Visiting Israel

A few months ago I was invited on a trip.

The American Jewish Committee (also called the AJC), who has been holding various interfaith events in Westchester for nearly two decades, also invites leaders from throughout the country to experience Israel.

I’ve never been, and I haven’t had the resources to go. I also knew, from a few friends, that this would be a well crafted tour.  I’d go with about ten other Christians – pastors, human rights activists, academics, and interfaith leaders – to learn about various dimensions of Israeli society.

I’d arrived in Tel Aviv Saturday evening after a nine hour flight. I couldn’t sleep much on the plane, but used the time to catch up on a few films: the latest final Star Wars Movie (Fun!), Bombshell (timely!), and Queen and Slim (provocative!), so by the time I got to the hotel I was pretty exhausted. Fortunately, there was nothing on the agenda: we’d gather, introduce ourselves to each other, and be able to head to bed.

They set us up in a lovely hotel called the Carlton while we were here. The breakfasts, in particular, were luxurious. Plenty of different sorts of fish, various cheeses, Jewish foods from throughout the world, as a variety of pastries. I chose smoked mackerel, a baked egg dish of some kind, with a few tapenades. And the fruit was spectacular.

Of course, we’ve been getting an overview ranging from the theoretical to the practical. The first talk, a well respected political science professor, a moderate who advises Avi Lieberman, gave a whirlwind talk lifting up the religious and historic political tensions within israel. AFter visiting churches, we visited the house of a proud Palestinian Arab Christian Israeli who used the opportunity to sell us coffee.

We then toured each the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation, and the Yitzhak Rabin center each a paean to their particular subjects. The first praised Israel’s culture of innovation, funded by the government. The tour guide of the center, a thin recent graduate with glasses, noted there were more than 60,000 start-ups in Israel, and was proud to tell us that 98% failed. Only to fail is to succeed he noted, which is helpful when you have money willing to take that risk. And the tour of Rabin’s center highlighted the tensions within Israeli society, even before he was assassinated.

Our personal guide, a dynamic and fashionable former attorney from Tel Aviv, mentioned that his assassination was as intense for Israeli society as the JFK or MLK assassinations were. They remained seared in Israeli society.

It’s been a broad trip so far. Questions of land and commerce; of shifting identities; of security come up over and over. The perceptions we form over the media contrast strongly with the everyday experience of most people. And then there is the backdrop of religion and commerce, each of which seem dependent upon the other.

Hospitality and the Budget

I think churches underfund their hospitality budgets.

And it’s one of the most important responsibilities of the church.

Hospitality isn’t a substitute for outreach or social justice. It precedes them.

By hospitality I include funding a priest to take out parishioners and new members. Dinners that welcome seekers. providing cookies and coffee to organizations that use the parish hall. Ensuring that the coffee is wonderful. Buying gifts for volunteers and new pledgers, or high quality birthday or condolence cards.

One obstacle is that we think reaching out must be sacrificial or burdensome, so funding dinners, parties, or beauty seems excessive or wasteful.

But the direction of the gospel is that our resources should be directed toward caring for others, even if it’s an expensive jar of perfume.

Hospitality is one of those practices that works, however, because it builds and deepens relationships over time. A priest who can take out a member of the parish and their family, who can host without breaking their bank account, and who can express gratitude through gifts, will build strong relationships.

Psychologists and sociologists call these practices commitment mechanisms. They strengthen relationships and help deepen the attachments that people have with other people.

I would put in the parochial report a line item asking parishes how much they spend on hospitality and seek how it tracks with church growth. Include every penny the priest spends on other people, on gifts, on swag, on making people at home, and see what the consequences are.

The Church: a Hub for Communities

We need a new way of explaining our institutions to people unconvinced about church.

For some, a church as a monolithic organization with very clearly defined membership boundaries. In some communities you are a member, for example, if you are baptized and confirmed in a congregation, you show up on Easter and or pay $50 in five installments. In other congregations the rules are more rigorous – membership means tithing, membership in a small group, and signing on to a political agenda.

Membership rules can provide a clear direction for an institution and help harness a community’s energy. It’s a lot of work to be out in an indifferent world; it’s easier to coordinate people who have identified an affection for the church.

I suggest there is a way to harness those who have an affection for the church but have not decided about the church’s religious language. While the worshiping congregation is still the apostolic core, the boundaries within that core do not exhaust the church’s work. Churches are not clubs, but networks of relationships and have access to the world in a number of different ways. We should focus on studying the networks we inhabit and how we can enhance them.

