Saturday, December 26, 2009

NYT: Catholic Group Supports Senate on Abortion Aid

The NYT has an article about how the Catholic Health Association is breaking with the Conference of Catholic Bishops on abortion provisions in health reform. Abortion is one of the issues that could torpedo a deal (the other biggest being taxes).

WASHINGTON — In an apparent split with Roman Catholic bishops over the abortion-financing provisions of the proposed health care overhaul, the nation’s Catholic hospitals have signaled that they back the Senate’s compromise on the issue, raising hopes of breaking an impasse in Congress and stirring controversy within the church.

The Senate bill, approved Thursday morning, allows any state to bar the use of federal subsidies for insurance plans that cover abortion and requires insurers in other states to divide subsidy money into separate accounts so that only dollars from private premiums would be used to pay for abortions.

Just days before the bill passed, the Catholic Health Association, which represents hundreds of Catholic hospitals across the country, said in a statement that it was “encouraged” and “increasingly confident” that such a compromise “can achieve the objective of no federal funding for abortion.” An umbrella group for nuns followed its lead.

The same day, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops called the proposed compromise “morally unacceptable.”

The divide frames one of the most contentious issues facing House and Senate negotiators as they try to produce a bill that can pass in both chambers.

For months, the bishops have driven a lobbying campaign to bar anyone who receives insurance subsidies under the proposed overhaul from using them to buy coverage that included abortion. Citing the bishops, a group of House Democrats forced their liberal party leaders to adopt such a provision and threatened to block any final legislation that fell short of it. Abortion rights supporters, in response, have vowed to block any bill that includes such a measure.

Officials of the Catholic hospitals’ group and the nuns’ Leadership Conference of Women Religious declined to comment.

Catholic scholars say their statement reflects a different application of church teachings against “cooperation with evil,” a calculus that the legislation offers a way to extend health insurance to millions of Americans. For the Catholic hospitals, that it is both a moral and financial imperative, since like other hospitals they stand to gain from reducing the number of uninsured patients.

And in practical political terms, some Democrats — including some opponents of abortion rights — say that the Catholic hospitals’ relative openness to a compromise could play a pivotal role by providing political cover for Democrats who oppose abortion to support the health bill. Democrats and liberal groups quickly disseminated the association’s endorsement along with others from the nuns’ group, other Catholics and evangelicals.

“I think it is a sign that progress is being made, that we are getting there,” said Representative Steve Driehaus of Ohio, one of the Democrats who forced the House to adopt the stricter restrictions in its bill. The hospitals’ statement, he said, recognized the Senate’s compromise as a meaningful step, making him “optimistic” that Democrats could find a bill that he and other abortion foes could support.

Other abortion opponents argue that liberals are overstating the hospital association’s influence. “They don’t carry the same sway,” said Representative Bart Stupak, the Michigan Democrat who led the effort that resulted in the House bill’s including a full ban on abortion coverage in any subsidized health insurance plan.

Mr. Stupak said he still had commitments from at least 10 Democrats who voted for the House bill and pledged to vote against the final legislation if it loosened the abortion restrictions — enough to keep the bill from being approved. “At the end of the day we are going to have something along the lines of my language,” he said. Abortion rights supporters said the signs of openness from Catholic groups were helping some Democratic abortion foes accept the Senate compromise.

“We have known for quite some time that the Catholic hospitals and also the nuns are really breaking from these hard-line bishops and saying, ‘This really is our goal: to get more people into health care coverage,’ ” said Representative Diana DeGette, Democrat of Colorado.

The abortion rights faction of the House Democrats was initially dubious about the Senate bill’s provision but has warmed up to it after reassurances from their Senate counterparts, Ms. DeGette said. President Obama and Democratic Congressional leaders say they aim to follow 30-year-old rules blocking the use of federal money for elective abortions, but lawmakers have fiercely disagreed over how to do so.
In this year marked by corporate greed, hubris and the near-destruction of the financial system (e.g. Lloyd Blankfein's "I'm doing God's work"), I thought it would be appropriate to post a video from the Muppets Christmas Carol:

We're Marley and Marley,
Avarice and greed.
We took advantage of the poor,
Just ignored the needy
We specialized in causing pain,
Spreading fear and doubt.
And if you could not pay the rent,
we simply threw you out.

There was the year we evicted the entire orphanage.
I remember the little tykes all standing in the snow bank.
With their little frost-bitten teddy bears.

We're Marley and Marley,
Our hearts were painted black.
We should have known our evil deeds would put us both in shackles.
Captive, bound, we're double-ironed,
Exhausted by the wait.
As freedom comes from giving love,
So, prison comes with hate.

We're Marley and Marley, Whooooooa.
We're Marley and Marley, Whooooooa.

Scrooge: But my friends, you were not unfeeling towards your fellow men!

True, there was something about mankind we loved.
I think it was there money.

Doomed, Scrooge! You're doomed for all time.
Your future is a horror story, written by your crime.
Your chains are forged, by what you say and do.
So, have your fun when life is done, a nightmare waits for you.

Scrooge: Why these terrible chains?

Oooooh, the chains.
We forged these chains in life by our acts of greed. You wear such a chain yourself.

Scrooge: Humbug! Speak comfort to me, friends!

Comfort, aaahhhh.

You will be haunted by three spirits.

Scrooge: Haunted? I've already had enough of that!

Without these visits you can not hope to avoid the past we tred.
Expect the first ghost tonight, when the bell tolls 1.
Scrooge: Can't I meet them all at once and get it over with?

When the bell tolls one...

We're Marley and Marley, Whoooooa.
We're Marley and Marley, Whoooooa.
We're Marley and Marley, Whoooooa.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Guardian: 'I stay because I love God'

Stephen Bates writes a very moving article for the Guardian.

With some leading Anglicans calling for gay people to be killed (and the archbishop staying quiet), we visited one congregation to see if they're still proud to be CofE.

As the tills ring merrily on high this weekend, softly, in the distance, if you listen carefully, you may just catch the distant note of a Christmas carol. Today, tomorrow and right up to next Friday, the English will be paying their annual low-key obeisance to Christianity.

Three million of us will crowd into Church of England services for midnight mass or Christmas morning eucharist and at least as many again for the services of other denominations - three times the normal Sunday attendance. It may be only a fraction of the population and they may not darken a church's doors again for another year, but deep down some distant, ancient, folk memory stirs; even if, as some clergy say, they're asked not to make the services too Christian these days.

"Christmas is our huge opportunity," says Paul Timms, the dean's verger at Southwark Cathedral. "It's a time when people are positive. This is a sacred space and a beautiful building. If only they could bottle the atmosphere in here."

Indeed it is a beautiful building, despite being hemmed in between the commuter rail lines heading for London's Charing Cross and Cannon Street stations. Shakespeare knew this church and people have worshipped on this site since Saxon times.

Southwark Cathedral will have had 26 carol services by the end of next week, including a singalong with brass bands, a Finnish choir and a service for the Financial Times. For their concert, Barclays had security guards to protect their chief executive - a banker now not even deemed safe in church - and the Greater London Authority called up the 100-strong London gay men's choir for theirs.

The cathedral is a good place for them, a notably liberal church within Anglicanism these days, much condemned and derided by conservative evangelicals for the welcome it offers to gay people and female clergy (As the Very Rev Colin Slee, the dean, and one of the CofE's most combative defender of liberal causes, called for volunteers at the lunchtime singalong carol service on Wednesday, he added wryly: "We're looking for three kings, but, as this is Southwark, I don't mind if there's a queen or two.")

But what sort of Church of England are people visiting this week? After yet another year of strife, some self-inflicted wounds and some haplessly imposed, the Church of England as an institution looks more battered than ever.

It remains mired in controversies which impact directly on how it deals with, and appears to, the outside world, especially about sexuality and personal morality, but also equality and discrimination, particularly how it regards its female clergy and its gay and lesbian members. Issues that have become largely settled in secular society still tie the church in agonised and constipated knots, partly because its synodical form of government encourages highly politicised factions.

Much of this passes the weekly worshippers in the pews by, or leaves them cold. They don't go to church for politics, but for worship, prayer and companionship. Ask most of them about gays in the clergy and you get a baffled shrug.

Simon Sarmiento, a lay member of the congregation at St Albans Cathedral, who runs a blogsite called Thinking Anglicans, said: "There is a lot of goodwill towards the Church of England, though some worry that the church is losing its grip. The image is definitely harming the church, but primarily [among] people outside whose only contact is what they read in the newspapers. If your knowledge is drawn from what the Daily Mail tells you, then the bits about its mission and work in society is bound to pass you by.

"I am very comfortable being a member of the Church of England. I just think a lot of people in it don't understand much about the meaning of Christianity."

And here's Matthew Knight, Southwark Cathedral's administrator, who's gay, and liberal, but goes to a conservative high church parish in Brighton, not because he agrees with its vicar but because he likes the music and the liturgy: "I don't care if they disapprove. I don't believe the church is here to tell me what to do. I like to follow my own conscience. The Anglican church is not my moral compass. It annoys me that the church is so obsessed with what people do in bed."

Yes, well, that sort of view would give some churchmen these days conniptions. The evidence is that the Church's tolerance of a range of worship and worshippers is waning in the faction fighting.

Nowhere is the division sharper than over the position of gay people. The Church's continuing wrangling over the issue makes some despair. One senior London cleric, himself in a gay partnership, says: "We are asked to make sacrifices of relationships, of part of our lives, that are unimaginable to our heterosexual colleagues, which they would never be asked to make. There is a failure to stand up for honesty, against prejudice, that is quite horrible. I stay because I love God and love the church, but it is like being in an abusive relationship."

