain employed by Cox until next fall when most will go to work for IWCO Direct. None are guaranteed jobs, but both companies say their skills are a big reason why IWCO made the deal. IWCO says it will invest $18.9 million in the plant, and add another 100 jobs. The buyer is getting about $750,000 in state and county aid.

I asked Disbrow if there was a business reason why Cox took the trouble to save 400 jobs. "As much as anything," he told me, "it's about the folks who are staying. They can see how we treat people. And they are going to be with us long-term."

Long-term thinking may be a key to this story. Atlanta-based Cox Enterprises is 108 years old. (The founder was James M. Cox, a reporter who purchased the Dayton Evening News, became Ohio's governor and the 1920 Democratic presidential nominee.)

As a privately-held firm, Cox doesn't have to chase quarterly earnings; it can invest for the future. It has adapted over the years to new technologies - radio, TV and then cable, where its division had a reputation for being more customer-friendly than other operators. The parent company offers employees a pension plan, a 401-k plan and health insurance. It tries to be green as well, giving preferential parking at its headquarters to hybrid cars and encouraging executives to buy fuel-efficient vehicles.

Here's what a friend of mine who has worked for Cox Newspapers for 22 years told me, via e-mail, when I asked him about the company:

Cox has been a place that values its employees, cares about our individual career aspirations and looks after our families. At a time when many newspapers around the country are slashing reporting staffs - in the newsroom and in bureaus - the emphasis at Cox is on turning to reporters to help find new ways to serve our readers, through the Internet, for example....The message from Cox is: that's better for the company over the long run than threatening to put seasoned reporters out on the street.
I'm ordinarily no fan of junk mail. But next time one of those blue Valpak envelopes arrives at my door, I'm going to open it up and see what's inside.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Nolbert Kunonga - an update

COPYRIGHT 2006 Claretian Publications, posted 11/01/06

HARARE, Zimbabwe -- Anglicans in the capital of Zimbabwe were unable to attend Sunday Eucharist on September 10 due to the wedding anniversary of their bishop, Nolbert Kunonga. To encourage attendance at his anniversary party, Kunonga ordered all parishes closed and forbade any religious services, including those that do not require a priest. In addition the bishop asked for donations of the U.S. equivalent of $2,000 from parishes and $20 from parishioners.

According to the Associated Press, Kunonga is no stranger to controversy. He has been accused of running the Anglican Church of Zimbabwe as a branch of President Robert Mugabe's ruling party, filling the local hierarchy with his own cronies.

Previous post:

[Editorial comments: If this guy gets struck by lightning, I won't complain. I will, however, pray for his soul.]
Racial Reconciliation in Religion
From Atlanta Journal-Constitution, by Marcus K Garner
Credit to, of all people, Canon Kendal Harmon at Titus 1:9 for posting

The Rev. Walter Kimbrough stretched his hand skyward Sunday morning as he asked his congregation a rhetorical question: "How many of you have been in a car with a navigation system?"

On cue, a multitude of hands shot up, perhaps an indication of the affluence of this north Fulton church.

As the African-American minister looked out over the congregation of Mount Pisgah United Methodist Church, few of the white faces he saw reflected his own.

Miles away from the predominantly black Cascade United Methodist Church, where Kimbrough had been pastor for 26 years and retired six months ago, the southwest Atlanta icon's towering 6-foot-5-inch frame and even bigger personality was helping to lead a new flock — and possibly bringing more black members into the fold.

"It's so many white people here, it was comforting to see and hear him speak," said Nancy Waitathu, a black woman recently relocated to Alpharetta who attended Mount Pisgah for only her second time on Christmas Eve morning.

"But what's more important is the word that he delivered. That's what I came for, and he spoke it so well."

Since June, when Kimbrough left Cascade and joined Mount Pisgah's ministerial staff as a part-time preaching assistant, senior pastor the Rev. Allen Hunt said he has noticed more black faces joining.

Hunt says minority recruitment is not the reason Kimbrough is here.

"Walter is not here because he's African-American," Hunt said. "He's here because he's an excellent leader."

Mount Pisgah, with 7,000 members, is located on a sprawling campus that includes a school. It is on Nesbit Ferry Road near the border connecting Alpharetta and the new city of Johns Creek.

Lynetta Jobe, a black woman from Roswell who has attended Mount Pisgah services for a year without joining the church, said she's recognized an uptick in black attendance that began late this summer. But she credited much of that to the church's friendly spirit.

"It's got a very loving environment to be such a huge church," Jobe said. "The fact that he's there just makes things even better."

In a time when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s suggestion that Sunday morning is "the most segregated hour of Christian America" still holds true after 50 years, Mount Pisgah has found a way — whether by design or by default — to shift that paradigm.

Church makeup

The church doesn't collect racial information on new members, but Hunt estimates the breakdown at 5 percent black, 5 percent Hispanic and 2 percent Asian, with the remaining majority being white.

Even though the surrounding communities of Alpharetta, Sandy Springs and Roswell are majority white, each city has more minority residents than the church does, according to U.S. census data.

Hunt says the church is making baby steps toward a more diverse membership, and Kimbrough may be part of the reason for that.

Although Hunt rejects the idea that the 65-year-old Kimbrough was lured from retirement to attract more minority members to the Johns Creek church, Hunt said he welcomes any increase in diversity that Kimbrough garners.

"It helps us to be the body of Christ that represents the world and represents the population of the area that we're in," Hunt said.

The church warmly welcomed Kimbrough and his wife, Marjorie, when they first joined on June 25.

Judy Doyle, a longtime church member who lives in Roswell, has yet to meet Kimbrough in person, but said his warming charisma from the pulpit easily won over the church.

"You feel like you know him," she said. "It feels like he's talking directly to you when he's speaking from the pulpit."

His friendly preaching style often includes humor. He began his June 25 sermon by poking fun at perceived cultural differences between black and white churches.

It's OK to clap and call out during the service, he added. "You don't have to hold your hands."

Part-time work

After serving for more than two decades as the leader of one of the largest African-American United Methodist Churches in the country, Kimbrough is warming to the role of assistant to the pastor in a suburban church.

"I want to be able to help Pastor Hunt achieve his goal of reaching as many souls as possible," said Kimbrough, an Atlanta native.

At Mount Pisgah, he is responsible for covering a Sunday every four to six weeks, preaching the three sermons of the day. On other Sundays, he is in demand as a visiting preacher at other churches in Atlanta and across the country.

With five years left before a United Methodist Church-mandated retirement, Kimbrough said he wanted to leave under his own terms, and be able to pursue his own ministerial endeavors without being tied to any church.

"[Hunt] asked me, and after some thinking, I accepted, and I told him, 'I only want to be part time,' " Kimbrough said.

Hunt said he could think of many more roles that Kimbrough could take on at the church, but respects Kimbrough's wish to play a limited role.

Creating disciples

Cascade began almost 80 years ago as an all-white church of fewer than 100. The first black family joined in the early 1970s, and Kimbrough took over later, growing the membership to more than 7,000 over 26 years.

He said he doesn't have those expectations for himself now, and that his primary task is to help Hunt.

"I'm interested in helping him grow his vision and make disciples of Jesus Christ," Kimbrough said.

At Mount Pisgah, members have taken advantage of the chance to reach across color lines. The first funeral Kimbrough presided over at Mount Pisgah came not from Hunt's direction, but from a request of the family of the deceased white man.

"They requested this black preacher to do the funeral. I said, 'Wow,' " Kimbrough said. "Does it mean the kingdom has come? No, it does not. But it means we're moving in the right direction."

Asian Heroes: Thich Nhat Hanh
(another repost from Time)

By Pankaj Mishra
On June 11, 1963, a Buddhist monk called Thich Quang Duc set himself on fire in a Saigon street in protest against the repressive, U.S.-backed regime in South Vietnam. Pictures of the monk in serene meditation as flames devoured his body became the first of the images of the long Vietnam War to trouble the world's conscience. Over the next few years more than 30 other monks gave up their lives in similar protests against a senseless and brutal war.

So great and prolonged was the suffering in Indochina in those years that the Buddhist attempt to alleviate it may seem a distant memory. But Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese monk and teacher whose philosophy of "engaged Buddhism" inspired these efforts, is still with us. One of the most important religious thinkers and activists of our time, Nhat Hanh understood, from his own experience, why popular secular ideologies and movements—nationalism, fascism, communism and colonialism—unleashed the unprecedented violence of the 20th century. His education began early. Few battlefields were as bloody as Vietnam, where France and then the U.S. fought nationalists and communists for more than three decades. Though part of a quietist tradition, Nhat Hanh couldn't help being drawn into the conflicts around him. He could see how urgent it was to assert the buddhistic importance of compassion in a culture growing increasingly violent. War, he believed, could be ended only by extinguishing the emotions—fear, anger, contempt, vengefulness—that fueled it.

