Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Thankful for those who tilt at windmills

My most cherished book is “Don Quixote,” so much so I have Picasso’s painting of the Knight and his sidekick Sancho Panza, tattooed on my forearm.

The classic was written by a 16th century Spanish writer, Miguel Cervantes. His early career was rather checkered. Exiled from his beloved Spain, Cervantes worked in Rome as a Cardinal’s assistant. Having enlisted in the Spanish Navy, Cervantes was captured by Barbary Pirates. After his family paid a ransom, he was an accountant for the Spanish Armada. A “discrepancy in the books” caused him to be jailed for a time. After all of that he began writing. Who wouldn’t?

Cervantes’s timeless character, Don Quixote, became the most chivalrous of knights so that he could fearlessly tilt at windmills.

Don Quixote came to mind when Cheyenne’s Mayor and one of the city councilmen brought about the demise of a resolution declaring Cheyenne a Compassionate City. They were building windmills based on what they feared they saw in the shadows.

Another councilman knows the meaning of those shadows. Richard Johnson said, “We live in a city that is perpetually afraid of itself. We’re scared of our neighbors. We’re scared of each other. We’re scared of the outside world.”

Were it possible to speak across time to SeƱor Cervantes, I’d tell him how his writings prove that God inspired more than that one great book and how they inspired some to tilt at windmills.

Don Quixote’s story, like that of Jesus of Nazareth, demonstrates the risks of becoming compassionately unafraid in a world that distrusts the motives of those attempting to do good.

Literary critic Harold Bloom wrote an introduction to one English translation of the book, which has been translated into more languages than any other with the exception of the Bible. Bloom said, “We cannot know the object of Don Quixote’s quest unless we ourselves are Quixotic.” Irony begets irony in the story of humanity.

Thankfully, there are those in this age who find fulfillment and purpose in the compassionate work of tilting at windmills.

Just as Cervantes’s knight was inspired by reading books of chivalry, so it is that many of the Quixotics of our day are inspired by reading the Gospels. Don Quixote reminds them of Jesus who, upon completing his days of temptation in the desert, went about preaching good news to the poor and liberty to the oppressed.

And so, Don Quixote, having completed his preparations, writes Cervantes, “did not wish to wait any longer to put his thought into effect, impelled by the great need in the world that he believed was caused by his delay.”

Much of the pain and suffering in our world is likewise caused by our delay in serving others. As it is in our world, Don Quixote recognized that in his “the greatest adversary love has is hunger and continual need.”

The writer Thomas Oppong observed, “Over the course of our lives, we make millions and millions of decisions that are essentially bets, some large and some small.” Don Quixote placed his bets on doing good though his friends and family, like those of Jesus, thought he was without his wits for doing so. That is the risk we take when following our faith and placing our life’s bets on the words of the Gospel.

In Cheyenne, people of good faith placed their bets on encouraging compassion. They found some politicians were so uncomfortable with the idea that they began searching for ghosts lurking in the shadows. Thus, compassion itself became a windmill.

Alas, it was for Don Quixote, whom Cervantes wrote, “ventured for God and the world” in the face of those who could not “be made to understand the error” of their suspicions of that work though it was “founded on articles of faith.”

Compassion can be troubling, especially to those who build windmills. Yet, compassion means being thankful for the windmills and for those who fearlessly tilt at them always.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

The people are getting screwed

Frank Annunzio was a member of Congress from the mid 60s until 1973. He was a colleague of Wyoming Congressman Teno Roncalio. Like Teno, he was a plain-spoken Italian American. Like Teno, Congressman Annunzio had a heart for the poor and the courage to ask, “Why are so many people so poor.”

I was on Teno’s Congressional staff at the time and have a vivid memory of this incident. The House passed legislation reducing subsidies on wheat production. The bill especially hurt the poor by raising prices of food stuffs ranging from bread to pasta. Representative Annunzio stormed out of the House chambers and cornered the first member of the press he saw. It was a reporter from the Chicago Tribune. “The people just got screwed,” Mr. Annunzio  cried out.

“Congressman,” the reporter recoiled, “I can’t print that. We are a family newspaper.” Congressman Annunizio didn’t miss a beat. “Well then, you can print this. ‘The family just got screwed.”

Well, since the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle is a family newspaper, I need to say that the “family just got screwed.”

When? Every time they turn around. Where? Everywhere they look. From the Cheyenne trailer-park controversy to the tax bill winding its way through Congress. From choices made by Wyoming legislators to avoid new taxes while cutting everything from healthcare, low-income energy assistance, and education. From the predatory lenders who thrive in Wyoming to the landlords who rent unsafe, overpriced housing to people who have no other choices.