A “network” sounds technical, but it more accurately conveys the way people think of themselves as individuals connecting with others. Group membership has become a lot weaker and individuals are less willing to commit to a group of people or an institution. Given that many people are allergic to the costs of commitment, the church will have to find a way to reframe its work in this challenging, ever-shifting environment.

One way is to remember that the physical plant is the hub of other networks. It is also a geographic hub where other networks of people happen. They are also networks of free information and financial  exchange: newsletters, bulletin boards, thrift shops and tag sales. Individuals themselves are networked and participate in a variety of institutions.

Churches as networks clarifies about how the church is relatively effective even in an age of decline. While our membership might diminish, churches still harness the power within their networks to remain effective.  By continuing to be a publicly engaged place, the community may decide to support it in small ways.

This idea should be studied. The theory is focusing on Sunday attendance will not be the only way of analyzing effectiveness. Numbers and quality of connections, and group involvement should also be analyzed.  One of the major strengths as a hub is that Churches provide a physicality, a structure that makes other kinds of connection easier.

It works in way that social media does not. Physicality is one of the central anchors of the theology of church catholic. By its nature, social media is to be used mainly as a tool to enhance and amplify the central work of the church – which is to provide a physical place for people to connect.

For example: the priest, through his/her work embodies a hub in a series of networks: they serve on boards and committees in the community; they meet with other leaders; they challenge their public officials. This is to recognize that this is a central aspect of the priest’s work. A priest is, in some ways, a public consultant for a variety of institutions.

A priest is also in an unusual occupation where s/he is in part a blank figure upon which other people transfer their own emotional needs. Priests who have some emotional resilience can be effective in bridging a wider variety of communities. One role they have is to coach and counsel others to do the same. The priest becomes a model that encourages other people to do their own connecting in the world. They themselves embody the hub of a network.

This should not seem particularly easy, but it should give us some hope. We have plenty of resources – both in the quality of our leadership and our physical wealth. However, there is a skill and strategy to building networks that our inclusive theology conceals. Just telling people they are loved can seem meaningless, weak, and insincere. Saying we are accepting isn’t the same as being accepting. Being accepting takes place in physical environments that people share. It takes a reframing of the daily work of clergy and the ministers of the church to practice this effectively.

My own congregation, for example, has the networks of people who rent the building – which include yoga teachers, dancers, Buddhists and ethnic groups. We are behind an elementary school. We are two blocks from a Methodist center. We have two parks a couple blocks away. In our city there are at least three private universities. How might a congregation strategize to merely connect with those institutions in order to simply learn about their work – not just the institutions, but the people who make their lives in those institutions? The connections we have made have ensured that we are vibrant, even if our numbers have grown only modestly.

It is congruent with the church’s theology in a number of ways. If God is a sort of information that relates to people, then connecting – physically – might just be what the church does.  What we do remains important, and the skills are available. The question is whether we can readjust our behavior and do the work. How do we hold ourselves accountable to make the connections with our local institutions and become a more effective hub of reconciliation, or relationship, of hope?

The Benedict Option and a Boisterous, Noisy, Generous, Faith

Generous. Boisterous. Noisy.

That’s the description Giles Fraser used when writing about what was lost in the English Reformation.

Rod Dreher learned the wrong lesson from Benedict.

Dreher’s Benedictine option rightly critiques the consumerism inherent both in modern religiosity and in American culture, but he supplants it with his own rigorous, protestant, self-righteous, judgmental moralism that could not be farther than the world the Benedictines inhabited.

“A religion of inwardness, devoid of external pegs or props. Sitting in an empty room, mid the ruins of smashed statues, in silence, doing nothing.” Except judging gay people and women, Inwardly sanctified and horrifyingly self abusive and judgmental.

Or an ordered and practical Christianity, built on the liturgical rhythms of the church and centred on the Mass— inclusive, noisy, generous and non-judgmental. “boisterous God-infused praxis,”

I’ll take the noisy, generous Benedict. Not the imaginary, self-righteous one.

A Commentary After Reading Ten Essential Steps 
for a Godly Life from an Episcopal Webpage

Breathe.

You are who you are.

Give yourself a mini sabbath.

Your life is not meant to be a spectacle, but theater.

God did not promise happiness, but disappointment.

Later, redemption.

Drink water.

Through the human hand,
the lilies of the field,
in vindication and defeat,
becomes Beauty.

When talking to God, use the inner voice in public.

