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Thursday, February 02, 2006

Antimanifesto II

I recently had the honor to be asked by Rev. Robb Moore to contribute to the weekly CrossLeft Podcast of Progressive Christian sermons.

Please consider having a listen to my Antimanifesto on where the parties are failing and how the progressive church could intervene to save American society.

The essay you are listening to is an anti-manifesto.

By antimanfesto I mean to convince you that no one – not the Neocons, not your amiable and seventy-year-old preacher, not the next Democratic candidate, not the religious right, not your college professor, and not me – no one has thought out the situation we face as a nation, and no one has an answer. I don’t mean to encourage you to join a march this afternoon, or to get arrested, or to vote a certain way. I mean to engage you in the beginning of an emerging conversation in which none of us understand what is moral or right.

Today, no one understands how to balance world poverty against free enterprise; no one knows how to balance the debts of third-world nations against the debts of first-world nations like America; no one knows how to negotiate peacemaking efforts with respect for sovereign nations in the Middle East with the need for a system of law and order.

All of us can name world leaders who we think have done a particularly foul job of their role – whose regimes are embroiled in corruption. But few of us can point to a philosophy or a political party that speaks to where we are as an entire nation – that relates to all the compromises and responsibilities -- the peacemaking agenda, the fear of big government, the hatred of corruption, the desire for local responsibility, the resolve to help the poor – that you will see, if you are honest with yourself, on both sides of the political party line. You will have heard liberals saying that Democrats are just better-educated and Republicans are just dumb. You will hear conservatives saying that Republicans just want to help people as individuals and Democrats just want the state to take over responsibility for everything. But we in the church have friends on both sides of the aisle. And beyond that, we know that many of the aims of both sides are pure: Americans believe in a responsible government abroad; they don’t like being lied to, and they hate corrupt government; Christians believe in caring for the poor, and they will endorse political regimes which do a decent job of educating, tending, and improving the lot of the poor, but they become appalled at inefficiencies, waste, nepotism, and bureaucracy.

By presenting you with an anti-manifesto, I mean to approach a conversation through what the Franciscans call “poverty” : poverty of spirit. That means being open minded. That means escaping the labels Democrat and Republican, and talking about what really matters, and who you might listen to next if you care.

When we talk about the Christian Progressive movement, our name is meant to signify unflinching allegiance to new ideas. We don’t call ourselves “liberal” because we don’t want anyone confused about whether we’re arguing for revisiting the Stalinist era or sliding toward ever larger government; it’s short-hand for the most cutting-edge ideas – the most socially aware, the most internationally engaged, the most concerned for the welfare of the poor and disenfranchised. It’s also shorthand for a long tradition of CrossLeft means the Liberty of the Cross: the liberty experienced by Christians to check out of a culture that emphasizes consumption, using other people and using purchases to make ourselves feel good, when the only real fulfillment offered to any of us mortals in this lifetime comes from engaging spiritual, not worldly, goods.

In the spirit of courageous engagement with the world as followers of Christ, it behooves us to pay attention to how the world around us is changing.

We live in a world of dangerous new ideologies. We live in a world where, after half a century of peace, the great nations are rallying against each other in competition for scarce resources – labor, money, and fuel. The engineer in Texas knows that his job could disappear to India overnight. The accountant in New York knows that the national debt has reached trillions, and that if American power falters, his purchasing power will be reduced to that of an accountant in Somalia. We live in a world where Americans have allowed their purchasing power to be backed up by peace-keeping missions around the world, some of which – take the Balkans – have ended genocides; other of which – take Afghanistan – have destabilized a foreign territory, and eliminating one power, handed rule over to a series of drug lords. Christians know that the state is a necessary evil. Christians know that military forces keep peace when directed by righteous leaders, but destabilize nations in the hands of wrong-headed agendas.

In an earlier anti-manifesto, I argued that it’s high time for progressives, pacifists, lovers of mercy, friends of the poor, and other Christians, to give up a naïve hatred of state, church, military, and school, and to instead to think hard about what the new organizations should look like. We don’t know that we want to return to FDR-style relief programs for the working class. We know that health care should be provided for all, but left and right alike have concerns about allocating great programs so that aid goes where aid is needed.

In 2006, whether you are a radical labor-activist or a NeoCon warhawks or a libertarian economist, you do believe that our system is broken. You believe that the poor in America are at a dead end, that a broken education system is a shame, that a prison system where half of black men under thirty go to jail is the sign that American civilization has used its wealth abusively.
Whether you are right or left in America, in 2006 you know that the papers that sent us in to Iraq were largely fibs, and that intelligence no longer exists as a free check on behalf of right thinking and good strategy. Whether you or right or left, you see that American corporations are expanding overseas into nations where political unrest and ethical abuses are rife, and you believe that a globalized economy requires new ethics.

