Thursday, November 16, 2006

Best blog goes to...

Andrew Sullivan is the only blog I read regularly. I disagreed vehemently with him on the Iraq war when he promoted it strongly at the start, and I still do today whenever he imagines something good can be salvaged from it. But this interview on the wonderfully named website Busted Halo explains why I like the man. 'Money quote,' as Sullivan would say:

Well the decisions that a pundit or blogger makes, the arguments he makes, as long as they are made in good faith, and mine were, can be subsequently understood as errors as long as you acknowledge the errors. But in this case the errors have led to horrible deaths in ways that I never foresaw but should have foreseen. And I'm not just talking about the terrible deaths and casualties and wounds, which we are also forgetting with these casualty numbers of American soldiers coming back with these terrible injuries. But I also mean the Iraqi civilians who trusted us to secure their country and whom we betrayed again.

He comes from the generation after me in England, when many bright young people went conservative. Would I have done the same if I had been born at the same time? Quite possibly - but instead I fell in love with the left, despite all its horrors and pathologies. Where Sullivan sees what true conservatives have done for democracy, I see what radicals have done - oftentimes basing their radicalism on old traditions of liberty it is true, which could at a stretch be called conservative. But the conservative spirit as a whole is not one that creates democracy where there was none before. I have yet to see a convincing conservative explanation of how democracy and liberty are created by conservatives. I guess I'll have to read Sullivan's book.

How you discover...

This is how you discover if you're a natural blogger. You start a blog with a friend, post some entries, and then see whether you keep posting or not. I didn't and he hasn't yet, so we are learning something. At least we didn't advertize it to our friends.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Rev. John Fife

Last Tuesday we interviewed Rev. John Fife on our show. Fife is the real deal. A Christian who has heard and acted on Christ's injunction to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, and visit the prisoner and the sick. He quoted that famous passage (Gospel of Matthew chapter 25) and said - doesn't that sound exactly like a description of an illegal immigrant crossing the border in the Arizona desert? About 400 illegals a year are dying in the desert - a conservative estimate, he says.

Fife is a pastor in Tucson. In the 1980s he helped found the Sanctuary Movement, which assisted illegal immigrants fleeing death squads in Central America. The Immigration Service (INS) told him to get them refugee status through the proper channels, but at that time the government would not recognize people fleeing the countries that the Reagan government supported, and the death squads that our own School of the Americas had had a hand in training. If you were a Czech hockey player and you defected, Fife told us, you could get refugee status easily. If you were a Salvadoran with torture scars all over your body, you could not. So the Sanctuary Movement helped the refugees illegally. Prosecuted by the government, they found that hundreds of churches, cities and colleges across America declared themselves sanctuaries in support.

Now Fife has started a group called No More Deaths. Working with Humane Borders they have helped hundreds of illegals survive in the Arizona desert. Fife explained the background. In the old days employers needed labor and the INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) turned a blind eye to illegals coming over the border to do the work. After all, the US economy depends on them. But when NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) was passed in 1994, the Clinton government simultaneously started blocking the usual illegal routes from Mexico, especially around cities, to force the illegals into the desert. Government documents apparently show that the goal was to deter people from crossing, even at the risk of numerous deaths. It hasn't worked. People are too desperate.

Does the left need religious and spiritual leaders? When you look at this issue, I don't see how you can gainsay the value of a man like John Fife and his church networks. Their inspiration is basic: the sacredness of each human being, the injunction to serve the needs of the least among us. Just doing that leads them to be called criminals - try putting "Rev. John Fife" into Google. After our WAMC show one angry letterwriter told us that the left doesn't need religion to have values. Of course, not, we didn't say it did. But its anti-religious tendencies can lead the left to fail to appreciate amazing people like Fife. He is a truly hopeful man, and I feel sure that that is not only personality, but also linked to his faith.