Last Tuesday, bishops in the House of Lords were still fighting for the church's right to discriminate in employment, not just among the clergy (there is already exemption for them), but its other employees too. They were opposing the government's equality bill and, since it is unlikely that they want to discriminate against black or disabled folk, one must presume it is sexual orientation that is at issue. Dr Peter Forster, bishop of Chester, argued that the proposed legislation "concentrates too ... excessively on the rights of the individual, essential as these are".

More culpable than this little reported rearguard action has been the Church of England's response to two events on opposite sides of the world: the election, in Los Angeles, of a suffragan bishop, Mary Glasspool, who is openly gay and has lived with her partner Becki Sander for the last 21 years.

This temerity on the part of Californian Episcopalians in choosing the bishop they wanted produced a shocked reaction within hours from Dr Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, a man once thought sympathetic to the vocation of gay people. Glasspool's selection, he warned, posed very serious questions for the church. He took comfort in the possibility that her election might not be confirmed by the US house of bishops, even though no bishop has been rejected there since the 1870s.

What made his intervention worse was that at the same time he was maintaining an embarrassed silence about proposed legislation in the Ugandan parliament that would mandate the death penalty for some homosexuals, life imprisonment for others and prison sentences for friends and relatives who failed to inform the authorities of their existence.

Some Ugandan Anglicans have gleefully supported the plans: one, the Rev Michael Esakan Okwi, recently described gays as cockroaches and Bishop Joseph Abura warned against the wicked west "exporting" homosexuality to the developing world: "They want it to become a virtue ... Ugandan parliament, watchdog of our laws, please go ahead and put the anti-gay laws in place."

Through all this, there has been the muffled sound of gritted teeth from Lambeth Palace, all the more remarkable because the Church of England has long opposed capital punishment. A previous archbishop, Michael Ramsey, spoke against hanging and anti-homosexual legislation in Britain in the 1960s, and the Anglican communion calls on its clergy to minister sensitively to gay people, which would breach the Ugandan law. And yet Williams and John Sentamu, the archbishop of York, who is Ugandan and was once a judge there, kept quiet.

It was only last weekend, after even US conservative evangelical pastor Rick Warren had vigorously condemned the Ugandan proposals, that Williams, finally, sotto voce in an interview in the Daily Telegraph, murmured about the proposed law's "shocking severity".

It seems the death clause may have been withdrawn, but the threat of imprisonment remains and now neighbouring Rwanda is reportedly considering similar legislation. Meanwhile, the possibility of being expelled from the Anglican communion, or downgraded within its counsels, hangs over the US Episcopal church.

It comes to this, wrote the Guardian's commentator Andrew Brown: "Under Williams, the church that marries two women who love each other is to be thrown out of the Anglican communion. The church that would jail them both for life and revile and persecute their defenders stays snugly in its bosom. Not even the archbishop's gift for obfuscation can conceal these facts forever."

Tom Butler, the bishop of Southwark, who retires in March, said: "Rowan is an enigma. I don't think he is a pushover. He is patient and stubborn and he frequently says with God the impossible is always possible. The Ugandan situation is extremely sensitive. Archbishop Sentamu's advice is taken extremely seriously."

Ask him whether he condemns the legislation and he spars uncomfortably before finally admitting: "It's obviously a wicked law, which I could not possibly support, but whether I would help the situation by denouncing it publicly, I don't know."

And what of women? They now provide between a quarter and a third of the church's clergy, though many give their services unpaid, but, 15 years after they were first ordained, they still can't become bishops, because a handful of male clergy insist they could not accept their authority or abide their episcopal touch.

In October, Pope Benedict XVI stuck his oar into the Church of England's internal controversy by offering those opposed to women's ordination a refuge, a sort-of separate corral where they will be able to follow some Anglican rites while essentially converting to Catholicism. The words poisoned and chalice come inescapably to mind, since the offer is not quite as it first seemed, but it leaves Williams looking even more buffeted.

Now the dust has settled, Anglo-Catholics within the Church of England believe only a small handful of high-church vicars may be tempted - most of those opposed to women's ordination left for Rome years ago.

The irony, says Andrew Nunn, sub-dean of Southwark, himself an Anglo-Catholic, though one who supports women's ordination, is that the refugees might find themselves having to use Anglican rites when they have been saying Catholic mass for years in their own church. "Their bluff has been called," he said. "They are beginning to realise they will lose the freedom they have enjoyed as Anglicans. What church other than us would allow people who don't accept its teachings to be ordained?"

The liberals within the church nevertheless feel isolated, as conservative evangelicals - themselves a small minority - flex their muscles to wrest the church in their direction, one which in its more extreme fringes scorns the ancient rituals, its prayers, some of its hymns and certainly its vestments. These are among the churches that rip out pews, carpet the floors and erect video screens over the altars.

There is a fundamentalist tendency, says Slee, but it is not just in the church. "Fundamentalism is not just a Christian phenomenon. There's an appetite for hard-edged certainty. It's as if we can't cope with debate or difference and that is a real danger to humanity."

With tactics remarkably like those of the Militant tendency in the 1980s, the church's conservative evangelicals are getting their people in place. Recently, Peterborough found itself with a fundamentalist bishop on record as saying that non-Christian religions are a "sinful perversion of natural revelation" - something which may not go down well with the large Muslim population in the Rt Rev Donald Allister's new diocese. Meanwhile in Kent three lay people from the same aggressively evangelical Sevenoaks parish church have got themselves elected to the six-person delegation which will choose the next bishop of Rochester on behalf of the whole diocese.

Yet, all this is as distant rumbling to the pervasive Christmas spirit. Up in North Yorkshire, the Rev Julie Nelson is vicar of a group of parishes spread between seven villages in Wensleydale. Two of her four churches date from Norman times and all are listed buildings. Each will have its carol service and she expects half the population of 2,000 to turn out this week. "It's the church that holds the villages together," she says. "There's only one shop left around here.

"People have a longing to get back in touch. They like to revisit the old story. They are astonished by the divisions in the church. It doesn't really impinge on them. They see the sexuality questions as a distraction from the church's real mission. We'll be out carol singing round the place, in the snow. It always snows round here when we go carol singing."

Back at Southwark, Bruce Saunders, the cathedral's canon pastor, sighs: "I don't do groups myself - I don't belong to any factions. I always say there's a distinction between the kingdom of God and the Church of England and I'm prepared to die for the former, but not the latter."

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Sojourners: Obama's Brand of American Exceptionalism (Brian McLaren)

While troubled by some aspects of President Obama's Nobel acceptance speech, Brian McLaren offers a reflection at Sojourners where he shares how he is heartened that Obama, unlike many in the Bush administration, does not think American exceptionalism confers immunity from international laws and norms.

Politico: Anti-Socialist Bachmann got $250k in federal farm subsidies

Glenn Thrush reports that Rep Michele Bachmann, a very conservative Republican, is apparently not averse to farm subsidies:

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) — so fond of accusing the Obama administration of foisting socialism on an unwilling America — has apparently been the recipient of about a quarter of million bucks in government handouts.

Liberal site Truthdig links to an Environmental Working Group analysis of federal agricultural subsidies and found that the Bachmann family farm, managed by her father-in-law until his recent death, received $251,000 in farm payments between 1995 and 2006.

Bachmann’s financial disclosure forms indicate her stake in the Wisconsin farm is worth up to $250,000. Her income from the farm has grown from $2,000 a year a few years back to as much as $50,000 for 2008.

Truthdig calls her a "Welfare Queen":

Bachmann's family farm received $251,973 in federal subsidies between 1995 and 2006. The farm had been managed by Bachmann's recently deceased father-in-law and took in roughly $20,000 in 2006 and $28,000 in 2005, with the bulk of the subsidies going to dairy and corn. Both dairy and corn are heavily subsidized — or "socialized" — businesses in America (in 2005 alone, Washington spent $4.8 billion propping up corn prices) and are subject to strict government price controls.

Bachmann isn't alone in her selective socialism: EWG found that the top four districts receiving the largest ag payments are represented by conservative Republicans.

1. 3rd district of Nebraska (Rep. Adrian Smith - Republican) - $1,736,923,011 in subsidies go to 51,702 recipients.

2. 1st district of Kansas (Rep. Jerry Moran - Republican) - $1,315,979,151 in subsidies go to 75,802 recipients.

3. 4th district of Iowa (Rep. Tom Latham - Republican) - $1,288,622,912 in subsidies go to 35,696 recipients.

4. 9th district of Texas (Rep. Randy Neugebauer - Republican) - $1,227,192,312 in subsidies go to 21,290 recipients.

NYT Economix blog: Who's taking care of your mother?

Nancy Folbre, a University of Massachusetts at Amherst professor, shows that women play a crucial role in caring for their elders, and that men aren't able or willing to play the same role.

Who’s taking care of your mother? And who’s going to take care of you when you fall ill, break your hip or are diagnosed with dementia?

Amid the noisy policy debates about health care and long-term-care insurance we sometimes forget what an important role family and friends play in our larger elder-care economy.

Just imagine what would happen if they changed their minds, and decided not to take care of us, after all.

The National Alliance for Caregiving has sponsored a series of surveys that reveal the breadth and depth of informal elder-care provision. The numbers show what a crucial role that women play — and why it is hard for women to change this role.

The most recent report on care-giving in the United States provides rich details on the type of care that most of us both expect to give and hope to get: About 19 percent of United States residents provide some care to those 50 or older, averaging about 19 hours a week.

If we paid for these services, the total price tag would exceed total Medicaid expenditures — or, if you prefer a private-sector comparison, total sales of Wal-Mart.