In 1965, after yet another Buddhist self-immolation, Nhat Hanh wrote to the American civil-rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. that "the monks who burned themselves did not aim at the death of the oppressors, but only at a change in their policy. Their enemies are not man. They are intolerance, fanaticism, dictatorship, cupidity, hatred and discrimination, which lie within the heart of man." Nhat Hanh led King, and, by extension, American public sentiment, to oppose the fighting in Vietnam. During the late 1960s, while living in the U.S. in exile, Nhat Hanh became one of the icons of the antiwar movement. His essays were published in such leading periodicals as the New York Review of Books, and his poems were sung, like songs of protest, to guitar accompaniment at college campuses. It's no exaggeration to say that Nhat Hanh helped force Washington's eventual withdrawal from Vietnam.

Nhat Hanh, now 80 years old and living in a monastery in France, has played an important role in the transmission of an Asian spiritual tradition to the modern, largely secular West. "Do not," he has written, "be bound to any doctrine, theory or ideology, even Buddhist ones. All systems of thought are guiding means, not absolute truth." As political leaders from the U.S. to Iran loudly ask their people to join new ideological battles, threatening to make this century even more violent than the last, we would all do well to heed the wisdom of Thich Nhat Hanh.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Action Alert follow-up: alert your Congressperson re lead

This is a follow-up to my previous alert on the EPA considering the removal of lead from the pollutants list ( Environmental Action is asking every member of Congress to contact the EPA about this proposed insanity. Remember, the only reason why lead levels are so low today is because we've banned it for 30 years. The restrictions should not be eased, let alone removed.

In economics, an externality is a side effect or consequence that affects other parties without this being reflected in the price of the good or service sold. Externalities can be positive or negative - I've been told that the aroma of chocolate in Hershey, Pennsylvania (home to Hershey's, the chocolate company) is a major positive externality. However, businesses often try to externalize costs like pollution, waste cleanup, and healthcare costs. They have incentive to do so, because they're primarily responsible to their shareholders.

Many aspects of capitalism are good, but NOT all - we would do well to remember that. And we would do well to stop the EPA from removing lead from their toxins list. If the allegations of industry lobbying are true, the affected companies must stop whining and comply with regulations. They must not be allowed to impose their costs on the rest of us, because it is the most disadvantaged among us who will bear the brunt of those costs - and next in line will probably be their own workers.

Environmental Action link:
Capitalism at it's finest - Solar power lights up low-income India, reposted from CNN Money
By Snigdha Sen

(Editor: This relates to my previous post highlighting Muhammad Yunus and Grameen Bank, a microcredit institution he started to make small loans to poor Bangladeshis, using social networks as collateral for the loans:

This is another example of creatively getting credit to poor people, plus an emerging technology is being used. This raises the question: should we consider access to credit at reasonable cost to be a human right? We generally believe that education and healthcare are human rights because they are fundamental to economic productivity. Isn't access to credit also fundamental to productivity? In a capitalist society, isn't it a fundamental need for a small business? And yet, there are no shortage of predatory lenders - perhaps the industry shall receive one of my Millstone Awards.)

The rose pickers of one village outside Bangalore, India, typically got up before the sun, grabbed a basket with one hand and a lamp with the other, and hurried to the fields so they could bring their wares to market in time for the dawn crowds.

These were not the most obvious customers for Harish Hande, a 37-year-old engineer with a dream of selling solar power, not least because they seemed unable to pay for it. But Hande and his solar energy company, Selco India, realized that the rose pickers were prime candidates for solar-powered headlamps and partnered with local banks to help the workers get loans to buy them. Wearing the charged lamps in the predawn darkness, the pickers can work with both hands; they've doubled their productivity and boosted their take-home pay and now have enough income to start paying down the headlamp loans.

That's just one of the opportunities Selco has brought to the southern state of Karnataka. Though foreign institutional investment in India has increased 385 percent to $9.7 billion during the past five years, according to the Confederation of Indian Industry, many workers are still struggling - and Hande, who was inspired to form Selco in 1995 while studying energy engineering at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, believed solar power could help.

The Bangalore company has installed 65,000 solar lighting systems since its launch and had sales of $3 million in its latest fiscal year, even though two-thirds of its customers survive on less than $4 a day.

Selco's customers range from poor daily-wage laborers to institutions like schools and seminaries. All buy solar panels at the same rate: about $450 for a 40-watt system that can light several 7-watt bulbs for four hours between charges.

To make it work, Selco had to persuade rural banks to lend hundreds of dollars to people, like the rose pickers, who have almost no money - a tough sell. "Rural people don't pay, I was told," Hande recalls. Now fewer than 10 percent of his customers default, and Indian lenders have about $10 million available to rural customers for solar financing.

Tapping an undesirable market
Despite recent spikes in the price of solar gear that have threatened the company's business model, Selco India continues to make ambitious moves to reach poor communities. Last year it became the exclusive technology partner of Sewa Bank, which caters to low-income female entrepreneurs. It plans to become a one-stop energy shop providing services such as solar heating and cooking options to bank members.

Here are some lessons from the company's experience in tapping a market that many believed to be untappable.

1. Teach customers. Company employees went door-to-door listening to the needs of potential customers and explaining how a few hours of extra light after sundown could lead to more earnings, fewer fumes from gas lamps, and better study time for kids.

Selco also toiled for three years to convince banks that solar electricity would empower borrowers economically and help them repay their loans. Hande estimates that the company spent close to $350,000 on such outreach to customers and banks. Among the things Selco India learned in the process: Some people could promise to put away 10 rupees a day (about 22 cents) to repay their loans, but not 300 rupees a month. "We were forced to innovate on financial transactions," Hande says.

2. Create a win-win. Those flexible financial structures ignited the entrepreneurial spirit in people like R. Vijaya Kumar, who drives a motorized three-wheel auto rickshaw. He uses the solar panel above his 15-foot-square house on the outskirts of Bangalore to charge 30 small batteries that he lends to street vendors for 15 rupees per battery per night.

Kumar's battery rental business has boosted his monthly income from 4,500 rupees to 13,000, leaving him with an extra 4,500 rupees after his loan payment. Selco India has given birth to 16 such entrepreneurs, who work with about 750 street hawkers, and the resulting excitement has driven demand for its products.

3. Sell experiences. Hande was determined not to simply sell the promise of solar energy - he wanted Selco India to communicate with customers and make sure the equipment worked. Company co-founder Neville Williams, who is now chairman of Maryland-based Standard Solar, says the process taught him the value of selling a branded experience, including product, installation, and follow-up services. "We are bringing back the knowledge we gained in India to the United States," he says.

The problem-solving spirit that Hande built into Selco India could be key: High European demand for solar equipment has boosted the cost of modules in India by nearly 37 percent during the past 12 months and dragged the company to a $67,000 loss in its latest fiscal year. Still, Hande remains optimistic that if the company can keep serving customers in unique ways, Selco will manage to keep the lights on.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Back to fire and judgment: the monthly Millstone Awards
Millstone Award for January: Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria

Matthew 18:6 (NRSV): "If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea."

As might be obvious, one major purpose of this blog is to call fire and judgment on violators of human rights and etc. Therefore, inspired by Playboy, I intend to write a monthly exposé on a person or group who has violated human rights etc, giving priority to people of faith.

And of course, an easy target is Peter Akinola of the Church of Nigeria. Akinola has been excoriated on this blog before, for supporting a bill that would criminalize any form of advocacy on by or on behalf of the LGBT community in Nigeria. More recently, an article was posted in the New York Times that gives further insight into Akinola's mind:

'The way he tells the story, the first and only time Archbishop Peter J. Akinola knowingly shook a gay person’s hand, he sprang backward the moment he realized what he had done.

Archbishop Akinola, the conservative leader of Nigeria’s Anglican Church who has emerged at the center of a schism over homosexuality in the global Anglican Communion, re-enacted the scene from behind his desk Tuesday, shaking his head in wonder and horror.

“This man came up to me after a service, in New York I think, and said, ‘Oh, good to see you bishop, this is my partner of many years,’ ” he recalled. “I said, ‘Oh!’ I jumped back.”'

I believe that the person in question is Louie Crew, a long-time Episcopalian, advocate for LGBT rights in our church, and partnered for several decades with Ernest. In an article for The Witness, he elaborates on the incident:

'In July 2002, I was a lector at the Enthronment of Peter Akinola (Archbishop of the Anglican Province of Nigeria)at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York. Mark Sisk (Bishop of New York) invited Ernest and me, among many others, to his home to meet the archbishop at a reception afterward. The archbishop dashed to the other side of the room when I introduced him to Ernest at the punch bowl. Later in the reception Cathy Roskam (Bishop Suffragan of New York) called me over to engage the archbishop in conversation with me. Looking like a deer in headlights, he summoned an aide across the room and abruptly ended the conversation. Ernest had watched the latter scene from the doorway. "What did you say to him that put him into a panic?" he asked. "Nothing. He does not know you and me and he wants to keep it that way. Otherwise, he might have to feed my sheep."'

Based on this incident, I argue that Archbishop Akinola is engaging in a form of willful blindness. The definition of the legal theory of willful blindness as given by Wikipedia is as follows:

'Willful blindness is a term used in law to describe a situation in which an individual seeks to avoid civil or criminal liability for a wrongful act by intentionally putting himself in a position where he will be unaware of facts which would render him liable. For example, in a number of cases, persons transporting packages containing illegal drugs have asserted that they never asked what the contents of the packages were, and therefore lacked the requisite intent to break the law. Such defenses have not succeeded, as courts have been quick to determine that the defendant should have known what was in the package, and exercised criminal recklessness by failing to find out before delivering it.'

