Faith

How to Choose a President

Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock.com
Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock.com

[editor's note: This article was originally published in 2012. References to elections or politicians without specific dates attached are in the context of the 2012 election cycle.]

AS I CAREFULLY watched both the Democratic and the Republican conventions this summer, I realized, once again, how challenging and complicated it is to bring faith to politics.

For example, the phrase “middle class” was likely the most repeated phrase at the conventions. And even though both parties are utterly dependent on their wealthy donors (a fact they don’t like to talk about), they know that middle-class voters will determine the outcome of the election. Now, I believe a strong middle class is good for the country, but Jesus didn’t say, “What you have done for the middle class, you have done for me.” Rather, Matthew 25 says, “What you have done to the least of these, you have done to me.”

When your first principle for politics is what happens to the poor and vulnerable—and I believe that is the first principle for Christians—you keep waiting at conventions for those words and commitments. There were a few moments when the poor were briefly mentioned, but it certainly wasn’t a strong theme in Tampa or Charlotte. “Opportunity” for the middle class was an important word in both conventions this year, but Christians must be clear that creating new opportunities for poor children and low-income families is critical to us.

The conventions also talked a great deal about “success,” but how we define that is very important. Is success mostly about how much money we make, defining the “American Dream” as being able to pass on more riches to our children than what our parents passed on to us? Or is success measured by how we as a nation prioritize, in our spending and political choices, the sick, the vulnerable, the weak, and the elderly? Is it determined more by the values we pass on to our children—evaluating our lives, and theirs, by how much we are able to help others?

America is a nation of immigrants, and how we welcome “the stranger” in our midst is another Christian principle for politics. So is our racial diversity as a nation, where all our citizens must be treated as having equal value. The most inspiring stories at the conventions for me came when that diversity was evidenced on the stage—from a young undocumented “dreamer” and a black first lady on the platform at the Democratic convention to Condoleezza Rice telling her fellow Republicans how a little girl from a segregated Southern city became secretary of state. But little mention was made at either convention of the racial disparities in America’s burgeoning prison industry or voting suppression efforts that most affect minorities and people who are poor.

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Orphans Among Us

"Honja." Photo by Cathleen Falsani.
"Honja." Photo by Cathleen Falsani.

My neighbors signed my report card.

Having had the same conversation countless times in my life, I have learned that one sentence sums up a cacophony of explanations.

It is tricky, I have found, trying to explain why friends are listed as my emergency contacts, why I wake up Christmas morning in the home of people to whom I am not related, and why my parents — both living — have been anything but.

The separation started so long ago that I struggle to remember exactly when it began. When I was starting middle school my mom’s depression hit hard and fast. My dad, who understands love as a finite commodity, could not muster any for me. Loving her meant giving all of it to try to save her. His attempts and inability to do so created a stress that amplified his MS from inconvenient to disabling.

In a moment, it seemed, they were gone.

We were wealthy and Southern and had everything that went along with both: a close-knit community, punctilious social obligations, and money to stay afloat. In the world in which I grew up, everyone surely knew everything about everyone, but damn if they weren’t polite enough to pretend it was all OK. It was a magnificent masquerade.

But the truth remained: I was an orphan.

Seeking Love and Forgiveness in the Shadow of St. Francis

Basilica in Assisi, edella / Shutterstock.com
Basilica in Assisi, edella / Shutterstock.com

ASSISI, Italy — Swimming against a global tide of religious violence and political polarization, about 550 religious and humanitarian leaders met recently here in the birthplace of St. Francis to propose a new way forward: love and forgiveness.

The ambitious aim of the Sept. 19-23 “Global Gathering” was nothing short of putting those values to work in some of the most hate-filled and unforgiving places on Earth. Following the example of Francis, whose feast day is on Thursday, participants pledged to make lofty ideals real through dozens of creative projects researched and funded by the Michigan-based Fetzer Institute, the conference convener.