The trailer park issue is a teachable moment for those in the middle and upper economic classes in our community. The focus from those who say they want “to end the blight” is on getting rid of the substandard mobile homes. Instead, they ought to be asking why some of our neighbors have been forced to live in those conditions. Families are “getting screwed” because politicians refuse to address the underlying injustices of our local economy.

Start with wages. Ask why people working fulltime in multiple jobs can’t afford a decent place to live or nutritious food for their children. Move to a dialogue about access to healthcare. Open a conversation about slumlords. While you’re there, visit about the wage gap between men and women in a state with a high divorce rate oftentimes leaving a woman to raise children in poverty.

Do a little research on the extent of the relationship between the poverty effecting too many Wyoming school students and low test scores in the state’s public schools.

How about demanding members of our Congressional delegation demonstrate with facts just how it is that the Trump tax plan they support will trickle even a nickel down to the people who are forced to live in the trailer park the city wants to tear down.

The problem may be simply one of limited vocabulary. Think about it. Wyoming’s politicians have a vocabulary that proves useful when talking about oil and gas, public lands, state’s rights, cutting budgets, eliminating regulations, and reducing taxes. They can wag freely as they deny the science of climate change and complain ad infinitum about wolves, welfare, and Obamacare.

Ask about the causes of poverty. All they can come up with are simplistic, single-syllable words about drug testing welfare clients and disproven talking points suggesting that increased minimum wages will somehow hurt the poor.

With few exceptions, they have neither the eyes to see, the ears to hear, nor the stomachs to consider the manner in which some in our community have a stake in the poor being with us always. From slumlording to payday lending, there’s money to be made from the poverty of others. There is no political downside in blaming the poor. The risk comes from asking why they are poor. The answers begin to look like meddling in the lives of those who profit from poverty.

Nonetheless, until the community engages in a compassionate debate about how to address the causes of the blight, we won’t be able to end it.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

I was pleased to 1200 of my clergy colleagues from all 50 states and two dozen faith traditions in signing an “amicus curiae” in support of the rights of gays, lesbians, transgender and bisexual citizens to be treated with dignity.

Amicus curiae is a Latin term meaning “friend of the court.” As friends of the court, we want the U.S. Supreme Court to know that it is unconstitutional to use religious beliefs as a justification to discriminate against others.

The case before the highest court in the land is captioned “Masterpiece Cakeshop versus Colorado Civil Rights Commission. It’s the hill on which religious conservatives have decided to make their last stand in an effort to legitimize their need to marginalize the LGBTQ community.

This started when the Supreme Court ruled that gays and lesbians were Constitutionally entitled to marry. Two men planning their wedding went to a business that held itself out to the public as a place that made wedding cakes. They wanted one of Masterpiece Cakeshop’s masterpieces.

But like Seinfeld’s “soup Nazi,” the cake shop owners told these men, “No cake for you.”

Conservatives said these men should just shut up and quietly buy their wedding cake elsewhere. These are the same sorts of folks who believe that instead of starting a bus boycott, Rosa Parks should have simply asked politely, “Is that seat taken?” When told she could not sit there, they believe she should have quietly found an alternative way to get to work. Why stir up a fuss?

The Colorado men did not go away quietly without stirring up a fuss. They filed a complaint with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission. The Commission ruled against the cake makers on the basis of long standing legal protections against the ability of businesses to discriminate.

Those protections were at the center of the battle over the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Business owners howled long and hard as Congress passed that legislation. They believed they had the right to deny service to anyone. Congress thought it had put an end to that ruse. But the heirs of those who lost that battle are back.

They argue it is their understanding of God that gives them the right to discriminate.

That is why we clergy became amicus curiae. We don’t believe the cake shop and its supporters should be allowed to speak for us. Religious thought in America is vastly diverse. As faith communities go, we are now in the majority. Faith communities claiming their beliefs provide the basis for denying the human dignity based on their sexual orientation or identity are declining in numbers.

A recent poll of people identifying themselves as Christians found a significant majority support gay marriage. Masterpiece Cakeshop bakers are asking the court to impose the views of a religious minority on all of us.

The Public Religion Research Institute poll also found more than 6 in 100 Christians opposed allowing businesses to refuse to serve gays or lesbians based on religious beliefs

My clergy colleagues and I want the Justices to know, as our amicus brief says, “Within the diverse panorama of American religious thought, a large and growing portion of the religious community welcomes, accepts, and celebrates LGBT individuals and rejects the idea that they should be subject to discrimination in public accommodations based on differing religious views that reject their dignity and equality.”

The Court must not be left with the misimpression that most people of faith share the views of those who seek to employ their beliefs as a sword to smite those they don’t understand.

Jesus said there were two great commandments, and all religious rules depended on them. The framers of the Constitution said the nation could not establish the views of any one faith as predominate, adding that everyone is entitled to equal protection under the law. Both the Gospel and the Constitution apply to this case, but it should be decided on the basis of the latter, not the former.