On Not-for-Profits

I was going to go to a rally for Women’s Health today, but I was waylaid.   There is a pretty aggressive political faction that seeks to cut funding for reproductive health, and some of my close friends are active in that group.  I’m personally astonished at the short-sightedness of those who would cut such funding for organizations like Planned Parenthood (or even NPR), as it is prudent policy in many ways.

But that said, I’ve got my own quibbles with not-for-profits.   Over the last 30-40 years, they’ve become their own dens of iniquity where the CEO makes six figures while their idealistic interns work at a pittance.  Most of their work constitutes making money from values, rather than distributing it.  Generally, however, I don’t inherently begrudge high salaries for good work, but like governments that overlap their services, not-for-profits themselves could use some consolidation.  And with all the money that goes to not-for-profits, I’m perplexed we haven’t yet found the kingdom of God.

But I wonder if sucking at the government teat is generally good for not-for-profits.  Sometimes I think it makes them soft, less adversarial and less creative.

Do not mistake me for your garden libertarian.   Government should ensure people play by the rules; that there is accurate data taken; research made; and liberties protected.  There are good reasons for the government (taking a cue from Arrow) to protect people when the market fails; and to offer some kind of insurance that diminishes misery and harm.   Government should support not-for-profits when it’s clear they can do a more efficient job (which, because not-for-profits have access to information on the ground, and have a sense of the intangibles, is often).

But not-for-profits that rely on the government risk their own souls when they take that money.  Admittedly, individuals rarely give enough; the government provides some stability and breathing space for not-for-profits to be more present.  Yet, unless there is someway to account for the inevitable dependency, government funding can diminish the passions and commitment that make organizations strong.

When the Great Society programs began, radicals such as Saul Alinsky noted that this could easily result in great failure because government hand outs broke the basic rule of community organizing:  never do for people what they can do for themselves.  This is not to say the government has no role in helping others.  But it is probably more effective  if they simply handed out money than funded institutions to hand out money.    Then, perhaps, poor people could have the resources to do something.

The church is a powerful organization in the US precisely because it relies on the power of its members rather than the largesse of the government.  It’s priests are paid modestly, and its ambitions often modest.  Even so, the potential of any community is enormous if they want to do the work.

So although I lament the politics that may defund some of my favorite organizations, I do not believe the sky is falling.  Instead, it may also be the moment of their liberation.

Why Obama’s Conservatism Will Cost Him The Election

Obama’s tried.  He’s negotiated with the opposition, attempted to assess all the factors and bring in the stakeholders.  But if he agrees to the budget cuts that the Republicans are proposing, he will lose the 2012 election.

Obama should recognize that the fantasy of “cut and grow” simply doesn’t hold.   Even capitalists don’t believe it.  In fact, in the Goldman study cited, the budget cuts would further contract the economy.    What Republicans are betting on is a win-win strategy for them:  keep talking about deficits; if Obama blinks, he strangles the economy.  Then the Republicans and blame him for his economic mismanagement.    They know that balancing the budget and stimulating the economy can’t be done together.  Guess which policy actually wins elections.

Obama should refuse to play the deficit cutting game.  What is on the horizon, alas, is steep price increases.  Republicans will argue that this has to do with the deficit, when it has everything to do with supply and demand.     Yet, if he doesn’t create jobs, there will be rising food and oil prices, and a more dissatisfied populace, who will be more likely to give bad economic policies a try in a different president (although, personally, I think Huckabee is more likely to have the populist capital to actually raise taxes).

So by 2012 Obama may do what the Republicans want him to do: cut the budget, thereby diminishing the economy – ensuring he becomes a one term president.   He has an alternative:  focus on jobs; and do what Harold Washington did when the aldermen talked smack about his leadership.  Visit them in their home state and tell the people directly what he can do for them.  In this way he challenges Republicans on their home turf; instructs the population how supply and demand really work; and begins his campaign for reelection.

The Winner Takes it All

While watching the protests in Wisconsin and Qaddafi’s response to his people’s rebellion, I think of two things:  Clausewitz, and thus, Abba.