All Christians know that Jesus told us to love your neighbor as yourself. However, one does not love one's neighbor in a vacuum. You have to know someone before you love them. If they are from a heavily stigmatized group, as the Samaritan that Jesus used as an example of "neighbor" was, you have to get to know them past the stereotypes that you've learned.

Akinola is happy to contribute to the stigmatization of the LGBT community: "I cannot think of how a man in his senses would be having a sexual relationship with another man. Even in the world of animals, dogs, cows, lions, we don't hear of such things." Asked whether consecrating a bishop in the US violated the rules of the Anglican Communion (it most certainly does), he replied that he was merely sending a bishop to serve Anglicans where there is no church to provide one - the Episcopal Church isn't a church in his eyes. He has apparently tried to blame Islam for some of his actions: "The church is in the midst of Islam. Should the church in this country begin to teach that it is appropriate, that it is right to have same sex unions and all that, the church will simply die.”

And yet, he deliberately refuses to engage with the people who he thinks are violating God's commands. He runs from them, so that he won't have to feed their sheep. He treats children of God like an infestation, and tries to dehumanize them.

When the Syro-Phoenecian woman challenged Jesus, he came to see that she was just as much a child of God as anyone else. Akinola could have done the same with Louie Crew, but he willfully declined. Jesus deliberately touched and healed women with conditions that made them ceremonially unclean; he touched and healed lepers, which made him ceremonially unclean and put him at an actual health risk. Akinola could have followed Jesus' example, and stayed to talk to Louie. He chose to dehumanize Louie by running. He lost the opportunity that God gave him to engage with Louie as a real human being, with real needs.

If he gets another opportunity, I pray he takes it. If he does not, I don't think it will go very well for him on the Day of Judgment. Willful ignorance didn't work for Ken Lay in the Enron trial.

But whatever happens on the Day of Judgment, that day isn't now. Until then, we must break down stereotypes by educating those who have never met a gay person, or a person of color, or a person of whatever group. And we must pray for and challenge people like Peter Akinola.

Credit to Father Jake's blog for citing both articles.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Christmas and the Incarnation

A fellow Episcopalian, the Rev Elizabeth Kaeton ( "can’t imagine claiming to be a follower of Jesus without belief in the Incarnation." The orthodox doctrine of the Incarnation, which is detailed at Wikipedia:

"Briefly, it is the belief that the Second Person of the Christian Godhead, also known as the Son or the Logos (Word), "became flesh" when he was miraculously conceived in the womb of the Virgin Mary. In the Incarnation, the divine nature of the Son was perfectly united with human nature in one divine Person. This person, Jesus Christ, was both truly God and truly man. The incarnation is commemorated and celebrated each year at the Feast of the Incarnation, also known as Annunciation."

Many Episcopalians do not hold strictly to the orthodox definition. However, I have a strong rationalist streak, and I confess I am pretty agnostic as to the orthodox versions of Incarnation and the Resurrection. In this, I am definitely in the minority among Christians. Rev Kaeton said in her blog that she thinks belief in the Atonement is optional, but belief in the Incarnation and Resurrection is not. Most Episcopalians likely believe in all three doctrines in some form. Perhaps I am right, perhaps I am wrong, perhaps I will be struck by lightning after I post this. Regardless of what happens to me, I would like to offer us a complementary take on the Incarnation.

Elie Weisel is a Jewish humanitarian and Holocaust survivor. He tells, in his book Night, of an insurrection in a concentration camp that was put down. The next day, the guards took several people out to be hung on a gallows, two men and one child. The adults died fairly quickly, but the child was light, and it took him half an hour to choke to death. The guards forced the prisoners to march by the gallows.

"For God's sake, where is God? Where is He?" asks the prisoner behind Wiesel. Wiesel found himself unable to answer. The adults were dead, their tongues hanging out, but the child was still struggling.

And then, Wiesel heard a voice within him answer the other prisoner, "Where is God? Here he is, hanging on the gallows..."

And so, perhaps it doesn't matter if Jesus wasn't conceived by the Holy Spirit in the Virgin's womb, if he was not resuscitated after three days, or even if he was not God incarnate. What matters is that when Jesus was crucified, somehow, God too was crucified. When Oscar Romero was assasinated, God was killed with him. When children die in Africa of starvation, God dies of starvation. Conversely, when we feed someone who is hungry, we do it to God. When we give aid to one who is sick, we do it to God. When we visit one who is in prison, we do it to Jesus, who deliberately identified himself with "the least of these." The Incarnation is a Mystery ... and whatever that Mystery contains, we Christians all see the definitive revelation of God in the person of Jesus Christ, even if we disagree on the specifics.

On the Mystery of the Incarnation, by Denise Levertov:

It's when we face for a moment
the worst our kind can do, and shudder to know
the taint in our own selves, that awe
cracks the mind's shell and enters the heart:
not to a flower, not to a dolphin,
to no innocent form
but to this creature vainly sure
it and no other is god-like, God
(out of compassion for our ugly
failure to evolve) entrusts,
as guest, as brother,
the Word.

PS. If I do get struck by lightning, we'll know I was wrong on this one.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Asian Heroes: Eugenia Apostol & Letty Jimenez-Magansoe
Reposted from Time Magazine

Eugenia Apostol was editing a women's magazine in 1983 when the popular opposition figure Benigno Aquino Jr. was gunned down on the tarmac of Manila's airport. Most Filipinos blamed the dictator Ferdinand Marcos and his wife Imelda for the killing. Two million people showed up for Aquino's funeral, but the event was ignored by the media. The following day, the top headline of a leading Manila daily was: TWO KILLED BY LIGHTNING.

Apostol fumed. Within days she was printing a tabloid version of her glossy Mr. & Ms. called Mr. & Ms. Special Edition. It had 16 pages of photographs showing Aquino's body, the multitudes that came to view it, and the massive funeral parade that wound through the streets of Manila for almost 12 hours. The first run was some half a million copies, yet it could not satisfy demand. In the coming months, as momentum built for the People Power revolution that would topple Marcos three years later, Apostol turned the tabloid into a weekly endeavor, putting it out from a raggedy office that, for security reasons, didn't even have the publication's name on the door.

The obvious choice as editor of Mr. & Ms. Special Edition was Apostol's friend Letty Jimenez-Magsanoc, the feisty former boss of a leading Sunday magazine. Two years earlier, Magsanoc had written a tongue-in-cheek story on Marcos' third inauguration as President. Marcos had sought to fend off criticism of his rule by staging a faux election. His "victory" was celebrated in a sumptuous, if surreal, ceremony, in which a choir sang Handel's Messiah. Magsanoc led off with a line from Handel: "And he shall reign forever and ever." Marcos thought that blasphemous and got her fired.

Apostol, now 81, and Magsanoc, in her mid-60s, were not firebrands in their younger days. Both were veterans of the lipstick beat, writing for the lifestyle sections of newspapers. But the assassination of Aquino, which sparked People Power, galvanized Apostol and Magsanoc to break the local media's complicit silence surrounding Marcos' oppressive rule. In late 1985 they phased out Mr. & Ms. Special Edition and launched the Philippine Daily Inquirer, trailblazing a brand of hard-hitting, mischievous, in-your-face reporting that tested the limits of a dictator's tolerance and helped Filipinos win their freedom. "In three months," says Apostol, "the Inquirer had not only helped to oust Marcos, it was also making money." Today, the Inquirer is the country's largest newspaper and, while sometimes criticized for sensationalism, it has been unflinching in its coverage of government and the Philippines' uneasy transition to democracy.

Though Marcos is gone, the Philippine press is once again under the gun. After Iraq, the Philippines is the most dangerous country for reporters—at least 13 have been killed in the past two years. A spate of lawsuits, including libel cases filed against 43 journalists by the husband of embattled President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, is casting a chill on the media. But Filipino reporters remain defiant, inspired by the example of Eugenia Apostol and Letty Jimenez-Magsanoc—two women who set the template for courageous journalism for a nation still very much in need of it.

Sheila Coronel heads Columbia University's Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism
Nativity scenes from Asian artists

Thanks to Susan Russell's blog (, I stumbled across a site containing Christian art by Asian artists. In keeping with this blog's theme of racial reconciliation (it's not all fire and judgment, I swear!) I thought I would share some Nativity scenes.

He Qi, China

Hiroshi Tabata, Japan

Andi Harisman, Indonesia

Blessings and peace on everyone this Christmas

Asian Christian Art Association
Islam is about tolerance - 'not rigid views' - Straits Times, Singapore
by Zakir Hussain

The rigid way some Muslims around the world interpret Islam worries American Msulim scholar Sherman Jackson. Such an approach gives no room for differences of opinion and belief.

This is a threat to the tolerance that is inherent in Islam, said Professor Jackson, a leading scholar of Islam at the University of Michigan.

Such intolerance also goes against classical Islamic traditions, he added.

But this blinkered view is a temporary hiccup, as Muslims around the world increasingly seek to reconcile Islamic traditions with the realities of the modern world.

They are not without any references.

Prof Jackson seeks the practices of early Muslim theologians as a model.