We don’t need a manifesto, because the blues and the reds are in agreement on all of these points, every one. Every clear-headed American has seen these problems and wonders what they mean. And yet, no leaders have emerged to deal with them. And yet, church leaders argue over whether the ten commandments can be displayed at a school, and whether the King James or the Revised Standard translation ought to be used if they are. So both the church and the state ignore these pressing issues. Conservative church leaders talk about an angry God smiting individuals who have lead faulty lives, but they don’t talk about what’s actually going to heal families who have no health care when no work exists for willing and diligent mothers and fathers.

So I say there is no Christian movement in the United States. I say that people who are Christians are aching to be involved, aching to see a better world than the one we live in. I say that we have been negligent in our conversations about politics. We’ve become distracted by arguing about whether one leader or another is less corrupt when no one can any longer point to a regime in which they’d like to live. We haven’t even begun a conversation about how the Christian engineer in Texas should feel towards the Christian engineer in India who is taking his job. We haven’t begun a conversation about middle class parents who work so hard that they’re not volunteering among their communities. We haven’t begun a conversation about what each of us has to do to grow the responsible institutions – for schooling, health, governance, and responsible checks on government information – the responsible institutions that our country dearly needs.

What we may need is an entirely new approach to civic involvement. It can only work if carried out in the name of service and care for others; it can only work if the voting Christians of America actually examine themselves against their Bibles and against an open debate about the new era into which America is going.

In order to spread that word, we need to share the message. In a civilization as wide and noisy as ours, that sharing will have to take the form of a concerted effort, and that effort will have to take several clear steps in the coming months and years as it launches:

1) publicize that there is such a thing as a "Progressive Christians", (emphasize that they are mainstream and represent a majority of Christians, in fact that they define Christianity except for a right minority fringe)

2) publicize that these "Progressive Christians" have a movement (which is represented by a variety of voices, publications, and organizations)

3) get Progressive Christians of many sorts in the media (on a range of issues: the culture wars, poverty, high politics, high theology, sexuality, race relations, international relations. Develop publicized Progressive Christians with specialties, and get them introduced as experts in these specialties)

4) publicize that the "Progressive Christians" are outraged at current government practices (enumerate pressure points, e.g.: corruption, lying regimes, corrupt intelligence regimes leading to a corrupt and worthless war on terror, corrupt science; the general decline of an active culture of institutional critique)

5) publicize that the Progressive Christian experts and organizations have alternatives to this kind of politics (enumerate points, e.g.: emphasize on open regimes? Theology of redemption not atonement?)

6) pair Progressive Christian experts, organizations, and grassroots movement with political action (one major action for each of these enumerated points).

7) publicize that the "Progressive Christians" are outraged at contemporary culture (enumerate points: abandonment of poor, punitive procedures rather than education, dead-ends for working class youth, social mismanagement of a wealthy society, consumption culture, parents who don't know their children, misallocation of time)

7) publicize that the Progressive Christian experts and organizations have alternatives to this kind of culture (enumerate point, e.g.: theology of redemption not atonement; strong social programs both charitable and tax-enriched; social pressure on corporation reform?)

8) pair Progressive Christian grassroots mobilization with overt agitation for each of these points (i.e. Church Walmart day? Church adopt-a-neighborhood day? Church day-off-work-so-you-can-find-out-what-your-church-does-for-society day?)

9) grow larger, more powerful publicity venues for Progressive Christians, or work on drawing more attention to the ones we have (i.e. CrossLeft, Zions Herald, Faith & Religion Resource Center, etc). Work on using them to generate buzz and release an interpretation before and after each of the large action items.

10) grow larger, more powerful grassroots organizations, and better network the ones we have (i.e. Beatitudes + chaplaincies + United Methodist Women + Sojo list...), involve them in each of the large action items

11) work on the networking, linking, and collaboration potentials of all organizations. Check in, collaborate

The movement will take all of us, all our churches, all our organizations, all our networks of friendship. But it will work because this is what Christians believe: they believe in truth telling, in working together to find solutions.

They don’t believe that you leave other nations to dissolve amongst warring tribes, while human rights are violated left and right. They don’t believe that you leave neighborhoods where no children go to college and half of the men go to jail. They don’t believe that you cut and run when an American city is destroyed, as New Orleans was. Christians don’t believe that you can leave America the way it is now. So Christians will be the ones to change it.


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