Sunday, April 24, 2016

Primaries, Parties, Power, Please . . .

I won’t be voting in our Pennsylvania primary on Tuesday. I’ve been promoting voter registration for months now, inviting attention to the League of Women Voters’ Vote411, which offers sample ballots and voter information, and posting winning videos from our League of Women Voters 2016 video contest: Your Voice, Your Vote, Be Heard!

But I won’t be voting myself, because I’m registered as unaffiliated, and PA’s primaries are closed to unaffiliated voters.

In January, Gallup reported that forty-two percent of Americans identify as political independents. That percent is much lower in PA, due to our closed primaries, but still more than 1.1 million choose not to identify with one of the two major parties.

I consider our closed primaries a form of taxation without representation.

Yes, I could register with a party to exercise my right to vote in the primary Tuesday.

Except, honestly, I can’t.

There are parts of both parties’ platforms I agree with. (Here are both: Republican, Democrat)

There are major parts in both I think are wrong-headed, counterproductive, unsustainable.

I could compromise on those. Maybe.

But my concern goes past platform and policy to practice and power.

I read an essay recently by Os Guinness (an excerpt from his 2002 book, Time for Truth: Living Free in a World of Lies, Hype and Spin, published in the Veritas Forum's A Place for Truth):
If there's no truth and everything is only power, ours is a world of brutal manipulation in which the strong will win and the weak will always go to the wall – and that's a horrendous world. 
I fear the horrendous world he describes is hurrying toward us.

And I fear our political parties have lost sight of core values like truth, justice, the common good, and instead depend on manipulation to maintain power and justify control.

Not everyone: there are good people in both parties. I've met some. I know of others.

But the parties themselves, the power structures within them, the games they play: I am appalled by much I see and hear.

Listen to the discussion surrounding primaries, delegates, conventions, dark money, donors: anything approaching real democracy died a long time ago.

Yes, I know: anyone attempting to accomplish anything at all faces the challenge of balancing the desire to forward reasonable ends with the need to influence in appropriate ways.

This is true at the most elemental level: caring for my favorite toddler, I want to move us toward hands washed, lunch on the table, food delivered to open mouths.

There’s a point where the end may justify a small application of both force and reward (picking him up and setting him in his seat; withholding more juice until cheese and fruit are eaten). But even in the smallest drama, there’s a dangerous desire to have things go my way just because: because I’m in charge. Because I don’t like aggravation. Because I said so. Because.

On the political level, yes, it makes sense for parties to work toward agreed on goals, applying appropriate influence in reasonable ways.

Unfortunately, the more I see of our two major parties, the clearer it is that desire for power long superseded any interest in reasonable goals or appropriate methods.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been working on redistricting reform. Every ten years, the federal census paves the way for reapportionment of congressional seats: states that grow get more seats in the House of Representatives; those that lose population may have less. That necessitates changes in congressional electoral districts, but most states also adjust state legislative districts at the same time to keep districts relatively even in size.

Most democratic countries do something similar, and in most, the redistricting process is handled by independent redistricting commissions composed of impartial demographers, mapmakers, retired judges or other citizens, with strict rules for how lines are to be drawn and clear standards of evaluation.

In Pennsylvania, as in most American states, the legislators draw and approve the maps that determine their elections, an obvious conflict of interest.

The result has been, since early in our democracy, lines drawn to favor the party in power. Another word for it: gerrymandering.

I described this in much more detail back in 2014.

But here’s what I’ve learned since:

Our two major parties have spent millions trying to capture legislatures in redistricting years in order to control the redistricting process in order to control Congress and state legislatures.

Yes, of course, I get it: parties exist to help their candidates win elections, in hopes of controlling the processes, in hopes of getting their own bills enacted.

What I’m describing goes way beyond that. Essentially, it’s legal voter fraud. Manipulation of processes to guarantee that voters’ voices are discounted.

In North Carolina, that meant corralling minority candidates into two strangely drawn districts to restrict their influence across a wider area.  

In Virginia, a similar move is under Supreme Court review.

In Pennsylvania, partisan redistricting divided post-industrial cities into surrounding suburbs or farmland to ensure the voices of poor, urban communities have little influence in policy or funding.

Both parties play the game, but the Republicans have been more organized and better funded. They’ve already announced plans for the 2020 redistricting process: RedMap 2020. 

Manipulation of maps is a cynical, insidious form of voter fraud. It deprives voters of choice, pushes parties toward extremes, ensures legislative gridlock and undermines voter engagement.

I put together a simple graphic to help explain the dynamic I’m describing. I’ve been using it to promote a petition in support of redistricting reform.