Most of the money would go to women, who represent 67 percent of all caregivers. If care recipients themselves paid the bill, most of the money would come from women, who represent 68 percent of elder-care recipients. Indeed, the average unpaid elder-care provider, at age 50, balances on the cusp of the dependent age category.

Women live longer than men on average and therefore become more vulnerable to the care-intensive problems of extreme old age.

Economists tend to assume that women simply choose to provide care because it gives them satisfaction. But more than 43 percent of all caregivers in the survey reported that they felt that they had no choice. They stepped forward for a variety of reasons: because no other family member or friend was willing or able to provide adequate care or because paid services were economically out of reach.

Those who felt they had no choice were more likely to report emotional stress, poor physical health and financial hardship.

About 45 percent of women, compared with 38 percent of male caregivers, put themselves into the “no choice” category.

Many women would prefer to share care responsibilities more equally with others, but if they can’t, will take on them regardless, as a moral duty central to cultural ideals of womanhood.

Our gender norms tend to assign women greater moral responsibility than men for family care. Consider the following bit of dark humor from episode three of the first season of “Mad Men,” a series that highlights the overt sexism of the early 1960s:

So, the doctor says to him, I hope you’re happy. While you were out playing a round of golf, your wife was in a horrible accident. She’s going to need round-the-clock care — bathing, toilet … I’m just kidding. She’s dead. Hey, what did you shoot?

It’s hard to imagine a similar joke with the gender roles reversed.

And there’s some empirical evidence that the joke is not entirely out of date. A study of men and women with serious illnesses found that women are far more likely to be divorced by their partner than the other way around.

Women face an economic double-bind. Taking more responsibility than men for the care of family members lowers their lifetime earnings and leaves them vulnerable, especially in the event of illness, divorce or widowhood.

Partly as a result, older women remain dependent on younger women for unpaid care. They have an economic stake in younger women’s sense of obligation.

The bittersweet result is that the social organization of care reproduces some aspects of gender inequality. And vice versa.

NY Times: Obama's Foreign Engagement Scorecard

James Traub, writing for the New York Times, attempts to assess the success of President Obama's foreign engagement efforts.

If there is a one-word handle that fits the conduct of foreign relations in Barack Obama’s first year as president, it is “engagement.” The Obama administration has engaged with Iran, Russia, Burma, Sudan, North Korea. “Engagement” sounds harmless — something any sensible administration would do (though the Bush administration apparently did far less of it).

But what, in fact, does President Obama have to show for “engagement” itself? And how do you keep score? He has just emerged from Copenhagen having brokered an agreement, however modest, on climate change. Does that count?

Engagement is shorthand for “talking to your enemies,” or at least to countries with which you have profound differences. The Bush administration did not literally ignore countries like Iran, but when you describe a country as evil while obliquely threatening regime change, most diplomats would say you are talking in name only.

That was why, in the CNN/YouTube debate of July 2007, the Democratic candidates were asked if they would, “without preconditions,” talk to leaders of states with which America has hostile relations. Mr. Obama said, “I would,” adding that it was a “disgrace” that President Bush hadn’t done so. Hillary Rodham Clinton called that answer “irresponsible and frankly naïve.” That remains the view of many conservatives as the policy unfolds, but centrist and liberal foreign policy experts have widely applauded the engagement policy. In the current issue of The American Interest, for example, Jessica T. Mathews, head of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, gives the president “an unequivocal ‘A’ ” on this score.

But the math required to hand out such grades is complicated. Engagement can fail with its immediate object, but still reshape the climate of opinion; it can succeed in warming deep-frozen relations, but at a cost not worth paying.

If, in fact, President Obama has dispatched senior officials to talk to their counterparts in the most authoritarian states in the hope that treating them with respect will change their behavior, then events have so far proven him naïve. Persistent attempts to draw the poison from our relations with Iran have had absolutely no effect on Iran’s nuclear program, or its sponsorship of terrorism. The North Koreans remain similarly intransigent. Ditto Myanmar and Sudan.

To some conservatives, engagement thus sounds like a euphemism for “appeasement.” Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, argues, “There is a perception around the world that Obama is proceeding on bended knee to our enemies, and they’re rebuffing us contemptuously.”

Where, then, over the last year, has engagement actually advanced America’s national interest?

Iran is both the most important, and the most passionately disputed, case. Engagement here would seem to have been a failure — but only if you take the policy wholly at face value. One senior administration official who was not authorized to speak on the record says that while the offer of engagement was “never just an instrument or a ploy,” and remains on the table, the very public effort to exhaust all available means of persuasion has helped move Europe, Russia and China toward a tougher stance.

“Iran had an alliance with Russia and China,” he said, “and they were in a confrontation with the West. That’s not the dynamic anymore.” Should Iran remain recalcitrant, he said, “I remain convinced that we will get a resolution that Russia supports.”

Indeed, the Russians do not talk about Iran today the way they did a year ago.

But is the change great enough to overcome Russia’s historic resistance to sanctions, and to jeopardize its commercial relations with Iran? “Put me down as skeptical,” says the neoconservative writer Robert Kagan. He agrees that Mr. Obama’s persistent diplomacy has increased the likelihood of tough action but observes that engagement itself cannot change basic calculations of national interest. “The Russians know the Iranians are trying to build a nuclear weapon, and they don’t care,” Mr. Kagan says.

The question of sanctions figures in two distinct campaigns of engagement — toward Iran, and toward Russia. The first has arguably succeeded by failing; the second appears to have actually succeeded. Russia, it’s true, is scarcely an adversary like Iran or North Korea, and it’s not fair to say that President Bush refused to engage with it. Nevertheless, the change in tone of Russian-American relations has made possible achievements like the relatively noncontentious talks over nuclear arms reduction that now seem close to conclusion.

Russia/Iran belongs at the top of the engagement scorecard. So, too, do American relations with the United Nations Security Council. Susan E. Rice, the ambassador to the United Nations, says the engagement policy “has created a complete sea change in terms of countries’ willingness and openness to cooperate with us.” She cites tough sanctions imposed on North Korea, the nonproliferation resolution adopted at the Security Council session chaired by Mr. Obama in September, and a fine-tuning last week of measures against Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Perhaps Sudan belongs near the bottom. Patient diplomacy rarely works with states that ignore international opinion, and virtually nothing has come of six months of conciliatory diplomacy toward the murderous regime of President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan. Human rights advocates say the administration has been too willing to make concessions and offer dialogue, with little in return.

Still, even staunch advocates say outside actors have no choice but to seek a political solution that the regime can live with, rather than content themselves with what Mr. Obama dismissed in his Nobel Prize speech as “the satisfying purity of indignation.”

Engagement, then, has two faces: It seeks to offer even the most ruthless regime “the choice of an open door,” as the president put it in Oslo. It also furnishes a kind of diplomatic currency. At the time of the YouTube debate, one of Mr. Obama’s chief foreign policy advisers told me that “the cost-benefit analysis” of engagement had as much to do with changing America’s global image as with changing the behavior of the state in question. If the United States changes its language and diplomacy, “then you’re a different America” — one in a far better position to marshal world opinion in order to advance its goals.

Perhaps, then, the ultimate measure of the success of the engagement policy will be the extent to which the good will President Obama has generated will tip the balance in the hard bargaining before his administration — over assistance from allies in Afghanistan, over new approaches to the Middle East and the international economic structure, and, most immediately, in the struggle to reach a meaningful agreement on how to slow global warming — an issue where the global good collides with the most basic questions of national interest. The credit Mr. Obama has earned will have to stretch a very long way.

Jackson Browne: The Rebel Jesus

Hat tip to Episcopal Cafe. Happy holidays!!

Monday, December 21, 2009

NYT: Robert P. George, the Conservative Christian Big-Thinker

David Kirkpatrick of the New York Times has an excellent article about David George, the key intellectual force behind the Manhattan Declaration, a conservative Christian document that conservative Catholics, Orthodox Christians and Evangelicals have signed on to.

George is a natural law theorist, who argues that things like same-sex marriage and abortion are against the natural law - they are so repugnant that it is self-evident they are wrong. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights invokes natural law in that it asserts no logical basis behind the declarations. However, people should be very cautious when invoking natural law, since it can be a cloak for all sorts of unjustified prejudice. And prejudice against the LGBT community, for example, shouldn't be allowed under natural law - it can be demonstrated that the LGBT community is harmed by legal as well as social prejudice, and it is much harder to demonstrate that heterosexuals are harmed by allowing them to marry. Moderate and progressive Christians must challenge the Manhattan Document.

An excerpt from the article:

On a September afternoon, about 60 prominent Christians assembled in the library of the Metropolitan Club on the east side of Central Park. It was a gathering of unusual diversity and power. Many in attendance were conservative evangelicals like the born-again Watergate felon Chuck Colson, who helped initiate the meeting. Metropolitan Jonah, the primate of the Orthodox Church in America, was there as well. And so were more than half a dozen of this country’s most influential Roman Catholic bishops, including Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, Archbishop John Myers of Newark and Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia.

At the center of the event was Robert P. George, a Princeton University professor of jurisprudence and a Roman Catholic who is this country’s most influential conservative Christian thinker. Dressed in his usual uniform of three-piece suit, New College, Oxford cuff links and rimless glasses , George convened the meeting with a note of thanks and a reminder of its purpose. Alarmed at the liberal takeover of Washington and an apparent leadership vacuum among the Christian right, the group had come together to warn the country’s secular powers that the culture wars had not ended. As a starting point, George had drafted a 4,700-word manifesto that promised resistance to the point of civil disobedience against any legislation that might implicate their churches or charities in abortion, embryo-destructive research or same-sex marriage.