I confess a grudging admiration for the Governor of Wisconsin.  He’s been clear, self-defined, aggressive.   What if Obama had shown the same resolve?  Walker may be wrong about how to stimulate an economy, and short-sighted not to communicate with his opponents.  And I personally agree there some good reasons to question the reasons public employees are unionized, but let’s be clear – this is no shared sacrifice:  the powerful aren’t sacrificing at all.

It looks to me like this is a conflict where the governor, or the dictator, believes that the winner takes it all.   It’s like a scorched earth campaign, where the victors seek to decimate the enemy to the point they can never return.

But it never works.  It simply postpones the conflict.  Walker may (and I think he will) win this one.  But he is also stoking the anger of the middle class.  And it will get worse because I guarantee that his “pro-business” policies won’t work well – not in the short term future.

I suspect as the stakes get higher, both will seek to dig in their heels.    Economists call this “loss aversion.”   The combination of needing to win, and fearing the consequences of loss fuels the conflict.

When Jesus talks about giving a cloak, walking a mile – he’s critiquing our psychological fears of losing.  Instead, he offers us the possibility of being generous freely.  He’s not encouraging that we become ascetics; nor is he critiquing modern capitalism (although he might be critiquing the psychological character of capitalists).   He’s asking us – what do we really lose?

Jesus pauses the conflict that irrationally overwhelms us.   We want total victory; and for that reason we’re afraid of losing.  Absolute victory, however, need not be for us, but for God; and what we lose may be our greatest gain.

That said, Walker, Qaddafi and other leaders – by stating falsely that they have no choice – devastate their economies.  Their credibility is now judged solely, now, if they win or lose this battle, rather on improving the lives of their citizens.

And, alas, it also means leaving tattered lives in the wake of the battle.  In a sense, everyone loses if they insist on carrying their demands to the final battle.  Yes, the winner takes it all.  But what will they have?

The Purpose of Ecumenicism

Greta Christina, a sex and atheism blogger at Alternet, a progressive newsfilter to which I subscribe, condemns ecumenicism.

I admit, I almost always get upset at her characterizations about religion.  I find them pedestrian and shallow (her sex writing and atheist-positive writing I find more interesting).   But for her, a priest, rabbi and a minister getting together isn’t a joke.  It’s offensive.  In her last essay in alternet, she describes why interfaith gatherings drive her crazy.

I think she needs to expand her circle of religious friends a bit.

Granted, I wonder if part of the reason she’s come to her views and encountered angry progressives, is because she does most of her work over the internet.  I hope not.  The internet is the last place I’d begin my research on churches, church culture, or even Christians.    I myself have spoken poorly, hastily, in this electronic medium.

But for her, an interfaith gathering seems is primarily to exclude especially, of those who lack faith.  But I think this is a simple view of the kinds of gatherings that occur, and what they are for.

There are many reasons people of different faiths gather.  Sometimes they are to diminish bigotry of other particular groups.  They may be to challenge the state on political issues, such as immigration, abortion rights, or better schools. Sometimes they are discussion sections.  Still other times they are opportunities for religious people to get to know other religious people, and to learn about other faiths.   But they fundamentally gather to pay homage to the civic religion, that of the liberal state.  This is one reason many interfaith groups do not have many evangelicals or Roman Catholics – they have different understandings of the faithful’s relationship to state power.

Greta seems to wonder what we’re actually doing if we’re not talking about identity, difference and theology.

The purpose of interfaith dialogue becomes not to convert, but to give each other legitimacy in an overwhelmingly secular, public, sphere.   Interfaith dialogue also does not always seek to paper over differences, but may diminish the fear of difference.

As someone in the religion industry, a member of a religious institution, one that participates in ecumenicism, I can understand her feeling of being excluded.  Just as a group of Democrats might not want to invite Sarah Palin to a dinner party, we generally are not interested in bringing an atheist to a gathering of religious figures.   It’s not because we wouldn’t want to get into a dialogue.  It’s because she doesn’t quite understand what we’re doing by collaborating.  We’re not thinking about atheism or God.  We’re thinking about how we, as religious communities, can get along.  This has some merit, even if it doesn’t fit the neat vision that religious communities must necessarily be at each others’ throats.