“There’s a power in love that our world has not discovered yet,” said Fetzer President and CEO Larry Sullivan, quoting the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Let’s put our backs into the work of love and forgiveness.”

What My Catholic Faith Has Taught Me

I’m Catholic. My father comes from a working class Irish Catholic family; my mom is from a large Catholic family of German and Lithuanian decent. My brothers, sister, and I all attended Catholic school and growing up we attended Friday fish fries during Lent and church polka fests in the summer. I’m an active member of a Catholic church in St. Paul. And soon, my wife and I will celebrate the baptism of our daughter into the Catholic Church.

I’m also voting no on the anti-marriage and voter restriction amendments.

Some have asked how I can embrace a faith whose leadership has taken such a hard line against gay and lesbian equality, and which is painfully quiet on the threat to limit voting rights. I understand why people ask this question. For me, my decision to vote no is not in spite of my Catholic faith, it’s because of it.

When I was 10 my parents divorced. A couple years later my mom came out to my family as lesbian. By then she no longer felt welcome at church and stopped going to mass, though she has remained a deeply spiritual person. This one case of social exclusion is deeply meaningful to me, but is nothing compared to political decision by church leadership to spend millions of dollars to limit the freedom to marry in Minnesota. By doing so church leaders seek to permanently exclude gays and lesbians from the civil rights and benefits straight couples enjoy.

But here’s the thing: I’m still getting my daughter baptized. And I’m still Catholic. And I’m still voting no on both amendments in November.

A Christian With Conjunctions

Reflection of mount Assiniboine on Magog lake at sunrise, Alberta, Canada.

For most of my life, I have been a “Christian with conjunctions.”

So I’m a Christian BUT… I’m not like that street preacher who yells about hell and damnation on the downtown corner.

I’m a Christian BUT I’m different from the televangelist who raises his fist in the air and screams about salvation.

My own priest, the Rev. Thomas Murphy, first described himself as a Christian with conjunctions in a sermon the morning before our Episcopal congregation took to the streets during a festival in downtown Asheville, N.C. Across the street from a karaoke booth, we handed out cold water to festivalgoers and offered a simple ministry with no judgment or obligation.

For most of us, it was the first time we had prayed the Eucharist in public, with our colleagues, students, and neighbors walking past. The white banner above us proclaimed: “God loves you. No exceptions.”

I have realized that the ubiquitous street preacher has something to teach me: there is virtue in being bold about my faith. Through my research on congregations and climate change, this public witness to God’s love has become easier for me as my church life now reflects my deep value of God’s good earth.

The stakes of silence are high. If we don’t speak out and act on our moral mandate to reconcile with creation, we risk destroying God’s very creation.

Is the Kingdom of God Made of Vegetables?

“Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”
 ~ Arundhati Roy

Vegetables.

Who could have imagined an economy in which gentle vegetables were subversive?

But this is our world. A world where a vegetable, whose growth is imperceptible to the naked eye, can spider a crack into the concrete of our industrial food system.

We find ourselves in a food economy that sickens us. Health is divided along race and class lines: the food economy particularly sickens those whose wages do not allow them to buy the foods that can cure us of the diseases industrial “foods” cause.

Corporations, which do not speak the language of human love and health, wrangle to profit from the stream of ill Americans falling from the industrial foods conveyor belt. But we know that type 2 diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and some cancers are fully preventable by replacing part of what we eat with fruits and vegetables.

Why, in a wealthy, fertile country are we wrecking the environment to produce foods that kill us?

Raising Sons and Raising Men

This past Saturday, on a brilliant fall morning, my eight-year-old son came bounding downstairs for breakfast. I reached into the refrigerator, grabbed a cold Diet Mountain Dew from in between glass-bottled organic milk and tomato juice, and served it to him with farm-fresh eggs, feeling the part of a drug dealer.

We had a long day ahead, and I wanted to see what happened.

