Why Are We Not Ashamed? — Can We Call Ourselves “a Christian Nation”?

Some year back, when visiting Norway, a friend asked my wife Cathy and me a breath-stopping question: “Why don’t people in the United States want everyone to have health care?” We couldn’t give a clear, coherent answer to her, or to ourselves.

That question becomes all the more pressing in the midst of the discussions and debates about the Affordable Care Act. Again, my breath was taken away when I read this condensed summary of reality here in the United States (taken from an article in the June 12, 2012 issue of The New York Review of Books):http: //bit.ly/NzjqVn

Except for the US, no rich nation in the world fails to provide comprehensive health care that is free or inexpensive to its entire population. Yet roughly 50 million Americans, 16 percent of the population, have no health insurance at all; most of them are relatively poor and nearly one third of them are age eighteen to thirty-four.

Research by the Kaiser Family Foundation and others finds that those without health insurance die younger, work less due to chronic health conditions, and face persistent personal financial problems brought on by illnesses. A Harvard Medical School study found that some 45,000 deaths a year are associated with lack of health insurance.

Despite the lack of coverage for one out of six citizens, Americans pay more than 17 percent of the Gross Domestic Product for their health care, more than any other rich nation by far. Yet American’s health care system is not measurably better and often considerably worse than that of other rich nations.

How can any member of a nation with such an unjust and death-dealing health care system not be ashamed? And how can any citizen who calls him or herself a follower of a Jesus, who called us to love our neighbor as ourselves, not feel an even deeper shame — and a call to do something as they consider their votes in the coming elections?

President Obama, I don’t want to denounce you!

One of the basic principles that I try to practice as a Buddhist-Christian is to oppose without denouncing.  As a Buddhist teacher once put it to a group of Christian liberation theologians, “We Buddhists don’t denounce.” This is one of the most difficult, but also one of the most important, things we Christians can learn from Buddhists: How to oppose without denouncing.  How to offer staunch opposition and resistance without denouncing and degrading the other side and so cutting off possibilities of further dialogue and cooperation.

Recent policies by President Obama and many of his fellow Democrats have made such opposing without denouncing very difficult.  Simply stated: it seems to me that so many of the policies that the President has been following, or allowing, are undermining the very structures of our democracy.  In a recent article in The Nation, William Grieder offers an analysis of what I, and so many other liberals (yes, I’m not afraid of that word), have been feeling.  So in this blog, I’m going to turn it over to Grieder:

Political events of the past two years have delivered a  profound and devastating message: American democracy has been conclusively conquered by American capitalism. Government has been disabled and captured by the formidable powers of private enterprise and concentrated wealth. Self-governing rights that representative democracy conferred on citizens are now usurped by the overbearing demands of corporate and financial interests. Collectively, the corporate sector has its arms around both political parties, the financing of political careers, the production of the policy agendas and propaganda of influential think tanks, and control of major media.

What the capitalist system wants is more — more wealth, more freedom to do whatever it wishes. This has always been its instinct unless goverment intervened to stop it. The objective now is to destroy any remaining forms of goverment interference, except of course for business subsidies and protections. Many elected representatives are implicitly enlisted in the cause.

The administration of Barack Obama has been a crushing disappointment for those of us who hoped he would be different. It turns out that Obama is a more conventional and limited politician than advertised, more right-of-center than his soaring rhetoric suggested. Most Congressional Democrats, likewise, proved weak and incoherent, unreliable defenders of their supposed values or most loyal constituencies. They call it pragmatism. I call it surrender.

Such policies of surrender are preferring capitalism over democracy.  Capitalism is moral only when it is democratic.  If it’s not democratic, it must be opposed, and maybe  denounced.

Please, Mr. President, speak your mind!

Dear President Obama,

On Aug 3, your press secretary, Robert Gibbs, speaking for your administration, said that you did not want to take a position on the controversy surrounding plans to build a Muslim Center near Ground Zero.   When asked what was the opinion of your administration, Mr. Gibbs replied that it was “a matter for New York” and that you did not want “to get involved in local decision-making.”

That’s hard to believe.  I suspect – no, I’m quite certain – that you do want to get involved,  but that you, or your advisers, are afraid of the political repercussions from the growing anti-Muslim movement on the right. (It was a Tea-Party group that first sounded the conservative attack on the Manhattan Muslim Center.)

I am convinced that you really do want to come out publicly and defend the rights of our Muslim fellow-citizens to establish a center close to Ground Zero  – a center that is intended to provide space for dialogue between Christian Americans and Muslim Americans and that will show a different and more authentic face of Islam rather than the one embodied in the actions of extremists.

Why am I so certain that you want to so speak publicly on such an issue?  Because you said so!

May I quote for you what you said in your speech in Cairo on June 4, 2009?  And allow me to nudge your conscience on each of these statements:

  • “The attacks of September 11th, 2001 and the continued efforts of these extremists to engage in violence against civilians has led some in my country to view Islam as inevitably hostile not only to America and Western countries, but also to human rights. This has bred more fear and mistrust.” –  (Such fear and mistrust are being fostered by the ugly rhetoric of the opponents of the Center.)