I hear people complain about candidates who lie, stretch the truth, manipulate, take dark money, promise things they can’t possibly provide.

It’s always the other candidate: the one they don’t support.

And I hear people explain their vote because any other vote would allow the opposition to win. Or would put party control in jeopardy.

I go back to that quote I’ve been carrying with me: 
If there's no truth and everything is only power, ours is a world of brutal manipulation... 
I posted last week about this time of unraveling we’re living in.

The idea of truth itself is unraveling, has been unraveling, is now as thin as a gossamer strand of spider web, floating on the unsettled air.

If truth no longer matters, what we have left is manipulation.

And a brutal game of chess in which we are all, only, pawns. 

I have been praying about my own role in this unfolding story.

For now, I feel called to work on redistricting reform, to look for other ways to strengthen the voice of those shut out of our political process. And I feel called to say, as clearly and often as I can, I believe truth matters. 

This post is my vote for real democracy. The vote I’m not able to cast on Tuesday.

I admire others I know whose callings lead them in other ways: living and working in tough urban neighborhoods. Protesting and praying on capital steps in DC and Harrisburg. Writing, teaching, volunteering. Working the polls. Walking with the poor. Running for office. Writing policy.

Here’s my please:

Please don’t fall for manipulation. Don’t look past the lies. Don’t excuse the game.

Don’t just pray that the best person win.

Pray for your own role in that. Your own vote. Your own voice.

Please don’t watch in silence as the best manipulator wins.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Waiting for Words

etching, Lewis C. Daniel, New York, 1940s
I didn’t post on this blog last week.

I started one post, then set it aside.

I finished a second, had it almost ready to post, then felt a nagging uncertainty grow to an unmistakable “No.”

I had spent the weekend at a church retreat, and one of the passages we looked at along the way was Philippians 4:8:

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

The post I had written was about the raging storm around transgender use of  public bathrooms in North Carolina. I spent hours reading heartbreaking stories, suicide statistics, psychologists’ assertions, unconvincing data.

I came across some helpful sources in my reading, but found that for those most invested in this topic, even a mention of source can be occasion of great anger.

Even thoughtful questions are not totally safe when emotions run high and accusations drown any attempt at compromise:  
• How do we create the kind of church culture in which transgender people feel comfortable being among us?
• How do we do this but not muddy the waters in terms of what we believe about the clarity of gender distinctions?
• How do we pastor our churches so that they are accepting of transgender people but discerning about the wider societal issues . . .?
• How will we pastor transgender people? What will be our approach to issues such as baptism or church membership or serving in different areas of church life with the transgendered?
How will we teach and model sexuality in a way that strengthens and clarifies real marriage and family life, honours singleness, recognises brokenness, accepts those who ‘don’t fit the box’, and challenges sinfulness with truth and love?
I don’t know the answers to any of those questions.

I’m not sure they’re the right questions.

Even as I think about them, about ways different groups would respond, I picture Jesus, bending in front of an angry crowd, writing in the sand.

When I think of that scene, I long to know what he’s writing.

Even more, I long to know what he’s thinking.

I was taught years ago a form of spiritual reading: picture the scene, and ask God to show you where you are in that scene.

I do not want to be one of the crowd throwing stones.

I don’t want to be the woman, caught in adultery, disheveled and distraught, dragged in front of  a leering crowd.

I picture myself kneeling next to Jesus, so near I can touch him, caught in the swirl of anger and fear, watching him, prayerfully waiting. 
The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.
But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.
At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
“No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”
Even that, even Jesus' gentle word of forgiveness and healing: in our current disordered world, even that could occasion an angry response. What sin? Who says? How dare you forgive me/
Kristus and the Woman Caught in Adultery, 
Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, 1918, Dresden

We live in a strange, disordered time.

People I know who have always valued honesty, kindness and respect enthusiastically support a presidential candidate who can’t speak without lying, demeans everyone who disagrees with him, believes winning justifies any dishonorable behavior.

People whose parents and grandparents were immigrants and refugees not very long ago talk of building walls, closing borders, shutting off aid to the greatest wave of refugees since the days of World War II.

More people struggle with poverty and inequity than at any time since the Great Depression.

More people of color are incarcerated in the US than were held in slavery, many for failure to pay exorbitant fines which by any measure of justice  would be illegal. Many others are held, pretrial, because they can’t afford bail.

This week, hundreds have taken to the streets: in Philadelphia to demand economic justice and a living wage; in DC, to demand fair elections and an end to campaigns sold to wealthy donors and dark money industries. Black Lives Matter protests have been gathering in Minneapolis, Phoenix, Chicago, Philadelphia. Campaign stops in New York and Pennsylvania have been marked by growing protests, dozens of arrests, threats of violence.