These scholars had borrowed from Greek and Persian authors. Also, Muslim legal systems had in the past allowed Jews and Christians to practice their own religious laws.

"Classical Islamic tradition offers a model of tolerance and can contribute to pluralism and religious co-existence in the modern world," he told reporters ahead of a public lecture on diversity and tolerance in Islam at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts last night.

Prof Jackson, a Muslim, is on a 4-day visit here. [here = in Singapore: me]

The Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis) and the Muslim Converts Association of Singapore had invited him as a speaker for their series on contemporary Muslim community with new trends and critical views in Islamic thinking.

National University of Singapore sociologist Syed Faris Alatas agreed with Prof Jackson's call that Muslims should revisit their history for models of tolerance and progress.

Intellectual and academic freedoms in many Muslim countries today are a far cry from those in the past, he said, thereby hindering their development because good ideas are controlled.

Prof Jackson also noted that historically, Muslim communities were able to differentiate between the moral and political spheres.

When the state morally disagreed with a group of people, it did not bar them from expressing their views, he said. "Now, if people think something is morally wrong, they believe they have a right to deny others that practice."

Such intolerance, he said, draws on a modern desire to homogenize society in contrast to the history of pluralism in Islam.

Worse, such views have fanned fears about Islam among non-Muslims, he added.

These fears have grown since the Sept 11 terror attacks in the United States in 2001.

However, Prof Jackson is confident such fears will pass, just as resentment against African-Americans getting equal rights in the 1960s was overcome.

"I am confident that ultimately, fair-mindedness will prevail," he said.

Editorial comments: Having read a couple of other books by liberal Muslims, many of them educated in the West, I believe that Professor Jackson is right to argue that Islam has the memes for pluralism and tolerance.

Non-Muslims should take heed of my other post today (Israel, tear down this wall: ++Rowan). We should get Israel to withdraw to the Green Line and remove all settlements. We should withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan as soon as reasonably possible. We should stop supporting dictators in Muslim countries. If we cease to threaten the freedom of Muslims, the tolerance memes in Islam will reassert themselves.

I am in no way asserting that Islam is some sort of ideal religion. At present, for example, it is illegal in many Muslim countries to convert away from Islam on pain of death. Christian converts and missionaries are persecuted. I am not trying to absolve the persecuters of their culpability, either. Indeed, their actions easily qualify them for the "fire and judgment" that this blog promises to those who violate human rights. However, I am saying that if we want to stop them, and if we want to stop planes from being flown into buildings, we have our own parts to play.
Dear Israel, please tear this wall down: ++Rowan

Archbishop Rowan Williams and several UK and Jerusalem religious leaders recently visited Bethlehem, and came face to face with the separation wall. Israel says it's trying to defend itself. Palestinians say it's a land grab.

Either way, ++Rowan says that the wall symbolizes "deeply wrong in the human heart." He says that justice and security are not things that are claimed by one party at the expense of another, but something that two parties must strive for together.

Three great religions revere the Holy Land. For Christians, it contains, among other things, what we revere as the exact spot where Jesus was born, the Church of the Nativity. There is a metal star on the floor of the grotto to mark the spot, where Williams prostrated himself in reverence. As we come to church in reverence at the birth of Jesus, let us remember that his birthplace is under siege.

Bombs and missiles are launched at targets in heavily populated civilian areas where there are bound to be collateral deaths. People blow themselves up among civilian targets. The violence kills the body and poisons the soul. I've said it before and I'll say it again: Israel must withdraw to the Green Line and cease all military action. Hamas must recognize Israel's right to exist and must stop attacks on civilians. Those of us in the Middle East are growing up poisoned by hatred. The rest of us cannot go idly by, because indifference is no less a poison.

I have two related stories that occurred earlier in the year. One, on July 12, Bishop M Thomas Shaw, Episcopal Diocese of Massachussets, joined a protest outside the Israeli consulate, as is his custom. This is around the time CPL Gilad Shalit was kidnapped, and the violence was escalating. +Thomas raised concern over the Al Ahli Anglican hospital in Gaza, which was suffering from power outages and medicine shortages while people were on life support. One of his clergy had attempted to send money, but couldn't reach anyone to confirm that they had received it. There was a counter protest across the street, with one person from +Thomas' Diocese holding a sign that said, “Bishop Shaw does not speak for this Episcopalian.” The man, Bob Cahill, said he wanted a more balanced view from his church.

The second story, which is the bottom link, will give us a more balanced view. The mainstream media in the US already tells the story of the Israeli side, while neglecting the Palestinian side. We don't know what it's like on the ground for the Palestinian people. When Jesus says to love our neighbor, we need to know them first, and we cannot do so if we willfully ignore their stories. It's the same with the US military refusing to count Iraqi casualties.

And so, this is a story, dated Nov 9, of Jameela al-Shanti, a Hamas legislator and a mother in Beit Hanoun. Probably in response to Hamas militants using Beit Hanoun as a rocket launching base, Israeli Defence Forces shelled the town of 28,000, turning it into a "closed military zone" and prohibiting ambulances from entering. Water and electricity were cut off, and the death toll rose to at least 90. It was Israel's tenth incursion into Beit Hanoun since it had anounced its withdrawal from Gaza. Jameela alleges that the IDF took all males over 15 away, presumably for interrogation.

"But as though this occupation and collective punishment were not enough, we Palestinians find ourselves the targets of a systematic siege imposed by the so-called free world. We are being starved and suffocated as a punishment for daring to exercise our democratic right to choose who rules and represents us. Nothing undermines the west's claims to defend freedom and democracy more than what is happening in Palestine. Shortly after announcing his project to democratise the Middle East, President Bush did all he could to strangle our nascent democracy, arresting our ministers and MPs. I have yet to hear western condemnation that I, an elected MP, have had my home demolished and relatives killed by Israel's bombs. When the bodies of my friends and colleagues were torn apart there was not one word from those who claim to be defenders of women's rights on Capitol Hill and in 10 Downing Street."

And so she, and 1,500 other women, went out, unarmed, to free some male fighters trapped in a mosque. They marched over the IDF's barricades ... and the IDF opened fire, and Jameela lost two close friends, Ibtissam Yussuf abu Nada and Rajaa Ouda.

"Why should we Palestinians have to accept the theft of our land, the
ethnic cleansing of our people, incarcerated in forsaken refugee camps,
and the denial of our most basic human rights, without protesting and

The lesson the world should learn from Beit Hanoun last week is that
Palestinians will never relinquish our land, towns and villages. We will
not surrender our legitimate rights for a piece of bread or handful of
rice. The women of Palestine will resist this monstrous occupation
imposed on us at gunpoint, siege and starvation. Our rights and those of
future generations are not open for negotiation."

These women were willing to face tanks and guns with only the conviction that they had to stop the bloodshed, that they had to get their people back. It takes very little courage to fire at people, only some of whom may actually be firing at you, from inside a tank of from the controls of an aircraft. It does not even take much courage to strap explosives on and go blow civilians up.

It takes tremendous courage to put your weapons down, to confront the other side unarmed. I don't know if the Palestinian women intended to engage in nonviolent resistance. Perhaps it just happened, they just felt they had to get their boys out of the mosque and away from the IDF, and that the soldiers fired on them. I don't know if the act of firing on unarmed women shamed the IDF soldiers such that they rethink their part in this war. But I do pray for the Spirit, who brings peace, to abide in both Israelis and Palestinians, to produce more acts, on both sides, of nonviolent resistance.'deeply+wrong'+says+Archbishop/,,1942942,00.html

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Action alert: Lead is an essential nutrient!! Ask EPA to remove lead from toxins list!!

OK, that was definitely satire. The EPA is, in fact, considering removing lead from its air pollutants list. Lead battery manufacturers and other industry groups may have pressured them to do so. Removing lead as a toxin would be a spectacularly idiotic thing to do, and we should write the EPA right now (link below) and tell them so.

Lead has been described as the archetype toxin. It's the most well-studied environmental pollutant. Its harmful effects (nervous system and brain damage, kidney damage, developmental damage in kids) have been well documented. In addition, large amounts of lead used to be released into the atmopshere by burning leaded gasoline. It was once used in paint. Even today, underprivileged kids in developed nations may still be at risk of lead exposure from paint in old houses. When cathode ray tube (CRT) monitors and TVs are dumped in developing nations with lax environmental controls like China, India, and numerous African coastal nations, the lead in the CRT glass may leach into groundwater, and put more people at risk. It is true that worldwide atmospheric lead levels have decreased significantly, which is why the EPA claims it is time to reconsider restrictions.

This would be an act of monumental stupidity. True, if average lead levels go up by just a tad, the average person will have not much to worry about. The problem is, there is no 'average' person. Underprivileged communities will suffer the greatest additional lead exposure - they are already disproportionately exposed to environmental toxins. They will suffer the most if we relax pollution standards for lead.

Write the EPA now!
Environmental Action petition:

Yahoo news story:

PS, "Lead is an essential nutrient!!" comes from my priest, Padre Hamilton, who has an excellent sense of humor.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Unjust Imprisonment Monthly: Nazanin Fatehi

Nazanin is an 18 year-old, Kurdish Iranian girl who is under sentence of death for murder in Iran. There are two problems. One, she was under 18 when she committed the alleged offense. Two, she claims that the man she stabbed was trying, with two accomplices, to rape her and her niece, Somayeh.