Greta complains that we never ask, “but is it true?”  Because for her, the only relevant question is whether God exists or not.  This is the ONLY truth that she respects.    The problem is that most of us aren’t asking those questions.  We’re asking questions about the practical issues that face our communities.  We’re comparing notes, talking and collaborating.   We know that prayer can make people feel better; people enjoy and benefit from the community of church; people like to sing; and priests care for people.   Is it always a perfect community?  Of course not.  Is it true?  Well – what’s the question?

Furthermore, must interfaith groups always exclude atheists?  Not necessarily. For two years, the coordinator of the White Plains Religious Leaders was the moderator of the Ethical Culture society.  Sometimes he was clearly confused by some of us.  He would say, “for those of us without a revealed tradition, we look at this differently.”   If anything he pitied us, yet it was from a position of openness, humility and patience.  He didn’t believe the bible was true, nor did he believe in God.  But he participated in the fellowship.  I suspect it it doesn’t fit her narrative that religions are necessarily violent, stupefying, and incapable of engaging non-theistic traditions.

Greta ends with a little note about talking about religion at a dinner party.  For us religious believers, when we get together, we’re sharing a little of each others spiritual “food.”  We don’t necessarily all use the same ingredients, and we’re committed to our personal culinary tradition, but we acknowledge there’s a lot of different food out there.  And then there’s one person who really hates everything that all of us chefs make.  Sometimes we really don’t want the restaurant critic around when we’re sharing war stories.

There’s a way of respecting persons without agreeing with another person’s beliefs.  I had a friend I’d meet at a bar occasionally with whom I’d discuss women and British Politics.  We’d reach a pause and he’d suddenly say, “you realize there’s no God, right?”  I’d say “who cares?” And then we’d laugh.  Why? Because he’d just make this statement completely out of context.  We’d be having a beer, and he just wanted to remind me that’s how he felt for no reason.    He didn’t believe what I believed.  But I also never thought he didn’t respect me.   We didn’t convert each other, but enjoyed the company of friends.

I agree that some atheism in the public sphere would be much more interesting. Atheists may be moral, humane, just and precise in their thinking.  They may also be immoral, bigoted, nasty and fuzzy as well.  Just as she may not that one’s religion is delinked from being ethical, the non-religious cannot claim their own moral superiority.  Still, there are ways Christians can engage atheists without feeling defensive.

Admittedly, I’ve been perplexed by the idea that atheists are a persecuted minority.  Atheists who want to serve in the public would have to be willing represent the interests of churches simply because because they are constituents. It’s one perspective to have a nontheistic view of the world.  It’s another to take a public position against churches.  In those cases, churches aren’t being bigoted against atheists; they’re defending their interests.  Atheists who defend the religious would may find themselves placed in a different category than those who maintain the moral superiority of their world view.

It would be nice if Christians were nicer on the internet; a little less defensive and more interested in being good examples of healthy, loving, magnanimous, truth telling individuals.   It’s unfortunate that she’s faced some bizarre vitriol.  From my perspective, it’s the nature of the medium.

I’m also a member of Rotary, where we have an invocation every meeting.  There are atheists who are members.  When they are invited to give the invocation, they do so without any reference to God.  They offer their own blessing and wonder in the natural world.  And they do so with integrity.  But what they don’t do is say, at that time, “you’ve all been lied to.”  Instead, they speak the truth, from their heart, not as evangelists, but as examples.

Non-believers and Christians need not fear one another, but they may need to learn each others’ language, and treat them with charity, if not credulity.  Perhaps we cannot respect that sort of charity from some atheists; but it nonetheless merits a Christian who can maintain their magnanimity when being confronted by the incredulous.


Like most people, I’m watching the exciting turn of events in Egypt with great joy.  Mubarak, a corrupt dictator who has run the country for thirty years, is retiring to a small sea side resort town in the south.

It came after a bizarre, pleading, patronizing speech.   It revealed that he was unaware that the curtains had been lifted, and that the foundations of his authority had been effectively shattered.

His resignation also illustrated the true mechanics of power in Egypt are controlled by military and big business.   It announced what has always been going on.  It is an improvement, of course, if only because now the truth, in all its messiness, is more clear.