In early January, 2015, I looked back on a year of turbulence: the start of Black Lives Matter. The bombing in Boston.

The unrest and violence have escalated; the dissatisfaction and dangers I mentioned then are more real, more insistent, with no sign of resolution.

In that post I described hearing religion editor Phyllis Tickle speak about the pattern of history: long periods of stability interrupted by times of great change. 
She talked about the accusations and disruption that have accompanied times of change: inquisitions, beheadings, violence and horror from challenged religious powers. 
Whenever there is so cataclysmic a break as is the rupture between modernity and postmodernity… there is inevitably a backlash.  Dramatic change is perceived as a threat to the status quo, primarily because it is. 
She ended with a warning so sharply stated I’ve remember it almost word for word: “If you leave here and you don’t do ministry on your knees, in constant prayer, you haven’t heard a word I’m saying.” 
heard her, but didn’t understand: what we’re seeing, in immigration, economics, church governance, a host of other troubling issues, is a paradigm shift, a battle for authority and power. And we’re nowhere near done. 
Phyllis Tickle died last spring, but the truth of her warning lingers.

I’ve been rethinking one of her metaphors: chords woven of many strands that slowly come unraveled, and the period of danger and uncertainty as new strands are woven together.

The strands around us are frayed and loose: our understanding of gender and sexuality. Our experience of race and nationality, privilege and belonging. Economic models of work and wages. Ideas about democracy, justice, faith and family.

We fortify the past, desperately struggle to hold the strands together. 

We look around for someone to blame, grab for stones, throw without thinking.

Or we hide in fear, hoping this time will pass by quickly. Hoping if we avert our gaze, think of other things, the ship of state will right itself with no need of intervention.

As Tickle warned, far too often times of change have been accompanied by violence and bloodshed.

Far too often, misguided Christians have been agents of injustice in those times of upheaval: so determined to hold to the familiar, unraveling strands they miss what God is doing.

Sometimes great change comes through violence, anger, swords, stones, agonizing sorrow.
sketch, Rembrandt van Rijn, 1603, Holland

Sometimes it comes through praise, prayer, miraculous throwing down of walls, gentle words turning away wrath.

I know which model I prefer.

I don’t know how to get there.

So I kneel in the sand, watch, listen, learn, wait.

And pray, in old ways and new.

For wisdom to speak when words are what’s needed.

For grace to remain silent when there’s nothing true, or just, or commendable I can say. 

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Slow of Heart

Endorse SB 484 and HB 1835
Working the past few weeks on redistricting reform issues, I’ve found myself caught in circular conversations where the same questions are asked and answered, the same ground covered again with no apparent shift.

Why a constitutional reform? Why now? Why not another approach? Why these allies? Why this timeframe?

It seems clear to me that allowing politicians to draw maps for their own electoral districts is a conflict of interest with a host of implications for representation and governance. And it seems clear that the best, maybe only real solution is to change how the lines are drawn.

And to do that requires a constitutional amendment, which takes years. So either this happens now, or we wait another decade.

Our coalition, Fair Districts PA, launched a petition this week asking legislators to support redistricting reform. (If you live in PA and haven’t signed it, please do, right here). I can understand legislators resisting this change: they have power and want to keep it.

What I don’t understand are those who claim to be allies who won’t support the effort, won’t promote the petition, and waste precious time in the same circular discussions.

In the days following Easter, reading in the final chapters of Luke, I was struck once again by how hard is was for the followers of Christ to grasp that he had risen.

The downcast men on the road to Emmaus had the evidence they needed, but they were stuck in confusion. Jesus had died, the women had reported his resurrection, but to the men it didn’t add up.

The Disciples, George Roualt, 1939 Paris
They had the testimony of the women, the testimony of the empty tomb, but more than that: they had Jesus walking right there beside them. But they couldn’t accept what they’d been told, couldn’t see him right there with them.

Even when he said “how foolish you are, and slow of heart to believe all the prophets have spoken,” they didn’t see it was him, didn’t grasp what he was saying.

That phrase has traveled with me this week: how foolish you are, and slow of heart.

We live inside our own limitations. We have experiences and expectations that shape what we’re able to see and believe.

Sometimes we hold those limitations tightly: it might cost us power, or privilege, funding, friends, to see from another angle, to set prejudice aside.

We tell ourselves we want to know the truth and are open to new perspectives, but how often is that a friendly lie we tell ourselves while ignoring evidence that points in new directions?

Am I wasting my time on redistricting reform? Compared to some of the larger questions of life that’s a small one, but for me, right now, worth asking.