Nazanin, her niece, and their boyfriends were spending some time in a park in May 2006. Apparently, the three assailants started to throw stones at them. Their boyfriends fled (f*&%ing idiots). The three pushed Nazinin and Somayeh to the ground. Nazinin stabbed one of them in the hand, and she and Somayeh fled. The men attacked them once again, and Nazanin stabbed one in the chest, later killing him.

In many other jurisdictions, she would have got a slap on the wrist at worst. Iran's justice system has miscarried a lot, especially in the field of women who are raped or nearly raped. She was re-tried on August 30, but no verdict was given, and it seems she will be tried again. It was discovered that some evidence was faulty; apparently in the first trial it had been entered as evidence that her father had told the court she was a run-away and to go ahead and sentence her to death. Her father spoke in court at the second trial to repudiate this 'evidence'. And by the way, had she allowed she and her niece to be raped, she could very well still be charged with adultery.

I'm not sure if any Muslims are reading this, but if so, you must speak out. Iran's laws are the products of outdated and biased readings of Islamic law. Don't accuse me of anti-Muslim prejudice, I've lambasted my own religion enough.

There's a petition below, started by an unrelated namesake, Nazinin Afshin-Jam. She's an ex Miss World Canada and a singer, and she has spoken out worldwide on behalf of her namesake.

Sign the petition here:

And join me in prayer:
For all people of the world who suffer persecution, unjust imprisonment, illnesses of all kinds, for those who are without a homeland and who live in constant danger,
Lord protect and heal them.
(Credit to the Episcopal Network for Evangelism for the prayer)

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Help! The Episcopal Church is Falling Apart!!!

I never intended this blog to deal solely with Episcopal Church matters ... but it is my newly-adopted church, and it seems that as many as eight churches, some of them quite large, in the Diocese of Virginia have voted to leave the Episcopal Church. Rev. John Yates of the Falls Church claims that "The Episcopalian ship is in trouble." The focusing issue here is attitudes towards (gasp!!) homosexuality. A broader issue is the interpretation of Scripture.

In addition to Virginia, the Diocese of South Carolina has elected a bishop who seems to be leaning towards leaving the church. Several other Dioceses area leaning that way also, having established relationships with foreign provinces.

Frankly, in the very long run, none of this matters. We Christians believe - I hope! - that we will all be reconciled before God. Christianity has survived hundreds of splits over what now seem to be trivial matters. In the very long run, we will move beyond this. Heck, in the very long run, the first female Pope will offer apologies for the Church's treatment of LGBT people*.

In the shorter run, though, there is reason to be gravely concerned. The Falls Church and Truro Church are considering becoming part of the Nigerian church's mission in the US. They would report to Archbishop Peter Akinola. The Nigerian government is currently considering a bill that would make it illegal for LGBT people to form organizations, for churches to bless same-sex marriages, or for any public or even private celebration of a "same-sex amorous relationship." The law would propose a penalty of five years in prison. Homosexuality is already punishable, I believe, by up to 14 years in prison. The US State Department, no bastion of liberalism, has condemned the legislation. Archbishop Akinola has supported this legislation. He is either blind to the suffering of LGBT people in Nigeria, or he doesn't care. Neither of these traits is becoming of a Christian, especially not an ordained Christian minister, and certainly not a man who is leading a whole province.

If the Falls Church and Truro Church associate with Nigeria, they will be willfully turning a blind eye to a major violation of human rights. It is incredible that people could fear homosexuality so much that they would resort to government repression, or associate with those who do. If you don't like the thought of homosexual sex, then NO ONE IS FORCING YOU TO DO IT.

* This isn't my line. I stole it from someone at a rally I attended. It was a while ago, and I don't remember his name. But I do remember that he was gay and Roman Catholic ... not that that narrows it down very much.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Please pray for CPL Gilad Shalit of the Israeli Defence Forces

In all the furor over the invasion of Lebanon, I had forgotten about CPL Gilad Shalit, whose kidnapping helped start the war. He is still being held by Hamas, and Hamas says they will only release him in exchange for Palestinian prisoners sentenced to extended terms.

CPL Shalit is just a kid. He wears spectacles and, if I remember correctly, is some sort of math genius. He deserves to go home. Some of his Palestinian counterparts go to blow themselves and Israeli civilians up because they feel they have no choice, because they want to punish the Israelis for the occupation, and they see every Israeli, civilian or military, as complicit. They deserve better.

God doesn't want God's children blowing each other up in a cycle of hatred. It's time for Hamas to unconditionally acknowledge Israel's right to exist and cease military action, and for Israel to withdraw unconditionally to the Green Line, settlements and all. And it's time for both sides to let their prisoners go - as I recall, Hizbollah is holding some other Israeli servicepeople captive.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe

Mary, ‘the Virgin,’ has been held up as an example for all women to follow - chaste, meek, and gentle. Indeed, the Roman Catholic Church teaches that Mary remained a virgin for her whole life, and uses her as an example of fidelity, purity and motherhood. However, I have a big problem with this traditional depiction of Mary! Aside from the Magnificat, Mary doesn’t say very much in the rest of the Gospels. She is a background character at best. She is also passive – God chooses her to bear Jesus, Joseph takes her out of Israel when Herod is massacring the children, she witnesses her son’s crucifixion.

Unfortunately for us Christians, Mary is the closest thing to the divine feminine that we have. She has therefore had to carry a lot of spiritual and psychic weight. We humans seem to have some need to see God as being like us. As Rousseau famously quipped, “God created man in his own image, and man, being a gentleman, returned the favor.” More serious, though, is the power of our images of God: if we limit our depictions of Mary, then we risk limiting the roles that are permissible for women.

In the long history of Marian apparitions, from Međugorje to Conyers, Georgia, ‘the Virgin’ has mostly conformed to the gender roles that the Church has traditionally supported. However, in one image at least, Mary has taken a more active role.

This particular story begins with Hernando Cortez in 1519, when he started the conquest of Mexico. The conquistadors would read defiant Indians the requerimiento, a proclamation that asserted that Jesus Christ and his papal successors had authority over the Earth, that the Spanish monarchs had received title to the Americas, and that the Nahuatl were to submit to their rule. It was read to them in Spanish, which they did not speak. Bernal Diaz, who fought alongside Cortez, summarized his motives as “to serve God and His Majesty, to give light to those who were in darkness, and to grow rich, as all men desire to do.”

Spanish soldiers were granted land, under a system called encomienda, where conquistadors were granted “trusteeship” over the inhabitants of land. They were authorized to collect tax, and required to maintain order and provide Catholic teaching. The system rapidly degenerated into slavery and cultural destruction. The Spanish clergy failed to speak out. They were too busy debating whether the Indians had souls.

On December 9, 1531, some ten years after the conquest of Mexico, Mary appeared on a hill to an Aztec craftsman named Juan Diego Cuauhtlacuatzin. His last name means, “Eagle that talks.” Mary appeared as an Aztec, not a Spaniard. She addressed Juan Diego not in Spanish, but in Nahuatl, the Aztec language. She spoke to him not as a slave, but as one would speak to a prince. She commanded him to build a shrine to her on that spot, among the conquered. She sent him back to the Spanish clergy, they who thought they knew everything about God, who thought they had been sent to save the heathen.

The bishop rebuffed Juan Diego, and demanded a sign. Discouraged, and afraid to go back to the bishop, Juan Diego sought to avoid further visions of Mary. Some time later, while rushing to a nearby town to get a priest to confess his uncle, who was gravely ill, he passed the hill where he had met Mary. He tried to go around the other side, in order to avoid her, but she came to him and stopped him. She assured him that his uncle would be healed. She asked him to go to the top of the hill to pick some flowers to take back to the bishop. To his astonishment, Juan Diego found Castillian roses, which were rare in Mexico and nonexistent during the winter. He gathered some back in his tilma, or cape, to present to the bishop. When he found the bishop and gave him the roses, there was an imprint of the image of Mary on Juan Diego’s tilma. The garment has been preserved until this day.

The image as preserved on Juan Diego’s tilma is resonant with meaning to the indigenous people of Mexico. The turquoise of her mantle, for example, is the color reserved for the divine couple Ometecuhti and Onecihuatl, considered to be the creator and unifying force of all creation; and the angel who carries the Virgin denotes her as nobility. To Europeans, her posture and clasped hands seem to indicate that she is sumbissively bowing in prayer, but indigenous Mexican people would have seen her as making an offering. And uniquely among Marian apparitions, Our Lady of Guadalupe is pregnant. She wears a cinta, or maternity band, around her waist. There is a small flower, nagvioli, just above her womb, which the Nahuatl would have read as a sign of pregnancy.

The Christian tradition has associated the pregnant apparition with the Woman of the Apocalypse described in Revelation (Rev 12:1-10, NIV) “…a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth … she gave birth to a son, a male child, who will rule the nations…”

The Divine Mother-to-be, as an image of God, is disturbing to many. Our new Presiding Bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, declared in her investiture sermon that “our mother Jesus gives birth to a new creation.” She was of course quoting the famous Christian mystic, Julian of Norwich; but some accused her of deliberately trying to provoke conservatives in the church. The Diocese of Michigan recently paid for a series of billboard advertisements, one of which said “God is my Mother.” Several churches denounced the advertisement. One suspects that some men fear that if they acknowledge a feminine side to God, they will lose their status and their power. Similarly, the Spanish clergy feared the effect of a Marian apparition among the indigenous people. To their credit, they relented.