  • “So long as our relationship is defined by our differences, we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace, and who promote conflict rather than the cooperation that can help all of our people achieve justice and prosperity. This cycle of suspicion and discord must end.” –  (You have an opportunity to help end this suspicion and discord by taking a clear and strong stand for the rights of our Muslim fellow-citizens.)

  • “I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect; and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles – principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.” –  (You said this in Cairo to Egyptians.  I beg you to now say it now in Washington, D.C. to Americans.)

  • “I am convinced that in order to move forward, we must say openly the things we hold in our hearts, and that too often are said only behind closed doors. There must be a sustained effort to listen to each other; to learn from each other; to respect one another; and to seek common ground.” –  (Please, say openly these things that you hold in your heart. Call all sides involved in this controversy to listen, learn, respect, and seek common ground.  It is so important, it would be so helpful, for you to pronounce just these words in the midst of this controversy.)

  • “ It is my conviction that partnership between America and Islam must be based on what Islam is, not what it isn’t. And I consider it part of my responsibility as President of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear.” — (Such negative stereotypes of Islam are rampant in most of the public statements of those opposed to the Muslim Center.   Please, carry out your “responsibility as President of the United States.” )

Mr. President, we need your leadership.  Please, speak your mind!

Obama and the Middle Way

In the March 8 issue of The Nation, Katha Pollitt concludes an excellent article with: “What is the point of Obama being conciliatory and careful if his opponents are reckless and don’t want to conciliate.” (http://www.thenation.com/doc/20100308/pollitt).

I’m sure many of us resonate with what Pollitt is urging:  Get tough, Mr. Obama!  All your reconciliation stuff and your efforts to build consensus have hit the brick wall of Republican obstinacy and downright meanness.  So hit back!   Respond to their recklessness and refusal to cooperate with your own.

But my “better angels” — who include Jesus and Buddha — come fluttering in to hold me back from joining in Pollitt’s calls for responding to recklessness  with recklessness.   The same principle that warns against violence applies here: meanness, nastiness, refusal to cooperate, putting your enemies in their place — it will all only bred more of the same.  The law of karma:  hate begets hate.

And yet, yes, Obama has to change course. He has to get tough.  But how?

Buddha’s “Middle Way” might apply here.  After a life of luxury, he decided to seek enlightenment through six years of rigorous self-denial and asceticism. That didn’t work either.  So he set off on the Middle Way between luxury and self-denial — and that led him to the experience of awakening under the Wisdom Tree.

There is, there has to be, a middle way between Pollitt’s being “careful” and being “reckless” — between being conciliatory and being mean. Again, Jesus and Buddha offer some examples.  Jesus could get tough with the powers that be and endorse language like “brood of vipers,” but at the same time he could forgive them “for they know not what they do.”

To be firm but at the same time open to other ideas.  To resist one’s opponents but never write them off.  To try to get around their filibusters but to assure them that you still seek for cooperation.

I think it all boils down to getting tough without hating.   To resist and insist without hating and demeaning.  That’s the Middle Way.

Democracy or Dependency: The State of the US Congress

Democracy or Dependency: The State of the US Congress

In a recent THE NATION article, Harvard Law Professor, Lawrence Lessig, lays out compelling evidence for the following conclusion about the state of our democracy due to the state of our Congress:

“Rather than being, as our framers promised, an institution ‘dependent on the People,’ Congress has developed a pathological dependence on campaign cash.”

“The point is simple, if extraordinarily difficult for those of use proud of our traditions to accept: this democracy no longer works. Its central player, Congress, has been captured. Corrupted. Controlled by an economy of influence disconnected from the democracy. Congress has developed a dependency foreign to the framers’ design. Corporate campaign spending, now liberated by the Supreme Court, will only make that dependency worse. ‘A dependence’ not, as the federalist Papers celebrated it, ‘on the People’ but a dependency upon interests that have conspired to produce a world in which policy gets sold.”

And why is Congress so vulnerable to such dependence on corporate money? Because it is so expensive to get elected to Congress! Here is the noxious chain of dependency: It costs an incredible amount of money to be elected and to stay elected. Right now, there is only one primary source for such money: corporations and the vested economic elite. Therefore, political survival requires dependence on corporate economic power.

So if, as Lessig states succinctly “dependency betrays democracy” and if dependency is rooted in our campaign system, the logical solution is: “to enact an idea proposed by a Republican (Teddy Roosevelt) a century ago: citizen-funded elections.”

Voila! — Therefore, we need to support the “Fair Elections Now Act” sponsored in the house by Democrat John Larson and Republican Walter Jones, and in the Senate by Democrats Dick Durbin and Arlen Specter.

To restore democracy in Congress we have to remove the dependency in Congress.