We should also not be surprised that once the king has been cut off, ritually slaughtered, condemned, denounced, there will be a period of euphoria and peace.  For a while, there will be grand expectations, and perhaps a new covenant will arise.  There will be remarkable unity, for a while.  But rivalry will not cease – it will merely be dispersed.

The locations of conflict, however, will be altered.  Smaller groups will vie for power.   In a dictatorship, there can be only one winner, and that winner is absolute.  In a polyarchy, people can win, or lose, and they can win or lose on another day.  The levers of power are dispersed, ensuring that rivalries can be contained.   How will Egypt manage that sort of transition?

Those condemning these turn of events may be nostalgic and sentimental toward the past; they will condemn the perceived perversity of the Muslim Brotherhood; cynically note that any change is futile; or argue that the cost of any change is too high.  But once freedom is tasted, it cannot be easily contained except through even more violent forms of tyranny.

So now the God, the tyrant, has been slain.  Let us enjoy the euphoria, the momentary delightful bliss of unanimity of having defeated the devil.  Still, even the Israelites, wandering in the desert toward freedom for forty years eventually wanted to return.

Now that Mubarak has gone, however, there will continue to be conflict.  Governing between competing political groups is messy, difficult and imperfect.  May the revolution expose the lie of the incompatibility of Islam and democracy.

For the hard work has just begun.

About Egypt

As we watch the events in Egypt unfold, it’s useful to consider the following:

1) Egypt is a Sunni country, which means it considers religious authority differently than countries like, for example, Iran.

2) Egypt has a long history of secularism.

3) Egypt is the largest, by population, Arab country.  Consequently, there are a diversity of active groups and actors.  The Muslim Brotherhood is not the only active political group in Egypt, and there is a diversity even within that organization.    Our fears are generally projections.

4) There is a deep, public, awareness of a historic Christian presence.  Even Egyptian Muslims are aware that Christianity has an ancient provenance there.

5) Egypt has ties to the west that date back to ancient Greece; some have argued that Egypt deeply influenced Greek culture.  More recently, tourism is an important part of the Egyptian economy.

6) The revolt was not simply about politics, but perhaps about food.  Wheat has doubled in price, causing enormous hunger all over the world.  This may be enough to begin revolts, perhaps all over the world.

Lord, have mercy

Showing Up

I’m often asked by people how they can help the church.  Sometimes I think the most important act one can do is show up.

However, I believe that the church exists to serve, not to mandate.  Episcopalians tend to have rich lives outside of church.   Obligation isn’t the way we work.  I say “show up” without an urge to yell or complain.

But there is one psychological aspect about the life of the church that is hard to recognize.  Churches demonstrate effectiveness when people are passionate.

Presence is the first step of passion.

Advertisers call this “social proof.”  We want to go where other people are, even if we’re in silence with them.   But it’s not because we just want to prove that church is worth it:  it is an indicator of our own passion for each other.

Sp sometimes the most important work one can do is show up.  Friends show up for one another.  Families do as well.   So the question is:  why do we choose to show up?  What makes us unable to?  What makes us want to?

Why do we engage each other?  Because we see the face of Christ in the long lost friend who unexpectedly shows up at a wedding.  We see the face of Christ in the stranger who has remarkable insight for our current condition.  We see the face of Christ in the person who tells the uncomfortable truth.  We become the face of Christ when we serve.  We become the face of Christ when we build bridges.  We become the face of Christ when we steel ourselves for the future and persevere when times are rough.  And we see the face of Christ when we’re uncomfortable.

I know that for many of us who grew up on rigorous and difficult religions, that when we “appeared” we saw hypocrisy and abuse.    The wealthy got doted upon; the priests often seemed distracted and distant.

But the truth is that people are the church, and that the church is what we make of it.   We don’t own it; It will not always be smooth sailing; but it is worth the work.   The ideal church does not exist except in the end of time.  We can only begin with the people directly around us.

In an age where we are balkanized, holed up in our little ideological huts, weary of arguing our case with people who think differently, the church remains called to be present to the outside world; and we are expected to be present, in some way to one another.  It is not only good for our bodies, and good for our spirit, and good for our communities.  It is precisely what God promises makes our lives meaningful, holy and sacred.