David Abalos says that, in order to be whole, we all have to claim and re-claim four aspects, or “faces,” of our cultural being. They are the personal face, the political face, the historical face, and the spiritual face. The Spaniards saw God with a Spanish face, and they preached that God to the Nahuatl. But in doing so, they defaced the Nahuatl, personally, politically, historically, and spiritually, and made them less than whole. If you have a God forced upon you, who doesn’t look or talk or think like you, who indeed bears the face of your oppressor, how can you worship such a God?

Jeanette Rodriguez, Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Seattle University, says that “God is always pregnant.” Think again about the time and the context in which Our Lady of Guadalupe appeard to the Mexicans. The world was falling apart. The Aztecs were facing invasion, genocide, and slavery. And still, God is always pregnant! God’s revelation to the Israelites did not stop when She led them out of bondage in Egypt. God sent Mary, in the guise of an Aztec, to liberate and reclaim the spiritual face of the Mexicans. God sees the disenfranchised and, in Rodriguez’s words, is “always there to transform, to transmute an experience of pain into an abundance of life … Empowered with their own dignity and humanity, they can then move to transform the world…”

In her great song of liberation, the Magnificat, (Luke 1:46-55), Mary says that God exalts the humble and meek, and scatters those who are proud in the imagination of their hearts. But God does not exalt the meek at anyone else’s expense. If we put aside our pride, we can be enriched as they are exalted. Jesus, after all, came among the Jews, but not at the expense of the Gentiles. In the same way, those of us who are not Mexican are enriched as this Mexican image of Mary speaks to us, thanks be to God!

(There is one last thing. Professor Rodriguez did a study with several Mexican-American women, and found that indeed, Our Lady of Guadalupe was a source of strength in their lives. She also found, however, that they did not know the full story of the apparition. They had been taught only about an image, and flowers, and a miracle. Their priests had made Our Lady vague, undifferentiated, and no different from any of the other Marian apparitions, save that she was Mexican. You now may know more about the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe than many Mexican-Americans.

The Christian tradition is very deep and rich, and replete with images of many faces of God. Those images can be sources of liberation for us. But sometimes, our worship is an attempt ‘tame’ God, or to hide the divine from our sight. Sometimes, like the Mexican-American women in Professor Rodriguez’s study, we are not able to access the image of the divine. And sometimes, we just don’t look. When Jesus tells to love our neighbors and even our enemies, he’s telling us that we always have to look. And if we do, we might just see that God is pregnant once again.)

I should add: Reid Hamilton, my priest at Canterbury House, helped with editing this piece.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Augusto Pinochet, 1915-2006

As many of you know, Augusto Pinochet, whom I profiled on 9/11 on this blog, died yesterday at the age of 91. He had admitted "political responsibility for everything that was done," meaning the numerous human rights abuses that he and his government were accused of. Normally, we would be advised to consider him innocent until proven guilty. However, he forced constitutional amendments that protected himself and his associates from prosecution.

We Christians believe that Pinochet will stand before the Supreme Judge, and will answer for his crimes. But, frankly, his death was a defeat for justice on earth. The international community was not able to call him to account for his crimes.

The US, despite claims to lead the world in the area of human rights, has lagged severely in the area of international law. The US ignored the decision of the International Court of Justice in the case Nicaragua vs United States; the US was found to have trained and supplied the Contras, guerilla forces fighting the legally elected leftist government, and to have placed mines in Nicaraguan territorial waters, both of which are violations of sovreignty and which should be acts of war. The US has also opposed participation in the International Criminal Court, unless the Court is dealing with enemies of the US. Congress has also passed legislation allowing the use of force to free US personnel held for trial at the Court, and allowing the US to deny military aid to countries that have ratified the treaty.

These actions are reprehensible. They will help people like Pinochet to conduct their depredations, and will shield them from punishment. The US cannot reasonably claim to be a human rights leader if this goes on. Yes, there is the possibility that US servicepeople could be unjustly prosecuted. However, combatants from any nation could be maliciously prosecuted, and the US could minimize the risk of malicious prosecution by not maliciously intervening in other countries.

A small but powerful minority of Christians are opposed to the UN and other international bodies because they interpret the Book of Revelation to refer to these bodies as being associated with Satan's rule on earth. Such a reading is based on faulty theology and poor scholarship, and is propogated by quack theologians.

Prayers for the victims of Augusto Pinochet, many of whom have been 'disappeared' with no evidence of death. Prayers also for Pinochet himself.

I would like to single out two individuals who supported Pinochet. Margaret Thatcher, long-time UK Prime Minister, visited him during his house arrest and offered verbal support because he allied with Britain during the Falkland Islands conflict. The late Milton Friedman, Nobel Prize-winning economist, also supported Pinochet because of his free-market reforms in Chile, making it the most prosperous country in Latin America.

Needless to say, I would gladly condemn Baroness Thatcher to her face. I would do the same for Mr Friedman, except that he's dead.

Hamilton Spectator article

Sunday, December 10, 2006

"Homebound wifely submission", pronatal theology, and boorish masculinity

Article in Seattle Times:

Sept. 13, 2006 | SEATTLE -- It's Father's Day and Mark Driscoll is blessing babies. A stocky, square-headed figure in a black shirt and jeans, with a leather cord around his thick neck, Driscoll stands against a backdrop of a giant brushed steel cross and a phalanx of electric guitars, praying over the "lovely wives and godly husbands" lined up on the stage of Mars Hill Church. Located in a former warehouse in Seattle's hip Ballard neighborhood, where drive-through espresso joints out-number churches ten to one, Driscoll's megachurch is a sprawling industrial space of corrugated steel, painted charcoal and muted taupe. Inside, the walls are hung with a member's graffiti art, lit by Starbucks-style colored glass fixtures blown by a congregant.

In a husky voice, the 35-year-old pastor prays for the continuous fertility of his congregation. "We are in a city with less children per capita than any city but San Francisco," he declares, "and we consider it our personal mission to turn that around."

The way Driscoll sees it, the more babies his conservative Christian congregation can produce in this child-poor city, the more they can redirect local politics, public education, and culture in one of the liberal capitals of the world. To complete his trifecta of indoctrinating, voting, and breeding, Driscoll has developed a community that dwarfs any living experiment of the '60s. To say that Mars Hill is just a church is to say that Woodstock was just a concert.

Mars Hill wrests future converts searching for identity and purpose from the dominion of available sex and drugs that still make post-grunge Seattle a countercultural destination. Driscoll promises his followers they don't have to reprogram their iTunes catalog along with their beliefs -- culture from outside the Christian fold isn't just tolerated here, it's cherished. Hipster culture is what sweetens the proverbial Kool-Aid, which parishioners here seem to gulp by the gallon. This is a land where housewives cradle babies in tattooed arms, where young men balance responsibilities as breadwinners in their families and lead guitarists in their local rock bands, and where biblical orthodoxy rules as strictly as in Hasidism or Opus Dei.

Following Driscoll's biblical reading of prescribed gender roles, women quit their jobs and try to have as many babies as possible. And these are no mere women who fear independence, who are looking to live by the simple tenets of fundamentalist credo, enforced by a commanding husband: many of the women of Mars Hill reluctantly abandon successful lives lived on their own terms to serve their husbands and their Lord. Accountability and community is ballasted by intricately organized cells -- gender-isolated support groups that form a social life as warm and tight as swaddling clothes, or weekly coed sermon studies and family dinner parties that provide further insulation against the secular world. Parents share child care, realtors share clients, teachers share lesson plans, animé buffs share DVDs, and bands share songs.

After Driscoll prays for the continued fertility of his congregation, and the worship band cranks out a few fierce guitar licks, the sermon begins. Pacing the stage like a stand-up pro, blending observational humor about parenting with ribald biblical storytelling, Driscoll peppers his message with references to his own children as midget demons and recalls his own past in stories about duct-taping and hog-tying his own siblings. He riffs about waiting in a supermarket checkout line behind a woman who said to him, "You sure got a lot of kids! I hope you've figured out what causes that."

"Yeah," he flipped back. "A blessed wife. I bet you don't have any kids." The congregation hoots and hollers. "That shut her up," he mutters.

In today's sermon on Genesis, chapter 37, Snoop Dogg, the man who penned the memorable lyric, "Now watch me slap ya ass with dicks, bitch," plays a supporting role. Driscoll conjures Joseph's famous coat by showing an image of Snoop in the coat he wore to play a pimp in "Starsky and Hutch." "The next time you read Genesis, think of Snoop," he chuckles.

Driscoll's mood darkens as he discusses how Jacob shunned Joseph's brothers, and imagines their pain at not being anointed the favorite son. Pausing a studied beat, he looks out over his rapt charges and lowers his voice. "Some of you know what it's like. You were the one that wasn't loved. I can see it on your face and I'm sorry," he practically whispers. "Some of you are still living life in reaction to your father. I'm here to tell you, you don't have to. There is a providential God who can fix you, and his name is Jesus. He's your only hope."