Two months later, at a Washington press conference to present the group’s “Manhattan Declaration,” George stepped aside to let Cardinal Rigali sum up just what made the statement, and much of George’s work, distinctive. These principles did not belong to the Christian faith alone, the cardinal declared; they rested on a foundation of universal reason. “They are principles that can be known and honored by men and women of good will even apart from divine revelation,” Rigali said. “They are principles of right reason and natural law.”

Even marriage between a man and a woman, Rigali continued, was grounded not just in religion and tradition but in logic. “The true great goods of marriage — the unitive and the procreative goods — are inextricably bound together such that the complementarity of husband and wife is of the very essence of marital communion,” the cardinal continued, ascending into philosophical abstractions surely lost on most in the room. “Sexual relations outside the marital bond are contrary not only to the will of God but to the good of man. Indeed, they are contrary to the will of God precisely because they are against the good of man.”


FOR 20 YEARS, George has operated largely out of public view at the intersection of academia, religion and politics. In the past 12 months, however, he has stepped into a more prominent role. With the death of the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, a Lutheran minister turned Roman Catholic priest who helped bring evangelicals and Catholics together into a political movement, George has assumed his mantle as the reigning brain of the Christian right. And he is in many ways the public face of the conservative side in the most urgent culture-war battle of the day. The National Organization for Marriage, the advocacy group fighting same-sex marriage in Albany and Trenton, Maine and California, has made him its chairman. Before the 2004 election, he helped a coalition of Christian conservative groups write their proposed amendment to the federal Constitution defining marriage as heterosexual. More than any other scholar, George has staked his reputation on the claim that same-sex marriage violates not only tradition but also human reason.

It’s part of a philosophy that has found support among a group of Catholic bishops who have become some of the most persistent critics of President Obama and the Congressional Democrats. George serves as their intellectual point man. In the past few years, many of the evangelical Protestants who once defined the religious right have turned inward after their disappointment with President George W. Bush. In their place, George’s friends among the Catholic bishops have stepped to the fore, hammering Obama for his pro-choice Catholic cabinet nominees, for being invited to speak at Notre Dame’s commencement, for his stem-cell research policies and most recently for his health care proposals.

As Democrats have stepped up their explicitly religious appeals to Catholic voters, these bishops have pushed back against the intrusion on their turf. While Democrats talked of finding common ground on abortion, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, the informal leader of this side of the American church, gave a much-publicized speech denouncing Obama as “the most committed abortion rights candidate in history.” Chaput chose to publish his remarks on the Web site of a think tank co-founded by George — the man who had himself argued in an essay disseminated widely last fall through conservative circles, Fox News and Christian radio that Barack Obama was “the most extreme pro-abortion candidate ever to seek” the presidency.


Last spring, George was invited to address an audience that included many bishops at a conference in Washington. He told them with typical bluntness that they should stop talking so much about the many policy issues they have taken up in the name of social justice. They should concentrate their authority on “the moral social” issues like abortion, embryonic stem-cell research and same-sex marriage, where, he argued, the natural law and Gospel principles were clear. To be sure, he said, he had no objections to bishops' “making utter nuisances of themselves” about poverty and injustice, like the Old Testament prophets, as long as they did not advocate specific remedies. They should stop lobbying for detailed economic policies like progressive tax rates, higher minimum wage and, presumably, the expansion of health care — “matters of public policy upon which Gospel principles by themselves do not resolve differences of opinion among reasonable and well-informed people of good will,” as George put it.

A few months later, in a July 17 letter to Congress, the bishops did something close to that in the health care debate. Setting aside decades of calls for universal coverage, the bishops pledged to fight any bill that failed to block the use of federal subsidies for insurance covering abortion. “Stalin famously asked, ‘How many divisions has the pope?’ ” George wrote to me in an e-mail message after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi allowed a vote on an amendment that satisfied the bishops’ demands. “I guess Pelosi now knows.”

In the American culture wars, George wants to redraw the lines. It is the liberals, he argues, who are slaves to a faith-based “secularist orthodoxy” of “feminism, multiculturalism, gay liberationism and lifestyle liberalism.” Conservatives, in contrast, speak from the high ground of nonsectarian public reason. George is the leading voice for a group of Catholic scholars known as the new natural lawyers. He argues for the enforcement of a moral code as strictly traditional as that of a religious fundamentalist. What makes his natural law “new” is that it disavows dependence on divine revelation or biblical Scripture — or even history and anthropology. Instead, George rests his ethics on a foundation of “practical reason”: “invoking no authority beyond the authority of reason itself,” as he put it in one essay.

NYT: A Dangerous Dysfunction (Paul Krugman)

Paul Krugman writes a bit more about the U.S. Senate's governance:

Unless some legislator pulls off a last-minute double-cross, health care reform will pass the Senate this week. Count me among those who consider this an awesome achievement. It’s a seriously flawed bill, we’ll spend years if not decades fixing it, but it’s nonetheless a huge step forward.

It was, however, a close-run thing. And the fact that it was such a close thing shows that the Senate — and, therefore, the U.S. government as a whole — has become ominously dysfunctional.

After all, Democrats won big last year, running on a platform that put health reform front and center. In any other advanced democracy this would have given them the mandate and the ability to make major changes. But the need for 60 votes to cut off Senate debate and end a filibuster — a requirement that appears nowhere in the Constitution, but is simply a self-imposed rule — turned what should have been a straightforward piece of legislating into a nail-biter. And it gave a handful of wavering senators extraordinary power to shape the bill.

Now consider what lies ahead. We need fundamental financial reform. We need to deal with climate change. We need to deal with our long-run budget deficit. What are the chances that we can do all that — or, I’m tempted to say, any of it — if doing anything requires 60 votes in a deeply polarized Senate?

Some people will say that it has always been this way, and that we’ve managed so far. But it wasn’t always like this. Yes, there were filibusters in the past — most notably by segregationists trying to block civil rights legislation. But the modern system, in which the minority party uses the threat of a filibuster to block every bill it doesn’t like, is a recent creation.

The political scientist Barbara Sinclair has done the math. In the 1960s, she finds, “extended-debate-related problems” — threatened or actual filibusters — affected only 8 percent of major legislation. By the 1980s, that had risen to 27 percent. But after Democrats retook control of Congress in 2006 and Republicans found themselves in the minority, it soared to 70 percent.

Some conservatives argue that the Senate’s rules didn’t stop former President George W. Bush from getting things done. But this is misleading, on two levels.

First, Bush-era Democrats weren’t nearly as determined to frustrate the majority party, at any cost, as Obama-era Republicans. Certainly, Democrats never did anything like what Republicans did last week: G.O.P. senators held up spending for the Defense Department — which was on the verge of running out of money — in an attempt to delay action on health care.

More important, however, Mr. Bush was a buy-now-pay-later president. He pushed through big tax cuts, but never tried to pass spending cuts to make up for the revenue loss. He rushed the nation into war, but never asked Congress to pay for it. He added an expensive drug benefit to Medicare, but left it completely unfunded. Yes, he had legislative victories; but he didn’t show that Congress can make hard choices and act responsibly, because he never asked it to.

So now that hard choices must be made, how can we reform the Senate to make such choices possible?

Back in the mid-1990s two senators — Tom Harkin and, believe it or not, Joe Lieberman — introduced a bill to reform Senate procedures. (Management wants me to make it clear that in my last column I wasn’t endorsing inappropriate threats against Mr. Lieberman.) Sixty votes would still be needed to end a filibuster at the beginning of debate, but if that vote failed, another vote could be held a couple of days later requiring only 57 senators, then another, and eventually a simple majority could end debate. Mr. Harkin says that he’s considering reintroducing that proposal, and he should.

But if such legislation is itself blocked by a filibuster — which it almost surely would be — reformers should turn to other options. Remember, the Constitution sets up the Senate as a body with majority — not supermajority — rule. So the rule of 60 can be changed. A Congressional Research Service report from 2005, when a Republican majority was threatening to abolish the filibuster so it could push through Bush judicial nominees, suggests several ways this could happen — for example, through a majority vote changing Senate rules on the first day of a new session.

Nobody should meddle lightly with long-established parliamentary procedure. But our current situation is unprecedented: America is caught between severe problems that must be addressed and a minority party determined to block action on every front. Doing nothing is not an option — not unless you want the nation to sit motionless, with an effectively paralyzed government, waiting for financial, environmental and fiscal crises to strike.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Washington Post: Why Two Black D.C. Pastors Support Gay Marriage

In a moving op-ed piece on the Washington Post, pastors Christine and Dennis Wiley, who are African-American, tell us why they support same-sex marriage and their church's struggle with the issue. They also give us some opinions on why some in the Black community oppose it.

On a beautiful Saturday afternoon a couple of years ago, we entered the sanctuary at Covenant Baptist Church and took our places in front of the altar, just as we had countless times before in our more than 20 years as partners in ministry. We had been united in holy matrimony ourselves in the same spot where we now stood to unite others.

As the couple walked down the aisle, we recalled the previous evening's rehearsal, when we commended all the participants for their courage and prayed that God would be in our midst at the ceremony. When we pronounced the couple "partners for life," we felt our prayers had been answered. It was the same feeling we had experienced so many times before when asking for God's blessing of the union of a man and a woman. Only this time, the union was of a man and a man.

Our church is the first and only traditional black church in the District of Columbia to perform same-sex unions. We conducted our first two union ceremonies, one gay and one lesbian, in the summer of 2007. The rapid political developments that followed in our nation and our city have made us optimistic that by the summer of 2010, same-sex nuptials will be not only blessed by churches such as ours, but also sanctioned by law in the District.