When complaining to the priest, use a cartoon accent to underscore your seriousness.

Sometimes it’s not about you, but about them. They are doing the best they can.

It’s always about you.

Eat real food.

Go to parties.

Use the prayerbook.
Organizing, cleaning, and tidying, are also prayers.

Even in the mess, however, is the Trinity.

Lift a glass.
When the glass reaches your lips,
heartily express the pleasure of the first sip.

Throw yourself a little dance party.

You are not finished.

Humility and Politics

Over the last several weeks, I’ve been receiving links from friends about the rise of the Christian left. Christian progressives are now coming to Jesus, and learning to vote for the Democratic Party. After all, if the Republicans are doing it, why can’t we?

I, myself, understand the attractions of partisanship. I respect the complexities of aligning any group of people around a specific cause. I also appreciate that most people have degrees of passion for the party, ranging from the ideologically pure to the unsentimentally practical. My own personal litmus test has been reproductive health, and at this time only one party seems to have room for it. It was not always so.

My own personal journey has swung wildly from one place to another, and now I find myself as a Red Tory, an Anarcho-Monarchist, a skeptical Democrat who would have made a good Laguardia, Millicent Fenwick style Republican. I’ll throw my hat in the ring as a citizen, but it’s not because I’m a Christian, but because I believe government should work on behalf of all people. One can be a good citizen without having Christian beliefs.

Some Christians, however, mislead themselves if they believe that a Christian faith leads to easy, single, “Christian” answers to specific policies. Nor can Christianity be the proper platform for a political party or vice versa.  Episcopalians, of course, have our jokes: there was a time where we were the “Republican party at prayer”; and “How do you tell the difference between a Democrat and a Republican in an Episcopal Church? The Altar Rail.” The Republicans represented the good-government pro-property rights establishment, and priests tended to be more supportive of anti-discrimination policies.

Then, however, priests were respected as conversation partners. And that’s what they were. They wouldn’t have told people how to vote or made much of the parties. In a church context, relationships may be prior to righteousness. But that sort of understanding is slowly eroding.

In our current context conservative evangelicals have been seduced by political power, demanding an ideological rigor that mainline, Episcopal churches should reject. They will get their reward. I offer that the alternative to provide deeper spiritual foundations – to inculcate habits of reflection and relationship that are prior to engaging the public square.  While I do think conservative evangelicalism is false and dangerous, as a religion and as a political force, I do not confuse it only with policies with which I disagree.

Not all of my beliefs about politics arise from my faith. My trust in demand side economics (St. Keynes), for example, or my opposition to the war on drugs (St. Friedman), or even my vague trust in American Diplomacy (St. Fulbright), don’t arise only from my theological position. I distinguish between the Marxist intuition that capitalism changes everything and the contradictions cannot hold from my catholic one which says, we’re still all sinners who we need each other, or you can’t serve both God and Wealth. They are distinct, and alternately harmonious, and contradictory. 

We should strive to inculcate the ability to handle, even with discomfort and tension, nuance, complexity, and ambiguity in the world. This arises from the virtue of humility. Instead, on social media, cable news, and politics, we reward leaders who enter the public from a position of hubris, where portraying vulnerability, caution, and prudence are seen as weaknesses.

This makes it harder for politicians to adjust when they understand more deeply than their constituents. They are penalized for learning, and so push through agendas and policies they may not even understand themselves. They are not equipped to serve the common good, but only those who will vote for them, because they are surrounded with people who confidently defend, through money and power, their own narrow interests.

Obviously humility does not easily develop in persons who enter business and politics. Most public officials must appear decisive and display a sense of confidence and righteousness to be convincing. It’s a double bind because on one hand we want our politicians to be honest, but we penalize them when they try to bring together constituencies that often have opposing interests. A crucial way through is for us to recognize that one can have direction and humility.

Peter Werner wrote in the NYtimes that humility allows us to understand the world is unfathomably complex. Our knowledge is incomplete. Humility is not to be confused with indecisiveness, but is a confidence in being able to change our minds. In our current context, however, too often we seek vindication rather than truth.

The alternative, certainty, abdicates our responsibility to think more deeply and understand the values of those who think differently.  But a practice of humility recognizes we are “better off if we have within our orbit people who see the world somewhat differently than we do…. this requires us to actually engage with, and carefully listen to, people who understand things in ways dissimilar to how we do.”

But as this article notes, many Christians have “traded a faith that privileges humility and elevates the least of these for one that derides gentleness as the province of wusses.” They’ve traded the gospel for machismo.