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Driscoll and his Mars Hills followers epitomize the mounting evangelical youth movement in America. Within this movement lies something as old as America itself, and as terrifying and alluring as anything Orwell predicted; something that is at once political, emotional, deeply anti-intellectual, and more galvanized than you can imagine. I call this population of fierce young evangelicals the Disciple Generation.
The Disciple Generation is an ever-growing population of people ages 15 to 35 who are equally obsessed with Christ and with culture as a means to an evangelical end. People within this age bracket are defined by a shared culture, whether Christian or secular: if you own an iPod, know Green Day is a band and not a Nader rally, and ever considered getting a tattoo, you're probably within the boundary. This is an age group whose transgressive actions -- regardless of faith or demographic, whether in the form of an inked bicep, high school detention, or a fundamentalist credo -- are easily slapped with the label of rebellion.

But for Christians within this generation, behavior and beliefs are unlike those of any archetypal rebellion that has come before. For every member of the Disciple Generation raised secular in a car or a commune, or had a lesbian mom or a pothead dad, plenty more grew up in traditional Christian homes, whether that affiliation took the form of an occasional Sunday service or a father who was an active church elder. There's a three-piece suit for every freshly shaved mohawk in this subculture.

Yet wherever they began their individual walk with Christ, and however they choose to outwardly identify themselves within the subculture, members of this movement all talk about a meaningless and bankrupt society; a world that offers no anodyne culture outside their faith. Their lives are in fact a criticism of our own. This youth movement isn't one that merely defines itself against its parents' generation; it exists in opposition to all culture and history that excludes evangelicalism.

To young evangelicals, our secular world is devoid of the type of love they seek, not parental love or fraternal love or even erotic love, but an even bigger love -- a love called agape. When Christians describe God's love for his children this is the word they invoke, a love so powerful one is moved to proclaim it on car bumpers and coffee mugs. Hand in hand with certainty, agape is what this generation longs for today -- a love that will soothe the pain of breakups and breakouts, heal the wounds from shattered families, make bearable the awareness that we are each a solitary speck in an illimitable world. It's the emotion that secularism, enraptured by its logic and empiricism, refuses to engage.

The new disciples are ripping down their parents' white steeples and tearing apart the lumber to build a half-pipe. Christian youth is deinstitutionalizing the American church for the first time in about 400 years. This evangelical movement isn't just about internally held principles, it's a matter of lifestyle. Young evangelicals look so similar to denizens of every other strain of youth culture that, aside from their religious tattoos, the difference between them and the unsaved is invisible.

After all, shared culture is an opportunity for people to connect and gain one another's trust. Culture -- your favorite music, sport, pastime, style, you name it -- presents an opening for evangelism. Once bonds are forged over a beloved band or football team, then the Evangelical "message" can work its way into a relationship. Once the message is heard, a world opens in which God's love, as well as your cultural predilections, provide spiritual isolation from the secular world. It's hard to imagine an aspect of secular culture lacking a Christian counterpart: one can choose from Christian hip-hop ministries, Christian military intelligence classes, or Christian diet groups in this mirror society.

The evangelical culture is rooted in place, and it's expanding every day to swallow a generation whole. Shattering the perceived blue state–red state dichotomy, epicenters of this Evangelical movement are even swelling madly in leftist zip codes of cities like Boston, Denver and Seattle.

Mark Driscoll's Jesus is no sandal-wearing pacifist. When Driscoll invokes his Lord, he describes an uncompromising disciplinarian who demands utter obedience from his followers in exchange for rescue from an eternity in hell. "Jesus pissed people off, so he got whacked," he tells me. "That's a guy with some edges. Marketing firms and spin doctors have been trying to round out those edges for centuries. Look at politicians, entertainment: Jesus has probably become the most marketable brand in the country. But here we just talk about him like a person, edges and all. And people know the difference; they know what's real."

The church's slogan articulates exactly what young evangelicals are seeking in Christianity today: truth, meaning, beauty, community. To Mars Hill members, these words function as a mission statement more than a sales tool, but to the uninitiated who see the slogan painted over the church entrance, it's a pitch or, more kindly, an invitation. Driscoll never views evangelism as a form of marketing.

Because Mars Hill members frown on the traditional techniques of Bible thumping on the street corner, begging on televangelism programs, and threatening eternal hellfire on talk radio, they've had to consider missionary work of a different flavor, which they call "missional living." This is the notion that living well in strict accordance with the Bible, while reaping the benefits of a deeply supportive community, advertises the faith to the heathens by demonstration. "It's like Jesus chilling with prostitutes and tax collectors," young Evangelicals tell me, defending what could be construed as blatant manipulation if their Savior hadn't done it first.

The way Driscoll sees it, America has been marketed to so constantly and shamelessly that it has produced a generation of jaded cynics desperate for what feels real. It is his edgy Jesus, he says, who best reaches a searching crowd. Likewise, he points out, this generation has grown up rootless and unparented, yearning for discipline within the very orthodoxy that Driscoll makes relatable and relevant. "They know there's more to life than waking up, eating what's in the fridge, watching what's on TV, and then going back to bed, than the rest of their porn-addicted, video-game-playing, loser friends," he tells me. "That's what I give them through the Bible. I say, let me give you some rules, not to be a jerk, but to help you out. And when was the last time that anyone in their busted-up family did that?"

Driscoll has built a fundamentalist empire by blending this stern-father sensibility with the savvy of a pop mogul mainstreaming alternative culture while maintaining its underground appeal. The word "alternative" still held a fading flicker of sway in 1999, when former savior Kurt Cobain's body had been cold only a few years, thrift-shop clothing wasn't quite yet "vintage," and Jesus was someone worshiped by virgins and grandparents. Within this culture, Driscoll launched a radio call-in show, which discussed Jesus in accessible slang and brought new members into his fold. He befriended some musicians who were writing loud music to worship God, and began to grow a church where members could watch Tarantino movies, drink beer, and live by strict biblical rule.

These days, Driscoll's reach, which began with his small-time call-in show, has evolved far beyond his Seattle base; people from Chicago to Denver to North Carolina listen to his preaching every week via podcasting. In his voice, they find what their broken families, secular friends, or traditional churches have failed to give them: a home and a reciprocal commitment -- if you swear by Driscoll's fundamentalist reading of the Word, his church will swear by you.

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The community Mars Hill members have built is truly utopian -- this indeed is its great allure -- and the allure that cemented Ted Dietz to Driscoll. Dietz was raised by a nonreligious mother; his father was at best absentee. In July 1992, when he was about 20, bored, curious, and still living with his mom, Dietz started listening to Christian radio in his room late at night or on his way to the mall where he worked in a dead-end job selling televisions. Every day he'd hear a preacher named Tony Evans bellow on about hell and sin, delivering warnings about coming judgment, depicting a tableau of fire and brimstone, frightening Dietz to his very marrow.
Dietz came home from a party one night, switched on his radio, listened to a few minutes of hellfire talk, and knelt beside his bed. For the first time in his life he prayed, fervently though cluelessly, a novice impelled by terror. "Fear is an entirely appropriate way to be born again," Dietz tells me. "If we ever encountered God it would crush us. If you're in danger of being destroyed forever, that should strike fear in you. That's where all this starts for me."

Some friends in Seattle introduced Dietz to Driscoll a few years later. Dietz and Driscoll discussed a new type of church -- one that embraced the larger culture but was orthodox about biblical laws and values. Soon after, Mars Hill was inaugurated, the group houses were rented, and Dietz moved in. Around the same time, a counseling psychology student claimed a room in the women's house. When I first met Dietz, he had yet to take notice of the sturdy blonde. But when I returned to Seattle six years later, Dietz had married her and was supporting their family with income earned as a real estate broker within the Mars Hill community.

Evangelical Christianity in America today is a grassroots movement grown up. New churches pioneered by young believers have set roots as formidable institutions, "the new establishment," John Vaughn, from megachurch research center Church Growth Today, tells me. What began as experimental living and spiritual exploration has cemented itself in the traditional American modes of commitment to marriages and mortgages. Now in his early thirties, Dietz, a compact but burly man in a dark Amish-style beard, is a force behind this solidifying community, using his real estate license for ministry and moneymaking.

In the past couple of weeks, Dietz has sold five houses within the church membership -- "making our community more permanent," he says. The group houses were dismantled four years ago, when the landlord wanted to sell the rentals the community had long outgrown. Realtors like Dietz replaced the group houses with title deeds, garages, and lawns that would quickly expand to form a new and intricate network across the city. Now there are no less than 50 neighborhood hubs that form centers for prayer, Bible study, and dinner parties throughout Seattle -- local axes for Mars Hill's global reach. A megachurch of thousands threatens the deeply personal experience the church relies upon for intensive active membership. These cell groups keep the church intimate even on its mammoth scale.