On Tuesday, the D.C. Council voted to legalize same-sex marriage. This historic measure passed 11 to 2, with the two no votes cast by council members Yvette Alexander of Ward 7 and Marion Barry of Ward 8 -- the ward where our church sits. Both wards are east of the Anacostia River and have the highest percentages of black residents in the city. Both members said that the majority of their constituents, who live in the same communities where many of our parishioners live, do not support gay marriage.

We have seen the resistance that Alexander and Barry were talking about. We know it has deep cultural and historical roots. But we have also seen that this resistance is not stuck in concrete.

After that first ceremony in our church, we were pleased and relieved; many members and guests told us how beautiful the service had been. But not everyone who attended shared this feeling. After most of the guests left, one longtime parishioner approached us, shaking. In a voice filled with rage, she asked how we could desecrate the sanctuary with such an ungodly act. She vowed to no longer be a member of our church.

After leaving our congregation, she contacted denominational leaders and local newspapers, including The Washington Post, to complain about our "immoral" behavior. She also took us to court in an unsuccessful attempt to recoup two years of tithes because, in her opinion, we had misled her in presenting ourselves as a "real" Baptist church.

For us, the courage to perform same-sex unions is in keeping with the proudest traditions of our Baptist and congregational heritage. Within the Baptist tradition of freedom and autonomy, Covenant Baptist Church has a long history of progressive ministry emphasizing social justice, service to the community and inclusion.

Several years ago, our congregation unanimously adopted a vision statement that we recite together every Sunday morning as a reminder that "all are welcome, regardless of race, ethnicity, class, gender, age or sexual orientation." In leading our congregation to adopt this vision, we knew that one day we would face the question of same-sex marriage. We did not know how we would respond when the moment came. We didn't arrive at the altar for that first same-sex union ceremony in 2007 because the couple asked us to perform their wedding. Instead, an openly gay man, enrolled at a local seminary, had sought our church's endorsement in his quest to become ordained. We treated him just as we would any aspiring minister who needed our guidance and support: We asked him about his personal life. He revealed that he was living with his partner, also a church member, but that they had not made a lifetime commitment to each other. We could not ask the church to license him if he was living with someone -- male or female -- in an uncommitted relationship. After about a year of counseling, he and his partner were clear that they wanted to be together for life. The ball was then back in our court.

This couple did not press us to perform a union ceremony, nor did we encourage them to have one. If they had been heterosexual, their decision to make a permanent commitment to each other would have probably resulted in marriage. Since this couple were homosexual, however, what were their options? Not only was same-sex marriage illegal in the District, it was also forbidden in most churches and faith communities.

Through Bible study, reflection on theology and history, and experience, we had come to believe that it was unjust to deny same-sex couples the opportunity to consecrate their relationships in the same way that we allow opposite-sex couples to. Before the ceremony in the church, each of us had performed a same-sex union ceremony elsewhere. But this was our home. The church had voted to become an inclusive congregation. How could we justify treating same-sex couples as second-class citizens?

We knew what was in our hearts. But if the ceremony was to be held at Covenant, we had to present this matter to the congregation. We believed that a traditional up-and-down vote could be too divisive. We chose instead to seek some form of consensus.

About three months before that first union ceremony, we held a church meeting to present the two requests and to explain that we intended to honor them. We asked for the congregation's support and received an overwhelmingly positive response. However, as we drew closer to the first ceremony, the goodwill we thought we had witnessed on that evening slowly evaporated. The anger and dissension that had been bubbling erupted when that longtime church member confronted us at the end of the ceremony. She, and the scores of other members who left the congregation after the same-sex ceremonies began, painfully reminded us that although everyone in the black community does not think alike, the roots of homophobia run deep.

We are sometimes asked what accounts for the homophobia within the African American community. This question seems to assume that the community is disproportionately homophobic compared with other racial and ethnic groups. We are not aware of any credible study that has conclusively proved this assumption. However, our first-hand experience has convinced us that homophobia within the black church and the wider community is real. And the factors that have nurtured these beliefs over the years are complex.

When issues of gay rights and gay marriage come up, the first question many black people ask is, "What does the Bible have to say about it?" This seemingly innocent question doesn't acknowledge that when we approach the Bible, our perspective has been shaped by where we were born, by whom we were raised, what Grandma taught us, where we went to school and what our pastor preached in church -- usually conservative ideas on matters such as homosexuality. Therefore, we tend to interpret the Bible not objectively, but through the lens of our cultural and historical context.

The conservative strand of black religion is evident in what Harvard professor Peter Gomes calls "bibliolatry" -- the practice of worshiping the Bible rather than worshiping God. It is also found in a "literal" interpretation of the Bible that focuses more on the letter of the text than on its spirit, and concentrates on passages about domination, oppression, hierarchy, elitism and exclusion rather than on the major themes of love, justice, freedom, equality and inclusion that run throughout the Bible.

A more complicated element of black homophobia is the lingering influence of sexual stereotypes that originated during slavery. According to theologian Kelly Brown Douglas, the myth of "over-sexualized" black bodies portrayed black men as violent "bucks" who posed an ever-present threat to white women, and black women as "Jezebels" who seduced white men.

These stereotypes served to justify the whipping, lynching and castration of black men, and to excuse the sexual violation of black women by white men. They were just one element of what blacks had to struggle against to gain acceptance and respectability in white society, especially during the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th. On this matter, religion has often been a vehicle of suppression, accommodation and control. While the church was a refuge from the horrors of racism and played an empowering role in African American history, it also taught black people to repress behaviors -- especially sexual behaviors -- that might attract unwanted attention, appear uncouth or seem threatening to white people.

A final piece that shapes black attitudes toward same-sex marriage is the preoccupation with racism in the black community. This obsession, although justifiable, has led to a failure to appreciate how racism is inextricably connected to all other forms of oppression. Those who fail to see this connection may resent the comparison of gay rights with civil rights. But as Martin Luther King Jr. once said, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

Last week, two black D.C. Council members voted against the same-sex marriage bill. But five black council members voted for it. Our black mayor signed it on Friday, and our black congressional representative has promised to defend it on Capitol Hill. Although the bill faces the possibility of intervention by Congress, something revolutionary is happening in this city to debunk the notion that the black community's homophobia is entrenched.

Many new members are joining the church, excited by our vision. The couple for whom we performed the first union ceremony at our church are still together and doing well. And the man who aspired to the ministry was ordained a few weeks ago and is now a chaplain supervisor at a local hospital. Some who disagree with us have condemned us to hell. But we believe that God has granted us the courage of our convictions.

We will continue to stand at the altar in our community, telling all the couples who come before us: "Let it be known that you are joined together not only by your love for each other, and by our collective love for each of you, but by the love of God."

The Rev. Dennis W. Wiley and the Rev. Christine Y. Wiley are pastors of Covenant Baptist Church in Washington. They are co-chairs of the organization DC Clergy United for Marriage Equality.

MP Dunleavy (MSN Money): Why it costs more to be a woman

There are a number of structural factors that put women behind men in terms of economic progress. They are usually the ones to care for children and for aging parents, and taking time off from the work force hurts their lifetime earnings. They do experience job discrimination. Even if they make progress in certain fields, men are more likely to take the more prestigious jobs in the field; for example, even though women can be priests and bishops in the U.S. Episcopal Church, and even though the Presiding Bishop is a woman, women are still less likely to be the rectors of larger parishes and cathedral deans, or to hold other major appointments. And then, there's one absolutely nonsensical way in which women are penalized: MP Dunleavy of MSN Money documents the fact that many women's personal care products are basically more expensive versions of the same products marketed to men:

Babasol justifies charging 70% more per ounce for the female-branded shaving cream by claiming it meets a woman's needs. As Marks says, "You're paying for a convenience factor."

Say your boyfriend tells you that his apartment costs $500 a month and that one just like it is available in his building. When you go to check it out, the landlord tells you the rent will be $850 -- 70% more.

That's crazy, right? That would never happen in real life, would it? Don't bet your depleted dollars on it:

A 2006 study (.pdf download) by the Consumer Federation of America indicated that women were 32% more likely than men of similar income to carry subprime mortgages. Those subprime interest rates topped 7.66% when the average prime mortgage rate was 5.87%. On a $100,000 loan, that's nearly $120 a month more -- about $43,000 more over 30 years. Women were 41% more likely to end up with high-cost subprime loans, at rates above 9.66%.

Most recently, during the debate over health care, another nasty reality was brought back into the spotlight: Many insurance companies charge women higher premiums and/or impose harsher terms (by rejecting claims or curtailing coverage), especially for those of childbearing age. Examples ranged from 22% to 50% higher, depending on age and state.
That adds up to a lot more than a buck here or there at Walgreens.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Democrats get 60

The Democrats have reached the 60 vote threshold to pass health reform in the Senate. The Democratic caucus is very ideological diverse and can be very hard to hold together, whereas the Republican caucus is almost united in opposition. There could be further setbacks, but there is actually a chance that a bill will pass by Christmas.

I was once at a public briefing hosted by the Bipartisan Policy Center, an independent policy center founded by former Republican and Democratic Senators. One of the latter was former Sen. Tom Daschle. When BPC was discussing its health policy proposal, which looks roughly like what the bill coming out of Congress does, Daschle said parenthetically that the US political system was turning into a "parliamentary system without majority rule."

In governments run under the Westminster system of government, like the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, the majority party has the mechanisms necessary to ensure that its legislation gets passed. As a counterweight against their over-reaching, the ruling party's coalition might fracture and they might be displaced by a vote of no confidence in the legislature. The U.S. is technically run under a parliamentary system as well, so I assume Sen. Daschle meant the Westminster model of parliamentary government.