When we talked about solutions, Fife brought up NAFTA and US trade policies. We are undercutting Mexican staple crops (corn, beans, cotton) with our subsidized produce, so that Mexican farmers cannot make a living. This is purely selfish on our part and it's as much against conservative free trade theory as it is against leftwing humanitarian policy. It's just me-first politics: the clout of the farming vote and the agribusiness lobbies. The long-term main solution is to raise up the Mexican economy. Most Mexicans would much rather stay home with their families and earn a decent living. A great deal of that depends on the Mexicans themselves, but there is much that we could do to stop undercutting their agriculture. While depending on their illegal labor here, and underpaying them for it (a decent minimum wage would help to raise up our own poor and shift some of the jobs to them as well as paying the illegals better), we drive them into the desert and many of them to their deaths. It is unconscionable.

Spiritually Speaking

Rev. Jim Bridges, Rabbi Rena Bluemnthal and I do a weekly radio show called 'Spiritually Speaking' on Vassar College radio, WVKR, 91.3 in the mid Hudson Valley. We started in June, very amateurishly, having to be our own engineers and phone answerers - we are alone in the studio with THE BOARD, the fearsome array of buttons and sliders. But we've had fun and that has been a major criterion for us - if we're not having fun something's wrong. We have little idea who is listening and are always surprised when someone says, we heard you on the radio.

Last Thursday we were heard by a much larger audience when Susan Arbetter of WAMC, Northeast Public Radio, invited the three of us to do a 45-minute call-in show with her on the RoundTable program. We asked her if she would like to invite Rabbi Michael Lerner, who joined us from his home in San Francisco. We had invited Lerner to do an hour show with us, and said we could publicize it on the WAMC show - he was savvy enough to want to join us on WAMC and Susan was willing. It made good radio. When we get the audio file we'll post it on with our other shows. After the show Susan blew us away by asking if we would like to do the show with her once a month.

Our WVKR show was the idea of Leslie Simons, whom I met at Rabbi Lerner's Network of Spiritual Progressives conference in Washington DC in May. Leslie lives in our area and knows Fred Nagel who has a leftwing show on WVKR. Mike Ignatowski, my co-blogger here, and my wife debi Clifford and I had started a local chapter of the Network of Spiritual Progressives. That's where we met Rena, and Jim was a connection of Leslie's. You take small steps and fun things happen that you didn't expect. Today we have Vince Isner, head of on our show, and next week his boss, Rev. Bob Edgar, head of the National Council of Churches. If we can only get the incredibly annoying recording mechanism to work, these shows will go up on our website for all to hear.

We wrote in our proposal to WVKR: "The goal of the show is to provide ‘the other side’ in the public discussion of religion and politics. As the evangelical leader Rev. Jim Wallis said recently, “…the monologue of the religious right is now over. And a new dialogue has finally begun.” Many people have acquired the impression from the media and the religious right that the central Christian political issues of our times are abortion and gay marriage. But many voices are rising up from all faiths and from ‘spiritual but not religious’ people to say that the central spiritual and ethical issues of our day concern justice, peace, universal healthcare, poverty, torture, global warming, and support for families and children. The overriding issues are how we respect each human being as an embodiment of the sacred, and care for our environment as a sacred trust."

Hear us live on Tuesdays 4 - 5 pm EST at 91.3 Poughkeepsie,
live on-line (when it's working) at and
via left column, when we can get the recording mechanism to work. One day we will be fully professional and worthy of these amzing guests who are coming our way.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Rock Tavern Fire

My friend Rev. Jim Bridges' church burned down early yesterday morning. Still don't know the cause. See Jim is still planning to come up to Albany tomorrow with Rena Blumenthal, the rabbi at Vassar College, and myself for a 45 minute show on WAMC, northeast public radio, about the radio show we do together on WVKR, 'Spiritually Speaking'. Jim, I don't know what to say. What can we do to help?

Monday, September 11, 2006


Seven teenagers just back from Tanzania told their church all about it yesterday. St. John’s Episcopal in Kingston, NY, a classic stone steepled church set a little back from the road among lawns: could be in any large English village. They had gone to get involved in a program to help AIDS orphans. $50 a year enables a kid to get off the streets and go to school, get a uniform, get fed. The program covers grades 1 through 5. The project has eight churches so far, each sponsoring 50 orphans. The goal is 200 churches helping 10,000 orphans by 2012. The Tanzanian Prime Minister himself met with them to find out about their program.