We have something to contribute. In an article, “The World Outsmarts Us,” the author shows that we are not built to address of the complexities we now face. The way forward, he writes,

“It’s time we asked whether political frustration, anger and resistance to conflicting ideas results in part from a basic lack of ability to sense how the present world works. The best defence against runaway combative ideologies isn’t more facts, arguments and a relentless hammering away at contrary opinions, but rather a frank admission that there are limits to both our knowledge and our assessment of this knowledge. If the young were taught to downplay blame in judging the thoughts of others, they might develop a greater degree of tolerance and compassion for divergent points of view. A kinder world calls for a new form of wisdom of the crowd.”

This should not be news to faithful, apostolic Christians in the Benedictine tradition. The emphasis on practice, rather than an easy moralism, builds the spiritual and emotional skills to handle the complexities that humility teaches us. Both the the great Organizational Design theorist Edgar Schein and the Benedictines agree that one of the most useful and spiritually insightful practices is humble inquiry. It’s a willingness to admit ignorance, to cultivate curiosity, and to desire to understand. It’s even in the baptismal blessing.

The fundamental work of Episcopalian Christians is to develop practices of reflection and relationship. As our great saint Vida Scudder once said, we are to cultivate the powerful habits of “voluntary self-control and a sympathetic imagination.” With these in mind, the goal of having the humble stance.

Our knowledge is limited. Our understanding, incomplete. And so, we move, even though the paradoxes, tensions, and nuances that make of up our common life will always be present. We can eschew perfection in favor of the good; we learn from our mistakes and  correct them.  Through this, we can diminish the vitriol that diminishes a healthy partisanship, and rebuild the fundamental networks that – through the various churches and other social and spiritual institutions around us – have made our republic possible.

 

Reflections on Trump after Super Tuesday

Is this a hangover?

No, it’s not the same as Germany. Don’t exaggerate. No, I’m not nervous.

I’m a little nervous.

No, I’m not. I’m in New York.

Trump likes the uneducated, he says. They like him.

He mentioned women’s health, so there’s that.

Italy survived Silvio.

You can’t fire me. I live here.

Keynsianism needs better ratings, anyway.

He’s not a conservative. America was never that conservative.

Racism is also an emotional tax on white people to feel better about themselves.

It costs less than a better wage.

Schwarzenegger could have been worse.

Shouldn’t government be entertaining?

Shaming white people will not end white privilege.

Take me off the merry-go-round.

Do smart people tell you they are smart?

Government is a business where employees tell the owner what to do.

Trump scares both brown people and bankers.

Would he be sexist if he emphasizes the right of rich, hot women to choose?

I’m uncomfortable with my intellectual opponents now supporting the Democrat.

Social conservatives will frustrate libertarians, which is why they live in different states.

Libertarianism corrodes social conservatism.

I know why the ostrich buries his head in the sand.

The battle lines: guns on one side and women’s health on the other.

Money solves a lot of problems.

Better to be on the side of the bully than the victim.

Who deserves their fortunes or miseries? Not one. We are desire, luck, and hope, embodied.

When did it become ok to be an asshole?

Money can’t buy the pearl.

I see empty bottles this morning.

I don’t think aspirin will stop this pain.

Lord have mercy upon me, a sinner.

Mapping the Current Cultural Conflict

It’s about money, sex, and race.

Since Reagan, financiers and conservative evangelicals have been semi-functional allies under the umbrella of the Republican party. Each had their own specific needs that GOP could deliver because it combined both money and people power. The evangelicals became the foot soldiers for getting out the vote, not unlike how the Chicago Machine operated for the Democratic party.  Through manipulating cultural anxieties about sex and race, they motivated those concerned first with order and security, in spite of the rhetoric of liberty often applied.

Financiers got the better end of the stick. They tend to live in liberal states, so are sheltered from the encroachment of social conservatism. Their daughters can get abortions, and they send their kids to schools that teach evolution. Social conservatives, however, have little to show for their efforts: Abortion remains legal, gays now marry, and the protective sheen of white America seems to be losing is sure foothold. Yet, the monied class is doing far better than they could have anticipated.

Conservative evangelicals sought politics on the cheap. For there are ways to reduce abortion and to strengthen families, but they are expensive on the front end. Further, opposing abortion or gay rights requires little sacrifice on behalf of its most rigorous adherents. It’s easy to prohibit rules for other people; it’s harder to spread resources that would make having children or sustaining families viable.  Prohibiting the bad is less expensive, and less effective, than incentivizing the good. It’s a lesson that’s hard to learn.