In the U.S., there are numerous mechanisms by which the minority can stymie the majority, and this does not make for good governance in the long haul - as we are seeing today. The Republicans were, and now they are attempting to block legislation that the American people badly need. The political cost to the Administration is high, in that public trust has been undermined - Americans see that Congress cannot get anything done and they think that the leadership must be bad, but it is the structures of Congress that are the problem.

During the hearings to confirm Samuel Alito as a Supreme Court Justice, the Democrats were talking of filibustering - that is, continuing the debate endlessly, and the 60 vote threshold refers to the fact that you need 60 votes to end a filibuster. The Republicans were furious, and they in turn talked of amending the Senate rules to prohibit filibusters. To my recollection, they would need a two-thirds vote (i.e. 67), and I'm not sure how they would have got those votes. In any case, a bipartisan group of Senators got together and pledged not to filibuster unless all of them agreed that the circumstances were extreme. Alito was confirmed, unfortunately. However, it strikes me that if the Republicans had ended the filibuster, Alito would have been confirmed anyway, and health reform with a public plan would likely have passed. Congress occasionally falls into the hands of extremists, like the last Congress, and certainly the Republicans could have done a lot of damage (like with the last Bush budget). However, you have to believe these things correct themselves over time - for example, the country voted the bums out. I don't see that the Senate would be willing to end the filibuster, but it would probably be good for the country in the long run.

Politico: Byrd's comments rock West Virginia

Politico has a very interesting piece on Senator Robert Byrd, a Democrat of West Virginia and a longtime supporter of the coal industry, perhaps gaining some perspective. The coal industry has not gained similar perspective:

An extraordinary recent statement by Sen. Robert Byrd has stunned his coal-dependent home state and left West Virginia politicians and business leaders scrambling to understand the timing and motivation behind his unexpected discourse on the future of the coal industry.

In an early December op-ed piece released by his office — also recorded on audio by the frail 92-year-old senator — Byrd argued that resistance to constraints on mountaintop-removal coal mining and a failure to acknowledge that “the truth is that some form of climate legislation will likely become public policy” represent the real threat to the future of coal.

“Change has been a constant throughout the history of our coal industry,” Byrd said in the 1,161-word statement. “West Virginians can choose to anticipate change and adapt to it or resist and be overrun by it. One thing is clear: The time has arrived for the people of the Mountain State to think long and hard about which course they want to choose.”

In almost any other state, Byrd’s remarks might not have caused such a stir. But in West Virginia, where the coal industry — even in its currently diminished form — accounts for 30,000 jobs and more than $3.5 billion in gross annual product and provides roughly half of all American coal exports, according to the state coal association, his statement reverberated across the political landscape.

And it wasn’t just the astonishing nature of the remarks that made jaws drop. It was the fact that it was Byrd — a West Virginia political titan, the longest-serving member of Congress in American history, the son of a coal miner and a longtime defender of coal interests — who made them.

“To me, it was quite amazing. It was the first time that he had been at all critical of the coal industry,” said Ken Hechler, a veteran West Virginia Democratic officeholder who served as congressman from 1959 to 1977. “It was truly unexpected.”

“Over the years, he’s been a proponent of coal,” said Art Kirkendoll, the influential Democratic president of the Logan County Commission, located in the heart of the state’s coal country. “He’s the ranking senator in the Senate, a very powerful man, has accomplished a lot of things. Anytime he makes a statement — especially about a controversial issue — it has an impact on things.”

Byrd’s timing also guaranteed the state would sit up and take notice, since it came at a time of intense anxiety over King Coal’s future in West Virginia. It’s a predicament underscored by the recent House passage of cap-and-trade legislation.

Some local business leaders have called the Obama administration’s environmental policies hostile to the coal industry, with the Environmental Protection Agency’s move to delay permits for mountaintop removal leading the state Chamber of Commerce to accuse the agency of waging a “war on coal.”

In November, amid concerns about the direction of administration policy, West Virginia Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin held a rare closed-door meeting in Charleston with Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller, Republican Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, Democratic Rep. Nick Rahall, Byrd advisers and executives from the state’s top coal companies. Leaders emerged pledging to speak with “one voice” to get clarity from the White House on its environmental priorities.

“We’ve seen the ups and downs of the coal industry before, but we’ve never seen anything like this: an outright attack on the coal industry,” said state Sen. Ron Stollings, a Democrat who represents the coalfields of Boone County, the state’s top coal-producing county. “We’ve never, ever been in a situation where there would never be any more coal.”

“Collectively, the coal industry faces the largest political challenge it ever has,” said Al Cross, director for the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky. “A lot of them don’t want to change, and their ability to adapt to change is uncertain. The whole clean coal industry is uncertain.”

“We’re talking about the future of the industry,” Cross said.

For West Virginia’s political and business establishment — which has strained to remain respectful of the elder statesman in the wake of his remarks — Byrd’s address was simply more proof that Washington was lining up against coal.

But the tone of Byrd’s remarks didn’t help either. He pointedly criticized coal industry leaders and others for “stoking fear” over the EPA’s efforts. And he excoriated a request from the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce for the congressional delegation to withhold their votes for health care reform until the Obama administration and Congress backed off its “war on coal/energy.”

“I believe that the notion of holding the health care of over 300 million Americans hostage in exchange for a handful of coal permits is beyond foolish; it is morally indefensible,” Byrd said.

Manchin, on several occasions, has even called for Byrd to clarify his remarks, telling the Charleston Daily Mail last Friday, “I want to know if he’s against mountaintop removal completely or if he just wants to modify it. I want to make sure we’re still on the same page. If we have some clarification, it will help all of us.”

Last weekend, West Virginia Coal Association President Bill Raney took to the pages of the Beckley Register Herald to write, “The coal industry accepts Sen. Byrd’s call for dialogue, and in so doing, we must respectfully disagree with many of the comments and clear up some misconceptions set forth in the statement.”

Don Blankenship, the powerful head of West Virginia coal giant Massey Energy Co. and a vocal opponent of Obama’s climate change efforts, was quoted in news accounts accusing Byrd of “riding the fence” in seeking to curry favor with the White House while retaining his allegiance to West Virginia.

“I think it came as a surprise to people in the state,” Blankenship told POLITICO. “It seemed a bit inconsistent with his opinions on mining and his statements on surface mining.”

Surprise was a theme among state leaders when asked for their response to the furor, especially since Byrd’s position represents a departure from his long record as a fierce defender of the coal interests and mountaintop removal.

The situation has been clouded by Byrd’s advanced age, his limited public appearances and the fact that he has been in and out of the hospital several times this year.

“His pronouncement really took me by surprise,” said West Virginia Chamber of Commerce President Steve Roberts, who has emerged as an outspoken critic of Byrd’s address. “Sen. Byrd’s statement came as quite a surprise to us and to most West Virginia leaders.”

“It was very surprising,” said state Delegate Ralph Rodighiero, a Logan County Democrat. “People were devastated.”

Even Byrd’s Democratic Senate colleague Rockefeller, himself a former West Virginia governor, acknowledged that he had been caught off guard by the boldness of Byrd’s remarks.

But Rockefeller said Byrd had recognized the ever-increasing importance of addressing climate change — adding that the longtime senator benefited from years of hindsight.

Asked why Byrd had decided to act now, Rockefeller paused.

“Perspective,” he said.

Over the past six months, however, Byrd has dropped hints that some environmental activists have interpreted as signs he was taking a new approach to coal. In June, he announced that staffers would investigate the effects of mountaintop removal to surrounding areas. And even as he expressed skepticism of the Democratic push for climate change legislation this year, Byrd declared in late October that “we will show that clean coal can be a ‘green’ energy.”

“Our eldest statesman seems to be our only leader that is thinking about the future and how it is time to turn to a low-carbon economy,” said Vivian Stockman of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, an organization that is rallying against mountaintop removal. “It was a big boost.”

Jesse Jacobs, a Byrd spokesman, declined to comment on Byrd’s statement, saying it “speaks for itself.”

Thursday, December 17, 2009

WSJ: US Executives Enjoy 'Sure Thing' Retirement Plans

The Wall Street Journal reports on an inequity in the U.S. retirement system: one of the benefits of supplemental executive retirement plans for top executives is that many of them offer guaranteed rates of return. An excerpt:

Jacqueline D'Andrea last year lost more than 60% of the 401(k) savings she built over a decade as a Wal-Mart Stores Inc. manager, she says. The 1.2 million employees in the retailer's 401(k) retirement plan lost 18% as the market plunged, corporate filings show.

Top executives at Wal-Mart didn't face such risks. Thanks to a guaranteed 6.6% return, Chief Executive Officer H. Lee Scott Jr. had gains of $2.3 million in a supplemental retirement-savings plan, bringing its total savings to $46.7 million. "We're proud of the benefits we offer to our hourly associates" which include bonuses, 401(k) and profit sharing contributions, and merchandise discounts," said a Wal-Mart spokesman, who confirmed the plans' figures.

One-quarter of top executives at major U.S. companies had gains in their supplemental executive retirement-savings plans in 2008, even as employees had sizable losses in the companies' retirement accounts, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis. The gains in executive retirement accounts often stemmed from guaranteed fixed returns on executive-savings plans.


In their deferred-compensation plans, some executives have access to investment options that aren't available to other employees. For example, top executives at Bank of New York Mellon Corp. could invest their savings in a fixed-income fund that had a 6.6% return in 2008; thanks to electing this fund, Steven Elliott, senior vice chairman, had earnings of $1.3 million on his account, according to filings.