At a distant village the Kingston group were met by 400 orphans singing a welcome song in English. These kids sleep on the dirt floor – no pillow, blanket, toys, barely enough food. The American teens tasted the porridge the orphans live on, enough said. In their report they did a beautiful job of appreciating the country, the people, the warmth of welcome and the music, while letting us know what for them were inevitably ick factors of poverty shock.

Among the orphans one little girl stood out for her optimism and energy. She said she wanted to be a doctor when she grew up. The teens bonded with her. Later they found that she alone of this group of orphans had AIDS. Connections of the heart were made. I assume that is the reason for trips like this. Each teen had raised their own money to go, well over $1,000 each. The money could have helped multiple orphans, but with the connections made, these American teens may be starting on a lifetime of work to help Africa. They see it as an extension of their work with people with AIDS locally in Kingston.

It all made me think of when I was at college and my girlfriend, Tess McMahon, and friend John Clark went to Tanzania for the summer in 1972. We started a project to help poor but developing countries, with Tanzania as our model of a hopeful socialist country. Both Tess and John in completely different ways have spent their adult lives in anti-poverty work. I have just read a history of modern Africa – almost every country is worse off now than it was then. South Africa the main exception. Perhaps the most depressing book I have ever read. All the more reason to make those connections of the heart with Africa - the analysis, critical though it is, always comes later. I take my hat off to Rev. Burns and all at St. John's who took this initiative.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Why a blog? Why this blog?

The real reason I like a good blog is that over time you get to know the author(s) in a different way. It's exactly because every word isn't carefully measured and edited that it's interesting. There's a lot of pretense in writing well-edited books and articles - we polish our words and put our best ones forward, organized most intelligently. That's OK. In fact, of course, it's brilliant. You can put forward a coherent, sustained argument. Blogs can never match a well written book or article for coherence.
But life is not coherent. Our minds are not coherent. Linear arguments can never do justice to a world which is non-linear and 3-D. Thinking in 3D could be called ecological, as opposed to linear, thinking. In ecological thinking everything impacts everything else. It's very hard to detect cause and effect because so many things are changing other things at the same time. Linear arguments have to oversimplify, and that helps us to think. But we mustn't pretend that that oversimplification catches the real world.

We think contradictory thoughts. We change our minds daily or have two minds about something. Blogs catch more of the way we think and live. If you don't regret a recent blog entry you're not blogging freely enough. You have to forgive bloggers a little more. Keep a sharp eye on their hemlines and you'll see their Freudian slips showing. Their naive enthusiasms, their failures to be engaged on some topic. You get to see how their minds work. It's brave to blog.
I love the idea that my friend and radio co-host Rena Blumenthal gave me the other day. She said that peasant religions tend to be similar, with many spirits, gods, sacred stones, wells and animals. They can always expand to incorporate a few more. But with education and rigorous thought religious people learn to exclude, to develop orthodoxy and orthopraxy (correct ways of thinking and doing). But then with yet more and deeper education, philosophy and spirituality, religious people realize that all the 'correct' arguments are metaphors for realities beyond easy understanding. They become mystics, they appreciate paradox, they appreciate other mystics from different traditions. It's not the peasants or the philosopher/mystics who create religious wars, pogroms, inquisitions, and witch-burnings. It's the educated people in the middle who do. They are the ones seduced by linear lines of print, and arguments that go a, b c. That beginner level of rationality takes you from somewhere sensible to somewhere extreme without your realizing that your logic has escaped the real world.
I can't claim to be much of a philosopher or a mystic, but I have been brought from an upbringing and early adulthood of fierce correctnesses (the first religious, the second secular left political) to a deep love affair with paradox, complexity, and contradiction in the search for what might be more true. Perhaps my contributions on our shared blog here can reveal the ways I think - often to my own embarrassment I expect. But what does that matter? Let us share our real thoughts and our unacceptable, uncool, incorrect takes on life.