I set out the evidence I have, the frustrations, potential, limited resources, possible outcomes. God has led me in many strange directions over a lifetime of job changes and volunteer investment. Is this where I’m to invest today? I believe it is. I pray I’m open to redirection.

And what of those circular conversations, rehearsing the same questions, the same evidence? As I look for new ways to explain strategies and direction, I find myself wondering: are these honest questions, or ways to hide alternative agendas?  Is there a real desire to do the right thing, or is the goal to look supportive while subverting forward motion?

In politics the plays for power are not always obvious.

In other arenas that’s even more the case.

I’ve seen disastrously foolish decisions made, in direct conflict to all evidence, driven by hidden personal agendas and surrounded by spiritual language about prayer and God’s leading.

I’ve seen power grabs masquerade as ministry, mercy, marital harmony, good fiscal management.

Folly is never far away.

And we are all, so often, slow of heart.

How much of that slowness of heart on the road to Emmaus was tied to tradition?

Those men had grown up in a framework that expected one kind of messiah: political, powerful, punishing, patriarchal.

Their kind of messiah wouldn’t place himself in the hands of his pursuers.

Wouldn’t stand silent in the face of his accusers.

Wouldn’t die without accomplishing all they believed that he should do.

The Empty Tomb, Jesus Mafa, 1970s North Cameroun
They were drawn to Jesus. But tied to their own narrative framework.

And how much of that slowness of heart was tied to gender?

“Some of our women astounded us.” 

The Greek word, “existemi,”  translated  here “astounded” or “astonished”, literally means out of line, out of bounds, out of one’s mind, radically altered. In some places it’s translated bewitched, or insane.

Those women: What were they thinking? Who could believe them?

Who did they think they were, so confident in what they’d seen, speaking of angels, insisting Jesus was alive!

To really hear them would require a complete shift in the prevailing belief that God spoke to men, Jewish men, only Jewish men. Never women.

I find myself wondering how much we miss, insisting the message come in the form we most prefer, ignoring those we’ve decided God would never use.

I look at the places where we are most divided and wonder what foolishness and slowness of heart keep us from hearing God’s word of unity.

I look at our churches and wonder, what foolishness, what slowness of heart, keeps us locked in debating the same old tired questions:

How old the earth is. Really, does that matter? Read with new eyes. Listen with a larger language. Let's stop the myth that science and faith conflict.

The role of women: Any! Every! What petty prerogative dares to dictate terms to the daughters of God, co-heirs and co-workers with Christ himself?

The role of the Holy Spirit? Amazing how many conversations I’ve heard debating what God Himself can and can’t do. What blessings and power we miss trying to cram the Spirit of God into our chronological constructs.

Abortion? We shout past each other rather than really listen, to the struggle of single moms, the heartbreak of unsupportive workplaces, the lack of affordable housing, adequate medical care, reasonable parental leave.

Gender identity and marriage? I see a great deal of folly and slowness of heart in almost every direction. I am slow of heart myself in this space, unable to see what God has in mind.

Walking a woodland trail after a rainy day, thinking and praying about my own areas of folly, my own slowness of heart in arenas where I struggle to see God’s hand, I am struck by the tiny voices I hear around me. Some bird calls are very familiar: the cheer cheer cheer of the cardinal, then its loud, metallic “chip!” The  anxious call of the wood duck, speeding by overhead. But the woods are full of tiny whispers I can’t describe and can’t identify, soft enough you could walk right past them, gentle enough if I said “what’s that sound?” most friends would answer “what sound?”

Yet I know people who would hear what I hear, and more, and hearing, could tell me what I hear, point out where to look: maybe a contented kinglet, high in a tree, murmuring delight at the most recent bug? Maybe a brown creeper, low on a tree trunk, whispering plans to hop to the next tree?

I know people who are like that in hearing what God is doing:  they’ve spent a lifetime in listening, waiting, praying, studying scripture. I can often sense the Holy Spirit moving, yet so often miss the point. Listen, I say, and others stare blankly: to what? Yet some, a rare, treasured few, know what I’m asking, listen with me, and can often hear what I’ve only, almost, guessed at.

Watching sunlight streak across my muddy path, I wonder how I would have responded if I had been one of those Jesus met on the road to Emmaus.

I long for wisdom, quickness of heart. Pray to be one who sees and recognizes Jesus.

And I pray for all those I know and love. Those who follow Christ, yet are slow of heart in other things: slow of heart to set down their own agendas. Slow of heart to welcome and love.

And I pray for those who have taken another path: slow of heart to believe. Slow of heart to see enduring love walking right beside them.