The fixed-income fund isn't available in the bank's 401(k) plan. The investments in the employees' retirement accounts fell 30%, filings show. A spokesman confirmed the information.

Top executives at Cummins Inc. could choose among three options: the return on the S&P-500 index, "the Lehman Bond Index, or 10 year Treasury Bill + 2%," according to filings. The executives at the engine maker had a total of $1.4 million in gains on their accounts, suggesting that none of them elected the stock index, which plummeted last year.

By contrast, the employees of the Indiana-based engine maker lost 29% on their 401(k) retirement accounts. A spokesman says the company doesn't disclose which option the executives chose, but says: "These are more senior people who can be expected to make more conservative investment choices than a 25-year-old in the 401(k)."


Some companies note that while fixed returns on executive deferred-compensation plans protect them from losses, they also limit their upside.

Executives at Illinois Tool Works Inc., a maker of fasteners and adhesives, received returns of 6.1% to 8.4% in 2008, while investments in the employees' 401(k) lost 25%. A spokeswoman says that so far this year, the average return of employees' 401(k) plans has been 23%, while the interest credited to the executives' deferred-compensation plan is just 5.6%.

Based on those figures, the average employee's account at Illinois Tool Works would have declined 7.8% from the beginning of 2008; the executive accounts would have gained between 12% and 14.5% in that time.

With the S&P 500 down a third from its October 2007 peak, some employees never will recover their losses. Ms. D'Andrea, the Wal-Mart manager, says her retirement kitty bounced back up to $8,000—about the average size of employee accounts in Wal-Mart's 401(k) plan—from a low of $6,000 earlier this year.

But the 48-year-old Henderson, Nev., resident lost her job in May and cashed out her account. Now, she vows to never join a retirement plan again. "It's too risky," she says.

Over the long haul, volatility is what does individual investors in. Going back to the Illinois Tool Works example, an employee who lost 25% in 2008 but gained 25% in 2009 does not come out even. $100 times 75% (a 25% loss) is $75, and $75 times 125% (a 25% gain) is $93.75. On top of that, individual investors tend to exit the market when its down and get back in when it's up, thus locking in their losses and missing market gains.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

NY Times Economix blog: CT Scans and Health Reform

David Leonhardt writes about growing evidence of overuse of CT scans and growing evidence of risk due to radiation exposure:

This week’s news about CT scans [Editor: link is to other NYT article] offered the latest evidence of the problem with fee-for-service medicine. Radiation from the CT scans done just in the year 2007 will eventually cause 15,000 extra deaths, researchers reported in The Archives of Internal Medicine. And scan use continues to rise, so the death toll will probably grow. An editorial accompanying the research paper suggested that there appeared to be “significant overuse” of such scans.

Many of those scans, of course, bring in extra revenue for doctors, hospitals, medical-device companies and the like. The scans are also also one small reason health costs are rising so rapidly and insurance has become unaffordable for so many people. CT scans are, in a nutshell, precisely what’s wrong with fee-for-service medicine: It causes wonderfully useful treatments and tests to become overused.

Here is more from the Internal Medicine editorial:

A popular current paradigm for health care presumes that more information, more testing, and more technology inevitably leads to better care. The studies by Berrington de González et al and Smith-Bindman et al counsel a reexamination of that paradigm for nuclear imaging. In addition, it is certain that a significant number of CT scans are not appropriate. A recent Government Accountability Office report on medical imaging, for example, found an 8-fold variation between states on expenditures for in-office medical imaging; given the lack of data indicating that patients do better in states with more imaging and given the highly profitable nature of diagnostic imaging, the wide variation suggests that there may be significant overuse in parts of the country. For example, a pilot study found that only 66% of nuclear scans were appropriate using American College of Cardiology criteria—the remainder were inappropriate or uncertain.

In another Economix Blog post, Catherine Rampell gives some data on CT use rates per capita in other OECD countries. The US leads the pack by quite a bit and the same gap (and likely the same situation of overuse) is true for MRI rates.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Immigration reform will require the US to re-examine its economic relationship to Mexico

Christians in the U.S. who support immigration reform believe that people who face economic security, war or political persecution in their homelands have the right to emigrate. Countries that can support such people have the responsibility to take them.

However, some Christian thinkers, such as Pope John Paul II have also stated that people have the right notto emigrate - in other words, to live in safety and security in their own homelands. Other nations have the corresponding responsibility not to economically exploit other countries and to actively help them develop strong, stable and just economies.

The U.S. must soon reform its immigration policies. It must ensure that all citizens and permanent residents who have families abroad are reunited with their families. It must create a robust and fair guest worker policy at minimum - and preferably create more and more sensible avenues for workers to immigrate legally. However, in the long run, the U.S. will also need to examine economic injustice as a driver of immigration from Mexico and Latin America. Related to that issue, Elisabeth Malkin, writing for the NYT Economix blog, examines the effect of NAFTA on Mexican agricultural companies:

When American companies cannot compete against imports that they believe are being “dumped” at below-market prices, they are quick to demand remedies from Washington, usually in the form of punitive tariffs. These days, the alleged culprit is often China.

But try looking at things from south of the border and the picture shifts. There, the culprit is just as likely to be the United States, particularly when it comes to agriculture.

A new paper from Timothy A. Wise at the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts concludes that America’s generous subsidies allow farmers to sell their products to Mexico at below-market prices. The cost to Mexican farmers, he estimates, was $12.8 billion from 1997 to 2005. Corn farmers fared worst; American subsidies cost them $6.6 billion.

Despite protests by weathered farmers who periodically march down Mexico City’s main avenue, the government has not responded with tariffs.

Quite the contrary, under the North American Free Trade Agreement, the Mexican government quickly opened up to American agricultural imports to take advantage of lower food prices. Mexican agricultural subsidies — yes, Mexico also has them — have been channeled to favor large well-capitalized farmers, most critics agree, at the expense of peasant farmers.

What peasant farmers have received has gone toward compensating for United States dumping, rather than helping farmers become more competitive.

Mr. Wise estimates the overall cost to Mexican farmers by looking at what is known as the “dumping margin” for eight products: corn, soybeans, wheat, rice, cotton, beef, pork and poultry. That margin is the difference between the cost of production and the price. He then assumes that Mexican producer prices were depressed by the same amount as the dumping margin.

“How can Mexican farmers compete if U.S. farmers are receiving billions of dollars in government support?” Mr. Wise asks.

The analysis stops in 2005, before commodity prices began their rise. Mr Wise argues, however, that the spike of the past few years is just a temporary halt in long-term trends towards lower prices. Nor, he argues, will it end dumping by American producers because the costs of production are rising faster than prices.

“It would be a mistake to conclude that Mexican producers have seen the end of U.S. agricultural dumping,” Mr. Wise writes.

Discussion of the Gospel readings for Sunday

Luke 3:7-18

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."

And the crowds asked him, "What then should we do?" In reply he said to them, "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise." Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, "Teacher, what should we do?" He said to them, "Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you." Soldiers also asked him, "And we, what should we do?" He said to them, "Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages."

As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."

So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

In Biblical times, tax collectors were local agents of the Roman Empire. They would collect taxes from the local population for the Empire. As Wikipedia reports that the Romans essentially charged the tax collectors an upfront fee in return for the privilege of collecting taxes, and they in turn were allowed to collect money or goods from the populace. Tax collectors in the Bible were not well-liked by their fellow Jews, and it seems that they were often considered to have defrauded their fellows. Certainly, they were agents of empire. John ordered them to stop defrauding fellow Jews.

Similarly, the Roman soldiers that John the Baptist was preaching to were agents of empire. They were the primary occupiers. They likely committed a multitude of abuses against the Jewish population and other populations they occupied. Here, John orders them not to extort money from the Jews. Jane Schaberg, a feminist theologian, contends that Mary could well have been raped by a Roman soldier; whether you buy that or not, soldiers have committed rape throughout history and it's all but given that the Romans did too.

John the Baptist was Jewish and was mainly preaching to the Jews. I wonder what he would have said if he'd been an American. It's not too much of a stretch to think that he would demand an end to all unjust occupation. He would have said, you must close Guantanamo. You must not torture any enemy combatants, or send them to places where they will be tortured. When soldiers or military contractors are based abroad, they must not commit crimes against the local population, and if they do, they must be punished to the full extent of the law. When fighting the enemy, you must not harm innocent civilians.
Kris Maher writes for the Wall Street Journal about black lung disease. Society and the coal mining industry need to do better by the miners.

WASHINGTON, Pa. -- Rates of black-lung disease are growing, most notably among younger miners, reversing decades of progress and prompting more federal scrutiny and calls to lower exposure to coal dust.

The increase, which federal mine safety officials attributed in part to longer work shifts and companies' uneven dust-mitigation practices, could put a further strain on the industry-financed trust fund set up to compensate disabled miners and their families.

Black lung, the common name for coal worker's pneumoconiosis, is caused by inhaling coal dust over a prolonged period. This can lead to fibrosis, destruction of lung tissue and greater risk of emphysema, chronic bronchitis and tuberculosis.

The Black Lung Disability Trust, funded by a tax on coal companies, has paid out about $44 billion in benefits over the past 40 years to miners totally disabled by black lung or to their widows. The fund had a deficit of $10 billion in 2007, before a law was passed to eliminate the debt by issuing bonds. A Labor Department spokesman said the plan to work down the debt is on track and $343 million in bond obligations was retired in September.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has found that roughly 9% of workers with 25 years or more in mines tested positive for black lung in 2005-2006, the latest published data, up from about 4% in the late 1990s. The rates also doubled for people with 20 to 24 years in mining, including many in their 30s and 40s, according to NIOSH, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Black lung accounts for more deaths than do mine accidents, including explosions and cave-ins. More than 10,000 miners have died from the disease during the past decade, compared with fewer than 400 from mine accidents.