I smiled to myself, imagining some upcoming event, the mothers’ conversation all about peanut-free this and local that, when I’d pipe above the crowd to say, Hey sweetheart, how about your Mountain Dew?

The arrival of Diet Mountain Dew in my house is only the first in a cascade of little experiments we are now undertaking as a result of neuropsychological testing in August indicating that my son has a form of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Our house has never lacked order or discipline, and yet now we are thinking about how to structure everything more explicitly.

Diet Mountain Dew, with its massive amounts of caffeine, is our initial effort in our goal of avoiding, for now, giving him any stimulant medications: Did you know that caffeine actually calms down a hyperactive person, allowing them to focus? Maybe that’s why I’ve drunk eight cups of coffee every day since around 1985.

I tried the coffee with my son first, hoping I could cultivate a new bond with him over a shared habit. He detested the stuff. You could always give him Red Bull, one of my brothers said. I couldn’t bring myself to do that, hence the Diet Mountain Dew.

Sermon on Snot-Nosed Children, Insecurity, and The Lap of God

Toddler photo, paulaphoto / Shutterstock.com
Toddler photo, paulaphoto / Shutterstock.com

A couple days ago I called my friend Kae so we could talk about this Gospel reading where Jesus takes a child in his arms and teaches the disciples that if they welcome a child in his name they welcome God.  And we started talking about the actual reality of children and how difficult small ones can be to manage. Kae told me of this brilliant technique she employs when dealing with toddlers.

She said it really helps her to be patient and compassionate with defiant, emotional, snot-faced toddlers when she just thinks of them like little versions of really drunk friends. Then when they keep falling down and bumping into things and bursting into tears she just treats them like she would a friend who is too drunk to know what they are doing, and who you just try and make sure doesn’t hurt themselves, and who you clean up bodily fluids from, and make sure they drink some water, and then just lovingly change them into their pajamas and tuck them into bed.

Children are really a mess.

Taking America Back for God?

Constitution illustration, Onur ERSIN / Shutterstock.com
Constitution illustration, Onur ERSIN / Shutterstock.com

We’ve all heard the rhetoric. “We need to take America back for God!”

Why? Supposedly so we can regain some bygone level of ethics or moral standards. Supposedly, if we don’t, God will get tired of us “rebuking” God and remove God’s hand of protection from us. Supposedly, so God won’t test us or judge us or something.

Yet, as Gregory A. Boyd notes in his important book The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power Is Destroying the Church, taking America BACK for God assumes we were at one really belonged to God, followed God, listened to God. Boyd goes on to ask, when was this glorious age in the history of the USA?

Let’s start way back. We’ve been taught that many people migrated to North America for religious freedom. So was this glorious time when some of our forebears imprisoned, tormented, and/or hanged many suspected to be witches? Is that what so many want to take us back to?

Isolation, Integration, and the International Day of Peace

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the United States currently spends more than  $711 billion per year on military expenditures, which is – by far – the most of any country in the world. 

In fact, if one were to combine the totals of the next fourteen nations on the list (China, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, Japan, Saudi Arabia, India, Germany, Brazil, India, South Korea, Australia, Canada, and Turkey), their combined amount is similar to the USA.  All together, the USA provides about 43 percent of worldwide military costs, and in addition, the USA per capita ($2,240) and percent of Gross Domestic Product (4.8 percent) in relation to military funding is far greater than any other nation in the world.

With these statistics in mind, one is provoked to ponder some important questions. For example, what is revealed to us about the USA – and our world in general – when military expenses constitute such a significant percentage of a government budget? 

In specifics, why does the USA spend far more on its military than any other country?  In addition, what is revealed to us about the condition of our global village when $1.73 trillion is allocated each year to military funding? As stated by Sojourners CEO Jim Wallis, “A budget is a moral document.  It clearly demonstrates the priorities of a family, a church, an organization, or a government. A budget shows what we most care about.”  
 

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