Conservative evangelicals have ignored how economic freedom, or capitalism itself, corrodes the bonds of social obligation that undergird traditional social mores. The market allows people opt out of the restrictions that chafe our desires, and the “work ethic” that conservatives and capitalists claim to share, conceal the vices beatified by the financial class. In short, Wall Street conned Main Street. Admittedly there are limits, for eventually economic freedom threatens to diminish the heart of all exchange, the virtues associated with faith, especially trust.

This might explain why Trump has done well, much to the chagrin of those who espoused the traditional alliance of the monied and the faithful. He offers the most necessary, satisfactory crumbs about opposing abortion and believing in Christianity. But his populist economic rhetoric especially appeals to those who don’t know much about church but have lost ground in our modern economy, the ones who enjoy the wisdom that reality TV offers.

There is, however, another value both share, even if it is tenuous: a taxonomy of values associated with masculinity: protecting one’s family; bringing home the bacon; toughness; liking guns, hot chicks, and winning.

I have no truck for or against any of these, but the posturing is tiresome.

This gendered moment may explain why two most powerful non-governmental organizations that epitomize our current cultural conflict are the NRA and Planned Parenthood. The venn diagram between them is not necessarily opposed – both overlap when defending themselves with the rhetoric of liberty.

But one embodies the current state of masculinity, with all its fear and pride, its contempt for the weak and vulnerable. It fears the loss of distinctiveness between men and women, the roles that many have invested their own meaning. The other lives, however, in the reality of women, seeking first to gather and care for bodies.  If George Lakoff is right about orienting political metaphors, the NRA embodies the strict father, and Planned Parenthood embodies the nurturing parent.

Let us not ignore race, which casts its shadow everywhere. It remains the primary reason why economic populism has never gathered the popularity that it might have. Race divides both liberalism and conservatism. The universalist tendency, which simultaneously justifies both economic progress and yet conceals bigotry’s stubborn hold on institutions, loses its force at the specific needs of identity politics.

Some liberals dislike economic nationalism because it doesn’t specify the needs of African-American populations and repair the perpetual theft of black labor and wealth. Conservatives, on the other hand, see that any universal state intervention helps the undeserving and lazy. Each side reinforces the other, inhibiting any sort of economic solution from having traction. Thus why Bernie Sanders New Deal proposals are unappealing for many black activists, and mocked by conservative ones.

Jesus speaks of wars and rumors of wars. The equality implicit in the Christian tradition brings an intensification, a focus, upon the diminishment of the weak and powerless. Perhaps the ferocity of our current witness may signify progress. It may be that an economically populist Trump illustrates the unveiling of the Republican party’s sophisticated deception of the white working class. Black Lives Matter signifies the untenability of governments based on the receipts of poor people.

In either case, let us not be overwhelmed by the theater that is constantly before us. Let us continue to do our work locally, to build bridges rather than walls, to love one another as best as we are able. I believe that it is the third sector that has a the primary role to solve our most direct problems. It is our work, finally, that matters most.

The Debate

Admittedly, I was listening while on my way to go salsa dancing. The theater has become somewhat predictable.

Like Bernie, I’m sympathetic to the impulses of the FDR and progressive wings of the political party (either Democratic or Republican). I also don’t think he is a socialist, in spite of what he calls himself. Not in the traditional definition of the word.

And whenever someone calls Hilary a witch or a bitch, I immediately find myself a bit sympathetic to her. Most of the critiques about who she is can be explained in a couple ways.

  1. Like most politicians, she compromised
  2. She understands power
  3. Just because she takes your money, doesn’t mean she loves you
  4. A politician can change their mind
  5. Just because she knows Kissinger, doesn’t mean he’s her guru
  6. 2003 was old news
  7. She’s not Bill, also

As someone who doesn’t buy the politics of the transcendent (even when Obama ran) and is instinctively wary of the rhetoric of revolution, I find most of her critics to be smart intellectuals who don’t understand the work of politics: groups of gangs who take action. This does not let her off the hook; but then who themselves has clean hands. For as we will begin to see, even Sanders has made some choices that the puritans might find troublesome.

That said, I’m unconvinced that Sanders would be ineffective as president. I think he enjoys politics and might galvanize a broader coalition in the country to better organize. That said, organizing is hard work that takes a lot more tenacity than people understand. It requires the spiritual discipline to work through disappointment and failure, and the wisdom to live with messy decisions.