"It is time to end black lung," said Joe Main, assistant secretary of labor in charge of the Mine Safety and Health Administration, as he addressed more than 200 miners gathered last week at a Ramada Inn here. MSHA, which is part of the Labor Department and enforces federal mining law, will consider proposing regulations to cut in half the permissible levels of coal dust in mines and to require miners to wear dust monitors throughout their shifts.

Today dust levels are measured periodically at mines and then only for eight hours at a time to comply with federal law. MSHA is working on introducing a new type of monitor that could be worn by every miner and provide continuous feedback on dust levels so miners could leave an area if they have reached their daily exposure limit.

Some miners worry that more-productive mining machinery may be churning up more dust. "Back in the old days those guys suffered through a lot, but we're generating a lot of coal and there's a lot of dust in the air," said 29-year-old Chuck Knisell, who works at a mine in Waynesburg, Pa.

The National Mining Association, an industry trade group, said that while it wasn't challenging the general trend of disease rates, it hasn't seen detailed data that would indicate what jobs were done by miners screened by NIOSH, or what mines were represented in the data.

Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the association, said the industry is working closely with MSHA and NIOSH to develop better dust-monitoring technology and practices. He declined to comment on whether longer shifts or uneven dust mitigation practices could be leading to an increase in the incidence of black lung among miners. The association declined to comment on new regulations to reduce coal-dust limits until details were announced.

A federal effort to eliminate black lung was launched in 1969 with the passage of the federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act, which set coal-dust standards for mines and provided compensation for those affected. The battle was thought to be largely won through practices such as spraying water at the mine face, as well as the dwindling number of miners working in underground mines.

Safety officials believe the increase could also reflect longer workshifts in recent years when production was high and miners were in short supply, increasing dust exposure. They also note that much of the easily accessible underground coal has been mined, and companies are increasingly dependent on thinner coal seams. This requires cutting through rock, which creates more dust.

Preston Butt, 79, developed black lung after working 34 years in an underground mine. Speaking in a croaky voice at the miner's meeting, he said it was only after about 30 years that his co-workers noticed he was breathing harder. He now sleeps hooked up to a tank of oxygen and can't garden or hunt. "Coal mining did provide me a pretty good life financially, but now I can't do anything."

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Sojourners blog: Beyond ‘Diversity’: New Creation and a Mestizo Vision

Chris Rice blogs for Sojourners on the vision of diversity that God has for the church.

“Integration” and “diversity” do not express God’s purpose for reconciliation deeply enough. What we need is a fresh paradigm that declares our new culture in Christ.

A workshop last month in Cincinnati at the Christian Community Development Association conference (CCDA) confirmed my conviction that Christians need fresh language regarding our mission and identity in a divided world.

During my workshop, I remarked that as “reconciliation” becomes both increasingly popular and contested, and as such potentially unhelpful, the critical question is “reconciliation toward what?” I mentioned two dominant paradigms.

• Integration is the first paradigm — overcoming oppression through social equality and access to mainstream benefits. There has been deep progress in this area, at the same time the fierce historical opposition to racial and economic integration in American life is a sign of a captivity which is yet to be overcome. Yet as early as the 1956 Montgomery bus boycott Martin Luther King Jr. argued that integration would not go far enough to heal America: “The end,” preached King, “is reconciliation, the end is redemption, the end is the creation of the beloved community.”

Notions of integration easily lead to “equal and separate” and avoid even more difficult and holy work. As Charles Marsh has argued in The Beloved Community, “[W]hile the civil rights movement defeated segregation and forever changed American society, the nation has experienced precious little repentance, reconciliation, and costly discipleship.”

• Diversity has been the other dominant response to “reconciliation toward what?” Over the last ten years there has been an explosion of initiatives and literature around “inclusiveness” and “diversity.” Some Christian denominations and institutions are diversifying their leadership and constituencies in ways which are transformative and should be celebrated. Pastor Mark DeMaz pointed out to me recently the traction that “multi” has gotten in the evangelical world: “multi-ethnic” (InterVarsity Christian Fellowship), “multi-cultural” (David Anderson of Bridgeway Community Church), “multi-racial” (sociologist and author George Yancey). This is long overdue, and Soong Chan Rah’s much-discussed book The Next Evangelicalism shows how far there is to go.

Yet at CCDA I said that “multi” does not capture the work of the Holy Spirit within history powerfully enough. The story of creation and humanity as diverse and good must be completed by the story of God’s redemption of the ways the fall deformed the gift of difference through the trauma of sin. The trajectory of the Christian story is an interruption and transformation of historical identities and fixed groups (Jew, Greek, male, female, slave, free) toward a fluidity of identity and culture: when the Antioch church becomes a new people across these lines, a community and politics (where Jesus is Lord, not Caesar) comes into existence that is so strange, it requires a new language. It is at Antioch that the disciples are first called “Christians.”
If integration and diversity are insufficient paradigms for “reconciliation toward what” in an increasingly multicultural America and world wracked by intensifying polarizations, what’s the alternative?

“Consequently, from now on we regard no one according to the flesh; even if we once knew Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know him so no longer. So whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come. And all this is from God, who has reconciled us to himself through Christ and given us the ministry of reconciliation…” 2 Cor. 5:15-18

What’s the alternative? I believe we find it in the above passage.

At the CCDA, I suggested that we consider the implications of “New Creation.” New Creation breaks beyond tribal self-sufficiency to a “toward what” grounded in the story and power of God’s gift in Jesus Christ which interrupts the ground of injustice and divides with conversion toward a new community, new desires, and a new Lord.

New Creation is a call to being changed (metanoia) in a visible new way of life and sharing together (koinonia, including a new economic life between rich and poor, see Acts 2 and Acts 4, and including life with strangers who become companions). This is why, for example, I prefer to speak of “interracial” churches. In saying “interracial” (e.g. interracial churches or interracial marriage) instead of “biracial” we point to a cultural intimacy, interdependence, and mutual transformation which is a sign of a “new humanity.” There is a rich literature around “transcultural” or “third culture kids” who make up a kind of “new people” who don’t fit into the homeland their parents left nor the culture they are living in. As a missionary kid who grew up in Korea, I identify profoundly with this.

Yet the English language may itself be so ridden with dichotomies that it cannot capture how New Creation interrupts us in the “sluggish in between” of human life between Jesus’ resurrection and return. But another language does.

Here is how Duke Divinity School scholar Edgardo Colon-Emeric expresses it:

According to the seer of Patmos [John's vision in Revelation 7:9-17 of a multitude from every nation, tongue, language, worshipping the Lamb], the Church is a mestizo assembly gathered from every nation in praise of the God of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Reflecting on this Spanish word mestizo, Edgardo, who is also the director of Duke’s Hispanic House of Studies, adds:
Mestizo … refers literally to a mixture. The term was first used to describe the children of the violent encounter between European fathers and Amerindian mothers. Neither European nor Indian, these children belonged to a new people, a people of mixed heritage. But this mixed heritage is not simply a historical or ethnic marker; it is also the goal of Christian existence. In the words of Mexican-American theologian Virgil Elizondo ‘the future is mestizo,’ not because of ethnic mixing, but because the new humanity in Christ is a mestizo humanity of Jews and Gentiles.

My friend Edgardo goes on to say, “The church needs leaders who have eyes to see that all ethnic ministries are provisional because the future is mestizo.” To repeat the key claim, “this mixed heritage is not simply a historical or ethnic marker; it is also the goal of Christian existence.”

As I told those who attended my CCDA workshop, I am not advocating being blind to or forgetful of the history of oppression and how this trajectory deforms community, institutional, and church life. A notion of cheap “reconciliation without memory” leads to assimilation into the dominant culture and its values. This is exactly why New Creation matters: We are freed from captivity through shared journeys and communities of conversion which make difference meaningful in an exchange of gifts and a vision of mutuality which is both truthful about the grip of sin and reaches toward a new place of life together.

Through the ministry of Maggy Barankitse in the east African country of Burundi, orphans of violence between rival Tutsi and Hutu groups have lived for years together at Maison Shalom (”House of Peace”). On top of former tribal killing fields, they share intimate daily life with the multiplicity of people who come there including from the “Twa” minority, nearby Congo, and “Muzungus” (outsiders) from Europe and the U.S. Over time, their identities become reshaped and quite confused in this new community. When questioned about her ethnic identity, one orphan speaks of herself as being a “Hutsi-Twa-Congo-Zungu” — pulling all these peoples into a kind of one new humanity.

Integration and Diversity do not state the power of the Holy Spirit’s interruption of history deeply enough. To emphasize Edgardo’s point, “all ethnic ministries are provisional because the future is mestizo.” Diversity and integration lack a telos, a goal, a “for what purpose?” New Creation and a mestizo vision properly understood within God’s work of “reconciling all things in Christ” (Col. 1:15-23) offer a fresh paradigm of “toward what” that is not only deeply transformative but beautiful, a bit scary, and subversive to the way things are. Not to mention a deeper way to holiness and vision which requires God.

Chris Rice is co-director of the Center for Reconciliation at Duke Divinity School. He is author of Reconciling All Things, Grace Matters, and More Than Equals. He writes regularly at his blog, Reconcilers with Chris Rice. This article appears courtesy of a partnership with

[Editor: To be sure, mestizo isn't a perfect analogy, since they were likely treated better than the fully Indigenous Americans by the Europeans. Nonetheless, the point is a good one.]