Most houses are owned by young married couples who rent their basement apartments to unwed members of the congregation, whom the couples "mentor" until God delivers a spouse. Dietz and Sarah recently reclaimed their own basement after they adopted two foster kids; adoption, Dietz says, is another form his "missional living" takes. On one side of the city, the houses tend to belong to the Goths in the congregation, or the members of the Moped Army that buzzes around town in matching leather jackets, lining up their collection of Vespas outside the church for the late service every Sunday. Another side of town is home to most of the church pastors as well as a more mainstream set of congregants who wouldn't look out of place outside the city limits in their uniforms of standard-issue fleece and denim.

Dietz and I chat with abandon as we cruise past 24 recent house sales in his pickup truck. Like many Mars Hill members, he rides the ridge of a puzzling contradiction: Dietz voted for Bush but talks like a quintessential Pacific Northwest progressive. "We're devaluing ourselves with consumerism," he warns, speeding through a red light. "The future is bleak for the United States if we don't free ourselves from corporate tyranny," Dietz continues, now railing against Wal-Mart, sweatshop labor, the threat of globalism, and other standard leftist grievances. He sees mass liberation from America's fearsome consumerist and labor trends in the current religious "Reformation," as he calls it, but imagines this current trend to be a temporary one -- not because he imagines secularists gaining ground, he says, but because the apocalypse is right around the corner.

Dietz is extraordinarily well informed in matters of domestic politics and foreign policy, but he interprets all he learns through the book of Revelation. "I don't know if you know about this," he tells me, "but there's a new organization in Israel completing plans for the new temple. Jesus will come back and he'll take us -- well, at least us," he says, looking at me with a straight face, "and there will be an end to all things."

One June evening, I arrive at the small, pleasant home of Dietz and his wife Sarah to meet their kids and join them for dinner. Sarah is clearly exhausted from caring all day for two children, cleaning the house, setting the table, and preparing a nice meal complete with thoughtful touches like organic strawberries in the salad and fresh mint in the iced tea. As Dietz carries on about church affairs and lectures about the importance of children's obedience, Sarah serves the meal, cuts the children's food, minds their behavior and eating, and clears the table. Every Wednesday the Dietzes' community group assembles in this living room, where vintage touches and contrasting paint colors suggest discipleship to Martha Stewart. Here they participate in Dietz's Bible study and a discussion of Driscoll's most recent sermon; afterward Sarah serves dinner for 12 on an average week, 25 if the entire group shows up.

During a community group evening, a couple of weeks before I visited, Dietz was hanging out with the men in the backyard, while the women were inside cooking and watching the kids. Scrutinizing the dilapidated fence that had come with the house, Dietz began talking about how he'd really like a new one, but wasn't sure how much the whole endeavor might cost.

A few days later, the men in the group pulled up in front of the house with a pickup truck full of lumber and set about building a new fence on the spot. Now whenever the Dietzes look out their kitchen window, they see a proud and solid reminder of the strength of their community, and the unity of their faith in God. Dietz recounts this story sitting squarely in his big chair in the living room, his eyes set on mine over the rim of his coffee cup. I tell him the truth: I have wonderful friends who I have considered close as family for many years now, and I can't imagine any of them helping me lug the wood, much less building me a fence. He pauses and sets down his coffee cup in a motion that is about to put a definitive end to a delightful evening. "Listen," he says. "We have a really nice rapport. But we believe different things. And let's face it, because of that, you're never going to feel like family to me. So, what I'm saying is, this is as far as it goes." Stung at first, upon reflection I can't blame him. I have nothing like his shared faith to connect me to other people. It's no wonder Dietz and Sarah glow when they talk about their group with the same tones of veneration in which they join hands and say grace before dinner.

The Mars Hill community resembles the shared-land communes of the '60s far more than any traditional society of churchgoers. It's a little shocking to see this experimental model exploded into a megachurch that is rolling back the achievements of the '60s generation, its current emphasis on connection and meaning a tool to convert purpose-seeking postfeminists into self-described proud submission.

Like every woman I've gotten to know at Mars Hill, Sarah talks about her appointed role within the church not in terms of subjugation but in the language of difference feminism. She tells me a sisterhood forms between women who celebrate their domestic roles and talents as offered from God, delivered unto their children, marriages, and community as part of his "perfect plan."

At the end of the evening, when I go into the kitchen to help Sarah with the dishes, she confesses that she'd love to go back to school for her master's degree, but she just can't see finding the time. "I guess it's just not part of the plan," she says in a soft, distracted voice. It's hard to imagine that just a few years before, Sarah was a single girl tooling around the Seattle rock circuit in an old MG, spending her days studying Carol Gilligan. These days, Sarah's old copy of "In a Different Voice," a text you’ll find on most women’s studies syllabi, gathers dust on the secular bookshelf (Penguin classics and psych textbooks) that faces off against the Christian bookshelf (Bibles and theology textbooks) in the living room.

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For Judy Abolafya, a young mother in her early thirties, it was harder to come around to the Driscolls' version of what a woman should be. As she sets out coffee cake on the kitchen table in her Seattle apartment, straining to be heard over her infant daughter's cries, Abolafya tells me without apology that she never wanted to have children. She shudders as her daughter wails, shaking her auburn ponytail. "Listening to her like that just grates on me." She grimaces. In a high chair at the table, her toddler, Asher, glumly pokes at blocks of cheese with grubby fingers, periodically mashing them into a paste he rubs into his black Metallica T-shirt. "Let's face it. Asher is whiny and clingy and talks back. It's dull and tedious here -- there are myriad things I don't enjoy about being at home, but it's a responsibility."

This life of homebound wifely submission is the opposite of what Abolafya thought she wanted, and the opposite of what she had. Before she met her husband, Ari, Abolafya toured all over the world with bands like Bush and Candlebox, staying at four-star hotels, living life on her own terms. She made a great income heading up merchandising on tours, managed it well, enjoyed her freedom, and was confident and outspoken. Now she defines that behavior as prideful, even if she misses it. "Everything was great when my conversion happened. I was making money, I was about to take a trip to Mexico, I was totally in control of my life," she tells me. "My life is much harder, not easier, now that I'm a Christian," she says, clenching her teeth against Asher's droning whine. "We had originally planned not to have kids, but now we have to do our best to repopulate our city with Christians."

Abolafya's conversion was a total surprise to her. She was a nonbeliever who accompanied her husband, Ari, to a service at Mars Hill -- he was curious to check out the "tattooed punk-rock church" he had heard about. That Sunday, one of the church's worship bands was playing an electric version of "Amazing Grace" toward the end of the service, its loud and powerful sound filling the giant space. Suddenly Abolafya realized she was sobbing and couldn't stop. That night she gave her heart to Jesus. "It wasn't like I was looking for a solution, or that my life was a problem in any way," she explains. In fact, the problems were just beginning.

At a weekly Bible study class at a Mars Hill pastor's home, Abolafya first heard about the doctrine of wifely submission. The pastor's wife gave Abolafya a book to study called "The Fruit of Her Hands," which can essentially be summed up in Ephesians 5:22: "Wives, submit to your own husbands as to the Lord." When Abolafya stretched out on her couch one evening to read the first chapter of the book, she screamed and threw it across the room. But she prayed to God and was led back to the Bible, to understand Wilson's perspective. In the Bible, Abolafya found story after story about women being willfully deceived, following their own desires, wreaking travesty in their relationships and homes. In these stories she saw signs of her own past, her mother's behavior, her friends' actions. She began to submit to Ari about purchases and plans she wanted to make.

Abolafya no longer reads secular books or speaks to her old friends, She is now a deacon at Mars Hill and is responsible for planning the weddings held there, which always include a biblical explanation of marriage and gender roles; each year Mars Hill averages about one hundred marriages between couples within the congregation, all of whom must agree with this doctrine. Between her marriage ministry, the women's Bible study she runs, her two small children, and taking care of her husband and her home, Abolafya says she doesn't have time for many relationships anyway, and when she starts to home-school her kids soon, her time will be even tighter. "It's not what I ever imagined," she tells me, "or even what I ever wanted, but it's my duty now, and I have to learn to live with that."

Radical conversions like Judy’s aren’t what Driscoll has in mind just for Seattle, but for the entire nation. During the late '90s, a number of young people approached Driscoll for advice about starting their own churches. His response was to establish a church planting network called Acts 29, which has been growing rapidly ever since. The book of Acts tells of the first Christians' evangelism in 28 chapters, thus the idea behind Acts 29 is to continue their legacy. Through the network, new churches from San Diego to Albany have grown to follow Driscoll's strict orthodoxy and views. Acts 29 sponsored 60 new churches in the last year alone; 120 applications now wait in the queue for consideration.

While cultural specifics -- media, music, dress, attitude, and so on -- vary widely in the churches that Acts 29 encourages nationwide, cultural politics do not. Most significantly, in founding the network, Driscoll has established a nationwide apparatus to push back women's rights through the "liberation theology" of submission. The online application for church planting is an extremist screening device to this effect. It begins with a lengthy doctrinal assertion that every word of the Bible is literal truth; the application plucks out the examples of creationism and male headship of home and church to clarify this doctrine. "We are not liberals," it says. "We are not egalitarian."

As Ted Dietz noted to me when we were cruising in his pickup truck, discussing Driscoll’s effectiveness in sowing his evangelical orthodoxy nationwide, "You know the Ben Folds Five song 'Stan'? It's just like he sings in that song, really. Once you wanted revolution, now you're the institution."